Unfortunately, although they helped, those groceries we got on credit weren’t nearly enough to bring sufficient food into the house for so many hungry stomachs. Since we were broke just about all of the time, we were forced with regularity to accept other, just as embarrassing means of provision. I came to hate the refrain of “we’re broke” over and over again whenever any of us asked my parents for anything or if we complained of hunger pangs. I swore I’d never use it or allow it to be uttered in my own home, no matter what the budget might be, and I’d be damned sure to work as many jobs as necessary to never get to be called “broke” and get to the point where there were literally just coins in the house.
We came to expect that answer, whether it was the request for just a nickel to go buy some penny candy down the street or maybe the fifty cents it would take to pay for our own ice cream whenever we’d be invited along to take a ride to the ice cream stand in Walpole by a friend’s family. We’d at once, but with politeness, defer the invitation, but our friends’ parents would always insist that whichever one of us it was tag along and go with them to the Bubbling Brook on Route 109 on the Westwood-Walpole line.
They’d have all us kids go and sit at one of the picnic tables around back of the stand after taking our order, so at least we were spared having to watch them reach into their wallet on our behalf. I’d always ask for just one scoop of butter pecan, which I loved even though it hurt my teeth and I had to swallow the nuts whole, since I couldn’t chew without pain. Inside, I wished for one of those giant banana splits with vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry ice cream drowning in hot chocolate sauce and topped with a mountain of whipped cream and maybe even some marshmallow too, but they cost $1.50.
Always pretty social, I not only made friends with others my age in my neighborhood who were dependent like us upon government food and also had to make one cheap pair of sneakers from the sale bin at Bradlees or Zayre last an entire year but also met lots of “normal” kids at school who lived blocks away in real houses that their parents owned, with fences, lawns, garages, and most important of all, full refrigerators and freezers.
I remember one such friend: a short, stocky Italian boy in the fourth grade named Pasqualino Giammarco. He’d occasionally invite me over to his house after school to play a game of catch or kick a soccer ball around in his neat and manicured backyard that was surrounded by a black wrought-iron fence with sharp tips. It would be a few hours yet until dinnertime, but I could already smell the deliciousness wafting from the kitchen where I knew Pasqualino’s grandmother was concocting another Italian feast for his family. She had come to America from a small village near Naples ten years earlier to live with her son and daughter-in-law in, and she made sure she kept them, Pasqualino, and his six brothers and sisters well fed.
We’d play in the yard until the sun started to set and suppertime approached, and Pasqualino would often ask me to stay over to eat with them. Even though I’d be close to salivating at the odor of the pasta sauce or soup or whatever it was Nonna was cooking that was floating to my nostrils from the kitchen, and I knew I was going home to a dinner that would be something like white government rice mixed with watered-down cream of chicken soup, I’d hesitate and then decline, saying I had to go.
“Nah, thanks Pasqualino. I’d stay, but my father will kill me.”
I’d stayed over for supper a few times in the past, and Pasqualino couldn’t have known that if I got found out, I could end up getting a beating for it.
“What, my food is no fucking good for you!”
I could hear my father screaming at me as he raised and lowered the belt. “You get the fuck home for supper next time! What, do you think your shit is ice cream? My food is no good for you, Mister Better than Everyone?” Still, I was tempted to stay, despite the risk, because the sumptuous spread being put together inside that kitchen was worth it.
“C’mon,” Pasqualino would insist. “Nonna told me to tell you to come in. We got plenty.”
Nonna was how they referred to his grandmother, and she too was always commenting on how skinny I was. I hated being so thin compared to the other boys my age growing up, and I became sensitive and embarrassed whenever anyone pointed it out, although I know they said it mostly out of concern. From other kids, of course, it was a form of ridicule, and I’d often end up in a fight over it. I always wore long sleeves, sometimes in layers even in the heat of summer, to hide my puny arms; and of course, shorts were definitely out of the question.
“Nah,” I said again. “Maybe next time. But thank your grandmother for me, okay?”
“Sure,” he said. “But Nonna says to take this.” He handed me a chewable red vitamin he’d pulled from his pocket.
“Thanks,” I said, popping it in my mouth and tasting cherry. “See ya at school.”