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Seven-year-old Franky Benítez spent his first Christmas away from his father with a black eye caused by a flying shoe. It happened in the cramped one-bedroom apartment he shared with his mother Linda and his baby sister Veronica, right after the children opened the four presents Linda had saved up for with the extra night shifts she took at the hospital. Franky was playing in the hallway with his Hot Wheels race track while Veronica, only two, ran towards her brother and stomped all over the cars, breaking one of them in two.
“Ronnie! Why did you step on that goddamn car! You ruined it.” Franky yelled, his sobs beginning to form.
Linda was a few feet away, making pancakes and bacon in the kitchen when she heard her son curse.
“What did you say, Franky?” Linda said.
Franky stopped and knew his mistake. So instead of admitting it, he started to scream: “This would never have happened if we were still in Puerto Rico.” Then he stormed into the apartment’s only bedroom and began jumping on the bed, his anger trouncing the mattress with every leap.
Linda followed him and demanded, “Stop jumping on that bed right now, Franky.”
“No! I want to go back to Puerto Rico.”
“Stop it right now! I mean it.”
And right there, Linda, instead of rushing after Franky and grabbing him off the bed, bent down to pick up Franky’s patent leather school shoe from the floor, and flung it at him. She was hoping to just hit him on his legs. but the shoe traveled like a magnet right towards Franky’s left eye, making a smacking sound that made Linda shudder. Franky collapsed on the mattress, covering his eye. Veronica ran into the bedroom, saw her brother howling, and began to cry. Linda scooped Franky up from the bed, rushed him to the kitchen, opened the freezer to find a icepack for his eye. She gently placed it on the injury, the coldness of the pack sticking to purple and red spots. The pancakes turned into black pucks. Bacon grease splattered against the kitchen walls.
“I’m sorry, baby. I am so sorry,” Linda said, while cradled her wounded son and Veronica sat still in a corner.
With breakfast ruined, Franky’s hunger soon stopped his cries and the family sat down to eat bowls of Frosted Flakes for Christmas. They spent the rest of the morning watching Laurel and Hardy’s March of the Wooden Soldiers on WPIX. Linda spread out her sofa bed in the apartment’s living room and let the kids stay in their pajamas until one in the afternoon. Franky didn’t speak another word to his mother that morning, he just watched the movie and resisted the urge to chuckle. Veronica placed her curly head of hair (just like Francisco Antonio’s) on Franky’s stomach. She drank her bottle of milk and napped for most of the movie. Linda stayed on the other side of the sofa bed and occasionally would hold Franky’s hand. Franky said nothing, yet he didn’t move away from his mother’s guilty affection.
When the movie was finished, they started to get dressed for the big Italian Christmas dinner at the Marinos. Giovanni and Betty lived in the apartment building right next to where Linda, Franky, and Veronica lived. It was a two-minute walk down the block and up the elevator to the sixth floor. Linda wore a red velvet sweater top, while she dressed Veronica in a red and green dress with black tights. Franky wore a green striped Garanimals polo shirt with matching tan corduroys. Each one carried a present, Linda also brought a shopping bag with red wine and a chilled caramel and cream cheese flan she had learned to make from Doña Luisa, her ex-mother-in-law.
Linda entered the Marinos’ three-bedroom apartment with the kids right behind her and hugged her mother Betty in the hallway. Then she stepped around her mother and went into the apartment’s living room to greet her two brothers: Robert, who was three years younger than Linda and studying to become a lawyer, and Young Giovanni, a sophomore at the local Jesuit high school. As she was about to see her father Giovanni in the den, she stopped when Betty noticed Franky’s black eye.
“Jesus, how the hell did that happen?” Betty asked her grandson.
“Umm…,” Franky hesitated. “It was an accident. I’m ok. Mom said it was ok.”
Betty looked back at Linda, awaiting an explanation. Linda turned back to her mother and gave her a look only one mother can give another mother.
“I’ll tell you later, Ma,” Linda said. “Everything’s ok. Let me say hi to Dad and put the dessert away.”
Betty nodded, knowing that whatever happened between Linda and Franky was already settled. No need to hash it out, especially on Christmas, especially when she had to rush back to the kitchen and start boiling the water for the homemade spinach and cheese raviolis that only Betty could perfect. Linda and the children went into the den to see Giovanni. He was wearing a white shirt with his Congressional cuff links and dark slacks. His hair, peppered with grey, but still mostly black, was slicked back with Brylcream. He smiled at Linda and wished her a Marry Christmas. Franky and Veronica gave their grandfather a kiss before they rushed to the family’s tinseled tree to marvel at the number of presents bursting under the branches. There must hundreds, Franky thought. Franky put his arm around Veronica.
“Most of them are for us, Ronnie!” Franky told her.
Veronica giggled. “Hooray for Christmas!”
Uncle Robert went over the to the turntable and clicked on the power switch. Soon, Bing Crosby was singing “Melikalikamaka” with the Andrews Sisters.
Melikalikimaka is the thing to say on a bright Hawaiian Christmas day. That’s the island greeting that they send to you in the lands where palm trees sway. Here we know that Christmas will be green and bright, the sun to shine by day and all the stars at night.
Right when the song ended, Betty rang her cowbell. It was the same bell she had ever since her childhood on her family’s farm upstate.
“Dinner! Mangia time!” she screamed. “Giovanni, let’s say grace. We have the whole family back. Merry Christmas!”
The family went into the dining room and sat. The feast had begun. The first course was the antipasto: mortadella, ham, dry sausage, capricola, four types of salami, provolone cheese, parmesan chunks, American cheese, roasted red peppers, olives, tomatoes with fresh mozzarella, homemade bread that Betty baked that very morning. The second course was Betty’s ravioli, thin morsels of hand-rolled pasta that Betty started making and freezing in November, boiled quickly, and filled with parmesan cheese and fresh spinach, in a heavy butter sauce. The third course was a fresh stuffed pork, with garlic, oregano, chestnut stuffing, along with mashed potatoes melted with more mozzarella and bread crumbs, fresh green beans, broccoli rabe, corn, and a mixed salad.
The last time Franky was in the Bronx for Christmas, he was only three, so he couldn’t remember that day. But today, he ate from Grandma Betty’s feast and the pain in his eye melted away with each bite he took. He looked around the table and saw his Italian family: his grandpa, the famous Congressman who had run for Mayor of New York City when he was four (he couldn’t remember that either); his grandma, the sweet funny lady who would take care of him while his mother worked in the hospital; his two uncles, who had already taught him how to throw a football; his little sister, whom he shared a bedroom with and would make him laugh most of the time; and his mother, who was strict but still made sure he could get a few presents for Christmas.
At the end of the meal, Betty and Linda cleared the table while the Giovanni sipped sambucca with coffee beans and his sons talked about the Giants, the Jets, and whether the Yankees would sign some free agents. Franky and Veronica went back to the tree and sat down in front of the presents. Linda soon gathered the children and brought them back to the dining rooms.
“First a little struffoli and some flan,” Linda said, “and then we’ll open presents. How does that sound?”
The children agreed. They both loved struffoli, friend little balls of dough drizzled with honey and powdered sugar, and Linda’s flan even more. They sat around the table and began to eat with the rest of the family. Giovanni kept cracking walnuts and munching on them.
“We’re almost ready for the presents,” he said to Franky and Veronica.
Just then the phone rang. Linda went to answer it. The children continued to eat their struffoli and flan, the honey sticking to their teeth and fingers. Betty encouraged them to eat more, it’s Christmas. The family was back.
Linda came back into the dining room, looking worried. She tapped Franky’s shoulder and told him to come into the kitchen with her.
“It’s Papi,” Linda said to Franky. “He wants to wish you a Merry Christmas.”
Franky took the receiver and said hello.
“Hey! My dear son,” Francisco Antonio said. “How are you doing? Merry Christmas. I miss you! I love you, Franky. I love you so much. Things are not the same without you, son. I wish you could be with me. I really wish you could be with me.”
Franky stayed silent yet his throat quivered.
“I love you too, Papi,” Franky said.”Bye.”
Franky hung up the phone and looked up at his mother. He kept silent for a while. Then he unleashed his questions at his mother.
“Why, Mom? Why did this happen? Why can’t we be together?”
Linda did not answer her son. She could only embrace him. Franky kept crying for the rest of that Christmas Day in the Bronx. Not even the hundreds of presents he opened would comfort a seven-year-old boy who had lost his life as he knew it.
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