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Carlo Rossi.

We lived next to the DiCarlos for a while. The dad was a Doctor, “but not really a real doctor,” Mom would insist. Dr. DiCarlo went to med school in Italy. To Pam, that did not count. Dr. DiCarlo scared me a bit. He was stern but devastatingly handsome. He had an air of mystery around him mostly because I never saw him and he never interacted with the rest of the family. Like several off-the-boat-Italian families, the DiCarlos lived on two levels. There was the lower level where the mother and the kids hung out. The cooking took place there. Then there was the upper level where the fancy, plastic-covered furniture lived, along with the man of the house. There was a kitchen on this level, also, but it was rarely if ever used. Dr. DiCarlo, when home, remained firmly on the upper level. I was never allowed up there.


Lucia DiCarlo, the doctor’s wife, looked like a cross between a drag queen and Tammy Faye Baker. She was exotically beautiful in her own way but her beauty was obscured by five coats too many of mascara, crusty purple lip liner, and kohl black-rimmed eyes. Her hair was cut short and frosted white. Her jet-black roots indicated that her current hair situation was an intentional choice, which I always found amusing. My mom never went to a salon. Never. She’d cut and colored her own hair her entire life.


Unlike the doctor, Lucia was loud, spoke broken English with a thick Italian accent, and had a filthy and irreverent sense of humor. She took an instant liking to me given my own brand of irreverent humor.


I once received a nightgown that looked like button-down long johns on the front. On the back, the “escape hatch” was unbuttoned, revealing a cartoonishly large butt. I packed this nightgown for a sleepover at the DiCarlo’s. Lucia loved it. She laughed so hard that she forgot that I only spoke English. She invited her neighbor over to see it. I was a hit.


Lucia and the doctor had three kids: John-John, the oldest, Vanessa, my sister’s age (pronounced “Van-NAY-suh by Lucia), and Rosa, my age (pronounced with a trilled “r.”) Rosa and I hit it off. She, like I, was what you’d call a free-range child. Starting when I was three, I was able to play outside, unsupervised, as long as I stayed in my or Rosa’s yard. We’d make mud pies. We’d pretend we were birds and build a human size nest for our eggs, deep in the woods. We’d race our big wheels down my sloped driveway into the street. We’d walk around barefoot and filthy. When it would rain hard, we’d throw on our bathing suits, grab some soap and take our weekly shower in the rain.


As we grew older, we loved to find dead animals and dissect them. But our favorite activity of all was to build fires. Despite living on thickly wooded lots, neither of our sets of parents batted an eyelash when we became fascinated with fire. Matches were easy to come by –both sets of parents smoked. One time, Rosa and I had built a fire so large, the flames rose to heights taller than us. Somehow, putting boulders around the fire kept it contained despite the piles upon piles of never-raked maple tree leaves surrounding it.


“Impressive,” my dad would say, arriving home and seeing the fire. “You’ve got a knack for it.”


Compliments were hard to come by, so I soaked them in and continued to build even bigger fires with the hopes of catching his attention.


In addition to free-range children, the DiCarlos had free-range pets. None of their animals were spayed or neutered. They were allowed to come and go, in and outside, as they pleased. When one of their cats, not surprisingly, became pregnant and birthed a litter of kittens, Rosa and Lucia said I had first pick.


I went into their garage to see a small baby pool filled with meowing kittens. Lucia dumped spaghetti and meatballs into a dish next to them. She didn’t believe in feeding animals pet food. They would be raised Italians, she’d insist.


When I saw him, I knew he was ours. He was so handsome. He was one of the largest kittens in the litter. His eyes slanted slightly upward in a menacing, Cheshire cat type of way. He had lines on his forehead and throughout his body. Without consulting my mother, I took him home.


“What should we name him?” I’d ask holding him precariously by the neck.


“Where in god’s name did you find that?” Pam would ask.


“They said I could have him. So, he’s mine. I’m keeping him,” I’d insist.


My mother took one look into his eyes and immediately fell in love.


“OK, now this little ****’s got some spunk. He’s staying,” she’d insist.


“So, what should we name him?” I’d ask again.


“Well, he’s definitely Italian. Just look at him and those swarthy eyes. I’ve got it . . . .”


The next week, Sister Mary Francis, my first-grade teacher at St. Mary’s, announced we’d have “show and tell” all week. This meant we could take turns in the morning either bringing in an item to show the class or telling the class something about ourselves. Tuesday was “Tell us about your pet day.” Most would get up and describe their white little dogs with crusty brown eyes.


“We call him fluffy because he’s fluffy,” said my classmate and best friend from first to eighth grade, Michelle Gendron.


Yawn.


I threw up my hand, launching myself out of my seat, begging to get called on. Then I realized that she was likely choosing the best for last. Sister Mary Frances, or Sister Mary Mustache as I called her due to her prominent and quite full facial hair, pegged me early on. I was the class clown. A tomboy. A troublemaker.


“Cute, but stupid,” she’d insist. “Deliberately defiant,” she’d continue.


“My dog’s name is Muffin because he’s cute like a muffin,” Meg Fensley would say, boring me to absolute tears.


Finally, after every single student had gone and there were still five minutes on the clock, Sister Mary Mustache begrudgingly called my name.


“Well, my cat is better than all of your pets. He’s huge, first of all. My mom says he’s a witch’s cat because we are witches. You can tell because he’s so big. He’s like fifty pounds.”


Sister Mary Mustache’s eyes winced with concern.


“He loves to hunt. Sometimes he’s gone for days, but he always comes back. My dad says that sometimes he’s hunting for prey, other times he’s hunting for ****. I think he likes finding ****. He probably doesn’t like being the only **** in our house. When he finds something to kill, he’ll bring it home, half alive, and in his mouth to show us just how much he loves us. My mom says this is a sign of respect. Other times, when he’s –according to dad–hunting for **** he’ll go out at night. He’s good at getting ****, dad says. He meows and howls with other cats who come into our yard. This wakes me up. They sound like they are fighting. I’m not nervous. I know my **** is tough. When he wants to come back inside, he’ll jump on my windowsill and scratch. My room’s on the first floor. But I’m not Italian like Rosa. Anyway, sometimes, when he wants to play, he’ll hide under my bed. When I shut off the lights, I can see his big dark eyes glowing from under my bed. He looks like the devil. I usually try to jump into my bed so he doesn’t catch me. But he usually does. When he does, he grabs my foot with both of his paws, scratches me with his claws, and bites me. It’s really funny.”


Fearing where this “tell” was going next, Sister Mary Mustache intervened.


“Well, does this satanic cat have a name?” she’d ask, attempting to redirect me.


“Yes. His name is Meister Carlos Rossi Cole, the first.”


“And how did you decide on your name?” she innocently asked. She must not have liked the same wine as Mom.


“Well, he’s Italian, first of all. He eats spaghetti and meatballs . . .” the class’s laughter interrupted me. I let it reach its natural end. I soaked it in.


“Second of all, my mom’s favorite drink is wine. She likes the Carlo Rossi flavor. The one with the large green glass bottle and the guy with the grapes on it. She keeps it next to Carlo’s food and water dish. Actually, just his food dish. Mom says he doesn’t need a water dish anymore because he’s learned how to drink from the toilet. Anyway, Mom chose his name. She thinks Carlo has babies up and down the block because we didn’t get his parts cut off. I don’t really know how kittens are made. I think it has to do with boobs. But I don’t think kittens have boobs. If anyone wants a kitten, let me know and I’ll bring one to school for you.”


At least five hands shot up in the air.


“That’s enough Elizabeth. Sit down.”


Maybe she was mad that she couldn’t have a cat. My dad said she was angry because she liked **** but couldn’t get any. My mom explained that being a nun meant that you couldn’t do anything fun and that you were married to Jesus. I’m not sure how being married to Jesus and loving **** meant that you couldn’t have a cat.


“Jesus must be allergic to ****,” I concluded, taking my seat.

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