Johnny Boy: Chapter One

Brooklyn, New York, 1952

WE LIVED IN the depths of Brooklyn on the top floor of a two-family house not far from Coney Island. There were five of us in the Caruso family: my father, Bellisario; my mother, Maria; my older brother and sister, Frank and Connie; and me. Frank was nine years older than I was, and Connie six years older. It seemed like whenever Connie and I were together, we held hands.

“Take your brother to the store with you,” my mother would say, “and make sure you hold his hand.”

When I was around three, Connie and I sat huddled on a wooden chair in our pajamas, watching Frank trying to light a match in front of a clunky old stove in an attempt to bring some warmth into the kitchen.

“Frankie, be careful,” Connie said.

“Will you please shut up?”

My brother looked determined. A clump of brown hair swayed in front of his eyes as he tried to ignite the match. After several attempts, the matchstick snapped. He tossed it into the sink and reached inside the box for another.

“Remember what Daddy said about playing with the stove,” Connie said.

“I don’t care what Daddy said. It’s freezing in here. The whole apartment is freezing.”

“I’m cold,” I said.

My sister slid me onto her lap, where I sat with my legs wrapped around her waist and my nose pressed against her plump cheek. It felt good to be so close to her. Her skin smelled sweet, and her eyes sparkled beneath the dark bangs that fell halfway down her forehead.

“Uh-oh.” Connie wrinkled her nose and sniffed a few times. “I think I smell something.”

Frank ignored her. After a few more attempts, the match head flared into an orange flame.

“Okay, here we go,” he said, leaning over, carefully extending the match toward the oven. “Now we can get some heat in this place.”

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John Califano