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  • 37. If You Eat, You Never Die

    By Tony Romano

    Lest anyone still doubt that an ethnically inflected voice deserves a place in a storyteller’s set of brushes, here is deft evidence from the Chicago-born writer Tony Romano. This story,
    from his recent collection of
    the same name, is a primer on communication and survival that’s both profoundly interior and as hotly charged as the color commentary at a boxing match.

    The coach, he sit in my kitch. He have big stomach, soft like dough. But he have face like flour. He no eat good. Maybe French fry every day. Americano, they eat like dirty animale.

    My son Giacomo, he no sit. He stand by frigidate. Hands in pock. He wear T-shirt. Is too small. I see bones. He look at shoes by door. I always tell no leave shoes by door. Every day three, four pair.

    The coach, he say, “Mrs. Cummings, I came over to talk about Jim’s weight.” He point by Giacomo. “You have to understand—”

    I check cream puff in oven. If I keep long, they get hard.

    “Mrs. Cummings, we had a wrestling match today—”

    The tray make hot eh I drop. “Disgraziato!” I yell. “Stupido.” I put cold water. “Disgraziato.”

    Coach, he stand. He say, “Are you all right?”

    Giacomo, he no move. Hands in pock.

    “Are you all right?” Coach say.

    “Yeh, yeh,” I tell.

    Coach, he sit.

    Giacomo say, “She does that all the time.”

    I run to washaroom eh put cream. When I come back, cream puff hard. Throw in garbage. Make again.

    “Mrs. Cummings, could you sit please? For five minutes? Please.”

    I sit.

    He fold hand on table, like man when he come last year eh sell insurance. “We had a match today,” he say.


    “A game,” Giacomo say. He look by shoes.

    “We had a game today,” Coach say. “Another team came to our school . . . on a bus.” He put up hands. Like he drive automobile.

    He think I stupid. I no stupid. Is crazy language.

    He talk talk talk.

    I understand most everything. I no stupid. When I come to this country, I say, “Lucia learn English. Nobody cheat Lucia.” So I go to market eh watch. I listen. I understand—no take long. But I no speak perfetto. Giacomo eh my other son, Michael, some a time they come to market. When I talk, they run away togeth eh laugh. They make ashame. So I talk loud.

    They no understand. I come to this country to make better for my two son. Eh they laugh. I never tell—ten year before, I go to school for three, four week. But no time. I work every day by factory. Sixteen year I work.

    Coach, he no stop. “The other team gets to our school. When we start to weigh in—you know, to see how heavy everyone is, Jim is one pound overweight. He’s too heavy. So he can’t compete—he can’t play. No game today for Jim. He busted his— He worked hard for three weeks, and all for nothing.

    “I know,” I tell. “Giacomo work eh you no pay nothing.”

    “What?” Coach say.

    Giacomo, he laugh.

    “Why you laugh?” I tell.

    He look by Coach. “She thinks you mean my work at your liquor store.”

    “No, no, no. I mean the work Jim does at practice every day.”

    He move chair close to table. He talk soft. Like secret. “But it’s the same thing,” he say. He bring face close. Is red. He make chin touch almost table. He say, “It’s the same thing. When Jim works at my store, he doesn’t get paid, but he’s learning. One day he’ll use what he learns. Maybe start his own business. Wouldn’t you like that?”

    I no say nothing. I listen.

    “When Jim works at practice, he’s got to have at least a chance later to use what he learns. He gets that chance during matches, during games. Can you see how it’s the same thing?”

    “No same thing,” I tell. “When Giacomo finish school, he no play game. He work. Make money.”

    “I understand that. But you see—” He shake head. Look by Giacomo. They smile, like Giacomo eh Michael smile by market.

    “You have to give Jim a chance to succeed.”

    “I give chance to eat.”

    Giacomo, he say, “This is not about eating, Mama.”

    Coach, he move in chair, look at table like he lose some a thing. He say, “Right now, Jim looks a little pale. His cheeks are sucked in, I know. Once he gets used to the weight though, he’ll feel stronger. It’s gonna take some patience.”

    “I no have patience,” I tell.

    Big fatso, he come by my kitch eh tell that Giacomo no eat. When Giacomo baby he most die ’cause he no eat. I give my milk three month, but I no have nough. My chest, they get hard. So I give bottle. Giacomo no take. He cry eh cry.

    “Look,” he say. “I know you’re worried about Jim’s health. But he’s fine. Just ask him.” He point by Giacomo. “Ask him how he feels.”

    I look. Pantaloon they no fit no more, they touch floor. I say, “He no look good.”

    Coach laugh. He laugh like butcher by market when I tell “Too much money.”

    He say, “Go ahead and ask him how he feels. Ask him why it’s important for him to lose weight.”

    Giacomo, he no move.

    “Ask him.”

    “Giacomo, you want I make soup?”

    Coach, he scream. “For Chrissake, ask him why he wants to lose weight.”

    He come by my kitch eh scream. He crazy. I no sit. I go make cream puff. I clean tray. I shake eh shake, eh tray make noise like rain. My two hand shake. I tell, “Giacomo no eat ’cause you tell No Eat. He no want lose weight. You want. Before when he no play game, he eat all day. You no tell no more my son no eat.”

    “There’s no need to get ex—”

    “No tell no more. If Giacomo no eat, he no play game.”

    Giacomo hit table. He scream, “You’re not even listening.”

    Coach tell Giacomo be quiet. He look by me. “Mrs. Cummings . . .”

    He talk eh talk. He say team need Giacomo. I no listen. I cook.

    When he leave—grazie Dio—I find rosary. I pray he no come back by my kitch. Ask, he say. Ask. What I gotta ask? Is too late. I wish I no come to this country. I wish I stay by paese, by farm. Everybody work togeth. Everybody eat. I no understand America. Is crazy.

    Five clock we eat. Little salad. Artichoke. Mostaciolli. Steak. Giacomo he look by food. I pray. He see steak. Six, seven big piece. He take fork—grazie Dio—eh push eh push eh find small piece, for bird maybe.

    I jump. I put fork in. “Is my piece,” I tell. Maybe Giacomo he take big piece. I hope.

    Giacomo, he look by Michael. He look by me. He stand eh bring face close. “Sit down, Ma,” he tell.


    “Sit. Down.” Giacomo eyes, they no move. He make mouth hard, small. Is no Giacomo. He pull meat with fork.

    I pull back. “Giacomo!”

    He pull eh pull meat, eh blood come out.


    He pull. He break eh make two piece. I have half. Giacomo have half. He no say nothing. He eat.

    Michael, he smile.

    I look by Giacomo. I look by my fork. Small piece. Half. For sparrow. For baby. When Giacomo baby, he most die— “Eat,” I whisp. Nobody hear. Eat.


    From the collection If You Eat, You Never Die. © Tony Romano. This story originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune
    and on National Public Radio’s Sound of Writing. Buy it here!

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