This story has three parts, so please be patient. But it is still a short story. Also, for those of you who know me, you will be seeing a different side of me. Please don’t judge me too harshly. That goes for those of you who don’t me as well. Like all my stories, this one is true in its entirety.
Many years ago, as far back as I can remember, my family, my immediate family, my mother, father, sister, and later on my two brothers, would travel every Sunday from our New Jersey apartment to my Grandparent’s apartment in Brooklyn. This was my mother’s side of the family, the Italian side. Uncles, aunts and cousins would join us there for my grandmother’s macaroni and gravy. I don’t know if it was the length of the drive and the ensuing anticipation, but my grandmother’s macaroni was the absolute best macaroni, until many years later, when my mother mastered it and took over the Sunday tradition. Now, my grandmother, who had the gravy cooking for hours when we got there, also had the pot of hot water on the stove ready to boil. At the point of boiling, she would add the boxes of macaroni to the water, and begin to stir. While she stirred, she would sing various songs in Italian. ‘Way Mari,’ ‘O Sole Mio,’ and the like. My absolute favorite was ‘Torna A Surriento,’ which means ‘Come Back to Sorrento.’ Whether it made the macaroni taste better or my grandmother was just so happy to have her family all around her that she had to sing, it didn’t matter. I would sit at the kid’s table, which I did even after I had come back from the Vietnam War, and listen and wait for the macaroni. Two quick asides, one my grandmother would always ask me if I wanted to taste the macaroni to see if it was done. I was too afraid of that responsibility, so I always refused. She would smile, give me a kiss, and say I was a good boy. The second aside, I have that kid’s table in my kitchen today, my grandparents have long since passed, and the table has been in various kitchens of mine for years. So, I’m still sitting at the kid’s table.
That’s the end of Part One.
Fast forward, a little over twenty years. I am in my forties, teaching seventh and eighth grade in upper Manhattan, and backpacking through some foreign country on my summer vacation. I would always bring something back for my mother from wherever I went. Usually, it was a small box or something that I could easily fit into my backpack, and not break.
This particular summer, I was in Italy. And this part of the story begins when I’m in Venezia, Venice. I had just gotten off the train and now in a line to change my traveler’s checks into lire. From behind, somebody pokes me. Being a good New Yorker, I first feel for my wallet, just to be sure. Then I turn and see some guy, roughly my age, but shorter. He asks ‘Are you American?’ Obviously he has seen my passport which I was holding in my hand, so I can complete the money exchange. He seems pleasant enough and not shady at all. So despite my disappointment that it’s not a beautiful woman, I say ‘yeah’. He tells me his name and that he’s from Iowa and that he’s has been it Italy for two weeks and hasn’t really talked to anyone, especially in English. He then asks if we could hang out just for a while. So, I say ‘okay’.
We start walking, along the canal, passing open-front shops, talking about nothing in particular, and sort-of souvenir shopping. After a half-hour or so, something in one of the shops catches my eye. It is a small, four by six inch, red lacquer box. I pick it up, and then I open it. It was a music box, and ….and, it’s playing ‘Torne A Surriento.’ I am positively ecstatic. But I don’t show it, and actually feign indifference. I know that I’m going to have to bargain the price. But I also know that I must have that music box for my mother. She will be overjoyed, I just knew it. So, I ask the proprietor ‘How much?’ I know the box is worth about twenty-five dollars. But if I have to go to forty, I would still have to buy it. So he tells me what is the lire equivalent of seventy-five dollars. I say ‘no, I’ll give you twenty.’ He again says ‘no, seventy-five.’ Now I’m starting to get a little upset, but I offer ‘twenty-five’. Again he says ‘no, seventy-five,’ spitting the words out like he’s angry. I ask him if he bargains. He says, ‘Sure, seventy-five.’ Now I feel like he’s taunting me. And I don’t like it. So now I’m really pissed about the whole thing. But I do want that box. It was perfect. But I know that I am not going to pay seventy-five dollars, especially to this arrogant SOB. So I walk away. Iowa follows me. We walk about a half a block, and I stop.
I tell Iowa, ‘Listen, we’re going back to that store. I want you to go inside, where he has the chess sets in the back and ask to see a set. Then I want you to drop one piece on the floor. Let him pick it up. ‘What for?’ Iowa asks. ‘Just do it’ I tell him and that I’ll explain everything to him later.
So, we go back to the store. I wait outside and off to the side. Iowa goes inside. I see him talking to the guy, but the guy isn’t reaching for one of the chess sets. I wait, nothing. I wait a little more, nothing. So, I have to make my move. I grab the box. And I start walking away.
I haven’t taken five steps and the guy is out of the store. He yells to me ‘Hey, you stole that box!’
I think quickly, I got two choices, bring the box back, or run with the box. I figure that the guy isn’t going to leave the store unguarded and chase me. It’s a box, a twenty-five dollar box. I quickly stuff the box in my back pack and I run. He starts running after me. He’s not going to run too far from the store I think, and keep going. So does he. And now we’re running, really running. I’m big, he’s small. I’m in my forties. He’s in his twenties. But I play handball, and I’m in good shape. So we keep running. He can’t catch me, I’m taking long strides. But I can’t lose him either. And we’re running. Over the canals, through narrow streets, behind houses, in alley ways. Then he starts yelling. ‘I’m gonna catch you.’ I yell back, ‘what are you going to do with me if you do? I’m too big for you to handle.’ ‘I’m going to get you anyway.’ ‘People are stealing from your store’ I yell back. We keep yelling back and forth, and keep going. I have no idea where I am, or how to get back to where I was. But we keep running. Now the streets are getting more and more narrow. I know that I’m going to wind up in a dead end, with no place to go. Then, I’m going to have to fight this guy. I know I can take him, that’s not the problem. The problem is, do I want to?
He has been about ten yards behind me the whole trip. So, I stop. I take the box out of my backpack, place it on top of a garbage can, and start running again. I go about twenty yards and turn. He’s standing by the garbage pail, with the box in his hands. ‘I’m going to get you’ he yells. ‘What are you going to do with me? I’m too big and too strong for you. I’m running with a backpack and you still can’t catch me.’ He turns and walks away. I half follow him back. I have to. I would have been lost there forever.
I see Iowa when I get back. I ask him, ‘what happened?’ He says I didn’t know you were making me part of a caper. I say, ‘You’re not a good partner.’ That was the last I saw of either of them.
That’s the end of Part Two. Part Three is short, so please bear with me.
I spend the next few weeks, visiting Rome, Florence, and Pisa. All the while, I’m looking for the box. And growing more and more disappointed for the last part of my trip to Italy. I’m going to the ‘Isle of Capri’, to see the ‘Blue Grotto’. It’s magnificent, by the way so was Italy. But that’s another story.
My jumping off point, for the Isle of Capri is Sorrento. I arrive late at night. From the guide book, the cheapest hotel in Sorrento is fifteen dollars. So, that’s where I go. In the lobby, it smells like they’ve been painting. But for fifteen dollars, and its late, I don’t complain. I get up the next morning, and it still smells of paint. I tell them at the desk, ‘it stinks here.’ The desk clerk says ‘It’s not the hotel; it’s the factory next door.’ I’m like ‘whatever’ and I leave. I’m standing outside. I know I have to walk to get to the boat. But something tells me to go look in the factory. So I go. The closer I got to the factory, the more it stinks. I open the door, and what do I see? A few thousand of the same music boxes, but in different colors. I see a guy working and I yell to him ‘you got any that play ‘Torno A Sorrento’? He says ‘Yeah, I got about five hundred of them on that table.’ ‘How much? I ask. ‘Twenty-five dollars’ he says. ‘Good deal’ I say.
I never told my mother the stealing part of the story, only the ending part. She would have broken that box, even though I hadn’t stolen that one. But she did love it. And now, so do I.