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 ten 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 and broke. 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.”
The instant Frank’s hand came near the open oven, it exploded with a loud boom. A massive purple blaze burst out of it, toppling several pots that lined the shelf above the stove.
Connie screamed, and I began to cry.
“Shit.” Frank rubbed his eyes with his palms.
“Are you okay?” Connie asked, her voice filled with panic.
I wrapped my arms around her neck, drawing her closer.
“Dammit!” Frank stomped his foot. “My eyebrows.”
“Daddy’s gonna kill us,” said Connie.
“Shit. Shit. Shit.” Frank looked up at the ceiling, opening and closing his eyes.
My parents rushed into the room.
“What the hell happened?” my father said, tying the belt of his bathrobe.
“I was trying to get some heat going,” said Frank, unfazed.
“What? What heat?”
“From the oven. This place is like an icebox. We’re freezing our asses off.”
“What are you, stupid?” My father lunged forward and slapped Frank’s face, knocking him against the kitchen counter. “Wha’d I tell ya, huh? Wha’d I tell ya?”
“Bill, stop,” my mother said. “You’re gonna hurt him.”
“Hurt him? I’ll hurt him. I’ll knock his block off.”
I felt a twinge in my belly, and warm pee trickled down my leg.
My father checked the knobs on the stove, turning them in different directions. “Didn’t I tell you not to play with the oven? You’re lucky you didn’t blow up the whole goddamn house. The last thing I need is to get evicted because you have your head up your ass.”
Someone pounded on the back door adjacent to the kitchen.
“Shhhhhit,” my father said. “It’s the landlord. Just what the hell I need.”
My mother opened the door, and a bald, heavy-set man rushed into the kitchen. “What the hell are you people doin’ up here?” he said, his eyes filled with alarm.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Kempt,” answered my father, “but as you can see, we, ahhh… We had a little accident.”
“Accident? What kind of accident? My wife thought a bomb went off. She and the dog are downstairs scared to death.”
“I’m sorry about that. It seems my son here was having a little trouble with the stove. He went to light the oven and didn’t realize—”
“What, again with the stove? First he clogged the toilet with newspaper, then he left the pot on the burner and almost set the place on fire, and now this. Listen, Caruso, if you can’t control your kids, I’m gonna have to ask you people to leave.”
“I know, Mr. Kempt, I know.” My father wrung his hands. “Again, I’m very sorry. I promise it won’t happen again.”
Mr. Kempt marched to the stove and examined the inside of the oven. He surveyed the mess of pots and lids scattered on the floor, shaking his head. “Jesus Christ,” he muttered, scurrying toward the door. “I should have my head examined.”
After Mr. Kempt left, a deceptive calm descended.
“You happy now?” my father growled. “The son of a bitch is ready to throw us outta here.”
“All right, Bill, go easy, will ya?” my mother said. “He didn’t mean it. For Chrissakes, he’s just a kid.”
“I’m not a kid,” Frank said.
“He’s just a kid, just a kid,” my father said, mimicking my mother. “He’s old enough to know better! He’s gotta learn some responsibility. And he can’t do it if he’s got you protecting him all the time. Right?” He faced Frank. “What are you, a mamma’s boy? You need your mamma to protect you?”
Frank gazed at the floor, rubbing his face where my father had slapped him.
My father slammed the oven door shut with his foot. “Vafangoooool,” he muttered. “Get the hell out of my sight.” He nodded toward the door. As Frank passed, my father whacked the back of his head. “Stunad.”
“Let me see, baby,” said my mother, stopping Frank and examining his face. “Look—his eyebrows are singed.”
“That’s what he gets for being stupid,” my father said.
“Let me put something on that,” said my mother.
“Hey, mamma’s boy, your mamma’s calling you,” my father sneered.
“Leave me alone,” Frank said, leaning away from my mother.
“What are you, a sissy?” my father said.
“Go put some cold water on it, honey,” said my mother.
“Ma, I don’t need anything. Wouldja leave me alone?” Frank stormed out of the room.
“How’s Janoots? Is he okay?” My mother reached over and lifted me into her arms. Then sharp lines creased her forehead, her hands tense against my body. “Aw, shoot. Look at this. He’s all wet.” She looked sharply at Connie. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Me?” Connie pointed to herself. “What did I do?”
“I told you to keep an eye on your brother. I swear”—turning to my father— “you can’t leave them alone for two seconds.”
“I didn’t do anything!” Connie cried, raising her arms.
“All right, get inside,” my mother said, tugging on Connie’s sleeve, her face twisted with disgust.
“Oh, boy.” Connie stomped out of the kitchen. “I get blamed for everything around here.”
“Look at this,” my mother said, eyeing my wet pajamas. “You can’t leave them alone for two seconds.”
I stretched my arms in the direction of my brother and sister, wanting to be with them. I didn’t understand why my parents were so angry, but I felt it was because of something I had done.
My father bought a used, streamlined, four-door Hudson that my five-year-old brain saw as a big turtle with headlights. The car constantly gave him trouble; every other time he turned the key the thing wouldn’t start. It wheezed and sputtered and we’d all sit in silence, wondering if the car had finally dropped dead.
“Well, I guess you got what you paid for,” my mother once commented in an I told you so tone from the passenger seat.
“C’mon, honey,” my father said, repeatedly turning the key while pumping the gas pedal. “Talk to me. Talk to me.” When he finally got the car started, he leaned toward my mother and gave her a flurry of loud kisses inches away from her face. “Ya see?” He smiled. “It’s not whatcha say. It’s how ya say it.”
Some weekends my father would take me for a ride, always on the spur of the moment. “Okay, buddy.” He’d clap his hands with excitement. “Let’s go—just me and you.”
Part of the fun was that I never knew where we were going. I’d hop in the car, and we’d drive around Brooklyn, each time visiting different places—Coney Island, Prospect Park, Sheepshead Bay. Once we took the ferry from Brooklyn to Staten Island. From there, we caught another ferry to lower Manhattan, where we ate in Chinatown and he read my fortune cookies. That was the most fun. I cracked open a few cookies with my fist and handed the small paper inscriptions to my father. He read each of them in a deep, mysterious voice. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” “All good things come to those who wait.”
I handed him the last fortune, and his face darkened with concern. “Oh, boy,” he said, “this one doesn’t look too good.”
“What’s it say?”
He shook his head. “You sure you wanna know?”
I hesitated, then nodded.
My father put his arm around me. “It say you very ticklish,” he said in an exaggerated Chinese accent. He tossed the fortune over his shoulder and wiggled his fingers, tickling my stomach and underarms. I couldn’t stop laughing.
Later that afternoon we drove over the Manhattan Bridge on our way home, the hum of the tires against the cement filling my ears. We rode around Brooklyn for about ten minutes and wound up on a bleak cobblestone street not far from the cluster of dreary warehouses that surrounded the Brooklyn Navy Yard. My father drove slowly, glancing at the row of brown-brick tenements that lined the block.
“Where are we?” I said.
“Son of a bitch,” he muttered, stopping in front of a rundown, three-story apartment house. “I can’t believe it’s still here.” On one side of the building was an abandoned diner, on the other an empty lot littered with mounds of garbage and a burned-out car. My father rolled down his window. “See that building? That’s where Daddy lived when my family came to America. We lived right up there on the second floor,” he said, pointing. “I shared the small room on the right with four of my brothers.”
I was excited to learn this. I climbed over my father’s leg for a better look at the three dust-filled windows on the second floor.
“Where did you come from?” I asked.
“We came from Naples. In Italy. That’s where I was born. When I was around your age, my family moved to America. There were twelve of us. We crossed the ocean on a big ship.” He dipped his hand in a wave-like motion.
“How come what?”
“How come you moved from Italy?”
“My papa was looking for a better life. He worked hard in Italy, sometimes eighteen hours a day. He saved his money so he could come to New York and open his own business.”
“What did he do?”
“Your Grandpa owned a big a grocery store. Caruso’s Italian-American Market.” He framed his hands in front of him as if around an invisible sign. “It was one of the biggest Italian stores in Brooklyn.”
“Can we go see it?”
“It’s long gone.” He smiled sadly. “It closed many years ago.”
My father rarely discussed his childhood. I later learned that my grandfather had managed the store poorly. A few years after opening, Caruso’s Italian-American Market went bankrupt, leaving the family near penniless on the cusp of the Great Depression. At one point the situation became untenable. Grandpa Giovanni could no longer feed his family, and the Children’s Aid Society intervened. Two of my father’s sisters died of pneumonia, and the remaining Caruso siblings were farmed out to different homes out of state. My father and his brothers and sisters were away for nearly three years before they returned home. The episode created much division and mistrust in the family; all the Caruso brothers and sisters had felt abandoned. Grandpa Giovanni, the hard-working entrepreneur who had once shepherded his family across an ocean to the land of hopes and dreams, no longer seemed like a strong, unshakeable padrone managing the family’s affairs. When the Caruso children returned to Brooklyn, most of them were in their early and late teens. My father and his brothers worked long hours in factories to help support the family and put food on the table, a pesky necessity that fueled lasting resentment among the siblings—half of them moved away from New York when they were old enough to live on their own.
“We used to call ourselves the twelve apostles,” my father said, chuckling. “We were always together, having fun. We all got along and loved each other.”
“Where is Grandpa now? Is he in Italy?”
“No.” My father forced a sad expression. “He died before you were born. You would have loved him. He was a good man. That’s why I named you after him, so you’ll always remember him.”
“Was he smart?”
“Oooooh.” My father tilted his head away from me as if overwhelmed by the notion. “He was verrrrry smart. Papa knew about everything. He was a mechanic, a farmer; he knew about cows and horses; he made his own wine; he made his own cheese; he was a businessman, a carpenter who knew how to build houses and barns… He taught me everything he knew. And I’ll teach you someday, so you can be smart just like him.”
I thought about all the things my father had learned, but somehow I couldn’t picture him making his own cheese or working with horses and cows, let alone building a house or a barn.
“Yeah, Papa taught all of us.” My father nodded. “He taught us everything… everything.” His eyes grew distant. He was looking right at me, but his face glazed over with a frozen, angry stare.
“Where is everybody?” I said.
“Your other brothers and sisters.”
“They’re around… They just don’t live nearby.”
“How come we never see them?”
My father looked annoyed. “Whaddaya, writin’ a book?” he said, ending the conversation.
As we drove away, I caught a last glimpse of my father’s childhood dwelling. An elderly woman wearing a black head scarf appeared and popped her head out of the doorway. She looked up at the sky and extended her hand into the warm spring air as if to check for rain, then disappeared back into the shadows.
People have asked what motivated me to fictionalize the early part of my personal history, as opposed to writing a memoir. A memoir offers a straightforward account of one’s experience, but it doesn’t allow for a deep dive into a character’s psyche. I needed something more immediate and revealing. As Albert Camus reputedly said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”
Johnny Boy is my debut novel. Before embarking on this project, I was obsessed with following conundrum: Who was I before I was born into my family? Contemplating this notion afforded me some distance from my troubled past and ignited the self-examination that I needed to grapple with in order to move forward.
The narrative takes place in 1950s and ’60s Bensonhurst, a multi-ethnic, working-class section of Brooklyn, where sensitive and empathetic Johnny Caruso struggles to navigate childhood and adolescence with little parental support. Johnny is pulled between the limited worldview of his parents—alcoholic and abusive Bellisario and browbeaten, unstable Maria—and his liberal-minded older brother and sister, whom he views as surrogate parents. His story is shaped in part by the trauma inflicted on him by the violent and competitive relationship between his father and his older brother, who despises their father’s closed-mindedness and is the only one willing to stand up to “the old man.”
Beginning with visceral first memories, Johnny Boy is the story of Johnny’s troubled journey, which will take him far beyond the narrow world of his childhood.
John Califano grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and lives in Manhattan. He has worked as a writer, actor, visual artist, and musician and has performed in clubs, art galleries, feature films, and Off-Broadway productions. He recently completed his debut novel, Johnny Boy, and is currently working on a second book. His work has been featured in The Broadkill Review and The Willesden Herald’s New Short Stories Series.
Embark, Issue 8, April 2019