Little Red Dots
“Honey, have you seen my mom’s box?”
I shuffle through the contents of my handcrafted alder wood cabinets, but pause for a second. I tap my red nails on the granite countertop. My question is met with silence.
He can’t hear me.
My brother, Luca, is renovating their usual meeting space down the road, so my husband and his associates have been relegated to our attic.
I hear him open the door that leads downstairs. A wave of hushed whispers and laughter rushes into the kitchen, along with hints of cigars, scotch, and sharp cologne. I hate smelling that on a Sunday.
“Did you check our place? Behind the spice rack?”
Leo is organized and tidy, constantly occupying his mind with details. He knows where all of his people are, every minute of every day. Nothing is ever missing.
I roll out the wooden spice rack from its place in the wall and peer into the cavern behind it.
Nine years ago, my mom helped Leo pick out my engagement ring—she didn’t trust him, his money, or his taste. It’s yellow gold with a brilliant red ruby in a Marquise setting, surrounded by diamonds. To Leo, it’s a football. To me, it’s an eye.
With the door still open, I hear buzzing whispers grow to conversation. I look down towards my left hand at the ring suffocating my daintily manicured finger. I see the ruby eye blink back up at me, and one of its eyelashes falls to the ground.
I remember finding it inside the cabinet, the black velvet box. My mom was helping me prepare marinara sauce with sausage—a special dinner for Leo. As she stared into the pot and stirred, she reached out her hand and asked me to pass her the basil. Assuming it had fallen into the abyss behind the spice rack, I stuck my hand in and felt around. That’s when I touched it.
I opened the box and peered inside, the kitchen lights glinting off the ruby. I gasped. “Did you find the basil, honey?” my mom asked, looking only at the sauce. I snapped the box shut. I told her no, I hadn’t found the basil, and no, I hadn’t seen anything else in the cabinet. I walked over to her right-hand side, the basil two inches away from her. The smile faded from her face. She began to stir. “That’s right, Ri, after you put on that ring, you don’t see nothin’, you don’t say nothin’. Ever.” The sauce was more acidic than usual that night.
The noises from upstairs crescendo to cackling laughter.
“Ri, did you find it?”
I look further into the abyss, and there it is. Behind my perfect little spice rack lay a tiny wooden box. I wedge my arm inside, and with one hand, rescue it from the darkness. I feel a sharp pain shoot up through my arm into my chest.
I don’t answer. He wouldn’t have heard me over the commotion anyway.
The door slams shut.
I hold my mom’s recipe box the way she held me: with reserved optimism and pride. I try not to think about the last time I saw her holding it. I refuse to remember the smell of her rose scented perfume and the way half of her hair fell out of her low bun, before she cooked Sunday dinners.
I brush off the dust to reveal the word “Ricette” on the lid. I trace it with my finger. Taking a deep breath, I shake the thoughts of my mom out of my head and open the box.
I stare down at the small slips of tattered paper, yellowing at their edges. Pasta Bolognese, Pasta Carbonara, Chicken Marsala… I keep flipping. Until finally, I find it: Mom’s marinara sauce.
I inspect the recipe carefully, committing it to memory. It is one I have witnessed her make many times but can never get quite right. I cling to the card and put it into the pocket of my apron for safe keeping.
Like a child searching for eggs on Easter, I begin collecting my supplies. First, the tomatoes. We always keep a stash in the house. Before the boys come over for meetings, they go to Pax Romana and bring back a few cans, usually accompanied by a fresh olive loaf from Charlie’s. It’s a courtesy, a tribute even, in honor of what they let happen to my mom a year ago today.
The tomatoes always have to be peeled. Never crushed or chopped. “Always 12 oz. cans, never 8, Rita,” my mom’ s voice rings in my ears. I grab four. She always liked her pasta to swim in sauce. I laugh. “I’ll make some extra for you, Mom.”
On the counter above the tomato cabinet sit some of Jude’s Hess cranes and construction trucks. My dad is driving one of them. I peek into the small window of the car.
“Dad, what are you doing driving on my kitchen counter?”
He puts the truck in park and laughs straight from his gut. “When’s Jude comin’ to work for me and your brother?”
I squat down on the floor to reach eye level with him. “Jude’s six, Dad.”
“Before you know it, Leo’s going to try to make him. Be careful.”
He tries to drive away, but I grab the truck and return him and his crew to their rightful place in the toy chest.
My mom always refused to buy Jude toys that encourage violence. No gruesome games, no Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and especially “nothin’ that shoots nothin’ nowhere.” He’s only six, after all.
Just as I finish collecting my ingredients, the doorbell rings. I scurry over to the door and look through the glass. It’s Sonny. With a box. Sonny speaks with the thickest accent of all of my husband’s friends. Like every true Italian out there, he forms his words in the front of his mouth. Each vowel that escapes from his tiger teeth is long, and if a word ends in an “r” Sonny doesn’t know about it, or at least he talks like he doesn’t. Whenever he and my husband are together, sometimes it doesn’t even sound like they’re speaking English.
“Hey, Rita, how are ya?” he says and kisses my cheek. I haven’t let him in yet. We stand in the doorway.
I stare down at the little red dots on his white button-down shirt. This is the shirt Sonny wears to go to church and to run errands for my husband every Sunday. He must notice that the dots grab my attention.
He twists the gold signet ring he wears on his pinky. “Oh Rita, don’t worry, that’s just Mama Rossi’s sauce. I came straight from dinner.”
His hands flail around when he speaks, and after he finishes, in an attempt to cover up the stains, they settle on his stomach, which protrudes enough to test the will of those tiny white buttons that hold it all together.
“Oh yeah, Sonny? Whatdja eat?” I scrunch up my nose.
I’m close to Sonny’s mom. Leo recommended I start spending some more time with Mama Rossi and her daughters recently. I am well aware of the tight dinner schedule Mrs. Rossi keeps and wonder why she made dinner for Sonny so early.
Sonny’s nose twitches a little. Can he feel me thinking? After a brief pause, he says, “Oh, come on Ri! You and I both know tonight is eggplant Parm night at the Rossi’s.” He laughs, but won’t meet my eyes.
I hear the pitter patter of quick little footsteps coming from behind me.
“Uncle Sonny! Uncle Sonny!”
“Hey there, kiddo!”
Sonny bends down and rests his knee on the doorstep. Jude reaches out to hug him but stops. He looks down at Sonny’s shirt.
“Uncle Sonny, did you get sauce on your shirt again?” He starts laughing so hard that he falls on the floor.
Sonny looks up at me and laughs, but doesn’t respond to Jude.
“I brought over some cannoli for you and your mom, want to go put them in the fridge?”
He hands Jude the box.
Sonny reaches out to tickle him, but Jude’s a quick runner.
I hear the fridge door close and Jude’s truck noises start again from the living room. Sonny gets up, and I look him up and down.
“Gotta love Mama Rossi’s eggplant, right?” he says.
I nod slowly. After a beat, I let him inside. I flick my head up towards the third floor. “The boys are upstairs.”
The ruckus gets louder once Sonny reaches the room. It mellows to murmurs after they all embrace.
Still standing in my doorway, I gaze just beyond the front steps to see a caravan of black Continentals in my driveway, one of which has a new driver’s side window. I lock my front door and make my way back to the kitchen.
I tie back my hair in a low bun and wash my hands.
“Yes, Mom, in that order.”
The first part is the easiest. I chop up the garlic, no problem. Garlic is small, innocent even.
Then, I chop the onions. I take out a knife from my Warrior set. The sound of the knife against the cutting board is slow, methodical. The knocking is so haunting and familiar. Each chop like a head banging against a wall, an act designed to demonstrate dominance, extract information.
I put the garlic and the onions in a frying pan with some oil, leave it on for a bit, and then put the sausage in. The oil crackles and spatters. I smile. I love the feeling of scalding oil on my olive skin.
I glare at the food mill. I rinse off the top of each tomato can and open them up, the pop of the can opener puncturing into each like a switchblade into flesh. I pour the juice out first and let each of the tomatoes plop into the mill, taking pleasure in slicing them and exposing the seeds inside.
I start to crank. 13 clockwise motions followed by 6 counter-clockwise motions. Smush, un-smush, smush, repeat. 19 total motions.
The cranking sound is rough, the sound of metal scratching against itself, the crunching, the screeching. The last time I heard this sound was when Jude was two, and I was in Eddie’s deli. My dad had come over that day to spend some time with Jude. He asked me to go to Eddie’s to grab some sandwiches. When I got out of my car, I saw that the glass door had been smashed. As I entered the shop, the bright chime of the welcome bells seemed beyond inappropriate.
Laying in bloodied cold cuts was Eddie’s body, motionless on the floor. His face covered in bruises; his shirt soaked in blood. I shut my eyes. I never saw nothin’. Never saw nothin’. Saw nothin’. I repeated it to myself.
I heard familiar voices coming from the alleyway behind the shop.
“Let’s get him outta here,” they said.
His body clunked against the tile floor. He was dragged like a beached whale, his belt buckle screeching against each tile, leaving streaks of red behind him.
What could they have needed from Eddie? I still don’t know.
I heard noises outside; noises I wished belonged to my father’s nail gun. I walked over to the front of the shop, trying to escape, avoiding pools of Eddie. And then I saw him. Leo, my high school sweetheart, the man I promised to love for better or for worse, blocking the entrance to the deli, covered in Eddie’s blood.
“Rita, baby, I know this looks bad, but it’ll be okay. Come here.” His arms were wide open, goading me into a bloody embrace.
I stared at him. He sensed my anger and began approaching me, the same way you’d close in on a crazed animal.
I never wanted to be a part of this. He promised to keep me separate. Don’t see nothin’. Can’t say nothin’.
He kept coming closer.
“I’m the same Leo who bathes Jude with you and styles his hair before church on Sunday.” He started laughing. With blood and guts all over his hands, he was laughing.
“Leo what the hell is wrong with you?”
He stopped moving, put his arms down, and stood up straight.
“How was I supposed to know you were gonna come down here?”
“You can’t do shit like this during the day.” I slowed down. “You’re getting sloppy.”
His upper body muscles tensed. He grabbed my wrists with his blood-stained hands and pulled me towards him.
“Look, Rita,” he said through his gritted lion teeth. “You’re in this, baby, and so is Jude. So, you better damn well get used to it. You want the appliances and the dresses and the house, but you don’t like where they come from. You ungrateful little shit.”
He gripped me tighter.
I looked up at him, the man I wanted to love.
“What happened to ‘i’ll never let you see it?’ What happened to ‘this won’t get messy’?”
I freed myself from his grasp, propelling myself a few steps backwards.
He laughed again and shrugged. “It always gets a little messy, Ri. Go home. Take a shower. You weren’t here.” He kissed my forehead. “Make sure to have dinner ready when I get home.” He held what was left of the door open for me as I left the shop.
I should have called my father to take Jude to his house, to get him away, but I just went home sandwichless.
I look down into the bowl of red beneath my hands. There are two tomato seeds swimming around in the sauce, stained by the redness. I reach down with a fork to try and grab them. After many failed attempts, they start laughing at me, egging me on, begging me to smush them. “Rita, seeds make the sauce acidic, baby, scoop them out.”
“Okay Mom, I hear you.”
Her calming voice does nothing to sooth me. I keep stabbing down into the bowl, metal screeching against metal. I jab harder and harder, tomato juice forming dots on my white apron.
The phone rings. It’s Luca.
“Hey baby sis, what’s cookin’?”
“Luca, you have plenty of food at home. Unless Shannon’s burnt tofu isn’t satisfying you anymore.”
I hear laughter from the other end of the line.
“Hey, hey, hey! Do not disrespect Shannon’s cooking.”
“If you can even call it that…”
I laugh. It feels good.
“That’s not why I called, Rita. I called to see if you were okay?”
Luca might not be the smartest of the Ricci bunch, but he is the buffest, and also the most caring.
He is quiet for a long four seconds.
Now I am silent. A few seconds pass.
“Oh?” he says. “With who?”
I know that he knows. That today is almost as memorable for him as it is for me. How could Leo have let it happen? He’s always so careful. Everything is always wrapped up neatly with a bow, even if the guts are bulging from the inside or stinking up a landfill or screaming from the depths of a river, begging for someone to find them. I feel tears coming to my eyes, but I force them back down. She was our mother, the matriarch of my family, and just like that, a bullet through a car window, and she was gone.
“He’s with the goons.”
“Mannaggia la miseria. That bastard. Rita, you let him bring them into your house? Today?” I hear his voice rising with rage. “Do I have to come over there?”
“Luca, there’s so many of them. It’s not worth it.”
“If they don’t leave before your sauce is finished, I’m calling Richie down at the station.”
I am silent again.
“Sorry... I’m here.”
“Did you hear what I said? I’m not joking. Mama’s probably turning over in her grave right now.”
Behind my sigh, I hear whispers of oil, beckoning me to return to the stove. “I’ll call you back. The sauce is making noises.”
I hang up the phone and glide through the kitchen back to the stove.
I cut into a sausage. They’re ready.
I take a fork and pierce it into the first piece. I hold it up close to my nose and sniff. I look over to check on Jude, wanting him to smell freshly cooked sausage, but he’s sleeping now. I pick up a spoon with my free hand and push the sausage into the pot of sauce.
I stare at them, the sausages. They are dancing in the warmth of the tomatoes and the oil, bouncing up and down, infusing the sauce with their juices. As I watch them boil and the redness around them starts to seep in, the once wide chunks of meat start to shrivel. They are developing wrinkles and nails, morphing into dainty fingers. These finger chunks aren’t bloody, though. That would imply they are still attached to a hand. No, these are the severed type, cut from just above the knuckle, the type you put in a small black box to leave on the dashboard of someone’s car, or in someone’s mailbox, or in their kid’s crib to use as a warning sign when you want something.
After the frying pan is finger-free, I pick it up and tilt it over the pot, letting the flesh-infused oil drip slowly. I give the sauce a stir and pop the lid back on.
I hear footsteps from upstairs.
Like the Pied Piper, my husband leads his parade of rats two by two out our front door. I peek around the corner to see them. Each one shakes Leo’s hand, pulls him into a hug, and slaps him on the back. Sonny is last. Leo embraces him the longest.
I wonder what they are saying.
Before he leaves, Sonny turns in his black dress shoes and waves to me in the kitchen. I slink back behind the cabinet and pretend not to see him or the blood stains on his shirt.
Leo struts into the kitchen with his arms wide open.
“Rita, baby! Something smells good in here!”
“Can you wake Jude up?”
He waltzes over to my spot behind the giant pasta pot and kisses my rosy cheek. “Of course, anything for you, sweetness.”
Every night before dinner, we have Jude say grace, and he always does it to the tune of a song both my husband and I don’t know. We go along with it for his sake.
“Bless us O Lord for deese dy gifts for which we are about to receive from thy bounty through Christ our Lord, A-men!”
“Are you excited for school tomorrow, Jude?” I say as he struggles with his pasta. “Here, let me cut that for you.”
I make sure to cut his spaghetti and fingers into bite sized pieces.
“Thank you, Mama,” Jude says. He peers over my arms into the dish to watch me. “I’m so excited! We’re doing an archaemological dig!”
“Son, I think you mean archaeological,” Leo says.
Jude jumps out of his chair and gives us a hefty dinosaur roar. His face even turns scaly and green. We all laugh.
“Hey son, I asked Sonny to pick up something special for you today.”
“Ooo, is it a present?”
Leo laughs. “Come here kid.”
Jude plops down off his chair and scampers over to Leo.
“Put out your hands.”
Leo reaches into his pocket and pulls out a solid gold chain with a crucifix hanging from it. He places it into Jude’s small outstretched hands.
“Woah! Thanks Dad! Can I go play?”
“Here, Jude, give me that chain. I’ll put it somewhere safe for you.”
“Thanks Mama.” He poured the necklace into my hands.
“Can I go play now?”
“Of course, sweetie. Go play with your Hess trucks.”
He runs off.
Leo gets up and brings his plate over to the sink. “I can’t believe Jude is already six Ri–”
“Do you know what day it is today, Leo?” I meet him at the sink.
He looks at me and reaches into his pants, fumbling with the cash that sits next to his .22.
“Leo,” I put my hand on his arm. “Today is April 17th.”
Our eyes meet. All the color drains from his face.
“Oh God, Rita.”
“Why did you have them here today, Leo?”
“You know why I have to have them here. Luca’s renovating the Bar.”
“But today of all days, Leo? You couldn’t have gone to the Rossi’s?”
“No, Rita. They have young kids, you know that.”
I stared at him. “And we don’t? What about Jude? He’s six years old, for God’s sake.”
“Sonny has girls, Rita. It’s different.”
I sigh. “I’m just asking for this one day, Leo. One day.”
“Ri, business is business. This life… it doesn’t stop. There’s no end. There’s no out.”
Leo grabs the rest of the plates and brings them over to the sink. Before he starts washing them, he scrapes the spaghetti into the trash, some leftover fingers falling with it. But the remaining sauce descends down the drain. I get up and run my hands under the warm water. With his tepid wet fingers, Leo grabs me by the waist and pulls me into a hug.
“I really am sorry about your mom, Ri.” We swayed back and forth together. “But you signed up for this when you married me.”
I look over at Jude playing with his trucks and feel for the ring on my left hand. It feels tighter than ever.
We finish the dishes together and retire to the couch. I sit with his arm around me, and we watch TV like we do every Sunday night.
I feel it rumble inside me.
I lift Leo’s arm and drift towards the sink, my black dress flowing behind me. His eyes are glued to the TV. I grip the edge of the counter so tightly that my ring screeches against the granite, shattering the band. It starts crying. I start to cough into the sink.
Is that sauce?
I can’t stop. It explodes out of me, all over my tile floor, my cabinets, my thousand-dollar stainless-steel copper bottom pots. I can’t stop spewing the red liquid. With each cough, my esophagus burns. I look back at the sink and wipe my lips with my apron. More red dots. My mom’s recipe card falls to the floor. Everything is quiet except the sound of the sauce dripping from my cabinet doors and the muffled noises of the TV.
I hear a gurgling sound. I walk back over to the sink. The red liquid starts to bubble up from the pipes. Like water erupting from a geyser, it sprays everywhere. I stand on my tip toes on our tile floor, now stained red. My feet are sodden, my toes pruned. I try shouting to Jude, but he can’t hear me. I mount the countertop. From there, I can see the whole first floor of my house. I watch helplessly as the red liquid fills my kitchen, engulfs my den, oozes into my couches, and takes my son. It doesn’t touch Leo.
I crawl on my hands and knees to the windows in an attempt to jump out, but they are locked. I leap off the counter and run through the doors into the living room, sending splashes of the liquid behind me. My apron gets caught on the handle of the door. As I fruitlessly try to free myself, the red begins to rise up past my knees. I take in every detail of my living room one last time. My new fireplace, my family photos, Jude’s Hess trucks. I stop struggling. I let the sauce cover me.
I take a deep breath. The red swallows my eyes and begins to fill my lungs.
“Here I come, Mom.”