For Christmas you and your sisters each get a pair of flannel PJs, a three-pack of navy blue knee socks, a six-pack of Lollipop underwear, and a paint by number set.
Your sisters get pictures of a fierce tiger, a flashy peacock, and a pretty pink ballerina. Your picture shows a brown horse.
You love horses, especially when your father hits lucky number eight at the track. But this year Da came back from Yonkers with an empty wallet, so this boring horse is the only toy you’ll get.
You know better than to ask your sisters to trade. So you turn over your box and look at all the other boring pictures you could have gotten stuck with: a cardinal on an evergreen bough, a snowy owl on a wooden fence, a clown with tears rolling down his face.
Your horse doesn’t seem so bad then. You call him Chester. When you grow up, you’re going to ride Chester far away from your house–which smells like wet mittens and oily melanzane–to some place green and rich and much more ‘merigan than Fourth Street.
But first you have to paint him.
Your sisters cover the kitchen table with yesterday’s edition of The New Haven Register. You put your canvas on top of the scary headlines about the body counts from Vietnam and the photo of the president and his wife spending holidays at their Texas ranch.
You want to start with the horse. But Sister Uno–who is twice as smart as you because she’s ten and you’re just five–tells you to start with the sky because it’s at the top and that way the paint won’t smear.
You dip your brush into number seven. Chester’s sky doesn’t look like your sky. It’s blue instead of gray, which means he must live some place classy, like Kentucky.
You’ve seen the Kentucky Derby on TV. All the horses are thoroughbreds and all the ladies wear big flowered hats and have names like Mrs. Penny Tweedy.
If only your father had played number eight at Churchill Downs instead of Yonkers Raceway, he might have won the Derby and you might have gotten what you really wanted: a stuffed Lassie dog for Christmas.
If only, you whisper to yourself. If only.
You try to be careful and stay between the lines. But you can’t control the brush and you make a mess of the blue sky. Then you make a mess of the green grass. And then you make a mess of Chester. He looks fat where he’s supposed to be skinny and skinny where he’s supposed to be fat. His hooves look like boots, his tail like a mop, and his eyes end up too close together like that girl in catechism class that everyone calls a retarded.
Your painting doesn’t look good. But you’re proud of it anyway. Everybody knows Leonardo painted The Last Supper on the china plate that hangs above your stove and Michelangelo carved the plastic Pietà that sits on top of your Zenith TV.
Everybody knows all the great artists are Italian.
* * *
Later after you’re done eating your big-pipe macaroni, your cousin comes over and asks what you got for Christmas.
He’s a boy so you can’t show him your Lollipop underwear.
You show him Chester, who isn’t even dry yet.
I painted him, you say.
You didn’t paint that horse, he says. You just filled in the blanks.
You’re crushed. You don’t know yet the word ersatz. But if you heard it, you would know that your horse was just that: phony as a pony. You’ll never ride him to Kentucky. Or meet Mrs. Penny Tweedy. You’ll be stuck on Fourth Street for the rest of your life, eating rigatoni and dreaming of your father hitting lucky number eight, while your sisters–who don’t seem to care that they’ll never be the next Leonardo or Michelangelo–fish the Register out of the trash and draw devil horns on LBJ and a fat ‘talian mustache on Lady Bird Johnson.
And this, this is what you’ll later think of whenever people start rhapsodizing about the beauty of Italian art.
Rita Ciresi is author of the novels Bring Back My Body to Me, Pink Slip, Blue Italian, and Remind Me Again Why I Married You, and two story collections, Sometimes I Dream in Italian and Mother Rocket. She is professor of English at the University of South Florida, a faculty mentor for the Bay Path University MFA program in creative nonfiction, and fiction editor of 2 Bridges Review.