There were few sounds in the world that Dolores couldn't stand. The sound of an ax slamming into a newly arrived carcass was one of them.
It conjured up in her mind the sort of horrors that the poor creature must have suffered while in the slaughterhouse, being prodded forward against its will and disfigured with meat hooks before it was finally stunned into unconsciousness. She hated to imagine whatever happened afterward that resulted in a once-living and feeling animal ending up in the backroom, where her father Sergio performed deeds that contradicted his affectionate behavior at home.
At the age of sixteen, Dolores still didn't know which side of the man was more reflective of his real character. The contrast could be jarring at times, and it was for such a reason that she no longer felt comfortable with his touch.
It didn't help matters much that he was known around the neighborhood for being loud and brutish. His job as a local butcher only solidified such a reputation, and at school, it seemed like most people assumed that she was no different and avoided her as a result.
She couldn't help but resent Sergio at least a little for making it so difficult for her to maintain friendships, let alone feel brave enough to confess her feelings to the charming Tony Caruso.
If memory served her correctly, he would be stopping by soon to buy some meat for his mother. She always looked forward to seeing him because he was well-mannered and very much easy on the eyes in contrast to her overweight father.
Sure enough, he entered the store shortly before five o'clock and seemed glad to see her. He smiled and raised his hand to give a wave, thus prompting her to stand up straight and focus on serving him as best as she could.
"Fancy meeting you again, Dolores. Where's your Dad?"
She stepped right up close to the counter and tucked curly hair behind her ear while making eye contact.
"Out the back. Should I get him for you?"
"Don't. I'm fine with you too."
"Oh. Well, what can I get for you then?"
He placed a finger against his chin to signal that he needed to make his mind up about something. Dolores sighed and spent the ensuing moments studying his features for the umpteenth time.
He had dark hair and an olive complexion, much like Sergio and many other immigrants from Sicily, though the similarities ended there. Tony had the sort of appearance that led many to deride him as a pretty boy, with his unblemished skin and long eyelashes inherited from his mother. They complimented his brown eyes quite nicely, and Dolores wished that those eyes would one day look at her with nothing but love.
Unfortunately, her appearance left much to be desired. She wasn't proud of her so-called 'Roman nose' and large mouth, and she had a strong suspicion that a boy like Tony didn't find them attractive either.
She knew that fairy tales were nothing but fantasy, but moments such as these made her hope desperately for a godmother to appear and make her beautiful with just one wave of the wand.
"Sorry to keep you waiting. I lost my train of thought..." Tony spoke up, interrupting her musings as he lowered his arm.
Dolores realized that Sergio seemed to have stopped chopping in the backroom and felt relieved that the horrible sound had ceased.
"It's alright. What do you want?"
"Two pounds of ham. Sliced."
"Coming right up."
She donned a pair of gloves and grabbed a whole leg of ham before carrying it toward the meat slicer. There was no denying the misfortune of Tony seeing her this way, but she'd be a bad daughter if she didn't help her father once in a while.
She begrudgingly got to work with that in mind while trying to imagine the look on Tony's face. He likely understood why she was in such a position, yet she still doubted that he found her anything besides pathetic.
It was just a shame that she couldn't be more like his attractive sister Sophia, whom she had significantly admired since childhood. The twenty-one-year-old never failed to be ladylike and stylish, which led Dolores to conclude that Tony's standards were probably quite high.
"I bet he doesn't even see me as a girl..."
A tear formed in her eye as she continued to slide the leg of ham back and forth. She couldn't wipe it away with her greasy glove-covered hand, so she allowed it to simply roll down her cheek while taking a deep breath to stay composed.
She pushed through the rest of her task with difficulty, and after weighing the sliced ham to find that it did indeed amount to two pounds, wrapped it in butcher paper before passing the finished product over the counter.
"That'll be 78 cents..."
Tony gave her a dollar, and she hurriedly searched the cash drawer for twenty-two cents worth of coins, knowing that another customer might just come in soon.
She quickly handed the change to Tony. He pocketed it with a smile and took his purchase with him on the way out.
"Bye, Dolores. See you tomorrow morning!"
She raised her hand to give a halfhearted wave, but he left the store without another glance. The silence that ensued was disconcerting, and she wondered what her father was up to.
The answer became clear when she heard the faint sound of running water. Sergio was no doubt washing his hands after deciding that he'd dismembered enough slaughtered animals for an afternoon.
He emerged from the backroom shortly afterward, taking her by surprise as she once again tried to reconcile the butcher with the doting father.
"Sweetie, who was it that came in before?"
Dolores backed up against the counter nervously.
"Tony. He wanted to buy some ham."
"Him again?" Sergio remarked with a hint of derision in his voice that indicated he held little respect for the boy. Dolores already knew why it was the case and refrained from questioning his sentiments.
"Yes..." She opted to say instead with a nod.
"He's a macaroni. Should have been born a girl..."
At that, Sergio pulled a pack of Camel cigarettes out from his apron pocket and attempted to offer her one.
"Do you want to try it? You'll be seventeen soon..."
"Suit yourself. Better late than never, that's what people say..."
Dolores watched as he slid one between his thin lips and lit it up before inhaling. The smell wafted through the air, and she instinctively turned away, hoping that her father's laid-back behavior wouldn't give passersby an unfavorable impression of their business.
Tony lived in a two-story house that had been newly built when his father first purchased it in 1954, during the postwar economic boom. He had been just a baby-faced six-year-old then, with a rudimentary grasp of the English language due to having only ever spoken Italian.
The move meant attending a new elementary school, and although Sophia had initially been the resistant one, he soon came to resent the change more than she did.
He had quickly become an easy target for the wealthy Anglo-Saxon children like Richie, who picked on him because of his appearance and heavy accent, which they found hilarious. During the first week, he'd lost his temper and hit one of the other boys despite being outnumbered. They'd responded by pushing him around until a teacher walked by and demanded to know what was going on.
Unfortunately, the fact that he had attacked first was used against him. He ended up being held back after school and made to write repeatedly on the blackboard while his mother Maria was called in to discuss his behavior.
He learned from that point on to merely put up with whatever came his way, regardless of how bad it got. He put on a smile at home and lied each day about his experiences at school while at the same time practicing his English as hard as he could in the hopes of losing his embarrassing accent.
Dolores had been the new kid when he was in second grade, and back then, he'd been glad to have a friend regardless of their gender. He'd volunteered to show her around the school and look out for her whenever possible, the latter contributing to her becoming clingy towards him ever since.
Her apparent fixation with him could be worrisome at times, but he had to admit that it was comforting to have such a steadfast friend. He couldn't recall when she hadn't been willing to take his side or listen to his concerns, and he had to be grateful for that.
Another thing that he admired about her was how she could handle working in a butcher shop when he was the type to become nauseous at the mere sight of an animal carcass. It took a select sort of person to tolerate those things regularly, and he could only assume that Dolores possessed a strong stomach just like her father.
As he leaned his bicycle against the wall and retrieved the ham, Tony realized how hypocritical his sentiments were when he ate meat every day without much thought.
A feeling of guilt swept over him as he entered the house through the side door and announced to his mother that he was back.
"Good! If I didn't know any better, I'd have thought you were a robber!" Maria shouted back impatiently, her words drawing a smile from him despite how paranoid she tended to get.
He glanced at the laundry machine that Maria had bought last December, then made his way past the bathroom and through another door to arrive in the kitchen.
Maria was racing against the clock to finish cooking a minestrone before Vincenzo's return, and upon noticing how stressed she looked, Tony offered to help as he placed the ham in the fridge.
The forty-two-year-old turned to glare at him while stirring the soup vigorously.
"What are you, an idiot? Asking if I need help, that's your sister's job..."
Tony felt slightly disheartened upon hearing such words but persisted in showing how loyal a son he was.
"Yes, but she's on a date with Renato tonight..."
"You think I don't know? Go upstairs and finish your homework. The kitchen is no place for you..."
Tony said nothing in reply and simply nodded in understanding. He slowly turned around to head up to his room but stopped in his tracks when Maria remembered what she'd sent him out for after school.
"You bought the ham, didn't you?"
"Yes, Mom. I did."
"Where is it, then?"
"I put it in the fridge. You must not have noticed."
"Is that so?"
Maria shifted her focus back to the large pot on the stove.
"Leave the change on the table. I'll get it when dinner is ready."
Tony did as requested, and he was able to walk upstairs without interruption. He crossed the hall to enter his modestly furnished bedroom, where he opened up his satchel and poured the contents out on his wooden desk.
He had six subjects worth of homework to complete, and it seemed like he was going to be staying up late again.
Tony opened his eyes and glanced from left to right as soon as Vincenzo finished saying grace. His father was stern and no-nonsense as always, while his mother looked charming with her mascara and a fresh coat of lipstick.
Such an observation prompted him to wonder what their first date must have been like and when they had gotten married. Sophia had been born in early 1943, so their wedding must have been in either 1941 or 1942.
Neither of them liked to speak much about the war, and although he could understand it, his curiosity was still piqued by the odd sliver of information. He knew that another child had come into the world about a year after Sophia, but said sibling's gender and cause of death were things that remained a mystery to this day.
Thinking about it made his otherwise ordinary parents seem a little sinister. It was with a sense of paranoia that he carefully sipped his spoonful of soup and eyed them vigilantly.
"Tony, what's wrong? Why are you giving me that look?"
Maria's concerned tone prompted him to focus solely on her. He immediately felt ashamed of himself for displaying hostile body language.
"It's nothing. I'm anxious, that's all."
"Anxious? Why are you anxious?" Maria asked, raising her voice and attracting Vincenzo's attention.
"I have a ton of homework to do tonight."
Maria furrowed her brows and gave Vincenzo a look that indicated he should mind his own business, before directing her attention back to Tony.
"Have some more ham," She said firmly while using her fork to pile the meat on his plate. "You need energy."
Experience had taught Tony that one couldn't refuse food from their parents, so he meekly thanked Maria and pretended to enjoy his meal. He ended up being the first to finish as usual, and Maria stating that she was happy to take care of the dishes allowed him to leave the table free of guilt.
He turned on the transistor radio in his room a few minutes later to hopefully focus better while doing his homework. The sound of crackling static prompted him to adjust the frequency until he had found his favorite station.
He recognized the song playing as Keep Searchin' by Del Shannon, which he had heard in a store while shopping with Sophia several weeks earlier. Although he wished to imagine fanciful scenarios in his head, Tony knew that he had to concentrate on what was important, so he picked up his pencil to begin doing calculations that would help him solve his math problems.
Math had never been his strong suit, but he chose to be optimistic by reminding himself that only a year and a half remained until graduation. What he'd do afterward was still a mystery, but he liked to think that the answer would somehow become apparent between now and then.
All he could do in the meantime was just deal with things as they came and hope for the best.