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Bread and Olives – Joan Leotta

Until age six, every Saturday I went to the Cuda Company, my grandfather’s business, in nearby Braddock with my mother. Upon arrival at the warehouse, Mom began work on the adding machine and dispatched me to walk one block to the Italian bakery where I exchanged a one-dollar bill for a warm loaf of bread in a white paper bag.


After giving the bread to my mother, I worked on my coloring books until the siren call of brine-filled olive barrels pulled me out of my mother’s office and into the small sliver of retail space between cases and counters.


My pattern was unchanging—a short walk past the barrels, quietly mouthing the names of the olives as I went, bringing their names to my lips from long experience: nero piccolo, nero normale, nero gigante, nero siciliano (dry, wrinkled, no brine), verde piccolo, verde normale, verde gigante. These green giants were my favorite.


When I was sure my mother was on the phone or occupied by her adding machine and my aunt was up front was talking with a customer, I would stop by the green giants. Then I pushed back the lid and scooped up as many as the pierced ladle held. With my left hand, I grabbed as many as I could. Leftover olives splashed back into the barrel. I replaced the ladle and closed the lid.


Quickly, still furtive, sure my aunt or mother would scold me for eating olives so early in the morning, I hid in a tiny nook behind the cases of De Cecco pasta bounded by cases of 6-in-1 canned tomatoes. It was my favorite spot—out of sight of retail customers, my mother’s glass-windowed back office, and my aunt.


One by one, I dropped each olive into my mouth. Each was so big it barely fit in that space where my tongue could enjoy that briny saltiness and my teeth could begin to strip the firm yet delicate skin from the pit. When I had chewed the flesh and sucked the juice from the pit, I spat out the used olive, hid the pit in my sweater pocket to throw away later, and repeated the process of attempting to satiate my unending capacity for olives.


One morning, after a bit, I heard my mother’s footsteps down the wooden planks. Mom walked right up to my hiding place, two pieces of that crusty bread in one hand and a few black and green giants in a small bowl. At least two of each for her and two of each for me. Somehow, she knew just where to find me and knew I was eating olives. 


She sat down beside me, and we alternated—a bite of olive, a bite of bread. We talked about the olives, about my week at school.


Finally, I asked her, “How did you find me?”


“Easy,” my mother laughed. “This is where I used to hide to eat olives when your grandfather brought me with him to the store.”

Previously published by Potato Soup and Sasee.

Joan Leotta plays with words on page and stage. Her poems, essays, and articles have been published or are forthcoming in Visual Verse, Verse Virtual, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, Pine Song, Potato Soup, Eastern Iowa Review, Mystery Tribune, and others. She’s been a Tupelo 30/30 writer and Gilbert Chappell Fellow. Her short stories are in Mystery Tribune and other journals. She performs personal and folk tales featuring food, family, and strong women.

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