MY FAMILY WAS IN TRANSIT IN WASHINGTON DC IN NOVEMBER, 1963 — HAVING LEFT ROME, ON OUR WAY TO BOGOTÁ — WHEN PRESIDENT KENNEDY WAS SHOT. THAT SATURDAY I HAD LOOKED FORWARD TO WATCHING AMERICAN TV, BUT ALL REGULAR PROGRAMMING WAS REPLACED BY COVERAGE OF THE ASSASSINATION, SO WHAT I GOT WAS MY FIRST LOOK AT AMERICAN SUBURBAN LIFE.
Finally, Mrs. Manger asked Camille’s brother, Marc, almost a grown-up at 13, to take us kids out into the Mangers’ back yard to play. Susie followed Marc, Camille, and her older sister Michelle out the sliding glass door and onto a cement patio. Marc held the door for me. I looked toward Mom for approval but got only her back. I stepped outside, and Marc slid the heavy glass door shut with a thunk.
I stood at the edge of the patio kicking at the dry leaves that littered the wilted lawn. A split-log fence like in the Laura and Mary books was all that separated the Mangers’ yard from those of their neighbors. The lawns spread wide and long in either direction, framed by cement slabs and ribbons of woods. It was like a children’s territory without parents or maids or gardeners. I glanced back at the house. Mom stood at the kitchen window, her head turned toward the television.
Finally, Marc said, “Let’s go to the hill.”
“Yeah!” Michelle and Camille said.
“Where’s that?” I said, looking toward the kitchen window. Mom was gone.
“Right down the street,” Marc said, and disappeared beyond the edge of the house. Camille followed, and Michelle took Susie’s hand and led her away.
“Hey!” Marc’s popped head back out. “Come on!”
Well, he was almost a grown-up.
I followed him down the Mangers’ driveway and onto the dusty street to where there weren’t any houses yet. Orange digging machines sat abandoned like Uncle Eugene’s collection of old cars on the farm. A sandy hill of debris rose between them like new archeology. Michelle and Camille had clambered to the top of the pile, Susie between them. They lifted up her arms.
“Queen of the hill!” Marc called up.
“First one with three bottles is the King,” Michelle said, dropping Susie’s wrist. Michelle began walking slowly around the incline, head down. Camille too. Susie too.
“This used to be a dump,” Marc said. “So there’s a lot of good stuff.”
“Like Monte Catini,” I said. The grass-covered hill of discarded Roman pottery had been a favorite Sunday afternoon destination for our two families, where we’d have a picnic lunch and then work it off with an hour of digging and discovery. Our three prized pieces of 2,000 year-old pottery were in the moving crates on their way to Colombia.
“Oh, right,” Marc said, looking at me a little funny. “Right. Only now it’s empty Coke bottles that are worth a nickel.”
The idea of new treasures worth American money was exciting. I followed Marc up the hill.