La Cucina Povera

In the chapter of my novel, The Tedescos, titled “Soul Food,” the family attends church on Mother’s Day with their good friends, The Robertses. After the service, the Tedesco Clan is invited to attend a meal in the church fellowship hall. The men and boys prepared the meal they will serve to the mothers to honor them. Much of the food the Tedescos encounter is familiar, but one dish in particular initiates a conversation between Joe Jr. and Tabitha and Tonya Roberts and results in the explanation of ‘la cucina povera.’

The Italian phrase literally means the poor kitchen, and it is a style of cooking familiar among the lower classes (think peasants) of a particular society. Often, peasants had to cook with whatever they had on hand whether it came from the kitchen or the farm. The ‘poor kitchen’ can be found in every society. The great thing about this concept is that some really delicious recipes emerged from the simple, high-quality ingredients that were available.

Attempting to cook in the style of ‘la cucina povera’ may earn you a laugh especially from an older person who lived through the war in Italy. They may refuse to acknowledge ‘the poor kitchen’ style and argue that it was simply the preparation of the food they had on hand. Americans, with all their varied food choices and easy access to said food, have a tendency to romanticize a style of cooking that was a part of basic survival. Still, I can think of several recipes in which my family indulges that found their way into my writing because of my love to feed people whether real or imagined. Many cookbooks featuring this style of food have been published, and I highly recommend you try one or two meals from them if you’ve never encountered peasant cooking.

Beans and cornbread, cabbage and noodles, and soup made from some combination of vegetables are the types of peasant food I grew up with. I never knew that what we ate was considered to be from ‘the poor kitchen’ because the adults who prepared it for me cooked with love and made everything taste wonderful. Delicious, simple food is usually the tastiest, and in the end, that’s really what it’s all about. What does your family enjoy from ‘la cucina povera?’

Neighbors

It starts with a funeral.  Why does it take great tragedy to bring people together, Cathy Higgins wonders as she stands in line with her husband, Jake, waiting to hug Mr. Robertson’s son, Dan.  The line of mourners trails all the way from the casket, around the sanctuary, and out the door of the church.  Cathy pulls at the front of her blouse trying to puff some air into the collar sticking to her neck.  She wishes they could inch a few steps forward into the shade of the roof overhang.

A week ago, Jake asked Cathy if she’d seen Mr. Robertson mowing his yard or pottering around the outbuildings on his property.  She hadn’t, and as luck would have it, when Jake left for work that evening, he saw Dan mowing with his father’s tractor.  He pulled into the driveway, shouted and waved to get Dan’s attention.

“Hey, we haven’t seen your dad around for a couple of weeks, and we’re wondering if he’s okay.”

Dan shook his head; his crooked smile told the story.  Jake called Cathy on his cell as he drove on to work to report back the sad news.  For some reason, Cathy called her family to tell them, not that any of them really knew Mr. Robertson beyond the fact that he was the neighbor.

Air conditioning blasts from the open double doors of the church.  Cathy can feel it now that she and Jake are within range of the building.  They really should shut the doors in between people, she thinks.  It would stay cooler inside and not waste electricity and money.  Her laughter escapes as breath expelled from her nose at the weird thought.  She’s always thinking odd stuff like this; probably the result of growing up and hearing such admonitions regarding the closing of doors when the air is on and refrigerators when they are running.

Jake waves to someone ahead of them in the line.  He taps Cathy on the shoulder and gently takes her by the arm.  She scowls for a moment when she understands they are jumping line to join whomever Jake spied.  It is Fran Mencer whose backyard is perpendicular to the Higgins’s.  Her home faces the side street as does Mr. Robertson’s who lived next door to Jake and Cathy.

“Hi,” Fran says in that long drawn out way that conveys I’m so glad to see you, but I hate that it’s under these circumstances.  The light in her eyes is at odds with the grim smile on her face.

She and Cathy hug, and the line jumping is forgotten.  At least by Cathy who is relieved to run into someone she knows.  She went to school with Dan Robertson, but they traveled in different circles, and neither she nor Jake ever met his sister and brother.  The Higginses don’t even know if there are spouses to be consoled.

“Can you believe this?” Fran says.

“Was he sick?” Cathy asks.  “We hadn’t seen him out in the yard for a couple weeks, so we thought maybe he’d gone on vacation.”

Fran shook her head.

“He’d been in the hospital for a while.  Declined rapidly.  His old heart finally gave out.”

“Oh, boy.  I wish I’d known.”

“I tried to call you a couple of times, but your line was disconnected.”

Cathy’s eyebrows knit for a moment, and then she says, “Oh, we let our landline go several months ago.”

A thought flickers through Cathy’s head:  the yards aren’t so big that one couldn’t walk to a neighbor’s house with important news.  In the next second, her eyes widen and a knife stabs her heart.

“When I lost Buddy this past spring right after Pop passed, I pretty much went to bed for the summer.”

Oh dear Lord…how did we not know that Buddy and Pop died this spring, Cathy thinks.  Her husband and father in the same yearPlay it off or admit we didn’t know?

“Oh, Fran, I’m so sorry,” Cathy says, trying to cover all her bases.

How many times had she meant to walk across the yards and visit Fran?  Tea and a chat was always the invitation.  Cathy cannot discern what Jake is feeling beneath the shock on his face, but her stomach is heavy with the lead of guilt.

After talking with Dan Robertson, reminiscing about his dad, hearing how things are not going well in the absence of a will, and offering final condolences and goodbyes, Jake and Cathy leave hand in hand.  They look at the blacktop sprinkled with curled leaves dried from end-of-summer heat, falling before the autumn frosts have even arrived.  Neither speaks on the short trip home.

They change out of their dress clothes and wander outside to sit in lawn chairs, instinctively looking toward Mr. Robertson’s home.  Funny that we never called him by his first name, Cathy thinks.  Maybe because he was the oldest in our little neighborhood.  She and Jake always thought of themselves, Fran and Buddy, and Mr. Robertson as the neighborhood.

Their neighborhood:  not a sidewalk in sight, no fences between the yards, homes built on old farmland.  Deer still migrate through the yards as they hopscotch from cornfield to cornfield, foxes sneak through on their dainty paws, and hawks wheel in the endless skies above.  Fancy allotments with two and three thousand-square foot homes are popping up peripherally.

The Matulevich family lives across the street from Cathy and Jake.  Not a lot of contact past the occasional friendly wave, but Mr. Matulevich’s brother lives three doors down on the same side as the Higginses, and he is quite friendly.  He used to till the garden for Cathy every summer with his Bobcat until she gave up gardening for watercolor painting.

Across from Mr. Robertson are Clarice and Al Robertson, no relation, in the triplexes lining the side street.  They were there long before the Higginses built, permanent renters, and Cathy usually runs into one or both of them at garage sales every summer.

But so many other families come and go from these homes that Cathy and Jake gave up trying to learn who they were.  Still, unfamiliarity doesn’t prevent waves, smiles, and pulling cars out of snowdrifts when necessary.  That’s just how it is in this part of town that is somewhere between the suburbs and rural living.

img_20161030_173746250_hdrA month or more passes with Jake and Cathy falling back into the routine of work and lawn care for him and tending the house inside and out for her.  Always so much to do and never enough time to do it.  And then Jake comes in the house one day after putting his tractor away for the season.

“Fran is out back push mowing the yard.”

Cathy lays down the laundry she is folding and follows her husband outside.  They walk across the length of their backyard and two-thirds of Fran’s before finally reaching her.  These plots really are quite spacious, Cathy thinks.

“What are you doing?” Jake asks with laughter and gentle reprimand in his voice.

“I know, but I took some pain pills before I started and thought I’d work in patches,” Fran laughs in reply.

Jake offers to cut the yard however many times are needed until the November rains come.  The trio chats a bit; they end up inside Fran’s house with coffee, and they chat some more.

This time, Cathy thinks, we will be good neighbors.

Too Tired to Rest

too-tired-to-restThe reel of unseen dreams flickers her eyelids as the man who has slipped into her room watches. A crescent smile glides across his face like a canoe trailed by ripples of worry. Deep within her consciousness, she senses his presence, and the blue eyes marred by clouds of age slowly open.

“Hello, Grandma.”

One, two, three seconds pass as recognition surfaces. Her face, soft as worn flannel, bunches around her eyes and mouth.

“Hello, Freddy.”

Her equally soft hand pats his sandpaper chin.

“I know I haven’t been to visit you as often as I should, but…”

“No apologies, sweet boy. You’re here now.”

“I came to spend Shabbat with you, Gram.”

The old soul leans forward in her bed, peers out the window.

“Seems a little early yet,” she says.

“Well, Mom says you’re asleep by seven, and the summer sun sets so late.”

“Cheeky devil,” she chuckles, again patting his face. “Go ahead and light the candles. Fetch my shawl from the drawer—no, that one, Freddy, the next one down—and I’ll say the blessing.”

Fred complies with her request, draping dark blue silk around her head and shoulders. Daylight blasts hot and bright through the windows of her room in the nursing home; her white crowned head swathed in navy gives the appearance of the moon in the night sky. He lights two candles in cut glass holders, and the sun withdraws its spears behind linty clouds.

Elsa Cohen breaths as deeply as her ravaged lungs will allow; she wheezes like a broken bellows, drawing withered hands above the dancing flames, the ancient prayer she recites flowing like new wine. When she finishes, she looks up into her grandson’s drum-tight face.

“Why so troubled, Freddy?”

“I don’t know, Gram. I’ve been feeling kind of…melancholy lately?”

“Are you asking me?”

“Well, no.”

Elsa pushes the shawl off her head, smooths the fabric around her shoulders.

“It’s just that, I haven’t been keeping Shabbat lately either, Gram.”

“I see.”

“Do you?”

“No, that’s just what people say when they’re giving you time to collect your thoughts and tell what’s on your mind. Spill it, Freddy.”

“Oh…uh, well, I haven’t been keeping Shabbat because…because it’s really hard to do in today’s society, you know? I mean, living in America and all, well, people don’t stop, like, working and stuff at sundown on Friday until sundown Saturday.”

“Oh gosh, people don’t even stop on Sunday anymore either.”

“That’s true.”

“I remember when you were little that gas stations and stores were closed on Sunday, and all the good people went to church, and everyone rested.”

“We live in a ‘round the clock kind of world these days, Gram.”

“That we do. How’s that working for you, Freddy?”

“What do you mean?”

“When you visited three months ago—”

“Ouch.”

Elsa waves him to silence.

“You said you and Margaret were so exhausted with long hours at work, running errands, shuttling the kids from here to there.”

“Well, I don’t see how taking a whole day off to do nothing is going to help any of that, Gram. Wouldn’t that just put us more behind?”

“Do more on the other six days. Totally run yourself into the ground. Or you could save up all your Shabbats until retirement and lay around doing nothing for ten years.”

“Gram, be serious.”

The old woman chuckles until she coughs. Fred leans her forward and delivers firm pats to her back. Her nightgown is a floral landscape across the sharp ridges of her shoulders. Once settled against her pillows, she continues.

“You have to decide for yourself, Freddy, why you do or don’t do these things.”

“Wouldn’t it be easier if you just told me what to do?”

“What fun would there be in that? Besides, there’s no guarantee you’d do it just because I say so.”

“It was so much easier when Grandpa was alive. We all met for dinner at your house and followed his lead.”

“Fredrick—Shabbat hasn’t gone by the wayside just because your grandfather died. Everything that is good about it is still with us. My goodness, dear boy, for one so educated, you sure are stupid.”

Fred can’t keep from laughing at his little grandmother’s spoon-blunt words cutting him sharply.

“Okay, Gram, I get it.”

“Are you sure? Because I could spell it out for you. Use pictures and small words.”

He kisses her forehead like she is his child.

“I love you, Gram.”

“I know, Freddy. Now take that box of candy over there your mother sent me—she knows I can’t chew caramel and nuts anymore—and go home to your family. Rest, my boy.”

Elsa snuggles into the blankets her grandson pulls up over her chin. Her eyes flicker as the dream scenes resume, and she is asleep before he crosses the room to leave.

Being Strong for Melinda

trial-or-tribulationSharon and Robert have spent many dark and lonely hours, separated from each other, asking for the things they believed were right and good. Too many times they listened to doctors whose explanations left them staring and openmouthed, their minds weighted down with things they struggled to comprehend.

Endless dashes to the hospital turned into a permanent stay for their only child. She looks like a little caterpillar cocooned in blankets, bandages, and wires from a host of monitors. Robert calls her his baby bug waiting to emerge with new wings.

Prayer requests make the round on social media. Praise reports are given when their daughter rallies. Many drop off when her condition lags. The weak and faithless have no explanation for this decline. They cannot explain why they couldn’t get Melinda healed, make excuses for God as if He needed them. All of it wears on Sharon and Robert until they pray for release for their beloved child because that must be what God wants for her, right?

With heavy hearts, tears amassing in their eyes, they claim they are willing to accept this for their baby girl. Each buries a duplicitous heart beneath stoic faces and solemn nods of the head. They just want to quit, for this to be over. They never speak of it anymore. In fact, they’ve stopped talking to each other at all. The constant company of the Women’s Bible Study Group and Men’s Fellowship doesn’t allow for much private conversation between them. Such good people, these men and women, who stay with Sharon and Robert 24/7, praying audibly non-stop.

Sharon slips away to the ladies’ room. She does not turn on the light, locks the door. The sound of breathing in the dark room scares her for a second, but whatever harm might be done to her by the owner of the breathing is preferable to what is going on with Melinda. Especially if it ends her.

“Sharon?”

She jumps and laughs wildly.

“Robert? What on earth are you doing in the ladies’ room?”

“It’s the only place the guys from church wouldn’t think to look for me.”

More deranged laughter, shared, from the emotionally and physically drained parents. Robert sighs but does not reach for his wife. Neither move to turn on the light.

“I’m so tired, Shar.”

“You, too?”

Robert’s voice dips and rises uncontrollably.

“I just want this…I just want…”

“I know, dear. Me, too.”

Their hands meet in the darkness, instinct guiding their palms and fingers into place. But they do not draw closer to each other.

“I want to quit, Shar. No—I have to quit. I’m done. I’m finished, and I got nothing left.” He pauses to draw a deep breath. “I was in here working up the nerve to tell you.”

“Rob, that’s why I came in here.”

“Why didn’t you say something?”

“When, Robert? Between entertaining and performing for the people from church—God knows I love them, but I really just need them to go home—to holding in my emotions every time the doctors tell us Melinda isn’t progressing as they’d hoped? You won’t even meet my eyes anymore.”

“I know. I’m sorry. But I was afraid if I looked at you, you’d see how scared I am—”

“—I’m scared, too—”

“—but I don’t have any answers for you, Shar. You know, I’m supposed to be the strong one and all that.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, honey. I never expected solutions to this. Not from you, anyhow.”

“Well, that’s a relief.”

“Is it? Because we’re off the hook, but I suspect we wanted our prayers answered in a specific way we’re too afraid to admit.”

“Can I turn on the light?”

Robert flips the switch before she consents setting off a round of watery-eyed blinking.

“Well, that’s better,” he jokes.

They step closer and melt into an embrace. Sharon cries against his shoulder as he runs his hand over her hair.

“I’m not really okay with losing Melinda,” his wife says.

“I know.”

“I feel so guilty for saying that. Like I’m less of a…”

“I understand, Shar. Really, I do.”

“So, now what?”

“Now we quit pretending. We’ve got to.”

“Agreed.”

“And if Melinda…if she…”

“Dies.”

“Yes, if…then we’ll figure it out together. Just the two of us.”

“But it doesn’t have to be just you and me, Rob.”

“I know. I meant all the church crowd.”

“They mean well—and quite a few have been helpful. Sincere.”

“That’s true. But when this is over, whatever over may be, it’s just you and me, and you and God, and me and God to work through this.”

It’s Sharon’s turn to sigh.

“Is this where we were supposed to be all along, Rob?”

“You mean if we hadn’t let all the hoopla get in our way?”

“Yes,” she chuckles. “Just trusting. Shutting up and trusting that God’s got this under control.”

“That’s a hard and scary place to be.”

Sharon nods and leans her forehead against Robert’s.

“I can’t promise I won’t be sad,” he whispers.

“You wouldn’t be human if you weren’t. Just don’t be afraid.”

“I’ll try, Shar. For you.”

“No, babe. For you.”

All the prayers they cannot speak radiate between them. A knock on the restroom door precedes, “Sharon—come quick. The doctors have been looking all over for you. Sharon?”

Melinda’s parents, raw and exposed, striped down to the soul, brace each other with hands to the shoulders.

“I don’t know where they are,” says the muffled voice on the other side of the door.

“Well we have to find them now. They need to know Melinda has opened her eyes and asked for them,” a male voice joins in.

Gasps of shock from the people on the outside are lost in bursts of laughter and tears of relief from Robert and Sharon within.

Now You See Me

Thank you to my dear friend, Irfan Nabi, for supplying the amazing photo inspiration for the flash fiction below.  The moment I saw his picture, a story began to form in my head.  In this case, it’s a love story told in reverse that circles back on itself.  I hope you enjoy it.

Now You See Me

Monsoon RainsWithout looking at him, she watched him walk away. A pause in the rain provided the perfect opportunity to see his reflection slip out of her life. To watch him walk away from all they had been together. Away from her.

His words lingered in her ears. The reverberation of a church bell signaling doom. So beautiful, so mournful. She goaded him to say more just to keep him in her presence if only for a moment longer. She begged him to stop shouting, her own admissions used against her. He never would have said a word, but she could not let it go.

She confessed her insecurities to him. Her age, his youth. Her wisdom, his beauty. How could they be compatible? He never mentioned it to her. Never once broached the subject she barely kept suppressed beneath a façade soothed by external remedies. Lotion, powder, blush. Her known deception extended to the roots of her colored hair.

Love came easily to them. To him. He never saw the relaxed state of her body, the body given to her after three children and years of an unhappy marriage. She could not relax inside, and that, too, he pretended not to notice.

They dined at her apartment. He cooked for her delicacies she had only dreamt of, fed her with his hands. Nothing measured, everything given in excess. Spices and friendship blended perfectly to satisfy all hunger and thirst for life. Soulmates.

Another invitation to coffee. He called her on her cell; she wondered how he obtained her number. They talked for hours like close confidants before she even said yes. Where to meet? He knew just the place. Knew she would love it. And she did.

A chance meeting outside the building where he worked. He insisted she join him and his friend for lunch. She declined with a head tilt and a smile, and instantly missed him for some strange reason. When he caught up to her, she believed his explanation about the friend excusing himself.

Introduced by a mutual friend at a party celebrating someone’s birthday, they found themselves with glasses of champagne in hand. Standing about, chatting. Nervous laughter preceded the invitation to leave, to seek quiet and coffee. It was just coffee, but she enjoyed herself more than she had in years. His lively conversation cheered her in this country where she did not live.

She stayed with a friend already working in the country. Together they located a suitable apartment while she decided what she wanted to do with her life. Right then, all she wanted to do was breathe. Days turned into weeks turned into months.

Divorce finally prompted her to flee, to seek the freedom she craved and the happiness she deserved. She left behind grown children with the assurance to return and the promise of souvenirs. Okay, maybe grown but not mature. All three saw her off at the airport with hugs and kisses but not tears because they knew she would return to them. What could an exotic country hold for her, provide her with, when they were her very existence?

– – – – –

He turned to look at her one last time, imploring eyes willed her to lift her head. But his reflection had already slipped beyond the edge of the puddle, and she did not see.

Arrogance, Confidence, Faith

Monk 1Wade walked past the monk twice from about forty feet away. He didn’t make eye contact with the man but could tell from his stiff posture that he wished to be left alone. The park seemed like a curious place to encounter a monk until Wade thought that he probably enjoyed normal activities like regular people. What a stupid thought, he chastised himself. Normal, regular. He’s just a guy in a robe. Sure Wade wouldn’t run into him at the club, but—enough. Just go talk to the guy.

But first, Wade stood in the shade of a large oak tree and ground an old acorn cap into the grass with the heel of his boot. Casual, with hands in his pockets, he affected the pretense of seeing the monk for the first time. His performance met with tight lips and long sighs. Perhaps that’s how these religious types acted. Damn it, Wade, there you go again. Stereotyping when you really need this guy’s help.

Screw it. Wade pushed off from the oak, scuffing the sleeve of his black leather jacket. He walked toward the monk with shoulders back, head held high. When he remembered this wasn’t some dude hitting on his girlfriend, his balled fists returned to his pockets, posture relaxed, eyes searched the ground for acceptance or rejection.

“Can I sit down?”

The monk closed his magazine and rolled it in a tube. Perhaps he’d smack Wade across the nose like a bad dog.

“I don’t hear confessions.”

“Oh, that’s cool, because what I need is advice.”

Wade plopped onto the bench, squeezing the monk over, turning to observe in profile the man’s Santa beard and bald pate. A lanyard with keys and a YMCA keycard jangled as the monk repositioned on the seat. These items, together with the glossy magazine and flip flops, made Wade wonder if this guy had been a monk long enough to offer solid advice. He was old, but how much cooler it would have been if the monk had stopped at this point during his own spiritual walk, toes dusty from the journey, meditating over a prayer book. Wade recognized an ad for Chevy trucks on the tube of magazine pages.

The monk sighed again and crossed his legs, revealing calves covered in lamb’s wool. Wade grimaced but diverted his stare by reading the graffiti carved into the tree trunk behind them. His fingers grazed over Sarah and Andrew’s eternal pledge of love. His cheeks reddened as he traced a swear word. He would have preferred the monk start the conversation with bless you my child but settled for hands folded as if in prayer.

“Okay, so last week my friend, Duke, came to me, and he’s all excited and talking about this great deal he wants to share with me.”

Wade paused, testing the monk’s interest level by trying to catch his eye. The older man offered a nod and twiddled his thumbs much to Wade’s annoyance.

“Anyhow, it’s all about this opportunity to buy in to this new club they’re building downtown. You know this town is, like, primed for new business,” —the monk shrugged and raised his eyebrows— “and I have my share and then some already saved.”

The buzz of a cicada was the only sound until the monk understood it was his turn to speak.

“Yes, well, what’s your question?”

“Should I spend the money? Invest in this place?”

So it was to be a game of twenty questions. The monk seriously considered pointing the young man with a shorn head and tattoos creeping up his neck in the direction of the Catholic Church two blocks south. Surely the priest would be better suited to the task at hand. Instead he gathered his robe about him and crossed his arms, shifting his weight onto his left thigh to gain space between himself and the young man.

“Is this what you saved for?”

“Nah, the money was supposed to be for a down payment on a house. But I have almost double what I need and could easily save it again. Faster because this club’s going to make money.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Well, Duke’s cousin has experience with this sort of thing in New York. He knows all about running and promoting these kinds of places.”

“And yet he’s here.”

“True. I never thought of that. But I’ve seen the plans for this place, and it’s going to be awesome.”

“Sounds as if you’ve already made up your mind.”

The monk titled his head, blinked slowly, hoping to signal the end of the conversation.

“That’s it? You don’t, like, have any sage advice for me or something?”

The monk’s eyes widened at Wade’s use of the word sage. That’s right, old man, I’m not illiterate. Wade bent to pick up a twig, used it to pry mud from his treads. It was time to really impress this guy.

“I even prayed about it because I’m undecided, you know, and even though I didn’t promise or nothing, my girlfriend knows that money was supposed to be for a house.”

“You prayed?”

“Yes.”

“To whom?”

“Like, God, you know? And then here you sit, so I figured you’re part of my answer or something. Of course, you weren’t the first person I consulted. That was my accountant. God, my accountant, then you.”

The young man settled back on the bench with his arms stretched along the back. He probably expected the monk to turn toward him for the rest of the conversation. If only a throbbing headache hadn’t crept up the back of the monk’s neck. The heels of both hands ground into the monk’s eyes, blotting out the sun and shooting sparks through the blackness. There was absolutely nothing of interest in this whole laughable matter.

“Why on earth did you consult your accountant?”

“Because I’m totally sure this place is going to make money, and I needed to know how to handle it all. Investments and stuff.”

“If you’re sure, why are we having this conversation?”

“Well, Padre,” —the monk didn’t bother to correct him— “that may be the true heart of my dilemma.”

The monk raised his hands, palms up.

“Am I being arrogant by saying this club is going to fly, or is it just confidence that I can make it work, because I’m not afraid of a little hard work?”

“Is there a third option?”

“Oh—yeah.”

“Oh…really?”

“I can tell you’re skeptical, Father Brown,” —the punk laughed at his own joke— “but I don’t want to do anything against, you know, the Big Guy in the Sky.”

Wade tossed a glance upward, nodded knowingly.

“What I’m saying is I’d like to think I’m exercising a little faith about this situation.”

“Faith? Did God tell you you’re going to be successful?”

“Well, not directly. That’s why I’m talking to you.”

“I can assure you He didn’t tell me anything about it.”

The inside of Wade’s cheek received a serious gnawing as he absentmindedly worked his finger at the edge of his nostril.

“I see.”

Perhaps this is over, thought the monk. Tension tightened the young man’s body when he leaned his elbows on his knees, ran his hand hard over his face. The monk clutched his robe and placed both feet on the ground.

“Does it surprise you to know I’ve committed my plans, like, to God, Padre?”

The monk’s stomach knotted at the loosely quoted scripture.

“Yes, well, my son,” —the endearment did not roll off his tongue easily— “it is a club. There will be drinking, and people dancing, and smoking—well, not smoking inside anymore—but still, the women will no doubt be dressed very scantily. Besides, you did earmark this money for a house. Now that’s a real investment even in this lousy economy.”

“So what you’re saying is that my prayers for success can’t be answered? That I’m some kind of arrogant ass to think I might have a shot at this?”

“I’m just, just cautioning against pride, and, well, I’m not sure a club is God’s will for you.”

“But you don’t really know what His will for me is, do you?”

“Well, no. I’m sorry, but—I just don’t know who you think I am. What do you want from me?”

“Nothing, I guess. It was a long shot, you know, even talking to you.”

Wade stood and brushed off the front of his jeans as if crumbs had fallen on his lap. He listened to the drone of a single, persistent cicada calling to someone and receiving no answer. Sunlight beyond the canopy of branches beckoned, and he stepped into the golden warmth.  Without looking at the monk, he said, “Thanks anyhow, man. I know it was, like, a lot to put on you, you not knowing me and stuff. It sounded like a good opportunity, is all. But now I’m not so sure.”

With shoulders rounded, Wade walked away, his arms swaying like abandoned swings.  He headed for the parking lot before veering his course and setting off down the road.

~~~~~

Thank you to HBSmithPhotography for the unusual picture.

 

Coffee

CoffeeLeonard Summerscale sat like a mannequin in the center of a roomful of chattering diners. Knives and forks slaked against plates, ice swam brightly in glasses of water. Waitresses called orders to the cook before they were halfway back to the kitchen. Above the din of lunchtime in the city, the bell on the door chimed. Only then did Leonard’s face reanimate, as the scarecrow with red hair threw his arm up and navigated his way to where Leonard sat.

“Thank you for agreeing to meet with me, Reverend.”

“No problem, Len, none at all. Your message sounded so urgent. What can I do for you?”

“Please, have a seat,” Leonard said, indicating the chair opposite him at the two-seat diner table.

Reverend Bast slid into the grease-slicked, padded chair. The red vinyl cushion released a squeak and a puff from a tear near the edge. Leonard busied himself flagging down one of the waitresses performing an awkward ballet through the narrow aisles; a balancing act of three plates occupied the length of each arm.

“The service is usually much better, much better.”

“Don’t fret, Len. It is lunchtime.”

“Leonard, please.”

“Of course, I’m sorry.”

The harried waitress in a rumpled, powder blue uniform finally appeared at the table. She placed a menu in front of each man, shoved her sagging ponytail off her shoulder, and wiped the back of her hand across her nose.

“What’ll you have, Reverend? There’s a ten percent discount for men of the cloth.”

She jabbed her pencil in the direction of his collar.

“Well, lucky you,” Leonard said. “That should save you a few pennies.”

The Reverend’s eyes scanned the a la carte section of the menu as he mentally replayed Leonard’s voicemail. He was sure invite you to breakfast had proceeded his congregant’s request to talk.

“I’ll have the poached egg on rye toast, black coffee, please.”

As the waitress scribbled on her pad, Leonard waited with fingers steepled. He paused long enough to draw the young woman’s attention, making eye contact with her, before he spoke slowly, deliberately.

“I’ll have two eggs fried hard, and I do mean hard, with the yolks broken, brown, crispy edges, the whole nine yards. Please encourage the cook to properly season the eggs; I should be able to see the pepper flakes but not the salt. Shredded hash browns, toasted thoroughly but not swimming in grease. The ham steak? Is it sugar cured or country style? Oh, no matter–you probably don’t even know what I’m talking about. Wheat toast, hold the butter, cut from corner to corner. Is there mixed fruit jelly on the table? Very good. And decaf coffee. Be sure it’s a fresh pot. I know how long the decaf sits around in a place like this. Also, please bring real cream or at least milk. I despise those little plastic containers of oily, faux cream.”

The waitress shifted her weight from one foot to another. She chewed the inside of her cheek before smiling and saying, “You got it.”

The Reverend straightened jelly packets in the swiveling caddy as Leonard tsked at the waitress’s retreating back. He turned a conspiratorial look upon the Reverend and said, “Well, let’s see how much of that she gets correct.”

“I thought you’d been here before,” the Reverend asked.

“Oh, only a few times with co-workers. They chose to dine here. It’s not the sort of venue I’d normally patronize.”

“So, what can I do for you, Leonard?”

“Yes, the real reason we came. Now I know we haven’t been in your congregation long, and by we, I mean myself and Mrs. Summerscale–”

“–lovely woman, so very helpful in the nursery–”

“–and while we agree with the majority of your theology–”

“–oh, well–”

“–there are a few minor points I’d like to discuss on another occasion, still, I believe we made the correct choice in churches to attend.”

Leonard folded his hands across his stomach and leaned back in his chair. The Reverend remained silent for ten seconds until he understood it was his turn to speak.

“We…do enjoy your presence, and that of Mrs. Summerscale.”

“Ah, Mrs. Summerscale. What a tactful segue you’ve provided, Reverend, for it is the subject of my dear wife that brings me here today.”

Leonard gazed toward the water-stained ceiling tiles and puffed his cheeks, his customary gesture when preparing for a long discourse on a topic of interest to no one but him. His efforts were halted momentarily by the arrival of their coffee followed by several moments of fussily arranging his cup and saucer, requesting an orange coaster to indicate to passing waitresses that he preferred decaf, and polishing his spoon as if for inspection by a Marine Corps drill sergeant.

Clouds of milk lightened Leonard’s coffee to an acceptable shade of taupe, placating the man to his previous state of calm. His voice achieved a stunning decibel of self-importance as he said, “Have you ever really considered coffee, Reverend?”

“I know I’m pretty worthless in the morning before I’ve had mine.”

Leonard’s eyes rose from his cup to contemplate the patches blushing the Reverend’s freckled cheeks. His uneven smile and softened expression conveyed the verdict of I know, I know. The Reverend thought to mention that Mrs. Carrick, the church secretary, always had a fresh pot ready for him prior to Sunday service, but he let it go.

“The average American adult drinks around three, eight-ounce cups per day. That’s 382 billion cups of coffee consumed in America alone every day. I suppose that makes me below average, eh Reverend?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that, Leonard. You’ve done marvelous things since joining the Board of Elders.”

A twitch in his left eye brought Leonard’s finger to the rescue. His hand in front of his face muffled his sigh.

“I only require one cup of coffee a day, and decaf at that. So many people are dependent upon the addictive qualities of caffeine to sustain them. But for me, coffee is a cup of warm reassurance that I shall succeed at whatever I set my mind toward for the day. That is to say, I don’t require coffee, Reverend, I enjoy it.”

“Indeed. How lucky for you.”

Another pause ensued as Leonard waited patiently for the Reverend to say something, anything, of relevance to the conversation. He came to the young man’s aid with, “As an unmarried man, you couldn’t possibly know the sheer joy of having your wife responsible for providing a fresh pot of coffee every morning. Such is the pleasure that Mrs. Summerscale brings to my life.”

“It’s the simple things, like drinking coffee together, that solidify a marriage. Or so I’ve heard.”

“You miss my point, Reverend: while I enjoy the coffee, what solidifies my marriage, any marriage for that matter, is the consistency with which the ritual is conducted. Therein lays the quality of any relationship. Do you understand?”

The Reverend twisted sideways in his seat.

“And when that consistency is disrupted–well!”

The Reverend twisted in the other direction, mostly to avoid Leonard’s hands thrown up in frustration but coming across the table with the rapaciousness of an eagle’s talons.

“Play nice, fellas. You’re breakfast is here.”

The waitress who placed their food on the table was not the one who took their order. This woman, with face haloed in bad orange foundation and crusted scabs of concealer, smacked down plates of food and topped off their coffee cups with the practiced movements of a seasoned professional. Her abrupt behavior brooked no complaint as the matriarch of the herd lumbered off to refill the cups of other customers, supervising the younger waitresses as she moved, her hosiery sagging around her ankles.

Both men obediently bowed their head to pray. Leonard’s head remained in the position of supplication long after the Reverend said Amen. When he opened his eyes, he caught the Reverend with fork in hand, spearing his first bite.

“You’re a young man yet, Reverend. What are you? Twenty eight, thirty tops?”

“I’m thirty five.”

A waved hand and gravelly snort dismissed the comment.

“See–young yet. Must be that peachy complexion beneath those constellations of freckles. One might even say peach fuzz.”

Leonard barked a laugh around a mouthful of food at his joke and set himself to coughing until his face reddened and his eyes watered. The female elephant, continuing her crisscross migration through the diner, delivered three hearty thumps to Leonard’s back as she passed.

“Thank you, Madam, thank you.”

The pair resumed eating in silence. The Reverend finished his meager breakfast. He sat with a napkin draped over his crossed legs while Leonard, only half way through his meal, restarted his conversation.

“I’ve established some basic but essential points for you, Reverend, and although I’ve applied them to marriage, if you take time to review what I’ve said at your convenience, your earliest convenience, you’ll see that what I’ve instructed also applies to life.”

The Reverend, whether willingly or unwillingly he did not know, remembered nothing Leonard had said prior to his choking fit. He had, however, managed to track the progression of a toast crumb from the corner of Leonard’s lips, into his mustache, watched it disappear once into his mouth, reappear on the tip of his tongue, and miraculously land in the opposite corner where it rode up and down with the movement of Leonard’s chewing.

Leonard mistook the Reverend’s intense concentration as interest and enthusiasm.

“But it is with much hesitation that I must admit to you as…well, if not my spiritual counselor or close confidante…then as a somewhat significant figure in my life that all is not well between me and Mrs. Summerscale.”

“What seems to be the problem?” the Reverend’s mind directed his mouth to say.

The crumb had fallen to Leonard’s chin. The Reverend rooted for it to hang on.

“I can’t quite place my finger on it. Mrs. Summerscale and I have been married for thirty five years, so I’m quite attuned to my wife’s quirks. Still, this event of which I shall inform you came quite out of the blue.”

A knuckle swiped across his chin came to rest on Leonards’ greasy lips. He meant to look thoughtful but only succeeded in redepositing the crumb to the hairless divot on his upper lip. The Reverend clenched his jaw; surely an indication of real concern.

“Exactly two weeks ago, Tuesday, Mrs. Summerscale arose promptly at 5:30 AM and donned her robe as she always does. Then she went to the kitchen to prepare my breakfast. All was well. I finished my bath, shaved and dressed, and descended to join her. Mrs. Summerscale had already placed my oatmeal and cream on the table. She had even stirred in half a cup of dried currants, a pleasant surprise as they are my favorite.”

A sharp intake of breath on Leonard’s part pulled the crumb back to his bottom lip. The Reverend’s brow creased, and his troubled congregant pressed on.

“Just as I was enjoying my first bite of oatmeal, the coffee pot gurgled, indicating that it was done brewing. Peripherally, I watched Mrs. Summerscale retrieve a cup and saucer from the cupboard and prepare my coffee.”

Lips pressed together then pursed shifted the crumb to Leonard’s upper front tooth. The Reverend leaned forward and pointed.

“Now just a moment, Reverend. I haven’t finished my story.”

“Please go on.”

“Mrs. Summerscale approached the table where I sat, and she…she arranged the cup near my right hand as I prefer.”

Leonard’s voice wavered with distress at the memory. The crumb, taking on a life of its own, worked its way across several teeth, moving in an eastward direction, before popping back into the bristles at the edge of Leonard’s lip. The Reverend pressed his balled fists into his mouth.

“And that’s when I saw it.”

The Reverend nodded wildly.

“My coffee was a muddy shade of black.”

“I’m sorry?” the Reverend allowed to slip from behind his bony knuckles.

“Yes, it’s true. You heard me order my coffee today with cream, or at least milk, so you are aware of how I take it. But then so isn’t Mrs. Summerscale aware, abundantly aware, of exactly how I take my coffee. Imagine my utter shock at looking into a cup of plain black coffee served by my wife. I asked her what was the meaning of this, and do you know what she replied? She said, ‘Oh isn’t that how you take your coffee?’”

“I don’t understand.”

“Reverend, really? For thirty five years Mrs. Summerscale has prepared my coffee to perfection. It is a–to what shall I liken it–an intimate knowledge of my very self, a dance between principle partners? For her to suddenly forget, or worse, become quite negligent and offer me a cup of coffee on the other end of the taste and shade spectrum? Why this can only indicate some gross aberration in foundation of my marriage. God forbid I entertain the thought, but do you suppose Mrs. Summerscale is having an affair?”

The Reverend smacked the table with both palms, fingers splayed, causing the dishes, silverware, and salt and pepper shakers to jump in unison. He threw back his head and laughed uproariously for five minutes until the redness in his face surpassed the color of his carroty hair.  All other sound and movement in the diner fizzled to quiet and stillness.

“Oh–Oh really–really, you are too funny, Leonard, too–damn–funny. You old fool. You pompous, cheap, old fool.”

Leonard’s mouth sagged like a mastiff’s; his head turtled into his shoulders at the unwanted attention directed toward himself and the Revered. The Reverend wiped his mouth, neatly folded his napkin, and stood to leave.

“By the way, Leonard. You have a toast crumb stuck in your mustache.”

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