The River City Chronicles: Part Two by J. Scott Coatsworth

Sacramento author J. Scott Coatsworth has written and published a number of short stories, novellas and full-length novels, but “The River City Chronicles” holds a special place in his little writer heart.

In many ways, it is a love letter to Sacramento, one that we wanted to share with Outword’s readers. To do that we have uploaded the the next installment of chapters here, for you to read online.

Previously:

Previously in the River City: Matteo and Diego hatched a plan to save their faltering Italian restaurant, Ragazzi – a cooking class to meet every Sunday. Carmelina mourned her dead husband Arthur, and decided to try something new. Marcos, a web designer, and Marissa, a homeless teenager, ran across fliers for the class and decided to go too.

Carmelina, Marcos and Marissa attended their first Italian cooking class at Ragazzi, and learned how to make piadine.

Carmelina met a tall, dark and handsome Italian man named Daniele at Corti Brothers. Ben worked on his Great American Trans Novel. And Marcos went looking for Marissa, the homeless teen who he met at the first cooking class.

Will Ragazzi survive? Will the piadine be delicious? And is Daniele gay?

Find out next.

Major Characters:

•   Ben Hammond: 35 – Trans author and barista working on his first novel

•   Brad Weston: 30 – Runs the LGBT Center, former chief of staff for GOP senator, partner to Sam

•   Carmelina di Rosa: 55 – Semi-retired, redhead, lost her husband Arthur three months ago

•   Dave Ramos: 47 – Human resources consultant and Carmelina di Rosa’s tenant

•   Diego Bellei: 47 – The chef at Ragazzi restaurant, married to Matteo Bianco.

•   Marcos Ramirez: 39 – Web designer and gay playboy who works with the LGBT center

•   Marissa Sutton: 17 – Bisexual homeless teenager who turns up at Ragazzi for the cooking class

•   Matteo Bianco: 47 – Co-owner and host at Ragazzi restaurant, married to Diego Bellei.

•   Sam Fuller: 23 – Suspense novel writer, working on second novel, partner to Brad Weston

Minor Repeating Characters:

•   Andrea Smith: deceased - Carmelina’s daughter

•   Arthur di Rosa: deceased – Carmelina’s husband

•   Dana Pearce: Matteo and Diego’s immigration lawyer

•   Daniele Amoroso: 40 – Italian suitor interested in Carmelina

•   Darryl Smith: Andrea’s adoptive father

•   Ella Jackson-Cucinelli: 32 – Caucasian woman recently transferred to Sacramento from Chicago

•   Emily Stamp: P.I. hired by Carmelina

•   Giovanni "Gio" Mazzocco: Diego’s son

•   Jason Clark: One of Marissa’s friends at McClatchy High

•   Jessica Sutton: Marissa’s adoptive mother

•   Loylene Davies: friend of Carmelina’s

•   Luna Mazzocco: Diego’s Ex and Gio’s mother

•   Max Cucinelli: Matteo and Diego’s immigration lawyer

•   “Moms” Cucinelli: Mother to Max and Ella, trans woman

•   Rex Ward: Owner of the Twink tattoo shop

•   Ricky Martinez: One of the homeless kids from the LGBT center

•   Tristan Dayton: Marissa’s boyfriend

•   Valentina Bellei: Diego’s sister who lives in Italy

 


10 - The Dish Room

Carmelina powdered her cheeks, checking her face in the mirror. She’d gone to the hair and nail salons that morning and to Nordstrom to pick out a new blouse. It wasn’t every day that a handsome Italian man came calling at one’s door, after all. The same man who she’d kept waiting for thirty minutes in her living room.

She checked the time and felt a sudden wave of sadness—the gold Tiffany watch had been a gift from Arthur on their twentieth wedding anniversary. She wiped away a tear from her eye with a tissue and shook her head. She was not going to be sad tonight. She checked the watch again. It was seven ten p.m. Not bad. She was only twenty minutes behind schedule.

“I’m so sorry to keep you waiting,” she said, sweeping into the room.

Daniele stood and smiled. He looked gorgeous. She was certain there must be something wrong with him.

“Nonsense,” he said, looking at her appreciatively. “You’re worth the wait. But we should get going—”

She grabbed her purse. “There’s one thing you should know about me if we’re going to date. I’m perpetually late.”

He laughed. “And I’m perpetually hungry.”

Skinny liar.

He ushered her to the car, a Mercedes convertible with the top up. She hadn’t spent two hundred on her hair to have it blown to bits going to dinner.

“So what do you do?” she asked as she slid into the passenger seat.

“Actually, I’m a florist,” he said, picking up a beautiful boutonniere from behind her seat and pining it deftly to her blouse.

Oh God, he’s gay.

He must have noticed the look on her face, because he laughed. “I’m not gay. Believe me, I get that all the time. It’s a family business. My grandfather started it.” He started the car and pulled out onto the street smoothly.

“Was he gay?” she asked, a little embarrassed.

“He was married his whole life. But who knows? The way he looked at the young guys from Sac State when they came in….”

She stared at him, surprised. “Really? That’s so sad—”

He was grinning like a hyena.

“You’re pulling my leg, aren’t you?”

Ti prendo in giro, yes.”

“You’re a real bastard, you know that?”

“I’ve been told so before.” He was still smiling.

“What’s your shop called?”

“Fiori Amorosi,” he said. “My last name is Amoroso.”

She looked at him with new respect. “I’ve been in the one on Elvas.”

He nodded. “I’ve seen you there before. I’m usually working in back.”

Amoroso. “Your last name means “love?”

He turned onto H Street, heading toward Midtown. She loved this area, with its cute cottages and bungalows. “Loving, actually. You speak Italian?”

“Just enough to get me in trouble.” Case in point—a date with a man named Mr. Loving.

It could only go downhill from there.

* * *

They arrived at Mulvaney’s Building & Loan fifteen minutes late, but the host took them in right away. Instead of going out to the courtyard, she led them through the kitchen.

“Where are we going?” Was this some kind of joke?

“Surprise.”

They entered a room the size of a large closet, surrounded with shelves filled with dishes of all kinds—white plates and metal wire baskets and silver service and pewter and brightly colored glazed pots, platters shaped like fish, and much more. In the middle of the room was a single table with two place settings and a candle.

“What is this? The pantry?”

“It’s the Dish Room,” the host said. “Very romantic.” She gave them a wink and left them alone.

“Do you like it?” Daniele asked, pulling out the chair for her.

She looked around, taking it all in. “I don’t know yet. It’s different.”

He sat across from her, looking crestfallen.

“Oh no, it’s very nice! I was just surprised, that’s all!”

He smiled tentatively. “I know the chef. It’s hard to get on short notice.”

It was different. Maybe she needed a little more different in her life. “It’s perfect,” she said.

* * *

The evening was like a fairy tale. Daniele was handsome, kind, and laughed easily. They talked about their Italian families—a little crazy, but more tightly knit than the scarves her mother used to make for her for Christmas.

He had never married—a red flag—but she forgot about it during the warm glow of the evening.

Now and then during the meal, waiters popped in to retrieve a platter or a set of dishes. She decided she found the whole thing utterly charming.

They were looking into each other’s eyes over a decadent chocolate mousse when he asked her an unexpected question. “Have you ever had children?”

She felt the usual tension return to her shoulders. She looked away, not sure if she wanted to answer him, reluctant to let reality creep into what had been a wonderful evening. She hardly knew him, after all. But when she looked into his eyes, she saw no malice. Just curiosity.

“I… I had a daughter. When I was fifteen.” There. She’d said it. “I wasn’t ready. I was so young, so inexperienced. So I gave her away.” She looked down at her hands. Even forty years later, she still felt a twinge of guilt and shame over her decision. Maybe he would be spooked and would run away.

Instead, he put his hands on hers, and she looked up at him. “That must have been very hard for you.”

She nodded. “You have no idea.”

“Here. Un po’ di cioccolato makes everything better.”

She took the proffered bite and smiled. It was delicious. “You’re right.” What if she hadn’t gone to Corti Brothers?

She liked this guy. She really liked him. It had been a long time, but… “You know what else makes things better?” She leaned over and whispered into his ear.

He actually blushed. Then he called their waiter over. “Check please.”

 

 

11 - Secrets

It was a Friday evening, and the traffic down J Street was steady. Marcos double checked the address and looked back up at the sign above the doorway.

“Twink.” It’s a tattoo shop. Cute.

Well, this was the only link he had to Marissa's whereabouts. He might as well follow it through. It was about what he expected inside—an old garage with sealed cement floors and an “urban street sign” design motif.

"Be right with you," the artist, a lanky man with long, greying hair, called from one side of the shop, where he was working on an elaborate Chinese dragon tattoo.

"No problem. I'll just look around."

"Suit yourself."

Examples of the shop’s art decorated the walls—the usual skulls and pretty women and (of course) dragons, but also shirtless men, cocks and asses, and rainbow flags. Twink lived up to its name.

He took a seat and thumbed through a tattoo book, amazed at the breadth and variety on offer. He had never gotten one and never planned to, but he was fascinated.

The artist finished up his work. Marcos watched as he gently cleaned his client’s skin, then dried it and applied some ointment and a bandage. "You're gonna want to take this off in about four hours and then gently clean the skin with some clear, unscented antibacterial soap and pat it dry."

The client laughed. "It's not my first time at the rodeo."

“I know that, Zack, but I’ll tell you anyway. If you're too stupid to listen, that's on you. Give it two-to-four weeks to fully heal."

He left the shop, and the artist turned to Marcos. "Welcome to Twink. I'm Rex. What are you looking for today?"

Marcos shook his hand. "I'm not here for a tattoo."

"Are you sure? I could do a Madonna that would look beautiful on your skin."

"The singer or the mother of Jesus?"

Rex laughed. "Up to you."

"Well, thanks. Let me think about it. I'm here looking for a girl."

Rex sized him up. "I wouldn't have guessed."

"Not for me," Marcos said. The joke was getting old. "She's a homeless girl I met on Sunday. Her name is Marissa."

Rex frowned. "What did she do?"

"Oh, so you do know her?"

"Who wants to know?"

Marcos sighed. "I met her at a cooking class on Sunday. She was a little skittish, and I'm afraid she's not coming back. Which would be a real shame."

Rex’s expression softened. "Leave me your number," he said at last. "If she wants to talk to you, she can use the shop phone."

"Fair enough." Marcos handed over his card. "Tell her I'd be happy to pay for her class, if she wants to come back.”

“Will do. She’s a good kid.”

“I know.” He waved and walked out of the shop into the warm September evening.

* * *

Diego pulled the last of the lasagna noodles out of the boiling water, laying them in the pan and topping them with a healthy dollop of bolognese sauce and parmesan cheese. He wrapped the whole thing in aluminum foil and slid it into the kitchen’s industrial refrigerator for later.

He washed his hands, humming happily to himself. He was really starting to like it here. As if on cue, his phone beeped. He glanced at it as he dried his hands.

It was from Max. Devo vederti. Domani. I need to see you. Tomorrow.

He frowned. He texted back, telling the man not to contact him by text again. He didn’t want Matteo to find out. Domani alle tre da OneSpeed. It was right across the street. He could sneak away for five minutes between lunch and dinner with some excuse. Va bene. Diego had a bad feeling about this, but he couldn’t let Matteo find out. It would crush him.

* * *

Matteo waited in line at El Dorado Savings. He’d come mid-morning, hoping to avoid the lines, but it seemed like everyone else had the same idea.

He liked the bank because it had an Old West theme, and Matteo had always been partial to American cowboys. He’d attended his first Pride Parade a couple months before, just after they had first arrived, and he’d worn a cowboy hat, plaid shirt, jeans, and shit-kicker boots. He’d never felt so sexy or so American.

He reached the teller window and deposited the restaurant’s meager earnings from the day before. Hopefully Diego’s cooking class would start bringing in a little cash soon. They could really use it.

“I’d like to speak to someone about a loan,” he said to the teller, a blonde woman named Doris, in her fifties or sixties.

She smiled. “Let me get someone for you.” She handed him his deposit receipt. “Wait right over there.”

He took a seat in a cracked-leather seat at the indicated desk. Soon a man about his age, dressed in a white shirt and bowtie, came to sit behind the desk. “Hi there,” he said, shaking Matteo’s hand firmly. “I’m Davis. I understand you’re asking about a loan?”

“Yes. My husband and I own a restaurant—Ragazzi. We have our accounts here.”

“Ah yes, one moment. Let me look up your account.” Davis stared at the screen. “Here it is—oh.”

“Yes, our income has been a little low this month…”

Davis smiled. “Of course. We all have occasional troubles. What other assets do you have? Retirement accounts? Other property? Cash?”

Matteo shook his head. “No. That’s why we need the loan. Things will get better. We just need a little more time…”

“Tell you what. You don’t have a lot of assets, but here’s a loan application. Fill it out and we’ll see what we can do.” He stood and shook Matteo’s hand again. “Have a nice day.”

Not a lot of assets? Why would he ask them for money if he already had it? It sounded like a no.

He couldn’t let Diego find out. It would crush him.

 

 

12 - Saturday In Hell

Diego glanced around, for once grateful that the restaurant was empty on a Saturday afternoon. It was five minutes to three.

Matteo was staring out of the window again, looking worried.

È tempo…” Diego said, anxious to send Matteo out the door so he could get to OneSpeed on time. He held out the leather deposit bag. “Per la banca?”

Matteo turned, his expression blank. “What?” He saw the bag and nodded. “Again, in English?”

Diego sighed. “Is time. For the bank.”

It’s time.” Matteo smiled. “Ma stai migliorando. You’re getting better!” He took the bag. “It’s quiet. Looks like a good time to go. Will you be okay?”

Sì! Senti, mi prenderesti…” he saw Matteo’s stern expression. “Take me a coffee? Everyday Grind?”

Matteo smiled. “Close enough.” He pecked Diego on the cheek and waved as he ran out the door. Diego watched as he walked down the street toward the bank. He’d be gone half an hour, if Diego was lucky.

He checked his phone. It was 3:01.

He grabbed his keys and let himself out of the restaurant, flipping over the “closed” sign and locking the door behind him. It was a clear, crisp day.

He looked both ways and then crossed Folsom Avenue to the other restaurant. It was a nice place, modern like Ragazzi. Diego wondered, not for the first time, if they’d made a mistake opening their place so close to this one. Not that they’d had much choice. It was the space Zio Augusto had left to Matteo when he’d passed away the year before.

Diego opened the door, looking around for Max. OneSpeed wasn’t packed—for which he was thankful—but it did have a good ten full tables.

“Good afternoon,” the hostess, Shelley, said with a sly smile. She had a bit of a crush on him.

“Hi,” he said, pointing at Max. “I see…”

She nodded. “Go right on in.” She winked at him, making him distinctly uncomfortable.

Grazie.” He was eager to get this over with.

* * *

Max spoke fluent Italian. It was one of the reasons they had chosen him as their immigration lawyer.

Diego was regretting that choice. “What do you want?” he hissed, sitting down across from Max.

“Seriously, Diego, that’s no way to talk with someone who’s trying to help you.” He slipped a folder across the table.

“What’s this?”

“Just the… information… that we were discussing two weeks ago. It’s a copy for your files.”

Diego opened it up. It contained a copy of his marriage license. “This means nothing.”

“Look at the next page.”

The waiter stopped by. “Hi, I’m Alex. Can I get you anything? A little water to start?”

Non per me.”

“We’re fine,” Max said in English. “Can you come back in ten minutes?”

“Sure.” He moved on.

Diego turned the page and felt the blood leave his face. “Where did you find this?”

“It took a little digging. Part of my due diligence.” He smiled, a sight that turned Diego’s stomach. “It could be bad for you with Immigration if they found out. You haven’t told Matteo yet, I take it?

Diego shook his head. He hadn’t thought it would ever come out. “What do you want?”

“Not all that much.” Max sat back, looking at the menu. “The calzones are really good here, I hear.”

“I’m not hungry.” Diego ripped the menu out of Max’s hands. “What do you want?” he shouted.

“Calm down, my dear boy.”

Diego looked around. The other patrons and waiters were looking curiously in his direction. He sank back down, glancing at the time on his phone. It was a quarter after. “Matteo will be back soon. What do you want?”

Max licked his lips. “Thirty thousand. Money order, cash, whatever. I’ll even help you figure out how to fix this.”

There’s no way. “Matteo pays all the bills. And we don’t have that kind of money.”

“I’ll give you until Wednesday.”

“I just told you. I don’t…”

Max held up his hand. “Wednesday.” He picked his menu back up. “Now let’s see, what do I want? Something expensive…”

Diego stormed out.

* * *

Marissa stared at her wrists. It was the first time she’d ever worn handcuffs… all because of her stupid parents.

They were supposed to be at the club on Saturdays. Her dad would play a couple of rounds of golf, and her mom would lounge at the spa with the other model moms.

Marissa had planned to get in and out with some of her things—some clothes, her jewelry, and her teddy bear, Nathan.

Now she was here at the county jail on I Street, being processed. They’d let her take Nathan but nothing else.

The officer gave her a once-over. Her nameplate said Doris. “Name?”

“Marissa Sutton.”

“First time?”

Marissa nodded. “It was my own house.”

Doris snorted. “Girl, they all say that. Social Security number?”

“I’m serious. My psycho parents called the police when they found me in my own room. They weren’t even supposed to be home.”

“You serious?”

Marissa nodded. “They kicked me out months ago for liking girls.”

“That’s cold.” Doris shook her head. “Still gonna need your social.”

Marissa rattled it off.

“Age?”

“Seventeen. Eighteen next month.” She leaned forward. “Am I gonna have a record?” Her mother was always going on about how bad it was to have a record.

“Can’t say. Sounds more like a family dispute than a break-in, so maybe you’ll get off easy.” She handed over her desk phone. “Got anyone to call?”

Marissa shook her head. She didn’t want Rex to find out about this. He might kick her out.

She felt something sharp in her pocket. She pulled it out of her tight jeans. It was a folded-up piece of paper.

It was the number for that guy from the cooking thing. Marcos. She couldn’t call him though. She hardly knew him.

Then again, all he could say was no.

“Yeah, I’ve got someone.”

 

 

13 - Nathan

Brad was rousted from bed by someone pounding on the front door. Who the hell was coming by at ten thirty p.m.?

He grabbed the bat he kept next to the bed.

"Who is it?" Sam asked blearily.

"I don't know. I'll find out."

Sam sat up, and Brad smothered the urge to jump back in bed. Screw their visitor. Sam looked adorable with his sleepy eyes and blond hair sticking up at odd angles.

The pounding sounded again.

"Want me to come with?"

"No, just be ready to call 911." They were downtown, after all. Things happened here, sometimes. "I'm coming!" Brad shouted to whoever was knocking. He pulled on his robe and clambered down the stairway to the front door. "Who is it?" he called, bat held at ready.

"Brad, it's Marcos. I need your help."

Marcos… the web designer? He unlocked the door. "How the hell did you get my home address?" he asked, staring at the man. "You do know I'm married, right?"

Marcos grinned sheepishly. "I know. You had a fundraising party here last year for the Center, remember?"

"Oh, crap. Yeah." He'd forgotten all about it. "So why are you here?"

"I need your help. Remember that girl, Marissa?"

“Yes. What happened?" He was starting to regret having shared the information with Marcos. If anything had happened to her as a result, he could lose his job.

"She's in trouble. She called me from the County Jail up on I Street."

Brad scratched his chin. "Why did she call you?"

"I don't know. I left my number for her where she hangs out. I guess I was the only one she could think of.”

"Maybe so. Many of these kids don't have anyone. Hey, come inside. It's cold out there." He let Marcos in and closed the door.

"Who was it?" Sam was standing at the top of the stairs in only his white briefs.

Marcos looked up and whistled.

"Just our web designer."

Sam blushed. "Um, sorry. I'll leave you guys alone." He vanished into the bedroom.

"Come have a seat." Brad ushered Marcos into their small living room.

"Congratulations, Brad. The hubby's quite a catch."

Brad cleared his throat. “Marissa?"

"Oh, yeah, sorry. She said she was framed. She needs me to come get her out, but I don't think they'll let me, since she's underage. You know people there, right?"

Brad nodded. "What was the officer's name?"

"Um… Donna? Dorothy?"

"Doris?"

"Yes. I think so."

"I'll come with you and see what I can do. What will you do if they release her to you?"

Marcos shook his head. "I don't know yet. Get her home and in a warm bed for tonight. I can figure out the rest tomorrow."

Brad touched Marco's shoulder. "Why are you doing this?"

"Because she's me twenty years ago."

Brad nodded. "Okay, let's go. You brought your car?"

* * *

It took three hours, but the police finally agreed to release Marissa into Marcos’s care, after he paid a bond of a thousand and promised to have her back for her court date in a month.

They brought her out, taking off her handcuffs. She was carrying a teddy bear, of all things. It made his heart ache for her.

"You okay?" he asked.

She shrugged.

He took that for a yes. "Come on. We have to get Brad here back home."

"Mister Weston?" her eyes widened.

Brad grinned. "Marcos here asked for my help to get you sprung."

"Thank you!" She threw her arms around him.

Marcos snorted. Fat lot of thanks he'd gotten. "Let's go. We'll drop him off, and then get you situated."

"You can drop me at Twink,” Marissa said as if that ended the matter.

"I'm afraid not."

She turned on him. “Why not? I called you. You helped me. Now I'm good."

Marcos took her gently by the shoulders. "You're not good. You are facing breaking and entering charges, and you could end up in jail for six months or a year. The only reason you’re out here and not in there is because I agreed to look after you. Got it?"

She looked shaken but nodded. "No need to be so harsh."

“Sorry.” He pulled her in for a quick hug. She was stiff in his arms. “You have to take this seriously.” He released her. “Now let's go. Poor Brad is out past his bedtime."

* * *

Half an hour later, they arrived at Marco's condo, a modern loft-style apartment off R Street. He unlocked the front door and let her in and flipped on the light switch.

"Wow, this place is luxe."

"Thanks. I like it. Come on, I'll show you your room." He led her through the living room to the guest room, where his parents stayed when they visited. Which was rare.

Marissa looked around the room. "It's… okay."

He saw wetness in the corner of her eyes. "Let me get some fresh sheets for the bed."

He returned a minute later with the sheets and some towels. "There's a bathroom just off the living room. I have my own, so it will be all yours."

She nodded. "And what do I have to do for you?" She started to pull up her shirt.

"Hey, no. No! None of that."

She stared blankly at him and then sank down on the bed and started to cry.

He sat down next to her. "Listen to me," he said, taking her hand. "You’re safe here. I'm gay, and even if I weren't, I'd have zero interest in someone your age."

She sniffed. "So why’d you bring me here?"

“Because I was there once too.” He picked up the teddy bear. “What’s his name?”

“Nathan.”

“Nice name.” He handed her the bear. “Now get yourself cleaned up and get some sleep with Nathan. We'll figure things out in the morning. Okay?"

She nodded, and he closed the door behind her softly.

What the hell am I getting myself into?

 

 

14 - Lazy Sunday Morning

Diego had tossed and turned all night, worried that Matteo would discover his secret. Matteo might understand. But their marriage license was invalid too, and if the government found out, he might be forced to leave Matteo and go back home. Or worse, Matteo might be forced to go with him, and their dream of building a new life negli Stati Uniti would end.

He hadn’t meant to do it. Her name had been Luna, and it suited her. She was a little crazy. His parents had wanted him to marry a nice girl, and when he’d met her in college in Padua, she’d seemed perfect.

She was beautiful, funny, and brassy, and she made him laugh. When she asked, he’d said yes. They chose a civil marriage with witnesses only, considered rebellious at the time. Diego’s heart had never been in it, but it seemed like a good way to put aside his desire for men. It had never really worked, and they had split up a couple months later.

Diego had signed all the papers, believing that Luna would too. But when she had returned ten years later when Diego was already with Matteo, she had told him that they were still married.

She’d demanded money to keep silent. He would have told Matteo then. But Matteo had been dealing with his father’s death, and it hadn’t been a good time. So Diego had paid her off instead. Now her ghost haunted him.

He sent an email to his sister Valentina in Italy, asking for her advice. She was the only other person who knew his secret.

If he couldn’t find another way by Tuesday, he’d have to tell Matteo.

He shut down the laptop and went to prepare for the day.

* * *

Sam Fuller leaned back in his chair to peer out the window at the sky. “Looks like another beautiful fall day in Sacramento.”

Brad frowned over his copy of the Sacbee. “Is it fall already? I thought that started in October.”

“It starts on the Autumnal Equinox. That was last week. What did they teach you in school?”

“Mathematics, English, and Finding a Man 101.”

“Sucks you ended up with me then, huh?” Sam said, laughing.

Brad grunted. “Pass me the syrup.”

Sunday mornings were their together time. They usually got up late, enjoyed an extravagant home-cooked breakfast—stuffed french toast today—and enjoyed one another’s company. Then Brad would tend to things around the house or sometimes go in to the Center, while Sam wrote. Today was no different. They finished breakfast, and Sam started carting dishes to the sink. When Brad cooked, Sam cleaned. That was the rule.

Something tickled his memory. “Hey, that friend of yours who was here last night…”

“Marcos?”

Sam nodded. “Didn’t you say he goes to some kind of Italian cooking thing on Sunday afternoons?”

“I think he mentioned it.” Brad dropped the last of the dishes in the sink, making a sticky mess that extended up well above the counter top. “Sure you don’t want my help with all this?”

“You cook; I clean. Fair’s fair.” Sam started scrubbing. “Do you remember where the class was?”

Brad leaned back against the counter, thinking. “Some place over in East Sac. Rico’s… Ragato’s…”

“Ragazzi?”

“That’s it.” Brad grinned. “I’m impressed. You been studying?”

Sam blushed. “Kind of. I’m writing an Italian character, and I thought it would be fun to talk to an actual Italian or two about it.”

“That’s a great idea! And maybe you’ll even learn to cook something besides quesadillas.”

“And tacos. I make a mean taco too.”

Brad laughed. “Besides American Mexican food.”

Sam shrugged. “You never know.”

“You should go. It would do you good to get out of the house for a bit.”

Sam nodded. “Will you be okay without me?

“Go. I’ll see you for dinner.”

Sam smiled. He really was the luckiest guy in Sacramento.

* * *

Over in an old apartment building in West Sac, another writer luxuriated in bed under his thick comforter, the crisp white sheets softened by a couple days’ use. Ben felt calm, serene, secure. Then he realized he was sleeping on his side again, curled up in a fetal position. He groaned.

He’d once read that women tended to sleep on their sides, and sure enough, when his conscious mind was away, his body reverted to form. A little betrayal. He rolled over onto his back and lay there for a few minutes, trying to decide if he felt more masculine that way, then decided that it made no real difference.

He sighed. Sometimes he envied the cisgender people who never had to question the basics.

He glanced over at the clock. It was eleven a.m. on Sunday, his day off. He insisted on having that bit of sanity once a week. He rubbed his eyes. He’d been up on a writing bender the night before, fueled by black coffee and a leftover double-chocolate muffin from the bakery on the corner. He had no idea if he’d written something beautiful or a steaming pile of shit. He could never tell right afterward.

Instead, he’d print each chapter out and send it to his friend Sandy in Delaware by mail. She would read it, and after a week, she’d send it back with her notes on a separate page, using the postage paid envelope he supplied.

The whole thing gave his writing time to “compost” before he worked on it again. His non-writing friends thought he was nuts, but it worked for him, and when a chapter came home, it was like Writer’s Christmas.

Sunday. There was something he was supposed to do today. Something Marcos had told him about.

Oh yes. It was the ravioli.

He pushed away the covers and ran to the shower. The class started at two, and he still had a few more pages to write today if he was going to make his self-imposed schedule.

It was going to be a busy day.

 

 

15 - Entourage

Marcos stared at the closed bedroom door, trying to decide what to do. It was well past ten, and Marissa still hadn’t shown her face. He was sure she was still in there. He’d set the alarm the night before, and unless she was a master criminal, she couldn’t have gotten out without him knowing.

Clearly, he wasn’t cut out to be a parent. He had no idea what to do next. Should he barge in and roust her out of bed? Just knock at the door? Bang some pots and pans together in the kitchen? Or just leave her alone?

Indecisive, he returned to his living room, deciding feigned nonchalance was best for the moment. He picked up a copy of the Bee and pretended to read it while he waited.

About ten minutes to eleven, his patience was finally rewarded. The door cracked open, and he turned to see an eye regarding him through the narrow space. “Where’s the bathroom again?” Marissa asked.

“Right over here.” He pointed. “Are you hungry?”

She opened the door a little farther. “Sure. I guess I could eat something. Can I take a shower first?”

He nodded. “Do you like eggs?”

“Why not?” It sounded just a little surly. Baby steps.

“I’ll give you some privacy.” He stepped into the kitchen and started to make breakfast. It was something he was really good at. He’d fed enough one-night stands over the years to fill the new stadium.

As Marcos cracked the eggs, he heard the shower start. He smiled.

She turned up fifteen minutes later, just in time for the hot breakfast he served. Her eyes widened as she took in the meal, and then her emotions slammed shut again. “It looks fine,” she said in a monotone, but she sat down at the counter and began to devour it like someone who had been starved for weeks.

He sat down across from her. “So, you want to tell me what happened yesterday?”

“It was no big deal,” she said angrily between bites. “I went home to get some of my shit. And my parents came back from the club early.”

“And they called the cops for that?” He’d thought his parents were bad.

“I know, right?” She waved her arm. “They threw me out when I told them I don’t like boys. Now they throw me in jail when I try to pick up my things. I fucking hate them.”

“I know.” It was hard enough being a teenager these days.

Marissa finished her meal and looked up at him, searching his face. “I gotta bounce,” she said. “Thanks for breakfast.” She started to slip out of the chair, but he caught her arm.

“I told you last night, you can’t just take off.”

She sneered. “So what is this? Prison?”

“You broke into a house. Sure, it was your own. But if your parents press charges… If the cops catch you on the street and not with me, they’ll put you back in jail until your court date.”

Her face turned a couple shades whiter, and she looked away.

“Look, it’s not so bad here. You have your own room. I can take you to get some things—clothes, make-up, whatever—to replace the stuff you lost. It had to feel good to sleep in a real bed again last night, right?”

He could see the war going on inside her head. He remembered how hard it had been to accept help when he’d been on the street. “This place gets really lonely sometimes. You’d be doing me a favor if you’d stay.”

She looked up at him. “Really?”

He nodded. He could see things were tipping in his favor. “One more thing.”

“What?” A little of the fear returned to her eyes.

“We’re going to that cooking class again today.”

She relaxed. “Oh, that stupid thing.”

But he thought that she sounded secretly pleased.

* * *

The restaurant was empty.

Matteo stood by the front door, trying to will some of the passersby to come inside. But foot traffic here was low, and no one came in.

He glanced at his watch. It was a quarter to two. Diego had run upstairs to grab a quick shower before class.

Matteo was so proud of him. Even if it came to nothing, it was wonderful to see Diego step up and do something positive. He was such a good cook; it warmed Matteo’s heart that Diego was sharing his talent.

He had a lead on a small business loan. He planned to sneak out while Diego held his class. Maybe he could save this restaurant yet.

Poor Diego had seemed especially worried these last few days. He tried to hide it, but with twenty years together, Matteo knew the signs.

He wasn’t sleeping well. He was short with the staff. He avoided eye contact.

Maybe he’d found out how bad things really were for their finances. Maybe it was obvious.

Matteo sighed. If he couldn’t find a way to fix things, he’d have to tell Diego the truth. Then they’d figure out some way deal to with it.

Someone entered the restaurant. He looked up from his thoughts to see Carmelina, the redhead from the previous week. “Salve,” he said.

Buon giornata!”

Close enough. “Hi, I’m Matteo, Diego’s husband. He should be down in a minute.”

“You speak English. Thank God.” She flashed him a warm smile. “What are we making today?”

“An appetizer, I think. One of Diego’s mother’s recipes.”

Before she could reply, the door opened again. A Hispanic man and a young girl entered. He remembered them too. “Welcome to Ragazzi.”

One last time, the door swung open, and two more people came in—two men, one blond and blue-eyed, and the other darker skinned with beautiful brown eyes. He’d been afraid there would be fewer people this week, but there were almost twice as many.

“Diego,” he called upstairs. “You better come down. Your entourage awaits you.”

 

 

16 - Memory of The Heart

Diego came down the stairs and stopped, staring at the small crowd waiting for him below. Carmelina, Marcos, and Marissa had all returned—he’d been doubtful the girl would come back.

There were two new people too. A handsome, tall blond in a white T-shirt—a bad choice when cooking pasta sauce—and a cute African-American with writerly glasses. Diego liked him immediately.

Ciao, amici!” he said, holding out his arms.

Carmelina kissed him on both cheeks, and Marcos gave Diego a big hug. “New ones?”

Matteo cracked a smile. “We have some new people?” he translated.

Yes. Sono Diego I am Diego.”

Matteo nodded approvingly.

“Hi, I’m Sam,” the blond said, shaking his hand in that forceful American way. “I’m an author. I’m writing a story about Italians, so… here I am.”

Diego got most of that.

The other man extended his hand. “I’m Ben. I’m a writer too. But I’m just here because I like Italian food.”

Benvenuti!” He searched his memory. “Welcome!”

Matteo gave him a quick peck on the cheek. “I have to run out for a few minutes. Good luck with class.”

“I don’t need.”

“I know.” Then he was out the door.

Diego sighed. He was still no closer to an answer to his dilemma, and time was running short. But right now he had a class to teach.

“Come.” He led everyone over to the counter and pulled out his ingredients— Parmigiano-Reggiano, some dried bread to make bread crumbs, eggs, a little nutmeg, salt, lemon peel, and some chicken broth. “Oggimi dispiace.… This day, we make passatelli.”

* * *

Marissa stared at the marble counter top in front of her.

The adults around her were wrapped up in the whole cooking class thing. She was wishing she could be anywhere else. If only she were already eighteen or her parents weren’t such pricks.

“Marissa.” Marcos was elbowing her.

“What?’ she hissed, looking up.

Everyone was staring at her.

“Diego wants you to help him.”

“Do I have to?” She rolled her eyes.

“Just give it a try. If you hate it, you don’t have to come back here next week.”

She sighed dramatically. “All right. What do I have to do?”

“Come.” Diego motioned for her to join him behind the counter.

She trudged around it and into the kitchen, hoping her displeasure was coming through clearly.

Diego smiled at her and took her hand gently and, with a questioning look as if to ask her permission, guided her to the grated cheese. They poured it into a large metal bowl together and then added the bread crumbs and the eggs. He mimed for her to mix them together.

She took up the whisk and began to blend the eggs into the cheese and bread crumbs. It was kind of fun. She took out her anger on the mixture, beating it into submission, mixing the cheese and crumbs and eggs into a dough.

Diego passed the ingredients to the other classmates, pairing Marcos with the redheaded woman—Carmelina, was it?—and the two newcomers together, and soon everyone was making passatelli.

Diego added a little salt, nutmeg, and lemon peel to each bowl. He sprinkled some durum flour in front of each group and mimed kneading the dough. “We say ‘impastare.’”

Marissa sunk her hands into the pasta dough, and the world around her shimmered and changed.

She was in a strange kitchen, sitting at a wooden table kneading the dough. The room was warm and light, so different from the cold stainless steel kitchen she’d grown up with at home. And yet, she felt like she belonged.

Something was cooking on the stove, giving off the most wonderful aroma, like chicken soup, and the backsplash was decorated with tiles depicting the Tuscan countryside. Music Marissa was unfamiliar with, light and airy like the kitchen, drifted in from another room.

Marissa felt something alien that she hadn’t experienced in months. Contentment.

“Hello?” she called, wondering if she was alone and how she’d gotten there. Something about making pasta…

“Be right in, darlin’,” a motherly voice called from the other room.

Marissa sat back to knead the dough, a smile on her face.

* * *

Carmelina found herself transported to a place she hadn’t visited since her childhood—her grandmother’s house on T Street that always smelled like fresh-baked biscotti. She was a little girl again, helping her nonna prepare dinner. She looked up, and Grandma Elena tousled her hair. “Sei una brava ragazza,” she said, smiling down on her granddaughter.

Grazie, Nonna,” Carmelina said, her little fingers deep in the sticky pasta dough,

“Here, use a little flour.”

Nonna Elena sprinkled flour on her hands, and she attacked the dough again, intent on kneading it until it was perfect.

* * *

Marcos looked around, shocked to be back at the youth shelter, where Joe Salvatore had shown him how to cook in the big industrial kitchen that served the facility. The big barrel-chested man was preparing dinner. As a just-out teen, Marcos had been smitten by him.

* * *

Sam was at home with his own mother in Tucson, whom he hadn’t spent any time with in almost a year. But they slipped back into their relationship with the ease of long practice.

* * *

Ben sat across from a beautiful dark-haired woman in his own kitchen. She was laughing and joking with him as they prepared a meal together in a small kitchen looking out over a tree-lined street.

* * *

Diego looked around at his students. They were all deep into their kneading, smiles on their faces, but everyone was so quiet. It was a little strange. He cleared his throat. “Ahem.”

Nothing.

He banged a pot. “Attenzione!”

Everyone looked up. Carmelina shook her head as if she had been in a daze. She looked around sheepishly. “I was remembering when I used to cook with my grandmother.”

La cucina fa sempre affiorare i ricordi… boh… the chicken… the kitchen brings the memory of the heart.”

Marissa nodded, a strange, faraway look in her eyes.

“Now we make pasta.”

 

Recipes courtesy of Fabrizio Montanari and his mother and grandmother.

Passatelli

 

Ingredients:

•   1/2 cup parmigiano cheese

•   1/2 cup dried bread

•   4 eggs

•   A little nutmeg and some shaved lemon peel

•   4-1/4 cups beef or chicken broth

 

Serves four.

You can use more cheese than bread crumbs for the best flavor.

Grate the dried bread and the cheese. Combine the bread crumbs, cheese, and nutmeg.

Then mix in the four eggs.

Knead the mixture to make a compact, hard dough.

Use a passatelli mold—if you don’t have one, you can make do with a colander—and press firmly on the dough, pushing it through the holes.

Cut them to a standard length—about 2" long—with a knife at the base of the mold and set them aside until you have used all of the dough. Then cover them with a cloth.

Bring the beef or chicken broth to a boil in a pot on the stove. Uncover the passatelli and put them into the boiling broth by hand.

After eight to ten minutes, put the passatelli directly into bowls for your guests.

A sweet and delicate scent will waft from the bowl, bringing with it a great desire to enjoy this delicious and much-appreciated soup.

 

 

17 - The X Street Mafia

Carmelina finished the last of her passatelli and licked her lips. “Delicious, Diego. Come si dice delicious?” She’d never had it before.

Delicioso.”

Deliciossso.”

He laughed, shaking his head. “No. Like this. “Del-li-zio-so.”

“Ah, with a z sound. Grazie. Delizioso.”

Perfetto.” He started moving the dishes to the sink.

“You have a real ear for the language,” Marcos said, handing his empty bowl over to Diego.

“My nonna… my grandmother was Italian. I heard it at home all the time when I was a child.” She closed her eyes, seeing her grandmother’s kitchen again as vividly as if she were still standing there. Something about the recipe, or this place, was magical. “She’s been gone thirty years now.”

Marcos nodded. “Mine died a few years back.”

“Did you enjoy the class, Marissa?” Carmelina asked.

The girl had been surly at first but had really gotten into it.

“Hmm?” The girl’s eyes had been closed as she savored the broth and pasta. “Oh yeah, it was fun.”

Marcos sighed. “She had a run-in with her folks,” he whispered. “She’s staying with me for a few days while we figure things out.”

“That’s great of you to take her in.”

“She reminds me of myself when I was younger. I got thrown out of the house for being gay too. I work at home, so I can keep an eye on her.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a web designer.”

“I’m not gay,” Marissa piped in.

“You’re not?” Marcos asked. He looked surprised. “I just assumed…”

“I’m bi. I like boys too.”

Carmelina laughed. She decided she liked the girl. She had a spunk to her that reminded her a little of herself as a child. She’d never had grandchildren. She’d given her daughter away when she was fifteen—far too young to care for a child. But she thought about her every day. She touched the gold cross she always wore around her neck, whispering a little prayer.

“Can I help with the clean-up?” she asked Diego. She never let her own guests do the dishes at home, but she always liked to offer.

Cosa?” Diego looked confused.

“Help.” She pointed at herself and mimed washing a dish.

Ah, no. Grazie.” He grinned. “Workers come soon.”

She nodded. It was too bad the next class was a week away. Unless…

She cleared her throat. “Hey, I have a great idea.…”

* * *

Sam was deep in conversation at the other end of the counter with Ben. It wasn’t often that he stumbled upon another local writer like this.

“When I write, I feel like Sacramento is another character in the story,” Ben said. “I grew up here—I know this cow town like the back of my hand.”

“I’ve only been here for a year, but I’m really starting to like it. It’s kind of like Tucson—a big city with the heart and soul of a small town.”

“Exactly! There are so many great things going on here that many newcomers never see. Of course, it’s just as bad with the folks who have been here forever. They have this fixed idea of what Sacramento is and what it can be.”

“I’ve seen that.” He took the last bite of his passatelli. They reminded him of his mother’s home cooking. “Some of Brad’s friends say this town will never amount to anything.”

“Things are already changing. Midtown, the ‘handle district,’ has grown so much in the last ten years.” He put the district name in air quotes.

“I know. I’ve seen it in just the last twelve months. Hey, that’s where I know you from. You’re a barista at the Everyday Grind, aren’t you?”

“Guilty. You used to come in all the time with that complicated drink order, right?”

Sam laughed. “Brad’s favorite. When I worked for him. Long story.”

Someone cleared their throat.

Sam turned to see Carmelina addressing them all. “Hey, I have a great idea. Why don’t you all come over to my place Thursday night? I’d love to practice this recipe and the one for the piadine from last week.”

Marcos turned to Marissa, who just shrugged. Teenagers. “Sure, we’re in. “

“I can make it,” Ben said. “I’m off Thursday.”

Carmelina’s gaze turned to him.

“I think so.… Where do you live?”

“River Park.”

“And that’s…?” He was still figuring out the little Sactown neighborhoods.

“About ten minutes from here.”

“Let me ask Brad. But if he’s in, I’d love to.”

* * *

Matteo parked his scooter on X Street. Above him, the swoosh of automobiles and the heavier rumble of semi-trucks thundered past.

The farmer’s market held here every Sunday under the freeway was over. It had always seemed strange to Matteo to sell fresh vegetables and fruit below the constant procession of vehicles spewing exhaust from above. Then again, many things Americans did seemed strange to him. But he still wanted to be one.

He stepped into the semi-darkness. As his eyes adjusted, he saw the man he had come to meet. His name was Jordan, and he’d come into Ragazzi one day the week before suggesting he might be able to help out if the restaurant was having any financial difficulties. How he’d known, Matteo had no idea, though the empty dining room on a Friday night might have been a clue.

He was leaning against one of the freeway support columns, smoking a cigarette. It was all starting to feel a little mafia-ish.

“Jordan.”

“Matteo. Thanks for coming.” They shook hands.

“You had a… proposal for me?”

“Yes.” He handed Matteo a manila envelope. “It’s all in there.”

“Nothing illegal, I hope?”

“Let’s just say… nothing too illegal. Look it over and call me.”

“Will do.”

He turned and walked away into the gloom.

 

 

18 - The Lottery

Marcos gave Carmelina a big hug goodbye. There was something about the brassy Italian American woman that appealed to him. She seemed like the type who never took no for an answer and who didn’t deal in bullshit. “See you Thursday night.”

They had exchanged cell numbers, and she promised to text him the details.

He looked around for Marissa, afraid she had taken off again while he’d been distracted. He found her talking softly with Diego in the kitchen, and was surprised when she gave the chef a big hug. She seemed to connect with everyone but him.

He sighed. They were stuck with each other for now. She was going to have to learn to deal with him. “You ready to go?”

“I’m coming.” She pushed her way past him out to the street with her usual charm.

Marcos sighed.

They walked in silence to his Prius on one of the side streets behind the restaurant. He unlocked the doors, and she sank into her seat and crossed her arms, looking straight out of the front windshield.

He got into the car and pulled on his seatbelt. This whole pouting thing needed to stop. “I’m not the enemy, you know,” he said aloud.

“What?”

“Look, I get it. You’ve got the whole ‘tough kid’ thing down pat. You don’t need anything, or anyone.”

She turned away.

“When someone you love betrays you, it hurts like a sonofabitch. I don’t know your whole story, but I see how strong you are. When your parents threw you out, you got up and kept going. You should be proud of that.”

There was no response, except for a heavy sigh.

“When my parents threw me out for being gay, I didn’t know where to go. I stayed with a friend for a few days until his parents objected, and then I was out on the streets.” He closed his eyes, remembering that bleak time. All alone, eating out of trash cans, sleeping in shelters, doorways or back alleys. “I cried every night for a month, and then I got angry. It was so unfair, what they did to me. I swore to never let anyone get close to me again.”

She glanced back in his direction. It was something.

He pushed on. “I shut off my heart, so no one would ever hurt me again.” And it had worked, better than he would have ever guessed. Here he was closing in on forty, and he was all alone.

She was looking at him now.

“Once you block everyone out, you never get hurt again like that first time. But you end up being all alone.”

“I fucking hate them.”

“Your parents?”

Marissa shook her head. “They’re not my parents. When they kicked me out, my mother… Jessica… told me she wished they had never adopted me.” Her voice shook with emotion.

“Shit… you didn’t know?”

The angry look she flashed him gave him the answer.

“Look, I’ve made a mess of my own life,” he said, “but I’ve learned one thing. You can’t change the things people do to you. But you can choose how you respond.” He’d made a lot of bad choices. He’d pretty much ruined every relationship he’d ever started. But he was convinced that he had made a good one here.

“I guess.”

“Your adopted parents dealt you a shitty hand, no question. You can be miserable and sick about it, and close yourself off from the world.” He touched her shoulder. “Does that hurt them, or you?”

She was silent for a long time. He let her think. She needed to come to it on her own.

At last she mumbled something.

“What was that?” he asked gently.

“They’re my parents. They weren’t supposed to leave me!” Her voice cracked a little, and his heart nearly broke for her.

“No, they weren’t.” He released his seat belt and put his arms around her, rocking her gently.

Her arms went around him and she started to cry.

Marcos just held her and patted her back, knowing he was exactly where he was supposed to be in the universe at that moment.

* * *

Matteo sat at the back of the Everyday Grind, espresso in hand, staring at the manila envelope from Jordan that sat on the table. He had no idea what was inside.

Like a lottery ticket. As long as he didn’t check the contents, he could make it into whatever he wanted it to be—something that would save Ragazzi and their lives together in the United States.

So many things here were different from Italy. He loved his new job and the people, but Americans prioritized their families differently than the Italians. They lived their lives in a more transient way, moving from place to place and job to job. It was a kind of freedom, and he loved them for that. But in celebrating it, Americans often lost sight of family, community, and connection.

Still, he loved this place he now called home.

He considered what might be inside the envelope. Maybe Jordan worked for a mafia organization and they wanted to use Ragazzi to launder money.

Maybe he was independently wealthy—one of those angel investors they always talked about on TV. Or maybe he was a billionaire benefactor who had just handed Matteo an envelope of cash, like on one of the reality shows.

He looked around self-consciously in case someone was filming him, but no one was paying the slightest attention to him.

Whatever happened next, he and Diego loved each other. They would come out of this together okay, somehow.

He picked up the envelope and broke the seal, spilling the contents out onto the table.

He stared at the pile in disbelief. It was made up of more than a hundred blue-and-white twenty-percent-off coupons to Bed Bath and Beyond. He snorted. Some lottery ticket.

Jordan was nuts.

He laughed because he didn’t want to cry.

 

 

Check back in two weeks for the next part of the story – published the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month.

 

Like what you’ve been reading? You can order it in book form and read the whole thing now:

 

Amazon eBook: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07DCFPCGZ/

Amazon Paperback: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1732307504/

Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/1128593446

Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/us/en/ebook/the-river-city-chronicles-1

iBooks: https://geo.itunes.apple.com/us/book/the-river-city-chronicles/id1381215078?mt=11

 

You can also visit Scott’s webpage and join his email list at https://www.jscottcoatsworth.com.

 

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