The River City Chronicles by J. Scott Coatsworth - Part Five

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 next installment of chapters of the book here, for you to read online.

Previously in the River City: Diego's sister found his ex-wife Luna - the one he's still married to - in Italy, and told him that she wants to see him. Matteo said they would figure things out, but then Diego’s blackmailer called asking for his money. Diego and Matteo met with Max at Lucca and told him to screw himself. Max ran out of the restaurant and was hit by a car.


Sam's latest book arrived, and he and Brad celebrated. Ben saw Ella at Zocalo, and asked her out.

Marcos wondered how Marissa had managed to take over his entire condo in just a few days. Marissa started "The Outcasts Society" at school.

Carmelina prepared for her dinner party, and a new character was introduced - Carmelina's neighbor Dave. Dave and Marcos made a connection at the party, and plans for a date. Sam and Ben talked about writing. And Marissa and Carmelina made a connection over apple fritters.

Then the party went all to hell.

What does Luna want from Diego? Will Max wake up from his coma? And will Carmelina’s house ever be the same?

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

37 - Sister Clara

Carmelina rinsed her face with cold water.

She looked at herself in the unfamiliar mirror. She had aged a lot these last few years, the fine lines around her eyes spreading and deepening. Her skin had lost that youthful glow somewhere along the way.

She supposed it happened to everyone. Losing Arthur had done her no favors in the youthfulness department either.

She put on her makeup, taking a decade off her age in the process, and did her hair. She checked the mirror once more and decided she was presentable enough to go see a nun.

“Everything okay in there?” Dave called from the hallway.

“Yeah, I’m good.” Her neighbor and tenant had taken her in after the disaster the night before at her own house. “Hey, where the hell is your toothpaste?”

“Middle drawer, right in front.”

She loved teasing Dave. She’d seen the way he and Marcos had interacted at dinner before things had gone off the rails. She hoped…

No. she didn’t want to jinx it. Dave deserved to be happy again.

In five more minutes, she was ready to go.

Her heart beat nervously in her chest. Part of her wanted to remain ignorant about her daughter. But a bigger part needed to know.

“I’ll be back this afternoon to start figuring out what to do with my mess of a house.” She kissed Dave on the cheek.

“Are you okay? Really?” They’d stayed up late after the party, talking about her decision.

She nodded. “I think it’s time.”

He pulled her in for a long hug. “Good luck,” he whispered, kissing her on the cheek.

* * *

She drove across town in a daze.

She searched for the address along S Street, passing it three times before she realized it was in a drab old two-story brick building, tucked behind a row of half-bare trees, their yellowed leaves scattered along the sidewalk in random piles.

She parked on the street and entered the building through a golden archway, finding a young woman with blue-framed glasses and casual business attire seated behind an old wooden desk inside.

This wasn’t how she had pictured this place at all. Nuns were supposed to wear black-and-white habits, live in beautiful white churches surrounded by green fields, and make cheese with their own hands. She grinned at the image.

This place looked and smelled like a high school admin office.

“May I help you?” Her name tag said Mary Elena. She had a nice smile.

“I’m here to see Sister Clara? I have an appointment.”

“Up the stairs and down the hall. Room 201. I’ll let her know you are coming.”

“Thanks. I like the glasses.” She climbed the stairs, wondering if stairs had gotten taller since she was younger. More and more, she appreciated the modern technology of elevators and escalators.

Room 201 had a wooden door with that old, obscuring glass they were so fond of fifty years before.

She tapped lightly on the glass.

“Come in.”

Carmelina opened the door carefully. “Sister Clara?”

The woman nodded. “Let me make some room for you.”

The tiny office was cluttered with paper, stacks of it in folders on the desktop, on the two chairs in front of the desk, spilling out of notebooks on the three bookshelves that were crammed along one side wall.

In the middle of the desk was a truly ancient computer, one with an amber screen that only showed numbers and letters and other characters.

“Please, sit.”

Carmelina sat down on the hard wooden chair. “Thank you so much for seeing me. I was afraid you wouldn’t want to tell me anything.”

Sister Clara was dressed more traditionally, in a long black habit with a white scapular but without the veil. “Since that film came out… we have tried to change our image. We are not heartless.”

Carmelina knew which film she meant. The one about the poor British woman who had lost her child when she had borne it out of wedlock. “I never thought you were heartless. Strict, sure. But not heartless.” She rubbed her hip, remembering the spankings she’d endured in Catholic school. She hadn’t been a model student.

Sister Clara smiled, just a little. Then her severe frown returned. “I went back into the church archives, and it’s partly because of what I found that I decided to share this with you.” She picked up a file in a manila folder and handed it to Carmelina. “That’s everything we know.”

Carmelina opened it. There was a copy of the adoption form, as well as a few old photos and some handwritten notes. “Her name is Andrea,” she said in wonder. “Where is she now?”

The nun’s expression changed to sorrow. “I am so sorry to be the one to tell you this.” She looked out the window at the sky for a moment, as if deciding just what to say. “Andrea was killed by a drunk driver fifteen years ago, right here in Sacramento.” She handed over a printout of a newspaper article.

Carmelina’s heart stopped.

It wasn’t true. It couldn’t be true. Her daughter, the one she had given up to give her a chance at a better life with a good family.… “No.”

“I’m so sorry. It must be terrible to learn about it this way. The article said it was instantaneous.…”

“I have to go.” She was trying not to cry. Not here. Not in front of the Sister. “Can I keep these?”

Sister Clara nodded. “They’re yours. We have someone here you can talk to, if you want. Father Dyson is very good with these sorts of…”

Carmelina was already in the hallway, then careening down the stairs.

“Is everything okay?” Mary Elena asked.

“No,” Carmelina managed and ran out the door to her car.

She made it inside before her control broke down altogether, and she sobbed like a baby, her heart broken in two.



38 - Two Dates

Ben looked up at the clock. It was a quarter past eleven in the morning. He was seated in the hospital waiting area, and Ella had fallen asleep with her head in his lap. It was something that made him both enormously pleased and rather uncomfortable.

He’d catnapped on and off in the chair, and now his back ached, but he didn't want to disturb her sleep. This wasn't how he’d pictured their first date.

After a few minutes, Ella stirred, sitting up. She pushed back a lock of her long red hair and smiled sheepishly at him. "Did I fall asleep on your lap?"

"Yeah… kind of.” Her voice flooded him with warmth.

"I'm so sorry.” She brushed her wrinkled blouse. “I hardly know you. You really didn't have to stay."

"I don't mind." He was honored that she’d called him. And she had been really upset about what had happened to her brother. She had needed someone.

"Any news about Max?" She glanced anxiously at his hospital room.

He shook his head. “I just woke up. Should we go see?"

“Come on.” She took his hand and led him toward her brother’s room and pushed open the door quietly. Max lay there, unconscious. The left side of his face was scraped up, and his left arm was wrapped in bandages with a splint. He'd been really lucky that he hadn’t been killed. And it had happened just a few blocks from the Everyday Grind.

One of the nurses was standing by his bedside.

"How is he?" Ella asked softly.

"You'll have to talk to the doctor," the nurse said, giving her arm a compassionate squeeze as she left the room.

Ella sat next to her brother's bedside, taking his hand. "I'm here, Max."

Ben felt uncomfortable witnessing such intimacy. “Maybe I should go.…"

"Please, stay. It helps to have someone here."

They sat in silence for a few minutes, then there was a knock on the door.

"Mrs…. Jackson-Cucinelli?” The doctor poked her head in the door.

Ella stood. "That's me. How is he?”

But wait, was she married?

"I'm Doctor Bashari." She picked up the chart. "Your brother is doing well. There was some internal bleeding, but we addressed that in surgery. It's too early to say for sure, but he is likely to make a full recovery."

Ella threw her arms around Ben, hugging him tight. “Oh God. I am so relieved."

He held her tightly. He hated to even think it, but he hoped Max would stay unconscious just a little while longer.

* * *

Brad looked around the little Italian restaurant. It was a bit modern for his tastes. He liked things a little more mid-century than twenty-first century. But it was cute and clean, and the aroma coming from the kitchen was tantalizing. "I'm surprised there aren't more people here."

Sam nodded. “Diego’s amazing with the food, and Matteo is the consummate host, but I don't think they know much about marketing."

A nice place like this in the Fabulous Forties should be bustling for lunch on a Friday afternoon. Instead there were only ten guests.

Matteo arrived carrying two plates. "Here we have a specialty of the house. Le piadine di Diego Bellei."

The piadina was a warm, fresh flatbread whose aroma made Brad's mouth water. It was folded and filled with melted cheese and prosciutto.

"Eat it like a sandwich," Matteo advised, miming the action. "Would you like some wine?"

"Nothing for me. Just some iced tea.”

Matteo nodded. "And for you?"

Sam shook his head. "Water's good."

Brad took a bite of the piadina. It was fantastic. They’d never managed to eat the ones the night before. “Oooh, that’s delicious. And Diego’s good with Marissa?"

"He's amazing.” Sam bit into his own piadina. “Mmm. That is good. Yeah, he’s great with everyone, but I think he has a soft spot for her."

Matteo brought his iced tea.

"Can you sit with us for a moment?” He wanted to get Matteo’s take.

Matteo nodded. "Let me check in with our other guests, and then I can sit with you."

He returned a couple minutes later and pulled up a chair. "What did you want to talk about?"

"That idea I had last night. We have a lot of kids at the Center who have been kicked out of their homes, like Marissa. Their families don't understand them."

Matteo nodded. "This happens also in Italy."

"We try to find transitional housing for them. But they also need work experience. I just got a grant that I want to use to fund a pilot program. Do you know what that is?"

Matteo shook his head. “Boh… A program for pilots?"

Brad laughed. "No. It's a test. And if it goes well, it may become permanent."

"Oh, . I know what you mean."

"I'd like to send some of the kids, the ones who have an interest, over here to work for you. We would pay for the program."

Matteo's eyes lit up. "That would be fantastic."

"And the Center could help get the word out to the community about this place having gay owners, right?" Sam looked at him expectantly.

Brad nodded. He'd been thinking about that. "One of the roles of the Center is to support gay-owned businesses in Sacramento. Have you joined the Chamber?"

"The Chamber?" Matteo shook his head.

"It's a group of LGBT-owned businesses. It's a great way to network. To meet other people in the community."

"Ah. Yes, I would like that."

"Perfect. I'll put together a proposal, and we can set up a meeting next week. I'd like to move quickly on this. These kids are falling through the cracks all the time."

"Through the cracks?" Matteo looked at him quizzically.

"Getting lost in the system."

"Ah, I understand. It’s a great idea. Let me talk to Diego this weekend."

"Perfect." Brad grinned. He’d been hoping to expand the Center's reach since he'd become its director, and now he had his chance.



39 - Outcasts And Vagabonds

Marissa trudged down the hallway toward the lunchroom, lost in her thoughts. The night before at Carmelina’s had been nice. Like having a home again, at least until things had gone all to hell.

There’d been a fucking skunk in the house! Like that ever really happened.

And Carmelina’s kitchen.… It reminded Marissa of the place she’d gone in her head when she’d helped Diego make the piadines. Warm. Friendly. Home.

Marcos was sweet, but his place was impersonal. It was good to have a bedroom, but it wasn’t really hers.

Sometimes she missed her mom. Her adopted mom. Even if she was a coldhearted bitch sometimes. She missed vaping too. Marcos wouldn’t let her do it, like she wasn’t already almost an adult. Maybe Jason had a vape pipe.

She turned the corner into the lunchroom and stopped dead. The table she and Jason had chosen had a huge, hand-lettered banner over it that said, “The Outcasts Society.” Jason himself stood below it, a huge grin on his face.

He wasn’t alone. He bounded up to her like a puppy. “Look, ’Rissa! It’s great, right? I made it last night with my Mom.”

Underneath the makeshift banner was a collection of kids—short kids, skinny kids, fat kids, kids with tats, kids with pierced noses, kids with big glasses—and they all turned toward her expectantly. Lead us, their wistful gazes said.

It was all too much. She hadn’t bargained on this.

Marissa turned and ran, Jason’s voice trailing after her.

He found her ten minutes later in Ms. McCluskey’s English classroom, eating her sandwich all alone. She saw his face at the door and turned away. She didn’t want to talk to him, not right now.

The door opened.

“Marissa… you okay?”

“Leave me alone.” She felt like she was five years old again, and that just embarrassed her more.

Jason sat down at the desk next to her and was silent for a few minutes.

She finished her sandwich, ignoring him. Marcos had packed her carrots and a bag of gummi bears. She set aside the former and tackled the latter.

“I’m not going away,” Jason said at last.

“I wish you would.” She regretted it almost immediately. He was a sweet kid. He didn’t deserve her anger.

But he didn’t seem offended. He put a hand on her shoulder.

She shrugged him off. “Hey, don’t do that! I might hit you.”

He actually laughed. “You wouldn’t do that. I trust you.” He gave her a big grin.

He trusts me. It took a minute for that to sink in. This silly gay kid trusted her. She’d done nothing to earn it. In fact, she’d done exactly the opposite. She’d run away from him and his silly banner. Yet here he was.

Maybe she could try to act more than five years old. Just this once. “You know you’re an idiot, right?”

He nodded. “Been told so many times. Will you at least come and meet the Society?”

“Do I have to? I’m not big on leading.”

He laughed. “Who stood up on the table yesterday and called all the misfits together?”

He had a point. “All right. I’ll come. But I’m not promising anything.”

In the end, she found she had twelve new friends and allies. And she hardly had to lead at all.

* * *

Carmelina pulled into her driveway, feeling numb.

Someone had parked their Mercedes in front of her house.

Daniele was sitting on her front step.

“What the hell are you doing here?” she asked, getting out of the car. She was irritated and in no mood to deal with his shit.

He stood and smiled sheepishly. “Good afternoon to you too. I came to apologize.”

“Apology accepted. Now leave me alone. I’ve had a bad day, and it’s about to get worse.” She had to deal with her house issues and was not looking forward to the mess inside. She pushed past him, but he took her arm gently and stopped her.

Bella donna, I am so sorry. I reacted badly when you asked me about the cross tattoo on my wrist. It has… a lot of personal significance to me.”

His accent melted her.

She tried to resist. Really, she did. He had acted like a total bastard two days before, when he had pulled a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am and left in a huff.

And yet, he was so beautiful. And he liked her.

She owed him a hearing. Didn’t she?

“Well, come on inside. But I gotta warn you, it’s like Dante’s Inferno in there.” She opened the door and let him in.

The pungent smell of skunk lingered in the air, making her eyes water.

She opened the living room windows. “Want to get the others? I need to air the place out.”

Daniele grimaced at the smell. “What happened in here?”

“It’s a long story. I think I have a vengeful ghost.”

She’d meant it as a jest, but he nodded, looking around at the damage. “I think you may be right. Your husband…”

“Arthur?” She snorted. “You think Arthur’s haunting me?”

He nodded. “It’s possible. My mother believed in the spirit world—curses, and ghosts, and the paranormal. When I was five, one of my uncles haunted our house for a month. Did he die here?”

She closed her eyes, remembering that dark day three months before. “Yes.”

“Maybe he’s not ready for you to move on just yet.”

“I don’t know if I believe in that sort of thing. But if I did… how would you get rid of it?” Or should she? If it was really Arthur…

“You have to have an exorcism.”

She stared at him, her mouth hanging open. “An exorcism? That’s just batshit crazy.”

She looked around the room. It smelled of skunk, the walls were coated in flour, and the bathroom was a terrible mess. The burned spot in the center of the table glared back at her.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

“Where do I find a good priest?”



40 - First Date

Ben prowled through the hospital florist shop, looking for the perfect flowers, something he could afford. He glanced at his watch. It was a quarter to six—dinner time.

Being a barista was a wonderful job. It left his mind free for his writing—plotting poor Jesse’s next steps—and he loved the people he got to meet, but the pay left something to be desired.

The woman behind the counter was frowning at him over her thick glasses. Ben knew that look. The cashier was trying to read him. He knew he passed pretty well these days, but every now and then, something he did or said or maybe even something undefinable about him that he was unaware of tripped something in someone else’s brain.

He picked up a bouquet of pink roses—roses for romance, pink because red just didn’t seem appropriate, under the circumstances—and plopped them down on the counter. They weren’t too expensive.

He’d been very careful with his funds these last six months. His meagre Everyday Grind salary and his severance package from Intel had to tide him over for another six months so he could finish his novel and see it published. After that… well, he was trying really hard not to think about what came next.

“That all?” Katia the cashier asked, her voice just a little lower than he might have expected, her face a little fuller.

And Ben knew. He could read, too.

“Yup, that will do it.” He grinned, and she smiled back at him, the shared secret between them.

“Fifteen Thirty-Six,” Katia said.

He handed over a credit card, wondering once again just how many others like them there were in the world. How many people slipped through life in their new roles, mostly unnoticed. What it would be like to be someone who couldn’t pass? He signed his receipt.

“Hope they like them,” Katia said.

He winked and tucked the roses under his arm and his wallet in his back pocket.

He started back through the halls of the antiseptic facility. He tried to forget how much he hated hospitals. His father had spent his final days in one, as his body slowly shut down. Alzheimer’s was an asshole of a disease. In his father’s case, his body had simply forgotten how to breathe.

His own mother had told him to leave. She’d said his father didn’t need to see what a “shemale bitch” his own daughter had become. So Ben had taken to sneaking in at night to spend time with his father.

She had banned him from the funeral too—the last straw. They hadn’t seen each other or even spoken since, going on five years now.

Five minutes later, he eased open the door to Max’s hospital room.

Ella sat there, beautiful as ever, holding Max’s hand, a perfectly silent tableau. A frown creased her forehead.

He cleared his throat softly.

She looked up at him, and a smile lit up her face. “Hey.”

“Any change?”

She shook her head. “He’s stable. That’s all they will tell me.”

He nodded. “That’s something, at least. Are you hungry?”

“I don’t know. I should be, I guess. I haven’t eaten hardly anything today.”

“You need to keep your strength up. He gestured to her. “Come on.”

“I hate hospital food.”

“I know, but we’ll find something we can eat.” He took her hand and pulled her gently out into the hall after him.

“What are you up to?” She glanced back at the door to Max’s room.

“You’ve had a hard day. Trust me.” He smiled encouragingly.

Soon they arrived at the hospital cafeteria, which was bustling at this time in the evening. He led her to a table in the corner. When she saw it, she laughed. “What have you done?”

He’d borrowed a white bed sheet and had set up the little table with a couple candles from the gift shop and the flowers. “Tonight was supposed to be our first date, after all.”

The room around them erupted into applause. He blushed. he hadn’t intended for this to be a public spectacle.

For the meal, he’d run up the street to Centro to snag her a burrito and himself a plate of beef tacos. “I figured you liked Mexican food—I did catch you at Zocalo, after all.” He pulled out the chair for her and handed her a paper napkin. “Okay, so this is not quite how I pictured it—”

“It’s beautiful.” Her eyes were wet.

He hastened to lighten the mood. “Well, it’s not Zocalo, but it’s pretty good. For Sacramento Mexican.”

She laughed. “I guess I did promise you a date. But Max—”

“Is going to be fine.” He took her hand, trying to push love and support from his hand into her skin. “You’re staying with him? Eat! Before it gets cold!”

She picked up her burrito. “Yes, for a couple months until I find my own place.” She took a bite. “Damn, that’s good.”

He nodded. “You really need someone to show you around the city. You can get a lot here without spending too much money.” Except for rent. He was lucky. His had been the same for the last couple years. “So what brought you to Sacramento?”

Her expression darkened. She looked away across the room, frowning. When she spoke again, her voice was dull. “A bad divorce.” She set her half-eaten burrito down on the plate.

“Hey, I didn’t mean to upset you,” he said, seeing her slipping away from him. “We can talk about something else.”

She shook her head. “I’m sorry. I’m not really hungry. I shouldn’t have left Max alone.” She stood and kissed his forehead. “This was really sweet of you, Ben. Thank you.”

He watched her leave, befuddled by what had just happened. Clearly he’d hit a nerve.

Was her ex a real asshole? Shit, did he die?

He dropped his taco and ran after her. Their first date was not going to end in ruin.



41 - Secrets Shared

Ben caught up with Ella just outside of Max’s room. “Hey,” he called, a little out of breath. “You forgot these.” He handed her the pink roses.

“They’re so nice,” she said, taking them and holding them up to smell them. “You must think I’m a total mess.”

“No more than I am.”

She snorted. “Not likely. Just moved to a strange city, brother in the hospital, crying at the drop of a hat. Tell me one thing about your life that’s crazier than mine right now.”

Ben took a deep breath. “I’m a trans guy in love with a cis girl.”

She looked up at him, her eyes wide. “You’re trans?”

Ben sighed. “Yes. I’m sorry. This is probably the worst time to tell you.”

“Why would you say that?” She put a hand up to his cheek. It was warm and soft.

“Because… because it’s always the worst time. Look, I’m sorry. I’ll take off. You have your brother to take care of.” He started to turn away. “I never should have—”

“Ben.” Her voice was firm and stopped him in his tracks.


“I don’t mind.”

“About what?”

“I don’t mind if you’re trans.” She sank down on the bench against the wall and pulled him down with her. “My moms is trans too.”

“Your moms?”

She nodded. “Lexi. She used to be my dad, Alex. She transitioned about ten years ago.”

Ben took a moment to absorb that.

“I thought you might be. Oh, not ’cause you’re effeminate or anything. But I’ve learned to spot the signs. I think it’s one of the things I liked about you when we first met.”

Ben was at a loss. This had literally never happened to him before. Girls he liked always freaked out and ran when he told them. “Sorry. I’m speechless.”

“Stop saying ‘sorry’.” She leaned in and kissed him quickly. It only lasted a second, but it opened up a world of possibilities in Ben’s head. “You should go home; get some rest. I’ll be okay here now. I can call you if anything changes.”

Ben nodded. “Can I come back to see you tomorrow?”

Ella grinned. “You’d better. After all, your first date wasn’t exactly a smashing success, was it? You owe me another one.”

* * *

Someone was banging on the front door. Irritated, Dave paused his DVD player. It was just a rerun of Gilmore Girls. It could wait. “Who is it?”

“Your annoying landlady.”

Dave grinned and pulled the door open. “What the hell do you want? Come on in.”

Carmelina settled into an oversized leather armchairs in the living room and sighed. “I finally got the mess cleaned up at home, no thanks to you.”

“Sorry. I’ve been busy,” he lied.

She looked around. “I can see that!”

Magazines were strewn around the living room, and his favorite blanket was on the couch next to him, along with an oversized coffee mug half filled with melting Tin Roof Sundae ice cream. “It was a long day. I was working with a client in midtown who wanted advice on how to fire his staff and move all the jobs to China.”

“Fucking capitalist bastards.”

Dave snorted. “About right. So what’s up?”

“Do you mind if I stay with you for a couple more days?”

“Of course. You don’t even have to ask. This is your house, after all.”

“I know, but I don’t like to impose.” She looked out the window into the darkness, toward her own place. “It’ll just be until Sunday morning.”

“What’s happening Sunday morning? Plumber coming?”

She shook her head. “He’s already gone. I’m having some work done.”

He nodded. “No problem. Hey, what happened at Catholic Charities? Any leads on your daughter?”

Carmelina immediately started to tear up. She hardly ever showed her emotions, not even to him. Dave jumped up and sat next to her on the edge of the chair. “What happened?”

She shook her head. “It’s stupid. It’s been decades since I let her go. She probably didn’t even think about me.”


She looked at him, and her eyes were red from crying. “She’s gone. Some drunk asshole killed her sixteen years ago, and I didn’t even know it.”

“Crap.” He hugged her fiercely. “Oh God, I’m so sorry.”

She cried on his shoulder, squeezing him tight. She had been so hopeful. First Arthur, and now this. “I don’t even get to see her,” she said through sobs. “To tell her I loved her.”

“I’m sure she knew.”

At last she let him go, wiping her eyes. “You don’t know what it means to have you here. When Arthur died, I thought I’d never sleep in that bed again.”

“I know. I remember.” Those last few months with John, when he’d had to do everything—from feeding him to wiping his ass—had been long, and brutal. And precious beyond words. When he’d finally gone… “I know,” he repeated.

Carmelina blew her nose. “I know you do.” She got that little gleam in her eye. “So… Marcos?”

Dave stared at her. “Seriously? From mental breakdown to matchmaker in sixty seconds?”

Carmelina shrugged. “It’s what I do. It makes me feel better. Now spill.”

He sighed. “We have a date tomorrow night.”

“Oh my God, that’s fantastic!”

“Well, don’t get your hopes up. I am a little rusty at the whole dating thing. He’ll probably take one look at me, turn around, and run away.”

She took him by the chin. “Listen to me. You are a wonderful, fantastic, loving man, and Marcos would be lucky to have you. Got it?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Carmelina could be frightening when she got too serious.

“Good. now do you think he’ll still be around Sunday morning?”

“Will you be?”

She ignored him. “Answer the question.”

“Um… I hope so?”

“Good. You can both come to my exorcism.”



42 - Fast Food And Late Nights

Sam growled at his computer screen.

Sometimes the words just flowed. Every author knew how it was. There were moments when it felt like you’d tapped into some other place, some real thing that was happening as you typed, and the words just poured out onto the page as if you were the conduit for a greater story.

And then there were times like this.

Cody stared at the file…

Cody glared at the file…

Cody shot a glance at the file…

“Cody doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing.” Sam was on a self-imposed deadline to get his next novel out to the publisher by the end of October—twenty-nine days and counting. But at this rate, he’d be lucky to have half of a first draft. Maybe he should have waited for NaNoWriMo. The National Novel Writing Month always inspired him to plow ahead, forcing him to ignore his inner critic.

He glanced at the clock. It was a quarter after nine already. Crap, where did the time go? He hadn’t eaten anything since lunch, and his brain was refusing to cooperate. He was sick of looking at the screen.

As if on cue, Brad popped his head into the den. He was in his bathrobe, which he still managed to make look sexy. Brad, at thirty, looked great. He made each one of those years look good. “You almost done?”

Sam nodded, closing the laptop. “I’m packing it in for the night. I’ll go grab something to eat from the fridge…”

Brad was shaking his head. “Follow me.”

He led Sam out into the living room. The lights were out, but there were candles all around. One of their blankets was spread on the floor, and a stack of Chinese takeout boxes adorned the center.

“When did you do all of this?” That’s when he noticed a fire flickering in the fireplace.

“I ran out about half an hour ago for the food. I know how hard you’re working on the book, and I thought you could use a break.”

“You’re amazing,” Sam said, pulling Brad in for a kiss. “So what do we have?”

“Um, orange chicken, Thai basil noodles, and some yellow curry chicken.” He popped open the boxes and handed Sam a pair of chopsticks. “Oh, and some brown rice.”

Sam picked up one of the boxes and pulled out a big piece of orange chicken. “It’s fantastic,” he said between mouthfuls. “Here, try.” He put a piece in Brad’s mouth.

“Holy crap, that’s good.”

“Where did you go?”

“PF Chang’s. It’s a chain, I know. But the food’s good.”

“Oh my God, I’m hungry.” Sam wolfed down half the box. “I still remember the day we moved in here together last year,” he said between bites. “When this place was brand new to us.”

Brad nodded. “It’s been a year already?”

“Last month. Oooh, you have to try the noodles.” He held out a chopstick full, and a few of them fell onto Brad’s chest. “Sorry.” But he didn’t really feel sorry about it at all. Instead, he leaned forward and licked them up off Brad’s furry pecs.

“Don’t get me started, unless you plan to finish me off too,” Brad said, giving him the look.

In response, Sam pushed him gently onto the blanket and spilled noodles onto his own chest.

Brad grinned and pulled Sam down to kiss him, laughing as the noodles got stuck between them, skin to skin. Maybe it would be a good night after all.

* * *

Matteo growled at his computer screen. He and Diego had sat down together to analyze their business, finding places to make cuts and save a little money.

They’d have to let one of the expediters go. Diego would simplify the menu to cut down on the ingredients they needed to stock in the restaurant’s kitchen. And they would forgo their own salaries for a while. Combined, the changes would buy them another month. Maybe two, if they were careful, long enough to give this new plan with the Center time to kick in.

It looked good on paper, but now his PC was acting up.

Diego had told him he should have bought a Mac. But Macs were so expensive. Next time, he thought. If they had any money left to their names.

It was late. Diego had gone to bed a couple hours before, but Matteo had tossed and turned, worrying that they hadn’t done enough. That there was something he was overlooking, some key that would turn it all around.

If there was, he couldn’t see it.

There was a loud crash behind him.

He jumped up, looking wildly around the room.

A photo album lay open on the floor where it had fallen off one of the bookshelves that lined the little den.

He peered back toward the bedroom. Diego seemed to have slept right through the noise.

Matteo stooped to pick up the album.

It was full of pictures from his childhood, photos of trips the family had taken around Italy and Europe. School photos. The old house in Imola where he had grown up. “‘I’ is for ‘Imola’…” he whispered, thumbing through the pages. How had it fallen? Everything else was neatly in place.

Then he saw it.

The photo was from a trip to Rome when he’d been eight years old. They’d stopped by a tavola calda—the Italian equivalent of a McDonalds, but so much better. The fast food there had been amazing, well made, and cheap to produce.

He stared at the grainy image for a long time.

Maybe it could work here.

There was a big University campus close by, and legions of cars passed by every morning and night. If they sold good Italian food, quickly, at reasonable prices…

He turned back to his computer and started searching for hard data. He needed to know if this was viable before he presented it to Diego.



43 - Is Something Burning?

“I thought you two were going out.” Marissa sat at the dinner table, working on her math homework. She was clearly more interested in Marcos’s love life.

“I thought you had a test to prepare for,” he shot back as he checked the pasta sauce. He was far more comfortable making Mexican cuisine than a simple Italian dinner. Give him a sack of pinto beans, some chicken, and a couple hours, and he could whip up a dinner to rival his mother’s own. She’d told him so herself.

He’d promised Dave Italian though, so Italian it would have to be.

“I’ve got all weekend to study. So what happened?” She came over to see what he was making. “Smells good.”

The water was boiling. He poured in the whole-wheat pasta—Trader Joe’s was magic for decent, healthy fare—and checked the garlic bread in the oven.

A quick glance at the clock showed he had a good fifteen minutes until his guest arrived. “You happened. I realized it wasn’t a good idea to leave you unsupervised on a Saturday night.”

Marissa snorted. “Like I have anything to do.”

“I thought you made some new friends?” He tasted the sauce. Not bad. It needed a little more garlic.

“Jason and the Outcasts? They’re not real big on the social scene, if you know what I mean.”

He laughed. “I don’t have a clue. Hey, as long as you’re not studying, could you set the table?”

“Sure.” She put her books back in her bedroom. “Which dishes?”

“The blue-and-white ones.”

“Oh, fancy. You must like this guy.” She stared at the table for a minute. “What am I going to do for dinner?”

“Eat with us, of course.”

“On your date?” She screwed up her face. “Isn’t that kinda… weird?”

“You’re a part of my life now. Besides, I want to take things slow with this one.”

“Whatever.” She set the table for three. “How come you aren’t with someone?”

“I’m with you.”

“You know what I mean.”

It was a question he’d asked himself before, but there was no one good answer. “I guess I just wasn’t ready. I liked going out to the bars. Meeting new guys, being forever young.” He sighed. “I’ll be forty next year. I don’t turn the heads of the cute guys like I used to.”

“Damn, you are old.”

He flicked her with the kitchen towel. “Wait until you’re my age and alone.” He smelled something.

“Um… I think the bread is burning.”

“Dammit.” He opened the oven and a burst of smoke filled the kitchen. “It’s not too bad.” He peered at the darkened pieces of bread. “Maybe I can scrape off the worst of it.”

“Forget it,” Marissa said, looking over his shoulder with a frown. “It’s a lost cause.”

“At least the pasta is all right.…” He tasted the sauce and spat it out into the sink. “Crap. I think I used too much garlic.”

She tried it. “Um, yeah, that’s pretty bad.” She glanced at the boiling water. “At least the spaghetti looks okay.”

“He’s going to be here in ten minutes. I don’t have enough time to start over from scratch!” He dumped the sauce down the drain and went to open the living room window to let out the smoke. This was why he hated dating.

“Calm down. Give me your phone.”

“It’s on my desk. What are you going to do?”

“Get you Caviar.”

“I don’t see how that’ll help. The stuff is vile. And where would you even find it?”

“It’s a delivery app. We’ll have dinner here in no time—I’ll get something from Paesanos. Just clean up this mess, fast.”

* * *

Dave knocked on the door. Marcos’s condo was in a nice building—one of those refurbished older ones.

He hoped Marcos liked the flowers he’d chosen. He’d stopped by the Safeway on R Street to pick some up and had chosen this batch of daisies because it was dyed in rainbow colors. Now he was second guessing his choice. Rainbow—how cheesy was that? Frantically, he looked around for a place to stash them, but the hallway was bare. Maybe if…

The door swung open, and Marissa, Marcos’s foster child—he thought, but he really wasn’t clear on that—opened the door.

“Hi Dave. Come on in.” She ushered him in side. “Your date is here!” she shouted. “He brought flowers!”

Dave sighed.

Marco’s place was a lot like the man—sleek, modern, and warm. Shelves against one wall were filled with books, mostly biographies, from the look of them. A copy of Justin Trudeau’s biography sat on the living room table. Dark leather furniture gave the place a loft feel, and the scraped hardwood floors finished the look.

Marcos appeared from the kitchen. “Sorry to keep you waiting.”

“For you,” Dave said, holding the bouquet up with a weak smile. “I hope you like flowers.…”

“They’re beautiful.” He took them and rummaged up a vase from the kitchen, depositing them neatly inside. “Have a seat.”

It smelled a little like smoke. “Is something burning?”

Marcos flashed a rueful smile. “I ruined dinner. I was doing too many things, and it got away from me.”

“We can go out, if you’d rather.” Nice to know he’s human.

Marcos shook his head. “Marissa used an app to order dinner. I hope you like Paesano’s.”

“I’ll be in my bedroom,” Marissa said with a smile. “Call me when dinner gets here!” Her door closed behind her.

“She seems like a good kid,” Dave observed.

Marcos looked unhappy.


“I really like you,” Marcos said after a moment.

Dave laughed. “I like you too. What’s wrong with that?”

Marcos fidgeted. “I… don’t want to sleep with you.”

Ouch. “Okay. I get it. You don’t think I’m attractive.” He started to get up.

“No. I mean, I do want to. I think you’re really cute. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you since Thursday.”

Dave sat back down on the leather couch. “Ah, okay… so?”

“I have a bad habit of jumping in bed with guys I hardly know and then finding out we’re incompatible the day after.” Marcos looked him in the eye. “I think we could be something together. I don’t want to make that mistake with you.”

Dave grinned. Here he’d been nervous about jumping back in the saddle again, but taking it slow suited him just fine. “I think that could work for me.” He leaned forward to kiss Marcos.

It was sweet, and it made his heart thump a little harder.

The doorbell rang.

Marco’s eyes sparkled. “Dinner is here.”



44 - A Proposal

Diego put away the last of the dishes and mopped down the floor of the restaurant kitchen. They’d had almost forty diners over the course of the night. Fantastic news, but coming just after they’d let go of Justin, it had made for a long night for the two of them.

“It’ll be easier once we’ve been at it a few months,” Matteo had told him before they’d embarked on this mad adventure together. “We’ll hire a good manager, take nights off. You’ll see.”

Well, he’d seen, all right. Here he was at a quarter after eleven, cleaning up after a long day in the kitchen. And where was Matteo?

Upstairs, on the computer.

Not that he could complain, really. Matteo had forgiven him for something far worse.

He stashed the cleaning supplies, took one last look around the kitchen, and headed upstairs.

Matteo was in his little den, as expected, his face bathed in blue light from the computer screen.

Cosa fai?” Diego complained, shucking his apron and shirt.

“In English,” Matteo chided.

Sono troppo stanco per l’inglese.

Matteo gave him a pitying look, but switched over to speak in Italian. “Everything cleaned and locked up downstairs?”

Diego nodded. “That was some rush we had today. If every day was like that…”

“…we could hire some more help.”

“If only!” He pulled down his pants.

Matteo glanced over and whistled. “My sexy Italian boyfriend.”


“Not at the moment. Besides, it’s kind of a turn-on to think of you that way.” Matteo closed his laptop and stood, stretching.

After all these years, he still looked good to Diego.

“Wanna hop in the shower with me?” Diego asked, swinging his underwear around playfully on one finger.

“I thought you’d never ask.”

* * *

Afterwards, they lay together on the bed, still wired from the day and their shower together. Matteo ran his hand along Diego’s back.

“Oooh, yes,” Diego said, arching his back. “Scratch right there.”

Matteo scratched up and down Diego’s back lazily.

“Damn, that feels good.”

Matteo climbed on top of Diego and began to massage his shoulders. “How about that?”

“Yes, please.”

Diego’s back was spotted with little freckles, but they were almost hidden by his all-over tan. Matteo had always liked those freckles.

He knew that Diego slipped up to their rooftop to take a little sun whenever he had the chance. Matteo had no idea where he found the time.

He’d called the hospital earlier in the day. Max still hadn’t woken up.

“I made an appointment with an immigration attorney for Monday,” he said. Matteo could feel Diego stiffen under his grip.

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“I think we have to. If we get caught… if Max wakes up… we could get thrown out of the country and never be allowed to come back in.”

“I guess.…”

“It will be all right. Brad recommended this one.”

“You told him?” Diego twisted to look up at him.

“No. Just that we needed some advice.” He kissed Diego’s forehead, eliciting a deep sigh.

“I’m sorry I got you into this mess.”

Matteo leaned down to kiss him. “Done is done. We’ll figure it out. Speaking of which… I had an idea.”

“About Max?”

“About Ragazzi.” Time to make his pitch. “What if we could cut our costs and maybe make a little more money?”

Diego turned over, and Matteo lay down next to him. “How? I am not cutting corners on the ingredients. A job worth doing—”

“Is worth doing well. I know, I know. Here, look.” He pulled out the photo he’d found the night before and handed it over to Diego.

Diego looked at it and smiled. “You were so cute back then.”

“I’m not cute now. I’m fat. And hideous.”

“You’re handsome now.” He touched Matteo’s face gently. “How old were you?”

“About eight, I think.”

“I wish we’d known each other then.” He turned it over. “So what does this mean?” He held up the photo.

“I was going over the accounts when one of the photo albums fell off the bookcase. This photo popped out. I remember this trip. It was the first time I ever visited Rome, and they had this amazing restaurant there. The food was really good, and they served it pre-prepared so you could get it to go.”

Diego frowned. “I’m not sure I want to serve prepared food.”

“Think about it. The University is just a couple miles from here, with a huge student market. And what about the folks on their way home, out there on Folsom Blvd?”


“I found the owners of this place on Facebook. They’re still there after all these years.” He took back the photo and stared at it, remembering that day as clearly as if he’d just been there. “They wrote me back this morning. They said they’d be willing to give us some advice. And with the kids from the Center—Diego, I think we could really make this thing work.”

Diego yawned. “I’m too tired to think about it tonight. Maybe we can talk about it more in a day or two?”

“Sure.” He leaned forward and kissed Diego. “Wanna turn out the light?”

Diego reached out and flicked the switch on the bedside lamp. He snuggled up next to Matteo, putting his head against Matteo’s shoulder.

Time enough to have a bigger discussion tomorrow. At the moment, Matteo was content just the way things were, with Diego in his arms.



45 - Baggage

Ben stared at his cell phone. On the plate next to it, a half-eaten slice of Eatuscany’s pizza was quickly growing cold.

“What’s wrong? You do not like the pizza?”

Ben looked up. Stefania, the restaurant’s owner, looked at him quizzically.

“It’s good,” he said. “Really. I’m just not in the mood today, I guess.”

She held out her hand “Want me to heat it up for you again?”

“Nah, I’m good. I might try some of your gelato in a bit though.…”

“Just come in when you’re ready.” She gave him a pat on the shoulder.

Ben liked this place, and he found Stefania’s Italian accent charming. The food was good too. He sat at one of the sidewalk tables, watching the people go by, carrying chocolate treats from Ginger Elizabeth next door or frozen yogurt from the place on the corner.

In his mind, he went over the events of the previous night. Things had gone off the rails when he’d arrived at the hospital for his second “date” with Ella.

* * *

Ben held a dozen red roses in one hand, pressing the third-floor button impatiently with the other. She hadn’t responded to his texts, but maybe her cell signal was weak in the hospital. Or maybe she was just too busy.

The doors opened, and Ben stepped out into the antiseptic halls of the third floor. They had moved Max out of the emergency room. Ben double checked the room number he’d gotten from the hospital operator.

He hesitated at the door to Max’s room. What if she had changed her mind? What if she didn’t want to see him anymore? Maybe this was all a bad idea. Maybe he should just leave her alone for a little while. Back off.

The decision was taken away from him as the door opened and he came face to face with a tall brunette woman. She was probably in her fifties, but she had Ella’s features.

“Ah, you must be Ben.” She didn’t smile.

If he guessed right, this was Lexi, Ella’s “moms.” Ella must have told her about him. “Yes, I am. I came to see how she was doing. Are you her mother?”

Lexi smiled. “Yes, you could say that. Listen, Ella’s asleep in there.” She closed the door quietly behind her. “I was going to get some coffee. Would you like to come with me?”

“Um… sure?”

She pulled him gently away from Max’s room by the arm. Ben looked over his shoulder at the closed door. He’d been this close.

“It’s so nice to meet you. Ella told me all about you when I got to town this morning.”

All about me? “How… how is Max doing?”

“He’s still out. But the doctors are encouraged. Thanks for asking.”

They arrived at the cafeteria. “The coffee here’s fairly abysmal, but it does have caffeine in it to keep me awake. It’s late, back where I came from.”

“Where is that?” Ben grabbed himself a Pepsi. As a barista, he didn’t think he could stomach hospital coffee.

“A little town in the Hamptons. Long Island.”

Ben nodded like he knew what that meant. Closest he’d ever gotten to the Hamptons was watching Royal Pains.

They paid for their drinks and found a table in one corner of the cafeteria.

“I wanted to start off by saying how grateful I am to you for being here for Ella, when all this happened.” She put a hand on his. “It was a relief knowing she wasn’t facing this alone.”

He nodded. “I was happy to. Ella’s an amazing woman.”

“Yes, she is. I assume she’s told you about me?”

“Yes.” No point in denying it. “She seemed very proud of you.”

That made her smile. “It’s mutual. You know how hard it is to transition. I spent the first fifteen years of my life in turmoil. Back then we didn’t have a name for how I felt inside. Then another thirty-three years trying to live as someone else. You know how that is.”

Yes, Ella had told her moms everything. “Yes, I do.” He wasn’t sure where she was going with this. “I lost a lot of family members when I transitioned. It was painful, but the alternative was worse.”

“Yes.” She sipped her coffee. “God, this really is awful today.”

Ben laughed. “I work at the Everyday Grind. I can bring you something better tomorrow, if you’d like.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Ben.”

“It’s not a problem. Really! And trust me, I make far better brew than that swill.”

“I mean, I don’t think you should come back here. Ella’s got a lot going on right now, and we’re both worried about Max.”


“Look. We both know being trans comes with a lot of baggage. I’d rather see my daughter end up with someone… a little less complicated.”

Ben couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He looked down at the bunch of flowers on the table. They were already wilting from lack of water. “You don’t want me dating your daughter… because I’m trans?”

“I wouldn’t put it like that, but essentially, yes.”

“But you’re trans!”

She laughed, and this time it was a bitter sound. “Yes, yes, I am. So I’m in a good position to know what I’d be letting my daughter in for, aren’t I?” She finished her coffee with a grimace and stood, holding out a hand. “I take it we understand each other?”

Stunned, he refused to shake it.

She shrugged and walked away. “It was nice to meet you, Ben.”

* * *

Now he stared at the phone, trying to decide what to do.

Being trans comes with a lot of baggage.

The more he thought about it, the angrier he became. Sure, he had baggage. But who didn’t? The trans community certainly hadn’t cornered the market on baggage. He was supposed to leave Ella alone because her own mother was internally transphobic? I don’t think so. Not unless he heard it from Ella herself.

He picked up the phone and sent her a text. Can I meet you?

A minute later, she replied. Tomorrow. 12 PM. EG.

It looked like they'd be having a second date after all.



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


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