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

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: Carmelina figured out that Daniele was the one who killed her daughter. She crashed Dave and Marcos's date, but they didn't mind. Carmelina went through the box of belongings she'd bought for her absent daughter over the years - her "box of hopes and dreams" - and then she sent Daniele on his way. She found out she had a grandchild, and decided she needed to find them.

Marcos started to fall in love with Dave.

Diego and Matteo worked with the new interns and sold out their Tavola Calda lunches. Then Diego flew off to Italy to see his ex wife about finally getting their divorce.

Marissa's stepmother came to see her, and tried to get Marissa to come home. Marissa got closer to Tristan.

Sam ran into his cheating ex from Tucson at a writing conference. Ben finished his novel and went to find Ella.

Marcos took Dave to the zoo to feed the giraffes.

Will Sam give in and go back to his ex? Will Carmelina find more clues as to the whereabouts of her grandchild? And is someone about to propose to someone else?

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

 


64 - People Have It Off

Marcos sat at the dining room table in his condo, working on his laptop, keeping one eye on the bathroom door. He’d heard stirrings in Marissa’s bedroom an hour before, and then she’d popped out briefly, only to vanish into the bathroom before he had a chance to say more than “Marissa, I’d like to speak to—

She’d been in there now for thirty-seven minutes—not that he was counting.

Sooner or later she’d have to venture out, and then they would have the talk.

He was dreading it.

He’d never had to give the talk before, and truth be told, no one had ever really given it to him either. His father had sat down with him once to tell him “about the whole sex thing.” By that time, he’d already been doing the “whole sex thing” for a few months with a cute guy from school named Russ, but his parents hadn’t figured out that he was gay yet. So his father’s awkward descriptions of vaginas and over-the-bra action and how to treat a lady fell on deaf ears.

He much preferred the AbFab version: “Sweetie, people have it off.”

Now here he was in the adult role, one he felt particularly unprepared for this day, but somebody had to do it.

The bathroom door flew open. Marissa emerged from her cocoon.

“Hey there…” he tried, but she was almost too fast for him again.

“Gotta run. See you tonight for dinner!” She flitted past him like a butterfly, kissing him on the forehead.

He grabbed her hand and pulled her gently back. “Wait just a minute, little speedster. I need to talk with you before you go. I’ve been waiting for you all morning. Please have a seat.”

She sank down into one of the other dining room chairs reluctantly. “What is it? I’m already running late…”

“Did you do your homework?” Damn, he felt just like his father.

“Half of it. I’ll finish the rest tomorrow. Is that all?” She started to get up again.

“No, wait. I saw you with someone the other day.”

She smirked. “You’ll have to be more specific.”

“With a boy. I saw you kissing a boy, out in front of the school.” Damn, this was hard.

She laughed. “Yeah, that’s one of the things high schoolers do.”

“I know.” He sighed, exasperated. “Look, please don’t make this any harder than it already is. I know you probably have a lot of urges—”

“Eeeew. Wait, are you giving me the sex talk?” She wrinkled her nose.

“Um… yeah? Why, am I doing it badly?”

“Not sure yet. Keep going.”

“Okay, so I don’t know if your parents—”

Adoptive parents.”

“—adoptive parents ever talked to you about sex. I’m going to assume you know that when a man and a woman have sex…”

“Baby. Yeah, clear on the whole procreation thing. You know, we have Sex Ed in school now.”

“Right.” His own Sex Ed had been a series of horror films shown to his class in freshman year. What all manner of venereal diseases would do to you and your privates. He still had pustule-filled nightmares sometimes. “Okay, I want to lay down a few ground rules.”

“Got it.”

“One, I want you to feel free to talk with me whenever you have questions about it. I’m always here for you.”

“Okay.”

“Two, I don’t think you’re ready yet for sex. Sex… it changes everything. You can learn all about it in Sex Ed class and still know absolutely nothing about what sex really is. And once you try it, you can’t go back. You haven’t tried it yet, have you?”

She stared back at him. “Do you really want to know?”

“I… um… if you want to tell me. Or talk to me about it. I'm trying here.”

Marissa nodded. “I know you are.” She looked thoughtful. “I haven’t yet with the guy you saw. His name’s Tristan, by the way.”

“Tristan. Okay.”

“But I have. Done it. In the past.”

“Gotcha.” He reached under the table. “I know you’re a teenager, almost an adult. I know I can’t stop you if you decide you two want to… you know.”

“I know.”

“But if you do, here is some… protection.” He handed her the sack of condoms and lube he’d picked up at the Center.

“You are so much cooler than my adoptive father,” she said, laughing. She pulled out the lube. “You know I don’t need this, right?” Then she pulled out a condom, turning it over. “Wait, where did you get these?”

“The LGBT Center. They give them out free. Why?” Maybe they’re not the cool kind.

“I know. I used to go there, remember? You aren’t using these, are you? Tell me you haven’t used any of them.”

“No, I haven’t. Why?”

She rolled her eyes. “Maybe we do need to have the talk, after all. These condoms are expired.”

“Oh shit.” God, I’m a terrible parent. “Let me see.” Sure enough, they were six months out of date.

“You two are having safe sex, aren’t you?” She sounded really serious. “You know you can catch all kinds of things if you don’t play safe.”

“What?” Wait, now she was giving him the sex talk?

“You and Dave?”

“We’re… we haven’t… No. We decided to wait.”

“Thank God. I don’t think you’re ready yet. But when you are, I want you to feel free to talk with me whenever you have questions about it.” She kissed him on the cheek. “I’m always here for you.” She got up and headed for the door.

“I’ll get you some better condoms from the drug store,” he called after her.

“Don’t bother. I have my own. See you tonight!”

The door slammed behind her.

Marcos stared at it for a long time, wondering how she had suddenly become the adult in the relationship.

 

 

65- In His Court

Are we on for dinner?

Sam sent the text and waited anxiously for Jameson to respond. In the meantime, he checked himself again in the bathroom mirror. He had his best come-fuck-me clothes on; his black button-down long-sleeved shirt, undone halfway to his waist; his worn Levis that showed off his ass to perfection; his cowboy boots; and the pièce de résistance: his black cowboy hat.

He looked damned fine. And fuckable.

He couldn’t believe he was actually going through with this, but he needed it. He sent the text.

Yes, I am free. Glad you decided to contact me.

This was going to work.

See you soon. *cucumber emoji*

“You sure about this?” Brad poked his head into the bathroom, looking a little worried.

Sam nodded. “I need to do it. I’m so glad you understand.”

“Not entirely?” Brad gave him a raised eyebrow. “But I’ll be okay. Just come back home to me.”

Sam kissed Brad on the cheek and called himself an Uber. In five minutes he was on his way.

He was a bundle of nerves: scared, excited, a little nauseous. He’d only decided to do it a half hour before. It had been almost two years since they’d lasts seen each other. The man had preyed on him, using his position as a teacher to take advantage of him. And yet…

Now he was here.

Sam’s knee bounced up and down in the back seat of the Prius.

“Exciting plans tonight?” his driver, a man named Hector, asked, smiling at him in the rearview mirror.

“Yeah. You could say that.”

“It’s just… you look a little nervous.”

“Yeah.” He stared out the window at the buildings along 16th Street. “Meeting an old friend.” A bump in the road almost sent his nervous stomach into revolt.

“Hock Farm’s a nice place. Took my girlfriend there once.”

“Oh yeah?” Sam closed his eyes, trying not to think, to feel.

“You gotta try the burger. You like bleu cheese?”

“Not really.” Just the thought of bleu cheese made him uncomfortable at the moment. He drew a long, slow breath, trying to calm his nerves.

“Get the mac and cheese then. They get all their shit locally…”

“Sorry, not in a talking mood.”

“I feel ya, man.”

Hector went quiet, but Sam had the feeling he’d offended the poor guy. “Look, I’m sorry—”

“Doesn’t matter. We’re here.”

“Look, I’ll give you five stars.” He pulled out his phone.

That earned him a smile. “Appreciate that. And good luck with your ex-girlfriend!”

“He’s not my ex-girlfriend…”

Hector was already gone.

Sam closed his eyes. Am I sure about this? There was still time to back out.

“Sam!” Jameson waved to him from half a block away. He was probably coming directly from the convention center. He gave Sam the once-over. “Damn, you look good. All this on my account?”

Sam blushed. “You look pretty damned good yourself.” Sam had always had a thing for older guys, especially literary types.

“Thanks. Shall we go inside?” He held open the door, and Sam allowed himself to be escorted in.

“Cort, party of two,” Jameson said to the hostess. “Hey, I was kind of surprised to hear from you,” he said to Sam. “You and your boyfriend… Ben, is it?”

“Br… Ben. Yeah, right.”

“You seemed pretty tight at the con.”

“Ben’s busy tonight.”

Jameson winked at him. “Clearly.”

The hostess led them to a table by the window. Sam tried not to stare at Jameson.

“This looks like a nice place,” Jameson said approvingly.

“It’s one of my favorites. The food’s really fresh. Sacramento’s a big farm-to-fork town.” He looked over the menu and decided on the pork sliders. “So… you seeing anyone?”

Jameson shook his head. “Not really. There was a guy over the summer, but… things didn’t work out.” He stared at Sam over the menu. “I have a confession to make.”

“You’re not just here for dinner?”

Jameson laughed. “No, I’m not.” Jameson stared at Sam for a moment before continuing. “But I’m not just in Sacramento for a conference, either. I was hoping to find you here.”

Sam’s heart began to race. “What? Why?”

“You’re the one that got away.”

Sam stared at him. Here in front of him was the man he’d fallen in love with in college, had hoped to spend the rest of his life with, before… and Jameson was apparently here to apologize to him. “You hurt me pretty badly, you know.”

Jameson nodded. “I know. And I’m sorry, I really am.” He put his hand on Sam’s. “Look, I’m not really all that hungry. Want to… go back to my room? I’m at the Hyatt. It’s just next door.”

Sam hesitated. Did he really have the guts to go through with this? That touch brought up all the old feelings again. In the end, that was what decided him. He nodded. “Let’s go.”

Jameson grinned and took his hand. They brushed past the waitress. “Sorry, emergency. Gotta run.” Then they were outside.

In the elevator on the way to the seventh floor, his ex reached over to brush his hand across Sam’s crotch.

Sam pushed him away gently. “Not yet. Be patient.”

“Oh my God, I’ve missed you.” He kissed Sam’s neck.

Sam’s pulse started racing. He wasn’t ready for this.

They reached Jameson’s hotel room, and the man pulled him close for a kiss.

Sam turned away. “Let me clean up a little first,” he whispered in Jameson’s ear. “Why don’t you wait for me on the bed? I’ll be out in just a second.” He closed the bathroom door behind him and shivered.

This was harder than he’d thought. He looked at himself in the mirror. Was this what he wanted?

“I’m ready for you,” Jameson called from the bedroom.

He nodded to himself. He had to do this. “Coming.” He pulled out his phone. Opening the door, he found Jameson spread out on the bed wearing nothing but a condom. “Smile,” he said. He snapped three quick pics.

“What the hell are you doing?” Jameson demanded, pulling the bedspread over his naked body.

“Just a little well-deserved revenge. What you did to me was wrong. You took advantage of a much younger student who was stupid enough to believe all your lies and bullshit. Then you cast me aside and started out all over again with someone else.” He held up his phone. “Now I have these. If I ever hear that you have taken up with another student, these and my full story will go to the Dean of the U of A’s office.” He slipped his phone into his pocket. “Good night, professor.” He left the room, letting the door slam in the face of a sputtering, indignant Jameson Cort.

A young writing student from Sac State Sam recognized from the conference was standing outside with a key card.

Sam rolled his eyes. “I wouldn’t, if I were you,” he said with a grin. “Unless you like crabs.”

“Hell no! Thanks, man!” The guy turned and almost ran back to the elevator.

Jameson had them lining up in the halls. Came to Sacramento for me, my ass. The man was the same cheating, lying sack of shit he’d always been.

Sam had been worried he would feel guilty about all this, but he’d been wrong. It felt damned fucking good.

He took another Uber home.

“Did it go okay?” Brad asked.

“Yeah, it did.” Sam grinned. “He’ll never pull that bullshit again.”

Brad sighed with relief. “You had me a little worried.”

“You’re the only guy I need.” Sam pulled Brad close to him, right where he belonged.

 

 

66 - Home

Author’s note: The scenes and chapters which take place in Italy are in Diego’s native Italian, but for my English readers, the dialogue is written in English with occasional Italian words and phrases for flavor.

 

Diego pulled his suitcase down from the luggage rack and stared out at the airport through the little oval window. It was a gloomy day in Bologna, and it suited his mood perfectly.

Really, he should be happy. His sister Valentina would be here to pick him up, and he’d get to enjoy some of his mother’s home cooking when they reached Bertinoro.

He smiled at the thought. He’d missed his mamma’s homemade passatelli—a recipe passed down to her from his grandmother. It had been a real treat sharing it with his students at Ragazzi.

If that made him a mammone, so be it. There were worse things than being a mamma’s boy.

The line finally started to move, and he nodded at the stewardess as he passed. “Grazie mille.

Buona giornata,” she replied with a bright smile. “Benvenuto in Italia.”

At last he was free of the plane’s claustrophobic embrace. Fourteen hours was way too long to be cooped up like that.

He looked around for Valentina and was disappointed not to see her waiting for him. He’d just pulled out his cell phone to call her when he heard a shriek.

“Diego!”

He grinned and turned just in time to take his sister into his arms. She squeezed him hard, earning disapproving looks from some of the other disembarking passengers. “You’re home! You’re here!” She kissed him on both cheeks.

“Yes, I’m here.” He couldn’t help but smile at her infectious joy. She looked a little harried, her black hair wild with static electricity, but as he remembered, that was her normal state of existence.

“Come on!” She disentangled herself from him and took his hand, dragging him down the concourse. “Do you have any checked bags?”

“Just this one and my backpack.”

After nine months in the United States, it was strange to be surrounded by Italian signs, Italian speakers, by everything Italian once again. For once, he was in the majority. Damn, I’ve missed this. “Why are we in such a hurry?” he complained.

“I don’t want to pay for a full hour in the parking garage.”

“Where are Bianca and Dante?” He’d been expecting to see her kids here with his sister. He’d brought them each a Ragazzi T-shirt.

“They’re at home with Mamma.” They burst into the fresh, cool air outside, and she led him onward to the parking garage.

It was a good hour’s drive home from Bologna’s airport, time he was looking forward to spending with her to catch up. “I see you still have the same old beat-up Fiat.”

“It still works,” she said, swinging open the hatchback so he could stow his suitcase. “Unlike my ex-husband.”

Diego snorted. Roger had been in Italy as an exchange student from the US when he’d met Valentina. They’d had a short, sweet romance, a longer, bitter marriage, and an acrimonious divorce.

Diego hopped in the car with her. “You ever hear from him?”

She shook her head, starting up the Fiat. “Not since 2012, when my lawyers tracked him down. He still doesn’t send the payments like he’s supposed to.” She jammed the car in reverse and backed out with the briefest of glances behind her, getting a sharp honk from an oncoming Peugeot.

She gave him a rude gesture and sped off.

Diego laughed.

“What?” She glared at him.

He shook his head. “Nothing. It’s just good to be home again.”

Soon enough they were out on the autostrada, zooming past farms and wide, open golden fields. After the niceties, their talk turned to the reason he was there. “So this man, Max… he tried to blackmail you?”

“Yeah. He found out about Luna, somehow, and the fact that we’d never gotten a divorce. I should have told Matteo. But I didn’t think it would matter. It’s not like they let gays marry here anyhow.”

“And now you could be in a pile of trouble with Immigration if they found out?”

“Yeah. I have to get Luna to agree to a divorce. Even then it might not help.”

She nodded. “My divorce took three years, and that was after he left the country and his own children.”

“I know.” He sighed, watching the passing countryside go by. He had no idea what the answer was, but he had to try. For Ragazzi. For Matteo.

“Luna has agreed to meet you on Tuesday. I thought you could use a couple of days with the famiglia first.”

Diego nodded. “I’m looking forward to Mamma’s—”

Passatelli. I know.” She laughed, and the sound did his soul good. “It’s all you ever talk about it. She’s making some for lunch.”

He grinned. “How are the kids?”

“In trouble, as always.” She handed him her phone. “Check the photos.”

He flipped through them. Bianca was wearing her soccer clothes and had a skinned knee. Dante looked more reserved, as always—quiet kid, but so smart. “What did they do?”

“Bianca slipped off her bike in town and got a couple of nasty cuts. Dante brought some rats he trapped to school in his backpack, and they escaped.”

“Damn. That must have been interesting.” How was he missing all these things?

“He got suspended for three days.”

They pulled off the autostrada and climbed up into the hills. Diego got a lump in his throat as they approached the village. He’d grown up here, in a little house on the outskirts of town. It was a small place, maybe ten thousand inhabitants all told.

Soon Valentina was pulling into her driveway on Via Giovanni Bovio. The car jerked to a halt. “We’re here!” She climbed out of the driver’s seat and slammed the door.

“Ciao, Valentina,” a woman called from across the street.

“Ciao, Mrs. Ricci! Diego’s home!” She pointed at her brother proudly.

Benvenuto a casa, Diego,” Mrs. Ricci called, beaming, her floral-print dress and gray hair flapping in the breeze. “You have to come over and see me when you have a chance.”

“I will, Mrs. Ricci. I promise.”

Diego grabbed his luggage. He looked up at the two-story white stucco building with its signature red tile roof. It looked like it needed a new paint job.

He shrugged and followed Valentina inside, where he was immediately assaulted by the most wonderful smell. Passatelli.

He dropped his bags and ran into the kitchen. “Mamma!”

His mother, well into her sixties, set down her spoon and turned, a look of joy creasing her features. She opened her arms to him. “My Diego. Oh how I have missed you!” She hugged him tight, sending up puffs of flour from her apron that made him sneeze.

He didn’t care.

He was home.

 

 

67 - The Accidental Chef

“What do you mean, you can’t come in today?” Matteo stared at his cell phone, on speaker mode, rubbing his temples.

“Sorry,” Phil, their fill-in chef, said. “Like I said, I’m sick. Cough cough.”

Matteo looked up at the clock. “It’s a quarter to nine on a Sunday. In two hours, we’re opening for lunch. How am I going to find someone so fast?”

“Not my problem, boss.”

Things had gotten off to a rocky start between them the day before. Phil had seemed like an odd fit to Matteo from the beginning, but Diego said his resumé was perfect, and he’d come highly recommended from his last job. Which Matteo imagined must have been at a low-rent burger joint, the way he’d splattered grease and flour around the kitchen. They’d had words afterward, and Matteo had spent two hours cleaning up after the man had stormed out.

Now he was without a chef for Sunday service and for their weekly cooking class.

“We hired you to do a job,” Matteo said testily. “I need you here in half an hour.”

“No can do. Maybe I’ll be able to make it in tomorrow. If I’m not sick anymore. Cough.”

“Get here in thirty minutes, or I’ll find another chef!” He hung up. Pushing a little colored button on a screen was a hell of a lot less satisfying than slamming down a receiver.

Ten till now. He needed a chef, and he needed someone fast.

He made half a dozen phone calls to friends of Diego’s. Everyone was booked or out of town.

At last he reached Dyson Clay, the handsome chef down at Forked. “Yeah, I can help you guys out. But I have to be out of there by one thirty, one forty-five latest.”

“Thank you so much! Oddio, you don’t know how much that will help.”

“Happy to help. Be there in an hour.”

Matteo hung up and took his first real breath of the morning. Lunch was covered. That was the most important thing.

Now he just had class to worry about.

* * *

“Well, that’s it, then.” Dyson washed his hands at the kitchen sink after they’d finished loading up the dishes in the dish washer. “Nice crowd today.”

The expediters had already been sent home.

Matteo nodded. “We’ve been getting good… come si dice? Mouth words?”

Dyson laughed, deep and heartily. Though he was in his late sixties, the chef was handsome still, what they called a silver fox. Or maybe a silver bear. “Word of mouth. That’s really good. Anytime I can lend a hand—”

“How about tonight?” Matteo said hopefully. He had no desire to call Phil back again.

“Ah, wish I could, but I have a chef’s table thing at the restaurant tonight.” He dried his strong, hairy arms. “You a Kings fan?” Handsome though he was, the man was also terminally straight.

“Not really.”

“Too bad. It would be fun for you and Diego to come with me and Alyson to a game sometime. And when the new arena opens next year…”

“We’ll get a lot more business out our way after your downtown parking rates go up,” Matteo said with an evil grin.

Dyson snorted. “You’re probably right.” He pulled off his apron as he headed for the door. “See you!”

“Thanks again.” Matteo glanced at the clock. He had about fifteen minutes to get things ready for the class. He was no chef, but there was one thing he knew how to make.

Dessert.

* * *

Carmelina was the first to arrive at Ragazzi.

She’d almost decided to stay at home. The last few days had been bleak, as if the world had tipped sideways and all the color had drained out, but she wasn’t one to wallow in self-pity.

Matteo stood behind the counter, looking forlorn. “Ciao, bello.

Ciao, amica!” He perked up at the sight of her, flashing her a big smile.

“Where’s Diego? Is he running late today?”

Matteo shook his head. “He’s in Italy. He… he had some family business to take care of.”

“Well, then, we’ll just have to get to know each other a little better, then, won’t we?”

Matteo laughed. “I guess so.”

“What are we making today?” She eyed the counter, which was covered with fruit and stacks of chocolate bars, both white and dark. “I like what I see so far.”

“I’m not a chef, but I do make a good dessert. It’s one of Diego’s preferreds.”

“Favorites?”

“Favorites. Thank you. It’s called Spiedini di Frutta al Cioccolato.”

She grinned. “Oooh, sounds sexy. What does it mean?” As long as it had chocolate in it, she was sure to love it.

The bell on the door rang, and Marcos and Marissa arrived. “Oooh, chocolate,” the teenager said as she plopped herself down at the counter. “Can I?”

Matteo nodded. “Sure. We have extra.”

“Hey there,” Marcos said, kissing her on the cheek.

“Hey darlin’.”

“In English? Fruit and chocolate stick?”

“Stick?” The lightbulb went off. “Oh, skewers.” On one side of the counter there was a stack of metal skewers. “So, what do we need to do?”

“You want to start cutting up the fruit? We’ll serve these for dinner tonight too.”

“Sure thing.” She washed her hands and grabbed a kiwi and a knife and started cutting.

It felt good to be busy.

* * *

After class, Matteo pulled Carmelina aside. “I need your help.”

She read the distress in his eyes. “Sure. What can I do?”

“We lost our chef for dinner tonight. I think I have someone for tomorrow, but people will start arriving in an hour.”

“You need a chef.” Why was he asking her?

He nodded, looking miserable.

“Matteo, I’m not a chef—”

“But you know how to cook.”

She shook her head vehemently. “There’s no way I can run a restaurant. I’ve never done it before.”

“You’ve cooked for your family, right?”

“That’s different. It’s just one or two dishes.” The man must be off his meds.

He nodded. “Perfect. That’s all we need. We’ll call it a special event. Just make what you know best.”

“I don’t know—”

He took her hand, looking into her eyes with his big brown eyes. “Please? I don’t know what else to do.”

She thought about it. She did have a couple of dishes her nonna used to make, that she knew how to prepare without a recipe. And it would keep her mind off Andrea. And Daniele. “All right. I’ll do it.”

“Thank you.”

“But you have to stay and help. You can’t leave me here all alone.”

Matteo nodded.

“Okay, I need some flour, eggs, tomatoes… where do you keep your biggest saucepan?”

A neatly hand-lettered sign appeared in the front window half an hour later:

Special Event!

Il Menu Presso Fisso:

Mamma Carmelina’s Homemade Ravioli

Red Wine

Spiedini di Frutta al Cioccolato

$12.99

Recipes courtesy of Fabrizio Montanari and his mother and grandmother.

Spiedini Di Frutta Al Cioccolato

Ingredients (serves 12):

•   8 3-1/2 oz. bars of dark chocolate

•   cioccolato bianco 100 g

•   12 grapes

•   12 pieces of pineapple

•   12 strawberries

•   12 pieces of kiwi

•   12 skewers

•   1/2 cup chopped hazelnuts

 

Melt the white chocolate and dark chocolate separately in a double boiler.

Add a strawberry, a piece of pineapple, a kiwi, and a grape to each skewer.

Dip the skewers in dark chocolate, drain the excess, and let them dry on a sheet of parchment paper to prevent sticking.

Place the melted white chocolate in a cone of waxed paper and cut off the tip, creating a small hole. Using this, create decorative stripes across the fruit and chocolate on the skewers. Garnish with hazelnuts.

Serve when cooled. The type of fruit here is just a suggestion. Vary according to the season and your own personal tastes.

 

68 - Tribes

Marcos stood on the sidewalk outside Capital Stage, staring at the passing cars on J Street. It was still warm out, too warm for a mid-October evening, but he didn’t mind.

People brushed past him, entering the nondescript one-story building to collect their tickets. Nondescript except for the brightly colored mural painted on the red outer wall of the place. The season had just begun, as had the signature mural Cap Stage commissioned every year along its front wall, adding a new panel for each of its six plays.

Marcos wasn't much of a theater goer, but Dave was, and apparently seeing plays was one of the things couples did when they were dating. Marcos preferred movies, with their slick soundtracks, big buckets of popcorn, and seat-shaking effects.

Then again, Marcos was a little rusty at the whole dating thing in general. For most of his adult life, he'd been more of a pickup guy, master of the one-night stand.

Look where that had gotten him: alone and lonely at forty.

Time to try something different. And so here he was at a play on a Sunday night in Midtown.

He glanced at the tickets. The show was called Tribes, and it had something to do with a deaf kid and his family. Beyond that, Marcos didn't have a clue.

"Hey there. Sorry I'm late." Dave gave him a quick kiss. He was adorable in a bright-blue cashmere sweater and black jeans, though he must have been warm.

"Just happily waiting for you."

Dave grinned. “It’s nice to be waited for. Ready to go in?"

Marcos opened the door and ushered Dave inside, taking advantage of the opportunity to admire Dave's backside.

The woman behind the counter waved at them as they came in. The place was clearly in an older building, vintage fifties like much of this stretch of J Street, but it had been nicely remodeled. A long hallway led back to a modern industrial-style lobby, complete with a small snack bar.

"Feel like a coffee?"

Marcos grinned. "I'd love one. Oooh, these cookies look good too."

“So get one!"

Marcos shook his head. “It'll make me fat."

Dave laughed. “I don’t think it would hurt. You look great to me."

"Because I never eat cookies."

"Well, I'm going to have one. I’ve been good today. Fruit for breakfast and a salad for lunch.” Dave stuck his tongue out at him. "Do what you want.”

Marcos weighed the calorie risk versus the solidarity of sharing one with his date and gave in.

“You two are adorable together,” the guy behind the counter said with a grin.

“You hear that?” Marcos said, giving Dave a quick kiss. “We’re adorable.”

“Yeah, don’t let your head swell up.”

Marcos held out a twenty.

Dave pushed his hand out of the way. “I invited you, so I’m going to pay for it.”

“But you paid for the tickets.”

“Don’t take his money.” To Marcos he said, “Put that away. It’s no good here.”

Marcos shrugged. Another first: letting the other guy pay for him. This whole dating thing was going to take some getting used to.

They wandered into the courtyard behind the theatre, and Marcos was struck by the fountain. It was a green piano, but where the keys should have been, a waterfall poured out. “This is amazing.” He walked around it to see how it had been put together.

“It is. I love what they’ve done with this patio. It used to be just a bare slab of concrete.”

They found a couple of chairs, sipped their coffee, and nibbled at their cookies.

Marcos felt awkward. He’d exhausted his small talk at the fountain. What the hell did guys talk about when they weren’t trying to get each other into bed? Not that he would have minded.…

He’d picked up a new box of condoms just in case. He had a serious case of blue balls, but Dave was worth the wait.

The courtyard lights flashed.

Power outage? “What the hell?”

“That’s the five-minute warning.” Dave pulled him out of his seat. “Let’s go take our places.”

They found their seats in the front row, and Marcos settled in to see what this whole live theatre thing was all about.

* * *

Two hours later, the lights came up; the actors took their bows.

Marcos sat there, stunned.

“So what did you think?” Dave looked at him anxiously.

“It was… oh my God, it was like looking at my own family up there.” The play had touched him viscerally. The story and the immediacy of live theatre. He could almost have reached out to touch the actors as they passed by left and right, spinning their tale.

It had been like watching his own childhood.

Dave raised an eyebrow. “You’re not deaf.” They got up and followed the crowd out of the theatre.

“I don’t know. It’s hard to explain.” He looked up and down J Street. “Feel like going to the Grind for a coffee? Maybe talk a little?”

“Sure.” Dave took his hand, and they walked down the street together. Such open displays of affection in public still made him a little nervous, but Dave’s gesture brooked no argument.

They walked in silence toward the coffee shop, each lost in his own thoughts.

Once they got their drinks, they sat outside on the boardwalk under the giant oak tree. It was a perfect evening.

“The play really got to you, didn’t it?” Dave asked at last, cocking his head to the side.

Marcos nodded. “Yeah. I… I never liked theatre. I mean, I never really tried it. But it always seemed so pretentious to me.”

Dave laughed. “It can be. But it can also be gut-wrenching, frightening, or enlightening. Sometimes even transformative.”

“Transformative. That’s a good word.” The way Billy, the deaf character, had been such an alien in his own family. How they’d never bothered to learn sign language or even teach it to him. How they turned away from him so he couldn’t tell what they were saying and wouldn’t bother to let him know what was said. “It was like he was an outsider in his own home.”

“Ah.”

“My parents never understood me when I was a kid. To my father, playing with dolls and painting my nails red at ten were things that needed to be beaten out of me for the sake of my manhood.” He thought about it. “When Billy finally found someone to teach him sign language, when he found a whole community of people out there like him…”

“It was his coming out.”

“Exactly.” The play seemed like a metaphor, intended or not, for queer kids. For his own teen years even. “I never thought about it like that. I was an outsider in my own tribe.”

Dave put a hand on his. “You have a new tribe now.”

Marcos looked up into Dave’s eyes. They were full of warmth and compassion.

And love.

He pulled Dave to him and kissed him for a long time, earning applause and cheers from a couple of passersby. “Want to come over?” Marcos asked, his voice hopeful.

“Is Marissa home?”

“She’s staying with a school friend tonight. We’ll have the whole place to ourselves.”

Dave grinned. “I brought a change of clothes.”

Marcos stood and left his coffee to cool on the table. He pulled Dave up with hi, and took him home.

It turned into a perfect night too.

 

 

69 - Office Hours

Carmelina sat at a table for two at Temple Coffee, clutching a Post-it nervously and staring at her phone.

Eleven-thirty a.m.

Her cup of coffee was going cold beside her, untouched.

She’d spent the better part of the morning at the Sac Bee’s offices, convincing the nice young woman at the obits desk to help her find Andrea’s obituary. She’d tried online first, but the Bee’s site had failed to turn up anything.

Now at last she had a copy of it, and with it the names of Andrea’s adoptive parents: Susan and Darryl Smith.

Smith was a tough nut to crack—there were so damned many of them—but she’d managed to find a Darryl Smith. He was a Professor of Archaeology at Sac State, just minutes from where she lived, and she had his office number.

Sac State.

Carmelina closed her eyes, wondering how often her little girl had been there with her father. So close.

She used to walk the school grounds daily, wandering the sidewalks under the beautiful trees, enjoying the youthful energy that abounded there. How many times they might have crossed paths, maybe even have seen one another.

She was filled with guilt.

Wasn’t a mother supposed to know her children? Shouldn’t there have been some spark of recognition, some kind of instant rapport? She’d searched her memory, trying to recall an instance when she might have seen Andrea being pulled along behind some stranger. When their eyes would have met, when she might have felt that connection.

There was nothing.

Somewhere out there though, she had a grandchild. Somewhere in the world there was a little piece of her still, and a piece of her daughter too.

That decided it.

She picked up the phone and dialed Professor Smith’s number.

It rang three times.

“Hello?” It was a man’s voice. He sounded vaguely annoyed.

“Professor Smith?”

“My office hours are from two to five. Please call me back at that—”

“I’m so sorry to bother you. I’m not a student.” She took a breath, then plunged ahead. “Are you the Darryl Smith who’s married to Susan Smith?”

There was a sharp intake of breath on the other end of the line, and then a long pause. “Who wants to know?”

“I had a question—”

The line went dead.

Carmelina sighed. She supposed she might have reacted the same way if someone had called out of the blue, asking for private family information.

But his reaction told her one thing. This is the guy.

And he had office hours starting at two p.m.

* * *

She was waiting in one of the hard wooden chairs outside of his door just after two when an older man approached. He was probably in his mid-sixties, with a full gray beard and a balding head.

“Hello,” he said as he unlocked the door. “Can I help you?”

“Professor Smith?”

“Says so on the door.”

She laughed, but he didn’t. “Ah, um, might I have a moment of your time?”

He looked her over and apparently decided she didn’t look dangerous. “Come in. You can put those books on the floor over there.”

The books he was referring to were stacked on one of two additional wooden chairs which sat on one side of a desk covered with them, as were bookshelves on all four walls, crammed with books old and new. She lifted the stack from the indicated chair—Ancient Rome, Dwellings and Detritus, The Hidden Pompeii—and placed them carefully on the ground. “You have a lot of books,” she said, forgetting momentarily her reason for coming.

“You said you needed a moment?” He settled into his old green leather chair, which squeaked in protest. “I’m afraid I don’t have much more than that. I have a student appointment at two-thirty, and I need to check my email.”

Carmelina stared at the books that covered his desk. There was a computer somewhere under there? Shaking her head, she jumped right in. “I called earlier about Andrea—”

He snarled, “You reporters, always looking for an angle. She was killed in a car accident, and she’s dead and buried. That’s all I have to say. Now if you’ll excuse me.” He stood and pointed to the door.

“I just need—”

He lifted her up and pointed her to the exit. “Please don’t bother me again.” He gave her a little shove and started to close the door behind her.

She had no time to be offended at his rude behavior. “Professor Smith… Darryl… please. She was my daughter!”

The door stopped.

He stared at her through the opening for a moment. “What do you mean?” His voice had a dangerous edge.

“She… I gave her up for adoption. in August of 1975. I just found out that she died. Please… please talk to me.”

He looked down at the ground, and for a moment she was sure he would turn her away. The air around him seemed to shimmer for a moment

Carmelina shook her head. She was imagining things.

At last he nodded and opened the door again. “Come in.”

She sat again across from him. “Thank you.”

“I always thought this day would come. When you adopt a child, you wonder why someone would ever give up such a precious thing.”

“I was very young.” She pulled a manila envelope out of her purse and handed him a copy of Andrea’s adoption paperwork. “So you know I’m not lying.”

He took it and looked through it. “Fifteen. You were young.” It didn’t sound like understanding. “So what can I do for you, Ms.…”

“Di Rosa. I was hoping to talk with you and Mrs. Smith—”

“Mrs. Smith passed away fifteen years ago, not long before Andrea.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry. What happened?”

“Cancer.”

Oh God. She nodded. “I am so sorry. I lost my husband just a few months ago.”

“My condolences.”

She realized she was crying, just a little. Arthur, then all this.… It was too much.

“Here, take a Kleenex.” The professor handed her a box, and she took one gratefully, wiping at her eyes and blowing her nose. “What can I do for you? Please understand, I’m not trying to be an ass. That part of my life was very painful, and even now it’s hard for me to reopen those old wounds.”

She nodded. “I’ll keep it brief, then. I understand that Andrea had a child.”

“Yes. Her name was Mary. She was almost two when Susan passed away.” He looked away, his face turning red. “It was just the two of us. Neither of us had any family. That’s why we adopted: to give a home to someone who didn’t have anyone else. When Susan died, I couldn’t… I just couldn’t.” He was shaking.

Mary. She felt horrid for bringing all this up for him again. But she had to know. “So you gave her up? For adoption?”

He nodded.

“She has family, Darryl,” she said softly. “She has me. You and Susan did everything for Andrea. Now I want to find Mary and give her that too.” Wherever she was, she probably had a family already. But she’d deal with that reality later.

He nodded. “Give me your email. I’ll see what I have and will send it to you tonight or tomorrow.” He looked her in the eye. “Did you miss your daughter, after?”

She sniffled, her tears dangerously close to the surface. “Every day.”

“Me too. If you find her… can I meet her?”

She nodded. “I’d like that.” She reached out a hand, and he shook it.

“I’ll email you soon.”

“I’ll be waiting.”

She left him, and for the first time in days, she felt a ray of hope.

Her name is Mary. I have a granddaughter.

 

 

70 - Weekiversary

Marcos stared morosely at the lawyer across the desk from them.

Mort Zimmerman was an old family friend, someone his mother had referred him to when he’d called to tell her what was going on with Marissa and her parents. The man didn’t hold out much hope. It’s never fucking easy.

Marcos had picked Marissa up after school and brought her to the consultation, but he’d hoped the news would be better. “So… just so I have this straight. Even though she is taking her own daughter to court, there’s nothing we can do to show she’s an unfit mother? I mean, she’s taking Marissa to court.”

Mort shook his graying head. “I didn’t say that. Let’s just take one thing at a time. The first thing we need to do is to deal with this charge of breaking and entering.” He turned to Marissa, looking at her over gold-rimmed glasses. “Did you take anything from the house that wasn’t yours?”

She shook her head. “Only some clothing. My teddy bear. Some cash I had saved—”

This was new to Marcos. He wondered what else he didn’t know.

“Where was the cash?” Mort asked, his voice kind.

“In my sock drawer, inside a music box my aunt gave me.”

Mort sighed. “That could be a problem. They might claim the money belonged to your parents.” He typed in some notes on his laptop, the keys clacking loudly in the silence of the room. “When did you see your parents last?”

Good question. “When they found her in her bedroom—”

Mort held out a hand to silence him. “I was asking Marissa.”

Marcos looked over at his charge. She squirmed uncomfortably in her chair. “Thursday,” she said at last.

“What???” Marcos was half out of his chair before he realized he was moving. He sank back down, his face hot. “Where did you see her on Thursday? And why didn’t you tell me?”

Her face drained of color as she stared at her entwined hands. “She… she came to school to see me. She told me that if I came back to live with her, if I dropped the whole ‘lesbian thing,’ that she would drop the charges.” She looked up at him. “I’m sorry I didn’t mention it. I just wanted to forget it had happened.”

“What did you tell her?” Knowing she’d kept this from him was making him acutely uncomfortable.

“To go to hell.”

Marcos snorted. “I’ll bet she didn’t appreciate that.” Jesus. It was just like when he was a teenager, and his parents had thrown him out for being gay. He’d hoped the world had changed, and yet here they were. And yeah, he might have kept it to himself too, at that age. “So what do we do?” he asked the lawyer.

“It’s a first offense. We’ll argue that she didn’t do any harm or really steal anything at all, since they were all her possessions to begin with. We point out that the parents were the ones who put her out on the street in the first place, so they bear some of the blame. Marissa, you turn eighteen on the day after the hearing?”

“October 28th.”

He nodded. “Technically you’re still a minor. We’ll use that. Mr. Ramirez, are you willing to take on a more permanent role as Marissa’s guardian? She’ll legally be an adult soon, but the court might be more comfortable letting her off the hook if it’s clear she has mature adult supervision.”

Marcos took a deep breath. He hadn’t planned anything of the sort when he’d reached out to Marissa that first day outside Ragazzi. It was a lot of responsibility.

He looked over at Marissa.

She was staring at him, waiting for his answer.

He looked down at his hands.

“It’s okay. If you don’t want me.” Her tone belied her words. She needed him. “I can take care of myself.”

He almost laughed. She was so much like he’d been at that age that it hurt sometimes. That was what decided him. “Of course I want you,” he said, looking up at her. “You’re a part of my life now, as much of a whirlwind as that’s been.”

She stared at him as if trying to judge the sincerity of his words. Then a grin spread across her face like wildfire. She leapt at him, throwing her arms around his shoulders. “I love you, Uncle Marcos.”

Uncle Marcos. He chuckled. He could live with that.

* * *

“That was something back there.” Marissa got into Marcos’s Prius. She was still a little in shock that he’d agreed to act as her permanent guardian.

“The lawyer?”

“No. What you said. About me.”

“I meant it. You can count on me to be there for you, ’Riss.” He gave her a quick hug.

She loved how those warm arms made her feel.

“You gotta not be afraid to tell me things. Okay?” He let her go, and she wiped her eyes before he could see the tears.

She nodded. “I’ll try. Can you drop me off at Rick’s?” she asked, suppressing a sniff.

Marcos started the car and pulled out onto I Street. “Have a sweet tooth, do you?”

“Kinda.” It was her weekiversary with Tris, and they’d decided to hang and share a piece of chocolate cheesecake.

“You meeting some friends there?”

“Yeah, something like that.”

“One friend in particular?” He grinned at her.

“Maybe.”

Marcos shook his head. “I don’t see how you can eat so much sugar. It’ll rot you from the inside.”

“I’m young and beautiful.” She said it with a dramatic flailing of her arm. “I can handle it.”

He laughed. “And don’t think I’m not onto you with this whole ‘Uncle Marcos’ thing.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Marissa pulled out her phone and texted almost there to Tris.

“Look, I know our ‘talk’ didn’t go so well the other day.” They pulled up at the curbside in front of Rick’s Dessert Diner. “Just be careful, whatever you two do.”

“I will.” She kissed him on the cheek and started to get out.

“Hey.”

“What? He’s waiting—”

“I want to meet him.”

She turned to stare at him. “Why?”

“It’s what we uncles and parental figures do. How about dinner? Friday?”

She bit her lip. “I’ll think about it.”

“Be home by eight. It’s a school night!”

She blew him a kiss and shut the door, waving at him as he drove off.

Tristan was waiting for her inside, looking gorgeous in a black Brain Dead T-shirt, black beanie, and jeans.

She slid into the booth next to him and gave him a kiss. “Happy weekiversary!”

He laughed. “That’s the dorkiest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“How about this? My… Marcos wants me to bring you over for dinner.”

“Sure, why not?” He pushed a loose lock of hair back behind her ear.

“You don’t mind?” That surprised her. Her dates always hated meeting the parents.

He shook his head. “Has to happen sooner or later. Hey, does this mean we’re getting serious?”

She thought about it. “I don’t know. Maybe? We don’t have to—”

“I’d like to.” He whispered in her ear. “Real serious.”

She shivered. What his voice did to her, inside. “Maybe—”

“One slice of chocolate cheesecake a la mode.” The server dropped off the plate and a couple of forks and put an end to the discussion. “Enjoy!”

Tris offered her a forkful of chocolate cheesecake. “Think about it?”

“I will,” she said, and bit into the cheesecake. It was delicious.

Sinful things always tasted the best.

 

 

71 - Now I Know

Sam scanned the room.

Temple was one of Brad’s favorite hang-outs. Just two blocks from the Center, the local coffee shop was a work of art. Its floors were plastered with rows upon copper rows of pennies, all laminated into the floor and up the sides of the counter. 532,000 of them, as Brad was often fond of telling him. He found Brad sitting on the cafe’s brown leather couch, perusing a copy of Outword, the local gay paper.

“Hey there.” he gave Brad a quick kiss.

“Hi!” Brad put the paper down. “I got you a mocha. Hope that’s okay.”

“It’s perfect.” He took the cup and snuggled into the other end of the couch. “You called?” Brad didn’t usually bother him at home unless it was urgent. It was his work time.

Brad nodded, setting down his own cup. “Yeah, sorry. I know you were writing. It’s just—”

“That’s okay.” Sam sipped at the mocha. It was good. He’d been dying for a little coffee. He stared at Brad for a moment, trying to puzzle out what was going on. “I hit a sticking point, anyhow. It’s good to get out for a few minutes. What’s up?” Still upset about Jameson?

Brad didn’t answer for a moment. He picked up his coffee again and took a sip. “This is hard for me to ask.” He stared at Sam over the top of his coffee.

Sam reached out and put a hand on Brad’s shoulder. “Just spit it out. It’s about Jameson, isn’t it?”

Brad nodded.

“I knew I should have left well enough alone.” Sam sighed and sank onto the couch to stare at his hands. He’d screwed things up with Brad. He knew it.

“Yeah, it’s about Jameson. I need to know something. Be honest.”

“What?” Sam’s face felt numb.

“You and him. He was your first, right?”

Sam nodded. “First relationship. Not my first guy.”

“God, I’m gonna screw this up. Forget I even—”

Sam laughed halfheartedly. “I thought I was the one screwing things up here.” He looked into Brad’s eyes. “Just ask.” He knew what Brad was asking.

“Do you… still love him? Or have feelings for him?” Brad looked like his whole heart was balanced on the end of that question.

“No, I don’t.” He had once. Maybe. But not like what he felt for Brad. He tried to find the right words, feeling clumsy and awkward. “What we had… when I first met him, I was flattered that such an accomplished professor would take me seriously. He was handsome, refined—I mean…” Some wordsmith I am.

“Older.” Brad’s eyes narrowed. “You never talked about him before.”

“I know. When we broke up, it almost broke me.” He thought back on those sun-filled October afternoons when Jameson had taken Sam under his wing. “It started out innocently—brushing his hand past mine, accidentally bumping into me when we got up. Then one day, I noticed… how interested he was in me. In a different way.” Those tight jeans had hidden nothing. “I made a mistake. He was my teacher. I shouldn’t have—”

“It wasn’t your fault.” Brad’s voice was calm and reassuring, the edge gone.

Something had shifted, but Sam wasn’t sure what it was. He forged on. “Anyway, we were together for three years. I thought it was real. But he’d been cheating on me the whole time.” He’d come home from class to the house they shared, early one Monday afternoon, to find Jameson in bed with a freshman, someone from his English 101 class. He wasn’t sure what hurt more: the betrayal itself or the fact that his lover had chosen someone who shared none of their love for the written word. “You can’t erase the past. When I saw him at the conference…” He looked back at his hands. There had been a spark there, an attraction. It killed him to admit that, even to himself.

Brad took his hand. “Do you still have feelings for him?” he asked again.

Sam sensed something at work here, as if Brad saw right through him, knew what he was thinking. “No. There was a moment of… I don’t know… lust? Chemistry? A fleeting remnant of what I thought we had. But there’s nothing else there.” He looked up again.

Brad’s eyes were wet, and he seized Sam up in a tight hug. “I love you so much. You have no idea how much.”

Sam returned the hug. “What’s this all about?”

Brad sniffed and pulled away, holding Sam at arm’s length. “I needed to hear you say it. When you walked into my life last year, you made me a different man. A better man. But then Jameson showed up, and I was so scared I would lose you.” He squeezed Sam’s hands in his own. “Now I know.” Brad let go of Sam’s hands and eased down on one knee next to the couch, put a hand into his pocket, and pulled out a small black velvet box.

The whole place went silent.

Brad looked up at Sam, and his eyes shone. “Sam Fuller, will you marry me?” He opened the box to reveal a flawless white-gold ring.

Sam almost choked. His own eyes blinded with tears. “Holy shi— Oh my God. Yes! Of course! You just… there’s a ring… oh my God!” He pulled Brad up into his embrace, putting his arms around his love’s waist, his thumb wrapping around Brad’s belt loop.

Brad kissed him deeply. The onlookers exploded into cheers.

After a long moment, they separated, just a little. Brad put his chin on Sam’s shoulder.

“I love you, Brad Weston,” he whispered. He was stunned. How did that just happen? Only a moment earlier, he’d been afraid he was losing Brad.

Now we’re engaged!

Brad pulled back to look at him. “I don’t want to wait any more. Let’s get married today. Tonight! We could fly to Vegas and—”

Sam laughed. “What’s the rush?”

“I’m ready. I’ve been ready for a long time, but now… I don’t want to wait. Aren’t you?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I am. But let’s at least take a breath here. I want my mom to be there. I want to invite our friends”

Brad nodded. “All right. Let’s plan it. How about November 1st? It’s our anniversary.”

Sam frowned. “Our anniversary is April 10th.”

Brad grinned. “November 1st is the anniversary of the day we met. The day you walked into my office for the first time.”

“You remember the exact date?” Sam was impressed.

“Like it was yesterday. I knew even then that you’d change my life. I just didn’t know how much.” He kissed Sam again. “So what do you say?”

Sam hugged him tight. “I do.”

 

 

72 - Screw All The Rest

Ben waited for one of the restaurant managers. He leaned against the wall and watched the buzz of activity as servers and expediters whizzed by carrying plates of enchiladas Guanajuato—his favorite—and empanadas.

Zocalo was never not busy. It was one of his favorite restaurants in Midtown, as much for the casual decor and bright lighting as for the great Mexican food. The televisions above the bar showed some kind of basketball game, the squeak of rubber and the occasional roar of the crowd creating a steady background noise to the sibilant whisper of the patrons, couples and clumps of people having a late lunch.

Ben’s stomach was performing motions it should have been incapable of as he tried to keep a zen attitude about the job. He needed it. His bank account balance was slipping inexorably toward zero.

He did not want to go back to Intel.

He looked down at his phone, hoping to distract himself. Ella smiled up at him from his home screen wallpaper, her quirky expression sending a shiver through him. The last few days with her had been amazing.

She would touch his hand or laugh and throw her red hair back, and his world would shimmer and change.

He hoped to have some good news to give her on their next date.

“Hey, Ben.” Carlos, the manager, shook his hand, offering him a small smile that gave away nothing. “Thanks for coming back in.”

“Glad to. I’m hoping you have a job for me?” The EG had been great for his writing schedule, but now that his novel was done, he needed some extra income. Ben knew how unlikely it was that his book would hit it big. With his remaining savings and a decent salary, he hoped he could squeeze by while he started to write the next one.

“Yes, if you’re willing to work here.” They sat down together at a long table in the events space at the back of the restaurant. “I was very impressed by your resume. But to be blunt, you seem a little overqualified?”

Ben laughed. “You mean because I used to work at Intel and have a master’s degree?”

Carlos nodded. “Yes. So tell me, why do you want to work in the restaurant business?”

Ben sighed. “Honestly, the tech world sucked all the life out of me. At the end of the day I wanted to kill myself.”

“And now?”

“Now I channel all that creative energy into writing. A job like this… it would give me benefits and a good schedule to go with my writing career.”

Carlos considered him for a moment. “That makes sense. But I don’t hire anyone who’s not passionate about food, especially Mexican food. You’d have to start at the bottom as an expediter and work your way up.”

“I can do that. I love Mexican food. Your Enchiladas Guanajuato is one of my favorite meals in all of Sacramento, and Mayahuel has a cream of poblano soup that’s to die for.”

Carlos laughed. “You know you’re not supposed to talk about the competition at a job interview, right?”

“Maybe not. But you did say you wanted someone who was serious about his Mexican food.”

Carlos grinned. “Fair enough.” He held out his hand. “So when can you start?”

* * *

Ella was waiting for him at Cafe Bernardo, a couple of blocks from the hospital. She looked a bit drawn. The time spent waiting for Max to wake up seemed to be taking its toll.

Ben was concerned. It couldn’t be good for her health.

“Hey!” he said lightly, covering his concern with a warm smile.

“Hi, handsome.” She kissed him, lingering a little longer than normal. They sat down at a table by the window in the brightly colored place.

“How’s Max?” he asked as casually as he could manage as he thumbed through the menu.

“No change.” She picked up her own menu and stared at it vacantly for a moment before setting it down again. “How did your callback go at Zocalo?”

Ben loved that she thought about him even though she had so much to worry about on her own. He grinned. “I got the job!”

“That’s great!” Her own grin matched his, briefly lighting her tired face as she reached out to squeeze his hand. “When do you start?” Her hand twitched, and she pulled it quickly away from his to hide it under the table.

“Day after tomorrow.” He frowned. She shouldn’t be ashamed. Not with him.

“Thash great.” She coughed to cover her slur and looked away, pulling her red hair behind her ear reflexively, her Fahr’s Disease rearing its ugly head.

He put out a hand to touch her cheek. “You’re having symptoms tonight, aren’t you?”

She nodded miserably. She wouldn’t look at him.

“You don’t have to hide them from me,” he said gently, stroking her cheek. “You know that, right?”

She looked up, her eyes moist. “It’s so frustrating. I jush want to forget about it for the night.” She gritted her teeth. “Just,” she said carefully, “I want to spend a happy evening with you and not think about it.”

He got up and slid into the booth next to her. “Give me your hand.”

She held it out to him hesitantly.

He took it in his. It was warm and soft. His stomach jumped again, but in a distinctly different fashion than it had at Zocalo. “Look, it’s perfect.”

Ella laughed in spite of herself. “Hardly.” But she let him pull it up to his lips.

Ben kissed it gently and let it go.

She picked up her water. “To a happy evening, and screw all the resh.”

And somehow it was.

 

 

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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