("Night and day...why is this so?
That this longing for you follows wherever I go..." --C. Porter)
People say that there's something the matter with kids these days. I guess I'm inclined to agree with them. Things have changed so much in the forty years I've been in this business, and I gotta admit things is changing every day.
Still, you got your kids in love, your kids who just don't care, and your kids with more than their fair share of heartache. I had a guy in the corner booth in just that boat. He comes in every few nights, orders a plain pie and a bottle of Heineken, and just sits, looking out the window.
"Take your time, Sal," He'll say gruffly, before shuffling over to his classy little prison, and waiting for his troubles to drown themselves in the pint of brew.
The boys in the kitchen say he's someone famous. They call him a bunch of ignorant classless names to pass the time while they work. I listen to them bitch and moan and gripe and of course I don't say nothing. They is good kids, and they work hard for me.
And me? I've been working hard for forty years, churning out the best pizza in this God-forsaken city. My shop has stayed in this little dive in the middle of nova Italia, and believe me when I say that the kids come from miles around to taste a slice of Sal's.
I've had people tell me I should have come up with a more creative name or something, but I say the food should speak for itself…and the taste does do the talkin'. The sauce has been in my family for over a hundred years. No one, but no one, in this city can mix the tomatoes and the oregano and the garlic and salt to taste the same tangy way I can.
"Sal, ya done good," They all say, even the snot-nosed little bastards from the financial district, with their designer suits and alligator-skin attaches. They'll stop in once a week or so, always lookin' behind them before walking in the door and sliding into one of our shiny vinyl booths, like at any minute they expect to be arrested and dragged down to 5th. Whatever. I'm good people.
So anyway this guy comes in once every few days, and always sits in the corner. Rumor has it that he lost someone he loves. Them heavy bags and puffy creases under his eyes certainly don't do any good for his overall appearance, let me tell ya. Some nights, when there aren't many people in the house, he'll amble over to the baby grand I got in the corner, a gift from the Chairman before he got real big. Anyway, this kid will sit down and let his fingers dance across the ivories, and, just when he thinks no one's listening, a haunting melody will pour from that anguished soul, creating something beautiful. Some nights it's jazz. Some nights it's rag. Some nights it's the pop that the girls working cashier go gaga over. He'll sit and sing for hours, long after Tino mops the floors and Angie turns down the lights. Most nights, I'll let him play, and sing, and emote to his heart's content. He'll stop finally, looking around and flexing his fingers, like he's coming out of some kind of trance. And he'll slide his fingers reverently over the aging keys one last time before snapping the lid closed with finality. He'll nod at me, respectful-like, before dropping a hundred dollar bill on the counter and mumbling a muffled word of thanks. I point to the jar of tips that he always amasses, and he shrugs, before adding the contents to the prominently displayed can that the kids in the back have set out for all the world to see.
That night, though, he just sat…and stared. The cheese on his pie had long since congealed and the suds were gone on his beer, which was weeping from being too warm. In his fingers he held a scrap of paper, worn around the edges and faded, though through the light shining above him I could see that the ink was still sharp and distinct.
I decided that maybe this kid needed a little cheering up, so I walked over to him, a piece of Geno's cheesecake in my hand. If Geno's slice of heaven couldn't fix this guy, I figured, nothing could.
"Looks like you're wearing a cloud on your temple, kid," I said, placing the plate in front of him expectantly.
He blinked twice before settling his eyes on mine. They were startlingly blue, like Frankie's was way back when. I could see the pool of tears hiding somewhere along the crinkled edges, and by the way his breath was catching in his throat, I could tell that this kid had been in for a heartache or two.
Let me tell ya something. Being in this business, year after year, you learn a little something or two about heartache. I've listened to every sob story in the book, and there ain't nothing that a little sympathy and a caring ear can't fix. Just don't tell no one. I ain't no softie.
"What's on your mind, son?" I asked gently, sliding into the seat across from him. He recoiled and his posture straightened, but that didn't deter me. No way was I gonna let someone with that talent gonna slip into some sulking depression.
"Nothing," He muttered, and I let loose with a braying belly laugh that filled the whole shop and had my beloved employees rolling their eyes.
"You mean to tell me you're sittin' here, practically crying in your brew, singing songs that make the angels weep, an' you're FINE?! You got a lot to learn about lyin', my boy."
"Yeah? Lying is all I do anymore," He spat bitterly, and I was taken aback. The kid was wearing some heavy boots.
He began to toy with his napkin, folding and unfolding the neatly checkered cloth while he waited for his thoughts to organize themselves.
"So what is it, then? Is it girls? Is it money? Ya in over your head? Come on now. A boy like you can only know so many kinds of trouble."
"I fucked up," He whispered, and suddenly the conversation was over. That glazed look slid back over his eyes and he sat in silence, his gaze to the ground. I fidgeted and waited for a few minutes before reminding him he could come to me if he needed anything, and then left him to his own devices.
About a week passed before he came in again, looking thinner and more morose than Giovanni Capelletti did when the Mets lost the series. He didn't even order the pie that time, just a straight shot of Jack, and pulled a pack of American Spirits from the folds of his coat. He didn't smoke one for the longest time, just lit it and twirled it absently between his fingers. It was after when he slowly got up and sat down at the piano, and began caressing those keys with a finesse I ain't heard in decades. Love songs…sad songs…songs of despair and desperation. I couldn't move. I just watched that kid with my jaw hanging on the ground and my feet frozen to the flour-soaked floor. I let him play, those elegant fingers flying over the keys for what seemed like hours.
When it was over I went to the special cabinet in the back and unlocked a 1920 scotch, and motioned for the kid to sit down next to me. For a few moments it looked like he wanted to refuse my offer but then thought better of it, sliding into the bench across from me with a heavy sigh.
I poured us each a generous splash and tipped mine down my throat with relish. He did the same, coughing once and inhaling sharply. I grinned up at him, and he smiled apologetically.
"So what's your name, kid?"
"JC," He said, studying his finely manicured hands.
"JC?" I repeated. "That ain't no name. What's your real name, kid? John or James or Jake or…"
"JC," He said firmly and I knew then that this one was stubborn as a mule. I let it slide, and to my surprise he began to talk.
He grew up in
"Tell me about her," I prodded, and he went stiff as a Redwood in winter.
Those eyes started darting all around the room, and he raised his glass to his lips once again only to discover it was empty. I tipped the bottle toward him and he greedily gulped the bitter liquid down.
"There's not much to tell," He said morosely. "I think she's banging my best friend. I thought, at first, it was my fault she was so distant, that I couldn't give her what she needed but…now…I'm almost certain…it's someone else."
He looked up at me like he was searching for approval, and I nodded slowly. "You sure about that?"
He sighed heavily, pulling fiercely on that perfectly coiffed hairdo, biting on those lips I'm sure have kissed girls I only dream about.
"It's just so typical, y'know? I'm away, she shows up with lingerie I didn't give her and smelling like some other guy's juice. The phone rings and she looks like she's facing a firing squad. Stupid stuff like that."
"Y'love her?" I asked gently.
He was quiet for a long time, just swirling the amber liquid in his glass until it moved in a gentle circle on its own. He pulled the American Spirits from his pocket and offered the pack to me. I checked to make sure that Millie, my wife, wasn't peering around the corner or putzing around in the kitchen, the way she sometimes did, and pulled a smoke from the pack.
He did the same, puffing heavily on the filter and drawing the blue smoke into his lungs. He held it there what seemed like forever before exhaling shakily.
"I don't know. I just don't know. I don't know what to do about it, either. I mean, if she wants to go around and cheat I don't really care…"
"Yeah, ya do," I interrupted. "One thing you're not, kid, and that's a good liar."
He scowled. "What would you know about trying to lie?"
I met his gaze evenly and held it until he recoiled just a little. "I've learned a little bit about lying in this town, junior, but that's a story for another time. If you're talking about putting on some child's play persona for a hungry public eye, well, you're playing tiddlywinks. You wanna talk about LYING, I mean, really, down-in-the-dirt LYING…well, ya gotta play with the big boys first."
I surprised myself when I said that-hell, after forty years in this business I should have learned a thing or two about keeping my big mouth shut, but I think he liked me better for it because the next words out of his mouth were,
"I do love her. And I'm so tired of it."
We talked long into the night, he and I. I even broke down and played a few old Tommy Dorsey numbers, which had his eyes crinkling in glee and his fingers snapping along. I play a jaunty piano, if I do say so myself…but then it got to be four in the morning and long past bedtime for an old man like me.
I walked him to the door and handed him the near-empty bottle. He protested, trying to push it back into my open hands but I was as stubborn as he was, and wasn't having any of it.
"You need it more than I do, kid," I laughed, and sent him out into the night. He tipped the bottle in salute before walking down the quiet city streets. Ten minutes later and the place safely locked up, I went home. I knew I'd be seeing the young turk again, but I didn't know how soon…
It turned out to be several weeks before he stopped in again. In the mean time Angie had his pictures and posters plastered all over the back wall, and Jimmy and Tommy and Joe all continued to laugh at him and make not-so-Christian comments. Through Angie I learned that he didn't break up with his woman, and apparently she HAD slept with his best friend, but for some odd reason they were still together. That was what I didn't get; why people stay with those who aren't healthy for them, but that Friday when JC was in his customary booth, I found out. I could tell in an instant that something was wrong from the look on his open-book face, so I followed his gaze to the door…and I saw her.
She walked in, and man was she a looker. Violet dress with a slit up to there and purple snakeskin pumps to match. Her plushy full lips were set in a perfect pout, one perfectly arched eyebrow cocked in disdain at what she must have perceived as "dingy" surroundings. She spied my man in the corner and all of a sudden she turned into a fairy princess. A mask of saccharine beauty slipped perfectly into place, and those same fuck-me pumps clicked seductively as she ambled over his way. She slid into the booth, leaning forward to give the young man an eyeful of her beautiful tits.
"Josh…." She purred, and suddenly the budding Sinatra had a real-life honest-to-God name.
To his credit, the young man seemed immune to her charms. He looked up at her, a sneer curving his lips and hatred in his eyes. All of those nights, all of those mournful bitter ballads that he had even the local grannies coming to hear, suddenly made sense. He loved her, yes. But he hated himself.
"What's the matter, baby?" She cooed. "You goin' slummin'? Can't make it without me?"
Now when I overheard those words I wanted to barge on over there and break the pretty little bitch's throat. No one, but NO ONE, calls this place a dive, nor refers to it as a slum…but, I was still cheerin' for the fella, so I said nothing and watched him throw his card.
Those soulful blue eyes slid shut and that finely chiseled jaw clenched like his fingers did a few seconds before. "What do you want, Rebecca?" He asked quietly.
She giggled, a grating whinny that gave me the willies. "Don't you know, baby? I've come to make up with you…"
Her words bewildered him, and his eyes darted across the room to the Michelob sign on the wall and back to the portrait of Brando I had signed years ago. "Make up with me?"
"Of course," She said smoothly, sliding into his lap. That dress slid up to an impossible height, revealing the toned muscles of her thighs, and she wiggled just-so in his lap.
"You slept with my BEST FUCKING FRIEND, and you want to make up with me?"
I silently screamed a cheer for my boy in black. You tell him, kid.
"Oh," She said, dismissively waving a hand delicately through the air, slicing through the thin haze of blue smoke circling the gentleman's head. "That was ages ago, and he already apologized to you."
"Yeah. But you didn't, Rebecca. You went ahead and fucked him, in our bed, while I was away…"
"But baby you never spend enough time with me anymore. There's so much I could show you, so many ways I could help you…I'd be so good to you if you just let me…"
I imagine the scene between Samson and Delilah must have played out in much the same way. I ain't no busybody, up in everybody's business kind of guy, but the goddamn Days of Our Lives was playing out right in front of me, and for some godforsaken reason I couldn't stop watching.
"Leave Rebecca," He said, voice quiet but hard as steel.
She appeared to be expecting this because she leaned over, showing what she had hidden under that gorgeous forbidden dress of hers. "Joshua," She drawled condescendingly. "You don't honestly mean that, do you? Think of what I can give you…" She grabbed his hand and placed it on her thigh, and the kid's eyes fluttered shut. Jesus. I gulped myself. If she had done that to me, well…
But apparently he had nerves of steel or a chastity belt because he calmly removed his fingers from her leg and stood up, dropping a fifty on the table. "I'm done, Rebecca. I'm through with your bullshit. It's over."
Now, the girl ain't stupid. She knew this kid was the golden boy and had the loot and the prestige and the whole package, so she pulled the ultimate female trump card-she started bawling.
"Oh Josh," She sobbed, though her eyes were peeled and watching the customers, gauging their reaction to her performance. "I'm so sorry," She hiccuped for effect, pursing those pouty lips and fluttering those sooty lashes. "I made a MISTAKE. I needed you, you weren't there…please, please FORGIVE me…"
Lord Jesus. I'd like to thank the FUCKING Academy. Dumb broad. I hoped to God that Romeo wasn't fooled by this little stunt and for a second I thought he was but then those aqua eyes turned to crystal ice and he just smiled…an evil…nasty…venomous…BEAUTIFUL smile that could almost be Italian if he wasn't so flipping European looking. Bravo, Sinatra. Bravo.
"I can't, Rebecca. I've got somebody new."
Her eyes narrowed and the guise of desperation was gone in the blink of an eye. "Who?" She said suspiciously, jutting one bony hip forward.
And wouldn't you know it, fate waved the magic wand again. My boy Josh turned to shy, boy-crazy Angie who was just about to take his plate and planted one on her, grabbing her shapely hips and, I'm sure, slipping that tongue right past her quivering lips. She squeaked in surprise and melted into his arms, just in time for me to watch the snotty little She-Devil stomp out of my fine establishment.
Josh and Angie pulled apart and I could tell the lothario wasn't expecting to feel something like THAT. Then again, he ain't probably never kissed a real Italian woman ever.
"Wow," He breathed, bringing his fingers to his lips in a move straight out of the silver screen. "I…Uh…Yeah. Um…That was nice…Angie, right?"
She nodded, her eyes wide and filled with mischief, before leaning forward and whispering something in his ear.
Josh, he smiled real slow and even managed to duck his head in embarrassment, before asking real quiet-like if she wanted to go somewhere a little more private.
She blushed beautifully, hiding her own warm chocolate eyes under thick black lashes and before looking hopefully at me.
Remember. I ain't no softie…but I waved my hand in the direction of the door and muttered one word and one word only:
Angie grabbed for Josh's hand and he let her take it, before they both sailed out the door. I sighed and laughed, shaking my head, ignoring the dumbfounded looks of my boys in the back, before walking over to Millie and kissing her gently on her cheek.
"Ya done good, Sal." She smiled.
"I guess," I said, playing it off like it was nothing.
"Just don't go soft on me," She warned, that same spark of mischief dancing in her own eyes after thirty years.
"Wouldn't dream of it," I grinned, and with a yell to the kitchen we were off, arm in arm, waltzing under the Tiffany lamps and heading slowly out the door.
Kids IS kids, my friends…but sometimes, y'know, that's enough.
© 2001 ~A.