It was just a pizza place. Linoleum, vinyl, fluorescent lighting. Soggy meatball grinders. The owner’s wife ran the register and took phone orders. He cooked. He was probably 20 years older than her and he looked it. Balding, sweaty. Ratty moustache. I guessed she was early 40s, good figure, long dark hair, dark eyes. They bickered regularly, but it was really an act for the regulars. “Anna!” he’d boom from the kitchen, and they were off in Italian, their voices chasing each other like squirrels on a tree trunk. We all loved it, waited for it. He’d playfully slam some pots and let out a belly laugh. She’d groan and roll her eyes and wink over at us boys in our booth next to a dusty Schefflera plant.
“Mista big stuff,” she would say, mimicking the song and setting our grinders down one by one. “Thinks he knows avvreething.” Then she would pad from booth to booth, humming and chatting and playing with a button on her blouse. More than once I caught myself in mid-bite watching in wonder as she worked the room, her free hand disappearing and reappearing in measured gestures until tiny eruptions of laughter rose to meet her shrieks and squeals. Sometimes her husband would emerge from his ovens and lean in the kitchen doorway smoking a cigarette and watching her. This was her world and she had total control.
Thinking back on it now, it was this effortless sense of control that intrigued me about Anna. We were just goofy high school kids who rolled in here whenever we had some money to spend on the way to whatever our lives were going to be. But this was her life, and when we came in to eat we were witness to the sum of all her choices and decisions. Whatever had brought her to this grimy routine she silently overcame with her own brand of grace. The young waitresses idolized her. Customers lingered to talk after paying. Even her husband, in all his sweat-stained gristle, seemed to regard her with a grudging (could it be loving?) deference. Somehow she had figured out the trick to surviving by imposing a subtle but noticeable order on her surroundings that was strangely comforting, even for punks like us.
But now there was blood. Not a lot, but still, blood. We had arrived moments before and had not even made it past the Scheff. At first, I dismissed it as a speck of burnt crust or a fly that had comically landed near the corner of her mouth. But when she touched it, it smeared and ran along her cheek, red and glistening. She dabbed at it with a napkin and whimpered lightly. Her left eye and nose were bruised. I had never seen him even threaten her, except in a joking way when they performed for us. But now she was cowering behind the counter and when he approached she whimpered again. What had just happened here? The waitresses stood frozen out on the floor. No one spoke.
We didn’t know if we should sit down. He glared at her for several seconds then turned and went into the kitchen, spitting curse words in Italian and throwing things onto the floor. She trembled and dabbed at her eyes and lip. Don’t let this happen, I remember thinking. This can’t happen, not to you. You’re still in charge. All the mechanisms for control are still in place. All you have to do is step out from behind the counter and walk over to a booth. Any booth.
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