It’s been way too long since I posted anything but Six Word Stories up here. There’s a good story behind that, but my arms just got out of the casts and I’m still too sore to type it out for you. So here’s another trial chapter from my brilliant, yet unpublished novel, “The Voyage of the Pink Snapper”.
It’s not as wild as the other chapters, but worth posting for that reason alone. To get your feedback on the stuff between the sex and violence that will provide enough color of normality to allow this book to be part of the mandatory curriculum taught to high school seniors. My plan is to straight up bribe some of the Boards of Education in the Mahoning Valley to make this required reading, to boost sales. And let’s face it, a couple of Benjamins passed around before your typical BoE meeting will go a lot further if you make it easier on their conscience.
The name of this chapter is, “Good Deeds”, as if any of you give a sh1t. Enjoy.
With Frankie back, his place turned into the new center of gravity. The guys and their kids would come and go. He parked his cars in his driveway, and converted his garage to his man cave. He had it all insulated, and ran the central air into it. He got the commercial-grade garage floor paint and painted it slate gray, with colored chips. He was pretty handy, and partitioned it. The smaller side had shelves and all his tools neatly arranged above his work bench. On the bigger side, he put in an old gas stove, a wet bar, a cabinet-sized humidor, and had a full fridge. He put overstuffed leather chairs in front of the TV. He added a closet-sized urinal so he didn’t have to go inside all the time. Then he paneled that side with dark oak, old school, and put in a hammered brass ceiling. Just a thin sheet for decoration, but in the end it had the air of an old-style men’s club.
Frankie loved cooking out there. He would jar pasta sauce, pickled green tomatoes, bruschetta, marinated eggplant with zucchini. Whatever he got from the garden. Whenever someone showed up, he’d fry up sausages with peppers and onions, or maybe some breaded veal cutlets. He also had a fish fryer, a turkey fryer and a smoker. He kept those out in a shed in the back, and would wheel them out to cook on the brick patio. He had a ramp on his gazebo, and would take the smoker up there if it was raining, and smoke ribs or pork butts all day. There was a door to the back that he’d go through. He also put in a small pool table that you could convert into a ping pong table.
His sauce was superb. He would cook up a bunch of meatballs in the old Italian style. One third ground beef, one third ground pork, and one third ground veal. He had a little herb garden with basil and oregano, and he would sometimes get rosemary from Greece. His wife’s uncle was a Greek who owned fifteen Italian restaurants throughout Northeast Ohio, and also had a several tavernas back in Greece that his extended family ran. The family even had a rosemary field, and managed to ship it through customs. The uncle swore that it was world class, grown in soils that had nurtured rosemary from the time Athens was nothing more than an obscure village of goat herders.
That Fall, Lucky came back for Thanksgiving, and everyone was hanging out in Frankie’s garage, a propane heater keeping everything warm. Frankie was frying up smelt and fresh cut french fries out back, dumping them on plates as they were ready. The older kids were playing bocce out in the back and sneaking drinks, and the younger ones were on the Playstation in the basement. The ladies were out scoping out the location of items for Black Friday shopping.
“I was thinking,” said Frankie, “We all put a little money into the Charity. But we ought to try to raise some real money for research, for the Charity. Get it’s name out there,” turning to Stevie, “Your pa was a popular guy.”
“What do you propose?” asked Stevie.
“What would you guys think about a supper at the Church hall after the noon Mass? Lasagna or something?”
“How many ovens do they have?” Max asked. Nobody knew. “Lasagna’s a tough one. You fill an oven up, even a commercial oven, and the heat’s all uneven.”
“How about spaghetti, then?” asked Lucky, “Make up a mess of your meatballs? They’ve got one of those tilt griddles.”
“How would you know?” snorted Paulie.
“I’ve been there,” said Lucky, “Girl Scout trip.”
“I didn’t know you were in the Girl Scouts!” said Paulie.
“Aww, fuck you! It was with my little sister. I took her because my Mom was out of town. They made a bunch of cookies for the homeless and passed them out for Christmas.”
“You and your sister celebrated Christmas at a Catholic Church?”
“Yeah, Christmas at a Catholic Church. So what? What am I, the Head Jew? For Chrissakes, it was for the homeless. They don’t know when Yom Kippur is. And anyways, my sister got some kind of badge for her vest.”
“You don’t have to be so sore about it.”
“Forget it. Well, anyways, they have one of those big tilt griddles, the ones you can cook up a mess of eggs or sausage in. They probably still have the same one. They wouldn’t have the money to buy a new one, as cheap as you Catholic pricks are. It’s not like you tithe or anything. Throw your fuckin’ spare change in a basket, then go out to a steakhouse and the movies.”
“Okay, okay! You win!” said Paulie, raising his hands in defeat.
“Meatballs are a good idea,” Max said, trying to smooth things over, “And we can cook up a mess of spaghetti in one of those big boilers. Then you dump the water out, pour oil on it so it doesn’t stick. You can just serve it right from there, or re-heat it in batches in a couple pots on the stove.”
“How about meatball sandwiches?” asked Frankie, “Then you only have to cook up the sauce and meatballs. Maybe give them a bag of chips on the side and a soda.”
“It’s all good,” Max said, “But a box of spaghetti is cheaper. It costs 79 cents and will feed four or five. Rolls cost about that per person. You can buy bags of chips for like a quarter apiece at WalMart. Same for soda. The meat costs more for a sandwich though. You can make about….20 meatballs a pound if you use an ice cream scoop. That’s like 15 cents a meatball. You give them 2 meatballs with spaghetti, but probably 5 with a sandwich. So if you charge $5 for the whole meal, you’re making $4 for each spaghetti dinner, and like…I don’t know, $2 bucks for the meatball sub. Less if you have to throw out buns.”
“You forgot the parmesan cheese,” said Lucky.
“And the plates. Napkins,” added Frankie.
“Plastic forks,” said Stevie.
“Good point,” Max said, chastened, “Then there’s trash bags. Cleanup. And the sauce…shit, can’t believe I forgot that. Anyways, I don’t know how much we’d make. Definitely more if we did the spaghetti dinner.”
“Donations,” said Lucky wisely, “Ask for donations. As I so inelegantly alluded to before, I bet most people head out to a restaurant after Church and drop like $50 on a meal for a family of four when you add in drinks, tax and tips. Put up a sign, and ask them to donate whatever they think they would pay for the meal in a restaurant. Some folks would stiff you, but I bet most would give you at least five bucks a head. Some would put in ten bucks. A couple heavy-hitters would drop in a C-note.”
“So who’s in?” asked Frankie excitedly, “You know I love to cook. Max, you used to work at Delmonico’s. You’ve seen it done, right?”
“Yeah, I was a waiter but they used me for banquets and stuff too. Light cooking, salad prep, keeping the buffet lines full.”
The guys chatted excitedly, obviously having bought into the idea.
“Okay, does anyone have a Sunday in December they CAN’T make it?” asked Stevie.
“December ain’t gonna happen,” interjected Paulie, alarmed, “You can’t even get flyers out that fast. And everyone’s heading out for the holidays, dropping money left and right. How about…February? Or March?”
Everyone checked their phones, and there was a lot of white space. There were four Sundays they were all available.
“Okay, we have some dates. I’ll talk to Father and lock one in. Then the work begins!” said Frankie.
“No, Jan Waters,” Stevie said, “The Business Manager. Father will say yes, but Jan can make it all happen.”
It all lined up nicely. Max went to see Vinny Delmonico, and he agreed to donate several cases of commercial-sized cans of crushed Roma tomatoes, spaghetti, spices, loaves of Italian bread and parmesan cheese, for the right to sponsor. Most importantly, Vinny agreed to come over and help supervise and decide on portions, to make sure the whole thing worked out. Alaina’s uncle came through with the meat. He wanted to donate anonymously. Jan and Father Ray had a stock of plates, utensils, and napkins left over from a rained out picnic. They also agreed to put a notice in the Church bulletin, and make announcements. Most of the kids were in the youth group at Church, and got the other members to agree volunteer to wait tables and clean up. Jack had been teaching English at Church, and got some of his students to volunteer. Most of them either worked in restaurants, or had at one point. Stevie’s mom agreed to come as guest of honor, and Stevie’s Uncle Maurizio, his Dad’s brother, would give a short speech. All the Charity had to do was buy chips and soda, and Vinny arranged it all with Premium Vending and Commercial Kitchen. It was clear that this thing was going to be pure cash for CSD, the respectable CSD.
It was a lot of work, taking up weekends of planning, but it paid off. The night before, they met at 5 pm, and began to mix up the meatballs in the old recipe, elbow deep in meat as they kneaded it like dough; beef, pork, veal, and the secret ingredient from Alaina’s uncle, a smidgen of ground up bacon. They fried batch after batch, setting the meatballs aside in trays that went into the warmers. About halfway through, a couple of Jack’s students came in, some young Hispanic women, who were good company and hustled around, knowing what to do before you even asked.
At ten, they put the meatballs back into the griddle, and then topped it off with the sauce. Frankie banged away on his phone’s calculator, and added huge spoonfuls of sugar, salt, pepper, oregano, basil and rosemary. Vinny showed up 11, just having gotten off work. He tasted the sauce, and asked, “You’re not thinking of opening a restaurant, are you? This is superb!”
As the sauce stewed, the guys took a break. They stood around a bit, drinking a little red wine, smelling the food cooking. The girls were standing on the side, unsure, and Vinny waved them over. They smiled a lot as they sipped the wine, but didn’t say much.
“God, I miss Dad”, Stevie said suddenly.
“I wish he was here,” Paulie agreed, “That man loved to cook.”
“He’s here,” said Vinny. He was younger than the rest; in ninth grade when Paulie and Max were seniors, and the other guys juniors, but he knew them all from school or from Delmonico’s, and everyone knew and loved Sandro DiStefano. Vinny was really overcome. He had looked up to the guys growing up; they were always a step ahead, and were always what he wanted to be in a few years. He had been excited to join in when he heard about the dinner. “Your father,” he said to Stevie, “He always made people feel welcome. He taught me in CCD, in eighth grade, when I was getting ready for Confirmation. That was a tough time for me…it wasn’t easy. There was a lot going on back then. But your father was a good man,” he looked down into his wine glass, mulling over his words. Then he brightened, “All of this. This food, this friendship…this care. Don’t ever doubt it, he’s here. And if he hasn’t come down from heaven, trust me, the smell is wafting all the way up there. This is divine!”
Max hadn’t thought about Stevie’s Dad in a long time, and he doubted any of the guys but Stevie had either. Sandro had passed when they were in college, and Max realized he must have been around the age they were now. But he had been a good guy, always ready to feed neighbor kids who were there at dinner time, known to throw a neighborhood kid a few bucks for doing chores. He was the kind of guy you could talk to, unlike most Dads. Frankie wiped away a tear, and said, “You know, Vinny, it’s true. Everything you say, it’s true.”
“To my Dad!” said Stevie, raising his glass.
“To your Dad!” we answered, and clinked glasses all around.
After a while, everyone drifted off but Frankie, who turned down the heat on the griddle to a simmer. He went to his car, and got a fold-out camping cot. “Gotta make sure it all turns out okay,” he said to the empty kitchen.
The next day, the guys went to eight o’clock Mass, and then started the water boiling in the big steam kettle. That Mass was fairly empty, as was the ten o’clock when Stevie poked his head in. The guys began to worry. It was a sunny day, not too cold, and the shopping season in full swing. But there was no need. The twelve o’clock Mass was standing room only. The guys heard later that Father Ray gave a short homily, ending with a short joke about being unable to compete with the sermon provided by the smells of heavenly cooking.
There was a rush to the Church Hall, and people streamed in, sitting down at the folding tables, while teenagers ran back and forth with trays of steaming food. The Mexican girls were back, and had brought another friend with them. They were easy on the eyes, and chatted with the guys on breaks. There was a lively bustle in the air, people jabbering excitedly between mouthfuls of spaghetti and meatballs. Soon the tables were full, and the line went out the door. Jack came up to Vinny with wide eyes, and said, “Some lady just told me she had to park three blocks away. The parking lot is full!”
Vinny looked out at the crowd, and at the food that was left. He nodded his head to himself and said, “One meatball each. One’s all they get now. Have the wait staff ask them first if they even want it. Lots of people skip meat these days. Bread too. Half of the world is on some low-carb diet. And put the four biggest pots you have on the stove. We’re gonna need more spaghetti!” He stepped out and made a call, and before the water even began to boil his brother Eddie showed up with a cartful of spaghetti and several more cans of sauce, which were dumped periodically into the dark red sauce in the griddle to stretch it out.
Before Eddie dumped the sauce in, Vinny grabbed a pan and filled it up with meatballs. He put it in a heater and turned it on, and confided to Paulie, “We have to set aside some of these meatballs for us, so we can have them the way Frankie made them,” then he furrowed his eyebrows, and quoted, “Do not muzzle your ox when it is treading out the grain.”
Paulie looked at him, baffled.
“The Bible,” he said sheepishly, “I read it a lot. It means, those who work should be able to eat. It seemed fitting. My Dad always said that when I asked why we didn’t charge the employees for meals. I didn’t understand then, but I do now.”
Seeing as they would be stuck going to McDonald’s otherwise, Paulie saw the wisdom of his approach. “Your father was a good man,” he said, and Vinny nodded and ran off to check on the guests.
Stevie gave a short talk to the guests there, thanking them for coming. People in line crowded into the doorway, trying to hear. Stevie’s Mom and sister sat there, dabbing tears. Then Uncle Maurizio got up, and gave a short talk about pancreatic cancer, gave a few statistics, and reminded everyone that their voluntary donation for the meal served would go to fight this scourge that killed 30,000 American each year. As he spoke, everyone stopped eating, even the kids, and all eyes were on Uncle Maurizio. He thanked them, and the buzz of voices slowly picked back up, more subdued than before.
At the end, they were able to feed the last people the last few meatballs, with just a thin coat of dark red sauce left in one corner of the griddle. The chips and drinks were long gone, although there was a pot of spaghetti left. The donation jar had overflowed several times, and Jan Waters had brought in extra cash bags from the Church fair to put the money in. She locked them in the office.
The teenagers and other volunteers had eaten first, so the guys sat down to their meal while the others bustled about, hauling out bags and spraying down tables with sanitizer. They folded up the tables, and pushed them back into storage. Vinny reached into a basket, and pulled out a jug of Delmonico’s house red and eight glasses. It was their label, with a family crest, bottled at a winery by Lake Erie.
“I want to thank you for asking me to be part of this,” he said, gesturing around, lapsing into a bit of Italianate formality as he poured out glasses full of the wine, “It meant a lot to me. You guys were always good guys. I didn’t know you well back then, back in school, but I knew you all by reputation. Stand up guys who didn’t make trouble for those behind you. Your good reputation was well deserved. I knew your Dad, Stevie, but even if I didn’t, I would have known you came from good people.”
“No, thank you!” insisted Frankie, “We all knew your old man and your ma, God rest her soul. We appreciated them accommodating us knuckleheads for pizzas after home games. We were loud and full of ourselves, they never minded. They were great people, always served a great meal, honest as the day is long. Willing to give someone a break and a job. Decent folk. Looks like the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.”
It turned into a bit of a lovefest, each one trying to top the other’s story with a Delmonico’s memory or a word about Sandro.
“These meatballs are divine,” said Vinny finally, closing his eyes as he took his final bite. He wiped up the last of the sauce with a corner of bread, and down it went.
Jan came up as they finished, a plastic tub full of money bags. They counted it out, not believing the twenties and fifties and hundreds, and piles and piles of smaller bills. After paying back the advance for sodas and chips, $5,672 and change for the Charity of Sandro DiStefano.
They all looked at the pile, wondering, and Eddie Delmonico said, “Gentlemen, I want to echo what my brother said, and add that I hope you do this every year. And I want you to know that Delmonico’s would like to be a part of it.” Vinny nodded in agreement, and they shook on it.