Don’t Get Me Started

Oops too late.

Last Sunday when I went downstairs to get some ravioli from our upright freezer, I discovered the dial was turned to off (must’ve been those damn faeries). Bummer! Everything inside the freezer had defrosted. I’m talking soups, marinara sauces, a dozen uncooked chicken thighs, plus a 14-pound turkey. Worse yet, about 500 handmade-by-me ravioli—seafood, ham and turkey, sausage and chicken, sweet potato, beef and pork, ricotta cheese and spinach.

Once nicely arranged in freezer bags, my carefully constructed agnolotti (Northern Italian for ravioli) were now a gooey mess from which there was no possible chance to salvage. Bye-bye I said as Hubby D deep-sixed them into the garbage can. Only the batch of prune, tart cherries, and walnut ravioli had survived—a specialty of mine for the discriminating palate, one served with a drizzle of pure maple syrup.

The freezer couldn’t have been off for more than a few days when I quickly turned the dial back to on. Yay! It restarted immediately (again, damn those faeries). Further assessment of the defrosted damage resulted in my disposing of a variety of soups and gravies. The marinara sauce I kept, along with a large bag of chopped onions.

Although the chicken and turkey had defrosted, they were still usable. I brined the chicken thighs for several hours before roasting at 400F for about an hour, after which I marinated them in Italian dressing. Meanwhile, I deconstructed the turkey, removing the back, wingtips, and lower portion of leg (meatless portion above the joint). Those I put in a stock pot filled with water, along with the turkey neck, giblets, and veggie scraps from my kitchen freezer. After bringing the mixture to a boil, I turned down the heat and let it slow simmer for hours. The turkey breast, wings, thighs and legs I brined overnight in a bucket of water, to which I added about ½ cup of salt and lemon slices from another freezer. That evening I drained the turkey stock through a colander, refrigerated the liquid and disposed of the mushy solids.

Voila! The next morning my turkey liquid had turned gelatinous, producing a thick, rich stock, which I scooped into quart-size bags and froze. Then I roasted the deconstructed turkey (425F for about 1.5 hours), along with two very large sweet potatoes (for a new batch of ravioli) and served the meat for our midday meal, along with mashed russet potatoes, and a salad. After removing the larger pieces of meat from the bones, I used those meat-clinging bones to start a new stockpot (along with more freezer scrap veggies). Hours later I repeated the separation of mushy solids, again refrigerating the savory liquid to gel overnight.

All this cooking and salvaging got me to thinking about the 12 pounds of onions I bought some weeks ago with plans to make French onion soup—someday when the urge aroIt did that day, not because I had a hankering for this time-consumer, or someone in the family had requested it. But rather, not letting those onions slowly go to waste, in spite of my having refrigerated them—far, far away from the potatoes. Please, no finger-wagging. I know onions and potatoes have no business in the fridge, but some rules were made to be broken. At least that’s how it goes in my house.

So, that afternoon I sat at the table and while watching TV, removed the brown skins from the twelve pounds of onions, after which I placed the skins in a stock pot, cwith water, let it come to a boil, then, turned down to slow simmer for hours, producing a dark brown, onion-flavored liquid after separating from the mushy skins. Meanwhile, I cut all those skinned onions in half (from stem to root), and passed them through the slicer attached to my Cuisinart food processor—producing enough uniform onion half-moons to fill a 13 gallon stainless steel commercial mixing bowl, courtesy of my caterer friend E.

The next morning I sautéed to a light golden brown all those onion strips in butter, using two skillets to speed up the process (which took about an hour to accomplish) alonone and a half pounds of butter, and about ¼ teaspoon of salt and freshly ground black pepper for each new skillet batch.

Time for the serious pot now—a huge, thick-bottom aluminum commercial pot (again from E), which I set on my elongated middle burner. In went the onions and when they started cooking I added some paprika, turkey stock from the day before, and after a while the onion broth, along with about 5 bay leaves. After bringing all this to a boil and adding a cup of dry white wine (Pinot Grigio), I turned down the heat and let it slow simmer for about two hours before declaring it done. Soups on, I could’ve shouted. Except it’s supposed to be better after sitting overnight. After the soup cooled down, I scooped up portions into contains for the next day or so and quart-size plastic bags to freeze for later.

As for the roasted chicken thighs, once again I removed most of the meat from the bone and froze in three plastic bags to use later for risotto, ravioli, or stir-fries. And made stock with the meaty bones and my last bag of scrap veggies from the freezer. Stock turned out perfect!

As for my ever doing this … oh, wait a minute. What about those roasted sweet potatoes I already mashed, with plans on turning into ravioli. Not this day or the next or the one after that. Those sweet potatoes are going into the freezer, that’s what. They’ll just have to wait for another day when … don’t get me started.

###

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Remembering Italy. A timely repeat of a blog from three years ago …

It’s Me—Giuseppe!

One of my fondest memories of visiting the Piemonte family villages in Northern Italy is the year Uncle J and my brother K went with Hubby D and me. The last time Uncle J had been in that area was as a young boy of eight or so, having traveled there in the 1930s with his immigrant mother and aunt. While his mother and aunt spent many months selling the family homestead and taking care of other legal affairs, Uncle J wandered the Alpine foothills with no thoughts of the school he’d left behind in Illinois or of the school in Colleretto he might’ve attended to broaden his education, an unfortunate judgment error on the part of his mother since Uncle J didn’t finish out third grade before going to Italy and returned too late to begin again in the fall, setting him back two whole school years. It was the 1930s immigrant way.

During our turn of the 21st Century trip Uncle J had several people he wanted to visit—one an elderly aunt now in her nineties who didn’t know he was coming to see her but did remember him as a young boy. D, K, and I sat in the aunt’s dining/living room, and listened to Uncle J and his aunt talk about the passing of this relative and that. When she brought out the customary box of family photographs, we three outsiders excused ourselves and drove twenty minutes to Monte Piano for a return visit with a distant cousin on my maternal side and to show K the eleventh-century house where our grandmother spent her childhood, a safety hazard now and uninhabitable. Cousin P explained how he and his sister often carried large stones up the mountainside each school day, building necessities their father used to stabilize the old structure where they too had lived as children.

On this particular visit the widower P was living next door to the old homestead, inone-room apartment, part of a two-story structure similar to an old-style condominium. As with all Italians who feel a connection, he invited us into his home for a glass of homemade wine. And while we were there I couldn’t help but notice his two posters hanging on the wall—one of Great Britain’s Princess Diana; the other of Marilyn Monroe in her well-publicized calendar pose. Nice. Awkward but nice.

The next day Uncle J wanted to visit a boyhood chum from 70-plus years ago. “Do you think he’ll remember you?” I asked, trying to let him down gently.

“Why wouldn’t he,” Uncle J replied. “I remember him.”

So, the four of us stood outside a two-story building and Uncle J called out his friend’s name, just as he’d done when they were kids. A door on the second level opened. Out came an elderly gent, white-haired and slender. He leaned over the rail and squinted while observing us below. “It’s me—Giuseppe!” Uncle J said, using the Italian version of his name.

His friend smiled broadly and immediately gestured for us to come upstairs. What followed was a round of vino rosa and the promise of endless stories, during which D, K, and I once again excused ourselves, leaving Uncle J to reminisce with his friend while we sought new memories of our own.

D and I often compare notes about our separate childhoods and how we always stood the yard of friends’ houses and called out their names rather than knock on the door or ring the bell. Telephoning in advance—no way, although we all had home phones, in my case an 8-party line after moving out of East St. Louis.

Yes, it was the Age of Spontaneity, one that still existed in Italy a few years ago. But not to the extent it once did. Nothing stays the same forever. We have now entered the Age of Advance Planning, where every encounter begins with an electronic device, usually a text message and agreed upon time to meet.

What about you? How do you connect with friends and family?

###

Photo Credit: Gran Paradiso, Piemonte Region, Italy: L. Giacoletto

 

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Lincoln Zoo, Chicago 1931

An afternoon at Lincoln Zoo with two kids he barely knew was not Matt Pagano’s idea of utilizing time to his advantage although he had to admit these kids were kind of cute. Instead of the drab clothes of the orphanage, they were dressed in their Sunday best, clothes he figured must’ve come from Giulietta Bracca. If she’d done the same for all the Guardian Angel kids, he figured Sister Mary Joe would be hitting him up for a beyond-the-customary contribution in the near future.

To add to Matt’s current annoyance, Ugo Sapone had deposited the three of them at the zoo’s entrance and said he’d be back around four o’clock. While they were walking along the pathway, Matt glanced at his wrist watch, probably longer than he should have because the little girl stopped, as did the boy and, of course, Matt.

“Miss Giulietta’s watch has diamonds in it,” the girl said. “She never looked at it when she was with us.”

Oh, yeah, how well he knew that watch, having moved it and its diamond studded case from Giulietta’s best jewelry box to the wall safe. Matt’s watch had been a graduation gift from the parents who raised him, and seldom left his wrist, other than to avoid the possibility of its getting wet. Ugo being Ugo had suggested the purchase a pricier model befitting Matt’s new position but he couldn’t bring himself to shove the economical Elgin in his drawer of forgotten things.

“You’re still looking at the watch,” the girl said.

Blessed Mother, who made this kid his keeper. She’d probably report his dereliction of duty to Mary Joe. “Sorry. It’s just a habit with me.”

“What’s a habit?” the boy asked.

“Something you feel the need to do even when I don’t.”

“You mean like sitting on the toilet when you don’t have to poop?”

The girl reached over and yanked her brother’s hair. “Michael! Sister Barbara said no more poopy talk.”

He lifted his head upward, all the better to view Matt’s face. “Are you going to tell Sister Barbara what I said?”

“Nah, I got better things to do with my time.”

“Better than being with us?” the girl asked.

“Nothing I can think of right now.” He started walking, all the better to keep them occupied. “So, what’s your favorite thing to see at the zoo?”

“Come on. I’ll show you.” She grabbed his hand and began skipping, the boy trotting alongside to keep up.

What she just had to show Matt came as no surprise, their winding up in front of the gorilla Bushman’s cage—the one place he could’ve done without. Not so with the Baggio kids who squealed and giggled as they watched Bushman hurl his shit at the crowd. Another reminder of Gemma Costa and their day with the gorilla’s antics and the unrelated aftermath of death and devastation neither of them could have anticipated. But that was then and he needed to be in the now. “Not too close,” he warned the kids.

“We’ll all be in trouble with Sister Barbara if I bring you home stinking like an outhouse.”

“Outhouse? What’s that?” the boy asked.

The girl shook her head and gave Matt a look straight out of a nun’s handbook.

Message received, he’d have to choose his words more carefully in the future. “Never mind I guess you’ve never been to the country.” Nor out of the orphanage for more than a few hours here and there.

“Our papa lives in the country,” the girl said.
“Does it stink there?”

“Nah, forget what I said about … outhouses.”

No sooner had the words left Matt’s mouth when a glob of shit struck the boy on his bare leg. “Sonofa … blueberry,” the boy said, inspecting the damage. “You gotta a hankie, Mister … mister … I forget. What should we call you?’

“Matt. Matt will do just fine.” Having pulled out two handkerchiefs from his trousers pocket, he gave the crumpled one to the boy. “See what you can do with this.”

Holding the handkerchief between two fingers, he turned to his sister and made a face.

“Mr. Ugo cleans up Bushman’s shit,” she said.

“Not anymore. You two wanted to play dodge the-you-know-what with Bushman so you clean up your own mess.”

“Miss Giulietta wouldn’t like this, not one bit,” the girl said, tears welling in her eyes. “Sister Barbara said she’s never coming back.”

The boy lowered his head and sniffed. “Yeah, she’s with God now.”

“That’s right,” Matt said. “But Miss Giulietta is still watching over you so be nice. Okay?”

Evidently being nice was not in the cards since the girl stomped her foot and crossed her arms. “It’s not fair,” she said, “getting stuck with someone like you.”

“I agree. Looks like we’re stuck with each other—you, me, and … and …”

“His name is Michael. Mine is Mary Ann. Try not to forget next time. Okay?”

“Yeah, yeah. Now give me the damn handkerchief.”

Michael handed it over but the little snot nose just had to add, “Oh-oh. He said a really bad word.”

“Guess that makes us even-steven.” Matt countered while wiping the boy’s leg. Damn. Ugo should’ve given him a heads-up. Or a wet rag. He pulled out his flask, dampened the cloth with some whiskey and finished the cleanup with a gently rub.

“I don’t like Steven,” Mary Ann said. “He pulls my hair when nobody’s looking.”

“Even-steven isn’t real. It’s … it’s … forget about even-steven. As for mean Steven, shall I tell Sister Barbara?”

“She’d say I should pray for him.”

“How ’bout I tell him to knock it off.”

“No, I can take care of myself.”

End of excerpt, Chicago’s Headmaster (a work in progress)

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Pure Gold in the Eye of the Beholder

A good friend and colleague of Offspring #4 stopped by yesterday with a promised gift of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, otherwise known as quarin in the Piemontese dialect of Italian-Americans in our Illinois town and barbison or quarin in Colleretto and the Castelnuovo area of Northern Italy. Could life get any better? These mushrooms had been harvested hours before, on J’s own property, right before snow began to fall, our first of the season and unusually early for Veterans Day in Southern Illinois.

As soon as J left (with two jars of my antipasto), Hubby D started lusting after the mushrooms that J had already cleaned and cut into generous pieces.

“Have we got any bagna càuda?” D asked.

As if there was ever any doubt. D had referred to the traditional garlic/butter/anchovy sauce the Piemontese enjoy as a dipping sauce for veggies, among other uses. In my case, pint-size jars of the homemade concoction stored in the fridge, and used to enhance meat, fish, veggies, gravy, sauce, or on its own with pasta. D dipped to his heart’s content in a small pot of hot bagna, but only made a small dent in J’s mushrooms so I decided to st-r-e-t-ch the rest of those gems to make them last as long as possible. Not wanting to mess with pickling, I instead opted on a simple sauté before freezing in small portions. Here’s my recipe:

Hen-of-the-Woods (Quarin) Mushrooms, My Way

(Works just as well with other mushrooms)

4 ounces unsalted butter

4 ounces extra virgin olive oil

2 pounds mushrooms, cleaned and cut into bite-size pieces

¼ C chopped onions

¼ C chopped garlic

2 T basil pesto

2 T fresh lemon juice

Salt and optional freshly ground pepper to taste

Over medium stove top heat, melt butter and olive oil in large skillet.

Add mushrooms, in at least two batches to avoid overcrowding.

Allow each pan of mushroom to brown a little without stirring.

Combine all sautéed mushrooms in the skillet and reduce heat.

Add onions and garlic to mushrooms and stir, continuing to cook until soft.

Add pesto and swirl through mixture.

Taste, add salt if needed, hand-ground pepper if desired.

Turn off heat and squeeze fresh lemon juice over mixture.

Done!

Ready to enjoy as an appetizer or an accompaniment to polenta, or other dishes.

Or, place loosely in freezer bags or containers and freeze until ready to use.

(My thanks to Diego Bertot, owner-chef of Ristorante Minichin, Colleretto, Italy, for the correct spelling of quarin. And to his brother Diego Bertot for another name for hen-of-the-words—barbison.)

 

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Another Excerpt from The Headmistress’s Son: A Sequel to Chicago’s Headmistress

Chicago 1931, at the height of The Great Depression …

“Rent’s due,” Pooch said while counting out three singles, his half of the weekly rent that included someone else dealing with their dirty laundry. “What with you and me practically family, if money’s a problem, you can pay me your share later.” He winked before adding, “With interest.”

“Like hell.” Matt Pagano eyed Pooch from where they sat at the battered table in the basement room they occupied. “Just deduct my part from the two-week deposit you still owe me. In case you forgot, it was me and me alone who paid the entire amount out of my pocket.”

Pooch backed off with an exaggerated show of upright palms. “Just yanking your chain. And not to keep harping on job opportunities, but Oscar’s still got room for one more worker. The night shift, in particular, so I can move to strictly days instead of working the second and third shift straight through. Sixteen hours be damned. The pay ain’t worth a hill of beans but one free meal comes with each eight-hour shift. Think meatloaf and taters, ham and beans, corned beef hash.” Pooch lowered his eyelids and smacked his lips. “Don’t get me wrong—Any Time’s food can’t hold a candle to what your ma and mine used to cook, but there’s enough to fill the belly of most hungry men.”

Matt’s belly rumbled in sympathetic response. True hunger he’d never known but he could feel it coming somewhere down the line if his luck didn’t change pretty soon. God knows, since coming to this once proud city, he’d seen hunger on more faces than he could begin to count. Going without an occasional meal was nothing compared to the loss of a roof over an entire family’s head or sleeping in a bug-free bed. Chicago’s homeless were making do under the Michigan Street Bridge, in cardboard shanties near the Loop and Randolph, or in Hooverville’s garbage dump at 31st and Cicero. Not even the corrupt mayor and his corrupt cronies could make the Depression poverty disappear. “How long you been shoveling garbage at Any Time Bar?” he asked Pooch.

“Ten days, give or take.”

“Enough to collect one week’s pay, right?”

“You bet. Plus occasional tips—two bits here, two bits there. It all adds up to me earning every nickel, dime, and quarter that goes in my pocket and then some. Cleaning up blood and vomit, piss and shit, tobacco juice, cigars, cigarettes, and overflowing spittoons ain’t my idea of proper employment. And don’t get me started on the toilets. I swear, women are nastier than men and that’s saying a lot. Not that I’m complaining, you understand. Between Any Time’s around-the-clock booze and betting, the job should last as long as customers keep making asses of themselves.”

“Yeah, let the good times roll,” Matt said with a stretch of arms overhead. “Let me get this straight. You want me to hire on at nights so you can at least see the mess you’d be cleaning during the daytime.”

“Something like that.”

“No thanks. I’ll keep looking.”

“Got any prospects?” Pooch asked.

“Maybe so, maybe not. It’s too soon to tell.”

“In other words, you ain’t got nothing.”

“In other words, until I got something worth talking about, it’s none of your business.”

“Okay, okay, don’t be so touchy,” Pooch said. “I just thought … well, since we’ve been buddies since third grade ….”

“Say no more. If I get a job somewhere better than Any Time, I’ll keep an eye out for you too.”

“Thanks, Matt. I really hate working there. If it wasn’t for you here with me, I’d be on the first train back to Joliet.”

Matt figured as much. “What’s the worst thing about Any Time?”

Pooch heaved a deep sigh before answering. “Not the stinking customers. Not the bartender or the cook. Not even Oscar whose bark is ten times worse than his bite. It’s that damn guy who comes in every other day to collect the take for The Big Fellow.”

“The Big Fellow—not sure I’ve heard of him,” Matt said with a straight face.

“You’d hear nothing but if you worked at Any Time. Or any other bar or restaurant or diner in Chicago. For that matter, any money maker in Chicago—underground or legit. The Big Fellow has his finger in everything. Even in the boonies south of Springfield, wherever there’s money to be made off the sweat and fear of others. I’m talking about the one and only Al Capone.”

Matt lifted his brow in mock surprise. “No kidding. Sure, I’ve heard of Capone but not in terms of The Big Fellow. What about his problems with the Internal Revenue?”

“Ain’t going away, leastways that’s what I hear at Any Time. But it’s still business as usual and when collections come due, Capone sends his bagman, the meanest no-good sonofabitch in all of Chicago.”

“This sonofabitch, he has a name?”

“Sure as hell does. Ever heard of Fingers Bellini?”

Again, Matt replied with the blank expression he picked up from Ugo Sapone. “Only in passing, what about him?”

“Well for starters, the other day he accused Any Time’s bartender of shorting Capone’s take. When Eddie denied doing such an idiotic thing, Bellini punched him in the gut, so hard he crumpled like yesterday’s Tribune. Then Bellini kicked him in the kidneys, again and again until my own started to ache so bad I threw up in the waste basket.”

“Where was Oscar?” Matt asked.

“Hiding out in the john. Didn’t I tell you Oscar’s all talk and no guts? To keep peace, the owner Terry Carmody handed Bellini two sawbucks from his own pocket, whatever it took to get Bellini out the door. As for Eddie, he got carried out that same door on a stretcher. Not sure when he’s coming back, if ever.”

“Maybe you should apply for the bartender job,” Matt said.

“I did, practically got down on my knees. But Terry gave it to this guy Billy, which made perfect sense since Terry was looking for a way out from totally supporting Billy and Billy’s widowed mom, who happens to be Terry’s sister. Family first, I get that. And since you and me are tighter than Siamese twins, I’d vouch for you, Matt. Show you the ropes if you got hired, which, on my say-so, I sure as hell know you would.”

“Like I’d need special training to clean up,” Matt said.

“More like keeping your nose out of certain things that don’t concern you.”

“I’ll think on it.”

End of excerpt.

 

 

 

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Givers and Takers: A Short Story

In my role as an associate editor for the highly respected Allegory E-zine, I’ve read hundreds of short fiction submissions over the years, and used to write quite a few short stories myself until creating full-length fiction became my top priority. In any case, here’s one of my earlier stories from my eBook entitled, A Collection of Givers and Takers. It’s about Barney Davis, a disgruntled husband, who plots the perfect escape from his needy wife LaRue. Read on to find out who will prove the stronger in this test of perseverance.

Givers and Takers

Barney Davis pressed his fork into the soft fold of yellow and released a delectable ooze of melted cheese onto his plate. No short order cook within twenty miles could make an omelet better than LaRue, not that he’d ever paid her such a bullshit compliment. She was hovering over him, steadying her shaky hand to fill his favorite coffee mug, the one imprinted with Goodbye Tension, Hello Pension.

“Everything okay?” she asked.

He lifted the omelet’s edge, checked underneath, and spoke without looking up. “The butter got a tad brown.”

“And the bacon?”

“It could’ve been a little crisper. Did you change brands?”

LaRue didn’t answer, not that he expected otherwise. She’d already moved on to her personal apothecary of assorted prescriptions and over-the-counters, tossing back each pill with a gulp of water. After regrouping the bottles for her noontime intake, she sat down to dissect a slice of dry wheat toast into four diagonals, three of which were destined for the garbage disposal. When she expelled her customary not-one-more-bite sigh, Barney speared the remaining triangles, applied some jelly, and popped them in his mouth.

“Whew, I’d better get this filthy mess cleaned up,” LaRue said, easing her stooped frame out of the chair. After covering her wispy hair with a shower cap and slipping surgical  gloves over her hands, she pulled out a wire basket of supplies from the cabinet.

Barney buried his face in the morning paper so he wouldn’t have to watch the methodical show she performed Monday through Friday. By the time he’d finished perusing the Post-Dispatch, including classifieds, stock reports, and international weather forecasts, she was still sanitizing countertops and applying a high sheen to every inch of stainless steel. “For god’s sake, LaRue give it a rest,” he finally said. “If those appliances shine any brighter, we won’t need to turn on the lights this evening.”

She stopped to smooth out wrinkles from her velour outfit and pick at lint too small for any eyes except her own. “A tidy house reflects a tidy mind,” she said. “Leastways that’s what Mama always told me, and Mama never lied. I miss her every day of my life, don’t you?”

No more than a nagging case of shingles. “Your mama was a piece of work,” he said, pushing back his chair.

“Don’t even think about leaving, mister. You know how I depend on you.”

“Yeah, yeah, give me ten minutes. First I gotta see what’s happening around the world.”

“Now, Barney. I don’t have all day. For a change would it hurt you to put my needs before yours? It’s not like I ask for much, considering all the sacrifices I’ve made for you during our forty-three years of marriage. And before that the devastating courtship that nearly cost me my life.”

Blah, bla-h, bla-a-h, bla-a-a-h, bl-a-a-a-h. Her squeaky voice sawed into his raw nerves until he gave in and followed her into the bedroom. She handed him a package of bed linens, 400-thread imports according to the wrapper.

“Another pricey set?” he said, pulling off the plastic cover. “How many sheets do two people with a top-of-the-line laundry setup need?”

“So maybe I care about appearances. And what the neighbors might think. You just never know when …”

“Stop it, LaRue.”

“I’m the realist. You’re the dreamer. That’s why we make a good team, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, LaRue. Without you, life wouldn’t be the same. Now let’s get this bitch made.”

They worked in tandem, squaring the top sheet corners over the bottom sheet with the hospital precision LaRue had learned during her years as a nurse’s aide. After they fussed over centering the quilted spread just so, she fluffed a half dozen pillows and he bent over to collect a bevy of stuffed animals lounging in the corner. “Don’t bother the pets,” she said. “I’ll take care of them later.

“I say let’s drown the whole bunch.”

Barney braced himself for LaRue’s defense of her prized menagerie. Instead, her brow had wrinkled into furrows as she held up a trembling hand, particles of minute dust clinging to the forefinger that inspected her nightstand. “Tsk, tsk.” She shook her head and spoke with tired resignation. “Looks like I’ve got another busy morning ahead of me. Did I tell you Charlene’s coming over?”

“Again, so what else is new? That busybody’s a one-woman show desperate for an adoring audience. And I ain’t about to oblige her.

“About lunch—”

“Don’t bother on my account. You need anything while I’m out?”

“No, but you need a haircut.”

“For crying out loud, LaRue, it’s only been two weeks.”

“And don’t forget to pick up your suit.”

“My suit’s at the cleaners again?”

“I asked Charlene to drop it off. You know how I feel about proper attire showing respect for the deceased.”

***

Barney didn’t stick around to prolong an argument he couldn’t win. He drove to Al’s Clips and negotiated a reduced rate for a trim that could’ve waited another two weeks. Afterwards, he circled through the park and stopped at the lagoon to feed the ducks stale bread. He settled back on a bench and warmed his face to the autumn sun, but when an old hen kept pecking at his shoes, demanding more than Barney cared to give, he pelted the bird with a handful of rocks. “Dammit, I didn’t come here for your amusement,” he yelled as the duck waddled off. Barney got back into the car and peeled onto the paved road, leaving a trail of scattered gravel.

At Wal-Mart he greeted the clerks, checked out the sales bins, and directed a first-timer to Housewares. He knew the store better than most employees and took pride in sharing his knowledge. More than once the manager had suggested part time employment but forty years on the assembly line had earned Barney the right to refuse. In sporting goods he ran into his cousin George.

“You hungry?” George asked, tapping his watch.

“Only if you’re buying.”

Porky’s Sty claimed to produce the best barbeque east of Kansas City and north of Memphis, a boast Barney and George considered exaggerated but never bothered challenging. They grabbed the last empty table, ordered Porky’s special, and exchanged barbs with the regulars until Zoe brought their food. Barney couldn’t help but notice how the recent divorcee leaned into George’s shoulder when she positioned two racks of ribs on the table. George kept right on talking and never gave her a second glance.

“Can I get you anything else?” Zoe asked, her lips brushing against his ear.

“Maybe later,” George replied with a wink.

As soon as she sashayed away, the cousins loosened their belts and converted thick paper towels into practical bibs. Like mirrored images they hunched over the table, their elbows angled at forty-five degrees. Not one word passed between them as they gnawed and chewed and sucked meat from the bones, pausing only to lick sauce from their fingers.

George burped first. He leaned back to extract bits of pork from his teeth before throwing Barney a tempting bone. “Deer season starts next weekend.”

“Tell me something I don’t already know. You gonna eat that last rib.”

“It’s yours.” George shoved his platter across the table. “Me and Sonny rented a cabin in the boonies. We got room for one more ugly cuss. Just say the word.”

“You know I would if I could.”

“So, how is LaRue?”

“About the same. Living each day as if it’s her last.”

George shook his head. “Back in high school I had this huge crush on LaRue, but homecoming queens don’t date benchwarmers.”

“Right, they get screwed by star quarterbacks.”

“It’s a pity you two never had another kid.”

“I got no complaints. Doc said if LaRue didn’t have me to baby, she would’ve bought the farm long ago.”

“Just what is her problem?”

“Problems. And once she sinks her teeth into a perceived symptom, she ain’t about to turn loose. Her current afflictions range from colitis to arthritis, hypertension, acid reflux, and psoriasis. But mostly she thrives on hysteria brought on by a bad heart. Her bad heart’s the only ailment I’m for sure is real.”

“Bad as in unhealthy or unkind?”

Barney answered with a shrug.

“So maybe deep down LaRue’s looking for an exit,” George said. “A painless way to end her miserable existence.”

“So maybe you oughta hang out your shingle and get paid for dispensing baloney.”

“Hey, don’t get your bowels in an uproar. I’m on your side. Just remember: nothing in life stays the same. Eventually, the givers become takers.”

The discussion ended with Zoe refilling their glasses and rubbing against George again. When she left, Barney followed her with his eyes. “Zoe’s got a nice swing on her back porch,” he told George.

“Yeah, she keeps inviting me to sit on it.”

“Damn. What she sees in you, I don’t know.”

“Me either, but for now she’ll just have to wait her turn.”

“Come again?”

“I ain’t shitting you, Barney. Ever since the wife passed, I’ve had my pick of widows and divorcees. Women I hadn’t seen in years showed up at Dorothy’s wake and funeral. Those I don’t recall ever meeting before—and, trust me, I never forget a pretty face—counted themselves among her best friends. Not a week goes by that I don’t get bombarded with casseroles and sweet potato pie or invitations for home cooked meals—fried chicken, pot roast, meatloaf.”

“And these lonesome doves, what do they get in return?”

“My best, Barney. And they keep coming back for more. Some want the whole shebang. Some just want to cuddle or take in a movie.”

“Don’t it get a little tiresome? You know, that constant demand for your attention.”

“What more could any man want: I pace myself; I answer to nobody but yours truly; and next week I’m going deer hunting.”

They parted on a handshake and Barney’s empty promise to reconsider the hunting trip. He stopped back at the park to feed the ducks his leftover cornbread from lunch. The pesky hen he’d run off earlier lay sprawled out at the water’s edge. She looked at him with glazed eyes; her heart pounded through a matting of stained feathers. He picked up the defenseless creature, petted her until she calmed down, and then he crushed her neck. “Rest in peace, you pathetic little pest.”

****

After stopping by the drycleaners, Barney cruised around town until he got bored and went home. No cars in the driveway meant he wouldn’t have to deal with Charlene, LaRue’s designated replacement, as if he had no say-so in the matter. He pulled into the garage and walked around to the front entrance—LaRue preferred he use the back. As soon as he stepped inside, the familiar odors of lemon oil and ammonia invaded his nostrils. Every surface capable of shining obeyed: furniture, floors, windows—even the houseplants. Fresh vacuum tracks crisscrossed the plush carpet. “LaRue!” he called out. “How many times I gotta tell you: too much vacuuming wears out the rug.”

She didn’t answer so Barney tiptoed down the hall to their bedroom. He found LaRue stretched out on the quilt, surrounded by the pets, and positioned in her if-I-should-die-before-I-wake mode: eyes closed, arms folded across her chest, and face made up like a movie star’s. Between the pink satin pajamas with matching mules and the Marilyn Monroe wig, LaRue could’ve passed for thirty-six, same age as Monroe when she gave her final performance.

His wife’s shallow breathing reminded Barney of the injured hen at the park. LaRue needed help too, and he’d neglected her far too long. He watched her fluttering heart for a few minutes before determining the most effective remedy. From the pile of pillows he selected a king-size. He held it above her face, waiting for some sign to continue. LaRue’s eyes flew open but she hadn’t come out of her stupor yet. Time was precious. He pressed the pillow down, closing it over her head as he started counting. “One hundred, ninety-nine, ninety-eight, ninety-seven.” She stirred. He pressed down harder. “Nine-six, ninety-five, ninety …”

When he got to eighty, a shrill vibration erupted from the living room. “Yoo-hoo, La-a-Rue!”

Barney jerked back. He broke into a sweat as he returned the pillow to its rightful place.

“Sorry I didn’t get back any sooner,” Charlene was yelling. “I stopped by to visit with George and one thing led to another. LaRue, are you okay? Answer me, honey!”

“Rest in peace,” Barney whispered. He’d jumpstarted LaRue’s entry into the next world; now she was on her own to complete the journey. He backed out of the room, closing the door as he crossed the threshold.

At the end of the hallway stood Charlene, wearing too-tight jeans and a puzzled look. “Is everything okay, Barney?”

Barney shushed the busybody with a finger to his lips as he hurried toward her. He didn’t even see the throw rug that sent him into a skid over the newly polished floor. His feet shot forward and his head flew back. His body elevated a good twenty inches before he crashed with a thud. Drifting from Technicolor to hues of sepia, he braced himself for overwhelming pain that failed to deliver. Instead he found the blessed relief of floating on gentle waves—alone, since LaRue feared any body of water bigger than a bathtub.

***

Barney had no idea how long he’d been drifting at sea. He cranked his eyes half way and saw a blur of white on white. Looking over the blanketed outline of his toes, he could make out a picture hanging on the wall, a boat sailing on blue water. He figured he was in a hospital, without LaRue. He must’ve set her free. Himself too. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But as soon as Doc released him, Barney would make sure his wife got a proper send-off, the kind she’d been anticipating for years.

He’ll wear the proper attire—for sure, his dry-cleaned suit—and after the funeral friends and neighbors will drop by the house. They’ll comment on LaRue’s fine housekeeping and encourage him to get on with his life. He’ll nod and make a show of fighting back tears. With any luck Barney figured he could still make the opening of deer season.

He tried to sit up. He tried lifting up on his elbows, turning to his side. He tried willing his hand to ring the bedside buzzer. Nothing worked. Not his arms. Not his legs. Not even his head. He stretched his mouth into a thunderous yell. And croaked out a garbled “La-a-R-u-e.”

“Oh, my God!” she squealed like a schoolgirl. “Charlene! Did you hear what I just heard? Barney finally woke up. And the only word he spoke was ‘LaRue’. See, I told you so: he really does need me.”

LaRue was hovering over him; her face zoomed in on his. She flashed a smile he hadn’t seen in years. He saw his hand wrapped in hers, but he couldn’t feel her dry, scaly palms.

“Oh, Barney, I’m so-o sorry. Doc said spinal cords can be a bit tricky so it’s hard telling when you’ll walk again, if ever. But don’t you worry about a thing ’cause we’re still a team. And I’m here to take care of you, for as long as it takes. But just in case God should call me home before you, Charlene has promised to take my place, just like I always said she would. Right, Charlene?”

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Our Wild Neighbors

Hubby D and I reside in what was once a Southern Illinois coal mining town. Now the town is best described as part of the Metropolitan St. Louis area. Realtors refer to our diverse neighborhood as desirable. I like that. Most of the homes represent an architectural mix of Tudor, Bungalow, Craftsman, Dutch Colonial, Cape Cod, Contemporary, Cottages, and Mid-century Ranch such as ours. We finished raising our five offspring here and over the years have watched a continual cycle of neighboring families grow from toddlers to teens and beyond.

We’ve also observed our share of wildlife come and go or maybe stay. The cardinals stay year round; the hummingbirds come in late spring and leave in early fall. Not sure about the yellow finches. They might winter here but their feathers lose that distinctive color.

We used to have rabbits until the neighborhood cats couldn’t control their natural instincts. Groundhogs were smart enough to wait until my tomatoes were ripe before eating half the flesh and leaving the other half for me. Thanks but no thanks. Deer have been known to wonder through our yard early in the morning or in the middle of the day. Or around ten at night when recently one stood five feet from our front door.

Mustn’t forget the foxes. Such beautiful creatures. This year a male came trotting down the street with a squirrel hanging from its mouth. Like all good fathers, he made a home for his family—in our next-door neighbor’s culvert. What a sight—dad, mom, and three kits frolicking in the grass, minding their business like all good neighbors.

For some years a family of lizards has been hanging out around our swimming pool but never in it. As to where they go in the winter, I don’t have a clue but they’re always back the following spring.

This year for the first time we had some unexpected wildlife. Frogs. Make that baby frogs, not much bigger than some bugs, neither of which are welcome in my pool. Most mornings around 5:15, before my usual fifty laps, will find me skimming the pool, this year removing anywhere between two and seven frogs each day. If they’re not doing their own laps, they’re sitting on the steps of the ladder or riding the chlorine tablets floaters. Out, neighbors or not, I want the damn creatures gone! Only when they are, do I take the plunge and begin my daily routine.

Yesterday, during lap number 30, a smooth non-stop backstroke with eyes closed to the sky above, I casually brushed one hand over my face to remove … what? Yikes! A baby frog, comfortably settled on my forehead. No point in screaming loud enough to wake up the neighbors. Instead, I scooped this uninvited neighbor out of the water and with one finger, flicked it away. When it didn’t move fast enough to suit me, I pushed a little harder. With that, my swim for the day came to an abrupt end.

Ah well. There’s always tomorrow.

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