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

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: Ben met the girl of his dreams, Ella, at the Everyday Grind.

Carmelina searched for the adoption papers for her daughter, hoping to find the girl now that her husband had passed away. Then she had a second date with Daniele, and invited him to stay over.

Matteo was tortured by worry about the state of Ragazzi's finances. He remembered the day he came out to his parents, and resolved to fight for his new life with Diego. He and Diego shared their secrets, and Matteo slept on the couch that night. The next day, he questioned whether he and Diego would be able to work things out.

Marissa went back to school at McClatchy High.

Will Carmelina find her daughter? Will Diego and Matteo be okay? And will Marissa fit in at school?

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


28 - La Luna

L’ho trovata, the message from his sister said.

I found her.

Diego stared at it in disbelief. It was the night of the new moon, the apartment lit only by the streetlights outside.

He was dreading the inevitable demand from Max, his ex-immigration attorney, for the blackmail money. Instead, there was one from Valentina.

He checked the clock. It was just after eleven at night in California, or seven in the morning in Italy. Matteo was already in bed.

The two of them had worked side by side at Ragazzi all afternoon and evening, but Matteo had barely looked at him, let alone spoken more than three words. Now Diego sat by himself on the couch, afraid to go to bed.

He’d asked Valentina’s advice the week before, and the words had come back with startling clarity. “You have to tell him.” He’d put it off until he really had no more choice, and now he risked losing everything.

You found who? he texted back, his hands shaking, making it difficult to type out the words.

The three dots appeared on the screen for a moment, then went away.

He could picture his sister, perfect in her Valentino suit, getting ready for work, staring at the screen pensively while she decided how to tell him. Or if she should tell him at all.

What???

A moment later, the dots appeared again. And finally: I found Luna. She wants to speak to you.

He dropped the phone as if it had burned him. After all these years… Luna had been unstable, a live wire. There was no telling the damage she might do if he let her into his life again.

What did she say? he asked.

Three dots.

He waited, growling with anticipation. It was magic the way thoughts could be shared like this from the other side of the world. Magic and maddening…

She says she needs to see you…

The message trailed off.

What aren’t you telling me?

There was a long pause. He stared at his phone as if he could will her to type whatever she was holding back. He started to call her when the dots appeared again.

“You have to sleep,” Matteo said in Italian, from the doorway.

Diego looked up. “Are you talking to me now?”

Matteo frowned, his brow creased. Whether in anger or exhaustion, it was hard to tell.

Diego glanced down just as the message appeared from his sister. “Cazzo!”

She says you have a son.

* * *

Matteo poured the fresh coffee from the moka into two ceramic cups that said Sacramento—the River City with a photo of the Delta King on them. They’d been a part of his uncle’s collection, and although they were a bit chintzy, he hadn’t had the heart to throw them away.

He put down the pitcher and sat across the small kitchen table from Diego, whose hair was unkempt. There were dark patches under his eyes. He stared off to space, broken and lost.

“So you have a son,” he said quietly, still unable to process it.

Diego shook his head. “I don’t know. Luna says I do. But how can I believe her?”

“You don’t. Find out if she is telling the truth, first.”

Diego nodded, then looked at Matteo. “So you are talking to me.”

Matteo smiled faintly. “I’m still angry with you.”

“But do you forgive me?”

This time it was Matteo’s turn to stare off into space for a moment. “When my mother died,” he said at last, “she told me to just love you. No matter what it cost.” He saw hope light in Diego’s eyes and held up his hand. “I always will. But right now, I’m hurt.”

“I know. I should have told you—”

“I have to wonder what other things you didn’t tell me. What other secrets you might be keeping?” It killed him to say it. But there it was.

He expected Diego to argue. To promise there was nothing else. To beg.

“You’re right,” was all he said.

He looked back at Diego, stone-faced and staring at his hands.

“Everything you said is true. I lied and ruined everything.” He looked down at his hand, turning his wedding ring around. “I made this into a lie.” Diego slipped off the wedding band and laid it on the table between them. “I don’t deserve you.”

His words gutted Matteo. He tried to imagine a life without him and failed. In that moment, he knew.

Diego pushed away, but before he could get up, Matteo grasped his arm.

“Let me go,” Diego whispered, almost a hiss.

“Diego, look at me!”

Diego slowly met Matteo’s gaze.

“Yes, you fucked up. You lied to me, and that’s going to take me a long time to forgive.” He picked up the ring and held it in the air between them. “I gave this to you with a promise. For better and for worse.” He took off his own ring and put them together on the table, side by side. “So maybe we’re not married. I still meant what I said.”

Diego eyed the rings doubtfully. “What are you saying?”

Matteo took his hands. “Do you remember what you told me yesterday, when I shared my own secret about our money?”

Diego shook his head.

“You said, ‘Do you think fate brought us here just for failure and ruin?’”

Diego stared at him, dumfounded for a moment, and then burst into laughter that quickly turned to tears. “I am so sorry, Mattino,” he said at last.

“It’s gonna be all right,” Matteo whispered. “We’re gonna be all right.” He pulled Diego close.

“What about Max? And Luna? And… my son?”

Matteo frowned, remembering the forces that were arrayed against them. “We’ll figure it out,” he said at last. “We always do.”

As if in response to that thought, a new message flashed on Diego’s phone.

Where’s my money?

 

 

29 - Between The Lines

The doorbell rang. Sam grunted. “Can you grab that?” He was right in the middle of an important scene in his second novel. Brad was working from home this morning.… Let him get it this time.

His character, Paolo Pausini, had just discovered how deep the rot went in the Italian embassy in DC. Sam was drawing on his high school Italian, textbook flung wide on his desk, to pull off at least partially realistic dialogue. Unfortunately, he couldn’t remember how to form the formal imperative tense in la bella lingua.

Brad stomped by in the hallway behind him, probably annoyed at being called away from his own work.

Sometimes Sam thought Brad didn’t take his writing seriously enough. Like it was more of a hobby, something he could be pulled away from at any time. Just because he worked at home didn’t mean that he was free to run all kinds of errands or spend his whole day just keeping the place clean.

It had been bothering him lately, the little things Brad said to him. Hints, really, like his comment that morning about dust on the mantel. Just come out and say it already.…

“Sam, come here!”

There it was again. The disregard for his time and his concentration. “I’m right in the middle of something,” he called back.

“Seriously, you should come here.”

Sam pushed back his chair with a loud scrape so hard it almost toppled over. “Really, Brad, you have to let me…” His words fell away when he saw what Sam was holding. “Oh my God, is that it?”

Brad nodded and held out the book to him.

Sam almost snatched it away from him. He turned it over to look at the beautiful cover, a photo of the state capitol building and a sexy-looking guy with that smoldering gaze. “Read Between the Lines, by Samuel Fuller,” he read out loud. His first book.

“Samuel, huh?” Brad said with a grin.

“Holy crap, it’s here,” Sam said, still unable to believe it. He sank down into one of the leather armchairs in the living room and paged through it. It was real. He was an honest-to-god published author.

He thumbed open the dedication page. “This is for you,” he said, holding it out to Brad, mouthing the words he knew by heart as Brad read them.

I knew the moment I met you. And you saw right through to my heart.

Brad looked up at him with a big grin, and he knew he’d done good. “I’m proud of you, Samuel.”

Sam brandished one of the couch pillows threateningly. “You’re never gonna let me live that one down, are you?”

“Not a chance.”

It was an epic pillow fight.

* * *

Joe, the restaurant manager for Zocalo, shook Ben’s hand. “We’ll let you know.”

Ben had seen an ad for servers at the restaurant in the Sacramento Bee the night before and had decided to give it a shot. The pay was a bit better than the EG, and he hoped the hours might be a bit more regular. “Thanks. I’ve always loved this place.”

Zocalo had been one of his first finds upon moving close to Midtown. An old car dealership from the early twentieth century had been transformed into a warm, light-filled space full of plants and beaten copper vases in the shape of armadillos and warm Mexican charm. He sat at the L-shaped bar, sipping his Diet Coke, and looked around. The place was fairly packed for a late Thursday morning, humming with chatter.

That’s when he saw Ella.

She sat at a booth, half turned away from him, with a man a little older than she was, but there was no mistaking her profile.

Ask me again next time.

It looked like he was too late. She was seeing someone else.

He stared at her longingly, aware that he was being a little stalkerish, but he couldn’t help it. Something about her had captured him.

She laughed at something the man had said. He had dark hair and brown eyes and perfect eyebrows. Something about him rubbed Ben wrong—he wasn’t good enough for her. Ben was sure of it.

When the man got up to walk past him toward the bathrooms without even giving him a glance, Ben saw his chance. He got up and slid into the booth across from her.

Her eyes widened.

“Hi,” he said shyly.

“Well, have a seat,” she said, arching an eyebrow.

He blushed. “I’m sorry. I was here for an interview, and saw you.…”

She waited for him to go on, silent.

“I’m Ben. From the Grind.” This wasn’t going well at all.

She cracked the slightest smile. “I know.”

“You said to ask you again,” he said in a rush, encouraged. “On Monday. Then I saw you here with him, that other man. He’s not good enough for you, Ella.” He closed his mouth, aware that he was babbling. “You must think I’m such a mess.” He put his head down on the table, humiliated. Then he felt her hand on his and looked up.

She was laughing. “You’re kind of cute, you know? Even if you were kind of stalking me.”

He shook his head. “I wasn’t, I swear. I really did have an interview. Then I saw you. It’s fate.” He produced Joe’s card as proof. “So what do you say? Will you go out with me?” He put it all on the line. He didn’t know what he’d do if she said no, and the other guy would be back soon.

She considered. “It would be unfair to say no, after all I put you through.”

He grinned. “Are you serious?”

“How’s Friday night?”

“Perfect!” He was working Friday night, but he’d find a way to get out of it. “How about seven o’clock?”

Someone had come up behind him and was hovering over his shoulder. Her date. He started to rise, ready to run.

“Ben? Meet my brother, Max.”

 

 

30 - The Outcasts Society

Marcos looked around his small condo in dismay. Marissa had only been there for a few days and had arrived with little more than the clothes on her back. And yet, somehow, almost every surface in his once-pristine home was covered in something of hers.

The kitchen sink and counter were filled with enough dishes to have fed the cast of RuPaul's Drag Race, and that was just from breakfast this morning.

The dining room table was papered over with notes and half-finished homework assignments. English lit, from the look of things. He lifted up one of the papers, feeling like an archaeologist exploring some heretofore unknown ancient culture.

The couch in his living room was a nest of blankets Marissa had retrieved from the linen closet the night before, because she had been "colder than a penguin’s butt,” and then had never put away. He had refrained from asking why the butt was so much colder than a penguin’s other body parts.

But the real pièce de résistance was the guest bedroom. She had taken it over and made it her own.

He looked at the pandemonium inside and shook his head. It was as if a fashionable spider had taken up residence there and strewn its webs about. Clothes of every shape and color were thrown across the bed. They hung from the ceiling fan, squeezed out of the closet door like rainbow toothpaste, and covered the dresser and nightstand. In the middle of it all sat Nathan, his glassy teddy-bear eyes looking up innocently as if to disclaim all responsibility.

Where had she gotten all those clothes? He recalled buying her a few things. Maybe he’d brought home a bag full of tribbles shaped like boyfriend jeans.

He closed the door tightly to prevent them from escaping, ignoring the stuffed bear's inquisitive gaze. He would have to talk about this mess with Marissa when she got home.

Meanwhile, he had a job to finish. The Center was paying him to upgrade their website, and he was already a few days behind.

He fired up his computer and glanced at his calendar.

Dinner at Carmelina’s.

Damn, he’d forgotten all about that.

He really was enjoying the cooking class, and a part of that was this strange Italian-American redhead who just seemed to get him. They’d laughed their asses off together during the last class, and Marcos was looking forward to seeing her again.

He kinda liked her.

It was nothing romantic or sexual—shit, no. He was well and truly queer. And yet he found her brash sense of humor refreshing.

He glanced at the clock. It was a quarter to ten. If he pushed, he could get a good five hours of work done before Marissa came back home on the bus.

* * *

Marissa sat alone at lunchtime at a table in the corner of the cafeteria. Around her, everyone else was snapchatting or taking photos of each other. She missed her iPhone, but she’d lost it when her parents had kicked her out. Without a phone, she felt like a social pariah.

A shadow fell over her, and she looked up to see Jason standing there, lunch tray in hand. “Can I join you?”

She nodded. “Have a seat. We can start the official Outcast Society at McClatchy High.”

Though she’d said it with a note of bitterness, Jason didn’t seem to notice. He grinned and sat down next to her. “That’s a great idea. We could make up a cool logo and some T-shirts and maybe a newsletter.…”

It had become quickly apparent what Jason wanted from her: a friend, and maybe a shot at a little popularity around school.

He was a gay kid, but not the Gay Best Friend kind. He wasn’t sparkly or fashionable like the popular gays or athletic like the sports gays. He wasn’t even particularly witty like her street friend Ricky. It was hard for kids like him, gay or straight. She supposed she was one of those kids now, too.

“… and we could get together at Cafe Bernardo on the weekends like Marcy Minks and her friends…”

“Hey, slow down,” she said. “It was just a stupid remark.”

He frowned. “Oh, ok.” He went back to picking at his spinach, and she felt like shit for shutting him down him. He was her only friend here, after all.

“What about the alliance?” she said after a moment, hoping to perk him up.

He shook his head. “That’s all the popular kids.”

She snorted. “Popularity in high school is stupid.” She used to worry about that crap, but her time on the street had given her a new perspective. “You know, you’re right. We should do it. Make our own little clique. One where we choose the members. We could call it the Outsiders. Or the renegades. Or…”

“I like ‘The Outcasts Society.’”

“‘The Outcasts Society.’ I like it too.”

Jason pushed back his glasses on his nose and smiled shyly at her. “Thanks, Marissa. I’m glad you’re here.” He looked around. “How do we get it going?”

The school bell rang, and the students in the cafeteria started to get up and shuffle out of the room.

“Like this,” she said with a grin, and climbed up on the table. “Hey!” she shouted, and the room went quiet as five hundred other kids turned to look at her. “I’m Marissa, and this is Jason. If you don’t know us, it’s because you’re too stuck up to look past your own nose.”

“Get down from there, Ms. Sutton,” Mr. Mitchell called, waving threateningly.

“If you’re loners like us, come join us here tomorrow, at this table for the first official meeting of The Outcasts Society!” She climbed down before the teacher could chastise her again. He glared at her but didn’t say anything more.

Jason was grinning ear to ear. “That was farking awesome.” He frowned. “What if no one comes?”

“Cross that bridge tomorrow.”

 

 

31 - Lunch With Max

Diego was waiting for Max at Lucca in Midtown. Justin was running the front of house back at Ragazzi, and a chef friend of Diego’s had offered to cook for an hour. Who said they hadn’t made any friends here?

The hostess had seated him all alone on the back patio. The place had a comfortable, relaxed vibe that appealed to him.

“Can I get you started with something?” the waitress, Lauren, asked.

He looked over the menu. “Beh, some of zucchini chips, please?” He pointed to them on the menu.

“Sure. Some water?”

He shook his head. “Save for the… how do you say it?”

“Drought?”

He nodded. “Some wine?”

“White or red?”

“Prosecco? Three?”

“Coming right up.” She flashed him a smile.

As she left, the hostess appeared with another guest. “Mr. Cucinelli? Mr. Bellei is waiting for you.”

Ciao, Max,” Diego said with a smile, standing and holding out his hand.

Max took it suspiciously. “Buon giorno.”

“Have a seat,” Diego said in Italian. “I’ve ordered us a little Prosecco and some zucchini chips to get started.”

“About the money—”

“Have patience. if you’re going to extort me, the least you can do is sit through a nice meal first.” He took a deep breath, looking up at the clear blue sky. “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?”

Max just stared at him.

Diego pretended not to notice. Instead he studied the menu. Max was studying him with a frown on his face. Diego was enjoying this.

Their appetizer and Prosecco arrived. Out of the corner of his eye, Diego saw Max notice the third glass. “You’d better check your menu. Our waitress will be back any minute to take your order.”

Max frowned and picked up his menu. He opened it and took out an envelope. “Finally, you’ve come to your senses.” He opened the envelope and pulled out a piece of paper.

His face went white, then red with anger. “What the hell is this?” He held it up. It was neatly inscribed Va’ a farti fottere! along with a smiley face.

“I think it speaks for itself,” said another voice, over his shoulder. Max turned to find Matteo standing there. “But just in case… it says go fuck yourself. He flashed his brightest Italian smile. “We no longer need your services.”

Max stood and threw his napkin down angrily. “So you know his secret. It doesn’t matter. I can still call immigration on the two of you.”

Matteo took him by the collar with one hand and pushed him up hard against the wall. “And I can report you to the state bar for extortion.” He put his face right up against Max’s. “Just try me.” They stared at each other for a moment, then Max looked away. Matteo let him go, and Max scurried away.

Diego grinned at him. “That was amazing.”

Matteo sat next to him, taking a sip of the Prosecco. “It felt fantastic, but he could still make trouble for us.”

“Still…” He put his hand on Matteo’s. “Thank you for doing this. I know I screwed up. But now—”

There was a loud screech, a thump, and shouts. Diego jumped up and ran toward the sounds, and Matteo followed. It couldn’t be… He reached the front of the restaurant. A black SUV had run up on the curb, and Max was laid out in the street, unconscious. Or worse. Oddio, I killed him.

* * *

Carmelina had almost everything ready for the gathering. They’d be cooking the Italian recipes she’d learned from her class at Ragazzi. She’d left three messages for Daniele, but he hadn’t returned her calls. Screw him. It was too soon to be playing the field, anyway. Her night of passion would have to tide her over until the next time Fleet Week came to San Francisco.

She grinned at the image of a bored Sacramento housewife of a certain age hanging around the docks, looking for a few good men. Or even just one.

She had set up two preparation stations: one for passatelli and one for piadine. It was a quarter to five, and her guests were due in just forty-five minutes.

She went over her ingredients. Flour, lard, milk, salt, honey, baking soda and baking powder for the piadine; parmigiano, dried bread, eggs…

“Oh crap.” She’d forgotten to get eggs.

She checked the refrigerator. She had one egg left in the carton. She didn’t have enough time to run to the store.

Dave. Her renter in the other half of the duplex always had a well-stocked fridge. She called his place, hoping he would answer.

“Hiya, stranger,” he said. She could hear his smile.

“Hey there. You have any eggs I can borrow? I have company coming…”

“Hell, no, get your own damned eggs.”

She grinned. “I’ll be right over.” She hung up and ran out, banging on Dave’s front door.

“Who is it?”

“Open the damned door.”

It swung open. “Come on in,” he said with a grin.

“I wish I could. But I’ve got company coming.” Despite being in his late forties, Dave was still really handsome, greying at the temples but with an appealing, boyish enthusiasm. It was true what they said—the best ones really were gay.

“So you said.… While I sit all alone in this little shack of a house.” He handed her the carton. “Just use what you need and bring back the rest.”

“I’ll pay you later.”

He waved her off. “Don’t worry about it.”

She had a thought. “Hey, are you busy tonight?”

“Just catching up on my binge watching. I’m almost through Drag Race.”

“Why don’t you come over? I’m teaching some friends how to cook.”

“I don’t know.…”

“C’mon. It’ll be fun, and I won’t take no for answer.”

“Can I come like this?” He was wearing old gray sweats—his “office” attire.

“Sure. But there’s a cute single guy coming. You might wanna dress up.”

She loved playing the matchmaker.

 

 

32 - Three Tables

The phone rang.

Someone’s canceling, Carmelina thought. Someone always canceled. She picked up the phone, pushing a strand of frizzy red hair behind her ear. “Hello?”

“Carmelina?” An Italian accent. For a second she thought it was Daniele calling to apologize for his abrupt exit the night before. She was about to light into him when the man said, “It’s Matteo.”

Her anger left her in a sigh. “Ciao, bello. Come state.. come stai?

“Bene… it was a difficil… difficult day.”

“Everything okay?” She’d only known them for a couple weeks, but her new Italian friends seemed relentlessly upbeat. It was strange to hear the strain in his voice.

“I hope so. I’m sorry to call. I wondered if it wasn’t too late to say yes to your invitation?”

“Tonight?”

“Yes.”

“Of course not. The more the merrier.” Arthur would have had a fit to have such a ruckus in the house.

Arthur wasn’t here anymore.

“Grazie mille. We just need a few friends tonight.”

“Well, come on over.”

“We will see you soon.”

She hung up the phone, wondering what was going on with them. She was going to need to set up another cooking station. Maybe one of Nonna’s old recipes.

Then the doorbell rang. Showtime.

* * *

Marcos looked around Carmelina’s home. It wasn’t huge, but it exuded warmth and comfort. The olive-green walls were hung with an eclectic collection of artwork running the gamut from classical to geometric modern. The brick fireplace sported a wooden mantel that held pictures of Carmelina with a handsome older man, presumably her recently passed husband. Albert? Archie? He couldn’t remember. Maybe he was the old man.

The hardwood floors were polished to a luster, and the furniture blended traditional fabrics with a contemporary style.

“Where’s the bathroom?” Marissa asked.

“Just down there,” Carmelina said, directing her down the hall. “How are you doing with her?” she asked Marcos once the girl had closed the door.

Marcos shook his head. “It’s not easy. The trial for her breaking and entering episode is next month. In the meantime, I’m trying to establish a bit of normalcy for her at home.”

Carmelina arched an eyebrow. “She’s taking over, isn’t she?”

He nodded. He must have looked miserable, because she laughed and patted him on the shoulder. “I know what a handful a teenage girl can be. I was a menace.”

“What did your mother do?” He could imagine the trouble she’d gotten into.

“She laid down the law. Kids need boundaries.”

“Easier said than done.”

“Maybe so. But she’ll thank you for it later. Come on. I have a place for you to work on your piadine skills over here.”

He glanced back at the closed bathroom door. “Marissa…”

“Leave her to me. I have plans for her tonight. You deserve an evening off.” She set him down at a table at one end of the long kitchen. “Oooh, this surface is still filthy. Let me wash it off for you.” Grabbing a rag, she glanced out the window. “Oh, I think your sous chef is here.”

“Sous chef?”

But she was already off to the front door.

* * *

Dave reached toward the doorbell, but he hesitated. Usually he would come in the back way, but since Arthur had passed away, it had felt… intrusive to presume such familiarity. And truth be told, he’d been keeping more and more to himself in general. He ran a human resources consulting firm and had been able to conduct much of his business over the phone and the web. He felt safe at home.

It had been months since Carmelina had tried to play the matchmaker with him. Their cat-and-mouse game had been put on hold by her husband’s death. But apparently it was game on again now.

He was glad to see her coming out of her own seclusion. But did it have to be at the expense of his own?

Five long years…

Carmelina had managed some spectacular failures with her purported matchmaking skills. Danny the Republican asshole had been particularly memorable.

Maybe I should just head back home.

The door burst open and Carmelina grinned. “I thought I saw someone lurking out here. Come on in!”

Dave sighed. He’d waited a second too long to change his mind.

* * *

Sam and Brad arrived next.

“Carmelina, this is Brad, my partner,” Sam said, introducing a handsome man a few years his senior.

“You have a beautiful home,” Brad said, stepping inside. “Thank you for inviting us.”

“Glad to have you. Sam says you run the LGBT Center?”

“With the board. But yes, I’m there almost every day.”

“Mister Weston!”

Brad turned just in time to receive a giant hug from Marissa.

He held her out at arms’ length. “You look great. Marcos treating you okay?”

She nodded. “Mostly. Though he keeps his house too fucking cold…”

“Too what?” Brad raised an eyebrow.

“Too fracking cold.”

“Better. Still, I bet it’s warmer than the streets.”

“I guess so.”

Carmelina grinned at the girl’s brash spirit. “Marissa, wanna wait for me in the kitchen? I’m going to show you how to make a special dish my grandmother used to make for me.”

Carmelina sat Brad and Sam at the passatelli table in the dining room. She felt like a wedding planner with her seating chart all in order. They’d each work on their separate dishes, and then they’d eat dinner together at the long folding tables she’d set up out back. Fortunately it was unseasonably warm for the first of October.

Ben showed up next, and she put him with Sam and Brad. She had plans for Dave and Marcos, and she didn’t want anything to disturb them.

At a quarter after six, Matteo and Diego arrived. Diego handed her a beautiful bottle of prosecco, which she accepted gratefully.

She picked up a glass and a fork, tapping one against the other loudly. “Okay, we’re all here. The sooner we get started, the sooner we can eat!”

 

 

33 - Making Piadine

Dave decided he should have stayed home after all. Things had started out well enough. He and Marcos, who was actually really cute and a few years younger than him, had gone over the recipe Carmelina had provided, apparently from a cooking class they had taken together.

They’d mixed the ingredients—flour, lard, milk, salt, and the rest—talking as they went. Once, their hands had touched, and Dave had felt a momentary thrill at the contact. It had been a long time since he’d been with anyone or had felt a touch like that. But then things had stalled out.

They’d exhausted the usual list of topics: the weather, who was likely to win the presidential nomination, what they liked to watch on TV. It turned out they had very little in common on that side, with Marcos preferring Supergirl and Green Arrow and The Flash, while Dave liked Project Runway, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Top Chef, and Face Off.

Now they worked together in stony silence, while at the other two tables, people laughed and chatted and generally seemed to be having a great time. So Dave concentrated on working the dough—getting the consistency just right, then rolling out each piadina on the table and sprinkling enough flour to keep it from sticking to the surface.

He glanced at his phone. It was close to seven on a Thursday night. He could have been home watching Modern Family. He could have made himself a nice mug of hot chocolate, put on his bunny slippers and robe, and settled in on his comfortable sofa in front of his comfortable TV in his comfortable house.…

“Why do you live all alone?”

The question startled Dave out of his reverie. He turned to look at Marcos, wondering if this was just another conversational tact, one more topic to check off the list of social interactions. But Marcos looked serious.

“Why do you ask?” Dave was nothing if not good at deflection.

Marcos sighed. “Because I’m alone too. Well, except for my new ward over there.” He nodded toward Marissa. “This is obviously a setup, right?”

Dave nodded. “I think so.”

“I found the right guy once, but he got away, and I’ve been playing musical chairs ever since. I shouldn’t like you. Blind dates never work, right? And then I thought, ‘Why the hell not?’ But I’m chickenshit at romance. So it was easier to ask about you.”

Dave blinked. Had he heard right? “Me? You want to ask me out? Why?”

Marcos nodded. “You seem like a nice guy, and you’re cute, and the fact that you’re close to Carmelina speaks in your favor.”

“Didn’t you just meet?” He couldn’t pull himself away from Marcos’s brown eyes. It had been awhile, but he knew the signs. He was getting hooked.

“Maybe so. But we were twins, separated at birth.”

Dave laughed out loud. “I can see that. You have the same big mouth.”

Marcos threw a piece of piadina dough at him.

“Hey! Don’t mess with the food,” Carmelina called from the other side of the kitchen. “We have to eat that later,”

Marcos grinned “That woman has eyes in the back of her—”

“I heard that!”

“And big ears too,” Dave whispered.

Carmelina glared at the two of them.

Dave waggled his fingers at her, and she shot him a mock-serious look and turned away. Maybe this guy isn’t so bad, after all. “He died five years ago,” he said after a moment.

“Who?”

“John. Love of my life.” He took a deep breath. “HIV Complications .”

Marcos whistled softly. “And you?”

“No. I was lucky. We found out he had it early on, and we were very careful after that. I took care of him in our home that last year.” He sighed. Even five years later, it was hard to talk about it. There would never be another John.

Marcos put a flour-covered hand over his. “I’m sorry. I know what it’s like to lose someone.”

They sat together in silence for a moment, but this time it was a companionable one.

“So how about you?” Dave asked, starting in again on the piadine. He estimated they had enough dough to make about ten of the Italian flatbreads.

“What about me?”

“Why are you single?”

“Why do you ask?” Marcos’s eyes twinkled.

“Because I want to ask you out, you idiot.” His TV shows could wait—that’s what the DVR was for.

This time it was Marcos who laughed. “I’d like that,” he said at last. “Like a real date?”

“Yeah, a real date. What do I look like, some kind of trick you picked up at Faces?”

“Not in the least. It’s just that…”

“What?”

“I haven’t been on a real date in a long time. I’m afraid I might be a little rusty.”

Dave smiled. “It’s okay. I have lube. We’ll get you greased up in no time.”

Marcos snorted. “No, I’m serious. I’m out of practice. You’ll have to go easy on me.”

“I can do that. I’m a little rusty too. It’s been five years since I was with someone, and that wasn’t exactly a date.” He closed his eyes, remembering those last few weeks. The drug cocktail had stopped working, and one after another, the opportunistic infections had shown up. He’d seen friends die of the nasty disease when he was in his teens and twenties. He’d never expected to witness it again. He had been alone for a long time, after.

John would want him to move on.

He opened his eyes, forcing a smile. “How about Saturday night?”

“Deal. Do you like Italian food?”

Dave nodded. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

“You live next door?”

Dave nodded. “Carmelina lets me rent out the other side of her duplex.”

“I’ll pick you up at six.”

“Deal.”

He’d have time to go through his closet and see if he still had anything nice to wear.

 

 

34 - Making Passatelli

“So how goes the Great African American Trans Novel?” Sam asked, grinning.

Ben shrugged. “The week’s gotten away from me.” He liked Sam—the guy was an open book. “And you? Anything new?”

“Oh, here we go,” Brad said, rolling his eyes.

“I’m so glad you asked.” Sam rummaged around in the backpack on the floor by his chair, pulling something out triumphantly. “I just got it this morning.” He handed a book over to Ben.

“‘Read Between the Lines.’” Ben turned it over. Sam’s all-American-boy face smiled at him from the back cover. “That’s fantastic!” Ben had a few short stories published in various journals, but nothing like this. Someday soon he’d finish his novel.

“It’s the one I told you about. My political thriller, set in Sacramento.”

Ben grinned. Sam’s enthusiasm was infectious. “I’ll have to get a copy,” Ben said, holding it out.

“You have one. Check the title page.”

Ben opened it.

To Ben: From one writer to another. Keep the faith! —Sam

“That’s fantastic. Thanks, man! I’ll start reading it later tonight.”

“Great, make his head even bigger,” Brad said, laughing.

“So Brad, what do you do?” Ben asked. If Sam was an open book, Brad was an encrypted one.

“Nothing important like writing,” Brad said, rubbing Sam’s back. “I run the LGBT Center.”

“That’s not nothing! I know lots of folks who’ve found help there. When I was younger…” Ben’s phone was ringing. It was Ella. “Sorry, guys. I’ve got to take this.”

“Go ahead.” Sam waved him off. “We’ll get things started here. I think our host has us making passatelli.”

Ben stepped out into the front yard. “Hello?”

“Ben?” Ella’s voice broke.

“Hey, what’s wrong?”

“Can you get down to Sutter? It’s my brother. There’s been… an accident.”

“Where are you?”

“Emergency. I’m so sorry to do this to you, but I hardly know anyone here.”

“I’m only ten minutes away. Hang on. I’ll be there as fast as I can.”

“Thanks, Ben.” She hung up.

She had called him. Something was wrong, and she had called him.

He found Carmelina in the kitchen, making dessert with Diego, Matteo, and Marissa. “I have to run,” he said, kissing her cheek. “A friend’s brother is in the hospital.”

She gave him a hug. “Sorry to hear that. Can I send something with you? I’m sure I have leftovers in the fridge.”

“No, thanks. But thank you! Gotta go.”

He waved at his cooking companions and sped out the door.

* * *

“That was weird,” Sam said.

Brad nodded. “One moment he’s here, and the next he’s gone.”

Carmelina appeared from the kitchen with Matteo in tow. “Ben says he’s sorry he had to go. A friend is in the hospital.”

“Poor guy. I hope they’re okay.” Brad hated hospitals.

“In the meantime, I’m bringing you some reinforcements. Matteo here’s going to join you to help you with the passatelli. I’m keeping Diego all to myself.”

“Oh sure, you get the chef.” Sam stuck his tongue out at her.

“Host’s prerogative.” She flashed them a smile and then vanished back into the kitchen.

“What are you guys making in there?” Brad asked.

“She swore me to secrecy,” Matteo said. “How may I help?”

They divided up the labor between them. Sam grated the cheese. Brad tackled the bread, getting himself into a nice rhythm, while Matteo whipped the eggs. As they worked on the meal, they talked.

“So what’s Italy like?” Sam asked. “I’ve always wanted to go. I’m writing an Italian character in my new novel.”

“Don’t get him started on writing,” Brad warned Matteo.

Matteo smiled. “Italy is a beautiful country. But it’s not the same country it was twenty years ago. The economy is bad, the European Union has made things worse in some ways, and taxes are very high. It’s very duro… difficult to open a new business there.”

“Surely it can’t be so terrible,” Brad said, though he’d seen how bad the Italian economy was when he’d worked for the senator.

Matteo frowned. “I had an accounting job in Bologna for fifteen years before we camed here. I didn’t get a raise for the last thirteen.”

Sam whistled. “So how do people get by?”

Matteo shrugged. “They move in with family. They don’t pay their taxes. They leave.”

He sounded sad. Brad changed the subject. “How’s the restaurant doing?”

Matteo glanced up at the ceiling. “Beh, not well. It was my uncle’s place, but after the remodeling, many people don’t return.”

“Damn. It’s such a nice place.” Sam turned to Brad, who was mixing the ingredients in a big bowl. “Why don’t we support our own community?”

Brad shrugged. “It’s because we’re such a big, diverse group. The only thing we have in common is our differences.” He blended the cheese and bread crumbs together and added the eggs, nutmeg, and lemon peel. “Sometimes the L doesn’t understand the G doesn’t understand the B doesn’t understand the T. Throw in our asexual and intersex friends and the gender-fluid crowd, and it’s a wonder we ever agree on anything.” He put a finger into the dough and tasted it. “Damn, this is good.”

Matteo grinned. “It was one of mia madre… my mother’s recipes. And one of my favorites.”

“I didn’t think you two were coming tonight,” Sam said, tasting the dough himself. “Damn. That is good.”

“There was an incident this afternoon.” The sad look returned to Matteo’s face.

“Everything okay?”

“For us, yes. But it was upsetting. So we decided to take the night off. We didn’t have reservations, in any case.”

Marissa’s laughter erupted from the kitchen. She seemed happier than he’d seen her in weeks. Brad looked at Matteo, considering. “It seems like this cooking class of yours has been really good for Marissa.”

Matteo nodded. “I think so. Diego says she’s a natural at the kitchen.”

Brad smiled. The man spoke very good English but still got tripped up by prepositions. “I think I have an idea that could help us both.”

 

 

35 - Making Apple Fritters

“Not even dinnertime yet, and the guests are already leaving.” Carmelina shook her head, watching Ben’s car pull away and hoping his friend was all right.

“Ben’s trans?” Marissa looked up at her, hands wet.

“Yes. Does that bother you?”

“Why would it?” She went back to cleaning apples.

It’s a different world. The school she’d attended had included boys and girls. White boys and girls. Well, there’d been the Johnson kid. He’d been the only person of color she’d seen until she was seventeen.

Now the schools here had every kind of child imaginable: kids from Russia, from Guatemala, kids who were gay and bi and intersex and trans. It was a wonderful thing, but sometimes she felt a little lost in this new world. She still didn’t know what intersex was. Or santorum. Funny though—there was a right-wing politician by the same name. She should google it.

She sat down at the kitchen table with Diego and Marissa. Diego was showing her how to cut the apples into thin slices, dropping them into the marinade of sugar, rum, and lemon peels. “You’re a good teacher.”

He smiled. God, he was adorable. “Grazie,” he said, and turned to Marissa. “You arrotola… how do you say…” He made a rolling motion.

“Roll,” Marissa said.

“Yes. You roll it così.” He demonstrated.

Marissa was a lovely child too. How her parents could have thrown her out was beyond Carmelina’s understanding. Sending her own daughter off for adoption had been hard enough.

Tomorrow, Carmelina would find out about the fate of that little girl. She’d been trying not to think about it all day long and had failed spectacularly. Annoyed, she pushed it aside once again and sat down to mix up the batter. “This is a recipe my nonna—my grandmother—taught me when I was about ten years old. She used to always make it for me when we went to visit.”

“What was her name?” Marissa asked, concentrating on slicing the apples.

“Nonna Elena.”

Diego smiled. “La mamma di Matteo si chiamava Elena.”

Matteo’s mother was Elena too? “It’s a beautiful name. You don’t hear it so much anymore. I love old-fashioned names.” She put her hand on Marissa’s, and the girl smiled up at her. She’d missed the whole growing up thing with her own daughter, but just maybe she’d get the chance to make amends.

* * *

Marissa felt an unexpected surge of affection for Carmelina. She had a warmth about her that Marissa’s own mother had never had. For the first time in a long time, she felt at home.

Diego had told her she had a talent for cooking, A dono, he had called it, but the meaning had been clear enough. She’d never really been good at anything, something her parents had told her over and over. “Why can’t you be like your brother?” Perfect Oliver. Athletic, intelligent older brother Oliver. Never-disappointed-the-parents-in-his-life Oliver. Sometimes she missed him.

Carmelina was asking her something.

“What?” she said, her eyes focusing on the woman’s face.

“Do you like living at Marcos’ place?”

She thought about it. “It’s not bad. It’s nice having my own room again. He doesn’t like it when I vape.”

“When you what?”

“Vape. You know, e-cigs. You buy this vape pen thing and some e-liquid in your favorite flavor. I like blueberry.”

Carmelina laughed. “I have no idea what you just said. But aren’t you too young to be smoking anything?”

Marissa frowned. “That’s what Marcos says. But I wasn’t too young to live on the streets.”

“You were smart enough to take care of yourself,” Carmelina chastised her. “That doesn’t mean you weren’t too young.” She sighed. “When I was about your age, I thought I knew everything too. In high school, I slept with this beautiful boy named Jimmy Callahan. He was on the football team, and I was sure we were meant to be together forever.” Her eyes took on a faraway look. “He told me he loved me, but then he moved away. And a week after he left, I found out that I was pregnant.”

“You have kids?”

Carmelina frowned. “Yes, and no. I gave her up—my little girl. I was way too young to raise a child. At least that’s what I told myself.” Her eyes were moist. She wiped them with a dish towel. “When I look at you, though, I wonder if I made the right decision all those years ago.”

“You would have been a good mom.” She meant it.

Diego nodded. “Una mamma bellissima.”

“You could be my mom, for now. If you want.” Her own mother didn’t seem to be up to the job.

“I’d like that.” Carmelina gave her a hug and didn’t let go for a long time.

* * *

Diego watched the two of them together. They both had holes in their hearts.

He knew about family and broken hearts.

His own mother was still alive, living with his sister in Bologna. But her mind was almost gone. It had been leaking away for years, like water from a dripping faucet, a memory at a time splashing on the sink and then running down the drain.

The last time he had seen her, she hadn’t been able to remember her name. Her frail hand had rested on his cheek. “Papà, is it you?” she had whispered.

And he had nodded and kissed her cheek. He knew about broken hearts. “We cook these now?” he said, pointing to the bowl full of rum and apples.

“In a few minutes. Give them time to marinate.”

“Marinate?”

“Soak in the rum. For the flavor—the sapore.”

“Ah, I understand.”

Tomorrow, he and Matteo would have to figure out what to do about his immigration status. Tomorrow would be hard.

But for now, it was nice just to be here, cooking in this beautiful kitchen.

Among family.

 

Recipes courtesy of Fabrizio Montanari and his mother and grandmother.

Mamma’s Apple Fritters

 

Ingredients:

•   3 pippin apples

•   1/4 cup sugar

•   2 generous tablespoons rum

•   1 grated lemon peel

•   2/3 cup flour

•   1 cup water

•   vegetable oil

•   powdered sugar

 

Peel and core the apples and thinly slice about 3/8 of an inch thick. Mix the sugar, rum, and lemon peel in bowl. Add the apple slices. Set aside for about an hour. Mix up the batter using flour and water. Put water in a soup bowl and gradually sift flour into the water, constantly beating the flour in with a fork until all flour has been added. The batter will be thick, like sour cream.

Pour the oil into heavy skillet, 1/2-inch up the side of pan, and heat oil on high heat. Pat the apple slices dry with paper towels. Dip them in the batter, and when oil is very hot, brown them to golden brown on one side and then turn them over to other side until they are golden brown all over. Drain them on paper towels and sprinkle them with powdered sugar. Serve hot.

 

 

36 - In Threes

One of the piadinas was in a hot pan. The broth for the passatelli was boiling on the stove, and they were about to start the apples when Carmelina smelled something. “Is that smoke?”

Her guests were all crowded into the kitchen, talking with one another.

“I smell smoke,” she said more loudly. “Does anyone else smell it, or am I having a stroke?”

Sam, who was closest to the doorway to the dining and living room, peeked around the corner. “Oh crap. Your table’s on fire!”

Without thinking, Carmelina grabbed a pot full of water that was sitting in the sink. “Outta my way,” she said, and ran into the dining room, dousing the table with the contents of the pot.

The flames consuming the table cloth jumped higher. “Crap, that was the chicken water.”

Brad grabbed the blanket that lay over the couch and used it to beat down the flames.

“Not that one!” she yelled, but it was too late. The flames were out.

The hand-knitted blanket her grandmother Elena had left her was a smoldering ruin.

Brad frowned. “Was this… special?”

She took a deep breath. “It was.… It doesn’t matter. Thank you for putting out the fire.”

Sam appeared with a roll of paper towels and started to sop up the mess. “Looks like the candle burned down and the wick set the tablecloth on fire.”

At least the tablecloth was worthless. She retrieved a black plastic bag and shoved it and the ruined blanket inside, saying a quick prayer to her nonna.

The table doesn’t look too bad,” Matteo said, wiping it off with a soapy dish cloth. “You can have it… how do you say? Rifatto?”

“Re-done.” Truth be told, it was probably time to get a new one.

“Um, Carmelina?” Marissa’s voice called her from the kitchen.

“What now?”

“There’s something wrong with the oven. These piadini things aren’t cooking.”

Sam smiled. “Go. We’ve got this. Where’s your cleaning stuff?”

“Under the bathroom sink.” She lurched back into the kitchen. The oven was cold.

“That’s all right. I can have it looked at later. Let’s move the piadines to the lower one. Just means we’ll be eating dinner a little later.”

Marissa gave her a quick hug. “That’s okay. Everyone understands.”

“Thanks, love.”

“Carmelina!” someone called her from the back of the house.

“Coming! Can someone open the windows to get rid of the smoke smell?” She ran to the hall bathroom.

“Lo farò!” Diego called.

“What’s going on back here?” she asked Dave, who pointed at the toilet. Water was spilling over the edge.

“Did you turn off the valve?”

“I didn’t want to touch it.”

“Oh for God’s sake.” She waded into the small pool of water and shut it off. “Go grab me the plunger from the Master bath. It’s under the sink.”

Dave nodded sheepishly. He returned in a moment with the plunger, and she went to work. It was getting warmer in the house as the outside air flushed out the smoke.

She fought to bend the toilet to her will, pumping the plunger over and over again, but the damned thing wouldn’t clear. At last she threw in the towel, literally, throwing a couple of old bath towels on the ground to soak up the water and then stuffing those into the bathtub for later clean up.

She shooed Dave out and closed the door. “No one uses this bathroom,” she announced. “Use mine instead.” She cranked up the air conditioning. It was too damned hot for an October evening. Through the open windows, she could hear her neighbors running theirs too.

She retreated to her bathroom and washed up as well as she was able, checking herself in the mirror. Disasters always came in threes, right?

“Everything else under control?” she asked as she returned to the kitchen.

“I think so,” Sam said. “The table’s all cleaned up.”

“Thank God. And thank you all. This night couldn’t get any worse—”

The house was plunged into darkness and silence.

“Fuck me nine ways to Sunday.” She covered her mouth. So inappropriate. She had guests, after all. “Everybody stay where you are.” Her eyes adjusted to the darkness, the three-quarter moon providing a little illumination. “I have some candles and a flashlight in a drawer.” She navigated through the gloom, finding the drawer and pulling out the flashlight triumphantly. She flicked on the switch and was rewarded with a bright beam, which almost immediately fizzled out. “Lord love a duck!”

“Maybe this evening wasn’t meant to be?” Dave said, putting a hand on her shoulder.

“Nonsense. Just give me a minute.” She had saved worse gatherings than this. She found the matches and lit a couple candles. “There we go.” She held one up to her face, and looked around at her guests. The place was getting decidedly warm now. “Everyone okay?”

There was general assent.

“Dave, can you go take a look and see if the whole neighborhood is out?”

“Sure. Give me a candle.”

“Here you go. Hopefully the outage will be short, and we can get on with the evening,” she said reassuringly.

“Carmelina!” Dave called from the living room.

“What now?” She worked her way through the crowd of guests and entered the living room.

“Don’t come in here!” Dave said, just as she came face to face with a small, furry mammal. “There’s a skunk in the house!”

She backed away slowly, ducking into the kitchen just as the skunk turned to spray its musk in her direction.

“Everyone out through the garage door!” she ordered, pausing only to turn off the stove and oven.

It was a total rout.

They gathered on the front lawn. The skunk had run away after it had done its damage. Carmelina had closed the door to her house on the whole sordid affair.

She surveyed the dark street and then the stars above. It was a beautiful night. The evening could still be saved. “Anyone want to order pizza?”

 

 

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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