The River City Chronicles by J. Scott Coatsworth

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 first nine chapters of the book here, for you to read online.

The River City Chronicles – Part One


When my husband Mark and I moved to Sacramento from the Bay Area, I had no idea how many amazing people we would meet, or how this place would get under my skin.

Sacramento has a few nicknames—The City of Trees, The Big Tomato (thanks to a giant red water tower), and Sactown. But my favorite is the River City. Sacramento sits at the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers, and the rivers are an important part of life here, from the severe flooding they once caused to the recreational opportunities and drinking water they give us today.

In 2015, when I decided to attempt a serial story for my blog, I turned to one of my first published novellas, “Between the Lines.” It’s the story of a gay couple brought together by a little bit of magic. I’ve always had a soft spot for magical realism, and I decided to bring a little of it to Sacramento.

Sam and Brad, the couple from “Between the Lines,” are two of the characters in the rambling ensemble that is River City.

I admit to being influenced by the amazing Armisted Maupin, who famously wrote the first few books of Tales of the City as his paean to San Francisco in the 1970’s. Maupin is the master of a story-in-a-chapter. As one of our many gigs, Mark and I teach a local Italian language group. Over the last several years we’ve been reading the first book in Maupin’s series, in Italian.

Many of the places mentioned in this story are real, and I include them here with love. Locals will recognize them, just as they will recognize the image on the cover.

There are also a few invented places. Ragazzi is not a real Sacramento restaurant, but I do have a particular site in mind for it.

And regular readers of mine will recognize the Everyday Grind coffee chain, which pops up again and again. The main EG in Sacramento occupies the same space as a certain Berkeley coffee chain in Midtown.

I hope you have as much fun reading this as I did writing it. I am excited that Outword has decided to serialize the book on their website, and hope it finds an even wider audience though this project. The story will be serialized here in 12 parts over the next six months.

Welcome to River City.

J. Scott Coatsworth


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



1 - Ragazzi

Matteo stared out the restaurant window into the darkness of Folsom Boulevard. It was getting dark earlier as summer edged into fall. Streetlights flickered on as cars drifted by, looking for parking or making the trip out of Midtown toward home.

The sign on the window read “Ragazzi” (the boys), lettered in a beautiful golden script just two months old. Investing in this little restaurant his uncle had left to them when he'd passed away had been their ticket out of Italy. But now with each passing day, as seats sat empty and tomatoes, pasta, and garlic went uneaten, the worry was gnawing ever deeper into Matteo's gut.

Behind him in the open, modernized kitchen, Diego was busy cooking—his mother's lasagne, some fresh fish from San Francisco, and some of the newer Italian dishes they'd brought with them from Bologna. The smells of boiling sauce and fresh-cooked pasta that emanated from the kitchen were entrancing.

They'd sent the rest of the staff —Max and Justin—home for the evening. The three customers who had shown up so far didn't justify the cost of keeping their waiter and busboy on hand.

Matteo stopped at the couple's table in front of the other window. "Buona sera," he said, smiling his brightest Italian smile.

"Hi," the man said, smiling back at him. He was a gentleman in about his mid-fifties, wearing a golf shirt and floppy hat. "Kinda quiet tonight, huh?"

"It always gets busier later," Matteo lied smoothly. "Pleasure to have you here. Can I get you anything else?"

"A little more wine, please?" the woman said, holding out her glass so the charm bracelet on her wrist jangled.

"Of course." He bowed and ducked into the kitchen.

He gave Diego a quick peck on the cheek.

His husband and chef waved him off with a snort. "Più tardi. Sto preparando la cena."

"I can see that. Dinner for a hundred, is it? It’s dead out there again tonight.”

Diego shot him a dirty look.

Matteo retrieved the bottle of wine from the case and returned to fill up his guests' glasses. “What brings you in tonight?” Maybe they saw our ad.…

“Just walking by and we were hungry. I miss the old place though.… What was it called, honey?”

Her husband scratched his chin. “Little Italy, I think?”

“That’s it! It was the cutest place. Checkered tablecloths, those great Italian bottles with the melted wax… so Italian.”

Matteo groaned inside. “So glad you came in” was all he said with another smile.

* * *

Four hours later and he'd served a grand total of five customers. At least they'd all been drinkers. Wine was all that was keeping the place open these days.

Diego closed down the kitchen, and they sat together at the big round famiglia table in the middle of the place, the blinds on the windows closed, and counted their earnings.

“$203,” Matteo announced, tucking the cash and deposit slip into the bank sleeve for deposit. “Another hundred days like that this month and we can pay the rent." He sighed. He'd been sure, when they made their plans to come here, that America would be their land of opportunity.

Some days he longed to return to Italia. Sure, the government was corrupt, and the taxes were too high, and the opportunities were rare. But with all her flaws, it was still his home.

He wasn’t sure that this place ever would be. The Americans had such strange customs—eating at five in the evening, drinking everything with ice, and going everywhere in their cars instead of on foot.

Diego looked up from his half-finished plate of lasagne. He took a slow sip of his wine and said softly "Ho un'idea."

Matteo looked up. "What kind of idea?" He was doggedly sticking to his plan to become fluent in English by speaking it every chance he got. Diego was less diligent about his practice.

"Una scuola di cucina. Posso insegnare a questi Americani a cuocere meglio."

"A cooking school? Here in the restaurant?" The idea was crazy. They had no experience as teachers. Sure, Diego was a fantastic self-taught chef, but how would they get things started?

They’d already spent a lot of money on advertisements—radio, newspaper, even nailed to posts around town—and had yet to hit upon the magic formula to bring people in the door. Why should this be any different?

"Ho fatto questo." Diego pulled a flier off the chair next to him, handing it to Matteo.

"Learn to Cooking," Matteo read. "Give Classes With An Italian Chef How Easy It Is." He laughed. "OK, the grammar needs a bit of work. But maybe we could do something with this.…"

"Not maybe. Can." Diego grinned. "I can."

Matteo looked around at the modern enoteca they had created. It had gone from the sadly out of date Little Italy restaurant they had found when they'd first arrived to something sparkling and modern and new.

They had sold their house in Bologna and mortgaged everything they had to make this dream come true. It would be a shame to lose it all and be sent back to Italy with their tails between their legs.

"Okay," he said, taking Diego’s hand in his. "I'll tell you what. Send me the file, and I'll clean it up a bit. We'll put these out around the neighborhood and see what happens. When do you want to start?”

Diego grinned. “Domenica prossima?

"A week from Sunday, it is." He grasped the little golden cross his mother had given him before she passed away and said a little prayer to her. “Ti prego. Mi manca, mamma.”

Then they put away the dishes and turned out the restaurant lights. Matteo teased Diego with a kiss and then pulled him up the staircase at the back of the restaurant to their apartment.

On the table, the flier sparkled for a moment before becoming dark once more.



2 - The Redhead

Carmelina ducked into her bathroom one last time, checking her frizzy red hair. It was all over the place, as usual. There was only so much you could do with yourself once you passed fifty, and it was, after all, the first time she'd left the house for fun since Arthur had passed away.

Not that tonight was going to be fun. She was joining the Merry Widows Club—three women who had also lost their significant others. Loylene had invited her, and she hadn’t had the heart to say no.

Loylene was a sweetheart, but she was totally caught up in Tupperware and counting calories. Carmelina had never counted calories in her life—she had her gorgeous Italian hips to prove it.

Marjorie was a bit of a bitch. Carmelina had often wondered if the woman’s husband had died just to get away from her nagging.

She barely knew Violet, who was, as her name suggested, a wallflower who never spoke above a peep.

She kissed Arthur’s photo on the mantel on her way out, the one where he was scowling because they’d been late to dinner for their twentieth anniversary. And true to form, she was late now, due to be at the little restaurant at five p.m.—in just five minutes.

Still, she was sure she had enough time to check her lipstick one last time.

* * *


It was a quarter to six when she finally arrived at the One Speed, the little pizza place the Club had chosen. Despite the fact that she lived just a couple miles away in River Park, it had taken her almost half an hour to get there due to a road project on H Street. And parking had been horrific. If only she’d left earlier.

“Hi girls,” she said, sliding smoothly into the open seat.

The other women had black veils on, something she found a bit morbid. Sure, she had lost Arthur less than three months before, after thirty wonderful years together. But she had given up on wearing black after the first week, and these women had been bereaved for more than a year.

Marjorie gave her a sour look. “You forgot your veil. And you’re an hour late.”

“Forty-five minutes,” she shot back, picking up the menu. “And I guess I left mine at the dry cleaners.”

Loylene flashed her a perky smile. “Oh, that’s all right,” she said, opening up her large, woven pastel-peach purse. “I brought an extra, just in case.” She handed over a veil that had seen better days—creased and wrinkled and caked with little bits of something.

“Thank you, darlin’, but I won’t put you out. I’ll bring my own next time.” She set it aside.

Violet nodded and said something unintelligible.

“What was that?” Carmelina was starving. She ached to move past the pleasantries and get her meal ordered.

“She said she’s happy you’re here.” Marjorie’s severe tone left no doubt as to how she felt about the matter.

“Shall we order?” Carmelina said, trying to move things along. “The minestrone soup looks good. I’ll bet all they have to do is ladle that into a bowl.…”

“The ritual first.” Marjorie’s tone brooked no argument.

“The what?” Carmelina asked.

“The ritual,” Loylene said, pulling a small green Tupperware container out of her voluminous purse. She popped open the lid, displaying a bunch of small, folded pieces of white paper, and set it in on the table. “Each of us takes one of these, reads it, and then describes what her husband or…” She glanced at Violet. “…spouse liked.”

Carmelina rolled her eyes. “Does it take long?” Her stomach rumbled.

“I’ll go first,” Marjorie said, ignoring her. She took a piece of paper and read aloud. “Clothing.” She stared off into space for a long moment. Carmelina was starting to worry about her when her eyes suddenly refocused and she smiled mistily. “Tube socks. Martin loved his tube socks.”

“Very good,” Loylene said, putting the box in front of Violet, who picked a piece of paper, and read it quietly.

“Burnt toast,” she said softly with no further explanation.

Carmelina’s stomach rumbled.

“Okay,” Loylene said with a frown. She drew her own paper. “Ah, TV Show. Um… that’s a hard one. He watched so many. Davis lived in front of the television.”

“Hoarders?” Carmelina suggested helpfully. She’d been to Loylene’s house.

“Ice Road Truckers,” Loylene said triumphantly. “Your turn.”

Carmelina obediently took a piece of paper, and then stared at it blankly. Printed on the paper was “favorite kink.” She looked up. All three women were staring at her expectantly. “The 49ers. Favorite sports team,” she lied and shoved the paper back in the box.

Violet’s phone buzzed. “Sorry, I’ve got to take this. It’s Sylvie.” She took the phone outside.

“Sylvie?” Carmelina asked.

Loylene nodded. “Her wife. Violet’s an honorary member. Sylvie’s not actually dead, just working.”

Carmelina shook her head. This had been a bad idea. “Can we just order? I haven’t had a bite to eat since breakfast.” She waved at their waiter.

“First we share the objects we brought that belonged to our spouses,” Marjorie said, pulling out an old pair of athletic socks with red stripes from her purse.

“Oh hell no.” Carmelina pushed away from the table and threw down her menu, ignoring Loylene’s shocked expression. “I’m sorry, Loylene, but grieving at home is better than this.” She stormed out of the restaurant with just the right amount of righteous indignation, or so she would tell herself later.

As she walked back to her car, something stuck to her shoe.

It was a green sheet of paper. She turned it over. “Italian Cooking School—Come Learn From The Best.” It was for a restaurant called “Ragazzi,” and the classes started on Sunday. She looked at the address. It was right across the street.

How had she never noticed it before?

She stuffed the flier into her purse and drove home, where gelato awaited her.



3 - On the Street

Marissa set her backpack on the toilet tank, where it wouldn’t get all nasty from the bathroom floor. Coffee shop bathrooms were better than gas station stalls, but only in degree of ick.

She made sure the door was locked firmly behind her and started into her routine. Shucking her T-shirt and jeans, she ran the tap water and gave herself a quick wash with the bar of soap she’d bought at the corner market, pulling it out of one of her precious ziplock bags. She rinsed as well as she could, and then dried off with paper towels from the dispenser.

A little bit of soap went into her hair—she missed her shampoo days, but soap was cheaper.

Her close-cropped brown hair had been unevenly bleached with peroxide. She used a little soap from the dispenser for gel, pulling her hair up into points. At least it smelled good.

She stared into the mirror, trying to recognize her own face. Her snow-white skin was clean now, her brown eyes clear. But she still looked like a stranger to herself. Three months on the street, and she felt like a different person.

Someone pounded on the door. “I know you’re in there,” a shrill female voice said. “This restroom is for paying customers only!”

“Done in a minute!” she shouted back.

She put her jeans and T-shirt back on and brushed with some of the cheap off-brand toothpaste they’d given her at the Center. It tasted like cinnamon. She checked her teeth—they looked clean enough.

Packing everything back up, she checked herself over once more, deciding she looked okay. Young and disheveled, maybe. But she didn’t seem homeless.

She closed her backpack and reached for the door. Something was stuck to the sole of her shoe. She reached down to grab the green piece of paper, glancing at it—she almost threw it away, but the word “free” caught her attention.

It was an ad for a cooking class at some restaurant out in East Sac. The first lesson was free, and you got to eat what you cooked.

She folded it up and shoved it into her pocket, slipping from the restroom and out the back door before the manager could catch her.

* * *

It was just a few blocks from the coffee shop at 19th and J to the LGBT Center, where the youth support group met every Friday night. It was one of the few times Marissa felt like a “normal” girl these days.

She sat down on the steps of the restored Victorian building, wondering how soon it was going to start getting cold at night. She’d been on the streets since just after school ended, when her parents had thrown her out of their house in Granite Bay after her mother had caught her kissing another girl. Religion ran deep in the Sutton family, and of the many things that were taboo, being a spiky-haired dyke was near the top of the list.

“Hey lez!” Ricky Martinez called from down the block.

“Hey gay boy,” she shouted back. “You’re early.” Ricky usually showed up fifteen minutes late, the poster boy for gay time. “Hey, I like the ’hawk.”

He sank down next to her on the stairs, dropping his pack, and she ran her hand over his bright pink fauxhawk appreciatively.

“Thanks. Did it myself. Justin seems to like it too.” Justin was the guy Ricky was seeing. Ten years older and rich as shit.

“Nice. I’m starving. What time is it?”

Ricky checked his phone. Damn, she missed having a phone.

“Five after seven. He’s late. Hey, I like the new art.” He pointed at the skull she had tattooed on her arm. It was still a little red.

Some of the other seventeen to twenty-ones were starting to show up now. “Thanks. Rex did it for me at the shop for free.”

“You don’t have to blow him, do you?”

She giggled. “No. I do work for him, clean up the shop, greet the customers. He pays me under the table.”

“Shit. Sorry, I forgot.”

She shook her head. “It’s all right. How’s Justin treating you?”

He pulled out a gold chain from under his shirt. “Not bad.”

She whistled. “You know you’re his rent boy, right?”

“He never pays me. He loves me.”

She eyed the necklace, raising an eyebrow.

“He never pays me in cash.”

Marissa snorted. “I hope they have something besides cupcakes tonight. My stomach churned all night last week after group.”

“Oh, about that…” He unzipped his backpack and held out a brown paper sack. “I couldn’t finish it.…”

She turned away. “I don’t want your fucking pity.”

“Never. Total respect.”

She was starving. “You sure?”

“Here, take it. If you don’t eat it, it goes in the trash.”

Her stomach rumbled. “Give me that,” she said, snatching it out of his hands. There was half a Subway sandwich inside and an unopened bag of chips. “You bought this for me,” she said accusingly.

He shook his head. “They gave me an extra bag by mistake.”

She seriously doubted that but said nothing. Her stomach had roared to life at the sight of the meal. “What, no soda?”

“You’re unbe-fucking-lievable.” He grinned and pulled out a can of Wild Cherry Pepsi. Ice cold. Popping it open, he handed it to her.

She gulped it down. Oh my God, it tastes incredible. Then she wolfed down the sandwich. When she ate, it was usually at the food kitchen, where the cook didn’t seem to know what pepper, salt, or seasonings were. And she drank a lot of lukewarm water.

“You know I’m not giving you a hand job for this, right?” she said, glaring at him.


“Just so we’re clear.” She gave him a quick peck on the forehead. “Thanks.”

At that moment, the door to the Center opened noisily, and Brad gestured all of them inside with a smile.



4 - The Everyday Grind

A car honked loudly right next to him.

Marcos Ramirez practically jumped out of his skin. He loved hanging out here at the Everyday Grind, sitting under the shade of the giant oak tree that towered over the wooden patio fronting the MARRS Building. But the noisy traffic along J Street, just feet away, sometimes got the better of him.

Still today was a good day. He had a new paying client—River City Real Estate, a local company that badly needed to update their circa-2005 website. OK, so he kinda hated this sort of work. He missed the good old days when web design had been an art, when you built sites from scratch with a little HTML and some graphic design expertise. These days it was much more rote. Start with Wordpress (or Blogger or Joomla), add a few extensions (or plugins or widgets) and upload a few pictures and boom… instant website.

Plus no one had ever told him that the bulk of his time would go into all the other boring stuff—finding new clients, cold calls, invoicing, tracking and reports. And taxes.

Oh God, how he hated taxes.

But today the sun was shining, the Farmer’s Market was in full swing on the street in front of him, and he had an honest-to-goodness paying client to work for.

He took a deep breath and sipped his extra-hot decaf two-pump sugar-free skinny vanilla latte and dove in.

The next two hours flew by. Although the work had grown a bit boring, he knew his stuff. He found a template he liked and got into the guts of it, redesigning it to match the look and feel of his client’s logo and style. He added one of his favorite database extensions and configured it to handle the fields he needed to import from the old site. Then he downloaded the data from the existing site and imported it to the new one.

Soon he had a rough first draft to ship back to his contact at River City.

“Can you spare a dollar?” a young girl with blond spiky hair asked from the sidewalk below.

“Just a sec.” He rummaged through his wallet and handed her a five.

“Thanks,” she said, flashing him a bright smile.

“‘Welcome!” He downed the last of his now-cold coffee and stood, stretching and working out the kinks in his neck from being hunched over his laptop.

“Working hard, I see,” a guy at the next table said.

He was handsome enough—maybe five years younger than Marcos’s thirty-nine. He had fine features, thick blond hair, and blue eyes and wore a sharp dark-gray suit with a black shirt and yellow tie.

“Yeah, programming.”

“I always hated that crap.” The guy half-stood and held out a hand. “I’m Dennis.” His smile was just a little too white.

“Marcos,” he replied, taking the man’s hand. Nice firm handshake. “So what do you do?”

“Me? I’m a salesman. I’m in town for the American Cheese Society convention.”

Marcos snorted. “Seriously?”

“Seriously. I represent Swisstown Cheese.” He handed over a card.

“Okay, that’s just awesome.”

“Thanks, I think.” He ran a hand through his thick blond hair. “Can I ask you something?”

Marcos closed his laptop. “Sure,” he said. “Shoot.”

“What is there for a guy to do in Sacramento for the afternoon?”

“Let’s see. Well, there’s the Sac Brew Bike, if you like pub crawls. Or the Crocker, if you like art. And Sacramento has some great theatre, although most of that’s at night.”

Dennis was grinning.


“I was hoping for something a little more… personal.”

Marcos was a good-looking guy. His salt-and-pepper hair had only made him more distinguished, and he wasn't too bad looking for his age. But rarely was someone so forward with him, at least not out on the street.

He kinda liked it.

“Sure.… Your place or mine?”

* * *

Marcos lay on the bed, naked and sated, wrapped in the white hotel sheets as the sun slanted through the wide windows, imparting an afternoon glow.

Dennis was gone. He’d had to catch a flight back to Des Moines, or Green Bay, or wherever the hell he was from. He’d told Marcos to enjoy the room. It was paid for until four.

The windows looked out over the Capitol Building and park, far nicer than his own view of the back alley from his condo window.

What the hell am I doing with my life?

The thought came to him unbidden. Sex with handsome strangers had been exciting in his teens and twenties. In his thirties, the thrill had started to wear a bit thin. And with forty just around the corner, maybe it was time to get serious.

There had been one guy when Marcos had been twenty-five, living on his own after graduating from Corbis Baptist College up north. Franco had been about his age; smart, Italian, cute as hell, and as artistic as Marcos was logical. He’d been the set designer for a local playhouse called the Gay Twenties, and they’d shared an amazing year together.

Before Frank had found a lump on his neck that had metastasized and spread throughout his body.

After that, it had been easier to be alone.

Marcos took a quick shower, washing off Dennis’s smell. He missed long showers—maybe one of these days it would rain again in Sacramento.

He found his underwear hanging over the little blue recycle bin. He grinned. It had been an active afternoon. As he pulled them out, a green flier came with them.

“Free First Cooking Class,” he read, scratching his chin. It didn’t say anything about being a gay thing, but Dennis had presumably put it there, and the restaurant was called “Ragazzi,” which he remembered meant men. Or boys.

Maybe it was a sign.

He pulled on his jeans and stuffed the paper into his pocket, whistling as he walked out the door.



5 - Four For Lunch

Diego glanced at the clock. It was almost two, and the lunch rush (which today had been four people) was over. His new students should be arriving soon. If there were any. They’d printed up five hundred green fliers after Matteo had helped him with his English, which was terrible. He knew he should learn more, but there was so much other work to be done—sourcing his ingredients, preparing the daily menu, cooking. He hadn’t realized what a big job this restaurant was going to be.

He cleaned off the serving counter that separated the kitchen and the dining area. Matteo was setting up the chairs for their guests and had cleared all the tables off to one side. Diego planned to demonstrate the making of a piadina, a traditional flatbread from their home province of Emilia Romagna.

He took out a sack of flour, imported from Italy—the American flour just didn’t cook the same. He also brought out a can of lard. He’d learned that Americans preferred to use butter or margarine, but lard just tasted better. A little salt, some honey, and baking powder, and he was ready to go.

Matteo had finished the setup. “Sei pronto? Are you ready?”

Diego nodded. “Se dovessi aver bisogno…” He made a telephone with his right hand.

“Yes, call me if you need me. Chiamami!” And with that he disappeared up the stairs.

Diego looked over his translated notes nervously, not sure he was ready for this. But it had been his idea. There was no backing out now.

Diego’s phone buzzed. It was Max. He sent the call to voicemail. He wasn’t ready to deal with all that just yet. The last time they’d met… well, Matteo would freak out if he found out.

The front door chimed and someone entered. Diego put on a big smile. “Benvenuta da Ragazzi!”

* * *

Carmelina stood outside the door to the restaurant, her hand on the door handle. It was only a cooking class. Really not so big a commitment. Hell, she could always run out the door, like she had from the Merry Widows Club, if it didn’t suit her.

Loylene had been right about one thing. It was time to move on. Arthur would have wanted her to get back out and live her life again.

Decided, she pushed open the door. It was a cute place, modern and warm, with brick walls and pottery barn colors.

Benvenuta da Ragazzi,” the man behind the kitchen counter said. He looked to be in his mid-forties, with a warm, infectious smile. He was cute. Gay, but cute.

Buongiorno” she managed at last, racking her brain for her conversational Italian. Her mother had been first-generation American, but her grandmother Maria had been from Sicily and had always spoken Italian at home.

Parla italiano?” the man asked, coming out of the kitchen to shake her hand. “Piacere, sono Diego.”

“Oh, hi, Diego. No, nonnon parla italiano. My grandmother… mia nonna?”

He nodded.

Mia nonna was Italian.”

Capito. I not speak much English, but I try.” He looked at a notepad on the counter. “Have a seat, please.”

She took a seat in the front row. Judging by the low turnout so far, the seating arrangement was wildly optimistic.

The front door chimed, and she turned to see a man coming in—a handsome, younger hispanic guy with salt-and-pepper hair. “Is this the cooking class?” he asked.

She nodded. “Diego and I were just talking.” She stood and extended a hand. “I’m Carmelina. That’s Diego, our teacher today.”

“Marcos.” They sat down together, Marcos giving Diego the once-over.

Carmelina laughed. “Forget it. I think he’s taken. I googled this place earlier. He runs it with his boyfriend.”

Marcos blushed “That obvious, huh?”

“My brother Cliff is gay. So do you live in Sac?”

He nodded. “Off of R Street in Midtown. You?”

“River Park.”

Diego cleared his throat. “Let’s start.”

Carmelina sighed. She had hoped this would be a hands-on class.

Diego looked around the room and at the door. No one else had come in. “Venite!” he said, gesturing them up from their seats. “Siamo solo noi tre. Just three. We do this together.” He opened the sack of flour and pulled out a bowl.

Carmelina glanced at Marcos. “I’ll get my hands dirty if you will.”

Marcos grinned. “I was hoping you’d ask.”

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

* * *

Marissa rubbed her eyes, glancing at the clock that hung on the wall of the changing room. “Crap,” she said. It was already almost one thirty. She was gonna be late.

She pulled on a T-shirt and one of her two pairs of jeans and stumbled out of the room toward the bathroom.

“That you, ’Riss?”

“You were supposed to wake me at noon.” She popped into the front to find Rex with a client, tattooing a rainbow unicorn on his bicep. “Sorry.”

“You looked like you needed sleep.” Rex glanced at her. He looked a bit scary with his mohawk and all his piercings, but he was a pussycat at heart.

“Can’t talk. Gotta clean up and run.”

She retreated to the shop bathroom. She washed up as best she could and spiked her peroxide hair. In five minutes she was out the door with a wave to Rex.

She jogged down 16th street to the light rail station and caught one of the Gold Line trains toward East Sac.

She wasn’t sure why she was going to all this trouble. It’s not like she had any real kind of future ahead of her. But the last two nights, she’d been dreaming of Italian food, and now she was craving it like nobody’s business.

She hopped off the train and jogged up the street to the restaurant, just ten minutes late, flinging open the door.

Three people awaited her, all older than her parents.



6 - Piadina

Three people stared at Marissa from across the restaurant, looks of judgment on their faces.

The redheaded woman was frowning. The old guy’s eyes narrowed as he looked at her. And the man behind the counter said something unintelligible and pointed at her.

She knew when she wasn’t wanted.

Marissa turned and ducked out the door, letting it slam behind her. She’d find something else for dinner. Better than being stuck in that stuffy place with a bunch of assholes all staring down at her. If she walked back to Midtown, she could use her Rapid Transit money to get a little something to eat.

She pulled the flier out of her pocket and crumpled it up, throwing it into a trash can.

* * *

Marcos stared at the girl in the yellow jacket who had just entered the restaurant. He knew her.

She glared back at him, all rough edges and teenage attitude under her spiky yellow hair. Then he remembered. She was the homeless girl he’d given five bucks to the day before.

He was about to say something when she sniffed and then ran out.

“That was odd.” Carmelina shook her head. “Poor thing looked frightened.”

Marcos made up his mind. “I’ll be right back.” He flashed his companions a smile.

Diego nodded. “Ti aspetteremo.”

“I think he means we’ll wait,” Carmelina translated.

“Thanks.” He ran after the girl, stepping out into the warm afternoon sunlight, glancing left and right. Then he saw her bright-yellow jacket about a block away.

He dashed after her.

She threw something in the trash. It was the green flier.

He pulled it out. “Hey, wait,” he shouted, jogging after her. “Girl with the yellow jacket.”

She spun around, frowning. “What?”

He stopped, a little out of breath. “Just give me a sec.” He waited for his breathing to slow. “Sorry, I’m not as young as I used to be.”

“What do you want?”

“I know you.”


“From yesterday. I gave you five dollars, over by the Everyday Grind.”

She blinked. “Oh, yeah. Thanks.” She turned to walk away.


She looked at him over her shoulder. “I said thank you. What else do you want?”

He held out the crumpled flier. “You were coming to the cooking class, weren’t you?”

She looked at the paper, her eyes narrowed. “Maybe.”

“Look, I know what it’s like to be on the streets. I was there for six months when my parents kicked me out for being gay. I’ll bet you were kicked out too.”

She stared back at him noncommittally, but she didn’t leave.

“I’m Marcos.” He held out his hand.


“Come back inside, Marissa. At worst, you’ll get a hot meal, and at best you’ll make a new friend or two.”

She stared at her feet, fidgeting.

“Besides, you do kinda owe me.” He grinned at her. “For the five.”

“Asshole,” she said, but she pushed her way past him, heading back toward Ragazzi.

Marcos followed, still smiling.

* * *

Carmelina was dredging up a little of her long-lost Italian to chat with Diego. It was slow going, but they managed to get through the niceties—How are you? Great weather we’re having.

Inside, she was having doubts about this whole cooking class thing. She had grown fond of spending time on her couch in front of her DVR these past three months, and she’d gotten a little rusty at dealing with real people.

Plus the turnout this afternoon was dismal.

Carmelina was about to excuse herself when the door opened again and the blond girl barged in, followed by Marcos, who winked at her.

“Carmelina, this is Marissa. She’s… a friend of mine. Marissa, Carmelina.”

Marissa shot Marcos an unreadable look.

“Nice to meet you, Marissa,” Carmelina said, wondering where the two of them could have met.

“And this is Diego.”

Diego held out a hand. “Piacere.”

“It means ‘my pleasure’,” Carmelina whispered to Marissa.

“Um, my pleasure.” She shook his hand nervously.

“Now please, wash hands first,” Diego said, holding out a metal bowl filled with warm, soapy water.

They each washed their hands and dried them on white towels Diego supplied.

A gay Italian chef, a gay American web designer, and a feisty young girl who looked like she’d just come in off the streets.

Maybe it will be a worthwhile evening after all.

* * *

Diego surveyed the little group. It was a motley band and far fewer than he’d hoped for, but even the biggest trees started with a small seed.

“Okay, siete pronti? Ready?”

They all nodded.

He picked up his translation and read:

“The Piadina is typical flatbread from Emilia Romagna, in Italy. You are able to stuff it with many thins… things: spicy salami, mozzarella, and basilico with olive oil, or even sweets: Nutella and blueberries or fresh raspberries.”

He glanced up. His class looked bored. This is going badly.

He remembered how his mother had taught him to cook, a sparkle in her eyes as she took his hand and showed him what it felt like to make the dish.

He took a deep breath and started over. “Mia mamma… she make this for me. Like this.”

He took Carmelina’s hand and guided her to measure out the flour.

Then he showed Marissa how much lard and milk to add. She smiled when he showed her how to fold it into the flour.

Marcos added the remaining ingredients, and as they worked, the smell of fresh dough filled the restaurant.

Sentitelo,” he said, demonstrating by inhaling deeply.

His class followed his lead.

“Oh, that smells good,” Carmelina said. “Buono.”

Si chiama l’impasto,” he said, holding up the bowl of dough. “Impasto. Repeat.”

Impasto,” the three said in unison.

The rest of the afternoon passed quickly, and soon they were all enjoying a typical Italian meal together.

At one point, Diego caught Matteo peeking from the darkness of the stairs. He gave Matteo a thumbs up.

Maybe he’d turn into a decent American after all.


Recipes courtesy of Fabrizio Montanari and his mother and grandmother.

Piadina Romagnola



•   8 cups flour

•   1-1/4 cup lard (room temperature)

•   2 cups, 1-1/2 Tablespoons of milk (warm)

•   1 tablespoon salt

•   1 teaspoon honey

•   1 pinch baking soda

•   1 teaspoon baking powder


Mix all the ingredients together. Add a little bit of water to form a paste that's rather hard. Or, instead of water, you can use milk or even white wine.

Flatten a piece of the dough out with a rolling pin to form a nice, round form about the size of a tortilla, adjusting the thickness to your taste.

Sprinkle the rolling pin occasionally with flour. Otherwise the dough may stick to the wood.

Start cooking the pasta on a pancake pan on high heat, because piadina should be cooked quickly.

As the flatbread is baked, bubbles will form on the surface. Pop these with a fork. Their "footprints" will remain even after the piadina is cooked. Then turn over the piadina to cook the other side.



7 - Connections Made

Matteo crept down the stairs from their second-floor apartment, peeking out from the darkness at the restaurant below.

Diego was standing behind the counter, sleeves rolled up and strong, muscular arms covered with a dusting of flour. He was engrossed with his students as they ate the products of their afternoon labor. The piadina smelled heavenly, and Matteo's stomach rumbled.

Diego had a level of comfort with strangers that Matteo had always envied. Drop him in any crowd, and in five minutes he was among friends. Matteo supposed it had to do with growing up among a gaggle of sisters. Diego had learned his social game early.

Matteo had grown up as an only child. While he understood social graces, he was always ill at ease among strangers. Learning to be the host of Ragazzi had been a big challenge for him. He sighed.

At last, Diego was shooing his students out the door, securing promises from them to return the following Sunday. Matteo waited until Diego locked the door, then bounded down the stairs. "Com'è andata? How did it go?” He spoke in both Italian and English, hoping Diego would pick up more of the American tongue.

Diego gave him a quick peck on the cheek. "Abbastanza bene, my love," he said. "Speravo di avere più persone…"

Matteo forced a smile. "Sì, solo tre allievi. Only three people." He surveyed the chaos in the kitchen. "Avete fatto un casino! What a mess!"

Non importa. Siediti!” Diego shoved Matteo playfully into a chair next to the bar. He put down a plate and served up a still-warm piadina. "Mangiala mentre metto a posto. Is very good."

Matteo picked up the warm flatbread sandwich filled with melted mozzarella and took a bite while Diego cleaned up. It tasted delicious.

Diego seemed truly happy here. He hummed Come un Pittore while he worked, glancing up to smile at Matteo every now and again. Still as handsome as when we met.

Matteo couldn't bear to tell him how bad things were, financially. Another month, maybe two, and they might have to flee back to Italia. But not yet. He put his plate into the sink, washed his hands, and turned to lean back on the sink.

"Cosa?" Diego asked, just finishing his cleaning.

"We have a few minutes before dinner." His eyebrows translated that for him.

"Ma non posso…"

Matteo reached out to grab Diego's hand, pulling him in for a kiss. “Poi ti aiuterò io. I'll help you after."

Diego's eyes twinkled, and he let himself be led upstairs.

* * *

Leaving the restaurant, Marcos found Marissa outside smoking one of those vape pipes. “That’ll burn out your insides,” he said, frowning.

She glared at him and took another puff. “They’re healthy. The guy at the vape shop told me so.”

Marcos snorted. “You believe everything you hear?”

She shook her head and grinned. “Only what I want to.”

Such a brave face. “Can I give you a ride to wherever you’re staying?”

Marissa looked up at the sky. “No, it’s still warm out. I’ll walk.”

“I hope you come back next week. It looked like you really enjoyed class.”

She shook her head. “It was all right. But I’ll be busy.” She took a last pull of the e-cig. “Hey… thanks for making me come in. It was nice.”

He nodded. “Hey, if it’s about the money—”

“I gotta run.” She took off down the street.

Marcos watched her go. She had really come alive in the cooking class, and her walls had dropped for a couple hours. He recognized his younger self in her studied indifference—she didn’t want anyone to know how scared and lost she was. Someone had helped him. He had to find a way to help her.

* * *

The radio talking heads were lambasting President Obama again. Carmelina had hardly listened—she hated Sacramento talk radio. It was all conservative bullshit anymore, and she only turned it on for traffic and weather.

It was another unusually warm, sunny Central Valley day. Her lawn had long gone yellow in the drought, and her neighbor’s house had taken a beating when a dying tree had dropped a forty-foot branch on the roof.

Her husband, Arthur, used to take care of their yard and the house. It had only been a few months now since he’d died, and already the little things that needed doing were piling up.

She pulled into the Corti Brothers parking lot. She was determined to go home and make those piadina things herself tonight, before she forgot how. She looked over the recipe—the Italian grocer should have everything she needed, though she planned to find a substitute for the lard. Her ass was big enough already. She swept through the store in record time and got into the checkout line. Then she heard a familiar voice behind her.

“Carmelina Di Rosa!”

She steeled herself and plastered a smile on her face. “Vito Barino,” she said, turning to face the man. He was a widower, an accountant, and by all accounts a terrible lay. And he’d been after her since the funeral.

“So happy to see you.” They kissed cheeks. “If you’re free on Tuesday—”

“I have cycling class.”

“Or Wednesday—”

“Dinner with friends.”


“Washing my hair. Listen, Vito, it was great to see you.” She pushed past him to the just-opened express line. He started to follow, but a handsome, dark-haired man in an Italian suit slipped in between them.

“I’m sorry Mister…”


“Barino. But Ms. Di Rosa and I are seeing each other.”

Carmelina almost laughed at how poor Vito’s face fell. His shoulders slumped and he nodded and wandered away.

She eyed the newcomer—tall, dark and handsome, all warmth and smooth Italian charm. “Seeing each other, huh?” she asked her suitor with an arch of her eyebrow. “I don’t even know your name.”

“Daniele. So what do you say?”

Why the hell not? “I might be persuaded.”



8 - Ravioli Daydreams

Ben Hammond leaned back in his chair, his half-eaten pizza growing cold on the plate in front of him, his laptop closed. The patio at Pizzeria Urbano was one of his favorite places for lunch—especially while the days were still warm like this, before the chilly weather (and hopefully drought-busting rains) arrived.

The waiter refilled his water glass, but he barely noticed. His eyes were on the redhead walking across the street. She was drop-dead gorgeous. She wouldn’t have been out of place on the catwalks of Paris or Milan, with long legs and a sun dress that made her look ethereal. Like an angel fallen to Earth.

He shook his head—he’d stalled long enough. He was halfway through his writing year—he’d been laid off in the spring from Intel with a generous severance package, and he’d been determined to become a successful writer. He was writing the Great African-American Trans Novel, as he liked to call it. When he could pull his thoughts together enough to actually write.

He snorted. All the authors he knew were also great procrastinators, so by that measure, he was a fantastic writer.

His novel was not autobiographical, but he had, of necessity, pulled from his own experiences to write his main character, Jesse. Jesse was at a bit of a crossroads, caught between his family and his desire to live his life openly as a man. It was a place Ben had found himself five years before, when he was thirty, and that he still remembered with pain. His mother hadn’t spoken with him since then, and his father had lost his memories to Alzheimers without ever accepting that his daughter was now his son.

Nevertheless, the world still turned. Ben woke up every morning grateful for his new identity, his new life. He looked at himself in the mirror and saw a man—his body at long last an external validation of his inner truth.

But poor Jesse wasn’t quite there yet.

The redhead… Maybe it was time for Jesse to take a few steps out of his comfort zone and approach his dream girl. Yeah, that could work.

The rest of the chapter he was working on opened up before him in his head, and he could see the words. “She walked by, like a fallen angel…”

He flipped his laptop open and started to write.

* * *

Afternoon was fading into evening when he finished the scene. He was meticulous with his writing—never a word out of place—going over and over and over it until it was a polished perfection. Of course, that slowed him down a bit, but he consoled himself with the thought that he wouldn’t have as much to do on his second draft.

He slipped his MacBook into his backpack and stretched his arms up behind his head. Writing was hard work. Just keeping still and ignoring the world around you to immerse yourself in a character, in a moment in time that only existed inside your own head, took patience and effort.

He glanced at the time on his phone. It was almost six. Time to go to his night job, which gave him a little human interaction and some cash to play with, outside his normal expenses.

The Everyday Grind was just a few doors down. He pushed open the door and waved at Alexis and Toby behind the counter.

“Cutting it a bit close, aren’t you?” Toby said, glancing at his watch.

“Sorry… got caught up in a character.” Everyone here knew he was a writer. Half the time when he wasn’t working at home, he was here instead, laptop at hand. He eased past Daniele, who was making a latte, and went into the back to stash his pack and grab his apron. He rinsed his face in the sink, willing his mind back to the present, out of his story. His characters were always with him, especially Jesse, but he had to tune them out to do his job.

He looked at himself in the mirror, surprised. He looked happy. Laid off, working a part-time job, and writing like a madman, but happy.

* * *

They were a quarter hour from closing when the door swung open.

“Hey, Ben!” Marcos Ramirez grinned.

“Hey Marcos… The usual?” The handsome Mexican-American had a huge crush on him, and Ben obliged him. He always tipped well, after all. “You look good tonight. Hot date?”

Marcos laughed. “Only if you’re free.”

“Sorry, guapo—I have a writing date tonight.”

“Suit yourself.”

“Let’s see, extra-hot, two-pump sugar-free skinny vanilla latte, right?”

Marcos grinned. “You forgot decaf.”

“Damn.” It was a game they always played. “So what’s up tonight?”

“Funny you should ask. I’m looking for a girl.”

Ben snickered. “Hell has officially frozen over. $4.20 please.”

“Not like that.” Marcos handed over a five. “I took a cooking course last weekend—”

“You really are turning over a new leaf, aren’t you?” Ben handed over the change.

Marcos ignored him. “I took a cooking class, and there was this homeless teen there. I’ve seen her here before and thought you might know where she hangs out?”

Ben wasn’t sure how to take that. “Um, I’m not homeless.”

“I know. But you see folks here all the time. She’s about five eight, spiky blonde hair, little bit of an attitude…”



“Let’s see.” Ben rubbed his neck. “Yeah, there’s a girl like that who comes in here Fridays for a coffee. I think she said she goes to the LGBT Center for the youth group there.”

“Ah, perfect. Brad might know her.… He runs the Center.”

“Glad to help. Hey, what kind of cooking class?” It might be a good distraction.

“Italian. At this restaurant in East Sac called Ragazzi. Sundays at two.”

Ben loved Italian.

“Marcos? Your drink’s ready,” Toby called.

“Thanks, Ben,” Marcos said, waving as he walked out the door.

Ben was oblivious, daydreaming about ravioli.



9 - Sparkle

Brad Weston closed his office door and sat down, thinking about Meghan, the transgender kid who’d just left. So many queer kids were still kicked out of their homes for coming out. Increased visibility was a double-edged sword. The Laverne Coxs and Caitlyn Jenners of the world had inspired so many to speak their truth, a truth some parents just weren’t ready to hear.

His office was a far cry from his last one at the State Capitol, working for a Republican senator, smaller but cozier. He’d left it a year earlier, after he’d come upon a strange medallion that had allowed him see what people around him really thought, and it hadn’t been pretty. This office was warmer and filled with books.

The Sacramento LGBT Community Center was small, located in an old two-story Victorian at 20th and L streets, a block from the heart of gay Sacramento.

Every day, rain or shine, he rode his bike here from his home off R Street. He’d never regretted leaving politics, not even for a moment. Here he could touch actual lives.

Someone knocked. “Come in,” he said. Devon, the front desk volunteer, popped his head in. “Someone to see you,” the young man said. “Says his name is Marcos Ramirez?”

Brad smiled. “He’s our webmaster. Send him on in. You can leave the door open.” He tidied up his desk. He had a thing about organization.

He wondered what Marcos wanted. He hadn’t needed to call the web designer in months. Marcos entered the office, smiling. “Hey, Brad, how are you?”

“Good. Can’t complain. Yourself?” They hugged, and Brad gestured for Marcos to sit.

“The last week has had its moments.”

“How is… Tony?”

Marcos shrugged. “We broke up two weeks ago.”

“Ah.” Marcos was a bit of a Casanova, never managing to make it work with one guy for more than a month or two. He wondered who had broken the poor guy’s heart. “So what brings you in? Is there a problem with the site?”

Marco shook his head. “Actually, I need a favor.”

“Sure. Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, I’m great. Look, I took this cooking class on Sunday. It was just something I kinda fell into, but it was pretty great.”

“I never thought of you—”

A train rumbled by outside. One of the reasons the rent was cheap. He waited until the noise subsided.

“—as much of a chef.”

“Seriously. Anyhow, I met this girl there—”

Brad laughed. “That must be a first.”

“Funny. Anyhow, she was a cute little thing… Maybe seventeen? Spiky blonde hair. Marissa.”

Brad stared at Marcos. “You’re not asking me to divulge private client information, are you? You know I can’t.”

Marcos nodded. “I know. But she was kicked out of her parents’ house and has had a rough time of it. And something happened in the class. It was like she came alive. But I’m afraid she’s not going to come back.”

“I’m sorry, Marcos… I just can’t help you.”

“I just want to know where I might find her.” Marcos touched his arm, and the air sparkled.

Brad blinked to clear his eyes. “Why do you care about this so much?”

Marcos broke contact. “I don’t know. There’s just something about her. I was thrown out too when I was a kid.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“It was tough. I just thought if I could help her…”

“It would be like helping your younger self.”

“Yeah. I guess it’s stupid, huh? Sorry for wasting your time.” Marcos stood to go.

“Wait.” He opened his filing cabinet and pulled out Marissa’s file. “These files are private. I can’t share the information with you. I just want to be clear.”

Marcos looked confused. “Yeah, I got that.”

“I think I need a coffee. I’m going to make a run to The Everyday Grind. I’ll be gone for about ten minutes.”

Marcos smiled. He stood and gave Brad another hug. “I understand.”

Brad left the Center, enjoying the beautiful late September day. He ordered his usual decaf latte and returned to his office, feeling better.

When he got back, Marcos was gone and the file was where he’d left it on the desk. More or less.

* * *

Brad put his Schwinn under the stairs in their small but well-manicured backyard and climbed upstairs, hoping Sam had dinner ready. They cooked at home a lot lately—his salary at the Center didn’t pay much, and Sam was still working to get his career off the ground. His first book, Read between the Lines, was due out next month. The advance had been decent, but they had to be careful.

He found Sam in the kitchen. “Hey, handsome,” he said, putting his arms around the younger man’s waist and kissing Sam’s neck.

Sam turned to kiss him back. “Making tacos tonight. Mom’s recipe.”

“Sounds good.” Brad went to hang his jacket in the coat closet by the front door. “Marcos came in today.”

“The web design guy?”

“Yes, him. He wanted to contact one of the Center kids. Hey, can I help?”

“Sure,” Sam said. “Chop those green onions, please. What did you do?”

Brad began chopping. “That’s the weird thing. I told him I couldn’t help him. Confidentiality and all. Then he touched my arm.”

“Oooh, should I be jealous?”

“Of this old thing?” Brad laughed. “No, it wasn’t like that. But I felt like I needed to help him. So I left the file for him to look at and left for a coffee.”

Sam set aside the frying pan and turned to face him. The smell of caramelizing onions filled the air. “Is Marcos a good guy?”

“Yeah." He laughed "Bit of a slut, but a good guy.”

Sam chuckled. “Then you did the right thing.” He gave Brad a hug, and Brad nodded.

“Now let’s get dinner finished. I plan to reward you for your good deeds later.”

Brad grinned and resumed chopping with renewed vigor.



Check back in two weeks for the next part of the story – published the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month.


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