I am sent by my wife to retrieve the veal – 11 sweet, 7 hot, a small container of cipolle (the onion), and funghi (the mushrooms-in-oil), ten buns (and make sure they are soft). We phoned the order in yesterday, for our dinner is tonight. It is the celebration of the Fathers – the Father’s Day. For this, there are three of us standing: ancient Frank, patriarch of my wife’s sister-in-law’s family, and the two bambini padres, so mocked –my brother-in-law and me. Our children and their assorted sweethearts graciously attend. No matriarch or patriarch on our side stands and we will make a point of making a toast to our dead.
The veal, they are to be ready by 2 p.m., and I arrive ten minutes early. I hope against all hope that it will all run smoothly. Our guests will arrive at 3:00. It takes forty minutes to get back if we want the flick and flop left alive in our food. My friend, Zumbaretta, is not there, or Maria. Some new guy is at the till, and an old beautiful woman I have not seen before is behind the steam table. She has no name tag.
Everything has changed, but it has not. I hoped to see my friend, Nazzarino, one of the owners for, I am told, “I am like a brother to him,” and we have been going there for 33 years… back in time, when I used to accompany my mother-in-law, like a pup, to watch my Italians-in-action and the steam table, with her gnocchi, her porchetta, her roast potatoes, her sausages – in a misty magnificence that held our gaze and my enchantment forever.
La Signora recognizes the gleam in my eye and recognizes what I am not, and says something quickly to me in English. “I am so sorry. They are not ready. The boss, he got the order wrong. I am making them for you now.”
A man cannot be unhappy in Elysia, so I laugh and tell her: “Signora. Your veale are so good, I will wait forever!”
She laughs. Her eyes relax and she sees that I am okay.
Turning, I gather in the familiar smells, the sites and sounds. The olive oil in bottles stand at parade rest. There are strange-coloured packages of pasta we don’t eat, and tins of olives stacked like miniature oil drums. The hard men and women of the city appeal to me and it all feels fresh and vaguely alluring, somehow, and I don’t know why. The veal by now are heating in the oven. It will only take ten minutes.
Smiling, I say: “Signora, it all smells too beautiful. What are you doing? You are making me hungry!”
“Then, I shall give you some pizza!” she says, still upset that my order was botched. In Italian I think she says “end or middle?” and I find myself grinning like I can’t speak the language, so she picks a middle. I am handed an acre square of the pizza with the cheese and the olives and the peppers and the crust. I run through it in a second.
“It tastes too beautiful!” I tell her, purposely getting the pronouns wrong.
I have one eye on the clock, but a complete disregard for time. I am happy remembering my mother-in-law and my father-in-law, the early days of love and learning, in the first fruits of la famiglia. I am filled with what I call “the inner grin.” Io sono contento, some might guess.
People come and they go and notice that the woman and I are now having fun, talking out loud. Our pleasure transforms them into spectators in the living opera, and we are on the stage of the hot table. Even the new man behind the till is smiling, and I am given a look of some admiration. It is that “he-must-be-a-celebrity-if-the-boss’s-moglie-is-teasing-him,” glance, and I don’t block it out for I am a celebrity of the life, today. It is Father’s Day, remember?
The owner walks in. He is like a brother to me. He has a beard now. I have not seen him since winter. At first, it seems he does not notice me, but in his store he sees everything. Knowing exactly where I stand, he calls out: “Ciao, Bello!”
I wave and tell him: “You look like a professore now! How will you talk with me?”
He shrugs and his grin is shy, and he is not put off by the compliment. In Italian he has a word with the Old Woman, and she is pinching her fingers together and gesturing to God.
“Mamma mia!” he says. “The problem is me! It is so crazy! I put the note here, but thought the order was for yesterday!”
“Don’t feel bad,” I say.
“I feel so bad,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. The Old Woman is nodding her head, and I smile at her and tease: “Signora. Do not let him feel too bad. I am happy and you have given me too much pizza to feel bad.” She is an angel, I tell him.
“Come and have a coffee with me,” he says with a man’s resolve of inclusion and respect.
Presto. In a second, I am made a long one and we toast. He is a father too. I am left alone while he goes to the back to get the pane (the buns), and in an act of fealty he offers to cut them for me. I am no king and decline his kindness.
By now a cardboard flat has been produced. The sweet veal is nestled in first, the cipolle e fungi, the hot veal, and an extra container of sauce with the buns nicely pressed together in two bags of five. Everything is prepared beautifully and taken over to the new man at the till.
I pay in twenties and as an afterthought think to buy a fresh deck of scopa cards for my son. My wife said he wants the kind Nonno used. So, I get them and slip them into my pocket.
My friend takes the tray to my car and places it beside me, in the front and on the floor.
“She has given you extra,” he tells me with a wink.
I clap him on the back and follow him inside his store to say goodbye to la Signora. Already, she is serving somebody else and looks up at me, impatient to my calling, the way hard-working women frown when they are focused, and unwilling to be distracted for pleasantry. My laugh brings out a half-grin and she says “See you again,” and she returns to her serving.
Soon I am swept north with the speed and the traffic; late but not late, rushing but not rushing, fully rearranged by the celebrity of moments. Smiling, I cross the threshold of my family, like my father-in-law did, like a hero and announce: “Clemente has returned with too many veals!”
My wife, she scolds me and waves a spoon at me the way her mother used to. I am kissed. Ponga, ponga.
“Where have you been?” she asks. “Everyone is here.”
“I come from a dream,” I tell her.
In a moment there is prayer, a pause, and then the tink of glasses. Young and old, we drink to our dead, so vivified by their living.
“Why do they call you Clemente?” Frank-the-elder asks me, over a light pound cake and a mug of aqua sporca.
“I never got the pronouns right,” I tell him. “They used to tease me so terribly! The Old Guy would never say ‘Glenn’: he loved me too much. Who would have thought?”
Glenn Carley is the author of the urban opera, Polenta at Midnight: Tales of Gusto and Enchantment in North York (Véhicule Press, 2007). His creative non-fiction, Good Enough From Here, will be published by Rock’s Mills Press (Fall 2019). He resides in Bolton, Ontario, with his family (Gcarley@rogers.com).