Writing Contest 2021 Finalists

The judges of the 2021 Writing Contest were Delia De Santis, Eufemia Fantetti, Mark Frutkin, Gilda Morina Syverson.

 

Papà’s Shed
by Lucia Gagliese

Papà finally agrees to look at the backyard shed from a distance, from above, from the attic window. And only then does he finally see that it’s no longer square but leans to the right, as if it’s about to fall over. He also sees, finally, the weathered silver-grey shingles on the roof and the bare patches where shingles have fallen off. He stands at the window for a long time, holding his chin in his hand, slowly rubbing his lips with his thumb. Then he turns away from the window, nods, and says we should go down to the dining room. Later, after everyone (Ma, my brothers Silvio and Luca, my sister Anna, me, our spouses, and our children) has arrived for our weekly family lunch, after we are all seated at the long table, he says to Ma, “Time for a new shed.” She nods and hands him his pasta.

The summer I was eight years old, I helped Papà build his shed. I’d wait all day for him to come home from the factory. Then, I’d pester him while he tried to watch his shows and eat his dinner. Finally, in the evening’s softer light and cooler heat, we’d build. He measured, sawed, hammered. I stood by, ready to hand him nails, screwdrivers, pliers just like the nurses handed tools to the surgeons on MASH. Papà taught me how to use a measuring tape and level, and he let me climb up the kitchen stepstool next to his tall ladder. From the stepstool, I watched him balance in a crouch on the roof, take nails from his mouth, hammer them into the shingles. I asked and asked but was never allowed to climb up there with him.

The shed looked like a one-room house with a gabled, high-peeked roof. It did not have electricity, but plenty of light came through the window and the screen door. There was overhead loft storage that held Papà’s lumber: plywood, planks, posts, and joists, some new and some leftover from finished projects, saved for when they’d be needed. Below the loft, there was space for his power tools, gardening supplies, and wine-making equipment, along with our assorted bric-à-brac—bicycles and toys, tennis racquets, soccer and basketballs, and boxes whose contents were long forgotten. Cupboards repurposed from a kitchen renovation held his hand tools and glass baby food jars filled with nails, screws, washers, and bolts. The shed had a manly scent, wood, soil, and motor oil.

When Papà wasn’t in the shed, it doubled as my pioneer playhouse. I pretended to be Laura Ingalls, hauling water from the garden hose, re-enacting favorite scenes with my dolls as the Ingalls clan, or I was Mrs. Oleson’s shopgirl selling Papà’s things to my Walnut Grove neighbours, but most often, I was Miss Beadle standing at the front of her one-room schoolhouse teaching dolls perched on every flat surface.

Anna and I are in the dining room, setting the table for Sunday lunch as my brothers arrive with their families. “Ask your father what happened to the shed.”

Luca chuckles. “What happened to the shed?”

“He tore it down.” I slam a fork onto a napkin. A muffled clunk. Not at all satisfying. “Eighty years old and he’s tearing down sheds.” I shake my head at Papà. “By himself.” I move to the next setting.

“Why didn’t you wait?” Silvio asks.

“Why should I wait when I can do it myself?” Papà shrugs.

“We could have hired someone, a handy man,” Luca continues.

“For what? It’s a nothing job.”

“On a ladder.” I’ve stopped setting the table and clutch the remaining cutlery in one hand.

“I’ve been on that ladder a thousand times.”

“In the heat.” I point at the dining room window with my free hand.

“It wasn’t so hot.”

“Alone.”

“Your mother was in the house.”

Testa dura.”

Anna brings parmigiano and pepperoncini from the kitchen. “You could’ve gotten hurt,” she says.

“I didn’t, did I?”

Sheds of various shapes and sizes line one end of the Lowes’ parking lot. Papà inspects each one while Anna, Ma, and I wait. First, he circles the exterior, then he opens the door, noting the hinges, steps inside, stands in the middle, looks up and around, shakes his head, moves on to the next one. After the third, he tells us the new shed must be made of wood, not resin or metal. He wants large double doors with full-length hinges to make it easier to move things in and out. We are doubtful when he says he doesn’t need windows.

“I can build more shelves that way,” he explains. “And with both doors open, a voglia, lots of light.”

The shed he chooses is about as big as the old one, maybe a little taller. No windows. Slate grey shingles. We also buy, despite Papà’s protests, two camping lanterns, battery operated, just in case. We ignore him when he says we don’t need the assembly service, that he’ll do it himself.

On the day of the installation, Papà stays in the backyard, watching the men work. Ma reminds him, over and over, to give them space, to stay out of the way. But he can’t help himself. He makes suggestions, asks questions, tells them about building the old shed. He also goes into the house at regular intervals to update Ma. She makes espresso for the men’s break, serves it with biscotti.

The men finish the shed in one day, instead of the planned two. “It was quick because the ground didn’t need levelling,” the supervisor explains.

“Of course not,” Papà says, “I levelled it myself years ago.”

During the next few days, Papà adds an overhead storage loft for his lumber, a wall of shelves, and a workbench. Then he paints the exterior tan with blue trim. After the paint dries, he carries his tools, his gardening supplies, Ma’s bundle buggy, and my niece, Bella’s tricycle into his new shed. He leaves one large pile out in the backyard under a blue tarp.

The next Sunday afternoon, once everyone has arrived, but before we sit down to lunch, Papà calls us out to the backyard. We stand in front of the new shed as he points out its original features and the additions he’s made.

“It’s a big improvement,” Luca says.

Non c’è male, but it won’t last forty years like the one I built myself.”

“Pretty blue,” Bella says, “Like the sky.”

“He wasn’t supposed to climb the ladder alone.” I frown at Papà.

He frowns back.

“We were going to paint it together on Tuesday,” Phil, my husband, says, “but when I got here, even earlier than the time we agreed on, he was already finished.”

“I was ready to start at six.” Papà shakes his head. “Was I just supposed to wait for you to wake up?”

Papà walks over to the last bundle and pulls off the tarp. A jumble of our things. “It’s mostly junk.” He urges us to get rid of it all, or at least, to take anything we want to keep to our own homes.

When Ma reluctantly agrees to donate the pram she once walked us in, Papà says, “Un miracolo.”

“Don’t forget,” she chuckles, “the last time I gave away baby things, the very next month, I got pregnant with Anna.” Ma and Papà look at each other and laugh.

Anna’s rusted red tricycle goes into the trash. Luca claims his green toboggan for his children. And I grab hold of Susie, the baby-doll I thought I’d lost when I was a girl. Papà asks Phil if he wants his winemaking equipment. “It’s easier to buy bottles, now. They sell wine from home, Puglia. Not my village, no vineyards there, but still Puglia.”

We put the rest of the things back in the shed. “They’re all useless.” Papà shakes his head. “Just take up space.”

“You never know,” Ma replies as we go back into the house. “Potremmo averne bisogno un giorno.”

“We might need them one day,” I translate for Phil.

After we say our goodbyes, Phil and I head to the backyard for the grape crusher, wine presser, and demijohns. While he carries them to the truck, I duck into the shed and pull the doors shut behind me. In the dark, I breathe in the fresh, woody scent of the new shed and a whisper of the deeper, earthier scent of the old one. I click on the camping lantern. In the dim light, I pull my doll out of my bag and tuck her away in the furthest corner behind the old hockey sticks and goalie pads.

 

Life Is What Happens… – [Winner]
by Maria Luisa Ierfino-Adornato

In a moment in time, a seismic pandemic strikes like a bolt of lightning and non-essential travel is banned. We leave Spain three weeks earlier than planned and say bye-bye Mediterranean Cruise. We narrowly ‘escape’ the European epicenter, cross checkpoints, navigate crowded airports, and board the last repatriation flight to Montreal, late March 2020. My husband and I wistfully welcome Canadian snow, as we land with gratitude and relief.

We are in solemn quarantine and order our groceries on-line. It takes three attempts to eventually get all the items we ordered the first time around. We sanitize and feel safe in our suburban neighborhood. We look forward to spring, and to decreasing numbers. But the news becomes alarming for North America. In disbelief we read and walk for hours.

I started to experience withdrawal symptoms. Even though we have daily WhatsApp communication calls, when will we visit our daughter and son-in-law in Europe again? Luckily none of us contracted COVID-19. So stay home! The John Lennon/Yoko Ono Montreal ‘bed-in’ became the viral ‘stay in’ mantra. Once bustling city boulevards are now emptied under strict curfews.

I addictively watched YouTube videos of walking tours in exotic destinations but pushed myself to get up, and get busy. We buried ourselves in home renovations (the hardware outlets were packed). We discovered our own relics and hidden gems in the process. This was our opportunity to change course, and execute home projects which were overdue, instead of playing victim. The physical work allowed our minds to be Zen. Like many, I experimented with baking (yes, yeast was rare), and brought joy to those equally starved for connection and communion.

Life is what happens…the world became curious about the Spanish Flu (1918-1920). Natural disasters happened: hurricanes like Maria, the Black Death, deadly earthquakes, and melting glaciers. The biggest threat was before us: CLIMATE CHANGE. We channeled Velikovsky and re-read Worlds in Collision. I needed air and distraction.

I got lost in a National Geographic special about the highly-advanced Maya culture. Archeologists used CAT-scans and drone videography to discover cities below cities, dating back over thirty-two thousand years! What did Maya High-Priests offer the Gods before they vanished? Imagine travelling back in time, (or forward, like in Dark or Outlander on Netflix), to mingle with them?

As we cleared our cluttered basement and archived our ‘artifacts’, we started a ‘face- mask’ collection and donated half our books. I found vacation pictures of Ischia and Pompeii. I smiled. This family adventure with Castles, fragrant lemons, salty air, and D.O.C. pizza, came alive. A symphony of blue skies and blue seas enchanted me and chased my ‘blues’ away. I listened to Almost Blue by Diana Krall. So calm, I sang: ‘almost blue, almost me, in search of an identity’.

What I thought I knew about Pompeii was as fluid and disturbing as warming ocean water. Nowadays, ground sensors collect data acoustically and electro-optically. Drones produce 3-D imaging of houses, and what was lost under that volcanic nightmare was found because of modern technology. We must preserve Pompeii against the threat of future eruptions and we must protect the hundreds of thousands living near Vesuvius today. Early warning signals are monitored at the Observatory in Naples aided by Satellites in space. Will we get it right next time?

A highly trained multidisciplinary team was recently assembled in Pompeii to track the activity. I recalled that during our visit in 2017, a number of areas were off-limits to us, as they were beginning their Grande Progetto.

The ruins were eroding and becoming ruins themselves. Pompeii was fading faster than it could be restored. Apparently, the old Gladiator Barracks collapsed in 2010, among other structures. I pictured bloody gladiatorial fights (sporting events of the era), taking place in front of pleasure-seeking audiences. Lions starved for days, were let loose to finish the gory spectacle, as thousands cheered; in retrospective, life is what happens to unsuspecting mobs, as they blindly live each day.

Another third of Pompeii has yet to be dug up, and our preconceptions will be challenged again. Most residents of Pompeii believed Vesuvius was a mountain and not a dangerous volcano; in 2020, we believed the deadly virus was just the flu. COVID-19 multiplied like ‘pyroclastic’ flow, and we lost family and friends in a flash. We clapped feverishly and cheered on our front-line workers, ignorant of what micro-organism was infecting us, or paralyzing the elderly. We were frozen in time and we scheduled awkward Zoom sessions as millions died.

I relive 2017: Mom was still with us. Vesuvius was ominous when we arrived at the ruins that year. Initially, August 24, 79 A.D., was thought to be the red-letter date, but today, experts claim it is October 24. This revelation was another scientific breakthrough.

Wine and dried fruit from the harvest were abundant in each terracotta amphora. Citizens were found to be wearing warmer clothes, but why would they in August? The wood-burning braziers used in homes emitted an enticing smoke signal. People did not need warm clothes in August, but they kept warm in late October. DNA/Carbon 14 data also revealed that the residents of Pompeii had excellent teeth because of a fiber-rich, low-sugar diet; useful food for thought!

Archeologists unearthed another opulent section of Pompeii owned by wealthy nobles. The walls of La Casa di Giove or the House of Jupiter were decorated with great art work (Leda and the Swan). Revealed were bodies of a Villa owner and his slave with 3 thoroughbred horses intact (bridled with harness ready to race away). Among others in the rubble, were two maidens (or two young men), in strong embrace and mothers protecting their babies. I trembled, as they were the unlucky ones. The majority were saved. I once believed that no one survived.

In the House of the Enchanted Garden, there were shrines to Roman Gods, as affluent residents with amulets in hand, enjoyed their infamous baths. I was intrigued by their ancient magic and rituals. I learned that they worshipped Vulcanus, the God of Fire!

There were: mosaics with mythological figures; two large snakes slithering toward an altar leaving clues about the origins of life amidst the ruins; and a skeleton of a person fleeing the eruption, carrying a bag of silver coins.

A strongbox was also located one mile outside of Pompeii, and it was filled with accounting records of assets and real-estate holdings. I thought about the strongbox I keep in my bedroom with precious family jewels. Inscribed, are three simple words: Inspire, Create, and Believe. What would someone interpret it as, in the distant future?

What lies beneath Via Abbondanza or the Via Del Vesuvio cobblestone roads in Pompeii, but 2000 unsuspecting victims in fetal positions, holding each other! We wonder where the other ten thousand survivors landed and how? Some believe they may lie beneath nearby urban centers. Or could we be their humble descendants because life is what happens?

Too many tourists have trampled through Pompeii. I feel like I should not be there in that sacred space. I don’t belong there, even though Italy is the birthplace of our parents; I dare not intrude or disturb the tranquility and history. Thousands lived there and thousands died there, (vaporized, carbonized, exploded skulls), on that burial ground and timeless amphitheatre.

I stop walking along the main via and I listen carefully to whispers and ghostly murmurs. I imagine what the frenzy at the Forum or marketplace would have felt like, or the distant click, click of cart wheels on the smooth pathway. Dice games were played at the Bar of Amarantus. Wine flowed from the wine press, and the smell from the corner bakery was intoxicating. Suddenly all collapses and they inhale poisonous gases instead. Is that a Gregorian chant, or echo of their desperate voices and hypnotic prayers for survival, as I bend time?

Back to the future in 2017; our heads are erupting with this history lesson of 79 A.D. and our imagination runs like hot lava. We need to cool down and return to Sorrento. We ferry across to Ischia leaving the Gulf of Naples in a fast getaway, as Mount Vesuvius looms large like an enlightened Buddha. It keeps many secrets that Master of Omertà! Whenever we steal a glance, it appears eternal yet still active underneath its deceptive magnificence. The last eruption of Mount Vesuvius was in 1944.

We arrive at our Hotel and the next day we plunge and purify our bodies in the curative thermal waters of Parco Termale Giardini Poseidon (named after the God of the sea and earthquakes). This ecological SPA in Forio, Ischia, allows us to soak our fired-up thoughts away by the Bay of Citara. Ischia’s inhabitants claim that the modern-day word ‘SPA’, originated there, (S.P.A or Salus per aquam, health from water).

To think that Greeks and Romans enjoyed the same hot springs of volcanic origin, now within our sphere of reality, is overwhelming! We relish the saline-bromine waters and the Roman Sauna, situated in a dark cave filled with natural vapors and mystery. I envision strange witches brewing fresh potions and we are mesmerized. The giant statue of Poseidon reminds us of the majesty of the sea.

Then the mystic ‘strega’ sends us an amber-‘rosso’ Sunset. Sky and sea merge in a happy dance; the divine and human intertwined like the serpents at the altar in Pompeii. We rejoice and are rejuvenated by the glow, on this Punta Imperatore promontory. There is but this family moment. Unforgettable!

POSTCRIPT: in Casamicciola Terme, in the northern part of Ischia, an earthquake hit the area at 4.0 on the Richter scale, just before we got there in 2017. Twenty earthquakes in successive sequence followed with lower magnitudes. The ground was less consolidated in that region, therefore more fragile. Two people died unfortunately, about 42 were injured and approximately 2600 became homeless. Several buildings and a Church collapsed and this was the closest we would ever be to hearing about such tragedy. Locals shared how they slept under the stars because they were too afraid to remain inside their compromised homes.

I wake up at home in 2021 at peace, but live with a global pandemic and uncertainty. We share the same fate, same fears and same dreams. I store away the vacation albums. Family members and friends contracted the virus with mild symptoms over the holiday season. Dear aunts and uncles passed away; we could not hug or console our loved ones. We grieve deeply for the countless brothers and sisters who perished. We vow to tell their stories.

In a century, will our grandchildren listen to our recorded thoughts, appreciate coronavirus rainbow exhibits, or see holograms of their forefathers in Museums? Will they watch Nurses tenderly holding the hands of those gasping for air, as their immediate family bids them an iPhone farewell? Will they be heartbroken to know that ‘bisnonna’s’ body was incinerated against her wishes?

Will the curators have survival information saved on the cloud, as opposed to scrolls of papyrus that require bombardment at the speed of light to be deciphered? Will we digitize everything as archeologists and specialized teams digitize Pompeii’s priceless legacy in 3-D models, before it’s gone? Will we learn from the past and use ethical Artificial Intelligence to secure our future?

Life is what happens, but we face an existential choice. Will we stop polluting our planet, prevent genetically-engineered disasters, and unleash full human potential? We require true professionals, philosophers and priestesses, not ruthless dictators or irreverent personalities, to help propel our quantum leap in consciousness.

How much longer must we socially distance, organize drive-by celebrations, send virtual hugs and E-Love? It’s up to us. I believe that with our own amulets, prophetic will, and collaborative spirit, we will forge ahead. COVID-19 will become history, one that generations to come will hopefully read about, as a precautionary tale.

 

Cooking Sicilian with Concetta and Lampedusa During the Pandemic
by Darlene Madott

“I want revenge,” Franceschina says to Concetta.

Bastardo,” Concetta sympathizes, “Pezzo di merda.” Concetta is an imposing Amazon of a woman with mountainous dark curls and a deep, sensual voice. Franceschina is her diminutive friend, with skin a darker shade of pine nut. She is older in years but younger in the ways of the world, having been born of protective Italian-Canadian parents, at a time when women were still expected to arrive virgins on their wedding nights. Most of her friends call her Francesca. Only Concetta calls her affectionately Franceschina. They are chatting on MSN Messenger. Concetta tries to re-assure Franceschina that Sicilians are experts in revenge. “Any vengeance that takes less than thirty years is not worth pursuing.”

“I don’t have that kind of time,” says Franceschina.

“He’s going to die a lonely old man, with no one to push the wheelchair,” Concetta offers a sisterly solidarity for Franceschina’s unexpected abandonment in her harvest years by a man she still loves.

By way of consolation, Concetta sends Franceschina You Tube links to melanzane recipes. She couples these with other YouTube links featuring sexy Italian males.

The recipes are manifold and wondrous, as are the seductive bulges of the men in bathing suits and unbuttoned shirts, talking on cellular phones as if wholly unaware of their lustful female audience – outrageous enough to make Franceschina laugh.

Concetta tells Franceschina that Longo’s is having a sale on melanzane. Franceschina has no appetite for anything these days. (While Concetta complains of “My Covid-19,” meaning pounds, Franceschina has lost weight.) Obedient to Concetta’s urgings, Franceschina puts on her mask and rubber gloves and risks Longo’s to purchase a six-pack of melanzane.

Franceschina has been in the process of purging. Her French-Canadian neighbour, an RCMP officer, together with another male neighbour, take her Weber barbeque curbside. This is the barbeque on which he-who-cannot-be-named used to sear those inch-and-a-half-thick steaks Franceschina marinated every Friday night in the winter, with his glass of super-Tuscan Brunello or Montepulciano Ripasso in the snow-coaster on the back-patio table. Inside, Franceschina used to sauté rapini with garlic, mushrooms and onions, side twirl of pasta cooked al dente in the rapini water and added to the aglio e olio, just as the steaks were brought to table by her man – il mio uomo, as she had affectionately called him. Dinner was always followed by the fireplace and sometimes the uncorking of a second bottle. Franceschina laid out his pool-patio cushions (stored winters in her basement) in front of the fire and covered these with downy sheets, bringing pillows and blankets down from her bedroom. For over twenty years, her seduction meals worked with fire, now ended in ashes, as of last winter.

“Love. Of course, love. Flames for a year, ashes for thirty.”

Concetta and Franceschina are both reading The Leopard by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa.

“Do you have the new barbeque ready to replace celui-ci?” her handsome neighbour inquires in his adorable French-Canadian accent.

“No replacement,” Franceschina says through her mask.

Another neighbour has given her the DeLonghi electric Barby-Q Grill, urging Bumble and other dating sites, for whenever Franceschina is ready. The DeLonghi will do, with an extension cord, on top of the concrete patio table.

Tonight, she intends to take the DeLonghi for a test run, with grilled melanzane.

“Don’t be intimidated by eggplant!” the first cookbook she consults effuses, “This is one of my favorite vegetables.”

It’s not intimidation, Franceschina realizes. It’s a question of will. These days, she has none. Nor energy. She barely has the will to watch the U-Tube demonstrations of recipes from La Bella Sicilia website Concetta keeps sending. The electric DeLonghi Barby-Q Grill stays in the basement, while Franceschina throws leftover sausage and potatoes in the oven with leftover zucchini. Leftovers. She is beginning to feel like a leftover herself.

“Sing to me, O Salt,” Franceschina says out loud to herself in the kitchen, before she realizes it is an ancient voice in her own voice she is hearing. “Salt and wounds.” The salt is supposed to take the bitterness out of the aubergine. To make even the pain taste sweet or at least less purple.

Franceschina thwaps a long plump eggplant onto her cutting board, roughly peels back the green cap and cuts off the tip.

Slicing the melanzana in half-inch thickness with her sharp cutting knife gives Franceschina a bitter satisfaction. She slices down but doesn’t pierce the skin of the other side. She fans out the slices and sprinkles with sea salt, then lets the melanzana rest, while she prepares the balance of the ingredients.

She makes a basil, olive oil and garlic pesto in her Magic Bullet.

She slices the bocconcini cheese.

She tweezes the cheese slices between wings of prosciutto and rams these between the melanzana wedges. The melanzana fans out in a beautiful presentation. She drizzles this with two tablespoons of the pesto. So that the juices from the prosciutto, bocconcini and pesto will drip down into the melanzana, she decides to prop the fan by using miniature potatoes on either side. She massages the potatoes by hand in olive oil and sprinkles with Ariosto seasoning imported from Italy, cradles the melanzana in the bed of potatoes, then puts the whole in her toaster oven to bake for 45 minutes. Franceschina’s kitchen begins to fill with a heavenly scent.

For months after her man abandoned her without explanation, Franceschina tried to eradicate his scent. His arm behind his head, reclined after love-making, Franceschina used to roll toward him and tuck her nose into the pit of his arm. “What are you doing?” he’d say and try to push her away. “Can I not breathe in that which I love?” His scent was like a drug to which she became addicted.

“Her sheets must smell like Paradise!” says a man without class in Lampedusa’s The Leopard: “No stink of manure there!” The classless man is singing the orgiastic praises of Angelica, bride-to-be, and offends the aristocratic Prince.

Franceschina’s mattress had to be sawed in half to be taken out the front door.

The new mattress was pulled by ropes over the Juliet balcony off her bedroom, as the stairway to the second floor has an impossible bend that would not accommodate the delivery of the new Queen-size mattress.

New mattress. New sheets. New bed-coverings. And still she can smell him.

Franceschina eats all the potatoes and half the eggplant the first night. For dinner, the next day, she makes pasta with garlic and cherry tomatoes and chili flakes, heats the leftover egg-plant, garnishes again with fresh pesto. The hardest part of cooking for one is eating for one.

The Prince ladled out the minestra … there came a sound … a threatening tinkle of the ladle against a side of the tureen.

There is something unseemly about an older woman mourning the loss of her sexuality, thinks Franceschina, the loss of love, not getting over it, the wound that cannot heal, the persistent tinkle of the ladle inside her head.

“You’re giving him too much air time in your head,” her adult son says to her. Her son wants no more than to see his mother serene and accepting, if not entirely happy, at least not so very sad. Her friends say the same, those who remain friends. “We’ve all known women who can’t get over it, not after years of mourning, even knowing he’s moved on already, through other women, children, even.” Franceschina knows this. She’s an intelligent woman. It’s the heart that doesn’t know. “You got over the first one,” she tells herself. The man who fathered her son. It took the second to drive out the first. But this time is different. This man was what the first ought to have been, the honeymoon she never had. This man she had loved. Loved for over twenty years. And now she is alone. Alone in a time of pandemic.

Franceschina does so want to stop the tinkle. She wants to be happy. She’s angry with herself that she can’t control her own anger, can’t control who is there and who is not in place at her very own table. Franceschina wants to feast again, even if she can’t taste what she prepares. Pretend to do so. Remember the flavours. Fake an appetite, if she must, like some women fake orgasm, trust herself, trust her appetite to return. She doesn’t want to feel this way anymore. Shrivelling away in isolation.

“Thank you, Angelica, but I’m not hungry. I’ll take something standing up. Go with Tancredi, don’t worry about me.”

Franceschina wonders if she’s the only reader who sometimes loses patience with Don Fabrizio. He’s at a ball. A banquet. Take the largest plate, not the small, and fill it. Taste, at least. Stop being such a prince!

This grief must end. “And if I can’t let it go,” thinks Franceschina “soak it in salt like the melanzane. Let the purple melanzane suck it up. You can always count on the timeless pairing of melanzane and salt. This is a human ‘always’, of course, slow to let go, slow to change, like Sicily after unification, but change or die, die to be re-borne – the Risorgimento. The human ‘always’ – to the extent anything human can ever be always. Even a pandemic. Even grief.

So, cook it and eat it – your purple pain, its skin deceptively thick, as if already bruised, no further harm can come to it. Compost it, true to your Sicilian peasant roots. The best melanzane ever to grow comes from manure.

Franceschina sings it out, her own Italiese version of the magia-cake, Patti-cake, Baker’s men:

“Cook it and eat it and mark it with P, just for Fran-ces-china and me.”

 

Long Haul to Napoli
by Polly Phokeev

Somewhere around November, Jonas got really into trucking. Not actual trucking, not driving an eighteen-wheeler twenty-five days a month and making pit stops at highway diners, but a sort of truck-driving simulator where he hooked up a steering wheel controller to the desktop monitor and stressed out over delivering fake shipments of steel.

“It’s relaxing,” he’d say, moments after screaming an inventive string of obscenities at a pretend red sports car that had pretend cut him off. He’d also say it made him a better driver, although watching him fly off the side of the Pyrenees over and over again didn’t exactly inspire confidence. Sometimes, like a supportive partner, I’d pull up a chair beside him and pretend he was taking me along on his hauls. Call it an act of service. I even tried to make it funny, would cut up apple slices and feed them to him like it was a real road trip.

At Christmas, Jonas got himself an upgrade. He was a little kid about it, bouncing his foot on the toy gas pedal while the screen rebooted. They’d extended the map to Italy, he said. From Milan all the way to Palermo.

We were supposed to honeymoon in Italy, was the thing. Land in Naples and drive up the coast. We had a tour booked of the Colosseum, wine tastings in Tuscany, reservations at Port’Alba in Naples. It would have been my first time in Europe. It would have been our first real vacation together. But, of course, the pandemic.

“Buckle up,” said Jonas, patting the passenger seat. It was my one day off. But he had this massive grin, like actually shining through his eyes, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him I’d sort of thought I might read a book in the bath. I brought my coffee over and squeezed a foot up to my thigh on the dining room chair.

My mother, who was otherwise quite progressive, had recently taken up pestering me about grandchildren. Apparently three of my cousins were currently having babies. Didn’t Jonas and I want to start a family? Wasn’t a time of inescapable global crisis just perfect for bringing new life into this world? Watching Jonas scrunch his brows at the screen, go wide-eyed on left-hand turns, bite at the dry skin on his bottom lip when we got into tunnels, I thought, I already had a baby. A fully grown man, yes, with a doctorate in structural engineering, and a full-time job, but a baby.

I was not inclined to share this line of musing with my mother. Or any of my friends, for that matter. They would decide, as a collective, that Jonas must not be pulling his weight around the house, that he must be one of those couch-reclining kitchen-fearing leeches that, by way of deliberate incompetence, made to fortify the patriarchy. Jonas wasn’t like that. I’d dated guys like that before. It’s like the world’s most gratuitous medal, the bar being so low, but Jonas did, with prompting, vacuum. He made a mean risotto. On Sundays he baked bread. No, it wasn’t a lack of household contributions that made him a baby. It was an unabashed earnestness. An excitement about new things. A certain lack of self-consciousness that rendered him terminally incapable of reading the room.

“We’re just gonna pick up a load here,” said Jonas, and gave me a wink I think was supposed to be suggestive. Did he think trucks turned me on? I put my chin on my knee as he rolled us into yet another industrial yard filled with piles of dirt and scrap metal.

Italy, or at least the version of Italy I had collected in my mind and on my Pinterest board, was a land of bright green vines on mustard-coloured villas. Cobblestones and pastel houses, all right angles and terracotta roofs, carved into the jagged sides of mountains. Turquoise waters lapping at the bows of turquoise boats. Jonas had his focus face on again, this time scrolling through a list of identical truck fronts, each of which highlighted a different route on a grey-on-black map.

“Should we go to Messina?” he said, as I sipped on cold coffee. “Then Catanzaro, then Napoli, then Roma, baby!”

He rolled his r’s funny, tongue hitting just the right side of his teeth. Even at my most dour, that never failed to make me smile. As he turned us past yet another strip mall in Palermo, I decided to look for the beauty. The palm trees were nice. The clouds had been dutifully designed. From time to time we passed clusters of houses that almost looked quaint. And you know, the graphics grew on me. If I squinted I could almost pretend it was the real thing.

I started thinking, this might be the village where we stopped for lunch, and fumbled through our phrase books to compliment the waiter. That might be the aqueduct where we’d pull over for a quiz on tension and compression. We might have taken this very ferry to the mainland, seen this gleam of blue waters, had an ice cream in that piazza, then made these winding turns between palm trees and white brick walls until we hit the open road again.

And I did enjoy watching Jonas do things. He had a gift for engineering purpose, anywhere, be it long winter nights in hospice wards or mindless lines at airport customs. Once, the story went, he and his little sister had gotten stuck in an elevator as kids, all alone, for hours, their parents tearing their hair out, and when the firefighters pried the doors open Jonas had taught his sister the first twenty-eight numbers in Braille. When we first started dating, I was just about to write the LSAT, very poor timing, all I did was study and take power naps, I was a greasy grumbling gremlin. He would come over with pizza and beer, and spread out a checkered blanket on the floor of my studio apartment, and force me to take a break until I had to kick him out so I could focus. He made for excellent distraction.

What kind of a father would a distraction be? I wasn’t even sure I wanted kids to begin with, but how would that even look? I would lose sleep counting bills, miss out on partner-track promotions, and Jonas would teach our swaddled mini-me how to deliver fake lumber? My mother had the mistaken idea that marriage implied logical next steps. That people married for love, and that meant loving children. Well, Jonas and I had moved in for love, and married for taxes.

“Fiddlesticks,” he said, clicking through one of the grey-on-black menus.

Fiddlesticks?” I laughed. He didn’t laugh with me.

“I’ve overslept.”

The point of the game, insofar as I gleaned, was to pick up jobs strategically, driving loads from one city to another, making sure you made enough earnings to pay for gas and highway tolls. There were a lot of tolls. If this game was accurate, and I had no way of knowing, Italy was a country of highways and roundabouts and toll booths. You could, at night, pull into a rest stop and have your driver sleep, which I assumed was necessary for some kind of in-game benefit. Now, it turned out, Jonas was late on a shipment of produce.

“This stuff goes bad,” he gritted, and pulled us onto the highway.

It was sort of beautiful, I thought, to see the golden light on the wall between us and what might be an idyllic cuesta. At one point I thought I caught a glimpse of the sea – blue, gleaming – before Jonas had to turn further inland. There were a lot of cars on the road. Ahead, it looked like mountains. In researching our honeymoon, I had learned that Vesuvius was next to Naples. For some reason, in all my years of hearing and rehearing the story of Pompeii, I’d always imagined it on its own tragic island. But no, it was right there, we were driving past it, it was couched in an algorithmic tuft of cloud.

“Are we close to Naples?” I said. His hands were white-knuckling the wheel.

“No,” he said, “this is just random gridlock.”

His tone was a slap. His jaw had gone rigid. I tried to swallow it back but the truth was, my good mood was gone. I thought about getting up and leaving, but that would be passive aggressive. When a toddler hits you, you’re supposed to tell them where it hurt.

“You know,” I said, “I chose to hang out, because I thought it would be nice to do something together.”

Jonas swerved around a school bus, nearly clipping its side.

“You don’t have to do me favours.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Babe,” he grunted, and nearly tipped the truck on a roundabout, “you don’t have to martyr yourself -”
“Martyr myself?”

A truck carrying diesel barrelled past us. Jonas nearly fell back in his real life chair.

“I know you think this game is stupid,” he turned, sharp, onto a dusty shortcut, “but you make yourself sit there, like it’s your duty or something, like you’re sacrificing – “

“Wait a minute, wait, do you not want me to be here?”

“I got this game for you!” Jonas was shouting now, still glued to the screen, making wild moves through parking lots and traffic lights. “I thought it would make you happy!”

It was ridiculous, of course, and we both knew it, to be yelling from a pair of dining chairs side by side in front of a pixelated industrial park outside Naples. But Jonas kept his foot on the pedal as he yelled, even as he turned away from the screen, and in my periphery I saw the peaceful gleam of a family-sized SUV crumble under the weight of his eighteen-wheeler.

“Holy shit,” I said, “you just killed those kids.”

Jonas switched the screen to overhead view to back away from the crash. The scene revealed his blue-green truck keeling over onto its side with a gelatinous wobble. There weren’t kids in the SUV. None of these cars had people in them. It was all tinted windows, grey asphalt, and toll roads.

Bleary in the fallen silence, the two of us blinked at the screen, then at each other.

“You wanna get pizza?” said Jonas. Like that was some kind of olive branch. Then, unattached from words, he rolled a long lopsided “r.” I smiled in spite of myself. A distraction, yes, but what else was there?

“Only if it’s authentic,” I said.

We let the screen hang, unpaused, as we placed our order. Under the crush of our long-haul tractor trailer, there hung a screwed-up sign for Napoli.

 

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