Here are the first three chapters of The River City Chronicles – I will be releasing the entire story soon in eBook and print formats.
Chapter One: 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 oodlesow 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 English 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.
Chapter Two: 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 mantle 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 5 PM – 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.
Chapter Three: 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 17-21’s 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.