Monday, November 7, 2011

Worker Ants by Basil Rosa

KJ and Scotty didn’t pause along Lyons Avenue, the main artery through Fortune Hill, its dividing lines painted red, white and green after the Italian flag. Hands in pockets, heads down into lancing wind, they made their way to friend Orbit's apartment. Scotty remarked that for as long as he could remember, it had been gustier on Fortune Hill than in other parts of the city.

The signs of three old, established restaurants with awnings embellished the street: Masarino's, Cecilia’s and Pino’s. Masarino’s sign, scripted in neon, stood out most, bordered by chaser lights that blinked on and off. Scotty stopped to admire it. His eyes roved down Lyons and he told KJ to check out how the lights blinked in time to the neon of Vito Marulli’s Old Canteen two short blocks away. KJ did so, noting that Vito Marulli’s didn’t blink, but Old Canteen blinked light-green first, then pink, followed by scarlet. The blinking carried him away, and for a moment under a gray sky, he loved Lyons Ave with its black lampposts and clustered globes of lights that shed a romantic glow over the red brick sidewalks.

Why romantic? Because he’d been thinking of Bree. They talked every day now, during and after work. Something he couldn’t define was happening between them.

Scotty was talking. KJ listened half-heartedly, and heard his comment that one day Lyons and this neighborhood would be more than a ghetto for pauper Italian immigrants, and a playground for Made Guys with big appetites. It would be a destination for tourists.

He admitted to KJ he wasn’t original, that this was the same dream Mayor Grifasi had of a renaissance, a new city. “It’s gonna be so much better one day, you’ll see.”

At The Forum, a new name for a restaurant that had recently changed its identity, they stopped to read the menu board posted in front. The twenty-dollar price for spaghetti and meatballs surprised KJ.

Scotty said, “That’s because the joint is mob controlled. Thing is, you should always judge an Italian restaurant by its Veal Marsala.”


Scotty laughed. “Remind me, next time we eat out together, I’ll order you some.”

They strolled past Anthony’s New Colony Food Shop in its little brick building. Scotty read its sign aloud: Salumeria Italiana. He said to KJ, “All these languages. A beautiful thing, ain’t it?”

“Americans I meet only know one language,” said KJ. “What do they study in school?”

“They don’t,” said Scotty. “That’s the problem.”

They approached a narrow brick building with a smoked glass globe attached to each side of its high entranceway. It looked solid and had once been a bank. Above its door hung a yellow sign for the Dante Cassaretti Institute for Martial Arts.

Next to Dante’s building slouched modest Almonte’s five and dime, the pale-green tiles of its front glazed to look like Bakelite painted with the store’s big-lettered name above a street-level window. They gawked for a while at espresso makers, ceramic figurines, baby clothes and other mostly Italian-made goods.

Scotty said, “Wouldn’t it be awesome one day to meet an Iranian woman. You know, get married and have a family. You ever think about that? I do. I want to meet a real Italian woman.”

“Not now. I can't,” said KJ. “Maybe not ever. But I do. I think about her all the time. But maybe she is American.”

“You got someone in mind?”

KJ pointed at his head. “She lives here. I see her in dreams when I work, I sleep and I eat. Always, she is with me.”

They passed Simonelli’s, where the window display featured a gigantic ceramic of the Virgin Mary.

“There is English word for these,” said KJ. “But I cannot remember.”

“Statuary,” said Scotty.

“It’s funny to me. I like them when they stand inside bathtub on the grass in front of people’s houses.”

“So that’s it,” said Scotty. “You have a deep secret interest in Christianity.”

Scotty laughed. KJ didn’t. He looked across the street at the Spirito Sewing Center, its Necchi sewing machines in the window, and a sign: Tailor on Premises.

Scotty looked, too. He said, “Miss him, don’t you?”

“My father? Yes.” He turned to Scotty. “He was a tailor.”

“You told me that.”

KJ paused a moment.

“At least you have a father,” said Scotty.

KJ nodded. He thought Scotty sounded grim. He spoke quietly. “He didn’t like the clothes here. Every morning, he would dress in tie and black jacket and soft hat. I see him now. He steps outside and breathes cold air. He walks a beautiful and clean empty street. Never goes past another person. Never has place to smoke and play Backgammon and drink tea with other men. Always, he comes home with long face. He asks me, ‘Where are the people? What do they do here? They make a country, but they don't live.’"

Scotty shook his head no, as if he’d heard this lament before and still didn’t believe it. “If you stay here, you’ll live. You’ll make money and send it home. Your father will never have to mend a suit again.”

“But to make money, is that all? My father likes to fix suit. Not just for money. Because he loves his work.”

“You’re talking in circles. You need money to live.”

“Money,” said KJ. “Right. We buy gift for Orbit. Bring him something good.”

“That’s the plan.”

They headed to the Fortuna Cheese Company. Entering the shop, KJ paused a moment to breathe deeply, drawing in the smell of wedges, tubes, bricks and wheels of Parmesan, Asiago, Fontana and Romano. Thanks to Scotty, he had learned these cheeses by name. Waxed tubes of provolone wrapped in string hung from the ceiling. Tubes of sausage, prosciutto and salami hung laced inside string wrappers.

KJ took his time observing herbs that dangled by strings along with the meats and cheeses. “Dill, tarragon, rosemary and oregano. I learn their English names.”

Scotty, smiling, clapped him on the shoulder and moved him to the pasta section. “If you can swing it, always buy your pasta fresh, made to order.”

KJ nodded as he mumbled under his breath, "Ravioli, manicotti, cavati and gnocchi. Ravioli, manicotti, cavati and gnocchi."

Scotty glowed. “You remember. That’s good, really good.”

“You teach me more? I use at restaurant. They help.”

A female clerk asked if they needed help. Scotty smiled at her. “Do I know you? Linda, right? Ronnie Vinzi’s wife. From Saint Anthony’s, right?”

Linda Vinzi, looking defensive, didn’t smile. “Yeah, so. But I don’t remember you.”

“Not a problem,” said Scotty. “We’re just looking. You tell Ronnie I said hello."

Linda smirked and bustled off to take care of someone else. KJ couldn’t recall when he’d last seen Scotty in such an upbeat mood. He said to him, “You know everybody.”

“It’s a curse sometimes,” said Scotty. He blocked his mouth and whispered, “Ronnie Vinzi hates my guts. I beat the crap out of him when we were kids in the schoolyard behind Saint Anthony’s. That’s why I didn’t introduce you.”

“I like the way you say, ‘Just looking.’ Very American.”

“Just being polite.”

“But I ask,” said KJ. “You look, but do you see?”

Scotty remarked, “I’m just looking and it kills me. Pasta makers for sale, but too expensive. All types of flour and cheeses and meats and green and brown and black olives, all so nice, but what I see is that I need a woman that can cook. A real old-country woman with long hair and child-bearing hips.”

“I think with the real food, you find the real woman,” said KJ. “But I smell the fried fast-food oil everywhere. My first American smell. Not really food. Here, I smell earth. I like this. Maybe your woman smells earth, too.”

Scotty asked, “Are markets like this in Iran?”

“No. Not so pretty, but food has real taste. Not from machine. There, we have bazaar, many people in the street. A lot of dust and noise.”

“Dust on the food?”

KJ beamed. “It is like energy. I so miss it. Here, for me, too clean. I see managers, everybody so polite, but no love.”

Scotty rubbed his chin, looked at KJ as if offended.

“In Iran,” said KJ, “the women wash clothes and plates, knives and spoons, and they wash in the waters that go across and under the streets.”

“So water must be scarce there,” said Scotty.

“A garden is where you find water and the shade. And where you find garden, you find family, friends.”

“You can find that here, too.”

“When will I see home again? Do you know? I ask myself this every day.”

“Maybe this will become your home.”

“I hated Khomeini,” said KJ. “And all the mullahs that hate the West. These men are all the same. They want nothing of peace. They have oil, power, and the greed. All of life is their game. Who am I? No status, no home.”

KJ sighed and looked at Scotty as if asking for an answer. Scotty, unable to meet KJ’s gaze, looked away, so KJ wandered away from him toward flowers and strips of marzipan, oranges, lemons, pears. Scotty wandered in a different direction, and fingered onions, shallots, red potatoes and zucchini.

When they met again in the little store, Scotty said, “It does smell good. Gotta admit that.”

“It’s just okay.”

“Sorry you don’t like it.”

“No, but I like,” said KJ. “Thank you for showing me.”

As a gift for Orbit, KJ bought a dozen chocolate-coated anisette biscuits. He bought one for Scotty to snack on, and he insisted on paying.

Scotty, eating as he walked, said to KJ, “I really like Orbit, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t care about fitting in with his entourage. They’re gonna be dressed up tonight.”

“You didn’t tell me this,” said KJ.

“You want to wear a costume?”

KJ shrugged. “Not so bad.”

“Next time,” said Scotty. “Orbit’s always throwing theme parties. This one is Animals Out Of Hibernation Week. Here, I’ll show you.”

Scotty took a folded invitation from his pocket; a lime-green photocopy with black letters crudely pasted together that read: ItS WinTER Get Out OF The CLoSeT!

KJ smiled as he looked at the invitation, which pictured Orbit with his arm around a cut-out of a skinny man in sunglasses.

“That’s Andy Warhol with Orbit,” said Scotty. “But not a real picture.”

“I think this is funny.”

“Keep it.”

“I want to.” KJ slid the invitation into his coat pocket. “Thank you.”

“Should be fun. Just watch what you say and who you say it to. They’re art crowd types.”

“You don’t think art is work?”

Scotty laughed. “I didn’t say that. Most of them are students. Fortuna State. Squared Circle Theatre. Orbit’s an acting student there. That’s where we met.”

“So isn’t Bree,” said KJ.

“Creative sexual orientations. All misunderstood genius.”

“And you’re not?”

Scotty said, “I’m different. At least I know I haven’t lived long enough to prove I have any talent. You and me, we’re the worker ants. Leland should be with us, too.”

“He is away to his mother.”

“He’s staying away,” said Scotty. “Has to, probably. I asked Lucio about it, but he wouldn’t tell me anything.”

“I thought so,” said KJ.

Scotty stopped. He took KJ by the wrist. “Bree. I knew it. You and Bree. Makes sense. She’ll probably be there.”

KJ withdrew into silence. Scotty, smiling at him, nodded and hurried him along. “Don’t worry, man. I got your back. We worker ants gotta stick together.”

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