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The Italian Lesson [Installment 9]
Chapter Two, continued
I made my way back to the café and by the time I reached it, twilight had deepened and, except for the streetlamps, my street was dark. The light from the main room spilled onto the sidewalk, casting its warm glow on the slick cobblestones and patches of snow. I approached from the opposite side of the street and glanced in as if I were just a passerby. Fondi Forti, was in a residential area, relatively far from the popular tourist destinations, so most of my customers were also my neighbors. I recognized many of the people there now. The place was packed and Carmela and Lucia, our assistant manager, had their hands full. My call to Maria would have to wait.
The café’s back entrance was around the corner, a couple of doors down a narrow alley that, even during the day, was dark and felt a little ominous. I hung my coat, hat, and scarf on a hook by the door and left my wet boots on the mat before slipping on a pair of espadrilles.
I walked into the kitchen to check in with Carmela before heading upstairs to finish my conversation with Maria, but Lucia, who was lifting a 20-pound sack of espresso beans, told me Carmela was at the register.
“Does anything else need to be brought out front?” I asked Lucia.
“We need a couple of gallons of milk and some sugar, too.”
“I guess everybody got over their snow phobia.”
“Looks like,” Lucia said. “It’s been crazy out there all afternoon.”
I took a folded apron down from the shelf and put it on.
“Why don’t you give that to me and you grab the other stuff.”
Lucia, who is at least six inches taller than I am, gently placed the sack on my shoulder and opened the door for me. When I emerged, I saw a man in front of the register chatting with my manager. It was the guy with the fucking cow.
When I joined Carmela, she took the espresso beans and went to refill the grinders. We’d only been working together for about a year but we’d developed a rhythm and she always seemed to know where she needed to be and what she needed to be doing without my having to explain anything.
My recent acquaintance seemed as shocked as I was to see me here but when I asked “Where’s Bella?” he replied, without missing a beat, “Oh, I finally managed to get her into the trunk.”
Why on earth did he think that was funny?
“Can I get you anything?”
“I already ordered, thanks.”
He looked like he was about to say something else but, seeing the line of people behind him, he gave a little wave to Carmela and then moved off. In the early evening rush of customers, I eventually forgot about him.
Sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason to when the café is busy or quiet. We can usually anticipate when there would be lulls—mid-morning, mid-afternoon—but today I had learned for the first time that when it snowed, mornings were quieter than usual and early evenings were a madhouse. Part of the crowd was Christmas shoppers stopping in to warm up before heading home, the rest seemed to be people who were celebrating the fact that they’d survived the great storm of 2022—we had, after all gotten almost four inches of snow.
For the next hour, Carmela, Lucia, and I didn’t stop. Between taking orders, making drinks, serving the customers, taking payments, and clearing tables, there was no time to stay on top of the dishwashing or the trash. I dreaded what the kitchen was going to look like when it was time to close up.
After the last customer left, I locked the door and put up the “Chiuso” (closed) sign. Lucia started clearing and wiping down the tables.
“I almost forgot,” she said suddenly. “Isabella called earlier to let you know you left your phone at the bakery. Simona brought it over a little while ago and I put it in the drawer under the cash register.” At first, I thought she meant the flip phone and had a moment of panic, but patted my pocket and realized it was still there.
Carmela was tallying the day’s receipts so she retrieved the phone and tossed it to me as I headed to the kitchen to tackle the mess that had accumulated over the last two hours.
Just as I was opening the door, Carmela yelled, “Anastasia, wait a second!” but she was too late.
Instead of sinks full of unwashed dishes, overstuffed trash bags, and cluttered counters, I found that everything was immaculate and exactly where it should be—except for the man standing there folding dishtowels. He shouldn’t have been there at all.
“Oh, hi,” he said casually. “I hope you don’t mind.”
I backed out through the swinging door. “Carmela!”
“Jesus, I thought I was being stalked or something,” although I realized how ridiculous that sounded as soon as I said it. “You two know each other?”
“Yes! His name is Matteo Vinci—my sister used to work with him. I should have said something but we were so busy and when he offered to help, I thought it couldn’t hurt. He has restaurant experience and, besides, he mentioned that the two of you have a friend in common.”
I rolled my eyes and went back into the kitchen.
“Am I in trouble?” Matteo asked me, as he sorted flatware into the drawer.
“For cleaning my kitchen and saving us a couple of hours-worth of work? No. For being a little weird, maybe.”
“Just wait until you get to know me—it’s so much worse.”
Confident and self-deprecating—but he was not making a great case for himself. Even so, my kitchen looked brand-new, and I thought he deserved something for his efforts.
“How about I buy you a drink?”
There wasn’t much to do other than put away the pastries and stack the remaining plates and glasses in the dishwasher, so I ran upstairs while Carmela and Lucia (and Matteo) finished up. I threw my apron in the hamper and put on the dark burgundy sweater I had knit with thick alpaca yarn. It was the first sweater I’d ever made in Beatrice’s knitting circle—similar to the one Francesca was working on when she and I first hung out. Unlike hers, mine was imperfect, but I was proud of it. Besides, it was warm and, now that the customers were gone, the café was a little chilly. I brushed out my hair and put a couple of bottles of Montepulciano and four glasses in a tote bag before rejoining them.
Carmela was locking up the register and Lucia and Matteo were almost done packing up the left-over food. I waved them to a table by the window that overlooked the side street, I grabbed a waiter’s corkscrew from the drawer under the register, and followed.
When our glasses were full, we raised them for a toast. The four of us chatted for a while but, when Carmela and Lucia finished their wine, they left, exhausted after a long day of non-stop work.
The door closed after them and I looked at Matteo. “So, what’s the deal with the cow?”