A heavy-set man wearing a bloodstained apron and chequered-gray slacks stood behind a glass display. His arms rested on the clear counter-top and he stared at the gaping door.
‘Buon giorno!’ A thin balding man sporting a dotted bow-tie greeted as he crept in.
Giorgio studied the man known as Alfonso and curled his lip. His thick salt and pepper moustache flimsily caught between his teeth.
‘Buona sera Alfonso.’ Giorgio corrected the man and pointed at the clock behind him.
Alfonso smiled. His pencil thin lips matched his limp neck and unassuming frame. He pulled out a red handkerchief and covered his nose. He breathed through the silk cloth before approaching the counter.
Several variants of meat were arranged in an enticing assortment. Chicken, veal, pork and salami among others.
‘No beef?’ Alfonso inquired. His gray eyes met Giorgio’s.
Giorgio shifted his stance and glanced at the young man on his right.
Davide was a well-built man in his twenty’s. He wore a similar blood-stained apron. Davide laboriously chopped at meat shanks unaware of the glare from his father.
Giorgio licked his lips. He felt the tiny pricks of his unruly moustache. ‘No Alfonso. No beef. There is a ban.’
‘Ban?’ Alfonso replied. ‘What ban?’
Davide set his cleaver down and turned towards Signore Alfonso. ‘There is a shortage of beef Signiore.’ He wiped his hands with his apron and continued. ‘Because of that mad cow business. We have to make do with other meat at the moment.’
‘Ahh capito.’ Replied Alfonso. He pressed his scarlet handkerchief tight against his nose. ‘Where is the wife Giorgio?’
Giorgio handed Davide some brown paper and twine.
Davide wrapped up the chopped meat. He placed the package aside and cleaned up his station. ‘Papa I am going to deliver the meat to Signora Palma.’
‘Clean up inside first.’ Replied Giorgio.
‘Signora is in Greece.’ Giorgio redirected his attention to Alfonso.
‘Greece?’ Asked Alfonso. ‘What is she doing in Greece?’
‘Visiting some family.’ Giorgio took out a notepad and a short lead pencil neatly tucked behind his ear.
‘Ahh… I wanted to speak to her.’
Giorgio stopped scribbling. His lips parted open and he licked his moustache.
The bell rang and a man with dark curly hair strung around his head like corkscrew pasta peeked from the opening of the door. ‘Giorgio un cigarette?’
‘Davide take care of the counter. I am stepping out for a minute.’
Davide walked in from the storage and wiped his forehead. He took the pad and pencil from Giorgio and leaned over to a small adjoining table beside the counter.
Giorgio stepped outside the shop and joined his friend. He leaned against the opening of the door and listened intently to the conversation that took place inside.
‘Davide where is Signora?’ Alfonso asked.
Davide scribbled on the notepad. Every so often he checked the prices at the black chalkboard menu that hung behind him. ‘Like papa said she is in Greece.’ Not once did he raise his head to Signore Alfonso.
‘Why is she in Greece?’
‘She is visiting some of her sisters. She is not feeling well and the sun of Greece will do her some good.’
‘Is your mama Greek?’
‘But you do not look Greek.’
‘My papa is Italian.’
Giorgio threw his cigarette and bid his friend farewell. He entered through the open doorway and his booming voice echoed against the crumbling red-bricked walls. ‘He is adopted.’ Giorgio briskly walked past Alfonso. He was annoyed at the string of questions from the fragile man. ‘But he is a good boy. He is my son nonetheless.’ Giorgio joined Davide behind the counter and lightly patted his son’s back.
Davide smiled and held out the notepad to his father.
Giorgio nodded his head and returned the pad. He asked Alfonso. ‘Do you want some grappa? I just made a new batch.’
Davide grabbed a clear bottle filled with yellowish liquid from under the cash register and settled it on the small table.
Giorgio took out two shot-glasses and filled it up with Grappa. He distributed one to Alfonso, another to Davide and filled up a third glass for himself.
‘Salute!’ the three men rejoiced as they slowly took their liquor.
Davide finished and disappeared into the back room.
‘I wanted to talk to Signora.’ Alfonso sputtered.
‘If you have a message I will give it to her.’ Giorgio collected the glasses and placed them beside the bottle of Grappa.
‘I don’t want to bother you…maybe… maybe you can give me a number that I can reach her with?’
Giorgio leaned on the counter. His large belly spread across the glass like a roll of cookie dough forming under intense heat from a fiery oven. ‘Signore Alfonso if it is important I will personally ensure that she receives the message.’
Alfonso adjusted his thick glasses.
The pause was a silent long pause. It ate at Giorgio. His vein pounded and he furrowed his brows. Giorgio could not quite figure out the purpose of Alfonso’s visit.
Alfonso broke the silence with another question ‘So how did you adopt Davide?’
‘I raised the boy for five years before I got married to Signora.’
‘Signora knew that you had a son?’
‘That is why she married me. We were already a family and she loves family.’
‘His parents were forced out of their house because of some dispute and his family was separated. As a little boy he got lost. Just like many people he was trying to find shelter.’
‘And you took him in?’ Alfonso’s speech muffled with his handkerchief.
‘He reminded me of myself as a young boy. Even when alone Davide did not cry and he fought to survive.’
Davide walked in from the backroom carrying the brown package. ‘Papa I am going down the street.’ Giorgio tore out the receipt from the pad and handed it to his son.
‘As I said he is a good boy and he is my son.’ Giorgio watched as Davide dropped the package in the front basket of a stainless steel bike and peddled away.
Alfonso sat on a dark-wooden chair just beside a thick square table. This was the only setting for customers to either rest or savor a quick bite. Several wooden tools were laid out including a rather large mallet. Alfonso tried to pick this up but it was too heavy for him.
‘I will be back in a minute Alfonso.’ Giorgio walked to the back and checked up on the instruments. The cleaver was cleaned of the blood and the sharp edge shone sinisterly in the dimly lit storage. Giorgio smiled as he approved of Davide’s work. He rearranged the instruments and walked on the stone flooring. He stopped in front of a large steel door. Giorgio grabbed a plastic coat from the adjacent hook and slipped it on before he pulled the door open.
A cool mist gushed out and kissed his bare skin. Giorgio zipped up the coat. He stopped just a couple of inches from the collar and walked in.
Several large carcasses of meat dangled from the ceiling. He walked past the bodies of pork, veal and chicken bumping them with his broad shoulders. Giorgio reached a steel table. This table seemed out of place in a meat locker. In fact he and Davide just installed this table yesterday. A body was laid on the table. Giorgio ran his fingers across the leathery skin and his fingertips felt the upright hair peering from the pores of the carcass. He rubbed the back of his hand at the chubby cheeks of the meat and muttered. ‘Two more days.’
Giorgio stepped out of the chamber. He closed the door and hung the coat back on the hook. He rubbed his arms, stomped his feet and walked out the open doorway back to his counter. ‘Grappa Alfonso?’
Alfonso stood up and walked towards the counter.
Giorgio poured some more liquor from the clear bottle and pushed a little glass towards Alfonso.
They took slow sips and resumed their conversation.
‘When will Signora arrive?’
‘Not anytime soon I am afraid.’
Alfonso nodded. ‘I wanted to ask her a question.’
Giorgio poured himself another shot and lifted the bottle to Alfonso.
Alfonso declined and silently watched Giorgio.
Giorgio gulped down his third glass. His cheeks turned crimson. The alcohol had heated up his body perfect for staving the blistering cold. He slapped his cheeks lightly and shook his face before releasing a slight motorboat sound.
‘What did you want to talk to my wife about? Are you going to steal her from me?’ Giorgio laughed out loud. He took out an ashtray and lit up a half-used cigar. ‘So are you stealing my wife?’ He was more serious this time.
Alfonso pressed his handkerchief against his mouth and hid a nervous laugh.
Giorgio’s U-shaped smiled flattened to a grim slit in between his cracked lips. He held his cigar between his fingers and inhaled the fumes as it floated up to his nostrils. He took a deep breath and exhaled his suspicions of the fragile Alfonso.
Davide yelled. ‘Papa! What are you doing? Don’t smoke inside… smoke outside. What will happen to the meat?’
‘The meat is dead already. What else will happen to them eh?’ Giorgio stuck the cigar in his mouth and shrugged his shoulders.
‘The room smells of tobacco! Come on papa.’ Davide circled around the counter. He yanked the cigar from Giorgio and stubbed it in the ashtray. He then jogged outside and wrist-flicked the disc on the glass table leaving it alone to dance before it settled down. Davide pointed at the doorway. ‘We put that table there for a reason papa.’
Giorgio frowned. He was just starting to enjoy his cigar. ‘See what I have to put up with?’ Giorgio joined his hands and pointed at Davide. ‘His mama would do no such thing mind you. She has spoiled him!’
‘Too bad she is not around any longer.’ Davide replied as he fanned door creating a miniature breeze that drove the smoke away.
Alfonso cocked his head. ‘Not around… any longer?’
Giorgio bit his lower lip and looked at Davide. ‘As I said she is in Greece.’
Davide continued. ‘Recovering from her illness. We are not sure when she will return.’
‘By the way Alfonso. What message did you want to give my wife?’
‘Oh.’ Alfonso patted his sweaty forehead with his handkerchief..
‘I wanted to talk to her. If that is ok.’ Alfonso stammered. ‘Uhmm… I wanted to ask…’
Giorgio folded his arms. ‘Ask what my good friend?’
‘You wanted some beef earlier didn’t you Signore?’ Davide asked.
‘Yes Davide…I uhmm…I wanted the beef for some Ragu. I wanted to ask Signora for her Ragu recipe.’
Giorgio smiled. ‘That is a very simple request my good friend. I can give you the recipe.’ He curled a finger at Alfonso motioning him to come closer and spoke in a hushed tone. ‘That is actually my recipe.’ He laughed. ‘Do you think a Greek woman knows how to make Ragu like an Italian? Leave her to salads and Baklavas. You want pasta sauce you come to me!’
The three men broke out in laughter.
Giorgio took the pencil from the table. He wrote on a blank piece of paper and handed it across to Alfonso.
Alfonso took the piece of paper and read the note. In a minute he folded the parchment into four and slid it in his breast-pocket.
‘Signore I would need beef for this recipe.’
‘Yes… yes you do.’ Giorgio knocked on the glass display and looked down at his display of meat. ‘I am afraid I cannot…’
‘Papa we can give Signore Alfonso that special meat.’
Giorgio straightened himself. ‘Hmm?’
‘Remember the meat I just delivered to Signora Palma? It is still fresh and we have some left over in the freezer.’
Giorgio scratched his head. ‘I don’t know if it is to the taste of our good friend here.’
‘What meat is this?’ Asked Alfonso.
‘Oh it is a special meat. It as rare as it is illegal.’ Giorgio rubbed his chin and paused. He then waved his hand in a circular motion. ‘It is from Greece and my son and I came upon it recently.’
‘Greece? Where your wife is from yes?’
Giorgio continued. ‘Yes but I must hesitate. This meat is running out and I only recommend it if it is really needed by my customers.’
‘What kind of meat is it?’
Giorgio and Davide exchanged glances.
‘Well…’ Giorgio licked his moustache.
Davide explained. ‘It is quite leathery. Full of fat and very tasty if you make it into sausages.’
‘But I am not sure if it is good for Ragu.’ Giorgio interrupted.
‘Maybe I should ask the advice of Signora? If you can give me a way to contact…’
Giorgio frowned. ‘I told you it is my recipe and not hers.’ He slammed his hand on the table and the loud thump made Alfonso turn pale. ‘Capito?’
‘Ahh yes. You are right.’ Alfonso wiped his forehead once more. ‘Why not I take some of the meat and I can try it out.’
Giorgio rubbed his face. ‘I told you I do not have much and in this situation where the meat is very scarce. I am not sure.’
‘Please I insist.’ Alfonso dropped his handkerchief to his side and smiled.
‘I don’t know. This meat is rather scarce. It would take a long time before I could find another supply. As I said we came upon this by a moment of chance.’
‘Don’t worry papa. I have come upon a new source for our meat.’ Davide closed the door and pulled down the blinds.
Giorgio looked at Davide and their smiles shone across the room.
‘Is that a yes?’ Asked Alfonso.
‘Yes! Yes! Alfonso.’ Giorgio grabbed the bottle of Grappa. ‘Davide go and tenderize the meat. I will teach Alfonso how to prepare the Ragu.’
Alfonso shook his handkerchief. ‘That is not necessary Signore.’
‘Nonsense! You are having one last drink with me. The boy is good at his job and he can take care of the meat in no time.’ Giorgio poured the drink in two glasses. ‘I have to tell you Alfonso this boy is a godsend. He found the special meat for which without maybe I would have to close shop.’ He stuck the cork on the bottle. ‘This is the time for the young.’
‘Papa where is the mallet?’
Giorgio searched around his area. He looked over at Davide’s station but he could not find it.
‘Is it that one on the table?’ Alfonso pointed at the set of wooden tools on the customer’s waiting area.
‘Thank you Signore.’ Davide walked across the room to the table. He picked up a wooden handle of the mallet and juggled it. He felt the weight shift off each hand.
‘What should we toast to?’ Asked Alfonso.
‘To life.’ Replied Giorgio.
‘Yes to life!’ Davide raised the mallet and with a swift downward stroke he cracked the bulging crown of Alfonso open.
Alfonso’s feeble body crumpled down like a used candy wrapper. He said nothing except for a short grunt. His head bumped against the clear counter and his hands held on the edges.
Davide hit him at the hip and repeated at the same location with another cracking wallop. He heard the bone break under the impact. He grinned and watched as Alfonso fell on his back. Davide choked the handle with both hands. He lifted the mallet above his head and thundered a thumping whack at the face of Alfonso. He broke the old man’s nose and shattered Alfonso’s thick glasses. Davide breathed heavily. He desperately filled his lungs with much needed oxygen. Davide dropped the mallet on the floor and looked up to his father. ‘Shall I put him in the freezer with mama?’
‘Yes Davide. But first let’s have a toast.’
Both father and son picked up their glasses of Grappa and the sharp clang sang in the room as they rejoiced.