Tosca sat on the stairs outside with her plate on her lap. Strands of spaghetti in watery sauce faced the absentminded pokes of her fork. Upstairs, her father had the soccer on loud. She didn’t feel like eating. These days she didn’t feel like much of anything except sleeping.
A woman walked by the steps. She had a curiously jaunty step. Tosca squinted suspiciously, wondering if she was a whore. Her father was always going on about whores. The woman was pretty and did have bright red lipstick. But then she smiled a wide smile, and Tosca couldn’t help smiling back.
“You don’t like your food?” the woman called.
“I don’t like the cook.”
“Yeah? Who’s the cook?”
“You mind if I take a look?” the woman said playfully. She took a scarf printed with giant red roses off her head and set it on her shoulders, framing a generous vanguard of breast.
Boobs! “At the food?” Tosca shook her head clear.
“Be my guest.” Tosca handed the woman the plate with one listless arm, but she was stirred despite herself.
The woman examined the spaghetti, scrunching up her nose. “I can tell the cook is feeling heavy. Like she has to carry a bull to its field every day.”
“You can tell that from looking at my supper?”
“It’s cooked to death. Look at the starch, coming off the noodles. It’s like a fog. Like a fog over the eyes.”
Tosca held out her hand for the plate; the fun had gone. “Okay, give it,” she said flatly. “My spaghetti is sad. What am I gonna do?”
The woman looked at her, head cocked. She seemed to come to a decision.
“You want to know what to do with that spaghetti? Throw it away.” Red-painted fingernails punctuated with a flick.
“No, no, Beauty—throw it away now. Right now.”
The woman was still smiling, but quite earnest. Maybe she was nuts, but for whatever reason, Tosca suddenly felt a deep accord with the crazy stranger. It crossed her mind that it might just be the boobs. She had always trusted big boobs as a sort of buoy, a marker above a big heart. It didn’t really bear much more thought than that. Without further ado, she whipped the contents of the plate out into the street. The woman laughed, ran down to the mess on the cobblestones, and stared into it. She pointed at it, and beckoned Tosca with the other hand. “There!” she panted. “You see that pattern. . . .”
Father Rusch could feel it. He was delivering a good one. In Italian, no less. Five o’clock mass was packed. Not a dry seat in the house, as they say in the opera. There was Signora Zeppieri, crying loudly—but then, that was no indication. She was a bit of a fountain. “Yes, Signora, we all see you,” he thought at her. “Confession is at 8 a.m.” Pity he wouldn’t remember his sermon later. But he never did.
Confession. Signora Z. would be there at eight, all right, waiting to rush into the little booth and spill it all. Not her own life. Her daughter-in-law told fortunes with playing cards. The good lady wanted the priest to say something so that she could pass the edict along, a second-hand slap from the Church. It was never about what it was about, in his experience.
“Mi piace, slowly. It’s my third language. You say she doesn’t get anything right?”
“She can’t cook, I’ll tell you that. My son still comes to my house for supper.”
“I meant the cards, Signora. You are saying she doesn’t get anything right with the cards? Or she does?”
“Okay, I’ll tell you something. It’s not just cards, Father. She reads your coffee grounds, your food. She sees things in the linguini. Right on your plate. She told me my gold chain was between the mattress and the headboard. In my linguini! Is that right? My son is married to this strega.”
“And was she right about the chain?”
“Because devils told her.”
Confession could be challenging.
There was pretty Tosca Zanni in the pew with her blind father. She put a missal in his hands, and he pushed her help away—then, after a few groping seconds, demanded the booklet with an impatient gesture. He liked to pretend he could read. It was curious. Everyone knew he was blind. Tosca was beginning to develop a slump, he noticed. Pity. She was a tall, solid twenty-five year old, too strong for a slump.
A whole row of teenage boys sat in the middle pew, not even up to no good. He’d seen that lot dog after people in the square, mimicking them and then pretending not to when their victims turned around. He’d seen them fight, hair-pulling and knuckles down to the cobblestones. Look at them now. Angels.
The two ancient widows in black rocked back and forth, keeping a rhythm like a loom, the heart in the hush of the room. Fra Pasquale, the Brother he’d been sent to replace, was snoring in the very back, drooling down his brown cassock, everyone’s mad uncle. Except for his fellow priest, there was tension, attention. There was one body in the room and its eyes were tilted to God.
Afterward, Father Rusch shook hands with the people leaving. Everyone liked to shake his hand. Some people touched him. Mothers would pick up their children and lean them in toward him. He wasn’t sure what to do. Hug? But he found that more often than not just a touch would do it—a little sucked-on hand in his face, a tug on his sleeve. It was odd. Italians. Different than Germans, but he was getting used to it. Perhaps it was some kind of determination to break through his foreignness. It was innocent enough.
After mass he was off to Santino’s for a small black coffee of compelling potency. The sports bar was frequented mostly by old men. The television was always on in the dark interior, but the old fellows preferred to sit outside in the sun like the gargoyles around a basilica, their wizened masks seeming to ward off women.
“Ohhh! Father, I got a new Gaggia. You gonna come and bless it for me?”
Father Rusch regarded “Toto”—Antonio, the barman—quizzically, wondering if he was being made fun of. It was often hard to tell. It didn’t matter to him, of course; he just thought it would be more social if he could tell when to act comically offended—a give and take. He would like to show his sense of humor. Father Rusch looked long and hard at Toto. He couldn’t tell, so he said, “I should bless it before I order a coffee, not so? Or I might go to hell. Ho ho. Go to hell.”
Toto turned giant brown innocent eyes on him. Impossible to tell.
Sighing lightly, Father Rusch went round the counter and put his hand on the new machine. It was like a brass band that had met an enthusiastic floor polisher. He closed his eyes and said a few words, a little of the extemporizing which he was good at but never actually remembered. Then Toto, looking embarrassingly grateful, made him a cup of espresso with a little coating of beige foam, which he especially liked, and he took it outside to drink.
There were four old men out there at four separate tables. No doubt they were his parishioners, but their expressions were truly so set that Father Rusch took a fifth table in the middle and drank his coffee, looking up personably at the sun and the day and allowing the gargoyles their accomplished stoniness. Then he licked his spoon and got up to leave. He would have liked to sit there and just do nothing, but he simply couldn’t. Especially not after coffee.
First he was going to talk to Sister Carmel in the kitchen about sausages. He really missed sausages, and it wasn’t like there was a dearth of them in Italy. And honey. Sausages and good honey. Then off to the infirmary for his rounds.
Tosca Zanni and her father came every day to the bar. She would get him coffee, and he would sit under the television in the corner. Tosca would go and sit behind the counter with the newspaper and a cone of peanuts and take as much time as she could breaking them open with her teeth. She would wait until her father was ready and then lead him home. She would take his arm so he could “look” around. He had a cane, but he seldom used it.
Tosca had tended him at rituals like this since she was fourteen and her mother, brother, and older sister had died in a car crash. She was twenty-five. Everything had fallen to her; her blind father, their old apartment in the square with its sagging beds and sofa and threadbare rugs, and a joyless kitchen where nothing she prepared escaped complaint. The place still seemed crowded in spite of the many absences. Sorrow hung about them, father and daughter, soaked their home as pungent as kerosene. Such a good girl, people clucked, so good to her father.
Outside on the curb, four young men sat on their Vespas, laughing at something. Tosca watched them intently as she carried her father’s espresso to the corner. He was pretending to read a newspaper, another ritual. She went back to her counter, next to Toto, who had his back to her watching the TV until the four boys with the Vespas came in. One put his keys on the counter, ready to order. Toto stood up laconically, body language saying he was the boss.
They were just about to go about their business when there was a rattle of china and a cry from the corner. “What the hell is that? What is it? What the hell is it?”
Tosca was the first to arrive at her father’s side.
“Papa, what? What happened?”
“Is it a cockroach? Is it in your cup?” Toto was hard on her heels, followed by the Vespa boys.
Tosca’s father was wheezing hard and staring oddly. He trembled and reached out toward his coffee cup, and then seemed frightened of his own hand.
“Jesus, it’s the cup,” croaked Signor Zanni.
“Yes, it’s the cup. What do you want, a plate? It’s coffee.”
“I see it.”
“My eyes! My eyes! I can see!” He looked up at Toto and Tosca and the four boys that crowded around. The film over his eyes was gone. He blinked rapidly, and his clear if slightly bloodshot old eyes saw them all.
“Who the hell are you?”
“Who am I?” Toto repeated the question.
“You’re Toto,” Signor Zanni realized, recognizing the voice.
“Good, we agree,” said Toto.
Signor Zanni looked at Tosca and asked Toto, “Who’s the woman?”
“Who’s the . . . ?” said Toto incredulously. “That’s your daughter, Signor. That’s Tosca.”
“That’s Tosca?” The old man began to cough apoplectically. “Jesus, what happened to you, you’re so old!” he wheezed.
Tosca took a few steps back and let the boys crowd in. What happened? they asked in a tangle. Signor Zanni began telling how he’d been drinking his coffee, he had just had the last sip and was about to call for another when something happened. “Like an egg broke,” he exclaimed, “in my forehead!”
“An egg?” pressed one of the boys.
“Like an egg. A warm egg. But not cooked.”
Toto hit himself on the forehead with the heel of his hand. “Madon’,” he said. “It’s miracle coffee. It was that priest. Everyone’s been saying—I asked him to bless the new Gaggia. . . .”
“Get me a coffee, I need a coffee,” said a boy. “I got crabs.”
They all started to talk at once, and as if one miracle were not enough, the old geezers came in from the sun.
“There,” said the woman with the roses on her scarf, “you see that web in the spaghetti? It’s tight over there, but over here is a hole—one window. Look how the sun shines there. As soon as that window opens—go. It’s only one window. You’ll know it. The next minute it will be gone. Just like the peace is about to go right now.”
As if on cue, an older lady crossed the street and stared at Tosca and the woman contemptuously. She pointed at the pasta mess on the cobbles. “Disgraziata!” she barked like a crow and hurried away.
“Pay no attention,” said the woman. “It’s just my mother-in-law. Listen, Beauty, no need to carry the bull to the field, if it can walk.”
“You want to use my holy coffee on a filthy disease on your thing?”
“—It’s not a sickness even, it’s insects.”
“I have a toothache, I should have a coffee. . . .”
Her father chattered on, excited as a bird. Tosca glanced out to the vacated patio and beyond. A Vespa glistened in the sun. The shadow of the wrought-iron fence tangled in the light like . . . like spaghetti. Tosca retrieved the keys for the Vespa, the ones the boy had left on the counter. No one noticed her start the engine. In an instant she was gone.