Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ava & Charlie, Part V

To read the other chapters of the Ava & Charlie short story, click here.

(My grandparents, Liz & Forrest, along with their chaperon Gertrude. Yep, they had a chaperon on dates. 1942)

Charlie picked me up and we took a cab to La Mela, a tiny Italian restaurant tucked into the corner of an ancient brick building. He opened the stained glass door as we entered a room bathed in flickering yellow candlelight. The patrons sat in cozy booths and tables while speaking in soft, hushed whispers. The stucco walls were stained an aged tobacco brown and the wooden floor creaked beneath my heels.

Fantastic smells wafted past me; tomatoes, fresh basil, chicken. My stomach growled and I glanced quickly at Charlie, horrified that he might have heard.

If he heard, he never let on, “Table for two please.”

A waiter with black hair smiled at me, led us to a small table and then whispered as he walked away, “Bella, senora, bella.”

I frowned.

The restaurant couldn’t be any more romantic.

And I couldn’t be any crankier.

(My grandparents, Liz & Forrest, 1942)

Charlie pulled my chair out and we busied ourselves inspecting the menus.

It became apparent after a few short moments our dinner was not to be an uninterrupted one.

A cook in a white apron marched by and kissed his fingers at me, “Bellissimo!”

I gave him my darkest scowl and gritted my teeth. I've never appreciated it when anyone, let alone men, make uninvited personal comments. Even if said comments are murmured in a romance language.

Charlie never looked up from the menu, a smile lurking in the dimple on his cheek.

I took a deep, annoyed breath and returned my concentration to the menu when another waiter swished past with glittering brown eyes and stated in loud vibrato, “Bella senora!”

I slammed the menu down, “Is this not bothering you?”

Charlie reached out, pulled a piece of bread off the loaf in the center of the table, and eyed it calmly, “Nope.”

Another waiter waved at me from the back of the room, “Bella!”

“Well, this is ridiculous,” I huffed, “What’s wrong with these men?”

Charlie chewed a big piece of bread thoughtfully before swallowing, “Italians like pretty women.”

“And I suppose you’re not going to do anything about it?” I snapped.

“Nah,” he grinned, “They’re just paying you compliments. Something tells me all pretty women get special attention in here.”

“Listen carefully,” I pointed my fork, “None of this was my idea. Not the lunch with Mother. Not this dinner date. None of it. And I’ll be hanged if I sit here and get leered at by an entire wait staff.”

“They’re not leering, they’re calling you beautiful,” Charlie stated genially.

“Most men would be jealous,” I muttered.

(My grandfather, Forrest, 1941)

“Sure,” Charlie broke off another piece of bread, handing it to me, “Most men would feel threatened and try to fight six waiters at one time. Most men are dumb.”

“But not you,” I snapped sarcastically, snatching the bread from his hand.

“Nope,” Charlie took another bite and smiled calmly, “When someone insults you, then I’ll do something about it.”

The ‘bella’s’ and ‘bellisimo’s dwindled as a tall blond woman sashayed through the front door and thankfully redirected the waiters’ attention. Our waiter brought our food without looking at me, his head craned to watch the blond woman walk through the room.

I breathed a sigh of relief and tried not to wolf down the bowl of gnocchi with pesto in front of me.

“So how do you like being in the army?”

It was a half-hearted attempt at making conversation, but it was all I could muster.

Charlie shook his head, amused, “I’m not in the Army; I’m in the Air Corp.”

“So you fly planes?”

He grinned, “Something like that.”

“And you like it?”

“I wouldn’t say I like it,” his smile faded a little, “but I’m good at it.”

He began to talk freely about how his family immigrated from Ireland and settled in the south. He talked about his younger sisters, their grumpy father and his beloved hunting dogs, Butch and Ralph.

I smiled, trying to disguise the fact that I had no clue what hunting dogs were.

“So what about you? What’s your hobby?” he slurped some spaghetti sauce on his face.

Without thinking about it, I reached out with my napkin and efficiently dabbed his chin.

He stared at me intently.

“Well,” I started abruptly, embarrassed, “I like to make money.”

Charlie belly laughed loudly, unconcerned that he’d broached a decibel level unsuitable for the quiet restaurant, “That’s not a hobby!”

I looked at the tin ceiling above us, thinking.

“I like to take things apart.”

“What do you mean?” he leaned forward, interested.

I flushed, slightly embarrassed to reveal my most unfeminine trait, “Well, lots of things. I fixed our landlady’s washing machine last month and she took half off our rent.”

“I’m shocked,” he grinned, but it was an appreciative grin.

Encouraged, I babbled on, “I helped our neighbor rework some old wiring in his kitchen.”

“And how did you learn all this?”

A waiter could have dropped a tray full of dishes behind Charlie’s head and he wouldn’t have noticed.

I shrugged, “If I look at the parts long enough, it usually makes sense. I also have my dad’s old plumbing and electrical manuals.”

Charlie pushed his plate back, “I gotta tell you, you couldn’t have shocked me more if you’d told me you were a trapeze girl in the circus."

I shifted sideways in my chair, simultaneously pleased with his approval and disgusted at myself for caring. A sudden noise across the room caught my attention and I glanced away from Charlie’s smiling face just in time to see a man in the center of the room jump to his feet.

(My grandmother, Mary Elizabeth)

The man was a marine, tall and thin, with a shock of red hair. I knew immediately that something was wrong. I knew because of the look that passed over Charlie’s face. His smile disappeared, instantly replaced with caution as he turned to watch the marine.

“Eat your food,” the marine leaned over his seated date, growling.

His date drew back, afraid.

The entire room fell silent as all eyes turned to watch.

One of his friends at the table, a fellow marine, glanced around nervously, “Come on Kilpatrick, just sit down.”

Kilpatrick’s face turned a sickened white as he swayed a little, the pulse beating visibly in his neck. He turned from his cowering date and surveyed the room, “Go ahead, everybody EAT YOUR FOOD!”

Charlie scooted his chair back slightly, his knuckles white as he gripped the side of the table.

“Eat your food. Drink your wine,” his voice began to rise, “None of this is real. Want to know what’s real?”

I swallowed nervously, glancing at Charlie. He cut his eyes, giving me a quick, reassuring glance.

“Wanna know?” he backed away from the table, leaning over a nearby woman in a mink stole, “Bloody snow banks!”

The woman flinched and looked away from him.

Kilpatrick moved closer to us, pointing at a man in a pin striped suit, “Wanna know what else is real? Trenches and men with frozen stumps for feet!” He reached out and knocked the man’s plate of food onto the floor.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a waiter at the back of the room pick up the telephone, cupping his hand as he whispered into the receiver.

“Come on Kilpatrick,” the other marine stood up slowly, carefully, “Let’s go outside and get some fresh air.”

Kilpatrick began to laugh manically, “Remember Kirby? Huh?”

“Just calm down,” the marine bargained.

“Kirby was my cousin,” he whirled and looked toward me, his eyes dead and unblinking, “But none of you care.”

(My great-uncle Elden)

Charlie muttered, “Don’t make any sudden moves.”

“Kirby got his forehead blown off while we were smoking cigarettes!” he was moving closer now, shrieking at me, “That’s what’s real! So go ahead and eat your food, you stupid dame!”

In a flash, before I knew what was happening, Charlie was out of his seat.

I sat frozen as Charlie tackled Kilpatrick. My head began to spin, trying to decide what to do. I pondered jumping on Kilpatrick’s back and poking him in the eye with my fork, because at that moment, helping Charlie was the only thought pounding in my brain.

But it became quickly evident that Charlie did not need any help, let alone mine.

He grabbed Kilpatrick by his arm and whirled him around, grabbing his other wrist and holding both arms behind his back. The other marine dashed forward as they forced Kilpatrick down on the ground.

“Get off me,” he screamed, his face pressed against the wooden floor plank, “Get off me you Nazis!”

A waiter shouted from the back, “The police… they’re coming.”

Kilpatrick screamed and wailed like a cat, but the horror in his voice and the anger in his grimace never made it into his eyes. His eyes were pale blue marbles, blank slates, no expression, no life left. I'd heard about the thousand yard stare, and apparently, this was it.

(My grandfather, Robert, New Guinea, 1943)

The front door burst open as four policemen raced through the crowd and relieved Charlie and the marine. But Kilpatrick was finished with his struggle. He quietly stood up and let the police handcuff him.

Charlie strode across the room and held out his hand.

“Come on, let’s get out of here,” he tossed some money on the table.

I looked up at him blankly, stunned.

“Ava,” he leaned down and spoke gently, “give me your hand.”

I cleared my throat, picked up my clutch and took his hand. There was a buzz around the room as other couples took our cue, standing and exiting the restaurant as the police led Kilpatrick outside.

Charlie patted my hand, “I told you when someone insulted you I’d do something about it.”

I stared at him, undecided whether I should slap his face or hug his massive shoulders.

“You like ice cream?” he asked.

I drew a ragged breath, wiping my forehead, “What?”

“There’s a little ice cream place over by Central Park. What do you say let’s go?”

I eyed him for a moment, pondering his instant metamorphosis from battle hardened soldier to cheerful ice-cream fetching date, “Ok, why not.”

“And I promise,” He held up a hand solemnly, “we won’t ride in any of those cheesy horse and buggy get-ups. I get the feeling you wouldn’t like that.”

I smiled genuinely for the first time all night, taking his arm, “Well in that case…”