Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
2717 words
SHJ Issue 14
Spring 2016


by Walter Cummins

The cats meowed, baring sharp little teeth and twisting in sinewy circles, as they smelled the raw meat in the barbecue racks. They braced paws against the fireplace bricks and stretched toward the food. The four couples, Americans, a few years short of retirement age, fussed at the picnic table, mixing salads, slicing bread, uncorking the vino rosso. They looked out over the rich contours of the Tuscan countryside, for miles in every direction hectares of green vineyards, olive trees, tan wheat fields brightened with poppies. From the rise of the next farm, sheep bells chimed softly as the flock moved across an open field. Beyond, near the horizon, a hill town shimmered in the orange ball of the setting sun.

The couples were living in stone farm buildings, spaces converted into rudimentary apartments rented for agriturismo. Strangers until two weeks ago, they were linked by language and the same Tuscan guidebooks zipped into their backpacks.

While they had spoken to each other when they met shopping in the narrow aisles of the village Co-op or passed during their walks about the farm, this evening was the first time the four couples were all together. Tomorrow, their Tuscan holiday ended, they would pack and drive to Florence for the plane ride that would return them to their real lives. Once back in America, where each couple lived hundreds of miles from the others, they would become strangers again, names forgotten—though no one acknowledged it—as memories blurred. But tonight they were united in smiles and good cheer.

Though the breeze was light, they anchored the tablecloth and the paper napkins against the occasional gusts, fixing the corners with mismatched crockery from their kitchens. They sat on wooden benches under an arbor wound with ripe vines. Chuck poured the wine, a big man in tee shirt, shorts, and sandals whose voice boomed with a musical twang. He and his wife, Darcy, had initiated this cookout, made assignments of who was to bring what. But no one minded their bossiness.

They were such an entertaining couple, turning all their tribulations into jokes: the body count of mosquitos squashed into the white plaster of the walls, the mattress Darcy had to drag onto the floor to support her bad back. Almost as big as Chuck, with white hair cut close to her head like a medieval helmet, she looked a decade older than her husband, though he had made a point of telling everyone they were the same age.

All at once the dog called Caroto began an outburst behind the buildings where the Pintos lived. No one could discover why the dog had such a name because neither the Pintos, the farm’s caretakers, nor their two young sons spoke a word of English. The barking was fierce, a mixture of snarling and yelping punctuated by deep growls; but it stopped as suddenly as it had begun. None of them could guess the cause.

“It’s as if he operates by a switch,“ Vince said, and the others laughed.

Ernest shook his head. “He has visions. This is the perfect country for them.“

The dog amused them all. His seeming viciousness had terrified each one at their first encounter, the violent, teeth-bared rush when they passed his wooden house, the abrupt snap that knocked him over when he reached the end of his chain. Then, although the Pintos had done nothing to reassure them, they realized how harmless he was, how if they walked toward him, he curled into the hole he had dug in the hard dirt and quivered with a whimper.

“Caroto doesn’t seem to mind about the cats,“ Josephine said. She was Tom’s wife, a tiny woman with wide round glasses, and Tom was a slight man himself, always in long-sleeved shirts despite the heat. They were the quietest of the couples, shy people who always made a special effort to be sociable, waving eagerly whenever they caught sight of the others.

Sally, Vince’s wife, and Alberta, Ernest’s, each lifted a cat onto her lap, the ones they had named Callie and Christopher and let into their apartments, feeding them bowls of milk the first thing in the morning, right after they opened their doors wide to the new day’s sun.

Next to each other on the bench, sitting in identical postures as they stroked a cat, the two women looked more like sisters than ever. In fact, Chuck and Darcy and Josephine and Tom had assumed a relationship the first time they saw them. And now even their husbands, Vince and Ernest, agreed to the resemblance, both women a few years younger than the others in the group, Alberta several inches taller, but with a similar oval face, light hair, and blue eyes, the two of them slim and attractive. One evening a week before, when they came out to the paths wearing the same powder-blue polo shirt, they laughed along with their husbands. “Lands’ End,“ Sally said. “Lands’ End,“ Alberta agreed.

Ernest and Vince were nothing alike, Ernest a lanky man, fair and freckled, always wearing a straw hat and smearing his arms with sunscreen; Vince short, dark, and overweight, his tan deepening each day. He wore a perpetual smile, as if everything amused him.

“They’re siblings,“ Sally told the others as she pointed to the cat in Alberta’s lap, though that was obvious, the two cats marked with contrasting patterns of cream and gray, just past kittenhood.

“Such sweet creatures,“ Alberta added, “rolling and purring whenever we reach out to pet them.“

“But Callie,“ Sally continued, “gets aggressive with her brother, chasing him off whenever she wants a space to herself.“

Sally and Alberta were trying to make him less of a wimp, calling him back, tempting him with food to make him assert his rights.

A dark cat, unnamed, probably a sibling of the other two, certainly no older but already a mother, lurked under a bush with her four black and white kittens. Usually, the kittens darted off into one of the barns wherever they saw people, and this evening was the closest they had ever come, still ten feet away and ready to flee, but lured by the scent of meat on the grill.

A pale moon began to emerge behind the wisps of clouds. The lights of the hill town glowed more brightly in the distance. Crickets set off a-chirping, and the evening birds began to sing, a music that would last through the night.

Chuck opened another bottle of wine, this time the Montalcino Brunello supplied by Tom and Josephine, a delicacy that would have cost three times as much in the States.

“Fanfare,“ Chuck called to Darcy, and she cupped her hands to her mouth to toot a trumpet sound. “Get the vino paisano out of your glasses,“ he told the others. “It’s time for the good stuff. Courtesy of our generous friends, Tom and Josephine.“

At the cheers and applause, the two of them blushed, and Vince winked at Ernest.

“A toast is in order,“ Darcy said. “Chuck?“

“I’m just the bartender.“

“Let me.“ Vince stood up and raised his glass. “To the glow of the Tuscan light, the glow of the Tuscan wine, and the glow of our temporary Tuscan friends.“ They all leaned forward to touch glasses.

“Temporary Tuscans or temporary friends?“ Sally asked.

“Does it matter?“ Alberta said. “It’s enough to be here at this moment.“

“Life is good,“ Ernest added. They all touched glasses one more time and echoed, “Good.“

Tom and Josephine helped at the grill, turning over the steaks, backing off as the coals flared from the dripping fat. Callie and Christopher jumped off Sally’s and Alberta’s laps to twist against Tom’s legs. The odor of meat made the mother cat creep forward, her kittens close behind. Josephine collected the plates and Tom served with a barbecue fork. Everyone sliced off small pieces from the tips of their steaks and tossed them to the cats, laughing at the squeaks of the kittens. “The cats agree,“ Ernest said. “Life is good.“

By now the sun had almost set, the sky to the west spread with a purple glow.

“It’s odd.“ Sally reached down to scratch Callie’s head. “We don’t know anything about each other’s lives back home. Our families, even if we have children. Or what we do for a living. All we’ve talked about on this farm are the wonderful vineyards and villages and museums and restaurants.“

“Don’t forget the cats,“ Alberta said. “We’ve devoted hours to the cats.“

“Besides,“ Vince said, “we’ve been living our Tuscan incarnations these past weeks. That’s who we are now. Nothing else matters.“

Chuck brought his glass to his nose, swished the wine, and took a deep breath. “And it’s a good thing too.“

“Amen.“ Darcy threw back her head. “This sure beats the hell out of who we used to be.“

“How so?” Ernest asked. Alberta kicked him under the table, and Sally shot him a look. But he went on. “Who did you used to be?”

Darcy turned to Chuck, as if for permission, watched him drain his glass. “Frustrated grandparents. We’ve been obsessed by it day and night for six months.“

“Why six months?“ Vince slid close to the table and leaned forward.

“That’s how old the baby is,“ Chuck said. “She was born six months ago last Tuesday.“

“What’s she like?“ Vince said.

“We don’t know.“ Chuck dug at the table with the corkscrew.

“We’ve never seen her.“ Darcy's voice rose and, for a moment, the others thought it would break into a cry; but instead she forced a laugh from the back of her throat. “Isn’t that crazy?“

No one answered, looking down at their plates, Sally and Alberta rubbing the cats’ throats with their fingertips. But Chuck broke the silence. “You all probably think they live across the country. But they’re just an hour from us.“

“It’s him, our son-of-a-bitch son-in-law,“ Darcy interrupted. “He claims we’re a bad influence because we exist in the twenty-first century.“

“I don’t understand,“ Vince said.

“We’re destroying the planet with our cars and our air-conditioning and our pools and our plane flights. He and Susie live in a cabin without electricity or running water. They use a well and freeze most of the winter because he’ll only burn wood that’s fallen to the ground. He thinks it’s a sin to saw. They plant from seeds and eat nothing but vegetables. They’re filthy and scrawny, and it makes me sick to look at them.“

Chuck broke in—“They have goddamn college degrees“—but Darcy went on. “He insisted that she give birth at home. With a midwife. No anesthesia. Like savages. No better than ignorant savages. When we told them how much we opposed the idea, he made her cut off all contact with us. They won’t have a phone. When we drive up, they lock the doors and close the curtains.“

She had gotten louder and louder, finally spitting the words as if she had bitten into something foul. Sally reached out and squeezed her hand on the tabletop. “And your daughter—she goes along with all this?”

“The bastard’s brainwashed her!“

Alberta turned to Ernest. “He sounds like Michael, doesn’t he? That’s our son-in-law,“ she explained to the others.

Ernest frowned. “Michael’s a pain in the ass, but he’s nothing like that. He couldn’t plant a seed if you held a gun to his head. Can you see Michael out gathering twigs for firewood? He loves the twenty-first century. Every time a new gadget comes out, he’s the first to buy it. Drives a new Corvette though he can barely afford a bicycle. They’re so deep in debt the only hope they have is to strike oil in their backyard.“

“What I meant,“ Alberta said, “was that we’ve also got a daughter who’s stuck with an idiot. Maybe a very different kind of idiot, but an idiot all the same. And we’d probably be better off if they did refuse to see us. All they do is ask for money. Can you believe we’ve been paying their rent?“

“Is there a baby?“ Darcy asked.

Ernest snorted. “Michael’s baby enough. He couldn’t bring himself to have to share with an infant.“

Sally faced Tom and Josephine as if annoyed at their failure to comment. “And what about you two? How’s your grandchild situation?“

Josephine shrugged. The others could tell that she had seized Tom’s hand under the table, slid close to him on the bench. “Ours drive us crazy.“ She smiled, then let out a giggle.

Tom spoke softly. “We’ve got a dozen of them, all in the neighborhood, what with our four kids living so close. Always wanting us to babysit. We end up with a house full every weekend. It’s a relief being here just for the peace and quiet.“

“Did you say a dozen?“ Chuck gave his forehead an exaggerated slap. Josephine nodded.

“Jesus! From the look of you two it’s hard to believe you’ve ever mated.“

She gasped, and Tom’s jaw dropped. But Chuck rose immediately and moved behind them to wrap an arm around their shoulders and squeeze them against his chest. “Just kidding.“

“You know how Chuck is,“ Darcy said.

Josephine’s eyes narrowed behind her thick lenses. “You haven’t told us about your family, Sally. We’d love to hear.“

Sally swept up a cat and cradled it. “Oh, grandchildren are years away. My kids are probably much younger than yours. Barely into their teens.“

“I’ve got two,“ Vince said. “Grandchildren, that is. From my first marriage.“ Alberta looked surprised. “We didn’t know this was your second.“

“Hell,“ Chuck said. “How do we know any of us are really married? Maybe we’re all here because we’ve run off with our lovers.“

“Don’t you wish?“ Darcy punched his arm.

“I did that once,“ Sally told them. “Not too many years ago.“

Ernest thought she was joking. “And what did Vince say about that?“

“It was Vince. I ran off with Vince. That’s why my children live with their father.“

“So tell us. Is Vince worth it?“ Darcy winked at the others.

Even though the darkness was thickening, they could see Sally’s tears, the pained twist of her mouth. “Some days I don’t know.“ The cat cried out, as if she had hurt it with her squeezing. It jumped free and she let her hands fall to her sides.

“Hey,“ Ernest said. “I’ve got an idea. We won’t pack. We’ll just stay here on this farm.“

“Work in the vineyard,“ Alberta went on. “Learn how to crush grapes with our bare feet. Harvest the wheat. Bread and wine. It will be like living in paradise.“

“I’ve got a better idea,“ Chuck announced. “Let’s give Caroto a treat. Poor guy’s been chained up sniffing our barbecue while we’ve been stuffing the cats.“

“Hear, hear,“ the others said, ringing forks against their glasses.

Darcy gathered steak bones onto a plate and passed it to Chuck. They all stood and formed a procession, one behind the other, Chuck leading the way through the nightfall. Even though the world around them was swallowed in a gray blur, they marched the long way to the doghouse, taking the path around the buildings of their apartments, past the barns and the parked tractors and the olive press, behind the Pintos’ house. Darcy started a chant, a sound meant to be monk-like that came out as a moan. The others tried to follow along but ended up in a dissonant chorus.

At last they reached the dog, Caroto too startled at the line of humans to bark, ready to cower in his hole. Chuck placed the plate on the dusty ground between the animal’s front paws. “Canine friend, we invite you to partake of our feast.“ The others formed a close circle to stare down at him. Caroto sniffed the bones, touching each one with a flick of his tongue, then drew back, uncertain what was expected of him. But when Darcy called out “Eat!“ he buried his face in the plate and tore at the shreds of flesh. The people cheered as if sharing something wonderful. While they watched the dog chew, darkness settled over them.

“Life is good,“ Ernest sang.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury