Sunday, March 30, 2008
Tony was staring at a vacant lot between some houses in the distance. He thought that space on the other side of the freeway looked like a once perfect, but now gap-toothed smile; yeah, he thought, it’s a small town with missing teeth. It was a town where its image began to come apart with its economic health. Boarded up windows on Main Street, real estate signs with pictures of smiling agents advertising businesses and houses for sale had appeared as money dried up. Another house once stood in the breach. The house was consumed in a conflagration that left some burn marks still visible on houses on either side. One developer made a modest attempt to fill in the gap and regain some of his fortune and a little tax revenue for the city by an attempted re-zoning of the lot to commercial but that had ultimately failed. Neither the developer nor the city seemed to have the energy. A sun-faded sign was the only remnant of the effort.
It was a wooden sign originally built in two parts The top banner read, in large capital letters and nearly cursive print, COMING SOON . . . The bottom piece named the future effort some fantastic suburban dream like Forest Garden Mall or North Tree Gate; it fell away shortly after the sign was placed and no one, agent or broker or vandal, had the time, the energy or the will to remove or replace it. All of the neighbors had objected to the project and the city council never passed the zoning change or allowed a variance; this fact Tony wasn’t sure he should even think about. The gap was his guilt, and his shame, and his glee, and his success, and he saw it everyday he worked, all there in the one big, street-side, restaurant picture window.
Tony’s home town, like many small California towns, started for one reason and when that reason gave out, found another reason to survive and then another and so on until reasons to survive as a municipality gave out, but it still had its own city council and mayor, city police department, city public works department and all the rest. Because the town had survived it became “historic”, with a center section consisting of buildings more than half of which were “landmarks”. With economic downturn the “landmarks” became a liability in need of a great deal of repair and restoration. Since restoration was expensive and the halcyon days of premium rents had passed, landlords simply let them deteriorate, letting roofs leak and upper floors be taken over by bats and mold.
Although he was forced to move several times by incipient deterioration, Tony had loved the days of living in upper floor apartments and experienced fleeting moments of nostalgia for those days. He had enjoyed the views tremendously.
Tony had lived mostly in upstairs studio apartments after graduating from his community college. The best ones had views of the street. He loved watching pedestrians and automobiles passing below him; it gave him a feeling of privacy that he enjoyed. Just secretly watching like that also gave him a feeling of angelic benevolence. The last upstairs apartment also developed a mold problem, which Tony’s sensitive sense of smell picked out almost immediately, so he called the landlord but never got a call back. He tried to acclimate himself to the smell because he didn’t want to move again, but it got worse. Then Tony came home one evening and there was an eviction notice from the public health department and he was forced to vacate his last upstairs apartment. The landlord just vanished and a bank repossessed the building.
Tony was now living in another studio but it was a tiny downstairs apartment, at the back of a building, looking on a narrow alley with a gray cement retaining wall, covered with brightly spray-painted graffiti reading things like ‘Viva Che’ and ‘Whatever happen, happen for a raisin’. He thought frequently about painting over the graffiti but always reconsidered because he wasn’t sure it would improve the view. But he was quite proud and guiltless of the apartment’s internal appearance, which was as neat as a ship’s stateroom and fairly dust-free. Tony hated dust.
He cleaned the floor once a week and made sure he moved furniture. He made a habit of always making his bathroom gleam, cleaning behind the toilet and between all the tiles. All of his toilet articles were carefully arranged in an extra large medicine cabinet covered with a mirror he kept free of toothpaste and water stains, and though the shower stall was quite small and dark when he moved in, he installed a battery light in its ceiling and scrubbed its walls down regularly. In the main room he had placed a side table next to the door and a comfortable armchair next to the table. On the table was a rather fantastic lamp that an elderly aunt gave him and he treasured as a relic from the mid-twentieth century. The few furnishings, other than the lamp and a couple of other inheritances, were thrift store pieces he found nearly new that he’d accumulated over a period of a few years. A sofa he had really cherished had to be sold when he moved from the last upstairs place because it just wouldn’t fit in the new apartment. It wouldn’t even fit through the strangely narrow door of the new place.
His ex had left him because she didn’t want to live anymore in small places and would have especially disliked the new downstairs alley flat. She had vanished out of his life sometime before his last move. She’d always told him a larger place would be better for him because there would be room for more comfortable furniture and maybe an extra room would be nice for his weights and gym equipment. They had seriously looked for something bigger, even outside of town where Tony really didn’t want to live. He couldn’t afford to drive even if he had a car, and the larger places were either too large or too expensive. So she just packed up, said, “see you next lifetime,” and left.
He hadn’t thought there had been any hard feelings on her part, so one day he called her just to say hello and find out how she was doing, but her responses had been a little short and when she finally told him she had to go, he just said, “well, it’s been nice talking to you. Can I call you later?” She had said simply, “no,” and that was that.
When he thought about their relationship, he never could quite understand what the problems had been, and he would look, not too forlornly, around his apartment, for things she might have left behind. There wasn’t anything nor had there ever been. She had been extremely thorough in gathering her things. He had been grateful she didn’t have a lot to pack.
After he had been forced out of the last upstairs apartment by a growing stench of mold and the eviction notice, he’d moved into the back-alley place. He carefully installed his few pieces of furniture, which hadn’t left enough room for his gym equipment, so he sold a table and four chairs and a cabinet he had used for CD and DVD storage. Realizing that not having space for the CDs and DVDs meant they would be stacked or lying along a wall creating less space, he sold them also.
When he moved in there was an odd little hole in the new apartment’s only wall, which separated the tiny bathroom from the rest. So Tony expanded the hole until it was large enough to fit his old television, reinforced the space with some used lumber and surrounded the entire opening with some inexpensive picture framing, stapled the cable lead to the wall and plugged the TV into an outlet in the bathroom. His landlord was a little startled by the change but he didn’t really seem to mind and mentioned politely that it looked like Tony had a flat-screen TV.
He had been enculturated as a Roman Catholic, even though he couldn’t have responded at mass with any degree of accuracy. His family generally only attended mass on holidays like Christmas and Easter and he found himself making up responses for which he later felt guilty. He did know the Ave Maria and the Pater Noster, but sometimes got confused with the latter’s ending because he had so many protestant friends. When he sometimes absently recited the prayer in the protestant manner, he immediately felt guilty. Somehow he had offended someone somewhere. Tony was the kind of person who didn’t sin much, because he disliked feeling the guilt that went with it. So he tried to carefully organize guilt out of his life and his home environment.
To that end he was rather organized about pretty much everything in his personal environment, and since he seldom felt guilty, he also felt relatively successful. He had a routine for getting ready for everything. He’d developed routines in grammar school with the nuns and carried it over into public grammar school when his father decided they were a bad influence and took him out of Catholic school. Tony thought it was really because the school raised its fees. His mother had no objection at all however because she thought nuns were crazy. Nonetheless, even in the transition, Tony managed to maintain his rather tightly organized world and when he entered public school, it may have even grown a little tighter.
As a waiter, Tony maintained an immaculate appearance. His black work pants were always fitted with a belt, which hung correctly, just above his hipbones, gathering themselves tightly over his buttocks instead of hanging loosely, which was current fashion. Tony always bought expensive white cotton shirts and always washed them with bluing and starched them to a medium stiffness. He was meticulous about buying shirts with French cuffs so he could wear cufflinks, which he thought added elegance to his appearance. When he put his shirts on he always managed to create two perfect pleats in the sides at his waistline so the shirtfront would remain flat. He wore a bow tie that had to be tied instead of a clip-on because he thought having a tie like that gave him bragging rights of sorts, although when he did brag, he felt guilty. His work shoes he bought one half size too large because he always wore two pair of stockings, a white pair underneath and a dark pair on top. He had heard somewhere that dyed stockings were bad for feet but he didn’t want white stockings showing between black pants and black shoes, mostly because Tony the manager wore his that way. Tony the manager always noted Tony the waiter’s dapper appearance with a bit of a leer, which made the waiter uneasy.
“Lookin’ good, Tone,” the manager would nod his head approvingly, and then repeat, “lookin’ good…gettin’ laid tonight?”
“How can you always be thinking about sex?” the waiter would ask.
“How can I not think about sex? Some guy told me the other day that if you weren’t thinkin’ about sex, your mind was wandering. Ha haha ha haha.” The manager had an odd laugh that sounded like he was laughing while driving with a flat tire, and when Belladonna started her laughing in the restaurant, the manager was almost always the first to pick up the infection and because his laugh was almost as loud as hers, it could be easily heard everywhere like a misfiring engine.
He recalled his life in the upper floors as time when he knew nothing about Belladonna. He hadn’t really had time to grieve, Buster the busboy had told him. That sounded fair to Tony but he knew that Buster belonged to some fringe religious association that Tony didn’t understand, even though Buster seemed nice enough, he was also kind of touchy-feely which Tony did not care for at all. He actually told Buster that he would prefer it if Buster wouldn’t be so chummy all the time and Buster seemed to understand. Tony warmed greatly to Buster when the busboy asked his advice on weight training. It didn’t hurt that Buster shared his opinion of Belladonna.
It was about the time he moved that Belladonna made her first appearance at the restaurant. Belladonna’s sudden appearance and over-dramatic persona had driven old thoughts of the separation and the new apartment away like leaves before a hurricane.
Belladonna, La Donna to her closest and very few friends, was a strange mixture of beauty and ugliness all wrapped in one immodest package. Like her namesake plant, she had a kind of kinship to humanity that belladonna has to the tomato. It is rather pretty in some ways and one knows it is in the same family but there are differences that shouldn’t be ignored.
La Donna liked to wear tiny flowers in her glossy, French-rolled, jet-black hair, which remained resolutely the same color as she aged. Her favorite blossoms were always tiny and strange, baby’s breath, but more commonly the little blue flowers from filaree, or yellow ones from tarweed, or even the tiny purple blossoms from her namesake. On rare occasions, she could even be seen wearing blossoms from purple star thistle. She had beautiful flashing black eyes and a wide, well maintained smile, which showed often.
In public she always laughed distinctively loud and told jokes so everyone could hear. Her large bosom would leap up and down with her guffaws and so infectious was her laughter that other people near her would begin to laugh for no reason other than it seemed she was giving everyone permission. Everyone knew La Donna as a very happy person.
Belladonna had always been large but once had carried her weight, and looked rather like an opera star. But that day had passed, and now she was shaped like a potato sack with the potatoes in it. The year and a half of Tony’s acquaintance with her was after she received the gastric bypass surgery. She lost a great deal of weight, but she never followed her doctor’s orders and refused to exercise or monitor her intake of vitamins. In fact, she believed that if she paid for the surgery she should be able to eat whatever she liked, whenever she liked and did. When she lost the weight, she complained to her doctor that all that loose skin made her look like a Shar-pei in a dress and couldn’t he do something? The radical procedure only slowed her eating for a while. It also developed a habit for eating small portions. But the small portions kept becoming more and more small portions and she regained a lot of the weight, but just didn’t seem to carry it the same way.
La Donna also lead a secret life about which even her few friends knew nothing. She made much ado about animals in general and pets in particular and continuously joined committees to end animal cruelty and in public cried out loudly and in great distress when she saw or thought she saw a pet being misused by its owner. She herself had a medium sized dog and a cat, which were rarely seen. Her public protests about animal cruelty did not find their expression inside her home. Which, perhaps, is why the cat rarely made appearances anywhere near her. During her morning regime, she would call the dog sweetly to her side then thrash it with an old taped up roll of wallpaper because it had slighted her by perhaps not eating all of its food which she would blame for attracting ants or cockroaches. (This was true, but certainly not a primary reason she found vermin in her house.)
Belladonna hadn’t paid her housekeeper one month and then another month went by unpaid and then the housekeeper quit and never showed up again. Belladonna had never tried to hire another. “Waste of money”, she told herself. At any rate, housekeepers were too expensive it seemed and since La Donna wasn’t about to clean house, it never got cleaned.
The dog would almost always cheerily follow her barking to the door and receive a heel in the face because La Donna thought it was trying to escape; when she returned in the evening the process was only reversed in that instead of a heel the animal received a toe, for the same imaginary reason.
For nearly thirty years Belladonna worked for a government agency whose primary mission was doling out food coupons and writing checks to other agencies that in turn doled them out to someone else. She was very proud of her career, her “service” as she called it. She was helping people to help others. She was a giver. Except on the days when she ate at the restaurant where Tony worked.
The restaurant where Tony waited tables was one of those old fashioned Italian places where there are candles on the tables and the tables are covered with red and white checked oil cloth and there always seem to be red cloth serviettes folded into fancy shapes and stuffed into a water glass for the diners to admire before tucking one under their chin. There were old Neapolitan songs playing on the overhead speakers quietly enough that people eating could just about believe they might be in Naples, or if their imaginations were good, Capri. Colorful murals, track lit, painted with little sense of perspective filled an entire corner with a view perhaps of Portofino and the menu was extensive with all of the old favorites and variations for every taste, except Belladonna’s.
Tony knew, he always knew, the moment he saw a customer, what kind of customer they were going to be, a picky eater, a big eater, just an appetizer, just a glass or two or three of wine, or what he referred to as ‘a taster’. Belladonna was a taster. Tony hated tasters.
Tony’s first encounter with her was not pleasant, she smelled musty. She was a public jokester and for a large person moved very quickly when she wished. On that first evening Tony had seen her, sized her up, and unable to avoid her, took a breath and requested her to please follow him, which she had, with alacrity, too much alacrity. She made the trip across the restaurant into a conga line, holding Tony’s belt or grabbing his sides with a pinching grip. Occasionally, she would see an acquaintance and whirl him to the side while keeping a grip on his belt. He valiantly kept his cool and his patience. Tony the manager had assigned her to a table on the complete opposite side of the restaurant and for Tony the waiter, it was like running a gauntlet.
Around every table she never missed an opportunity to give him a hip or bump into him from behind, or, for that matter, to rub his behind, to which she would loudly proclaim to the other diners what a forward young man he was, and once, bumped him from behind and let go of his belt, knocking him into the lap of a pretty young woman who was just about to receive a proposal of marriage from her boyfriend, yelled loudly, “masher!” Tony found his face in the young woman’s crotch with his hands and arms, initially stretched out to save himself from the fall, still holding the menu but pushing rather painfully into the boyfriend’s groin. La Donna bellowed laughter and everyone except Tony followed suit, even the nearly engaged couple. Tony the manager was barking his missing piston laugh as loudly as Belladonna.
Tony had blushed scarlet and more embarrassed than he had ever been in his life, wanted desperately for someone to come to his rescue. Reading the distress on Tony’s face, which looked so helplessly from the woman’s lap, Buster the busboy rushed to his assistance. The busboy was always ready to help Tony. Buster was also the only other person not laughing.
With Buster’s help he righted himself, Tony muttered thanks and found his way to the table the manager had assigned where Belladonna suddenly screamed, “not here! This is where my ex-husband told me he wanted a divorce! I can’t sit here! What? Are you crazy? Take me to another table!!”
The laughter trailing from Tony’s fall died away suddenly and a deadly quiet seemed to gather around the perimeter of every table. “I’m terribly sorry. I’ll find you another table, miss!” Tony murmured very quietly. “HA!” cried La Donna, “did you hear that?” the voice called to everyone in the room, “he called me Miss!! Oh, that’s rich!” and once again she burst into her uncannily infectious laughter and everyone laughed again, nervously at first but then it built and built until even Tony felt a tiny urge to giggle.
It was, however, Tony the manager who came instantly and showed Belladonna to another table which many people thought was always reserved, but in reality was simply left open in case there was a celebrity (never had been) or the owner wanted dinner. Belladonna nodded her head in approval while jutting out her chin. Then she spread her arms wide and announced to the room in a bad Italian accent, “atsa nice, no?” Tony the waiter was of Italian heritage mostly and wanted to tell Belladonna talking like that made him a little uncomfortable but he was more concerned she would do something like knocking him into another table again so he said nothing.
Then Tony brought her water but she said the glass wasn’t clean enough. So he brought another glass but she didn’t want ice. So he sent Buster with another glass with no ice, but she said she had changed her mind and wanted ice after all and told Buster to send the waiter next time, I am not leaving you a tip.
So Tony brought water with no ice and before she could change her mind again asked her if she would like a glass of wine. La Donna looked him squarely in the eye and with a big booming laugh said; “Now you’re talking my language! Waddaya got?” Tony pointed to the wine list on the table and once again she boomed laughter, screamed laughter and proclaimed, “all the time this was here and we were fighting over water? HA HA HA!” She never touched the water, but as Tony walked away she grabbed his buttocks.
That first evening seemed endless. Belladonna would order a dish, Tony would bring it, she would taste it and push it away saying in a loud critical voice things like: “doesn’t have enough garlic!”; “good lord, don’t they grow any oregano around here?”; “this doesn’t have enough sauce, does it? HEY YOU! BACK THERE IN THE KITCHEN! WHADDYA DO WITH ALL THE SAUCE?” But she always took at least one bite, pushing the plate away afterward like she was allergic to it.
Belladonna had the time of her life. When she laughed everyone laughed. On that first evening she must have ordered twenty different dishes, all menu specials with special instructions, and never ate more than one bite from any of them. She tasted. She laughed and she tasted.
In spite of never seeming to like anything the kitchen turned out, La Donna decided it was her favorite restaurant, which she proclaimed loudly. It may have been because Tony the waiter was so patient or it may have been because Tony the manager never charged her for anything except the ten-dollar bottle of wine she drank. The last cup she swallowed directly from the bottle then belched loudly, which set people into gales of more laughter. When she finally left, Tony found three coins of foreign origin on the table, and a little scribbled note, which read, I’ll be back!
He told Tony the manager he needed a short break and almost ran to the dry storage room for the restaurant, where he sat down on a plastic milk crate and wept. Buster wandered in to get something, saw Tony’s tears and stuttering an apology, backed out of the storeroom, immediately forgot what he was supposed to get, went to the restroom and also cried.
Neither man knew it but that first visit was easily the most pleasant evening they would spend with Belladonna.
During one of her return visits, she insisted loudly that Tony call her La Donna, the very same night he saw her entering a house on the other side of the freeway. He asked Tony the manager if he knew where she lived and Tony asked him why, was he getting interested?
Tony the manager was the most sexually driven man Tony the waiter had ever met. On three occasions the owner had interrupted the manager while he was having sex in the restaurant. Once with the owner’s ex-wife, once with one of the waitresses, and once with a woman who came in to get a to go order. On this last occasion, the couple got so energetic they broke the toilet seat in the employee bathroom, infuriating the owner because he said stuff like that drove up cost of sales.
Naturally, after the third time, the owner ordered Tony the manager to pay attention to the business and stay away from girls. Tony took him literally and cooks and busboys often found him amusing himself with vegetables and melons and sometimes even bread. Buster frequently told Tony the waiter how freakish this looked. So when Tony the manager asked Tony the waiter if he was interested in La Donna, Tony the waiter nearly gagged.
“No,” he said. “I just want to know if that house over there is where she lives. That’s all.” He didn’t even really know why he was asking but he felt the stirrings of an idea, a feeling.
Tony the manager said, “maybe”, and also said she might be interesting to fuck, so Tony the waiter took his leave and tried not to think about La Donna again until the next time she would appear at the restaurant. He did know he would never have asked her directly because she could turn the question into her idea of an evening of comedy, telling everyone in the restaurant as loudly as possible, and bat her eyes coyly.
So instead, he watched her very carefully, observed her over the months. Belladonna always played all her usual tricks of bumping into him and on a few occasions “accidentally” spilled her water (with or without ice) somehow directly onto the front of Tony’s pants, swiftly grabbing her scarlet serviette would begin rubbing him. She invariably did this when he was holding a plate or two and was slow to react. She endlessly repeated ordering dishes she didn’t really want and never paying for anything except wine and then leaving a useless tip.
Tony had asked the owner about the situation and he seemed to shy away from the question. Tony asked if they couldn’t just refuse her service or something? The owner always demurred, or started talking about his last trip to New Jersey, or gave Tony excuses, like not having enough time to discuss this. On one occasion, the owner just told Tony to stop asking stupid questions and do his side work.
It was on that evening Tony finally asked the owner if Belladonna lived in the house across the freeway. The owner looked a little startled but admitted that she did indeed live there and then told Tony to go help the busboy clean the bathroom. As Tony carefully wiped all the water stains from the large mirror of the public restroom while Buster cleaned the toilet stall he admitted to Buster that the owner had told him where Belladonna lived and he wasn’t quite sure why, but he had developed a vague interest in her. Buster seemed disturbed that Tony had any interest in Belladonna at all, but Tony reassured him that he hadn’t developed that kind of interest; in fact, he wished she would just go away, or get hit by a bus or something. Tony had an almost psychic feeling that just knowing some information was going to make everyone’s life easier, he just didn’t know how. But that he didn’t tell Buster.
Belladonna’s visits never got any easier, nor did her loud and raucous laughter embarrass Tony any less, but Tony started to gain confidence in some mysterious manner he didn’t understand. He would look across the freeway at Belladonna’s dimly lit windows while he was serving her or after his shift and just wonder. He even started to answer her loud cries with an almost imitative behavior, to which Belladonna, at first startled, grew ever louder and more raucous. The owner told him La Donna must like him.
Accompanying Belladonna’s behavior came a coincidence where the more food she pushed away and complained about everything, the busier the restaurant became, not only on the nights when she plowed through hysterically laughing guests but also on week nights when the restaurant had been so quiet the owner had considered shutting down.
Mondays the restaurant had always been closed, Tuesdays had a good lunch crowd but dinner was very thin and Wednesdays only very slightly better than Tuesday. Belladonna limited her appearances to Friday or Saturday with the very occasional Thursday exception. But Wednesdays and Tuesdays picked up so much that the manager told the owner he would need to hire more servers and at least one other busser.
The owner hired one more server and a busser. Tony got more shifts and began to make some excellent tips, except, of course, from Belladonna, who continued to leave foreign coins of small denominations, subway tokens from eastern cities, gambling tokens from Nevada casinos and occasionally the punch-out slugs from electrical breaker boxes. Tony kept up a barrage of complaints to the manager and the owner.
“She doesn’t eat anything! She orders ten plates of food, eats one bite and says it isn’t done right and then drinks a whole bottle of Chianti by herself. And then you don’t make her pay for it? Why? Why not just refuse her service?”
Tony the manager would usually walk away in the middle of Tony’s tirade without responding, although he would sometimes ask Tony when he got laid last, to which the waiter walked away without responding. The owner always hemmed and hawed over Belladonna and told Tony over and over that this was the last time he would discuss the subject. On her penultimate visit, he just looked Tony in the eye and said, “look kid, she’s good for business.”
Tony responded by telling the owner that that was just superstitious, stupid, it was probably just an upturn in the economy, or maybe new people were just discovering the restaurant and found they liked it and were returning more often.
“Upturn? Kid, you haven’t been paying attention. There ain’t any upturn in the economy, look at all the For Rent signs posted around town; look at all the boarded up places; shoot, I was thinking about abandoning this place before it started to pick up, because I sure couldna sold it. I’m tellin’ ya, the more food that cow pushes away and the harder she laughs, the better business gets; who knows why?”
“Then can somebody else please take her when she comes? I’m sick of it!”
“She always requests you, Tone, always. If I was you I’d just take it in stride.”
“She leaves crap for tips…look at this. This is what she left for me last time. A fuckin’ coin from some country that doesn’t use the alphabet and they make their money from aluminum cans! She won’t let Buster take away the dishes until she’s finished drinking her bottle of wine and then burps and farts her way out the door. She’s disgusting! She’s slugged Buster in the shoulder so many times, he’s got a permanent bruise and she’s grabbed my ass so many times I’ve probably got her fingerprints…her fingerprints embedded permanently, not to mention the times she rubs my crotch, tries to put her hand inside my pants or knocks me into someone’s lap. I should take it in stride!!? I should sue!” Tony was nearly yelling by the time he finished.
“Don’t do that! It’d just cost ya a lotta dough. Maybe she’s lonely, Tone.”
“Maybe she should get a cat.”
“Dincha know? She’s got a cat. Dog too. Maybe she needs human company?”
“Maybe she should grow a human form then.”
“ Tony, Tony, Tony. Ain’t you been doin’ pretty well here?”
“You mean on the days she isn’t here? Well, yeah, yes, of course I have.”
“Think of it this way; she comes, what? Twice a week? Sometimes three times? Right? Well, there’re at least four other days in the week for you to cool off. So? Cool the hell off! I’m havin’ this conversation with you because I don’ wanna lose your great service. If I lost you, I’d lose her. If I lose her, I’d lose all the business that’s built up. See what I mean?”
“That is just screwy! She hasn’t built up business! The rest of the customers wouldn’t know her from a dead cockroach!”
“Relax Tone. Cool down. She’ll probably just go away on her own.”
Tony had dozens of fruitless conversations like these previously with other workers in the restaurant but the only truly sympathetic person was Buster, and he hated Belladonna as much or more than Tony. But it was during this particular exchange with the owner that something changed. It was just as he said ‘fingerprints’ and saw Buster rubbing his shoulder that Tony got his idea, his plan, because he just happened to glance over the owner’s head in frustration. He was looking in the direction of Belladonna’s house and a light in one of her windows flared to life and with it, brought inspiration. It was a relatively simple plan, a simple criminal plan. Tony just had absolutely no experience in crime however, even petty crime.
The day before her last visit to the restaurant was completely unremarkable. So too was the day of her final visit. Customers poured in for lunch and the owner decided that the evening prep could be helped by calling in Buster early to assist the chef. The owner had also wanted to call Tony in early but for the first time since Tony had worked there he was unavailable to answer his phone.
Tony was unavailable because he had developed a kind of madness that when he thought about it later, surely came from his Italian ancestors. Over the months he had developed a powerful urge for revenge on La Donna. Nothing the owner or anyone else said could alleviate the feeling. Not that he actually stated he wanted revenge. But frequently, in conversations with people at the restaurant he spoke of “feeling strange”. Buster had attempted to get Tony to talk about the feeling and what it was and where it came from and how meditation might help, but Tony wasn’t sure, so Tony attended mass once and even started to go to confession then decided the line was too long and he wouldn’t get to work on time, so all the conversation and intellectual exercise seemed futile because the feeling for vendetta restarted every time he looked across the freeway at Belladonna’s house. The force of emotion and his lack of guilt surprised Tony. So he let himself plan because his father had always said it’s good to have a plan.
That last day Tony walked across the pedestrian bridge and over the freeway with an almost jaunty stride; though he slowed a little when he approached Belladonna’s door, he still felt nothing resembling guilt. He wasn’t sure if she was home, so he knocked rather politely and waited. Receiving no answer he gripped the doorknob tightly and turned it until it broke off in his hand. Looking at it there in his large palm, he suddenly had the urge to giggle, and then he gave the door a tremendous kick.
The sound of the doorknob being broken upset the dog and it came rushing to the door probably expecting Belladonna’s familiar kick, instead the dog found itself hurled backward through the air by the door itself. Its high yelp was ended suddenly when the poor beast landed on the antlers of an ornamental iron stag grazing on a small rug. The cat, frightened by the noise, exited through a partly open window at the rear of the house while Tony strode into the hallway. It was five years to the day from the housekeeper’s departure when Tony found himself in Belladonna’s hall. Tony began his tour by saying an Ave Maria for the dog.
When he had opened the door, he found himself confronted by his own image in a full-length mirror placed exactly opposite the front door. His wavy dark hair had fallen casually over his forehead but his blue eyes had a steely competitive look.
He studied his image for a moment and then approached the mirror very closely and studied himself a little more by pulling up his tee shirt and looking at his abdominal muscles and checking his obliques. He thought for a moment that his obliques needed a little more tone, but just in case he flexed them tightly and realized the mirror had a bad horizontal distortion. Smiling to himself he suddenly got an idea and stripped off his tee shirt and kicked off his flip-flops and as he began a barefoot tour of the house, he noticed very little of the small house had been cleaned in a while.
Stepping into La Donna’s living room he accidentally knocked over a torchère, breaking its deco glass shade, giving him another idea. Walking directly to the old fashioned fireplace he caught sight of himself again in a mirror above the mantel and paused to push the drooping hair off his forehead. He picked up one small china animal and pitched it at another small china animal and scored a direct hit. Giggling at his prowess, he picked up an armchair and started to swing it like a bat, changed his mind, picked up a piece of the broken pottery and slashed the back and the seat, then carefully took the fireplace poker and rather quietly destroyed the chair. Using the poker as an arm extension, he swept all of the objects off the mantel.
One of the porcelain pieces landed on another chair seat, bounced, and freakishly came to rest unbroken staring at yet another china object on a small table completely smothered in dust. Tony used the poker as a pool cue and announced his shot quietly, made a quip about introducing the two pieces, then destroyed both objects in the collision. “And game,” he announced to the air as he tore the hook of the poker lengthwise through the fabric of the sofa. Finding a somewhat neat stack of old newspapers, he flipped all of them into the air and let them fall anywhere. Balling some of them up, he began throwing them at various targets around the room, at one point hitting the only thing that had been altered fairly recently, a vase of flowers. The wilted flowers flew toward the front window while the vase took a direct hit on the edge of a stone dog shattering into hundreds of pieces and loosing on the air a foul smell of decayed vegetation.
When the smell hit Tony’s rather sensitive olfactory nerves he gagged and vomited loudly, giving him yet another idea. Since he felt a little nervous, somewhat like stage fright, he could feel the pressure of activity in his bowels and bladder. He neatly removed and folded his pants and had a movement in the middle of the floor, then ran to the kitchen, his bare feet making splatting sounds on the linoleum. Stopping to push over La Donna’s table and break off its legs. Holding one of the legs in one hand and himself in the other, he urinated over as much territory as he could by whirling like a dervish where the table had once stood. With the table leg held like a baseball bat, he smashed everything breakable and dented what could be dented, paused and then broke some of the already broken things even further.
Standing in the middle of the wrecked kitchen filled him with a sense of pride; naked with the table leg held loosely in his hand he thought he probably looked a little like the classic statue of Heracles only without facial hair. Tony began to step forward and saw he would have to walk through broken china and glass, stopped and made a cat-like move to the top of a counter on his knees where a piece of dented metal pushed into his flesh. Feeling a little angry, he swept the metal away and examined his knee where only a slight dent revealed where the metal had been. Standing on top of the counter, he reached his arm across to an adjoining wall and pulled a small whisk broom from its peg and carefully climbed back to his position on the floor.
Carefully sweeping away the shards, he worked his way to Belladonna’s small bathroom where he checked himself in the medicine cabinet mirror and flexed a couple of times while he admired the sheen of sweat on his pectorals. He then removed everything from the cabinet and threw it all in the toilet. He ripped down the plastic shower curtain and pushed as much of it as would fit into the toilet also. Wondering how upset La Donna would be delighted and inspired him. His face lit up when he got onto the idea of completely breaking the toilet away from its floor bolts and dropping it into the bathtub. Straining like he was performing squats, he rocked and pulled until the toilet broke free at last. Tank and all were lifted into the tub and thrown where the porcelain reservoir lid broke, which disappointed him, so he pulled the medicine cabinet off the wall and dropped it where the toilet had been mounted. The toilet's broken water connection started to shoot water across the room.
Giggling, he rather carefully pulled the lavatory away from its moorings and to his delight more water began shooting from the broken fixtures. He put his foot up like he was testing bathwater and received a slight burn from the hot water side so he simply put his toe under the cold water and held it for a while. While he was holding his foot under the cold water spilling out from the wall, Tony looked downward noticing he could see part of his foreshortened reflection in the medicine cabinet mirror, which hadn’t broken. Since he had never seen himself from that angle, Tony became fascinated by the view up the inside of his thighs. Straddling the cabinet, he checked his calves and his quadriceps then made them move individually. He rather absently played with his genitals and examined the way the hair ran in a dark nearly symmetrical stream around his anus and then trailed away up the darkness between the cheeks of his buttocks.
Tony took a last look and thought this must be how it looked to sail under the Colossus of Rhodes, then turned and picking his way back through the kitchen returned to the foyer. He stepped carefully into the living room and retrieved his pants and carried them back to the foyer where he picked up his flip-flops and tee shirt. Opening another door across from the living room, he discovered another short hall with two bedrooms, one off either side. So he placed his clothing on the hall floor in a neat pile near the foyer.
Each bedroom was littered with junk La Donna had failed to dispose of and smelled of mold and dust. One bedroom had obviously not been entered in quite some time; Tony’s damp feet were making themselves slippers of dust. He rather casually tipped over the dresser so the drawers could fall out and upended the bed, which tore a huge gouge in one wall and broke the headboard. Dust and paper went flying causing him to sneeze repeatedly. There was nothing in the dresser even though the room was full of papers from Belladonna’s work. From the floor he picked up an opened letter and started to rip it in half but changed his mind when he saw the restaurant owner’s name in the return address corner.
Tony pulled the letter from its envelope and read the contents. How in all the paper and debris he had found this letter must be beyond coincidental and he made a mental note to ask Buster about coincidence.
The letter was some kind of apology from the owner of the restaurant for not paying some money on time and it seemed that Belladonna had loaned him money from her job or her supervisor’s job, that part wasn’t quite clear. But what was clear was that the restaurant owner was late in paying and Belladonna had made up the difference and now the owner owed a large debt of gratitude as well as the sum and ‘slush’ agreed upon. Some relative of hers had visited the restaurant to insure the debt was going to be paid. The owner was very cordial and almost subservient in his tone and restated how grateful he was for Belladonna’s assistance. He also added a postscript saying her cousin would make a fine manager. When he finished reading the letter Tony absently scratched his nipple with the envelope.
Tony tucked the letter back in the envelope, then tucked the envelope between his thighs and brushed some of the dust off his arms and chest; he had begun to itch a little. He placed the letter on his clothing stack and returned to Belladonna’s bedroom. He then casually but systematically pulled out every drawer and every hanger and wrapped everything into a comforter and flipped it all into the dusty bedroom across the hall. He found what he thought must be a photograph of Belladonna as a young woman and spindled it on a bedpost. Once more feeling the urge to urinate, he simply walked and wet whatever caught his fancy.
Stepping back into the foyer, he checked and flexed a couple of times in front of the mirror. Tony studied the planes of his face for a moment, then flipping his hair once again back from his forehead, he redressed himself and carefully put the letter in his pocket. Tony was feeling quite relaxed when he returned to his apartment. “Good workout”, he thought as he showered and readied himself for work.
Tony arrived at work with the letter in his jacket pocket and kept its content in his mind continually as he did side work and helped a few early customers. Slightly earlier than usual, Belladonna arrived full of her usual banter yelling for her “guy”. Tony was occupied with another diner who wrote as he ate so the manager told her she would have to wait for a moment. La Donna had had a tough day at the office and started screaming for Superman to get his cute little butt over there, and stop wasting time.
All through her “dinner” she yelled and laughed at other customers asking them why they had ordered thus and such, and they should really have something else and if they didn’t like it, send it back. His sense of eagerness was so keen Tony wanted to caress her cheek and tell her sweetly he had a surprise in store, but he nonetheless avoided her pinches and crotch grabbing behavior not only for the reason that he hated it and her, but because he didn’t think trying to behave differently would have helped his anticipation.
With La Donna’s wine bottle at last empty, and her boisterous laughter still infecting the customers, she finally left. Her tip that evening, a game marker from an old board game, Tony flipped into the air and caught on the back of hand. With a lightening quick motion, he slid his flattened hand from under the piece and caught it between his thumb and forefinger. Then he dropped it into his pocket. A lone customer, the writer, applauded.
Buster shook his head as she left and said, “I really hope I never see her again. I feel bad saying that, but I really do.” Tony looked at Buster and felt such a rush of affection for him he actually hugged Buster’s shoulders and said, “me too.” Buster blushed, picked up his bus tub, and looking very awkward hurried away to the kitchen.
The shift came to a close with all of Tony the manager’s usual sexual innuendo following female customers to the door and the owner rubbing his hands at the evening’s take. Tony the waiter was watching for the light to come on across the freeway. When the owner came over to ask Tony what he was watching so closely, Tony, his gaze toward Belladonna’s house unwavering, reached in his pocket and handed the owner the letter.
The restaurant owner said nothing and walked away into the kitchen.
Tony finished his shift and still no light showed, so he waited, sitting on a bench outside the closed restaurant talking to a now very animated Buster about training routines and supplements. Tony laughed when Buster complimented his physique and thanked him, gently removing Buster’s double-handed grip from his bicep muscle.
Exhilarated, Buster told Tony he was going right home to start planning his workout routine and Tony waved goodbye. Tony leaned his back against the brick wall and watched the busboy disappear down the street. A brief moment later a flicker in one of the house windows grew larger and larger until the house was engulfed in flames. Tony wondered if he had broken a gas main.
Far away sirens began to wail.
Picking up his jacket, he slipped into a narrow alley between the restaurant and a lawyer’s office and returned to his apartment where he removed his work clothing, did his workout, took another shower and then sat in his chair by the door and read a magazine, wondering if Buster would make a good workout partner.