Oh man, even my eyelashes hurt. Only half awake I thought at first that the bunk bed mattress was the culprit but slowly the memories started falling in place, clicking like the tumblers on a safe, until my brain opened and I saw all the “treasure” that I’d experienced for the last two weeks.
Then with a soft groan I said it out loud, “Oh man.”
A guttural and somehow fragile “Ragazza?” came to my ears. I rolled over and sat up so fast I cracked by head on the bunk above me.
“Ow!” I wanted to say more – and probably would have – but when I flipped on the lamp my eyes finally focused and got a good look at Tony.
He was feverish again. The pitcher was empty so he must have been drinking it off and on all night, or maybe this morning and I hadn’t heard him. “Hang on Tony.”
He started drinking as soon as I got back from the kitchen and brought a cup with a straw in it close to his mouth. I went back and brought clean cloths and more water to wash him down with. Putting cool cloths on the places where the worst of the lymph node swelling was seemed to bring him relief and I left him like that while I went to the bathroom, got dressed, and then filled the tub with water.
“Tony, if I put you in the tub can you hold yourself up? Not go under?”
He’d woken up enough to give me a look that would have burnt toast. “I’m not a child Josephine. And I can take a shower like a grown man.”
“Uh uh. I haven’t had my coffee yet so forget about it. You’ll let me pay some attention to you so I can have some peace of mind one way or the other.”
It was the right tact to take with him. It left him with his male pride and also gave him a sense that he was allowing me to take care of him because it made me feel better, not because he actually needed me to. That’s the same thing Mom did with Dad. I know it won’t work all the time but thank goodness it worked this time because I wasn’t kidding about needing some coffee real bad.
Getting him in the tub was easier than I expected. He wouldn’t drop his shorts so he climbed in still about as dressed as he had been then told me to get lost and give him some space. The snarky tone he used made me want to give him some space all right … by cleaving his head open and making some more right between his ears.
When I realized where my thoughts were going I stumbled to the kitchen and made me a cup of instant cappuccino. I grimaced as I realized that it was the French Vanilla flavor but it was better than nothing. I would have preferred straight espresso shots at that point but I couldn’t remember which box I saw the instant stuff in. I knew it was at my feet somewhere between the kitchen and the living room but I needed the caffeine before next Juvember.
I cranked open the security door – it can be done from the inside or outside for fire safety reasons – and then stepped onto the porch. It was a good morning, not glorious, but fresh after the rain that did indeed come over night. I was glad to have taken the effort to bring everything in. Then I saw it, the bucket of blackberries I had run back to the house with yesterday. It sat forlorn, half filled with berries and half with water that had ruined said berries. I watched gnats swarming the mess and sighed, finished my cuppa, then eased my way down the stairs trying to get the kinks out of places I hadn’t known I had.
Bending over was just as fun as fighting the swarm of gnats but I did it and started carrying the bucket and its contents to the chickens. I nearly swore when I saw that two of the hens had died, hopefully the last of them because I’d already lost three. I distracted the rest of the brainless wonders with my offering of blackberry soup and picked up the two corpses. Picking up dead animals ain’t sexy and is just plain gross so I wasn’t no happy camper. Then I saw another hen just sitting there inside the opening of the little house they called home.
I growled, “Freakin’ great, another one.”
Only this time I go to grab the bunch of feathers and this one ain’t dead. Not only ain’t it dead, it’s in a hacked off mood and gives me what for before finally moving off like I’ve affronted its dignity or something. I’m the one that is in flip flops, picking up dead chickens and getting bird crap on me and it’s the one with affronted dignity. Go figure. I was about to kick the door shut when I spotted three somethings in the grass she’d been sitting in.
“Well hot dog, maybe you birds will be good for something besides cacciatore after all.”
I picked up the three eggs – because sure enough that is what they were – and after tossing the birds carcasses off into the woods where I knew something would eventually carry them off, took them into the house. A lot of cursing and splashing was coming from the bathroom and I ran in there to find an awful mess.
“Tony! Look at this. Couldn’t you have just called me?”
He snapped, “I did. You didn’t answer. How am I supposed to know you ain’t lying someplace hurt?!”
“Stop yelling! You’re giving me a headache!” I turned and grabbed an armful of fresh towels and start trying to soak up the inch of water all over the floor.
In a suddenly conciliatory tone Tony said, “Come here.”
“You know, I’m getting tired of you bossing me around all ready. You ever heard of the word please?” I was three steps from the tub when I spotted his wet jockies thrown in the sink. I stopped and crossed my arms giving him a look. “Tony I ain’t in the mood for trouble.”
He tried to look innocent but it didn’t work. Then he tried to look wicked … and that didn’t work neither. His shoulders slumped and all he looked was tired. “I ain’t up for givin’ you none. Just give me a hand getting out of here, I’m turnin’ into a freakin’ prune.”
I did as asked but kept my eyes averted until he had a towel wrapped around his waist. “Maybe you look a little prune-y … but you sound better.”
He grunted then said, “Feel better.”
He still walked like he was sore and I couldn’t blame him for that. I remember the pain my brothers had been in and how embarrassed they’d been about what had caused the worst of it. “I’m gonna bring you some fresh clothes and then get you some breakfast. As soon as you get something in your stomach I want you to take a couple a pills to keep that fever down now that it’s broke.”
“Joey you don’t need …”
I shook my head. “Yeah I do and we both know it. Maybe someday you can return the favor.”
I’m glad Tony is one of those guys that has common sense. He may not always like what it tells him but at least his follow through is pretty good. I got him to the bed and then realized the sheets needed to be changed so I helped him to sit on the bottom bunk, stripped the bed he’d slept in and put clean sheets on it, then went to get him some clothes.
It was kinda distracting to be digging around in Tony’s luggage much less dealing with things like his undershorts and socks but I tried to think of it as if I was dealing with my brothers’ things. That hadn’t bothered me so there was no sense in letting Tony’s things bother me. When I got back to the room however I found that I wasn’t the only one a little uncomfortable with the sudden intimacy.
“You coulda just brought my bag Joey.”
I shrugged, “Sure I coulda but I don’t guess you really saw the mess out there. It was just easier to bring the clothes than to try and drag the bag through everything else.”
He got real quiet, “Gimme some privacy already.”
I looked at him and then stepped close and bent down and kissed the top of his head gently so he wouldn’t jerk away. “Tony, the only thing that matters is that you get better. I need you … and for you to get better. So it takes a little time? That don’t matter to me, only that you keep getting better. Let me help you.”
Still he shook his head. “Maybe next time Ragazza. This time I need to do it myself.”
I sighed knowing it was his pride talking but Mom had told me that sometimes you just had to let a man’s pride talk because it is part of what made a man a man. I left him to it and then went to make some scrambled eggs and toasted piadina, something I knew was one of Tony’s favorite breakfasts.
Piadina is real common in Italy and in real Italian neighborhoods but it’s hard to find anyplace else. Most people who see piadina think they are tortillas but they are a little different. Instead of being made with flour and corn oil or lard the piadina is made with flour and olive oil or lard and you also add milk to it; and instead of being cooked in a skillet you are supposed to cook the piadina on a terracotta dish. There was a little bakery not too far from our house that still made it in the most traditional way.
I pull all of the ingredients together first: a pound of flour, two and half ounces of lard, a half cup of milk, a half cup of water, a half teaspoon of baking soda, and a half teaspoon of salt. The milk came from some powdered stuff I found in the cabinet but someone had been smart and brought a couple of cases of canned evaporated milk. I knew I needed to ask Tony some questions about what he brought but I wasn’t too sure he was ready for that kind of worry.
I put all of the ingredients into a big bowl and started kneading it until I got a good dough and then I gave myself a dope slap. The dough would need to rest for an hour before I could do anything with it. I went in to check on Tony and found him asleep – and no fever. I knew I’d caught a break.
I wrote a note and left it beside the water pitcher which I also refilled and then went out to the orchard. The rain of the previous night had knocked some fruit off the trees and I spent forty-five minutes picking it up and adding some I’d pulled from branches then started back to the house. I had three five-gallon buckets to move uphill … so not fun. I played the leap frog game with them; move a bucket and go back and get the second bucket and move it ahead of the first, then go back and get the third bucket and move it ahead of the second and then start over. Eventually I was within sight of the house and just muled them the rest of the way. Good thing my upper body strength has been developed from all the years I worked in the corner market and then in the deli because I really needed it.
I was hot and sweaty and could have used a shower but didn’t have the time. Tony was still sleeping which was a good thing; it didn’t even look like he’d moved. I decided to wash up just enough to finish cooking then while Tony was eating I’d open the upstairs shutters and see if he wanted to move up there. I would be able to open the windows upstairs and he’d be more comfortable. I didn’t go past that point because I wasn’t sure if Tony would want to talk, sleep, or what.
The piadina was easy enough. I divided the dough into egg-sized portions and then rolled it out until it was about as big as a pie plate and about as thick as two quarters stacked on top of each other. At the same time I was heating my mother’s rectangular griddle. One side I prepped for the eggs and the other for frying the piadina.
Practice makes perfect but it had been a while since I had made the flatbread so a couple of pieces rose a little too much before I pricked them with a fork to keep them from bubbling. I only took two with a small portion of the eggs to Tony on a tray with a small glass of watered down Tang. I walked into the room just as he was waking up.
Blinking like an owl when I turned the lamp on I think he must have taken a moment to decide whether I was real before letting me help him to sit up and put the bed tray across his lap.
“You didn’t have to do this Ragazza.”
I smiled and brushed his hair out of his eyes. “I know. And it’s nice to know you know it too. Appreciation is a good thing. Now eat. If you want more I’ll put some nutella …”
“Mmmm …” was his response when he put the eggs in his mouth.
Smiling slightly I asked, “Is that a yes or no?”
“Don’t know yet. Wait,” he said stopping me as I started to walk away. “Have you eaten? I’m … I’m trying to remember …”
I walked back over to the bed and sat on the edge. “Well stop trying so hard, it looks like it hurts. I’m fine, mine is in the kitchen and I’ll eat as soon as I open the shutters upstairs. When you’re finished you might want to move up there, it isn’t so stuffy and I can open the windows. The bed is bigger too.”
He put his fork down forcefully. “I won’t take your parents’ bed.”
I could feel the heat in my checks as I told him, “Not theirs … mine. You decide and let me know.” That time I did make it out of the room, ignoring his wheezing as a bit of egg went down the wrong way.