Comfort And Joy

By Matt Brooks


Lionel Ames, a female impersonator from the 1920s. Image from this website.

Polo would be back in a few minutes with a glass of grape juice from the Rexall in the next block.  Lou could loosen his vocal cords until it was time to be cinched into the stiff corset, layered into the crystal-beaded taupe velvet gown, slip his silk-stockinged feet into the silvery court pumps.  He leaned back in his dressing chair and began humming his vocalise, gliding effortlessly from light baritone to high mezzo-soprano.  He didn’t much like Pittsburgh, with its eternal pall of coal smoke and damp climate, especially in the unsettled weather of early autumn, but the Victoria was a good theatre to play, and they were always comfortable at the Schenley Hotel, taking rooms on the seventh floor.

The summer of 1918 was wet and cool.  When the first few cases of Spanish influenza were reported, no one thought anything about them.  But those few cases turned into a raging epidemic in just a couple of weeks.  The farther east they travelled, the worse the weather seemed (he’d already noted the sullen drizzle and low temperature in his notebook for the day) and the more cases of ‘flu were being reported.  This was the kind of night when people cozied up to the fire or the steampipes unless they could afford to travel in the warmth of an automobile.  The gallery would be comparatively thin aside from the fresh-faced young recruits who stopped for a night changing trains on their way to war in France.

The weather combined with the epidemic made touring much harder work than in any of the twenty-five years he and Polo had been together.  Shops were closed, seat counts were down, some of their bookings had been cancelled.  And Lou was worried about Polo’s health.  He knew his own constitution was sturdy; he was never ill, rarely even had a headache, and he put that down to his childhood on the ranch, out in all weathers with the livestock but eating well at his Mamma’s table.  Polo, on the other hand, seemed more delicate, somehow more susceptible, even though he had had a rough and tumble childhood like Lou’s, on a farm in Hungary.

As he thought about Polo, the dressing room door opened and Polo himself strode in, beaming above his cargo, his cheeks flushed and his eyes bright.  “Such an ugly night,” he exclaimed, unwrapping the tall glass and setting it on Lou’s dressing table.  “It almost feels like snow coming, so cold.  But the box office is good.  You’ll see – the house will be plenty and they will love you.”  He stepped behind Lou’s chair and bent to kiss him on the forehead, careful not to muss the heavy, artfully applied makeup, then turned and began checking the evening’s costume and props.

Lou smiled and reached for the glass.  He took a small sip and sighed in satisfaction.  “Thank you, sweetheart.  I’ve given the band play list C, so only one patriotic song tonight, the opening.  I’m so tired of patriotic songs.  And then I sing ‘Till the Clouds Roll By’ and I’ve finished with jingo for the evening.” He chattered on for a few minutes while he sipped at his juice.  It was their habit before dressing – a period of inconsequential talk to brace Lou’s nerves, and then he would pull on his silk stockings, Polo would lace him into the corset, and he could step into his gown for Polo to lift it gently to his shoulders and button him in.

The performance went well, and the box office was “plenty”, as Polo had predicted: not packed to standing room but certainly a respectable house, especially considering the weather.  After his curtain call, Lou returned to the dressing room and began his transformation into a discreet gentleman.  Polo seemed tired and fumbled a bit with the buttons, but he got the gown off with no mishaps, and they took a cab back to the hotel.  Lou didn’t much feel like dining out, so they went directly to their suite and ordered a light meal from room service.  As supper progressed, Lou kept his eye on Polo, who was looking more and more wrung out.  Finally, when the table had been cleared, he decided it was time for them to bathe and sleep.  Some evenings, they liked to sit and play a few hands of bézique or gin, but not tonight.  He drew a bath the way he knew Polo liked it, more than warm but not quite hot, threw in a good measure of Epsom salt, and got his lover settled in the tub while he cold-creamed his face and tidied away their street clothes.  Polo was shivering at first in the bath, but he soon warmed up and soaked gratefully in the steaming water while Lou moved around their rooms.

After twenty minutes or so, Lou returned to find Polo nearly asleep in the tub.  He helped him climb out, wrapped him in towels, and brushed his hair before guiding him, gently but firmly, to bed.  As he was settling the bedclothes around his lover’s shoulders, Polo looked up through sleep-heavy eyes.  “You take such care of me, sweetheart,” he murmured.  “You’ll come to bed soon?”

“Oh, yes,” Lou answered brightly, laying his hand on Polo’s cheek.  “Ten minutes.  But don’t stay awake for me.  You need your rest tonight.”  He brushed a lock of dark hair back from Polo’s forehead, leaned down for a kiss, then turned out the lamp and went into the bathroom, which soon echoed to his humming in the wide marble shower.

The next day, Polo seemed no better – still wan, still listless.  After breakfast, which Polo hardly touched, itself not a good sign, Lou issued his orders.

“You are going back to bed, my dear,” he said, pushing back from the little room service table.  “You’re pale and you look tired.  I have a couple of errands but I’ll be home before lunch.  I want you to rest while I’m gone.  You are too precious to me to risk being exposed to this ‘flu.”

“I feel fine,” Polo started to object, but Lou held up his hand.  “Nonsense.  No.  No discussion, no argument, no backtalk.  Bed.  Your forehead is hot, you’re peakèd, and you have no appetite.  If I don’t find you in bed when I return, I shall be very unhappy with you.”

“I am fine,” Polo repeated, his voice a bit louder.  “There’s no need for me to lie in the bed.”

“You’ll go to bed, and you’ll rest,” Lou answered, his voice also rising a bit.  “I don’t like your color, and you’ve no appetite.”

“You’ve always liked my color before,” Polo said stubbornly.  “I’m suddenly the wrong color?”

“You’re the wrong color when you’re no color at all.  Don’t argue with me.  You’re going to bed, and that’s final.”

“I am not, and that‘s final,” Polo insisted, standing up.  “Bed is boring without you and I won’t do it.”

Porca madonna!” Lou exclaimed, exasperated.  “I’ve known mules less stubborn than you, you … you… Hungarian plowboy! I tell you, you are going back to bed.” He was nearly shouting, but Polo’s mouth was set on ‘intractable’.

“I am not going back to bed, little diva,” Polo insisted, biting off each word and chewing the consonants.  “Scream all you like.  That may help you gather the goats at home, but it won’t get me into bed unless you’re there with me.”

“You dare to speak to me like that?” Lou shouted.

“Ha!” Polo snapped his fingers.  “Yes! Just like that!”

Lou leaned across the table until his face nearly touched Polo’s.  His voice was tight with menace.  “Save your sauce for the geese shitting in your stableyard a day’s walk from godforsaken Rejetanya or wherever the hell it was.  I have things to do and I’m not leaving until you’re in bed and you’ve promised to stay there.”

“And I certainly will not promise.  You can shout until you croak like a toad.  It will get you nowhere.”

“Like a toad, is it? And you heehawing like a mule.  What did I ever do to deserve a lover like this one,” Lou shrieked, reaching for a vase.  “Cocciuto!”

Rospo!” Polo shouted back, grabbing a pillow.  He lifted it in front of his face just as Lou flung the porcelain at him.

The vase hit square on the pillow and dropped unharmed to the carpet, splashing water onto Polo’s pyjamas and slippers.  He looked down, saw the flowers lying in a sodden pile at his feet, and burst out laughing.

That brought the argument back to the ground, but in the midst of his laughter, Polo’s face changed from mirthful to stricken.  He threw the pillow onto the bed, clapped a hand over his mouth, and dashed for the bathroom.  A moment later, he was retching and then vomiting the small breakfast he’d just forced himself to eat.

Lou rubbed Polo’s back while he brushed his teeth and gargled, then re-settled him in the bed, still reluctant.  As soon as he saw Polo comfortable, Lou located his umbrella, hat and overcoat, and went out, closing the door softly behind him.  He stopped briefly at the reception desk to make sure that the porter tidied their rooms quietly, and went out into the rain.

He returned a couple of hours later rather more burdened than he had left.  The latest Edgar Rice Burroughs jungle fantasy, Daily Variety, and The New York Times all neatly wrapped in brown paper; a dozen heads of garlic, two dozen eggs and a pound of wildflower honey; a large packet of eucalyptus leaves and a small brick of pressed horehound; a small enamelled saucepan; and a quart bottle of rye whisky all were quickly and quietly put away while Polo napped.  The porter had already visited the rooms and there were fresh towels and fresh flowers to comfort body and eye.  Lou set up the electric hotplate and began gently stewing a head of garlic in a very little water with a heaping spoonful of the best paprika, which they always carried with them on tour; later he would add the garlic and a couple of eggs to a small tureen of the kitchen’s most concentrated consommé for Polo’s lunch tray.

Once the pan was simmering, he went to check again on Polo, whose forehead was even hotter than before.  He wetted a face cloth with cold water, and laid it on the normally ivory skin that was now flushed with fever, trying not to disturb the sleeper.  Then he settled himself in a chair by the window and took up his embroidery.

About the middle of the afternoon, a bellboy delivered a note from the manager of the Victoria.  The authorities had closed the theatres.  Lou’s first thought was thankfulness that he could stay and care for Polo.  Only much later did he think about the lost box office, and when he did think of it he shrugged it off.  There was money in the bank – Polo was more important than a half week’s salary.  Or a month’s, for that matter.

The normal rhythm of their lives woke Polo near five o’clock, time for them to have a light meal and leave for the theatre.  Lou was instantly at his side, and pressed him back onto the pillows before resting his hand lightly on Polo’s face.  Shocked at how hot his patient was, he turned away and busied himself with preparing a fresh chilled face cloth.  As he laid the cloth across Polo’s forehead, he was thinking about what to order from room service.

“Are you hungry, sweetheart?” he asked.  He began straightening the bedclothes.  “Maybe a little soup?”

“Not much hungry, no,” Polo answered, struggling to pull himself higher in the bed.  “Soup, perhaps.  I am so tired.  Nothing heavy.”

Lou rang for room service.  The waiter arrived almost before he could be impatient, and he gave an order for white double consommé, pommes duchesse, and a pitcher of lemonade.

The next four days were filled with anxiety and fear for Lou, punctuated by periods of caring for Polo as he navigated the symptoms of a severe ‘flu: fits of burning fever alternating with shivering chills, lack of appetite, near-volcanic digestive upset, restless sleep.  Lou himself dozed sitting in the closest chair or stitched a decorative monogram on dinner napkins (a gift for Mamma), the little pan of garlic broth simmering on the hotplate or resting on the radiator between cups of soup and mouthfuls of fortified whipped potato carefully administered to his feverish companion.  Sometimes he stirred an egg into the soup so that it cooked in shreds and rags; always he added a bit of essential garlic to the broth for its strengthening and medicinal qualities.  Every few hours, he poured a glass of cool lemonade, added a decent tot of whisky, and set it on the bed table for when Polo complained of thirst.  He kept one of the soup plates to set on the radiator and steam off a few eucalyptus leaves, so that the room gradually took on the sharp scent of a California autumn.

Through it all, Lou prayed fervently that he was treating Polo correctly, that the remedies he remembered from his Mamma’s occasional stints of nursing his brothers and sisters would be effective.  Lou felt up to the task, and he certainly did not intend to fall prey to influenza in an hotel in a strange town, but he worried that he might have forgotten something important and longed to have Mamma at hand to consult.

Polo developed a cough on the fifth day.  It was light at first, but rapidly became heavier and deeper.  When Lou saw that Polo’s cheeks had developed the telltale spots of high color that indicated deep lung distress, he ordered a kettle with a spirit lamp and began brewing horehound tea.  He added fresh eucalyptus leaves to the steaming bowl on the radiator, and increased the ration of rye in Polo’s lemonade at the same time he increased the frequency of the doses.  Polo was at least sleeping more easily now, although Lou had to prop him up with several pillows so he could breathe more easily.

Over the course of the next two weeks, time passed in a daze of worry and fatigue for Lou, his periods of semi-sleep interrupted by Polo’s fits of deep, wet coughing; Polo’s temperature rose and fell, never quite settling to normal.  Every morning and most evenings, Lou walked the half-mile to the cathedral to light a candle and kneel for a few moments’ desperate prayer, sometimes to St. Raphael, sometimes to San Rocco, sometimes to the Holy Mother.  Sometimes he just genuflected and then knelt in the pew gazing at the altar and letting his mind float.  When he wasn’t preparing broth or lemonade, he worked on monogramming the napkins, sewing that he could put down in a moment if Polo needed something.  The house doctor looked in every couple of days, took Polo’s temperature, listened to his chest, and shook his head.

“He’ll make it if he’s as tough as you say he is, Mr. Molinari,” he said one afternoon, shaking his head as usual.  “But I don’t like the sound of his chest.  I would advise against too much moisture in the air.  The eucalyptus can’t hurt by itself, might even help, but the steam is certainly not helping; any benefit he derives from the eucalyptus is outweighed by the damp atmosphere.  If you want to continue the eucalyptus, pour boiling water over it and let it steep next to the bed, rather than steaming it continuously.”

“I’ve been thinking that he needs to be somewhere warm,” Lou said slowly.  “Is he well enough to travel by train, in your opinion? I’d like to take him to the Southwest, Tucson perhaps, or Santa Fe.  Somewhere warm and dry and sunny where he can get back his strength.  I’ve cancelled the remainder of my tour, through March at least.”

“I should think he would be well enough to travel in another week or ten days.  Let me suggest that you choose Tucson,” Dr. Murchison said, laying the stethoscope back into his bag.  “The air’s too thin in Santa Fe for our invalid, and it will already be turning cold by the time you arrive.  Tucson stays warm through the winter, and he’ll get enough oxygen to take a daily walk once he’s up and about again.”

He snapped the bag shut and lifted it.  “You’ll need to book a compartment – he certainly should not travel in an open coach.  If you want to continue the eucalyptus for his lungs, tell the pharmacist you want medicinal grade eucalyptus oil; two ounces or so should be sufficient for travelling: a couple of drops applied to his upper chest every three hours during the day.  You can also saturate some cotton wool with it and set it on a saucer in the train compartment or his hotel room.  For his throat, when the cough is irritating, supply yourself with slippery elm pastilles; he can take any number of those, one at a time, as necessary.  In any event, let me know when you decide; I’ll have my nurse give you copies of my notes for your attending physician.” He shook Lou’s hand quickly and opened the door.  “Good day, sir.”

“Good afternoon, doctor.  Thank you.”  Lou closed the door behind the doctor and glanced at Polo, who lay back on his pillows with his eyes shut, breathing heavily, his face drawn with illness and weight loss.  “Do you want anything, love?”  He had Polo lean forward while he fluffed the pillows.

Polo’s answer was quiet.  “No, thank you, sweetheart.  I’m quite comfortable now.  I think I’ll sleep for a bit.”  He looked up at Lou and smiled, then his eyelids dropped slowly and he began to drift off.

Lou straightened the bedclothes.  He drew the blinds and pulled the train schedule from the drawer of the small desk, studied it for a few minutes in the dim light before making up his mind, then rang for the porter.

“Would you be so kind as to sit with Mr. Nemeth while I go downstairs,” he asked.  “I need to make some travel arrangements.  I’ll not be long.”

His talk with the concierge was brief.  They could be in Arizona within six days from the time they left Pittsburgh and would have to change trains only once.  That was the transfer in Chicago from Union Station to Dearborn Street.  Lou decided they would stop a night at the Blackstone before boarding the train west: he could do some shopping at Marshall Field’s and Carson Pirie Scott, and Polo could rest.  He wrote a check to cover the cost of a compartment, shook hands with the functionary, and returned to their rooms.

* * * * *

Mrs. Barlow was a cheerful, spare woman in her sixties, with graying blonde hair and an English accent.  Her boarding house was built on the Territorial model: a Mexican Colonial adobe square with an interior courtyard like a Roman villa.  She welcomed them with a smile, showed them to their rooms, told them when to expect meals, and assured them that she remained on the premises nearly all day, in case they had questions or needed anything.  She would be available.

It turned out they were her only boarders at the moment.  “Season hasn’t begun yet,” she said cheerfully.  “It’s nice to have a bit of company early in the year.”

“We’re grateful you could take us,” Lou said, smiling back.  “My friend’s been ill, and needs to regain his strength.”

“Well, you can see the patio gets plenty of sun, and if that goes stale, we’ve bookshops, the YMCA, and a theatre.  I hope you’ll be comfortable.”

“Oh, yes.  I’m sure we will.  We’ll see you at supper, then.  Thank you,” Lou said, turning toward Polo.  “Six o’clock, yes?”

“That’s right.  If you need anything, just come down to the kitchen.”

She bustled out, and Lou began to unpack.  Polo settled himself in the chair in the corner, relieved to have found anchorage.

Over lamb chops and green beans, Mrs. Barlow was chatty.  “I never thought I’d find myself here,” she said, passing the mashed potatoes.  “Grew up in Surrey.  My people were market farmers.  Peas, marrows, lettuces, that sort of thing.  Then Mr. Barlow came into my life.”  She sighed.  “Oh, he was handsome! And so charming!  Swept me off my feet and carried me all the way to this place.  And then he died.”  She sighed again.  “I hate the desert,” she said.  “Still, one of these days I’ll go home.”

A pall settled over the table, as Lou and Polo digested this bit of information.  Conversation seemed at an end, until Lou remembered that she’d mentioned bookstores earlier.  A lively discussion followed, and they found that there were three within an easy stroll.  The YMCA was close, as well, and Lou decided they would join so he and Polo could get some exercise in the club’s swimming bath.

The men returned to their rooms well fed and content, and slept deeply in the fresh night air.

Over the next few weeks, Lou supervised Polo’s return to health.  They went for daily walks, short at first, but gradually lengthening.  They joined the YMCA and as soon as Polo could walk there, Lou began swimming every day, eventually joined by Polo.  They walked to the public library and read out-of-town newspapers to rest before walking home.  They took naps in the gentle afternoons.  And every day, Polo seemed a little stronger, a little more cheerful.  His mood improved with his color.  His cough subsided, the high-colored spots on his cheekbones faded, and he began to regain the weight he’d lost.  By the first of November, he could walk two miles at a reasonable pace.  On November 4, they went to the depot and Lou reserved the compartment to Salinas.  They would have to change in Los Angeles, but that would give them a few hours to stretch their legs.  Lou sent a telegram to the ranch, letting them know when to meet the train.

* * * * *

They reached home on November 12.  The newspapers in Los Angeles had been full of the Armistice, and Lou had sent up a prayer of gratitude for the end of the war.  But he reserved his most fervent gratitude for the return of Polo’s health.

The ranch house was not directly at the coast, but a couple of miles inland, near the edge of the fog belt.  Lou’s grandfather had bought 6,000 acres from the heirs of a Spanish landgrant rancho in 1854, and raised his family first in the small house that was now the ranch hands’ quarters and then in the big house that Lou called home.

The late autumn rains had come on.  That did not bother Lou.  He wanted to be sure that Polo recovered completely, and the intermittent wet weather kept them indoors, resting.  In the mornings, he read, wrote letters, or rode out with his babbo, while Polo slept late and helped Mamma in the house.  Afternoons were devoted to quiet card games, sewing, naps.  Sundays they all went to church together and Lou never failed to light a candle in thanks to St. Raphael.  By mid-December, Polo was strong enough to go out riding some days.  Christmas was approaching, and Lou had nearly finished embroidering the table napkins.

Christmas Eve Day was clear and cool.  They attended midnight Mass, returned home to break the communion fast, and slept an extra hour on Christmas morning.

The next two weeks were a concentration of efforts as they prepared for Epiphany, cooking and cleaning ferociously.  Aside from the good suit she wore to church, Mamma was rarely seen in anything but her long dark blue gabardine skirt, white poplin blouse, and heavy-duty pinafore apron; somehow, she managed to keep her auburn pompadour perfectly neat even when she was scrubbing walls and ceilings with a kerchief pinned on.

One morning, she took Lou aside to ask what he would like as a gift from La Befana.

C’è il mio regalo, Mamma,” he answered.  “He is my gift.”  He gestured toward Polo, reading quietly by the fire in the front parlor.  “I need nothing else.”  And to his complete surprise, he broke down in tears, the tension and anxiety and fatigue of the last three months overwhelming him at last.

His mother gave him a single glance and led him into the kitchen, letting the swing door close behind them before she pulled a chair from the table and sat him down.  She patted his shoulder for a moment while he fished for his handkerchief, and then began brewing coffee.  Lou’s sobs subsided slowly.  His eyes were still tearing when she took the pot off the stove, and he hiccupped as he wiped at his face and blew his nose.

Eh, basta.  Enough of that.  I’m sorry, Mamma,” he finally mumbled, half angrily.  “I don’t know what came over me.  But when I think that I almost lost him . . .”  He made a final dab at his eyes, hiccupped one last time, and slipped the handkerchief into his cuff.

Caro, never apologize for love,” she answered, setting a cup in front of him.  She passed him the sugar.  “Your Polo is a wonderful man.  Babbo and I love him as though he were our own son.  We are thankful you found each other.  Now take some coffee, a biscuit.”  She ruffled his hair, stroked the back of his head.  “You will feel better in a few minutes, I know.  Perhaps you should go out riding, you and he, since the day is dry.”  She sat down opposite him and leaned forward to take his hand in hers, patted it for a few seconds, then straightened her back.

“You are forty-six this year, Luigi,” she continued, looking at him searchingly.  “Do you still have the stomach for this touring life?  Twenty-eight years you have been living from trunks, a new stage every week or two, with no settled place to call a home of your own.  Do you never think of coming to rest somewhere? Anche la rondine fa un nido.  Even swallows build nests.”

“Oh, Mamma, of course it crosses our minds from time to time!” he answered.  He shifted uneasily in his seat, stirred his coffee, set the spoon back in the saucer.  “Polo and I were talking about it the other day, in fact.”

She waited as he gathered his thoughts.

“You understand that living in the theatre is something like living in a large family, yes? There are relations you like, some you love, some you dislike, but they are always your family.  That’s how we think of it, at any rate – as a large, unruly family.  Leaving the stage, settling down, would lose us this big second family we both love.”

“Your audiences are changing, however,” she pointed out gently.  “You have mentioned this in your letters, and even while you are here you have said this.”

“And they will change much more in the next year, I’m afraid, with this idiotic Prohibition coming in.  Fifteen states have already approved it.  It’s only a matter of time before there are enough ratifications for it to pass, now that temperance is all the rage,” he growled, his voice rough with sarcasm.  “And then what will our audiences be like? They’ll be teetotalling Puritans, that’s what.” His jaw tightened in angry contempt.  “How do you entertain Carrie by god Nation? I’ve only just got away from the damned flag waving and I’ll not exchange that for a hymnal to satisfy these blue-nosed fools.” He took a deep breath, raised his cup and sipped the dark, strong brew.

His mother watched as he brought himself back under control.  Finally, he drained the cup and set it down.  “I think I will ride out,” he said.  “Thank you, Mamma.”  He kissed her cheek and pushed open the dining room door.  “Polo,” he called, striding toward the parlor, “let’s saddle Thunder and Lisetta and ride down to the beach, shall we? It’s a beautiful day.”

* * * * *

Lou cancelled the rest of his year’s bookings and stayed in San Francisco, playing at Brown’s Opera House four nights a week and supervising the creation of a new enterprise.

Polo had found a pair of stores vacant in North Beach, within a couple of blocks of Broadway, Columbus Avenue, and Washington Square, and the building was for sale at a very good price.  Above the stores were two large flats.  They decided to take the upper flat for themselves for when they weren’t on the road, and rent out the lower flat year ’round as a safeguard in case the club failed.  They need not have worried.

It was Lou’s younger sister Caterina who designed the interior.  She decided it would be amusing to play off Polo’s name, and transformed the larger of the two stores, a big square dining room, into a Venetian-Chinese fantasy world: the dark brown columns were topped with arching palm fronds, pagodas and monkeys and lions and peacocks and elephants paraded across the walls, the dado and wainscoting were painted to look like green marble, and the white pressed-tin ceiling was sponged a chalky blue in areas to look like clouds passing over a coastal sky.  Polo himself wore a Venetian costume for the opening, and Lou watched with pride as his lover worked the room, charming the customers as they arrived and then circulating among them as they ate and drank, before striding onto the small stage to act as compère for the evening’s entertainment.

The narrower of the two stores had been fitted up as a lunch counter/coffee bar, with a half-dozen high-walled booths and a stand-up bar that ran the length of the room.  Beverages for the main room came from the coffee bar, while food for the lunch counter came from the large kitchen.  The building had a garden in back, and Lou had had a couple of bocce courts laid to bring in the older generation of the neighborhood, mostly Italian businessmen and political figures.  Between the coffee bar and the bocce courts was a large meeting room that could double as a banquet hall.

The addition of singing waiters who rotated duties on the stage and with the diners capped the attractions of the club.  Lou had made sure that they were supplied with the latest in popular songs and novelty numbers, as well as sentimental songs from the Old Country and a selection of operatic and light operatic airs.  For the opening, he scheduled them so that each of the waiters was featured for at least a couple of songs, and they formed a backup chorus from the floor when he did his own number as Lulu Clement toward the close of the evening.

Playing at Brown’s, a lovely little theatre on 16th Street in the Mission district, gave Lou the opportunity to spread advertising about the new caffè to the other Italian settlement in town – this one mostly Italian workingmen, the skilled laborers in the foundries and factories of the south end of the city.  Between that and his careful cultivation of the North Beach grapevine, he was hopeful that he would pull in a sufficiently large clientèle to keep the business going.

The grand opening of Caffè Marco was a huge success.  At 2:00 A.M., as they thanked the last of the patrons and locked the doors, the three were grinning with relief, and sagging with weariness.

Un inizio stupendo!” Lou crowed, as they settled themselves around a table and Caterina began counting the till.  “You were wonderful, Polo.  So suave, so charming, every woman in the room fell in love with you, and probably half the men.  And Caterina, if I heard one compliment on the décor, I heard dozens.  Thank you!”

In the street, the last of the patrons’ automobiles could be heard driving away.  Polo smiled and pulled off the tall brocaded hat, shaking his head to loosen his hair.  “It was a grand party,” he said modestly.

“We made a week’s profits tonight,” Caterina said, snapping the lid of the cash box down and turning the key.  “But I’m exhausted.  I wish I could have a glass of wine.”

“Why not?” Lou said, smiling.  “As it happens, we have some of Babbo’s wine in the cellar.  Shall I fetch a bottle?”

“Oh, Lou.  That would be wonderful,” she sighed, slipping off her shoes and rubbing one foot across the other.  “How could I forget that? Did you bring some of his pear cider up, too?”

“Of course,” Lou said, moving toward the door to the stairs.  “Gallons of it.  I’m afraid some of it may have gone hard, though.” He smiled again.  “Tsk.  Such a pity,” he said, trying to keep a straight face.

Polo laughed.  “Yes, a pity,” he said.  “A pity we can’t sell it.”

“There’s no law against drinking it, though.  This foolishness can’t last,” Lou predicted, starting down the stairs.

He was soon back, and the wine was poured – a glass for each of them and one for the chef, who joined them at the table for a few moments off his feet.

Lifting his glass, Lou admired as he always did the color and body of his father’s white wine, a grigio that never failed to yield pleasing vintages under the older man’s care.  “Shall we drink to the success of Caffè Marco,” he said, tilting the glass slightly toward the center of the table.

“Success to Caffè Marco,” they all echoed, and touched glasses before sipping the cool, refreshing wine.

“And I’m for bed,” Lou yawned when they had finished their wine.  “This has been a very long day for me.  Polo? Caterina?”

Leaving the chef to close up, the three climbed the back stairs to the third floor.  Caterina was soon settled in the guest room; Lou and Polo retired to the front bedroom; and quiet descended on the house.

© 2010 Matt Brooks

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