Cousin Pauly is teaching my mother how to make pizza like he makes at Yetty’s, his Italian restaurant in Herkimer, New York. Wearing matched blue gingham aprons, faces whitened with flour, they tease each other and work the dough. Haven’t seen my mother laugh like that since my father got sick with cancer.
Pauly sports a fantastic fu manchu moustache and has tattoos from his time with the US Navy.
“Look at this one,” he says, unbuttoning his shirt and exposing a violent American Eagle inked across his chest.
I’m amazed. My mother wipes some flour off her cheek.
Laughter erupts in the kitchen. Giuseppe sits up in his recliner and tries to catch his breath. His wife and her cousin Pauly are in the kitchen making pizza.
“Carmela, you have to work it to the edges.”
“Is the oven going to be hot enough?”
“Yeah, like that, keep kneading it.”
“Sammy, get your elbows off the table, you’re making a mess.”
“The oven should be hot enough. Can’t get it as hot as the one in the restaurant.”
“Pauly, what did you do in the Navy?”
“I was a cook, Sammy. I was a cook on a big destroyer.”
My father smiles at me. He can smell it, too. He doesn’t eat much anymore. But he can smell it. Pauly enters the living room rubbing his hands on the apron. My mother follows, red-cheeked.
“That smells good,” my father says.
“Just for you, Giuseppe. Little reminder of Herkimer.”
“It’s going to taste like the restaurant,” my mother says.
I fondly remember visits to Herkimer. America is so cool.
“Pauly,” I say, “show my Dad your tattoo.”
“Shut up, Sammy,” my mother says.
“Giuseppe,” Pauly says, “I put anchovies on one half of it. I know you like them.”
Giuseppe coughs into a handkerchief. The handkerchief has red stains like little roses. He can hear Pauly laughing: a big American laugh ha ha ha. He can hear his wife Carmela laughing also. They are first cousins. Giuseppe once heard a rumour from his mother-in-law that when Pauly visited Sicily after the war he fell in love with Carmela’s blue eyes.
Giuseppe fell in love with Carmela’s blue eyes from a photograph. They were married by proxy. After all these years, he still loves Carmela, but now that he is dying, he realizes he doesn’t really know her.
I burn the roof of my mouth but I don’t say anything. I’m embarrassed. The pizza is so good I can’t believe it. But I also can’t believe I have scorched the roof of my mouth. My mother smiles at me. I smile back.
“You don’t like it?” Pauly asks.
“I love it,” I say, but even talking hurts now. What have I done to myself?
My mother cuts my father’s slice of pizza into bite-size chunks. He eats it slowly, nodding with approval.
I drink ice water. Shreds of burnt flesh dangle from the roof of my mouth.
Ha ha ha. That’s what Giuseppe hears. Ha ha ha. And it’s not just Pauly laughing. Life is laughing at him. Look how sweet I am! it says. Look how joyful! Giuseppe eats the pizza Carmela forks to him. He feels ridiculous being fed like a child or a little bird. It’s humiliating. Look at Pauly, he thinks. Look at that hunk of a man. If I wasn’t dying I’d stick a knife in his neck. Giuseppe laughs to himself.
“What’s so funny?” Carmela asks.
Giuseppe shakes his head. “It’s nothing,” he says and commences coughing clots into his handkerchief.
“What is it?” my mother says, leaning toward me. I can feel the warmth of her body.
“I burned my mouth,” I admit.
My father glances at me with annoyance and death and continues eating his pizza.
Pauly twists his moustache-ends and tries not to laugh.
“I told you it was hot,” my mother says. “You don’t want anymore?”
“Let it cool off,” Pauly says.
I follow his advice and stare at my cooling slice of pizza.
My mother and Pauly exchange a glance and a chuckle.
“What’s so funny?” I say.
“Life is,” my mother says. “Life is.”
Salvatore Difalco is the author of two story collections, Black Rabbit and The Mountie At Niagara Falls (Anvil). He lives in Toronto Canada.