MIGUEL RUEDA, author, is a member and administrator of Fiction Writers Group. He has captured the essence of what brings a short story to life. This is one of his most recent pieces. Look him up, I predict you’ll be reading more of his work very soon.
Luciana ‘Lulu,’ Migliaccio’s home resembled the aftermath of a small Midwestern town following a level-5 tornado crammed into a twenty by twenty studio apartment. But the objects on the table near the door were arranged in precise, matrix-like order.
Stale cookies—sugar and with various fillings—lined the front edge; dehydrated donuts—previously jelly or crème filled—occupied the next row; and several small display signs—one declaring a “2-for-1” sale, another a “Baker’s Dozen” special—were against the wall. The arrangement created a tiered effect around the table’s focal point, a framed newspaper clipping.
Picking up the picture, she gazed at the man standing in front of ‘DaVinci’s Italian Bakery.’ The article’s headline read, “Enzo DaVinci Carries on Family Tradition in Brother’s Memory.” She held the thin wooden frame with her fingertips so as not to dislodge any of the paint pulled from the wall when she had stolen it. The memento, along with everything else on the table, had been taken from DaVinci’s.
The smell of anise floated into her apartment. “Enzo must be making biscotti,” she muttered.
When baked, the extract produced a distinct aroma that comforted her. She loved to dunk the oblong biscuit in coffee and let the hard shell soften. She closed her eyes and imagined the texture of the dough melting against her tongue, the feel of the softened hazelnuts filling her mouth. She smiled at the thought. It was heaven.
She opened her eyes, kissed the glass, and placed the frame back on the table. She put on her bright-red overcoat and left her apartment. Which was one floor above the kitchen of DaVinci’s bakery.
Enzo was indeed making biscotti. He had just pulled out the long flat loaves to let them cool before slicing them into their familiar shapes and returning them to the oven. This process gave the twice-baked cookie its literal name.
DaVinci’s front half had tables and display cases with a one-way mirror separating it from the kitchen so that Enzo could see what was going on while he worked. The entire store took up a third of a block with the entrance to the apartments above the stores at the opposite end.
He inhaled deeply and let his mind return to the small town near Sicily where he grew up. His grandmother had lived in the tiny kitchen of the apartment on the second floor of his parents’ home. She gifted him his love of baking, especially bread and desserts. Food made her happy, which made him happy. In his mind, the scent was the smell of home—of love—of eternity.
“Uncle Enzo.” The squeak and subsequent thud of the door separating the kitchen and retail spaces broke Enzo’s daydream. “She’s back.”
Even though he had lived in the United States for the last decade, Enzo spoke with a thick Italian accent. It added a poetic lilt to everything he said. “Who is back, Gio?”
“That woman who keeps shoplifting. The fat lady….”
“Basta, Giovanni! Do not disrespect anyone. Your Nonna looks the same way, no?”
Gio nodded, “Yes uncle, you’re right.”
Enzo peered into the shop. She stood by the door like a mouse poking her head through a hole checking for a cat, ready to flee at the first sign of danger.
Enzo said, “That woman is the perfect woman, Gio. She is, eh, Rubenesque.”
Gio’s face skewed. “Ruben-who?”
“Rubenesque. Like the woman’s body painted by Rubens? You are not taught this in your fancy college?”
“Do you mean, Rubik’s, like a Rubik’s cube?”
Enzo glared at Gio. “Si’, nephew. I mean she is a Rubik’s Cube.” Shaking his head he looked back at her, “She is not a square. What person is square?”
Gio mumbled, “Well, you’re a bit of a square.”
Enzo threw a handful of flour at Gio. “Kids today, no respect. What with your, eh, Facepage and constant tweetering.” He pointed to Gio, “Go out there. Apologize to that pretty lady.”
“Um, no uncle. I’m not doing that. What would I even say? I’m sorry I think you need to lose a few pounds but my uncle thinks you’re cute?”
Enzo blushed, “No, no, no, do not mention me!” He thought for a moment. “Ah, tell her she won something. A, eh, free coffee for being our hundredth customer today. Go. And ask her name.”
Gio smirked, “You want me to ask her name? Why would I….” Realization came to him. “Oh, you do like her. That’s why you let her get away with taking stuff.”
“Gio, stop. That is absurd.”
“Oh really, unc? I’ve known you ever since my pop got sick and you came to help us keep the bakery. You weren’t married in Italy, and you’ve never dated here. You’re always in here, baking. You took care of us when my dad passed away, but we’re good now. I’ve seen the way you look at her. Go ask her out.”
Enzo looked at Gio, then back out the window, “Okay, nephew, I will do that.” He wiped his hands on his apron, then ran his fingers through his hair, adding in more flour than he wiped away. He took a deep breath and walked out.
When he opened the door, Lulu was trying to slide a plate of cellophane-wrapped cookies under her coat. The hinges’ squeal drew Lulu’s attention. When she saw Enzo looking at her, she dropped the cookies and ran out.
“Wait!” Enzo rushed after her.
He picked up the plate and followed her. He saw a flash of red as she ducked into the entrance for the apartments. Hurrying through after her, he found a second, locked door leading into the building.
He looked around and saw an intercom unit. A quarter-sized glass bubble sat atop a mesh grill covering the speaker. Four handwritten name tags sat beneath it: Sam Cohen, another with indecipherable Chinese lettering, a third that had several small bats and a skull sketched onto it, and finally, in perfect script, the name Lulu Migliaccio.
Guessing that it had to be her, he pushed, and believing it was necessary, held the button next to her name. The electronic ringing from the speaker stopped when a small lightbulb inside the button lit up.
He heard a woman’s voice, out of breath, quiet and sounding far away, “Hello, can I help you?”
“Ciao. Eh, hello Signorina Migliaccio. This is Enzo DaVinci from the bakery. You dropped your struffoli.” He released the button.
She had heard him speak in the bakery, but he’d never said her name. When he pronounced, Migliaccio with a proper Italian accent, it sounded operatic. She stared at Enzo on the small monitor set into the wall above her shrine to him. His voice, deep and exotic, wrapped her in a warm blanket of love. Her mind drifted on the possibilities.
Enzo placed the cookies on the package shelf below the mailboxes and pushed the button. “Hello. Eh, Miss Lulu, are you still there?”
His voice pulled her back to the present.
“Yes, I’m here.”
“Your cookies are left by the door. Eh, if you are free, I would like you to join me at eight o’clock tonight for coffee and dessert.” He released the button. Then quickly, and unnecessarily, he pushed it again, “My, eh, treat.”
He stepped back and waited for her response.
Lulu watched him fidget. In the mirrored wall of the lobby, he noticed his hair was speckled with clumps of dough and streaks of flour. He licked his fingers and tried to brush it away, succeeding only in making it stick out at odd angles in some places and plastering against his scalp in others. She laughed at the short, chubby man on the screen who had no idea she could see him.
“Enzo, yes. I would be happy to.”
She saw him smile and reach for the button. He paused and, unaware she could hear, whispered, “Vincenzo DaVinci, you are going to marry this woman.”
He pushed the button, “Thank you. I will see you tonight.”
In the weeks before that evening, Enzo had watched her from behind his mirrored partition. Every morning as she walked past the store to the bus stop on the corner, she glanced in. If it were empty, she would open the door and grab anything close enough to steal without having to enter. Enzo began to leave items near the entrance, each day moving them a little farther inside. One day, she had made it halfway to the counter when someone walked in behind her. Startled, she turned and scurried out, only stopping long enough to grab a framed newspaper article off the wall.
Since that day, he had vowed to confront her. Not about the thefts, but about his feelings for her. Despite her size, he knew she was invisible to all those around her but him; he saw her as demure and fragile. They had to be alike: lonely, but too shy to do anything about it.
Enzo closed early that evening, returned home and showered; making sure that his hair was combed neatly and remiss of extraneous baking supplies. At eight o’clock, he walked to her apartment and pressed the intercom. It rang only once. “Hello, Enzo. I’ll be right down.”
“Si’, I will wait.” He released the button and waited a full fifteen minutes before reaching to press it again.
A familiar fragrance stopped him. He caught a whiff of Biagiotti Roma, the same perfume his grandmother wore. Lulu opened the door. The voluptuous beauty he had been searching for all of his adult life stood before him. Her eyes sparkled in the dim light. His voice barely audible, he said, “Buona sera.” He coughed to regain the power of speech. “Eh, good evening, Lulu.” He held out his arm for her to hold as they walked back to the bakery.
He had set a table up in the center of his kitchen; he always felt most secure surrounded by the equipment and tools he loved. They talked, nervously at first since they knew virtually nothing about each other. Neither could admit they had secretly been stalking the other.
He had made mini-cannolis overflowing with a vanilla-bean-infused ricotta filling. By the end of the evening, they had made plans to meet the next night.
Enzo walked her home and returned to his kitchen. He wasn’t surprised when he found that one of the espresso demitasses was missing. He looked up toward the apartment above him and blew a kiss.
“One day, all of this will belong to you. No matter if you take it piece by piece or all at once.”
They continued to meet every night at the same time. Enzo would make special versions of the desserts that made the bakery popular. Cannoncini filled with dark-chocolate mousse, linzer cookies with raspberry jam that had a perfect balance of sweet and tart, each tiny seed exploded with flavor. Enzo always served them in odd numbers so that Lulu could have the last one.
At end of their first week, Lulu stopped stealing from the bakery. That evening, she had snuck out with a half-filled silver creamer in her purse. She had been nervous, and secretly excited, as he walked her home. Inside her apartment, she looked at the table she had piled with everything she had pilfered and realized that she no longer needed that thrill to feel connected to him. She now had all of him.
She threw away everything with the exception of the framed newspaper. She had other plans for that.
On their one-month anniversary, Enzo set the table with a pure-white tablecloth, linen napkins, and two slender ivory candles in silver candlesticks. He replaced the usual porcelain plates with fine Italian china that he had shipped from his hometown. In the center of the table sat a plate of seven pignoli cookies. He baked the patterns of the small pine nuts into the cookies in pairs: two stars, two squares, and two circles. The seventh unique shape lay hidden beneath the others.
Lulu arrived, carrying a flat, rectangular box.
When she saw the special setting, she said, “Enzo, this is beautiful, I mean, bellissimo.” She had been studying Italian using a book that she had actually paid for. “Is this a special occasion?”
“Si’ Lulu, it is.” He pointed to the package. “You have something special for me?”
“Oh, this? Yes. Perhaps we should sit.”
Enzo held the chair for her—just as he did every night—then sat and poured them both coffee.
“Enzo, before you open this, there is something you need to know.” She handed him the box. “I have a problem that I’m working on. I steal things. Little things, nothing big or expensive.”
Enzo chuckled. “Mio amore, eh, my love, I know. I have always known.”
He opened the box. He saw the picture she had taken from his wall.
She had reframed the clipping in an ornate gold frame she had purchased from an antique store.
“This is beautiful. Grazia.”
“But Enzo, I…. “
“No.” Enzo reached across the table and placed his finger on her lips. “No more talk of the past. Tonight is about the future.”
Embarrassed to make eye contact with the man to whom she had just confessed her darkest secret, a secret he had accepted without question. Tears welled in her eyes. She tasted a cookie. The inner dough was soft and moist, the pignoli supple on her tongue. They reached the seventh, hidden cookie. Slightly larger than the others, the toasted nuts were set in the shape of a heart.
Enzo smiled and played the game he did every night. “I am full, Lulu. You take the last.”
She looked at the remaining cookie, the candlelight flickering off the glaze baked onto its surface. She knew that each pine-nut had been touched by Enzo’s loving hands. She began to cry.
Enzo’s smile fell, he started to stand, “Mio amore, what is wrong?”
Lulu stopped him, “Sit, I’m okay. It’s just so beautiful, everything. You’re just so lovely to me.”
She picked up the cookie and bit it in half.
She chewed once. Stopped. Looked at Enzo.
He rose and stepped around the table, kneeled and took her hand.
“Signorina Luciana Migliaccio. Mi vuoi sposare? Lulu, my love, marry me.”
The musical poetry of his words, spoken with his beautiful accent, overwhelmed her. She began to shake. Between the excitement and emotion of the moment, she started coughing. Then she swallowed.
Enzo jumped up. “Lulu, did you…?”
Lulu grabbed her throat. She looked as though somehow she could find a way to jump back in time.
He took her hand. “Don’t worry, we will get help.” He led her to the door, stopping before opening it. “Lulu, I have to know.” He looked into her eyes, “Will you?”
No longer concerned about her predicament, she calmed. “Si’, Vincenzo DaVinci. Ti amo.”