How Could She Refuse? -1-

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Stranger things have happened than falling in love at first sight ...

  How Could She Refuse?  9

by Lainie Lee

An Expanded Drabble


The Little Italian Bistro near Grand and Wooster in Soho served pastry, frittatas and coffees for breakfast; sandwiches, pizza and panini for lunch; chicken, seafood, lasagna and other pasta dishes for dinner; and calzones and more pizza for late night suppers. The chefs came directly from Italy to the kitchen, didn't speak English that well and tended to shout in Italian when unhappy. The original owner's widow, Audrey Feliciano, and sons, Andrew and Felix Jr., ran the place like a fiefdom; they could always find a job for the relative of a cook, waiter or busboy and they sent two happy planeloads of employees and family back to Italy for month long vacations each year. But employees were expected to work hard and show loyalty.

The staff always knew the foibles of the regulars, what they usually ordered, where they wanted to sit, what little extra service would net the biggest tip. Tourists had never really discovered the place; patrons came mostly from the surrounding shops and business with some people walking up from the Civic Center for a Panino Cubano at lunch. Senior, family and student discounts in midweek kept things busy most of the time.

Little Felix worked the morning crowds six days a week, manning the cash register and bossing around the waitresses, three of whom were a daughter and two nieces. Later, Andy and the waiters would take over until Mamma Audrey showed up to run the show into the late evening. Four grandsons were too young for much responsibility and so worked as busboys and kitchen helpers while they learned. Other Feliciano cousins filled in as needed.

Half of the front wall of the restaurant rolled up into the ceiling and small white tables covered with red-checked cloths spilled out under green canvas awnings in good weather. It doesn't get much better, weather-wise, than a sunny morning mid-October in New York City.

On Tuesdays, Davey Towers had one of those gigantic early morning lecture classes everyone hates. In a month of attending classes at the CUNY campus in Tribeca, he'd yet to find a reason to actually be awake for the lectures. Accordingly, he took a bus every Tuesday to the school, dozed through an information dump he didn't need since he'd already read all of the class materials, and at 8:50 a.m. escaped to take the long walk home to the apartment he shared with two wannabe indy musicians in the East Village .

On his first such trip, he'd taken the side streets to avoid heavy traffic and crowds and so had discovered the Little Italian Bistro at possibly its slowest time of the week. Since then, coffee and a "mixed" fritatta with crusty bread had become his Tuesday morning custom.

The "mixed" frittata was an L.I.B. specialty. The menu listed it with quotes and if anyone asked, the waitresses would say it was because the mix was different every time it was made. It usually had spinach and cheese of some kind, with potatoes, onions and little bits of the highly spiced chicken sausage Cugino Alonzo made up once a week. Frittatas came in a three egg (al uomo, manly) and two egg (a la donna, ladies') version. Not knowing any Italian, Davey ordered the smaller ladies' portion since he had already eaten a granola bar and piece of fruit on the early bus ride and it saved him sixty cents.

Davey always carried several books with him, not just his college text books but books on other subjects that had caught his interest plus fiction and the occasional graphic novel. As long as the restaurant wasn't crowded, no one tried to hurry him and the busboys would even refill his cafe americano cup with regular coffee for as long as he wanted to sit and read. He liked to take a small table along the north wall near the big opening and linger for an hour or so, reading quietly. With two musicians for roommates, he enjoyed the relative peace of a restaurant in the mid-morning lull.

Davey would read anything, up to and including romance novels donated by his mother. She prepared a sack of books for him to take back to Manhattan on his weekly visit. His parents had moved to Queens from central Pennsylvania two years before when his father inherited a small printshop. Uncle Brodey had made a good living printing small runs of public domain books for libraries and collectors until he had passed away from a cerebral hemorrhage. Much of the Brodey imprint turned out to be Victorian erotica, a fact that caused Davey's mother some embarrassment. In an effort to insulate her only child away from the family business, she kept him well supplied with other sorts of books.

So it was that Davey sat in his favorite spot, sipping coffee and reading a romance novel on that Tuesday morning. The October weather was still warm enough that he wore shorts, white sneakers without socks and a gray sweat shirt hoodie. His legs looked tanned and smooth and well-formed from walking all over lower Manhattan. Waiting for the early morning bus, he'd kept the hood up but had thrown it back during class showing medium-length hair, nearly to his chin, cut in no particular style.

He didn't notice the three men in business suits at the table directly across the restaurant from him. He pushed his dark blond hair out of his face and kept reading.

Shortly before Davey arrived, the three men had taken a spot close to the door under one of the windows facing downtown. The older man, Frank La Nez, had heavy but well-formed Mediterranean features, a prominent nose and wide-set brown eyes under very thick black lashes. He looked like a businessman who might know someone who could get you Broadway tickets that otherwise weren't available.

Of the younger men, one stood a head taller than either of the others. Ermundo Bellafonte had fought in the Ultimate Wrestling League under the name Elephant Man. Since retiring because of a pinched nerve in his back, he'd lost fifty pounds. His face hung loosely in soft folds, giving him a sad expression like a hound dog. He'd picked up the nickname Packy, short for pachyderm, during his wrestling days.

The third man, Larry Hodge, did not look Italian, though one of his grandmothers had come from Genoa. He had sandy brown hair, blue eyes and the sort of blunt good looks that made people trust and like him. He wore a mustache, a bushy thing that hung over the corners of his mouth and made him appear amusing and amused.

Lots of people called Frank La Nez, Frankie the Nose. He didn't mind. The implication that he had something to do with the mobs in New York City could be useful and in fact, happened to be true. Frank's legitimate business interests included an importing company that specialized in products of the smaller Mediterranean countries. He also owned a furniture factory in New Jersey, a part interest in a cab company in Hartford and apartment buildings all over the tri-state area. He also owned a downtown hotel where he lived in what he called the sub-penthouse, the next to the top floor.

The Hotel Del Amo sat about nine blocks from the Little Italian Bistro, near the lower east corner of Tribeca, an easy walking distance for a man in his early fifties. Three mornings a week, Frankie the Nose had Packy drive him and Larry to the L.I.B., the three of them ate a late breakfast, then Frankie walked home, alone or with Larry, depending on whether he needed to give private instructions to his personal assistant.

Larry kept the details of Mr. La Nez's life from becoming distractions. He paid personal bills, arranged appointments, talked to lawyers and accountants and listened when the older man wanted to complain about something.

Packy drove cars and loomed over people when necessary. He was good at both.

That morning, Frankie had his usual, potato and onion frittata with prosciutto and mozzarella, al uomo, of course. Larry had a spinach frittata with cheeses and Packy had "the works" meaning a four egg mixture with three kinds of meat, plus cheese, potato, onion and peppers. They all had coffee and crusty bread and Packy ordered a fruit cup which he shared.

Frankie had a piece of melon halfway to his mouth when Davey entered the restaurant. He sat there a moment, the cantaloupe dripping an orange stain onto his sleeve.

"Boss?" said Larry.

Without looking at Larry, Frankie dipped the piece of melon in his coffee and popped it into his mouth.

"That's different," said Packy. He tried it. "Hmm, not so good," he decided. "Maybe with honeydew?"

Larry looked where Frankie was looking and frowned.

Frankie reached out and touched a passing busboy. He spoke quickly in Italian, ordering more coffee and cinnamon rolls for everyone. "You guys want cinnamon rolls, don't you? They put almonds in them here."

Packy licked his lips and nodded. He loved cinnamon rolls but would never order them himself.

Larry relaxed his expression into a grin. "Something sweet would be good."

"Certamente, what you said," agreed Frankie, glancing toward Davey again. A small smile seemed to play around his lips and eyes. "How come you can never make money buying into a restaurant like this one?" he asked, not expecting an answer.

Larry surprised him. "Place like this, got to be run by family or it won't work. They looking for investors, that means the heart of the family is no longer in the business," he said.

Frankie nodded, impressed. He smiled, pleased that Larry had picked up some business sense working for him. Frankie's real job for organized crime in New York was finding legitimate investment opportunities. He'd long ago decided that restaurants were only good for money laundering, not profit taking. "You're a smart kid, Larry. I knew I kept you around for some reason."

Larry laughed, enjoying Frankie's teasing him. He had a real fondness for the older man and a personal respect that had nothing to do with his employment.

"I'm not smart and you keep me around," Packy pointed out, wanting to get in on the camaraderie.

"You're my sister's husband's uncle's grandson. Pure nepotism, Ermundo," said Frankie with a straight face.

Packy laughed, pretty sure that nepotism meant family connections. Frankie liked to tease him with big words. From someone else, it would have stung but when Frankie did it, Packy noticed, he could always figure out the word from the way it was used.

A waitress came by with coffee and to confirm their order for rolls. Larry and Packy watched her ass as she walked away. Frankie watched Davey order his breakfast, the way he held his hands, the title of the book he was reading, the way he pushed his chin-length hair out of his face.

The cinnamon rolls came. They did indeed have almonds inside, also raisins, and a sour cream icing. They were six inches across and five inches tall. Frankie laughed to see them, he always forgot how big they made the rolls at L.I.B.

Packy's eyes got big then small as he swore to himself not to eat the whole roll. Unless of course, Frankie and Larry ate all of theirs.

Larry flirted with the waitress, telling her how excellent her rolls were, partly in Italian, managing to imply that he was actually speaking of her thighs.

The waitress giggled and escaped. She'd never been told her legs were heavy in such a sweet way before, she decided.

Frankie frowned. "I meant to ask her if she knew the blonde in the corner over there," he said. He looked at Davey to show who he meant.

Larry looked, too. "Boss, that's a guy."

"No," said Frankie. "I thought that at first, too. But it's a woman. Look at the book she's reading, watch her hands play with her hair. And she ordered a la donna; it's a tall, skinny girl."

"Um," said Larry.

Packy looked over at Davey, too. He said nothing. If the boss thought that was a girl, it was okay with Packy.

Frankie gazed at the object of his infatuation. One of the reasons people called him 'The Nose' was because of his infallible intuition. And his intuition told him that this skinny blonde with the boyish good looks would make him very happy.

"Go over and ask her..." said Frankie. He stopped.

"Ask her what, boss?"

"Ask her if she'd like to come up to my hotel room and read to me," said Frankie. He smiled.

Packy stared at him. He decided that Frankie must be blushing because he could see his nose getting darker, just across the bridge.

Larry looked worried.

Frankie stood. "Have her there by three," he said. "I've got meetings with the hotel staff till then." He glanced across at Davey and headed out of the restaurant, not looking back. Larry would get the check.

Packy and Larry sat quietly for a while. They watched the boss walk toward the corner of Grand and Wooster and start across, heading south, further downtown. Larry sipped his coffee and seemed lost in thought.

Packy puzzled through the byplay, glancing at Davey who chose that moment to cough into his hand and wipe it absently on his short pants. Despite the length of shapely, tanned leg, the gesture didn't look feminine. "That is a guy, isn't it?" Packy said to Larry.

Larry stood. "Boss says the kid is a dame, he's a dame. We'd better go persuade her to get dressed for her date."

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