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In an Italian Restaurant

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Anthony Christiano didn’t realize he had a problem until the day he saw his daughter looking out the front window of the restaurant that bore his family name. “Ain’t another drone wreck out there, I hope.”

“No, she’s watchin’ the show,” his sole waiter on duty told him. “Word is Joe Bianchi’s boy was gonna pop the question today over at the diner.”

“Really?” Anthony snorted. “Kids today don’t got no romance in their soul. Used to be, you went someplace with ambiance.” He waved a hand at the traditional decor of his restaurant. “Like here. We still got couples come here to remember that from twenty, thirty years back.”

The waiter just shrugged. “Those kids spend all their time over there pokin’ music out of that old repro player Mrs. Brennan’s got, probably he wanted to cue up her favorite.”

“You’re probably right.” Anthony was frowning at his daughter, though. There was something in the way she stood there, watching, that stirred his fatherly instincts. “Didn’t my Annie go to school with Eddie Bianchi?”

“Yeah, and his girl Brenda. They were the,” he made air quotes, “ ‘popular kids’.” He seemed to guess what his boss was thinking—Andy had worked at Christiano’s for more than a few years of his life. “Annie didn’t have a crush that I knew of. It’s been Brenda for him for a long time now, according to my sisters, and all the other girls knew it.”

“Hmm.” Anthony made his way to the front of the restaurant, and as soon as he got close his daughter turned around. “Sorry, Poppi, I was just…”

“Watchin’ the show, I heard.” He looked for himself, saw the kids all milling around in the street around that shiny car Eddie Bianchi had brought back from the dead. The boy had a talent when it came to building and fixing, and everyone knew it. “He didn’t get down on one knee right out there in the street, did he?”

“No, they were all inside. It looked like they were dancing.” She gave him a weak smile, then brushed past and away. “I’ll go get the dishes out, they should be done by now.”

She may have felt her father’s eyes following her, because she started to hurry, but Anthony’s frown was all for what was going on inside his own head. He considered the excited, trendily-dressed kids spilling out of the faux-retro diner along with their music, milling around the shiny car, thought about the look he’d seen on his Annie’s face before she’d realized he was there and turned away from the window…and then he sighed and turned away himself. He knew what the problem was now.

Eddie Bianchi and his pretty doll of a girl weren’t it.

 

The next day, Anthony wrote down a reservation in the book for three o’clock, and set the front table up for it himself with wine glasses and fresh white napkins and a narrow little basket filled with crisp grissini. At twenty ‘til, he went upstairs and then came back down wearing a jacket and a stiff red bow tie, checked to make sure arrangements in the kitchen were as he’d asked for them to be, nodded to Andy, and then walked over to the piano his great grandfather had brought over from the Old Country along with the paintings and other accents which graced the restaurant. The boy who was sitting at the piano looked up at him from under a messy thatch of dark hair and grinned. “Anything in particular you wanna hear, Mr. Christiano?”

“None of that modern crap,” the older man ordered mildly. “None of that jazz stuff, either, Marty—I know you like to play it, but not today. Play the stuff your mama likes. You know Some Enchanted Evening? You know the words to it?”

“I know ‘em, Mr. Christiano, but Mama won’t let me sing ‘em - she says I ain’t Frank.”

Anthony laughed. “Ain’t nobody ever gonna be Frank but Frank, kid. But today, he ain’t here and you are.”

“I’ll do my best, sir.”

“You always do, Marty. It’s gonna be a sad day in here when you go off to play the big leagues.”

Marty blushed. “I…I don’t wanna leave.”

“No?” The boy shook his head. “Don’t wanna leave your mama or don’t wanna leave Brooklyn?”

A deep breath. “Both. Mama says I can always come back home…but what if I leave and it ain’t home here anymore after that?”

Anthony’s father—also an Anthony—would have said it wouldn’t be and told the boy to stay home where he belonged. Anthony the elder had had a lot of loud ideas about kids wanting to reach for more in life. But Anthony the younger wasn’t his father; he knew better. “Then you’ll have a new home someplace else. But you’ll always be a Brooklyn boy, Marty, no matter where you go. This city is always gonna be part of you.”

Marty played a soft arpeggio, then another. The boy had amazing talent, and he’d been playing and singing and bussing tables in the restaurant since he was barely able to reach the piano’s pedals—part of a trade Anthony had made with the boy’s mother, letting him use the old but well-tuned piano for practice after hours in exchange for work. “I sure hope so, sir.”

Anthony ruffled his hair and went to check the table in front of the window again. Everything was perfect, and his watch said it was five to three. Any time now…

Annie came in from her run to the bank and very nearly ran into Andy because he didn’t move out of her way the way he normally would have. Instead he held out his hand for the bank pouch, then herded her to the table in front of the window and pointedly pulled out a chair for her. Annie barely noticed; she was too busy staring at her father, who was sitting on the other side of the table wearing a jacket and tie he normally only pulled out if someone was having a wedding party in the restaurant. “Poppi?”

Anthony smiled at her as Andy reached out to activate the holo-candle in the center of the table, the restaurant’s way of marking a party as complete since the days when they’d had real candles made of wax. “You and me, we’re havin’ an early supper,” he told her. “I made us a reservation and everything.”

“He did,” Andy confirmed when Annie looked at him. “You’re our three o’clock. Will you be having red wine or white this afternoon, Miss Christiano?”

She looked back at her father with wide eyes. “Bring us a bottle of the white,” he told Andy. “Unless you’d rather try some of that rosé, Annie?”

Annie shook her head. “White…is fine, thank you.” Andy nodded and whisked away. “Poppi, what’s going on?”

Her father sighed. “The restaurant business…it’s a hard one, Annie, and we both know it. But I just realized yesterday that I did a thing I swore I wouldn’t do after your mother died: I forgot you were my daughter and not my wife. No,” he interrupted when she started to open her mouth. “No, girl, no excuses for me. I saw you watchin’ those kids, and that’s when it smacked me in the face. You should’ve been out there, not in here.”

She made a face. “They’re not my friends, Poppi. I wouldn’t want to hang out with them. They’re…sometimes I’m jealous, okay, but you just said it, they’re kids.”

“And you’re not, not like that,” he agreed. Annie had been managing the restaurant with him full-time since the day after she’d graduated, and even before that her teenage years had been more about work than play. “But at your age, Annie…fun shouldn’t just be somethin’ you watch through a window. And watchin’ a boy propose to his girl shouldn’t make you get a look on your face like the one I saw yesterday.” Andy was back with the wine, and he waited until it had been poured and the waiter had gone away again before continuing. “Annie, some day that will be you.”

And it spilled out. “It won’t be. I’m…you saw her, Poppi. Brenda’s got everything I don’t have. And that’s everything a boy wants.”

“Only if that boy is shallow as a soup plate,” her father corrected. “She’s only prettier than you because she fixes herself up to be, Annie. You look like your mother, and your mother was a beautiful woman.” He smiled in remembrance, Marty and the piano filling the air around them with the soft croon of nostalgia. “When we used to go out on the town…well, she turned heads, let me tell you. But that wasn’t why I fell in love with her.” She blinked at him. “I fell in love with the girl who took the trash out, who washed the dishes, who hit me with a spoon for gettin’ into her pot of sauce before it was ready.” He shook his napkin out of its neat folds, took a sip of wine. “Eddie’s girl is pretty, and he loves her—and apparently she loves him back, that’s a good thing—but other than that, what does she do for him?” His daughter turned red and gave him a somewhat shocked look, and he chuckled. “Other than that other thing I’m sure they’ve been doin’, I mean.”

She sipped some of her own wine, almost hesitantly. She’d been having wine with meals for most of her life, but table wine was a far cry from the nicer vintages they served to customers and the dry white seemed especially sharp and citrusy by comparison. “He saved up some money to get them an apartment uptown, from what everyone says. I guess she’ll find a job there.”

Andy was back with two bowls of soup, and he nudged the basket of grissini closer to the table’s center to make room for a silver dish of grated Parmesan before leaving again. “I hope so, for Eddie’s sake,” her father said, helping himself to the white mound of cheese. “He may have saved enough money to leave the neighborhood, but he won’t be able to do that again any time soon. Was the girl’s family goin’ to help them out?”

Annie shook her head, taking the little spoon to doctor her own soup. “They aren’t rich. I know she looks like it, because of the clothes, but the other girls at school said that was because her mother gets a discount from the store she works at.”

He raised an eyebrow. “So where does the girl work?”

“She doesn’t. I guess she did, but…well, someone said they let her go for not working hard enough.”

“I feel sorry for Eddie Bianchi, then,” Anthony said. “Without two of ‘em workin’, they won’t be able to stay uptown very long.” He swallowed one spoonful, then another; the soup was from his mother’s recipe, he wasn’t going to leave any of it in the bowl to go cold. “Enough about the Golden Couple you went to school with, though—every school has one, and most of ‘em don’t stay golden for long once they leave. What I wanted us to talk about over a nice dinner was my daughter and what she wants out of life.” He waved a hand at the retro-looking businesses that lined the street. “I hope it’s not this, because this ain’t gonna last too much longer. The crowds are already startin’ to thin out.”

“I know.” The past had been trendy for a while—the retro revitalization of the block in the late fifties had given the Christiano family a second chance at success—but that trend had been ebbing for a few years now and the old Italian restaurant was going back to just being…well, old. “I don’t…sometimes I just feel like I don’t have a life outside the restaurant and I’m never going to, Poppi.”

“That’s my fault, like I said,” he replied. “When it was your mother and me, the restaurant was our life because it always had been, just like it had been my folks’ and my grandparents’ and their parents’ before that. I guess part of me kept hopin’ the right boy would come along the same way your mother came along for me and you two would start makin’ eyes at each other in the kitchen, but I…it’s not like that anymore. Most of the kids now just want to leave the neighborhood as fast as they can—not that I blame ‘em—and the people who come down here from other places aren’t lookin’ to stay very long. They’re here for the show, mostly.” He waved out the window again. “The way those kids that hang around the diner dress now, with the leather jackets and boots and hot pants and big hair, that’s the way the kids used to dress when your great grandpa was a boy.” He smiled around his last spoonful of soup. “He wouldn’t know what to make of ‘em, I don’t think. Bein’ a greaser back then meant you were part of a gang, and the girls with the tight pants…well, he’d have a name for ‘em that wouldn’t be polite or accurate and it’d probably get him torn to pieces on the social networks.”

That made her smile. “It would, but I bet he wouldn’t have gone down without a fight.” She finished up her soup, moving the bowl to one side. “I just don’t know what to do with myself, Poppi. Except work in the restaurant, that is. I don’t know what else I even could do.”

“Hmm.” Andy came back with a tray, deftly depositing two fragrant dishes of mussels and pasta on the table and picking up the empty soup bowls. He also topped-off the wine glasses. “There was a time I’d hoped Andy here would catch your fancy, but that was before I realized his interests went in the other direction.” For good measure, he raised a graying black eyebrow at his smirking waiter. “Once you find a good one, I expect you to make a reservation and bring him in for a candlelight dinner of your own, you know.”

“I haven’t found one good enough for that yet,” Andy informed him. “Pickings are slim down here anymore, and the ones I meet in the clubs uptown…well, I wouldn’t want to bring any of them here, they wouldn’t appreciate it.”

“Then they aren’t good enough for you either,” Anthony told him. “Except for that one thing, I suppose.”

That time Annie and Andy both blushed. “Poppi!”

“He’s not wrong,” Andy told her. “Pepper?”

“Please.” He deposited fresh-ground pepper on the mussels until she indicated that he should stop, offered some to his boss, and then went back to the kitchen. Annie twirled linguine around her fork with the ease of long practice. “What do you think I should do, Poppi?”

“Get out more, stretch your wings,” her father told her. “This place…Annie, the restaurant isn’t gonna make it another five years, much less ten, and I won’t let you go down with it.” He stabbed at a mussel. They were vat grown, of course, and even though you couldn’t really tell the difference he always imagined he could. He hadn’t eaten a real mussel since before Annie had been born, nobody had. The last of the wild ones had died out sometime in the forties, and the farmed ones hadn’t lasted ten years past that. “Maybe you could put the family recipes in a book and sell it? They say people are goin’ back to cookin’ at home more now.”

Annie almost dropped her fork. “I can’t give away our family recipes!”

“You can if you want,” he corrected, eating another not-quite-right mussel. “Or you can sell them in a book, but only if you want to. Or maybe in the next century old will get trendy again and your grandkids will want to re-open the family business.”

Her eyes filled up. “But what if I never…”

“You will.” He cocked his head, looking at her much more critically than he usually did. “You’ve been doin’ what you saw your mother do, just wearin’ work clothes every day, not botherin’ to primp because it’s hot in the kitchen and you have to net your hair anyway. But she’d already found a boy of her own, Annie, and she knew he wasn’t goin’ anywhere.”

She devoted herself to eating for a couple of minutes, apparently thinking that over. He knew why. They told girls now and had been for a while that they shouldn’t dress up to get a boy’s attention, and once upon a time his daughter’s skill in the kitchen and her being set to take over the family business some day would have been enough to make a good boy sit up and take notice all on his own—even he and her mother had told her that. But now a girl or even a boy, he supposed, had to find more than one way to make themselves seen in an ever-expanding world full of easily-distracted people. Just working an old restaurant in a dying neighborhood wasn’t going to get his Annie seen by anyone.

It had taken him far too long to realize that.

Annie mopped up the last of the butter sauce with her linguine and sat back in the chair, sipping her wine. “I do want to…explore life a little. Although I’m not really sure how I want to do it. But I also don’t want Christiano’s to die, Poppi.” She most likely wasn’t wanting to think about him eventually dying either, but she wasn’t going to say that out loud and he was thankful for it. He knew he wasn’t getting any younger. “What you said about the recipes, though, and trends…it gave me an idea.”

Anthony smiled and signaled Andy to bring out dessert. “Let’s hear it.”

 

Years passed. Old wasn’t anywhere near becoming trendy again, even right on the cusp of the twenty-second century, and most of the old neighborhood had been bought up by people who wanted to put in ultra-modern shops and quirky cafes. The street was bright with lights and color now, and no vehicles were allowed; a strip of park with live trees but fake grass took up the space that had formerly been used by cars, and the sidewalks were wide and clean. The sky overhead didn’t always look so good, but a glassteel roof over the street-park tinted itself blue when it had to and kept the polluted rain from doing any damage.

Eddie Bianchi was the engineer who’d designed that roof, and he liked to tell people what the area had been like back when he’d lived there in the seventies. If they didn’t believe him, he’d pull up pictures of himself and his high-school friends in front of the faux-retro diner which had once stood where a NutCreme shop now did business, looking almost like they’d been photographed a century earlier than they had been—as long as you ignored the sky-sweeper drones in the background, of course. Eddie himself looked back on that time fondly, even though most of the old gang were gone now, scattered to the four winds by time and life. Brenda lived all the way over on the West Coast, in fact.

Eddie and Brenda’s marriage had lasted less than a year, although still about six months longer than some people in the old neighborhood had expected it to. And nobody had expected them to stay friends after the split, but they had. They even met up once a year for dinner, just to catch up with each other and compare exes and in-laws and office space. Eddie always made the reservation, but Brenda was always at the table first—she said it was because she needed to lay claim to her share of the breadsticks. Eddie would never dream of denying she needed to, he’d always had a weakness for grissini and their annual meetup was the only time that he allowed himself to indulge.

Their current friends and families alike weren’t all that shocked that they met up and didn’t sleep together, but no one who learned their history could believe they’d chosen to hang out at a faux-retro diner eating extruded root-fries all those years ago when the original Christiano’s had been right up the street. Eddie chalked it up to teenagers having no taste; Brenda said they wouldn’t have appreciated the Old World cuisine back then anyway. But they were more than appreciative of the old Italian restaurant now…especially since they didn’t have to leave their respective coasts to get to it. Christiano’s VR Ristorante had opened just five years after Eddie had married Brenda, and it was the only VR restaurant that consistently got more popular year after year—in fact, its popularity had been a big part of the VR restaurant phenomenon getting as big as it had. Yes, the food was coming out of the same formulators that hours earlier might have been producing soy-grilled tuna or ratatouille or chilaquiles, but none of those were based off of recipes that had been handed down through five generations of a restaurant-owning Italian family. And none of the other VR restaurants had original recordings of the fifteen year-old version of a now-famous musician playing softly in the background while you ate, either.