A family busily herded their flock of children out the door. One little girl of about five years turned and waved to me.
“Good night, mister,” she said in a little voice.
Caught off guard I blurted out the first thing that popped into my mind which, even as I was saying it, I was wishing I weren’t:
“Live long and prosper, little one.” And, adding to the insanity, I made the Vulcan sign. Sort of.
The little girl smiled. Her parents frowned and I heard her mother say as they passed through the doorway, “Let’s leave the strange, little man alone, OK?”
I thought, “little?”
A waiter replaced the candle at my table which was burning low.
Looking around I found myself alone in the restaurant. The only diner. Sitting alone contemplating the remains of a second carafe of wine and wishing he’d brought something to read like “War and Peace” or “Great Expectations.”
I tilted the breadstick tumbler into the light. Crumbs. I thought back to the salad and antipasto. When did I have that? Yesterday?
Suddenly, the kitchen door flew open and everybody came out: the young waiter, the owner, what looked like the chef and sous-chef, several women and other people. The owner went to the front door locking it with an audible snick.
Meanwhile, people were busy pulling tables together, laying a long tablecloth and laying place settings. Then more people came out of the kitchen bearing more food than I had seen in a year. Spaghetti, angel hair pasta with clams, chicken with olives, ravioli and giant flagons of wine.
A slender, blonde lady who I later discovered was the wife of the owner approached me and, smiling, said, “Signor, your table is bare. Such a pity. Please, join our family as our honored guest.”
I wasn’t sure what to do but a line from a movie echoed in my head:
“Let me make you an offer you can’t refuse.”
I honored her offer.
I was directed to a chair at the head of the table. The owner was at the other end and, quickly, everybody was seated. The owner made a few remarks in Italian, everybody approved and the feast was on.
By this time I was famished and heartedly accepted everything offered me. Meats, pasta, meat pasta, pasta covered meat, vegetables, pickled vegetables, and wine, wine and more wine.
There was singing and I joined in having know idea what I was singing but trying to blend in. Only a few people winced.
My wine glass was magical. No sooner than I finished it, it replenished itself. I drank, it filled.
The food, the wine, the family, the fun, the love and the wine (did I mention that already?) moved me to poetry and I rose to propose a toast to my hosts.
Yes, a toast to the hoast!
As I rose from my chair, wine glass in hand, the raucous conversation died down and I could hear the owner admonishing with “shhhh, shhhh!”
I looked at the upturned faces glowing from food and drink. Good people. Honest people. Family people. I think I shed a tear.
“My family,” I started.
Then, apparently, there was an earthquake. Or, at least, I recall the room swaying left to right, up to down, and the table rising to meet my nose. My last thought was, “I’m so sleepy.”
I slipped into darkness falling. Falling in the dark. Falling, falling, falling ...
“Ha! Ha! Hahahahha!”
Squeals of joy.
A truck was backing up. Beeeeeep! Beeeeeep! Beeeeeep!
In the distance the siren of a police car or fire truck sounded.
I opened my eyes and looked around.
I was in my bed at the TravelLodge. I looked a the clock on the nightstand. 2:20 P.M. A little drummer was playing the bongos on my brain but it wasn’t too bad. It could have been the kettle drummer.
Cotton mouth. Been there. Done that. Have the t-shirt.
I rolled out of bed and shuffled into the bathroom for a shower. After 30 minutes of pounding water I was starting to feel human again.
Images flashed in my mind. Singing. Toasting. Feasting.
A dream. Yeah, a dream.
As I got dressed I could hear kids playing in the hotel pool and the sounds of the city in the background. I didn’t remember walking home from the restaurant but I did remember having a great time.
There was a salad and wine and a blur and, quite possibly, a good time. There were lights and singing and dancing and ... could it have been a dream? Did I just have one glass beyond the line? I may never know.
I’ve eaten in a lot of restaurants on the road and it’s usually the same. Table for one. I’ll have this. Pay in the front. Have a nice evening.
Professional. Efficient. Sterile.
Food is more than survival. Food is community. Food is family. Food binds us together.
Restaurants provide a service. Restaurants provide food. Restaurants don’t provide family.
I shook it off. I went to a restaurant last night, had a little too much to drink, somehow stumbled home and had a jumble of dreams. Yep, that explained it.,
I reached down to the nightstand to get my car keys and noticed a receipt from Leonar o’s.
On the House
And below that was written
Suddenly all the details of the evening flooded back. Wow, I thought! It was real. A real family restaurant where everybody knows your name.
I put the receipt in my pocket. On my way out of the parking lot I stopped at the Office.
Roberto Grasso was in his enormous chair watching General Hospital on a small black-and-white TV.
“Bob,” I said, “thanks for recommending that restaurant last night. It was fantastic.”
Bob looked up and regarded me with heavy lidded eyes. “Oh?” he said, “did you go to Vinni’s”
“No,” I answered, “I went to Leonardo’s and it was fantastic. Good food, good wine, good company.”
I added, “They treated me like family. Especially the owner and his beautiful blonde wife.”
Bob’s expression clouded and he looked away, deep in thought.
Eventually he looked back at me and asked, “You're sure Leonardo’s.”
“Positive,” I said, “only the ‘d’ was missing from the door so it said ‘Leonar o’s’”
Bob blanched, crossed himself and went silent.
“Bob,” I said. “BOB!” I shouted.
Bob looked up and if anything seemed somewhat shrunken, as if that were possible.
“You must have gone to Vinni’s because Leonardo’s burned down 20 years ago. Twenty years ago exactly. Yesterday. The entire Leonardo family perished in the fire. It was tragic. Mother, father, sons. All gone. Tragic.”
“What?” I said. “No, you’re wrong. I ate there last night. I can prove it. I have a receipt.”
I dug into my pocket.
The receipt was gone.
Occasionally, I have dreams. I’m seated at the end of a long table. An old man at the end of the table rises to offer a toast. All the people around the table lift their glasses.
“Live long and prosper,” the old man offers.
“Live long and prosper,” the diners reply in unison.
In the following silence a small girl giggles.