by Steve Sabatka
Italy, Texas – population 1,900 – is a real town about an hour south of Dallas. Every October, Italy puts on an autumn festival. Folks come from miles around for the carnival rides, the good times, and the spaghetti.
The mad, sweaty fever had finally broken. The long Texas summer was over. Fall had arrived at last.
The low, full harvest moon was the blazing yellow-orange of autumn bonfires and jack-o-lantern grins as it illuminated all of downtown Italy – both blocks of it. Main Street was roped-off to the usual dented pickups, old Cadillacs. And the one Humvee in town. A Roman gladiator, dressed in golden armor, stood at one end of a long picnic table, stirring a giant pot of spaghetti sauce with a wooden paddle. The rich smells of tomatoes, onions, green peppers – and just enough garlic – floated on the first cool breeze since last May. Fireflies flashed the same color as the moon, vanished, reappeared. And somewhere, on an old phonograph, a boom box, or a car stereo, Luciano Pavarotti sang the aria from a classic opera.
It was Saturday night, festival time, in Italy, Texas.
Two men sat on a wooden bench – on the other side of the street and down a ways from the gladiator and his steaming pot. The men looked alike in most respects: They were both in their mid sixties. Heavyset, but not fat. Hunched-over after decades of backbreaking farm work. Both wore sun-faded overalls. Sweat-stained gimme caps. Scuffed, steel-toed work shoes. And frowns that, in the intense, horizontal moonlight, looked to be carved deeply into their faces.
But one of the old men was black. “Perverts,” Artis Price said, in his high, slow voice.
And the other was white. “Perverts?” T-Bob Clark looked to the right, the left. He was ready for a brawl. “Where’s the perverts?”
There weren’t any town drunks or village idiots in Italy. But there were two old cranks: Artis and T-Bob.
“Fireflies is perverts.” Artis fancied himself the brighter of the pair. He had graduated eighth grade, after all. And he got most of the answers right when he watched Hollywood Squares. Well, some of the answers. On a good night. “They butt-ends glow like that when they in heat, flashin’ per-verted signals with some sorta weird Morse code.”
T-Bob was the brawns of the outfit. He knew he wasn’t as smart as his old friend. Book-smart, at least. But T-Bob also knew that brainy Artis couldn’t pull the stump of a cottonwood tree up out of the ground with his bare hands the way he had – not twenty years ago mind you, but just last week. “How you know so much ‘bout per-verted bugs?”
“I seen a show on PBS.”
T-Bob caught the glow of a firefly, tried to guess where it would appear next, and missed by several feet. “Time was, bugs had more sense than to carry-on like that out in the open.”
“Things sure have changed.” Artis bowed his head, let the breeze cool the sweat on the back of his creased, leathery neck.
“I hate change,” T-Bob said.
“Me, too,” Artis said.
The old cranks nodded – as if they knew The Truth and nobody else did.
Pavarotti sang. Fireflies flashed. The moon rolled higher into the sky. Black people and white people, young folks and old timers, locals and out-of-towners, all strolled along Main Street, enjoyed the cooler weather, sat down for some spaghetti, maybe. And steered clear of Artis and T-Bob.
“Speakin’ of change,” Artis said. “Some long-haired Yankee scientist says the earth is gettin’ hotter.”
“Hotter, you say?”
“That’s what the long-haired Yankee scientist said.”
“Was he on the PBS, too?”
A group of white, teenaged boys moseyed by the bench. Stetson hats were tilted low over the eyes. Belt buckles gleamed in the moonlight. Lower lips were stuffed with Red Man.
Artis laughed and wondered if those expensive hats would stay on the cowboys’ heads when they rode the spinning Gyro-Hammer ride. “Did summer feel any hotter this year, T-Bob?”
Pavarotti hit a high C, held it.
T-Bob waited for the great tenor to finish before answering Artis’ question. “It was hot, all right. Birds lost half their feathers. Train tracks got all twisted and warped. Grass turned brown. But I can’t rightly say summer felt hotter than it did last year or the year before that or sixty years ago when we was barefoot kids.”
“Didn’t feel hotter to me, neither.” Artis grunted. “Yankee scientists don’t got a lick-a common sense.”
“Not a lick.”
The gladiator passed a hand over his spaghetti sauce, judged the temperature to be just right, and continued to stir.
Some black teenagers passed the old cranks this time. The boys’ shoulders rolled with each confident stride. Their heads nodded to the low, booming rhythms in their headphones.
T-Bob hoped one of them would start something – so he could finish it. “Time was, life was simple,” he said. “Time was there was your part of town and there was my part of town. Time was, people knew where they belonged in the world.”
Artis stretched his neck so the wind could blow down the front of his shirt. He looked like one of those hundred-year-old tortoises he’d seen on PBS documentaries. “Time was, they was black doctors, black lawyers, good black schools. We had us a strong black community back then. Didn’t need white folks for nothin’.”
“But look at things now,” T-Bob said. “Sometimes it seems like up is down, right is wrong, and black is white.”
Artis slowly turned his head toward T-Bob, blinked several times. “Black is white, you say?”
“I saw a little black boy with blue eyes the other day.” T-Bob’s bulldog jowls shook a little. “Can you believe it?”
Artis thought for a second. “He musta been wearin’ contact lenses, T-Bob.”
“I don’t know how he done it. But when I seen them big blue eyes in that little black face, I thought I was gonna have me another in-farction.”
“Could be you on to somethin’,” Artis said. “I was in the post office this mornin’ and I saw a little white girl with braids in her hair.”
“Braids?” T-Bob asked. “What’s wrong with braids? That girl on the cocoa box wears braids.”
“I’m talkin’ ‘bout them long, tight, African-lookin’ braids,” Artis said.
“Lemme get this straight.” T-Bob saw a two-inch cockroach crawling along the curb, wondered if he should stomp it into antenna-waving mush. “We got little black boys tryin’ to look like Frank Sinatra and little white girls tryin’ to look like that dang Whoopi What’s-er-name!”
The old cranks laughed and elbowed each other – as if they were little boys, cutting up in the back of class. But then, they saw something that was more shocking, more disturbing than all the lascivious fireflies and jumbo cockroaches in all of Texas.
Artis stopped laughing first.
But T-Bob wasn’t far behind. “I don’t buh-leeve my own eyes!”
The old cranks leaned forward on their bench and stared.
Artis’ granddaughter, KaTisha, and T-Bob’s grandson, Darrell, were coming down Main Street – smiling, enjoying the cool, shimmering night. And holding hands. When they saw their grandfathers, the teenagers stopped, turned, and started off in the opposite direction.
It was too late. They’d been spotted.
“Now you two hold it right there!” Even when Artis shouted, his voice wasn’t very loud.
You couldn’t say the same about T-Bob. “Y’all come over here!”
KaTisha and Darrell looked to each other, sighed. They knew they were in trouble. Big trouble. Then, still holding hands, they crossed the street and approached the bench.
Artis shook a slow, thick finger at his granddaughter. “How long’s this been goin’ on, KaTisha -Ann? How long you two been sittin’ up with each other?”
KaTisha was beautiful. She had long, Africa-lookin’ braids. And her eyes were brown, not blue. “It’s no big deal, granddaddy.”
“No big deal?” Artis turned to his fellow old crank for support.
But T-Bob was too busy snarling at his grandson, biting off his words with jutting lower teeth. “Darrell, have you gone snap-crazy?”
Darrell was tall and athletic and handsome. His sweat-shirt said IT’S A BLACK THING. YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND. “Grandpa, times have changed since back in the day.” He pulled up his sagging, beltless pants, and his tone revealed more than a little attitude. “Why you be trippin’?”
T-Bob wasn’t sure if he was seeing a whole swarm of those deviant fireflies all of a sudden, or seeing stars and about to have that second in-farction his doctor kept nagging him about. “Trippin’?” he snapped, all but frothing at the mouth. “Trippin’? Why you talkin’ like that, boy? Don’t you know no proper English?”
Darrel was about to tell the old cranks what they could do with their old fashioned ideas.
But KaTisha stepped forward instead. “Granddaddy, I love you. Mr. Clark, I know Darrell loves you, too.” Her voice was polite and respectful. “And we’re sorry if you’re upset, but Darrell and I aren’t doing anything wrong.”
The two cranks stammered and sputtered like wet firecrackers.
“I’m hungry.” Darrell put his arm around KaTisha, gave her shoulder a squeeze – just to upset the old cranks. “Let’s bounce, baby girl.”
“Goodnight, Granddaddy,” KaTisha said, wanting to apologize, knowing she had nothing to apologize for. “Goodnight, Mr. Clark.” Then she and Darrel walked across the street and down a ways.
“Howdy.” The gladiator straightened his plastic chest armor as he greeted the young couple.
“Wuzzup?” Darrel asked.
“Not much,” the gladiator said. The aroma of spaghetti sauce seemed to swirl around him like something magical. “What’s up with y’all?”
“Our grandfathers are a little upset with us.” KaTisha was on the verge of tears. “We’ve been keeping a secret from them, I’m afraid.”
The gladiator laughed warmly. “Now, cheer up, KaTisha. It don’t take much to get those two worked-up. T-Bob is still mad about the South losin’ The Civil War, ya know. And Artis ain’t been the same since Alaska joined the union.”
“Alaska?” KaTisha didn’t understand. “Why is Granddaddy so upset about Alaska?”
“Because now, Texas is the second largest state in America.”
KaTisha laughed, but she still felt bad. She loved her grandfather – despite his crankiness. “I just don’t want them to be angry with us.”
“Think of all the ways the world has changed in their lives,” the gladiator said. “Give ‘em some time. They’ll come around.”
“I certainly hope so.”
“Don’t worry, boo.” Darrell cocked his head to one side and grinned so the gladiator could see his fake gold tooth. “Can you hook us up with some pa-sketti?”
“One plate, two forks, please,” KaTisha said.
“Sure thing.” The gladiator reached for a pair of metal tongs, twirled them like a six shooter. He pulled long, thin noodles out of a pot of water, strained them in a colander, and placed the cooked pasta on a paper plate – curling, shaping the noodles with his tongs and creating a neat, circular mound.
Then he sank a ladle into his spaghetti sauce. When he brought the ladle up from the bottom of the pot, the slow-simmered, cooked-from-scratch aroma intensified.
KaTisha closed her eyes and smiled and remembered past Octobers. “That smells better every year.”
“It sho’ do,” Darrell said.
“And this goofy costume gets tighter every year.” The gladiator poured thick sauce onto the pasta, added a thick slice of garlic bread, and handed the plate to KaTisha. “Bon appetito,” he said, with an accent that didn’t sound very European at all.
“Grazie,” KaTisha said.
Darrel paid for the spaghetti and two cans of Diet Dr. Pepper – since he and KaTisha were still a little too young for Chianti. KaTisha grabbed some napkins and plastic forks. Then the two sat down at the picnic table, beneath strings of tiny light bulbs, red and green Italian flags. And the autumn moon.
The gladiator brought a CD player to the table and pushed the play button. “How’s about a little mood music, folks?”
Artis and T-Bob watched from their observation post.
“Now, who they gonna listen to,” Artis asked, “Aretha Franklin or Buck Owens?”
The old cranks laughed again – as if they were the funniest two fellas that ever sat on any bench on any Main Street. But then, they heard something that took their breath away faster than if they’d seen Frank Sinatra and that dang Whoopi What’s-er-name dancing the two-step down Main Street.
Artis stopped laughing first.
But T-Bob wasn’t far behind. “Uh, oh.”
The two old cranks leaned forward and listened.
Mandolin music, followed by an old world chorus washed over Main Street. An accordion joined in. And then, in that warm, smiling voice, Dean Martin began singing an old romantic song:
“I ain’t heard that song in years,” Artis said.
“Me, neither.” T-Bob decided not to stomp that cockroach into mush after all. “You know, the last time I heard that song . . .” His voice trailed off.
Darrell and KaTisha smiled at each other as they ate their spaghetti and listened to the music. The gladiator, smiling too, went back to stirring his sauce.
Artis thought the gladiator looked an awful lot like a gondola pilot, steering his boat, guiding his love struck passengers, through the canals of Venice – in that other Italy. “You miss your Helen as much as I miss my Vanetta?”
“I sure do.”
The old cranks remembered their late wives and younger days and what it felt like to be in love.
“Darrell’s grown some,” Artis said, changing the subject before he got emotional and ruined his cranky image.
“He’s taller’n his daddy, now.” T-Bob cleared his throat, blinked back a tear. “Says he wants to play basketball one day.”
“Is that right?”
“Yessir.” T-Bob watched his grandson, hoped he’d live long enough to see the boy play, realized it would be OK if he didn’t make it ‘til then. Then he watched KaTisha. “You know, I ‘member the day ‘Tisha was born and how proud you was.”
Artis thought back to that day, remembered how warm KaTisha had felt in his arms the first time he held her. “I sure was proud.”
“Ya oughta be proud. Real proud. She’s turned into a fine young lady,” T-Bob said. And he really meant it.
Darrell grabbed shaker full of parmesan cheese, held it to his mouth like a microphone, and started in on a rap version of That’s Amore. But KaTisha put her hand to his mouth and stopped him.
“Them two sure look happy together,” Artis said, and his slow, high voice sounded almost like a song. “Wonder what changes they gonna see in they lives.”
“Ain’t no tellin’,” T-Bob said.
“Ya know,” Artis said. “Maybe change ain’t always bad.”
“I was just thinkin’ the same thing,” T-Bob said.
And then, without realizing it, Artis and T-Bob started rocking, ever so slightly, from side to side, and in time to the music – as if everything was just the way it should be.
By now, the harvest moon was high in the sky above Italy, Texas.
And, just like in the song, the world seemed to shine.