Crackers By Jay Nelson

I was seated on the train near the center car on the aisle so as to keep my gaze fixed upon the despicable Sandibal Huxley. He was a loathsome creature in need of gazing upon. I had picked up his trail around the Café Fulcro in Naples at about three in the afternoon and had trailed him to the Napoli Centrale. I watched him from a distance and waited for my orders to apprehend, which never came, so I boarded his train and continued my pursuit.

I sat and I gazed at the creature, a one eyed cartoonish figure with an eye patch and a scar on his cheek that resembled something one might scrape off their boot after a romp in the mud. With little else to do besides gaze and stew and think about loathsome creatures I ordered an espresso and tried my best not to draw attention to myself.

My efforts were thwarted, somehow, when I felt a tap at my knee. I spun my head and saw the most amusing looking old woman. She was a round person, stout, with olive skin and deep-set eyes that walked the line between motherly and god fearing. She had something in her hand, a package of crackers, which she set to push upon me. I acknowledged and declined, then after a second, and then third attempt by the olive woman I finally accepted the cracker.

“Thank you,” I said to her in Italian.

“Welcome,” she said back to me. She then moved one seat in my direction, having trapped me with her crackers. She set off in Italian, using many words in rapid fire that nearly lost me, and talked of some catastrophe up north. An earthquake.

“How tragic,” I said to her, keeping one eye on Sandibal all the while.

“How tragic indeed! Look!”

She thrust a newspaper at me which showed, of all things to show, a toppled over shelf of large parmesan cheese wheels. A man sat in the middle of the cheese pile, his face one of perplexed sorrow.

“All that cheese!” she wailed to me in her mother tongue, “All that beautiful cheese! It all has to be thrown out because of the health codes!”

“Tragedy, yes,” I said to her, wondering what the death toll of the earthquake had been, and wondering why cheese landed so closely to this woman’s worldly concerns. “What about the villagers who lived in the region? Are they okay? Was it just the cheese, then?”

“I think that they could just wipe the cheese off. Clean it, you know? It is all still good cheese. It has just touched the floor is all. But they say that it all must be thrown away because of the health codes!”

This woman wasn’t really talking to me to ask my opinion on cheese, earthquakes or health codes. She was talking to me so that I would listen, and she could be heard, or at least that was what I had gathered from our short interaction. I nodded politely and turned back towards the despicable Sandibal Huxley. He hadn’t moved any. He just sat there and looked out of that window with that mud stain scar on his face. He looked forlorn to me, like he was missing something that couldn’t be found. Was he thinking of stolen art? A bank heist? Maybe he was picturing his eventual capture. One can never tell with men as despicable as he. But then, suddenly, I wondered if he was thinking of something else, maybe something about cheese.

As the afternoon pressed on the woman talked of other things and then eventually took to staring out of the window. When the train stopped at Riomaggiore an hour later and Sandibal Huxley departed, I of course followed, leaving the olive woman to her window gazing. Sandibal made a stop inside the hotel De La Fuente before continuing on to a small gelato shop along the coastal edge of town. I watched him exchange a suitcase for a small parcel of roughly the same size. That parcel did end up being a stolen Giovanni Bellini portrait, but as I still had not received orders to apprehend, I hung back like a shadow and filled the blank pages of my little notebook. I followed him and took notes of the places he stopped along the coast, in and out of leaning buildings decorated in expressive paint jobs, scattered drunkenly along an uneven coastline.

The sun set, and I watched Sandibal as he looked upon the ocean, alone and sad for a man with a mud stained scar and reputation to match. As I watched him, though, I couldn’t help but think back to that woman on the train, her worries in life amounting to good cheese going to waste. Much in this world must bring her sadness, I thought, or was it the other way around? Maybe she had felt real tragedy in it all, feeling sad for something maybe no one else was willing to feel sad about. I suddenly had the thought that maybe I had been rude to her, that maybe I should have tried harder to talk with the woman, that maybe she had wise things to say about life. It was a small regret, but it stung like a splinter until I became preoccupied once again.

As I sat, about a hundred and fifty paces from him, I received the order to apprehend Sandibal. It was 7:30 that evening and I waited for him to return to the hotel De La Fuente, alone, with the small parcel in tow. I had to slip the clerk two bills for a spare room key, but I was able to surprise the crook unboxing the Bellini. He didn’t try to put up a fight, just exhaled a tired breath when he saw me. He told me that he was to deliver the painting to a forger in Rome the next day. He said that he wasn’t supposed to open the crate but knowing what was inside was too tempting for him. I said nothing in return, just slipped the cuffs on and called the Policia Nacional.

The next day I got back on the train where I had seen the olive woman, this time with a wrapped Bellini under my arm, hoping she might be riding back to Naples. I wanted to ask her about her life, where she was going and what she was doing and maybe ask if the health codes had loopholes to allow the store to sell some of the cheese. I thought I might even secretly show her the Bellini. But I never saw her again. I wonder sometimes what it was about that cheese that made her so sad. I thought that maybe it wasn’t the cheese that made her upset. Maybe it was something going to waste that could so easily be made good again.

Sometimes it is cheese that must be thrown out, but sometimes it is a human being with an eye patch and a mud stain scar on his face. I had always thought that one such as Sandibal Huxley could never be redeemed, but then again, I had never thought of it in terms of cheese. Something tells me that an olive-skinned woman riding the train somewhere along the northern coastal rout outside of Naples might have an opinion to share. She might just see that Sandibal could be made clean again, if only the codes could be lenient and someone with a box of crackers could be sad enough to care.


Jay Nelson

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5 thoughts on “Crackers By Jay Nelson

  1. Hi Jay,
    There are not enough people championing cheese!
    And this was as deep as the red wine that would enhance.
    Enjoyable and thought provoking!


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