We live in Gino’s Café, Beaufort South Carolina, Minerva and I. Here’s the reason why I called her that, before you start a-wondering too: the moment she came out of me, she already had this face like she’s thinking about something all the time, so Gino said to call her Minerva – ‘Like the goddess of Wisdom,’ he says – and I did. It’s not like there was anyone else around to offer me a different name.
Wrapped in her blanket in the dawn twilight she watches every sprinkle of baking powder, every square of melting chocolate and handful of flour like a new witch learning her first spells. I used to cry, when she was inside me, in this hushed kitchen that couldn’t listen or talk back. Together we watch the bread rise in its bowl and catch the first whiff of cake scent; for breakfast I feed her a buttered-up scone, a crumb at a time. We never miss a sunrise.
Gino stomps into the café at half-past six in the morning, shakes his head at Minerva in her basket, and as he starts cooking he shouts at me in his Italian accent,
‘Ah, you look like a raccoon with those bags under your eyes, what do you do when you should sleep? Go to the couch, go, or you’ll scare away the customers!’
With my hands still floury I throw myself on the three-seat couch at the center of the café, which at night is my bed, and as I fall asleep I hear Gino clang pots and pans against the cooker and Minerva gurgle at him. Half an hour later, I jump up just before the customers start arriving and we close the kitchen door, ready to run out the back with Minerva in case a health inspector comes in.
‘Ah, this creature of yours!’ Gino complains, ‘are you feeding her? They’ll arrest you if they see how small she is. Here, here!’ he sets aside some pasta covered in olive oil and Parmesan cheese for Minerva and chops it into tiny pieces, so she can feed herself.
Gino is an artist. He treats the most humble ingredient with respect, and, when the delivery van brings in anything less than fresh, you can hear him screaming even in the bathroom.
‘What is this? What–is–this? Have you brought me leftovers?’
The drivers are so scared of him that they try to deliver before he arrives, but it doesn’t work because he’ll only pay bills he has signed himself. Gino has the same love of fresh tomatoes, eggplants, olives, fish and meat that he has for his mama, who, all the way from Sardinia, Italy still gives him recipes and tells him how to cook. When she talks to him on the phone, Minerva and I can hear every word she says, and even though we don’t understand any of it we enjoy listening to someone give it to him.
The dishes Gino serves to the customers are real pretty, and taste like your happiest days. But there is always someone.
‘Excuse me, could I have an Hawaiian pizza?’
Gino stiffens, looking even more like a stick than he usually does. ‘And what is that?’
‘A pizza with ham and pineapple on it.’
Minerva and I get ready for the explosion.
‘Pineapple? On pizza? Have you lost your MIND?’
The worst time was when a customer asked for plain pasta and started dipping it in a puddle of ketchup. I had to watch but stood in the kitchen door so Minerva could hear but no one could see her. Gino’s face went purple. He stalked to the table and grabbed the plate.
‘OUT!’ he roared, pointing at the door, ‘don’t let me see you in here again! You have no culture!’
Gino says that every dish is a poem where each word is owed respect. Even the cakes Grannie taught me to make – all I have left from her – have become beautiful things on his painted porcelain plates, served with heavy cream on the side and decorated with a bit of mint or a pansy or a fresh blackberry and a sprinkle of powdered sugar. Gino still looks at them with a grimace and a raised eyebrow, and points out errors, but I spied him, once, hiding inside the walk-in fridge with his coat on, eating a slice of my key lime pie in tiny little bites.
‘Oh, for the love of God, child!’ he screamed when he realized I could not read his instructions – or the signs in the café, or the ingredients lists – just as he had when I’d turned up pregnant, and homeless, to the interview. And so the first words I learnt how to spell were names of vegetables and fruit; the first things I read were cooking methods. He scowls at me when I mess up my homework, or if I’m not quick enough.
‘What, is this the example you want to give that creature?’
Minerva beams at him, a biscuit in her fist.
He came in on a Wednesday afternoon with a laptop and a bunch of notes, sat at Table 6, and made the mistake of asking Gino for an Americano.
‘If you want dishwater, you can go to the fake Italian restaurant around the corner. We make real coffee, here.’
There are two main types of customers: the ones that get offended or angry at Gino and leave, and the ones who are scared and stay. But he’s different – he looked at Gino with interest, like he’d just discovered a new kind of animal, and said,
‘A real coffee then, please.’
‘You bring it to him,’ Gino barked in the kitchen, handing me a cup of espresso, ‘donkeys, that’s what they all are – donkeys.’
I brought him the coffee, together with the cake he’d asked for: my favorite, chocolate cheesecake made with fresh ricotta (this fancy cheese Gino gets real fussy about) warmed up and with whipped vanilla cream on the side. I placed half a strawberry and some chocolate curls on the cream, then risked leaving the kitchen door open so I could look out. He brought a spoonful to his mouth, closed his eyes, and smiled.
And now, every Wednesday afternoon, he comes in, puts his laptop on Table 6, and orders a real coffee and a different cake each time. He types for two hours, then pays in cash and leaves, and I spend the rest of the week thinking up a new dessert, building it in my head first and then trying it out in the kitchen, hiding the scraps from Gino ’cause he hates wasting ingredients, with only Minerva to watch me. She doesn’t miss a thing. When I’m finished, she claps her hands and I curtsy.
Gino frowns at me because I keep upsetting the Wednesday’s dessert menu; watches me with his arms crossed when I serve to Table 6 a slice of cake I’ve had to learn a new skill to make – spun sugar, colorful frosting, a filling of melted chocolate.
‘He’s eating it,’ I tell Minerva from my watching spot, ‘I think he likes it.’ She wriggles her legs, opens and closes her hands.
‘You haven’t got into enough trouble yet, have you?’ Gino snaps if he catches me. ‘Table 3 is waiting for a slice of apple pie. They need it by today, you know.’
In my free time I try to read the poetry books Gino throws into my bag. Too redneck proud to ask for anything easier, I follow the words with my finger and say them under my breath the way Gino hates, then repeat them out loud so Minerva can follow. Together we watch the words form in the air, and it’s thinking of them that I make up the next cake for Table 6 – I try to mold them into the ingredients while Minerva puts on her wise face and, quiet, observes me.
‘This is no place for a creature, you must put her in day care,’ says Gino at closing time, tucking the baby blanket round Minerva when he thinks I’m not looking.
‘One of these days,’ I answer every time, while my girl grows up smelling of cinnamon, nutmeg, dark chocolate. ‘Thank you for putting up with her, Gino.’
Sometimes I think Table 6 comes here just to study Gino for his novel, or whatever he keeps typing. I can see him watching Gino, trying not to laugh when he goes crazy on someone because they are squeezing mayonnaise on their Caprese salad (that’s tomato and mozzarella, more of Gino’s fancy cheese) or pouring Tabasco on lasagna. When Table 6 goes back to his writing, then, his fingers move faster on the keyboard. I don’t tell Minerva about his forearms, about his long hands.
Then, on a Wednesday, I hear Gino raise his voice in the restaurant area.
‘If you’re in a hurry to get your cake, go to the kitchen and take it yourself! Do you think we’re playing, here?’ Through the door, I can see he’s screaming at Table 6, and his first finger is pointing in my direction. But he hasn’t given me an order for dessert.
I cut a slice of my new cake – chocolate mousse with a base of chopped hazelnuts – decorate it with slivers of toasted almond and place it on the counter. Then I take Minerva’s hand and, together, we wait.
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