Why Me?

Chapter Fifteen

I had just settled in and started work the next morning, when Mike walked into my office.  He had an odd look on his face.

"Tony Solano isn't here today."

"The guy from the parking lot?"

"Yeah.  I spoke to Jim Wheeler, and he was surprised.  Tony hadn't called in.  He's just not here."  He looked puzzled.  "I wonder what that's all about."

"You don't think he's going to the cops, do you, to press charges?"

"I doubt it.  He didn't have any witnesses.  There was nobody in the lot at the time."

"Mike, this makes me nervous.  This guy is sharp.  He's the one who asked about the shift differential, and then he spotted us in the parking lot, and he knew.  He knew!"  I was really getting upset now.

Mike shrugged.  "What he knows, or what he thinks he knows, don't make a bit of difference.  If it comes right down to it, I'll out myself.  I have enough faith in the guys here to believe that they wouldn't give a damn."

"But, if you out yourself, you're outing both of us.  People have seen us coming to work and going home together, and they've seen us spending a lot of time together here at work.  Someone's sure to figure it out."

"Are you worried about it?  Think about it; what can anyone really say or do?  If they're not happy with the situation, they've got two choices, deal with it or find another job.  Have you forgotten who I am, who you are?"

He was grinning at me now.  "I told you, it's a good thing, being in a place of power.  I honestly don't believe there's a single man out there on the floor who would have a problem with the idea, but if there is, he's still got those two choices!"

"What about Mr. Wheeler?  What if he's got a problem with us being together?"

Mike burst out laughing.  "Are you kidding?  Do you mean to tell me that you didn't know?  Jim Wheeler and his partner, Todd, have been together for almost twenty years."

It's a good thing I was sitting down at my desk.  I would have fallen on the floor in my surprise.  I really didn't know anything about Mr. Wheeler, other than what concerned work.  He is a very private person, and, anyway, I would never ask him personal questions.  Come to think of it, though, he'd never mentioned a wife or children.  I still couldn't believe it.

Mike must have known what I was thinking.  "Jim and Todd have been to our house for holiday dinners quite a few times.  Dad really appreciates the way Jim handles the business, and Mom just loves Todd.  And, by the way, Jim has been my confidant and mentor for the last ten years.  He knew how I felt about you, even before I told him about it.  He's the one who kept me from rushing in and scaring you off.  He said you'd come around in your own time.  He told me to be patient.  And he was right!  And I'm so glad I followed his advice.  You were definitely worth waiting for!"  He bent over my desk and kissed me gently, then stood up and looked out toward the production floor.

"Oops!  Maybe I should have looked before I kissed you!  But you know what?  I'm not ashamed of you, of our relationship, and I really couldn't care less who knows about it!"  He was grinning now.  "Oh, by the way, we're taking a holiday from leftovers tonight.  We're going to see Mama Rosa!"

"Mike, have you forgotten?  Annie's at the house.  We can't just go off and leave her all alone there.  She's hurting, and she needs some support."

"You're right!  We can't leave her alone there.  I hope she likes Italian food!"

He was still grinning, as he walked back out to the production floor.

Mr. Wheeler came into my office a little later with some invoices that needed to be paid.  I could feel my face getting warm, as we talked.  I really wished Mike hadn't told me.  Now I didn't know how to deal with Mr. Wheeler.  He didn't seem to notice, though, so I gradually cooled down and was able to talk about the business without blushing.

Just before he left, he asked, "Dave, did Mike Solano say anything to you yesterday about not coming in today?"

"No.  I didn't know anything about it, until Mike told me a little while ago."

"I need you to cut a final pay check for him.  The company policy is that, if a worker doesn't notify us in advance, or call in, he is automatically terminated.  You do have his address, don't you?"

I checked my Rolodex.  "Yeah, it's right here."

"Good.  When you make out the payroll this week, he has one day from this week to be added to last week's check.  I've got some termination notices in my office.  If I forget to give you one, ask me for it.  Then, you include it in his final paycheck.  If he should come in tomorrow, Mike will send him to me, and I'll give him the notice personally.  But he still gets his check on Friday, as usual.  You can mail it to him.  If he comes in, I'll let him know that."

He turned and walked out.  I couldn't help watching him, as he left.  I never noticed before what a good-looking man he is—for an older man, of course.  I found myself wondering about him and 'Todd,' where they lived, what they did for fun, what their love life must be like.  Stop this, Davie!  You're getting to be a real snoop!  It's none of your business!  But he really is a distinguished and attractive older man!

I was jolted out of my thoughts by the phone.  I almost wished I hadn't answered it.  It was Annie.  She was screaming at me:  "Do you know what that son of a bitch did?  He's changed the locks!  I went over there this morning, right after I knew he'd be gone to work.  You know what a bug he is about being exactly on time for everything!  I had just started going through my things, to see what I wanted to keep, when the doorbell rang.  It was a fuckin' locksmith!  Paul had called him to change all the locks this morning, and he wasn't expecting anyone to be there.  He saw my car in the driveway and figured he'd better check first.

"I told him that I'd be there about an hour, so if he could come back, it would be just fine.  He left, and I was so mad, I really wanted to trash the whole place!  The nerve of that guy!  And, get this!  You know we live in an apartment.  He even called the landlady and told her that I was leaving, and that if she saw me there, he'd appreciate it if she would check to be sure I wasn't causing any trouble.  So, of course, as soon as the locksmith left, she showed up.

"Fortunately, I've always gotten along well with her.  I told her what was going on.  Well, not all of it, of course, but enough so she knew that we had had a big argument about not having kids, and I had just decided that I couldn't take any more of his superior attitude.  She was really sympathetic.  She's never cared much for him anyway.  The one good thing she could say about him is that he always pays the rent exactly on the day it's due.  Imagine that!

"So, we sat down and had a cup of tea, and then she helped me pack and take things out to the car.  She's not too happy about the idea that he was planning to have the locks changed without even asking her.  I've got a feeling he's going to hear about that!  But she told me to let the locksmith go ahead and change them.  She's going to deal with Paul later."

Annie was winding down now, so I told her that I'd talk to her when we get home tonight.  Then I had a sudden thought.  "Annie, you do like Italian food, don't you?"

"I love it, why?"

Mike wants to go out to this place he introduced me to.  It's called Bella Roma, and, Annie, I've gotta tell you, they have the best Italian food you ever ate!  It's not at all fancy, but the food is out of this world!  We thought you could do with a little break from all the crap you've been going through."

"I'd really like that, Davie!  Thank you, and thank Mike for me, for thinking of me.  Should I dress up a little?"

"No, I told you it's not fancy.  Just be ready to go when we get home.  If we're going there, we usually just change our clothes, have a cup of coffee, and take off.  We get there before the big dinner rush.  Oh, and, Annie, for God's sake, don't eat much lunch!  Take my word on this one, will you?"

She was chuckling.  "OK, little brother, I'll trust you.  See you tonight."

The rest of the day went smoothly.  I had the paid bills in the mail and my desk cleaned up and in order, when Mike arrived. 

"Come on, there, slow poke!  I'm getting hungry!"

"Can you name three times in your life, when you weren't hungry?"  I gave him a long look.  He grinned.

"Well, no, but remember, I'm still a growing boy!"  I just shook my head.

On the way home, I told him about the call from Annie.  He was really disgusted by what was going on in her life.

"Did you tell her that we're all going out for dinner?"

"She's really thrilled about that!  I'm supposed to thank you for inviting her.  Consider yourself thanked."

"That'll do until we get home, but I expect a real "Thank you," delivered with a big kiss!"

"And I'm sure you'll get one from Annie!"

He gave me a sidelong glance and snorted. "I wasn't thinking about Annie!" 

When we got home, we called to Annie, who was upstairs, as we went in to change our clothes.  I could hear her footsteps on the stairs, as we were getting ready to go out and make coffee.

"Hi, guys!  Coffee should be ready now; I put it on before I went up to change.  Do I look all right?"

Mike gave a low whistle.  "Sis, you look more than all right; you look beautiful!"  He grabbed her and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek.  She was giggling and blushing, when he let go of her.

"Why, Mike!  What will Davie think?"

"He's thinking the same thing I am, that we've got the prettiest sister in town!"  Her blush got even deeper.  Mike turned to me.

"How's my mind reading doing?"

"You're right on the money!  What else am I thinking?"

He pressed his hand dramatically to his forehead.  "I'm smelling something.  It smells like….coffee!  That's it!  You're thinking about having a cup of coffee!"

Annie was really laughing now.  "Are you two always like this?  I don't think I can stand it!  You're both nuts!"

I spoke up, as seriously as I was able.  "I'm sorry, Swami, you were close, but you're wrong!  I want two cups of coffee!"

He turned to Annie.  "Me and that guy on TV, we get no respect.  He whirled around, grabbed me around the waist and tossed me over his shoulder.  "We'd better get this poor boy some coffee quick!"  He stomped into the kitchen, bouncing me at every step.  Annie followed us, laughing so hard that she had tears in her eyes by the time we reached the kitchen table, and he set me down.

Annie had made coffee and set the cups out.  We sat down, enjoyed our coffee, and then looked at each other.  Mike was grinning.

"Well, Sis, are you ready for some of the best food you ever had in your life?"

"Sure am!  Davie was telling me about it this morning, and I've been waiting all day.  I was really good.  I didn't even eat any lunch!"

"Smart girl!  I know you're going to like this place.  And Mama Rosa's a trip!  She's already on a campaign to fatten Davie up a little."

"A little!"  My voice was cracking.  "She's trying to put two hundred pounds on me!"

Davie grinned at me.  "I can do that!  She's just building you up to be able to take it!"

Annie was blushing a deep red. "There are some things I just don't need to know,  thank you very much!"  She jumped up from the table and went into the living room.

Mike and I followed her.  Mike was penitent.  "Annie, I'm so sorry!  I'm just used to talking to Davie that way, and I need to learn to put a filter on my mouth in the presence of a lady."

She turned around with a big grin on her face.  "I wasn't embarrassed about what you said, but I got some mental pictures I shouldn't have had.  As a matter of fact, I thought it was funny!"

The two of them started to laugh and fell into a mutual hug.  I just stood there, a little confused at the moment.

"Hey, you two, are we going out for dinner, or what?"

When we walked into the Bella Roma, Annie inhaled deeply.  "Oh, my God!  I shouldn't have eaten breakfast, either!  What smells so heavenly?"

Mike grinned.  "Everything!  Let's get a table, so we can introduce you to the finest food this side of bella Roma!"

We went back to our usual place in the restaurant, but decided to take a table away from the wall, to make it easier for Mama Rosa to serve us.  Mike seated Annie, then walked around and pulled out a chair for me.  When I was seated, he went around and sat down, facing me.  Just then, Mama Rosa came out of the kitchen with two huge plates of pasta for another table.  Annie gasped.  "Those plates aren't meant for one person, are they?"

"Sis, as the man used to say, 'You ain't seen nothin' yet!'  That's just one part of the meal."

Mama Rosa spotted us on her way back to the kitchen.  "Hey, Mikey!  And skinny Davie!  Who's the pretty lady with you?"

"This is my sister, Annie, Mama Rosa.  We've talked her into coming for dinner with us.

"You welcome, pretty sister!  Why you no feed Davie better.  He too skinny.  We gotta get some meat on his bones, no?"

Annie was laughing.  "He's always been skinny like that.  Mom tried hard to put some weight on him, but it just didn't seem to work."

"Well, we give him some good Italian food, we put some weight on him.  You watch!"

Mike spoke up.  "What's the special tonight, Mama Rosa?  Is it something we can recommend to our lovely guest?"  He was grinning.

Mama Rosa smacked him lightly on the shoulder.  "You can recommend anything here, smart boy!"  She was smiling at him like a proud mother.

"Well, what's the special?"

"We got the veal scallopini, with the pasta in alfredo sauce.  You like that, no?"

I didn't even give Mike a chance to answer.  "Oh, yeah!  You must have planned this for us.  That's what Annie and I are going to have!  Mike can make up his mind what he wants."

Mama Rosa was laughing at the look on Mike's face.  He turned to her.  "This is the guy who can hardly put two words together, and listen to him!"

He grinned at me, then looked back to her.  "And, yes, I'll have the veal, too!"  Mama Rosa was laughing as she went into the kitchen and started yelling at Mario in Italian.

Annie looked at me.  "Is she upset?  Did we say something wrong and offend her?"

Mike was laughing.  "Davie had the same problem the first time we came here to eat.  That's just the way she talks to Mario.  He's her husband and the chef.  You'll know when she's mad!"  He looked at me and grinned.

I just nodded.  "Uh-huh, you'll know!"

Mama Rosa reappeared with a tray.  She set it on the next table and placed the plate of bread and butter in the middle of our table.  Then she set water glasses of her home made wine in front of Mike and me.  She turned to Annie.  "This our own wine; we make it.  Mikey and Davie like it.  You try little of Davie's. You like, I gotta glass for you.  You no like, we get you something else."  She shoved my glass over in front of Annie, who picked it up and took a small slip.  Her eyebrows shot up.

"Oh, Mama Rosa, this is wonderful!  You make this wine yourselves?"

"Yep, and it only for special friends.  Here you go, pretty lady!  Welcome to our place!"  She set a glass in front of Annie, picked up the tray, and hurried back into the kitchen to start yelling at Mario again.

I rescued my wine from Annie and took a sip.  It was just as good as I remembered it.  Mike was grinning at me.  Then he turned to Annie, as he picked up a slice of bread and began buttering it.

"The reason everything here is so good is that it's all home made.  Mama Rosa bakes the bread, and they make their own pasta.  Everything!"

Mama Rosa was back quickly with the plates of antipasto.  She served Annie, then set plates in front of Mike and me.  "Now you eat!  Mangia!  Mangia!"  She grabbed her tray from the side table and hurried back into the kitchen.

Annie looked at the plate in front of her, and turned to Mike.  "I thought we were having veal scallopini.  What is this?  It looks and smells really good, but it doesn't look like scallopini, at least none that I've had before!"

Mike was chuckling.  "This is antipasto, the appetizer.  We'll be getting our dinner in a little while."

Annie turned to me.  "Did you know about this?"

"Not the first time I came in here for dinner.  You'd better stop talking about it and start eating.  Mama Rosa expects us to eat everything!"

We settled down to some serious eating.  We had just finished the antipasto, when Mama Rosa came out of the kitchen with a big tray.  She set it on the other table and placed a plate of scallopini in front of Annie.  Then she got a plate of the pasta, little shells tonight, in alfredo sauce, surrounded by meatballs and sausages.  After serving Annie, she went around the table to the other side, to serve Mike and me at the same time.  When everything was set, she gave Annie a big smile.  You part of family, you always welcome here.  Now, mangia!"  She disappeared into the kitchen.

We were enjoying our dinner, almost finished with it, in fact, when we heard Mama Rosa start yelling at Mario again.  Annie looked up.  "Does she do this often?"

"Apparently, all the time."

 Mama Rosa was really getting into it now.  Her voice rose in pitch and volume.  Suddenly there was a crash from the kitchen.  Annie jumped.  "Oh, my God!  What's going on in there?"

Mike and I just listened.  There was another crash, and another.  Her voice was quite shrill now!  A fourth crash was quickly followed by a fifth, then silence.  I looked over at Mike.

"Wow!  She's really pissed tonight!"

"I've seen her worse.  Her record, at least when I've been here, is eight."  We went on with our dinner.  Annie was sitting there, staring at the kitchen wall in shock.

"What on earth is going on in there?"

Mike chuckled.  "When Mario gets her riled, she throws plates at him.  I don't think she's trying to hit him.  It's just a way of letting him know that she's not happy with him."

Annie shook her head and returned to her dinner.  When Mama Rosa came back out of the kitchen, her face was red, and she was breathing hard.  She smoothed her hair with her hand, took a deep breath and came over to our table.

"So, pretty Annie, you get enough to eat?  We can't let a guest go away hungry."

"Mama Rosa, if I had anything more to eat, I think I'd bust!"

Mama Rosa laughed.  "We don't let that happen!  Just want you get enough to eat."

"Oh, that I did!  I think I got enough to eat to last me for two or three days!"

"Hey, you wanna be skinny like Davie?  You too pretty girl be that skinny!"

Annie blushed.  "Well, thanks, but that really was a lot of food!"

Mama Rosa just smiled at her.  "You have espresso, now, settle you dinner."  She went back to the kitchen and returned with the espresso pot, cups, and the little flaky pastries.  She set the pot and the plate of pastries in the middle of the table and placed a small cup in front of each of us.  Then she smiled and went to the cash register to take the money from a family who had just finished their dinner.

Mike poured espresso for all of us and reached over to pick up a pastry.  "You've really got to try these.  I think you'll like them."  He smiled at Annie.  I picked up one of the pastries, and the two of us were really enjoying them, when Annie reached over and picked one up.

"These don't look as if they'd be too filling.  Do I smell cinnamon?"

Mike grinned.  "Yep.  That's about the only real flavor they have, the little dusting of cinnamon sugar, but the texture is wonderful.  They just melt in your mouth."  He reached for another one.

Annie followed our example of holding a free hand to catch the flaky crumbs that dropped when she bit into the pastry.  "Oh, they're puff pastry!  And so good!  These are made with real butter, too!"

Mike grinned.  "If Mario tried to use anything else, I think Mama Rosa would start aiming those plates to hit him!  He's no fool!"

We finished the plate of pastries.  Annie stopped at three, but Mike and I continued until the plate was empty.  Then we just sat and sipped our espresso.  When we got up to go, Mike reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet.  He dropped his usual twenty on the table.  I followed his example.  Annie's eyes were wide, but she didn't say anything.

At the cash register, Mama Rosa smiled at Annie.  "You come again soon, no?  Make these lazy guys bring you!"

"Oh, Mama Rosa, you can believe that we'll be back soon.  Are you open for lunch, too?  I'd like to bring my boss in here.  I've eaten Italian food in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, when I've been with him on business trips.  He thinks he knows the best restaurants, but I can't wait to show him what's in his little home town.  I never had anything to compare with the dinner we just had!"

Mama Rosa grinned at Mike.  "She not only pretty girl, she smart, too.  Make some man good wife!"

"Too bad, Mama Rosa!  She's already married!"

Annie glared at him and said under her breath, "We'll talk about that later!"

Her eyes almost popped out, when Mike handed Mama Rosa a one hundred dollar bill.  "For your back door children, Mama Rosa!"

Mama Rosa rushed out from behind the cash register and crushed Mike into a big hug.  She had tears in her eyes.  "Mikey, you just the best ever was!"  She was wiping her eyes on her apron, as she hurried to the kitchen.

We went out and got into the car.  Annie looked at me.  "What was that all about?"

"I'll tell you all about it later, Sis!  Let's just say that you have just observed a meeting of the mutual admiration society."

She looked puzzled, but didn't say anything more on the way home.  When we got there, I went out to the kitchen and put on a fresh pot of coffee.  When it was finished, we relaxed in the kitchen with our coffee.  Then we got up and headed for the living room.  Annie looked at me with an almost pained expression on her face.

"You guys don't do that often, do you?  I'm so full, I'm not sure I'll make it up the stairs.  You may find me asleep on the couch in the morning."

"Now, tell the truth, Annie!  Was there one thing there that you would have left on your plate?"

She got a little-girl look on her face. "No."

"Based on my experience with Bella Roma, I think you'll sleep well tonight, and you'll feel a lot better in the morning."

"Well, I guess I'd better get started on it, then, because I think it's going to take a miracle to make me feel better by morning!"  She gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek.  Good night, Davie!"  Then she turned to Mike, hugged him, and stretched up to kiss his cheek.  Good night, Mike, and thank you!  That was an amazing meal!"  She headed up the stairs.

Mike looked at me.  "Are you ready to go to bed?  I think I'd really like another cup of coffee first."

"That sounds like a great idea."  We went out to the kitchen and relaxed at the table with another cup of coffee, before we dumped the pot, rinsed it and put it beside the coffee maker.  I picked up the cups and set them in the sink.  Then we turned off the lights in the kitchen and the living room, and went to bed.  We were both tired, or maybe just overfull with good food, so we just cuddled and drifted off to sleep.

Editor's Notes: 

What a wonderful chapter.  Annie got to have the best meal ever, didn't she?  Annie really needed to get away and have a really nice meal with her family and learn how special Mama Rosa is. Mike and Davey already knew of course, but Annie needed to find out for herself. 

When I think about it, I have to wonder what that jerk that saw Mike and Davey kissing has up his sleeve.  For that matter, what nasty skulduggery does that dirt bag that called himself Annie's husband have in mind?  I sure hope those two guys don't get together and cook up some dastardly deed.  I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to find them hatching something, either together or separately. Neither of them are nice people and for that matter, neither of them are all that bright, so I wouldn't put anything past them at this point.  In any case the guys and Annie all had a wonderful meal, and there is something wonderful about settling down for a nice night's sleep after a really special meal.

Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher