HOW I LEARNED TO SMOKE by Andrew Vincenzo Lorenzen
HOW I LEARNED TO SMOKE
by Andrew Vincenzo Lorenzen
YOUR ASHES ARE EVERYWHERE.
You don’t know how to smoke a cigar. I’m going to teach you tonight. I shouldn’t—but I will. Here, hold it like this, see? Between your thumb and index finger, like that, see? Isn’t that better, hm? Now, you dab the edge of it in the ashtray, like that, perfect. It’s tidier that way. Don’t cough like I do. You’re too young to cough like I do. Normally, they don’t let you smoke in here. Normally, I wouldn’t be talking so much. Normally, well there’s not much normal anymore, is there, kiddo?
PUFF SLOWLY. IT’S NOT A RACE.
I don’t want you sick tomorrow morning. Your mother will have my balls. Not a word to her about any of this. Not a word, you hear me? You should never lie to your mother. It’s not right. You should tell your mother the truth about everything. Just not this, alright? A man’s got to have a secret or two with his son, hasn’t he? A man’s got to have a little time with his boy, hasn’t he? That’s right, mhm.
SCOOCH YOUR CHAIR CLOSER.
They’ve got the piano turned up too loud. Angelo’s hearing isn’t so good, and he likes to listen to the music in the kitchen while he cooks. That stupid player piano’s the one thing they brought over from the old country. Thing probably hasn’t been tuned since 1930. Back then, they said it was a hundred years old. A hundred years before that, I think they said it was a hundred years old. And on and on and on it goes, everything is old, and that makes it good, somehow, for some reason. Makes it feel like things are going to last. Makes it feel like things don’t end. But things end. I’m drunk. I’m not making my point well enough, but you see what I’m trying to tell you, don’t you? Things do end. And if you hold onto them, you’re holding onto a crappy piano that plays crappy music. Things have got to end. We’ve got to let them end.
AND TONIGHT IS AN ENDING OF SORTS.
A damn sorry one, don’t you think? The restaurant’s half empty. Just a few of the usuals. No big splash. No big send-off. No grand jubilee. Just Angelo shuffling back and forth in the kitchen trying to not drop the zuppa di pesce with the shaking in his hands. Teressa going from table to table, emptying every bottle of red wine she has in the place into our glasses because what are they going to do with it? Who needs that much red wine? She doesn’t even like red wine. Angelo can only have a sip here and there. The doctor said so, and he has to listen to the doctor. If he doesn’t listen to the doctor, he could die. And if he dies, then, well, it’ll make no difference to the restaurant since it’s already closing down, but it’d be sad. Awfully sad, y’know. Who doesn’t like Angelo? Sure, he’s a bit racist after his two sips of wine, but he makes a damn fine pomodoro, don’t you think, hm?
Toast with me, come on, toast with me. You know what cent’anni means, hm? May you live a hundred years. A hundred years. You’re going to live a hundred years, kid. Your great-uncle Angelo, maybe not. Me, maybe not. But you and your mother, you’ll live a hundred years, a hundred years kiddo. Look at the old guy seated at the table behind us. Don’t turn your head too obviously—don’t be rude, for God’s sake. Yes, the one in the burgundy sweater, seated beneath that tourist printout of Milan or Tuscany or whatever fake Italian town that is. He’s ninety-two, you believe that? Ninety-two. He comes here every night. His wife passed five, six years ago. They never had kids. He’s got no one. But he likes this restaurant. And he’s got nothing else to spend money on, so he comes here every night. Every night, he orders manicotti and a glass of Tomasetti. He speaks maybe three words of English. Maybe.
MAKES YOU WONDER, DON’T IT?
What it’d be like, to be that old… What it’d be like, to be alone, like that… Makes you wonder about things you’re best off not wondering. Why aren’t you eating? There’s still some left. Come here, take a piece of bread. Mop up the rest of the tomato sauce with it. My father always said it’s a sin to waste sauce. He used to say he’d forgive me if I killed a guy, but if I wasted my mother’s tomato sauce, I’d be out on the street. He was very strict about that. He died young too. Heart attack. Just one of those things, you know. What are you gonna do.
NO, I’M FINE.
Wine makes me morbid. You’ll understand when you get older. You’ll speak about your father like that someday. Well, I don’t know. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. Alright, you finish the sauce? Good, good, that’s my boy. Get up, I want to take you to the kitchen. I want to show you around. Last night, you know, might as well. Oh, don’t be nervous, Angelo doesn’t mind. He’ll be glad to see you.
I’M ALRIGHT, I’M ALRIGHT.
Just give me a second. Give me a second. Sometimes, when I first stand, I… Maybe, I’ll take a break from the cigar. I’ll leave it here. No, no, you smoke yours. I just might need a break from mine. My lungs are… Well, you know. Come on, let’s walk, don’t worry about me. You shouldn’t worry about your old man. You shouldn’t have to worry about your old man.
DAMN, THAT LOOKS GOOD.
Look at the cut of veal, your aunt Teressa just brought out. My God, makes your mouth water, don’t it? That’s how I got to be so tall—grew up eating that for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Well, not veal, no, veal’s expensive. But whatever was leftover, y’know, back when my grandfather, your great-grandfather ran this place, before he gave it to your Uncle Angelo. My mother had to work, well, she said she was working, but, well, that’s a story for another evening… My grandfather and grandmother, they really raised me after my father passed, you know. In this place. Come here, look at these tiles. Come here, I can find it. This one, see this black one with the crack in the middle. I did that. My nonno was retiling the hallway, and I ran past and knocked over a stack of them…and this one cracked. But he was too cheap, he wasn’t going to buy a new tile. He just put it up anyway. I could barely walk for three days.
THIS CLOSET, HERE…
…here, there we go. Where’s the light, it’s… Ah, there, see all those jars? When he first started this place, all the tomato sauce came from the tomato plants in his yard. Every single one, not a joke. He’d pick ‘em in the spring, make the sauce, and jar them. Used to strain the sauce by putting it through a white pillow case. Not a joke, he really did. The murder pillowcase we used to call it. Stained red like blood. He’d go down to the basement and spend three days there just attending to the sauce. Now, they just buy the stuff, I guess, the tomatoes, what is this? Cento. Alright, well, well, it’s not the same, but Cento’s not so bad. Cento’s not so bad. Not like some of these places squeezing packets of Heinz. My father would roll over in his grave.
DAD LOVED TO COOK.
No matter how tired he was when he got back from the hospital, he’d always cook for us. He stole a scalpel from surgery once. He’d use it to cut the garlic real thin. Listen to me, listen very closely, this is the best piece of advice I can give you—don’t ever go out with a girl who doesn’t like garlic. If a girl doesn’t like garlic, that’s a problem. She’s not the girl for you. Don’t forget that. That’s good advice. I won’t even charge you for it.
THEY REALLY LOVED EACH OTHER, YOU KNOW?
My parents, they really did. I never saw them fight. Not once. You know how hard that is? I fight with your mother all the time. Oh, we’re alright, we love each other, but you know, when you’re married, well, that’s marriage. But my parents, that was a real true love. That… I don’t know. That’s probably why it got so bad after he croaked. With her drinking and, yeah. If you plan to die young, don’t find true love. It’s mean. It’s just mean. To love someone that much and die. Better off finding someone you just feel alright about. If that’s the plan, you need the Plymouth of love, not the Mustang. That Mustang will never run again after you’re gone.
DEATH IS LIKE ESPRESSO.
It should be enjoyed after a long, rich meal of life. It should seal the stomach and the soul. If it comes after the appetizers, well, it’s lousy. It’s just lousy.
WHY ARE YOU LETTING ME GET MORBID AGAIN?
Slap me the next time I get so depressing, alright? You hear me? I really mean it. Pow, right to the cheek, alright, kid? Alright, let’s go. Got to keep moving. Can’t believe I’ve never given you a real tour of this place before. Can’t believe I’ve never gotten to do that. Alright, here’s the kitchen. See those black spots on the floor? Roaches killed before you were born. No, I’m just kidding, it’s probably just mold or something, don’t worry. Angelo, mind if I show the kid around? He can’t hear, can he? His hearing, I swear… Well, he doesn’t mind. Come here, try this, stick your finger in. No one’s looking, just do it. How’s that, hm? That’s the sauce they cook the veal in, the porcini mushrooms. That’ll make you believe in a higher power, won’t it?
THIS IS WHERE THE WAITERS PICK EVERYTHING UP.
This counter, here. Let’s see, what have we got? Branzino. Meatballs. Burrata. Beautiful, beautiful. I’d steal one of these if I wasn’t already bursting at the seams. Stealing is wrong, though. That’s an important lesson. Stealing is wrong because if you get caught, you get in trouble. You understand? So, if you’re going to do it, don’t get caught. Then, it’s not stealing. Then, it’s economics. You understand?
THEY USED TO PAY ME A BUCK FIFTY AN HOUR…
…when I worked as a waiter. A buck fifty, and I didn’t get to keep any of the tips. That was the real shame. I used to get a lot of tips. I was handsome back in the day, I really was. Wear some tight slacks, and the old Italian women would come in and tuck a fiver into your back pocket. I mean, come on, it was easy money, easy money. You’ve got to work as a waiter sometime. You’re going to be president someday, you understand, but you’ve got to be a waiter first. That way you know how to treat people. That way you know how hard life is, you understand? People who’ve never waited tables have never had to wait for anything. And they’ll keep you waiting forever on their kindness.
BUT DON’T BE TOO KIND, EITHER.
People take advantage of that. When my grandfather retired, they looped him into some investment thing for this truck stop way out on I-90. It was going to make him a millionaire, and they stole all his money. He ended up back working here. Keeled over right in front of that stove. Not a joke. It’s the same stove. Aneurysm. His head fell right into the alfredo. Luckily, they pulled him out before he got too burnt up, you know. Open caskets are a big thing for Catholics. I never understood that. I don’t want that. I’m as Catholic as the next guy. I get the cracker every week, but when I’m gone, I’m gone. I don’t need visiting day at Madame Tussauds. No, thank you.
COME OUT THIS DOOR, THIS WAY.
This leads to the alley. I used to take a little extra long when I took the trash out. There was a sweet piece next door. Busgirl. If we happened to take the trash out at the same time, we’d neck against the wall. We only ever said a few words to each other. We’d just see each other and start necking. I don’t know why we did that. I shouldn’t be telling you that. I shouldn’t be telling you any of this, but, well, I don’t know.
THERE WAS A CAT.
Mangy looking thing. Tabby. We used to give it a little saucer of milk if we had any left over. He’d rub himself against my leg and purr. If I tried to pet him though, he’d scratch me like no one else. Probably still have some of those scars. Alley cats are like that. They love you, but they hate you. It’s like America with immigrants. That’s called a metaphor. It’s not a very good one, but now you know what a metaphor is.
IT’S TOO COLD, COME BACK INSIDE.
I’ve got to get you a better coat. Moths own this one as much as you do. Used to be my coat, actually. Your mother kept it. She kept everything. Money was going to be tight after—so she figured, she’d keep the stuff and just give it to you. You grew up walking around in a fashionable tomb, didn’t you? You grew up cold, didn’t you? That was my fault. That was, well, that was this place’s fault. I’m… I wish you hadn’t had that. I wish for a lot of things, kid. I wish for a lot.
I TOLD YOU TO SLAP ME, DAMNIT.
Come here, I want to show you two more things. Two more things, then we can go. I know you’re—you probably want to be with your friends. You probably want to go catch a movie with some pretty girl. You probably want to sneak into a bar and have a few beers. I want you to do it. Whatever it is, I want you to do it, you understand? Just after this. I want you to go and do something you enjoy, something that makes you smile, you understand? I want you to do something for you. Just for you. I want you live, kid. I want you to really live. You’ve got to.
THIS IS THE OFFICE.
Believe it or not, it looks more organized than usual. I always remember it being even messier than this. Angelo comes here after he closes up the restaurant and goes through the receipts and tips. He marks it all in that leather ledger, decides what number to tell Uncle Sam, and says a prayer to the Holy Mother that he can stay open another night. That last part’s not a joke—look, he’s got a rosary somewhere around here. Here, top drawer, see. The secret to piety is desperation. Nothing makes a man believe in God more than him needing God to help him out of whatever mess he’s in.
THIS IS WHERE I LEARNED TO SMOKE.
Right here, in that chair. I was thirteen. Thirteen years old. I worked as a busboy in those days. We’d closed up for the night. It’d been busy that night. Lot of dishes. Nonno was sitting in here running the numbers, and he called me in from the kitchen. He was sitting right behind that desk, smoking a cigar. His hand was still on the phone, just kind of cradling it, you know? Holding it like you’d hold onto a baby bird, something delicate, something to be cared for… And he just sat me down there, and he told me my father had croaked. And he handed me a cigar. He lit for me. Stuck it in my mouth. I don’t know why. But that’s how I learned to smoke. Just sitting there. Not saying anything. Waiting for my mother to make it back from the hospital. That’s how I learned.
THAT’S A LOUSY SLAP.
Come on, you can do better than that. Really, let me have it. Come on, really let me have it. I want to feel it. I want to feel it. Oh, come on, don’t chicken out. I want you to hit me. I want you to… I want you to take it out on me. You deserve to take it out on me. You deserve… You deserved a lot more.
THEY SAY IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT.
The doctors. They say that. But it is. Other cancers, sure, it’s not. But lung cancer when you smoked every day for twenty-five years? It’s my fault. It’s my fault, you’re going to grow up without a father. It’s all my fault.
ONE LAST THING.
Come here, let’s go back to the table. I hate this office. I don’t ever want to step foot in here again. Come here, let’s go. There, that’s better. Sit down, pour your father a little more wine. Just a little more, can’t hurt me, eh? You see the table next to us? You see the couple there? Look at the candlelight in their eyes. Look at the guy. His tie is dipping into the tiramisu. Look at how tightly she’s holding his hand, fingernails pressing into the calluses on his knuckles. Look at how happy they are. Look at how beautiful they are. That’s where your mother first told me she was pregnant. Five days before I found out the diagnosis. Five days before I found out I had five months. She told me right there on that night, and I stood on my chair. I stood on my chair, and I announced it to the entire restaurant. I was so goddamn happy. Angelo came out, even he heard the noise. He patted me on the shoulder. He patted me on the shoulder and handed me a cigar.
Originally from Miami, Andrew Vincenzo Lorenzen is an MFA student in the Creative Writing Program at New York University. His writing has previously been published by The Nation, The Miami Herald, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. During his undergraduate years at Cornell University, he was the recipient of a Marvin Carlson Award and a Heermans-McCalmon Award for his writing. He’s currently working on a novel manuscript and a television pilot, which you can learn more about here.