Friday, 9 May 2014

Serenissima by B J Fischer



To Fabrizzo Pittare, CPA, a spreadsheet was a portrait.  There was a story to be told, hundreds of individual decisions burrowing inside the numbers.  He designed his spreadsheets with an artist’s hand.  He would highlight the individual columns, carefully choosing a relevant color pallet--pastels for “turnaround emerging,” bold primary colors for “growth opportunities” and shades of red for “warning.”

Sometimes he would take the spreadsheets and line them up on his conference table, and crouch at one end, his eyes at table level.  He would stare all the way down one column--say, a limey 33FF33--and see it stretch to the other side of the room.

On this day, there was no time for that.  He was on his way to meet his client--the Pittare Brothers, an artisanal Italian furniture company owned by his Father and two of his Uncles.  And he was late.

He put the spreadsheets (“stay the course blues”) in his briefcase and headed to his old neighborhood.  The Pittare brothers worked in the garage of his childhood home.  Fabrizzo parked his car down the street.

The house was on a little curve, and as he walked around the turn, his senses lit up with the utterly familiar.  The sound of the saw, the smell of the sawdust, and the hammering concussions were like turning the first page of a family album.

His mind drifted to Saturdays when he would sweep up the sawdust in the shop, listening to his fathers and his uncles as they worked.  They talked a lot, between and around the saws--about their customers, their families, the parish priest--it was a running commentary on their world and listening made Fabrizzo feel like a man.

He remembered watching their finished product leave the garage, magnificent and dark, with details as delicate as a butterfly’s wings.  To Fabrizzo, each piece--each element--was a work of art that reached back to the old country.

Once he had taken a ferry to Grosse Pointe Ile with his Father to see their work in a gabled home along the water.  They passed a long and tall wrought iron fence lined with hundreds of fuchsias and were greeted by a manservant who showed them into the library.

There, a coffee table and four chairs, handcrafted by the Pittare brothers, sat inside the room as if they had always been there.  The walls were lined with books but Fabrizzo’s eye was drawn to a painting of a sailboat.  The lines were thick and heavy.  It didn’t look like a sailboat as much as it felt like one.

The servant came over to Fabrizzo.  “That is a Candelaria.  Most of his work is in museums.”

It was not long after that when Fabrizzo and his Father stood outside their house on Christmas Eve, breathing in the cool winter air.  It was the Feast of the Seven Fishes, and Fabrizzo knew that about the time they reached the squid course, his Father would have had enough talking and go outside for some fresh air--standing as silent as an end table, his hands stuffed into the pocket of his pea coat.

Fabrizzo always went with him, and normally they did not speak.  On this day, muffled merriment behind them, Fabrizzo had something to ask.

“Father,” he said, “are you an artist?”

“I am a craftsman.”

“Is it the same thing?”

“No,” his father said. “It is only similar.”

“Do you ever wish that more people saw your work?  Like a piece of art in a museum?”

“Fabrizzo, my son.  The public...” (he said the words with scorn dripping like candle wax), “those fuckers will eat you alive.  What do we care if some gum chewing HR manager who collects Mickey Mouse bobble-heads likes our work?  They would rather be at the movies.  Our work--art if you will--is loved in small batches.  The people at a dinner party.  Ladies for tea.  The servants admiring while they dust.  Anything more than that is just juggling butcher’s knives.”

Fabrizzo decided his Father was wrong while on a student tour of Europe.  He was in the hallways of the Rijks watching people file past Vermeer’s Milkmaid.  What Fabrizzo noticed was the sound. 

To most people, galleries were quiet, if not silent, but he listened in a way that others did not.  The shuffling feet, the hushed tones, the scratches and suppressed coughs were sounds that would be swallowed in a concert hall but they resounded in a gallery

They were the sounds of contemplation, of reverence, reflecting the majesty of their surroundings.  At a concert, you yell “Bravo!”  In a gallery, your heart applauds.

And Fabrizzo thought that on this topic his Father might be wrong and if not wrong then merely a product of his limited experience.

Fabrizzo went away to college where he began to be known as Rizzo.  He wanted to study art, to learn the trade secrets of the masters, but he was the first of his family to go to college and if he didn’t come home with a profession he was afraid there would never be another. 

Instead, he studied accounting, burning his electives and spare time on painting.  After graduation, there was always an easel in his basement while he worked at a lumber company, a factory and then finally in his own firm.  Though he spent much of his time in museums and galleries, his work never hung there. Instead, in the Pittare way, it was found (and liked) in the homes and offices of people he knew.  Being liked made him feel good, like sitting with a hot coffee and watching it snow outside.

He returned from his reminiscences as his hand turned the brass doorknob and he entered the garage.  “Fabrizzo, mio figlio,” his Father said. There were hugs and smiles, and they cleared off a workbench.  Fabrizzo spread his papers across it, and when his Father saw the colors he chuckled.  “My fucking artiste,” he said.

“It's for emphasis,” said Fabrizzo softly. 

They spent a couple of hours reviewing the numbers and the tales within.  When the meeting was over, Fabrizzo walked to his car.  It was dusk--darkness made him hungry, though he was ambivalent about what to eat.  Nothing sounded good, so he stopped at The Cortina, which was a mid-sized chain restaurant located on the edge of Ann Arbor, within breathing distance of I-94, on the periphery of a giant mall. 

Fabrizzo had no doubt that its location had been chosen beneath fluorescent lights in a chrome office park in Dallas, and normally, as a true son of Italy, he would have driven by with a sneer on his lips.  Tonight, though, he was hungry and it was good enough.

He asked for a table of one and looked at the menu.  It contained a lot of dishes with names that he assumed had been created by same people who had chosen the location.  He ordered lasagna with a bottle of the house Chianti.

Instead of a cloth, the table was covered with butcher paper, and in the middle there was a small cup with about a dozen crayons.  To pass the time, he pulled them out.

He was used to drawing.  He sketched everything before he painted it.  Using mostly purples, reds, and blues, he drew a man and a woman at a restaurant table.  They were both dressed casually, the woman in a mid-length skirt and a tank top, the man in an open black oxford with slacks.  They both had their legs crossed and look comfortable.  They were looking at each other.

On the table was a bottle of wine and two glasses, which were full.

The label on the bottle said “Lust.”

It wasn’t bad.  He liked irony in his work, and this had it.  The drawing was hurried, and therefore had an impressionistic quality, and the colors were rich and fertile, like soil in the spring.

His salad came, and he put the crayons away.  He worked his way through the salad (passable) and the lasagna (slightly better) and slowly drank the Chianti. 

When he was finished, the waitress was clearing the table and she saw his drawing.  Her name was Amanda--she had written it in crayon on the table so he wouldn’t forget--and she looked down past her blond bangs.

“Wow, look at that,” she said.  “Usually it's just kids scribbling.  That’s really interesting.”

“Is it something you like?”

“Like it?  Sure, I like it. It’s interesting.  Hey, and I took art history last semester.  I might even know something.  Are you an artist?”

“No,” he said.  “I’m an accountant.”

She looked at him, her blue eyes utterly without cynicism.  “You could have fooled me.”

After he paid, he ducked into the bathroom, and when he came out he looked back at the table where he had been sitting.   Amanda had gathered about a half dozen other members of the wait staff around the table, and they were looking at his art, their hands in their chins, nodding and smiling.  He left the restaurant that night, and took a healthy, peaceful breath of the cool night air.

Each of the next two nights, Fabrizzo drove past the Cortina around dinnertime, but he did not go in, opting instead to boil some ravioli and work on a painting in his basement, quietly putting the detail on a gazebo in a town square.

On the third night, he came in.  Amanda waved him directly to a table over by the window where the light was better, and moved everything to the far edge to give him more room.  Someone brought a fresh pack of crayons.

“I have to tell you something,’ she said.  “We never did anything like this before, but we all decided to leave the paper down for the next customers.  It was an older couple, probably in their thirties.  They talked about the picture for the whole meal.  They asked me who did it and everything?”

“Really?”

“Yeah, really.”

Fabrizzo paused for another moment, finally looked up again at her.  “Did they say if they liked it?” he asked.

“Yeah, they talked about it whole night.”

“But in a good way?”

“Yes.  In a good way.”

Amanda went back to work and left Fabrizzo at the table.  Sitting before him now was a blank table, fresh paper the color of mozzarella.  He took a crayon and began to draw.

This time he used browns and reds for an earthy, clay feel.  He drew a lean and muscular chef, with short hair and long fingers.  He had just pulled a loaf pan from the oven.  Using forced perspective, Fabrizzo made it look like he was moving it toward the viewer as he set it onto a counter.  Inside the bread pan was not bread, but the planet earth.

Under the picture, he wrote, “The Creator of Worlds.”

Amanda brought his lasagna.  “Oh my god,” she said.  “You did it again!”

“What do you think?” he said.

She crossed her arms and pursed her lips to appraise the drawing.  “It is less literal than the first one, right?  It almost has a mythological feel to it, a Greek God in a kitchen.”

“Do you like less literal, or do you not like less literal?” Fabrizzo asked.

“I like,” she said.  “Here, let me get some other opinions.” 

His stomach dropped, but before he knew it, half a dozen men in tomato-stained aprons had joined them.  For a moment the cooks stared curiously and silently at the art, but soon enough they began talking over one another as they realized that they had been liberated from the obscurity of the kitchen and became Fabrizzo's new best friends.

One of them, an older Latino man with a pocked face and a long streak of grey hair looked at Fabrizzo and said,  “Oh, so you’re the artist.”

Fabrizzo started to answer and then paused.  “I suppose I am,” he said finally.

Eventually, the manager broke it up, but not before customers throughout the dining room had begun to wonder what was going on.  As he ate, Fabrizzo noted that many of them crossed the room on their way out to satisfy their curiosity with a sideways glance at his drawing.  In each case, he watched the eyes carefully, looking for any movement, any smile, any hint that a connection had been made.

He was just getting up to leave when the manager was back again, asking to see Fabrizzo in his office.

His badge said his name was Wyatt.  He was a young man, perhaps thirty, with shaggy, sandy colored hair, a thin moustache and a shocking Adam's apple.  He cleared a stack of papers off the tiny office’s only chair and motioned for Fabrizzo to sit.  He hopped over a couple of other piles and slipped into a military grade chair behind the desk.

Fabrizzo apologized immediately.  “I’m very sorry for disturbing your restaurant.  I won’t do it again.”

Wyatt shook his head.  ““Oh, no.  People love it.  We’re thinking of framing them.”

“I’m very flattered,” he said.

“Those people were honored,” said Wyatt.  There was a knock on the door and Wyatt left with a waitress who said there was customer with a lapful of clam sauce.

Fabrizzo casually scanned Wyatt’s desk.  It had a volcanic messiness to it.  There were reports and spreadsheets and sticky notes, and some of them had wine on them.  There was a calculator buried in there, and a couple of sets of keys. 

Fabrizzo’s eyes were drawn to something colorful, and he gently pulled it out.  It was a trade magazine.  The cover showed a tourism bureau picture of Venice.  The headline was “Artisanal Italian:  The New Hole in the Market.”

Wyatt was back in the room a minute later, and even through Fabrizzo shoved the magazine back into the pile, Wyatt saw what he was looking at.  “No, no, no,” he said.  “Don’t put that away, pull it out.  Here, give it to me.  I wanted to talk to you about something.”  His chair squeaked as he leaned back into it.

“Of course.”

“This whole chain thing,” (he waved his hands dismissively in the air) “I’m way better than this.  This is just something I am doing to pay the bills.”

“Who are you really?”

“Well, I’m not a fucking actor.  I’m not a poet either.  No, look,” he said, rolling his eyes, “this place is yesterday. It's a totally outdated model, the menu’s bloated and the corporate kitchen is just chasing tastes.  It's a mess, trust me.”

“I thought the lasagna was pretty good.”

“Oh yeah, it's fine.  I mean, it's like lasagna we used to have at Church socials when I was growing up.  Of course, we were Methodists,” he said.

“We were Catholic,” said Fabrizzo.

“Right, you’re Italian?  There’s more to Italian food then tomato sauce...”

“Gravy...”

“...Whatever the fuck.  But there’s more.  Am I right?”

“You are right.”

“In five years they are going to be selling Halloween costumes out of this hell hole,” he said.  He leaned across the table and tapped the magazine.  “I’m opening my own restaurant.”

“You are opening an artisanal Italian restaurant?”

“That’s right.  Artisanal Italian.  We’re calling it Serenissima, over on Packard.”

“Because you read about it in a magazine?”

“That’s what the magazine is for.  It couldn’t be clearer.  The artisanal demographic supports a 12% price premium on food and 18% on wine.  They don’t use coupons, their satisfied-loyalty index is 1.3 and their diner frequency is the third highest in the non-senior categories.”

“Do you need an accountant?”

“Fuck no, we use Quick Books.”

“Well, good for you.  And good luck.  Maybe I’ll come by.”

“We’d love to have you, but that wasn’t the point.  I was thinking.  Marketing is all about differentiation,” Wyatt said.  “You know what would make a difference to Serenissima?  Art.  On the tables.  Boom.  Get the fuck out of town.”

“That’s more important than an accountant?”

“I’m fucking serious.”  Wyatt was excited now and his voice was rising every second or two.  “We can both become famous for this.  You draw on the white paper and we put it under a cover on the table.  It would make us different.  People would talk about it.  They might even call and request a certain table.  ‘We’d like the table with the lust picture on it.’  Do you follow me?  We’d be the artisanal restaurant with art on the table.

“Is this mentioned in the article?”

“No, I made it up myself.  The next magazine article will be about me.”

In the tradition of Pittare’s possibly dating back to the Renaissance, Fabrizzo maintained a flat face of Italian marble.

 “So, how much?” Fabrizzo said.

“I’ve got no cash,” Wyatt said.  “What I’m thinking is we’ll sell prints.  You establish the price.  You keep 100%.”

“How many tables do you think you can turn in a week?”

Wyatt reached into the mound on his desk and pulled a sheet of paper out.  “We’re small--a 15-top.  Our p-l shows 200.”

Fabrizzo ran the numbers in his head.  If 5% of the people bought a $20 print with a $4 production cost, that was $160 a week and $8,320 per year. 

“What about 2% on gross?”

“That’s half my profit margin.  I will give you the 2% of net for the life of the restaurant.”

“For most new restaurants, that’s nothing for about six months.”

“You sound like my mother in law now.  You need to think big.  If it fails, we get nothing.  If it goes, it changes everything.  I’m telling you, people are going to love it”

Those were the words that rang in Fabrizzo’s head as he drove home.  

There was an equilibrium that was the foundation of his adult life:  he was a businessman whose hobby was painting.  He began to feel it teeter.

For the second time that night, he thought of his father. Fabrizzo was sure that he would turn Wyatt down.

And yet, while it was no museum, there were plenty of restaurants that had commissioned art for their walls, why not for their tables?

He was pretty sure he would turn Wyatt down when he drank his Nocino nightcap and put his head onto his pillow.  He was less sure when he woke up at about 2 AM with an urge to sketch, and even less sure after he filled his pad with thumbnails.  Against everything his father had taught him and against everything he had learned as an accountant, he was about to work like a dog for free for a doomed enterprise.

The next night, he toured Serenissima.  Wyatt explained that the article recommended a trattoria look.  There would be no red-checked tablecloths or candles in wine bottles; nor would there be a sloppy mural of a Venice canal or a gondola.

There was a stone fireplace on one wall. The other walls were beige and had framed art hanging on them.  The frames were different sizes and shapes, and they were scattered on the wall with a calculated disorder, as if they had been gathered over many years.  Bread would be brought to the table already sliced on blond wooden cutting boards.  Wine would be served in short glasses.

After the tour, Fabrizzo returned immediately to his basement studio.  He had three wooden easels standing with blank paper, and the room was lit by three work lamps on long-necked tripods.  The bright lights in the dark basement created a glowing nucleus in which Fabrizzo worked.

He was anxious but he had not picked up his crayons yet.  He was looking for a novel, not a collection of stories. 

He had that feeling--there was a sense of where he needed to go, like it was standing just over there, and as he scribbled and erased and threw crumpled pages onto the floor, he eliminated all the things that stood between him and the vision; when he had cleared out the brush, he found it, a doe in a forest clearing.

The theme was nourishment.

There are so many hungers that humans have, he thought, so many empty places and so many ways to be satiated.  The body must have food and drink, but it must also have companionship and touch.  These needs (and others, they were flooding to him now) were as old as the human gene; the ritual of breaking bread was just as old.

He sketched a small group of young people talking and laughing, two middle aged people on a date, a young family, a man contentedly alone at his table, and two men looking over a (color coded) spreadsheet.  The food and drink was blended into each picture, as natural as dew, and the effect was to infuse the mundane with revealing elegance. 

The greeter, the waiter, the cook, the sous chef, the busboy, the bartender--the employees of the restaurant would be portrayed as creators, providing nourishment with their hands.

With the exception of one table, his work stayed on his subject.  There was only one table, an eight top, where he indulged himself with a work that was purely personal. 

This drawing would show a large Italian family at the Feast of the Seven Fishes.  They could be seated around a long oval table, which was crowded with food and wine.  There would be candles on the table, and in the distance is a Christmas tree.  The children are dressed in stiff clothes, and have orange soda in front of them, except for one teenager who is sneaking a taste of his grandmother’s wine as she looks the other way.  The older men sit silently on the other end of the table.  The women are talking and gesturing.  And there was one boy, seated in the middle, observing it all with a wry smile.

He called it The First Supper.

He started out working at night, and then he also worked in the morning, arriving at his office late.  After that, he started leaving early, and then he was coming home at lunch and never going back.  He knew he was all the way in when he had his office phones forwarded to his house.

He bought more easels, so he could see all the drawings at the same time.  Every one was indispensable, and no work was too far along to be restarted.  He was conscious at every moment of the entire scope of his project--from the very inch of paper beneath his hand to the entire collection. 

Though he was alone in his basement, he was conscious of eyes--the hundreds of eyes that would see his art in the restaurant, and he felt like the walls were covered with them. 

He was exhilarated.  He tried sometimes, when he was finally falling asleep, to find the word that would describe his feelings, and when he did, he took a bright red crayon and wrote it on his bathroom mirror:  “EXALTED.”

One day, Wyatt came before his shift at Cortina to see the progress his artist was making. Fabrizzo had been up early, staging the easels carefully across his basement floor.  He led Wyatt down the stairs.  Fabrizzo stood in the middle of the paintings.  He smiled.  “Well, here they are,” he said.

Wyatt walked into the middle of the floor, his arms crossed.  He scanned them quickly.

“They look great.  I like them.  When will they be done?”

“You like them?  Just like that?”

“What do you want?  I like them.”

“You hardly even looked at them.”

“How long do you want me to look at them?”

“I was hoping for some feedback.”

“I gave you feedback.  I like them”

“Do you want to know what theme I was using?”

“You were using a theme?  Does that cost extra?”

“You are hardly paying me in the first place.”

“There’s no need to be like that.”

Fabrizzo knocked his fist on a table.  “Which one do you like best?”

Wyatt turned and surveyed the drawings for about four seconds.  “That one,” he said, pointing at the picture of the bus boy.  “I like that one best.”

“You like that one?”

“Yep.”

“What do you like about it?”

Wyatt rolled his eyes.  “The colors.”

“The colors?”

“Yeah, the colors.  I like the red.”

“That’s it?”

“I like the ones without red, too.”

Wyatt said he had to go.  Assuring Fabrizzo that it was “all good,” he headed to his car and drove off.  He was on his phone before his car left the driveway.

Fabrizzo turned on his television.  The Today Show was still on, but he went to his cabinet and poured himself two fingers. 

He finished his drink and had another, and then he went down into the basement again.  He could not stop the voice in his head:  "something is wrong," it said. 

He knew that Wyatt was an idiot, a Philistine, the kind of guy who would wreck a temple.  The question was whether he was the norm?

Because if he was, his work had failed the Wyatt test.  Yes, Wyatt had said he liked it, and he probably did.  But the work had not grabbed him, had not seized his attention or inspired his imagination.  To Wyatt the Precursor, they were nothing more than well-arranged markings.

He looked at the drawings and felt sick to his stomach.  This?  This was what he was going to put on the tables before the paying customers at Serenissima?   He had waited since college for his voice to be heard, and this was what he came up with?  Fabrizzo’s mind locked onto the drawing of the waitress.  He stood in front of it.  All wrong, he thought.  All wrong.

The waitress was delivering food to a table with a young family, two parents and a toddler in a high chair.  The little boy’s face was scrunched in protest.  The mother looks concerned, the father distracted.  The waitress--the ambassador--is presenting a plate of spaghetti to the boy.  She has an exaggerated look on her face as she tries to sell the food. 

“People have already seen all the Norman Rockwell they want to fucking see,” he screamed in the basement. 

What had he been thinking?  Those eyes, the eyes of the walls of his basement, he felt them more now; before they were anticipating eyes and now they were the eyes of prey.

He was now embarrassed for the entire enterprise, and he spent his day revising.  He redrew the waitress picture twice, as well as the cook and the hostess.

He would have revised them all, but he was too tired to lift his hand above his waist.  He left the windowless basement and was surprised to see that it was dark out.  He fell onto his couch and went to sleep. 

The restaurant was set to open on a Friday night.  It was the Sunday afternoon before that, and Fabrizzo’s drawings were two days late.  He heard the knocking on his door from the basement.  He looked around and sighed.  This was it, he thought.  It had come to this.

He walked up the steps as the pounding became more insistent.  As he expected, Wyatt was at the door.

“Twenty-five unreturned calls,” said Wyatt.

Fabrizzo looked at his phone.  “Twenty-seven.”

“You are fucking killing me, man.”

“I’m sorry.  You wanted people to like it, right?”

“Yeah, I suppose.”

“Well, they wouldn’t have.”

“And is it good now?” Wyatt said.  “Because we have no more time.”

“Why don’t you look for yourself,” Fabrizzo said.

Wyatt sighed.  “Do you think it's good?”

Now Fabrizzo sighed.  “I don’t know.  I don’t know anymore.”

“It's time,” Wyatt said.  “We’re opening this week.  I need the art.”

“What if it's awful?”

“I need the art.”

Fabrizzo weakly nodded his head and went into the basement, and a few minutes later he returned with the art, rolled up in a tube.  He was vaguely thankful that he couldn’t see it anymore, but there was a moment’s hesitation, a little hiccup in his exhausted mind when he handed it over.

“Thank you,” Wyatt said.  “See you at the opening Friday?”

“You will,” Fabrizzo said.  Wyatt left, and Fabrizzo slumped against the door.  “It's in god’s hands now,” he whispered to himself. 

Opening night was a benefit for the Italian language program at the University of Michigan and the room was full.  Wyatt had greeted Fabrizzo at the door (in his tux), but he was busy meeting his guests and managing the event and Fabrizzo had not talked to him again. 

Fabrizzo knew no one else there.  He had a glass of Chianti and he was wandering through the crowd eavesdropping.  He heard university gossip, academic debates, and travel tips.  Finally, after he had nearly given up hope, he passed a conversation where they were discussing his art.  He stopped and listened, with his back turned.

There were two people in the conversation, one of them a man with a short beard in a sports jacket and turtleneck, and a woman with straight brown hair and skin the color of chalk.

“So,” Fabrizzo heard her say, “What do you think of the art?” 

Every atom in Fabrizzo’s body cringed.

The man spoke, “you know, it might seem like a dumb idea, but I think they pulled it off.”

Fabrizzo heard the music in the restaurant’s sound system, an aria, reach a triumphant chord and felt the walls shake.

“I agree,” the woman said.  “Did you see the Feast of the Seven Fishes?”

“I did.  We never did that in our family, we lived in the suburbs.”

“Well, we’re Finnish, so you know we didn’t.”

“It totally works as ethnography.”

“It does!  I think they are really smart.”

Really smart!  The words tolled in Fabrizzo’s head.  And this from a Finnish anthropologist!  He resisted the urge to walk up to them and introduce himself (or hug them), instead walking to the bar for another glass of wine, his entire body humming but his face betraying nothing but benign contentment.

It was about twenty minutes later when Fabrizzo looked to the door and saw his Father walking in.  He was wearing his brown Church suit and as he walked through the crowd toward Fabrizzo, his broad shoulders stood out in the crowd.

“Mio figlio,” his Father said.

“Hello, Father.”

There was a short pause while his Father looked around.  “So this is it?”

“Yes it is.  Come and look.”

“Who are these people?”

“They are from the Italian department at the University.”

“These people are Italian?”

“They study Italian, Father.  They don’t have to be Italian.  Come.  Come and look.”

His Father nodded and they walked across the room to one of the tables--this one featured the chef rolling out pasta dough.  Fabrizzo’s Father looked at it without commenting though he did nod slightly.  They walked to other tables and he looked at each of them.  Fabrizzo steered him around the room, ensuring that his tour would end with the Feast of the Seven Fishes.

As their stood before this drawing, his Father did react in a way that it had taken a lifetime to learn how to identify.  His head tilted back slightly.  His shoulders relaxed. 

“This one is good,” he said.

“Thank you.  I’m glad you like it.”

“It captures the moment, doesn’t it?” 

Fabrizzo’s heart leapt.  “It was my hope that it would.”

“I think it does.”

“And the others?”

“They’re good Fabrizzo.  They tell a story, I’m very impressed.”

“Thank you, Father.”

“You should be well paid for work like this.”

Fabrizzo shrugged.  “When they buy prints, I get the money.”

Fabrizzo’s father considered this for a minute as he sipped from his glass.  “If they don’t buy...”

“...I don’t get paid.”

“So, the work is good, but why?  For publicity?  So you can get private commissions?”

“That would be nice,” Fabrizzo said.  “I don’t think it will happen.”

“Then why?  To please these people?  Moochers in turtlenecks?”

He told his father how it had all started, and how thrilling it had been to hear reactions on his work--to hear that people liked it.  “You understand, Father,” he said, in conclusion.  “I did something and they liked it.”

“And that makes you happy?”

“It does.”

“No man controls the open sea,” he said.

Fabrizzo looked at him.  “I understand,” he said.

The restaurant opened officially two days later and business was very good.  Fabrizzo had checked in once or twice during the week.  He could see people looking at his art, peeking over their cheaters or pointing with their fork.  They seemed comfortable, at ease. 

A few days later, he learned that the art was even creating a little buzz.  The Ann Arbor Daily, whose arts reporter had heard about it at a gallery opening, called him.  A feature in the paper followed, with a photo gallery on the website.  He was selling prints every night.  He was even recognized at the grocery store by a young woman in long black boots.

Fabrizzo started to come to the restaurant most nights.  He would sit in the corner of the bar with a cup of coffee if it was early and a Nocino if it was late. He’d have a copy of the Journal with him, looking so much like a modern businessman that he would go unnoticed.  If anyone had looked, however, if anyone had taken a close look at the man in the corner, they would have seen a man whose eyes were peering just over the top of the Wall Street Journal and out into the dining room.

He had begun to think that he had invented a new art form.  If not a new form, a new venue, and what was the difference, after all?  Invention was invention.  People didn’t go to art museums anymore, everyone knew that.  Yet, they had a need for art in their lives, even if they didn’t know it.  And here he discovered another hunger:  for the soul to be nourished as the body is.  If they would not go to a museum, then the museum could meet them on the trattoria table.

And it was the creation of Fabrizzo Pittare, CPA. 

They had been coasting on this wave for weeks until one night near the end of the season.  Fabrizzo was at his usual station drinking an espresso with a picked over tiramisu in front of him.  It was getting late, and people were leaving faster than they were arriving.  He saw a couple come in.  He recognized them.  They had been here before. 

She was in a bright red cape coat with a matching beret.  He was wearing blue jeans, a white T-shirt and a sport coat.  Amanda was the hostess, and she took them back to the table in the corner:  the dishwasher, a carefully crafted metaphor for a cleansing ritual.

When they got to the table, he watched them.  He had learned there was a rhythm.  The customers would get to the table, look at the art, register some kind of reaction, and then begin to pull their chairs out and sit down.

This time though, there was a pause where there shouldn’t be.  No chairs were pulled out.  Amanda was listening while the red cape woman talked.  Amanda nodded her head and led the couple across the room to another table--the four-top over by the far wall (nearer to the kitchen door!) with the pastry chef (the showman, the coup d’ grace) on it.  He saw the woman’s shoulders slump a little, and then she nodded and they sat down.

When Amanda made her way back to the hostess station, he got off his barstool and walked over to her.

“What was that all about?”

“What?  Those people?”

“Yes, those people.”

“Well,” she smiled at him, “they just love the sous chef chopping vegetables, but it wasn’t available.”

“So?”

“So, I sat them at the dishwasher, which is next in the rotation, but that woman didn’t want to sit there, she said looking at the dirty dishes while she was eating would give her indigestion.”

“So she asked to be moved....”

“She did.  She asked to be moved, and I took her over to the next table in the rotation, which is the pastry chef....”

“Right, the pastry chef....”

“And they decided to sit there.”

“Did she like the pastry chef?”

“She said it was a little saccharine.”

“Saccharine?”

“Just a little....”

“....a little saccharine?”

“And she was perfectly willing to sit there,” Amanda said.

“That’s what I was after,” Fabrizzo said.  “Willingness.”

“Don’t let it bother you.  You can’t please everyone.”

“I know. I know that.”  He took a deep breath.  “Did she say saccharine?”

“She did.  She said that.”

“If they don’t like it, that’s fine.  But why do they have to be stupid about it?”

“They liked the sous chef.  Be happy with that.”

Fabrizzo crossed his arms.  “They cannot possibly dislike the dishwasher as--as,” (he shrugged his shoulders) “as whatever the fuck, undigestive, think the pastry chef is a little saccharine and then like the sous chef for a good reason.  The drawings are like an artichoke; every piece is part of the whole. If they are dumb when they don’t like it, they are dumb when they do.”

“A person can’t like some drawings and not others?”

“No.  They cannot.”

“Wow,” she said.  “That’s a tall order.”

Fabrizzo took a deep breath and headed back to his seat in the corner.  He looked at the couple again.  They seemed to be enjoying their dinner, now oblivious to the artwork and his very existence. He knew he couldn’t sit in the corner and stare at them, but he couldn’t look anywhere else either, they were just sitting there, taunting him, mocking him.  Fabrizzo threw a $20 on the bar and headed for the door.  He did not resume his place again for six days.

On that day, he acted like nothing had changed.  He collected his check for purchased artwork, and sat down in the corner, at the bar, and ordered ziti with radicchio and a Chianti.  The dining room was half full, but it was early.  He looked at the people.  They could have been any people in any restaurant, anywhere.  Talking, laughing, twirling spaghetti on their forks. 

He searched the room, the faces.  No one seemed to be looking at his art.

His food came, and he turned his face away from the dining room.  Closing his eyes, he let the steaming scent of the tomatoes and the cheese fill his mind.  He forced himself not to look into the dining room, forced himself to look only straight ahead and down.  The Pistons were playing on the TV, and for the moment he discovered pro basketball.

He finished dinner, and ordered more wine.  The Pistons finished off the Sixers.  He took a deep breath, and feeling settled again, he allowed himself to turn his head.

Two women came into the restaurant, wearing wool jackets over turtlenecks, accessorized with silk scarves.  The hostess led them to the only open table--the one with the family dining.  On it, the Mother is holding a baby and wiping the mouth of a toddler while a big plate of spaghetti sits untouched before her.  The Father has a look of oblivious contentment on his face, staring off to a distant point.  His meal is nearly finished.

The two women looked at the drawing, but they did not sit down.  From across, the room, he saw the shaking of heads, and then he saw Amanda hold her palm out, showing them that there was no other table available.  The women continued to shake their heads.  One of the women, the taller and darker of the two, began to poke her long and knobby finger onto his artwork, as if to puncture it.

Amanda shrugged.  The woman with the knobby finger gave a curt nod, and they left the table and headed back to the exit.

The question of what Fabrizzo should do next went no further than his limbic system.

He jumped from his bar stool and moved into the path of the women.  They were bustling their way out when the taller woman saw Fabrizzo blocking her way.

“Excuse me,” she said.  “We’re leaving.”

“Why?”

“What difference does it make to you?” she said.

“Is it because you didn’t like the art?”

“I don’t call it art.”

“So you don’t like it?”

“If you mean that misogynist scribbling on the table, no, we do not.”

“Well, I'm the artist.”

“Well, I’m the person who didn’t like it.”

“Do you like the others?”

“We do.  We sat the other night at the sous chef’s table and had a wonderful time.”

“But you don’t like this one?  Why?  It presents a very typical scene.”

“That’s why it's objectionable....”

“.... because it was true?”

“No.  The only reason it is true is that people like you portray gender roles like this.  The woman sacrificing for the children and the husband, content and uninvolved.  What chance does any young girl--or boy--have when all they see is this?”

“And therefore I hate women.”

“Therefore your work is hurtful to women.  And we don’t like it.”

“Well,” he said, “maybe you just hate the nuclear family.”

Fabrizzo and the woman stood about twelve inches apart, both of them with their hands on their hips and learning slightly forward.  The woman politely walked around Fabrizzo and headed to her door. 

Her heretofore silent partner walked behind her.  She stopped.  “I agree with her.  Just not so strongly,” she whispered before the two of them headed out the door and into the twilight.

Fabrizzo’s heart was racing.  He walked back to the corner and sat back down.  The bartenders gave him plenty of room.

“Water?” Fabrizzo said.  “Can I get some water?”

He was just beginning to feel his nerves settle when Amanda came up.

“Wyatt wants to see you,” she said.

Fabrizzo sighed.  “What?”

“He’s pretty mad.”

“It wasn’t my fault.  They were being bitches.”

“They were customers.  Why don’t you argue with Wyatt instead of me?”

Fabrizzo shrugged and stood up from his stool.  He straightened his sports jacket and walked back toward the manager’s office.

When he got there, Wyatt was standing with his arms crossed.  “What the fuck was that?”

“They were being completely unreasonable.”

“They were customers!” said Wyatt.

“They were fucking bitches.”

“You’re an accountant.  You turned them from a credit to a debit.”

“Well, technically it was an opportunity loss, not really a debit,” said Fabrizzo.

“Very funny.  I’m sorry.  You can’t stay here, Fabrizzo.  It is a bad combination.  Were there any cell phones?”

“Not that I noticed.”

“Well, that’s what I’m talking about.  All it takes is one and this place will empty out faster than a baby’s bladder.”

“Please,” said Fabrizzo.  “Give me another chance.”

“I bought the art not the artist.”

“I sweated over those drawings for weeks.  They are part of me.”

“Jesus, does the artist go to the museum and sit in the corner and watch every person who comes by?  Do you want to feel like this?  It's killing you.”

“I’ve waited my whole life for this,” he said.

“Let it go, Fabrizzo.  Just let it go.”

Fabrizzo nodded his head.  “Boom.  Get the fuck out of town,” he said, quietly.  He walked from the office out into the dining room.  He heard the tinkling of silverware and saw the sparkle of ice in the water glasses.  He couldn’t stand to walk in shame all the way through the dining room to the front door, so he ducked out the back, looking back over his shoulder only once.

The restaurant backed into an alley, and Fabrizzo stood and stared at the night air.  He could hear the sounds of cars on the street and people on the sidewalks, and translucent clouds moved in the dark above his head.  The world was going about its business.

Fabrizzo almost turned around twice to go back into the restaurant and convince Wyatt he was wrong, but he didn’t.  There might be another day for that, he began to think.  He stood and contemplated the whole thing, the whole wretched journey from scribbling to shame under the moving clouds before an oblivious world.

He heard an exhale from behind him, and turned to see a long white stream of cigarette smoke come by.  He looked and saw Cesar, the restaurant’s Ecuadorian cook with the streak of grey hair.

“Ola,” said Cesar.

“Hey,” said Fabrizzo.

“So Wyatt gave you the boot?”

“You heard.”

“Who didn’t?”  He took another drag of his cigarette.  “You might have gone too far.”

“You too?”

“Here’s the thing.  You have to get dirty.”

“Dirty?”

“Yes, if you want to deal with people, you have to get dirty.  You can’t live in a sick-boy’s bubble.”

“So I just have to take it when people rip my work?”

“If you are open to praise, you are open to hate.”

“And I just have to sit there and take it?”

“It is the price.  Without that, you're just jerking off.  Which is fine if that’s what you want.  It's perfect, a dream.  But you don’t really want that.  You want to fuck the woman, right?  And once you do, it isn’t a dream anymore.”

“I think I got fucked tonight.”

“Look,” the chef said.  “I cook for people.  I could just cook at home for my family, but I don’t, I cook for whoever comes in.  Sometimes they don’t like it.  Usually they do.”

Fabrizzo leaned against the restaurant’s back wall.  He heard a group of women walking and laughing nearby.  “Why do they have to be so fucking stupid about it?”

“Art isn’t about being liked,” said Cesar.  “It is about being heard.  And those women tonight?  Don’t you think they heard you?”

“That’s the point.  They didn’t hear what I was saying at all.”

“Sure they did.  Why do you think they were so pissed?”  Cesar laughed.  “You think no one ever walked by a Michelangelo and didn’t like it?  How many artists were hated during their lives?”

“These were people in an Italian restaurant, not a Renaissance gallery.”

The chef stubbed his cigarette out.  “It's the same fucking thing.  I gotta get back to work.”

“So you’re a chef?” Fabrizzo asked.

“Yep.  I started when I moved to the States nineteen years ago.  Right after I graduated from the Academia de las Artes del Ecuador.”

The chef went back into the restaurant.  Fabrizzo walked down the alley and out onto the street, and turned left.  He walked down the street a little more, past his car, wandering down a side street here and there.  He found an empty storefront that appeared to be a recently closed cupcake shop.  Its large window faced east and he could begin to see himself showing his Father around his new office in the morning sun; a gallery on the first floor, an accountant’s office on the second and an apartment on the third.

He would ask the Pittare brothers to help furnish the gallery, though he did not know how they would feel about such a public venue.


About the Author: BJ Fischer's short story "The Terrible Day of the Wisecrack" was published in February in the Linden Avenue Literary Journal, and was followed by "The True Story of Valley Forge Fries", in March 2014 by Blue Lake Review.  His essays have appeared in The Fiddleback, The (Toledo) Blade, the Bygone Bureau, Punchnel's, Thought Catalog, Impose Magazine, the Minneapolis Review of Baseball, Midmajority, and Ontologica. 

Image: (c) Robert Parviainen