By Stirling Edgewood
The jackal, when in a pack of his boorish compatriots, is a tireless annoyance of insistent sound and struggle. He celebrates his brutish existence through a cacophonous outpouring of barking, cackling, howling, grunting, growling, wailing, cawing, lowing, crying, shrieking, belching, barfing, and moaning. His perpetual disturbance of the auditory realm is accompanied by a simultaneous agitation of haphazard physical motion. He is forever scratching, nipping, wagging, crawling, twitching, floundering, skipping, staggering, jumping, dancing, shaking, vibrating, swaying, and otherwise traveling in random directions at every rate from imperceptible ooze to dead sprint, exclusive only of the velocity of standing still. He is forever sniffing, scouting, cocking an ear, licking, pawing, and mouthing the objects and creatures within his reach, testing each for tastiness, danger, and amusement. He may stumble into a field of the most pleasing and deliciously ripe melons and spend hours pouncing on them, exploding their plump rinds, and never sample a single slurp of pulp. Or he may stuff himself full of moldering, maggoty dung to the point of vomiting. He may find the most seductive she-bitch in heat, begging for his affection, and simply gobble her up, bones and all. In fit of pique, he may copulate prodigiously with a hornet’s nest. His erratic and incongruous behavior is often dangerous, frequently perplexing, but never dull. Each motion, each quiver, each shimmy or scream, is a pitifully desperate attempt to garner the attention of his fickle mates, outdoing them by any means, be it buffoonery, shocking idiocy, sheer audacity, or utter insanity, to be lofted briefly upon the transient throne of their adulation, if only for the brief space between the magnitude of his latest outrage and the infinitesimal half-life of the pack’s attention span.
“Get a load a this guy!” bellowed Sal. The Snake was standing in the doorway to Sal’s restaurant in blue cotton gym shorts and a Carnegie Mellon University Tartans T-shirt. “You get kissed by a Polish Camper? I ain’t seen this guy without a suit on since we went skinny dipping with the Scozzafava sisters in the Schuylkill. Even then, he still kept his tie on.”
Sal wiped some marinara sauce from his pudgy, sausage-like fingers onto a rag and trundled over to give the Snake a hug and a peck on each cheek. He suddenly pushed Snake back and said, “Wait a minute, I’m going to ruin my street cred getting seen embracing a guy dressed like a bum. I don’t know this guy! He’s some kind of imposter! Call the bouncer and toss him out in the snow!”
“Aw, gimme a break Sal!” pleaded the Snake. “I got run over by a hungry buffalo on her way to Gino’s for an extra large, ‘with’.”
“Hopefully it knocked some sense into that Italian marble head of yours.”
“It just maybe did.” Retorted the Snake, a little too enthusiastically. Sal raised an eyebrow and peered for a moment perplexedly at Snake. Then he caught sight of a leggy blonde in the tight red silk shirt and tighter black pants that served as the uniform for the staff at Sal’s restaurant. He reached out as she passed by and grabbed her by the waist and pulled her in next to himself. Several drinks in the tray she was holding began to teeter and wobble in response to the sudden change in direction, and the ice tinkled noisily in protest. “Adrianna, come say hello to a legend of Little Italy, Anthony Condoletti, also known as Anaconda, or the Snake for short. Me and him, since we were kids, we been getting into and out of more kinds of trouble than a couple caterpillars in a three-legged race.
“Remember streaking through the mummers’ parade?” Chuckled Snake.”
“Yeah,” chimed in Sal. “We drank a bottle of Sambuca on the way. We were so drunk, we stopped to take a leak on the paddy wagon.”
“Charmed.” Adrianna purred, with a mischievous smile.
“Come give Snake a proper Italian hello.” Sal commanded, and give her a push toward Snake. She stumbled forward, upsetting the tray, and projecting the beverages directly onto the Snake’s ragged T-shirt, leaving him drenched and spluttering.
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” Adrianna exclaimed, covering her mouth in surprise. “Sal, you keep your hands to yourself!” she hissed.
She looked at Snake, who was staring helplessly down at his sopping clothing, his hands outstretched to either side.
“Aww,” cooed Adrianna, “You poor thing. Let me get that for you.” She grabbed a red napkin from a nearby table, and began rubbing it against the Snake’s chest. “You’re all wet…” She said in a low voice, “I can help you with that.” She began stroking lower down towards his abdomen, and lower still, and looked at him through two big brown eyes, “Did you say your name was Snake?”
Snake took her hand and pointed toward the kitchen, “Maybe you could find me a towel?”
“Sure, I guess.” She said with disappointment, and walked through a swinging wooden door.
“Did you get a load of those cans?” Sal demanded once she was out of sight, cupping his hands in front of his chest in lewd pantomime. “Like she got shot in the back with two Minuteman warheads.”
“Whoa, Sal” Snake chided, “What’s the first thing your pop told you when you took over this place?”
“I know, I know, ‘Hire a good pair of hands not a good pair of legs.’” Retorted Sal dejectedly. “But she’s got some kind of Liberty Bells, and pal, you can just call me Quasimodo.”
The Snake and Sal chuckled for a moment at their droll banter. Then Sal said, “Hey, I got a poker game set up for a little later, with a big, fat, stinking maceral. He’ll spit out a grand easy. You in?”
“Thanks Sal! I’m a little light in the wallet right now, so that’s perfect.”
“Great!” Confirmed Sal, and followed up with “I gotta go take care of some customers, go in the back and say hi to the Chef and grab a bite.”
Sal wandered off in the direction of a table of swarthy men in business suits noisily slurping down linguini. “Gentleman!” He announced. “I have bad news and good news. The bad news, is the parts of your drinks that aren’t on the floor got slurped up by a thirsty napkin. The good news? The next round is on the house!”
The patrons erupted in cheers of gratitude, “That’s great Sal!” “You’re a true Italian!” “Make mine a Frangelico!”
The Snake turned and went through the swinging wooden door that Adriana recently disappeared behind. The kitchen was a chaotic glistening of stainless-steel appliances crowned with an array shining pots, pans, and utensils hanging from racks.
“Chef?” The Snake called out. “Hey, Chef, where are you? The Snake is hungry and I need to feed!”
Muffled voices came from behind the stainless steel door of the walk-in refrigerator, which was slightly ajar.
“Yo, Mr. Italian Chef, you in there?” The Snake shouted.
“Yeah, just a minute.” Came a hoarse voice. A lanky man in his early 20’s came out from the frosty recesses of the icebox, cradling a box of frozen meat in his hands at waist level.
“Be careful, you carry that too close to you, you’ll get frostbite.” Teased the Snake. “You don’t want anything get chilled and brittle and breaking off at the wrong time.”
“Hey, I’m a hot-blooded Italian, I could melt the North Pole, cover it in pizza dough, and bake a Chicago-style deep dish the circumference of the Arctic Circle with my hot rod.” He retorted.
“So, were you practicing your Puccini in the deep-freeze, or you have a friend in there?” Joked the Snake.
Just then, Adrianna came tripping out with a long sleeve of pale cheese in her hands. “Chef, here’s that provolone you wanted.” She slapped it on a table and barked out, “I gotta go check on some customers” as she turned and briskly strode out the door to the dining room.
“Aww, come on now Chef, you can’t be messing with Sal’s girl.” Admonished the Snake.
“No, no, we were just getting some supplies…you know…for the cooking.” Replied Chef.
“Hey, don’t piss into the wind or you’re gonna wind up smelling like the fish stall at the Italian market on a hot day in August.”
“Don’t worry, it’s not like Sal’s in love or nothing. He won’t care, he’ll be onto the next girl before the end of the week.”
“Don’t be too sure. The trash is worthless junk and you’re glad to have it out of the house, but if someone comes dumpster diving in your garbage cans, it can suddenly become a case of grand larceny.”
In the alley behind Sal’s, three sweaty men were crammed into a parked delivery van. One sat with oversized headphones bulging from the sides of his fat, balding head. “Hey detective,” he called out. “I think I got something here. Something about a grand larceny. It sounds serious.”
A chubby guy in a black suit and wearing a fedora looked up from a crossword puzzle. “That’s great, let me know if you get any details,” he said dully. He glanced back down at his crossword. His pencil was poised over number 13 down, which was a bit smeared with raspberry jelly from the donut he was trying to clutch in his other hand along with the newspaper. He vainly attempted to fill in the empty boxes, but only managed to smear the jelly around a bit. “An eight-letter word for a state named for the owner of many trees, or a fictitious law enforcement organization.” He muttered.
Back in the kitchen at Sal’s, the snake was watching in fascination as the Chef carefully blended flour, water, sat, and egg on a table. His hands moved with a smooth assurance, measuring ingredients simply by feel, and working them together with quick, deft squeezes.
“What’s that?” asked snake.
“Just some egg noodles.” Said the Chef. “We got some suits coming in for a function in a couple days so these need to get done tonight.”
The Chef grabbed a few handfuls of flour and made a small pile on the table. Then he stuck a finger in the middle, and made a few quick circles, his finger spiraling outward, to create a small crater of flour. He cracked an egg into the middle, added some water, a pinch of basil, and a dash of rosemary, and then attacked it with both hands.
“The air is so dry this time of year, you have to add extra water. After I make the dough, I roll it flat, and run it through the press a couple times, then cut it into strips. But it’s gotta sit a couple days to get the right texture. You boil it too soon, it falls apart. You wait too long, it’s gonna be too stiff. Wait two days though, stick it in a pot of water at full boil, 30, maybe 40 seconds, and it comes out soft as the Madonna’s veil.”
“Ahhh,” exhaled the Snake, “Sounds like heaven. What do you serve it with?”
“I sauté up a little lamb, some duck sausage, mix it with some heavy cream and gorgonzola with locatelli, a hint of parsley and oregano, and pour that over the pasta like a momma spreading a blanket over a sleeping baby.”
At this point the Chef had forged the raw ingredients into a pliant mass of yellowish putty, and was flattening it into an oval disk.
“You keeping your head above water?” Asked the Snake. “I know working at Sal’s ain’t exactly printing bills at the mint.”
Back in the delivery van, the bald guy suddenly perked up and exclaimed “Hey, Chief, something about the mint! You think they’re gonna break into the mint?”
“Yeah, maybe, keep listening.” Mumbled the man in the fedora.
“Yeah, I’m doing O.K.” Said the Chef. “The pay here, not so great, but Sal’s got me working a couple extra nights a week on extra stuff.”
“Special catering services?” Asked the Snake.
“Yeah, some catering stuff, here and there.”
“That kind of stuff can be nice for a little while, but you don’t want to be out there too long.” Warned the Snake.
“Nah, it’s no problem, easier than sucking the pimentos out of a kalamata.” The Chef bragged, and for emphasis pulled a slippery green olive from a nearby jar, put it to his lips, and extracted the dark red center with a short slurp.
“Ah, but the guys doing these catering jobs, they’re like mice in the field. It’s easy to find some nuts and some seeds, they’re just laying around, there for the taking. But what they don’t see is that the hawk is watching from overhead, and the fox is lying in the bushes, and old lady Futtoni’s cat is up in that tree, too. It seems so simple, just collecting the stuff other folks leave laying around. They never see the risk until they’re somebody’s snack. Then it’s too late.”
“Nah, it’s not like that snake.”
“Oh yes it is, I know, because I’ve been there. And it’s lucky for me I saw enough other guys become supper and learned my lesson before it was my turn.”
“I can’t just do this.” He said, waving a hand around the kitchen. At this point he was feeding the dough through a machine with one hand while turning a crank on the side with the other. The dough was piling up in a thin, billowing sheet beneath. He held up a sheet of stretched dough and shook it in demonstration.
“I mean, I love to cook. If I could do this all day and make a living, I’d do it and do it and never look back. But a man can’t make a living.” He protested.
It’s all about risk and reward.” Instructed the Snake. “The mouse has to eat every day. So he scurries about, gathers a few nuts, and heads back to the nest. Every day he’s gotta risk it all. And for what? A couple berries and maybe a crumb or two.”
“Hey, what else could he do?” commented the Chef. “The little rat’s gotta eat, right?”
“Yeah, but that’s high risk, low reward. He’s gotta make it past the hungry jaws that hunt him every day. Sooner or later, he’s nothing but a slushy mix of digestive juices being absorbed into someone else’s intestines.”
“Doesn’t sound like a healthy lifestyle.” Said the Chef with a shudder.
“The thing is, if your gonna take a chance,” goaded snake, with tantalizing slowness, “you gotta take a chance where the payoff is bigger than the risk. Take the lion for instance. A lion only needs to hunt maybe once a week. Now catching a zebra can be risky. She could kick you in the head, or you could trip on a root and twist a paw in the wrong direction, but we’re not talking existential calamities here. In the end, you grab a great big strapping pile of meat, it takes a week to eat it, and between meals you got nothing to do but sleep and fuck.”
“Damn, that’s the life.” Said Chef wistfully.
“Yeah, but we’re not talking about lions and zebras and a week here and a week there.”
“Well, what are we talking about?” asked Chef curiously. “Wait a minute, I didn’t even know we were talking.” Chef continued, but Snake cut him off.
“No, what we’re talking about is big strapping elephants. We’re talking about game so big you might spend a lifetime eating it. Take a snake for instance. Not a little garter snake, or even a nasty poisonous thing like a cobra, but a big strapping black rope of muscle, like an anaconda. That big old snake simply hides, and bides its time, and waits, until it sees the perfect opportunity. An opportunity for something huge. A prize like no other. A treasure so rich it might make Mausolus himself blush with envy.”
“Yeah, but the little mice, they don’t get those kinds of chances.” Said the Chef doubtfully.
“They might.” Replied the Snake encouragingly. “If they know the right people. If they have the right friends.”
“I think I might have heard this story before,” continued the Chef warily, “doesn’t the mouse get eaten by the snakes and the wolves in the end?”
“Ah, that’s the beauty of this fable,” continued snake reassuringly, “see this is a chance for the mouse to take home a pile of nuts so big, he might never be able to climb it, let alone eat it. The reward is more than the mouse ever dreamed, but the risk is lower than what the he takes every day just gathering a couple nuts. The foxes, and hawks, and cats and owls will be lying in wait at the nut piles and berry bushes, but the mouse will be cleaning out the farmer’s granary.”
The Snake and the Chef exchanged a look for a few moments. Then the Snake said, “You think the little mouse would ever grow some scales, and learn to hunt like the snake?” The Chef paused for a moment, considering, and then smiled. “Squeak?” he said weakly, then “squeak?” again. And then with a savage ferocity, “Hiss!”