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The Alley Hunter
Rochester, NY (1958)
In the glow of the streetlight, Santino shuffled across the alley behind his house holding two ears of dried corn tied loosely together and a big ball of heavy string. He tossed the ball of string over the widow Moretti’s garage lamp, tied the corn to the end of the string, then tossed the ball back over to make a loop around the lamp and tied it off. I am ready to hunt! he said aloud.
The widow Moretti watched the entire operation from her bedroom window. What is that old fool up to? she wondered. Santino looked up to her window and waved. The widow quickly drew her shade. She is too shy! Santino thought.
Before dawn the next morning, Santino dressed in his hunting coat and cap, a crisp white shirt, a green silk tie, wool trousers, and his well-worn and newly oiled hunting boots. Before he left his bedroom, he picked the framed photo of his wife from his dresser and kissed it. I miss you, my love. Please forgive me for courting the widow, he thought.
Santino slowly made his way down the long hallway from his room to the stairs, stopping along the way to look at the framed photos of his family in various stages of life. I was a lucky man, he thought, wishing his daughters would bring the grandchildren over more often. He gripped the railing tightly walking down the steep staircase of his drafty, dusty, and lonely Victorian house.
In the kitchen, he heated water on the gas stove and made himself his traditional hunter’s breakfast of coffee, ham, cheese, and bread. As Santino ate, his mind wondered about his better days in the field. As the memories came, Santino began talking to his long-dead brother, Leonard, something he seemed to be doing often of late.
“Leonardo, remember when that boar chased you into the tree?! Ha! he almost got you my brother… We were the kings of Abuzzo!”
After breakfast, Santino tottered out under the fading shine of the streetlights. He could see his breath in the gray light. A quarter moon and stars peaked through the heavy clouds above. His steps cut a path through the red and yellow leaves from the big maple that painted the ground. Santino smiled; he loved fall mornings, especially before a hunt.
Inside his garage, Santino carefully removed his well-used pump action .22 from the waxed canvas case he had hand-sewn for it. He loaded the rifle, set it on an old wine barrel, and waited for the rats to come to his hanging bait. That poor woman has lost half her garden to those rats! Santino thought.
Santino listened to trucks rumbling down Lyle Avenue. He smiled when his jolly neighbor Frieda Heusler talked to her dog as she let it out to chase a bunny.
Just as the streetlights clicked off, Santino spied the first rat scurrying to his bait. He pumped a shell into the chamber, then patiently waited to give more greedy varmints time to feed. Eventually, several rodents stood on their hind legs feeding on the swinging corn ears. As city bus number 9 rumbled down Lyle Avenue, Santino took careful aim and shot, hoping the sound of the bus would mask the rifle’s report. Santino put the rifle back on the barrel; three rats laid dead in the alley.
The widow Moretti clicked her lights on.
“That fool is shooting a gun!” she said aloud to her small rat terrier, Pepo.
As she made her way downstairs to make coffee, four more shots rang out—Crack! Crack! Crack! Crack!
“That blind old goat will kill someone! If you were doing your job, he wouldn’t be out there!” she said, scolding poor Pepo.
By the time she was sipping her coffee, the gunfire had stopped. Looking out her kitchen window and wondering if those heavy clouds would bring rain that afternoon, she watched Santino walk past her back gate, He held a bunch of dead rats tied together like fish on a stringer. Santino caught her looking, hoisted up his bounty, smiled and waved, then deposited the dead rats into her trash bin.
“Take those to your own trash!” she yelled through the window.
After breakfast, the widow Moretti went out her backdoor to retrieve her milk delivery. The milk box had a note taped to it. The note, written in a shaky hand, read:
I have taken care of your rat problem. Please join me this evening for a hunter’s feast. Fear not my dear, I will not be serving rat! I will make us a wonderful game bird pie! See you at 6:00 p.m., my dearest.
“The nerve of that man!” She said aloud, as she retrieved her milk and slammed the door.
Around noon, Carla Moretti stopped by her mother’s house for lunch and to drop off a pork neck-roast, the secret ingredient, in the window’s Sunday sauce. Over lunch, the widow began to bluster about Santino and the rats. Carla, having heard more than one Santino-related rant, cut the widow off.
“Ma, he’s a nice lonely old man. You are a lonely old woman. Be nice to him!”
“He’s a peasant!! His people are from the northern hills!”
“Oh…look at Mrs. fancy pants. Get over it, Ma! Your people were dirt farmers who lived south of Naples!”
The widow threw her hands up in frustration.
Around the same time Carla was humbling her mother, Santino carefully cleared dead leaves from a spot in the middle of his back lawn. From a small canvas sack, he spread bird seed in small piles, then set up a box trap with a stick over the seed. Santino tied the end of his ball of string to the stick and paid line out until he reached his basement window. He doddered through his tidy kitchen and down his basement stairs.
He shuffled to the window through a labyrinth of wine barrels, old furniture, tools, boxes and a wooden box placed under the window so he would have a clear view of his trap and climbed up. Santino opened the window, retrieved the ball of string, fished an ancient hunting knife from his pocket and cut the string so he had two feet dangling inside the window.
Santino patiently for the starlings. When they arrived, Santino waited for several birds to feed under the box, then he tugged the string and sprung his trap.
“Il columbo! Buona mangiata!” Santino exclaimed.
After retrieving and dispatching his quarry, Santino reset the trap and waited for more starlings to feed. Using the same method, he added over 30 starlings to his game bag by lunch time.
Santino plucked, beheaded, and gutted the birds in his kitchen with great care. While he worked, he talked to Leonard again. “Leonardo, look at these beautiful birds! It was a good hunt!” Santino continued telling his dead brother the details of his morning rat hunt as he chopped carrots, onions, and turnips and sautéed them in olive oil in a cast iron Dutch oven.
Around 3:00 p.m., Santino looked at his pocket watch noting the limited time and much to do. He went out to the back yard and started a fire in his small brick-lined cooking pit. While the flames turned the split ash to coals, Santino walked down Lyle Avenue to Columbo’s Bakery to see his old friend’s offerings.
Columbo and Santino played bocce together on Friday nights during the warm months. After their spirited matches they would retire to Santino’s front porch, drink grappa or, if they were feeling their oats, Cente Erbes. The old friends would spend hours watching fireflies dance in the muggy summer air as they reminisced about their glory years in their native Italian.
“Santino! What will it be my friend?” Columbo asked.
“A loaf of crusty bread and something special for dessert,” Santino answered.
“You old dog Santino, do you have a special lady coming over?”
“Bah! I made starling pie. What do you have back there old man?” Santino asked with a sheepish grin.
“Ok, Santino, for you I will grab something special.” Columbo said, then ducked into the back room.
Santino reached behind the glass case, grabbed an Italian cookie from the pile and popped it in his mouth.
“Good luck my friend,” Columbo said with a wink, as he handed Santino a box tied with a string.
Back home, Santino checked the coals. They glowed orange. He drew a deep breath, enjoying the pleasant smell of woodsmoke mingled with the bouquet of decaying leaves in the crisp autumn air.
The widow Moretti watched the old man from her kitchen window, wondering what delights hid in that large white bakery box.
“What is he up to now?” she asked Pepo.
Santino ambled into his house while the widow Moretti spied. He returned with the Dutch oven, set it on the coals, and before going back through his kitchen door, turned and gave the widow Moretti a wave and big smile.
“That man is so presumptuous,” snorted the widow with slightly less venom.
While the starling pie cooked slowly on the coals, Santino readied the house for his special guest. He ironed a white cloth tablecloth and napkins, then set the table with his best flatware, glasses—water, wine, and liquor—and silverware. From his basement he retrieved a bottle of his best batch of red wine and a small bottle limoncello he brewed that summer.
When Santino returned to his backyard, he took in the rustic scent of the savory hunter’s dish along with the other autumn aromas. Santino lifted the lid of the Dutch oven to check; the potato crust was browned to his satisfaction.
Santino bathed, shaved, and then put on his best-pressed white shirt, a blue silk tie, and tailored gray wool trousers with braces. He buffed his dress boots with a soft cloth before struggling to get his arthritic feet in them. Finally, to ward of the evening chill, he slipped on his favorite blue wool cardigan, which had a few month holes he needed to mend. He looked in the mirror and frowned.
“Un vecchio brutto,” he sighed.
From the dresser, he again picked up his framed wedding photo, and gently kissed his wife’s image.
“Mio amore,” he said.
I am a lonesome old fool, he thought.
Santino returned to the kitchen to check the starling pie. He made a simple garden salad. He chopped chives for garnish. From his jug, he poured wine into a juice glass. He plopped down at his kitchen table and took a calming breath. His pocket watch read 5:45 p.m. He thought, so far, today has been a very good day.
An hour later, Santino sighed and poured himself a second glass of wine. She is not coming, he thought.
The good widow had never accepted his invitations. Maybe it is time to stop trying, he thought. He had hoped taking care of her rat problem would have earned him her company for one dinner. Then he chided himself, thinking, you old fool, she has that little dog for company. Why would she want to spend time with an old man?
Santino went to the oven, removed the cast iron pot and placed it on the kitchen table. He went to the sink, retrieved his breakfast plate. “I will eat this myself. She doesn’t know what she misses!” he exclaimed.
As he was about to scoop out a serving of starling pie, a knock came from the front door. No…it couldn’t be, he thought.
Santino shuffled to the front door. When he heard a dog bark on the other side, his heart skipped. He opened the door and found the widow Moretti dressed in her finest coat and Sunday dress. On his leash, Little Pepo stood at her feet wagging his tail.
Santino looked at them stunned and said nothing.
“Well… are you going to invite us in?” the widow said.
Pepo barked his approval.
Santino bowed slightly.
“Benvenuto, per favore entra…please come in. You both look lovely,” Santino said with a big smile.
The widow rolled her eyes and let out a snort, but her cheeks flushed and she smiled.
As he escorted them in, Santino said, “Today has been a good day—I went hunting.”
JD Clapp is based in San Diego, CA. His work has appeared in Micro Fiction Mondays Magazine, Free Flash Fiction, Wrong Turn Literary, Scribes MICRO, Café Lit, among several others. His story, One Last Drop, was a finalist in the 2023 Hemingway Shorts Literary Journal, Short Story Competition.
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