A hot summer’s day.
The sun (a cluster of sweetcorn) is about to reach its peak. All is still and silent, except for the cicadas (peppercorns) which chirp (rattle) in the long, dry grass (dry noodles) swaying by the blackened courthouse. A tumbleweed (lettuce leaf) bounces languidly across the street (a cast iron affair with an oily non-stick dishwasher-ready sheen).
The heat has almost risen to Gas Mark 4. A smear of marinara sauce dries in the sky, signalling the passage of an aeroplane, far above, carrying rich clients from one coast to the other.
Those passengers, muffled in leather and complimentary peanuts, blast on by at speed: to them, the town is nothing more than a stain on the unravelling hob of the landscape. They’ll never know what it’s like to live here, to wash their hair in bechamel and carve their children’s shoes from unforgiving blocks of ham. They’ll never hear the bacon crackling in the sun or crouch, terrified, clutching their family, in their neighbours’ basements as boiling fusilli pours from the sky.
Worst, they’ll never know the smell of the garlic frying on the plains, of the cheese melting on the roofs: they’ll never know the hunger of being surrounded by food – constantly surrounded by food – but risking a night in the grater for the slightest indiscretion: nibbling the infrastructure, taking a bite of other people’s shoes.
But I know this town: this is my town. I’ve fished in the Red River and picked oregano in the desert. I was born behind our house in the shed my father built from sheets of lasagne with his own two hands and I spent my childhood pulling strings of mozzarella from the neighbours’ gutters in exchange for homemade treats: pickles, cherry jam – anything that didn’t taste like pasta. They were happy years, but difficult ones: I, like all of us, am tough like the mince seared onto the plains.
My parents worked, naturally, in the region’s one factory, which involved laying out tomatoes just so on a large metal plate so they’d dry properly. It was a tough job, but my parents had studied for a long time at the local college so they could work overtime in the section of the factory where the tomatoes were put into jars. That was more fiddly, much more technical, but we desperately needed the money to keep the onions out of the house: it had been infested for months and all of us burst into tears as soon as we stepped over the threshold.
After school, I’d go to my grandmother’s house and sit out on the porch, watching the peas frolic in the streets, and take to the skies when the stray cats got too close. She’d sit there, knitting a colander, and tell me the stories that her grandmother passed on to her from her grandmother’s grandmother. There were eighteen generations of us buried in the churchyard, she said. I wouldn’t know: the graves were ancient and shot with blue veins of mould and no one could make out the inscriptions our grandparents’ grandparents had chiselled with a cheese knife.
She’d tell me stories of standoffs: two strangers facing each other in the main street, muscles like meatballs, fingers twitching over their holsters, waiting for the wet sound of the church bells boiling twelve times for midday.
You’d hardly believe it, now, that on a day like today, someone’s meatballs flexed slower than someone else’s and their blood dried on the baking non-stick street.
I sigh. I’ll never leave: pasta’s in my heart.