Jo Ann McDonald
Luigi was a smart, crusty old badger who lived an intentionally quiet life in the underground at Legacy Ranch. Some people gossiped that Luigi was probably in some kind of a government "Witness Protection" program, because heíd seen too much and knew even more about the place heíd originally come from... wherever it was.
The few people at Legacy Ranch who actually knew Luigi, knew him rather well, primarily because Luigi was an excellent chef. His restaurant, which was also known as Luigi's Place catered to only the discerning few. Mz Possum and Rocky were frequent guests and all six cats who lived around the Cottage on the Knoll enjoyed dining out at Luigiís. Even Ashley enjoyed dining on his extraordinary cuisine. When venturing out to Luigiís questionable neighborhood, however, Ashley of course was accompanied by one or both of the big male cats, Jabbo and Spike, who were always available to serve as Ashley's personal bodyguards.
The entrance to Luigiís place was necessarily very difficult to find. To get there you had to go up the creek, through the dark mysterious sections, to where only very brave (or very foolish) people dared to venture alone. When traveling on the waterway, it seemed as though a million eyes were watching you, yet nobody could actually be seen.
Then, way, way up the creek, where the gnarled and tangled tree roots shown bare and scary, and the sides of the bank were unusually high... very near the place where the creek took an especially twisted turn, was the initial entry to Luigiís Place. Nothing marked the entry, except darkness. Although one could sense there was a path, somehow Luigi and his friends were the only ones who knew the actual way, and all were masters at covering their tracks. Only the people Luigi wanted in could get in.
From the secret entry off the waterway, you had to crawl upwards, turning often, then downward where a shivery chill actually went down your spine and through your bones. Downward again, then around, past large, cold obstacles, and finally youíre there. A dark, virtually invisible doorway marked the actual entry to Luigiís Place. The rule was, no one was to knock. Instead, one had to say, in a very low, hushed, matter of fact voice, simply...
When and if the door finally opened, just a crack, the incredibly inviting smell of garlic, onions, and herbs tended to escape for a brief moment. Luigiís door never stayed open for long. Once inside, it was seemingly dark at first, but soon a warm glow could be felt and soon after, objects and ambient lighting could be discerned. As most of his guests were nocturnal, it wasn't difficult for at all for them to adjust. To his true friends, Luigi's was an especially warm and welcoming place.
In Ashley's and Joieís words, Luigi's was... romantic. In Lefty's and Mary Janeís, mysterious. In Rocky's and Mz Possumís words, "the best dang eatiní place up the creek," and they would be accurate in adding... not entirely in jest, "where folks sometimes found themselves, without a paddle!" If Luigi felt a visitor was an intruder instead of a guest, that "visitor" could very likely find themselves part of the menu instead of simply ordering from it!
It was a quiet, moonless night in mid Spring, the waters were high, and there wasn't much happening at Mz Possum's Cafe since food was so plentiful on Legacy Ranch that time of the year. Consequently, Mz Possum and Rocky decided to head up the creek to Luigiís to see what might be cooking. Or perhaps more accurately, who might be for dinner. Like so many animals, possums, racoons, and badgers are omnivores, which means they, like human animals, can eat pretty much anything (or anybody) they please.
Mz Possum and Rocky chose to ride a log up the creek, Rocky doing the paddling with a willow branch so he could go quietly and slowly. Mz Possum did nothing but enjoy the ride, lazily smelling the way and occasionally pointing out the route or an obstacle with her scratchy little claw. They went way, way up the creek, where the gnarled and tangled tree roots shown bare and scary and the sides of the creek bank were unusually high. When they got very near the place where the creek took an especially twisted turn, Mz Possum began to detect the slightest hint of roasting garlic. They'd finally arrived at the initial entry to Luigiís Place The closer they got, the more she knew her nose was pointing them in the right direction. Rocky could smell it too, but not quite as well as the veteran cook, Mz Possum. The subtle smell began to make both their mouths start to water in anticipation.
Wedging their craft where only they could find it later, Mz Possum and Rocky seemed to melt into the secret entry off the waterway. Up they crawled, turning often, then downward again, and sure enough, both got a shivery chill down their spines and through their bones. Downward again, then around, past large, cold obstacles, and finally they were there. They knew, because the dark, invisible doorway marked the entry to Luigiís Place.
Rocky did the honors, working some to make his voice sound low enough, hushed enough, and gruff enough.
Rocky said, "Hey! Luigi!" There was no reply.
He tried again. Lower. Quieter. Huskier. "Hey! Luigi! Itís me! Rocky!" Still there was no reply.
"Move aside, let me try," said Mz Possum, who was starting to get hungry now that the smell of garlic was getting stronger. At least to her discerning nose.
"Hey! Luigi!" said Mz Possum, in a voice so low, so husky... yet so quiet that it even surprised Rocky.
From the other side of the door came a deep, gruff whisper. "Who ya got with ya, Mz Possum, Rocky?"
"Yeah," she answered.
"Ok," said the voice on the other side of the door. In a moment it opened with the silent turning of the bolt. The blast of overwhelming smells almost knocked them over as they scurried inside. Luigi quickly and quietly bolted the door behind them.
It was very dark, and as their eyes began to adjust to the subdued lighting, the mix of wonderful smells told them what was in store. Not only was the garlic-laden cast iron pot brimming over with delicious smelling soup, the fragrance of pungent, sweet flowers seemed to hang in the air, everywhere. Honeysuckle, jasmine, evening primroses in full bloom, and gardenias galore. In addition to being a master cook, Luigi was also a devoted hot house gardener and his restaurant was adorned with carefully arranged flowers.
Luigi took Mz Possumís paw in his own, and kissed it, saying, "Hey, Mz Possum. How lovely you look this evening. It is my sincere pleasure indeed to serve you this evening." He helped seat Mz Possum at her usual table where she sat with her back to the wall. Rocky wiggled into a corner seat with two walls. Fortunately, there were lots of rock crevices at Luigiís Place so there were lots of seats where you could keep your back to the wall. Experience teaches you that when you dine at places up the creek at night, that's the safest way to enjoy a good meal.
By Mz Possum's place setting was a gardenia, which Luigi picked up tenderly and handed to her with obvious affection and almost courtly manners. "With my compliments, Mz Possum. The gardenia reflects your inner beauty." Mz Possum, who seldom felt lovely, felt so then.
"Why, Luigi. Youíre lookin' pretty fine yourself." Mz Possum had a secret thing for Luigi, and it showed. Rocky interrupted.
"Hey, Luigi. Whatís cooking? " Rocky successfully broke the spell.
"Clams in garlic, with basil. Want some? Itís the special tonight. But then thereís always the Red Meat Marcella. I make it from a recipe I got off my Aunt Marcella, from back in the Old Country. It kind has a whang, like she did."
"You never told me about your Aunt Marcella, Luigi." Mz Possum liked it when he started talking about The Old Country. Rocky did too. It gave him something to talk about with his tougher buddies at the Cafe. Rocky listened carefully, but kept very quiet. It never paid to interrupt Luigi.
"I never told anybody about my Aunt Marcella. Sheís pretty ugly, but sheís a great cook," said Luigi with a guttural laugh.
"Thatís what the boys say about me behind my back!" Mz Possum let out with here usual hearty laugh. Rocky played it safe and simply smiled.
Rocky ordered the clams and Mz Possum the Red Meat Marcella. While they waited for their meals to be served, the sounds of possible other guests could be heard on the other side of the invisible door. Luigi went to see who it might be.
From outside, Spikeís voice could be heard. "Hey! Luigi!" Luigi gave no reply.
Spike tried again. Lower. Quieter. Huskier. "Hey! Luigi! Itís me! Spike!" Still there was no reply.
Then they heard Ashley, herself, whisper emphatically... "Move Aside, Dear. Let Me Try." Evidently Ashley was either Taking Charge again, or she too was getting hungry. The smell of garlic was undoubtedly getting the best of her, and she was Starting to Lose Patience. Ashley often talked in capitals when she Took Charge.
"Hey! Luigi!" said Ashley, in a voice so low, so husky, and so quiet that it even surprised the group on Luigiís side of the door. It didnít sound at all like Ashley.
Even though everyone present now knew who was on the other side of the door, Luigi said in his usual deep, gruff whisper. "Who ya got with ya, Ashley, Spike?"
"Yes," she answered with one quick word. That did it. Luigi let them in.
Spikes eyes quickly adjusted to the light and he first looked warily at Rocky. Rocky gave Spike the same look back. These two had tussled more than once at Mz Possumís Cafe on a Friday night. Spike was now a mature, 15 pound cat and Rocky, who was still growing, was about the same overall size. The ladies knew they need to keep their escorts in tow.
Luigi sat Ashley and Spike down at a table where both parties could see one another, but keep their distance. Spike took the seat against the wall, but Ashley didn't care about such things. She simply wanted to be where she could see everything that was going on, especially what might be happening in the kitchen. Luigi was a recognized buffer among neighbors who didnít act particularly neighborly all of the time. The ladies nodded to one another, but no words were exchanged.
Luigi acted exactly the same toward Ashley as he had Mz Possum. He took her paw in his, kissed it, assisted her in seating, gave her a gardenia, and bestowed upon her a few carefully selected compliments, which were appreciated and returned. The only difference between his lady guests in his Luigi's eyes, was that Ashley knew she was lovely and, in all modesty, always would be. Everyone went about pretending to enjoy their situation, but in reality, the tension between Spike and Rocky was obviously mounting, and it was beginning to taint the first course. Ashley wasnít going to have any more of it.
"Spike, Dear. Silly me, Iíve forgotten something very important back at The Inn. Would you mind terribly going all the way back down the creek and fetch that package in the small basket that's on the tiny table in the hallway? It's for Luigi. It hasn't a name on it, but it's wrapped as a gift." She wasn't giving him a chance to protest, and she had him up and on his feet before he knew it. " Now, I know how you like to be careful and cautious, so take your time, Dear. Iíll be fine here with Luigi." Spike had no choice but to do her bidding, and was already at the door. Before leaving, however, he turned to look carefully at Rocky. Spike didnít like leaving her here with all these rough carnivores at all.
"Are you sure youíll be safe, Ashley?" he said, looking not at her, but directly at Rocky. But it wasnít Rocky that Spike had to fear. Luigi was literally breathing right down the back of Spike's neck. Spike could not only smell the garlic laden breath, he could feel it.
"Rest assured, the lady will be fine with me to protect her. Iím what you might call an expert," intervened Luigi as he poised himself, ready to open the door quickly to let Spike out. "Rest assured her safety is of my utmost concern." The other dinner guest stifled their giggles as Luigi went into his act. Before they knew it, Spike was gone.
Then Mz Possum took her turn at the game. "Hey, Rocky. Go get me one of those apple pies I made today. I wanna give Luigi one." Rocky looked interested. He loved apple pie, and she knew it. "While youíre there, go ahead and eat one yourself. But donít tell anybody. I donít want the whole batch gone before Friday night. You know how mad the boys get if they their sweet teeth aren't satisfied."
Rocky needed no more incentive than that. Besides, he might be able to catch up with Spike, and who knows what the two of them could stir up along the trail. If the truth be known, when the ladies weren't around to impress, the two were pretty good buddies. And tonight, Rocky would just as soon have Spike with him. If the truth also be known, Spike would do well with a racoon for a buddy in the woods tonight. There were always dangers for either one of them alone, but there wasnít much that stirred and hunted on Legacy Ranch brave enough to take the two of them on together.
Rocky hurried out the door, with Luigiís help, not saying a word. Luigi closed the door quickly, then went back to what he did best. Entertain two of his favorite ladies on all of Legacy Ranch. Without their bodyguards!
Mz Possum was the type who always cut right through to the guts of a situation. She looked over at Ashley, then to the warm hearth and the bubbling stock pot simmering over a bed of welcoming coals. She could hear Luigi singing opera off to the side, within earshot, in his fascinating little kitchen. Ashley was daintily eating her lovely salad. Slowly. Not looking up, but smiling pleasantly.
"So how ya doing, Ashley? Long time since we had a good chat. Wanna come over here and sit with me? Itís closer to the fire, and it seems a shame to make old Luigi waddle back and forth between both our tables." Mz Possum took her napkin and whisked off the crumbs Rocky left in his chair.
"Why, Penelope, Iíd be delighted." Ashley got up from her seat, tucked the chair back in, picked up her own salad and utensils, and transferred them to Mz Possum's table. Together they rearranged the settings to suit their own taste. Ashley put on her warm, wonderful smile and added with a glint in her eye... "Itís been ages since weíve been able to get together without everyone listening in. I have so much to tell you."
Luigi, from back in the kitchen, let out an enormous laugh in the middle of his aria. It was going to be a great evening.
As for Spike and Rocky. They wouldn't be back for awhile. Not with all that apple pie to deal with. Besides, Luigi could always pretend not to hear them when they whispered "Hey! Luigi!" at the invisible door to the Hole in the Wall Restaurant.
©1998 by The Legacy Company