The Pepper Man by Patricia Griffin
One of the first letters I received intrigued me. This gentleman wrote his current situation explaining that his wife had died three years previously and that he was above all, lonely. He was hoping to meet a lady for a long term involvement. If it lead to marriage that was okay. He also had a way with words, a combination of what was obviously Italian and English that impressed me. There was a hint of humor running through his note and I was immediately drawn to that. I have always thought of myself as quick witted and love a good laugh. I have a theory that one way to get through what life deals us is with a good sense of humor. How else could we ever survive the heartache that befalls some of us more than others?
I decided to call this charming man. He lived north of Toronto in a small town about thirty-five miles from me. With tremulous fingers I dialed his number and after five rings was about to replace the receiver when he answered with a very cheery, “Giovanni here”. A real, live, Italian I quickly surmised. I said hello and introduced myself. He was very pleased that I had called him and we chatted briefly both of us I know now, nervous and a bit giddy. Expect to be nervous. This is a courageous thing you are doing and most women I have spoken to will tell you that old insecure feelings of those long past adolescent years come flooding back like you were sixteen yesterday. After a few more stumbling sentences and assurances from him that he was not an axe murderer, we agreed that I would drive to his home, leave my car and travel north with him in his truck to enjoy a coffee date on the shores of Lake Simcoe. Rule number one: never leave your car behind on any date. I thought I had covered all safety issues but realized later that I was very lucky that my Pepper Man turned out to be a gentleman and an honest one at that. As our date progressed, I found myself safe from any untoward or frightening advances.
When I arrived at the appointed time and place, I walked up the porch steps and rang his doorbell. My heart pounding, I waited while he came to answer my ring. The door flew open so fast I almost fell into the entrance hall. Before me face beaming with a huge grin, stood a very short, slightly rotund elf! It took me a moment to realize this was my date. Now don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against short people. I was surprised because he had told me on the phone he was almost six feet tall. Perhaps five feet two inches translates into six feet in Italian. He grinned at me and urged me to step in, step in! In a mild state of confusion and towering over him I entered his doorway. My next impression of him was, thinking to myself, why is this man wearing a hat inside his own house? He urged me to sit down in a very cluttered, musty smelling living room. The furnishings appeared to be early Sally Ann and hadn’t seen a duster in months. He told me later his wife’s children had taken all the furniture and he had bought second hand stuff to replace it. I asked him why his children had taken his things and he said they were actually her children as she was his second wife and as he was their step parent he guessed they figured they had dibs on their mother’s things.
No matter he said. They were only things. This whole time I was looking the place over and trying to assemble my thoughts and he was babbling on about where he would like to take me and in broken, fractured English I made out that he wanted to drive north to a resort area on Lake Simcoe where he owned some property. He thought I would enjoy the scenic beauty of his acreage and that it would be a nice drive. Since the sunlight and warm day was my favorite time of year I agreed to spend it outdoors with him tramping around his property. I excused myself and went to the powder room as my bladder was bursting from my hour drive and second cup of coffee. He showed me where the bathroom was and I entered the most beautiful room in the house. It was tiled from floor to ceiling in a very pretty ceramic tile, a glistening white with tiny violets sprinkled randomly throughout. The bathtub and shower was a combination of gleaming tile and glass. The tub was a jacuzzi and very up to date. The fixtures shone with newness and I began to forgive him the sorry state of his living room. Perhaps he was slowly working room by room to improve his home by redecorating it. The sunlight flooded the bathroom with natural light and as I washed my hands I stared at my reflection in the vanity mirror. I thought I looked pretty good. I had dressed carefully but casually and I appeared tanned and healthy looking. You know that feeling you get when you know you look good? I touched up my hair, freshened by lipstick and left the room.
As he locked up the front door and we prepared to leave, he invited me to have dinner with him in Barrie after our drive and before I left to return home. Since it was a Sunday summer afternoon I knew I could make it home to Toronto while it was still daylight. I agreed to dinner and off we went. He opened the truck door for me and I got in and sat down in the cleanest and most well taken care of truck I have ever been in. This man had me puzzled. Were the bathroom and his truck his priorities? I had caught a glimpse of the kitchen on my way from the bathroom and it was a shambles. Not a dish appeared to have been washed in weeks and the clutter was wild. As he climbed aboard he adjusted his thick seat cushion to give him some height enabling him to see over the steering wheel. He started the engine and I dismissed thoughts of how he lived and settled back to enjoy our outing.
Through all these first impressions he still had on a brown, felt, fedora but was dressed appropriately in summer shirt and slacks. He kept up a steady patter of half Italian, half English conversation and I asked him how long he had been in Canada. Twenty-five years he told me, I know that some immigrants never lose their country of origin accent and that’s fine. I could understand him and he was very funny and his accent began to charm me.
We drove along chatting quite amicably and he seemed fascinated with everything I said. I love it when a man hangs on my every word. About twenty miles into our trip, he suggested we stop for coffee. The cafe he chose was quaint and very pretty. Two sisters owned and operated it and served a wonderful selection of homemade cookies, muffins and treats. He ordered a couple of Neapolitan pastries for us and noted that we both liked our coffee black. Around us and beside us a very happy bunch of summer clad people were enjoying the ambience of the room. I could stand it no longer and asked Giovanni why he didn’t take off his hat. His face turned crimson and to oblige me he whipped his winter hat off to reveal the baldest of heads I have ever seen. Move over Yul Brenner was my immediate thought!
He apologized for his naked scalp and I laughingly told him it was okay with me that he had no hair. I told him I had experienced men who had too much hair and that he should relax and be comfortable and that going without his hat on a warm summer day was fine. He obviously was very pleased and immediately began to appear much cooler. His red, happy face began to lighten to a more natural shade of pink. I guess he was so relaxed that he next confided in me that one of his eyes was made of glass. This bit of news while in mid swallow of a mouthful of my coffee and cake caused me to open my mouth in astonishment and the resulting spray of coffee and cake shot across the table and got him in his good eye! Yikes, I thought. I know it was my most embarrassing moment of all time. How many of your first dates have included you spitting on them?
As we resumed our ride north, Giovanni started to tell me about his life as a boy in Italy. He grew up on a small farm and came from a large family. Most of his brothers and sisters were in Canada and had made fairly successful lives for themselves. He was particularly close to one sister, Maria, and he told me that since her husband had died she had offered to move in with him and keep house. He had declined her offer as he was quite seriously looking for a new wife. In my head I was thinking that it would not be me. He was a nice enough person but not the kind of man I was seeking. I thought I should tell him, gently and with kindness, that I was looking for someone who shared my cultural background. I have always felt that there are enough hurdles in relationships and that mixing cultures can sometimes increase problems between the couple. He seemed happy with what we were saying and admitted that he would feel more comfortable with an Italian lady but was having trouble finding someone his age. I take it from what he said that the immigrant women of our generation are not given to advertising or reading the personals.
He continued to talk openly and freely with me getting a kick out of his ways of expressing himself. He was very good natured and was able to laugh at himself when he searched for the word in English that wouldn’t come. He turned off the main highway onto a concession road for a few miles and then after a bend in the road he pulled into a dirt lane. Here was his forty acres where he hoped one day to farm and build a retirement home. It was very scenic but too isolated for my taste. (Rule number two and in retrospect, I should never have been so trusting with a comparative stranger to find myself in an isolated area. What if……) We spent about an hour in the sunshine sitting on a log and finishing our coffee that we had stopped for. I liked Giovanni but knew we could only remain friends and never lovers. We wound our way back to his home and he invited me into the back garden where he filled a bag to overflowing with fresh grown green peppers. I remember thanking him profusely, giving him a friendly hug and leaving for home. My last sight of him was him waving from the front porch, all five feet of him with his bald pate rosy red from having seen the sun for the first time in years. I sincerely hope he found whom he was looking for and that he has transferred his garden to his farm. I’ll bet he has peppers by the acre!