by Libby Malin Sternberg
Lila would smile at me as if we shared a secret, her dark eyes staring at mine, unblinking, the corners of her rose-pink mouth lifted up just a millimeter, as if to ask, how funny the world is, isn’t it, Rudy?
She was in her twenties, and I was only eighteen, and we did share a secret. My Uncle Pete, owner of four Pizza Rustica shops around town, had come up with a scheme.
“We offer the test for free,” he explained one night. The empty room of his flagship pizzeria on Old Town Road, the one with a bar and a brisk weekend business, smelled of fried food and onions, as he leaned against the countertop. Lila had already cleaned the empty tables, and the cook had left an hour ago. We were only here to count the money and tidy up.
The test he mentioned was the one for the coronavirus or Covid-19 or Chinese flu, as Pete called it. We were shut down for we didn’t know how long, and takeout business might be brisk, but it didn’t pay the salaries of the serving staff. Uncle Pete might be hard-nosed about profits, but he was no villain. He wanted to give some money to his laid-off workers. This restaurant, the only one of his four, accounted for a good 80 percent of Pizza Rustica’s profits, and most of those had been from from the bar.
I followed these things closely. I was going to be a business major at Penn State next year. If I ever got to finish high school. It was shut down along with everything else.
Lila, one of Pete’s servers, hired just before the quarantine, nodded enthusiastically from her perch on a nearby stool. She spoke English with a thick accent, something Slavic, I think. Her hair was a waterfall of auburn ripples that seemed to glow like spun gold in the right light, and every light was the right one around Lila.
“Uncle Pete,” I managed to sputter, “we don’t have no tests. We can’t offer them for free or for sale.”
He just shrugged. “Don’t matter. We take a swab and send them on their way, telling them results aren’t in for another two weeks. By then they know if they have it anyway. No harm, no foul.”
Again, Lila nodded, this time even more enthusiastically. I just shook my head. I was used to my uncle’s schemes by now. I’d been working here since I was twelve, first bussing tables and washing up, then as a cashier, then a deliveryman when I got my license, and most recently as assistant manager. The title was pure b.s., but Uncle Pete didn’t have any kids, and he wanted to help me get ahead. He said it would look good on my resume.
“They’ll know,” I protested. “Somebody’ll tell.”
The fear of the authorities never deterred Uncle Pete. He’d looked the other way when a bookie set up shop in the corner of his place for a year, and police believed him when he said he was as shocked as they were to find a racket in his establishment. He’d also gotten wine from a place in Connecticut for a few years, going around the state’s liquor licensing regulations. He’d not been caught on that game, and had only shut it down when he found a way to get the stuff cheaper legally. I sensed disappointment when that happened.
“I do the swabs,” Lila was now saying. “I did some nursing.”
My eyes widened as I stared at her. All I knew about her was that she had a boyfriend who picked her up every day in his gleaming white Tahoe, and that she was beautiful. As beautiful as an angel.
“Somebody’ll tell,” I repeated, looking at her, hoping she’d see the folly of this. “They’ll know it’s a fake. The news has been talking about how hard it is to get these tests!”
Uncle Pete straightened and crossed his arms. “That’s the point, Rudy. When the market on something is tight like that, you always know somebody somewhere is selling it on the side. We’re just taking advantage of that entrepreneurial spirit.”
Exasperated, I nearly shouted, “But we’re not buying anything. We don’t have the tests! It’s irresponsible! It’s nuts. It’s risky. Someone could get hurt by this.” Met by impassive stares from Pete, I added, “And how’s it going to make you any money if it’s free anyway?”
“You have to order four Specials to get it. And the price of those just went up 20 percent.” After a beat, he went on, as if I wouldn’t get it. “We get all the takeout orders this side of town, and we’re selling our most expensive items.” Specials were things like our lasagna and veal parmesan platters or our largest pizzas plus salads and appetizers.
“Good thinking, boss,” Lila said and stood as well, straightening like a long-legged bird about to take flight. Today she wore skin-tight denim pants and two-inch heels—how did she manage to stay on her feet all night in those—and a red T-shirt with something in Cyrillic across her breasts on it that, to me, seemed to read, “Love me, Rudy.”
I shook my head. Could I even continue to work here? Then she turned to me. And gave me that smile.
Uncle Pete s didn’t advertise his testing scheme, but he had an amazing network of people he spread the word to. Within a day of this plan, we had a bustling takeout order business at the flagship site, triple what we usually did, all the high-end orders, four at a time, sometimes double.
I’d ring up the orders and grab their plastic. Lila would take customers into the bar and do the swab. By the time she was done, I’d have their orders on the counter ready to go.
She sported white clothes now for this new job. White skirt and camp shirt or white jeans and tee, her bundle of hair pulled back at the nape of her neck, and oversized glasses I’d never seen her wear before perched on her nose.
The evenings were warm, with spring nipping at our hopes, the scent of hyacinths in the air, and I selected old love songs for the ambient music. Frank Sinatra crooning about seeing you again, Doris Day purring about sentimental journeys, Ella Fitzgerald humming about the man she loves.
The man Lila loved would pick her up every night at midnight, his face as grim as death, his arms muscled and tattooed, his voice a gravel road. “Ready, babe?” he’d say, and it was only the slightest tinge of warmth in his tone that gave away the idea that he might – might – just love her as much as I did.
Every evening when I showed up for work, I cherished two dreams. One, that Uncle Pete would stop this ridiculous plan, and two, that Lila’s boyfriend would not come to pick her up and I’d take her home instead.
I was never quite sure what would happen on that drive home, but was sure it would be something wonderful.
A week into this business venture and we were so busy that Uncle Pete brought one of our regular cooks back in part-time to help out the senior one he’d kept onboard during the quarantine. If this fellow, Gus, wondered what was up with “nurse” Lila escorting folks into the bar for a moment, he didn’t let on.
I lived in fear that the authorities would barge in on a raid, some lab-coated, pistol-waving patrol of public health officers, to cart us all off to jail.
But hope tamped down that fear. Hope that Lila would smile at me. Laugh with me. Even – as happened last night as the room emptied – jokingly twirl around in a dance with me to the tune of “I’ve got a crush on you” before Boyfriend arrived, quickly breaking free when his shadow darkened the door.
She smelled of roses, something faint, something I’d never noticed before. Her soap? Perfume?
That night I dreamed of buying her that perfume, even after finding out it would empty my college savings account.
The next day, Uncle Pete expanded his venture. For every five Specials, he’d throw in a roll of toilet paper for an extra three bucks, and the test was still free. When I asked him why wasn’t the toilet paper free, too, he looked at me like I was the stupidest man on earth. “I pay for that, Rudy,” he said. He wasn’t paying for any of the “tests.”
As the days wore on, my anxiety crept up, and every time the bells over the door announced another customer, I feared I’d see those uniformed health officers of my nightmares.
They didn’t show up, but more discerning patrons did. Some insisted on knowing why the test results would take so long. I had no answer, but Uncle Pete, always around, quickly responded, “You want fast results, go get those government ones. Half of ’em are no good anyway, you know.”
It was around this time that Lila started wearing a name tag with her white ensembles, which had grown to include a white shirt dress and a white jumpsuit. The tag read: Lila Milchek, O.D.S.
I asked her what the initials stood for and was rewarded with a smile. “Something in my old country,” she said.
Only three days now remained in the quarantine, and as we were about to open for the afternoon, I asked Pete what he’d do about the missing test results at that time.
Without a word, he pulled a typed letter from his pocket and handed it to me.
“Dear Valued Customer,” it read, “By now you should know, if you are symptom-free, that you do not have the Chinese flu. Those of you with symptoms will have gone to the doctor, as we advised. We are happy this quarantine is over, and sad to report that our testing company, Ajax Dynamics, went out of business and absconded with all the swabs. Since the test was free, there is no need for a refund, but we generously offer you a free large soda with every large Special pizza you order…”
“Ajax Dynamics?” I asked, looking at him over the paper. “Absconded with the swabs?”
“I’m going to post that here, on the counter, in laminate. And hand it out to some people I recognize who got the test,” he said, with not a hint of shame or embarrassment.
The bells jangled, and I looked up, expecting to see Lila, wondering if she had a new white outfit to dazzle us with today, but it was a customer.
And another and another and another after that.
Lila didn’t come in that night. Or the one after.
Now the ambient music I chose was Puccini, lush arias about death and doomed love. Lila was in the hospital, desperately ill.
Uncle Pete actually closed up shop, worried that she’d contracted the virus, that his scheme had had deadly consequences, the spread of which we’d yet to realize.
The verdict came in a phone call from the boyfriend a couple nights later. His name was Roger, it turned out, he was a car mechanic, and Lila’s real name was Mimi.
“Tuberculosis,” Uncle Pete said in a hushed tone after getting off the phone. “It’s just TB.”
A cascade of events then overtook us. It turned out everyone she’d come into contact with needed to be told and possibly tested. Many of them got the COVID test too, while they were at it, so that special offer of Pete’s turned out to be valid, after all.
Not a one complained or let out a word about Pete’s tests, or if they did, they were dismissed, because we never heard a peep from anyone about it.
As for Lila?
She didn’t make it. She contracted the virus after all, somewhere else since none of the customers tested positive, and her underlying condition meant she was in the at-risk category.
Roger let us know weeks later. He came in for a pizza, his face as grim as death, and now the gravel in his throat seemed real, as he gave us the bad news.
“She tried, you know? Knew she was sick, but she tried to make it here and wanted…” He stopped, choking up, and I never found out what she wanted, but I knew it wasn’t me.
That week, I changed my major at Penn State, to undeclared, and began an online Intro writing course, our first assignment an essay about lost love.
“Lila would smile at me as if we shared a secret,” I wrote, “her dark eyes staring at mine, unblinking, the corners of her rose-pink mouth lifted up just a millimeter, as if to ask, how funny the world is, isn’t it, Rudy?
Copyright 2020 Libby Sternberg