this is my body

eating and drinking at the end of the world
by Jonah james fontela
Something is rotting in your home right now. There’s food in the fridge that’s gone past useful, to the other side of veil. Maybe you’ve ignored it or forgotten it, but there’s meat that smells of vinegar and ammonia. Vegetables oozed a liquid slime with a whiff of sulfur. Sometimes rot can smell sweet. I once found a mouse under the fridge, dead and bloated. Its belly writhed and split open by a colony of blind maggots that smelled of the apocalypse. In an airtight container, right now, a film of delicate crystals, gentle blue and white, is growing over the top of some neglected meal like a summer bed sheet. These are ruins. Think of vines creeping up ancient stone walls. Libraries full of pages, printed with letters and sentiments imagined eternal, turned to dust. How little time it takes for nature to cover our own well-built walls under blankets of green and brown. We had a leak inside our bathroom wall. A pipe broke. We could hear a drip. Something very much like a mushroom pushed its way through a crack and began to reach, slowly, toward the light of the window. It filled me with a dread beyond reason. I imagined what was unseen behind that wall. Death is only the middle. There’s rot and more to come. We all have conversations about what we want done with our bodies when they die. Burned or buried? These are the popular options and both are meant to obscure the next phase, the rot and devouring. It’s worms instead of wolves and dogs, or rats, if you go into the ground. Cremation is a waste of resources and a greedy negation of your body’s organic promise. Leave me where I fall I once said, and it got a big laugh. Too big. [Photo: Tree taking root in an old building by Jonah James Fontela, 2014]

Something is rotting in your home right now. There’s food in the fridge that’s gone past useful, to the other side of veil. Maybe you’ve ignored it or forgotten it, but there’s meat that smells of vinegar and ammonia. Vegetables oozed a liquid slime with a whiff of sulfur. Sometimes rot can smell sweet. I once found a mouse under the fridge, dead and bloated. Its belly writhed and split open by a colony of blind maggots that smelled of the apocalypse. In an airtight container, right now, a film of delicate crystals, gentle blue and white, is growing over the top of some neglected meal like a summer bed sheet. These are ruins. Think of vines creeping up ancient stone walls. Libraries full of pages, printed with letters and sentiments imagined eternal, turned to dust. How little time it takes for nature to cover our own well-built walls under blankets of green and brown. We had a leak inside our bathroom wall. A pipe broke. We could hear a drip. Something very much like a mushroom pushed its way through a crack and began to reach, slowly, toward the light of the window. It filled me with a dread beyond reason. I imagined what was unseen behind that wall. Death is only the middle. There’s rot and more to come. We all have conversations about what we want done with our bodies when they die. Burned or buried? These are the popular options and both are meant to obscure the next phase, the rot and devouring. It’s worms instead of wolves and dogs, or rats, if you go into the ground. Cremation is a waste of resources and a greedy negation of your body’s organic promise. Leave me where I fall I once said, and it got a big laugh. Too big.

[Photo: Tree taking root in an old building by Jonah James Fontela, 2014]

Milva runs the house. Her husband runs the kitchen. The restaurant, Le Mangiatoie da Tormento, is small, at the top of Via San Francesco in Buti. A spirited woman you ought never to cross, Milva races through the tiny room like a hurricane. She is never servile, always in charge, and she indulges in the old Tuscan practice of sitting with diners at their table to engage them in conversation. It was as much this norm, as her friendship with my late grandfather, that saw her sit with me, my mother, my father and my Nina.  The building that houses the restaurant was once a stable. Horses were fed in what is now the dining room. Mangiatoie translates to manger and small marble pools, about the size of a kitchen sink, still ring the ancient walls. The food of the region, of the hills of Tuscany, is served. The fare that makes sense at the base of Monte Serra. The beef, sliced and tender and topped with arugula and slivers of salty cheese and olive oil, is called La Tagliata, which means cut or severed. The pasta is made by hand and tossed in a yellow sauce of wild boar or rabbit they hunt in the hills. An antipasto plate was stacked with a Salami Toscana, flecked with huge hunks of white fat, and a crostini of raw local pork sausage. My mother refused it, worrier she is, but the rest of us relished its pink softness smeared across the bread.  My father, a willful and stubborn man not to be taken lightly, made an error on this night. He asked Milva if they had any fish on the menu. It was a pedantic request and he knew it. She replied appropriately: “You want fish? Go fishing.” A native Spanish speaker, my father can understand most of what is said without the help of my mother, a native Italian speaker, and Milva left no doubt as to what she meant. He broke apart in laughter. Milva owned him for the rest of the night. And what a performance it was. When he asked about the wine, a simple question, she took her cue and sat down. She rolled her eyes under her wild dark hair. She asked the rest of us if my old man was always such a rompe-coglione, or ball-breaker. She waved her arms, speaking at high volume. She pretended to be offended. You come all the way from America, she said, in her fevered Italian, to break my balls?! The point was: the wine is good, just like the meat, so drink it. She called my father Profesore di Cazzo, loosely translated to Professor of Dick, and my mother howled. So did he.   We were all in tears. In the roar of our laughter, diners at the other tables, locals of this tiny village, grew curious. They began to join in, somehow, to become part of our meal. My tears turned mournful when I understood how this woman and my Nonno came to be so close. They had so much mischief and wonder in common. My grandfather came to life for a moment in my heart, a few hundred yards from the house where he died. Orders began to pile up in the kitchen. The chef, Milva’s man, requested she collect the plates and bring them to the diners. She dismissed him with a wave. He brandished a large cleaver in the air and asked, politely, if she’d mind putting her head on the counter beneath it. At this, Milva pounded our table with delight.  [Photo: View of Buti from Monte Serra by Jonah James Fontela, 2014]  

Milva runs the house. Her husband runs the kitchen. The restaurant, Le Mangiatoie da Tormento, is small, at the top of Via San Francesco in Buti. A spirited woman you ought never to cross, Milva races through the tiny room like a hurricane. She is never servile, always in charge, and she indulges in the old Tuscan practice of sitting with diners at their table to engage them in conversation. It was as much this norm, as her friendship with my late grandfather, that saw her sit with me, my mother, my father and my Nina.

The building that houses the restaurant was once a stable. Horses were fed in what is now the dining room.
Mangiatoie translates to manger and small marble pools, about the size of a kitchen sink, still ring the ancient walls. The food of the region, of the hills of Tuscany, is served. The fare that makes sense at the base of Monte Serra. The beef, sliced and tender and topped with arugula and slivers of salty cheese and olive oil, is called La Tagliata, which means cut or severed. The pasta is made by hand and tossed in a yellow sauce of wild boar or rabbit they hunt in the hills. An antipasto plate was stacked with a Salami Toscana, flecked with huge hunks of white fat, and a crostini of raw local pork sausage. My mother refused it, worrier she is, but the rest of us relished its pink softness smeared across the bread.

My father, a willful and stubborn man not to be taken lightly, made an error on this night. He asked Milva if they had any fish on the menu. It was a pedantic request and he knew it. She replied appropriately: “You want fish? Go fishing.” A native Spanish speaker, my father can understand most of what is said without the help of my mother, a native Italian speaker, and Milva left no doubt as to what she meant. He broke apart in laughter. Milva owned him for the rest of the night. And what a performance it was.

When he asked about the wine, a simple question, she took her cue and sat down. She rolled her eyes under her wild dark hair. She asked the rest of us if my old man was always such a rompe-coglione, or ball-breaker. She waved her arms, speaking at high volume. She pretended to be offended. You come all the way from America, she said, in her fevered Italian, to break my balls?! The point was: the wine is good, just like the meat, so drink it. She called my father Profesore di Cazzo, loosely translated to Professor of Dick, and my mother howled. So did he.  

We were all in tears. In the roar of our laughter, diners at the other tables, locals of this tiny village, grew curious. They began to join in, somehow, to become part of our meal. My tears turned mournful when I understood how this woman and my Nonno came to be so close. They had so much mischief and wonder in common. My grandfather came to life for a moment in my heart, a few hundred yards from the house where he died. Orders began to pile up in the kitchen. The chef, Milva’s man, requested she collect the plates and bring them to the diners. She dismissed him with a wave. He brandished a large cleaver in the air and asked, politely, if she’d mind putting her head on the counter beneath it. At this, Milva pounded our table with delight.

[Photo: View of Buti from Monte Serra by Jonah James Fontela, 2014]
 

Something drew me toward the meat. The pot roast and pork shoulders, the oxtail and top round in their cold case at the back of the market. I ate my last farm tomato, ravishing orbs that store a year’s worth of the sun and stars, for yesterday’s lunch. One tomato rotted itself to the bottom of the box, leaving a smell of decay that no cleanser can wash away. The sun is gone. It left us suddenly with a huge rumbling thunderstorm that turned day into night and left a cold breeze, a permanent one, in place of thudding waves of warmth. The cool air means that the leaves now should change. They will change now. The cold nudged me into Nina’s flank last night, in our dark bedroom where the windows are still flung open. I feel an energy dragging me into the kitchen, but no longer bare-foot and shirtless. I won’t worry about how long I boil water, or fuss over leaving fiery pots and pans near the exhaust fan to keep the temperatures down. I want the oven on. I want it roaring. I want the metal coils and springs to bang like the house’s old radiators when they heat up. The sun is done warming us, and I will grieve it in the coming days of change while the shadows grow longer. This stained hearth will warm us now. Cauldrons of broth and flesh, softening muscle and humble roots will fill this tiny house with life. We will make our own warmth and keep our own health, be our own sun through these vile dark months I detest. At least we’ll do our best.    [Painting: Old Man Putting Dry Rice on the Hearth by Vincent van Gogh, 1881]

Something drew me toward the meat. The pot roast and pork shoulders, the oxtail and top round in their cold case at the back of the market. I ate my last farm tomato, ravishing orbs that store a year’s worth of the sun and stars, for yesterday’s lunch. One tomato rotted itself to the bottom of the box, leaving a smell of decay that no cleanser can wash away. The sun is gone. It left us suddenly with a huge rumbling thunderstorm that turned day into night and left a cold breeze, a permanent one, in place of thudding waves of warmth. The cool air means that the leaves now should change. They will change now. The cold nudged me into Nina’s flank last night, in our dark bedroom where the windows are still flung open. I feel an energy dragging me into the kitchen, but no longer bare-foot and shirtless. I won’t worry about how long I boil water, or fuss over leaving fiery pots and pans near the exhaust fan to keep the temperatures down. I want the oven on. I want it roaring. I want the metal coils and springs to bang like the house’s old radiators when they heat up. The sun is done warming us, and I will grieve it in the coming days of change while the shadows grow longer. This stained hearth will warm us now. Cauldrons of broth and flesh, softening muscle and humble roots will fill this tiny house with life. We will make our own warmth and keep our own health, be our own sun through these vile dark months I detest. At least we’ll do our best.  

[Painting: Old Man Putting Dry Rice on the Hearth by Vincent van Gogh, 1881]

A yellow light glowed on my chest. It was the middle of the night, all was dark, and the only sound was my urine bubbling in the toilet water. I was disoriented, barely awake, and the trapezoid on my skin, burning bright in a world of night’s deep grays and cold blues, filled me with wonder. I believed for a moment that the glow came from inside my body. But no magic was afoot. It was a lone light of the world shining through the bathroom window and reflecting off the mirror, landing on me in the darkness. A shadow in reverse. I leaned forward and the shape moved, its boundaries and dimensions growing. I looked through the window and found the source. The bulb was tucked away behind our house, through a maze of dark shadows and smudges, houses of various shapes and sizes. It was the porch light of a neighbor, a large white house where three generations of the same family live. The police came there one night to take a man away, quietly, in chains. I couldn’t tell how many turns the forgotten burning light took, or how many windows it bounced off, or trees it dodged. But it found me, striking me just above the heart.[Painting: Street Light - Study of light by Giacomo Balla, 1909] 

A yellow light glowed on my chest. It was the middle of the night, all was dark, and the only sound was my urine bubbling in the toilet water. I was disoriented, barely awake, and the trapezoid on my skin, burning bright in a world of night’s deep grays and cold blues, filled me with wonder. I believed for a moment that the glow came from inside my body. But no magic was afoot. It was a lone light of the world shining through the bathroom window and reflecting off the mirror, landing on me in the darkness. A shadow in reverse. I leaned forward and the shape moved, its boundaries and dimensions growing. I looked through the window and found the source. The bulb was tucked away behind our house, through a maze of dark shadows and smudges, houses of various shapes and sizes. It was the porch light of a neighbor, a large white house where three generations of the same family live. The police came there one night to take a man away, quietly, in chains. I couldn’t tell how many turns the forgotten burning light took, or how many windows it bounced off, or trees it dodged. But it found me, striking me just above the heart.

[Painting: Street Light - Study of light by Giacomo Balla, 1909] 

The leaves are confused by the weather. So am I. It hardly broke eighty degrees on any August day this year. The bees were made dopey by chilly mornings and flew clumsily, in a haze, afraid that fall had come early. They scrambled, neglecting their sleep, and tried to catch up on their labors. Clumps of leaves, which should have burned green for another month, began to brown and dry, standing out across the sky like bruises on a fresh apple. It comes every year, that first sign of autumn’s great die-off, but this was too early by far. And September, a sober month of few surprises, has played us a trick of its own. Temperatures blaze into the nineties. Hot winds blow through and sap energy when cool breezes should be chilling and sending us scrambling into sweaters We should be thinking of fires and soft pears and softening carrots in the oven, and apple crisp. But my shirt is soaked in sweat as I wander, drunk with the sun’s moistening scorch, along the banks of the river. Brown leaves crinkle under my feet like old paper and I imagine them as thin shells, dead horseshoe crabs on a warm beach, crackling under me. 

I looked at the beer can and wondered where I’d seen it before. It was familiar somehow, there in my hand, but alien too. Like something from a dream you only think you’re remembering. This fresh can of Miller Lite, handed to me by my brother-in-law a few minutes shy of noon on a summer Sunday, was cold, small bullets of sweat bubbling on the aluminum. It was just pulled from a shelf lit by a fluorescent bulb in a refrigerated case at a corner store. It was new. It was full. It was white. And that was the problem. These Lite cans only ever existed to me in a yellowed state, shot through with BB-gun holes or larger punctures from 22-calibre bullets. They lived forgotten lives out in the woods we explored as kids, or at the side of the road in piles of forgotten refuse. Orange fuzzes of rust, both consuming and creating, ate away at the thick metal of their bases. We found them poking out through the swampy ground near streams and they spoke of hidden gatherings and illicit things – the secret parties of teenagers who were now adults. They stuck out from the dirt and the rotting years of leaves like ruins. I drank the beer and it was fucking terrible and I wondered how long it would take for this Seventies retro can in my hand, rouged and ready for fresh commerce, to turn yellow and decay in the acids of the earth.   [Image: Unknown Rust, source and date unknown]

I looked at the beer can and wondered where I’d seen it before. It was familiar somehow, there in my hand, but alien too. Like something from a dream you only think you’re remembering. This fresh can of Miller Lite, handed to me by my brother-in-law a few minutes shy of noon on a summer Sunday, was cold, small bullets of sweat bubbling on the aluminum. It was just pulled from a shelf lit by a fluorescent bulb in a refrigerated case at a corner store. It was new. It was full. It was white. And that was the problem. These Lite cans only ever existed to me in a yellowed state, shot through with BB-gun holes or larger punctures from 22-calibre bullets. They lived forgotten lives out in the woods we explored as kids, or at the side of the road in piles of forgotten refuse. Orange fuzzes of rust, both consuming and creating, ate away at the thick metal of their bases. We found them poking out through the swampy ground near streams and they spoke of hidden gatherings and illicit things – the secret parties of teenagers who were now adults. They stuck out from the dirt and the rotting years of leaves like ruins. I drank the beer and it was fucking terrible and I wondered how long it would take for this Seventies retro can in my hand, rouged and ready for fresh commerce, to turn yellow and decay in the acids of the earth.  

[Image: Unknown Rust, source and date unknown]

I’ve eaten a tomato for lunch for the last five days. And judging by the number of bulging red orbs left in the box from the farm, I will eat a tomato for lunch for eight to ten days more. If they don’t rot, that is. I like variety on my lunch table, but one tomato, over and over, is what I want this time of year. I won’t get bored. I cut it into third-of-an-inch slices and arrange the wheels, six or seven, on a round white plate. I add coarse salt and black pepper, which is an adornment, because these tomatoes are sweeter than summer peaches. I lay on thin slices of Vidalia onion, curling like jai alai baskets, each little piece spooning with its partners. Then a few drops of olive oil. I will eat this lunch for as long as I can, because I know, soon, it will be dead. For the rest of the year the tomatoes will be imposters telling the worst lies. When they are this good it means summer is over. I eat slowly, something I don’t normally do, slicing just the right amount of tomato and onion with the teeth of my red-handled knife, arranging the red triangle on a piece of toast before crunching through it with my own teeth. I spent this morning spread out in the grass, looking up at a canopy of tree branches against the blue of the sky. The leaves are a lush green, but the breeze was up and I wondered, if I listened hard enough, could I hear them coughing? I stayed out in the bright light as long as I could until the hunger growl for my tomato, rinsed and red, and waiting on the wooden board in the dark of the kitchen, called me home. 

I’ve eaten a tomato for lunch for the last five days. And judging by the number of bulging red orbs left in the box from the farm, I will eat a tomato for lunch for eight to ten days more. If they don’t rot, that is. I like variety on my lunch table, but one tomato, over and over, is what I want this time of year. I won’t get bored. I cut it into third-of-an-inch slices and arrange the wheels, six or seven, on a round white plate. I add coarse salt and black pepper, which is an adornment, because these tomatoes are sweeter than summer peaches. I lay on thin slices of Vidalia onion, curling like jai alai baskets, each little piece spooning with its partners. Then a few drops of olive oil. I will eat this lunch for as long as I can, because I know, soon, it will be dead. For the rest of the year the tomatoes will be imposters telling the worst lies. When they are this good it means summer is over. I eat slowly, something I don’t normally do, slicing just the right amount of tomato and onion with the teeth of my red-handled knife, arranging the red triangle on a piece of toast before crunching through it with my own teeth. I spent this morning spread out in the grass, looking up at a canopy of tree branches against the blue of the sky. The leaves are a lush green, but the breeze was up and I wondered, if I listened hard enough, could I hear them coughing? I stayed out in the bright light as long as I could until the hunger growl for my tomato, rinsed and red, and waiting on the wooden board in the dark of the kitchen, called me home. 

I keep olive oil in a glass bottle. It sits next to a bouquet of wooden spoons near the stove top, tucked in among the other important things I use every day. Salt. Pepper. Sugar. When the oil runs low, Nina takes a plastic funnel from our messy drawer and fills it up from a large can, replacing the metal spout that controls the speed of the pour. I used the same bottle for years, about 15 years, until it broke. It’s death came quietly and without fanfare. It didn’t tumble to the ground from a high perch, exploding in a million oiled-up deadly razor shards. It tipped, sadly, like an old dying man or woman might, gently hit the stone edge of a marble tile, and broke. The sound wasn’t a crash, just a clink, like a screw coming loose in a car engine at highway speeds. It was closer to silence than it was to sound. The oil, thick and green, spilled out through the wounds in the glass, which I had just filled to its brim. I didn’t move quickly to mop it up. I watched the fluid run. I took my time rubbing the spilled oil into the wood of the counter-top. We tried out another bottle we had hiding in the dust on a dark shelf in our pantry. It was too small. It didn’t hold enough oil. Not enough payload, I told Nina. We had to refill it every few days. I knew then what had to be done. The bottle my grandmother, my Nonna, kept her oil in. The one she kept under the sink, the one my mother gave to me, was the only solution. I pulled it reluctantly down from its decorative shelf and used the funnel to fill it with oil. Now there is no buffer between accident and loss. I feel clumsy when I grab for it. What was once reflex now requires care.

I keep olive oil in a glass bottle. It sits next to a bouquet of wooden spoons near the stove top, tucked in among the other important things I use every day. Salt. Pepper. Sugar. When the oil runs low, Nina takes a plastic funnel from our messy drawer and fills it up from a large can, replacing the metal spout that controls the speed of the pour. I used the same bottle for years, about 15 years, until it broke. It’s death came quietly and without fanfare. It didn’t tumble to the ground from a high perch, exploding in a million oiled-up deadly razor shards. It tipped, sadly, like an old dying man or woman might, gently hit the stone edge of a marble tile, and broke. The sound wasn’t a crash, just a clink, like a screw coming loose in a car engine at highway speeds. It was closer to silence than it was to sound. The oil, thick and green, spilled out through the wounds in the glass, which I had just filled to its brim. I didn’t move quickly to mop it up. I watched the fluid run. I took my time rubbing the spilled oil into the wood of the counter-top.

We tried out another bottle we had hiding in the dust on a dark shelf in our pantry. It was too small. It didn’t hold enough oil. Not enough payload, I told Nina. We had to refill it every few days. I knew then what had to be done. The bottle my grandmother, my Nonna, kept her oil in. The one she kept under the sink, the one my mother gave to me, was the only solution. I pulled it reluctantly down from its decorative shelf and used the funnel to fill it with oil. Now there is no buffer between accident and loss. I feel clumsy when I grab for it. What was once reflex now requires care.