Jacksonville, Florida had become the 80% mark of my journey, the end of the fourth leg of five … first: from Tucson, Arizona to Denver, Colorado, second: (unplanned and spur-of-the-moment) from Denver to New Orleans, third: from New Orleans to Chicago, and now, I had just completed the fourth … from Chicago to Florida. The final leg would be from Jacksonville, Florida to New England, another 1000 miles or more.
The three of them … Beth, Marge, and Richard were very attentive, but there really was not much to be done. I had a bump on my forehead, with a cut across the middle of it, but I was OK except for a sharp headache. Was there anything they could get me? I asked about the possibility of a cup of black coffee. Beth or Marge said she knew how to make coffee and would get some started right now. So now I said I had an important question, which of you is Marge and which is Beth? After it was explained, I said tell me about yourselves and then about your ‘commune.’ I would just sit quietly and listen. They were all 18 years old and all were students at Jacksonville University (which had just been upgraded from Jr. College) in a summer study program. The commune was comprised of 20 students sharing this fairly large house and they all paid into a common rent and food kitty. Right now, during summer, there were only six or seven people, but everyone had to ‘kick into the kitty’ no matter where they might have gone for the summer. They tried to have a balance of freshmen, sophomores, etc. so the commune could continue indefinitely at twenty people (they always had applicants waiting for a vacant spot). Richard said maybe we should get some pizza for supper and the girls agreed as long as the wounded guy agreed. I nodded yes. Richard asked what kind of toppings would everybody like. I quickly said as I was taking some money out of my pocket, anything but onions. “We don’t accept donations from the injured”, Beth said, “Let me get your coffee. Then Richard and I will go for pizzas.” Marge asked if I would be OK by myself for a few minutes as she had chores that must be tended to. So I sat back in the kitchen chair, with my eyes closed, just to rest. House so quiet, though there were background city sounds. Some minutes had passed when I thought I sensed movement near me. I opened my eyes, then probably opened them wider as I saw a naked and decidedly voluptuous young woman staring at my forehead. She said “Hi, I’m MacKensie, I heard they conked you on the noggin. Would you like me to get a bandage for that bump?” Before I could gather my wits for an answer, she said “I heard you were from Arizona, but what’s your name.” Well, just inches away, gorgeous and generous parts of a very handsome lady were in full, unobstructed bloom and my name could not seem to make its way to my tongue. Instead I pointed to my forehead and nodded ‘yes.’ So MacKensie left the room saying she’d be right back. I struggled into consciousness and was able to drag my name out of some dark closet in my brain, where it had gone to hide. She returned with a large bandage and proceeded to apply it ever so gently to my wound. I finally was able to say “Thanks, MacKensie, my name is Rosano.” This Rubenesque young woman was certainly something of a prize, as well as a surprise.
Marge came into the kitchen and began washing her hands while saying, “Arizona, we didn’t have time to tell you about nudity and the free love parts of our commune. Everything here is voluntary and allowable as long as there is no objection from any other member. Just so you know. Are you OK with that?” My first thought was ‘if this is communism, I’m all for it’, and ‘right now I’ll be an undercover capitalist.’ But I said … “I vote yes!” MacKensie said, “The injured party has a name and his name is Rosano.” Marge asked how many would be having supper. MacKensie thought there would be six, with Stephanie just getting off work. They took out six serving trays and ‘set’ each one with a fork, knife, small plate, empty glass, and small cloth napkin. Soon there was noise of Richard and Beth coming back with pizzas accompanied by Stephanie, a tall, slim, pretty, light-haired girl. Three or four small pieces of pizza were put on each plate. Marge announced everyone should carry a tray into the main room, MacKensie was taking drink orders. Coffee and water were fine for me. A couple of people had a beer. Everyone was sitting in a group on twin-size mattresses, each having its own metal-framed platform to keep it off the floor. I was introduced to Stephanie. The pizza was decent, not great, but welcome. Richard said he would tell what happened this afternoon and why the guy from Arizona was here. And he told the story accurately with no embellishments. Then he said “And now our guest should tell us what he’s doing in Jacksonville on the small Italian scooter.” Introducing myself, I said before I talk about the scooter stuff, I’d like to ask where all of you were from, because none of you has a southern accent … at all. None of them was from the south, but from everywhere else … New England, the Midwest, the Far West. They were all going to school, at least part time.
“I’ll talk quietly about my trip for a short time, and then you guys can ask all the questions you want.” I just didn’t want to bore anybody. And that’s what we did. And questions poured in. Topics ranged all over the place. I split a beer with someone. When we talked about food, Richard said that none of them knew how to cook, though a couple of their ‘winter’ people did fairly well in the kitchen. MacKensie said she had a good herb garden in the back yard, but didn’t know much about using them. I said, “Look, it seems I’m the old man of this group, and I’m a pretty good cook. I’ll cook breakfast for everyone tomorrow morning if you’re willing to risk a slow, painful death. I’ll need an assistant or apprentice. Who will it be?” MacKensie and Beth raised their hands simultaneously. So I said, “Good. Two is better.”
This group of six talked for a long time touching on every subject imaginable. We talked of the ‘beat’ generation which was dispersing and a new ‘hip’ group gathering in California fueled by psychedelic mushrooms, banana peels and drugs. Summer evening in Jacksonville was warm and Marge had nodded off to sleep. Pert little Beth, who was now wearing only denim shorts, asked how my head was doing and could she get anything for me. Just a glass of ice water if she could. My head would be fine in the morning, I thought, but I’d like to take a shower if I could, since I still felt sandy and gritty from the beach. Beth said she’d get some water for me and MacKensie, could you show Rosano our shower room. MacKensie got my clothing bag from the corner of the kitchen and said to follow her. Through a hallway. She pointed out a door saying “toilet there.” Adjacent was the bathing room, that is, a room with one bathtub against one wall and four shower heads arranged along another wall. She put my bag up on a built-in shelf, started a shower going and said to go ahead and here was a washcloth and a towel and there’s liquid shower soap right here. This group of young people had remodeled this house to serve twenty people, hence multiple shower setups. I was impressed. They were quite serious about this commune. It was non-political and had nothing to do with Soviet communism. From their conversation this evening, that was evident. It was a mutually beneficial housing arrangement, with no other intent. As I began to soap up, MacKensie started the adjacent shower and started doing the same. “Your ice water is next to your bag.” That was Beth, now naked, starting a shower on the other side of me. This was a definite ‘first’ for me. MacKensie walked into my shower stream saying “Here, let me do your back.” And she started. Oh Man! Excited, my reaction was becoming more apparent by the moment. Beth then said, “His head might be hurt, but part of him is working rather well, I would say.” I could only laugh helplessly while MacKensie worked on my backside. She said I still had sand in my hair and that she would wash it. Please sit down on this bench. Let me remove this bandage. We’ll get a new one for you. Beth was holding the shampoo. Jacksonville might be a rough town, but, so far, it was an exciting paradise for me.
Done washing, Beth handed me a lightweight, terrycloth bathrobe, saying let’s go back to the main room. And we did. Richard and Marge had already fallen asleep. Stephanie came over and joined us for some conversation. She had made some iced tea. Anyone for tea? MacKensie showed up with my ice water and a smaller bandage. She carefully placed it on my wound saying the swelling had gone down somewhat, and then kissed me lightly on the other part of my forehead. I just softly said “Thank you.” We talked for another hour since the ladies were asking more about the scooter trip … what prompted it, wasn’t I scared, etc. I asked what food was in the house for breakfast. Beth said she’d wake us up in plenty of time and we could look in the morning. If we needed anything, she could bike to the grocery store and be back in a jiffy. OK. MacKensie opened some cabinets, took out some sheets, pillows, and light blankets. She pushed three platform beds together and made up places to sleep. She said, “C’mon everybody, brush teeth, go pee, and let’s go to sleep.” Stephanie said she was going to write a letter for a while and might join us later. In a short time, the three breakfast cooks were asleep.
During the night, there was some gentle, but stimulating exploration by MacKensie which I answered in kind, with soft squeezes and tender pettings added. The conclusion was quiet, comforting, and complete.
Morning started early with Beth giving me a little kiss on the cheek and whispering in my ear “Good morning, chef. Do you drink coffee in the morning? I’ve got some ready, if you do.” “I do, I do, thanks.” She said to go get dressed and come to the kitchen and we could start the day there. The three of us drank coffee quietly and then I asked what food we had available. Beth said she had it arranged on the counter. Good. A quick survey and then I asked for a tour of the herb garden. MacKensie’s eyes lit up. “Right this way, chef Rosano.” We went outside into the warm very early morning, with MacKensie pointing out this and that, and new mint she had planted two days before. She had forgotten what this other stuff was, but it was pretty. I told her she had a pretty good garden, but she should dig up the mint and put it in a pot separate from the garden because it would take over and drive all the other stuff away. Did she know she had a really nice Rosemary bush at the corner of the garage?
Back in the kitchen, they had two dozen eggs, a small canned Danish ham, some Velveeta cheese, grated parmesan, sliced black olives, a few other items, and some sliced sandwich bread. I said, OK, are any of you vegetarians? No. Good. Let’s make a huge omelet, which I call a frittata, but we need a few things from the grocer. Beth was there with a small pad and pencil. “OK, two loaves of decent bread, French or Italian, two full loaves or four baguettes. Some decent cheese, Asiago or Parmesan or Romano Pecorino (not grated), or any firm cheese that sounds like that. A can or jar of roasted red peppers, any other color is OK, too. A can of garbanzos or red kidney beans or black beans or all three. OK, that’s it. Beth disappeared. MacKensie and I sat down with our coffee for a minute or two. She asked about the feathery beautiful plants in her garden. I said after breakfast I’d tell her as much as I knew. I got up, leaned toward her and gave her a gentle smooch, and said she had been pretty sneaky during the night and I enjoyed every second of it, but now it was time for her to go to work on breakfast. She said last night was so very nice, but breakfast looked like it could be really exciting, too. I had MacKensie crack the eggs, and beat them with the grated parmesan, go to her garden and get some of that oregano she had grown and chop it very fine or use scissors and cut it up that way, and the same with needles of a small branch of rosemary. I preheated their oven, got the large cast iron frying pan buttered. Beth returned from shopping, they did have Asiago, and the beans, roasted peppers, and baguettes. Good. This was fun for all of us. The kitchen was hopping. Everybody learning and doing. The assembled frittata went into the oven with a cookie sheet for a lid. It would be ready in an hour or less. Let’s clean up the kitchen and we’ll sit down and have more coffee. In time, the other three in the house started wandering into the kitchen, drinking and making more coffee or tea. None were naked or topless. That allowed my eyes some welcome rest. Two people alone and naked … I was used to that, but the possibility of six nude people would be a wild new experience for me and just then, I was responsible for breakfast. Beth asked what more was there to do. I said throw out the sliced bread they had, it was garbage. And the Velveeta, too. Disgusting stuff. Both she and MacKensie laughed at me. Going over to the counter, I took one slice of that balloon bread, similar to Wonder bread. I squeezed it in my hand, then released it. It remained completely mushed, and I said that was because it was full of phony stuff. It was like glue. You wait and watch. I asked Beth to cut two baguettes in half the long way, giving us four long halves. Looking at the rosemary, I asked MacKensie to try to cut it finer. A platter was ready and I inverted the frittata onto it. Everyone was watching and oohed and aahed, and I sprinkled the whole thing with the rosemary, and damn, it did smell good. I had melted some butter on the top of the stove. Stephanie and Marge had gotten the individual trays ready. Beth said the toast was perfect. I showed Beth how to lightly paint the toast with butter, sprinkle a tiny amount of sugar, and then dust them with cinnamon and asked her to finish them and serve everyone half of a half. Carrying our trays to the main room, we sat down to a simple, savory, satisfying breakfast. To these young people (only two or three years younger than I was), the whole deal seemed like magic. You know, it was magic. For sure.
As we finished breakfast, Beth asked what I had planned for today and what my plan was generally. I wanted to see some of Jacksonville and for sure wanted to go to the beach again, and maybe visit the public library. Marge spoke up saying “Rosano, you really don’t want to see much more of this town … it’s really kind of dumpy, and not only that, some places are pretty dangerous.” I said I knew that, because I had been mugged at the beach yesterday by some crazed person with a boomerang. And now Richard almost spit his coffee out laughing. To Richard, I said “All is forgiven, and I have to congratulate you, more than anybody. Here you are, alone in a house with four beautiful ladies. My compliments.” Marge said, “You have a wedding in Connecticut. And you want to get there on June 26 or 27, right?” A yes nod. “You spent three days in Chicago, four in Atlanta, and we’d love to have you for the rest of your life if you can cook like this.” “Marge, Thank you,” I said, “to stay at least one more day here would be so beautiful for me, all of you treated me so well after the beating.” They all laughed again. “Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll cook a supper for you that will knock your socks off, but better than that, it’ll be a simple supper that you guys can learn in one shot and repeat with variations for the rest of your lives.” Richard said “A Done Deal” … and offered his hand as a welcome. Thanks, Richard. Beth said she would be my guide for the day. Everyone was carrying their things into the kitchen, Stephanie was washing dishes. People were getting ready for the day and as they dispersed, each thanked me for a delicious breakfast.
Beth asked, “more coffee?” “Sure, let’s sit down and have another cup and make some plans for today.” Beth poured coffee and sitting down she said, “Rosano, I think it would be best to do this: First we go to the library. Next we go to the market for food for tonight’s supper and tomorrow’s breakfast because we don’t have enough food in the house for either right now. After that, we come back here, take care of groceries and do some serious love-making. Next, we have a little nap, and then, we’ll go to the beach. When we get home, we can cook. How’s that?” My response made her laugh. “I like your thinking, and I believe you should be the President of the United States.” Laughing she said, “Does that mean Yes?” I nodded. She gave me a little smooch.
We needed a large canvas bag, or a laundry bag, or maybe a couple of pillow cases for groceries, since paper sacks were too fragile. She had two large canvas bags. Let’s just take one. We were standing at the scooter as I taught her basic hand signals. I complimented her on wearing a helmet when she was on her bicycle yesterday and if she ever wanted to do Marge and Richard a big favor, she could get helmets for them as well. And so we putt-putted to the Southside Branch Library, where I read of the causes of the Civil War. In the articles I read, chosen at random, it seemed every possible cause was explored thoroughly except … preservation of slavery. Was this the library’s subtle censorship? I didn’t know, but viewed all that reading I had done with a jaundiced eye. In addition, my reading covered some descriptions of other areas of Florida. Also read a few minutes each for the major southern cities along the coast, from Georgia to DC. With the exception of the ocean and Miami, the whole state of Florida sounded a little boring, unless you were a boater, a fisher or a golfer, but I really knew so little about it and was merely guessing.
Beth and I made our way to the grocery store, which was an independent food store and not part of a chain. They had some pretty good stuff, not a huge selection, but better than I had expected. Beth said the commune had an account there. We did our shopping. For meat, I got six each chicken breasts, thighs, and drumsticks. Also asked the butcher for some lean, very thinly sliced beef (across the grain, please). The butcher said “Oh boy, these kids will eat well tonight! Glad to see it.” We picked up a number of other things including a bottle of good olive oil. Time to go back to the commune (I couldn’t get used to saying that word).
“Rosano, that was a fun morning. I love giving signals and having the scooter respond … gives me a sense of power. Let’s put this stuff away and what do you suppose we should do next?” I had an idea … we should have a little coffee, then brush teeth, then get naked, then wash each other meticulously, then see what happens. She said, “Yes, yes, yes” and began warming two cups of the morning’s coffee. It wasn’t long before we were washing each other, being especially attentive, then drying each other and having Beth show the way to one of the platforms. Giving her a big kiss, I told her to take the lead this first time, and be comfortable with anything and everything. She said if anyone else comes in, she could cover us with a light blanket if I wanted. “Not important”, I whispered. It was a glorious time for both of us. Then, a nap in each other’s arms. Sometime during our nap, people walked through, but I didn’t know who or how many.
Afternoon sometime. Awake. Now, Beth stirred, rolled a little closer, gave a kiss and said “That was really something.” I said, “Yeah, you really were.” We were quiet for a few minutes and she asked if I still wanted to go to the beach since it was still early. Sure. Dressed. Back out to the scooter. We were off to the seashore with the sun at our backs. It was twenty minutes to the coast. Locked up everything to the same power pole, and we went out to the water with my pants rolled up above my knees. I wasn’t interested in swimming, as much as I was in just experiencing. A warm afternoon and I loved it. And again, the water, the wet sand, a little bit of splashing, the sounds, everything. After sloshing through the shoreline for a while, Beth and I sat on a small blanket she had packed, and we talked. She said that almost all members of the commune were misfits and that their families were glad to have a place to ‘ditch’ them. Beth was from near Bend, Oregon. I said Bend is on the dry side of Oregon, no? She said yes and that her family was a ranching family, very conservative, fine citizens, deeply involved in their church. A few years ago, Beth had spent one weekend in San Francisco, 500 miles away, and was forever changed. Returning to Bend, she rebelled against the church stuff (which she had wanted to do for at least a year or two before), refused to go to services, and became an embarrassment to this straight-laced family … to the point where she and they worked out an arrangement in which they would send her a check each month for the next five years and she had to get her education or her profession and at the end of five years, she was on her own. As soon as high school graduation was over, she was on a bus to Florida. She knew her family would never welcome her returning to the ranch. I asked why she came to Jacksonville. Her answer: It was diagonally opposite from Bend, Oregon on a US map. I then told her how I had used a map and ended up in Tucson, Arizona. She laughed loudly and said “We’re so similar. That’s why we were so fine together in bed today.” I said, “You think it’s in the charts, eh?” Still laughing, “Rosano, so you, too, are a misfit, no? That’s why everyone in the commune wants you to stay. They sense you’re one of them.” Mentioning our age difference, I said it was OK to be a misfit and that I had arrived at that conclusion just before starting this trek across the country. So it was nothing to worry about. Further, I felt comfortable being a misfit, though my family was wringing their hands over my lack of direction. Misfits are interesting people. Let the ‘normal people’ cook the meal, but it is the misfits who provide flavor and spice. She gave me a big hug and asked, “How long would you stay if we begged you?” “Truthfully, I was going to stay only one night in Jacksonville and then start north. Today is Wednesday. I would leave Friday morning at the latest, and only if invited. Then I would head north to Savannah. You people are the only reason I would stay. You guys are good people, so savvy, and fun, and I really admire what you have done. And Beth, you’re a beautiful person, and I have so enjoyed being with you.” She gave me a squeeze and said, “Let’s go back for another cooking lesson. That frittata was a marvel … so simple and so good tasting.”
Riding back to the commune, Beth reached up and held onto my ear lobes for a few seconds. My mind instantly went back to that splendid three weeks with Stella. But I had to put that remembrance aside … I was with other exciting people, in the present, right now, and Stella would always be a memory, a treasured memory, but a memory nonetheless.
Into the kitchen and we began preparing for supper. Beth got the chicken pieces from the fridge, and I had her push a garlic clove under the skin of each piece. MacKensie showed up, wearing a skirt and no top. And I’m telling you, Brother, she was built. I set her to getting about six lengths of rosemary, the width of our roasting pan, and the same with the oregano from her garden (she was quietly thrilled to use the things she had grown). I showed her how to arrange the rosemary in the bottom of the pan. Now put the chicken pieces on top of those little branches. There were two pieces too many for the pan. Next, while Beth was dicing the thin skin of a tangerine, I had MacKensie wash and then score the 16 or 18 small sweet plums we had found at the grocer, and arrange those between the chicken pieces. Sprinkled the tangerine and we placed the oregano branches on top, drizzled some olive oil over the whole mess, then a little salt and pepper. Ladies, preheat the oven to 375 deg. F. One hour before serving, we pop this into the oven. MacKensie, sweetie pie, when the oven or the stove top is active, you should put a blouse or shirt on … for safety of your goodies. She laughed, said, “You’re right,” left the room and returned now wearing a shirt and a skirt. OK, m’ladies, let’s clean up our little mess and get ready to make another one. Here’s a big soup pan, let’s put about a quart of water in and we’ll put it on the big burner. While that’s happening, Beth, I found this platter. We’ll make a big veggie platter, so you can start washing the veggies we bought this morning and cut them in some decorative fashion. For instance, the red cabbage can be cut into some good-looking wedges, but that’ll be your choice. Now MacKensie, let’s get a good knife and go to your garden, and I’ll show you some magic that you’ve already grown. And all this time, I’m occasionally touching them gently and the two of them are doing the same to me and we’re having a ball. Out to the garden, and I say to MacKensie, take some of these feathery leaves and roll them between your fingers and then sniff. She does that and smiles. “Licorice? No, it’s anise, right?” I shake my head no and she looks disappointed. Then I tell her it’s better than that. It’s fennel. You have grown eight or ten very nice fennel bulbs. My congratulations! And she looks puzzled. C’mon, I want you to harvest two of these bulbs. I showed her where to cut. We had two big beautiful plants. Let’s wash them with the garden hose and then we’ll take them in the house. As we’re doing that, Beth leaned out the door to tell us the water is boiling. OK Beth, put the two pieces of chicken in the pot and we’ll be right there. Beth had a good start on the veggie plate. Now we cut all the greenery and the stalks from the fennel bulbs, we slice the bulbs to create rings of this wonderful vegetable and give the rings to Beth for her plate. They have a splendid taste and I don’t understand why so few people know about fennel. MacKensie can chop up all the greenery, thinly slice all the stems and toss the whole pile into the soup. Whatever veggies Beth has left over are also sliced up and put into the soup. I proposed we name it ‘kitchen sink soup.’ It was time to put the chicken into oven. In an hour, it could be served. Looking through cupboards, I found some rice, which was still good. Into the soup. A small can of mushrooms … into the soup. MacKensie can slice the two remaining baguettes just as last night’s were, except this time, we’ll toast them, paint them lightly with balsamic vinegar, sprinkle with shredded cheese and retoast quickly and serve. Marge and Richard caught a whiff of the chicken and started hanging around. Pretty soon Stephanie would show up. While the three cooks took a break, the other two began setting up the trays. I wasn’t seeing much of Florida, but was having a grand old time with these great young misfits.
Let’s turn the soup pan off. We’ll finish cooking it tomorrow. The kitchen was flooded with mixed aromas. Stephanie showed up just in time. I announced the chicken would be done in five minutes or less. Everyone should wash their hands and get ready. The chicken came out of the oven, I removed the oregano branches from the top, scattered some of the oregano leaves back onto the chicken. Popped the pan under the broiler for a few minutes to brown the chicken. Come and get it!
Supper was a decided hit. They had never eaten chicken this tasty ever before. Never heard of combining plums, and branches from the bushes, with chicken, etc. After the conversation became a little more subdued, I said my two lovely apprentices knew how to do this, and they could teach the others. And my question was, “Do you see why most Italian-Americans do not cook turkeys for the holidays?”