Readers, here’s something just for you: a story from my book, Rest In Fleece: Ghosts, Tall Tales & Horror Stories. If you like your horror stories with a touch of oregano, this has your name on it! Mob Haiku fans as well as Ghosts readers should get a kick out of this one! Enjoy … and bon appetit! 😁👻👻
It smelled like gravy. Good, Italian red gravy (known as sauce to others). The lady downstairs, Mrs. Stregazza, was always cooking something in her big soup kettle on the back burner. All of us on the upper landing noticed this, day and night: she was a constant chef.
What? No, no, she lived alone. She looked like a babushka, a little old lady in a scarf. She never exchanged a word with any of us. Just opened the door for her mail, her grocery delivery, her group.
You see, she was by no means a recluse. She had this little club, I didn’t know if they played canasta, or traded gravy recipes. But they came over one night a week, like clockwork. They too wore the scarves and the old black dresses. Like peasant women from Sicily. We never heard a thing, whatever they did was quiet. The gravy smelled stronger those nights, though.
Odd things began to happen. Mr. Absynthe upstairs from me swears this is true. His maid dropped his Blessed Virgin Mary while cleaning the mantel, and it shattered into a hundred small segments. She swept them up, all apologies. A couple of days later, he came in and there it was, back in its old place. (No, he didn’t buy a new one. He thought maybe the maid had, but when he examined it closely, was his, all right: it had that little flaw in the paint on the robe, and there was a tiny chip on the bottom. Also it had an old sticker from the store he could never manage to remove: Eartha’s Specialties, it read, the price itself long faded.
My rosary, the blue crystal one from my nonna, began to glow in the dark. It woke me up, it was so bright. What on earth, I wondered. I said extra Hail Marys, I can assure you.
Tammy, the girl across the hall, whose apartment was directly over Mrs. Stregazza’s, said that she heard banging sounds at times. She noticed it only happened on the women’s meeting nights. She got the worst of the gravy smell of course, being right overhead. (It’s a good thing she liked pasta).
Marcus, the man next door, said he’d seen Mrs. Stregazza by her window one day, scattering something around her living room and mumbling. We thought carpet freshener, God knows the gravy factor must have been pretty strong here. But she’d looked up then: she shook her finger at him and scowled. He ducked away. We didn’t see much of Marcus after that. He didn’t come out for a week, and even then he looked sickly.
We actually had a psychic in our building. Her name was Vera and she did readings over the phone and by email. Several of us were chatting one night by the banister and we decided to get Vera’s take on the strange happenings in the building, since she might have an inside track, so to speak.
We all met at my place one evening. The hallway smelled like an Italian bistro whose specialty was garlic. We had all invested heavily in air freshening products.
Vera asked that we all be silent for a few moments while she concentrated on the apartment downstairs. It wasn’t too long before she said:
“Can you smell it? Under the spaghetti sauce, (the gravy, you call it?)”
We concentrated, but were overpowered by the usual. That was all we got.
“There’s something else.” Vera added. “They’re covering something up, those women. I notice there are always twelve who come to see Mrs. Stregazza downstairs. Like a coven, they are.”
We’d have laughed it off, but too many weird things had taken place.
“I sense something very dark,” Vera continued. “I’m getting a lot of names. Gilmore. Jacobs. Sanders. Peretti. DiAngelo. Do these mean anything to you?”
We shook our heads. None of us knew them.
“There are more,” she said. “Bianci, Ricci, Moretti. And Stregazza, but of course that’s her name, isn’t it. But it feels like someone else, a relative? Bruno, Capelli, Colombo. There’s another. Amato, I’m getting.”
None of us knew anything. Vera shook her head and said she felt something quite dark had happened downstairs, but she could do no more now, she was tired. We thanked her and each quietly went home.
And each week, Mrs. Stregazza had her twelve friends over, and each week the gravy continued to grow in strength and, frankly, in added garlic. Maybe she thought it was a cure-all. These old ladies, they put everything in the gravy. The men kept it simple always: tomatoes, tomato sauce, red wine, garlic, oregano, onions (not too many) mushrooms, then of course the meatballs, the sausage. Cook it for hours. But the women were always slipping something in. My nonna used to add some olives, may she rest in peace and sleep with the angels.
One day a couple of us had just come home, doors open, arms full of mail and groceries. We heard a banging from Mrs. Stregazza’s. It was loud, and persistent as a process server. Then there was a clang! and then it stopped. This happened from time to time during the next weeks. Always a pounding, followed by the other sound, then silence: except, if you listened closely, for the bubbling of gravy on the stove.
You must always stir the gravy, so it doesn’t stick to the bottom and burn. All of us from Italian families grew up hearing this, from the time our parents stuck us on footstools so we’d be tall enough to learn to stir. So, we figured Mrs. Stregazza had to be home when the thudding happened. After all, she seemed to always have gravy cooking. Was she deaf, did she not hear it? Or, did it come from elsewhere? Could have been the cellar, sometimes sounds were known travel up the elevator shaft or stairwell.
It was around this time we noticed the St. Vincent de Paul truck coming by every week or so. Always to pick up bundles from Mrs. Stregazza. We figured she was spring cleaning, emptying closets. One day, the St. Vincent’s man left the Thank You For Your Donation card on my door instead of Mrs. S.’s. She had donated, it said, men’s clothing. I thought to myself ‘Poor dear, her husband’s been gone lo these many years, and only now is she able to part with his things.” My heart went out to her, really it did. I told the others and we sighed for her.
Mr. Stregazza must have been quite the clothes horse. The St. Vincent man kept lugging away vast quantities of what appeared to be menswear. We thought perhaps she had been a hoarder.
The pounding continued at odd hours. Vera thought she heard a man yelling but she had second sight, so maybe it was a spirit she heard. We gradually became used to the smell of gravy (many of us had grown up with big Italian families and Sunday dinners, so even those of us on diets found it comforting and nostalgic.
One afternoon there was quite a commotion out front. Some gang kids from the streets had had a shootout right across the street. Some of Mrs. Stregazza’s friends had come by early, with bags of groceries and, it looked like, more clothing for St. Vincent de Paul. It did my heart good to see that kind of compassion for the poor, among those who were not themselves all that much better off. You could see the ladies in the hallway, looking out at the gangstas, shaking their heads.
“He’s ‘a no good, that boy,” said one of the women, pointing at the ringleader. “That Paulie, his mother, bless her heart, nothin’ she wouldn’t do for that boy. She has rosaries said for him. He goes to a counselor!” (She spat out that word. Counseling and the police were not go-to’s among old school Italians in our neighborhood). “For all the good it does. Look at him. Cattivone!”
Her friends nodded in empathy. One took out a little gold pencil and notepad and wrote something down. They went inside then, and the homey smell of gravy permeated the building once again.
We noticed it got quieter outside after that. The kids found some other place for target practice. Maybe Mrs. Stregazza had spoken to Paulie’s mother. Word of mouth: so effective.
The landlord came by one day and got after Mrs. Stregazza for the cooking smells. Someone, he said, had complained. Now, trust me, none of us would beef out Mrs. Stregazza, and she knew it. We weren’t that kind of building. We just weren’t. If things got bad, we might speak to her. But we had become accustomed to the spicy aroma of her gravy.
The landlord was simply a sleazy rat who made up the story so he could lean on her for more rent, or a fee, or something. Mr. Struhnze went on and on, we heard him upstairs. Mrs. Stregazza must have said something to appease him, though, because he stopped yelling.
Late one day, it was sometime in August, and hot as could be. The power had (predictably) gone out, so we all opened our windows. The fragrance of Mrs. Stregazza’s gravy wafted up. It smelled especially rich that day.
It was because the windows were open that we could hear them. It was the night her friends came over.
“Hello, Maria, come in,” said Mrs. Stregazza. One by one she greeted her friends as they arrived. “Concetta, you look wonderful.” “Rosemary, what have you brought? Wine? You shouldn’t have!” And so on.
We heard the ladies clattering about in the kitchen. Someone must have dropped something; we heard quite the thud. Then scurrying about. It sounded as if dinner was soon to be served.
“Renee, here, have some gravy. Meatballs?”
The sounds of dining could be heard.
“Angie (that was Mrs. Stregazza), this meat! It’s the best yet. You should be a chef on tv.”
“Here, have a thigh,” said one of them.
It sounded like a nice social evening for the ladies. How pleasant for them.
We’d have known nothing more if it were not for the unexpected demise of Mrs. Stregazza. She choked to death on a small bone. Such a shame, we felt so bad. We’d have never known, but the St. Vincent man came and his clothing pickup wasn’t outside the door as usual. We called Mr. Absynthe, who had an extra key in case she lost hers, or needed help. He found her there, head down in a bowl full of gravy and linguini.
As a result, the police came. And while they were there, they noticed a smell even stronger than that of the gravy. For the freezer had been off since the power outage the night before. Fortunately, so had the stove. The gravy had not burned.
The cops followed their noses to the freezer and then there was quite the hubbub, let me tell you. Sirens and more cops all night. It was certainly hopping around here, for hours. They questioned us but we didn’t let on. That would be ratting.
It was all in the news the next day. The ladies, who had met at an abused women’s group, started to meet for support. They found they had mutual interests: knitting. Dancing with the Stars. Cooking. So they gathered each Friday night to share dinner.
The ladies would each bring something. Mrs. Bruno bought wine. Mrs. Ricci brought bread. And Mrs. Moretti brought Mr. Moretti. She wore black. He was clad in Tupperware: several containers full. He had been converted to chops, hamburger, and sausage links. They put him in the freezer. There was room on the shelf next to Mr. Stregazza, Mr. Capelli, Mr. diAngelo, Mr. Gilmore, and the others.
The ladies didn’t like disruption. Paulie and Mr. Struhnze were in there, too. Each plastic tub was neatly labeled, so the police knew exactly what had been who.
As the police picked up the women, they could be heard discussing aspects of gravy preparation.