St. Anthony’s Meatloaf
BY SHAUN TURNER
Theresa Rocca and her husband Stuart lived in a run-down duplex on a run-down street in a suburb exactly five miles between his family and her family. Stuart was a small-claims adjuster. Theresa worked in the hospital cafeteria.
Stuart and Theresa Rocca were like most people—unremarkable, somewhat happy. They both woke up at six A.M. Theresa showered, Stuart brushed his teeth, then they switched. They dressed, fought over the opinion section of the newspaper. Theresa loved Dear Abby. Stuart wanted to see if the editor had printed one of his many letters.
On Sundays, Theresa would make breakfast while Stuart sat in at the kitchen table and read articles out loud. He would shake the pages and says, “Things are good, ain’t they, baby?”
She would chop the potatoes and onions, pour fork-blended egg—Egg-Beaters for Stuart’s cholesterol—into a well-worn skillet. Theresa would half-smile in reply.
They shared two beat-up cars, one oppressive mortgage, and the tendency to fight over control of the radio. Theresa liked to listen to a sermon on Sundays, no matter the denomination. Stuart preferred Car Talk on NPR.
* * *
Every week, Theresa would make her grandmother’s meatloaf for dinner. It was one of Stuart’s favorite dishes.
The recipe was written on a yellowed envelope that smelled like her Nonna’s perfume. Theresa would follow her grandmother’s looping script, holding the writing religiously, mouthing the words like a prayer.
She folded one raw egg and one cup of oregano-seasoned breadcrumbs into a mixture of ground beef and minced onions, making sure not to over-stir it. She shaped the huge loaf in her grandmother’s way—slap-forming the mass into a perfect log—then covered it with tomato paste and mustard.
Nonna could never abide ketchup. Too sweet.
“How else can you turn a pound of ground beef into dinner for seven?” Theresa could see her, cigarette dangling, emphatic hands puncturing the stale air in her efficiency apartment’s windowless galley kitchen.
Theresa tucked foil around the edges of the pan, so the top of the meatloaf kept moist. She set the oven to 350 degrees, then washed her hands over the kitchen sink. Nonna made St. Anthony’s Meatloaf whenever the food needed to stretch til the end of the workweek, and so did Theresa.
As the meatloaf baked, Theresa reached inside the envelope. Nonna kept her favorite prayer card there. Painted on the card was a gaunt Saint Anthony of Padua—patron of lost articles. He locked shoulders with a miniature baby Jesus.
“Oh miraculous Wonder Worker,” the card began. The baby Jesus stood on a floating open Bible. “In this hour of need, please obtain what I ask from you.”
Theresa could see her grandmother rubbing her thumb across the card.
After the meatloaf cooked, Theresa fit the card back into its envelope, served dinner to herself and Stuart.
She ate her share, wiped the sauce from her lips with a paper napkin.
Afterward, she wrapped the still-heavy pan back in the aluminum foil and shoved it into the bottom of their fridge.
She washed the dishes and hummed “Ain’t No Sunshine” and the whole room smelled like food and Dawn, like her Nonna’s tiny kitchen.
* * *
The day after she made St. Anthony’s Meatloaf, Theresa took a meatloaf sandwich to work for lunch. She cut a slice from the oblong mass, wrapped it in plastic.
Nonna taught her not to let food go to waste.
Before she she went to make a new meal, Theresa always tried to re-purpose leftovers, like pan-frying stale clumps of macaroni and cheese into a cheesy antipasti, or turning leftover chicken wings and beef broth into a light stew.
”Your leftovers always taste like you made em fresh,” Stuart said before they ate. And they did taste good.
That day, she ate her leftover lunch in the small cafeteria office. The meatloaf sandwich tasted rich and tangy.
* * *
On the fourth day of meatloaf, Theresa crumbled the leftovers into a tomato marinara sauce and served it as spaghetti. They had it in tacos the day before, and she brought meatloaf sandwiches into work all week.
Both Theresa and Stuart agreed that the overwhelming meatloafiness, the rich beef and breadcrumb, overtook the sauce and noodles.
“It just seems to keep going,” Stuart said, rubbing his stomach.
“One hundred days of leftovers,” Theresa agreed. She unwrapped the two-thirds of a meatloaf, and raked into the garbage disposal.
The next morning, Stuart and Theresa made coffee in the kitchen; Theresa had to take time to to wake up before she could make a decent meal. When she opened the fridge to find the nondairy creamer, she saw it, the meatloaf still there, still in its container, still in the fridge.
She screamed. The creamer thudded dully on the linoleum.
“I thought you tossed it out,” Stuart stood over the kitchen table, braced his palms on the unopened Sunday paper. “I saw you.”
“I did,” she said. She wiped sleep from the corners of her eyes. “I thought I did.”
“It’s in the fridge—wrapped in goddamn Reynolds Wrap.”
“Just throw it away,” she said. “I swear, though. I swear…”
Stuart scraped the meatloaf into the garbage disposal again. It smelled delicious—like meat and tomato and onion—and the sink vibrated the counter so that their coffee mugs danced.
* * *
Nonna prayed to St. Anthony every time they lost something—Theresa’s missing left shoe, the beloved zircon ring Nonna once bought off the home shopping channel.
“We wouldn’t lose so much if you didn’t have so much,” Theresa told her once.
Her nonna just laughed. “If you want to take a vow of poverty, become a nun. I’m an old woman, and I’ll do as I please.”
Nonna could never get rid of anything. Theresa loved looking through her closets full of boxes—costume jewelry from the 1930s, old letters from distant Italian cousins, burnt-down votive candles. Nonna even kept a bundle of prayer cards that her priest, Father Ignatius, gave her for free. The printing company had misspelled “Mary’s Heart Cathedral” to “Mathedral” and he had to order new ones to hand out.
Nonna had always criticized the vow of celibacy, the vow of poverty. “The Pope lives in a mansion,” she would say, her arms folded. “They can buy new prayer cards.”
* * *
The next morning—Monday–Theresa called Stuart into the kitchen. She held the meatloaf tin. Almost a full loaf sat there untouched, fragrant. Stuart wiped his fists into his eyes.
“I’m not going to work,” she announced at breakfast. “I’m calling in. Someone needs to watch the house.”
They had meatloaf omelets. Meatloaf and Egg-Beaters, for Stuart’s cholesterol.
She spent the day cutting the meatloaf into very small pieces. She dropped cubes of meatloaf into the garbage disposal, flushed some down the hallway toilet, buried more in the garden patch, around the tulip bulbs. She shattered the ceramic dish against the mottled flagstone pavers that led to her porch.
* * *
But it kept coming back.
Each morning, she would open the fridge to find the loaf still there—fresh, partially-eaten.
One day, Theresa began a blog. Each night, she destroyed the meatloaf in one way or another.
One day, she carried the meatloaf into work and let the entire nursing staff take slices for lunch. One of the other cafeteria ladies, Gladys, filmed Theresa as she threw the empty, sauce-covered container into a dumpster outside the hospital.
Another day, she ran over the meatloaf—dish and all—with Stuart’s Honda Civic. The pictures on her blog were graphic in a way; the ketchup tracked bloodlike streaks down the shared driveway. Their duplex-neighbor could be seen peeking out her blinds.
Then she videotaped herself packaging the meatloaf into a cardboard box. A continuous shot led the viewer to a public mailbox. On camera, Stuart stuffed the meatloaf package into the small hole. The clatter of breaking class somewhat satisfied them when the dish hit bottom, when the meatloaf waited to be shipped.
* * *
“Piove sul bagnato,” Nonna would have said. The meaning of the phrase, Nonna told her, lay somewhere between “Too much of a good thing,” and “When it rains, it pours.”
Theresa’s blog grew more popular with each posting. Five hundred likes, two-hundrend-fifty-four comments.
On the sixteenth day of continuous meatloaf, Theresa called a reporter from the Snyder Herald. He came to her duplex for a homemade lunch, brought a beat-up camera and dollar-store notepad.
She showed him her blog, unveiled the meatloaf in its dish, and though the reporter told Theresa that the meatloaf tasted delicious, he looked a little green when Theresa announced she made the meatloaf over two weeks prior.
“It just… appears there the next morning,” she said. The reporter snapped pictures of the kitchen, the dining room, the two-thirds of a meatloaf—still sitting in the baking crock. “No matter how much we eat, it just… regenerates. Even if we throw it away. Goes from nothing to two-thirds a loaf as we sleep.”
* * *
One night, Theresa dreamed of a cathedral, a carpet of voices scattering like fog. In the dream, Theresa must have been four or five, and she was with her grandmother, who hugged her, brushed her lipstick across one cheek.
Nonna’s lips, cool and frayed, looked like old newspaper. She held a St. Anthony card, prayed in a feverish, rapid Italian. The old woman made The Sign of the Cross and the chorus sang.
In the dream, Father Ignatius prepared the church for communion. One deacon readied the thimbles of wine, another held a great silver tray that was covered by a gold-capped cloche.
Father Ignatius stood in front of the choir and Nonna took Theresa’s hand and guided her forward. A votive candle burned at the altar.
Father Ignatius removed two thimbles of wine. A deacon lifted the cloche, and both granddaughter and grandmother felt the steam of rich meatloaf hit their faces. They knocked back the caps of wine, chewed into the blood-colored meatloaf—taking both the body and the blood.
The cathedral filled with a thick white smoke, and Nonna mumbled Latin. “Ex opere operato.” Her hands grasped onto Theresa’s, rapidly aged, wrinkled, dried into dust.
“What does that mean, Nonna?” The fog filled the cathedral and Theresa could not see her anymore.
“Of the work done,” Nonna sighed as the vapor covered, thickened. “A gift.”
* * *
After the initial airing of their first interview, both Theresa and Stuart quit their jobs. Theresa made new blog posts. Stuart stuck to his cell phone. He fielded the news-media queries from ABC, CNN, their local FOX affiliate. TLC and SyFy sent competing offers for one to three prime-time hour-long specials.
Theresa and Stuart took time off for a while, waited until they felt ready to go back to work. He moved excess funds into their 401k accounts. She wrote a cookbook—The Forgotten Art of Leftover Cookery—that was sold thirteen thousand copies on Amazon. They stopped thinking about the meatloaf until it just became another thing covered in aluminum, tucked behind the sweet corn and the plastic bottles of water.
Eventually, Stuart and Theresa stopped trying to sell it. The looked for new jobs that had 401k plans, IRA accounts. And the media gave up on it, too. Moved to a story about an autistic boy who learned how to speak through watching reruns of Friends.
Stuart read the article to Theresa at the breakfast table.
“You know something? That’s really special,” she said.
That morning, she made toast, bacon, and scrambled Egg-Beaters for both Stuart and herself. She turned the eggs in the pan, and Stuart read the Opinions section, and everything was.