I didn’t have the heart to look at my watch as we pulled into Cosenza; it was probably close to five o’clock and definitely half past my hour of need. I was counting on the custom that frustrated me in Reggio—that of everything closing between four and seven and then reopening for a few hours—to save me at the city hall. The Cosenza terminal, second only to Rome’s in size, was palatial in theory, industrial in execution, and completely empty in fact. I stood woozily still, the combination of space shooting from me in every direction and reflectors either absent or too far away to return it with any conviction giving me a slight pitch from the waist, like a laggard sail.
In following the signs for the baggage check, I was drawn into a farcical loop around the terminal, which, thanks to my suitcase, was the aural equivalent of a one-horse carriage lapping a cathedral, and ended up right where I started. So fine, it comes with me. Again standing in the middle of the yawning atrium, I turned to find the other human being in the place installed behind the ticket window about thirty feet away. A swath of grooves in the floor achieved their apparent goal of causing disoriented travelers and their wobble-wheeled companions to tack through the course to the window unburdened by aplomb, élan, or even standard equilibrium. As punishment for this display, I stood before my deliverer for a full two minutes before he suffered to meet my eyes—the passive-aggressive pretense common among service workers of finishing the soccer scores or a gelato at their leisure that usually fills these interludes was well beneath his lot and, it seemed, equally above mine. My question about bus tickets to Figline Vegliaturo elicited a look of both far-away and clear-and-present irritation; then, a single shake of the head. “No buses? … No tickets? … Ever?” Mmmp. Mmmp. Mmmp.
It was clearly time for something extraordinary to happen, so I retreated to my post in the eye of the terminal’s torrent of nothingness and waited rather pointedly for just that. I entertained the idea, as much as an idea that causes you pain and humiliation can be entertained—it was the Amish bachelor-party guest of ideas—of getting back on the train. Perhaps I had come far enough. Closer, anyway, than anyone in my family had bothered to come in a generation. The devil, who, in fact, wears vintage corduroy and a ringer T-shirt, had fallen off the couch and onto my shoulder in a hail of Cheeto dust. Perhaps I had done enough, perhaps it was silly to think I could go further. I thought of getting a hotel room and figuring it out in the morning, but that meant missing the rehearsal dinner. I considered blowing, say, fifty euros—more than I had spent on food in three weeks—and getting a taxi. At least I could see it. Would that, then, be enough?
The last member of my family to visit Figline Vegliaturo was my grandfather, on his honeymoon in the late 1930s. He told my father the village was so poor and dirty that children trailed him, worrying his clothes and darting at his pockets with hunger-blinded hatchling hands. When I heard this story, I imagined a tumbling roadside setup, more of a glorified squat than a village, dust and mud hemming every item of clothing, rubbed from every chin. Did the Depression come to Figline Vegliaturo, or had it never left? Within three years of that trip, my grandfather would have a son, twins—a boy and a girl—and a wife who was dying of tuberculosis. Two years after that, he would be honeymooning with a new wife in Cuba, never to see Italy again. But that first honeymoon—in the tinned-tomato shantytown Figline Vegliaturo of my mind—had my grandfather cutting out fat exclamation points in dust-floured streets with the feet that would become my chief mental talisman in conjuring his existence.
The entire memory, were it projected on a screen, would star a disembodied foot: five veteran toes, lording over a giant, wowing sole like sprouted typewriter keys, fill out the top of the frame; the end of my brother’s four-poster bed and the drop of about three feet at its apron are below it, out of the frame; the sound of much smaller feet planting themselves at the foot of the bed prompts an off-screen voice greeting their arrival’s implied offer; two willing hands enter the bottom of the frame, reach up, claim the foot, and prod and pat it intently with boneless, pre-schooled fingers. He liked foot massages and I liked him. A few days later he would die close to where I stood in sober service of his toes. After the ATM in Lamezia, I had fifty-two euros in my pocket, and I was thinking of them, and of my grandfather’s face while children snapped tiny, tired hands after him, and of my dad dozing somewhere over the Atlantic as I stood there, when I noticed a lone, unmanned taxi out in front of the station.
I stepped out from the puttied void that was Cosenza’s terminal onto the sidewalk, and the world took a definite, sun-carved shape once more. Heading for the taxi, I heard someone behind me leaping to his post, and in a moment he was around and in front of me smiling. “Taxi?” It was a nice face, a broad, warm face, folded—not wrinkled—by time or luck or expert hands, into a textbook pattern of comfort and security not unlike that offered by a stack of fresh bath towels. You’re fairly safe in trusting a bath towel that looks warm and clean not to steer you wrong, and the same can be said of a certain kind of face in Italy; if it looks warm and clean and smells warm and clean, it’s generally warm and clean. His swoop to my side had kicked up a faint soapy scent that, as it dissipated, left something with legs, something alphabetical, a darker, baked-in sweetness; before I could finish my “Quanti euro per andare a Figline Vegliaturo?,” he was hoisting my suitcase into the trunk. “Just get in.”
It wasn’t fair, actually, for him to answer me in English; aside from being rude, it also implied that he knew the language. He was fluent in German, and, despite being named Leonardo Mainieri, his Italian was only conversational. I learned all of this before we had cleared the parking lot, and as we took off through Cosenza—a lovely, medieval-looking city of kiln-fired pinks and icing-drizzled, corniced bridges—I exhaled briefly and allowed the hot-buttered glow the sun slathers on everything at that hour to have the way it was obviously so desperate to have with me. My skin felt freshly laundered and pressed by the breeze as it set out to dine on the waves, its coolly expectant gnaw filling the early evening with a transient hum. Leonardo recognized my destination, and as we unspooled from Cosenza’s streets to make for the mountains, I tried to tell him what I wanted, and what would be enough.
He seemed to understand even my hiccupped term for great-grandfather, and after about twenty minutes he pulled over to point out a splotch of white and red—houses—high up on the western face of a mountain in the distance: “Figline Vegliaturo!” I fished out my camera while he had a cigarette. He was very proud of his taxi—as well he should have been, it was a very fine taxi—and he wouldn’t smoke in it, so from there on out whenever we stopped to quarrel or strategize he would step out to smoke. With each stop I felt a little more conflicted about reclaiming my seat in the back, as with each accompanying quarrel we got that much closer to conscription into the army of silent couples fuming side by side in cars all over the world. These things have no borders.
Back in the car, I drew a family tree on the back of my last train ticket and leaned up, hugging the seat to my chest, to prop my arms over Leonardo’s shoulder and the ticket under his nose: “Giuseppe ________? + Teresa Montemurro in Figline Vegliaturo” topped the bill, “Me in Canada” bottomed it, and some minor players figured in between. There were vigorous nods to my talk of the city hall; slower, real-time absorption nods to mention of a licenze di sposare; a single, loaded nod to a touch on immigration; and then: “OK! Give me address of this man. What is his telephone?” I threw myself back against my seat in despair, and while my hair began to lift around me like a new idea, drawn in smooth-talked undulations toward the sliver of open air atop my window, I demanded we just keep climbing.