On the train to Paola I face the wrong way. I think the car is empty, but when I push up onto the heels of my hands to peer above my seat, I find evidence of two other people: disembodied foreheads and eyes wide with boredom peering back at me. I remember doing the same thing on the train from Taormina to Messina, and its resulting in the only other passenger rising to give me his full face, then rising further to come join me as I sunk back down into the spoils of hubris. He spent the rest of the ride opposite me, pointing at my eyes and saying, “Verde! Verde!” It was a nice face, elastic and bright, but not the face.
No, but I had seen it, I think, and turn to watch the hills slither by. It happened as Leonardo made our slow, ropy re-tread from Figline Vegliaturo. We were approaching the three girls who had directed us on the way in, only now there were five or six: a full-blown gaggle, if not a gang. When we were right upon them, I noticed one of the new recruits, the smallest and toughest-looking one, sitting in the lap of her taller friend like a drunken monarch, legs splayed as if across each armrest of her throne. I saw her dirty feet first, but as I raised my eyes I found she was staring at me with a look that tripped my heart. She threw her head back, incidentally revealing the fine cut of her lowered eyelids, and coolly held my eyes while she loosened her jaw, her mouth crafting the most remarkable smirk.
I smile to myself, wondering how I failed to predict my young grandfather’s confident pose appearing in the bravado of an 8-year-old girl. It was the same look I had so envied, so admired, and so long searched for. I hope it never leaves her face.
There’s a small ledge below my window and I wedge my right foot onto it to relieve some pressure. I know that once I reach into my bag for my book, the whole thing is over, but I reach for it anyway. If there’s anything I’m good at, it’s hastening the inevitable. And so I return to a man named Scobie, and shortly thereafter to my animus for a man named Scobie. God I hate this guy! The victim of his own delusion of importance, the self-appointed guardian of two women’s happiness. I recall another book whose main character’s epiphany was the desire to care for someone other than himself, and while Scobie seems to think only of others, his “selflessness” amounts to an even more potent form of narcissism. The way he does it, he not only cares about their happiness, he deeply believes that only he can dispense it.
“I made them what they are, and now I must love them as my punishment.” He hated those women, why did he bother with them? Does Graham Greene really think God is a self-punishing God? That he created humans in a great, masochistic spasm? To repent for Antarctica, perhaps? Are we just unwitting, irrelevant players in his co-dependency issues? Does He secretly think His energy might have been better spent on plants and animals? Would consciousness have been better served by them? Can Christ have a Christ complex? Or just stupid Scobie?
The train is pulling into Paola, and as I close the book I fight off the memory of something I said years ago to someone I liked much more than Scobie. A silly, wild thing I may have said only to be provocative. Maybe the weakest part of me thought it was true, for a moment, one night. Not anything that merited the light of day. I wonder why that particular transgression overtook me now—one I suspect knows no purchase outside the walls of my skull—then decide that life is just an ever-increasing rotation of such revivals, punctuated by the boarding and deboarding of various forms of transport.
In Paola I have 90 minutes until the overnight train leaves at 10:22 p.m., and, by the looks of it, not much to do. The station is a long concrete thruway leading out onto a pulsing tangle of people, cars, stalls, and bikes. I see water on the horizon and decide to head in that direction. Descending down a cobblestone path I keep only the lightest hand on my suitcase, as it seems to navigate itself in my wake.
On my way to a lookout point, I verify the origins of the phrase “dying like a dog in the street.” Defeated beasts line the curbs, their jowls flush with the baking stones as if they boasted the cool spank of bathroom tiles favored by the disastrously drunk. They look so sad in the eyes. I had seen one in Reggio that stuck with me; it was early morning and already it was prostrate in the gutter, eyes squeezed shut. Most of them don’t look ill, just like they had given up. Had enough. What are dogs to do if they are not owned? Don’t they have some dog instinct that tells them to head for a hill and dog it up? I had studied that dog for an hour. I watched how, when its formerly shaded hind leg found itself exposed to the sun, it drew it under the shortened canopy of shade without even opening an eye. If it knew enough to do that, shouldn’t it know its place in the world? That dog. The way it squeezed its eyes shut. I mean, they weren’t just shut.
I park my suitcase by a bench, attempting to throw a little more shade on the very unhappy creature beneath it. I don’t even like dogs. I saw a shop owner in Tropea set out a little piece of tinfoil filled with cat food, and one cat politely approached and daintily tucked in. I knew that the cat would take what it needed and move on. Maybe five or six cats would be fed. A dog would have swallowed the whole thing in one ecstatic choke. Tinfoil included.
The sea is making patterns of light and dark down below. They look like islets; a map of the world.
I have folded the fingers of both hands over the far side of the ledge and, thus steadied, shut my eyes for a few moments. When I open them, some movement draws my attention down, where a tiny boy lizard the size of my palm is darting to and fro. I know he’s a boy lizard because he has the length of a similarly sized girl lizard clamped sideways in his mouth, like a tango dancer’s rose. He looks panicked, indecisive, enumerating all of his available exits; she looks bored and yet not altogether disinterested. I hear three older Italian men congregating nearby, so I carefully wave them over. “Guardalo,” I mutter, leaning them just over the ledge, where our hero and his conquest are now a completely vertical T, driven into hiding. The boy lizard peeps up at us, the girl bending her one visible eye heavenward, then he scrambles them both back on top of the ledge in a show of lusty disregard. I can feel the smiles spreading like a circle around me and the man to my left begins laughing a great, rumbling laugh. “L’amour!” he proclaims ruefully, turning to address me in French. Gaining steam he arches his neck as the other men chuckle and nod their heads: “L’aaamooooooour!!”
The dog underneath the bench is breathing a little easier, or so I imagine, with me close by. I am staring at a closed book in my lap, angry already, when a horse and buggy pulls up directly behind the bench. A pudding-faced mother and spoon-mouthed preteen son clamber down from their perch and head for a dutiful 10-second stint at the lookout. I feel the horse’s breath on my neck and struggle to look at him. I twist around one way and then the other. He is festooned beyond all dignity and worrying at the thing in his mouth. He coat is swirling pools of white and brown, like a jersey cow; I want to touch his long, churning jaw. He’s trying to look at me too, but we are both foiled by his big brass blinders.
There’s a little girl nearby feeding the pigeons as her grandfather looks on. She can’t be more than 4 but she’s got killer technique. Her favorite is to march right into the middle of a pigeon stronghold and hurl a handful of breadcrumbs high in the air, dropping into a duck-and-cover and squealing with joy as the pigeons explode around her. I take her picture, but suspect I got more pigeon than girl.
It’s 9:30 and as I walk back to the station the sun is drumming up its usual threats to set. I stop at a patch of tall grass and sit on a knee-high curb to watch it begin to ease itself into the water. It’s a greedy, ominous orange, looking perversely ripe, and I tell it that I know it doesn’t ever really set. I don’t listen to what people say. The grass to my right is moving in a straight line and out pops a small cat. I suck in my breath because this is the kind of thing I used to dream about as a kid. My face feels suddenly filthy. The cat is a tabby covered in black stripes with a white chin and, though I have clearly been propositioned (the cats I have seen throughout Italy are uniformly skittish and elusive), she lies down about six inches from me with little more than a glance and goes to sleep. Her head is set against a small rock, and there’s one tiny spear of a tooth on the left that doesn’t fit into her mouth. The little stray tooth makes my heart pound like a gavel. Well, that’s it. I must keep this cat. Who feeds this cat? Why is she hardly worse for wear? As she nods her head involuntarily I have to accede that she can take care of herself. Her tail is fluffy for a tabby and I wonder how old she is. I want to pet her but I am afraid. I am afraid it will make her leave, and I don’t want her to leave, because she chose me above all others; I know the boys 20 feet away are jealous because I have a cat, a wild cat, and they don’t. It adds immensely to my charm.
I check back on the sun, which is coral now, and diffusing the sky with a violet bloom. I look a little too long and my cat is covered in blue spots when I turn back down to her. I notice she has ever so slightly crossed her front paws and curled into a comma. The gloves are off. It’s time for me to go back to the trains but I can’t move. How can I leave this cat? I wait for some kind of sign; I try to think it through.
The sun is red now and the sky a more sober purple. I imagine it’s about to touch the surface of the water and I don’t want to take my eyes away because everything will have changed again when I look back. Things change so quickly and I never see it happening. The cat is up, she’s ruthlessly switching away and I wait for her to look back at me, to maybe come back to me, until I only see her tail weaving through the grass. I look toward the station and she keeps going until she’s gone. It’s getting cold and I want to put on my sweater but don’t; I haven’t eaten yet today. I think it must have been because I was afraid and didn’t pet her even though I loved her. “Who needs that?” my cat thought. Where are you going you confounded little cat? Don’t you know I’m a soft touch? You just had to look at me! Just once!
I’m running back to the station. My suitcase is angry about this and punishes me with multiple blows to my legs and petulant ducks from my grip. Everything is pink for those 15 or so seconds when everything is pink and I attempt to not be too ridiculous as I come upon the uniformed men in sunglasses who sing “per favore” whenever I pass. I don’t know the tune and suspect they are making it up as they go.
Reading in Paola:
The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene