The City Hall was closed. I learned this just after my eye landed on Leonardo chatting up a blowsy woman with a large cat lodged under her arm, and directly before an old man began whispering either sweet nothings or urgent medical requests in my ear. The old man became our focus only because he was so demonstrably … old. “He looks really old,” my new guardian said; “maybe he’ll know something.” So I made for the old man on his porch while she wheeled her son into the care of someone watching the “excitement” from across the road.
I introduced myself and immediately began asking the big questions. Though he had no answers, my approach was tantamount to drafting him into the crew mobilizing behind me: Leonardo, his new conquest, her cat, the guardian angel, and an unidentified stick-legged child. The old man had plenty of questions for me, too, and was soon reminiscing about his time in Montreal—25 years that, to my continuing delight, did not manage to leave even a morsel of either English or French clinging to his lips. I asked him why he returned to the village after 25 years in Canada, and he looked at me with concern for my flimsy grasp of the obvious before grudgingly accommodating it: “My house is here.” I tilted my head back slightly in the international sign for “hmmm,” and he added, while pointing over my shoulder, “And my mother lives right there.” I turned toward the furtive hunch of hill shouldering us while something that felt like an arrow dipped in affection, incredulity, and joy was drawn taut from my collarbone and shot skullward; there, drooping on the steep slope like an iffy mole, was a tiny brown house with a preposterously old woman stationed in the window.
In between smoothing the translational fissures that riddled the road between the old man and me, my guardian continued to astound by pulling out a cell phone—not just a cell phone, but a cell phone with an earpiece—and efficiently mincing through call after call, intermittently scraping important names in my direction. She snapped her phone shut, de-earpieced ruthlessly, and told me that her friend, who happens to run the City Hall, must be busy making dinner. When she proposed decamping to the woman’s home and petitioning her to reopen the City Hall, I, while visually pawing through a nuclear haze of gratitude, instinctively checked her hand for a wedding band.
“You should have planned to stay over for a night,” she said, looking at me half pitifully, half quizzically. “What can you do in an hour? Tomorrow it will be open again!” Oh, the agony. “Why did you not plan to stay?” I looked at her as though I had just posed that question and was waiting patiently for her response. If she could tackle that one, I had a few more in the queue, like, Why am I unable to return the caps to shampoo bottles, especially if I know it drives whoever is sharing a shower with me around the bend? Why, when I wash my sheets, do I sometimes find it too demanding to actually put them back on the bed, and end up sleeping burrito-wrapped in my comforter for up to a week at a time? Why does the vacuum cleaner stay in the corner for days after its use, and, more importantly, does the fact of this added clutter, which far outweighs that which it has remedied, negate the intended purpose of neatening? Where does neat end and clean begin? Which one is good enough? I would have been asking them to her back anyway, as she was on task and out of earshot by the time my mind had set to sculpting even the blobbish beginnings of an excuse.
Leonardo was on old-man watch, gently dialing my senescent suitor porchward whenever his hand crept over mine. The sun had bent forth as if to peek through the mountains curtaining our perch, and we faced each other in that brief window as equals. There seemed to be—in Italy and specifically at that moment—some give, finally, between what is tolerable and what makes me want to throw myself under a train. Leonardo knows. He is smiling at me and his eyes open at the corners like little fans even as the lids lower with warmth. In a few minutes we will be back in the taxi, and he will lapse into torrents of German when I flood his circuits during our last and biggest quarrel. He wants to take care of me, he will protest, I am like a daughter to him. As I return his smile, I see these words occurring to him, and directly behind that, I see my Angel re-emerging from the bend around which the mothers of very old men reside. She did not have good news: the woman in question was not home and, somewhat incredibly, her neighbors were not able to pinpoint her whereabouts. For a moment, the novelty of this lapse in intelligence overtook the interest of the crowd, and I watched their faces happily, if searchingly, as they animated with a new concern.
The Angel told me to write down everything I had told her: the family tree, the names, and my address. She would pass them on and promised to have the documents sent to my home in Toronto. I didn’t have a lot of faith in the arrangement, but I was at least certain I had done what I could do; again the thought of staying tugged at my sleeve like the poor children who no longer stitched the streets on rusty needle legs, and again I looked down sadly and smiled. The Angel was saying goodbye to me, and I moved in for a hug—a development that she had clearly, and accurately, pegged as unlikely. I hugged her as hard as she would let me, which was not all that hard, thanking her profusely and to the point of my own embarrassment overtaking hers. A day passed before I realized I never asked her name.
In the car, after insisting we exchange addresses, Leonardo stopped at the spring that had so excited him on the way up. He had a cup in his front seat to address just such water-related happenstance, and he jumped out to fill it. I turned to watch from my seat, but damp, smoothly veined stone filled my window. It reminded me of setting my shoulders, some years earlier, against the Pantheon’s coolest wall, then giving it my ear and a whispered plea for a secret. All that afternoon I had sought sanctuary in Rome: at the Trevi Fountain, which was so packed I considered not enjoying it at all but settled on desultory pleasure; at the Piazza Navona, also overrun with people and birds and exotic cigarette butts; and at a restaurant providing cover from a sudden rain, where the cacophony of dishes, yelling after things forgettable and forgotten, crashing cutlery, and trays—trays, slapping trays—brittled me up. I’d felt certain I was going to be put under someone’s fender, cars flying from every corner. I’d slipped between buildings; read under shelters; been ignored by nasty clerks. The tourists had been exasperating: old ladies who cut in line, or blew into my path and germinated there, at my feet, squinting and blinking in every direction.
Leonardo was folding back into his seat—a wonderfully rare sight in itself, that of an older man taking deep satisfaction in something small—and entreated me to taste the water. I regretted my refusal even as, or because, it was reflexive, and tried to cover the misstep by launching into a story from that same trip to Rome. One morning, I was joined in my casual perusal of real-estate postings in a storefront window by a man in his mid-60s. He soon asked me if I knew Italian and which meant “rent” and which meant “buy,” at which point I sensed someone—his wife, I assumed—walking off. I turned to Leonardo for some reaction to this, but got none. “I thought she might not have been his wife after all,” I continued, “since she walked on for about 200 meters. But when she finally turned around, then only as big as my pinky, it was still obvious that she was beyond bothering with an expression—annoyance, boredom—I don’t know, a look that said, ‘You did it again, that thing you’ve been doing for 40 years that I hate but that you do anyway.’” It really got to me, that walking away business. “I would never walk off like that,” I vowed to Leonardo, a tad wildly, “like my husband is a doddering fool who only responds to being abandoned, like a child.” He nodded sadly from the waist, more of a faint rocking, though I don’t think he understood most of what I said, and again my grief welled up. The husband’s face had worn the same expression, but not quite, as Leonardo’s, and my heartache at the impossibility of everything, but especially of perfectly remembering a moment that was never perfectly perceived—whose perfection was only sensed peripherally before it passed forever—rushed below my skin like a flood current with no source and no destination.
The time had come, as it always does, to talk about money. As he drove us back down into Cosenza, Leonardo’s chatter scuttled across the slowly rising drawbridge between the enchanted land of the quasi-paternal and the coolly practical world of the wizened, before throwing the number cento—100—over its shoulder. I felt my forehead widen and cinch in quick succession, like a concertina in the hands of a toddler: I may not know why it takes me three days to seal the fate of swept-up sweepings with the dustpan, but I know when I’m getting hosed.
Suddenly, everything was numbers—miles, minutes, hours—and all presented with patronizing deliberation: a bedtime story for suckers. After the last of my interjections insisting he would not get more than 50 euros as I didn’t have more than 50 euros, there was a pause, a beat, a beaten pause, and then Leonardo either had or faked an epiphany. “Ohhhhh!” he sighed. “Eeeeeessssh,” he eeshed. “I think I see problem. Lire! One hundred thousand lire! We misunderstand each other. I am very sorry.” He looked sheepish, his tanned and cushy face all pushed up to his forehead, and in attempting—like any daughter worth a damn—to deliver the full force of this baptismal disappointment, I found myself unable to stare out the window with world-weary noblesse for more than a few moments.
Though I knew which train I needed to take, Leonardo insisted on carefully decabbing me, waiting solemnly in line beside me, dealing swiftly with the ticket agent for me (though I attempted to do that much myself), and buying me a (soberly toasted) drink before I boarded. He hugged me stiffly on the platform, pulling back to put his hand briefly on my cheek. I watched him walk back into the station, his walk that was all shoulders.
Reading in Figline Vegliaturo:
The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene