Palo Alto Weekly 15th Annual Short Story Contest
by Jane Moorman
My family friend, Carlo, his overly made-up girlfriend, Ilaria--with sparkles on her lips at 3 in the afternoon--and I made our way to the Grand Excelsior Hotel for a swim. We wandered through rows of beach cabanas named for constellations, finally finding Vega--where we had been invited by Carlo's friend, Luciano. Four well-tanned men in tiny bright bathing suits and expensive sunglasses were smoking and playing cards. When we emerged from the dressing room ready for the beach, they eyed our figures with the autonomic appraisal Italian men are born to make. One murmured approval of "the lucky cards he was dealt" and they all doubled their bets. We were told that Luciano would meet us after our swim. Completely satisfied with their lives, their Marlboroughs, suntans and telefonini, all calls become conference calls. When dinner plans cannot be agreed upon they say "I'll call you back in 15 minutes".
I walked across the wide white beach to the end of the breakwater. My strong legs propelled my dive far out into Adriatic Sea, beyond groups of talkers who never got their hair wet. Many Italians don't swim because they believe it is necessary to wait at least three hours after eating, which leaves little time in the water. I swam my California Crawl and surfaced at the next breakwater--walking past topless, smoking women of all ages baked to a tobacco color and men who sunbathed with their legs wide open to tan their inner thighs.
Back at the cabana, the card game had ended and the Italians could smoke and joke with us uninterrupted. I spoke Italian with abandon, my errors prompting good-natured teasing and comedic improvisation. I was surrounded by a hilarious troupe of Marcello Mastroiannis resplendent in near nudity.
We met Luciano, the handsomest of all, at his apartment by the Arsenale. From grand arched windows I beheld Palladian churches; the Redentore and San Giorgio Maggiore. Across the Bacino of San Marco was Longhena's Church of the Salute. The silhouettes of all three churches had been visible from my husband's house. But now, in another quarter of Venice, in parallax view, features previously hidden in cast shadow were revealed to me in the setting sun. We toasted with the region's sparkling wine, Prosecco.
At a nearby fish restaurant, I was in such a celebratory mood, I answered a hearty "yes" when the waiter suggested an assortment of antipasti misti for all. This is the costly solution to group indecision that Venetian restaurateurs have been buying country houses with for centuries. But that night I loved even that. Bring on the capesante, capelungi, granchio, cebiche di pesce spada, coda di rospo, fiori di zucca ripieni, and a great bottle of wine. Per tutti. Offro lo! The August heat intensified my appetites. Ilaria excused herself between courses to redefine and amplify her just-for-love mouth with a blood red border containing the freshened sparkles that glistened like mermaid scales. Carlo expertly and intently paid no attention. There is complete understanding between Italian men and women. Unabashed Peacocks both, each are simultaneously cat and mouse. It is said that Italian men and women deserve each other.
After dinner, we decided to have ice cream on the Lido to wait for the car ferry back to the mainland. Another gigolo type served us. I began to think that men look good tanned to the extreme, with shirts unbuttoned to the diaphragm to display taut pectorals. Our waiter's gold chain glistened on his hairless chest in concert with Ilaria's glitter, now spread to her throat and decolletage. She began eating her ice cream slowly with a miniature spoon. It is my opinion that Venice does not have very good ice cream. It had been disappointing living above a gelateria with mediocre ice cream. Byron and Goethe each complained about the indifferent tourist fare in Venice; high prices, meager portions. Florence, however, produces superior ice cream. In the '80s I lived in the Centro Storico of Florence near Vivoli, the famous gelateria. In the mornings, I watched the pretty Vivoli girls in starched white aprons and caps like dollops of whipped cream lugging in crates of fresh fruit and buckets of thick cream. The semifreddo ice cream was exquisite--creamy and airy. Not far from Vivoli was another gelateria whose production was icier, fruitier. In those days, sometimes my friends and I would get a juicy scoop at one place and walk by the Arno to Vivoli for another angelic pallina of gianduia or nocciola. In Italy, the farther south you go, the prouder they are of their ice cream. One summer on the Island of Ischia, by Capri, I ate cucumber ice cream with the perfect sweet-to-cream ratio, the color of which seemed cooler next to the warm weathered walls painted in tones of melon to pumpkin.
The streets of the Lido were still busy and just as hot at 1 a.m. I finished every lick of bad ice cream. We bid Luciano "buona notte" and drove to the car ferry. I would have liked to walk on deck to be hypnotized by reflections of churches and the tracery of balconies, to pass close enough to my favorite cafe to watch the waiters stack chairs, water down the fondamenta, and to hear the busboys sportingly break bottles into the recycling bin as the screeching, rolling door was yanked down half way closed to send away late clientele. Occasionally, when returning from a party, my husband and I would be beckoned to duck under the door to have a nightcap with Gianni, the proprietor; to talk of the day, of the old days, of boats and fishing. But this night I was tired. Venice had satisfied me and protected me. I was spent. And so, in the back of the car, I lay my head on Ilaria's scratchy lurex sweater, and fell fast asleep.
I found out later that as I slept, Carlo and Ilaria had slipped up to the top deck and behind a lifeboat "deserved each other" as the ferry passed through the Giudecca Canal. Carlo told me that at the moment he deserved her the most, he happened to turn his head and saw the facade of my former residence pass in the night.
A few days later, I returned to Venice, to the island of Murano. I wanted to buy more of the blue swirled glasses I had received as a wedding present, later broken in my hurried departure from Venice. They were painfully thin, as if they were mere crusts which had formed around wine. I also wanted to buy beads to string my own necklaces.
The route to Murano is magnificent. Only from the water can one get enough distance to observe the luminance of Venice for the walkways are too narrow to afford perspective. Canaletto, Sargeant and Whistler hired boats from which to sketch. I remember standing on the prow of my husband's little boat, rowing in unison with him. At dusk from the low vantage point of his boat, we could see the frescoes on the ceilings become visible when the candles of the chandeliers were lit. Now on course to Murano on the public vaporetto, the horizon extended before me. The geology of the lagoon was perceptible--little island continents that make up the archipelago of the Venetian Empire. Late August begins to give some relief from the heat of Ferragosto, the Ascension of the Virgin. The white-hot sky yields some blue. The buildings sharpen in shades of burnt rose and scalded egg yolk yellow. Marble, the accessory that goes with everything, glistens in contrast.
Expecting the same shrewd hard sell of the Venetian souvenir sellers, I was charmed instead by the gracious manner of the Muranese who waited on me. They brought me beads of mercurial opalescence, withfilo d'oro, macchie bordeaux, little concentrated planets of glass, some irregular barocco shapes, with Lapis colored centers bleeding into gold halos. I was captivated. My cheeks flushed as I opened each drawer. I was happy to spend too much money. Finally sated with treasure, I went to a Baccaro for cicchetti--little nibbles or tastes, and an ombra--a glass of wine--literally shade or shadow. Murano is a real place with real jobs. The artisans are proud of producing glass, something besides tourism. They work hard and need good food. I was delighted that baccari on Murano are genuine, not tourist places. The workers speak the hearty Venetian dialect, the wine isn't overpriced. And the cicchetti--little shrimp, clams with parsley sauce swirled in the shells, and puffy rice balls were the best I'd tasted. A large assortment of tramezzini triangle sandwiches of soft white bread were stacked in precise pyramids in a glass case, covered by damp tea towels. The embroidered corners were pulled back to fill an order, then lovingly replaced, as the discrete towel of a masseuse uncovering and covering one part at a time. These tramezzini were not the usual unctuous tuna fish bathed in mayonnaise; rather; They were fresh crab with rucola, golden calamari, melanzane with large chunks of parmigiano. My glass was filled to the very top with a cool prosecco, then topped off after I had a few sips by the dapper barrista, who addressed me as "Signora". As a signora, I could be simpatica without crossing the line to disponibile-- available. I could join in conversation with the customers, alternately accepting and offering ombras, cicchetti and caffe. I met their complaints of the heat without missing a beat, "Fra poco, Natale. " Soon it will be Christmas. Italians are fatalists and accept the long-range cycle of life. In winter when everyone complains of the freddo cane (dog cold), the response is "Fra poco Ferragosto."
After cigarettes were snuffed and prosecco flutes drained, the most talkative worker said, "Come, I'll take you to Coco. He'll give you a glass horse." Game for anything, I followed him across several bridges through a buttressed sottoporteggio, the light of the lagoon beyond, blinding in contrast to the dark courtyard of the glass works. Coco, the glassblower was as red as the embers in the fornace--a combination of heat and ombras. He signaled me to take a blue glass horse with a tail sweeping like the train of Flamenco skirt. It was a tourist horse, but for me he was as magnificent as the equestrian statue of "Colleoni," which stands in Campo San Giovanni e Paolo. "You shall call him Cocchino," I was gently ordered. I stopped for a moment to look through the arch at the lagoon. I smelled the sea and heard the slap of the little waves. The beach was not sand, nor the sludge of the canals of the main islands of Venice. It was made of smoothed jewels of glass-glimmers offilo d'oro, millefiore ruby and sapphire--a kaleidoscope shifting with the tide. I scooped up my riches with vague ideas of making mosaics. But perhaps I just wanted the loot as proof of my return to Venice.
I thanked them and hummed Figaro as I made my way to catch a vaporetto. Being laden, I missed the boat. At the stop there was a little vine-covered pergola where coffee was served. I heard a deep Venetian voice saying "Another will come." How can old Italian men make me blush? Whether he was talking about another boat, another fish in the sea, another love or another ombra it was worth celebrating. I sat down at his table. The postcard seller deserted his stall to join us. Strong blue-overalled glassworkers with swirls of smoke around their heads, sat down, and stirred A handsome young man approached. My host proudly called, "Nephew, what do you think of this bellissima donna?"
"She is una rosa" he replied.
"Because she will wither and die one day?" the uncle responded.
"No. Because women are beautiful, but they have thorns. Le spine, le spine."
"He's from Napoli," the old man said, as if that explained it. I shook hands goodbye all around and caught the vaporetto. I pushed forward to the bow. Losing my balance as I came starboard for a better view of Venice, I was righted by the strong arms of the Neapolitan. Was he following me?
"Are you going to the mainland? I asked. "No, to the cemetery. I am the electrician there. I must take you to the Cimitero di San Michele."
I had never thought of visiting the island cemetery, but he seemed so intent, so compelling, that I had little choice but to follow him. After I had left Venice, my husband's friend, the poet Joseph Brodsky, had been buried in the Venetian cemetery.
"I will go with you," I said, "I have someone to visit."
Three years before his death, the Brodskys' infant daughter was baptized in Lucca. My then future husband collected four-leaf clovers for me in front of the family chapel while we waited for the godfather, Mikhail Baryshnikov. At the service, I held my lucky bouquet and listened to the baby's mother and aunts sing in jubilant harmony. The echoes in the tiny church turned all melodies into fugues. The priest, probably knowing that he could never make a devout Catholic of Joseph, benevolently decided that it was, after all, a fine thing that Joseph had the same name as a favored saint. He invoked him as often as he could, "In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and St. Joseph too." Afterwards, at the party, Baryshnikov overheard me telling a viola joke--the classic "How do you tell the difference between a violin and a viola? Answer: A viola burns longer." He told me another one. Before long, people came in from the terrazza, and the room hushed as I was asked to repeat more and more ridiculous viola jokes to Joseph. He translated them into Russian, making what sounded to me like impromptu rhymes in playground rhythms, a form he delighted in. It was an improbable but memorable collaboration. Too soon after that joyous baptism and then my own wedding, I was to visit the grave of a dead father, husband and poet--but not with the man I married.
A stranger bade me to follow. I had been provided with a guide; an ardent, Neapolitan Virgil to accompany me in the face of the loss of what might have been. On the path past Stravinsky's and Diahgalev's monuments, the pin on the hinge of my dark glasses fell out. "I will fix them," the electrician said. He seemed frantic about how to accomplish this as he didn't have his tools. He spied a twig broom the faithful bereaved use to sweep the graves, bent off a bit of the rusty wire which bound the twig bundles, and inserted it into the hinge. My perfectly restored glasses were presented to me as if they were a tiara. At my polite thank you, he tenderly took my hand to his chest and said, "At your service, Signorina." Now that he had my hand, he did not let it go as he led me closer to Joseph's grave. I think he took me the long way around past the ceremonial platform where desdotona, boats of 18 oars, led the funeral gondolas of society's most illustrious dead. We came to the section were he thought Joseph Brodsky lay. I found Ezra Pound's grave. I knew Joseph's was near because I had heard it had been something of a scandal that Joseph was buried so near the alleged fascist sympathizer. As I turned from Pound, I had to arch my body to avoid a lone, overgrown rosebush, but I misjudged and was scratched deeply on the forearm. It bled immediately. My electrician was thrilled that now he could offer me the service of first aid. With a clumsy grasp, he tried to wipe away the blood, but succeeded instead in smearing it across my arm on to my dress. He muttered, "Le spine, le spine," and kissed me fully on the lips, only partly to assuage the sting.
Two meters away lay Joseph Brodsky; his name, and dates of birth and death engraved in Cyrillic on a simple headstone. Perched on top were pens and pencils that must have been left by aspiring writers and literary pilgrims. Underneath the pile were notes in many languages written on improvised paper; Paris metro tickets, bits of map, Polish stamps, corners of journal pages. I impulsively added my sketching pencil to the pile and under it, tucked in the torn remnant of my out-of-date Venice boat pass, my expired Carta Venezia.
"I must go. I don't even know your name," I whispered, turning to leave.
"I am Michele, from the island of San Michele."
On the vaporetto, I recognized a passenger. She was as beautiful as I remembered her, elegant as always, in handmade shoes and crisp summer linen. Not all aristocrats rise to the adjective "noble," but she did in grace and kind humor. We chatted light-heartedly and shared news. When the boat approached her stop, she rose, took my hand and looked at me squarely. "It was a great loss for Venice when you left." She kissed me twice and disembarked.
I silently repeated her words trying to believe them. Perhaps I was smiling as the vaporetto made it's way around the Eastern tip of the island through the wide canal. I smoothed my stained dress over my hips, hefted my treasures, and when the boat made its bump at the landing, the rope was looped around the bollard and the gate was slid back, I stepped off and returned to Venice.
From the judges
The author creates a sense of place with the use of specific and
This story can transport us to Venice--with its rich imagery,
its sharp details, its lush writing. The writer knows her world
and writes about it with confidence and sophisticated style.
Like the magnificent Byzantine meringue that is Venice's Basilica
di San Marco, "Venice, Again" is stylized, ornate, a bit overdone
and a delight to the eye as well as the spirit. I loved the telling
detail, the mysterious missing husband, the cigarette smoking, preening
Italians, and much, much more.