Roberto stood back, crossed his arms across his breast and studied Martin for a long moment. It was true; the man had a melancholy air about him. Roberto clucked his tongue against his teeth and acquiesced.
“You are insufferable.” He said to Andrea. “Fine, yes, two hours; three at most and the work shall be complete and I shall charge him a fair price but it will be expensive all the same! How is it that you take such advantage of me and do not wear a dress?”
“You know, it is widely whispered that you are growing old and foolish. I am beautiful too, no?” Andrea replied slyly.
“Go, go. Get out and leave me with my work.”
As the two men left, Roberto called to Gianni and instructed him to get busy on the coat. It would have to be carefully dried and then altered within an inch of life and even still, it would not look right. It would not be a garment that Roberto or any of his customers would wear but it would be better than anything the American was accustomed to, for it would be the unparalleled work of Roberto Colluso!
Andrea and Martin stepped back into the hallway. Andrea pulled his overcoat on, grabbed his other things and then retrieved his umbrella from the stand. Martin had no coat, so he buttoned his double-breasted jacket, grabbed the things Andrea had sold him earlier and both men stepped into the alley.
“Now what?” Martin asked.
“You spoke of being hungry. Come Signor,” Martin interrupted him.
“Please, call me Martin.” He said.
“Very well, Martin. I am Andrea. Come, we shall eat a leisurely lunch. Your coat should be ready in two hours or so.”
“Tell you what,” Martin spoke as he opened his wallet and counted his bills. “You pick the place and I’ll pay the bill.”
“You have spent many hundreds this morning Signor, I mean Martin.” Andrea warned.
Martin thought of Bill’s instructions, his impending divorce and the ever-greedy Elizabeth and then said, “What the hell, its only money.”
The rain began and once again, though none concerned were aware, lives were irrevocably changed and set upon a course of collision that would test their faith not only in God but also of themselves.
Not far from where they stood was a restaurant called the Conca D’oro that was a particular favorite of Andrea’s. It sat in a small campo behind the Palazzo Ducale and the Bridge of Sighs. He would take Martin there and introduce him to the kind of meals that only Italians enjoyed. Not the paltry spaghetti and meatballs that so many ignorant Americans thought was Italian or the anemic lasagna that housewives by the thousands pulled out of a box and defiled with canned tomatoes and greasy hamburger but real food, Italian food! Bread, wine, pasta, fish, cheeses and fruit. He would make it a gift to this American even if he were willing to pay the bill.
Back to the street they hurried, back to the turns of left and right, ducking down small dark alleys and then magically spilling back into large expansive avenues. Martin wondered as they rushed along how anyone ever kept their sense of direction here. He could almost always sense where North, South, East and West was but here, those were only words and they had no meaning. Trapped in the crevices between buildings, some of them impossibly narrow, he could no more have told which way was North or South than he could determine which was up or down. Andrea had been right, some of the streets were so cramped that two could not pass abreast, let alone open a large umbrella. Clothes lines hung from the windows, and all around him, stucco blistered, peeled and crumbled from the bases of the buildings. From the windows, some of them open, he could smell the wonderful Italian foods and could hear snippets of conversation, bits of the daily lives of the families that lived behind the stone. He could hear televisions that were turned to impossible volume levels and what he thought to be news announcers giving the daily headlines to the cameras.
From one window he heard the aria of an opera, Aida he thought but was not sure. The woman’s winsome soprano voice filled the dark alley with a musical perfume and for a moment, twisted and tore at his heart. He wished he knew what she sang of but it was unnecessary. The disconsolate sound of her voice, perfectly embraced by the lament of the orchestra told him all he needed to know. Death, sadness, unrequited love; it was all there in the notes she keened with such thoughtful distress into the moist air. She was dejected, despondent, lost of hope and would not be comforted. It wasn’t that he understood the words or knew the stories, it was the symphony, the voices, and the power that could drown a man, overwhelm him and buoy him all within the same few bars of music. It had been far too many years that Martin had not taken time to enjoy those things, which gave him pleasure, like opera. As a child he used to listen for hours to the Metropolitan Opera on the radio. He would lay there in the dark, alone in his room listening and feeling everything; feeling the rage, the anger, and the desperateness. Feeling his parents fighting, screeching at each other in a drunken madness in the other room. He could still feel the sound of his father’s fist striking his mother’s diminutive little body: feel the sting of the flat of her open palm on his cheek. He could feel the furniture breaking, glass shattering; the sound of flesh being adulterated, the sound of clothing as it ripped. He could still smell the Scotch that hung in the music like an evil sachet; could still feel the rush of air as his door was thrown open and the bright light stabbed his eyes. He could feel the beard stubble of the policeman who swept him up like a small helpless bundle into his powerful, protective arms and the awful sinking feeling that tried to swallow him as he saw his father cuffed up like a wild animal, his mother, her hair in disarray, her dress torn. Turn up the volume, feel the music, the voices; feel the pain, turn up the volume and drown it out!
Andrea stopped and turned back to see the American standing in the rain, face upturned to a window listening to the tender music. He recognized the piece as an aria from La Bohemé, “Mi chiamano Mimi;” My name is Mimi. There was an effused light that fell on him and as the rain splashed against his face, Andrea was not sure that he did not see tears. As the orchestra swelled to a level impossible for any other than the most angelic of voices, the American closed his eyes, clenched a fist to his breast and then seemed to wither, to die a small measure. His shoulders shook delicately and then sagged downward. It was a tender scene and touched Andrea in a way that he had not thought possible. Was this American a man who truly appreciated beauty or simply so vulnerable that the inharmonious clanging of trashcan lids would have reduced him to such depths of sorrow?
“Oa, Martin.” He called out, disturbing the reverie. “You are getting more wet!”
Martin, startled out of his muse, gathered himself together, wiped his face and took up the chase. They turned a corner out of a blind alley and stepped into a medium square. Andrea headed to his immediate right with Martin in tow and then came to stop in front of a door.
“Here.” He instructed as he closed his umbrella.
He opened the door, they stepped inside a warm, vaguely darkened restaurant that smelled heavenly, more than Martin could ever have imagined. The ceilings were vaulted, low and heavily burdened with blackened wooden cross members that ran the length of the eatery. To the right was a counter with a glass case that was filled with a display of deserts and behind that, a man rolling out dough for pizza that would be fed into a large beehive wood fired oven. The walls were covered with awards, documents, picture and photos of family, friends and famous Italian stars. Knick-knacks and bric-a-brac of every earthly description adorned the corners and the walls everywhere one looked, and Martin immediately understood that most of it was antique. The place was full of diners and the din of their conversation, tinkling of their glasses and plates, the open-air galley where the chef and cooks labored, and the constant hiss of the coffee machine, were nearly deafening. The waiters hurried back and forth like drones in a hive, burdened with dishes of food, serving trays of drinks and all without upsetting each other or causing a disaster. It was yet another ballet of exacting synchronicity and the waiters performed it flawlessly.
Directly in front of them was another small counter with a cash register and an effusive man in his early sixties speaking warmly with several customers. Andrea shrugged out of his coat, hung it up and then stepped forward.
“Buon di, Signor Costa!” Andrea called over the bedlam. “Ai una tavola per due?”
“Ciao Morucchio! Si, si vieni…” He called back and motioned them to a table in the corner, next to a window that viewed the small square.
Signor Costa came near to the table and greeted Andrea.
“Signor,” Andrea began, “this is my American friend and I have brought him to Venice’s most typical restaurant for his first meal of real food!”
“Good, good. Mangia bene, eat well!” Hecommanded.
They were presented with menus and Andrea told Martin he would order for the both of them.
“First, is there anything you do not like?” Andrea asked.
Martin looked at him blankly.
“Beats me.” He said.
“Good. We shall eat!”
Martin listened as Andrea spoke to the waiter in clipped short sentences, not knowing what was ordered and not caring. It was warm and he was ravenously hungry. A few moments passed and the waiter returned with two bottles of water and a large carafe of dark red wine. Martin looked at the wine and hesitated for an instant before refusing.
“No wine Martin? Oh, but you must! How is to enjoy a meal without good wine?”
Martin considered telling him the truth but thought better of it, besides, it was too long a story and his recovery had taught him that he could not trust everyone with his anonymity and sobriety. Better to simply beg off with a trivial excuse.
“I’m sorry,” he explained, “it simply doesn’t agree with me. I have rather a violent reaction to alcohol. You see, I’m allergic.”
Not a lie, to be sure but not the whole truth either.
Andrea set his glass down, looked at it and then to Martin.
“Please,” Martin begged, “drink. It doesn’t bother me.”
That, of course was a lie, it would bother him tremendously for he wanted to indulge himself as well but he wouldn’t, not now, not today.
A large smile crept over Andrea’s face and he put the glass to his lips and drank the full quantity, refilled the glass and took another sip before sighing loudly. Martin poured his water and drank. Not the same, but infinitely safer.
First came the bovolette con polenta; a refried corn meal mush, sliced and grilled with a dark gritty substance spooned to the side that had the consistency of caviar but with a decidedly pungent taste and aroma that seemed vaguely familiar to Martin, but one that he could not immediately place. He ate it. It was not instantly appetizing but after a bite or two, began to grow on him. Yes, he decided that he liked bovolette. Andrea tore into the bread and then offered some to Martin. Two small bowls of minestrina soup were brought and after liberal amounts of Parmesan cheese was added, it was eaten. Then came the spaghetti with garlic and oil and after that, several different kinds of grilled and broiled fish. Each serving was small and just enough to satisfy one’s craving for that particular foodstuff before the next arrived in a successive train of cuisine.
When the Lion Smiles © 2011 by Mitchell L. Peterson.
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