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Tom’s outsized kitchen table held a sloppy hash of photographs, typed pages and art work. Some of Tom’s brushes and pens were still in the white ceramic holder, others lay scattered in the drift of wet and dry papers and the crut of an overturned wine bottle.
From the computer in the bedroom down the hall, his jungle theme screen saver blared an elephant call. To the best of Tom’s knowledge, the screen saver had been screeching at him every few moments for more than two weeks.
“Shut up,” he
told the computer; but he did not move from the small sofa in the living room
area of the flat, nor did he turn his gaze from the TV which showed two girls
with their tongues down each other’s throats.
There were two stations in
He glanced toward the kitchen area and the mess on
the table; one of the white wooden chairs was home to two of the three cameras
Tom Breede had toted from
For the five hundredth—no the thousandth time—he
told himself he could clean all the shit up, get back on track. “Call
He glanced at the screen, the blonde girl who had
unnaturally large breasts, was just pulling her lavender work-out shirt over
her head. It wasn’t as if he didn’t know what Jeff Lang would tell him, “Man, Margaret already shot you in the foot,
don’t shoot yourself in the balls.”
Just as he knew what came next in the sex tease come on, he knew what his best
friend would say. But if he had come to
“You just rolling in the door?”
“It’s not like that,” Tom said. There was a part of
him that suddenly wanted to lie—even to
“Well, what’ s it like?” He heard
He wanted to lie, to say it was the same; no, better. Because, at first,
“I’m not tracking you—’’ Jeff started, but Tom broke in.
“I was on a bridge, standing over the most gorgeous piece of real estate ever conceived by a human being. I was actually in the midst of offering a kind of—well, a prayer of thanks—and, I swear to Christ and the Apostles—in that very second, I heard Margaret’s goddamn voice drilling in my head. The whole conversation, the entire break-up fiasco replayed on the ten yard line in my goddamn head.”
There was a slight pause while the two friends
individually flashed on the threadbare patchwork of the relationship Tom had
been in which had driven him to
“Well how is the Super Bitch of the publishing industry, any word from her Ladyshit?”
“Yeah, four of em.” Tom lit a cigarette. “To be exact.” His anger flared, he exhaled raggedly. “She said, and I quote ‘Where’s the fucking manuscript, Breede?’”
“That’s five, kid—or can’t you count, either?” To Tom’s surprise,
Now Jeff had him laughing, too. It wasn’t as if
“For a self-proclaimed writer and publishing maven,
she sure as shit doesn’t write much,” Jefferson went on...and by the time they
hung up—some 40 minutes and $65 bucks or so later, Tom felt like he might
salvage some of the time left him in
Jeff was right, Tom decided, dumping a cigarette
butt-filled dinner plate into the open mouth of the trash. Now he was hearing
Jeff’s voice in his head, and Jeff’s was the voice of reason—he wasn’t a
coddler, if he thought you were wrong, he’d tell you. He sure as hell had told
Margaret. Jeff’s voice—Tom smiled straightening the mess, arranging the papers
and pages that were still usable—“All right you screwed around all last Autumn,
you gave her an outline you concocted out of sheer fantasy and desperation and
now Queen Margaret is clamoring for the frigging book. So what. Savor
Stacking plates in the dishwasher, Tom laughed to himself.
By God he could do it. Harry’s Bar was spitting distance from his apartment, Carnevale was in the offing. He could hook up now and have someone to enjoy the two weeks worth of glittery fun with. There were parties and balls and masquerades….He crammed a handful of forks and knives into the silverware basket. And there was no sense in watching somebody else’s masturbation fantasies—not when all the world and Venice were spinning lights and magic just outside the mahogany and brass gleam of his old world windows--and the painted green of the long wooden shutters he’d kept closed for more than a fortnight.
He’d grabbed several hours of sleep, cleaned himself up and he was headed out the door by Tom was surprised at the changes in his neighborhood while he’d been cocooning like some overblown insect in his apartment. Colored lights festooned the Via Garibaldi—a pastiche of green cat’s eye and blue domino masks, fancy ladies silhouetted in red; at the top of the street, a sprawling archway done in screaming neon yellow spelled out “El Vecchio Carnevale.” Along the promenade, the Riva Degli Schiavoni, there were ten times as many vendors selling ten times as many marionettes, masks, capes, wigs, tri-cornered and plumed hats. He surprised himself by stopping to try on a ghostly white mask while the wind cut fiercely across the basin and the blue dome of a church loomed at him. He peered into a mirror, took off the mask—a hat maybe, but not here...the street vendors’ merchandise was cheap kitsch.
Tom walked briskly, heels clacking on the pavement and, a few minutes later, he was spinning the revolving door and settling into the yellow walled warmth that was Harry’s. In for a penny, he reminded himself and told the white-jacketed waiter to bring him a Bellini.
There wasn’t much Dutch courage in the drink, the alcohol content was too low—especially in a drink that combined peach juice with its champagne--but enough so that a few minutes later, Tom let himself talk to a dark haired woman perched on a stool at the bar.
“Ah, I wondered if you would speak to me.” Merriment gleamed at him in her dark glittering eyes. Rita Zaccaria’s accented English was the type Tom associated with refinement and culture. She sounded very educated, very upper class. At the same time, there was something earthy and feline in her movements—as if she were wearing a flamenco skirt that constantly swished and rustled around her loins—instead of the tight grey silk sheath she had on. Tom smiled and tipped his glass at her. “Ciao.”
“And I knew you would buy me a drink,” she said, before he had the chance to offer. She laughed throatily when he raised his eyebrows in what was only partly mock surprise.
They drifted into easy conversation. She’d lived in the States for two years—that was some time ago he understood, because she was forty, eh? But the kind of forty, Tom, thought trying to keep the attraction he felt under some kind of control, that combined youth and sophistication, daring and mystery. He told her about his Sabbatical, his apartment in Castello, number 985.
“So you came to Venezia on the first of October, and
you saw much, you fell in love with such a beautiful city…and then?” They were
drinking cognac now, Rita’s dark jade eyes were very wide over the rim of the
glass. Tom thought the crystal magnified the gleaming skin around her lips and
the edges of her cheeks. One of her hands had lightly brushed his wrist and Tom
knew she had picked up on the time
They lit cigarettes, Tom collected his thoughts: Not Margaret. No, he’d tell Rita,
instead, about the odd series of incidents and impressions that wove themselves
into the strands of broken fraying fish netting that was
“It seems to me Italians love children,” he said, watching Rita nod, her long hair dipping toward the swell of her breasts.
“Certo,” she mouthed, not to interrupt but to encourage and, nodded him on.
“I was always
seeing the old women, the old men smiling at their antics. On Via Garibaldi
you’d see a father with his son, the two of them idly kicking a soccer ball, or
a young mother holding her little girl’s hand, maybe stopping to wipe her mouth
while the kid held a big drippy ice cream cone.” In his mind’s eye, he saw
sunlight around those scenes—the light, remembered accurately or
not—represented radiance, he knew. It was the counterpart to the emotional
harmony he’d felt inwardly in
“Then the brightness fled,” Tom said, lighting another round of cigarettes for both of them. “At first it was only grey, but then full darkness—”
“And the incidences, the occurrences?” She was serious now, sympathetic; there was no movement in her eyes, her face was still, she was listening and concentrating on what he was saying. He felt relieved; she’d understood after all.
“Yes, they changed. You’ve hit the nail on the head.” He exhaled, sipped more cognac. The instant he lowered his glass, her fingers twined his wrist. “I heard crying one night—a child crying in the apartment next door. Night after night, it got worse and worse, until—” he paused. “It was nothing but broken sobs, heart rending misery. And—”
“And that is not the worst?”
“Yes, “ he hissed again. “Hitting,” the cigarette was in the ashtray now, and Tom covered his eyes and face with his palms, “beating. I heard the slaps, then a horrible silence...” His hands left his face, but he couldn’t look in Rita’s eyes, “and then the weeping would start, low and ragged at first and growing in pitch.” He paused, picked up the cigarette clumsily, fumbling it against the rim of the ashtray and onto the bar. Rita retrieved it and handed it to him and he took a long drag. “At the end,” Tom said, sorrow muting his voice, “it sounded like a body—the body of a small child—was being swung or slammed against the wall.” Tom tapped the round balloon of the glass, signaling; then he lifted the glass before the waiter came with fresh drinks and let the remainder of the Hennessy wash his tongue and throat. “After that,” he said, “ it was all I saw in the streets. Parents shouting at their children, hitting them….and--”
“And that is still not the worst—”
Now he did raise his eyebrows in surprise, he knew his eyes reflected unease, but before he could question her, she jumped in—
“There is no child living in the apartment next door.” She stubbed her cigarette into the skyblue rondel of the ashtray. “I’m right, no?”
“How could you know that?” Tom tried to keep his voice even.
She shrugged. “Almost everyone in
“What story, no one has said a thing to me—”
She smiled a little. “They don’t speak English well enough to tell you.” And Tom had to agree, his Italian was mediocre and his neighbors’ English almost non-existent. “But more importantly, “ Rita said, “they are superstitious. They will not speak of it, because they do not want to hear the weeping children.”
“Child,” Tom corrected.
“Children,” she insisted. “Many children. They do not speak of it because they think to themselves, ‘Let the American hear them, hear them cry and beg and moan. Our sleep will be undisturbed, the children must cry and someone has to hear—so let it be him.’”
“What are you saying?” He had sensed the outline of her tale, and did not believe it. Hauntings meant untimely deaths, surely the oldest ghost story in the world—he flashed onto the memory of the fetid choking smells--
“I’m telling you that children were murdered there, thrown into a pit—that is the crying you hear.”
He scoffed—righteously, he felt. “Oh c’mon. The walls are tissue paper. If I fart, I hear the people on the other side of the wall lighting candles to get rid of my fumes.”
She snickered. “Yes, now because the apartments have been divided, capisce?” She held three fingers up in a loose triad. His was the middle apartment. “Now,” Rita said, “three. But, fifty years ago, they were one.”
“The windows,” Tom said wearily, “are practically floor to ceiling—”
“Yes, they are,” Rita nodded. “Adesso, now. Over the last
ten years, the city made the owners of the buildings remodel to let in light
and air. People were moving from
He’d read that very fact when he’d been researching
Now, Rita was saying. And suddenly
he knew the book he’d wind up with would be about
Tom smiled at Rita suddenly, as if the dark memory of the terrible weeping he’d heard had been swept away like swirls of eerie fog sun-chased from the basin. Her dark eyes brightened to firestruck glassiness meeting his. A wound inside him felt healed.
Carnevale is coming soon—a time to laugh and celebrate,” her thin hand slipped
into his palm. “I have often found Americans do not know how to taste joy, they
take it only in small doses,” her face glimmered with amusement, “the way we in
Tom laughed. She was right. “No guilty pleasures,” he agreed. “Just enjoyment.”
“Now you start to live, to become an Italian, eh?”
They left the bar soon after, and arm in arm moved
over the worn cobbles of the promenade. The moon was the white of the waxy lace
he’d seen on Burano. The floodlit facades of Salute and Redentore and San
Giorgio Maggiore beamed at them. Rita turned and hid her head in the hollow
under Tom’s chin. He gazed past her at the choppy water. The first time
Margaret had gotten pregnant, he’d been sad and felt crumpled when she
miscarried. A year later when the same thing happened again, he’d lashed out at
her. But she’d already broken off with him once, and during this, the second
pregnancy, he’d known she was cheating on him. He heard himself shouting at
her, “What the hell do you expect from me, Margaret, I don’t even know if it’s
mine.” She’d miscarried that time, too. The relationship hobbled on for a few
more months until Margaret called it quits. She had let him know on the phone
that day that his rival had bested Tom. ‘I didn’t want to feel this way about
John, it just happened,’ Margaret whined at him. Why had she even mentioned the
guy? Margaret worked with him, Tom only knew whatever Margaret told him—hell, he’d only ever even seen the guy what, once, twice when
Margaret dragged him to an office party, a fourth of July bash on the
“ Don’t weep for this woman, whoever she was,” Rita whispered into the skin of his throat.
“How do you know there was a woman.”
“Men don’t cry over children—”
“I feel like you see right through me to my soul,” he whispered, wrapping his arms more tightly around her back and pressing their bodies together.
“Because our souls are the same,” Rita said, and Tom understood she had intuited the dark time when he holed up in the apartment as lost as one of the children buried in the rooms beneath his house.
“I feel as if I’ve known you a lifetime,” Tom said. One of his hands fluttered the soft curve of Rita’s hair, then found her small jaw and held it softly in his palm tilting it upwards.
“Pretty Tom, mio
They began to stroll, arms around each others waists; their footsteps tapped the pavement and, it was conversation enough, Tom thought. He was a little high—from the liquor and the rising tide of feelings inside himself.
The moon, the kiss, the sauntering on the promenade—these were among the last completely carefree or innocent moments that Tom Breede would ever know.
* * *
“Guess you finally got laid,”
“Told me not to call till I did.” It was in the states, Tom knew. He heard soft feminine mumbling in
the background. There was a creaking sound like bedsprings and, Tom was pretty
“What are you doing up so early,”
“Same as you and Bebe,” Tom said, glancing toward the open door of his bedroom. From the bathroom down the hall, he heard the hiss of the shower; Rita softly humming.
“So how was she?”
“Oh, hey Jeff. I think she’s it. Like you and Bebe, you know. She even looks kind of like her—long shiny dark hair, dark green eyes, slim. She’s just amazing—”
“Uh, yeah.” There was a pause; Tom listened for the sound of Jeff lighting another cigarette, but it was silence that came back at him, or maybe he just didn’t hear Lang’s trademark one-handed magic act in the wake of lighting his own.
“How long have you known her?”
Tom exhaled a blast of smoke. “All right, I get your point, but Jeff—”
“No, I mean if you say she’s it, then I guess she’s it. It’s just that—”
“It’s just that I didn’t know Margaret very long either, that’s what you mean.”
“Just a vibe, Tom.” Now
“Well this one is a keeper. She’s got heart, she’s loyal. Think Bebe.”
“I am. I will. If you say so, she’s like Bebe.”
“Even looks like her,” Tom repeated. “Dark pretty good looks—”
“So you said. And, yeah, that’s Bebe.”
There was no denying Margaret had similar coloring
and features and they more or less navigated the speed bump
He rubbed his
forehead, pressing hard to smooth away tension or erase negative thoughts—what
The ache over the bridge of Tom’s nose eased up and, at the same time Tom told himself to let it all go, Rita came striding into the room bringing the clean smell of shower damp on naked skin. Lying on the bed, Tom opened his arms and she fell into his embrace.
It was Saturday, the fourth of March. Carnevale was simultaneously gearing up and winding down, Tom thought, toying with the drink in front of him on the low wooden table in Florian’s. And was that true of himself and Rita Zaccharia? he wondered looking at the tight set of her small face. She was people watching, ignoring him.
As if she’d picked up—at least partly—on his thought, her dark green eyes lifted to meet his, and she leaned back in the short chair and said, “It’s always like this just before Carnevale ends, eh? The weekend brings in more turisti, but some of the people who have been here right along are tiring of it….”
“A little, I guess.” He leaned forward across the table and took her hand in his to make her look at him. He didn’t want to tire of her, for them to tire of one another. Surely the relationship wasn’t bedraggled—like the trailing hems of the hoopskirted women—already? He followed her gaze. Around them, elaborately costumed revelers were drinking coffee and liqueurs, eating snacks and serious dinners. You could tell who’d been here a while, and who’d just arrived, just like—and he surprised himself by completing the thought out loud, “Just like you can tell who’s a newlywed and who’s half of a marriage that’s gone stale and dreary.”
“Excitement waxes and wanes,” Rita said. “Even the temporary excitement of Carnevale.” She gave his fingers a brief squeeze, then let go. “It will get better again—just before the end.”
The end? Did she mean them?
“Let’s have another drink.” Was she trying to deflect his anxiety? She smiled, but there wasn’t a lot of light in her eyes; what caught Tom’s glance was the sheen on the flesh above her breasts. She had been wearing costumes for the most of the previous two weeks—she’d even managed to talk Tom into dressing up a couple of times. A replay marched through his mind. Rita dressed like a flapper in a silver spangled dress with swishing fringe, in fawn colored suede and a cowgirl hat like Annie Oakley—but with the joke of two huge false breasts bubbling under the leather vest. Tonight, she was in traditional garb—an 18th or 19th century number—Tom wasn’t sure which—but she wore a narrow waisted gold satin, spread over impossibly wide hoops at her hips. The brilliant flashing gown left half her breasts on display at the low neckline.
“You saved the best for last,” he said, nodding at the costume. What must it have cost? A black velvet cape with the same heavy gold satin lining lay across the back of Rita’s chair.
“One often does—save the best for last.”
He leaned toward her, whispering. “And tonight your tits are not a joke.”
“No joking tonight,” she agreed. He thought she liked the fact they were turning each other on, playing in public. He seemed to have caught her attention at last…. But it was too early to go back to his apartment. His get up—blue frock coat and periwig and white stockings--suddenly felt tight.
“Let’s go to Harry’s,” he said suddenly, thinking of a revival that might catapult them into mindless frenzy. He wanted to rip the gorgeous overblown dress from her shoulders and strip her naked. The waist of his black knee-length trousers squeezed him, the crotch dug in to the first stirrings of his erection. Anticipation was half the fun--
“Back to the beginning.” Rita nodded, then stood up daintily. She put her hand out like a princess expecting to be assisted into her carriage and Tom took it in his. But first, he bent low and brushed her knuckles with his lips like the courtier he was pretending to be.
Tom stood, alone, in a
roiling fit of pique and anxiety just opposite the
Tom had heard him whistling as they approached the first bridge, just scant steps from where he stood now waiting for Rita. His suspicions flared—why had Mr. Black Suit Fucking Manager seemed to know her? Had she made a date with him? Worse, had she fucked him already? Was that what she was really doing that night in Harry’s—waiting for a casual lay from the Cavalier Kingpin--before she hooked him?
He lit a cigarette and tried to get his thoughts into a semblance of order. It was only a fifteen minute walk to Tom’s apartment in the sestiere de Castello, but Rita had to pee and she was in the public restroom tucked in a corner just outside the gardens. She’d been gone for what seemed a long time, but he didn't’ doubt she was coming back. She hadn’t ditched him. She wouldn’t just walk away like that. She wasn’t Margaret….
It was cold under the pine trees lining the white
stone balustrade; Tom clamped the cigarette between his lips, turned his collar
up and looked out over the icy water.
Unbidden, memories of Carnevale replayed in his mind: It had been so
crowded on the Sunday that was the official opening day, they had been packed
shoulder to shoulder in San Marco’s. It had been frightening. And when he and
Rita had edged toward the very patch of ground he now stood on—intent only on
pausing a moment and having a cigarette—the surge of the crowd had carried them
past it. They’d not been able to stop until they reached the first open space
some quarter of a mile away in Campo San Stefano. Frightening, too, he thought, hugging his
arms to his chest, was the rush of a torch bearing procession down Via
Garibaldi, the old women, racing along and shouting in Italian that this person
or that should take care: “Gianni, watch your back! Your hair, Rosella, guard
your hair!” The torches were long flimsy paper cones, the runners close enough
to set one another alight. Tom and Rita
had drawn back from the flames two or three times—Rita whooping, Tom feeling
his heart lurch at the sudden heat and eyewatering brightness of flames nearly
thrust in his face. The scariness—like that of American Halloween—was supposed
to be in fun, Tom thought tapping one foot, then the other to get the blood
back in his toes. But it was different in
With the thought he was aware of movement, footsteps that were soundless behind him. Tom turned and he saw the third of the images of Carnevale that unnerved him: A masked figure swayed—half in streetlight, half in shadow—ten or twelve feet away. It was the type of mask the reveler sported that chilled Tom: a full face with slitted eyeholes that was completely inert…expressionless…sexless. Even a death mask carried character and emotion, even mannequins looked different from one another. But these masks—always silver or gold or fluorescent white--were inhuman; almost insectile in the sameness of their features. The wearers of these masks were invariably further hidden under heavy turbaned hats and veils, long flowing robes—there was nothing but height to distinguish them—and height could be a fooler, as Tom knew. You could only sense the smirk behind these masks, the intent to terrify or lure—
The masker raised its thin arms and gloved fingers and began a silent snaky dance, beckoning Tom to draw near, to allow himself to be seduced in unknown embrace. The lack of sound, of music of, human speech was frightening, too—and Tom dropped back a step. The figure veiled in white and red and silver moved toward him—he looked toward the entrance of the gardens, his eyes flitted toward the restroom—where was Rita? He was too aware of the costume, the patterns the masker’s hands mimed, the slow minuet of its shifting feet. The filmy wisps of its robe—white, silver, red—as light as streamers of gauze—floated up and drifted on unseen wind. It was like looking into the heart of a cold flame, Tom thought; his eyes followed the rhythmic movements of hands and feet and cloth. He felt hypnotized by its soft weaving to and fro.
The masker was closer now, a hand’s breadth away. The vaporous gown was silkweb where its tendrils lighted on his arms or brushed his legs. A cobra, a silver candleflame, his mind intoned—the sound of a leather sole scraping a pebble (his own? the masker’s foot?) startled him back to the moment.
“Rita!” he called out at the same time he heard the rustle of satin and the broad golden arc of hoopskirt bobbed into view. “Rita,” he rasped in relief. “I—”
There was a thin chuckle from behind the silver mask, a hand clamped his wrist. “Oh, Tom, you do not know what fun is!” He turned toward Rita, the swell of hoopskirt. The laughter was louder. For an instant, Tom was so confused he nearly put his hands over his ears and screamed; but in the last second, his mind collected itself, honing in on information and locking it into place…
Rita laughed again, and pushed the silver mask till it swung up and over her forehead at the same time a golden skirted woman stepped into clearer light. Rita clapped her hands in delight. “Oh we did, we had you fooled. You didn’t know it was me dancing at you in the street.” She pretended to pout. “Si, credo che in altra momento,” she stopped and began to giggle again. “Yes another moment, and I believe my Tom would have swooned --overcome by the dancer’s charms. You wwant another woman, perhaps,” she tsked at him, but touched his face with the tip of a red gloved finger.
“Due donne,” the other woman said. Two women.
His head was pounding. “You exchanged costumes,” his voice was dull and he heard thick anger in it, though it had not surfaced in his mind. “In the Ladies’ Room.” Of course, the ever-sapient smart ass inside himself spoke up, or did you think she was emptying her bladder for twenty five minutes? Maybe you thought she found an exceptionally good copy –a really rich and meaty issue--of a recently published Vanity Fair and had a little read? Idiot…moron…Tom shook his head—but whether in negation of his interior critic, or exasperation at his own gullibility, was unclear even to himself. For the last half hour, his mind had seemed fogged in by a combination of alcohol, cold, anxiety and idling while he waited for Rita. He was more focused now and he keyed into the fact that the two women faced one another and were arguing in Italian. Tom could not follow the conversation; it seemed to him the woman in the gold dress was insisting on winning some point with Rita. But the expressions on their faces were clear enough—so were Rita’s final words: “ Va bene! Okay, all right, all right! Basta—Enough!”
“Who is this woman? Did you just run into her? Did you know she’d be in the restroom?” Tom paused and pulled on Rita’s arm to make her stop on the landing of a wide set of stone stairs. “Was she in Florian’s?” All three of them were walking along the tourist clogged Riva Degli Shiavoni; they’d just passed the Doge’s Palace and were practically on top of the Bridge of Sighs—the brilliant white marble never failed to uplift Tom, but now he did not even see it arcing over Rita’s slim shoulder. “Who is she, Rita?” He dimly registered the fact that the crowd noises and music in the Piazza San Marco had suddenly stopped and that more and more people were slogging towards the bridge. “Who is she, a putan? A whore? A whore friend of yours? Are you both whores?”
“Let go of me,” she hissed; he’d been squeezing the flesh above her elbow hard, was it hard enough to leave marks, he wondered. He stepped back, shamed; already he was repenting his drink-fueled suspicions and his anger. And then his heel dropped heavily and suddenly through thin air till it banged on the marble of the stair already behind him. His ankle turned awkwardly, his foot slipped from his shoe; Tom swayed, catching hold of the stone balustrade on his right. He stooped--the hem of his long tailed frock coat dangling on the stone--to retrieve the square toed black loafer. And in that second a huge surge of revelers mounted the steps and, just as he was pinned against the rail, he saw Rita and the other woman swept forward and away from him. Tom tried to jam his foot into the narrow shoe, screaming for her: “Rita, Rita! Wait. Stop! Stop and wait for me!” The crowd milled, shoving one another, moving along in a dense inexorable human wave. “Rita!” he wailed, finally shod and righting himself. “Rita!”
But she was already out of sight. Tom struggled to move through the mass of bodies on the stairs, on the Riva Degli Shiavoni in front of him, but he could not see her at all; she was gone.
Tom spent the next few days looking for Rita. When
he phoned her apartment, there was no answer. Twice he got a busy signal, but
when he hurried round and knocked at the door or, if no one let him up to the
second floor, buzzed the intercom, there was no reply. Her windows were not visible
from the street, had she already gone out in the time it took him to cover the
short distance between his place and hers? She had no answering machine—they
weren’t common at all in Italy—and perhaps his calls alerted her, he thought,
idly walking from San Marco to the Rialto bridge, keeping one eye out for her,
and the other cast on the vast array of sweets and shoes and glass and clothing
and everything else that was on display in shop window after shop window. He knew which stores she liked best, the
coats she oohed over, the necklaces she clamored for. How many things had he
bought her in one place or another? It
was no use asking the merchants; he’d already tried and given up when they
shrugged—whether because they didn’t know or didn’t understand him didn’t
matter, Tom decided. His mouth turned down at the same time he felt cynicism
bubble inside his mind: “What news on the
He was right outside her shiny mahogany door. A
woman wearing tight lime green pants and struggling with a pram and groceries,
had left the front door ajar and in a flash, Tom was in the foyer and on the
third floor. He put one hand on the round brass knob in the center of the
doorway—thinking how much its oddity in contrast to American doors had charmed
him at first—now, of course, he knew it was commonplace in
Inside the room went silent.
Tom began to knock again, knuckles striking the wood sharply; then he turned his hand sideways and began to pound. “Rita. Rita. Rita!”
A door across the hallway opened. An unshaven man with thick black hair and grey stormy eyes glared at him, one hand on the jamb. His voice was angry. “Che cosa fai?” What are you doing?
“Rita Zaccharia,” Tom began hesitantly, continuing in his wretched Italian. “She lives here, I’m looking for her.”
“Nobody lives there. Understand? Capisce?” His voice was just as angry, but he spoke more slowly, enunciating each syllable. “Nessun. No one lives there.” He shut the door hard enough so that the sound was piercing, like wooden blocks firmly clapped against one another. “Tourist. Crazy American.” Tom heard the unshaven man tell someone in his apartment.
Tom leaned against the door, “Rita,” he whispered, and now he scratched softly. But there was nothing, just the deadly silence. Where was she, why wouldn’t she answer? No matter what the man said, she lived there. She wasn’t a squatter—there were things in that apartment, signs of life.
He turned and gave the man’s door a flurry of kicks. “Do you fuck her, is she in there with you?”
“Go away,” the man said from what sounded like the recesses of the apartment. He did not come to the door. “Go away or we’ll call the police!”
Tom crept across the landing feeling as stricken and
foolish as the jilted spinster in
His foot had
not even touched the first stair heading downwards when he heard soft laughter.
Giggling. He spun. His gaze shifting like a lynx’s from one wooden door to the
other. More laughter, higher in pitch, now. The sound of ssshing. Sounds in
He left, wearily, without knowing which apartment the chorus of snide laughter came from.
It was Fat Tuesday, the last night of Carnevale
before Lent began. Tom sat in the half gloom of his apartment, staring at the
flickering images on the television. Without precisely knowing why, he’d turned
the volume all the way down. In contrast, around him and outside,
He glanced around the room—in two short days, the clutter had seemingly multiplied with the rapidity of an experiment in genetics using fruit flies: partly full and emptied bottles of water, milk, juice and wine poked through layers of newspaper and books and magazines. Dirty dishes bearing clotted silverware covered every surface; the plates stacked as haphazardly as chinese towers about to topple. Abandoned clothes and socks lay in smelly heaps. The garbage pail was filled to overflowing.
“Like I give a shit, if it’s a sty,” Tom said, giving the TV another go. On the screen, a red headed woman lolled in a bathtub under a mountain of foam—the bare pink toes of another woman were just edging into the frame—
And that was when his buzzer sounded with a noise that was between a clatter and a ring—
Huh? Oh. Someone at the door, he thought, and if the sound had been up on the TV, he’d have missed it —but his feet were moving faster than his mind, and they carried him quickly down the hall and into the foyer and to the intercom. He rammed the button on the white phone, pressing it over and over. A few seconds later, he heard footsteps on the worn stone stairs outside his door. It’s Rita, his mind trilled. It’s Rita. He backed into the open door of his apartment, not to seem too anxious.
“C’mon in,” he flung over his shoulder, then moved through the rooms, intent on sitting casually on his small sofa, and acting as if her disappearance was as minor as razor burn. He settled himself, heard the door close, hoisted the remote and pressed a button that brought the face of an Italian game show hostess looming into view.
In the next instant when he looked toward where he expected Rita to be standing with a contrite expression on her face, he saw the woman who’d exchanged costumes with her. She wore a pink leather bustier and a short tight charcoal colored skirt over high heels. A narrow band of the same pink leather circled her slim throat like a collar. And now, for the first time, he saw she held a leash in one hand—its braided leather was firmly attached to a silver metal loop in the pink neckband Rita wore. She was dressed in identical fashion: the same bustier and skirt and heels. The taller woman smiled at Tom, then tugged the line reeling Rita closer to herself. When she was in touching distance, the woman began to caress Rita’s left breast. She bent to put her mouth on the leather, one hand slid up the hem of Rita’s skirt showing his girlfriend’s smooth and shapely legs. The tall blonde haired woman tugged aside the top of the bustier with her fingers and her teeth and Tom saw Rita’s nipple disappear between her lips and he gasped.
Back to the beginning, wasn’t that what Rita had
He glanced around the dark cellar that lay beneath the house that was known simply as Castello, 985. There was a lot of rubble: beams of wood and abandoned, rusted machinery; fouled cardboard. The floor was earth and he wondered if these rooms flooded like the wells—the lowest, prisoners’ cells inside the Doges’ Palace. He didn’t know exactly how he’d gotten here. All three of them—himself, Rita and the blonde had gotten drunk on wine and cognac and lust. But now he was trussed and lying on the edge of the rough oval of a rank smelling pit. Its top layer of dirt had been scooped away and Tom saw fragile bones. Children’s bones.
The women held long knives in their hands. Even if he screamed, no one would hear him—not with Carnevale’s end shrieking in the streets all around them.
He thought of the children savaged and tossed into the common grave. The terror as they died staring at the rotting flesh and yellowing greasy bones of those who suffered the same fate. Lives ended too soon and for no reason—
All right, he’d repeated himself, hadn’t listened to Jeff’s admonition—but what about the children?
The knives moved in slow arcs towards him, he felt the first blows sting his chest.
The children had done nothing, so was he their sacrificial lamb, or were they his? Tom didn’t know. The knives moved faster, burning now, and the pain was intense. He was not even dimly aware of the blood flowing wetly on his skin.
Around him, he heard the fierce cries and the terrified weeping of dying children rising from the damp black earth he lay in while Carnevale reached its crescendo. He only remembered close to his last conscious second that Rita was sometimes used as a diminutive of Margaret. Then, the bells tolled their last, signaling the little death that was Lent.
And in the
lowest recess of the crumbling stone house in
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