by Roberto Gari
An elevator gate opened as if by itself and then closed. It began to ascend past the ground floor to the second, third and fourth, and at the fifth, stopped. The gate opened.
To the left, through the open door of the apartment, Paul Silvester's lean body slowly stepped back from his easel to get the full perspective of his painting. Shifting from one foot to the other, he finally placed his weight equally. His rigid, tense silhouette, which hardly represented a man in his forties, was now fully opposite his canvas.
The painting revealed the artist's personality almost immediately. A deftly handled piece of art work in somber shades of blue and purple, it was a sensitively executed mother and child.
To the right sat Gina, Paul's wife, who doubled as his model, assuming the same pose as the painted mother, except that the arms which were about the little boy in the painting were languidly about nothingness in life. Even stranger was the fact that as Gina Silvester posed in a simple nondescript blouse and skirt of the current fashion of the 1960's, the painting reflected an entirely different era.
Paul's movement changed Gina's posed expression into one of apprehension. She had seen this look take over before, only as of late it became more frequent. His eyes, though tired and weakened, seemed to retain the soulful expression he had as a boy. He had the head of an Italian aristocrat, and the softly greyed temples seemed at times almost theatrical. The telltale sign of bitter years was his once sensuous mouth, now drooping slightly at the sides. He hadn't even noticed that Gina had relaxed from her pose, anticipating his next move.
The silence in the studio emphasized the rain hitting along the window ledge, splashing up like individual silver dust fountains. The sky was a grey backdrop, and across Fifty-third Street the church steeple and apartment buildings looked more like cutouts in various grey tones. The overall image was that of a stage set created by the adept hands of a designer of moods.
Suddenly a bolt of lightning flashed across the sky, and the anticipated thunderous sounds followed--but from within the walls of Paul's body.
"Damn! Damn! Damn!" With each "damn" an accurate aim of his brush obliterated the child from the canvas. Then, with the mechanical movements of one who has just punched a time clock and is about to leave for home, he turned around and walked to the table, lovingly covered by Gina with a paisley shawl. With one unbroken gesture he threw back his head and guzzled from the chianti bottle. During his outburst, he was not aware he had drunk the bottle dry. As a test, he aimed the mouth of the bottle toward his feet. Putting his finger through the straw loop, he dangled the bottle pendulum fashion. Then, using the neck as a gavel, he brought the bottle down on the table with a force that would have brought order in any courtroom.
"Why? Why? Why? For whom must I keep on painting? I'm beginning to doubt if I do have talent. Maybe the critics were right last year -- 'paintings maudlin, completely over sentimental' -- I've been using the wrong approach; I should tar and feather some of the canvases--or spit at them from a thirty degree angle, or . . . "
The interruption of Gina's voice sounded as if it were coming from an echo chamber. Though still seated and not that far away her face and form seemed out of focus.
"You want to know why? Since there are just the two of us here, I assume I'm to answer."
While Paul stared straight into oblivion, Gina's voice continued, sounding more like Paul's own thoughts being spoken aloud.
"At this late date you should be able to face your problem. How many of your paintings have been created out of self pity? Your fixation of living in retrospect has become increasingly worse. Look at this painting! And that one--and that--and that! It's as though you've stopped the clock. Look at me, Paul. Look at me. Am I not existing in today's world? Yet you paint me as I might have looked in another century. Paul, you can't go on like this--brooding, living in the past. Yesterday has so much more meaning for you. Yesterday's meals were tastier. Last summer's sunset was prettier. It's always yesterday, last month, last year--never today."
Paul's plea for Gina to stop came out in a long, low, drawn out, "Gin--a!"
Ignoring it, she continued, "I'm sorry you were a motherless child, but you're not alone. There are and have been orphans from one end of the globe and back. I'm sure they share your grief on occasion, but your obsession has become chronic. I can't remember when I saw you looking happy. You are now an adult; once and for all face the truth: YOU HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH YOUR MOTHER'S DEATH."
Paul closed his eyes for the first time during Gina's speech. Feeling naked in the glass house he had built around himself, he reached for his sweater, which hung over the nearby chair, and started out the front door.
"Paul, Paul, where are you going? It's raining. Please come back here." Gina ran out, shouting Paul's name, as his form grew smaller with each winding staircase down.
* * * * * * * * * *
At a cage in the bus terminal Paul found himself asking for a ticket to Idol. The hum of the escalator, the thumping of the crowd's heels and suitcases, plus the blast of bus schedules from the loudspeaker were a sudden change of atmosphere. From the time he left the studio until now seemed only a matter of seconds, yet he could not recall what means of transportation had brought him here, boarding a bus for Idol.
Forty-five minutes from New York, Idol's small town population consisted mainly of Italian immigrants, who found it a "home" in America. On any balmy summer evening, inhaling the aroma from the vineyards and hearing a cackle or two from the last retiring chicken, one would feel transported to an Italian villa.
A few minutes before his stop Paul became aware of his dampened clothes. His wool sweater had that animal odor it expels when it's wet. The rain was now coming down in a steady, heavy downpour. Stepping down from the bus, Paul ran directly into a doorway, which also harbored a rather curious black cat. The cat's look of contentment turned to disdain, since its refuge had to be shared with an intruder.
Paul's nose recognized the smell of stale beer and sawdust. A pink, flickering glow kept turning his blue sweater to lavender. On the window the neon tubing shaped out "Rocco's Pair-a-Dice Inn."
Across the rain splattered street Paul could see through the tall black iron fence row upon row of grey granite headstones, the resting place of who's who in St. Mark's cemetery.
A clinking of glasses accompanied a voice from behind the bar. "Hey, buddy, it ain't gonna let up. Come on in and have a drink on the house. Besides, the joint's empty, and that's bad for business!"
Leaning on the long mahogany bar, Rocco waited for the stranger in his doorway to accept his invitation. Along the top of the bar was an awning littered with hundreds of pennies--a craze started one night by some money-pitching fool who disliked them mixed in with the rest of his change. On the mirror behind Rocco was a painting of a large pair of dice. The rest of the decor consisted of the usual free samples given by the liquor salesmen. Rocco's pride and joy were the silhouette nudes on tiptoe, holding various colored balloons along the wall. At the end of the bar was a lattice room divider, through which could be seen several tables covered with red checkered tablecloths, and cracked, red leathered barroom chairs.
Paul's eyes turned from the flaring colors emanating from the jukebox to the sound of Rocco's voice.
"Well, for Christ's sake--Paul!" What brings you 'round these parts?" Noticing the look of bewilderment Paul was trying his best to conceal, Rocco continued, "I'll bet you don't remember me."
Paul didn't blink, like someone under hypnosis staring at a fixed object. Rocco's balding head and pot bellied figure went out of focus; a young curly haired boy was superimposed, voiceless in song. Back in focus again, Rocco added, "Rocky--remember? I sang bass in the school glee club."
Beyond the partition could be heard the wailing tantrums of two screaming children. With a hitchhiker's gesture toward the back room, Rocco laughed, "I got my own glee club now! -- I can't get over you, Paul. You look good." Then, as if it just struck him, "Wait a minute--boy, will Angie get a surprise." In his loudest bass voice he yelled, "Angie, hey, Angie, come look what the cat dragged in."
A woman emerged, braless and widespread, drying her bubbly soaped hands on a white apron the same as Rocco's, except that it was half folded over her rounded belly. She tried to arrange strands of her disheveled salt and peppered hair. Looking up in utter amazement, she cried out, "Paulie! For goodness' sake, where did you come from?"
Paul had the same reaction he had had with Rocco. Angie went out of focus, and he envisioned a curvacious, young, attractive Angie with one hand outstretched, doing the "Lindy," accompanied by the muted sound of Artie Shaw's "Begin the Beguine."
"How could I forget the best jitterbug in Idol?" he blurted out.
"Yeah, but I got fat, huh?" Not waiting for an answer, she continued, "I just heated some spaghetti; what do you say, you have a plate? You look cold--how's about a little coffee and. The pot's on the stove."
Looking for any excuse to leave, Paul was overpowered by feelings of belonging and complete alienation. A shaft of outside light came through the side door, marked "Ladies Invited." A giddy, carrot-haired woman entered, whose escort had obviously just told her a dirty joke. What perfect timing! How could Rocco or Angie insist upon displaying their hospitality while there were customers to be served?
"I really must go," Paul said. "I've an appointment. Thanks anyway. Nice seeing you both."
Without walking over to the newly arrived couple, Rocco shouted across the room, "What'll it be?" Giving a last glance at Paul running across the street, he muttered, "Crazy bastard!"
Angie shrugged her shoulders and walked back to her designated quarters.
Through the cemetery gate at the right stood a charming little cottage belonging to the caretaker. On the grass embankment in front of the house still stood the white column topped by a large silver ball. How unchanged it all seemed since that Mother's Day when Joseph Silvester accompanied his son with a potted geranium to his mother's grave. Paul's first impression was the same as it was that day many years ago. How could anyone live in that lovely small house? Imagine having a party and looking out your window to see this. I'll bet I know what that big silver ball is; it's like what the fortune tellers use, only this is for the caretaker--he looks in it at night to see if there are any robbers in the graveyard.
Paul followed the same path, feeling the same uneven tar bumps underfoot. Through the years many new paths led to the grave plots. Paul walked with assurance until he spotted the heart-shaped tombstone--the only one of its kind among the markers. He stood there as if for the first time, reading "Maria Silvester -- Born 1889, Died 1919." The ground before it was covered with grass, as though the caretaker had long since given up this particular area. The rain trickled down Paul's hair, over his eyes, a seeming reminder to cry, but Paul bade a silent goodbye and in a very short time was back walking along Main Street, where car tires made funny squishing noises on the wet pavement.
Idol's Main Street was typical of any Main Street in any small town--the movie house, town hall, five-and-ten cent store, the recommended bakery, the strolling girls with perky breasts and the pimply faced male gawkers who lolled around that certain candy store. The respected and the rejected--all were thoroughly conscious of everyone else's business along Main Street.
Each block housed a different memory.
"Hey! Paul!" A waving hand whizzed by from a small truck lettered "TV Appliances and Repairs. Call P.A. . . . .".
Looking ahead, Paul knew the next corner would be Main and Grove Hill. Even when he was a young boy, Grove Hill was a steep climb. During the summer hot spells it was always wise to take the longer route around and avoid Grove Hill. Though the rain had turned to a steady drizzle, could he face that hill, not knowing what he would find at the top, besides? Coffee, that's it. A good hot cup of coffee would be just the stimulant needed.
Up the two steps, Paul pulled aside the sliding door into the diner and seated himself at the first empty stool--next to an older man.
"Hey, Paul, how are you? If I knew you were headed here, I'd have given you a lift. I waved to you, but I guess you didn't recognize me."
It seemed as though everyone in Idol knew Paul, but he had such difficulty placing these strange faces.
"No, no, it's just that I was preoccupied."
"Nancy only mentioned you last Monday."
Paul tried to recall--Nancy? Nancy? Nancy went steady with the most handsome boy in Idol High, Henry Wickman, the school president and pride of the basketball team.
"Yeah, she was saying, 'Henry, I wonder what Paul is doing now?' We heard you married some girl from an art school."
A waitress, whose blonde hair looked as if she carefully pulled out every bobbie pin after it was set and never bothered to comb through it for fear of losing track of the curls, stood before the two men. Adjusting her corsage-like handkerchief, she had an expression of "Whenever you're ready, fellas."
"Oh, yeah, coffee," Henry said. "Let me buy you a cup of coffee. Two coffees and two jelly doughnuts."
"No," interrupted Paul, "just coffee, thanks."
From the end of the counter someone yelled, "86 on the jelly doughnuts!"
Henry winked at the blonde. "Just two coffees."
Looking Paul over, he said, "What the hell, are you nuts, walkin' around like that? You wanna drop dead of pneumonia?" Paul's smile was forced.
"So where you living now, Paul, Greenwitch Village?"
"No, I'm afraid not. We have a studio apartment midtown."
"Hand me the sugar, will you, Paul. Nope, can't see it--I mean, I like to go to New York every now and then, take in a show or something, but live there? I think you gotta be nuts!"
Downing the rest of his coffee, Paul felt relieved, but obligated, since Henry insisted upon taking the check.
"No, siree, we just bought our own house. Remember the old wooden house across the river, the one near the waterworks--whatsa matter?--Whattya keep starin' at the clock for?"
"I'm awfully sorry, Henry, but I have an appointment, and I've really got to run. Thanks for the coffee. (sliding the door aside) My best to Nancy--so long."
"Hey, where ya goin'? Want a lift?"
"No, thanks, Henry. It's right on the corner. Bye--take it easy."
Looking from left to right, up and down, Paul absorbed every house, every landmark, like a most impressionable tourist. "How odd," he whispered aloud. Everything seemed so in its place, exactly as he last saw it.
Halfway up the hill an unusual wave of energy propelled him onward. A half crooked smile crept across his face as he glanced down at the sidewalk just ahead. Part of the cement walk was raised slightly higher than the next, displaying two broken, veinlike cracks. The picture was so clear. He was hurrying home from school and tripped over this very walk. At the time the four stitches on his right knee were to him major surgery.
And that wonderful white haired man who owned that giardino over there. He once gave Paul a whole dime, plus a bag of the tastiest plum tomatoes--just for helping him pick the ripe ones.
If anyone had been looking out his window and saw Paul walking through his Shangri-la, he would have thought a movie projector suddenly stopped and left the main character in a state of immobility.
Paul's eyebrows almost joined for a moment; his eyes widened, and his jaws tightened, as he took a deep, deep breath. There, atop Grove Hill, majestically stood the Silvester home. It was incredible to believe that the house had long since been occupied by other tenants. The white brick, set off by thalo green shutters, kept every bit of its original harm and dignity. Nothing had been altered. Joseph Silvester had indeed been proud of the land upon which it stood. He had discovered this haven only weeks following his arrival from Italy.
Standing directly on the front lawn, X-raying every familiar window, seeing its furnishings, its entrances and exits, gave Paul the strongest feeling of belonging. This was home.
The rain had finally given up as Paul walked slowly up the path leading to the entrance of the white brick home. Looking at the third step, which led to the threshold, really sent chills through his already shivering body. The original painted number, 119, had the time-defying marks of a Pompeiian fresco. Bending over, Paul fingered the number almost lovingly. Reaching into his back packet, he retrieved a wallet. There, beneath the plastic covering, was a snapshot of young Paul and his father, sitting on these steps, and quite visible between them were the numbers 119.
Compelled to look up from the steps, Paul discovered that one of the double doors was open, tempting enough to peer in and see the inside staircase. Grateful for the welcoming invitation, he reached the entrance, where mumbling voices could be heard coming from the library to the left.
Spellbound by the entire unchanged picture, Paul had neglected to observe the red flag stuck into the lawn bearing large letters marked "OPEN," placed there by the Lowell Realty Company.
The voices from within the library now became clearer.
"Well, I guess that about wraps it up. Here is the deed, and I know you will be very happy here."
"Thank you," came from the new owners. A noise from outside caused a moment's complete silence, broken by Mr. Lowell's voice.
"I think someone is in the foyer," Mrs. Lowell added.
"Dear, would you tell whoever it is that the house has been sold?" asked Mr. Lowell, as he smiled back at the new occupants.
Opening the library doors, Mrs. Lowell got a glimpse of a man's feet ascending the last few stairs.
"Sir! Sir! -- I'm sorry -- the house has been . . . ."
A double click sounded the closing of the upstairs front bedroom door, which sent Mr. and Mrs. Lowell rapidly upstairs, leaving the bewildered buyers still holding the deed. They banged on the door, rattling its knob.
"Come out! Come out!"
The noise was deafening, but the only response was a piercing "Noooo!" that vanished like the scream of a body falling from the highest cliff.
* * * * * * * * * *
A double click from inside the bedroom brought forth dead silence. Then the door slowly opened. The midwife emerged, exhausted. In one hand she was carrying a kerosene lamp. In the other was a cloth, with which she was patting the beads of sweat at the nape of her neck and beneath her chin. She didn't wish to meet the questioning eyes of the haggard man wearing a collarless shirt with gartered sleeves. She felt guilty--guilty for no reason. How could she tell him?
"I am sorry, Signore Silvester. It was a son. I tried so hard." She walked down to the landing, where she picked up her wool shawl, which had been thrown in disarray. From behind, Joseph Silvester gripped both his fists onto the woman's shoulders, swinging her around to face him.
"My wife, Maria--Maria, what about Maria?"
Clasping her hands in a prayer like gesture, as if giving thanks, she answered, "She sleeps, Signore. God took only one from you. It was his wish . . . "
Joseph Silvester's grip went limp, leaving the woman free to wrap the shawl about her head. As she opened the door, the howling sounds of the snowstorm almost drowned out her meek "Buena Notte."
Bolting the door, Mr. Silvester wearily passed through the library doors and sat himself down at his desk. Squaring his silhouetted shoulders, his eyes were fixed upon the only lighted thing in the room -- a picture of a lonely madonna in somber shades of blue and purple, part of a calendar, dated February, 1919.