by Emanuele Pettener
part 2 of 5
Boca Raton, in south Florida: a week in Tommaso Egerri’s life. Tommaso, a young Italian man, has been hired by an old fat woman — Grassona — to write erotic short-stories for her magazine, The Weekly Boca’s Erotic Mouth.
Tom’s life is not easy: he’s short on inspiration, he has to deal with his paranoid friend Arthur, who is obsessed by the idea that his wife is cheating on him, and he must escape Grassona’s attempts of seduction. Beside that, he keeps meeting famous dead people: Jim Morrison, Dean Martin, Nietzsche. Tom’s only consolation is a girl named Alice, whom he meets in a swimming-pool...
I arrived at Suzanne’s house at three o’clock. She wore a black sweater over her presumably naked skin, over breasts perched for grand enterprises, breasts really naked probably tickled by the wool’s nap.
A pair of very sheer tights that adhered to her thighs so tightly as to start a brotherly relationship, a pair of tights that extended suddenly from the ankles up to the rubbery waist and lightly reddened, without anything — not even a pair of panties — coming between her skin and her tights.
Her eyes, her lips, the rustle of the tights when she sat down on the couch crossing her legs, gave it all away. I felt like tearing the tights off with my teeth — you know guys, even I am human — but I knew I was there to investigate.
Standing straight on my feet in front of her, I said, “Baby, was there something that made you laugh recently?”
“I don’t feel like laughing right now.” And her little hand hooked the zipper of my pants, pulling it down inexorably.
“Quiet your fervors, baby,” I murmured getting a hold of my zipper again, “and try to remember the last time you laughed.”
“I remember only the last time I...” she sighed unbuttoning her pullover. A turgid little strawberry leaked out, and it was not the only turgid thing in the room.
Then I pulled her off the couch towards me, I felt the heat of her mouth one centimeter from mine and I told her, “Spoiled little girl, I don’t have time to waste.” And I pushed her down again on the sofa.
“Tea, laughter, and Kelly. Do these elements mean something to you?”
“Not even if I said mint tea, you wouldn’t remember anything, I bet!”
“My grandma always made it.”
“How many times a day?”
“With or without milk?”
I realized that she was back to the wall, she closed her sweater as if she were cold. She began to whimper. “Without...”
“OK, baby, I promise I will keep your grandma out of this story.”
“But now that you know you can trust me, you must tell me everything. OK, baby?”
“Last June, 15, around five o’clock in the morning, according to the analysis of the coroner, you and your friend Kelly Blood, profession esthetician, were drinking mint tea, do you confirm it?”
“At a certain point a fit of laughter took possession of you, a laughter promptly interrupted by the arrival of my client, Mr. Arthur Twoballs. Do you confirm it?”
“Oh Lord...” she was crying like a Sicilian widow now.
I pointed my index finger at her without pity: “Young lady, were you laughing at him — at my client Twoballs?”
“No, no, I swear!” she sobbed.
“Ah no, you weren’t laughing at Mr. Arthur, they are not his corna you were mocking without reserve, it is not at the pathetic hope to have a faithful wife that you were laughing noisily as is customary among you women? Who was it then, if not that poor man, who was the object of your mockery???”
“Well, Arthur had told me that you are in such bad way that your only chance is to go to bed with your fat boss or you will be fired. And I was telling Kelly, who already knew about it because it’s been a month since the whole town’s been laughing at you, and so we were laughing crazily until the moment Arthur entered the living room, you understand. We didn’t want him to think that we were laughing at his best friend.”
I was dazed. I picked up my stuff and went away. The light of the evening came to me along with the other people, and I had the impression that everyone was laughing at me, and it was not a beautiful feeling. They were all very mean.
It was cold, and if it had been autumn I would have kicked old leaves and empty cans, but it was summer and the street was clean, the sky red and orange, and I felt really desolate.
Then, beside this, it was not true at all about the black pullover, the tights without panties. It was not true at all, she was wearing a tracksuit and no make-up. Damn it!
All night, I looked for an image that could awaken my famous narrative instinct, but nothing happened. Through the big glass door of my little living room in my little apartment in Casa del Rio I looked out onto 17th Street. The night was like a blue queen and there wasn’t even a dog in sight.
I sat at my writing desk in front of the computer and I missed my mom. When I had told my mom I was planning to go to Florida, my mom told me: you’re too young to go to Florida!
“Mama, I already told you. I give tango lessons to this American woman. She is not a good dancer, I must admit. But she is a very refined American editor. She realizes I have great talent as a writer.”
“My dear, but she hasn’t read your writing! As far as I know, you have never written anything.”
“Nevertheless, I dance very well. And I have a typical writer’s face. And, most important, there is my name: Tommaso Egerri. It is a writer’s name! I admit that if you had called me Andrea, James or Susan my career as a writer would have been far more difficult.”
“Tell me the truth, son: why are you going?”
“Oh mama. It’s America. America, do you understand? The place where dreams can come true. Hollywood, Los Angeles, New York, my vagabond shoes, it’s America! Endless streets, unbounded skies, freedom, justice, John Wayne! No bureaucracy, no nepotism: meritocracy! American men respect and fear us, American women love us, it’s America, don’t you know! And...”
“And flight is the quintessence of life.”
Venice was pale, that night, when I was getting ready to leave. Outside the window a compassionate moon bathed the lagoon. I could smell the perfume of naphtha and melons coming from the canali, the smell of my youth, and could see Venetians walking a little drunk and stopping sometimes to lean against sixth-century walls and I could hear the musical grumbling of the vaporetti and — at that moment, someone passed on 17th Street. A memorable event. I could not help getting up and opening my glass door and shouting: “Hey!”
He had long hair and, although it was night, he wore a pair of sunglasses. He told me: “People are strange.”
I had a suspicion. I asked him: “When you’re a stranger?”
“Faces look ugly, when you are alone!”
It was Jim Morrison. Since I’ve been living in Florida, these things have happened continuously. One day I was at Publix, and the cashier had on a tuxedo and his hair was covered with grease.
“Debit or credit” he asked me.
He looked at me, arching only one eyebrow, and he started singing: “When the moon hits your eye like a big-a pizza pie...”
“Yes! When the world seems to shine like you’ve had too much wine...”
The fat black woman behind me showed me her white teeth, she blinked and she said: “That’s amore!”
The first thing you discover about Americans is that they are very merry people and they are ready to believe anything, provided it is impossible. So, while Dean Martin was singing That’s Amore, all the people in Publix began dancing to Martin’s tune. I joined in, so I wouldn’t seem shy, and began dancing with my friend, the shop assistant, but still I could not avoid babbling:
“B... but he is...”
“Yes, I know. He is Italian, like you.”
“Yes, yes... but he is... and he is a cashier in Publix!”
“He didn’t want to work as a shop assistant!”
I know that you won’t believe me, but I went to the hairdresser with Elvis, I drank a shot of whisky with Humphrey Bogart at the cafeteria in Mizner Park, and Frank Sinatra parked my car at Muvico. Sometimes it is stressful.
Jim began to dance in the middle of the 17th Street, in a very disjointed way, and I began dancing with him on my balcony while we were singing in unison “People are strange.” I thought about inviting him upstairs for a drink, but you know how it is with Jim, he would have thrown up on the couch. I don’t like drug addicts. And I had to work.
I fell asleep at five in the morning and I dreamt that Grassona raped me on a carpet and a large crowd laughed till Arthur warned them all: “ Hey, I didn’t bring you here to laugh.”
I woke up all sweaty and I felt really lonely. I would have cried, but I felt like eating eggplant timbale. There was none. But there were frozen French fries. Good. Nothing better than a plate of French fries at dawn to conjure the spirits.
I started writing again and finally a wonderful tale about the essential role of food in intellectual life was born, concluding with these words: “The principles of a vegetarian life style are evident in the condition of cows. Cows eat grass, because they have no idea of their mortality. In the same way, vegetarians eat salads because they have the presumption that this practice will enable them to become immortal. They have no idea how fragile life is and at the same time they think to preserve it by eating roots, like Saint John the Baptist. But sooner or later you always find Salome, dear vegetarians!
Obviously, some vegetarians don’t eat meat due to a sense of respect for cows and pigs, even if they are clearly stupid animals. At the same time, vegetarians despise and hate anyone who is not a vegetarian, even if he/she is intelligent. We therefore deduce that vegetarians and idiots are sympathetic.“
But there was no sex, and Grassona didn’t need an ethical justification to stuff herself. She called at eight o’clock, peevish as usual, and she forced me to escort her to one of her high society parties in Palm Beach — this time it was the opening of The Café Bubon, a juicy rarity for the town and an authentic tragedy for me.
I arrived at Ocean Boulevard in my ‘87 Hyundai, wearing the black tuxedo that she had lent me, at nine-fifteen on that finicky night. I parked my car on the street in front of the palace where she lived and I stayed there, observing the enormous pink wooden door from which she would exit and the white alabaster steps that she would descend, like Cinderella.
I remember, while I was waiting for her, feeling the same sensation that I had when I was in high school, when I timed each second of my math professor’s delay to the last two hours of Saturday morning. Every second of procrastination of that harpy was a second of life that was earned. Maybe that was the reason why I arrived before the scheduled hour: to taste some moment of life unexpectedly refunded.
The moon was yellow and warm in the sky and from the beach it was possible to hear a lamenting lullaby, a liquid singsong, as if old washerwomen, dead from thousands of years, continued to wash their husbands clothes at the bottom of the ocean: an orchestra of crickets played the overture.
She opened the big door. She descended the steps like a star who goes to claim the Oscar. She wore an amaranth silk dress that clung to her like cellophane on a turkey.
She wore little black patent-leather shoes à la Shirley Temple, and inside her feet were swollen and full of blisters like a wad of chewing gum, her arms were similar to sausages gone bad, her breasts a couple of mortadellas to donate to poor children or to little orphans for Christmas lunch — and her face, her face my God: a hound’s.
Instead of cheeks there were two big steaks that hung from her lower eyelashes, so it was possible to see in her eyes what was not white, giving her — like that dog — a sense of sadness and desolation.
But sad she was not, the detestable Grassona — she had absolute self-confidence. She entered my car with a sweet smile, letting me glimpse a grotesque slit, and, maybe gratified by my unease, she looked at me like a teenager on her first date and murmured: “Hi.”
And, while I was starting, I thought again of my math professor: “Egerri, don’t you feel ashamed? Not even a little bit? It is the fourth time you handed in a blank paper. Don’t you get embarrassed about thinking of the sacrifices of your family, of their hopes? And don’t you feel ashamed of yourself to cut such a poor figure in front of your schoolmates?”
And don’t you feel ashamed in front of the mirror, a kind of fright, full of teeth and logarithms? Why, why is it not enough for you to have the power to flunk me, why must you feel the need to envelop me with a sense of humiliation, disgrace, shame?
This is inhuman.
This comes to those who never feel ashamed of themselves, who don’t know what it means, even if they have shame painted on their face. Do we take out an opinion poll, asking our parents if they would prefer a son perfectly deficient in math or a daughter with monkey’s features? And do you believe that schoolmates laugh more about my mathematical ineptitude than about a desperate obsession to surround oneself with numbers so that you forget that you, too, are a number — like all of us?
It is a kind god who doesn’t foster the sense of ridicule.
I said this last phrase in a loud voice and immediately I repented.
I looked at her and Grassona was looking back at me, and her smile was faint. There was a very long time in that quick look. I knew, in some part of my brain, that my smile was a means to pretend a misunderstanding. I knew I saw something terrible in those liquid hound’s eyes. I knew that I felt like hugging my enemy, I knew I was like St. Peter, I was like someone else, I knew I had betrayed my innocence — but.
But these monsters aren’t afraid of anything.
“Finally some self-criticism,” she said.
I shut up.
We arrived at the party. Grassona kissed everyone with prodigality of compliments but, a moment later, she gestured for me to come close to her and she told me bits of gossip about everyone: how this one had gotten fat! How that one had gotten old! And so on, without pity.
The first two people we met were the most famous writer in Boca and his wife. She was a beautiful woman; she had brown eyes and black stockings. I love stockings, it is the first thing I notice about a woman. And I love women’s feet. I would have liked to begin a long conversation with her feet, but Grassona anticipated my weakness and I was forced to speak with the writer. Writers! They don’t wear black stockings.
He was tall. I don’t trust tall writers. He told me: “I read your last short-story!”
“And I read your last novel!”
Tall writers are usually very cautious. We were studying each other. I broke the ice: “Your novel is excellent.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you. And your story, so beautiful!”
Despite myself, I was flattered even if I didn’t believe him, even if I was sure he hadn’t read my story, but he was kind, his novel was really excellent, and the light of genius sparkled in his languid eyes.
I asked him: “Tell me, who are your models?”
“Paul Newman in International Intrigue, by Alfred Hitchcock.”
“Are you serious?”
“I am never serious after eight o’clock.”
He was nice, even if he was a writer and a tall one as a matter of fact. I asked him: “What is your ideal novel, Mr. Wilde?”
He told me something I will never forget: “The one that looks for terrible and abysmal truths through the most blasphemous lightness.”
Copyright © 2008 by Emanuele Pettener