Authors: John Domini
Tags: #Earthquake ID
“A moment please.” The man's accent had a touch of the British. “A moment only,
. I need the pulse.”
“The pulse?” Jay got one arm around the girls. “What, like I'm dying?”
“Papa, don't joke.” Sounded like Sylvia. “We were
Jay let the man do as he wished, while what felt like everyone within walking distance leaned in for a closer look. Someone in the crowd said
or perhaps four or five of them did, as the doctor probed the formerly broken temple and the woman with the video-camera bent in for a close-up. The girls in Jay's lap couldn't help but turn towards the whirring, and Barbara too, blinking back at the mechanical blink of the red recording light. A bloody electronic pulse as unrelenting as the anger that remained the closest thing to clarity she'd found.
Meanwhile however her husband had other worries. Jay had begun to run his hands over the stones nearby. In another half a minute, in spite of the doctor's ministrations, Jay was searching the area in earnest.
“Where's the bag?” he asked.
He shook off both the old man and the children and hopped up into a squat, agile enough to make the crowd shuffle back.
“The bag? The credit cards, all our ID? The
Cocked as far from him as her knees would allow, she braced herself against his look. He wasn't an owl now, not up on all fours like this, his eyes rimmed in browned blood. Barb instead saw some earthbound nocturnal scavenger, a coon over garbage. And she was nothing but tooth and claw in return. Jay might still be confused but not her, no longer; she'd torn through to the end of everything. This morning she'd at last found the guts to admit how bad things had gotten back in Bridgeport.
If he'd asked her something, Barbara had forgotten the question. She'd lost the feeling below her knees.
“Barb?” he called. “Hey, where
it? What happened, anyway? Why is everyone staring at me?”
Wrong, Jay. Barb granted that she was staring at him, and the kids too. But otherwise he was woefully wrong, this man she needed to speak with in private, just as soon as possible. Everyone else in that close-packed block, both the gang down on the stones that smelled of manure and the stay-at-homes up in the windows flung open amid the morning laundryâeveryone else, including the lucky one with the camera and the now-empty-handed doctor and a tall woman in too much jewelry who may have been Barbara's whispery love-angel (the mother caught glimpses of them all, in her antsy paralysis)âeveryone else was looking at Paul.
Whenever Barbara had imagined the end of her marriageâand today she was coming to realize how often she'd done itâshe'd pictured it happening anywhere but Italy. Americans in Italy, that was a different story. A story with a happy ending, in which some tightly-wound Anglo arrives in this sultry country, more than halfway to Africa, and rediscovers the joy of sultry, of a steaming meal and an eventful bedtime. Barb had seen the movie a hundred times. The refinement of the French horns as the branches of the fig tree ripple before the Renaissance towerâ¦the rekindling of an Iowan's kisses as the setting sun winks between the Roman brickworkâ¦Often the romance blossomed in some high-collared era a few earthquakes previous, Henry James, whatever. Or the chilly figure in need of a snuggler's renewal might be British, made no difference. Once they undid that first button, Italy was the opposite of divorce. It was a country, Barbara came to think, for someone like Jay's mother.
For Grandma Aurora, the love-tomato never lost its juice. The old bohemian had gone so far as to promise, as the family prepared for the journey, that she would “jet over soon.” She wanted “a taste of that
Today as Barb cooled her heels in some sort of downtown health clinic, repeatedly failing to wangle so little as five minutes alone with her husband-for-now, she had time to understand his mother. Should Aurora Lulucita sashay into the examination rooms this very minute, she wouldn't even need to touch up her eyeliner and lipstick in order to vamp for someone like Dottore DiPio, here. DiPio was the one who'd put Jay though those hurried examinations out on the dusty cobblestone, and after that the old
had taken over. He'd overridden any suggestions from the police who'd arrived on the scene, and cowed the ambulance drivers as well, showing such an eagerness for the case that Barb recalled her mother-in-law. Aurora too was seventy-something, yet still fired by a craving that blew past any notion of embarrassment.
The grandmother however was all about man-chasing; this doctor on the other hand wanted to track down a miracle. He'd had the Lulucitas brought to thisâwhat would you call it? A palazzo put up a good two hundred years ago, converted now to slapdash cubicles and unexpected staircases. Here DiPio had proprietary rights. He made sure to get the family's local phone and address, by hand rather than on computer, using the long, whip-crack L of formal European penmanship. He asked again and again about the head wound, the exposed cerebral membrane. At times it seemed like the questions arose directly from the doctor's goatee, if not from a cluster of neckwear beneath that unruly salted bush. DiPio wore not only a crucifix, but also a medallion of the former saint Christopher. Whenever he wasn't touching somebody else the old man was fingering this bric-a-brac, though in time he impressed Barbara with a formality of bearing at odds with his free-handedness. After a couple of hours in the man's clinic, she had to conclude he had little in common with her sensualist in-law. He might be Neapolitan but he was no teeming Sophia Loren, nor any hot-lipped stud, aglow before a pizza oven. Rather, the family's new caregiver was so God-minded, he'd fingered his Mr. Christopher until it was flat and dark.
And Barbara couldn't help but think of the God she herself had in mind, her change of spirit, toughening now like the spatter from Jay's wound turned to scabs on her shirtfront. Her notion of the divine no longer seemed to dwell in high-minded and softhearted figures, the canon of saints she'd grown up with. Years ago, after her mother had run away, young Barbara had worked through a full five hundred rosaries each for Sister Teresa and Brother Francis. She'd kept the tally in her fifth-grade composition book. But this morning she'd seen such gentle profiles hacked off the church frieze. She'd hacked them off herself, with each blow of the hammer and chisel swearing allegiance instead to the sexed-up monster of the ancient temples. A god with lightning down his pants, and pitiless once he got started.
DiPio's beard, kinky, bobbing, presented a thousand miniature question marks. Herself, she no longer had the patience.
She didn't like the confusion about her name, either. Today everyone Barbara spoke with, not just the doctor but also the police, turned their name into something she'd never heard before. In the States the word tended to sound Hispanic, starting like Ricky Ricardo calling his wife and then coming down hard on the next-to-last syllable, that lascivious
Or you got something flat and Midwestern, cramming “lullaby” and “cheetah” into a wet growl. In Naples however the name took the emphasis on its second syllable, which sweetened and lengthened and sang out from the whole mouth. Around DiPio's downtown clinic, everyone used the new pronunciation, L'-looo-shee-tah.
To Barbara, it sounded like babytalk.
“Signora L'looo-she-tah,” asked a detective in plainclothes, “do you know the word
Here in Naples it means a thief on the street. Ship-pah-torrâ¦”
The mother thought of slapping the man's solicitous face and shouting the filthiest slang Italian she knew. She'd gone through six time zones in two days. Anyway the whole point of the policeman's patronizing blather was that the investigation would likely get nowhere. The detective went on to say that the attackers must've been rookies at this sort of thing. A job like this morning's would've been too risky for anyone experienced at the smash-and-grabâanyone connected to the
“Here in Naples, do you know signora, the Mafia is the Camorra?”
“A professional,” another cop put in, “a camorrista, he would never have hit your husband so badly. You understand? He would not wish a murder.”
“And he would never be so stupid as to, to do injury an American.”
Did Signora L'loo-she-tah understand that in Naples, a person can see at once if you are American? “We can see it in the shoes or the makeup, in the way you carry your hands.” And did she understand that, if an American is hurt, the NATO might get involved? The Sixth Fleet is quartered here, signora. The NATO. Also these days we have the UN Relief, more Americansâ¦
John Junior, bless him, cut the man short. “So Pop was hit by amateurs?”
The attack looked like the work of amateurs, yes, and therefore the authorities couldn't count on their usual stool pigeons. “Also, signora, think of it. In Naples now 15,000 are
. They are without homes, for the earthquake.” With so many new hardscrabble cases, the detective went on, the old mobster hegemony could no longer claim a piece of every street hit.
“In other words,” JJ said, “you're clueless.”
The plainclothesman appeared to know the expression. His gaze hardened.
“It used to be,” the big teen went on, “the police and the crooks were friends. Everybody got their coffee at the same place.”
“JJ,” Barbara said.
“That made it easier, back when you were all friends. In those days you guys would've had half a clue, when somebody nearly
kills my father.”
The detective turned to the mother. His voice dropped to a murmur. You Americans must understand that an incident of this kind can be most difficultâ¦
Babytalk, that's what they gave her. Meanwhile around Jay and Paul, everyone else appeared to be the babies, hanging on their every word. The father and middle child might've been a pair of CEO's, lording it over the damaged downtown, making promises of a thousand new jobs. When somebody carted in espresso, croissants, and lemonade, the mother got last dibs as the trays went around. A twenty-something with the clinic, an intern of some kind, ran a pretty finger along Jay's jaw-line. Meanwhile the wife couldn't get five minutes. More than once the mother had to un-stack a couple of plastic chairs for her and the girls, and settle in along a wall, uncomfortably aware of what the morning's banging around had done to her looks. Since she'd left off nursing the twins she'd made it a point to watch her appearance in public. She'd taken care to know what her hair was doing, and how her makeup was surviving.
Yet now, with all these men in her wayâ¦
Signora, asked one of the younger doctors, you are certain you saw something from, ah, inside? Inside the head? Signora, ah, the blood on your dressâ¦
This time Chris was the boy who gave her some relief: “Look, you know what we thought? We thought Pop was dead!”
The fifteen-year-old wheeled around in a squat. He'd been down between Dora's and Syl's chairs, reciting some toe-rhyme.
“Dead!” Chris repeated, shoving his glasses back up his nose. “Morto!”
Barbara blinked at the word, a one-two slap in her son's crash-course Italian. In another moment she'd heaved herself out of her chair and past the doctor. She headed for her husband, tugging at the armpit of her dress. Not that her clothing mattered; rather, she had to make room for the lightning underneath.
Jay understood that this was serious as soon as he saw her coming. It would've been twenty years for them this September, plus all the hugging and kissing beforehand, around Carroll Gardens or on the J train. DiPio picked up on her urgency as well, another case of the least she could expect, considering how often the
had used the word “sympathy.” He must've told them five times that “extra sympathy” had been the essential ingredient in what he termed “the healing episode.” The mother wasn't entirely positive there'd been any actual healingâshe recalled that seizures could follow a head-blow, and that these could end unexpectedly. But she was glad when the doctor proved his notion of sympathy extended to longtime wives. DiPio at once found a room for Barb and Jay, a nook typical of this ramshackle
, practically tucked behind a secret panel. The mother kept her eyes on the old doctor until he shut the door.
They hadn't had long before DiPio returned. He came in with his crucifix in his beard, a miniature silver pick, and announced that Paul had started to cry.
“You will understand.” He lowered his crucifix. “The healing episode is common associate with trauma.”
Then the doctor spotted Jay, slumped over the table and massaging his face. You would've thought that he'd taken another hit. He went on groaning a single slow word.
Plenty of time for that, Jay. Plenty of time for the background behind the news flash. Or so Barbara stood thinking, falling into a more civilized meditation, as if she had to compensate for the growling and clawing she'd just let off its chain. The nasty business had her hurting too. Her blush burned up into ears and her breathing had gone tetchy. But the doctor didn't notice, bending instead to reexamine the Jaybird. The mother was left looking down at two bald spots, two scuffed ovals that looked a lot like the dirty-yellow tufa stone outside. And the stone wouldn't talk, she realized, or not about today's pounding. This new co-site-leader for the United Nations quake relief wouldn't tell anyone else what his wife had just told him. Jay's groaning had ended as soon as the doctor touched him.
wouldn't ask any difficult questions, either. With a scrubbed hand DiPio waved Paul into the hidden room. The boy at least had a moment for his mother, her mouth still ajar and her heat still visible. But Papa sat closer to the door, and he and Paul sank into a wordless hug.