Authors: John Domini
Tags: #Earthquake ID
The mother learned that the airlines preferred twenty-one day notice, in order to guarantee the best connections and a reasonable price. But on the other hand there were flights to New York every day.
Of course she couldn't make reservations till she had a better idea when Jay's mother was arriving. Grandma Aurora never gave a thought to the extra expense of last-minute travel, and there was always the chance that she'd wait till after Fourth of July. The old woman loved those fireworks. She would've flown all five kids in and out of Manhattan just for the night of the show, she was such a doting grandmother. Which was precisely what Barbara needed, while she left the country to make divorce arrangements. During recent Christmases and birthdays Barb had bit her tongue, fighting down the impulse to snap at Aurora over how she spoiled the children. But that same sort of lavish indulgence would be good for John Junior and the others, briefly, after Mom and Pop shared the bad news. Sure it would, briefly; Jay saw the logic too. The husband too felt that they should wait for his mother to join them, in these vast and airy new digs, before he and Barbara “hit,” as he put it, “some kind of point of no return.”
Husband and wife had had this conversation maybe an hour after the family at last clambered out of their NATO ride; it took that long for Jay and Barb to get some time alone. But Barbara had no trouble reiterating, quietly but firmly, what she'd announced at DiPio's clinic. The Jaybird took it with the same hurt as before, with the same question as before. “Why?” he asked. But as soon as Jay understood that Barbara intended to hold off taking action until Aurora arrived, he'd agreed. For a moment he'd been puzzled, fingering the gauze over his temple: “What does my Mom have to do withâ¦?” But then he'd clapped a hand across his mouth, audibly. He'd narrowed his eyes and nodded.
Besides that Jay heard her out closed-mouthed, except to say he loved her.
Now in the light of the Naples day, either the day after or the one after that, Jay's mother's daughter-in-law sat in a travel agency wondering just what she should say herself Barbara came out of the place frowning. The vista before her turned out to be the prettiest she'd yet seen, outside her own neighborhood. A flower-bedecked piazza, it opened towards island ferries white as toothpaste, a high-shouldered castle the color of charcoal ash, and the up-shooting gem-glimmer of twinned fountains. Barb took it in and then turned away, once more heading for the deep urban shadows just upslope. She needed a church and prayer.
Yet whatever sanctuary the mother came to, while back on the cliff-top her older children watched the younger ones, the holy words to which she gave voice would turn to husks. She thought of the
she thought of the corpses from over in Pompeii, hollow and baked. It didn't help that at home she spent so much energy keeping up a front, likewise gold- or silver-plated, in order to evade the kids' radar. These days their little emotional sensors kept picking up UFOs. Barbara could practically see the things herself, blobs that drifted across the screen out of an unknown quadrant. She had to keep smiling, up in her wide kitchen and out on her new balconies, and she had to pay their father a constant lip service. The effort left her tugging at her armpits and beltline.
And the morning she took the kids downtown, the playacting got that much worse. Barbara hadn't realized that, after the video on the evening news and the stories in the morning papers, she and Paul had become Madonna and Child. They could hardly go half a block without someone coming up for a blessing. Barb herself, the previous morning, had poked around incognito; she had the strong Campanian genes. But nobody could fail to recognize Paul. That day like every day, he wore the outfit that the locals had seen on TV: a starched white shirt and black perma-press pants.
At least down in the old city, amid the hawkers and masons and miracle-seekers, the middle child showed his mother something better than an obsessive-compulsive wardrobe. Paul revealed as well a mastery of street theater, acknowledging each new supplicant with a disarming hipshot posture, fey but friendly. The boy paced himself, taking neither too much time nor too little with the bric-a-brac offered, now a crucifix and now another of the votive bas-reliefs. He gave each a touch and a murmur, no more. Barbara was relieved by the child's command of the stageâyou go, girlâbut she still couldn't believe there was anything supernatural about it. Rather, what she saw was the wiles of a younger brother. Since coming off the plane Paul had kept an eye on his two elders, both of them loud and bumptious, obvious Americans.
So the kids were one burden. The Jaybird was another, in on the nasty secret and yet, these days, such a nice guy. When he complimented Barbara's looks, the man offered sweet nothings the likes of which she hadn't heard in years. Naturally she could see through his ploy, his own silver-tongued go at Paul's healing touch. But she couldn't begin to explain the slick and muscular way in which she'd repaid his kind words, two nights out of three. Two nights out of three, after they'd found themselves alone, she and Jay had tumbled into fucking. Fucking seemed to be the word for it, an angry business well-nigh impossible to make sense of. The grind and sigh were familiar, granted, as were the sensations of climax. These seemed to buck off her caked-on experience until Barbara was returned to layered glass, knitted and flexible, and between the glass gaps some other flesh-bound portion of her skied downward, hooting. Yet the need to come like that wasn't the same desire she used to know. Her greediness erupted in the middle of bedtime, it cut into her sleep, even as it set up a wholly unrecognizable counterpoint to the prayers that Barbara kept attempting during her days. Her downtown rosaries were supposed to offer Extreme Unction. At the end of everything, absolution.
The husband, beneath his bandages, must've suffered the same confusion. Like Barbara he couldn't think of anything sensible to say about their lovemaking. Rather, in the mornings as they shared a cappuccino, or in the evenings as he helped with the dishes, the Jaybird found other things to talk about. In particular, he was interested in Owl and the kids making a tour of his job site. He thought it would be good for the family to visit the Refugee Center.
“What we're doing up there,” he said, “think about it. It's good work.”
Was this was the second morning after the morning of the attack? Was it the third? In any case the man checked over his broad shoulder, in his white chef's top, making sure none of the children were in earshot. Then, just above a whisper:
“I mean, if it's over between us, okay. If that's what has to happen, okay. But you should at least get a good look at the kind of guy you're leaving.”
Barbara knew this gambit too: calling the bluff.
âYou should have a look, Owl. The kids too, the kids especially. Hey, you know Silky'll drive. You know he loves to take out that Humvee.”
Barb shook her head, though she couldn't say just what she meant by it. She might've been declining a trip out to the Refugee Center, tomorrow or the next day, or she might've been shaking off the wild ride she'd taken in the bedroom down the hall, just the night before. Trying to understand, there at the table and later in the church, she recalled some of the seedier confessions she'd heard at the Samaritan Center. She remembered in particular an all-but-divorced couple who'd enjoyed a standup quickie on the way to their final mediation session. They'd done it in the elevator, those two, and now Barbara herself seemed none the wiser. Under her polished surface she seemed nothing but contradictory animal impulses: lick or destroy.
Which might be what she sensed, ultimately, in the pitch and rhythm of the original city. Downtown, everything revved with savage pretending. On all sides, even in streets jammed from wall to scaffold, hustling couples and threesomes kept up a baroque and airy masquerade. The performing style, the hands perpetually in the air, manifested itself in the hustlers and executive track alike, whether you were wearing a hand-me-down soccer shirt or a glittering silk tie. Even the people walking unattached made small gestures, the same sort of scene-stealing business Barbara had noticed in Mr. Paul. In particular these people had a shrug that was more than a shrug, an effort of the entire body, requiring a pause between strides. In the moment of that pause, fixed in place with shoulders hiked, a Neapolitan would look like one of the plated
Barbara, taking it in, itched with a fresh doubt. Could she indeed trust the obliterating vision she'd had her first time through these spaces? Or had she become Italy-addled in spite of herself, bitten by some virus that incubated amid the clutter and breakage? For starters, it seemed unlikely she'd ever gone unnoticed. These mornings alone, as she'd dawdled on the Street of the Oil Cistern, or on the Street of Dried Grapes, the locals had known her,
la Mama Americana
, the one from the video. But they'd made believe otherwise.
Also the ruling color, other than the gray spectrum from sulfur dust to tufa stone, remained the same blue as had confounded Barbara when she'd first seen it on that map.
, half the street vendors wore it, whatever their skin color. Nor did it matter whether their cart was chockablock with DVDs or piled with the kind of sea salad they'd been offering around here since Christ was a carpenter. The sea itself provided different colors, from scallop-white to squid-purple. Then the fish smell gave way to a citrus tang, the oranges and lemons like clowns hustling into the center ring before the elephant's out of the tent; then all the rest would be shot through by the acid stench of metalwork, another shop turning out the
Even the commerce going on, the bills unfolding and changing hands, struck her as part of the show. Another flutter of gladrags. This even though Barbara knew how hard it could be to get by, around the ransacked Bay, and though she didn't fail to notice the ill-nourished Senegalese or Eritreans who manned the more decrepit of the open-air markets. Nevertheless, to her the Euros could look like Monopoly money. A tourist's delusion, this was, and stupid of her, and whenever Barbara scolded herself for it, she had the impression that she'd been deludedâinfectedâby history. She couldn't separate the buying and selling, and the false fronts that went with it, from the history. The displays shrieked for impulse buys, here as much as when she drove the Bridgeport bypass, but in so ancient a setting the pitch to feather your nest, your flimsy and rotting nest, looked inherently nutty. The very name of the city seemed at the same cross-purposes, an expression three thousand years old that meant, roughly,
New & Improved!
. Barbara thought of a hustler working in a museum. In fact the Museo Nazionale was close by, with a thousand imitation antiquities on sale. She didn't need Chris to tell her that, under all the daily deal-making, the foundations went back long before Christ was a carpenter.
“This whole trip was an act,” she told her chosen priest. “That's what I realized, that first day. It was the old shuck and jive, when we came to Naples.”
“Really? And the refugees of the earthquake, the
They're children of God, don't you know, neglected children.”
She shook her head. “I'm not saying it's not good work, what Jay came here to do.” Back in Bridgeport, her husband had brought home a DVD put together by the relief agencies, a documentary on the quake damage. Some of the scenes had disturbed her as deeply as the materials from the Samaritan Center.
“Good work, well. God's work, rather.”
“Yes, Father, but for Jay and me that was just the cover story.”
“Cesare, that was our
, doing God's work. But then came our first morning in Naples, our first time out in the sunlight. As soon as Jay went down, I saw this trip for the farce that it was.”
The old priest eyed her, his mouth a red fold in a wall of limestone or chalk. Barbara had to remind herself that he had no trouble with her English; he'd done his seminary work in Dublin.
“Though the Jaybird,” she went on, “he's sticking to the story. He keeps talking about the Refugee Center, saying the kids and I, we should visit.”
“As indeed you ought,” Cesare said, “if you do intend to stay.”
Barbara's dress was binding under the arms again. She wished that she and this man were using the confession booth.
“If you do intend to stayâ¦”
“Cesare, what am I telling you? I'm telling you, it's not so easy for me.”
“No need to shout.” He waved a heavy-nailed hand at the empty pews.
“I know what I need to do. I can feel it, Father, like I can feel a prayer. Like when the rosary's working, you understand? That's the way it came over me, my marriage is shot. But now what? The logistics, New York and a lawyer, it isn't easy.”
There: her confession. The old man shifted closer, his crossed legs flopping like drumsticks inside a musician's black tote.
“I mean, Father, Cesare, what's it like for other people? When they've been married twenty years, is it just, boom, one day it's off?”
“Other people, oh my. You ask a priest about other people.”
This visit was Barbara's third in as many days, but her first without the children.
“The will of God, don't you know, it's got nothing to do with the polls.”
“Come on, what's so bad about looking for some kind of model, out there? I'm asking, just for example, what do other people do about the kids?”
A touch of self-consciousness softened his long face: you ask a priest about kids.
“I'm saying, the will of God, in my case that could cut either way. On the one hand, do I live a lie so that the Jaybird won't be disturbed, while he gives food and shelter to the
Or on the other hand, do I remain true to my conscience? The conscience that God gave me?”