Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Lazarus Society III

3.         Servi lived in various rooms about the city for a peripatetic month.  They were all too expansive for their sagging mattresses, 40 watt light bulbs, cracked chamber pots, and indigenous cockroaches.  Then he found a room in a house in one of Rome’s poorest neighborhoods.  There was only one church worth visiting in the district, and all the guidebooks warned against going there after dark, hinting at both the natural and supernatural malfeasances of its residents.  The district also had a Roman bath under excavation.  Servi peered behind the fence and only saw a few hills of black soil.  Once a year, there was a festival for the district’s patron saint.  For reasons Servi could not understand, paper-maché mule heads were worn by the saint's society members as they carried their patron’s statue through narrow alleys.  From the posters on the walls, Servi could see the festa was in three days.   This reminded Servi of a jagged piece of historical trivia: the first pictorial depiction of the crucifixion from the first century found in the remains of a building on the Palatine Hill, graffito scratched on a wall of a man dangling from a cross with the head of a donkey. Words in Greek below read Alexamenos worships his god -- a mocking portrayal of Christ’s death and his deluded worshippers.
Servi’s room was in a house which stood next to a building that had been bombed in the Second World War, reduced to rubble and never repaired.  The house itself tilted over this vacuum, as if it may fall into the void and be the last Italian casualty of the Second World War.  Servi’s other window looked down upon a square yard:  a tangle of tall, unmowed grass, rusted playground equipment, and a row of untended, scraggly olive trees – no doubt the sad remains of a grand estate.
            The family was neat but poor, and not overly loquacious, which suited Servi.  He did not require a great deal of conversation.  They had one child, a little girl just on the verge of puberty, or just past it; when Servi was shown the room she followed her father and gazed at Servi with wet brown eyes.  He could not tell if the girl was afraid or fascinated by the spectacle of Servi’s dishevelment.
            Later, as Servi unpacked his belongings, he realized the girl was behind him.  She had come into his room noiselessly, without knocking.  She wore some sort of parochial school uniform.  Servi’s gaze rested uncomfortably on her round breasts, pushed up by the diminutive vest.  He pulled his leaden eyes away and made a prolonged attempt to look at her limped, steady eyes.  At first, her mouth moved with any words coming out.
            “You are an American?” she asked,  her voice was steady and low, the woman she would be already bursting through the vocal cords, out the throat, into the gelid Roman air.  When she spoke, her placid face became alive, as if she had been hiding behind a veil of quiet which speech removed.
            “No, Italian-Canadian,” Servi answered, not fully knowing why.
            “Aren’t you an Italian-American?” she asked, blinking.  “I thought my parents said an Italian-American.”
            “No,” Servi said.  “Perhaps I was misheard.  I’m from Canada.”
            “I didn’t know there were Italians in Canada,” she answered, taking a few steps toward Servi, who, much to his discomfort, discovered he was holding a pair of his boxer shorts. “Where are you from?”
            “Toronto,” he answered, and to his relief, the name left no impression on her.
            “Too bad,” she said, moving toward the window.  “An Italian-American lives in the house next door.”
            “Really?” Servi could not hide his displeasure.  “Where?”
            “Brooklyn,” she answered, and then, “or perhaps Queens.”
            “No,” Servi answered.  “Where does the American live?”  The girl pointed out the window.  Beyond the scraggy line of olive trees was a low structure which looked like the remains of a farmhouse, painted a faded and chipped blue to ward off the evil eye.
            “Man or woman?” Servi asked.
            “A man,” the girl answered.  “Your age, maybe older… I’m Maria.”  The girl extended a hand to Servi and Servi, smiling slightly, took it with simulated good cheer.  He was petrified at the prospect of a Brooklynite neighbor.  If it would not have seemed grossly irrational to this quiet, dignified family, he would have departed immediately.  He had imagined that here, in this remote corner of municipal Rome, he would be an American Robinson Crusoe, alone and unhindered in the expression of his own version of the American Spirit.  Now he bordered Brooklyn.  And he had cast himself in the unwitting role of Canadian abroad, a part for which he was not prepared.  With all his attention he wracked his brains to name one street in all of Toronto and failed.

Dear Aaron, his father wrote.  I ran into your old friend Tom the other day.  He and his girlfriend just bought a floor in a co-op brownstone in Brooklyn.  He told me the old neighborhoods me and your mother left because of the spooks and the spics are filling up with young people like yourself.  Can you believe it?  Tom asked what you were up to and I did not know what to say…  He works at Lehmann Brothers… If you want to make something of yourself, you need to come back to America…

No comments:

Post a Comment