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Venetian Storiesby Jane Turner Rylands
When the last quarter of the twentieth century opened throttle for the millennium and the Venice of today, the neighborhood of Salizada San Samuele was still a backwater that figured on no tourist route. Local shops and local people carried on a symbiosis hardly altered since the dawn of commerce, making forays into the wider world of Venice more a matter of style than necessity. The Salizada itself had not yet filled up with shops and drew its homely character from its service as the crossroads of its small community. Like all such neighborhoods that once flourished among the teeming footways of Venice, it was exclusive and had its own dramatis personae. Every weekday morning there were the housewives, today with their shoulders hunched and collars raised against the cold, hurrying through its broad expanse to the shops around the corner past the two sentries in the dry cleaner's, Marta and Bella, where they stood ironing in duet and caroling through the glass to this one and that one to come collect her waiting goods, per favore. Around half past ten entered Mario the trash collector pushing his cart, followed by Zic the handyman. Together, in front of the dry cleaner's, they reviewed the day's take, smoking and making a show of anything divertente-an old hookah, a portrait of a long-forgotten granny brooding behind a dirty glass, a length of carved stone from a cornice that could have fallen on someone's head, a pair of faded curtains as long as the street was wide-before adjourning to Bar Bacareto, the broad-fronted osteria that presided over the top end of the street like a rosy monument over its avenue.
In those days, before the workers moved virtually en masse to the mainland and the borghese gave up on pets in favor of accessory dogs, the calli and campi were atrot with Identikit mongrels, each one recalling several different breeds but looking like none of them. In the neighborhood there were always some of these in the role of "good boys" on leads, looking for pats, and some "bad boys" on the loose, looking for trouble-but never with the cats who snoozed on sunny doorsteps impervious to their erstwhile predators, just as the pigeons waddled safe in the campi of the Serenissima. Coming in from the street of shops, deliverymen pushing carrelli cried out for room to pass-"Attenzione alle gambe!" Look out for your legs!-then dropped their carts and wandered off to join the trash collector, the handyman, and all the other regulars for the morning's ombra at the Bacareto. While over all, the maids, appearing here and there at balconies and windows, broadcast their industry in dust clouds from the heights.
But no one paid the slightest attention when Luigi Esposito approached the Salizada, as a beetle might venture from under a baseboard, pausing to see if the coast was clear, then scuttling along the nearest edge. Had anyone bothered to notice, his inelegant livery might have suggested something in common with the trash collector, but in fact no nexus joined them. For this stranger was not a spazzino, nor any other kind of steward of the Most Serene Republic. He was a postino, a minion of the State of Italy-and San Samuele was not even his appointed round. Luigi Esposito did not belong to this neighborhood. Furthermore, at eleven o'clock on a working day he belonged on his postal route several neighborhoods away. Luigi was only too aware of the anomaly, in all its applications, and halfway down the Salizada surrendered to its spur, breaking into a clumsy, skipping run to deliver himself into the sanctuary of Calle dell'Anzolo.
Safely out of sight, cosseted in dimness, Luigi Esposito braked his run to the lumbering gait that suited his stocky build, a stature that conspired with his dark eyes, his black curls, and his outfit of government issue, to present to the Venetian eye the perfect image of a Southerner, a meridionale. That was one of his problems. Another was that even though he was only thirty-three years old, he was clearly a character settled in his ways. As he walked along the calle he slouched forward to ease his progress. He let his hands ride idle in his pockets and let his elbows bounce at his sides so that his shoulders gave a little shrug at every step.
Ahead of him, toward the end of the calle, the palaces leaned closer and closer together until the confusion of eaves and chimney shafts let pass hardly enough daylight to mottle the pavement even at midday. The effect was suggestive, and many an intrepid stranger to Venice, venturing off the beaten path, had peered with misgiving into the depths of Calle dell'Anzolo and turned away convinced that he had come upon one of those fabled "assassin's alleys" where brooding ghosts lingered for revenge. Even Luigi Esposito, who had lived in Venice for nearly a dozen years, had approached this place one foggy morning not long before and shuddered to make out in the floating gloom a figure in a fluttering cape bearing down upon him. He had been about to fall to his knees and cry out, when he recognized the broad hat of the English Reverendo whom he'd seen coming and going from the great black door that loomed in the darkest part of that sunless reach, but who always said buongiorno, and let him pass unharmed.
Yet only a step or two beyond this darkness a small bend in the calle brought into view not merely the reassuring light of day but the spectacular flashing expanse of the Grand Canal. This was a bright winter's day, and it was toward this shimmering vista that Luigi Esposito was plying his footsteps through the deepening shadows.
From his shoulder swung the black leather bag which declared him unequivocally a deliverer of the post. He had, only minutes before, been going his rounds pressing doorbells, crying "Posta! Posta!" into a crackling intercom, or upward toward a querulous face peering down from a window ledge. In and out, heaving waterlogged doors over the undulations of ruined floors, feeding envelopes and magazines into mean, defiant slits, or tapping his feet in the cold while an old woman lowered a basket so she wouldn't have to come downstairs, he had resisted until he arrived at Campo Sant' Angelo. And then, even though he hadn't finished, and it wasn't time for lunch, he had given up and headed for San Samuele.
Emerging from the shade, he stood now at the water's edge, blinking in the brightness of the reflected sunlight. Almost opposite he could see the midmorning crowd milling on the pontile at San Toma, waiting for the vaporetto. Here and there at the edges of the Canal, islands of debris bobbed on the shoulders of the dancing waves. Near the steps where he stood, in a wreath of straw and flowers and grapefruit peels, floated a drowned cat so swollen it looked like a man's head. Beside it a writhing newspaper drifted slowly to the bottom. Farther out, where the current was stronger, a glinting motor oil can caught his eye and made him smile.
His son, Paolo, had found just such a can a few days before with some oil left in it. So he'd brought it home. After Luigi had poured the oil into a jar, Paolo had chucked the can out the window into the canal. But someone in the neighborhood, probably right there in his own building, had called the police trying to make trouble. When the police knocked on the door and called out "Vigili!," Paolo had been frightened, but Luigi rose to the occasion. At first he pretended not to know what the police were talking about. Then, he stepped out into the corridor and complained in a loud voice that he, who had no boat, no motor, and no cause to have motor oil, let alone an empty motor oil can, had to submit to such questionings when there were others, taxi drivers and deliverymen with boats, who lived in the same building-he would be glad to show the good vigili where to find them. The silence that gripped the house in the wake of these declarations attested to the respect the hidden auditors felt for the vigili, and went a long way toward restoring the good humor these agents of the peace had lost in climbing the six flights of stairs to Luigi's door. Luigi was proud of himself.
But afterward, when the police had gone away, his wife had told him in front of the boy that it was wrong to lie. And later, when they were alone, she had scolded him again for setting a bad example. Sabrina was getting religious again: these days she ran to the priest about everything. His mother was religious too, but her case was different. What with chasing Babbo out to work at the brickyards every morning, and fetching him home from Bar Sport every night for thirty years, she had a right to some consolation. In actual fact, when Luigi was about ten, the job of fetching Babbo home for dinner fell to him, which meant tearing himself away from his comic book, from the hypnotic spell of Paperino, of Donald Duck. He would run as fast as he could and hope that Nando, the barrista, would be looking out the door and see him coming, because if he was, Nando would give him the thumbs-up sign and go straight over to the card tables and send his father home, so Luigi didn't have to come all the way. Nando was a pillar of the community as important as the priest, Don Gennaro, who happened to be his best pal. Nando harbored the menfolk after work and always attended to the wives and children. Sometimes he would call out, "Tell Mamma Rosa she can throw in the pasta," and Luigi would tear back home to snatch a few more minutes with Paperino until Babbo arrived. Sometimes if Mamma was ready to serve up the plates and she heard Babbo on the stairs, pulling himself up by the banister singing "Valderi! Valdera!," she would shout to Luigi to go help his father. Going to the door which his mother had left open on purpose, he would find Babbo in the passage, rebounding from one wall to the other, trying to pot himself into the doorway. Then it would be dinner in the kitchen, then arguments, which sometimes included him, and which, after he learned the technique, he enjoyed, and then bed, and the world of Paperino until he fell asleep.
No wonder his mother used to love mending socks and baking cakes for Don Gennaro who patted her hand and said how lucky her husband was. The priest regretted, however, that she had only the one child. Then one day soon after Luigi had gone looking for a good job up north, Babbo got himself crushed under a load of bricks falling from a crane. When his companions dug him out and saw how done in he was, they were loyal enough to make sure he was dead before the ambulance got there, so he never had to live with it. Then they saw to it that his mother got the workman's insurance and the pension. The owner of the brickyard was touched by the eleven strong men who came on Rosa's behalf to appeal to his better nature.
Anyhow, little Paolo had been thrilled at the way his father had won out over the police. Luigi smiled with pleasure then frowned at the thought that his wife's friends would say she was right. He would tell Paolo that he had seen his oil can making its getaway to the Lido. That would make him laugh.
He watched three women in fur coats being borne across the Canal on the traghetto. He scowled at their swaying backs as the labors of the rowers propelled them away.
He became aware of footsteps behind him. They stopped. A door opened and slammed. There was no further sound. He turned and walked back up the calle, scanning the upper stories as he approached a low doorway. As he unlocked the door and pressed his weight against it, he looked about once more.
In an instant he was inside leaning against the closed door and bolting it before feeling for the light switch. When the bare bulb flared over the cellarlike room, a sharp hiss made him start. In the far corner a gray tiger cat arched its back and swayed. Luigi realized with annoyance that it must have crept in when his mother came to leave more boxes. It hissed again, showing needlelike teeth. Its upper lip was quivering and its pupils were dilating and contracting as though trying to measure him. He picked up a pebble and threw it. The cat leaped forward, snatched a dead rat in its teeth, and dragged it under the trestle which held stacks of boxes and crates above flood level. Without taking its eyes off Luigi, the cat began clawing and biting at the rat's flesh. Luigi placed a chair in front of the iron stove and sat down with his back to the cat. Animals, when they showed their lack of feeling, revolted him.
He was sitting, safe at last, in the magazzino which he rented from his wife's uncle Gino, who had tried for years to get a high rent for it as a "workshop in the best neighborhood." Only one innocent had ever risen to the bait: a young carpenter who had quarreled with his padrone and was desperate to set up on his own. But it was too small even for a novice, so he had given it up at a loss and Luigi had been allowed to have it for the boxes and trunks he had no place to keep in the one-bedroom apartment where he lived with his wife and seven-year-old son, and now his poor widowed mother, dragged up from Naples to sleep on a sofa in a city where she would never feel at home. But she'd helped to make space for herself in the apartment by moving boxes of things to the magazzino with her shopping cart. In fact, it had become almost a mania with her, and no one knew exactly what she was packing and taking away. Sabrina said she hoped his mother might be planning to go live in the magazzino.
To make matters worse, there was probably another baby on the way. His mother had heard Sabrina being sick in the bathroom several months ago. But Sabrina still hadn't mentioned it. He lit a cigarette and blew out a cloud of smoke. He wondered why Sabrina couldn't manage better. The priest would gloat as if he'd made it happen himself. In a sense he had. Priests were always after more babies. The thought made Luigi reach for the wine bottle. He unscrewed the cap, took a deep swig, and gazed into space, waiting for comfort. The truth was that the magazzino was useful for more than storage. The real reason he had wanted it was because it was near his postal route and gave him a place to stop for a little rest, un rifugio, on a bad day.Copyright© 2003 by Jane Turner Rylands
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