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Authors: Pat Conroy

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BOOK: Beach Music
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I placed Mimmo on the ground near Sophia, who had begun to scream at me to put her husband down. Then I picked up Leah and said
“Mi dispiace”
to Mimmo and his wife several times. A number of the women in the crowd began cheering and clapping as we walked swiftly away. When I heard a police car approaching I was suddenly filled with dread.

I disengaged from the crowd cleanly but then every eye in the Campo was on me as we walked swiftly toward our apartment. We ducked into a café on the Vicolo del Gallo where I often took Leah in the afternoon for ice cream. The proprietress was a motherly, solicitous woman who paid great attention to Leah and gave her a piece of candy every time she learned a new Italian word.

I ordered a cappuccino for myself, and ice cream for my daughter, and failed to note that I had been followed into the café by Signor De Angelo. The signora fixed Leah an ice cream first, then made my cappuccino in that elaborate hissing ceremony that Italians perform with such style. I did not hear or see Mimmo De Angelo buy a bottle of beer or drink it.

The next thing I knew the base of the bottle had caught me just above the eyebrow and the side of my face went numb as blood poured down it. I caught Mimmo’s arm on the second downswing, lifted the much smaller man into the air, and laid him down on the zinc bar flat on his stomach. Leah was screaming and so was the proprietress and so was Sophia and so it seemed was half of Rome as I held Mimmo flat on the bar and watched in the mirror the blood run down my face. Then I ran with Mimmo, sliding him like a sack of laundry down the bar, picking up speed. For ten feet, I ran with Mimmo, knocking off glasses and coffee cups and spoons as I held him by his belt and the back of his shirt. When the bar ended, I let go and Mimmo flew through the air, over a table of surprised customers, and crashed into a pinball machine in a shower of glass and noise and blood.

That night, Leah and I stayed at the Regina Coeli prison on the Tiber River listening to the Roman women on the Janiculum hill calling to their lovers in the prison below. A prison doctor sewed up the cut along my eyebrow with five stitches and argued with the administrator of the prison that Leah was an orphan whose mother had just died and could not be separated from me for any reason. The guard who took Leah and me to a cell asked me what kind of pasta I would like for dinner and did I prefer red wine or white with my meal. Later, I wrote an article for
European Travel and Life
on my stay in prison and awarded the prison restaurant two stars.

Leah and I were minor celebrities when we walked out of Regina Coeli. The short time in prison had improved my skills in Italian immeasurably and I suggested a stay in jail as a surefire way to master the language for any American who was serious about being bilingual in a short amount of time.

But the most durable result of our incarceration was the status and visibility it granted us as citizens of the piazza. Many of the older
men who sat on the bench in front of the palazzo thought that much of the greatness of Italy depended on the firmness with which its men handled its women. In a Mediterranean country, especially in the south of Italy and among certain members of the lower classes, wife-beating is a form of family discipline, like the breaking of mules to work in the fields, and certainly not the business of American tourists. But the women of the piazza were unanimous in their contempt for Mimmo and in their boundless admiration for anyone who would shed his blood and spend time in prison in the defense of Italian women.

So it was the whole piazza that watched as the stranger followed us out of the piazza this morning and down the Via di Monserrato.

Leah was wearing a yellow smock and polished brown leather shoes and she studied her image in every window she passed. She felt pretty and her dark hair flashed like a wing in sunlight. Giancarlo, the forty-year-old brain-damaged cripple, called out to us as his exhausted, long-suffering mother wheeled him past the English seminary. No one in the neighborhood knew what would happen to Giancarlo once his mother died, and it was always a relief when they appeared in the streets each morning. The deaf-mute, Antonio, waved to us, and I paused to light one of his cigarettes. English seminarians surrounded us on their way to classes, serious boys who rarely smiled and had an odd pallor as though raised deep inside caves.

“Do you think that man wants to kill us, Daddy?” Leah asked.

“No, I think he just wants to know where we live and what we do and where you go to school.”

“He already knows that. He followed us on Friday.”

“It’s nothing to worry about, darling,” I said, squeezing my daughter’s hand. “He’s not going to ruin our walk to school.”

At 20 Via di Monserrato we stepped into a courtyard of deep, spicy shade and Leah called into the courtyard for the cat, Gerardo, to come out of the garden to receive his morning slice of pepperoni. The cat came to her on the run with tawny movements of leaf and silk. He accepted the meat greedily from Leah, then took it up the formal stairway inlaid with fragments of marble tablets and partially
effaced statuary. The man following us was pretending to read the menu in the trattoria in the small piazza.

“If he eats there, I hope he orders mussels,” Leah said.

“Shame on you,” I said; an American tourist had just gotten hepatitis after eating mussels at another Roman restaurant.

“I bet he’s with the Red Brigades,” she said.

“How do you know about the Red Brigades?”

“Maria tells me everything. They killed the Italian Prime Minister and dumped him in the trunk of a car. I’ll show you where they left him if you want.”

“He’s not with the Red Brigades. He dresses too well.”

“You should dress better. Like an Italian,” Leah said.

“I apologize for lacking
bella figura
, you little turd,” I said affectionately.

“That’s another thousand lire you owe me,” she said. “It’s not nice to call your own daughter a little turd.”

“It’s a term of endearment. Another way of saying ‘I love you.’ All dads in the States say that.”

“It’s gross. No Italian father would ever say that to his daughter. They love their daughters far too much.”

“Is that what Maria says?”

“And Suor Rosaria.”

“You’re absolutely right. From this moment on, I’m going to concentrate and get me some of that
bella figura.”

We weaved our way carefully through the morning traffic, for I knew that a Roman never just drives—he aims—and I am always extraordinarily vigilant when we walk to and from school. Once we had seen an English tourist on the Ponte Mazzini throw up his hands in mock surrender and simply stop his car in the middle of the bridge. When I went to see if I could help, the Englishman said, “This isn’t driving. I say it’s rugby.”

“It’s going to be a beautiful day, Daddy,” Leah said. “No pollution.” On some days the pollution level was so high that the Hilton was invisible, and I felt comforted that smog could actually perform a public service.

“St. Peter’s head,” she said as soon as the dome of St. Peter’s
came into view above the plane trees along the river. She had confused the words “head” and “dome” when we first had moved to Rome and it was an old joke between us. I looked down at the curve in the Tiber. No river, no matter how polluted or dirty, could quite pull off the trick of being ugly. Few things rivet me like the beauty of moving water.

The man kept his distance and did not even mount the bridge until he saw us walk down the stairs beside the Regina Coeli prison. He was being more cautious now that he knew we were aware he was following us. Perhaps people in the piazza had told him about my throwing Mimmo into the pinball machine.

We entered the courtyard of Sacra Cuore at the end of the long street, the Via di San Francesco di Sales.

Suor Rosaria, a slight but beautiful nun who had a reputation as one of the best teachers of young children in Rome, saw us approaching. For three years, she had taught Leah and the communication between them was immediate and total. The nuns I had known in South Carolina were rancorous creatures and they had helped poison my odd and tortured Catholic boyhood. Although I knew that it was as impossible to be an ex-Catholic as it was to be an ex-Oriental, I vowed I would never raise Leah as a Catholic. What I had not anticipated was that by living in a Catholic country she would be unable to avoid the Church’s magisterial reach.

Suor Rosaria swooped out of the schoolhouse doorway and ran toward Leah, who saw her coming, and they rushed into each other’s arms like schoolgirls. I was thrilled by the authenticity of this nun’s open and complete love for Leah. Suor Rosaria looked at me with bright flirtatious eyes and said she was glad that we were bringing their guest to school again. With her eyes she made a movement toward the man who had followed us through Rome for the fourth day in a row.

“Chi è
?” Suor Rosaria asked.

“He’ll let me know,” I answered in Italian. “He wants us to know we’re being followed. Maybe today he’ll let me know why.”

“Do you know, Signor McCall,” Suor Rosaria said, “that you have the smartest, most beautiful little girl in the city of Rome?”

“Sì, Suora,”
I answered. “I’m the luckiest man in the world.”

“You’re the nicest daddy in the world,” Leah said, hugging me.

“Now that’s how you can earn some real money, tiger. Keeping me from cussing’s just small potatoes.”

“Be careful of that man,” Leah said. “If you die, Daddy, I’ll be all alone.”

“Nothing’s going to happen. I promise.” I said good-bye and passed out of the convent grounds, taking a quick survey of the street. Young ballerinas were making their way in those floating ethereal walks of dancers to the studio in the middle of the Via di Francesco di Sales and young art students were slouching and smoking on the art school steps. But there was no trace of the follower. I waited for a full minute, then saw a quick movement of a man’s head appear in the doorway of a bar across from the ballet school and just as quickly disappear.

I had put on my running shoes that morning and I broke into a slow trot along one of those straight, comely Roman streets with high walls and no exits, and approached the café.

As I entered, the man gestured to me to join him at the bar.

“I’ve already ordered you a cappuccino, Signor McCall,” he said pleasantly.

“You’ve been scaring my daughter, Sherlock. I want it to stop.”

“You take one sugar in your cappuccino, I believe,” the man said. “I think I know your habits.”

“Do you know of my tendency to kick ass when I get nervous?”

“Your propensity for violence has been described to me often. But I am a veteran of many self-defense courses. Tai kwon do, jujitsu, karate. I’ve many black belts in my closet. I’ve been trained by masters to run from danger.

“But now let us have our coffee, no?” the man continued. “Then we will get up to business.”

“I didn’t know they had private eyes in Italy,” I said as the bartender passed me a cup of cappuccino across the counter.

The man tested his coffee by sipping a spoonful of it and nodding his head appreciatively.

“We are like priests. People only come to us when they are in trouble. My name is Pericle Starraci. I have an office in Milano. But I like to travel around Italy because of my interest in Etruscan art.”

“Why are you following me, Pericle?”

“Because I was paid to do so.”

“Back to square one. Who sent you?”

“She would like to arrange a meeting with you.”

“Who is it?”

“She wants to sign a peace treaty.”

“My mother. My goddamn untrustworthy, back-stabbing, pain-in-the-ass mother.”

“It’s not your mother,” Pericle said.

“Then it’s my father-in-law.”

“No,” Pericle said. “It is his daughter.”

“Martha,” I said, surprised. “Why in the hell would Martha hire you?”

“Because no one would give her your address. Your family would not cooperate with her.”

“Good,” I said. “That’s the first nice thing I’ve heard about my family in years.”

“She needs to talk to you.”

“Tell her I wouldn’t see her or any member of her family if God himself typed me out a note on his personal computer. Surely she’s told you that.”

“She told me there was a great misunderstanding that she thinks can be cleared up.”

“There’s no misunderstanding,” I said, getting ready to leave. “I made a vow never to see those people again. It’s the easiest promise to keep I’ve ever made. The second easiest was the promise never to see any of my own family again. I’m very democratic. I don’t want to see a fucking soul who ever spoke English to me during my first thirty years on earth.”

“Signora Fox understands now that you were not responsible for her sister’s death.”

“Tell her thanks and that I don’t hold her responsible for the depletion of the ozone level or the melting of the polar icecap or the rising price of pepperoni. Nice talking to you, Pericle.”

I stood up and walked out into the street.

“She has some information,” Pericle said, struggling to keep up.
“Something she says you will want to know. It is news of some woman. A woman of coins, I think she calls it.”

I stopped when he spoke those words: They went through me like shrapnel.

“Tell Martha I’ll meet her tonight for dinner. I’ll be at Da Fortunato’s, near the Pantheon.”

“I already have, Signor McCall,” Pericle said smoothly. “See. I told you. I know all your habits.”

Chapter Two

hen friends come to Rome in early summer to visit me I like to take them to the Pantheon during thunderstorms and stand them beneath the opening of the feathery, perfectly proportioned dome as rain falls through the open roof against the marble floor and lightning scissors through the wild and roiled skies. The emperor Hadrian rebuilt the temple to honor gods no longer worshiped, but you can feel the brute passion in that ardor in the Pantheon’s grand and harmonious shape. I think gods have rarely been worshiped so well.

On my first trip to Rome, I spent a whole day studying the interior and exterior architecture of the Pantheon for an article I was writing for
Southern Living
. When the guard ran me out an hour before sunset, I looked around the neighborhood for a good restaurant for dinner that night. Shyla walked from our hotel to join me after spending the day shopping on the Via Condotti. She had bought herself a scarf and a pair of shoes from Ferragamo, for her small, beautiful feet, which were her special vanity. Suddenly, on the Via del Pantheon, the air filled with a strange musky underground perfume that neither of us recognized. Like two bird dogs, we set out on the trail of the scent and found its origin by the entranceway of Da Fortunato. A basket of white truffles exuded the biting, exotic smell that seemed a transubstantiation of some essence of the forest
to the garlic-scented, wine-splashed airstreams pillowing through the alley outside the trattoria.

BOOK: Beach Music
12.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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