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Authors: Pat Conroy

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BOOK: Beach Music
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Looking outside to the enclosed area where tables were set up, I spotted Pericle Starraci looking into the interior of the restaurant. The private investigator was gesturing to someone on the inside.

When I returned to the table, Martha had almost finished her fish course.

“This is the best fish I’ve ever eaten anywhere. By far,” she said.

“That was Shyla’s favorite. That’s why Freddie brought it to you.”

“Why don’t you see anyone from your past, Jack?” she asked.

“Because I’m not fond of my past,” I said. “It fills me with horror to think about it, ergo, I don’t.”

Martha leaned forward. “I see. You’ve got a love-hate relationship with your family, your friends, even the South.”

“No,” I answered. “I’m unusual in that respect. I have a hate-hate relationship with the South.”

“It’s dangerous to second-guess where you were born,” Martha said, and again I caught her looking over my shoulder to the tables outside.

“When do you leave Rome, Martha?”

“After I see Leah and after you tell me how my parents can get back in your good graces.”

“Talked to a rental agent?” I asked. “You could be here for years.”

“I’ve got every right to see Leah. You can’t stop me from that.”

“Yes, I can. And instead of threatening me or challenging me, I’d take on a conciliatory note. I’ve arranged my life so I can leave this city tonight and take up residence in another country with relative ease. I live like a man on the run because I fear encounters such as these. I don’t need you in my life and my daughter certainly doesn’t need you.”

“She’s my niece,” Martha said.

“She’s a lot of people’s niece—I’m perfectly consistent—none of my brothers get to see her, either. I’m raising Leah so she can be screwed up by only one single relative. That’s me. My family’s fucked up and your family’s fucked up. But I carefully devised a life so that this condition of perpetual damage will not pass to my kid.”

“My parents both cry when they talk about Leah. They cry when they realize it’s been so many years since they’ve seen her.”

“Good,” I said, smiling. “My heart leaps like a doe in the forest when I think of your parents weeping. They can cry all they want.”

“They say not seeing Leah’s worse than what happened to them during the war.”

“Please,” I said, putting my face into my hands, tiring of the
effort to be pleasant to my wife’s only sister. “In your family, if you talk about mowing the lawn or sewing a button on a shirt or rotating the wheels on a car, you always end up in Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen. Talk about going out for a burger and a milkshake or catching a movie on TV and the next thing you know, bingo, we’re on a cattle car moving through Eastern Europe.”

“I’m really sorry, Jack, if my parents overemphasized the Holocaust in your presence,” Martha shot back angrily. “My parents suffered terribly. They suffer to this very day.”

“They didn’t suffer as much as your sister did,” I answered. “As much as my wife did.”

“How can you make such comparisons?”

“Because Shyla’s dead and your parents are still alive. The way I keep a scorecard, she wins the grand sweepstakes.”

“My father thinks Shyla would never have killed herself if she’d married a Jewish man.”

“And you still wonder why I don’t let my daughter visit your parents?”

“Why do you think Shyla killed herself, Jack?” Martha asked.

“I don’t know. She started having hallucinations, I know that, but she wouldn’t talk about them. She knew they’d go away eventually. They went away okay. When she went off the bridge.”

“Did she ever tell you about the hallucinations she had as a child?”

“No. She didn’t say a word about the ones she had while she was married. She kept her craziness private.”

“I know what those hallucinations were, Jack.”

I looked straight into her eyes. “I don’t know how to put this more gently. But so what?”

“My mother wants to see you, Jack,” Martha said. “That’s why I’m here. She thinks she knows why Shyla did it. She wants to tell you herself.”

“Ruth,” I said, tasting the word, “Ruth. I used to think she was one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen.”

“She’s getting older.”

“I was in love with your mother when I was growing up.”

“But it was your mother who was the town legend.”

“One feels guilt about lusting after one’s own mother. I felt none lusting after yours.”

“My mother knows they were wrong to try to take Leah away from you. They did it out of grief and fury and fear. My mother knows and my father’ll never admit it, but he knows it too.”

“Come to dinner tomorrow night, Martha,” I said, abruptly. “Come and you can meet your niece.”

Martha pulled my head to her and kissed me on the cheek.

“Leave Pericle behind. You don’t need the son of a bitch any longer.”

Martha blushed as I turned toward the open patio and waved to the private detective cowering below an arrangement of flowers.

“I’ve got to do a little preliminary work with Leah about her family tree.”

“One more thing, Jack.”

“Quick, before I change my mind.”

“My mother said to tell you that she killed Shyla and she’s as guilty as if she’d pulled the trigger herself.”

“Why would she say that?” I asked, stunned.

“She wants to tell you herself, Jack. Face to face. Here or back in America.”

“Let me think about it,” I said. “I’m going to Venice tomorrow. You’re welcome to stay in the apartment and get to know Leah. Please don’t tell her about Shyla yet. I still have to work out when is the right time to tell her that her mother killed herself.”

When I arrived home Maria was already asleep and Leah had fallen asleep in my bed. Her face in repose made me fill up with such amazing tenderness that I wondered if all fathers drank in so hungrily the features of their children. I had memorized every line and contour of her profile; to me it was a secret text of nonpareil beauty. It was beyond my capacity to imagine how to form the words to tell this lovely child that her mother had jumped to her death because she had found life far too agonizing to endure.

The secret of her mother’s death lay between us and it was no accident that I had chosen the city of Rome as our place of exile. The pretty walkways over the Tiber were all low and it was a hard city to kill yourself in by jumping off a bridge.

Chapter Three

S
ince moving to Italy, I have written eight articles about the city of Venice for seven different magazines. Venice is a meal ticket for travel writers, and I love it because it is the only city I have ever come to that is more wonderful than my first preconception of it. It transforms me, uplifts me, as I move through the canals and search for those elusive verbal equivalents that will conjure the tremulous magic of the city to readers who will be invisible to me forever.

As I stepped aboard the
taxi acquei
, I inhaled the sea air, a pungent combination of winds from the Adriatic and catastrophic pollution that threatened the very existence of Venice. The varnished mahogany boat began to move along the Grand Canal, and I noted that fever and sewage were still hanging tough in the city. The gondolas we passed moved dreamlike above the water like black, misshapen swans from bouts of whimsy and nightmare. The sun broke out from behind a cloud bank, and I witnessed again the moment when Venice changed for me the nature of light. Light was beautiful everywhere, but only in Venice did it complete itself fully. In the city where the mirror was invented, each palace along the canal preened like snowflakes in their unholdable images of water.

I registered at the Gritti Palace Hotel, one of the finest hotels to grace this capricious, balustraded city. On the Gritti’s terrace, I took my position at the best place on the planet to consume a dry martini.
Looking out at the river traffic, I lifted my glass and toasted all the heavenly hosts that dwelt beneath the columns of the Maria della Salute across the waterway. I had written a small hymn of praise to the Gritti that had appeared in
Esquire
magazine and the manager of the hotel had always treated me like visiting royalty whenever I came to the city. There is something of the whore in every travel writer and I worried about it everywhere except Venice. The Gritti Palace has that caressed, combed-over, fussed-about quality that is the mark of all great hotels. Its work is done in secret, and its staff, unseen but competent, lives to make you happy.

So, at the point where Byzantium and Europe join hands, I sat alone in the city of masks, holding my drink and waiting for the arrival of two childhood friends. For the second time in less than forty-eight hours I would come face to face with my past. But Venice was enough of an imaginary retreat from the world to make me ready for almost anything. As I sat studying the shapes of flamboyant palaces, the city looked as though a troupe of organ grinders and manic chess players had designed it for the praise of glassblowers. Its celebration of pure whimsy made it a playground and a conundrum, a place where decadence had both a field day and a day off. It always made me wish I was a flashier, less serious man.

“Buon giorno,”
the concierge of the hotel said, handing me a note.
“Come sta
?”


Molto bene
, Arturo,” I answered. “Have Signor Hess and Signora Ansley checked into the hotel?”

“They arrived this morning separately,” Arturo said. “Signor Hess left this note for you. He is the famous producer from Hollywood, no?”

“Was it hard to tell?” I asked.

“Mr. Hess is larger than life.”

“Been that way since he was a kid,” I said.

“The woman is
bellissima
,” Arturo said.

“She was born that way,” I said. “I was an eyewitness.”

I opened Mike’s note to me and recognized his almost illegible handwriting, which reminded me of untied shoes.

“Hey, deer-fuck,” he began sweetly, “we’ll meet for drinks on
the terrace at six. Nice joint. Don’t beat off on the sheets. Ciao and all that shit. Mike.”

High school is a kind of starting gate, I thought as I waited for my friends’ arrival above the traffic of the Grand Canal. I had always considered the friends of my childhood special, but it had surprised me to see one of them become world-famous by the time he was thirty. In the darkness of the Breeze Theater, Mike Hess had fallen in love with movies and the world surrounding them. He would watch a movie with the same fastidious passion that an art historian brought to the study of a Titian. His powers of attention and memorization were extraordinary and he could name every actor who appeared in
All About Eve
as well as the fictional characters they portrayed.
Snow White
was the first movie he ever saw and he could take you on a journey from the opening credits to Snow White riding off into the rosy future with her prince, barely missing a single detail. Even his personality had been flamboyant and pixilated, so Mike always seemed destined to make movies.

But I was even more curious to see Ledare Ansley. Mike and I stayed close for a while after college, but I had rarely seen Ledare since our senior year at the University of South Carolina. Though we had dated off and on throughout high school, we’d never seemed to know each other very well. Her beauty had made her unapproachable, apart. She was one of those girls who pass through your life leaving secret wreckage, but no visible wake. You remember her, but for all the wrong reasons. She had written me my first love poem, which she presented to me on my birthday, but she wrote it in code and never felt confident enough to provide me with its key. In high school, for my entire junior year, I walked around school carrying a page of handwritten gibberish, an untranslatable love note I could neither decipher nor enjoy. I thought of that poem now, in Venice, where all images are forgeries stolen from water.

A hand touched my shoulder and I knew that touch.

“Hello, stranger,” Ledare Ansley said. “Buy me this hotel and I might blow you a kiss when I go off to bed.”

“Hey, Ledare,” I said, rising, “I knew you were born to have this place.”

“Heaven couldn’t be this lovely,” Ledare said. We embraced. “How are you, Jack? Everybody’s worried about you.”

“I’m doing fine,” I said. “Leaving South Carolina in the dust has had its rewards.”

“I’ve been in New York for the past five years,” she said. “You don’t need to sell me on why you left.”

“I didn’t intend to,” I said. “How’re your kids?”

“They’re fine, I guess,” she said and I knew I had struck a sore point. “Both of them live with their father. Capers has convinced them that he needs them when he runs for governor.”

“If Capers becomes governor, it means democracy doesn’t work.”

She laughed and said, “He said to say hello to you. He still thinks very highly of you.”

“Since we’re passing messages, please tell Capers that I often think of him too. Anytime I ponder viruses or the spores of poisoned mushrooms, I think of him. When my thoughts turn to hemorrhoids or diarrhea cultures …”

“I get the point,” she said.

“I knew you would,” I said. “You were always a quick study.”

“Au contraire
,” Ledare said, “I was the slowest of all. Remember, I married the charming son of a bitch.”

“A slight misdirection. A wrong turn in the road,” I said.

“More like modern warfare,” she said. “First I blew up the city, tortured all my friends, set the fields afire, salted the earth, then blew up all the bridges that might’ve gotten me back where I started.”

“Didn’t work out, huh?” I said, enjoying her.

“You could always read between the lines,” she said.

“Uh-oh,” I said, looking toward the hotel lobby. “Something oddball this way comes.”

Mike Hess moved toward us with his rapid, confident stride. His energy level was high and he always seemed agitated, like a Pepsi bottle shaken before it was opened. Every eye on the terrace locked on to him as Mike approached our table. His grooming was immaculate; his manner efficient and no-nonsense.

Mike grabbed me in a bear hug the moment I stood up and
kissed me on both cheeks, more Hollywood than Italy. He kissed Ledare on the lips.

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