Authors: Harry Cipriani
You see, if Mr. Pickering had had a credit card, he could have used it to pay his bill. He would have gone his merry way and never have made that loan arrangement, which was the only real bargain my father ever struck in his long, brilliant, and hardworking career.
Actually, George Smith reminded my grandson Harry Cipriani of Harry Pickering, which is why my grandson extended his credit beyond any reasonable limit.
END OF THE INTERMEZZO BETWEEN CHAPTERS TWELVE AND THIRTEEN
Custer awakened suddenly at one in the morning. He could not have said what it was that woke him up. It might have been a distant rifle shot echoing through the night or the end of a dream he couldn’t figure out.
He thought Harry’s wine must have been very good, because the only aftereffect of all the drinking the day before was a great thirst. It was an effort to get up from the sofa, and he groped his way to the veranda door. The pale light of night shone in, and the air felt cool and smooth.
He stood looking at the still mirror of water in the pool, which reflected the billions of bright pinpoints in the galaxy He leaned against the veranda door frame and thought about George. Because of all the incredible mess involved in finding Smith, Custer ought to have hated the man, but he actually liked the son of a bitch; indeed, he felt something he might well call affection. Physically, George reminded him of his son in Amerka, a law student, and Custer had always had an enormous weakness for the boy There was something good yet strong about George that won over anyone who spent e¥en half an hour with him. He had a smile that came straight from his eyes and then quickly spread over his face as he crinkled his lids. His eyes took on a sweet, innocent, and harmless expression that attracted everyone, men and women alike.
Then Ouster’s thoughts turned to Heloise. He found her an incredibly beautiful woman. That afternoon at lunch it had almost hurt. How much he wished he were young again. He tried to recall a poem he’d thought up when he was in Vietnam. He was driving a jeep at the time, when for no apparent reason the image of a friend’s wife popped into his head and stayed there for a while.
How I wish that I could find
A small room in your mind,
With your pretty face
How I wish thai I could be
The briefest melody
In the calmness kind
Of your lovely mind
How I wish that you could be
One evening just for me,
That your silent tread
Brought you to my bed
The memory moved him, and he uttered a deep sigh. It was the alcohol that made him feel sorry for himself. He didn’t care whether it was good for him or not. Thanks to Harry’s wine and cocktails, he could experience anew some very beautiful past emotions. It was partly because he felt very young inside, much younger than Ryland, for example, who must have been at least twenty years his junior. Custer walked slowly back into the house and went to the kitchen for a glass of water. He turned out the light and went to Suzy’s room without making a sound. The door was open, and some of the clearness of the night shone through the curtains. Suzy was sound asleep in a large double bed just like the one Custer had shared with all his women over the past ten years.
As always, he was fascinated by how quietly Suzy slept. He had often gone right up to her nose to feel her very regular breathing, to make sure she was alive.
He slipped into bed slowly and lay on his side, taking up very little roortt.
There were times when he felt weighed down by his responsibilities. He would have liked to be back home in America. He could see himself as a grandfather.
He would have let his grandchildren get away with anything, he was sure of that. But he would never let them go into the army He hadn’t let his son do so either. Custer himself had never felt that he was a real soldier. The good sense he had used so abundantly throughout his military career would have made him a success in any field. He had a gift for smoothing things out. It occurred to him that idiots were the raw material of his success, and he laughed at the thought. It was only thanks to idiots that he had become a general. Now he had to organize the triumphal return of George, though he was fully aware that everyone knew the truth, probably even the President. He also thought that nobody saw things the way he did, except for Suzy and a very few others. There weren’t many people to whom he could say, “We talk the same language.”
He had known a Japanese grand master of karate once, a man who always had a smile on his face. He would try to explain or demonstrate something that looked, and probably was, very simple, but for that very reason was extremely hard to do. And he would look at the people around him with an odd, questioning glance and ask if by any chance they didn’t think he was right. He had an ungainly but very strong body and a sublime mind that had an incredibly childlike genuineness to it. Truly great men are like that. They marvel at nothing, because nothing can amaze them except for the fables that grip their blind belief.
And George Smith’s adventures were now a fable that had to be believed.
Then Custer fell into a deep sleep. It was Suzy who woke him and brought him coffee. Now he did feel awful.
“Hi there, General,” said Suzy. “How do you feel?”
“Could be better,” Custer replied. ‘And you?”
“I saw the stars last night. And I think 1 may have walked on water.”
“How was it?” Suzy asked.
“The end of what?”
“The end. But I think it was beautiful, all the same. Sometimes you see things in a way you never have before. And that means you must be at death’s door, even if you don’t actually die. It’s like looking beyond the door for a moment.”
Custer was talking mostly to himself.
“Come on, General, a little more cheerful, please! What happened then?” Suzy asked.
‘‘Nothing.” Custer answered, “nothing at all.”
He sipped the coffee slowly, pensively, as he looked straight ahead.
‘Taper come yet?,” he asked.
TU go see.”
Suzy got up. She walked lightly to the door. When she opened it, Custer could see her naked body through the light fabric of her nightgown. He noticed the down on the small arch below her groin. Now at last that old longing came back.
END OF CHAPTER THIRTEEN
Are you happy now that I’ve let you have a look under Suzy’s nightgown? I must confess that even after all these years I am still moved at- the sight of those small details you glimpse in a fraction of a second when a beautiful woman wearing a nightgown has the light behind her. My wife and sister-in-law are in the habit of wearing very flimsy gowns in the morning when they are engaged in what are called housekeeping chores, and their apparel never fails to have an exciting and disturbing effect on my senses. The excitement is created by my wife, the disturbance by my sister-in-law. I may already have told you that 1 think it would be easy to overcome the guilt feelings 1 would surely have after any practical disturbance with my sister-in-law.
For years I have been singing the praises of Venice to people from Milan, especially by extolling the human touch there is in Venice. When giving them an example, I used to contrast their cold supermarkets with the local Venetian fruit-and-vegetable man who was even willing to come to our house for just a head of lettuce. But I stopped the day I happened to discover that when my wife stands in our front doorway you can see her naked body against the light from the end of the hallway. No offense to the diligence of the fruit seller, but, as you know, my wife has always been considered a great beauty. News of the optical phenomenon must have reached our small neighborhood’s shopkeepers rather quickly, because for quite some time they would rush over just to deliver a chunk of parmesan cheese. And very politely, I might add.
You are a hopeless materialist, and what attracts you in a woman is what might be called the total mass. You are not at all interested in the details, and yet the particulars are of fundamental importance. One woman may have a particular smile, another may have a bosom or thighs or maybe just ankles. I remember one woman, a singer-actress—and I’ll even mention her name, Jane Birkin—whose eyes were, and still are, absolutely overwhelming. You may think I’m very corny when I tell you, but for a long time I dreamed about going around the world with her in a canoe. I could see myself sitting at the back rowing slowly and drawing strength from the look in her eyes as we toured the world’s oceans and seas. But in my profession you must never attract a customer’s attention for any but strictly professional reasons, so I was never able to put my plan into practice.
And it would have been a splendid opportunity to practice a sport that, together with my pale complexion, made me a hit with some of the girls, even though I had no special talents. But let’s talk about the seductive power of languid looks or, if you prefer, languid eyes. The material part is easy; there’s nothing hard about it: all you do is raise your lids a bit and look rather fixedly into space. What is hard is the spiritual part. Some people cannot manage to suggest that indefinable, deep sadness and achieve the slight tremor that hints at some intense emotion lurking just beneath the surface and trying to burst forth. You also have to convince the person you’re with that the only alternative is to find the shortest route from the top of a skyscraper to the sidewalk below. I was so good at it that when I practiced in front of the mirror, I would start to cry.
It isn’t easy. You have to practice, but it helps to imagine losing a horse you loved or, in your case, losing a large amount of money. In any case, just let me say that I think that you can get a lot further just using your eyes than you can with a lot of talk. If you are a real artist, your lips will tremble only a brief moment before your left eye turns moist, as if it had just been hit with the lid of a pot.
P.S. If you should ever publish these confidential letters of mine, I can imagine the reaction of onetime food critics (they are not big readers) who will have probably ended up as special correspondents in the world of psy-chometries. They will rack their brain to figure out where this unexpected blow from a pot lid came from, I hope you let them give free rein to their imagination. But irst offer them a couple of Bellinis in my name; that way they might understand how far blessed freedom can take you.
END OF THE INTERMEZZO AFTER CHAPTER THIRTEEN
Now that we are coming to the end of my story—at least I hope so—I wonder if I might have left something out, some incident or detail that might perhaps illuminate your shameful but unaccountable ignorance.
The other day I was walking down a narrow
in Venice, when I almost stumbled over Lorenza. You never met her, and even I could hardly remember her, because I hadn’t seen her for more than thirty years. The first thing that struck me, however, was how perfectly preserved she was. The walls of the houses in the narrow alley reverberated, we hooted and howled so much. And we kissed and we hugged, and we tried in three minutes to exchange accounts of what had happened in three decades.
She was widowed twice, I never was; she married a third time, I haven’t; she has one daughter, and I have one son and two daughters. So far so good. And we’re both in marvelous health.! wanted to tell you about this meeting because of how Lorenza looked. Years ago no one would have believed she would live so long and look so wonderfully fit.
In those days she had just started studying English, and she wondered if she could take advantage of the fact that my father and I were going to England and come along with us, since it was her first time. In those days traveling was a serious business. You went to London by
the melancholy nostalgic imitation it is today; it was a real train that took you to faraway places that made poets say, ‘‘Leaving is a little like dying.”
The time we went with Lorenza, my mother came to the station as usual with a white batiste handkerchief to wave us a last farewell as the train pulled out of the station and to wipe away her tears comfortably and discreetly. In those days a lot of emotion was expressed at train stations.
What I remember very clearly from that trip is the excitement of smoking a cigarette in front of my father for the first time. And with his permission.
We stayed the first few days in London at a small hotel owned by a woman who was totally deaf and had patronized Harry’s Bar. There were two rooms on each floor and one bath on the landing. My father and I slept in one room, and Lorenza stayed in the other on the same floor.
With the excuse of going to the bathroom, I went to her room the evening we arrived. We had exchanged a couple of furtive glances on the train, and I got the impression Lorenza would not have been averse to some affectionate attention. There wasn’t much time for preliminaries, because I didn’t want my father to start wondering where 1 was and come to the logical conclusion. The first thing Lorenza said was that she felt very sad and lonely. 1 felt sorry for her, and it was mainly to console her that 1 put my arms around her. Perfectly normal. But I never expected what happened next.
The melancholy sighs ended almost at once, and Lorenza began sobbing. I didn’t know what to say or do, and then suddenly our bodies were intertwined. I think it was because she was so sad. I tried even harder to console her, and I must confess that I forgot the boundaries between proper and improper conduct. At some point Lorenza’s nightgown was off and she was all but shouting that I was killing her. Those were her exact words: “Help me, Arrigo, you’re killing me!” And she said it over and over again.
Look, I’m an ordinary person and I have never had homicidal feelings toward anyone, but I was so intoxicated by the accusation that I did everything I could to make her keep on, and she shouted louder and louder, ‘‘Help, you’re killing me!”