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Authors: Harry Cipriani

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BOOK: Heloise and Bellinis
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George still had tears in his eyes from laughing so hard. But he too turned serious and replied, “Yes, Heloise.”

The intense look they exchanged was their promise to love each other till death did them part. Then Heloise told George she wanted to use the seventy dollars from the coffin to buy herself something to wear. George said they could go to the nearby village, where, among other things, there was a merchant who gave credit. So they got back into the jeep and soon reached a small village that was actually more a market than a village. They had some difficulty fording a stream, and then George parked the jeep outside a tent circled by baskets full of black olives. It was hot again, and there was a strong smell of sweat and spices everywhere. Shouting children stormed the jeep, and all the merchants seemed to know George, What was odd was that he owed them a great deal of money, but no one seemed at ail angry. Indeed, they greeted him very effusively and offered him everything they had in their stalls.

That was George. There was something immediately likable about him, and it was so strong that it leveled any barrier. He moved among the crowd greeting everyone. He nodded at the women and listened patiently to everything the men had to say He was like a chief back from a long journey to distant parts. Finally he and Heloise stopped in front of a little store that sold fabrics of all colors. She picked out three dresses and he bought two brightly colored djeilabas. He put one on over his uniform to the great amusement of the children.

Heloise went into a tent and came out wearing a long red shawl wound tightly around her body She walked up and down, slightly aquiver, like a professional model. The sight of her beauty was like a punch in the stomach to George, and he turned pale with emotion.

The merchants and their women crowded around George and Heloise. The two of them were enveloped by a vast array of sparkling teeth, a universal smile of utter admiration. Then Heloise started to dance. All her quivering ceased. Her body seemed barely to touch the ground, and this made an extremely deep impression on everyone. No one could remember ever seeing someone dance like that, not even the elders who had spent years traveling the deserts, oases, and palm groves of the world.

Heloise danced for more than an hour, but no one was aware of time passing; not a word was uttered, no one sat down or stood up, no one looked at sky or earth—such was the delicate grace of the beautiful Heloise. Toward the end, she held out her hand to George, and he joined in her dance. For many years to come, everyone remembered that sunny afternoon when George and Heloise stopped to shop and dance.



Dear Abelard,

You are a very inquisitive person, and I imagine you have already asked yourself several times how there could ever be a Harry’s Bar in Beirut in the year 2000. You have the same kind of mind as those Italian movie-critics who could find nothing better to say about that marvelous Mílos Forman film
than that its story of Mozart and Salieri wasn’t true, or at least not likely. I really don’t know why I decided to write all these things to you, why I picked you out of all my friends, since you are the one with the least imagination and the least flexible mind.

Anyhow, whether you believe it or not, there actually was a Harry’s Bar in Beirut in the year 2000. The owner was Harry Cipriani, and he was the son of Giuseppe, who was the son of Arrigo, who was the son of another Giuseppe. Harry was the tenth son of the first-mentioned Giuseppe, who had married fifteen times, and who reaped so much from his divorces he could have lived in the lap of luxury for six generations. But not Giuseppe; he invested his whole fortune in ten bars around the world. He put one of his sons to work in each of them, The sons were all named Harry—that way nobody could ever say the bar wasn’t Harry’s. The funny thing was that all of Giuseppe’s sons looked very much alike; they all seemed to be the spitting image of greatgrandfather Giuseppe, who founded the irst Harry’s Bar, the one in Venice, in Italy. 1 hope your unbelieving provincial curiosity is satisied once and for all

There is one thing I forgot to mention, in the part of the novel where I said that while George and Heloise were four floors above Harry’s Bar making love for all they were worth, downstairs there were sailors of the United States Sixth Fleet on special leave. There was a time—I remember it very clearly—when in the wake of student unrest in France in 1968, special concessions were being made to young people all over the world, so the United States Navy allowed its men to wear civilian clothes while off duty. That is what the US Navy offered its sailors, while terrorism was heating up in Europe, and university professors were being humiliated in China during the Cultural Revolution. At the same time, Russia was filling up its insane asylums with dissidents—all those people, with Solzhenitsyn -in the lead, who wrote or openly declared that after fifty years they were tired of waiting for the revolution bus to arrive.

This business of American sailors in civilian clothes lasted about ten years, the ultimate symbol of what the United States of America could dream up in the area of dissent.

This probably doesn’t seem like much to you, but for us saloonkeepers, among others, this change in behavior had enormous significance.

To begin with, none of us—I am speaking of barmen—had any concrete way now of determining before a brawl started how quarrelsome a sailor might be. Let me explain. When the uniform was obligatory, it gave you a good idea of the sailor wearing it. Chevrons on the upper arm indicated the sailor’s rank—I am talking about sailors below the rank of warrant officer. The lowest rank was one chevron, then two, and then three. So far so good. Stripes on the forearm indicated years of service. One stripe for four years, two for eight, three for twelve, and four for sixteen years. If a sailor had two chevrons, say, and three service stripes, or twelve years, you knew you had a potential troublemaker on your hands. That’s because every time a sailor was in a brawl, the navy took one chevron away. So if you calculated chevrons and service stripes, it wasn’t hard to figure out with whom you were dealing.

At the time uniforms were mandatory, 1 remember, there were sailors with twenty years of service who had only one chevron. It was worth making friends with them at once, the minute they set foot on land, because either they were perfect idiots or they were the kind who flared up at the slightest provocation. You couldn’t take such precautions when they were out of uniform-not to mention the awful taste the sailors had in choosing their “civilian” uniforms. That is a prerogative of all the armies and navies in the world. A soldier or a sailor is always in uniform, even when wearing civilian clothes. You have to have spent thirty years in a bar to, grasp these subtleties. For example, you can tell right away when a civilian gets into a uniform. Mussolini looked like a marionette in uniform, while Hitler looked like a prisoner in civvies. Some people are born military, and others are born civilians. People ought to wear their proper uniforms ail the time, (George had certainly stayed civilian, and so he would remain all his life.)

Another prerogative of sailors is that they always imitate their captain. There are good ships and bad ships, depending on who the captain is. I remember very clearly one time in the 1960s when the crew of an American cruiser, the
Des Maines
, came ashore in Venice on special leave. Aside from the hundreds of liters of alcohol a few hundred sailors managed to down in one week at Harry’s Bar, what really impressed me was the extremely good manners they all had. They had a gen-tlemanliness about them they never lost, even in a state of drunkenness.

I remember that to keep those I had stopped serving from trying to get a drink elsewhere, I would temporarily confiscate the wallet of anyone who was drunk. At a certain point there were two hundred sailors’ wallets in the safe. The crewmen would come back every half-hour, unsteady on their feet, trying to prove they were no longer drunk; but if I wasn’t totally sure, I’d keep them off the liquor for three or four hours at least.

Even the troublemakers in that crew had their own way of making trouble. Before trading punches they always took off the blue kerchief around their neck so that the good name of the US Navy would not be tarnished in the brawl. Without the kerchief, of course, they could not strictly be considered in uniform.

Maybe it was because they had seen the world, or maybe it was because their skipper came from an aristocratic Boston family, but the fact remains that I have a wonderful memory of that crew. One evening a member of the crew, a sailor with twenty years’ service and two chevrons, got completely drunk and sat down at the table of an elderly Venetian countess. She was the daughter of a jeweler of French descent, and she was famous for her snobbery. She had such a good time that she invited him back to her paiazzo on the Grand Canal. He was a very good-looking man, by the way, and they stayed together until the cruiser left.

This letter may seem a bit long, but I’d like to tell you something else about uniforms, something that happened a few years ago in Jamaica. You might think it pure fantasy, but I saw it all with my own eyes.

Well, one very bright sunny morning on a path along the coast of Jamaica, as I mentioned, two middle-aged men and two middle-aged women dressed in tennis-player uniforms met four young men in priest uniforms. The tennis players raised their weapons, that is to say their rackets, with weary enthusiasm by way of greeting, and the priests responded by making the sign of the cross with their right hand.

The four young priests were on their way to a nearby church to celebrate a solemn high mass in memory of the body and soul of an old general of the past regime, and a few minutes later they ran into four teenagers wearing hippie uniforms. The hippies gestured insultingly at the priests, albeit not without some embarrassment, and the priests responded by lifting their hands and eyes to heaven to beg the forgiveness of somebody-up-there in God-uniform.

The four hippies sat down under a coconut palm, and when they finished the last of a marijuana joint, they wearily got to their feet. They straggled bleary-eyed along the beach in the direction of the nearby town of Ocho Rios. On the way they were stopped by four men in lifeguard uniforms who greeted them, as it were, by waving their rakes threateningly. The hippies responded with obscene gestures and ran off toward a nearby hill.

The four lifeguards continued lazily raking the sand until four people emerged from the green lawn behind the palm trees lining the edge of the shore: two aged women and two aged men in the uniform of rich aged bathers. The two aged men took out their wallets and offered a tip by way of greeting, and the four lifeguards dropped their rakes and rushed to set out the beach chairs for sunning. The four aged people began carefully applying sun lotion. They kindly greased one another’s back, because they couldn’t have done it for themselves. Then, fearing a glimpse of some flash or sign that might indicate the sudden approach of a frightful final reckoning, they lay back and rather apprehensively watched the far horizon that separated sky and sea.

Instead of a bolt of divine lightning, they were very delighted and relieved to see the approach of four little sails, swift and light as the bright wings of flying swallows. The white plastic boards supporting the sails lightly skimmed the surface of the water carrying four youths in surfer uniform. An elegant maneuver brought them onto the shore. They laughed and joked among themselves excessively, perhaps because they felt observed, and began dismantling their Windsurfers. The four aged people saluted them with a wave of their straw hats, full of admiration and some regret as well, and the surfers replied with a display of dazzling white teeth in striking contrast to the bronzed faces that emerged from jet black wet suits.

Bursting with health and vigor, the four surfers were loading their gear onto the roof of a broken-down jalopy when four policemen in police uniforms gunned their four bright red motorcycles around a turn in the road. The four policemen dismounted and with no greeting at all asked the four surfers why there was no license plate on the front of the car. They did not wait for a reply before slowly removing their left glove, taking off one finger at a time with the thumb and index finger of the right hand. All the joyous, effervescent vitality that had enveloped the four surfers disappeared as if by magic.

As soon as the surfers were served with the ticket, the policemen put on their helmets, mounted their motorcycles, and drove off in orderly file without forcing the engines. It was not long before they had to apply the brakes, because they were amazed to see something quite unprecedented just beyond the low wall dividing the road from the beach. They saw four strikingly beautiful young women in nudist uniform. Of course, there was a perfectly good reason for this: the girls were doing a film about nudists. The policemen would hear none of it, however, because nude uniforms were against the law. The four girls were arrested and had to get on the rear seat of the motorcycles uniformed just as they were. They were taken to jail in Ocho Rios.

This is where the story ends. I can already imagine the corrupt glint in your eye, since you would like to know what happened next. All I can tell you is that I witnessed the arrest, but I was not present when the eight of them reached the jail. Indeed, the next day I asked what happened to the girls, and I was told that the only person confined in the Ocho Rios jailhouse was an old drunk. No one else had been in jail there for the past ten years.


In which the High Command of the American armed forces in Lebanon discovers that George Smith is alive and well

At three in the afternoon on August 9, General John Custer, commander in chief of the Expeditionary Peace Corps of the United States of America in Lebanon, was puffing a Romeo and Juliet at the desk of what had been the command room. Behind him a smiling portrait of President Reagan II looked over the heads of the visitors who usually entered that room. A door to his right led to the private bathroom, which was not in service because there had been no water for a week. The main door in front of him was closed, and there was an enormous, gaping hole in the wall to his left— the result of tank shelling by the Christian Liberation forces—where his secretary Suzy’s desk had been until two days before. The hole in the fourth-floor wall pro-vided the general with an unobstructed view of the tumultuous traffic along the Avenue des Anglais, and as usual the chaotic noise was loud and clear.

BOOK: Heloise and Bellinis
12.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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