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Authors: Harry Cipriani

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BOOK: Heloise and Bellinis
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They both got into the jeep. She slipped behind the wheel, backed out smoothly, and headed for town.

END OF CHAPTER EIGHT

INTERMEZZO
BETWEEN CHAPTERS EIGHT AND NINE

Dear Abelard,

To give you some relief after so much abstinence, let me try to remind you what we were like—I won’t say sexually, but epidermaliy at least—in the 1940s. Or rather, after 1945, the famous year of liberation, when millions of people still drew strength of spirit from looking to a magic future of miracles in a free and peaceful world without war or coniict. Everyone, and 1 mean everyone, was discovering the joy of loving others, forgetful of the fact that some years earlier a guy by the name of God had commanded, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Except Fascists—although that had not, of course, been spelled out.

I remember from those days a friend of mine named Giorgio, a country gentleman with thick black hair slicked back with brilliantine who looked something like Rudolph Valentino and who waltzed backward like nobody else in the world. He used to invite us to his house every night, my sister and me and other friends. We used to tell my mother that we were going to Gior-gio’s to study, though she never believed us. She was rightly suspicious by nature, because for many years she had waited up nights in Verona for my railway engineer grandfather, who often came home at dawn quite soused and smelling of talcum powder after an evening of cheer in some house of pleasure. The smell of talcum powder lingered for days after. Of course, he grumbled that he had been up all night at a secret meeting of clandestine Socialists.

I discovered the existence of cabernet, which 1 guzzled lying on the magnificent sofas in Giorgio’s house, and with the lights down low, I had little trouble sliding my hand under the sweater of a beautiful girl named Lia. At the same time, I tried to get used to the electrifying sensation of joining my tongue to hers. Getting my other hand under her skirt was out of the question. Partly it was because, by the time I got past the top of her slip and the obstruction of the needless bra and finally managed to brush the tip of my finger against one of her little nipples—wondering whether it really was the nipple or a large mole—Lia would be ashamed to have let things go so far and usually shoved me away. Her face would be red with emotion and frustrated desire. She would get up from the sofa nervously and put a record on the modern American record-player, while i, sated with conquest, gulped down the other half of the bottle. I would go out into the narrow streets of Venice, staggering slightly, my head and heart full of wonderful feelings and very noble intentions.

More marriages were arranged in Giorgio’s house than in any other place I know—including my own. Giorgio’s is where I decided to marry my wonderful companion in life, the sister of my sister-in-law Ornella, and that’s where Giorgio’s own marriage and a host of others were decided as well. And I will never forget one evening when two people who had never seen each other before decided they were made for each other, just because she (her name was Patrizia) suddenly discovered that he (his name was Gigi) danced the boogie-woogie like, as we said in those days, a god.

I think that the difference between those not-so-far-off days and the present is the same as that between the sound of a Spitfire engine and the roar of a jet plane a few hundred feet overhead. There was something human about the sound of old planes, and we could imitate it. During the war we would make the sound in philosophy class; Professor Benedetti thought there really was an air raid, and he would make the whole class go down to the ground floor. The masters at this imitation were Storelli and Talamini but, with a bit of practice, all of us were able to do it with fairly credible results.

That is how things were in Italy between 1945 and 1950, Girls were still interested in getting married, and that conditioned the way they acted with the boys. So our only alternative was to visit the houses or go abroad. My father often sent me to England during the holidays to study English. He did not care much about where in England. 1 usually went to stay with customers, who acted one way in Italy and altogether differently at home. My first major impact with the byways of purita-nism came one whole winter 1 spent within the walls of a grim castle set on the soft slopes of Somerset, Beds were always overpopulated, the excuse being that there were ghosts, and the only time you could get any sleep at all was during the day. To put it mildly, I made only slight progress in my studies that year.

END OF THE INTERMEZZO BETWEEN CHAPTERS EIGHT AND NINE

CHAPTER NINE
In which George and Heloise receive a visit from Tom Margitai accompanied by Lieutenant Ry-land and Sergeants Amundsen and Nobel

By seven in the morning, George had been awake for almost two hours. He had awakened with a start thinking Heloise was not there. Neither of them were deep sleepers. Just as it had been during the fourteen nights they spent upstairs from Harry’s Bar, sleep was rather a lazy, drowsy happy extension of waking reality. George felt the warmth of Heloise’s body and then her delicate breathing. He adored knowing that she was sleeping by his side. It was almost like loving her in secret. The night before, they had dined at the home of the chief merchant of the village together with his whole family The room they had been given upstairs for the past two weeks was large and bright, and the enormous bed was very comfortable.

He had been thinking ever since he woke up. He often woke up very early He considered it the finest moment of the day He lay quietly on his back and let his mind wander, enjoying the unusual clarity of his thoughts. He was trying to plan things in an orderly fashion. He thought that sooner or later he would have to write his aunt and tell her everything that had happened. She had loved him tenderly since he was a child. That childless woman had showered all her love on him, but that did not prevent her from occasionally giving expression to her strength of character. She had cracked more umbrellas over his head than his father had.

George heard the first cock crows and glimpsed the slow clearing of the night. The dogs were no longer barking, as they had the night before. Now the only sounds were the flight and chatter of small birds at the start of their busy day

While George listened and ruminated, Heloise turned over lightly on her side and her foot brushed against George’s knee. He ran a finger over her shoulder, and she complied by pressing her foot against his knee again. Then she smiled in her sleep.

George heard the voices of the family downstairs as they began to waken. He caressed Heloise, and then he too got up. He slipped on his djellaba, went out of the room, and slowly walked down the stairs. He kissed his hostess on both cheeks and sat down at the table, where everyone was eating steaming cornmeal and milk. Heloise soon joined them with her calm smile. The children stopped eating and eyed her curiously from behind their cups. The sound of a jeep came from the yard outside. George got up and went to the window He waved hello and then turned and said, “Heloise, it’s Tom. Remember? The guy who lent us the jeep.”

The jeep stopped outside, and George went to open the door. The merchant told George to invite his friends in, and so in came Tom, Amundsen, Nobel, and Ry-land, single file with caps in hand.

“Hello.” said George.

“Hello.” Tom answered.

“What are you doing in this neck of the woods?’’ George asked.

“We were looking for you.”

“Trouble?”

“A bit.”

“What’s it got to do with me?”

“Did you know you died?”

“Who? Me?”

“Three weeks ago.”

“I died three weeks ago?”

“Yes.”

“But that’s not true!”

“Yes it is!”

“Where?”

“In goddam Lebanon.”

“I died in goddam Lebanon?”

George was very much concerned with truth. The usual term is pragmatic. George was pragmatic.

At that moment little Ryland, who had been silent all the while, spoke up: “Private Smith, Margitai is trying to tell you that you were reported dead. Why, I do not know, since I can see that you are alive and well. Maybe it’s because you didn’t report to headquarters for several weeks. 1 think you are going to have to account for that omission. Where have you been all this time?”

“Around,” George answered.

“Do you realize what you are saying?” Ryland asked.

“I think so. It means that you think I’m a deserter.”

“You said it, not me.”

“We found your body in a hole in open country.” Amundsen said, and Nobel nodded in vigorous agreement.

“It wasn’t a pretty sight.” Amundsen went on, while Nobel continued to nod.

“It must have been someone else,” said George.

“No doubt about it,” Ryland concluded. And then he added: “Private George Smith, everything you say from this moment on may be used against you. You can name your own defense attorney, provided he is accredited in the United States of America.”

“You mean I’m under arrest?”

“I guess so.”

“Do I have to go with you?”

“Seems so.”

“Heloise!” George thundered.

“Yes,” she replied.

“We have to go.”

“I’m ready”

George turned to his merchant friend, who had not understood very much of what he had heard. George embraced him, patted the man’s wife on her cheek, and knelt down to say good-bye to the children. The old grandfather kept on eating, unaware of anything else going on. George said, “So long, Cramps.”

“Bye,” the old man replied, and he waved his hand without lifting his eyes from his bowl.

Then they all went outside, The two jeeps were parked one behind the other. Tom took the key from George and got behind the wheel of the one in front, with George and Amundsen behind him. Heloise got into the jeep being driven by Nobel. Ryland was the last to get in. The little clearing seemed deserted, and two hens slowly strutted in the motionless dust. The engines started up without much noise, and the vehi-cles started to move. The merchant and his wife stood for a long time in front of the door.

END OF CHAPTER NINE

INTERMEZZO
BETWEEN CHAPTERS NINE AND TEN

Dear Abelard,

It occurs to me that aside from telling you how Harry’s Bar in Venice came into being, in all this time I have never really talked to you about my father. So here goes. One hot August evening in 1931, a few months after opening Harry’s Bar, he took my mother dancing at the only place they knew at the time, the famous Martini dance hall, owned and operated by Cavalier Baldi.

As far as alcoholic beverages are concerned, my father was probably the greatest barman of his era, and so he remained for a great many years, partly because he was mad about the drinks he mixed with such incredible bravura. If it had been up to him, he would often have drunk a great deal, but what saved him from alcoholism was the terrible hangover he usually had the morning after a real bender. I could give you a detailed account of all the sensations and the numerous and frightening discomforts, because I too, to my good fortune and for reasons I will explain later, have suffered hangovers all my life, despite trying all kinds of ways to avoid them.

Whenever it happens—and it still does on occasion—that I lay my head down on the pillow because the room has no intention of staying still, it is as sure a thing as the national debt that about five o’clock the following morning I will wake from a gasping half-sleep in a state near death, a state marked by extensive hot and cold sweats and a murderous headache that throbs at every unusually rapid beat of my heart. The heartbeat intensifies the headache in geometric progression, and the only thing the heart seems to be doing is pumping a poisonous liquid that has nothing whatever to do with blood through veins and arteries.

Breathing is extremely rapid, and inhaling and exhaling are uncontrollable. The general impression is what any mortal must feel when he has only a few minutes left to balance his accounts before meeting his Maker. At this point the mere thought of imbibing even the smallest amount of alcohol is clearly unbearable torture. And the different sensations that usually go with this
post-bibendum
state are enough to make anyone a strict teetotaler for the rest of his presumably very short life. And then there’s the added fact that because of business neither my father nor 1 have ever been able to enjoy a Sunday off, which, people say, is a great way to recover from the effects of liquor. Quite the contrary, even in the worst throes of this unbearable agony we have always had to get out of bed and carefully tread our way to work. Treading carefully is exactly what I mean, because it is hard to take more than thirty or forty steps without having to throw up, so you have to plan your itinerary in such a way that you can find some place that offers discreet protection from the eyes of perfidious busybodies.

Despite all the experience that ought to remind you of the disadvantages rather than the pleasures of wine and its derivatives, there often comes a moment in which you are overwhelmed by the innocent charm, freshness, and incomparable delight of good liquor. So, every now and again, in the evening, when all the customers in your bar have wined and dined, you set out a glass for yourself. You have no desire at ail to set your head spinning, but you succumb to the pleasures of taste and smell. You are also in rather a hurry to close the place up after the last customer has paid his bill, and then you realize that you drank too fast, and you notice the first troubles the moment you get to your feet. These include difficulty in pronouncing correctly any word in which a nasal sound comes immediately after a sibilant, and you can’t pronounce labials that aren’t interspersed with a friendly vowel without twisting your tongue or getting it stuck against your palate. Words like Has-drubal, for example, become all but unutterable. This is the point when you are torn between embarrassment that your inebriation may be discovered and a desire to proclaim forcefully all sorts of absurdities that strike you as truth.

You walk out of the place with an orderly lurch after a very affectionate leave-taking from your colleagues, whom at that moment you feel you love more than anyone else in the world. You are usually brought back to the real world when you run into a customer on the little steamer that takes you back home. You realize that if your condition is recognized, the report of the owner of Harry’s Bar in a state of inebriation will go round the world faster than the speed of sound. So you try to hold yourself steady on the unsteady deck, and you still have to make intelligent responses to the idiotic remarks that usually come from the kind of people you casually encounter on shipboard. All this, of course, while you are doing everything you can to avoid words that might sound like Hasdrubal.

BOOK: Heloise and Bellinis
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