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Authors: Harry Cipriani

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BOOK: Heloise and Bellinis
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“Champagne? Champagne of course. Yes, that’s fine, and what’il you have?”

“Make mine a Bellini too,” his wife said.

Harry went to the counter and asked Ruggero, the barman, for two Bellinis. Then he looked toward the door, where Kissinger’s son had just walked in with Jim Kennedy Young Kissinger shook his hand, and then the two customers went over and sat down at Arafat Jr/s table. Arafat got up to greet them. “I’m expecting young Gorbachev.”

‘“Cipriani!” the elderly Countess Venier called from her table.

“Yes, Countess.”

“Don’t forget the tickets for the Red Cross concert!”

“Yes, Countess.”

‘And the roses for the Crusaders’ party!”

“Yes, Countess.”

“How many would you like this year?”

“How much do they cost?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“In that case, none.” Harry smiled.

“No! You have to!”

Countess Venier raised her imperious chin and pursed her narrow lips. She didn’t know whether to laugh or be angry She often failed to understand Harry’s humor.

‘A hundred. Will that do?”

“Good! I’ll send them over on August twenty-fifth. What time do you want them?”

‘About ten.”

Meanwhile, Countess Venier had been joined by Countess Maecenas, who had been quite arteriosclero-tic for some years.

“Cipriani!” Countess Maecenas said. “I was here the day you opened.”

“Yes, Countess.”

“My friends came to get me in a coach at the villa. ‘There’s a little bar in town/ they said. ‘Why don’t you come along to the cocktail party they’re giving for the opening?’ And so I did.”

“I was there too,” said Countess Venier.

“1 don’t think you were,” said Countess Maecenas, shrugging her shoulders. Countess Venier gave Count. ess Maecenas a compassionate look but said nothing.

“Cipriani!” Countess Maecenas called out again, as she rummaged feverishly through her oversize bag.

“Yes, Countess.”

“Lend me fifty dollars. 1 can’t find my wallet.”

“Yes, Countess,” Harry sighed. This would be the third time in four days that he had lent the countess fifty dollars. He would never see the money again, because she completely forgot about each loan as soon as she received it.

He went to the desk and asked for fifty dollars and then returned to her table. The countess was waiting for him with her wallet open.

“Look what’s inside,” Harry said.

“Well, I’ve got a hundred dollars,” replied Countess Maecenas.

“That’s what I gave you yesterday and the day before,” said Harry.

“That’s not possible!” she said. “I just got that from the administrator for the rent.”

‘All right, Countess,” Harry sighed. “But then you don’t need anything now.”

“I really don’t understand.” Countess Maecenas turned to Countess Venier, who was not listening. “After all these years. I was his first customer. And now he won’t give me fifty dollars. Cipriani!”

‘‘Yes, Countess.”

“Bring me a Rabárbaro.”

‘At once, madam.”

“Ill have one too,” said Countess Venier.

“Very well, Countess.”

That’s how it was. Every day. Old Mr. Quolter was there too, sitting in the corner with his wife. As usual, after the fourth martini his drawn-out, gasping, life-threatening cough started up, and his face turned an alarming shade of purple. Two waiters lifted him under the armpits and carried him outside while his legs pedaled the air and a sound like a death rattle came from under his blondish mustache.

“He’s slipping away!” Colonel Cervi solemnly remarked from his corner.

Harry had difficulty suppressing a smile. * “Cipriani!” shouted Countess Maecenas, who had noticed nothing.

“Yes, Countess.”

“Would you lend me fifty dollars. 1 forgot my wallet.”

That is how the day was progressing at Harry’s Bar.

The senators were having a lively discussion at their table about the letter
F
in the encyclopedia. The Concorde flight engineer was explaining how he managed to get from Ancona to Palermo by way of Tel Aviv, but no one paid much attention to him. Sitting in the middle, Earl Gillam was the only one to smile at the tale of the Concorde engineer’s adventures. Everyone else seemed quite bored. Gillam’s brother Victor had died at the age of eighty-three, sitting at a table in Renato’s bar in the Carpathians. He just leaned forward and put his forehead in a plate of steaming spaghetti. He was a sturdy fellow and extremely intelligent. He took life as it came, without ever trying to change the way things were.

Custer and his guests were having ice cream. They had already finished four bottles of cabernet. Custer rambled as he spoke. “This George, you know, madam, he is truly a real hero. A very great hero. And that’s because he’s nice too. Because, if he wasn’t such a nice guy, he’d be just another son of a … woman 1 know. But he’s not. George is a hero. And foxy. He knocked everybody for a loop with his foxiness. His enemies, his friends, the army, and, if you’ll pardon me, you too maybe. Do you know that you are a remarkable woman? Suzy! Heloise is remarkable! Don’t you think so? Any man could be a hero for a woman like that.”

George, Heloise, and Suzy all smiled in amusement.

“General,” Suzy said, “it’s going to be a long war, and it’s time to get some sleep.” Suzy nodded at Harry for the bill, which, as usual, was to be sent to headquarters.

“George!” Custer thundered.

“Yes sir, General.”

America is proud of both of you!”

“I’m Czech,” Heloise murmured.

“Czechoslovakia is proud too! And you are a truly beautiful woman!”

“General, we ought to be going now,” Suzy prodded, “We have to watch maneuvers tomorrow.”

“Suzy is right, we ought to go.” Custer got up and suddenly felt dizzy He stood still for a moment until he regained his sense of balance.

And where are you two going?” he asked George.

“We’re going upstairs to rest.” George replied.

“Free pass this evening!” Custer exclaimed.

“You’ll have to come to the base tomorrow.” Suzy said. “We have to make plans for the trip.” She took Custer by the arm and helped him toward the checkroom.

A minute later Custer was sitting next to Suzy in the jeep, as George and Heloise watched from the doorway of Harry’s Bar. Suzy put the vehicle in gear, and Custer waved them a feeble good-bye without looking in their direction. All his energy seemed suddenly to have gone out of him. The jeep moved off smoothly in the hot afternoon sun.

Neither of them said a word as Suzy speeded down the uncrowded streets. It was ten minutes before they got to her place. Custer dropped onto the sofa. “Son of a bitch. That big son of a bitch.” he sighed wearily Then he fell asleep, his head drooping to one side. Suzy lifted his legs firmly but delicately onto the sofa, took off his shoes, and then tiptoed out to the garden.

END OF CHAPTER TWELVE

INTERMEZZO
BETWEEN CHAPTERS TWELVE AND THIRTEEN

Dear Abelard,

The two customers at the table next to our heroes’ were nosy Americans, nosy as only Americans can be— which is not to say that customers from other countries aren’t just as nosy about what goes on in a bar or restaurant.

Some customers ask you about the history of the place, and they are in the majority. Others want to know how much money you take in, how many meals you serve in a day, how big a staff you have, how old the owner is; and where did Hemingway and Orson Welles sit, how many husbands did Barbara Button have, and a lot of other absolutely meaningless things.

I would have been very happy to be the latest in a long line of saloonkeepers: after all, a dynasty is always a dynasty. And, if nothing else, it would be very nice to have your brain furnished at birth with ideas that got there, so to speak, by heredity. But the history of my forebears doesn’t go much farther back than the pedigree of an Ethiopian slave sold cheap in Alabama.

My paternal grandfather, that is to say, my father’s father, was the late Carlo, whom I’ve already mentioned. As you know, Italy, like all countries with a high standard of living, has always been very concerned about the psychological and physical well-being of minorities. Getting the father’s name off public documents was one of our young democracy’s first frontline battles. Everyone was justifiably worried about the possible psychic trauma of people who had never met their male parent and were obliged to publicize the fact by writing the incriminating letters “F.U.” I have never been able to decide if “father unknown” is most demeaning to the father, the mother, or the innocent child born of the union of two careless people.

I am not sure that this victory of democracy was altogether a good thing. I remember meeting old Angelo Rizzoli, the famous publisher. I read somewhere that he was a foundling, but he certainly showed no signs of the wound that should have been inflicted by never having known his parents.

The reason for telling you all this is to explain that it is just because of my father’s papers that I learned I was the grandson of the late Carlo. I don’t know what my grandmother’s name was, partly because the mother’s name was always optional in official documents. I knew her only from what my father said. He always referred to her as “my poor mother”; and he always referred to his father as “my poor father.” As a boy, I thought that “poor” just meant that they were dead. When I was older, I understood that the adjective was applied to summarize two distinct features of my forebears: that they were deceased, yes, but that they had died in the same state of extreme poverty in which they had always lived. My father’s late father was also miserably lacking in wherewithal

There are a lot of people who cannot use the terms “my poor mother” or “my poor father” in speaking of their late parents because when the deceased were alive they had such good fortune they could afford to turn their nose up at beans and get back to their mayonnaise.

One of the advantages of “father unknown” is that he never dies. There is no such thing as “deceased father unknown.” He is No Name forever, much more present than any dearly departed. No Name is not necessarily a poor man. Quite the contrary, he may have been rich, rich and dissolute, astute and rarely unhappy. It is not all that uncommon for a No Name to become rich and spend the rest of his life tracking down the fruit of his sin. And there are those who have been deeply disappointed by their success in this pursuit. If we could turn back the clock, I would be in favor of giving the father’s name in official documents. There is certainly no harm in official acknowledgment when the father is known. And if the father is unknown, freewheeling fantasies about the versatile personality of Mr. No Name can only stimulate the mind of the lucky offspring.

And another thing. How could you ever reconstruct a family history three hundred years from now, say, without some document to tell you who was the son of whom? Without documents, you’d have to rely on hearsay. Nowadays in official papers I am nobody’s son; and my son is in the same situation, for that matter. So when I tell the history of Harry’s Bar, people just have to take my word for things.

Let me tell you, everybody is very interested in the history of restaurants and bars. To tell the truth, I am convinced that Adam had a bar of his own, and everything ever written or told about the origin of the world is simply the story Adam used to tell his customers about how his bar got started.

If you remember, the two Americans in Beirut asked Harry who Harry was, but they didn’t really believe him when he told them. The same thing happens to me in Venice. What’s more, every time I tell someone how and why my father, Giuseppe, opened the bar in the first place, my intention is to clarify things for the person I am talking to, but I am fully aware that I am spreading what will one day be narrated as pure legend.

It goes more or less like this:

In the beginning was gin, whiskey, rum, and cognac. And these four things were never to be mixed together. Then came other things, such as vermouth, sweet liqueurs, sugar, and lemon, which were created to serve the greater glory of the first four elements of the world.

On the sixth day God created the Barman. Instead of Eve, He gave him a shaker, then ice, and then a couple of glasses. And He said: “Mix for the joy of your neigh-bors.”

My father, Giuseppe, was born in Verona, the son of an immigrant, the late Carlo. In 1929 he was working as a barman at the Hotel Europa in Venice. One of his disciples was a young American named Harry. He was very rich but, to our great good fortune, he did not have an American Express credit card. It was one of the things that hadn’t yet been invented.

If there had been credit cards in 1929, there would never have been a Harry’s Bar.

I’ll tell you why.

One day the rich young American named Harry suddenly stopped drinking at my father Giuseppe’s counter. Listless and melancholy, he would wander among the tables in the tearoom, indifferent to the glances of those adorable creatures who usually made such pleasant company in tearooms and their environs. My father was a true gentleman, but he was also a practical man; and he never failed to register the mood of his customers and the amount of the day’s receipts. After a while he went up to the young man and asked, “Mr. Pickering, you’re not ill by any chance?”

“No, Mr. Cipriani,” Pickering answered dejectedly.

“Maybe you don’t like the way my drinks taste anymore?”

“Oh no, Mr. Cipriani.”

“Found a bar you like better?”

“No, no, Mr. Cipriani.”

“Well then, what’s the matter?”

“Nothing, Mr. Cipriani,” Mr. Pickering sounded sad and seemed to be hiding something he dare not confess.

“You’re not broke?” my father asked him.

“Yes, Mr. Cipriani!”

“How much do you need?”

“Why, would you give me money?” Mr, Pickering could hardly believe it.

“It depends how much you need.”

“Just enough to pay the hotel, the bar, go home, and have a last dry martini” was Harry Pickering’s answer.

This is how that rather reckless young man with a nice honest face got a substantial loan from my father (not without my mother’s approval, however). He repaid the loan two years later, and at the beginning he was also a partner in Harry’s Bar in Venice, which was named after him.

BOOK: Heloise and Bellinis
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