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The Lady from Milan

 

by Gaither Stewart 

 

Erica pulled the faded housedress over her head and tossed it in a corner on a pile of summery blouses and delicate lingerie. Undecided about what to put on, she went back to looking at herself in the wall mirror. Tentatively she touched herself again as she had done earlier in bed. She felt nothing. Better that way, she thought, nonetheless disappointed. Was her body becoming insensitive?

Another day in the mountains lay ahead. What would she do?

Se l'es pesci' da capità uergut c'al cambi la me uita ... uergut de diuers, uergut d'amo' ciü bel del an pasat, she thought in the local dialect, before mentally revising her thought in Italian—If only something would happen to change my life … something different from yesterday, something still better than last year! Better to avoid falling into that old linguistic trap. You begin thinking in dialect and before you know it you’re back in the world you escaped from.

It was the month of August. Everyone was in the village. Tradition and comfort brought her back each year, as did also the secret delights connected with the staging and execution of her planned little flings. And anything was better than the heat and the summer boredom down in Milan.

Anyway, Dino would join her later and vacation life would then return to normality. No better, no worse than other years. For now, the question was how to get things organized and get through the next fourteen days without permanent damage to her mental equilibrium.   

            Erica both dreaded and secretly looked forward to the two weeks alone in the rambling old apartment that was once her mother’s. Already on her second day she felt her two selves pulling in different directions. Though she didn’t feel in the least Dino dependent, he gave a certain necessary order to her innate disorderly character. She was the first to recognize that she needed rules to go by, increasingly so in recent years. Otherwise, chaos took over.

In this very moment she felt her chaos—or its demonic forerunner—surging up in her. As it did the first days of every August. Chaos! She both hated it and coddled it. Glorious and unbearable! And hers alone. The moment when in every bone and fiber in her body she felt that anything at all could happen. She could just as easily fall off one of the precipices higher up the massive mountain hanging overhead as fall enamored of some village carpenter or of another of the August tourists hanging out in the café.

Each year it was the same. Her transformation began on her arrival when she first stepped out of her car and the Alpine air erupted in her lungs and ran crazily through her body. As if Alpine Italy were not Italy at all! The breath of fresh earth and manure invigorated her senses. She seemed to smell and taste again. This was not the sweetish sultry smog-infested air of debauched and dissolute Milan, but air now fresh and candid, now arousing and seductive.

In no time her resistance to her anarchic other self slumped to zero. And her seasonal madness set in. Crazy things always happened during the magical fourteen days. Like her escapade with the Tuscan ecologist last year. Or with the improbable Swiss chocolatier three years ago that ended with an improbable marriage proposal! Her very awareness that anything at all could happen was the deadly attraction.

             She had been at the café yesterday. He was there. Some times it happened like that—one look was enough ... and she knew. Immediately on arrival she had started out examining the village with her stranger’s eyes—as if she hadn’t grown up here herself—in search of the places she would have her morning coffee and her afternoon aperitif.  Except for the years she opted for the cafés down in Sondrio as her hunting ground, it always came down to Caffé Paini a few steps from her house.

In Milan she pampered images of herself dressed in cool pale green linen in a perfect morning place with a wonderful caffeine-high Arabica cappuccino and, in the afternoon, in a slink black Indian silk tailleur in a romantic afternoon concert café or in an English tea room with gilded mirrors and lots of dark wood and men everywhere gaping at her and offering her drinks. That’s the way it had happened with Dino before he became her second husband—the aperitif, the soft music, every male eye in the room fixed on her, Dino the Milanese carrying her off like a prize. Do those things only happen once in a lifetime, she wondered? Or can the erotic sensations connected with falling in love return again and again?

But no, she told herself, trying to look reality in the face, those were Milan images. This was Alpine Montagna where she had to face herself—two weeks of her annual battle with chaos.

The atmosphere of the places Erica had her morning coffee and afternoon aperitif was fundamental. Those places should be magical and reassuring. Days had always been dangerous. Days were prologues to drama. Nights began already during deceptive day hours when her defenses were down. The right places guaranteed continuity and stability in her life. The right places kept invasive chaos at bay. In a way in Montagna she was always looking for the same kind of safe places she frequented near her home in Milan’s Porta Romana district or in Via Montenapoleone.

But here in the village there was no choice. Here everything was different … and out of control. Here it was either Caffé Paini or the trattoria. Or again the pretentious cafés on Piazza Garibaldi in Sondrio. But that, she knew, was asking for another kind of trouble.

Feeling the pleasant chill remaining from the mountain night on her naked body, she rambled around the apartment at a loss. She glanced at the mess in the kitchen and turned away in disgust at the piles of dirty dishes and food spread on every surface. She peered into the darkened living room that the morning sunshine had already abandoned. The TV was on, the sound from her plugged in earphones of the night before audible from the doorway. Cristo, Gesù Maria!

On a sudden inspiration she climbed the wooden stairs to the mansard, with its covered terrace just under the roof. The sky arched high over the narrow valley’s walls formed by the two parallel Alpine chains running east to west. This was her secret place, though it was still visible from surrounding houses. Still naked, she paced up and down the terrace near the low railing. She did a few revealing exercises, flexing her arms and deep knee bends. A mountain breeze fanned her body. She felt a sudden necessity to do something shocking. Something to shake the tranquility of these placid villagers. Put a little spice in their lives. She caressed her breasts with both hands and hoped fervently that someone would see her. If only Dino were here! Or someone!

“IS ANYONE THERE?” she shouted. They could do it right here under the eyes of the whole village.

When she felt an unmistakable tingling of libido in her thighs, she renounced her morning cappuccino in the café and went back to bed.

 

Erica Baldini had left Montagna and the Valtellina for Milan when she was nineteen. Neither in time nor in distance was it far from her former home. But from the moment she arrived in the city it had seemed like the other side of the moon. Despite the hateful superstrada and the direct train to Milano Centrale it still seemed another world. Now that she was thirty-six and she had lived half of her life in Milan, she found it incomprehensible that she kept coming back here to this Alpine village each summer. As if there were no alternative. As if she couldn’t play her erotic little games elsewhere. Her parents lay in the village cemetery and she had little in common with other villagers. Yet, cousins and uncles and aunts and old family friends still treated her as the village girl she once was. People remembered her. Everyone called out to her on the street. Relatives didn’t hold it against her that she was an incurable show-off and exhibitionist. In fact, she believed they liked her precisely because she did the things they would like to. She’d been that way when she was a girl. That was the reason she went to Milan in the first place—to give vent to the other person in her.

Then there was Dino. He’d never even been here in the Valtellina before meeting her. Now, for some bizarre reason he looked forward to August in Montagna. But his presence was little consolation. Once he got here he spent most of his time playing cards with his village cronies, drinking too much Valtellina wine, walking the mountain trails, and largely ignoring her. The thing about Dino was that he was ungenerous. He took from her but gave little in return besides the abstraction of stability and steadfastness. Therefore, her little escape game from the stress of married life in Milan seemed legitimate. He deserved it. 

 

Only two of the tables reserved for the card players were occupied. Caffé Paini was surprisingly quiet. She sat facing the room, her pink glossy lips resembling those of voluptuous TV stars. Erica had a straight narrow nose, high cheekbones, blue eyes, a slender neck, long legs and flirtatious hands. She crossed her provocative bare legs one over the other displaying a big hunk of thigh. She was the only woman in the café. She believed she lent a profound sensual atmosphere to the café. Everyone must feel it. Everywhere her presence created a sense of instability and precariousness. It was the ambiguity of her life—she didn’t know if men were in some sort of alliance against her … or for her. It had always been that way. Wherever she passed, a trail of sex seemed to follow in her wake. It was her sensuality or the sensuality she provoked in the men looking at her. Whore or lady, in bed or out, she didn’t know. Sometimes she regretted she wasn’t lesbian. At least, bisexual. It would be a perfect escape clause. She smiled to herself her feline smile, telling herself she could always change.

Marcello served her a Campari with a bit of gin, continued on to the press stand and began arranging the remaining newspapers, from time to time looking over his shoulder at her. He did that every August. She knew he would like a piece of her.

She looked away haughtily. Even if she did the naughty things on her mind, she most certainly wouldn’t do them with Marcello—he was practically a relative. She took a sip of the Campari and gin. It hit her stomach in a second. She was no drinker and had eaten only a salad for lunch.

Only the mysterious and the unknown were for her. Like the big blondish man in the black T-shirt sitting near the card tables next to the village idiot. He looked foreign. Thank God, not Italianized. And what a heap of man as compared to delicate, wiry Dino who looked more like a fashion model than a financial consultant.

The big foreigner reminded her that Dino was in reality much smaller than he seemed. It was just that he was so alive with authority and pomposity that people didn’t think of him as small. But she knew. She pinched her eyes and mouth at the thought of being married and linked to him for such abstract reasons as security of her place in the world. For a moment she feared she was ageing prematurely. To hearten herself, she zeroed her most sultry look on the blond foreigner, striving for mental telepathy, but when he turned toward the room his eyes swept past her without even a hesitation.

“Another of the same?” Marcello said, appearing again at her shoulder.

Come no! Why not? Have to fill up this afternoon somehow.”

When Marcello grinned at her an obvious but unspoken suggestion, Erica clucked her tongue and turned away and again began examining the bearded man sitting alone in the corner equidistant from her and the card players. She recognized every inhabitant of Montagna and most of the August regulars but she had never seen him until the day before.

Again as yesterday he seemed to feel her look and turned toward her. She wet her lips and ran her tongue over them. Launching toward him a faint ray of her Circean smile that she employed for starters, she ran the tips of her fingers over her bare thighs so that the soft blond hairs stood on end. He stared at her until she dropped her eyes.

It was the look in his eyes that captivated her, his quick self-assurance, relaxed, so different from Dino’s drawn expression. He was a lover! she thought. He had no one! He was the candidate!

Marcello sat the drink in front of her and waited. He was looking down her dress. She looked up at him severely but didn’t really care. Let him look! Deliberately, she leaned forward far enough to display her nipples and uncrossed her legs carelessly and left them slightly apart. Legs, she knew instinctively, were the point. Everything female had to do with legs. Long female legs … and the mystery hidden where they ended. That, she thought, is the history of the world. The bearded stranger, she noted, was observing all.

“Where’s your dog?” Marcello asked in a thin voice about the Cocker Spaniel that Dino would bring from Milan.

“I like being here alone,” she said, intimating that the dog interfered with her amorous adventures as a solitary woman in August. Even her little love schemes were planned down to the minute details. There was something about the climatic change from Milan that fired up her loins—the return to the restrictions of her youth ignited her innate sense of rebellion against the rules and sharpened her sense of power. She knew she was unfair to people here but she needed to feel rebellious. In a way it kept her most daring feminine instincts alive … and, she admitted, her mutinous nature abetted her tawdry sluttishness that once excited Dino the way it did Marcello in this moment. The idea of a woman on the loose seemed to drive men crazy. For her part, she found it peculiarly exciting that everyone expected her to behave like a whore.   

“I could help you fill it up,” Marcello said, his glistening eyes running up her legs and lodging between her open thighs, his simple thoughts written in his expression. Her dislike of having the dog to care for meant only one thing to him—she wanted freedom of action.

“I’ll bet you would.” She looked from the oblivious foreigner to the bearded man whose eyes of a pervert or sexual maniac were still fixed on her, and then back to straightforward Marcello. Who knows, she thought? Ten days are long. With his family living just across the street, Marcello was discreet. No problems there. No strings.

Per l’amor di Dio! What was she thinking about? Her cousin! But there was time enough. She could choose. Life had always been a matter of choice.

 

Erica pressed the button on the remote car unlock and smiled at the pleasant double flash as her yellow Ypsilon popped open. The gin and Campari had gone to her head. She clicked again just to witness the magic locking and unlocking process. There was something erotic about it. Like a woman, she thought. Caress and press the right sexual button and she opens up like a rose. She giggled and told herself such symbolism was crazy.

She glanced back toward the café. The bearded stranger had followed her out and was standing on the front steps watching her. She smiled to herself in satisfaction, sat down backwards into the car with her legs turned toward the street, her skirt nearly up to her waist, one leg lifted in the position she knew was her sexiest. She took her time pulling her legs into the car, gazed meaningfully at the bearded man, and closed the door.

She was going to see the crazy Crap—the furious devil’s horn. Her father used to lead her up the mountain to see it when she was a girl. Her eyes on the mirrors, she drove past the village cemetery where yesterday she had promised she would visit his old place again. She passed Ca’ Farina and Ca’ Vervio, winding her way up the mountainside her father had liked to walk, a torture to her then. She turned up the volume of the stereo. Vasco Rossi belting out some new song.

She put her head near the window and let the wind blow in her face. In the mirror, at a distance, the stranger in an old car was following. Here and there, abandoned and restructured houses in vulgar promiscuity. How do they stand it, living like that with the distant past, their ancestors buried just next door?

The air was cooler now at over a thousand meters, just what her father had loved. As a little girl she had been aware of altitude. Queer, she thought, I’m more aware of altitude than of horizontal distance. The sudden change of air was exhilarating ... like sex in reverse.

At the parking place under the Devil’s Horn, she put on yellow sneakers and set out up the path. The Crap was up there waiting in the thick woods. Looking over her shoulder she smiled again, this time uncertainly, when he parked next to her car. Not another living soul in sight. Maybe this was not a good idea. But Erica had never been one to be afraid. Her father and her first husband had always told everyone, ‘Oh, Erica, she’s not even afraid of the devil.’

Trying not to look back downhill, she trudged up the narrow path, pines and cedars and birch and thick bushes all around her. She inhaled the concentrated essence of the underbrush and the pine needles packed under foot. The afternoon August sun and the Gin Campari burned in her brain. As she approached the strange rock formation called the Devil’s Horn, the series of tall stone pyramids topped by a mass of rock that looked like a hat reminded her of her father.

“What is it?”

Erica turned, startled when the voice broke the silence from not far below her. She hadn’t heard a sound until he spoke. His voice was as it should be. Instantly she knew what was happening. She had encouraged it and then made as if to run from it. Catch as catch can. Hide and seek. She knew she was being obvious. He must believe she was leading him on. She wasn’t sure how it had come about. It was the drink. It was the sun … and also the giddiness of the altitude. But one thing she knew, she had always detested cock teasers. She had her faults and she was a dreamer, but she was not adolescent.

El Crap del Diaul,” she said in an uncertain voice. “The devil’s horn.”

“Why that?” he said, taking a few steps toward her, with the air of one used to being in charge of things. He was tall. Not basketball tall, but taller than the prissy men in her life who only thought about interest rates and card playing. He had thick hair with streaks of gray and a strong nose like her father. No prettiness about him, though. Back in the café she had classified him as an outdoor man. But up close she saw he was different. Not a man given to tirades and wild looks or a man who wants to be tread on. Here was a man used to getting his way. It was in his voice and his relaxed manner. A bedroom man, she decided.

“A legend,” she said warily, “about how the devil lost his horns.”

            “Why don’t you tell me the legend?”

The stranger still didn’t speak dialect, always an encouraging sign, though she would have preferred he be a foreigner. As a rule, foreigners were easier to fit into her schemes. His mellow voice threw her off base. Or maybe it was just the altitude. She couldn’t place his accent. She felt her knees tremble and dampness under her armpits and along her thighs.

            “A long time ago when they were building the Church of San Giovanni … not far below here … the devil asked the authorities in heaven if he could participate in the work too.” Her voice had lowered nervously. Her heart skipped around erratically. A little tingling ran down from her belly to the inside of her thighs.

“Heaven didn’t want more discord with the devil … and proposed a condition—the devil had to go to the quarry and carry the biggest rock from there to the church. If he got there … if he got there before the bells for its consecration rang he could work with the others. The devil accepted. He loaded the very biggest rock on his shoulders and back in such a way as to leave marks of the form of his back in the rock and descended along that stream just over there. But when he was crossing the nearby fields he heard the church bells ringing … the construction was finished.”

            “The old guy must have been furious!” the bearded man said, now standing in front of Erica, the high grass around them up to their knees.

            “They’d made a fool of him,” she went on, spurred by his quiet poise. “In a rage he threw the rock down at the edge of steep gap. A piece of the Crap—that is, his horn—rolled down the hill and the devil cried so much that his tears formed the streams rushing downhill. The water washed away the earth all around leaving only these steep spires there ... his horns. So the old devil left, defeated and dehorned, leaving up there on top of a spire a piece of his horn in the form of a hat. And see those cavities in the rock?” she said, collecting again her courage and, she hoped, her self-control. “They’re impressions of the devil’s head and hands.”

            “Hmm. Quite a legend,” he said now in a bantering tone. “But what are you doing up here alone? Don’t you know this could be dangerous? In the devil’s territory, so to speak.”

            His relaxed manner reassured her despite his ‘devil’s territory.’ Her tiredness from the uphill climb passed. Erica gazed at him evenly, now secure and back in control, but undecided as to tactics. “This is my territory,” she said with reckless emphasis, as if in clarification of the rules, “and you’re the visitor.”

She pulled up the hem of her short dress as if to adjust it. Her inhibitions dissipating, she was again displaying her beauty. She knew he wanted to touch her. He wanted to kiss her. She would like that, the kiss of a stranger. She felt simultaneously excited and wary … and also lost in a wood at 1100 meters in the Alps with this bearded stranger pressing against her. She fixed her eyes on the white clouds nearly motionless over the Orobic Alps to the south. Again the silence around them was oppressive, broken only by the gurgling of the downhill rush of the Davaglione a stone’s throw away. The mountain stream seemed to create a live force holding them, the two transients, in its grip. The sensation, like the stranger, was both frightening and reassuring.

            “Still, you’re alone,” he said ambiguously, neither clearly a question nor a statement. He was staring at her in the same fixed way as in the café. It was a tender look. Or was it only pretension?

            “For a few days only,” Erica said, letting herself enjoy the extraordinary sensation of his eyes calmly undressing her.

            “Why are you alone here?”

            “To be free,” she said. She felt her scant clothes falling from her body … as if he were taking them off piece by piece, already in possession of her. Delightful, but it wasn’t supposed to be like this at all. This was her territory. “Briefly anyway,” she added.

            “Free from what?”

The stranger posed his questions so softly, so quickly and naturally that she didn’t feel she was actually being interrogated. Was he a doctor? A psychiatrist? Yet, what did it matter? She wasn’t fooled, as the devil was. This nameless stranger was here for one reason—he wanted her. She liked that. He wanted her because she was so good-looking and sexy. That was natural.

            “Oh, you know, from things and events that are not events and husbands that are not husbands … all that. By the time August rolls around I’m pretty fed up with it all.”

            “And you find freedom here?”

            “Like I say, a dose of freedom … only a dose but enough to last all year.”

            “Sounds more like a vaccination,” he said. “Why not go for full freedom?”

            “You mean full-time? Oh, no! I couldn’t bear it. I’m not made for that.”

“Well, here, you look like a wild mountain animal on the loose,” he said again in his equivocal manner.

She didn’t know if it was a compliment or a criticism. She stared at his pursed mouth. His mouth was all of him. She imagined his tongue. His tongue exploring her mouth. Its sweetness. Its secret promises of more. The fire of his hands on her body. The lust in his eyes. For an instant she imagined him grabbing her by her buttocks, lifting her skirt to her waist, ripping off her brief panties, and taking her standing up. 

 

In the evening, torn between going to Father Romano and confessing her sins of lewdness and calling Marcello at the café, she watched a stupid August TV variety show, at the end of which she went to bed with the intention of fantasizing anatomically about her mountain lover’s proportions, his powerful orgasms while she, the wild mountain animal, remains lofty and passive. In the end she made love to herself.

Wallowing in such carnal visions and her sense of deeply engrained sin, she lay in bed and confidently waited for the doorbell to ring. He would surely come as a stranger in the night. But as the sleepless night dragged on, the only thing she heard were the frantic midnight clanging of the bells from the campanile of San Giorgio hanging just over her house and later the tumult of the rowdy voices of dispersing card players reverberating up the village streets and the revving of Harley-Davidsons in front of the café.

 

            The next morning he was back, sitting at the same table reading his newspapers. She found a yellow rose in a slim little vase on her table. He nodded, with the look of one who knows some secret erotic truth about her. Crossing and uncrossing her legs, she smiled to herself at his active image in her reverie of last night. She was tempted to go over to his table and confront him in flesh and blood. The stalker in her matinal imagination finds her naked on the top floor terrace. She taunts him, and calls him Maciste for the Genovese stevedore of unlimited feats of strength. She prefers him black. Black Maciste. Two transients on a mansard terrace stealing fleeting August pleasures.

            She ordered a second cappuccino, submitted to Marcello’s suggestive leers and comments, and waited to intercept the stranger’s ambivalent looks. When Marcello brought her a third cappuccino, she looked him straight in the eyes and asked who the stranger was.

            “Stranger?” Marcello said doubtfully, looking toward the other. “Well, I suppose so. He’s, uh, the bookman. Has that new store up near the cemetery. Name’s Giacomo.”

            “Giacomo?” Erica frowned.  So others knew him. Was he after all from here? Was he not a stranger? Was stranger her own private invention? She didn’t approve of that name for him—in fact, she preferred him mysteriously nameless. Not even Maciste.

            At about noon Giacomo the stranger stood up noisily, folded his newspapers, nodded at Marcello behind the bar, and came purposefully toward her. She watched, hypnotized by his body rhythm. He moved like a panther.

“No sight-seeing plans for today?” he said, in his paradoxical manner, his voice rising on the second syllable of today. “Anything to escape the boredom of this provincial village. Don’t you agree?”

            Erica looked him up and down, his worn jeans, a cloth belt, faded blue denim shirt. While he chatted her up about escape and shortcuts, she was mentally trying to undress him as she did last evening. A timid attempt. A technical appraisal. It didn’t work cold like this with him standing in front of her in the café.

“No plans,” she said. “Might go down to Sondrio in the afternoon, or maybe to the castle.”

            “Grumello Castle or Mancapane?”

            She stared at him severely, as if he were teasing her. “Then you’re from here?”

            “Just like you.”

            “I’m not interested in …” she began, before reining herself in, as she had to do also in her daydreams. It was so easy to go off the deep end straight into total debauchery. But it was the truth. She didn’t want him to be from here anymore than she wanted to know his name. His reality was not hers. He had to remain the stranger, pliable, uncharted and unnecessary, whom she could mold anyway she wanted. She was in control of her sexual imagery. More than dreams, less than stories and legends, the mental acrobatics of her erratic fancies were so daring, so embarrassing that she usually abandoned them before reaching satisfactory conclusions. Still, her reveries provided her oasis of security, her refuge from the encroaching menace of chaos. She had always thought the most interesting part of her life took place in her mind anyway.

 

That afternoon, after making certain he was again outside watching her, she mounted her small car as erotically as possible. It was like a private performance, she thought. In the same moment she recognized the abyss between the distant reality of their non-relationship and her soaring imagination. She again pulled her long bare legs inside the car, still undecided as to where she should go.

She drove down to Sondrio. She parked on Piazza Garibaldi and walked around the streets of the historic center. A few times she believed she saw him standing at a newsstand or looking into a store window. She had an ice cream, went back to her car, and drove up to Castel Grumello. People were walking around the terraces. She stopped at a strategic point and gazed at the valley at her feet. She felt lonely and defeated like the weak white moon hanging out-of-place and out-of-time over the Orobic Alps before her.

She began counting the churches scattered across the hills and the valley below her. At ten she stopped counting and went inside and recklessly drank a Gin Campari standing at the bar. All this alcohol was a new experience. Probably the fault of the stranger, she thought mischievously. But fault? Actually the sensation was pleasant, something she had never understood before. Gin Campari could replace sex … or at least substitute it. Musing about the sensation of sensations of the flesh, sensual and erotic, and surprised that he didn’t walk in and put his tongue in her ear and run his hand down her blouse, she started to order another Gin Campari, changed her mind, and went back to her car.

She smiled when she saw his old car parked not far away. She drove back home, nearly satisfied, in anticipation of a new reverie. The moment seemed to contain thousands of obscure stirrings of desire.

 

            Abandoning Montagna, the long pink fingers of the evening sun had illuminated the patches of snow and glaciers in the high ravines of the mountains a stone’s throw to the south and sprinkled the upper valley toward Bormio and the Stelvio with rose and orange.

The view from the covered terrace filled her with an unusual melancholy. It must be the Gin Campari, she thought. It was too early to go to bed. She couldn’t go back to the café for the third time today. She should dress in the sexiest ensemble she could devise and go back to Sondrio. Not that the cafés on Piazza Garibaldi were exactly jumping but then he too had to go somewhere evenings. She imagined him instead sitting in front of his bookstore, dressed in those sexy jeans and no shirt. Or did he just sit inside and read his books and gaze at the extinguishing of the sun up the valley?

On the other hand she didn’t exclude his coming here.

            Her concentration on the TV film was precarious and erratic. Deceptive visions intervened between commercials and bits of incomprehensible cut films. She let herself fantasy go. She is sprawled on the couch nearly naked in the heat. The doorbell rings. She knows who it is and opens the door. It’s raining on the cobblestones outside the door. Water runs down his face. His beard is wet. He’s wearing a yellow slicker, the color of the tea rose. Her favorite color. He lets it slide off his shoulders. Underneath he is naked. She loves the slicker and his naked body. She trembles with lust. Again he lifts her. As yesterday at the Crap. Was it yesterday? Or another year, another summer, another August? She melts in a dark vortex of forgetfulness and only her ambiguous sensations remain. Dim lamps cut yellow rays through the room’s shadows. Yellow, yellow, yellow. Yellow on the floors, yellow on the walls, yellow on the ceiling.

 

            Her August days and nights went on like that. Mornings at Caffé Paini. Marcello’s lewd leers. Steep village lanes of sun, shadows and stones. Afternoon jaunts into forgotten nowheres. The stranger’s shadow. His magical elusiveness. She seduced by her own fancies over and over again. Her bubbles of illusion hanging just at the slippery edge of the chaos rising inside her. Her liberating hallucinations. Her impossible freedoms. And her erotic nights under the deceptive stars glimmering high over the Valtellina.

 

Suddenly, it was the day of Dino’s arrival. Again, he brought some relief but little joy. She was neither happy nor unhappy. One life departed from her, another arrived. She didn’t know which was her.

            In the afternoon they went to Caffé Paini as they did on his arrival each August. Dino had to greet his card-playing cronies. Erica sat at a nearby table and had a Gin Campari.

            Giacomo walked in unobtrusively and said buon giorno to everyone. He sat down near her and said, “buon giorno, Erica!” His hair was grayer than she remembered, his pallor that of a librarian, his eyes vague and silent.

            She stared back at him and said coldly, “Buon giorno, Giacomo.”

            Dino and several others began playing some card game. The foreigner and the village idiot pulled up chairs to watch. Erica observed the scene and felt a stir of empathy for the pair of aliens condemned to watch a game and listen to a dialect neither of them understood. It was inspiring, the hope of arrival and realization of minimum dreams. The vaguely hopeful shifting of their eyes from one player to another reminded her of the expressions in the eyes of immigrants hanging around Milano Centrale waiting for a miracle or of the guarded eagerness in the behavior of a dark Sicilian in the upper town in Bergamo or of awkward tourists stepping of buses from the far north as if they were arriving in Timbuktu.

Marcello served the foreigner and the village idiot the espressos one of the card players had ordered.

Dino concealed his hand niggardly, took a sip of coffee, and slapped his cards impatiently against his thin chest. “Can we get this game started,” he murmured, as if that was all that counted in August, in Montagna, in the Alps. 

            Erica Baldini went to the press rack and took down the Settimanale Enigmistica. Domenica Quizz, Quizz Mese and Civiltà Enigmistica, and went home to dedicate herself to the first of long sessions of crosswords and rebuses.


© 2005 Gaither Stewart

Gaither Stewart, writer and journalist, is originally from Asheville, NC. After studies at the University of California at Berkeley and other American universities, he has lived his adult life abroad, first in Germany, then in Italy, alternated with long residences in The Netherlands, France, Mexico and Russia. After a career in journalism as the Italian correspondent for the Rotterdam daily newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad, and contributor to the press, radio and TV in Italy and various European countries, he today writes fiction. He has authored novels and short story collections. His collections, Icy Current, Compulsive Course, To Be A Stranger, Once In Berlin, are published by Wind River Press. (http://www.windriverpress.com/ or http://stewart.windriverpress.com/) He lives with his wife, Milena, in the hills of north Rome. Other essays and stories by Gaither are available in Archives.