Napoleon of the Campagna

Charlie Smith

I'd returned for Indonesia the year before, sunburned, with a slight drug habit, sporting a fungus under my fingernails, and after receiving my draft classification as an undesirable, I spent six months wandering around Europe with my high school friend Henry Devine, an ex-Green Beret medic who'd been shipped loco out of Vietnam. One night, stoned in Istanbul, shortly after his hair caught fire and I put it out with my own tender hands-as we lay out on our hotel balcony looking east towards the smoky lights of the Bazeen district-Henry put his head on my shoulder-I could smell his scorched hair, a smell like burned peacock feathers-and said, "Are you ever getting back together with Adele?"
I was taken slightly off guard. Her name hadn't come up in a while. "No," I lied, "I think I'd rather poach in my own spit." Adele and I had been childhood sweethearts, lovers at a young age, but we had broken up-exploded, convulsed, detonated, kaboomed up was more like it-due to our scorpion death fights tendencies and some ugly business in which she and her sister had me arrested for malfeasance both general and specific. I say broken up, but that wasn't the name for it. Both of us had gone right on being together, at a distance. Together in our minds. Sometimes she was in the back of my mind, sometimes she was in the front. She was always in there somewhere, circulating. "She's living on a music farm, isn't she?"
"That's what they call it, yeah."
"Rock & Roll Ranch-that one, right?"
"With her husband."
"We know him don't we?"
"He was in high school."
"I remember. I don't think he's ready to give up."
"Oh, he'll be tired of her soon."
There was more conversation, a little more about my dear girl, but right after that they broke in on us and we had to scoot down a rickety ganglia of a fire escape and then under cover of dark-sleeping in barns, crossing hills by mule, all that-get out of Turkey. It wasn't that hard, but it wore us out.

In Venice not long after this Henry got sick and we had to get up in the middle of the night to find a doctor. The hotel manager directed us and we went up some smelly stairs by a canal and waked a little man in a New York Knicks t-shirt who was angry and sharp in manner, but who told us to come in. Henry lay on a couch in his office while the man probed him. He had a pain in his side that turned out to be appendicitis. The doctor took him to the hospital by boat. I rode with him and despite Henry's pain and distress I found it lovely to be riding at night through the canals of Venice. It was very quiet and the wind picked at the surface of the water and lifted my hair. I smelled the sea which seemed like some dark and kindly companion traveling along with us. The first floors of the buildings were dark, but in upper stories lights burned and I wondered what the people who were up at this hour might be doing, and wondered if they were men thinking about women they loved and couldn't get to, or women thinking about their marriages, about whether or not they would stay with their husbands or leave to return to their old true loves. I took Henry's hand which was hot from the fever and I held it while the boat ran smoothly on along the canal to the hospital and the troubles in Turkey seemed far behind us. I felt a deep tenderness for him, as if we had been married many years.
The appendix came out smartly-scooped out like a melon ball, Henry said later-but an old east Asian fever caught up with him and he nearly died. They kept him in the hospital for two weeks, then he was moved to a recovery house over on the bayside in back of the barrier islands. It was a pretty, monolithic pale blue brick place, his part of it a room on the second floor looking out over a paved courtyard toward one of the islands, maybe the Lido or was it the cemetery island. Henry thought he was looking at the cemetery. His fever lingered for three months. I moved into a small apartment I sublet from a man I met at the American Express office. He was pinning the rental notice to the bulletin board when I came up to him.The place was a studio overlooking a small canal that was the color of daiquiris. A narrow stone sidewalk ran along one side of the canal and shops were set back from a pint size, cluttered street on the other. A trattoria served fish dishes and made sandwiches that I took with me to the hospital every day. A diesel mechanic in the nearby boatyard told me where to get drugs-from some Pakistani men who were studying architecture at the university. Or from friends of theirs. I'd go over to their apartment and get stoned and lie on the floor listening to Armed Forces radio, polka hour and a strange western swing program that occasionally seemed to be offering subliminal messages to me. Time was a small boy playing with stones at the edge of the sea, as they say. Fall gave up and handed itself in to winter. I began writing poems, which is what I always wanted to do. I started calling Adele every day, but she wouldn't speak to me. "I can't talk to you," she'd say and we'd sit there in silence a couple of minutes listening to the space wind blow through the lines. Then I'd hang up. She waited for me to hang up. I sent her Henry's number at the hospital and she called him; she didn't have any trouble talking to him. I could tell every time I came into his room if he had talked to her, it was like that. She told him things to tell me. They were simple adventures-in-her-garden type things which strung me out but half satisfied me too. She said the zinnias were as tall as her head. Said hail broke the stalks down and she had to pick all the flowers in one day. "Her sister came over and set up a card table out on the paved road and sold them for a dollar a bunch," Henry said. "That's nice isn't it?"
Yes, I said, it was.
She said they were eating hot cucumber pickles she'd put up in the summer. And the tomatoes and the gleaming beans, eating those too. Every day a feast, she said, West Miami backcountry style. I pictured her offering a bean to her husband, then changed that and pictured her sister getting the bean, but I couldn't hold it and went back to her husband. It wrenched my insides to imagine this, but I couldn't help it. I could see her husband grinning at her, his embouchure gleaming like a licked spot. It was just life, I knew that, mixed up and confusing as it always is; he was probably wondering if he'd done the right thing by marrying her-how could he not wonder this married to such a woman, this woman-but he had been willing to stand up for her before God and man, which I had been unprepared to do, and now he was the one getting up glumly or with a heart filled with joy from the breakfast table, leaning across the oatmeal dregs to give her a kiss. I cringed a little. It wasn't guilt exactly, the cringe-I don't believe I felt much guilt-it was a kind of existential shudder, a slight allergic reaction to pain and truth, to the helplessness all of us feel before our desires, as sad and ridiculous as those desires so often are, an acknowledgment of fallibility and general human dumbness, and for once, for a moment, a clear sight, a glance I mean into the irrepressible and terrifying future awaiting us all, that made me wince. I saw this for a second. Did the rock player, her hubby, see anything? Probably not. Or if he did he was not disheartened. He was a man without pathology-as I understood him-which is what I aspired to be. This aspiration was what drew Adele and me together-one thing-: we both wished to be normal, in this sense, and raged because we weren't. We had plenty of pathology. But the jazz player? What would happen to him? He would live, he would go on to fame and the earthly version of happiness, you could tell. In Venice I thought about this and drank the hard-skinned north Italian wine and sat in an osteria watching soccer games on a television that was set on a wine crate at the end of the bar. She said she had a freezer full of black-eyed peas packed in plastic sacks. The tomatoes, whole, peeled and red as paint, looked naked and helpless sitting on a white plate. Like little skinned heads, she said. Henry said her husband was often away.
"Away where?"
"Don't worry," he said, "the collapse is on schedule."
Henry's fever was actually a disease, a malaria-like compilation he'd picked up in Indochina that made him often stuporous and ignorant, like a man coming off drugs. I'd arrive at eleven in the a.m. to find him snoozing, dribble on his chin, the window open to the Venetian winter which was cold and ice-strewn and muttered miserably in the naked wisteria vines covering the nailed-back shutters. I'd sit with him, try to talk, but he'd be half deranged, lassitudinous with thoughts of mischances back home-he'd flunked out of college and wound up in the army; he wanted to get married; he wanted to be a doctor, not an ex-medic-and I'd fall asleep over my book and dream he was dying. It was my season of failing to save the dying in my dreams. Henry, my father, Mother occasionally, often Adele-I dreamed of and couldn't save them-and someone like myself, too, some substitute character dream central came up with, a skinny boy whom I discovered crying into his hands in a bus station, a pox riddled boy who shrank at my touch. I couldn't do anything for any of them and this scared me. It was too much like life. I waked up crying sometimes, sweaty in the torn armchair. I'd talk at Henry's laid out form-You can never tell, can you, Henry, what might happen?-and he'd lie there feigning death, which I appreciated, letting that be his answer, his face white, sweat like a fuzz on him. I'd lift his hand to my lips and kiss his fingers one by one. He'd look up at me, turn onto his back with a sigh and look at me, an extremity of tenderness filling his face, and say, "I want to live a life filled with regret." I thought it was a beautiful thing for a twenty-two year old man to say. Then I'd dial Adele's number and listen to the phone ring. When she answered I'd hang up-after a minute of silence-and then sit in the cold room, dumb like some breakdown case, stunned by the power of my longing, gasping, trembling with emotion, her voice having done it to me-the telephone ringing in her house near the monastery-her voice helloing over the ocean, stronger than the winter and cold sea breeze, stronger-more powerful, more alive, carrying more Jack-referential life, that is-than anything else I could possibly find in this world outside my own fucked up family. It would knock me out. I'd go down on my knees beside the bed and dial her number again and crouch there with the phone cupped like a conch against my ear and listen. Three rings, four rings, sometime five rings, and then her voice. She wouldn't talk to me; I tried to get her to but she wouldn't. So it was the ring and then her voice, offering the word hello, spoken as if she were asking a question into an abyss, then silence as if that was all you could ever expect. Sometimes she said hello briskly, as if she was on her way out of the house. Sometimes it was so tentative and hesitant it was as if she was interrupting a terrible sadness to speak. Others there was a grainy sweetness in her throat that I remembered all the way back to first grade. The one word had a dozen tones in it, no, twenty or thirty, sounds played perfectly, a concerto of a word, music that her husband probably envied and wished he could find on his trumpet. I'd listen to it, concentrating, anticipating the click of connection and then the issuance across miles, the sounds (I knew) beginning near a withered bean field bordered in plumeria bushes, soaring out over a sooty canal that wound through broomstraw fields past migrant apartment houses abandoned a generation ago, opening onto plains and cascades of cloudy water, passing through woodlands, by cliffs, entering cities where they softened and descended among the fearful imaginings, through sordid dreams the dreamers waked from sweaty and despairing, drifting over the blue, white-flecked sibilant waves, picking up grit and substance from sand bars and shoals and piers and dunes and hills and all the et ceteras of landscape, the sounds shaping themselves against the sweet curve of a mountain, picking up speed on the downward slope, the O trailing like a lost conquistador, some marooned Balboa calling across the empty greenness of the new world, back to the old, fading now into me . . . Or sometimes, if I called more than once or twice at a sitting, only the rings-she wouldn't pick up. I knew I shouldn't do it, shouldn't call-shouldn't keep calling-but I couldn't stop. I had to have the fix. Already-again-she was life to me, smell and taste and a punch in the mouth, all encased and confined by the intense and frail and impotent fact of what we were to each other, the reality nothing but a dream, which was all either of us could stand, or be, each of us a drug to the other, a drug that would blow away like dust off the back steps, like heroin fading into a vein. I was afraid-in an entirely false way-that she would get enough of us, of me, afraid she would call the cops, the love-interdiction squad-arrest this junkie-but then I thought, the truth like a thin white worm crawling out of a wound, that she wouldn't, that she was just like me: she couldn't. I pictured her standing by the bed staring at the phone, knowing it was me calling, her heart picking up speed. She let it ring once fifty times before she lifted the receiver and set it gently back into the cradle.
"You're nuts." Henry said. "You have to do something about yourself."
I thought so too.

In the courtyard there were withered orange trees in big cloisonné pots. Spindly, neglected trees. The ungathered oranges were shriveled, apricot brown like eclipsed moons. I was drawn to them and went down there, passing the padrone's office, where an old man sat watching TV variety shows, laughing a menacing and totally insane laugh, and picked the oranges. Adele and I had once driven up to some groves near Kisseemmee and picked bushels for gifts. It was something we came up with to keep from driving each other insane, a way of taking a break from fighting. But out in the country-a wilderness, Bessarabia, to us-we'd fought on and told each other we hated each other, spitting words as if we were excoriating a despicable enemy. She'd bitten into a orange then mashed it hard against my chest, against my white shirt, and laughed hatefully with a coldness in her eyes as if she wished it was a dagger, and I had slapped her and pushed her out of the car and we'd rolled on the dusty, grassy ground until, looking up to notice what had been going on for a while, we saw (we were stopped on a farm road by some mango trees) a truck full of farm workers right ahead of us blocked by our car and honking the horn to get by, and all of them glowering at me, the woman-beater, as if I should be dragged out and hanged. Later we made exhausted, famished love in a ditch that smelled of oil and mud and sunburned grass. We pulled the heavy grass stalks up over us like a blanket and supped on each others bodies, lingering like thirsty beasts in the low, damp places. And slept a while like babies and waked to the sound of bees buzzing around the oranges. I thought of this as I picked the fruit. Little wizened, eyeless heads. I split one with my thumb and the smell, a bit of it, was still there, the sweet homey citrus smell. It was so emotionally powerful tears came to my eyes. I was only twenty-two and already I wanted to live my whole life over, exactly as it was, not change a thing. For one second there, holding an orange in Venice, I felt so happy to be alive, to be myself, to have done what I had done that, I wanted to replay all of it, same style, same gas, over and over. I never had a feeling like that before, and I haven't had one exactly like it since. Who knows why the sweet moment comes or when it will arrive?
Upstairs, Henry, roused to his feet, stood in the window, a bright blue scarf around his neck, talking into the phone. Talking to Adele. The connection ran unbroken for three thousand seven hundred thirty two miles, as I figured it, across the Atlantic Ocean, over the plains of Portugal, across Spain, including the Catalan desert and Pyrenees, over the Alps and the Riviera, by Milan and Genoa and the industrial smokestacks of north Italy, through the marshes and canals, down the Adriatic littoral, to Venice-where it snapped off, fell forty feet short. No wire available to string between me and the last relay post. It wasn't that she didn't want to speak to me, she said that. It was that she was married. She wanted to be honorable. "She doesn't want to have to lie to her husband," Henry said. "You can understand that."
"Yeah I can," I said, "but I don't care."
I did care, but I couldn't help it.
"That's what all you guys say," Henry said.
"All you guys who?"
"All you junkies and liars."
You're misrepresenting me, I told him, but he wasn't. I went out into the town and picked up a woman in a bar. She had a boy's haircut, slender hands, and an Australian accent. We went back to her hotel and made love. There was something undistinguished about the lovemaking, something stupid and careless and unresolved, as if the whole thing was a query lost in a post office. The two of us were like crippled people. When it was over I went out in my naked body onto the balcony and stood in the cold rain thinking about Adele.

Nowadays in conversation Henry would stop, he'd drift off, lose the thread and then he'd be staring past me out the window, a sad look on his face as if just outside they were saying something terrible about him, people he trusted were, and there was nothing he could do about it. His father was dead and his mother was an island of corpulence uprisen in a bed on Moraine Street in West Miami-there was no one to come see about him. The doctor told me he was getting worse which was an unhappy surprise even though I could see for myself he wasn't getting better. I expected him to get better no matter how he looked and he looked like a man who had been shut up too long in a damp place. His eyelids sagged and his face was puffy and the color of oatmeal. He talked sometimes about Vietnam, but it was always stories about the Montgnards, whom he said were arrogant people without hope for the future, people who would be swept away and crushed by time. He was very bitter about it, as if they had done him great harm.
He'd say something cruel-"They were always mocking their children," for example-"Bastards," he'd say, and then he'd look surprised, as if he'd shocked himself by thinking this way, and then his face would change, it would seem to fall apart, and a sad expression would appear and he would look away. He was a man who had never wanted to think a bad thought about anyone, and now he thought badly about everyone.

I went out and sent a telegram to Adele. They didn't drive out to the house bringing the little yellow sheets with strips of typing pasted to them, they didn't do that anymore; they called you on the telephone. I figured she would take a call from a stranger. I wrote, "Henry grave. Come immediately." The operator understood the word grave, but only as a place, not as a situation. There was really no need to explain it to him other than humanness-that we both were human and it was always a good idea to get a connection going-but I tried, and was able to get it across with the help of one of the Pakistani architects, who spoke Italian. The architect had become friendly and visited Henry sometimes in the hospice. He was a big help, not only with drugs. He explained the difference to the operator who when he got it smiled happily. "Okay," he said and went off to send the wire. I walked out into the street ahead of the architect and leaned over a stone parapet looking at the canal. Out in the big canal, the lagoon, the sea, washed up into the buildings. You could look into the first floors of houses and palaces and see the tide surging across, slapping softly against stucco walls. It was just the sort of thing I hated, cold water coming in-as a child I'd dreamed of cold floods, the bedroom filling slowly, no place to escape to, drowned vermin floating-and it reminded me of TV pictures of Mississippi floods, not the crowd-pleasers of houses drifting in the current, but the others, the photos that showed some sad farmtown fellow looking at the yard of mud the river had deposited in his living room, the way you felt sorry and aggravated at the guy, sorry for his loss and aggravated because he didn't know any better than to put his house so close to such an untrustworthy body of water.
I felt this way about Henry-as if he had put his house next to untrustworthy water, meaning me-and I meant to own up to this, and offer to recede, but when I got back to the hospice he appeared to be dead. He lay shut-eyed on his back with the gold coverlet pulled up to his chin, tucked under the jowls as if it had been gently stuffed there. His face was smooth and cleaned of sweat, impeccable in the way dead faces are, and I thought, as a large area inside my chest I didn't know I had access to gave way-He's gone. The mansion of childhood was swept suddenly away, that's how it felt. Tears started in my eyes and I stumbled towards the bed. I may have said something. I don't remember, some evocation or his name, whatever the drag-addled say at what they think is a time like this. There was a harsh and accelerating jolt inside, like a car hitting the gas, and then loneliness and desolation boiled in the space that was opening behind whatever was leaving and I was terribly angry. The wallpaper and then the wall, the house, all of it was going. The place, the era. Something clutched really hard and let go. I sensed my own faith-ex-preacher boy son of a preacher faith-hiss and let go. It was that dramatic. Henry's face was a human face, a finer, leftover, untroubled version of himself, but what had slipped away from his body was not a soul, not some immaculate wisp, but animal, feral, the bestial truth of our nature-that's how it looked to me. I wanted a drug in my system. Ah. I stopped, halfway to the bed, turned around and went out into the hall. The architect, Hanif, was out there. "Do you have any opiates?"
He didn't, but he knew where some could be acquired.
"Good. Let's go there."
What about Henry?
"He's passed," I said.
"Oh no. I am so sorry."
"Yeah sure."
"Don't you want to stay?"
"No, I don't."
We went out and caught a water taxi over to the San Polo district where stubby apartment buildings were piled one on top of the other like stacked and crooked cardboard boxes on a little street near a motionless canal. The apartments were also the color of cardboard boxes, boxes slathered with colorful stickers. The stickers were posters, mostly for rock concerts. The taxi let us out at some steps that were wet with green algae, slick as if they had just been hauled up from the sea bed. In Venice the lagoon was constantly sending up evidence of things unseen, bubblings, roiled patches, whirlpools, streaks of gassy current. Intimations of the dead world. Tip-offs and clues. At the bottom of the steps a dead cat bobbed against the stone abutment, gently nudging the stone as if it would like to get out. Hanif pointed at the cat and began to cry. We hadn't talked on the way over. Hanif respected my grief and didn't intrude. "Ah, Henry," he said now and sighed heavily. He was a handsome man who planned to reorganize the building codes in Pakistan. One really good earthquake, he told me once, and the whole country would be returned to dust. The ride over-the restlessness of the water, the boat that could sink, maybe even the moon which was up early, a thin sizzle in the late afternoon sky, giving up on itself-had given me a sensation of slippage, of unchecked movement, hints not of escape, but of vacuity. All my thoughts seemed farewell speeches. The ride was the first without Henry in the world. He couldn't, no matter how memorable it was or how unimportant, know a thing about it. The thought was as stark as a shaved head. I wanted amelioration, distance, false comfort, a mediating effusion that would make life livable.
Now my extremities tingled and there was a lightness in my mind, a drift and displacement that made me feel half drunk. I followed behind Hanif. For a moment, at the corner where a trattoria was just now turning on its lights, where a young woman in a yellow apron reached up onto a shelf and drew down a basket of oranges that gleamed under the coppery lamps like balls of gold, I thought I had lost him, and then, which was exactly why I needed drugs, I thought I had lost everything I was connected to so that it seemed I was turning a corner into oblivion. The cut stone curb looked like a line I was following to the brink. Ahead, some camellia bushes in big pots stood a morbid green watch. Hanif, who may have had a limp, came back into view, swinging left behind the camellias. The bushes formed a corridor that led to the steps of an apartment building. Hanif was waiting inside the lobby. "I think it's going to rain," he said. "I hate to get wet. That's why I was hurrying."
"Hurry's good." I was winded from panic, sweating as if I had run all the way from the hospice.
"You need more exercise."
I thought of the telegram, of the wording, and realized I hadn't made it clear to Adele whether Henry was in grave condition or in the grave. It didn't matter now. "Hold on a sec." I leaned against the wall which was root beer colored and interrupted about halfway down the corridor by glass. Beyond the glass was an elevator with a gold metal door. I had been working on a poem about gold metal doors, what they opened onto. You always expected to find something important behind big gold doors. Behind these was a wizened fellow in a pink doorman tunic and plumber pants. He punched the button as if he hated it. Upstairs some feckless people-stupefied Air Force personnel, diarists, professors on the lam, drifting doxies-provided us with drugs. The flyboys had some hospital morphine which they let Hanif onto fairly cheaply. It was in little clear ampules with needle attached, military issue. A girl with a large wen above her right eye insisted on handling the insertion. "Thank you, Doctor," I said. I hadn't had any opium derivatives since Indonesia where I habitually smoked reefer with a paregoric soak even though in that area it was a capital crime to do so. Occasionally we'd come across some heroin, yellow potent material from the inscrutable East, or North as it was in our case. We shot up out in the boat colonies, in rickety plywood and palm frond sampans drifting among the floating cities, boats that had crumbled off the island kingdom like bits of cracker. I'd lie on the deck feeling the low roll of swells passing through the Strait of Malacca on their way to join their friend in the South China Sea. No one ever came to roust us, but if they had we could've shoved the drugs down the fish well and let them dissolve into the ocean. I thought of my poem, little handcrafted piece Henry would never see, thought of a gold door opening onto a sea drug supper. I thought of the island women who wore coral bracelets on their arms and legs, clanking around like armored knights, of Esel, who was one of them, of her glistening brown skin under the bracelets, of Esel who would stop to talk to me as she passed down the walkway, out of pity. The only way I knew I was high was that I wasn't worried. Henry, I thought, was in the place he belonged, the one we would all soon repair to. And Adele, she too was fine, just as she was, married to another trumpet player, playing piano, and raising vegetables among the alligators and swamp rats. I turned to Hanif. "Once," I said, "I was, briefly I mean, a boy preacher."
"How is that?"
"I was a preacher, an Iman."
"You? Never happen."
"It's true."
"A child?"
"Yeah. I used to preach sermons at my father's church in Miami. Sometimes at the big service Sunday morning, but mostly on Sunday night."
"But not a priest."
"I carried the word of God to the people."
"This is unusual-or not unusual, depending on how you look at it." His face, that he turned to look out the chalky window, bore an expression of self-satisfied sadness, as if what I told him only confirmed the unsightly, indefatigable truths he already had to live with.
"My favorite sermon was on the Eucharist," I said and leaned back onto the faintly dog smelling floor, trying to remember what I had said about the bread and the wine. Like the Catholics I maintained the host was the actual body and blood of Christ. Maybe I didn't believe it, but I liked the idea. At first I had been hesitant about it, but towards the end of my career I began to come right down on it. "Give me a chunk of that red ripe meat," I'd shout, "Give me a swig of the blood." This was either just before or in the middle of my breakdown. It was the breakdown that removed me from the pulpit. The doctor said the agitation that sent me shivering through the house would subside if I let off the preaching, which made sense to me. Jesus and his cohorts had become wild uncontrollable Hell's Angels style thugs. "What's the biggest lie since the founding of mankind?" I'd yell. "Redemption!" I screamed. They took me off the scene like James Brown being led away under a cape.
"I hate religion," Hanif said without looking at me. "All religion in every form. I hate substitutes for religion and quasi religious movements and all forms of faith. Life is a blueprint, it is clearly an orderly compilation of laws and rules and we need no religious interference to live it."
"What do you guys think?" I said, addressing the gathering in a generalized way. Everyone else seemed stoned, but maybe this was just me. The light was cloudy and in it faces were indistinct, barely there. "The whole things about erasure," I said. "Don't you know that?" A woman near me did look half erased. She'd obviously come to Venice looking for the grand scheme that would change everything back where she came from. As if change would help in the slightest. A man leaned out of the dimness and began to sing in huge oracular phrases. The air smelled of fried fish and of a sweet archival perfume, something some old woman years ago leaned over me to float whiffs of into my face. I thought of my aunts, my father's sisters, who had died together in a car wreck in Florida, on the beach causeway in Miami, our hometown, and this, as it had at the time, seemed impossible to live with. My eyes filled with tears. I got up and went looking for a phone, to call Adele.
"You too?" I said into the receiver. "You too?"
"You too what?" the man's voice said, her husband I assumed.
"You are in on it too, aren't you?"
"Is this a crank call?"
"Yes," I said. "It is."
"Well, that's that then," he said and hung up.
I was in a little phone room down the hall. I had a feeling of urgency, but an urgency from within a complacency. That's good, I thought, getting this set up in my mind: urgent but complacent. This figure seemed to express much about my life. Incorrigible was another word I used about myself, or that had been used about me. I dialed the number again. I had the procedure memorized, the strings of numbers, the codes, none of which had unlocked her voice box. "Listen, this is Jack Brent."
"Oh, Jack," he said, "I didn't realize it was you."
"I probably didn't make that clear."
"No, I guess you didn't. Are you all right?"
"Yes. Could I speak to Adele?"
"She's on the way to the airport."
"Fleeing the scene?"
"She got your telegram."
"And she's gone?"
"Lit right out of here." Something inside sped up-love, the base accelerant. "I'm so sorry about Henry. It's such a sad thing with all the way he'd come."
"He hadn't come that far."
"From the war, I mean-you know."
Had hours passed? Had I been lying around in a Venetian hog heaven for days? Like Wild Bill Hickock on a drunk? I felt capable and calm. Urgent yet definitely complacent. "I didn't even realize there were any flights from Miami to Venice."
"There're not. She had to go by way of Rome."
"She's a caring person."
"Is she? I don't know. Listen, I don't think I can talk to you now."
"Why not?"
"Are you brain damaged?"
"Brain damaged?"
"Is that what makes you so reptilian?"
"Reptilian? What-like a snake?"
"No, like a fucking turtle, that just hangs on until sundown."
"Until sundown?"
"Stop repeating me."
"You think I'm like a turtle? A reptile?"
"Sundown is coming for you a lot sooner