40 Years Without Elvis
In honor of the 40th anniversary of Elvis’s passing, I offer this story that takes place on that date as one young woman makes an imaginative leap. Where were you when Elvis died? I was in Italy.
A CATHOLIC COUNTRY
This early in the morning, the dining room of Rome’s Excelsior Hotel was deserted and, in its marble splendor, all sound heightened into clarity; even the pages of the International Herald Tribune crackled when they should have whispered. A portly waiter clicked his heels and inquired if Signor Shaw and his family wished another caffe latte. As he poured (silver pots in his gloved hands), the waiter glanced at the two-column front-page picture of Elvis Presley in full regalia. “Triste,” said the waiter in a clucking tone, “la morte di Elvis, the death of the very great singer, the King of Rock and Roll, e triste, sad, yes?”
“Right,” said John Shaw, crisply as though the word were a head of lettuce.
The waiter offered another caffe latte to Emily, who declined with a practiced grazia. That word, along with per favore, buongiorno, and now morte and triste, formed the whole of her Italian vocabulary. Emily wondered why all the Europeans she had met on this trip had endured the trouble of learning English, only to use it as waiters, clerks, or travel agents. If she could ever master a foreign language, she would want to be a diplomat. At the very least.
The doorman came to their table, respectfully informed Signor Shaw that their car and driver awaited their pleasure. His manicured English, sotto voce tone were commensurate with the gold and cream decor, the huge floral displays, and rosy pink marble of the dining room. John said they’d be there directly. Barbara, Emily’s mother, said she was ready for anything that would get them out of Rome’s beastly heat. She said again it was a pity they must come to Europe in August. The heat. The crowds. Terrible service. A September excursion would have been so cool and satisfying.
John and Barbara both (and probably without meaning to) looked exasperatedly at Emily. It was Emily’s fault they must travel in August because in September she would be a freshman at USC. This wonderful European trip was her parents’ gift for her high school graduation. Emily was piously grateful, but she knew the trip had been occasioned by John Shaw’s tawdry involvement with one of the lowlier secretaries at his law firm. The affair itself was absolutely undiscussable, and so Emily’s parents had filled the six weeks with pleasanter topics, like John’s making Barbara late to her sister’s wedding in 1966, Barbara’s snubbing John’s mother at Thanksgiving dinner in 1972, his speculating with their insurance in 1968, her spending habits, running up the credit cards and thinking he was made of money. Despite all this, the Shaws’ marriage was durable, functional, and ugly as an old garbage scow. John Shaw was indeed made of money. In effect, he and Barbara were quarreling over the price of his lapse. The secretary episode was but one more weapon in Barbara’s arsenal of moral superiority.
At eighteen, Emily recognized that only shared expediency united her parents. She thought it rather degrading, but as an only child lacking allies against the adult world, she ignored the obvious. John and Barbara would have been shocked at Emily’s insight and judgment, not simply because the judgment was so harsh, but because she had always been so pliable, polite, the prim, incurious product of an Episcopal upbringing and an ocean-view home. Moreover, Emily was one of three (count them) virgins to graduate, class of 1977, El Capitan High School. John and Barbara never guessed at Emily’s sophistication and they would not have believed she could come by that sophistication with so little experience. But Emily read. Emily devoured books—novels, poetry, biography, mysteries, Gothics. She kept books stashed all over the house, as a glutton hides bonbons. Her literary acquaintance ranged from Romantic poets to romantic sagas, Daphne Du Maurier to Daniel Defoe, James Michener to Henry James; her taste was catholic, wide-ranging, intense, and as a result, her knowledge was far broader and deeper than eighteen years in Orange County, California, would ordinarily have granted a girl.
When Emily had taught herself to read at the age of three, her parents believed they had a prodigy, but Emily never again did anything the least bit prodigyish and flunked all tests for Gifted. She was merely odd. She got odder by the year and would occasionally come out with a line of Frost or Bronte that shocked her parents far more than a good, hearty shit. For her fourteenth birthday, they took her to a much-touted performance of King Lear and she mystified them by noisily crying her eyes out because she was so moved.
Though Emily had failed as a prodigy, her parents took comfort in the fact that she did not give them any anguish. Conventionally pretty, her smile testified to the orthodontist’s skill, and she dutifully took piano and tennis lessons. Practiced. Played Juliet in the high school production but showed, mercifully, no deeper inclination to Act. She did not get pregnant, or arrested, or have accidents with her car. Did not even get tickets. Did not get drunk or high. She had dates, but no special boyfriend. She seemed, in short, soft-center compared to the gleaming, keen-edged daughters of their friends. Barbara and John assured themselves that the challenge of a major university and a good sorority (Barbara had been a Tri Delt) would put some polish on Emily, season and sharpen her, as would this wonderful European trip.
The six wretched weeks—England, France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Italy—were now mercifully drawing to a close in Rome. Hot, impossible Rome with its savage armies of juvenile pickpockets, overrated ruins, and nasty foreigners. That’s how John Shaw saw it; travel confirmed his every xenophobic preconception. Travel confirmed for Barbara that anything worth having she could buy at South Coast Plaza. John and Barbara mentally counted the hours until they could be in Pan Am’s first-class lounge, sipping drinks. You could be certain of things in the first-class lounge, as you could be certain of little else in Europe.
The trains, for instance. Hot, disgusting, and filthy. Even in first class. On their journey down from Florence to Rome they had shared their first- class compartment with a garlic-soaked priest who carried on a noisy conversation with two other Italians, fanning his garlicky breath about the compartment with expansive hand gestures. “I thought priests were committed to poverty,” John had whispered to Barbara. “What’s he doing in first class?”
After that dismal experience, John went to the concierge at the Rome Excelsior, slipped him a fat tip, and asked him to make arrangements for a car and driver to take them to Assisi. They wished a leisurely trip through the Umbrian countryside. This day-trip to Assisi was not originally on the Shaws’ agenda, but resulted from a chance encounter on the Zurich-to-Milan flight (first class, of course) with a La Scala violinist, native to Umbria. “To come to Italia!” he cried, “and to miss the region of Umbria is to have a love affair and not go to bed!”
It was an unfortunate allusion, given the Shaws’ marital situation, but the violinist could not have known that. For the entire flight—and in his charming, excellent English—the violinist waxed on about his native region: the wine, the landscape, the tremendous cultural, religious, and political events that had marked its history. Umbria! The land of saints and generals! Unsullied Italia could still be found here, only a few hours from that cesspool, Rome. Umbria! Where towns and villages subscribed to the old customs, where the old family values had not been defeated, bought off by the ugly invasion of (he looked quickly around him) British, German, and Japanese tourists. Americans, he added, were welcome.
“If you go to but one city in all of Italy, it must be Assisi!” he cried, glowing with his third or fourth cognac. “In Assisi one feels the stamp, the very shadow of a man who has been dead for nine hundred years! Imagine! What forza! The strength of that personality! To be felt so many years after death! Saint Francis was born to a rich family but gave away all his wealth, forsook possessions, position, forsook his parents, dressed in poor rough robes, begged for his bread. He followed only God’s command, Restore my church!” boomed the violinist, evidently taking the part of the Almighty in this dialogue. “And Francis did. His spirit was grander than any pope’s, and yet he remained so humble, he would sing to the lowest sparrow. I tell you, he lives still! His spirit lives on! You will feel him present in Assisi!” The violinist fell back, exhausted, and ordered one more drink before they landed.
On the strength of the violinist’s exuberance, the Shaws that morning left the Excelsior dining room, went out to find their car and driver awaiting them in the blue morning shadows of the hotel arches. It was early yet and the day’s freshness as yet undimmed.
They were disappointed in the car, which, particularly in contrast to the grand Excelsior, had a shopworn air. Their driver was smoking, lounging with the radio on, tapping one hand nervously to Elvis Presley singing Don’t Be Cruel. He wore no uniform, and he was sweating profusely; rings circled the armpits of his dark shirt. He was a slight, narrow-shouldered man of indeterminate age and he wore a cap and black sunglasses and had an unappealing stubble of beard across his narrow jaw.At the Shaws’ approach, he removed the cap but not the dark glasses. He tossed his cigarette and came to a theatrical Attenzione!, opening the door with a flourish. Then he stepped smartly to the driver’s side, snapped off the radio, placed his cap back on, and saluted. “Assisi, okay!” He closed the plastic partition separating him from his passengers, turned on their air- conditioning (his side had none), and grinned at them in the rearview mirror. He had very bad teeth.
John muttered that he had paid for better than this. Paid a good deal, in fact. (To say nothing of the concierge’s tip.) The car had a sad, tattered, fifties air to it, the seats frayed and shiny where a great many anonymous bottoms had nestled deep. The passengers sat well back and were thus protected from the prying, rude populace, but protected as well from seeing anything. Unless they leaned uncomfortably forward. As a nod to modernity, a small frigobar had been awkwardly installed. It held little bottles of wine, water, and fruit juice.
Emily opened a peach juice and retreated, as best she could, into any one of the half-dozen stories she continually told herself to make this European excruciation bearable. Sometimes she was a princess traveling incognito with unlikely Americans. Sometimes she was an incognito spy. Sometimes she was a diplomatic courier with documents of the utmost importance. Sometimes she was Joan of Arc—or someone like her—on her way to meet a Great Destiny. But the game (and in this instance, any game) proved impossible to sustain.
Getting out of Rome was tedious, harrowing. Their driver drove like a madman, darting in and out of traffic, nearly crashing, his haste and anger evident from the way he leaned on the horn and shouted at the other drivers. John and Barbara’s frustrations took up the old refrain, Christmas 1965, when John and his oafish brother had showed up late and drunk. Emily burrowed into one of her many guidebooks, reading about Umbria, Assisi, and Saint Francis (ca. 1181-1226), readying herself for yet another day of cold churches, cavernous museums, mute walls.
Once out of Rome, though, the Shaws’ mood lightened. The countryside lived up to the violinist’s enthusiasm as they moved into Umbria. High, ancient hill towns looked like Leonardo backgrounds rising out of the plains. Ancient cypresses gnarled along the roadsides like thick arthritic fists. John was about to comment happily on the natural beauty when their driver took an abrupt, unsuspected turn. No one had seen a sign that said Assisi. No one had seen a sign at all. Emily suggested perhaps this was the scenic route. They had asked for a countryside ride. Perhaps he was taking them off the beaten path.
“No kidding!” cried John as they bounced up twisting roads. Before you could say Saint Francis of Assisi, the road narrowed yet again: two cars could hardly pass, and when a truck came from the opposite direction, the Shaws’ driver put the car in reverse and inched down the narrow track to a minuscule turnoff, cursing all the while. As the truck passed, he exchanged obscene gestures with the driver before he bounced back on the road. Through their plastic partition, they watched the driver bring a bottle to his lips.
John’s imagination, scrawny though it was, began to entertain dark thoughts. The Italians were great kidnappers. John realized he had not notified the American embassy in Rome of his monied presence. Obviously he was a rich American, senior partner in a California firm of corporate lawyers. His thoughts of the Red Brigade were interrupted by Emily’s retching. John banged on the partition and the driver turned to him, cigarette dangling from his sneering lips. The driver had no English beyond the okay he had already used, and John could not explain how Emily was susceptible to being carsick. Finally, John just stuck his index finger in his open mouth and made gagging noises.
The driver pulled over. Emily got out and vomited onto the land of saints and generals. John stepped from the car, pulled himself up, spoke sharply to the driver. “Return to Roma!”
The driver exhaled a long, blue ribbon of smoke, pointed to the radio, where Elvis wailed. “No, signor, Heartabreakahotel”
“Return to Roma!”
“No. Arrivederci, Roma, eh?” With a coarse laugh and brusque gestures, he pointed John back in the car. He made Emily get in the front seat with him. He pressed on the gas pedal. He meant business.
John Shaw considered himself a risk-taker. He had cheated on the LSAT to get into law school. He had embezzled money from his own firm to cover a bungled real estate deal. He had forged his wife’s signature on a deed of trust. He had trod the risky, mined fields of adultery with many willing women, including his partner’s wife, the now ex-Mrs. Brill. But now, here, in this car and for the first time in his life, John Shaw kicked himself for being a fool. He could have bought Barbara a new Mercedes to make up for screwing the secretary. He didn’t have to come to Europe at all. The garlic-smelling priest was but a small price to pay for the safety of crowds and public conveyance. He hated himself for staying at the expensive Excelsior, for renting a suite instead of a room, for listening to some stupid goddamned wop fiddler tell him he should go to some stupid goddamned town and feel the presence of a man who was such a goddamned fool that he would give away his riches and talk to a bunch of goddamned birds.
Barbara’s hand inched over his thigh. Her face was pale. He took her hand, as much for his comfort as hers.
Emily, for her part, had no thought of the Red Brigade. However, she was alarmed at the driver’s drinking, which he now took no care to conceal. His driving became increasingly cavalier as the roads got narrower and they circled higher into the hills. They narrowly passed a motor scooter and she wondered how, since she spoke no Italian, she might offer some comment on safer driving. She pointed to herself brightly and said, “Emily. Signorina Emily Shaw.”
“Mi chiamo Carlo,” he replied glumly.
“Ah, signorina!” Carlo whipped off his glasses. The stubble on his chin notwithstanding, he was clearly a good deal younger than she’d first supposed, perhaps in his mid-twenties, not much older than Emily herself. His face was full of pain and he struggled with a storm of feeling. His lower lip trembled, ash from his cigarette fell to his pants, but he brushed it away without blinking. His dark eyes raked over Emily’s face. “Ah, signorina!” he cried again and again, babbling on, wiping his eyes, explaining frantically as he lit cigarettes one after another. He spoke swiftly, swilling from the bottle, offered it to her. “Grappa?”
Emily declined with thanks (in Italian) and he glugged down more, drove on, heedless of the ruts and potholes, crying, choking, wiping his nose on his sleeve, explaining everything. Everything.
Emily thought he seemed especially comforted when she nodded, so she did, over and over, but she caught almost none of what he said, save for the words she had just learned this morning. “Morte?” she inquired as another Elvis song. Are You Lonesome Tonight?, came on the radio.
Carlo broke into a fresh paroxysm of weeping. Emily touched his shoulder consolingly and made tut-tut noises, though she thought it odd that an Italian should get so worked up over the death of an aged American rock and roller. Even Elvis’s music was so clichéd, all you could do was sigh or giggle. Still, Emily offered Carlo the words of her Excelsior waiter. “Elvis Presley, morte. Triste, si.”
“Mamma e mortal” cried Carlo, “Mio Dio! Mamma mia!” His hands flew off the wheel and he wrung them before God as the car careened toward a cliff. They were moving high now, up into the Umbrian hills, and the road (like the much-vaunted path to Virtue and Wisdom) was steep and rocky. Steam began to plume from the hood of the car. Carlo kept drinking, smoking, and with every new Elvis tune on the radio, he shook his head, muttered, until All Shook Up burst into the car and then he seemed to jump out of his seat, throttle the wheel, shout, pointing into the distance.
At the top of the hill, Emily could see the pink and apricot walls, the medieval towers of a small city, a village perched up high with wide skirts, fields flouncing down the hillside, fields of corn and bronzed sunflowers.
Emily leaned forward. For six weeks now she had dutifully responded to pictures, monuments, museums, churches, icons of cultural significance. She’d obeyed tour guides and timetables; she’d endured the maid’s mocking reply to her question about the bidet. She had borne the unbearable proximity of her parents. But now, as Carlo drew in on this high town embraced still in its medieval wall, encircled with fields, its towers bathed in the noonday light, for the first time since she had come to Europe, Emily Shaw was actually interested in the vista and experience before her. They were not going to Assisi. They were not going anyplace where a guidebook might be of use. They were going to some undiscovered country where, she felt certain, the language would come to her easily, expressively, where, indeed, she might very well be native.
Pulling through the narrow city gates that gave onto an even narrower street, Carlo began tooting his horn wildly, waving at pedestrians and bicyclists alike, shouting them from his path. Men, women, children flattened themselves against the walls and jumped into doorways as Carlo barreled through the threadlike lanes. A car, going in the other direction, seemingly pulled into a greengrocer’s shop to allow Carlo to pass, and as he passed, people reached out to touch the car with their hands, some bringing fingers to their lips and crying out his name. The car climbed past shops and churches, under banners of laundry strung between the buildings, up streets so narrow only the noonday sun could penetrate to cobbles otherwise steeped in ancient shadows. Church bells tolled as they pulled through an arch and into a courtyard surrounded on three sides by crumbling buildings of vanilla-colored stucco, cracked and mottled with age. Thick webs of laundry festooned the windows. There was a low wall where a neat garden of peppers and tomatoes gleamed on carefully tied stakes, and in the distance, the Umbrian hills surrounded them in a dry, rugged embrace.
Carlo jumped out taking the key with him. He dashed up a broad stone staircase and vanished into the green darkness at the top. News of his arrival seemed to bounce around the courtyard, echoing back into the street, rolling amongst the stone buildings like the tolling of a church bell.
Ignoring her parents, Emily got out and walked to the wall, looking over the hills toasted everywhere to a Franciscan brown, where corn and drooping sunflowers sloped far below her. She heard a high, fragile train whistle and saw a distant plume of smoke fall back, exhausted, against the fields. The train itself was invisible. Overhead the sun burnt brassy, and heat reeled round her like a saint’s unsubtle halo in a medieval painting. Emily felt suddenly light-headed and would not have been at all surprised to rise and fly, swoop over the burnished fields, as you would in a dream, where the old dull laws, like gravity, vanish and new laws prevail. This conviction grew girth and weight and radiated substance: something wonderful was about to befall her. Love, maybe. Her senses were, each one, sweetly sharpened and she felt enhanced, even ennobled. She carried this freshly minted conviction almost visibly as she walked to an old cistern where water plopped from the mouth of a stone lion.
John got out of the car, rumpled and sweating. “Don’t be an ass, Barbara! Does it look like Assisi?”
Barbara wobbled uneasily after him. “How do I know? How do you know? God, it’s hot!”
“Where did the goddamned driver go? Where is he? The little bastard!”
Barbara suddenly clung to her husband. “John, please get him to take us back to Rome. Please. Pay him anything. Maybe he’ll take a card. Anything. Just get him to drive us back to Rome.”
“He won’t take you anywhere,” said Emily, at last understanding what had escaped her entirely in the car. She drank from the cistern, rinsed her face, arms, neck, dried with the hem of her colorful cotton skirt, and turned to her parents. “His mother has died. In there.” She nodded toward the arched, shadowed stairway. “Carlo never had any intention of taking us to Assisi.”
“Carlo?” demanded Barbara. “Since when are you so chummy? Did that little wop make a pass at you?”
“I’ll have his Italian ass in a sling!” vowed John, adding he’d have Carlo’s job as well; he’d tell the Excelsior, the American embassy. Worse, he hinted darkly, he’d tell American Express.
Barbara reminded him that none of this could come to pass until they got back to where they had been. “Which is going to be hard,” she added sourly, “since we don’t even know where we are.”
“We are in a catholic country.” Emily spoke slowly, translating for these foreigners. She explained without elaborating, “The country of the imagination is always a catholic country.”
John and Barbara regarded their odd daughter with undisguised bewilderment that quickly dwindled into indifference as they volleyed blame for last year’s Mazatlan vacation. “Remember the mule trip?” Barbara remarked savagely. “That was your idea! Just like this! I have to pee. You’d better find us a ladies’ room, John. Fast.”
A ladies’ room proved impossible, but eventually they found a unisexual hole in the floor behind a closed door, with a moth-studded light bulb screwed into the wall and a hallelujah chorus of flies. This was in a bar. Before they had found the bar, they had inquired of people met on the street, Bathroom? Bathroom?, reduced to finally the expedient. Toilet? Wherever they asked, their American voices made people stare boldly and rudely. Walking down the town’s narrow central street, they created their own, uncivil procession. From open windows overhead came a medley of opera, Abba, and Elvis; scratchy TV voices, wavering radio combined with chattering songbirds, their cages hung in the windows. As the Shaws’ English floated upward, Italian matrons came to the windows and called out dourly to one another. Emily often heard Carlo’s name in the exchange. Clearly, the sunny slogans of the Italian tourist board did not ring true here in the unsullied Italia.
They found the bar. They found the toilet. Barbara first and then Emily preceded John into the room with the hole in the floor. While they waited for her father, Emily watched flies play over sandwiches stacked on the counter. She absorbed hostile stares from the people in the bar, perhaps a dozen of them. The violinist had assured them only British, German, and Japanese tourists were despised in Umbria. Americans were all right. Emily tried the universal passport: a smile. Not valid here.
Blue Suede Shoes came rolling out of a vintage radio, followed by Jailhouse Rock, and the woman washing glassware turned up the music and wiped her eyes on the edge of a stained apron, her sad gesture totally at odds with Elvis’s young voice, his unvarnished sexual energy.
Emily cleared her throat. “Elvis, morte. Triste, si?” People in the bar became voluble, if not altogether friendly, and when John came out of the toilet, he was surprised to see the locals talking at Emily, if not to her, and Emily making the same tut-tut noises she had used with Carlo.
“Ask them how we get to Rome,” John demanded. “Ask them if someone speaks English. Someone in this goddamned town has got to speak English.”
Perhaps. But the Shaws never found this mythical English speaker as they wandered from shop to shop, buying bread and fruit and mineral water, trying to ease and pave their way with lire as they inquired how they might get back to Rome, absorbing the locals’ unconcealed curiosity and ill will. Finally, with a great many hand gestures, much mental effort, and cobbling together a number of responses, Emily figured out there was a train. They could catch the train. There. In the distance. Down. Low. In the fields. Where? There, at the bottom of the hill. The train will take us back to Rome? Where goes the train? The train will take them, well, somewhere. The train would take them somewhere.
They started down the hill while all around them screens came down and shutters slammed shut. The orchestration of exclusion was deafening. The town shut up and shut down for the long midday meal and nap. Not like in the big cities, according to the Umbrian violinist. In the big cities shops stayed open all the time and Italians there had “lost everything of value while they suck up”—really, Emily had been surprised to hear so cultured a man use so vulgar a phrase—“to the almighty dollar—or rather deutsche mark.” Well, thought Emily, as the streets emptied, clearly this was the old Italia.
A stout woman carrying a chicken slung over her shoulder hurried past them. The chicken’s head at the end of its long, wrung, hapless neck was swinging with metronomic regularity across her black-clad back as she retreated down the narrow street. Hypnotically, Emily watched the swinging chicken head, feeling, oddly, that she might have been following a woman in 1177, rather than 1977, down this very street and out these gates, the time of Saint Francis himself, when people worked the sloping fields by day and returned here, atop this hill, at night. Behind these high stone walls, families had hunkered over bread and wine, alert always for the glimmering watch fires of invading armies. What were tourists but yet another invader?
Behind her, her parents exhumed Mazatlan in 1976 as they all passed through the city gates and followed thin, dusty trails that Carlo’s ancestors had trod through the corn and ruffling sunflowers. A hot wind dried her sweat and parched her lips. On the lathe of history, Emily turned story after story, imagining herself carrying a rake, a scythe (instead of this plastic grocery bag and her own purse), leaving the town daily at dawn, walking down this path and climbing back up it at night, working till-death-did-you-part from Adam’s curse, from earning your bread with the sweat of your brow. From the time of Saint Francis, these people— none of them with Francis’s forza, all of them anonymous as the dirt beneath Emily’s feet—these people had stooped and sweated and shivered till they dropped and died and were buried. But where? Emily had seen no cemetery. Where did Carlo’s ancestors do their dust-unto-dusting? Where would they bury Carlo’s mother, who, like Elvis Presley, had died in August 1977: a chunk of time broken off as bread could be broken off, as knowable and subject to decay as bread.
“It wasn’t the mule trip that ruined Mazatlan,” snarled John. “It was your goddamned sister, bitching and moaning and—”
“My sister was sick! You never let up on her! You never . . .”
Emily hastened her step to escape them. Their very presence seemed a sort of wart on the imagination, a blister on the conviction that something extraordinary was about to befall her. However, she had begun to doubt it was love. Love—well, true love (and why bother with anything less?)— would need to speak English, after all. So perhaps it wasn’t love, she reasoned, walking swiftly, but something less predictable. She reached the train tracks long before her parents and dawdled there, absorbing every scent and sound, the most mundane of which must surely have its significance. It would all—she was certain—be made manifest.
Approaching the tracks, Barbara brandished the simpering specter of John’s college girlfriend. “Your own mother told me so! God, it’s hot! Your own mother told me you wanted to marry Cherie!” Barbara drooled over the name as if it were a Goo Goo Cluster. “Would your mother lie? Of course, she only said it in the first place to be mean to me.”
“Here’s the goddamned track,” said John, turning to Emily. “Now, where’s the goddamned station? Where do we catch this goddamned train? My mother never said any such thing.”
Emily abandoned them to their unsavory past and walked up the tracks with a dreamy dignity befitting one of the last three virgins in the class of 1977. She walked till she heard the sputtering of a car and could see the solid lineaments of an ancient farmhouse, thick walled, faded tiles sloping down the roof. The farmhouse outbuildings backed up to the track, and nearby there was a railway maintenance shack on one side and, across from it and down a bit, a shelter of sorts, obscured by a canopy of vines. It was old, unkempt, and it had a withered timetable under glass. Every weekday there were two trains. A northbound at 12:18 and a southbound at 3:10.
In the shade of the vines, Emily sat on the bench and tore off a chunk of bread, ate it slowly, alternately with the dripping peach. Looking up, she could see the high town glowing in the unreal Umbrian sunshine. The peach dripped off her wrist and she licked it casually. She twisted open the bottle of mineral water and took a long swig, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, much as Carlo’s ancestors must have done, taking their midday meal in these fields, long before there was a railway, a shelter, or any timetable beyond the sun and moon. She winced to hear her parents approach; they had moved from the base to the debased, from the unmentionable to the unspeakable.
“As God is my witness, Barbara! I swear, that secretary—clerk, really— she never meant anything to me and I never went to bed with her.”
“ Look, Barbara, let me make this short and sweet, like the Old Maid’s Prayer: I never screwed the secretary. Okay?”
“I was tempted, I admit, but—”
“You dirty fucker! Fuck you! Do you think I’m a fool? You’ve fucked everything that walked into your office! You fucked Ilsa Brill—your partner’s wife! Ex-wife now. You were fucking her brains out for a year! I should have divorced you right then! So help me. I’ll do it this time. You’ll have to split everything right down the middle and—”
“Try it! There’s not a lawyer in Orange County who will represent you against me! If you think . .
Emily rose, dropped her peach pit, left the bread, the bag, her purse, forsook possessions, position, deserted her parents and walked away, as though she could simply granulate into the August light. She went toward the farmhouse, turned the first corner she came to, and caught the scent of food and a sweet-sad waltz. I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You. Elvis again.
She came upon the farmhouse courtyard and stood behind a leafy lattice, where she was hidden from their view. Through the lattice she could see a table set for perhaps a dozen people in the shade of an arbor. Little children rolled and tumbled in the sparse grass, and women carrying plates from the kitchen to the table sidestepped chickens pecking about the yard. In a semicircle, interspersed with potted geraniums, old men in shirtsleeves and suspenders quarreled volubly. A middle-aged woman barked commands at her teenage son, who ignored her, ducked the cuff she intended to deliver, and vanished into the house. A young mother kept trying to give a crying baby over to husband, who would have none of it. The baby’s cries competed with the radio commentator rattling in nonstop Italian, and then Elvis warbled out Ready Ready Ready to Rock and Roll. The young mother thrust the baby at her husband and left them both there. She went into the kitchen. He joined the garrulous old men, entering into the argument while he ineffectually bounced the baby on his knee.
With an arch look to her husband, the young mother brought out a bowl mounded high with something plain and grainy-looking. It was the sort of dish—indeed, the sort of meal, wine, tableware, and company—Emily did not recognize, since her experience had been limited to churches, museums, and the dining rooms of places like the Excelsior Hotel. Here before her were not the sort of people who would eat at the Excelsior, nor drink in Pan Am’s first-class lounge, nor shop at South Coast Plaza. Why then should Emily envy them? But she did. A clean, clear, somehow invigorating slice of envy. For the first time in her eighteen years, Emily Shaw experienced envy outside a darkened theater or the pages of a book.
As the family began to convene at the table, the fast song finished and the DJ next played Elvis singing Santa Lucia, simply, eloquently, and (Emily was surprised) in Italian. Someone in the kitchen turned up the volume and music floated out to the table like an invisible guest. But at that moment the teenage boy burst into the yard, laughing, clutching a guitar, and raucously rendering Houndadogga till his mother snatched the guitar, pointed him to the table, and clearly asked God what she was to do with such a son. For his part, the boy lounged in his chair, still snickering.
Emily wished she could have been that boy. From the protection of the lattice she looked up and down the table, wishing she could have been that boy, or his old mother, or the young mother (who held her baby), or the husband, or the cantankerous old men, wished that, like any one of them, she could act on impulse, emotion, instinct.
From the radio Elvis rang out It’s Now or Never; the boy stood and, to a round of indulgent applause, sang an exaggerated operatic O Sole Mio, but to Emily, It’s Now or Never seemed a cue, a command—oh, not anything so grand or shattering as Restore my church! but a call to act. Act on impulse, emotion, instinct! Act! And be empowered by the imagination! Act! And create a story that will free you and defy your circumstances, those random vagaries of time and place. Time must be denied. That’s essential. Because time—like sequential chunks skewered on days and decades—takes always its pound of flesh, history grind-and-granulating, powdering people into dust and ash and pausing for no one, no matter how forza certainly not for Carlo’s mother, not for Elvis, not even for Saint Francis. History is so unbearable it must be dignified with story. That’s why and how people dignified battle with bravery, dignified lust with love, dignified digestion with cuisine, dignified sleep with dreams and death with Last Words. In a story, no one ever dies without Last Words. Oh, they might die gruesomely, but it is always to some dramatic purpose; without dramatic purpose, they would not die at all and you know that from the beginning. But in history, people just croaked.
Look at Elvis. What did the morning paper say? Emily fought to remember what she had thought merely trivial. Elvis had been found on the bathroom floor, fallen ingloriously off the toilet. The King fallen from the throne. The man who could move and touch so many disparate lives, could he truly be found mute, facedown on the bathroom floor? Not in a story, he couldn’t. But that’s how real people died. That’s why Carlo raced to get here, knowing that justice and Last Words are only guaranteed outside of history, in that storied catholic country where imagination reigns and rewards gallant gestures.
It’s Now or Never finished and the boy finished O Sole Mio and Emily took her cue, that fearful step, moved from the embrace of the lattice, liberated herself from puritan restraint, from history, and opened the low gate, empowered now to walk through and into their lives. The family laughed and chatted, forks pinged, plates passed, glasses lifted before they finally noticed her there, like her own ghost, moving joyfully toward them, her empty hands outstretched, the moment sliced precisely in half with the nearby whistle of the train. Adhering to its timetable, the train’s metallic shriek caught Emily tangled in the August sunshine, as you get caught, tangled in a dream, twisted, only to find the sheets wrapped round your wrists and ankles, shackling you to history, when you wake.