The Communist Party sought friends and converts by way of the belly, throwing a village festival with an arousing penne and cream sauce. As I gorged on the slippery pasta and nursed a carafe of Chianti at one of the long tables striping the piazza, I ran a fork through the warm cheeses like a palette knife on canvas and thought for a moment I could paint with it. I imagined an edible painting, a canvas of Biscotti and pigments of local cuisine, mixed live and served from the menu—pomodoro reds and cappuccino ochers.
"How did you end up in Travenelle?" the Brit across the table asked, jolting me back to reality. His mouth was full of roasted chicken and his teeth beamed through the debris like a strand of greasy pearls, which somehow added balance to his irregular face.
"Just a stopover," I said. "I'm trying to get to Siena for a day."
"Going for the Running of the Bulls?"
"That's Pamplona, Simon," his wife said. "In Siena it's The Palio; the horse race."
"Ah, yes. Horses running in circles. That should be a fine spectacle," he snickered.
His wife, Audrey, had a round and pretty face, but she lacked Simon's dental fortune, having a rebelling lower incisor and several snarling canines.
"Did you notice the plates at breakfast this morning?" I asked. "The placement of the knife and croissant made an abstract hammer and sickle."
"Could be worse. They could have been swastikas," said Simon. "Don't worry about our hosts, Michael. Italian politics is secondary to Italian pleasure. Food, wine and opera rank much higher. Take the chefs, for instance." At the high end of the piazza the town's two finest chefs were squabbling over an open stove, their ladles flailing at one another like they were conducting opposing orchestras.
"We all have our priorities," I said, as I wiped up the last of my imaginary paint with a tuft of bread. Audrey raised her delicate hand to order another carafe as my eye caught our new waitress. My first impression, among many, was of her lengths. Her black silk hair, fingernails, and eyelashes were longer than vogue. Dark hairs hatched her arms like fine brush strokes, and her legs stretched and arched like a black widow in a web. Her attention passed over Audrey's hand and locked into my eyes. She pursed her lips and mouthed vino rosso?
"Per favore," I said, wiping a spittle of white sauce from my lips. She turned away and I watched her legs fade into the dark of the restaurant.
"You'll enjoy Siena," said Simon. "They're more democratic."
"I'm not going there for the democracy."
"Ah, the horse race."
"Actually, no. That'll just be a distraction. I'm going there for the color." I craned my neck for the waitress.
"I want to understand brown." And I did. If I could master a palate of nothing but brown, then I could work into the primaries with confidence. It was my way of getting back to basics.
"I suppose Siena would be a logical place to study brown. You might try Umbria as well."
"I'd like to, but I'm running out of time. I've been touring the hill towns for the past month. I paint."
"Well, if you find some sienna and umber remember to light a match. I hear they're wonderful when they're burnt." Simon let out a howl and Audrey a groan, presumably embarrassed for us all.
"There's that Limey wit I've been waiting for," I said, though I was really waiting for Angelica, our new barmaid, who was coming out with two carafes of red wine. I was trying to behave myself, but she didn't make it easy. I couldn't decide if her blouse was half-open or half-buttoned.
"Due?" I said, catching her olive eyes. "You're trying to get us drunk?"
"Uno per il signore inglese e sua moglie, e uno per il bell'americano." She wrapped her hand around the nape of my neck with several fingers in my hair as she poured my glass full.
"You want the translation, Michael?" Audrey asked. "She's trying to get you shit-faced." She raised her empty glass to be filled, but had lost her cheer at my flirtation with Angelica. I had met Simon and Audrey at the hotel that morning as our rooms were being prepared, and since we had hit it off we decided to spend the day together. Though I didn't know her, I sensed a heightened gleefulness in her that afternoon, and as best I could tell, it had something to do with being escorted through ancient Tuscan streets with a man on each arm.
Angelica kept her hand in my hair as she poured Audrey's glass.
"I no get people drunk. People get themselves drunk, no?"
She was beautiful and she was getting me drunk, but not on wine.
"Your English is good," I said to her.
"Yes," she said, nodding across the table toward Simon and Audrey. "They are very nice."
I was tempted to steer her into my lap when a boisterous table of graying Italians, probably communists, summoned her away to help, as Angelica put it, get themselves drunk.
"I think she's smitten with you, Michael. I know that look. I get it from Audrey every day." Simon patronized his wife's hand with a little squeeze.
"My look isn't quite that trashy." She raised her glass to those unfortunate teeth, then turned to me and said, "We'll be your chaperones for the evening, Michael. I'll make a complete report to your lovely Catherine in the morning."
I had left Catherine, my fiancée, in her air-conditioned suite in Paris. Her pink skin wasn't suited for the sun of the Italian peninsula, she had declared. Autumn was barely tolerable. She seemed more suited to spending her summers in the cool boutiques along the Boulevard de la Madeleine, spending her father's money.
"I've been faithful to Catherine since the day we met," I said, and it was true, though I didn't disclaim we'd known each other for only six months. After all that Catherine had done for me, I owed her my fidelity, which was admittedly something I had never given anyone. I guess this trip was the first test. 'Go,' she had said to me, 'take the month, paint, and find your brown.' It was like she was sending me on a shopping trip to pick up some inspiration.
The ancient town hall cast its final shadow over the stone palazzo behind us, and the sky dimmed to a deep ultramarine, punctuated only by the glowing dime of a rising moon. The two chefs sat together now, reconciled over a bottle of grappa, and the piazza buzzed with storytelling and bits of local gossip. One area of tables was being cleared for dancing and a local rock band began setting up their equipment.
Simon looked over my shoulder and raised his brow. "I don't know if this is the main show or the intermission, Michael, but I believe they're burning your flag."
I turned around to see a hapless mob of five ornery Italians in a huddle. The same portly gentleman who had taken my credit card at the hotel struck the match. Earlier he had referred to me as his "American friend."
"That's the hotel guy," I said.
"He is Antonio," said a German gentleman with a Lenin tipped beard sitting down from Simon. "He owns half the town. Many business interests in Travenelle."
"So he's a business man, a hotelier, a real estate magnet, and heads the local polit bureau. How convenient," I said. "I bet he sells flags too." I felt a familiar hand in my hair and turned my head near Angelica's breast.
"No worry about Papa," she said, dismissively.
"He is diseased with old ways, but I am not Communist. I am Italian. Let me fill your glass."
And I believed her. Political affiliation didn't matter a damn in her presence.
"You a big time capitalist, no? Big shot Americano with a big . . . eh . . . portafoglio." She waved her palm, searching. "Wallet?"
I hadn't really thought about it like that before.
"I've been known to dabble in capitalism."
"I sell my paintings. I am an artist." Not many recently, but I had sold a few in my time. Enough to pay for canvas and paint and the lousiest pensions. I was doing O.K. up to a year ago, but it didn't last. In another six months I was starving.
Her whole body moved when she said that word, and I imagine she could have said 'bowling ball' in Italian and I would have crumbled like an old fresco. My fiancée's father, sitting behind his hand-carved desk, had said the same word at our introduction, but in an entirely different way.
The official protest concluded with the stars and stripes frittering to ash, and the rock band kicked into their first tune, some overplayed U2 cover. We were each into our third liter of wine and everyone in the piazza seemed closer and louder as we all leaned in and talked over the band.
"You came through Poggibonsi? We came through Poggibonsi!" said Simon, looking for an excuse to celebrate. "Tell me, how in bloody hell could anyone name a place Poggibonsi?" He turned to his wife. "Pardon me love, I was going to step out and I was wondering if you needed me to pick up anything in Poggibonsi?" We pounded our fists on the table and laughed until our bladders hurt. Several empty glasses fell over in the clatter, and I kept staring at Audrey's damn teeth. Just then Simon motioned over my shoulder. "I think we're going to receive a guest." Antonio, the communist innkeeper, was barreling toward us with his belly clearing the way.
"Benvenuti, my American friends!" his voice boomed over the band. "I am so happy you have come. Welcome to Unita'Festival!"
"The two of us are from England," Audrey said, mustering a little dead empire pride.
"No matter. Welcome. I hope you have not taken our fun too seriously. We are family first, we are communist second."
"We've enjoyed most of it." I said. "The food especially."
"When our chefs fight, we know we will eat well," he said, before pointing a fat finger at my chest. "But I know what you enjoy. I see things with my eyes, you understand? My daughter rebels, or she thinks she rebels. She eyes you." His cheeks plumped as he smiled. "She thinks I will not approve, but no, I worry for you. She is trouble enough for Italian blood, but you, you will be eaten alive!"
This felt like a challenge I couldn't refuse, but I wasn't showing my hand. I held up my palms, shook my head. "I'm just here to enjoy the food and wine."
"And our women, and that is no fault. I went to America once, to New York to visit my brother. He lives in . . . in Satin Island, you know? I eat your food, drink your drink, fuck your women. Makes for very pleasure and good time. So you in Travenelle, you do as Travenelles do, no?"
I just played along, laughing with Antonio and his belly full of Chianti.
"Benissimo. You laugh good. A man must laugh to enjoy life. You take my daughter with laughter, you may survive." He made a sweeping gesture with his hand. "I see the future. My grandson will be half communist and half capitalist, no? Bread for lunch and circus for dinner, yes? Ah." He gave a joyous guttural sound and slapped my back entirely too hard as he danced back to his table. As I stared helplessly at the red wine stain in my lap, Angelica reappeared from the shadows with a towel and dabbed my pants in long slow strokes like she was petting a cat.
Simon leaned over his glass. "Scusi, uh . . . Angelica I believe it is. Have you by chance found Poggibonsi down there?" Audrey grabbed Simon, who was giggling hysterically, and dragged him into the throng of dancers. I stuck my face in Angelica's hair.
"Let me paint you."
"Si, of course."
"Tomorrow. We'll start in the morning and hike into the hills. I want to see you in the Tuscan sun."
"I will bring a lunch."
"Dance with me."
"I must work."
"You're killing me."
"Tomorrow," she said, and pressed two long fingers over my lips, then brushed her hand over my cheek as she walked away.
I watched Simon and Audrey dance badly until they stumbled back to the table and fell into their chairs like sacks of oats. Simon immediately rose and excused himself to find a toilet, mocking a goose-step on the way. Audrey drained the last drop from a carafe, then swirled her glass and looked at my chest as though she was a man and I had breasts.
"I know what you're up to, you and your beer-tending amante with the long legs. You Americans ever heard of fidelity?"
"I've done nothing but a little innocent flirting. Nothing less than what we've been doing all day." This seemed to catch her off-guard as she looked up from my imaginary breasts.
"Flirting? You Americans are all alike. So self-centered. We just thought you might be lonely and wanted company." She tossed her hair aside and turned to the band.
"Oh come on, Audrey. We've been playing all day," I countered, but she didn't respond as her eyes were glazing over from the wine.
Simon stumbled back to the table and suggested turning in for the evening. I had grabbed the other waitresses, asking each where Angelica had gone, but no one claimed any knowledge, nor were any of them worth grabbing as much as Angelica. Though her disappearance was probably for the best, I can't say I was happy about it. The three of us eventually wound our way through the streets to the hotel, at one point breaking into an off-key tribute to the band:
In da mane of dove.
Un more in da dame of glove.
We fell into the hotel lobby and called for our room keys like we were ordering another round. A barrel of a man, devoid of humor or trace of musical ear, lumbered toward us and slapped our keys on the counter, then retreated to a back room and the harking blue glow of a television.
"Time to tinkle, love." Audrey meandered toward the end of the hall to the common bath for the floor.
Simon fiddled with the key in his lock. "Audrey and I are going hiking in the morning, in case you'd like to join us."
"No, thanks. I've made plans."
"Going to find your brown?"
"Something like that." He didn't take my pursuit too seriously. I knew if I could capture the subtleties of brown, then I could work back into color and keep my palate under control. So much is about control.
After trying several doors, I found my room, stripped, and sunk into my mattress about six feet. In what could have been anywhere from five minutes to an hour, I heard a knock at the door. I climbed out of bed as if escaping from a net.
"What?" I said, squinting from the dim bulb in the hall.
"Is Audrey with you, Michael? Is she here?" Simon stood in the doorway with his shirt half tucked in.
"No," I wondered aloud, as if the question was presented in a dream. "We were just flirting. No. Wait . . . why would she be here?"
"She's not back from the toilet. She seems to have wandered off."
"I'm sure she's fine."
"It's not like her. It's not."
I knew I was being enlisted for a search party, so I reached for my pants. By the time I was dressed, Simon was in the street calling Audrey's name into dark corners as if he'd find her in a doorway suckling a bottle.
"I'll take the alleys behind the hotel," I said. "You take the street back to that Unitas Festivus whatever." He agreed and I slid into a narrow passage. The stone walls were lit by a moonbeam sliver of sky, and I wondered how the light would fall on Angelica's skin. The alley opened into a small cortile with a lone olive tree glowing in the far corner. Under the tree was a nicely shaped ass heaving up and down, and when it settled onto a pair of plump ankles, Audrey showed her face and mine drew a smile.
"Too good to throw-up in a squat toilet? You British are all alike."
"Can I help you up?"
"I can manage just fine. I feel better now."
"Simon's looking for you. He's worried."
"Simon worries too much." She stumbled as she tried to stand, and I caught her, then we both stumbled and held each other up. My arm wrapped around her back, and her hand touched my inner thigh. "I can manage myself," she said.
We held each other for a moment in awkward silence and then she kissed me. It was long and soft and of the lips only, until I lost myself and thrust my tongue and found the bitters of bile between her twisted teeth. I drew back and stiffened. She raised her hand to my chest and pushed away.
"Go back to your fiancée, Michael."
She left me alone in the courtyard under the olive tree, its leaves shivering light and silver.
Cool air blew through the shutters and sprayed the room with bright stripes of morning light. I peeled my eyes open and separated the pounding in my head with the gentle knock on the door.
"Buon Giorno, Michael," Angelica cooed as if waking a child.
"Morning . . . giorno." I wrapped both hands around my forehead.
"We meet at noon? In lobby?"
"Yeah. I'll be there."
Her response was muffled and I heard her footsteps echo down the hall.
I struggled out of bed and sat on a chair by my open suitcase. Shirts and underwear were spilling onto the floor, and a lone sock reached out to one side, searching for its mate. I grabbed my wallet and pulled out a photo of Catherine and rubbed its edge with my thumb. She had been a savior of sorts. When I met her I was in the artists' death trap of painting the same scene over and over; the one that always sold, though never for much money. I wasn't even cleaning my palette. Little craters of dried paint melted into one another, all competing for space. I was afraid to lose the formula.
Catherine found me in a café in Lyon. I don't know what did it for her; my desperation, my poverty, or my salvageable good looks. She saw me down an espresso in one shot, and came over to remind me that it's not good to look too American these days. Then she offered to buy me another espresso and teach me the finer points of what to do with it. Who was I to refuse?
She lived with her father in Paris where he made gobs of euro in import-export. Given his taste, it was probably in exporting American pop shit to every quaint postcard hamlet on the planet. As an ice-breaker, I gave him the last of my formula paintings, which could have housed and fed me for another week. Being a detail man, he examined it as though it was a blueprint of every intangible molecule of my being, then stuck it in his filing cabinet where he had probably already started a dossier.
He tried to warn Catherine off, which made it all the more surprising when he finally agreed to help me. Catherine got her way; she loved me, or so she said, and she loved my portfolio of paintings that I couldn't seem to paint anymore. Which she loved more, I don't know. Part of me thought it was my starving artist appeal. She had this ever so slightly pretentious notion of uncovering a great talent and nurturing him to stardom. Nurturing to Catherine meant dressing me in nice clothes and showing me off to her theatre friends. I guess sometimes we all need someone to save, and at the time, I needed saving. We were engaged two months later.
After breakfast I primed a canvas, preparing the surface to take Angelica's flesh. All I remembered from the night before was a residue of insane lust I had for her under the influence. Her face I'd already forgotten, her figure a dream. I reduced her to a still life of baskets and fruit, waiting to be arranged and composed at my will. I had a model for the day, just a model, and for that I was grateful.
Angelica greeted me wearing a sundress of flowering orchids that hung lightly over her shoulders, giving her the curves of a gently blowing sheer. Lean viridian cypress lined the road out of town like sentinels, and we walked under their pointy shadows until Angelica turned us through an ancient gate under a siege of vines. We passed into a meadow of sunbaked grasses, and from there and everywhere beyond ran the endless vineyards, fences of green and furrows bending with the earth. The vines, full of embryonic grapes the size of peas, dangled lightly on their crosses.
"Come," she said. "I know a place."
She led me up a hill between the lines of trellis and I stumbled along behind her, trying to keep the boney legs of my easel from brushing the virgin vines. We came to a small patch of grass, an island in a sea of ripening fruit, and I raised my easel and Angelica her blanket.
"First, we eat," she said, and began laying out rolls of proscuitto and little cubes of provolone. I sat on the far edge of the blanket and watched her slender hands do their work. She kept glancing up as if anticipating me to say something extraordinary.
"I like your shirt, Michael. You must be very successful artist to afford such clothes."
"I have someone who picks out my wardrobe," I said. "Here, let me." I took the bottle of red and raised its cork, and at the same time sold myself the idea that its contents would cleanse the residue in my head from the night before. I saturated my mouth with the first sweet sip and, after resisting the gag reflex, remembered the last time I saw her.
"Where did you go after I finished dinner? I looked for you."
"I tell you. I had to work."
"But you were working there."
She sliced off a section of bread like she was decapitating a small animal.
"Papa has many businesses."
"And you work for Papa?"
"Si. I work for Papa."
She lost her smile, and I was afraid I had said too much. The sun reached its post-noon swelter and a moist film formed over Angelica's body, making her appear well-oiled. I was beginning to sweat.
"We should get started," I said. I left her on the woolen stage and took my place behind the easel where I laid out my paints, an ode to brown, with yellow and beige fingers to draw out the palette. With a stick of charcoal in hand, I looked from behind the easel in time to see Angelica's dress float to the ground like an innocently dropped veil. Her bare skin was cut from a bolt of satin of some exotic Mediterranean hue. She stood statuesque, hands on hips; all oil, body and curve.
"How would you like me?"
A multiple choice question with no wrong answer.
"Ah . . . umm. Sit down and turn your torso like . . . like that. Fine. Whatever. That's good enough." As quickly as I was overcome with her beauty, I overcame a whimsical urge to bang my head into the canvas.
I took another sip of wine, a large sip, and started sketching, working the charcoal gently at first, then picking up attitude. This wasn't to be another formula painting. A lone black line traced her thigh and faded in. One oblong circle hung a breast, and a soft point made the other in profile. Sweeps of brown paint were next, folds and creases and narrow places touched and patterned by fingers of bristles. I made her in abstraction and made her my own, and she didn't even know it.
I wanted to paint this for Catherine, for the things she had done for me. I wanted it to rise above formula, to peel away the layers of the subject, not just let the eyes speak, but fill the nose and shoulders with voice, give each bump and knuckle a story. While watching my hand move free I realized that control was a bastard. I stripped away the layers of safety and let the brush love the canvas.
An hour passed and I was soaked with sweat and coming down off my first burn. The process was sound, and I was invigorated, frustrated and alive. Angelica was ready for a break.
"How much longer?" she asked.
She stretched and arched her back, drawing her breasts taut and parting her legs. I struggled to find a neutral subject.
"When will the grapes be ready?" I asked.
"No, no. The grapes are not ready. The grapes will not be ready for some time."
"You can't rush art, eh?" I sat down, again on the far side of the blanket, and tried to focus on the pea-size grapes. Together, Angelica and I made a sort of Manet picnic.
"No. We must not rush art. The greater the art, the greater the riches," she said staring at me, running her fingers through her flowing hair. "What is wrong, Michael? Are you well?"
"I'm fine. I'm just thinking about my process. My colors."
"What is wrong with your colors?" She crawled across the blanket, her breasts and hair swaying, and sat by my side.
"I'm not sure. I'm not mixing right."
"I think we mix well."
"That's not what I mean."
"I think your colors are belli," she said, taking the brush from my hand. "Do you have a color for this?" She ran the bristles over her skin, painting a waning half-moon around her areola. I traced the other half-moon with my fingers and cupped her.
There is a place on the undersides of eyelids where all colors merge in a sparkling prism. In this field-view lies every color simultaneously in a kind of coop that transcends all prejudice and all jealousy. Everything is equal and everything is fair. We tangled between the vines in this color prism and I found my brown and tasted its salt in full color. After release we lay on our backs and slept between the sun and the rolling bonsai hills.
I woke to see her bending over her basket, her knobby spine trailing down to her breezeway. She stood and dropped her dress over her shoulders, then flung her hair from side to side. She grabbed the empty wine bottle and tossed it in her basket.
"Did I do something wrong?" I asked.
"No. You are well," she said blankly.
"I still wanted to have another hour with you and the canvas."
"Perhaps another time."
"Tomorrow?" I reached for my underwear.
"That is up to Papa."
"Ask Papa for the day off. I want to see you. I need to see you."
"I go now, Michael."
"Can I see you tonight?"
"No. I work."
Antonio was right, she was difficult. I summoned my will and took her arm, drew her body to mine and tried to kiss her, but she pulled away with a loathsome eye and reached for the blanket, folding it in three quick wisps. Under her arm it went, and with the basket in hand she left our garden and descended the hill, the vineyard slowly swallowing her figure.
I went back to the canvas to see my Angelica, disjointed and mysterious, lengths out of proportion. There was an underside to her, a depth I hadn't felt in the flesh, but exposed under my brush. She was seductive and horrible and I'd never painted anything like it. I had to finish it, but for the moment I couldn't touch it. I just stood there staring into the canvas until I heard a rustling from up the hill.
"Look, Audrey. This must be one of those nude artist colonies we read about. A ghastly thing, if you ask me."
My clothes were scattered as if tossed by a sudden storm. I just stood there in my BVDs.
"I've heard of painting nudes, Michael, but really." Audrey came to my side, taking care not to touch me, and looked into Angelica's abstraction. She knew.
"For your lovely Catherine's sake, I hope it's finished."
"No painting is ever finished." I walked over to my pants and wrestled them on.
"She obviously wasn't as much trouble as her father said."
Simon looked the painting over and pulled Audrey to his side. "Love, all this sudden nakedness has made me a bit raw. Will you allow me to wine you and dine you and nibble you in naughty places tonight?" Audrey rocked in her husband's arms, then took his hand and led him down Angelica's path. Before they bobbed out of site, Audrey gave me a mischievous look.
"Your art is inspiring, Michael."
That evening I went to all five restaurants in town. Each maitre d' offered me a table and each time I refused more rudely than I intended.
"Do you know her? Do you know where she's working tonight?"
Even the ones I knew who spoke English pretended not to, and they cloaked themselves in innocent smiles and offered me tourist menus with unbelievable pictures of each dish.
At the last restaurant I spotted Simon and Audrey nestled in back at a table for two, gazing into each other's eyes and balancing each other. I waved to them like I had just run into old friends, but Audrey distracted herself, took Simon's hand, and leaned in close. I heard Simon's cackle all the way to the street, where the first drops of rain were pelting the canvas awning.
I stepped out into the piazza and let the drops fall cold and piercing, slicing through the lingering heat of day. Then I wound my way to the hotel, summoning my nerve.
"I need to speak with Antonio."
The night auditor didn't answer. Just as he did the night before, he dropped my key on the counter and lumbered back to his program.
In my room the sound of rain made the walls soft and the floors hard, and I uncovered my Angelica and sat her under the light. Catherine will still be excited, I thought. She couldn't help but to be excited. It was like looking into a mirror and seeing your eye had changed color. There were new layers I had never found under my brush, all with an urgency that didn't exist a day before. Then I realized, even without another sitting, I had uncovered a new layer of my art. Angelica could disappear. Everyone could disappear. I was out of my slump.
The next morning I stood in the hotel lobby with the train schedule in my hand, the Florence-to-Paris lines circled, waiting to check out. Antonio slid the bill across the cold travertine counter, then pretended to read something important from a stack of papers on his desk. I perused the bill.
"300 euro for special services? What the hell is this? The room was only 60 euro."
Antonio looked over his frame glasses, his eyes different.
"I am afraid you have lost your humor, my friend. Perhaps the mistake is yours?"
"I don't think so."
Antonio began to transform from the jovial clown at the festival to a bull moose posture, his formerly unthreatening gut now an impenetrable rampart.
"Un momento, Signore. This is not your credit card. The name does not match your passport. I cannot stand by while you make a fraud on me." He reached for the telephone.
"It's my father-in-law's card. My future father-in-law."
"Ah. Then I will be happy to detail the charges to your future father-in-law."
"That won't be necessary. What the hell are the charges?"
The door behind me creaked open and Angelica swept into the lobby and passed behind the counter, where she opened a cabinet door and deposited a roll of bills. She wore the same flowering orchids from the day before.
"Buon Giorno, bella mia," her father cooed.
"Buon Giorno, papa'."
Her humorless eyes swept over me as if they might whisk me into the street before she disappeared into the back room and slammed the door.
"She models for you, no?" Antonio said. "And other services?"
I couldn't look into his eyes, as they were burning a hole in my head. For a moment I said nothing, just waited for divine intervention. Then I looked at him with a pathetic shudder of desperation.
"I'd appreciate it if you would leave the bill as vague as possible."
"For a mere ten euro, cash, Signore, I will be happy to process the bill with a minimum of detail."
I dug into my wallet and pulled out the last of the cash Catherine had given me and slid it across the counter. Antonio tore up the detailed bill and wrote a new one with only a total room charge at the bottom. As I signed the bill, I predicted I would suffer the least consequence with one extravagant hotel stay.
"But of course," Antonio said, "if contacted by the card holder, I will have to detail the charges. It is business, you understand?"
I threw the pen down on the counter. "I thought we reached an understanding?"
The night auditor stepped out of the back room and stood behind Antonio, his arms folded, chest bulging.
"Signore," he said gravely. "You have lost your humor. You do not want to lose anything else."
I gathered my suitcase, easel and portfolio, and stumbled out the door into the street. The earlier showers made the stone pavers glisten, and I stood there squinting for a moment, disoriented, before finding my bearing to the bus station.
I sat outside at the station trattoria and ordered an American coffee. My portfolio leaned against the next table, bulging with abandoned work, and I pulled it toward me and unzipped it for another look at Angelica's image. There were lines of fear I hadn't seen before. The browns fought in chaotic clashes and textures of conflict, as if she was trapped and trying to get out of her skin. It was raw and unknown, and it worked, and it was a part of me. We belonged together like Simon's and Audrey's unfortunate faces. I zipped up the portfolio and kept it close to my side.
As I finished my coffee, I noticed a charred piece of blue fabric with the tip of a star at my feet, and I imagined it pointing north, toward Catherine. The bus to Florence was due in an hour, and from Florence, the train to Paris. Catherine's father would be interested in the progress of my work, and of course, the details of my travels.
The bus south to the hills of Poggibonsi was due in five minutes. From there I could catch the train to Siena and fade into Umbria. There I could disappear into my art. My compass spun. North and south stood off in my head like two chefs arguing over how best to proceed, for the sake of taste and direction and control.
At the end of the narrow street the sun flashed a glimmer of light off a windshield and a bus roared into view, spewing the damp morning air with diesel. It coughed to a stop and its doors swung open, wide and inviting. The sign in the front window was torn in half and just said "bonsi." I gathered my things, checked for my wallet, and boarded the bus.
Copyright © Jeffrey N. Johnson 2006. Title graphic: "Working on the Brown" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2006.