They were stoning her, two boys and three girls. The bunch couldn't have been older than nine or ten, and that included the girl being stoned. Horace watched them and did nothing, not at first. At first he wanted to spin what he was seeing into something he could live with. Didn't children like to pretend? You be this and I'll be that. Children pretended all the time, didn't they? When he saw blood, the argument left him.
Horace was standing near the church of San Trovaso beside the canal. He had hiked there from San Marco, crossing the Ponte dell'Accademia, completely lost but enjoying the warm Venetian night. Forty-two years ago, he and his wife, Celeste, had come to Venice for their honeymoon. He was in his early sixties now, still slim, still barely graying. His wife had died last month after a two-year battle with a carcinoma the size of a soccer ball.
The girl laid on the cobblestone, her skinny knees pressed to her chest. Her hands buried in her dark tangled hair. Blood seeped between her fingers. Horace began shouting at the children. He said, Arresto! Arresti questio immediatamente! Stop! Stop this at once! A boy with black eyes and thin dirty legs threw a stone at Horace, grazing the side of his forehead. Horace felt a sting and a warm liquid down his left temple and knew he was bleeding. Now the three girls and the other boy began throwing stones at him. They were yelling in a language he didn't understand. Horace used his forearm to protect his face. He knelt and picked up a handful of smaller stones and began throwing them at the two boys and the three girls. Again, he shouted at them. He said, Esca! Esca! Get out! Get out!
Horace used a folded white linen handkerchief to wipe the blood and the dirt from the girl's face. He smelled sweat and urine on her. She said her name was Tusia and that she lived near Rome. Her English was better than his patchy Italian.
Tusia told him why the children were stoning her. She said, I take their money. Money they steal from tourists.
Good for you, Horace said. Were you going to give it back to the tourists?
No, keep it, she said.
Tusia couldn't stay conscious, and Horace carried her to a water taxi and told the driver to get them to the doctor.
He was holding the child with both arms as they entered the hospital at Campo Santi Giovanni, her head propped on his shoulder. She weighed nothing, just bones and air. How did a person this small and light remain on the ground? Why didn't she just sail off like a balloon? Her face had tiny features, tiny nose, tiny mouth, her skin pale against her dark tangled hair.
Nurses and orderlies walked past Horace as if he and the girl weren't there. He began shouting at them, too. Chiamici un medico! he said. Dove e' il medico? Get us a doctor! Where is the doctor? That was when Tusia opened her eyes halfway and looked up at Horace. She had large brown eyes the color of fall acorns.
A young orderly with short black hair and a thick mustache started to lift Tusia onto a gurney but her arms locked about Horace's neck. Skin had been scraped from both her elbows, the dried blood already beginning to scab. She said, Don't leave Tusia. O.K.? Sir stay with Tusia.
Horace had bought his wife a twenty-lira gold coin on a gold chain during their honeymoon. Forty-two years and Celeste never took the pendent from her neck. She had showered with it, slept with it, and went about her life with it. When she died, Horace removed the coin while she laid in her coffin at the funeral home. Whatever pants he wore on whatever day, the gold coin and chain were always in his front pocket. He loved touching it. He loved to rub the coin and chain between his forefinger and thumb like worry beads.
They hide on the treni, si? Dr. Golemba said to Horace. Then he said, Ecuse, I mean trains. They hide on trains.
Horace rubbed the gold coin in the front pocket of his tan gabardines as he listened to the doctor.
Dr. Golemba was slender and delicate with long pale fingers and thinning black hair slicked straight back. He had just finished putting six stitches in Tusia's scalp and three stitches beneath her left eye. He had also cleaned her scraped skin and bandaged her elbows, knees, and her right shoulder. Dr. Golemba was talking to Horace in the waiting room, explaining the little gypsies.
They come from the south on the trains to steal, the doctor said. That's what they do. They come here to Venezia to steal. They are professionisti, si? Very, very. The parents teach them. What can you do? They call themselves the Romani, the Roma. That's what they want you to call them, the Roma.
Horace was listening to Dr. Golemba but thinking about Celeste. When his wife called her doctor, she had talked to the woman who scheduled appointments.
No, it's not an emergency, Celeste said. I just don't feel like myself.
We have an April 3rd at 3:30, the woman said. That's the earliest he's got. If it was an emergency, he could see you sooner. You're sure it isn't an emergency?
Celeste hated bothering people, so she waited the two months. By that time the tumor in her abdominal cavity had grown from five and a half centimeters to twenty-six centimeters and was siphoning her blood supply. The tumor pressed against the bottom of her stomach and its weight and its hunger fatigued her and hurt her back. When Dr. Michie opened Celeste and saw the size the of tumor and the number of vessels that ran through it, he closed her and went to Plan B.
Are you all right, sir? Dr. Golemba said.
Tusia told me she's from Rome, Horace said. He didn't like being in hospitals. They smelled like cleaning chemicals and reminded him of how his wife suffered with her treatment. Hospitals left him feeling helpless and angry.
Si, outside the city, Dr. Golemba said. Many Roma outside the city. Very poor, very dirty. The parents send the children into the streets to steal. The children, they are like lupi with the tourists, like the wolves, si? These little gypsies, they wait in the train stations, the ruins. Li circondano—how you say?—they surround our tourists. The Americans, the Dutch, the Japanese, it doesn't matter. The children show them paper signs. The tourist, they try to read. This is when the little gypsies surround them and steal.
Dr. Michie had smiled and sat next to Celeste's bed. We'll do chemo, Dr. Michie had said to Celeste and Horace. Dr. Michie liked using the royal "we." We can't remove the tumor now, it's dug itself in, he'd said. We don't want any hemorrhaging, do we? The prudent way is to shrink it.
Shrinking the tumor would take six eight-hour sessions. Celeste had a port-a-cath inserted into a vessel near her heart for chemo.
The chemicals kill everything. They don't know the difference between good tissue and cancerous tissue. The chemicals are nondenominational killers.
Celeste once told Horace, If the cancer doesn't get me, the treatment will.
Don't talk that way, Horace said. You shouldn't put that sort of thought out there. I hate when you talk like that. You'll be fine, you'll be more than fine. Horace and Celeste had been together since they were kids, since high school. He touched her cheek with his palm. She had a smooth tranquil face with green-gray eyes that always approved of him. Horace said, It's unbelievable. You're still a beauty, you know that? How can you have no hair and still be a beauty? Answer me that one.
Horace was in the bedroom of his second floor apartment on the Ghetto Vecchio, staring out the open window. He liked the Jewish Quarter, the shady piazza, the ancient synagogues. He and Celeste had rented this same apartment on their honeymoon, far too many years ago. They had eaten early dinners at the little kosher bar and restaurant near the Ponte delle Guglie.
Sir lucky to live here, Tusia said. Her voice was thick and whispery from sleep. She laid in the bed with her head and her shoulders raised, leaning against a stack of three pillows. White gauze hid the left side of her face, the skin bruised, swollen, and both elbows and her right shoulder were bandaged. While she was in the hospital, the orderlies had bathed her and shampooed and brushed her dark hair. Horace's double bed made the child appear even smaller and thinner than she'd looked laying in the street. Then Tusia said, Do I stay here? Does Tusia stay with Sir? I cook and clean. I am good cook, Sir, you'll see.
Horace thought the girl spoke better English than Dr. Golemba, but Dr. Golemba didn't have to forage the tourists for food.
All I want you to do is rest, Horace said. I'm going to give you some antibiotics. When you're well, you can go back to Rome. Will your parents be worried? Should I call them?
I live with my sister, Tusia said and gave a weak and dismissive wave of her hand. Her boyfriend happy Tusia gone. I stay with you; I be your little girl. Such a beautiful apartamento.
The apartment wasn't beautiful. Tusia thought it was beautiful because of where and how she lived, Horace knew that. He was no different than her when it came to this place. The beauty here had nothing to do with the apartment and everything to do with the memory of his Celeste. Its marble floor and high ceiling were lost to the peeling and cracked beige walls and the cheap furniture. The walls needed scraping. They needed new plaster and paint.
My wife and I stayed here on our honeymoon, Horace said. He sat at the edge of the black wrought iron bed and held the girl's thin hand. He said, My wife died last month but we had many good years. Horace tried to sound upbeat. I filled this apartment with wonderful flowers and brought her up here blindfolded. We were both very young, and the apartment and the flowers were a surprise. My wife was so happy she cried. I remember that, the crying. You should have seen her.
I bet she was a pretty wife, Tusia said and adjusted the bedsheet about her waist. She wore a white cotton nightgown with a brocade collar and short sleeves. Horace had bought the gown yesterday on their way back from the hospital. Tusia smiled, her swollen, bruised lips keeping the smile only for a moment. She said, You know why Tusia think Sir had a pretty wife? Pretty wives like the handsome husband.
I'm leaving at the end of the summer, Horace said. He gave her two blue and white pills from the plastic bottle on the nightstand, and a paper cup of water. He watched her swallow the pills and return the cup to the nightstand. Horace wanted to keep his upbeat tone. He said, You, Miss Tusia, you'll be ready to leave in the next couple of weeks, after your stitches come out. I'm sure you won't have trouble finding tourists to charm.
This morning Horace forgot the pain. He had been using his living room sofa as a bed and the foam-worn cushions were working bad magic on his lower back He called the impromptu bed his Roy Rogers's sofa, a brown and green plaid that had found its way into Venice but belonged in a bunk house. Horace slipped on his navy blue terrycloth robe and glanced about the apartment. He was sleepy and squinting his eyes, not ready for the sunlight. This morning the living room, kitchen, and bedroom were filled with flowers.
Surprise, Tusia said. She grinned and covered that grin with her hand.
God, what have you done? Horace said Look at these flowers. Tears smeared his vision. Memories and sadness swelled his chest. There were bright vases of white and pink roses, orange gerberas, purple and white gladiolas, yellow lilies and sunflowers. Horace felt he had awakened inside a cloud of color. He said, I don't want to ask how you did it.
You like my surprise? Tusia said.
How did you do it? Horace said.
See, I make Sir happy, Tusia said.
Horace had taken Tusia back to the hospital two days ago. Her stitches and bandages were gone. Yellowish bruises tinted the left side of her face and her right shoulder. Tiny black dots where the stitches had been curved beneath her left eye.
I stay with Sir, Tusia said. Summer go, I go. O.K.? Good deal? I cook and clean.
Horace stared at the black and white marble floor and didn't answer. Maybe he should not have helped the child at all, that was what he thought. Then he tried to think of a kinder way to tell her what he had already told her.
Your stitches are out now, Horace said. He was still staring at the marble floor, his voice a whisper. Now its time for you to go. That was our arrangement. Horace looked up at her. He wanted to smile and be upbeat but didn't know how to do it. He said, Your sister must be sad you aren't home.
She not sad, Tusia said.
I'm sorry, Horace said.
Horace showered and shaved and put on a fresh white shirt and fresh jockey's and the tan gabardine pants he'd worn yesterday. When Horace left the bathroom, he saw the bed been made and the marble floor had been swept. A soft-boiled egg and a glass of pulpy orange juice waited for him on the gray Formica table. He cracked and salted the egg. He said, Thank you, Tusia. Horace said it loud enough for her to hear in the next room, but he was sure she had already gone. The apartment was just too quiet.
Tusia? he said.
A sudden feeling of emptiness took him. Horace reached into the front pocket of his gabardine pants to touch the gold coin and chain. That was gone, too.
He had rented a hospital bed, an electrical one that adjusted to any position, and fixed Celeste a place in the living room. They liked the living room. Their friends could visit, everybody could talk and watch the plasma TV. During her last days, Celeste was a skeleton with gray skin. She had always been a small woman, no more than five-two, maybe ninety-five pounds on a fat day. Now she looked like a nightmare child.
If I had my way, I'd live a lot longer, she said. This was her deathbed talk. Then Celeste asked the question Horace hated to hear. She said, What are you going to do after I'm gone?
Let's watch the Golden Girls, Horace said and aimed the remote at the TV and clicked.
You should marry a hot twenty-year-old, Celeste said and giggled. Her giggle turned into a cough and she reached for the glass of ginger ale that sat within an amber field of medicine bottles on the table next to her. Then she said, You know, we should've gone back to Italy. People don't enjoy themselves enough. Promise me you'll do that. Go back to Italy and enjoy yourself. Think of me, think of us.
Can I take the twenty-year-old? Horace said.
You're a riot, Celeste said.
After Celeste had died Horace didn't know what to do with himself. He was used to caring for her, cooking meals, doing their laundry, giving her medication, driving her to the hospital for chemo treatments. This was such an uncomplicated way to show his love. Before Celeste got the Big C, she used to do everything, clean the house, cook their meals, wash their clothes, and she liked doing it.
I'm the laundry and cooking queen, she would say to Horace. Just call me Your Majesty. Call me little Ms. Susie Homemaker. Ha ha.
Horace didn't understand why she liked all that stuff until the tables were turned and he started doing it. These weren't chores, this wasn't slave labor, it wasn't work or a job. To take care of his Celeste had been his joy. That's how he saw it, exactly. There was a sad pleasure in smoothing her days.
I feel guilty, Celeste would say. This was when her face was a gray skull and she had no hair. She'd say, I used to do and do, and loved it. I did, you know, I absolutely loved cooking and doing laundry. Call me crazy. Now you wait on me hand and foot.
Hey, can't I be Susie Homemaker? Horace said.
You're a riot, Celeste said and patted his hand.
You always watch my back, Horace said. You take good care of me. He told Celeste this one day while lying next to her on the hospital bed. He had said, What's good for the gander is good for the goose. Now it's my turn, I deserve that. This isn't a one-way street, you know. I deserve to show you my love, too. You shouldn't keep the good times all to yourself.
I'll miss you, Celeste said. She said it like she and the girls were going to Vegas for the weekend.
You're my bald-headed sweetie, Horace said and kissed her gray cheek.
The gypsies lived outside the city near Rome's Cinodromo district, an area called Shantytown. Horace had taken the train to Termini in Rome and then a taxi. The driver let him out beside a big muddy field. Horace told him to wait. There were rusted cars and lean-to huts made from scraps of wood and metal. There were patched tents and small graffiti-painted trailers. Laundry hung on these homes like dreary Christmas ornaments. Everything looked balanced against everything else.
A fat naked girl with a dirty face was squatting in a tub of water. The old woman in front of the child rested on the steps of her trailer, smoking a cigarette and directing the fat girl's bath. Barefoot children ran between the huts, tents, and trailers. The camp smelled of earth and frying meats, tobacco smoke and urine. Three men were sitting in a circle on wooden chairs. They had muddy feet and wore summer T-shirts and rolled up pants. They smoked cigarettes and talked and gestured to each other. One man laughed; he had no upper teeth.
Horace had his hand cupped above his eyebrows, scanning the camp. There must have been eight hundred to a thousand of these huts, tents, and trailers. The army had sent Horace to Korea in '64, Tague, Pusan, Seoul. He was an AFKN D.J. then, playing Motown and the Stones. Even the bigger cities had muddy streets and huts made from scraps of metal and wood. He saw them when he was riding the trains. Some who lived in the huts died of asphyxiation in the winter and encephalitis in the summer. Korea was different now, his old friends told him in their e-mails and letters. What would his friends think of Shantytown? What would they say about the huts, tents, and trailers sprawled along the edge of such a rich and ancient city?
Sir come for this? Tusia said. She was holding the gold coin by its chain. Her dark hair had become tangled again. Bits of mud were dried gray on her narrow face and the shins and calves of her skinny legs. She said, I wait for Sir. I watch the road. I pretend Sir come for me.
Horace knelt, eye-level with her. He felt the cold mud seeping through the knee of his tan gabardines.
I did come to see you, Horace said. I didn't know it on the train, Tusia, but I know it now. On the train, I wanted my wife's coin back in the worst way. I was so angry. I felt you had stolen my wife from me, that tiny part I had left of her.
Take coin, Tusia said. I want to see Sir.
I know, Horace said. He kissed her forehead and placed a white envelope in her hand. Then he said, I am going back home. You give this to your sister. Or keep it for yourself, buy a gelato. But I'd prefer you buy warm clothes for the winter.
You take, Tusia said and held up the gold coin.
Keep it, Horace said. It was never mine, really. And my wife would've liked the idea.
He slid into the backseat of the cab and heard Tusia calling him after he had shut the door. She was shouting as the cab drove off. I go with Sir, she was shouting. I cook and clean.
Copyright © Ron Savage 2007.