One bright Wednesday morning in Rome, a young American diplomat collapsed onto a bench at the edge of St. Peter’s Square.
There, he began to sob.
An old room in his heart had opened because of something he’d seen.
Soon he was weeping so loudly that a young Polish priest parking a yellow Vespa felt inclined to do something. The priest silently placed himself on the bench next to the man.
A dog with gray whiskers limped past and then lay on its side in the shade. Men leaned on their brooms and talked in twos and threes. The priest reached his arm around the man and squeezed his shoulder dutifully. The young diplomat turned his body into the priest and wept into his cloth. The fabric carried a faint odor of wood-smoke. An old woman in black nodded past, fingering her Rosary, and muttering something too quiet to hear.
By the time Max had stopped crying, the priest pictured the place where he was supposed to be. He imagined the empty seat at the table. The untouched glass of water. The heavy sagging curtains and the smell of polish. The meeting would be well underway. He considered the idea that he was always where he was supposed to be, even when he wasn’t.
“You’re okay now?” The priest asked. His Polish accent clipped at the English words like carefully held scissors.
“I’m so embarrassed,” Max said.
Then Max pointed to the row of statues standing along the edge of St. Peter’s Square.
The priest looked up.
“Well they’re beautiful—oh, but look, there is a statue missing,” the priest exclaimed. “How extraordinary.”
The priest turned to Max.
“Why would a missing statue upset you, Senor Americano—you didn’t steal it, did you?”
Max shook his head. “Something from my childhood.”
“I’ve always believed that the future is hung with keys that unlock our true feelings about some past event.” The priest said.
“Isn’t everything something from childhood?” The priest continued, “A scribble that was never hung, an unkind word before bed, a forgotten birthday…”
“Yes, but it doesn’t have to be so negative, Father,” Max interrupted. “There are moments of salvation too, aren’t there?”
“If there aren’t,” the priest said, “then God has wasted my life.”
The two men sat without talking as if they were old friends. The priest hummed a few notes from a Chopin Nocturne and counted clouds.
Then a bird landed in the space where the divine being had once stood—where its eyes had once fallen upon the people who milled about the square, eating sandwiches, taking photographs, feeding babies, birds, and the occasional vagrant who wandered in quietly from the river.
The priest looked at Max and pointed up at the statues again. “They should all be missing,” he joked, but then wasn’t sure if the man beside him understood what he meant.
Max blew his nose and brushed the hair from his face.
“Please forgive me,” Max said. “You’re very kind, but really I’m fine now—grazie mille.”
The Polish man sitting next to him had entered the priesthood after volunteering as a children’s counselor in the poorest area of Warsaw. He couldn’t believe what he saw. He quickly climbed the ranks, and was skilled at negotiating the bureaucracy that plagues all men of action. Through his close work with young, troubled children, the priest understood the reluctance of men to share their troubles.
“You can tell me anything,” the priest said. “I don’t just pray—I give advice too.”
“I simply want to know why a missing statue has reduced a young American businessman to tears,” the priest said.
The priest’s hair was as yellow as hay. It naturally slanted to one side. He was handsome and Max thought it a shame he would never marry.
“Just a long ago story I once heard,” Max said.
“That sounds nice, and I like stories very much,” the priest said. “They help me understand myself better.”
The priest lit a cigarette and crossed his legs. Max stared at him.
“It’s the only vice we’re allowed,” the priest said, exhaling. “Would you like one?”
Max raised a hand to say no.
“Did the story happen here in the Eternal City?” Asked the priest.
“Have you ever been to Las Vegas?” Max asked.
“No, I haven’t, but I have seen it on a postcard.”
“Imagine a woman sitting on a wall outside a casino.”
“Okay,” the priest said and closed his eyes. “I’m picturing it.”
“A woman sitting on a wall outside a casino. It is very hot. The air smells of beer and perfume. The woman’s name is Molly. She married quite young.”
“A teenage bride?” The priest asked.
“Exactly—very young,” Max said.
“Molly’s parents came from Fayette County, but settled in Knox County—that’s in Texas. Her father drove school buses, and her mother didn’t work. Molly went to Knox County High. The school mascot was a bear. Some of the football players had tattoos of bear claws on their arms. There was a lake near the town. It was very popular with teenagers who liked to sit in trucks overlooking the water.
“From the postcard you’ve seen of Las Vegas, Father—imagine the ghostly band of neon which hangs above the city, changing the color of all the faces within its reach. The bright, flashing lights that promise children everything, but deliver nothing.
“You can see Las Vegas from a distance. Look for the clump of risen metal on the horizon. If you approach at night—lights will beckon you from the black desert like a claw hand in a neon glove.
“Molly’s first husband was run over and killed not long after the wedding. Then she met a high school football coach who was married.
“Molly and the coach met intimately once or twice a week for several years. When Molly found herself pregnant, the high school football coach pretended they’d never met.
“Molly’s son didn’t even cry when he was born in 1985. Molly thought he had an old soul. And for the first four years she raised him all by herself.”
The priest smiled and lit another cigarette to show his commitment.
Max went on.
“So Molly was sitting on the wall outside the casino, and she was crying—but so quietly that nobody could see—not even her four-year-old son who paced in small circles, following his own shadow. Every so often Molly reached out for him, but did not touch any part of his body.
“The trip to Las Vegas was Jed’s idea. Molly and Jed had been seeing each other seriously for three months. Jed managed a furniture warehouse. Jed insisted that Molly’s boy call him ‘Dad.’ When the boy saw Jed’s truck pull up in to the yard, he would run into his mother’s bedroom. Under her bed there was a pile of small plastic animals. But it wasn’t the best place to wait until Jed left. To the little boy, it sounded like they were taking it in turns to die.
“‘We’re just waiting for your father,’ Molly said. ‘He’ll be here any minute.’
“She had been saying it for hours. There was nothing else to say. The first time she said it, her son replied:
“‘He’s not my father.’
“‘Well, he wants to be if you’ll let him,’ his mother snapped.
“The sounds of the casino spilled onto the sidewalk. The hollow metal rush of coins played through speakers. Drunk gamblers looking at their hands as ghost coins rushed between their fingers. Their lives would change if only they could hit the jackpot—those who had loved them in the past would love them again. Every wrong could be righted. A man could straighten out his affairs if he had money—if he had beaten the odds. He could afford to be generous.
“A waiter rushed past Molly and her son with a platter of delicious fruit. Then a thin couple in sunglasses holding hands. Then an old woman staggered into the road and was yelled at by a man on a motorcycle who swerved around her. Three men in suits carefully dragged a man with a ripped shirt on to the sidewalk. His feet trailed under him like two limp oars.
“‘Don’t ever come back or you’ll be arrested,’ one of the suited men said.
“‘Okay,’ the man said quietly, then picked up the coins that had fallen from his pocket. The little boy helped him. The man said, ‘Thanks, boy.’
“There was quiet for a while, then the boy started to cry. He sat on the ground. His was wearing shorts and his legs were red from the sun. His socks had caterpillars on them. One had rolled into his shoe because they had walked so much.
“By 3AM, the boy and his mother were invisible to the gangs of drunk insurance salesman, dentists from Orange County, gentleman gamblers from small towns in Kentucky, and women going to or coming from their work in the casinos and topless bars.
“The little boy’s throat was so dry he licked the tears from his cheeks. At some point during the early morning, he took a sticker from his pocket and set it on the ground with the glossy cards of naked women that litter the sidewalks of Las Vegas.
“A limousine stopped at a light. It was a wedding. The women inside were smoking and singing along to country music. The bride was young. She looked at Molly and screamed.
“The boy removed his sandals and set them next to his mother’s shoes, which had been shed long ago.
“Molly’s pocketbook with all her money was in Jed’s truck.
“‘I’ll keep control of the money,’ Jed had said.
“The drive from Texas took four days. The boy kept throwing up because Jed smoked with the windows up and the air conditioning on.
“At night they all slept in the back on a mattress. The nights were cool. The sky glowed purple at dawn—then gold poured across the sky as the day was forged.
“Molly’s son was too afraid to ask his mother for the restroom. The thought of entering the casino made him feel nauseated. An hour or so later his underpants had mostly dried and the stinging upon the skin of his legs had given way to slight tingling.
“Then somebody approached him.
“A man stood and watched the boy for some time then went away.
“Then the man returned with something in his hand.
“The boy felt a cold dish pushed against his bare thigh.
“Then he noticed a figure standing over him.
“‘Mangia,’ the man said softly, and pointed to the white, creamy square of dessert in the dish.
“The man was wearing black pants with a soft red sash for a belt. His shirt was heavy and long-sleeved with black and white horizontal stripes.
“‘Tiramisu,’ the man said earnestly. ‘From the Venetian Hotel and Casino, a few streets from here—I just got it for you.’
The boy squinted and turned to his mother. Molly eyed the stranger suspiciously through her swollen eyes.
“‘Don’t worry, mama,’ the stranger said to Molly. He pointed to himself with both hands. ‘Amico—friend.’
“Molly had pretty eyes. She had made many ‘friends’ in her life that she would sooner forget.
“‘No thanks,’ she replied in a voice loud enough for passers-by to overhear. Her voice was cracked with thirst and fatigue.
“‘Mommy—can I eat this?’ her son said, and dipped his finger in the cream. ‘I think it’s good.’
“Molly held the dish in her hand, inspected the contents and then put the dish back on the wall. ‘Eat it and thank the man.’
“The man sat on the wall a few yards from them and lit a thin cigar. It smelled very sweet. He began to whistle. When the boy had finished the dessert, he slid over to the stranger and set the bowl down gently.
“‘I really like it,’ he said.
“‘We call it Tiramisu. It means ‘pick me up’ in Italian.’
“Then the man leaned down to the boy’s ear. His breath smelled of cigars.
“‘There’s liquor in it too,’ he winked.
“The boy peered down at the empty bowl. In its center were the colors of Las Vegas, held fast in a tiny pool of melted cream.
“‘Why do you speak like that?’ The boy asked.
“‘My accent?’ The man said.
“The boy nodded despite never having heard the word ‘accent’ before.
“‘I’m a gondolier—and the accent is from Italy.’
“‘Si—do you know what that is?’
“‘God-damn-it!’ His mother snapped without looking up. ‘Stop bothering the man.’
“‘But mom, he’s nice.’
“‘They’re all nice at the beginning,’ she said.
“The man winked at the boy and then stood up. He took three small oranges from his pocket.
“‘They were all nice at the beginning, mama—but could they all juggle at the beginning?’ he said.
“The little boy watched the balls rise and fall. He sensed the weight of each orange in his own small hands.
“‘The magic is in how you catch each ball at the last minute, before it’s lost.’ The stranger explained.
“‘I want to try,’ the boy said.
“The gondolier stopped juggling and reached down.
“Max held the oranges in his hands and looked at them.
“‘They’re too big for me.’
“‘Ah!’ The gondolier exclaimed, and from his pocket appeared three kumquats.
“‘Kumquats are the way to every woman’s heart, my little friend.’
“The boy looked at his mother again. He wanted her to be happy. They were on vacation.
“‘We’re waiting for my fiancé,’ Molly said. ‘He’s just finishing up.’
“The little boy set the kumquats next to his shoes and said quietly to the gondolier:
“‘He’s lost all our money, mister.’
“‘He’ll win it back,’ Molly said.
“The gondolier sat with them and lit another cigar.
“‘Smoking is bad for you,’ the boy said.
“The gondolier shrugged. ‘Did my grandmother tell you to say that?’
“‘No,’ the boy said. ‘I saw it on TV.’
“When Molly woke with a start, it was almost dawn. Her son was sleeping with his head against the gondolier’s striped shirt. The gondolier smoked and stared at nothing. Molly wondered for a moment if it was the same cigar.
“‘You must think we’re pathetic,’ she said.
“The gondolier thought for a moment and then said:
“‘Would you permit me to perform one favor for you and your son?’
“‘I don’t know,’ Molly said. ‘My fiancé may not be in a good mood when he comes out.’
“‘Okay,’ The gondolier conceded. ‘It doesn’t matter—I just thought you might like it.’
“Two small eyes between them bolted open.
“‘Might like what?’ inquired a little voice.
“‘Might like to be honored guests on my gondola—through the canals of Venice.’
The boy climbed up on his mother’s lap.
“‘We have to do this,’ he said soberly.
“Molly turned to the gondolier.
“‘I don’t know why you’re doing this for us—but if you were going to kill us you probably would have done it by now.’
“Her son glared angrily at her.
“‘He’s not going to kill us.’
“As they entered the Venetian Hotel and Casino, the gondolier raised his arms.
“‘Welcome to the most beautiful country in the world,’ he said.
“The boy looked at the statues perched high up on the roof.
“Their white marble skin glistened in the early morning sun; their hands forever raised; the fingers extended slightly with the poise of faith.
“‘I think they are holy saints, little one,’ the gondolier said. ‘They look out for me—and you too.’
“One of the statues was missing. There was a space on the roof where it had once stood.
“‘Where’s that one?’ the boy said.
“‘I don’t know,’ the gondolier said thoughtfully. ‘But just think—caro mio, he could be anywhere.’
“‘I think I believe in saints,’ the boy said, and considered how the missing saint might somehow be his real father.
“‘You truly believe in the saints, boy?’
“‘Yes. I do.’
“‘Then you are an Italian, kid, through and through—a hot blooded Italian. Can you do this?’ The gondolier pressed his fingers together and shook them at the sky. The boy copied his movement. ‘Now say, Madonna.’
“The boy put his fingers together and shook them and said, ‘Madonna.’
“‘Good, but louder, caro, louder!’ the gondolier exclaimed.
“‘Madonna!’ he screamed.
“People looked at them.
“‘What does that mean?’ Molly asked. “It’s not a bad word, is it?’
“‘No, mama, it means, simply: I am in love with this beautiful world.’
“The boy looked up at the saints, his fingers pushed together like a small church.
“‘Madonna!’ he said in that delicate thin voice of all children.
“The three of them strolled through the casino without talking.
“A few lugubrious souls were perched at the slots. The machines roared with life.
“Two black men in suits with arms crossed smiled at the gondolier.
“‘How you doing, Richard,’ one of them said.
“‘Ciao,’ the gondolier replied in a low voice.
“‘Is your name Richard?’ Molly asked.
“‘In another life.’
“‘In Italy?’ asked the boy.
“‘Another life, little one,’ the gondolier said.
“‘Actually, can you call me big one?’ the little boy asked.
“The corridor was a long marble walkway with tall milky pillars. Then they reached a room with a thousand gold leaves painted on the wall. The boy looked up. Naked people in robes swam through color. There were scores of angels too—even baby ones with plump faces and rosy cheeks.
“‘Madonna!’ the boy said.
“As they neared the end of the room, they could hear music. A few notes from an instrument strapped to a man’s belly.
“‘Caro mio,’ the accordionist said when he saw the gondolier.
“‘Ciao fratello, Carlo,’ the gondolier said. “Let me introduce you to my dear two friends from the old country.’
“Carlo smiled and moved his instrument from side to side. His fingers pressed buttons and the box emitted its unique croak. The rush of air into its belly was like breathing.
“‘It’s nice,’ Molly said.
“Carlo followed them at a distance of several yards, playing the same three notes over and over again. The little boy kept turning around to smile. He’d never felt so important. When they stopped walking, they were outside on a bridge.
“The rising sun was visible through a crack between two towering casino buildings.
“‘See that, big one?’ The gondolier said to the boy. “Every morning can be the beginning of your life—you have thousands of lives—but each is only a day long.’
“When the sun had passed above them and given itself to the world, a woman in a black dress brought out a tray. She was very tall, and her heels clicked along the stone bricks.
“‘Good morning,’ she said, and passed the tray of food to the gondolier.
“Molly hesitated. “We didn’t order this.’
“‘No, no—it’s from your friend,’ the woman said, then pointed to one of the many intricately arched balconies built into the façade of the casino. An unrecognizable figure from a great height began to wave. When the same three notes bellowed out into the square, the boy waved back.
“On the tray were three strange cakes with white frosting, and a small wine bottle with a rose in it.
“‘Crostini,’ the gondolier said. “You’ll like them I think.’
“There were also three very small cups, two filled with black coffee and a third with milk.
“‘Are these cups for children?’ asked the boy.
“‘Yes,” said the gondolier, “because no matter how big sons and daughters get, they will always be children in the eyes of their parents.’
“After breakfast the gondolier took Molly and her son by the hand and led them to the edge of an enormous swimming pool that ran under bridges and skirted the edge of the main square.
“There were strange boats floating, all tied together and bobbing in agreement.
“‘We should probably get back,’ Molly said.
“‘You’re right, mama,’ the gondolier said, “but one ride won’t take long.’
“‘Jed will have to wait for us now, mom,’ the boy said.
“‘Shit,’ Molly said angrily.
“‘Why not?’ the gondolier said.
“‘Come on, Max,’ Molly said.
“Molly started walking away. Her son trailed reluctantly. He felt like crying again and his legs were stinging.
“Molly abruptly turned back to the gondolier. “You don’t know us.’
“The gondolier had not moved, as though he hoped she might turn back.
“‘Yes I do, Lola,’ the gondolier said without any trace of an Italian accent.
“Molly stopped walking.
“‘Why did you call me that?’
“The gondolier looked at his worn-out shoes.
“‘That was my daughter’s name,’ he shrugged.
“‘Yes—my beautiful daughter. That was her name.’
“Molly glared at him with anger and pity.
“‘Well, that’s not my name.’
“‘But it could be,’ the gondolier insisted. “It could have been.’
“‘You’re not even Italian, are you?’
“‘Mom,’ the boy said.
“Molly stood looking at the gondolier, but not looking at him. The boy tugged on her arm. Then the reality of what her life truly was flooded her.
“She felt sick and tired.
“Several birds blew across a clean sky—unaware of anything but their own tiny lives.
“The boy let go of his mother’s arm and squatted down.
“His head fell limply into his hands. He took his shoes off. In the hot morning sun his legs had begun to sting again.
“People walked around them.
“Then Molly reached down and fixed his caterpillar sock.
“‘Put your shoes on if you want to go on the gondola,’ she said.
“At the entrance to the boats there were other men dressed in the same striped shirts. They smoked and drank coffee in little cups. They raised their hands in greeting and nodded without smiling.
“Within a few minutes, the gondolier, Molly, and her son were in the boat. The boy said the boat looked like a moustache. He held onto his mother’s hand. He wanted her to know she had made the right decision. Hands have their own language.
“The gondolier stood like a mechanical toy and pushed against the bottom of the blue water with a long pole. Everyone was watching. Carlos walked alongside them and played his three notes.
“‘Buongiorno!’ the gondolier announced to passers-by. A Japanese woman started clapping.
“Molly marveled at people on their balconies. The restaurants, too, were filling up. The sinister cast of characters who had passed them during the night had gone, and the city swelled with a softer, gentler group who rose with the sun and woke at night only to fetch glasses of water.
“When they reached a wider stretch of the canal, the gondolier stepped down and opened the trunk upon which he had been standing. He undid the lock and lifted from it a large dark wooden box. He set it down on the bench between the trunk and the emerald seat upon which Molly and her son sat very close together.
“‘What is it?’ asked the boy.
“‘You’ll see, big one.’
“From the trunk, the gondolier took a thin but heavy black circle and placed it on the top of the box. Then he turned a handle quickly and pulled over a thick metal arm with a needle at its end.
“At first, Molly and the boy heard nothing but crackling. By the time the strong, sweet voice of Enrico Caruso echoed through the Venetian piazza, the gondolier was back on his trunk mouthing along to the words.
“People flocked to the side of the bridge and applauded. Children stared in silent wonder.
“The gondolier moved his mouth in perfect timing to the song. People thought he was really singing. But the voice was that of someone long dead.
“Molly leaned back and closed her eyes. She had never heard a man sing with such emotion. She put her arm around her son and realized that the love she’d always dreamed of was sitting in the seat beside her wearing sandals and socks with caterpillars on them.
“After the song ended, the needle kept going. The box crackled and the boat had returned to where they had begun. The gondolier quickly tied his boat to the line of other boats. His hands were old and beaten like two worn-out dogs.
“The gondolier sat down on the bench next to the music box.
“‘Again,’ the boy said.
“The gondolier wound up the machine as he had done before. At the sound of crackling, the other gondoliers stopped what they were doing and turned to face the gondolier. He stood proudly on his trunk, cleared his throat, and began to sing.
“The piercing beauty of a lone voice soared determinedly from the canal into the piazza, drawing people from beds and flat-screen televisions to the edges of their balconies.
“For a few moments, the voice was even audible in the casino. Cards were set down; heads tilted upward.
“‘What’s the song about?’ the boy whispered to his mother.
“‘I don’t know.’ Molly said.
“‘I do,’ her son said.
“The piazza crackled with applause.
“When it came time to say goodbye, the little boy didn’t want to let go of the gondolier. They could feel the beating of each other’s hearts.”
In the Square of St. Peter, the lines outside the tomb had grown very long. Young Italian men in jeans sold water and apples. Tour guides stood still and held paddles. Children fell asleep in carriages. Teenagers tore past on smoking scooters. Restaurant managers heckled passing tourists, who stopped for a moment and then kept walking.
Occasionally, someone looked up and noticed that a statue was missing.
The priest took a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed his eyes.
“Madonna,” he said quietly.
And before parting, the two men thought of a lone gondolier paddling the canals of a swimming pool in the Nevada desert—reeling in the forsaken with the song he had once sung to his daughter on a farm in Wisconsin.
From the collection Love Begins in Winter. © 2009 by Simon Van Booy.
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