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2. The Murmur of Mulberry Leaves


____________________

"Where are we going now, Paola?"

"Home. Our home."

"And then?"

"Then weíll go inside, and youíll get comfortable."

"And then?"

"Then youíll take a nice long shower, youíll shave, put on some decent clothes. And then weíll eat. And then-what would you like to do?"

"Thatís just what I donít know. I remember everything thatís happened since my reawakening, I know all about Julius Caesar, but I canít imagine what comes next. Until this morning I wasnít worried about any next-only about the before that I wasnít able to remember. But now that weíre goingÖ somewhere, I see fog ahead of me, too, not just behind me. No, it isnít fog ahead-itís as if my legs were slack and I couldnít walk. Itís like jumping."

"Jumping?"

"Yes, to jump you have to make a leap forward, but to do that you have to get a running start, so you have to back up first. If you donít back up, you wonít go forward. So I have the feeling that in order to say what Iíll do next, I need to know a lot about what I did before. You get ready to do a thing by changing something that was there before. Now, if you tell me I need to shave, I can see why: I rub my hand over my chin, it feels bristly, I should get rid of this hair. Itís the same if you tell me I should eat, I recall that the last time I ate was last night, broth, prosciutto, and stewed pear. But itís one thing to say Iíll shave or Iíll eat, and something else to say what Iíll do next, in the long run, I mean. I canít grasp what the long run means, because Iím missing the long run that was there before. Does that make sense?"

"Youíre saying you no longer live in time. We are the time we live in. You used to love Augustineís passages about time. He was the most intelligent man who ever lived, you always said. We psychologists can learn a lot from him still. We live in the three moments of expectation, attention, and memory, and none of them can exist without the others. You canít stretch toward the future because youíve lost your past. And knowing what Julius Caesar did doesnít help you figure out what you yourself should do."

Paola saw my jaw tightening and changed the subject. "Do you recognize Milan?"

"Never seen it before." But when the road widened I said: "Castello Sforzesco. And then the Duomo. And the Last Supper, and the Brera Art Gallery."

"And Venice?"

"In Venice thereís the Grand Canal, the Rialto bridge, San Marco, the gondolas. I know whatís in the guide books. It may be that Iíve never been to Venice and have lived in Milan for thirty years, but for me Milanís the same as Venice. Or Vienna: the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the third man. Harry Lime up on that Ferris wheel at the Prater saying the Swiss invented cuckoo clocks. He lied: Cuckoo clocks are Bavarian."

We got home and went inside. A lovely apartment, with balconies overlooking the park. I really saw an expanse of trees. Nature is as beautiful as they say. Antique furniture-apparently I am well-off. I do not know how to get around, where the living room is, or the kitchen. Paola introduces me to Anita, the Peruvian woman who helps around the house. The poor thing does not know whether to celebrate my return or greet me like a visitor. She runs back and forth, shows me the door to the bathroom, keeps saying, "Pobrecito el Se~nor Yam bo , ay Jesusmar'ia, here are the clean towels, Signor Yambo."

After the commotion of my departure from the hospital, my first encounter with the sun, and the trip home, I felt sweaty. I decided to sniff my armpits: the odor of my sweat did not bother me-I do not think it was very strong-but it made me feel like a living animal. Three days before returning to Paris, Napoleon sent a message to Josephine telling her not to wash. Did I ever wash before making love? I do not dare ask Paola, and who knows, maybe I did with her and did not with other women-or vice versa. I had myself a good shower, soaped my face and shaved slowly, found some aftershave with a light, fresh scent, and combed my hair. I look more civil already. Paola showed me my wardrobe: apparently I like corduroy pants, slightly coarse jackets, wool ties in pale colors (pea green, emerald, chartreuse? I know the names, but not how to apply them yet), checkered shirts. It seems I also have a dark suit for weddings and funerals. "Just as handsome as before," Paola said, when I had put on something casual.

She led me down a long hallway lined with shelves full of books. I looked at the spines and recognized most of them. That is to say I recognized the titles-The Betrothed, Orlando Furioso, The Catcher in the Rye. For the first time, I had the impression of being in a place where I felt at ease. I pulled a volume from the shelf, but even before looking at the cover I held the back of it in my right hand and with my left thumb flipped quickly through the pages in reverse. I liked the noise, did it several times, then asked Paola whether I should see a soccer player kicking a ball. She laughed; apparently there were little books that made the rounds when we were children, a kind of poor manís movie, where the soccer player changed position on each page, so that if you flipped the pages rapidly you saw him move. I made sure that this was something everyone knew: I thought as much, it was not a memory, just a notion.

The book was P`ere Goriot, Balzac. Without opening it I said: "Goriot sacrificed himself for his daughters. One was named Delphine, I think. Along come Vautrin alias Collin and the ambitious Rastignac- just the two of us now, Paris. Did I read much?"

"Youíre a tireless reader. With an iron memory. You know stacks of poems by heart."

"Did I write?"

"Nothing of your own. Iím a sterile genius, you used to say; in this world you either read or write, and writers write out of contempt for their colleagues, out of a desire to have something good to read once in a while."

"I have so many books. Sorry, we do."

"Five thousand here. And thereís always some imbecile who comes over and says, my how many books you have, have you read them all?"

"And what do I say?"

"Usually you say: Not one, why else would I be keeping them here? Do you by chance keep the tins of meat after youíve emptied them? As for the five thousand Iíve already read, I gave them away to prisons and hospitals. And the imbecile reels."

"I see a lot of foreign books. I think I know several languages." Verses came to me unbidden: "Le brouillard indolent de líautomne est 'eparsÖ Unreal city, / under the brown fog of a winter dawn, / a crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so manyÖ Sp"atherbstnebel, kalte Tr"aume, / "uberfloren Berg und Tal, / Sturm entbl"attert schon die B"aume, / und sie schaun gespenstig kahlÖ Mas el doctor no sab'ia," I concluded, "que hoy es siempre todav'ia Ö"

"Thatís curious, out of four poems, three are about fog."

"You know, I feel surrounded by fog. Itís just that I canít see it. I know how others have seen it: At a turn, an ephemeral sun brightens: a duster of mimosas in the pure white fog."

"You were fascinated by fog. You used to say you were born in it. For years now, whenever you came across a description of fog in a book you made a note in the margin. Then one by one you had the pages photocopied at your studio. I think youíll find your fog dossier there. And in any case, all you have to do is wait: the fog will be back. Though itís no longer what it used to be-thereís too much light in Milan, too many shop windows lit up even at night; the fog slips away along the walls."

"The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window panes, the yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window panes, licked its tongue into the corners of the evening, lingered upon the pools that stand in drains, let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys, curled once about the house and fell asleep."

"Even I knew that one. You used to complain that the fogs of your youth werenít around any more."

"My youth. Is there someplace here where I keep the books I had when I was a kid?"

"Not here. They must be in Solara, at the country house."

And so I learned the story of the Solara house, and of my family. I was born there, accidentally, during the Christmas holidays of 1931. Like Baby Jesus. Maternal grandparents dead before I was born, paternal grandmother passed away when I was five. My fatherís father remained, and we were all he had left. My grandfather was a strange character. In the city where I grew up, he had a shop, almost a warehouse, of old books. Not valuable, antiquarian books, like mine, just used books, and lots of nineteenth-century stuff. In addition, he liked to travel and went abroad often. In that era, abroad meant Lugano, or at the very most Paris or Munich. And in such places he collected things from street vendors: not only books but also movie posters, figurines, postcards, old magazines. Back then we did not have all the memorabilia collectors we have today, Paola said, but he had a few regular customers, or maybe he collected for his own pleasure. He never made much, but he enjoyed himself. Then in the twenties he inherited the Solara house from a great-uncle. An immense house, if you could see it, Yambo, the attics alone look like the Postojna caves. There was a lot of land around it, which was farmed by tenants, and your grandfather derived enough from that to live on, without having to work too hard at selling books.

Apparently that was where I spent all my childhood summers, Christmas and Easter vacations, and many other religious holidays, as well as two full years, from 1943 to 1945, after the bombings had begun in the city. That is where all my grandfatherís things must be, along with all my schoolbooks and toys.

"I donít know where they are; it was as if you didnít want to see them anymore. Your relationship with that house has always been bizarre. Your grandfather died of a heart attack after your parents were lost in that car accident, around the time you were finishing high schoolÖ"

"What did my parents do?"

"Your father worked for an import business, eventually becoming the manager. Your mother stayed home, as respectable ladies did. Your father eventually managed to buy himself a car-a Lancia no less-and what happened happened. You were never very explicit on that score. You were about to go off to university and you and your sister Ada lost your whole family in a single blow."

"I have a sister?"

"Younger than you. She was taken in by your motherís brother and sister-in-law, who had become your legal guardians. But Ada got married young, at eighteen, to a guy who whisked her off to live in Australia. You donít see each other often. She makes it to Italy about as often as the pope dies. Your aunt and uncle sold the family house in the city, and almost all the Solara land. Thanks to the proceeds, you were able to continue your studies, but you quickly gained your independence from them by winning a university scholarship, and you went to live in Turin. From that point on you seemed to forget Solara. I insisted, after Carla and Nicoletta were born, that we go there for summers. That air is good for the kids. I sweated blood to get the wing that we stay in livable. And you went against your will. The girls love it, itís their childhood, even now they spend all the time they can there, with the little ones. Youíd go back for their sake, stay two or three days, but you never set foot in the places you called the sanctums: your old bedroom, your parentsí and grandparentsí rooms, the atticsÖ On the other hand, thereís still enough space left that three families can live there and never see each other. Youíd take a few walks in the hills and then there would always be something urgent that required you to return to Milan. Itís understandable, your parentsí deaths basically split your life into two parts, before and after. Perhaps the Solara house represented for you a world that had vanished forever, and you made a clean break. I always tried to respect your discomfort, though sometimes jealousy made me think it was just an excuse-that you were going back to Milan alone for other reasons. Mais glissons."

"The irresistible smile. So what made you marry the laughing man?"

"You laughed well, and you made me laugh. When I was a girl I always talked about a schoolmate of mine-it was Luigino this and Luigino that. Every day I came home from school talking about something Luigino had done. My mother suspected I was sweet on him, and one day she asked me why I liked Luigino so much. And I said, Because he makes me laugh."

Experiences can be recovered in a hurry. I tested the flavors of different foods-the hospital fare had all tasted the same. Mustard on boiled meat is quite appetizing. But meat is stringy and gets between your teeth. I discovered (rediscovered?) toothpicks. If only I could work one into my frontal lobe, get the dross outÖ Paola had me taste two wines, and I said the second was incomparably better. It ought to be, she said; the first is cooking wine, good for a stew at best, the second is Brunello. Well, I said, no matter what shape my head is in, at least my palate is working.

I spent the afternoon testing things, feeling the pressure of my hand on a cognac glass, watching how the coffee rises in the coffee-maker, tasting two varieties of honey and three kinds of marmalade (I like apricot best), rubbing the living room curtains, squeezing a lemon, plunging my hands into a sack of semolina. Then Paola took me for a short walk in the park; I felt the barks of the trees, I heard the murmur of mulberry leaves in the hand. We passed a flower seller in Largo Cairoli, and Paola had him put together, against his better judgment, a bouquet that looked like a harlequin. Back at home I tried to distinguish the scents of different flowers and herbs. And he saw that everything was very good, I said, cheered. Paola asked me if I felt like God. I replied that I was quoting just for the sake of quoting, but I was certainly an Adam discovering his Garden of Eden. And an Adam who learns quickly, it seems: I saw, on a shelf, some bottles and boxes of cleansers, and I knew at once not to touch the tree of good and evil.

After dinner I sat down in the living room. Instinctively I went over to the rocking chair and sank into it. "You always did that," Paola said. "Itís where you had your evening scotch. I think Gratarolo would permit you that." She brought me a bottle, Laphroaig, and poured me a good amount, no ice. I rolled the liquid around in my mouth before swallowing. "Exquisite. It tastes a little like kerosene, though." Paola was excited: "You know, after the war, in the early fifties-it was only then that people started drinking whiskey. Maybe the Fascist higher-ups drank it before that, who knows, but normal people didnít. And we started drinking it when we were about twenty. Not often, because it was expensive, but it was a rite of passage. And our folks all looked at us and said, how can you drink that stuff, it tastes like kerosene."

"Well, tastes arenít conjuring up any Combray for me."

"It depends on the taste. Keep on living and youíll find the right one."

On the little side table there was a pack of Gitanes, papier ma"is. I lit one, inhaled greedily, and coughed. I took a few more puffs and put it out.

I let myself rock gently until I began to feel sleepy. The tolling of a grandfather clock woke me, and I almost spilled my scotch. The clock was behind me, but before I could identify it, the tolling stopped, and I said, "Itís nine oíclock." Then, to Paola, "You know what just happened? I was dozing, and the clock woke me. I didnít hear the first few chimes distinctly, that is to say, I didnít count them. But as soon as I decided to count I realized that there had already been three, so I was able to count four, five, and so on. I understood that I could say four and then wait for the fifth, because one, two, and three had passed, and I somehow knew that. If the fourth chime had been the first I was conscious of, I would have thought it was six oíclock. I think our lives are like that-you can only anticipate the future if you can call the past to mind. I canít count the chimes of my life because I donít know how many came before. On the other hand, I dozed off because the chair had been rocking for a while. And I dozed off in a certain moment because that moment had been preceded by other moments, and because I was relaxing while awaiting the subsequent moment. But if the first moments hadnít put me in the right frame of mind, if I had begun rocking in any old moment, I wouldnít have expected what had to come. I would have remained awake. You need memory even to fall asleep. Or no?"

"The snowball effect. The avalanche slides toward the valley, gaining speed as it goes, because little by little it gets larger, carrying with it the weight of all it has been before. Otherwise there is no avalanche-just a little snowball that never rolls down."

"Yesterday eveningÖ in the hospital, I was bored, and I started humming a tune to myself. It was automatic, like brushing my teethÖ I tried to figure out how I knew it. I started to sing it again, but once I began thinking about it, the song no longer came of its own accord, and I stopped on a single note. I held it a long time, at least five seconds, as if it were an alarm or a dirge. I no longer knew how to go forward, and I didnít know how to go forward because I had lost what came before. Thatís it, thatís how I am. Iím holding a long note, like a stuck record, and since I canít remember the opening notes, I canít finish the song. I wonder what it is Iím supposed to finish, and why. While I was singing without thinking I was actually myself for the duration of my memory, which in that case was what you might call throat memory, with the befores and afters linked together, and I was the complete song, and every time I began it my vocal cords were already preparing to vibrate the sounds to come. I think a pianist works that way, too: even as he plays one note heís readying his fingers to strike the keys that come next. Without the first notes, we wonít make it to the last ones, weíll come untuned, and weíll succeed in getting from start to finish only if we somehow contain the entire song within us. I donít know the whole song anymore. Iím likeÖ a burning log. The log burns, but it has no awareness of having once been part of a whole trunk nor any way to find out that it has been, or to know when it caught fire. So it burns up and thatís all. Iím living in pure loss."

"Letís not go overboard with the philosophy," Paola whispered.

"No, letís. Where do I keep my copy of Augustineís Confessions?"

"In the bookcase with the encyclopedias, the Bible, the Koran, Lao Tzu, and the philosophy books."

I went to pick out the Confessions and looked in the index for the passages on memory. I must have read them because they were all underlined: I come then to the fields and the vast chambers of memoryÖ When I enter there, I summon whatever images I wish. Some appear at once, but others must be sought at length, dragged forth as it were from hidden nooksÖ Memory gathers all this in its vast cavern, in its hidden and ineffable recessesÖ In the enormous palace of my memory, heaven, earth, and sea are present to meÖ I find myself there alsoÖ Great is the power of memory, O my God, and awe-inspiring its infinite, profound complexity. And that is the mind, and that is myselfÖ Behold the fields and caves, the measureless caverns of memory, immeasurably full of immeasurable thingsÖ I pass among them all, I fly from here to there, and nowhere is there any endÖ"You see, Paola," I said, "youíve told me about my grandfather and the country house, everyoneís trying to give me all this information, but when I receive it in this way, in order really to populate these caverns Iíd have to put into them every one of the sixty years Iíve lived till now. No, this is not the way to do it. I have to go into the cavern alone. Like Tom Sawyer."

I do not know what Paola said to that, because I was still making the chair rock and I dozed again.

Briefly, I think, because I heard the doorbell, and it was Gianni Laivelli. We had been desk mates, the two Dioscuri. He embraced me like a brother, emotional, already knowing how to treat me. Donít worry, he said, I know more about your life than you do. Iíll tell you every last detail. No thanks, I told him, Paola already explained our history to me. Together from elementary school through high school. Then I went off to college in Turin while he studied economics and business in Milan. But apparently we never lost touch. I sell antiquarian books, he helps people pay their taxes-or not pay them-and by all rights we should have each gone our separate ways, but instead weíre like family: his two grandchildren play with mine, and we always celebrate Christmas and New Yearís together.

No thanks, I had said, but Gianni could not keep his mouth shut. And since he remembered, he seemed unable to grasp that I did not. Remember, he would say, the day we brought a mouse to class to scare the math teacher, and the time we took a trip to Asti to see the Alfieri play and when we got back we learned that the plane carrying the Turin team had gone down, and the time thatÖ"

"No, I donít remember, Gianni, but youíre such a good storyteller that itís as if I did. Which one of us was smarter?"

"Naturally, in Italian and philosophy you were, and in math I was. You see how we turned out."

"By the way, Paola, what did I major in?"

"In letters, with a thesis on Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Unreadable, at least to me. Then you went off to Germany to specialize in the history of ancient books. You said that because of the name youíd been stuck with you couldnít have done anything else. And then there was your grandfatherís example, a life among papers. When you came back, you set up your rare book studio, at first in a little room, using the little capital you had left. After that, things went well for you."

"Are you aware that you sell books that cost more than a Porsche?" Gianni said. "Theyíre gorgeous, and to pick them up and realize theyíre five hundred years old, and the pages still as snappy beneath your fingers as if theyíd just come off the pressÖ"

"Take it easy," Paola said, "we can start talking about his work in the next few days. Letís give him a chance to get used to his home first. How about a scotch, kerosene-flavored?"

"Kerosene?"

"Itís just something between me and Yambo, Gianni. Weíre starting to have secrets again."

When I escorted Gianni to the door, he took me by the arm and whispered to me in a complicit tone, "And so you havenít yet seen the beautiful SibillaÖ"


Sibilla who?

Yesterday Carla and Nicoletta came with their whole families, even their husbands, who are friendly. I spent the afternoon with the children. They are sweet, I am beginning to get attached to them. But it is embarrassing; at a certain point I realized that I was smothering them with kisses, pulling them to me, and I could smell them-soap, milk, and talcum powder. And I asked myself what I was doing with those strange children. Am I some kind of pedophile? I kept them at a distance and we played some games. They asked me to be a bear-who knows what a grandfather bear does. So I got on all fours, going awrr roarr roarr, and they all jumped on my back. Take it easy, Iím not young anymore, my back aches. Luca zapped me with a water pistol, and I thought it wise to die, belly up. I risked throwing my back out, but it was a success. I was still weak, and as I got back up my head was spinning. "You shouldnít do that," Nicoletta said, "you know you have orthostatic pressure." Then she corrected herself: "Iím sorry, you didnít know. Well, now you know again." A new chapter for my future autobiography. Written by someone else.

My life as an encyclopedia continues. I speak as if I were up against a wall and could never turn around. My memories have the depth of a few weeks. Other peopleís stretch back centuries. A few evenings ago I tasted a small nut. I said: The distinctive scent of bitter almond. In the park I saw two policemen on horseback: If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

I knocked my hand against a sharp corner, and as I was sucking the little scratch and trying to see what my blood tasted like, I said: Often have I encountered the evil of living.

There was a downpour and when it ended I exulted: For lo, the rain is over and gone.

I usually go to bed early and remark: Longtemps je me suis couch'e de bonne heure.

I do fine with traffic lights, but the other day I stepped into the street at a moment that seemed safe, and Paola managed to grab my arm just in time, because a car was coming. "I had it timed," I said. "I would have made it."

"No, you wouldnít have made it. That car was going fast."

"Come on, Iím not an idiot. I know perfectly well that cars run over pedestrians, and chickens too, and to avoid them they hit the brakes and black smoke comes out and they have to get out to start the car again with the crank. Two men in dustcoats with big black goggles, and me with mile-long ears that look like wings." Where did that image come from?

Paola looked at me. "Whatís the fastest you think a car can go?"

"Oh," I said, "up to eighty kilometers per hourÖ" Apparently they go quite a bit faster now. My ideas on the subject seemed to come from the period when I got my license.

I was astonished that, as we made our way across Largo Cairoli, every few steps we passed a Negro who wanted to sell me a lighter. Paola brought me for a bike ride in the park (I have no trouble riding a bike), and I was astonished again to see a group of Negroes playing drums around a pond. "Where are we," I said, "New York? Since when have there been so many Negroes in Milan?"

"For some time now," Paola replied. "But we donít say Negroes anymore, we say blacks."

"What difference does it make? They sell lighters, they come here to play their drums because they probably donít have a lira to go to a caf'e, or maybe theyíre not wanted there. It looks to me as if these blacks are as badly off as the Negroes."

"Still, thatís what one says now. You did, too."

Paola observed that when I try to speak English I make mistakes, but I do not when I speak German or French. "That doesnít surprise me," she said. "You must have absorbed French as a child, and itís still in your tongue the way bicycles are still in your legs. You learned German from textbooks in college, and you remember everything from books. But English, on the other hand, you learned during your travels, later. It belongs to your personal experiences of the past thirty years, and only bits of it have stuck to your tongue."

I still feel a little weak. I can focus on something for half an hour, an hour at the most; then I go lie down for a while. Paola takes me to the pharmacist every day to have my blood pressure checked. And I have to pay attention to my diet, avoid salt.

I have begun watching television; it is the thing that tires me least. I see unfamiliar gentlemen who are called president and prime minister. I see the king of Spain (was it not Franco?) and ex-terrorists (terrorists?) who have repented. I do not always understand what they are talking about, but I learn a great deal. I remember Aldo Moro, the parallel convergences, but who killed him? Or was he in the plane that crashed into the Banca dellíAgricoltura in Ustica? I see some singers with rings through their earlobes. And they are male. I like the TV series about family tragedies in Texas, the old films of John Wayne. Action movies upset me, because with one blast of their tommy guns they blow up rooms, they make cars flip over and explode, a guy in an undershirt throws a punch and another guy smashes through a plate-glass window and plummets into the sea-all of it, the room, the car, the window, in a few seconds. Too fast, my head spins. And why so much noise?

The other night Paola took me to a restaurant. "Donít worry, they know you. Just ask for the usual." Much ado: How are you Dottore Bodoni, we havenít seen you for a long time, what will we be having this evening? The usual. Thereís a man who knows what he likes, the owner crooned. Spaghetti with clam sauce, grilled seafood plate, Sauvignon Blanc, then an apple tart.

Paola had to intervene to prevent me from asking for seconds on the fish. "Why not, if I like it?" I asked. "I think we can afford it, it doesnít cost a fortune." Paola looked at me abstractedly for a few seconds, then took my hand and said: "Listen, Yambo, youíve retained all your automatisms, and you have no problems using a knife and fork or filling a glass. But thereís something we acquire through personal experience, gradually, as we become adults. A child wants to eat everything that tastes good, even if it will give him a stomachache later. His mother explains over time that he must control his impulses, just as he must when he needs to pee. And so the child, who if it were left up to him would continue to poop in his diapers and to eat enough Nutella to land him in the hospital, learns to recognize the moment when, even if he doesnít feel full, he should stop eating. As we become adults, we learn to stop, for example, after the second or third glass of wine, because we remember that when we drank a whole bottle we didnít sleep well. What you have to do, then, is reestablish a proper relationship with food. If you give it some thought, youíll figure it out in a few days. In short, no seconds."

"And a calvados, I presume," said the owner as he brought the tart. I waited for a nod from Paola, then replied, "Calva sans dire." I could tell he was familiar with my wordplay, because he repeated, "Calva sans dire." Paola asked me what calvados called to mind, and I replied that it was good, but that was all I knew.

"And yet you got drunk on it during that Normandy tripÖ Donít worry, it takes time. In any case, the usual is a good phrase, and there are lots of places around here where you can go in and say the usual, and that should help you feel comfortable."

"Itís clear by now that you know how to deal with traffic lights," Paola said, "and youíve learned how fast cars go. You should try taking a walk by yourself, around the Castello and then into Largo Cairoli. Thereís a gelateria on the corner; you love gelato and they practically live off you. Try asking for the usual."

I did not even have to say it-the man behind the counter immediately filled a cone with stracciatella: Hereís your usual, Dottore. If stracciatella was my favorite, I can see why: it is excellent. Discovering stracciatella at sixty is quite pleasant. What was that joke Gianni told me about Alzheimerís? The great thing about it is that youíre always getting to meet new people.

New people. I had just finished the gelato, throwing away the last part of the cone without eating it-why? Paola later explained that it was an old habit; my mother had taught me as a child that you shouldnít eat the tip because thatís where the vendor, back in the days when they sold gelato from carts, held it with his dirty fingers-when I saw a woman approaching. She was elegant, around forty or so, with a slightly brazen demeanor. The Lady with an Ermine came to mind. She was already smiling at me from a distance, and I got a nice smile ready too, since Paola had told me my smile was irresistible.

She came up to me and took hold of both my arms: "Yambo, what a surprise!" But she must have noticed something vague in my expression; the smile was not enough. "Yambo, donít you recognize me? Do I look that much older? Vanna, VannaÖ"

"Vanna! Youíre more beautiful than ever. Itís only that Iíve just been to the eye doctor, and he put something in my eyes to dilate my pupils. My vision will be blurry for a few hours. How are you, Lady with an Ermine?" I must have said that to her before, because I had the impression that she got a little misty-eyed.

"Yambo, Yambo," she whispered, caressing my face. I could smell her perfume. "Yambo, we lost touch. I always wanted to see you again, to tell you that it might have been brief-perhaps that was my fault- but Iíll always have the fondest memories. It wasÖ lovely."

"It was beautiful," I said, with some feeling, with the air of a man recalling his garden of delights. Superb acting. She kissed me on the cheek, whispered that her number had not changed, and left. Vanna. Apparently a temptation I had been unable to resist. What scoundrels men are! With De Sica. But goddamn, what good is it to have had an affair if later you cannot even-I am not talking about telling your friends, but should you not at least be able to savor it now and then, as you lie snug beneath your covers on a stormy night?

Since the first night, as we lay beneath the covers, Paola had lulled me to sleep by stroking my hair. I liked feeling her beside me. Was that desire? Eventually I overcame my embarrassment and asked her if we still made love. "In moderation, mostly out of habit," she said. "Do you feel the urge?"

"I donít know. As you know, I still donít have many urges. But I wonderÖ"

"Donít wonder, try to get some sleep. Youíre still weak. And besides, I certainly donít want you making love with a woman youíve just met."

"Affair on the Orient Express."

"Yikes, this isnít a Dekobra novel."



Part One. THE INCIDENT 1. The Cruelest Month | The Mysterious Flame Of Queen Loana | 3. Someone May Pluck Your Flower