Passegiatta Pt. 01byAdrian Leverkuhn©
©2008 by ©Adrian Leverkuhn
The man lay slumped over the wheel in the cockpit of his boat; he lay utterly exhausted, salt-encrusted, and trembled with cold hunger. He had just completed the crossing from Marseilles, France to Portofino, Italy in late October, a decidedly foolish thing to have attempted, and perhaps all the more so because he made the journey alone. The crossing had been little more than a procession of storms as cold fronts backed-up to the arctic had come barreling down from the north, dumping snow in the Alps and gale force winds into the Mediterranean. The man's boat, a sailboat of some thirty eight feet, had been up to the task, but the man had hardly known what he was doing in a boat six months ago, and wasn't as yet what most people would call an accomplished sailor. About eight hours out of Marseilles, when the first gales slammed into his boat, the man began to question his own sanity; his erstwhile friends back in Connecticut had been asking that question for well over a year.
The boat's deck was now a tangled mass of water-logged lines; the cockpit no less a shambles. Hatches and port-lights, long dogged to seal out the weather, remained closed; the scraps of a sandwich lay smeared in the corner of a cockpit seat by the man. Not long ago, just moments before the sun rose that morning, the boat had sailed into the little harbor and the man had taken up a mooring ball; the exhausted man had hoisted his yellow quarantine flag, stumbled back into the cockpit and promptly fallen asleep. Now, two hours later, just as a blue Customs launch pulled alongside, the man was in exactly the same place.
The uniformed man in the launch held out his hand to stop from hitting the American's yacht as he pulled alongside, then he tied-off to one of the mooring cleats while he looked at the sleeping man. The man was snoring like an old Fiat in need of a new exhaust; sharp metallic notes dripping with exhaustion filled the empty harbor, and the official could almost feel sorry for the man, for the sea makes brothers of all men.
"Excuse me," the official said. "Sir! Excuse me!"
The man didn't react at all, except perhaps to snore a bit louder.
The official hated to do it, but he simply had to wake the fellow up. He reached down and picked up a compressed air horn that produced a nice heart-attack generating horn-like screech and pulled the trigger. The effect was instantaneous, but not quite what the official had hoped for.
The sleeping man launched upwards and smacked his head on the awning covering the cockpit, then without skipping a beat stumbled backwards and tripped over the aft lifelines and rear-somersaulted into the water. The man hit the water with a loud slap that, to the official's practiced ear, sounded rather like a large fish leaping from the sea. The man sputtered to the surface and looked around with wild-eyed astonishment while spitting water from his mouth; the official hurried over to lend a hand and was as quickly pulled into the water. He too landed with less than graceful form, and he too popped to the surface looking somehow both indignant and embarrassed. The two men swam and sputtered, a small crowd gathered on the promenade pointing at the sight and laughing, and both men started laughing as they treaded the still morning water.
"Who are you?" the man asked when he finally caught his breath.
"Customs and Immigration. May I see your passport, sir!" Both men started laughing again. Another launch from the harbormaster's office came and helped them back into their boats.
The official leaned over to the man now in his boat. "Sir, perhaps you would meet me in that building there in about an hour?" He was pointing at a small building on the waterfront with a flag flying over the front door.
"Yeah, I think I can manage that. About an hour, you say?"
"Si. Now, excuse me, please. I must go and find some wet clothes."
The man looked at the official just as he caught his words; they looked at one another and laughed again, then the official took off. The man looked around his boat and shook his head.
"Ain't life grand!" he said as he pushed open the companionway hatch. He disappeared into the cabin below, whistling a Gershwin tune.
Later that November day, Tom Goodwin left the mooring ball in the middle of the harbor and backed his boat down into a small space between two boats right along the harbor wall. It was a choice spot, and open now only because it was no longer 'high season'; all the mega-yachts and beautiful people were gone with the change of season, gone to St Moritz and Davos or Tortola and Antigua. Portofino had survived yet another season of tourists and high intrigue and was even now reverting to type, becoming just another sleepy seaside village peopled by families who have known each other for generations, families bound by tradition as music is bound to the soul. He tossed up two sets of lines to a couple of kids on the stone quay and watched as they expertly made them fast; Goodwin then walked forward and tied off the bow to a pair of mooring posts set in the water about fifty feet off the wall. He finished, then turned and looked around.
He took in a Mediterranean pastiche that held him now as if in deep embrace. All pastel ochre and terra cotta and pink, hotels and shops and market stalls hovering over and around turquoise awnings and white umbrellas shading sidewalk cafes, trees still tinged with the green fullness of warmth and life. Chestnut-forested hillsides dotted with palms and rococo villas, a little scooter puttering down an unseen alleyway not too far away. Cool breezes rippled across still water like a heartbeat, carrying scents of pine trees and garlic frying in olive oil and thyme.
"I'm in heaven," the man said. "I've died. Died and gone to heaven."
"Maybe, maybe not, but enjoy it while you're here."
The voice came from the boat to his right. English accent, wasn't it? He turned to look, saw a little man, white haired and at least seventy years old, sitting in the cockpit of the other sailboat.
"Sounds like a good idea," Goodwin said. The man was setting out a teacup next to the newspaper rolled up on the cockpit table, a plate of scones and preserves rested on the table already.
"That was quite a show you put on this morning. Afraid you might not have been too happy with your reception here."
"I was dead tired. Were you watching?"
"Oh, anything new around here this time of year passes for entertainment. Quite a crowd, actually. Where'd you come in from?"
"Oh? Kind of stormy out, wasn't it?"
"Yes it was. One right after another."
"That's a fact."
The old man whistled and rolled his eyes. "Bet that was fun."
"Took the words right out of my mouth."
"So, before Marseilles; where'd you come from?"
"Oh, uh, Connecticut, in the States, then Bermuda, Gibraltar, and Barcelona. Left last May."
"And alone? All of it?"
"I see," the old man said, though he really didn't. The trip just described was difficult enough -- he'd sailed the same route himself many times over the years -- but to do so without crew to back you up was almost suicidal. "Well, where will head from here?"
"Going to winter over here, then head east."
"No real itinerary yet."
"I see. What's the name of your boat about?"
"Springer? Oh, just a dog thing." Goodwin thought the old guy was asking a lot of questions, but maybe he was just curious, or worse still, lonely. He didn't want to ask a question himself and get him started if that was the case.
"Oh, really? Mary Ann! Come on up here! We've found you another Springer nut, and right next door!"
Goodwin heard a tea kettle whistling down below in the other boat; soon a head popped up the companionway and looked his way. "Hello there," the woman called out. "Be up in a moment. Would you care for some tea?"
Goodwin was starved, hadn't eaten since the aborted sandwich last night. "That's very kind, Ma'am, but I haven't eaten since yesterday. Probably best not to throw hot tea down first thing on an empty stomach."
The woman went wide-eyed, then turned stern and motherly: "You get over here right now, young man! Malcolm, help me with the tea!" The head popped as quickly back into the darkness, and while Goodwin listened as plates rattled about down below he had the distinct impression he'd just seen a turtle.
"Best not cross the Admiral," the old man said. "Not good for your health. Here now, toss me a line so we can get rafted-up."
Goodwin tossed a line over and the old man pulled the two boats together, then climbed over the lifelines and down into the other boat's cockpit. Waves of cinnamon and fresh-baked bread swirled about in the air, and Goodwin felt himself growing acutely hungry as he scuttled under the low white awning and took a seat just out of the sun.
"Something smells wonderful," he said, his head reeling as the unfolding scene settled-in. Sitting in an Englishman's boat in an Italian harbor, the sun warming his neck as cool breezes stirred his hair, and overwhelming beauty everywhere he turned . . .
The woman passed a tray up the way, a small pitcher of cream followed a moment later, then she too came up into the cockpit. Seconds later Goodwin heard the ticky-tick sound of a dog below, then a brown nose popped into view and took a tentative sniff around. A little Springer Spaniel -- not even a year old, Goodwin thought -- hopped into the cockpit and took an obedient seat between the man and the woman.
"I'll be damned," Goodwin said. He held out his hand and the pup looked at him nervously, gave a little growl.
"Now Elsie, you know better than that!" the woman said. She held out her hand to Goodwin. "Mary Ann Doncaster. And I suppose Malcolm has yet to introduce himself?"
The old man glowered.
"Just getting around to that, Admiral. No rush now, is there?"
"Tom Goodwin," he said as he took her hand. "Sure appreciate the invitation."
"Well now, Mr Goodwin, you're as white as a ghost and look as if you've not had a thing to eat in a week."
"Close. I think a held some soup down a couple of days ago."
"Mary Ann, Tom sailed across from Marseilles. Alone."
There was that word again, Goodwin thought to himself as he smiled. "It was a rough crossing."
She nodded at his understatement, poured tea in his cup. "It's English Breakfast. Cream and sugar?"
"Be fine, Ma'am." He watched as she fixed the tea, then as she uncovered some freshly baked bread. "I smell cinnamon."
"Cinnamon and walnuts," Mary Ann Doncaster said.
Goodwin took some tea, then a slice of the hot bread. "This is heavenly," he said before he could finish chewing. "Really, really good!"
"The Admiral's as fine a cook as there ever was, that's certain," the old man said. "So, Mary Ann, Tom left the States in May, came by way of Gibraltar. . ."
"You have a Springer Spaniel, Mr Goodwin?" interrupted the Admiral.
"I did. She passed about a year ago."
"I'm so sorry. It's very difficult."
"Yes." Goodwin looked away. He still missed Sara. "I have a painting of her down below. You'll have to come take a look at her sometime."
"This is our Elsie," she said as she patted the pups head, "and we'd be delighted."
Malcolm Doncaster rolled his eyes. "Oh, good grief Mary Ann. You carry on about that dog like most folks carry on over their children. Give it a rest now, would you?"
"Where do you walk her? I mean, I know where, but isn't it a problem, you know, when you're out at sea?"
"Oh, goodness me," the old man said as he stood. "The only thing worse than a dog nut is when two of 'em get together! Pass down the dishes when you two finish up, right?"
"Sorry about that," Goodwin said. "I'd best be going. I have to clean up that mess over there," he said, pointing at Springer, "before it starts to stink."
"Oh yes, you must. Certainly before Passeggiata. But do finish your tea."
Mary Ann Doncaster looked at Tom Goodwin and smiled. "Oh, you'll find out soon enough. Sooner or later we all do. It's the secret of life."
"Ah, well, I'd better get to it then, and thanks again for the tea. And nice to meet you too, Elsie." He looked at the spaniel again, her little tail thumping on the teak; she grinned now at Goodwin with happy brown eyes. He smiled back at the pup and blew her a kiss before hopping onto his boat and getting to work.
"So, Paulo, I heard you made a big splash at work this morning!" Toni Morretti said.
"Not as big as the American did!" his brother Paulo, the Customs official, replied. "But don't get me wrong. He is a nice man, this doctor."
"He is a doctor?"
"Yes. Some big-shot heart doctor, from New York City, I think. He quit, too."
"What do you mean, he quit?" Maria Theresa Morretti said. The staid old woman, their mother, had said nothing at all during lunch, but suddenly she seemed intensely interested in what Paulo was saying.
"I did not ask him why, Mama. The clearing-in form has a place for one to enter his profession, Mama, and that is all. Would you like me to go ask him, Mama? After lunch?"
"Don't speak to me in that tone of voice, Paulo, or I shall beat you senseless!"
"Yes, Mama," he said with mock deference. "Anything you say, Mama."
She leaned forward and playfully slapped his face and laughed, and he laughed too. "Oh, I am turning into a silly old woman, aren't I?"
"Silly, Mama?" Toni said. "No, never."
"But old, Mama? You are as old as Vesuvius . . ."
"And just as hot-tempered!" Paulo and Toni said together, as they had a million times before.
"Oh, you two!" She laughed with her sons, and as always enjoyed the smiles on their faces and in their hearts. She took a bit of cheese from her plate, and some wine, then sat back and looked out the window as light midday traffic slipped by on the Via Duca degli Abruzzi. She looked thoughtful, almost lost in thought, as the cool breeze drifted through the room and across the fleeting memories of her life's time.
The boys cleared the table and walked into the little kitchen, began doing the dishes.
"She seems okay today, eh Paulo?" Toni asked quietly.
"Yes. She has her memories to keep her company today. That is good."
"God, I would hate to have my memories taken from me. That is the cruelest thing I can imagine."
"Well, perhaps everything happens for a reason. Perhaps only the good memories will remain, those memories that keep the best company."
"That would be nice," Toni Moretti said as he looked at his mother. "When does Margherita get off tonight?"
"Things are slow at the hotel. Perhaps in time to walk with mother tonight."
"She would love that. But . . ."
"I know, I know . . . I will walk by the hotel on my way back to work and see the Ice Princess. She has been too hard on Mama, for too long. It wasn't her fault."
"Well, that doesn't seem to matter anymore, Paulo, and perhaps it is as you say. Perhaps everything happens for a reason. Perhaps the good memories will not run away so fast."
He walked back into the living room and sat beside his mother, held her hand while she looked out the window.
"Mama, I'm going back to work now. Don't forget to wear your shawl tonight. It will be cool again." He leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead.
She reached up, stroked his face. "And you, Paulo, you try not to pull any more fat Americans from the sea."
Margherita Moretti watched her little brother fall into the sea that morning, and she had turned black inside later that morning when some of the hotel staff came by and reminded her that her two brothers were still regarded as the town idiots. And that was typically their attitude toward her on a good day, when the snobby bastards were feeling somewhat charitably disposed.
Margherita worked the reception at a small waterfront hotel; the least expensive room had priced out at just less than one thousand euros a night in high season a year ago, but now the best room in the hotel could be negotiated down to under a hundred on an off-season weeknight. And for weeks now, with the economy doing so poorly, almost all the rooms had been empty for over a month. The owner was getting nervous, and rumors were flying that staff might be cut before Christmas.
She brought her lunch today from the little apartment she kept just a block away, yet she had not taken time off to eat; rather, she had gone to the back office and begun working on the night audit while one of the housekeepers sat at the front desk. So many mistakes to correct . . .
"Hi, how are doing today?" she heard her brother Paulo ask.
She looked up at him. "Fine. Enjoy your swim?"
Paulo reddened. "Is there no one in town who hasn't heard of my great accomplishment this morning?"
"If there is, I haven't heard about it."
"Oh, thanks. Yes, thank you so very much."
"Don't mention it. Is there anything I can do for you?"
"I want you to come walk with us tonight. You know it would make Mama happy, and perhaps it would give you some measure of happiness as well."
"Paulo. You and Tonio have asked me a hundred times, and a hundred times I have said 'no'; so now I must ask you: when will you stop? Why can't you understand, I will never speak to that woman again!"
"You ask me this? I can't understand this because she loves you so much, and I know you love her. You could not hate her so without loving her equally! And now she is locked away inside a prison within her own mind, and cannot even remember those days that hold you even now. She only remembers yesterday, and maybe forty years ago. There is nothing in between. Only love remains. And it remains for you to find, too. While you still can!"
"Bah! I hope one day, before it is too late, you and your brother grow up!"
"Ah. And do you know what I pray for, sister? I hope that one day a ray of sunshine penetrates the darkness that has stolen your heart, that has taken love from your soul and run far away with it."
"Bravo, Paulo! Bravo! Attack the victim! Never the attacker! My, what a strong man you are!"
"I am not attacking you, sister. I am asking you to find forgiveness in your heart before the darkness you have embraced eats you alive."
Paulo turned and walked out of the hotel, stopping just once to look at the American on his boat just as a group of workers from Margherita's hotel walked by.
"I wonder?" Paulo said aloud. "If I had such money as that man, would all the cares of my little world disappear?"
"Don't worry about it, Paulo! That will never happen!"
He heard them laughing as they walked off to lunch. He turned and looked after them as they walked across the Piazzetta, a smile on his face.
"Here's some more, Malcolm, on Google," Mary Ann Doncaster said.
"And what's the latest scoop on our esteemed doctor?" He had been working on the generator under the cockpit since lunch and was tired, grease-streaked, and in need of a long shower.
"Never married, went to Stanford and worked under some chap named Shumway. Let's see, worked at some heart institute in Houston for a while, then moved to New York City. Says he was instrumental in starting a program where a bunch of Yank doctors travel down to Mexico and Costa Rica each summer and provide free medical care out in the bush. Nothing about his leaving, or why."
"You are an incorrigible gossip, you know that, don't you dear?" He watched as she scrolled down the screen, thinking what a terrible scourge wi-fi internet was proving to be.
"Ah, this might be something. An item in the New York Times . . ." she clicked away then bent close to the screen: ". . . from last year . . ." She read for a while, and Malcolm heard her exclaim "oh my God..." several times while she scrolled down the page. She finished, went back to Google and refined her search, opened up a new page.