Published in the Caregiver Magazine
Published in the Florentine and the Canadian Jewish News
LETTERS TO BEATRICE
Sister Ingrid is a bitch, but she allows me this cold place to sleep. Her own bed must be much colder, though no man will ever – or would want to – find out the exact temperature. Frostbite is very unpleasant, especially on certain parts of the anatomy, and has long lasting ramifications.
I work hard for my room, such as it is. A musty cot in the church cellar, a hot plate with a dented coffee pot, and use of the lavoratory upstairs. In return, I sweep the church floor, take out the trash, and prepare myself for Sister’s surprise visits. She gives me new assignments and registers her complaints about my work habits. Yesterday I was blessed with one of her more unpleasant lectures.
“ There are many people who pray for such an easy job in return for free lodging, Guido.”
I hate hearing my name coming from her chalky lips. It is too personal and I wish she would just call me ‘caretaker’ or ‘sweeper’. Certainly not the name my mother chose for me and the name a few have uttered with affection, possibly even love.
Her lecture continued. “Only yesterday I happened to speak with such a man. I told him that I may be looking for a replacement soon if you don’t shape up.” She waited a few beats, to let her words sink in before she listed her complaints of the day. Her watery blue eyes lolled around in their sockets like the stupid dog she was.
“Why didn’t you empty the letter basket? Can’t you see that it is overflowing?”
She referred of course to the scraps of paper that the lonely hearts leave for Beatrice, the love of Dante’s life. This church is home to her tomb and where Dante first set eyes on her. I suspect the latter is a very successful myth drummed up to bring in more tourists, but one never knows.
Sister hates the fact that the faithful come here to pray to Beatrice and ask her for divine intervention to help them find true and everlasting love. I think she is jealous and wishes the faithful would flock to her instead. She insists that I burn the letters as soon as the basket is full.
It is the biggest bone of contention between us and may be the eventual cause of my dismissal. I decided to plead my case one more time. Sometimes I surprise myself with my own stupidity.
“Sister, these sad folks have nothing much to live for. These letters are proof of their misery. It seems wrong to destroy them. Only yesterday there was a woman who had scars on her…”
“I have no interest in these pathetic losers. If they made generous offerings that would be different, but clearly that is not the case. I will tolerate no more excuses on your part. Do you understand me?”
I made a big show of gathering the notes that had spilled to the floor and using my fist to compact the letters in the basket. My knuckles made a satisfying crack as they hit the wooden bottom.
“ No need to be violent, Guido. Just do your job and we needn’t have any more unpleasant discussions.”
Her attempt at a smile disturbed me more than her usual scowl. Her facial muscles rebelled at the unaccustomed upward exercise and twitched in protest.
After she finished with her other more minor complaints, she disappeared like a ghost. And like a ghost, she was sure to come back to haunt me. I never know when I will find her cold presence beside me.
I have never been one to follow the rules. I suppose that is why I have ended up like this, at the mercy of the likes of Sister Ingrid. I will obey most of her commands but I will never burn the letters. I would gladly go back to my previous life before I destroy them. Sleeping in a shelter is nothing to be proud of, but at least I was the ruler of myself. My job is to protect the letters from the Sister Ingrid’s of the world. I guard the legacy of those who have gone before me.
Earlier today a woman limped into the sanctuary, sat down on a bench and extended her leg, as if to rest it.
Most American women don’t linger here. If they come at all, they come as part of a tour, a quick stop before lunch at Benito’s or shopping in Via Cavour.
Even in pain, she had that air of self-possession American women seem to have in their genetic make up. Italian women are always looking to make sure their gestures are meeting their mark, and they don’t look away when they catch an admiring eye.
American women are oblivious of their power and this one was no exception.
She was past the bloom of youth one could say, somebody’s mother no doubt, but she could still turn a man’s head with a little effort. Part of the attraction is the fact that she didn’t work at it. Her hair was graying but it suited her in an exotic way with curls framing a face that was devoid of makeup. Italian women plaster the stuff on, more and more as they age, creating a kind of death mask except they are still alive under all the paint.
She seemed to doze off for about 30 minutes. When she stirred, she moved closer to Beatrice’s tomb and the letters. She stared into the basket and I could tell she wanted to dip her fingers in to select a juicy letter but she looked around and spotted me, mopping the floor behind the altarpiece.
She went back to her seat, raised her foot again and appeared to go back to sleep.
But I knew she was watching me, hoping I would soon leave my work. This one was curious and I knew she would not rest until she had fished out a few gems from the pile.
I wasn’t going to make it easy for her, I detest nosey gossips. Sometimes I notice a woman who craves privacy so she can pen her own letter or deposit a letter she had written at home.
But no, this one was different and I wasn’t budging. I can play this game very well; I stared at her from across the chapel. After a while she got up, put a few coins in the slot and lit a candle for Beatrice. Then she limped to the big wooden door and pushed it hard to escape into the street.
Something told me she’d be back, I’ll look out for this one, she interests me but I’m not sure why.
Ogni Martedi, Mercato
“Pazzo! Pazzo! Tre euros! Pazzo!” the vendor barks, like a carney hawker. He tosses a rainbow-hued salad of new children’s clothing at the crowd gathered around his table. Every now and then he blows a silver whistle and repeats:
“Crazy! Crazy! Three Euros! Crazy!”
The tiny t-shirts and overalls have English logos and words like: Beach Princess, Surf Boy, Hollywood Girl, Smile USA. Grandmothers and mothers scoop up the bargains while the neighboring stallholders, with their neatly folded wares, pretend to be bored.
The traveling caravan of trucks and vans visit the Chianti and Valdarno towns, turning each town square into the weekly market.
It’s Tuesday morning and that means market day in FiglineValdarno. I am determined to do my shopping here to avoid the big grocery store. I want to bring back gifts that are not the hastily purchased souvenirs available all over Italy like the miniature David statues or grinning sunflowers on plastic coffee mugs.
My Italian friend, Betina, leads me through the market on my first Tuesday. She seems to know everyone, the vendors as well as the shoppers.
She introduces me to her friends. I smile and nod, feigning understanding, trying to fit in. It is early May and I do not hear any English spoken. The tourists will arrive later. Figline is only a twenty minute train ride from Florence and it makes a great launching point to explore Chianti, Sienna and the hill towns of Tuscany.
Bargaining with the vendors is almost impossible, but with Betina’s introduction, I get a deal on the window curtains I admire. Instead of ten euros a panel, I purchase two for fifteen. These curtains will eventually hang in my home office in California, bringing a bit of Italy to my cluttered workspace.
After a few Tuesdays I can pass as a native, if I don’t open my mouth. I dig into the sale bins with the Italian housewives, using delicate pressure from my elbow, hip and foot to claim and keep my spot. I covet the tablecloth the lady beside me is examining and hope she will reject it so I can consider the purchase. Why does everything seem more attractive when it is in danger of being snapped up by someone else?
I discover a red silk slip dress for one euro, which I grab. I know I will find someone small enough to fit into it. I find cotton pillow covers and embroidered tablecloths, some in odd sizes, but beautiful just the same. The secret is in digging down and unearthing the treasures while keeping one eye on the stall owner as he tosses new items onto the tables.
After a few hours of searching for bargains, I am hungry. Luckily, Betina has shown me the best place to grab a snack. The porcetta van is stationed in the middle of the market, between the food stalls and the clothing. A decapitated pig’s carcass, stuffed with herbs and garlic sits in the place of honor on the top shelf. His whiskery head faces his body and looks back stoically at what he has become. Behind the pig, a rotisserie turns chickens, rabbits and skewers of meat. I order a pannino filed with slices of garlicky pork on a crusty roll. No mustard or mayo needed, or offered, just the salty crackling taste of fresh pig. Fried polenta, Tuscan beans and lasagna sit on the lower shelves. There are some little roasted birds that I suspect are thrush, a delicacy the Tuscans call tordo. In the fall, the town of Montalcino celebrates the harvest with a festival called, “Sangra de Tordo”. These songbirds are grilled and swallowed whole, in one gulp, bones, innards and all.
The vegetables and fruit are displayed like jewels in a designer’s showcase. “Non tochera il frutta,” a sign instructs. In Italy, the customer does not touch the fruit. In the grocery stores, I must wear a disposable plastic glove while choosing my produce. Once I have bagged my selection, I retreat to a scale where I tap on a picture that most resembles my intended purchase. A price sticker is produced. After I place the sticker on my bag, I can head to the cashier. If I neglect to do this or worse, do it incorrectly, I must run back to the scale and correct my error. The line waits but I can hear the tongue clicking as if it is amplified on the loud speaker.
At the market, the stall keepers serve their customers, one at a time. I simply point to the red onions I want, then gesture to the apricots that come from Sicily. The new words roll off my tongue: cippoline rosa, apricoco.
By 1:30, the townsfolk return home with their packages and fresh gossip for lunch and riposa. The vans are packed up, the inventory stored away for tomorrow’s market in the town of Bucine. On cue, the orange clad cleaning staff, like a theatre’s backstage crew, moves in to remove the trash. The show is over, at least for this Tuesday.
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You don’t fool me Miranda! I know who you are.