The Villa Mondare
A few days before Wheeler was scheduled to leave Boston for
the Villa Mondare in the Lake Magiorre district of northern Italy
to begin a five week almost all expenses paid residence as a scholar,
his wife of ten years, Flora, without advance warning, left him.
His wife's abrupt departure after so many difficult years
together unnerved Wheeler, made him feel unfit for the company
of strangers, so he called the sponsoring agency, the Holden Foundation,
to postpone his arrival for at least five days.
His request for a delay was received with no great enthusiasm.
It was not encouraged, he was told, the spaces at the Villa
in great demand . . . a long list of people waiting for a cancellation.
"A family problem, an emergency," he heard himself
saying when the silence at the other end threatened his already
fragile equilibrium, "which should take three or four days
to put to rest."
Wheeler flew to Milan in an unprepared state three days later
than previously arranged.
Nothing had been settled at home except that his recently
estranged wife, Flora, would not be joining him at the Villa,
would not be joining him, so she said, anywhere ever again.
Wheeler had been to Italy once before, though not to this
part of Italy, had spent three days at a conference in Rome twenty
years ago and had been robbed by a team of professional pickpockets,
which had undermined an otherwise positive trip.
A limousine picked him up at the Milan airport--a limousine
for him alone--and took him on narrow picturesque roads, ancient
stucco houses like jewels set into the sides of cliffs, to his
elegant accommodations at the Villa Mondare, which was just outside
the town of Tuamo on a dramatic hill overlooking the lake.
The astonishment of the views from the windows and balcony
of the spacious room they had ushered him to eased his sense of
dislocation, let him feel if only for a moment or two that some
unsought grace had entered his life.
He unpacked, showered and changed, put on his public face
and went to the East Terrace, as advised, for apperitivi,
which preceded lunch.
The other scholars and their spouses gathered around him to
make his acquaintance and, for an extended moment, he knew what
it was to be celebrated by an unknown public.
What had happened to delay his arrival? his new-found friends,
his crowd of well-wishers, wanted to know.
Almost everyone was older than he was--five, ten years older--and
they were all, with one interesting exception, in residence as
The exception was a single woman of perhaps thirty-five, small,
dark, intense, painfully private, a visual artist with the unlikely
name, Serena Swan.
She was the only one who hadn't come up to him on the terrace
to introduce herself, which had the effect of making him more
aware of her than anyone else.
(Was it a conscious device? he wondered.)
The others were friendly and solicitous like a family of uncles
and aunts, seemed barely distinguishable to him on first introduction.
There was a sanitary engineer, a sovietologist, a president
of a university, a rocket scientist, an Incan specialist, a composer
of computer music, a Romanian literary scholar, a famous criminal
lawyer, an ecologist who worked for the government, a deposed
leader of a small Asian country, a philosopher from Harvard, and
an avant garde visual artist among others.
For his first meal, he was obliged to sit next to the high-spirited
director of the center, Marco Antonelli, who questioned him about
his difficulties in arriving and the nature of his work.
Wheeler was forthcoming and evasive.
His wife had taken ill, he said, the first explanation to
come to mind, an innocent enough lie, a marginal truth.
"Will she be joining you?" Antonelli asked.
Wheeler said it depended on her health and whether she could
get away from her job.
In the accelerating derangement of his personal life, Wheeler
had lost contact with his project, his book-length study on domestic
violence in primitive cultures, a study he had been collecting
odd bits of data on for more than a decade.
So when Antonelli, out of hostly obligation asked about it,
he found himself explaining his project in the language of his
application, which had stuck in his mind like a frozen computer
His book was made of narratives, he said, was meant to be
suggestive rather than conclusive.
But what did Wheeler mean by "primitive cultures"?
Primitive in the loosest possible sense, said Wheeler, no longer
fully sure what he meant, mountain people, the uneducated, the
illiterate, people who live far from civilization.
Antonelli, who had a sly wit, made a joke about Wheeler interviewing
one of the gardeners who, years back, had strangled his wife for
a seemingly negligible provocation, the man a wonderful gardener,
tender with plants, devoted to the soil.
Wheeler didn't know how to reply, mumbled, "Well, maybe
I'll make time to talk to him."
"He speaks no English," said Antonelli.
"My Italian is rather primitive," Wheeler confessed,
abashed at the failing, "restaurant and guide book stuff."
"He won't even talk to me," said Antonelli.
Wheeler slept in the afternoon, feeling slightly feverish,
postponed visiting his studio which was in an outbuilding somewhere
on the estate's extensive grounds.
The next morning--the beginning of his first full day--Wheeler
slept through breakfast.
At a little before eleven o clock--he was not even sure he
had set his watch to the right time--he took his briefcase and
the Xeroxed map they had given him and set off into the woods
to establish a presence in his studio.
Once he got caught up in his work, he thought, he might be
able to let go of this obsessive feeling of loss.
The Tower studio, which took him ten minutes to reach, was
a fifteenth-century stone building equipped with two catty-cornered
desks, an IBM Selectric on one and paper, pencils, ribbon cartridges,
three ball-point pens, four pencils, a swarm of paper clips, Whiteout,
hole puncher, erasers, pencil sharpener, and two bottles of mineral
water on the right-hand corner of the other.
Wheeler sat down at the desk without the typewriter, opened
his manila folder of notes and jottings, felt closed-in and reopened
the outside door.
While he was shuffling through his papers, a bee found its
way into the small enclosure and buzzed about in a rage of frustration.
Waiting in vain for the bee to find its way out, Wheeler poured
himself a cup of mineral water (one of several graces provided
for him) and leaned on an elbow.
From his narrow window, the waters of Lake Magiorre, glistening
in the sun through a scrim of leaves, looked like multi-colored
As he was leaving the studio for lunch, a small figure jogged
by without a word--intrusive in her silence--on the path outside
his door, wearing a red tee shirt with the black lettered inscription,
"Woman in Motion."
At lunch he found himself sitting next to the jogger, Serena
"I don't believe we've actually met," he said, holding
out his hand and offering his full name, Henry Adams Wheeler.
Serena had her eyes down, head turned away, as if painfully
shy or lost in contemplation or studying the poker hand of bread
sticks in front of her.
Her continuing silence provoked him to talk, which she attended
to without verbal response, a conscientious wordless listener.
He found himself telling her things about his life he had
given away to no one else: his sense of incompletion at Flora's
departure as if a piece of himself had torn itself free and floated
He had no idea why he was exposing himself to this stranger,
though that he had, and that she seemed receptive, intensified
his attraction to her.
The middle-aged woman on his left, a Romanian scholar doing
a study of nineteenth-century Transylvanian heroines, interrupted
Wheeler's monologue with a question about Wheeler's belated arrival.
"All that matters," he said abruptly, "is that
I'm here now." When he turned back to his sympathetic listener,
she was in apparent conversation with the man on her right, Lucien
Karamazov, a world famous sovietologist, a man capable of decoding
Feeling betrayed and somewhat disheartened (he had bored her
with his self-involvement), Wheeler made no further attempt to
After dessert and coffee had been served, as he was getting
up to leave the table, Serena seemed to say to him from behind
her hand, "Don't lose heart."
Wheeler walked away without looking at her, considered that
it was possible that he had misheard her, that she couldn't possibly
have said what he thought he heard, though it echoed in his head
with a nasty authority.
He made a pit stop at his elegant room, took a couple of aspirin
and sat down with a detective novel by Jim Thompson the previous
guest had left behind, planning to begin work in earnest at the
Tower after a few minutes of rest.
He read two pages of the book, the second page twice. It was
4:30 when Wheeler woke, feeling better if still slightly feverish--the
sweat like ashes on his forehead--the prospect for an afternoon
of work diminishing by the minute.
An alternate plan formed itself: why not use the time before
dinner to explore Tuamo, which he had only seen from his terrace,
and to get himself a gellatto--his throat a little sore--and maybe
even take a ride on one of the ferries that seemed to come and
go from one distant lake village or another at ten minute intervals.
Wheeler stopped at the second gellateria he passed, the one
on the steps going down to the ferry docks and was assessing the
ice cream on display in the glass showcase when he noticed someone
familiar out of the side of his eye a few feet away, her back
Hoping to escape without being discovered, he ordered a cone
of something called nociolla by pointing to it, the whole transaction
made through gesture.
He was walking down the steep stairway to the lake front,
in a self-congratulatory mood when he felt a cool hand on his
arm, and heard a woman's teasing voice saying, "You made
a wise choice."
"Garbo speaks," he said.
She rolled her eyes up in mock exasperation and said, "I
don't talk while I eat and I don't talk while I fuck, capice?"
She accompanied him down the steps or perhaps he accompanied
"Look, they don't approve of guests getting romantically
involved," she said, touching his arm, taking that liberty,
"which was made apparent a couple years ago when some guy
was caught in the room of a woman who wasn't his wife and was
sent home the next day."
"I'll be careful not to let that happen," he said.
She took two gliding sidesteps away from him and said, "That's
an obnoxious thing to say."
Resisting the impulse to apologize, he said, "You like
to think of yourself as an outrageous person, don't you?"
She shook her head in smirking denial, said, "Are you
so prickly all the time?"
"I am boringly even tempered," he said.
"Just so," she said, entertaining a private smile.
They walked down the steps side by side (arms brushing) to
the parallel street below that ran alongside the lake.
Who was following whom? he troubled himself to wonder.
They made their way to the ferry docks and tarried at the
schedule posted out front, all in fuckless silence.
It was implicitly arranged: he would take his maiden (so to
speak) voyage with her on the ferry leaving for Terrarosa in a
little over five minutes and return (it was ten after five at
the moment) on the 6:20 or 7:15 boat, the latter making dinner
a close call though not impossible if they walked up the two hundred
ninety-five steps from town to Villa at a brisk pace.
Wheeler bought two round trip tickets to Terrarosa, and they
boarded the ferry which had just arrived and unburdened itself,
taking seats upstairs on the right side, which was less populated
than the left, all of which was done with barely a word spoken
"There are gardens in Terrarosa that require visiting,"
she said, "which is what you have in mind, I suppose."
"I'm always game for a good garden," he said, aware
that their legs were touching and that it was she who initiated
The Terrarosa Gardens were a seven minute walk from the ferry
dock, Wheeler taking note so as to assess the latest they might
stay and still get back in time for dinner, Serena mildly amused
at his diligence.
The gardens were virtually flowerless, not what he expected,
all huge overhanging palms and cunning paths.
Serena gave full concentration to the exotic landscape while
Wheeler went through the motions of looking, out of patience with
the outside world.
At some inevitable point, he moved on ahead.
When he looked back some minutes later, not to let her get
too far behind, she was not in the picture, which made him anxious
though he couldn't imagine why.
He knew he wasn't responsible for her, but he felt responsible.
Wheeler retraced his steps, took a subsidiary path on the
left that ascended to a higher level--the only place she might
have turned off--and he hurried along hoping to overtake her.
He was out of breath when he reached the top of the hill and,
finding no sign of her in either direction, he shouted her name
into the void.
An old man, shovel in one hand, burning stub end of a cigarette
in the other, turned his way.
Wheeler asked in his guidebook Italian if the man had seen
a young American woman go by.
Flicking his glowing stub to the ground, the old man considered
Wheeler's question as if it presented some hidden metaphysical
"Signorina Americana," he said at last, holding
out empty hands, "notta here."
Wheeler rephrased his question to make it clear he was asking
if she had been there, had gone by there on her way to somewhere
The old man shook a gnarled finger at him, a look of bemusement
on his face, then he said something Wheeler didn't understand
and made a backhanded gesture which indicated (or didn't) that
he take the turn to the right.
Fifteen minutes later, having lost himself briefly in a simulated
rain forest, Wheeler found himself back at the center path about
fifty feet further on.
He completed the tour of the gardens then retraced his steps
to the entrance, which was also the way out, hoping to find Serena
waiting for him.
He asked the attendant, whom he recognized as the woman who
had sold them their tickets to the garden, if Serena (describing
her) had come through.
Although she spoke English and had been chatty with them earlier,
the woman seemed to misunderstand his question.
When he asked again if Serena had passed through, the woman
said she had just come on duty, which Wheeler knew to be a lie,
though he could think of no reason for her dissembling.
After another failed search, he took the 7:15 ferry back to
Tuamo, showered, put on the obligatory jacket and tie and arrived
at dinner without appetite just as the soup course was being served.
Serena, sitting five seats away on the same side of the long
table, ignored his inquiring glance.
Wheeler fulfilled his obligation to the meal, argued with
the energy specialist on his left about the what might be done
to head off the uncertain possibility of global warming.
At midnight there was a knock on his door, which he reluctantly
left his bed, slipping on pajama pants--he had been lying in the
nude on top of his blanket, the night still--to answer.
Standing facing away, hands on hips, Serena whispered, an
insinuating smile on her face, "Is it too late?"
He said it was, said where the hell were you, I was sleeping,
I'm going to sleep, goodnight, and yet he was pleased she had
come to his door.
"Sorr-ry," she said, closing the door behind her,
padding down the hall in her slippers, while he stood there listening
to her steps disappear in the distance.
That wasn't the end of it.
A few minutes later--he had closed his eyes, folded them shut,
thinking of a movie he had seen a month ago of a lawyer on trial
for the murder of a woman he had an affair with, had become obsessed
with--his phone made a buzzing sound.
As he reached for the receiver in the dark, he said under
his breath, Why does she want to torment me?
He listened dutifully to her silence.
Why call, he wanted to say, he almost said, if you have nothing
to tell me?
When she had hung up, cutting him off at the very moment he
was prepared to speak, he felt tears of anger rush to his eyes.
He put on his pants over his pajama bottoms and went out into
the hall with a flashlight, went from door to door, looking for
the right room.
The hallway turned, went down two stairs and up one, and the
further he got from his own room, the more he despaired of finding
his way back.
The last door was hers: Ms. Serena Swan.
He knocked once and then, embarrassed (what was he doing here
so far from home in the middle of the night, in the middle of
his forty-fourth year?) he reversed his steps.
Before he knew it, someone was pursuing him down the hall.
He had his key out, he found his room, he opened his door,
he tried to pull it shut, an act that was resisted by the interposition
of an arm.
"Are you mad?" she whispered, which made Wheeler
smile. "This isn't what you think it is," she said,
squeezing by him into the room.
Wheeler crossed his arms in front of him, said, "What
Serena curled up in the nearest chair, yawned, said, "If
you're going to say you started it, which is what I imagine you
saying in my head, there's no point in either of us ever talking
to the other again."
Wheeler studied her face before speaking, muttered in a barely
intelligible voice, "You started it."
She frowned, nodded to herself in justification, closed her
eyes and in a moment or two appeared to be asleep in her chair,
her rosebud mouth ajar, her faint snoring adding itself to the
otherwise distant voices of the night.
Wheeler watched her from his bed, unable to give up consciousness,
afraid of what she might do if he weren't there to watch her do
In his third week at the villa, in love, Wheeler rediscovered
the rationale for his book on domestic violence. Pages emerged
each day from his IBM Selectric, leaves of thought, accumulating
from nowhere into a substantial pile.
Almost every night after the others were in bed, Serena came
to his room and made love to him--sometimes with apparent passion,
sometimes as matter of ritual--with hardly a spoken word to acknowledge
what was going on. When he woke at first light, when he slept
and woke, she was gone.
During the day, even on the rare occasions when they were
alone, she tended to ignore him, which Wheeler accepted as an
extreme version of discretion. Only signor Antonelli, who would
wink at him from time to time, seemed aware of Wheeler's secret
One evening after dinner, Serena gave an exhibition of some
of her work (a kind of high level show and tell) for the assembled
guests. The displayed art (an odd collection of painted-on found
objects), which she described as conceptual, disturbed Wheeler
with their freakiness.
Later in bed after lovemaking, he made the mistake of offering
his uninformed opinions on her presentation (she made the mistake
of asking what he thought) with only slight pulling of punches.
Serena was outraged, said she had known he was hostile but not
that hostile, put on her clothes and left his bed for her own.
What could he say by way of apology without compromising his
integrity, he wondered in the wake of her absence. He slept badly,
dreamed several variations of telling Serena he was sorry in various
beseeching ways which earned him without exception her silent
He let the next day go by without approaching her, then caught
her smiling at him (or so he thought) from across the dinner table
but she did not appear in his room that night which led him to
read the smile in retrospect as something else. In his dream,
an abject Serena apologized to him for being thin-skinned and
insecure, whispered in his ear the admission that a little hostility
was an attractive quality in a man.
The next morning Wheeler's mysterious low grade fever, which
had mysteriously disappeared for a week, returned. He forced himself
out of bed, dressed himself in whatever was at hand and rushed
to the villa terrace in the hope of catching Serena at breakfast.
The only one left at the table, which was otherwise cleared,
was Michella Antonelli cracking the shell of one of three soft-boiled
eggs spread out in front of her. "You are too late,"
she said to him, "but you are welcome, if you like, to share
one of my eggs."
Wheeler settled for a cup of coffee and sat with his hostess
while she excavated her eggs. "You seem happier now,"
she said, a woman who was nothing if not direct, "than when
you first came, no?"
Someone had blown the whistle on him, thought Wheeler, letting
a worst case scenario play itself out in his imagination. "It's
only an illusion," he said, which made Michella laugh.
"The illusion in question is happiness in general or
your own happiness?" she asked. A few minutes later, she
excused herself and left the table.
Wheeler continued on the winding path that went by his studio
with the idea of calming himself before starting work. He composed
a letter to Serena in his head and when it was finished he found
himself at the ruin of a medieval castle.
It was an undemanding climb and Wheeler worked his way to
the top of the ruins, as if there were some secret that might
be revealed by seeing things from the highest point of the grounds.
As reward for his effort, he discovered the intriguing prospect
of a cave--not mentioned in the guidebook--about a hundred yards
to the right.
It wasn't really a cave, he discovered, when he found his
way there, and left the early afternoon light for the shadowy
dark, but a tunnel. He heard someone (something?) in the shadows
ahead of him and he waited with his back to the wall for whatever
it was to reveal itself.
Later, when he was back in his room at the Villa, he tried
to assess what had happened to him. Something had touched his
shoulder in the dark and he must have fainted because the next
thing he knew he was lying on the ground near the exit, thirty-five
minutes of his life lost to him.
His fever had gotten worse and he lay in bed, unable to focus,
leaving his room again and again only to find himself in the same
place. Eventually it was time for dinner.
Eventually it was time for breakfast. The phone rang intermittently
and he didn't answer and then he did, but afterward he had no
recollection of what was said to him or what he said in return
They brought him food which he tried to eat and couldn't and
at some point an Italian doctor arrived to examine him. When the
doctor in broken English asked how he was feeling, Wheeler said
"Not at all."
When word of his illness got out, most of the other scholars
made pilgrimages to his room to see how he was getting along.
Serena was among the handful that, for one reason or another,
didn't show up.
The antibiotic the grave doctor gave him reduced Wheeler's
fever to its previous inconsequential state, and the next day,
feeling barely better, he was attending meals as before. There
was much solicitude. Even Serena, who maintained her practiced
silence, looked at him with what he took to be concern.
The doctor returned three day's later for a follow-up visit,
seemed insufficiently pleased at Wheeler's progress, suggested
he come to the hospital in Milan for tests. When Wheeler said
he was all right where he was, the doctor let the issue drop.
The fever continued, flickered on and off, as if the condition
of health had been shorted by some loose wire in his system.
He was having a fever dream when Serena knocked at his door
with her mildly insistent double tap. When he opened the door
(his dream erection preceding him) she came in without a word
of explanation--her prefuck silence--and sat down possessively
on the side of his bed. "I'm back, oh Henry," she said.
She instructed Wheeler to lie on his back and not worry about
a thing, she would do the work, slapping his hands out of the
way when he grabbed at her. She didn't want interference, she
said, wanted things her own way for a change. "I love you,
Serena," he said while she was riding him, which to his surprise
brought tears to her eyes and broke her habitual silence.
The next morning when he woke up, she was still in his bed,
cuddled against him, her arms sashed around his waist. He felt
elated that she was still there, though later when she insisted
on appearing at breakfast with him--"we have nothing to hide,"
she said--he felt as if some basic freedom had been abridged.
Instead of going to her own studio, she accompanied him to his,
visiting with him for over an hour, sitting on his desk with her
legs twirled around his neck.
The period of subterfuge was over. She made a point of sitting
next to him at lunch, her thigh touching his under the table.
Unable to finish her gnocchi with pesto, she spooned her leftovers
onto his plate, an intimacy which attracted a few amused stares.
Antonelli left a note for him in his mail box the next day,
requesting a meeting, and Wheeler knew or thought he knew what
was coming. He showed the note to Serena, whose only reaction
was a shrug. "If it were about us, they would have sent me
one too," she said, "no?"
Wheeler decides that if they ask him to leave (or ask him
to stop seeing Serena), he will politely refuse. He feels at home
at the Villa, has never been happier anywhere. He will not defend
his actions or excuse them. Who knows better than the Italians
that passion is its own justification.
In Wheeler's dream, Antonelli warns him to stay away from
Serena, that she is disturbed and possibly dangerous. "I
can handle it," he boasts, but the outcome of the dream belies
his bravado. In the actual meeting, Antonelli tells him almost
the same thing though not directly. Serena, he learns, had been
institutionalized as a teenager for killing her mother's lover.
The next night when he knocks on Serena's door and she is
slow to answer, he realizes--he hears a voice, a man's voice--that
someone is in bed with her. He knocks again, banging his fist
against the door in outrage. Eventually the door opens just enough
for Serena's face to appear. When Wheeler forces his way in, he
sees Antonelli in a white silk bathrobe, facing away, standing
like a shadow at the window.
The next time he sees Serena, she shows him the gun, a pearl-handled
.22 caliber pistol the size of a cigarette lighter, she had used
on her mother's lover. "Why are you showing me this?"
he asks her. "If you have to ask," she says, winking,
"I guess I'm not getting my message across." Wheeler
notices that she is pointing the gun in his direction. "Hey,
that's not funny," he says.
When her attention is distracted, Wheeler wrestles the gun
away from her. He is surprised at how little resistance she offers.
"Big strong man," she says. "It's not even loaded,
you asshole." Wheeler winces under her verbal assault.
Serena comes to his studio the next morning to make amends,
brings him a letter that had been sitting in his mail box for
days. It is from Flora and he folds it in half and stuffs it in
his pants pocket. "You can open it now," she says. "I'll
turn my back while you read. There are no secrets between us."
Is it always that way? When you have wanted something badly
and then no longer want it, it tends to come to pass. Flora, who
is to be in Italy for unlikely reasons, asks if she may come and
visit him. "You may not believe this," she writes, "but
I've missed you." Serena reads his face with a troubled glance
as he reads his wife's letter.
The best of times pass more quickly than the worst. Wheeler
wakes up one morning with the awareness that in two short days
he will have to leave Mondare and return to the world. How could
his time have passed so quickly? He remember arriving--the difficulties
of that first day--and the day Serena left without saying good-bye
and little else. He remembers writing to Flora, asking her not
to come to Mondare.
There is a knock on his door while he is still in bed. The
limousine, which has come to take him to the airport, can only
wait five more minutes. "I'm not ready," Wheeler says.
Later that day, Marco Antonelli visits him in his room. "We
need your room for another scholar," says Antonelli in his
mild, reasonable, slightly ironic voice.
When Antonelli leaves, Wheeler locks the door to his room
and returns to bed. In his dream, Serena arrives with two policemen
who forcibly enter his room and, wrapping him in his blankets,
take him from the Villa. They board a ferry, smuggle him aboard
as if he were cargo. "To live in the world," Serena
tells him after they stuff him in a barrel in the hull of the
ferry, "you must learn to give up the world." "Last
call for Magenta," the captain calls and a new group of passengers
(after a period of hectic comings and goings) replace the old.
He goes without food, refusing to respond to the imprecations--the
insistent knocking and officious chatter--at his locked door.
When he feels strong enough, he wedges the heavy wardrobe against
the door. He showers off the sweat and dresses himself in his
gray suit, which hangs on him. Antonelli calls him on the phone
to ask him to let the doctor visit him. If the doctor says he
is too sick to leave, Antonelli assures him, they will let him
stay until he is better. Can he trust them? Wheeler wonders.
The gardener, who killed his wife in a notorious case ten
years ago, says he will give Wheeler an interview if he opens
his door. "I thought you spoke no English," says the
suspicious Wheeler, who at the same time is not unappreciative
of the significance of the offer. "If they knew I speaka
de English," says the gardener, "do you think they would
a letta me go?" Wheeler says he will submit a list of ten
questions to the gardener and if the first two are answered to
his satisfaction, he will unlatch the door. The gardener says
something in Italian, which Wheeler takes for agreement.
The chef appears at the door with a bowl of Wheeler's favorite
soup--chicken soup with stars Mondare style. It has been so long
since Wheeler has eaten anything, the idea of food repels him.
"Leave it outside if you don't mind," Wheeler says.
"It is meant to take warm," the chef says ruefully.
Wheeler imagines he hears the chef carrying the soup away, though
also dreams of opening the door to find the bowl of steaming soup
awaiting his reluctant pleasure.
Somehow Flora is produced, or is it merely Flora's voice on
tape outside his locked door. "Honey," she says, "this
has gone much too far. Let me in, okay? I'll look after you as
I used to. You know you need me to look after you, you know you
know that. I do love you, Henry."
Dressed in his gray suit, Wheeler sits on his terrace and
studies the world at large. A crowd gathers. When people wave
at him, he accepts their homage with an almost imperceptible military
salute. After awhile a succession of unmarked police vans drive
up, arrange themselves in a semi-circle in the courtyard below.
Marco Antonelli is talking to the driver of the first van. Wheeler
can tell they are talking about him because Antonelli points in
his direction from time to time. So many people have gone to so
much trouble on his account, Wheeler thinks, which is more burden
to him than pleasure.
When the sun goes down, he returns to his room. The phone
has been ringing for several minutes before he troubles himself
to answer. It is his father on the line, calling from Seattle,
Washington. "Henry," the old man says in his booming
voice, "Flora called to tell us what was going on and I want
you to know your mother and I are a hundred percent behind you.
If you're in the right, you stand by your guns." Wheeler,
conserving his energy, merely nods in response. "Right or
wrong, we're proud of you," his father says. "Now this
is costing some money, so I'm going to sign off. Just to say your
mom and dad's thoughts are with you in this your hour of need."
Days pass. The appeals to reason have fallen off, he is considered
a hopeless case. The carbinieri wait outside his balcony in military
formation, pass the time spitting, smoking butts, and shooting
at random birds. The one time Wheeler ventures on to the balcony
to get some air, a stray bullet nearly takes his head off. No,
thank you. So he stays in the room, conserving his strength, getting
weaker, occasionally pacing back and forth. He thinks of agreeing
to leave in exchange for a meal, but he wants the other side to
make the first offer of conciliation. He calls the office and
asks to speak to Antonelli. The secretary he speaks to, a young
woman named Francesca, says signor Antonelli is not available.
This morning Wheeler unlatches his door, and leaves it ajar.
A cleaning womn comes in to change his sheets, but no one else
comes his way. Though he feels light-headed, his legs feathery,
when the timeis right he saunters to the dining room for lunch.
The strangers around the table nod to him in greeting as if he
were a new arrival. Names are thrust at him. It is like his first
day at Mondare the second time around. He notices the waiters
looking at him askance, talking in whispers among themselves,
the occasional finger pointing in his direction. Afraid that they
won't serve him, afraid that he will have no appetite, he eats
ravenously--two packages of breadsticks, a salad of sun-dried
tomatoes and mozzarella, two helpings of linguini with seafood.
He lingers over coffee and desert, is the last one to leave the
table. Michella Antonelli, wearing her rueful sympathetic smile,
seems to be waiting for him as he leaves the dining room, motions
him to follow her to the library. When they are alone, she outlines
a plan for his escape, warning him that if he returns to his room,
the carbinieri have orders to shoot him on sight.
Disguised as a woman, carrying a gun in his purse, Wheeler
boards a ferry at Tuamo. It is his plan to take the bus at Terrarosa
to Switzerland and from there, after an overnight stay in Zurich,
fly back to America. His problem is this: he is identified as
a man on his passport so he needs to get out of his female disguise
and back into men's clothes before he reaches the Swiss boarder.
He goes into the Women's Room on the ferry to make manifest gender
change, but the ferry docks before he can complete transformation
and he has to hurry--the door sticks a bit--to get off the boat
before it takes off on return trip to Tuamo. As soon as he is
on dry land, Wheeler realizes that he left his purse with his
passport in it in the bathroom on board so he jumps over the chain
as the ferry is pulling out and twists his ankle in a clumsy sprawl.
And then the purse isn't in the Women's Room where he left it
but has been removed to the Captain's quarters, which means (he
hardly knows what it means) he will have to explain his unlikely
predicament in guide book Italian. Fortunately, the captain speaks
some English and he hands over the purse with no questions asked,
all the time staring at Wheeler, his woman's make-up askew from
prior attempt to remove, as if he were some kind of pathetic freak.
Two policemen board at Tuamo and elect to sit on the bench directly
behind Wheeler. If they wanted to arrest him, they could have
taken him in at Tuamo. He hums to himself some long forgotten
jingle his mother used to sing to him as a child.
He is on a crowded bus among mostly German-speaking tourists
heading toward Switzerland. A mile or so from the Swiss border,
the bus is stopped by an unmarked black car. Two uniformed officials
board and walk down the aisle while Wheeler looks out the window--a
gray stone wall the only vista--as a way of disguising his presence.
A man two seats behind Wheeler is removed by the two uniforms.
"What's that about?" he asks the stout woman next to
him. "I don't know," she says in foreign English, "but
I would guess that he's the child rapist they've had an all points
alarm out for." The bus moves into Switzerland without further
incident. He rents a car in Lugano in conjunction with his companion
from the bus, who is from England, her name Gretchen, and drives
to the airport in Zurich. They spend the night in an airport hotel
in adjoining rooms. When Wheeler wakes at 5:00 a.m., he discovers
that Gretchen has gone and all his cash except the twenty dollar
bill he keeps in his shoe for just such emergencies, has gone
with her. At the Zurich Airport, after waiting in line for forty
minutes, he discovers (his frustrations multiplying) that all
the flights convenient to his stateside destination have been
over-booked and the only available flight back is by way of a
two hour stopover at Milan, which is the last place he wants to
go. Rather than spend two more days in Zurich, which is the alternative,
Wheeler takes his chances with Milan, figuring the Italians may
have forgotten their grievances toward him by this point, hanging
out in a booth in the Men's Room to make himself less apparent
during the hiatus between flights, eavesdropping on a drug deal
between two men dressed as priests in the adjoining booth. The
trip back to Boston, except for some minor turbulence, is uneventful.
On his return to earth, his estranged wife, Flora, and two editors
from Houghton Mifflin, eager to publish the completed manuscript
of his seminal book on domestic violence in mostly primitive cultures,
greet him at the arrivals gate at Logan Airport like a returning
prisoner of war, his wife holding on to him as if he might float
away into the ether, lost to the world of ambition forever, if
not pressed to earth by love's embrace.