|Steven J. Frank
Sitting in an outdoor
cafe, sipping macchiato and tapping his feet absently, Ira Pokotilow nurses
his grievances. He has already endured three arduous weeks in Europe, been
subjected to the starched, prideful British, the effeminate French, and
the insufferably pacific Swiss with their gingerbread manners and ceaseless
concerns over his comfort during a two-day layover in Berne. At least he
managed to avoid Germany and its filthy beer halls.
But now his legs are tight bundled cords of stiffness and pain from
his endless treks through this stinking antiquities landfill, through street
after street of crumbling structures all striped and smeared and caked
with the black grime of a hundred generations, and he wonders at the sentimental
stupidity of tourists who mistake such a noisy graveyard for something
genuinely alive. His thoughts barely form over the sputtering roar of the
Vespas as they streak by, one after the other, in a constant doppler-shifting
Next to him his wife Laura studies her fat Blue Guide to Rome. The hot
sun draws tiny particles of sweat from her forehead, wrinkled in deliberation
like the crowís feet that fan her eyes. She is placid as a Jersey cow with
those gray studious eyes. She sits there absorbing every detail, every
measurement of every cornice contained in that bottomless blue sea of architectural
trivia. What has she planned for the rest of the afternoon? What arches,
pediments, cloisters and colonnades will she hustle them through next,
as she mentally checks off their appearances like a doting party host greeting
"You really shouldnít sop up your sauce like that," he whispers to her,
and to blunt the criticism smiles, "itís outside the continental manner."
"What do you mean?" The snap in her voice exasperates him.
"The sauce is a garnish. Itís all right to dab your focaccia
in the sauce, but youíre using the bread as a ... a shovel." Ignoring him,
she heaves a gob of thick red gravy into her mouth, the only one at the
table eating anything. As if she needed it, Ira thinks, as if she werenít
fleshy enough already, as if she felt compelled to embarrass him by making
the table her trough.
He turns to his brother and instantly feels a wave of relief, of purpose.
Boyís done well, Ira decides. Looks every inch a local. His dark curly
hair drapes like a steel-wool sponge over the back of his neck. He wears
little round gold-rimmed sunglasses that hang from one ear under his gently
cleft chin, the other arm of the tilted frame braced against his neck in
chic Italian fashion.
Brian Pokotilow, professional Italian.
Heís even managed a sleek Roman girlfriend. Blonde, lithe and energetic,
she leans perilously backward in her metal mesh seat, balanced on the two
rear legs and gripping Brianís shoulder. Her carefree demeanor is decidedly
irritating. And Brianís continued evasions are becoming maddening. He hasnít
even introduced his girlfriend. Suddenly exasperated, Ira scrapes his chair
backward and heads for the outdoor bar. He cocks his head and Brian, dutiful
younger brother, follows.
"How much longer?" Ira demands in a hoarse whisper. "Weíre running out
"Patience," comes the languid continental reply. Before Ira can rejoin,
Brian catches the bartenderís eye and orders due gelati, gianduia.
Iraís attention is caught by the bartender as he raises a steel cover
behind the counter, revealing a row of narrow tubs filled with thick, creamy
confections. Although smooth in consistency, the differently colored gelati
glisten in the afternoon sun as if impregnated with diamond dust. Both
brothers are transfixed as the bartender hacks away at the dark brown hazelnut
with a scoop that resembles a little shovel.
"Iím sick of rubble," Ira says. "Iím sick of decay and the smell of
"You should take a lesson from the lovely ladies. See how they enjoy
themselves. I delighted in Lauraís tour of the Forumósheíll make an Italian
"Iíd say youíve achieved that pretty well on your own,"Ira says, admiration
in full view. Never could have carried this off himself. Leave it to his
brother to impersonate the Italians and plumb their most cherished secrets.
His eyes dart to multilingual Laura as she chatters bovinely with the
blonde and the waiter. Masterminding their next destination and her next
appetizer. Never should have agreed to take her along.
Ira rolls the gianduia against the roof of his mouth like an
epicure. "Maestro?" he asks.
Brian nods, then turns to the women. "Ravishing," he sighs, tipping
his cup against Iraís cup in a toast. "So very Italian."
"Is she expensive?" Ira asks, disdaining the blonde, her eyes now glued
Brian stiffens. "Imbecile! I was speaking of Laura," he chides, and
suddenly all affectation is gone from his speech. "Insult our meal ticket
again and Iíll pop your lights."
Ira doesnít ask. Heís learned not to ask. Heíll just have to wait.
A few minutes later, as Lauraís invisible leash drags them along Via
Cavour, Ira looks into his cup. Rome is ablaze, shafts of diffuse sunlight
flatten the streets and rise from the pavement in quivering waves, the
heat clings to everything ... yet the few remaining flecks of gelato
It recalls bitter memories. By noontime on a day such as this a queue
would stretch along a certain desolate warehouse in downtown Cambridge
halfway to the end of the block, and Ira would curse himself as the hordes
of MIT grinds and Harvard snobs and pleated professional investors chattered
away or barked into cellular phones as they waitedópatiently waited their
turn to savor a teeny cup of frosty ambrosia. Curse himself because he
was so rarely able to arrange his day of negotiating with heating-oil salesmen
and chaperoning plumbers and inspecting leaky roofs to avoid the lines
and get a little helping for himself. Curse the grizzled scoopkeeper who
wouldnít stay open a minute later or let him slip in ahead of the hordes,
even though the premises was part of his rounds! Ira Pokotilow,
the mayor of Main Street, property manager of more than fifty commercial
buildings, couldnít convince this gelato tyrant even to cut him
a break once in a while, much less outgrow his attachment for a signless,
nondescript hole wedged barely five feet deep into the low rent, open only
three hours a day.
He tried everything. There were a hundred empty storefronts and a thousand
hands eager to work them, including those of a certain loser brother always
between acting jobs and scrounging for money. He wheedled concessions in
advance from owners desperate to rent. He dreamed up a logo on his Mac.
He invented rosy financials for a nonexistent business entity. He conceived
of a vast franchise empire driven by the unique appeal of an ice cream
that was nothing like ice cream, that spread like honey and floated down
the throat like a fragrance.
But to no avail. "Not interested," was the old manís persistent refrain.
Nothing would convince him.
At last Ira pleaded: "Have mercy! At least share your recipe! Let someone
else make a fortune if you wonít."
"My secret?" Iraís tormentor lifted his hand in a farcical gesture and
said, "My secret is the fresh Cambridge air." He sniffed ostentatiously.
Ira could have killed him. But he was spared the trouble by the old manís
death of fully natural causes just weeks later.
And of course, as fully empowered property manager, Ira did nothing
improper by rushing to the tiny premises in order to ensure their complete
safety and security by rifling madly through certain well-concealed invoices
that pointed to dairy shipments from a particular agribusiness concern
in central Italy. And surely no one could have blamed Ira for hoping to
perpetuate the monumental gustatory legacy of this obnoxious bilious crab
by contacting said agribusiness concern and introducing himself as the
heir to his majestic achievements.
But in the most operatic rebuff ever transmitted by fax, Ira was informed,
in Italian, that while their hearts ached for their treasured cousin at
least their wallets were spared further affront, since transatlantic shipments
never turned profit. Ira was left with illegible purchase orders and invoices
listing meaningless product codes.
He plowed through library shelves, he surfed the Net, he called into
radio talk shows, and he got nowhere. The more he learned about ice cream,
the more Ira suspected a statist conspiracy to reserve gelato for
the Italians. All he could find were reviews slamming American efforts
at imitation, reviling the ersatz taste and texture, offering unflattering
comparison to Greek pizza or fettuccine at a fern bar. Hope receded pitifully.
Meanwhile Brian was becoming interested. One of his many creditors knew
how to trace assets through family ties (that was how he located Brian)
and, hoping to benefit from whatever Brian was cooking up, obligingly identified
a string of upscale gelato emporia in various parts of Italy owned
by the unwilling Italian supplier. Brian developed an infiltration plan.
He would pose as a spoiled American bumming his way through Italy and charm
his way into some menial job at one of the gelato outlets. If that
didnít snag the secret, he would charm his way into the heart of some winsome
coworker, tell her the bumming persona was just a pose, and reveal himself
as a tastemaker representing moneyed American interests hoping to make
a killing on imported Italian culinary vogue. Help me discover the mysteries
of gelato, he would tell her, and return with me to a lavish life
in the United States.
He needed $5000 and three weeks.
Laura, who had never been abroad, sensed her opportunity. She would
consent only if they spent an equal amount on themselves traipsing through
half of Europe first, wonít it be fun? Weíll eat like pigs and sponge up
culture as we tick off the sights like trinkets in a scavenger hunt for
future bragging rights. Iíll make us a list!
And despite Iraís hatred of traveling (you wound up back home anyway,
just poorer with nothing to show for it) and his exhortation that every
penny of self-indulgence would be one less penny to plunk into gelato,
he was forced to relent. So now theyíre in Italy and Ira is as miserable
as he knew he would be.
Soon they emerge into a wide, oblong plaza bordered by gold-framed boutique
windows and currency exchanges. Weary fathers lean against the storefronts,
supporting their infants while wives shop inside. An unused fountain, dry
and spattered with green stains, rises with the cobblestones in the center
of the plaza. A noisy red tour bus skirts behind them. The guide, juggling
a small megaphone and a safety bar in one hand and waving the other out
the bus door, intones the name of the square to his meager audience. Ira
can make out only the manís last listless words as he gives his fingertips
a perfunctory kiss: "Beautiful ... like a picture!"
"So whatís next?" Ira asks as Laura chants Blue wisdom. To Brianís bravo
she announces the Coliseum and Michelangeloís sculpture of Moses.
Ira scans the plaza ruefully. "From square rubble to circular rubble,
then onward to finely carved rubble," he mutters.
A sound like a crow cawing startles him. He turns to find the blonde
laughing unself-consciously. "You are funny," she says, her eyes meeting
his for the first time. "You look tired, though."
"You have a name?" he asks as they walk.
"Iím Anna. And I know all about you."
"Is that so."
"Indeed yes. Youíre the brains of this outfit," she says. "You came
up with the whole idea."
"In a manner of speaking," he begins but cringes at the legalistic way
his words sound. "The brains," he says simply.
"Donít be angry with your wife. Sheís reveling in her new experience,
as you should. Did you know that ice cream originated in Italy?"
"A myth. It all started here in the time of Caravaggio."
"If you say so," Ira says, noticing the Coliseum up ahead. It rises
out of the ground suddenly and decrepitly, all by itself, like a pocked,
rusted tin can overlooked by some Brobdingnagian trash man ... and itís
ringed by a mad, whirling vortex of Italian traffic!
His shoes brake with a sound like sandpaper on the dusty sidewalk, which
is becoming crowded. A man selling T-shirts mistakes his sudden stop for
interest and beckons. Laura and Brian, unaware, continue walking and other
tourists ooze into the widening space between them. Across a slightly less
fearsome street a string of shade trees line a sloping lawn. Ira pictures
himself lazing under one of those trees with such clarity it has the feel
Anna hustles into the mayhem of swinging cameras and damp shirts as
Ira veers off, away from the crowd, toward his destiny. Suddenly, somehow,
Laura lurches in front of him.
"Honey, where are you going?" she says, her hands on his chest, impeding
his progress. "We thought we lost you."
"I have a date with a piece of shade."
"Honey," she whines playfully, "Weíre in Rome! Everyone goes
to the Coliseum, are you going to tell people you went to Rome and skipped
the most famous sight?" Sheís animated like an overtired child. Her cheeks
"Youíre going to make yourself sick carrying on like this in the heat."
"Ira. Surrender to the moment. Live a little. Who knows what tomorrow
will bring. Besides," she adds slyly, "you donít really want to leave me
alone in those dark, moist passageways with your brother, do you, heís
such a masher."
"See that fourth tree down there? Destiny. Meet me there when youíre
through ravishing my poor brother."
Itís a different world under the tree on the hill. From under the tree,
Rome is television, comedy at a distance, someone elseís carnival. The
colorful, restive tourists swarm the Coliseumís vomitoria like Day-Glo
visigoths. Filtered light jitters through the shade as Iraís head finds
cool bark. His eyelids fall. There are no importunate wives or scheming
brothers under the tree. Only perfection and imminent success.
The guyís a pro, this he must concedeóseducing the blonde as if on cue.
Ira sensed intelligence in her, the way she riveted her eyes into his when
she spoke, measuring the success of her imperfect English in conveying
a thought. Intelligence in women has never been of much interest to Brian.
Heís taken a step down for the cause.
Some time passes, Ira isnít sure how much, and he opens his eyes and
the world is cool, even a little dark (although he knows itís only his
eyes) and all he can really see is a very white, shapely knee flaring out
and then tapering to a delicate ankle, and his eyes bounce off the ankle
back up to the bent knee then down again along a seemingly endless stretch
of bare thigh and then up again, the visual roller-coaster doesnít end
until he reaches the unexpected sight of Annaís faceóthere she is, seated
next to him, knees to her chest. Wordlessly, she hands him a bottle of
For a moment, stupidly, Ira doesnít comprehend the gesture and pictures
himself scarfing a drink while she isnít looking. Then his mind awakens
and he inspects the bottle, sweaty with chill. He hopes the water is uncarbonated.
The label tells you every minuscule concentration of every measly ion but
not whether itís gassata. He takes a long swig. No burning down
his throat. Senza gas. A good woman. The icy tinge spreads to the
tips of his fingers and toes.
After a long time Ira says, "I guess youíve seen the Coliseum a hundred
"Actually I have never been in there. Nor here on the Palatine."
Anna breaks the next silence. "Iím sure Laura will return soon." She
says Lowra, rolling the r just slightly. Then she asks, "Were you
swept away when you met her?"
Sheís staring at his face and he can read her sullen eyes. What she
really wants to know is whether his wife exerts a peculiar effect on every
"All that prancing is for your benefit," Ira tells her. "He always does
that, uses her as a foil. Itís harmless."
"Iím not sure how much I can really help you all. I donít make gelato.
I just serve and take the money, like your brother."
"But you know the ingredients."
"The ingredients are no mystery."
They are if you read no Italian, Ira thinks. "How long have you lived
in Rome without seeing the Coliseum?"
"The shop isnít in Rome. Itís in San Gimignano, about 200 kilometers
to the north."
Ira suppresses a groan at the prospect of more traveling. "And this
San whateveryousaid, thatís where youíre from?"
A forced snicker, and her gaze leaves Iraís face for the grass. There
really is a certain perfection about her, a certain elegant proportion
to her face and the almost sculptural way her ear-length hair, parted in
the middle, holds its backswept contours as she rocks her head.
"This isnít America, Ira," she says, the trill of his name in her voice
like a sweet lick of zabaglione. "Here different worlds, different
eras exist alongside one another. Turn your head and millennia pass before
you. A few paces to the west are the lights of Monte Carlo, step across
a puddle and find yourself in the most benighted darkness you can imagine.
Where one is from can be a very complicated matter."
Ira is unsure what exactly sheís talking about, but her voice carries
an almost spellbinding gravity. He notices the thin camisole blouse, black
and worn like the building facades, and experiences a wave of alienation
and unfocused regret.
Anna blushes. Iraís glance was too long by a second and she caught it.
And misinterpreted it.
"I understand we are to go to San Gimignano tomorrow, yes?" she says
"News to me."
"Weíre expected back. The weekend. There will be many tourists."
The inquisitorial gaze returns. "Iím surprised he wouldnít tell you;
Brian. Donít you think it odd? I see him as basically honest. A cultural
plunderer, yes, but with honor. You agree, donít you?"
Fishing again. The truth is he doesnít know what Brian has planned,
and whatís worse, what heís supposed to seem to know. Or the role
heís supposed to play. "Lauraís having fun," he ventures. "He probably
doesnít want to break the news until he has to."
"So dashing," she says with an odd wistfulness. "He has a little message
for every customer. Something always to cheer them, a playful smile, a
wink, even though he doesnít speak the language well. They all love him.
Even the owner."
Even the owner. All grouches, every last one.
"I suppose ..." she begins. "I didnít mean to insult Laura before. Things
trouble me for no reason. I am such a fool sometimes." She searches Iraís
eyes to learn whether she is foolish for doubting his brother or trusting
But his gaze lifts over her head and looks past, and through the past,
around the green-shrouded Arch of Constantine in restoro to parched,
primordial mountains bathed in this afternoonís fading sunlight. The present
forever imprisoned by the past. Ira lets his head fall back against the
tree and says, "Lifeís tough in a million ways," and Anna turns away, her
face empty of expression. He can hear Brian and Laura, chattering as they
It was a moronic thing to say, all the more so for its failed intent.
Ira had been attempting solidarity. Heís never asked for a damn thing,
never requested help and never got any, either. He isnít used to people
bringing him water. Whatever he has he earned, won or hustled on his own.
Somewhere along the line something inside became dead, that was all. Hopefully
his remark hadnít ruined everything.
"Time to take in the tablets?" he asks.
"Silly," Laura says, "Weíve been and back. Youíll regret the
day you shunned ancient and Renaissance masterpieces in a single afternoon."
"So he could dally with my masterpiece instead," Brian says,
offering a gallant hand to Anna.
"Bored her to tears, more like it."
"Not at all," Anna exults as she springs up, "a handsome Pokotilow cannot
possibly disappoint." Her eyes beam at Ira with unexpected radiance.
"Where shall we dine tonight?" Brian asks heartily, placing his arm
around Anna and the risen Ira. Out of the corner of his eye Ira notices
a little signal, a rubbing of finger and thumbóthe universal gesture of
money. His brother has run out. "Letís go to TrastevereóIíll show you what
a Jerusalem artichoke is."
"Is that expensive?" Ira asks, his throat quite dry again.
"Oh ha ha ha!" Brian retorts loudly, bending back in laughter. "As if
you of all people would need to worry." His eyes bulge with rage, then
soften as he turns to Anna. "You know, this brother of mine too is becoming
an Italian. The Italian, you see, is a ruthless negotiator. But once a
deal is struck, he is a man of his word."
Now he knows. His casting call includes a free-flowing wallet. How could
he have dreamed otherwise?
Anna says, "Iím glad you say that, Brian." Bri-ahhn.
"Mangiamo, prego," he says quickly.
"Two hundred and fifteen thousands of lire. Pile them all up
and theyíd stretch to the moon!"
"Ira. It was a hundred bucks," Laura says, emerging from the shower.
"More than that. Besides, two hundred and fifteen thousands of
anything is larceny. And two rooms for two nights in this upscale
fleabag. I suppose thereís a surcharge for the exposed wiring."
Their room is tiny. The floor is only slightly broader than the bed
in which Ira reclines, but the ceiling soars high above, a single light
fixture at its center. The tall window overlooks a concrete courtyard with
a dumpster. The walls of the room, papered in grasscloth, glow a strange
mustard color in the meager illumination. The choice of accommodations
had been Brianís.
"Donít blame your brother. This was all your idea."
Ira sighs. "At least heís entertaining."
"Some of things he says ..." Laura says, climbing into bed, smiling.
"Yeah," Ira chuckles. Then he asks, "Like what? What things?"
"Did you hear the way he slipped into the familiar with the waiter?
Speaking that way to someone you donít know is an insult. Brian really
gave it to him."
"He always pushes things too far. To show off. Like itís the waiterís
fault the owner gives him thirty tables to handle?"
"I bet he has a big one," Laura giggles. The girlishness in her voice
"I wouldnít know."
"Sure you would."
Ira retrieves his Messagero from the floor. He canít read it
but he can look at the pictures of the Italians and try to guess why theyíre
yelling. "We should sleep," he says brusquely, "we have to be up and ready
"Does he have a car?"
"Are you kidding? Without my credit card?"
"Iíll bet he has one," Laura says. "Iíll bet he has a big one." The
laugh again. Ira crumples his newspaper.
"But I like yours best," she says, rolling on top of him. She kneads
his crotch like a bag of onions. He opens his mouth to make a remark but
suddenly sheís all over everywhere and her tongue plugs the void. You never
knew with Laura: a disinterested doldrum for weeks at a time, then suddenly
a raging gale. Her palm digs into his thigh as she balances herself on
it, struggling against his face. He shifts to escape the pain. The headboard
"For Godís sake, theyíre on the other side of that wall!" he hisses.
The thought is a turn-on, actually, and the sound of his protestóhelpless
against the desire his manhood has somehow unleashedólike a trigger. With
one swift, precisely aimed buck she impales herself on him. The sound she
makes in his ear is more growl than groan.
He decides he likes Anna after all. So unlike her counterparts in America.
Whatís happened to young people? Yesterday they were hearty and unconcealed,
like her; today they stick rings through their noses, stick their noses
in your face and berate you for stealing their futures during Reagan.
Lauraís hands grip his shoulders and her grinding, peristaltic movements,
the driven expression on her face and the bounce of her wet chestnut hair
soon carry his body into racing complicityóoh, how the flags fly and flutter
from the mighty galleon Ira, prow slicing through viscous sea, hull rolling
and tossing with abandonónow this is a vacation!
The image of Anna, her glance at him on the Palatine, crosses into his
mind again. He pictures her rocking above him, the rigging in her slender
throat swollen and stretched, singing his name over and over. Perhaps Europe
would be beautiful and special with Anna: their passion echoed in
every flamboyant façade, the decay a mellow patina infused with
mortality and the urgency of life. Effortlessly he conceives their aimless
wanderings. Travel with her would be a journey of enlightenment and mutual
self-discovery. They would each enlarge and redeem the other, they would
ride bicycles through whispering wheat fields and stare in shared awe at
monumental artistic treasuresóthey would fornicate their way across the
canals and byways and back-alleys of Europe!
Laura collapses on him in a panting heap. She kisses his forehead and
rushes off the bed and now he feels thoroughly vile in his spent exhaustion,
fantasizing like that over someone so young, probably fifteen years his
junior. As if to underscore the fetid pith of his soul, Laura pukes her
guts out in the bathroom.
"I told you you shouldnít push yourself so hard all day," he calls,
lacking the courage to add, or eat so much fried calamari. Yet he
feels somehow guilty for her discomfort, even though sex hadnít been his
idea. Certainly he hadnít so much as suggested anything ... special. And
certainly Brian would mock his guilt. Sometimes he truly envied his brotherís
superior grip on lifeís essentials.
Moments later Laura is in bed next to him, snoring like a jackhammer.
Soon Ira joins her in sleep, and it seems almost no time before he awakens
to the starlings as the wooden shutters begin to glow. He knows theyíre
starlings because Laura has already identified them in her Italian aviary
The next morning the sun is even hotter than the day before. Brian drives
the Hertz Fiat in the left lane of the autostrada, too fast, with
his left signal on to warn others out of his way. The windows are open
and the breeze roars through the cramped vehicle as it sweeps past umbrella
pines and neat rows of spindly cypress trees. Vibrant spills of heather
and poppies mimic in miniature the sienna towns smothered into the distant
Laura is looking a bit verdant herself.
"What if the police catch you going so fast?" Ira shouts to his brother
from the opposite back seat.
"Theyíll know Iím in a hurry."
Laura bumps his knee in annoyance. Brian and Anna wear the uniform of
their famous employer, Maestro Gelati: matching lollipop-red-and-white
striped shirts, his crisp and bow-tied, hers billowy but tight at the waist.
Maestro Gelati, market leader, sold in booths, counters, stalls and stores
from Palermo to Venice, please form a very long line and dig deep for your
lire. Their biggest outlet, a truly palatial emporium, Brian says, is in
San Gimignano. But thatís all heíll say.
Ludicrous as it seems, Ira wonders whether Brian has two schemes, the
real one for him and a ploy to ditch Anna. Inside the inner lining of Iraís
suitcase are three return tickets to Boston dated two days hence. How will
Laura feel about his brother when heís gloating high above the Atlantic?
Brian is in particularly smooth form this morning. Heís going on about
American decadence and Roman glories, tormenting slower vehicles ahead,
insinuating himself further into the unfortunate heart of his unwitting
stooge. Itís the uniform. You can see it gives him an air of invincibility.
You can imagine the deference of the carabinieri when they see it,
go right ahead, signore, no speeding ticket for you, wouldnít want
to delay the shopís opening even for a moment and risk a riot.
Ira notices that Laura and Anna still have barely said two words to
one another since Iraís sojourn under the tree. He finds this immensely
flattering. Heís still sore from Lauraís lustful attack. He doesnít need
any stinking uniform.
After an age Laura grips his sleeve and points to a distant peak. Black
in front of the diffuse sun, the crowd of buildings looks larger than the
other little villages, its center crowned by slender towers that spike
the sky. Like weeds, Ira thinks.
A long row of circular directional markers greet them as they pull onto
the exit ramp, celebrating their arrival like pennants at a parade. Theyíve
rolled off their mounts and their pathetic little arrows point this way,
that way, every way but the right way. This must be the place.
A long approach road climbs lazily past a supermarket and nondescript
apartment complexes. Then the road steepens, exaggerating the vaulting
heights of the medieval city walls. Brian drives confidently through the
arched entrance like he owns the place, it seems to Ira you should at least
have to show papers or something to gain admittance, and they thread their
way past a broad plaza and an ingathering of tour buses. He takes a sharp
right onto a narrow slate road. As they ascend through winding canyons
of rugged brick and mortar façadesóshutters and laundry above, gift
shops below, at least one tall rectangular tower visible past every turnóitís
clear that anything on wheels will soon be trampled by the growing crowds
on foot. A quick turn down an alley, a dart into a hidden, fenced-in parking
lot, and Brian cuts the motor.
"You run ahead to the shop," he tells Anna. "Iíll see to Ira and his
Brian unlatches a green wooden door with a rounded top. There is something
just a little more ornate about this building; though contiguous with others
of varying heights and roof slopes, the windows on this particular building
are palladian, large and arched on top like the door, and the brickwork
is smooth and regular. Even the weathered gutters that snake down the sides
and along the terracotta roof are fluted. Ira grows nervous as he hauls
their luggage up the staircase with its faded runner.
Brianís apartment is enormous. Copper pots dangle above the counters
of the open kitchen, the walls are bright between exposed beams, the wooden
floors polished. There are two adjoining bedrooms.
"For my brother, the better view," Brian announces as he flings a door
open. The suitcases sink out of Iraís hands as he gapes out the window.
"Laura," Brian begins, "Ira and I have some businessó"
"Donít worry. I have business of my own." Her itinerary is neatly typed.
All thirteen standing towers are numbered and cross-referenced to pages
in the Northern Italy Blue Guide. She flips the page open with a flourish
and is gone.
Through the window the countryside rolls out like a sensual carpet,
dropping and folding back on itself, decorated with the irregular striped
patches of Tuscan agriculture. Struck by what he sees, Ira is nearly overcome.
He knows this business. View is everything. Exposed beams donít hurt either.
This place must be costing Ira a fortune!
"You like?" Brian asks. "You should have seen where Anna lived before,
out by that supermarket."
"Iíll kill you for this."
"Now is that any way to repay my chivalry? Tonight Anna and I will both
squeeze into the smaller bedroom while you and Lauraó"
"Enough already! We have one day. One day left and you havenít told
me what youíve got in mind. Or do you already have what you came for, please
"I have been all over Italy trying to hunt down those ingredients. Theyíre
like official secrets and no oneís talking. They guard the recipe like
itís their daughterís virginity!"
"What happened to Anna the meal ticket?"
"If I have her do what needs to be done, I really will have to take
her back with me."
Brian puts both hands on his brotherís shoulders. "How would you feel
about a little improvisation? A little character acting."
Ira is too stunned to think. Sensing this, Brian becomes voluble.
"Deliveries unload at the rear of the store and then they disappear.
Where? Anna says there are two separate staffs, parallel industries. Grunts
like us sell the stuff but a much more trusted team makes it. Every now
and then Marcoóheís the owneró disappears through a locked door behind
the cappuccino machine, where no mere scooper dares tread. Apparently thereís
a huge workroom back there," Brian tells him, "and thatís where it all
happens. Iíll bet they supply half of Italy from that room. Weíll get you
back there, and in a way that justifies your snooping around."
Iraís knees almost buckle. Heís crushed. All the time, all the planning.
Not to mention the money. All for a half-baked scheme that canít possibly
work. He could cry. "Brian. What are you thinking? I canít read or speak
But Brian is unfazed and on a roll. "Iím pretty sure Marco is high up
in the company. They started out here. And he has a weakness. Gaga for
American movies. Says the Italians canít make a film that isnít arty or
sentimental. Peckinpah and Eszterhas, those are his heroes, the cretin.
I told him heís in luck. Said I have a distant relative in the biz whoís
filming this yearís shoot-íem-up post-office hostage drama but maybe he
can be persuaded to change the locale to a gelateria. Unusual. Exotic.
Product tie-ins. Exports. I put my thumbs together and framed his face
between my hands. You should have seen his jaw drop." Brian smiles. "So?
What do you think? Up for it?"
Ira is nearly at his throat. Almost as an afterthought Brian adds, "The
recipes are in a thick black binder in the top drawer of the file cabinet.
Next to the door to the right. You filch it while youíre eyeballing the
place as a location, and while Iím distracting Marco."
The sudden plausibility of the absurd plan catches Ira off guard. Thereís
a pretext and a definite location. He was sent hurtling into frustration
only to be deflated and played the fool.
"What about Anna?" he asks, knowing full well that logistical inquiries
are tantamount to resignation. Brian knows it as well.
"Donít worry. Iíll distract her too."
Heís not wild about the idea of theft, but itís only temporary, and
besides, what choice is there? Heís come this far.
"Itís only fair," Brian says, clinching the deal, "that you help. So
far Iíve done all the legwork." As he leaves in triumph he says, "Try to
dress like shit. Marco thinks every movie mogul is a vulgar bohemian. Maybe
I told him that. I canít remember."
And an hour later, Ira Pokotilow, dutiful conspirator and professional
impersonator, saunters through the streets of San Gimignano, practicing
to be his brother playing the part of a movie mogul. Acting canít be that
hard if Brian can do it. Clad in stained, faintly malodorous khakis previously
relegated to the laundry bag and a flimsy cotton shirt he bought as a gag
near the Tuilleries, Ira frowns meaningfully each time he encounters a
woman, his eyes passing up and down as if sizing her up for a role. The
really attractive ones he frames between his hands. No one seems to notice.
When this is over he will destroy his brother.
The shop is prominently situated in the piazza del Duomo, instantly
recognizable, the most colorful of the storefronts in the square: wall
tiles festive as candy, red and white like the uniforms, black metal cafe
tables and neon. The windows are a feast of words, Hot Spot glowing
in a racy, graphic pattern, Maestro Gelati repeated over and over
as a red stenciled border. Ira peers inside and instantly picks out the
proprietoróthe one with thick graying hair, formidable mustache and cherubic
cheeks jollier than their owner. He seems upset about something. Before
Ira can enter an enormous group of tourists spurts out the door and beelines
for a bright orange tourbus. The cavalcade is still in progress when the
bus fires up and the guide leans out the door, speaking into his head mike:
"Arrivederci, San Gimignano. G-I-M-I-G-N-A-N-O. Beautifulólike a
Anna instantly recognizes Ira as he enters the shop and waves from behind
the counter, imprisoned within an octagon of gleaming steel and chrome.
The place is a madhouse. An alien madhouse, disorienting in its juxtapositions,
the air sweetly flavored with creams and mochas, the crowds loud and combative.
People swarm all sides of the counter from every direction, jostle and
vie for room to slurp, they bark their incomprehensible orders and click
their cameras, half a dozen frantic scoop jockeys scrape and slather with
their little shovels ... and thereís Anna, looking radiant in that absurd
uniform, catching his eye as she trades bills for coins with one hand,
a serene destination to one hopelessly lost. Iraís half-dazed progress
toward her comes to an abrupt halt, his brotherís palm on his chest.
"This isnít a good time," he says nervously. "Thereís some kind of problem
The terrific din of people and voices is shattered by the clatter of
metal on metal, something has dropped somewhere Ira canít see and is rolling
around loudly as if on an enormous edge. A booming voice rises sharply
above the rest, wailing in brisk staccato, and a tall thin fellow emerges
from the back somewhere and marches past Ira and Brian, toward the door.
The man is clad in white like a laboratory worker but the smock, like his
hair, is speckled and stippled in a rainbow of colors. Hot on his heels
is the owner, his once-dignified jacket and tie sprayed in the same palette,
Brian tries to usher Ira quietly out the door but has to pass the owner,
his face absurdly adorned with microscopic confetti but burning red underneath.
He stomps in front of them.
"This is him?" he demands, flicking his eyes at Ira. Then he smiles
suddenly, almost mechanically, as Brian introduces his brother in amateur
Italian. Ira wonders whether they have Prozac in Italy.
"You are not as I pictured you, signor Tarantino," the man says
Iraís mouth starts to open mutely but Brian erupts in jovial laughter,
his arm around Iraís shoulder, his hand swinging casually. "Youíre giving
yourself away," he chides the owner in a playful voice. "I told my esteemed
cousin that you have seen every one of his films. Now you insult him."
Palms are raised to retract offense, smiles and a handshake are exchanged,
a family history rich in detail and barren of truth issues from the accomplished
mouth of the confidence man Ira thought he remembered growing up with.
Itís unnerving to feel as a blank canvass onto which an imaginary identity
is limned, to learn of his motherís dashed hopes and the antic catastrophes
of underground filmmaking, of unloaded cameras and amorous extras and flirtations
with the mob to pay cast and crew. And at last, elusive respect. Can I
show him around now?
Brianís arm is still around Iraís shoulder as he leads him past the
counter, which Ira duly frames with his hands as Brian mutters "Forgive
me!" under his breath, imitating the owner in a private joke to help Ira
relax, hustling him along, dodging the rushing patrons, pointing and waving
his hand as if selling real estate, all the while keeping a nervous eye
on the metal door at the far end of the store. Itís still open.
"This may be an opportunity," Brian whispers, "or else our downfall.
Wander around, then try to slip in and hope no oneís there." He removes
his arm and smiles heartily. "Youíre on your own."
Ira does as he is told, a little stiff, a little intimidated both by
the virtuosity of his brotherís performance and the elaborate, unfamiliar
identity into which heís been suited. There is no one in the production
room, its innards exposed for all to see. No one blocks his way as he steps
into a fortress of stainless steel and enameled machinery, almost overcome
by the sickly sweet stench of gelato in progress. Holding his breath,
he surveys the row of sinks, trays and vats, all the dull silver of the
brushed-metal floor; the chrome-handled refrigerator doors; and in the
middle of the room, a long mechanical contrivance painted white but stained
with all the flavors that thicken the air. Ira is momentarily distracted
by the web of piping, the idled pistons at one end, the broad white funnel
supported above the rest of the machine like a cistern, its sibling lying
uselessly on the floor.
There is a small metal desk but itís nowhere near the door, and no file
cabinet. Ira sucks a breath through his mouth and explores desktop and
drawers. Just as his rising heartbeat threatens to drive the air from his
lungs, something is definitely wrong here, there isnít any black binder,
he hears a noise and freezes.
"I knew it," comes a loud female whisper.
He rises cautiously. "Anna!" he says, stunned by her appearance. "I
"Are you mad?" she says, equally stunned to see him. "You canít go back
"No. Itís all right. Iím in movies," he explains.
Heís supremely relieved to see his brother racing in behind Anna, positively
sliding on his feet in a dramatic entrance. But he isnít smiling. He looks
as if heís seen a ghost.
"This man is purloining the ingredients!" Brian yells out the door.
"Oh, my shame! Help us! Aiutaci!" His hands clench his cheeks in
In an instant the owner is in the room, presiding over Iraís bewilderment.
Heís still leaning against the desk, feeling his gut spiral as if a trapdoor
has sent him plummeting through space. The owner gestures sarcastically,
as if inviting Ira out of the room. Brian takes Annaís arm and hauls her
away. Her eyes remain on Ira until sheís out of sight around the corner.
Clinging to what remains of his dignity, Ira walks tall out the door.
The owner just laughs as he claps Ira heartily around his neck and hustles
him like a pal through the store and jauntily tosses him out the door like
he can no longer stand the laughter this wonderful guest has provoked and
must reluctantly dispose of him. It all happens with great speed and Ira
has tripped on a cobblestone and landed on his head before he hears the
owner bellow, "No location fee, no tie-in. Capisce? You American
celebrities are all thieves."
And he can hear his brother imploring, "I love this country!" in some
upside-down world a million miles away.
Ira Pokotilow is sitting in an unnoticed heap in the middle of San Gimignano.
Shoes and sneakers and sandals scatter past him like a noisy wind, beating
their tourist rhythms into Iraís aching head. At some point, heís unsure
when, he hears a set of footsteps chafing distinctly toward him, then his
head is being held and part of it stings from the peck of a wet cloth.
A clown in a lollipop costume with the face of an angel is ministering
to his humiliation and hurt.
"Youíd better get back," Ira tells Anna as he stands. "Youíll get in
"What were you doing back there?" she asks.
"The ingredients," he begins, "I wasó"
"I told you the ingredients are no mystery." Sheís supporting him and
helping him stagger across the square. "That machine is an air compressor,
Ira. Iíve seen them in Elbasan, my father worked in the iron and steel
mill. Iím not Italian. I come from Albania. Donít you see? The ingredients
are unimportant, itís how they combine them. They donít mix. They
atomize. It works like a carburetor. Thatís why the texture is so smooth,
and why Marco looked spray-painted when the machine overloaded. I suspected
as much. The secret is air!"
"Fresh Cambridge air," Ira mutters, still dazed.
"Heís a pig, anyone who could do such a thing to his brother."
"I donít get it."
"He is also an idiot." Her voice is growing urgent. "I want to go to
America! I have lived here for seven years and learned their language and
two others, my English is good, is it not? But I will never truly be one
of them. Ira, they took thousands of us in, we had nothing. But generosity
has its limits. Theyíve tired of us. I will never have more than I have
He winces as she touches his head again with the cloth. "Your wounds
are his credentials. Of course he denies this. He tells me, please explain
to my brother, tell him my purpose is only to demonstrate loyalty. To enter
the trusted circle of formulators and learn the secret. But he lies! He
expects to stay here forever. With me!"
"He always was a sucker for plot."
"Forget about him, Ira," she says, gripping his shoulders, her face
taut, her lips almost touching his. "Take me with you to America. Iíll
set up the equipment. Iíll order all of the supplies. It can be just as
"Oh, boy," Ira says. "Anna, give me a little time to think. I promise
Iíll figure something out. But youíve gotta go back now, before Brian gets
A sad smile flickers across her face as she averts her eyes. And as
she walks back across the square the sun glows through the baggy drape
of her pants, outlining legs Ira canít stop watching, setting her hair
on yellow fire. And somehow he thinks she can feel the press of his eyes.
That night his head begins killing him. Brian is gone, missing in action.
Laura is nonplused, but then, Ira only told her part of the story; he didnít
mention the exact nature or source of the disaster. Heís managed to arrange
the rest of his day to avoid Anna. What he hasnít managed is any intelligent
thinking on her proposition.
At some point, he has no idea when, the pain awakens him. Itís so severe
he can barely think, only feel, and what he feels is fright. Heís heard
of contrecoup: the brain going bumpety-bump in the skull like a lunatic
bouncing off padded walls, swelling and bloating, who knows, maybe bursting
through your ears and popping your eyes out. He canít form thoughts but
clearly sees light under the edge of the door and can hear some commotion
outside. Laura. Laura groaning. His head throbbing, brains oozing. And
Laura making strange animal noises.
The filthy pig! It comes to Ira in a flash of tortured recognition,
not through reason but in technicolor, his evil scheming brother and his
wife whooping it up in the living room thinking him painfully but safely
asleep. Of course! That was the duplicitous bastardís plan all along. Ira
arrested. Anna discarded. Laura deserted. Brian, installed as a Maestro
lieutenant for his loyalty, to her rescue. Iraís days stretching unto death
in some godforsaken Italian prison as his wife and brother share the Blue
Guide to happiness.
His racing heartbeat propels him to get up and do something. His legs
are off the bed but his head is pinned against the pillow. His body turns
as if on a peg. With great effort he cradles his head up with his hands
as the noises outside rise in crescendo.
But heís not going through that door. Heís thought of something else,
although not really thought of, more imagined. On the other side of the
wall his counterpart in betrayal, his salvation, painfully beautiful and
starving for loveósomehow he must reach her. The window. He staggers over
and runs his hands along the lead tracery, this place is so expensive itís
impossible to conceive, the handle slips into his palm and turns easily.
Outside, the air is no less warm than in the room but a soft breeze runs
through his hair and cools his forehead; heís sweating, and he can see
light from Annaís room spilling onto the ledge not fifteen feet away.
The thought is madness but irresistible. He climbs out onto the ledge
with his heavy head. Itís actually not that unsafe, he decides, because
he can make out a sloping terracotta roof extending outwardly from the
building just a few feet below; the roof rises even closer to the ledge
under Annaís window. The ledge itself is wider than his foot is long. A
cakewalk. He takes a step, then with a swoon remembers his poor swollen
brain and the contrecoup that people sometimes die from and pulls himself
flat against the wall, palms open, cheek to brick. San Gimignano is silent,
glazed in moonlight. He feels like a shuffling starfish as he creeps along.
Actually he feels adventurous, rebellious, a man at last in control. What
will he tell her? How will he explain his revelation?
His hand finds the concrete window frame. He pulls himself sideways
and dips, clinging to the wall, but his fingers yield: the window is open
and heís opening it more as he squeezes, heíll scare her half to death
but he canít exactly let go because heíll lose his balance. His head orbits
into the frame of the window. Sheís sitting there on the canopied wooden
bed, resplendent in her surroundings but clearly frightened, clutching
a pillow to cover herself, wearing only a sheer nightdress.
A hoarse whisper: "Ira?"
He wants to say something meaningful but the sight of her fries his
mind, makes it stick in idle. All circuits are busy. Please try your
thought again later. As she approaches the window she begins to giggle
mischievously; all of her curves shudder and then fall divinely into place.
Still, from Iraís raised perch she seems so fragile and ... young. Completely
unembarrassed she extends her hand. Ira offers his own but his body betrays
him, bending back from the open window as if repelled by a like charge.
He doesnít want to run off with an angel. He doesnít want to fall off the
ledge either. His fingers curl around the extravagant fluted gutter but
he can feel himself falling away, a fissure forms in the Sistine Chapel
ceiling sending God and Adam recoiling from one another, their outstretched
fingers never to touch. Joints loosen, the great gallery sides rumble as
they begin to splay, Ira attached to a falling Vatican wall listening helplessly
to the creaking stresses, he can hear them wrenchóthe drain pipe is giving
way. All at once his grip fails and his feet slip and he lands on his back
on the uneven surface of the roof. The terracotta tiles arenít flat, theyíre
like clay tubes cut in half, the rough ripples they form punch his sides
as he rolls and then his legs slip off at a diagonal. He almost catches
himself backwards over the soffet, his momentary grip breaks his fall but
no more. He lands on smooth pavement. The headlights of parked cars snarl
at him like a row of predators. The roof wasnít very high. A quick inventory
of the pain once again points to his head, unstruck but further rattled.
He doesnít dare look up from his crouch. Instead he tries to resurrect
the crisp, delicate image of Anna in his mind, the way she rushed to greet
him, even as the pain fights it away. She had been right all along. The
charade in the gelateria was Brianís way of going native: of finding
a place here with Anna, whom he sorely misjudged. It was never Laura. The
love noises Ira thought he heard were just her latest bout of wretching.
All is so clear. His brother is gone. Who knows when or where heíll show
One thing is certainóthe image that permeates Iraís thoughts is one
his brother will never again see firsthand. Ira will see to it that he
keeps his miserable scheming paws off Anna for good. He will protect her.
Together theyíll make junk-food history, build an American gelato
empire, the two of them and Laura. He can think clearly now, oh yes, although
his eyesight is uncertain. Through the haze in his head and the pounding
behind his eyes he can just make out the double-humped profusion of wild
hair and four heavy, silk-shrouded breasts that are the cross-eyed image
of his wife leaning out the window, the two of them frantically calling
Ira! Ira! in stereo. It occurs to him that one of them might be