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Steven J. Frank  
The  Gelato Affair 

  

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 din. 

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 arrivals? 

"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 of time." 

"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 garbage everywhere." 

"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 of me." 

"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 to Brianís. 

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 somehow shimmer. 

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?" 

"Try China." 

"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 of destiny. 

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 are flushed. 

"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 mineral water. 

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 times already." 

"Actually I have never been in there. Nor here on the Palatine." 

"Nice here." 

"Yes." 

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 male Pokotilow. 

"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 briskly. 

"News to me." 

"Weíre expected back. The weekend. There will be many tourists." 

"Of course." 

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 him. 

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 approach. 

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 astonishes him. 

"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 by eight." 

"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 slams. 

"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 guide. 

 

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 rolling hills. 

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 lovely Laura." 

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 say yes?" 

"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." 

"Oh Jesus." 

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 the language!" 

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 picture." 

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 in production." 

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, still ranting. 

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 carefully. 

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 thoughtó" 

"Are you mad?" she says, equally stunned to see him. "You canít go back here." 

"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 horror. 

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 trouble." 

"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 now." 

"You meanó" 

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 you envisioned!" 

"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 suspicious." 

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 up next. 

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 pregnant. 


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