[ fiction - january 09 ]
"But Pier Luigi, aren't you happy just being an Italian?" she said, screwing up her eyes and tilting her head to one side as she did when she was most perplexed. "What's wrong with that anyway?"
"Nothing at all," he said, and laughed his soft laugh, which in his face muscles and around the corners of his wide mouth he could feel resembled the laugh of his father. "In fact, Jean Cocteau said an Italian is just a good humored Frenchman. Actually I have the best of both worlds. I'm both Italian and French."
"Well!" Raffaella stared suspiciously at the swarthy giant towering over her. She often said he seemed like a stranger. "I'm Italian, you're my son, and you live in Italy," she said. "So, you're Italian - even if you're not good humored."
"Maybe!" he said, and again laughed, aware he was being elusive. "But mon père is French, remember. I also live in France, and my friends there say I'm always de bonne humeur... precisely because I'm Italian." When he was in Rome he purposely spiced his Italian with French words, admittedly rather maliciously and childishly, just as he used a lot of Italian words in French.
"It's your job that makes you that way," she said, switching to her most condescending manner. She had never forgiven him for his menial occupation nor for his absences. "All that back and forth on those night trains between Rome and Paris! Those dirty sheets and tips from passengers! Poor thing! It's no wonder you don't know where you belong."
"No, Raffaella, I got the job so that I could go back and forth. It's not the same thing."
"I'll never understand why you couldn't take a teaching job...or a position in the government or the diplomatic service, like your friends. You, with your top university degree, working as a sleeping car conductor and wearing that silly uniform with the red jacket and cap!"
"I'm a writer, Mother. And a voyageur. Not a civil servant. And I work in a Wagons Lits to make a living and because of the free time it gives me."
"Oh, dear, what's going to become of you anyway? Half the time you're away. And when you're here you're hibernated in that backroom scribbling your memoirs. Why, I never get to see you. It's as if I had no son at all. I never know what to tell my friends when they ask about you."
She paused and fixed her watery, doubt-filled eyes in his, and then said what he knew was coming: "You and your independence!"
"That's another thing I don't share with Italian sons, Mother." Pier Luigi smoothed down the ends of his thin mustache, adjusted the black wool scarf hanging loosely around his neck, tightened the muscles in his slack stomach, and assumed a pose he considered very Parisian. "I'm not the typical Italian son who can't break away from his mother... even if I do live here with you... sometimes!"
"Well, I hope you at least don't share too many of your father's French qualities either."
Pier Luigi didn't try to answer. He shrugged, picked up a chocolate drop from the dining room table, and plopped it into his mouth. His thoughts were already wandering far from the Trastevere apartment and the standard polite bickering conversation with his mother about his peculiar lifestyle, which she couldn't even begin to fathom.
Until about 18 months ago his life had flowed fluidly between Rome and Paris - a night's work on the train, then ten days or so in Paris, before repeating the same procedure in the opposite direction. He justified that division in his life by his desire to share some of his time with his father and to play out also his own French persona. In the dichotomy of his life he had come to love the word, persona. He was always masked: in Paris, he played the Italian; in Rome, the Frenchman. In order to continue to excuse to his mother both his strange job and his mysterious Parisian existence in the studio apartment in Montmartre he hadn't told her that he hadn't even seen his father in over two years.
When he - in his Pierre Louis role - had finished his doctorate in letters at the Sorbonne, it was as if his busy businessman father had said "ça suffit," and began to avoid him.
One evening, a year and a half ago, a well-dressed, middle-aged man had arrived at sleeping car number 091 of the Palatino positioned on platform 23 of Rome Termini Station at one minute prior to the 19:35 departure for Paris. His black topcoat, white scarf, and dark tie in perfect order and trailing behind him a biggish suitcase on wheels, the tall lithe man with long silky brown hair was not in the least harassed as most late passengers were: he seemed to know that the train would wait for him. He smiled, handed Pier Luigi his ticket, and immediately locked himself in his first-class compartment at the end of the corridor, just adjacent to the sleeping car conductor's small room next to the toilets.
The other passengers had long since retired when hours later the man opened his compartment door without a sound and stepped out into the dimly lit corridor. Seated inside the little office at the end of the corridor, Pier Luigi had ordered the tickets in a neat stack and completed his night's paper work. He hid his watch under his railway cap lying on the desk - he told himself so that he could again feel he was outside time and free to wander unrestricted in his world of imagination. Nearly oblivious to the train's movement, he hunched over the manuscript of a novella he had been working on for the last three months. As had happened frequently of late he had just thrown down his pen in disgust and broken off another row from a bar of chocolate and was about to put it in his mouth when he sensed a presence hovering over him.
It happened that the singular man's magical appearance outside the glass partition that night coincided with Pier Luigi's nascent awareness of a sensation of hollowness rising up from his guts. So filled was he with worrisome doubts and destructive apprehension about his creative abilities, that when he looked up into the man's surprisingly luminous blue eyes filled with joy and confidence, he felt overwhelmed and confused. Unthinking, he slid the piece of chocolate into his mouth.
The man smiled confidentially as if meeting an old friend at noon in a swank private club in the West End. His tie was perfectly straight. The jacket of his blue, double-breasted, pin-striped suit was buttoned. Pier Luigi imagined he was a wealthy, well-bred man recently returned home to Europe after a lifetime in some mysterious place like Cochin-China; or, he could have been ready to step down off the Paris-Cannes express on New Year's Eve for a party in the Grand Hotel.
"Is it lonely out here at this hour?" the man asked in British-accented English.
"Sometimes." Pier Luigi - they were still in Italy - read English well, but never felt comfortable speaking it, although since more and more of his nocturnal passengers were English speakers he often had to speak his bookish version of the language. The intimate atmosphere of an international sleeping car, the deceptive English words uttered in the night, the occasional phantasmal silhouette of an old-fashioned dressing gown posed against the toilette door, the spectral silence of the dim corridor, the shabbiness of once pompous carpeting, the flickering lights of unidentifiable stations, and the street lamps of people-less towns flashing past, made his night passages through the Alps from Rome to Paris seem surreal.
"I've always loved train travel," the man said. "Perhaps it's because of the pervasive sense of loneliness that one feels on trains. Or, that once aboard I feel I'm completely in the hands of destiny. It's a good feeling."
"I know what you mean. Maybe that is why I work here."
"Which work do you mean?" the man said. He smiled and nodded toward the manuscript pages. "Original work?"
"Yes," Pier Luigi said. "Original."
"Yes. I do not know what the story is about and there is too little action."
"Hmm. Yes... Yes. A metaphor for the lives of most people. But not of mine. If anything, I have an opposite set of problems. I know my story well and there's sometimes too much action."
For a moment Pier Luigi looked away, inexplicably embarrassed, then turned back to the man who had leaned slightly forward so that they were sitting nearly eye-to-eye. After five years on international trains, Pier Luigi had acquired a sharp sense of perception about people, but this man, he recognized immediately, was an enigma - atypical in appearance, speech and behavior. Perhaps a secret agent, he imagined. Or an international terrorist. Or simply another smuggler.
"I could tell you about it, if you like" the other said. "We have nothing else to do... except turn phrases and eat chocolates," he added with a brief grin. "And I for one never sleep on trains."
Pier Luigi reached out of the cubicle door and pulled down a leather-covered jump seat from the wall under the car's last window, the ganglion cells in his spinal cord twitching and tingling. He sensed something extraordinary was about to happen that would change his life.
"Nor do I," he said.
"I once had a Sicilian diving instructor," the man began, crossing one leg over the other, and looking perfectly comfortable and at ease on the narrow seat. He took a cigarette from a silver case, adjusted it in a long ivory holder, lit it with an old-fashioned Zippo lighter, and exhaled luxuriantly.
"It was in Baja California, one of the most beautiful diving spots in the world. An extraordinary kingdom is hidden in those depths. I was staying with a friend up in the Sierra in the tip of the peninsula and dived each day near Punta Arenas. Incredible! You can go from a mile high to a mile deep in one morning."
Pier Luigi leaned forward a little bit and stared into the narrator's eyes, now turned cobalt in the dimness of the corridor and the weak illumination from the cubicle. The vastness and the copiousness of Cochin-China and the Himalayas, and of Mexico and the Sierra Madre, in the faraway look in the stranger's eyes made him uncomfortably aware of how confined his own life had thus far been...Rome and Paris, and the trains linking them. He was missing the rest of the world.
"My name is Eric," the other said.
"Pierre," Pier Luigi said with some hesitance, uncertain as to whether in this moment he was Pier Luigi or Pierre Louis. He lifted his cap on the table and glanced at his watch. They would soon be at the border, but he still had time.
"I got to know the diving instructor a bit. Not that we talked much however, for Marco Aurelio spent most of his days underwater and his nights barricaded in a room in a hotel in the port. He was from the ancient city of Agrigento and, by the way, he claimed he had read three times every word Pirandello wrote. Apparently young Marco had a run-in with the local mafia clan. It had something to do with water. It seems he and a friend tapped into a mafia-controlled aqueduct and they subsequently put out a death warrant on him.
"Marco was the Mayor's son and once believed he enjoyed more rights and privileges than others."
"A popular Italian disease," Pier Luigi said.
"However that may have been," Eric continued with a smile, "to pay for his offence, the gangsters demanded that he intervene with his father to obtain official permission for the clan concerning some water rights. When Marco, thinking it was a joke, refused, they took him one night to an abandoned warehouse and showed him the body of his friend. He was still trussed like a pig - incaprettato, as the mafia calls it - his arms and legs tied tightly doubled behind him so that he had slowly strangled himself."
"Ugh!" Pier Luigi grunted, turned his legs outside the cubicle, and slouched back into the office chair. Suddenly the steely clickety-clack clickety-clack echoed from the rails upwards through the giant's innards, bored through its cast iron floors, filtered through the dingy carpeting, and like an animate but invisible being flitted up and down the empty corridor. The train seemed to transform into some iron giant. His ears popped and crackled and he knew they had entered the Frejus Tunnel.
"Young and confused, he ran abroad for his life. First to the Maldives, then to Sharm el Sheikh... he had been a diver since he was a kid. He claimed he first got threatening letters, then phone calls from them, and finally visits. He couldn't get far enough away. His nightmare was the incaprettato. That's how he got to Baja California. He knew the best diving sites in the world and planned to move on to Cuba. Soon after he arrived in Mexico, he got word they had assassinated his father. He was terrified but he kept writing letters and telephoning his mother in Agrigento. He said they were following him night and day. Day and night. He said his hour was near. The only place he felt safe was underwater. 'The mafia can't dive,' he often said. He said he would live underwater, if possible. He was underwater so much that it seemed natural. For him land life became a strange and threatening world. On land, he said, he was surrounded by enemies. Invisible enemies. He existed in terror, torn between safe water and menacing land."
"He must have had great persecution complexes," Pier Luigi said. "A Sicilian disease."
"That's what I first thought."
"So what happened to him? Where is he today?"
"One morning another diver found him in the diving instructors' dressing room in the port. He was trussed like a pig. Incaprettato. It turned out it was only the mafia following him."
"Only the mafia!" Pier Luigi whispered, etonné. For a long moment he stared at Eric who smiled back at him as if titillated by his own story telling. Then: "Why did you tell me that story?"
"Because it shows how much action there is around us each minute...if we can only see it. Yet, at the last minute, destiny often steps in and plays unexpected tricks. And, if you'll forgive me my frankness, when I saw you bent over your manuscript, I thought I saw some of the diver in you."
"Well, I do live as if underwater. Two times over. In Paris, and in Rome. I think I must start my story again."
Myriads of multi-colored lights whipping past the coach windows gradually slacked off and began separating one from the other. The train whistle sounded. They were nearing Modane and France. The conductor looked at Eric, sighed, and stood up. It was time for his transformation to Pierre Louis.
"I'll tell you more next trip," Eric said, and stepped back into his compartment.
On arrival at the Gare de Bercy that morning, Eric smiled conspiratorially and shook hands with him before handing down his heavy bag to a huge man wearing a chauffeur's cap waiting on the platform.
"Until the next time," Eric said.
Though Pierre Louis couldn't wait to get to his computer in his apartment in Montmartre, his curiosity prevailed. He jumped down and followed the two men - the chauffeur, thick and peasant-looking, carrying the suitcase like a toy, the other sleek and elegant, his white scarf fluttering in the cold wind whipping through the nearly empty station, which seemed to levitate the two men and convey them out the side door and into the waiting white limousine.
Pierre Louis shook his head. Had it even happened? Or had he dreamed it all in a night train hallucination? Yet, he sensed, the story told by a stranger in the middle of the night under the Frejus Tunnel could change his life. Ah, chance! he thought. Fate brought the man to my carriage. He could have reserved in 090 or 092. But no, Lady Chance spirited him straight into my network. Una storiella, une petite histoire, a little story about a Sicilian on the run was enough, he thought. What was that crazy word? Incaprettato? It described his own life. The ramifications of his story within the mafia story within the story he was writing were endless.
His father would say, ça suffit. A good story was enough to live again. To create again.
Though tips from his deboarding charges were always somewhat embarrassing, he was surprised that a man like Eric didn't leave him a big gratuity in a small envelope as did more sophisticated travelers. In this case, he preferred it. But it was peculiar. Nothing! A handshake, puff! and he was gone.
No chauffeured limousines awaited him. No exotic hotels or mysterious rendezvous. Yet each return to Paris every ten days or so was a return to the metropolis. He felt transported as if by magic from the periphery of life to its center, from the local to the global. Emergence from the Frejus west of the Alps was to step back into the real world from the make-believe world of circumscribed wall towns south of the Alps, from a world equidistant from Kabul or New York. Equidistant from the summits and the abysses of history and time.
Rues et rues, places et places, bistrots, cafés, les marches. Pierre Louis loved the magnificence. The grandiosity. The luxury of its unrestrained effusion. But for that he had never believed that Paris was necessarily better, or that he himself was more real, capable or dedicated here than he was in Rome.
His heart was racing as he ran out of the station and down the stairs into the metro. Too impatient to wait for the elevator in the depths of the Abbesses station in Montmartre, he ran up the stairs, across the square, and along the narrow cobbled lane to his building over the restaurant at the corner.
"Ciao!" he said to the deskman standing in the doorway of the hotel on the opposite corner.
"Buon Giorno, " he said to the concierge holding his mail.
"Ciao, amore. Ciao, " he said to Dominique waiting in the door of his studio.
"Bonjour, le voyageur!" she said laconically. She was standing with her hands on her hips, a defiant look on her pale face framed in lush blond hair, for an instant reminding him of... Wasn't his mother standing like that in the doorway when he left Trastevere? "Back from your travels in that funny country?"
"What do you mean?" Pierre Louis said and kissed her lightly on her beautiful puckered lips. Still in a hurry to get to his desk, he hoped their conversation wouldn't degenerate into recriminations before he had a chance to transfer his notes to his computer.
He couldn't bear to hear her say again that Rome was like a bad French novel, to be read and then thrown out the train window. Dominique thrived on her French clichés. He had to admit that he didn't understand Rome either, but how could he explain that he liked the way he lost his sense of time there among her monuments, those eternal monuments that could be related to almost any moment in time? He was tenderly indulgent of Rome's pathetic attempts to be modern like its rival Paris... attempts that he knew were as phony as Italy's economic statistics, probably faked to get into the European Union.
"A country of buffoons! Mean people, and stingy too, so careful to conceal all their wealth and possessions!" Dominique seemed to find gratification in launching another favorite French criticism of their Italian cousins.
"Just because they don't show off their wealth and magnificence!" he said, and grinned down at her. He had good occasion to compare them, and frankly, objectively, he found Italians more noble and sumptuous than the French, more useful and generally much more magnificent. Therefore he was still mystified by Giacomo Casanova's wry sentence that, "he who cannot dissimulate would do well to leave Rome and seek his fortune in England."
Yet, he thought to himself, neither Pier Luigi nor Pierre Louis knew what Rome meant, except that ROMA backwards spelled AMOR. Again he kissed Dominique, in the knowledge that amor-amour would settle everything between them.
He wasn't surprised when an hour later she looked up at him from his chest and said, "When are you going to accept the fact that you're French, Pierre Louis?"
Three weeks later, as the departure whistle sounded at 19:35 and just as Pier Luigi was preparing to close the door of coach number 091, Eric appeared below him, a casual smile on his face, his scarf waving in the Rome breeze, and holding up toward Pier Luigi his heavy bag. Eric swung up the steps; the train lurched slightly and eased out of Termini Station.
"You nearly missed it this time," Pier Luigi said.
"I've never missed a train in my life."
"Destiny?" Pier Luigi grinned ironically.
"Action!" Eric said. "Are you ready?"
"I promised more action stories. Here I am."
At about 2am the clickety-clacks were bombarding Pier Luigi's popping eardrums when Eric stepped out of his compartment and took his place on the jump seat. "The seven ways to win the love of a woman," he announced, crossing his legs and lighting a cigarette in the same elegant rite.
"Two trains traveling in opposite directions are standing on parallel tracks in a country station. It's a three-minute stop. A handsome man my age is looking out the open compartment window into the eyes of a beautiful woman at the window of the other train. He falls in love with her on the spot. It's the chance of a lifetime if in those few seconds he can only convince her that fate has brought them together."
"The situation seems hopeless," Pier Luigi said with a grin. "Desperate action is needed."
"Precisely! He smiles but she doesn't respond. He turns to show her his magnificent profile but she ignores him. He holds up the sociological tome he is reading but she looks bored. He demonstrates his cultured speech, rolling his r's and sharpening his l's. No reaction. He tells her she is beautiful. She frowns. Time is slipping away. The trains are ready to continue on their separate ways. Hurriedly he casts caution to the winds and asks her to marry him. She begins to laugh as their trains inch slowly apart. In a flash of inspiration he pulls a wad of money and checks and bonds from his breast pocket and waves it toward her. Without hesitation she responds with a wide smile and, extending her arms toward him, she calls, 'yes, yes, yes'...until her train disappears from view."
Pier Luigi/Pierre Louis stared at Eric blankly.
"Timely action was needed," Eric said. "Not desperation. I often think of action that is timely like a well-cut diamond. Remember my friend Marco Aurelio? He was desperate but ended up incaprettato anyway. He was no real diamond."
Every few weeks during the months between January and May, Eric boarded the Palatino, car 091, always at the last minute, for the night crossing from Rome to Paris. Each night he brought new stories. Stories of action and fate. Stories that were transcribed directly into Pierre Louis's Montmartre files.
Eric in Kenya to photograph the animals falls ill with dysentery. In a hospital in Nairobi he falls in love with an Indian nurse, a Buddhist. They live for a magic year in Zanzibar until she mysteriously drowns saving a child in a flood. He travels to Hong Kong but soon returns to wander around South Africa, a land he depicts as "the most beautiful place in the world."
Eric looked at Pier Luigi, spread his hands, and said, "What can you do when fate comes for you?" he said.
"Timely action," Pier Luigi said.
"Useless though, if it's really fate!"
Diamonds often came up in those nocturnal tales. Refined diamonds and timely action. Full life and unpredictable fate. "I have always believed that literature too is like a diamond. It never sparkles until it is properly cut and polished like a real diamond. Until a story is split open and its heart exposed, like the diamond it is merely crystallized carbon. No more than a bort. Crystallized carbon can become a real diamond... or it can be exposed as false. You only have to put a tiny drop of water on the surface of the stone. If it spreads, it's a false diamond. Only if it firms up, forming a half-spheroid, is it the real thing."
One spring morning on the arrival platform at the Gare de Bercy, Eric announced with a certain finality in his voice - perhaps it was a faint trace of the nostalgia that one feels when a period is ending - that he was traveling that afternoon to Amsterdam. When Eric then took his hand in both his, Pierre Louis understood from the intense pressure that Eric had made his final night trip on the Palatino. He felt as if a phase of his own life too had ended.
'Diamonds?' he wondered. He hoped Eric would have bags and bags of them, all well cut, polished, refined, and sparkling with life. And among them, perhaps, he would find another Gran Mogol.
Eric continued squeezing his hand as if transmitting to him another, more secret message. Pierre Louis felt something soft passing from Eric's palm to his, before the other, with both hands, carefully and gently bent Pierre Louis's fingers to form a tight pocket for the soft warm object the size of a coin.
As the chauffeur lifted his heavy bag and the two men again began to walk toward the lateral exit from the station, Eric said over his shoulder, "I hope I have helped you to cut a real diamond."
Later, Pierre Louis looked out the little window of his studio down Rue Tholozé, smiled at Dominque reading nearby, and stroked with fondness the brilliant diamond nestled in a triangle of purple velvet cloth lying near his left hand. It was polished and refined.
With rapid, assured strokes he typed the title of his new novella: THE CONDUCTOR - A Diamond In the Rough.