CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|A Genealogy of Instinct
“You pay a price for being a child of the New World.”
There were few realms in which he was a novice, that Saro, let alone the sphere of self-fashioning. Exceedingly fleshy yet with terrific agility, this first cousin of my mother flaunted the same billowy paunch that would come to be called, by its own bearer, The Tomb of, Not (as he always made clear) the Ubiquitous Anchovy, but of the Eternal Engraulis Encrasicolus. And from within that same center of gravity Saro brandished forearms like two looted Vitruvian columns, those trunk-like appendages pushing, say, dough-topped pan after dough-topped pan into the backs of ovens, with the spots gathering on the nearby walls and floors and countertops simply being the sweat droplets Saro’s forehead all the time threw off and pumped out and threw off.
He was a kind of pioneer, this Saro, the first of my Sicilian kin to come to America, and to Virginia. From the one picture my mother keeps in the living room, Saro’s eyes seem a strangely arctic kind of blue, a color not unlike that of the mentholated cough drops I would come to spend years fondling in a warehouse right outside of Chicago, that most solemn modern hub; yet a certain force of antiquity was revealed by the way the kid-Saro, just out of reach of the shadows of an almond tree or in the brush beside some caper bushes, would all of sudden stoop low, mouthing Romanum Imperium morto o non morto or some such bricolage and then standing back up to wield, unfailingly, millennially aged coinage.
A tale is told of the day of Saro’s birth too, something shamelessly mythical. The circumstances surrounding his conception involved a predawn hike, some rather brutish timber instruments, and a physical mishmash of species as unlikely in its amassing as in its influence. But to relate the legend in full, Saro’s father, Nino, was engaged in a bout of hunting that very morning Saro would come into the world. Cunigghiu, cunigghiu … Nino was muttering something like this to himself, as if in the way of a summons, well before the sun rose while he and his buddy Gino hiked into campagna where, like little ornaments of the horizonless night’s lump sum, the tips of those four human shoes up-curled according to the sundry crags and stones. The four paws of one dog were then being well-nigh negotiated by the same landscape too, though Fabrizio was a typically spry specimen of the Cirneco dell’Etna sort, a breed expertly disposed toward the stalking of wild rabbits and whose presence in Sicily goes back to the days when the philosopher Empedocles—said, of course, to have hurled his own person in that same volcano for which Fabrizio’s breed is named—frolicked amidst his hometown Akragas-cum-Agrigentum-cum-Girgenti-cum-now-Agrigento’s still-towering Temple of Hera.
And it was only twenty-five kilometers or so north of Empedocles’s south-coastal hometown where Nino and Gino settled into one specific spot, their breath low and their movements slow until the pointy-eared, tan-coated Fabrizio pinpointed, not a rabbit, but rather a creature inclined to hide from even the faintest moonlight.
Yes, Cirnecos, though grandly alert, are not known to pursue such countlessly and in this case whitishly quilled rodents; yet from a damp niche between rocks a compact being came to halt, upon the forceful inquiries of Fabrizio, to pulse in an incalculably thorned stillness. Fa-BREE, Fa-BREE—Nino chanting as such, his voice bounced around the hills. But Gino, a novice hunter, and a cerebral sort from Rome only in town to visit his old army buddy Nino, was idealistically opposed to the very notion of hunting. To shoot, to kill, now, in the modern world, Gino had in fact recently told some American friends at a bar back in Rome, these are only … exaggerated gestures. How do you say—un’atavismo? Yes, but empty, and lame, lame … So it was that Gino persisted to overlook the idiosyncrasy of Fabrizio’s findings, or such was the case until Gino watched Nino grab a long stick of wood and mortally pierce that porcupine’s backside.
“ Ci sarà più,” the increasingly studious-seeming Gino was assured by his pal.
And more solitary creatures were scared out, as such. Tail wagging with the whimsical slap-slap of a self-satisfied canine, Fabrizio sniffed and sprung and wiggled until he forced out another, and then another, and then yet another of those crested balls of quickness.
Nino gouged four porcupines in one hour—not bad, not bad at all. Especially since, as Nino only then commenced to explain, the sweet meat of that little creature is something meraviglioso. Yet the pursuance of a fifth specimen proved a process whose effects were to linger, strangely but forcefully, upon the wide-ranging life of the soon-to-be-born Saro. See, the flighty Gino, not uninvigorated by the haul, but also still not totally immersed in the active chase, was looking off into the remote expanses of the Mezzogiorno. Straordinaria, Gino said to himself as he saw the apparition of the moon persisting past the break of day, that featureless likeness pointed at him like some unfinished statue’s face. He saw strange ruins, remnants of some barbaric-looking habitation, makeshift, byzantine, stones topping stones in an almost premeditated fit of disorder. Gino even saw an ominously hovering set of wings—indeed, indeed, that midair armature being not only without song but also eerily devoid of sound and whose weirdly bright yellow mien made Gino suspect, after recollecting a book of bird sketchings he’d received as a childhood gift, that the embodied aloftness was a vulture of the Egyptian sort.
Straordinari, straordinari … But what Gino could not register, let alone comment upon, was that the would-be fifth porcupine sat right at his feet, scuttling in the small intrarock darkness. Gino’s deference to his friends being stronger than any one of his beliefs, the undeniably primitive weapon of one wooden spear came to flutter, thanks to Nino’s guidance, loosely around the rim of Gino’s palm. And while the Roman was situated pretty much dead-center of a broad pile of miniboulders, Fabrizio, no less hungry for his successes so far in the day—his appetite, indeed, more whetted for his conquests—was knocking his nose about some stones to the left and to the right, and then to the front and back of Gino. The sounds of Fabrizio’s breath huffed into a bulky churl, the uppermost adornment of which rhythm was the dog’s abandonment of pure sound for the action of sticking his whole face inside that same, stone-ordered dark. Nino approached, Gino half-cared, and Fabrizio jerked his likeness farther and farther in until, from of a kind of side portal of that same layer of murk, another of those exhaustively prickly, white-haired speedy bodies shot out. The canine pulled his face back into the now full-on daylight and jumped atop the rock-bed in pursuit, with Nino, death-stick in hand, following behind.
But this particular porcupine had quite the head start. Instead of heading for free space though, that little rodent sped in the direction of Gino. Startled into alertness, the Roman assumed a solid posture, knees bent with his upraised right arm holding that porcupine’s would-be instrument of mortality; but when the quarry reached Gino’s vicinity, the effect was something less than ideal—something, indeed, almost perverse. Like some misapplied javelin, the pointy stick left Gino’s hand only to settle lamely amidst the rocks; and not only unscathed but unimpeded in its rather linear progress through the stony terrain, the porcupine approached the wide space between Gino’s outspread legs while Fabrizio, perhaps having expected more from this man his master brought along, watched the failed attempt only to recommence his own pursuit.
And it would be difficult to imagine a stranger confluence of beings gathered in the center of those rocks. After the porcupine passed through Gino’s jittery legs, Fabrizio tried to follow the same route only to knock the Roman backward, onto the bed of big stones. Aspetta! Aspetta! Nino was yelling as he approached the rock pile, atop which he was only able to discern an absurd, cartoonish blur—indeed, a rather quivery jangle of a mass, seemingly porcupine-inclusive, which rolled and rolled in front of the father of my first American ancestor. Hearing that conglomeration’s strangely hybrid yelps yet not knowing how entrapped, or even where exactly the porcupine was, Nino could not intervene, though he did swear to his dying day that he perceived, like a kind of surreal ornament, the motioning of those characteristically whitish quills.
Nino was, in time, not so much surprised that Fabrizio emerged without wound. But that this telescope-fondling, novel- and treatise-hoarding, ironical-conversationalist Roman had gone through a strangely physical rendezvous with a porcupine and came out with no visible scars—Nino couldn’t stomach these dynamics so easily, and the fact that the porcupine had since disappeared (straordinario, straordinario …) was the real kicker. This creature whose being was so largely definable by raw corporeal fact, each specific spike on its back as if geared towards only one form, only one specific type of the world’s manifold hostilities—the possibility that such an organism, in the face of life-threatening opposition, might also act in an aggressively elusive, even willfully harmless manner floored Nino.
Secular leaning and even rather modern as he liked to fashion himself (and these characteristics were, after all, those same ones he admired in his pal from Rome), Nino couldn’t help but believe he had, that morning, a bit of a brush with the transcendent. Returning posthunt to Sant’Arialdo—not only Nino’s hometown, but that of generations of his ancestors—Nino learned that he was now father to a prematurely born though vigorously healthful son, yet such facts somehow seemed rather routine—seemed, though Nino would never communicate it in such a way, almost secondary. And as the years passed and Nino’s son Saro grew and grew, Nino came to conflate, by the sometimes strange way of habit, the person of Saro with that porcupine. Nino didn’t quite go so far as to believe that some boundary between the two beings was broached, but when Nino did see his son from a distance, walking up some steep slope of Sant’Arialdo, say, or grabbing at some clay amidst a rock-strewn streambed, the image Nino’s mind took in often became quilled—whitishly, copiously so.
Saro himself was a horizon-ogling, fleetly corporeal sort, the kind of guy who, upon moving to a city, right off makes a point of knowing the train departures out of the place by heart. He was the sometime-goalkeeper of a Lucerne professional hockey club, the seasonal instructor of upwardly mobile Brits and Portuguese and Poles wanting to fashionably (but safely) speed down the Alps’ most powdery slopes, and the on-again, off-again server of thousands of oyster-topped spaghetti plates in a tool-shed-sized Stuttgart Neapolitan restaurant. Saro even spent an odd fit of a few months hammering nails into soon-to-be Australian bungalows, working for a paisan friend now emigrated and building up the Sydney suburbs; but, alas, none of these positions would stick. To the New World, yes, to the New World Saro eventually made his way, but he would always make a point to return to Sant’Arialdo, his early adult life congealing into a kind of radial exercise, a sort of push toward a greater and greater elasticity with his penchant for leaving off itself somehow all the while furthered by his wont to spend every August in that Mediterranean island of his birth.
And when during one of these mid-twentieth-century summers the now-naturalized American returned home, Nino’s strange fancies of his son were once again validated. A shiny steel ladle, you see, tall and thick like a spoon whose maker really wanted it to be a shovel, was striking, again and again, the bulk of a dog’s body. The scoop section of the instrument, rounded into depth and dotted with soup drips lifted from old paint buckets into breadthy bowls, made a thwack like a stomach hitting a lake bed after a lofty dive, which blows forced out twirly shrieks, each smack of the dog’s back and side and chest leading to a higher pitch of frenzy, paws batting air and the tail whipping and whipping the hind from which it projected until the bowl itself became upended, face-down in the dirt.
Looking down from his balcony, Nino saw these movements as a blur just as intense, though not as weirdly populated, as that of the porcupine and Gino and Fabrizio; and like Fabrizio, this downtrodden canine was of the Cirneco dell’Etna breed, a fact which, perhaps more than any other, was the reason why Saro was at that moment part and parcel of that blur while his father was only helplessly watching. The same person who spent so many hours of his childhood in the company of the wily Fabrizio, Saro was now fully halted in front of, and staring through, the slits of the chain-link fence that came to stand, like a symbol a little too well placed, in between himself and the ladle wielder; and staring at this man, Giampaolo—a rather sinewy Sicilian whose thick beard was only one symptom of an almost uniform hirsuteness—Saro wondered if full-bodied motion didn’t sometimes occur in spite of all of its separate functions. That one thought becoming in turn displaced by the herd of those pensieri aimed at Saro’s formulating some form of speech sufficiently provocative, Saro realized his ensuing vocalization would be the first action in a gestural chain otherwise unsullied by thoughtful premeditation.
But a kind of zenith was, duly, reached—a zenith opening out onto silence. Shut, Saro’s mouth remained: shut, shut. Speech just seemed disproportionate to the circumstances—seemed, even, to use an English term Saro had come to love for the way it seemed, with its vowel-dense sinuousness, to enact the very thing it critiqued, superfluous.
No, no conversation. Saro simply lifted his right arm. The guy grabbed an object, and that same guy pushed it up. A handle was, in this way, loosened to make a passable gap through the fence, which gesture was characterizable by nothing on Saro’s part so much as the weirdly chirpy creaking noise the little piece of moving metal made, and at which wacky alarm-like sound Giampaolo immediately passed through the aperture and barrel-shouldered that rather bulky, naturalized American, knocking him onto a slab of pavement.
The scuffle that ensued was not, alas, so elegantly performed. A kind of slipshod entanglement proved to be the rule of that melee: there was much gangly overlapping, with Saro’s column-like forearms crossing over and/or atop (and/or around) Giampaolo’s sickly limbs, and also many brutishly dainty little gestures predominating—up-rips of earlobes, say, or the swirling of a knuckle into an exposed eyeball. Chins thwacked, lips split reddish, elbows freeing themselves sufficiently into space to push back, with force, towards a cheek or a temple or a nose—these were welcome, if rare, ornaments of an otherwise form-deprived skirmish.
Watching the rhythmless dance from that same balcony atop which Saro first saw that dog being walloped, Nino couldn’t help but think of the blur that he had perceived on the morning of Saro’s birth. Indeed, that simple act of seeing his son contend with the clownish brute Giampaolo had the effect of propelling Saro into a kind of memorial expanse; and though he stood on the balcony in that then-present night and was conscious as such, Nino felt he was, somehow, also very much still existing in that era before he had ever been given the privilege of seeing his only son.
In a familiar manner, Saro (and Giampaolo) emerged bloody but not damaged. But Nino was still a little irked. Even after Saro left Sant’Arialdo to return to the New World, his father, leaving his home in the morning to go tend to his orange groves or to pick some fresh snails for lunch, would see a series of white-crested porcupines a little too serendipitously present. That same dog, on whose behalf Saro fought, would be barking hysterically at those spiky balls of quickness strutting casually through the built world. And while, only an hour or so later, out in his groves or systematically filling a basket with a whole patch of those bi-antennaed land mollusks scuttling about in some brush, Nino would think back to that scene of the personless street, the Cirneco dell’Etna, and those porcupines so strangely out of place, blustering across a manmade road; and then Saro, too, would somehow enter the equation. His actions indefinite and his intentions elusive, Saro stood, in the fancies of his father, like a superfluous character in some play, and the more Nino tried to incorporate his son into the vision he was having at his orange grove, or amidst that snail-lined foliage, the more the inventory of his mind—the street, the dog, his son, the porcupine—congealed into yet another sustained blur.
And it might seem difficult to visualize such intraspecies smudgings from within a peculiarly still space—one such as that of, say, an all-but-empty restaurant. There the bread bowls are spread uniformly across the tables, from which surfaces also jut the tips of red napkins up-curled—twisted, midair—with their apexes flushed in bodiless space. Sundry forms of absence persist in the world, sure; and though each set table implies only one perhaps provincial sort, the sense of missingness snowballs whiplashingly as I—the solitary patron—scan the breadth of the room. Isn’t it strange that where movement tends toward conflation, tranquility would seem to pull, vacuumward, the very objects defining its stasis? Ensue, ensue, as Saro would say come to say in his adopted tongue, even if all matter is en route for the abyss. But this particular eatery is a little too tranquil. And isn’t there something perverse in my sieving of anonymity here? I mean I’m speaking of the display I see when I, so disgraced in the handling of cough drops roundabouts Chicago that I fled homeward to Lexington, Virginia, go where else in that Blue Ridge town but to Palladio’s, the same restaurant sitting on the site where the New World upstart Saro opened a bakery, almost fifty years ago.
See, my mother Paola, Saro’s first cousin, came to the New World on the condition that she would help make cannoli and cuccidati and such in Saro’s establishment; and when Saro bolted from sleepy Lexington for the bustle of New York, my newly married mom and dad bought the place from Saro and turned it into one of those renowned, island-like spaces of repose and indulgence amidst the practical world—you know, an Italian restaurant. And now, me, Anthony Stilicho, twenty-five years old and no less suspicious of institutions for being totally without accomplishment—and my parents, to cap it off, having long since sold Palladio’s so as to pursue a dotage back in that Mediterranean island of Empedocles—I just walk in off the street every now and again even though the calamari is often rubbery, and the chicken livers weirdly brittle. The cod smells like some experiment in maximal self-aroma, some overextended exercise in essence, while the focaccia, though passable, is still a little too sparely anchovied. And—and—my mother’s famed ribs in sauce, the ones that needed no knife and could be masticated with the dull brunt of the gums—yes, those thick pork racks whose tissue slid right off the bone like fresh salmon flesh were, sad to say, deemed fungible with plain old peppers and sausage.
One day in particular during that weird human late-afternoon limbo, too early for dinner yet too late for lunch, I goggle at the apparition of a waitress walking, smoke framed, through a door into the foggy kitchen, her person passing through and being subsumed only to reemerge, in time, through that same billowy bulge. Like an austere little ornament of oblivion, that door keeps swinging back and forth through the plumes, fanning the wisps again and again into what would be, if it already isn’t, some form of the domestic infinite. Those indefinably transitory series of edges in-mix with the selfsame smoke’s corners and bends and curls, and though some hybrid of my reason and memory tells me that my mother and father must have also passed through that entry thousands of times, this thought is quickly displaced by the likeness of a Monet I used to look at so often at a museum back in Chicago right after I dropped out of college, what with that picture’s byzantine renderings of smoke shifting up and around and between the Parisian train from which it emanated, the bodies and the roofs and the facades all being penetrated by that same brazenly indefinite, amorphously pasty puff. I stood in front of that picture when the city-front shores of Lake Michigan were strewn with foam-nicked crowds and when the vehicles lining the Northern city’s arteries were covered over, like some self-conscious outline, with inches of fresh snow. Often I would enter that Loop museum after a long trek by car or by train, and I would pay my admission and walk upstairs right to that picture, and I would stop and stand and try to look, just look, and so in that way, perhaps, possibly, enter, maybe pass through time and space into the grandly enduring life contained within that picture plane, that pastiche of contour and hue made by a long-dead hand—
“Anthony?! I thought that was you sitting there!”
And who is it but Rita, Rita Baines. “So good to see you,” she says, pronouncing each monosyllable a little too deliberately. Her face sags a bit, her puffy cheeks making her mouth seem almost indented. “What are you doing in town these days?”
I knew, of course, in some recess of my brain, that repeated visits to Palladio’s would make such an encounter inevitable, seeing as Rita is the new owner of the place.
“Oh, just decided to come back home for a while. You know, check out some of the old haunts.”
“The old haunts and the old people,” Rita answers, with thin lips. “And your parents are back in Sicily, I assume? I hope that your meal did them some justice.”
“I think they would perhaps approve.”
I can recall my parents talking about Rita and her husband, Joe, before selling them Palladio’s. How Rita and Joe weren’t exactly ideal, but would do the job. And incidentally Rita is Saro’s daughter—another first-generationer, like me. A NYC RN, she and her lawyer hubby came south for an early retirement and bought that same space where once sat her now-passed pop’s bakery shop.
“I’ve been thinking of tinkering more with the menu,” Rita says with a professorial air. “It’s just—we’ve been so busy!”
An elderly man wearing a green sport coat walks in, asking to sit at the bar.
“The squid’s a little leathery,” I divulge.
“Ugh, Anthony … I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Must be Winston, the new cook I have back there. He’s very … let’s say, Southern.”
I sigh and say something about knowing the type, and Rita proceeds to look at me as if from a grand distance. If I were able to gauge her thoughts from her visage, I wouldn’t be able to say whether my person, as it stood in her presence, totally consumed Rita, or whether I was unable to pry my way into even the most compact, remote nook of her mind.
“And Anthony, are you working now?” A rather serrated segue.
“Yeah, yup, as a matter of fact.”
“Well, that’s great to hear. What in, might I ask?”
“Hospitality services,” I say, scratching the midspace of my jawline and hoping the ambiguity of the phrase is somehow counteracted by my strict enunciation. But when Rita gives one of those long lilting sighs where the sounds project from a nose cinched in casual denunciation, I put-forth, “Maybe I should check out the restaurant business, though. Seems like an easy racket. You know, un lavoro facile.”
Rita’s gaze now assumes binocular-worthy proportions. She says, “Well, restaurant ownership is no sinecure. It’s no joke, as they say here in America, Anthony. And the thing is—you gotta build up some capital to purchase one.” She scratches at the face of her front teeth with her fingernail. A real Latinate gesture of brio, if there ever was one, though a stranger would never take her to be of Southern European stock. Often turtlenecked even in early fall or late spring, she has reddish brown hair and an almost Scandinavian paleness of complexion. “Your mother told me some time back that you were doing work in a warehouse or something,” she adds, one hand on her waist with the other gesturing toward a waitress. And as this back-and-forth degenerates into the typically American set of work- and cash- and property-related jabs, I think of the summer when I was nine and Rita’s father Saro came alone to Lexington for a visit. His arrival was, after all, the impetus for one late-afternoon weekday lunch of and pea- and green-pepper-dense omelets; prosciutto-covered honeydew; lentil stippled with bacon and garlic and carrot chunks; rapini-draped, dried-ricotta-grating-speckled, bow-tie-shaped pasta; and a Thanksgiving turkey plate employed, out of season, so as to be swathed with blisteringly plump racks of pork ribs, after which feast my mother and father’s modest kitchen table was not cleared but left—thanks to the cavalcade of foodstuffs Saro himself carted into the Old South from New York—further muddled with sundry dried salamis and stacks of anchovy-packed tins; a long row of tall plastic bottles full of olives green or black but all alike—and prior to inevitable ingestion—olive oil caked; and several basketball-sized cheese wheels, their circumferences ridged yet their consistency spongy, or their innards flaky but their surfaces a study in the strange, sometimes-brick-wall-like-solidity of dried dairy.
And such was the wake Saro left as he then took me on one of his so-called strolls for the better capabilities of digestion. As we two walked, Saro’s Vitruvian-column-like arms found their capitals, as it were, in the neck or shoulders he pushed to redirect a rather listless kid through Lexington. The quaint shops lining (as they still line) the streets—we passed all of those, yep. There is a bibelot-heavy, bric-a-brac-dense sort of historical feeling to that undulant Virginia town. Slanging refrigerator magnet sets and Lincoln-style stovepipe hats and what is known as hoop cheese right next to the prints of colonial maps and the Confederate kepis, the knickknack boutiques of Lexington are like so many would-be toy-chest remnants of some younger, purer America. And though the setting of our waning day shifted from downtown to the almost aggressively austere, wide-whitish-façade-lined Washington & Lee campus—its pediments seeming to echo, if not taunt, the looming summits of the Blue Ridge—we could see those same mountaintops from the snaky sloped streets surrounding the town center, and then again from amidst some of Lexington’s residential lengths, its doorways everywhere and everywhere closed.
“Have you been here before?” Saro asked me after our walk segued, quite smoothly, from the silent midst of Lexington neighborhoods into the town’s main cemetery.
I nodded my head.
“And who brought you?”
I pointed at my chest, and Saro laughed. Hundreds of tombs stood in clean shadowy rows, but the way the Blue Ridge loomed from within sight of the headstones, those curve-connected peaks told of an order less geometric, though vaster.
“You go to the cemetery by yourself? What’s wrong with the park?”
“I like the way they set the people in lines after they die,” I said, “and when I come here I can see the hills in the background, too. There are sometimes also birds.”
“Oh. And birds cheep better back here?”
I smirked, and went on, “I kinda like how everyone gets their name written. You know, carved, and how everyone goes into this one area. I mean, everyone dies, but then every person goes into the same little section. And then everyone gets their own space.”
I directed Saro to one specific grave marker, showing a span of 1956–1963.
“Kid died young, yeah.”
And I made some comment about how I was older than that kid would ever be, so that, some days later, the last day of Saro’s trip—and the last time, to my knowledge, he ever stepped foot in Lexington—he handed me a bulky hardcover, its wide, sparely lettered pages mostly showing black-and-white photos of the villas Palladio designed in the Veneto, the same region where my dad was born.
“I have thought about our discussion at the cemetery, Anthony, yes? I just, well, came across this at one of these used bookstores in town, and it relates,” and for years that book was a staple of my bedroom, often opened for weeks or even months to the same shot of a portico or a bulky balustrade or some other imposing syntactical clump of cylinders and columns and walls. The volume’s bulkiness was, it must be said, the most eccentric part of a more general low-mindedness. I mean that Saro’s gift would come to share the same table or floor space otherwise covered with candy wrappers and basketball cards and video games of the sixteen-bit sort, though the latter could reveal, via the televised medium, voluminously charactered, time-exhausting systems of hand-to-hand combat, each little cartridge itself an inventory of physical movements undeniably expansive and conceived to culminate in perversely baroque combinations of retina-ward jabs and chin-imploding uppercuts, knees to the chest span’s brunt and the most roundabout, byzantinely pain-inducing kicks to the balls.
Over the long run though, I was more sustained by that photo book. There was one snapshot in particular—and not a still, say, of that stoutly noble, dome-capped triumph of almost-symmetry know as La Rotonda, nor a picture of those weirdly spiral, would-be-motionful stacks of flattened boulders making up the Villa Sarego’s columns. No, my own choicest pic showed one of the corners of an anonymous, high-ceilinged room in the Villa Pojana, one of Palladio’s more whimsical constructions. Those expanses of wall, painted what appears to be a faded coat of white, seemed tangibly, almost blissfully spare; and though their surfaces were contrasted by a little doorway on the picture’s lower left corner opening out onto what looks like the indentation of a fireplace—and above whose borders were painted miniscule, Chinese landscape-like figurines amidst sundry forms of foliage—I still found myself most infatuated with the room’s blankness.
Maybe that frame’s proximity to the other, busier stills made for its heightened stillness, but I kept remembering dreams of me sitting in that otherwise-empty enclosure, fidgeting. My mind’s most Platonic self-fashionings had me, yes, willfully alone, and subject to no lofty activities. Months upon months passed, approaching the point where I would migrate, á la Empedocles, northward—albeit not near a volcano but toward the havoc of modern sprawl. But as my dreams of that same lucidly vacant room persisted, the big development was: the me-character started up and moving, as if in spite of myself, into the Villa’s broader space. A niche resembling a doggy door became, after some reconnaissance, that recurring dream’s serial destination, through which slot I would unfailingly crawl. Reemerging into a standing position, I would find myself inside of yet another windowless room, its walls taller and surfaces even sparer and purer than those of the room I so admired in that book. Yet who would be doing a little construction work in that space, but old Saro? Anthony? Anthony! Welcome to the, yes, refurbished Neoclassical construction … Totally unequipped with safety gear save for an almost purely ornamental pair of goggles, Saro sledgehammered—with the blustery torque only such crazily veined, columnar limbs could cause—that expanse of lofty flatness, the formerly uniform parts of that Palladian inner plane flying chunkily back toward and beyond his person, but with the floor at his feet remaining somehow free of debris.
In time, that first of my kin to come to the New World busted the wall clean through. Sunlight-limned, a window-sized hole gave the enclosure a less, well, enclosure-like ambience. And though that same dream continued into the era when I inhabited that most modern, train- and car-dense hub of Chicago and its environs, the real brunt of the vision became less and less Saro’s destruction, and more and more the phenomena that had passed through that entryway from the outside world. Yeah, even as Saro hammered away, the room became quite the venue, hosting lectures and auctions and poker games and even roustabout sorts of drinking clubs; and Saro’s strikings and the room’s occupation happened, not, in sequence, but somehow both at once. Problem was, while Saro remained his industrious self, the other inhabitants of the room were, to me, not only uniformly unknown, but aggressively, almost biologically foreign. I looked at various human faces and registered nothing but the blankest, most void-full skips of space. It was so unbearably strange, the way each of these gaps stood for the distance each person’s features—torso, eyes, throat—had from any other’s. Sometimes the room was eerily quiet and sometimes shrilly lipped, but it was always utterly unnavigable. The version of that dream that really messed me up, though, was the benign-seeming one where the room, like the original dream-room, was tranquilly empty save for Saro’s hammerings, until a white-crested porcupine shot through the wall space Saro had cleared. And that tiny spiny creature had an air, not of menace, but of lowly pathos, fluttering, as it did, all about, while seeming to look for a niche or a nook or recess only to find the shadow my person made as it faced the light. Or so I figured were the motives and whereabouts of that rodent, until into that room there materialized a tan-coated, pointy-eared growling beast—a Cirneco dell’Etna, to be exact, in full predator mode. Seeming to have my wits about me, the dream-Anthony shifted out of the way so as to allow for nature’s course, the Cirneco’s face being, after all, definable by nothing so much as the saliva shine glinting from its bared teeth. But each of the dog’s subsequent moves seemed to keep in unmistakable sync with my own, and by the time I found myself (Fa-BREE! Fa-BREE!) scrunched on the floor and pointing an ornately barbed back toward the dog’s toothy snarl, I knew that in that room and in that whole damn Palladian house, any porcupine hunting on my part would—save, perhaps, for the fortuitous guise of a mirror—yield nothing but the most jittery, objectless blur.
This is an excerpt from The Incident at Natural Bridge, Steve Barbaro's novel-in-progress. He is a former Henry Hoyns/ Poe-Faulkner fellow at the University of Virginia, and his poems also appear in Web Conjunctions, in addition to such venues as The Journal, Caketrain, American Letters & Commentary, Fourteen Hills, and DIAGRAM.