Antonio Vieri’s wife had left him for the famous American author who wrote those best-selling novels about Italian gangsters in New York, and Antonio Vieri was feeling sorry for himself, so very sorry for himself that his friends warned him that if he did not stop feeling sorry for himself he, Antonio Vieri, would become famous for it throughout Florence (they lived in Florence), the way the Uffizi was famous for its Michelangelos, il Duomo for its duomo.
“This is not possible,” Antonio Vieri said. “I do not ever leave my apartment.” This was true. Antonio Vieri hadn’t left his apartment since his wife had left him for the famous American author. The only thing he did was eat the food his friends brought him and read the famous American author’s best-selling novels about Italian gangsters in New York. They had once been Antonio Vieri’s wife’s novels, and she had loved them, and he had loved that she’d loved them, until finally she loved the novels too much, for too long, and he got jealous and told her that if she loved the novels so much then maybe she should leave him for the famous American author who wrote them. And so she did that.
Now that his wife was gone, Antonio Vieri read the best-selling novels himself. Maybe there was something in the best-selling novels that might help him get her back. That was his hope, his plan. It would work, too, of this Antonio Vieri was certain. It would work because it had to. Until it did, Antonio Vieri was going to stay in his apartment and read the best-selling novels and eat the food his friends brought him and feel sorry for himself, and nothing or no one could convince him to do otherwise. He told his friends, “I cannot become famous for anything if I don’t leave my apartment.”
“You are wrong,” his friends told him. “We are warning you.”
“But I miss her so much,” Antonio Vieri said.
“We know, we know,” they said.
“I miss everything about her,” Antonio Vieri said. “I even miss the way she ate her insalata mista.”
“You must stop this,” his friends said.
“She ate her insalata mista so delicately, one leaf at a time,” Antonio Vieri said. “She ate her insalata mista like an angel.”
“We’ve warned you,” his friends told Antonio Vieri. “Don’t say we didn’t warn you.”
“Go—what is the expression?—fornicate with your own bodies,” he told them. Antonio Vieri had learned this expression from the famous American author’s best-selling novels about Italian gangsters in New York. Antonio Vieri could speak and read English adequately, but he could only find the novels in their Italian translations. Sometimes, Antonio Vieri wondered about the accuracy of the translations, especially of the American vernacular.
“What?” his friends asked. “What did you tell us to do with our bodies?”
“Please just go away,” he said.
“For how long?” they asked.
“Forever,” he said.
“Gladly,” they said. “But don’t forget that we warned you.” And then they disappeared into the place in hell reserved for friends who think they know best.
* * * *
Once his friends had gone away, Antonio Vieri was alone. All alone! Antonio Vieri remembered the last time he was all alone. This was before he’d found his wife, his friends. He had been sitting in this very same apartment, surrounded by these same cracked plaster walls, without even the famous American author’s best-selling novels about Italian gangsters in New York to keep him company, and he’d said to himself, out loud, in the manner of the truly lonely, “Antonio Vieri, if you do not find a wife, if you do not find friends, then you are going to end up in this apartment all alone for the rest of your life. You are going to end up as the saddest man in Florence. I am warning you.”
That was a bad feeling, and it had caused Antonio Vieri to find himself a wife and friends. But now Antonio Vieri’s wife had left him and he’d told his friends to go away, and this feeling was much worse. The only thing worse than being all alone was to have some other way of being to which to compare your loneliness, and then to lose it. All alone again, after not being all alone for a little while!
Antonio Vieri ran to the window with the intention of throwing it open and shouting to his friends, “Come back; I am all alone again! Please come back!” But when Antonio Vieri got to the window, he saw something in the piazza below that made him forget about his friends. It was the famous American author who’d written those best-selling novels about Italian gangsters in New York, sitting at an outdoor café, drinking red wine. Out of all the outdoor cafés in all the piazzas in all of Florence, the famous American author had to drink red wine in this one, and he’d been out there every day since Antonio Vieri’s wife had left him. As for Antonio Vieri’s wife, he had not seen her since she’d left him. But then again, the Italian gangsters in New York liked to keep their women out of sight; Antonio Vieri assumed this was true of the famous American author who wrote best-selling novels about them, as well.
That it was the famous American author, Antonio Vieri had no doubt. Even though Antonio Vieri was four stories up and the famous American author was sitting at the far edge of the piazza, it was definitely him, definitely the same man whose photo was on the back cover of the novels. He was the sort of fat man whose neck wouldn’t permit the top two shirt buttons to be buttoned; he was bald, except for a wild swoop of thin hair meant to cover up the baldness; his glasses were so big, the lenses so thick, he could have worn them while welding. Yes, it was definitely the famous American author in the piazza, drinking red wine, taunting Antonio Vieri just by sitting there.
Antonio Vieri almost shook his fist in anger at the famous American author. But no, that would be feeble, most feeble, especially since Antonio Vieri was four stories up and the famous American author was sitting at the far edge of the piazza and wouldn’t be likely to see the fist shaking. Besides, why shake your fist at the man who’d stolen your wife when, instead, you could read the man’s best-selling novels and find a way to get her back? So Antonio Vieri turned away from the window and did that.
* * * *
The next day, Antonio Vieri was reading one of the famous American author’s best-selling novels—The Patriarch of the Gangsters was the title, in translation—and trying to decide which of the character types (hotheaded or levelheaded? red-blooded or cold-blooded? blackhearted or yellowbellied?) his wife might want him to become if she were to return to him, when he heard a knock on the door.
Antonio Vieri wondered who it could be. If it was his wife, he would welcome her back, no questions asked, and ask her to forgive his appearance, which was gruesomely unkempt and pathetic in the way of all jilted, self-pitying men. If it was his friends and they had groceries for him, then Antonio Vieri would let them in, also no questions asked, and eat their food. Then, if they started warning him again about how if he didn’t watch out he would become famous for self-pity, Antonio Vieri would ask them to go away again, forever, until the next time he was hungry. If it was the famous American author, Antonio Vieri would—what was the expression?—strike him with a stick until he was murdered.
But it wasn’t his wife, or his friends, or the famous American author. Instead, standing in the hallway was a young man, an American who looked like—what was the expression?—a fragment of excrement. His hair was unwashed and brown, or brown because it was unwashed, but in any case it was dirty, so very dirty that it wouldn’t lie quietly on his head but instead rose to a filthy, bristling ridge of hair, as on the back of a certain type of fighting dog or on the head of a certain type of fighting cock. When the American shucked his overlarge backpack (there was a Canadian flag patch stitched on the backpack, which was how Antonio Vieri knew he was an American) there were thick lines of sweat on his T-shirt, where the straps had just been. The sweat-striped T-shirt was gray but had likely once been white, and in any case it was adorned with a banana and a thick-bodied worm, facing each other, apparently about to do battle. Both the banana and the worm had two eyes and a mouth and two arms and at the end of the arms were black boxing gloves. The banana was haughty, the worm irate—this was conveyed through their eyes, their mouths. Underneath the banana and the worm were the letters UCSC. Antonio Vieri understood that the U and the S stood for United States, but he couldn’t understand what the C and the other C signified or why one was placed between the U and the S. Perhaps the banana was responsible for the disorder of the letters, and perhaps that explained why the worm was so furious with the banana. This American smelled, too, of something rotten, only partly obscured by something chemical and sweet. The smell was considerable and stood between them like the door would have if Antonio Vieri hadn’t already opened it.
“Are you Antonio Vieri?” the American asked.
“It is me,” Antonio Vieri said. It seemed fruitless to deny it, especially because on the door, next to the number of his apartment (8), was his name: Antonio Vieri.
“Excellent,” the American said. “How much?”
“Yes,” the American said. “What will it cost for you to let me inside?” He said this slowly, as though Antonio Vieri didn’t understand English or as though there were something wrong with Antonio Vieri’s head, which was in fact the case. Antonio Vieri was so hungry he couldn’t think correctly. All he could think about was food, food, and how he didn’t care if his friends brought it to him or if it was just some filthy American who wanted, for some reason, to enter his apartment.
“Do you have any food?”
This American nodded, shucked his backpack, unzipped its front pocket, and removed something in a shiny metallic wrapper. Antonio Vieri took the object from this American, unwrapped it, saw that it was something candy bar–like but granular and thus probably better for you. He shoved the thing into his mouth, waved the American into his apartment, and shut the door behind them.
The American immediately began walking around the apartment. He looked at the two framed and mounted caricatures of Antonio Vieri’s wife—in one of them she was eating insalata mista delicately, one leaf at a time, like an angel; in the other she was reading the famous American author’s best-selling novels about Italian gangsters in New York—both of which Antonio Vieri had drawn himself, crudely but with all his heart. The American gently ran his hands over the piles of unwashed clothes on the floor, on the back of Antonio Vieri’s chair, his couch, his kitchen table; he walked into the bedroom and sat on the bed, the bed that Antonio Vieri hadn’t slept in since his wife had left him; he opened the faucet and ran the water over the unwashed dishes and cups. The American picked up the paperback copies of the famous American author’s best-selling novels about Italian gangsters in New York, all nine of them, all of them read and reread so many times that they looked like something that had been punished. At one point the American dropped his own healthy candy bar, bent down to pick it up, and then stayed there on his haunches, looking for a long time at the dusty wooden floors as though Antonio Vieri were a snail and the American could see the trails of self-pity Antonio Vieri had made as he’d dragged himself around the apartment.
“Wow,” the American said.
“My wife has left me for the famous American author,” Antonio Vieri said by way of apology and explanation.
“Yeah, yeah, I know that,” the American said.
“You do?” he asked. “How?”
The American answered by pulling a piece of paper out of his backpack and handing it to Antonio Vieri. It was a mimeographed flier that read:
Now open to the general public: the Pity Palace, home of Antonio Vieri, the saddest man in Florence. His wife left him for the famous American author who wrote those best-selling novels about Italian gangsters in New York. Please pity him.
Antonio Vieri knew who was responsible: his friends. Those—what was the expression?—diseased conjugal acts, thought Antonio Vieri. He wished he could bring his friends back so that he could tell them to go away again, but this time more forcefully.
“Where did you get this?” Antonio Vieri asked.
“A bunch of old coots were handing them out outside the Piazza Grimaldi.”
“Old what?” Antonio Vieri asked. Coots he didn’t know. But old? He had never thought of his friends as old, which is to say that he’d never thought of himself as old, either. Antonio Vieri had always imagined he and his friends were more or less the same age. “Am I an—what is the expression—old coot, too?”
“You sure are,” the American said.
“Is that another reason my wife left me?” Antonio Vieri wondered. “Because I am an old coot?”
“It might be,” the American said. “It’s amazing. I feel better about myself just being in here.”
“I do,” the American said happily and wide-eyed, as though in a dream—the good kind. “My girlfriend dumped me two weeks ago. Not for anyone in particular, either. She said she’d rather be alone than with me. We were supposed to take this trip together, so I decided to go by myself. Yesterday, that seemed like a big mistake. Yesterday, I couldn’t look at a naked statue—not even the guys—without thinking of her. But after being here, seeing you, I can’t even remember what she looks like.”
“I miss my wife so much,” Antonio Vieri said automatically. “I miss the way she ate her insalata mista.”
“She ate her insalata mista so delicately, one leaf at a time,” Antonio Vieri said. “She ate her insalata mista like an angel.” He pointed in the direction of the caricatures; the American turned and looked at them once again and for a long time, his face shifting in phases—puzzlement, wonder, pity—before turning back to Antonio Vieri.
“Dude, did you draw those yourself?”
Antonio Vieri nodded. “Crudely,” he said, “but with all my heart.”
The American looked at Antonio Vieri the way, a moment earlier, he’d looked at the caricatures. Antonio Vieri could see the pity in his face, sloshing around in his eyes. The pity seemed to make the American taller, more erect, less sickly, as though the American were an undernourished plant and pity was just the right kind of plant food. He even smelled better, as though pity were the most effective type of deodorant.
“And she really left you for Mario Puzo?” the American asked.
“You are not allowed to refer to him by that name in this apartment!” Antonio Vieri shrieked. “You may call him ‘the famous American author’ or you may call him nothing at all.”
The way Antonio Vieri figured, the famous American author had something Antonio Vieri did not—his wife—but by calling him “the famous American author,” Antonio Vieri had something the famous American author did not—a full and proper name. Antonio Vieri would have explained this reasoning to the American if the American had asked. He didn’t. He just stood there smiling at Antonio Vieri, rubbing his hands together as though he’d been cold and Antonio Vieri was the fire.
“Do you have any buddies?” the American said, placing his right hand on Antonio Vieri’s shoulder.
“Pals. Amigos. Friends,” the American said. “Someone to help you.”
“I did, but then I told them to go away forever.”
“Well, you’re definitely going to need some help, and pronto,” the American said. He removed his right hand from Antonio Vieri’s shoulder and stuck it in Antonio Vieri’s direction and Antonio Vieri shook it. “Good deal,” the American said. “My name is Brad.”
* * * *
Brad was right: Antonio Vieri was going to need some help. This was Florence, after all; it was the first week of July and there wasn’t an empty room in the city. The tourists were a hundred deep at il Duomo. They were turning away people at the Uffizi. Even the lesser Medici houses were full to the point of suffocation. Competition between guided tours had become fierce. Just the day before, Brad told him, ten guided Germans had been trampled by twenty guided Swedes trying to get into an obscure Franciscan monastery whose monks were notable for nothing except their unusual methods of cheese making. There were too many sightseers, and all of them needed to see something, anything.
“You’re going to be famous, man,” Brad told Antonio Vieri. He was busy making the apartment even more pitiable than it had been. Brad picked up a few of Antonio Vieri’s soiled clothes off the chair, ran them across the dusty floor, crumpled them up into loose balls, and then threw them against the front door, where they struck with soft, soiled thuds and slid to the floor. The dirty clotheswads would be first thing someone would see—or not see and thus step on—when they walked through the door, the new doormat for the newly opened Pity Palace.
“I do not ever leave the apartment,” Antonio Vieri said. “I cannot become famous if I don’t leave my apartment.”
“Yes, you can,” Brad said. “I’m telling you.”
“Are you warning me?” Antonio Vieri said. “My friends warned me, and that’s why I told them to go away.”
“You’re one sad piece of work, aren’t you?” Brad said, shaking his head appreciatively. “I’m not warning you at all. Just relax, okay?”
“If I’m going to be famous in my apartment,” Antonio Vieri said, “maybe we should clean up a little.” He felt nervous and a little giddy, as though he was about to go on a date—which he’d never done—or as though he was about to go out and find a wife and friends, which he had.
“Absofuckinglutely not,” Brad said. “We want you to be as pitiable as possible. Let me take care of everything. Will you just let me take care of everything?”
“Are you—what is the expression?—telling me a playful but harmless lie?” By which Antonio Vieri meant, Of course, please take care of everything; that is exactly what I want you to do.
It was some sort of miracle, if you thought about it: Antonio Vieri had had friends to take care of him until they wouldn’t stop warning him and he sent them away. And then, just after he’d sent them away, Brad showed up, willing to take care of him but with no desire to warn him at all. It was as though all you had to do was need someone to take care of you and then they would show up and do that. Was this the way the world could work? It seemed that it could, and that made Antonio Vieri happy, but only for a second. Because the problem with someone taking care of you is that there is always someone you’d rather was taking care of you. Once someone takes care of you, you can’t help but think of the someone who isn’t.
“I miss my wife so much,” Antonio Vieri said.
“That’s the spirit,” Brad said. “But speaking of your wife . . . I should probably know a few things about her before people show up.”
“Of course,” Antonio Vieri said. “What is the expression?—Please start shooting me with your weapon.”
Again, Brad shook his head, as though he couldn’t believe his good fortune. “Right,” he said. “Tell me something about her.”
“She ate her insalata mista—”
“Yeah, yeah, and she read the best-selling novels,” Brad said. “I know that already. That’s only two things. What else did she do?”
“What else?” Antonio Vieri asked. Did there need to be something else? Were two things not enough? How many things did one need to do? How many things did the patriarch of the gangsters do? He brushed his cheeks with his fingers and he told people that—what was the expression?—he’d concoct a deal whose terms they had to choice but to accept. How many things did you have to know about someone in order to love them and to miss them once they were gone?
“Yeah, what else,” Brad said. “Tell me how you and your wife met.”
“I found her,” Antonio Vieri said. “I was sitting alone in this apartment, staring at the cracked plaster walls, and I said to myself, out loud, in the manner of the truly lonely, ‘Antonio Vieri, if you do not find a wife, if you do not find friends, then you are going to end up in this apartment all alone for the rest of your life. You are going to end up as the saddest man in Florence. I am warning you.’ And so I went out and found them.”
“What do you mean, you found them?” Brad asked. He had that puzzled look on his face you get when you think you have one thing and then you find out that it’s something else entirely. Antonio Vieri knew the look. It was the same look his wife had had when he told her to leave him for the famous American author. “Do you mean you met them?”
“Do I?” Antonio Vieri said. He thought this might be, as with the vernacular in the best-selling novels, a problem with translation. “Maybe I do mean that. What is the difference?”
Just then there was a knock on the door. Antonio Vieri stood up to answer it but Brad motioned for him to sit back down in the chair. Antonio Vieri did. Brad placed The Final Patriarch of the Gangsters Once More in Antonio Vieri’s hands, then mussed Antonio Vieri’s hair, which was sparse and considerably mussed already. On the table next to the chair there was an opened jar of black olives, the label yellowed and corroded and nearly unreadable, one overly soaked and aged black olive swimming buddyless in the dingy brine. Next to the jar there was a two-year-old newspaper opened to the half-completed two-year-old crossword puzzle. On the floor next to Antonio Vieri’s chair was a tower of the famous American’s best-selling novels about Italian gangsters in New York, teetering toward the man who had read them too many times and away from the window, away from the piazza, away from the man who had written them and who was now drinking wine at the outdoor café.
All of these things—the books, the newspapers, even the olive—were originally meant to give Antonio Vieri comfort; but now, gathered and displayed as they were, they made him almost unbearably sad. There is nothing worse than seeing all the things you use to make yourself feel better gathered together in one place. Antonio Vieri felt terrible, but he could tell that Brad felt good. Brad surveyed the scene, gave Antonio Vieri a satisfied nod, then opened the door.
“Is this the Pity Palace?” Antonio Vieri couldn’t see the speaker but it was a woman’s voice—yet another American.
“Yes,” Brad said. “Admission is ten euros.”
Antonio Vieri heard some grumbling, then zipper sounds. He leaned forward to get a glimpse of his first paying customers, and in doing so grazed the leaning tower of books with his elbow, and then the tower was no more. The books fell with that raspy paperback sound, some of them falling on the floor but most of them falling on Antonio Vieri. He yelped and brushed the books off of him as if they were ashes from the cigarettes he didn’t smoke. When he looked up he saw his first paying customers gaping at him.
There were two of them, a man and a woman. It was clear that both of them could really—what was the expression?—fasten a sack over their faces out of which they would eat like hungry animals. Their round faces glistened with sweat and the remnants of their midmorning gelati. The man wore a cap pulled way down over his forehead, almost to the eyebrows; the cap was sky blue and was adorned with a white cross, or rather several white crosses, layered on top of one another, each one slightly bigger then the next, which gave Antonio Vieri the impression that the cross might at any minute burst right out of the sky blue cap and into the unsuspecting secular world. The woman had the sort of severely blunt haircut that signifies either piety or retardation; she was wearing a shiny green windbreaker on which the name Donna was written in cursive over the right breast.
Both the man and Donna wore the bloated belts that Antonio Vieri knew were called fanny packs; he also knew what a fanny was and could not understand why, then, the belts were worn around the stomach and not the fanny. All he knew for sure was that they were ridiculous. Perhaps if the famous American author had worn a fanny pack Antonio Vieri’s wife would not have left Antonio Vieri. But Antonio Vieri guessed that he didn’t, and she had.
Donna approached Antonio Vieri warily, hesitantly, as if he were a hungry lion and she, the woman, had forgotten to bring the meat. The man hung back, head down, as though ashamed. Donna was holding in her meaty hands the flier that Antonio Vieri’s friends had made and disseminated; she consulted it quickly and then looked back at Antonio Vieri.
“You’re Antonio Vieri?”
“It is me.” He glanced at Brad, and Brad nodded. They’d rehearsed. Antonio Vieri cleared his throat and said, “My wife left me for the famous American author who wrote those best-selling novels about Italian gangsters in New York. I miss her so much. I even miss the way she ate her insalata mista. She ate her insalata mista so delicately, one leaf at a time, like an angel. Now she is gone and I am the saddest man in Florence. This is my home. This is the Pity Palace.” At this, Antonio Vieri made a sweeping gesture with his right arm, as though inviting Donna to see how pitiable his palace was.
But Donna didn’t notice; she’d been looking at the flier, reading along from the text of Antonio Vieri’s speech. After a few seconds of silence it must have been clear to Donna that he had nothing more to say. She raised her head, looked at him, then at Brad, and said, “That’s it? That’s not so bad. I don’t feel sorry for you much at all.” Donna’s lips, her cheeks, her whole face quivered with disappointment. If the gelati on her chin, her upper lip, her cheeks was makeup, then the disappointment was something that couldn’t be covered. Antonio Vieri felt sorry for her; it was the first time he’d felt sorry for anyone else. It was like finding money in your pocket, money you’d never had, never lost, money you didn’t know you’d ever wanted. “You don’t seem so sad.”
“He does,” Brad said. Antonio Vieri could hear the yelp of panic in his voice, could see that Brad hadn’t pocketed the twenty euros, as though he wasn’t sure they truly belonged to him yet.
“He doesn’t,” Donna said, then sighed and cocked her head in the direction of her husband. “But go ahead, Steve. We’re here. You might as well go ahead show him your mole.”
Steve took two steps forward, pulled off his hat, and showed Antonio Vieri his mole. It was on his forehead, just above the hairless space between his eyebrows, which was why Steve had worn his hat so low. The mole was the size of an eye, was black except where it was purple, and had topography: little mountains crusted with something white; shallow valleys of the deepest, most malignant purple. In one of the valleys there seemed to be a thin stream of pus. The mole looked angry, angrier even than the littlest Italian gangsters with the most prove in the famous American author’s best-selling novels, so angry that it throbbed. Antonio Vieri could see hairs growing out or through the mole, wiggling frantically as though trying to escape. The hat had put a crease in the mole, making the southern tip look like it had seceded from the sovereign rest of the mole.
“Ouch,” said Brad.
Steve didn’t say anything, as though he was resigned to let his mole and his Donna do all his talking for him. He put his hat back on and receded again into the apartment’s shadows.
“I know,” Donna said. “We’ve prayed. We’ve prayed and prayed for the Lord to rid Steve of his mole. We’ve even prayed for the Lord to make it cancer. ‘Please, Jesus, make it cancer.’ That was our exact prayer. The insurance won’t pay for getting rid of it unless it’s cancer. But it’s not cancer. Jesus in his mystery and wisdom won’t make it cancer, not even precancer. I don’t know why. All I know is that it’s ugly. I’m sorry, Steve, but it is. I can see it even through the hat; I can see it even though you’re way over there in the corner. Even with my eyes closed I can see it. Watch. Here I am, closing my eyes, and I can still see it. There it is, Jesus, the way you made it. You died for our sins and then You made Steve’s hideous mole.”
“Ouch,” Brad said again.
Donna opened her eyes and nodded. “It’s come between us.”
Antonio Vieri could see how that could happen. It happened in the best-selling novels all the time: someone murdered his brother and the murder came between the murderer and his other brother; someone murdered his father and the murder came between the murderer and his mother; someone lied to his wife about all the murdering, and the lying and murdering came between the lying murderer and his wife. It seemed, to Antonio Vieri, that if Donna’s Jesus existed, then He made two people, and not one only, so that someone or something would then come between them.
The best-selling novels and their famous American author had come between Antonio Vieri and his wife, and now it was clear that Donna and Steve and his mole were about to come between Brad and Antonio Vieri, too. Antonio Vieri could see the blank, horrified look on Brad’s face.
Earlier, Brad had confided that before he’d met Antonio Vieri nothing had ever worked out for him—not in love, not in anything. “My last job was working for a dry cleaner,” he’d told Antonio Vieri. “But then I got fired for not keeping the cleaning dry enough. My boss said he’d never seen anything like it. Do you understand what I’m telling you?” Antonio Vieri had. He understood how easily pity became self-pity, understood that if Antonio Vieri and his Pity Palace became just one more thing that didn’t work out for Brad, Brad would leave him and he would be all alone again.
“The story I’ve told you,” Antonio Vieri said quietly, as though telling them a secret, “that is not the whole story.” Once he’d said that, Antonio Vieri could feel the difference in the room. It was like the wind had picked up, blown the despair out of the room and replaced it not with something else but with the hope that it would be something else, something better. It was like that moment in one of the best-selling novels, after the middle-brother gangster has confessed to betraying his younger-brother gangster but before he knows whether the younger-brother gangster will forgive him or murder him.
Donna and Brad leaned toward Antonio Vieri expectantly; even Steve seemed to move out of the shadows a little bit. “My wife liked to eat insalata mista, that much has been told. And I would just sit around and watch her eat—she was that beautiful. That’s all she did; that’s all I wanted her to do. I thought I never would get tired of it.”
“But then you did,” Donna said, nodding, as if she were hearing an old story, one of her favorites. “Jesus gave you everything you wanted and then Satan made you want more.”
It was true. Antonio Vieri remembered the moment too clearly. He and his wife were sitting at the kitchen table; he was watching her eat her insalata mista delicately, one leaf at a time, like an angel, just like she had the day before, and the day before that, and all Antonio Vieri could think of was what it would be like to sit there and watch his wife eat her insalata mista like this for eternity, and so he said, out of the blue, “Maybe you’d like something to read,” and gave her one of the famous American author’s best-selling novels about Italian gangsters in New York.
“You mean one of these?” Donna asked, as if not really noticing the books scattered around before that moment. She picked up one of the books—The Proper Italian Word for Death—and held it so anxiously, so uncertainly, that Antonio Vieri wondered whether she’d ever even held a book before. “Where did all these books come from, anyway?”
“They—what is the expression—tumbled off of a moving construction vehicle.” In truth, Antonio Vieri didn’t remember where they’d come from. Perhaps the previous tenants had left them, although Antonio Vieri didn’t remember anyone living in the apartment before him, nor did he remember living in another apartment but this one. Perhaps his friends had brought him the books, although Antonio Vieri didn’t remember his friends bringing him anything but food. But what did it matter? Where does anyone get anything? You are lonely and so you go find a woman to make you less so. You want the woman who makes you feel less lonely to read something to supplement her delicate, angelic eating of her insalata mista, and so you give her a book. The world is not so mysterious. Antonio Vieri’s wife had said, “Yes, I’d love something to read,” and luckily Antonio Vieri had one of the best-selling novels to give her, no matter where it had come from.
“Did she like it?” Donna asked. She looked dubiously at the book in her hands, as though wondering how anyone could like such a thing.
“She loved it,” Antonio Vieri said. He could hear the jealousy in his voice, could feel it in the back of his throat. “She loved all of them. She loved them so much, that’s all she did; she barely even ate her insalata mista anymore, and when she did, she’d eat big fistfuls of it so that she could get back to the novels. So one day . . .”
And then Antonio Vieri stopped. He had the urge to apologize—not to anyone in the room, but to his wife. He wanted to crawl deep into her ear and whisper, “I’m sorry, I love you, I’m sorry, I love you,” until that was the only thing she could hear, until she knew that it was true.
“Tell us, Antonio Vieri,” Donna said. Steve had emerged from the shadows and was standing next to his wife; they were holding hands. “Jesus wants you tell us so we can feel better about Steve’s hideous mole.”
Antonio Vieri cleared his throat once, twice, thrice, closed his eyes, and then said, “And so one day I told her that it seemed like she loved the best-selling novels more than she loved me. I told her that if she loved the best-selling novels so much, then why didn’t she leave me for the man who wrote them?”
“And then she did, you poor guy,” Donna said, and Antonio Vieri nodded. “She actually left you for the famous American author.” She turned to Steve, her face shining and holy. “Take your hat off, Steve. Jesus made your hideous mole, but He also gave us this poor man and his story.”
But Steve didn’t take off his hat. He moved closer to Antonio Vieri, squinting, as though trying to see him more clearly. Antonio Vieri was slumped in his chair. He’d never told the whole story to anyone before, not even his friends before he’d sent them away. Now that he’d told Steve and Donna, he wished he hadn’t. He felt dead, like everything to know about him was known and none of it was good. Antonio Vieri wondered if this was what the middle-gangster brother had felt after confessing to his younger-gangster brother, and he wondered if, already feeling dead, the middle-gangster brother had minded so terribly much when his younger-gangster brother then had him killed.
“Let me get this straight,” Steve said. “Your wife kept reading these books . . .”
“The best-selling novels about Italian gangsters in New York,” Antonio Vieri said. “Yes, she did.”
“ . . . and one day you told her that she should leave you for the famous American author . . .”
“And so she did that,” Antonio Vieri said.
“ . . . and the famous American author was in Florence,” Steve said. “He just happened to be in Florence and your wife just happened to know he was in Florence.”
“Obviously,” Antonio Vieri said. “Otherwise, how would she have left me for him?”
Antonio Vieri suddenly was tired of answering Steve’s stupid questions, with their obvious answers. He wished Steve would let Donna and his mole do the talking for him again. He wished Steve and his mole would retreat to the shadows of the apartment, wished he and his wife would leave the apartment, wished they would go away forever just like Antonio Vieri’s friends had.
“And that’s her?” Steve said, pointing to the two caricatures on the wall.
“I drew those myself,” Antonio Vieri said. “Crudely, but with all my heart.”
“Why does he talk that way?” Steve asked Brad. Brad shrugged and pretended to looking at something interesting on the floor, so Steve asked Antonio Vieri, “Why do you talk that way?”
“Why do you only say a few things, and why do you say those few things the same way every time you say them?” Steve said. “‘The famous American author,’ ‘the best-selling novels,’ ‘the inslata mista.’ You sound fake.”
“I don’t,” Antonio Vieri.
“You do,” Steve said. “Maybe that’s why your wife left you for the famous American author.”
“She left me for the famous American author because I told her to,” Antonio Vieri said, but Steve didn’t seem to be listening. He was over by the caricatures, looking at them, scrutinizing them.
“These are so bad. She could be any woman,” Steve said. “Or no woman at all. Don’t you have any photos of your wife?”
“I do not have a camera,” Antonio Vieri said. Steve made a scoffing noise at this. But it was the truth. Antonio Vieri didn’t have a camera. Was it so strange that he didn’t have a camera? “After all, if I’d had a camera, I wouldn’t have had to draw the crude caricatures.”
“This is unbelievable,” Steve said to his wife, who was staring at him gape-mouthed, as though he was an entirely different Steve. It was like the moment when the youngest-brother gangster becomes the patriarch and all the other gangsters stared at him gape-mouthed, as though he were an entirely different younger brother. “This is unbelievable,” he said to Brad. “We’re really supposed to believe that his wife left him—”
“It’s true,” Antonio Vieri said. “The famous American author is right outside in the piazza, drinking wine in the café.”
“He is?” Brad said. He looked with surprise in the direction of the window, as if realizing for the first time that the apartment had one. He walked to the window and looked out. “Hey, there is someone out there.”
“Oh, come on,” Steve said, walking over to the window to see for himself.
“I know,” Antonio Vieri said. “Out of all the outdoor cafés in all the piazzas in all of Florence, the famous American author has to drink red wine in this one, and he’s been out there every day since my wife left me for him.”
“You’re trying to tell me that that guy is Mario Puzo—” Steve began, but Antonio Vieri shrieked, “You are not allowed to refer to him by that name in this apartment!” and then ran into his bedroom. He could hear Brad say to Steve and his wife, “In the Pity Palace you may call him ‘the famous American author’ or you may call him nothing at all. I forgot to mention that.” And then Antonio Vieri slammed the bedroom door behind him and dove into his bed, the bed he’d not slept in since his wife had left him, his head jammed under his pillow. After a few minutes he could hear the door creak open, could hear footsteps coming closer, could feel someone’s hand on his shoulder.
“Did they go away?” Antonio Vieri asked, his head still under the pillow.
“Yup,” Brad said.
“Did they go away forever?”
“Probably,” Brad said. “But there are going to be others. You were a big hit, bud. Steve and his wife said they were going to tell everyone. You should have seen them. They were two totally different animals by the time you were done with them. She even kissed his mole on their way out.” Antonio Vieri groaned and Steve said, “I know. It was grim,” and Antonio Vieri groaned again and Steve said, “Are you okay?”
“No,” Antonio Vieri said, because he wasn’t, because the more he’d talked about his wife, his friends, the insalata mista, the famous American author and his best-selling novels, everything, the less real they’d seemed. Earlier, he’d wanted to crawl into his wife’s ear so that she wouldn’t hear anything except how much he loved her, how sorry he was; now, he wanted her to crawl into his mouth until there was no room in there for anything else, no room even for words, so that he wouldn’t be able to say anything else about her, about them, about anything. Because Antonio Vieri knew now that the more you talked about something, the less real it seemed. This was why he talked the way he talked; this was why the Italian gangsters in New York talked the way they talked, too, using only their expressions. They knew what Antonio Vieri knew: that in order to keep the things that mattered real, you had to say only a few things, and the few things you said had to be the same every time you said them.
“What can I do?” Brad asked him.
“Tell everyone to go away forever.”
“I’ve never had anything work out for me before now,” Brad said, and just then there was a knock on the door. Antonio Vieri could hear it through his pillow. “I was the first person ever who couldn’t even keep the dry cleaning dry enough. I can’t tell them to go away.”
“Fine,” Antonio Vieri said, sighing. “I will tell them that my wife ate insalata mista like an angel and that she left me for the famous American author, and that is all.”
* * * *
And that was all Antonio Vieri told them, the Americans who filled his apartment day after day. Because the only people who entered the Pity Palace were Americans. Antonio Vieri was sure this was meaningful, although he couldn’t say with any certainty what it might mean. Perhaps it meant that only Americans felt better about themselves by seeing the misery of others. Perhaps it meant that only Americans needed to feel better about themselves. Or perhaps it meant that only Americans read fliers handed to them in piazzas by strange old coots. In any case, they filled his apartment, decked out in their fanny packs, standing over his bed, waiting for him to say something.
“I am Antonio Vieri. My wife left me for the famous American author who wrote those best-selling novels about Italian gangsters in New York,” he told them. “I miss her so much. I even miss the way she ate her insalata mista. She ate her insalata mista so delicately, one leaf at a time. She ate her insalata mista like an angel. Now, go away.”
“For how long?” they asked.
“Forever,” Antonio Vieri said.
“Okay, folks,” Brad said, ushering them out of the bedroom. “I’d be happy to answer any of your questions . . .” And then Antonio Vieri stuck his head under the pillow and could hear no more.
This went on for days, or maybe months. Years? Antonio Vieri had no idea. Every day was like the one before. Every day he awoke to find people staring at him, his caricatures, his books, his filthy apartment; every day he said what he would say and then told his visitors to go away forever, which they did—to the next room, where Brad answered their questions.
And Antonio Vieri knew what their questions were, too, knew they wanted to know what Steve had wanted to know—namely, was Antonio Vieri serious? Can’t he talk about anything except this insalata mista? Can someone really miss the way someone else eats salad? Does he really believe that his wife has left him for the famous American author? Does he really believe he might get her back by reading the famous American author’s best-selling novels? That guy, way across the piazza: does he really believe that guy is the famous American author? Does he really believe that he even had a wife in the first place? And what’s the deal with these caricatures, anyway? And why does being here, in this place, make me feel so good about myself? Is there a sadder man in all of Florence? Is there a sadder man anywhere?
Antonio Vieri knew they were asking Brad these questions. He asked them of himself, and each time he asked himself, “Is she real? Did I just make her up so I wouldn’t be alone?” he felt so sad, so lonely, the way he’d felt when he knew his wife was real, when he knew she’d left him for the famous American author. Could you feel this sad, this lonely about someone who wasn’t real, someone who was just in your head? You couldn’t, could you?
“She is a real person,” Antonio Vieri said to Brad one day. Brad was sitting on the edge of Antonio Vieri’s bed, divvying up the money—one euro for Antonio Vieri, one euro for Brad, et cetera. There was so much money that it didn’t seem as though Brad would ever be able to divvy it all up in one sitting. But the money, and the ability to make it, didn’t seem to make Brad happy anymore; as he counted the money he looked washed out, weary, resigned. Antonio Vieri said, “I could not feel this sad, this lonely, about someone who wasn’t real. You believe that she is a real person, don’t you?”
“I’d like to,” Brad said. “But every day these people ask their questions and I can’t answer them. Today, someone asked me what your wife’s name was. I couldn’t tell them. I told them you referred to her only as ‘my wife.’”
“That’s true,” Antonio Vieri said.
“I felt like an idiot,” Brad said. “Does your wife even have a name?”
“She does,” Antonio Vieri said. “It is Connie.”
“Dude,” Brad said. “Come on. That’s the name of the sister in the best-selling novels.”
“I know,” Antonio Vieri said. “My wife and I laughed over that coincidence many a time before she left me for the famous American author.”
Brad shook his head; he took his half of the euros and pushed them across the bed toward Antonio Vieri. “It’s not worth it anymore,” Brad said. “You make me too sad.”
“Are you saying she’s not a real person?” Antonio Vieri said. “Are you saying I made her up? Did I make up this?” And here Antonio Vieri picked up a fistful of cash and threw it at Brad. Brad stood up, started walking away; Antonio Vieri picked up a flier announcing the opening of the Pity Palace and asked, “Did I make this up, too? Did I make up the old coots who gave it to you? Did I make up the best-selling novels? Did I make up the man sitting at the far edge of the piazza? Did I make up these?” Antonio Vieri asked, and he pointed to the tears starting to pour down his cheeks, his chin, because his wife had left him and he had sent his friends away and now Brad was going away, too. Whether Antonio Vieri told him to go away or asked him to stay, Antonio Vieri knew that Brad was going—and once that happened he would be all alone, again, again, maybe forever. “Did I make up you?” Antonio Vieri asked him.
“You make me too sad,” Brad said. “It doesn’t matter to me anymore.” And then he left the room. Antonio Vieri could hear footsteps, could hear the apartment door creak open, slam shut, and then nothing.
Antonio Vieri wondered if maybe Brad was right. After all, if losing your wife made you feel the same as suspecting your wife wasn’t real and had never been a real person for you to lose, then what did it matter? What did it matter if a person was real or if you just made them up, if either way you felt lonely once they were gone? Was loneliness the only real thing in this world? If it was, then what did it matter if there was a Brad or if there wasn’t a Brad? Was Brad himself real outside of Antonio Vieri’s loneliness? Was anyone? Was there anyone who could tell you what was real or not in this world? And if so, where, oh where, if you were Antonio Vieri, could you find this person, these people? How could you make them find you?
There was a knock on the apartment door. Antonio Vieri put the pillow over his head and waited for the knocking to stop, waited for whoever was knocking to realize that the Pity Palace was closed and to go away. After a few minutes, the knocking seemed to stop. Antonio Vieri removed the pillow again, looked up, and there, at the foot of his bed, was a group of men.
The group seemed to be divided into two factions. One faction had salt-and-pepper beards and wore corduroy jackets; the other faction had slicked-back hair and wore gold necklaces and black leather jackets. The men in corduroy each held a copy of one of the famous American author’s best-selling novels—except unlike Antonio Vieri’s beat-up paperbacks, their books were hardcover and preserved in slick plastic sleeves. The men in black leather didn’t have books; instead, they stood with their feet far apart, cracking their knuckles. Antonio Vieri suddenly felt very nervous, as though these men were a government-licensing agency and Antonio Vieri didn’t have the proper government license.
“Who are you?” Antonio Vieri asked.
“We’re from the Mario Puzo Society,” said one of the men in corduroy.
This made Antonio Vieri sit up in bed, made him forget that, in the Pity Palace, one was supposed to call him “the famous American author” or nothing at all. “He has his own society?”
“He does,” said another one of the men in corduroy. You could see the grooves in his beard from where he’d stroked it thoughtfully. “We are it.”
“What does his society do?” Antonio Vieri asked. “Do you read the books and then talk about them, how much you love them? Do you say the expressions to each other?”
“We hold meetings, mostly,” said another man in corduroy. The men in black leather hadn’t spoken; like Steve with his mole and his Donna, they seemed content let their knuckles and their corduroyed colleagues speak for them. “We were holding our annual meeting in Palermo and then we heard there was someone in Florence claiming that his wife had left him for Mario Puzo.” At that, the men in black leather drew themselves up to their full height, as though to ward off a threat.
“Who are they?” Antonio Vieri whispered, nodding in the direction of the knuckle crackers.
The men in corduroy didn’t answer; instead, they squinted skeptically at Antonio Vieri. “Are you even Italian?” one of them asked, and then, to the other men in corduroy: “Is this guy even Italian?”
The other men in corduroy shook their heads in dismay. “Doesn’t look Italian at all.” “Never seen anyone look less like a goombah in my life.” “Is it possible that he’s Swiss?” “Does anyone know what a Swiss looks like?”
“Of course I’m Italian,” Antonio Vieri said. He was out of bed now, on his feet for the first time in he didn’t know how long. He felt weak, too. When was the last time he’d stood? When was the last time he’d eaten? He remembered Brad offering him some of the healthy candy bars and Antonio Vieri, full of self-pity, refusing to eat them. “How do you know so much about what an Italian looks like?”
“That why we keep these guys around,” the first man in corduroy said, hooking his thumb at the men in black leather. “To remind us. But that is not the point. The point is that we heard that an Antonio Vieri of Florence was walking around saying that Mario Puzo had stolen his wife. And one of the duties of the Mario Puzo Society is to defend his legacy.”
“What is his legacy?”
“Whatever we say it is,” the first man in corduroy said.
“Well, it’s true,” Antonio Vieri said. “My wife left me for your famous American author.”
“It is not true,” the first man in corduroy said.
“How do you know?”
“Because he’s dead,” the first man in corduroy said. “He died seven years, four months, twenty-eight days ago.”
“If he’s so dead,” Antonio Vieri said, “then why is he sitting at the outdoor café in the piazza, drinking red wine?” He could hear the whine in his voice, the desperation, and although he had every right to feel desperate, he had no right to whine. After all, this was what Antonio Vieri had asked for: he’d asked for someone who knew what was real or not to find him, and he had gotten what he’d asked for. Except he didn’t want it anymore; he did not want to know.
“What café?” The men in corduroy suddenly looked nervous; they tugged at their jackets, furiously stroked their beards, then combed their hair with their fingers. The men in leather, seeing their colleagues’ nervousness, doubled their knuckle cracking in an attempt, Antonio Vieri guessed, to become even more Italian. Antonio Vieri swore their skin turned swarthier, their hair greasier, their gold necklaces thicker, the Italian horns on the necklaces more hornlike. “What piazza?”
“The one right outside,” Antonio Vieri said and pointed at the window.
With that, the men in corduroy rushed to the window. Antonio Vieri couldn’t see them—the men in black leather placed themselves between their fellow society members and Antonio Vieri—but he could hear them all talking at once: “Jesus, is that him?” “It can’t be him; he never once drank red wine. You know that.” “Plus, he’s dead.” “Well, it looks like him.” “It doesn’t.” “It does.” “It’s like a caricature of him.” “It could be anyone. Or no one.” “Or him.” “If only he weren’t on the far edge of the piazza.” “Get your telescope, man.” “Who is that he’s sitting with?” “I think it’s a woman.” “I know it’s a woman. I don’t need an effing telescope to tell me it’s a woman.” “Wait a minute. Is that the woman in this guy’s caricatures?” “Impossible to tell; they’re so crudely drawn.” “It might be her.” “Might, might, might.” “She’s eating salad in the pictures. But she’s not eating salad down there.” “What is that? Is she eating a pancake or something?” “She’s not eating a pancake. Where do you get a pancake in Florence?” “All I know is that whatever she’s eating, they’re round and there is a big stack of them.” “You can tell that from up here?” “Jesus, why don’t we just go down there and see if it’s him.” “You go down there; I’m staying here, in this guy’s apartment, with his books and his olive.” “Well, someone sure as hell better go.” “Why don’t we send our Italian brothers in black leather?”
But the men in black leather weren’t going anywhere. By this point they’d closed their eyes as though trying to wish themselves into another apartment, with another group of men, who were wearing another sort of jacket, who were looking out the window at another sort of author, who wrote another sort of novel.
“I’ve got an idea,” one of the men in corduroy said. “Why don’t we just wait for someone to come up here and tell us if it’s really him or not?” “Wait. What was that sound?” another one asked. “Was that a knock on the door?”
It wasn’t a knock on the door; it was the sound of Antonio Vieri closing the apartment door behind him. He had trouble handling the stairs—he was four stories up, after all, and hadn’t walked or eaten in who knows how long. But that was all right, because at the bottom of the stairs, at the far edge of the piazza, there was a woman eating something, pancakes maybe, whatever those were, and she had a big stack of them, and whoever it was—wife or not wife; real or not real—maybe she would share them. And maybe once they were done eating she would leave the famous American author for him, and maybe if she wasn’t his wife she would let him call her his wife, and maybe if she wasn’t real she would let him call her real, and maybe she would take him away to another sort of apartment, in another sort of city, where maybe Antonio Vieri would say more than just a few things, or maybe he would say the same few things but would say them differently every time he said them, or maybe he would learn from his mistakes and let his wife talk for a change and then mimic her expressions. And maybe he would let his wife eat whatever sort of food she wanted and read whatever sort of novel by whatever sort of author and would be content to know however many things about her that she wanted him to know. And maybe there would never be a reason for someone to knock on their door and so never a reason for them to answer it, and maybe Antonio Vieri wouldn’t ever need to feel sorry for himself again, and maybe this time it would work out for him and his wife and they would be happy, truly and finally happy to have found each other, again, just when they needed each other the most, just like in a book.