The Italian Afternoon

She lies on a rented Persian rug in the late afternoon sunlight, clutching a rose pillow to her breast and wishing it were a living thing. A book of Goethe lies open beside her, ignored now for several long minutes. The Italian Journals do not interest her except to the degree that the cover reminds her of home: on the dust jacket is a reproduction of a Renaissance landscape, supposedly of the Holy Land but more likely of Tuscany, perhaps of the low hills around Siena. She hasn’t bothered to check the name of the painter; it looks vaguely like a famous work, but she doesn’t care about that. What matters is the tiny couple in the frothy green hills, the man and the girl who seem to be on the verge of making love.

They make their way through freshly scythed fields marked at intervals by tall hayricks. In the ravine above them the sun lights up a rivulet, a cool stream that trickles down through the hills in the most calming way; they could follow the narrow vein of water to a private place and never be disturbed again. The man seems to have realized this: his sure step is beginning to yaw to the right, toward a hidden place behind the cypress trees. He hasn’t told the girl yet because it will be necessary to surprise her. But you can see what is about to happen, you can feel how he’s just gripped her hard little hand tighter in anticipation, how his voice has gone a little quieter, more confidential—and how she feels a surge rising in her legs, how the sea of green things is beginning to blur in front of her.

All this you can see at a glance, though the figures are no bigger than a face glimpsed in a lover’s eye.

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Now she stumbles on a rock jutting from the path. She leans into him to keep from falling, her body reflexively feeling for his, her momentum rolling his way. It is a development neither of them can ignore, an advance in their relations.

Her bonnet is that of a child, but his cap and rough red hands are those of a man. Sleeves rolled like rope over his corded muscles, he has a scent, a masculine stamp that she knows from home, from her brothers drinking and belching around the hearth, from her own father dressing before the morning fire. It is a scent as familiar as wood smoke and partly composed of it.

They work at the granary, her men. They lug sacks and haul sheaves and shout from dawn until dusk. There are no women around them, though a few whores lurk in the tavernas behind the public stables. At home, in the evening, their own women descend upon them and wonder at the matted curly hair on the backs of their necks, at their capacity for violence. As a girl she’s been slapped, whipped, teased and fondled, all to prepare her for this moment, this instant of being led behind the light to a hidden place, alone with a man, a familiar stranger.

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In the lower left corner of the painting sits a bear cub on a chain. It hardly makes sense, but there it is. The painting is full of such little oddities. She wishes she knew what they meant. Even in the tiny reproduction, for example, the little bear’s penis is prominent—why? She is too tired to sort it out. The bear has a dime store look about him, as if he were stuffed with foam.

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Outside, a car horn blares petulantly. The sour taste of it makes her curl into a ball on the Persian rug, clutching the pillow more tightly to her chest and shoving the Goethe away. She is so tired, so bored, so lonely she can barely put the feeling into words. And what would be the point? Giancarlo is back home, in the southern Mediterranean sun, not here waiting out an endless Chicago winter. More than likely he is shirtless. His nipples are sensitive like a woman’s, large and fig-colored.

He may be sleeping with other women, even with other men. Down there, at home in the olive warmth, it is hard to grudge him his pleasures. Here in Chicago they live alone, they work like mules, they’re too tired at night to dream. On the packed trains the businessmen crush against you and undress you with their staring eyes in a way that would put even an Italian man to shame. This is the miserable American life he’s sick of. Back there, one has time. In America time runs out of control, consuming everything in its path like a fire roaring over a mountain.

Basta! she tells herself. Soon this loneliness must end.

In the three months since Giancarlo’s departure she’s managed to read only half a chapter of the Goethe. The cover painting seems to conceal the text. About the dead writer’s trip to Italy she knows little; about the workman, the girl and the bear cub, much.

Today, snow lies on the face of the house next door like a scabrous growth. During her first winter in America, her friend Julia had taken her to her family’s country house in Vermont: there the snow was luminous, holy, purer and fairer than any snow she’d ever seen in Europe. It glowed with all the newness of America. But here in Chicago the snow is grey and corrupt, a sort of frigid mold that can’t be stopped. She cannot bear it any longer. It slowly consumes the world outside her window as she pores over the painting in the book, the story of the girl and the workman and the cub in the green hills that may or may not be Tuscan.

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Let us name the little bear Giancarlo.

He is soft, dangerous, a study in sepias. The glowing brindle of his eyes, the richer brown of his hair, his body. Chained up like a family pet, he watches the workman lead the girl up the hill to her fate. A creature of scent, he catches a whiff of the young man’s musk, of the girl’s moisture at the moment they pass. The two are already making love, he more consciously than she, though no clothes have been helped off, no secrets disturbed. The air is a medium connecting them, a membrane of desire. The little bear Giancarlo, bathed in the same atmosphere, senses the excitement, his pinkish-grey nose twitching as each nuance registers. His is an agony of total perception, the agony of the child overhearing his parents making love in the next room.

It is extremely quiet inside the painting: only a lark, a hush of water. The smallest sigh reverberates.

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The bear would like to fight for the girl, but cannot. His chain is moored to an iron pike driven into solid rock. And so the girl passes, her lover pulling her along, the day’s light hovering like static carp in a pond.

Why not spring him loose? Let the little bear gnaw through his chain, let him burst free in a rage! Let him scamper up the hill and crush the workman under his weight, the silver collar bright and cold against the usurper’s terrified face, the air full of sweat and groaning. Glory! Let him take back what is his, rollick with her, race her down the hill with gravity thumbing his back and her skirts flying like pennants on the air and the sun pealing high above. . . .

But on the street below, the car blows its stinging horn again and again. For two weeks now the snow has been a dirty slurry, the sky a blank. And when at last she begins to cry, the sun defeated by another streaked dusk, her tears come out in English.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Edward Hamlin Edward Hamlin

Edward Hamlin has been writing fiction, poetry, and drama for many years. Since moving to the foothills outside Boulder, Colorado five years ago he's focused exclusively on fiction, both short and long. Recently, he's had stories published in the Bellevue Literary Review and presented as part of the Stories on Stage series; another story, "The Release," was selected as a finalist, from among more than 800 entries, for the Colorado Review's 2012 Nelligan Prize. Mr. Hamlin has also completed a novel, "Sleeping with Her," about dream life and the unconscious in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

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