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Diario di un insegnante ai Tropici (Fourteen)

I was wandering between the tables at an outdoor café in Delray Beach, thinking about the vanity of mankind, when all of a sudden I saw this huge black woman, dressed in purple and orange, who was reading a tiny yellow book, a detective story. Ah, if only I had been born a painter!
(I’m not saying a Raphael or a Mantegna, even a second rate painter, a minor Lithuanian from the last century – I would call the painting: “Large Black Woman With Murder Mystery”).
It was one of those cafés and one of those mornings from a bygone Florida, both suspended in the opalescent heat of the sun, in the azure-blue incandescence of the sky, with the sound of the ocean breathing calmly across the street, a half mile farther away, the shrill delightfully ear-splitting droning of the cicadas and the indistinct squawking of the seagulls. On those mornings the smell of sausages and eggs drifts out of busy restaurant kitchens and blends in with the aroma of suntan lotion and gasoline and everything, cars, human beings and iguanas, don’t seem to be in a hurry, they seem like part of the scenery, like the asphalt cracked from the sun or the shrubbery.

I liked that place, I like watching people, their features: such as the burnished skin of that Peruvian guy with a large nose, his eyes full of nostalgia. That old lady, once very beautiful, who still emanates flashes of her former beauty while, engrossed in the New York Times, she nibbles on her buttered bread. That guy with the potbelly, in the straw hat, white beard, khaki shirt and Bermuda shorts, who gingerly takes a cigar from his pocket, thinking he’s someone else. You know, in Florida everybody believes he’s someone else.
But I immediately understood that the large woman was somehow different, she was amazing, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I tried to get closer to her, to do something so she’d notice me, I banged into a couple of tables, stared earnestly at the tiny book, without getting a rise out of her, she was indifferent, an ebony statue on the Atlantic coast in the Delray sunshine, a goddess, her brow furrowed. But I know how to be persistent and finally, without even looking up from her tiny book, barely arching her eyebrow – the right one, I believe – she murmured (in superb English that floored me), “what do you want, get lost.” I had distracted her from reading.

But I was smitten. I was admiring her feet imprisoned in her worn-out slave sandals, her African queen’s hands, her delicately manicured fingernails like tigers’ claws, as sharp as cut diamonds, her imperious expression, terrifying, and not even a trace of mascara!
I felt the sun burning my skin, I felt my head burning, I inhaled all the smells, the aroma of the salt air, the fish, the mangoes, the dust from the street, I saw all the colors, the blue from the sky and the red from the flowers and the yellow lines of the crosswalk – you know how it is when you fall in love.
I couldn’t back down. I stayed where I was, my eyes welling up, something that works with women. She looked at me, she seemed contemptuous of me, but I knew that I had gotten to her, come on mamma stop pretending, come on mamma, we’re all alone and you know it!
She put the tiny book down on the table and with her delicate forefinger – the left one, I believe – she gestured for me to come closer.
She asked me several questions which I preferred not to answer.
She thought I was stupid, everyone did, but it didn’t matter to me, I hopped into her pink Cadillac and we went cruising on Ocean Boulevard.
Our love story began like this. Other people, certainly, didn’t call it love, they said we kept each other company, with a couple like that you can’t talk about love. But it was really love, a love made up of little things, a love that other people would not have dreamed of and didn’t dream of, poor fools, vain braggarts, they know nothing about the love that we had when at night, silently, on a green velvet couch, side by side we watched our friend the TV, the Food Channel and old John Wayne movies, when, arm in arm we went beddy-bye in your large bed, and when in the morning your first smile was for me and mine was for you. What do they know about the love that was in an insignificant gesture, insignificant to other people, when you cooked fried catfish for me and prepared it with such care, deboned and unsalted, that it tugged at my heartstrings and I ate all of it with tear filled eyes because of your kindness, your generosity, because I loved you so very much and I didn’t want to let you know that I never liked catfish.
And how well we settled into our little house! You called it your dump, but believe me, there’s a lot worse. The curb appeal of the house detracted from it: it needed a coat of paint, all the white paint was peeling off the wood, corroded by the fierce sunlight and the August rains, and the mailbox, misshapen from rust, seemed like an old stuffed flamingo, but the purple front door made me feel happy. You had no inclination to garden either: facing the back patio, the messy yard grew, neglected, the wooden picket fence was rotting and the underbrush grew straggly between pieces of glass and spare metals parts from cars, nor were you worried that it had become a home for snakes and other pleasant critters. But, on certain gold tinged evenings in October, before dinner, you liked to flop onto the old rocking chair on the patio, wearing only a light white nightgown, reading one of your thousand novels. I was next to you, watching you and hearing you boast, “for the most part these books are so pedestrian, idle musings, worthless fodder or pot luck, like dumping buckets of paint on a canvas to see what you get. All literature is a joke.”
I didn’t understand you. But the fact that you shared your opinions with me was enough to make me feel blessed, while the little blue clouds above us let themselves be gently pushed along by gusts of wind, so very slowly, like two freeloaders in a carriage.
You were proud of your library. Bookcases and bookcases made of lightly colored wood, full of books, books masterfully arranged according to the color scheme of the books’ spines, it went from the snobbish white of Elizabethan sonnets to the well-worn green of the spy stories to the frolicking fuchsia of the novels set in New York, full of whiskey and beautiful women, to the dusty black of old editions of the Greek tragedies. There were books whose covers were creased, with damaged spines, some torn off and worn-out, books marked by circular stains of wine and coffee (you always put your cup or your wine glass on the book when you went to the bathroom), notations in red and insults for the author, graceful doodling with curlicues on the edges of the pages, like illuminated medieval miniatures, books smudged with greasy fingerprints, with the pages stuck together from squashed bits of French fries, deluxe editions with short recipes scribbled on the first page (you often used to read with the TV tuned in to the cooking shows). But what you were most proud of, as you repeatedly told me, was a set of The Complete Works of Ellery Queen, dark yellow, stretched out like a hammock between a pale brown volume of Saint Augustine and an ochre colored collection of essays by Baldwin.
One day we took the pink Cadillac and we went off to the wedding of I don’t exactly remember whom, one of your distant cousins I believe, in North Carolina. How proud I felt, my beloved buxom beauty, when you finally introduced me to your family! (It was time that you did).
It was an incredible wedding, everyone as black as the ocean on a tropical moonless night. Everyone had bright white teeth and wore gold rings, I thought they would treat me disinterestedly, the racial question you know, and instead everyone smiled at me, everyone was nice to me and they offered me loads of hush puppies and fried catfish from an awesome buffet.
In my opinion it was also because of fried catfish that you didn’t wake up one morning, you seemed to be finally sleeping peacefully, a little smirk on your face, your lips half-closed: I watched over you for three days so that no one would dare to wake you up, but I knew that you would not wake up, I’m not as dumb as they think. I knew it and out of desperation and hunger I devoured The Complete Works of Ellery Queen and in the end I shrieked in pain when they came to take you away. I followed them, now silently, and I saw, I saw everything you know, I saw them put you in a casket and then put it in a hole in the ground with a black stone on top of the grave. You wouldn’t have liked that black stone at all, but at least I can crouch down all day and place an ear there – the right one, but sometimes even the left one – so I can hear if you’re still talking to me, I can wait for night-time, dreaming about sleeping with you again, then waking up and looking up at the moon, and howling.

[by Emanuele Pettener, from the collection A Season in Florida (Bordighera press, New York, 2014, translation by Thomas de Angelis). The Italian original version can be found here.

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