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Improbable Plot (a short story)

January 23, 2013

Alessia left her apartment at eight-thirty Monday morning as her street woke slowly to the sunrise. It was December: a cold and dry December. Up and down the sidewalk a few straggling school children hurried towards some distant bus stop, and mothers and fathers kissed each other goodbye and left in their separate cars. All over Rome the sun pushed out from its heavy comforter of clouds and splashed awakening onto the buildings. A good morning to go away forever, thought Alessia.

She went down the stairs, across the street where the bakeries and telephone service shops had just pulled up their iron curtains, and stood at the stop under the old train bridge; the young woman pulled her furry coat more tightly around her and lit a cigarette. Next to her, two high school girls in puffy coats and jeans peeked enviously at Alessia. She wished they wouldn’t – she was tall and beautiful, yes, and also ruined. What good was glamour in the face of ruin?

The bus came and the two high-schoolers and the glamorously ruined woman got on. Alessia slid into a seat in the rear, while the girls stood in the center by the window, chatting happily. She should be the one filled with envy, Alessia  thought, and looked out the window at the traffic and the dull colors of the buildings which here and there caught the sun’s brightness.

The world was a slow ember being breathed to life. Caught in the middle of dawn and day, the river reflected silvery phantoms of the trees as they passed over it, until all reflections were obscured in the insistent glow. Cold – shining cold, the frost-death of distant planets, bathed in a light that could reveal but not warm the world.

Alessia shivered. She pulled out her phone and checked for messages. Eight-ten, from her company – it had arrived when she had been in the shower. She listened.

‘’Signora Ferale, buon giorno, this is Signor Ellenucci from the corporation – we’ve had a very bad gas leak early this morning and I am calling all employees to tell you not to come to work today, we will be trying to fix things up here and we hope to have everything cleared by tomorrow. Grazie.’’

Not even listening to the lovely recorded woman asking if she wished to save or delete the message, Alessia let her hands fall limply onto her lap, almost letting the phone slip away. The bus heaved a sigh and stopped; the doors opened and the two happy high-schoolers got off, leaving a silence in their place. And with a grunt the bus heaved once again ahead.

‘’I am calling all employees to tell you not to come to work today . . .”

So, Alessia thought, and smiled suddenly. So that was it – that was fate giving her one last day to herself.

She got off at the next stop and watched the bus wheeze away to a future that no longer concerned her. The city stretched away on all sides: this wide main street flanked with shops; the narrow alleyways running into hidden neighborhoods of ivy and arches; the churches with their domed reverence; the ruins and the proud palaces and the cypress trees growing among the excavations.

What should she do? She would have breakfast, slow and leisurely, at a small table in a small cafѐ, a warm place free of the December frost. Among all of the bistros and bars on that wide main street, she would choose one to be the beginning of her last day to herself. The cafѐ she chose was across the street and almost at the end – Il Moniuro, a gleaming black bar and tables underneath the friendly lamps.

Breakfast? An espresso, and a sweet bun. Ecco, signora – grazie.

The little table in the corner gave a sweeping view to the street. Alessia sipped the bitter draught and munched on the bun as she watched her former world outside. She already felt separated from it, as if she had stepped into a different universe and was observing the movements of flesh and metal through some rift between dimensions. A woman went by on a bicycle. Alessia watched her until the edge of the window cut off the view; then she took another bite of bun and another hot spurt of espresso. It was comfortable and warm and safe in Il Moniuro. She took out a novel from her purse and began to read.

Time tiptoed by.

Twice the door of the cafѐ jingled open, twice coffees were ordered, drunk and paid for. Twice the cash register burbled its gratitude and twice the unseen customer clicked the door shut. Alessia sat absorbed in her book.

It wasn’t a bad story – she had gotten a lot of comfort out of it especially these past few difficult days, and she hoped to finish the novel today, the last of the days to herself. It was about an African electrician fleeing from the horrors of Darfur who comes to Italy and tries every way possible to construct a radio contact with his family in Sudan; he avoids pesky Italian immigration officers and ends up meeting a brilliant young engineering student and together they seek to build the difficult radio transmission which will help the electrician save his family from the janjaweed. Radioing Darfur, it was called.

Some of the plot was improbable, Alessia couldn’t help but feel, but then again what plot isn’t?

The espresso was a dark smudge at the bottom of the cup, the bun a collection of crumbs.

Turning to the last chapter, Alessia read for another twenty minutes, and when the African electrician had finally contacted his family with the elaborate radio designed by the brilliant Italian engineering student, and all was well and the story was over, she pushed away from the table with a contented sigh and went out.

Where to, next?

The street took her past one of the narrow alleyways. She turned into it, a mere crack in the city’s marble, and wandered among the shadows – shadows crisscrossing the low doorways, covering the shuttered windows and falling headfirst onto the cobblestones in sprawled shapes.

Through a high archway Alessia came to a piazza nestled far away from the ordinary traffic. Light brown walls, some thick with ivy, surrounded her. On her right a church peeped from its venerable repose and went back to sleep. Pigeons picked at the ground. Everything seemed tied up in its own little package of a world.

The only other person was an elderly man opening his carpentry shop on the opposite side.

For some reason Alessia wanted to go over and talk to him, tell him about the message from her work, about her breakfast at Il Muliero and the espresso and Radioing Darfur with its improbable plot, and her stroll down the alley – tell him about her last day to herself. Someone ought to know. She crossed the piazza, scattering the pigeons as she approached the carpentry shop.

He was just finishing fixing the awning over the doorway. The faded white and green striped canopy clung insecurely to the metal poles which the elderly carpenter eased into the grooves beside the door. Then he shoved his hands in his blue apron and went inside. Alessia followed. The shop was dim and dusty with old and new wood; a workbench along the back held tools, a broken picture frame, a muted radio and a few empty wine bottles. He went to the bench and began to fiddle with the frame.

‘’Scusi,’’ said Alessia.

‘’Eh?’’ He turned around. ‘’Oh, buon giorno, signora. How can I help you?’’

‘’I just wanted –‘’ Alessia hesitated, then plunged in, ‘’I just wanted to say good morning, and I think you have a very beautiful carpentry shop, and you are the last person I am going to talk to in my life. I am – this is my last day, my last day to myself, and I just wanted to say hello.’’

‘’I see,’’ the elderly man regarded her for a moment, hands deep in his blue apron pockets.

‘’Well!’’ he said, ‘’won’t you have some wine on your last day? I have a bottle of Chianti, not very old perhaps, but something to keep the chill out. Just close the door and I will give you a glass!’’

‘’Oh, no, really, I –‘’

‘’Oh please, please! Here you are! Nice when you have company, eh? Ha ha!’’ He poured out the wine into a perfectly clean glass and, giving it to Alessia, he continued to chuckle as he poured a glass for himself. Alessia wondered if he drank even if he didn’t have company.

‘’Sit, sit, please!’’ He waved her into a chair and himself leaned back on the bench. She smiled and sipped the Chianti, which was fruity and rich and tingled every crevice in her mouth. Her host watched her, his wrinkled face tinged with a faint grin, his white hair dusty with the dust of a lifetime.

‘’So, this is your last day, eh? A beautiful day, although just a little cold. What do you think? I was just thinking, you know, that it was a cold morning, and it would be nice to have someone to drink a glass of wine with – you know I don’t drink very much myself, only a glass now and then, but I like to drink with somebody, you know. And here you are! It’s a very pleasant thing to have a glass of wine with someone, especially a beautiful young woman, if you don’t mind the compliment, signora.’’

Alessia didn’t mind, but she was certain now that the old carpenter drank constantly.

‘’Well! Why don’t you tell me about yourself, signora – do you live in Rome?’’

She nodded and finished the Chianti, and he instantly poured her a fresh glass.

‘’Si,’’ she replied, ‘’in Rome, on Via Gregorio Settimo near the Vatican. I have an apartment.’’

‘’I have a son who lives on that street,’’ said the old carpenter.

‘’Oh!’’ Alessia said with polite interest.

‘’He’s an engineer, just received his first job with Italian Radio as a set designer.’’

‘’Yes, well, he’s very lucky – not everyone can get a good first job like that!’’

‘’You know, signora, you’re absolutely right. My other children – I have four, you know – they have struggled a little to find something, but my Alberto has always been a brilliant boy, and he is always ready to help others. I don’t want to brag, Signora, but my Alberto is something of a famous man. Do you know he built a radio set that connected with some little African country? I don’t remember the name, but my son he met an African here in Rome, an immigrant who was an electrician or something, and my Alberto helped the man build this radio and contact his family. It was a famous case three years ago – I heard they wrote a book about it, but my Alberto is too modest, they did not use his name. Now, don’t you find that interesting, Signora?’’

Alessia was utterly stupefied.

‘’Some more wine,’’ said the carpenter, ‘’and tell me about yourself, I talk too much.’’

‘’Um, no, grazie, I – I better be going,’’ said Alessia, and she set the half-full glass on the bench.

‘’Please, please! At least finish your wine! It’s too good to waste on your last day, signora.’’

‘’You are very kind, but I really have to go.’’

‘’All right, then, listen! My son, Alberto, he is a very good man, very nice man. I have his business cards with me, he always wants to promote his business, I cannot blame him, everyone does that. Please take one, it has his work address and his number. Pay him a visit! Tell him his father Salvatore sent you to say hello. He is a very good man – he will listen to your story, signora. You will, you will, promise me!’’

He pressed the card into her hand.

‘’All right, I will,’’ Alessia said, still under the spell of circumstance, and she left the shop.

‘’Have a good day!’’ he cried after her.

Alessia didn’t hear him. The old man sighed, drank the rest of his Chiati, saw Alessia’s half-full glass, shrugged, and finished off the dark wine in a single pass. He stared at the stained glass for a few seconds as if saying to it, Odd what kind of people you meet sometimes. He put the glass down and returned to his broken picture frame.

She was half-way across the little square before Alessia realized that she was clutching the business card in one hand. She read it, three or four times, and then stood and laughed at the December morning, and walked boldly into the winding alleyways of her own improbable plot.

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