Inside the Cheshire Cat
The sweetest flower in the world is the oleander, not for the aroma but its striking resilience to the heat of the Sicilian sun mixed in with generations of memories that are changed periodically by the sirocco winds emanating from the Arab countries off the horizon on the Mediterraneo. I marveled as if it were time travel, which is told as a brief encounter on the Sicilian isle that has a compelling attraction foretold in its layered civilization bridging over the centuries that led to this fated journey on the island of sun and winds, allured first by my sight of the magical oleander.
Vincent Spata was drifting again. It started when he first got cable and became more apparent with Jill’s departure from his newly built apartment in Battery Park City. She had gotten tired of his addiction to flipping channels. Vincent drifted even further, despite the incantation, ‘time is money.’ The streaming numbers and stock symbols blended into faceless TV characters and back to P/E ratios sprawled all over his desk. He had the urge once to do some traveling but never got around to it. When his boss called to him from a distance, Vincent waved his hand as if he were too busy. He wasn’t in the mood to hear about quotas.
He always bought his lunch from stands strategically positioned on the street. As Vincent bit at his food, he wandered by shop windows, and when he became aware of his own reflection, it was on to the next one. Sitting on wooden bench in a speck of a park, he observed another glass-granite building rising up, blocking even more of the sky, his food having the consistency of Jell-O. Vincent threw his remains into a wire basket and continued walking, coming across an Alitalia display, but this time he ignored his own reflection. It was a richly colored Sicilian cart with panels of painted scenes of Orlando, Saraceno, and Angelica, promoting an exotic getaway. He hesitated for a moment, then entered with a fixed destination.
While Vincent was packing, he thought about his family, none of them ever leaving Brooklyn. The holiday dinners used to be exuberant though, especially all the animated stories which were told repeatedly. He thought about how his father, who never cooked anything, yet personally prepared and laid out the antipasto. It didn’t seem like his father, but there were so many unexplained gaps in Vincent’s life that reminded him of the Fun House mirrors of Coney Island. He hopped a cab the next afternoon to the airport and tossed around the whole flight over. After an uneventful Customs check, he picked up a rented Fiat. As the Uno careened down the autostrada, red flowers, surviving intense heat, divided the highway to Palermo and mesmerized him. He once read that the oleander is a flowering shrub, which provides lance-shaped leaves and roselike blossoms, the typical colors, scarlet red or pallid white. It had a reputation for being poisonous and dangerous to humans.
Vincent checked into Hotel Jolly and fell into a languorous sleep. The next morning, he decided it was wiser to walk than drive after yesterday’s sparring with matchbox cars and whining motorbikes. Cries echoing through narrow passages led him to the Vucciria, an open-air market reminiscent of a Moroccan bazaar. His senses were reawakened to the smell of pungent cheeses and sacks of spices. Another aroma, this time of perfumed peaches, lured Vincent into purchasing some. While sitting sideways on a cool marble slab, he saw himself eating a peach in the reflection of the glass door and wasn’t repelled by it. He remembered that peaches could ooze with sweetness. Reappearing outside the hidden market, he headed for the nearest café. After hours of filtering AntonyCleopatraLauncelotGuinevereTristanIsoldeAucassinNicoletteDanteBeatriceRomeoJuliet phantasms in his mind while downing many glasses of Campari, his situation became unbearable. That evening he had to try his luck at one of the lively trattorias on Piazza Marina, which had an enclosed park in the center.
“Buona sera!” the owner greeted. “Uno persona?"
He showed Vincent to an outside table facing the park. After placing his order, he sauntered back into the enclosed part of the trattoria to choose his favorite antipasti. The food was displayed meticulously on a white tablecloth that was illuminated by wheels of frittate, strips of red peppers, and slices of eggplants as if an artist had been obsessed with circular strokes. The owner asked how the food looked and then explained that the meal would be tipico Siciliano. Vincent thought back to when his father used to make such a big deal about the antipasto during the holidays.
While eating, he casually looked up at a second floor balcony jutting out a few feet to the right of his table. It had been carved in baroque style but had lost some of its distinctive curves. Throughout the meal Vincent felt someone was watching him, but every time he gazed up, the balcony was vacant. The next evening, midway through the meal, Vincent noticed the shadowy outline of what appeared to be an attractive, young woman who was staring at the park from her terrace. After another glass of wine he peeked up to his right but the balcony was empty again. He was beginning to think that the Etna wine had some mystical properties in its volcanic origin that erupted into distorted visions. This same routine went on for several evenings till he decided to return to the Vucciria so he could buy some flowers. Before he entered the unmarked alley, the brilliantly colored shapes of marzipan, meticulously arranged in the window of the pasticceria, delightfully surprised Vincent. He approached a woman with a kerchief draped around her head and she put together a lovely bouquet with the ubiquitous scarlet red oleander in the center. He left the same way he entered for fear of being lost in the maze of alleys. Vincent decided to wait patiently right under the balcony before entering the trattoria. When she finally came out, he threw the flowers up to her. She picked them up off the ledge and said, “Grazie,” retreating into the apartment. After a long pause, he gave up.
The following evening the trattoria was closed, but he was determined to speak to her. He brought some Marsala and when she came out on the balcony, he pleaded with her to come downstairs attempting to speak in the Sicilian language of his parents. It was clear that she understood him by the way she laughed. Realizing that he was struggling, she responded in English.
“All right! I’ll come down for a while.”
When she approached, he said, “Bona sira.”
“Buona sera, Siciliano-Americano.”
“Mi chiamu Vincenzo.”
“Ah, Vincent. I am Bianca.”
They sat at his usual table in the unlit trattoria and he poured some Marsala into plastic cups. The conversation flowed smoothly with the dark, sweet fortified wine. Later, Bianca said she was tired and they agreed to meet the next evening, but she insisted that it be across the strada by the entrance gate of the park. When Vincent returned to the hotel, he went for a swim. The water felt soothing as it swaddled his body in thin layers under the gaze of a Sicilian moon. It was a relief to get away from the assembly line of streaming prices and the clicking remote control.
They met again and this time he was able to study her face more closely, especially her azure eyes. Her profile reminded him of Piero del Pollaiolo’s Portrait of a Young Woman. They walked arm in arm, European style.
“Vincenzo, would you like to look at some antiques near the Palace?”
“Sounds fine.” It was a short walk, and they entered under the observant eyes of the antique dealer, who just nodded as they glanced through the merchandise. There were many intricately carved armoires and a glass case of cameos and earrings. He felt as if these Sicilian treasures were illuminated behind the glass especially for this moment.
“Bianca, this is incredible stuff.”
“I thought you might find it interesting.”
“How old are these things?”
“Many things are at least two hundred years old.
“Let’s look at the jewelry.” The dealer asked if they would like to see anything and he pointed to the earrings. Bianca was nonchalant, but Vincent examined them carefully because he wanted to give her something. One pair entranced him.
“Bianca, can you make out what type of flower is etched on the earrings?”
“That’s the oleander. Why do you ask?”
“I thought so. I’ve seen them all over. The earrings have such an exotic look.” Vincent held them up.
“Do you like them?”
“Oh no, it’s not necessary!”
“Pregu, they’ll look beautiful on you.” She smiled widely and said, “Grazie, Vincenzo.” The next evening they met again by the entrance of the park. He assumed they would take a passeggiata.
“I have the key, Vincenzo.”
“How did you get it? I thought the park was closed at night.”
“If you live on the piazza, you can enter on certain evenings.” The gates sluggishly opened onto a lush garden, while some cloistered nightingales scurried. Vincent stood still.
“You seem nervous, Vincenzo,” she said in a cajoling way, as he laughed it off.
They followed a path to the center, which led them to a venerable banyan tree with myriad mastodon legs snarled and twisted about. Some bougainvillea climbed up the side of that tree, draping itself on the branches like a canopy. They lay down under this garland and named the patterns of the stars as the full moon floated above. They kissed intensely and he began to rub his hands across her smooth body. She covered his body while the garden concealed them.
The next morning Vincent awoke abruptly in his hotel room with the chatter of the old men arguing in the parking lot. Bianca had promised to take him to an intriguing historical site in the early evening. After meeting by the gates of the park, they went past the antique stalls and approached what looked like a monastery. One of the monks greeted them.
“Buona sera. Loro vogliono vedere le Catacombe? La donazione, per favore!” He smiled slightly while pointing the way. As they descended the scooped marble stairs, a chilling breeze emanated from this subterranean place.
“I have been here a few times, Vincenzo. It used to be a Sicilian custom, you know, to bury the dead in their best clothing and prop them up on the wall. The relatives would come on Sunday to pay their respects. I am sure you’ll find it fascinating.” Bianca sensed his fear but they continued anyway through the labyrinth.
“I guess that guy must have been the mayor.”
“Si.” They traipsed further in. “ Vincenzo, look up!”
In the corner of the ceiling there was a black-suited man in an open coffin ready to fall out or so it appeared. “Incredible,” Vincent said as he stepped back a few paces, perspiring despite the coolness. They roamed around some of the larger rooms to get the full effect, which meant his gaping at hundreds of more corpses. As the time passed, Bianca noticed that he was getting weary of the morti and announced, “Vieni, I must show you the Sleeping Beauty before we leave.” She then dragged him through gray caverns that seemed to be patternless to the uninitiated.
“Here she is!”
“My God, Bianca. It looks like she hasn’t aged. Is this some kind of trick?”
“Her family was so saddened by the loss of such a young, beautiful child, they asked the monks to preserve her face so they would not have to suffer as much when they visited her. It’s a miracle.” He examined the girl’s face for mummery through the glass enclosed coffin, found nothing conclusive but was still captivated by her fragile beauty and strangely transfixed by the embroidery of her dress. Bianca touched his arm and said, “Are you ready?”
“What’s the matter?”
“Nente. I’m just tired.”
“Andiamo!” When they reached the park gate, he motioned towards the garden. “I thought you were tired, Vincenzo.”
“I’m fine, really.” Bianca laughed. “We’re only allowed to use it once a week.”
“How about your apartment?”
“The landlady will not let you in. She would not approve.
“She watches the street through her curtains.”
“Okay, so we won’t deal with her. You know, I’ve never taken you to the trattoria when it was open. How about tomorrow night?”
“I don’t know… I can’t.” Noticing her anxious tone, he pursued, “Why not? Come on, please.” She stared at Vincent in a peculiar way but finally consented to meet in the restaurant. They kissed for a long time till she broke away and said, “Addio!”
Somewhat surprised, he responded, “Ciau, Bianca.” She turned around, walked to entrance of the building, and knocked gently with the brass lever. Vincent was waiting in the same spot and Bianca, with her back to him, moved her face sideways and added, “Buona sera.” That night he tossed continually to the point that he couldn’t stand it any more.
Vincent woke up in a fright and sneaked downstairs through a side door for a quiet swim. After a few slow laps, he began to float, noticing the same moon that surrounded Bianca and him when they made love in the garden of Piazza Marina. He envisioned the embroidered fabric of the dead young child, only this time he realized that the pattern of flowers was similar to those on the road and the earrings that he bought for Bianca. He felt haunted by the oleander and wondered about the effect it had on his mind. Vincent didn’t want to return to his sterile room, so he headed for the reading room. Staring at the rows of books, he noticed Dante’s Divine Comedy, a work he had studied in college. Someone left a marbleized bookmark at the end where the poet was on a hidden road climbing out of the Inferno. Dante would ascend high on the terraced mountain of Purgatorio, meeting Beatrice at the top in the Earthly Paradise then finding their way through Paradiso. This provided some solace for Vincent but he never did get to sleep that night.
The next day passed slowly because of the intense heat. The red sun finally lowered in the mirror of his room, and Vincent returned to the trattoria.
“Buona sera, Signor.”
“Bona sira. Nu tavulu pi dui persone, pi favuri.”
Vincent sat at the table for an interminable time, thinking about the brief encounters of the past week. The wine was holding him down till he abruptly got up to pick out some antipasti. Surely she would show the moment he returned to his seat. As he approached the antipasto table, his eyes drifted to a vase full of pallid white oleander. His feverish glaze alerted the owner who offered assistance. Vincent blurted out, “A tirrazza vicinu a vostra tratturia.” The owner appeared puzzled so Vincent pointed to the balcony, “Dda, Bianca!” He gently responded that the apartment has been vacant for quite some time and advised Vincent to speak to the landlady. He darted over to the main entrance of the building and rapped repeatedly with the head of a brass lion. The signora of the house shrugged while Vincent desperately tried to ascertain where Bianca was. She pleaded, “Mi dispiaci, Signor.”
Seeing the state he was in, the near toothless woman gave him the key anyway to mollify him. Entering the splintered doors, he brushed his way through the gossamer. Vincent looked through the casement doors and envisioned the garden scene of the past. He slowly opened the terrace doors and stepped out. The restaurant owner was talking to a waiter and both observed him as he focused in on the mammoth tree. He then turned his back on the park and leaned on the rail. A closer look at the baroque cornice revealed oleander buried in the design. He descended the stairs and headed past the woman when she grabbed his arm. She explained in broken English that Bianca had married and moved away a long time ago, and she had no idea where she now lived. He sensed that the landlady wasn’t telling everything she knew, and then Vincent was ushered outside.
It was a torrid drive back to the airport. He parked the Uno and boarded his flight back to New York, landing in the early evening. The next morning at the office he passed by a gantlet of twitching heads and sat down to make some cold calls under the watchful eye of the boss. During one of the lulls of the work day when the monied frenzy paused, Vincent watched the slow, sensual movement of a secretary bend gracefully for some water, turning her face in his direction, the cup touching her lips, and, at that instant, a metamorphic likeness of Bianca, his thoughts moving from the balcony, to the streets of the Old Quarter, the locked park, the empty room. He could not solve this Sicilian enigma, sitting in his cubicle where the stock ticker tape rapidly whirled above his head, not even noticing when the figures finally froze till the next trading day, as the night lights of the city circled around the office windows. He set out to his apartment, picking up some Chinese food, and dined solo in front of the TV.
Vincent continued to pass by the Alitalia office during lunch but never ventured in. When the icy snow weighed down on his shoulders, it was as if he were frozen in a remembrance. With winter's thaw he could finally see past his reflection in the window, so he decided to step once more into the same airline office. The reservations clerk recommended traveling to Italy during spring. He asked about Sicily.
“You’ve been there?” the clerk asked.
“And you’ve fallen in love with the island?”
“You could say that.”
The almond trees will blossom
© Frank Polizzi
Bio: "Oleander," is the 3rd tale from my novella, MEDITERRANEAN & CELTIC ISLES, comprising 12 interconnected tales that are informed by my family, travels and history. I have had a number of poems published in small, literary magazines, such as Bitterroot, Bella Figura, Urban Spaghetti, and others. I won 1st prize in a poetry contest with New York City as its theme, which was judged by the poet, Hannelore Hahn. I have been reading my poetry and excerpts from my novella at the Cornelia St. Cafe (West Village, NYC), which is sponsored by IAWA (Italian American Writers Association), and most recently at the American Italian Cultural Roundtable (Fordham/Lincoln Center). I have been invited as the featured reader on August 25th by the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum. I will be reading two tales from my novella, one Italian & the other Celtic. The "Spirit of Dublin," which is the eleventh tale in the novella, was published in February by the Dublin Writers' Group (oldest one in Dublin) in their publication Electric Acorn #11.
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E-mail: Frank Polizzi