George M. Lies
Rome, March 1948
The faint ringing of the Basilica’s bells, far off, did not soften the sting of his father’s strap. He lay on a cot among ghosts in the wine cantina. He wrestled with a rope that bound his wrist to a water pipe. The more he struggled, trying to loosen it, the more the cord tightened, and he asked God why, why he had endured misery in his father’s house, and not freedom. The war ended almost three years ago but he would not see his seventeenth birthday.
The Basilica bells pealed three long chimes in the dark.
Hours earlier in the night, along Rome’s fashionable Via Veneto, he had met an ally: a man of America who offered a way out. The nightlife had embraced a menagerie that blended on Via Veneto: men in dress suits, women in bright dresses and shawls, and foreigners in braided military browns and greens. Inside the Café Doney, he joined his fellow ragazzi at the typical hour of nine o’clock. They sat by a large window, sharing cheap vermouth, a dish of free pecan nuts and pasty appetizers. He joked of passersby in the window, which reflected his portrait: locks of black hair hanging to his eyes, a thin nose, and a bambino’s complexion except for an acne spot.
Outside on the sidewalk a man paced with intensity, back and forth, and the lights of the Hotel Excelsior focused on him leaning close to the window; he wore a feathered Fedora and a gray overcoat, lapels up. He wiped moisture from the pane and squinted in through the glass, as if choosing a sweet chocolate.
Their reflected faces overlapped; the man curled his index finger, beckoning, and the boy reacted as if to ask, me? He arched an eyebrow as he glanced at his friends. He applied saliva on his palms and slicked back his hair. He shuffled off, hoping his friends might find their own ally. Pushing against the heavy glass door, he felt a whoosh fan his hair. The man paused, nodded and smoothed his thin mustache; his eyes seemed excited, edgy. The boy responded to the words of the man; he used a mix of hand gestures and English phrases he learned on Rome’s streets.
They walked uphill from Café Doney to the Villa Borghese’s Gardens.
The boy grabbed onto the wrought iron fence that encircled the grounds and stared into the darkness. When a youth of twelve, he used to run through the park, the vast villa’s green lawns and benches offered solace before the war.
He felt a caress on his neck and turned but seeing the man had gone ahead, his hands held behind his back, he caught up along the curve of the avenue. After three blocks, they turned onto a side street off Via Veneto and stopped at the Hotel Ambassador. Beneath the hotel’s marquee, the man cupped his fingers as if sipping a drink, and said, “Vino.”
“No, signore,” the boy said. “É tardi.”
“It’s not late,” the man said. “Non é tardi.”
“É tardi.” The boy tapped his wrist but had no watch. “Mio padre . . .”
“It’s okay. Vino.”
The concierge of the Ambassador Hotel noticed them enter, and his face swelled like a white melon. They mingled among the continental tourists in the lobby, sophisticated evening attire contrasting with the boy’s dull colors. He felt uneasy, his hands deep in the pockets of a U.S. Army surplus overcoat. With his chin lowered, he avoided the curious glances from hotel guests. Instead, he stared at his scuffed shoes as he crossed a thick carpet.
The elevator door opened on the sixth floor. In the suite, the man switched on the lights; and, the boy absorbed the sweetness of a mimosa bouquet, the quiet, and plush furniture.
The man poured two glasses of wine. “Lambrusco.” The man tweaked his cheek. “Vino, dolce.”
The boy joked, “La dolce vita.”
“My name is Williams. And you?”
“Si signore, gracie.”
He smiled but looked away from the man.
“Okay then.” The man stepped to the mantel which held a bottle of bourbon; he grabbed a pocket-sized travel book. “Let’s see, a name by any other name . . . I shall call you Rafaello.”
The dark. In his father’s cantina, the boy’s thighs hurt. He felt like a fiasco of Chianti wrapped in a mesh netting; his lower back ached from the sting of the strap. The stench of wine near the drain made him nauseous. He had not eaten since the mid-day pranzo: a dish of thick noodles in a red meat sauce grated with Romano cheese.
“Rafaello.” The boy said his new name aloud.
He calmed himself by savoring a sweet aftertaste of Lambrusco and the soapy fragrance of mimosa in his hair. But the images of luxury faded into the perceived ghosts of his father’s secret group. When he was twelve, they came to the cantina; they spoke of stolen casks, heisted jewels, and stockpiled food rations. They used a code only they knew. They drank Chianti all night, mesmerized by their cared of la patria. They blamed their own sins on radicals, artists and writers; they laughed with amusement at what they had done and what they still had to do.
He knew what he had to do. He slid the rope along the pipe that held him, stretched as far as possible, and lifted the cot. Even in the dark, he knew the distance to the wine shelves.
The bells of the Basilica marked the hour. Five bells.
Earlier in the Ambassador Hotel suite, the man Williams had leaned in close to the boy who sat on the edge of the bed. He laughed at his own rhyming jokes. The man moved to the shutters that led to the balcony and unhooked the latches, allowing a view in the direction of the Spanish Steps. A cool breeze streamed in on the light of the half moon.
With the wine taking effect, the man began talking of New York City and the American theater of Broadway. He spoke of his sad depression after losing his close friend. He reached for the bottle of bourbon. “In Rome, I will be renewed,” he said. He mentioned Anna Magnani, the Italian actress, and extended his index finger toward the ceiling. “She is the rose of Italy, and I will write a new play for her alone.”
“Aye, Magnani,” the boy said. “Famosa attrice.”
Williams moved to the mantel and poured two shots. “Here, taste this,” he said. “It’s from America.”
Rafaello removed his overcoat and sat by the balustrade of the bed. He swiped his hand over a fluffy white quilt but made a sour face after tasting the bourbon.
At midnight twelve long chimes came from the Basilica bell tower and prompted Rafaello to rise from the bed.
“É tardi,” he said. “Domani.”
The man flipped through the guidebook for the right word. “Do-man-i,” he repeated. “Tomorrow?”
“Si, signore. Perfetto.”
“Why?” Williams’ smile turned upside down, his eyes like those of a cornered cat. He poured bourbon into his glass and gulped in one swig. “Why? Eh, perche?”
“Papa, é carabiniere, é polizia,” Rafaello said. He posed like a police officer and gestured in a hand salute. If he stayed past midnight, he explained, his father would beat him with a strap and lock him in the wine cantina.
The man stepped out onto the small balcony. He looked at the half moon. His glass dropped into the street. He turned toward Rafaello and pulled out a crisp American one hundred dollar and tore the bill in two parts. He pressed half of the bill into Rafaello’s palm and the other half under the vase of mimosa on the mantel.
Rafaello stuffed the bill into his overcoat pocket. “Bono sera,” he said. The door latch clicked behind him.
“Domani.” The musty pollen of the cantina clung to the boy's tongue. The cantina held his father’s cache of precious semi-dry Orvietos; the wine pressed from a rare breed of grapes that blossomed along the hills of Rome.
He would play the role of Rafaello.
His ally promised a room in a pensione far from the ghosts; a room in Trastevere beyond the island simmering in the Tiber River. He would have a view of the sunset; he’d purchase a thick carpet and adorn the walls with watercolor paintings. He’d fill a vase with mimosa that let out a soapy scent to cleanse his spirit.
He knew what to do.
He stood the cot on edge lengthwise and pushed his shoulder against it until it struck the shelves of Orvieto and Chianti. The tremor shook the corked bottles from their spaces; first one bottle rolled off a shelf and another and another, one by one, smashing on the hard dirt floor. The precious wine flowed to the drain.
He repeated his name like his mother repeating her Hail Marys, praying for a miracle. Domani is Tuesday and if it is Tuesday, it’s Rafaello’s Night. The bells, far off, signaled the awakening of a faint dawn.
George Lies’ work has appeared in numerous places, e.g., Trailer Dogs Barking, Hamilton Stone Review online; Keys to Heaven, first published in Mist on the Mon anthology, Morgantown, WV. His work also has been translated and published in Romania and Brazil. George was founding Director, of GoldenRod Writers Conf. (1983-2001), and twice served as state President, West Virginia Writers, Inc. (1999-2001; 2002).