Tuesday 27 Sep 2016

Love Among the Ruins
AJ Robinson

The man was old, older than his body's age. War does that to you, it is the stealer of life and youth. Death, dying and killing, each act lessening a life. He looked at his hands; once a carpenter, now he was a killer. Didn't some Shakespearean character have a question about Neptune's Oceans washing his hands clean? The man knew the answer; the water could clean the blood, but nothing could remove the stain.

He traveled far for a boy from good old New England; across the dusty plains of North Africa, over the Mediterranean to Sicily, and then up the "boot" of Italy. He led his men to Rome, and the city fell without a shot. Oh, were they proud, and certain that the world would rejoice in their victory - a capitol of the Axis Powers had fallen.

Nope, almost no one knew of it. This great accomplishment took place June 5th 1944. The next day's headlines were about the Normandy Invasion. Rome falling, that was back among the obituaries.

The man was not happy. "Dagnabit, that darn man, Eisenhower: what, he couldn't wait one day, give us our moment in the sun? No."

They spent the day searching the Vatican for Germans. Some of his men were a little worried about that.

"Isn't this, like, a sin, or something?" they asked.

"Just do your jobs, be respectful, and we'll be fine."

The nun in the lobby actually made them check their rifles; she put them in the rack intended for umbrellas. Oh well, at least they didn't have to tip her on the way out.

The woman lived in the Cradle of the Renaissance, the ancient city of Florence. As a teen, she had marched proudly in the Fascist parades, and sung the songs of patriotism - Glory and Victory for the Second Roman Empire! Now her family was tired of war, cold and hungry. And, she often wondered, what had become of her Jewish friends from school? Why was it forbidden to ask about the "other" school they had been sent to?

Then came the bombings, and the broken buildings, and the shattered lives; their neighbor gunned down in the street for spying. No medals for her, not even a headstone. Soon the gas was turned off. The water was next, and the store shelves were empty.

Food was raw potatoes, cheese and a bit of salami. Poor diet led to poor health. Soon she was sick. To get to the hospital meant breaking curfew. Getting caught meant summary execution! She had a hot appendix that had to come out. Yet, with medical supplies short, they had nothing to suture her insides with; so they used a paperclip! It was left to the Fates to decide if she would survive.

Afterward, in her delirium, she remembered her carefree childhood, in the Tuscan countryside. A cornucopia of life; fig trees to gorge on, their branches bending, heavy with life; chicken coops full of eggs. How much her life changed?

Yet, she also knew love. His name was Pasquale, an "Italian Gary Cooper," she called him. At the Garden Michelangelo, overlooking the city, they proclaimed their eternal love for each other. But, her parents forbid the union!

"He will never amount to anything; you shall not marry!"

Her heart shattered, and she pledged to never love another. Later, he had to flee, lest he be forced to "volunteer" to fight for the Germans.

The man led his men out of Rome and continued north. Coming to an old castle, they stopped. Always best to check for Germans. Knocking on the massive door, big enough to hide a tank, a little peephole opened. In very broken Italian, the man tried to ask if any Germans were around.

The be-speckled priest, in perfect Brooklyn-ese English said, "My son, you should stick to English; your Italian is positively atrocious."

After the man picked his jaw up from the ground, he learned the Father had been raised in America, and his family had come home to Italy during the Depression. He assured the man that the Germans had left weeks ago, and even formally surrendered the castle, the Castle Gandolfo - the Pope's Summer Home, to the man.

Well, they'd searched the Vatican, so it made a sort of cosmic sense that they should capture this particular place.

They continued on. Another day, stopping for lunch, one of his men wandered into a mine field, and was badly injured. What could the man do? He and the injured man's buddy grabbed a stretcher and headed out to get him. Drawing near, the man saw how severe the injuries were, and his heart sank. The buddy, ever anxious, did not see the wire in front of him. A trip, a stumble; he fell, and the man bathed in blood. The buddy was cut in two; the injured man slumped slowly to the ground, and was still.

The man wept, and prayed. And then, because he was in command, he stood tall, marched back to his men, and ordered them to continue on. He heard the whispers behind his back as he washed away the blood: heartless, soulless and unfeeling. He said nothing; such is the burden of a true leader.

The woman learned English, once the Allies reached Florence, and slowly the city lived again. Its power lines surged with strength, watermains pumping with life-giving fluid. And now a new sort of "wolf" prowled the cobblestone streets. Time and again men dropped to one knee before the woman. Time and again her father's shoe "helped" them out the door. And her mother, from their balcony, was quite the expert shot with a bucket of icy water!

January 1945, the man and his buddies came to Florence. No gas in their jeep and a cold breeze ushered them into a museum. The men grumbled; it wasn't pictures of naked women they were after! The man drank in the culture around them, feeling his soul being re-nourished.

The woman sat in her father's shop as her mother prepared to leave; time to get that man of theirs home for dinner. A feeling crept over the woman, a tug, a tickle inside her, urging her to move, to go, somewhere. She asked to go along. Her mother was surprised; she'd never asked to do that before. Yet, no harm; so they set off, even as snow began to blanket the streets in a carpet of purity.

Arriving at the museum, the woman and her mother took refuge from the cold in the snug little office. Out in the gallery, her father was giving a tour. That same feeling came to the woman, she must go out there! Her mother grumbled, not wanting to leave the comfort. Besides, there were men out there; American men. English "wolves" were bad enough; but she'd heard about those GIs; she knew what they had on their minds. Yet, what mother can refuse a daughter's sincere plea?

The man gazed upon a vision greater than any angel sent from Heaven; a true masterpiece, a work of art. Her green eyes were dazzling, hypnotic, intoxicating. They had to be, his men were suddenly acting as if they'd had a few too many. Suddenly, the art museum was a great idea! The woman's mother, ever the protective "lioness," stood guard and kept the "hungry" men at bay with a curl of her lip and a single growl. Her eyes spoke volumes too, a veritable laundry list on methods of painful castration!

The man and woman exchange a brief pleasantry, and went their separate ways. As the man and his men left, his buddy elbowed him in the ribs.

"Did you see that curator's daughter? She was looking at me, she's 'hot' for me!"

That spring, with the re-birth of life to the Tuscan plains, that same buddy was Best Man at the marriage of the man and woman: my father and my mother.

Oh, and the paperclip; it's still inside her to this day.

Click here for more by AJ Robinson.

Combining the gimlet-eye, of Philip Roth, with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Most of the time he writes, but sometimes he works at Disney World to renew his fantasies and get a few dollars more. AJ writes, with insight and passion, about his family and his dog. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true.

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