Vaporetto 13 (Robert Girardi)

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  We were gliding through the water gate of a ruined palazzo. The first floor stood entirely flooded under a foot or two of water. A series of wooden planks resting on cinder blocks led through the gloom to a flight of slime-covered steps. The heavy air held the thick smell of old bones and mold.

"I'm sorry," I said, rubbing my face, "how long was I asleep?"

"Not long, just a few minutes," Caterina said. "Perhaps you were tired."

The gondolier steered the glossy barque to a makeshift mooring, and Caterina rose quickly and sprang up onto the wooden planks, and I saw that she was barefoot again.

"You must be careful along here," she said. "It is not deep, the water, but you would ruin your nice shoes." She reached down and took my hand and led me along the planks. When I looked back over my shoulder, the gondolier was gone.

"Didn't you have to pay the man?" I said.

"He knows me," Caterina said. "He works for my father."

We mounted the stairs to the piano nobile, a single huge high-ceilinged room furnished with broken-down, ancient furniture. Xylophone music came from somewhere; I recognized the green reek of hash. A crowd of fifty or so people wreathed in smoke were gathered around a bar lit with candles at the far end. Large gothic windows overlooked an empty campo across the canal, alive with the vague shapes of cats in the darkness. The sibilant slur of the Venetian dialect hung in empty space beneath the ceiling like mist.

"This is a private club," Caterina whispered in my ear. "A friend of mine, he runs it to pay the taxes. His family has owned this palazzo for five hundred years, and he is too proud to accept aid from the government. You see those frescoes?"

I looked up and saw dark angels dancing in the vaulted recesses of the ceiling.

"They were painted by the great Tiepolo."

We made our way to the bar. A long-toothed, yellow-faced man served us two small glasses of a brownish liquid without being asked. His bony wrists protruded a good three inches from the end of his red jacket as he poured the stuff from a sticky bottle. I held up my drink to the yellow light of the candles; odd bits of sediment seemed to be floating just above the bottom of the glass. When I passed it under my nose, the bouquet was something between rubbing alcohol and burnt leather.

"What is this exactly?" I said.

"Teriaca," Caterina said. "My friend Tisi makes it himself. A very special drink. Good for your health. Only in Venice do you find this. Chin-chin."

She knocked hers back in one gulp and I did the same. It burned on its way down and the kick was tremendous, went right to my head. The aftertaste was indescribable, a mixture of cinnamon, licorice, oranges, and something else. We drank two more in quick succession, then Caterina set about selecting the wine. The bartender brought several cobweb-covered bottles out from under the bar and wiped them down with a damp towel. She inspected them carefully, tapping each one with her fingernails, turning them upside down, brushing her nose against the seals of cracking red wax.

"Tisi keeps an excellent cellar," she said. "But one must be very careful. This bottle, for example, has turned." She handed one of the bottles back to the bartender with a few quick words. Unmoved, he cracked the neck open on the side of the ceramic sink behind the bar and poured the contents down the drain. For a moment the air was filled with the strong odor of vinegar.

I took this opportunity to get a good look at the other patrons. They were all done up in extravagant outdated evening wear: I saw white dinner jackets, bow ties, strapless dresses, cuff links, cigarette holders, spike heels. I even saw a pair of spats and a boa of green feathers. Their faces looked waxy in the candlelight, their eyes druggy and expressionless. I remembered a place like this in New York, a floating retro club called the Four Hundred, held in various abandoned warehouses in the meat market district a few years back. There had been a self-conscious air of the theatrical about that place, of hip kids playing dress-up. Not so, this crowd. The people here were older and seemed entirely at ease, as if they had been born in these clothes, as if they had just walked off the pages of Town and County, circa 1948.

Caterina picked her wine at last, a squat, dark bottle with a faded label, and she took two delicate fluted glasses and a corkscrew and motioned me through the crowd.

"Come, meet some of my friends," she said. I followed her over to a low couch near the windows, where a fat man and two women sat very close together, smoking hash from a small ebony pipe. The green reek again assaulted my nostrils. Suddenly, I could see tomorrow's headline flashing urgently on my market watch: American FX trader caught in raid on Venice drug club. Dollar plummets. But this was Europe, hash was practically legal, right?

The fat man wore a rumpled tuxedo with faint green stains along the sheeny collar. His head was almost the exact dimensions of a bowling ball, his fat feet stuffed into the smallest embroidered slippers imaginable. The women, both pale-skinned creatures with dyed red hair, wore matching dresses of complementary colors. They looked very stoned, the same witless grins plastered on their faces. The one on the right fanned herself vigorously with a painted ivory fan, despite the cool dampness of the evening.

"My friend is an American," Caterina announced to them in a loud voice. "As a courtesy, we will speak English."

"No, that's all right," I said quickly. "I understand a little Italian," but as I said this in English, the statement failed to have its intended effect. For a long moment, all three of them blinked up at us, like lost dogs.

"Welcome to my house," the fat man said at last. His voice was gravelly and sounded like years of grappa and funny cigarettes. He struggled to get up, Caterina waved him down, and we took our place on a large carpet-covered ottoman directly across from them.

"I think you have smoked too much of that!" Caterina said to him. She pointed at the pipe and wrinkled her nose in disgust.

"We must have our pleasures," the fat man said, forming his words with exaggerated care. "How else are we to stand our special purgatory?"

"How you talk, Caterina, cara!" the redhead without the fan said, staring directly at me. "Since it seems you have grown tired of your cats!"

Caterina handed me the bottle of wine and corkscrew, and the four of them lapsed immediately into an argument in Italian. I had no idea what they were saying, but the fat man sounded upset about something. Then, Caterina made a sharp comment and the fat man grunted and extinguished the ebony hash pipe by placing his thumb over the burning embers in the bowl. Feeling out of place, I concentrated on opening the wine. I cut around the wax seal carefully. The cork was black with age. The label on the bottle was old and yellow and handwritten in a faint, flowery script. I couldn't make out the year, which had been rubbed clean. After some effort, the cork came out with a dry pop and I filled the glasses. Caterina took her glass from me and smiled.

"To our friendship," she said, and I saw the light of the candles reflected in her black eyes.

"I'll drink to that." The wine was fruity and resinous. I had never tasted anything quite like it. "Very good," I said.

"You like it?" The fat man leaned forward. "Tokay. My father brought over several cases many years ago. Out of fashion now, the sweet wines of the past. Drier wines are preferred these days, I should think."

"Excuse me for not making proper introductions," Caterina said, lowering her glass. "This is Tisiano Naso. Tisi, this is my friend Jack Squire."

I reached across and shook his hand, which felt like a dead fish.

"And these are Bianca and Angela."

I smiled and nodded at the two redheads, not sure which was which. One smiled back, the other giggled stupidly from behind her fan.

"So you live here?" I said to the fat man.

He flashed a humorless smile. "Oh, not anymore," he said. "Not for more than two hundred years."

"What Tisi means," the redhead without the fan said, "is this was the house of his family, yes? They were in the Libro d'Oro, yes?"

The fat man rolled his eyes. "Please," he said. "All that is finished."

"No, not finished," the redhead with the fan said, giggling. "Tisi, N.H.," forming the letters in the air with her finger. "Nobile Homine. Count Tisi, eh?"

I nodded, though I didn't know what the hell they were talking about.

"The Libro d'Oro, this is the Golden Book of Venice," Caterina said, turning to me. "Once, many years ago, in the days of La Serenissima--that is the old Venetian Republic--every person of noble family was inscribed in the Golden Book. It was a big book with gold covers kept in the Doge's Palace. If your name was not in the Golden Book, you were nothing. Peasants, fishermen, sheep to be led. Tisi's family was in the Golden Book, as was mine, and Bianca's and Angela's too. Once we were all very high, now we are nothing, we are Barnabotti."

"Barnabotti?" I said. "What is that?"

Caterina hesitated. "Is difficult to explain," she said. "And Tisi is right. Today, in modern times, all of it means nothing."

"Yes, exactly zero," the fat man said, with some satisfaction. "Are we better than other people? No," he shook his jowly face. "Were we better than other people in those days?" He shrugged.

All of this was beyond me. I didn't know what to say. For a beat I could almost hear the sound of the water eating away at the foundations of the palazzo, a slow creaking like the walls giving way.

"Have you ever thought of reclaiming the first floor?" I said awkwardly at last. "Pumping out the water, shoring it up? A team of engineers could work wonders with this place."

Tisi raised an eyebrow, his waxy jowls sagging. I had to repeat myself three times before he understood, the idea seemed so outlandish to him.

"You mean to save Venice?" he said at last.

"I suppose that's the bigger picture," I said.

"But it is already beyond the work of men, of machines," he said. "Venice has already sunk. It is gone. Most of the pilings beneath the palazzos are over a thousand years old. Many have rotted away, and many more will rot soon. Venice is floating on air, it is an illusion, a mirage, a lost city. Or we might say it is a miracle, that there's a hand that sustains her from above. An army of angels with chains of gold that keeps her up. Of course, even angels grow weary, fall by the wayside."

"Oh, you are a great poet, Tisi," the redhead without the fan said. The sneer in her voice made it an insult. "The American talks of engineers and you talk of angels. He will take you for a fool."

"And you for a stupid little slut!" the fat man said between his teeth, and the two of them began to spit at each other in their own language.

Caterina sighed and turned to me. "Would you like to dance?"

I looked around. There was no one else dancing. "Looks kind of lonely out there," I said.

"We will dance," she said.

"I don't really know how," I said, embarrassed.

"Come with me," she said.

At the center of the room, there was a smooth square of polished marble not much bigger than a dining room table. We stood on this and swayed in each other's arms to the vague music of the xylophone. I could feel the hard contours of her body beneath her dress. Her skin had taken on a slight chill. Her hair smelled like damp flowers at a funeral.

"I'm afraid my friends, they do not..." She let her voice trail off and she reached up and put her cold hand on the back of my neck. "No. Let us not talk now. Let us be very quiet."

"O.K.," I said.

We danced like that for a long time, that is, hardly dancing at all, and not saying a word. The impermanent gray of a false dawn showed beyond the gothic curves of the windows. It was three a.m., the hour of wakefulness; cats roamed the empty campo below, looking for their dinner. Slowly, known to us all, yet imperceptible, Venice was sinking into the muck of the lagoon.
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Excerpted from Vaporetto 13 by Robert Girardi. Copyright © 1997 by Robert Girardi. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Press, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.