Piedmont, Northern Italy
The russet bloom on the vineyards ahead, the yellowleafed oaks, a hint of truffles fattening in moldy obscurity underfoot—none of it is truly familiar, because I first came here not only in a different season, but as a different man. Yet the smell of autumn anywhere is for me the smell of memory, and I am preoccupied as my feet guide me through the woods and fields up toward the old Piedmontese villa.
When a salt-and-pepper blur charges out of the grass and stops just in front of me, growling, I stand my ground. I resist retreating; I reach out a hand. Foam drips from the dog’s black gums onto the damp earth. I am in no hurry, and neither is she. The sprint seems to have cost the dog most of her remaining energy, though. Her thin ribs heave as she alternately whines and threatens.
The teeth retract and the quivering nose comes forward. Her speckled, shorthaired sides move in and out like a bellows.
“Old hound, is it really you?”
She sniffs my hand, backs away for one more growl, then surrenders her affection. These have been ten long and lonely years. Take a scratch where you can get it.
She guides me, as if I have forgotten, up to the old barn.
Through a dirty window, I glimpse the iron bed frame, one dresser. But other items I’d once known by look and touch—the red lantern, the phonograph, any trace of woman’s clothing—are gone. A dark stain mars the stone floor, but perhaps it’s only moisture or fungus. In the corner, wedged into the frame of an oval mirror, is an old postcard of the Colosseum. I know what is written on the other side. I wrote it.
I consider walking up the hill to the villa’s family burial ground to check for any recent additions—but no, even after coming this far, I’m still not ready for that. Tartufa trots ahead toward the side of the main house, toward the figure seated alone at the wooden table, a spiral of blue smoke rising from his thick-knuckled fingers. The door from the terrace into the kitchen hangs crookedly. Everything about the house seems
more worn, sloping like the old man’s shoulders.
He calls out first. “Buongiorno.”
“Adamo?” I try.
Now he sits up straighter, squinting as I approach.
It takes a minute for him to recognize me.
“The Bavarian? Grüss Gott,” he cackles, using the only German phrase he knows. But still, he doesn’t seem to believe.
“You’re coming from the North?”
“No, from Rome. I took the train most of the way. Then a
ride, a bit of a walk . . .”
“You are living there?”
“Just visiting museums.”
“Repatriation of antiquities.” And I explain what that means as he nods slowly, taking in the names of new agencies, international agreements, the effort of my own homeland to undo what was done—a history already begging to be forgotten. Wonder of wonders, the old man replies, how the world changes and stays the same. Except for some things.
After he pours me a glass of cloudy plum liqueur, I take a seat at the old oak table and ask him about his sister-in-law, Mamma Digiloramo. He gestures with his chin up to the hill.
“And Gianni and his wife?”
They occupy the main house with their four children, Zio Adamo explains. He lives with them, and though this villa has been in the Digiloramo family for three generations and Gianni is not even a blood relative, it doesn’t matter—Adamo himself feels like a houseguest now. Fine, it’s less of a headache for him. Fewer worries about the crops, which haven’t done so well in the last few years. Surely I noticed the shriveled black grapes on the west side of the road, approaching
the main house.
When I empty my glass of liqueur and decline a second, he says, “You haven’t asked about everyone,” with an emphasis on the last word.
When I don’t reply he volunteers, “She moved to town. During the war, everything here went to pieces. Now she works in a café. She lives with her son.”
Stunned, I repeat his last word back to him: “Figlio?”
I must appear tongue-tied because he laughs, clapping me on the shoulder. “That’s about how her mother looked way back when, discovering the happy news. Not a virgin birth, but close. We celebrated without any questions.”
“È quasi un miracolo.”
“Your Italian is much better than last time.”
“I’ve been practicing.”
“No particular reason. It’s a beautiful language.”
He runs his tongue over his teeth, unconvinced. “If you wait, I can find someone to take you into town—if that is where you are going.”
“Grazie. I’ll walk.”
“It will take you two, three hours.”
“Va bene. I could use the time with my thoughts.”
“I don’t recommend it.”
“No, remembering.” He doesn’t smile.
Gesturing for me to wait, he pushes to his feet slowly, reaching for the cane leaning against the table’s corner, then escorts me back down the path, past the barn, to the track that leads to the dusty road lined with hazelnut bushes. Something is bothering him. At the end, he straightens his back, lifts his whiskered chin, and brushes his dry lips against my cheek. “That’s as far as I go, or I won’t make it back.”
The dog has followed us, grateful for her master’s unhurried pace. I reach down to pat her side and mumble a few final endearments, whispering her name a final time.
“That isn’t the original Tartufa, you know,” Zio Adamo says, looking a little embarrassed to be correcting me. “It’s her pup—the last one.”
“This, a pup?”
“A very old one.”
“They look the same,” I say, squatting down to scratch her ears again, patting her ribs, puzzling over the pattern of her coat.
He leans on the cane, face lowered to mine. “Certainly, you remember what happened to Tartufa . . .”
“Yes,” I say, standing up to brush my hands on my trousers.
“It makes me feel better that I’m not the only one who makes mistakes.” Zio Adamo smiles. “I’m sorry for not recognizing you right away. Even after you sat down, it was hard to believe.”
“No need for apologies—”
“It’s not just your Italian.”
“I couldn’t put two words together back then.”
“No,” he insists, with sudden vehemence, enough to make me wish I’d accepted that second, courage-bolstering drink.
“You were different in other ways.”
“Weren’t we all?”
But of course, I know what he means.
There is a temptation to say that the long-ago past is a fog, that it is nearly impossible to recall the mindset of an earlier time. But that is a lie. The truth is that more recent events, such as the days leading up to the surrender, are a fog. In and out of the army, where they sent me again once it was clear I had made a mess of things on what might have been a relatively simple professional assignment—all that is a fog. I passed through it in a half-numb state, registering few sensations beyond the taste of watery potato soup and the unsticking of dirty, wet wool from frozen, bleeding feet.
A year or two, or eight, can elapse that way, mercifully, while a fundamental childhood incident or an essential, youthful journey can remain polished by obsessive and dutiful reminiscence. It can remain like marble in one’s mind: five days in Italy—harder, brighter, more fixed and more true than anything that has happened before or since.
Except I’d forgotten about the dog, and only now that I am reminded can I hear in my mind the stranger’s fatal Luger shot and recall how we all stopped, stunned, watching—and clearly forgetting, wanting to forget—even as the sound rang
out across the farm, the first shot of several that morning, my last morning in Italy, ten years ago. Of course.
And if I have confused that one detail, have I confused anything else? Am I remembering my final moments at the villa inaccurately—not only the bitter, but also the sweet? Am I imagining a tenderness and a sense of possibility that never were?
But that’s too much to ask without time to absorb and reflect on what Adamo has said, what the quiet of this villa and the padlock on the barn suggest. I cannot truly remember her, cannot truly remember then, until I can remember the person I was that long decade ago—a difficult portrait of an even more difficult time.
On this afternoon, with acorns crunching beneath my feet, I have several hours and nothing else to do as I walk, inhaling the soft musk of the season, realizing with each footfall that I have little to lose given how much has been forfeited already. Is there also something, perhaps, to gain? No telling. Only the brittle sound of cracking shells, the memory of a different breeze on my face, the recollection of a less pleasant stroll, and all that followed.
Excerpted from The Detour by Andromeda Romano-Lax. Copyright © 2012 by Andromeda Romano-Lax. Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.