When Ted Hollander first agreed to travel to Naples in search of his missing niece (longing to get away, to look at art), he drew up for his brother-in-law, who was footing the bill, a plan for finding her which involved cruising the places where aimless, strung-out youths tended to aggregate--the train station, for example--and asking their denizens if they knew her. "Madeline. American. Capelli rossi," red hair, he'd planned to say, had even practiced his pronunciation until he could roll the r in front of "rossi" to perfection. But since arriving in Naples, he hadn't said it once.
Today, after more than a week of not looking for Madeline, he visited the ruins of Pompeii, scrutinizing early Roman wall paintings and small, prone bodies scattered like Easter eggs among the columned courtyards. He ate a can of tuna under an olive tree and listened to the crazy, empty silence. In the early evening he returned to his hotel room, heaved his aching body onto the king-sized bed, and phoned his sister, Beth, Madeline's mother, to report that another day's efforts had gone unrewarded.
"Okay," Beth sighed from Los Angeles, as she did each afternoon. The intensity of her disappointment endowed it with something like consciousness; Ted experienced it as a third presence on the phone.
"I'm sorry," he said. A drop of poison filled his heart. He would look for Madeline tomorrow. Yet even as he made this vow, he was reaffirming a contradictory plan to visit the Museo Nazionale--the Orpheus and Eurydice in particular, a Roman marble relief copied from a Greek original. He had always wanted to see it.
Mercifully, Hammer, Beth's third husband--who normally had an array of questions for Ted that boiled down to one very simple question, am I getting my money's worth? (thus filling Ted with truant anxiety)--either wasn't around or chose not to weigh in. After hanging up, Ted went to the minibar and dumped a vodka over ice. He brought drink and phone to the balcony and sat in a white plastic chair, looking down at the Via Partenope and the Bay of Naples. The shore was craggy, the water of questionable purity (though arrestingly blue), and those game Neapolitans, most of whom seemed to be fat, were disrobing on the rocks and leaping into the bay in full view of pedestrians, tourist hotels, and traffic. He dialed his wife.
"Oh, hi hon!" Susan was startled to hear from him so early in the day--usually he called at dinnertime. "Is everything okay?"
Already, her brisk, merry tone had disheartened him. Susan was often on Ted's mind in Naples, but a slightly different version of Susan--a thoughtful, knowing woman with whom he could speak without speaking. It was this slightly different version of Susan who had listened with him to the quiet of Pompeii, alert to faint reverberations of screams, of sliding ash. How could so much devastation have been silenced? Where had it gone? These were the sorts of questions that had come to preoccupy Ted in his week of solitude, a week that felt like both a month and a minute.
"I've got a nibble on the Suskind house," Susan said, apparently hoping to cheer him with this dispatch from the realm of real estate.
Yet each disappointment Ted felt in his wife, each tiny internal collapse, brought a corollary seizure of guilt; many years ago, he had taken the passion he felt for Susan and folded it in half, so he no longer had a drowning, helpless feeling when he glimpsed her beside him in bed, her ropy arms and soft, generous ass. Then he'd folded it in half again, so when he felt desire for Susan, it no longer brought with it an edgy terror of never being satisfied. Then in half again, so that feeling desire entailed no urgent need to act. Then in half again, so he hardly felt it. His desire was so small in the end that Ted could slip it in his desk or a pocket and forget about it, and this gave him a feeling of safety and accomplishment, of having dismantled a perilous apparatus that might have crushed them both. Susan was baffled at first, then frantic; she'd hit him twice across the face, she'd run from the house in a thunderstorm and slept at a motel; she'd wrestled Ted to the bedroom floor, laughing and crying both, wearing a pair of black crotchless underpants. But eventually a sort of amnesia had overtaken Susan; her rebellion and hurt had melted away, deliquesced into a sweet, eternal sunniness that was terrible in the way that life would be terrible, Ted supposed, without death to give it urgency and shape. He'd presumed at first that her relentless cheer was partly mocking, another phase in her rebellion, until it came to him that Susan had forgotten how things were between them before Ted began to fold up his desire; she'd forgotten and was happy--had never not been happy, as far as she knew--and while all this gave him new respect for the gymnastic adaptability of the human mind, it also made him feel that his wife had been brainwashed. By him.
"Hon," Susan said. "Alfred wants to talk to you."
Ted braced himself for his moody, unpredictable son. "Hiya, Alf!"
"Dad, don't use that voice."
"That fake 'Dad' voice."
"What do you want from me, Alfred? Can we have a conversation?"
"So you're what, five and eight?"
"Four and nine."
"Well. There's time."
"There's no time," said Alfred. "Time is running out."
"Is your mother still there?" Ted asked, a bit desperately. "Can you put her back on?"
"Miles wants to talk to you."
Ted spoke with his other two sons, who had additional sports scores to report. He felt like a bookie. They played every sport imaginable and some that (to Ted) were not: soccer, hockey, baseball, lacrosse, basketball, football, fencing, wrestling, tennis, skateboarding (not a sport), golf, Ping-Pong, Video Voodoo (absolutely not a sport, and Ted refused to sanction it), rock climbing, roller blading, bungie jumping (Miles, his oldest, in whom Ted sensed a joyous will to self-annihilate), backgammon (not a sport), volleyball, Wiffle ball, rugby, cricket (what country was this?), squash, water polo, ballet (Alfred, of course, and not a sport), and most recently, Tae Kwon Do. At times it seemed to Ted that his sons took up sports merely to ensure his presence beside the greatest possible array of playing surfaces, and he duly appeared, yelling away his voice among piles of dead leaves and the smell of woodsmoke in fall, among iridescent clover in spring, and through the soggy, mosquito-flecked summers of upstate New York.
After speaking to his wife and boys, Ted felt drunk, anxious to get out of the hotel. He seldom drank; booze flung a curtain of exhaustion over his head, robbing him of the two precious hours he had each night--two, maybe three, after dinner with Susan and the boys--in which to think and write about art. Ideally, he should have been thinking and writing about art at all times of the day, but a confluence of factors made such thinking and writing both unnecessary (he was tenured at a third-rate college with little pressure to publish) and impossible (he taught three art history courses a semester and had taken on vast administrative duties--he needed money). The site of his thinking and writing was a small office wedged in one corner of his shaggy house, in whose door he had screwed a lock to keep his sons out. They gathered wistfully outside it, his boys, with their chipped, heartbreaking faces. They were not permitted to so much as knock upon the door to the room in which he thought and wrote about art, but Ted hadn't found a way to keep them from prowling outside it, ghostly feral creatures drinking from a pond in moonlight, their feet in the carpet, their fingers sweating on the walls, leaving spoors of grease that Ted would point out each week to Elsa, the cleaning woman. He would sit in his office, listening to the movements of his boys, imagining that he felt their hot, curious breath. I will not let them in, he would tell himself. I will sit and think about art. But he found, to his despair, that often he could not think about art. He thought about nothing at all.
At dusk, Ted strolled up the Via Partenope to the Piazza Vittoria. It was teeming with families, kids punting the ubiquitous soccer balls, exchanging salvos of earsplitting Italian. But there was another presence, too, in the fading light: the aimless, unclean, vaguely threatening youths who trolled this city where unemployment was at 33 percent, members of a disenfranchised generation who skulked around the decrepit palazzi where their fifteenth-century forebears had lived in splendor, who smoked hashish on the steps of churches in whose crypts those same forebears now lay, their diminutive coffins stacked like firewood. Ted shrank from these youths, though he was 6'4" and weighed in at 220, with a face that looked innocuous enough in the bathroom mirror, but often prompted colleagues to ask him what was the matter. He was afraid Madeline would be among them, that it was she, eyeing him through the jaundiced streetlight that permeated Naples after dark. He left the piazza quickly, in search of a restaurant.
Madeline was seventeen when she'd disappeared, five years ago. Disappeared like her father--like Howie, the berserk financier with the violet eyes, who'd walked away from a bad business deal a couple of years after he and Beth divorced and was not heard from again. Unlike Howie, Madeline had resurfaced a handful of times, demanding money in far-flung locales, and twice Beth and Hammer had flown wherever it was and tried in vain to intercept her. Madeline had shimmied out of an adolescence whose catalogue of afflictions had included anorexia, bulimia, LSD, heroin, a fondness for keeping company with derelicts (Beth reported, helplessly), four shrinks, family therapy, group therapy, and two suicide attempts, all of which Ted had witnessed from afar with a horror that had gradually affixed to Madeline herself. As a little girl, she'd been lovely, bewitching, even--he remembered this from a summer he spent with Beth and Howie on Lake Michigan. Later, at the occasional Christmas or Thanksgiving, she was a glowering presence. Ted steered his boys away from her, afraid that her self-immolation would touch them somehow. He wanted nothing to do with Madeline. She was lost.
Ted rose early the next morning and took a taxi to the Museo Nazionale, cool, echoey, empty of tourists despite the fact that it was summer. He drifted among dusty busts of Hadrian and the various Caesars, experiencing a physical quickening that verged on the erotic in the presence of so much marble. He felt the proximity of the Orpheus and Eurydice before he saw it, sensed its cool weight across the room but prolonged the moments before looking at it directly, reminding himself of the events leading up to the moment it described: Orpheus and Eurydice newly married and wildly in love; Eurydice dying of a snakebite while fleeing the advances of a shepherd; Orpheus descending to the underworld, filling its dank corridors with music from his lyre, as he sang of his longing for his wife; Pluto granting Eurydice's release from death on the sole condition that Orpheus not look back at her during their ascent. And then the thoughtless moment when, out of fear for his bride as she stumbled in the slippery passage, Orpheus mistakenly turned and looked.
Ted stepped toward the relief. He felt as if he'd walked inside it, so utterly did it enclose and affect him. It was the moment before Eurydice must descend to the underworld a second time, when she and Orpheus are saying goodbye. What moved Ted, what crushed some delicate glassware in his chest, was the quiet of their interaction, the absence of drama, even tears, as they gazed at each other, touching gently. He sensed between these two an understanding too deep to articulate: the hushed, unspeakable knowledge that everything is lost.
Ted stared at the relief, transfixed, for thirty minutes. He walked away and returned to it. He left the room and came back. Each time, the feeling was the same.
He spent the rest of the day upstairs among the Pompeiian mosaics, but his mind never left the Orpheus and Eurydice. He visited it again before leaving the museum.
By now it was late afternoon. Ted began to walk, still dazed, until he found himself among a netting of backstreets so narrow they felt dark. He passed churches blistered with grime, mouldering palazzi whose squalid interiors leaked sounds of wailing cats and children. Coats of arms still hung above their massive doorways, soiled, forgotten, and these staggered Ted: symbols once so urgent, so defining, made meaningless by nothing more than time. He imagined the slightly different version of Susan walking near him, sharing in his astonishment. As the Orpheus and Eurydice relaxed its hold on him, he became gradually aware of a subterranean patter around him, an interplay of glances, whistles, and signals that seemed to include nearly everyone, from the old widow crouched on the church steps to the kid in the green shirt who kept buzzing past Ted on his Vespa, grazingly close. Everyone but himself. He scanned his surroundings for an exit.
From a window, an old woman was using a rope to lower a basketful of Marlboros to the street. Black market, Ted thought, watching uneasily as a girl with tangled red hair and sunburned arms removed a packet of cigarettes and placed some coins in the basket. As it swung upward again, back toward the window, Ted recognized the girl as Madeline.
So acutely had he been dreading this encounter that he felt no real surprise at the staggering coincidence of its actually taking place. Madeline lit one of the Marlboros, brow creased, and Ted slowed his pace, pretending to admire the greasy wall of a palazzo, so as not to reach her. When she began walking again, he followed. She wore black jeans and a sleeveless white T-shirt, and she was thin but no longer emaciated, as before. She walked erratically and with a slight limp, slowly, then briskly, so that Ted had to concentrate in order not to overtake her or fall behind.
He was sliding into the city's knotty entrails, a poorer, untouristed area where the sound of flapping laundry mingled with the dry, bristly chatter of pigeons' wings. Without warning, Madeline pivoted around to face him. She stared, bewildered, into his face. "Is that?" she stammered, "Uncle--"
"My God! Madeline!" Ted cried, wildly mugging surprise. He was a lousy fake.
"You scared me," Madeline said, still disbelieving. "I felt someone--"
"You scared me, too," Ted rejoined, and they laughed, nervous. He should have hugged her right away; now felt too late.
To fend off the obvious question (what was he doing in Naples?), Ted kept talking: where she was going?
"Visit a friend," Madeline said. "What about you?"
"Just . . . walking!" he said, too loudly. They had fallen into step. "Is that a limp?"
"I broke my leg in Tangiers," she said. "I fell down a long flight of steps."
"I hope you saw a doctor."
Madeline gave him a pitying look. "I wore a cast for three and a half months," she said, "an old-fashioned plaster kind. Two hundred and four people signed it--there was literally not one iota of space left."
The swarm of detail stymied Ted. "Then why the limp?" he finally asked.
"I'm not sure."
She had grown up. And so uncompromising was this adulthood, so unstinting its inventory of breasts and hips and gently indented waist, the expert flicking away of her cigarette and whispery creases alongside her eyes, that Ted experienced the change as instantaneous. A miracle. Her face was triangular and mischievous, pale enough to absorb hues from the world around her--purple, green, pink--like a face painted by Lucien Freud. She looked like a girl who a century ago would not have lived long, would perhaps have died in childbirth. A girl whose feathery bones did not quite heal.
"You live here?" he asked. "Naples?"
"A nicer part," Madeline said, a bit snobbishly. "It's a palace compared to this. What about you, Uncle Teddy?"
He named the town.
"Is your house very big? Are there lots of trees? Do you have a tire swing?"
"Trees galore. A hammock no one uses."
Madeline paused, closing her eyes as if to imagine it. "You have three sons," she said. "Miles, Ames, and Alfred."
She was right; even the order was right. "I'm amazed you remember that," Ted said.
"I remember everything," Madeline said.
She had stopped before one of the seedy palazzi, its coat of arms painted over with a yellow smiley face. "This is where my friend lives," she said. "Goodbye, Uncle Teddy. It was so nice running into you." She shook his hand with damp, spidery fingers.
Ted, unprepared for this abrupt parting, stammered a little. "Wait, but--can't I take you to dinner?"
Madeline tilted her head, searching his eyes. "I'm awfully busy," she said, with apology, and then, as if softened by some deep, unfailing will to politeness, "but yes. You may."
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