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."
It was only as Ted pushed open the door to his hotel room, the medley of 1950s beige tones that greeted him after each day he spent not looking for Madeline, that he was assailed by the sheer outlandishness of what had just happened. It was time to make his daily call to Beth, and he imagined his sister's dumbstruck jubilation at the avalanche of good news since yesterday: not only had he located her daughter, but she'd seemed clean, reasonably healthy, mentally coherent, and in possession of at least one friend (not counting the two hundred and four people who had signed her cast)--in short, better than they'd had any right to expect. And yet Ted himself felt no such elation. Why? he wondered, lying flat on the bed with arms crossed, shutting his eyes. Why this longing for yesterday, even this morning--for the relative peace of knowing he should look for Madeline but failing to do so? He didn't know. He didn't know.
The implosion of Beth and Howie's marriage had proceeded spectacularly the summer Ted lived with them at their Lake Michigan house while he oversaw a construction site two miles away. Apart from the marriage itself, the casualties by summer's end had included the majolica plate Ted brought Beth for her birthday; sundry items of abused furniture; Beth's left shoulder, which Howie dislocated twice, and her collarbone, which he broke. While they raged inside the house, Ted would take Madeline outside, through the razor-edged reeds, to the beach. She had long red hair and blue-white skin that Beth was always trying to keep from burning. Ted took his sister's worries seriously, and always brought the sunscreen with him when they went out to the sand--sand that was too hot in the late afternoons for Madeline to walk on without screaming. He would carry her in his arms, light as a cat in her red and white two-piece, would set her on a towel and rub cream onto her shoulders and back and face, her tiny nose--she must have been five--and wonder what would become of her, growing up among all this violence. He insisted she wear her white sailor hat in the sun, though she didn't want to. He was in college, working as a contractor to pay the bills.
"A con-trac-tor," Madeline repeated, fastidiously. "What's that?"
"Well, he organizes different workmen to build a house."
"Are there floor sanders?"
"Sure. You know any floor sanders?"
"One," she said. "He sanded our floors in our house. His name is Mark Avery."
Ted was instantly suspicious of this Mark Avery.
"He gave me a fish," Madeline offered.
"No," she said, laughing, swatting his arm. "A bathtub fish."
"Does it squeak?"
"Yes, but I don't like the sound."
These conversations went on for hours. Yet often, Ted had the uneasy sense that the child was spinning them out as a way of filling the time--to distract them both from whatever was going on inside that house. And this made her seem much older than she was, a tiny little woman, knowing, world-weary, too accepting of life's burdens even to mention them. She never once alluded to her parents, or what it was she and Ted were hiding from out on that beach.
"Will you take me swimming?"
"Of course," he always said.
Only then would he allow her to doff her cap. Her hair was long and tangled and silken; it blew in his face when he carried her (as she always wished) into Lake Michigan. She would gird him with her thin legs and arms, warm from the sun, and rest her head on his shoulder. Ted sensed her mounting dread as they approached the water, but she refused to let him turn back. "No. It's okay. Go," she would mutter grimly into his neck, as if her submersion in Lake Michigan were an ordeal she was required to endure for some greater good. Ted tried different ways of making it easier for her--going in little by little, or plunging straight in--but always Madeline would gasp in pain and tighten the grip of her legs and arms around him. When it was over, when she was in, she was herself again, dog paddling despite his efforts to teach her the crawl ("I know how," she would say, impatiently, "I just don't want to"). Splashing him, teeth chattering gamely. But the entire process unsettled Ted, as if he were hurting her, forcing this immersion upon his niece when what he longed to do--fantasized about doing--was rescue her. Wrap her in a blanket and secret her from the house before dawn. Paddle away in an old rowboat he'd found. Carry her down the beach and simply not turn around. He was twenty. He trusted no one else. But he could do nothing, really, to protect his niece, and as the weeks seeped away, he began to anticipate summer's end as a dark, bad thing. Yet when the time came, it was strangely easy. Madeline clung to her mother, barely glancing at Ted as he loaded up his car and said goodbye, and he set off feeling angry at her, wounded in a way he knew was childish but couldn't seem to help, and when that feeling passed it left him exhausted, too tired even to drive. He parked outside a Dairy Queen and slept.
"How do I know you know how to swim, if you won't show me?" he asked Madeline, back on the sand.
"I took lessons with Rachel Costanza."
"You're not answering my question."
She smiled at him a little helplessly, as if she longed to hide behind her childishness but sensed that somehow, it was already too late for that. "She has a Siamese cat named Feather."
"Why won't you swim?"
"Oh, Uncle Teddy," she said, in one of her eerie imitations of her mother. "You wear me out."
Madeline arrived at his hotel at eight o'clock wearing a short red dress, knee-high black patent leather boots, and a regalia of cosmetics that sharpened her face into a small, ferocious mask. Her narrow eyes curved like hooks under the candied-red mass of her hair. Ted glimpsed her across the lobby and felt reluctance verging on paralysis. He had hoped urgently, cruelly, that she wouldn't show up.
Still, he made himself cross the lobby and take her arm. "There's a good restaurant up the street," he said, "unless you have other ideas."
She did. "You leave the planning to me," Madeline averred, blowing skeins of smoke from the window of a taxi and haranguing the driver in halting Italian as he shrieked down alleys and the wrong way up one-way streets to the Vomero, an area Ted had not seen. It was high on a hill. Reeling, he paid the driver and stood with Madeline in a gap between two buildings. The flat, sparkling city arrayed itself before them, lazily toeing the sea. Hockney, Ted thought. Díebenkorn. John Moore. In the distance, Mount Vesuvius reposed benignly. Ted pictured the slightly different version of Susan standing nearby, taking it in.
"This is the best view in Naples," Madeline said challengingly, but Ted sensed her waiting, gauging his approval.
"It's a wonderful view," he assured her, and added, as they ambled among the leafy residential streets, "This is the prettiest neighborhood I've seen in Naples."
"I live here," Madeline rejoined, but Ted felt nearly certain she was lying.
"Looks expensive," was all he said.
Madeline explained that she was getting into retail. "I have these friends that're starting up a business selling all kinds of stuff," she said. "Wigs, cell phones, key chains. We're already making money."
"I'm surprised you can work legally in Naples."
She grinned. Though one of her front teeth was chipped, the rest looked healthy, surprisingly white. "No one works legally in Naples," she said.
They reached an intersection thronged with what had to be college students (strange, Ted thought, how they looked the same everywhere), boys and girls in black leather jackets riding on Vespas, lounging on Vespas, perching, even standing on Vespas--the density of Vespas made the whole square seem to pant, and the fumes of their exhaust worked on Ted like a mild narcotic. It was dusk, and a chorus line of palm trees vamped against a Bellini sky. Madeline threaded her way among the students with brittle self-consciousness, eyes locked ahead.
In a restaurant on the square, she asked to be seated by the window. Then she ordered the meal: fried zucchini flowers followed by pizza. Again and again she peeked outside at the youths on their Vespas. "Do you know them?" Ted finally asked, though clearly she did not; they'd hardly glanced at her as she passed.
"Students," she said dismissively, as if the word were a synonym for nothing. "Kids."
"They look about your age."
"Age is a relative thing, Uncle Teddy," Madeline said, aiming a neat pipette of smoke over his head, "when you've done and seen as much as I have."
"I'm eager to hear about that."
"Oh, it's exhausting, and I've told it all so many times," she said, with mannered weariness. "I want to hear about you. Are you still a professor of art history? Are you a world's expert on something?"
Unnerved by her precise memory, Ted felt the bubble of anxiety that rose in him whenever he spoke about his work. "I'm omnivorous, I guess," he said, sounding stuffy and dull to himself. "Right now I'm writing about the impact of Greek sculpture on the late nineteenth century."
Madeline listened, eyes narrowed. "Your wife, Susan, her hair is blonde, right?"
"Susan is blonde."
"Does she dye it?"
"I bet she highlights it," Madeline said. "There's a place in New York, can you believe? Highlights cost $350. I still read American magazines," she said, as if to persuade Ted that her information was good. "Do you love her? Susan?"
This cool inquiry landed somewhere near Ted's solar plexus. "Aunt Susan," he corrected her.
"Of course I love her," Ted said quietly.
Dinner arrived: pizza draped in buffalo mozzarella, buttery and warm in Ted's throat. After a second glass of red wine, Madeline began to talk. She had started out in London, she said, then flown to Hong Kong and entered mainland China on a boat. "Later I sneaked into Tibet on a bus," she said, "dressed as a monk. I rolled up my hair in a sock. My friends wanted me to cut it off, but I said no way, this hair is all I've got!"
"Are those the same friends you're working with here?" Ted asked. "Did you all come to Naples together?"
"Oh no," Madeline said. "I have no idea what happened to those other people. Some of the girls, when I saw them again in Hong Kong, they were turning tricks."
The phrase skipped off her tongue with an ease Ted found troubling. "You're saying they're prostitutes?"
"It happens," she said. "You run out of money, run out of things to sell. Guys, too, but not as often. A guy can always haul wood or something." There was a studied quality to her blasé, as if she believed her knowledge of prostitutes, like her travels to Tibet, were inherently impressive. Ted felt a flicker of distaste, the plucking of a string. She was his niece, he reminded himself. She was Madeline.
"I've met rich people, too," she assured him. "I've been on yachts four times. Well, one was a sailboat. Or can a sailboat also be a yacht?"
"I'm not a connoisseur of yachts," Ted said grimly. "Or sailboats."
"I've met almost every kind of person there is," Madeline went on, "and I write down things about each different one, and then the next time I meet that kind of person, I know exactly what they'll do."
"Really. You can predict their behavior." His sarcasm was palpable.
"Literally," she said. "Like the other day, I met this girl on the beach, and she said her family would take me to the circus with them if I came back the next day at the same time. And I said, now tell me exactly what time, because I knew her type from before, I had it written down. And she told me six o'clock. So I came to the beach at six o'clock, and no one was there!"
She said this triumphantly, but Ted pictured Madeline arriving alone to an empty beach. "That's awful," he said.
"It wasn't awful," she said sharply. "It was exactly what I thought."
"Then why show up at all?"
"To see if I was right!" she said, then lapsed into disheartened silence. Outside it was dark, the teenagers had long ago dispersed. "We might as well go," she said.
The night had brought a chill, and Madeline didn't have a coat. "Please wear my jacket," Ted urged her, removing the worn, heavy tweed, but she wouldn't hear of it. He sensed her wish to remain fully visible in her red dress. The tall boots exaggerated her limp.
After a walk of many blocks, they reached a generic-looking nightclub whose doorman waved them listlessly inside. By now it was midnight. "This place is owned by friends of mine," Madeline said. "I keep saying I'll come, but I never have any time!"
They might have been anyplace in the world: black walls, neon purple light that leeched into everything white; a beat with all the variety of a jackhammer. Even Ted, no connoisseur of nightclubs, felt the tired familiarity of the scene, yet Madeline seemed electrified. "Buy me a drink Uncle Teddy, would you?" she said. "Something with an umbrella on top."
Ted shoved his way toward the bar. Being away from his niece felt like opening a window, loosening an airless oppression. Her pretensions and bragging, her insincerity--all of it exhausted and dismayed him. She'd been through so much, yet emerged without knowledge or wisdom--she was less, not more, than she would otherwise have been. He felt angry, as if she'd broken a promise.
Madeline had saved for him a soft stool at a low table, a setup that made Ted feel like an ape, knees jammed under his chin. As she hoisted the barbaric umbrella drink to her lips, he noticed slivers of pale scar tissue on the inside of her wrist, accentuated by the purple light. He took her arm in his hands and turned it over; Madeline allowed this until she saw what he was looking at, then yanked her arm away. "That's from before," she said. "In Los Angeles."
"Let me see."
She wouldn't. And to his own amazement, Ted reached across the table and seized her wrists in his hands, wresting them over by force. Madeline resisted, and as he twisted her shaking arms, Ted knew he was hurting her and took a certain angry pleasure in it. Finally she surrendered, averting her eyes while he splayed her forearms on the table and studied them in the cold, weird light. Amid the red streaks his own hands had made, they were scarred and scuffed like furniture, bumps and knots and cuts that should have had stitches, but obviously had not.
"A lot are by accident," Madeline said. "My balance was really off--that's how I broke my leg."
"You've had a bad time." He wanted her to admit it.
"I hardly remember it."
There was a long silence. Finally Madeline said, "I thought I saw my father. Isn't that stupid?"
"I looked across a room--bam--I saw his hair. Or his legs, I still remember the exact shape of his legs. Or his hands. That way he used to tilt back his head when he laughed--do you remember, Uncle Teddy?"
"Everywhere," she said. "Everywhere. And I thought it might really be him, like maybe he was following me to make sure I'd be okay."
Ted let go of her arms, and she folded them in her lap. "Did you see him in Tibet?" he asked.
"Two times. Once, I went by a food stall and he was eating soup. But I kept walking, because I thought if he knew I saw, he might go away. Another time he passed me on a bike--I thought he did," she corrected herself. "It was stupid. I've been childish for most of my life, Uncle Teddy."
"You were a child," he said. "That's different."
Madeline made a face. "An awful child," she said, derisively. "A ridiculous little girl."
Ted flinched as though she'd struck him. "How can you say that?"
"Well, no one exactly stuck around."
"Your mother's around," Ted informed her over the thudding of his temples. "She's been sitting at home five goddamn years, waiting for the phone to ring."
"She can't help me," Madeline said.
"You were a wonderful little girl." Belligerent, insisting--he didn't care. "A beautiful, sweet little girl." He felt as if Madeline had destroyed that child, snuffed her out.
They sat in silence. Ted felt the gimlet gaze of his niece upon him. "Uncle Teddy," she finally said. "What are you doing here?"
It was the question he'd been dreading from the first, yet the answer slid from him like meat falling off a bone. "I'm here to look at art," he said. "To look at art and think about art."
There: a sudden, lifting sensation of peace. Relief. He hadn't come for Madeline, it was true. She made no difference.
"Art?" Madeline said.
"That's what I like to do," he said, and smiled. Smiled at his niece, forgave her all in one magnanimous instant. "That's what I'm always trying to do. That's what I care about."
In Madeline's face there was a shift, a slackening, as if some weight she'd been bracing herself against had abruptly been removed. Then the artifice seemed to drain from her all at once, leaving a wan, dispirited girl of twenty-two, slumped on a stool. "I thought you came to look for me," she said.
Ted watched her from a distance. A peaceful distance.
Madeline lit one of her Marlboros, and Ted noticed for the first time that her nails were red; she'd painted them since this afternoon. After two drags, she squashed it out.
"Let's dance," she said, a heaviness about her as she rose from her stool. "Come on, Uncle Teddy," taking his hand, herding him toward the dance floor, a liquid mass of bodies that provoked in Ted a frightened sensation of shyness. He hesitated, resisting, but Madeline hauled him in among the other dancers and instantly he felt buoyed, suspended. How long had it been since he'd danced in a nightclub? Fifteen years? More! Hesitantly, Ted began to move, feeling hulking, bearish in his professor's tweed, moving his feet in some approximation of dance steps until he noticed that Madeline was not moving at all. She stood quite still, watching him. And then she reached for Ted, encircled him with her long arms and clung to him so that he felt her modest bulk, the height and weight of this new Madeline, his grown-up niece who had once been so small, and the irrevocability of that transformation loosed in Ted a jagged sorrow, so his throat seized and a painful tingling fizzed in his nostrils. He cleaved to Madeline. She was gone, that little girl, gone with the passionate boy who had loved her.
Finally she pulled away. "Wait," she said, not meeting his eyes. "I'll be right back." Disoriented, Ted hovered amidst the dancing Italians until a mounting sense of awkwardness drove him from the floor. He lingered near it, waiting for his niece. Eventually, he circled the club. She'd mentioned having friends there--could she be talking to them somewhere? Had she gone outside? Anxious, befuddled from his own umbrella drink, Ted ordered a San Pellegrino at the bar, and only then, as he reached for his wallet and found it gone, did he realize that she'd robbed him.
Sunlight pried open his sticky eyelids, forcing him awake. He'd forgotten to close the blinds. It had been five o'clock by the time he'd slept, after hours of helpless wandering in the Vomero, where he'd solicited an array of lousy directions to the police station; after locating it finally and relaying his sad tale (excluding the identity of the pickpocket) to an officer with oiled hair and an attitude of pristine indifference; after procuring a ride to his hotel (which was all he'd really been after) from an elderly couple he met at the station, whose passports had been stolen on the Amalfi ferryboat.
Now Ted rose from bed with a throbbing head and stampeding heart. A confetti of phone messages strewed the table: five from Beth, three from Susan, and two from Alfred ("lost," read one, in the broken English of the hotel clerk). Ted left them where he'd thrown them. He showered, dressed without shaving, drank a vodka at the minibar, took more money from the room safe. He had to find Madeline--now, today, instantly, and this imperative, which had seized him at no specific moment, assumed an urgency that was the perfect inverse of his earlier avoidance of it. There were other things he must do--call Beth, call Susan, eat--but doing them now was out of the question. He had to find her. Had to find her.
But where? Ted deliberated this question while downing two espressos in the hotel lobby, letting the caffeine and vodka greet in his brain like fighting fish. Where to look for Madeline in this sprawling, malodorous city? He reviewed the plans he'd never executed before--approaching kids at the train station, the youth hostels, but no, no, he'd waited too long for any of that. There was no more time.
Without a clear plan, he took a taxi to the Museo Nazionale and set off in what seemed the direction he'd walked the day before, after viewing the Orpheus and Eurydice. Nothing looked the same, but surely his state of mind could account for the difference, the tiny metronome of panic now ticking within him. Nothing looked the same, yet everything looked familiar--the stained churches and slanting crusty walls, the bars shaped like hangnails. After following a narrow street to its wriggling conclusion, he emerged onto a thoroughfare lined with a gauntlet of weary palazzi, their bottom floors gouged open to accommodate cheap clothing and shoe stores. A breeze of recognition fluttered over Ted. He traversed the avenue slowly, looking right and left, and finally spotted the coat of arms painted over with a yellow smiley face.
He pushed open the diminutive rectangular door cut into the broad, curved entrance built to receive coaches and horses, then followed a passageway into a cobbled courtyard still warm from recent sunlight. It smelled of melons and garbage. A bandy-legged old woman wearing blue kneesocks under her dress bobbled toward him, hair in a scarf. "Madeline," Ted said, into her faded wet eyes. "American. Capelli rossi." He tripped on the r and tried again. "Rossi," he said, rolling it this time. "Capelli rossi."
"No, no," the woman muttered, shaking her head and puffing out her cheeks. As she began to lurch away, Ted followed, slipped a twenty-dollar bill into her soft hand and inquired again, rolling the r this time without a hitch. The woman made a clicking noise, jerked her chin, and then, looking almost sad, gestured for Ted to follow her back the way he'd come. He did, filled with disdain at how easily she'd been bought, how little her protection was worth. To one side of the front door was a broad flight of stairs, glimmers of rich, Neapolitan marble still winking up through the grime. The woman began climbing slowly, clutching the rail. Ted followed.
The second floor, as he'd been lecturing his undergraduates for years, was the piano nobile, where families brandished their wealth before guests. Even now, littered with molting pigeons and stuccoed with piles of their refuse, its vaulted arches overlooking the courtyard were still illumined by some vestigial splendor. Seeing him notice the architecture, the woman said, "Bellissima, eh? Ecco, guardate!" And with a pride Ted found oddly moving, she threw open the door to a big dim room whose walls were stained with what looked like patches of mold. The woman pulled a switch, and a lightbulb dangling from a wire transfigured the moldy shapes into painted murals in the style of Titian and Giorgione, robust naked women holding fruit; clumps of dark leaves. A whisper of silvery birds. This must have been the ballroom.
On the third floor Ted noticed the first of the youths like the ones he'd been avoiding in Naples, two boys hunched in a doorway, sharing the butt of a cigarette. A third lay asleep under a straggling assortment of laundry: wet socks and underwear pinned carefully to a wire. Ted smelled dope and olive oil, heard a mutter of subterranean activity and realized that this palazzo had become a rooming house. So, he thought, amused by the irony of finding himself amidst this demimonde, here we are. At last.
On the fifth and top floor, where servants once had lived, the doors were smaller, set along a narrow hallway. Ted's elderly guide stopped to rest against a wall, eyes closed, breath whistling in her chest. In the course of the ascent, Ted's contempt for her had been supplanted by gratitude--what effort that twenty dollars had cost her! How badly she must need it. "I'm sorry," he said, "I'm sorry you had to walk so far." But the woman shook her head, not understanding. She tottered partway down the hall and rapped sharply on one of the narrow doors, speaking in Italian. When the door opened he saw Madeline, half asleep, dressed in a pair of men's pajamas. At the sight of Ted her eyes widened, but her face, that pale triangular mask, remained impassive. "Hi, Uncle Teddy," she said mildly.
"Madeline," he said, realizing only then that he, too, was breathless from the climb. "I wanted to . . . to talk to you."
The woman's gaze jumped between them; abruptly she turned and began her precarious journey back downstairs. Ted watched her go, but the moment she rounded a corner, Madeline shut the door in his face. "Go away," she said. "I can't talk to you now, I'm busy."
"I will not," he said. "I will not go away." He moved nearer the door, flattening his palm against the splintery wood. Across it, he felt the angry, frightened presence of his niece. "It's true, what you told me before," he reflected. "You live in a palace."
"I'm moving someplace better any day."
"When you pick enough pockets?"
There was a pause. "That wasn't me," she said. "That was a friend of mine."
"You've got friends all over the place, but I never actually see them."
"Why would you?" she said haughtily. "Why should they want to see you?"
"Retail! Now I know what that means."
"I'm not a thief!" she insisted in a high, thready voice.
"You do a beautiful impersonation."
"Fuck you. I don't care what you think. Why can't you leave me alone?" She sounded close to tears.
"I'd like to," Ted said. "Believe me."
But he couldn't. Even when he heard Madeline burrowing deeper inside her apartment, he could not bring himself to leave, or even really move. Finally he bent his knees and slid to the floor. By now it was afternoon, and an aureole of musty light issued from a window at one end of the hall. Ted rubbed his eyes. He felt as if he might sleep.
"Are you still there?" Madeline demanded through the door.
"Go to hell."
I believe we're there, Ted imagined saying.
For a long time, hours, it seemed (he'd forgotten his watch), there was silence. Occasionally Ted heard other, disembodied tenants moving inside their rooms. He imagined he was an element of the palace itself, a sensate molding or step, whose fate it was to witness the ebb and flow of generations, to feel the palace relax its medieval bulk more deeply into the earth. Another year, another fifty. Twice he stood to let other tenants pass, strung out-looking girls with jumpy hands and cracked leather purses. They hardly looked at him.
"Are you still there?" Madeline asked, from behind the door.
She emerged from the room and locked the door quickly behind her. She wore blue jeans, a T-shirt, and plastic flip-flops, and carried a faded pink towel and a small bag. "Where are you going?" he asked, but she glanced at him and stalked down the hall without comment. Thirty minutes later she was back, hair hanging wet, trailing a floral smell of soap. She opened her door with the key, then hesitated. "I mop the halls to pay for this room, okay? I sweep the fucking courtyard. Does that make you happy?"
"Should it?" he said. "Does it make you happy?"
The door shook on its hinges.
As Ted sat, feeling the evolution of the afternoon, he found himself thinking of Susan. Not the slightly different version of Susan, but Susan herself--his wife, on a day many years ago, before Ted had begun to fold up his desire. Riding the Staten Island Ferry, Susan had turned to him suddenly and said, "Let's make sure it's always like this." And such was the intermingling of their thoughts that Ted knew exactly why she'd said it: not because they'd made love that morning or drunk a bottle of Pouilly-Fuisse at lunch; not because they were stealing a weekend alone in New York, but because she had felt the passage of time. And Ted felt it, too, then, in the leaping brown water, the scudding boats, the wind--motion, chaos everywhere--and he'd held Susan's hand and said, "Always. It will always be like this."
Recently, he'd mentioned that trip in some other context, and Susan had looked him full in the face and replied, in her new, sunny voice, "I don't remember going to New York." Amnesia, he'd thought. Brainwashing. But, of course, (he now saw) she'd been lying. That was all. He'd let her go, and she was gone.
"Are you there?" Madeline called, but Ted didn't answer.
She opened the door and stuck out her head. "You are," she said, sounding more grudging than angry. Ted looked up at her from the floor and said nothing. "You can come inside, I guess."
He hauled himself to his feet and stepped inside her room. It was tiny. A single bed, a desk, a sprig of mint in a plastic cup filling the room with its scent. The red dress, hanging from a hook. The sun was just beginning to set, skidding over the tops of houses and churches and landing in the room through a single window by the bed. Something hung there, in the window: a crude circle made from what looked like a coat hanger, dangling on a string. Madeline sat anxiously on her bed, and Ted recognized, with brutal immediacy, what he'd somehow failed to see until now: how alone she was in this foreign place. How empty-handed.
As if sensing the movement of his thoughts, Madeline said, "I used to know a lot of people. But it never really lasts."
On the desk lay his wallet, a picture of Beth in a small round frame. There was a stack of books, most of them in English. The History of the World in 24 L-essons. The Sumptuous Treasures of Naples. At the top, a worn volume entitled Learning to Type.
Ted turned to his niece and seized her slender shoulders, two bird's nests in his hands. The prickling sensation ached in his nostrils. "You can do it alone," he told her. "You can, Madeline. But it's going to be so much harder."
She didn't answer. She was looking at the sun. Ted turned to look, too, staring through the window at the riot of dusty color. Turner, he thought. O'Keeffe. Paul Klee.
On another day more than twenty years after this one, Ted, long divorced, a grandfather, would visit Madeline in Arizona. He would stand with his niece in a living room strewn with the flotsam of her teenage children and watch the western sun blaze through a sliding glass door. He would think of Naples, and feel again the jolt of surprise he remembered--the relief, the delight--when at last the sun dipped into the center of Madeline's window and was captured inside her circle of wire.
Now he turned to her, grinning. She was doused in orange light.
"See?" Madeline said, eyeing the sun. "It's mine."