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Friday, April 13, 2012

The Renaissance Club - another excerpt - Chapter One

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I've been asked to share more from my novel The Renaissance Club. It's great fun to do it! Especially if there's an interested reader. Here's the next installment of Chapter One.


Norman looked down the side street at a larger-than-life-size nude statue on a plinth. The figure suddenly turned its head, combed its curly beard with his fingers, and gave back a challenging stare. It must be one of those street performers, Norman thought, like the ones at Fisherman’s Wharf who paint themselves silver and stand still as statues, then move and surprise the tourists for tips.

“Just look at that,” he said to his wife. “So lifelike. You could swear he’s alive but he stands as still as if he were stone. Did you see him move?”

From behind her large, opaque sunglasses, Kathleen glanced at him and then at where he pointed and said, “Norman, it’s just a marble figure. Look at the white eyes.”

Norman shook his head, blinked to settle his contacts, and decided to make an appointment with his optometrist when they got home. She was right. It was just a statue.
“Is it Zeus, do you think?”

As they passed, she looked briefly at the statue, her generous curves straining the tight silk suit, yellow hat shading her pink cheeks.

“Why would you ask me? Was Zeus Greek or Italian?”

“Greek, if you recall,” Norman said, trying to keep the professorial tone from creeping into his voice. “But as we learned in our club meetings, in the Renaissance they rediscovered classical Greek art. So it could be Zeus.”

“Honestly, Norman, I didn’t exactly take notes. You did that for all of us. And turned it into a booklet we all have to carry. Can we go on down to the shops now?”

He fingered the small card in his pocket, his smallest walking guide to Rome, and wished he had brought the large one so he could identify the statue. Vagueness bothered him, names and numbers anchored an indefinable sense of drift that always threatened to overtake him.

“Sure,” he said, unconsciously slowing his pace.

Kathleen said to her daughter, “Sandra, just think: Bulgari and Fendi are right down there.” Kathleen poked her in the shoulder and pointed down to the bottom of The Spanish Steps.

“Cut it out, Mother.”

Norman laughed, hoping to dissolve their tension. “You can take the girl out of Dallas but you can’t take Dallas out of the girl.”

Then he thought that maybe he made that joke too often. Kathleen did not smile.

“Norman, you promised us an hour away from history and in Rome’s best shopping,” she replied. “I’m not being a princess. I want one hour to do what I’m interested in, out of your three weeks of art and history.”

“I know, honey. I just don’t want to miss anything. Anything I’d regret when we go home.”

“Well, neither do I,” she said, and squared her jacket like a fighter adjusting his mouthpiece.

“Okay, we’re going,” Norman said.

Sandra averted her face from her parents, these middle-aged coots. She liked the word coots, with its reference to ducks, quack-quack-quacking as they strolled. She pulled out her phone and talked a note into it, pulling her fingers through her hair and letting the wind ruffle up her bangs. She couldn’t be less moved. Rome simply felt like the place that was going to free her, if she worked her plan right.

Norman strolled even more slowly, moved by the city’s earthy colors in this golden light. Its ancient ruins, towers, and palazzos brought the Renaissance alive for him. They made Concord, California seem flat and unreal, and his life there like a headless statue. Here he could touch stone walls that might have been old when Jesus was young. He could memorize every forkful of pasta and stroll past columns bearing the initials S.P.Q.R.—The Senate and People of Rome. Life here meant no longer counting time on his pocket planner.

Wasn’t that why he had formed The Renaissance Club, to first study and then visit the Italian Renaissance—to be reborn as they had been, by a humanism that was nearly lost in twenty-first century American life? He couldn’t wait to watch his fellow Renaissance Club members enter a city with two thousand years of history embedded in its bones. He wondered if it would change them as quickly as it had changed him. They would be arriving in a few hours. He did not quite know how to tell them about the loss of their guide, but he would figure it out.

The three Wesleys paused to look out over the view, the light sharpening tiers of tiled roofs and the far-off, enormous domes of St. Peter’s.

Each of them looked out over a different city to fall in love with.
Norman leaned on the railing, watching not the view but the olive-skinned women passing by, the old men with hooked noses, and the girls with dark eyes. He saw in their faces Da Vinci paintings, a beauty inborn in every Italian. One woman stopped and stared back, a feeling of recognition growing on both sides. Then she turned and walked away.

Kathleen saw in the streets radiating off the Piazza di Spagna clothes to suit her prettiness and to decorate her own best canvas, herself. The slim Italian women around her in their shades of avocado green and stiletto heels made her itch for her credit card, the one Norman didn’t know about.

Sandra saw stories within the many windows curving away to the horizon, stories she itched to take down. She lifted her phone and spoke into it, but the dictation scrambled her Italian and she had to type instead.

As Norman leaned on the railing, a pigeon flew onto it, startling him. He looked over at its iridescent head and then past it, recognizing the famous house where the poet John Keats had lived and died.

“Girls, do you want to see the Keats and Shelley Museum?” he asked. “The immortal poet lived and died right here, in that building next to the steps.” “I do,” Sandra said. “Truth is beauty, beauty truth. That’s all you need to know. Keats.”

Sandra looked at her father and then at her mother. Kathleen shook her head.

“We have only one hour,” Kathleen said. “Don’t let’s waste any more time on history! You can’t get Prada in Assisi.”

“You can’t get Keats and Shelley there either,” Sandra murmured. “Thou still unravished bride of quietness . . .”

But Norman was not listening to his daughter, he was looking at his wife whose blonde and pink beauty made him as glorious to him as Rome. She was right, it was going to be three long weeks of art history lectures, and she deserved a little of the kind of thing that was her fun. Besides, a little shopping would be good for their plain Sandra, who spent too much time in her head and on her cell phone.

The pigeon turned and gave him a penetrating stare and Norman felt for some odd reason accused until the bird fluttered away. Then he felt uneasy about Kathleen carrying the club funds through these crowded streets, now that she had changed the dollars into lire. They should hurry back to the hotel, but he had promised his girls this grand shopping hour, and after all the time they had spent helping to organize this tour, he owed them that. They had attended every meeting of his Renaissance Club for months and were now sharing their Italian vacation with nine other people. Kathleen had mapped out the itinerary, getting the best rates a travel agent could find. Sandra had helped with computer work because to Kathleen computers could either be productivity tools or just things to spill coffee on.

So he now rushed them down the long flight of the Spanish Steps to the Via Condotti. Its narrow sidewalks were thick with bodies veering around and jostling each other. It was a pickpocket’s paradise. Kathleen and Sandra kept stopping and then Kathleen would race ahead while Sandra lagged, forcing Norman to watch in two directions. They weren’t being cautious. Sandra let her purse dangle away from her body and Kathleen leaned over to look in windows, her backpack a target. He had read that in Rome innocent-looking children could be pickpockets. Thieves on scooters could zip past, cutting purse straps to grab. But in an hour they would be back at the hotel. He practice patience, waiting in front of yet another window, combing his hair with his fingers.

“Kathleen, can we either go inside or move on?” he finally said.

“If you don’t want to shop with us, go back to the hotel,” she said. “You can go back and make calls, but I want to buy Sandra something. We’re not going back until I find her something lovely.”

They went in. Marshaling his cheer, Norman followed as they browsed the aisles. Kathleen steered Sandra over to a display of stilettos.

“If you wore something like that, you’d be really attractive, Sandra, These would show off your good legs. We could do something with your hair, maybe cut it and get some highlights.”

“Mom, do you want me to look like a hooker?”

“Well, right now you look like someone cut your hair when they weren’t wearing their glasses. Try those. I’m going to buy you some great shoes today.”

Norman noted that Kathleen had appropriated his treat to them as her treat to Sandra, but Sandra wasn’t going to take any parental treat.

“Thanks, Mother, but I don’t wear that trashy shit.”

“Don’t swear at me, Sandra! Please.”

“You swear enough for both of us, Mom.”

“Girls! Let’s make some decisions. We still have work to do.”

Neither woman paid attention to him. Sandra drifted behind her mother. Kathleen stopped and picked up a peach suede shoe. A handsome, dark-haired clerk stood nearby but offered no help. Probably he was thinking she could not afford even the one shoe. He gave her a sharp look. She put the shoe down and moved on, but when Sandra came to it, he gestured, inviting her to pick it up.

“Prego,” he said, without smiling.

Sandra responded to his invitation and handsome face with one of her rare smiles, picking up the shoe her mother had put down. She reached past him to get it, brushing his arm. He didn’t step back but leaned in and picked up the other shoe.
“This one would suit you, with your pale skin.” He smiled his brilliant smile, one that said he knew exactly how handsome he was.

“Grazie per il complimento,” Sandra said. “Si deve vendere un sacco di scarpe.”

The clerk, to whom she had just said he must sell a lot of shoes, laughed. “Your Italian is very good,” he said.

Sandra moved on, carrying the shoe. She put it down in another row and he followed, looking at her as if now seeing something he had missed before. Sandra and Kathleen browsed their way through the store before Sandra agreed to try on a pair of olive pumps. The young clerk fitted them on her narrow feet, looking up at her and pushing them on with a slowness that annoyed Norman as Sandra smiled down at him. Then she nodded, got up, letting Norman pay.

As they emerged from the store, Norman said, “Let’s stick together and hurry. We have to be careful, there are thieves just waiting.”

“Norman, I’m a travel agent. You think I don’t know all this? You think I’m not the one who told you all this?” Kathleen said.

Norman refrained from reminding her that she hadn’t worked as one for twenty years. He just said, “I wish you hadn’t worn a backpack today.”

But she and Sandra lagged behind, and finally Norman, pushed beyond his patience, sprinted ahead. He knew they’d catch up at the big corner. He had to walk off his irritation, giving him momentary relief in swift motion. But at the corner, he turned back and couldn’t see them, even though he had only gone half a block. He stood there, dancing anxiously in frustration. Finally they emerged from a small street they obviously had ducked into, lured by another shop.

He walked back toward them, faster now, angry. Before he reached them, he saw the ragged-haired woman in a long green skirt rush up behind Kathleen. She had a blue shawl wrapped around her hips, as if she were in costume, and she pulled a small boy in a bright yellow shirt by the hand. He was too far away to be heard shouting. The woman cut the straps of Kathleen’s backpack and at the same time, the little boy got the wallet out of Sandra’s purse. Norman waved at them as the gypsies ran. Kathleen and Sandra had not yet felt the theft.

The gypsies were quick, dodging around tourists who didn’t even seem to feel them brushing by, as if they were made of fairy silk. He watched in surprise, running himself, as they navigated the crowds at what seemed unearthly speed. By the time he caught up to Kathleen and Sandra, they had discovered the loss. Kathleen’s cheeks were bright pink. She and Sandra were looking around, having no idea in which direction the gypsies had gone.

“They came up behind you,” he said, out of breath.

“Get them!” Kathleen shouted.

Norman ran past, his chubby frame agile enough to dodge slow-moving tourists. A sprinter in college, he could keep them in view, but every second it became clearer that the young woman, even in her long skirts and pulling the boy, was too fast. She seemed to float. They dashed into a side street and he put on his last speed burst, reaching the street and looking down the length of it, seeing no sign. He trotted along, looking into shop windows. Not a sign, amazed at their vanishing. Sandra had made him read a website about Rome’s professional thieves and how they wouldn’t snatch a purse without an escape route, but their speed seemed supernatural. Someone must have been waiting to open a door for them.

He bent over, panting, hands on his thighs. What was Kathleen thinking, wearing a backpack? And what was he thinking, not to have insisted they go straight back with the cash. He hoped it wasn’t much. He wanted to greet his club members with exciting prospects, and not just problems.

Norman shook his head as he breathlessly approached the girls. He could hardly explain to them how quickly the gypsies had vanished. All he could do was shrug and tell them it was as if they had been heading for a house nearby and got in so fast he couldn’t even spot where they had turned.

They walked silently back to the hotel.