The Renaissance Club - excerpt

I've been talking for months now about the novel I'm working on, the one set in Italy. I thought I better produce some evidence, if only to show that I'm not making it up. Well, I am making up the novel, just not the story about writing it. So here goes. A short synopsis and a little taste.


A month-long art history tour of Italy promises its organizer, middle-aged professor Norman Wesley, a new life of freedom from his messed-up marriage and deadening career. His fellow colleagues at Mount Antioch Community College, The Renaissance Club, wander through Italy with him, following broken loves and unsatisfied desires. Enter some down-to-earth saints come alive from their sculptures and paintings, and four couples find the marital deck shuffled and art and love proved to be chameleons. Their enigmatic tour guide, George St. James, keeps losing his gold cigarette lighter, which, passing through many hands, kindles surprising transformations.


At eight o’clock that night, nine tired Renaissance Club travelers stood in line at the concierge desk of the Grand Hotel. The eighteenth century grandeur of the lobby was filled with a crush of Italians in jewel-bright cocktail dresses and dark suits shouting at each other across the dark green and gilt expanse of a vast room. The club members stood in line to get their room keys, feeling dowdy and wrinkled after a twenty-three-hour trip as they slowly edged toward the desk. The vaulted, chandeliered space was filled with chattering, smoking Italians that seemed to be in a Fellini film, herded together into small groups by an energetic, tiny woman in a pouf of green taffeta and feathered hat. A man in an olive green suit jostled past them pulling along a woman in a strapless green dress. Green, oddly, was the dress code.

The travelers quickly unpacked and found their way back to their private dining room where Norman, Kathleen, and Sandra waited for them at a long table decorated with large silver pedestal fruit bowls and tall silver candelabras that glinted against dark green walls, making them feel they were seated in a jewel box.

Norman Wesley surveyed his club with satisfaction.

“It’s wonderful to begin our first happy dinner party in Italy,” he said. “I must make a few brief announcements. First, we’ve changed our plan. We’re staying in Rome’s best hotel because we got a discount.

Eva Manookian, the art instructor, looked sharply at him and said, “Norman, how much of a discount?”

“Let’s say it’s a grander hotel at exactly the same price as the one we were booked into.”

Waiters served the table gnocchi and, exhausted and hungry, they all began eating with such concentration that few even looked up as Norman said, “I must announce that we’re having a sort of imbroglio. A bit of crisis.”

No one was listening. He always had trouble commanding attention when he chaired Mount Antioch College meetings, so he tapped his water glass with a knife.

Little response. In all the meetings he’d ever chaired, he had never tapped such a knife against such a glass: real silver on real crystal. He tapped again, then raised the knife to again tap, but Kathleen put her hand on his sleeve and tugged. As the dining room grew completely quiet she said,

“Jesus H. Christ, Norman! Spit it out.”

He looked down at her, surprised. His spouse looked like an agitated sunset in her coral suit and pink face.

“I have to call it a crisis,” he said, “because the shortage of funds will revise our plans, but of course hidden inside every crisis is an opportunity. Essentially—”

“Shortage of funds?” someone said.

“Why are we short, Norman?” Eva asked.

But abruptly, Norman burst out coughing and couldn’t go on.

Eva said, “Kathleen, can you translate for him?”

Norman waved at Kathleen, drank some water, opened his mouth and looked at his fellow travelers. He felt as if he had never seen any of them, though they had been meeting for more than a year to study the Renaissance.

Rick Waller, the IT instructor, now stood up, letting his lanky height emphasize his assumption of leadership. He often challenged him when Norman waffled.

“Just tell us what the hell happened. What do you mean, shortage of funds? We have a right to know.”

Rick’s wife, Marianna, looked at Norman and nodded. With her wavy long dark hair and large serene eyes, Marianna was always the most beautiful woman in any room she entered. Now she looked at Norman, flashing at him the force of her displeased beauty, which Norman felt as a douse of chilly water.

“Why are we suddenly short of funds, Norman?”

Sandra reached up and touched his arm.

“Dad, tell them about the gypsies,” she said, and fixed her pale eyes on her father in the way that young women thought meaningful. He brushed her hand away. pulled it back and began typing on her phone.

Rick sat down and also pulled out his phone and began typing. A few others looked down at their phones, so as to avoid the awkwardness.

But Norman had two dilemmas to reveal, and he chose the first one. “Several turns of event have unsettled our plans somewhat. Our esteemed guide Massimo, the Renaissance expert we hired to escort us throughout Northern Italy, has . . . well—”

“He’s lying in a hospital,” said Kathleen. “Apparently, having to escort American teachers around Italy gave the Pope’s tour guide a heart attack.”

They all looked at Kathleen, who frowned back.

Eva said, “I’m sure we can just pick up a guide specializing in the humanistic philosophy of the Renaissance. Let’s just step out onto the sidewalk and hail one. Oh, Guide, oh Renaissance Guide! Hello?!”

“I know someone who might help us,” Jacob Ismail said.

Jacob had been teaching at Mount Antioch for only a few years. Norman treasured his suave middle eastern good manners and his ability to create harmony. Perhaps because he refused to join departmental political brawls, most club members considered Jacob an outsider. Norman had no idea how to go about finding a replacement guide qualified to conduct a Renaissance art history tour, but Jacob had lived in Rome and specialized in Medieval-Renaissance Studies. Norman silently prayed that he could pull off a quick miracle.

“Yes, but what does he cost?” Eva said.

Jacob said, “The man I have in mind taught at Oxford. He lives here part of the time. George might do it just for free, for the fun of escorting such a well-prepared group.”

Eva found no way to complain about a free guide. Shaking back tawny bangs from droopy seventy-year-old eyes, she said, “I’ve said all along we should guide ourselves. We’ve studied the Renaissance. I teach art and Darren teaches history. Why do we need a paid guide?”

She was too tired to completely glare at Norman, but with what little eyelid power left to her, she tried.

“Eva, we’ve discussed this,” Norman said. “Italy has strict regulations about guides.”

“If you’re worried about silly regulations,” she retorted, “let’s just pretend we’re talking among ourselves. What are they going to do, arrest a bunch of Americans willing to spend money in their country?”

Eva hadn’t wanted to come on this tour, but did because of her husband Art’s interest. She liked to bicker with her husband—they often referred to themselves as The Bickersons—but she rarely denied him anything. She figured anyone who would put up for twenty-five years wit her temper was worth keeping.

Norman said quietly. “Eva, my job is to steer us clear of problems. We can’t add breaking Italian laws to the ones we already have.”

“What are our problems, Norman?” Rick said. “What happened with our money?”
Norman, besieged, confessed. “The gypsies hit us on the Via Condotti. We were carrying some group funds, they got it all, and now we’re a little short.”

“Exactly how short?” Rick persisted, his voice rising in annoyance at the way Norman was drawing it out.

He was about to go on when Marianna gestured to him to pick up her tote bag and get something out of it. This totally undermined his stance. He reached down and hauled the pink suede bag into his lap, put his hand in and searched through its contents, then pulled out a mirror and lipstick and handed them to his wife with a disgusted expression.

Norman, given a moment to gather himself, summarized.

“Number one: We lost our guide. Number two: We lost some money. Number three: We need to find another certified guide and address how to deal with the shortfall. It’s simply a matter for decision-making. I know you’re all tired, but surely we can manage that tonight.”

Marianna merely shook her head sadly. It affected everyone like the simultaneous snuffing of a hundred candles.

Rick said, “Give us the amount we’re short, Norman.”

Still Norman hesitated. Kathleen’s complexion was moving beyond cotton candy pink to bright orange, an interesting combination with her blonde hair. Sandra looked up and opened her mouth just as Kathleen boiled over.

“Norman, just fucking tell them!”

Sandra smiled.

Rising, Kathleen said, “Here’s the situation. I changed some of the club’s funds into lire to get a good rate and before we could get back to the hotel to put it in the safe, a gypsy cut off my purse and ran. Unfortunately, Norman wasn’t fast enough to catch her. We lost about six thousand dollars.”

“What the hell, Kathleen,” Rick said, frowning deeply. His thick dark eyebrows loomed over his thin face. “You lost our cash—now it’s yours to replace.”
The group was suddenly, chaotically noisy.

Rick said, “Let Norman find us a new guide. This trip was his idea.”

Rick spent most of his time assigning code and logic to an illogical world. He was satisfied that he had solved their problems and assigned responsibility in two sentences.

“A theft isn’t my fault!” Kathleen shouted. “We don’t have that kind of money with us. Besides, we all agreed to share responsibility on this trip.”

She didn’t mention that they had used up all their credit, raided their savings, and used some of their own funds to pay extra so the group could stay in Rome’s best hotel. The more she thought about it, the more the whole thing seemed like Norman’s fault.

“Our money was your responsibility when we handed it over,” Rick persisted.

“That must seem to you like the easy solution,” she said, “but Norman and I don’t have enough, even if we wanted to.”

“Are you just crazy?” Rick said, as always using unrelenting offense to win. “Why did you turn our funds into cash and then walk around Rome?”

“What do you know about Rome? You can’t just dash across town.”

Rick stared at her and said, “How can you even be arguing about this?”

“I don’t see that we should be responsible for an accident,” Kathleen retorted. “We said we would all share responsibility whatever happened.”

“Flagrant carelessness isn’t an accident.”

Kathleen repeated, “We said we’d share responsibility.”

Norman hurried to add, “She’s right, we can take care of this as a club. We’re on an adventure, aren’t we?”

But no one in the room believed this was part of an adventurer, or for that matter took Norman seriously as an adventurer.