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by Phyllis Carol Agins
Ten days alone in Italy. He ends his trip each year in crazy Naples, where people are in love with their city even if his own ancestors had run from there in the 1800s. Generations now spread all over an America that had been good to them. If you could forget the decades of discrimination and epithets like Ay-talian and worse, with comics making fun of a language that sang its words and ended in vowels. But in America, they’d flourished.
Before it gets dark, he stops at a supermarket on the outskirts of Naples with plans to fill the fridge and maybe buy some beer. As soon as he leaves with his full cart, a man appears from the shadows. About forty, Frank calculates, and desperate enough to hop on a raft and paddle across the Mediterranean to the closest island off Greece or Italy. To beg money from people who, in their European comfort, might offer a coin to someone with skin like dark velvet.
The man speaks in Italian, then tries to push the cart the few feet to the camper.
“Not necessary,” Frank says. “Here, take this.” He thrusts a five-euro bill into the man’s hand.
In an instant, the man’s face brightens. “Grazie, grazie,” he calls with hand pressed to his heart. “Le dieu vous bénisse,” he says in French.
On this drive he’s seen so many, gathered by church doors, or kneeling on cardboard under bridges to face east and pray. Immigrants—a dirty word. Today Hispanic, Middle Eastern, and African—the faces darker than his family’s had been. Fleeing war and starvation, and not just fields that yielded only stones or rotten potatoes. And because Frank believes in a cosmic mix of great spinning wheels, he gives his money freely. As if insuring that good luck will continue for his four kids and grandson—and who knows how many more to come. He is soft for them all.
Frank catches the word for God and touches his chest as well before driving off. The man waves furiously in the rearview mirror.
That gratitude follows him through Naples’ poor neighborhoods, where worn buildings lean together, to the area above the city, where hospitals, museums, and greenery break up the piles of dirt and garbage. Never has he seen it so hot here; the future already foretold when rivers will dry in years and not in centuries, and famine and wars will follow the parched lands. Europe thinks it has problems now? Frank considers what will come. Just wait till the southern hemispheres empty, and Siberia becomes the next Florida. But the Neapolitans have never worried, he knows, not even with Vesuvius rising daily above them and the ruins of Pompeii just a corner away. They easily ignore the supervolcano below, turning from the sulfur jets the ancients believed marked the entrance of Hades. So why would they worry about the coming cascade of refugees?
It’s almost night, but he easily follows the GPS to a lot for campers. At the corner, just a few blocks from the lot, another migrant waits for the light to change. He has stolen a trick from the Zingari, the Gypsies, who linger all over Europe’s warmer cities. In one hand he holds a bottle of soapy water. In the other, a squeegee to wipe off the soap. With each dismissive wave, with each car that speeds by, his smile flattens. The temperature is easily a hundred, the trees doing little to cut the heat. Frank quickly reaches into the pocket of change he keeps for tolls and waves to call the man over, even as he hears his wife chiding, Don’t be such a fool.
“Take it.” Frank pours the coins into the man’s cupped hands—the squeegee and bottle now on the ground.
The man pockets the change and then soaps up Frank’s windshield. Determined to earn those coins, he walks around the truck, soaping all the windows, before he puts the squeegee to work.
“No, no,” Frank calls. “I must go.”
Other drivers on this busy road beep in their Neapolitan fashion. It’s just too hot to linger like this, engines pumping air-conditioning into those closed spaces, or the heat delivered through open windows. In his mirror, Frank can see drivers unlocking their car doors, getting out. In front of him a group of migrants leave the shadows of plane trees. To help their friend or to soap up the blocked cars? He wants to stop whatever he has started. Needs to move the offending RV, to release the cars, to break the two groups of men meeting in the middle of this road.
The light has changed red to green three times, and still the man works diligently on the camper’s twelve windows. Frank runs the wipers. The soapy water lands on the cars next to him, on the drivers who stand on the street by the truck, demanding that he move.
“My friend,” he tells the migrant, “you did a fine job. I will go now.”
Soap smudges the front window, but with the wipers on, he can see.
He hears his wife’s rebuke. Do you see what you’ve done with your impossible kindness?
It’s finally dark when he turns in to the lot which could never be called a real campsite. There are no trees to shade a camper, no lines or shrubs to mark a man’s territory. There’s only a small row of already parked RVs, all dark with shades drawn against the impossible heat. He’s calmer now, away from the traffic and the corner where violence floated on the currents of heat. He hopes the smell of garbage won’t enter his open windows.
Tonight he can manage only his need for fresh water. He has to drive a circuit of plastic chains to get there, but no matter. In a half hour, he’ll sleep through the heat with a tank of cool water ready for his morning shower. He pulls over to the service area. Gets out of the truck and goes to lift the chain so he can fill up.
“Basta! Basta!” A loud and rough voice announces the dark-skinned man who rushes toward the truck.
Did one of the migrants follow him here? “No more money,” Frank calls out. Surely the man will leave now.
But the man doesn’t stop talking—his words are all vowels and twisted sounds that roll in his mouth like marbles. And then are spit at the truck along with the saliva he deposits at Frank’s feet. His hands circle over his head, then hold up a dirty cardboard tag hanging from his neck.
“I’ve been driving all day,” Frank tries. “I just want to park.”
But the man won’t back down. “Me, me,” he shouts, pointing at the hand-printed name.
Frank has met men like this before. In other countries, where someone appoints himself guardian of a corner, wears a cap, charges a fee, and allows you to park. A business all around the world for those who relish their only power in places where they have little.
“How do I know that’s real?” Frank points to the cardboard.
“Why you act like that?” the man demands. “You must listen what I say.”
“I’m tired,” Frank answers, surprised by the irritation rising in his throat. For a moment he thinks to run inside and lock the doors against the man’s fury. He looks around. It’s after nine. The lot is empty. His phone with the easy dial emergency numbers lies next to his bed.
“I need rest and I need water.” He tries for calm.
The man thinks for a moment and finally lifts the chain. He allows Frank only enough time to fill the tank. “Now follow,” the man says. “Come.”
Frank pulls the RV in gear, tries to turn around some invisible barrier, reverses, and rolls over a curb that tilts the truck to its side. It bumps into something that yields and falls, breaking the silence. Sweat drips into his eyes.
The man yells again, “You need hear!” He holds tightly to the passenger door, as if pulling Frank along, forcing him to follow. “Or you leave.” He points to the street.
Something breaks as fury replaces kindness. Later Frank will bury it with excuses—the heat, the driving, the constant sounding horns, the angry men on the corner. But now he wants only to break the man’s hold. To pierce the skin of that hand. With anything—a nail, a scissors, his teeth.
“Call the police,” he challenges the man. “Police, police!” he roars to the empty parking lot.
“Politzia, okay,” the man answers. But he doesn’t go for his phone or move his hand from the door.
Frank swallows hard, forcing back the anger. Stupid Europeans, he thinks. Opening the country to make up for their 1940s sins.
The man points to the spot he wants Frank to take. “Politzia know legal,” he calls loudly to the night.
But he lifts another chain for Frank, guides the truck into the slot, and helps to hook up the electricity. Finally he walks away as Frank pulls down the blinds and falls onto his bed. Forgets to check his email for tomorrow’s appointments, forgets to call his wife. He breathes slowly, trying to quiet himself, and turns to sleep with the man’s wide eyes accusing behind his own.
He’s calmer in the morning because the man has disappeared. Just like I thought, he decides. Looking for money. On the phone his wife is suspicious. I know you’re not telling me something, her voice smooth and knowing.
Yet, even walking around the city for an hour, Naples’ energy has failed to charm him. Usually, he’s inspired here, packing ideas along with his soiled clothing to take home. He passes the granita stands on every corner; the plastic lemon garlands announcing the lemon ice that tourists love. He thinks, Maybe buy a few carts…good for those weddings where someone wants to conjure Italy. But the idea slips away.
Over coffee, he finally understands what sits in the middle of his chest, heavy and acid. Who had he become last night? Like everyone else, he knows. As bad as the crowd that waves angry fists at any stranger. At the interloper who enters their narrow world. He is no better than the rest. He cups the change in his pocket—ready to offer to the migrants he finds. But the people hovering in front of the churches just stare at him as he passes by. As though they know he’s a fraud.
It’s night by the time he reaches the lot. He’s had a long dinner, and two-thirds a bottle of wine that his wife would never let him consume at home. Usually he’d talk to the strangers next to him and laugh his way through his solitary meal. But tonight, he’s filled with self-pity as he makes his way back. At a dark corner, he stops to vomit. He’s weaving a little, but there’s no one there to see him. No way to ruin the reputation he’s guarded through the years the way his wife has tended her garden.
At the top of the hill, he sees the camper against the fence. Battery-powered lights are aimed at it like a SWAT team has arrived. The thoughts come: That man called the police to get even. Are they looking for drugs?
He runs the short distance, his heart jacking violently. If it’s damaged… He calculates the cost to replace the vehicle. Water sloshes across his sandals. On fire? Did that man light a match? Almost there…when a hose is aimed directly at his chest, and he slides to his back.
“Scusi,” the man calls out. The dark arms are around Frank’s shoulders, lifting him up. “Scusi, signore.” The words roll out.
“Get away from me!” Franks insists, breathless.
“Last night, tonight, scusi,” the man answers, his arms at his sides. “I make sorry.”
Frank now sees the bucket of soapy water, the brushes. The hose leaks water on the ground while the man pats his back. He is freshly shaved. Wearing worn but clean clothing. His hands calloused but his nails trimmed. His eyes filled with regret.
Frank goes inside to the fridge and takes out two beers. They lean together against the washed truck and drink.
“Long trip in raft,” the man says. “Days. Nights like this. Many stars on water.” He stares at the sky. “All time I use hands. Make to beach. Police see I good man.”
Frank hears his great-grandfather’s stories of Ellis Island, passed through the family like heirloom silver. Heads under kerchiefs or caps. Sacks, suitcases, a box tied with string, transporting what was left of the worn life into the new.
“America,” the man says, “here, there—same stars, same moon. That Mars.” He points to the planet, bleeding red in the sky above them. “Now here, home.”
Frank remembers his business, his flight back, his grandson. He imagines the planet shining indiscriminately above Philadelphia. He remembers all the migrants he has seen, all praying east. Then on the street corners. Begging for food. For coins. What did they dream?
For the same. His people, all the others, pressing toward safety.
“Enough this,” the man says, gesturing with wide hands to include the lot, the camper behind them, the beer, the shared moment, the sky.
The night crickets play in the surrounding bushes. A television flickers in a dark room. Somewhere piano notes flow through an open window.
“Yes.” Frank forgives himself at last. “Enough.”
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