After June, they all became Johnny's boys. The trains ran on time as always, the house's wallpaper and utensils remained used and cleaned, and even the gardener who was forever late by five minutes to his shift kept arriving five minutes late. Everything was the same except for Johnny.
Johnny was a Sicilian suspiciously named Vargas. He was in his late-thirties; slightly bearded. Over six feet tall, he was muscularly lean and to the point. His shoes had to be specifically tailored and he wore spats ever since he saw them in a thirties picture starring James Cagney. The habit of flipping a coin in his right hand also came from one gangster picture or another; he chose his models with great care and implored his boys to do the same.
"His suit, you ever seen it? It looks normal from the outside, kind of worn and very last season but supposedly he had it made in Hong Kong. The pocket's got these series of locks and it's all very complicated so no one can ever steal whatever's inside of it. He let me wear it once."
"What was it like?"
"I'll show you." It was three o' clock on a Sunday afternoon in August. Antonio led the boy up three flights of stairs and they stopped at a door. Antonio took out a hair pin—"Never mind where I got it"—straightened it out, and slid it in. Johnny's room was a clean mess which doesn't say much but there is no other way to say it. Next to the window, the closet was an antique armoire (Morocco, 1930). Antonio opened it and slipped the coat off its hanger.
The boy tried it on. He was three years younger than Antonio. He was from Palermo. He grunted his approval. "It's soft."
"That's true. Let's leave before one of the others finds out."
Antonio kept his room at the end of the hallway on the second floor. The boy followed him back and once they were inside, he noticed that Antonio was still standing by the door. "You're very kind," he said.
"What do you want from me? Money?"
"Please don't worry. I don't ask for anything, except perhaps friendship. Don't think so much and you'll be okay. That sounds awful. Do you know? What's your name?"
"Romano." Antonio knew it was a false name. Everyone had one. He was the oldest in the house and had been naturally delegated to certain duties: keeping the boys in line, making sure no one took more than his share of the daily bread, writing down the weekly numbers.
"That's a nice name."
"Come on. I will show you around. Has someone taken you out?" They dressed and left the house. "We always go to the train station. All the houses have their marked territories and they get upset when you cross the line. It's not marked or anything you just get used to it. Since the fifteen weeks and two days Johnny has been here our territory has increased. That's a good thing. We'll take the cable car so I can show you the route and you will remember."
"What happened to the previous man?"
"He died of gun wounds," said Antonio. "Over a girl."
"She had a rich father."
"And she was legitimate."
"The daughter of the late Countess Renata. Do you know them?"
The boy shrugged. "Maybe."
"So Johnny stepped in. He was a friend of a friend. Very good friends; well-trusted. All of that. I don't think you can apply, like you would for a normal job."
"Do you have a girl?"
"What do you think?" said Antonio.
"Well, here we are." The cars had been in slow order from the construction and they had to switch lines three times just to reach the central station. It was just as well. Antonio looked at people and recognized a girl. She seemed familiar, with her back turned to his. She was wearing black slacks but her glasses covered half her face so he could not really tell. It might have been someone else. He panicked and chain-smoked Chesterfields to get rid of the feeling. About an hour passed before he realized Romano had disappeared. At nine he took the second to last cable car across the bridge, through the trees and low streets and back to Milan.
Monday was quiet. Romano knocked on his door at eight to say: "Gilbert wants you."
"How would I know? Maybe he's in love with you."
"Gilbert is in love with himself. Help me up."
Taking the steps two at a time he found Gilbert sitting in the kitchen looking particularly forlorn with his expressive face. Antonio often said if he had been born in the right decade he might've been a silent film star. He certainly had the eyebrows and the constant brooding look down on lock. Given the other correct conditions, he might've been an Armani model. He was unique enough. He had one leg crossed over the other; a cup of hot water (he did not like caffeine) sat on the table.
"What happened? Did you mix up your numbers again?"
"Poor you who has to rely on the same tricks every morning. Not this early for Chrissake. No, it's not that I mixed them up. Some fucker took them and I bet he was an informer."
"So what? All the informers like you. One cannot ruin everything. Give him a nice gift and he will forgive you."
"You don't understand. I think he is on the payroll of the policia."
"What makes you say that?"
"He had a badge, dumbass. I checked his wallet when he went to the restroom. You know I do that." Gilbert clutched at his heart. "You have to help me. Vouch for my integrity, my honesty, my outstanding character. Anything."
"I don't know. That all sounds kind of spotty and today is my day off."
"What! You're going to go see that girl again."
"I'm not. I'm—"
"Look at your face. You can't lie at all. Bloody awful bastard. Has an English girl and won't introduce her to anyone. Keeps her for himself."
"Had an Englishman lately?"
Gilbert frowned. "I picked the lingo up myself."
"Um," said Antonio. "I'm sorry Gilbert. I will bring back grappa for you."
"Tonight? A whole bottle? A good bottle?"
"Don't know yet."
"I hate that you never know the important things, bloody bastard Anton. Come back and we'll drink a happy grappa with the new boy. Teach him everything. Did you hear about yesterday?"
"I took him there."
"My God. He's beautiful. Where did Johnny find him?"
"In a garbage can outside the American hotel."
"You make the dumbest jokes. The longer you are away the more I'll love him instead of you. I bet he tells jokes better than you."
Antonio smiled and kissed his friend on both cheeks. "I'm okay with that. Be happy?"
"Silly awful drunk," said Gilbert, finishing his water. "Someone is coming over in twenty minutes. Get away you. I don't want you here okay let me work in peace and quiet."
He crossed the street and walked down the boulevard until he reached a small store whose owner he was good friends with. He emerged with a brown package and he ran the rest of the way. The apartment complex was near the Arabic embassy; two soldiers and an armored car guarded it. Then, swinging the package under his arm he reached for the ladder to the side and began climbing. Twice he almost swung onto the wrong balcony. She lived on the fifth floor and kept a pair of blue sandals out for him.
Alice was watching German television when he stepped in. "God!" she said, "you nearly scared me to death. Why can't you ever take the front door like normal boys?"
"I'm used to it," and he held up the package. "It's a fine grappa. So exquisite it will set me back three weeks."
"Oh you shouldn't have. Look, I know how our last attempt to cook turned out so this time I bought take-away. Smart, huh. There's a nice Japanese restaurant owned by Chinese girls nearby and I always go there."
"We could eat there."
"But it's nice here. Anyway they think I live alone."
"But you do—oh I see." He kissed her on the forehead and he could feel her smile. He had missed her. And Gilbert was jealous of the English girl. He kissed her again, touching the sides of her face and closing his eyes so tightly his head got light. He had really missed her, the soft scent of her room, the awful lighting in the kitchen, the gentle touch of her long skinny fingers.
"My cuticles," said Alice suddenly. "Do you remember what you used to say about them?"
"I'm not sure. I just remember I liked them. Is that funny?"
"That's really funny. Who first notices the cuticles on a person? Well, I like your eyelashes. And you have such a pretty upper lip. I know girls who would kill for your lip. A lip like that is wasted on a boy, my mother would say. It's too bad you won't let me put lipstick on you. You could make an awful pretty girl. Fuck, where's my light?"
Alice came from an upper-class English family. She didn't like to talk about them much unless she was stewed and even then the information was so selectively revealed Antonio grew bored after the second time and didn't care to ask ever again. Also there was a fiancé, of whom Antonio knew nothing about, only that he was French and a graduate student of Anthropology.
She called him "my favorite enemy." The kind of enemy whom you wouldn't mind hearing from after spending five months apart or have afternoon tea with. Before moving to Milan, she only saw him at hotels near the Thames River and they drank and slept together for fun before it happened. They started out as drinking buddies. Her parents did not like him; he had no steady source of income and it would take approximately ten to fifteen years before he made tenure at any respectable institution.
Even his field of study, Anthropology, received much derision. It was all a great mess and they loved each other so much they could not stand being together for long. They trusted heavily and questioned nothing—then raged at the other for not being transparent and keeping secrets. When Alice edged him into commenting on the state of their relationship, Antonio managed: "Abusive. Wonderful."
Currently she hated him. The origin of this hatred was that Francis (that was the fiancé's name) wanted for (a) them to get married and (b) Alice to quit school.
The next four hours were spent drinking the grappa, eating the sushi rice and raw fish separately with bare hands, and lying on the outside balcony. "What I like here is there is nothing I must do," he said. "I feel nothing of the dirt outside. I almost feel new and clean and I have the weight of my shoulders brought off. I am no Atlas but then again I didn't try very hard."
"That's like saying I'm a weekend fling? Thanks a lot." She laughed.
"Of course not. You don't know how much I'm in love with you."
"Yes. Marry me."
"I'm getting married next November."
"You never mentioned that before."
"I didn't? I thought I did. OK. After Francis told me he wanted us to marry and for me to quit school, I did just that, but not because he told me to. I'd had my own misgivings about it and I figured I needed a break before going back. I don't want to marry now but we've been together for so long he tells me we're as good as married. A piece of paper doesn't mean much. What do you think?"
"Does that make this an extramarital affair?"
"If you want."
"What did you study?"
"Psychology," she said. "I can get in your head. That's what I learned to do every day. I'm going to destroy you and leave you and go back to England."
"I don't mind so much your destroying me but please don't go back. Let's get married in Switzerland and have children here, in Milan. They will go to the right schools and make friends and do the winter sport and when it comes time they will go to a good university in America."
"I don't speak Italian very well. My German is even worse."
"I don't know any German at all. Maybe we can get married in Spain. I'll show you all of the Iberian Peninsula and you'll wonder why you stayed in England for as long as you did."
"Is that where you're from?"
"Is it pretty there?"
"I'll have to think about it." She slid off the bed and walked through the apartment with no knickers on. Her glasses were on the nightstand and her sight was bad enough that she had to hold one hand to the wall.
"Go to the right," he told her.
"Thank you. I'm getting my medicine from the cupboard. All right, I'll tell you. It's my birth control. I don't want babies but Francis wants them. He wants two girls and two boys—what a joke. I can't stand him."
"You might end up with three girls and then one boy. What happens then?"
"Dunno, maybe he'll divorce me and spare us the pain."
"Yes, truly. I'll be devastated. I'll lose my home; my three daughters and my one son."
"You'll need a place to stay."
"I have friends, you know. I even have a friend in Milan."
"Am I your friend in Milan?"
She dabbed her cigarette in the ashtray. "By the way, you still haven't told me what you do."
"For a living?"
"That's what it means, usually."
"I loaf, I guess. I sit around and wait for myself to come around."
"I write down numbers."
"Do some groceries. Fix the bathroom."
"So you're like a handyman."
"I don't know how to say it."
"You don't have to say it. Describe it."
He did not want to. She said: "It must be something perfectly terrible. Tell me everything."
"Not terrible. No. I just don't know how to say it. Not in English."
"Say it in Spanish."
He did, but she understood none of it.
"Either way, I think you have splendid English. And you speak a lovely Spanish."
"You're brilliant. But I keep thinking you're too nice for me."
"I love you."
And on it went, back and forth with no real conclusion. Antonio liked, partially, that she never said she was in love with him. He knew she was—it seemed presumptuous to think that way when she never gave him any verbal affirmation but he knew she was. She gave him nothing except for love and good wine. He never had to ask her to say that she loved him like the way some people would ask it of him. "I don't love you," he wanted to say, "don't you know what it means?" But that wasn't the point. Although Antonio sometimes acted a bit dumb in the head he knew his numbers well and he knew that love did not come at one hundred and fifty Euros an hour, rather it came at the price of the stars and the Milky Way and Andromeda comet snowstorms and the Big Bang Theory all added up together because with great current times resistance squared comes great responsibility and there is nothing worse, really, than forgetting the Haverford cheese that is on sale at the market on Wednesday starting at ten in the morning because it is necessary for young Theo and Isabelle's seventh birthday party.
Haverford cheese is their absolute favorite.
Then he tried to think of what his grandfather had once said about war but the stories he remembered were out of sequence. They started at the armistice and people kept dying and there was no end to it. He took a drink and calmed down a little. Alice took him in her arms. Antonio suddenly thought of his Tuesday three o' clock.
"What happens next?"
"I return to England in three weeks. Francis picks me up at the airport. We go to his apartment near the university. We close the door behind us."
"I really do wish you'd marry me."
"Why? So you can make an honest woman out of me?"
"Out of me."
Antonio returned to the house at two in the morning. Gilbert was not up to meet him, but Romano was.
"I missed you terribly," he said.
"Fucking asshole," Romano said, "I heard about the girl."
"There was no female. I went walking."
"I heard about that too."
"How was your yesterday?"
"It was fine."
"Where did you go?"
"This place behind the station." He described it and Antonio knew what he was talking about. "I was not nervous. Really, I wasn't. Gilbert called me a liar and I called him a pigass of a motherfucker."
"It's all right, that's Gilbert's way of saying you're okay. He does not know how to express affection, only tease. What was he like?"
"She had big dark glasses and an overcoat."
"What color were her pants?"
"Um. Black? I don't really remember."
"But older than you."
"Did she ask you to say anything?"
"Should she have?"
"Some people do. You never know."
"She didn't. It went very cleanly and she kept her glasses on. I think she'd just left her husband; I don't ask."
"Don't need to."
Antonio was standing at the bottom of the steps and Romano was at the top. They went inside to the kitchen. The dishes in the sink were still wet and Romano said Feliciano had washed them before turning in. Feliciano had had a bad day. The living room lights were off and Antonio flicked the switch on. He sat down on the worn out sofa and Romano sat next to him.
"Can I ask you for a favor?"
"Turn your head—there, tilt it up a little. Stay like that." He placed his lips on the boy's and they stayed like that. Then he kissed him deeper and with even greater sincerity. They could have been lovers, or perhaps friends. He could feel the boy relenting, allowing him more room and they were lying on top of each other the way he and Alice had laid together that afternoon.
You idiot, he thought, why are you trying to compare this boy to an English girl. The only thing they have in common is that you'll never have either so take whatever you can, be how ever selfish you want nobody is stopping you and certainly this boy is nervous though he won't ever stop at anything. He cannot afford to.
Antonio's eyes were closed and he wondered what he was trying to do but the buzzing sound in his head would not go away and he had no more Chesterfields. It was a shame. He could've offered something to the boy. Romano did not flinch and afterward he did not use the back of his hand to wipe his mouth.
"You're a good kid, Romano. Who told you about all those things about me: Gilbert? Marcello?"
"Gilbert. You know, he was going to wait for you but today Johnny came back early and yelled at him about the informant mess. Nobody knows if it's true or not; it's just a giant risk. I-it wasn't good. Gilbert was shouting and if you had been here, it probably would have been better."
"Where is he now?"
"Up," he said.
"I mean. Up. Hear that? Do you know?"
He shook his head.
"That's really too bad," Antonio said, "I don't know what to say. Thank you for waiting. Thank you for telling me. My head hurts and there is no more grappa."