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THE  MAN  FROM  VENICE

 

                                                      Barbara Lefcowitz

      

            “But I’m not Jewish,” Bernice said. 

            “It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters when it’s time for Carnival in Venice.  A crescendo of pleasure at its highest--how you say?--climate peak,” said the Man from Venice, who a moment before had revealed that his real name was Zoltan.

            “I think you mean climax. “

            ”Thank you, Signora.   I am always so grateful to improve my English.”

             Then right in front of the potted lemon tree in the dining room of Rome’s Hotel Marconi, Zoltan, a man  with luminous eyes and thick but somehow graceful shoulders, reached across the tree and raised Bernice’s right hand to his lips,  kissing the back of her palm. Close to the finger that still wore her wedding band from Arthur. 

            Too bad the rest of her tour group had already left.  Especially her roommate Louise Evans, even  older than 60 year old Bernice, her wrinkles deeper and more numerous, her mousy gray hair a sharp contrast to Bernice’s flowing sunset red. And that snip from Boston who from day one of the tour made fun of Bernice’s clothes, her tie-dye tee-shirts and tight  jeans, triple strands of beads,  long glittery earrings.

            “ Pleasure,” he continued.  “Joy.  The same in our Jewish Carnival, the first ever unless you count Purim festival.   Pleasure but also learning.   Our carnival  play tells truth about Shylock.  Did you know he was a famous maker of glass eyes? “

            “Really?   And Shakespeare did not know that?”

            “Nobody knows everything, yes?”

            Zoltan spoke decent enough English with an accent Bernice could not quite place despite her years as a speech teacher back in Cleveland. Not exactly Italian.  Maybe German or Russian.   

But the name didn’t sound. . .Zoltan,  Zoltan. How exotic, how fascinating.  So continental. . .a magician’s name, yes. . .not like all those American Bobs and Jims. . .Zoltan.

            Allora.

            She reminded him her name was Bernice, pronouncing it the Italian way: Be-ren-  ee-chay.

            Allora.  Well--as you say in English.  Allora.  First we find you room at Venice hotel. Five-stars. Then we go to my shop.  I buy you pure silk gown and you will be my hostess.  Later, Signora Ber-nees-a, my partner will fit you for your masks and costume.  You will be wife of Shylock, yes?  Or maybe Queen Esther?  We make masks for both.  And  must not  forget the poetess Sara Coppio Sullam,  bravest Jewess in the ghetto.   Everything free as long as your heart desires to stay.”

             Yes, free.  Fit for a free spirit like Bernice.  At least that’s what the Man from Venice, referred to as such by tour group leader Angela, had labeled her earlier that night in Rome when he sat across the way in the Marconi’s dining room studying the body language of each man and woman in the group.   Charlie Swann he called a  “classical example” of a cranky old man who hated to travel; Charlie’s wife Sue laughed in agreement.  And Bernice’s roommate, Louise Evans, was the type who loved to arrange things, like parties and other people’s rooms.  Louise blushed, reached over to young Mark from LA  and straightened his tie.  Lynn from St. Louis was a “classical example” of the kind of woman who didn’t need a man.  And Cyndi, the Boston snip who was wearing a low-cut see-through blouse, couldn’t live without a pack of men.

             “Yup,” Lynn nodded. “On the button. “ 

            “What means this on the button? “ the Man asked. 

            “Oh,  it’s just some American slang, a little zip of an expression,”  Bernice said. The Man laughed.

             “You are a free spirit, my dear.  A  woman who does what she wants to do and doesn’t care about the opinions of others. Yes?”

 

            Right or not those were precisely the words she most craved to hear from others.   So when the Man from Venice later invited her to leave the tour group--he could tell she was bored silly by their chatter-- and come with him to the grandest city in all Italy,  all the world, how could she refuse?   Especially when he said she was the perfect woman to be his hostess, the star in his play about a free spirited woman of old Venice.  A Jewess.  How refuse?--even though the group had just visited Venice a few days before.

            “Ah, but I will show you a different Venice.  Not the postcard Venice.  No

San Marco, no Campanile, no Rialto. . .the real Venezia, Queen and Luminous Pearl of the Adriatic. Forget the Grand Canal, the fucking gondoliers singing ‘Santa Lucia’ and “O Solo Mio.’ All the gondoliers come from Chicago.  I bet you didn’t know that.  A free spirit like you appreciates such a chance, yes?  Allora. Wait for me in lobby after dinner.   I will not disappoint.”

              If she was indeed a free spirit,  Bernice reasoned she had to act like a free spirit as well. No point lugging everything she’d packed for the tour.  Slinging a few essentials into her backpack, the new one with the secret compartment, took less than a minute.  Then to slink past the rest of the group, lined up in the lobby for a headcount before proceeding to a lecture.

Damn. There was Louise and tour leader Angela.  How come Bernice did not want to go to the fine lecture on Roman history?    A  sore throat.  Too bad. Drink lots of red wine. . .but stay away from the grappa, Angela said.  And drink lots of mineral water, Louise added.

            What was this grappa?  It sounded exciting and couldn’t be any worse than the puffs of marijuana she’d cajoled from a boy who lived downstairs from her. Damn, she wished she wasn’t so naive, that she had grown up in a sophisticated East Coast city like New York or Boston, not Zanesville, Ohio.

             Zoltan joined her soon as Louise and Angela left.  Only then,  when he leaned close to retrieve her backpack and slide it around his own shoulders, did Bernice realize his left eye was made of glass.  Under the lobby’s crystal chandelier it sparkled as if it had just been dipped in ammonia.  A lovely shade of turquoise, not quite matching his green right eye,  which Bernice assumed was real.

            She must have been staring at the glass eye too hard because he tapped it lightly with a tapered fingernail and said, “The finest Venetian glass.  Vetro a Ghiaccio, Ice Glass.  Even better than Vetro Murrine, the old Roman style. More you will see in my shop.”

            Contrary to expectation,  Zoltan drove his dent-pleated Fiat slowly, preferring back roads over the Autostrada,  Bernice thought they’d never reach Venice.  Maybe he was taking her to some wicked place like Albania?  But he had a reason for driving slowly:  only then could he pick out  people walking the streets and read their body language.  Like the old man leaving a church, whom he declared to be a “classical example” of a thief.   The  young woman wearing a mini-skirt and foot-high spike heels he labeled a “classical example” of a virgin.   So slowly did he drive that Bernice bit her lip for fear she would start screaming.  Not exactly the sort of thing a free spirit would do.  What would Zoltan think about her?  So she listened.

            “Do you know inspiration for Carnival of Venice came from Jewish holiday of Purim?   Masks, music, everything.   Jews always had music and theaters even if they could not leave ghetto.  People think only about Allecchino--how you say? --Harlequin-- and Signor Panatalone when they hear the word Carnival.  They forget about the beautiful Rachele, famous singer with blonde hair, think only Italian songs are ‘Santa Lucia’ and ‘Volare.’

            Ah, what a splendid history, the Jews of my beloved Venezia.  I tell you a history hardly anybody knows.  No Marco Polo.  I promise. No slaughter of Turks at  Battle of Lepanto, because the Turks were our friends.  No Doge Angelo, killer of the barbaric Franks and builder of  first Doge’s Palace.  No Doge Orseolo,  scourge of Dalmatia.  No doges at all.  Allora.  Now listen.”

            What else could she do at 50 km. an hour in a dent-pleated Fiat on the longest route between Rome and Venice?

            “You know of course Portia’s speech from  The Merchant of Venice.  ‘The quality of mercy is not strained, /It droppeth as the gentle rain. . ‘  Excuse my accent. I’m sure it sounds better in your language.  But mercy was rare for Jews, who first came to Venice in 11th century.  Soon they had to live in ghetto, could only sell second-hand clothes and lend money.

            But many became great in spite. Don Joseph Nasi,  Duke of Naxos.  Nathan of Gaza who spread word of Sabbati Zevi.  Rabbi Luzzatto who made a school to study the Zohar.  From a drawing of his face and hands I could tell  he was a classical example of a magician sent by the Messiah.”

            “Really.  How fascinating.”  Bernice wished she knew more about the Jewish faith.  Back in Cleveland she could have asked that woman in her Shakespeare class, Miriam Katz.  Or Ethel Levine whose husband Sol had once tried to fit her late husband Arthur with a shoe for his clubfoot.     

            “Yes!  Molto affascinante.”   Zoltan raised both his hands from the steering wheel and clapped them with such brio that Bernice feared he might lose his glass eye.  Then she would have to drive. And she hadn’t driven a shift car in years. . .

            When at last they arrived in Venice, Bernice was surprised by the strangeness of the neighborhood where after leaving the vaporetto she and Zoltan walked through narrow alleys in a chilly rain.

            “Cannaregio.  One of oldest sections of Venice.  Here is Calle del Ghetto Nuovissimo,  new ghetto. “  He laughed. “Built in 1516.   We enter now the Campo where used to take place the Purim festivals. “

            Could such gray crumbling buildings all jostled together and looming over the water like a wall really be Venice?   Nothing matched the postcards she had bought just a few days ago when the tour group had passed through what must be another Venice.

            “First I show you synagogues.  Three remain.  My favorite,  Scuola Spagnola, on right.  For Jews from Spain. Marranos. A  word meaning pigs.”

            How exciting.  Jews from Spain!  In Cleveland all of them came from Russia or New York.

            “In old times were here the pawnshops.  And shops that sold gold jewelry and the best glass.  Probably Shylock’s shop was right here. Remember how he asked ‘Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions. . .’  The reason he put eyes first was secret clue that he made glass eyes.   Ah, Venezia,  a city for the eyes, as the poets have said.  Why should anyone without eyes not also have chance to see the splendid palaces through glass?”

            “You mean glasses?  You know, spectacles, lenses?”

            “No.  Glass eye. Occhi a vitreo.  In some places still magical.  Once in Budapest--”

            He stopped himself,  shifted to telling Bernice she would be staying in the Hotel Tintoretto, the best hotel in Cannareggio.  Not too far now. . .

            The room was small with bare white walls, but clean enough.  All her meals would be free, Zoltan said,  at nearby Eliezer’s,  the only  kosher restaurant in Venice.  Did that mean she’d have to eat those dry crackers divided by seams that the Safeway carried for Passover and chicken fat from jars with Hebrew letters on their labels?  Maybe they had kosher ham, like the prosciutto she’d developed a taste for earlier in the trip. . . Not that she dared ask; Zoltan might think she was even more naive than he probably already did.  Anyway, food had never meant much to her.  In fact, when the people on the tour  had begun to talk about this great lamb or that fantastic pasta they’d eaten on previous journeys, she wanted to stuff her fingers in her ears.

              She felt both relief and a touch of disappointment when Zoltan quickly left her alone in the room after helping her with the backpack.  The zipper on the secret compartment had gotten stuck.  But the bed linen had a comforting scent of lavender, tempting  Bernice to rest until meeting Zoltan later at  his studio.

            Shortly into her nap,  Bernice dreamed that Zoltan’s  glass eye had come loose and begun to swell,  first to the size of a  cantaloupe, then to a large globe like she had seen at the National Geographic when accompanying her students on a trip to Washington.  It kept swelling and soon a map of the world etched itself onto its surface, each continent a different color, some trimmed with gold, like the glass beads from the island of Murano she’d bought on the group tour of Venice.  But then a man who resembled Bernice’s late husband Arthur threw a golf ball at the globe, shattering it into mounds of shredded glass and yelling something about revenge.  For what?  Something to do with Mussolini?  But why in the world would Arthur have a grudge against Mussolini?

            She rubbed her eyes.  Arthur, of all people.  Arthur who surely would have been 4F had he been of age during the War.  Arthur with the club foot who had never thrown a ball in his life, let alone a golf ball.  Arthur who never ventured beyond the Ohio border and insisted she stay home with him at night and watch reruns of  NYPD Blue and Mash.  Arthur who died suddenly while zipping up his down jacket on a freezing winter day which happened to be his 55th birthday,  leaving Bernice free to travel the world,  swathe herself in red and purple batik,  take adult-ed courses in Shakespeare and Women’s Studies at Western Reserve,  participate in productions of her church’s drama club, most notably as the wife in Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” -- a play whose language so shocked some members of the congregation it closed after two performances.  Best of all,  now that she no longer had to support Arthur, who had not worked in a decade, she could retire after 32 years of cramming proper speech habits into the mouths of Cleveland’s roughest middle-school kids.  

 

             Zoltan met her in an alley off the Campo near the Scuola Spagnola  Her three strands of bugle beads clanked with each step as they climbed five flights of stairs to his studio.

            Glass everywhere.  Shards, crystals, balls the size of eyes, a few partly finished horses, birds, vases, earrings.

             “My best blowers from Murano.  The old-fashioned way,” he said pointing to a canary-yellow glass horse with purple trim.

            It was one of the ugliest things Bernice had ever seen, but she said nothing.  Why hurt his feelings?  At the same time she scolded herself that a truly free spirit would not have hesitated to express her opinion. 

            “But most we make our famous glass eyes.  We ship all over the world.  In every shape and color, all styles of glass.  Smalto, filagrino, vetro a pettine, stellaria... Just look at this--shaped to fit a Chinese eye socket, ordered by a grandson of  Madame Sung in Shanghai.  And this.  Bellissima! --a peacock blue, ordered by one of your famous Hollywood actresses.  And my treasure:  genuine  vetro lattino, smooth as milk.  Feel.  Just like porcelain, yes?”

            The minute he placed a round red eye into her palm Bernice felt a strong urge to toss it out the studio’s small window.  It reminded her of a man’s testicle.  Not one of Arthur’s, but of testicles she had seen in books. Before she could decide what a free spirit would do in such a circumstance, Zoltan retrieved the eye and promised her he could make her as many eyes as she wished.  All colors.  All styles.  It was not necessary to be blind or lack an eye.  The eyes could be fit right over real eyes.

            “ We sell to the best shops in Milan and Paris. New York. “

            When he ran a finger around her right eye, as if measuring it, this time she couldn’t help crying out “No.  Stop at once!  I’m allergic to fingers.”

            “No problem.  Nyema Problema, as they say in Dubrovnik.  When you become my hostess, you only must talk to customers about beauties of the eyes.  My partner and I do the fitting.”

            The shop was actually a corner of the studio. After almost a week in which nobody climbed the five flights to enter except a couple of German tourists, who left immediately without a shift of expression, Bernice began to tire of being a hostess with nobody to host.  Despite the silk gown, more like a bathrobe, Zoltan had given her as her “uniform.”  Come to think of it, this crumbling old Jewish section was so dreary, who would bother to go there unless they happened to get lost?  Most of the guidebooks didn’t even mention it.

            After yet another oily dinner of fish, beets and potatoes at Eliezer’s, surrounded by men wearing embroidered skullcaps and chattering away in Hebrew or some other language Bernice could not understand, she told Zoltan she was thinking about rejoining the group, now somewhere near Naples.

            His face red as Eliezer’s beets,  he shouted,  “Why go to filthy Napoli when you have 

complete freedom in the pearl of Italia,  glorious Venezia?   And soon it will be time for our Jewish Carnival.   Our own Commedia dell’ Arte, but no Pulcinellos, none of those anti-Semitic caricatures. Surely a free spirit cannot miss this great event.  You will be a star!   All the TV stations  in Europe.  And your CNN.”

             Then, in a lower voice, “How could you possibly disappoint me after all I do for you?  I thought you were a free spirit.”

            “A free spirit does only what she wants, right?”  Bernice said.

            Now Zoltan sounded like he was crying.  Did someone with a glass eye cry only from one eye?  Oh, stop being so naive, she ordered herself.  Everyone cries from both eyes.  Still she felt sorry for him.  Maybe he had a rare disease, macular degeneration like Louise Evans had.  How dreadful to be going blind.  For a second she herself saw only black. Then a flash of Arthur struggling through the Cleveland snow with his clubfoot; a vision of his hands trying to zip up his down jacket the last afternoon of his life while she sat in front of the TV watching a rerun of Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like it Hot,” the scene where Marilyn tries to sing like a genuine chanteuse. Not that anyone accused her of causing Arthur’s fatal heart attack. . .But maybe if she hadn’t been so caught up in the movie. . .

 

            The first excuse for postponing the carnival was arrival of the scirocco, that evil wind from the south that brings damp heat even in December, along with migraines and sinus congestion from the stench of piss combined with rotten tangerines, a few dead fish.

            Next,  four days of heavy rain to wash away the scirocco.  Bernice occupied herself by trying to learn Italian in alphabetical order from a tattered English-Italian dictionary she found in a closet.  Abbagliante, dazzling. Abbaiare, to bark.  Abbaino, dormer window.  Abbandonare, to abandon, neglect.  Abbastanza, quite, rather, enough.  Abbindolare, to cheat or trick. . .

            A strike of musicians.  Of course there could be no carnival, least of all a Jewish carnival, without music.  Even in the darkest ghetto days,  Jews had composed and danced to music. . .

            A strike of Murano glass blowers.  So there could be no glass masks for her or the other performers.  Could it be that Bernice was not the only person selected to be a star?   Zoltan’s visits become shorter and less frequent; Bernice could swear he looked sick.  Especially his eyes, the glass one now a canary  yellow.

            Winter arrived with flash floods and steady cold rain:  obviously not Jewish carnival weather.  Bernice was so tired of eating at Eliezer’s that she began to skip most meals. She dared not walk far because she only had summer clothes and her jewelry, and that ridiculous silk bathrobe. One afternoon,  after reaching in the dictionary the  words beginning with  Ar-- Argento, silver;   aringa, herring;  arrabbiare, to be affected by rabies-- a flood of memories rushed into her room along with the waterfall of rain that came through a ceiling crack; the smell of the rain suggesting it must be green, a chartreuse green.

            Bernice improvised a raincoat from the hotel towels, topped by blankets and laundry bags, shivered in bed under the mound.  She was sure she had a fever.

            Soon Arthur appeared, trying to catch a bus, his bare clubfoot exposed to snow and ice.  Bernice as a four-year old, spiking her sister’s fish tank with chlorine bleach, stealing her mother’s favorite brooch, an antique amethyst,  and dropping it down a sewer in revenge for what she thought was unduly harsh punishment.  Her father beating her with a hammer until she bled.

    Again Zoltan’s glass eye, but this time stuck in Arthur’s left eye socket.  He’s crying from one eye, but the tears around the edges of his glass eye freeze to ice particles.  Crying because Bernice has returned from visiting her Aunt Gladys in Minnesota where she had suffered her third miscarriage, helped this time by her aunt’s red medicine.  She couldn’t bear the possibility of a club-footed child.  Of course, she said nothing to Arthur about the red medicine.   He put his arms around her and assured her he would love her anyway, child or not.  But a couple of months later Arthur learned the truth from Aunt Gladys herself,  who was so proud of her red medicine’s power to ward off the birth of a possibly club-footed child, she just had to brag.  This time when Arthur embraced her, the fever of his anger enveloped Bernice and set her bones on fire.

 

            She woke convinced that this time she had to leave Venice, never mind the rain and floods, and began to pack. At which point Zoltan entered her room without knocking.  Yes, the real Zoltan.  This was no dream, no fevered hallucination.  He was not wearing his glass eye, thus revealing a dark hole in his socket, a hole the size of a cherrystone clamshell.  Somewhere between his studio and the hotel he had lost the eye, one of his best.

            When he noticed her packing, he swung her around and insisted she kiss the

empty socket, appealing once more to her freedom of spirit.  When she refused he told her how he lost the real eye when the Russians broke up the revolution with their tanks. 

            “The Russians?”  Bernice couldn’t tell who was crazier: she in her feverish state or Zoltan with his Russians. 

            Allora.  I mean the same time as Russians invade Budapest.  1956.  I lost the eye when an American tourist struck me with a fish-pole.”

            “You mean he made you into a Venetian blind?”  The minute she spoke Bernice felt such regret she wished her words were on a chain she could pull back into herself.

            “What means this ‘Venetian blind’ “?

            “Nothing.  Something for a window.”

            Zoltan’s next remark both surprised and confused her:  He must have misread her body gestures, because now he could see that deep down she was a “strega,”  a witch, or “a first class bitch, as you say in English.”   All Bernice could do was shrug.  Maybe he did have some magical talent for reading people’s inner selves?  But surely a free spirit could occasionally behave like a witch. . . didn’t witches fly, too, like free spirits, her favorite character Ariel from Shakespeare’s The Tempest ?

            That evening she found a glass eye in a corner of the hall not far from her room. It must have rolled there recently because there was no dust: only an eye the color of a clementine  orange.  She put it in the secret zipper compartment of her backpack and finished gathering the rest of her belongings.

 

            But because Alitalia was on strike, she could not book a flight home for at least two days. Who could believe that a woman with a free hotel room would be so impatient to leave Venice; would circle her room crying out damn Alitalia, damn Italy, damn the Man from Venice or wherever he was from.  Most of all damn herself for caving in to his flattery, his appeals to her freedom of spirit.  If the people from the tour group knew, they would be laughing away at her naivete. . .  At least she could use the time to reach B in her Italian dictionary.  And to relieve the gloom of her room  by tacking on its walls some of her Venice postcards. . .San Marco, the Bridge of Sighs, a gondola. . .When her ticket finally came through,  she made a quick trip to the glass studio.  Just to be polite.  He had, after all, put her up for free. 

            The door was wide open but nobody was there.  Nobody but the glass horses and birds, the glass eyes, a mound of shattered glass that reached nearly to the ceiling.  Zoltan?  He must have floated away with the floods.       

 

            Shortly after she arrived back in Cleveland, Bernice read over Arthur’s journal, which she had not discovered until after his death.  It was filled at first with sonnets dedicated to her,  but later with bitter passages about Bernice’s betrayal, the circumstances of her last miscarriage, the likelihood she had deliberately ended her previous pregnancies the same way, his resolve to leave followed by comments on his own shortcomings, especially that dreadful foot.  Then many  pages about a woman named Laura, a hairdresser.  Bernice resolved to tear each page to shreds, toss them into the falling snow.  Why keep such clutter?  Arthur was dead and who in the world would know she shredded his journal?   Then again, it might come in handy for her writing workshop.  So back it went to its shoebox, jammed between her backpack and old purses in the hall closet.

            Next she sold the wedding ring, with only a glimmer of regret.  Enough money to pay for a black leather jacket and pants, a genuine crystal necklace, boots, and several CD’s. Folk songs from Naples, gypsy music, a complete set of the Beatles.  She joined a drama club at the University, discovered she was particularly skilled at improvisation; enrolled in Introduction to Creative Writing.

 

            Nearly a year later, two events occurred the same day.  First, arrival of a letter postmarked Bucharest, Romania.  Inside was an invitation to Iceland asking her to take part in an upcoming winter festival in Rejkyavik, playing the part of a Jewess.  There were no Jews in Iceland.  No floods either. The landscape was brilliant as radiant mind-glass, used to foretell distant future events.  And fascinating body language. . .The letter was signed Your Friend, Olaf Olafsson.

            She laughed.  Meaning to toss out the letter, instead she put it in the shoebox that still contained Arthur’s journal.  Down fell the backpack, secret container and all,  zipper open to reveal the glass eye hidden there since she’d found it in the corner of her Venice hotel room.  A glass eye the color of a clementine orange. . .Of course.

            It was too cold to open a window, so she tossed the eye with great gusto clear through its glass. Glass to glass. . .  Except when she looked down she saw it had shattered the windshield of a parked car, a Saturn with Indiana plates.  Nobody was inside the car nor could she see anyone walking in the parking lot. Bernice decided to go down  anyway and leave a note.  That way nobody would think ill of her. But she would wait for later when the snow let up. Besides, she felt a need to put on her new tie-dye sarong and dance around the kitchen to the Naples CD.

            So what if the first song was that old chestnut “Santa Lucia.”

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© 2002 Barbara Lefcowitz

Barbara Lefcowitz has published seven books of poetry, a novel, a collection of essays and individual poems and prose works in over 450 journals.  She has won writing fellowships and prizes from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others, and lives in Bethesda, Maryland. This is her third appearance in SCR.

BLefcowitz@aol.com