Web Conjunctions: Before You Leave La Spezia You Must See the Church, by Joseph Starr

CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
Before You Leave La Spezia
You Must See the Church

Joseph Starr


I won’t need to tell you how we built it, the dwelling, the house. Or as my foreman came to call it affectionately, or rather chidingly, or rather came to call it with a sort of chiding affection that held more of the former in it (this, his calling the house) on certain days or certain hours—say if he were in a foul mood, if he had risen with an army of canker sores beneath his tongue, if the termites had re-appeared yet again, etc, etc. … On like days, in fact, there would be no such amount of affection even to his chiding and it would be chiding altogether, an antagonistic chiding even, characterized by a certain degree of derision? On other days, of course, the affection outweighed the chiding; I feel secure in saying, in fact, on that point, that on certain days—say if his mood were exceptional, if the morning’s eggs had been unusually large, the yolk especially creamy, or if the termites had failed to re-appear, etc, etc. …—there would be no darkness to his affection, it would rather be constituted entirely of light, of that type of light as seems made of cellophane, of curtains of cellophane, taut from sky to earth. The light would illumine, would hold in bas relief on the hillside the sand which passes for soil, the shrubs with their handfuls of teeth, the arching greenery beyond, the tops of the trees. It were as an invisible light and colorless, a light too sharp and clear for faces, which required of me a will of no small measure to look in the yellow eyes (yellow for the light, in kinder candescence a sort of olive) of the smoothed countenance of my foreman, Daumier. On such mornings Daumier would emerge from the cottage, vest pockets full with pencils, and scribblings, and tools of fine steel, trousers in stubborn resistance bunched at the thighs, steam from the beverage in the bent chrome cup, rising, and say good morning Herr Fuller, how looks the ________? or how looms your creation, ________? Or how does she appear to you today, the ________? I, of a calm and gentle disposition yet for one so moneyed, would smile and nod and clap him about the shoulders, or pretend to knock his hand such that he might splash himself with the steaming beverage, or would simply wink—I have found a wink fantastically versatile in like situations—and lead our morning survey of the dwelling.

      I shan’t tell you of the day Celia and I happened on the hillside, nor of our life prior to that moment when she crested before I—she was the fitter of the two of us then, certainly, and had the more graceful gait, but how could she not, with such legs?—and turned to the sky of the light I’ve described (in those days, I had not the language to describe it), the moisture at her hairline becoming a salt precipitate, in this wind exceedingly dry, and proposed in a mocking and challenging way, yes, her proposal both mocked and challenged me, my very person, the very stuff of which I am packed with, big toe to cerebellum, that we establish ourselves here, that the air is so lovely, that surely the soil can be improved, that certainly you, Herr Fuller, have the means to pummel and crush and haul and re-configure the shape of the unruly hillside such that it will gladly accommodate a dwelling which your Foreman, Daumier, will affectionately dub the _______________________? Not to suggest that Celia’s dubious challenging proposal was entirely devoid of admiration. Or that it was spiteful, or in some measure mean, or exclusively hateful, even. No. For Celia had, at times, a rather odd way of expressing her devotion. To me as well as to others. One learns to accustom himself to such oddities of human communication. And I’ve accustomed myself rather well, I may say, to Celia’s whims of utterance. I’ve learned to recognize the meaning, for instance, when I may emerge from the steam of the bath, when I open the door, letting out the delicious vapor which had enveloped me in a luxury of pore expansion and other like blisses, to the figure of Celia, backlit by our good lamp, the one festooned in brass with gilded fishes and ocean mammals, Celia’s favorite—I’ve often thought she were a creature of the sea—stirring a batter she would never put to heat, or rummaging in her skirts for a lost coin, a lost button, a lost Mother of Pearl pendant, etc, etc. … and say you certainly weren’t stooped like that yesterday, or your shoulders seem to descend daily, or your toe fungus is by no measure improving. And here I require a certain complicity, a certain willingness to suspend disbelief, so it goes, and look at the world and Celia through me, when I say that such moments were the pinnacle of filial commitment, were fairly bursting—or perhaps I should say bubbling, for bursting asserts too much of the gross, the bodily, the physicality of impure liquid, impatient for escape—with love. And even I, my favorite pink bath towel draped about my lower quarters, my skin a like pink from the heat of the bath, as stolid as I am, as stonily reserved and in my own way as despairing of such silly affections, would often shed a single tear, mingled among the many droplets yet on my face, my cherubic cheeks, mingled and gone. Such moments far surpassed in quantity of affection that of Daumier, as on those days of particular lightness when he would say indeed she grows daily, Herr Fuller, your very own ________.

      Nor shall I tell you of our life prior to then. Of a life as one you might encounter now on certain glossy pages in publication, a life of itinerance practiced, casual, moneyed (if I were arbiter, there should be no other kind), a life of leather straps and buckles, of hopscotching about, of clothing made exclusively of linen or cotton, of a tenacious preference for the warmth of southern climes. Of that life, for the purposes of this digression, it will suffice that in the coastal town of La Spezia we had arranged for the night accommodations in an upstairs room of a house of whitewashed stucco, appended onto the steep slopes and shrub oak of the unforgiving Mediterranean coastline, the ground beneath that canopy home to an assortment of furry live things, as rabbit and chuck mouse and feral cat, these last an unusually bold breed of homemade feline, who’d sneak upon your veranda under the starless dark of the sea, upon the white table cloth and candlelight, teeth and claws bared, and with the aplomb of a pirate snatch the mussels from the bowl, from the very hand, with no compunction for the battle scars left in the wake, for the peculiarly stubborn brand of peninsular infection a scratch or a bite might deed you, and scatter, padding, back into the brush, mussel shell precarious in the teeth. The house of a timeless Signora, whose skin was living leather, of an ebullience I’d have thought impossible in a foreign language, of every sweater she owned layered one atop the other against the nighttime cold, of an imperviousness to fashion. We had dined, Celia and I, on the aforementioned mussels, when our Signora insisted on a brief tour of her humble sea town, the flowered porticoes, the close-set stone houses, the smoothness of an indigenous construction, the babbling of evening espresso in narrow cafes, the susurrus of an impeded reception in no way diminishing the enthusiasm of the handful of the loyal, the true, boosters of the equipo d’Italia. Celia stayed behind to bathe, and mistrustful, as I was, of such an arrangement (she desired time alone, I’d enjoy practicing my fledgling Italian without her to interfere, to correct, she’d chat with the old husband, etc, etc. … ), I agreed. Later Celia told me, with characteristic glee, as we jostled through the night, the yellowed plastic, the flattened wool pillows—an absurd proposition that! better to use a folded jacket!—of a French couchette, that she’d been in the bath, the barest hint of heat to the brackish water, the rudeness of a coarse sea salt soap, when the old man came in, in idiot deafness and virtually blind, and the Signora had told us previously of his dotage, of the unfortunate habit of neglecting to close the tap, of the according perpetual flood, which, if the relative lack of fabric and wood rendered somewhat innocuous, yet demanded of our intrepid Signora a certain fortitude of mind and body both, as bent over her mop I saw her that day of our departure, as the unseen witness to an unwitnessed ritual, murmuring repeatedly, “pazienza, pazienza,” and she had risen from the tepid bath, exposed herself nether parts and all, and the Signor had turned, insensate, and she had said well old man do you see anything you like? On the night of the couchette I asked her, in the dark whispers of an intimate space shared with strangers, were she sure he hadn’t displayed the least hint of a smile? the barest glint of a knowing tooth?

      Neither shall it be incumbent on me to relate the details of that early phase of our vision of an ultimate edifice, an abode of stone and steel both, of a matchless intermingling of modern convenience and its according delights, as, for example, instant 190-degree water from every tap, hands-free automated shades which rise with the sun, reverse convection ovens which cool or freeze at the rate your microwaves heat or melt, odor free cat food, etc, etc. …  and timeless elegance and its equal enticements, marbled hallways with pillars of granite, windows of stained glass, frescoed ceilings, soaring archways permitting the least profusion of light, allowing but a tantalizing hint of pleasures found (architecturally and otherwise) in the room beyond, nor of the ingenuity and resourcefulness of my man, Daumier, to say nothing of his aide, Marchand, to whom we owe the inspiration for the terraced foundation, for the solution to weeks and yet months of maddening, nay agonizing, efforts to transform the very shape of the earth, of the saga of installing a treacherous and costly network of irrigating apparatus with which we pummeled, crushed, transferred, cajoled, and finally beat our doubled fists against the accursed earth which, like Celia, seemed to prefer the wind, the absence of moisture, the quality of dryness in whatever manifestation that would frustrate our efforts to build a wall, for the love of God! a simple foundational wall! And Celia, returning from the village below on the back of a three-wheeled motor car, or the back of a donkey, her doe arms wrapped around the waist of her conductor, whether bronzed youth or aged peasant, heavily cologned or stinking with the earth of the day’s work, it were all the same to her, her sidelong smile and wink the same, as she’d disembark or dismount and bring to the three of us, me and Daumier and Marchand, brown paper bags with pastry or breakfast bread, the trace of the town, the demitasse of café. It will rather be quite sufficient for me to tell merely of that moment when the diminutive Marchand, in overalls and jersey, the sleeves pinned back, the prodigious musculature of his lower arms twitching, of the mechanized mystery of his cognition, of his eyes darting with glee, with a glee that bordered on the privileged vision of the insane, as he clapped hands to head and exclaimed “Sacre Bleu!”

      Perhaps it shall behoove me to reproduce, in as precise detail as I am able, with as few words, and as much concision, the surge of pride I experienced when Marchand and Daumier set the corner stone, Marchand and Daumier, the one compact, contained, still, in a tenuous stasis between his inside and his out, as if at any moment he might overcome the natural forces of skin and muscle and send himself bursting forth in an unprecedented shower of organ and bone, such the energy, the brute excitement, the joie de vivre possessed of the little man, the other as unmoved as an elephant, as solid as the very granite he saw hefted up the hill, prone to irritability, perhaps, as when his shoelaces tore on consecutive days, or his piles failed to respond to rosewater douche, or he found a new deposit of termite eggs, etc, etc. …  but on the whole a remarkably reliable sort, and what he lacks in inspiration, or resourcefulness, or ingenuity, he quite surpasses in consistency. A veritable stoic, Daumier. He and Marchand conjoined constitute a person entire, and a formidable one therewith, exceptional even, I might say. And how shall I convey the thrill of that moment when, the terrestrial mysteries of this sloping hillside solved, the earth having been coaxed and nudged and gently transferred into Marchand’s brilliant interstices of equidistant declension, the concrete having been poured, the stone blocks clapped into place, the two men confirmed my emerging elation, the larger nearly tossing the smaller into the air, such his enthusiasm, the smaller round faced, of crimson brow and eyes, quietly exploding with bottled joy, as Daumier called to me, pointing, and exclaimed, a wall, Herr Fuller! This could be the start of something grand? perhaps your very own ________?

      I should, in fact, describe for you the culminating structure we created, the three of us, I and Daumier and Marchand, and an army of starving peasants, not precisely starving, I should say—the phrase is a colloquialism, on point of order, if a rather crude one, but yet quite hungry, poor enough off, as the case is, to work the day through—and no easy work this, the treachery of the slope, the wind, the weight of the stone, the steel—hoping for payment naught but the bowl of beans, the tear of bread, the sup of water allotted each, yet secretly reveling, receiving a sort of spiritual payment, as it were, of the bare fact of having contributed to this magnificence, the size of the contribution of no matter, of course, for what concerns us is the having participated, the having placed hands upon, and placed hands in some way with an eye to perfection—the perfection of an execution suited to the task—of having assembled this tiered piazza, this layered shell, this palazzo which stretches the logic of hill and earth and tree, which, for its many charms, for its stubbornly horizontal orientation, for its underground rooms, its exploratory passages, its smell of cave, its allure for bats, for the endorsement of Daumier, is decidedly not the stony edifice we’d envisioned, not the willing repository of canvassed nudes, of white marble twisted into facsimiles of human contortion, of soaring stone walls as of airborne castles (the turrets aflame! the ramparts manned!), of panes of bright glass, of my very own ________.