Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Chapter 1 - Permit to stay

In early June, the Northern Italian landscape was at its lushest, and the frequent thunderstorms of the season hadn´t yielded to the hot and dry midsummer yet. The trees and fields were glossy with deep, luxurious shades of green which would lose their sheen in July when the summer anticyclone would faithfully bounce approaching Atlantic storm fronts beyond the Alps, turning Italian cities into unbearable furnaces and driving the populace to seaside resorts. The hot afternoon sun was blazing from nearly overhead, as there were less than three weeks to the summer solstice, and the howling wind barely managed to keep us comfortable from the heat as Angelo´s authentic, convertible US Army jeep roared along the autostrada from Milan towards the southernmost peaks of the Alps rearing ahead of us. The mountains stood in stark contrast to the sun-drenched plain, shadowed by white clouds billowing above them in huge standing waves that seemed likely to crash down the slopes any moment due to their sheer weight. And sometimes they did; cloudbursts could turn tranquil mountain valleys into frothing, unstoppable torrents in a matter of minutes. Yet most often, upon reaching the Alps, the sun inexplicably continued to shine through seemingly stationary gaps in the cloud cover for the benefit of high-altitude sunbathers. However, this Sunday we weren´t going to Val Maggia on the Swiss side for a day of sun, swimming and cruising along the meandering alpine river, but to visit Angelo´s parents´ villa by the Como lake to see if the recent storms had toppled trees in the garden, blown away roof tiles, or in any other way damaged the old building cherished by his family as their holiday residence. I´d been there twice before and remembering our previous visits made me wonder if there was a hidden agenda to this one as well.

I threw a quick sideways glance at his direction to probe my feelings about the possible outcome of the afternoon. At six feet four inches, Angelo´s height was the first thing people noticed about him, followed by either the handsome face if he was wearing something baggy and modest as usual, or the massive gym-trained body in those rare occasions when he was feeling reckless or sufficiently unrefined to show it off. Today he was wearing a pair of military shorts and a tank top, further feeding my suspicions about his motives for the trip. He had unmistakably grown during the year I´d known him, and despite his shocked denials I remained convinced that human glands alone could not pump out sufficient amounts of testosterone to produce a physique like his. Not that I could claim innocence on the subject myself. I decided I´d have no qualms about him cheating on his boyfriend Luca, which actually was a foregone conclusion as we´d never gotten along well, me being not only Angelo´s best friend but also an occasional – and for the time being, former – fuck buddy.

“How are things with Luca?” I asked, raising my voice to be heard over the wind.

“Could be better,” Angelo replied.

“Is he getting tired of the role of a battered housewife?”

Angelo shot me an annoyed look, then grinned. "You shouldn´t joke about it."

“Well, you warned him from the start. He knew what he was getting into.”

“No, he probably didn´t,” Angelo said, returning serious.

“What did you do this time?”

He shrugged. “I had to take him to emergency room two days ago. Apparent concussion.”

“Was it?”

“No. But it could have been.”


“I know.”

Several people, some of them complete strangers, had come to warn me after I´d first met Angelo. I had discounted the stories as envious gossip, given the universal interest people showed for him every time we went out, but shortly afterwards he had told me himself that some of it was true. Wryly, he had added that ever since his violent streak became known more people than ever came on to him.

“Did he leave you?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer.

“They never do,” Angelo answered, merely stating a fact.

He took the exit ramp to Como, paid the fare at the toll booth, and soon we were on a narrow and winding state road hairpinning up to the mountains. Even by Italian standards the landscape was overwhelmingly beautiful, with an airy blue haze suffusing the verdant mountains whose slopes plunged dramatically straight into the glittering lake. The shoreline was crowded with old pictoresque palazzos, like a thin strip of Venice transplanted in the Alps, and here and there, far above the lake, a few solitaire villas clung to the mountains. Angelo´s was one of these, and we had to turn to a narrow and dangerous-looking road to reach the estate. As we climbed higher I couldn´t help wishing that whoever had built the road had included safety barriers as well. A single incautious swerve would be sufficient to send us tumbling down into the fathomless depths of the lake, which looked far more sinister now than at the beginning of the ascent, and as if on cue one of the ubiquitous clouds covered the sun and turned the water almost black. To distract myself with gossip, I turned to Angelo.

“So, what exactly happened with Luca? Did he deserve it?”

Angelo frowned slightly as he tackled yet another steep curve. “No. Not really.”

“Not really? What does that mean?”

“He just wasn´t as co-operative as he should be.”

I waited.

When there was no answer, I pressed on. “Is this, unco-operativeness, related to things like the red thatch marks I saw on his biceps two weeks ago at the dinner? When he reached for the wine?”

“He´s fixated on his biceps, so I like to give them some extra attention,” Angelo replied with a grin. “The marks are never permanent, though.”

“I figured that´s why he never comes to the swimming pool with us.”

“Quite right.”

“Isn´t it getting to be the time to dump him? Before you really hurt him?”

He nodded. “You might be right. It´d be a pity, though. I picked him up from the hospital the next morning and we had, quote, the best sex ever, unquote.”

I believed it. "Well, when the time comes, don´t ask me to replace him."

Angelo laughed. “I wouldn´t dare.”

He slowed down, and turned to a driveway that was, if possible, even more dangerous than the main road. The wheels of the jeep crunched over minor landslides that had fallen on the hairpinning drive, and several times the trees came so close on both sides that Angelo had to slow down to almost nothing to keep the branches from sweeping us from our seats. Then the trees fell back, and an ancient stone bridge, possibly dating back to Romans, took us over a deep and narrow canyon and delivered us to the front yard of the palazzo, separated from the precipice by a reassuringly sturdy-looking balustrade. I jumped off the car, and once again was awestruck by the beauty of the place. The villa wasn´t one of the largest or most exclusive in the area, but it was a superb example of 19th–century craftsmanship nevertheless. The ocra stonework had weathered beautifully, and the effect was further enhanced by tall, narrow windows with their rust-colored wrought-iron bars, and a row of large terracotta vases with palm trees. The building had one floor, except for the beautifully proportioned, narrow tower on the left side which was two stories high, vaguely modeled after a medieval castle, and topped by a roofed terrace. The back garden ascended steeply behind the villa, offering a view to the cypresses and gnarled sea pines, and some overgrown bushes with dark red flowers in bloom. A small brook ran through the garden, forming a series of small cascades before vanishing into the canyon. To the opposite direction, the view over the lake was incomparable.

“I can´t believe you grew up here,” was my lame and repetitive first comment every time I visited the place.

“It´s not bad,” he agreed. “And it does look attractive after a few weeks spent in the Milan smog.”

“There are no signs of the storm,” I noted. “Should we check out the back?”

The path to the backyard passed too close to the canyon for my liking, considering that a part of the passage was cantilevered, and should the old construction give in we´d have plenty of time to reach terminal velocity – literally – before smashing into the rocks below. Admittedly, a collapse wasn´t very likely after almost two hundred years of impeccable service, but I was glad nevertheless when I found myself back on the firm ground. Apart from a few torn branches, scattered here and there, the backyard had survived the storms in pristine condition. Almost.

“Angelo,” I said, standing still. “Look at the back door.”

A small window, the one right above the handle, had been smashed in. The door was unlocked as Angelo tried the handle. He stepped in, and I followed, unsure if it was the wisest thing to do. The back door lead directly into the living room, and we stood still, listening.

The house was silent, but only for a moment. The inevitable creaks of a large old building were there; and the roof tiles clicked almost inaudibly as they shifted under the hot sunshine. The thick stone walls had absorbed the heat of the day, and inside the air was still pleasureably cool, and smelled faintly of dry wood. Shafts of daylight leaked in through sheer white floor-to-ceiling curtains, and the massive but sparse furniture added to the airy, uncluttered feeling of the room. An open door lead to a small dining room adjacent to the kitchen, and on the other side of the living room, along the wall, a staircase of dark wood climbed to the second floor of the tower. Underneath the staircase was a short corridor to enter the master bedroom, and a large, modernized bathroom. There were no signs of burglary.

Carefully, to avoid making noise on the tiled floor, Angelo walked to the dining room where he could see into the kitchen. I followed him, and saw that his intuition had been right. The dining room was as impeccable as the rest, but on the kitchen table lay the remains of a simple meal: an opened bottle of mineral water, half a loaf of bread on rumpled white paper, some cheese and a tomato. Angelo gestured me to stay in the dining room, where I could guard the rest of the house, while he stepped into the kitchen for a closer look. It crossed my mind that the intruder might be armed, but then remembered that guns weren´t as ubiquitous in Italy as back home in Texas, and to keep one at home was almost unheard of. I heard Angelo move around in the kitchen for a little while, and when he returned he looked serious but not overtly alarmed.

Then it was the turn of the rest of the first floor. Again, Angelo gestured me to remain in the living room where I could see all the exits and warn him if someone appeared on top of the stairs. As I waited, I made some calculations and came to the conclusion that it would take at least two hours for the police to arrive if I slipped outside and called 112 on my cell phone – which might ring any moment. I snatched it from my pocket, and turned it off. It took Angelo only few seconds to check the rooms, and I showed him my phone when he reappeared. He nodded, pulled out his own and turned it off as well.

We proceeded to the second floor. Luckily, the wooden part of the staircase was massive enough to make almost no noise at all as we slowly went up, step by step. At the corner of the living room the stairs turned, and continued upwards within the stone structure of the tower. The second floor held two bedrooms and another, smaller bathroom, and when we reached the landing we saw that two of the doors were closed but the third one, leading to a bedroom, was a little ajar. Very quietly, Angelo stepped to the door, and slowly pushed it open. His eyes widened, but he didn´t move. I went to him, and peered into the shadowy room.

The wooden shutters were closed, but the inner glass windows had been left open, to allow a light breeze and some light pass through the slants of the shutters. The long white curtains were swaying a little, and suddenly the filtered daylight turned brighter as a cloud moved away from the sun. The white sheets of the bed glowed as if illuminated from within, and in the bed, partly covered by the sheets, lay a dark-haired young man, fast asleep. He was lying on his back, head turned to the side, one curled hand raised on his pillow and slightly touching his cheek, and his eyelashes fluttered slightly as he dreamt. He was wearing only a fresh pair of plain white underwear, some nameless brand that could be found at large department stores or supermarkets, and on the floor next to the bed, in a small heap, were his jeans and a white t-shirt.

As I stared at him I realized he was much younger than I had first thought. His face belonged to a kid of only sixteen or seventeen, but his hands, although carefully scrubbed, bore the evidence of a job at a construction site and thus explained the well-muscled body. His skin was perfectly smooth, with only a tiny whiff of visible hair above the waistband of his underwear, and none on the chest, and there was just a trace of baby fat still clinging to his belly and cheeks. The neck was strong, and the set of his eyes unusual, making me think the boy was of Eastern European origin, perhaps a Romanian who were famous for their good looks. I glanced at Angelo, and could tell I wasn´t the only one mesmerized by the sight. He noticed my glance and shrugged, somewhat amused. But then, instead of politely knocking on the door to wake up the boy, he entered the room taking advantage of his entitlement as the owner of the house, and looked around enquiringly. Not quite sure about his intentions, I followed.

In a corner, behind the bed, was a worn canvas gym bag with all the boy´s belongings. There were some clothes, topped by a frayed brown envelope which seemed to contain a few photographs and a letter, and a small unopened package of cheap potato chips. The edge of a passport poked out from a side pocket. A small frown appeared on Angelo´s face as he observed the bag and then turned back to the boy. I knew he wasn´t going to call the police.

Despite our silent entry the boy was growing restless, aware in his sleep that something was not right. He sighed, turned to his side, and then his eyes opened. Instantly, he was wide awake. He snapped into action, trying to jump on his feet next to the bed, but snagged by the sheets he nearly fell down and had to seek support from the bedside table. Angelo stepped between him and the door, seemingly relaxed and unthreatening, but his size was quite enough to frighten the boy whose eyes darted between the two of us, trying to figure out who we were, and how we were going to hurt him. He was breathing fast, almost gasping, and his blue Slavic eyes were wide with panic as he quickly glanced sideways, looking for something to defend himself with.

“Calm down,” I said slowly, in my accented Italian. “We won´t harm you.”

He made no answer, but since neither I nor Angelo was moving he stood still as well, observing us more closely. Then, while assessing Angelo, he nervously realized he was wearing nothing but a pair of briefs, and his eyes searched for his clothes. He didn´t dare to pick them up, though, afraid that we´d assault him if he let his guard down.

“Angelo,” I said. “Tell him to calm down.”

“He´s right,” Angelo obeyed. “We won´t hurt you. Do you speak Italian?” he added tentatively as the boy didn´t react to his words.

The boy nodded, but didn´t move. He gave me another glance, confirming his impression of me being foreigner like himself, and turned back to Angelo.

“Your – place?” he asked.


The boy gestured around him. “Not harm your place.”

His voice was soft and low, and despite the accent he pronounced the words quite clearly.

Angelo nodded. “I saw that. How long have you been here?”

Now the boy blushed, and shifted on his feet. “Three weeks.”

The two were staring at each other, and then the boy blinked twice, having realized something. He glanced at me, then Angelo again. His eyes widened a little. The atmosphere of the room shifted, and in my mind I quickly had to suppress an image of the three of us in the bed, naked, the boy´s face incredulous and slack-jawed with pleasure as he discovered what two men could do to him.

“Put on your clothes,” I said, pointing at his jeans, afraid that the kid would freak out.

“What´s your name?” Angelo asked politely, following my lead, as the kid picked up his jeans.


Pulling on his t-shirt, which was soiled with concrete dust and some dark stains, he added, “I have job. No home.”

“Where are you from?”


Jan finished tying up the laces of his sneakers, which were in pretty bad shape, and asked, “Want eat?”

He moved towards the door, as if being the host inviting us for a late lunch, but as Angelo stepped aside to let him pass Jan suddenly gave him a hard shove, with all his might, and tried to slip through the door. Angelo hardly budged, being far too heavy for the boy, but taken by surprise he almost let the boy slip by before reacting. He reached out and grabbed Jan by the t-shirt, pulling him back, and the side seam of the shirt ripped all the way up to his armpit. Instinctively Angelo let go, and the boy was out of the room and running. Angelo cursed, more for having ripped the shirt than for letting the boy go, and ran after him, pounding down the stairs two steps at time. The kid was faster, though, and by the time we had stomped through the living room and reached the front yard, he had already crossed the brigde and was running along the road. He shot a quick glance over his shoulder, mouth agape, the ruined white t-shirt flapping in the wind, and seeing us follow him he dived into the undergrowth, beginning the long breakneck descent towards the lake. When we reached the edge of the road he was plunging recklessly down the slope, holding on to trees and bushes, and risking to break his leg or worse any moment.

“Slow down!” Angelo yelled after him. “We´re not following you!”

Jan came to a halt, hanging on to a branch, and looked upwards to us.

“Come back,” Angelo continued. “I want to help.”

For a moment, the kid stared at us with a blank expression, and then he turned his back and carried on with his descent, this time without hurry. Angelo cursed again, under his breath.

“Is there a road down there? Can we get to him by car?” I asked.

Angelo thought for a moment, and shook his head. “Not in time. We´d have to drive back almost to Como to take that road.”

“Is he going to make it without breaking his neck?”

Angelo looked grim. “I hope so.”

We watched Jan until the last glimpse of his white shirt had vanished from view. When we were sure he was so far below that we couldn´t possibly any longer hear him shout for help, we slowly returned to the house. A dark cloud had risen above the lake, and on the windshield of the car there were tiny droplets.

“It´s starting to rain,” Angelo said, disheartened.

“He would probably have bolted anyway, but the way you stared at him sure didn´t help.”

“And you didn´t?” Angelo looked at me, incredulous. “You should have seen your face!”

“Ehm, maybe you´re right,” I backpedalled, and changed the subject. “All his stuff is here. Those photos… What are we going to do?”

“I´ll make some phone calls.”

We retreated into the house, and the rain started in earnest. To the north, where the lake vanished behind the mountains, a few jagged lightnings reached down from the clouds but they were too far for the thunder to be heard. Angelo spent the next forty-five minutes sprawled on the huge leather couch in the living room, talking on his cell phone, calling every local constructor whose number he could get. No one knew anything about a Romanian called Jan. Frustrated, he threw the phone down and stared outside through the rain-streaked windows.

“The kid´s an illegal alien, underage, and with no working permit. They´re not going to tell me anything.”

“Maybe we should pack his things up,” I suggested, “and take them somewhere he can get them.”

“Where?” Angelo asked, but stood up.

I was stumped. “The front door? When we leave? I mean, we have to do something.”

“The eave isn´t wide enough to protect the bag from rain.” He paused. “We´ll leave the bag inside, on a chair in front of the back door. So the kid will know it´s OK to break the window again to get to it. That is, if we find someone to fix it before he comes back.”

“I like that,” I agreed.

The upstairs window was still open, and the room was chilly. The few possessions of the boy seemed even more wretched now that he was gone. While I closed the window, Angelo picked up the passport and flipped through the pages.

“Jan Tariceanu,” he said unhappily. “Not seventeen yet. And there´s no permit to stay.”

We started gathering his things, and packed them in the canvas bag. Next to the bed, on the floor, we found an old, dog-eared issue of Playgirl.

“That´s from my room,” Angelo said, staring at the magazine. “Put it in the bag.”

“Planning ahead?” I asked, squeezing in the magazine. “Should we write your phone number on the cover?”

“Not a bad idea. Not at all,” Angelo answered, his mood lifting up a bit.

When everything was ready, we stood up and looked around the room. The bed had remained untouched, and the depression left by Jan´s body was still discernible. The image of the three of us in the bed crossed my mind again, this time with Jan wearing nothing but his torn t-shirt, and when I turned to Angelo I saw he´d been thinking somewhere along the same lines. He gave me a knowing smile, one that I recognized.

Darkness had fallen when we left the house for the ride back to Milan. It was still raining, and occasional distant flashes of lightning illuminated the lake and the mountains, and the road seemed more treacherous than ever. Before closing the doors behind us, Angelo had left a note on Jan´s bag:

“I want to help. This is a serious offer. Call 347-5431153. Angelo.”


A Corner Stop said...

Enjoyed reading chapter 1.

BillyWhite666 said...

mmmmm cant wait to read chapter 2