I pretended to be asleep, but he was whispering loud enough to wake half the train. “Tell him it’s from me,” he whispered. “A little gift for him.” When I heard the door to the compartment close, I pried one eye open and asked the top of her head, specifically, the white line of her part: “Are you still mad at me?”
“I don’t know,” She muttered, holding something and looking down at it.
I rolled back over and thought about pulling the small blanket back up around my shoulders, but I swung my legs out and dropped down to the floor of the compartment. “That was Catania, right? We’ll be there in about an hour.” I looked around for something to pick up, but the compartment was clean.
Outside the window, clumps of cactus dragged by. They struggled against the wind blowing in from the sea. I tried to open the window to let the salty air in. “You tried that last night.” She said from behind her journal. “It doesn’t open.”
I went out in the corridor to watch the nacreous morning sea fight through the cactus. A man with a white mustache was brushing his teeth and looking out the window. He turned and smiled around his toothbrush. I smiled back and went back to the compartment, declaring: “The first time I came here, it was earlier in the morning and still dark.” She put her journal down and picked up my sentence, changing the pronoun:
“You walked across a square and saw a statue with no head. Then some girl called you. Here,” she said, pushing a wooden box at me, “that guy said to give this to you.” The box was lacquered and smelled like a new book. It was yellow and red and painted to look like it had a bow tied around it. “It’s empty,” I said looking at the flecked woodgrain inside. “Yeah, he tried to give me his travel pillow, too,” She said, shrugging. “I think he was just getting rid of all the things he wasn’t going to need anymore. Don’t try to make me take it; we’ve already got too much stuff.” I opened my bag and shoved the box down inside, then repositioned it so that it wouldn’t be against my back.
When the train pulled into the station, we tried to find a connection going west, but it was Sunday and there was nothing; only a few trains ending their Saturday nights. The station door was locked. We sat in a cafe across the street. There was a hotel half a block away. “I’ll go see how much it is,” I said.
A tired man showed me a room just back behind the desk. The door was heavy and the knob rattled and wouldn’t lock. I paid for the room, went out to the lobby, sat on a firm velvet couch and looked around at the empty bird cages and the faded portraits, imagining I was a traveling salesman.
We walked down the hill into the old town. There was an open market. Down an alley, a vendor was surrounded by five-gallon buckets of different olives mixed with lemon, chilies, bay leaves, cheese crumbles and anise seeds. The brine in the buckets was coated with oil. The green olive buckets had a pellucid gray oil floating on dirty aquarium brine. The Kalamatas were soaking in purple ink Only the ocular contours of the olives at the surface were discernible. Mint green olives stared out of their pits. Argent sardines half sunk in red pepper oil looked like evidence from some small crime. The smell was flat: an old fishing boat swabbed with thyme and marjoram, a sheep who had been in a rosemary thicket.
We bought four different bags and went down to the water where there were lines of a game painted on the concrete of a small park. We tried to guess the rules and jumped and counted, but nothing fit. We climbed over the low wall and went to sit on the broken concrete slabs of the jetty, opening each of the olive bags and sharing them out. The salty olive meat had to be chewed off the small wooden pits and came off in gouts. My tongue rolled up. My lips shriveled. The desire to eat another olive was not produced by hunger or thirst but a supplemental desire, like the craving for a cigarette. I bit into a pepper and felt the seeds fall between my cheek and gums and start to burn. I pushed them out with my tongue and swallowed them.
We ate all the olives chewing on each one like stomping out a fire with our teeth. Biting at the pit until it was just a rattling wooden husk. Even then, I spat them out with regret and wanted to chew the wood into pulp that would stick between my teeth. When we finished, there was lemon and chili in the sea air and I knew she wasn’t angry anymore. There was one olive left.”We’ll split it,” I said biting off a ragged half and handing the rest to her. She took it and as we got up, I could hear the wood of the pit crackling along her teeth as her tongue pushed it around. I breathed in the lemon-air of the sea in my nose, down around my eye teeth.
We got up, climbed up over a huge concrete block sunken into the water at an angle and looked down where the barnacles had attached themselves at the waterline. The waves were making loose chopping and slapping sounds in the hollows between the concrete blocks. The sounds of folding tables collapsing and grainy rasp of boxes being pulled through dusty streets came down the jetty from the market. A voice called out over a magaphone. We heard it say ‘Santa Lucia’ several times. We turned back and walked toward the voice.
The market had been disassembled. The cars had all been taken away and the cafes were closed. Down the street, bass drums had begun to boom and horns were plaintively leaning into certain notes and straining away from others. The sun began to set but there was no breeze. The sound of the parade sloshed against the sides of buildings.
The church yard was crowded with people. Some of them were well-dressed and others were wearing baseball caps and t-shirts. A few children sat up on shoulders, but there didn’t seem to be anything to see. I felt content just to stand around and be part of this particular crowd, waiting for this particular thing. She was better at waiting than me, seeing things: a child with a over-sized balloon, a marching band member that looked like a cousin. I just saw people. I got tired of being one of them and we sidestepped through them saying scusi every few steps.
We walked toward the ruins; the only part of town I remembered, but I was all mixed up. Nothing looked the same from years before; it could’ve been a different town. It was getting dark and there was nothing to see. The sidewalk ended, but we walked on and went up a hillside. Under the grass there were large bony chunks of old buildings. The land was all like that, broken by coral reefs of earth-eaten marble. We sat down. A moon like rock salt rose over the broken columns and cornerstones, far-off, the band had begun to march, belying the funereal air of the night ruins with crashing symbols. I finished my cigarette and stubbed it into the pebbly marble. “Sorry about last night.” I said, stood up and gave her my hand. She took it and nodded that it was alright.
We walked back to town and they were parading the bones of Santa Lucia through the streets. We walked alongside her for a while and then broke off from the parade route and went back up toward the train station where the lights were all out and only the cats looked out from the dark windows and doorways.