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The House in Amalfi
By Elizabeth Adler
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2006 Elizabeth Adler
All rights reserved.
For two years I have lived alone, not allowing even a dog or a cat to intrude on my solitude. My friend Jammy Mortimer, who I've known since we were little kids, says I'm getting creepy. "All this loneliness is not good for you," she says in her usual forthright manner. "You'll end up a fat, eccentric recluse, refusing to open the door even to me."
Of course that's not true — my door's always open to Jammy. But as far as the weight is concerned, I have to admit I've gotten even skinnier over the past few months. I have a busy life — by day, that is — and eating is a habit I seem to be forgetting. I work as a landscape architect, bringing beauty to other people's homes, creating outdoor "rooms" for them, some small and fragrant, others rambling and wild, but always enhanced by the drift of water, the ripple of a pebbled stream, a simple fountain. I love transforming barren lots with living things: grasses, shrubs, flowers, trees. But most of all I love the trees. Sometimes I ask myself what would life be without them?
Now I think about it, it would be like my own life, barren and empty since I lost Alex, my husband, in a car crash two years ago. It was the second time in my life that I'd lost a man I loved to a tragic accident. The first was when my father died in a mysterious boating mishap when I was just seventeen.
It's my belief that you can never recover from the agony of being rent apart from your loved one within the space of just a few seconds and then having to face the sheer terror of going on without him. My husband was my love, my best friend, my companion. "You just have to pick yourself up and get on with living," friends advised me, after a few months. And I tried. I went back to work all right, but somehow I've never learned to "play" again.
Sitting here now, twenty floors up in my urban Chicago aerie overlooking the blustery windblown gray lake, a cooling mug of coffee clutched, half-forgotten, in my hand, I'm thinking about happiness and trying to remember what it felt like. My dwarf ficus trees out on the small terrace tremble in the chill breeze, reminding me of the pampered lemon trees on Italy's Amalfi coast, sequestered for winter in their cozy greenhouses, emerging again in the spring with a burst of blossoms so fragrant it takes your breath away.
And quite suddenly, because I haven't consciously thought of this in ages, I'm thinking of my father, Jonathon Harrington, who'd named me Lamour after his beautiful but flighty New Orleans great-grandmother, and about the time he took me with him to live in Rome while he wrote his novel.
It was sure to be a success, he told me — how could it not be when he was writing it in a city filled with history, culture, and sex? He didn't actually say the word sex; after all, I was only seven years old. I believe he used the word sensuality instead, though I wasn't sure what sensuality meant, either. And later, to my surprise, because to me he was just my father, his novel did become a huge success, which he said went a long way to blotting out the pain of the whole writing experience.
Again, I didn't know what he meant, since he seemed to spend most of his time happily in the bar in the piazza near our apartment. Not for us one of those beautiful Renaissance palazzos whose chiseled facades decorate Rome's better streets and whose parquet and paneled, gilded, and mirrored interiors have sheltered wealthy Romans for centuries. Ours was just the top floor of an ancient peeling stucco building with reluctant plumbing and possibly dangerous electricals in what was still the workmen's quarter of Rome known as Trastevere. And for a seven-year-old let loose on its cobbled alleys and squares, it was Paradise.
When we first stepped off the Alitalia flight into the hot sunshine of a Roman summer my father, Jonathon Boyland Harrington from Atlanta, Georgia, told me from now on to call him Jon-Boy instead of Daddy, reasoning it would make me feel more grown-up and him, I guess, more of the "southern writer" and less of the single parent. This was the role he'd been playing since I was three, when he'd picked me up and we'd left my mother because, he told me, of her "drinking and carousing." Again, I wasn't sure what carousing meant, but young though I was, I knew all about Mom's drinking.
"I'll never drink and carouse, Jon-Boy," I reassured him that day at Rome's airport, and he gave me that crooked grin and the lift of a black eyebrow that made him more than just handsome and said, "You betcha won't, girl; Italian women don't behave that way." Which I guessed also meant that from now on I should consider myself Italian — at least for the duration of our stay in that country.
We lived at the center of a maze of narrow, winding, secretive streets, more like alleys really, with tall, thin buildings crowding each side. The old gray stone showed where centuries of different-colored stucco had peeled off, and there was always laundry hanging overhead — snowy-clean undershirts and colorful tablecloths and the whitest of sheets. Up on the roofs you could catch a glimpse of scrawny little trees and shrubs sprouting among the TV aerials. The alleys smelled of cats and fresh-ground coffee, of laundry and heat vibrating off stone.
My new neighborhood was far from glamorous, just "homey" in a foreign sort of way. It was certainly light-years from the grassy-lawned suburban street I had called home for most of my short life, and where the aromas were mostly of buttered popcorn or freshly mowed grass. These Roman smells were new and exciting.
My alley was called vicolo del Cardinale, though I can't believe any real red-robed cardinal ever lived anywhere near there. Perhaps he just took a walkabout once and the name stuck. I was usually out on my vicolo early, waving to my new friends visible at the windows of their tiny kitchens or already on their way back from the market — in which case I knew I'd overslept.
These local women knew, via the grapevine, that I had no mother, and because I was usually on my own they watched out for me. They always asked where I was going and shook their heads disapprovingly when I told them I did not attend the scuola elementare and that Jon-Boy was teaching me himself. But they still liked him. How could they not? He was Mr. Charm personified, and he always had time for a chat with them.
In their black dresses and flat-back granny shoes and with their kind, lined faces they were all grandmas to me. I ate homemade pasta in their kitchens, admired pictures of their grown-up sons and their "real" grandchildren, and promised to always be good so that one day I would marry someone like that and give Jon-Boy a grandson of his own. "That would straighten him out," they said, nodding, satisfied at having solved our family problems so simply. How I wish they had.
Still, out in the early-morning alley, with my face hastily splashed with water, a cursory brush of the teeth, and my long dark hair in a thick, clumsy braid swinging between my shoulder blades, I felt the heady rush of freedom for the first time as I followed the sharp sweet smell of freshly ground coffee and sugary buns until the tall, shadowed alley burst onto the piazza in a shock of sunlight and activity.
The news vendor had already set up his stand and a van was delivering copies of the morning papers and sport magazines that seemed, along with Italian crossword puzzles, to make up most of his stock. Almost immediately behind him, separated by a scattering of small tables with metal chairs that scraped the uneven paving stones with a terrible screech every time someone took a seat, was the Bar Marchetti, already with a few male customers propping up the counter. One foot on the brass rail, they leafed through the early news while knocking back an espresso piled high with sugar.
Across the way in her small wooden hut, Adriana, the flower seller, waved to me from behind a bank of multicolored blossoms, and I made a fast detour from my predetermined route to the bar just to receive her quick kiss. She tucked a pink carnation into my braid and asked anxiously when I would start school like a normal child. I quickly reassured her that Jon-Boy would be giving me a math lesson later that day. This was of course untrue, because Jon-Boy had about as much knowledge of math as any seven-year-old and about as much money sense as your average flea. But that's another story.
Off I sped again, pausing only to peer through the tall wooden doors of the flat-fronted little church topped with a classic pediment and a small verdigrised cross. The plain exterior led into an intriguing ornate gold and frescoed dimness lit by flickering candles. I did not go in because I was heading to the bar for my coffee and cornetto, the staple breakfast of every Italian, of whom, after just a couple of months, I now counted myself as one.
"Buon giorno, Angelo." I stood with both feet on the brass rail, elbows propped on the bar. Switching my braid over my shoulder I chewed on the end, smiling my gap-toothed seven-year-old smile at him.
Angelo was in his thirties, a big man, broad shouldered, strong necked and shaggy haired, with a wide face inset with glossy dark brown eyes and long straight lashes, like a cow's. He had a perpetual overnight growth of dark beard from which his teeth gleamed large and shiny white.
I had a kind of flirtation going on with Angelo, my very first. In fact I had not known how to flirt until I came to Rome and sat alongside Jon-Boy in the cafés, watching elegant pretty women walk a little slower as they passed, smiling from the corners of their eyes at him, turning their heads and giving him a long slow look that said whatever was said between a man and a woman. I practiced this new knowledge on Angelo and like most Italians with children, he humored me and allowed me to twist him around my little finger — something I doubt I could do with a man today.
"Ciao, bella," he said, accepting my money and handing me a scontrino, a receipt, which I then gave back to him in exchange for my breakfast. This was the way it worked in Italy. Angelo knew my "order" and was already at the hissing, sputtering machine fixing my cappuccino, a drink invented by the Capuchin monks long before espresso machines were thought of, and to whom I shall be eternally grateful.
Angelo piled my cup high with froth, flung a lavish dusting of powdered chocolate on top and shoved it across the counter at me. He picked out the crispest cornetto, wrapped it in a small square of wax paper and handed it to me. Next to Italian ice cream and real Italian pizza, this was my favorite thing on earth. I loved the way the crisp layered pastry crunched when I bit into it, powdering my T-shirt with crumbs, and then the soft sweetness as my teeth and taste buds encountered the center. I took a deep slug of the cappuccino, wiped the chocolate dust and crumbs from my mouth with the back of my hand, and beamed up at my hero. "Great," I said, forgetting all about speaking Italian I was so lost in my pleasure.
"Great!" he replied in return, and I laughed because coming from him it sounded funny. "Ecco, so what you do today?" he said in the kind of simple Italian I had just mastered. (Conjugating verbs was a mystery never to be solved.)
"I'm going to the market in Campo de' Fiori to buy salad for tonight's supper." I patted the money folded in my jeans pocket, filled with the importance of my task. "I'll buy salad and cheese and prosciutto. And bread, of course."
"But shouldn't you be in school?" Angelo asked the question I knew was going to haunt my childhood days in Rome. I shrugged it off as nonchalantly as I could, though I admit I was starting to get worried. What if the police came looking for me? Arrested me right here on the piazza with everybody looking on? What if they hauled me off to face the principal at the school in front of all the other kids? The humiliation of that thought left my mouth hanging open — not a pretty sight when it was still half-full of cornetto — but Angelo merely smiled and patted my bony shoulder. "Hey, be happy while you can, piccolina," he said. "Remember, life is short." And he slid a second cornetto across the counter with a wink that said it was free, then went to attend to his other customers, piling in now for their morning espresso fix.
Caffeine was already thundering through my veins, giving a fast lift to my skip as I headed past Pizzeria Vesuvio, my favorite pizza joint, threading my way through a maze of familiar alleys and dodging the speeding Roman traffic that stopped for no one.
I stood for a moment on the corner of the Campo de' Fiori, taking in the crowded square. Awninged stalls were piled high with vegetables and fruits whose scents tickled my nostrils and whose rainbow of colors dazzled my eyes. Wasps buzzed over the peaches and a rattle of female chatter hovered in the air. Smart Roman ladies, long legged in short skirts and heels, perfectly made up, perfectly coiffed, picked over tiny yellow-flowered zucchini and moist dove gray mushrooms as expertly as the local black-clad grandmothers, giving the same intense scrutiny to each piece because nothing less than perfect was good enough.
The displays of flowers near the central fountain put Adriana's to shame. Towering orange gladioli, buckets full of coral roses and banks of greenish-white lilies whose smell captured you at twenty paces, and always the tiny baskets of dense purple violets. I bought one of these to put in my room; then I purchased a single tall white lily. I would present it to my father at the dinner table that night, when my salad and ham and cheese were artistically arranged on plates next to a glass of his favorite local white Frascati wine. It would be a sample of my love, because no girl ever loved her father more than I did.
Dragged back to a cold Chicago evening by a sudden blast of wind that sent the ficus leaves scattering across the terrace, I recalled how I had felt that Roman morning, with the sun hot on my back and my pigtail bouncing. How Angelo's bright white smile had sent my heart racing and the way the sugary taste of the cornetto had shocked my taste buds and how Adriana's concerned kiss had made me feel so wanted. I could smell again the lilies in the Campo de' Fiori, and I smiled, suddenly realizing that what I was remembering was that elusive emotion called happiness.
I didn't know it on that sunny morning in Rome, but I had yet to experience true happiness. The "real thing" would not come until the following year, when Jon-Boy took me to live in the house in Amalfi. The place where, ten years later, he would die so mysteriously.
Excerpted from The House in Amalfi by Elizabeth Adler. Copyright © 2006 Elizabeth Adler. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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