In the camera store, Luigi was being choosy. He smoothed the lapels of his jacket with both hands. He was thirty-seven, and the hair on his scalp was sparse. Already the same teardrop-shaped pattern that had balanced on his father's head was emerging, a tracing of the future. In order to draw attention away from that, he'd consciously weaned himself of a habitual gesture. Rather than smoothing back his hair the way he used to, he wiped his palms down the front of his jacket, settling his clothes into place.
"I don't know," he said, weighing the lens the girl had just handed him, as though its heft might determine whether it would serve his purposes.
The girl was wearing a white dress with navy blue polka dots, which did not suit her in the least, except for one feature: It wrapped in a low V over her breasts, and every time she leaned down to locate one of the lenses in the glass case that stood between them, it loosened ever so slightly and he could see one breast, like a round rosy pomegranate. He'd had a pomegranate once, in Italy, before the war. When he'd cut it open, he'd marveled at the community of seeds living inside the gel, then slurped them down.
"Maybe my father can help you," the girl offered, straightening. Standing tall, she was just an unremarkable girl, with none of the fertility promised by that one globe of flesh. The shelves behind her were filled with camera equipment, but those around Luigi were stocked with frames and photo albums.
"Is your father here?" She was seventeen, he guessed, maybe eighteen at the most. When he was stepping off that rotting boat from Naples, she'd been in diapers. Young people, Luigi considered at thirty-seven, had no sense of history. He shifted slightly, angling his left ear, his good ear, in her direction.
"He'll be back soon," the girl said. She blinked a little too hard when she mentioned her father, so Luigi pictured a bulky man, menacing in the manner of large Americans. Speak softly and carry a big stick, he thought. He'd learned that in the history class he'd taken to pass his citizenship test. Eight weeks of squeezing himself into a high school desk in the evening, and then the test had been disappointingly simple: "Who lives in the White House?" and "How many stars are there on the flag?" But as with everything, you didn't need to know the right answer; you just needed to know the answer they wanted you to give. Luigi was certain, for example, that many, many servants lived in the White House, cleaning up after the president and his family day and night, making them cheese sandwiches at 2:00 a.m. or dusting the offices late so as not to disturb, but he had also known that wasn't the correct response. He'd done what was required, and as a result, he had a shiny blue passport. The day it arrived in the mail, he threw out his old Italian identity card with the photo so faded that it was almost white and the words razza: italiana still clear at the bottom.
"He should be here in a minute," the girl said. She held out her hand and he passed the lens back to her and then admired how gently she set it on the counter, so that it made no sound as it touched the glass.
"Is there anything else you'd like to see in the meantime?" she asked, indicating the crowded shelves around them with a wave of her arm.
"No." He smiled. He had been in the United States nearly a decade and a half, but he still wasn't accustomed to the blank gentility of store employees. In Italy, shopkeepers kept their stock close and safe. No one would have put up with the manhandling of goods he saw in Shaleford. In the big, anonymous grocery store one day, a woman yanked a grape from its crowded stem and popped it into her mouth. When she caught him looking at her, she tilted her head and said, "There's no way to know unless you sample." Americans took no pride in their merchandise. You could try on clothes all day and buy nothing, and American store owners would give up with a shrug.
Luigi turned away from the girl and picked up a frame from the shelves behind him. It was filled, as were all the other frames on that shelf, with a picture of a small childlots of freckles, bowl haircut, gender unidentifiablehugging a puppy with floppy ears. On the shelf above, all the frames were filled with close-ups of the same smiling woman, her blond hair affecting a perfect wave across her forehead over and over.
That afternoon, Joe Preston's blond wife had picked Joe up at work, bringing along their two-year-old son, Joe junior. Never, Luigi thought, had a boy been more perfectly named. He was a miniature of his father in all respects, except that his hair looked soft and silky, not coarse, and his tiny teeth still sat obediently in perfect rows, not overlapping like his father's. He kept his left hand shoved into his pants pocket at a sharp angle, just as his father did, and rhythmically rocked his right foot onto its outside edge, just as his father did. As Joe proudly showed him around the lab ("Can you say microscope?"), Joe junior thrust his small, creased right hand on top of everything he could reach and announced, "This is my daddy's." He'd even rested that sticky hand on Luigi's thigh and proclaimed, "This is my daddy's." Joe had laughed, and so had Luigi, but when the child took his hand away, he left a miniature print of jam or grime, which Luigi unsuccessfully tried to wipe off in the men's room. The faint shape of five fingers and a palm still staked a claim to his right leg. Children marked you, Luigi realized, in ways you didn't anticipate.
He looked over his shoulder and watched the girl as she dusted the countertop with a rag. She had a steadiness to her. She worked carefully, but she didn't seem to do things just to look busy, unlike the way he sometimes sat at the lab, pencil poised over paper, but thought of something else altogether. Then again, her family probably owned the store. Some people were just lucky that waythey got things from their families. He'd watched in amazement as Joe Preston had hoisted Joe junior to face level, where he'd covered him with a series of kisses, ending with a trumpetlike burst on the child's stomach. Then Joe lifted his son so that the boy sat on his shoulders, took his wife's hand, and left work for the day.
Now a man, who looked not at all as he'd expected, opened the camera store's door and tinkled the bell that hung over it. This man was small and dark-haired, with a thin line of mustache resting on his lip. Whereas Luigi had pictured a muscle-bound giant, here was a man who carried himself confidently but kindly. This was not someone to intimidate his daughter. Maybe the girl just had a twitch.
"This man was wondering about a camera," the girl said by way of introduction. The shopkeeper in the suit stuck out his hand and shook Luigi's vigorously. "Doug," he said. Luigi nodded, but he didn't provide his own name. The one-syllable definitiveness of the name Doug had thrown him. Luigi had never seen a man that age so energetic. He was as compact as a coiled spring. Luigi smiled, then snapped his lips together to cover his teeth. For close to five years, he'd been visiting a dentist regularly. His mouth was a construction site of caps and bridges and half solutions to the faulty dental hygiene of the Italy years. His own father cleaned his teeth in the evening by chewing on a mint leaf and then rinsing with half a glass of white wine, which was believed to work as an antiseptic.
"Yes," Luigi said. "I'd like something simple, but I want to be able to control it."
"So, no Brownie for you," the man said pleasantly. He was a born salesman. Luigi sensed that, and he pulled himself up straight, ready for the pleasure of being led down a path to just what he wanted to buy.
"No, I think not," Luigi agreed. He affected a certain tone that was almost British, a combination of the Waspy accent native to Shaleford and the inflection he'd learned off a record called Speak American: Get Rid of Your Foreign Accent in Thirty Days or Less. The record jacket had a cartoon figure of a woman holding a small flag. A yellow eagle perched on her shoulder, peering suspiciously at the foreign listener.
"Well, I've got just the thing." The man unlocked a glass box along the wall and pulled out a smooth brown leather case. He set that on the counter and unsnapped it, then lifted out a shiny silver camera with a black strap. "It's a fine, fine camera. Thirty-five-millimeter."
He held the camera out to Luigi, who took it cautiously. "Do you know how to work one of these things?"
Luigi paused. "There's a manual, right?" He remembered what an instructor back in New York had told him about lab equipment: "Ninety percent of what you need to know, you'll find in the manual. The other ten percent is common sense." He'd been delighted to discover that all it took to sign up for the class was cashno raccomandazioni, no proof of citizenship.
"Hold it up to your eye." Doug came around behind Luigi and lifted his arms so that the camera swam near his face. "Look through the viewfinder. It's that little window in the back."
Doug's arms around him were warm and soft in the wool suit. Luigi relaxed and pressed the camera to his eye.
"I see black," he said.
Doug laughed, and it reverberated against Luigi's back. "Forgot to take the lens cap off," he said. He reached his right hand around Luigi's chest and, with a click, removed the black plastic disk. "Try again."
Luigi held the camera up to his eye. Through the window was the camera store in miniature. He swung to his left. There was the door, framed in a dotted-line rectangle. He swung to the right. There was the girl, leaning into the case with a dust rag, that one breast lolling dangerously at the top of her dress.
Eagerly, Doug reached his arms in front of Luigi and moved the ring around the lens. "This is how you focus." Luigi swung the camera around again, manipulating the ring so that his vision was fuzzy, then clear, then fuzzy. Objects came slowly in and out of focus, as if he were regaining his equilibrium after being hit in the head with a blunt, heavy object.
"If you don't mind my asking," Doug said with fake hesitancy, "what do you want such a good camera for?"
Luigi was thrown. Was he not good enough for the camera? He already loved it. Unconsciously, he ran one finger gently over the logo carved into its front.
"I want to take some pictures of Shaleford," he said. "Show my family where I live now."
"Just got here, did you?" Doug asked.
"I've been in America almost twenty years," Luigi said. Fourteen, to be exact, but like a good, if naturalized, American, he'd learned to exaggerate.
"But you're just moving to Shaleford now? I thought I knew everyone in Shaleford. Town's the size of a postage stamp."
"Right. I've bought a house on Slate Street." Luigi couldn't help smiling as he pictured his housethe clean white front of it, the fence, the green lawn. He'd changed the name on the mailbox the other day. It had taken some study, but finally he'd determined that the majority of mailboxes on the block were tagged with letters that could be purchased at the hardware store for eighteen cents apiece. "Are you sure that'll fit?" the man behind the counter had joked as he doled out the letters that spelled Bonocchio. The letters came backed with adhesive, but Luigi didn't trust them to stick, so he'd carefully penned his name on a piece of paper and taped that to the inside of the metal mailbox, where he reasoned it wouldn't suffer the effects of the weather.
"Eighteen Slate Street? The Harpers' house?"
Luigi didn't like thinking about the Harpers. Despite their American house, the couple hadn't appeared to have spent much time in it together. The first time the agent gave him a tour of the house, Luigi glimpsed through the open door of the shed a man sitting on a folding chair, drinking from a can. A baseball game played on the radio. They found Mrs. Harper at the kitchen table, an ashtray at her elbow.
Now Luigi nodded to Doug.
"Well, welcome, friend," Doug said, sticking out a hand to shake Luigi's again. "The American dream, owning that first house, eh?"
Luigi smiled. It wasn't his first house, but that wasn't a story he'd tell this man. His first house had been the Levis'. In 1940, he'd sat solemnly at the Levis' kitchen table as Ester's father signed the deed to the house and hectares of land over to him. They shook hands. The Levis couldn't dodge the laws any longer. Germans were encroaching. A lot of Jews had already left.
Ottavio Levi had treated him like a man, his equal. He had handed Luigi his own pen, with a fine quill and a shiny body. Luigi used it to sign his name to the deed. When they had finished, the notary, Vittorio Leoni, brought out a large stamp, painted it carefully with viscous ink from a glass pot, and slammed it down. It left an angry black mark on the paper.
"Ci fidiamo," Signor Levi said from Luigi's left. The notary blew on the ink and studied Luigi out of the corner of his eye.
"You can trust me," Luigi said. The whole thing seemed an esagerazione to him. Things would blow over quickly. The Jews would settle back where they had been. They'd return like a river changing direction.
"Mind if I ask where you're from?" Doug said, interrupting Luigi's thoughts.
Mind your own business, Luigi longed to say, as much to test the phrase as to rebuff the man's interest. He loved the Americanness of the phrase, the way the clean efficiency of businessas if each American had his own small steel plant or candy factoryentered into everything here. (In Italy, his mother would chide him, "Fa' i fatti tuoi." The Italian"Do your own facts"wasn't nearly as satisfying.)
"Italy," he said instead.
"Fine country," Doug said. "It's just that . . . I thought you might be Jewishright timing and all, coming just as the war startedand this camera here is made in Germany. You know how it is." Luigi felt a wave of warmth for the man. He was a good salesman, yes, but he was ethical. Luigi glanced at the girl to see if she appreciated her father as well. She was leaning her elbows onto the counter, her cheekbones in her hands. Luigi didn't have fond memories of Germans himselfa particular color of moss green, or the sound of certain words spoken harshly, made his stomach drop the way it did on elevators. The camera, though, was so elegant that he could almost convince himself it was Italian, or at least Swiss.
"So, should we wrap this up? Or do you want to take some snaps on the way home?" Doug asked.
Luigi paused uncomfortably. "The price?"
"The price! How could I have forgotten the most important thing?" Doug slapped his own forehead. "Memory's going, that's for sure. Let me check that for you." He scampered behind the counter and pulled out a black binder. The girl stayed where she was. After looking at a few pages and doing some figures in the air with his finger, Doug smiled at Luigi. "How's three-fifty grab you?"
Luigi set the camera down on the counter gently. "I'm afraid that's far too much." Every time he discussed price, he recalled his first purchase in the United States. He'd eaten a sandwich in a coffee shop, then tried to bargain with the cashier over the cost. He hadn't realized that the wheels of commerce here weren't greased with favors and acquaintance and respect. That was how he'd met Pasquale, who'd been eating a slice of pie at the counter. Pasquale had stepped in and shown him the ropes. Later, Luigi had gotten so accustomed to not bargaining that he'd wanted to pay the asking price for the house in Shaleford, but the agent had insisted that he negotiate, and he found he'd lost the touch.
"That includes the lens," Doug said.
Luigi shook his head and held out his hands, palms up.
"It's what the camera's worth," Doug said quietly, as if he and Luigi
really were friends.
"I'm not questioning the price," Luigi said. "I cannot pay that."
Doug sighed. "I like you. I want you to have the camera."
"I want to have the camera."
"How about this?" Doug tickled his own beard-free chin with one finger. "How about if I throw in a couple rolls of film, plus developing?"
Luigi shook his head sadly. "I'm sorry to have bothered you."
"Wait, wait." Doug came around to Luigi's side of the counter and placed a hand on his arm. "Don't go anywhere. At the very least I could sell you another camera."
Luigi thought he should leave. The word sell was so vulgar coming from this man's mouth that he didn't think he could tolerate it. But the itch for the camerafor a good camera with a shiny bodyfor pictures to send to his family to show them that he'd done it, that he owned property of his own, fair and square, wasn't fading. He stared longingly at the Leica.
Behind the counter, the girl seemed to wake up. He hadn't noticed her eyes before. They were set deep in her head, like chestnuts hiding in their shells. They were beautiful, but the right one turned in slightly, making her look haughty. Luigi, self-conscious about his own hearing problem, tried not to focus on it.
"What if I throw in some lessons? I'll teach you personally to take great pictures with that camera. I guarantee it. Your family'll think you live in a palace. All of Italy will be talking about it!" He pronounced the name of the country as a two-syllable word.
For the first time since her father had returned, the girl spoke. "Dad, if he doesn't want to buy it, sell him something else," she said. Her voice made it clear Luigi would not get out of there without buying anything. After she had spoken, as if that single sentence had been too much effort, she sighed, then turned and went behind the curtain that led to the rear of the store.
"I suppose." Doug tickled his chin again. "Well, I can sell you a Brownie. That's reasonably priced." When he pulled aside the curtain to duck into the back, Luigi glimpsed the girl a few feet behind it, sitting daintily on a packing crate with her legs crossed and a book in her lap. The back was dark, and she squinted to see the page. Doug returned holding a box made of thin, smooth cardboard, the kind that always reminded Luigi of his mother rolling out the sfoglia for pasta and holding it up to the light to check whether it was close to transparent. "Won't need anyone to show you how to use it, either. Easiest thing in the world," Doug said.
Luigi opened the box and peered in at the camera. Puzzlingly, it was made of black plastic. He took it out. It was ugly and utilitarian. Still holding the Brownie, he picked up the expensive camera in his other hand. His lust for fine things would be his downfall, his mother had always predicted.
"I'll take it," Luigi said, setting the Brownie back in its box and pulling the other to his chest.
"You will?" Doug looked genuinely surprised.
Luigi was surprised, too. The purchase of the house had almost emptied his account. How many mops had he held in fourteen years to get that house? he sometimes wondered. Then again, maybe it wasn't all that manyat the hospital, they rarely replaced the mops. Maybe he'd been squeezing the same drab one in the viselike wringer the whole time. From mops to bedpans, from bedpans, finally, to beakers.
The day he'd earned his certificate in laboratory technology, he couldn't help but think of Ester, as the third question required him to give the definition of an ester. "A compound, hydrolysis of which produces organic or inorganic acid and alcohol or phenol," he wrote automatically, and a whiff of lavender seemed to rise from the trail of lead his pencil left.
He thought, too, of Pasquale, who had guided him to that first job in the hospital in New York. Even after all that time, the image of Pasquale in his white orderly's coat, asserting that Luigi would never rise above his station, burned. Ladro. Luigi's feet ached in the weeks and months after Pasquale disappeared with his money. He walked the streets compulsively, looking for him. His friend Franco had given up and was resigned, but Luigi kept on until November, when the first snow fell. The slush began to seep into his shoes, and he could no longer justify his search.
"He's in California by now," Franco ventured.
"Andiamo in California allora," Luigi said, but the trip would have required money, and they had none. Luigi remembered how he'd flung open the dresser drawer in their shared apartment and found what he'd suspected: Below his ledger was the key, and below that nothing, simply the wood of the dresser drawer. No bankbook for the account he shared with Pasquale. He'd pounded his fist on top of the dresser, and the mirror shook.
After making the down payment on the house, Luigi's balance was almost back to zero. But he deserved this camera, as a reward, as a birthday present, as a memento of the moment when he'd changed, again. It hadn't been so hard to reinvent himself the first time, he reasoned, why should the second time be any harder? In this incarnation, he wanted to be a man with a fine camera.
"With the lessons and the film and the developing," Luigi said.
"Of course. Of course. It will be a pleasure." Doug was already ringing up the camera on the cash register, working quickly, as if he were afraid Luigi might change his mind.
"Take your time," Luigi said. And then he remembered an expression he loved, something he'd gleaned from the accent-reduction record, then had double-checked in the little printed booklet that accompanied it. "Take your time," he repeated. "I am a man of my word."
Copyright © 2007 by Natalie Danford. All rights reserved.