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By William Harrison
Texas Review PressCopyright © 2011 William Harrison
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Here a new season is born. Here a new country Is found deep in the soul of that Rome we loved of old. We must welcome the new and live in its joy and be gay; soon will the night come on. —attributed to Ovid
He and his friends were on Lake Como again.
They had been coming to the Villa Cappaletti for seven years. A few spats had occurred, but the six men remained compatible—five of the six played golf together—and they were all resilient, good humored, and with considerable energies as they drifted into their middle years.
Yet they really didn't know one another.
That summer Harry took an interest in their relationships as he hadn't done before. It was as if he waked up from a long sleep to study them. Men, he usually supposed, thought in terms of projects—with a few impersonal stories told to one another along the way—while women were more often the ones who analyzed interactions and fretted over who thought what about whom. But then Harry began to think about them, the men and women alike. Among other revelations he found that he didn't completely know his own wife.
All of this because of the August murders.
Each August for years and years, he learned during this visit, some child went missing around the lake. Sometimes the body was quickly discovered, sometimes not. These were little girls around eight or nine years old.
This was the summer Harry began to suspect that one of his own group might be responsible.
Although the great Hotel Villa d'Este remained one of Europe's exclusive retreats Lake Como was no longer particularly fashionable with the rich. An American actor bought a villa, yes, and the German industrialist still had a place, but in recent years visitors tended to be the newly wealthy Russians, a few Japanese, Brits or American tourists—solidly middle class with homes, cars, stock accounts and the common luxuries back home—who came for a week or so then drifted away. Harry's group spent a month at the villa near Lenno, a residence situated directly on the water. For all of them the lake kept its old world charm and although Leo Jones was renovating a stone ruin nearby—work on his villa dragged on and on—they continued to like the Villa Cappaletti well enough. The days there were interrupted by brief showers and afterward sunlight played on the cliffs opposite the villa—they loved the changing colors—and illumined the Alpine peaks to the north.
Along a private footpath not far from the villa stood a ferry station where one could catch a water taxi or the public ferry over to Bellagio or travel up or down the elongated glacial lake to other small towns. While the wives usually shopped around the shore the men played golf or hiked. Each couple usually rented a car. Leo sometimes bought a used van and left it behind in September.
Everybody took breakfast together on the open porch of the villa then came back each day to dress for dinner at the local restaurants. They sometimes split into smaller groups for the evening meal and during the days they drifted away for their private time. They observed an unspoken agreement that wives and husbands needed to be apart, that couples had to free themselves from other couples, and that they rhythms of separation had to be observed.
They came together originally because of Leo Jones and his money.
Some fifteen years ago in Texas he hit a winning streak that never stopped. Until then he had worked for a number of companies, but then his luck started: successful gambles, options that paid off, and the ride in tech stocks that took him into the hundred millions. His climb was so fast—and Leo never went to college—that he soon dropped all his barroom pals and looked for brighter ones: the psychologist, Olan, who helped him with the stress of it all; the photographer, Harry, who produced an especially flattering portrait; Kelton, the journalist who ran with the Texas Monthly crowd; his doctor, Wade, whose wife was a romance novelist and local celebrity; and Roper his lawyer. The men and their wives became his new intellectual guides.
Leo demanded conversations with real topics, information, good gossip, and entertainment value. He wanted wit, if possible, or lacking that at least some crude humor close to his own. Consciously or not, each member of the group competed to give him what he wanted.
In turn, they enjoyed the perks he provided.
His private jet took them to New York each year where he sometimes upgraded their commercial airline tickets. He rented the limos that delivered them from the Milan airport to the courtyard of Villa Cappaletti. He paid for the better wines at dinner. There were yachting excursions up to Gravedona at the north end of the lake and shopping safaris over to Lugano. He spoiled them with mud baths, massages, dozens of small gifts—matching umbrellas, bits of jewelry—and insisted that all of them were special and talented.
They accepted the perks and allowed themselves to fall under his spell, feeling that they were part of his run of luck and that he certainly deserved to have such friends. None of them—and they conceded this—could resist the flattery that such a wealthy man wanted them in his life.
"What's the specialty here?" someone asked when they visited a new restaurant one evening.
"I think the Heimlich Maneuver," answered Zeta, Harry's wife.
'It became Leo's favorite line that season, often repeated.
He was a small man, paunchy, with tiny hands, yet one of the better golfers. He had an abundant mane of grey hair, always coiffed, and insisted on being tanned—dark and shiny, if possible—so that his hair and toothy smile showed up well in contrast.
Along his temples and at the top of his cheekbones the small red veins of a hard drinking man also announced themselves. His standard was Bushmill's Irish whisky, but he also ordered quantities of champagne—which he only sipped during the occasional toasts—and lots of red wine for the group, both French and the Lombard vintages, so that cases accumulated in everyone's room as the holiday went along.
Leo specialized in the inappropriate. Jackie, his wife, called him pottymouth and tried to ignore him when he called attention to some woman's cleavage, usually some stranger's at a nearby restaurant table. He also told too many anecdotes about a high school majorette or a secretary or some whore in his past, revealing more about his own embarrassing tastes than anyone in the group bothered to acknowledge. Yet he was never discourteous to wives in the group; he seemed to remain true to the sacraments of friendship.
As his success grew he moved upscale in wives. At first there was an Austin bargirl, then, briefly, a hairdresser who might have run a few hookers on the side. His third wife had divorced a Texas legislator and had turned to Leo in an act of vengeance, but she had a cocaine problem, so Leo became immune to criticism when he left her and also managed to emerge from the marriage with new political contacts.
Jackie, his current wife and the only one known to those who went to Italy in the late summers, was an amateur painter and a widow with money of her own. In her fifties she possessed a regal look and somehow gave Leo a more substantial bearing too.
A few years ago Leo became annoyed with Jackie when she set up her easel and watercolors on the cliffside near Bellagio, selling her works in competition with the artists across the lake before the polizia shut her down. She paid a modest fine for operating without a license, but told Leo that she sold three of her works and broke even on the money.
"You didn't need the money!" Leo pointed out.
"But I wanted to see if I could compete. And I sold three little paintings in less than four hours, so I found out!"
"You should've asked me about it!" he protested.
"Why? You would've said no."
"What was your big sale?"
"I sold one for a hundred dollars."
"That's not bad," he admitted, and the crisis passed.
Zeta, Harry's wife, tended to analyze Leo, observing that he made inappropriate sexual remarks because he felt inferior. "He might not even be sexual at all," she remarked. "All this Texas macho male bullshit. I've heard all of you indulge yourselves in it. Maybe Leo's really shy. I think Jackie just lets him carry on, but I believe she knows the truth about him: that he's really not a bit like that."
At his best Leo was entertaining, especially about his family and its physical characteristics. "Put bluntly," he announced, "we specialize in ugly. We're short legged, pot bellied, little red people with nice hair. Maybe too much hair. Our eyebrows get bushy and we have great clumps on our backs—even the women. None of my brothers can walk across a room without belching or farting. They even have ugly nicknames: Cooter, Horse, Nobby and Doodah. I've set them up in business dozens of times but they lose every penny. Doodah lives in four double-wide trailers lashed together out south of Lubbock and he's got a goddamned ocelot as a pet. Cooter spends all his time parachuting outta airplanes in Oklahoma. Owns airplanes, but just so he can jump outta the windows. Horse resides in a turf house—sorta dug out of this hill near Fort Stockton. Mama moves from one house to another and says she likes Horse's place best. Says it's cool as a root cellar."
Leo especially picked on his mother. She abused all her boys, he observed, for which she gained their curious devotion, and Leo's complaint with Olan, his therapist, was that Olan wouldn't listen to the entire list of offenses Leo wanted to recite regarding her.
Although he scarcely looked it Leo was light on his feet and liked to dance. He preferred Zeta—Harry's wife and by anyone's measure the best looking of the women—unless Roper brought along a particularly hot date as he liked to do. Leo's golf swing was oddly classic and sure: the slow backstroke, then the sharp forward lunge during which his paunch somehow got out of the way. His tee shots were around two hundred yards in length, but his play around the greens and his putting were solid. Harry once witnessed a drunken footrace between Leo and Roper, the much younger lawyer, and although Roper won—the distance seemed about sixty yards—it was only by a step. Afterward, too, Roper threw up while Leo, red in the face, had another Bushmill's.
As the group continued to travel together in August and to see each other occasionally in Austin—always at one of Leo's occasions—Olan began to annoy Leo more and more. The portly psychologist spoke slowly with a trace of a British accent and a slight lisp. It was part of an effort, Roper once noted, to somehow increase his authority. Olan also slapped his palms on tabletops by way of punctuating his speeches. At the end of his jokes he always slapped the table, rattling the silverware, as he led the laughter to his own punchlines.
His style and authority got Olan rough treatment within the group, but Olan knew it and often turned neatly on himself.
"Knowing nothing about human nature I became a psychologist!" he boomed out from time to time, always slapping the table when he said it.
But Leo increasingly didn't like the way Olan played golf—too slow—or how he gobbled his food—too fast—or how his lectures and jokes went on and on.
"If he hits a ball in the woods he goes in there and kicks it around," Leo complained to Harry. "I'm gonna follow him in there someday and beat him to death with an eight iron."
"Yeah, choose the proper club, that's important," Harry managed.
Everyone tried for a merciless conversational style.
They valued wisecracks, put-downs, self-effacements, good gossip or any anecdote—brief, please—with a stinger at the end. The style wasn't always achieved, but it was Texas hardball: okay, talk on, but up yours if you expose any piety or earnestness.
As they sharpened their wits on each other somebody invariably got cut, but recovery was part of the game—all good comebacks had special merit—and they liked to imagine that nobody really kept score.
Val, their romance novelist, was the occasional mistress of the malapropism who, describing the group, once, to some fellow Texans, said, "We're a talking and thinking group of friends, you see. We talk together, then we go back to our separate rooms and try to think what we might've said."
She was also their mystic, prone to accept the fashions of the New Age, everything from crystals to the Tarot, so often stepped into their line of fire. "My visions," she once explained, "aren't exactly seen with my eyes." To which Olan replied, "Would those be visions you see with your ears, Val dear?" She was always ready to cast horoscopes, give palm readings or dabble in numerology.
During one of the group's first years at the lake Val had an affair with a local Italian, a minor bureaucrat who owned a rickety sailboat. Wade, her husband, wandered back to the hotel room unexpectedly to catch them in the act. After a shouting match in the corridor and on the carpeted stairwell during which many threats were exchanged, Wade took her home. But they were back the next year with everything forgiven.
"Dalliance is just research," she explained to Kelton upon their return. "Everything I do, you realize, is for my art."
If Val took the greatest number of barbs from the group, she seemed to float above them, taking no offense, perhaps not detecting any.
"You're looking pale," Olan once said to her. "Is your mysticism getting worse?"
Val gave him only a smile. Meanwhile, her books—given loyal support by both Robin and Jackie—were considered unreadable by Zeta and the men. Zeta observed that Val started writing without knowing what she wanted to say and ended without knowing what she had written. The remark was occasionally repeated, but Val discounted Zeta.
"Zeta could possibly recognize a good book," Val countered, "but in my opinion she couldn't even write a bad one if she tried."
Val's mystic optimism sometimes gave the group a kindly view of her. Down at Bruno's restaurant one evening when everyone had moved beyond wine to cognac she stood at the stone wall above the lake with the spangled canopy of stars above her and said, "It's a benevolent universe, you know! Just look at this sky! The great wheel of the cosmos! You don't see the stars and planets bumping into each other out there, do you? No, everything is held in a beautiful balance by gravity and motion! Everything wants to survive—as we do, dear hearts—and to spin around in this wonderful dance! The universe wants us to thrive and receive its benevolence! And our molecules never die, not ever, just think! We are cosmic dust and our smallest particles live forever!"
"Personally," said Leo, "when I think about my smallest particle it depresses me."
The counterpunch got Leo a score and a few inebriated smiles.
Roper, Leo's energetic lawyer, brought his newest girlfriend, April, that year. April was not yet forty. She had been an exotic dancer at the Yellow Rose in Austin, then met Roper at his health club where she currently worked as a trainer. She still had her figure and wore a bikini to sunbathe that first afternoon at the villa, giving the men an expectant throb.
She also had two children back in Austin and didn't understand why no one else in the group had any.
"Because we're selfish as hell," explained Jackie, waving a martini their first evening together in the lounge. "I explained to my first husband that I wanted to do my watercolors and travel around. No kids. Of course Leo and I married late, so it isn't an issue. But I think everyone here's the same without many regrets.
"None here," Val agreed.
"Zeta might have a few," Robin observed.
"Maybe I used to," Zeta said. "But now I'm in my forties and that's that."
Harry reached over and touched her hand.
Excerpted from Black August by William Harrison. Copyright © 2011 William Harrison. Excerpted by permission of Texas Review Press.
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