A story of the power of memory, Midnight at the Tuscany Hotel explores the mysteries of the mind, the truth behind lore, and the miracle of inspiration.
After thirteen months at war, Vittorio Gandy is haunted by memories, and his former life is unrecognizable. Once a gifted painter, now he can’t bear the vivid, bleeding colors on a canvas. His young son doesn’t remember him, and his wife, Valerie, is scared of him. But the most disconcerting change is in Vitto’s father, Robert Gandy, who has fallen from being a larger-than-life sculptor to a man whose heart has been broken by the death of his muse—Vitto’s mother—and whose mind has been taken by Alzheimer’s.
When Robert steals away in the night, Valerie, Vitto, and his new acquaintance and fellow veteran John go to the only place Robert might remember—the now-abandoned Tuscany Hotel, where it was once rumored that creatives of all kinds could find inspiration. When they find him there, Robert’s mind is sound and his memories are intact.
Before long, word gets out that drinking from the fountain at the hotel can restore the memories of those suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia. The rooms once again fill up with guests—not artists this time, but people seeking control over their memories and lives. Vitto desperately wants to clear his own mind, but as he learns more about his late mother’s life and her tragic death, he begins to wonder whether drinking the water comes at a price.
|Publisher:||Nelson, Thomas, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
James Markert lives with his wife and two children in Louisville, Kentucky. He has a history degree from the University of Louisville and won an IPPY Award for The Requiem Rose, which was later published as A White Wind Blew, a story of redemption in a 1929 tuberculosis sanatorium, where a faith-tested doctor uses music therapy to heal the patients. James is also a USPTA tennis pro and has coached dozens of kids who’ve gone on to play college tennis in top conferences like the Big 10, the Big East, and the ACC. Learn more at JamesMarkert.com; Facebook: James Markert; Twitter: @JamesMarkert.
Read an Excerpt
Private First Class Vittorio Gandy walked the narrow sidewalk with a standard army duffel in each hand. The weight of the bags kept his hands from shaking.
American flags rippled from porches, bits of color under a low, gray November sky. Miss Cannon's azalea bushes looked to be blooming, but up close the blooms were just dull remnants of confetti recent rains had glued to the branches. The war had ended months ago, the street parties making way for an uneasy postwar normalcy — a big collective breath of what now? The waiting of so many wives for husbands to return home. The grief of widows praying some mistake had been made.
Vitto sometimes wished he'd been among the latter. That kind of sleep could prove deep and untouched.
Wind moved the flags again. He focused on the rippled cadence, slowed his pace as his boots grew heavy, like mud still sucked on them. Maybe he should have warned her he was coming home today. Coopus had said to surprise her, but maybe that wasn't a good thing. Even though Coopus was still officially counted among the living, most of Company C said the man had basically died in Merbeck. So why did I listen to a man who had no life behind his eyes. No fluctuation in his voice.
The last time Vitto had written Valerie had been almost two weeks ago, from Camp Kilmer in New Jersey, the place where it all had started after his enlistment in July of '44. Back when the mail was censored and all the men were scrambling to get their wills done, when medics were poking them with this syringe and that — mandatory shots like bee stings. He'd been back in the States since September. Just waiting to be officially discharged, he'd told her in every letter, in response to her weekly question: "When are you coming home?"
Realizing he'd come to a complete stop in front of Mr. Campbell's house, he urged his legs onward. Leaves skittered, and he flinched. His grip tightened on the duffel bags. Last night he'd dreamed of this moment, Valerie jumping into his arms right on the sidewalk, asking what was in the bags. In the dream he'd unzipped them and shown her all the dead soldiers inside, and she'd screamed.
"Just clothes," he whispered as he walked. And K-rations. A shovel. The knife I took from that Nazi I killed at Unna. A dog barked from the Levenworths' backyard. His eyes flicked to the sound. The beast sounded hungry, rabid. Vitto fingered the handgun hooked to his belt, but then an image flashed of little William taking his first steps across the living room floor. Steps free from those little braces he'd had to wear, the ones the doctor had put on him too early, concerned when they didn't look to be growing straight. Steps that Vitto had missed. Steps he'd urgently encouraged the boy to take in the days leading up to his departure so he wouldn't miss them. "Ticktock goes the clock, William." The boy had been almost four and barely walking when he'd left — a delay they had worried about. And now, according to Val's letters, he was sharp as a tack and walking fine. Without the braces.
Vitto stopped again on the sidewalk, knelt down, and buried the .45-caliber pistol in one of the bags, under the box of cigarettes.
Unlike most other artists he knew, he hadn't been a smoker before the war. He'd smoked his first cigarette on the deck of the USS St. Cecelia as she cut through waves in the Atlantic. He'd coughed and choked on it before the wind took it out into the froth and Coopus laughed. England had been in the midst of a severe cigarette shortage when they arrived, and they'd handed them out to the dockmen at Southampton like they were dispersing gold.
A month later they'd been begging for them themselves.
Now smoking was as regular as breathing. Vitto lit a cigarette, wedged it between his chapped lips, and zipped up the bag. When he stood back up he got light-headed. Shouldn't have bypassed breakfast. But with his nervous stomach at the train station, even the sight of coffee had made him queasy. He regripped the duffel bags and let the cigarette smolder as he walked the final block toward home.
In the left breast pocket of his uniform was a picture of Valerie on their wedding day six years prior. White dress and brunette curls pinned high in a Rita Hayworth updo. Eyes blue as the oceans he used to paint. Sculpted lips as if carved from one of his father's statues. Lips made to fit his own, as he'd told her at thirteen, the final nudge needed to get her permission to plant one on her right there on the hotel's piazza, carefully concealed behind one of the sculptures as dusk cast giant shadows across the travertine.
When he'd kissed her at the train station, he'd promised it wouldn't be their last. After that he'd sometimes kissed his machine gun before battle. One time he'd kissed the tank for good luck. He'd kissed Stevenson's bloody forehead right before he closed his eyes in the town of Rheinberg. He wondered how Valerie would kiss him now. Like the young vibrant man she remembered or the shell that now returned?
He slowed his pace again, inhaled on the cigarette without touching it. Remembered that first night on the St. Cecelia, when the waves had made half the men sick. Vitto had been sitting on his bunk in the dark, using the flashlight to stare at Val's picture — unbent and fresh at that point — when Private Beacher dipped his head of black hair down from the top bunk and blew cigarette smoke in his face.
* * *
"She's a doll."
"Yeah." Vitto smiled, looked up into the drifting smoke tendrils.
Beacher's eyes were ornery. "I'll gladly be the one to give her the news, Gandy."
"That her man died in battle." Beacher's cigarette glowed amber. They were only supposed to smoke on the deck. "Don't worry. I'll treat her good. You know, I'll be a good father to your son."
And then his head disappeared. The bunk creaked heavy as Beacher shifted to get comfortable, and a few minutes later the goon was snoring. Vitto was too stunned to retaliate — it was the first of many instances that told him war didn't always exist in the real world — and didn't sleep all night. In hindsight, he should have grabbed his .45 and blown a hole through that top bunk.
Later, Vitto swore to Coopus that Beacher had tried to get him killed in battle. Twice.
"Why would he do that, Gandy?"
"He wants to steal my wife and kid."
Other than shaking his head, Coopus didn't have an answer for that. Beacher was odd, but he never tried to get Vitto killed again, although he did return home with one less arm.
* * *
Vitto stopped in front of their driveway, a nubby concrete appendage leading to the small one-story brick house he'd bought after his father's Tuscany Hotel closed at the tail end of the Depression. He and Valerie had tried for years to get his father to come live with them — pointing out that the hotel wasn't going to suddenly come back to life. But Sir Robert Gandy was stubborn and had refused every time they offered, choosing instead to live alone at the once-opulent hotel that now swallowed him. "Someone has to guard the artwork," he'd said. "Someone has to keep the mice out." Even the lure of living with his new grandson, William, hadn't worked. Then suddenly, the week before Vitto left for training at Camp Kilmer, Robert had finally agreed because "It's what Maggie would have wanted."
"Living in squalor," his father had muttered, standing before Vitto's house with his suitcases in hand, his long white hair wild in the wind, his sculpting equipment weighing down the back of Vitto's Ford Model A pickup with the yellow rims and the sleek running board that Robert refused to use.
"It's not as bad as that, Dad."
"Sure it is."
Robert had insisted that he'd gone from his own hotel to a hole in the wall. "Well, it's my hole in the wall," Vitto had answered, grabbing his old man's bags. "But it's still your town." A town, according to Val's letters, that had been there for Val and Robert the entire time Vitto had been overseas, much as it had rallied in support after Magdalena's death. "Not a week goes by that a neighbor doesn't knock on the door asking if we need anything, Vitto."
Robert had bought the land for the town he named Gandy after returning from his trip to Italy in the 1880s, the one where he'd met Vitto's mother, Magdalena. Robert's father, Cotton Gandy, had willed his only son his quarry and oil fortune, and Robert had spent every bit of it over the decades, first starting the town, then building the hotel.
All for a girl.
Vitto inhaled on the cigarette, wondered what his father looked like now. He'd sired Vitto very late in life and had already been walking hunched over before Vitto left for the war. Valerie hadn't mentioned him much in her letters, saying only that he spent most of his days out back carving on stone, turning their meager backyard into a snippet of what his hotel once had been, and complaining about having to live in what they were now calling a subdivision. Even though the houses were spaced out enough to grow whatever was needed, Robert said they might as well be living in tenements.
The house actually looked pretty good. The grass out front was green and trimmed. Window boxes showed colorful blooms. Valerie wasn't one to sit back and wait. She'd organized blood drives, sold war bonds, and kept her own victory garden on the side of the house. Back in February, about the time Vitto was marching through Holland, she'd taken a factory job to help pay the bills.
"Your father's broke, Vitto," she'd written. "His finances aren't what they once were. And they certainly aren't what his ledger claims. Turns out he's forgotten how to do simple math."
Vitto exhaled around the cigarette butt, spat it to the sidewalk, and crushed it under his boot. The front door flew open as if she had sensed him. Or maybe she'd been waiting in the reading chair next to the window — if not for him, for the daily mail. There she stood in a flowery yellow and red dress that ended at the knees, hair done up like he remembered, lips painted red, one hand trying to conceal her shock, the other clutching her stomach. She stepped out onto the porch, one hand still holding on to the screen door, as if afraid to test the waters.
"William, come quick," she called over her shoulder. "Get your grandfather. Your father is home!"
She took a step, and another, and then hurried down the front stoop and across the yard. He dropped the bags in time to catch her. He staggered at first, but then her momentum spun him into a swift circle of laughter and tears. He gathered her in his arms, the underside of her thighs settled into his open hands like a final puzzle piece restored, and he spun her again and again until they collapsed, laughing, in the middle of the front yard. Coopus had been right after all. Surprise was the way to go.
On the train he'd wondered if his face was capable of smiling again or if his heart would ever thrum warm, but Valerie brought about both in an instant. Some of her hair came undone, tickling his neck as she kissed him on the lips and face so rapidly he could hardly keep up. He wanted to ask her when she had started smoking, because he could smell it, but her perfume overrode the tobacco smell, enveloped and brought him back.
Neighbors stepped from their homes, pointed, equally happy that Vittorio Gandy had finally come home. Robert was just looking at it all wrong; a Gandy living with the public wasn't a negative thing. The hotel might be closed down, but their name was still held up on that pedestal.
The screen door closed. Valerie stood from the grass, wiped her dress, and beckoned. Vitto swallowed hard, fought back tears. His boy was five years old now, with unruly chestnut hair that now resembled his own.
"William, come on now. Don't be shy." Valerie waved him toward her.
William shook his head, defiant.
Vitto stood beside her. "It's okay. He couldn't walk straight the last time I saw him."
The boy moved slowly down the steps, then ran behind his mother's leg, burying his face in the waves of her dress.
Vitto hunkered down, blinking back tears — couldn't get over the running — now eye level to his son.
Valerie coaxed the boy out until one of his eyes showed. "William, it's your daddy."
"Not my daddy," said William, hiding again.
Vitto's heart skipped. He'd prepared for this, but hearing it weighed heavy. Uncle Sam had stolen time he'd never get back.
"William, don't say that," she said. "This is your daddy."
"Not my daddy."
"It's okay, Val. Don't push it."
The screen door opened again. Vitto locked eyes with Robert Gandy on the porch, anticipating the fatherly embrace he'd imagined after every bloody battle across Europe. Same embrace he'd hoped for as child, when he'd imagine being wrapped up in those strong sculptor's arms, smelling stone dust and pipe smoke on Robert's loose, half-buttoned shirts. Embraces like the ones he'd share with Magdalena and all the regular hotel guests every time they'd return, but rarely with his son.
Certainly the war would change things.
There he was a few dozen steps away, still larger than life, long silver hair flowing. Vitto nodded toward his old man, then took a step in his direction.
Robert didn't return the nod. He looked at Valerie as if confused.
She said, "Vitto, there's something I didn't tell you in the letters."
Vitto looked from his wife — and his son who didn't remember him — to his father, who stared as if he didn't know who he was.
And then Robert confirmed it, his voice agitated and paranoid.
"Who are you? Valerie, who is this man? Should I call the police?"CHAPTER 2
Dr. Aimes thinks it's something called Alzheimer's disease."
Vitto chewed the last bite of his ham sandwich and watched out the kitchen window, where his father stood on a quaint backyard patio of stone and mosaic tiles, staring at a tall slab of marble, carving tools in hand. Two minutes ago, he'd gotten up from the table in a rush, as if an idea had struck him. He'd yet to start chipping away at the stone.
"Vitto, did you hear what I said?" Valerie cleared her throat. "Dr. Aimes says it might be what he calls Alzheimer's. I never heard of it before, but apparently it happens to people. It's not just hardening of the —"
"What's he doing?"
She shifted in her chair. "He does that every day. An idea strikes him. He rushes out to sculpt, and then he forgets."
"The idea." She nodded toward the window. "And then he stands there trying to remember."
"How long has this been going on?"
"In hindsight, he was showing signs before you left. Repeating things he told us five minutes prior. Calling William by your name. Misplacing his tools. Two months ago he cut his mouth up real good. Got confused in the middle of the night, grabbed a razor to brush his teeth. Now I hide the razor, shave him myself. Fights me like the dickens some mornings."
Vitto watched his wife, perhaps for too long because she caught him staring.
"Nothing." But it was far from nothing. He'd been staring at her in awe but was afraid to say it — in awe because of her pretty face he wanted to touch but somehow couldn't or shouldn't, in awe because of those blue eyes that still looked as bright as liquid paint, in awe because of who she still was, that comforting soul, even as a child, who had always seemed to be a bandage for things in need of bandaging. Like Juba, he thought, just like Juba, wondering why it had taken a war and back to realize it.
Nothing was a far cry from what he felt, but in the saying of it, that one simple yet complex word, he realized there was something in him the war hadn't been able to touch or, in the way Val now eyed him, change — his inability to verbalize what he felt, his refusal to show his emotions. She claimed it had started when Magdalena died, but he reckoned that flaw might have started way before that.
Vitto scooted his chair back and struck up a cigarette, spotting William watching cautiously from the hallway. "Come here, boy." He patted the seat next to him, his fingernails dirty with soil or blood — the weathered hands of a soldier now instead of a painter.
William moved with caution, then took the seat in between his parents.
Vitto exhaled up toward the ceiling, watched his son, who still seemed afraid to watch him back. "I got something for you." He opened a pouch on his belt and removed a hand grenade. Valerie jumped in her seat, and William's eyes swelled. "It's a dud," he said to his wife, then pointed at the grenade. "It's German. Took it off a Nazi I killed outside of Ossenberg. We were taking this factory —"
He stopped, tapped the grenade — had the full attention of his son now. "Anyway. Kraut's name was Wilhelm. German equivalent of William. I think." Valerie looked away. He said to the boy, "Go on. It's yours."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Midnight at the Tuscany Hotel"
Copyright © 2019 James Markert.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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