'There were some Americans here when it happened.'
'How did you know they were Americans, Signora?' he asked.
'They had white shoes and they were very loud,' she answered.
'When it happened?' he insisted. 'Were you here? Did you see?'
She took her right cane and lifted it to point in the direction of the pharmacy on the corner, about twenty metres away. 'No, I was over there. Just coming in. I saw them, the Americans. They were walking this way, from the bridge, and then they all stopped to look at the stuff the vu cumprà had.'
'And you, Signora?'
She moved her cane a few millimetres to the left. 'I went into the bar.'
'How long were you in there, Signora?'
'Long enough for what?' he asked, smiling at her, not at all annoyed by her oblique answer.
'Barbara, the owner, after about eight, she takes all the tramezzini that haven't been sold, and she cuts them up into little pieces and puts them on the counter. If you buy a drink, you can eat all you want.'
This surprised Brunetti, unaccustomed as he was to such generosity from the owners of bars; from the owners of anything, for that matter.
'She's a good girl, Barbara,' the old woman said. 'I knew her mother.'
'So how long do you think you were in there, Signora?' he asked.
'Maybe half an hour,' she answered, then explained, 'It's my dinner, you see. I go there every night.'
'Good to know, Signora. I'll remember that if I'm ever over here.'
'You're over here now,' she said, and when he didn't respond, she went on: 'The Americans, they went in there. Well, two of them did,' she added, lifting the cane again and pointing at the bar.
'They're in the back, having hot chocolate. You could probably talk to them if you wanted to,' she said.
'Thank you, Signora,' he said and turned towards the bar.
'The prosciutto and carciofi is the best,' she called after him.
Brunetti hadn't been in the bar for years, ever since the brief period when it
had been converted into an American ice-cream parlour and had begun to serve an
ice-cream so rich it had caused him a serious bout of indigestion the one time
he had eaten it. It had been, he recalled, like eating lard, though not the
salty lard he remembered from his childhood, tossed in to give taste and
substance to a pot of beans or lentil soup, but lard as lard would be if sugar
and strawberries were added to it.
His fellow Venetians must have responded in similar fashion, for the place had changed ownership after a few years, but Brunetti had never been back. The tubs of ice-cream were gone now, and it had reverted to looking like an Italian bar. A number of people stood at the curved counter, talking animatedly and turning often to point out at the now-quiet campo; some sat at small tables that led into the back room. Three women stood behind the bar; one of them, seeing Brunetti enter, offered him a friendly smile. He walked towards the back and saw an elderly couple at the last table on the left. They had to be Americans. They might as well have been draped in the flag. White-haired, both of them, they gave the bizarre impression that they were dressed in each other's clothing. The woman wore a checked flannel shirt and a pair of thick woollen slacks, while the man wore a pink V-necked sweater, a pair of dark trousers, and white tennis shoes. Both apparently had their hair cut by the same hand. One could not say, exactly, that hers was longer: it was merely less short.
Copyright © 2005 by Donna Leon and Diogenes Verlag AG Zurich. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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