As the sweet-bitter cloudiness of sleep faded, Alex began making out the dimly outlined shapes of his bedroom: against the wall beyond the foot of the bed, the baroque lines of the dresser Domitilla’s mother had given them as part of the wedding dowry; facing his side, the custom mirror-lined closet put in after he’d opened his own legal practice; next to him, the matching night stand with a framed picture of Bartolomeo – the black and white cat that had kept them company for many years. Bartolomeo. He’d filled in a little of the space Paolo left behind after marrying and moving out. Every piece of furniture, every painting, every thing was in the same place as it always had been. Still and familiar. Alexander liked it that way.
After his eyes grew accustomed to the dark gray light of the morning, he noticed Domitilla sitting up beside. She nudging him. “Alexander, what is that?”
She held his arm in complete silence and tilted her head. It was the hour of the morning when time still hasn’t yet found itself, flowing in and out of different places with different speeds. Alexander didn’t know if ten seconds or ten minutes had passed before she jumped slightly and jerked her head. “There, did you hear it? What’s that?!”
Alex hadn’t heard anything but realized if he said so he wouldn’t be going back to sleep. He also realized that if he told her he’d heard something unusual she would insist he stay awake until he figured out what exactly it was, which usually meant waiting for Domitilla to first explain what she thought it was because, ‘really, it must be that and I’m sure that’s what it is.’ In any case Alex was fairly certain the day had begun prematurely. He raised himself onto an elbow. And listened.
He heard the ticking of the grandfather clock in the entrance and the distant hum and click of the alarm system they’d installed some years ago, (you never know, these thugs around.) He could even hear, in a way, the scent of last night’s fried peppers and garlic as he could hear the silence of the rarely used formal sitting room and library filled with all those clean law books published sometime before 1975. And if he listened carefully enough, Alex could even hear Felix – the gray and white cat they’d adopted after Bartolomeo passed on – contentedly curled up on the couch in front of the TV. Aside from that, Alex heard nothing except the distant sounds of the early morning just beginning outside the window and a faint gurgle of protest emanating from his stomach, (those peppers.) His wife nudged again. “Common Ale’, don’t you hear it?”
Alex tried to find a last ditch excuse that might let him at least close his eyes and pretend to sleep for the 15 minutes that remained before he would have had to get up anyway. “You must have heard the new wind chimes the Rimoldi’s hung up outside on their terrace, remember? Now, sweet dreams, my love.” He snuggled resolutely into his pillow hoping his response would be sufficient to keep Domitilla from barging into the last few moments of the night.
Failure. He resigned himself to an early morning. As he sat up he asked himself if Domitilla might finally be going dotty. After all, her aunt Viola had spent 6 years of her life in an asylum. (Well, a clinic on the Adriatic coast and even though her family insists it was just a spa…)
(…what was that?)
“There. That sound was not coming from Rimoldi’s terrace.”
“Shhh, quiet. Listen.” He listened. He heard. And just when Alex was sure he hadn’t heard any strange sound, that Domitilla might be entering a kind of senility, there below the click of the alarm, he heard a tiny, insignificant, modest and inoffensive but nevertheless clearly audible ‘squeeeak’ repeat. “It’s been doing that for the last hour…”
Alex lifted his hand. “Shhh.” He kept still. He waited, and waited, and just when again he thought there was nothing to hear, ‘squeak’. Defeat. The sound didn’t seem to be coming from any place he could identify but from someplace below, hidden. “Maybe the alarm system is broken. I’ll go look.”
Alex wrapped himself in a blanket, slipped his feet into the brown slippers Domitilla had given him for his birthday and waddled toward the alarm. The cool morning seemed to filter into his bones and prompted him to cuddle into the blanket around his shoulders as much as he could. He opened the door and stepped into the kitchen. To his right, a small, gray metal and plastic box on the wall hid the alarm. He opened the box. All the small lights inside which indicated the alarm status were green. Alex shrugged his shoulders and closed the little plastic door then puffed his cheeks and stood still.
After about 30 seconds he heard the noise again and grunted in protest. “Ohh, that’s not what I wanted to hear,” he muttered. He decided he would ignore the sound and hoped it would go away before the end of the day. Most things like that usually resolved themselves, Alex thought. He turned around and went toward the stove to pour his morning coffee.
There wasn’t an espresso machine on any of the burners. “Of course not, Alexander, Domitilla is still in bed,” he said softly. It had been several months since Alex had made his own morning coffee. It’s not that he was lazy. It was simply the way the morning usually went. Domitilla always got up before he did and always made the coffee, setting the cup on the table with some cookies and sugar on a plate set a little beside and to the left. He would shuffle in a few minutes after. She would remind him of the more important events of the morning as he sat down, always in the same chair, while he slowly let the dreams of the past night fade into the growing warmth of the day. Usually Felix would stand and stretch himself out on the end of the couch before strolling over and rubbing against Alexander’s leg. Alex would hold out a piece of cookie that Felix would sniff a moment before wrinkling his nose in disdain. Domitilla would set down a small saucer of milk. Ahhh, Felix.
Alex looked over at the couch. The cat was there in his usual spot at the far end, curled up into a fluffy doughnut. Then Alex reached up to take the coffee down from a cupboard shelf. Once opened, its chocolaty, rich aroma filled his nose and head and made him re-live thousands of other mornings and drink thousands of other cups of coffee that had begun thousands of other days. He decided he would use the big espresso maker today instead of the little one. He was going to need a triple to start his engines after the early wake.
He spooned the coffee into the old Bialetti – how many years? 30, maybe 40? – and clicked on the gas fire. Marta, his daughter-in-law, always had a new coffee maker whenever they drove out to visit. They were always a different shape or color or size and recently they’d bought an electric one that was triangular and colored by different shades of muted gray. The new machine grated the beans and made the coffee automatically. All you had to do was push a button. Alex wondered what must have become of all the others. Probably thrown away, he thought, like everything else is thrown away nowadays, so quickly, as if objects had no memory, no value attached to them.
While the coffee boiled he opened the door onto the kitchen balcony and stepped outside. The first rays of sunshine were just beginning to illuminate the streets and buildings around his apartment. So many new ones. When Domitilla and he bought their house it had been newly constructed and all around them were trees and forgotten, overgrown and unconstructed fields. Now the hillside was a giant mass of what looked like big cement blocks that were filled with homes and bars and stores and noise. But then, where would people go if not here? “Ah, well, it’s only fair. We have ours,” he whispered before bending over the basil and pepper plants he dutifully cultivated, making sure the soil was humid enough, checking if any weeds were invading the vase. Nearby some pigeons and seagulls were already cooing and squawking in the gray light. Alex went back inside.
All at once the memory of his father drifted into mind. Gabriele. Papa. It had been Alex’s duty for much of his childhood to grind the coffee beans into a fine powder. His father would pour the beans into the manual grinder and Alex would sit on the worn wooden floor and slowly turn its long metal handle. “Bravo, Alex, bravo,” his father would say in his gravelly tenor voice. Life was good then, Alex thought, not that it had been better but the feeling of it was easier, less forced. There was a pleasure and significance to things and with fondness he remembered himself sitting on the floor grinding the beans as the aroma silently filled the air. A long time ago.
The Bialetti on the stove began to rumble as the water boiled into its upper chamber. Alex bent over and lifted the lid slightly to peak. The coffee was almost ready.
Domitilla puttered into the kitchen. From the doorway she stood and watched him with affection as he let the shiny metal lid flap shut, the green blanket still wrapped around his shoulders, then eased behind him to get a cup and saucer. “Did you check the alarm?”
She took the cup to the table and set it down with a saucer in front of Alex’s chair. “So?”
“It’s not the alarm system. It must be something else.” Alex lifted the big pot of coffee and moved over. He poured himself some and then sat down. Domitilla went over to the stove. She looked at him as he raised the steaming cup to his lips, a little thinner now than they used to be. The first time she saw him he was still a student, poor and tough, a hustler from the south with a ready smile, broad shoulders and a macho swagger. And a great kisser. He had looked at her and smiled. She had known instantly.
Domitilla walked back and kissed her husband gently on his cheek. “Madamoiselle, merci, vous etes tres gentile,” he responded playfully, using the same silly French phrase he’d used the first time. She stood behind him, caressing the salt and pepper hair that remained in the back of his head. She smiled. “Don’t forget you have a meeting with Argentin today.”
“Yes, you told Maria you’d mention her daughter to him.”
“Ah, yes, that’s right. Stefania. No, I wont forget.” As Domitilla moved back toward the stove he felt Felix rub again against his leg. He looked down, patted him on the head after saying good morning and then reached up to grab a cookie. As he did, Alex heard the ‘squeak’ again, a bit louder this time. It made him pause to listen and in doing so he forgot to offer the usual cookie to Felix. The cat waited a few moments looking up at Alex from time to time, then strode off a bit perplexed toward the usual saucer of milk that Domitilla had placed on the floor. Alex timidly finished his coffee, still listening for the sound and eventually stood up and walked to the bathroom. Domitilla clicked open her cell phone to check for messages. Alex paused an instant to watch. He smiled a bit ruefully, shook his head a little and then continued on.
“Strange things,” he said to himself as he washed up, “strange things. Everything is strange now. Cell phones. Car phones. So many television channels. There’s no patience, no time to grate the beans. No time to see the trees or the stars or the birds.” When he turned off the water he heard the shrill sound again, a little louder than before. “What the hell is that noise, goddammit!”
As Alex dressed himself in the bedroom he continued thinking about his father. After being released from the forest service Gabriele was given a job for the water company as a meter counter. His father being illiterate, Alex had to accompany him on his afternoon rounds to mark off the clients visited and the meter readings. It was fun for a while yet even then Alex could tell that Gabriele wasn’t made for such things, going from house to house, wearing a tie, taking the bus every morning to work. His father had spent most of his life outside, first in the fields, then as a soldier and finally as a ranger. A local Don Giovanni famous for his good humor, handsome face and sweet voice. Weekends he would put on his best clothes and for a few coins sing serenades to the lit windows of girls that other men were courting. He quit the meter-counting job after 6 months. Alex wondered where they might ever put someone like his father today. “Everything is fast. Music. Cars. Those American hamburger places. Always faster. How can you have the time to know what to do? What not to do…”
“Alex, common, get going or you’ll be late!” Domitilla was calling him from the doorway. He finished putting on his tie and jacket, grabbed his bag and strode out toward the hallway. “When will you be back for lunch?”
“Oh, early. There isn’t so much to do today. There really isn’t much for me to do at all anymore. Michele and Paolo pretty much have a handle on things. I am becoming the distinguished old partner tottering about in the back office.”
“A-ha. Sure.” She refused to indulge. Alex leaned over and surprised her by kissing Domitilla on the lips. Then he decided he’d use the stairs instead of the elevator to go down to the garage.
Domitilla went back into the kitchen to make herself some tea. Once it had brewed she picked up her cup and sat down on the couch. Felix jumped up beside her and laid down. She set the tea on the saucer on her lap and began caressing him. From the window she saw it was going to be another lovely day and so began mentally organizing the things she wanted to do. She would take the little Fiat out to go see her brother. The two of them still had to work out a visiting schedule for their mother. Poor thing. Her mind had really digressed over the past few months. Domitilla loved her but, after all, she was 92 and it’d been good fortune that she’d lasted so well for so long. Lots of fond memories. Anyway. Then she had to stop by the Deli and pick up a few stuffed artichokes and maybe two or three slices of beef to fry up quickly in some olive oil, (that way there would be less to cook and wash up.) After lunch she could go downtown early and meet Maria at the Museum. They would tour the exhibit – both of them enjoyed the Roman school of the 60’s – and then go shopping. She wanted to find a pair of shoes that matched the heavy olive pants she had bought the week before.
As Domitilla got up from the couch she remembered the noise that had been going off every minute or two. She paused to listen. One minute passed, then two but still she heard nothing in particular, just the usual sound of the delivery trucks that dropped packages off to the stores below every morning at this hour. “Good.” She was happy the squeaking had gone. She smiled and went to get dressed.
Meanwhile Alex was stuck in traffic. The car phone rang and he tried to click the answer button but ended up mistakenly pushing two or three others before his fingers finally stumbled onto the right one. “Hello? Hello? Can you hear me?” he said but on the other end all Alex heard was a fuzzy gurgling voice trying to get through. The voice was undecipherable so after 15 seconds or so Alex clicked off. He sighed. “I’ll never get the hang of this thing.” He sighed again as the traffic jam broke open and he pushed the accelerator, hoping it wasn’t going to be another long morning.
There was a slow line of cars heading down the hill into the city with all types of vehicles, big and small, modest and chic, Renaults and Porsches, delivery trucks and motorini, each being driven by a different person, each trying to start the day as fast as they could. Underneath the rumble of their motors, if you listened carefully, you could hear a little ‘squeak’ every minute or so. It wasn’t very loud but if you kept your ear on it and concentrated you would hear it grow. Or maybe you wouldn’t. It was a hard thing to get a handle on. Anyway, all you had to do was listen.