Life and Death in Venice
Life and Death in Venice
by Harry Buschman
Ciao Charlie! Arrivederci – and don't come back. Venice is the most beautiful city in the world, but it's for the living.
It was Charlie Knight's third visit to Venice. He came alone on business the first time, the second time he came with Helen – and here he was again, alone in Venice, for the last time.
He fell in love with the city in the sea; The way it rose and fell with the tide. It was ancient, but it always surprised him with its 21st century ingenuity. Water and stone and history. Saint Mark, Tintoretto, Monteverdi, even Shakespeare chose Venice as a setting for his plays of racial and ethnic division.
The first time Charlie came to Venice he felt guilty falling in love with it alone. He was eager to show it to Helen when he retired, he wanted her to see it.
Together, they walked the twisted streets and byways, getting lost again and again. They fell in love with it together. Long after their children were gone and the nest was empty, the two elderly lovers walked arm in arm through the city that welcomed lovers of any age. Now for the third time he sat in the Piazza San Marco at the hour all Italians cherish. Late afternoon. A time for putting the papers away, closing the desk. A time for cappuccino or a Cinzano, perhaps even a flirtation before going home.
Home was Chicago for Charlie and much as he admired Venice he missed the windy city. Most of all he missed being with Helen, dead now for the better part of a year. Why did he bring her here again? He thought she'd like to be here ... one more time. Now, he wasn't so sure about leaving her here alone. Turning around and going home without her.
It didn't make sense now. Five thousand miles from Chicago. What a crazy, romantic idea! Like something out of an old Italian movie!
It wasn't easy getting her here this time. Forms to be filled in, permissions; it seemed the governments of the United States and Italy were more concerned with the remains of the living than the living themselves. His vision of scattering her ashes in the Grand Canal now seemed absurd ... perhaps another Cinzano.
As he signaled the waiter for another, he saw two priests with attaché cases crossing the Piazza. They shook hands; one left the Piazza for the quay and the other sat down at a table next to Charlie. A rather young Priest with close cropped black hair. He lounged, rather than sat, lit a cigarette and watched the girls walk by.
Charlie wished the Priest was older, gray haired and rosy cheeked like the Priests he was used to back in Chicago. Still ... maybe he could help ... "My name is Charlie Knight, Father, may I trouble you?"
"You are English Signor?"
"Ah! American, I am Father Ambrose. I know many Americans. I have been to both Biloxi and Grand Forks. A great and generous people, Americans."
"I'm from Chicago Father. A city in Illinois, may I speak with you a moment?"
The priest indicated the seat next to him and smiled. "You may buy me an aperitif for my blessing, Signor."
"Are you a practicing Priest, Father? What I'm trying to say is ... this is really very awkward. Do you have a congregation, give penance, minister to the sick? Like the Priests I'm used to back home, I mean?"
"At Santa Maria Della Salute? Alas, Mr. Knight, there is no congregation, not for three hundred years. There are few families in Venice today, I have not seen a congregation since my young days in Padua." He patted the case at his side. "This is my congregation. In this briefcase there are three lawsuits from tourists that have fallen on the floor of the rotunda and an estimate for the electrification of the candelabra in the nave. This is what we Priests do in Venice these days. Dear me." He lit another cigarette, "Where will the money come from? The Vatican?" He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. "Just between you and me Signor, they are very tight with the lira, and very little money comes from the government. They pay more attention to the needs of the people than the needs of the church. Are you enjoying yourself here in Venice, Mr. Knight? Is your wife with you?"
"It's a long story, Father." He was half tempted not to tell it, Father Ambrose was not the sort of Priest he was looking for. But he came this far, perhaps he should go a little farther. "My wife Helen, yes she is with me in a way .... I think she will always be." A quick shade of understanding flitted across Father Ambrose's eyes. Charlie was encouraged.
"I worked here many years ago, Father. I admired Venice. I promised my wife I would take her here when I retired. I did. Five years ago Helen and I stayed in a pension on the west bank for a month. I can't tell you how wonderful it was. We often told each other that if we had a choice of where to die we would choose Venice. She didn't have that choice, Father, she died last year, but not here. In Chicago."
"Let me buy you a Cinzano, Mr. Knight ... this one is on the Catholic Church." Father Ambrose settled back in his chair and signaled for a waiter ... he grinned at Charlie conspiratorially, "If I order it they will charge neither of us."
"I brought my wife's remains with me Father. I had the foolish notion ... " Charlie closed his eyes tightly and turned his head. "I thought ... "
"And now you have a second thought, is that not so Mr. Knight? But Santa Maria has a place for her, you would not be the first person to make such a request. The Priest looked at Charlie's shopping bag, "She is not with you at the moment, is she?"
"No," replied Charlie, "back at the hotel, Hotel Da Vinci."
"I would not advise you to throw her remains into the polluted waters of the Grand Canal, Mr. Knight. She would not thank you for that, you would regret it too. The Grand Canal is not a pleasant place to spend eternity. She was a good Catholic, was she not?"
"Better than many, Father, kind, gentle ... and generous to the church," he added hastily.
It was getting late. Father Ambrose glanced quickly at his watch. "You can give yourself great peace of mind, Mr. Knight. Go back to your hotel. Bring your wife to the church and ask for Sister Angela. Providing such services is her station in life." He crossed himself and went on. "You must be aware the church has never fully endorsed cremation, Mr. Knight. It reduces the corporeal remains to ashes, making it rather difficult to ... what is the word? Reassemble? Ah, no! Resurrect them on the Day of Judgment. Therefore it can make no guarantee, but," he shrugged his shoulders, leaned forward and touched his temple. "I can assure you there is a stronger possibility of redemption if you leave her with Sister Angela."
Charlie slowly walked back to the hotel. The Priest was probably right. The canal stank to high heaven at low tide. He couldn't remember it smelling that bad this afternoon. On top of that, it was an irrevocable decision, once done, never to be undone. Suppose he wanted her back home in Chicago again ... no, the Priest was probably right. Not much of a Priest really, more of a businessman than a Priest, but a man of God nonetheless.
He went up to his room. It was evening now, the view of Venice outside his window didn't seem as attractive as it did before. He emptied his shopping bag and gently put the small urn inside. So small, he thought, how could it possibly hold all the things she meant to me? "I think you'll like being in Santa Maria Della Salute, dear. I'll make sure there's a place for me too. We'll be together again."
Charlie went down to the lobby and stepped outside. It was almost dark now but the lights of the shops, the restaurants, and the little lights on the mooring posts made it bright as day. He paused in the middle of the Rialto just to see the canal again with her. The magic was still there, it was a sight he would always remember.
He never heard the soft pad of running feet behind him. All he knew was the shopping bag was snatched away. Before he straightened up and realized what happened the bag was gone. He shouted and started to run, bumped into a crowd of people at a stall and fell heavily. "My wife, he took my wife!" he sobbed.
He found himself running unsteadily to the foot of the bridge, then sinking to his knees, not knowing which way to turn. This had to be something happening to someone else, not to him. How could someone run off with the ashes of his wife? "I'll never find her! Never!"
He was pulled to his feet by a man with a pencil thin mustache dressed in what looked like a comic opera uniform; a man who smelled of musk oil and cigarettes.
"Politzia, Signor. Parla inglese?"
"Knight, Knight ... Charlie Knight ... my wife ... some bastard stole my wife!"
The policeman decided Charlie was deranged or drugged, a mental case obviously, wives were not stolen on the Rialto Bridge! People were crowding around them; he thought he had better subdue him. As he took his arm, Charlie went limp and the policeman had to keep him from falling. Charlie lapsed into a trauma as deep as that of a man pulled out of a traffic accident.
"Probably American, from the look of his clothes, no passport .... ah! the wallet 'Charles Knight,' 67 years old, Chicago, Illinois." He radioed it in, "Mr. and Mrs. Kinigehit." That was as close as he could come to the pronunciation of Charlie's name, so he spelled it out, 'K-N-I-G-H-T.' The ambulance barge arrived and the call came back from Politzia Centrale. "Guest of albergo Da Vinci – been here three days. There is no Mrs. 'K-N-I-G-H-T' the man is traveling alone."
Charlie lay as if in a coma that night at the Ospedale Santa Theresa. Bewildered and alone, he had been the victim of the cruelest fate imaginable. To have his wife's remains stolen and discarded in the canal – "Why did I come here anyway?" He wanted nothing to do with the nurses, ignored the doctors and even turned his head to the wall when the American Consul made a hurried trip all the way from Milan, a three hour drive each way. The Consul called Richard Knight, noted as next of kin on his passport. Richard Knight seemed bewildered and had no idea his father was in Venice. "What's the old fool doing over there? Let me check with my brother in Lansing, I'll call you back."
There is a landing stage before you get to Venice. It is really a small town that thrives on tour buses and families arriving in private cars for a week or two. The buses and cars stay behind and the visitors take the vaporetto across the lagoon to Venice. In this little mainland town called Piazzalle Roma live a mixed band of Italians, Turks, Greeks and Algerians who work in the shops and hotels and make up the small army of gondolieri who work in Venice during the tourist season. Their wives and children have little to do during the day while the men are busy across the bay.
It is not a wholesome environment for the young. Angelo Manieri from Taranto spent his days picking the pockets of spellbound tourists wandering through San Marco. He was eleven years old – old enough to carry a box cutter.
With a box cutter he could strip a Hasselblad from the shoulder of a Swiss banker or a camcorder from the arm of an American investment broker and be out of sight before they were missed. Young as he was he had a fence, a young Greek shipping agent who paid cash on the spot. The cash meant a lot to Angelo because he was just getting into drugs and he had to have cash on the spot for drugs.
It was Angelo who was working the Rialto Bridge the night Charlie carried Helen to Santa Maria della Salute. The box cutter went through the plastic handle of the Benneton shopping bag like a knife through butter and Angelo was gone before Charlie knew what happened. In the dim light under the bridge Angelo looked inside and saw only a dark ceramic jar. "Bullshit," he said to himself. He was about to throw both the jar and the bag into the canal when he paused. "Maybe it is a valuable relic, perhaps priceless." He could read a name engraved on a seal, a strange foreign name, one that made no sense to him. He tried to mouth it. "Kinidghet. "From an Egyptian tomb perhaps."
He hid it in the rubbish under the bridge, and continued preying on the evening strollers. A Nikon F-3 was all he came up with. He cashed it in quickly and smoked a joint under the Rialto Bridge with his friends, then he picked up his mysterious Benneton bag and headed home. He hid it in his bedroom and he decided to show it to his mother in the morning. His mother would know what it was. His mother knew about such things.
"Ma, look what I found in Pop's gondola last night. What d'ya s'pose it is Ma?"
His mother, noting the handle had been cut, shook her head and clasped her hands together. Her eyes rolled up, "Forgive him Father, he is a child. It is our fault for bringing him here ... his father's and mine, not his." Then she turned on Angelo and batted him across the kitchen with the Benneton bag. "You so like you father! Why we call you Angelo? Diabolo Manieri! My sister. she marries a doctor, a doctor of the tubes of women, I marry a Manieri! A circus strong man with a disc that slips. Caro Signore, he implants into me the seed of Angelo, take him in the power of your presence, O Signore ...!"
It is fruitless to follow the logic of an Italian mother when she prays for her family. Roman Catholic Priests will quickly turn away and wait for the smoke to clear. Angelo, from his squatting position under the kitchen sink, wished he'd never brought the damn bag home. He was never able to put anything over on his mother.
He put his head in his hands and waited for the blows to fall. He didn't have to wait long. Anna chose the wide flat pan with the long handle, that was her favorite weapon. A series of blows to the seat of his shorts, a back hand to his knees and finally a service winner to the top of his head.
"So, you're at it again, no? Your father works all day and half the night pushing the gondola, and you little Diabolo, like a hyena swiping from the tourists on the Rialto!" She raised her eyes and the frying pan to Heaven, "Tell me Signore what must I do with this monster!"
She retrieved the Benneton bag from under the sink and looked inside. "What is this thing you bring home, Angelo?"
"I don't know Ma, it's heavy, it looks like it could be a valuable vase."
She pulled it out of the bag and as best she could, she slowly read the metal seal. "AAIIYYEE! You fiend, you know what you have done?"
"What's the big deal, Ma?"
She put the urn on the kitchen table and crossed herself while hanging the frying pan on the wall. Her eyes were big and full of fear. Angelo drew a sigh of relief, it seemed the beating was over but he couldn't understand the change in his mother.
"In there are the ashes of a deceased. You fool, you should be forced to wear this about your neck the rest of your life." She pointed with a shaky finger at the seal. "That is the name, it is not an Italian name. It is an English name. The first name is Elena, it is spelled H-E-L-E-N. A woman, Angelo, you have stolen the sacred remains of a woman."
"Holy shit, Ma, how was I to know." The words were hardly out of his mouth when the back of Anna's hand slammed into it.
"And you can use foul language in her presence ... you are doomed, Angelo, I wash my hands with you!"
This was only one of many crises in the Manieri household. It would pass and another would take its place. Anna was a devout woman, however, and she had to carry this particular problem to a conclusion, it involved a loved one. One that must be protected until the Day of Judgment and only the church could be her guide. She put the urn back in the bag, wrapped a shawl about her head and tied it under her chin. She shook her fist once more at Angelo and headed for St. Cecilia. If she hurried she could also give confession.
Father Alessandro had heard all he could stand this morning and he groaned inwardly when he heard Anna enter the booth next to him. "I am not here to confess, Father. I am here with the ashes of an English woman and I must have the advice of the church." Father Alessandro, who desperately needed a Sherry, suggested they go to his office where they could discuss the matter face to face.
They sat there with the urn between them. Father Alessandro couldn't read the name either. The best he could come up with was Elena Kinighit. "I will have to notify the police. However the church can protect you and your son, I can say this urn was found and given to me in the rite of confession. The police will not press me further."
"I will beat my son daily, Father," Anna promised.
"It will take more than that my child, (Anna was old enough to be his mother) we must guide him, and you must get him out of here. The Piazzalle is a cesspool of sin. You are not from here, yes?"
"We are the family Manieri from Taranto, Father. Here only for the season. My husband will not budge from here, Father ... not ‘til the last tourist leaves for home."
"Then keep your son on this side of the lagoon and pray for him Mrs. Manieri." Father Alessandro picked up the phone and dialed Politzia Centrale.
"Officer, this is Father Alessandro of St. Cecilia, a funerary urn was handed to me a few moments ago by a gondolieri. He discovered it under the seat cushions. Let me read the engraving, the name is unpronounceable, but it is spelled H-E-L-E-N K-N-I-G-H-T."
The final piece of the puzzle suddenly snapped into place. Signor Knight's mad raving the previous evening finally made sense to the arresting officer and the Captain of Headquarters. By early afternoon the paperwork had been finished and Politzia Centrale was ready to swing into action.
Like the police everywhere Politzia Centrale acted with admirable dispatch once the road was clear before them and the goal was in sight. Sgt. Luigi Marinella was told to take the moped and get on over to St. Cecilia as quickly as possible and return with the ashes of the wife of Signor Knight. Once back at headquarters it was verified and duly photographed. Then Marinella got back on the moped, turned on his siren and bounced through the crowded streets and over the narrow bridges to Ospedale St. Theresa.
Charlie stood by the hospital window. From the eleventh floor he could look out over the city bathed in golden afternoon light. The red brick obelisk of the Campanile, the chaste whiteness of the Doge's Palace. It wasn't the fault of Venice, he reasoned, it was his fault!
He couldn't believe he'd been in the hospital nearly twenty four hours. There was no reason to stay longer, what's done is done, he thought. He made a terrible mistake coming here, and there was only one way to make it right again. He knew where she must be by now and he would not go home, He would join her.
"First things first," he sighed. He reached over his bed and pushed the buzzer for the nurse.
"Sister, would you get the doctor ... il medico, please?" While waiting for the doctor Charlie got his clothes out of the closet and put them on.
"I don't see any reason why you can't leave, Mr. Kinighet .... am I pronouncing your name correctly? There are no charges against you, and it was my diagnosis from the beginning that you had an attack of what the French would call "deja vu."
"Yes I must have, Doctor, for a moment it was like she was standing next to me. I'm sorry to have caused you so much trouble."
Downstairs at the admitting desk Sgt. Luigi Marinella, a little disheveled from his harrowing ride through the narrow alleys and over the bumpy bridges of Venice, slapped the palm of his hand on the desk loudly and demanded to be taken to the room of the husband of Elena Kinighet. The Sister had seen his type before, and she consoled herself with the knowledge that she would see him wheeled into emergency some day.
"There is no one here by that name, Sergeant." Her innocent smile deflated the frustrated sergeant. He shook the urn and shouted like an irate barber.
"He come in here last night. Say his wife is stolen on the Rialto." He turned to a tall elderly gentleman approaching the desk from the elevator. "Dove sta un medico, Signor?"
Charlie, with his eyes riveted on the urn muttered, "You found her, Good God Almighty, you found her." He backed the Sergeant against the reception desk and with what the Sergeant later said was superhuman strength, pulled the urn from his hands. "There was something about him," he said later, "that told me he was Signor Kinighet."
"You are Signor Carlo Kinighet?" The Sergeant asked timidly.
Charlie didn’t answer the Sergeant. He spoke quietly to the urn and held it reverently in both hands. Tourists looked at him curiously as he walked hurriedly back to his hotel. Had they listened carefully they would have heard him say ... “Helen, I'm sorry I got you into this, let's get out of this damn place. We're going home to Chicago.”