Desire had suddenly gone quiet, and the Professor could tell what was coming. They were on the train from Castelpoggio back to Rome, riding facing each other in window seats. She seemed to be working through some deep thought, her eyes narrowed, her fingers pressed together almost as if in prayer.
“What?” he finally asked. Out the window to his left, hedgerows flew by in a blur of greens and browns.
“This train,” she said. “I’m getting something.”
He looked up through the bars of the luggage rack at their two wheelie bags, hers pink, his black, and his guitar case, which he’d lugged all the way across the ocean for nothing. An announcement came over the intercom, first in Italian, then in English.
“A little girl. I’m feeling her.”
“I swear,” said the Professor, “it sounds like she’s saying the train god is in carriage eleven. What the heck do you think a train god is?”
“What’s the matter? You don’t believe in the train god?”
“Not since I was little,” said the Professor. He rubbed the back of his neck with his hand. It had gone stiff on the plane on the flight over and had only gotten worse since then.
“The train god watches over you when you take a train. It’s a simple concept.”
He tried to smile. Castelpoggio had been a disaster. There had been no Blues Brothers Band, there had been no Les McCann. Instead there had just been the two of them, left to fend for themselves in a hilltop town in Umbria that had no particular attractions. One hotel, two restaurants. Black Days, the festival for which Desire Jones had supposedly been booked as a supporting act, had been canceled months ago. No one had even bothered to tell them.
She was staring at him.
“What little girl?” he asked, wearily.
“On her way to the camps. Down these very tracks.”
“Desire,” he said, “what are you talking about?”
“World War Two, darling. The murder of sixteen million children.”
“It’s six million, and the camps were in Germany. And Poland.”
“You’re wrong,” she said. “You don’t know your history.”
“I teach history,” he pointed out.
“Taught, don’t you mean? I’m surprised they let you.” She took a Tucs cracker out of the bag they’d brought with them and ate it. She was in her mid-fifties, although she’d never told him her age exactly, older than he by nearly twenty years. They’d been playing music together since meeting at a blues jam last September, sleeping together since January, right after he’d come back from his Christmas visit to New Jersey to see his kids, which was also when she’d told him she’d lined up her “European Tour.”
“This was a little black girl,” she said.
“In Italy? During the war?”
“She got taken away to the camp. Apocalypse.”
“Was she from Ethiopia?”
“No, she wasn’t from Ethiopia, smart guy. She was from right around here. From Castelpoggio. And they took her by train to Camp Apocalypse.” She ate another cracker and swallowed it down with water from a plastic bottle.
The Professor chewed his lip, then took the bottle from her and had a drink himself. It was never clear to him when she was honestly telling him something she thought and when she was just working to get a reaction out of him. He wasn’t even that sure about her singing. Sometimes, when they were on stage at one of the Atlanta bars they played—Nunbetta Barbecue, Blues Station, The Five Spot—he’d hear her voice over the rest of the band, its hard, sharp timbre almost visual to him, like a piece of broken metal poking through the top of a tent. Still, playing with Desire gave him a credibility he’d never enjoyed in any of the all-white blues bands he’d been in. “Auschwitz,” he said, at last. “Not Apocalypse.”
“That’s what I said.”
“No, it isn’t. You know it isn’t.”
“Are you telling me I don’t know what I said?”
“I just know what I heard.”
“You need to listen better.”
“You need to talk better.”
“Wait,” he said. “I just figured it out. Not god. Guard.”
She wasn’t paying any attention. Sometimes she ignored him totally, as if to make sure he understood that however many degrees he might have, whatever the objective difference between them in terms of achievement and status, she was still the one in charge. Instead, she took out a compact, flipped it open, and examined her eyes.
“Guard,” he repeated. “There’s a guard in carozza eleven. In case we need him.”
“What makes you think the train god is a him?” she asked. “That’s sexist.”
“You’re right. Of course. The train god might just as well be a woman.”
But she’d closed her eyes again and wasn’t listening. She was psychic. Her mama was, and her grandma, too. She was just changing the subject. He wanted to tell her that it was all right, no one expected her to be sophisticated, to know, for example, what the Via Flaminia was, or to understand much about the Roman Empire. Yesterday, they had hired a driver to take them to see the Roman bridge that was Castelpoggio’s only real claim to fame—the Professor had suggested they walk, but the icy stare he earned for that made him regret even trying to be funny—and Desire had barely looked at the thing. “You have to use your imagination,” he’d said. “This was a major bridge along one of the most important roads of the ancient world. It’s an engineering accomplishment of stunning proportions.” He had to admit, he’d found it a bit underwhelming himself, what with the view marred by the smokestacks of some chemical production facility in the background, and the bridge itself little more than a deteriorated arch in the middle of a ravine. Still, he took her lack of participation personally. In the face of what had happened, the embarrassment of coming all this way for nothing, it seemed she could at least try to appear to be enjoying herself. Instead, she was punishing him, or trying to. Because, against all reason and evidence, she wanted this whole thing to be his fault.
“This little girl’s name was Mary,” said Desire.
“You should try to open up your mind. It would do you some good. There’s a lot going on that you don’t even see or feel.” She ate part of another cracker. “It might improve your playing.”
“Mary, in Italy, would be Maria. And the country isn’t exactly brimming over with black people, in case you hadn’t noticed. There was one camp, I believe, in Trieste. But it would have been for Jews, and it’s in the opposite direction.”
“Oh,” she said. “You own this discussion, huh?”
“You can’t just make up stuff about history.”
“I know what I know,” she said.
He looked at his watch, a recent gift from her, as it happened. Their flight back was tomorrow afternoon. There was just the rest of today to get through, and all of tomorrow morning. He’d been suggesting things to do ever since dinner Friday evening, when they’d sat in the courtyard of the hotel in Castelpoggio trying to make out the menu, trying not to feel like complete fools. The manager, who seemed to comprehend the situation, had comped them appetizers and a bottle of wine. “Black Days,” he said. “Was last year very nice, but not so many people. This year”—he waved his hand like a magician making something disappear.
A poster had come in the mail back in February, with The Blues Brothers Band and Les McCann listed right on it, as well as “Special Guests.” “That’s us,” Desire had said, pointing to it. “Special Guests.” They would play with a house band; no need to bring a rhythm section. She’d already sent Mr. Tommaso a song list. In Castelpoggio, the first afternoon, the Professor had found the same poster on the side of a building, ripped and weathered and clearly a year old. What had happened? He didn’t know. Perhaps one of the headliners had canceled, leaving Mr. Tommaso with no show, just supporting acts. With the exception of their hotel in Rome, Desire had handled all the details—tickets, reservations; she refused to say anything about how or if she was being reimbursed. The Professor suspected the thing had been a scam from the start, with Tommaso collecting money from sponsors and then ducking out. He’d read enough about Italy to know that underneath its shiny modern exterior, corruption was still a simple fact of life.
Desire had spent most of Saturday in the hotel, sulking, while the Professor had gone out walking the steep medieval streets in a light rain. Sunday, they’d had the trip to the bridge. Desire had expressed an interest in shopping, but of course everything was closed. This morning, leaving for the train, she’d gone into a hardware store and spent ten minutes picking up items—a piece of cutlery, a packet of screws—considering them as if appreciating the local art. It had nearly driven the Professor to distraction.
He knew how they’d get through the next twenty-four hours. They would find a wine store, get some carry-out goodies—cheeses and sausages and whatnot—and hide themselves away in their hotel room. They could just watch TV. Desire liked television. Perhaps they’d fool around. And then at some point—on the plane, probably—he’d break it to her that things could no longer go on this way. Music was one thing, but the rest of it, the relationship part, that was over.
“I don’t know why they’d call something Black Days and then go and hire the Blues Brothers, anyway,” she said.
“I guess it’s more the concept of black,” said the Professor. “Although I think there may be one or two black members of the band. Their music is certainly African American.”
“I want to see the skeletons,” she said.
“You don’t.” Ever since she’d noticed the photo in their guidebook of the Capuchin crypt in Rome, with all the bones on display, she’d been claiming interest, but it would be like with the raw oysters. She’d never had one, and kept saying over and over how she wanted to try. So, a few weeks ago, he’d taken her out to a bar that served them. The sight of the plate had clearly disgusted her, but she’d gone ahead anyway and, on his instruction, let one slide down her throat. Instantly, she’d turned ashen and had to run to the bathroom.
“Don’t tell me what I do or don’t.”
“Sorry.” He looked around to see if other passengers were paying attention to this. A man with silvery hair and a nice suit made notes in a small, fancy-looking book. A woman was chatting on her cell phone. A boy in a soccer jersey stared sullenly into a magazine.
“And, you need to understand something. Black isn’t a concept.”
“Of course not. I didn’t mean it that way. You know that.”
“You saw the way people looked at me in Castelpoggio.”
He understood she’d felt conspicuous, and perhaps there had been a few stares, but for the most part, it had been his impression that people had treated her like anyone else. It was a small town—of course they were going to stare at strangers. “Well,” he said, “they canceled Black Days.”
“I am aware of that fact.”
“So, people were wondering about you.”
“They should wonder,” she said.
Two months earlier, in late April, the Professor’s Chair had called him into his office to let him know that his one-year contract would not be renewed.
“There were complaints,” he said. “I guess you missed a few classes.”
“For legitimate reasons. A person can get a cold, you know.”
The Chair was a large man, a devotee of barbecue, an expert on Civil War–era munitions, and a devourer of licorice as a substitute for cigarettes. The Professor had always assumed him to be on his side. Collinswood was a small Christian college; the Professor—whose degree was actually in American Studies—taught three sections of American history to dutiful students who clearly suspected him of something.
“It’s pretty well known around the department that you’re playing in a band.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing. I’m a music lover myself.” He sucked thoughtfully on his Twizzler. He opened department meetings, as required, with a prayer, but the Professor thought he detected at least a degree of irony in his delivery. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve got my marching orders from the dean. But I’m interested. What kind of band is this?”
“Blues,” he said. “I’m a guitarist.”
He nodded. “You ever heard of Little Luther? My wife and I used to go see him play sometimes. Tiny guy, wears red suits and bolo ties and cowboy boots—very stylish. Skin dark as coffee beans. I mean, like, French roast.”
“Nope,” said the Professor. “I don’t know him.”
“We used to see him sometimes at this joint on Piedmont. I thought he was pretty good. Real authentic.”
“I’m with Desire Jones,” he said.
“I think I’ve seen that name. Thought it was pronounced the other way. You know, with an accent.”
“Nope. No accent.”
“Ah,” said the Chair.
“So, that’s it?”
“I’m afraid so. Yes.”
They were both silent. Finally, the Professor put his index finger and thumb to his forehead and brought them forward in a hat-tipping gesture—something he’d never done before in his life—and left the office.
That night, at their gig at Nunbetta Barbecue, he had begun an Etta James song, “Jump into My Fire,” which was how they always opened, and Desire had lowered her head and looked at him coldly through her fake eyelashes. She sat back down at a table, leaving him and Scott and T-Man, the bassist and drummer, to play the song as an instrumental. Neither of them seemed surprised—they’d grown used to Desire’s moodiness. The Professor went to the microphone and announced, in his best MC voice, Ladies and Gentlemen, let’s give it up for Miss Desire Jones! There were only ten people in the place, but their applause was enough to move her. “I thank you,” she said, floating to the front. “My chirruns thanks you. My grandchirruns thanks you. And now, I’d like to sing an old favorite of mine, ‘House of the Rising Sun.’”
The Professor felt he was being jabbed slowly with a long knife. He hated the song, and she knew he hated it. He hit the chords with angry, abrupt downstrokes, as if it were a punk anthem, literally punching the tune into submission. He’d had a job, one with a possible future, and he’d blown it. He was an idiot for telling himself stories—that he was gathering material, for instance, and that an article would come out of all of this someday. But then, within a few measures, a transformation occurred. His anger and hers seemed to meet and come to some agreement. It was not unlike what happened when they made love, a strange chemistry that never failed to take him by surprise.
“You didn’t call me today,” she said, at the break. They sat in a red upholstered booth with beers and a basket of peanuts.
“I don’t have to call you.”
“No,” she said. “I guess you don’t. But you could. Am I right?”
“Uh-uh-uh-uh. Answer the question. Could you call me?”
“I got fired,” he said.
“I don’t want to hear about that,” she said. “Don’t tell me that. What about tenure?”
“Tenure?” he said. “I don’t have tenure.”
“Well, maybe you should look into it.”
He cracked a peanut open one-handed. “You’re right,” he said. “I’ll look into it.”
Their hotel in Rome was the same one they’d stayed at after arriving, Albergo Rosso, near the Campo de’ Fiori, and it hadn’t gotten any nicer while they were away. The Professor had found it for them on the internet, where it looked just fine, centrally located, all that. But the place was run-down, the reception staff rude. This was his failure, and Desire had made sure to let him know about it, pretending not to hear when he said things, staring off into space. There was a lounge on the second floor with an upright piano and some dingy furniture, its walls decorated with black-and-white photographs of the Forum, the Coliseum, Trajan’s column.
“I have the strangest feeling I’ve been here before,” she said when they were checked into their new room.
“Uncanny,” he said, opening the shutters and looking down. In the piazza below, there were two bars. One had tables set out, but at the moment only one person sat at one, a woman in a sun hat drinking a glass of something.
“I’m hungry,” she said. “I hate this Italian food.” She looked at herself in the gold-flecked mirror, picking at something in her eye. “Worst pizza I’ve had in my life.”
“You have to stop comparing it to the U.S. It’s a different concept.”
“I don’t care for the concept.” She put on her down-home voice. “I want me a plate of ribs. Fried chicken and potato salad.”
“We can find that. An ‘American’-themed place with a plaster statue of George Bush outside wearing a lone star apron and holding a barbecue fork.”
“That sounds better to me than another plate of spaceship, or whatever you call that stuff we had last night.”
“Rocket. Arugula. It’s not really that exotic. Even my boys eat it.”
“How do you know what they eat?”
“Don’t try to get to me about them, all right? I’m good with them.”
“They think you’re like Batman, huh? Teacher in the day, and then you put on your personamus at night and become Captain Guitar.”
“Personamus. Just like I’m Desire. That’s my personamus. You’ve got one. Everyone’s got one.”
“Where do you think the guitar would be safer?” he asked. “In the closet or under the bed?”
“Closet. You don’t think that’s a word?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You don’t say a lot of things.” She went and closed the shutters again. “Come on. I want to eat, and then I want to see some dead people.”
They took a cab to the Capuchin crypt. “You’re going to hate this,” the Professor told her as he paid the driver from his dwindling funds.
“Please stop telling me what you think I think.”
The admission fee was five euros each. They followed the crowd into the series of rooms, each decorated in a different way with bones. Entire bodies were on display, still in their robes, the faces remarkably human still, although desiccated and ghoulish, the eyes still seeming to stare despite the absence of eyeballs. They admired a chandelier made out of bones. There were altars made of piles of skulls. The Professor wanted to make a joke but couldn’t think of anything. The group of tourists they were moving through the place with was mostly silent, except for the occasional gasp of disbelief.
He stood behind her as she examined the reclining body of a monk in his cell. Without saying anything, he backed up, letting a young couple—Germans, from the look of them—take his place. It would be so easy just to leave her here. He imagined the afternoon he might have on his own, unencumbered by her. Perhaps he’d visit a museum, or some churches. Or maybe just find a place to sit and drink espresso and look out at the people passing by. Rome was full of fashionable, beautiful women. Why did he have to be stuck taking care of someone who worked at a bank, ate too many doughnuts, and was on a first-name basis with the stars of any number of reality television shows?
Desire turned around looking for him, then came over. “You scared?” she whispered.
She shook her head, but her face had lost some color, and he knew she wasn’t handling it well. “It’s awful,” she said. “Why would anyone do this?”
“They saw death differently. We’re too influenced by horror movies.” Still, he felt it too. It was one thing to look at a single skeleton, quite another to see an entire chandelier made of scapulae.
“I need to get out of here,” said Desire.
“There’s more,” he said. “Come on.”
“I’m serious. We have to go.”
“What did I tell you?” asked the Professor, and he followed her retreating form out past the guard, to whom he gave a pleasant grazie. He stopped to buy a couple of postcards for the boys, then proceeded out onto the Via Veneto.
When he got outside, he found her leaning against the wall of the building, her eyes obscured by her big sunglasses. “Desire?” he said.
“Oh, my god,” she said.
“Just outside the original city boundaries are the catacombs. Probably two million bodies buried there.”
“I don’t want to hear it, all right? Please, just take me home.”
Back at the hotel, they took naps on separate beds. He awoke to the sounds of her in the shower, so he sat in the chair by the window and went through the various restaurant recommendations in his guidebook, many of which he’d read aloud to Desire at least twice already.
She emerged fully dressed from the tiny bathroom. When they had sex it was always with the lights off. She might not have been beautiful, but he loved the feel of her, the surprising muscularity of her thighs and calves, the delicate lavender smell of her skin.
“Something’s not right with that shower,” she said, adjusting her metallic gold blouse. “Or the toilet, neither.”
“We can go across the river,” he suggested. “The books says there are lots of restaurants in Trastevere.”
She turned away. He approached, reaching around, pressing himself up against her. She made a tiny sound, an intake of breath combined with what he took to be a moan, and understanding this as surrender, he moved closer. She put her hands down on the writing desk by the wall, her head dipped toward the informational brochures spread across it. Then she spun around and slapped him hard on the mouth.
“What the hell?” he said. “What’s the matter?”
“You know what’s the matter.”
“I do?” He wondered if it were possible she could have seen into him somehow. He was pretty sure his lip was bleeding.
“You think I’m stupid. What else would I be? But I’m not.” She took another swing at him, but this time he saw it coming and ducked out of the way.
“Whoa there,” he said, probing his lip with his tongue.
She came at him, and it was so unexpected that she took him backward into a chair, which fell over, tangling his legs and causing him to fall as well. He rolled toward the center of the room to get clear, then jumped to his feet. “Hey!” he shouted. “You could have really hurt me!”
“Come on,” she said. “Fight back like a man.” She flailed with her hands in the direction of his face, and he put up his own hands to defend himself, and then, unsure what else to do, threw a punch in her direction that bounced harmlessly off her forearm. She was still moving forward, still trying to hit him. He grabbed her by her wrists, which worked for a few seconds, but then she bit his arm, so he had to let go. She then landed a roundhouse right to the side of his head. When he recovered his balance he charged her and grabbed her around the throat in a choke hold.
“You have to calm down,” he said. “You have to calm down.” Her eyes were moist and full of hatred. “You. Have. To. Calm. Down.” Slowly, he released the pressure. Neither one of them did anything at all. He watched a spider bungee jump out of the high corner of the ceiling, then make its way quickly back up into the shadows.
“All right,” she said, at length. “I’m calm.”
It was loud in the square, with the mingled sounds of voices and laughter and music spilling out of the bar across the street. Their tablecloth was red and white checked, their waiter obsequious yet obviously dismissive of yet another couple of American tourists. Neither of them had said a thing about what had happened.
A middle-aged man with an accordion, accompanied by a younger man who had a violin, set up a few yards away from their table and proceeded to play a medley of gypsy-sounding music. When they were done, Desire waved them over and gave them five euros.
“Thank you, thank you, beautiful lady,” said the older one, who was clearly in charge. The other simply bowed.
“You are too kind,” said Desire, her personamus swinging into play.
“American?” asked the accordionist, pleased to report the obvious. “On holiday?”
“I’m here professionally,” said Desire. “You may have heard of Black Days? In Castelpoggio?”
They looked at each other briefly, and the younger one said a few words in Italian that seemed to trigger something for the other, who the Professor had now come to see was certainly his father. They had the same eyes, the same heavy brow, the same aquiline nose. “Yes, yes,” he said. “Of course.”
“Well, I’m one of the black people. Desire Jones,” she said. “From Atlanta, Georgia.”
“Atlanta!” he repeated. “Very nice! You are a singer?”
“Sí,” said Desire. “Bravo.” The Professor massaged his forehead. Within moments, he was alone at the table, watching Desire confer with them on what they could play that she might sing. There were another eight tables besides theirs, two of them unoccupied. Perhaps a dozen people, total.
“I’d like to do a little blues number for you,” she said, stepping forward in front of the two men. “Accompanied by my new friends, Matteo and Giorgio.” The older man played a quick flourish of notes on his accordion.
And then she was singing it again, “House.” In this context, with its rudimentary melody underlain by the wheezy, French-café-in-the-fifties sound of the accordion, the song was even more painful to him. Plus, the violinist kept doubling Desire’s vocal at the same pitch. Bad idea, he wanted to tell him. No one sounds good that way. The two men flanked her, one on either side, smiling at him, at the other diners at their tables respectfully enduring this interruption. They formed a strange sort of family portrait.
He pulled forty euros from his wallet and tucked the bills under his water glass, then stood. Her eyes met his—they simply acknowledged him. For three days he’d been longing to say to her, If you’re so damned psychic, what the hell are we doing in Italy at all? Then he walked away.
At the statue of Giordano Bruno in the middle of the square, he observed a group of young people standing around smoking and laughing and wondered if they understood that they were at a place of execution, that the man on the platform above them had been burned alive there. He was just getting ready to ask one of them for a cigarette—he was doing his best to figure out how he might say this in Italian—when, like birds, they moved as a group, suddenly, all in one direction. He watched them go. They were headed back in the direction from which he’d come, and looking that way, he realized that a little audience had begun to form near Desire and the two musicians. She was singing something else now, and although he’d put quite a bit of distance between them, her voice carried enough to be audible over the din of the crowded square. The song was Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” It was one they’d practiced in preparation for Black Days, the two of them sitting for hours going over it and over it in the living room of her apartment in Marietta that always smelled of fried fish and potpourri. That living room, too, was the first place they’d been naked together, with just the blue-gray light from the parking lot outside filtering through the Venetian blinds to see by, her small Christmas tree still set up alongside the television. And it was where she’d finally told him her real name, Janice, whispered it tentatively in his ear like a password, before they’d put their clothes back on and stepped out into the cold early morning to see about getting something to eat.