Born Out of Due Time, Chapter One (B)
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The mosaics in the vaulted ceiling are on fire in the brilliant morning sun. The Byzantine Christ in the center looks more gentle savior than the stern judge found in Eastern mosaics. The octagonal church is empty, and his senses are flooded by the silence. He is studying the Wise Men in the boat going to see Christ. Were they leaving behind an unhappy Herod? Or was he misunderstanding the narrative? In the exuberant waves of the sea, an octopus and several fish are dancing. Walking out blinking into the sunlight—brighter than he could recall—he almost ran into Corso, who issued a greeting compounded of good wishes and aloof sarcasm:
“So, Andrea, Englishman, you’re back? Are you buying pictures or just trying to rub off some of your barbaric Saxon stink? I hear your long-legged king is going to attack the poor Scots. Will he succeed? Do you know enough to advise me which side to bet on? What are the odds?”
The Florentine belonged to the merchant aristocracy, and, while not as rich as many, he had a lordly manner that was as often resented as it was admired.
“Messer Corso, as I always wish to help a friend, I can tell you King Edward will completely subdue the Scots but only for a generation.”
“So you are not just a gambler but a prophet? The gamblers are already betting that your king will conquer the Scots, and, as for what happens afterwards, I cannot care. I care only about the here and now—“England” and “the next generation” are foreign places that do not interest me. I have enough troubles to occupy me here in Florence, and this city has troubles with our old enemies in Pisa.”
“I thought the Genovesi had knocked them out of the game…”
“You don’t know Pisa. A Pisan is half pirate and half Landsknecht. But you English are like the Germans. You will never understand Italy. You all think we are all children, playing at politics and war. Your understanding is as crude as the Italian you speak. You often get the words right but, like a poor singer in the choir, you can’t quite follow the melody. In the same way, you can appreciate our pictures and our poems, but you deplore our hot tempers and political disorder. England is a huge country, bigger than any state in Italy, but your king is not content and has to conquer the entire island, which is roughly the same size as Italy. His nobility are content to obey him, up to a point, so long as they can gather up the crumbs under his table--so long as they get to be rich dukes and earls. Italy produces men who are not content to be second to anyone, neither the emperor nor the Pope. That is why we build such churches, paint such paintings, and write such poems as you poor half-Germans can only enjoy but not create. Yes, we fight in the streets, but we fight only for things worth having.”
Corso Donati went on his way, with a perfunctory bow: What was the point of wasting a polite good-bye on a foreigner? In Florence he was already a great man, on his way to becoming the greatest man in the city. He would be terrible to have as an enemy and perhaps even more dangerous as a friend. Andrea knew enough to be careful. He heard an irritating buzz, something like a loud fly, but when he looked around, there was nothing.
“Excuse me. Is this 2079 Garfield?”
The Englishman turned round to have another look at the Baptistery. Who knows when or if he would ever see it again? What was it young Dante called it, “il mio bel San Giovanni”? My beautiful San Giovanni…
“Scuse me, scuse me. Is this 2079?”
One of the neighbors had started mowing his overgrown lawn, and the noise had brought him back from Florence. But there was some other cause of annoyance. His mind swam to the surface of the here and now, and he opened his eyes. The kid on the other side of the screen door looked about twenty five. He was tall and taut with colorless blond hair and vacant blue eyes illuminated only by traces of distrust. His chiseled features were austere and seemed to match his disciplined musculature. He was dressed in that ageless uniform perpetual adolescents wear when they do not have to dress for work or take part in a wedding: misshapen running shoes, pre-worn blue jeans, a t-shirt advertising a bar he may have been to once, and a red ballcap pulled down at a 45 degree angle. He was listening to something on his earbuds, and, with an iced-tea can, he was negligently rapping on the screen door to the porch as if he did not know or care where he was.
The man in the black suit did not look happy to be disturbed. Memories and dreams—even fiction—are almost always better than the reality of the here and now. Perhaps that is why people used to read books. Anything is better than the everyday reality of life in “the new millennium.” Without getting up, he lifted his head to take notice of the at kid on the other side of the screen:
“Car break down?”
“No, I asked if this was 2079. A friend of mine I work with—Corey Todd—he gave me your card and said you might be able to help me?”
The kid held up a card, which the older man stared at through the the screen as if it were a precious Egyptian antiquity. It was just about as rare. He’d had them printed a year earlier,
No Dilemma Too Trivial or Too Abstruse
At the bottom of the card was an image of a curling snake and the word ASP all in caps. He had thought about putting in, “Have Mind, Will Travel. Wire Pope 19,” but no one these days would get the Paladin reference, much less remember that Anterus was the 19th Pope (on the assumption that Cletus and Anacletus were the same). Why his otherwise conventional parents had named him after an obscure Pope, simply because he had been born on January 3, is something he never understood and had long since quit trying to understand. It was a name, he had finally concluded, that from the first had doomed the man who bore it to a well-deserved obscurity that he had learned too late to appreciate fully.
The kid came onto the porch, and as he took the earbuds out there was a blast of formulaic monotony as if a smog bank had floated across the bright afternoon sun.
Get your hands off the girl,
Can’t you see that she belongs to me?
And I don’t appreciate this excess company
Though I can’t satisfy all the needs she has
And so she starts to wander
Can you blame her?
He shambled across the floor and slouched into a seat from which he could watch the drab-colored sparrows squabbling at the feeder, driving off two exasperated goldfinches. He looked up the steep street.
“Wow, Corey told me you lived on a hill, but I didn’t think there were any hills in Nadir except right next to the lake. But this really is a hill. You can see all the way to the old grain elevators.”
The kid looked uncomfortable, as if he were put off by the red hair and beard or by the dark glasses Smith pushed back from the end of his nose with the index finger of the right hand. It’s one of those habitual gestures that can give you away. Tics are as dangerous as vanity license plates. Or maybe it was the ironic look Smith had grown used to to seeing in the mirror: light frown lines printed into an expressionless face. They can indicate suspicion, and what some people have described as a hint of arrogance. But, since even a paramoral investigator has to be be nice to a potential client, he showed him what he wrongly imagined to be an encouraging look.
“What did Corey tell you?”
“He said you were a very smart guy who could help me work through some problems.”
“What else did he tell you about me?
“He said you were like the weirdest dude he he’d ever met. If he didn’t know better, he’d say you were either seriously delusional or a visitor from another world. He also said you were probably the only person who could help me think through some problems I’m having. He told me he’d heard things from other people, too, that you could figure things out and wouldn’t drop a dime.”