Sunday, 8 August 2010

Gelato ethics, part 3

This post follows Part 1 and Part 2

Here is Angelo Papini, padding lightly across the room at dawn so as not to wake his sleeping wife. Here he is shaving over the little chipped sink and bending to wash his face. His clothes are neatly pressed and hanging on the old brass hook on the bathroom door. He dries his hands on the towel and walks down the hall to the kitchen and puts the coffee on the stove. Still in his slippers, he goes outside to get the morning paper from the porch. He stands a moment while the frosty Melbourne air stings his face and he breathes deep and looks at the sky. Clusters of damp pistachio-grey clouds crowd around the edges of the day. It will be damp again and sunless, Angelo Papini sees: not a good day for selling gelato.

In the life of Angelo Papini there are three great loves: his daughter Julia, his gelato shop, and an old red faded delta kite. Seven days he works the little shop, rising at dawn to make his gelato and closing the doors long after dark. Sometimes after closing on Sunday afternoons, if the weather is right he drives two miles to Royal Park and stands on the grassy hill with his kite glancing from side to side in the sunlight and the long white tails fluttering breathlessly in the wind.

Angelo Papini returns to the kitchen with his paper. He pours the coffee and makes a thick slice of toast. He spreads the toast with his wife’s grapefruit jam and sits at the little round table with his breakfast and his paper. He notices the dirty plates and coffee cups on the kitchen bench. Julia must have been up late last night. Sometimes she stays up reading and writing. He wishes she would not work so late.

Julia is the cleverest person Angelo Papini has ever known. She is doing a PhD. She will be a doctor, a professor, she will give lectures and write books and have her own office in the university. Her name will be on the door, just think of it! Angelo Papini never finished high school, nor did any of his brothers. He never so much as dreamt that he would ever meet a person with a PhD. But Julia is startling, bright, inexplicable. She is writing a thesis, hundreds of pages, about a famous English philosopher named Isaiah Berlin.

After breakfast he reads the paper a little longer and shines his shoes. You can tell a lot about a man by his shoes, Angelo Papini has always thought so, and in twenty-six years he has never worked a day at the gelateria with dirty shoes. When they came here in 1966 his father did not have two pennies to rub together. He went out every day to look for work and came back every night looking stooped and sad. But he was never seen on the streets of Melbourne with scuffed shoes, he shined them every morning after breakfast; young Angelo Papini, the oldest son, saw all this.

Julia is finding it hard to write her thesis. At first when she talked about Isaiah Berlin her eyes would shine, big and bright like the high white windows in St Francis’ Church during a summer morning Mass. The talking made her light and beautiful, a kite dancing in sunlight: this is why Angelo Papini loves his daughter’s studies. Lately though she has stopped talking about Isaiah Berlin. She broods and locks herself away in her room. She has started smoking, though it made her mother cry. Angelo Papini used to ask about the writing – How is the writing? – and she always said it is going good, really good. One day he saw that this was a lie, so now he never asks her, never says a word about Isaiah Berlin. It must be hard to write, he can see that.

Angelo Papini pads back to the bathroom in his slippers. He dresses in his pressed clothes and combs back his hair. In the bedroom it is still dark. He takes the keys and wallet from his bedside drawer. At the back of the drawer, tucked down and safely hidden from sight, is a grey library book. The book is Four Essays on Liberty by Isaiah Berlin. Apart from the morning paper, Angelo Papini has never been much of a reader.

With his wallet and keys, he walks back to the kitchen and pours a glass of orange juice. When Julia was young, she would come with him on Sundays and they would eat gelato in the park and fly the kite together. He drinks the orange juice standing in the kitchen.

A year ago, one Thursday afternoon on his way back from the markets, he drove to the library and asked to borrow a book by Isaiah Berlin. Late at night when everyone was sleeping, he propped his pillow up and read The Hedgehog and the Fox by the dim glow of the bedside lamp. He read a page or two at a time; he had to borrow the book six times in a row. He could not comprehend The Hedgehog and the Fox, and when he had finished it he borrowed Four Essays on Liberty. As long as he lives, Angelo Papini will never tell another person that he has read Isaiah Berlin.

Early yesterday morning, as he prepared the day's gelati, he found himself thinking about Isaiah Berlin. He added the sugar and thought: Does this mean we are free to go it alone, to make whatever we want of our lives? He mixed in the cream and thought: Does a person have such power over his life? He added the coffee and thought: Can a kite be free if no one holds the line? With a groan of dismay, Angelo Papini saw that he had ruined the whole batch of caffè gelato. He had not been concentrating. He chided himself. Isaiah Berlin can be left to brighter people, people like Julia: his job is to make gelato.

He sits at the small round table and pulls on his socks and shoes. He looks at his watch. There are still ten minutes before he has to leave. He takes the dishes to the sink and rinses them. Glancing towards Julia’s room, he is surprised to see her bedroom light on. She is not usually up early. He puts the coffee on again and walks to her room.

When Julia graduated from her Honours year, Angelo Papini was the proudest of all the fathers at Melbourne University. He took the whole family to dinner – all Julia’s uncles and aunts and cousins – and boasted loudly, bellowing happiness, the praises of his genius daughter. And they have invited her to do a PhD! What a life she will have! She will be a doctor, a professor! My daughter! Silently later that night, lying beside his sleeping wife, Angelo Papini wept – with pride, yes, but also something else, shapeless and big and desolate. He did not know how to name this feeling even to himself. He would think about it only one other time in his life, on that clean bright summer morning four years from now when, like a kite string in strong wind, the secret knot inside his chest pulled suddenly tight, and the steel gelato container clattered across the floor and he lay for several seconds staring at the ceiling in the stark unblinking light. During those last seconds, Angelo Papini would think about three things: the morning many years before when his wife’s neck smelled of fresh baked bread as they made love in their little kitchen; the day Julia had flown her first kite, ribbons of chestnut hair streaming behind her as she skipped and laughed and ran beneath the sun; and the way she had looked at him, seeing him stranded there amidst so great a crowd, the night she graduated.

He knocks gently at Julia’s door. She opens the door. She is still in her clothes from the night before. Her eyes are shot and tired, the colour of blood orange. The wild knot of her hair has collapsed and straggles down around her face. The bedroom floor is strewn with the wreckage of her studies, books and notes and papers and unknown crumpled things. The air is thick and stale with cigarette smoke. For a moment when she sees him she looks distant, confused. Then she rubs her eyes and says, I've been writing.

He kisses his daughter and asks if she wants coffee. She follows him out to the kitchen. Angelo Papini pours two cups of strong black coffee. They sit and drink at the little kitchen table. She tells him about Isaiah Berlin.


T+T said...

Beautiful and sad.

Pamela said...

one of the best

Steven Demmler said...

This series has been superb!

Joanna said...

This is lovely, Ben!

Anonymous said...

I cried my eyes out at the last sentence.

Fat said...

I believe Ben has experienced a Counter-Enlightenment.

Sandra said...

I cried too. Ben, thank you.

roger flyer said...

If you need encouragement, Ben, write the book. You are an exceptionally generous writer.

The hugeness of your heart manifested in the Gelato Girl series is a witness to the detailed and glorious love of God for His children.

Ken Eck said...

Ben, this is wonderful. Reading this made me want to fly a kite with my daughter! Please write the book.

kim fabricius said...

Beautiful, yes, but I fear flirting with the sentimental in the last two paragraphs. How about shifting gear, with a concluding sentence: "He pours himself another coffee." ;)

Sandra said...

Kim, I thought.. "She tells him about Isaiah Berlin" was significant there as the last sentence. Because that's what she did before with her initial excitement which died with the struggle to write the chapter. And Papino stops asking her... The most important conversation between them had died. but now the inspiration has returned after completion of chapter. what she lost has come back. and leaving the last sentence with that, I thought was nice.

Anonymous said...

This has been incredible. When do we get part 4?

Unknown said...

I liked this installment. However, am I missing something, or is there something of a logical (because chronological) introduced here. In this installment, Papini ruins the whole batch of caffe gelato while contemplating Berlin's thought. This is a clear reference to Part II, where the gelato girl intentionally does not suggest the caffe because the batch had been ruined by her father that morning. But at that point, the chapter is as yet unfinished. So either the father makes the mistake of ruining the gellato two days in a row (which I don't think should be intended), or Part III should end with Julia having been up all night working to write and getting nowhere, having to face her day of work at the gellato shop (Thursday) with no chapter written. The ending to Part III would thus be a father bringing a daughter coffee in the face of what seems like certain failure, from her perspective, with regards to her thesis, a failure she will contemplate all day. And the father's simple act would be the solidarity of love that binds a father to his daughter in the face of such apparent failures, and which love (many of us know) is often that which alone sustains us in such critical and desperate times. Such an act at the end of Part II would be the perfect in-conclusive parallel to the father's having brought Julia coffee at the end of her day of work as depicted in Part II. This, of course, would make the ending to part II chronologically prior to the ending to part III, but it would decisively make the story about something other than the successful finishing of her thesis, no? And would turn her father's love for Julia into something that suspends the "pride" that would mark a love conditioned by her successful completion of such a thesis.

Ben Myers said...

Nate, Part 2 is Thursday night; Part 3 is Friday morning (the day she has to meet her thesis advisor). Sorry if I made it seem confusing!

Ben Myers said...

I've been reflecting on Kim's and Nate's comments, that the ending is too sentimental. I was trying to be unsentimental, but now "I'm beginning to have my doubts" (as the new Arcade Fire album puts it). So here's an alternative ending — I'd be very interested to know whether you think this is an improvement:

He knocks gently at Julia’s door. She opens the door. She is still in her work clothes from the night before. Her eyes are shot and tired, the colour of blood orange. The wild knot of her hair has collapsed and straggles down around her face. The bedroom floor is strewn with the wreckage of her studies, books and notes and papers and unknown crumpled things. The air is thick and stale with cigarette smoke. For a moment when she sees him she looks distant, confused. Then she smiles and rubs her eyes and says, I've been writing.

He asks if she wants coffee. She follows him out to the kitchen. Angelo Papini makes two cups of strong black coffee. They sit and drink together at the little kitchen table. She tells him about Isaiah Berlin.

Unknown said...

No, I know that is the chronology that is meant. Just, why would he ruin the caffe gellato two days in a row? Its appearance within Parts II and III would appear within the narrative to be cross-referencing, such as to gesture towards a temporal location without naming it as such. I like the new ending a bit better, as it is somewhat temporally dislocating. It doesn't have to be Friday morning. It could, and perhaps truly is the reality of the everyday for Julia. Though, if that is the case, "work clothes from the night before" would need simply to be changed to "clothes from the night before." And what if the last sentence read: "Angelo listens as she tries to tell him about Isaiah Berlin."

I'll now stop trying to revise your short story, Ben! Sorry.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Nate — sorry, I've obviously confused you! The gelato gets spoiled only on Thursday. He remembers it on Friday — that's all. (You're right though: just "clothes from the night before" would be better: I've made this change in the post.)

However, I forbid you to rewrite my last sentence — don't even think about it! ;-)

Unknown said...

Oh, no. You didn't confuse me. I just didn't read what you had written rightly. I now see that you actually say, "Early yesterday morning..." I just let bare fact of the ruining of the gellato (or some other haze of reality, perhaps) locate the time of the narrative for me rather than your actual chronological locutions. I do think some kind of temporal disjunction works well in this third part, though. At any rate...

Anonymous said...

Wonderful Ben. Just one piece of local colour seemed out of place. All Italians I know use a stove stop espresso maker to make coffee at home (Bialetti - the others are all rubbish). If you want a machine made drink then you go to a bar, you don't buy a cheap imitation for the kitchen. So he probably didn't put the machine on, but filled the lower chamber with water, the middle chamber with coffee and set it on the flame.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks, Sean: you're absolutely right, and I'm embarrassed not to have noticed it myself. I've made a few quick editorial changes — and presto, the espresso machine is gone!

Paul Tyson said...

Well Ben, reading these vignettes touches the whole person. Having one’s heart touched is not the same as sentimentalism, though sentiments are a part of the whole person and an important part. Sentimentalism is rather the loss of other parts of the person for the sake of mere emotional effect. A ‘happy ending’ can be sentimental but is not necessarily so, and a ‘realistic’ failure of narrative closure, or collapse into shit can be just as much an artificial and reductive manipulation for the sake of effect as sentimentalism. In fact, the ‘happy ending’ or the satisfying narrative closure – though way over milked in popular cinema – is treated with savage suspicion in the more sophisticated literary fashions of our day. I, however, am inclined to think that hope, and its small fulfilments, is way under represented as a realistic reality of everyday life. I find resurrection, eschaton, redemption, love, hope, goodness etc powerful narratival structures and essential theological truths, which I think ‘the happy ending’ does often – despite itself, and in the face of ‘oh so human’ idolatry and perversion – participate in within the deep symbolism of ordinary human existence.

These are beautiful, good and true stories Ben. We can take as much of the transcendentalia wrapped up in the delicate tissue of ‘ordinary’ life as your mercurial muse enables you to write!

Justin said...

Not too sentimental at all, although I do like 'I've been writing' better. It's also more realistic - who writes a PhD chapter in a single night?

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for these comments. I agree, Justin: after some further thought, I've now changed the post to "I've been writing". I also got rid of "clasped his hands", which was maybe too sentimental. I think it's much better now, so thanks for these suggestions.

And Paul, I really agree with you: I reckon there's nothing wrong with finding a "happy ending" within the mundane stuff of ordinary life. This is quite different (it seems to me) from those hideous Hollywood-style happy endings, where a person's whole life is neatly resolved without any loose ends.

Paul Tyson said...

Yes, hope often does find its home, within the loose ends, in real life. I think you express this well in these sketches.

Kaitlyn Dugan said...

These three posts were amazing. I sit in the middle of Starbucks a bit embarrassed with tears streaming down my face and my Systematic Theology III notes are soaked. Bravo!

Unknown said...

Hey Ben,

This are good vignettes for all the reasons people have mentioned. I don't think you've finished the arc yet--the quirky narrator from the first part is begging for closure--but if I were you, I'd take these off the blog and send them (as a piece, preferably, but maybe in pieces) to some literary magazine, like IMAGE. Or how about 42opus, an online zine, so you could link to it once it was published. (Duotrope's a good tool for sniffing out the right zine.)

At any rate, I think these deserve a chance at a larger platform.

roger flyer said...

I think I like the changes you made, Ben. This will be the first novel ever written edited by cyber-super-friends!

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