Spoonfuls of Yellow Mash
Impossible! How could Javid have returned, and without warning? The guy looks more muscular than ever; veins twine up his neck; triceps stretch his shirt; he wears a fresh pink scar on his cheek that twitches like a centipede as he gulps down more of Parisa’s heart-mending yellow mash.
“Parisa says your Italian has improved,” Javid says, that benevolent-sun face glowing all over DJ. DJ shrugs. The tabby stirs in DJ’s arms.
DJ tries, in Italian: “Did you have a nice trip?”
Javid’s gaze does not leave DJ’s. He spoons in another mouthful of yellow mash and swallows it. “It was… stimulating.”
Parisa says, “You know we cannot tell you more than this, DJ.”
Damn it all! Why was this Javid so mysterious, so muscly, and what kind of a name was ‘Javid’ anyway? Was he Italian Special Forces? An assassin who worked for the Pope? Maybe it was just the sight of all that yellow mash—equal parts nightmare and savior—messing with DJ’s mind. It had seemed, to DJ, for weeks, that nothing was really happening in his life—that Florence (For-Ends-Zee—as Simone used to mispronounce) had become a purgatory, that all he could do was wander avenues of memory and self-pity, but then he saw that astonishing nun parade! And then seventeen cats! And suddenly life felt as if, impossibly, it had shifted to present tense!
Those cats, seventeen of them, swirling around his ankles, and the warm tabby with the dark swirling stripes and neon eyes, blinking up at him with sentient eyes. He thought it was going to change his life.
DJ stands on the threshold of Parisa’s apartment; Parisa and Javid watch him with their benevolent-sun faces.
“Are you bene, DJ?”
DJ takes on step back. Please, he thinks, to the cat, say something now. Tell me what to do. Put that voice back inside my head. The tabby squirms in his arms. Had he only imagined that she spoke to him?
The cat blinks. “Wrong size,” she says. “Pass the glue.”
DJ’s heart catapults in his chest. “I’m sorry, Parisa,” he says, “I have just realized, I forgot my… my, my stetoscopio. I must go.”
Stetoscopio, noun, stethoscope: a word from today’s Italian lesson. An instrument to measure the heart. DJ half-sprints down the rosewater-stinking halls, careens back down the stairs, feels some break in the crust surrounding his life: Twenty-five days left! And then what? Go back Valley Forge, PA? Where everything is always battle reenactments and Continental Army, where memories of his deceased dad are buried everywhere? Dad, who used to dress up like George Washington every December and make DJ carry a musket barefoot behind him in the snow? He has to go back to that?
DJ staggers out into the street. The daylight fails. To his left waits the Viale Heathcock; to the right, Viale Webster; honeysuckle twines up the side of the building; an archway he has never explored before glows in the last sunlight.
Why do fools fall in love? Why do smart people, for that matter? It’s a disease we all succumb to eventually. Like death, maybe. Love would lose its meaning were it not balanced by its loss. Didn’t Jung say that? Maybe it was Hall & Oates.
Simone is gone, Simone who wore his periodic table T-shirt, who wrote weird marginalia in his copy of Paradise Lost. Heather Feather seems cruel, and what if she really has leather wings stashed somewhere in that creepy apartment of hers? And now Parisa is out, too, Parisa who didn’t even seem all that attractive until about eight minutes ago, when he saw Javid in her apartment and realized how unbelievably lucky Javid was, how much DJ would give to be in his shoes. How unfair it was that Javid had returned, as though some great, wily, controlling intelligence in the sky had determined to close that door on him forever.
No, it’s just the cat: the cat is is final option, the only promise DJ has left to redeem his final twenty-five days in Florence, the lifetime he believes he must live before he leaves the Old World for the New One. It’s the cat he has left, this amazing, cryptic magical, paranormal tabby.
He sets her down; she takes a long stretch, then glances back at him with her big, vertical pupils.
“Follow me,” she says and —
Vague dread (as opposed to specific dread) stirs in DJ’s chest.
He wants to decline. He wants to say, politely but firmly, “I can’t go for that; no, no can do,” but doesn’t know the Italian. What is the wrong size? What sort of glue, and to what use? DJ’s head’s gone swimmy from days of sugar, lemon, and champagne. Not clowder but cloud, the cats watch, rub, drift. DJ follows the tabby down narrow street after narrow street. None of this is Dymphna-worthy, just the low-level acedia of a twenty-five year old humming the words of a fourteen-year-old boy from Harlem, ooooo wah, ooooo wah, ooooo wah, ooooo wah. Thank God for phonemes, DJ thinks. As he walks, he tries to delineate real and not real: river, real; limestone, real; mash, very real; dead father’s money, real; Italian Special Forces—Google later.
They walk, tabby leading, DJ following, until they reach the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. Is this a pilgrimage, then? David wonders. If so, when did it begin? Growing up in Pennsylvania, that word had signified one thing: the Valley Forge Pilgrimage, oldest annual Boy Scout event in the world. He feels underdressed. His heart is so loud as he stands outside the door, no stetoscopio is needed. The tabby rubs against his legs. Static. Light bounces off the cathedral dome into DJ’s eyes. He squints. Walks up the ancient steps. Pushes open the great doors.
Saint David’s symbol is the leek.
DJ followed the cats, now walking in a parade of two, like clerics. They crossed through the great hall of the cathedral that smelled of incense and fish. The tabby by his side, he followed the cats to a set of stairs.
Up and up, they climbed. His lungs bucked. His thighs quaked. Soon they came out into a room even above the dome, open to the sky, all of Florence far below, the simple glory of white stone and pottery roofs. In the center of this round room stood a great stone basin, what might have once been a fountain, now a mirror pond of brackish water.
The tabby cat clawed at DJ’s leg. He lifted the cat and it seemed to smile.
“Have you heard of the Tower of Babel?” it asked.
“Is that here in Florence?”
“No,” it said. “From the Bible.”
DJ shook his head. “I’ve never been much for that kind of thing.”
“After the Great Flood,” the cat said. “All of the people spoke one single language. This unity drove them to great ambitions and they decided to build a tower so high it would reach to Heaven. God saw that with one language nothing they sought would be out of reach. So God confounded their speech. One language became seventy-two and since then we’ve been an absolute mess.”
“So this is God’s fault, then?”
“Better than to blame yourself.”
DJ couldn’t tell if the cat was being sarcastic. The tabby squirmed to get down and he dropped it to the dusty floor and it hopped up onto the rim of the mirror pond. “Look,” it told him, then eyed the water. “See.”
DJ stepped to the stone basin and peered into the still green water. There he saw the reflection of the room’s roof, an image of a tower of spiraling rock disappearing into the clouds. But something in the orientation had shifted for DJ. The tower now looked to him like a tunnel leading down.
DJ passed his eyes into the water and down into the spiraling tunnel. Down and down, he fell with his eyes to emerge in a field he’d played in as a boy, back behind his home in Valley Forge.
His father stood there beside him, dressed like George Washington, tricorn hat and everything, smoking a pipe. Such a sad quiet man. Such a lost man, DJ’s mother gone years ago from an enlarged heart that stopped too soon.
His father regarded him and said, “You want some advice then?”
“Sure.” This wasn’t something his father did, give advice. DJ was curious.
“Talk more to people and less to cats.” He smiled sweetly, winked. “Either that or finish the goddamn tower.”
He was kidding. DJ had great affection for his father’s jokes that were never really funny. “But what do I say to them? Parisa. Simone. Heather. I never know what to say.”
“Tell them that,” his father said.
“Tell them what?” DJ blinked, confounded. Then he was back in the tower room, in the clouds above the great cathedral.
Though the sky had lightened, lights were coming down in the street’s far below. This was life to DJ, in all its grandeur and disappointment, feeling he’d passed through something while not having gone anywhere at all.
He looked at the tabby there on the basin rim. “What did he mean ‘Tell them that’?”
“I think he meant what he said,” the cat said, rubbing itself again him.
“No, wait, I mean–” DJ was more frustrated now that he’d ever been. That’s how it is getting close but not close enough. “Can anyone just tell me straight how to love someone and have them love you back?”
The tabby meowed, what sounded like a chuckle. It hopped off the rim of the basin and said, “I’m not God, if that’s what you’re asking.”
The tabby scampered away, the horde of cats following it back to the stairs.
DJ took on last glance over the darkening city. He thought he should stay up in the room, never go back down to the streets and the humans and all that mess. But then he turned and fell back in line with the cats to descend the long winding stairwell.
He sang to himself, walking home, but he’d forgotten all the lyrics of all the songs that came to him and found himself humming. He made it, somehow, to his bed in the dank apartment down the long stone street. He slept deeply and long and when he woke in the bright afternoon, he thought all was well, that the terrifying day before had been flushed from his bloodstream, that there was no more strangeness left in him. But in the shower, a small, still voice spoke to him, and though he listened hard, he could hear the voice but not the words. He turned off the water to listen more deeply, but still it was only voice, no meaning. His skin prickled all over his body; he shivered, even when he put his clothes on.
In the street, walking toward the bakery where he ate his morning espresso and cornetti every day, everything rang with portent. The sun shone back in his face from the shop windows and made him wince. The cats stared at him with special intensity. A woman sang as she swept the sudsy water from her sidewalk with a broom, but he couldn’t hear her Italian, he couldn’t hear the words. He stood, panting, at the bakery counter and the girl who stood behind it, who gave him his pastry and coffee most mornings with a laugh and a flirt, looked first startled then frightened when he couldn’t form words and when he seemed to not understand hers. She handed him the food and waved him off. He felt like a cursed thing, moving away.
He came back out to the street, and there was the bright and vicious Arno, laughing at him in the sunlight, and he ran from it into the maze of streets and became disoriented. He found himself home, at last, in the afternoon.
He took another shower, hoping it would help. He took another nap. But he was clean and rested and still the words didn’t come. He took out his phone, which had pinged, and saw Simone’s dark and solemn face on the screen, a shot he’d taken of her when she didn’t know he was looking; she was calling him, at last, at last! He picked up and managed a sound, but could not make his way through the words she was speaking; it was a mash, a garble. He tried harder, but she grew frustrated and hung up. For a very long time, he sat there on his sad secondhand mattress, his heart thumping, feeling as though he was going to die of loneliness.
You, perhaps, have seen this man, DJ; perhaps you’ve seen one of the host of men like him. You know him. He has been to parties at your friend of a friend’s, the moderately good-looking man with the thinning hair who helps to man the grill, who claps when the little girls come out and do their dances, who picks up cups and crumpled napkins when everyone else has gone home. Inveterate bachelor, the men call him with admiration. The women call him that, also, but in a guarded tone. They don’t offer to set them up with their sisters, their coworkers, their friends. He always tries too hard and yet, somehow, not hard enough. He sings to himself when he photocopies things at work and the snippets of the songs are always a little offensive, but not enough to protest. He will always say he is in love, oh, man, she’s a magnificent creature, gorgeous, legs like this!, but there’s something false in the statement: you never quite believe it.
And then you hear: there had been a psychic break, in his mid-twenties that had lasted for a terribly long time. He’d been in Italy then; his mother had to come fetch him home to Pennsylvania. And if he shudders away from limoncello or gelato, if he fails to show up to the spaghetti dinner that’s so important to the daughter of the friend of a friend, you chalk it up to this bad time. A strange night, you imagine. A revulsion for polenta or tabby cats. When you think of him, you try to think of the man in the Polo shirt with the tongs at the grill, but you can’t, you can only see the frightened boy on a bare mattress in a house he could never make a home, in a place that would remain foreign, where the light off a treacherous river shines through the windows, and dances on the walls.