Fiction / Carlo Massimo


:: Matera ::

Francesco Mas­trange­lo names his clothes and they’re all women’s names: he’s mar­ried to them, I’ve final­ly decid­ed. When he first engaged me I could iron and fix but­tons and raise wine stains but he gave me an edu­ca­tion: hop­sack in sum­mer, cash­mere in win­ter, prince of Wales, tab col­lars and cut­aways, pochettes and gilets. I could cook him what I like; noth­ing hap­pened to dirty the house, although I scrubbed the floors like I hat­ed them. No one in Mat­era dress­es like Francesco Mas­trange­lo. No man in Mat­era is as beau­ti­ful as him.  

My moth­er (who knew his moth­er) says he came back from Milano, or from Lon­don, after a divorce, which may or may not be true because I haven’t asked him about it. He was born here. He is 41 and I don’t know quite what he does, except that it weighs heav­i­ly on him; he is con­stant­ly on the phone, speak­ing Eng­lish, shout­ing at peo­ple and rub­bing his fore­head. He is slim and dark like the prince in one of the Eng­lish movies from the ’80s, with curly hair and a rec­tan­gu­lar face and sev­en or eight pairs of glass­es. He’s famous around Mat­era. He looks about 30. Tech­ni­cal­ly, I sup­pose, he’s single. 

My sis­ter asked if he was a fro­cio but he’s not: first because of that whole sto­ry with the divorce; also because I know he appre­ci­ates beau­ti­ful women. I would see him at night some­times watch­ing TV, and Michelle Hun­zik­er or some­one would appear and he’d roll his eyes and shake his head. Some­times he’d ask my opinion. 

Very pret­ty, I’d say, very pret­ty, and he believed me because you can trust an ugly woman’s opin­ion on these mat­ters. Some­times I could bare­ly answer, I felt so strangled. 

Belén Rodríguez is his favorite. If he were a woman he’d be her, dark, tall. 

Any­way I know why my sis­ter asked what she asked, because apart from work his whole life is those suits, those jack­ets, the trips to the tai­lor, shout­ing through blue­tooth at the dry clean­er, the rows and rows of neck­ties, hun­dreds stacks of shoes. I pol­ished the shoes. It’s dis­gust­ing to admit this but I enjoyed han­dling them. Occa­sion­al­ly he’d let me slip them off his feet when he got home; I couldn’t offer this too often, as I remind­ed myself. 

In the morn­ing, in his bathrobe, he’d say, Lay out Angel­i­ca for me, and the navy cash­mere tie, the Drake’s. And I’d go find Angel­i­ca, col­or of rust, and brush it off and find a blue shirt to pair with it. 

Or, Chiara, is Michelle back from the clean­ers? Michelle is dou­ble-breast­ed, raw white, unusu­al for winter. 

Once, after I’d cleaned up his sup­per and gone home to my own—it was a lit­tle before midnight—my moth­er said she’d seen my employ­er on the street. He has a look about him, she said. 

A look? 

He looks like a mar­ried man. Occu­pied but not pre­oc­cu­pied. Do you know what I mean? Like your father used to look. You very rarely see young sin­gle boys like that with that mar­ried sort of look.  

My sis­ter said, Let Chiara say what she wants, I still think he’s a frocio. 

Shut up, I said, you wouldn’t know. I couldn’t admit that I knew what she meant: the sleek­ness, the soft step, the dis­creet cologne, the care­ful­ly paired glass­es. More than that the air of total con­tent­ment, the uncon­cern with oth­ers, the haugh­ti­ness, the beau­ty. He wasn’t quite a man. He was more like a male cat, purring in his unlined suits, slink­ing along the rooftops with his tail up and his balls between his legs. Women like him and are afraid of him because he is more woman than they are; men pre­tend to admire him because he is rich and a native son. Watch their eyes as he pass­es, though: they hate him. He is less than them and more than them, more ele­gant, more impe­ri­ous, more pow­er­ful, impregnable. 

There is one excep­tion: when he undress­es. What a trans­for­ma­tion: the first time I saw him undressed after work, watch­ing TV on the couch. He’d left Denise on the foot of the bed, crum­pled and gray; when I came down to clean up his dirty plates I saw him for this first time in his under­shirt and AC Milan shorts and slip­pers. He looked up at me, tired and bash­ful. He smiled with half of his mouth, like what can I say? He was fat­ter than he looked, with strong arms. 

The spaghet­ti was excel­lent, he said. How rarely he acknowl­edged my cooking. 

Thank you, I said. And I swear his voice was deep­er when he was undressed than it was dressed. He got up and scratched his back, indis­creet­ly, and dig­ging in the refrig­er­a­tor for a bot­tle of beer he shuf­fled off to bed. The sight of him undressed like that was too much for me, and I wait­ed on the sofa to hear him shut the door before I unbut­toned and buried myself in the cush­ion still warm from his back. 

Get­ting up I saw myself in the mir­ror, my shirt up, skin­ny with a squashy stom­ach like I’d giv­en birth, and my big nose. He would be dis­gust­ed by my stom­ach. He would be dis­gust­ed by my rolls and my flat chest and my bag­gy eyes and my big nose like a sheep’s. My dull eyes and my dialect and my dull­ness. I had long been sit­ting like a hen on an egg on the unlike­ly hope that he’d see me: a nice girl if not very pret­ty, not sophis­ti­cat­ed but here for him every day, not young but still younger than him. 

When I let myself in the next morn­ing at six I felt myself charged with ener­gy. I felt like I was dri­ving fast, dri­ving his curvy blue Porsche that he’d had shipped spe­cial to Mat­era. He came out in his bathrobe as the cof­fee came up, his hair already immac­u­late and his face tired and annoyed and mag­nif­i­cent. There was no more beau­ti­ful man in the world. I felt like the air was leak­ing out of my lungs.  

Madon­na, but I slept like shit, he said. 

I hand­ed him cof­fee, sweet­ened to his taste. This will fix you, I said, and he smiled. 

Thank you. Thank God there’s you, eh? 

And who’s to say that I didn’t cause him to final­ly see me in that moment? He had nev­er said any­thing sim­i­lar to me before. It wasn’t impos­si­ble that the charge I felt had passed into him like elec­tric­i­ty. I felt dif­fer­ent. In my imag­i­na­tion I saw myself catch­ing a cat in a box, the cat scream­ing and shak­ing its head, twist­ing against my hands, claws scrap­ing the pavement. 

The new suit from D’Amato is ready upstairs, he said, would you take it out for me and find me a tie while I shave? 

I walked behind him, watch­ing his shoul­ders sway under his robe. He went into the bath­room and shut the door. I unzipped the gar­ment bag and extract­ed a suit in char­coal mohair, with a fine blue line. In the mir­ror I held it up against my face: it was a beau­ti­ful col­or, ele­gant, under­stat­ed. At first glance it was sol­id; you couldn’t see the ener­gy in this pat­tern unless you real­ly looked. The col­or made my hair look pret­ti­er than it was, and my com­plex­ion.  

Hand me the trousers, would you? 

His soft brown hand, with long fin­gers, emerged from the cracked bath­room door. I hand­ed him the trousers and a pair of braces, and he emerged in a white shirt with a French plack­et, fresh and hand­some in a cloud of scent.   

The fit is per­fect, he said, —for once. 

This suit doesn’t have a name yet, I asked, does it? 

No, you’re right. I sup­pose it doesn’t.  

Might I sug­gest one? I don’t mean to overstep— 

He laughed. Which name did you have in mind, then? 

What about Chiara? 

He said noth­ing. It was like my words were still hang­ing in the air, like the smoke from a snuffed can­dle, and we were look­ing at them disappear. 

No, he final­ly said, I don’t think it’s quite the case. And look­ing at the tie I’d brought out for him he dropped it gen­tly on the bed and went into the clos­et to pick out a new one. 

At the front door, with the keys to his lit­tle Porsche in his hand and sun­glass­es on his face like an actor, he said, I won’t be back for din­ner this morn­ing. If tonight you could pre­pare some veal—I’ve had a desire for it all week. 

That was all. I nod­ded and he turned soft­ly and glid­ed down the stairs. He looked relieved to be dressed and gone. 

The ener­gy I felt that morn­ing was still with me, buzzing relent­less­ly. No cat for me, I thought, and laughed like an idiot. The shock of my fail­ure had left me feel­ing sil­ly and emp­ty, the way you feel after a car acci­dent. I laughed while I scrubbed the kitchen floor in my bare feet and dust­ed the vene­tians. I mopped and sat down cross-legged to pol­ish his shoes, scrub­bing hard to scrub the idi­ot­ic desire to laugh from my sys­tem. I fin­ished just before noon; hav­ing no din­ner to pre­pare, I looked for some­thing to do until 2.   

In the bath­room, among the glass bot­tles like church spires and a thou­sand movie screens, I saw his razor. It was fold­ed into its wood­en han­dle, like my father used to use; three more sat against the back wall of the cab­i­net, like a hunter’s gun lock­er. How strange it looked in the stained light of all his scents, his sum­mer and win­ter per­fumes, his after­shaves, a maze of gold and sil­ver: Armani, 4711, Acqua di Par­ma, Acqua di Gen­o­va, Guer­lain, Dun­hill, Tom Ford. The razor looked like a farmer’s tool, like a prun­ing hook, nicked and dull with water spots in the wood. It was ancient. Up close I could see where a thumb had worn the wood down, right at the top. 

I slipped the razor into my jeans pock­et and sprayed the mir­ror down to clean it. 

Two days lat­er he asked me where the razor was. I said I didn’t know; I’d tak­en it home and laid it in my night­stand, the same night­stand I’d hid­den my diaries in as a lit­tle girl. It looked as alien in the pink and lilac draw­er as it had in his cab­i­net, hard and dead­ly beside a card from my first com­mu­nion and some old lira coins. Francesco Mas­trange­lo said some­thing to him­self, annoyed, but nev­er men­tioned it again. Months lat­er, when he was dis­miss­ing me, he nev­er once men­tioned the razor. He didn’t give any rea­son at all. But sure­ly I’d done some­thing to deserve it; who knows if it wasn’t that. 



From the writer


:: Account ::

This work is a few dif­fer­ent strands of thought woven togeth­er. I want­ed to write about peo­ple I know in Italy, espe­cial­ly my neigh­bors, who have lives beyond the stereo­types of rur­al and small-town South­ern­ers. (I am not from Mat­era and I have no rela­tions there.) Ele­na Fer­rante leads the way in this enter­prise, so in a way this is an homage to her. 

More impor­tant­ly “Mat­era” is a med­i­ta­tion on gen­der. Gen­der in the Mediter­ranean is its own com­plex … thing, and in Anglo-Sax­on coun­tries nei­ther the gen­der rad­i­cals nor the con­ser­v­a­tives have any kind of lan­guage to describe it. Archa­ic lives inhab­it mod­ern bod­ies, mine no less than my neigh­bors or my char­ac­ters: the kouros of Kroisos, the bronzes of Riace, the lady of Knos­sos, the Venus of Wil­len­dorf. I want to reach them through my work. 

In these mat­ters I look to Freud, Jung, Marie-Louise von Franz, and of course Camille Paglia. And Stend­hal, Isak Dine­sen, St. Augus­tine, the movies of Lina Wert­muller, the comics of Milo Man­ara and Hugo Pratt, and, if it’s not too obnox­ious to say, Dante’s Vita Nova 

Oth­er artis­tic mod­els include Con­rad, Cavafy, Hem­ing­way, Qua­si­mo­do, Rilke, Lor­ca, Lispec­tor, Naipaul, and Heaney. Obvi­ous­ly not at the same time. Obvi­ous­ly with­out much resem­blance to the originals. 

Car­lo Mas­si­mo is a poet and jour­nal­ist based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. His essays have appeared in Newsweek, the Times of Lon­don, the Wil­son Quar­ter­ly, L’Italo-Americano, and else­where. His fic­tion and poet­ry have run in Barza­kh, Bit­ter Ole­an­der, Off the Coast, and Pic­ci­o­let­ta Bar­ca