Sunday, May 15, 2011

Palermo and the Invisible Man

Passing through a cloud of unknowing

Notes from a journal, not about my grandfather, but my great grandfather. In Palermo. He died before I ever knew about him. But one day many years ago, in the family home on Via Roma in old Palermo I was introduced to him in a vision. It was August and all of Sicily was an inferno. The road outside my window was filled with noise and smoky little Vespas filling the air with all manner of intrusions. I was feeling queasy and disoriented. An omelet I had eaten near Alcamo hadn't set well with me. That, and the sizzling heat. My aunt would bring me water with anisette in it, cloudy, cool, refreshing, soothing. But my stomach was a mini Etna.

One afternoon, when all of Palermo napped, tossing about one of two twin beds on the fourth floor of the family home I thought I heard a tapping on the window. Before long, an elderly man appeared through the window, walking into the room as if on air. He hovered above me and asked, "Who is that in the bed? What is your name?" I answered, "Alfonso." To which he replied, “That is the name of my son who went to America. Why are you in my room?"

I was flummoxed. I was in a strange place, not feeling well and there were sounds and smells that elicited discomfort. And here was this pushy little Sicilian man, was asking why I was in his room and in his bed?

"What do you want, old man? I have a grandfather named Alfonso too, and he went to America. And I came back to visit his family. And if you want to lie down, there is another bed. Please take it and stop bothering me. I am trying to get well!" I was agitated now.

He leaned over me took a look and opened his eyes wide. He was very white and wrinkled. "Va bene, you can stay, it is alright." And then he disappeared out through the window he came in.

Later that evening my aunt Vitina came in to see after me and my condition. I told her about the old man and described the disturbing occurrence. "Oh, I see Assuntino came back." she said. "He is pesky like that sometimes. Don’t worry, he is harmless. He cannot bother you. He just comes back from time to time to check on his home and see that nothing has been moved or sold.

Many years later, I was walking by the old place. The family had moved out after the neighbor hood had gone bad during the Mafia wars. One of the family member's names was still listed. But much of the house had been parceled out. On one floor a bed and breakfast had been put in.

I wondered how the old man dealt with that. Gone is the beautiful Louis the XV furniture. Gone is the breakfast table brought from the family village and the convent, what my aunt called the Schlitza (Sklee-tza) where legend has it Garibaldi camped, planning his ascent up the peninsula, all the while looting the wealth of the South. All he left was the breakfast table, which wasn't his in the first place. Nor was the money in the banks of Palermo and Naples his. Now the North of Italy complains constantly of having to divert funds to help in the reconstruction of the South.

Another day, in the same room, I am still nauseous. Drifting in and out of awareness, sitting on the edge of a dream. And then the second vision appears, from a future place. A young man in a foreign country, far from his birthplace, amasses wealth. Some of it angel money in the form of a commission he neglects to pay to an older man. A man, who changes his life fundamentally, introduces him to his future wife. The young man becomes successful and wealthy beyond his dreams. The older one dies early, in a one-bedroom apartment, broken and tired and sad and cheated.

Where is Assuntino? Whose furniture, whose fortune is he looking over now? Has it merely blown across the scirocco of two countries and 100 years and is but a footnote on a dream post in the corner of the internet, insignificant, with no power to right a wrong?

Blown right into the life of a man who has more of everything he could ever need in 10 lifetimes. Except for time. And peace. And respect. And love, without fear.

Just then, the bells of Santa Maria Assunta in Piazza Vigilena tolled four times from outside the window. The signal to awaken and head out into the street with camera, to visit one of the first wine bars in the world, not aware of the decisive moment that awaited the sleeper. be continued

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