Three hundred and fifty years out of a millennium the polluted haze obscured all view of the palace across the river bank: smog or the smoky remnants of incendiary celebrations. Some families expired through two generations without a sight. The orchard survived through two hundred years of industrial progress in a nurturing glow of diffuse orange and brown light, filled with dancing shadows from the apple trees and passing motorbikes on the highway.
Birds sing through the ambient buzz of traffic, but they’re not seen.
Face to face with splendor but lost in its anonymous fog, the orchard gave a blind horse’s odds to catch a clear day’s reflection off the embedded gems. He and his Aunt took those odds everyday. She, blinded, led by her nephew’s hands on their daily afternoon break through the apple littered paths. For decades now, from the beginning of his memory and the end of her sight: neither had yet to see the palace. And neither had missed a day. So did the palace really exist beyond the banks? A distant relative from a nearby village claims to have seen it one morning returning from the fields. Scarcely anyone remembers him visiting the fields, least of all sober. More credible artistic villagers passed along rough sketches of the vision, always the same, always inspired: a marble platform, two mosques, four stilted minarets and a dome resting weightlessly below an expanse of rare blue.
One morning this generational fog broke just before daybreak. The air was cool and quiet. He would have slept through it, so newly pleasant, had the orchard keeper not rung a bell he had never heard before. But he knew immediately what it meant. Darting from his bed, he ran shoeless to his Aunt’s house and knocked on the door. Once, twice and again, no answer.
Auntie Auntie, the palace. It’s here. The sun is rising above it! Come now!
Still no answer. But the strange bell rang and the villagers walked in mass disbelief through the orchard, those perpetual oranges and browns, dancing shadows, industrial hums disappearing for now, just for a moment, like forgetting the name of a familiar thing.
Auntie, he called. Wake up! Come see – the palace is here at last.
Urgency turned to desperation and he found her there in her bed, a final resting place. Peaceful in the crisp air. He pushed the blinds away to welcome the rising sun, and there he saw it at last, as she always imagined it: true majesty.
..ed era luce pura
This has always been a good town to leave. I’m not sure why anyone came in the first place, but the books in the local library suggest it had something to do, in some order, with caviar, the American Revolution and Atlantic City. Only one of those things matters to a soul here anymore, and at that, only on the off chance of a free summer evening trying one’s luck on the spinning wheel. Almost everyone who stayed either works tirelessly – oftentimes 2 or more precarious jobs – on fishing boats, the short but lucrative service selling fish to tourists, or the runoff economy of tourists purchasing local wares in the strip of historic shore resorts.
Then there are those, not entirely distinct from the first group, that gig from one hit to the next until the final knockout punch. There has been at least one protest against heroin here in the last year – and to be clear, not against local and state policy to end or bandaid an epidemic. That is: In the absence of anything close to rational policy, a desperate protest against the drug itself. It was front page news several days running in the local press, now shuttered.
If you ever lived here over the stretch of gray months, coinciding perfectly with the Exodus of Shoobies to the golden triangle of Montreal, Philadelphia and New York City, then you know that the only unadulterated, pure and genuinely peaceful hideaway (in the biggest spiritual sense possible) is the Delaware Bay south of the Cape May Lewis Ferry terminal. Between the alienesque horseshoe crabs and exposed sewer tunnels that jut out from the sand like hyperloops to another dimension, it’s not of this planet. Though I left nearly two decades ago, it’s the place I most enjoy returning to as a reminder of its mystery and revelation. Of what might have drawn people here as early as anybody has been drawn anywhere from their origins in this country.
This town is a good place to leave, but you must always go home.
I would like to acknowledge Dime Show Review, where this story appears in print.
I met him in the early morning hours outside the Protestant Cemetery in Testaccio. He was smoking a cigarette and finishing an operation on his wristwatch calculator. I greeted him with a nervous hello, and he in return gave an indifferent nod, cleared his throat and said, “I’d say I have about three solid years left before I need to forge another passport. Let’s get moving.” A strange figure we must have cut. Separated by two generations: This man, who everyone, even his closest friends, believed to be dead, and I, his nervous young acolyte, wan and speechless, like meeting a ghost.
He unlocked the cemetery gates and led me directly to the shed where he kept his arsenal of groundskeeper tools. A few rakes and various shovels, several bottles of fertilizer or weed killer, dissected parts of a sprinkler system, salts and a small desk hidden under a mess of work orders and a well worn copy of The Case of Comrade Tulayev. I asked if he lived nearby and he shot back a glance that said, cop question. Then he handed me a pair of shears and we headed toward Keats’ wry headstone. His calloused hands glowing blue in the thin skin of old age started in on a patch of weeds, unrooting them with the efficiency of a machine.
Unsolicited he offered that he started every morning here as a reminder. Of what he didn’t say, but I read the engraving slowly back to myself a second, then a third time before grasping:
...in the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies
We spoke little between tombstone visits – various technical tips on garden maintenance, a couple of insects to look out for, especially around Shelley’s resting place – but by the time we made it to Gramsci’s tomb, he opened up about the fear of those first years. The shock. Not so much of the violence, the blood, but of having lived past the first half decade of roundups, torture and psychological terror nearly unmoved. He meant that literally, the groundskeeper job being his domain for fifty years. The Party had assumed him dead after the Palatine Massacre of 2021 and he, having read the news, took a page from The Outsider and lived on, only now under a masked self of his own design.
The writing continued, thankfully, under a pseudonym long assumed to be the real identity of an American political prisoner. In the long trough of political reaction, his research continued only because of his proximity to Gramsci’s body, a mecca of sorts for myriad radicals who were happy to share the latest work on the respected revolutionary made saint. At odds with the day’s earlier reports on his financial prospects, he predicted that he would himself be buried here soon. And that he needed my help ensuring as much.
Before returning to his workshed, he handed me a spade and asked that I dig beneath a collection of vases at the base of Gramsi’s ashes until I reached the locked metal box. He returned a few minutes later and handed me the key. The box contained his birth certificate and a small journal filled with memories of his fugitive life in Italy. One titled “Swimmers” told a happy story of bathing in the Bay of Naples. I skimmed for a while longer as we sat in silence, flashes of goats in Capri, drunk students running the Circus Maximus in late fall, the beautiful disorganization of the Museo Archeologico. The box’s only other contents was a true relic: a small zipdrive containing what he called his masterpiece. These, the proof of his life and his life’s work in refuge, produced here, beside Gramsci, would go back with me to New York. “My granddaughter will know what to do.”
Before I could ask my questions, the morning’s first guests, a German couple on holiday, arrived at the cemetery gates. The living apparition rushed away to greet them and signaled with one last indifferent nod my way to the exit.
Most of the day is spent waiting: In lines, on benches, smoking, eating overly expensive crusted slop, baking in the sun or drenched in the stable stenches outside if you’re unlucky. (Doubly, I mean, in weather and pocket.) Even the sober feel tempted to drink passing the time between races. I see them vicariously eyeing the straw-hatted Long Island youth in the bar queue, they haven’t much else to do.
Pink shirts sweated through on all the fatty parts, neon cocktails with too much ice, cigar smoke mixed with thick popcorn stink, a pair of hairy legs in dirty sneakers sharing a stall with a high-heeled companion. Belmont: Bastion of Progress on Bathroom Norms? (Answer: no, they’re only a little transgressive when expedient; I have firsthand knowledge that these folks call line-cutters “queers.”)
Only the true handicappers seem at peace amid the mass restlessness. The rest of us arrived too early, carrying the profoundly deluded hope that this year would be different. We wouldn’t fade or wither in dehydration before the main event. We wouldn’t waste bets on exotic Hail Mary Superfectas or forget the math on a 4-factoral when boxing it. Four times three times two. No. This year it’s the easy stuff. Place, Show, Win: Can’t Lose! I’ll read the fucking book on the train. Jimmy Tipkins at Horse Knower Weekly picked the Preakness spot-on. Fuck Justify, I’m listening to Jimmy….
But of course, this year isn’t different. At best, you didn’t lose, but you also couldn’t win big, like the trustfund loafer bros and Gronks upstairs betting on their namesakes. The stakes are truly only for those with the pockets deep enough to make ironic throwaway bets ($69… nice), but the Stakes is ours. It’s church, a cure for the masses. Only with a little more people slipping around in their own shit and vomit.
…I got the cover image from a nice gal who said her friends never take good pictures of her, so “Would you mind taking one of me?” Sure, I said. Then I showed it to her and she exclaimed, in glee: “Oh, the lip gloss!”