Join Prism Book Alliance® as Edmond Manning goes Outside the Margins today.
Like many other authors, I volunteered to write a story for the spectacular Goodreads event: Don’t Read In The Closet. (This year’s theme is Love Is An Open Road.)
The picture I adopted, below, was fairly wide open in its interpretation. Two men meet in Italy and fall in love. One is an Italian painter. One is an American gamer, celebrating his completion of college before he’s off to Corporate America.
This month, I thought I’d share a bit from my resulting story, Love Like The Medici. The story isn’t out yet, but when it gets published, it will be a free download. I’ll keep you posted.
Chris Spaulding had not traveled much, preferring Google maps to real maps, virtual museum tours to crowded spaces with whining art pretenders. He would sometimes ask himself, with the world so accessible by computer, why travel? The day prior, he answered his own question, listening to casual banter in an unfamiliar language, sidestepping noisy Vespas, dangerously close to the sidewalks. He touched a stone engraved with the age of the building, constructed in 1688. ‘Because of this,’ he told himself. ‘You travel because you can touch this.’
With the laptop bag secure around his neck and chest, and gripped in his right arm, he left the Accademia and walked the few short blocks to his next destination, a Filippo Brunelleschi masterpiece, the Ospedale Degli Innocenti. Hospital of the Innocents.
An orphanage boasting early Italian Renaissance architecture.
How strange it must have been for the famous Brunelleschi construct a building so openly luxurious, spacious and grand for abandoned children, a population who could not properly appreciate the hypnotic symmetry of the classically-inspired facade.
Chris had read several guidebooks on Florentine art, favoring one in particular, written by a Midwestern art history professor whose racy commentary made reading Florence’s history feel like gossiping with a friend. She had suggested visitors to the orphanage seek out the touching inscription in Latin, taken from the Bible, Psalm 27: “Our father and mother have forsaken us; the Lord has taken us in.”
After his self-guided tour around the building, Chris decided to rest.
He purchased a frittella di riso from a delicatessen stall within the piazza’s perimeter. The venders were plentiful, scattered around the piazza, celebrating the Festival of San Giuseppe. The vendor made stereotypical tourist jokes and Chris laughed, pleased by this man’s generous hospitality. He probably grew sick of tourists, yet he made Chris feel more welcome in Italy and Chris appreciated that. He decided to lean against the metal fencing protecting the piazza’s gurgling fountain, the fountain being another gorgeous masterpiece in a city crammed with gorgeous masterpieces.
The sheer quantity of dazzling experience dazzled him.
He removed the strap from his chest and rested the laptop against the railing while unwrapping the sugar-coated fried balls, steaming in wax paper. They smelled delicious. With all the amazing restaurants nearby, he assumed he could eat better elsewhere, but the greasy thrill of Italian junk food held immediate appeal.
They were pretty good. Not what he expected, but tasty.
He observed cheap souvenir vendors yelling their trinkets in practiced voices. One promised papal bottle openers and trivets bearing Cosmo di Medici’s likenesses. Another one yelled the word t-sheeerts over and over. Chris wondered if the grand pater of the Medici family would appreciate hot turkey pot pie parked on his face. He listened to men and women trill into cell phones, appreciating the poetry of the unknown words.
He stared at the white stucco articulated by gray pietra serena, a sandstone utilized by most exteriors around him, tasteful but worn, a kind of shabby elegance, arches and pillars adroitly boxing in the piazza, making Chris wonder if, even on days when there was not a festival, this might be a stopping place—
The rice fritter was jerked out of his hand, and for a split second, he wondered why anyone would want his snack until he realized the someone had yanked his laptop strap. His laptop bag was already disappearing in the arms of a running child.
He blinked and gave chase.
His game laptop! His iPhone! His headset and mouse!
That mouse cost him over a hundred dollars.
He darted around pedestrians, yelling. He ran hard, trying to anticipate the kid’s next move. Everything was in that bag.
The young thief threw his laptop bag at another kid as they crossed paths, who was already running full speed, but even as Chris realized this was part of the planned escape, the exchange was already over. Chris switched directions to follow the bag.
Chris yelled, “Thief! Thief! He stole my bag!”
This second kid could run, darting toward the edge of the piazza, nimbly side-stepping small gatherings. One or two adults half-heartedly reached out to grab him, but he avoided them easily. He tossed the bag behind him, and Chris instinctively knew the laptop bag was empty. His laptop was gone! The first kid extracted it, obviously. While he urged himself to run harder after the runt, Chris realized the kid had his iPhone. His laptop was long gone.
It was gone.
The kid raced from the crowd down another side-street, already gaining distance.
Chris stopped running, realizing the futility and feeling the impact of his stolen breaths. He heaved, hands on his knees, removed his glasses, covered in sweat. Imbued with the proper speedster potions, his avatar Oman could outrun demons. In the real world, Chris could not catch the young punk who grabbed his iPhone.
The phone could be replaced. He hated being without it, but they had iPhone stores in Florence. The gaming machine, that was expensive. That was custom-built, half of it by him. This made the theft even more personal. In addition, he maxed out his priest’s healing power using that machine, a personal quest two years in the making. While his healing powers remained intact online, he felt like he had a relationship with the physical construction of his computer, a history.
They took his fucking life.
Others had realized what happened, and while they might sympathize there was nothing they could do. One or two stopped near him to say, “I didn’t get a look at them.” Someone else said, “I think one had black hair and one was a girl, but honestly, I’m not entirely sure.”
He accepted their almost excited sympathy with seething rage, rage at them for their schadenfreude attempts to be part of his misery, one of their unique vacation stories. The guy who got his laptop bag stolen, right in the piazza where we had our gelato. He hated their pity. It could have been you, he wanted to say. It could have been you.
He grimaced and walked, eyes ahead, to his laptop bag, now being protected by onlookers. Chris picked it up, opened it, and yes, everything was gone. The expensive mouse, the iPhone—his only link to family and friends—and his gaming computer.
He wanted to cry.
For real, cry.
In the Rome airport, he felt queasy homesickness for a few moments, considering his physical distance from life he knew. The queasiness had passed as soon as he saw the city. Now, the queasiness returned, magnified, as he thought about how isolated he was. No family. No calls. No guild.
His passport and travelers checks remained locked in the room safe. His wallet remained in his back pocket. Ironically, he had worried the laptop would be stolen from the rented flat, despite the apartment’s beefy security measures. What if a neighbor possessed a key and waited until he was gone? He supposed it ‘could have been worse,’ but that thought was no consolation.
The need to cry passed, though he knew it wasn’t far from the surface. Later in the day, once he returned to his rented room, he might get around to letting out frustrated tears. This was his first vacation. His first real vacation.
Without a clear purpose, he returned to the snatch scene. The frittelle di riso balls lay scattered, one of them already stepped on and squished, and Chris felt the same way. He asked a few people, ‘did you see what happened,’ but experienced the same success, vague descriptions and a few, “Sorry. I didn’t get a good look.”
One of the nearby street painters might have seen something. He was physically close enough.
Chris approached the man who seemed to attack his paper canvas with a ferocity that intimidated. Chris realized the painter might even know these children, especially if they targeted tourists regularly. The painter looked up and Chris’ mouth hung open a split second longer than he intended. The short crew cut, the solid jawline, even the icy-blue eyes gave Chris pause. He wanted to admire the man a second longer, but his mouth was already open.
“Excuse me, did you see those kids just steal my laptop? Can you be a witness for a police report?”
The painter kept his gaze on the canvas. “No, sorry.”
This irritated Chris. “But you’re right here. Didn’t you see?”
“I was looking down.”
“Well, do you know these kids? Seen them around here ripping people off?”
He shrugged. “Lots of children here steal.”
“He’s finishing a painting for me,” a woman nearby said in a slightly annoyed voice. “Can you talk to him about this in another five minutes.”
“No, lady,” Chris said, happy to find a source for his growing anger. “It can’t wait. I just lost over three thousand dollars in computer equipment and my only connection to my family. I’m having a crisis, here.”
Everything was truly gone, and with the shock of it over, the reality was beginning to sink in.
She said, “I’m sorry. You’re right.”
This made Chris take a breath and realize as much as he wanted to throw a tantrum, he did not want to surrender to a tantrum. “No, I’m sorry. I’m upset. Please accept my apology.”
“May I ask him just a few more questions?”
She nodded and stood to the side with her friend.
Chris turned to the attractive painter. He was almost a bear, a square man, possibly Sicilian, the dark brooding looks, and quiet demeanor. Dark under his eyes. Still, nothing could account for an Italian man’s ability to look sexy under just about any circumstances.
“Please help me, “Chris said. “I just lost everything.”
The painter looked up. “I’m sorry. This is very popular spot for thieves. I might recognize their faces if I saw them, but there are dozens of children working this city, so I wouldn’t even be sure who I saw where.”
Chris took a step back, frustrated, wanting to argue more but what could he argue? The man lied, he knew the kids? That he probably knew something useful if he would just reveal it? There was nothing to argue. He glared at the artist, unable to find him as attractive as he did a minute ago.
Maybe there was a piazza code, or an Italian code. Or some street code. The kids won’t knock over your art supplies if you don’t give them up. Something.
Effort. That’s all Chris wanted. A little effort.
He wandered in a small radius, looking for non-existent clues, cursing how everyone else enjoyed the perfect Italian day and now he could not, would not. He would not enjoy the rest of his trip.
Day two. Vacation ruined. Chris realized he should fly back home. No point in staying.
Moments later, he recognized a police man, easy to spot, a few hundred feet away, talking to tourists. Or attempting to talk to them. Chris approached and waited as patently as he could, but now that he had found a police officer, he suddenly believed time was essential, and if they could get searching immediately, it might not be too late to recover his items.
Near the officer, a small crowd hovered nearby, which irritated Chris as he wished to speak to the policeman with more privacy. It was not the officer’s fault for the crowd, but another street painter, this one’s gimmick to paint with both hands, two separate paintings. Chris could see only the back of his head and saw the man didn’t actually paint both at the same time, but held the brush with dripping paint in one hand while working quickly with the other. Then, the free hand went to work while the other took a break.
When it was his turn to speak, the police officer seemed willing to help, his lack of English notwithstanding. He spoke basic English, but Chris wanted to get descriptive, the exact angle of the trajectory so they would have a path to follow. He grew frustrated at the abbreviated responses and the repetition of the world, ‘stolen. Stolen.’
Yes, he wanted to cry. Stolen.
“Scusami, may I be of service?”
Chris turned to find the gimmicky painter, a brush still in each hand, standing at his side.
The painter’s short black curls hanging down his forehead were not thick, but crisp and truly Roman, the haircut made popular by George Clooney years earlier. His clean cut face remained guarded, but almost hopeful. Relief surged through Chris.
Someone willing to help.
Chris said, “Yes, thank you, please. The police officer doesn’t speak much English.”
The painter said, “Permettetemi di parlare a nome di quest’uomo , traducendo in italiano . E’ chiaramente sconvolto e questo lo farà sentire meglio.”
“Certo,” said the officer.
He turned to Chris and said, “I asked if I may speak on your behalf and he agreed.”
Chris said, “Thank you. Okay.”
The painter said, “Tell me.”
Chris described what had happened, the two-person hand-off with the laptop bag, providing the artist a better description of the various escape routes than he could explain to the police, including more landmarks.
The artist nodded, interrupted with a finger raised, and spoke to the police in Italian, stopping to listen to more of Chris’ description. In turn, they wrote down information, and the three of them exchanged quietly in Italian. After the full account had been transcribed, they allowed Chris to keep a copy of a receipt, and through the artist, encouraged him to visit a police station tomorrow to get the number of his open police report. He would need that for insurance.
A pit grew in Chris’ stomach. He had not insured the laptop. He knew he should have. He knew it. And he never did.
The police and the painter exchanged last words, and Chris waited as patiently as he could for the conclusion of the conversation. He was already disappointed that the officer wasn’t phoning in an emergency report, or perhaps darting off in the direction of one of the young thieves.
The police nodded grimly, and one of them said, “I’m sorry.”
Chris, nodded, confused. Apparently, nothing was happening. Or perhaps he misunderstood.
The artist said, “I will speak with you. Let me finish these two paintings. They are waiting.”
Chris resented the man’s assistance at this second, forced to follow the street painter’s schedule, but why not? The police had no intention of chasing down criminals, so why should a street painter do any different?
He paced. He wiped clean his glasses with his shirt tail.
The world as he knew it was removed from him. Online more than physical, was gone for the next forty-eight hours at least. Maybe twenty-four hours if he paid some exorbitant shipping fee, which he might, to get all his apps and iPhone contacts back. No, he couldn’t afford that. Besides, he had his vacation notes stored on various apps. He had downloaded two Italian map apps, a Euro currency translator, a Roman subway app, and four art-related apps. Every Italian treasure he intended to visit, its research right at his fingertips.
To save money, he should fly home. Forget the rest of the doomed trip. Flying to Italy for a two-month vacation was one of the worst mistakes he had ever made. He knew that now.
He gritted his teeth and thought bitterly, ‘This is why people don’t travel.’
He stalked behind the artist’s small crowd, perhaps a bigger gathering than he initially assessed, as more stopped to stare at the strange skill. Each painting, already more than half done—the Florentine Cathedral on the left—and the Palazzo Vecchio on the right, skidded into a colorful, explosive shapes with black and brown lines added for accents.
The crowd gathered tighter, ooo-ing over purple splotches that took on richer meaning as it was now clear this was gorgeous shade from an overhang, the green squiggly mess darkened and outlined to become a green plant on a window-sill. In both hands, triumphant flourishes ended rounded shapes, as if the artist’s fingers were as fast as his imagination.
Even Chris noticed and forgot to feel kicked-in-the-stomach.
The crowd clapped with an enthusiasm somewhere above polite but under whooping, as the maestro displayed both works. He held them before a young teenaged girl who smiled wistfully, and a younger boy, who seemed eager to get his hands on the freshly-painted surface. His father pulled the younger boy back.
“For a sister and her brother,” the painter said, presenting them both toward the girl for her selection. “La signorina chooses first.”
She selected the Florentine Cathedral and with a smile he advised her not to touch it, not for a few minutes until the watercolors dried.
The father snatched the second one before the boy could reach it. “You can have it when it’s dry,” he announced and then turned to the artist. “They’re beautiful. Grazie.”
He paid for them and the teenage girl timidly stepped forward to squeak out, “Grazie.”
The painter said, “You will always have these paintings, you and your brother. Just as you will always have each other.”
She blushed and Chris understood why.
The painter was more handsome than he had realized. He was young, mid- or early-twenties, with his short black hair, ringlets beginning to form around his ears but not quite. He spoke seriously as if each word mattered, and his lips were thick, which appealed to Chris, though he did not know why. His skin was what white people called “olive-colored,” which meant not-white. Not black. Not Hispanic. Somewhere else on the scale of gorgeous skin colors.
After moving only a foot or two away, strangers gathering around the father and daughter, asking to examine both pieces, comparing the style of right to left. For a moment, Chris had the artist to himself.
“Sit,” he said, pointing to a spot on the ground.
Chris immediately began to crouch down, obeying, and then stopped. “Can I talk to you without getting on the ground. Would that be okay?”
Chris found himself obeying, thought he was not sure why.
The artist left his work station, the two dueling paint boards with thick paper clipped to each. He left his paints, and came to Chris with only a large sketch pad. He sat.
A woman, mid-fifties and wearing an argyle sweater-vest emerged from the small crowd and spoke to the painter. “Will you paint me something? The Florentine church?”
“Yes, I would be happy,” he said. “When I am finished with this gentleman, yes. Do not leave, okay? I will paint for you.”
She promised she would stay.
The artist began to sketch and Chris realized the subject was not the Florentine cathedral or a famous building, but Chris himself.
Chris scowled. “Do we have to do this?”
The painter said, “Yes.”
Another man, older than the first woman, came and stood by the painter and said, “I’d like two paintings, one from both hands, two of them. If you want the money.”
The painter said, “Yes. I would like that. I have a woman in front of you as soon as I’m finished here.”
In an annoyed voice, the man said, “I’m in a hurry.”
The painter said, “I work quickly.”
The man said, “Look, I can get a shitty street painting anywhere. Any corner.”
“Yes,” the painter said and looked at Chris. “You can.”
Chris now understood why painter needed to sketch him. So they could have a moment to speak.
The painter looked at Chris as if trying to remember his name. He looked down and began sketching immediately, taking a break to look at Chris again, doubt and confusion in his eyes. Chris could not read the expression. The painter’s eyes were open and friendly, like a deer.
The artist wore thin sideburns crew cut against his skin, which not many men could pull off. His face was relaxed and Chris realized he was once again ogling a handsome man. The last man he stared at this way had marble testicles from the Carrara quarry.
“I am sorry for your things,” the artist said. “You will not get them back.”
Chris found his fondness diminishing. “What?”
“The police will file a report. They will do that. But I am sorry to report to you, your items will not be found. Not likely.”
“Because no one will search for them.”
“So your police aren’t going to do anything?” Chris knew his tone was accusatory but he could not help it.
The painter said, “Would yours?”
“Yes.” Chris tried to sound haughty.
The artist frowned and his arm flew across the page. “We get reruns of Law & Order, you know. NCIS. Cold Case. Bones. We have Netflix. None of those cases are police going after stolen phones unless murder was involved.”
He cocked his head. “Was someone murdered?”
“How much longer is this going to take?” The demanding man returned quickly, pressing closer.
“Close to done with this one, Signore. Then, the lady. Then, you. I promise. This will go quickly.”
The man stormed off again.
Chris said, “So, you don’t think there’s any chance?”
“No. Neither do the police. I suspect they spoke better English than they pretended. They’re the ones who told me there is no hope of your items being recovered.”
Chris wanted to go back to the flat he rented. Buy a plane ticket and fly home. Of course, there was no laptop for purchasing plane tickets. No phone to call customer service.
“I am sorry,” said the artist. “This is what they said. Pick up the number of your police report but do not count on the report number being available tomorrow. Probably by the next day.”
“They told you that?”
“No. I just know. Things do not happen immediately in Italy. Almost finished.”
He exchanged the thick black pencil for colored chalk, and scribbled across the page. Observing the speed and recklessness of his fast hand, Chris thought he might be destroying the black outline. Perhaps the illustration was no good.
And how could it be good, Chris wondered? He felt as if he had been chewing stones for the past twenty minutes, grimacing and seething his unhappiness in every direction.
The painter turned it around and Chris felt another kick to his stomach.
The sketch captured Chris as he would have preferred to feel, his face wide with joy, his eyebrows raised in happy anticipation. His thick glasses were missing. The man in the sketch was handsome, brave. He laughed with bright colors, seven or ten vibrant hues integrated into the sketch, when Chris was sure he only saw the painter pick up two colored chalks. Who was this happy traveler?
He stared at this ideal version of himself, easily recognized, yet seemingly so far away, and his eyes filled with tears. This day was terrible. But this… this happy man…
He looked at the painter expectantly for an explanation.
“You must remember Italy in better times. Before the robbery.”
Chris stared at the sketch, surprised by its skill, the deftness in communicating so much emotion. The colors applied so hastily blended for the right amount of shadow, of thickness and substance. This painted man. Why couldn’t Chris be this man?
“My glasses,” Chris said.
“A poor artist I would be if I could not imagine a man without his glasses.”
“But, I’m smiling,” Chris said, the words stumbling out.
Looking at it again, Chris already felt forgiveness toward Italy, toward Florence, toward this horrible day. He was still angry about the theft, sick over the loss of communication. He was obligated to participate in Thursday’s raid tactics discussion. How? When would he calculate gear upgrades for his guild? Many turbulent, dark emotions swirled through him in angry currents, but at that moment, forgiveness gurgled into the stream.
The painter said, “I heard you in the food line. You laughed at something the vendor said. I looked over.”
Chris looked at the food vendor, not far away.
The painter spoke again. “Oh yes, this reminds me. The police would like you to clean up your dropped fried balls. Please.”
Chris studied the drawing again, an ugly thought coming to mind. “Do you think those kids pegged me as a target? Did they see me smiling and think of me as a mark?”
“No,” the painter said. “I assume they saw you distracted by food. They look for things like that.”
The woman, first in line, appeared by the painter’s side. “I just want one painting, you don’t have to do both hands like that for me. It was impressive though.”
The painter nodded. “Grazie.”
Chris looked at the painter, sensing their conversation was over. He had more questions he wanted to ask, about the crime, the children, the police who spoke more English than it appeared…more to ask. Such as, how did he draw Chris’ face with such intimacy?
Instead, Chris said, “Thank you. Can I pay you for this?”
“No,” the painter said. “It is a gift.”
The painter nodded and stood, returning to the overturned bucket he used as a seat and made adjustments to the wooden backing as he anticipated the next project. He removed a fat brush from its water glass and dried it with a rag.
His patron said, “I’d like one with Il Duomo, like you did for the girl. That was just beautiful. You’re very talented.”
Chris watched the painter beam at her, grin, and thank her. The right arm jerked furiously across the page. It had begun.
As Chris rose to his feet, unsteady. Unsure what to do next. In vain, he looked around the piazza for the children who stole from him.
Without glancing up, the painter spoke. “You must not hide your radiant smile to protect yourself from harm.”
At first, he didn’t realize he was being addressed. Chris was suddenly very tired. Drained. He wanted to rest.
Without energy, he finally said, “Is that a common Italian expression?”
“No,” the painter said. “It is an Enzo Tenore expression.”
Chris couldn’t remember who that was, a philosopher, a Renaissance artist, some Medici follower? He didn’t want to think about it. He was tired. He wanted to fly back home.
Without looking up, the painter said, “I am Enzo Tenore.”
Startled by the quiet declaration, Chris’ eyes found the man and watched as the painter’s eyes roamed the canvas. The brush in his right hand flew in wide arcs.
Enzo looked up.
Chris saw the gentleness he witnessed earlier, the curiosity. The painter was like a deer who had forgotten to be afraid of people. And for the first time, Chris noticed the deep caramel in Enzo’s eyes, framed perfectly by his strong, clean-shaven face and the cobalt-blue, Italian sky.
Title: Love Like the Medici
Author: Edmond Manning
Cover Artist: Catherine Dair
Genre: M/M Romance
free story – coming soon!
About Edmond Manning
Edmond Manning is the author of King Perry, King Mai, The Butterfly King andFilthy Acquisitions. He spends a great deal of time standing in front of the fridge with the door open, wondering why it’s not stocked with more luncheon meats and cheese.
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.
Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,
|This post may contain affiliate links.
|Prism Book Alliance® assumes no liability for the ownership of photos or content used in guest posts and interviews. The post author assumes all responsibility and liability for this content.|