“Avoid then suddenly” said the fiction
teacher, but some things do snap
into the field like my black coat
snatched all at once from my arm
as I crossed the Piazza Navona.
I was on my way to meet Brunella and Enzo
and had taken my route through the maze of alleys,
past the punks with their dogs by the Trilussa Fountain,
around the bollard and chain at the Ponte Sisto,
and down the slope of the Villa Giulia,
past the protesting Kurds by the Farnese bar
and the potted tulips in the Campo de’ Fiori,
the leafy smoke wafting from the chestnut stand,
and the gauntlet of waiters flagging menus
near the immigrants hawking
their trolls and tin-can planes.
The Maya buskers were looping tangos
and I was running late past the living statues—
the knight errant and Cleopatra,
hurrying with my head down, my high heels
clicking, when suddenly, I was yanked back,
the coat ripped away,
a ripple of laughter behind me,
and, as I turned, there he was:
hunched and wiggling, holding a black
coat—my coat—aloft, flapping
it up and down in the breeze
as he lunged,
mocking my surprise:
his red ball nose and stiff
black smile, too stiff
to smile, his face not a face, so
plaster hard above his waving
arms, his swaying torso, while
a silence, a sudden silence,
seemed to blast all through the piazza:
The frozen laughter of the tourists,
the waiters snapped to attention, standing
still, before the sound rushed back into
the vacuum, with a clatter of forks and knives.
Something dropped, a popped balloon,
and the clown going on and on,
composing his version
of the look of my annoyance,
a hip jutting out, an index
finger shaking “no!” as I stretched
to reach the tangled coat, then reached
and reached again
and he flicked it in and out
like a clumsy matador,
wagging his head, jiggling
his knee, spinning and circling
and feinting—his show.
How long it lasted, that panorama
of taunting, open mouths,
eyes squeezed tight over crooked teeth,
glasses tipping, plates clanking, by the thousands,
it seemed, and for hours and hours, when
just as suddenly he stopped
and threw the coat into my arms, tip-
toeing away to
find his next victim.
I turned and rushed
from the piazza, under the arch, and down
the Vicolo dell’Orso where Enzo and Brunella
were waiting for me. Flushed, I told
the story of what had happened: the sudden
hand, the waving coat,
the laughing crowd.
How in that preening dance the clown
had called up every ghost—
the divas and the ditzes, the ingénues
and mothers-in-law, the bimbos and sluts, the starlets
and clucks, the nerdy girls and little old ladies, the floozies,
the dogs and the bricks—a parade that stretched back
as far as desperation, as far as the garden, as far
as the moon.
But as I spoke it came to me
like an image in a mirror
that rises to the surface
when the veil of steam
recedes, an image of the clown himself,
at dawn, in a mirror,
his rubber smile, his icy mask, his red
ball nose… a splintered shelf,
the pots of grease-paint by the sink
where he buttoned up
his polka-dotted smock,
pulled on his mountainous shoes.
A record stuck, an obsessive thought.
A sterile clown in a rented room.
Desert saint of drowned beginnings.
Refugee of a vanished rite.
Acolyte of envy or necessity.
The scapegoat’s threat, the oldest fear.
Who was he, and what
had he to do with me?
The slow revelation
of a revelation made slower
Meanwhile my friends still were waiting, and we were expected
on the other side of town, where we’d thought we might go to a show,
an opening, and maybe a reading after that—
the evening was early, the sky glowing rose, and plenty
of time left to decide.
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