Behold the Key
One beautiful late-autumn day in Rome, Carl Schneider, a graduate student in Italian studies at Columbia University, left a real estate agent’s office after a depressing morning of apartment hunting and walked up Via Veneto, feeling a deepening sense of disappointment in finding himself so dissatisfied in this city of his dreams. He felt unpleasantly lonely for the first time since he had been married, and found himself desiring the lovely Italian women he passed in the street, especially the few who looked as if they also had money. He had been a damned fool, he thought, to come here with so little of it in his pocket.
He had, last spring, been turned down for a Fulbright fellowship and had had no peace with himself until he decided to go to Rome anyway, to do his Ph.D. on the Risorgimento, from firsthand sources, at the same time enjoying Italy. This plan had for years aroused his happiest expectations. Norma thought he was crazy to want to take off with two kids under six and all their savings—$3,600, most of it earned by her—but Carl argued that people had to do something different with their lives occasionally or they went to pot. He was twenty-eight—his years weighed on him—and she was thirty, and when else could they go if not now? He was confident, since he knew the language, that they could get settled satisfactorily in a short time. Norma had her doubts. It all came to nothing until her mother, a widow, offered to pay their passage across; then Norma said yes, though still with misgiving.
“We’ve read prices are terrible in Rome. How do we know we’ll get along on what we have?”
“You have to take a chance once in a while,” said Carl.
“Up to a point, with two kids,” Norma replied; but she took the chance and they sailed out of season—the sixteenth of October, arriving in Naples on the twenty-sixth and going on at once to Rome, in the hope they would save money if they found an apartment quickly, though Norma wanted to see Capri, and Carl would have liked to spend a little time in Pompeii.
In Rome, though Carl had no trouble getting around or making himself understood, they had immediate rough going trying to locate an inexpensive furnished flat. They had figured on a two-bedroom apartment, Carl to work in theirs; or one bedroom and a large maid’s room where the kids would sleep. Although they searched across the city they could locate nothing decent within their means, fifty to fifty-five thousand lire a month, a top of about ninety dollars. Carl turned up some inexpensive places but in hopeless Trastevere sections; elsewhere there was always some other fatal flaw: no heat, missing bedroom furniture, sometimes no running water or sanitation.
To make bad worse, during their second week at the dark little pensione where they were staying, the children developed nasty intestinal disorders, little Mike having to be carried to the bathroom ten times one memorable night, and Christine running a temperature of 105; so Norma, who didn’t trust the milk or cleanliness of the pensione, suggested they would be better off in a hotel. When Christine’s fever abated they moved into the Sara Cecilia, a second-class albergo recommended by a Fulbright fellow they had met. It was a four-story building full of high-ceilinged, boxlike rooms. The toilets were in the hall, but the rent was comparatively low. About the only other virtue of the place was that it was near the Piazza Navone, a lovely 17th-century square, surrounded by many magnificently picturesque, warm-colored houses. Within the piazza three fountains played, whose water and sculpture Carl and Norma enjoyed, but which they soon became insensible to during their sad little walks with the kids, as the days passed and they still found themselves homeless.
Carl had in the beginning avoided the real estate agents to save the commission—five per cent of the full year’s rent; but when he gave in and visited their offices they said it was too late to get anything at the price he wanted to pay.
“You should have come in July,” an agent said.
“I’m here now.”
He threw up his hands. “Who can make miracles? Better to pay seventy-five thousand and so live comfortable like most Americans.”
“I can’t afford it, not with heat extra.”
“Then you will sit out the winter in the hotel.”
“I appreciate your concern.” Carl left, embittered.
However, they sometimes called him to witness an occasional “miracle.” One man showed him a pleasant apartment overlooking some prince or other’s formal garden. The rent was sixty thousand, and Carl would have taken it had he not later learned from the tenant next door—he bad returned because he distrusted the agent—that the flat was heated electrically, which would cost twenty thousand a month over the sixty thousand rent. Another “miracle” was the offer by this agent’s cousin of a single studio room on the Via Margutta, for forty thousand. And from time to time a lady agent called Norma to tell her about this miraculous place in the Parioli: eight stunning rooms, three bedrooms, double service, American-style kitchen with refrigerator, garage—marvelous for an American family: price, two hundred thousand.
“Please, no more,” Norma begged.
“I’ll go mad,” said Carl. He was nervous over the way time was going, almost a month, he having given none of it to his work. And Norma, washing the kids’ things in the hotel sink, in an unheated, cluttered room, was obviously unhappy. Furthermore, the hotel bill last week had come to twenty thousand lire, and it was costing them two thousand more a day to eat badly, even though Norma was cooking the children’s food on a hotplate they had bought.
“Carl, maybe I’d better go to work?”
“I’m tired of your working. You’ll have no fun.”
“What fun am I having? All I’ve seen is the Colosseum.” She then suggested they might rent an unfurnished flat and build their own furniture.
“Where would I get the tools? And what about the cost of wood in a country where it’s cheaper to lay down marble floors? And who’ll do my reading for me while I’m building and finishing the stuff?”
“All right,” Norma said. “Forget I said anything.”
“What about taking a seventy-five thousand place but staying for only five or six months?” Carl asked.
“Can you get your research done in five or six months?”
“I thought your research was the main reason we came here.” Norma then said she wished she had never heard of Italy.
“That’s enough of that,” Carl said.
He felt helpless, blamed himself for coming—bringing all this on Norma and the kids. He didn’t understand why things did not go right—why his luck was so bad. He feared a great loss, the death of his dream—disenchantment with Italy, unless they quickly found an apartment.
At the Porta Pinciana, near the tram, Carl felt himself tapped on the shoulder. A bushy-haired Italian, clutching a worn briefcase, was standing in the sun on the sidewalk. His hair rose in all directions. His eyes were gentle; not sad, but they had been. He wore a clean white shirt, rag of a tie, and a black jacket that had crawled a little up his back. His trousers were of denim, and his porous, sharp-pointed shoes, neatly shined, were summer shoes.
“Excuse me,” he said with an uneasy smile. “I am Vasco Bevilacqua. Weesh you an apotament?”
“How did you know?” Carl said, surprised.
“I follow you,” the Italian answered, making a gesture in the air, “when you leave the agencia. I am myself agencia. I like to help Americans. They are wonderful people.”
“You’re a real estate agent?”
“Eet is just.”
“You spik?” He seemed disappointed. “Ma non é italiano?”
Carl told him he was an American student of Italian history and culture, and had studied the language for years.
Bevilacqua then explained that, although he had no regular office, nor, for that matter, a car, he had managed to collect several exclusive listings. He had got these, he said, from friends who knew he was starting a business, and they made it a habit to inform him of apartments recently vacated in their buildings or those of friends, for which service he of course tipped them out of his commissions. The regular agents, he went on, demanded a heartless five per cent. He requested only three. He charged less because his expenses, frankly, were low, and also because of his great affection for Americans. He then asked Carl how many rooms he was looking for and what he was willing to pay.
Carl hesitated. The man, though pleasant, was no bona fide agent, probably had no license. He had heard about these two-bit operators and was about to say he wasn’t interested, but Bevilacqua’s eyes pleaded with him not to say it.
Carl figured he had nothing to lose. Maybe he does have a place I might be interested in. He told the Italian what he was looking for and how much he expected to pay.
Bevilacqua’s face lit up. “In weech zone do you seek?” he asked with emotion.
“Any place fairly decent,” Carl answered in Italian. “It doesn’t have to be perfect.”
“Not the Parioli?”
“Not the Parioli only. It would depend on the rent.”
Bevilacqua held his briefcase between his knees and fished in his pocket. He drew out a sheet of very thin paper, unfolded it, and read the penciled writing, with wrinkled brows. After a while he thrust the paper back into his shirt pocket and retrieved his briefcase.
“Let me have your telephone number,” he said in Italian. “I will examine my other listings and give you a ring.”
“Listen,” Carl said, “if you’ve got a good place to show me, all right. If not, please don’t waste my time.”
Bevilacqua looked hurt. “I give you my word,” he said, placing his big hand on his chest, “tomorrow you will have your apartment. May my mother give birth to a goat if I fail you.”
He put down in a little book where Carl was staying. “I’ll be over at thirteen sharp to show you some marvelous places,” he said.
“Can’t you make it in the morning?”
Bevilacqua was apologetic. “My hours are now from thirteen to sixteen.” He said he hoped to expand his time later, and Carl guessed he was working his real estate venture during his lunch and siesta time, probably from some underpaid clerk’s job.
He said he would expect him at thirteen sharp.
Bevilacqua, his expression now become so serious he seemed to be listening to it, bowed, and walked away in his funny shoes.
He showed up at the hotel at ten to two, wearing a small black fedora, his hair beaten down with pomade whose odor sprang into the lobby. Carl was waiting restlessly near the desk, fighting doubts that he would show up, when Bevilacqua came running through the door, clutching his briefcase.
“Ready?” he asked breathlessly.
“Since one o’clock,” Carl answered.
“Ah, that’s what comes of not owning your own car,” Bevilacqua explained. “My bus had a flat tire.”
Carl looked at him but the face was deadpan. “Well, let’s get on,” he said.
“I have three places to show you.” Bevilacqua told him the first address, a two-bedroom apartment at just fifty thousand.
On the bus they clung to straps in a tight crowd, the Italian raising himself on his toes and looking around at every stop to see where they were. Twice he asked Carl the time, and when Carl told him, his lips moved soundlessly. After a time Bevilacqua roused himself, smiled, and remarked, “What do you think of Marilyn Monroe?”
“I haven’t much thought of her,” Carl said.
Bevilacqua seemed puzzled. “Don’t you go to the movies?”
“Once in a while.”
The Italian made a short speech on the glory of American films. “In Italy they always make us look at what we have just lived through.” He fell into silence again. Carl noticed that he was holding in his hand a wooden figurine of a hunchback with a high hat, whose poor gobbo he was rubbing with his thumb, for luck.
“For us both,” Carl thought. He was still restless, still worried.
But their luck was nil at the first place, an ochre-colored house behind an iron gate.
“Third floor?” Carl asked, after the unhappy realization that he had been here before.
“Exactly. How did you guess?”
“I’ve seen the apartment,” he muttered gloomily. He remembered having answered an ad. If that was how Bevilacqua got his listings, they might as well quit now.
“But what’s wrong with it?” the Italian asked, visibly disappointed.
“How is that possible?”
“They have a single gas heater in the living room but nothing in the bedrooms. They were supposed to have steam heat installed in the building in September, but the contract fell through when the price of steam pipe went up. With two kids, I wouldn’t want to spend the winter in a cold flat.”
“Cretins,” muttered Bevilacqua. “The portiere said the heat was perfect.”
He consulted his paper. “I have a place in the Prati district, two fine bedrooms and combined living and dining room. Also an American-type refrigerator in the kitchen.”
“Has the apartment been advertised in the papers?”
“Absolutely no. My cousin called me about this one last night—but the rent is fifty-five thousand.”
“Let’s see it anyway,” Carl said.
It was an old house, formerly a villa, which had been cut up into apartments. Across the street stood a little park with tall, tufted pine trees, just the thing for the kids. Bevilacqua located the portiere, who led them up the stairs, all the while saying how good the flat was. Although Carl discovered at once that there was no hot water in the kitchen sink and it would have to be carried in from the bathroom, the flat made a good impression on him. But then in the master bedroom he noticed that one wall was wet and there was a disagreeable odor in the room.
The portiere quickly explained that a water pipe had burst in the wall, but they would have it fixed in a week.
“It smells more like a sewer pipe,” said Carl.
“But they will have it repaired this week,” Bevilacqua said.
“I couldn’t live a week with that smell in the room.”
“You mean you are not interested in the apartment?” the Italian said fretfully.
Carl nodded. Bevilacqua’s face fell. He blew his nose and they left the house. Outside he regained his calm. “You can’t trust your own mother nowadays. I called the portiere this morning and he guaranteed me the house was without a fault.”
“He must have been kidding you.”
“It makes no difference. I have an exceptional place in mind for you now, but we’ve got to hurry.”
Carl half-heartedly asked where it was.
The Italian was embarrassed. “In the Parioli, a wonderful section, as you know. Your wife won’t have to look far for friends—there are Americans all over. Also Japanese and Indians, if you have international tastes.”
“The Parioli,” Carl muttered. “How much?”
“Only sixty-five thousand,” Bevilacqua said, staring at the ground.
“Only? Still, it must be a dump at that price.”
“It’s really very nice—new, with a good-size nuptial bedroom and one small, besides the usual things, including a fine kitchen. You will personally love the magnificent terrace.”
“Have you seen the place?”
“I spoke to the maid and she says the owner is very anxious to rent. They are moving, for business reasons, to Turin next week. The maid is an old friend of mine. She swears the place is perfect.”
Carl considered it. Sixty-five thousand meant close to a hundred and five dollars. “Well,” he said after a while, “let’s have a look at it.”
They caught a tram and found seats together, Bevilacqua impatiently glancing out of the window whenever they stopped. On the way he told Carl about his hard life. He was the eighth of twelve children, only five now alive. Nobody was really ever not hungry, though they ate spaghetti by the bucketful. He had to leave school at ten and go to work. In the war he was wounded twice, once by the Americans advancing, and once by the Germans retreating. His father was killed in an Allied bombardment of Rome, the same that had cracked open his mother’s grave in the Cimitero Verano.
“The British pinpointed their targets,” he said, “but the Americans dropped bombs everywhere. This was the advantage of your great wealth.”
Carl said he was sorry about the bombardments.
“Nevertheless, I like the Americans better,” Bevilacqua went on. “They are more like Italians. That’s why I like to help them when they come here. The British are more closed. They talk with tight lips.” He made noises with tight lips.
As they were walking towards Piazza Euclide, he asked Carl if he had an American cigarette on him.
“I don’t smoke,” Carl said apologetically.
Bevilacqua shrugged and walked faster.
The house he took Carl to was a new one on Via Archimede, an attractive street that wound up and around a hill. It was crowded with long-balconied apartment buildings in bright colors. Carl thought he would be happy to live in one of them. It was a short thought, he wouldn’t let it grow too long.
They rode up to the fifth floor, and the maid, a dark girl with fuzzy cheeks and arms, showed them through the apartment.
“Is sixty-five thousand correct?” Carl asked her.
She said yes.
The flat was so good that Carl, moved by elation and fear, began to pray.
“I told you you’d like it,” Bevilacqua said, rubbing his palms. “I’ll draw up the contract tonight.”
“Let’s see the bedroom now,” Carl said.
But first the maid led them onto a broad terrace to show them the view of the city. The sight excited Carl—the variety of architecture from ancient to modern times, where history had been and still, in its own aftermath, sensuously flowed. This marvelous city, Carl thought. He felt on the verge of an unexpected victory.
“Now the bedroom,” he said.
“Yes, the bedroom.” The maid led them through double doors into the “nuptial chamber,” spacious, and tastefully furnished, containing handsome mahogany twin beds.
“They’ll do,” Carl said, speaking quickly to hide his joy, “though I personally prefer a double bed.”
“I also,” said the maid, “but you can move one in.”
“These will do.”
“But they won’t be here,” she said.
“What do you mean they won’t be here?” Bevilacqua demanded.
“Nothing will be left. Everything goes to Turin.”
Carl’s hopes took a long dive into a dirty cellar.
Bevilacqua flung his hat on the floor, landed on it with both feet and punched himself on the head with his fists.
The maid swore she had told him on the phone that the apartment was for rent unfurnished.
He began to yell at her and she shouted back. Carl left, broken-backed. Bevilacqua caught up with him in the street. It was a quarter to four and he had to rush off to work. He held his hat and ran down the hill.
“I weel show you a terreefic place tomorrow,” he called over his shoulder.
“Over my dead body,” said Carl.
On the way to the hotel he was drenched in a heavy rainfall, the first of many in the late autumn.
The next morning the hotel phone rang at seven-thirty. The children awoke, Mike crying. Carl, dreading the day, groped for the ringing phone. Outside it was still raining.
It was a cheery Bevilacqua. “I call you from my job. I ‘ave found for you an apotament een weech you can move tomorrow if you like.”
“Go to hell.”
“Why do you call so early? You woke the children.”
“Excuse me,” Bevilacqua said in Italian. “I wanted to give you the good news.”
“What goddamn good news?”
“I have found a first-class apartment for you near the Monte Sacro. It has only one bedroom but also a combined living and dining zoom with a double day bed, and a glass-enclosed terrace studio for your studies, and a small maid’s room. There is no garage but you have no car. Price forty-five thousand—less than you expected. The apartment is on the ground floor and there is also a garden for your children to play in. Your wife will go crazy when she sees it.”
“So will I,” Carl said. “Is it furnished?”
Bevilacqua coughed. “Of course.”
“Of course. Have you been there?”
He cleared his throat. “Not yet. I just discovered it this minute. The secretary of my office, Mrs. Gaspari, told me about it. The apartment is directly under hers. She will make a wonderful neighbor for you. I will come to your hotel precisely at thirteen and a quarter.”
“Give yourself time. Make it fourteen.”
“You will be ready?”
But when he had hung up his feeling of dread had grown. He felt afraid to leave the hotel and confessed this to Norma.
“Would you like me to go this time?” she asked.
He considered it but said no.
“‘The great adventure.’”
“Don’t be bitter. It makes me miserable.”
They had breakfast in the room—tea, bread and jam, fruit. They were cold, but there was to be no heat, it said on a card tacked on the door, until December. Norma put sweaters on the kids. Both had colds. Carl opened a book but could not concentrate and settled for Il Messaggero. Norma telephoned the lady agent; she said she would ring her back when there was something new to show.
Bevilacqua called up from the lobby at one-forty.
“Coming,” Carl said, his heart heavy.
The Italian was standing in wet shoes near the door. He held his briefcase and a dripping large umbrella, but had left his hat home. Even in the damp his bushy hair stood upright. He looked slightly miserable.
They left the hotel, Bevilacqua walking quickly by Carl’s side, maneuvering to keep the umbrella over both of them. On the Piazza Navona a woman was feeding a dozen stray cats in the rain. She had spread a news-paper on the ground, and the cats were grabbing hard strings of last night’s macaroni. Carl felt the recurrence of his loneliness.
A packet of garbage thrown out of a window hit their umbrella and bounced off. The garbage spilled on the ground. A white-faced man, staring out of a third-floor window, pointed to the cats. Carl shook his fist at him.
Bevilacqua was moodily talking about himself. “In eight years of hard work I advanced myself only from thirty thousand lire to fifty-five thousand a month. The cretin who sits on my left in the office has his desk at the door and makes forty thousand extra in tips just to give callers an appointment with the big boss. If I had that desk I would double what he takes in.”
“Have you thought of changing jobs?”
“Certainly, but I could never start at the salary I am now earning. And there are twenty people who will jump into my job at half the pay.”
“Tough,” Carl said.
“For every piece of bread, we have twenty open mouths. You Americans are the lucky ones.”
“Yes, in that way.”
“In what way no?”
“We have no piazzas.”
Bevilacqua shrugged a shoulder. “Can you blame me for wanting to advance myself?”
“Of course not. I wish you the best.”
“I wish the best to all Americans,” Bevilacqua declared, “I like to help them.”
“And I to all Italians and pray them to let me live among them for a while.”
“Today it will be arranged. Tomorrow you will move in. I feel luck in my bones. My wife kissed St. Peter’s toe yesterday.”
Traffic was heavy, a stream of gnats—Vespas, Fiats, Renaults—roared at them from both directions, nobody slowing down to let them cross. They plowed across dangerously. At the bus stop the crowd rushed for the doors when the bus swerved to the curb. It moved away with its rear door open, four people hanging onto the step.
I can do as well in Times Square, Carl thought.
In a half hour, after a short walk from the bus stop, they arrived at a broad, tree-lined street. Bevilacqua pointed to a yellow apartment house on the corner they were coming to. All over it were terraces, the ledges loaded with flower pots and stone boxes dropping ivy over the walls. Carl would not allow himself to think the place had impressed him.
Bevilacqua nervously rang the portiere’s bell. He was again rubbing the hunchback’s gobbo. A thick-set man in a blue smock came up from the basement. His face was heavy and he wore a full black mustache. Bevilacqua gave him the number of the apartment they wanted to see.
“Ah, there I can’t help you,” said the portiere. “I haven’t got the key.”
“Here we go again,” Carl said.
“Patience,” Bevilacqua counseled. He spoke to the portiere in a dialect Carl couldn’t follow. The portiere made a long speech in the same dialect.
“Come upstairs,” said Bevilacqua.
“To the lady I told you about, the secretary of my office. She lives on the first floor. We will wait there comfortably until we can get the key to the apartment.”
“Where is it?”
“The portiere isn’t sure. He says a certain Contessa owns the apartment but she let her lover live in it. Now the Contessa decided to get married so she asked the lover to move, but he took the key with him.”
“It’s that simple,” said Carl.
“The portiere will telephone the Contessa’s lawyer who takes care of her affairs. He must have another key. While he makes the call we will wait in Mrs. Gaspari’s apartment. She will make you an American coffee. You’ll like her husband too, he works for an American company.”
“Never mind the coffee,” Carl said impatiently. “Isn’t there some way we can get a look into the flat? For all I know it may not be worth waiting for. Since it’s on the ground floor maybe we can have a look through the windows?”
“The windows are covered by shutters which can be raised from the inside only.”
They walked up to the secretary’s apartment. She was a dark woman of thirty, with extraordinary legs, and bad teeth when she smiled.
“Is the apartment worth seeing?” Carl asked her.
“It’s just like mine, with the exception of having a garden. Would you care to see mine?”
“If I may.”
She led him through her rooms. Bevilacqua remained on the sofa in the living room, his damp briefcase on his knees. He opened the straps, took out a chunk of bread, and chewed thoughtfully.
Carl admitted to himself that he liked the flat. The building was comparatively new, had gone up after the war. The one bedroom was a disadvantage, but the kids could have it, and he and Norma would sleep on the day-bed in the living room. The terrace studio was perfect for a workroom. He had looked out of the bedroom window and seen the garden, a wonderful place for the children to play.
“Is the rent really forty-five thousand?” he asked.
“And it is furnished?”
“In quite good taste.”
“Why doesn’t the Contessa ask more for it?”
“She has other things on her mind,” Mrs. Gaspari laughed. “Oh, see,” she said, “the rain has stopped and the sun is coming out.” She was standing close to him.
“What’s in it for her?” Carl thought and then remembered she would share Bevilacqua’s poor three per cent.
He felt his lips moving. He tried to stop the prayer but it went on. When he had finished, it began again. The apartment was fine, the garden just the thing for the kids. The price was better than he had hoped.
In the living room Bevilacqua was talking to the portiere. “He couldn’t reach the lawyer,” he said glumly.
“Let me try,” Mrs. Gaspari said. The portiere gave her the number and left. She dialed the lawyer but found he had gone for the day. She got his house number and telephoned there. The busy signal came. She waited a minute, then dialed again.
Bevilacqua took two small hard apples from his briefcase and offered one to Carl. Carl shook his head. The Italian peeled the apples with his penknife and ate both. He dropped the skins and cores into his briefcase, then locked the straps.
“Maybe we could take the door down,” Carl suggested. “It shouldn’t be hard to pull the hinges.”
“The hinges are on the inside.”
“I doubt if the Contessa would rent to you,” said Mrs. Gaspari from the telephone, “if you got in by force.”
“If I had the lover here,” Bevilacqua said, “I would break his neck for stealing the key.”
“Still busy,” said Mrs. Gaspari.
“Where does the Contessa live?” Carl asked. “Maybe I could take a taxi over.”
“I believe she moved recently,” Mrs. Gaspari answered. “I once had her address but I have no longer.”
“Would the portiere know it?”
“Possibly.” She called the portiere on the house phone but all he would give her was the Contessa’s telephone number. The Contessa wasn’t home, her maid said, so they telephoned the lawyer and again got a busy signal. Carl was by now irritated.
Mrs. Gaspari called the telephone operator, giving the Contessa’s number and requesting her home address. The telephone operator found the old one but could not locate the new.
“Stupid,” said Mrs. Gaspari. Once more she dialed the lawyer.
“I have him,” she announced over the mouthpiece. “Buon giorno, Avvocato.” Her voice was candy.
Carl heard her ask the lawyer if he had a duplicate key and the lawyer replied for three minutes.
She banged down the phone. “He has no key. Apparently there is only one.”
“To hell with all this.” Carl got up. “I’m going back to the United States.”
It was raining again. A sharp crack of thunder split the sky, and Bevilacqua, abandoning his briefcase, rose in fright.
“I’m licked,” Carl said to Norma, the next morning. “Call the agents and tell them we’re ready to pay seventy-five. We’ve got to get out of this joint.”
“Not before we speak to the Contessa. I’ll tell her my troubles and break her heart.”
“You’ll get involved and you’ll get nowhere,” Carl warned her.
“Please call her anyway.”
“I haven’t got her number. I didn’t think of asking for it.”
“Find it. You’re good at research.”
He considered telephoning Mrs. Gaspari for the number but remembered she was at work, and he didn’t have that number. Recalling the address of the apartment house, he looked it up in the phone book. Then he telephoned the portiere and asked for the Contessa’s address and her phone number.
“I’ll call you back,” said the portiere, eating as he spoke. “Give me your telephone.”
“Why bother? Give me her number and save yourself the trouble.”
“I have strict orders from the Contessa never to give her number to strangers. They call up on the phone and annoy her.”
“I’m not a stranger. I want to rent her flat.”
The portiere cleared his throat. “Where are you staying?”
“Albergo Sora Cecilia.”
“I’ll call you back in a quarter of an hour.”
“Have it your way.”
In forty minutes the phone rang and Carl reached for it. “Pronto.”
“Signore Schneider?” It was a man’s voice—a trifle high.
“Permit me,” the man said, in fluent though accented English. “I am Aldo De Vecchis. It would please me to speak to you in person.”
“Are you a real estate agent?”
“Not precisely, but it refers to the apartment
of the Contessa. I am the former occupant.”
“The man with the key?” Carl asked quickly.
“It is I.”
“Where are you now?”
“In the foyer downstairs.”
“Come up, please.”
“Excuse me, but if you will permit, I would prefer to speak to you here.” “I’ll be right down.”
“The lover,” he said to Norma.
He rushed down in the elevator. A thin man in a green suit with cuffless trousers was waiting in the lobby. He was about forty, his face small, his hair wet black, and he wore at a tilt the brownest hat Carl had ever seen. Though his shirt collar was frayed, he looked impeccable. Into the air around him leaked the odor of cologne.
“De Vecchis,” he bowed. His eyes, in a slightly pockmarked face, were restless.
“I’m Carl Schneider. How’d you get my number?”
De Vecchis seemed not to have heard. “I hope you are enjoying your visit here.”
“I’d enjoy it more if I had a house to live in.”
“Precisely. And what is your impression of Italy?”
“I like the people.”
“But there are too many of them.” De Vecchis looked restlessly around. “Where may we speak? My time is short.”
“Ah,” said Carl. He pointed to a little room where people wrote letters. “In there.”
They entered and sat at a table, alone in the room.
De Vecchis felt in his pocket for something, perhaps a cigarette, but came up with nothing. “I won’t waste your time,” he said. “You wish the apartment you saw yesterday? I wish you to have it, it is most desirable. There is also with it a garden of roses. You will love it on a summer night when Rome is hot. However, the practical matter is this. Are you willing to invest a few lire to obtain the privilege of entry?”
“The key?” Carl knew but asked.
“Precisely. To be frank I am not in good straits. To that is added the psychological disadvantage of the aftermath of a love affair with a most difficult woman. I leave you to imagine my present condition. Notwithstanding, the apartment I offer is attractive and the rent, as I understand, is for Americans not too high. Surely this has its value for you?” He attempted a smile but it died in birth.
“I am a graduate student of Italian studies,” Carl said, giving him the facts. “I’ve invested all of my savings in this trip abroad, to get my Ph.D. dissertation done. I have a wife to support and two children.”
“I hear that your government is most generous to the Fulbright Fellows?”
“You don’t understand. I am not a Fulbright Fellow.”
“Whatever it is,” De Vecchis said, drumming his fingertips on the table, “the price of the key is eighty thousand lire.”
Carl laughed mirthlessly.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Is the price too high?”
“Everything is too high.”
De Vecchis rubbed his brow nervously. “Very well, since not all Americans are rich Americans—you see, I am objective—I will reduce the sum by one half. For less than a month’s rent the key is yours.”
“Thanks. No dice.”
“Please? I don’t understand this expression.”
“I can’t afford it. I’d still have a commission to pay the agent.”
“Oh? Then why don’t you forget him? I will issue orders to the portiere to allow you to move in immediately. This evening, if you prefer. The Contessa’s lawyer will draw up the lease free of charge. And although she is difficult to her lovers, she is an angel to her tenants.”
“I’d like to forget the agent,” Carl said, “but I can’t.”
De Vecchis gnawed his lip. “I will make it twenty-five thousand,” he said, “but this is my last and absolute word.”
“No, thanks. I won’t be a party to a bribe.”
De Vecchis rose, his small face tight, pale. “It is people like you who drive us into the hands of the Communists. You try to buy us—our votes, our culture, and then you dare speak of bribes.”
He strode out of the room and through the lobby.
Five minutes later the phone rang. “Fifteen thousand is my final offer.” His voice was thick.
“Not a cent,” said Carl.
Norma stared at him.
De Vecchis slammed the phone.
The portiere telephoned. He had looked everywhere, he said, but had lost the Contessa’s address.
“What about her phone number?” Carl asked.
“It was changed when she moved. The numbers are confused in my mind, the old with the new.”
“Look here,” Carl said, “I’ll tell the Contessa you sent De Vecchis to see me about her apartment.”
“How can you tell her if you don’t know her number?” the portiere asked with curiosity. “It isn’t listed in the book.”
“I’ll ask Mrs. Gaspari for it when she gets home from work, then I’ll call the Contessa and tell her what you did.”
“What did I do? Tell me exactly.”
“You sent her former lover, a man she wants to get rid of, to try to squeeze money out of me for something that is none of his business—namely her apartment.”
“Is there no other way than this?” asked the portiere.
“If you tell me her address I will give you one thousand lire.” Carl felt his tongue thicken.
“How shameful,” Norma said from the sink, where she was washing clothes.
“Not more than one thousand?” asked the portiere.
“Not till I move in.”
The portiere then told him the Contessa’s last name and her new address. “Don’t repeat where you got it.”
Carl swore he wouldn’t.
He left the hotel on the run, got into a cab, and drove across the Tiber to the Via Cassia, in the country.
The Contessa’s maid admitted him into a fabulous place with mosaic floors, gilded furniture, and a marble bust of the Contessa’s great-grandfather in the foyer where Carl waited. In twenty minutes the Contessa appeared, a plain-looking woman, past fifty, with dyed blonde hair, black eyebrows, and a short, tight dress. The skin of her arms was wrinkled, but her bosom was enormous and she smelled like a rose garden.
“Please, you must be quick,” she said impatiently. “There is so much to do. I am preparing for my wedding.”
“Contessa,” said Carl, “excuse me for rushing in like this, but my wife and I have a desperate need for an apartment and we know that yours on the Via Tirreno is vacant. I’m an American student of Italian life and manners. We’ve (been in Italy almost a month and are still living in a third-rate hotel. My wife is unhappy. The children have miserable colds. I’ll be glad to pay you fifty thousand lire, instead of the forty-five you ask, if you will kindly let us move in today.”
“Listen,” said the Contessa, “I come from an honorable family. Don’t try to bribe me.”
Carl blushed. “I mean nothing more than to give you proof of my good will.”
“In any case, my lawyer attends to my real estate matters.”
“He hasn’t the key.”
“Why hasn’t he?”
“The former occupant took it with him.”
“The fool,” she said.
“Do you happen to have a duplicate?”
“I never keep duplicate keys. They all get mixed up and I never know which is which.”
“Could we have one made?”
“Ask my lawyer.”
“I called this morning but he’s out of town. May I make a suggestion, Contessa? Could we have a window or a door forced? I will pay the cost of repair.”
The Contessa’s eyes glinted. “Of course not,” she said huffily. “I will have no destruction of my property. We’ve had enough of that sort of thing here. You Americans have no idea what we have lived through.”
“But doesn’t it mean something to you to have a reliable tenant in your apartment?” What good is it standing empty? Say the word and I’ll bring you the rent in an hour.”
“Come back in two weeks, young man, after I finish my honeymoon.”
“In two weeks I may be dead,” Carl said.
The Contessa laughed.
Outside, he met Bevilacqua. He had a black eye and a stricken expression.
“So you’ve betrayed me?” the Italian said hoarsely.
“What do you mean ‘betrayed’? Who are you, Jesus Christ?”
“I hear you went to De Vecchis and begged for the key, with plans to move in without telling me.”
“How could I keep that a secret with your pal Mrs. Gaspari living right over my head? The minute I moved in she’d tell you, then you’d be over on horseback to collect.”
“That’s right,” said Bevilacqua. “I didn’t think of it.”
“Who gave you the black eye?” Carl asked.
“De Vecchis. He’s as strong as a wild pig. I met him at the apartment and asked for the key. He called me dirty names. We had a fight and he hit me in the eye with his elbow. How did you make out with the Contessa?”
“Not well. Did you come to see her?”
“Go in and beg her to let me move in, for God’s sake. Maybe she’ll listen to a countryman.”
“Don’t ask me to eat a horse,” said Bevilacqua.
That night Carl dreamed they had moved out of the hotel into the Contessa’s apartment. The children were in the garden, playing among the roses. In the morning he decided to go to the portiere and offer him ten thousand lire if he would have a new key made, however they did it—door up or door down.
When he arrived at the apartment house the portiere and Bevilacqua were there with a toothless man, on his knees, poking a flattened wire into the door lock. In two minutes it clicked open.
With a gasp they all entered. From room to room they wandered like dead men. The place was a ruin. The furniture had been smashed with a dull axe. The slashed sofa revealed its inner springs. Rugs were cut up, crockery broken, books wildly torn and scattered. The white walls had been splashed with red wine, except one in the living room which was decorated with dirty words in six languages, printed in orange lipstick.
“Mamma mia,” muttered the toothless locksmith, crossing himself. The portiere slowly turned yellow. Bevilacqua wept.
De Vecchis, in his pea green suit, appeared in the doorway. “Ecco la chiave!” He held it triumphantly aloft.
“Assassin!” shouted Bevilacqua. “Turd! May your bones grow hair and rot.”
“He lives for my death,” he cried to Carl, “I for his. This is our condition.”
“You lie,” said Carl. “I love this country.”
De Vecchis flung the key at them and ran. Bevilacqua, the light of hatred in his eyes, ducked, and the key hit Carl on the forehead, leaving a mark he could not rub out.