(The much belated second chapter of the Story Without an Ending)
Late one December morning while I was immersed in doing nothing, someone rang the doorbell. Expecting a delivery, I went directly downstairs to open the front door, instead of looking out the hallway window first to see who it was. Upon opening the door I was greeted by three people I was sure I had never seen before.
“Buon giorno,” said the oldest of the group, a distinguished-looking man with an elegant though casual manner of dress. “I’m Dr. D–,” he said, offering me his hand, which I shook distractedly. Indicating his two companions, he introduced them as architects who often worked on projects for the town. “We’d like to speak to you about the garden,” he said.
At the same moment that I realized that these were important people, I remembered that not only was I still wearing my pajamas, but that I had also not yet brushed my hair.
“The garden?” I asked, perplexed.
“The garden,” he repeated, fixing me with his eyes. He waited a few seconds and then gestured in the direction of the abandoned lot between the house and ruins of the collapsed building.
“Oh yes, that garden,” I said. I thought it odd that anyone should call it that, considering that it had ceased to be so quite a long time ago.
“We want to excavate the garden and transform the site into a park, leaving the ruins as they are. This site is of historical importance, it was once the garden of a convent. You must have heard of the plans to build a car park. We cannot have that here.”
“Oh yes, I agree,” I told them. Fearing that by now, they all thought me a fool, I added, “Before I came to Italy I was a professor. I taught the history of art. Obviously I am interested in the preservation of historical sites.”
“Yes, we know about you, that’s why we wanted to talk to you. Will you help us?”
Help them? It had to happen on a day that I hadn’t showered. “Ci mancarebbe” (“Of course,”) I told them, shrugging, in an attempt to seem less awkward.
One of the architects, a neatly dressed woman holding a small camera, stepped forward and explained that she needed to examine and photograph the south wall of one of our garages.
“Ah,” I said, trying not to betray a growing feeling of panic. N had told me that the garage in question was a depository for all manner of junk that two of his relatives had insisted he not throw away after renovating the house a decade ago. Later, when I learned that these two were hoarders, I imagined the garage packed floor to vault with garbage and debris and I resolved never to think about it again. Now I was confronted at once by the disturbing memory of the imagined contents of the garage, and the alarming realization that my promise to help meant that one or more of these people would see them. I was relieved to tell her that I didn’t have the key, though I knew it would prolong the conversation.
“Well, can you ask your husband to leave it with you tomorrow?” asked the elderly man.
“Sì,” I said in a tiny voice.
That evening I spoke to N about their request.
“Why does she need to see the garage?” he asked, annoyed.
“Because its wall is contiguous with the garden.”
Despite looking perplexed, he didn’t ask for further clarification. “Well, she can’t see it tomorrow because I have an appointment with a client.”
I searched his face for signs that he was troubled at the thought that someone might see his hoard, and found none. “Can you leave me the key?” I asked.
“No, I want to be here when she comes.”
I was ready with an excuse the next morning when the architect arrived. “I’m so sorry,” I told her. “I forgot to remind my husband to give me the key before he left for work.”
“No problem,” she said. “I can come back next week.”
“Which day would you like to come? I’ll make sure that I’m at home.”
“I don’t know. I live just around the corner,” she told me. “If I come by and you’re not at home, I’ll just come another time.”
One morning the following week, as Pata and I returned from a visit to her pediatrician, we encountered the architect in the street. She was wearing her camera on a strap around her neck. “Buon giorno,” she said.
“Buon giorno,” I responded.
“Is it possible to see the garage today?”
“I think so. I’ll call my husband and ask him to bring the key. I’m almost certain that he’s in his office nearby. However, if one of his clients has called, he may not be there.”
“That’s fine,” said the architect, smiling.
I called N on my cell phone, not knowing whether to hope that I would find him in his office or elsewhere. He told me that he would come home immediately, bringing the key. As we waited for N, the architect and I spoke about Pata’s bilingualism. Then she invited me to a craft circle she attended on Thursday mornings.
Once N arrived, the architect asked if there were a cantina beneath the garage.
“Yes,” he said as he unlocked the door. I held my breath.
Once inside, I saw that the garage was not at all as I had imagined. It was not vaulted, and more important, not filled with trash. About two thirds of the space was taken up by neatly stacked kitchen cabinets and obsolete appliances. To the right there was a passage, perhaps a meter wide, unencumbered except for a few old doors leaning against the wall.
“Do these steps lead to the cantina?” the architect asked, pointing to a barely passable flight of stairs that led down into darkness.
“Yes,” said N, adding that there was a light below but that he didn’t know if it still worked. Once he flipped the switch, the cantina was illuminated, revealing an enormous pile of discarded wine bottles. “Oh, look at all those bottles!” he exclaimed. “I didn’t know they were down there. No one has used this cantina for decades.”
N and the architect carefully climbed down the stairs. From above I could hear the shutter of the camera and see its flash intermittently. When they came back into the garage, I asked her whether the project would really be carried out.
“Oh yes, of course,” she assured me. “It’s only a question of obtaining the necessary permits.”
“Ah.” I said. I imagined the abandoned lot transformed into beautiful garden, its lush vegetation in contrast with the ancient stone walls enclosing it, and as much as I wanted to hope, I doubted very much that I would ever see it.