2017 Gulf Coast Prize in Nonfiction: The Peacock and the Bell Captain

Spencer Wise

Rod Stewart and his entourage swaggered out onto the terrace restaurant of our little hotel in Italy wearing matching whites, coordinated, like a basketball team of alcoholics.

It was my older sister Laura’s thirtieth birthday and my father was about to give a semi-factual toast about how much he loved us. And that’s when Team Rod strolled in and the whole place fell silent.

Any hope my father had for the “normal night” that eluded him his whole life flew off on the wisps of Rod’s gold plumage.

Everyone stopped and gazed upon The Peacocked One. A deep V on his white linen shirt and this disgusted look on his face, this scowl, which is an odd way to look when you just got off your yacht, climbed up a cliff to the Hotel Caruso, and stood on a balcony overlooking the Amalfi coast and the glittering ocean—but that’s exactly how he looked. Like, This sucks.

He plopped down in a chair. Frowned. The chair disgusted him. His entourage filtered in. His wife sat beside him and patted his knee to cheer him up. He was the first celebrity I’d ever seen, and it amazed me to think there were people in this world getting off yachts in desperate need of cheering up.

His wife was a knock out. Rod was doing his best Dorian Gray where he basically kept marrying Rachel Hunter at twenty-five. This new Rachel Hunter was pregnant and putting on a fake smile like you do when your partner is pouting. The offsetting smile. So you break even. One of you pissy and miserable; the other, fair and pleasant. She was playing pleasant. She had on this gorgeous flowing white dress that covered the swell of her stomach. She would have looked great no matter what, but I think she probably looked better pregnant. She was proud of it. You could tell. The way she looked toward the water, turning her head away from Rod, you could tell she liked whatever she was thinking about. She smiled a little. I sort of thought it must be her child. Their future.

“I can’t believe he’s still alive,” my sister whispered.

“Of course he’s alive,” Dad said. “We’re the same age. I’m alive. Four years ago I saw him in Boston.”

“Four years is a long time,” Laura said. “I doubt he’s still alive.”

According to her, she’s never been wrong. She also loves to torture my father.

“Laura,” Dad said. “Twenty feet away—is that a ghost?”

She shrugged. “In a Gogol story it would be.”

“What the hell is a goggle?” he asked, turning to me, his eyes brown and wrinkled around the edges, but I was trying to remember where the past four years went. There wasn’t much to show. It was a blur. I’d moved in with my sister to her tiny apartment on Bank Street, sure, but I couldn’t pull a single memory. My mind drew a blank. Every image that popped into my brain—microwave burrito wrappers, jogging regimens that lasted three days tops, dodging the keys Laura dropped from our sixth-floor window before they impaled me, lying to my sister about catching the cockroaches, “Oh yeah, I smoked his ass,” when in truth they were one genetic click away from walking upright and I wasn’t getting near those fuckers—I thought that can’t be it. There must be some biggie I’m missing. Some definitive sign of progress. But there was bupkis. You could set it all on fire and push it out to sea.

When Laura and Dad were done arguing about whether Rod Stewart was indeed alive or if we were trapped in a Goggle story, Dad faced me and said: “You need to write about this, Deep Throat.”

Laura snort-laughed out her wine.

My father was under this terrible misconception that I was a real journalist.

Mostly because I’d told him I was, but it was a lie. I’d written one lousy article for the Queens Gazette about a synagogue board meeting and now he thought I was Carl Bernstein.

I’d grit my teeth every time he called me the Big New York Reporter, but I had to draw the line on Deep Throat.

“Don’t call me that,” I whispered.

“Why? What’s wrong with Deep Throat?”

I said, “Please stop. Seriously. Don’t say that in public.”

“How about Scoop? Can I call you Scoop?”

Two months before I left for Italy, the editor at the Gazette had just finished handing me back my résumé and he set his glasses on the desk. He said, “Don’t take this the wrong way. Are you Jewish?”

“Vaguely,” I said.

“But you can put up with it?” he said.

“With what?” I asked.

He looked puzzled. He squinted for a second and then opened his eyes wide. “Wow, you really are. Listen up, I got a gig for you.”

That’s how I ended up sitting at a board meeting at the Ahavath Sholom synagogue in Forest Hills, Queens.

I didn’t know which was more anti-Semitic—the way he sent me, or how little I wanted to be there.

Anyway, someone had just donated the next door lot and the board committee was trying to decide what to do with it.

“We should make it into a memorial garden,” Marty Frumkin suggested. “With a nice mosaic tile.”

“Not if it’s slippery,” said Hilda Frumkin.

“Forget it if it’s slippery,” Cindy Sugarman agreed.

Everyone shook their heads. This set off a round of stories relaying what had been lost over the decades to slippery tile.

A lot, as it turned out.

“You can die on tile,” Hilda said. “My cousin went this way.”

“Death trap,” whispered Ruth Braverman.

“Carpet’s nice,” Cindy said.

Everyone nodded. Murmured. They all liked carpet.

Then they debated the poor turnout for the meeting.

“Young people don’t care anymore,” Hilda said. “Except for that young man.”

She pointed at me.

“Young man,” she shouted. “What should we do with the lot?”

“I’m a reporter,” I said. “I don’t get an opinion.”

“Well,” Hilda said, “whatever the hell you are, it’s good to see a young person who cares.”

“I work for the Gazette,” I said. I didn’t care at all about the synagogue. But as the hours wore on I realized they didn’t really care about the lot either; they just wanted to talk. They wanted to kibitz. No one wanted to leave. For a moment, I found myself jealous of them.

They had nice comfy seats, for one; they didn’t chintz on those cushions, and there was a vaulted high ceiling and bright stained glass windows. It wasn’t a bad place to be really. There you could breathe at least. It wasn’t like my coffin on Bank street where I was basically living on top of my sister.

So then I raised my hand and I said, “How about a gym?”

They all stopped talking and looked at me. “Suddenly the young person has an opinion,” Hilda said. “Does it look like we work out?”

Marty said, “Who needs a gym? Her mouth never stops moving.”

Someone suggested a daycare facility. For grandkids. Someone else added, dogs too, don’t forget. Then everyone began shouting in defense of one species or another until gray-bunned Ruthie raised her fist, saying, “Kids but no dogs. Dogs but no cats. Cats but no birds. Where does it end? Listen to yourselves. This isn’t Noah’s ark.”

I was almost disappointed when, three hours later, with nothing decided, they broke up the meeting.

“It’s not a light decision,” Marty Frumkin said, shaking my hand by the door.

“No,” I said. “I can see that.”

I tried to pull my hand away but he held on, studying me for a moment. Then he leaned in close. “Listen, I got someone in mind for you.” He wiggled his eyebrows. “A girl.”

“You know I’m not in this congregation, right?”

“Okay, okay. She’s no spring chicken. She’s forty. But she moves like her pants are on fire.”

I stared at him. All I could picture was a woman burning. But I still wanted to meet her. Half-charred even. I needed to meet her. I’d had my own little Jewish renaissance sitting through that meeting and now I was ready.

A few days later I met Marty’s forty-year-old girl. Ginny. She did walk fast, Marty wasn’t lying about that, but she was maybe pushing fifty. There were no sparks. For one, she wore fingerless gloves. Strange. We went to a Russian bar. She got three drinks in her and asked if I owned a jock strap.

I didn’t. I used to. In gym class. But I didn’t have it anymore.

“Damn it,” she said a little too loudly. She leaned in close. “I have a hot jock fantasy.”

I told her I should be getting home.

I moved south along 66th Avenue. I’d never really spent much time before in Queens, and honestly I didn’t really have anywhere to go. In those days, I did this all the time. Walked for hours with nothing in mind. Just this kind of raw empty ache.

At the smells of ginger and sweet vinegar, I stopped in front of a Chinese restaurant teeming with people eating family-style around large lazy susans.

I pressed my face against the glass and cupped my hands to see inside, a swarm of families and waitresses descending with trays full of greens and bamboo steamers. One woman in the middle of the restaurant lifted her eyes to the window. She had nice thick hair that fell sharply down her shoulders. Poppy red lips. There was a tense expression on her face, and somehow I knew it wasn’t directed at me. She wasn’t thinking, look at that weird white guy mouth-breathing on the window, but it was as if she were trying to remember a word. Then she tucked one leg beneath her and leaned way forward out of her seat to speak to the man across from her. A joke, a secret. Something she’d been itching to say. Her eyes had been aimed at me for only a few seconds, her face level with mine, and just as quickly she turned away, and I had this flash of a shrinking feeling. I backed away from the window, seeing the foggy condensation from the edge of my palms on the glass slowly vanish.

I started for the subway to go back downtown.

All of a sudden I regretted leaving Ginny. That wasn’t right. I didn’t give her a fair chance. I should call. Apologize. It wasn’t too late for that. I’d say I had an emergency come up and if she could forgive my sudden rudeness—which wasn’t me at all—would she be willing to try again?

So she wanted a guy in a jock strap. Would that have been so hard? I tried thinking of a place to buy a jock strap. There was a leather gimp suit in a shop window on Christopher Street near my apartment but probably not much athletic wear inside. 

If I couldn’t get another date with her, I thought maybe I should just join the congregation. Would it be so bad? They had a softball team. A bowling night.

Anyhow, I wrote up the article and made $50. My editor said, “You’re my Forest Hills guy,” but then he never called back. I waited. Laura said, “This is New York,” with this real gravitas like it was finally time for her to reveal some fundamental truth about the world that I was ignorant of, and then she added, “People get busy.” They aren’t busy anywhere else? I asked. Only New York? “Not like here,” she said. She pursed her lips. Duck-faced me. “Don’t worry, he’ll call.”

I guess that was supposed to comfort me.

The editor at the Gazette never got unbusy, but I didn’t have the heart to tell that to my father in Italy or to tell him not to call me Scoop. He was so damn proud of it because I was supposedly making my own way and not following him into the family business.

My dad worked as a shoemaker, a business he took over from my grandfather and great-grandfather before that. He’d recently come into some real money. Business was taking off for the first time. That’s how me and Laura got this vacation we didn’t deserve. Laura dreamed of going to Italy. She always told men she was pure Italian. So this was a nice fake homecoming for her.

In fact, ever since we got to the Hotel Caruso, she’d been actively trying to bang the Bell Captain. Alberto was a handsome guy in a Pershing cap and a black and red gabardine suit with gold epaulets. Laura blushed that first day when he offered his hand and helped her out of the taxi with his white gloves. He carried our luggage and talked about the hotel as we followed him down a terrazzo corridor to the room we were sharing for the week. While he was talking, Laura whispered to me, “I’m telling you right now, if the Captain is down, you’re out of here.”

“Bell Captain,” I said.

It was only a few hours later, after we’d unpacked and gathered in the atrium, that Laura dropped a classic Laura bomb on us. She couldn’t leave the hotel. Every mode of transportation made her motion sick—cars, boats, donkeys—she could only walk. Short distances at that. I really wanted to see Italy because I knew I’d never see it again. I’d never have the money for the plane ticket much less the hotel. And Pompeii and Naples were so close by. But Dad said you never break up the family. I got that whole familiar speech from Dad, even though he was clearly disappointed, too. Laura kept telling us to go. Dad was torn. Stay or leave. Tear the family apart or preserve what’s left. He paced around the pool like a lunatic. Finally he made an executive decision: we were staying put.

So we puttered around the hotel for five days.

At night, Laura would take some of her $80 grilled branzino, fold it into her napkin when Dad wasn’t looking, and after dinner we’d sneak down to the duomo in the little town to feed the alley cats Michelin-starred sea bass. We were drunk the whole time. I walked around with a bottle of wine. Laura wanted to adopt one of these cats. Back in our room, we called an emergency vet in the middle of the night, giggling, drunk, asking how to get the cat papers to emigrate to America. He kept saying cargo plane. We said one cat. Small. No cargo. He asked, For Olympics? We said, no, regular cat. For hanging out. Stud? he asked. We said, kind of shy actually. After ten minutes of this we realized we were talking to an equine vet.

In the middle of the night she always tried to spoon me and I’d keep inching away until I was hanging off of our shared queen mattress.

And sometimes we hung out with the Bell Captain. Me and Laura loitered by his station. Laura said she needed me as her wingman. We talked to him and drank coffee while he ordered around the bell boys.

We stood with our coffees studying the way Alberto helped rich ladies out of their cars.

“See that’s not what he did with me,” Laura whispered, shaking her head. “With me, it was slower. And he smiled.”

“He was more deliberate with you,” I said.

“That’s right,” she said. “Good word for it. Deliberate.”

“Thank you,” I said.

Holy shit, we were bored.

“Do you ever notice everyone here looks like a poodle?” Laura asked Alberto one time. 

He smiled. He wouldn’t admit it, but all rich white people resemble poodles when they hit a certain age and start wearing too much fur. That was the Hotel Caruso. One big poodle party.

Alberto was our only friend. Laura kept asking him to let her try his his two-tone whistle. That’s how he moved everything around—bell hops and taxis and limos. How he made everything stop and go. So one time he removed the braided cord and draped it over Laura’s neck. She brought her lips to the brass and blew one sharp, shrill note and a cab stopped abruptly. She blew it again and the cab lurched forward.

“Okay, okay,” Alberto said. Laura smiled and handed the whistle back.

As we were walking into town to window-shop, she said out of nowhere, “You have to admit we’d have a beautiful child.”

I always thought she was crazy, but now I thought she was losing her mind.

On our second to last night Alberto invited us to his place, a short walk up this sidewinding mountain road in the middle of the lemon groves, the air rich with citrus.

Right up in the mountains sat his family’s little cottage spilling over with geraniums. Lanterns hung from the eaves. We sat outside at a picnic table. There was an old woman in a chair on the porch. She waved to us.

Alberto introduced her as his mother. One of these old world Italians. She was there the whole time smiling at us, going back and forth in her rocking chair, but she didn’t speak a word of English.

Alberto slipped inside and came back with a bottle of wine in his hand and a goat trailing him.

A real fucking goat with beard and horns came out of the house and trotted up to my sister. He gently butted against her leg.

“A lamb,” Laura squealed and she started petting its wiry coat.

Alberto went bug-eyed for a moment. “This is a goat.”

Her face reddened in embarrassment. “I know that,” she said.

The Bell Captain gave her a puzzled look then shouted an order and the goat backed off and sat down. His tongue was hanging out of his mouth all purple.

He lay down in the dirt by Alberto’s foot. The Captain, still oddly wearing his white hotel gloves, scratched the goat behind his ears and told us the story. Years ago he’d hit the goat’s mother on his scooter and killed her. So he adopted this baby goat. Took him home. He had to buy goat milk from the market and feed it to him in a bottle like a baby. Now it was full grown and lived in the house. Like a dog.

“It’s strange,” Alberto said, pouring us more wine.

Laura burst. She was wasted, single, a day from turning thirty, and orphaned baby goats were just too much. She said, “Jesus Christ, someone needs to make you happy for the rest of your life.”

He laughed nervously. “I’m young. Twenty. Well, twenty in September. I want to travel. Too young to settle down and start a family, right?”

I could hear my sister groan under her breath. “You should come to New York,” I said.

“I hear most wonderful things,” he said.

“It’s terrible,” I said, “but you should come anyway.”

Laura smiled.

“Maybe I do this,” Alberto said. He sighed. “So many places to imagine.”

It was quiet for a moment.

Laura lifted her eyes to the night sky as if to invoke the mighty schlong of Tiberius and all his ancestors to enlist their help in conceiving an Augustan child, all honor and blood, with the Bell Captain.

I asked Alberto why he was still wearing his white gloves.

He said a true Bell Captain never removes his gloves. He walks around like cat, yes. Nothing escapes his eye.

He flashed a smile.

My sister stared at him. “Scusami,” he said and stood up. “I work very early.”

“Scoozy,” Laura said all dreamily.

Alberto said, “Why don’t you stay, relax, drink with mother.” He pointed to the corner.

His mother shrugged at us. Then she reached down by her side and picked up a giant lemon, largest I’ve ever seen, and held it under her neck like a goiter. She smiled at us.

“We should probably go,” Laura said. We thanked him, bowed to his mother, and left.

We started down the mountain on a small paved road. We passed little villas with abandoned car tires and the rubble of chimney bricks in their yards, clothes flapping on the clotheslines. The air was thick with the burnt smell of two-stroke oil as boys zipped past us on their scooters leaving bluish smoke trails in their wake.

“I think I still have a chance,” Laura said.

I didn’t think so, but I wasn’t going to say it. “I’m pulling for you,” I said. “You deserve someone earthy. Someone who really knows the difference between a goat and a lamb and a sheep.”

“They’re all the same.”

“They may be. But I know this for sure: that Bell Captain would be lucky to marry a woman as confused as you.”

“Captain,” she said. “And thank you. You’re a good brother.”

Back in our hotel room, we sat out on the balcony drinking. 

She was unusually quiet. “I’m old, Spencer,” she said.

“We’re not dying or anything,” I said. I was drinking a Peroni. My feet were up on the railing.

“We’re not decrepit, I don’t mean that, but I’m old. Right? Thirty. I’m not young. You too. You can’t say we’re young.”

I poured her more red wine. She was drinking out of a long stem wine glass.

“I’m just being honest,” she said.

“No one asked for that. We’re on vacation.”

“I don’t know where it went,” she said. “One minute I’m karate chopping you in the neck and then I blink and I’m thirty. What do I have?”

She stared at me with this blank helpless look that made my throat go dry.

I tilted the bottle upside and chugged. I was pissed at Alberto. This was all his fault. 

Laura smoked American Spirits and held her wine glass up and I could see her papery hands, knuckles bulging.

I poured her more wine and got a glass for myself.

Laura said, “What are we doing?”

“I don’t know.”

“Fuck it. I’m going to have a baby. With somebody.”

“Or you could try yoga or something.”

“Yoga? I hope you’re kidding. No, I’m going to find a super hot guy in Italy and have a baby.”

“Or that.”

“And did I always drink with my pinky sticking out like this? Is this new?”

“I think you always have.”

“Awful. I’ve always been this pretentious and didn’t even know it.” She sighed. “I’d be the best mom.”

I probably should’ve agreed. Or said something.

Instead, I poured myself another glass of wine.

In my head I was thinking maybe she had the right plan. Maybe I’d just stay here and marry the butcher’s daughter. There had to be a butcher around here somewhere. Why his daughter would want to marry me, I had no idea, but in my head she did. I was even willing to convert. Go all the way. Catholic. I wanted to kneel beside her at the altar in front of the Priest. I wanted there to be candles and hushed voices. I wanted to open my mouth, the air cool on my tongue, my blood speeding up, eyes shut, my mouth closing on the lightness. A voice, a soul, a host entering me.

“I’ll be big,” Laura said. “Huge. I’ll sit with my big belly in the tub. Just sit there. Weightless in the water.”

“We should get going to meet Dad. He’ll freak if we’re late.”

“We’re not late,” she said softly. She turned her head and looked out over the railing.

“Can I ask you something,” she said. “I want your advice.”

“Okay,” I said. I sat back down. She turned to face me.

“There’s nothing wrong with me is there?”

“There are plenty of doormen all over Italy who’d pay to sleep with you.”

“Oh, that’s a prostitute. Thank you though. But I’m serious,” she said.

I was serious. That’s how you handle it. Make a joke out of everything. But you don’t tell the truth. Especially to your family.

“I don’t know,” I said. She was wearing me down. “Maybe it just passes. That’s what people say. It all comes clear. Later. You don’t feel this lost at forty. Or maybe it was fifty. I can’t remember. Some point.”

On our last night, it took us a while to get over the shock of sitting so close to Rod Stewart. Once we’d stopped whispering about him, Dad said to me and Laura, “Okay, that’s enough, stop staring. It’s rude. Let’s talk. We have plenty of interesting things to discuss.”

The three of us looked at each other. No one said anything. Then we all simultaneously turned back to Rod Stewart. He had a daisy speared through the buttonhole of his blazer, and, hovering over his head, a bee darted back and forth trying to pollinate Rod, drawn to the bright daffodil yellow of his hair.

He didn’t bother brushing it away.

“Can I get a fucking drink,” Rod said.

We could hear them plenty clear. They were only a few tables away.

His wife patted his knee again. “You need to eat,” she said. “You’re starving.”

She had on this frilly white organza dress with a pink silk scarf tied around her neck.

The waiter came with a bottle of scotch and Rod poured two drinks, saying to his wife, “Aren’t you going to have some?” She made a face. Rod handed her the glass but she laughed, pushing it away, and folded her arms over her belly.

She turned her head and looked over the iron railing of the terrace. Below, a road snaked its way down the steep limestone cliff toward the sea. Mopeds with dark-haired girls doing hairpin turns on their way to the beach.

“She seems happy,” Laura said. The wife. Who knows if it was true or not.

Rod craned his head to the sound of the piano music coming from the open-air salon behind us.

A thin, young man with a pale freckled face was sitting at the piano bench in a tuxedo playing standards.

Rod faced forward again.

He turned the bottle of scotch sideways, scrutinized the label, and swished the liquid back and forth. He explored the inside of his cheek with his tongue.

Then he set the bottle down, saying, “Can you believe they pay this man to play the piano?”

“Please,” his wife said. “Let’s just have quiet relaxing night.”

Rod stood up, threw back his scotch, and left without a word.

“There he goes,” the Australian bodyguard said.

I watched him pass behind Dad’s shoulder, cross the terrace, and walk under the pink terracotta arch leading into the salon where he slipped into the restroom.

Dad said, “Now I’d like to make my toast if it’s alright with you. It’s a serious toast.”

We raised our wine glasses.

Laura said, “I’m thirty now, I guess it’s time to get serious.”

“I’m glad to finally hear that,” Dad said.

“I’m going to have Alberto’s child.”

“Who?” he said.

“The Captain,” she said.

“Bell Captain,” I said under my breath.

Dad’s eyes bulged. “You want to shtup the doorman. You nuts?”

“I want a family,” she said. No, wait, first she said, “My right armpit smells. But just the right pit. The left is fine.” Then she said she wanted a family. She knew she’d never meet a guy because, let’s be honest, who’d marry her, it’s fine though, she said, she’d accepted that, she didn’t need love or the joy of a dangerous crash diet to fit into a dress she’d only wear once. No. She just wanted her own child.

“Young lady,” Dad said. “No one’s getting pregnant on this vacation.”

“Tonight’s the night. Like Rod said. Plus it’s a full moon and I’m ovulating.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Dad said. 

She turned toward me. “Moon comes from the Latin menses—your period.”

“So you could say, ‘I’m on my moon,’” I added.

“Yes. Or maybe it means month? But month comes from moon.”

“Can’t we have one normal night,” Dad pleaded.

Right then, over Dad’s shoulder, I saw Rod come out of the bathroom, wipe his hands on his pants, and he marched up to the young man on the piano and gave him a thumb. Just a thumb, as if to say, “Beat it, kid.” Then Rod sat down on the bench, shook out his hands, and began playing. At the first few notes of Downtown Train, we all stood up.

“You know this is really Tom Waits,” Laura said. She’s like that.

In a trance, we rose, all the guests, the old poodles, Rod’s posse, and we filed into the salon and formed a horseshoe around the piano.

Rod was growling, swaying on the bench, his hair glistening with product, and with a flash of his hand he undid the fourth button on his shirt. His wife sat down on one of the crushed velvet couches along the wall. There were portraits of austere looking Italians in gilded frames, a fresco of two fighting griffins on the ceiling, dark curtains over the windows, and a crystal chandelier above the piano.

As he played, a grin spread slowly across Rod’s face until it broke into a full smile. Having finished the song, he stood up and bowed as we all applauded.

Mr. Caruso, the owner, with cigar gray hair, came running into the lounge waving a CD over his head. Moments later, Caruso had Maggie May playing over the speaker system and Rod, delighted by the sound of his own voice, grabbed his wife off the couch, spun her around, first by her hand in a clumsy pirouette and then by her pink scarf, which unraveled and came free on the fourth spin, causing her to fall backwards, nearly tripping over the Persian rug. Stewart started wriggling his hips, shimmying, covering his face with the scarf like a hijab.

Then he began flossing his wife’s pink scarf between his legs and humping the air.

“Oh, God,” Dad said.

“He’s really going for it,” I said.

Rod galloped around the perimeter of the room swinging the scarf over his head like a lasso, waving to the crowd, and no one was surprised when the scarf snagged on the crystal chandelier. 

The scarf was wrapped around one of the crystal teeth, its tail dangling down just out of reach.

Rod bellyflopped onto the grand piano. He struggled to his feet and lunged for the scarf.

“Please, Signor,” Mr. Caruso said. The hotel had been in his family for centuries. The chandelier was probably 200 hundred years old.

Rod kept jumping for the scarf.

Caruso cried, “Please, Signor Stewart. We bring a ladder.”

Finally Rod caught the tail end of the dangling scarf and lost his balance. He used the scarf to catch himself, up on his tip-toes, swaying back and forth, two hands on the scarf, his body pitched at a 45 degree angle.

The chandelier rocked from side to side and suddenly the ceiling paint cracked: two jagged thunderbolts around the ornate medallion. Paint chips fell from the ceiling.

Mr. Caruso cursed: “Oh, no, oh no!”

We all stood there mute, paralyzed.

Mr. Caruso yelled, “Come down, Signor Stewart.”

The bodyguard grabbed both of Rod’s legs in a bear hug and lifted him off the piano. The arms of the chandelier were bent. The pink scarf was still hanging up there.

The Australian started stuffing bills into Mr. Caruso’s hand, saying, “This much? This much?” But Mr. Caruso wouldn’t take a dime. “It’s priceless!” he squeaked.

Rod banged his fist on the bar counter and the bartender came running. After a fresh scotch, off came the white linen blazer. Rod straightened up and said, “What we need, people, is a conga line.”

He pointed at the nearest guest, a mousy woman wearing some sort of lime green negligee. She shook her head. Then he pointed at a lady in a silver muumuu and she got behind him and then a man with a bad toupee followed and as they whisked by me the lady in the muumuu grabbed my hand and swung me in front of her. Suddenly I was right behind Rod. I held his bony bird hips as we choochooed around the perimeter of the lounge. We did three little shuffle steps and on the fourth beat, we kicked.

He steered us toward the guests huddled in the corner and Rod thumbed them all to the back of the line. He snaked around the lounge, pumping his arm like a train conductor. When we curved, I could see the tail of the conga line and there was Dad and Laura in the back. We chugged out to the terrace overlooking neat rows of lemon and cypress trees, around the pool, beneath a pergola buried in oleander and orange blossom, and then we headed back toward the love-letter warmth of the piano lounge.

But before we reached the piano, Rod suddenly stopped. He pulled up short and the train ground to a halt. I felt muumuu lady’s breasts squish against my back.

“Oh, dear,” she said. “Pardon me.”

Every car bumped into each other.

Maybe it was the smell of the lemon groves or his own voice echoing over the speakers—something made Rod stop dead in his tracks.

He turned around slowly and our eyes met. I think he was expecting to see his wife or his pal, but it was me.

His eyes widened. His gaze fixed on me.

I felt a chill.

I knew that look.

It said, I’m lost.

Everything went wobbly. Like light bent underwater.

His face fell slack, child-like. The same look I’d see when catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror of some dive-bar bathroom washing my hands—I’m a freak surrounded by freaks. What am I doing? Why the hell am I here?

Rod’s face scared the shit out of me. I’d been praying it was just some passing twenties thing, but Rod still carried it apparently. He sure wasn’t in his twenties. I was counting on him to have it all figured out. To comfort the rest of us with easy listening.

I wanted a phone. I wanted to call Ginny.

Rod lowered his head slightly without taking his eyes off me.

I felt like he was waiting on me to do something. Say something.

His face was pleading, “Get me out of here.”

But I think he knew he couldn’t escape. That you never get rid of it. This feeling that there’s a hole in the center of you, a black hole swallowing everything, and it doesn’t matter how much money you make, you can’t hide. Not in Italy. Not on a sailing yacht. Nowhere. 

And I probably didn’t want a girlfriend anymore than Laura wanted a baby. We just wanted an answer.

Rod was still staring at me. Mouth half open, lips dry. I didn’t know what to say, but you can’t leave a man like that. Derailed.

I smiled faintly. Cleared my throat.

“Take ‘em around one more time, Rod,” I said.

Because what the hell else were you going to do.

He looked hard at me for a moment. I realized how ridiculous it sounded. Take ‘em around one more time. Who was I to tell Rod Stewart what to do.

But then he slowly nodded his head.

I nodded back.

For two seconds, me and Rod were brothers.

Then off we went for one more lap. Rod led the way, pumping his fist, all of us swerving, laughing, kicking our legs like the Rockettes.

But I’d brought him back from the edge. Who knows what would’ve happened had I not been there. So, if nothing else, in one odd slice of space-time I basically saved Rod Stewart’s life.

Afterward, we eavesdropped as the Australian haggled with Caruso over money to pay for all the damages.

But by then Mr. Caruso had seen enough. The hotel was his legacy. His blood. He kicked Rod out. Exiled him and his whole entourage to their yacht. Take that, Rod!

But he wouldn’t go quietly. His seventh-month old pregnant wife had to basically drag him out of the hotel. She was crying.

When everything settled down, I stood beside the pool with Laura. Each of us holding a glass of champagne. It was close to midnight. I told her happy birthday and I was sorry she failed to conceive a pure-blooded son to lead Italy back to glory.

She said, “Push me in the pool. Like old times.” I said, “Nah. No one likes being pushed in a pool. Plus you’re wearing all your nice shit.”

“Push me.”

I shoved her— shoes and champagne glass, dress, everything. She made a splash.

Then I fell forward. The turquoise sheen coming up fast and I hit face first.