When Mr. d’Foos-Fong told Mrs. d’Foos-Fong he was going to kill himself, she said, “I am at a loss for words. But of course do as you think best. Children, your father is going to kill himself. As for me, I am going to serve a nice ham for lunch tomorrow. Tomorrow is Sunday. When we get home from church, the house will be filled with the wonderful aroma of a nice pink ham. Even if your father is dead, we will sit down to the ham because it is already prepared. We have to keep up our strength. We have to pull together at a time like that, a time when your father lies on a slab at the morgue with his big toes pointing toward heaven, right through the holes in his socks. We will eat slowly. There will be mashed potatoes swimming in butter, real cow butter, creamed spinach, Harvard beets, biscuits with molasses. There will be nothing we can do for your father’s body or soul by then. He will be a thing of the past, and the meal will be delicious. We will make pigs of ourselves but feel no shame because we are in mourning. Excuse me, I have received a text and must respond immediately.”
The text was from her sister Comella Crossley. Comella Crossley’s text read, “Isn’t life a marvelous gift that none of us asked for and would often like to return to sender?”
Mrs. d’Foos-Fong typed back, using her thumbs, “You have an uncanny knack for sending something depressing at just the right time. Pierre has yet again threatened to kill himself.”
Comella communicated back, “A wise man eats directly from the pot and thus wastes neither time nor water washing a dish. Also, nature is an expression of tyranny, and, thus, the alligator cannot move laterally.”
It was amazing that truths as profound as these could arrive by as tacky a method as texting. Really, they should have arrived engraved on rays of gold sunlight poking through the clouds like Aurora’s meddling fingers.
“Thank you, Comella. These are words to live by.”
“Comella sends her condolences, Darling,” Mrs. d’Foos-Fong said to Mr. d’Foos-Fong.
Miss Pomerantz had a lovely villa on a cliff overlooking the ocean. Miss Pomerantz warned her guests, “I would not stand too close to the edge of the cliff my home is built on unless you feel like plunging to your deaths. Even if you managed to hit the water instead of the rocks, I can’t guarantee you would be all that pleased with the results. I don’t mean to spoil your festive mood. On the other hand, it would be remiss of me not to mention the dangers. Several gigolos have gone over the edge. I am not suggesting that everyone who goes over the edge is a gigolo, nor that every gigolo goes over the edge. There might be no connection whatsoever been gigolo-ism and going over the edge. I am merely saying that the two most recent were well-compensated until the ground gave way. One of them was on a rant about age spots moments before he went over. The other was on a tear about sagging bellies and rear ends. It could be that those subjects themselves make orators unsure of their footing. There might be nothing new in it. Unfortunately for them, two handsome well-paid young men stumbled on subjects that have been the Achilles heel of orators since the days of Horace. It just so happened they were unfortunately positioned at the moment their ankles gave way. It was not the profession that was their undoing. It was their subject matter. A holy man who stumbled onto the same subject matter might suffer the same fate the two handsome young well-compensated men did. It is men’s subject matter that makes their ankles unreliable. Couple that with proximity to a cliff, and you have all the ingredients for a dramatic fall from grace.”
Mr. and Mrs. Figuerro enjoyed spotless reputations in the community until someone spread it around they were grave robbers. “We must think fast, put a brave face on it, and put our best feet forward,” the Figuerros said to each other, “or this grave robber talk will set us back. Let’s do everything humanly possible to convince our friends, neighbors, and social set there is absolutely no foundation to the rumor we are grave robbers.”
The Figuerros decided that one way to convince others they were not grave robbers was loudly to deprecate corpses within their hearing. This plan could be executed any place at any time with no financial outlay. While toweling off after her fitness class, Mrs. Figuerro could look around at her companions and say, “That was a very nice little bit of fun we had just then. But, my God, who would ever go within a mile of a corpse?” Mr. Figuerro might pace the platform with his briefcase, waiting for his train, feign an increasingly agitated state to indicate he had a burning issue on his mind, and finally declaim loudly to no one in particular, “We must pull together as a people and work tirelessly to keep corpses out of the picture!”
The Figuerros decided another way in which they might effectively challenge the rumor they were grave robbers was to make sure they did not appear in public wearing the artifacts of the dead, such as: vintage brooches, pendants, tiaras, starburst pins, rhinestone-studded jackets, stick pins, tie clips, fobs, pocket watches, “I’m for Ike” pins, purple hearts, lockets with pictures of persons in them they could not identify, anything made of whale bone, ivory, etcetera.
“From now on,” they said, “we must scrutinize each other’s outfits before we go out. Also, we must not mention, outside this house, our collection of gold fillings, glass eyes, false teeth, pre-twentieth century prosthetics, and hair pieces. That we have what is arguably the world’s finest collection of pre-Victorian wigs and hardcore Renaissance codpieces must remain our secret until by outlasting our enemies we live down this calumny or trace it back to its origin and make the perpetrator eat his own tongue.”
Alice Korn’s two children were convicts, but that didn’t keep her from having a pleasant life. “Fortunately,” she told Mr. Albert, “I am not one of those mothers who lives through her children. I do pleasant things in this pleasant community. I have a pleasant religion and pleasant dreams. I want the best for my girls, of course. I had a pleasant time raising them and encouraged them to do pleasant things and have pleasant experiences. They had their own definition of pleasant. I write them letters to prison, which I hope they will collect and one day insert into scrapbooks.”
“That will make a nice keepsake,” Mr. Albert said. “When you are gone, they will pull out their memory books and have a good cry.”
“My daughters would sooner knife you than look at you. Still, you are right. They will probably soften after several decades behind bars.”
“Hold still,” Mr. Albert said. “I need to get a fix on your belly button.”
Mrs. Korn had answered a “Let me draw you naked” ad. It was hard work, and she was becoming arthritic from it. Holding to one position for hours on end was locking up her joints. But Mr. Albert was paying her a generous fee.
She had been bored both as a real widow and a prison widow. She knew how to do little else than keep a house and take off her clothes. There was no one at home to do either for these days, and Mr. Albert had not advertised for a housekeeper. There was nothing left for it but to go naked.
“I am fifty-seven years old,” she had reasoned. “I am not one of those late-blooming ladies that starts to college just as dementia sets in. What is left to me but nudism?”
Her body was not pleasant, but she was.
“Thank God,” Mr. Albert said after Mrs. Korn had been modeling for him for several days. “Finally, a pleasant model. You are quickly becoming my favorite model, Mrs. Korn. Do you know why?”
“May I move my lips enough to ask?”
“Your lips are irrelevant. Move them all you want. Who cares? You are my favorite model because your body goes places, with its festoons, knobs, ripples, its generous stalactiting and stalagmiting. Your body goes places the human body was never meant to go and has never gone before. Your body is fecund, rampant.”
“I don’t need to change anything?”
“God, no. Just keep being as textural and topographical and tectonically upcropped as you already are. You give an artist every study of every shape and dramatic juxtaposition his eye could crave. You are a perfect marriage of geological upheavals and biological piquancy. You have all the scars and badges of nature amusing itself.”
When the Moriartys woke up that morning, they could not remember what country they were in. Nor did the man in the bed between them look familiar. He was pasty and chubby, not their type at all. He had that sly waxy German look, skin with the sheen of a sausage, cool and smooth but a drag to the caressing finger.
“What were we thinking?” they mouthed to each other over the snoring pile.
The dozen or so empty wine bottles lined up on the bureau told them tale.
“Should we wake up him and demand a full explanation?” Mr. Moriarty said, “or just sort of quietly pack up and get the hell out of here?”
He sank back in the bed and gave full vent to his depression. “It wasn’t always Venus or Adonis, but at least it was never someone you’d be ashamed to be seen with in public.”
“Maybe his personality compensates for everything.”
“Or maybe this is a mirror, and we’re past it, Dolly.”
“Past it?” Mrs. Moriarty considered this but not for long. Sixty-five was the new thirty, and there was an end to self-doubt.
She got up and did a few stretches and arm circles to work down the nausea of mid-morning. Then she banged her elbows together hard eighteen times, an exercise that kept her breasts firm and shored up the tummy. She’d tried and by trying had kept her looks deep into the final leg of the journey. Mr. Moriarty hadn’t even tried. The punishment for that lay in bed with him. She couldn’t say as much, but that was the hard truth. The pasty stranger was his fault.
Mr. Moriarty recovered enough to sit up and watch his wife bang her elbows together. “I shall now part the drapes and discover what is going on out there,” she said.
Right outside the window was a field of tall corn that waved and rustled in the breeze. She guessed it was around eleven o’clock and possibly hot. “What countries have corn?” she said. “That should narrow it down.”
“Instead of doing this by a process of elimination, why not wake up him and ask him?”
“I don’t guess it matters what country as long as we escape with our dignity intact,” she said. “No doubt we’ve slept through the Continental breakfast.”
Mrs. Moriarty never made the transition from bemusement to panic. Her aplomb had long been the sticking point in their marriage. He had had to do all the falling apart while his wife crossed her arms and thought. Their marriage subverted the natural order of things. The man was supposed to be strong, logical, calm, the woman soft, uncertain, clinging. Their roles were reversed. It was perversion. He sobbed. “I want to go home.”
“You are experiencing disorientation. It is to be expected in travel.”
He went into the bathroom and returned wrapped in a towel. He held a small cake of soap and read, “‘Hotel Luxurioso.’”
“There. We’ve located ourselves. Feel better?”
In the meantime, Mrs. Moriarty had checked the bureau drawers and found a blanket, a Bible, and a jar of pink nail polish. “The Bible is in English.” She shook it as though something valuable might fall out of it. “That shows we are among friends.”
Mr. Moriarty scratched himself. “I have an awful feeling we’re in Saskatchewan.”
She sat down at the foot of the bed, opened the nail polish, and began to paint the stranger’s toenails. “This will give our pasty friend a bit of color and serve as our calling card. Open the Bible and select a comforting verse.”
Mr. Moriarty continued to percolate with sobs but at a gentle boil. “Here is one.” He read, “’When what is vile is honored among men, the wicked freely strut about.’”
“That will get you through.”
Finished, she blew on the pasty stranger’s toes and stood. “Now he will know he has been somewhere with the Moriartys.” She sat down on the black vinyl-covered chair and painted her fingernails.
He watched her with concern. “I know that while you paint your nails, you contemplate going solo.”
“You have no proof of that,” she said steadily.
Finally done with her nails, she held her hands, fingers up, nails forward, for him to admire. “It is always good for the lady to show she’s taken care. They expect the man to look like he was dragged through the gutter.” She rippled her fingers. “This will get us results, part waters, and smooth feathers.”
Mr. Moriarty stood beside the bed and studied the stranger, turning his head with short jerks this way and that like a bird. “I’d say he’s still in his twenties, Dolly. That’s not doing too bad for us, is it?”
She flipped her hand. “Youth is small consolation for a bit of greasy blond terrorism. If you are looking for a silver lining, then by all means grab onto youth. But youth does not cover the multitude of sins this commits.” She flipped her hand again.
Mr. Moriarty went to the window to study the cornfield and discovered a villa, a lake, and mountains faint in the distance. “You didn’t mention the villa and the lake.”
“I was so taken with the corn. Travelers expect to see a villa and a lake, not corn. I suspect we are in Italy. We probably wouldn’t have to search too hard for a fresco, an old bridge, a campanile, and a couple of cracked sculptures. What I will do is pick up the phone, call the front desk, and find out what accent the desk clerk speaks English in. If this is Italy, my God! With all you read in the guidebooks about young Italian studs begging for older American couples, how did we wind up with an over-inflated German dirigible? I will ask all the pertinent, troubling questions.”
She picked up the phone and dialed. When the desk clerk answered, her face softened and lit up. She looked at Mr. Moriarty and smiled and nodded to show she was on the road to satisfaction. “Bon giorno, yes, Luigi, caro mio. This is Mrs. Moriarty with some inquiries. First, this is Italian corn I see outside my window, si, and not some affectation, something to make Midwesterners feel more at home?” She grimaced and waited. “Is the corn a put-on, in other words,” she said louder, beginning to lose patience. She cut it off. “Never mind, never mind. It’s not that complex, but never mind. This one should be easy. What room are we in, and beyond that, where inside Italy are we located?”
She moved around, staring at the carpet as she absorbed Luigi’s answers.
“How interesting to learn all this. Lago di Garda? What a beautiful name for a thing. And we are here for how long? Hmmm? Uh-huh. We’ll, that’s just sensational. Grazie.”
She pressed the receiver to her belly and whispered to Mr. Moriarty, “Apparently we checked in two nights ago. We are in room two forty. We have another five nights.”
“Does Luigi have any idea where we go from here?”
“What is next on our itinerary, Luigi? Itinerary. Where do we go from here? We thought you might know. Is there anything on file? We’ve momentarily lost track. We thought you might have us on record.”
To Mr. Moriarty, Luigi’s voice sounded like a fly buzzing against a window screen in another room.
“Se sicuro? Grazie. Dimmelo, ti prego, does this hotel have a service to help eject unexplained men from your room?
If so, quanto costa? Hmm. I see. That is exorbitant. Never mind. We will do it ourselves. You have been most helpful.
We will tip you on the last day. We are an available mature American couple.”
She hung up and frowned. “He has no idea where we are going. He did confirm that we are in Italy, and on a very pretty lake with corn. It is Italian corn, a jest.”