Charles Conley, born and raised on Long Island, was a 2009-2010 fellow at Teachers & Writers Collaborative in New York and a 2008-2009 fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. His stories have appeared in The Southern Review, The Harvard Review, North American Review and Canadian Notes and Queries. He was the recipient of an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant in 2010 and a SASE/Jerome Grant for Emerging Writers in 2007. He received his MFA from the University of Minnesota.
I was deep under the ocean when The Italian Gentleman first arrived and enraged at him for pulling me up. The plants had such colours – purples and scarlets and deep indigos – and the fish such strange shapes and spoke to me. I would have cried in my frustration, but though I floated through each sodden day, inside me was desert. The Italian Gentleman came and brought smells with him. Strongest was the smell of his cigarettes. They smelled like the land, as tobacco does, but of a strange land, not the one I knew. A spiced land, with odd creatures that burrow in it. Creatures with moustaches. His satchel full of herbs smelled more familiar – like an old saddle left in a garden – but with an unrecognisable aroma lingering in the corner. The last, underneath it all and only when he brought his face close to mine, must have been his aftershave, which smelled exactly like a pirate, or what I imagined a pirate would smell like. The scent of week-old rum, which I had never smelled. Tropical islands. It was when he arrived that I realized smell was the only sense that crossed my mind's threshold unescorted by pain. I wanted to explain this to my mother, but I couldn't make the words right with my scratchy voice and fevered mind. I told her about the canoes – sight-canoes and soundcanoes – and that only the smell-canoe didn't have blades on the front.
My mother patted my head to quiet me, then left the room and returned with an ashtray for the Italian Gentleman. When he finished his cigarette, he put his hand on my neck. It was lovely and cold. I closed my eyes. There was caring in his fingertips and the tasks and sighs of concern in his mouth. He moved his hands around my body and I think I fell asleep. There were no visions. I awoke when he placed a moist towel over my eyes. It was warm, but with a cooling herb, and I enjoyed this both-hot-and-cold feeling. There were footsteps and the door closing and a murmured conversation. The only words I clearly heard were when the Italian Gentleman said, "Have faith, signora," as he departed. He left smells behind him. The towel over my eyes, the faintest scent of the herbs in his bag, the cigarette smoke. His pirate musk he kept with him. My mother emptied the ashtray and replaced it next to my bed, then sat with me for a long while. We were both quiet.
He came back, I don't know when, after he'd found the herbs he needed. I closed my eyes, and the tinkling of glass pinched my brain as he prepared his balm. I smelled the pirate smell as he leaned close, then another, much stronger scent replaced it. Flowery, nauseous. He placed the smell on my upper lip, between my eyes, on other points around my body. After some time, he brought the smell close to me again, slid his finger inside my nose, and rubbed an oil thick as lard inside my nostrils. This smell-canoe had blades and also mallets, and they pounded me. The Italian Gentleman was touching my back, manipulating my spine and my neck, but this was gentle compared to the dynamite going off in my skull.
I went somewhere, not somewhere gentle like sleep, a place where the shark-demons howled at me. They told me I was lost. They knew how to divide my soul and my mother's and it would hurt while they carved and it was all my fault. Then they started carving and I knew they were right and wherever I was I was wailing. Time disappeared, and when it came back to me, I was alone in the parlour feeling merely like a very sick person, a significant improvement. I called for my mother, and when she came, though I had wanted to tell her my vision, I asked for water. I drank two glasses and fell asleep.
When my father came that night to see me, he saw I had improved, and he squeezed my hand. I watched him look at me. His happiness seemed genuine. By my bed he placed a small book of prayers I never opened. I don't know what my mother said to him about the Italian Gentleman.
The pain slowly began to give way. The visions didn't stop, but did become gentler – the demons had done what they set out to do and were gone. The Italian Gentleman made regular visits, and the sound of his trap, the clopping of the hooves of the powerful Friesians pulling it up the drive, was like the ticking of a grandfather clock summoning me out of my fever state and into time. He applied what I would learn was rose hip oil to my body and manipulated my neck and back. This was all painful, but not unbearable. He and my mother and I were together in a warm, quiet, dark room that smelled of exotic tobacco, and that, at the least, was pleasant.
After the Italian Gentleman had attended to me, my mother would see him out, and sometimes I heard them speaking in the hall. I could never be sure what they were talking about, no matter how I strained. I would hear the occasional word, and this would make it worse, that I couldn't hear the rest, made it feel as if I would hear if only I tried hard enough, only managed to better filter out the pain and the visions. What I couldn't hear disturbed me. I asked my mother after the third or fourth visit what she discussed with the Italian Gentleman, and she looked at me calmly for several seconds before answering, "You, darling, of course."
The next visit, my mother greeted the Italian Gentleman in the parlour rather than at the door, and they spoke in front of me.
"Ciao, signora, how does our patient feel today?" he asked.
"Thank you for coming, signore," she said, "I think he's improving."
"This is very good to hear," he said, and she took his hat. Then he came over to my bed, put his hand to my forehead, then my neck – he was nodding – and finally looked in my eyes. He winked. Though he was older than my father, he looked less tired. He was balding, and the hair circling the lower half of his head was black and silver, as was his exuberant moustache. He was otherwise clean-shaven. His features were broad, and he could raise his left eyebrow to express cynicism, surprise, good humour, interest. It was said he had enough money to own an automobile, but he continued to ride around in his black trap. He dressed in country tweed. He pulled out a tobacco pouch from his jacket and quickly rolled a cigarette. He struck the match on my bed frame and spoke as the match made its way to the cigarette.
"The young man looks like his mother," he said. "His cheeks, they have colour – just a little, but it is much improvement. Handsome family," he said quietly. My mother looked at him and said nothing. She and I watched him smoke.
My mother poured tea for the two of them from a teapot I hadn't seen her bring in. She sat on the opposite side of the bed from the Italian Gentleman and they spoke over me.
"He didn't scream last night," my mother said, and the Italian Gentleman nodded. "He doesn't flinch at my footsteps."
"Signora has a light step," he said. "Like a dancer."
"He's drinking water again."
"Yes. Water," he said. "Very good." Then to me he said, "Drink up, drink up."
I took the glass of water from the table next to me and drank, and he and my mother laughed, looking at each other.
He finished his cigarette and took out his satchel. He opened it, removed a glass full of oil, a jar of herbs, and a mortar and pestle. He crushed the herbs, which I took to be rose hips, then mixed them with the oil. Together they formed a viscous ointment. He spoke to me as he did this.
"We will make you well," he said. "We will teach you to be the gentleman. You will be the son the signora deserves."
He finished preparing his balm and began to apply it to my body in the usual way.
"To be the gentleman," he said, "it is not simply to do this, to do that. No. To be the gentleman is nothing less than the aim and perfection of man."
The smell of the ointment was still nauseating, and the manipulation of my joints was painful, but his voice, explaining how to be a gentleman, eased it. After he finished his healing work, he rolled another cigarette and drank his tea, chatting lightly with my mother while I drifted off to sleep.