by Peter Byrne
(Swans - February 24, 2014) It wasn't that Yuri disliked Venice, expenses paid. But Wilfred was hard to take, even once a year. He was telling -- he'd didn't know his name -- about it.
"I'm an architect. I've never figured out what Wilfred is. What's your line?"
"Photography," said Tim, "I live here in Venice."
They sat outside a café drinking beer and had both left the conference people who moved in an unstable cluster around the little square.
"Live here?" asked Yuri, interested. "I envy you that."
Most foreigners in Venice had a camera, but few managed to live there. That's why Tim always laid it out early. He knew that otherwise he was nondescript.
Yuri flicked a glance toward the group.
"The planets follow the sun, despite themselves."
"Wilfred?" asked Tim.
"Yeah. We've got operators like that in Israel too. But they're easier to read. So he retired from Berkeley. So he organized this -- well -- organization. They meet every summer in some pretty city. They watch the locals having drinks and doing their shopping. They talk about it in words the locals wouldn't understand. Then it's au revoir until next year and don't forget to send your membership dues."
"They do have lectures and discussions."
"Don't remind me. I gave one and we kicked it around afterward until it surrendered."
"Then there's the magazine." Tim said. He adopted a cynical tone too.
"Right. But commercially the whole thing doesn't amount to anything. The speakers are paid and you get expenses if you hold out. The audience contributes some small change and the publication only just scrapes by."
"You're saying he can't be in it for the money?" asked Tim.
"I think you're right," said Tim. "Don't forget though that when the sun shines it's center stage. Wilfred makes the weather. He's boss and gets to set the day up his way. Even his wife has to fill her slot."
"His consort, Mrs. Vice President?"
"He also believes in it," said Tim, with a disabused pout.
"That guff? The beauty of burghers meeting their neighbors in a city park at twilight? Jane Jacobs is dead for chrissake. Let her rest in peace under the new expressway."
Tim smirked, adding,
"Wilfred ought to like our sitting outdoors drinking beer in the morning, chewing the rag as he says human beings should."
"He wouldn't forget we're only here to escape a full-blown lecture on the subject."
"So you don't go along with Wilfred and Nan that street and town square ought to be another living room?"
"On my living room door, it says keep out."
"I wish that I'd been brought up like that," said Tim.
"I'll tell you old Will's story. He left Austria when he was a kid. New York was acceptable to get his feet on the ground, but he didn't like what he called the chaos. That meant nobody paid any attention to him. California became his great good place."
Tim cut in,
"They had a period at the U of Chicago."
"The same thing," said Yuri, "New York with more elbow room. Paradise was on the West Coast. But when he got there everyone was holed up in a beach hut with guard dogs or stuck in a ranch house behind barbed wire."
"And he began to think about lil'ole Vienna," said Tim.
"Right," said Yuri, "Where the Germans eviscerated his old man, but where the coffee houses were regular chat lines without the vulgarity of electronics. Hence this crusade for civilization as a gabfest."
Tim nodded and said judiciously,
"It pays better than you think. With their two pensions to bank, preaching the new urbanism and seeing the world makes for a pretty good life."
"Madam is a puzzle," said Yuri. "She can talk architecture -- she seems to have worked at it -- but there's something spaced out about her."
Tim dug his forefinger into his temple and twisted it,
"Nan's had problems upstairs," he said. "They have her on medication."
"That figures," said Yuri. "As an architect she's strictly anti-building. It's all playgrounds for grown-ups and conversation terraces."
"Disorientation's the word. Wilfred scrubbed her brain years back," said Tim.
"So it seems," said Yuri. "She's kind of a wet rag now. Can you imagine them in bed? Old Will creasing up his face in remembrance of sociability past. Nan the noodle with her thoughts roving out there in the great chattering partouze."
"Let's hope they're past it," said Tim.
"Don't you believe it," said Yuri. "They get sweaty hot planning next year's program."
"I can't read their mag," said Tim. "All that stuff we've heard from them over and over. They write the whole shebang, even the unsigned articles. Nobody reads it of course, except the old lady from Dubuque who turns up every summer."
"Queen Victoria's great niece or whatever who's supposed to have money?"
"They're helping her to start a foundation. Guess who will be top banana and female vice?"
"Look out for the retiree sharks, long and sharp in the tooth," said Yuri. He was weary, ready to spew up all the bland talk he'd had to listen to with or without a view of the Venetian lagoon.
In the square, the conference people would have liked to sit down. However, Wilfred wound up the walkabout gathering them around him far from any place to sit. He started a discussion complete with polite questions. He stood against a Venetian wellhead, late sixteenth century.
"What's he telling them," asked Yuri, "that well-water is a compound of hydrogen and oxygen?"
"No," said Tim. "He's summing up last evening's research. He took them to via Garibaldi, that stretch of wide pavement over a filled canal. The locals hang out there talking in different spots as the day goes on."
"That's simple, sun and shade," said Yuri.
"There's no verbal mileage in simplicity," said Tim, "Wilfred needs a lot of words to keep his show turning over. Stops and starts and the slant of the sun in the street correspond to different human needs: digestion, fresh news, political comment, courting, sheer animal heat."
"Or the vicinity of the pissoir," said Yuri. "These people like a shot of white wine, and then another."
"I've heard Wilfred many a time call such talk crude. You'd get a slap on the wrist."
Something was happening on the lagoon bank, farther along from where Yuri and Tim sat. The conference people turned their heads from Wilfred and some of them walked toward the water.
"That's a police launch," said Tim. "They fished out a gondolier this morning."
"Neck broken," said Tim, "by the speed boat crowd."
"They fight? Over what?"
"Hotel tie-ups, right-a-ways, territory in general, drug dealing, hookers. They each have a mafia of their own."
"It looks like the police have found his document case."
"A gondolier with a document case? Why not a black box?"
"They've got unions, lawyers, voice teachers, the lot."
Wilfred wasn't interested in the police. He walked toward the café. Yuri bid Tim a quick goodbye and went to meet Wilfred half way. Wilfred detached a check, flattened his brief case as a desk, and affixed his signature with care. He waved the check so the ink would dry, and because he liked to wave checks.
"By the way," said Yuri, pocketing the check and lifting a thumb back toward the café, "Who's that kid?"
"Tim?" asked Wilfred, "Didn't I introduce you? Come over and I will. He's Nan's and my boy."
"He's our secretary. One day he'll take over the association." Wilfred pursed his mouth in his unofficial smile. "You know, we may not last forever."
"I have to run, my plane."
Wilfred turned a shade stern.
"I'd have liked you to chair this afternoon's discussion for me."
Yuri shrugged too dramatically,
"You know how it is. The devil's got his watch out."
Wilfred realized he'd been too quick with the check. He digested his mistake. The important thing was not to make it again, next year. He said, "We'll be in touch about the program."
"Do you have a city in mind?" asked Yuri, though he was already at the airport insisting on a window seat.
"We may have a sponsor for Cork. Otherwise there's always Sydney."
"Until then," said Yuri extending his hand.
Wilfred liked shaking hands. Now he did so with the deliberation of a priest making the sign of the cross over a corpse. Then his face tightened in an official smile. Yuri nodded, turned and concentrated on getting back to his hotel by the least frequented path.
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