She unfolded the slip of paper that had become damp and soft as rag from having been clenched in her fist, for she had not wanted to have to search for it later. The paper said ‘Via Garibaldi, 16, quarto piano.’ She stared up into the heights of the stairwell at rank upon rank of closed doors, each with a single spy-hole eye. At the third floor landing, she paused for a moment, overcome by the stairs after the long trip. She sat for a moment on the bottom step, thinking that she would have liked to spend a while watching the fishing boats in the little bay, so gaily bobbing they were, red and yellow and bluer than blue—as though the colour had been painted back into the world. She stood up, resumed the climb and knocked on the door with the expensive brass plaque engraved with her cousin’s name in flowing script.
Two dark shapes appeared in the crack under the door. A voice belonging to the owner of the feet said, “Chi e’?”
She said, “A cousin of Signor Gerardo.”
The invisible woman said, “Non c’e’.” Gerardo was not at home.
The old woman waited, but there was silence. She switched her handbag to the other arm and smoothed the bus ride out of her black worsted skirt. The shadows under the door stayed where they were. A fly batted against a half-open window high in the stairwell.
The wife said through the door, “I don’t know you.”
This, not being a question, was another closed door. Perhaps, the old woman thought, being a member of a family is not as much a matter of blood as of familiarity.
“He’ll be home soon,” the voice said, “he comes home at six.”
There was nothing to do but sit on the bottom step of the last flight, out of sight of the woman behind the door.
“You still there?” the woman called out.
“I will wait,” the old woman said, trying to remember whom her cousin had married or even what he might look like now.
A small boy mounted the stairs and stopped in front of the same door, hesitating when he saw her sitting there.
“Buona sera,” he said in the familiar sing-song accent of the South.
She had almost forgotten what her own accent sounded like. The North was filled with clipped vowels and days as lifeless and washed out as chalk. How far away it was from here!
The child tilted his cropped head to one side, staring. “You’re not from round here,” he said, addressing her with the informal pronoun tu, as though speaking to another child.
She was, in fact, rather childlike, and fond of children, the unconditional fondness belonging to childless women who carry a treat in their handbags to give to any boy or girl they meet.
“Are you Gerardo’s boy?” she asked, producing a caramel in crumpled foil from her bag.
Gerardo’s son stepped backwards saying, “I’m not allowed.”
With his head tilted to one side, he reminded her of a bird with long thin legs. Yes, exactly like a little bird.
And like a bird, he lifted one leg and rubbed the shin against the calf of the other, observing her, unsure about how the old lady knew who he was when he hadn’t told his name.
She saw he was worried in the way that children are worried when they are convinced that something is coming to eat them in the dark, only to find it gone when the light goes on.
“I don’t know . . .” he said.
“Oh come! Surely you know,” she said with a smile that he found rather frightening as nothing amusing had been said and yet she was smiling, smiling, looking at him and smiling.
He spun around, crying “Mamma!” and banged on the door, which opened immediately. He dashed past his mother, who called after him “Antonio!” as he disappeared inside. She emerged from the doorway to discover what had set him pounding and dashing, and found it was a woman dressed in faded black with a trained handbag perched on her knees. A thin old woman like a million others, probably bow-legged when she stood up, with holes in her black stockings and tattered little shoes.
“Oh, it’s you still,” she said, her expression that of one observing a somewhat intriguing card trick. “What did you say to him?”
“I merely asked him if he was my cousin’s son. I see that he is. He’s therefore my nephew.”
Unwilling to acknowledge this further unproven claim to blood, Gerardo’s wife said nothing. The old lady slowly got to her feet, and the wife realized that now the door was open, she could not very well go back inside and literally shut it in the visitor’s face.<