Il Piccolo Rustico

I had a machete in my hand and I was thinking about using it on Henry David Thoreau. You know, that guy they made you read in school who popularized the notion that we should find solace in nature. Maybe I was doing this all wrong, but I had been hacking my way through nature all morning and all I had to show for it were blisters, sweat, and a shooting pain up my arm. I didn’t think I was having a heart attack, but if I were, it would have been more amusing than dealing with a hill covered in underbrush so thick it made this little corner of Tuscany look like a Brazilian rain forest.

Of course the land was only part of the problem, because at the top of this hill sat a three-hundred-year-old stone farmhouse we had just bought. Perhaps house was too grand a word to describe this crumbling heap of rubble. In fact, the dwelling was so insignificant, it didn’t even have an address. Folks around here simply jerked their thumbs in its direction and referred to it as il piccolo rustico. An apt description, because it was certainly rustic and definitely small. Just the perfect size for its current occupants, the scorpions and the spiders.

I gathered up my tools and began the long trudge uphill. When I had started, the morning sun was slanting low through the olive trees, casting gnarled shadows across the hill. But as the day grew warm, a low, silvery-white haze descended over the countryside. The Tuscans call this il sfumato, which comes from the Italian word for smoke. And as my wife, Nancy, pointed out to me at the Uffizi Gallery, artists as far back as the Renaissance have been suffusing their canvases with its pearly glow.

I gazed out, realizing how integral il sfumato had become to my very perception of Tuscany. It made me feel as if I was looking at life through a fine linen bandage that blurred the edges, softened the colors, and cloaked the undercurrents of intrigue that threatened to engulf us.

My feet crunched on a floor of pyracantha berries and I stooped to pick a weed. I stuck it between my teeth in a jaunty Huck Finn pose that greatly belied how I felt. We had invested most of our savings in this house, but in our attempts to make it livable we had managed to alienate our neighbors, infuriate the local government, and generally outrage the normally serene citizens of this fair land.

So much fuss over such a crummy little house. Stone walls splitting apart where ancient mortar had decayed into dust. Wood beams so riddled with wormholes, they looked like they had been peppered with birdshot. A wide crack running up one of the exterior walls had caused part of the roof to cave in and stove over. There was no electricity, water, or gas, and only the vaguest rumor of a septic tank buried somewhere. Even if everything ran smoothly, we could finance a lunar probe for what it was going to cost to restore this place.
I stopped to breathe in a dizzying mixture of rotting humus and wild jasmine and thought about the chain of events that had brought me here, and how this run-down, neglected little house in Tuscany had become a metaphor for my life. Call it a late-life crisis, but in my mid-fifties I had turned my back on my career and on a way of life that had sustained me for the previous three decades. In the process of forging a life here, I struggled to rediscover myself, my wife, and our life together.

And like many improbable adventures, it all began with a phone call.“Guess what?”

“You’re pregnant.”

“I bought a house,” Nancy said.

“You what?” I gripped the receiver in astonishment. “Where?”

“Here. In Italy.”

I rolled my eyes and whimpered.

“I think we could really be happy here.”

“I’m happy here,” I said. “And how could you buy a house without me even seeing it?”

“I had to move fast. But you’ll see it now. How soon can you get here?”

“I’m going to fly all the way from L.A. just because—”

“Yeah, come on, get over here.”

“I’m still working on this goddamn script,” I mumbled as I peeled the foil off a roll of Tums with my teeth.

“And then pilot season starts in a couple of—”

“Dai!” she said, which is how Italians say, “Come on.” She’d been working there so long, she had started to think in their language. “Just come take a look. If you don’t like it we can always.” She ended her sentence there.

“Always what?”

“Forget it, you’re going to love it.”

She launched into all the reasons why I was going to love it, and my eyes glazed over. I found myself watching the sun drop behind the Santa Monica Mountains. I’ve always wondered about people who could stare endlessly at sunsets and roaring fireplaces. For me, they were pointless because you knew that both were going to end in cold and darkness.

“The house is over three hundred years old!” she said, as if that were a good thing. “It sits on a hillful of olive trees with a magnificent view of the village of Cambione.”

“And that’s something I want to look at?”

“The view is to die.”

“What about the house? Is that to die too?”

“I won’t lie, it needs a little work.”

“What a surprise.”

“But the construction’s pretty basic. Except for putting in the road.”

“You bought a house on a hill that doesn’t have a road?”

“That’s why we got it so cheap,” she said triumphantly.

“Let me see if I got this,” I said. “In the long history of Tuscany, which has been occupied by the Etruscans, the Greeks, the Romans, the Visigoths, the French, the Spanish, the Austrians, the Nazis, and now the baby boomers, no one has ever thought to run a road up to this house?”

“We’ll put one in.”

“We are talking about Italy, aren’t we?”

“Yeah,” she said defensively.

“Do you see where I’m going with this?”

“Relax, honey. There’s always a way.”

The sun had dropped behind the mountains and I sat in darkness.


Two weeks later I finished the script I’d been working on and sent it to my agent. Rather than stay in L.A. and brood about it and wait for his phone call, I boarded a plane for Italy to brood about a house I didn’t want.

Dai, Nancy, what are you doing to us? Aren’t we being crushed enough under this jackboot of a house in Brentwood? And now that I’m struggling to find work, why do we need this added pressure? God, this flight is long.

I felt the plane shudder and looked out the window. We were being buffeted by turbulence over the Alps, but while everyone else saw snowcapped peaks and cottony cumulus, I could only think of the clouds of plaster dust that seemed to follow Nancy wherever she went. My wife is a chronic nest builder with a strange compulsion to find places nobody wants and devote all her energy to making them beautiful. When she sees a house she wants to redo, she gets a look on her face like a fifteen-year-old boy on a topless beach.

When Nancy and I first started going out twenty years ago, she was working at Universal Studios as a set designer and moonlighting as an interior designer. This meant that she never met a room she didn’t think she could improve. In fact, the night she walked into that party, I thought she was checking me out, while she claims she was thinking about opening up an interior wall and bullnosing all the wainscoting.

Before she turned up, it was a pretty boring party full of artsy types dressed in black arguing about things like The Future of Bio-morphic Abstractionism. I was in the kitchen watching the guacamole turn brown when I looked up and saw her in the doorway. She was slim and graceful and had a way of standing with one hip cocked like a dancer. She had thick blond hair and playful dark eyes that were almond shaped and made her look slightly Mediterranean. She was pretty and she had such a great smile, I was sure she was an actress, which was not necessarily a good thing because of the policy I had about not dating actresses or any other female impersonators. But when she came over with a corn chip in need of guacamole, we chatted and she told me about her work and how she loved the designing part but hated the bullshit. I told her I felt the same way about writing for TV, which is why I aspired to direct my own features. She had an ambition of her own, to work in Italy as a marble sculptor, which is what she had studied in art school. Little did I realize that night that she would live out her dream, while I was still waiting for mine.

The plane banked and the sun blazed through my window. I cupped a hand over my eyes and squinted out at a sky that was suddenly clear enough to see all the way up to the stratosphere. Below me lay the city of Pisa, all ochre walls and terra-cotta roofs fanning out like a mantilla around the cathedral in the Piazza del Duomo. The locals called this “the Square of Miracles,” and there is no greater miracle in all of Italy than Pisa’s own symbol, the leaning tower. The plane began its descent into Galileo Airport, and I admired how this Romanesque torre, constructed with all the confidence of the High Middle Ages, leaned thirteen and half feet off the perpendicular, making it look both majestic and improbable at the same time.

Our plane landed and taxied to a stop. We then had the pleasure of sitting on the hot tarmac for forty-five minutes while the Alitalia ground crew figured out how to open our door. This gave me ample time to recall how this whole chapter of our lives had begun.

About fifteen years earlier, I had been working on a TV show so beset with problems that between the network, the ratings, and the star, we writers never went home. This plunged every writer’s life into a shambles. But instead of screaming and calling a divorce lawyer like the other spouses, Nancy told me that she was going to Italy to carve marble. So she came to this part of Tuscany and bought a block of the white statuario that’s mined from the nearby Carrara Mountains. With the help of the local artigiani, some of whose ancestors had been working the stone since the days of Michelangelo, she sculpted a statue that eventually wound up being shown in a museum in Florence.

This arrangement worked out well and it became a steady fixture of our lives. Nancy and I would figure out the busiest time of my production schedule and she’d plan her annual trip. Over the years, as she morphed into an Italian, she became gripped by the desire to find us a charming little stone farmhouse where we could one day retire.

The airplane door finally popped open, and my fellow passengers and I filed out. I claimed my suitcase and presented myself at passport control. When the official asked me the purpose of my visit, I had to fight the urge to tell him that I had come here to murder my wife. I cleared customs and wheeled my suitcase through the gate. Nancy rushed into my arms, and we kissed in the middle of the airport like people did back in the fifties in those movies with William Holden and Audrey Hepburn.

She guided me out to where she had parked in a taxi zone. As I stuffed my suitcase in the trunk, she asked me how I was doing. I told her I was fine because I didn’t want to talk about how I was living on antacids, suffering anxiety attacks and migraines, and popping Trazadone when I couldn’t sleep, which was often.
But she knew. She opened her arms and hugged me in a way that always calms me when I’m going through life like my hair’s on fire. We held each other for a long time, prompting ill-tempered shouts from the taxi driver waiting for us to leave. Nancy broke off our embrace to holler back at him. I feared that the whole thing would spiral into an opera buffa as can only be performed by the Italians. Or at least one Italian and one Italian-speaking girl from Santa Monica.

But as we were getting into the car, I noticed that the taxi driver had stopped yelling and was now blowing kisses at Nancy and muttering, “Che bella,” his face contorted in pain as if her beauty had stung his eyes like smoke.

“No wonder you like it here,” I said as she started the car.

“I like it here because they know how to treat an artist.” She showed me a check.

“Oh, you finished. How’d it come out?”

“Vulgar bordering on the pornographic,” she said.

“I’m sure it’s beautiful.”

“ It would have been if he had let me sculpt her the way I wanted. But while I’m carving, he’s screaming, ‘Make the tits bigger, make her waist smaller.’ I finally said to him, ‘Hey, you don’t want a statue, you want a copy of Penthouse.’”

We pulled out of the airport, and Nancy used her horn and her lungs to bully us through an onslaught of traffic that seemed to be moving in absolutely no relationship to traffic signals or stop signs.

“Is this the way to the hotel?”

“We’re all meeting up at the house first.” Nancy whipped onto the Autostrada, executing a suicide squeeze into a lane of cars moving at a Grand Prix clip.

“Who’s we all?” I said. Actually, I had to yell it over the sonic boom of the red Ferrari that roared past us, reminding me that I was now in Italy, where everybody has to drive at twice the speed of sound so they can get to a café and sit for three hours.

“We’re meeting with Vincenzo, the ingegnere, Maurizio, the geologo, and Umberto, our muratore ... that’s stonemason to you, gringo.”

I clucked, calculating the cost of such an entourage.

“Actually, it’s not going to be that bad. I paid most of their fees when the dollar was strong against the euro.”
“And what happens now that the dollar’s weak?”

“Boh,” she said, which isn’t exactly a word but more of a sound a Tuscan makes when he wants to say, “Who the hell knows? Stop bothering me!”

Cutting off an Alfa full of fat people who responded with rude hand gestures, we exited the Autostrada and merged onto a narrow road choked with Fiats and Lancias creeping behind sputtering tractors and overloaded produce trucks. Occasionally an impatient driver drifted over the nonexistent yellow line to pass, only to be pushed back into his place, muttering and cursing, by the unbroken line of oncoming vehicles. Only the two-wheelers made progress, from the souped-up motorcycle with its space-suited driver to the Vespa carrying two middle-aged women in housecoats and aprons, chatting and laughing.

We inched past groves of fruit trees and sprouting fields of new spring wheat, eventually reaching a sign that welcomed us to the village of Cambione in Collina. Even though I’d been to this country before, here’s how Ihad pictured an Italian village: a desolate piazza, sun-baked to a ghostly white and dominated by a crumbling but implacable cathedral. Mandolin music played in the background as unemployed men in dark suits smoked unfiltered cigarettes while their wives scrubbed laundry in the fountain with a soap stick.

But my first approach into Cambione changed all that, as farmland surrendered to a loose alignment of houses, gas stations, goat pens, factories, and produce markets jammed next to each other with absolutely no sense of congruity. There seemed to be no such thing as a purely residential street, or a commercial one for that matter. When you did find a stretch of houses, each was a different height and seemingly angled in its own peculiar direction, as centuries-old palazzi sat next door to squat, shoe-box-shaped dwellings that looked as though they had just been built for the Festival di Cement.

There was, indeed, a main piazza with a church, a faded war memorial, and a fountain. But far from being desolate, it reverberated with the chaos of people shouting, whistling, swearing, and singing. Clumps of teenagers joked and jostled each other as mothers called out to their children from second-story windows. Groups of men in shirtsleeves, all talking at once, debated the key issues of the day at such volume that the veins in their necks stuck out.

We circled the piazza so Nancy could point out the fish market where we would buy the freshest branzino and the kiosk where she had already talked to the woman about saving me the Herald Tribune each day. I thanked her, then winced as she whipped down a side street that, because there was no sidewalk, was essentially a blind corner.

Darting through a warren of one-way backstreets and alleys so narrow that I found myself gasping, we roared past an abandoned stone quarry and turned onto a freshly paved asphalt road that led us uphill.

“Hey, I thought you said there was no road.”

“Shhh,” she cackled.

“Lucy, what have you done?” I said in an exasperated Cuban accent.

“I told you there’s always a way.” Nancy slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting an ancient Italian woman dressed in black down to her knuckles except for the large white handkerchief on her head.

“That’s our neighbor, Annamaria,” Nancy said. “She told me all about the history of our house.” Then, by way of introducing me, Nancy called out, “Signora, voglio presentare il mio marito.”

The old woman poked a leathery face into my window.

“Buon giorno, signora. Piacere,” I said, using up ten percent of my Italian vocabulary.

“She told me that no one’s lived in there for years,” Nancy said. “The farmers used it to store equipment and keep their goats inside during the winter. But get this, during the war people called it the Bunker because the Germans set up a machine gun right in our kitchen!”

“Hmm.” I nodded, wondering how many Cambionians one could pick off from up here.

“She was just a little girl then, but she remembers,” Nancy said.

Annamaria’s face contorted into a dark scowl and she flicked her thumbnail against her front tooth, a gesture, no doubt, she used with regularity on every passing busload of German tourists.

We got out of the car and walked the old lady to where her goat was grazing in some tall weeds. Between expressions of “Arrivederla” and “Troppo gentile” she told us that when we were ready to move in, she’d come over with bread and salt. Then, wetting the side of her thumb and making a cross on her forehead, she also promised to bring us the other necessity of life, a statue of Maria Santissima.

Walking uphill, we began to hear an overture for cement mixer and earthmover accompanying a powerful baritone oratorio. The voice belonged to Umberto, the muratore, a stout, ruggedly built man, shirtless in shorts, construction boots, and a battered straw cowboy hat—which made him look like a slightly paunchy member of The Village People.

I soon learned that Umberto Baccarelli had dedicated his life to single-handedly disproving the cliché that the average Italian laborer has the work ethic of a third-generation welfare recipient. He whirled around the construction site like a dervish on amphetamines, screaming at anybody who dared slacken his breakneck pace. As a result, the rebuilding of our retaining walls was being done with such fanatical urgency that if the Italians had behaved this way during World War II, Mussolini would have been sitting in the White House.
Umberto stopped flagellating his crew to explain in fractured English that Vincenzo, the engineer, was not coming because, frankly, he wasn’t very good in the mornings, and that Maurizio, the geologist, had just not shown up, lacking even the decency to come up with a shoddy excuse like Vincenzo’s. He took a last drag off his cigarette, tossed it over his shoulder, and Hacky Sack–kicked the butt into a pile of gravel. Then while Umberto and Nancy launched into a lengthy conversation about some aspect of construction that I wouldn’t have been able to follow even if it were in English, I wandered off to take a close-up look at my new house.

It was a small, two-story affair that had fallen into such disrepair, it was closer to a ruin than a dwelling. Wood planks lay rotting in the uncut grass, and there was so much debris scattered around, it looked as if the remains of a shipwreck had washed ashore. I was shaking my head at this folly, when I found myself walking under a canopy made of cut branches that abutted the side of the house. Glancing up at the tangle of vines snaking around the trellis, I spotted a glorious cluster of cobalt-blue grapes as perfect as wax fruit and succulent enough to adorn the brow of Bacchus. I picked one and popped it in my mouth. The sweetness was so pure it staggered me. For a long time afterward I could taste the sun on my tongue.

Oh, no. I had only been here a few hours, and Tuscany was already beginning to work its magic. Its insidious charm and inexhaustible natural beauty were seducing me, and if I wasn’t careful, I was going to find myself feeling happy for absolutely no reason.

I shook aside such subversive thoughts and pushed open the splintery wooden door. I entered and was immediately struck by the coolness and quiet inside the half-meter-thick walls. The house was small, built to the measure of a man. Essentially just a kitchen on the ground floor connected by a rickety ladder to a bedroom above.

As I batted away the cobwebs, my eyes were drawn to the hearth, which was nothing more than a knee-high platform for firewood. Over this, somebody had fashioned a mortared hood so misaligned, it had allowed a black finger of soot to miss the flue and meander up the wall, where it found refuge in the methodical blackening of the center beam. I studied the thick accretion of inky residue and pondered the dramas that had played out inside these four walls.

The births, the deaths, the quarrels, the passions. And that was just the goats.

As for the human chronicle, I could not even fathom the complexities and the vagaries of a dozen generations playing out their tragedies and comedies upon this tiny stage.

Of people living continuously inside a structure built when America was a colony. A house that had stood in silent witness to every famine, flood, and forest fire to be hurled at it over the past three hundred years, its very survival a living testament to the sturdiness of its construction and the indestructibility of its macigno stone walls, a quartz-bearing limestone hard enough that craftsmen in the Middle Ages had used it for grindstones.

The door swung open and Nancy entered.

“I’m so pissed,” she said, too angry to stop walking even though she was halfway inside the room. “You’re not going to believe this.”

“The Germans are back with their machine gun?”

“Umberto’s quitting.”

“Didn’t he just start?”

“He got offered another job.”

“And it didn’t occur to him to finish ours first?”

“He got offered another job so he couldn’t finish ours.”

“Who would do such a thing?”

“Who? The Pingatores, that’s who.”

“Wait, aren’t those the people you bought this from?”


“I’m sorry to be making a wrinkle in the fabric of your alternate universe, but I’m not following this.”

“Don’t you get it? They want their house back.”

“Why did they sell it to us in the first place?”

“Because nobody else would buy it, because it didn’t have a road.”

“Speaking of that, where did that road—?”

The door flew open with a bang, and a wild-looking woman with flyaway hair and the deranged look of a spree killer stood in our doorway.

“Puttana!!” she screamed, her eyes glaring a malocchio so fierce, it would calcify flesh. Nancy rose to protest, which only prompted the old woman to hurl curses and threats at us, building to a shriek of “Porca miseria!” and all punctuated with the slamming of the door.

“What was that?

“Vesuvia Pingatore.”


“Mario Pingatore’s sister. She seems to think that whoever put in that road tore down some of her trees and generally desecrated the sacred grounds of her childhood.”

“Great, now we have a neighbor who hates us.”

“Actually, it’s a little worse than that. See, the road was put in abusivo, which means illegally, which is done all the time and is perfectly fine as long as nobody kicks up a fuss.”

“Well, that looked like some big-time fuss-kicking to me.”

“Yeah, she just went to the Comune de Cambione and issued a denuncia against us.”

“That sounds serious. Are we in trouble?”




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