Nate in Venice (Excerpt)

On their first night in Venice, the tour group in Richard Russo’s brilliant new novella gather for dinner. The title character, a professor who recently retired from a small New England college, is trying to relearn social graces after a year of self-imposed solitude. With his overbearing older brother at the table, it’s not an easy task.

  1. Over the course of the meal, Nate learns a good deal about his new companions. Both women are divorced. Evelyn, a few years older, gave her husband his walking papers some time ago and seems unambiguously pleased with this decision. She now refers to her ex, a man she presumably once loved enough to marry, as “the Wanker,” a term she’s apparently picked up from watching the BBC cable channel. Rene’s divorce is more recent and, Nate gathers, more ruinous to her frail self-confidence. Apparently the unstated purpose of the Venice trip is to reintroduce her to the wider world, from which she’s voluntarily withdrawn, which means they have something in common. When the subject of his own marital status comes up, Nate admits he’s a career bachelor. Never even come close? Evelyn wants to know, probably trying to ascertain if he’s gay. Well, as a younger man he was engaged to a woman named Brenda, he tells them. (What happened?) She married his brother instead. (No!) In fact, yes, though the marriage didn’t last. You must be a very forgiving man, they suggest. Nate doesn’t think so, but doesn’t mind if they do. It’s true that he’s never held a grudge against either Julian or Brenda. They didn’t mean to fall in love. It just happened. And anyway, Nate says, in the hope of changing the subject, his true love has always been Jane Austen. At this, Rene looks momentarily hopeful, but then the name rings a bell and she realizes she’s made a mistake. Jane Austen is someone famous and dead. She would like, Nate can tell, to be dead as well, and thus beyond such social gaffes. Whereas Nate would like to take her in his arms and tell her it’s okay. Everything is okay. He marvels again at his need to say such a thing to a woman he barely knows, to say the very thing that, in fact, most days he struggles to convince himself of.

    At some point during dinner, Nate realizes two things: that he’s drunk too much red wine, which isn’t recommended in conjunction with his antidepressant, and that he doesn’t much care. He’s having an excellent time, his first in what seems like forever. His food actually tastes good, and the Chianti, well, he can’t get enough. Is it possible that at long last his funk is lifting? He knows now that taking the Ambien was a huge mistake. Yes, it had allowed him to sleep, but it had also made him morose and deepened his sense of personal failure, rendering him too sluggish to extricate himself. Could be it’s time to quit taking the mood medication as well. Because tonight, in the company of these two women, he’s actually flirting with happiness, or if not actual happiness then its possibility. No sooner does this occur to him, however, than he wonders how much longer it can last, what will cause it to fizzle, just the kind of defeatist attitude he’s determined to banish once and for all. It’s this, he realizes, that he’d hoped to explain to Julian in the water taxi. Not what happened with the Mauntz girl, but that for the last year he’d not been himself, that he was determined to shake off his lethargy and once again enter the world of the living. He was tired of hiding.

    He again glances over at the second table, just in time to see Julian whisper something to Bea, to which she replies, “Oh, that’s a splendid idea.” When she gets to her feet, Julian helpfully calls for silence by tinking his wineglass with his spoon, and Nate’s heart sinks. He should have known better than to ask how much longer his newfound sense of well-being could last. The group will reconfigure over dessert so that those who haven’t had a chance to introduce themselves can do so.

    “Rats,” says Evelyn when this is announced. “And we were having such a good time. Okay, everybody, be invisible. Maybe they’ll leave us alone.”

    It’s too late, though. All the other chairs are scraping back, and a moment later Nate feels a heavy hand on his shoulder. He doesn’t even need to look up to know it’s his brother’s.

    But guess what? To Nate’s amazement, both the warm glow from the wine and a renewed sense of possibility follow him to the next table, where he finds himself seated next to a woman who’s just received an urgent text from her cell-phone carrier about her escalating data fees. These have apparently been triggered by her daughter’s e-mailing her half a dozen new photos of her grandson. Nate, who for this trip has traded in his ancient flip phone for a snazzy new “smart” one and received a tutorial in its use, shows the woman how to turn off the phone’s roaming feature and is promptly celebrated with a toast. Asked again to account for his presence on the Biennale tour, he repeats what he told Evelyn and Rene, including the bit about how reading Death in Venice on the plane had failed to cheer him up, and is rewarded with a second appreciative laugh. Part of him, though, is still back at the first table, where, to judge from the hilarity there, his brother is a hit. Nate can’t help noticing that the lovely Rene’s smiles, hopeful but tentative when he was there, are now more frequent, confident, and radiant, though some of this may be in response to the charismatic Klaus, who’s been coaxed into repeating his story about the children of the fifteenth-century Venetian whores, their lovely voices rising up from behind the screens they’re concealed behind.

    On the way back to the hotel, Bea, the trip’s organizer, falls in step alongside him. Evelyn and Rene and Julian are up ahead, arms linked, his brother in the middle, their laughter echoing off the moldering Venetian walls. “I’ve known her most of her life,” Bea whispers. Apparently she’s noticed that during dessert his attention kept being drawn back to the other table. “She’s a lovely woman.”

    “Yes,” Nate agrees, realizing only after doing so that she’s talking about Evelyn, not Rene. There is, of course, no way to clarify this confusion, and anyway Bea happens at this moment to notice that humpbacked Bernard has fallen behind and is angling off in the wrong direction across the campo. “Yoo-hoo!” she calls. “Yoo-hoo! This way, Bernard. This way.”

    Later, in the middle of the night, Nate is awakened by a siren, and for several moments he’s disoriented, his throbbing head still back in central Massachusetts. Rising, he goes over to the window, half expecting to see flames reflected in the canal below, but the water is black and still as death. Has he had the fire dream again? If so, it’s the first time in many years. He hadn’t dreamt much while taking the Ambien. When he and Julian were boys, their mother fell asleep with a lit cigarette and burned down the shabby house they were renting, nearly killing all three of them in the process. Since then, sirens always make him think of fire. Actually, the book he read on the plane wasn’t Death in Venice at all, but rather one about the famous fire at La Fenice, the Venice opera house. Why had he lied about that, especially to so little consequence? He wonders if lying—if the habit of lying—can be part of what’s afflicted him. Since being diagnosed, he’s read up on clinical depression, which is generally attributed to a chemical imbalance in the brain, an explanation he finds less than satisfying. But then English professors are probably more drawn to moral and symbolic diagnoses than medical ones.

    Unable to sleep, he tries to remember what the siren—it’s still wailing in the distance—is all about. At some point (during dinner? on the walk back to the hotel?), somebody (Klaus? Bea?) said something about a siren, but what? Finally it comes to him: acqua alta. It was in the materials he’d been given when they checked in to the hotel—the high-water siren that sounded in anticipation of flooded streets. Odd that the first explanation to occur to him was not just incorrect but diametrically so. Strange, too, that a man so desperate to rise from a dark place should come all this way to a city that’s sinking into one.

    He’s about to give himself back to sleep when his new phone vibrates on the nightstand, its screen leaping to life and eerily illuminating the room. It has a question for him: Does he want the device to make use of his current location? Unable to make sense of either the question itself or why, in the middle of the night, unprompted, the thing should suddenly need to know, he powers the phone completely off, its screen darkening at the exact same moment the siren outside stops wailing and filling him with sleepy wonder at a linkage that’s simply not there.

    His last thoughts before surrendering to sleep are of the children of the Venetian prostitutes who sang so beautifully. Did it seem to them a kindness that their lovely voices alone should represent them to the world of others? Is it better to be known whole or to conceal that which makes us unworthy of love?


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Originally published in Byliner, January 2013

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