After all the years dreaming about it, Harry’s Bar is within sight. As Estelle draws nearer, she sees the sign on the door. The famous bar is closed. She goes up to the window and shades her eyes. Dark inside. Nobody home except the ghosts of Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
She had once believed she was a writer. Back in her days at Smith, her teachers had encouraged her, told her she had a way with words. The other day, before leaving on this trip, she bought a green moleskin leather notebook the size of her hand and tucked it in her purse. She plans to take notes that she hopes to develop into a story, maybe something about Venice.
She takes one last look at Harry’s and walks away from the piazza. Pigeons follow her, fluttering at her feet. She shudders and fights off nausea. She hadn’t thought about pigeons when she chose Venice, but something within her must’ve known. Must’ve decided it would be a good place for her to face her fears. And there’s something here to be discovered. She’s sure of it.
She walks the streets to a smaller campo and another bar, not famous, that has just opened. It is shaded by an attractive blue and white striped awning and lined with white geraniums in bright blue pots. She chooses an outdoor table away from people crowding the bar inside. The waiter, an aging white man with white hair, white mustache, swarthy complexion, and a crisp white jacket, comes over and bows. Somehow, he knows she’s American and doesn’t speak Italian. Most waiters speak English but his is poor, and he carefully pronounces his words: “My name is Giuseppe. What may I get for you, Signora?”
She orders a Campari and tips him before he goes. A trick her father taught her— if you want good service, tip at the outset. Tip amply.
Estelle’s husband Buck quit drinking early in his career as a professional golfer. Said it was to improve his game, but they both knew he was headed for addiction. So, she quit too, not knowing if she had a problem.
She expects the Campari to tell her something.
Giuseppe hustles back across the campo and places the drink before her with a flourish. His mustache droops from exertion on this hot September day.
A pigeon waddles to a nearby puddle. Everything is sticky from a shower earlier in the afternoon. If she closed her eyes, she’d think she was back in damp old Glendale in the Mississippi Delta and had gone nowhere at all.
She lifts the Campari to the light. The drink is red as blood but transparent, which sounds like it ought to mean something, but she doesn’t’ know what. She takes a sip. Slightly bitter. Like herself. She settles back in her chair, takes another sip, and wonders why she ever thought she had to give up drinking for Buck. She reaches in her canvas bag and retrieves her cigarettes and lighter. Her hand bumps the little notebook, so she takes it out and finds a pen.
After his career bombed, Buck might’ve taken up drinking again. But by then they’d bought a condo in Palm Beach and, for the first time, had a regular group of friends, none of them professional golfers. In their eyes, he was still a legend, and his mystique included abstention, something not many golfers could claim. In the Mississippi Delta where she’s from, his abstention—and hers—would be considered an aberration.
She opens her notebook, writes her name, Estelle Gilbert Riley, and the date, Fall 1963. She can’t think of anything else to write. In the early days of her marriage, she’d written poems. But Buck wasn’t interested in reading them, and who else would she have shown them to?
Maybe writing is like riding a bicycle. She studies one of the potted geraniums. Beyond it, pigeons have flocked to a table across the way where a man is feeding them. Horrors! Well, at least he’s keeping them away from her.
The pigeon feeder looks familiar. She’s pretty sure he’s American too. His short sandy hair, regular features, and husky build remind her of Joel Sterling, one of the boys she went out with back home, one of the few who had her parents’ approval. They, Margaret and Lloyd, let her know they expected her to marry a future doctor, lawyer, or banker. Not a planter. Lloyd had made his fortune in the cotton business, but would be the first to say he succeeded only because he’d learned the lessons of the Depression, but these days, too many young fellows are blind to risk and heading for trouble.
When she started going out with Joel, it looked as though things would go according to her parents’ plan. Joel’s father was head of the Bank of Commerce, and Joel, an economics major at Ole Miss, was scampering fast as he could in his father’s footsteps.
She wonders what Joel looks like now. The pigeon feeder has kept his boyish looks though he has to be her age or older. This year, with Buck so sick, her birthday came and went without celebration, and she has to stop to think how old she is. She was born in 1919 just after World War I. Her daddy hadn’t been called to fight—the owner of a flourishing cotton farming operation being far more valuable to Uncle Sam than another soldier. This year, 1963, minus 19 equals 55. She is 55, the speed limit, if that has any bearing.
Walking as if under water, Giuseppe, weaves around tables toward hers. His crisp white jacket is wilting. He gestures toward her empty glass. “Another?”
“Yes, please. Grazie.” She glances over at the pigeon feeder. He looks at her and smiles. She nods. Maybe there’s something left of her supposed charm. A young couple step into the campo. The man points to one of the empty tables near Estelle. The woman nods. She wears a slip of a dress and strappy sandals. They sit and grasp hands.
The pigeon feeder, apparently out of crumbs, has hidden himself behind a newspaper. Oh, lord, now he’s lowered it and caught her looking at him. She wonders how she looks to him. Rhonda, her hairdresser, talked her into a stylish cut. But Estelle wouldn’t let her dye the gray at her temples. Buck had liked her gray temples, said they made her look distinguished.
She feels like an imposter in Sylvia’s black linen sundress. Sylvia, the one friend who’s stuck by her all these years. The dress is Estelle’s first departure from her habitual golf shirts and slacks. So as not to appear morbid, she’s thrown on the turquoise silk scarf her mother insisted she take along with this trip she insisted on paying for to make up for all the years she wouldn’t speak to Estelle. She broke the silence only after Buck died. Estelle knows it isn’t so much a gesture of good will as a renewed hope that her daughter will find, at last, a suitable husband, a widowed ambassador, say, or head of state.
Estelle was once considered a catch. When she was sixteen, at Margaret’s insistence, Estelle had her portrait painted by a famous artist from New York who called her a rare beauty. She waved off the compliment and asked what it was like living in New York. The portrait didn’t look like her at all, not that it mattered. She is indifferent to her looks, having done nothing to achieve them. She values her intelligence though Margaret has always cautioned her not to appear smarter than the boys. Her junior year in high school, Lloyd and Margaret sent her to one of the finest finishing schools in the country, Riverdale School in Bristol, Virginia, intending to smooth her edges and polish her for the future banker or doctor. It honed, instead, her desire to learn; she applied and was accepted at a serious college, Smith, in Northampton, Massachusetts.
The years away from Glendale were happy ones, although her ancestral home showed up regularly in her dreams. It was—is still—one of the loveliest houses on the boulevard, not that she’s into houses, but even she appreciates its graceful Tudor roofline and the spacious rooms within. Her mother gave it a name, “Woodlawn,” like an English manor.
Estelle’s girlhood room upstairs was adjacent to what Margaret called “the ballroom,” although it could be more accurately described as a recreation room, a term that Margaret considered vulgar. Evelyn spent her time on the balcony off the ballroom, smoking and reading, her feet propped on the balustrade. She favored the Russians, not because she understood them, but because she didn’t.
Giuseppe returns with her drink, sets it before her with less flourish. His brow is beaded with sweat. “Perfecto,” she tells him, thinking it sounds Italian. A customer beckons and he shuffles off.
She lights another cigarette. At Smith, she read Dorothy Parker, Scott Fitzgerald, D.H. Lawrence, and John Dos Passos. She thought Thomas Wolfe was sloppy and sentimental. She wrote her senior thesis on Faulkner, her fellow Mississippian whom she understood quite a bit better than the Russians. When involved in her reading, she often missed class and rarely studied. During exam week, she’d stay up all night, absorb an entire textbook, and could recall the next day the passages she needed to prove her point.
When she had first arrived at Riverdale, to avoid to appearing shy or intimidated, she was aloof, and it had served her well. The other girls fell all over themselves vying for her friendship. The allure of aloofness worked again at Smith.
In the golf world, it was a disaster. After she and Buck married, she went with him to her first PGA tour in Englewood, Colorado, one of three wives not back home raising kids. At the end of the first week, Buck, as usual, had chosen to sleep in, so she was alone when she headed to the motel dining room for breakfast. Just before she entered, she overheard one of the golfers, Charlie Martinez, say to another, “Buck Riley’s all right, but his wife’s got a goddamn poker up her ass.”
She fled to the ladies’ room. She didn’t cry, just stared hard at herself in the mirror and then shook her hair loose from its tie. She came out and forced herself to smile at Charlie as she passed his table.
The next morning, she joined him and the others for breakfast. Rip Morris was telling a joke. When he finished, she made herself laugh. Every morning the same thing, the men told jokes and stories, and she’d laugh while inwardly labeling them stupid, corny, or crude. One morning, she decided to tell one herself—about the time Jim Sneed and Albert Ross, two of Glendale’s more colorful characters, made their infamous trip to Memphis. Early on the appointed day, Jim Sneed brought a case of beer over to Albert Ross’s place with the idea of getting him hammered so as to maneuver him, at Albert’s wife’s request, into rehab in Memphis. When they arrived at the front desk, Albert told the staff he was there to admit his friend, Jim, who had a drinking problem.
She knew how to tell a story. Knew where to put in detours and asides. Knew how to pace it. But the tale was met with silence. She wanted to sink through the floor. Then Charlie let out something between a snort and a sneeze before blooming into a full belly laugh. Snooky Jones hooted, and soon the others joined in. The next morning, they wanted to hear it again.
Estelle puts out her cigarette and looks over at the young man and woman at the next table. They are entwined, holding each other tighter than a slip knot.
Estelle and Buck had eloped. At Buck’s urging, they were married by a justice of the peace in Meridian, Mississippi, on their way to Augusta, Georgia, where Buck was to play in the Masters. Fine with her. She hated weddings.
Her mother had not taken the elopement lying down as so many southern mothers do—or did. Margaret sent out announcements in embossed gold. She went to Adler’s Jewelry in New Orleans, the southern equivalent to Tiffany’s, and picked out ornate flatware and heavy china. After Margaret’s friends supplied full sets of both, she wrote to Estelle and asked where to send them. It would be her only communication with her daughter for the next thirty years.
“Don’t,” Estelle wrote back. She and Buck didn’t have a permanent address although occasionally they’d take a break from motels and rent apartments that didn’t require a lease. She sometimes wonders what happened to her silver and china but forgets to ask her mother now that they’re speaking again.
She should eat something. She’d noticed a lively trattoria near her hotel, but she’s not hungry. She lights up, inhales deeply, and thinks back to the day she met Buck.
She’d just gotten her degree from Smith and was washing a golf ball in a cup stand on the first hole of the Glendale Country Club golf course. She turned the crank handle to roll the ball in water to clean it, “You’re going to wash the spots off of them,” said a voice behind her.
“Dimples, you mean.”
“You always wash ‘em before you play?”
She’d forgotten to wash her balls after Tuesday’s match, but she wasn’t going to tell him that. “Sure. It’s for good luck,” she said, still not looking at him. She turned around. Her brown eyes met his. He had dark wavy hair, rugged good looks, broad shoulders, and was the handsomest man she’d ever seen. They traded insults. She no longer remembered what they were; “What are you doing here?” she said, flinching inwardly at the stupidity of the question.
He laughed, “Playing golf. Or trying to.” He lifted her ball from the cup and handed it to her, put two fingers to his temple in salute, and walked away.
She asked Sylvia who he was.
“You don’t know?”
“Buck Riley is the rising star of professional golfers. They say he’s going to beat Sanderson in the PGA.”
“Then what the hell is he doing in Glendale?” Designing or, in this case, redesigning golf courses, Estelle would find out later. A sideline.
After that, she played golf every day for a week but he did not appear. The hell with him she thought. In two days she’d be leaving for an interview with Time magazine in New York. Only a secretarial job, but the teacher who’d set it up, Mrs. Tillman, had assured her that though she’d be starting at the bottom, she wouldn’t stay there long. Whether she got the job or not, Estelle planned to stay on in New York. There were other jobs.
Then she saw him again. He and Freddie Bingham caught up to her and Sylvia at the fourth tee. Sylvia motioned them through.
He was sitting at the bar when they came in. One of the men he was sitting with, the one they called, Crash, was in the middle of a story. When Buck saw her he got up, excused himself, and took her arm. “Let’s go for a ride,” he said.
“Crash hasn’t finished his story,” she said.
“Crash never finishes his stories,” he said; “Let’s go.” By that time, she’d learned that he was raised an Army brat and didn’t consider any place home. But Sylvia had already told her all she needed to know: He was not a banker, lawyer, or doctor. All afternoon, they drove the Delta back roads, talking, sipping beer, and listening to the radio. By the time they returned to the club, New York was off.
Though she gave up everything for him, it was a match of equals. She was not only the love of his life but a partner whom he consulted on every move of his career, every strategy in his game, every change in his stance. If she wondered from time to time what would’ve happened if she’d had the interview with Time, well who wouldn’t? Regrets? said a voice.
“Hell, yeah.” There was that damn cashmere sweater she’d thrown away because she couldn’t sew a button. She rummages through her purse for her lipstick and compact. She holds the compact mirror in the direction of the pigeon feeder and glances at him while applying her lipstick. He is looking at her. What if he’s a hit man, hired to kill her? But she doesn’t know anybody who wants her dead. Not even the wives on tour. She’d joked around with their men, sure, but they all knew she was absolutely loyal to Buck. Had to be. Had to stay the course even when the game of golf began to wear thin. Even when the girl from Smith tried to convince her she’d made a mistake in marrying Buck.
Had she loved him? What a question. Of course, she had. She snaps the compact shut. She beckons to Giuseppe. Dark stains have appeared on his jacket. He breathes heavily as he starts to remove her glass, but seeing that she hasn’t finished, he stops mid-motion. “Signora?” he says.
“Tell me, Giuseppe. Did I marry the wrong man? Or should I have married at all?”
Giuseppe stares up at the sky as if waiting for the clouds to translate the problematic questions. He looks back at her; “Che cosa?” he says.
She thinks he wants to know why she married him. “Because he was beyond convention,” she says.
Giuseppe’s face relaxes because these words are a statement, not a question. “Ti voglio bene,” he says and then translates it; “I want good for you.” He points to her glass. “Another?” She shakes her head. She doesn’t. She really doesn’t. He pats her shoulder and ambles off.
A man in a sequined vest begins to strum a guitar. After a few minutes, he introduces himself as Marcello Bianchi. The name doesn’t mean anything to Estelle, but from the enthusiastic applause, he has to be somebody. Bianchi sings several songs she doesn’t know but Estelle’s body responds just as it did when she was twenty-two and listening to the radio with Buck as they drove the Delta back roads. The attraction between them had lasted till the end, even when he was so sick, as if her body knew, even when her head didn’t, that what they had was something all right.
She misses his physicality. She misses his shoulders. She loved resting her head on his shoulder when they danced. He always said he wasn’t a dancer, but he was, as graceful on the dance floor as he was on the golf course. Well, maybe not quite. She could see him now, swinging his driver, his arms, torso, and legs in perfect form and absolute harmony as club connected with ball. She loved watching him move. A good thing, since she’d spent her life doing it.
The singer pauses before the next song. He smiles at Estelle and strums the guitar. “Night and day,” he sings, “You are the one.” They’d heard that one for the first time in her car while waiting for his train, his first time away from her. Her tears flow freely. If Mr. Pigeon Feathers sees them, she doesn’t care.
She had loved Buck. Loved him even after he lost everything. In the playoff against Roger Everett in the U.S. Open, he shanked the ball out of bounds. He died three years later—fourteen months ago. She was surprised he lived that long after his defeat. By then he’d also lost his full head of silvering hair.
Mr. Pigeon has gotten up. He puts some bills on the table. Maybe she will tell him about the advantages of tipping on the front end. She realizes she’s been talking to him the whole time. Telling him the story of her life, which, even if he comes over, and she expects he will, she would never do.
The heat seems to be building instead of lessening. Giuseppe has plopped on a chair by a serving tray and wipes his face with a handkerchief. Estelle sheds her scarf. She picks up the notebook, opens it, and writes three words and underscores the middle one.
In the space of time it will take Mr. Pigeon to cross the pavement and come over to her table, she has to decide whether to accept his offer—or…she sees it now. She fans herself with her notebook while trying out the words in her head: I’m sorry but you see I’ve made other plans.
Everything slows down. The music recedes. The sun is going down, and the pigeons have flown off to roost somewhere. The man introduces himself and offers to buy her a drink.
She traces her finger over the words she’s written in the notebook. A chosen life. In trying so hard to escape convention, she has never freely chosen. If she agrees to the drink, will she tie herself to another man and deny herself what may be her last chance at a writing life? Or can she have both?
A lone pigeon waddles in circles near her table, its iridescent green and pink neck feathers shining in the last glimmer of sunlight. It cocks its head as if it to waits for an answer.