I took my hand out of my pocket and compared the now almost dried soggy mess with the snow on the floor. I bent and picked some of it up and let it sift from my fingers, an alphabet down the air.
I looked at the empty place on the bench.
“Where’s that old gent…?” I stopped.
For the old men were staring at me as if I had fired a gun at their silence. Besides, their look said, I wasn’t dressed right for a funeral.
One of the oldest lit his pipe and at last, puffing it, muttered, “He’ll be along. Always does.”
But the other two stirred uncomfortably, their faces shadowed.
“Where,” I dared to say, “does he live?”
The old man stopped puffing. “Who wants to know?”
“Me,” I said. “You know me. I’ve come in here for years.”
The old men glanced at each other, nervously.
“It’s urgent,” I said.
The old man stirred a final time.
“Canaries,” murmured the oldest man.
“Canary lady.” His pipe had gone out. He lit it again, his eyes troubled. “But don’t bother him. He’s all right. He’s not sick. He’ll be along.”
He was protesting too much, which made the other old men writhe slowly, secretly, on the bench.
“His name…?” I asked.
That was a mistake. Not to know his name! My God, everyone knew that! The old men glared at me.
I flushed and backed off.
“Canary lady,” I said, and ran out the door to be almost killed by an arriving Venice Short Line train thirty feet from the shop door.
“Jackass!” cried the motorman, leaning out and waving his fist.
“Canary lady!” I yelled, stupidly, shaking my fist to show I was alive.
And stumbled off to find her.
I knew her address from the sign in her window.
canaries for sale.
Venice was and is full of lost places where people put up for sale the last worn bits of their souls, hoping no one will buy.
There is hardly an old house with unwashed curtains which does not sport a sign in the window.
1927 NASH. REASONABLE. REAR. Or
BRASS BED. HARDLY USED. CHEAP. UPSTAIRS.
Walking, one thinks, which side of the bed was used, and how long on both sides, and how long never again, twenty, thirty years ago?
Or VIOLINS, GUITARS, MANDOLINS.
And in the window ancient instruments strung not with wire or cat-gut but spider webs, and inside an old man crouched over a workbench shaping wood, his head always turned away from the light, his hands moving; someone left over from the year when the gondolas were stranded in backyards to become flower planters.
How long since he had sold a violin or guitar?
Knock at the door, the window. The old man goes on cutting and sandpapering, his face, his shoulders shaking. Is he laughing because you tap and he pretends not to hear?
You pass a window with a final sign.
ROOM WITH A VIEW.
The room looks over the sea. But for ten years no one has ever been up there. The sea might as well not exist.
I turned a final corner and what I was searching for was there.
It hung in the sunbrowned window, its fragile letters drawn in weathered lead pencil, as faint as lemon juice that had burned itself out, self-erased, oh God, some fifty years ago!
canaries for sale.
Yes, someone half a century ago had licked a pencil tip, lettered the cardboard and hung it to age, fixed with flypaper adhesive tape, and gone upstairs to tea in rooms where dust lacquered the banister in gums, choked the lightbulbs so they burned with an Oriental light; where pillows were balls of lint and shadows hung in closets from empty racks.
canaries for sale.
I did not knock. Years before, out of mindless curiosity, I had tried, and, feeling foolish, gone away.
I turned the ancient doorknob. The door glided in. The downstairs was empty. There was no furniture in any of the rooms. I called up through the dusty sunlight.
I thought I heard an attic-whisper:
“… no one.”
Flies lay dead in the windows. A few moths that had died the summer of 1929 dusted their wings on the front screens.
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