• Workhorse

    Megan Mayhew Bergman

    Winter 2022

    Upon retirement from his banking job, my father took his wealth and custom shirts and rented the top floor of an ancient, salmon-colored apartment building on the Piazza San Domenico in Cagliari. His younger brother, Paolo, ran a café on the bottom floor, a business that spilled out from the sidewalk and onto the piazza.

    “People talk like they mean it there,” he said when he explained his decision to me. “I need things that feel real. I need anchors.”

    I thought it was natural that Dad should return to Sardinia, the island that made him. He always said he missed the olive groves, strong sun, and loud conversation.

    I sensed he was waiting for me to talk him out of it, to beg him to stay in New York. The truth was that I wanted him gone. I was in the process of getting to know myself. But you had to fight smart with my father.

    “You’ll love it,” I said, drawing tiny stars on the corner of an envelope. I often found things to do while talking with him on the phone, small acts of self-protection. Weeding the neighbor’s garden. Flossing my teeth. Browsing my grandmother’s six recipes for gnocchi. The less you listened the less you got hurt.

    “So you can’t wait for me to leave?” he said. “I knew it.”

    “No, Papa. I’m happy for you,” I said, somewhat absently. “Going back home.”

    “How’s business?” he asked.

    “Steady,” I said, meaning steadily nonexistent. I’d taken the little bit of money my mother left me and invested it in a boutique floral business. I made large-scale plant installations for fashion shows, commercial shoots, corporate launches, high net-worth engagements. A coverlet of two-hundred red roses for the tech entrepreneur caught in an extramarital affair. Pale pink grass for an alt-folk album cover. Business was episodic, even a surprise.

    “It’s time you did something extraordinary,” he said.

    “Each installation is extraordinary,” I said, offended. I thought of the carpet of Bermuda grass and birds-of-paradise I’d installed in a corporate bank lobby a few months before. The bank was advertising a wellness initiative. The brochure model wore three-inch heels and held an apple out toward the camera; she struck me as some sort of supermarket Eve. I had to leave when I saw her standing in the middle of my installation. She cheapened the art.

    After that disappointment, I conceptualized a big, signature project, something unusual and iconic. I purchased an enormous, twelve-foot-high terrarium from Austria and had spent the last two weeks cursing as I attempted to assemble it in my shop.

    “Let me review your balance sheet,” Papa said. “Send me a copy.”

    “No.”

    “No? Don’t be ridiculous. I’m an expert, and I’m free.”

    My father loved Jack Welch, barking into the telephone, and making deals. He told you what you would do with your life. He told my mother, me, his brother, the woman who cleaned his house. And to reassure myself of my independence, my own strength, I’d spent the last three years steadily defying him. No, I would not take his clothes to the cleaner after Mama died. No, I wouldn’t listen to his thoughts about Berlusconi again. I wouldn’t grow out my hair to soften my face. And I would not give him my outdated balance sheet or visit Cagliari. Not now, anyway.

    “My world doesn’t revolve around profit,” I insisted.

    “Maybe it should, piccola. Maybe then you’d feel satisfied.”

    It was important to my father to win. But I’d come to see that he did not respect people who agreed with him. His love language was war.

    Zach, my gently estranged husband, lived with his parents and our old cat Zipper on the Upper West Side. We’d planned to divorce for a while, but neither of us liked paperwork.

    A few days a week he would visit the shop to see what I was working on. My atelier—I preferred to call it that—was three-hundred square feet, a spare corner of the Village with high ceilings that once housed an eyewear shop. I often found contact lenses pressed into the soles of my shoes.

    Zach was two months out of a luxury rehab center in Malibu and had the careful face of someone who’d not quite beaten his addiction. His eyes were wider these days, like he was waiting for his addiction to meet him around the next corner, springing from the darkness like a film-noir villain. I suppose it was.

    He rested a hot to-go cup of green tea on the counter and pushed it toward me. Every act of kindness felt like a small apology, two years too late.

    “What’s with the glass cage?” he asked, running his fingers on the iron part of the new structure. “It’s pretty. Looks like a Victorian greenhouse.”

    He took public transportation and carried a skateboard, which he set by the front door. He’d grown his hair out into lush, boyish curls, and I hated how much I liked it.

    “A work in progress,” I said, wondering how he’d landed on his feet again, looking younger. Sometimes I thought it would’ve been better if we let him fail all the way, to see what the bottom other people had to experience felt like. My therapist said I needed to let go of revenge fantasies.

    “Is it, like, a giant terrarium?” he said, tapping on the thick glass.

    “It’s a personal project.”

    Our words bounced from the concrete walls to the windows. The atelier was dark except for one piercing ray of early sunlight.

    “About what?”

    “About something personal.”

    Not everything is about you, I thought, wishing it were true.

    I also thought I could afford to ignore Zach now; the worst-case scenario had already happened. The man who’d once been the center of my existence had self-destructed and left me wondering who I was and how I would live my life. Today, I told myself, he was like having a fly in the shop, and I always had flies in the shop, or some exotic bug that had come to life while an exotic flower thawed, gasping for sun, blooming wide open.

    Soon after renting the atelier, I had set up a small, refrigerated display. I bought exorbitant stems and watched half of them die of pure negligence: canisters of gloriosa, stephanotis, and a few white lotuses. I purchased them to see who would come in and value such an object. I was a halfhearted businesswoman, perhaps more of a social scientist.

    “I’m just going to observe today,” Zach said, settling into the worn chair in the corner, one I’d taken from my dad’s office after the move. “If that’s alright.”

    He’d maxed out my patience and affection years earlier, emptying our joint bank account, disappearing for days at a time. But sometimes I felt compassion for him, for what he could have been. When I met him a few years after he graduated from NYU, I thought he had the most agile mind I’d ever encountered. He composed postmodern micro-symphonies, was fluent in the politics of the Arab Spring, and had a good eye for contemporary art. He baked his mother’s rugelach on holidays without a recipe. He’d begun coursework for a joint degree in law and international relations when an addiction to oxycodone jumped in front of it all. A doctor prescribed it after Zach tore his ACL while skiing. When his prescription ran out, he bought it on the street. I lived with him for months before really knowing something was wrong. What can I say? He was resourceful, and I was in love.

    I wasn’t supposed to take any of it personally. Addiction was a disease, people told me, as if I was wrong for feeling hurt.

    What kind of wife had I been anyway? I hadn’t even realized how hungry Zach was. Starving, my therapist later told me.

    “But aren’t we all?” I said.

    “Were your parents particularly empathetic?” she asked, suspicious.

    My father called me a week after the big move to Cagliari. “Marianna,” he said, coughing and clearing his throat. “No one talks to me here.”

    “Papa,” I said. “Are you smoking again? I hear it in your voice.”

    I couldn’t bring myself to feel pity for him. Some people had fathers who’d earned that kind of devotion, who’d sat through years of dance recitals and graduations. Papa paid the bills while Mom reluctantly doled out love. He and his job were the foundation of all things. We set our clocks to his needs. We toured the new power plants his company financed, donning yellow hard hats, pretending to be impressed, fishing warm sticks of gum out of our pockets to stay awake while walking through cement corridors. I can still recall the sound of my footsteps in those empty places.

    “Nato’s daughter visits him every two months,” he said.

    “Nato’s daughter married an investment banker,” I clarified.

    “Is that such a hard thing to do?” he asked.

    “There aren’t many investment bankers coming through the shop,” I said.

    “A film director, then.” He cleared his throat again.

    “Of course, Papa. No problem.”

    “I could set you up with someone here. Someone who knows the value of family and commitment.”

    “Paolo called,” I said, changing the subject. “He says you’re smoking again.”

    “Paolo doesn’t know how to run a business. I have to look over his shoulder or he gives away his money. He just hands it out¾fistfuls of cash. Sophia needs cigarettes. Marco must buy fresh cheese. You wouldn’t believe it!”

    “We’re talking about you.”

    “If no one talks to me, I smoke,” he said.

    I pictured him at one of the small bistro tables at Café Paolo, too much man for the little chair, sweating in his navy blazer, looking furious and unapproachable. He’d watch the women watering the bougainvillea and tomatoes that grew on their balconies, the dogs wandering the piazza. I hadn’t seen him smoke since I was a child, but I remembered the way he spun the pack of cigarettes on the table when the conversation grew idle.

    “Bring a novel to the café, Papa. Then you won’t be lonely.” I could feel myself softening, and I hated it. I could only hold off for so long.

    “I’ll book a hotel room for you. You like Cagliari. You always have. What about next week?”

    “I’m working on a special project.”

    “Why be addicted to work if it doesn’t make you rich?”

    “You’re impossible.”

    “Next month, then,” he shouted into the receiver, as I was hanging up on him.

    Before moving to Cagliari, Papa lived a sad bachelor’s life in New York. Takeout and instant coffee, a mostly empty refrigerator with expired milk and a jar of capers, the latter which he spooned on top of TV dinners. He said he was watching a lot of Matlock. I said he was overly familiar with the waitresses at the diner down the street from his apartment. I worried he would marry one, because like most of us, he was still in search of a mother, someone who would fold his shirts and love him best of all.

    “I just want to feel like I’m thriving,” he told me one day in the diner, pounding his fist on the Formica table, sticky with old syrup. “Like I’m at the top of my game again.”

    He talked about “the top” as if it was a place in New Jersey he might visit if only the conditions were right, if only he could get his car pointed in the right direction.

    But what did I know? I’d never been there.

    What I was making inside of my terrarium wasn’t from nature. It was a fever dream.

    I wanted to let my ego drive, to create something superfluous and ambitious. I wanted to be the one out of control for once. I spent a lot of time researching plants and dog-earing old botanical prints.

    We hadn’t spent much time in nature when I was a child. Just dirty city parks with cigarette butts in the sandbox and a few obligatory ski trips to Vermont, where we put on expensive ski bibs and spent most of our time in the lodge. Mom got her nails done in the spa and Dad took phone calls in the lobby while I suffered through ski school, looking for the other only-children abandoned by their parents.

    I placed a big order on my credit card. I wanted the good stuff. The endangered plants. The ancient jade as big as a mannequin. A black-market ghost orchid. Something truly obscene.

    I called my agent, who booked commercial shoots for my work, and told him I could host half-price shoots for anyone who needed a lush, otherworldly setting in a human-sized terrarium.

    “I made something radical and I want to use it,” I said.

    My agent wasn’t surprised. He tried an organic tea company, a Montessori school, and a luxury shoe brand, but only a nonprofit called back. They wanted to shoot an anti-fur campaign.

    “Fine,” I said. “They can come in next week. Monday.”

    I hung up when a noise outside caught my attention. I recognized the sound of Zach’s skateboard on the sidewalk, the way it scraped the pavement.

    Or maybe I knew when he was bound to approach the shop. In good times, we operated on synchronicity. We could find each other on a busy street, raise an eyebrow at the overeducated housewife complaining about the strain of six-figure home renovations.

    “Hey, Mari,” he said, tucking his skateboard behind the chair. “That terrarium is starting to look good.” He handed me the habitual to-go cup of tea and I took a sip, even though it was too hot.

    “Who told you it was a terrarium?”

    “Can I get inside for a closer look?” He headed toward the door.

    What would happen if I told him to get lost, said that he’d caused me enough grief? Why did I still feel like I had to watch out for his healing?

    “No,” I said, rifling through unpaid invoices behind the counter. “That would be an invasion of privacy. It’s a work in progress. There are sensitive plants inside.”

    “But I was thinking about it last night.” Zach looked hurt. I used to hate when he looked hurt. Now I relished the fact that I could make him feel anything.

    “Well, I was thinking about it, and it needs dissonance. It needs a discordant note. It can’t be too beautiful, or it’s not real.”

    It’s amazing how broken lovers can conjure years of pain, and let it hang there, invisible, in a room between them. How two people who are supposed to love each other best destroy one another, day after day, and with such skill.

    “Do you know what I mean? How things can be too perfect sometimes?” Zach started to walk toward me.

    “I’m going to lunch now.”

    “At ten?”

    The door of the atelier chimed behind me. Maybe I was hungry; maybe I was running away, but I couldn’t look at his curls much longer without wanting to touch them.

    Papa once said I had a sixth sense, that it was the Italian in me. It was one of the nicer, more personal things he said, so I held onto it. He called the intuition my Big Feeling.

    I felt like something was wrong, so I called Papa collect from the shop later that afternoon, like I used to do when I was on field trips in high school. It amazed me that it was still possible. I imagined his telephone ringing in the apartment above Café Paolo. You could probably hear the ring through the open window and into the piazza.

    “Only drunk teenagers call collect,” Papa said. “It’s almost dinner time.”

    “I don’t know why I called you at all,” I said, exasperated. “You make me feel horrible.”

    “I smoked an entire pack today!” he said.

    “Don’t say that,” I said, watering my refrigerated canisters of white hydrangeas. “You just want attention.” I set down the watering can.

    “What’s wrong with wanting attention?” he asked. “You used to dance naked in the living room to Olivia Newton-John.”

    “When I was four!”

    It wasn’t unusual for us to go on this way, but it seemed to be getting worse the longer he was in Cagliari.

    “Is there something going on? I had one of my Big Feelings.”

    “Nato has all these beautiful grandchildren. They sit in his lap and run around the piazza with balloons. It’s like a movie.”

    “I’m sorry you don’t have grandchildren,” I said.

    “You aren’t sorry,” he said accusingly. “You’re glad. You’re a modern woman, and you delight in thumbing your nose at your upbringing.”

    “I’m not thumbing my nose at anything,” I said. “No one does that anymore.”

    He coughed.

    “Is this all you need right now? To complain about your lack of grandchildren?”

    “My heart feels funny. I walked on the beach today and it beat too quickly.”

    “Have you tried breathing exercises?” I asked. “Or going to the doctor?”

    “I don’t care enough to take the trouble.”

    “You’re too much,” I said. I was thinking about something Mom had said, when her cancer returned and she began preparing us for life without her. “You can’t let him become even more of a tyrant when I’m gone,” she said. “Best case scenario, it will be one long, beautiful fight, the two of you.”

    “You’d be easier to love if you were nicer,” I told my father. I was sort of joking, but there was enough reality in what I’d said to make us both uncomfortable.

    “Why fake it?” Papa said. “The problem, mia cara, is I don’t belong to anyone anymore.”

    There was something in his tone that made me pause. Or was it his words?

    “Papa, please.”

    “I’m asking for help. Come visit.”

    “I can’t,” I said. “Not now.”

    I looked up ticket prices. I imagined the sun on my face, the bitter morning coffee, the sound of the piazza waking to a new day.

    The atelier windows fogged when it rained. I drew a heart with my finger on one of the large panes. Something I hate about myself: my needful heart. I’ve tried a hundred ways to disguise and disfigure it: wearing all black, cutting my bangs crooked like the truly artistic women do, feigning disinterest in the world around me. But my heart beats on its own program.

    The endangered plants arrived early Monday morning, and I finished the terrarium, fastening the grass to a thin layer of soil in the bottom, using clear fishing line to animate the fig vines, attaching blooms in places where they didn’t belong. I misted everything twice an hour and turned the thermostat up to keep them warm.

    I liked being inside. It made me feel small, as if I was some idyllic child inside of an eerie, overheated snow globe. A paradise strangely altered.

    The terrarium was fragile and temporary. I liked it too much, and the minute it was finished I was sad that it would brown and fade and have to be disassembled. I knew without telling anyone that it was my masterpiece, and likely my last installation. I was out of money, at least until Zach and I moved forward with the divorce.

    I misted the plants continuously before the nonprofit team and photographer arrived for the shoot.

    The anti-fur models came in, thin-limbed and hollow-cheeked. One of them smoked inside the shop while the photographer set up bright lights and worried over the reflective properties of the terrarium glass.

    The creative director, an impatient man with stiff white hair like a movie villain, closed two models inside the terrarium. They were tall and had to crouch. “Will the door open again?” one asked. “I don’t want to be locked in here. The air isn’t good.”

    “This isn’t helping my anxiety,” the other said.

    The man with stiff hair rolled his eyes. “You’re professionals,” he said. “Get on with it.”

    “rewild—without fur” the models’ T-shirts said. They peeled them off and revealed their breasts. The creative director stepped in to apply rouge to their nipples, which I swore to remember if I ever dated again.

    The naked models pressed their mouths to the glass like fish while the photographer snapped away. They looked hungry and trapped.

    I felt like I had created a world I was master of, at least for two hours.

    I took my own pictures when nobody was looking. I was almost satisfied.

    I was cleaning out the terrarium with Windex the following day when Dad called again. “I’m moving out of the city and up into the hills,” he said.

    “What hills?” I said, phone tucked into the crook of my neck. “I worry that you’ll feel even more isolated.”

    I scrubbed a pane. I was going to resell the giant terrarium online.

    “It’s the place I like,” he said. “It’s quiet. I’ve decided. A little cluster of homes near the cliffs. You can see the water through the olive trees. It reminds me of my childhood.”

    “Just wait a month or two,” I said, standing up straight to stretch. “Give Paolo’s place time.”

    “We aren’t getting along,” he said. “And I’ve already put down the deposit.”

    I could hear so much in his silence.

    “I’ll think about it,” I said, softening. “Let me talk it over with Zach.”

    “Is he at some halfway house now?”

    “A very nice one, where his mother makes him breakfast.”

    “Why do you have to talk with him?”

    “We share a cat.”

    “That doesn’t count—”

    I hung up. I wanted to arrive on my terms, not his.

    My childhood home—an apartment in the West Side of Manhattan, near Zach’s parents—felt generic to me when I was young, except for the interesting flowers my mother set out. Anyone could have lived there, I thought. Any executive, any wife, any daughter. We had thick Persian rugs with the burgundy and navy designs that our friends had too. Our furniture was dark, polished, and expensive.

    I lived for our annual visits to Italy and kept a poster of a Sardinian sunset over the water above my bed. I washed the glass olive oil containers that we brought home to New York and used them for Mom’s cut lilies in the spring.

    I think Mom and I were both jealous of my father’s strong sense of home, the way he revered Sardinia, even if it had become too small for him as a young man. There was no room in Sardinia for the next Jack Welch, he said.

    “A man is made by forging himself against his father and homeland,” Papa liked to say when I was growing up.

    “And what of a woman?” my mother would interject.

    “And what of her?” he’d say in response, daring her to answer.

    She’d trained to be a psychoanalyst, but never practiced because my father advised against it, claiming it was an insult to his ability to provide. Their relationship was adversarial; if they were soft with each other, I never saw it. When they met, she was working in her father’s flower shop outside of the subway station, selling clusters of tulips and lilies as a summer job between classes. For years she kept calla lilies all over the house, on the kitchen table, her bedside table, and the shelf over the bathroom sink. She liked the maroon ones, and blackened purple. “Extravagant darkness,” she said.

    I wanted to know her better now that she was gone. I wanted to understand her. But there was always a part of her that seemed walled off, a part she kept for herself. Maybe that was the part you resurrected when you inevitably lost the rest.

    It must have hurt her when I begged to move to Italy halfway through college, as if I was choosing my father’s side.

    But I loved the contrast of Uncle Paolo’s apartment building in Cagliari, its shameless pink façade, crumbling steps, bright mismatched tiles. Cousins, aunts, and uncles coming and going. Every morning, my cousin Alfonso would burst onto the balcony in his sagging diaper, clutch the iron bars of the railing, and yell out into the piazza: voglio tutto!

    It was something he’d heard on a cartoon. I want it all! He’d gotten laughs the first time, months before, and it had quickly become entrenched in his routine.

    The last time I’d seen him, Alfonso was a teenager in tight black jeans, smoking a cigarette with one leg over the seat of his scooter. Did you get it? I wanted to ask. Everything you wanted?

    Even then I knew he, like my father, had a better chance than I did.

    My last day in town, Zach burst into the atelier, blinking as his eyes adjusted to the dim lighting of the store. “I wrote a new piece of music,” he said, triumphantly. “Inspired by the terrarium. Listen.”

    I was holding a broom, and for a second, I thought about sweeping him out like an empty wrapper, a cut stem. I’d given my landlord notice that I would be vacating the atelier and quitting my lease.

    “It’s got some really cool reverb happening,” he said, playing the song from his phone. The discordant notes bounced around the bare room, hitting the concrete floor and the windows.

    I hated to tell him that his old genius had gone. He’d used it up, or I could no longer bear to hear it. Or maybe I was tired of being a human buttress, holding up someone else’s life.

    He looked around. “Where’s the terrarium?”

    “I cleaned it out.”

    “But I didn’t get to see it finished!”

    The minor key of the song reminded me of the time he’d gone missing for three days and I thought he was dead. I still didn’t know where he’d been. Kentucky? An unfurnished apartment in Queens? A bus station in the Midwest, maybe.

    “You know what?” I said, my voice rising. “You deserve some disappointments.”

    I was running for the door before the words left my mouth, and he was running for me. His fingertips grazed my back, that’s all. It was a halfhearted action, which is all you need to know.

    My uncle Paolo called. “I have an emergency notification for you,” he said. “The recent move has not gone well.”

    “What do you mean?” I was used to the drama. My father and Paolo were in a fight as often as they were not.

    “Your father has taken up with a mule,” he said.

    I figured we were having a miscommunication. Paolo’s English wasn’t great. “Why perfect their language? Why cater to them?” he said. I got a bad feeling when he talked like that about them. I was them. The Italian American.

    “Americans have no soul, no nuance,” my father agreed with Paolo. “But that makes them exemplary at business.”

    “Scusi?” I said to Paolo.

    “He has taken a mule into the home, Mari.”

    “Into his house?”

    “He found it on the side of the road and walked it home. It sleeps by the fireplace and shits in the kitchen. It is a small one, but we are still concerned.”

    “What do you need me to do?”

    “He has to go to the doctor,” Paolo said. “Oh my God he is crazy now. I am helpless. You must come at once.”

    The man sitting next to me on the plane to Naples told me that he was going to Pompeii.

    My father had taken my mother and me there when I was in sixth grade. The truth is that it horrified us. That people could be taken like that, unaware, just living their lives, claimed by molten lava while in a lover’s embrace, walking home from work, fixing tea.

    The truth about Zach is that I didn’t see it coming; that’s why it hurt. I was proud of us. I thought we looked good together, had imaginative sex, were fun at dinner parties. Why hadn’t it been enough? I remember a night when I found him asleep in the bathroom, a small stream of drool connecting the corner of his mouth to the tiled floor. I put his head in my lap. I touched his curls like his mother must have done decades before. I told myself to let go, to stop caring, but the heart doesn’t work like that.

    I closed my eyes on the plane.

    I could remember my father pacing the ruins of Pompeii.

    Just like that, he kept saying.

    “Did you know,” Papa said without turning around to face me when I arrived, “that there are twelve types of wind here?”

    “You used to tell me when I was younger,” I said. “One night when I had a stomach flu, you told me.”

    Mom had been out of town that weekend. Papa had to tend to me, and he’d done it bitterly. He sat at the foot of my bed with a faraway look in his eyes, talking about wind. I was hurt that he wouldn’t touch me. And I was jealous of the way he loved his childhood. I hadn’t had the one I wanted, one that suited me. I had wanted more love. More sunshine. I wanted more everything.

    It was the mistral that he missed, he told me that night when I was sick. The wild, warm wind that shaped him. It could bend a sturdy oak like an old man, making an arc of his body, pointing him south.

    Papa was wearing a beautiful cream-colored linen suit. He opened his arms for a hug, and I ran to him. When I looked over his shoulder, my eyes landed on the mule in the living room. She was white, with liver-colored spots, and had a salty look in her big brown eyes.

    “Sophia is a miniature donkey,” Papa clarified, his voice matter-of-fact. “She has a broken leg and they’re going to kill her, Mari.”

    “What happened to you?” I asked, pulling away from the embrace and looking him deeply in the eyes. I pressed the back of my hand to his forehead. His skin was always warm, even when he was well. “Are you sick?”

    He jerked away from me. “I’m as sane as I’ve ever been! Why does everyone question my sanity?”

    “Because this is unlike you. Extremely unlike you.”

    He snorted and walked toward the mule. “They’re going to kill her!”

    “Who’s they?”

    I examined his new apartment. There was a single expensive couch, three bookshelves, a bowl full of fresh lemons, an antique Turkish rug, and a mule on the hearth.

    “You can’t come into my house and tell me how to live, piccola. No one can.”

    “I brought you flowers,” I said. I knew it was a sentimental gesture. It put Mom in the room, and that was hard on both of us. And maybe necessary.

    He didn’t say anything, so I found a water glass, trimmed the bruised and weary calla lilies, and let them loll to one side in the makeshift vase on the wooden table.

    That night Paolo came by with a huge container of fresh ricotta, rustic bread, and olive oil. We ate on the patio surrounded by three stone walls. “Eccoci,” Paolo kept saying. Here we are. As if it was inevitable, a relief.

    Paolo was only a few years past his prime, his beard going gray, his skin yellowing from cigarettes and sun. He lit two wide candles and took a moment to breathe in the air. “As you know, I do not agree with you moving here, but it smells divine.”

    “I always said his favorite things are to kiss,” Papa said, nodding toward his brother, “and to argue.” Paolo, wearing his years of restaurant ownership, topped off everyone’s wine and sat down at the opposite end of the long, wooden table.

    “I always thought he would write a strange and tragic novel,” Paolo said, as if my father wasn’t sitting across the table from him. “Before he became a business man. But he is the novel. He is living it.”

    My father, for once, didn’t respond. He smeared ricotta on a slice of bread and drizzled it in olive oil. He took ferocious bites and washed them down with his glass of Barbera d’Alba.

    “Did she tell you about the giant terrarium she made for naked women?” my father said, too casually.

    Paolo turned to me. “Oh my God,” he said, shaking his head, as if he’d finally been given explicit evidence of my American depravity. “Is it true?”

    “She hates attention, you know.”

    I laughed and glared at Papa. Honestly, it was a relief to give in. To dine with my father, to bring him water before bed, to ask after his medication, to listen to him snore. He was always so gloriously and insistently alive.

    I washed the dishes with the moonlight coming in through an open window.

    Sophia brayed at night, and when she did I could hear my father’s snoring abruptly stop. He would rise from his bed, walk down the hall, and go to her. He’d made a sling out of a twin bedsheet, and he used it to help her get up and walk outside to use the bathroom.

    The man who couldn’t touch my vomit or change my diapers spent a significant portion of his day shoveling tiny donkey shits and spreading them in his yard.

    Paolo brought us coffee and pastries in the morning. My father was walking Sophia out of earshot.

    “I think,” Paolo said, exhaling smoke and staring at the back end of the mule, “that this is a very strange way to atone for his life of greed. He has always been a creative man.”

    The thing about the men in my life—even their fuckups were brilliant.

    I wanted Dad to get more sleep. I thought it might help him. Maybe he was dehydrated or had some kind of infection and a round of antibiotics might knock sense into him. He’d be horrified when he realized what he’d done, I thought.

    So when Sophia brayed at 3:00 a.m., I was the one to rise. “Let me get it, Papa,” I said. “I can handle it.”

    “Be patient with her.”

    “Sure.”

    I walked into the dark living room and found Sophia, standing on three legs, the fourth one cocked and limp. I put a hand on her neck and patted her wiry mane. “Okay, girl,” I said. “Let’s give this a try.”

    I slipped the sling underneath her warm body. She flared her nostrils at me and stared at me wild-eyed while I tried to get her out of the house. She was clearly in pain.

    As we stumbled through the doorframe and into the side yard, I knew Papa was watching from the window. It smelled of eucalyptus outside.

    The next morning, I started to make a nest for her, using a pink bedsheet I fished from the linen closet. I cleaned her small hooves and braided a crown of long grasses and pale flowers, which I placed on her head, secured by her large ears. She looked like an object of worship, a tableau vivant.

    Paolo took a picture. “You are both crazy now,” he said. “And I may need proof one day.”

    “I’m indulging Papa,” I said, though I was growing attached to Sophia, too.

    Paolo passed the picture around, and people started knocking on the door. They too wanted pictures, and proof. They wanted to pose alongside the holy miniature donkey, rescued from certain death by a businessman. The newspaper came. A church group. All of the neighbors.

    “It is the installation you needed,” Papa said, somewhat gleeful as another photograph was taken. “The big one.”

    When Papa was busy posing for photos, I pulled Paolo aside. “You have to get the veterinarian over here when I take Papa out for dinner tomorrow night. Leave her on the hearth. Make him think it was a natural death.”

    He looked at me. “That is a betrayal,” he said slowly.

    “It is merciful,” I said.

    The last time I’d been in Sardinia was my honeymoon, four years earlier. Zach and I had rented a small house on a cliff overlooking a private beach. Each morning we brought wine, bread, and cheese in a basket and read books on a blanket he spread across the sand. If I could return to a moment in my life, it would be this one, beautiful and boring, the scent of eucalyptus and sea air overhead, our legs touching, our lives ahead of us.

    Our last day in town, a mistral had blown in and taken a boy on a raft out to sea. There were helicopters and spotlights out on the water. We watched for the little boy, scouring the waves for his red raft, but also we kept drinking, until when it came time to stand and my legs buckled, and Zach carried me to the bedroom in the dark, kissing my neck, lifting my dress over my head. We felt fortunate, perhaps, that it wasn’t our bad luck that day, that we could abandon our watch and go to bed.

    I second-guessed all memories now, about how Zach was feeling at any given time.

    I thought coming to Sardinia would show him more about who I was. But the thing that came through the loudest was my father, who sat at the head of every table, whose childhood stories lived in every piazza, in every red raft, in every scent on the warm wind.

    Papa was smoking inside, and feeding the mule organic lettuce leaves by hand.

    “I have so much guilt, Mari,” he said, exhaling. “When I think of the business. When I think of your mother. Like a pile of rocks on my soul. It has accumulated to the point where I can’t breathe.”

    “I guess you have to take them off,” I said, kneeling beside him. “One by one.”

    He couldn’t answer. He stroked Sophia’s white coat. She was breathing harder than usual. I watched her belly rise up and down.

    “Can I take you out for dinner tonight?” I asked, putting a hand on Papa’s shoulder. “The trattoria up the hill?”

    He nodded and went to get his jacket. He kissed Sophia on the head before following me out the door into the blue light of early evening.

    We make it easy for the people we love. We say it is okay when it isn’t. In the end, we want them to carry a lighter burden.

    Or is it that we want to carry a lighter burden?

    We ate fresh pasta and peas, and talked about Mom’s spending habits, my cousin Alfonso who’d professed to want everything and now sold cellular phones. Papa gave me a cigarette.

    “It was a bad year for you,” he said, offering me a light.

    “Yes,” I said. “It was.”

    “And you still love him, don’t you, piccola?”

    I nodded. I sent smoke rising into the air above the piazza. The cathedral bells tolled nine. The boy ran in a circle with his balloon across the cobblestone, like it was a movie.

    I ushered him into the house and to bed. “I should walk Sophia,” he said, but I told him I would handle it. She was still on the hearth.

    In the morning there were dead lilies on the table, their petals dried and splayed open like fireworks, the bright yellow stamen thrust into the air. The flowers were inside out, revealing everything.


     1 From How Strange a Season by Megan Mayhew Bergman. Copyright © 2022 by Megan Mayhew Bergman. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

    Megan Mayhew Bergman is a journalist, visiting professor at Middlebury, and the Director of the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers Conference. She is the author of three books, including How Strange a Season (March 2022). She is currently at work on a nonfiction book about the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

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