The Centerpiece

It is Italy, the Amalfi coast, a cafe that proudly serves wine with an ornate fasces on the label. He is a regular here in spite of knowing full well what the fasces represents.
    It is late afternoon. He recreates a tableau at his table in the deep, shady corner of the cafe: a carafe of rotgut burgundy and a glass, a smashed pack of filterless Camels. The cigarettes are positioned just-so, stacked by a companion Zippo as brittle and antique as his typewriter, the centerpiece to this composition: a fifteen pound Underwood with a broken ‘t’ and a broken ‘!.’
    For the absent t’s and !’s, he types the letter ‘x’ in their stead. Like a placeholder.
    In spite of its crippled keys and the myriad, marvelous technological tinkers writing implements have undergone since 1941, (the birthdate of that shit-piece relic) he begins humping away at the jalopy, just as he’s done for the past year or so.
    The thumping and grinding required to commune with the crippled device shakes his rickety table like a platter of jello. It’s why so many pages of his manuscript are wine-blotched and cigarette-burnt—accoutrements, he believes, lend the stale, rumpled stack of unreadable paper a certain authenticity.

The cafe's house wine label, specifically the fasces displayed therein (a small, crude axe symbolizing fascism—a surprisingly common holdover from World War Two in the Italian countryside), is his most frequent conversation starter.
    It is an unsolicited starter which always begins, “You know what that little axe symbolizes, don’t you?” As an opener it is an obvious and creepy maneuver he inflicts on the particularly vulnerable stream of hostel-weary Americans lonely enough to mistakenly entertain what follows. What follows is, of course, a suffocating and suspiciously practiced monologue concerning the innocuous little fasces and the heft it bears with these redneck Italians, which he pronounces, “eye-tayl-yuns.”
If his conspicuously predatory monologue is not effectively interrupted (no small task) it will inevitably wind its way through a selection of similarly rehearsed morsels of pseudo intellectual jetsam.
    In spite of this boorish buffoonery, which would render him a pariah back home in America, he is strangely tolerated by the waitstaff and suffered by the other regulars.
    Maybe they’ve grown fond of him?
    He is, if anything, immensely entertaining to watch—from a distance. Like a pathetic mascot haunting the dreary cafe corner—click-clacking at the galloping typewriter, interrupted frequently by spilled wine, or to put out a small fire, ignited by an errant cigarette.

Outside the cafe, from the last, sultry throes of an indian-summer’s dusk, comes a woman. She is a tall silhouette, definitely American. The typewriter stops. Everyone watches her hungrily as she wanders into the cafe from the cobblestone courtyard.
    She steps up to the bar, says something to the bartender. The bartender answers by kissing the fingertips of his hand and hurries for a bottle. She tries to pay, but the bartender will have none of it. Instead he ushers her to a seat next to the courtyard: advertising.
    She demures and, with the bottle and two glasses, leaves the evening light and the rowdy bocce volo to the seniors on the patio. She explores further into the musky armpit of the back cafe to a table across from a man, also American, profoundly sweaty and perching like an obese parakeet at his typewriter, the keys of which, ASDF–JKL and the little colon are all punched into a traffic jam at the lead.
    He untangles the jam of keys. Strains, squinting at the back-lit page. Impossible to read. Resumes typing furiously: ‘I can’t xhink of whax xo wrixe so insexead Iwill wrixe ax xhe xypewrixer unxil she xalks xo me. GOOD GODX Why doesn’t she xalk xo meXXX
    She is looking at the spilled wine on the floor.
    He can’t bring himself to look at her. He doesn’t need to. It keeps going around his head—two glasses. TWO!
    “Whatcha workin’ on?”
    He stops typing, adjusts his glasses. “I’m sorry?”
    “You’re a writer. So, whattre you writing?”
    He looks back to the page, feigning irritation at her distraction. He fake-reads a couple sentences and returns to her, waiting.
    “What?” she shrugs. “Don’t want to spoil the magic?”
    “I’m on a seance!” he answers.
    “A what?"
    “A seance! You do know what—”
    “I know what a seance is. It’s just—”
    There is a long obvious pause. She is slipping away.
    “That bottle,” he says, turning in his seat to square at her. “The label. You do know what that little axe stands for, don’t you?”
    It is night when her husband finally joins them. He finds his wife in the back of the cafe. She is standing. She is pissed. She is shaking her hand and tells her husband she might have broken it on that asshole’s face. They hurry out of the cafe.
    He is laid out, over his table, which has collapsed in a flurry of papers and wine and cigarette ash. Several important looking bits of hardware have escaped from the Underwood, he picks up one of the keys from the ground and strains past his throbbing, crunchy nose to make it out.
    ‘!’
    “So,” he chuckles, wincing at his nose. “We meet again?”
    There is so much blood. All he did was try to flirt a little, how could he have known she was married? That’s the problem with women today. No, it’s always been the problem with women: they don’t know how to take a compliment. They can’t just let a man make them feel pretty or special.
    He pulls together the wreckage of his table. The spilled wine and the papers. He gathers the Underwood’s scatter of dislodged hardware. He decides to remember her, commit her to memory so he can write her into a book later. Pensione Vengeance. That will be the title, though it hasn’t been written yet.

It is later. Nursing his broken nose, he pours over the pages of his manuscript that looks like it was wrestled from the mouth of an alcoholic crocodile. He’s crying a little, but not from the pain, which was substantial, but for the possible disfiguring features his smashed nose could very well assume.
    That woman, tiny fists, almost knocked his head right off his shoulders!
    And for what? All he did was put his hand on her leg.
    He gives up trying to edit the tangle of papers, impossible with a freshly broken nose. It’s a good thing he doesn’t believe in editing. Editing, as he states often and loudly, is the quickest, most sure-fire way to kill the spirit in your writing. It has always been a point of pride his reviews accomplish little retooling beyond adding the missing t’s and exclamation points, or to clarify text bled by spilled wine or torched by a cigarette.
    This was an extra effort he was happy to perform as long as the typewriter was the pièce de résistance to his meticulously constructed portrait. But what now? The evening’s scuffle had most certainly been the kiss of death for the horrid Underwood.
    He lays back in bed. A chorus of squeaks from the springs in the awful mattress in his awful hotel room, which he chose specifically because it was awful. He closes his eyes to the incredible, throbbing mash of nose. The bleeding is finally letting up.
    He decides, every true writer should have his nose broken at least once.
    Realizing this helps him embrace the injury. As far as a badge of honor, it’s no broken Underwood, but people will still look upon it with admiration and disgust.
    It has to be a good story though. Impressive.
    He recreates the event in his head, replacing the furious tourist with tiny fists to a gigantic, drunken brute. Russian probably? No, Russian is too obvious. Polish perhaps? Yes. A Pollack, groping women at the bar. Finally, he’s forced to inserted himself between the Pollack and some girl. The Pollack curses him, breath reeking of rancid sardines and Ouzo—a last, whimsical detail just before lights out. Bystanders will report what they saw: this man, huge and violent, simply put his massive fist, solid as the end of a log, through the American’s face.
    He’d have to leave town to tell a story like that, since everyone in this small town was there and saw what really happened.
    Maybe it was finally time to return to America? To return home.
    But then, what is America? What is home?