Italy, November 2020
A reflection and a small story
What are you opening? my neighbours all want to know. The hairdresser’s next door, the deli guy down the way, the doorwoman from across the street, all ask the same question as soon as they spot me. Subtext: What could you possibly be opening in this time of closures? I am the new renter on this block of small businesses in Rome as the COVID-19 pandemic brings a second wave of serious illnesses to Italy, of climbing death tolls, of a new series of restrictions and curfews and shutdowns, of the looming possibility of a second full lockdown.
I am an anomaly, a person driving the wrong way down a one-way street, a stranger who speaks Italian with an anglo accent, coming to this neighbourhood of working-class families and small shops to begin something at a time when others are trying their best not to end them. I tell them I am opening a private studio, that I am a writer. They watch me, unabashed, as I crouch down to latch my rusty bicycle to a pole on the sidewalk. I do not say, don’t worry, most of my family and friends have no idea, either, what I could possibly do at that desk all day.
What else I don’t say: that this former storage space which I am renting, this home-away-from-home office, is the ultimate luxury for a person like me, a dream come true, a storyteller’s room of one’s own that would make Virginia Woolf proud, the first dedicated writing space that I have ever had. That this is one of the nicest things that could happen to me in a year of losses and cancellations and yawning distances and worry. That stories help us to swim through the turbulent waters of our times. That this is me, looking ahead. That this is me, planting a stake in the community, making a tiny contribution to someone’s economy.
I will not tell them that I’ll wake up the next day hoping fervently that the hairdresser’s and aesthetician’s and real estate office and the local car wash that only saw one client the other day, will be able to stay open or pay the rent for the duration. I will not tell them that I insisted on taking a ground-floor space, with a roll-up security gate, that I refused to share an office, to be sure that my work space would be lockdown-friendly, just in case. Walk in off the street, no risk to anyone, no matter what the coming weeks may bring. I’ll just walk by the next storefront the following morning and tip my head – a quick hello – before getting to work.
American Music – fiction
Originally published in How to Make a Window Snake: Three Novellas in Flash (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2017, compiled by Bath Flash Fiction)
Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid is pouring out of the sound system and washing through the rooms of the house. The boys are dancing hip hop to the classical music and it makes our father light up like a new grandparent, not like the dying man he’s supposed to be. This is how you dance to American music, my oldest says, and Dad raises an eyebrow. It’s a sophisticated line for a boy his age, but I know he got it from his own father, who showed him how to hip hop to jazz, to Broadway, to Samuel Barber.
My first-born is the color of mahogany, a reddish, lit-up kind of dark, the way my Momma was, with her same substantial legs and rear end, while the baby, the six-year-old, is lighter than I am, with butterscotch-colored curls, the same tone as his skin. And I wonder, how will their lives be different for their differences? And what will this next baby be like, when she comes out, the first girl to be born in the family in thirty years?
Dad is making a wavy motion with his head and neck. The boys laugh and answer him back with their own moves. My sister’s son watches from the doorway, his body a seismic shift, pulling him towards manhood. We’re all dying, don’t forget that, Dad said one day, after we’d come back from the clinic. But until we’re dead, we’re still living, he said, touching the side of his head to mine. My father, dentist-turned-philosopher, wiggles his yellowed fingertips to the music.
Charmaine Wilkerson is an American writer who lives in Italy. Her fiction and essays can be found in various magazines and anthologies, including Best Microfiction 2020. Her novella How to Make a Window Snake won the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award in 2017 and the Saboteur Award for Best Novella in 2018. Her debut novel Black Cake is due to be published in 2022. Charmaine is also the judge of the forthcoming Bath Flash Fiction Award, February 2021. See an interview with her here.