About Nightfall in Verona

Welcome to a Great Story from a Loquacious Renegade...

In 1973 I had the great good fortune to be treated to a trip to Europe by two friends. We bought a VW bus in Frankfurt and wound our way over the Alps to Tuscany. A week and a half later I was in a train headed down the coast of Italy alone, embarking on what remains the adventure of my life. Nightfall in Verona is the memoir of my odyssey, written last year thirty-seven years out.

Friend Caroline Marshall, editor of the NPR Anthology Listening to Ourselves calls my book "fabulous."

The inimitable poet Ruth Mowry writes: "
Oh heartbreak and romance. This is incredible. You are a wonderful writer, and this has captivated me, just this chapter! Wow."

My friend and editor Jack Brooks says I've written a "glittering, lyrical tour d' force."

Thanks to all who spurred me on and served as my "beta" readers and editors: Caroline, Jack, Maureen. I'll be publishing the work through my imprint, Orfea Books with customary fanfare soon.

Use the archived links on the sidebar to access the chapters. Do leave a comment or two-- and thanks for reading me.

I post poetry at La Parola Vivace, and I blog on the issues du jour at Loquaciously Yours. You can contact me at jenneandrews2010@gmail.com .

Jenne' Andrews March 2011

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Chapter Four - Nightfall in Verona - Jenne' R. Andrews

Chapter Four – Wherein the Poet Takes the Wheel

He who will establish himself on a certain height must yield according to circumstances, like the weather-cock on a church-spire, which, though it be made of iron, would soon be broken by the storm-wind if it remained obstinately immovable, and did not understand the noble art of turning to every wind.  Heinrich Heine,  English Fragments (1828), Ch. 11: The Emancipation

For two days we had been hanging out in Zirl, one of the most picturesque and history-laden towns in Austria, high in the Tyrol.

One of us had gone missing, Caroline-- and we could only wait, and hope that she was all right and hadn't been sold into slavery.

At thirty, Caroline was a beautiful woman, with long dark hair and brown eyes, a wide smile. She had lost weight, and planned to keep it off. She tucked her shirt in and belted her slim waist.

Julia and I were twenty-five and she looked like a Baroque angel. She too had long hair, a lighter brown, a small heart-shaped face; she was slim and pretty. She was besieged by men wherever we went.

I had long dark hair, blue eyes. I always thought I was fatter than I really was. I would look in the mirror and see a fat girl, turning sideways to suck in my stomach. As there were few mirrors available to us, at least traveling as we did from campground to campground, I would steal looks at myself in store windows, glancing over at myself as we walked and walked, taking in the touted attractions and veering off on our own, down tiny cobbled streets to small bistros in rose gardens.

I needed to constantly affirm to myself that I was pretty, or perhaps, given that I had permitted myself to be plucked right out of my life, that I was still there.

Regarding the sorrows that had arisen in the St. James churchyard, I continued in moments to worry about not only the wounded lion of my lover and how he was, but back in Colorado, the parents who bobbed all day in the water of dishabille  filling up our house.  

After years in and out of psychiatric hospitals, subjected to many shock treatments and battling to get on her feet, my mother had succumbed to drug and alcohol addiction.  She was incontinent at 60, spending her days in an armchair in our study, helped to the bathroom by my father periodically to change her clothes.

My father had been diagnosed with emphysema in 1968 and was running out of air. He refused to use his oxygen; he had begun to shrivel up and he fought for every breath. He was utterly devoted to my mother, although I thought he should have parked her in a mental hospital and left her there to save us from the awfulness of seeing both of them decline. 

My father was not the sort of man to leave his wife, no matter what happened. This was not the modus operandi of his generation.

I had written of the pain of their deterioration and my inability to rescue them for a very long time. I had moved to Minnesota with a boyfriend in 1970 to get away, staying after he moved on.

Now, I had come to Europe in large measure, I had begun to realize by the time we reached the Alps,  for relief from the past via an immersion in antiquity, which at times in turn re-illuminated the problematic thread in the fabric of my life as had happened to me in the churchyard at Zirl. It was useless to deny that I had brought my parents with me in my heart. I could not jettison myself from them into some new life; I could not abandon them. I had written numerous postcards to them, feeling guilty every time I wired for a little extra money.

Julia and I settled into our bus. It rained and the town shut down and we dozed. I wrote and worked on my manuscript; In Pursuit of the Family, my small first collection of poetry, had Robert Bly's scribbles all over it. I wanted my work to be very good. I drafted small short-lined poems about our trip, reining myself in, subscribing to the lyrical-but-abbreviated imperative of contemporary poetics. Julia drew beautiful whimsical characters and creatures, and painted them with watercolors.

By the time Caroline returned, emerging from the mist with a big smile on her face, her lover in tow, Julia had an entire new portfolio of sketches and I had several new poems.

Caroline led her amour du jour up to the bus.

“Julia, Jen, this is Beni.”

Beni”. I thought to myself. “Wow.”

She turned to him and kissed him.

He grinned at us.

“He doesn't speak any English at all,” she said. “But look.”  She nodded at him.

He stepped back and braced his legs widely apart and opened his mouth. He emitted a long, ear-splitting yodel that bounced off the peaks.

“High on a hill lived a lonely goatherd....” went through my mind like a ticker in Times Square.

“Bravo.” We didn't know what else to say. We clapped.

Caroline turned to Beni and kissed him again.

“Thank you. Danke.”

He bowed to her, and pretended to wipe a tear from his eye.

“Danke schein..for...da..yavol, gut focking... “

He walked away.

“Ready?” Julia asked, hugging Caroline.

“Yes,” she said. “Sorry I was gone so long. Is Jen going to drive?”

It was dusk, but it was past time for us to be on our way. I looked out and up at the tops of the peaks, trying not to see that the road appeared to climb nearly vertically up into amassing cumulus clouds.

“I'll drive,” I said. “But first let's have a little wine.”

We sat in our idling bus and I downed three or four tin cups of vino bianco.

Then I got behind the wheel. Now Caroline and Julia sat in the back like sightseers-- I was alone, in the front seat, charged with the solemn duty of somehow getting us over the Alps.

“So how was he,” I asked Caroline.

She laughed. “Most excellent pitch and woo,” she said.

“Nothing like red meat and mountain air,” I thought, hiding my anxiety.

I drove up higher and higher, nosing into the dusk. At least the road was dry. There wasn't much traffic. What concerned me was whether the bus had the horsepower to do this sort of thing. I had driven up Pike's Peak with my father in a V-6 US Department of Agriculture Chevy, a sturdy thing with a three-on-the-post you could gear down with for traction. We had also, years later, driven over the Continental Divide in our old Nash Rambler,  a V-6 as well. 

The bus was a sardine can, ironically enough made by Germans, whose history indisputably involved the making of solid things such as the Berlin Wall. It would and did tip over in high winds. I laughed when I thought of driving it in Wyoming, where immense tractor-trailers would fall over like Tonka Toys in 90 mph gusts.

I wondered about our tires, if we could count on them on the descent. I hoped that the combined weight of our bodies and belongings would keep the wheels on the road even if, as I had begun to anticipate, we would encounter mountain weather.

“Give me some more wine, please,” I said. They passed me the tin chalice we had begun to share.

I looked in the rear view mirror. They were curled up with each other, under a blanket, their heads touching.

“Great. Now it's all up to me,” I thought.

It never occurred to me to say to my friends: It's not safe to go over the Alps at night, on any night. We are endangering each other. We should wait until morning.

I was not to become that self-concerned and self-protective until much later, and certainly not on this trip.

As it was, a certain amount of wine can make you feel immortal and immune to danger. So it was that I had one voice saying: “Stop. Turn around now,"  a subterranean alarm going off in the recesses of my brain where there was a tiny bit of sober matter. The other voice was like its own wild horse, euphoric, elated, self-destructive; it said, like the soprano in La Gioconda, pushing her lover away, “Va!” Go.

I drove up the mountain road out of Zirl, gripping the wheel. It wasn't long before the route narrowed, and not long before I had to turn on the headlights. A flash of light on rock warned me of traffic coming from the other direction, the only virtue to night driving under these conditions that I could fathom.

“What time is it?”

No one said a word. My friends were out cold. This in a way was my chance to vindicate myself-- I had been the one who needed reassurance, scared to death to be away from where I felt safe.

“How safe were we now?” We were not, but I imagined that we were so that I could keep going.

I drove on through the night-- there had been small lights from chalets on either side of the road; they disappeared. I could feel the altitude; my ears popped. As they popped at about 10,000 feet in Colorado, I figured we were nearing the summit.

A deer flashed across the road and was gone. My heart flew into my mouth. That was Strike One, I thought.

I steered around a widened curve, encountering a steeper ascent than before. I pressed on.

Suddenly, we were on the flat. I could see a widened shoulder on both sides. I could also tell from the abrupt lines of those shoulders that there was nothing but a plunge down the mountain on both sides.

I pulled over, got out, squatted in the gravel, stretching my legs.

“Ladies. Wake up.”

Not a peep.

I got back in and settled myself resolutely behind the wheel. I took another gulp of wine, replenishing it from the globe Caroline had handed me and that I had braced on the floor board on the passenger side. It was beside the point now that I was half-drunk.

Something flew across the windshield. Startled, I looked out, starting up the engine. Snow. Enormous snowflakes, coming at us like shooting stars.

I turned on my brights. That made it worse; refracted, they doubled in size, making the storm look worse than it was.

I thought about my father's tricks in such situations, when we had been caught by the weather unawares in our trips together.

I didn't want to do this, but it was the only way. I turned off the headlights, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the air filled with light thrown off by the storm. Then I put on the emergency brake, and eased into first gear.

I let the low gear help us, foot lightly on the brake, around one switchback, and then another. Whenever I could see a patch of shoulder, I would pull off to collect myself and close and open my eyes. Now I wasn't interested in any more wine.

I pulled back onto the pass, and repeated the procedure, barely seeing a few feet ahead of the bus in the driving snow. I felt our back wheels skid; I corrected the skid.

Suddenly, Caroline and Julia woke up. They popped up in the back seat like Punch and Judy.

“Oh my God. Oh my God.”

“Quiet,” I said. “You need to be quiet. And you might try praying.”

We were descending at a good rate. As long as I could see a few feet ahead, I could keep us adhered to the road, rather than soaring off into oblivion ass over teakettle.

The road widened again; it felt to me that we were almost down. Through the curtain of snow I could see farther.

Suddenly, we were on the flat, and out of the storm. The road had widened. There was no other traffic.

Caroline leaned forward. “Good job, Jen,” she said.

I pulled over, sagging with exhaustion.

They both looked at me with new respect.

“Did it snow the whole time?”

“Pretty much,” I said. “Would you drive now?”

Julia got out; I climbed out on the passenger side and went to the back of the bus. I could scarcely stand. I reached into my duffel bag for my nightgown.

Caroline laughed softly. “Get some rest.”

“I am going to. I need a few hours, but I don't want to miss crossing into Italy.”

“Jen.” Caroline's voice pierced my fading consciousness. 

“Did you take a detour? We have to cut over to the highway for Florence now, and we're not on the road I marked on the map.”

Oh, God. I leaned forward. “It was snowing. I couldn't see. Forever more in my imagination I will have brought us over the right road because it got us here.”

I couldn't believe I had gotten us into Italy. I began to comprehend that perhaps someone strong, competent, more than capable of rising to the occasion-- whose acquaintance I had not fully made-- lived within me.

 Please scroll down or use the drop-down archive box at the end of the blog for preceding chapters.  Comments may be left by clicking on the comment link or elsewhere.  I can be reached at jenneandrews2010@gmail.com.

Copyright Jenne' R. Andrews 2011

1 comment:

  1. Literally, a chilling description of an awesome night ride over the Alps in a snowstorm. It kept me glued to my swivel chair as though I were with you in the passenger seat of the VW van skidding on the slippery surface. Wheew, what an adventure.
    By now drinking and driving are streng verboten in all European lands, even France and Italy, where wine drinking had always been regarded as part of the daily diet.