FROM VERONICA’S VEIL
We are lived by powers we pretend to understand.
—W. H. Auden
I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.
A persistent shimmer sears my clenched eyelids: my fitful slumber violated. Out a south-facing window, Saturday’s excess of sun mottles the nodding spines and lax foliage of Mimmu’s fig bushes. Finally and fully wrecked, my assaulted sleep abdicates to an obstinate sun. I am me, awake.
Hauling my contorted person from the wad of stale bedclothes, I adjust to a vague spasm from the prior night’s drubbing. I stand or attempt to, determining the naked Giacometti teetering in the mirror is myself, erect, a waving limb marking daylight and shadow, hardly different from the fig branches out my window.
My senses wrangle to parse space and time, trying to devise a semblance of a here and a now, other stirrings imposing an unheralded order on the swirl of bright and dim. A young man, maybe seventeen, fair as a Persian prince smiles the other side of the pane. Possibly, I was dreaming.
Precipitously I awaken fully. All of the light is forced out of the moment as the boom of Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances crackles and bellows a crushing racket from a warped speaker of a tiny radio in the barn where I presume Mimmu is awake and working.
Grabbing Mimmu’s robe, a billow of paisley silk, scarlets, greens, and blacks envelopes my skin and bone nearly twice around. At a glance, I am a rococo Christmas ornament endeavoring to locate the door to greet the young man who I begin to recall through my self-wrapping and travel to the door.
He is one Augustu “Gus” Matranga. Mimmu and I met him a week prior at Club Scheherazade. The Persian prince took heed of Mimmu down front, alone sketching Big Bettye as she extemporized the whisper of a melody over the piano man’s fingertips glancing seemingly above the white and black keys at the Scheherazade. The place transformed: no longer a hazy dive but for a solitary moment, even the stale smells of old beer and wet cigarette butts became momentarily those of incense and bees’ wax candles.
In the year I have known Mimmu and the months I have cohabited with him at his farm, he sometimes abruptly walks away from me to sketch on a napkin, to take a note about something he has observed or simply to study a thing like a variety of plant or tree or the moon in the daylight sky. I gleaned early on in our friendship his taking small vacations from normal social interaction as the cost of romantic involvement with a visual artist. Rather than feeling disclaimed, I love his egresses from “normal life.” I love how Mimmu is so in love with the world. It is part of loving him.
In the bar, Mimmu sketched on an assortment of bar napkins pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle on the cramped circular bar table. From across the room where I sat, I watched Mimmu work oblivious to the crowd, the smoky room, and the dark chiseled half-boy, half-man who followed Mimmu’s every line as the older brawnier man recorded his impressions with a stubby pencil on a sometimes uncooperative cocktail napkin.
Danny Cinquemani, one of the regular toughs always at the Scheherazade, barged up to Mimmu slapping him on the back. Cinquemani was oblivious to Mimmu’s endeavor. Mimmu, nearly always good-humored, laughed and cajoled a moment with the gangster, then immediately returned to his work.
When Bettye had finished her set and the club resumed its usual cacophony of bottles, glasses, and guffaws, I stepped across the room to join Mimmu at his bar-table-turned-easel. As I crossed in Mimmu’s direction, the young man turned to me.
“He’s amazing,” he said.
“Yes, he is,” I reply. “Why don’t you join us? I’ll introduce you.”
“Oh, thank you.”
We both stepped up to Mimmu, and I said to him, “It seems you have a fan. Mimmu Finocchiaro, this is…I’m sorry I don’t know your name.”
“Oh, sorry, I’m Gus Matranga…Mr. Finocchiaro, I’m so pleased to meet you. I love your work.”
“Well, you, young man, have the name of an artist far greater than my meager talents. Are you a relation of Dante Matranga?”
“Yes, he was my father’s cousin. He’s why I am here, not here in the bar but here in the world. He’s somewhat responsible for my existence.”
It seems Gus’s father was Dante Matranga’s helper painting the murals at Saint Joseph’s Church. The woman who was to become Gus’s mother worked at the church.
Gus, Junior attended St. Bonaventure High School and was to start a full scholarship to Georgetown in the fall.
“A radical jump,” Mimmu jibed, “from the Franciscans to the Jesuits!”
The younger man laughed out loud.
“The Franciscans” Mimmu continued, “are lambs, but the Jesuits are wolves.”
Mimmu then leaned in closer to Gus and said with a confiding grin, “You’re not old enough to be here.”
“Yeah, it’s my Sicilian looks. I’ve been shaving since I was twelve. And, no one really cares. I’m just here for the music.”
“Yes,” I added, “and no one really enforces the laws.”
“…and my family knows Johnny Red.” Gus continued, “I come here to hear the music not to drink underage.”
Mimmu and I were entirely taken with our new underage friend. Not yet eighteen, Gus Matranga was observant, intelligent, and possessed more wit and better repartee than most adults.
“Have you seen the St. Joseph’s murals?” Gus asked. “They are my cousin Dante’s best.”
“Then, I must see them,” Mimmu insisted.
A plan was made to see Dante Matranga’s murals at St. Joseph’s, and that plan is for this morning as I wrap myself in Mimmu’s robe and I awaken to Gus’s arrival in keeping with a plan I had all but forgotten.
I am Rich St. Pierre, a queer, a disbarred lawyer, and a sometimes bail bondsman. I possess the dubious distinction of being the ne’er-do-well progeny of the earliest settlers of this place.
How does one begin to think or tell of what might have been? Someone with whom you fall in love passes you by for another. Someone who loves you stays and dies for reasons out of nowhere. This is a story of arrivals and departures to and from a life in the city where I was born in the city where I remain mostly watching, listening and waiting for the unfolding of events.
They demolish so many old buildings in this place. Some of my favorites seem to disappear with little or no warning. The absence of a building can be as discomfiting as the absence of a loved one. Out of sight for me is seldom out of mind. A building that is gone evokes a ghost of a future that may never happen. Such absences, like a herding dog snapping at my heels, push me into a present I had not planned on, a present that never seems to have announced itself in prior events.
Only weeks before I met Mimmu, my mother died. I was informed of her death by my friend Helen Wiley who works at the newspaper. Because Helen knew my mother, she was asked to write her obituary. I attended my mother’s funeral with Helen. We shared an empty pew at the back of the church. Everyone in the church knew us. Not one of them acknowledged our presence. My brother Marty passed within an arms reach of me and passed me as if I were a light pole.
My next month’s check from the family trust represented the full value of my inheritance. At my father’s death, my brother saw to it I received only the barest minimum. With Mother’s death, he could no longer withhold money that was legally mine. It made me comparatively solvent. I can no longer think of myself as impoverished.
President and Mrs. Kennedy are in Europe this summer morning when Gus Matranga arrives at our door. It seems the world loves the charming couple. So unlike the Eisenhowers who were America’s Kansas grandparents. These Kennedys are young and full of charisma. They are possessed of glamour and so much promise of prosperity for those who yearn greatly for a better life.
The Kennedy glamour and promise notwithstanding, things have changed in this city. The interactions between the races are honing a sharper edge. Younger Negroes no longer take pains to hide the contempt on their faces.
As I dress, Gus waits and Mimmu’s radio blares unabated from the barn turned artist’s studio behind the small farmhouse where I now live with him.
As Gus and I enter the studio, Mimmu works. The barn is packed with Mimmu’s possessions. There are so many crates, boxes, half-painted canvases, drawings, things piled everywhere along the barn walls and even more piled around the loft.
There is too much radio noise for Mimmu to hear us enter as he paints like a wild man. On huge canvases, he uses large brushes sometimes brushes like a house painter would use. He ascends and descends an old step ladder that he drags from place to place to add a color or to paint over a line creating a new line. He stops in place and creates an edge, razor sharp using a brush that seems too awkward and clunky to draw anything but the broadest stroke. To my eye, it is perfection, but if Mimmu does not like it, he covers the line again and redraws it. And, then three, four, five more times, until it is the line that suits him exactly.
When the music stops I call to him. Hearing me, he steps away from his work wipes himself clean with one of the scores of paint-spattered rags strewn across the space.
Mimmu grabs Gus and gives him a massive bear hug actually frightening the young man some. The radio continues to roar out advertisements over our conversation.
“What is this work,” the boy asks.
“Right now, I’m calling it Veronica’s Veil.”
“Who is she?”
“She…,” Mimmu says, “is Dale Heavens dressed and performing as Yma Sumac.”
“At the Treasure Chest?”
“You know it?” I ask.
“I’ve never been there,” Gus responds. “My family knows the owners.”
“You go to the Sheherazade…” Mimmu adds.
“Yes,” the young man answers, “but that is very different than going to the Treasure Chest.”
Mimmu and I laugh.
As the conversation ends, the news from the radio fills the open space. Following the international story of the Diem government flexing its muscles against Buddhists in Southeast Asia, there is a national story of troops continuing to patrol the streets of Birmingham, Alabama after bomb attacks and riots. Then a local story that businessman Jordan Browne was found shot to death in his home in the Hyde Park District. Browne was born Yarden Broyn ben Chanoch in Zagreb, Yugoslavia in 1926. He was thirty-seven years old. The police assume it is murder. No suspect has been identified.
When Mimmu and I hear the name Jordan Browne we begin to listen more closely. When Gus hears the city of Zagreb, his attention is peaked.
“That’s funny,” Gus says. “I thought I knew most of the Croatians in town. I didn’t know him.”
“He’s a Jew,” Mimmu says.
“We know him,” I say. “Well, we know who he is.”
“I guess it would make sense that I don’t know him,” Gus adds. “I guess I only know the Catholic Croatians. Most of them go to St. Joseph’s.”
As the three of us ride to St. Joseph’s Church, Gus tells us of a research project he wrote on Monsignor Aloysius Blažević, a Croatian Jesuit who helped Jews and many others escape the reach of Ustaše, the Nazi collaborators during the occupation of Croatia. Blažević was a relative of Gus’s Latin teacher Mr. Kovačić. It is his Latin teacher who gave Gus the idea for the project. Gus got an A, and Mr. Kovačić, the Latin teacher at St. Bonaventure High School arranged the publication of Gus’s paper in a prominent Catholic magazine. “I believe all of the notoriety synced my Georgetown scholarship,” Gus explains.
St. Joseph’s Church is a stunning find. The architectural style of the structure is wholly and fastidiously Baroque. As soon as the car stops Mimmu seems to fall into an architectonic trance. Gus and I evaporate from his notice. He is taken over the by the edifice before us. His eyes scour the placement of every exterior stone. His spell slightly broken, he turns to Gus to ask, “Local stone?”
“Yes,” Gus replies. “Limestone from Carthage, Missouri.”
Mimmu nods and returns to his altered state.
The interior is notably more arresting. The nave is cool, spotlessly clean and smells of oil soap. There is only enough light to see the extensive decorative painting. The colors are as vibrant as if they have been painted the day before, the detail exact, the Trompe-l’œil so real one feels as though one could reach into the imaginary three-dimensional space.
Mimmu’s somnambulant, one-man procession halts another long moment at the Sixth Station of the Cross, Veronica wiping the face of Jesus. He then resumes his journey through the sublime space.
Finally, Mimmu begins to apprehend that Gus and I are in fact with him. As he moves toward us, he whispers more to himself than us, “This stucco is like Serpotta.”
“Our family is from Palermo and Monreale,” Gus says. My cousin was born in Vucciria in Palermo. He saw Serpotta’s work everywhere.”
“You know there’s nothing at all Croatian about this church,” Mimmu replies.
“I know. It’s completely Sicilian,” Gus says. “It could have been built in the Val di Noto.”
Mimmu then turns to me and says, “This young man knows his architecture.”
Gus is visibly pleased with himself having introduced Mimmu to this delight and also having known so much of what he is talking about.
Mimmu, then, turns and with a great deal of purpose walks back to the Sixth Station of the Cross. He says to both of us, “Now if you Americans know your Hemingway, you will recall that the matador’s intimate passes with the cape, bringing the bull’s horns very near to his body and displaying to the crowd his art, his total mastery over the bull…these close passes are called veronicas after St. Veronica who wiped the face of Jesus with her veil.”
Gus suggests we take lunch at Donnetta’s. This was unusual because Donnetta’s is in a bowling alley on a side-street off Third and Walnut near the City Market. I hadn’t been there in years. Mimmu has never been there. The matronly Donnetta with her blazing tangerine dye-job owns the bowling alley and cooks in the tiny attached concession area as if it were her own kitchen.
Mimmu speaks to Donnetta not in Italian but in the language of Sicily. She makes for us sandwiches of smoked ricotta, fresh tomato, olive oil, and dried oregano on a hard roll. The food is from heaven. Mimmu is delighted, and once again Gus is very pleased with himself for having presented Mimmu with some of Sicily in a remote corner of the middle of America.
“What is the significance,” Gus asks Mimmu, “of the title of your painting Veronica’s Veil?”
“So many people live life never seeing the lives of people around them. Never understanding their struggles, their differences. Some of us live in a veiled existence and others of us keep trying to peek behind that veil.”
“Is that the job of the artist?”
“Oh, I believe Riccardo here,” (Mimmu calls me Riccardo only when he is speaking of me and not to me.) “is more concerned with that kind of knowledge than I am. I am simply an observer.”
I only smile.
“You, young man, are something of an observer with your investigation into those people who were saved in the war by this brave Croatian churchman. His must have been a very dangerous venture.”
“There was very little in print on the subject, but Mr. Kovačić was a great deal of help. He directed me to several sources. He and my mother helped me with the materials written in Croatian. There were even Italian sources, but Mr. Kovačić said that they were only Italian communist propaganda, so I did not use them.”
“Who were the writers?”
“I remember Renzo Tassone.”
“Oh, you should read Tassone,” Mimmu advises Gus. “He’s very good. Do you read Italian?”
“I know more Croatian than I do Italian. In Croatian, I know only dirty words and the Our Father and Hail Mary.”
“Then, you are prepared for most of life’s eventualities,” I respond.
We all laugh.
“Next month, my late cousin Dante Matranga would be a hundred years old. St. Joe’s is having a celebration of his birthday. Family members will talk about his work. You should come.”
We agree that Mimmu and I will attend the birthday celebration of Dante Matranga.
The night after we spent the day with Gus, Mimmu and I stay in. Before Mimmu was in my life such a thing was unheard of especially on a weekend. Mimmu cooks. He always cooks. We make love. With my arms wrapped around his barrel-like chest covered in black and grey hair, we talk of the dead Jordan Browne and the very much alive Gus Matranga.
“This Jordan Browne who was shot,” Mimmu asks, “who would want to kill him?”
“Almost anyone,” I reply.
Mimmu laughs. “A very nice man, I take it.”
“From what I know,” I say, “he was an angry man.”
“Anger can make one a scoundrel,” Mimmu adds.
“I know that he did very well in his retail luggage business,” I say, “but there are rumors…”
“Ah, rumors…” Mimmu intones with some amusement.
“Yes, there’s talk that Jordan trafficked in stolen merchandise,” I continue. “I know for a fact he was involved in some questionable real estate transactions. He got the Fannon Place house through some shady mortgage arrangement and foreclosure that no one could fully explain, and the nastiest of the rumors is that the most successful business expansion for his luggage business was part of a money laundering scheme.”
“Umm…” Mimmu says pulling me close to him signaling he wishes to send the outside world back to its place outside our rustic cocoon.
“Hah,” Mimmu breaks a long silence laughs out loud, “our Sicilian-Croatian prince will visit the Scheherazade that’s full of every sort of misdeed one can imagine, but will not visit the Treasure Chest agonizing that someone might think him queer.”
“Agonizing that word might get back to his parents that he is queer,” I say.
“Is he queer?” Mimmu asks.
“I assume so,” I reply.
Mark Spano, writer and filmmaker, has over 30 years of experience in film and television production, the performing arts, and arts management. His feature documentary “Sicily: Land of Love and Strife” premiered in April of 2018. He is also is a contributing editor for the online magazine Times of Sicily. Mark’s novel entitled Midland Club, was recently published by Thunderfoot Press. Midland Club has received two awards and significant critical acclaim. He is presently developing Midland Club for the screen. He holds an MBA from Marymount University and an MA from American University. He also holds dual US/Italian citizenship.