Spring 2011, #17


Catwalk Plastique

     by John Domini

He had connections here, on the white man's side of the Mediterranean. These made it easy to get past the brother working security, and soon Risto stood four stories above downtown Naples, picking his way around the panoramic dome that capped the Galleria Umberto I. Along the rooftop catwalk, the Galleria's bulging exoskeleton, there perched two acquaintances of his own color. Two Africans, rigging a bomb.

"Per carita," Risto kept saying. Mercy.

Nonetheless Mepris and Yebleh confirmed that the two ciabatta-sized packages to either side of him were powerful plastic explosives. Each was fitted where a V of curving girder met the milky glass of the palazzo's bulging skylight, and it appeared the contraptions didn't yet have their hookups and detonators in place. Not that Risto knew anything about it. He'd only seen such stuff in the movies. Then again, it did feel as if the roof access, a claustrophobic spiral staircase, had ushered him up into a movie. These men he'd thought of as friends had shrunk to two dimensions. Both had lighter skin, especially the golden Moroccan Mepris. Neither had Risto's fireplug bulk, his own dome up top, the shaved head he oiled every morning. He even affected a gold earring. A ridiculous cliche, but it helped with newcomers to the gallery.

"You want me to make up a story?" Mepris was asking. "Tell you it's performance art?"

"Per carita," said the gallery owner. "It was hard enough to believe the story that you and Yebleh were up here."

"Who thinks twice about a couple of brothers with a duffel bag?"

Maybe the brother working security, thought Risto. That man must at least have taken a handful of Euros in exchange for letting these two up. He wouldn't have been impressed by Mepris' hipster prettiness and he wouldn't have had a clue about Yebleh's reputation, the outsider artist. A Libyan Georgia O'Keefe, Yebleh did simoom-scapes. Just the thing for Risto's shop, Gallery Wind & Confusion. Featuring the outsiders, the immigrati, the space was practically the only one of its kind in Italy. Naturally it attracted the likes of Mepris. The Moroccan's ambitions lay elsewhere, he was some kind of poet, but so far he'd earned his daily bread primarily by hustling. If Mepris wasn't jotting in a notebook, he was casting come-hither glances. But on the Galleria roof he'd find none of the fantasy-addled rich men who hung out at Wind & Confusion, and his stare had shrunk to two dimensions.

"Look," Risto tried, "I'm up here. I heard something and I came up here."

"Whatever you heard," said Mepris, "honestly, you don't understand. You're a citizen. You've got a mortgage and two lovely children the color of caffe latte."

Risto could handle this, the resentment over his Italian wife and what she'd helped him accomplish. He'd heard all the nasty talk, puppet of Babylon.

"Caffe latte?" he snapped. "That'd be you, Morocco." Risto brought out his most guttural speaking voice, south of the Sahara. "Myself, I'm Mogadishu. I've seen enough buildings blown up to last the rest of my life."

"Naples, it's time these people learned — Naples is Mogadishu."

But the young man was softening. His accent revealed more French, and he looked to his accomplice. Yebleh kept his eyes on what might be the detonator, a chip he couldn't make fit in the back of a cell phone. He belonged to the internalizing breed of artist, the kind who wouldn't argue; Mepris should've known.

"Naples is a city, that's all. Could be the land of opportunity." When Risto freed a hand to gesture over the Opera House below, the People's Piazza beyond, he discovered how hotly he'd been gripping the rail. Still: Naples in this century, he went on, could be for the Africans what New York had once been for the Italians.

"Naples could be like that New York painting," he said, "1928 or something. Like The Figure Five in Gold."

"Oh, listen to him, Il Signore. Aristofano. You know, here in the North we've all got new names, but how did you turn out to be a philosopher?"

How hotly everything continued gripping. "If you think I'm hard to listen to, you should hear yourself. Playing terrorist while you're still wearing last night's eyeliner."

"You don't understand. The gold of the city, the figures in gold, all that taunting obscenity? Isn't that precisely why we have to take down the Galleria?"

This too came to seem like something Risto could work with, the thinking that had brought these men here. They hadn't just imagined the catastrophe of the flying glass and steel, across these thronging downtown crannies, but they'd grasped how the target itself made a statement. Unique among the ancient city's landmarks, the Galleria had nothing to do with the church or the law (immigration law, in particular). It served, rather, as the shoppers' Duomo. A resonating candy egg, it rose over a skewed X of storefronts. The decorations that covered the floors and walls might well have included some number off an old-fangled cash register, written in gold. What's more, other than a couple hunks of Fascist urban renewal, the bigger places around the centro were all either Gothic or Baroque. This however was a piece of fin de siecle Paris. You could imagine one of the Impressionists setting up a canvas in its cavernous interior. Peopling the scene, to be sure, would be the well-born and the servants who carried their purchases. The Galleria was the closest that crumbling Naples came to the Euro-dream of swank and entitlement. Seemed like something Risto could work with.

"Yes, the palazzo we despise," he said. "The place of all we can't have."

The others had broken off their handiwork, cellphone and plastique. An attachment or two remained unmade, but Mepris found himself a seat between glass and girder, a couple of wires dangling from his fist. To watch him settle down somehow suggested just the opposite: how perfect the setting would be for the final slugfest in a thriller. You could see Jason Bourne up here.

"You know," Risto said, "I've heard something."

Mepris, he'd heard, had suffered another run-in with the police. Talk about shrinking and flattening — to the cops he was nothing but another whore from the South. As for Yebleh, he'd been unable to resist dabbling in the junk and lost his latest girl. The gallery owner took care to speak in words that wouldn't hurt, spongy stuff like "confusion." He ignored how these seemed to echo the imbecilic cries of the hovering gulls. He ignored the flat taste of sentiments that could've come off a sympathy card. "That brother working security — working just downstairs, Senegalese brother I'd say — those shoes he got with the uniform are probably his first decent pair since he landed in Italy." Also Risto picked his way back to the notion that today's IED was hardly the product of deep conviction. Neither of today's demolition crew had so much as mentioned Allah or the Koran. He ventured the word "dilettante."

At this Yebleh plopped down beside his partner, heavily. "No. No, this isn't like that, it isn't phony. Destruction, utter destruction — there's nothing more real."

The bulge of the dome's base had the two in an embrace, pressed together side to side. Risto's troubled client was getting quite a look, too, a smoldering look no less, from the man beside him. Mepris preferred not to hide his intimacies; he rather enjoyed making the other guy uncomfortable. Now this was something the gallery owner hadn't heard. But then, Yebleh's first experiences of sex must've been with boys. He'd come up through the Islamic schools, the gender segregation, and by now Risto had seen half a dozen cases like his. Arabs in a different kind of relapse. That too must lie behind this rooftop madness, the madness of the men's lovemaking, entirely loveless and no use at all when it came to bridging the gaps within.
Risto's eyes dropped to his client's fingers, delicate, twiddling the detonator chip. When Mepris spoke up he was almost too quiet for the traffic noise: "Nothing more real."

Like a card sharp, Yebleh tossed the chip at Risto's feet.

Mepris went on more loudly: "Listen, whatever was going on with Yebleh and me, you do realize we're hardly the only Africans in Europe to think of such a thing?"

But Risto was slumped against the railing, dizzied by some street corner below, its stonework, its swarming.