Literary Orphans

“At the Musei Capitolini, Afternoon.” by Jeff Gabel


“It’s a bit odd, don’t you think?”

“Hmm.”

Despite his downward inflection, she knew the sound he made, if not an attempt at a question, was most certainly posed as an invitation for her to elaborate. “Well, just—it. I don’t know, two naked babies suckling on a wolf?”

“I don’t know if that quite does justice to it.”

“Oh it doesn’t?”

“This is a really important piece. It means, it signifies a lot.”

“Okay. Well, sorry. I guess you forgot to remind me that everything in the canon is infallible.” Her tone, while not entirely combative, was replete with notes of defiance.

He, meanwhile, could hardly disguise how much this irked him, how unsettled he was with the concession posed when he said, “Sure. I guess I know what you mean.”

“I didn’t mean anything, it’s just weird is all.”

“You know the myth, right?”

“Nope,” she replied.

“Well.” He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and folded his arms across his chest, just as he always did when in need of a little emphasis to shed light on the profundity of a moment, an object, a happening or tidbit of knowledge. Apparently, finding themselves surrounded by artifacts whose significance probably found little to no familiarity in the registries of even the most educated museumgoers qualified. It was that kind of place. No bells or whistles, just a lot of artifacts and ancient halls. For him, it echoed the kind of splendor others might glean from looking upon the caves Grotte di Castellana, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore at daybreak, or Piazza San Marco when it is flooded with water and reflecting a starlit sky.

“I don’t know which is which but, the two babies—Remus and Romulus, they’re the guys that founded Rome. Twins.”

“They were?”

“Mm, hmm.”

“Well why’s their mom a wolf?”

“As things would have it, their real mother was murdered and the brothers were cast into a river. They floated for a while until the She Wolf found them washed up on a bank.” As he spoke, he untucked his left arm, which drifted out in front of him while his hand waved to conjure up some sort of imagery or signification. To her, this just came off as a half-hearted accompaniment to his remark. An echo of his displayed frustration. Regardless, the gesticulation was something she knew quite well. Having seen him implement it countless times—usually when he was in the middle of expounding on an idea or notion that had taken hold of him—it always, unfailingly, aroused in her something akin to endearment. No matter how irksome or adolescent his behavior, she always adored him when he became worked up over something like this. The present was no exception. Just like that, the old feeling swelled and she bit her lip, suppressing a smile encouraged by the way his fingers flitted about, his use of the word cast. For all she could tell, her endeavor in restraint held true, for the degree of her composure invited in him no apparent self-consciousness or flustered speech. Nothing beyond the general distemper he’d already worked himself into.

“Still alive? Obviously,” she offered, only after collecting herself and almost instantly thinking, ‘Maybe not so obviously.’ After all, resurrection wasn’t that out of the question when a wolf rearing alliteratively named twins was the framework of the story he was going on about.

“Mm, hmm. She nursed them back to health,” he went on. “When they were strong again, a bird—a woodpecker, I think—fed them. After that, they were raised by a human—a farmer or something. Long story short, when they were grown up, they founded the city.”

“Or, as your grandpa would say, ‘to make a long story more boring.’

“Well, if you’re going to make fun.”

“I’m not.”

“You are.”

Okay. I’m sorry.” She paused, employing a quick hesitation before figuring it safe to speak. “So, it’s safe to say the statue was made as a commemoration?”

“Uh, huh.”

“Well, props for giving credit where credit is due.”

Rather than offering a reply, he nodded a few times. Three times, in fact—his motion likening itself to that of a weight being placed on the tray of a balance, tipping the scale on the fulcrum that was his neck, then gently bouncing up and down as gravity registered what implications were to be measured in the new load.

“Geez. Crazy to think all of this—” she went on, paying no heed to the fatigue or despondency or whatever it was informing the motion of his head, the late afternoon enervation so tacitly expressed. And this time it was she who gave a haphazard wave-of-her-hand to indicate the greater city outside. It was a wave that, were someone there who did not know her as well as he, that someone might have gathered a fleeting, mistaken presumption of her distaste for the whole place—its maze-like center, alleyways, fountains, and cobblestone streets. The caffè they’d stopped in an hour before, where espresso machines were concealed from public view so as to maintain secrecy over the method that made their espresso the best espresso, not only in Rome but all of Italy. The street performer in Piazza Navona dressed as if he had just stepped out of Roman Holiday, 8 ½, or the episode of Mad Men when Don and Betty Draper vacation there. How he stood, balancing, frozen in a tableau to appear as if he had been caught in a gust of wind, slaphappy with a bewildered, cartoonish smile plastered across his face. One hand holding his hat in place while the other carried an attaché briefcase. The security guard at the Coliseum who wore stilettos and somehow managed grace in the way she carried herself as she stepped across the uneven cobblestone. Walkie-talkie clipped to her waistband. “All thanks to this here wolf.”

“Yep,” he said, ready to speak again. “Pretty much. Well—if you believe in the myth, I suppose.”

She hated that, how he had to presume sincerity in a remark that had had no real intended depth beyond simple rhetoric and, yes, maybe a shot at humor—an attempt to lift and toss away the weight so readily evidenced in his tone.

Then, out of nowhere, at least from no recognizable stimulus, she began to laugh. First, her stomach quivered, then her hand lifted to her mouth in an effort to suppress what noises were coming out.

“What?”

“Oh, I don’t know. They just look funny like that.” Recovering from her fit, she did her best impression of how the baby on its knee—Remus or Romulus, she could not say—was holding up his little hands, as if the She Wolf’s nipple was the spigot on a cask, ready to release a single droplet that contained a crowning secret or divine power—a key to the city, perhaps. “Must’ve been pretty hungry. After getting tossed around in the river and all that.”

He nodded a few more times, then frowned. “Now that you know it you’ll start seeing it—them—referred to everywhere.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Mm, hmm.” He paused again, this time collecting his thoughts. “You know that faux, actually-really-expensive diner-looking-place in Fort Greene where I took you? On, uh, Dekalb? Romans. That, the She Wolf and twins are on their website, for instance.”

“I guess that makes sense.”

“And it’s also the logo of the bakery that always has a long line at the farmers’ market.”

“Oh,” she replied, nothing in her tone calling for more examples. But his mind was already a few measures along that thread, and she knew it would take more than mild disinterest to yank him away from it. “They’re what that Mountain Goats song is about, too,” he went on. “Or, at least, the part in the chorus refers to them.”

“Oh yeah? I don’t think I’ve heard that one,” she replied, thinking only of another that reminded her of wintry nights during the months after they met. She did not know the name of the track, nor could she recall any of the lyrics, but the guitar’s gentle chords, its delicate progression were right there, drifting into her ear and draping her in a sudden and unsought nostalgia. The endearment, which had moments ago transitioned so readily to irritation, eased into something else entirely. How wonderful and safe it was back then to be enveloped in his arms, pressed to his naked chest. How readily and completely she would fall asleep, even in the most awkward of positions. How she knew, also, when her touch was settling the demons swirling around in him. How she could feel him calming down through the tips of her fingers, the palm of her hand. Their limbs entangled. The most effortless and pure and exciting form of reciprocity she had ever known. And how no amount of his body against hers could make her feel constrained or claustrophobic or uncomfortable. Snow drifting down to the campus grounds as her bedside window fogged up. That old mattress without a frame or box springs which they slept on most nights because it was infinitely more comfortable than his. The following mornings when lawns and rooftops were draped in seamless, unmarked sheets of snow and, if the sun happened to be out, how his eyes would water from a kind of light sensitivity or allergy he had explained to her, but of which she never encountered another case. How many years had—

“Yes you have,” he replied, curtailing what remembrances were beginning to take hold of her. “I put it on your mix. Remember? It’s the—third to last song.”

To this, she remained silent, squinting her eyes while directing her gaze toward a small detail in the bronze of the She Wolf’s neck. She bit her lip while part of her considered how to answer him, the other part sifting through that contemplation to try and find a path back to the snowy mornings. Nothing came to mind, however, no defense or excuse for not knowing off-hand the mix he referred to or the order of the playlist. As for those days past, the images she had tried to call on were all but a blur.

So, all she did to convey registry of his remark was sniff, as if that might motivate their moving on to another hall. Another topic. A reason to shift themselves away from the gear they were in. Something, anything to derail the sentiment she knew was finding an ally in that weight in him and beginning to swell into something more, something that would cripple what remained of their afternoon and spill into the evening. The culprit of a dinner table draped in silence.

“Grizzly Bear. Mountain Goats. Modest Mouse. Deerhunter,” he went on. Starting with his thumb, he counted with the fingers on his left hand while listing the name of each.

If any reply came to her, it went unaired, overshadowed by her thinking how odd it was he found it necessary to reference the fourth to last song, not to mention those two following the one in question.

No other museumgoers disrupting the space of the room, the silence that had come upon them took its opportunity to settle in.

That was, until, “Paul,” she said, cutting through the silence, her intonation calling upon derailed lines of thought and altered threads of speech, as if to say she had been in a different hall this whole time and only just walked up to join him. But she hadn’t, and her address only served to stave off the implications resident in that silence as opposed to welcoming a new path. In saying his name, she also strained to remember the last time he had said hers. Which was ridiculous because of course he always said her name. But when?

“Yeah? What’s up?”

 

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Jeff Gabel is a writer from Colorado. After moving back to the States from New Zealand, he spent a number of years traveling to and working in such places as Seattle, Missouri, Texas, Southern Oregon, and California. In 2016, he and his wife moved to Brooklyn, NY, where they remained until recently relocating to Denver. They now have a little daughter, Carson Lee, whom they spend their evenings with cooking and listening to music.

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–Art by Dom Crossley — Artist Profile