by David Alexander
The light of the morning sun cast glistening pools on the laminated maple floor of the loft. It lit up the mural of the Venetian harbor that Richie faced as he stood poling at the stern of his gondola, a gondola raised on a wooden platform. Outside, from the streets of Hell's Kitchen, came the anvil chorus of Midtown traffic. So far, Richie's school for gondoliering could boast of only a single pupil. But in time this would change. Richie had faith. And faith, he knew, could move mountains.
"That's your basic poling technique," said Richie on completion of the demonstration. He laid aside the oar. "Now you try it."
Richie's pupil was a blonde woman of indeterminate age who had answered an ad in the Village Voice classified section. The advertisement had promised increased health, muscularity and self-awareness through learning the art of gondoliering. It had stated furthermore that Richie Thoth, the instructor, was a graduate of Venice, Italy's, famed Academy of Gondoliering as well as a Zen adept who had studied in Tibet.
The pupil, whose name was Flame, seemed puzzled at first when she saw the authentic, thirty-six-foot long Venetian gondola mounted on its stand in the middle of the loft space where Richie ran his gondoliering school. Flame said she had originally thought gondoliering had something to do with crystals, but she was willing to try anything once. She'd paid in advance for one lesson and bought a gondolier's uniform, consisting of black slacks, striped shirt, and white straw boater with a red ribbon fastened around its brim.
Richie handed the oar to Flame and helped her climb onto the platform at the gondola's stern. She assumed the flat-footed stance Richie had taught her during her first lesson, placing the weight on the ball of her right foot with the left pivoted slightly to one side.
Flame began to pole.
"Very good," remarked Richie. "Remember, wide, regular strokes. You're poling, not rowing. Look into the mural while you work the oar. Imagine you're gliding across the Grand Canal. See the sunshine on the water. Hear the clanging of the cathedral bells."
"I'm getting dizzy," Flame complained.
"Keep poling," Richie urged. "Take deep, even breaths."
"I think I'd better stop," she said after a minute more. "It's getting too hard."
They took a break, then began again, but at the conclusion of the lesson, Flame told Richie that she would not be coming back. She had found a channeler she liked, she confessed to him, and anyway she didn't think gondoliering was in harmonic resonance with her vibrational plane.
She liked the gondolier's clothes, though. She would be wearing them a lot, she promised. Richie could be sure of that. Forcing a smile, he thanked Flame anyway for her patience.
"Well, it's been real," Flame said, and left the loft, her footsteps receding down the old flight of steps in the former clock factory building.
On impulse Richie went to one of the high windows and looked down into the street below. He saw Flame, small as a gnat, leave the building and round the corner. The tails of the red ribbon on her gondolier's hat fluttered in the breeze like a snake's flicking tongue. And then she was gone.
Suddenly Richie's calm evaporated, and though he struggled to repress it, a blind panic arose in its place. There would be other pupils, he told himself. Somehow he would find the money to pay the rent by month's end. He would not let his impending homelessness bring him down to a lower psychic energy state. Richie quieted his mind by yogic breathing exercises, then took the oar in his hand and climbed the small moveable stairs into the boat, and slid the long-handled beechwood paddle into its oarlock of hand-carved walnut root, called the forcala.
I am poling my gondola. I am a gondolier. Richie repeated these words to himself like a mantra as he stared into the mural of the Venetian harbor and began his deep breathing exercises. I am poling my gondola. I am a gondolier.
His panic attack began to subside as he slipped into a profound state of relaxation. Now his consciousness traversed vast distances and Richie returned again to Venice. He heard the clanging of the bell atop the red brick tower in St. Mark Square. He poled the gondola toward the mouth of the serpentine watercourse and breasted two flanking palazzi to emerge onto the Grand Canal. Here, in much deeper water, he began to row his punt toward Accademia, and saw his long shadow slanting across the waters before him.
I am poling my gondola. I am a gondolier, he repeated. I am poling my gondola. I am a gondolier.
When he laid his oar inside the hollow curvature of the boat, Richie felt much relieved. But when twilight came he found he could not bear to be alone in the loft. For a moment he contemplated phoning the nurse he had been seeing but it was long-since over between them. Though Richie could not afford it, he would have to go out and eat dinner in a restaurant. It was that or go mad. Thursday nights, the Spanish place around the corner had live flamenco music. The cooking sucked, but the restaurant was the only one around that wasn't a dive.
On his way through the dark streets of the thieves' market near his loft, Richie found himself being propositioned by a streetwalker. These days there were a lot of them in the neighborhood. The yuppies uptown had pushed them off their strolls and they had simply wandered into Richie's part of town, one in which nobody cared about a few prostitutes more or less.
At least now, the streets of Hell's Kitchen had a diversity in streetwalkers that it had never enjoyed before. There were streetwalkers in traditional hot pants, but also streetwalkers who looked and dressed like the girl you once took to the prom, your ex-wife or your high school math teacher. Streetwalkers who spoke fluent French, Arabic, Russian, Italian, Spanish and still more exotic languages. There were streetwalkers in business attire, and streetwalkers dressed for a game of tennis. You could not tell the joggers from the streetwalkers these days.
Ordinarily Richie passed them all by, but tonight he stopped to listen to the pitch given him by one of the girls who had accosted him. There were two reasons for his attentiveness. One, Richie was lonely, more so than he could ever recall being before. Two, the streetwalker was dressed just like a Venetian gondolier. She even carried a small plastic oar in her hand.
"What's your name?" he asked her.
"Carlotta," she replied a trace haughtily, and, though she stood in the shadows of the poorly lit vestibule of a closed-down hardware store, Richie thought that she looked somehow familiar.
"Why are you dressed like that?"
"I am a gondolieress," she answered him in an Italian accent that was obviously a three dollar bill as accents went. "I have studied with the finest masters of the art in Venice. And I have learned skills of lovemaking from the most practiced courtesans among those who frequent the Piazza San Marco."
"Is that so?" Richie asked Carlotta, as he squinted into the shadows of the vestibule.
"Yes," she affirmed with even greater hauteur, striking a pose. "It is indeed so."
Richie asked the girl to step out of the shadows into the light and suddenly confirmed his suspicion that Carlotta was in fact Flame, wearing the identical gondolier's outfit she had bought from him at the start of her lessons. She had put on a heavy layer of makeup and might have been wearing some sort of underwear that accentuated her figure. Nevertheless, it was Flame without question.
"My God," he exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"
"Hi, Richie," Flame answered, using her normal voice. "I'm working. You never asked me what I did for a living, did you?"
"You mean you're a streetwalker?" he returned.
"What does it look like to you?" she asserted. "Now do you want the hedonistic services of Carlotta or don't you?"
"Sure. I suppose," he stammered, not knowing what to say or do. Actually Richie was more lonely than anything else. On the spur of the moment he decided that he would bring Flame up to the loft, just for company's sake, and order some pizza. They could watch TV and she could sleep on his folding cot while Richie passed the night in the gondola.
On the way up to his loft, Flame explained why she had come to take gondola lessons.
"Because of all the competition in the neighborhood I realized I had to change my act to keep up with the other girls. For some reason I figured something Venetian might be just the thing, so when I saw your ad, I went and checked it out.
"Did being 'Carlotta' work for you?" Richie asked.
"Business has been good," Flame told him with a nod. "How's yours doing, by the way?"
"It could be better," admitted Richie. "To tell you the truth, so far you've been my only pupil."
"Wow, that's a trip," she responded, as they came into his loft and Richie switched on the overhead fluorescent lighting strips that hung from lengths of galvanized chain. "In the course of my work I meet plenty of guys who are fascinated by the gondolieress act. Just this week at least two have asked me where they could get an outfit like mine."
"You're kidding," said Richie.
"Nope," she insisted. "It's true. Scout's honor. Want me to send them by?"
"Well, yeah, I suppose," he affirmed, wondering what sort of pupils a girl like Flame would send him. Not that he could afford to be choosy.
"Anyway, now that we're alone..." Flame led off, and began to grope Richie's fly. Richie pushed her hand away gently and shook his head.
"Please, Flame," he told her. "I'm not interested in that."
"What's the matter?" she asked, sounding offended. "Are you gay or don't you like me?"
"Neither," replied Richie. "It's just that what I need tonight is somebody to talk to. Let's just talk. Okay, Flame? Sit and talk. We can order pizza if you want," he offered. "There's a good place that delivers."
"I don't want pizza."
"Chinese," he countered.
"Don't want Chinese," she persisted, shaking her head. "You sure you don't want to screw around?"
"Positive," declared Richie.
"Okay," she said with a sigh, climbing into the boat. "Then let's talk about why you're giving gondoliering lessons in the middle of Manhattan."
Richie nodded. He began to answer Flame, but then turned and climbed onto the stern of the gondola and picked up the oar. Soon, he had begun to pole the gondola, hearing the splash of the oar in water. He imagined that Flame and he were voyaging together through briny dawn fog along a lazy side canal that passed beneath crumbling stone bridges and between rotting palazzi and the shadowed mouths of dimly illuminated alleys where cat's eyes glowed in the darkness.
"Ever since I was a kid I had a thing for gondolas," Richie began. "I can't explain it except to say I was fascinated by them. As I was growing up I pledged that I would be a gondolier one day, that I would have my own gondola and pole it through the Venetian canals."
Richie went on to tell Flame about how in college he first visited Venice and fell in love with the city. He resolved to attend gondolier school at the first opportunity. But there were obstacles to be overcome before he could realize his aim. Obstacles that turned out to be insurmountable. The gondoliers of Venice jealously guarded their traditional rights.
His chance came when Richie befriended a young graffiti artist whose family was one of the city's oldest gondoliering clans. They became fast friends and the graffiti artist used his influence to secure a marriage to his sister, also a graffiti artist, which permitted Richie to become a gondolier and learn the ancient and jealously guarded secrets of the profession.
While the marriage did not last, Richie did succeed in graduating gondolier's school with honors. Afterward, a complicated hashish-smuggling deal entered into with his former brother-in-law, with numerous Byzantine twists and turns, brought Richie enough money to have a gondola built for him by the squeraroli or boatmakers, to have it shipped Stateside, and to rent the loft.
He had planned to make his fortune as a teacher of gondoliering, a pastime he hoped would become a national craze. But it had not happened. By now his funds had run perilously low and the management was threatening eviction. Unless he received a fiscal shot in the arm by the end of the week, he would be out of a place to live and his gondoliering school would be history.
"That's a lie," Flame shouted suddenly, turning to confront him with a strange expression on her face. "You're lying in a coma at Methodist Hospital dying of an AIDS-related lymphoma. This is all a death fantasy. None of it is real."
"What?" Richie asked.
Flame's expression instantly changed.
"Bad joke," she corrected, smiling. "Listening to you made me hungry. Let's have some pizza now."
Richie chalked up Flame's remark to the fact that she was obviously a very strange girl and forgot all about it. They talked awhile longer, and with a belly full of cheese, dough and tomato paste, Richie soon fell asleep on the floor near the gondola.
He began to dream of Venice, but soon his dream became a nightmare that had sinister connections to the local Spanish restaurant. Now, Richie's gondolier's outfit became the tight pants and short jacket of a flamenco dancer, his gum-soled shoes a pair of hobnailed boots. Richie leapt across the table where his ex-wife was sitting with Flame and began kicking plates of scalding hot food into their faces. When the table was bare of plates, sparks erupted from beneath his heels and set his victims on fire.
In the midst of Richie's hellish dance, a second head sprouted from his stomach, expanding like a flesh-colored balloon. The new head in his side began to laugh, laugh so loudly that the laughter drowned out the strains of the flamenco guitar in a deafening cacophony. All the same, Richie continued to dance, his sparking heels feeding the flames that burned the flesh from the two skeletons as the demonic laughter became the sound of an Om that filled the universe.
"Jesus!" Richie shouted after awakening suddenly on the hard floor of his loft. In the twilight darkness just before dawn, he looked up at the gondola above him and was frightened by its strange dark bulk, and the outline of the six-toothed ferro jutting from its bow, until he recognized it for what it was. "Flame?" he called, but got no answer.
Richie looked around the loft, but there was no sign of her. She hadn't even left a note. The only token of her presence was the empty pizza carton jammed into the trash can at an odd angle, showing a bad rendering in red ink of a gondola upon the Venetian canals.
Richie showered, made himself a pot of electric perked coffee, ate an apple and some Monterey Jack cheese, performed Zen yoga exercises on the floor to energize his chakras and calm his mind, and then boarded the gondola to begin an hour of poling practice.
Sunlight streamed in from the high windows of the loft and lit up the mural of the Venetian harbor as morning arrived, and the boom box on the floor played a recording of the sounds of the lagoon as Richie took up the oar.
I am poling my gondola, he repeated to himself as the walls of the loft dropped away and he was back in Venice again. I am a gondolier. The sparkle of the lagoon water dazzled his eyes, and the boat on its wooden platform seemed to bob beneath his feet. I am poling my gondola, he repeated silently. I am a gondolier.
Later that morning, Richie's telephone rang. He dreaded having to answer it because it would probably be the landlord taking sadistic pleasure in reminding him that he had only three more days before being tossed out into the street by the city marshall, forfeiting his gondola in the payment of arrears.
But it wasn't the landlord calling. To Richie's surprise it was a would-be pupil.
"Flame gimme your number," the caller told him. "She said you could gimme lessons."
"I teach gondoliering," Richie clarified, wanting to make sure he would not be wasting his time.
"Let me check my calender for an opening," he temporized, staring at the floor. "How about two this afternoon? Would that be possible?"
"Sure," said the caller. "The name's Flame."
Before Richie could say anything the caller had hung up on him.
Was this somebody's bad idea of a joke or what, Richie asked himself? He hadn't liked the sound of the caller and there was no way Flame and he could both have the same name, especially one like "Flame."
Though Richie didn't expect anybody to show, he made preparations for a gondoliering lesson just the same. In his present dire circumstances he would take any pupil he could get. As long as they were the paying kind.
Despite his misgivings, at two P.M. sharp, there came a knock at Richie's door which heralded his pupil's arrival. Despite his gruff voice on the phone, Richie found him in person to be an older man with a diffident manner. He sized him up as a retiree, a former city bureaucrat in one of the less prestigious agencies, such as the Sanitation Department or Transit Authority.
"Flame Capezio," he introduced himself as, and explained to Richie that his family, though having lived in Staten Island since the end of World War Two, sprang from old Venetian gentry. Flame added that he was a former ferryman, having worked for thirty-seven years as a porter on the Staten Island ferry, which he characterized as "still the best ride you can get for a nickel in New York."
Flame had solicited the other Flame's services a few nights before precisely because of the gondolier's outfit she had been wearing, he confided to Richie. She had told him about Richie's gondoliering school and Flame had made plans to call Richie and enroll in lessons. Flame even paid for his first lesson and a gondolier outfit in cash.
Elated because he could now buy off the landlord and keep the city marshall from his door a little while longer, Richie fetched Flame an outfit, and Flame, changing into it, was soon ready to take up the oar.
"You have a natural stance," Richie told him once Flame had mounted the gondola's stern and fitted the oar through the notched middle of the forcala.
"Gotta be in the genes," Flame remarked. "I feel right at home in this here boat. Like I was born to row it."
"You look like you were," Richie agreed. "You're the picture of a gondolier. Now let's start with a little rudimentary oar work so you can pole like one too."
Richie watched Flame use the paddle with an appraising, professional eye. Maybe, he thought, there actually was something to his claim to have gondoliering in the genes. The native skills were all there, Richie could plainly see. All it would take to perfect them would be a little polishing and honing.
"How'm I doin'?" Flame asked after poling awhile. "Whew! This is some workout!"
"You're looking good," Richie informed him. "Don't worry about the muscular stiffness. You'll get used to it after another few lessons."
"You know something?" announced Flame suddenly. "I didn't say so, but I think I could be a pretty good singing gondolier. I got a pretty nice voice. How about I sing a couple of bars of 'O Sole Mio' while I row you in the boat?"
"Sure, if you'd like," Richie answered, and turning off the CD player he climbed into the boat and sat himself down on the plush red velvet seat to listen.
"Well, here goes," Flame announced, clearing his throat, and then broke into song.
Richie stared into the mural of the Venetian harbor as Flame began to sing. He did in fact have a terrific voice, richly timbered and with a broad range. Flame had all the makings of a top-flight singing gondolier.
As Richie listened, the loft dissolved around him and his being took flight to Venice, where it glided along the canals. It was night, and Flame's voice echoed off the still, lapping waters and the ochre-patinaed walls of the crumbling palazzi that flanked the stone quays they passed on their slow, mazing course. The experience was so moving -- especially so because of the subtle Tibetan rhythms of the song Flame was singing -- that Richie broke spontaneously into tears. Rarely had he been so effected by a tune.
Then, suddenly, the singing stopped.
"Turn around, my disciple," Flame said in a different voice. "You recognize me, do you not?"
"It is I. And for you, my disciple, it is time to embark upon the voyage homeward," continued the old man in priestly saffron robes. "Already you have passed from the earth plane into the bardo state. The fissure at the top of your head has opened. Touch it if you doubt."
Richie did indeed feel the fissure at the top of his head, but he still did not believe what he was being told.
"I'm hallucinating," he shouted at the priest. "This isn't real!"
"Nothing is real," Master Lin stated calmly. "All is illusion, as I have taught you. Except for the light. Only this is real. See it ahead of us. Look into the light."
Richie did indeed see that now the mural of Venice was bathed in an ethereal white incandescence.
"I am not in a coma!" Richie shouted. "I am not dying! I am making all of this up. I am sixteen years old. It is 1969 and I have taken bad acid and you are probably one of my asshole friends trying to fuck with my head. I never even knew any Master Lin."
"You are a gondolier," said Master Lin in a stern yet reassuring voice that filled Richie with a sudden sense of tranquility. "It is time to pole." Extending the oar in his wizened hand, Master Lin went on, "Take it and pole your gondola, my disciple. Pole toward the light."
Richie wiped the tears from his eyes and finally nodded. The light from the mural was spreading now, somehow becoming denser as it dispersed, engulfing the entire loft. He stood up in the center of the boat and stepped to the stern, taking the long-handled oar from Master Lin, and sliding it into the gnarled hardwood forcala to his left.
"I am poling my gondola," Richie said calmly, as Master Lin stepped down and vanished into the light and he began to work the oar at a slow, even pace. "I am a gondolier."
The light spread around him and the boat. It engulfed Richie completely as he poled into its midst.