THE ORPHAN OF SAN FREDIANO

By Betsy Burke

I got to know Joe at Harry's Bar in Florence. It was an okay place, not too much tourist action if you were patient and went at the right time of day. Patience was the thing that both Joe and I had plenty of. I could only do research during the mornings and after that the nuns gave me filthy looks if I tried to wheedle an extra hour out of them.

I was researching the past for war orphans and DP's who'd been shipped out of Italy as kids and weren't sure who they were. Some of them had their real names, some of them didn't. CAIWO, Canadian Association of Italian War Orphans, was my employer. A lot of these CAIWO guys were so sleek and prosperous you would wonder why they bothered at all. They'd made their fortunes, had their families, and lived most of their lives in Canada. Why did they want to go poking around in the past? I decided early on that if I came up empty and didn't want to disappoint my clients I could always invent or borrow relatives for them, keep them happy. Relatives from working class families, respectable but poor, so that at least the emigration could be justified. And with CAIWO footing the bill I could afford to drink at Harry's Bar.

And it was strange, because Joe was exactly the kind of person I was researching.

We both liked Scotch. Johnny Walker Red Label. Joe said it was the first time he had tasted booze, that he wasn't a drinker. And it was funny because no matter how much of the stuff he poured down his gullet, he never got drunk. I mean, most guys, especially non-drinkers, would be dancing around the room like debutantes with that kind of proof in their bloodstreams, but Joe, nothing. I liked drinking with a guy who could hold his booze. We could stay there all afternoon and evening and be as cool as two cucumbers.

The first week he came in every day, took the seat next to me and drank, silent as a clam. When I figured he was pretty much of a regular, I broke the ice, asked him what he was doing in Florence, how he was fixed for a place to live, that kind of stuff. He looked at me with these pale eyes of his and fiddled with the swizzle sticks that were in a glass on the counter.

"I'm looking for my past," he said.

"No kidding," I said. "I'm sort of in the past business myself." I told him what I was doing in Florence.

He said, "What a coincidence. I'm trying to trace my family. If any of them are still living."

"Coombs," I said, putting out my hand. "Morris Coombs. Italian on my mother's side."

"Joe Bianchi," he said, shaking mine, and I thought my heart would freeze right up, his hand was so cold. You've got to understand, it was midsummer in Florence. I'm talking thirty-eight degrees Celsius with eighty percent humidity. The man was freezing cold.

He was trying to trace his family in the San Frediano neighborhood. He'd had an amazing lucky break and found a house to rent in the same block where he thought his old stomping ground had been.

"They let me rent the place on the condition that I would feed the cats," he said. "The price is very low. Sixteenth-century palazzo, frescoed in most of its ten rooms, garden, four bathrooms, eighteen-foot ceilings, an enormous library of English and Italian books, and a grand piano. Unfortunately, it needs tuning. There's a maid and a maggiordomo. They're extra and they don't live there while outsiders are renting, but they're supposed to look in from time to time to make sure everything's all right. I haven't actually seen them yet. Seven hundred American dollars a month. It even has a name. Villa La Pergola."

Joe told me he was fifty-five. He was gaunt, silver pale like a skinned almond under moonlight, kind of sickly-looking, his face too smooth for a guy of his age, like he never took the sun. His eyes were almost colorless, gray, and he was anxious, always just about to reel around and check for somebody behind him. He said he was the caretaker of a building in Montreal, said if I was ever in the area to look him up, and wrote out his address for me.

That's how it is when you travel. You meet some other poor slob in a bar who's as lonely as you, and you're nearly crying because you both speak the same language, and after a couple of snorts you're exchanging addresses. I've got a whole black book full of names that I can no longer put faces to. But Joe was different.

It all came out in those long hot afternoons. He said in his entire life he felt that he'd never accomplished anything, like he'd been drifting around in a dream. Like there were a whole lot of "should haves" and "would haves," but none of them came to anything. He never got married. Never had been able to get up the nerve to get himself a girlfriend, but after a few years got used to living alone like that. Said he didn't miss it. Didn't know what it was about. Didn't care much about the outside world except for Italy. Didn't even own a television. But Florence made him feel alive.

Joe said that back in Montreal he would often get up in the dark. He suffered from bad insomnia. He would get up and putter around, fixing things in the building. Didn't have many friends. There was an old lady, a retired nurse, who lent him books. He'd known her for a long, long time. I asked him what the hell he did with himself for a whole goddam bastard of a lifetime like that and he said he read books; said he figured he'd read the lion's share of what was written in English and now he was teaching himself Italian and reading some of the Italian books in his library. I have to say he spoke well, he was almost a fancy talker. He had a lot of passion for a guy whose life was such a vacuum. And he was not the kind of guy who felt sorry for himself. He didn't. He had done it all alone and that was okay.

But he had gaps in his memory and that worried him. I liked his company and I told him if he could hang around for a while and let me get finished with my other clients I would look into his case toward the end. He smiled a cool shivery smile and said we had a deal and we should drink on it.

I began to look forward to our afternoons.

I was staying in a pensione on the North bank of the Arno River, a modest one star joint, but clean, with a shower in the room and a cappuccino and brioche included in the price. I was up early every morning. Nobody was sleeping in that heat. People walked around like overcooked pink hams, dazed by the torrid waves that wafted from the cobbles and stone buildings. Clouds passed overhead and there were rumblings of thunder, but the rain never came.

Wherever there were archives you would find me on those hot mornings.

The city's records were in a terrible state, the flood of '66 had ruined a lot of them and there was no way to connect children with parents. So I was knocking on different convent doors every week. The nuns would open up and look at me like I was Beelzebub's dog. I figure they could smell the Scotch in my sweat. But when I explained what I was after they usually softened and let me in. Then there would be a lot of unbarring of massive wooden doors and clanging of old iron keys and they would lead me into cloisters and silent gardens, down long cool medieval passageways and steep narrow stone steps to some crypt where the old files had been dumped. And there, with one forty-watt lightbulb on its last legs and the bones of dead monks to keep me company, I'd get to work, sifting through the brittle papers, trying to turn up lives.

On one of those mornings I was taking a break; I was a little more exhausted than usual, my hangover ranting at me, staring into space and exchanging grimaces with all those skulls when I got this feeling. For half a second, I could have sworn there was somebody else there with me, looking over my shoulder at documents.

It was slow unhappy work. Once I came up with a name, I would have to go to the neighborhood and see if anybody was around that could remember. The good thing about Florentine families is their tendency to stay put. They hand their houses down from one generation to another. And if they do move, it's often just around the corner and there's some old busybody that knows all about it.

The bad thing was that a lot of the old busybodies were by now too senile to remember their own names, let alone the names of kids from fifty years ago.

I began drinking doubles when I realized that you can only borrow a few lives, then you have to start telling the truth. The hardest part of my job was going to happen when I got home and had to report to the clients, tell them that they were even more alone in the world than they had suspected. So it was good to have someone like Joe who could listen while I unloaded.

Anyway, one afternoon I came in to Harry's and Joe was already there. He was looking a little wild, so I asked him what was up. He ordered for both of us and then he told me.

"I was in my library. It was around 8:30 in the evening, going into dusk and I had taken down a book that caught my eye. Olive green cover with gold lettering. Leopardi. Never been opened. The pages were uncut. So I thought nobody would have objections if I were to slice open the pages. I went to look for something to cut the papers with. Scissors or a letter opener. There's a rolltop desk in the upper hallway, and I'd been into it the other day looking for a pen. They don't make desks like that anymore. And I thought, there will certainly be something here that can do the job. I was sure I had seen a brass letter opener, a letter opener with a dragon handle. I started opening the little drawers in the top and I came across this."

He reached into the pocket of his rumpled gray suit, pulled out a small square of paper, and handed it to me. It was a snapshot. Faded from black and white to brown and white and creased in a lot of places.

It showed a little kid with curly blond hair under a dark hat, winter coat with a furry-looking collar, leggings, the kid smiling and squinting up into the camera. You could see those dark circles around the eyes that everybody had in those days from the lousy diet. I couldn't tell if it was a boy or girl.

"Probably the owner of the house or some relative," I said, and handed it back to Joe.

"No. You keep it in case you come across somebody who knew him. This little boy is familiar to me. When I saw the photo, I felt it right here," he said, and put a fist on his stomach, "the way you feel when you smell something from your early childhood. It's undeniable, but you can't place it."

"Could be you did know him. Shouldn't discount anything," I said it, but my work had taught me to be skeptical. "Have a look around and see if you can find anything else, any pictures, papers, you never know, maybe you were neighbors, maybe you kicked around together."

"I've got this sensation, as though I'm about to make a discovery," he said.

And all through the next morning I wondered if he might have something. So far I had only found a few distant cousins for my clients, and they weren't too excited about knowing their long lost relatives in America. Joe's sensation grabbed me.

That afternoon, he beat me to Harry's again. I was in the habit of taking long lunches, trying any trattorie or osterie that looked half decent. I'd suggested to Joe on several occasions that he join me for lunch, that I was tired of eating alone, but he said he never had much appetite, especially at that time of day. He was nervous, excited, his skin so transparent you could see all the veins. And he gave off a funny smell. Everyone did in that heat. But his was kind of musty.

This time the opening round was on me. I listened while he talked.

"It's the craziest thing, Coombs. I was reading late last night. The first part of the memoirs of Casanova, where they were starving him at school, and I heard a noise like whispering. At first I thought perhaps the wind had finally come up, or it was trees brushing against the terrace. I went out into the upper hallway to have a look. I expected to see the French doors blown open, but they were shut tight. You could hear gypsies or cats come in because the doors creak on their hinges and the floor is parquet. There's an echo. The cats' claws always make a clicking noise against the wood.

"I opened the French doors and went out on the terrace. There was a moon and a nightingale singing. Between the bird noises and the street noises I almost missed it. I listened hard and I could hear child's laughter. Down in the garden. It's not an overgrown or bushy garden. You can see right into it. It's well tended. Everything has been cut back. There's a running fountain with a statue and gargoyles down at the end, some clipped hedges in a sort of maze, and a persimmon tree in the center. I called out 'Who's down there, Chi c' laggiu?' But the laughing just went on and on and I could feel it moving closer, but I couldn't see the child.

I said, 'It's okay, you can come out. Vieni fuori, fai ti vedere,' and still just this laughter. But the sound of it. I wish you could have heard it. It was so happy. I've never heard anything like it. I finally had to go inside. I was out there for more than an hour. When I closed the French doors, it stopped."

"That's pretty wild, Joe," I said. "Maybe you want to ease up a little on the booze."

And he smiled his weird pale smile and said, "Yeah, maybe."

The next day I hit the jackpot. I had the lead on a family for one of my clients and had to go to Sienna. I didn't see Joe for a couple of days. In Sienna, I primed myself for disappointment by wandering the whole rust-colored city, along the tunneling streets, through Piazza del Campo, up to the huge white cathedral, dodging into a lot of bars. I wanted to admire the sights before the axe fell.

People are funny about long-lost relatives. They've shut them away in a casket of memory, buried them, mourned them, forgotten about them, and when you exhume them, give them flesh and blood all over again and present them to their kin, you complicate everybody's lives.

These people opened the door quickly when I rang the bell, and when I told them who I was representing, they fell all over me. There were all these wiry old aunts dressed in black and the grandmother who must have been a hundred and three, and they claimed to be clairvoyants, and to have known all along that little Laura was alive and well and it was only a matter of time before she got in touch. The wine started flowing, and I tried to give them as precise a picture of little Laura as I could, working from notes in a folder. It was a celebration. I remember the entire clan kissing me on both cheeks. After that I must have passed out. I woke up the next morning and I was still in their house. They had put me to bed in a guest room and when I limped down to breakfast they started all over again with the kissing and the royal treatment. One of the brothers wanted to give me money. I was tempted. But I didn't take it.

I got back to Florence full of myself, feeling like a real smart son-of-a-bitch. I couldn't wait to get down to Harry's Bar, give my hangover something to drink, and tell Joe.

Well, Joe was there, all right. He was the color of the walls in my pensione. Light gray. And that weird musty smell coming off him again but stronger. And he kept fidgeting, rearranging himself on the bar stool like his skin was too tight for him. He insisted on buying the first round, so I let him. And, being a polite kind of guy who could see I was bursting with news too, he let me talk first. But I could tell he wasn't listening. I was making my story long, trying to jazz it up a little, but about half way through I had to stop when I saw that I was getting no reaction.

"I'm keeping you awake, Joe? Go on. What is it you're burning to tell me?"

"I saw him, Morris, I saw the child."

"What child?"

"The laughing child."

"No kidding?" I figured, here we go, it's one of those shaggy dog stories with a lousy punchline and it takes years to tell, and the kid's laughter was only the first part of it.

"I was sitting in the library cutting the pages of the Leopardi. I was going to stay up and read. I had put a chair out on the terrace earlier and with the light on in the hallway, there would be just enough to read by. When the electric light is extinguished there is only the light of the moon.

"And then I heard it. It was like... gold. I can't tell you what effect it had on me. I hesitated for a moment then went out onto the terrace. I could hear the laughter all around me. Miraculous laughter. I looked down into the garden.

"He was standing in darkness, hidden in the shadows cast by the fountain and the myrtle trees that surround it. He stepped forward. He's a tiny little mite and not older than five or six years. He has a head of blond curls that shake when he laughs. He was wearing a little orange coat with a fur collar..."

"Joe, Joe," I had to stop him. It was ridiculous, "Joe, a coat, in this heat?"

"I know. I can't explain it. Later, I thought he might have been ill. You know how the Italians are about drafts."

"So then what happened?"

"I asked him what he was doing down there and he said he was one of the children from the orphanage in San Frediano. I asked him if he'd like to come inside. And he said, yes, he would. I ran downstairs and unbolted the lower doors that go out into the garden. I was afraid he might become frightened and run away. But he was there when I opened the door. He came inside and we went up to the library. There are some old children's picture books there. We were there for ages. At times I read and at times he pointed at the pictures and made up his own stories for them. Then he said he wanted to stay with me. He said, please, stay here with me. I left him in the library and went to get the house keys so that I could lock up when we left. When I got back he was gone. But the very strangest part of all was language. I don't know if we were speaking Italian or English."

"It happens."

The next day I was in Joe's neighborhood and I went into a bar and asked them where the old orphanage was. They said there had been an orphanage before and during the war, but it closed shortly after. I couldn't wait to tell Joe that somebody was having him on. I cut my lunch short that day and raced down to Harry's. Joe wasn't there yet, so I ordered and waited. Then I ordered my second. There were more tourists in there than usual, bad drinkers, loud and sloppy. I hate loud and sloppy drinkers. I wanted to turn around and tell them to shut up or go home. By my fifth drink, I realized Joe wasn't coming. Harry's Bar was crammed with these lippy, brassy foreigners by then. I decided to call it a night.

So the next day my curiosity was really piqued. I was dying to hear what he had to tell me, why he hadn't come.

But he didn't show the next afternoon, either. I started to get worried. Maybe something had happened to him. Maybe he had got so pissed after a Scotch night that he fell face-first into a ditch and drowned in an inch of water. Not that I wanted to get engaged to the guy, understand, just that I had the feeling he counted on our daily meetings.

I drank alone that evening. Joe never showed. I wondered if he had got tied up with the laughing kid, was babysitting.

It was the same the next day, though. No Joe. And the next and the next. I figured it was time to look him up. Villa La Pergola in San Frediano.

I asked around and found the house down one of the darker side streets. It was impossible to tell from the outside what was on the inside. It was all wall, crumbling, in need of a paint job, and overgrown with Virginia creeper. There was one heavy wooden door and one window with an ornate iron grate over it. I rang the bell. No answer. I must have been there for ages leaning on that bell, and it worked, because I could hear a faint ringing inside. Then a woman from the neighboring house asked if I was looking for somebody in particular and I said, yeah, the guy that was renting the place. And she said she didn't know anything about that but she did know the agency that managed the house. She gave me the name, Agenzia Focardi, and said they would show me the place if I was interested, but personally the house was too old and rundown for her tastes.

I phoned the agency and had one of their people meet me at the house. They sent a woman, fat, in the hinterland of her sixties, face makeup like a death mask.

On the doorstep, I said, "And the guy that's been renting this place, Joe Bianchi, what's happened to him?"

"You're mistaken, Signore," said the woman. "This house has been empty for over a year. There were some Germans staying here but that was at least thirteen months ago."

"Let's take a look," I said. I wondered if Joe could have been living there illegally, having found a way in and seen that the place was half-abandoned. It would have been a smart move. Florentine landlords wanted a king's ransom.

The woman unlocked the door. The smell that blasted us in the hallway was like that in my archive crypts. With two keys she opened the inner doorway and we went inside. The furniture was draped with dust sheets. The dust was everywhere. There were mouse tracks in it, but no human footprints.

"Who's feeding the cats?" I asked.

"Excuse me?"

"I thought the cats came with the place."

"There are no cats, Signore, only the strays in the garden, i randagi."

"Can I see the garden?"

"Certainly."

She walked down to the far end of the hall and unbarred the inner shutters of the French doors, opening them with a lot of difficulty. Heavy smoker, I guessed.

The garden was a leafy tangle, dense and overgrown. The hedges had merged into one mass and the persimmon tree in the middle was dead. At the far end was a statue and a fountain that had dried up decades ago, judging by the cracked basin and the wild caper plants growing in the cracks.

"I'm afraid the garden has been neglected over the years." said the woman.

We went back inside.

"Can I see the library?" I asked. The woman led me up the wide stone staircase, puffing all the way. At the top was a hallway with a dusty parquet floor and a rolltop desk against one wall. I went over to the desk and opened the first drawer. There was the brass letter opener.

"The library is here," said the woman.

It was a huge room with leather armchairs and beamed ceilings. Tall bookcases lined all the walls. I perused the books until I found a shelf of poetry. I pulled out the olive green volume of Leopardi and opened it. Half of its pages were cut. On a shelf low enough for a child was a selection of old children's books, some of them falling to pieces. They were all in Italian.

I walked round and round that room slowly, looking for something else that would lead me to Joe.

"A fine library," said the woman, "I believe its owner is very fond of books."

"Yeah." I stopped. There was a group of portraits on the far wall. My eyes had gone to a round painting of a blond kid, exactly like the kid in the photo. I'd left the snapshot in my hotel room, but there was no doubt it was the same kid. "You wouldn't happen to know who these people are?" The woman came up behind me. I pointed to the round portrait.

"Oh, that one, " said the woman, "that was the owner's son, Giuseppe. You see, during the war, the Signora and Signore Bianchi..."

"You said Bianchi?"

"Yes, Signore. They were arrested by the fascisti and the little boy was sent to the orphanage in San Frediano. A group of children were to be sent out of the country. Well, just before all the children were to be shipped out, Giuseppe ran away and came back here to this house. It was deserted, but he must have found a way in. The suore were frantic. It was days before they thought to look for him here. He was up here in the library, talking to himself and laughing, looking at picture books."

"What time of year was it?"

"Winter, Signore, and very cold. I remember it because I had no winter coat that year. They took everything they could lay their hands on. "

"What happened to the parents."

"Signore, they were shot; they shot so many people."

"Who actually owns the house now?"

"A cousin of the Signore Bianchi. She never married. She lives in Milano. We sometimes speak on the phone."

"What happened to the kid?"

"Oh, I don't really know. I believe he was shipped out with the rest of the children."

"Where to?"

"Canada."

None of it figured. I went to Harry's, and ordered a Scotch to think on.

I asked the bartender if he had seen Joe come in at any time during these last few days and he said, "Joe who?"

I said, was he nuts? The guy practically had his name engraved on the stool next to mine, he'd been in there that often. But the bartender just shook his head. Sometimes people make you sick, only thinking about themselves.

I wandered around Florence in the afternoons. Sometimes I would see a gray rumpled suit and hurry up to walk beside it, and some stranger would look at me funny until I said sorry, I'd mistaken him for somebody else.

My work came to a deadend after that. It was time to go home. I had my flight rerouted through Montreal.

At the Montreal airport I cleared customs, stuffed my bags into a locker, and caught a cab to Joe's neighborhood.

The taxi driver snarled at me. "You sure ya wanna go there?"

"Yeah, I'm sure. Why?"

"You ain't one of them scientists from McGill?"

"No."

"'Lotta them nosin' around."

"Don't say?"

After a long surly silence, he said, "There. That heapa old stone on the corner."

"Christ." I paid the cab driver and got out.

The building was deserted, had been for years by the look of it. The windows were all shattered. There was a rusted wire fence, but kids and bums had got in. I crawled through a gap. The building had been a school or an institution, something like that, but now it was falling to pieces. Weeds and garbage surrounded it. I just couldn't picture Joe living there like a bum. He wasn't the type. And if he was a bum, how did he get to Florence? By robbing a bank?

I walked down to a grimy-looking joint called the Starlight Bar and Grill and went in. There was nothing for it but to order a Scotch. The bartender was grizzled, old enough to be a veteran of question marks.

"You know anything about that deserted building on the corner?" I asked him.

"The hospital?"

"Hospital?"

"Yeah."

"Was it ever an apartment building?"

"I told ya. It was a hospital. Been deserted since I been in this neighborhood, oh, going on twenty years now. But there is somebody might know something. Old Mrs. Jarvis. Used to be a nurse there. Lives right next door. Loony as a coot, but ya could try anyway. Place with the green door. Uh, number fourteen, I think. Used to have a drink or two in here 'till her legs got bad."

I found the house. It was three doors down from the old hospital and practically in the same condition. I rang the bell. It must have been five minutes before I heard a voice ask, "Who's there?" Then there was this conversation through the door. A milky brown eye watched me through a small square of leaded glass. I told her my name, what I did, and that I was looking for information about the hospital, information about the days just after the war. Well, you never saw a door open so fast.

There on the other side was an ancient woman with legs like an elephant's. She had two wooden canes holding her up. But her face was nice, coffee-colored and round with the wrinkles running in the right directions, like she'd smiled all her life.

"Mrs. Jarvis?" I repeated.

"Would you like to come in? I can't stand for long. My legs aren't what they used to be."

She motioned me into her sitting room. She had a Lazy-Boy chair at the center, surrounded by tables: one for the telephone and another for her baskets full of junk, wool, magazines, everything she needed within easy reach. She lowered herself into the chair and told me to have a seat on the couch.

That room had the fortress fug. What I mean by this is the smell of a place when its inhabitant is getting close to the end of the line but refuses to leave and refuses to accept help, holding out to the end, like a fortress under siege. She insisted upon pouring me a sherry from a really greasy cut glass decanter. She poured one for herself as well. Her hand was pretty steady for a person of her age. She must have been at least ninety.

"So what can I do for you?" she asked.

I didn't know where to start, so I took the photo of the little kid out of my wallet and showed it to her.

"This mean anything to you?" I asked.

"Just a minute, Dear. My eyesight isn't what it was." She leaned over toward the side table and picked up a huge magnifying glass. She fumbled the snapshot between sausage fingers, then she put the magnifying glass over it. She stared for ages and then a light dawned.

"Why, it's little Joe," she said. "Where did you find this?"

"Florence."

"Little Joe. We called him that because his Italian name was too hard to pronounce. Giuseppe Bianchi. I shall never forget him. He was the last child."

"What do you mean?"

"Well. I used to work at the children's hospital. Next door, during the war. It's been closed for years. Those greedy developers just sit around, let the property go to the dogs until the value goes up and they can make their fortune. It's a disgrace. Somebody should complain."

"Little Joe?"

"Yes. We had a lot of children come through the hospital in those years. Little immigrants from Europe. DP's. Many of them had lost their parents." She paused and became glassy-eyed. "Little Joe had tuberculosis. He came to me with several other little DP's. Such a sweet little boy. The person that brought him to the hospital told me his parents were both dead. Shot by their own countrymen."

The tears were coming hot and fast. I offered her my handkerchief. "Thank you, Dear." She sniffed and blew and then started again.

"He was in hospital for a long time. He was my favorite. I taught him a little English. He was a very bright child. I brought him my nephew's old picture books and we would read them together. Well, somebody had to spend time with these kids.

"You just had to take one look at him to see that he wasn't long for this world, and I was right. He died about three months later. I was by his bedside. He said, 'Voglio andare a casa. Mi porti a casa.' I'll never forget those words. I had to ask what they meant. Somebody had to remember." She said the Italian words awkwardly. "He said, he wanted to go home, he wanted somebody to take him home."

There was a long nose-blowing couple of minutes and then Mrs. Jarvis said, "I always wondered what kind of man he would have been if he'd had the chance to grow up. He was the only child left toward the end. They closed the hospital after he died. It all seems such a waste."

Then her expression became strange and she lowered her voice. "After that, a lot of people said that when they were passing by the old hospital they could hear the sound of a child crying. They even had some parapsychology people in there working on it."

I wanted to say, between the junkies and crackheads I'm sure somebody's crying, but I kept my mouth shut.

"And, sometimes, late at night, I would get the feeling that somebody was standing over my shoulder, reading my book with me. Or that someone had been flicking through pages while I was off in the kitchen making tea. And I would joke with myself. 'Oh, it's little Joe, come back to learn some more English."

I thanked Mrs. Jarvis and left her house, sauntering up the street in the dark, making my way back to the Starlight Bar and Grill. I went back inside, sat at the bar and ordered a double Scotch on the rocks.

The bartender said, "You look like you've seen a ghost, fella."

In that moment I started wondering about the possibility of a ghost growing up, learning to read in another language, and traveling to another country to meet his old self when he was still alive, put all the missing parts of himself together, as it were.

"Maybe I have," I said. "Maybe I have."

Copyright 1999 by Betsy Burke