"Beautiful Ruins" by Jess Walter, the third pick in the...

"Beautiful Ruins" by Jess Walter, the third pick in the Newsday Book Club for summer 2104. Chat with Walter live at noon EST on Monday, Aug. 25 at newsday.com/bookclub. Credit: HarperCollins

The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly — in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier. She wavered a moment in the boat’s stern, then extended a slender hand to grip the mahogany railing; with the other, she pressed a wide-brimmed hat against her head. All around her, shards of sunlight broke on the flickering waves.
Twenty meters away, Pasquale Tursi watched the arrival of the woman as if in a dream. Or rather, he would think later, a dream’s opposite: a burst of clarity after a lifetime of sleep. Pasquale straightened and stopped what he was doing, what he was usually doing that spring, trying to construct a beach below his family’s empty pensione. Chest-deep in the cold Ligurian Sea, Pasquale was tossing rocks the size of cats in an attempt to fortify the breakwater, to keep the waves from hauling away his little mound of construction sand. Pasquale’s “beach” was only as wide as two fishing boats, and the ground beneath his dusting of sand was scalloped rock, but it was the closest thing to a flat piece of shoreline in the entire village: a rumor of a town that had ironically — or perhaps hopefully — been designated Porto despite the fact that the only boats to come in and out regularly belonged to the village’s handful of sardine and anchovy fishermen. The rest of the name, Vergogna, meant shame, and was a remnant from the founding of the village in the seventeenth century as a place for sailors and fishers to find women of ... a certain moral and commercial flexibility.
On the day he first saw the lovely American, Pasquale was chest-deep in daydreams as well, imagining grubby little Porto Vergogna as an emergent resort town, and himself as a sophisticated businessman of the 1960s, a man of infinite possibility at the dawn of a glorious modernity. Everywhere he saw signs of il boom — the surge in wealth and literacy that was transforming Italy. Why not here? He’d recently come home from four years in bustling Florence, returning to the tiny backward village of his youth imagining that he brought vital news of the world out there — a glittering era of shiny macchine, of televisions and telephones, of double martinis and women in slender pants, of the kind of world that had seemed to exist before only in the cinema.
Porto Vergogna was a tight cluster of a dozen old whitewashed houses, an abandoned chapel, and the town’s only commercial interest — the tiny hotel and café owned by Pasquale’s family — all huddled like a herd of sleeping goats in a crease in the sheer cliffs. Behind the village, the rocks rose six hundred feet to a wall of black, striated mountains. Below it, the sea settled in a rocky, shrimp-curled cove, from which the fishermen put in and out every day. Isolated by the cliffs behind and the sea in front, the village had never been accessible by car or cart, and so the streets, such as they were, consisted of a few narrow pathways between the houses — brick-lined roads skinnier than sidewalks, plunging alleys and rising staircases so narrow that unless one was standing in the piazza San Pietro, the little town square, it was possible anywhere in the village to reach out and touch walls on either side.
In this way, remote Porto Vergogna was not so different from the quaint cliff-side towns of the Cinque Terre to the north, except that it was smaller, more remote, and not as picturesque. In fact, the hoteliers and restaurateurs to the north had their own pet name for the tiny village pinched into the vertical cliff seam: culo di baldracca — the whore’s crack. Yet despite his neighbors’ disdain, Pasquale had come to believe, as his father had, that Porto Vergogna could someday flourish like the rest of the Levante, the coastline south of Genoa that included the Cinque Terre, or even the larger tourist cities on the Ponente — Portofino and the sophisticated Italian Riviera. The rare foreign tourists who boated or hiked into Porto Vergogna tended to be lost French or Swiss, but Pasquale held out hope the 1960s would bring a flood of Americans, led by the bravissimo U.S. president, John Kennedy, and his wife, Jacqueline. And yet, if his village had any chance of becoming the destinazione turistica primaria he dreamed of, Pasquale knew it would need to attract such vacationers, and to do that, it would need — first of all — a beach.
And so Pasquale stood half-submerged, holding a big rock beneath his chin as the red mahogany boat bobbed into his cove. His old friend Orenzio was piloting it for the wealthy vintner and hotelier Gualfredo, who ran the tourism south of Genoa but whose fancy ten-meter sport boat rarely came to Porto Vergogna. Pasquale watched the boat settle in its chop, and could think of nothing to do but call out, “Orenzio!” His friend was confused by the greeting; they had been friends since they were twelve, but they were not yellers, he and Pasquale, more ... acknowledgers, lip-raisers, eyebrow-tippers. Orenzio nodded back grimly. He was serious when he had tourists in his boat, especially Americans. “They are serious people, Americans,” Orenzio had explained to Pasquale once. “Even more suspicious than Germans. If you smile too much, Americans assume you’re stealing from them.” Today Orenzio was especially dour-faced, shooting a glance toward the woman in the back of his boat, her long tan coat pulled tight around her thin waist, her floppy hat covering most of her face.
Then the woman said something quietly to Orenzio, and it carried across the water. Gibberish, Pasquale thought at first, until he recognized it as English-American, in fact: “Pardon me, what is that man doing?”
From “Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter. Copyright © 2012 by Jess Walter. Published by HaperCollins Publishers.

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