Tom stepped out of the bar into a pool of yellow-ochre light from the streetlamp.  Yellow-ochre is the color of this country, he thought, and terracotta.  His brain, bathed in a loose veil of red wine and whatever the Italian football players made him drink, seemed to drift along behind him like an awkward, dumb animal.  “Catch up,” he said out loud.  “Put your hand in your pocket and find your keys,” he said, to the cracked sidewalk, to the slice of sinking moon, to anything listening.  “Why is everybody so goddamn nice around here?”

Elizabeth had been gone for 37 days.  Which is to say that his older sister had been dead for 37 days, although Tom was still unused to this idea, and still preferred to think of her as simply away.  She was missing until further notice, and he needed only to locate her.  She had gone to a paper-making workshop in India, to a yoga retreat in Western Massachusetts, to a vegan commune in New Mexico.  She would return.  Eventually.  She would be renewed.

Tom carried her cell phone with him to Siena and even here it rang periodically.  Some people said they called just to hear her outgoing message—Hi, it’s Lizzy, and I am not answering my phone at this time, so leave me a message, okay? There was that funny wording: she was not answering her phone at that particular time, that particular moment of insufficient service or underground transit riding, or some other spiraling convergence of orbits.  She did not want to be reached, or she could not be reached, and it was impossible to tell the difference.  There was that mysterious okay at the end, made a question by her upward inflection, slightly reassuring, friendly.  Tom listened for more, but there was nothing more.

This trip was planned as insulation from the goings-on back home—the sorting of Elizabeth’s clothes and things, the stacked boxes of half-used make-up, the lettuce turned to sludge in the bottom of her fridge.  The sudden suffocating proximity of their mother, both physically and emotionally—“Lizzy would have wanted us to save everything.”  Italy was doing its job, for the most part, taking him away.  For the past week he had space to think, to feel like a person.  Everything was distant—except the unbearable weight of his sister’s absence, which had somehow found him across the ocean.


* * *


It was about seven o’clock in Boston, and before he went to the next bar, and the next bar, and hopefully not a third, looking for some company in the form of limbs and breath and perhaps regretful choices, he used Elizabeth’s phone to call home.

“Hello?” said Allen, the boyfriend.

“It’s me, I’m sorry,” said Tom.  “Calling you from her phone, is that weird?”

“No, I understand,” said Allen.

Tom had taken the phone from her apartment.  People would call, someone should answer—strangers that Tom didn’t have any other way to contact, companies with unpaid balances, opinion pollsters.  Holding on to the phone was practical, right?  Eventually, Tom realized it was about access.  His removal of the object would prevent other people from having her; if he couldn’t, no one should.  It was silly, and a bit selfish, and he often regretted it.

“Are you missing me?” said Allen.

“I am,” said Tom.

“Are you taking pictures?”

Tom looked up at the streetlamp.  “No, but I should,” he said, “Everything is the same color.  No, it’s a thousand shades of the same color.  It’s remarkable.  You should see it.”

“Someday I will,” said Allen.  “We’ll go back together.”

“I’d like that,” said Tom, although he knew it would never happen.  Everything they were going to do had been done.  Or at least it seemed that way.  ‘Don’t fall out of love at the same time, that’s my advice,’ his mother told him years ago, and he wondered if that was what was happening now.  It was too difficult to separate the grief for Lizzy with everything else he was feeling.  It was all the same feeling—grossness.

“What’s happening there?” Tom asked.

“Nothing,” Allen said.  “I’m just sitting here.”

Quietness opened between them, a blank cassette tape buzz passing through sky and layers of thinning atmosphere.  Tom thought of the orbiting satellites, the signals sent back to the earth, beamed through towers and wave-emitting technology stuck crudely on top of apartment buildings all over Boston.  Tom thought of his body, permeable, shot through with infinitely small particles of other people’s conversations.

“Are you going to bed?”

“In a few minutes,” Tom said, “I’m just walking back to the hotel.”

“Okay, are you going to call me when you get there?”

Tom hated this question—do you want me to call you, or not?  Why do I have to make all the decisions around here?  Why do I have to be the keeper of everything?

“Tom?  Hello?”

“Do you ever think about all the phone calls going through our bodies?” Tom said.  “Do you ever think of those lonely men ordering bad Chinese food all over the neighborhood?”

“What are you talking about?” said the boyfriend.

General Tso’s Chicken, right now, is getting beamed through your body, the words, Allen.  Words turned to waves and particles, parts of phone calls, lodged inside our organs as they pass through us.  Maybe that’s why it’s always hard to hear on cell phones.”

Tom thought this was why people on cell phones were always saying ‘I can’t hear you’ and ‘What?’ Because part of the conversation was confused about whom it was meant for, after ending its long trajectory mistakenly in someone else’s liver.  Because conversation is not used to being moved around in this new way.  Conversation is a very old thing.

Allen laughed, “Are you drunk, darling?”

Tom said, “I am.  They kept giving me these drinks, little amaretto-flavored things with grapes or raisins or something.  Awful, but good, you know?”

“Who is they?” said Allen.

“The football team,” said Tom.  “Some soccer players.”

“Oh?” said Allen, “Well that’s not what I expected.”  Then: “Honey, come back.”

“I will, soon,” said Tom.

“The cats don’t know what do when you aren’t here.  They’re slinking around the house, restless.  They barely eat.”

“I love you,” said Tom.

“I love you,” said Allen.

They hung up.

Tom walked down the hill to the center of town.  The gurgling noise of a fountain had attracted young couples from the edges of the square, and they gathered around it, holding hands, the girls laughing, the boys smiling but not saying much.  The phone rang again, chirping some dreadful disco song.  Lizzy had stored hundreds of contacts, and now “Fitzgerald, Beth” was calling and Tom had no idea who that might be.  Should he pretend that Beth had the wrong number?  Did Beth already know?  Should he explain what happened—the oncoming SUV, the helicopter, the swelling, the inevitable?

He closed his eyes.  He threw the phone into the water.


* * *


After sitting for a few minutes, he decided to take the long way back to the hotel, through the alleys and stairways that grew up like vines around the buildings.  Everywhere you looked, the walls were a stage set, entrances and exits, levels and dramatic angles.  The air smelled clean and full, like it does after a rain, even though there had been no rain.  The moon was a pale butter color, and as the night went on it seemed heavier, ready to disappear behind the hills forever.

“Goodbye, Moon, thanks for everything,” he said.

He remembered his first trip to Europe—eleven years old, a school choir trip.  They sang all over Paris in school auditoriums for small audiences made up of students who were happy to be distracted from their lessons, but surely weren’t interested in “Sing a Song” or “For the Beauty of the Earth.”  They clapped, nonetheless, and he felt like a good singer.  He remembered the drastic shrinking of scale—in buildings, in cartons of orange juice, in cars.  He remembered the language written on signs and storefronts—handsome words with too many vowels, covered in little chalet hats, and squiggled marks.  Later, when he was in high school, there was another school trip to Paris, and this time he had a few years of French behind him.  He was disappointed to learn that what earlier had seemed so magical was nothing more than the banal advertising of every city on the planet: Magazines, Newspapers, Candy, Cigarettes.  Tom wanted it to say “Solutions, Remedies, Incantations, Portals.”

He was also disappointed to learn that Sam, the boy he had fallen in mad, obsessive love with, was more interested in smoking cigarettes and groping their female classmates than he was in having romantic dinners and late-night walks along the Seine, which Tom was sure Sam would want to do once Sam got away from the confines of his American self.  As a teenager, Tom believed that international travel split the self into newer, more interesting pieces, more expressive and more curious selves willing to, well, fall in love in return and then do things like kissing.  Now Tom believed that travel was just a brief sidestep from the intractable person you have been all along.  Nothing permanent ever came from it.


* * *


“I just don’t understand how you can love someone like that,” Lizzie said.

Lizzie did not like Allen.  It was two weeks before the accident, and Tom met her for dinner at the brick oven pizza place they both liked downtown.  “It’s like there’s no person there, just a body passing through the world without making any choices.”  She thought he was unintelligent, and—worst of all possible things—dull.

“He wants to change things,” Tom said.  “He’s trying to do some good in the world.”

“By doing what?”

“He wants to solve the global housing crisis.”  Allen was an urban planner whose long-term goal was to work in the poor communities of South America and Southeast Asia.

“But what is he doing?”

“This is getting ridiculous,” Tom said.

“Well, it’s quite the challenge,” Lizzie said.

“Well, we clearly can’t have this conversation because you are being irrational.”

“Tom, he watches television, drinks Pepsi, and does the fucking Soduku puzzle.  And as far as I can tell, that’s it.”

“Nobody’s relationship is perfect,” Tom said.

“Allen is so boring.  He’s like an aging frat boy who thinks he’s an intellectual.  Look, I can’t hang out with you two anymore.  I can’t sit on the sofa watching Bravo while you pass a pint of ice cream back and forth without talking.  It makes me cringe.”  The waiter stopped to refill their water glasses, and overhearing them argue, rushed away.

“I don’t know why you treat me this way,” Tom said.  It was the only thing he could think of saying—he couldn’t disagree with her, not completely.  Allen did watch television, drink Pepsi and play Soduku.

“I guess we’re just too different,” she said.  “Tommy,” he had exhausted her, “all I want is for you to be happy.”

“I’m trying,” he said.

“Please do try,” she said back.

The trying is all that matters, he thought.  He shook her ashes out into the Charles River Basin, at her request.  This made Tom cringe—that meaningless, frankly ugly body of water—but there was no way of telling Lizzie that.

And now she was gone.  No, dead.

See what differences there are, he wanted to say to scream at her.  See how different two people can be?


* * *


Tom found himself circling the same few blocks, wishing he’d kept better track of the street names, and thinking maybe he shouldn’t have thrown the phone into the fountain.  He was sobering up, and despite being a bit turned-around, he felt perfect—having just been drunk and now not, having just been gallivanting from bar to bar with the Italian team, each of them adorable and outgoing, all of them with thick sporty legs and bright, interested eyes, and then leaving to walk home in the quiet.  Alone.  In Siena.  Under the stars.

As he stood on the curb, wondering which way was the best way back to his room, a man came riding past on a bicycle.  He was moving too quickly for Tom to see what he looked like, but the air filled briefly with strong cologne—a mix of pine and dark sandalwood, earth undercut by citrus.  Tom had a fleeting pang of hope, and then watched the bike fade into the dark.

But a moment later, the cyclist returned, materializing again, to the creaking sound of a fixed gear and rubber on cobblestones.  The man stopped across the street, stepped off the bike and pushed his fingers through his hair, which was long and brown, swooping back and falling in two thin pieces back on his forehead.  He looked like an Italian from a comic book—jeans, shiny belt, a well-tailored dress shirt, dark blue, unbuttoned at the top, no shirt underneath, sleeves rolled to the mid-forearm.  He looked at Tom and Tom looked back.  Then the man stepped off the bike and leaned it against a lamppost, which was the only source of light nearby, and gave the wall behind Tom a pinkish, theatrical glow.  Tom hoped the light did this to his face, too.

It had been years since he’d done this.  He’d forgotten the language of the body.  He’d forgotten how to hold the intensity of eye contact, how electric it can be, how soothing and how urgent.  He forgot how much energy it took to make something seem effortless.

The man walked toward him, past him, and then leaned against the stone building, motioning Tom to stand by his side.  They slid down the wall until they were both sitting, their legs just touching, shoulders pressed against the other, staring ahead.  They sat that way for a few minutes, listening to the insects in the trees, watching the blank road before them, feeling the warmth and closeness of the other.  Occasionally, they would let their shoes touch at the toes, and after some time Tom reached over and put his hand on the man’s leg. The man put his hand on top of Tom’s.

The night that Elizabeth died—in the hospital surrounded by tubes and machines—Tom went home to his apartment.  The air around him was thick with her, so full of her spirit that it hurt to take a breath.  There was no room to expand, no room to open yourself to one more thing.  Every painting on the wall, every bit of dust in the air and every atom in his body, all of it was suddenly made of her.  She was behind his eyes, pressing him to look out, to see her.  In the weeks that followed, Allen felt like distant planet, with great expanses of space between them, circling each other but unable to meet.  Tom wasn’t sure who he was without her.  Every instant, every object, all the simple motions of living were wrapped in the lonely fabric of Lizzy’s absence.

Then the cyclist began to cry.

It started quietly, like the sound of a stifled cough—his body shaking, his head bent toward his chest.  Tom could see shiny trails starting at his eyes, moving down his cheeks and across his chin.  His lower lip was spread thin across his mouth.  Then he was crying louder, sucking air through his nose and squeezing his eyes closed.  The man pulled his legs up to meet his chest and leaned his whole weight into Tom’s body.  Tom reached his arms across him, holding him tightly while he shook, sobbing.

And then Tom was shot through with pure longing—for Allen, for Lizzy, for the football players, for the cats who wouldn’t eat without him, for Sam his high school fantasy, and “Fitzgerald, Beth,” whoever she was, even his dreadful, doting, perfectly wonderful mother.  Love exploded inside him, spreading out to his edges, and—he hoped—pouring into the sad, sobbing cyclist.

After what must have been only a few minutes, the crying had stopped, but they stayed sitting there together a bit longer, breathing the air, listening.  Eventually, without speaking a word, the cyclist stood up, walked over to his bike, and rode away into the night.  Tom looked down at his shirt, which was wrinkled and wet with tears.

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LEE HOUCK was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in numerous anthologies in the U.S. and Australia, and in two limited edition chapbooks. His first novel, Yield, was published by Kensington Books in September 2010. He has also worked with Jennifer Miller's Circus Amok for many, many seasons.

15 responses to “Tom in Siena”

  1. I love this story, Lee! You captured a stillness and removed quality that happens so often with loss. I look forward to a lot more great stories from you.

  2. Wil Whalen says:

    Wow. I’m also a writer and I am really absorbed in this piece. I found it posted on my friend Tom Carpenter’s wall on Facebook. This is really engrossing. I love your imagery, your dialog and the feeling that I could be Tom in the story. I remember those feelings from losing my mother. I wrote a piece on my blog about it called “Hamilton 714” back in 2008. I am hoping to finish reading your piece here at work and then again when I get home tonight. You’ve inspired me to get my ass back into writing. Thanks for that. This is a remarkable piece. Good work.

  3. Barry Hinkson says:

    Wow! I was there but I’ve never been there and I’ve had those exact same feelings….just a brief encounter with another human being that seems to bring everything into focus. Fabulous.

  4. Walter Lamb says:

    Another wonderful piece. I love your writing!

  5. Wendy says:

    Dearest Lee,

    Thank you for the welcomed diversion to the days toils and tribulations. The numbness is gone and I can feel again!


  6. David Rockwell says:

    Hi – I just finished reading “Yield” and wanted to tell you how mesmerizing it was for me. I moved to the city from the mountains of Vermont and had a number of experiences like Simon. What especially struck me, aside from the story itself, was the voice of the inner experience. Socrates said someplace that what sets humans apart from other species is that we are concious and we are concious that we are concious…you really hit the nail on the head. A great read and I look forward to more of your writing. Thanks!

  7. […] have a new short story, “Tom in Siena,” which is up on The Nervous Breakdown. Tom stepped out of the bar into a pool of yellow-ochre light from the streetlamp. Yellow-ochre is […]

  8. […] found this passage a few months ago, in a wonderfully luminous and arresting short story by my friend Lee.  I haven’t been able to get it out of my head; the images continue to stay with […]

  9. Eiko says:

    Such a beautiful story, with an ending that brought a flash of A Small, Good Thing…the simplicity of the final lines made me shiver.

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