‘You’ve been here how long?’
‘Two years ago. Christmas, ‘71. Quit my course in Scotland, came over. My family still doesn’t know.’
‘You never talk to them?’
‘My old flatmate, Brian, he forwards me mum’s mail. He even sends replies back for me. I put five or six letters in a big package, ship that to him, he takes them to the postbox once a week.’ Brian had been Renga’s first real lover, a resident in the psychology program who now lived with a fake girlfriend (herself a lesbian, a psychiatric nurse who was especially skilled in electroshock therapy treatments, as Renga himself had witnessed on a ward visit he’d made with an identification badge nicked from the Sikh resident who shared their Citroen).
‘Yes. And I still haven’t played on a single track. I’ve written a lot, though.’
‘Mostly decent, but I run into trouble when I’m describing something a little abstract,’ Renga tried to say in Italian. He could tell from the mingled confusion, pity and disdain on Massimo Troisi’s face that he was butchering both language and accent. Renga crossed his legs to hide the dark stain he’d just seen near the left knee of his pants, and the physical movement smoothed his transition back into English. ‘It’s not good enough, is what I’m saying. Apparently not good enough.’
‘Why didn’t you go to India? Plenty going on there. You would have had more luck.’ Massimo leaned back to allow the waiter to set down a platter of transparently thin cured meats. Renga took and gnawed, swishing liquor between his teeth to dislodge studs of pig gristle.
‘No Morricone out there. And I don’t speak Hindi.’
‘So you’re as useless there as you are here. And for money?’
Renga grinned and looked away. The waiter mistook his sidewards glance for another drink order, which was not a problem. Another glass of Fernet Branca arrived, bobbing with miniature semi-spheres of ice that would melt in seconds.
‘I didn’t think I was your only one. Just glad you’re doing well,’ said Massimo. This time he was the one to cross his legs, perhaps to cover a stirring under the expensive cream trousers. No one would have been able to see it. Like most of the cafes and bars Renga’s clients favoured, Rubinetto was dark, underground. The stone walls were old, and the cement holding them together was no longer distinguishable from rock, the whole room tinted by decades of liquor stains and smoke.
Massimo poked Renga’s knee with the tip of his shoe, something he’d been doing since they’d sat down. The origin of the stain. Massimo’s constant touching was proprietary, his attempt at a physical claim on something he’d never encountered before. Renga was a rarity in the city, a place where most sexual options were anything but. Slender, more-or-less Indian, accommodating, with a pleasing accent. Passage-to-India rough trade.
‘You enjoy this? Not with me, I mean. The job in general,’ Massimo asked.
‘I like the hours and some of the sex,’ said Renga. ‘Even some of the bad fucks you learn from. And anyone I go with is someone I know, or knows someone I know. Like you.’
‘Right,’ Massimo said. He didn’t ask Renga which category of fuck he fell into.
‘You like Cipriani? Stelvio?’
‘Of course I do.’ Anonimo Veneziano was currently the third-most rotated LP in Renga’s collection.
‘He just cancelled on a project. That’s what the director says, but I think it was probably that he hoped Stelvio would do it and never got an agreement. They’ve got to get some kind of music on there. You got anything you can show the director? Mirazappa, a new guy.’
‘I have a record.’ He did. A pressing of one hundred vinyl discs, each with a cover that he’d screenprinted himself in a cheap shop in Mauritius, a red circle on a dark blue background.
‘Is it classical sounding?’
‘There’s a variety of different sounds.’
‘Hm. You might want to make something new, bring it in on tape. Mirazappa was very specific, says he wants something classical, chamber-sounding. Says Bach a lot, but I think Bach is the only composer he knows.’
‘I can do that.’ Renga would need to pay for six hours of studio time and a cellist, an engineer as well. And write something new, but that was never the problem.
‘Why d’you like Morricone so much? I know why I like him, but you?’
‘I hate voices, what they do in popular music. It’s why I couldn’t stand to go to India. You write for the movies there, you’re a slave to the playback singer, the stupid melody they want. Morricone, he makes voices behave. Forces them to be music. There’s a line, structure, something written on piano, a theme the flute will pick up when the voice can’t reach. Either that or he just makes them yelp in the recording booth, at the right pitch, the right time. That I like. It’s how voices should be used.’
‘Right. For me it’s the whistling. You know he laughs in all the wrong places if he’s around when they edit? Really threw Sergio off the one time I was there, for Buono Bruto. Ennio’s in his own world, takes a few things from the script, from discussions, then goes and does his themes.’ Massimo gazed off as he said this, watching condensation form in one particular depression in the ceiling, which the waiter had already walked over to poke dry with a mop once that evening. Renga too was feigning an experienced carelessness, which worked well when he was selling his cock and mouth, and seemed to be effective currency in the movie world as well. Being present as Ennio saw his score matched to film for the first time was swoon-material, as the linen-draped manipulator across from him knew. The story was almost definitely a lie, or something Massimo had stolen at a party.
‘I’ve heard that, yes. So when can I meet Mirazappa?’
‘You meet him after you give me the music. I’ll pay for half the recording and the musicians. We’ll call it a little gamble. Fifteen per cent if Mirazappa likes it, and you give me a few free nights if he doesn’t. He won’t want to see you if he doesn’t like the music. And he really prefers working with Italians. Didn’t want to cast any Americans or Brits, but he did because he had to. You he doesn’t have to use. So we have to make him want you. Got an Italian name for the credits?’
‘No,’ said Renga, too happy to defend his carefully-arrived-at pseudonym. He gave Massimo his real address, something he rarely did with a client, and left the bar after promising to meet back there the next day – unless Massimo wanted him for another hour that night?
‘I’m 52,’ Massimo said. ‘I’d just fall asleep.’
Massimo watched the departing boy, who’d reached for his wallet when the bill came with something approaching genuine grace. He walked that way as well, with the elegance of the unwatched. Renga didn’t act like a whore. At least not like one who charged his extremely reasonable rates.
The need to shower overtook Renga as soon as he turned away from Massimo and headed up the stone steps into the afternoon. Under his light, stained shirt and cotton pants, Renga’s flesh felt tacky, and the heat would soon turn this into viscous stickiness. It was an unpleasant, tactile part of a job he mostly enjoyed.
The apartment he occupied, on via Prospera Santacroce, was in cruel proximity to Titania a Roma, the studio he was supposed to be recording in by now – passing out charts of themes and careful indications, cueing violinists and guitarists, getting ready to scream at anyone who bucked his instructions. Aside from his keyboards, the flat was a couch, a mattress, two heaps of clothes, and thirty-seven unwashed teacups. There was a slight form on the mattress, a normal-sized head on the pillow and a narrow comma under the sheet: Enzo, who had a key and often napped here after a night with a client. Renga didn’t wake him, heading straight to the shower to wash Massimo’s skin and fluids away.
He’d wake Enzo up by testing a theme that had occurred to him a few weeks ago, one that might fit Mirazappa’s film. A massively heavy Fender Rhodes organ and a Roland Piano occupied the never-cooked-in kitchen, which was above the building’s boiler room and the only place in the apartment where he could make sufficient noise to properly feel out his ideas. He’d even made some baffling walls out of egg cartons and Styrofoam, shutting the keyboards into a soft room-within-a-room that was tropically hot on summer days like this.
Renga enclosed himself in foam and took his place at the bench. He turned the Rhodes on, pressing the keys as the tubes warmed up. Enzo moaned from the other room, probably in pain from another night of feeding his body to sadists. Enzo only made sounds when he turned over in his sleep, which meant that he was facedown now. On his back, a river-map of junior lash-marks intercrossed with a few raised maroon scars that had been very expensive indeed for the man who had put them there.
The name ‘Enzo’ was arbitrary, a career pseudonym that had overtaken his birth name, ‘Magnus’. A Swedish–Turkish mix, he was used to discussing his racial origins in the terms of a dog’s pedigree, leaning toward purity and legacy for some clients, muddying his blood for others, even telling one client, a Catalan, that he was Renga’s half-brother. This was the one who had left the marks.
Enzo had looked young that night, extremely young. All sorts of plays on fascist dominance had been acted out on the flesh that coated his bones like frost on grass. Many of his clients came straight from the old guard; Mussolini’s closeted friends, former Futurists and politicians who had eventually washed up in the business and film worlds of Rome, either making regulations or doing their best to break them. The role Enzo had come up with, literal whipping boy to a fallen elite and its acolytes, justified the emaciated body he’d created long before he took on his name and career.
Renga wouldn’t have been able to name Enzo’s disorder even if he’d recognized it as sickness. The skinniness looked like a business strategy to his fellow hustlers, a committed shaping of his most essential resource to provide an experience that was unique in the city, and therefore highly valued. He could sew, too, and had effectively modified a number of formal jackets and surplus army garments into a variously-sized Nazi and Blackshirt collection. He kept these in a dedicated wardrobe that stood locked in his own apartment, while his own costumes – rags, licked with blood in distressing areas – were stuffed into a suitcase under the living room couch. When Renga and Enzo went out together with clients, something they did often with new ones, to create a certain level of security, Renga ate off Enzo’s plate. A few cherry tomatoes at the end of the meal usually sustained his friend and trainer.
Clients, including the Catalan, liked talking about general topics over meals, perhaps trying to make it seem as though they were taking out some foreign junior partners or courting actors for a production. Enzo had a different character at the table, wise, witty, presumably the opposite of the cowering pant-pisser he played in the client’s room. More educated than Renga, as he was constantly reminding his colleague, he called this the geisha part of the job.
‘Most physical beauty is an accident, but maintaining it is as hard as keeping two cars in perpetual collision,’ he said, talking to Renga at their dinner with the Catalan. Another dark room, this one oddly empty, as though the Catalan had paid for several tables to be kept clear around them.
‘That sounds wise and stupid at the same time,’ Renga answered, deferring his conversational place to the third man at the table. Their tall North African waiter, idle since they’d been served their last bottle, had started to circle the edges of the room. He was using a long spoon to snuff every second candle, drawing the walls closer in.
‘And how do you maintain your beauty?’ asked the Catalan, who carried his own salt cellar and sprinkled each slice of steak before he ate it. The affectation made Renga quietly angry, distracting him from the taste of his own fish every time he saw the man drop a pinch from the engraved wooden box. He was about forty, but unhealthy, with skin the colour of an old rope in a gymnasium. The heartbreaking falseness of his wig made it clear that even great wealth couldn’t cover everything.
‘I maintain it the same way I developed it. I had to start the accident. My parents’ shabby cells couldn’t do the job. For my nose to make sense, for my cheekbones to counterbalance my jaw, I had to impose reductions elsewhere.’
Enzo took a photo wrapped in paper out of his wallet. He removed the picture from its folded sheath and pushed it over to the Catalan, who owned three garment factories.
The Catalan, who had lied and told them his name was Umbrosi, stared at the photo. The subject, a teenage boy, wasn’t fat, but he was anonymous, a background actor who would never be called forward to deliver a line. Enzo described the process of unearthing himself from that accidental body.
Renga picked up the paper the photo had been folded in; it was a prescription, a few years old, for glasses. The doctor’s name was Nordic-sounding.
‘Is this your father’s handwriting?’ Renga asked. Enzo picked up the photo and the prescription and returned them to their folded clasp.
‘No, he charged too much. I only go to doctors I can fuck for the bill.’ Saying this in front of a client ran counter to Enzo’s first tenet of the job: Never act like a whore. Whether he’d said it impulsively or with calculation, it worked. The Catalan laughed.
‘Let’s go to the house,’ the Catalan said. It was eight miles from the restaurant, and they made the trip by cab. The Catalan never used his own car on nights when he was seeing a boy, Enzo said. His driver was an old friend, a scholarshipped classmate from secondary school who’d ruined his former career with drugs, and now clung to Catholicism and the job he’d been given. Umbrosi didn’t like to make him uncomfortable by having him chauffeur Roman street meat.
Their cab took Grande Raccorde, a dull but effective route, circling towards the part of town where they needed to be before penetrating back through the concentric slices of the city. The house had all of its lights on: Umbrosi’s theft deterrent and way of keeping his dogs comfortable.
They fell on Renga and Enzo when Umbrosi opened the door. Enormous, friendly, poorly-trained Irish wolfhounds, alien-bodied and unreal beasts that Renga had recognized from the inclusion of the breed in Powell and Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going. They moved like new fawns in the constricted space of the hallway entrance, their legs sturdy but their bodies large enough to destabilize the tiny space they crowded into.
‘They only live six, seven years. So I let them have their fun,’ Umbrosi said. The larger of the two hounds had its paws on Enzo’s shoulders and bore him back into the door, which closed beneath the boy’s feathery weight. Umbrosi finally called the dogs when Enzo’s knees started to wobble. They corralled themselves, backing single-file toward a pile of small Persian rugs in front of an empty fireplace.
Their heads bobbed as the immense curving backs receded, wheeling and trotting out of sight. Renga’s former terror of dogs had been alleviated by the endless sequence of lap-bound near-invertebrates he’d encountered in clients’ homes, small creatures with misaligned jaws and flat muzzles had no function or ability to threaten. Quite a few of these had bitten him, their soft teeth denting his skin and leaving sulky trails of mucous. Soon he was able to see kindness, deference, or indifference in the eyes of larger domestics. The scavenging wild dogs of Rome were quite easy to avoid, and were constantly being impounded or secretly executed by angry homeowners wielding guns left over from the war. The wolfhounds in this house had fewer aggressive instincts than their owner, who was watching his night’s hire with a particularly charged lust that Renga didn’t think he himself could ever feel or inspire.
Enzo straightened and brushed dog-hair epaulets off his blazer, which he then took off and hung from a hook by the door. His lucent thinness was exposed by his pearl-white shirt. The pants were narrow and tapered to pencil-thickness at the ankles, and a red leather belt was shelved on his hipbones.
Renga eyebrowed his friend. Enzo had told him that the Catalan’s sessions always started with the dogs, but thankfully they weren’t involved in any of the later portions of his evening’s entertainment.
‘Do you want to stay down in this room, Renga?’ The name came out as Wray-Gah when Umbrosi said it, as though he were addressing some foe of Godzilla’s. ‘I can set you up in the screening room, if you’d like.’
‘No, I’ll stay here. The dogs are fine with me?’
‘They’re fine with everyone. I’ve never seen them hungry, perhaps that would change things.’ Umbrosi was looking up the stairs, barely glancing at Renga as he spoke, touching himself through his right pocket. He’d prepared things for Enzo before meeting the boys for dinner, alluding to the ‘scene being set’ at least four times at the table. He wasn’t like most clients, who kept their stuff in the basement.
‘Most of these fetish dungeons they take me to, they’re totally historically incoherent,’ Enzo had once said after an appointment on Via Frattina. ‘It’s medieval as well as fascistic. Thomas More used to have people who read the Bible in English instead of Latin tortured, you know that? Maybe executed, I can’t remember, but surely tortured first. This fat client today, takes tongs just to find his cock, he collects old implements. Devices. A flat piece of iron he paid thousands of lire for, with a handle at the back – he says he has its lineage, stolen from some museum when the Allies came. It’s an abacinator. They’d heat it up white, hold it in front of your eyes, melt them right out. You cry them out, the sockets are left empty, the optic nerve seals up and shrivels. Terrible. I always worried he’d use it on me, get too worked up, but he’s just a sweet dentist. And I never let him tie me up.’
Enzo had been silent since they’d come into the house, sinking into passivity, acting his way into the Catalan’s fantasy. Renga watched them walk up the stairs to a second floor that had been imposed on the original structure, rooms slotted between the roof and the stone first floor, supported by grim, immense beams, which had likely been salvaged from some ancient barn. The wood throughout the house was the same greyed-brown as the hounds, a colour that Renga identified with Flemish paintings. Peasants copulating in the dirt by collapsing buildings.
Umbrosi needled Enzo in the back with a finger as they mounted the top stair. The boy stopped and let Umbrosi walk around him to open the bedroom door, which was just visible to Renga. The Catalan liked going through his sexual paces in his proper bedroom, the place where he slept and wanked and sometimes brought models and actresses for a night of puzzled slumber while he leaked a more salacious story by phone to a collection of trusted gossip columnists.
Renga took a post on the couch behind the curled enormity of the canines, with a copy of the only novel in English he could find on Umbrosi’s shelves, Double Indemnity. The cushion next to him was stacked with copies of L’Unita, the communist paper. Umbrosi probably read it for research on the unions that he fought against to keep the shirts he made, but never wore, as cheap as possible.
He fell asleep a little after the dogs did, waking only when the negotiations upstairs passed from lash to bullwhip, and the yelps turned into three real screams, sounds that Renga had never heard from his friend, which rose and pitched into an androgynous then animal screech. One of the dogs moved its legs, dream running somewhere, following or fleeing a phantasmagoric parallel of the screams upstairs.
The theme that occurred to Renga as he was on that couch, starting with the screamed G that followed the first crack of the whip was a fairly plain nine-note run with an unexpected diminished seventh as the penultimate strike, a recurring pattern that would overlap successive bars to abolish any sense of certainty.
Enzo was driven to the home of a veterinarian after Umbrosi had finished ejaculating and started panicking. The Catholic chauffer had been summoned from the coach house, an explanation involving a fall on a stray rake left on the lawn conjured, and Enzo had been carted off, facedown, to be stitched up as well as possible. Umberto had left Renga with a huge roll of lire bound by an elastic band, the bounty for Enzo’s flesh.
Renga forced that night’s theme to return as he sat in his own kitchen two months later, with Enzo sleeping on his mattress in the next room. He struck them out on the Rhodes, playing them repeatedly, altering timing and emphasizing different notes while staring at the matte black plastic cover that concealed the strings and pickups. Eventually his eyes stopped working, filtering out the dull blackness, as a smell vanishes to a nose before it vanishes in a room. He corrected the theme, perfected it, then continued to play as a contrapuntal harmony line for xylophone unfurled in his mind. He placed the sound somewhere behind his right eyebrow, and auditioned a theremin accent behind his cheekbone before dismissing it. Cellos came in, and he put these behind his mandibles, two behind each back molar, keeping the arrangement sparse, manageable, bonding each note physically with a chew or a twitch, staring down into the keys and repeating until it was assembled. There was a counterpoint that almost had its shape, but kept shifting, like the features of a character in an amateur’s novel, changing based on what they were doing, how they were acting.
‘It’s boring until it keeps happening. Then it’s not exactly interesting, but you want it to continue, you know?’ Enzo had swiveled open one of the soundproofing walls of Renga’s practice chamber. He had his Wise Critical Judgment face on, which made it annoying to agree with him.
‘That’s about as good a description of a theme for variations as I could get to, I guess,’ he said. Enzo pulled the practice room open all the way, signaling to Renga that it was time to pay attention to him, and walked over to the fridge. Slices of things, mostly: meat, cheese. Discs, tubes. Strings of uncooked pasta that would soon go bad; all brought by a client of Renga’s. Bottles of sparkling water, which both boys preferred to still, and which had become nearly the only thing Enzo consumed. As he drank the knot in his throat bobbed and wriggled like a caught fish, and the scars on his back moved when he turned. There was a light fuzz on the boy’s skin that hadn’t been there when Renga had first met him, the night they’d decided never to fuck just because they were supposed to.
‘I got a project,’ Renga said. ‘An assignment.’ He described Massimo Troisi’s proposition to Enzo, who set the bottle down and drew his mouth over to one side.
‘Do it right,’ said Enzo, ‘even if the john doesn’t pay you enough. I’ll give you anything extra you need. Don’t give them some scratchy piano recording. Give them the whole thing, so they can’t say no.’
‘They can say no to anything. They’ve been saying no for years.’
‘To you, not what you make. If you make that –’ Enzo pointed to the air above the keyboard – ‘they’ll take it.’
‘It’s the Catalan, I think. The director of the movie is new, a beginner. I think it’s him.’
‘Massimo used his name. His real name.’
‘That’s a good clue,’ said Enzo, stretching there in the kitchen, distracting his hands so they wouldn’t reach for the scars on his back. His ribs expanded and the concavity of his stomach deepened, the brittle spine making a dusty cracking sound as he leaned backwards.
Two weeks later, Renga met with Massimo and the director on an enormous outdoor patio. It was the Catalan – false Umbrosi, real Mirazappa – and he stood and blanched when he saw Renga, the source of the music on the tape that he’d already decided to use. Renga had passed the chauffeur on his way to the terrazza, accepting and returning a nod.
‘You understand my film without having seen it. I see it when – the, the violin strain, that’s my heroine, the glove on her throat as she grips it and slips away, taking with her the leather but not his hand.’
‘And the tension notes,’ Renga said, leaning slightly across the table, ignoring Massimo’s inquisitive brows and watching the Catalan. ‘Those are the whips. From the title, you know.’
Enzo didn’t turn up for the premiere of La frusta e il calice, which came out stunningly fast, a month after the sound was finalized. He didn’t reply to phone calls beforehand or afterwards. Renga thought he might find him at his own home, perhaps finally ready to have sex, now that only one of them was in the business of it. Enzo wasn’t there, so Renga let himself into his flat an hour after the party had wrapped, walking over ankle-twisting cobblestones through a pre-dawn crowd of bakers, newspaper vendors and the drunken young.
Enzo’s books, his fascist trousseau for clients, and his own clothes were still in the apartment. His wallet, with its paper-wrapped photo of the boy that might have been him, was gone. That, at least, suggested that he had left with some purpose. Renga looked for more missing objects in the apartment as the sun lay lengthening beams of heat across its uncurtained rooms, but found everything else his friend owned intact, present, abandoned.
Photograph © foundin_a_attic