In Alba, Italy, rain and a market. In my hands, the white, greased paper that once held an entire rotisserie rabbit. Its bones clack together like hooves, a horse in the distance. I clutch this paper coffin to my chest, as if for warmth, and scan the piazza for a garbage can. My hunt for refuse carries me into the covered pulse of the marketplace. I have to blink to focus, to assimilate this lovely chaos. There are hundreds of vendors—fruit stands, fish stands, meats and cheeses; rounds, bricks, entire civilizations of cheese, octopus, persimmon. I toss my trash beneath a string of blood sausage.
“Hey! Hey!” I hear someone shout.
The voice opens like the lid of an ancient hope chest, its dusty remnants and long-dead dreams riding the rain. If I were to look inside this voice, I’d expect to find centuries-old taxidermy, owls with shellacked eyes and sawdust in the feathers. I hear it again, this time in triplicate.
“Hey! Hey! Hey!”
I have no reason to think it’s directed at me, but I turn to face a tiny knuckle of a man, dressed all in white, head so perfectly circular it could have been designed with a compass.
“Hey! Viene qua!” the frump calls to me from behind his fruit stand.
I turn and point behind me, my forehead certainly a mess of wrinkles. People cascade in circles, not one of them standing still. I turn back and touch my chest.
“Io?” I ask.
“Si si” he creaks. “Tu”
I move forward, and, as if stepping on a hidden button in the cobblestone, I activate this man to produce a baseball-sized fig from his fruit pile, bust it in half with his thumbs, and shove both bowled sides into his mouth at once. As if a magician waiting for applause, less than a second later he waves the cleaned purple fig skins at me like theatre curtains.
“Wow,” is all I can muster.
He holds a fat palm open to me. I freeze into position. He turns and retrieves another intact fig, this one even larger. Again, with his cigar-stub fingers, he breaks the fruit in two, its swampy, sweet cilia waving yellow at my nose like a sea anemone. Soon, his hands are in mine, wet with warm rain, rolling the fig halves into my drenched palms.
“Prego” he offers, but it could easily have been “Abracadabra.”
I want to match his magic, so I shove both halves into my mouth. The music of the fruit shrieks soprano with cherry and yeast, the texture of limp comb-teeth. This is a fig to resurrect the dreams of a great-great-grandmother. This is a fig to make her a little girl again, stretch her hair from stiff gray to blond, braided pigtails. I think of the tango and pull the stripped skins from my mouth. The frump actually applauds, laughing.
“Bravo! Bravo!” he bellows.
I laugh knowingly with him, having shared in his secret bag of wizard’s tricks.
I reach into my pocket, expecting a string of scarves, but produce only my wallet. When I flash a few coins, he shakes his head, a bowling ball on shoulders, and turns to help another customer, a middle-aged woman with a faux-snakeskin umbrella.
I feel large and somehow filled out, rounded, fat handed, aged and neckless. This is a market without illusion. The magic here is real. Over the reptilian umbrella, I watch the man hoist a watermelon into the air.