So Long

Antonio Tabucchi, translated by Elizabeth Harris

 
 

And who would get postcards? Thinking about it, he wondered if he should make a list, because once you reach your destination, you always forget. He found a sheet of paper in the desk, sat down, and started coming up with names and addresses. He lit a cigarette. He’d write down a name, think it over, take a drag of his cigarette, and write down another. After he finished, he copied the names into his datebook and tore up the paper. He set the datebook on top of his shirts, in his open suitcase. He looked around, studying the room, like he was trying to remember what he might’ve forgotten—it was going to be a long trip. Then he remembered the postcards he’d bought in an art gallery and left on the bookshelf. He started sorting through them, to see if they might work for this upcoming trip. Not really, he told himself, they don’t really work, what’s a postcard of the Marches got to do with South America? But then he also thought how nice the stamps would look; in Peru, for instance, he’d buy stamps with parrots, there had to be stamps with parrots in Peru, plus stamps with faces of pre-­Columbian gods, smiling, inscrutable masks, masks of gold or glazed enamel—he’d seen an exhibit once at Palazzo Reale—there had to be stamps of those places, too. Actually, he liked the idea, because typical tourist postcards were so ugly, the colors always too bright, fake colors, and all the cards alike, whether they came from Mexico or Germany. So this was far more original: a postcard with “from Ascoli” written on it when it came from Oaxaca or Yucatán or Chapultepec (was that it?)—these names of places where he’d go.

Where he should have gone with Isabel, if she were still here. But she wasn’t, she was gone before they could. For fifteen years, they thought about that trip, but it wasn’t a trip you could take just like that, especially for two people in their profession. It took time, availability, money—all things that weren’t there before. Now they were, but Isabel wasn’t. He went to the desk, found a picture of Isabel and set it in his suitcase, beside the datebook and the postcards. It was a picture of them, arms linked, standing in San Marco Piazza in Venice, surrounded by pigeons, with vaguely stupid smiles on their faces, like people smile for the camera. Were we happy? he thought. And he recalled how Isabel took his hand on the boat taxi and whispered: “Well, if we can’t get to South America right now, at least we’re in Venice.”

Odd when pictures lie flat: he and Isabel, surrounded by pigeons, with San Marco below, and them staring up at the ceiling. It bothered him, their eyes in that picture, staring up at the ceiling, so he turned the picture over and said: “I’m taking you along, Isabel, you’re going on this trip, too, we’ll travel all over the place, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and we’ll have a great time and write postcards, and I’ll sign them for us both. I’ll sign your name, too, it’ll be just like you’re with me—no—you will be with me, because as you well know, I always take you along.”

Tullio Pericoli, Postcard from Florence, 1983.

He quickly added up the things left to do; the last things, he thought, feeling like someone who wouldn’t be coming back. And all at once, he understood that he wouldn’t be coming back, that he’d never set foot inside this apartment again, this apartment where he’d spent almost his entire life longing to be in exotic places with mysterious names like Yucatán and Oaxaca. He shut off the gas valve, the water valve, switched off the circuit breaker, closed the shutters. Standing by the windows, he realized how hot it was. Of course—it was August fifteenth. And he thought that he’d chosen a perfect day to leave, a day when everyone was on vacation, crowded onto the beaches, everyone far away, gone from the cities, packed together like ants taking over a little sand.

It was nearly one, but he wasn’t hungry. Even if he had been up since seven and only drunk coffee. His train was at two thirty—plenty of time. He picked out a card with “Robinson Island” on the front, and on the back he wrote: We’re on Timultopec, a small island where Robinson could easily have been shipwrecked, never been happier, yours, Taddeo and Isabel. He signed himself, “Taddeo,” which no one called him, but it was his baptism name, it just came to him. And then he wondered who he’d send the card to. But there was time for that. And then he chose another, one with some towers, and on the back he wrote: This is the Machu Picchu mountain range, the air’s incredible here, so long, Taddeo and Isabel. Then he found another, one that was entirely blue, and on the back he wrote: This is the blue we’re living, a blue ocean, a blue sky, a blue life. Then he found one with a church, maybe Santa Maria Novella, and on the back he wrote: The South American baroque, a copy of Europe’s, but vaguer, more visionary, love, Taddeo and Isabel.

He wondered if he should bother trying to get a taxi, or if he should just take the bus. The station was only three stops away, and considering what day it was, he might be on the phone a good twenty minutes trying to call for a taxi; this really wasn’t the day for a taxi, there weren’t any—there wasn’t even a car—the city was completely deserted. He spread a handkerchief over the picture and the postcards and carefully closed the suitcase. He looked around another time. He drew the blinds, patted his back pocket to check for his wallet, and headed down the hall, to the entranceway. At the door he set his suitcase on the floor a moment and said out loud: “See you later, home. No—goodbye.”

In the shade of the bus shelter, it wasn’t so bad, though the street was dissolving into shiny puddles. At least there was a slight breeze, some relief. When he got off at the train station, he thought he might faint. But only for a moment—he felt dizzy for a moment—it was the blazing heat, of course, radiating off the stones, and the dazzling light, a light without shadow, because the sun was at its peak. The station clock read two. The lobby was deserted. Only one ticket counter was open, he got his ticket and looked around for a newspaper kiosk, but the kiosk was closed. His suitcase certainly wasn’t heavy. For such a long trip, he’d only brought along the bare essentials, the rest he’d buy a little at a time, in the countries he’d visit, when the opportunity or need arose. He glanced into the first-­class waiting room, also deserted, he paused, considering, but the air was suffocating. Maybe the underpass is cooler, he told himself, or maybe there’s at least a breeze under the platform roof. He walked slowly through the underpass, congratulating himself that his suitcase was so light, and he climbed the stairs to track three. It was completely deserted. No, the entire station was deserted, not one passenger. He noticed a small boy in a white shirt sitting on a bench, a carrying case of ice cream slung over his shoulder. The boy saw him, too, and rose, wearily shifted his case, and started toward him. When he was closer, he said: “You want an ice cream, sir?” The man told him no thanks; and the boy took off his white cap and wiped his forehead.

“I shouldn’t have bothered coming today,” he said. 

“You haven’t sold much?”

“Three cones and a cassata. To passengers taking the one o’clock. But there won’t be any more after yours—there’s a strike on for three hours, except for intercity trains.” He laid the case on the ground and pulled a stack of cards from his pocket. He arranged the cards on the edge of the bench seat, then tapped them with the back of his finger so they dropped to the ground. Those that fell he gathered and set aside. “These ones win,” he explained.

“How old are you?” the man asked.

“Almost twelve,” the boy answered. “This is the second summer I’ve sold ice cream at the station, my father has a kiosk at Piazza Santa Caterina.”

“And your father’s kiosk isn’t enough?”

“Well, no, sir. There’s three of us kids. And life’s pretty expensive these days, you know.” Then, changing the subject, he said: “Are you going to Rome, sir?”

The man nodded but didn’t answer. Then he said: “I’m going to Fiumicino. The Fiumicino Airport.”

The boy slipped a card delicately between his index finger and thumb, like a paper airplane, and made his lips vibrate like an engine.

“What’s your name?” the man asked. 

“Taddeo. How about you?” 

“Taddeo.”

“Weird,” the boy said. “We both have the same name. Not too many Taddeos out there—it’s not a very common name.”

“And what do you plan to do later?” 

“What do you mean later?”

“When you grow up.”

The boy thought a moment. His eyes were very bright, and you could see his imagination churning. “I’m going on a bunch of trips,” he said. “I’ll travel all over the world and have all different jobs, here, there, everywhere I go.”

The station bell began to sound and the boy gathered up his cards. “That’s the intercity,” he said. “I have to get ready to sell my ice cream.”

He’d hardly finished before the announcement came over the loudspeaker. “Have a good trip,” the boy said as he walked away, shifting his case on his shoulder. He moved toward the head of the track, clearly to walk along the platform in the opposite direction of the arriving train, for the possibility of more sales. Just then, the train emerged from the thick curtain of heat that veiled the out­lying buildings. The man stood up, suitcase in hand.

It was a very long train, the cars were the more modern kind, with corridor windows that didn’t lower, so those passengers wanting ice cream stood at the doors. The man watched with pleasure: the boy was making a killing. The two conductors who’d stepped onto the platform took a good look down the track, then one whistled, and the doors slid closed. And the train started off. The man watched it dissolve into heat waves, he went back to his bench and opened his suitcase. The boy came over, tucking his change into the coin purse around his waist.

“You didn’t leave?” 

“Apparently not.”

“What about Fiumicino?” the boy asked. “You’ll miss your flight.”

“Oh, there’ll be others,” the man answered, smiling. He took the postcards out of his suitcase and showed them to the boy. “These are my cards,” he said. “Want to see?”

The boy took them and started studying them, one by one. “I like this one of Elba Island,” he said. “I’ve been there, too. And this one of Venice, with all the little birds.”

“They’re pigeons,” the man said. “Venice is full of pigeons, all kinds, all colors, like the parrots in Peru.”

“Really?” the boy asked, doubtful. “You’re not bullshitting me, are you?”

“No, no. It’s true. And look at this one that’s completely yellow. This one’s of Ascoli, a city that’s completely yellow, with flecks of gold, it’s all the light effects.”

“Pretty,” the boy said, convinced now. And then he asked: “How many?” 

“Thirty.”

“So,” the boy said, getting down to business, “you want to trade?” 

The man seemed lost in thought.

“Trade me for my cards,” the boy said, “like for this one with the parrots, I’ll give you a Maciste and two Ferrari F1s. Plus I have ten singers.” The man seemed to be thinking, then he said: “You know what—just keep them. I don’t need them anymore.” He set the cards on the boy’s ice cream case, picked up his suitcase, and headed for the underpass.

As he started down the stairs, the boy called after him, “Hey, that doesn’t seem right—but thanks,” he shouted, “really—thanks!”

The man waved. “So long,” he said to himself.


Antonio Tabucchi (1943–2012) was an Italian writer and academic who taught Portuguese language and literature at the University of Siena and also lived in Lisbon. The English translation of his Racconti con figure is forthcoming from Archipelago.

Elizabeth Harris translates contemporary Italian fiction, including works by Giulio Mozzi and Claudia Durastanti. Her translations of Antonio Tabucchi have received an NEA Translation Fellowship and the National Translation Award.

“So Long” will appear in Stories with Pictures by Antonio Tabucchi, translated by Elizabeth Harris, published by Archipelago Books.

Image: “Wasted Ice Cream Cone” by Steve Snodgrass, 2013, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.