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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

What Is Missing

A Novel

Michael Frank



Ten Months Earlier

Andrew Weissman’s heart was pounding. He heard it, the roar and pulse of it, in his ears. He could almost feel the blood juicing through his body, propelling him forward. When he realized that there were only three more bridges before he had to turn away from the Arno, he made one last push. He dug down into himself, past the fatigue, past the thirst and the heat, to see what he could find. He shot forward, a body hurtling through time, slicing through the soupy air, flying.

After the second bridge he began to slow down, and the sweat came up profusely. Somehow his body knew, as he was closing in on the end of a run, that it was okay to cut free, to liquefy. When he reached the last bridge, he slowed down even further, relaxing into an easy jog that carried him all the way into the lobby of a palazzo on the left-hand side of the via Tornabuoni. Just as the elevator door was about to close, he slipped in.

A woman stood in the corner of the cab. She had long spilling golden hair and skin so translucent that it might have been made of paper. She was holding a large padded envelope, its flap ripped open. On top of the envelope were the first of what appeared to be a thick stack of typewritten pages. Her eyes were racing across the print on them at a fierce, unbroken pace.

In his saturated shirt and shorts Andrew sank into the opposite corner and watched her. She didn’t once look up from the page, not even when the door opened again upstairs. She continued to read as she stepped out of the elevator.

A sheet slipped out of her grasp and floated to the ground.

“Wait,” Andrew said.

She stopped and blinked at him, came into focus. He picked up the fallen paper and handed it to her.

“Thank you,” she said, then she set off toward her room, which was in the opposite direction of his. The air she had disturbed held her scent in it.

* * *

Andrew showered, then pulled on his jeans and T-shirt. He glanced at the list his father had left on the table between their two beds, with his suggestions for sites that Andrew might visit that morning. He folded the list in half and tucked it into the drawer, grabbed his camera, and headed for the sitting room, which had quickly become his private hangout at the Pensione Ricci.

Seldom used during the day, it was furnished with several constellations of deep sofas and chairs. A dark tapestry covered one wall. Large bright paintings of imaginary landscapes hung on two of the others. On the fourth a pair of long windows opened onto the via Tornabuoni, five floors below.

Andrew headed for the windows. He preferred the one on the left, with its open view up and down the street. He folded back the shutters and fastened them against the exterior of the building. Then he leaned on the windowsill and began to frame his first shot of the day.

Only then did he become aware that he wasn’t alone. The woman from the elevator was sitting at a desk at the other end of the room, reading from, it seemed, more of the typewritten pages that she had been carrying before. Again her eyes were racing; again she didn’t realize that she was being watched.

Andrew loved to take pictures of people reading. He loved the way readers were having a private experience that he could observe, and photograph, without being observed back. Slowly he angled his camera in her direction.

Without looking up from the page she said, “You might at least ask me to smile.”

Andrew lowered the camera abruptly. He blushed. “People don’t usually smile while they’re reading.”

“I do.” She looked up. “When something delights me.”

“You weren’t smiling just now.”

“No”—she sat back in her chair—“I wasn’t.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt. Or to—offend you. I just—it’s just what I do. Take pictures.”

She studied him for a moment. “I’ve seen you before in here. Staring out the window.”

“Not just staring. Shooting the street. It’s part of a project I’m working on. I like to find patterns, repetitions. It’s how I get to know an unfamiliar place.”

“This is how you spend your days.”

“When my father’s out.”

She looked as if she wanted to know more.

“Giving lectures. He’s presenting at a medical conference here.”

“Your father doesn’t like you to go out without him?”

“He wants me to. It’s just that sometimes I get tired of seeing the things he likes to see.”

“What things are those?

Andrew recited a list: the David, the Medici tombs, the Uffizi, the Baptistery doors, the Duomo. Other sites and countless artworks that had sped by in a blur went unmentioned because he no longer remembered their names.

“You’ve been a thorough tourist.”

“My father likes to see everything. Everything interests him.”

“But not you.”

Andrew shrugged.

She tilted her head. “What do you think about when you look at these things? The David, the Medici tombs, and so on?”

“I feel like there’s going to be a test.”

“That’s too bad. When it comes to buildings or sculptures, it’s best if you feel—wonder. Otherwise, why bother going?”

“That’s why I don’t if I don’t have to.”

She nodded, then returned to her reading. Had he said something stupid, or had the conversation just petered out sooner than he would have liked? Either way, he got the message. He looked out the window and raised his camera. But he quickly lowered it again to watch her. She was reading even more rapidly now, her eyes speeding across the page urgently, anxiously. The troubled look on her face made her even more beautiful somehow.

Andrew forced himself to return his attention to the street below. A man in a straw hat was looking in a shop window where the mannequin was wearing virtually the identical straw hat. Andrew framed a shot and pressed the shutter.

“How about a walk?” she said. She was stacking up the pages, tapping them against the desk to even them out.

“But I don’t even know your name.”

“Will that help you to decide?”

“It just seems—proper.”

Lines appeared in her forehead. “My name is Costanza.”

“I’m Andrew.”

“There. Everything’s proper now, yes?”

* * *

Her hat was made of straw, like the one in the window. Its white band matched her dress. Her dress was linen, and it pulled across her breasts as she walked. It was hard for Andrew to take his eyes off those shapes.

“So you’re in Florence by yourself,” he half said and half asked as they set off up the via Tornabuoni.

“What gives you that idea?”

“You were alone in the elevator. And in the sitting room.”

“My companion could be … attending a professional conference, like your father.”

“Then they might know each other.”

“They might be colleagues. Friends.”

“Or enemies.”

“Why enemies?”

“Lots of my father’s colleagues are his enemies. He has very strong ideas about his work. And his kind of medicine is very competitive.”

“Why is that?”

“I think it partly has to do with money.”

“Let me guess. He’s a plastic surgeon.”

Andrew shook his head.

“A psychiatrist who has invented a pill that makes people amiable.”

“I don’t think that would be very successful in New York. People might lose their identity along with their edge.”

She laughed. “I give up.”

“He helps older women have babies.”

Andrew noticed her right eye twitch. How old was she, anyway? A faint latticework framed her eyes, fine as mesh. That was all. His mother, Judith, was much more lined, and she had been dyeing her hair for eight years at least. His mother was forty-nine.

They were approaching the large open market near the church of San Lorenzo. Andrew and his father had walked along these same streets over the weekend, on their way to see the Medici tombs. The neighborhood had been in a Sunday slumber then; now it was alive with stalls selling tablecloths and leather goods, scarves and stationery, T-shirts and belts, watches, coral necklaces, mosaic picture frames—a daunting unbroken panorama of stuff.

About fifteen stalls in, Costanza angled to the right and led Andrew to a building covered by a large glass roof that stood behind the market stalls.

“What is this place?” he asked as they walked up the stairs.

“The Mercato Centrale. It’s not on your father’s list.”

The way she pronounced Mercato Centrale suggested that she spoke Italian, or was Italian. Yet her English was perfect and had only a trace of an accent.

Andrew could have looked for hours at the meat cases alone. They were filled with things that were still half the creatures they had recently been. There were boars’ flanks covered in damp gleaming fur, chickens with untouched faces connected by plucked bodies to limp clawed feet. Pheasants were feathered, more asleep than dead. Cows were in possession of their heads, pigs their snouts. There were slack tongues, looping intestines, accordion ribs, and pink spongy brains. Andrew raised his camera, but he couldn’t find a way in.

Costanza led him around to the fruits and vegetables. They too let him know how they’d started on this earth. The oranges had leaves attached to them, the garlic their stems. There were berries he didn’t recognize—di bosco she called them, “of the woods”; they were small, blush colored, covered with little freckles and bumps.

The mushrooms were brown and wrinkled. They looked leathered like an old man’s skin and gave off a smoky, rich, strange smell. “When I was a girl,” she told Andrew, “we used to visit my grandfather in Tuscany. After he retired he bought a small farm there. He used to hunt for his own mushrooms and dry them on special racks.”

She leaned forward, closed her eyes, and inhaled. The scent evidently took her somewhere pleasant, somewhere far away.

Afterward she exchanged a few words with the vendor, who tossed several handfuls of mushrooms on the scale. “Is there a scent that takes you back?” she asked Andrew.

He shrugged. “I don’t think so.”

“That’s because you haven’t lost anything yet. You’re still too young.”

He couldn’t decide if she was insulting him or challenging him. “I’m not that young, you know. And I’ve lost a few things.”

“How old are you, anyway, Andrew? Eighteen?”

“In February.”

“And do you want to tell me what it is you’ve lost?”

What hadn’t he lost, really? His nuclear family, with the divorce. His grandmother, who died when he was nine. His brother, who vanished at the beginning of the summer—actually months, many months, before. His girlfriend, who broke up with him at the end of the school year.

He couldn’t say all this to her, so he went for what felt like the simplest of the three. “Well, my parents are divorced.”

“I surmised. You’re traveling alone with your father. You don’t seem like a boy who has no mother.”

“I don’t get how you can tell that.”

“Just a feeling. I don’t have a father myself. He died when I was fourteen.”

“What did he die of?”

She thought for a moment, then said, “He killed himself.”

Andrew had no idea how to respond to that.

“It’s okay to say nothing. Sometimes nothing is best.”

So he said nothing. Until they were nearly back at the meat counter.

“Can I ask if you’re Italian or if you just speak it really well?”

“I’m Italian on my mother’s side, American on my father’s. My mother’s father was the man who dried his own mushrooms. My grandparents’ house is the house that is gone. Everyone’s dead now except my mother, who lives in the north, near Genoa. And, yes, I’m here in Florence on my own.” She paused. “Have I foreseen most of your questions?”

“I guess.” Andrew’s eyes drifted down to the gold band on her finger.

* * *

As soon as they rejoined the crowd outside, Costanza glanced at her watch and told Andrew that she was late for a lunch appointment. The hat went back up; a pair of dark glasses went on. He wondered if this had to do with his asking too many questions. In parting she said, “You can find your way back to home base?” He nodded. Home base: the words felt like a gift. She bestowed them, and then she was off.

As Costanza walked away from him, he took a series of photographs of her long white form, receding. Against the chaos of the market she looked like a cross between a goddess and a ghost.

* * *

Costanza’s lunch date was with her husband, dead now almost a year to the day. She had decided that the best way to face Morton, newly resurrected a year after he’d been buried, was to take herself, and his words, somewhere public.

As she made her way toward a trattoria that was not far from the market, Costanza thought about how the Jews managed their grief. For a year they grieved, then they set their stone. It didn’t mean they forgot. She was incapable of forgetting anyway. That was not her goal. She had something different in mind. Engaging with that young man, inviting him to go for a walk: it was all part of her plan, to force herself to do one thing every day that was completely unrelated to Morton. Only in the doing it didn’t feel like an assignment. She had spoken to Andrew and remembered how much she liked talking to strangers.

Was it specific to this boy, or would it have been the same with anybody else? She had no idea, and she didn’t care. She had done it; that was what mattered.

Costanza ordered a quartino of red wine and drank several sips thirstily. She saw that she had been anticipating the anniversary with more anxiety than she realized. She had invested its ceremonial quality with meaning. And so, clearly, had they.

They: Morton and his brother Howard. Morton and his minions. Morton and his army of helpers: the agents, the editors, the lawyers, the producers, the accountants, the financial advisers, his assistant Ivan, and, later on, the doctors, the nurses, the physical therapists, the acupuncturists and alternative healers, each of whom came into his life with a notion as to how the Great Writer should present his work, care for his body, organize his time, understand his psyche, guard his literary legacy, and—finally—die. For someone who was fundamentally so private, in his later years Morton surrounded himself with an awful lot of people who had an awful lot of responsibility for his affairs.

Howard, as Morton’s executor, might have sent the package, but it was impossible to know who ultimately was behind the appearance of Morton’s diary a year after he died. Most likely it was Morton himself. The gesture had his mark, his flourish, on it. His theater. The theater of Morton, with a surprise fourth act, or epilogue. A few words from the author, spoken—“spoken”—from the grave.

A few? The manuscript ran to more than five hundred pages. And it covered only six years, from the period just before they met through the month before the end. Nathan Wolf, Morton’s agent, had already shown it to Morton’s longtime editor at Magellan, Howard wrote, and she was hardly alone in feeling that nothing this gritty, intimate, and unexpected had been written by a leading American man of letters in decades—if ever. The story of Morton Sarnoff’s return to the whirl of life, after more than a decade in rural retreat: it was going to be a sensation that would rekindle interest in Morton’s earlier work, change the way the last novel was read, and translate into a lot of hard cold cash besides.

Costanza was not entirely surprised to learn from Howard that Morton had left the rights to these diaries to him—another clever gesture on Morton’s part, since he knew that his brother needed money, and a good deal of it, to free himself from his unhappy marriage. She was surprised, and also hurt, to discover that what she felt about them didn’t matter, to Morton or any of the others: the diaries were clearly being sent to her as a courtesy, so that she could make peace (or not) with whatever she found in them before they were published.

Howard didn’t put it like that, of course. He said, instead, that he was so excited to be able to share this wonderful news with her. He hoped she would let him know what she thought, he couldn’t wait to hear from her, and so on. Boilerplate through which she could detect his gloating: finally, for once, he was in charge.

She had not known that Morton kept a diary; she hadn’t even suspected. She thought that what he was writing in those large hardbound ledger books were notes and ideas, sketches for his next (he sometimes wryly referred to it as his last) novel. That was what he had told her when she asked, and she had believed him.

Morton had not lied exactly. Just as he had answered her that day, the first pages contained miscellaneous unrelated scenes, sketches for possible characters, citations from books he was reading. Every so often he inserted notes from his doctors’ appointments: “Grubman says it’s the Coumadin that makes me bruise so easily.” From Pam, his physical therapist: “Suck in my abdomen when I get up out of bed in the morning, it will help with the back. Always sleep with a bed pillow under the knees. Stretch, stretch, stretch.”

Twenty-some pages in, a different kind of sentence erupted. “All these notes and fragments only confirm my emptiness,” he said, apparently out of nowhere. “I’m writing here to avoid writing”—and he was off.

Back at the pensione, Costanza had read through the entries from the time before they met. She listened in, or so it felt, as Morton battled his black moods and worried whether his return to the city had been a mistake. She watched him agonize over his writer’s block; she saw him fight, then quickly make up, with an old editor friend; and she saw him struggle with Howard, who kept trying—and failing—to get him to go out into the world.

Then she came to that April:

A remarkable astonishing thing has happened: Howard, for once in his life, was actually right about something.

On his last visit into town my brother apparently noticed an invitation to one of Nathan’s book parties on my desk. I haven’t gone to those things in years. Howard—the sneak—made a mental note and then simply appeared here last night at five.

This was as far as she had read. Now, after taking another sip of wine, she continued:

The party was down in the Village, at that place run by the Italian department at NYU—I’d been to a lecture there about Moravia a few lifetimes ago. There was a spread of Chiantis and cheeses I would have loved at least to sample; instead I stuck to a glass of bubbly water and some nutritionist-sanctioned carrot sticks.

At one point Nathan, very likely egged on by Howard, came up to me and said, “You know there’s someone here you might be interested to meet.”

“Oh,” I said. “Why is that?”

“Because she’s interesting.”

He gestured toward the drinks table. “She’s standing just over there.”

Interesting is not the first word I would have used to describe this woman. I would have said, She is striking. Unusually striking. Very refined features, golden hair, eyes with focus and clarity. Lips pale and slightly chapped, maybe from being bitten or gnawed at. A good body, though this I had to deduce, since it was hidden under a skirt and big full sweater. Too much of both, the sweater especially.

That was interesting: a beauty who hides her beauty in yards of fabric. The opposite of all those leggy black-clad publishing girls.

“Costanza translates from English into Italian,” Nathan said. “Maybe we can convince her to take on your next book,” he said, “which will be done when…?”

“When it’s done,” she offered kindly.

We fell into some very natural talk. I discovered that she is half-Italian, half-American. She grew up there, not here. The American father is dead, the Italian mother, she said, is “very much alive.”

An American father, but an Italian last name? “After my father died,” she said, “my mother changed my last name to hers. A bit peculiar, until you know the story.”

It may have been the voice, with its slight softening old-world accent. Those sparkling green eyes. The slightly stiff way she carried herself. That intriguing reserve. It was hard for me to take my own eyes off her.

These pages disconcerted Costanza. She could think of many reasons why. Discovering that she had been observed—studied—like this was unsettling. Then there was hearing Morton’s voice again, which made him seem so alive. And the way the diary allowed her to go back in time, yet bring with her everything she knew that followed. She could think of no other circumstance in her life where she’d been able to do that. Maybe in dreams. Only in dreams.

She remembered that first conversation, though not in such detail. She had just moved to New York. It had been another of her sudden impulses, but within weeks she had received assignments for two books to translate. She had rented an apartment in the East Village and she had begun to go out. She had found Morton to be magnetic; trim and with abundant silver hair, he had eyes that even on that first meeting ranged from icy to inky blue. Later on she would be able to read his moods, to predict the imminent return of the black feelings he wrote about, or his anger, merely by noting a subtle shift in those eyes. He spoke confidently, as though no person (no woman, no man either) could possibly be immune to his attention, once he had turned it on. Yet his demeanor had a quality of respect to it too. A modesty. The slant of his questions suggested he was genuinely interested in hearing what she had to say. She didn’t often meet men like that. Not men her age, Italian or American. He reminded her of her father. He had a similar touch of old-fashioned decorum. And hauntedness.

Eventually she would learn that this Morton was still much under the influence of his illness and his unsettled life. In time a more autocratic, more complicated Morton, a steelier and colder Morton, would emerge.

She was surprised to receive a phone call from him the next morning. It took her several minutes to realize that he was interested in her in that way. Her cousin Cristina always used to tell her that she was unaware of the effect she had on men.

April 25th

Well, it wasn’t as easy as I thought. After a little stab at holding back, I simply called and asked her out. And do you know what she answered: Why?

Why? It never occurred to me that I would have to explain (it’s funny how unused I have become to people other than Howard asking me simple questions like Why?). Because I found you intriguing, I said. Because I went back to Natalia Ginzburg as you recommended, and liked a lot of what I read. Because I thought we could, I don’t know, talk. It came out more like “I dunno”; I sounded like I was seventeen.

At her end of the phone: a long excruciating silence.

To be doing this at my age. To be feeling this.

Then she said, All right.

On Thursday I picked her up at her apartment in the East Village. Old kilims, a sofa covered with a printed Genoese fabric, a wall of thumbtacked drawings, quotations written out on three-by-five cards. “I’m experienced at improvising homes for myself,” she said. “It’s the flip side of a wandering spirit.”

Even though she grew up near Genoa, she spent summers in Tuscany, where her grandfather had an old farmhouse. Her summers were a mixture of country and “town” (imagine thinking of Florence as a town), where she used to stay in a pensione with her father and spend the weekend looking at paintings and sculpture.

She said that she was drawn to the backgrounds of those pictures, the fantastical roads and cities that hover in the distance of religious paintings and certain portraits. Most people think of them as an afterthought, she said, but for her they were the main attraction. I asked if that was connected to her wandering spirit, and she said that she hadn’t put that together before. I said, “But it’s so apparent.”

I loved watching her think. It made her more radiant, if that’s possible.

She said that whenever she goes to a notable place—a ruin, a monument—she always turns away from it, to see the secondary view. In great houses she likes the kitchens and attics best. She’s captivated by the provenance of paintings, footnotes in biographies. Her favorite part of a menu is the side dishes; on trains she prefers to ride facing backward.

“I prefer to ride forward,” I said. “That way, I can fool myself into believing I know what lies ahead in life.”

“So that’s what I’ve been doing wrong all these years!”

I laughed. She laughed. Then I asked if she was seeing anyone romantically.

“Not at the moment. What about you?”

“That depends.” I held her eye.

“On what?”

“On you.”

Costanza knew she was right to limit her reading. She had not brought more pages with her, and she was glad.

* * *

By the time Andrew found his way back to the pensione, it was past three o’clock, easily the latest he had stayed out on his own since he and Henry had come to Florence. As soon as he stepped onto the via Tornabuoni, he saw his father standing in front of the palazzo, looking up and down the street impatiently.

The central feature that father and son shared was their thick hair, peppered now with gray in Henry’s case, a deep chestnut in Andrew’s. Most everything else about them was different. Andrew was a tall, spider-limbed boy whose imperfect complexion upholstered the bones of what in a few years seemed likely to be a handsome, possibly even notably handsome, face. Henry by contrast had a wide forehead, sharp, miss-nothing eyes, and a thick beard topped by a beak of a nose that looked as though its maker had been called away to a more important job halfway through; yet he was the sort of man people invariably noticed, mainly on account of his unbridled vitality. He was a pot on a constant flame, sometimes simmering, sometimes bubbling, or bubbling over. Some people found Henry’s vitality contagious, some people were oppressed by it, but no one responded to him with indifference.

Henry had changed out of his lecturing jacket and tie and was wearing a pair of khakis, a dark blue shirt, and comfortable shoes. His hurrying shoes, Andrew thought of them. Wearing his hurrying shoes while having to stand still put Henry’s mind and body in torqued conflict. Often the very sight of those shoes would cause Andrew himself to hurry. But not at the moment. At the moment Andrew decided to take a picture of his father. Calmly he turned on his camera and zoomed in on Henry’s face, where a scowl was implanted in his dense beard. Andrew captured the scowl—three times—then walked across the street and tapped his father on the shoulder.

There you are. I’ve been worried. You’re turning into your mother, Andrew. She was perennially late, especially near the end.”

The end: as though she had died.

“You keep encouraging me to go out”—Andrew shrugged—“so I went out.”

Henry frowned. “Day after day I leave you suggestions, and day after day all you do is go for a run and sit there in the pensione. I accept that you’re not much of an adventurer. That’s more Justin’s thing.”

Nearly every time Justin’s name came up, Henry’s face darkened. He behaved as though traveling without Justin were like traveling without a limb.

Andrew was relieved that Henry didn’t ask where he’d been.

“Have you eaten?”

Andrew nodded. “But I can sit with you.”

“Angelo made me a sandwich,” Henry said, his vexation receding. “Things are opening again in a few minutes—I know you’ve been wanting to go see the Fra Angelicos at San Marco. What do you say to heading over that way? And afterward I thought we might look for some shirts. I know how you like your Italian shirts.”

Andrew had never said a word about wanting to see the Fra Angelicos at San Marco; he didn’t even know what they were. And it was Justin who liked Italian shirts—it was Justin who liked things.

“Sounds good,” Andrew said, because sometimes it was simply easier to agree.

For the second time that day Andrew headed up the via Tornabuoni. He didn’t walk alongside his father, as he had with Costanza, but behind him. Henry, in his hurrying shoes, wasn’t interested in the experience of getting from one place to another. He wasn’t interested in the shop fronts, the street life, the light, the language. He was interested in getting where he was going, fast.

He was also interested in being prepared when he got there, and preparing Andrew in turn. Henry was a devourer of guidebooks (still!) and books on travel, history, architecture, and art, and as they headed to San Marco, he asked and answered his own questions in a rapid-fire staccato delivery, first into the air alongside him and then, when he realized Andrew was lagging behind, back over his shoulder: “—Patron? Cosimo il Vecchio. Architect? Michelozzo. Period of transformation of buildings? Fifteen years from 1437 forward. Special feature? First public library in Europe. Most famous prior? Savonarola, and we know what came of him. Most famous friar-painters? Fra Bartolomeo and Fra Angelico. Better of the two?”

When Andrew didn’t answer, Henry turned around. “Well?”

“This feels like a class, Dad. You want to be my teacher? Wouldn’t you say I have enough of those already in my life?”

“I want to be a student. The truth is, if I could do it all over again…”

Andrew came to a standstill. Therefore so did Henry. Andrew looked at his father’s face to see if he was serious. “You wouldn’t be a doctor?”

Henry shrugged. “It could be this city,” he said, gesturing. “It’s so … infinite. It’s so … what’s that phrase of Justin’s? It’s so my way. Everything about it. The history. The art and architecture. So much began here, so much ingenuity, so many ideas. It makes me think, I don’t know, of all the possibilities in life…”

Andrew was perplexed. “I can’t imagine you as anything other than a doctor.”

“Yes, but I can,” Henry said. “Left to my own devices, I might have become a historian, or an art historian. I might have been a musician, who knows?”

“Dad, you’re tone-deaf.”

“I guess that’s where Justin comes in. He expresses enough music for the rest of us.”

Father and son resumed walking, this time more slowly and in silence. Andrew wondered whether something had gone badly at the conference that morning. His father not a doctor? Who (what) was his father if not a doctor?

When they reached San Marco, Henry opened his guidebook and consulted a map of the building. “The place to start is with the Fra Angelicos upstairs,” he said, sounding more like himself. “They’re the main attraction, though I wouldn’t mind seeing Savonarola’s hair shirt. A piece of underwear five hundred years old. How crazy is that?”

The largest Fra Angelico Annunciation was waiting for them right at the top of the stairs. On the left-hand side of the fresco an angel, having alighted on a colonnaded portico, was lowering himself into a gentle bow, his arms crossed elegantly in front of his chest. With his bent knee and his wings still up, it seemed clear that he had just arrived. Fra Angelico had chosen to paint the moment just before the angel was to deliver the news to Mary, who was sitting on a sturdy wooden stool, her own arms crossed in front of her plain tunic, her face in meticulous three-quarter view.

“Can you imagine what it must have felt like to be able to come and tell this woman that she was pregnant, and pregnant with this of all babies?” Henry said. “I think it’s brilliant the way he draws us into the angel’s mind.”

To Andrew the angel looked blank, impassive. A messenger, not much more. He thought that Mary was deeper. She appeared to be both worried and curious, as if she knew something significant was about to happen to her.

They moved on to the dormitory and began to tour the monks’ cells, each of which had its own small private fresco. There were more than forty of these paintings, which seemed to hover on the white plaster walls like projections, or dreams. The rooms appealed to Andrew. He would have liked to be left alone in one of them for just an hour, or half an hour; but Henry, consulting his book, was rattling off the subjects and the probable painters of each fresco, his pace picking up giddily until they came to another Annunciation.

In this version Mary was on her knees, and the angel was standing and looking down on her. The painting gave off a visceral sense of waiting. And it slowed Henry down. Very little slowed Henry down.

Andrew studied his father studying the fresco. “I guess you can relate.”

Henry looked at him.

“You’re like the angel. You get to tell women they’re pregnant.”

Henry glanced at the painting, then back at his son. “I don’t just tell them they’re pregnant. I make them pregnant.”

Andrew let out a long, though nearly silent, sigh. A private sigh.

Henry trailed out of the cubicle and into the hallway, and Andrew trailed after him. Standing ahead of them in the corridor, looking into one of the monks’ cells and intensely studying a painting, was Costanza.

Andrew felt his heart twist. With her linen and her pale skin and golden hair, she looked like a modern variation on one of the Marys in the frescoes. Henry was charging directly toward her, oblivious; Andrew was several steps behind. Just as she was about to turn forward, Andrew quickly unhooked the red velvet rope that limited access to the cells and darted inside one of them.

The next thing Andrew knew there was a loud clunk. From the sound of it, Henry had plowed right into her, and something had tumbled to the ground.

Mi scusi. I didn’t see you. I was—”

“In a rush, apparently.”

Andrew peered around the edge of the wall. Henry had bent down to collect a small bag that had gone flying.

“I hope it’s not broken,” Henry said.

“My shoulder?”

“Your package.” Henry handed it to her. “Please tell me it’s not fragile.”

“It’s a book.” She took it out of its bag and examined it.

Henry glanced at the title: Lives of the Artists. “Vasari seems to think Fra Angelico was some kind of saint, crying when he started in on a crucifixion. He brings out the preacher in him—all that talk about painters who paint holy subjects needing to be holy themselves.”

“You disagree?” she asked.

“I don’t agree or disagree. It’s just not what I look for in pictures. I look for technique, psychology, drama. Subjects that are translatable beyond the stories they depict. I think that’s what makes a great painting. Universality, applicability. Religion, by itself, leaves me cold.”

He was actually saying all this to someone he didn’t know—to her?

She didn’t seem fazed: “All religion?”

“All.” He paused. “I’m sorry if I offend you.”

“I don’t offend so easily. I like people with opinions.”

He hadn’t even noticed that Andrew was missing.

“Forgive me,” she said. “But I feel as though I’ve seen you somewhere before.”

“Well, I’ve been in Florence almost a week,” Henry said, as though that were sufficient. “I’m staying at the Pensione Ricci.”

“That explains it,” she said, tucking the book under her arm. “Well, perhaps I’ll see you at home base.”

Henry got a home base too?

“So you’re also staying there? At the Ricci?”

She nodded.

Copyright © 2019 by Michael Frank