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Winter 2009

Table Talk

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Paula Fox

A few feet behind a table in the cool living room where I worked every morning at my typewriter, a window looked out upon hills descending to a broad valley covered with acres of tall sunflowers that rotated imperceptibly from west to east throughout the months of late summer and early autumn. On the far side of the valley, twenty-three or so miles east, was the town of Arezzo. From where I sat, it appeared to have once, long ago, tumbled down the lower hills of the Apennines behind it to collect at their base like a handful of variously colored stones.

Green and gold, the gleaming Tuscan morning light pressed its rays through the closed window onto the tiled floor of William Weaver's guest house, on the outskirts of the village of Monte Savino, where my husband Martin and I were staying for two months, September and October, in 1986.

Along with the portable typewriter, on the table were an ashtray, a half-empty pack of Italian cigarettes, and a handful of sheets of blank paper. I was trying to finish the draft of a novel.

One morning, my restless gaze fell upon a corner of the table where I noticed a patch of yellow dust no larger than a thumbnail. I would wipe it away later, I thought, and turned back to my work. (Gene Tunney, an American boxer who became a writer later in his life, had said decades earlier: "Writing is easy. You just sit in front of your typewriter and a sheet of blank paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.") After several minutes, I glanced at the spot of dust. It had grown larger. For a few seconds, a ray of intense sunlight struck into gold a thread of dust that fell from the ceiling above in a straight line to the table corner.

I stared upward and guessed that an insect was boring a hole inside one of the wooden rafters, for a purpose unknown to me. Was it hungry? Was it making a nest for its young? A passageway?

Faintly alarmed and faintly amused, I telephoned our friend and host, Bill, who, after I had described the activity of the bug, exclaimed "Farfalla!"

"This is no butterfly," I said.

"No, no... In Italian that can mean any insect," he said. "Pippo and I will be right down." Pippo was his estate manager and close friend.

Within ten minutes they both appeared, walking quickly through a large vineyard that flourished between the back of our house and the front of Bill's elegant sixteenth-century Roman farmhouse on the crest of the hill. As they drew near, I noted that Pippo was carrying a ladder and that they both looked grave-certainly uncharacteristic of Bill, who laughed often with a rising oh-h-h in his throat that struck me as the real meaning of "mirth."

Martin joined the three of us standing near the desk and gazed upward at the rafter. What to do? The bug, or, as Pippo called it, il tarlo, continued its activity with the steadiness of a sewing machine at work on a seam.

Bill asked me, "Did you just notice it?"

I replied, "I think so."

"You work every day?" Pippo asked me curiously, his English good, but heavy and fuzzed with an Italian accent.

"I try," I answered.

Bill asked, "What are we going to do about the farfalla?"

Pippo shrugged. "Catch it," he said.

He spread the two legs of the ladder, climbed a few steps up, and, rummaging in his pocket, took out a small flashlight and a sort of reamer, ten inches long. He climbed higher, shone the flashlight at the hole, and inserted the narrow instrument. When he withdrew it a minute later, there was a small insect at its point, black, crushed, and dead.

"Il tarlo," he announced with his smokey smile.

The next day Bill marched it to a laboratory in Florence, but the results of the test were inconclusive, or else Bill's comprehension of the results, expatiated on profusely by the Italian technician, was unclear. They returned the bug, dustier than it had been.

A few days after Pippo had killed the bug, Martin and I drove to Arezzo, passing through the valley of sunflowers now turned halfway to the east. We parked near a large store where we could buy a few things not available in Monte San Savino. But mostly that day we went to Arezzo to visit the house of Giorgio Vasari, the sixteenth-century painter and architect of palaces and churches, whose loggia there we had often walked through. He had written too, famously, about the lives of the Italian painters of the Renaissance.

We walked up the wide main street, passing through a piazza not changed in the least since the sixteenth century, and just beyond it turned left to Vasari's house, now a museum. We were the only visitors. It was just after midday. I walked past several glass cases containing his architectural drawings and arrived at a large, three-dimensional model of a salon he had designed. Among the miniature marble columns, it contained small-scale replicas of furniture, chairs and benches, tables large and small, an elaborate marble fountain, tiny vases here and there, small doors that looked massive, several grand settees. I felt a passionate admiration for the beauty, the accuracy, and in some way the piquancy of the reproduction. I bent closer to it, as though to come nearer to the times it portrayed.

Inside the glass case, on one corner of a miniature table, I saw a tiny pyramid of wood dust. Looking up, I noted a stream of the same dust falling in a straight line from the paneled ceiling two feet above the floor of Vasari's model of the salon.

Again! Il tarlo!

Paula Fox, who lived most of her life in Brooklyn, was the author of six novels (including Desperate Characters), twenty-three stories for children, and two memoirs. She died in 2017.

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