Ghosts

Gini Alhadeff lives in New York City, and sometimes in Rome.

To each dog his lead to play and leg to bite

Of all the ghosts of creatures who lived and died in this Roman flat I shall always be grateful to the poodle Zefirino for he alone left no material possessions – no bones, blankets, or doghouses. All that remains of him is the portrait by an artist whom Zefirino chased one night, growling ominously till the poor man tripped and fell, hitting his eye which turned black and blue. Following this unfortunate event the artist drew Zefirino – a close-up of his head, the eyes like lustrous olives, the nose a rounded little potato (also black), and all else white, his curly fur represented by a wavy crown at the top of his head. And then he beatified him by placing a perfectly elliptical halo over his head.

Several people expired on beds still in use in this house. A father, a mother, the mother's mother. She had come to live here when released from living with her forbidding son, an eye surgeon, and had brought dozens of embroidered pillowcases with her: the "Cs" on them (her name was Caterina) are elaborate white snakes that end in pointed arrows, surrounded by undulating daisies and blades of grass. It took a lot of looking at these lavishly ornamented surfaces, pondering the fate of cheeks pressed to them, to realize that the initials were not so much for the benefit of the sleeper as of the laundress or housekeeper – since all sheets were white and there were very many. (The letter "Z" was nowhere to be seen, not even on a tiny pillowcase.)

Among the papers and clipped articles I found the story of a man named Pompeo, a great old friend of the family's. He was a prominent and monumentally-proportioned barrister who had three wives and three dogs. The dogs, dachshunds all of them, kept him company at night since he never slept except in the daytime. A servant would wheel a trolley into his room bearing boiled vegetables, a pitcher of milk, a basket of oranges, some cheese and salad. Munching, reading, scribbling, and peeling oranges, Pompeo would stay up till four; then he would sleep till six, ring for a fried egg and go right back to sleep till nine when he'd have more vegetables and some café au lait. Before heading to his office in the centre of Rome, he'd take a couple of phone calls from clients: "Marchese carissimo," he would utter, and the receiver pressed to his ear he would shut himself in the bathroom, sit on the toilet, and absent-mindedly flush it while continuing to talk. (Pompeo considered priests authorities on matters of sex and finance.) This was in the 1960s so Zefirino may have met Pompeo's dachshunds, even known them quite well, as Pompeo never went anywhere without them in his chauffeur-driven Mercedes, yet we have no record of this, nor of Zefirino's thoughts on those peripatetic three. One of them was not bright, Pompeo maintained, so he spoke for him: "Because I no can understand nothing," he would say, in what he perceived to be broken dachshund-Italian.

In a cupboard the size of a studio apartment I came upon a pair of shorts in baby blue piquet, a pair of cream-coloured twill jodhpurs the length of my forearm, a baptismal gown of fine batiste that closed up the back with tiny satin-covered egg-shaped buttons. Now Zefirino did not go riding, study catechism, or wear dainty ritual garments of any sort. He had not required a dish lined in gold with fish swimming across it through reeds, or a bird perched on a branch, from which to eat his food. He did not use silver forks, serving sets dipped in vermeil, or hoard pictures of himself bare-chested at the age of fourteen in bathing trunks, much less those of an early flame also bare-chested, leaning forward as she stood in a stream representing some classical subject. Zefirino did not write books, collect dictionaries of synonyms, concern himself with peasant rebellions; he was not a potter, a philologist, an anthropologist, or a philosopher.

I exited the cupboard and went to visit a lithographic press not far from Piazza del Popolo – a brother and sister, Rosalba and Romolo – worked there, as their father had done, in Via del Vantaggio, overlooking the gardens of a monastery, and their eyes were very blue, practically turquoise. Below the heavy presses made of cast iron with wheels like the steering wheels of ships, was the dog Cesare, who must have proceeded from a long line of dogs happily married to their owner. An artist had come by in the morning and left an image on a large stone – a string of pearls, and below it, the top of a cupola and the faint outline of a façade. He was barely 50. He liked to get up at two in the afternoon the lithographers said, and eat a plate of bucatini all'amatriciana. Later he would order three hundred grams of pizza rossa and some red wine, then stay up all night gambling. He cultivated the lifestyle of an artiste maudit, or maybe he was one, they said. The image of the pearls, with the word "PERLE" written on it backwards, was after all beautiful. The press had printed images by a painter whose works filled the apartment we were emptying out – a close friend of the man Zefirino had given chase to.

The next day, abandoning once again the ghosts who had left us so many of their earthly possessions to consider, I went to look at an exhibition of drawings by Ingres at the French Academy. I stopped in front of what looked like a black, draped mountain. The drawing was titled, "Madame Moitessier, her skirt." The darkish and mysterious mass leaned to the left and at the top caved in at the centre, making peaks on either side. The background was a slate-coloured sky – the colour of the paper itself. Something like the hint of a torso rose up, waif-like, from the waist. The skirt was voluminous, with many gathers, and filled most of the lower part of the picture. The sides puffed out and you could have rested something on those ledges made of fabric. The drawing was made in 1866 and was a study for a painting called, "The Golden Age: Family with a dog." Ingres, when he'd lived in Rome, had sent his servant out onto Piazza di Spagna to convince tourists to come to his studio and be portrayed by him (normally without their pets).

In the Zefirino picture, the artist portrays himself in the bottom left-hand corner of the sheet – a tiny, harrowed man with lined brow, large nose, drooping mouth – and a black eye. He points one hand up to the poodle saint. Clearly he considered the dog's belligerence, and his victory over him, a show of moral superiority. Or a gift of sorts.

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