Excerpt

What Is Missing

Michael Frank

October 11, 2019 
The following is from Michael Frank's novel, What Is Missing, about a complicated love triangle between a widowed translator, a New York physician, and the doctor's 17-year-old son. Frank is the author of The Mighty Franks, the winner of the 2018 Jewish Quarterly–Wingate Prize and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. His essays, articles, and short stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic, among other publications.

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.

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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 type-written 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.

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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.

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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.”

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“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.”

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“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.

__________________________________

Excerpted from What Is Missing by Michael Frank. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 8th 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Michael Frank. All rights reserved.




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