Mark Twain in Milan
by Rob Hunter
Samuel Langhorne Clemens slips into a parallel universe, tangles with a tommy gun, and develops a crush on Lady Ada Byron Lovelace.
“Uh, Gianni... you ever hear any family stories about a Gatekeeper?” As this was half an hour ago, stuck in an empty tunnel with Mark Twain time, I wasn’t supposed to know about gatekeepers yet, as Giancarlo wouldn’t have yet told me. But I did know. So sue me.
Gianni gave me a funny look and steered me back to the chair. “Nope. Just some recipes. I’ve got an uncle though who used to be a doorman at the Carlyle.”
As Gianni Pieranunzi — the great-grandson of the man in the tunnel — scissored away at my hair there were tears streaming down his cheeks. What the hell, I figured — Italians emote. “My hair isn’t all that much a catastrophe, is it?”
“Sorry about that.” Gianni choked back a sob as he removed his scissors from the area of any vital organs. “News travels fast, Mr. Saperstein — Andy. The hairdressers’ jungle telegraph, take a look.” We went to the window together. Across the street scaffolding crept up the walls of a four-story townhouse and a bucket truck was horsing a large fiberglass sign into place. The renovators had moved in, hanging ferns and opening painted-shut Palladian windows to dapple highlights on freshly exposed brick walls. I noticed Gianni was jabbing his scissors into the windowsill; the competition was moving in. “BrowBeaters, a franchise. They do body waxing.”
I put a consoling arm around his shoulders. “Tragic. A tragic sight. Trust me, Gianni, I’ve got a hunch a cut-rate hot wax joint is going to be the least of your troubles.”
Ding! Parrucchiere Gianni’s receptionist rang her chime to announce Gianni had a customer waiting out front. I jumped. I noticed that I was jumping a lot lately. Unannounced shifts in time and location will do that. Like jet lag. Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! The receptionist was getting antsy.
There was a squawk from the bitch box, Parruchiere Gianni’s in-house intercom, “Gianni. Now.”
I picked up the phone. “Gianni’s tied up. This is Andy.”
“Andy,” said a harassed voice. “Tell him I got a live one. And tell him no crap about my spiritual work.”
“I am so very happy for you, ahh...”
“Lindy. I want her the hell out of my reception area toots-sweet, if you catch my drift.”
I turned to Gianni. “Lindy has a live one,” I said.
“Nice for a change. She channels the dear departed in her spare time. I’m not complaining; most of the girls read magazines or do their nails.” He grabbed the phone away. A high velocity stream of verbiage poured from the earpiece. Gianni’s face fell. Then Lindy paused long enough for him to get a word in edgeways. “A new client... Listen, you’re not in one of your altered states of consciousness are you? Good. Come in here. Alone. Give her a soy latte, a health shake, whatever.” Gianni turned to me. “Business is slow. New clients — live ones — have to be coddled.”
There was a businesslike rap at the door to Gianni’s sanctum and it opened a crack. A woman slipped in. She was so slim she made it through with room to spare. Lindy was your basic legs job and glad to show them off, thank you. And she looked great in the indie rock T-shirt she was wearing as a dress.
“Andy...” She made eye contact and smiled a smile of generous full lips. My pulse rate rose and my palms started to sweat.
“Hi there. You must be Lindy,” I stammered.
“Lindy Earlywine...” She paused. It was my turn.
“Andy Saperstein.” We were face to face in one of those epiphanies that are the bread and butter of the daytime soaps. Neither of us had moved. “Uh, you’re a medium?”
“I channel spirits, yes. When I’m not booking cuts and perms.” Like I said, this was Lexington Avenue, no big deal.
Gianni cleared his throat. “Heads up, young lovers. Company.” He squared his shoulders and stepped forward with his best floorwalker’s smile as a tufted pink hairdo thrust itself around the corner. I suspected this was one of Lexington Avenue’s medicated mamas. A small, determined woman shoved past Lindy and struggled into the room. She stared at me and Lindy, registered shock then delight. “I hope I am not interrupting a moment, but you are not Charles. It works.” It was Lady Ada Lovelace. She gave me a hug. She was naked.
As none of us was named Charles, I felt some reply was called for. “Ada Lovelace?” I said. That was the best I could come up with.
“I fear, sir, you have the advantage. Yes. Ada Byron Lovelace. And whom do I have the pleasure...” She arched a speculative eyebrow and looked me over.
The ball was in my court. “Andy Saperstein. Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.” Lindy placed herself between me and the naked Ada.
Ada Lovelace brushed a hand through her hair and let out a small squeak of dismay. She hurried to a full length mirror to inspect the damage. Her hairdo was spiked and colored day-glo pink. Not the coiled perfection of her portrait cameo. “Charles. Luigi. This is their doing. I told them to wait for my final calculations. But would they? Men.” She turned to face me. “I seem to have a nosebleed. Ice, please.”
“This happens all the time on Lexington Avenue,” said Gianni. “It’s our uptown ambience.”
“There is something amiss in the algorithm. I think having to bleed to death because one acquires strange hair is a bit severe, don’t you?” She placed a thumb and forefinger at the bridge of her nose and held it till the bleeding stopped.
Wham, Bam, etc., and Giancarlo was in the room — not his great-grandson Gianni, but the original from the 2nd Ave. tunnel in the flesh, very suave and cool as a cucumber. He bowed, “I witnessed Don Paolo’s attack and I feel I must apologize for my countryman... Dio mio!” Lady Ada au naturel was probably more exposed woman than he had ever seen outside of the Uffizi Gallery. Mussolini ran a tight ship.
“Ma le dà fastidio se la fisso per un momento?” Giancarlo’s eyes traveled over her. All over. He ogled.
“He has requested permission to stare at me,” said Lady Ada as she clutched her hands over her heart. “Remarkable.” Her nose began to run red as soon as she loosened her grip.
Lindy handed Lady Ada a Kleenex. “Where’s that ice?” She turned to me, “Andy?”
Just then Sam Clemens thrust a wild-eyed head around the edge of the door casing. “Andy. You won’t believe this, but...”
“Oh, I’ll believe it all right. And he’s Mark Twain,” I told Lady Ada.
“Wow. Some people will believe almost anything,” Lindy said.
“I don’t know how I got here, but there’s a man in a futuristic suit — wide lapels, snap brim fedora, the works — and he has a machine gun,” said Sam. “He must have followed me through. He just appeared then disappeared. Out of nowhere.”
“Nowhere is a statistical improbability, Sam. Except in a singles bar.” I flopped into the client chair. The gent with the ordnance had to be our very own Moose, somehow out of his time and after us with an assortment of bigger bullets. I kept my opinion to myself; it would have required too much explanation. “He’ll be back,” I said.
There was a splintering and crunch of distressed construction materials as the Moose appeared, a little behind the curve. He popped into place behind Gianni’s barber chair, wedged halfway into the room between framing studs, dismembered electrical wiring and what was left of Parrucchiere Gianni’s drywall. He looked ready to shoot the hell out of the place.
“Oh, sweet Jesus!” Sam Clemens stared through the cloud of plaster dust at the Moose. The parts of him not stuck in the wall held a smoking tommy gun, to which device he was methodically attaching a fresh rotary magazine of ammo. I guessed he was after anything that moved. Gianni yelled something appropriately bloodthirsty in Italian and raised his scissors to strike.
Splonk! The scissors went into the padded backrest right up to their rings. Anybody sitting all the way back in the chair would have been a goner. The Moose’s reloading was almost finished when he evaporated. The tommy gun fell to the floor. I was a minor casualty; Gianni’s shears nicked my arm.
Gianni rolled his eyes. “That chair. Imported Italian leather. Six thousand dollars.”
“That’s all right, Tonto. It’s only a scratch. Don’t worry about me.” I pulled myself up, clinging to the chair. The wall, as well as a stand of potted ferns and Gianni’s imported upholstery, was a total loss.
“Excuse me. I gotta make a call.” Gianni headed to his office to phone the contractors.
Lady Ada stepped up to the plate. “Master Twain. I do believe I have seen you before — for a fleeting moment. You will excuse the paucity of my manners but at the time my attention was understandably elsewhere.” Sam Clemens preened his moustache as he blushed beet red; Lady Ada was a distraction clothed or unclothed.
“I was watching myself about to be dispatched by that very same hired thug. I was dressed as though for an African hunting expedition and I disappeared in a hail of bullets. I was behind him and he couldn’t see me. You,” here she indicated Giancarlo Pieranunzi, “have the most delightful accent. You were also there for a split second. Then you both disappeared and the thug turned on me. ‘Giancarlo,’ that was what he said. So now there are three of us. I am an honorary Giancarlo.”
I handed over a washcloth stuffed with ice cubes.
“Thanks. When faced with danger I often recover my equanimity by contemplating things of beauty. I looked about. The place was an obvious bachelor’s haunt. And the wallpaper! I tried sweet reasonableness, but it was as though they couldn’t see me. I started peeling the wallpaper. Toile de jouy, very au courant but hideous.”
Giancarlo cringed. “Don Paolo Carbone’s prized wallpaper. I came; you went.” So the Don was not named Carmine. I filed away this tidbit in case we ever met socially.
“And the great looming lout knocked the ladder out from under me in mid-peel,” said Ada Lovelace. “The last thing I recall is a brilliantined individual thumping away at the malefactor who had seized me. With an umbrella. He smelled like lavender pomade.”
“Don Paolo beating Nunzio Calabrese over the head with an umbrella. Don Paolo must have been heartbroken over the wallpaper.”
“Oh. The umbrella thumping has not improved his disposition. He must have followed you here,” said Ada Byron Lovelace. “And I seem to be naked. Cover me, please.” Unflappable. Breeding will tell.
His eyes large and staring, Gianni ripped down one of a pair of floor-to-ceiling draperies and wrapped her in it. Ada Lovelace looked him up and down. “You are a barber, a leech, a surgeon. You draw teeth and let blood, then. You’ll do,” she said. “Fix my hair.”
“Your blood type, my lady? Just in case.” That from me. My aplomb recovered, I was now all business.
“Jesus Christ,” said Lindy, “if you guys do transfusions too, it says a lot about whatever barber college you escaped from. She’s not going to bleed to death. She only whacked her nose.”
Gianni fumbled with the scissors and attempted to appear professional. Lady Ada had hit him as hard as she had hit his great-grandfather.
“You are dithering,” said the draperied lady. “Oh, I’ll cut it by myself.” She grabbed the scissors, made for the door and went tearing down the stairs to the street. I figured she’d be back because she left her drapery behind.
Five minutes later Lady Ada Lovelace was back, dripping with contrition. “Sorry, I was in a rush.”
She must have used the absconded scissors on herself. Her hair was a mess. She now wore an abbreviated shingle cut, one side only, East Village casual. It was an interesting look.
“Pardon me.” I nipped out to the hall and searched through my pockets; I needed a smoke. I left Lady Ada to fume unchaperoned. I hoped Sam Clemens wouldn’t pop out of the woodwork and catch me: I was supposed to have quit after bitching and moaning about his own ever-present cheroot.
I extracted a crumpled pack from an inside pocket and struck a match. Ever get an electric shock? Not the sizzle and burn, but a sandbagging at the base of your skull, the paralytic pounding that announces in big, blue letters that you can’t let go and you are going to die. This was heavyweight stuff, like the 600 volts DC they run through the third rail.
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Copyright © 2011 by Rob Hunter