On the carpet in her bare feet, she went to her enormous guardaroba and removed a pair of bedroom slippers with a cat’s face and whiskers,
then went over to another highly waxed commode and pushed a button. A record player, the latest changer, slid out, and dropped a disc that
plopped into place on the turntable. “I bet you like classical, right? You’re the cultured type.”
“I like your music, Miss Roni.”
“You know my work?”
“Of course, I do. I love old movies.”
“Not that old for god’s sake!” The needle fell on the beginning of the disc and played one of her most famous duets with her leading man of the
’30s. “Just like old wine,” she noted. “Only now too much cork has fallen into the bottle.”
“You still sing beautifully, Miss Roni.”
“How do you know? You’re just being nice. I could have stayed at the Met for the rest of my life, you know,” she continued, sipping at the
spumante. “Toscanini said I was the best Gilda he ever had, maybe not for the singing, lots of the gals around in those days could hit all the notes,
but for my presentation. If you’d seen me on stage and watched how I cracked up, you would have sworn that after every show they would have
had to cart me off to the loony bin. But that was only acting. Well, mostly. All sopranos are slightly ditsy to begin with. If we don’t start out like that,
we end up that way.”
“How come you decided to stay in Hollywood, Miss Roni, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Why should I mind? The bucks, Nate, the big ones. What else? And the fans, of course. God, if you could have seen the mail my Ricky and I
got back then! Bags and bags of it. I had to hire a couple of temps just to forge my autograph on all the stills we sent out. Maybe I’ll have another
drink. Pop one open for me.”
Nathan went back to the mini-bar and twisted off the top of another bottle, pouring it carefully into a wineglass. “It’s not really the right glass,
Miss Roni. I don’t see any flutes.”
“The hell with flutes,” she answered, lifting her wineglass exactly the way she had done so in so many of the operetta films made a quarter of a
century ago. “Here’s mud in your eye, Nathan.”
“And lots of mud in yours, Miss Roni.”
“Drop the miss, please. You’re making me feel older than my movies.” As Roni sipped at her spumante, Nathan guessed he would now be
obliged to listen to at least an hour’s worth of Hollywood gossip, much of it confessed before in the car.
“Do you know the expression in vino veritas?” she asked.
“Yes, Roni, I do.”
“He was a Nancy boy. I don’t tell everybody that, but I’ll tell you.” She was talking about her famous co-star Ricky, Erik Muller, the tall, muscular
tenor with the wavy blond hair with whom she had made many films.
“The girls were all crazy about him, used to tear his clothes off his back, but he couldn’t care less. He was living with some old Nazi up in Benedict
Canyon, the ugliest little man I ever saw, believe me, but god how Ricky loved that kraut. That guy got him started at some opera house in Munich
and Ricky never forgot. That I’ll say for him. Not like the rest of them out there. He knew gratitude.”
As the record continued to play their famous duets, tears appeared in her eyes, but she made no sound. Nathan rushed for a leather box beside
her bed, one with the hotel’s monogram imprinted on its top, pulled out a Kleenex, and handed it to her. “Maybe I should go now, Roni.”
“Wouldn’t you’d prefer to be alone?”
“To be with your memories.”
“Hell no! What good are they anyhow? Memories only make you feel rotten. Sit down. You keep me company, or I’ll tell him. Open yourself
As the afternoon wore on, the sun hidden behind the hills of Rome, Roni moved over to a divano in her bedroom, a small couch upholstered
in velvety silk with many tasseled cushions. “Come sit next to me, Nate. It’ll make me feel less lousy.” He did as told. “You have nice eyes,” she said.
“One is brown and the other’s green, has anyone ever told you? Tell me something, Nate. Be honest. Am I an old bag, or am I not? I looked like my
Aunt Rosella in the rushes today. I swear that Hungarian is out to get me.”
“You’re a very beautiful woman, Roni. Everyone says so.”
“But do you say so?”
“The guys at the studio who ran the costume department used to say I had better legs than Marlene or Betty. But they never let me show them
on screen. In my pictures, I was always the virgin. Sometimes the virgin who went crazy, sometimes the one who got the guy in the end, but no matter
what I was always dressed the same. I wore more long dresses than the Queen. Victoria.” She lifted up her still shapely leg from under the
hem of her dress. One slipper fell mutely onto the heavy carpet. The eyes of the cats glared up at him. She put one foot on Nathan’s crotch.
As Nathan only realized in retrospect many years later, he was about to take another small step on the long journey that had begun that summer
day when he had ordered two pastas. Yet, at the moment itself, he heard a sharp explosion. Not the sound of a car backfiring on the street
below, or another bottle of spumante being popped, but a presentiment of what might happen to him should the elevator doors suddenly fly open
and Mr. Fortuna, pistol in hand, come through the door. Actual or imaginary—did it matter?—it was enough to start his teeth chattering, his hands
shaking. He spilled his spumante onto the Persian carpet.
“Oh, shit!” he cried, pulling tissues out of the box. “I’ll mop it up.”
“Leave it. Leave it! It’ll dry. Why are you shivering?” She instructed him to shut the terrace door he had left open and then return to the
bedroom, which gave him enough time to get up from the sofa and return to the marble table in the sitting room where he had left his chauffeur’s
cap beside the magazines. The cap seemed to be telling him something:
“If you know what’s good for you, pick me up now and get the hell out of here. Subito!”
Looking at himself in the gilt-framed mirror, he adjusted the cap on his head and raised his voice so she could hear him in the bedroom.
“Roni. Miss Roni,” he said. “I think I better be going. It’s not that… I don’t want to be rude or anything like that. I’m very honored to know
you, I really am. It’s just that I’m not very experienced in these matters. I have to think this over for a bit… a long bit.”
Roni, now completely barefoot, empty wineglass in hand, came out into the sitting room.
“Are you telling me you want to go?”
“Yes, ma’am. Yes, Roni.”
“OK, but if I were you, I wouldn’t push the elevator button yet.”