Three Men and A Smiling Madonna

Photo by Alex Blăjan on Unsplash

Death was not something that the three men wanted to talk about, especially when it related to one of their wives. When Jovani, Roberto, and Mao met for coffee each morning, they talked about everything else: money, football, cars, politics, and calzones. And, of course, coffee. But not death.

One morning, at five minutes past nine on a glorious spring day, Mao walked into a small cafe near the river Arno in Florence. He collected his usual cappuccino and then went outside to sit with his two friends.

“Buongiorno,” they all said, like a choir of tenors fighting for the limelight.

Mao took his seat at the permanent table that the cafe owner Gabriele had offered them many years ago. Although Mao wore sunglasses that day, Jovani and Roberto could see the pain carved into his ninety-seven-year-old face as clearly as the veins on a Michelangelo sculpture.

Jovani asked Mao, “Did you see Milan beat Juventus?” As he waited for Mao’s response, two men in white overalls wheeled a statue of the Madonna and Child past their table. Roberto saw the Madonna smile and her eyes closed and reopened, sparkling in the sunlight.

“It’s her birthday today,” Mao said, as though not hearing Jovani’s question. “She would have been eighty-five.”

Jovani and Roberto remained silent.

It had been two weeks since Mao had spoken his final words to his wife Camellia. Her funeral was as beautiful as the flower she was named after. From what Jovani could remember, Mao and Camellia had been married for sixty years. But Jovani’s memory wasn’t the same as it used to be. The only memories that stuck were the ones he would rather forget; World War II was as alive within him that day as it had been during his final moments on the shores of Sicily in 1943. He had never been south of Rome since.

“It’s a beautiful day for a birthday,” Roberto said. “Not a cloud in the sky.”

“She would have loved walking along the river. The flowers are in full bloom,” Jovani said.

“Yes.” Mao nodded. “I only wish she was still here to see them.”

All three remained silent. Roberto thought of his own wife and couldn’t imagine what it would be like to lose her after forty years together. He was much younger than Mao, and a little younger than Jovani. How could he continue living if she died? How does Mao face each day alone? Roberto didn’t know the answers, nor did he want to ponder on the questions.

Jovani stood up. “I’ll be back shortly.”

He limped inside the cafe, leaving Roberto alone with Mao. They both sipped their coffees and watched people walk by. The sounds of clanging plates and barista banter made amends for the silence between them.

When Jovani returned to the table, he took his seat. All three sipped their coffees, their elbows at right angles for a second, then dropping away to the table at the same time. Not a word was spoken. Roberto tried to think of something to say, but his mind was blank.

Gabriele waltzed out of the cafe entry somehow balancing three plates of budino di riso in his burly arms. He lay the plates down in front of the three men and said to Mao, “Happy birthday to Camellia.” Gabriele touched Mao on the shoulder, winked at Jovani, and left the men alone.

Mao looked over at Jovani. “Budino di riso was her favorite.”

“That’s a relief,” Jovani said, “I couldn’t remember whether it was budino di riso or torta barozzi.”

The three men always shared their favorite cake on their birthdays. Jovani and Roberto smiled at Mao. Mao smiled at them, and a single tear fled down from behind his sunglasses and over the ageless skin of his face. Jovani and Roberto’s eyes glistened. It was a sweet Florentine sun-shower in the middle of spring.

Three pink camellias floated down from the sky. The men watched the flowers tiptoe toward the ground beside them. Mao’s smile widened, and in the flowers, he saw his beautiful wife, the mother of his children. The flowers vanished. Mao picked up his fork, and so did his two friends.   

And the three men ate their cake. And they talked about football. And finally, they all laughed together.

Copyright © James Golding 2019