The 3:50 to Heaven—Elaine Bonow
The 3:50 to Heaven
Living in Venice was like living in a dream, especially in deep winter, December till Carnival. For years now, I had rented a small pension on the top floor of an ancient building where I could hear the bells of the Frari church ringing me the time to get morning coffee and sweet rolls, time to close the shutters for a mid-day nap and when to venture forth for a leisurely dinner with my Venetian friends who I thought of as Mermaids and Mermen driven to ground and instead of needing fins relied on oars to get from canal to canal sure and swift upon the murky jade water like dragonflies skimming alien pond scum.
La Serenessima resembled a city of the dead. There are but few trees, little dirt, no daffodils pushing through the cool crust of spring, no hedgerows of tea roses, no streets full of dead leaves in the autumn that need raking. Motoring is restricted by canal edges that echo the constant rumble of a Vaperetto or swift motorboat. What were once campos of stingy grass have long since been paved over with stone slabs.
Venice is timeless in those seasons when the garish colossal tourist boats are missing and the city is deserted except for locals going on their quotidian routes to work in the shops, in the market in back of the Rialto Bridge or leaving to take the train back to the mainland and their mainland lives.
The streets, the courtyards and the sidewalks are all stone. The facades of buildings front and back, top to bottom are stone intersected by undulating waterways and stone stiles. There are potted plants in stone urns in front of stone abodes and isolated trees surrounded by high stonewalls complete the image of this stoned citadel.
But I digress. This dream, my dream, keeps reoccurring crowding out reality. Today the dream seems to last forever. Lucidity won’t awaken me. I am being oared silently through a series of ever narrowing canals, being poled through the thick liquid in an ever-deepening fog. The stone fronts of familiar buildings magically appear and disappear fantastically out of place.
Where the Alta Agua never gets deep enough for a gondolier to pull his gondola, we glide impossibly through the Basilica de San Marco and back out again. We pass under the archway of the clock tower where the Moors strike the hour. We go on inside the Doge’s Palace and under the Bridge of Sighs, across the Rialto and plunge into narrow canals that seem to dead end but instead we fly past places I know we shouldn’t be able to. We go inside vast churches and Sculolas, my faceless gondolier poles us steadily around the Venetian Lagoon.
People in palazzos wave to us drinking an umbra seated on sodden chairs chatting and smoking without care, sans souci, ashtrays and delicate wine glasses partially submerged by the lapping of the green water.
We go on silently, him stroking the oars expertly past the palaces of the Grand Canal: rose, ocher, sienna, jaune and aquamarine, the beauty of these relics of a time that could only be a figment of one’s imagination. A time lost in the faded beauty of crumbing richness.
The water gives off an odor of decay and I am overcome by an inexplicable sadness. As we travel like the wind I lapse into a familiar regret about my wanderlust, my inability to settle down. I was free just like I’d always thought I should be. When I was young there was plenty of love, sex and drama in my life but now approaching seventy, awareness of a deeper loneliness haunts me. I was still vibrantly sexy and had a ton of friends who loved me or perhaps tolerated me. I had enough money so that I was not a burden, a liability or a drag to anyone.
I never wanted children so, of course, no grandchildren and as an only child no family ties either; no sisters, brothers or even cousins I could count on. My parents had long since faded away and turned to dust.
I had pushed the thought of mother completely out of my mind. It was as if I had been immaculately conceived, a virgin’s child. I didn’t exactly choose this life. I was left with these choices by the unraveling of the thread of life and have dealt with the fate I was ordained for. I didn’t feel sorry for my life but sometimes wished that I had more of it, that I had gotten more out of it.
A dirge, which the gondolier hummed quietly at first, got louder as his oaring slowed. I recognized this particular narrow canal that slid alongside my favorite chiesa, Santa Maria dei Miracoli. I recognized it easily because I was in love with its stately marbles. When I first discovered this church I thought innocently enough that the marbles were children’s playing marbles those glass balls of color. I still like to imagine that when I open the doors there would be a fantastic outpouring of brightly colored marbles rolling forth crashing along the stone alleyways.
I came to love this particular edifice it’s pink, grey and white marble outside and inside, perched on a stone slab in the middle of this stone city. It was like a tomb. We rode up gently to the right side of the building up its water door. The dirge started by the gondolier emanated from the inside of the church. It was a mournful Kyrie Ellison. There must be a funeral going on inside. As I walked into the church a deep fog rose from beneath the water filling the inside of the church lit by hundreds of candles. The fog mixed with thick Frankincense and Myrrh from the swinging brass Thurible, charcoal glowing like a genie’s trapped eyes.
I walked around to the back of the church where I could get a good view of the steep stairway that rose up to the shrouded coffin under the painting of the Miracle of the Madonna.
I was miraculously lifted into the air. I felt elated. I was a non-corporal being. Thoughts about myself and where I belonged in this world, fell around me. I’ve always said I wanted to live in Rome and die in Venice, and in fact; I had lived in Rome for the past twenty years. Youth had kept me living the Vida Loca in Rome as busy importer of women’s shoes and boots.
I traveled Europe and Asia and back and forth to and from the states. I was as familiar with Hong Kong as I was with Milan and LA. Even though I traveled the world I ended up going to Italy over and over again until it seeped into my very being.
Rome was the ultimate place to live it is a vibrant and ever changing city full of life and joie de vivre. I found an apartment and set up my home. I filled it with beautiful objects d’arte and my fast paced life style had kept me there for the past thirty years. It was my home. From there I explored the boot extensively. I fit in. I was fluent in all things Italian. But it was here in Venizia that I felt my soul.
As I was suspended above the crowd swirling in that mystical smog I understood that I could actually hear what the people that had gathered for the funeral were saying to one another. To my surprise the first woman looked just like my neighbor Jacqueline. She was whispering to another friend Angelina. I was surprised to see them here. I didn’t know of anyone who had just died.
“My god, I am going to miss her. We had such fun together. And those parties she gave.”
“Oh Yes it was almost decadent, the way she took care of us.”
“I didn’t expect her to be taken away from us so soon, did you? You knew her so much better than the rest of us.”
“She was perfectly fine the last time she was here in Ven…”
“I know that was only last month when she came for Christmas.”
“You know, they say that the winter is a bad time to be sick and that it is easy to die when it is cold. But I thought she looked fine then. We had a wonderful time at the Fenice. She loved the opera so much.”
The two ladies continued chatting about their friend, a friend I should have known, until the priest appeared at the top of the stairs. The all male choir gathered on the steps leading to the chancel and chanted the funeral dirge in Latin. The mourners rose and fell to their knees in perfect unison stirring the interior fog with the men dressed in long black coats, the women black veils and cloaks. Everyone attending wore antique Carnival masks.
Suddenly the music switched to The Carnival of Venice and couples paired up and completed a formal dance full of complicated steps and patterns. I rose higher into the rafters where the Prophets faces, which I could only admire from below; I could now reach out and touch.
I continued to float above the crowded nave finally coming to rest above the shrouded coffin at the top of the chancel. I looked at the glorious painting of the Virgin and Child. She seemed to know me and nodded at me giving me permission to uncover the shrouded face of the deceased.
I reached out and pulled back the heavy ivory cloth. Lying before me was me. I was dead. I glanced up as the crowd disappeared with the fog and I was left alone with the realization of my inability to escape this dream, my thread dangling in the vastness of death.