Pozzo dei Dannati
45.44° N, 12.31° E
Though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitorsHenry James (1909)
Vic Neverman should be drawn & quartered & sixteenth with the resulting part & parcel to be scattered as bird-feed to the ravenous pigeons of St Mark’s Square, Kornberg decrees. As if someone made him Doge-for-a-Day. And then a spontaneous act of heavenly mercy occurs as Hell opens beneath his boat shoes and, with the abhorrence for vacuums Nature is known for, Kornberg is flushed away with gushing rivulets of rain water and street filth. I blink, but cannot shake the bulbs of rain from my eyelashes. Street-lamps reflect wildly off precipitation, further perplexing my perception as I attempt to make sense of the slurping of the pharmacists into, we imagine, some devil’s den.
Was it luck or divine reprieve, this reverse-rapture of Kornberg? But where did he go? And am I obligated to follow? If I were standing in a monsoonal jungle, as I am wont to do, I would have guessed the pharmacist placed a foot into the wrong mudslide. But this is no monsoonal jungle. This is contemporary Venice. There are few places for gravity to take you when you’re already at sea-level. Perhaps a sewer grate gave way beneath Kornberg’s heavy footfall. He had drank fourteen Bellinis today; those feet were falling heavy regardless of how much peachy Prosecco exhaust he belched.
I follow the path of least resistance to discover a void in the city street. I call into the abyss, Hulloooo! Water continues to gush downward like a broken toilet. Shall I throw a rope, I ask to no response. I look at my immediate surroundings, the streets are as empty of tourist and vendor as they are of daylight; nope, no rope. While I have been certifiably trained in certain underwater rescue operations, here I am in Italy with no snorkel. Let me see if I can find a gondolier, I holler after Kornberg, assuming he can hear me from whatever hells he flounders within. All I hear in response is the movement of water, as above so below, until Kornberg’s baritone hollers back from the depths. There’s booze down here, he says, and sandwiches. Sandwiches? Real sandwiches, I ask, or those questionable crust-less sardine sandwiches? There is no response. I take a deep breath, hold it, and plunge into the depths after Kornberg, carefully descending the staircase into this basement bacari, a dive bar calling itself Pozzo dei Dannati, which roughly translates into “Well of the Damned”. I find there is, in fact, booze and I am grateful for it.
Behind the bar of Pozzo dei Dannati is a duo of slap-happy local lads faux-boxing each other. They turn at our entrance and immediately identify us as a pair of soggy Americans. How’s it hanging dudes, one or the other asks in practiced American colloquial English. Kornberg doesn’t take the question lightly, or rhetorically. We should be hanged, the pharmacist tells the lads, like disgraced Roman legionnaires after the Battle of Lake Trasimene. Cool, the bartenders nod their heads in unison.
Pozzo dei Dannati has a doomed U-Boat vibe, reeking of iron and under constant pressure from without to crush us within, which somehow puts Kornberg at ease. Nicco & Flavio are the submariners at the helm. Both learned English watching reality television, specifically Jersey Shore. Instead of having to interpret their native Italian, Kornberg and I have to translate their New Jersey pidgin. Surely, I say to Kornberg, one of your marital dabbles must’ve included a Jerseyite, allowing you to understand some of this garble. Don’t call me Shirley, Kornberg references Leslie Nielsen as he mentally sifts through the archaeology of prior marriages. Maybe…, but these fellows might as well be speaking Greek. Kornberg says this figuratively as he has a classicist’s recall of the Grecian tongue and whatever Nicco & Flavio are saying is not Greek.
We ask the fellows behind bar to elaborate. Flavio explains to us “GTF” is his modus operandi: Gym, Tan and Find “Slop-Tarts”. Nicco describes a slop-tart as a breakfast of women who are “DTF”. Ahh, Kornberg is catching on, “down to fuck”. Do you know who is DTF, Kornberg asks the submariners before hooking a thumb back at his own chest. Nicco & Flavio laugh nervously. But this guy, Kornberg the pharmacist harpoons my chest with an indignant index finger, is a negligent navigator who has ruined all hope or love for me in this lifetime. Dude-man, Flavio says to the pharmacist, that sucks dick for Skittles. Kornberg is unaware of the Jersey Shore candy reference, but “suck dick for Skittles” makes enough sense in context, allowing the pharmacist to confirm. Exactly, he says, it sucks a bag of dicks for Skittles.
Kornberg orders a scotch to wash away the taste of dick-sucked Skittle. I order a Negroni. There are familiar brands of gin bottles on the walls, but they are filled with water. There is nothing in the Well of the Damned except unwell spirit. My Negroni tastes like a drop of petrol mixed with a rusty nail to the vein. Was this gin made with gunpowder Marco Polo brought back from the Far East? Was the apéritif distilled in Nicco’s Nonna’s bathtub and dyed-red with the tears of Saint Padre Pio of Pietrelcina? I can sense the enamel melting off my teeth, can taste it, can feel the grit of it on my tongue. I drop a Euro coin into my drink and when I fish it out it has become an American nickel. And my fingernail dissolved in the process. Meanwhile, Kornberg has finished his scotch. In Kornberg fashion, he says, it is too late in the day for a second scotch, but it is too early in the night for me to give a fuck. Play it again, Sam!
Nicco, the bartender, reminds the pharmacist no one here is named Sam as he refills the scotch glass. I push my Negroni away and ask for a bottle of Moretti.
Scotch revived, the pharmacist asks the lads for their highest window because he’d like to throw me out of it. Nicco & Flavio shrug. We’re underground. There aren’t windows. If you punch a hole through the wall, we’d be flooded with canal junk: dirty water, shitty-sewage, cigarette butts, spent-condoms, decapitated mime heads, gondolier hats, selfie-sticks and etcetera. Kornberg remains determined to throw me off the bell tower, referencing the Defenestration of Prague as if the bartenders were well-versed in the Thirty Years War by way of proximity. Kornberg announces, I am initiating the Defenestration of Venice and will throw every last motherfucker out a window who stands between me and Federica… and/or Francesca. Flavio perks up, oh, this is a love story. He turns to Nicco who changes the music from Sinatra to what he deems more appropriate, Michael Bolton. Fuck yes, this is a love story, Kornberg the pharmacist affirms to When a Man Loves a Woman. I am in love with at least one woman, but this motherfucker, he points in my direction, this motherfucker screwed the pooch like the A-1 grand-master champion pooch-porker he is.
At the beckoning of Nicco & Flavio, Kornberg tells us his love story. He saw Federica through the thick of a thousand tourists, at the far end of Saint Mark’s Square, and she saw him. They could have been the only souls of Venice as the rest of the world fell away. I listen and I do not argue, but… we hired Federica sight-unseen as a tour-guide before we ever arrived in Italy. Some nights ago, in a jazz bar in Zagreb, over a bottle of Slivovitz, Croatian plum brandy, the pharmacist and I watched Slavic soccer and plotted a heist to steal the four bronze horses of St Mark’s Basilica and return them to Old Constantinople. It was a fool’s errand, a drunkard’s hero-quest, but nevertheless, we found ourselves at St Mark’s Basilica within the week, eyeing those bronze horses with a random guide who happened to be the very beautiful Federica. They were no star-crossed lovers, just a pharmacist who likes to party and a tour guide who could score some cocaine.
Christ, the pharmacist said to me soon after meeting her (he normally calls me “Vic”), if Mary Magdalene had looked like Federica, Jesus would have thought twice about taking one for the team. Our tour-guide is stunning. Federica is a strawberry blonde with freckles; her hair, low neckline and classic beauty remind me of childhood treasures I encountered after sneaking into the attic after my father’s Playboy collection. Federica is intelligent and fluent in English, with a rousing accent and demonstrative hands which flapped as the wings of a dove. Federica is a rare bright spot in the greasy diesel fog of the cruise-port of Venice.
I had been broken, Kornberg tells Nicco & Flavio, my heart shattered beneath the elephantine footprints of a Carthaginian peace, but Federica scooped my cardiovascular ashes into her dustbin to make me whole again. Kornberg’s voice increases in volume as he again points at me, no thanks to this motherfucker. Federica, glorious angel, was educating us on rescuing the remains of St Mark the Apostle from heathen North Africa when this motherfucker, Vic, makes sacrilegious jokes about the Venetian rescuers grinding Saint Mark into pork sausage to keep the Muslim customs bureau from sniffing around.
The abduction of St Mark wasn’t by rescuers; they were tomb-raiders, I explain to Nicco & Flavio. Legend goes some Venetian tomb-raiders dug him up and tossed him in with some pork to sneak him out of Egypt. It was a brilliant ploy. Sausage casing as Trojan Horse: not to smuggle bodies in, but smuggle bodies out.
San Marco is not sausages, Federica said in response to my suggestion that day in St Mark’s Square, clearly incensed as her chest heaved, her right eye spasmed and veins rose out of her forehead. I should have left well enough alone, but after Federica learned of Kornberg’s occupation and excitedly told him San Marco was the patron saint of pharmacists, I could not help but suggest Mark was also the patron saint of sausage grinders. Federica seethed. The gold flecks of her brown eyes turned to fiery embers and I think she levitated an inch off the ground briefly.
Nicco & Flavio are rather disappointed in me. How dare I interfere with this true romance between a middle-aged American Romeo and an impassioned Venetian Juliet? But just wait, there were two Juliets!
Having heard of Federica, Flavio begs of Kornberg to hear of Francesca. Kornberg is keen. Have you ever been lightning struck, the pharmacist asks of Flavio. Have you ever been swallowed by the whale, the pharmacist asks of Nicco. They both say no. Kornberg continues, I felt as though I had been both lightning struck and swallowed when Federica introduced me to the idea of Francesca. The pharmacist tells us over his third scotch, Francesca is a former burlesque dancer who teaches music to deaf-children and she loves American cowboys, she sells shitty cocaine to her friends and her boyfriend happens to be in Austria this week. She sounds perfect, Nicco says. I saw a picture of Francesca, Kornberg tells us, and I was immediately in love with either one of them: Francesca or Federica. You’d think this dipshit, Kornberg says, pointing in my direction, would be more appreciative. To the Victor Neverman go the second-hand spoils, the pharmacist says. Dude, I say to him, fuck you. Kornberg then quotes a local saying and I don’t know when he learnt it, but he’s certainly been saving it up, chi semina vento raccoglie tempesta, I have sewn my seeds to the wind; it is time to reap the storm. Tempesta as fuck, bro, Nicco agrees.
Dante Alighieri’s lesser known “10th Circle of Hell” is a midsummer’s day in Venice, a special damnation reserved for gluttonous cruise-ship tourists and prideful social-media voyeurs punished for their sins by being surrounded by flatulent, belching, perspiring human cattle herded through endless turn-styles of St Mark’s Basilica as winged-harpies gnaw on their hemorrhoids and norovirus serpents course through their intestines. Pozzo dei Dannati is merely a sub-basement of the 10th Circle.
Left at the cathedral, Kornberg the pharmacist says with eyes clenched tight, urging the message into the ether as if his past self could realize it so many Bellinis ago. Left at the cathedral, after crossing the Rialto to San Polo then take the stairs over the next canal to turn right at the statue of Pope Pius. Nicco & Flavio wonder if the pharmacist is off his meds. I interrupt Kornberg’s utterances, saying, yeah, but which Pope Pius? There were a dozen of them.
Earlier in the evening, as we followed the directions to our rendezvous point, my blood was jittery from too many cappuccinos while Kornberg was steady, having only drank Bellinis, assuming the low alcohol would maximize his virility later in the evening when he would ultimately take Federica and/or Francesca to bed. The only reason Kornberg invited me along on this outing was because his pursestrings were monitored by Mrs. Kornberg from her spa retreat in Geneva. I’m good for it, Kornberg assured me, insisting I spot him the cash to pay for the trampled-on mediocre Euro-coke he wanted to buy from Francesca in order to party with Federica. What’s more: Kornberg required my navigation skills. Insomnia paired with Croatian brandy had somehow dislodged his inner-ear, leaving Kornberg operating on a broken compass. Meanwhile, as a pizza delivery professional, it is a bygone assumption I would have the directional savvy to follow the path. Thus the animosity on his part. I was his hound dog. I was not supposed to lose the scent.
As we hurried to find Federica and Francesca, the skies opened and rain fell, doing nothing to dampen our desperation. Perhaps we were on the wrong side of the Grand Canal, playing this game in the mirror’s reflection. With fifteen seconds until our scheduled meeting, I suggested to Kornberg he stayed there while I dashed back to Rialto in search of a more pious Pius to take a right at. Fuck that, Kornberg said with little consideration. Has that been your plan all along, he asked. Get me lost, he said, then split-up so you can have Francesca and/or Federica to yourself. We’re not lost, I insisted. I know where we are. I just don’t know where we are supposed to be.
Call her, he then said, in defeat. I didn’t have her number. And he had her business card, but left it in the hotel safe. Not only had we gotten lost in search of her, but we could not reach her by phone.
She would call us. Kornberg did not hear it; he was running across bridges, face smacked with rain, oblivious to the phone in his pocket and it’s ring-tone of The Doors “LA Woman”. I stopped him. Dude! He answered the phone and splashed away as I waited. We were standing in a plaza; the water, the acqua alta high tide, was up to our ankles. There was no high-ground; Venice was sunk. Ten years from now, what would be left? “The City of Bridges” would be a city of only bridges as the seas rise and the “Floating City” literally sinks.
The phone call went as expected. Federica was highly agitated. She damned us all and expected me to still pay for her cocaine.
That sucks dick for Skittles, Nicco says this time.
Too late in the day to fall in love, Kornberg says raising his whisky, too early in the night to go home alone. Flavio voices an alternative. He has a sister he could introduce to Kornberg. She’s asleep, but she could be woken for a rich man from America, or as Nicco puts it, a real stud sugar-daddy with liquidity. Wake her, Kornberg the pharmacist says, tell her I am a real stud sugar-daddy with liquidity. For sure, my man, for sure, Nicco says, but maybe there is a finding fee. Kornberg is suspicious. The suspicion fades when Flavio brings out his phone to show the pharmacist a picture of his sister at the beach. Kornberg has found reason to love again.
There must be an 11th Circle of Hell reserved for negligent navigators and philandering pharmacists, a region of Hell where they are eternally punished for their mockeries and trespasses, damned to a soggy U-Boat descending into lagoon muck as swamp-gas and peach-puree bubble-in through the crevices, where the periscope finds love always out of reach, where the gin tastes like chewed tin-foil and where fellow submariners pimp a sister named Giulia.