On the Canals

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artwork by @jimmywyngaarden

a short story by Jerry Zinn

The kids were gone, off playing beyond the imaginary boundaries surveyed by their parents.

“I told them not to go past the square. They promised me they wouldn’t!” the mother said, massaging her aching temple.

“They never listen,” her husband replied.

“That doesn’t change the fact that we don’t know where our children are.”

“They’ll come back. Couldn’t have wandered too far. Besides all the bridges and footpaths bring you back to this square one way or another. Piazza Whatever-it’s-called, that all the signs are for with the arrows. If there’s a universal truth, it’s that all roads end here.”

“But in order for them to find their way back, they’d have to want to get back.”

“Let me take a picture of you in front of the statue. That one over there. Just stand next to it, maybe lean like… like that. There. Now just picture what it looks like to smile and try to copy that. One, two, three.”

“Happy?”

“Exceedingly.”

“How do we find our kids? Now that there’s a physical record of us enjoying our vacation without them. Terrible parenting.”

Her husband’s watch focused the sun into her eyes as he inspected the photo.

“Will you put that thing away! Why aren’t you worried?” she snapped.

“They’re just exploring. We’d have done the same thing at their ages. It’s a big tourist destination. Let’s get some pizza at that place on the corner. They’ll emerge from the woodwork if we have food. Probably hiding behind the church. Or running up the tower over there. What’s it called again?”

“I don’t remember. God it’s been so long since I took that architecture class. Free—something like Freedom I think.”

The mother bit her lip and examined the building with its cupola and layered columns. Canal levels were down and the surface calm. High water marks rose five or six feet, the walls darker from the detritus suspended in the blue-brown liquid. Not many gondolas drifted. It was still too early. Pizza was in the air, or else her hunger conjured the alluring scent: fresh, charred dough and caramelized cheese. She felt guilty for thinking of food when all three of her children had disappeared.

“OK, but in twenty minutes, if they aren’t back, we go look for them and call the police and send out a search party and dogs.”

“Yes, that’s a reasonable plan. Besides, they have each other. Now, I’m hungry. Heard this  place is great. My coworker, you remember Al? He and his wife were here last summer, and they went to this restaurant four times!”

“Al’s Italian, isn’t he?”

“Not just Italian, he’s Venetian! Well his family is anyway. He’s from Detroit.”

“If he’s Venetian, then he must know,” she said mockingly.

“God they’ve got pigeons here. Look at them up there on that building! Must be three hundred! Let’s hope they haven’t had their fiber today.”

“Charming.”

“I try,” he answered, signaling to the circling waiter.

There was a small vase with a fresh rose on the wire table. An elderly man, posture crumpled like an old beer can, wheezed an accordion. Each pull was a deep, troubled breath, each push a constrained, musical exhale. It was rustic or sad.

“You really do smell that when tide’s low don’t you? Drowns out the pizza…”

The wife twiddled with the menu while she brewed about her lost offspring.

“Imagine what it was like all those years ago, when this place was bustling.”

“Hmm…” she replied, considering the prospects of the past. “Remarkable this city’s still around. Through it all, the flooding, the conflicts. They say it was one of the wealthiest cities, you know?”

“Mom!”

“Dad!”

“Is it time to eat?”

Three young voices echoed in the long corridor. It sounded as though a troop was descending on a picnic, famished from a long hike through dense wilderness. Their father sat back, satisfied with the results of his laissez faire approach. The kids popped out from under a heavy arch.

“Where have you been? Never! Never do that again!” their mother reprimanded.

“Sorry…” the eldest responded at his shoes, guiltily kicking pebbles.

“Sit down. We ordered pizzas,” their father instructed, allowing a lack of disciplinary action to instill in them a sense of personal responsibility. So he imagined, asking a great deal of a six-year-old, nine-year-old, and ten-year-old.

“What kind?” the youngest, a tubby carbohydrate enthusiast with hand-me-down shorts that settled mid-shin, asked.

“Does it matter?” his sister asked.

“You’ll eat it no matter what,” said the brother.

“Don’t tease him,” their mother objected.

“Cheese and one with vegetables.”

“Well? What did you all see on this grand adventure of not listening to us?”

The girl took command, “We went to the docks, to see the ocean and some of the boats. There was one,” her eyes widened as her hands stretched out to represent two hundred and fifty feet, “this big! Like a whole mansion!”

“It had a helicopter on the back,” the youngest exclaimed.

“I was gonna say that!” his sister insisted.

“This city’s no stranger to big ships,” their father explained. “It’s an amazing place when you think about it. All this water through the city. Only get around by boat or walking across a million bridges.”

“Did you all know I was here once, when I was thirteen?” their mother asked. “Came with my parents, your grandparents. Things weren’t much different then, only they were doing all kinds of restoration work. Scaffolding was everywhere. Hurricanes caused a lot of damage that year.”

Pizzas arrived. On trivets they were set with the waiter’s warning, “Careful, very hot.” Eastern European and terse, the man was economical with his words. The father looked at each child.

“Oh! Thank you!” the girl said as the waiter walked away.

“Thank you!”

“Thank you…” her siblings mimicked.

“Never again!” their mother repeated. “Don’t run away, and don’t forget to say thank you.”

“OK, we understand,” the eldest replied.

“I was here once too, as a kid though,” the father recalled. “The food, that’s what I remember most.”

“Yeah, yeah. You were here before this was under water, huh?” his wife asked condescendingly.

“Not that old. You’re right. It is more or less the same as it was then. Nice to see it mostly fixed up. Hard to maintain a city on water.”

“Have you been to the other one?” their daughter asked.

“In Italy?” one of her brother’s wondered.

“Yes, once I was in Venice. But that city was built on water. For hundreds of years it stood with canals and ancient churches before the sea rose and gobbled it up. Believe it or not, people once drove around here. Everything you see was dry land. Before you all were born, before your mother and I were born even, Miami was a different place.”

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