The Duke of Solimena

Mario Soldati

Artwork by Jensine Eckwall

Alone without remedy, but not resigned to solitude. Saturday afternoon caught me by surprise in a hotel room in Chicago. Saturday. Sunday. Alone until Monday. The small, warm, comfortable room, light yellow and pink floral walls, pristine, low ceiling, and thick grey carpet seemed to close me in like a telephone booth. From the armchair at the desk, I could see into the half-closed little doorway to the gleaming white enamel bathroom, and through ample lace curtains I saw out the window: a courtyard with no ground and no sky, countless identical windows, a gridiron that went on above, below, to every side.

The day was gloomy. With the light off, it would have been totally dark. Outside was definitely cold. Motionless, icy air promising snow and the customary festive paralysis was taking hold over the city. Chicago, endless and unknown to me, and my room was just another dot.

Saturday and Sunday to myself, warm, no threat of visitors, a comfortable chair and a good book: Wasn’t that happiness? My solitude and America and Chicago—I’m sure now that I could have forgotten them all on the first page of a book.

And yet! A man can live alone, very alone, but only when he knows that the people and places around him, not visible, are his friends, or at least acquaintances. And only when he has some strong thought to keep him company. Montaigne did not admit his wife or children into the cell at the top of his little tower. But he felt them underfoot; he dined with them every day. He looked out from his window to his countryside, his sky. He read to think and write.

Books are not a refuge or an escape from life, nor should they be; they're instruments for seeing life more deeply, a means for living more. For an hour, I vainly clutched Virgil in my hands.

Certe sive mihi Phillis sive esset Amyntas:

Those sweet phrases. I saw them. They were there. But withered like old love letters. Turned off, mute, pathetic. Like the dead who return in dreams and can't speak or act but only stare at you sadly from behind a veil of fog, eyes full of reproach.

Mecum inter salices lenta sub vite iaceret.

Dear father Virgil reproved me for my withdrawal, my boredom, Chicago:

Hic gelidi fontes, hic mollia prata, Lycori,
hic nemus: his ipso tecum consumerer aevo.

The verses didn't follow one another, they didn't sing. They came out of nowhere, one here, another there, isolated, distant, without precise meaning. Echoes and regrets. I'd just about forgotten Latin.

Chicago was right there in arm’s reach. The theaters, the movie houses, the shops, the restaurants, the architecture, the girls: so much life I didn’t know! But I had no desire to find out.

I paced up and down the room, stopping to look at the cracks in the paint on the corner of the doorframe, and losing uncountable minutes in the strange variety of tiny mazes and fascinating labyrinths of boredom. Rivers, canals, mountain ranges. Suddenly the illusions vanished, and the cracks in the paint cracks were once again meaningless, hopeless cracks in the paint.

I came back to the desk with the vague notion of tossing off an article, a letter, a poem even. The white page, the pen. I began wasting time. I made a little dot. Then another little dot. Then I connected the two little dots with a segment. Then I made a cross, then a little circle, then a spiral. Little by little a monstrous hieroglyph fanned out and became infinitely tangled.

Oh, anyone, anyone! Even an old, mean, tiresome moralist (Prefect of the King, Substitute Procurator of the King, Division Chief at the Ministry of Finance, Fiat Engineer, Bank Teller, Store Cashier, Ph.D. in Political Economics) like my bourgeois cousin and his neat and natty family! For the first time in years, I would have paid a visit to my powerful cousin and I would have been happy making my mother happy. (Though it’s true that Turin, my mother, and the prefect/cashier cousins were thousands of miles away . . .)

No one. No one. To see or speak to anyone I knew would take twenty hours by train back to New York.

Exhausted, I threw myself on the bed and covered my eyes with a handkerchief. I fell asleep almost instantly. Sleep comes easy when the problem isn't anguish but rather tedium and worry. Easy and welcome. We can forget tedium and worry without shame. Sleeping, I’d forget my solitude. Reading or going out would feed it.


I awoke at night. Supper time, but I wasn't hungry. My loneliness and boredom were still there. I plunged my head under the covers, chasing sleep. It was no use. My eyes wanted to stay open. They spotted the phonebook on the nightstand.

In other moments of boredom, in New York, in Philadelphia, in Cincinnati, I had turned to reading the phonebook and playing the sad game of looking up my last name. As far as I knew, I had no relatives in America. In Italy, though, the name Soldati is pretty common. Of the millions of Italian Americans surely there could be one Soldati. In New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, I hadn't found any. In Chicago there were three:

Soldati Samuel, 4893 Lehman Ave.

Soldati Moses cook, 1137 Croydon St. S. E.

Soldati Abraham Jr, 6421 W 78th St.

Samuel, Moses, Abraham. Hence, there were Jewish Soldatis. Who knows, maybe my family too, long ago . . . I admire, I love Jewish people. I would be happy to discover that I was one of them.

They were poor people, surely. I only knew a little about Chicago, but enough to guess from those street names that the Soldatis were in some of the worst neighborhoods. And Moses was a cook.

I picked up the telephone. Samuel. No answer. Perhaps it was the number for a shop.

Moses. A little girl with a lower-class Chicago accent picked up, and when I asked whether Mr. Moses Soldati was home, she replied, yes, papa was home, but “He can't step out of the kitchen now. Call up again.”

I hung up and asked myself why this Mr. Soldati, who was a cook, cooked so seriously in his own home that he couldn't even pull himself away from the stove to answer the telephone. I realized it was better that way. What would I have said?

Stupidly, I hadn't prepared an excuse. I didn't even bother trying Abraham.


Sunday morning. 11 A.M. I was lying in bed when all of a sudden I remembered having woken up at three or four in the morning with this thought: Soldati Moses ran a clandestine restaurant (it was still the Prohibition years). That cook in the phonebook told people looking for the restaurant not to call Abraham or Samuel. This explained the girl's reply.

Soldati Moses cook, 1136 Croydon Street S E: I read the address once more and copied it onto a slip of paper. Who knows, I thought, maybe one of these days I'd find myself in S.E. Chicago and I'd look for Croydon Street and find out if there really was a restaurant at 1137. Not an hour later, when I stepped out of the hotel for breakfast, that was the address I gave to the taxi.

Southeast Chicago. The neighborhoods I'd imagined, as I'd imagined them. As the taxi drove along, I felt a steadily rising fear that I was about to do something stupid. Who knew where I'd end up? What if it wasn't a restaurant?

More than once I came close to telling the driver to turn back. Right when I finally decided to do it (thinking we were still far from Croydon Street) the taxi brakes, slows, and stops in front of a narrow, high little door, almost hidden between two closed shop windows, a barber and a greengrocer.

“This is it?”

“Didn't you say 1137?” said the driver.

“Yes.” The driver looked up.

The narrow little door had a number: 1137.

“But is this Croydon Street?” I insisted.

“Why, sure, Croydon Street.”

Embarrassed, I paid and got out. There was still time. I'd let the cab drive away and then I'd hail another and go back to the city.

The cab pulled away, drove off, disappeared. I waited. I looked: 1137. That was it, 1137, the number in the phonebook. I walked to the corner and checked the name of the street on the sign: Croydon Street. No doubt about it. I was here.

The street was long, straight, empty. Little gray houses of two, three floors at most, as far as the eye could see. Shop-windows lined the ground floor, all of them closed. Down the middle of the street, tracks. But no tram in sight. A great silence hung in the air. The sky was low, somber, solid. There was the same motionless cold as before and the thick air of impending snow. Without realizing it, I found myself standing directly in front of 1137. Just then the dark and quiet sky cracked with thunder.

I tried the door. It wasn't locked. I pushed it open; a wooden staircase rose up right from the door. I entered and went up. On the second floor, written on the first door:
SOLDATI'S SPAGHETTI ITALIAN HOUSE. I rang the bell. A little girl with dark hair and two big Italian eyes opened the door. Surely the girl from the phone.

“Come in, please” she said, smiling, without asking me anything.

Dark entryway. The girl took my hat and helped me out of my coat, and while she hung them up, she pointed me toward an area lit softly through stained glass, where a radio played quietly.

This was the dining room. A dozen tables each set with silverware, napkins, and a vase of fake flowers. In one corner, the radio. And in the opposite corner, a single patron, an old man. He read the newspaper in front of a still-empty plate.

The girl reappeared with a smile and gestured to the room as though to say: sit wherever you like, there's room. Then she scurried off and disappeared behind a curtain, probably to the kitchen.

I took a seat two tables away from the man with the newspaper. I waited there for I don't know how long, resisting the urge to call out; perhaps my impatience made the time pass more slowly. Finally, a woman, about fifty or so years old, came out from behind the curtain and walked up to my table. She asked in heavily Italianized English whether I wanted spaghetti or ravioli. As I hesitated, and inquired if there was soup, the man with the newspaper intervened.

“Let me advise you to take the ravioli. They are very good here. Really, I take them myself.” He too spoke with a foreign accent (not Italian, perhaps French) and with a strange elegance and courteousness.

I ordered the ravioli. I turned to the man and thanked him with equal politeness. He replied with a smile, “My pleasure,” and went back to reading.

There was something strange about his mannerisms. And now, watching him, I saw there was something strange—for America, for Chicago, for that place—about his appearance.

He was thin, shaven. Gray hair, long and straight, lay flat against his oblong skull. A high, noble forehead. Aquiline nose, wan lips, and deep, straight lines that cut from his cheekbones to his jaw. Instead of sidebar eyeglasses—the universal style, and downright mandatory in America—he wore a pince-nez, and his eyes, intent on reading, were out of view. His suit, too, was old-fashioned. High stiff collar. Blue tie with gold stripes. Gray double-breasted jacket.

The jacket was frayed. The tie had lost its sheen and showed its weave at the edges. The shirt-cuffs, pulled elegantly around thin wrists, were dirty. And the cufflinks were mismatched; one seemed to be silver, the other gold. The overall effect, at first glance, was of a gentleman: old-fashioned, pre-war, but a gentleman nonetheless. Closer examination revealed almost a wretch.

The ravioli was served. The gentleman slowly removed his pince-nez and put them in a tattered purple velvet case, while his eyes fixed on the steaming plate and shone: grey, hungry, tired.

He sprinkled the ravioli with heaps of cheese using even little strokes of his teaspoon, starting at the edge of the plate and working all the way around in a slow spiral to the middle with the meticulous attention one devotes to a great luxury or refinement. He then began to eat, slowly, with composure, closing his eyes for long periods of time.

“They are delicious,” I said to him, after tasting them myself, trying to be nice because he had been kind to me and I pitied him.

He looked up, a little surprised, and said:

“I am glad you enjoy them,” he said, and paused for a moment in silence, staring at me as though he wanted to strike up a conversation but forbade himself because he wasn't bon ton; then, all of a sudden, perhaps ashamed of having looked at me for too long, and smiling with as much grace as he could, he said in English:

“I beg your pardon, but you were not born in America, vere you?”

I responded, still in English, that in fact I wasn't an American citizen, and that I had left Italy for the first time two years earlier.

“Oh!,” he exclaimed. Then, speaking in Italian but with a certain effort, “You are Italian, you are!” He stood up, walked over to me and shook my hand. “Enchanté! Enchanté! Moi aussi, je suis italien. Sicilien, un gentilhomme sicilien.

I stood up, too. We shook hands vigorously. Then came a moment of awkwardness. We were on our feet facing one another, and neither of us could decide whether to sit down first. Finally:

“Vous permettez?” He pulled out a red leather wallet, worn, its stitches coming out. He pulled out a card and handed it to me.

On it was a crown, and below:



I gave him my card, which had my address in Turin. He looked at it with satisfaction:

Vous êtes piémontais! Turin, jolie ville, jolies femmes. Il y a longtemps, j’y ai vécu les meilleurs années de ma vie. J’étais élève-officier d’artillerie à l’Académie, l’Accademia. Vous connaissez naturellement. Piazza Castello. Après, je passais en cavalerie, à l’école de Pignerol, vous connaissez . . . Mais est-ce que vous . . . You understand French, don’t you?”

He saw from my smile that I understood and begged my pardon. He said again that he was Sicilian, a Sicilian gentleman, and that this meant very much to him. But he had long ago fallen out of the habit of speaking Italian. Even when he was little, his family in Palermo spoke French as much as they spoke Italian, maybe more.

“What can you do, it's about habit,” he said in Sicilian dialect. He had fought in France. He read only French books. On the subject of Italian-Americans in Chicago, he said: “Braves gens, oui, naturellement. But I cannot live with them. And anyway, they do not speak correctly in either English or Italian.”

I took my plate over to the table next to his and we carried on our conversation throughout the meal. I told him the bizarre way I had discovered the restaurant, adding that I wasn't Jewish, despite the homonym.

“Jewish? What are you talking about? Our host Monsieur Soldati is not Jewish. There are no Italian Jews in America.”

He explained that Moses, Abraham, and Samuel are common names in very religious Anglo-Saxon families. The elder Mr. Soldati, now deceased, must have ingenuously imitated one of these families, perhaps a neighbor, and given his children biblical names.

After the ravioli came steak, French fries, and salad. And wine. The Duke nursed a tiny deciliter bottle. Not wanting to offend his poverty, I ordered a bottle of equal size. But the wine was passable and I didn't resist finishing it off between the ravioli and the steak, and then ordering another right away, and then another and another and another, coming to half a liter at least, but always with little bottles like his, and one at a time, so that at any moment there was never more than one on the table.

Wine, food, company: finally I could escape my loneliness and boredom. Since someone was listening to me, I talked. And I did all the talking. I talked about myself, about how I'd come to America, and about America. I talked about Chicago and about New York.

Abandoned to the broad, resonant stream of my own words, I relayed all the thoughts I'd been ruminating over in solitude since I came to Chicago, and I while I spoke, I forgot entirely about the Duke himself. Not until the fruit came did I notice the expression on his face while he listened to me: a smile somewhere between indulgent and admiring, a look of understanding and approval. On the subject of America, we agreed about everything. He too gave a sketch of his life, but more briefly.

He left the military at the rank of cavalry lieutenant when he was twenty-five years old and emigrated to America because a friend, a dear friend, had sent for him. The friend had made an enormous fortune in lumber in Minneapolis, but just before the Duke arrived in America, he'd lost everything and was dead.

From then on, the Duke barely eked out a living (he didn't say this exactly, but it was implied) as a salesman, changing specialty based on his hopes for profit, working a little all over Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, northern Ohio. He had lived in Minneapolis, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Chicago. He wasn't cut out for business, you could tell, and little by little he'd fallen into destitution. He concluded candidly: “Wheats. I'm in grains, wheat, barley, oats. I buy and sell, I'm a middleman. That's my business now, voilà mon business maintenant.”

He froze for a moment, his knife and fork poised to peel a segment of pear, and looked into space. He came unstuck:

“But tell me, since you come from Italy. Oh! Italy . . . If you knew my thoughts. Naples. Rome. Genoa. Turin.” Then in Italian, “Tell me about Turin, the colonnade on Via Po, Monte dei Cuppicini, the bele tote, the sartine, Baratti and Milan, tell me!”

French gave him a certain air of composure and security. Italian betrayed him, revealed his desperation. “Tell me about Baratti and Milano!” After he said this, he closed his eyes, smiled and saw—what did he see?

He must have seen a shop-window in Baratti: chocolates pastries, marrons-glacés, and, reflected in the glass, the civilized promenade of the arcade at martini hour.

By then, I'd realized it was better not to have scruples. I ordered two whiskeys. He wasn’t thirsty, he said he didn't drink and that, in case later his turn came to buy, he was less of a stranger than I was. I insisted. In the end he accepted.

We drank three or four whiskeys each. We smoked 25-cent cigars. And we spoke at ease for some time about Turin while the radio played drowsy, numbing tunes in the background. The afternoon went on like this. A music clock in a nearby room sounded three-thirty. No other patrons had come. The room still was semi-dark and the untouched tablecloths were shimmering, spotless and sad. The window—what a surprise when I turned and saw through the window: it was snowing.

Framed by the dark colorless wall, the rectangle of window was blue-white; large flakes were falling, calm and dense.

The Duke was watching, too, in silence, while he delicately smoked the last bit of his cigar.

There was a deck of cards, calling out for a game of piquet. But I stopped myself from proposing a game, which he could not accept, and which would have humiliated him.

A game of chess? He said he'd accept gladly, but where would we find a chessboard?

Checkers? He smiled and gave me a long look in silence, then shook his head and thanked me.

“No, no. You are very kind, monsieur. But I am not used to . . . to company. I live by myself. Usually I take my meals at Childs . . . any drugstore will do. I dine here only on Sundays. I would never come for dinner, it gets too crowded in the evening.”

He sighed. “Merci, monsieur. But America is not Europe. Over there, oh over there everyone can be happy, even . . .”

He didn't finish the sentence. But it was clear what he meant: even the poor.

He excused himself again, stood up and said that it was late and that he had to go. He called out, “Alice! Alice!”

The little Soldati appeared with the bill. I paid for my meal, and for all the whiskey and cigars. We walked to the entryway, put on our coats and left.

The snow was still coming down, already it covered the streets. Collars up, hands in pockets, we set off side by side. Our feet made the first imprints in the whiteness.

At the second corner, the Duke stopped:

“Well sir, I must leave you here. You—you will find the streetcar three blocks in that direction,” and he pointed in the opposite direction of where he was heading, “Number 45 will get you to Michigan Avenue in a half hour. Mr. Soldati, thank you again. I am truly glad to have met you. A shame it was so brief . . . But you never know, we may meet again, unless you're off to Italy soon. I truly wish the best for you. Viva Italia!”

“Viva,” I said instinctively. As soon as we'd shaken hands, he turned and took off: long military coat, stiff hat, straight back, marching step.

Just then, a car (a taxi, orange) appeared at the end of the street and came racing toward him.

The Duke threw himself against the wall. The taxi passed. Once again, I held back: I was about to wave it down. I started walking toward the tram stop that the Duke had pointed me to. After a few steps, I turned around and saw him lost in snow made denser by distance.

He turned in the same instant and saw me. A moment later, perhaps ashamed of this last show of weakness, he pretended to have turned to cross the street.

translated from the Italian by Margaret Spiegelman