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If Merilee were asked to describe her husband, she would say this: He’s that prize you wished for as a child, the one in the claw machine at the county fair. You remember, that box houses all sorts of junk, but there’s one toy, the stuffie with kind glass eyes. Draining your allowance into the slot, you throttle the joy stick, but never manage to lift the prize out of the pile. You stop believing it’s possible, you agree with the doubters who say the claw’s been rigged so that no one wins the best prizes. You give up until one day, no longer young, you visit the fair and try one more time. Put your coin in the slot. The machine rumbles, the claw descends. Finger the joystick, its patina ground down to bare metal by the losers before you. Manoeuvre ever so delicately. The claw clamps onto the plush creature of no definable species. The glass box hums. A gizmo whirls and spits the prize out the chute you thought permanently sealed. Merilee would tell you, this prize is Samuel.
The regional train, the Regionale is a well-used and grubby form of transit, but the tickets are dirt-cheap. Samuel mounts the metal steps, reaches for Merilee’s hand. Inside, he complains almost every seat is taken, then spies some vacancies at the far end of the coach. A blonde, her hair pulled into a careless ponytail, has nabbed a window seat, but the other three seats in the set are available. Striding along the permanently-stained carpet, he claims an aisle seat. Merilee trails behind. The Regionale lurches. Clutching the headrest for balance, Merilee falls awkwardly into the seat facing Samuel.
“Buongiorno,”says the blonde.
Samuel’s smile disappears as he chokes on a mouthful of Italian syllables, but Merilee studied Italian culture in her travellers’ class, knows polite conversation in public spaces is expected. She returns the Buongiorno and extends her hand.
The blonde introduces herself as Camilla. “Dove vai, al La Spezia?” she asks. You going to La Spezia?
Merilee figures the woman is in her thirties. Tight faded jeans ripped at the knees, a pale blue tee-shirt and beige linen jacket, bare feet in sandals and the Euro-fashion scarf artfully arranged around her neck. Her nails, painted pink, could use a touch-up. A cellphone lies silent in her lap.
“No, andiamo a Santa Margherita,” says Merilee. I told her we’re going to Santa Margherita, she informs Samuel.
“E voi.” Camilla calls to the passengers across the aisle.
Merilee notices the three girls for the first time. They’re deeply tanned, Moroccans perhaps. Mid-teens, she reckons. Two of them stick-thin and the third one rotund in comparison. Brassy dye jobs halo their black hair.
“Di dove e?” Aggressive tone, yet Merilee is pretty certain all Camilla asked was where are they from. The twig girls answer in unison, “Italia.”
“No, da quello che la regione, quale città?” Voice raised, Camilla’s index finger points accusingly. What region, what city?
“Catania,” says the rotund one, but when she turns Merilee realises she’s heavily pregnant. Her chin rises slightly as she folds her forearms across her belly. Scrapes and bruises blanket her arms. Merilee averts her gaze, doesn’t want to imagine how those bruises got there.
“Bah! Siciliane.” Camilla’s slender finger waves in Merilee’s face this time. “Non Italiane, capito?” They’re Sicilians, not Italians, see?
Merilee is confused. The girls are from Sicily, aren’t they Italians then? Regional differences weren’t covered in the traveller’s curriculum.
Camilla retrieves the mobile vibrating on her lap. The Sicilians unpack a picnic they’ve stashed in their communal backpack. Bags of chips, tins of cola, individually wrapped sugar candies and a banana. Merilee glances over at Samuel whom she’s all but forgotten. She needn’t worry, her husband has fallen asleep. His head tilts back and his mouth gapes. She hopes he doesn’t unleash his snore.
Chiaroscuro. Light and shadow. Merilee glimpses the passing countryside. Glint of ocean, crayon-green palms, fuchsia stained villas, blue-striped umbrellas, then sudden darkness. A good portion of the ride burrows through the terraced hills. Samuel is still asleep. His snore is more of a wheeze today. She closes her eyes, but even shut tight they register the return of the light when the train emerges from the tunnel. White sands drift close to the tracks. Then black again.