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"The One Alone" by Victoria Leigh Bennett

Pietro Brown was his name; when you were first getting to know him, and queried the Italo-English name, he’d just shrug, say something to the effect that his English parents had named him that after an Italian-American friend they’d made upon coming to the U.S. when Pietro’s mother was six months pregnant. People whispered that he was a spy, people who knew people around in places, oh, not just average places, but the sorts of places I ventured to in order to write my cheap fiction for a penny-ante publishing house in Tucson. The publishing house itself was planning a big move to London the year after I met Pietro, and I was angling first of all not to get laid off, and secondly, to go live in London. That seemed close to both London and Paris, and God knows how many other fine and wonderful places that I thought I might see. But Tucson was my home base at first, and I never returned there without making a note in my private journals about him: if I had seen him; where and when; what he was doing; what he was drinking and eating, usually on some lovely patio above a seaside resort, or along some crowded boulevard with beautiful trees and cafés. I told myself originally it was because I wanted to write a story about him, but then it became clear to me, when I was honest with myself, that I was just fascinated. The word “love” was a little bit off, perhaps too extreme, but I certainly was taken with the man.

Finally, the great move came, and as opposed to having to cart my belongings back and forth in luggage lines that were ever so much longer from the U.S. to the European cities I’d rarely been able to visit, I was suddenly in London and able to get back and forth with more ease. And with more charm and dignity to the European cities, I persuaded myself, thinking of Old Quarters and fancy restaurants, and jugglers and buskers in city squares by the droves, and on and on and on. A tiny voice also whispered, “And with more chances to see Pietro where he apparently goes most often, to Europe.” I giggled a little, sighed at myself, suppressed the thought, but hugged myself and decided at 10:30 at night to have a latte. As I prepared it, I said aloud to myself, in reproach, “You are very badly behaved!” But I didn’t mean it, and I sat up when the coffee had done its work, watching for the dawn and trimming my nails and toenails as I mused.

It was the next year, though, a whole six months later, that I finally ran into Pietro again, in Barcelona, where the young men hang around the outside of hotels and coo at approaching female patrons who are first-time checking in. After the doormen get to know you, of course, they shush the supposed offenders and drive them away with big whooshing sweeps of the arm, and exclamations of something that sounds like “Hasta! Hasta!” But another female patron grinned wisely at me and told me that they were there to help the doormen earn a tip for driving them away from the richer women and that the doormen shared their takings with the better performers. Somehow, the cynicism of this didn’t ruin the dangerous charm of the approach, possibly because I once dropped a valuable theater ticket (valuable to me, anyway, a ticket to see Romeo and Juliet performed in mime). One of the loungers came running up to me a block later, where I had hurried away from them, but as I motioned at him impatiently in a female imitation of the doorman, he said, “No, no, señorita, mira, mira!” And he held up my precious ticket.

I groped in my bag for a small tip, but he held up one hand and said, “No. Romeo e Julietta? So, give kiss here!” And he pointed to his cheek, dead center. When I stared at him, astounded at his temerity, he tapped it again, three times or so, grinned at me and nodded encouragement, then tapped again.

“No tricks!” I responded, then leaned gingerly forward and brushed his cheek, backing away even as I did it, and looking around to see if anyone had seen me. For just a second, Pietro flashed through my mind.

He held out my ticket to me, which I grabbed and placed in a safe place in my bag. He saluted me with his hand raised, then skipped off backwards down the street still facing me until the very end. I noticed as he went that he was quite young, much younger than my twenty-nine years, still full of fun, probably intending to share his joke with his friends. I had to hope that it didn’t result in a profusion of such outrageous requests. But when I returned to my hotel that night after working on my latest potboiler all day in a small café I’d taken to frequenting, he was nowhere to be seen, and there were fewer of the younger men around; evidently, there was some kind of festival on in Barcelona, and the few who were there outside the hotel were a little drunk, a lot tired, and more interested in sharing smokes and jests with each other than in earning indirect tips. Even the doorman looked bored working when he wanted to be elsewhere. I too was tired from the heat of the day, and entered the lobby with nothing else on my mind than a cool shower in the indifferent stream of water that came from the hotel sprays in the rooms, and possibly a small repast ordered from room service, which was slow but cheaper than some. I had no notion of meeting anyone I knew there, as it was so late on what I had at first forgotten was a festival day.

But there in the lobby, standing at the front desk, was Pietro. All my weariness vanished in a second; should I go up and say “Hi?” Was he checking in? Yes, as the clerk had handed him one of the room cards. I said to myself, “I mean, I haven’t done anything wrong; I don’t think he’s married; I’ve never heard of a girlfriend; why shouldn’t I just say ‘Hello?’” And before he could disappear into the anonymity of the elevator alone, while he was still lifting his suitcase and briefcase, I hastened to go up and speak.

He looked startled. “Oh, Penelope, hi. I didn’t expect to see anyone I knew here in this hotel. I’d forgotten all about the festival. Just a small, local thing of the regional bread-makers, I think, so it slipped right out of my mind. How are you? Are you here for long?”

“I’d forgotten, too! I’m here until I finish this stupid lump of writing I’m on right now. I can’t wait until I can work on more serious work again, but money considerations, you know. What about you, how long are you here for?”

“Not sure. Here for work,” and promptly, he clammed up. We were both walking to the elevator, though, so I waited as tactfully as I could for the relative privacy of the elevator, and then resumed the subject he seemed to regret having brought up.

“So, you’ve never said, Pietro; what is it you do? You know I’m a hack writer right now, who hopes for better things to come along. What engages your attention?” I tried to look encouraging, but he flushed and for a moment was silent.

Then, he said, brief and to the point, “I work for the government.”



“Sorry, Pietro, I don’t mean to be intrusive; but a number of people now have told me you’re a spy. I guess that’s just gossip?”

To my surprise, he hesitated, then grimaced. “That’s kind of over-glorifying it; I started out as a private bean-counter sort of person, true enough, in an espionage department, but that’s all I can say. Can’t talk about it really, you see, even counting beans means something to somebody higher up.” And he grinned down at me, obviously pleased at having both answered and not answered at the same time.

I smirked back at him and was preparing to exit the doors, which had whooshed open on my floor, when he raised his arm to hold the door, as it started to shut too fast. I glimpsed a fine, shiny revolver tucked into a shoulder holster, and couldn’t help but gasp.

“And that’s why I can’t talk about work. Sorry you had to see that. But I’m not really a spy sort, just for self-defense, you know. I mean—”

“That’s okay,” I hurried to reassure him, and that was really my intent; he was so very ashamed of himself and apologetic in his manner. “I’m just glad to know that you are able to defend yourself. Even bean-counters have a right to.”

He laughed with sudden relief, and answered, “That’s right. Thank you,” and then for the second time that day, and to my everlasting astonishment, I was again party to a display of affection, though private in this case, and not public; he leaned down and gave me a small, warm, peck on the cheek. This was immediately followed by, “Sorry, sorry, I shouldn’t have done that! Just this—this horrible, sultry weather and no break to it, and checking in so late, and having something revealed that I didn’t intend, after finally seeing a friendly face. Can you forgive me?”

“Of course I can! I am, as you remarked, a friendly face and I am rather glad you did it.”

“Well, but, well—it’s just that nothing can come of it, you see? I mean, as my life is now.”

“Please don’t worry about it! I’d rather you than anyone else!” And I meant that. He looked worried for a minute, but as I got off the elevator and spoke my “Goodnight, hope to see you sometime around the pool, if you go in for such amusements,” he watched me walk off backwards, as I had just imitated the posture and stride of my young friend from earlier that day.

Finally, he gave a short, sharp laugh and shook his head at something unspoken, and I turned back in the correct direction and went on towards my room.

“Well, at least there was that!” I said to myself as I brushed my teeth and flossed and got ready for bed, my thoughts of a late meal already given up. I wasn’t hungry! “And you, my girl, had best forget about it, and not expect miracles,” I said, pointing meaningfully to my reflection. But she looked back at me with a gleam in her eye, not repentant in the least.

When I woke up the next morning, however, more sobering thoughts came to me. I knew myself very well; I was the sort who, when in love, tended to hang around like the female version of a mooncalf, waiting for great things to happen, and I knew I had to get to work on the “dumb crap,” as I apostrophized it, which was currently paying my bills. Somehow, though, I knew I would only rebel and create a bad situation for myself if I didn’t let myself have some headway, so I aimed a bit for middle ground and decided to work at a table by the pool. There were portable chargers for my laptop for rent at the front desk, and luckily I could write it off as a work expense, since it was one.

I did catch sight of my own silly face as I hummed and made happy noise, and I once again pointed the comb I’d been preparing to place in my hair in the local fashion: “You’re not fooling anyone, you!” I said, then predictably enough, went on vocalizing, just a little lower.

I didn’t really expect Pietro to show, as we both were working people and had things to do. So I concentrated the best I was able, and to my surprise got a whole chapter done. That was something I could respond to my inner critic, anyway, that he’d been “good for business.”

Around two o’clock, though, soon after I’d finished a late lunch brought out by the languid hotel staff, he sauntered by, saw me as if for the first time, then said, “This seat taken?” as he lifted the back of the chair across from me. “Not a very original opening, I’m afraid, but at least direct.” And he grinned in a way that to my startled mind was similar to my young friend of the day before.

“No one here but us chickens,” I responded, and continued, “That’s not only old hat from me, but country as well.” I gestured, “Have a seat.”

The upshot of it all was that we spent the afternoon and early evening together, chatting, but mostly about safe topics and surface politics and culture, both of us careful not to tread on certain subjects. I noticed that he was watching with a certain sort of bemusement three teenagers in the pool, who were there almost as long as we were. The two boys and one girl were horseplaying as a threesome at first. Then, after what seemed like a long while but could only have been an hour at most, the last hour, it was clear some choice had been made. As if led away by pixies, who had somehow enchanted him and kept him from a kinder fate, one boy watched with regret and drifted away as the girl and the other boy separated off.

“Ah, isn’t that always the way that it goes?” said Pietro softly, with a certain melancholic or philosophic turn.

“What?” I asked though I knew well enough what he referred to in the scene before us.

“Two stay, one is always drawn off alone.”

“Well, not if he didn’t want to be, for goodness’ sake!” I objected in a cheerful tone. “They’re very young.”

“Patterns are established young, sometimes.” This was his only response, and the next moment he was scraping back his chair, and I was afraid I’d lost him. But then he said, “Are you going out somewhere yourself for dinner, or do you have a fancy to accompany me to a small place I know of here for a tapas meal?”

“Thank you very much, Pietro, I’d love to come along! Is it very fancy, or will a different set of togs do?”

“No, since our dip in the pool, I’ve rather a desire to get the chlorine out of my hair and duck into the shower, but it’s casual dress, very easy. Just something cool, it can get quite overheated even with fans.”

After all these years, I’d like to be able to score off my inner critic by pointing back and saying that I had bested Pietro’s aloneness and that his work hadn’t gotten in my way. But that’s not what happened.

For reasons that I had no means of knowing until the events transpired that evening, our evening fell flat even from the start. Pietro wore a jacket that seemed to me to be too heavy for the “something cool” he’d told me to wear, and he was overly officious in watching for traffic, holding my arm when we crossed, looking up and down the sidewalk, I’d thought in overcompensation for the crowd. But later I was not surprised as much when I got pushed to the sidewalk and told to “keep down!” Since the next thing that happened was that a spray of bullets hit the overhang behind me, my angry objections died on my lips.

There were sirens next and confusion, and I found that I had been hit with a bit of stone that had broken off the building, ricocheting and sticking into my upper arm, and causing a good bit of blood loss. Officers came; Pietro talked to them very fast, and very efficiently, in what to me seemed like flawless Spanish, for about fifteen minutes, while a rude and abrasive (so it seemed) female nurse asked me questions repeatedly which I couldn’t answer, not understanding. Not understanding much more, I watched them cart away two dead bodies from across the street, and it was only later that I realized that Pietro’s gun had been drawn at some point, and he had fired it. He then looked down at me and said, sad as it seemed,

“I’ve got to go with the officers now, Penny. Do you mind if I call you that? I guess you may well. But if you want to—well to keep in touch—you know, letters and such, emails—I don’t know if they’ll let me see you—well, anyway—here’s my government office, on this card. You can always write there, and after a while, I could respond; if you want to.”

I was near enough to him to grasp the card quite firmly but meant to be equally firm with him about some other things. “Yes, of course you can call me Penny, though I’ve never had a nickname before. And of course I’ll write to you, though I’d naturally like to see you again. But—” and here I brought up the main thing on my mind—“you aren’t under arrest, are you? I mean, someone, I can tell, shot at you first!”

And he laughed. “No, not arrested. Remember what I told you, Penny. My good luck penny. Two go away together; one is always drawn off alone.”

And when I visited his grave, two years later, it said on the stone, to my great surprise:

For Penny: I should have stayed with you.

Greater Boston, MA area, born WV. Ph.D., English/Theater. Website: In-Print: "Poems from the Northeast," 2021; OOP but free on website: "Scenes de la Vie Americaine (en Paris)," [in English], 2022. Between Aug. 2021-Aug. 2023, Victoria will have published 42 times with: Roi Faineant Literary Press, Fevers of the Mind Poetry & Art, The Hooghly Review, The Unconventional Courier, Discretionary Love, Barzakh Magazine, Alien Buddha Press, The Madrigal Press, Amphora Magazine, Olympia Publishers, Winning Writers, Cult of Clio. She has been accepted for a fiction piece in The Hooghly Review 10/23 & for 4 poems in Dreich Magazine in 11/23. Victoria writes Fiction/Poetry/Flash/CNF/Essays. She is an organizer of the poets' collective @PoetsonThursday on Twitter along with Dave Garbutt & Alex Guenther. Twitter: @vicklbennett & @PoetsonThursday. (Trying to understand) Mastodon: &


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