Chapter 2: “Wager”
His pointy, lobster-red nose hovers above the elegant Riedel wineglass, the cavernous nostrils twitching and greedily sniffing the sensuous bouquet of a $10,000 Barolo. As his gnarled but dainty left hand rotates the glass with erotic swirls, he grins lustily, the ghoulish smile exposing his forked tongue and all twenty-eight of his ghastly yellowed teeth.
At long last, Satan takes a sip.
“Damnation, this is fine!” he chortles with his best Jack Nicholson impression, winking to the august white-bearded gentleman seated across the table from him.
Clad in His finest formal white linen robe with purple and gold piping, God winks back solicitously and sips His San Pellegrino.
The two antagonists are dining tonight—a blistering Thursday evening in October, 2043—at a cute little Italian place in Purgatory, an agreed-upon neutral site. The sign above the door outside the trattoria, badly scorched by millennia of flames and smoke, says Speranza e Pomodoro. Est. 3333 b.c.
An unthinkably buxom blonde sashays up to the table. “May I take your orders, gentlemen?” she coos.
Satan’s beady red eyes wander from his wineglass to the waitress’s bounteous décolletage, a globule of drool forming in the left corner of his mouth.
“Hell, yes!” Old Horny answers. “I’ll have my usual, a plate of raw Bhut Jolokia peppers to start out with, and then the Devil in carne—”
“That’s the raw liver, fava beans, and…a little Chianti on the side,” the waitress recites from memory. “E per Lei, signore?” she continues, casting her eyes upon God.
“Uh, I think I shall go with the pasta e fagioli this time, then a nice little insalata mista.”
“Still the ever-righteous eater, eh?” Satan asks God rhetorically.
“Yep, wouldn’t want any of My creatures slain on My account.”
“So, how ’bout them Cowboys?” Satan asks, flicking a piece of errant ash off his bright scarlet Salvatore Mondobasso turtleneck shirt.
“Well now,” God answers, “since they moved from Dallas to Sioux Falls in 2034, they have certainly come upon hard times.”
“How the mighty have fallen,” Satan sighs.
“Spoken like a true expert!” God retorts, with a sly wink.
“You always have to get that dig in, don’t you?” Satan says, his left eye twitching like the devil.
The bodacious server reappears with the soup for God and the peppers for Lucifer, who stuffs one of the scorching red-orange beauts—clocking in at over a million Scoville Heat Units—into his gaping maw. His already vermilion face deepens from lobster to beet.
“Which brings us to our favorite topic of conversation,” Satan says, rubbing his fire engine-red hands together.
“Ah, yes,” God agrees. “Good or evil: Which will ultimately prevail on Earth?”
“So,” Beelzebub says, “as I was mentioning last time we chatted, leave it to humans to allow the basest in them to bubble up and infect the world. It never fails, even with the best of people. Which is why good will never, and evil will always, prevail—”
“With all due respect,” God interrupts, “as you well know, man is born good into this world. Have you not read the writings of one of My celestial children, Jean-Jacques Rousseau?”
“Mais si, bien sûr,” Satan protests. “But have you not read the writings of one of my tenants of the nether regions, Thomas Hobbes?”
“Listen, going on like this is pointless,” God says. “Is it not clear to you, after all these millennia, that man, whom I Myself have created with My own hands, is a noble creature, full of love and compassion and hope and humility and—”
“Well then, smarty-pants,” the Devil ripostes, “if man is so good, then why in hell is there such evil and hatred and vice and mean-spiritedness that constantly run rampant throughout planet Earth? Huh?”
Scratching His head and sipping His mineral water, God parries, “I admit that there are always some rotten apples in the bunch down, er, up there on Earth, but by and large, man is good. Take, for instance, My blessed child, Jesus of Nazareth—”
“Then how about Attila the Hun?” Satan retorts.
“Joan of Arc!”
“Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu!”
“What the hell?—”
“Gotcha! That was Mother Teresa!”
“Hardy-har-har,” Satan bellows. “So then, Mr. Perfect, how ’bout we settle this thing once and for all?” he continues, draining an entire glass of Barolo in one gulp to douse the conflagration started by the last of his Bhut Jolokias. The curvy waitress reappears, clears the table, brings the secondi piatti.
So. Is this what I, the Lord Almighty, really want to do? Settle this thing once and for all? Is it worth flushing everything I have done for man—all I have created, all I have sustained—right down the commode? And what if—what if it turns out that the Monarch of Hell is right after all, that man is inherently…
After an excruciating three minutes, God responds. “Okeydokey, Mr. Big Shot, you got yourself a deal. So what exactly did you have in mind?”
“Well,” Satan answers, “how ’bout if we have this humongous showdown between the two opposing forces, say, in a winner-take-all athletic competition?”
God furls His bushy right eyebrow and places His chin between right thumb and forefinger, the two pudgy digits burying themselves deep into His milk-white Monty Woolley beard. “Yes, I think that could work—”
“So, let’s say you handpick your player and I’ll handpick mine, and we shall see which one prevails,” the Devil says with a wicked grin.
“Sounds good to Me,” God says. “Let us make Our picks and let nature—man’s nature—take its course—”
“Yes,” Satan cuts in, “and whichever force wins, that will be it, once and for all. And—”
“I get the picture,” God says, “so it’s a bet, and good luck, and may the best man win—”
“Or the worst,” Satan corrects, inhaling a giant gob of smoke from his post-appetizer eleven-inch Cohiba Esplendidos Cuban cigar and expelling it toward his adversary’s face in the form of three perfect rings shaped like inverted pentagrams.
“You are so competitive!” God says, destroying the smoke rings with one violent swipe of His mighty right hand.
“Damn right!” Satan snortles through a yellow smile.
“But We haven’t decided on a mano a mano sport, a perfect battleground on which this ultimate struggle shall be contested,” God says.
“Right you are. How ’bout chess?” the Devil suggests.
“Naaah, way too boring. And besides, it was already used by Bergman in—”
“Oh yeah, The Seventh Seal,” Satan agrees. “Well, how ’bout pool—”
“Righto. Newman and Gleason. Ummm…bowling?”
“Nope,” God says. “First of all, Barack ruined it for everyone during that 2008 campaign stop fiasco in Altoona. And We also need to choose a sport that tests all of man’s physical and mental abilities, and, most critical of all, that requires him to draw on everything that is inside of him—”
“Golf!” Satan exclaims.
“Getting warmer,” God says, “but we need something more active, a sport with lots of movement and running and that requires that our combatants break a sweat.”
“Boxing!” Beelzebub yelps. “The sweet science!”
“Wrong again, My hornèd one,” God says, “way too violent.”
A petulant Satan sulks, takes another long puff from his Havana stogie, lets a thin billow trickle off his forked tongue.
“Let Us see,” God continues. “It must be a sport that tests man to the max, a sport that pits him against an equally worthy opponent in a pitched battle of which Papa Hemingway would be proud, a sport that requires every human skill imaginable—stamina, speed, quickness, creativity, resourcefulness, resilience, anticipation, technique, power, finesse, mental agility, physical strength, patience, flexibility, cunning, intelligence…”
The two antagonists look at each other and come to precisely the same conclusion at precisely the same instant.
As they swallow their last bites of dinner and shake hands in a symbolic gesture that seals the deal, the bombshell slinks up to the table with the check.
“Let Me take that,” God offers.
“Not a chance in hell,” Satan hisses with his best Vincent Price impression, whipping out his Purgatory Club credit card. “This one’s on me.”
The Devil smiles lustfully one last time at the busty server, signs the check with his little goat-head scribble, and he and God exit the establishment together.
“You realize,” God says, looking upward, “that if—that is, after—I win Our little bet, whenever We dine together there will be no Purgatory or Hell, so We shall be supping at one of My favorite places in the Heavenly Realm, perhaps Thy Gill Be Done or Blessèd Are the Leek.”
“I fear that you’re mistaken,” Satan contradicts. “For it is I who am going to win, and thereafter there will be no Purgatory or Heaven, so we’ll be dining at one of my favorite haunts in the Dark Kingdom, maybe The Cloven Hoof or Pants on Fire.”
After bidding each other adieu and audiable, Satan takes the down elevator and God the up.
Chapter 3: “Sprezzatura”
One gaze at its inspiring panorama is all it takes to tell you why Florence was the city at the epicenter of the Italian Renaissance.
It is not that, visually, it is imposing like New York. Or drop-dead gorgeous like San Francisco or Rio. Or breathtaking like Paris or classical like Rome or stately like London.
Florence, in a word, is balanced.
From above, this Tuscan jewel is neither a large city nor a provincial town.
Man-made baptistery and bell tower, campanile and cupola, spire and steeple—sprouting up like rogue mushrooms—meld with the natural splendor of rolling hill and grapevine and cypress tree and olive branch.
As the eye descends, the burnt orange of terra-cotta rooftops, a warm baked-earth orange, immerses Firenze in temperance and harmony, this neutral, balanced color that lies on the cusp, not too hot and not too cool, this color of transition and mediation that embodies an architectural style known as Mediterranean, a word fittingly derived from the Latin for “middle of the earth.”
At ground level, quaint and narrow streets counterbalance broad and yawning piazze. And a vibrant citizenry coexists with the venerable ghosts of its illustrious Florentine forebears, the likes of Dante, Boccaccio, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Leonardo, Galileo, Raphael, and that whole Medici crowd.
Most of the locals, tourists, and phantoms can be found on the more bustling and ostentatious right bank of the Arno. But across the river is the Altr’arno, the left bank, quainter, more laid-back and tranquil. Cross the venerable Ponte Vecchio, continue on the Via Guicciardini, then hang a quick right, left, and right, and you will find yourself on the charming little Via dei Vellutini—tucked cozily between Brunelleschi’s strangely faceless Santo Spirito church and the imposing Palazzo Pitti—and looking up at the modest second-story flat of the widow Gioconda Bellezza and her thirteen-year-old son, Ugo.
Sitting by his bedroom window on this cool October day in 2043, Ugo Bellezza is mesmerized by the sight of a gorgeous little reptile—some sort of lizard or gecko perhaps?—crawling along the railing of the building’s exterior. He watches it for several minutes, lips puckered in awe. Suddenly, from nowhere, a violent flapping of black wings, a large yellow beak emerges, the unwitting reptile is plucked from its perch, and the famished bird—its motions too frenzied to identify it with any certainty—ascends in triumph with its unlucky prey.
It is Ugo’s first memorable encounter with mortality (his father died when he was barely a year old), and the fatal event edits the hyphen his mouth had been forming into a capital O.
His tummy is feeling icky, mimicking the pain the poor lizard must have felt. But the discomfort vanishes, as if magically, when Ugo comprehends the phenomenon he has just witnessed. He recalls Giglio quoting to him—maybe it was just last month?—a passage from Leonardo da Vinci’s Notebooks. All about the perfect balance that exists in
nature and how everything happens for a reason. “Necessity is the mistress and guide of nature,” Giglio had recited from memory as he looked straight into Ugo’s eyes. Perhaps then this thought had appeared abstract and not entirely clear to Ugo. But now, he totally gets it. Animals are not mean-spirited or malicious or despicable when they kill. They just need to eat.
Virgilio Marotti, Ugo’s beloved “Giglio”—father figure, mentor, best pal, and tennis coach—enters the room and taps Ugo gently on the shoulder. The adolescent turns around and gives his coach a warm smile.
“Andiamo, ragazzo, it is time to play!” Giglio says, enunciating each syllable meaningfully. Ugo’s smile, widening, says yay yippee hurray evviva!
Ugo throws his tennis bag over his shoulder, and the two jog into the kitchen like excited schoolmarms to say good-bye to Ugo’s mother, who, at the sound of their sneakersteps, whirls around.
Gioconda Bellezza is standing by the sink, her hands dusted with flour and partially caked with clumps of bread dough. Hers are rough hands, toughened by decades of soaking, squashing, squishing, smushing, and sifting to which she, as a Tuscan donna, has committed herself. They are also tender hands, softened by over a decade of love and nurturing to which she, as a Tuscan mamma, has devoted herself.
These hands, dough clumps and all, wrap themselves around her Ugo and squeeze him tight. Gioconda smiles at her son, with her Mona Lisa smile that is just as knowing as but a smidge less mysterious than the one in the painting. She releases Ugo and throws a second smile Giglio’s way.
“A presto, ragazzi, see you boys for dinner,” she says, returning to her bread.
Chapter 4: “Survival”
An aerial glimpse of Manhattan reveals not so much a metropolis as a teeming geometric ant farm.
But whereas the inhabitants of a real ant farm perform movements that correspond perfectly to one another and are for the communal good, the figurative formic residents of Gotham scurry, helter-skelter, at cross-purposes and in desultory directions.
This little antie goes to market, this little antie walks home, this little antie shops for roast beef, this little antie’s on the phone, this little antie is so sick and tired of the rat race in the office and living alone that he doesn’t pay attention to the traffic and almost gets creamed by a cabbie, but he barely escapes and to be honest? he is feeling right now like running back to his tiny apartment and taking that Smith & Wesson .38 out of the top night table drawer and once and for all putting himself out of his frigging misery.
At eye level, the scurrying insects now assume human faces, and not too many are smiling. The air is brisk, freezing actually, on this twenty-third day of October, 2043, and most of the 566,943 pedestrians in the megalopolis are in a separate world and oblivious to coinhabitants, but they all share one thing in common, one urge, one desire, one goal.
The stakes are high in this restless ant farm, and it is no place for the meek or the mild.
It is 5 p.m. on this Friday eve, and the milling masses have just bolted from the office to begin their weekends as early as possible. The most frantic activity is occurring in the epicenter, the Times Square area, where the bustling multitudes are rushing to subways, fighting for cabs, bumping into one another as they jockey for position in the frenzied race to just get out of there. Each denizen, breath cruelly visible and rising in great gray billows in the frigid autumn air, is a miniature steam engine employing survival rather than coal as a means of locomotion.
Above and looking down at them all with an unrequited stare is a huge Nike billboard that reads Win or Go Home. The irony is lost on the oblivious throngs: Is their choice to return now to their abodes the equivalent of waving a white flag? And are the ambitious ones still holed up in their workplaces and burning the five o’clock oil the ones who have opted for victory?
On the corner of Forty-first and Seventh, a chestnut vendor, his face wizened by decades of wind and heartache, warms his gloveless hands above the sizzling merchandise. Aside from the single bag he sold about an hour ago, he has spent his entire afternoon—and much of his adult life—watching countless numbers of his fellow humans pass him by, looks of pity or disdain frozen on their faces.
Far from and high above the madding crowd, in the luxurious penthouse at 200 East 57th Street, the Spade family is about to sit down to an early dinner.
“Sonuvabitch!” Ira Spade bellows, holding a copy of the New York Chronicle in front of his face.
“Did you see this, Avis?” Ira yelps at his wife, who is in the kitchen putting up the water for the lobsters. “Says here that President Obama is planning to pull our troops out of Mongolia! What the hell is that, huh? Goddamn Democrats have been wanting to cut and run from there ever since we tried to establish freedom and justice for all eight years ago.”
Avis, preparing a tossed salad, yes, dears her husband of nearly twenty years.
“Cut and run!” Ira goes on. “That’s just like Malia Ann! And just like daddy Barack did over thirty years ago, when he waved the goddam white flag and pulled us out of Afghanistan! Too bad W. didn’t have any sons, or one of them’d be prez right now, and for damn sure we wouldn’t have this goddam aggravation!”
In his room, at the far end of the sprawling compound, Jack Spade lies, supine, on his bed. He is reading Brad Gilbert’s tennis classic Winning Ugly, the chapter titled “Destroying Your Opponent’s Game Plan.” Snapping his fingers rhythmically, he is listening to 97-year-old Mick Jagger’s new SCD, I Ain’t Old I’m Your Brother, courtesy of the iSuperMiniPod chip that has been surgically implanted in his left ear.
Jack’s room is the tornado typical of a normal thirteen-year-old. So much detritus covers the floor—tennis stuff, video games, half-emptied bottles of Gatorade, a red-and-white electric guitar (a Fender Vintage Hot Rod 57 Stratocaster)—that the gorgeous tan Berber carpet buried beneath is only visible here and there, sporadic bald spots on the bushy mane of gear, paraphernalia, and accessories.
On the back of the door is a collage of head shots cut out and fashioned together by Ira Spade himself, photos of many of the father’s real-life heroes, and consequently heroes of the son, too: Woody Hayes, Bobby Knight, Vince Lombardi, Pete Rose, Jimmy Connors, George Steinbrenner, and George W. Bush…