251 Meters by Kay Bontempo

–What’s it like being a pharmacist? I asked Emilio with mild curiosity. He lived two hundred and fifty-one meters above me, at the Top of the Hill. He had ‘made the Descent,’ as he called it in his disastrously creative English, to come and see me. We sat very close to one another by the seaside just before sunset, spritzes dripping with condensation clutched in our hands, our bodies side by side but not touching.

The fog over Mount Vesuvius obscured the panoramic view we had come for; I contemplated the refection of my face in his shiny leather shoes instead. He had made no move to kiss me this evening, and was cordial but distant, so I assumed he had reconciled with his girlfriend. He did that periodically, but it was emotionally easier not to ask and just let him drive our interactions.

–It’s shit, he said, lighting a cigarette. –Don’t go to pharmacy school.

–I won’t. I just want to know what it’s like.

He shrugged. –It’s like you’re a doctor, but you don’t go into the hospital. You just stand behind a shelf and give people pills.


–And then there’s a crisis, and suddenly you are a doctor.

He blew a small puff out the side of his mouth in an elegant smoke ring. Of course he could blow perfect rings, I thought with mild irritation. To win the grant that sent me to do research in Italy, I had had to write a frighteningly long essay bragging about my skills and accolades, not one of which had turned
out to be remotely as useful as the ability to exhale an elliptical puff of air.

–This one time, he said, growing more interested in the conversation, –last month I was at the pharmacy working. And a woman came running in screaming her head off. Crying. She said her husband was stabbed.

–Like Vincent, I said. As I hovered on the corners of Emilio’s life, Vincent occupied the edge of mine. He was Emilio’s polar opposite—he had just finished a jail term for some unspecified crime, he favored Gothic tattoos and tracksuits in showy jewel tones. He lived at the Bottom of the Hill, where he and I had met the day I moved to Naples.

I’d related to him the story of that first day—when I had seen Vincent attacked in front of me with a broken beer bottle by a man with a teardrop tattoo, though I described Vincent vaguely as ‘a friend of my roommates.’ I thought it prudent to keep the two men separate, compartmentalized. Probably neither of
them would care about the existence of the other, which made me a little sad—but wasn’t everything more enjoyable this way, pretending to myself that the revelation would send both into apoplectic fits of jealousy?

–No, not like that. I mean really stabbed. So I went outside and this man was lying on the sidewalk and his guts were outside his body. All over the ground, his–and here he listed a number of internal organs whose names in Italian I did not recognize.

–What if that happens to me?

–Why would somebody stab you? You’re just a person.

–Everybody’s just a person.

–Yes, he said patiently, but you’re a foreigner. Those things don’t happen at random.

—I’ve lived here a year. I speak the language.

—It’s true. And you took your apartment down in the fsh market, at the bottom of the hill. Shit, you’re more Neapolitan than I am, he laughed indulgently. —But anyway, nobody has any reason to stab you. You don’t break anybody’s balls.

–But what if somebody did?

–Then you’d call the hospital and they’d sew you back together. He blew another smoke ring, which drifted underneath my nose.

–I could call you.

–I just told you I’m not a doctor. I’m not anybody important.

–You wouldn’t come if I called you and said I’d been stabbed?

–You can have the lucky cigarette, he said, offering me the pack. It was the last one, which he had taught me always to position upside down upon buying the pack.

–I don’t have any wish to make, I said sulkily.

–Fine, said Emilio stiffly, and stuck the lucky cigarette between his own teeth. We didn’t speak for a few minutes.

–What did you wish for? I ventured.

–If I tell you it won’t come true.

–I can’t believe you believe that kind of shit, I muttered.

–If you got stabbed, he said suddenly, I’d come on my motorcycle and get you. Obviously.

–What did you do for the man? I leaned closer. He smelled of very expensive cologne; no liberally doused across his clothes the way Vincent’s was, but applied with restraint.

–The wife yelled at me to bring a napkin. A napkin! So I laid a napkin on top of his sliced-open stomach. Like that was going to fix him. It just dissolved into the guts. Eventually the ambulance came and he was saved. Probably.

–Probably, I echoed. I remembered holding the napkin from my Aperol spritz to Vincent’s neck, absorbing the slow trail of blood. –I don’t much like being a pharmacist, no, he said, shrugging thoughtfully and stubbing out his cigarette on the stone bench. –But it’s something to do. He got up and blew an absent-minded kiss as he walked to the funicular that would take him two hundred and fifty-one meters back up, to the Top of the Hill, to the other Naples, from which he could see his pharmacy and my fish market and the seaside vista that stretched as far as the eye could see, even with the fog.

Kay Bontempo writes a lot, and occasionally people read it. After graduating from the University of Notre Dame she won 2nd place for Best Flash Fiction in the Indiana Collegiate Press Awards 2020, and her writing has been published in Wilderness House Literary Review, 34th Parallel, Airplane Reading, Pop Matters, Re:Visions and The Juggler. From 2019-2020, she was a Fulbright Scholar in Naples, Italy, where she directed and produced a documentary film on the European migrant crisis. She spent my time there interviewing African refugees and hiding under tables in textile factories to capture their unsafe working conditions. Between shoots, she wandered the Pignasecca fish market where she lived and wrote moody poems about Mount Vesuvius.