Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Goodbye Melinda

Even in the midst of BEA, I present to you your regularly scheduled story time! Today's comes from Claude Nougat, who has worked in banking, publishing, marketing, and higher education. She has written romance novels and childrens book in Italian, and narrative nonfiction in English. She is currently finishing a novel called Memory Island that takes place in Italy. Go check out her blog, where she shares her loves (politics, art, books, and food) and dislikes (economics, statistics, and conventional wisdom).

The short story she is sharing with us today is called Goodbye Melinda, which is about an American girl who gets lost in an Italian prison. Hope you enjoy it.

Goodbye Melinda
By Claude Nougat

‘Stupid! Sei stupida!’

He screamed and slapped me hard. I’ll never forget the first time he hit me. I thought I was going to die. Then I got used to it. If only I could float away and forget it all. Be somewhere else – back home in America, in my parents’ garden by the lake, watching the sun go down, trying to catch that famous last flash of green light, something I have never been able to do. With all the hitting and the pain, I couldn’t float away into blessed oblivion. I couldn’t pretend I was somewhere else. Here I was – incredibly, unaccountably – locked up in a stinking Italian jail. My gaoler, a big dark man with a bristling black beard and a nasty grin towered over me but I hardly saw him anymore. My eyes kept tearing up and he wouldn’t let me wipe them.

‘You’re so stupid!’ Then, back to the questioning: ‘Don’t you remember him? Bongo, your sweet little friend from Gabon? He was there with you in your house when Melinda died…’

I shook my head. As far as I could remember, he wasn’t.

‘You’re lying!’ the man roared. ‘Everyone has seen you with Bongo, you work together in the same bar at night, you drink together, you do drugs together, you make love together…Do you want me to go on?’

I shook my head. Of course, I knew Bongo, the gentle “nero” as they called him here in Florence. He was a student like all of us; I was into Renaissance art, he was into modern architecture, we had met at the language course: we both needed our Italian spruced up – in fact, that’s why he and I were here. I knew him like I knew so many others – so what?

‘Have you lost your tongue?’ the man roared, ‘You drive me crazy! How can you deny the evidence? The neighbours saw the four of you come back to your house around midnight. Dancing and singing in the street, screaming your heads off – you didn’t care if you woke up the whole neighbourhood. Other people go to work in the morning, but you rich kids never do…’

I shrugged.

‘You slut! You come to Italy to have a good time, all you think of is your own sweet pleasure, but, let me tell you, it’s over. Over, do you hear me? Over!’ he screamed. ‘Melinda is dead, and if it isn’t Bongo’s fault, then it’s yours! Is that what you want? We’ll slap the murder charge on you!’

He stopped, out of breath and then added in a raucous voice: ‘you know what? I am beginning to think that poor Bongo had nothing to do with it! Melinda was your roommate, she was your friend. You knew her. Murders always happen among people who know each other well. You were the one with every reason to kill her!’

I shuddered, and opened my mouth to tell him it was nonsense. But nothing came out. It was too difficult to explain. Melinda was my roommate, sure, but we weren’t friends. She was sweet but fat and homely. I am thin and I like smart clothes. She was too English, too narrow-minded, too stuck to be my friend. We really had nothing in common and nothing to say to each other. But I didn’t actively dislike her. She was a convenient roommate. She paid her part of the rent, she kept the kitchen clean, she was discrete. We went out together not because we were friends. It was because of the men. I met a lot of people at the bar and so did Bongo. He was helpful. He was willing to come along when I wasn’t sure I wanted to date a particular guy. He’d pair up with Melinda. It was convenient. I think he liked her English peach and cream look.

That evening we had made a foursome with Giacomo, an Italian I had just met. Good looking, lots of dark, curly hair, a ring in his ear that made him look like a pirate of the Caribbean. But there was something ominous about him - like a hidden secret and I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the night with him. When we got home, he produced grass, we smoked the four of us in the kitchen of our old rented house. With thick walls and tight-shutting windows, we needn’t fear any intrusion, and that was nice and relaxing. Then something happened next door, in Melinda’s room.

‘Don’t pretend you don’t remember, because I know you do!" yelled the man. "Let’s go over this one more time. And this is the last time: my patience is at an end! At the end of the evening, Melinda went to her room, didn’t she?’

He shook me repeating in a scream: ‘didn’t she?’

I nodded. She did.

‘Who went in with her?’

I shook my head. Giacomo was with me and so was Bongo. At least I think so but I was tired of telling him. I had said it all before.

‘It was Bongo, the “nero” kid who followed her in? Wasn’t it? Come on, you know he did. What’s stopping you?’

I don’t know what’s stopping me. I just can’t remember. May be Bongo went in, and Giacomo and I stayed behind in the kitchen, smoking away. I just don’t remember. But why would Bongo ever murder Melinda? He liked her so much. Who could have done it? I wish I knew. It’s frightening not to know. Was it Giacomo? But he had only just met Melinda, he hardly knew her, or did he? There was this darkness about him, that look of repressed violence – perhaps he cultivated it to impress females. In a way, he had succeeded with me: I thought him interesting, but he scared me. I didn’t trust him. I don’t know why.

My gaoler stared at me in silence, disgust showing in his face. ‘You know, sometimes I think you kids get so bored in life that you’re ready to try anything to get a high," he said. "And when drugs won’t do it, a good murder will, with blood everywhere. Do you have any idea at all how repulsive all this is?’

I thought he was going to hit me again but he didn’t. He stomped out, banging the door shut. I was one again alone in my cell. I watched the sun go down through the bars until it was totally dark, and I thought of the sun back home. There was no flash of green light. There never is.

The next day was a repeat. And the next one, and the next after. How many days? I lost count. I never had any answers. The more they asked, the more I was confused. And afraid. Who knows who had done it? Bongo, the one with the fat, jolly smile? Giacomo, with his dark, brooding eyes? Could it have been me? That was scary. If I was capable of killing Melinda and couldn’t remember a thing, what kind of a person was I?

One day, after a long, long time the door opened and someone who wasn’t my gaoler stepped in. A big man.

My father!

I ran up to him and sobbed, crying my heart out. He took me in his strong arms and looked at me intensely with his soft blue eyes: I felt like his little girl again. My life had come apart. Surely he had the answer, didn’t he? It couldn’t have been me. No it couldn’t, he said, I shouldn’t worry. He was very firm on that point, he knew who it was. Bongo of course, who else? Not the Italian, but the boy from Gabon. The African. That was obvious, couldn’t I see it? I shook my head. And then my father lost his patience, just like the gaoler.

‘You’re stupid!’ he yelled, ‘Why can’t you remember who went into that room with Melinda?’

Bongo, of course, who else?

Maybe so. I agreed because he was my father. And I was immediately rewarded. Peace descended on me. I knew I was safe.

Together at last, my father and I sat in my cell and watched the sun go down in silence. Between the bars. This time I caught a ray of green light, just before it sank below the Tuscan hills.

Much later – fifteen years later – I sought out Bongo in Florence when he came out of jail after serving his sentence. He had grown fat but I recognized his warm dimpled smile immediately. We had espresso at the bar near the Duomo where we used to work. Suddenly, he leaned forward across the table and, speaking softly, he thanked me profusely for the million dollars my father had given him. He was now a rich man – a happy man. There was only one thing he regretted: Melinda.


  1. I really like the writing style; it's totally original. I loved, "Peace descended on me. I knew I was safe." And, of course, I love all things Italian! Great story!

  2. To Cynthia Watson: I really like that you liked it! It's wonderful to have a reaction from an enthusiastic reader: the job of writing is so lonely...

  3. Hooked me right in. The tension and conflict left me breathless. Her confusion about what had actually happened was very palpable. Great twist, I had been sure Bongo was innocent. Her father, obviously a powerful man, frightened me – you made him very intimidating even from those few sentences.
    Great job!