Story: An October encounter

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO

The steering wheel shuddered in my hands. Next I heard a thumping and felt the unmistakable wobble that signals a flat tire. I pulled onto the shoulder and put on the caution lights.

It was 5:30 a.m. at the top of the hill near Stearns Point Road. I was heading toward the Center, on my way to the office to get a jump on deadline day. But now the day had suddenly jumped me.

Out of the car I saw the left rear tire crumpled. I’d never changed a flat on this car and had no clue how to jack it up and put on the donut. This was not going to be fun.

Shadows shimmered through a clump of trees with the moon, bright as a beacon, flooding part of the golf course falling away down the hill.

The murmur of the wind was shattered by two screeches coming from Goat Hill above. Owls? Who knows? Not me, as I popped the trunk and began unscrewing the jack from its nesting place. Why hadn’t I ever learned how to do this?

The owner’s manual wouldn’t help. Every time I consulted it, I had the sense someone with an insecure knowledge of English had translated it from the original Korean.

But then Luca saved me. And left me with questions I still can’t begin to answer.

I didn’t hear him approach, just a soft “good morning” directly behind me.

The owl hadn’t made me jump, but Luca’s sudden presence certainly did.

“Oh, sir!” he said. “Sorry, sir, I didn’t want to frighten.”

I laughed from nerves and he gave me a quick smile, introducing himself — “Luca Spettro.” A young man gripping an old suitcase, 30 or so, long hair curling from his watch cap, eyes as bright as they were warm.

He suddenly looked away, staring at the flat, saying softly, as if a pet had gone lame, “Oh, a pity, yes, oh, a flat one,” and set down the suitcase next to the car and squatted near the tire.

He was dressed in a gray woolen jacket and rough gray trousers. When he ran pale hands along the tire tread, I saw he was a young man who didn’t make his living behind a desk. The hands were scraped and nicked, with a couple of bulging knuckles.

“I help?” he looked up.

“Please. You know how to put the donut on?”

“Donut?” Luca asked, holding fingers to his lips. When I told him it was the spare tire, he laughed, and went to work with the confidence and pleasure some people have figuring out a mechanical challenge.

In the weak, shifting light, I couldn’t quite see Luca’s face, and when he looked up now and again he quickly glanced away. But he was friendly, answering my questions as he worked. A stone carver and mason, originally from Verona in Northern Italy where he had learned his trade, he now worked for a construction company in the city. He was on his way back to New York this morning after finishing an extended project building a stone arch on a property here.

“Finish,” Luca said, working the jack, a touch of grief in his voice. “All over.”

With the spare fitted to the wheel, I told him I’d give him a lift to the ferry. He took a step back, and thanked me, but said he had slept badly, was a bit stiff, and looked forward to the walk. I insisted. He politely refused.

When I reached into my pocket, Luca put a hand on my arm. “No,” he said.

“Come on —”

“No, you’ll help someone sometime.”

He picked up his old bag and started down the hill. Passing him I honked the horn. He didn’t look up. Eyes on the street, Luca held up one arm as a farewell.

Why did he avoid my eyes? Why not accept a lift? Was he a burglar, slipping away? But would a thief stop and help someone?

I asked around that day about a New York company sending a stone carver to the Island but no one knew about it. Someone said there was a beautiful stone arch leading into a walled garden on a property up on Serpentine Drive. That afternoon I went looking for the arch. It could make a nice feature for the paper.

The Island was dressed for Halloween. Pumpkins sat on porches, huge spider webs clung from trees and plywood ghosts haunted lawns. The light in the sky had softened and travelling clouds threw deep shadows on the road in the last hour of daylight.

I hit pay dirt quickly. Taking a switchback turn there was a pebble driveway leading to a grand house looming high over the bay. To the left was a cottage and next to it an arch with carved stone turrets set in a high brick wall. I parked and walked over and touched the pale stone, fine as sandpaper. It wasn’t Luca’s arch, I thought. This was weathered; its original white faded to gray.

An elderly woman in a broad-brimmed hat was directing a landscaper tending to a row of bushes within the walled garden. When she saw me she came forward and we introduced ourselves. I took her hand. It was so light it felt like holding a piece of cloth.

“I was admiring the archway,” I said.

“You saw him,” she said. A statement, not a question. She looked away, out at whitecaps below in the bay catching the light. “We should go inside.”

I sat on a sofa and she in a wing chair near a window in a room that wouldn’t be out of place in Victorian times, and Julia  told me a story.

She was the oldest of four, growing up in this house. Her mother died when Julia was 19. “In those days — well, as the oldest girl it was expected I’d take charge of the children and the house,” she said.

Her father, who had a business in the city, left all responsibilities to her. “He depended on me for everything and loved me very much,” she said, and when he decided to build the walled garden — something his wife had always wanted — she was left to organize it. “That was how Luca came here,” she said.

It had been a long day. I felt that fuzziness of thought that fatigue brings. And understood the expression of “someone walking over my grave.”

Luca had arrived with a crew of two workmen and they were quartered in the cottage near the garden.

He became part of the family; the three little ones adored him.

She raised her folded hands from her lap and opened them, a gesture of resignation: “We fell in love.”

Luca dismissed the workers after awhile to complete the arch on his own and when her father would stay in the city — sometimes as long as a week— the two lovers would have time for each other in the cottage.

“That’s where my father found us one night when he came home a day early,” Julia said.

It was a horrific scene. “My father said he would get his pistol from the house and no court in Suffolk County would convict him of shooting Luca dead,” Julia said. “He was to leave immediately. I saw him on the road out there as he was leaving,” she paused. “He promised to write, to come back. But he never did. We were so in love.”

She got up slowly and went to a carved oak desk and took something from a drawer and handed it to me. It was a newspaper clipping, yellowed, encased in plastic.

—SOUTHOLD, October 29, 1955
A good Samaritan was killed early Friday morning on Route 25 when a delivery truck struck and killed him at the side of the road.

Luca Spettro, a native of Italy employed in New York City, was looking for a lift when he began helping Mr. Ken Stukeski of East Marion, who had a flat tire. The truck, driven by Jonas Warshah, struck Mr. Spettro, killing him instantly. “I never saw him in the darkness,” Mr. Warshah said.

Police are investigating the incident further.

“You’re not the first to have seen him,” Julia said. “But I never do. It’s as if he can’t come all the way back here, or gets here and turns away. The people he helps — and he always helps them in some way — they, like you, have found their way here.”

She never married, never moved away. Her younger siblings come summers and holidays with their children. In fact a crowd was due this weekend for Halloween.

“Oh, this time of year,” Julia said, in a melancholy tone suited to the dimming afternoon.

People ask if I believe in ghosts. I say no, a similar response to the way I distrust memories — even my own — from long ago, and don’t believe every story I hear. But not believing in the reality of memories or stories has nothing to do with the reason they stay with us.

As I walked out of the house I knew two things for sure. Luca’s arch was there in the shadows. And the donut was securely fastened to the left rear wheel as I drove away.

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