The Venice of the West
 About the Author/Artist
 Alternative History Timeline  
 Double Fiction Issue

Part I: Alta California
 I Meet Mark Twain
 I Meet John Sargent
 A Humorist, Not a Politician
The Venice of the West
 The Fair Marina
 A Candide Character
 A Swan Among Geese

 So Much?
 Gibralter the Egg Mule
 An American Vandal Abroad
 Daisy and Oscar
 A Chance Encounter
 Goya’s Studio
 Holy Relics

Part II: Sakrametska in Rossland
 Boundary Values
 The Unholy Family
 Boom Town
 New Dog, Old Tricks
 Commission of a Lifetime
 Minor Moon of a Minor Planet

  NOVEL EXCERPTS by Patrick Fanning


The Venice of the West

I found Mr. Twain on deck the next morning, smoking and playing shuffleboard by himself. He pointed at the empty court opposite him.

“Keep an eye on my opponent,” he said. “I think he’s cheating. I can’t abide a cheat at horse billiards.”

I presented him with my sketch of him playing cards the night before.

“By Jove, what a remarkable likeness,” he said. “I look just like my Uncle Sowberry Finn that was hung for card sharking.” He held the paper at arm’s length and squinted at it through a haze of cigar smoke. “You haven’t finished these other two gents,” he said.

“That is intentional,” I explained, “you are the center of interest, and so are rendered in more detail. For the other figures and the setting, I draw just the impression of the thing, not every detail of the thing itself.”

“Well, I reckon I can’t complain about being the center of interest, but in my experience, I’d rather smoke a real cigar than an impression of one.”

We conversed genially at the rail as the boat entered the Bahia de San Francisco, a vast expanse of choppy gray water with scarcely a reflection or horizon line. In between lengthy stories about his steamboat days, Mr. Twain told me about the lecture and writing tour he was beginning. He invited me to his first lecture in Petalumo, a small town to the north, where he would address the local intelligentsia on his travels and adventures.

I said, “I’m surprised that you do not start your tour in San Francisco. It is the capital, after all.”

“Oh no, it is never done that way. My lecture agent has booked me into the smaller country towns first. I’ll work my way up the coast, polishing my Spanish and spying out the local gossip. Then I’ll swing inland to the east, and circle back to San Francisco in about four weeks. I need to sharpen my wits on the rural strop before trying to skin the city folks.”

“I don’t see how your wits could get much sharper.”

“Aw, shucks.” He shook his head, a pretty blush revealing freckles across his generous nose. “Sharpening the wits is a matter of timing, mostly. Every region has a preferred pace, a rate at which they can best follow a story or a joke.”

“Like a horse?” I asked, forcing myself to stop staring at his complexion. He was one of the most compelling men I had ever met.

“Yes, an audience is much like a horse. You dasn’t lecture at a gallop to a critter that was born to canter.”

Angel IslandThen it was time to get our luggage on deck to clear customs on Isla de los Angeles, a small island in the bay. The Customs official was curious as usual that I carry an American passport but have never been to the United States of America. I had to explain that I was born in England to American parents, reared in Switzerland, and educated in France and Spain. My parents did not return to America during my childhood, since the country was wracked by civil war and unrest. They say it is mostly peaceful now, but still economically depressed—not the sort of place an aspiring portrait artist longs to visit.

The customs man was very swarthy, burnt umber with a touch of scarlet and chromium yellow, perhaps a mixed blood with Spanish and Indio combined. His high cheekbones were almost Moroccan. On the crowded docks I saw complexions from peaches and cream to pure Negro.

When we were released from customs, I stuck close to Mr. Twain, following him to the booking office. There he was met by a short Spaniard in a custard yellow suit and a mismatched green overcoat with a seal collar. The man introduced himself to Twain as Hilario Amado, the local lecture agent.

“And this is Marina Milanova,” the agent said, “who will be your guide and translator.” He pushed forward a slim girl not much older than I. She was taller and more slender than most Mexican women, with sharp features, pale complexion, and very dark, arched eyebrows.

“Mucho gusto,” she said to Twain, and gave him a lingering handshake.

From that moment, I ceased to exist for Mark Twain. He transferred the sunshine of his regard immediately to Miss Miranova, and I was cast into her shade.

steamboat on riverI trailed behind the happy couple, and I bought passage on the same small stern wheel launch that would take us up the Rio Petalumo. The trip took nearly two hours, and Twain and his translator chatted as bright as two sparrows at the rail the whole time, addressing perhaps three words to me. I leaned on the rail and took in the landscape as the narrow, winding river revealed scene after scene.

Trumpeter swans and egrets dotted the reedy wetlands like little flecks of titanium white flake. The river twisted and turned like a lazy snake, pewter, silver and white under leaden skies backlit with a barely golden light—just one short shade beyond silver gray. Mr. Twain brought out a very small camera and photographed nearly every boat we passed, entirely ignoring the natural scenery.

The sun came out in true gold as we glided into the grand canal of Petalumo, which Mr. Twain immediately dubbed the “Venice of the West,” with good reason. I began to ache for my paints. Like the real Venice, this is a paradise for the watercolorist: Where most cities have streets of dead dark cobbles, Petalumo and Venice have streets of water. Alternating wide and narrow canals reflect and multiply the light. Arching bridges cast velvety shadows enlivened with gleams of dark, pure cobalt blue and cadmium orange.

Petalumo differs from the original in several ways. Where Venice is all marble and plaster, Petalumo is timber frames of curly-cued redwood and oak, or thick adobe atop native sandstone foundations. The Steam Age is more prominent here, with railroad bridges across the canals, steam dredges dragging channels for steam launches to thread, and the gondoliers cursing them both. Both cities share tile roofs, but in Venice church spires dominate, whereas Petalumo boasts overtopping grain elevators, shot towers, and a Moorish minaret.


  © Patrick Fanning, 2012


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