THE SHARK FISH GOES TO WAR
“No, it’s the way I say it is. The first time you fuck, the string tears off.”
Nino Pullara was adamant. He was the oldest, the tallest, the strongest boy in our gang. He was bound to be right.
“That’s how it is, my cousin Girolamo told me, he’s already fucked twelve times, he’s fifteen, and the first time the string on your cock always breaks.”
“Does it hurt?” asked Lele Tranchina; he knew that asking if something hurts was a sign of weakness, but he didn’t give a damn.
“Yeah, it hurts, it bleeds, but Girolamo says that if you fuck the way you oughta, it feels so good that the pain don’t matter.”
Rebellious teenagers with jackknives have carved slogans into the benches in the piazza.
THE POLICE SUCK
GOVERNMENT = MAFIA
LESS COPS, MORE HEROIN
Nino Pullara pulled out a pack of cigarettes, lit one, passed it around.
“Gerruso, you dickhead, when you inhale, you have to hold all the smoke in, otherwise you don’t feel a thing, and there’s no point to smoking.”
“But it makes me want to cough.”
“Because you’re a total pussy.”
As long as we let him stay in the gang, Gerruso would put up with anything: we could kick him, spit on him, scratch him. He was so resigned to the idea of being beaten to a pulp that he didn’t even resist anymore. The fun of beating him up was starting to fade.
“When I grow up,” Pullara continued, “there’s two things I wanna do. The first is fuck Fabrizia.”
“The one at the bakery?” asked Danilo Dominici, wide-eyed.
Fabrizia, seventeen and spectacular, a pair of firm tits. After she took a job there, the whole neighborhood started buying bread at that bakery.
“I’ve never seen so many men willing to do the shopping,” my grandmother Provvidenza had quipped.
“I’m definitely going to fuck Fabrizia, but only after my string’s torn off.”
Pullara was boasting with the confidence of someone who’d already turned twelve.
“What’s the second thing you wanna do?” asked Guido Castiglia.
Guido Castiglia never missed a trick. Guido Castiglia wasn’t someone you wanted to cross. One time he asked Paolo Vizzini for a stick of chewing gum, and Vizzini said uh-uh, he wasn’t giving him any of his gum. Castiglia didn’t say a word, didn’t blink an eye, just walked away. Two months later, Vizzini fell out of a carob tree and landed on his left leg. His flesh was all ripped up, and you could see clear through to the white of the bone.
“Help me! Help me!” he was shouting.
Guido Castiglia appeared on the dirt lane.
“You want me to go get help?”
Vizzini begged him.
“Hah, that’ll teach you: next time give me the stick of gum.”
And he left him there, his leg fractured, crying like a little girl.
“What I want is to have the same job as my dad: at a gas station.”
Pullara’s statement resounded like a decree. His voice rang with a tone that underscored the inexorable future awaiting him. No job could compare with working at a gas station: there you sat in the shade, immersed in the magical scent of gasoline; a dog tied to a chain to keep you company, and, if you got bored, you could always beat the dog with a stick; in the back pocket of your pants, a fat, impressive wad of cash.
“I want the same job as my dad, too,” Danilo Dominici announced. “It’s great, you’re always outdoors.”
His father paved streets.
“Me, too; I want the same job as my father. He’s a traffic cop.”
We all glared at Gerruso with hatred: being a traffic cop was pathetic, they didn’t even have sidearms.
“Gerruso, look over there.”
The minute he turned around, Pullara landed an open-handed slap on the back of his neck. Then he turned to look at me.
“What about you, Davidù? What kind of job you want?”
I spoke the first true words that came into my head, without stopping to think.
“Me? Oh, I don’t know, I’m not like you guys, you all want the same jobs as your dads. Me, I can do whatever I want, I’m luckier than all of you: I’m pretty much an orphan.”
* * *
In front of my house I saw my grandmother, seated on a bench in the shade of the jacaranda tree. She was smoking a cigarette, leaning comfortably against the rusty green backrest.
“Light of my life, come sit next to me, Grandpa’s upstairs, he’s cooking lunch for you.”
“Mamma’s not home from the hospital yet?”
“No. It looks like a bomb went off on top of your head.”
She started laughing, between a hacking cough and a mouthful of smoke.
Grandma smelled of tobacco and chalk.
She was an elementary school teacher.
She taught me to read and write.
I was four years old.
She had pestered me.
“Davidù, shall we learn how to read and write?”
Every goddamned day.
She was relentless, and I finally gave in. In part because she promised that once I learned, she’d teach me how to burp on command.
She was as good as her word.
“What did you do today?”
“At school, nothing, the teacher let us draw because she’s working on our report cards, then in the piazza me and my friends talked about when we would be grown up.”
“When we will be grown up.”
“Okay, but you knew what I meant.”
“Davidù, it’s not enough for someone to understand the things you say. Words need to be treated with care. What did Grandma teach you? What are words?”
“The expression of our thoughts.”
“Why do we use the future tense?”
“To give a direction to our plans and hopes and all that kind of stuff.”
“Bravo, light of my life, if you were a little older I’d offer you a nice cigarette.”
“Why aren’t you upstairs with Grandpa?”
“I wanted to smoke in blessed peace, as if it were six forty in the evening.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s something I’ve done since I was a girl. Back then, the war was still going on and the Americans had reached Capaci. They were giving away chocolate bars and cigarettes. I met this soldier, Michael. He gave me my very first pack of cigarettes, in exchange for a dance.”
“Did you kiss him?”
“No, silly. Back then I had a job, I’d already been working in Palermo for a few months, at the city library, and I was studying for the civil service exam.”
“Because in those days, civil service exams were tough, you always tell me that, Grandma.”
“I even know Ancient Greek.”
“The story, Grandma.”
“The library is next to the church of Casa Professa. Bombs hit them both during the famous raid of May 9, 1943. In the wing of the library that was still intact, I spent the day archiving books that had been dug out of the rubble. I wrote down title, author’s name, missing pages. Bombs don’t just sweep away people, houses, and hopes. Bombs erase memories, too. When the workday was over, I leaned against the sycamore tree in front of Casa Professa and lit my favorite cigarette, the six forty evening cigarette. I’d leave the workday and my job behind, savoring that nice pungent taste and relaxing, from the first puff to the last. While I smoked, the crowds streaming into and out of the Ballarò market kept swelling. Back then, the market was especially crowded at the end of the day. So crowded you had to hold your packages high over your head to get anywhere. The houses didn’t have refrigerators back then, and they had to sell everything before it went bad, so they cut prices in the evening. The kids would stand in line to buy salt, playing rock, paper, scissors. The women gossiped about love affairs and girls who had eloped. Here and there, a man, scented with cologne, stood in line for potatoes, singing the first few notes of an aria and winking at anyone who met his gaze. I couldn’t say how many cigarettes I smoke every day, twenty, maybe twenty-five, but the one I really enjoy, my favorite one, is the cigarette of six forty in the evening, and even when it’s not six forty in the evening, say right now, I pretend it is, I stop whatever I’m doing, I walk away from everything and everyone, I savor my cigarette, and to hell with the world.”
Grandma taught her pupils bad words, too, secretly; she said it helped prepare them for life. “Life is more than verbs and arithmetic, it’s mud and dirty words, too, and knowledge is better than ignorance.”
A police car came toward us, slowed down, looked us over, drove by, and went away.
* * *
On the bed, a note from my mother, in her distinctive nurse’s handwriting.
“Your uncle wants you to go someplace with him at 4, he’ll come by to pick you up, goodbye, light of my life.”
In the kitchen, Grandpa was cooking lunch. Whenever there were strangers around, he was practically mute. Grandpa Rosario talked only to me and his old friend Randazzo. He worked as a cook.
“What are you cooking?”
“Pasta ch’i tenerumi.”
He blanched and peeled a tomato, then sliced it. Grandpa’s hands were lightning fast.
“How do you know how long to cook everything? Are there tables, like for multiplication?”
“You just have to learn to get the ingredients right.”
“And how do you learn that?”
“By getting them wrong.”
* * *
On the shelf in the dining room stood a photograph of my parents on their wedding day. My father’s right arm protectively encircled my mother’s shoulders, his hair was parted to one side, his suit was dark. He was smiling. In his blue eyes there was a fierce note of hope; he could hardly have known he’d be dead within the month. In the photograph, my father was as handsome as his nickname implied: the Paladin. Mamma wore a white dress and held a red rose. Her eyes were shut as she breathed in the scent of the flower: serene, a definitive serenity.
* * *
“So that’s that: I’m bettin’ on this fine trifecta: Pirollo, Little Frenchman, and Abracadabra. A fabulous combination. Let’s go on home now.”
“Aren’t you going to watch the race, Uncle?”
“Why on earth would I wanna waste my time watching the race?”
“You made a bet.”
“Davidù, get this into your head once and for all: once you’ve gone and made your bet, it’s none of your business no more. It’s even written in the Holy Scriptures: first you size things up, then you lay your bet, and after that, to hell with it.”
The calm detachment with which my uncle had made his bet. That’s what I was thinking about on the piazza, in the sweaty aftermath of lunch, while we subjected Gerruso to a firing squad of slaps and smacks.
Nino Pullara had issued the order: “Let’s play neck-slap; Gerruso, you’re it.”
That pathetic loser, unaware that the game was nothing more than a pretext to beat him up, started over to the wall without a word. He dragged his feet as he walked. An inexorable march. He knew he was headed toward certain pain, but he was so stubbornly determined to be part of our gang that his sense of personal dignity had long ago lost its battle against his resignation. Why didn’t Gerruso just look for other friends, friends who were as fat and worthless as he was? Why did he accept all this misery? I felt not a scrap of pity for him. He was a weakling. Weaklings deserve no respect.
Gerruso reached the wall, covered his eyes with his right hand, wedged his left hand under his armpit, and held it open, flat. He was ready to play the game. But Pullara had decided to twist the rules. Even if Gerruso did guess who’d slapped him, we’d say he was wrong, he’d have to turn back around, and he’d get another smack on the back of his neck and then another and another, over and over again.
The goal wasn’t to play.
The goal was to slaughter him.
The first slap was thrown by Danilo Dominici.
Gerruso took it, suppressing a groan of pain, then turned and looked hard at us.
Pullara had answered for the rest of us.
Gerruso wasn’t cheating.
Lele Tranchina took a running start and slapped with every muscle in his body. Gerruso throttled a cry of hurt deep in his throat. He turned around, without looking at anyone in particular.
Gerruso turned back to the wall without a word. He was a weakling. He deserved all the pain in the world.
I spat on the palm of one hand and rubbed it into the other, the way they did in the movies I’d watched at the theater with Umbertino, who would say after every killing: “Finally a movie the way they oughtta be made, not one of those French pieces of garbage for people who are sick of living. Look at that beautiful explosion! Now this is art.”
The truth is, Gerruso, you were born for French movies.
I hit him with such extreme violence that I even surprised myself. The slap didn’t erupt into the ringing sound of a smack; instead it was muffled at impact by his entire body into a single, cavernous moan.
Gerruso looked at me instantly, ignoring everyone else.
Why, Gerruso? Why? What possible reason could you have for being such a loser? You’d guessed who it was that time, too; you should have said my name; that’s not how the game is played.
Drops of saliva sprayed out of Pullara’s mouth. His pupils gleamed with fire. He would be the next one to deliver a neck-slap—it was obvious.
“Turn around, you dumb baby. Now I’ll bet we make you cry.”
Pullara didn’t state the challenge with detachment; he was ferociously committed. He was hopping in the air, waving his hand to warm it up. Once again he broke the rules, bringing his clenched fist down straight onto Gerruso’s ear. Gerruso bent over like a snapped twig. Pullara burst into an animal howl, one finger pointing straight up at the sky. Gerruso stood back up, both arms dangling at his sides.
“Pullara,” he said.
His eyes hadn’t wept a single tear.
* * *
As I walked home, a powerful white Vespa roared past, cutting across my path. Two men, both wearing full-face helmets. I saw myself reflected in the visors. My expression was relaxed, even though both hands had leaped to cover my mouth. It was an instinctive movement. The body bent over in anticipation of danger, warning the senses to react. In Palermo, the defensive crouch is an art handed down from one generation to the next. It becomes more refined as you grow in the city’s womb. It was the helmets that made me crouch. No one wore helmets in the city, especially in that heat. Grandma said that heat waves made people lose their minds.
“Have you ever wondered why people kill each other over a parking space in the summer? It’s the heat.”
“Does that worry you?”
“Not in the slightest, light of my life, nothing can happen to me, I don’t even have a driver’s license.”
Uncle Umbertino was already waiting out front.
He was bouncing on his toes.
“You’re late, I’ve already been standing here for a hell of a long time, two minutes at the very least.”
“We were all smacking the fool out of Gerruso.”
“Just a kid.”
“You rough him up good, so he felt it?”
“Good, there’s always some good reason to beat the fool out of a body. But listen, there’s been all kinda uproar in this neighborhood: engines roaring and screeching tires, more’n I’m used to.”
“What does it mean?”
“How the fuck do I know, I’m no mechanic.”
“Isn’t Mamma home yet?”
“Do you think for one second that if your mother was upstairs, I’d be waiting here in the middle of the street in all this heat?”
“But don’t you have your own keys to our apartment?”
“So why didn’t you use them?”
“For two reasons. First of all, I wanted to make sure you had your keys, like you oughtta.”
“Here they are.”
“Make sure you don’t lose them.”
“What’s the second reason?”
“I left the keys to your house at my house, absurd, ain’t it? Now, let’s go to the barbershop.”
“But I don’t want to get my hair cut, Mamma cuts my hair for me.”
“Davidù, what the hell do I care about your hair, you’ll come to the barbershop with me because I’m asking you, nice and polite, to come with me. Now get moving, because I’m already sick and tired of waiting.”
* * *
There was a sign in red paint on the front of the barbershop.
TONY: SHAVE and HAIRCUT
Inside, sitting in the revolving chair, was an old man, his face coated in white foam. Standing next to him, straight razor in hand, was the barber, Tony.
“Is there much of a wait?” my uncle asked.
“This shave, haircut for the gentleman, then you.”
“Do you have a horse-racing sheet?”
“What do you think? Would it be a barbershop without it? Right over there.”
Umbertino took a seat, began reading intently about the ponies. I sat down next to him, on a red chair that creaked all over. In the stack of newspapers, a glossy magazine. On the cover, it said ADULTS ONLY. The pages were wrinkled and torn.
“So you’re telling the truth, Tony?” the old man asked the barber. It seemed as if the foam was talking.
Every movement of Tony’s body spoke eloquently of his sincere concern.
“I swear it’s true, he was a certified genuine faggot.”
“But didn’t you notice at first that he was queer?”
“Now to look at him, he looked normal, an upstanding citizen, I even talked to him about the game, you understand? We talked ’bout soccer together, that’s what I’m telling you.”
The customer whose turn came before ours was sitting to my left. He had curly hair and a bristly mustache. He felt called upon to break into the conversation at this point in the story.
“But Tony, are you sure he didn’t infect you?”
“Right! That’s exactly the problem. This momosexuality is one hell of a disease.”
“The worst thing there is,” the customer with the mustache agreed.
“No laughing matter, that’s for sure,” the barber reiterated.
Finally Umbertino’s voice. He spoke without lowering the racing sheet.
“I hear that them as get infected wind up taking it straight up the ass.”
The whole shop burst into laughter.
“Shit, I done picked the wrong trifecta yesterday, oh well, what the hell,” my uncle observed without a hint of irritation.
Now that Tony had had a laugh, he seemed more relaxed. He began using the straight razor on the old man’s face.
“Listen, you all want to know how I found out he was gay? I swear it’s God’s own truth, on my mother’s sainted head: he told me himself. He said: Now, friend, I happen to like men.”
“No!” exclaimed the customer with the mustache.
“This world is going to hell.”
“They’re the curse of all creation,” murmured the old man, but gently, because if he moved his jaw too much he might get a new crease in his face. A straight razor doesn’t take indignation into account.
“But wait, it gets even worse. Then I realized that this monster had gone and offered me a drink from his bottle of beer. The selfsame bottle he’d been drinking from all this time with his diseased mouth, I mean.”
“So then whaddya do, Tony?” the old man asked with vivid concern.
The barber faltered for a moment. He squinted, raised the razor, and decided to go ahead and confide in his little audience.
“From that infected bottle of his, I had gone and taken a drink.”
“Fuck is right.”
“Infection!” said the old man, in a shrill voice.
The straight razor hovered in midair, a warning.
“Listen, I’m gonna tell you the truth, I was terrified. That momosexuality of his might have infected me, an oral infection straight from the bottle. I was terrified.”
“So what did you do, Tony?”
“What do you think? First things first: I broke that bottle right over his head, that piece-of-shit queer.”
“Good work, Tony!”
The old man’s voice had regained confidence; breaking bottles over the heads of faggots is the behavior of true men.
“I thought I was ’bout to lose my mind.”
“I can imagine.”
“I had to do something to cure myself, immediately. So I thought it over and…”
Tony looked around, as if he were taking care to shield the information from prying ears. He pronounced each syllable solemnly.
“… and I realized that I had to get cured, sooner than right this second, and so…”
Each person in the barbershop listened with a heightened intensity. Tony filled his lungs to give greater emphasis to the rest of the story: the old man’s ears craned in the direction of the barber’s mouth to capture the words of revelation at the earliest possible moment; the customer with the mustache stood up and began tapping his foot to an irregular beat. Only Uncle Umbertino remained unruffled. He read his racing sheet and blithely ignored everything and everyone. A burning curiosity to learn whether and how poor Tony had recovered from this momosexuality swept over me, just as it had all the others. I lowered my magazine.
Tony kept his eyes fixed elsewhere, staring out the shop window.
He reckoned the time needed for his words to clarify. Each time he sensed that the tension had become unbearable, he deigned to dole out another word or two.
The old man’s neck craned tautly; the mustachioed customer’s foot trembled.
“Went to see.”
Tony watched us. When the silence had grown deafening, he laid down his ace.
“The whore?” the old man and the man with the mustache cried in chorus.
“The whore in Vicolo Marotta?” they sang out in unison.
“One has the bedroom filled with mirrors?” they drove home the point.
At last Uncle Umbertino folded up his racing sheet and laid it on the pile with the others. Tony had one more spectator now. Flattered, he went on with renewed zeal.
“‘Pina,’ I told her, ‘I gotta make love now, right this second, or else I’m in danger of catching a bad case of momosexuality, and that right there’s a fate worse than death, iddnit?’”
“Blessed words of truth,” the old man decreed.
“Luckily, I thought of the perfect remedy: get me a good fuck right then and there and get cured of that disgusting mess. These fucking queers, they all just need to be killed.”
“Blessed words of truth,” the old man seconded. Apparently, by the time you come to the end of your life, you’re so tired that you have the same thoughts over and over again and you just go on repeating them.
“Boys, I look her straight in the eye and, ’fore we started to fucking, I said something to her that I never say to a whore: ‘Pina, go rinse out your mouth, ’cause that’s where I gotta kiss you, it’s out the mouth that a disease can get going, you get me? I took a drink of beer from the same bottle as that faggot, come on, hurry up.’ And Pina did things right, boys, she rinsed her mouth, nice and clean, even used toothpaste, and the minute she came back I shoved seven feet of tongue down her throat, fuck, I’d never even kissed my wife that deep.”
It was Umbertino who spoke. He’d gotten to his feet without my noticing. I never saw him move.
“And then, seeing as I’m a gentleman, I can’t exactly go into details, let’s just say that I cured myself by fucking her like heaven above, and I needn’t say another word to you men of the world.”
Tony the barber was chuckling complacently, unaware of something that had become clear to everyone else. My uncle was there, in his shop, because of what had happened, the subject of Tony’s story. He moved toward Tony soundlessly, light-footed in a way that no one would have expected from a man of his bulk. Leaping, little steps, quick and silent. When he loomed up in front of him, Tony vanished, hidden from view by his shoulders.
“Listen up and listen good, you dickhead, I’ll tell you exactly how the story ends: you tripped, you fell, and shitty luck that you were having, you broke your arm. Or you broke your leg. Take your pick.”
“I don’t understand.”
A second later, Tony was on his knees, keening in pain. My uncle’s right hand was crushing the fingers of his left hand.
“Tony, it’s either you can’t understand, or you won’t understand, which is worse. You tripped and fell, now take your pick: an arm or a leg.”
Tony was sobbing. The old man and the mustachioed customer said nothing and did nothing, it was all they could do just to breathe.
Umbertino raised his left fist.
My voice was calm.
Tony managed to mumble a single word: “Stop.”
“But when Pina told you to stop, whaddya do, Tony, did you stop?”
He snapped Tony’s left forearm with a single motion: his left hand grabbed Tony’s elbow, his right hand grabbed Tony’s wrist, he twisted both hands, crack.
“Now you remember, Tony, you tripped and fell, uh-huh? You broke your arm. Someone call this boy an ambulance. Davidù, let’s get out of here. This place stinks of shit.”
I was so overwhelmed that I forgot to leave the magazine. I didn’t know a forearm could snap like that.
“You didn’t see nothin’, right?”
“Swear to it.”
“What’s that you’re holding?”
“A magazine, it was in the barbershop.”
My uncle leafed through it carefully.
“Good boy, nice stuff you read; just don’t let your mother catch you.”
“What do you mean, why not? It’s a dirty magazine, if your mother catches you, she’ll yell. Listen, here’s what we do, I’ll hold on to it, and when you wanna look at it, you just come see me, we good?”
Without waiting for my reply, he folded it in half and stuck it in his back pocket.
“Uncle, who’s Pina?”
“She’s a sort of friend of mine.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Well, let’s just say she’s cooked me dinner, once or twice.”
“She a good cook?”
“Not as good as she used to be.”
The street was cordoned off by a line of police cars.
“Another killing?” Umbertino asked an officer. The policeman lowered his head without saying a word.
I spoke to my uncle under my breath. I didn’t want a cop to hear what I was saying to him.
“Why’d you take me with you to see the barber?”
In his face, not even a speck of joy.
“You were the only one that could stop me.”
“From doing what?”
“You want a delicious ice cream?”
I ordered a cone, with pistachio and mulberry gelato.
“You heard him,” Umbertino told the ice cream man. “A nice big ice cream cone with pistachio, mulberry, and whipped cream. Lots of whipped cream.”
“But Uncle, I don’t want any whipped cream.”
“It isn’t for you.”
He devoured the whipped cream in a single bite.
* * *
Outside the front door, unexpectedly, we ran into Grandpa. Umbertino lengthened his stride and approached him. I hung back, it was too hot to hurry. Cars went past, the passengers looked around, their faces sweaty behind the closed windows. Umbertino and my grandfather shook hands, in complete silence. Then Umbertino came back toward me at a dead run.
“Davidù, hurry, gimme the keys to your apartment.”
“Ain’t Mamma home yet?”
“No, and your grandpa is leaving, come on, let’s git upstairs, hurry!”
“I don’t want to, I’ll stay down here with Grandpa, then I wanna play with my friends on the piazza.”
“Gimme your keys, then, and on the double!”
“I gotta take an Olympic-size shit. Come on, the keys, I’ll take you to the piazza afterward, gimme the keys now!”
And off he gallopped upstairs to our apartment. The minute the street door swung shut behind him, Grandpa started talking.
“I came by to bring you some dinner, at work we had leftovers: potato gateau with ground beef filling. Come on over here, now, your face is filthy with ice cream.”
He pulled out his handkerchief, raised it to his mouth, dabbed a corner of it against his tongue, and used it to clean my chin.
“Grandpa, Pullara says that if you want to be a real man you have to get yourself dirty. The filthier someone is, the more of a man he is.”
“Pullara must have his head full of filth.”
“What do you mean?”
A sudden screeching of tires caught us off guard. Grandpa’s hands were already around my shoulders. The car swerved quickly, vanishing down the first street on the left.
“Calm down, Davidù, you can put them down.”
Both my hands had leaped up to cover my face, without my even noticing.
“There’s a lot of uproar,” Grandpa mused aloud.
“Uncle said the same thing, the exact same words.”
In the distance, the sound of police sirens was incessant.
“Grandpa, I know what it is: Fabrizia!”
“Fabrizia, the girl with the huge tits, works at the bakery. Everyone’s coming to the neighborhood to buy bread; I hear all my friends say that Fabrizia is a hot mama.”
“Do you like her?”
“Fabrizia? Well, she’s a girl, I don’t know if I like girls, they’re always crying, they can’t throw a punch to save their lives, they see blood and start screaming, they’re weak.”
“They’re not weak.”
“No. I have to go to the train station to meet my friend Randazzo, why don’t you go upstairs?”
“No, I’m going to go play with my friends, ciao.”
* * *
The first thing I saw when I got to the piazza was Pullara bent over Gerruso, forehead crammed against forehead. Why didn’t Gerruso just stay home? Couldn’t he see that Pullara hated him, that Pullara was bigger and stronger than him?
Lele Tranchina and Danilo Dominici had their asses planted on the backrest of the bench and their shoes on the seat. Standing in the sun, Guido Castiglia had both hands jammed into his pockets. His shadow merged into the larger shadow of the magnolia tree. He was observing the scene with the remote indifference of someone watching ants. A couple of yards behind him, a girl. She must have been more or less my age.
No one noticed I was there.
My legs decided not to take another step.
My body was assuming a defensive crouch.
The girl was wearing a light-colored dress with a hem that hung just below her knees.
Pullara was shouting.
“Pass the test!”
Gerruso was whimpering incomprehensibly. Pullara spat a single gob of spit into his face, a gob that clung to his skin without sliding off. Then he ground his forehead even harder, with greater determination, against Gerruso’s, shoving him downward, forcing him to his knees. Pullara’s voice was piercing and strident.
It was too hot to get as worked up as he was.
“You have to pass the test!”
Pullara pulled a jackknife out of his pocket, opened it, and placed it in Gerruso’s hand. He was so sure of himself that it never crossed his mind for an instant that he might be stabbed. Lele Tranchina tried to say something. He couldn’t get the words out. Danilo Dominici was white as a sheet. Guido Castiglia kept his arms folded across his chest. The only voice that could be heard in the piazza was the girl’s.
She spoke: “Stop it now.” And then, “Why don’t you take it out on me?” she went on. “I ain’t scared of you,” she concluded.
The last few words rang out for Pullara as a mortal insult.
“Wha’d you say?”
“I ain’t scared of you,” she said again. She spoke decisively, firmly, proudly.
Pullara moved jerkily. Like a human hiccup. He was about to lunge at the girl, but thought better of it, went back to Gerruso still kneeling on the ground, and delivered a sharp slap to his cheek.
Pullara’s body language made it perfectly clear that some threshold had been crossed. Enough hesitation, no more fooling around, no more games. Now we’d entered the world of adults.
“Pass the test right now or I’ma cut your cousin’s throat!” he threatened, pointing to the girl.
Gerruso, suddenly, stopped being a weakling. He raised his head without a whimper, just like that, from one instant to the next.
“Don’t touch her,” he said. His voice was cool and steady. Not a hint of begging.
“Pass the test or I’ma cut her throat!”
Everything about Pullara was wild, restless: legs, eyes, words.
Gerruso stood up.
The knife he held was no longer trembling.
“Swear to me that nothing bad will happen to my cousin.”
Pullara, electrified, was waving both arms.
“Sure,” he shouted, increasingly frantic.
Pullara was possessed, the world outside of the test no longer existed. He hadn’t even noticed that he wasn’t the one who was being asked to swear the oath. Gerruso’s eyes, the only eyes in the whole piazza, were staring into mine.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I swear it, nothing’ll happen to her, now you just pass the test, go on and cut, go on and cut.”
Gerruso, unperturbed, insisted: “Swear to me that nothing bad will happen to my cousin.”
Before I knew it, my mouth uttered a reply.
“I swear it.”
Gerruso stopped staring at me. He gripped the knife firmly in his right hand and placed the blade carefully on the knuckle of his left forefinger. Tranchina gripped Dominici’s hand and gnawed at his lip. Dominici was folded over, bent by abdominal cramps. The cousin lunged forward.
Castiglia decided to step in. He grabbed her and pulled her close to him.
Pullara was jumping up and down in place.
“The test! The test!”
Gerruso swiveled his gaze back to me. He wasn’t crying, he was no longer shivering. He took one last look at his cousin, saw that Castiglia was holding her back, concentrated his gaze on the jackknife, and just for an instant he reminded me of my grandpa, sitting at the cutting board slicing mushrooms, the knife held clear of his finger, the thumb pressing down on the stalk of the mushroom, the cap being sliced away, the jet of blood spraying into the air, the last section of forefinger tumbling as it fell, Dominici vomiting, Tranchina weeping, the cousin shouting, Castiglia gripping her close to him, Pullara howling, the bloody blade bouncing off the ground, Gerruso with the tip of his left forefinger gone, fainting away backward.
In the midst of all this, I thought I heard someone calling my name.
A dark blue car drove onto the piazza, kicking up a cloud of dust and gravel behind it. There was no time to admire the strip of dust that rose through the muggy heat. Another car, painted a metallic silver, appeared behind it. Through the open window on the passenger side an arm emerged, a hand gripping a pistol. I glimpsed my reflection in the window of the rear door. Once again, my hands had flown up to guard my face. Tranchina was sobbing. Dominici was holding his belly. The girl was looking down at Gerruso unconscious on the ground. Castiglia continued to hold her tight. Pullara, who hadn’t noticed a thing, was bellowing.
And as I became more fully aware of that amputated finger, it dawned on me, for the first time in my life, what power and focus the sudden epiphany of a gunshot brings with it.
The shot was perceived first by my ears, such a deeply penetrating sound that the body needed to immediately contract every single muscle in order to absorb it. That lasted no more than an instant. Like a wave, it was followed by the physical consequences that came hard on the heels of the crack of gunfire: the thundering shot unleashed a sharp stab of pain in my eardrum, and the world seemed to stretch out. Everything seemed to slow down, like when you’re underwater. It lasted a few seconds, then the bubble slowly popped.
A second shot rang out.
My shoulders shot forward, huddling together as if my body were trying to shrink.
The back window of the dark blue car shattered into a hailstorm of glass pebbles.
The number of shots kept climbing. Three, four, seven, ten. Hard to keep track of them all. Over near Castiglia and Gerruso’s cousin, the window of a parked Alfa Romeo Alfasud exploded into shards. Broken glass flew in all directions, hitting the magnolia leaves with a sound like a sudden squall. In this jagged score of breaking glass, crumbling walls, screeching tires, punctured leaves, and rattling gunshots, I heard someone shouting my name, like an echo in the distance. On the far side of the piazza I saw Umbertino. He was running straight toward me. Long strides, torso angling forward, arms pumping the air. Meanwhile, they were returning gunfire from inside the dark blue car, bullets hitting the windshield of the silver car. The windshield collapsed. Swerving crazily, the car thudded against the side of the parked Alfasud. At the moment of impact, seeing the car hurtling in his direction, Castiglia lost control of his nerves and threw his hands up to grab his own hair, letting go of Gerruso’s cousin. He started moving erratically back and forth, within a few yards’ radius, like a fly trapped in an overturned water glass. Danilo Dominici was still throwing up. Lele Tranchina had pulled his head down, clamped tight between his elbows and knees. Umbertino was running. The gunshots continued to dominate.
Pullara, drunk with rage, was still sunk in his delirious visions. He leaned over and grabbed the knife and then strode in the direction of Gerruso’s cousin with the smile of someone about to do harm.
The dark blue car swerved left, beyond the piazza. The silver car followed it unhesitatingly, vanishing around the corner. More gunshots could be heard, but now they were elsewhere.
Umbertino was no longer shouting my name. His eyes were on Pullara.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
Pullara was singing under his breath, gripping the jackknife.
Gerruso’s cousin wasn’t running away.
She held her gaze level, meeting his.
“I ain’t scared of you.”
Pullara seemed to be invincible. He seemed to be the shark fish going to war.
I was wrong.
The shark fish wasn’t him.
The shark fish was me.
But I didn’t know that yet.
Umbertino was about thirty feet away from us.
Pullara raised his fist, gripping the jackknife still smeared with Gerruso’s blood.
She didn’t back down.
He threw his head back, poised to drive the stabbing blade as deep as possible. It was only then that the danger became concrete, and in that instant no other possibilities remained, and the shark fish remembered the oath he had sworn and finally surged onto the battlefield.
The body acted on its own.
A distant urge.
A seed sown a lifetime ago was suddenly sprouting.
My legs took me straight in front of Pullara.
Umbertino was cursing the names of the saints.
I alone stood between the girl and the knife.
She had dark eyes.
She smelled of salt and lemon.
I felt no fury, I felt no anger.
I was as calm and unruffled as the wrath of God.
I plunged my fists into Pullara’s face, once twice three times four times. He tried to stab me but missed. A leap back and away, that’s all it took. Pullara was off balance. A push with both feet and my right fist sank deep into his belly, forcing him to bend double toward me. My left uppercut rose dizzyingly, shattering his incisors. Before his back could hit the ground, I was already hurtling through the air. I landed with both knees on his gut. I clenched my fists and pounded him over and over again until my uncle managed to drag me off his body. He lifted me with both arms and clutched me to him.
My hands were bloody, my knuckles were skinned.
Beyond my filthy fingers, there she stood.
In the street behind the piazza: shouts, ambulances, and police sirens.
The sound track of Palermo.
Uncle checked what was left of Pullara.
“That’ll teach him to treat women like dirt; what a dickhead.”
Danilo Dominici and Lele Tranchina sat riveted to the steel bench.
Castiglia, motionless somewhere not too far from us, had a lifeless gaze.
Umbertino stopped Gerruso’s bleeding with a handkerchief.
Gerruso finally seemed serene, now that he’d fainted.
My uncle spoke to the girl.
“Honey, are you all right? An ambulance and the cops are all coming, can I leave you here? Can you take care of yourself? My nephew and I have to get out of here, right this second.”
“Wait,” she replied.
Calm and confident, she stopped looking at Gerruso and came over to me.
“Ciao,” she said.
I couldn’t utter a word.
She took my filthy fingers in her hands.
“Ain’t nothing but blood,” she murmured, “it washes off.”
She lifted my fingers to her lips.
One by one.
She washed away the pain.
I had a hollow feeling in my stomach, as if I were on a swing.
“I’m Nina,” she said. Then she smiled and I fell off the swing.
My uncle tousled my hair.
“Let’s go before the cops get here.”
My fingers fanned open, clamped shut, then I was done saying goodbye to her.
A few minutes later, I was back in the gym, putting on my boxing gloves and climbing up into the ring, for the first time in my life.
I thought about her the whole time.
* * *
My grandfather Rosario came home to Palermo after being held as a prisoner of war in Africa. There was nothing left for him; the war had swept away his family, his house, his friends. The field of the present day was swept clean of the tumbleweeds of the past. His life was a blank sheet of paper. He wore a military uniform two sizes too big for him. He was sleeping in the ruins of bombed-out buildings. He spent his days at Cape Gallo. He would peel an apple and save the peel in a handkerchief: that would be his evening meal. He stared at the sea.
Provvidenza’s curiosity was aroused by his skinny profile. He looked like a statue. She shut her book and studied my grandfather while her cigarette burned between her fingers, then she opened the book again; her final exam was drawing nearer, and the bus for Capaci was always late.
The next day, the same scene. The young man carved in stone was still there, on the bench, as if he’d never moved. She sat down, on a low wall, a dozen feet away from him. She watched him for a long time. He didn’t look around. She did her best to concentrate on the textbook she was studying, but my motionless grandfather had become a puzzle that demanded an immediate solution.
“Soldier, what are you looking at?”
He turned around and stared at her, in absolute silence.
* * *
“What did he say to you?”
“Davidù, it was your grandpa. He said nothing, and just looked at me.”
“What was he like?”
“He was young, thin as a rail, and had these indecipherable, light-colored eyes. He was confused, poor thing.”
“And did you fall in love with him right then and there?”
“Not in the slightest. When I first saw him, to tell you the truth, I just thought he was odd. And so skinny, too skinny. Still, there was something about him.”
“See? You were in love.”
“I already told you I wasn’t. Even though…”
“He had these eyes that—well, you know it yourself—it’s something you all have, you, your father, Rosario. Men with light-colored eyes and a very dangerous gaze.”
“Your gaze troubles the soul of anyone you look at.”
“Really? I never noticed.”
“Neither did your grandfather or your father. That’s why you’re such lady-killers, damned light-colored eyes.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Of course you don’t, you’re not a girl.”
* * *
“Soldier, did you hear me? I asked you: What are you looking at?”
Silence and nothing more.
“Hey, can you understand me when I talk to you? Are you from around here?”
He tipped his head forward in a sign of assent. A small movement, the very minimum required. Better than nothing. Suddenly, amid that growing silence, she had a hunch.
“You aren’t mute, are you?”
A tiny smile escaped his lips, a more than satisfactory response. He wasn’t mute, just stingy with words to the point of miserliness.
“What are you up to? I’ve seen you here for two days now, motionless, staring out to sea. What are you looking at?”
No answer. A sphinx. Nothing she liked better than a puzzle. She tried looking at it from another angle.
“What’s your name?”
Heavens above, he had actually spoken. In fact, he’d even added an extra syllable: “You?”
“My name is Provvidenza.”
Her lips parted in a smile, spontaneous and inviting.
His face showed no reaction.
* * *
“But he did gesture for me to come sit next to him. There was room to sit down, I was on my feet by that point, he didn’t seem to have the slightest interest in standing up, so I sat down next to him.”
“Did you talk to each other?”
“Do you really think we talked, Davidù? I asked the occasional question, and he would mumble, dip his head, things like that. Nonverbal communication. ‘Were you in the war?’ and he’d dip his head in my direction. ‘And where were you stationed?’ and silence. ‘Do you smoke?’ and he’d shake his head no. ‘Wait, are you sure you’re not mute?’ and then he’d smile, but softly, and never a sound that passed his lips. Why I didn’t start slapping him is still a mystery to me.”
“You were head over heels in love.”
“No, knucklehead. Really, I was just curious about him. Seeing that he hardly bothered to look at me, I pulled out the book I was studying for my exam, Lucretius’s De rerum natura, because back then, school was serious, if you wanted to teach elementary school you had to know Latin. It’s important to know Latin, in that language you’ll find the past of our own language, its whole logical structure. Come on now, declension of rosa.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Come on, I told you.”
“Rosa, first declension: rosa, rosae, rosae, rosam, rosa, rosa.”
“Grandma, you were telling me about Grandpa.”
“Latin is important, very important.”
“Lupus, second declension: lupus, lupi, lupo, lupum, lupe, lupo.”
“Good boy. Now, where was I?”
“So, I pull the book out of my purse and the minute I open it, Davidù, I swear to you, I felt his gaze pierce me through.”
“He was staring at me with a new expression.”
“I couldn’t say, Davidù, but in that instant his gaze had a light to it that was—how to put this?—gentle and sweet.”
“And you fell in love.”
He had taken her fingers in his hands, as carefully as you would pick up a green sprout, and yet as desperately as you would if you were grabbing the only handhold that stood between you and a deadly fall.
“Teach me to read and write.”
And in the presence of that unexpected revelation of vulnerability, when faced with the humility of that unexpectedly straightforward request, the instant the fragile reed of his voice fell silent, Provvidenza found that she, once so facile and fluent, was suddenly at a loss for words. She was simply smiling at the man who would become her first pupil, the silent love of her life.
* * *
“Whores, all bombs are whores.”
Salvo Pecoraro was cursing; his house was gone. The bedroom where he’d been born, the round table made of dark wood, the cane-bottom chairs, the bed with a wrought-iron headboard, the photograph of his mother, Assunta, may she rest in peace, amen. Nothing had survived. To clutch at material certainties is not of this life. Umbertino watched him dig through the rubble. The surrounding buildings were intact, only Salvo Pecoraro’s house, bull’s-eyed by the bomb, was gone now, collapsing in upon itself, dying a mortifying death. It had not been transformed into a myriad of fragments hurtling murderously in all directions. Amid misfortune, a memorable piece of dumb luck.
Umbertino had lost his own house four days earlier. A chunk of stone weighing an eighth of a ton from the building across the street entered the house without so much as knocking, and went on to demolish the kitchen, the bathroom floor, two load-bearing walls, the bedroom where, fingers knitted behind the nape of his neck, my great-uncle would lie dreaming of women with clean, fragrant skin. The dining-room balcony remained intact, with his mother’s red geraniums still proud and present, as if nothing had happened. Those flowers reminded him of the lipstick traces left behind after sex. Umbertino decided that shrapnel and hurtling fragments just weren’t his friends. He’d been saved from death in that explosion because he was elsewhere, fucking. That realization filled him with pleasure. He even managed to smile in the face of what from that day forward and forever after would no longer be his home. The only relative who remained to him, his sister, my mother’s mother, had been evacuated to Terrasini, a small village twenty miles away from the city. He had chosen to remain behind: I’ll survive, don’t worry about me, Sis, I always get by. He had no one to answer to. He was the sole master of his fate. He was almost nineteen years old.
He asked a stranger for a cigarette with a glance and was given one, ducked his head in thanks, lit it, sucked the smoke into his lungs. All around him, people were digging, cursing, finding friends, consoling one another, weeping, and shouting that all bombs are whores.
But bombs aren’t whores.
Bombs don’t have feelings.
Whores, on the other hand.
They have feelings, and how.
Feelings to spare, if not to sell.
Not all whores, of course.
But some of them.
Some of them could be entrusted with a life during a bombing raid and keep it intact. They’d give that life back, all sweet-smelling and safe.
The way Giovannella the whore did.
She had told him that she’d gladly give her life for him.
And in fact.
It happened one night. The bombs were raining down out of the sky. Yes, it’s true, it was the grip of my uncle’s hand that pulled her along in an exhausting panting race to the door of the bomb shelter, still mercifully left open. But when the air turned incandescent and the sound drilled into the ears so furiously that it made you lose your balance, it was Giovannella who shoved him to the ground, just as an eighteen-inch-long section of shrapnel tore into her chest, coming to a halt inside her love-warmed heart. Giovannella flew backward, fell to the ground, and slammed her head against the smooth stone slab of the road’s surface, but it didn’t matter—she was already dead. Umbertino couldn’t seem to get out a single word. Not a single word of love.
It’s not time that creates the hierarchies of love. One might feel a once-in-a-lifetime, precious love for a prostitute met just two weeks earlier and then lost, just like that, during a hail of bombs falling from the heavens. And since all around him he heard cursing, screaming, thundering collapses, weeping, roars, and sirens, Umbertino decided to say to hell with all the sounds of war, caressed Giovannella’s still-warm forehead, carefully closed her eyes, and went away, leaving her there. The dead cannot save their own lives.
Giovannella had never asked him for money. She really loved him. Umbertino was handsome, with a harsh and melancholy beauty. When she undressed in front of him for the first time, Giovannella felt a hint of shame to be seen naked. Maybe I’m not so beautiful after all, she thought to herself. She was seventeen years old. It was a single instant, a tiny fragment of time, that made her fall in love all the more, one of those rare moments remembered forever, expanding in one’s memory. It was an unexpected, unclothed pirouette that Umbertino performed in front of her. Giovannella the whore laughed with the fullness of her lips, her eyes, and her heart. What came next—my uncle’s rough embrace—dispelled all doubt, all fear, all shame. Their kiss was shameless, moist. The way it ought to be. And they loved each other. It lasted two weeks. Fourteen days. Fourteen nights. A roaring, sweaty, passionate love. Happiness within reach.
Then the bombs came.
In Palermo, there were corpses everywhere. Every courtyard, every street, every family was mourning a loss. Umbertino felt his own shoulders, once so broad and powerful, suddenly narrow and become measly. His shoulders had failed to protect Giovannella.
That’s war, he told himself.
The only way to outsmart war is to survive.
Don’t let yourself get attached to anything.
Follow your instincts.
He started to spend practically all his time with whores. One had already saved his life. Now another did. A certain Mariù, flaming red hair just like Giovannella. She was the one he was fucking when a two-hundred-pound chunk of concrete thundered into his bedroom but failed to find him in. Mariù the whore. He’d been looking everywhere for her for four days. Slowly. Like in any self-respecting exodus. In no particular hurry. One step after the other. Rain soaks you, wind dries you out. The road to Golgotha is always an uphill climb.
* * *
There was no way to bury people anymore. They’d already used all the wood to make coffins. There were no tools left to dig graves. Dead bodies were abandoned, heaped on top of one another. The corpses were rotting. Insects danced on them. The streets reeked of death. The center of every square was piled high with rubble from collapsed buildings. Sometimes, if you dug down, you might find a human limb.
In Borgo, a man was singing: “Down will come cradle, baby and all.”
He might have been thirty. Clutched tightly to his chest he held a hand attached to a ragged shred of arm, which had been severed below the shoulder joint. The end of it was white: a jutting bone. That was all that was left of his daughter. The man was singing, wobbling back and forth, back and forth, then an epileptic fit swept over him and he stopped singing. When they came to his aid, no one paid any attention to the arm that tumbled into the dust.
Umbertino came to a halt for a few seconds too long in a place he couldn’t seem to recognize. He lacked landmarks. He raised his eyes and saw the light of the sky. A curse welled up in him from the depths of his heart. He managed to tamp it down. That’s not the sort of thing you do if you want to survive, you have to train yourself to feel nothing. He went on walking but after seven steps he stumbled over all that remained of a leg. It was crawling with flies and worms. My uncle said to hell with all his resolutions about self-control and let out a mighty curse, a furious despairing oath, inveighing against everything and everyone, with the sole exception of Saint Rosalia.
It made him feel great.
* * *
The house with the rose garden was in Piazza delle Sette Fate. A perfect place to take women. But now it was gone, struck by a bomb one afternoon while a March downpour was pounding the city, sudden and fierce. Water was manna from heaven in those days of misery. So everyone ran out into the street to gather as much water as they could. Almost immediately, an unexpected air-raid siren announced an impending attack. The sound ripped through the air, scattering the joy of standing upright in the rain. Bombing raids at this time of day—what fresh hell was this? As the fear rose, they gathered pails and basins and hurried toward the nearest shelter, where those present were counted, and as time passed, they prayed, hoped, embraced, and swore.
The sky darkened with aircraft and, in the space that separates Palermo from the clouds, the bomb had already been dropped. In the instant of impact, it created a small sun that struck the falling rain, forming a beautiful rainbow, and then the house with the rose garden no longer existed.
The silence of Piazza delle Sette Fate was shattered by a roar drawing closer, as Umbertino cursed all the saints on their crosses.
* * *
“Did you know what was gonna happen next, Uncle?”
“How the fuck could I, Davidù? I’m no fortune-teller.”
“Were you afraid?”
“You want the truth?”
“I was just dying for it to happen. Wasn’t nothing I wanted more: fists crunching into ribs, the fury of battle.”
“But how’d you know, Uncle?”
“Same way you knew.”
“Blood don’t lie.”
* * *
At the sound of that avalanche of curses and oaths, the people who were in Piazza delle Sette Fate stopped excavating. Maybe it was just tension, or perhaps it was a sincere desire to defend the faith, or else the simple need to let off steam. For those who were digging in the piazza, that stream of profanities was more than they could take.
“Shut your mouth,” a voice called out in warning.
Umbertino slowed to a stop. Enveloped as he was in dust, no one could sense the actual dimensions of his body.
But his voice.
Firm, calm, sharp.
Like the well-honed blade of a knife.
He savored that silence. Then he let loose again, cursing God and the Virgin Mary.
Sensing his contempt, everyone decided to forget that under the rubble there might still be something to find. Or perhaps it was simply that the time to stop digging had come. Their hands hurt and their lungs burned.
“I told you once: Shut your mouth.”
“And if I don’t?”
They wiped their eyes to get a better look at the man on whom they’d be taking out their violent impulses. His outline was vague, hard to see.
“If you don’t I’ll break your ass in half.”
“So will I,” added someone else.
“And maybe I’ll join in.”
Umbertino looked up, spread his arms wide, and offered his breast up to the clash of battle.
There were eleven of them. No one moved a muscle.
In that silence, it was impossible to hear anyone breathing, no rumors of war.
My uncle’s hands clenched into fists.
* * *
“How’d you feel?”
“It felt like nothing I’d ever felt in my life.”
“What do you mean?”
“I felt as free as a murderer.”
* * *
They couldn’t make up their minds to attack him.
That wasn’t right.
What was missing was battle.
What was missing was blood.
What was missing was slaughter for everything to be perfect.
Umbertino made perfection attainable.
He cursed the uncurseable.
Umbertino cursed Rosalia, patron saint of Palermo.
He was as calm and unruffled as the August sea.
“Now come at me, you assholes.”
Emotion overwhelmed all sense of strategy. All eleven of them went for him, lunging as one. A pack without a leader. They attacked him, ready to devour him, without a glimmer of understanding that the prey wasn’t him. They were the prey.
He used his fists.
He needed nothing more.
The men collapsed the way sand collapses.
He drove his fists into the flesh of one and then of the next and then of yet another.
A ravening and contented beast.
The fight hardly lasted a minute.
He shattered arms, jaws, ribs, teeth, cheekbones.
When it was over, five men lay sprawled on the ground, and six others stood staring at Umbertino. My uncle looked at his hands and in them he read the future.
* * *
He found Mariù with the red hair two days later, at the Sant’Orsola cemetery. She wore a filthy dress. He called her by name. She turned around and failed to recognize him. He explained to her that fucking her had saved his life. She pretended to find that interesting. The story came to an end and was followed by a silence that failed to fill anything up. He came straight to the point and asked her how much. She named her price.
“How much do you have?”
They went past the last row of headstones, behind the larch trees. As soon as he was done, Umbertino stood up, buttoned his pants, and left without a word. He never saw her again.
He was the first boxer in my family.
* * *
No one knew what his real name was.
Umbertino met him during a street fight. A round of bets was placed, and on the basis of how much money was in the pot, a prize was set aside for the winner, and when the word was given, fists began to fly. Umbertino was the last man standing, all his adversaries were flat on the pavement. That’s how he made a living until the middle of 1945. He was twenty-one years old, his fists were deadly weapons, and he had no technique whatsoever. That’s how matters stood the day he met Il Negro.
When he spoke Il Negro’s name, Umbertino paused in mid-sentence. He listened to the silence that followed the name he had uttered. His respect for his maestro is a sentiment that has remained intact, despite the passage of time.
Il Negro landed in Sicily with the U.S. Navy. Less than a week later, he deserted. He spent his days in the taverns of Palermo, soaking up alcohol like a sponge.
“Of course, it’s not like he went unnoticed, Davidù, he was completely black. Why didn’t they come arrest him, you ask me? Shit, first they had to catch him, and even if they caught him, they’d still have to stay on their feet. Il Negro was too damned murderous, he bruised my ass red, white, and blue.”
In their first fight, Il Negro punched him so hard and long that Umbertino fell in love with him then and there. He was skinny and gnarly and he reeked of booze. My uncle was bigger, stronger, and soberer. A heavyweight up against a middleweight. It should have been no contest. Instead, not even a minute into the bout, there was no mistaking the foregone conclusion—and it wasn’t the one everyone expected. Umbertino couldn’t lay a glove on him. Big as he was, all it would have taken was a punch, a single roundhouse and he would have decked him. But the other guy was a grasshopper. He kept hopping out of the way. Umbertino couldn’t seem to get him in his sights. He’d throw a right cross and with an agile hop Il Negro was already somewhere else. The instant that Umbertino pulled his fist back toward his torso to recharge it for another slug, Il Negro’s fists were hammering away at his face, his chest, his forearms. He’d never met anyone as fast as that. Umbertino stayed put, feet flat on the mat, dealing out punches in all directions. Il Negro danced around him and disfigured him. No, he wasn’t a grasshopper. He was a butterfly. After seven rounds, Umbertino had a shattered eyebrow, a swollen upper lip, bruises on his chin, a cut over his left cheekbone, and pristine knuckles on both hands. Il Negro just kept fluttering. His feet made no noise. The bout ended in the tenth round; Umbertino hadn’t had the chance to land a single punch. Il Negro took the money, clenched it in his fist, and said: “Booze.” Umbertino was devoured by shame. He lunged at him and grabbed him by the arm.
“Teach me to box.”
Il Negro shook him loose, spat on the floor, and went off to get drunk.
That was the first lesson.
Humiliation burns worse than the punches you take.
“That was my first real boxing match. I thought that a fistfight was just a matter of strength. Hitting harder, hitting meaner. But not only did Il Negro’s punches grind you down, they were beautiful to behold. What destroys you is precision, not just strength. He’d destroyed my face. He had to become my maestro, there was no other way.”
He searched all of Palermo. He found him at the Taverna Azzurra. Il Negro was getting drunk on Sangue di Cristo wine. His hands were shaking. He was so befuddled that it would have been child’s play this time to lay him to waste.
“You understand, Davidù, there in front of me, reduced to a wine-soaked rag, was the man who had clobbered my face with fists that felt like a couple of bricks.”
“So what’d ya do?”
“What could I do? The only reasonable thing: I swallowed my pride and went over to talk to him.”
Il Negro hated everyone. White, yellow, black. Everyone. He took my uncle on as a pupil only because he gave him the right answer at the right time.
“Teach me your movements, your feints, all your technique, come on, teach me how to box.”
He wouldn’t so much as look at him. He reached out for his glass of wine. Umbertino grabbed his wrist just as he grabbed his wineglass.
“Crying all over yourself like this is for women.”
“Is there a manly way of doing it?”
“Sure, while you’re crying you can always beat someone bloody.”
* * *
Il Negro trained him till he could barely stand. He taught him that when you throw a punch, it doesn’t start from the arm, that you don’t plant your foot on the ground—it should barely graze the floor, that sliding motion gives you room while keeping your eyes on your opponent’s. He changed the way Umbertino walked and how he held his shoulders, his posture. He positioned him in front of a mirror, telling him to punch the empty air over and over again, following a specific sequence of crosses. He showed him how to release muscle tension by jumping rope. He decided what and how much Umbertino could eat. He forbade him to drink water at the end of each sparring session. He prohibited alcohol. Once in a while, laughing hoarsely, he would throw an empty beer bottle into the air, and the instant the broken glass littered the floor, “Take off your shoes and jump all over it.” That’s how Umbertino learned to land on the mat lightly: by slinging his feet onto broken glass.
Il Negro transformed his body. That’s how my uncle became so agile. He was a heavyweight forced to become light on his feet because he was being trained by a middleweight. But the real metamorphosis was taking place inside his head. Day by day, Umbertino clad himself in an increasingly glacial calm, the result of a growing self-awareness. He was learning to fully appreciate his talent for mayhem.
Il Negro taught him to do push-ups and knee bends. He taught him a series for the abdominals, the upper, middle, and lower, then the dorsals and the extensor muscles. He designed choreographies of attack and counterattack just for him, strategies for occupying the center of the ring. And, more than anything else, he made him run. Speed, resistance, sprints. In the hot sun and the pouring rain. Before and after sparring sessions. In the morning, first thing. Every goddamn day, several times a day, until he fell to the ground, cramping, vomiting from the effort, trembling with sudden spurts of diarrhea. Still, in spite of everything, he went on running just the same. My uncle possessed an indestructible will.
* * *
Il Negro spoke Italian. His father was a Lucanian emigrant and a complete bastard. Someone stabbed his old man to death when he was just seven in a fight over women; so much the better, he deserved all eight inches of the blade that plunged into his heart. His mother was black. She cleaned house, worked variously as a cook and a streetwalker, and did anything she could to put bread on the table. She died of scurvy when he was twelve. Il Negro explained to Umbertino that in America there are couples like his parents, of different colors, that they are few in number, and that being born into such a family is terrible luck. He told him that his boxing skills were noticed by a Campanian emigrant in the street one day. Il Negro was fighting with a young Irishman who objected to the sight of a Negro walking on a public sidewalk, and he was pounding the Irishman’s face in. He was thirteen years old. He walked into the gym as a nobody, but when he left he was a champion. He said that it would be feasible, if challenging, to teach Umbertino to box, he had grit and talent and maybe, someday, who could say? He added that it was beyond anything the Good Lord ever intended, though, to teach Umbertino to speak English. That’s when he stopped talking and ordered him to start running.
Il Negro was twenty-seven years old and there wasn’t a mark on his face.
“You should have seen him box, Davidù. He moved toward the center of the ring, jumping and turning like a racehorse, stretching his neck to uncrick it, raising his right guard, and then suddenly, as if by magic, he was gone, and a butterfly had taken his place. Was all that work worth it? If only you could have seen him even once. Il Negro didn’t box. Il Negro floated; he flew.”
* * *
His first fight with Il Negro as his trainer came seven months later. It was held just outside of Palermo, in Bagheria, in the courtyard of a school, with only a few spectators. His opponent was a father from Siracusa, age thirty-three, tipping the scales at 298 pounds, with broad shoulders, giant hands, a hairy chest, and good eyes. Umbertino was no longer the trash-talking youngster who until just seven months earlier was slaughtering citizens in the alleyways of Palermo. He’d discovered new muscles. He was acquiring an impeccable technique. He danced on the tips of his toes and he was damned fast. He fought like a veteran, focused and measured. His maestro had made a few offhand comments to the effect that he might actually have a shot at winning something big.
Il Negro didn’t show up in Bagheria. Umbertino never found out why. He finally tracked his maestro down late that same night at the Taverna Azzurra, drunk as a skunk. He sat down at his table without asking a thing. He sat there in silence, watching his maestro steadily destroy himself. The minute Il Negro finally passed out, Umbertino threw him over his shoulder and carried him home.
He’d won the fight by a knockout in the second round. The Syracusan’s eyes were two puddles of blood.
Il Negro stopped drinking, cold, the next day.
“He was all boxer in his head, so when he set out to do something he just did it, in a way that left everyone else with no option but to suck his dick.”
He was there for Umbertino’s next twenty-one bouts.
Unlike many other trainers, he almost never said a word. When they met at ringside between rounds, he’d ask: “How are you doing, Umberto?” The arrogance of the answer was enough to reassure him. Il Negro delivered his orders with a calm that would brook no transgressions. Generally speaking, his instructions never varied: to take a specific punch in a specific part of the body in order to test his opponent’s power.
“And then?” Umbertino asked.
* * *
Il Negro explained the rules of boxing to him and the underlying logic of the division by weight into different categories. Umbertino trained and listened. Il Negro told him which attacks scored points and which didn’t and which ones were necessary to demolish the opponent’s fortress. Umbertino got better and stronger, growing from one fight to the next. Il Negro told him the story of the finest fights in a career—his career—that had been interrupted when he was drafted. He taught him to understand his opponent by the way he used his feet. Umbertino went on disfiguring every boxer who dared to challenge him. Il Negro told him about Billy Bob Bartelli, also known as “The Wizard of Brooklyn,” and Foster “The King” Monroe, a redheaded Scotsman with the finest footwork he’d ever seen. He confided in Umbertino the story of when he fought for the middleweight title and lost.
“What about you, Umbè?”
“What do you mean, what about me, Maestro?”
There was no point in answering him.
The Italian heavyweight title.
The goal had been established.
* * *
The first match in the legendary series of twenty-one consecutive knockouts by the boxer-trainer duo of Umbertino and Il Negro was in the summer of 1946. The last one came in December 1949. Between those two dates were a series of unofficial fights, all of which ended with the opponent flat on his back on the mat.
They lived together, in the Vuccirìa, in Piazza Garraffello. They illegally occupied the upper floor of the still-intact wing of a palazzo that had been hit by bombs. They had set up a dignified little apartment there: two bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a small terrace where they could bring women. With the prize money from the fights, they managed to get by.
They started talking about whether it would be a good idea to start a boxing gym together.
“There’s not a fucking thing in Palermo, what do you say, Maestro?”
Il Negro bought material to construct heavy bags, weightlifting equipment, jump ropes. Umbertino spent his money on women. They never had a disagreement about money. In the world of boxing, more and more, people were talking about them.
* * *
“Have you ever been anywhere outside of Palermo, Umberto?”
“Once I went to Cefalù, Maestro.”
“Get ready to travel, we’re going to Bologna.”
“To do what?”
“To knock everyone we meet unconscious.”
Il Negro had enrolled him in a tournament.
The climb to the title was under way.
Umbertino didn’t keep his newspaper clippings, his plaques, the trophies that proclaimed him the king of Italian heavyweights. He threw everything away the day he bought his boxing gym.
“I never needed tokens of recognition from other people. All I’ve ever needed to do is lock eyes with anybody who was around back then.”
“They still get out of my way.”
* * *
When Umbertino came home on one of the last days of December 1949 he found Il Negro stinking drunk. He always swore to me that he never knew why that age-old despair resurfaced in his maestro. He wondered about it in the years that followed, but he never could come up with a plausible explanation. On the far side of the kitchen, there was a sizable crack in the wall. Il Negro had simply unleashed his fists on the wall. The backs of his hands were covered with blood, all his fingers were torn and scraped. Umbertino crouched down next to him. The smell of alcohol was pungent. They were just two bouts short of the national heavyweight title.
“Maestro, what happened?”
Il Negro held his face between his ravaged hands. He uttered only one short sentence to his pupil.
“Are you training to become a man?”
He didn’t bother to wait for the answer.
He rummaged in his pockets and pulled out a scrap of paper.
On it was written: “Have you become the man you dreamed of being? What gives you balance? Is it fame? Strength? Power? Sailing a boat? Drinking chilled wine when the sirocco is blowing? The smell of fried eggplant? Do you have what you want? Do you have a hand that will caress your back when you need it? Then why didn’t you pursue this idea of peace? Why haven’t you practiced to summon those long afternoons filled with the chirping of crickets and the voices of your children?”
Il Negro vanished from Palermo on the last day of that year, 1949. A dozen people swore that they saw him on the Santa Lucia wharf boarding a ship for Genoa. Umbertino tried for years to find out what had happened to him, without success. Il Negro managed to cover his tracks. As he appeared, so he vanished: a flutter of wings and he was gone.
* * *
“Your mother is right, and I don’t want to hear another word about it.”
“But Uncle, you actually left him lying on the pavement.”
“The cops were coming, I gave him my handkerchief to stop the blood, and anyway he’s your friend.”
“He’s not my friend.”
“You’re the one who knows him, now shut up because you’re starting to annoy me.”
My uncle was driving with a new caution, the risk of more shootouts was ever present. With every car that went by, his eyes busily inspected the landscape. Surveying the field of battle.
“Uncle, I don’t want to go to the hospital to see Gerruso.”
“What do you think, I’m overjoyed to have to drive you there? The truth is that women should stay at home instead of going to work, the way your mother does. Because she’s never home, I have to bear the cross of going with you to the hospital.”
“But Uncle, Gerruso is such a loser, they didn’t even take him to Mamma’s hospital. I don’t want to go visit someone who’s missing a piece of his finger. That’s time I’ll lose and never get back.”
“What do you know about loss?”
“I’m nine years old, I know things, believe me.”
I knew that you lose the things you possess. You lose your string, your patience, your finger bone, the time you waste, the afternoons you spend sitting in traffic, the coins you drop into a pay phone, your pencil sharpener, the buttons off your shirt, the words on the tip of your tongue.
“Davidù, look at how handsome this hand is, look at how big and strong it is. You know what keeps it on the steering wheel? Patience. That’s what. And if I lose my patience, you know where this hand will wind up? You understand, angel face? Wait a minute, let’s stop here for a minute, this coffee shop makes great espresso.”
He double-parked the dark blue Fiat 126, walked into the café, and stepped up to the counter.
“Hey, I’d like a nice hot espresso the way you know how to make ’em, and a glass of sparkling water for my nephew.”
A trio of well-dressed gentlemen came into the bar. They were loudly discussing the killing that had taken place three hours earlier in the Sperone district: an ex-convict found dead with a third eye in his forehead. They talked about symbols: if the murdered man has his testicles in his mouth it means he started up some trouble with the wrong woman; feet encased in a block of cement and then a plunge into the sea is the fate reserved for those who pocket the mob’s money; a dead man with a fish in his mouth is someone who talked too much. They were about to explore the significance of the corpse dissolved in acid, when the tallest of the three turned to the barman and, in a jocular tone, gave his order.
“Buon giorno, could you make us three manly espressos, black, no sugar?”
Umbertino immediately swiveled his head around, staring intently at the trio of new arrivals. Once the discomfort had ripened fully, he deigned to address them.
“You know, maybe I misunderstood, but did you just call me a woman?”
The three citizens were more surprised than baffled.
“Is something bothering you?”
“Ah, so now you decide to pretend like you don’t know what I’m talking about?”
“What are you talking about?”
Everyone in the café stopped to watch the scene unfold. No one was good-hearted enough to meddle.
My uncle turned to confront the trio, turning his back to the barman. He spoke in a low voice, forcing everyone to turn their ears in his direction.
“So let me get this straight. I’m here in the café, minding my own business with my nephew, drinking an espresso in goddamned peace, when you three come in and accuse me in front of everyone of being a total woman.”
“What on earth?”
“Now you’re taking back what you just said a minute ago?”
The barman, the cashier, the customers, me: we were all wondering just what Umbertino was driving at. My uncle sensed that the eyes of everyone in the café were on him. There’s always a ring, there’s always an audience.
The three men were uneasy. Their feet were shuffling and wouldn’t stay still.
“Believe me, nobody here would have dared to say…”
Umbertino rose up on tiptoes. Maybe it was an involuntary reflex, or perhaps an intentional pose to heighten the drama.
“Oh, no? But when you walk into a café and order ‘three manly espressos, black, no sugar,’ what are you trying to say, eh?”
Umbertino luxuriated in that growing doubt, the rising anxiety, the sense of danger that was ripening.
“Ah, now you’re acting as if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Then let me spell it out for you. For people like you, anyone who drinks their coffee with sugar is a total woman because you three, real macho men, you’re citizens who take your coffee bitter, look how strong you are, the flavor nice and pure, and sugar is something strictly for women, so that means that I, who was sitting here drinking my nice hot espresso with sugar, you’re telling me in front of my nephew that I’m just a woman.”
The customers murmured, considered, and after thinking it over, decided that he was right.
The three new arrivals, demonstrating an impeccable ability to assume a defensive crouch, immediately sensed the sudden change in the wind.
“Listen, I beg your pardon, I certainly meant no offense, I shouldn’t have spoken, entirely my fault.”
Umbertino’s face changed expression. One mask fell away, another fell into place.
“Then it was nothing at all! Everything’s been cleared up! Let’s all drink another cup of coffee together and we’re friends like before! Oh, obviously, your treat.”
The trio accepted eagerly. They even thanked him.
We left the café without paying.
“Did you understand?”
“What do you mean, what? Shit, I taught you a lesson.”
“About losing. About how to lose all personal dignity in thirty seconds. It’s a good thing that I’m here to explain life to you.”
“Uncle, can I ask you a question?”
“Be my guest.”
“Since when do you take your espresso with sugar?”
“Coffee with sugar, me? Have you lost your mind? Coffee with sugar is disgusting, you can’t drink it, shit, that’s a drink for women.”
“I forgot my wallet at home, Davidù, would you believe such a thing? Absurd, isn’t it? But listen, why don’t you tell me what you think of your time at the gym.”
“Uncle, it’s only been three days.”
“Well, tell me what you’re thinking anyway.”
* * *
The ward where Gerruso had been admitted was disgusting, full of sick people.
“Five minutes, then we’ll get out of here in a hurry, because I’m already fed up with this place,” said my uncle.
He told me he’d wait for me in the hallway, that just going in turned his stomach. And how could you disagree with him? Gerruso’s hospital room, aside from Gerruso, was empty. Even the other patients were avoiding him. Even his relatives. Better that way. I didn’t want anyone to know I’d come to visit him.
“Davidù! My friend.”
“We ain’t friends.”
“You came to see me!”
“Don’t get any funny ideas, my mother made me come. But listen, did they stitch the piece of finger back on?”
“Then you’re just a stump-finger! Serves you right, you idiot.”
“I know I am. Well, I came to see you, I’ve done my bit, ciao.”
In the hallway, Umbertino was leaning on the wall. His elbow was held high, his feet were crossed, his eyes were staring into the eyes of a chesty nurse.
“Uncle, we can go.”
“Davidù, what’s your hurry?”
He was telling her a heartbreaking story of friendship and severed fingers, of gunshots and a desire to come see the wounded boy, of a deeply moved uncle and a dark blue Fiat 126 hurtling at dangerous speed through dense traffic in order to bring a beloved nephew to the bedside of an unfortunate friend. Lowering his voice, his lips trembling, he confessed to her—“Oh, by the way, what’s your name? Ester? What a pretty name that is”—that at the sight of all that friendship his sensitive heart had cracked down the middle: “Right here, go ahead, you can touch.” He took her hand in his and guided it to that triumph of sculpted musculature that was his torso. Nurse Ester inadvertently let an admiring “Oh” escape her lips.
Because of him, I was stuck in the hospital for another twenty minutes with Gerruso.
“You came back! My friend!”
“Gerruso, you say that again I’ll club you to death. We ain’t friends.”
“Still, you came back!”
“Blame that on my uncle.”
“Your uncle is nice to me.”
“Sure, he’s so worried about you, no doubt.”
“Why are you shutting the door?”
“I don’t want anyone to see me talking to you, stump-finger. Anyway, I’m not going to talk to you at all.”
“I heard that you decked Pullara.”
“Who told you that?”
“My cousin Nina.”
The swing started to sway back and forth again. The hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach. My head was spinning. My throat was dry.
To regain control, I forced myself to start talking.
“Did you know that they took me to the gym?”
“To do what?”
“To box, worthless piece of crap. I come from a family of boxers: my father, my uncle. But my mother pitched a fit.”
“I don’t know, she said that I gotta study, that she won’t hear of it, that I can’t become a boxer, that sort of thing, women’s talk.”
“And so, first things first, if she got mad at me that’s your fault, if you hadn’ta cut off your finger, I wouldn’t have had to beat up Pullara, and none of this mess woulda happened.”
“I know it.”
“Well, the damage is done.”
“I’m really sorry.”
“Not as sorry as me. I made a deal with my mother. Really, Umbertino made the deal. I can if I make good grades at school.”
“Jesus, that’s tough.”
“Gerruso, I’m not an idiot like you. I’ve got all my fingers.”
“What does that have to do with it?”
“It matters, it matters. You’ve lost a part of you, you were already an idiot, now you’re more of one.”
“But, wait, if I’ve lost a part of me, I oughtta be less of an idiot, right?”
“What did your grandfather do for a living?”
“Traffic cop, same as my dad.”
“There, it’s obvious that you’re completely hopeless. If you’d had a grandfather who was a cook, like mine, you’d understand the intelligence of fingers.”
“Would you explain it to me?”
“You’re an idiot, you wouldn’t understand.”
“Hey, stump-finger, you wanna hear something great?”
“I learned to make fried rice balls: arancine!”
There wasn’t a trace of envy in Gerruso’s voice. That was too bad: What’s the point of telling someone something if it doesn’t make them even a little bit envious?
All the same, I explained my grandpa’s lesson to him: before beginning to boil the rice, he had me touch every grain with my fingertips.
“It’s the fingers that recognize the quality of the ingredients,” he had said.
His hands moved with agility, a caress for every ingredient. Then the boiling, the addition of saffron, meat sauce, and peas, the ball rolled in the breading, then the frying, and finally sheer admiration for the way that out of the incandescent oil there emerged an arancina a carne—a little meat orange—beautiful, spherical, appetizing, delicious.
“If you were a friend a mine, I’d have brought you one, Gerruso.”
“Thanks, that’s nice of you.”
Without warning, the door to the room swung open. Umbertino appeared in the doorway. He had the look of someone who expects to enjoy what’s about to happen.
“Davidù, see if you can guess who’s come to the hospital.”
A quick spark gleamed in the center of his pupils. In the silence that followed, I understood that I’d given the wrong answer, but I also sensed the pride that he felt when he heard me utter that name.
Umbertino did nothing more than step to one side.
Behind him, outside the door, with a bouquet of flowers in one hand, was Nina.
Red hair worn in a braid.
Light-colored dress, ankle-length.
Deep, dark eyes.
And the swing began to sway again.
Behind her, two adults. Nina had both a mother and a father. Gerruso’s aunt and uncle weren’t as ugly as their nephew, and they had all ten fingers. They went over to him and told him that it was just a matter of minutes, his parents were coming to see him. Nina was with them. She wasn’t looking at me.
I leaned against the wall. I felt weak and sick.
Why was Nina over there with Gerruso? He was ugly.
Why wouldn’t she come over to the wall with me? I still had all my fingers in one piece.
I couldn’t say or do anything.
The wall was all I had left.
Umbertino was already bending over me.
“Hey, everything all right?”
“Uncle, I’m sick.”
“Look me in the eyes. I said, look me in the eyes. Now.”
His voice was warm. He spoke softly, almost in a whisper.
“You’re not sick.”
“Oh, yes, I am.”
“Davidù, you’re just growing up, and what you’re discovering is that it’s not just your head that decides what and who you like, but your body, above all. Do you want to leave?”
He held out the palm of his hand to me. It was big and welcoming. I felt like crying and I didn’t know why.
“Best wishes to everyone, ladies and gentlemen; ciao, Gerruso, take care of yourself; ciao, youngster, you’re a sweetheart; ciao, Ester, I’ll call you tonight.”
I didn’t know whether Nina was responding to that farewell; I couldn’t bring myself to look in her direction.
And yet I had them, the words.
I had them.
They were the first words that had come to mind.
Nina, I wanted to tell her, look, my hand is clean, my fingers aren’t always covered in blood, can I twirl them in your hair until they vanish?
At the door, my uncle stopped.
“Davidù, someone wants to say goodbye to you.”
“Lift your head, light of my life.”
There was an unfamiliar gentleness in my uncle’s voice.
I lifted my head.
Nina was smiling at me and waving goodbye to me.
Then she raised her hand to her mouth and blew me a kiss.
And I died right then and there.
* * *
“Davidù, I’m sorry, I didn’t understand how much you like her.”
In the car, my uncle was patting my head.
I would have fallen to the ground at Nina’s feet if my uncle hadn’t held me up. My legs had betrayed me. There was a new knot of hardness in my groin.
“It’s normal to be ashamed. When you really like somebody, your body does strange things.”
“Did it happen to you, too, Uncle?”
“And did it get hard down there, too?”
“Like marble, if I do say so myself.”
“So I’m not sick?”
“Since when is feeling the life in your own body a sign of sickness? There is only one truth and it’s a simple one: that girl gets your blood up, with a vengeance.”
“Is it always that way when you like someone?”
“Even worse, kid. There are people, poor things, who instead of marble find a deflated balloon.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I knew that we’d get here sooner or later.”
“What do you mean by ‘here’?”
“The fact that you’re turning into a young man.”
There were no rough edges to his voice.
He spoke words as soothing as the taste of warm bread.
Words of a father.
He drove slowly, carefully. He listened to me listening. He confided in me, revealing to me fears, anxieties, sorrows, not shying away from the gray areas. He explained to me that when you like a girl, your penis swells up and gets stiff.
“And that’s good for when we’re in bed with them. Because as soon as you’re inside a woman, that’s when the fairy tale begins, but that’s something—listen to your uncle—that’s something you should never tell women, because women are such kissy creatures, it takes the patience of a saint, it’s a truth you’ll find written in the Gospels: blessed are those who put up with all the kisses of women without complaining before getting down to the real business. And in any case, no, the string doesn’t tear off, that’s all bullshit. Any other questions? No? Good, now your uncle is going to explain all the best positions for you.”
Umbertino was stripping himself bare. He warmed me up, spreading himself over me like a blanket. His memories proliferated along with the explanations. My heart felt lighter, even if a small thorn remained stuck in it and stubbornly refused to be plucked out. It was still there when I got home. My mother wasn’t home yet, but this time it was better that way. I stretched out on the bed and shut my eyes. The only thing I could feel was that tiny unexpected thorn. The one person I wanted with me, right then, wasn’t there. Nina. I wanted to show her my clean fingers, tell her that as far as I was concerned she had already won, she had both parents, I’d lost my father, so it was two to one, her favor. Also, I wanted my father. My father, whom I’d never met, was the one who should have been consoling me, not my uncle. It was my father who should have explained to me that I wasn’t sick, that my penis was standing up in a sign of respect for women, that the swing I felt surging back and forth in my stomach was just my heart dancing. An uncle is an uncle, not a father. But he wasn’t there next to me, and neither was Nina. I did what my mother often did: I shut the door to my bedroom and bit my pillow hard to make sure the rest of the world couldn’t hear me cry.
It would be five years before I saw Nina again.
* * *
For four days Rosario, stripped naked, had been stretched out in the sunlight.
On the first day, all the other grape harvesters chose not to pay any attention, dismissing him as odd.
“He’s completely crazy, never says a word to a soul, if he won’t work, he’ll have to hash it out with the boss, and what the fuck do we care about that.”
If he wouldn’t work, he wasn’t going to get paid, and it was none of their business.
The next day, the same scene; they began to mock him openly.
He ignored them.
On the third day, they progressed to outright insults and abuse, piecing together a mythical saga of his faggotry, but it fell on deaf ears. A stone is indifferent to the words of mankind.
It was on the fourth day of his sun worshipping that Melino Miceli, the row boss, renamed him La Nèglia, the worthless thing.
The nèglia is something that has no use. Once it has been recognized as devoid of any practical utility, a useless thing just gets in the way, generates confusion; it undermines the very idea of an established order. The larger relationship with the system of things is compromised. To describe something as worthless is an indication of defeat: no potential uses can be found, the interplay of possible combinations—or perhaps we should say: the imagination’s ability to create hypotheses—turns out not to be boundless. The thing, in all its infinite piety, sits there, on the mantelpiece, in a cardboard box, or in the garbage, intent on performing the most merciful act imaginable. It serves our ends, allowing us to do anything, allowing us to do to it what we will, never pronouncing judgment on our inadequacy.
But La Nèglia cared nothing for details like the harvest, his pay, the insults, being fired.
He’d been drafted.
He was slated to board a troopship, in two days’ time.
He was going to war.
How big a place could that be: Africa?
People said that there were no such things as shadows in Africa.
They said that all the savagery in the world was there, lions, snakes, negroes, in Africa.
His friend Nenè would have liked it.
“Come on, Nèglia, come drink the first glass with us.”
One of the harvesters brought my grandfather a glass full of wine. My grandfather opened his hand to take the glass.
“Look, La Nèglia is moving,” said one.
“When it’s time to drink, even the stones start to move,” opined another.
“Nèglia, drink it or I’ll cut your throat,” chimed in Melino Miceli.
In the silence that came in the wake of the threat, the rock decided to prove to the world that it was made of flesh and blood, and therefore capable of motion. It turned its head, it opened its eyes, and it tipped the glass, pouring the wine out onto the dirt.
Melino Miceli decided that the time had come to show why he and no one else was the row boss. Cursing a blue streak, he walked over to Rosario, turned to face him, and without a word of warning raised one arm. Silhouetted against the blue of the sky was a wooden club, gnarled and stout. A shadow fell over my grandfather’s face. Even then, he remained motionless.
* * *
“Still, this Melino Miceli, he was trouble. But why were you lying out in the sun?”
“What do you think?”
“For the same reason you wouldn’t drink.”
“Exactly. I was doing what you do every day.”
“I was training.”
“To withstand heat and thirst.”
* * *
The gnarled dark wooden club was swinging down from above to strike La Nèglia when a gleam of light illuminated the September air. The glass tumbler had already been tossed straight up by Rosario’s hand. The movement was so fast that none of the grape harvesters even saw it happen. The silence that ensued was dictated more by amazement than by dismay. The glass struck the row boss square in the face, tearing his forehead wide open. Melino Miceli lost his balance and the swinging club, deflected, just grazed my grandfather. On the ground, shards of glass glittered amid drops of blood and scattered grapes. Rosario put on his clothes, walked away from the grape harvest, went back home, and told them that he was being shipped out to Africa.
* * *
They set sail from the port of Trapani in mid-September 1942. There were 208 Sicilians. Nearly all the draftees were virtually illiterate, young men more accustomed to building roads than pushing pencils. They were scheduled to come home thirteen months later. They would actually return in the fall of 1945, after the war was over. The ship that brought them back to Sicily sailed from Alexandria, Egypt, and docked in the harbor of Palermo, where the surviving Sicilians debarked.
Two men walked down the gangplank.
One was a peasant.
The other was my grandfather Rosario.
* * *
The place my family chose to go to the beach was Cape Gallo, the promontory that protects Palermo to the north. A small sandy beach surrounded on all sides by rocky cliffs, excellent for diving and perfect for catching sea urchins. When my mamma was a girl, she collected pretty stones here to take home; my grandfather spent days at a time staring out at the horizon; my grandmother came here to study; and my father trained by running as far as the lighthouse and then all the way back home. All of them had a relationship with the sea that was predicated on silent, complicit contemplation. Not Umbertino. He was first and foremost tactile, and the instant he saw salt water, he dived into it, without stopping to think. Strip down and swim, to the brink of exhaustion, no matter what month it was, no matter the weather.
“Come on, a nice swim never hurt anyone.”
“Uncle, it’s April.”
“Jump in, scaredy-cat. Or should I throw you in myself?”
He rushed into the water with infectious enthusiasm. It was like watching a little kid. He dived and swam excellently well.
“Oh, hey, Davidù, the peace that the sea brings to my soul, not even the finest ass of the finest woman on earth, I swear.”
He taught me to swim.
“Swimming is a skill you need, we live on an island, if you want to get away, how you gonna do it? You gonna walk on the water like Whosis?”
And to dive headfirst.
“A manly man has to know how to dive headfirst. If you’re a fabulous diver, women feel like covering you in nice warm pajamas of drool.”
His instructions were straightforward.
“Watch me closely, my ass is clamped tight, it’s like solid steel, that’s the one thing you need to think about when you’re diving, your body will take care of the rest.”
His mountain of muscles described a harmonious curving trajectory in flight. He sliced into the water without splash or spray. During the lessons, he watched me, both from high atop the rocks and from below, at the water’s surface, correcting the motion with which I spread my arms, the elastic tension released into my gluteal muscles, the positioning of my hands.
“Keep your fingers nice and straight and your wrists tight and solid; your hand is what tells the water to move aside.”
One dive after another, Umbertino was doing his best to impart the technique that he considered the finest on earth: his own. Once I learned it, we began diving together, synchronized. Simultaneous liftoff, identical curve of the arms, spines straight, hurtling like needles into the flesh of the sea. Then we would swim. And that was when our dance truly became impressive. We swam identically. My uncle taught me the swimming style that he believed to be better than any other on the planet: his own. The windmilling arms, the open dorsals to slice through the waves at an angle, the rhythm of the mouth as it opened, took in air, expelled breath, the regular beat of the kicking legs, the foot entering on the diagonal, the position of the fingers. He was shaping my body to his tempo, his rhythms, imparting to the son of his favorite pupil his own syntax of motion.
A lady, seeing us swim together in a race that would inevitably end in my defeat, mistook us for father and son.
“Signora, has anyone told you that your husband and your son swim identically? You can certainly tell that they’re father and son.”
It was eleven in the morning, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but my mother’s face darkened all the same.
The lady was thunderstruck.
“Saint Rosalia protect us, what on earth did I say wrong?”
My grandmother weighed in and summer sunshine reigned again.
“They really are exactly alike, signora. In fact, you know what they resemble? Two fine gobs of spit.”
The lady burst out laughing, my mother shook off her gloom, the topic was forgotten, and the women were the best of friends for the rest of the day.
“It’s no accident that my first name is Provvidenza, Davidù. My jokes are always providential. Your grandfather was sitting on his usual bench looking out to sea, your mother was chattering away about what good report cards you brought home, you and your uncle were swimming, and I went back to my crossword puzzles because when it comes to puzzles, I don’t ever want you to forget this, I am phenomenally good.”
When Umbertino and I emerged from the water, our bodies told in detail how different our histories really were. Umbertino couldn’t seem to hold still for an instant, as if, when he was far away from the one place that give him peace, he sensed all the more intensely the dark current that ran through his blood, and so he hopped from one spot on the wave-lapped sand to another, pretending he’d lost his beach towel, and once he’d spotted an appetizing woman, he’d stretch out beside her.
“Please forgive me, signorina, but would you be so kind as to lend me your towel? I’m all alone, penniless, and dripping wet.”
In the face of such bold shamelessness, women invariably broke out laughing after a moment’s surprise, and gave him a towel to dry off. At this point, the pickup was half done, and we could forget about seeing Umbertino again until it was time to go home.
In contrast, the minute I emerged from the water, I stopped and stood there, drops of water running down my ribs, my eyes contemplating the sea before me, my body motionless in the hot sun. I became my grandfather Rosario.
* * *
When he told me about the bout that preceded the fight for the national championship, Umbertino was lucid and pitiless.
“I didn’t feel a thing, Davidù. Not a thing.”
In a city that wasn’t his, surrounded by people with different, incomprehensible accents, without Il Negro in his corner, with all the bookies taking long odds against him, Umbertino held it all in, pressed it down. He didn’t say a word to anyone. He didn’t let a thing cross his face. He didn’t issue a single statement.
“It was like being at the aquarium: water and silence. It was magnificent.”
During the weigh-in, he noticed that he’d shed five pounds, 260 against his opponent’s 289.
The bout ended with a knockout in the first round.
The day before the bout, Umbertino had had trouble relaxing. He talked to the concierge at his pensione.
“Where is the red-light district in this town?”
The whores were so ugly that he informed one overly pushy pimp: “They ought to be paying me for the sex.”
He agreed to accept the pimp’s apology after crushing three fingers on his right hand and instructing him to the effect that knives are dangerous playthings, especially when you have someone like him on the wrong end of the hilt. He cadged a pack of cigarettes and smoked half. He thought about Il Negro, about the plans they’d hatched together, the betting odds. He felt a surge of anger and accepted it, the way you accept the rain when you have no umbrella. He went back to the gym where he was scheduled to fight the next day, asked who was taking bets, and bet every penny of his savings on himself. The sun was shining brightly out in the street, but without the sea stretching out the sunlight meant nothing. When darkness fell, he went back to his pensione. He slept like a baby.
The match started at four in the afternoon. Umbertino was received with universal indifference while his opponent was greeted with applause and shouts of encouragement. He was a boxer from Milan, twenty-eight years old. He had a record of forty-one victorious fights, he was the odds-on favorite, and he was the current reigning champion of Italy. What was about to happen in the ring was beyond what anyone present could imagine. It was thirty seconds of sheer terror. The instant the referee released the boxing gloves, Umbertino hurled himself against his opponent with every ounce of his strength, forcing him into the corner. That morning, as he looked at himself in the mirror, he had sworn a solemn oath: no marks on his face. He had a goal. He was determined to achieve it. He possessed everything he would need: an icy calm. Not the calm of a surgeon about to operate; a surgeon can always fail. He was the scalpel. The same detachment, the same indifference. The boxer from Milan was hit full-force by a tsunami. A punch to the spleen and the wind was knocked out of him, a hook to the temple and his balance was lost, an uppercut to the stomach to force his body to fight to stay on its feet. And then over again from the beginning, same sequence, spleen temple stomach. After just seven seconds and twelve hits, the Milanese was vomiting gastric juices and blood. Umbertino increased the pace of his punches. Fifteen seconds later, the reigning champion passed out. Umbertino landed an uppercut to the chin, knocking him backward over the ropes and onto the floor outside the ring. The reporters used new metaphors to describe what they’d just seen and admired. One compared my uncle to a cannibal, another to a lion, while yet another dubbed him Umberto Furioso, all of them doing their best to explain the absolute novelty of a boxer who was at once so unrestrained and so fast. Their articles hailed the pioneer of a surprising new form of boxing. An unprecedented mix of speed, power, and agility. One journalist went so far as to employ the adjective unreal. Someone else wrote that they had gazed admiringly on a young god. Yet another wondered whether right then and right there a new chapter was not being written in the history of boxing, and not just in Italy. On one point, all the reporters agreed: my uncle was now a boxer without rival in the whole country.
* * *
Franco the Maestro did his best to explain Umbertino’s impenetrable approach to boxing. The comparison he made was to the sea: “rain or shine, wind or fine weather, the sea don’t give a damn, because the sea is never what’s on the surface, the sea is what lies below, what you never get a glimpse of. Young man, your uncle was the most powerful fighter I’d ever seen in my life, until the Paladin bounded onto the stage. How can you hammer the sea with fists? It’s bigger, way too big, way too strong. There’s water down below with more water underneath it. The sea is sufficient unto itself.”
* * *
On the day of the championship match, my uncle was the odds-on favorite. His opponent was a trivial flyspeck in comparison. Moreover, the bout was going to be held right in Palermo. Umbertino had sweated blood to get a shot at this fight. The national championship. The goal was within reach.
Negro, why did you leave? If only you’d come back.
But there wasn’t going to be any unannounced return, no big surprise. Ships ply the sea and deposit their passengers elsewhere, in other ports, other lands, other languages. Il Negro was a dead letter. It was time to turn the page. To continue down the path he had chosen for himself. Looking at himself in the mirror, he swore no oath. He emerged from the locker room and climbed into the ring. A chill descended over the room.
* * *
Umbertino chose his words carefully. Even in the endless match against his own memory, my uncle took positions and carried on the fight. We were alone the time he told me about the championship fight. He eliminated the possibility of intrusions, annoyances, other human beings. It was me, him, and his demons. He spoke with perfect stoicism. To remember still caused him enormous pain. Not everyone has a chance to fight for the national heavyweight title. And lose.
* * *
What really happened. Understand. Review. Regain mental clarity. And so, one stroke after another, swim and remember.
The movement became increasingly self-aware, the body was moving away from the shore, the tensions clashed in Umbertino’s bloodied face.
At the end of the tenth and final round of the championship fight, the hall echoed with whistles and catcalls. Disapproval manifests itself best in hysterical and out-of-control reactions. The faces of both boxers were a mess. Blood everywhere. Ten rounds for a total of one fuck of a lot of pain received and inflicted. His opponent had sprawled out on the canvas twice, in the second and fifth rounds. My uncle had never gone down, and yet his face hadn’t been so badly battered even in the fight against Il Negro. When the referee read out the decision, the sprinkling of applause in the hall failed to drown out the insults. In his own corner, Umbertino had no one with whom to share his defeat. He left the ring without taking off his gloves. He walked down the hall through a rain of jeers and spit, entered the locker room, closed the door behind him, took off his gloves, and started to wreck the place.
What had happened.
First round. The two boxers were sizing each other up. His opponent was slow to block a left hook. My uncle connected twice, the first hook to the cheekbone, the second to the temple.
Second round. An uppercut that emerged from a left feint. His opponent took a punch to the chin. He dropped to the mat, as did his two front teeth. He got back to his feet. He could take a lot of punishment, the information they had on him was checking out. Umbertino kept his distance for the rest of the round. Everything was looking good.
A manager in his corner could have offered some tips. Could have helped him to modify his strategy. That’s why you have one, to suggest new ways to attack. To lend a shoulder to lean on. But his corner was empty. Il Negro had dumped him, just a few steps short of the summit. He’d have to do it all on his own.
End of the third round. He’d only taken a few shots, just to prove to himself that he was much faster than his opponent.
* * *
He gave no interviews. After destroying the locker room, he left dressed in a tracksuit, without even taking a shower. He crossed Palermo at a dead run, bag slung over his shoulder, legs devouring yard after yard, heading for the sea. He yearned to lose himself in a fight, stop thinking entirely, punch to kill. He reached Cape Gallo. That’s where he was forced to stop, the road had come to an end. The blood mixed with sweat had turned his face into something nightmarish. On that cloudless night, the glow of moonlight reflected on the surface of the sea only increased his rage. He’d lost the fight. He couldn’t seem to get over it. God, what he’d have given to cross paths with any human being at that moment and beat him to death. His prayers were answered. There was a man sitting on a metal bench. A leer dating back to the time of falling bombs sliced Umbertino’s face in two. Five eerily silent strides and Umbertino was standing in front of him.
“What’s the matter, can’t you see the water anymore? Eh? You want me to move? So why don’t you try and move me? Eh? What are you doing, you moving instead, you little pussy? Do I disgust you, all scratched up the way I am? What, are you scared? Are you disgusted? Eh?”
His hands were clutching at the air. Come on, answer me rudely, do something, anything, a gesture, a word, anything at all, come on, just let me kill you.
The man sitting on the bench didn’t move.
That’s not what my uncle was expecting. He wanted to breathe in the man’s terror, feed off his fear. He wasn’t looking to vent his anger. He wanted to destroy. He cocked his arm to unleash a blow that contained all the might he possessed.
What happened next was something he never could have imagined.
Suddenly both of the man’s hands were pressed against his. Of course, they wouldn’t have stopped the blow, they weren’t a sufficiently solid shield.
That wasn’t the point.
Umbertino hadn’t seen that attempt at self-defense coming. There were only two people that fast on earth, as far as he knew. And one of them was him. He relaxed the tension in his back. The other was Il Negro. That kind of speed couldn’t be ignored. It demanded respect. He stared into the man’s eyes and recognized that look. It was identical to his own. The look of a survivor.
He felt the sting of the cuts on his face. He was starting to listen to his body again. At the same time, his memory unearthed a scene that he felt certain he’d buried. The first time that Il Negro showed him how to work the bag. There are two ways: the first is when the bag is moving away from you, and that’s when the punch will be a way of letting off steam, thrown long, your arm opening out wide. The second is when the bag is coming toward you, a punch you throw low, elbows pressed close against your rib cage. Never throw a punch at a bag that’s hanging motionless. You have to hit something that’s moving, either to knock it off balance or halt its motion. Life is movement, what’s immobile is dead. When you hit a motionless bag, all you do is destroy your fingers.
“Oh, hey, so now what?”
The answer took the form of a question, uttered in a faint voice.
“Do you know how to swim?”
Umbertino’s mind was beginning to clear.
“I’m a fabulous swimmer.”
The man tilted his head forward, in a sign of assent.
Umbertino stripped off his clothes and dived into the sea.
It was March. The water was freezing. Excellent, that would wake his body up and wash away the blood. The salt would disinfect the cuts. Taking a swim had been a good idea. Stroke after stroke, his swimming style changed from raw fury to pure harmony.
* * *
Fourth round. Punch and move away, one leap at a time. There was still a long time to go. Too long.
Fifth round. He let fly with a left hook, catching his opponent full in the forehead. The other man dropped to the mat. The referee counted to six. The other man stood up.
He could win whenever he chose.
Umbertino was a furious reed, indifferent to the river’s flow.
Sixth round. By this point he was taking punches, and that was about it. A hook to his jaw, countless uppercuts to his abdominals, a right cross that connected with his nose. There was blood on his face again. This was a different fight. Seventh round. My uncle was no longer attacking. He took a long series of punches to his sides. During the eighth round, his left eyebrow was laid open. In the ninth round his upper lip was cut. It didn’t matter. It didn’t prove a thing. He thought about Giovannella. She wouldn’t have been proud of him. Oh well, that’s life. When the gong rang ending the tenth round and the match, the audience was worked up into a demonic frenzy.
The referee read the decision. Umbertino had lost the title on points.
But no one had ever explained to him that the higher the goal, the more disastrous the fall. The instant the referee proclaimed his defeat, the roots of the cane plant were cut away, and Umbertino’s sanity and tranquillity went drifting downstream.
* * *
“I felt … no, it wasn’t that I felt, no. I was. I was alone. I didn’t even have a trainer in my corner or a woman to go home to.”
“Did you cry?”
“In my way; I broke everything in sight.”
“No, I mean in the sea, when you were swimming.”
* * *
As the water streamed over his skin, my uncle’s thoughts regained some kind of order. The signs began to illustrate shapes possessed of a meaning all their own. The grand overarching design emerged, crystal clear, necessary. Umbertino reversed course, swimming for shore now, considering what needed to be done from that point forward: open up a fine new boxing gym, there wasn’t a fucking thing even close to that in Palermo, the plan would proceed as established, the sea washed away anger and blood. The cuts on his face would heal and scar, the damage to his pride would remain invisible, it was just a matter of training himself to get over defeat, that was all. By the time he emerged from the water, his gaze had regained its razor-sharp edge. The predator had just changed packs. The light of the moon cast his shadow across the rocks. The man sitting on the bench went on staring intently at the sea. Umbertino sat down beside him, without drying off. He told him everything. Without shyness, without shame. Il Negro, the bombs, the prostitutes, the championship fight he lost, the bets, the plan for the boxing gym, Giovannella.
Before getting up, he asked him: “What is it you keep staring at so intently?”
Rosario looked him right in the eye and told him.
Umbertino got up from the bench, got dressed, and picked up his bag.
They parted without another word.
* * *
The sun no longer burned their skin. It had penetrated their cores, darkening the color of their flesh.
“We’re flesh and sunlight, now,” Lieutenant D’Arpa liked to say.
“We look like natives,” Melluso would reply.
The night was greeted as a welcome liberation from the heat of the day.
Rosario, lying on his cot, hugged his rib cage, running his fingers up and down the staircase of his ribs. Eyes closed and index finger wide awake, counting them every night. Now he knew that he had twelve ribs on both his right and left side.
For the past month, every goddamned night, there had been air raids. As soon as it became clear that the bombing runs were spaced two hours apart, the bodies of certain soldiers learned to fall asleep after the last roaring sound of an aircraft, only to reawaken with surprising efficiency about twenty minutes before the next raid. But not everyone could manage that trick. Only the lucky ones. Among them, there were no cases of hysteria, no sudden outbursts of rage.
Rosario asked Nicola Randazzo if he would mind letting him count his ribs for him. The other man agreed. Rosario’s fingers explored his rib cage. If men have the same number of ribs, then their bodies are equal. It’s the mind that must be different.
“Nicola, you have to find a way to get some sleep.”
“But what about the bombs?”
“If I don’t?”
“You won’t live to see next week.”
“Why would you say such a thing?”
If he had been someone who liked to talk, he would have explained that they were at war, that if they wanted to survive they’d have to surpass their own limitations, that the mouth eats rice but dreams of meat, the mind eats nightmares and dreams of eternal rest. But eating a handful of rice is just as necessary as having nightmares: it helps to keep you from dying.
“Eating is how you satisfy your appetite” was all he said.
By the third consecutive week of nightly raids, nearly everyone had become accustomed to the roar of aircraft. There were only three cases of hysteria, of soldiers who couldn’t seem to sleep. After a month, the air raids stopped. The shifts of sentry duty were intensified. Double shifts. Watch out for everything, hope to see nothing.
* * *
“I don’t give a crap what anyone says, tomorrow I’m going to fuck a whore not once but twice, and if she dares to say a word, I’ll cut her face.”
To heighten the theater of his pledge, Vincenzo Melluso sank the blade of his knife into the embers. When he removed it the blade was as straight as before; it makes no difference to a knife whether it’s plunged into coals or into flesh.
The sky above them was so big and full of stars that it really did look as if it were curving around the earth.
“Asshole of a peasant, why don’t you tell us exactly what you’re going to do to your whore tomorrow?”
Melluso had tossed the question in Randazzo’s direction, to see the hot flush explode across his face; Nicola didn’t like to talk about women and fucking.
“Randazzo, are you blushing? But why? Is it because you’d rather find a negro hung like a donkey in your tent some night, instead of a whore?”
Melluso had never much liked black guys, even though he’d never seen one back in Palermo. Before enlisting, Melluso was a layabout, he didn’t even have a job. He wasted time the way some people waste paper. The war was his first real job.
The silence of Africa surrounded the soldiers, seeping into them like the hot sun.
“No doubt about it, all this silence, a guy could lose his mind, right, Santin?”
Santin was from the continent, from up north near Verona, where they don’t have salt water. Santin would talk about the taste of dirt, and tell how his father, Gilberto, before starting any job, pruning, sowing, or watering, would chew some dirt, savoring the taste; sometimes he’d spit it out, other times he’d swallow it. His father never talked much. He’d taught him to listen to nature.
“I happen to like silence.”
Santin was big and strong, with the taurine neck and broad hands of someone descended from generations of farmers.
“Oh, hey, you mute, you could take a swim in all this silence.”
For the past couple of weeks, Melluso had made a habit of insulting Rosario. “The mute here, the mute there, the mute this, the mute that.” And the mute, faithful to his name, made no reply. Melluso threw a rock at him, hitting him on the shoulder. Rosario slowly turned around.
“Look, the mute is looking at me, I’m shitting my pants now,” said Melluso. Then he waved a fuck-off in his direction and poured himself a cup of tea.
It was Mino Iallorenzi, the son of a blacksmith and the grandson of a blacksmith and a blacksmith himself in the Acqua Santa quarter of Palermo, who broke the silence.
“Well, all the same, it’s just not right that you can only fuck a whore once.”
“Then you do the one and only smart thing you can do.”
“And what would that be, D’Arpa?”
“Iallorenzi, do I have to teach you everything?”
Lieutenant Francesco D’Arpa was a Fascist fundamentalist. Born in Monreale into a family of large landowners, he had an enviable command of logic. He said that a problem can be defined as such because a solution exists, and since there is always a solution, the problem actually doesn’t exist.
“Iallorenzi, give yourself a good hand job, oh, fifteen, twenty minutes before you fuck her, so that practically speaking with the whore it’s already the second time, and the second fuck always lasts longer than the first one.”
Iallorenzi greeted the suggestion with a smile; he’d give that some serious thought—damn if D’Arpa didn’t have a powerful brain.
Carmine Marangola had pulled the tea tin out of the embers and poured himself a glassful.
“What the hell kinda problems are these? Let’s not kid around here.”
He was from Posillipo. Born into a family of fishermen, he talked about the sea, fish traps, boats, different ways of cutting up tuna, hooks, riptides, currents, shifts in the wind, sails, herbs and spices for cooking fish. He was missing the fourth toe on his right foot. Two years previous, during a December storm at sea, he’d fallen overboard into waters so cold they were icy. He’d managed to clamber back aboard the launch, but he was so absorbed in navigating his craft through waves, tides, and whirlpools that he hadn’t had a second to take off his waterlogged shoes. The storm had lasted for three days and the toe had simply rotted away. When he got back to port, they amputated the toe; he’d sunk his teeth into a length of hawser to fight the pain.
“Whores are whores. You, Iallorenzi, are you a whore or are you a man?”
“I’m a man, Marangola, what the hell are you talking about?”
“Then act like a man: you walk in, you fuck her, and you pay your money, in total silence.”
“In total silence?”
Francesco D’Arpa had taken the floor again.
“The dick doesn’t want to think about things.”
And yet there were thoughts, and then some. The fear of catching some nasty disease, the amount of money required to pay for the whore’s services, how much time was available for fucking. The last time, a brawl had erupted when a soldier from Rome insisted on staying with the whore until he had a chance to come. There was an unwritten rule, and everyone adhered to it: ten minutes max; if you manage to come, so much the better and everyone’s happy, if not, amen, make your peace with it and make room for the next in line. The important thing wasn’t finishing, it was getting your dick wet. It’s good for morale, according to the higher-ups in the army. The rule was annoying but necessary: the last time there had been a hundred and eight soldiers and only four black whores. Three soldiers had marched into the tent, lifted the Roman from between the whore’s thighs, and hauled him away by force. The Roman not only slid into a state of hysteria, he started saying things he shouldn’t. He shouted for all to hear that he was the only real man there and that everyone else was a queer who took it up the ass. A couple of vigorous kicks in the mouth restored calm to the situation. A few new gaps in the Roman’s teeth served as a salutary reminder to one and all how dangerous it could be to linger in the tent even one second past the prescribed time limit.
Iallorenzi was watching as sparks flew up from the brazier, fluttering and then vanishing, as if the night were swallowing them up.
“Let’s at least hope that this time the whores aren’t black,” said Melluso.
“How do you want yours?”
“And right you are,” chimed in Marangola.
“Of course I’m right, our whores are the best there are.”
Rosario couldn’t really agree. The first time he’d gone to a whore he was thirteen and he was with his friend Nenè. They’d stolen the money from a Capuchin priest, a total fraud who’d more than deserved the theft. They’d crept into the crypt of the monastery, pried open the offering box, and taken to their heels. They were so eager to lose their virginity that they’d rushed over to the first whore they could find, in an alley behind the Albergo delle Povere, the poorhouse for women.
The whore was fat and missing a front tooth; her legs were covered with bruises.
Nenè was firm: “Rosà, we decided we’d fuck the first one we found, and this is the first one, so let’s go.”
“Who fucks first?”
Rosario had walked into the bedroom. The whore had been anything but motherly with him. She’d greeted him with a tired smile, she’d demanded his money, she’d counted it and stowed it in the nightstand drawer, she’d told him to undress, she’d washed his dick in a basin of water, she’d hiked up her skirts, lain down on the bed, and let him mount her, then she’d told him to get up and get dressed, she’d lowered her dress, opened the door, and ushered him out into the hall, then she’d welcomed his friend Nenè into the room, she’d demanded his money, she’d counted it, told him to undress, washed his dick in the same basin with the same water, hiked her skirts, and so yet another virginity ended between her thighs.
Rosario never saw his best friend, Nenè, again after the end of that summer. A landowner in a town near Enna needed laborers, Nenè’s family needed cash, and the two friends were separated: Rosario living just outside Palermo, Nenè lost in the island’s hinterlands. When Rosario thought about whores, he remembered that first time and what Nenè had said, then and there, as they walked out of that bedroom: “Oh, hey, that whore was so ugly that I wouldn’t fuck her again even with your dick.” They both burst out laughing so hard that their sides started hurting. On their way home that night, they made up their minds that the very next day they’d get busy trying to pick up two pretty young girls and they’d fuck them even faster than immediately, after all, whatever there was to know about it, they already knew it.
“Because anyway, Rosà, if we’ve managed to fuck such an ugly whore, two things are clear: first of all, we ain’t virgins no more, and second, our dicks just work too damn well.”
“No, our whores aren’t the best,” Rosario replied aloud without deigning to look in Melluso’s direction. No one had anything to say about that. When a mute finally speaks, you check the exact weight of every word that comes out of his mouth.
* * *
Sitting between Moreno Santin and Nicola Randazzo on the right side of the army truck, Rosario looked out over the infinite expanse of Africa. Marangola was whistling a tune, Melluso was sleeping, Iallorenzi was slapping the mosquitoes that had targeted his legs, and D’Arpa was counting out loud the Africans that they passed along the way.
“Seven, eight, nine. Nine Africans in ten kilometers. For sure, things look different in this Africa, Rosario. You can see that the world is less curved here, you see a tree, you tell yourself, ‘I’m going to go over there and get in the shade,’ and you walk and you walk and you walk, and the tree is still all the way out there, still in the distance. There are no obstacles, here the eye can take in everything even at great distances.”
Nicola Randazzo asked Lieutenant D’Arpa the names of a number of the animals they passed. Sometimes, not even D’Arpa knew the answer.
Iallorenzi was the only one to say out loud what everyone else had been thinking for days.
“Let’s hope that today at least there are fewer of us soldiers than last time, and that there are a lot more of the whores.”
There were one hundred eighty-one soldiers and three whores.
It would be very late by the time they got a chance to fuck.
There was even an official communiqué announcing that the minutes allotted were being reduced from ten to seven. Disgruntlement was widespread.
“No self-respecting man can hope to come in less than seven minutes, chief.”
Melluso suggested the group split up, a few soldiers in each of the three lines.
“That way, afterward, we can report back on the details.”
After an hour, one of the lines was eliminated. Something had happened. It never became clear exactly what it was, but a stretcher was carried into the tent and emerged shortly therafter, carrying the whore. She seemed to be sleeping but maybe she’d only fainted. Now there were two lines. Iallorenzi, Marangola, Melluso, and Randazzo in the first line, everyone else in the second. The wait was grueling, they had run out of water, the soldiers put on a show of confidence but deep down they were dying of anxiety. Fear had begun to seep into the crowd, with growing insistency: the fear that when all was said and done, just when anticipation was reaching a crescendo, they might not get their dicks wet after all. They passed the time by putting on a show of nonchalance that was as contrived as it was essential. Amid the most complete indifference, a third line formed: those who had been forced to abandon their efforts midstream had decided to finish off here, in broad daylight, the work they’d been unable to complete in the tent.
Only one fight broke out: a guy from Favara miscalculated and a spurt of sperm wound up on the tip of Santin’s shoe.
“Now clean it up.”
Before the Favarese had a chance to say a word, his head was already on the ground, clamped between Santin’s hands, inches from the sperm-stained tip of Santin’s shoe.
“Now lick it off.”
A fellow Favarese tried to build a groundswell in his townsman’s defense, but he soon realized just how massively uninterested everyone else was in pitching in. Without remorse, he decided to say to hell with it, there were still twelve soldiers in line ahead of him, better to just save his strength for a fine fuck just as the Gospel says.
“Melluso, Randazzo,” said Iallorenzi, “listen, Marangola and I have just had a great idea. Seven minutes is less than no time at all. Why don’t we go in two at a time? That gives us twice as much time. Marangola and I are going in together, you do the same and you’ll get twice as much time, too.”
“What if the whore has something to say about it?”
“Randazzo, let me tell you the way the world works: in the first place, she’s a whore, in the second place, she’s black, and in the third place, I don’t give a damn, I’m walking in there, I’m paying my money, and I’m going to fuck her the way I say,” Melluso broke in angrily.
Nicola Randazzo looked around and tried to catch Rosario’s or D’Arpa’s eye in the next line over, but he couldn’t attract their attention. They were watching a soldier lick the toe of a shoe.
* * *
Nenè often said that he wished he could be a sailor, so that he could touch every corner of the world.
“I trust my hands more than I trust my eyes,” he used to say.
They smoked their first cigarette together, at age eight. Rosario won that cigarette in a footrace against Michele, the son of Don Salomone, the pharmacist. Michele had filched a whole pack of cigarettes from his father’s bedroom and he boasted about it openly, showing the pack to his friends: look at what fine cigarettes I have; look at how many I have; here, smell them, what a fine odor. Rosario proposed a bet: his glass filled with fishing worms, fresh from the ground, just caught, still alive and squirming, against the pack of cigarettes.
“Race all the way to the church wall, what do you say?”
Rosario was slender, narrow-shouldered, skinny-legged. Michele Salomone, from the full height of his ten years of age, evaluated the offer, sized up his opponent, and calculated accordingly. He’d grind him to dust. Leaning forward, waiting for the starting signal, Michele Salomone looked Rosario in the face and uttered his prediction.
“You know why you can’t possibly win? Because you’re a nèglia.”
The first taste of tobacco is harsh and sour; the tongue becomes acquainted with new realms of bitterness, the eyes fill with tears, and the ears echo with coughing. But how good that first cigarette remains in one’s memory.
“Rosà, why on earth did you challenge him?”
“I’m faster than you, Nenè.”
“That’s an eyeful of horseshit.”
“You saying you could beat me?”
“And the winner?”
“The winner takes all the cigarettes.”
“Fine. From here to there.”
They counted together, one two three. They shot off at top speed. They ran, breathless, as fast as they could go, from here to there, pushing past their personal best. Nenè won.
* * *
“Okay, then we’re in agreement, Marangola.”
“Yes, one in front, and one behind.”
“Where are you going to be?”
“I can be anywhere, Melluso, as long as I’m a long way from your balls.”
Randazzo had decided to move to the other line, he wasn’t interested in sharing his whore with another man. It was his fault that Melluso wouldn’t be enjoying twice as much time. Melluso swore he’d make him pay for it.
The minutes crept by; it was if they weren’t passing at all. The soldiers maintained their positions, standing or on the ground, sweating, flies and mosquitoes everywhere, nothing to drink. This isn’t how it should be when someone goes to have a fuck. Santin had asked the other soldiers as they emerged what the whore on his line was like. He received a lapidary, terse, and unanimous response: “The minute you go in, you’ll see for yourself.”
Randazzo sat down on the ground, his head between his hands: “D’Arpa, I don’t really know if I feel like it, if you want, you can have my time, if that’s something that can be done.”
“Nicola, stop talking nonsense. You go in before me and you fuck before I do.”
“No buts, now you shut up and get some rest.”
Two hours later, their turn had almost come. There was an enlisted man inside the tent, and after him, Santin was next in line, followed by Rosario, Randazzo, and last of all, D’Arpa. In the other line, Melluso, Iallorenzi, and Marangola still had three people ahead of them. Only a few minutes before the Venetian was due to enter the tent a scream suddenly exploded from the whore. The enlisted man must have tried something bad, fucked up. Santin grabbed the man as he rushed frantically out of the tent, knocked him to the ground, and set on him with a hailstorm of fists.
“You bastard, I can’t stand guys who try to hurt my whore.”
A few men went in to check on the whore’s physical condition. The medical officer restored calm to the ranks by announcing that everything was fine, there had been an unsuccessful attempt at sodomy, nothing serious, next man in line step forward, please.
Then it was Rosario’s turn. He found himself standing before a little girl, twelve, maybe thirteen years old. She was black, stretched out on her back on a cot, spread-eagled. By that point, she couldn’t even close her legs; she’d held them wide for five hours in a row. On the floor, next to a tin pail, was a sponge to wash off blood and sperm. Rosario stopped looking, dropped his pants, and fucked the whore.
Iallorenzi and Marangola walked in, together with Melluso. They’d decided to go in as a trio, eighteen minutes instead of twenty-one, sacrificing a minute each of their allotted time in exchange for a longer if more crowded stay. “Boys, you’ll get in three minutes early.” But something went wrong, and Iallorenzi came rushing out and dragged the medical officer back into the tent with him, while what remained of the line was rerouted to the only tent still in service. They answered the medical officer’s questions by insisting that it had been an accident, just a prank turned serious, they definitely hadn’t meant for it to happen.
They got back to camp three hours after sunset, just in time for the ten o’clock allied bombing raid.
* * *
“The moon in Africa is bigger than the sun in Palermo, Davidù.”
When there was a bombing raid, the airplanes glittered in the moonlight, as if they were made of silver. And above the enemy planes: so many stars that it was was impossible to count them. You could sketch any image you had in your head up there in the firmament: an orange tree, a horse-drawn carriage, Nenè smiling. The starlight was interrupted only when a bomb exploded on the earth in a flash of light.
“What were you thinking about during those air raids?”
“About water what?”
“Maybe a bomb—I don’t know—might make water pour out of the ground.”
“Like a spring?”
“Did it ever happen?”
* * *
Nicola Randazzo was weeping. Rosario got out of his cot and got into bed beside him, watching him silently. The patience of the open door. Randazzo noticed him, dried his tears, and told him everything. Rosario’s silence was free of judgment. When Randazzo was done with his story, he turned over and tried to get to sleep, but that was easier said than done. Nicola went on emitting a faint and broken whimper.
A short time earlier, outside the latrines, Melluso had said to him: “Randazzo, will you come around back with me?”
He’d slammed his face into the wall.
He’d hit him over and over again in the temple with a fist wrapped in a wet washcloth, to make sure he left no marks.
“So you didn’t want to go in to see the whore with me.”
He slammed his knee into Randazzo’s kidneys.
When Randazzo collapsed to the ground, breathless, head spinning, Melluso screwed him from behind.
* * *
The orders arrived in the middle of the night, and they brooked no objections. Make preparations to evacuate the encampment, enemy forces had broken through the front. Three minutes after six in the morning, the withdrawal got under way. They set out on foot, shouldering their rucksacks, avoiding the beaten paths, moving out along the rocky wilderness. They were expected to cover forty miles of ground in the shortest time possible, and the temperature in direct sunlight was hovering at just under 120 degrees. Water rations were distributed before they began their march, half a canteen apiece. The line moved forward in silence. The soldiers had learned the importance of economizing on effort, and talking demanded greater salivation, and saliva spelled thirst. By twelve noon, the situation was desperate. Five men had passed out, Iallorenzi had vomited from exhaustion, and Randazzo was losing blood from his asshole. Francesco D’Arpa stopped to help both men. He helped Iallorenzi get back on his feet and he offered his right shoulder to Nicola for support. All around them, in every direction, stretched the desert. Rosario could feel his upper lip cracking from dehydration, but not a drop of blood emerged. Hands held out to shield his eyes, he turned just as Melluso unstoppered his canteen. They crashed into each other. The canteen dropped out of his hands and the water sank into the sand. Melluso hurled himself at Rosario. He managed to land a punch to his ear. D’Arpa pulled them apart.
“Melluso, what the fuck are you doing?”
“He made me drop my water.”
Rosario had gotten back to his feet. He was brushing himself clean of sand.
Melluso leveled his forefinger straight at him.
“I’ll murder you, you worthless piece of crap.”
La Nèglia was back.
Fifteen minutes later, the soldiers were lined up, side by side, hands in the air. The enemy had caught up with them, in trucks, with machine guns. My grandfather’s whole division surrendered without a single shot fired.
* * *
The line was falling apart. Pushed to the brink by exhaustion or dehydration, prisoners were hitting the ground here and there. The first request to get back on their feet took the form of a kick in the ribs. There was no second request. Those who failed to get up were killed. D’Arpa and Rosario helped Nicola Randazzo to walk, holding him up by the lapels of his uniform. The shivering was getting worse, sunstroke and collapse increasingly likely. After two hours, Santin, the one in the group least accustomed to the fierce lash of harsh sunlight, slammed to the dirt. He fell straight onto the rocks without stopping to teeter on his knees. An enemy officer shouted something, presumably an order to get back on his feet. No answer. A pistol shot confirmed, as if confirmation was needed, that there was no time to waste. The body was left where it had fallen, to be gnawed at by flies and insects. One of the soldiers asked to be allowed to give him a decent burial, none of the rest had the saliva to utter a word. During the march they lost three more comrades. They reached their destination in the middle of the night. An old oasis that had been refitted as a prison camp. There was no water, there were no beds, there were no latrines. An enclosure formed by a wall on one side and barbed-wire fencing on the other three, too tall and too dense for anyone to dream of breaking through. The prisoners were a herd of oxen, but without the luxury of a watering trough. That first night there was an escape attempt, a youngster from Crotone in Calabria, not even twenty. He was immediately caught and tossed back into the prison. For the first time, the guards spoke to the prisoners in Italian. They told them that escape was impossible, and that, moreover, every attempt would be punished by depriving the prisoners of water for two days. That punishment would begin immediately. D’Arpa went over to the young Calabrian and invited him to sit down next to him. Their jailers were trying to get them to turn on one another. No one raised a hand to the boy, no one upbraided him. On the second night, the Calabrian tried to escape again, but he was stopped by four prisoners. Three of them held him motionless, but it was D’Arpa who decked him with a powerful punch to the balls.
“If you try to escape again and they cut off our water for two more days, I will kill you with my own hands.”
* * *
“Nicola, cup your hands together and do me a favor, don’t spill a drop. Then I’ll do the same for you.”
D’Arpa was having Randazzo help him collect his own urine. If he was saying those words, if he was doing this thing, it wasn’t because the sun had driven him mad. It must have a basis in fact. He was someone who’d been to school. Everyone watched the sequence of events carefully: examples help you to survive. When they saw that the lieutenant had urinated into their comrade’s hands and then had drunk it without vomiting or fainting, all reluctance vanished. Some of them cupped their hands beneath their genitals and tried peeing into them, but it’s already hard to control your flow under normal conditions, forget about trying to do it when you’re delirious from thirst. And so for some of them the first gush of pee was lost on the rocks, evaporating in the blink of an eye. Watch, observe, learn: D’Arpa had peed into another man’s hands. He couldn’t afford to waste a single drop of potable liquid. All they had to do was find a fellow prisoner they could trust, someone who wouldn’t try to take their piss and drink it themselves. Rosario peed into D’Arpa’s hands, drank half of his urine, looked over at Randazzo, and gestured that he was welcome to finish it off himself. Nicola had a fever, he couldn’t even get to his feet. His injured anus had developed an infection. Rosario and D’Arpa lifted him up and set him down next to the wall where there was a tiny patch of shadow, and made him a cushion with their shirts.
After two endless days, the water ration was brought to them. It was going to have to last for three days, the guards informed them. Francesco D’Arpa felt the eyes of the other prisoners focusing on him. The soldiers acknowledged in him, rank aside, sufficient authority to make decisions concerning their survival. When you’re on your last legs, you entrust your survival to someone else, hoping that they are strong enough to keep from falling.
D’Arpa considered carefully and spoke: “A handful of water apiece.” His throat was on fire. He couldn’t believe how painful it had become to emit a sound.
“What if there’s some left over?” Iallorenzi asked, under his breath.
There really were too many of them to be able to rely on the honor system, and they were all so terribly thirsty. In that case, it was best to just recognize the state of things and try to hold out by drinking one’s own urine.
“Second round for everyone.”
The potful of water was carried over to the wall. Without a word, without a quibble, a single line formed up.
* * *
For five days, they hadn’t had a bite to eat. The enemy was undermining their resistance, systematically undernourishing and dehydrating them. They repeatedly asked for a doctor to examine the prisoners who had collapsed but their jailers ignored them. Seven of them had high fevers and the shakes. Nicola Randazzo was starting to become delirious. He talked about the festival of his village’s patron saint and about Gigliola, daughter of Ina, with her long hair and delicate hands. When the doctor finally showed up, he spoke in a foreign tongue and no one could understand a word he said, so he turned and started to leave. Like a flash, Rosario lunged at his left foot and seized it with both hands. He kept his head bowed and his neck bent. The two soldiers who were escorting the doctor started kicking Rosario in the ribs and shoulders but he held tight to the doctor’s foot, taking the blows the way an inanimate object might. The medical officer was surprised more than scared. He put an end to the beating with a command. At that exact moment, when the rain of combat boots ceased, without wasting so much as a fraction of a second, Rosario looked up, straight into the eyes of the physician, and threw his arm back to indicate a place along the wall. The doctor decided to go take a look, and that’s how Nicola Randazzo was taken to the infirmary and my grandfather was put in solitary confinement.
Solitary confinement meant an iron cube, just outside of the barbed-wire fence, with an air hole just big enough to stick your finger through. Rosario would be spending the next three days in there. Without water, without food. Three days in an oven. The soldiers lacked the strength to object, they’d never be able to shout encouragement to their comrade. Still, there he was, just a few yards away, the other side of the barbed wire. Perhaps a voice would help him. Or maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe it would only make his suffering worse. No one could say. It was the first time one of them was being punished in that way.
“He’s going to come out nicely roasted,” Melluso snickered.
There was no news about Nicola Randazzo.
There was a brawl, one man had tried to drink someone else’s piss.
Five men passed out, and no one had the pity or the strength to help them to their feet.
Catching flies in midair to eat was becoming increasingly difficult. Their reflexes were delayed and the flies seemed to move ever faster. There were some who just kept their mouths open in the hope that an insect might happen to fly in. During the day, the thermometer registered a temperature of over 120 degrees. At night, the temperature dropped to 90 degrees or so. Twenty-four hours had passed, and Rosario was still inside that cube.
The next day, a new ration of water was brought in. The line formed up, everyone gulped down the sip of water to which they were entitled, and then something happened. D’Arpa had put a stop to the second round of dipping.
“It’s for Rosario,” he said, pointing at the water.
“He’s dead,” Melluso retorted, planting both feet on the ground and facing him down. Then he said, in a threatening voice: “Move, I need to drink.”
“No,” the lieutenant replied.
Vincenzo Melluso looked around, seeking moral support from the other soldiers, but no one was in the mood to back him up: they were all on D’Arpa’s side. He turned his back to the wall and sat down in that tiny fissure of shadow. He stared at the iron box.
“Die, worthless thing.”
D’Arpa picked up the pot and carried it over to the shade of the wall. He was going to guard it himself.
That night, another fight. D’Arpa had dropped off into sleep. Melluso kicked him in the head and lunged for the pot of water. The water was warm but it was so wonderful to dip both hands into it. He lifted them to his mouth but never got a chance to drink. D’Arpa was already on top of him.
He hit him in the face with a right.
A left smashed down into his jaw.
A left, the last punch.
Vincenzo Melluso lay sprawled on the ground, arms thrown wide, legs stretched out. He looked like a Jesus on the cross. His mouth was a bloody mess. The other prisoners might not have understood exactly what happened, but they did know that their lieutenant packed a murderous punch. The pot of water hadn’t been overturned, it was still full. D’Arpa turned toward the iron cube and shouted with all the force he could muster.
“Rosà, hold on, as soon as you get out there’s water for you.”
Everyone turned to look at the cube and under the white moonlight they saw something they never would have believed possible. A skinny finger protruded from the airhole and waggled, up and down; then it was withdrawn, not to be seen again. Rosario was still alive. The water had not been sacrificed in vain. The prisoners sensed such a charge of adrenaline in their bodies that without even thinking about it they all joined together in a primitive shout of jubilation, arms raised and fists clenched. They exulted as if the Italian national team had just scored a goal. They were prisoners but they were still alive. Rosario must and would return to their ranks. His survival had become a reason to hold out.
The third day seemed to stretch on forever. As soon as day dawned, the prisoners started pestering the guards, asking when Rosario would be freed, how much more time until he was let out, come on, he’d been in there three days already. “Twelve hours,” they replied. “Ten and a half hours.” “Nine hours.” The iron cube was the vanishing point, attracting all eyes. Hold on, Rosario, they thought. There were even a few who managed to murmur the words. They would have shouted them but they didn’t have enough saliva to emit any sounds.
There were five hours to go now. An officer walked into the prisoners’ enclosure. He spoke in his incomprehensible language. He noticed that everyone was looking over at the iron cube. He laughed out loud, and then froze everyone in place by speaking in perfect Italian.
“Nessuno è mai sopravvissuto all’isolamento.”
No one has ever survived solitary confinement.
He walked out of the enclosure but stayed close to the barbed wire, watching as the vessels of their hope all sank, one after another.
There were four hours to go. The prisoners’ gazes swung from the cube to the pot of water. D’Arpa understood that there had been a shift in the wind. He filled his chest with air and then bellowed out a resounding, hoarse, creaky howl, the air scratching as it rushed past his vocal cords. When he was done emitting that shout, he was in so much pain that he gagged and then vomited blood. Something had broken in his throat. What Francesco D’Arpa had shouted was this: “Rosà, faccìllo vìdiri ca sì vivo.” Rosario, show us that you’re still alive. No finger protruded from the air hole, there was no movement of any kind. Blind despair descended into the heart of each prisoner.
Dario Tomasello was a peasant from Bronte. He walked toward the pot of water, determined to have a gulp of it. D’Arpa didn’t even give him the time to communicate with gestures. A straight punch to the stomach doubled him over. Tomasello fell to his knees and then tumbled over onto his side. Lieutenant D’Arpa assumed a stance in front of the pot of water and glared at his fellow prisoners. The meaning was unmistakable to one and all: they were going to wait for Rosario to emerge from solitary confinement, and they’d better stay quiet or D’Arpa would unleash his fists in order to protect Rosario’s water.
Outside the fence, two guards were smoking. Neither of them gave the slightest thought to the prisoner in solitary confinement. By now, they assumed he was a goner. Still no news about Nicola Randazzo.
The soldiers made the rest of the time go by in the only two pursuits that remained to them: surviving and staving off insanity. The heat was surreal. When two guards approached the iron cube to open it, everyone got to their feet and trooped over to the barbed-wire fence.
The padlock was removed with gloves, it was so hot. As soon as the cube was opened, they glimpsed Rosario, hunched in the fetal position. He wasn’t moving. An officer arrived and kicked him with his boot. No reaction. The noncommissioned officer addressed the prisoners: “There’s no way to survive solitary confinement.” He pointed to Rosario. The man had burn marks all over his body: back, arms, and legs. Francesco D’Arpa felt his lips quiver and his eyes well up with tears, but before he even had a chance to wonder how it was that his body still possessed any fluids at all he saw what he saw next and at that instant he lost all self-restraint and dropped to the ground and wept and bawled louder and longer than ever before in his twenty-seven years on this earth. Rosario’s inert body was confirming the prisoners’ defeat; they’d placed their bets on him and they had lost. The English officer perceived their growing, throbbing despair and, without looking down, he added, in Italian: “È morto.” He’s dead. And it was at that exact instant that, from that heap of skinny motionless flesh, unhoped-for, unexpected, and blessed, there rose, toward the heavens a finger, supported by an elbow and a wrist: Rosario’s forefinger, erect, pointing skyward, in defiance of death and solitary confinement, in defiance of the enemy and in defiance of God. He was still alive and the enemy could go fuck themselves and all the prisoners were hollering, they’d placed their bets on him and he had come in a winner and so had they and D’Arpa was sobbing and the soldiers were hugging one another and the guards were all looking on in admiration at that forefinger, alive and standing at attention.
Rosario’s body was brought back inside the barbed wire and laid on a pallet of clothing, in the shade next to the wall. D’Arpa dipped a corner of his shirt sleeve into the water and started dabbing moisture onto Rosario’s lips. They were dry, cracked, minuscule. His tongue was tough and leathery, the inside of his throat was covered with sores. There was no hurry. One drop after another. This was the only way to get him to drink.
His forehead was scalding hot, his whole body was on fire.
He had a raging fever.
Francesco D’Arpa covered Rosario with three shirts. He went to the fence and started shouting.
“A doctor, a doctor.”
He coughed up blood, but went on shouting.
This was the first time anyone had survived the iron cube. Even the enemy saw fit to accord him the honor due. When my grandfather was loaded onto the stretcher to be taken to the infirmary, the prisoners saluted the patient’s exit by getting to their feet, every last one of them except Melluso.
* * *
The luggage was packed and piled right there on the floor between him and Nenè. An insurmountable wall. Just a few more minutes and the story of the two of them would have new and different words. Nenè was going off to work for a boss in a distant land with a difficult name. Those minutes were the last few syllables of their history together. They shook hands forcefully, like grown-ups. Orazio, Nenè’s father, tousled Rosario’s hair.
“We have to go, right now.”
The two friends sealed their separation with the only two words possible.
Few gestures, even fewer words, but everything clear and exact.
Nenè smiled one last time, picked up his suitcase, and trudged off with his father toward the station, disappearing behind the olive trees.
The day before, sitting on the slopes of the mountain of Cape Gallo, they had looked to the future that awaited them, out beyond the horizon line that stretched across the sea. All around them was silence and September. Rosario sat on his friend’s left and clamped the bud of an ear of wheat between his lips.
Without looking at him, Nenè confided: “You know what I’d like? I’d like to steal winter’s chill.”
In silence, Rosario listened to his friend’s brief confession. As soon as the flow of words came to an end, the two friends rose to their feet and, side by side, they launched into an agile and vibrant race, their feet biting into the road and their arms carried along by the momentum of their bodies, while their eyes, without warning, wept tears.
* * *
Twelve days later, army trucks arrived. The prisoners were loaded onto them. They were being transferred. Francesco D’Arpa wrapped his arms around Rosario again and sat next to him for the entire length of the journey. D’Arpa tried to tell him the whole story, but other soldiers chimed in with other details. They added necessary and unique points of view: their own.
“Why?” my grandfather asked the lieutenant.
“You needed water, more than anyone else.”
“Nicola is doing better, they’ve treated him, he was in the bed next to mine.”
“Apart from the infection in his asshole, he’s had a better time of it than any of us.”
“How come you’re so strong?”
“Are you a boxer?”
“In my spare time.”
“You saved my life, grazie.”
“How did you manage to survive in there, Rosà?”
“My friend Nenè, the moments we spent together, his last words.”
They saw a long line of elephants and watched as the sky was tinged pink by a passing flock of flamingos. A hyena lying alongside the road and a gnu’s carcass enveloped in a cloud of insects. Falling stars and the low trees of the savanna. Two days later, the trucks came to a halt. They’d reached a new prison camp. The trip was over.
* * *
“You know what I’d like? I’d like to steal winter’s chill, just like that, so that when the sirocco comes, I’d always have a little puff of cool breeze on my skin and in my heart. There are memories, on the other hand, where the only thing I’d want to keep is the few seconds before. The moment before you catch a fish, the moment before you touch a pair of tits, the moment before you taste an orange. Then, if I ever learn to write someday, I’ll dream up a whole story of nots: the times I didn’t leave, I didn’t say goodbye to you, I didn’t go somewhere far away, I didn’t work for a boss, and the day there wasn’t a party in the town square, I didn’t dance with a woman who was too beautiful to look at, I didn’t plant a long, leisurely, flavorful kiss on her lips, and she didn’t immediately say to me: Kiss me again, my love. And anyway, I’m faster than you.”
“No you’re not.”
“Yes I am.”
“I can crush you whenever I want.”
“Race, from here to there.”
And they ran together, away from childhood, side by side, for the last time in their lives.
* * *
Umbertino had finished running through his thoughts. The March evening breeze began to make itself felt. It was time to put his clothes back on. Rosario, sitting on the bench beside him, had listened in silence, never uttering a word.
“And anyway, to boil the sauce down, this is the way things stand: since there’s nothing of the kind in Palermo, I’m going to just go ahead and open a boxing gym of my own.”
Even then, my grandfather spoke not a word. The moonlight created a faint glow on his hollowed-out, razor-sharp face. A hawk, that’s what he looked like. He looked like a hawk.
“What is it you’re looking at?” Umbertino asked him.
Turning his head, Rosario looked my uncle right in the eye. A little shudder swelled his chest, as head and shoulders both rose together, then his shoulder blades sagged again.
“I’m looking back.”
Copyright © 2014 by Antony Shugaar