When Daytona and I walk out onto the street, it’s daybreak.
We stop on the sidewalk, a few feet apart, inhaling the cool morning air. Even in a big city, morning air gives the impression of purity. Actually, the breath that Milan exudes has halitosis, and both of us must have pretty bad morning breath ourselves. The only thing that’s pure is the impression, but even that’s something you can live on.
Daytona stretches his arms, yawns, twists both shoulders.
I thought I heard his spine crack, but maybe my ears are deceiving me. His face shows the signs of a night spent playing poker and snorting coke. He’s pretty messed up. You can see the muscles tensing around his jaw. The double comb-over that covers up his bald spot like a clever bit of sleight of hand and hairspray has started to sag, slipping off to one side, like a hairy beret. His complexion is sallow, and he has dark circles around his eyes. His pencil mustache makes him look like one of those nasty, neurotic cartoon characters who wind up being funny in spite of themselves.
He lifts his hand in front of his face; pulls back his shirt cuff, begrimed by the night-long card game; and looks at the time.
“Jesus, it’s almost six a.m.”
Daytona says this as if it were a problem. As if it were a rarity for him still to be up and about at this hour of the morning. As if there were someone who cared what he did with his life, aside from himself and occasionally the police. He drops his arm and the watch vanishes beneath the cuff. That wristwatch is the source of his nickname. For years, he’s worn a gold Paul Newman Daytona Rolex.
When he has the watch to wear.
It’s a sartorial detail that makes it easy to tell Daytona’s good times from his lean times. Just take a look at his left wrist. If there’s no watch, it means he’s pawned it. And if he’s pawned it then it means that Daytona is hustling his heart out to get the watch out of hock. Without worrying much about what he has to do to lay hands on the money.
Well, this morning the watch is on his wrist and he’s just spent the night balls-out, luck running high, winning hand after hand at poker. After last call, we stayed on in the private room of the Ascot Club, the room next to the bar. Him, Sergio Fanti, Godie, Matteo Sana aka Sanantonio, and me. Bonverde, the owner, went home with his wife, hard on the heels of the last spectator. On his way out, he told Giuliano, the manager, to close the place down and lock up. Without too much interest in what might happen after he walked out. We stayed on in the private room, breathing in the lingering aroma of decadent humanity, in the hay-scented dankness of wall-to-wall carpeting that hasn’t been aired out for years. Someone put out the cards, packs of cigarettes, and a few yards of cocaine.
The hours sped past, the cigarettes and cards went around, and when the last snort of cocaine was just a distant memory, Daytona had become the unquestioned star of the evening’s entertainment. The jackpot was four nines slapped down on the table like a thunderbolt, dealing out death to a full house. Sweeping the pile of cash.
As if he’d just read my mind, Daytona turns to look at me.
“I was fucking lucky tonight. I needed that.”
I smile, even though I try not to. I turn to look at the intermittent flow of morning traffic. Scattered cars move lazily along Via Monte Rosa. Inside the cars are frightened ghosts returning home and other ghosts, convinced that they’re frightening, heading out for their daily damnation. As an impartial observer, I had the impression that Daytona had given the blindfolded goddess a name and address, with a few sleights of hand that were not entirely sportsmanlike. As far as I could tell, anyway. Not that it’s any of my business. I don’t gamble or play cards, so I don’t win and I don’t lose. I’ve always been the spectator who watches and minds his own business. Over time, this has evolved from a rule guiding my life to a pleasant routine. It’s a better way to live and, in certain circles, it’s a better way to stay alive.
I look back at him.
“Fucking lucky is right. How much did you win?”
Daytona scrutinizes my face in search of sarcasm. He’s satisfied there is none, or maybe he chooses not to see it. He slips one hand into his pocket without pulling out his wad of cash, as if he can count the money by touch. I can almost see his fat hairy fingers rumpling the bills roughly, the way people do with money that’s come easy.
“A million eight, more or less.”
“You said it. Yum, yum, yum, a rich pile of chips!”
He rubs his hands together with satisfaction, and it occurs to me that there are certain human beings who seem to be incapable of learning from past mistakes. I struggle to keep a smile from spreading across my face again. One time, during a poker game with guys he completely outclassed, Daytona couldn’t keep from repeating that gloating phrase, and he got punched in the eye by someone taller, stronger, and better armed than him. Of course, he had to take it without reacting. He went around for weeks with a black eye that made him look like a chubby, slightly melancholy Dalmatian. With a string of snickering mockery trailing behind him, like the long train of a wedding dress.
Behind us, the others emerge from the club.
They climb up the stairs under a sign that by night winks an invitation to step downstairs to the Ascot Club, the unrivaled temple of Milanese cabaret. The walls up and down the ramshackle staircase are lined with posters for the great talents that have passed through those walls, trodden that stage, looked up at those lights at the dawn of their careers. Every day, out on the street, by the front door, an illuminated billboard announces the names of the aspiring stars who will be appearing that night.
A marginal past, a glorious future, and a hopeful present. All gathered together under the old axiom that in Milan, late at night, after a certain hour, nobody’s out and about but cops, artists, criminals, and whores.
The hard part has always been telling them apart.
Giuliano is the last to emerge. He lingers behind, locking a roll-down shutter that seals up the Ascot Club once and for all, protecting it from the contamination of daylight.
The others join us.
Godie sidles over to Daytona and places his index and middle fingers, open like scissors, on the side of his neck.
“Tac! Got you. You fumb duck.”
Godie has a quaint and distinctive manner of speech and behavior. He’s a perfect distillation of the place, the time, and the people he frequents. It’s a circle of people who express themselves with a language that attempts to be clearly recognizable, if not necessarily original. You need only invert the first consonants of certain words, so that the black dog becomes the dack blog, good shit becomes shood git, and hard cash becomes card hash. And Diego, his real name, turns into his nickname, Godie.
Il Godie, to be exact. The one-and-only Godie.
Simple, and possibly a little stupid. But people choose the medals that they pin on their own chest.
Daytona pulls Godie’s hand away from his neck.
“You calling me a fumb duck? It’s just that none of you know how to play cards. You, least of all.”
Godie shoves his elbow.
“Aw, go fuck yourself. Remember, there was no one but me and the Cincinnati Kid in New Orleans.”
The sense of humor is always the same, a bit repetitive, sometimes inspired by the cabaret artists who perform nightly at the Ascot, in other cases an inspiration from which they draw.
Giuliano catches up with us. Like me, he stayed out of the poker game. He just dabbled in the ancillary debauchery. I think he raked off some of the winnings in exchange for providing the club as a venue. As always, of course, that’s none of my business.
“So, now what do we do?”
Sergio Fanti, average height, skinny, bald, with a prominent nose, looks at his watch. We all know by heart the words he’s about to utter.
“I have exactly enough time to head home, take a quick shower, and head straight for the office.”
Sergio is the only one of us who has a real job. He works in the fashion business and his rumpled but elegant suit confirms the fact. No one understands how he can reconcile his noches de fuego and rock ’n’ roll with a serious business activity, but he seems to pull it off. The only evidence of his misdeeds are a pair of dark bags under his eyes the size of a B cup: he wears them like a trademark.
Matteo Sana yawns. Then he runs one hand over his unkempt beard, veined with tufts of white, like the hair on his head.
“I’m going to swing by Gattullo for a cappuccino.”
Again, Godie scissors his two fingers into Matteo’s neck. With an accent and voice so intensely Milanese that it verges on parody, he seconds the idea.
“Tac! I’m with you. I see you and raise you. A cappuccino and a pastry.”
Giuliano looks at me and Daytona.
“You two coming with?”
Daytona taps the back of his left hand with his right index finger.
I shake my head.
“Ditto. I’m heading for my hut.”
We watch the four of them walk off and head over to Sergio Fanti’s BMW 528—in the end, Fanti has given in. Godie flaps his arms and talks excitedly, the way he always does when he’s a little high. They get in the car and, covered by the noise of the slamming car doors, the engine roars to life, puffing clouds of blue-gray exhaust out of the tailpipe. The car eases out of the parking spot and lurches off toward Piazza Buonarroti, in the direction of the Pasticceria Gattullo, the pastry shop and café at Porta Lodovica.
In my mind, I can see them stumbling into the café. In the time it takes them to drive over there, the place will have filled up with people ordering cappuccinos and pastries. Despite their stated intention of having cappuccinos and pastries themselves, they’ll probably order three whiskeys and a Campari instead. A dozen heads will turn, up and down the counter. Then they’ll all troop off to their respective apartments, and they’ll each pop a Rohypnol to get to sleep, a way of counteracting the lingering effects of the cocaine and their accelerated pulses from the amphetamine with which the coke has surely been cut. The night is over, and that’s how certain animals make their way back to their lairs.
Daytona and I are alone again, on the sidewalk.
“You know what would be the perfect way to top off a lucky night?”
But I do know, of course. I know perfectly. Still, I want to hear him say it.
Daytona looks at me, his comb-over this way and that and his eyes glistening to the extent that they can after a sleepless night. Then he tips his head toward a point on the other side of the street.
“A trip through the Northwest Passage with that pine fiece of ass.”
I smile, this time without having to conceal it.
Across the street from the Ascot Club is a big office building, the Milan headquarters of Costa Britain Shipping. It’s four stories tall and it takes up a good portion of the block—from the corner of Via Tempesta stretching past us all the way to Piazzale Lotto. Reinforced concrete, aluminum, steel, and sheet glass. And overhead lights always on, illuminating ceilings and empty desks, to remind everyone that in this city, even when people are at home sleeping, someone is thinking about work.
A group of people have just stepped out of the glass doors. Cleaning women. They’ve emptied the trash cans, vacuumed the wall-to-wall carpeting, and scrubbed the bathrooms, hard laborers of the night who’ve toiled till now so that the hard laborers of the daytime will find a nice clean workplace when they arrive. A couple of them hurry off immediately, heading for bed or breakfast. The other cleaning women have stopped to talk, perhaps experiencing the same sensation that we had: at this time of the morning, the air is worth breathing. One of them has stepped aside to light a cigarette, and stands slightly separated from the group. She’s tall and slender, and her shapeless smock is incapable of concealing a certain attractiveness. Her hair is long and brunette and her face is fair and luminous.
I tip my head in her direction.
“Yup. Nice dish.”
I look at Daytona, who’s already experiencing a movie in his head. Not a movie that they’d be able to show in any of the better movie theaters along the Corso Vittorio.
“How much is she worth, to you?”
“A C-note, if she’s willing.”
A hundred thousand lire would buy a nice pair of shoes, with prices these days. And these days are getting very pricey.
“Two hundred, and she’ll do it.”
Daytona stares, eyes wide. He’s not doubting my statement, he’s doubting the price.
“Christ, two C-notes.”
“A hundred and fifty for her, and fifty for me.”
“You piece of shit.”
I look at him scornfully, as if he were a newly landed immigrant with a cheap suitcase.
“It’s six in the morning, you’re all alone, you’re an ugly troll, and that’s a damn good-looking young woman.”
He hesitates. Maybe he can’t tell whether I’m serious or I’m joking.
I strike the fatal blow.
“You just won a million eight. That leaves you with a million six.”
“Okay. Let’s see what you can do.”
I turn my back on him and walk away. Now it’s his turn to sit and watch. I cross the street and approach the girl, who’s smoking her cigarette, purse slung over one shoulder, eyeing me, evaluating me as I draw nearer. She’s much cuter up close. Actually, she’s quite pretty. Her eyes are light hazel, with a hint of sadness, maybe from seeing too much of life on the outskirts of the big city; they’re eyes that have yearned for things she’s never been able to afford.
“Ciao. Happen to have a light?”
She swings her purse around, rummages in it, and pulls out a plastic cigarette lighter. She must be new to the job. Her hands aren’t roughened and reddened from ammonia and chores, at home and elsewhere. From the way she looks at me I can tell that she knows that getting a light for my cigarette was just an excuse. And not a very original one, I have to admit.
I pull out my pack of Marlboros and light one up. I poke my finger through the cloud of smoke to point at the office building behind her.
“You work here?”
She bobs her head vaguely.
“Cleaning woman. If you call that a job, then sure, I work here.”
“What’s your name?”
“All right, Carla. Can I ask a personal question?”
She silently assents. She’s curious. That means she’s smart.
“How much money do you make a month?”
She studies me, waiting to hear where I want to take this. There’s no fear in her eyes, and I like that.
“A hundred eighty.”
“Feel like making a hundred fifty in a couple of hours?”
She understands immediately. I brace myself for a slap that doesn’t come. Which is already significant. Maybe she’s familiar with propositions of this kind. Maybe she has a special need for money right now. Maybe, in a flash, she has simply glimpsed a way out of the misery of the city’s outskirts, frozen foods, clothing purchased off the rack in a UPIM department store. There are countless possibilities, and I don’t care about any of them.
There is only one thing left to clear up, so she asks.
I jerk my head sideways at a point behind me. She identifies Daytona on the other side of the street. Then she turns her gaze back to me, with a hint of disappointment in her eyes. She drops her gaze and stares at the sidewalk, before answering.
“He’s no Robert Redford.”
I put on an innocent expression, the way you do when something is patently obvious.
“Yeah, if he was I wouldn’t be here talking to you.”
She looks over at the other women, clustering a short distance away as if waiting for her. Since the two of us began our conversation, they’ve been studying us, silently surmising. An occasional giggle, a few sidelong glances. A few of those glances may have contained a hint of envy. Carla looks back at me, a note of defiance in her hazel eyes.
She speaks in a low voice, as if her lips were uttering a furtive thought. She suggests an alternative.
“If it was you, I’d do it for free…”
I lightly shake my head, firmly cordoning off that line of inquiry.
“I’m out of the question.”
She needs to understand.
“Is it that you don’t like me, or do you just not like women?”
“Neither one. Let’s just say that in this particular circumstance I’m a middleman.”
Carla says nothing. I sense that she’s weighing the pros and cons. I don’t have the impression that it’s a question of morality, just of convenience. Maybe she comes from one of those families in which the father is the proprietor of everything that’s in the house, daughters included. Maybe it’s just a matter of setting a fair price for something she usually has to give up without being asked. Or maybe those are all just fantasies I’m spinning in my mind and, as is so often the case, the truth is completely different. No one can say what’s really going on in people’s minds.
And sometimes all that matters is what people decide to do.
Carla nods her head.
“Tell him to wait for me out front of the Alemagna, on Via Monte Bianco. I’ll be there in a couple of minutes.”
I point to Daytona’s orange Porsche. It’s an old model, a used car with dimmed status. Most of the status remained in the hands of the original owner, who is certainly now driving the latest model. But for people like Daytona and the people he frequents that car remains a glittering trinket, a badge of honor.
“That’s his car.”
While we talk, her fellow workers move off down the sidewalk. Carla seems relieved. She won’t have to come up with an explanation right now. I feel certain that by tomorrow she’ll have something ready. Cash and a sense of guilt are two excellent incentives for ingenious falsehood.
“Just a piece of advice.”
“Have him buy you a cup of coffee and don’t get in the car unless you have the money safe in your purse.”
She looks at me with a smile that’s not exactly a smile.
“Is that how it’s done?”
“Yes, that’s how it’s done.”
I turn to go and my gaze settles on Daytona, waiting expectantly on the other side of the street. I cross the street and walk over to him. He saw the exchange, though he couldn’t tell what we were saying, just like Carla’s fellow cleaning women. As I approach him, I discard the cigarette and exhale the last lungful of smoke into the general haze of Milanese smog.
“Wait for her in front of the Alemagna. She’ll see you there.”
“A hundred and fifty, like I said.”
Maybe Daytona can’t believe his ears and meant to express his astonishment. Or else he was hoping for a discount. He long ago stopped believing in his own personal allure.
“And fifty for me.”
I hold out a hand toward him, palm upward. He understands and reaches into his pocket. Then he hands me a wrinkled, rumpled bill, crumpled up the way you do with money you earn without lifting a finger. Only, this time, I’m the one who earned it. Without cheating. It’s the oldest game in the world, and I know all the rules. Daytona knows the rules too, but he won’t stoop to play by them. He likes to have someone to play for him. And like lots of others I’ve met, he’s willing to pay for that service.
As I slip the money into my jacket pocket, he gives me a hard, meaningful stare.
“No kidding around, Bravo.”
I shrug my shoulders.
“You know I don’t kid around.”
Daytona heads over to his Porsche, pulls the door open, gets in, and starts the engine. He waits for traffic to pass, and roars off toward Piazzale Lotto. At the green traffic light, his brake lights blink on, and then he vanishes in a right-hand turn, accelerating toward a dubious tryst.
I stand alone on the sidewalk.
I slide my hand into my jacket pocket, find my car keys, and walk toward my car, a dark blue Innocenti Mini, parked a short distance away.
I get into my nondescript little car. On my left I see Carla walking fast, heading for her appointment. She spots me and looks sharply down at the sidewalk ahead of her. Good luck, sweetheart. A month’s salary for two hours of work isn’t a bad deal, if you’re adaptable. And she clearly knows how to adapt. For me, it’s been nothing more than an idle game, because I usually work with contacts and negotiations at quite a different level. I don’t think twice about the damage caused by what I just did and what I do on a regular basis.
The laws that govern society are a line drawn in the dirt by a fairly unsteady hand. Some cross that line, others respect it. I believe that I float a hairsbreadth above that line, never setting foot on either side of it. I don’t worry about it, because the world I live in doesn’t worry about it.
Like it or not, that’s who I am.
Copyright © 2010 by Baldini Castoldi Dalai Editore S.p.A., Milano, Italy
Translation copyright © 2012 by Antony Shugaar