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“Are you looking at me?”
“Huh, who gives a shit about you?”
“Then why are you looking at me?”
“Listen, bro, you’ve got me mixed up with someone else! I wasn’t even thinking about you.”
Renatino was surrounded by other kids, they’d singled him out for a while now in the jungle of bodies, but by the time he even noticed, four of them were standing around him. The gaze is territory, homeland—looking at someone amounts to entering his home uninvited. To stare at someone is a form of invasion. Not to look away is a manifestation of power.
They were occupying the center of the piazza. A little piazza enclosed by a semicircle of apartment houses, with a single road in or out, a single café on the corner, and a palm tree that was all that could impress a whiff of the exotic upon the place. That tree jammed into a few dozen square feet of topsoil transformed the perception of the façades, the windows, and the entrances to the apartment houses, as if it had blown over from Piazza Bellini on a gust of wind.
Not one of them was a day over sixteen. They stepped closer, inhaling one another’s breath. By now it had come down to a challenge. Nose to nose, ready for the head butt, hard skullbone smashing into nasal septum—if Briato’ hadn’t stepped in. He’d placed his body between them, a wall marking a boundary. “Why don’t you shut up already? You still keep yacking! Fuck, you won’t even lower your eyes.”
The reason Renatino wasn’t lowering his eyes was that he was ashamed to, but if there were a way to get out of that situation with a gesture of submission, he would gladly have done it. He’d have bowed his head, even gotten down on his knees. It was a bunch of them against one: the rules of honor don’t count when you’re about to vattere someone. Vattere in Neapolitan doesn’t translate simply as “fight” or “beat up.” As so often happens in the languages of the flesh, vattere is a verb that overflows the basin of its definition. Ti vatte means “beats you,” but in this broader, Neapolitan sense of the word, while ti picchia is the narrower, standard Italian phrase. Your mamma ti vatte, the police ti picchia, your father or your grandfather ti vatte, your teacher at school ti picchia, your girlfriend ti vatte if you let your gaze rest too long on the eyes of some other girl.
A person vatte with all the force he possesses, with genuine resentment and without any rules. And most important of all, a person vatte with a certain ambiguous closeness. A person vatte someone he knows, a person picchia a stranger. A person vatte someone who is close to him in terms of territory, culture, and knowledge, someone who’s a part of his life; a person picchia someone who has nothing to do with him.
“You’re liking all the pictures of Letizia. You’re adding comments everywhere I turn, and now I come down here to the piazza, and you dare to look me in the eye?” Nicolas accused him. And as he talked, he was pinning Renatino like an insect, with the black needles he had for eyes.
“First of all, I’m not even looking at you. And anyway, if Letizia posts pictures, that means I can add comments and put likes,” Renatino replied.
“So you’re saying I can’t vattere you?”
“Oh, now, Nicolas, you’ve busted my balls enough.”
Nicolas started shoving him and jerking him around: Renatino’s body stumbled over the feet that stood beside him and bounced off the bodies facing Nicolas, like a billiard ball hitting the cushions on the table. Briato’ pushed him against Drago’, who seized him with one hand and hurled him against Tucano. Tucano pretended to smash his head into Renatino’s face, but then handed him back to Nicolas. There was another plan.
“Oh, what the fuck do you think you’re doing! O!!!” His voice came out like the sound of some animal, or really like the yelping of a frightened puppy. He kept emitting a single sound that came out like a plea, an invocation of salvation: “O!!!”
A flat, simple sound. A guttural, apelike, despairing “O.” Calling for help amounts to signing your name to a certificate of your cowardice, but he secretly hoped that that one letter, which is after all the final letter in the Italian cry for help—aiuto!—would be understood as a supplication, without the ultimate humiliation of having to openly beg.
No one around them was lifting a finger, the girls went away as if a show was about to begin that they didn’t want to see, that they couldn’t see. Most of the others stayed, almost pretending that they weren’t there, an audience that was actually extremely attentive but ready to swear, if questioned, that they’d had their faces turned away the whole time, toward their iPhones, and that they’d never even noticed what was going on.
Nicolas shot a quick glance around the piazzetta, then gave a hard shove that knocked Renatino to the ground. He tried to get back up, but Nicolas’s foot stamping square in his chest knocked him flat to the pavement. The four of them, the whole gang, arrayed themselves around him.
Briato’ set about grabbing and holding both of Renatino’s legs, by the ankles. Every so often one of them would slip out of his grasp, like a big Christmas eel trying to fly through the air, but he always managed to sideslip the kick in the face that Renatino was so desperately trying to deliver. Then he strapped both of Renatino’s legs together with a light chain, the kind used to fasten a bicycle to a pole.
“It’s good and tight!” he said after snapping the padlock shut.
Tucano bound both of Renatino’s hands together with a pair of metal handcuffs covered with red fur, something he must have found in a sex shop somewhere, and started giving him a series of kicks in the kidneys to quiet him down. Drago’ held his head still with a certain delicacy, the way EMT nurses do after a car crash while putting on a neck brace.
Nicolas dropped his trousers, turned his back, and squatted over Renatino’s face. He reached down rapidly and grabbed both the boy’s handcuffed hands to hold them still, then started shitting in his face.
“What do you say, ’o Drago’, do you think this piece of shit”—he used the classical Neapolitan epithet omm’ ’e mmerda—“is ready to eat some shit?”
“I think he is.”
“Okay, here it comes … buon appetito.”
Renatino was twisting and shouting, trying to get free, but when he saw the brown mass emerging he suddenly stopped moving and shut himself up tight as he could. He clamped his lips, wrinkled his nose, contracted his face, hardening in hopes of turning it into a mask. Drago’ held the head firmly in place and only released it after the first piece of shit flopped onto Renatino’s face. The only reason he let go, though, was fear of getting some on his hands. The head started moving again, as if the boy had gone crazy, right and left, doing all he could to toss off the piece of shit, which had lodged between his nose and upper lip. Renatino managed to knock it off and went back to howling his O! of desperation.
“Guagliu’, here comes the second piece of shit … hold him still.”
“Fuck, Nicolas, you really must have eaten a big meal…”
Drago’ went back to holding Renatino’s head, still gingerly, with the caution of a nurse.
“You bastards! O!!! O!!! You bastards!!!”
He shouted helplessly, and then fell silent the instant he saw the second piece exiting from Nicolas’s anus. A hairy dark eye that, with a pair of spasms, chopped the excremental snake into two rounded pieces.
“Ua’, you almost got some on me, Nico’.”
“Drago’, do you want some shit tiramisù all for yourself?”
The second piece dropped onto his eyes. Then Renatino felt Drago’ release him, both hands letting go at the same time, so he started whipping his head around hysterically, till he started to retch, on the verge of vomiting. Then Nicolas reached down for the hem of Renatino’s T-shirt and wiped his ass, carefully, without haste.
They left him there.
“Renati’, you need to thank my mother, you know why? Because she feeds me right. If I ate the stuff that zoccola di mammeta—that slut mother of yours—cooks, then I’d have crapped a faceful of diarrhea on you, a shower of shit.”
Laughter. Laughter that burned up all the oxygen in their mouths, that choked them. More or less like Lampwick’s braying in Pinocchio. The most nondescript kind of ostentatious laughter. The laughter of children, coarse, mocking, overdone, meant to meet with approval. They took the chains off Renatino’s ankles and unlocked his handcuffs: “You can keep them, consider it a gift.”
Renatino sat up, clutching at the fuzzy handcuffs. The others left the piazzetta, shouting and revving their motor scooters. Like gleaming beetles, they accelerated for no reason, clutching at the brake levers to avoid slamming into one another. They vanished in an instant. Nicolas alone kept his two black needles pointed straight at Renatino right up till the very last. The wind tousled his blond hair, which one day, sooner or later—he’d decided—he was going to shave to the scalp. Then the motor scooter he was riding on as a passenger took him far from the piazzetta. Then they were just black silhouettes.
THE NEW MAHARAJA
Forcella is the material of History. The material of centuries of flesh. Living matter.
It is there, in the folds of those narrow lanes, the vicoli, which carve it like a weatherbeaten face, that you find the meaning of that name. Forcella. Fork in the road. A departure and a parting of the ways. An unknown factor that always lets you know where you start out from but never where you’ll arrive, or even whether you will. A street that’s a symbol. Of death and resurrection. It greets you with an immense portrait of San Gennaro painted on a wall, watching you arrive from the façade of a building, and with his all-understanding eyes, it reminds you that it’s never too late to get back on your feet, that destruction, like lava, can be stopped.
Forcella is a history of new departures, new beginnings. Of new cities atop old ones, and new cities becoming old. Of teeming, noisy cities, built of tufa stone and slabs of volcanic piperno rock. Stone that built every wall, laid out every street, changed everything, even the people who’ve worked with these materials all their lives. Actually, in fact, who’ve farmed them. Because people talk about farming piperno, as if it were a row of vines to water. Types of rock that are running out, because farming a type of rock means consuming it. In Forcella even the rocks are alive, even the rocks breathe.
The apartment buildings are attached to other apartment buildings, balconies really do kiss each other in Forcella. And passionately so. Even when a street runs between them. And it isn’t the clotheslines that hold them together, it’s the voices that clasp hands, that call out to each other to say that what runs beneath is not asphalt but a river, crisscrossed by invisible bridges.
Every time Nicolas went past the Cippus of Forcella, he felt the same burst of joy. He remembered the time, two years ago, though it seemed like centuries, when they’d gone to steal the Christmas tree in the Galleria Umberto I and they’d brought it straight there, complete with all its glittering globes, which were actually no longer glittering because now there was no electricity to make them glitter. That’s how he’d first caught Letizia’s attention, as she left her apartment house on the morning of the day before Christmas Eve, turning the corner, she’d glimpsed the tip of the tree, like in one of those fairy tales where you plant a seed the night before and, when the sun rises, hey presto! a tree has sprung up and now stretches up to the sky. That day she’d kissed him.
He’d gone to get the tree late at night, with the whole group. They’d all left their homes the minute their parents had gone to sleep, and the ten of them, sweating over the impossible task, had hoisted it onto their puny shoulders, doing their best to make no noise, cursing softly under their breath. Then they’d strapped the tree onto their motor scooters: Nicolas and Briato’ with Stavodicendo and Dentino in front, and the rest of them bringing up the rear, holding the trunk high. There’d been a tremendous downpour and it hadn’t been easy to navigate the mud puddles on their scooters, to say nothing of the veritable rivers of rainwater spewing forth from the sewers. They might have had motor scooters, but they weren’t old enough to drive them, legally. Still, they were nati imparati, born knowing how, as they liked to say, and they managed to maneuver the bikes better than much older boys. Making their way across that pond of rainwater hadn’t been easy, though. They’d halted repeatedly to catch their breath and adjust the straps, but in the end they’d succeeded. They’d erected the tree inside the Forcella quarter, they’d brought it to where they lived, among their people. Where it ought to be. In the afternoon the police Falchi squad had come to take the tree back, but by then it didn’t much matter. Mission accomplished.
Nicolas sailed past the Cipp’ a Furcella—a cippus, or short column, dedicated to St. Anthony, emblematic of the quarter—with a smile on his face and parked outside Letizia’s building. He wanted to pick her up and take her to the club. But she’d already seen the posts on Facebook: the photographs of Renatino beshitted, the tweets of Nicolas’s friends announcing his humiliation. Letizia knew Renatino and she knew he was sweet on her. The only sin he’d committed was to put some “likes” on several of her pictures after she’d accepted his friend request, which was unforgivable in Nicolas’s eyes.
Nicolas had pulled up outside her apartment building, he hadn’t bothered to ring her buzzer. The intercom is something only mailmen, traffic cops, detectives, ambulance drivers, firemen, and people not from the quarter bother using. When you need to alert your girlfriend to your presence, or your mother, your father, a friend, your neighbor, anyone who by rights considers themselves part of your life, you just shout: everything’s wide open, as public as can be, everyone hears everything, and if they don’t it’s not a good sign, it means something must have happened. From downstairs Nicolas was yelling at the top of his lungs: “Leti’! Letizia!” Letizia’s bedroom window didn’t overlook the street, it faced onto a sort of lightless air shaft. The window overlooking the street that Nicolas was looking up at illuminated a spacious landing, a space shared by a number of apartments. The people climbing the apartment house stairs heard him yelling and knocked on Letizia’s door, without bothering to wait for her to come and answer. They’d knock and continue on their way; it was a code: “Someone’s calling you.” If Letizia answered the door and there was no one there, she knew someone had been calling her from the street below. But that day, Nicolas called her with such a powerful voice that she heard him all the way back in her bedroom. She finally stuck her face out the window and bawled in annoyance: “Just get out of here. I’m not going anywhere with you.”
“Come on, get moving, come down.”
“No, I’m not coming down.”
That’s the way it works in the city. Everyone knows you’re fighting. They can’t help but know. Every insult, every raised voice, every high note resonates off the stones of the alleys and lanes, the vicoli of Naples, long accustomed to the sounds of lovers skirmishing.
“What did Renatino ever do to you?”
Nicolas asked, in a mixture of disbelief and pride: “You’ve already heard the news?”
Deep down, all he cared about was that his girlfriend knew. The exploits of a warrior are passed by word of mouth, they become news, then legends. He looked up at Letizia in the window and knew that his deed continued to resonate, ricocheting from flaking plaster to aluminum window frames, rain gutters, roof terraces, and then up, up, up among the TV antennas and satellite dishes. And it was while he was looking up at her, as she leaned on the windowsill, with her hair even curlier after her shower, that he got a text from Agostino. An urgent, sibylline text.
That put an end to the quarrel. Letizia watched as he climbed back on his scooter and took off, tires screeching. A minotaur: half man and half wheels. To drive, in Naples, is to seize all rights of way, yield to no one, ignore traffic barriers, one-way signs, pedestrian malls. Nicolas was on his way to join the others at the New Maharaja, the club in Posillipo. A majestic, imposing club with a vast terrace overlooking the bay. The club could have thrived as a business on that terrace alone, renting it out for weddings, first communions, and parties. Since he was a child, Nicolas had been drawn to that white building that stood in the center of a jutting rock promontory in Posillipo. What Nicolas liked about the Maharaja was its brashness. There it stood, clamped to the waterfront rocks like an impregnable fortress, every inch of it white, the door frames and window frames, the doors themselves, even the shutters. It looked out over the sea with the majesty of a Greek temple, with its immaculate columns that seemed to rise directly out of the water, buttressing on their shoulders that very same terrace, where Nicolas imagined the men he wanted to become one day strolling comfortably.
Copyright © 2016, 2019 by Roberto Saviano