from “How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone”

The promise a dam must keep, what the most beautiful language in the world sounds like, and how often a heart must beat to beat shame

Francesco rented a room from old Mirela and moved in opposite, and old Mirela unpacked her dusty make-up, saw that the powder was crumbly and the lipstick no use any more, bought herself new make-up that very same day, and fiddled around with the tomatoes in her garden, her cheeks all rosy. You had a good view into Francesco's room from the garden. On warm summer evenings Francesco sat on the veranda, armed with a gigantic pair of compasses as he pored over plans of our dam; he wore an undershirt, and you had a good view of the veranda from the garden too. The women in our street and later of the whole town dropped by to help old Mirela with the grass, the carrots, the cucumbers and the cherry tree. The transformation of that little patch of gray-green ground within six months was a botanical miracle. Edin and I called Mirela's garden a jungle, and Edin swore he'd seen a golden nose-horned viper sitting on a pumpkin there. My mother peered out from behind the net curtains before she went to work because Francesco did pull-ups on the cherry tree in Mirela's garden before he went to work. The cherries and my mother's cheeks bloomed as seldom before, so I decided either to make friends with Francesco or chase him away.

One evening I stood by the fence and stared at Francesco's back so hard that my gaze climbed up his backbone all the way into his head, and Francesco had to look round. I didn't understand him, he didn't understand me. I pointed to the ball and then to him, and said: Dino Zoff. It was a simple bet: if Francesco kept out at least three of my five shots he could stay. If he kept out two or only one I'd have to burn his plans and bury his compasses and his undershirt among the strawberries in the garden, and then put frogs, pigeons and cats in his room, Ièd have no problem with any of that. But if he let a single shot at goal through on purpose, then I'd tell our butcher Mislav Sakić, also known as Massacre, that his wife had been wearing a scanty little summer dress under the cherry tree recently, and playing about with her hair, and laughing a lot before she said good-bye to Francesco's undershirt.

So Francesco and I made friends. The tireless gardening ladies and the sweet-cake-baking ladies weren't interested in weaning Francesco off Italian—far from it—so I taught him some words that very first evening, after he'd easily kept all my shots out. He could already say, "My name is," and "I am an engineer on the dam," and "no thank you, I really couldn't eat another thing." I opened his dictionary and pointed to the words for "marriage," "a bit," "flourish" and "eyebrow." Then I pointed to my ears and said: simpatico, which wasn't a lie and sounded Italian. Francesco repeated after me: I. Am. A bit. Married. But. My wife. Doesn't. Have. Anything. Like. Such. Baroque. Eyebrows. Or. Such. Simpatico. Big. Ears. As. You.

You say that, I told Francesco, if you like the look of a woman—I pointed to my eyes and sculpted the figure of a woman with a broad behind in the air, the way men did when they'd eaten a lot of smoked meat. And you must tell my mother and any ugly women: I am very much married although you are extremely friendly. After all, I hadn't come to Francesco's veranda to drink lemonade—there was family business to be done. When old Mirela brought us home-made cherry cake on the veranda, Francesco said to her: although extremely friendly. He had understood it all. After she had gone he pointed to the words "ugly," "woman" and "no," in his dictionary, then to "man," "boy" and "not," and finally to his eye and the word "learn." Francesco couldn't just build dams, he was comrade-in-chief of love.

After that evening I often went to see him. The dictionary lay on the table between us, Francesco drew, I did my homework, drank lemonade or read the Encyclopaedia of World Music. Francesco explained that Italy was a boot. I painted a sandal half-standing in the Adriatic and gave it to him. My first sentences in Italian went like this: Bella sinjorina! Mi kjamo Alessandro. Posso offirti una limonata? I said that to Edin, putting my hand on my heart. Edin looked at me as if I were an opera singer or a Japanese tourist in Vi…egrad and went away without a word, very slowly, and shaking his head very much. I'm only rehearsing for Jasna, I called after him.

I tried to explain to Francesco that Italians and Yugoslavians were more than just neighbors, because people who share something beautiful like a sea, and something dreadful like a Second World War, ought to sing together more. I don't know if he understood, at the word Mussolini he cried: nonono! I liked the way he ran his pencil along the ruler with great concentration, I liked to see the thin lines he closed up into rectangles, or how he could feed numbers into his pocket calculator for hours murmuring under his breath "kvatro" or "ćinkve" or "ćentomila." I liked the "mila" best, and said: there, you see, Francesco, the sea, the war and the same word for nice!

The rains came in the middle of August. Short, violent and predictable, even the grasshoppers didn't sound surprised when raindrops drummed down on the veranda roof. We were quiet even though we talked a lot—our voice was the pages of the dictionary, we pointed to the words and formed sentences with gaps in them all the way to Italy.

And there were evenings when we didn't say anything in either our own voices or the voice of the dictionary. On one evening like that I wrote Grandpa Slavko a long letter applying for the post in the party of magician who could make things possible. I attached a list of the possibilities that still had to be magicked into existence. Francesco drank wine and drew on his plans. He always sniffed the wine before putting the glass to his lips, and when he had finished work he massaged his temples, which made me feel tired and content.

Another time Francesco took me out to a meadow on the Drina, unpacked some shining silver balls from a black leather bag and began throwing them around. Boća, he said. He taught me the rules and told me you said boća but you wrote it "boccia." I tried to explain that we Yugoslavians saved whenever we could, and two letters "c" side by side were one "c" too many. Next evening Walrus was playing too, and a week later there were six of us, then eight. Francesco polished the balls, and Massacre the butcher said things like "pallino" and "volo." If Francesco had had more than sixteen balls the whole town would soon have been playing boccia. I always played, that was what Francesco had decided, and once I even didn't come last by so very much.

I put Nivea cream on my hair so that it would be arranged in the same gleaming way as Francesco's, and I learned the names of the Italian national team by heart. He was still keeping out all my penalty shots. Italian music was slow and the singers did a lot of suffering. I discovered that not all Italians have black hair, and I let Francesco know that not all Yugoslavians like börek. Francesco never smelled of sweat or detergent but always of the same lemony perfume. When I was as old as Francesco I wanted to wear shirts with an alligator on them too, and shoes that were always shiny, I wanted to smell of lemon from a world where every word ends in "–i." And one evening Čika Sefer, a small, elegant man in a suit who was deputy comrade-in-chief of the dam or something like that visited us at home and said that Francesco loved men. I switched off the TV. Everything was different now, and the difference had something to do with Francesco. I listened to Čika Sefer and didn't understand. Čika Sefer was keen on something that he called propriety and something else that he called the climate of work. And that, he said, is really not right and proper. Čika was amused by Francesco's tidy hair, and my mother echoed Čika Sefer: it really isn't right and proper, she said. I'd never have thought of such a thing.

What was "such a thing" and what would "never have been thought of" in the rocking chair where Francesco sat to read old Italian newspapers? What was "such a thing" and what would "never have been thought of" in our street, where my mother stood next day with the other women who lived nearby casting surreptitious glances at Francesco's veranda? Just what would she "never have thought of"?

Soon everyone was whispering about Francesco, not only the women now. That kind of thing was sick, said people, shaking their heads, and I discovered that there is love and love and not every kind of love is good. Francesco went on going to work punctually with his hair combed back, he understood all this even less than I did, or else he didn't mind, and it made me furious. He read something from his newspaper aloud to me, in a good humor, and brooded as usual over his silly plans, even after he found the scratch on his car door one morning, a scratch that looked both intentional and the work of a wrench. Only Walrus still played boccia with us now. The other men sat on the benches on the riverbank, eating pumpkin seeds and looking at the river.

I was furious because I didn't have to protect my mother from Francesco's undershirt any more, instead my mother told my father that I had to be protected from the Italian—look at the way they talk together. I was furious because our dictionary didn't know the words for "I would never have thought of such a thing."

A week after Čika Sefer's visit I was sitting on the veranda with Francesco. There was no lemonade and the cake had been baked the day before yesterday. I coughed, I sat down in the rocking chair in the corner, then at the table again, then on the veranda steps. I pulled up grass and rubbed it between the palms of my hands, and I shrugged my shoulders when Francesco pointed to "what" and "happened" in his dictionary. Ke kose sućesso, Alessandro?

I leafed through the dictionary to "I'm sorry."

Old Mirela came out on the veranda kneading a check teacloth in her hands and asked me to translate for her: Francesco was to move out next week at the latest, she said. I shrugged and strung a few Italian-sounding syllables together. Confused, Francesco asked again: ke kose sućesso?

I said: sućesso kvatromila much, and to Mirela I said: he would like to stay for two weeks and then he's going anyway.

Mirela thought about it. But not a day longer, she said, taking away her lemonade carafe, her cake tin, and her coffee service. As she went out she whispered to me: it's late, you ought to be home by now.My fury had turned into something with a muzzle and fangs and claws, and it was stuck in my throat, rocking back and forth.

Francesco had written down the date when he was leaving for me on one of our nicest evenings on the veranda, when nothing had sućesso yet; he had shown me photos, including one of the badly built tower. I put my finger on it and asked: tu . . . engineer? and we laughed.

Pisa, said Francesco, my Vi…egrad! Several black and white pictures showed a particularly large dam. Francesco turned serious and pointed to the lake: Lago di Vajont. The dam rose to an alarming height in the sky. I knew that in my next dream about falling I'd be up there on it. Francesco narrowed his eyes and leafed on—to a village under water. Then he went back to the gigantic dam with gigantic amounts of water foaming over it, water that must have hit the village and its people. Francesco tapped the dam and said: mio papà.

On the evening when old Mirela gave Francesco notice to leave I slipped away from the veranda without an "arrivederci." I sat down in front of the bookshelf and read Das Kapital. But I wasn't really reading. I thought of Francesco's lemon scent, I thought of lemonade and the summer wind in the garden humming with insects, and the night when Francesco pointed to that slice of bread hanging in the sky between the branches of the cherry tree and said: la luna è molto bella!

I lay flat on the floor so as to disappear.

There are no ugly women, only men who never learned to look at women properly when they were boys, Francesco had tried to explain to me on the first evening. There was nothing in any encyclopaedia about men loving men, and in the school yard we called the weakest, palest boys "queer," but that was all. I'd call people I hated the same in a fight, except that I hated being thumped even more than calling names, so it never happened. I waited until Francesco went to work next morning and then climbed the fence into Mirela's garden. Francesco's drawing instruments were lying on the veranda table. I weighed the compasses in my hand; the metal was cool. I dug a hole.

I didn't visit Francesco any more, and I avoided going out into the street when he was sitting on the veranda. I was ashamed of myself. Shame has a heartbeat of its own. Everything people said about Francesco and everything I thought myself made the heart of my shame beat louder.

After a week Francesco rang our bell. He'd never done that before. I was in my room. Father came out of his studio and opened the door to him. I listened with my door just a crack open, my ears and my whole head felt colored, and no color weighs you down as heavily as red. Alessandro, kalćio? Francesco asked, and my father said: no, no.

On the day when he was leaving Francesco leaned on the fence with his foot on the ball. He was waiting for me to come out of school, waiting for a last penalty shoot-out. I had turned into the street, seen him, and hidden. Like a thief, I pressed close to the wall of a building and went the long way home through the plum orchards. I peered out of the kitchen window: school kids were running past Francesco, ciao Francesco! they called, he passed them the ball, laughing, ciao ragazzi! I went to my room and went on with the list of possibilities to be magicked into existence. There was a ring at the door. Mother called my name. I thought: something is robbing me. I didn't reply.

Oh, there you are, she said when I left my room that evening, feeling hungry. There was a package on the table. From the Italian, said my mother, who had taken to calling Francesco only by his nationality. I ate beans, it was always beans when I was feeling wretched.

If I were a magician who could make things possible, I'd have lemonade always tasting as it did on the evening when Francesco explained how right it was for the Italian moon to be a feminine moon. If I were a magician who could make things possible, we'd be able to understand all languages every evening between eight and nine. If I were a magician who could make things possible, every dam in the world would keep its promises. If I were a magician who could make things possible, there'd be kvatromila ways out of any miserable mood. If I were a magician who could make things possible, we'd be really brave.

The package was very heavy. It had my name on it, and underneath: Francesco Ballo. The package had a metal sound. Bocce. I undid the string and lifted the lid. On top was a photo of the big dam on the Lago di Vajont. I'll never know if Francesco's papa was the engineer or one of the villagers.

Mama, quanto costa un biglietto per Pisa? I asked, and Mother put her nose close to my throat: mm, young man, you smell nice.

I know, I said, because I did know, really nice, I said, and I leafed through the little dictionary. I pointed my fingertip at "grazie," I pointed my fingertip at "di," I pointed my fingertip, now wet with tears, at "tutto."

Mio caro amico Alessandro,

Puoi dirti fortunato to be boy in such nice town. Drina make eyes at everyone. Ground grow cherries, plums and clear water per la limonata. I let walrus win boccia. Your dam never go wrong now. Your papa e mamma et tu e tutto—safe. But no one say arrivederci. So Francesco say: arrivederci allora e a presto!

Presents per te, mio caro mago: bocce, perfume with lemon, dictionari, azzuri jersey! e cartina di Vi…egrad. I draw! Your house e house di good old Mirela! La vita, mio Alessandro, è solo questione di fortuna. We remember us well, please, and veranda and silence and jungle with horn-nosed viper and baroque girls under la luna!

Grazie quattromila!

Francesco

From How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone. Published June 2008 by Grove Press. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.