Sebastiano

I'm fifty-nine years old. I live in the country, in a locality pretty far removed from the places where the destinies of people living in this era are decided. I work as a writer in a peripheral language. (Spoken by around sixty million people, or about one person out of a hundred in the entire world. I have a garden with a few fruit trees and a lot of rose bushes. I have two dogs, a cat, and a porcupine. I was married and now I'm not anymore, but my solitude is crowded with presences which, over time, have taken on a real and proper physical substance. The characters of my stories; the ones I've already told, the ones I still have to tell and the ones that, perhaps, I won't ever tell, are always around here somewhere. They talk to me, respond to me, tell me their opinions about what I'm doing. Sometimes, I'd like to keep them at a distance but I can't, because by now they've become a part of my life. Every afternoon, except Sunday, a housekeeper (Mrs. ***) comes by to clean house. Once or twice a week a woman friend comes to see me. And that's it, as far as my private life is concerned. (Naturally, I also have what we might call a public life, connected to my work; but it doesn't have anything to do with the story I'm about to tell and I'd rather not talk about it.)

***

One night last September, I had fallen asleep in front of the television and was awakened by the sound of the doorbell down on the road, between the gate and the door to the courtyard. The sound, repeated who knows how many times, had entered into my dreams and must have been there for some time along with the dogs' barking, when I opened my eyes and tried to figure out what was happening. What time was it? Who was that out there, and why were they continuing to ring my doorbell? I turned off the television and went out into the hallway. At night the video intercom is useless because there's hardly any light on the road, but anyway there was something moving inside the little screen. A shadow, or maybe two or three shadows. I picked up the receiver and asked, "Who are you? What do you want?" but there was no intelligible answer. An uproar. A woman, maybe a foreigner, was shouting something, and it seemed to me that there were some other people with her. The clock at the end of the hallway was showing one-thirty in the morning. I said, "Stop bothering me," and hung up.

I took one step and the bell started ringing again. On the screen of the video intercom I could see, distorted, the face of a woman of color, an African, whose mouth was opening and closing. I picked up the receiver and a voice exploded in my ear, but the words were incomprehensible. All I understood was that the woman was shouting. So I started shouting too that they should knock it off and leave me in peace. "Or else," I said, "I'll call the police."

I hung up the microphone. The doorbell immediately started ringing again and I felt something clutch in my stomach, like a cramp. . . .What did these assholes want out there? Of all the billions of men and women in the world, why did they have to come and bother me? I picked up the microphone and screamed, "You dirty assholes and sons of bitches, leave me alone and go break somebody else's balls!" I hung up and the bell started back up immediately, so I decided to go down and see what was going on. "I'll go down there and make them stop." A crazy thing to do, but maybe I was still half asleep, or maybe there's a component of recklessness in my character that the years and the vicissitudes of life haven't managed to eliminate entirely. The same recklessness that, in battle, transforms men into heroes and, behind the wheel, makes them die by the thousands on the highways. I didn't even think of taking a gun. I've got a revolver, a Smith & Wesson, that I bought when I moved out to the country and that I've never used. As the doorbell rang and rang I did all the things that, in that situation, I absolutely should never have done. I turned off the alarm system, connected by telephone to the police dispatcher; I went out into the courtyard and pushed the button to deactivate the lock on the door next to the gate without looking to see who was out there. In other words, I did every imprudent thing possible. I was about to go out to the road but a black-skinned and visibly terrified girl threw open the door and came running in.

I tried to keep calm. The girl didn't seem dangerous; the road, beyond the gate, was deserted, but to the right of the gate the perimeter wall forms a corner, and that corner was a perfect hiding place for who knows who (or who knows what). That was when I remembered that I had a gun, and I asked myself, "Why didn't you take it?" (An idle question with no answer.) I went to look around the corner and nobody was there. So then I went back into the courtyard and latched the door shut. I noticed that the girl was standing under the light; she was shaking and had her arms wrapped around her body, as though to keep herself from shaking. She looked like one of the many Nigerian prostitutes who "work" along our roadsides, especially at night. But she was younger and more attractive than most of her colleagues. She was tall and well built with a rather small ass (in general, these women have enormous asses) and just slightly pointed breasts. The way she was dressed, too, was almost elegant because she was wearing a light colored jacket, a red cotton T-shirt, and a pair of hip-hugging black pants. I asked her what had happened to her, but she didn't understand a word I said. She must have arrived in Italy just a few days before, and somebody must have beaten and robbed her, before abandoning her in front of my gate. (Fortunately, however, there were no signs of violence on her face.) She kept repeating the name of the nearest city, and the word "car" in English. She wanted to go back to the city, and she wanted someone to give her a ride. She jumped at every sound. A nocturnal bird and then the arrival on the scene of my cat made her flinch visibly.

I told her to calm down, first in Italian and then in English. ("Don't be afraid.") She was in my house now and I wouldn't let anyone hurt her! Since she couldn't stop shaking, I embraced her to hold her still. I started caressing the back of her neck, and as I was caressing her I said, "Don't be afraid. You've had a bad dream, but now it's over. You're safe here." After a few minutes of this treatment the trembling stopped. The girl looked me in the face and then looked around. She took a few steps toward the front door of the house. She wanted to go in the house and I grabbed her by the arm to stop her, who the hell knows why! In the days that followed I recalled that gesture many times, and I couldn't figure out why I'd done it. I could have been kind to the Nigerian girl. I could also have been gallant. After all, she was a beautiful girl who needed my help, and I was a man who was more than a little lonely. We could have been right for each other for an hour or so. Or maybe even for a night. Then I would have given her some money. But our encounter would not have been a matter of money. It would have been a return to normalcy for both of us, and a moment of affection between two people who needed each other. Shall we use a really big word? It would have been a moment of love. (What is love, if not a mutual need?) Instead, nothing happened. I motioned to the Nigerian girl to stop. I started walking toward the garage, opened it and then opened the passenger door of my car. I said, "Sit here and wait for me. I'll be back in a minute."

I went into the house. I put my shoes on (I was wearing slippers); I took the car keys and all the other things I needed to go out: my license, the keys to the house. I went back to the garage and the girl was there, sitting in the car. I thought: if I knew her language I'd ask her what her name is, and I'd also ask her what had made her want to come to this country full of men with skin of a different color than hers, who use her as a hole; a warm hole, to stick a swollen muscle in. (But with a rubber you can't feel the warmth very much.) In this country of men who rob her or beat her in the middle of the night. Looking at her, I thought: what thoughts are there inside that head? I got in the car and she turned toward me. She was still serious and very tense, but she no longer had, in her eyes, the terrified expression of a few minutes ago. I caressed her and she closed her eyes. Then I started the engine. We got out of the garage and out of the courtyard, and while I was waiting for the automatic gate to close, I asked her, "Where do you want me to take you? Where are we going?"

I was afraid I'd have to repeat the question, but she answered right away. She said, struggling to remember the word, "Toll-road," and so I understood that she was one of the Nigerian prostitutes who "work" near the toll booth at the entrance to the highway about ten kilometers from my house. Who knows how many twists and turns they'd put her through before dumping her at my door! I drove for fifteen minutes, or slightly longer, without saying a word. The dashboard clock was showing a couple minutes past two, and the road was deserted. The girl didn't open her mouth either, and sat curled up in her seat the whole way. Her hands were gripping a purse which up to that moment I hadn't noticed (I recall having asked myself, how is it that I didn't notice she was carrying a purse?), and at a certain point she opened it and pulled out a box with a powder-puff and a lipstick and got herself in order to get back to work. A nice display of vitality, after what she'd been through! When we got to within two or three hundred meters of the toll plaza she motioned to me to stop, and then to go ahead again because her spot? was already occupied by one of her colleagues. Before letting her out, I pulled out my wallet and gave her my business card. I turned on the light inside the car. I showed her, printed on the card, my phone number. I said, "Call me if you need anything," and as I was talking I realized how absurd my words were. How could we communicate by telephone if we weren't even able to communicate in person? But the girl made a gesture to show she had understood. She looked at me, and she gave me a kiss on the right cheek. It happened so fast that it caught me by surprise. I wasn't expecting it! Then she got out of the car and started walking along the shoulder of the road, and I turned the wheel to head back home. But that kiss had changed everything. I kept driving for a couple of kilometers and when I came to a rotary, instead of continuing on my way home I turned around and went back. I wanted to find my little Nigerian. I wanted . . . in truth, even I don't know what I wanted to do. I saw her from a distance as she was motioning to a truck driver. I saw the truck come to a halt and her climb on board. I felt a pain in my heart, like a father that sees his adolescent daughter get into the car of some unknown boy for the first time. I didn't start crying in anger but I wasn't far from it.

I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror and saw on my right cheek the imprint of the lips of my Nigerian, like the brand of a cattle rancher. Before kissing me she had put on her lipstick and, what I mean is, it wasn't easy getting her imprint to come off. In the end, the washcloth was so dirty I had to throw it out. . . .

In the following days and weeks I went back to the toll plaza at least twenty times, at all possible hours, in the morning, the afternoon and sometimes even at night, and I managed to see my Nigerian again. But I don't think she recognized me, or that she recognized my car. Cars, these days, are all the same, and during the day in that area who knows how many go by every minute. There aren't as many cars at night, but you can't see very well because it's dark. A couple of times she made some gestures at me, and I tried to imagine how she might react if I stopped. Would she remember me and would she kiss me on the cheek again, or would she treat me in a professional manner (as a "muscle" for her "hole") and pretend she didn't recognize me? And me, what would I say to her? But, naturally, I didn't stop and continued on my way. I noted that, as time went on, her way of dressing was becoming more and more vulgar, and that she was looking less pretty. On some days she wore panty hose made of fake leopard skin with a skimpy T-shirt that left her breasts uncovered. Other times, her work uniform was a red leather miniskirt with nothing underneath, and a bra of the same color. Only her lips still had the same fire red color of the night we had met. . . . When winter came, she disappeared. I, naturally, didn't stop thinking about her, but after a few trips without seeing her I realized she wasn't "working" on the highway anymore and I stopped going back to look for her.

Last month, it was March, I got the first of a series of mysterious phone calls. I said, "Hello, hello," and I could hear voices on the other end of the line, little jingles, as if someone had dialed my number standing in the middle of a crowd at some amusement park. I thought it might be my Nigerian and I said, "Where are you? Talk. I know it's you." But nobody answered me and I could still hear the jingles and the other noises in the background. Then a man's voice pronounced some incomprehensible words, maybe an epithet, and the line went dead.

(During the following days and weeks, however, there were other calls, with or without the amusement park, in which nobody talked at all.)

I started noticing a car, or more accurately, a small van, which I'd never seen before on the road where I live, and it wasn't really clear what it was doing there. Certainly, it didn't belong to any of the few residents in the area nor even to a supplier making deliveries because it would be parked there even for an entire day (or for a night) in the space for the differentiated garbage bins: the bin for glass, the one for paper, the one for plastic. . . . From the outside the van looked empty but I'm convinced that it was there to spy on someone, or to spy on me; and that it was outfitted for that purpose. On several occasions, when I passed by it, I was seized with a desire to knock on the rear window (which was black and didn't let you see anything on the inside) and ask: "How is it in there? Is anyone home?" but, naturally, I didn't do it. I thought, maybe whatever it's here for doesn't involve me and maybe in one of the houses that look out on this road there's a husband who wants to document his wife's infidelity, or a wife that wants to document the infidelity of her husband. . .

Yesterday morning, it must have been around ten o'clock, I heard the doorbell ringing out on the road. I saw a police car in the video intercom and an officer in uniform who asked, or rather, ordered me to come down to the gate with some identification. Was I Sebastiano *** and was that my house? I went down and found myself standing in front of two police officers. One took my I.D. and went back to the police car to transmit my data to headquarters. The other one asked me if there were any foreigners staying in my house, and if I had been abroad recently. I invited him to come in and see for himself that I live alone, but he just shrugged his shoulders and the other officer, as he gave me back my identity card, told me that I would have to come down to the police station the next day, that is, today, at nine in the morning. He wrote the name of the inspector (or rather the "doctor": in Italy police inspectors are called doctors because they have university degrees) who was working on my case, and he urged me to be punctual. "The doctor will tell you the reason for our visit here today."

Now, finally, I know what it's all about. I know the name and surname of the Nigerian (or better, I saw them written down, and there were three "ms" and two "bs"). I know that she's in prison because of a shipment of cocaine that she (maybe) was transporting on behalf of a fellow countryman. I know that in order to get her countryman off, the Nigerian had given the police my business card, and said (by way of an interpreter) that I was the owner of the cocaine. She said she had lived in my house for a while and that I supplied, through her, all the dealers in the city where she, now, is in prison. (The ones in this area I supplied personally.) I know that the police did not believe her, but that just to be sure they had put my phone under surveillance and had recorded some suspect phone calls, made with stolen cell phones . . . Before being informed of all these things, however, I had to recount to the inspector my part of the story, from the doorbell ringing in the middle of the night to the van that had spied on me from the road outside the house, and that I still don't know who it belonged to. (Maybe it was the police . . .) I didn't tell him about my trips to the toll-booth plaza but I think the inspector (the "doctor") nevertheless understood everything there was to understand, because he kept smiling and looking at me with a certain indulgence. Before letting me go, however, he gave me a little sermon. He told me I must never again open the door of my house to strangers during the day, but above all at night. "Even if they are beautiful girls, call us." He shook my hand and I confess that I felt like a perfect idiot. I wanted to ask him for some news of the Nigerian (How long will she have to stay in prison? And when she gets out will they send her back to Africa?) but I didn't have the courage. My love story ended there.

From La Morte di Marx (Milan: Einaudi, 2006). By arrangement with the publishers. Translation copyright 2008 by Gregory Conti. All rights reserved.