To Tonino, for the bracelet.
Every time I cross this street, I always choose the same spot: I walk sort of kitty-corner from the traffic island, or straight as an arrow along the crosswalk, as if the cars had stopped to let me pass. Or else, stepping down from the trolley, without an umbrella, I run to take shelter under the awning outside the pharmacy. But I always cross Via Marina at this same spot, I don’t do it on purpose—that is, I do it on purpose, but without wanting to. And when I cross here, I imagine it. I imagine it so intensely that I can see it: Mario, coming along the sidewalk. Not crossing the street: it was already baking hot, so hot that a body would automatically choose to walk in the shade. He was walking fast, skimming along the windows of the Loreto hospital on his left, with the street advancing against the waterfront on his right. The sea poised against the barracks building, against the employment office, against the cranes in the harbor. Mario was moving along briskly, as briskly as the gentleman who had withdrawn money from the cash machine a few seconds before, just as Mario was passing the bank, walking quickly, then passing Sofas & Co. and Château d’Ax. The gentleman from the cash machine was just a few steps behind him, wearing the expression of a cash withdrawal in a city you don’t trust. Mario was expressionless, absolutely expressionless. He was walking fast, avoiding the tree roots that were bulging up from beneath the sidewalk, walking to the right of the roots, on the street side. The ATM guy was walking to the left of the trees, on the hospital side, as if by staying as far from the street as possible he could ward off a mugging, as if the motorbike he feared might think twice before climbing the curb. The shade has only a few trees to work with. They were erupting beneath the asphalt as Mario moved along past them: the last tree in the line was huge, and there was only a narrow space between its trunk and the wall. Mario passed through, touching the bark as he passed, and then there were no more trees. Three steps in the baking heat, eyes fixed on the awning where he would plunge back into the shade. He stepped down from the curb at a safe spot: where the emergency room entrance used to be there was now a construction site, and cars could no longer get through, so there was no need to look both ways when crossing the street. Three steps for Mario took a little more than a second. The gentleman from the cash machine heard the roar of a motor passing too close, felt a gust of air, and noticed an outstretched arm as he turned. He froze in terror, clutching at his trouser pocket, as the motorbike zipped past him and the passenger, the only one wearing a helmet, stabbed Mario between the shoulder blades with a six-inch blade. Then, as if he were clapping his arm around Mario’s shoulder as they headed off together for an espresso in a nearby café, he searched Mario all over, pulled something out of his pocket, and climbed back onto the motorbike. The bike moved off, unhurriedly, toward Sant’Erasmo. Knives are strange weapons. Luisa swears that it doesn’t hurt, that when the blade slides into your flesh you barely notice; as she told me this, she ran her hand over her right thigh; along the length of her thigh ran twenty-seven stitches and a line of white scar tissue. And in fact, a knife is a weapon made to be used on legs, not shoulders. It’s meant to hurt you, not kill you. If you die of a stab wound, it’s usually by mistake, because the blade sliced through the wrong vein in a knife fight. At the soccer stadium, or on the Mergellina waterfront in the chaos of New Year’s Eve, when a snort of coke costs ten euros and even the poorest of the poor can afford one. If someone was going to kill him from behind, Mario would have expected a handgun. When I imagine it, my back muscles tighten till they’re stiff, and then my neck hurts for half a day. The emergency room entrance was under construction; they were doing repairs on the access ramps. They dispatched an ambulance from a side street, though they could easily have lifted Mario up and carried him inside. The gentleman from the ATM sat down on the ground, but not right next to Mario: one step away, exactly the same distance he had been walking behind him, a yard or so before it happened, on the curb by the sidewalk. He sat there, leaning against the tree, until he saw the medical technicians hoist him into the ambulance; then he stood up and walked through a side entrance into the emergency room where they had taken Mario. He was the first person I saw when I got there: he was sitting on a bench, resting his head and back against the wall.
“I can’t let you bring him in here. He’s too small.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Doc,” I said to the male nurse, slipping past him on one side.
“Where am I supposed to leave him?”
“Only children twelve or older are allowed in here.”
“Okay, I understand that part; what am I supposed to do: wait until he turns twelve?”
I gave him a last-chance smile. If he didn’t take that chance, I was ready to overturn the gurney on the left, the one parked against the wall.
The gentleman from the ATM stood up from his bench.
“Are you with the victim?”
“I can take care of your boy, go on in, don’t worry.”
Tonino was already beaded with sweat.
“Don’t let the boy get worked up, mister.”
Then I looked at the male nurse.
“Don’t let this gentleman out of your sight, you. Understood? I’m holding you personally responsible.”
Not much happens in the intensive care unit; they let you in so you can see he’s still breathing, that they weren’t lying to you when they said he was still alive. But that body there wasn’t Mario. Mario was already out of the picture.
As I left the ICU, I knew one thing: Mario was alive, but in critical condition. Tonino had stretched out on the bench and fallen asleep, his head resting on the man’s leg.
“Are you the wife?”
Instinctively, I said yes, and as I said it, I slowly, carefully turned my ring so that the stone was tucked away, hidden in the palm of my hand.
“Signora, if you like, I’d be glad to drive you home. My car is parked outside the pharmacy.”
“Thanks, but home is all the way out in Ponticelli.”
The doctors had given the man from the ATM the first reports on Mario’s condition; they had given him a bag with the contents of Mario’s pockets; later, they had taken the bag back. The police had told him not to leave the hospital, asked for his ID, told him he would have to talk to a detective and to come by the headquarters in Via Cosenz sometime tomorrow. The man from the ATM sat down on the bench, forgetting even that he was a smoker, watching me appear at the end of the corridor the way a cashier waits for her replacement at the end of the shift. And then, with Tonino sleeping on his leg, he began to calm down, slowing his breathing to match the boy’s, until it was normal. Now, I was going to make sure he explained what had happened. That was the only reason I was in his car; I don’t need rides from strangers; no one’s ever driven me anywhere. I had Tonino in my belly and swollen legs, and I still stood on the sidewalk, waiting for traffic to move and the trolley to arrive. Once I was aboard, I shook boys roughly by the shoulder: that seat is for me. Anyway, that man wasn’t going anywhere. He couldn’t just drop me off at the front door of my apartment building and leave. He hadn’t said a word to me in the car.
“Come on up.”
“I’m not asking you if you want to come up. I want an explanation.”
“From me? If there’s explaining to be done, I’d expect it from you.”
“Are you joking, mister? My husband is flat on his back in the ICU . . . what more do I need to tell you? You were there: what happened?”
“Bear with me, Signora. I must still be in a state of shock . . .”
“What, did somebody stab you, too?”
“No . . .”
“Then come on, let’s go upstairs.”
I took off my shoes. Ever since I was fourteen, I’ve never bought a pair of shoes with less than two-and-a-half inch heels. It seems that with heels under two-and-a-half inches, I can’t get people to take me seriously. And if you want people to open their crotches and armpits to your tweezers, trust is everything. But I took off my heels that day. I wanted to understand.
“I’m making some pasta for the boy . . . you want something to eat?”
“I couldn’t eat. My stomach’s tied in a knot.”
“Okay, do as you like. I have to feed the boy, if you’re hungry, have some for yourself.”
As I stood with my back to him, he told me what happened, then he asked: “What does your husband do?”
“Jesus, where do you live? He’s a courier . . . what do you do?”
“I have an umbrella shop, in the Via Toledo.”
“All right then, you’re a businessman, you should know certain things.”
“Sure, Signora, but it’s one thing to know them, quite another to do them . . . a money runner?”
“What do you mean?”
“Is money what your husband delivers?”
“Madonna, he delivers what needs delivering. He doesn’t deal drugs. He guards the shipments, he makes sure they get where they’re supposed to.”
“And does he carry money?”
“Why would he?”
“Then why were they searching his pockets, those people?”
“And why did they stab him? Were they junkies?”
“Hey, I was hoping you could tell me that. I have no idea. But sooner or later, it’ll come out.”
The man from the ATM came to the Loreto hospital every afternoon at three, visiting hour. He’d wait for me on the fire escape, smoking with the male nurses, while I stood, doing nothing, outside the entrance of the ICU. At 4:15, they’d let me in for twenty minutes, and he’d wait for me, downstairs, in his car, while I was doing nothing in the ICU. And he’d drive me home. On the days I couldn’t get my next-door neighbor to babysit Tonino, I’d bring him with me, and I knew he was in good hands. While I waited, the two of them would go to the bridge over the Circumvesuviana commuter train tracks and watch as trains left the station.
Once, after the hospital, he took us out for a pizza in the Piazza Carità.
“It’s just a short walk, if you want to see my umbrella shop.”
“No, really, it’s late, tomorrow is Tonino’s last day of school. You’ve already been too kind, Signore . . .”
“Anna, why the formality? We see each other every day.”
“Mamma, I could skip school, I don’t mind.”
“Tonino, don’t be ridiculous. And you, too, do me a favor, don’t talk nonsense.”
I went to the hospital to kill time. The doctors wouldn’t talk to me, and it wasn’t just because I wasn’t his wife. They figured they’d already told me everything I was capable of understanding. What’s more, they seemed to think that he was taking up medical care that should be going to other patients. For someone with a stab wound in the back, he was getting more than his share of oxygen. I was starting to lose clients. If a beautician stops working in the summer months, she can kiss her business good-bye. All the same, I was there every day at three in the afternoon, and I wouldn’t leave until I had seen him.
“Why do you always come so early? You know we won’t let you in until 4:15 anyway.”
“Oh, and now it’s up to you to decide what I can and can’t do with my afternoons, is it? No . . . explain to me how that works . . .”
And then one morning, normal air was enough for him, and Mario woke up. His eyes were blue.
No one had bothered to let me know, so when I showed up outside the ICU, the male nurse told me Mario had been transferred to a regular ward. But the minute I saw him, I knew he was gone. It just wasn’t him anymore, with that blank stare. Because in all my life, I’ve never been as beautiful as when Mario looked at me. From that point on, I could finally do something real to help him: bring frittatas in thermos packs and little fruit-juice bottles filled with coffee; empty his bedpan once he had regained control of his body; and rub Johnson’s baby oil on his hips, massaging him to ward off bed sores, because flat on his back he couldn’t breathe anymore.
As soon as Mario regained consciousness, the man from the ATM vanished. And in the meanwhile, Capisante sent for me. The first thing he asked was how Mario was doing, how his recovery was going. He asked me whether that gentleman who spent so much time with me knew anything, whether I knew anything, and whether Mario had given me anything. I told him that the gentleman was interested in dating me, and that Mario had left me with nothing more than a hand to cover my front and another to cover my behind. Only then did he tell me that he knew who had stabbed him: they were renegades, a splinter group of the system trying to set up in business for themselves. They were hijacking small shipments, biding their time until they could step up to the big time. I asked him the only thing that kept bothering me:
“Why didn’t he shoot?”
“Because he wasn’t carrying a gun.”
Capisante noticed the flame that couldn’t quite light my cigarette; he reached out and placed a hand on mine to steady it.
“In peacetime, no one goes armed outside of the quarter. What if the police stopped him on a random check? Is it worth the risk?”
“What if they killed him?”
“Anna, the guys who robbed him knew he wasn’t armed: if they hadn’t, would they have gone near him with a knife?”
“And anyway, we’ve taken care of them,” he told me.
Then, as a farewell gesture, he had one of his guys drive me home; when we got there, the young man pulled a wicker chest out of the trunk and carried it upstairs. Inside was pasta, cheese, sugar, and coffee. And eight hundred thousand lire in a plain white envelope. Everything that I had told him, Capisante already knew. As for the idea that Mario had been revenged: probably Capisante had managed to suppress a mutiny, to maintain his dominance, and if there was revenge it was strictly a secondary consideration, just like Mario and me. Still, I was pleased that he had summoned me: being the mother of his son still counted for something then.
Even on the medical floor, it was as if Mario was in a coma: he never said much to me, he put up no objections to anything that was done to him, and no one knew—or no one had bothered to ask—whether he would ever leave that hospital on his own two legs. When the guy from theATM showed up again one day to see me, we went to the Bar Loreto to drink an espresso.
“You want that hot?” asked the barista.
And that’s when I realized it was October, I should have pulled out the winter clothes and put away the summer clothes, and I’d forgotten to enroll Tonino in school.
“If you give me a power of attorney, I can go. But, of course, if you give me a power of attorney, then you’ll have to tell me that the child has your last name, and that you’re not even married.”
I didn’t have to explain anything to him: he knew perfectly well that when I came back home to Ponticelli, with thirty years behind me and a man who hadn’t yet made up his mind how long he had left to live, my only option was to put on a pair of the highest heels I owned, strengthen my ankles, and tell everyone I met that I was married.
“Roberto, who told you?”
“The prosecutor. I had to appear yesterday for the investigation; I came to tell you about it.”
“They’ve been questioning me too. But not the prosecutor.”
“Was he looking for something?”
“Why, do you have something that they would be asking me about?”
“No, what do you mean? I’m asking you because I don’t have any idea how this sort of thing works.”
Actually, neither did I, at least not the details, but it was becoming increasingly clear to me that Roberto was hiding something from me. At the same time, I knew that the only course of action open to me, unless I had some kind of death wish, was to trust him. And I wanted to trust him: I needed a rest.
“There’s something I’d like you to do, but I don’t know if I dare to ask.”
“Anna, if you won’t even tell me what it is, how can I say?”
“Could you talk to the doctors? To me, they won’t explain how things stand.”
“Then why would they say anything to me?”
“Because you know how to ask.”
That’s how I found out that the only real question was: where? We needed to decide on the best place to let him die. Mario had no family, except for the wife he had left to be with me, two months after their wedding, and now it was anybody’s guess where she was. I asked Capisante to take care of it, somebody signed some papers, and Mario came back to his own bed where it was only right—everyone agreed—that he should die. Instead, Mario lived on in that bed for seven months; meanwhile, at school, Tonino had almost learned to read. When Tonino was one year old, the social worker who had arranged for me to be assigned the apartment set a cup and a little ball in front of him.
“Put the ball in the cup,” she said to him with a smile.
Tonino looked at her, then he grabbed the cup by the handle and put it to his lips to drink. The social worker smiled at me, reassuringly.
“He can’t follow simple instructions,” she explained to me. “But that’s okay. He’ll catch back up in nursery school.”
It was a disappointment for Tonino. In a cup just like that one, every afternoon, Mario and I used to pour just a drop of espresso from the little coffee pot, and then we’d fill the cup with water. That way, he didn’t feel left out when we drank our coffee. Now the social worker was happy: Tonino had caught back up at school. He had learned to do what people expected him to do. After class, he’d come back home and run into his father’s room. He’d climb up on the mattress, turn the sheets into a tent. He’d hide under the bed, playing hide and seek, and Mario, who was too weak even to talk, would stretch out his arm and knock on the side of the bed. That was the signal, Tonino knew: his hiding place had been found.
Once in a while he’d ask me to give him my tools so that he could give Mario a manicure. “Listen to Mamma, be careful,” but I actually knew that Tonino used the nail file with a precision and patience that even I no longer had, not since my hands started shaking: with crayons and a coloring book, he’d always scribble outside the line, but he had never gotten nail polish on a cuticle. That’s how Mario and I met: I’d given him a manicure the morning of his wedding. And so now, even if Mario was barely conscious, I let Tonino do his nails. While Tonino was absorbing my profession, I was inheriting Mario’s. Not with his responsibilities, not with his salary. I could deal drugs, though: other women did it. The women on the ground floor just sat at their doorways until a certain hour every day, like tellers at a bank window.
But I lived on the eighth floor, and I had to go all the way downstairs and into the street. Still, out on the outskirts of town, the hours were pretty convenient: from 6:30 until midnight, one in the morning at the latest. I’d leave Tonino in front of the television and find him asleep.
Until the end of November, it wasn’t cold, December was harder, but in December my neighbor set up a fireworks stall on the street; we lit a fire in a metal drum, we bundled the kids up in overcoats, and we kept them with us until late. Tonino was at school when Mario died. I called the social worker.
“You have to keep him.”
“Where am I supposed to keep him?”
“I don’t know: but you keep him until we’ve got Mario in the ground.”
Thirty-six hours later, Tonino came home and walked straight into the bedroom without even putting down his book bag. I closed the front door; then I turned and saw him, sitting on the floor, knocking on the side of the bed. Roberto had showed up just as the funeral procession was rounding the corner outside the church. But at the cemetery, when everyone came over to speak to me, I didn’t see him. He showed up again for the thirtieth-day requiem, listened to the entire Mass, and then saw me home.
“Is there anything I can do to help you?”
“Do you have family?”
“I have a sister; she’s a concierge in Via Toledo, just a few doors up from my business.”
“Does she have children?”
“Yes, two boys.”
“Could you take Tonino over there, in the afternoons, just to distract him? He could play with your nephews . . .”
He’d bring him back to me at eight o’clock. I told him I’d come downstairs to wait for him outside the gate: of all people, I didn’t want Roberto to see me dealing drugs. In the end, though, I’m pretty sure that he knew. In my way, I thanked him for having left that matter in doubt.
“Listen, Roberto, it’s ridiculous for us to keep using the formal when we speak, it’s a charade, nobody believes in it anymore.”
“Hey, what’s the special occasion? Are we celebrating our first anniversary?”
At first I thought he was only kidding me, but it was around June sometime when he said that. And it was on Saint Anthony’s Day—June 13—that Mario last looked at the awning of this pharmacy with his own eyes. I think back on it now, but at the time I couldn’t have said how long Roberto and I had known one another, and this difference between his memory of the passing days and my own, if I’d only understood, would have made it less of a surprise when he asked me to marry him. I knew right away he was interested in me, but marriage is another matter, and we had embraced only once, outside of the President movie theater, because I hadn’t sat down in a movie theater since Tonino was born. But he wasn’t stupid: he wasn’t encouraged by my feelings, he was encouraged by the fact that I had no choice. And it wasn’t a question of having a choice. It’s that, if you marry a man sooner or later you have to go to bed with him, and then it’s not just telling him thanks for doing you that favor nobody asked him for. Sooner or later, the day comes when you fight, when you’re tired, and you find yourself saying something you shouldn’t have, even if the terms of the deal are that you got married to live in peace. And that’s when I remembered the times when my nerves were shot, and Mario would come home and flop down onto the unmade bed in his work clothes, and Tonino had been out of control for hours, and maybe he hadn’t even have taken a nap in the afternoon, hadn’t slept for a minute, and I was behind with the housework, and I wished I could have had a hot meal ready for him, but the water wasn’t even boiling yet, and then Capisante might call him, and Mario would say: “I have to go out again in half an hour,” even when it was ten at night. And then I would start screaming and I’d get angry and throw a plate at him, and he would curse my mother, who had made me the way I was, and he’d come very close to hitting me. Then, later on, when I’d calm my nerves by rinsing the salad, little by little I’d stop ripping at the lettuce leaves, and suddenly I’d turn around: and there would be Mario, looking at me. He might already have been looking at me for a minute or so, and I hadn’t even noticed. Times like that made me feel so beautiful, even if I was sweaty and tired. Maybe I felt beautiful because I was sweaty and tired on his account: I felt my breasts swelling inside my dress with every breath I took, and my legs trembling until he came over to calm them.
“Roberto, there’s nothing but crust and crumbs here; there’s no proper bread for you.”
That’s how I put it to him the next morning, at the front door of the apartment building, then I stroked his cheek and went back upstairs: because I had come down wearing slippers, and I didn’t like the other tenants to see me. Used to be there was only one road that ran from Gianturco to here. To get to Piazza Garibaldi, you had to leave yourself a good hour, with all the traffic and the gridlock. No one ever left themselves an hour: we thought that road was much shorter than the time it really took. But ever since they built the new thoroughfare, you can see who is coming, practically from your front door: our customers would arrive on motorbikes, or by bus. They’d get out at the bus stop on the bridge, walk down the curve, along the guardrail. Smiles broke out on their faces under the orange streetlamps.
“Two fifties,” said one of the pair, and I should have figured it out for myself: if he hadn’t already sold his gold bracelet there had to be a reason.
“Wait there,” I said, and I turned around, walking over to the trash can. While I was reaching down for the fifty thousand-lire baggies, I was still far enough away to run. I could have gotten to the parked car, and then peeled out of there. Come back inside, take Staircase C, walk across the terrace, and make it back into the apartment. And once I was inside, there was no fucking way just two of them would come looking for me. In the apartment, I would have found Tonino’s half eaten meal, Tonino in front of the television set. I would have worried about it later, sitting on the balcony, with my neighbor: “This kid just isn’t eating,” I would have said, dangling one foot, bouncing my flip-flop on my big toe. But it had been two years now: nearly every evening I walked over to that trash can, ever since the city commissioner had installed the new urban furnishings. They had pulled up in trucks, when we still had cesspools instead of sewer lines, and if it rained for three days in a row, the filth would overflow, and we couldn’t send the children to school. And they had unloaded a hundred red plastic vases. The civil engineer who was measuring the distance from one vase to the next explained to us that they had been designed, especially for us, by a famous architect in Milan, who had also done work on the Public Gardens. As soon as they left, the kids started knocking them over, using staves they’d ripped off of the benches as clubs. My neighbor carefully removed one and took it back to her apartment to use as a laundry hamper. Then, that evening, Capisante came by. He walked around one of the big red drums, and then spread the word not to destroy them.
Ever since then, I had been fishing twenty-four-thousand-lire heroin baggies and fifty-thousand-lire cocaine baggies out of that can. They were tiny pouches that weighed much less than a half gram, and there were periods when there was practically no good shit at all in them, but even so, nobody complained much, or if they did, I didn’t hear about it. I walked that accustomed route on autopilot, without thinking. More importantly, I walked back, with the drugs, and with both feet pointing directly at the two undercover detectives, because I was tired, and when I’m tired I prefer to believe that everything is fine. I didn’t say it because I was looking for an answer. I said it because it was the only thought tormenting me, as I climbed into the police car, and because the policewoman was the first woman I saw: “I have an eight-year-old boy, upstairs, and he has no one but me.”
“Then what are you doing down here in the street?”
It’s something we need to take into account. We take it into account so seriously, that we aren’t frightened, and that’s the real challenge: to keep from being afraid. We know more or less what to say, we definitely know what not to say, who to wait for, what to ask for. The history and daily life of our quarter is so bound up with people going to prison and getting out of prison that I have never heard anyone say, to save face, to cover up their shame or embarrassment, that they were away for work, doing long-distance truck-driving, or working on a freighter, or that they had been sick, really sick, and in the hospital for the past few months. Prison doesn’t isolate, it brings us together. Seeing them come home from prison is like meeting up after the end of a war, telling stories to get over it, or saying nothing, so as not to think back on it. When Capisante’s brother-in-law finished his house arrest, they shot off fireworks at two in the morning from the main piazza. For men, it’s a major rite of passage: survive prison and you’re someone special, the bosses know that they can trust you, that they can give you bigger jobs, bigger responsibilities. It’s not the same for a woman. Unless you’re planning to become a boss yourself, and there aren’t many female bosses, for a woman the only possibility, the only training is to keep from ever thinking about it. You have to get used to not thinking about certain things. Tonino isn’t an overbearing child, but he’s no fool, either. And this middle way has always been a problem in our neighborhood. Tonino defends himself without reacting: he falls silent. When Mario and I would have fights in front of him, or when I yell at him, or when the social worker asks him a question to make him think about something he doesn’t want to think about, Tonino looks out the window, or if there’s no window, he looks at the floor or the ground, but beyond the floor, into the distance. Distant from me, from himself, from everyone. And when he looks into that distance, there is nothing you can do, no way to reach him. That was it: I needed to avoid thinking about Tonino, locked up in an institution, looking into the distance. I needed to keep from thinking about that. That’s what surviving two years in prison is. The only known way to survive. But what I wasn’t thinking about, I was losing. I used to go do waxing for certain ladies whose children were out of Italy. They had left the country, and were studying in America, or they were working on research projects, and they were gone for years. They would call home, maybe every other week, for a short phone conversation, a few minutes of words that they could hardly even hear.
“First and foremost, I am a mother,” they kept saying.
But it was bullshit. I think they liked to listen to themselves repeating those words in their minds, and they liked to hear themselves saying them out loud, but I knew from the start that those were empty words: motherhood ends if they take it away from you, if every time that you think about it you have to push it back under in order to survive. One day, I had a son, and another day, someone decided that it was no longer my job to raise him, that I am more at fault with the rest of the world if I stay on the outside than with Tonino if I wind up in prison, and so I am no longer a mother, as those women used to put it. I had a responsibility, which I could only accept by living. It’s not that I lived well, I made mistakes, I lived badly, very badly, but the only way I knew how to accept that responsibility was to make myself responsible for living. In jail, all that was left to me was the weight of responsibility. And even if I had been innocent, even if I hadn’t handed over baggies of cocaine to the police that day, even then the guilt would have grown all the time that I was in prison, for every minute that Tonino wondered where I was, or learned to stop wondering where I was. When I was awake, I managed pretty well: I would walk around in my cell, measuring the space with my body, but with time, that stopped working. We were each our body at age thirteen, when we couldn’t sleep belly-down because our mammary glands were demanding to grow, and then every month for all the years allowed to us. My body was Tonino’s time and space; the hours: the interval between two breast-feedings. But prison isn’t a punishment of the soul for a soul that has erred, as the parish priest tried to tell us at Mass. It is the punishment of the body for a body that didn’t know how to do things any other way. Still, as long as I was awake I managed to keep my mind off of it: I would stand on tiptoes and tell about my last plunging necklines before winding up in this cell, and I had discovered a method for filing my nails on the stone walls. Then, one night, I dreamt that I was being strangled with an umbilical cord, and without a balcony to take a deep breath and tell myself that I was dreaming, that fear became the only reality. It was Luisa who called the guards, because she had spent the whole day suffering from the scar on her leg, and now she wanted to go to sleep. I started taking pills: high heels are forbidden in prison, but you can have all the sleep therapies you want. And I started seeing a psychologist. She explained my anguish as the product of the damage that prison had made part of my life: she listed the damages, lay them out for me, and then told me that they were few in number, and that I could overcome them all, but she was wrong about me. That wasn’t the problem, because I was experiencing that kind of damage even when I was on the outside, a free woman: already life had forced me to give up putting my son to bed every evening. Already I had been deprived of that choice, and I was ashamed even while I was doing things in the only way I knew how. To that extent, prison was nothing new for me.
The only thing was that I began to feel an anxiety deep inside. It was my soul, running frantically inside a body confined in a space four yards by three: as if, while I was standing still, doing nothing, there was someone in my head, running in my place, growing increasingly frantic, and never getting anywhere. But where she was trying to go, I still can’t say. The psychologist said that this was normal, that this anxiety of mine, just like the depressions other women experienced, are the two most common ways of trying to escape the present.
When she told me that, I looked at my present and I knew what she meant. I knew what she had only understood, but it irritated me to have to stand there and confirm it.
“Once you’re out, little by little you’ll slow down, and one day, when you’re not thinking about it anymore, you’ll stop running without even realizing it.”
“All right,” I said.
They gave us colored plastic beads and fine black cotton strings, and told us to make bracelets. The first one I made I gave to Tonino as soon as I saw him in the recreation area. I tied three knots, tight around his wrist, and I told him never to take it off. The next week, he was back, without the bracelet.
“Can you make me another one? I gave it to my teacher.”
“Why did you do that?”
“Because it was the most beautiful thing I had.”
It was his last year in elementary school. I tried to imagine, at the other end of the bracelet, his teacher, and I wondered whether she had ever tried to imagine me. We made hundreds of bracelets for Christmas, and we all traded them for cigarettes. For my last Christmas in prison, I made a manger scene in the common room, and I had my picture taken lying in front of it, makeup applied with great care.
“Make the shot tight, close in,” I had said to Luisa.
But Luisa didn’t make it tight enough and when I look at the photograph now, I have to put my thumb on the right margin to cover the bit of prison bars that you can see behind the castle of the Three Kings.
On December 31, a postcard arrived from Roberto. It was a picture of Via Toledo, from when carriages still clipclopped along it. On the back was written 325 in great big letters in the middle, and under that, Buon Anno, Roberto. Roberto had done his math: this was the beginning of my year of work-release, and he thought that for a few hours every day, I would be able to go where I wanted. But that wasn’t how it was: I worked every day in a cooperative from eight till three, then it was back to prison. Tonino was in a boarding school that was a two-hour drive away from me, and so every so often he would run away, make his way to the bus stop, board one without a ticket, and the ticket checkers—when they saw how tall he was—refused to believe that he was only eleven. I couldn’t tell him not to do it anymore.
“See if you can finish this school without getting in too much trouble, Tonino.”
“But I want to be a beautician.”
“After you finish middle school we’ll see.”
“No, ma, what do you mean we’ll see? I want to go to beautician’s school.”
One afternoon, the buses weren’t running, and Tonino spent the night in the cooperative. The cooperative staff called the principal of the boarding school to reassure him, and he said that things couldn’t go on like this. Walking into the cooperative at eight in the morning and finding Tonino eating breakfast and chatting with the others was a real morning after such a long time. Once Tonino was on his way back, they told me to call the principal.
“Signora, I have to see you as soon as possible.”
“Principal, you have the address of the women’s prison. I receive visitors on Saturday after three in the afternoon.”
Instead, I wound up going to see him: on a special furlough, with two plainclothes guards accompanying me one Sunday to the boarding school; they left me there and told me that they’d go to the main train station at three that afternoon to pick me up. I was going to surprise Tonino. Once the car door had slammed, I was left alone outside the boarding school’s garden. Here I was: I could go in. Or sit down on the low wall and smoke a cigarette. Or walk along the trolley tracks all the way to the beach. I felt like Luisa, the first day she walked without crutches on her stabbed leg; I felt like Tonino the night that I didn’t come home.
I walked in. I spoke to the principal, I told him that I didn’t have long to serve: a year isn’t long. That I had started a countdown:
“And you can start a countdown of your own: Tonino is going to take the final exam and then he’ll never set foot in here again.”
“Signora, don’t take me wrong, but as long as he’s here, he has to study like the others and respect certain rules.”
“What if, in order to study like the others, he has to break certain rules every once in a while?”
I left him thinking that one over, and I went to see Tonino, in the chapel where they were all attending Sunday Mass. As I walked in, the priest was holding up the wafer, and Tonino was brushing a lock of hair from his eyes. As he did, the nun kneeling behind him grabbed his arm and gave it a sharp tug. I dipped my finger in holy water, crossed myself, and walked over to the nun:
“Don’t be ridiculous: step outside.”
“But, pardon me, what is this about?” I seized her by the arm and hauled her to her feet; she understood and followed me outside.
“You’re that boy’s mother.”
“Dear Signora, I’m doing it for your son’s own good; don’t you see that he’s effeminate?”
“Right, and so you have the right to mistreat him, because he fiddles with his hair; help me understand that one . . .”
“That boy plucks his eyebrows with a pair of tweezers.”
“He can take it up the ass for all I care, but you don’t lay a finger on him, ever again. Understood?”
“No, I’m not going to go on talking like this; I won’t put up with this . . .”
So I knocked her back on her heels and pinned her shoulders against the stone church wall.
“Listen, you. If you have problems with Tonino, you tell me about them. Get it? Because his father’s dead, but his mother’s alive and well. Got it?” I sank my fingernails into the heavy cloth of her habit. She started trembling.
“I’m still alive. Can you tell? Can you feel that I’m still alive?”
We went out and got some fried fish, then we walked down together to the train station, long before the appointment. I had forgotten how beautiful Piazza Garibaldi is, with the kebab stand on the corner by the pharmacy, and all the street vendors along the Vicolo della Duchesca.
We walked along the sidewalk lined with banks, Tonino bought a pair of sunglasses, and I bought a pair of boots with four-inch heels, but I left them in the box:
“I’ll wear them when I come home.”
We started off toward Piazza Nolana because I wanted to take a look at the sea, even if it was just the harbor, but instead we only got as far as the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, because there was so much stuff laid out for sale on the sidewalk that it was impossible to get through. The fish market was shutting down, and the vendors were hosing down the street. The water flowed away downhill through the gate of Porta Nolana, and then I took a deep breath and asked him: “Tonino, tell Mamma, you’re not a faggot, are you?”
When it was just a few weeks till my sentence was up, deep inside I was still running, and instead of slowing down, the pace only sped up: and I was flattened by the pressure against the back wall of my cell, staring at the door, as if it was the first door I’d ever seen in my life and I didn’t know what it was for. Day after horrible day of terror; I stopped going to the cooperative, I stopped going outside during recreation hour. And then, all the same, I was released. I walk into the main entrance of number 325, Via Toledo. Between the majolica coat of arms and the anodized aluminum elevator is the concierge’s little booth. I look around me; the concierge raises her head and studies me. I ignore her and let her look. A gentleman walks in behind me, and he too looks around.
“Who are you looking for?” she asks him.
“Law firm of Nucifero.”
“Third floor, on the left.”
The man leaves, she steps out of her booth, and we stand facing one another. The instant I look at her I know that she resembles Roberto, by certain tangled connections of facial features, she reminds me of him. I pull out of my pocket the postcard, folded in four: I hand it to her. She takes it and opens it. She reads the only thing that’s printed on it: house of detention. Then she returns to her booth and gets a bucket.
“Come with me . . .”
From a door beneath the main stairs, we slip out into a series of narrow courtyards, we make our way through the belly of the apartment buildings, out toward the poorer quarters. And as we move away from the elegant commercial street, the buildings become darker, more smoke-stained: bundles of electric cables run along beside us like a handrail, when we start walking downstairs. She tells me to look at the marks in the tufa stone.
“This is where we took shelter during the bombing raids.”
“How old were you, ma’am?”
“And you remember it?”
“Signora, everything that I can remember in my life starts right here.”
After four or five flights of stairs, the neon lights become too dim, I can feel the dampness in my bones, even though it’s summer. We walk further along, down a straight corridor. I have the impression that we’re going toward the poorer quarters, toward the hill.
“Are we going toward the Corso?”
“No: we’ve only crossed the street. We’re underneath number 121, Via Toledo, the Banca Intesa building.”
The tunnel dead-ends into a wall. The concierge starts waving hello to the wall, and I turn at the whirring sound of a surveillance camera until I see it: it tilts the lens slightly to focus on us. Now the concierge starts talking quickly, complaining at some length because her sons are all grown up but they still live at home, her laundry hamper is always overflowing, even though she runs the washing machine three times a day, every blessed day, and when they finally move out and have to pay their own bills, oh they’ll understand what being wasteful means then. As she’s chattering away, she thrusts objects into my arms: a garden hose, a broom. She fills the bucket with rags, she grabs a box of Ava powdered detergent. The surveillance camera swivels as we move off down the hallway. She turns around, one last time, before we turn the corner, and smiles at the camera.
“This is the safest place I know. Ever since I was four years old, every time I come down here I feel like a baby in her mother’s belly. And that’s why I put it here.”
“What about the surveillance camera?”
“Well, across the street used to be the Motta restaurant, you remember it?”
“Back then, you could still take the underpass to the other side of Via Toledo, and you came up inside the building across the way. Then, when the bank moved in, they closed the underpass with a big steel plate, and then they built that wall. But, evidently, they’re still worried. They must know that bad guys can get in from every direction, so they’ve installed a surveillance camera too. They know who I am: I use the tunnel to store things. Let’s just say that if anyone tries to come down here without me, the police will be here in minutes: that’s why I keep it here.”
I look at the box of Ava powdered detergent and I’m sorry to see it’s so damp, the cardboard puffy, as if there really was detergent in it. The concierge may have guessed what I was thinking, but she says nothing, because when we finally arrive back at her booth, we meet the young man from the café with two cups of espresso on his tray.
“Who are these from?”
“Pino, the security guard.”
“Ah, well thank him from me . . .”
I stir my coffee, and the box still sits there, in the bucket, beneath the cleaning rags I look at it, I continue to look at it, but I don’t reach out my hand. She has to give it to me. She finishes her coffee, then she picks it up and holds it out to me, with both hands. I take it the way I took the mail in prison, the way I picked up Tonino at night to suckle him, like something that is there for me, something that has arrived from another world.
“Negotiable, interest-bearing treasury bonds. Twenty bonds, each worth fifteen thousand euros.”
I scratch away a little bit of the crust coating the damp and swollen cardboard on the carton, and beneath it emerges Calimero, Ava’s mascot, a little black bird.
“How long have you been hiding them?”
“My brother gave them to me four years ago, when he got married. He didn’t think it was safe once there was someone else in the house, even if it was his own wife. Until then, he had always kept them.”
“How is he?”
“He’s well, God bless him.”
“And you kept them, all this time, for your brother?”
“No, signora: I kept them for you, how can I say this . . .to thank you.”
“Because you never said yes. Because you wouldn’t marry him.”
She puts the detergent box into a plastic shopping bag, and we step out into the street. The concierge looks over toward the bulletproof glass windows of the Banca Intesa and gestures with one hand to say: thanks, we got the coffee. Tonino is at the corner, near Onyx, waiting for me on his motorbike. His eyes are blue. The concierge looks at him, then she looks at me:
“He’s grown up.”
I turn and leave, without saying a word in reply. We manage to make our way along the sidewalk, because construction is underway on the subway, but we drive carefully, cautiously, just grazing the bolts of silk piled on the stalls of the Chinese vendors. I stop outside the plate glass window of the pharmacy. I need to select a good post-depilation oil. And a lotion, not too dense, for massages. The women we work for expect the finest products: all they ask of us is the superfluous, the unnecessary, and money is no object where that is concerned. Beyond the Chicco brand baby rattles, in the reflections in the plate glass, I see myself on Via Marina, between the trees and the Loreto hospital, my image foreshortened in the distance. Mario had heard it, too, the motorbike coming, he’d heard it before Roberto did, heard it more clearly too. He’d recognized the message of pain that it was bringing. Many was the time that he’d carried that same message, the same way. He’d understood that they were looking for cocaine, and nothing else. They couldn’t know that the proceeds from the weekend’s sales were coming back to Capisante, deposited in eight different places around the city, in the form of interest-bearing treasury bonds. And Mario would have taken them to him, if only they had left him the chance. He’d heard the motorbike coming up behind him when he was level with the last tree, he’d dropped the bag between the trunk and the wall, maybe he was hoping to go back and retrieve it after they left. In a city drowning in garbage, nobody notices a plastic shopping bag. He figured they would have sent someone experienced and reliable, say Luigi, or Peppino, who knew what to say and where to strike. He had stepped off the curb, expressionless, perhaps without even tensing his back, the way I am doing right now.
Roberto had picked up the bag while they were killing him. Then he had sat down on the ground, huddled on the curb, concealing the plastic bag and absorbing the horror. In the hospital bathroom, he had discovered his good fortune, his peril, his guilt, his dishonesty, his honesty, his doubt, and his hesitancy. Then Tonino had been placed into his arms. If he had given the bonds to me right away, perhaps I’d never have gone to prison, or maybe I’d have wound up there sooner. Maybe he was waiting for me to say I’d marry him, so that he could bring them to me as part of a dowry, or maybe he was afraid to use them. Or he waited to forget about them so that he’d know what to do with them. The boss assumed that the killers on the motorbike had taken the money the day they stabbed him, and that’s why he never asked me to give it back. I never even knew the money existed, and so nobody looked for it. And after all, for a boss that high up, the earnings of a single weekend might be enough to renovate his house, installing Versace tiles and toilet; it wasn’t much more money than that. He certainly doesn’t know that with his heroin I’m buying herbal masks for facials, the ones with honey: Tonino finds them easier to work with. There’s an old man in line ahead of me, and he’s trying to persuade the pharmacist to give him the same pills I took for my sleep therapy in prison. He says that he can’t find the prescription, but that he had it. I say they should give him the pills and not worry about it, I say that the pharmacist is taking on too much responsibility for the old man’s nights, that they go to university and study for years and they still don’t understand a thing. My psychologist too: she never got it right. When the anxiety finally leaves you, after all that time, you know it perfectly well. It’s like taking off a pair of stiletto heels and slipping into a pair of slippers. Your foot gradually resumes its normal shape, your ankles slowly relax. After a while, you start to drag your feet along the floor, your belly shows a little more. And you know that nobody would notice you, looking like that. And you know that as long as you’re wearing slippers, you won’t go far. But that’s where you want to stay.
From For Grace Received. Copyright 2009 by Europa Editions. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.