Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: Gaither Stewart

(An unconscious reference to Albert Camus’ La Chute)

 fat man

At first it had seemed that all of Ferdinando’s problems began when he tore the meniscuses in both knees when he jumped—he subsequently claimed—from a one-meter high stone wall in his backyard to save his beloved kitten from a savage little dog that, I knew, was really more afraid of the kitten than the tiny feline of the dog. My neighbor was a protective type and he feared the dog would tear to pieces his cuddly kitten that was so small—he liked to explain to one and all—because she had been the last of a litter of eight.

The truth of how he injured his knees however differs from his frequently repeated version of the scene that transpired before my very eyes. Since at the time he “jumped” off the wall I was standing nearby—separated only by a wire fence—I observed the entire sequence of events and swear that, first of all, he didn’t jump at all; he fell. And hard.

As usual, Ferdinando was a little high from his first bottle of wine of the day and overweight from too many days, too many weeks and months and now years—he was forty-five—of too many bottles of wine so that his belly hung far over his belt.

The reality was that that day we were engaged in deep conversation as we always were in those times, I, at the fence, and he, standing on the wall … and, to tell the full truth, Ferdinando, as was his nature, was also distracted that day by his own words. He had just pronounced one of his pithy aphorisms which I later noted for future reference—“Though we hardly notice it, a shadow of ourselves always stands just behind us like notes of a piece of music remain hanging in the air for even hours after the music has finished …”

To my question filtered through the wire fence about the role of his shadow, he said it was the ‘driving force in his life’. It was in the precise moment that he waved an arm to emphasize his point that he lost his balance, stumbled awkwardly and began his fall off the wall, flailing his long thin arms and kicking his long thin legs, before landing on his feet with the thud of a stomping elephant near the startled but still barking little dog and the screeching kitten.

After his fall, leaning forward toward me with the kitten in his arms and kicking at the little dog, he had looked at me behind the wire fence and, as if his fall had not even occurred, added to his aphorism. ‘… like the breath of life remains and hovers over the lifeless but still emptying body for some minutes after death.’

That was Ferdinando. Genius or buffoon was unclear. After his fall he walked in a normal gait toward me at the wire fence we both detested and said, “Lucky I didn’t land on my head,” and handed me the kitten over the fence. “Hold Dolcezza for me while I get rid of this vicious canine. He’s a good little dog but goes absolutely bonkers when he so much as sees a feline, especially a little one like Dolcezza.”

For most people Ferdinando was not the ideal neighbor. But he was the kind I like. Though a little nuts and often thoughtful of others at the wrong times, he had little respect for common property, most certainly not for his own either. But I had come to love him like a brother anyway.

His beautiful wife, Antonia, had a lot of patience with his eccentricities which he cultivated in his two children both under twelve years old. They pounded up and down the stairs of our adjoining duplex houses at any time of day or night. Then he might crack down on excessive noise, suddenly again aware that I was probably writing on the other side of the dividing walls. And he would yell at the top of his voice to Chiara and Dario to cut out that racket that otherwise, Giacomo, that is me, si incazzarebbe, that I would get fucking mad. On which they would all giggle. And Chiara and Dario would repeat non far incazzare Giacomo, non far incazzare Giacomo. In any other words don’t fuck with me when I’m writing.

If Giulia and I went there for dinner, Antonia served take-out food from the local tavola calda on paper plates, while afternoons Chiara and Dario sometimes marched into our house, straight to the refrigerator and helped themselves to any goodies they found.

          Ferdinando was one of those persons who know a sketchy lot about many subjects. Since I had lived for a few years in Amsterdam, he liked to tell me stories of the city as the home of Liberalism, “the anti-Hobbesian city”, he called it, that tried to solve the economic problems that made “the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”, as described in Hobbes’ classic Leviathan; as he explained, a world in which nobody could count on anything, and replaced it, for a time, with a society where nothing was virtual; everything was real; and every financial document was backed up by real goods in real warehouses.

I confirmed that I’d read that all of Amsterdam in its Golden Age was one great warehouse. No wonder the world’s first stock market was created there; it was due to the successes of the Dutch East India Company in which Dutch people bought shares in real existing things: ships and crews, rubber and spices and coffee and tea arriving in the great port of Amsterdam.

Ferdinando claimed that at Milan’s Bocconi University he once wrote a paper on the great pupil of the Liberalism of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, Johan de Witt, who was the Stadholder, the governor of Amsterdam as well as the whole province of Holland. He explained that the godless influence on De Witt of the philosopher of modernity, the Amsterdam-born Portuguese Jew, Bento d’D’Espinoza—trimmed to Spinoza, and Bento, changed to the Hebrew, Baruch— was deadly. In the fatal year of 1672, Ferdinando specified, Holland’s competitors, England and France, allied in a war to overthrow him and the then richest city in the world.

A half century after they burned Giordano Bruno in Rome for propagating the same philosophies as Spinoza—a God who doesn’t think or have pity or watch or feel compassion or answer prayers, a borderless God beyond religions—Dutch stockholders, furious when they saw their fortunes evaporating, their lowlands invaded and crushed by the armies of their perfidious English competitors, rose up against de Witt, stabbed him to death, hanged and quartered him, then burned him and according to legend ate his well-cooked flesh.

          Justifiably upset by this fiery end to his ideal of the democratic state, Spinoza re-qualified his original ideal, writing before his own death that: “Men are of necessity liable to passions and prone to vengeance more than mercy.” The philosopher of liberalism was soon as dead as was liberalism itself after the assault by the armies of Monarchy and Church. Yet over two centuries later, Albert Einstein, on being asked if he believed in God, answered, “I believe in Spinoza’s God … not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.”

Now Ferdinando knew that he was at a turning point in his career just as De Witt had been before his fall. Therefore, and also because of his need to confide in someone, Ferdinando told me that he made more money than he had ever dreamed of as a junior executive in the investment division of the National Insurance House, the NIH, which he noted off-hand is quoted on the London stock exchange.

Still, he added with a speciously guilty snicker, he didn’t actually even understand actuarial tables. And besides, he confessed, he found little joy in his work.

Once, before his fall from the wall, at a dinner party at his house for two top NIH executives and their wives to which he invited also Giulia and me they served martini cocktails, used their elegant antique fratina table with a linen table cloth and laid tableware that had been in his family for generations.

Later, over coffee and cognac in the more intimate second living room, one of the distinguished executives—by then sloshed by the two or more extra-large Hemingwayan martini cocktails, that is Montgomerys, the strong white Sardinian wine with the shrimp cocktail, bountiful quantities of Montalcino red wines with the meat dishes, some liqueur or the other with deserts, and now his second or third Remy Martin—looking fondly at Ferdinando across the small room, told me in a loud whisper that top company officers were perplexed by my friend, Ferdinando: they still didn’t know whether he was an investment genius or a clown. They didn’t know whether to promote him into the magic decision-making circle … or whether to fire him. He followed no company rules, arrived at the executive offices according to his own schedule, but then sometimes confounded them all by working all night and miraculously pulling them out of one investment fiasco after another.

While the red-faced NIH executive whispered hoarsely in my ear, I overheard Ferdinando expounding his life theories to the other company officer who was more interested in peering down Giulia’s low-cut blouse. “Life is not actually determined by a series of turning points but by a process of gradual disintegration caused by the constant, day-to-day body blows like those of the boxer methodically working on his opponent’s body preparing him for the big blow that inevitably comes, the one people remember as the knockout punch … the punch we have to be prepared for and can later blame our failures on.” I had to hold myself in rein not to interrupt for I knew he was twisting a Scott Fitzgerald quote to suit his own purposes.

Yet after that dinner and after his fall from the wall, my friend Ferdinando changed. For a few days, maybe a week or so, he seemed to walk normally and evenings he still kicked the soccer ball around with ten-year old Dario out on the lumpy field opposite our houses. But then, gradually, as if suffering under the body work of his imaginary boxing opponent, he began favoring his left leg and blaming knee pains on both the lumps and holes in our field and on his mythical jump from the wall to save his kitten. Finally the pain became so severe that Antonia was able to convince him to see an orthopedist who, despite Ferdinando’s terror of both needles and doctors, gave him a shot of cortisone.

Ferdinando came home that day and again played soccer with Dario, ran up and down the lumpy field opposite our houses and to me repeated that his jump was not the knockout punch it had seemed.

Things seemed to have returned to normal. Until two months later, the limp reappeared, the pain returned and the doctor gave him another shot which Ferdinando afterwards ruled was the very last. In any case this time it had no effect whatsoever.

The evening after the orthopedist prescribed a CAT scan, Ferdinando and I shared a bottle of Brunello which he had me bring up from his surprisingly well-stocked wine cellar. After we were well into a second bottle, I noticed the tears in my friend’s eyes, when he lamented that “the natural state of the sentient adult is a qualified unhappiness.”

“Spinoza?” I, the writer, hazarded.

“F. Scott Fitzgerald!” he said triumphantly despite his tears.

As everyone knows it rarely snows in Rome. In normal years, at the most a few flakes flutter from the sky to the delight of children and adults alike. If one inch of the white mantle falls during the night people break out sleds or even skis the next morning and head for the hilly parks while parents make snapshots of their children tumbling and frolicking in the beautiful white powder. Unexpectedly—and taking expert meteorologists by surprise—the snowfall that year turned out to be the biggest in popular memory. Moreover it was the latest snowfall recorded in the annals of the capital city: the first flakes began to fall during the first week of April when the usual tourist Easter boom was underway and Palm Sunday was only a week away. As the size of the flakes and the velocity of their descent to Earth augmented, what struck Rome that year became a blizzard. Because of the unusual cold and the lack of proper snow clearing equipment in city storage facilities for winter emergencies, the snow stuck on city streets, quickly turned to white ice and Rome looked like it might have in the Dark Ages.

In the suburbs where we live snow stood at a good eighteen inches in places and seemed to want to remain throughout the Easter season. Hotels emptied and restaurants closed for lack of customers and employees alike. Schools closed earlier than usual for the long Easter holidays. Transportation was at a standstill. City fathers issued warnings to citizens to stay indoors. The food shortage seemed desperate. Normal civic life came to a halt.

          During the ten days of the crisis, Antonia often brought her well-booted children to our house where she and Giulia passed their time. Ferdinando and I sat in his study and drank, chiefly from his red wine stock. While he limped around the study, through the parlors and to the kitchen for cheeses, I trudged up and down the cellar stairs fetching drinking supplies. He didn’t care a whit about the blizzard and if not for Antonia’s complaints he would have been quite happy with the situation. He lit a fire in the little used fireplace. We pulled our chairs near. While he drank freely Ferdinando talked as he never had before, spontaneously spilling out his innermost self.

          ”What melancholy, eh?” he said at one moment, a pleased look in his eyes. “Like nostalgia. Like the nostalgia you feel even for a place you’ve never been or might never see in your life. For me it’s not only the kind of nostalgia and melancholy that this winter weather creates. Our train rounding the curve from La Storta in the night, its headlight sweeping majestically around the bend, makes my heart stop. And I’m saddened by the matted yellow from La Storta village there on the hill. The things on my mind seem to be far from the things others think. At times I feel strange, as if I knew things others do not and also at times as if I knew no one else on earth. My isolation is that of a person sharing the same space and time with others but in which each person is ultimately alone but in which part of you can still recognize the others.”

“Maybe everyone desires that treasure of isolation, I mean, of total alienation,” I said, interrupting his reverie … “Maybe that’s what real wealth is. Maybe everyone from time to time experinces that alienation from others … and oneself.”

He ignored my remark and stared dreamily into the fire. “Like I say, you have to do something to make up a life. Maybe you just dream a life. Like history life has its own rhythm, its own mysterious measures. Life makes its own demands, tempting and deceptive. Make-believe too is a way of life. Like my dreams. All my life I’ve had a rich dream life. I can pass from one dream to another or postpone it and continue later or sometimes repeat a particularly pleasant or rewarding dream. I can manipulate my dreams so that they are truly part of my life. Maybe I confuse dreams with fantasy. Why, you wonder, why all these dreams and make-believe? When I was a boy, dreams and make-believe were my safety net. Escape. Consider a moment yourself. Don’t you think that everyone has to have an escape route?

“I’ve always walked a tightrope like over an abyss. Or on a razor’s edge. That requires courage. Or naiveté. Forever on the verge of becoming extraordinary. Yes, extraordinary! Just before I again pull back toward the center. Fearful of taking the final step I sigh and regretfully rejoin the ranks of the ordinary. And become … uh, uh, residential. That’s the word I wanted. The post-risk disappointment then is so much the greater because I’ve always known that I am extraordinary. Who doesn’t secretly consider himself extraordinary? You must admit that in your heart of hearts you too believe you are extraordinary. If not, why live? I believe that each of us is unique. I hold that knowledge fast in my interior world of make-believe. In my dreams.

          “Secretly vain, publicly humble, that’s me! Yet to specify in my favor: humble in my vanity, vain in my humility. You see what I mean? The exception on one hand, one of the underdogs on the other. That’s one of the reasons I love small countries. You can hold them in your grasp. You can encompass an entire society. Holland! Now that would be a country for me. Just the right size.”

But that brief sojourn in paradise ended as soon as the thaw began and traffic began to move, trains began running and normalization was on the way, That was the moment Antonia broke the news that she was taking the children for a vacation to her parents’ home on Lake Como in north Italy where it had not snowed at all.

The day after she and the children left Ferdinando was able to return to his job where he learned that in the meantime he had been “resigned”.

          I must say his reaction to his firing was most strange: he was neither upset nor happy; he was perplexed. It had been his first and only job and he had not even suspected he was under fire. He had sincerely believed that he was indispensable even though he admitted he didn’t understand actuarial tables.

A generous bonus equal to more than a few year’s salary, plus his stock options and various benefits actually left him a rather wealthy man. It was more the ‘misunderstanding’ of just what his position had been that disturbed him. Philosophically he described his old relationship with NIH with a proverb: “Il gioco é bello se dura poco.” Fun games are great if they don’t go too far.

          He summed up his revised personal philosophy with another of his famous Fitzgerald quotes: “A man does not recover from such jolts—he becomes a different person and, eventually, the new person finds new things to care about.” I didn’t exactly accuse him of lying but I saw that he grasped what I was thinking.

The snow and ice vanished in late April. May rains eliminated all vestiges of the blizzard and announced a return to normality. A June heat wave filled the local beaches with overjoyed Romans who had quickly deleted from memory the past Easter season that they would never again experience in their lives. Cosmic order had been restored.

But Ferdinando’s life was one of total disorder: he now walked with the aid of a sturdy Sardinian shepherd’s cane and after CAT scans showed serious lesions and torn meniscus in both knees he had finally agreed to operations. Moreover, Antonia and Chiara and Dario did not return from Lake Como. Ferdinando said they would most likely spend the summer on the mountain lake.

Evenings when he had dinner with us and he brought his ever ready wine, it was apparent to Giulia and me that his was a case of another of the proverbs he loved: fare buon viso a cattiva sorte, that is, make the best of a bad bargain, for he missed his family, his job and soccer play with the kids on the lumpy field.

          Meanwhile he gave up his option on a nearby huge villa overlooking the plain reaching to the sea that had depended on his expected promotion with NIH. Now, faced with the new reality, he heard from Antonia that they would remain in Como for the next school year where she had a found an excellent private English school which they had both desired for their children.

Ferdinando simply did not know what to do with his time. His house seemed bigger and bigger, the gardens and yards expensive to maintain. And his wine supply was dwindling rapidly considering all his free time spent together with the red.

          After dinner one evening we lingered over our wine. Dinner had been marked by long silences during which each of us seemed absorbed in his own thoughts.

After Giulia retired, Ferdinando insisted we open what I knew was his last bottle of Brunello and, barring a miracle, it would be the last. A September rain beat against the windows of the darkened dining room. Giulia had lit a candle which was burning low. Dolcezza slept curled up on Ferdinando’s lap.

          “She looks like she’s in heaven,” I remarked.

          “Feline heaven,” Ferdinando said. “She’s just hoping nothing disturbs her peace.”

          “Nothing darker and also more intimate than a rainy September night,” I said. “When the great heat has ended but the cold has not yet arrived. I think it’s the sudden intense darkness that makes it seem like the middle of the night.”

          “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning,” Ferdinando murmured. “F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

          “What do you mean, my friend?”

          “I mean to say that everything is so blinding that we see only blackness. Now I understand what I was blind to before.”

          “Before what?”

          “Well, before my jump from the wall.”

          “You mean your fall … from the wall.”

          “My jump from the wall for Dolcezza here,” he said, scratching the tiny kitten gently behind her ears. “And before the snowfall.”

          “The blizzard, you mean.”

          “The snowfall and my jump! Giacomo, will you please stop quibbling about terms, drink your wine and listen to me.”

          “OK! It’s your wine. Shoot.”

          “There are two kinds of human psychology to keep in mind, my friend. First, the voluntary blindness to reality—like that of many people—in which you simply reject the facts right before you … as I did at NIH. The facts that disturb your comfort and ease. I didn’t want to see that my relationship there was shaky and I, vulnerable. Secondly, there’s the law of conformity which demands that you be like everyone else in order to be accepted by your milieu and that your thinking be consensual with the rest. That one way of thinking is what is so terrifying to me. Those two psychologies together shape the great majority. So in that condition how can your own individuality come shining through? You tell me! We all experience that from day to day with our family, our friends and colleagues.”

Like a chemist I poured equal portions of the last drops of our last Brunello about which we had once been so careless, pushed Ferdinando his glass, and raised mine to touch his.

“But now, Giacomo,” he said touching my glass with a loud, almost joyous clink, “I feel outside of all that.”



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