By: Gaither Stewart
I am bizarre. No more and no less than my characters. I know that about myself. Who gets into his car with no special place to go and decides on the spot to drive to Istanbul? Where I smoke a water pipe, eat a slice of kebab, turn the car around and start back to Italiya, along the way picking up and dropping off hitchhikers through Greece and Macedonia and bits of Serbia and lots of Croatia. Who else in this whole city goes down to the banks of the River Tiber to lunch with a nomadic family of Roma, offering his hosts a few dozen crème cupcakes delicately packaged in a shiny golden wrap? Already as a kid I was bizarre—like when I went barefoot in the mountain winter cold just to experience what pneumonia was. Bizarreness is nothing new to me. When I look into myself today and ask why I continue to do such foolhardy things and perform such impulsive acts, in the final analysis I have to admit that I am bipolar and should be in treatment, or maybe locked away in some Alpine castle dungeon. Maybe the latter. I don’t know where that idea came from in this precise moment for although I have visited many castles and mentally measured the moats and the height of the towers and looked over the cellar space, I’ve never really been permitted to examine a dungeon in detail. Current castle owners and administrators avoid the cellars like the plague and profess to enthused tourists that castle residential spaces show us exactly how royalty once lived. Bullshit! I would not set foot in such lifeless and meaningless boudoirs and parlors and ballrooms. The cellars—well, also the banquet halls—interest me; that is where the kings and princes and barons lived their real lives, taking off their armor or robes or gowns and fucking their concubines in their damp cellar depths and afterwards lopping off a few heads for post-coital entertainment. But times were a-changing. In medieval times a duo of an ambitious and anxious-to-please interior decorator and a trustworthy specialist in pain infliction invented those ingenious malconforts (little ease cells) that so amused royal authority—a devilish evolution in the cell and torture line—tiny cell spaces in which prisoners could neither stand nor sit nor lie, so had to crouch. For a lifetime. As far as dungeons go the parsimonious “little ease” cells were quite a space saver in the crowded cellars. Actually you could line them up easily horizontally and stack them vertically in such a manner that royalty and guests could observe the crouched prisoners much like monkeys in a zoo. I’ve often wondered what the prisoners did all the time crouched inside such cells but I have never yet encountered a malconfort cell where the gloating ghoulish guides would allow me to try one out … probably afraid of their own uncontrollable instincts to forget me locked up there all crouched inside.
It was in that confusing state of mind, with dizzy images crisscrossing and overlapping in my crazily zigzagging mind that I saw the bizarre trio sitting at a rustic wooden table on the concrete veranda of the Olgiata McDonald’s which had somehow insinuated itself into one of Rome’s most exclusive shopping and medical centers. I knew them all vaguely. Side by side sat the two I knew personally in the sense that we waved at each other when we met on the streets of San Nicola-La Storta-Olgiata.
The small, wiry old guy wearing as always his green Tyrolean hat and tan wind jacket, had, over a period of a decade, walked twelve hours a day along the pine tree-lined streets of San Nicola, ceaselessly, day in, day out, before he suddenly disappeared and local residents had assumed he had died until one day he reappeared, still in the same hat and jacket, but now walking the traffic-heavy, sidewalkless Via Cassia, up and down the hill, dodging cars and buses, in and out of ditches and deftly avoiding insidious hidden dangers. He had made this downhill-uphill stretch of Via Cassia his, just as San Nicola had formerly been his territory. We still waved in greeting when we met, I driving my car, he maneuvering among parked cars and buses. On our occasional meetings in the supermarket we said buon giorno, come va and sometimes shook hands.
His friend, a gray-bearded beggar dressed in black, walked with a limp, supporting himself with a huge cane, shiny from much use. For years he had worked the long traffic light at the intersection of Via Tieri and Via Cassia and, I had heard, spoke of himself as a traffic coordinator and liked to be called TC. To me personally he had never uttered more than a grazie if I happened to have a coin in the car when he tapped his cane on my window. He always lingered briefly before passing on to the next car in his incessant parading up and down the line of frustrated and embarrassed drivers waiting at the longest red light in Rome. But when I then returned from my errand and turned into his street, he waved in a friendly way whether or not I had given him anything earlier, making me feel guilty if I had not. The thing about the beggar-traffic coordinator was that he had truly made of Via Tieri and the intersection with its nerve-shattering traffic lights his.
I could hardly believe my eyes when I identified the third person sitting just opposite my two acquaintances: he is a television figure widely known as il Presenzialista, or literally the one present—i.e. in his case omnipresent—at TV street interviews given by top political figures, including presidents and prime ministers. His face peeps around the interviewees’ shoulders, an empty notepad in one hand, in the other either a pen—often in his mouth—or a dark object he pretends is a mike, his bizarre presence accompanied by a vacant, rather wild look in his eyes suggesting a mind wandering in exotic faraway lands. His TV appearances in street interviews in front of Parliament or at various political party headquarters must have convinced him that political Rome was also his. Accepted by real journalists, by TV cameramen and the politicians themselves and their bodyguards, over a period of ten years il Presenzialista, as he himself revealed in an interview, has chalked up some 40,000 TV appearances meticulously recorded on stacks of DVDs. He is present on TV every day, many times, and magically in many places. His image is on the Internet and he himself gives interviews to real journalists about his mania for presence. His is a C.V., I concluded, depicting/revealing either a frustrated journalist or, as I most fervently believed, a most lucid critic and mocker of mainline journalism.
Recklessly I parked in front of McDonald’s in a no-parking, no-stopping area decorated with signs of cars being lifted by small portable cranes and attached to trucks to be towed to mysterious destinations. I untangled myself from the unused seatbelt interfering with my experienced driving skills, crawled out onto the hot asphalt, pressed the lock button and listened for the reassuring click, then stopped a moment in front of the car to make sure the automatically extinguishing headlights really extinguished. After ten years I still doubted the system actually worked. The reason for all the rundown batteries constantly being recharged, I was sure. The bane of man, all these newfangled inventions. I had often wondered if such useless innovations were to be considered inventions or just moneymakers. In any case, I imagined millions of car owners at this same moment waiting in front of their cars to be certain that the automatic headlights really went out automatically.
Weaving a bit from my morning bottle of rouge, I felt the trio’s bizarrely suspicious eyes fixed on me as I approached their table. They recognized their own species, I supposed. They had been leaning forward, their heads almost touching. Now they leaned back, their hands bracing themselves on the slick wooden bench. I noted they were sharing one bottle of orange soda and drinking from small paper cups. When I stopped next to their table, the walker and the beggar TC nodded at me, suspicion in their eyes. Il Presenzialista’s unseeing eyes stared past me toward the Sabine mountains.
Looking down at the empty orange soda bottle, I asked if I could offer a cold beer and join them. Their confused looks told me they would like the beer but not necessarily my presence. By now intrigued by the incongruous composition of the trio, I went inside and bought four rather common Nastro Azzurro beers and returned to the table.
“Nastro Azzurro!” Walker commented. “I would have preferred Moretti.”
“And the glasses?” TC the beggar asked sarcastically. “Only barbarians drink beer from the bottle.”
Il Presenzialista put his ballpoint in his mouth crossways like a dagger, his vacant eyes still fixed mountainwards.
I quickly returned with one Moretti for Walker, four Styrofoam cups and a handful of paper napkins.
“Beer glasses!” exclaimed TD. “We want glass. Not plastic.”
“Right, TC,” emphasized Walker.
This time I rejoined them with the bad news that McDonald’s did not use glass glasses, that we would have to make do with Styrofoam, and sat down next to il Presenzialista who had not yet deigned to give me even a glance. But, I told myself, you never know about him. He sees and he doesn’t. Meanwhile, Walker and TC stared at me in disbelief and nodded their heads, studying curiously the still unopened beers and looking at me skeptically. At which I leaned forward and one after the other twisted open the metal caps of the now five beers.
I suspected then that the fifth beer was going to cause problems.
We sat rather stiffly for the ceremony of the beer. Walker and I sipped ours rather demurely, he frowning at the sensation of Styrofoam in his mouth. I understood him. The temptation to bite it was overpowering. TC lifted his and emptied the whole cup in one long swig and wiped his mouth delicately with several of the napkins at once. Il Presenzialista hadn’t so much as glanced at his cup which I had personally filled. His abstinence thus far, I thought, was going to create problems, too.
“Well,” I said lightly, chiefly just to make conversation, “what are you gentlemen plotting here in the McDonald’s picnic area? So to speak.”
TC’s eyes narrowed. He struck his cane several times on the cement, stroked his long beard hanging half way down to his waist and exchanged looks with Walker before both of them turned their eyes toward il Presenzialista, who at that point closed his eyes and took his Styrofoam glass in both hands and drank.
“Plotting?” TC echoed me. “What do you mean?”
“Just a manner of speech,” I said. “I mean what were you discussing before I arrived uninvited?”
“Well, if you must know we were discussing the details of a political assassination,” Walker said in dead earnest.
“We were conspiring,” TC clarified.
“An assassination?” I repeated.
“You know, to murder a political leader,” said TC, now clearly the spokesman for the trio, “for powerful ideological reasons, for justice in the name of the people, to right some of our personal grievances and, admittedly, also for a tinge of revenge.”
“But … but that’s murder!”
“The murder of a condemned criminal!”
“But who do you plan to assassinate, that is, murder.”
“Ah, you keep insisting. I defined assassination as murder. Let’s leave it at that.”
“Do you want to start a world war … like that guy in Sarajevo, that …oh, what’s his name?”
“You must mean Gabriel Princip, the Serb,” TC said overly patiently.
“Right! Of course. But how do you know that?”
“What do you think I do evenings? I study my history. Especially Russian intellectual history. We’re giving rise to a new Peoples’ Will movement”
“Peoples’ Will! Their lesson is that violence is sometimes necessary.”
“But who is the man … your target, I mean?”
“Well, he’s not the Czar of Russia but our country’s ex-Prime Minister. Though tried and sentenced for criminal acts, he refuses to leave the scene. And the bourgeoisie just looks on … or away. Just ask the one present there. He’s at his downtown palazzo every day. He knows what goes on there. Plots, that’s what. Plots against the people. Now we intend to out-plot the father of all plotters. We have sentenced him to death.”
“So how do you plan to carry out this act of … of revenge?”
TC stared hard at me, then at il Presenzialista. Then: “He’s going to do it. He sees him nearly every day. Brushes shoulders with him. Looks him in the eyes.”
I turned to the one present whose fixed gaze had abandoned the Sabines and accompanied by a sardonic grin was looking uphill along Via Cassia, which reminded me of my car in the no-parking, no-stopping zone reserved for city buses.
“Hey, where’s my car?”, I shouted, furious when I saw it was not there.
TC instead laughed merrily and with one hand banged his cane on the cement veranda and slapped at the wooden table with the other. “There it goes, right up Via Cassia, hanging half in the air behind the tow truck. Look at’er go!”
“Well, that’s not funny. But maybe it’s not mine,” I muttered hopefully.
“Oh, it’s yours all right. I would recognize your old car any time … the dirtiest car in north Rome.”
“A little old and a little dirty, true, but it runs like a charm.”
“Trustworthy German handiwork,” TC admitted. “Another reason for assassinating that figlio di puttana who first neglected then ruined our automobile industry.”
“Well, at least he didn’t invent such severe parking rules. Now my car’s gone.”
“Not far. The towed cars guarded car park is up there near the top of the hill. You can walk there. And no, he doesn’t love rules of any kind.”
“But I don’t even have enough money to reclaim it.”
“You want a loan? Only 20% interest per week.”
“What are you anyway, beggar, traffic coordinator or loan shark?
“None of those. All covers. I went underground years ago. I’m a revolutionary.”
“I thought so.”
“Takes one to know one,” TC said, shrugged and tapped his cane a couple of times like a signal.
“Look,” he said, “this conversation has gotten out of hand. Besides this was a planning session and you are shamelessly interrupting our revolutionary work with lousy beer, no beer glasses, and all your bourgeois concern about creature comforts like automobiles.”
“Sorry!” I said sheepishly, while the three of them frowned toward me. “Mea culpa, mea culpa,” I added. “Ashes in my hair.”
When TC raised his hand and said, “Now comrades ….”, I couldn’t help but interrupt to ask, now beginning to take the plot seriously, “What weapon will the assassin use?”
“A pistol,” he explained, still patiently but with no little exasperation. “He will fire right into the target’s kidneys from just behind him. And before anyone realizes what is happening or his bloody guts hang out he will turn and join the idlers always across the street from the criminal’s palazzo enjoying the spectacle of the daily appearance of the great man.”
“What kind of a pistol do you have in mind? After all people don’t just walk around with their pistols showing.”
“Hee, hee,” went Walker. “Touché!”
At which the one present stuck his pen back in his mouth and began searching his pockets.
“Go on, Maurizio,” TC urged il Presenzialista, using for the first time the fake reporter’s well-known first name. “Show him the model.”
After much patting of pockets and body movements, Maurizio extracted from his right-front pants pocket a piece of wood that looked more like the back of a hair brush than a pistol and laid it in the middle of the table, a look of triumph insinuating itself into his loony distant eyes. “There!”, he pronounced clearly, his first spoken word.
“Well, you get the idea,” TC said, blushing slightly. Then: “Now that’s enough, Maurizio. You can put that thing away. We don’t need to display it promiscuously to everyone who comes along. Put it back in your pocket.”
“But it’s just a piece of wood! What does it matter?”, I commented.
“Remember Pinocchio! People said he was once just a block of wood … and look what happened. That piece of wood, stranger, is a model. Now only a block of wood but the model of a deadly weapon. The matured product will emerge from Maurizio’s pocket at the opportune moment.”
“If he can even find it at the opportune moment,” I added sarcastically, at which TC shook his head in disappointment, I knew with me, for my lack of faith.
“And besides,” I added rather tentatively, “Pinocchio was after all an invention, maybe only a metaphor, unreal, neither just a block of wood nor a human, neither boy nor man …”
“Yes, but he was also a rebel, and said no to injustice. That block of wood in Maurizio’s pocket is destined to say that I am not just a beggar on the corner of Via Tieri and Via Cassia. Or that our friend Mauro here doesn’t just walk the streets, up and down, from morning to night. Or that the one present is more than a fake journalist and fake TV star mocked by one and all. And remember that Pinocchio had no wires to direct him … and acted according to his own will.”
“Wow! TC, your thought is rich but … how can I say it? You do tend to deviate from the project at hand, the uh, the assassination, and, uh, the weapon to be used to accomplish it. You’re going to need more than a metaphor of a pistol. A block of wood will not do. It’s one or the other.”
“What do you mean, stranger … one or the other?”
“I meant to say either you really do it, for which you will need more than a block of wood, or you will just act out a charade.”
“Hmmm,” TC murmured. “Well, you too have a problem. Words will not suffice to get your car back. I have calculated your account thus far: 60 euros for towing, 80 for the parking fine—if they don’t double it because you blocked the buses—and parking charges in the towed car lot at five euros an hour. The latter is mounting while you sit here and drink beer from a Styrofoam glass and chat with a band of terrorists. And what about that last beer there? Who’s going to drink it?”
“You! Or the three of you can split it.”
“No, I have to get back to work. Things will be hectic up there at the intersection. Maurizio has to take the 1 o’clock train in order to catch the politicos as they emerge from their restaurants and Mauro has a lot of walking to catch up on. You take it and drink it for courage as we all walk up the hill together.”
Single file up dangerous Via Cassia. On the right side of the road, naturally. Fuck the impatient horn honking drivers. Let them be careful. TC leading the way in his beggar’s stoplight pace, his cane marking the rather martial march rhythm. Walker pushing from behind him demanding a decent urban walker’s pace. Il Presenzialista, afraid of the traffic hubbub, stopping to peer at the mountains, then trotting to catch up. I in the rear, carrying the Moretti beer and already winded and wondering what I was doing with this band of madmen-conspirators. I too lagged and stopped when we passed the Irish pub I once loved, recalling the night I stood there at the bar with a crippled Polack who after dozens of vodkas began insisting we catch the early morning plane to Pittsburg where his cousin ran a tavern that I would surely love. The probable reason I didn’t accept his invitation was that he suddenly lost his crutch, fell or passed out, and was carried to the hospital by a first-aid ambulance that arrived, miraculously it seemed, in seconds after the fall. I have often imagined how my entire life would have been changed had I gone with him to Pittsburg. Hard to imagine that! Pittsburg, of all places! I drank off half the bottle of Moretti and felt a puff of wind as if real time were passing us up and rushing on ahead of our little file of revolutionaries.
We said farewell to TC at the intersection with Via Tieri. It was a poignant scene when the leader squeezed hard the shoulder of il Presenzialista and said softly that he should be of good spirits and that we would all be present for the assassination. I think a tear rolled down Walker’s cheek. For a moment the one present looked strangely present. I drank off the rest of the beer and now felt a certain solidarity with them, my eyes too damp, and recalled that crazier people than they had plotted against entire nations and were considered national heroes.
A few more blocks up the hill, Walker decided to take a right into a narrow side street to vary his route and asked me to accompany il Presenzialista to the nearby station and put him on the right train for downtown since he was not used to our suburban life and got lost easily. He too squeezed his comrade’s shoulder and promised to be present at the proper time.
I was pleased they had assigned me the task of arranging the transportation of the one present, the designated assassin. When I bought his ticket at the station my feeling of solidarity morphed into a conviction of direct participation, something like the persons who organized Lenin’s train travel to Russia to lead the revolution must have felt. At the train’s boarding door I too squeezed his shoulder, at which he put his pen back in his mouth and showed me again the Pinocchio block of wood, the same wild grin marking his sun-tanned face and scalp now shining through his thinning hair combed straight back.
The historic meeting of the former rightwing Prime Minister with the chief of an important far left party that he had always labeled “Communist” had been announced a week earlier and confirmed daily by the media. He was to leave his palazzo a 11 a.m. sharp, before which, as usual, he would salute from his balcony the crowds of his followers and admirers gathered on the street below, after which, as usual, he would descend the great staircase, step out on the sidewalk and speak briefly to the news-hungry reporters, this time about the implications of his meeting with his traditional enemy.
This was home territory for il Presenzialista.
Everything proceeded like clockwork. The ex-Prime Minister was surrounded by reporters. Dozens and dozens of heads and mikes were pushed right up in his face.
TC, Walker and I stood anxiously among the throngs on the opposite sidewalk of the narrow street.
Maurizio il Presenzialista, the one present, stood as if glued to the rear left side of the ex-Prime Minister, the criminal who wouldn’t leave the political scene. The man who had brought the nation to ruins had just cracked one of his infamous jokes and was now singing some dirty little ditty, the words of which we across the street couldn’t hear.
In that precise moment we knew the one present was extracting his left hand from his pants pocket. Then, there it was. Pointed straight up in the air his sun-tanned hand held the same block of wood while he shouted over and over “pow, pow, pow” and “bang, bang, bang” and “pow, pow, pow”.
After an instant of silence, everybody gathered at the great door of the ex-Prime Minister’s palazzo, the reporters, the crowd around us across street and the ex-Prime Minister himself, all burst into comradely laughter.
Though Maurizio’s mouth also twisted in a laugh, in his vacuous eyes I could see from across the crowded narrow street that Pinocchio had fled.