4. When he was unpacked, Servi set about to explore the district. There was not much to see. A sense of tediousness, like anesthesia, hovered over the streets as a murky vapor. In anticipation of the festa, Servi found a large box of mule heads sitting next to the steps of the cathedral. Next to the piazza was the dig. In antiquity, the Romans had harnessed the marshes of this district to construct baths and villas of graceful proportions. During the Middle Ages, when Rome’s population shrunk, the area reverted to marshes and wasteland where typhus and malaria were endemic. Mussolini drained the swamp, but it was only after the war that the neighborhood was settled.
The ground was often spongy and when it rained, the marsh reasserted its claim to the streets. People walked across the roads on planks. Massive public housing projects were constructed just to the north by one of the calliope of post-war governments. But since they were built on porous earth, their foundations began to sink before they were even finished. Most were completely abandoned. They loomed over the horizon like hulking, slumbering ogres.
Servi walked to a newspaper kiosk. The man behind the small wooden counter had a swollen, pockmarked face. Servi bought a local Roman tabloid, and folding it beneath his arm, strolled down the main street.
There was a café with three tables on the street. Two old men played checkers at one of them, sheltered from the stiff wind by a tattered Cinzano umbrella. A few drops of rain fell out of the sky and then stopped, as if the heavens could not decide if moisture was worth the effort.
Servi folded the top of his coat to his neck to shield the wind. He ordered a coffee and began to read the paper. But he was distracted. He felt a familiar, unsettling sensation. The pain in his side was stirring, like an animal curled up in sleep suddenly rousing and shifting. He drank some coffee, thinking the caffeine may have medicinal value. But the pain flared up again, this time not settling to resume its slumber. Servi shifted his position to topple the pain from the smug perch of its operations. But no gyration worked: Thinking it was the coffee on an empty stomach, Servi got up and tried to walk the pain like a stubborn dog that refused to wear a collar and leash.
Dear Aaron, his mother wrote, why don’t you write us? And when you do, what you write makes no sense. And what is this about a pain in your side? Here Servi started, because he could not remember writing her about his pain. I went to Saint Joe’s the other day, the first time in years. I lit a candle for you, that you will come home safe and sound, that you will forgive everything that happened in our past, that you will be the strong young man I know that you can be… The Church can be a great comfort, Aaron. Don’t let a few bad apples that molest children fool you. Them is the exceptions…