Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Vulgar Tongue, ii


             The Carbineri Lieutenant sat next to Servi while his assistant, at great speed, drove.  The vehicle was a van outfitted to transport prisoners: loops to run shackles through, wire mesh over the windows, doors which locked from the outside.
            “Is the siren necessary?” Servi asked, his ears splitting.
            “My apologies,” the Lieutenant answered, bowing his head.  “But if we travel above the speed limit, we must run the siren.”
            So Servi sat back and tried to relax.  For an American, the phenomenon of the Carbineri was unsettling: they were a part of the military, but acted as a civilian police force.  They often wore outlandishly ornate ceremonial uniforms, as if outfitted for a parade in a Napoleonic era army.  But they could also be armed and armored like the most modern of armies, especially in cities like Rome, Florence and Milan; they brandished dull black machine guns, wore body armor, helmets, knee pads, and black leather boots: all a reaction to era of terrorism in the 70’s, known to Italians as the years of lead.  For Servi, such a naked expression of police power was contrary to every American nerve in his frame.  It was as if the country was in a state of perpetual marital law.
            The van snaked down from the mountain village of Cavernascura, dropped into a valley which had such a precipitous slope that Servi’s ears, already smarting from the siren, now popped and crackled.  The van suddenly stopped as it waited for a man with a donkey burdened by several bundles of hay to scurry to the shoulder of the road.   
            Then they were off again, and the pine trees of the mountain country gave way with the drop to a broad plain punctuated by squat, undulating hills, carpeted with even rows of olive trees and grapes.  They passed by several small farm houses.   
Servi glanced over at the Lieutenant; despite the excessive air conditioning in the van, he was sweating profusely.  Round stains smeared his uniform beneath the armpits; beads of sweat dappled his forehead.  It seemed to Servi the Carbineri Lieutenant was eager to be rid of a guest of Frank Grillo’s who he had ill treated.
            Then the journey was suddenly over.  The van skidded to a stop in front of a massive wrought iron gate composed entirely of interlocking Gs in various fonts.  A masonry wall constructed of native stone ran the length of the roadway, as far as Servi could see, delineating the Grillo compound.
            “Excuse me, Senore Servi,” the Lieutenant said, bowing his head again, and he rose from the seat.  He walked briskly to an intercom in the wall and began to speak quickly into the receiver. 
            The gate  soon opened, and they entered the estate grounds.  This area of Italy had not had a sustained rainfall in over two years, and was under the most stringently enforced government rationing of water.  But the grounds of the Grillo Villa was playfully gushing with all manner of ornamental fountains; splashing nymphs cavorting beneath a stern Neptune; there were mermaids and nereids bathing each other in suggestive poses, and even a showcase stream which terminated in a man made grotto where a life sized statue of the Virgin spouted tears of precious water from unseen ducts in her stone.  A heavy haze of evaporated water clung over the Grillo grounds as in the sepia edges of an old photograph or some half remembered dream.
            When the van reached a circular driveway next to a towering portico, the vision was complete: the Villa was decked out in classical Long Island Baronial Style, well in keeping with Frank Grillo’s fabled past.  It was multi-storied, capped with a mansard roof and red, Tuscan tiles; the façade was composed of light pastel marble and studded with niches where every god, goddess and saint in the pagan and Christian pantheon gazed down on the grounds with loving indulgence.   
           Unlike most Tuscan homes, which have small windows to keep out the summer heat, Villa Grillo was outfitted with massive floor to ceiling windows tinted the color of smoke.  A few shrubs hid a central air conditioning unit, which hummed below the sound of the gurgling water.  In a part of Italy where the electrical grid was unreliable, and could certainly not handle a heavy load, the Grillo Villa maintained a high level of conspicuous American consumption explicitly and with impunity.
            The van stopped at the front door, and once again the Carbineri Lieutenant excused himself.  When he opened the door, a wall of hot air burst into the van.  In a moment a servant emerged from the villa, and Servi was escorted into Frank Grillo’s home.

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