Friday, July 19, 2013

The Vulgar Tongue, a story

Ecce Deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitar mihi (Behold a deity stronger than I; who coming, shall rule over me.) – Dante

            As Aaron Servi entered Cavernascura on foot, his mangy, bedraggled appearance so started the locals that the Lieutenant of the town’s Carbineri was immediately called out; the man was nearly as young as Servi.   
           When he found out Servi was American, and an Italian American at that, he became even more abashed at the performance of his duty.  He asked Servi if he would kindly accompany him to his office in the Carbineri barracks, as if it was a social invitation and not a judicial order.  Servi followed.  
           The Lieutenant removed his feathered hat and placed it gently on the desk beside him.  He smoothed out his black, oiled hair with the flat of his pale hand.  He asked Servi if it would be too much trouble if he could see his passport and visa?   
           As Servi searched through his bag, the Lieutenant looked away, ashamed.  The Carbineri Lieutenant was a particular, not uncommon type of Italian: the protocols of professional duty threatened to crush his innate sense of Latin hospitality.  The burden of the two impulses weighed so heavily upon him he sat slumped in his chair, as if a considerable physical load was crushing him.  He examined the passport briskly.  He looked at Servi and smiled benightedly. 
            “Would you like some coffee, Senore Servi?”
            “Thank you, Lieutenant, yes,” Servi answered, and on hearing this, the Lieutenant brightened.  The color rose to his face.  He called brusquely to his assistant in the ante room and ordered two coffees.  As the man exited, the Lieutenant suddenly called him back.
            “Wait!” he snapped, and then turned to Servi. “Would you like something to eat?  The local almond cookies are renowned.”
            “No thank you, Lieutenant.”
            “Very well,” the Lieutenant smiled easily, and then, sharply, to his assistant he waved a hand: “The coffees!”
            The Lieutenant and Servi discussed his travels in Italy.  The Lieutenant complimented Servi’s Italian and asked if he learned it as a boy.  Servi told him he had learned it in college.  The Lieutenant expressed his admiration for Servi’s exceptional pronunciation.   The Lieutenant nodded appreciatively at each of Servi’s answers, as if a pearl was being placed on the blotter of his desk after each of Servi’s utterances.   
             And then the coffees arrived: diminutive cups in a shade of terracotta and a pot of espresso glimmering at the top from frequent washing, and black at the bottom where pot met gas fire.  After a few sips, after the Lieutenant had supplied Servi with the requisite refreshment, and felt less guilt at the detention of a stranger, he asked the question he had been dreading.
            “In my work, Senore Servi, I represent the Italian Government here in Cavernascura,” he said, placing the cup in saucer with a tiny ping. 
            “There are certain local concerns I must address.  The Town Council  welcomes  strangers, of course, but you see…” The Lieutenant suddenly lost his verbal footing, looking down sheepishly at his blotter, as if the words were written on a crib sheet.   
             He started again: “You must understand, Senore Servi, that in recent years we have had an influx of North Africans, both legally and illegally dwelling here.  They come to work in the quarries in the adjacent hills, quarries where Michelangelo extracted the marble for the David, for instance.  When you were seen walking down the corso, it was presumed, with your beard and clothes, that you were such a Muslim…”
            “I’m a Roman Catholic,” Servi interrupted, “but I haven’t been to Mass since I was so big,” and Servi held his hand up just below the top of the Lieutenant’s desk.
            “Yes, yes,” the Lieutenant nodded, smiling.  “That is the Italian way of religion.  Why go to church every Sunday when the Church has been here for two thousand years?  It isn’t going to go away because you don’t go to Confession, just as this mountain won’t crumble if you don’t climb it.   
             "But you see, to get to the point, I quickly realized that you were not an Algerian.  The Town Council wishes me to insure that only legal immigrants enter Cavernascura, and in addition, they want to make sure that all visitors, Muslim or not, have sufficient funds to dwell in this town.”
            “How much do I need?” Servi asked, frowning slightly.  The Lieutenant named the sum.  “I don’t have that much money, Lieutenant,” Servi answered.
            “Really?” the Carbineri Lieutenant appeared to be genuinely surprised, so much so that the formality of his tone unspooled.  “That is a problem then.”
            “But I was invited to Cavernascura, Lieutenant.”
            “By whom, may I ask?”
            “Frank Grillo,” Servi said the name, fully aware of the reaction it would engender.  But the Lieutenant’s response far exceeded Servi’s expectation.  The Carbineri reached out in the air, as if to swat a fly, but the hand suddenly gave out and landed flat on the desk.   
              The concussion spilled whatever espresso remained in his cup.  A rivulet of black bled toward a stack of dry paper.  The Lieutenant’s rosy complexion drained of color.  Servi noticed that his hands, which were now in front of him, starting to tremble.  He licked his lips, trying to gather some saliva, and failed.  Servi thought the man might faint, so he leaned forward to catch him.  But the Lieutenant finally found his words.
            “Senore Servi,” he said in a low, reverential tone, soaked with contrition.  “You should have immediately told me that you were a guest of Senore Grillo.  All this…” he made a feeble sweeping gesture around the room, “would have not been necessarily.  As a friend of Senore Grillo, it would be…” but his voice trailed off, befuddled by the sudden turn of unfortunate events.
            “Where does Senore Grillo live, Lieutenant?”  Servi asked.  “That is the reason why I entered Cavernascura.  I got lost coming off the bus, and was hoping for directions.”
            “You mean you are lost?” the Lieutenant was aghast.  He stood up on weak legs.  He bellowed for his assistant. “Prepare the car to immediately take us to Senore Grillo’s villa!”

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