Imagine America Berti, a man with his feet thrust in the sand up to his ankles, with three hundred and sixty-five days—or three hundred and sixty-six days times thirty —under his belt, spent in joy, sorrow and slumber. One hundred and eighty-three centimeters from the curves of his cracked soles to the top of the two whorls on the ridges of his cylindrical head. The smell of a canvas bag stuffed with oregano. His head resembled the trunk of a grafted cherry tree. Black hair and sky-blue eyes drowned in absence. Sea-blue. He had just a second ago come out of the thirty-seven percent salt solution.
Fingers slanting to the right, hair standing up on end on his chest, smooth quadriceps, auburn spots on his back transformed by the shadows of autumn into dead oak leaves rotting on a goat path. If you can imagine all this together—sewn and patched up and put together as a whole, as much as a human can ever be a whole—then you have imagined America Berti.
And now imagine America Berti stark naked and wet from head to toe.
America Berti trampled naked on the sand, his skin tanned in parts and peeling in others, looking straight at the sun—that lemon-coloured hat hanging off the horizon, out of which, like they were rabbits, he pulled his tiny decisions, brooding over them for a long time before hatching them.
It was seven minutes past two. In the afternoon, of course.
In twenty-four minutes’ time, out on the macadam road, America Berti would pass Donizetti Tartugli, the father of his schoolmate Guido Tartugli, who was visiting his wife. She had been dead for seventeen years. Following a precise timetable, at more or less the same time every day, he had been walking down that path three times a week for seventeen years. When people had nothing better to do but sit with their legs up in the air drinking sweetened chamomile tea, they used called it dedication.
The two men passed each other with a nod. One was darkly tanned, the other an eternal dark widower.
In two hours and twelve minutes’ time America Berti would arrive home. His hair would be dry. And, until he bathed, several sparkly grains of sand would glint on his question mark of a forehead.
One of the larger grains of sand fell to the ground as America Berti propped his bike against the old stone tower where the mayor let him leave his bike when he had some business to attend to in the vicinity. Frieda the cat later transferred the grain of sand onto the desk in the mayor’s study. The mayor’s wife later picked it up on her cloth while dusting and transferred it to the kitchen. She then kneaded it into the dough for the cherry pie. Her husband would later break a premolar in his upper jaw, making him curse out loud:
And then he would cry out:
– ‘The Holy Virgin!’
And he would spit out his tooth. They would never discover the reason behind this unexpected development in the dental health of the city’s father.
At exactly ten past two, America Berti combed his hair. He then returned the comb, which only recently had formed part of some elephant’s rib, into the pocket of his shirt. He pulled on his underpants, made of pure Ethiopian cotton, while his trousers he threw over his left arm together with his shirt, without shaking the dust off them.
His wet skin dried quickly as drops of water slid down his head. Observed from some decent distance, from a neighbouring sand-dune, say, or from above the needle-like fluttering reeds, he looked as though he was crying for something that had disappeared irretrievably. That’s what he looked like.
The Romans left the apartment at five o’clock in the afternoon local time, after they’d taken their showers and the heat had died down.
It was pouring down outside now. The tin gutter pipes spouted water bubbles in the puddles on the street, forming airy knolls. Inside them floated the trapped seeds of St John’s Wort, transparent domes of unbelievably thin glass sown with plant seeds. As always, the Romans left the door key under the pot marigolds next to the socle. What was different this time was that they were not coming back. They hadn’t come upstairs to haggle when they arrived and they didn’t say goodbye to anyone when they left.
They left quietly, without the hassle of endlessly repeating their names and mutual warnings:
– Don’t forget the mat!
The woman was holding the bags and the man was holding the gate ajar with his foot in case it slammed shut under the pressure of the spring. The children ran towards the car park. They had no umbrella.
‘Tourists,’ said America, leaning against the window frame with his elbows, watching Tintinnio dissolve in the great blue beneath and the great grey above. ‘They can’t stand a single rainy day on the seaside. People have no time to waste.’
‘They left?’, asked Myra Berti.
When they had first met, Myra was called Matarazzi, and before that Lucca. She was now Myra Berti. An ordinary name, like chocolate custard.
When they got married they at once began living together. Myra Berti had already had two children.
And six years more than America.
Twelve dresses and seven pairs of worn but not worn-out gloves.
A love of cinnamon and burnt orange zest.
She brought it all over with her: the children, the years and the passions.
With the passage of time, the children and the number of years only grew, while the pairs of shoes and gloves became torn and tattered and their number reduced. They assured themselves that silk, tulle, satin, rubber, corduroy, wool, velvet, and antelope or goat suede did not last very long. They regularly updated their list of short-lived things, searching for them in the extremes of the fever of life. Snow in March, crazy luck, men sporting long nails, calm seas, redcurrant jam, iodine evaporating from salt left in the open, clean windows, fresh rosemary… For intangible things, such as friendship and loyalty, Berti the wife and Berti the husband had no room on their short list, jotted down on a napkin brought over from Las Vegas. It was something that sounded like an oasis. An oasis of all the tulle of this world.
Myra Berti yearned for gloves.
They had met three years before. America had been transporting fish to Bari, using the only pickup truck to be found within a radius of twenty-two kilometers from Tintinnio. There were almost four-and-a-half million trucks in the world at that time. But only one of them was in their immediate surroundings.
That was the first and most likely the last round that forced America to drive out of town. It was a business round.
They met at the railway station, platform seven. The fish was nicely packed in crates. Some of them were still flapping here and there. Most of them were dead already. It smelt vile. As luck would have it—luck and a few small but important factors such as gall-bladder pains and diarrhoea—while the workers were unloading the truck America found himself in the way of the passengers disembarking from the Altamura-Bari line.
He had approached girls four times before that.
Jeanne S. had not even looked at him. She was a girl from the upper years at school. He was asking to borrow a pencil. They were both about ten. More or less.
Iva Ferrucci had smiled, kissed him on the cheek and ran away. And every time they met after that she’d laughed like a lunatic and then whispered something in the ear of a friend walking next to her.
He had spent three hours together with Guerra. They had vanilla and forest fruit ice-cream from Tito’s. They went together to the shore. Thousands of wasps were buzzing in the sea. The sea was like yeast that evening. With their feet in water they looked up at the sun. America could stare at the burning round mass without blinking, but she squinted and couldn’t last half a minute. What they experienced together in those moments of silence and breaths was … fascination.
She placed her hand on his chest. It was the first time that America had felt a girl’s hand anywhere near his stomach. He couldn’t stop staring at the burning sphere, and later, into the far distance, somewhere behind the Adriatic line of water, where people were supposed to live that no one in Tintinnio knew anything about. He and Guerra left soon enough, with a smell of the insipid all over their knees. He wanted to see her off to her house.
‘My father will kill me!’
The father who killed all those who courted his daughter. That was something to be afraid of.
‘Get away from here!’
He got nothing in return for the entire day they’d spent together. Just a look. A farewell gaze. Bluish like the sea without algae. Like the sea that is just water. Water and goggle-eyed animals. The sea that emitted the sound of an overfilled nest of rattled wasps. Then she ran off down the slope. He could see the clumsy slant of her left foot. She didn’t turn back once—not once all the way from under his nose to under the nose of her strict father who always killed her when she came back from dates with boys. The next day she walked hand in hand with Carlo Retti, who had been brought into this world four and a half years before her. Bones protruded from his body everywhere you looked. They never talked again like on that day when their legs quivered.
This last time, America approached the girl the way he would have approached a ticket booth.
‘Where are you going?’
‘I… I’m meeting my aunt.’
‘She was supposed to arrive two hours ago.’
‘That’s a long time, even for a place like this.’
‘Time is contractible. Sometimes I imagine it as a mathematical segment with no end. It won’t let you do anything you want. Time won’t. It is like… like…’
It looked like he was going to say ‘Open Sesame’ or something similar. This was a man who suffered from motion sickness.
‘…a snail’s trail.’
No one could guess what won Myra over. America was not a ladies’ man, nor was he a philosophical type who could discuss consciousness for hours. If a wise man—with or without a beard—were to describe America he would have to spend a lot of time thinking about it, however wise he might be. And I don’t believe any wise man could say something more suitable than:
When America met Myra, he was like terra incognita for everyone. A child who was supposed to grow up tomorrow, who was supposed to wake up early one morning as an adult. He rode a unicycle. He submerged his hands in the seawater and watched their size and shape change under the diffracted sun rays, and he never did any work… no serious work.
America was good at mechanics and motor vehicles. He was a certified talent.. He first learnt how to drive the truck, the only pickup truck in a 22- kilometre radius, and then tried with everything else—cars, motorcycles, and bikes. And he succeeded, smoothly and with no glitches,
Myra had the two girls. A five-year-old and a three-year-old.
America had never traveled further away than Bari, except for once.
Myra only wore dresses with pleats, and when she wasn’t busy with housework she pulled on her gloves, took out her shoes from the chest of drawers where all the important things were kept, and then clasped her arms around America’s neck.
In their living room there was an old exhaust pipe hung on the wall, polished but with no motor.
Myra and America never got married—never experienced the wheat and rice, the bouquet being thrown backwards to the girls, partying till sunrise, wedding guests vomiting in the bushes. Nonetheless, they used the titles husband and wife when talking to each other.
That was the deal, if there ever was a deal.
An overgrown child called America at twenty-seven was not was not an ideal candidate for a marriage.
America and Myra Berti lived in continental Europe.
They lived in southern Italy.
The region was called Apulia.
The town was called Tintinnio.
Halfway between Monopoli and Brindisi.
It was easy to attract travellers interested in the sea and some history. Virgil died in Brindisi. An old poet who wrote only masterpieces. Monopoli was in a very obvious way related to a board game. The mathematicians could determine Tintinnio’s position with a simple operation. A compass circle with its centre in Brindisi intersecting with a circle with a centre in Monopoli and then a line drawn through the intersection to the coast of Italy where it should read, in the tiniest letters possible – Tintinnio. In the tourist information booklets it said that its ancient name was Tintinium; ‘under Greek influence since the 8th century BC’; ‘has a cathedral’.
‘Economic activity: fishing and tourism.’
America, a true Tintinnian, dabbled in both.
His family’s house had two floors with two entrances—that is to say it had a ground floor and another floor on top.
Part of the house belonged to Guiliano and Guarda Berti, America’s mother and father.
Guarda Berti died in winter, from tuberculosis, when America was seven.
A week later, Giuliano Berti departed too. ‘Departed’—that’s how they say it. It might be more appropriate to say his spirit sailed away. Until the moment when death was established as a permanent state of his body, Giuliano had had no registered health anomalies.
At that time young America had just learnt the alphabet and managed to write the word house.
The second entrance belonged to his father’s brother.
Amaro Berti. Amaro Berti was wifeless. Amaro Berti had never had a wife. And Amaro Berti would go stone cold without ever having slept next to a woman.
Amaro Berti had looked after America since his parents’ death.
He taught him the family trade. Fishing. They pulled ropes together and barbecued tuna, scampi, sardines and trout, even octopus at times. When the going was good.
Amaro had disappeared at sea a day before America turned eighteen.
– What a misfortune!
– That was an imprint left by a leech!
A boring story.
Both entrances and both floors then belonged to America. A lot of room for a single person.
He abandoned fishing. He redecorated the house and rented it out.
The contacts were established through agents who came covered in sweat, elderflower under their armpits, with soaking collars and their ties loosened. He signed contracts with percentages, accounts, strange graphic symbols to win tourists willing to spend.
It sounded swell.
It didn’t go so well.
After a while he went back to his old trade of fishing.
At times, in the evenings by the stove that boomed with crackling wood inside, before achieving his second specialist subversion, America felt a sore itch in his hands. He missed the pain of the ropes cutting into the flesh, the flutter of the fins fighting for salvation and expressing their strife for fish liberty. After a while, one can get used to any kind of pain. It might even become a habit—though the hake Myra drowned in oil in the frying-pan to celebrate the unannounced rain might not feel that way.
The way America abandoned jobs earned him a reputation for not being quite serious. A man that wants to get rich never throws his catch back in the water.
He was now dabbling in both trades because it wasn’t easy to feed four.
America, Myra, Venezia and Catania.
I could never have thought of better names if I were allowed to choose. Venezia. Cataania…
A long a, a fleeting t.
‘The essence of beauty!’, America would say, and then grin three quarters.
Myra and America. They looked really funny together. The past evaporated from every pore of her body, while inexperience enfolded America’s body like an almond shell.
When she was walking on the pavement, one could see the Eiffel Tower, orange plantations, red castles with cracked walls, two black women stroking a dolphin, chandeliers with hanging crystals and a symphonic orchestra.
America’s eyes were his skin, reflecting the town, the sun and the sea. A superior yellow and a far too light blue. He had never had that childhood experience of stealing eggs from wild birds’ nests on the surrounding hills. Kites, hawks, eagles and other birds of prey. When America saw a raven, he would say:
And when a seagull would fly past.
That’s what he was, more or less.
Myra always responded with laughter.
They say that in those moments one can understand the simplicity of life, its space and beauty. A sticky sounding sentence.
As simple as a tooth that has fallen off all by itself.
As pretty as the light falling onto dry hay through the holes in roofs of the small barns, and as spacious as Italy.
Sentences that used to excite women in the past. Well-worn sentences before speed and mechanical devices were invented, together with the relativity of everything else in existence.
‘Like the boot of Italy!’. Marco Bravoni enjoyed making comparisons.
Everybody knew Marco Bravoni. The guy with an awkward sense of humour and taste for comparisons. And a taste for trade, too. Since we’re making a list, trade should occupy the first place.
He lived off trade and humour. Trade and ornate charm.
From Milan he was sent costumes that simply gave off the smell of basil and herbal extracts. He had a shiny smile and greasy hair. The need for change nestled in his eyes. An itch that constantly egged him to scratch. He pretended that they didn’t bother him.
He drove a Fiat 500. According to the town gossip, since he had been one of the first to buy the new model, he was handed the keys by Giovanni Agnelli himself. A Topolino. The best car in Tintinnio. The only car. A car that could not be resisted.
Both vehicles in town that had a motor were his. His pride and salvation. Pride mostly.
The children were the rough shavings of steel in the case of Marco Bravoni’s magnetism. They ran after him and climbed on the back bumper and on the side skirts of his Topolino. The number plates were loosened by the kicks of the so many shoes and patched knees. They sang songs to him—his favourite chansons ordered directly from the best-stocked phonoteque near Montmartre by the only single middle-aged woman in a radius of seven point three kilometres. The refrains were always catchy, and in them eyes were always filled with tears and hearts broken by unrequited emotions that ended up lost in ditches under lonely ridges. Words filled with congealed black pepper.
Bravoni usually put up with the children, but sometimes he beeped loudly to chase away the packs of rapscallions playing hopscotch on the road in front of him or engrossed in the game they called the pig.
Whenever he managed to strike a good deal, he would ride in the car with the window rolled down and throw out handfuls of sweets at the children. They crunched them greedily, their teeth rotting. Their fathers and mothers, workers on the plantations and in the workshops owned by Bravoni, had to take them to the aggressively iodized dentist surgeries outside Tintinnio. And again the children were thrilled—the entire world was out there!—and the parents were peeved because of the additional hassle and the great expenses that lay hidden in ambush outside their little town.
The parents hated Marco. He had enough money to interfere with their private lives. They had a good reason to feel this way. He made their children’s teeth decay, depleting their accounts at the same time.
Marco Bravoni often had Venezia and Catania sit on his knees and stuffed their mouths with toffee and candied sugars from Naples.
America always protested against this.
‘Come on, Catania!”
Myra collected the rustling wrappers in a kind of album of wrappers. She kept it in the chest of drawers, together with what was left of her shoes and other short-lived objects.
They were related somehow, though the connection was difficult to explain. Marco certainly couldn’t explain it. Neither could America. In addition to the house, this was the other thing he had inherited from his parents. It was one of those things one could touch if they wanted to.
Marco couldn’t stop producing the petit bonbons. The girls believed his pockets were magical. But they also went off the sweets after a while. They often spat them out once they could escape his lap and his bad breath. No one is that brilliant. Marco was known for the stench he produced whenever he opened his mouth. It left a residue in one’s insides, all over in fact, right down to the duodenum. It smelled like a rotten porcini mushroom after rain. That’s why he always carried sweets on him. Because of his bad breath. But it was of no use, obviously.
Bravoni treated the children as if they were his own. He had a son himself. Six years shorter than America and nineteen years richer than Myra’s elder daughter. They didn’t get on. His son’s fascination with military discipline and order, with training to kill and with the small calibre weapons, had long ago catapulted him far away from here.
This was the other reason that made the whole of Tintinnio hate Marco Bravoni. His son was a fascist, anchored somewhere between Malaga and Guadalajara at the moment. There has rarely existed a more adequate reason not to give a damn about being separated from your son for three years and a couple of months.
Marco liked helping America whenever he was in need. Because of the children, because of himself, because of the feeling of self-righteousness that this charitableness produced. This time he offered cash. America didn’t even want him to mention it to him. He shook his head and looked out of the window. A group of boys were abusing a donkey, hitting its ears with canes as though they were dead fig-leaves. The animal didn’t budge. They spat at it, but the donkey was just watching them calmly.
Marco offered his hand:
‘Partners. Do you want us to be partners?’
‘Business partners. In the olive trade. Very soon there’ll be a lot of fully mature olive trees to the north of here. Plop, plop, plop—the countryside will look like a hedgehog. This is our chance to get rich.
‘You are rich.’
‘You’re not. And one is never too rich. When you become a fat cat whose pockets get holes from the large wads of notes, and one day you will, you’ll see that it’s never enough.’
America was a fisherman who rented apartments to tourists. On occasions, he drove the pickup truck filled with sea life. Or fixed it. Though, see it whichever way you wish, his hands were as black as though he had spent several lifetimes picking tobacco. His occupation was no business in his eyes.