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(Swans - October 4, 2010) A supermarket on the outskirts of Rome sat at the far end of a square closed to traffic. The parking lot next to it had a sign warning non-customers to keep out. I parked and went in, walking down an aisle between all sorts of packaged goods I didn't need. I came out in an open space where milk and cheese were kept in a refrigerator and fresh fruit displayed. A lean, blond woman, clearly in charge, kept watch there. She had her eye on a gipsy mother and her two children who circled around the crates of produce. One child took an apricot and raised it to his mouth.
"What's wrong with you," the blond woman said at the top of her voice. "A mother ought to control her children. If gipsies can't behave, they have no right to complain about being pushed around wherever they go."
The gipsy nodded, not disagreeing. I turned to take another aisle toward the exit. The pilfered apricot rolled between my feet. The child felt so humiliated he'd thrown it away without taking a bite. Or maybe he couldn't understand why that thin blonde woman, with her glasses on her nose, got so angry over a single apricot. As a matter of fact, I couldn't understand either.
When I go to the market with my very Italian mother, she winds among the stalls, frowning, helping herself to an apricot here and a plum there, taking a bite and then saying,
"Let's go elsewhere. This stuff is disgusting."
Before buying a pound of apricots, she eats four or five and nobody says a word. Selling fruit to my mother is an honor not readily bestowed. But this gipsy child seemed to have stolen a truckload of apricots and exposed the shameful vice of thieving that infected a whole people. My stomach went acid with indignation.
I'd have loved to tell the blond woman manager off. She looked like the principal of a reform school and spoke with an accent of northern Italy to boot. I'd have told her that we are all equal and that her racism stinks to high heaven. It's far more disgusting than the apricots my mother turns down at the market. But I said nothing. Perhaps the gipsy wouldn't have wanted me to interfere. Or she might have taken me for a deluded romantic fool and importuned me for alms. But I'd rather not feel that I'm not different from the supermarket manager. With bread, ham, and cheese I went out and back to my car.
Driving home, the indignation in my stomach rose to my head. Why didn't I say clearly what I felt? Why didn't I defend the child? Gipsies carry no criminal gene. They only wish to move along from time to time according to their whim. They don't conquer foreign lands under the guise of implanting democracy. They simply move. They are two-legged living beings and, why shouldn't they use those legs? Only vegetables stay where they were born, and if the climate changes even trees and flowers change their dwelling place. The supermarket manager is a Nazi.
If all the Germans had said what they thought about the Nazis before 1933, Hitler would not have taken power. But they remained silent and the Nazis won. Today something similar is happening. Perhaps the situation is less serious or perhaps it appears so because we are only at the beginning.
I hear a sharp noise. My car jolts and skids. I let out a cry. Or maybe I hear a cry. When you are lost in your thoughts it's not easy to remember the exact sequence of events. Did I burn a red light? It's not my habit, because I don't ever budge when the traffic light is red and most of the time I don't start when it's yellow. If everyone was like me, the number of accidents would go way down. But I see in my rear-view mirror that this time I did go through on the red. At the center of the image that gets smaller as I keep on driving, there's something that stays still and a figure that runs to it and then bends down on its knees. Perhaps other cries reach me, but the buzz in my head drowns them out.
I know that turning on the left from Via Nomentana to Via Regina Elena is forbidden, and it's also dangerous, because the risk of a head-on collision with a vehicle coming from Piazza Porta Pia at full throttle is quite high. But I turn left anyway. I think it's the first time I've done such a thing. Let me re-phrase that and say it's the first time I did so willingly, because that noise still echoing in my ears, the buzz that prevents me from hearing sounds arriving from outside, makes me think I may have hit something. It could have been a big, heavy box, or a body. And if I have hit someone, maybe the bumper of my car has been scratched or smeared with blood and even if I flee the scene of the accident I'll be found.
Is someone chasing me? I'm unable to take in the facts. I stop at the red light in a line of traffic in front of the Morgue and, when the light goes green, I turn right to Viale dell'Università. Everyone says that Rome is overrun with migrant squeegee men, but I can't find one now to wipe my car for all the spare change in the world. It's always the same; it's a law of nature. I'd have him wash the blood off my bumper and then I'd see that he got full Italian citizenship, swearing he was my brother, another son of my own mama. I turn left again, avoiding by a hair's breadth a bus coming from the Station. Then I double-park in front of the University entrance. Double-parking, triple-parking, everybody does it. I get out and sneak a look at the bumper.
I don't see any blood, but there's quite a dent over the right wheel. I wipe the metal clean with a paper handkerchief. Gray and red stains remain that could be the colors of dust and blood. Ahead a girl with nice legs gets into her parked car and drives away. I take her space immediately, with a manoeuvre as fast as the leap of a starving feline on its prey. I look over the other parked cars with care and see that mine is not alone in having dents. I get rid of the dirty handkerchief in a dustbin and begin to walk back and forth by my car. Police cars pass. I hear the siren of an ambulance. I'm near the Hospital's first aid entrance and sirens are usual around there. I stop thinking.
I walk towards San Lorenzo Church like someone who hasn't done anything wrong. Nobody is chasing me. After all, how often do I do anything that I shouldn't? Innocence is my middle name. But suddenly I've turned into an animal on the run. I take flight without thinking, simply in order not to be caught.
I phoned home to say that I'd be back late and then wandered without aim, until I went into a bar for a drink. The television was on. The newsreader said that some hours earlier a twenty-year-old Polish nurse was seriously hurt in an accident on Via Nomentana. The vehicle involved kept going. They had the name and model of my car, but got the color wrong. My car isn't black, but anthracite gray. Then an angry notion pushed against my guilt: Wasn't the supermarket manager responsible for the whole mess? She mistreated the gipsies and destroyed the peace of mind that's a must for proper driving. That was what prevented me from waiting for the police.
I still live with my guilt. The nurse had her leg amputated, but thanks to excellent care she can use a new, very efficient type pf bionic limb. Once she's rested, she can go back to work. It was all in the newspapers. I continued to drive around with my car, maybe hoping to be recognized and arrested at last. Nothing happened. Yesterday I bought a new car, selling the old one for scrap. I returned to the supermarket on the outskirts where it all began. The staff had changed, the manager was gone, but the floor plan remained the same. I bent down in the aisle and in no time found an apricot stone. I put it in my pocket, then left without buying anything and have come to you, officer, to tell my story.
(Author's Note: Thanks to Peter Byrne for his help.)
Jump to the poem by Guido Monte.
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About the Author
Fabio De Propris is a Roman writer who has also lived in Istanbul. He has published three novels (Brenda e Plotino, Se mi chiami Amore, Nero Istanbul) and translated books from English (Markheim of R. L. Stevenson, Paradoxes and Problems of John Donne, An Anthology of William Hazlitt's Essays) and from Turkish (Two Girls of Perihan Magden, translated with Mehmet S. Bermek, The Clown and His Daughter of Halide Edip Adivar.) Fabio teaches in Rome and writes occasionally in Il Manifesto. He is presently at work on his fourth novel. His poems appear in the paintings of the group Artisti di Fortebraccio. (back)