Read Sammarinese Writer Roberto Monti's Short Story 'He, I Say, He' or 'A Flash of Black Light'

© Steve Slater/Flickr
© Steve Slater/Flickr
Photo of Michael Barron
Books And Digest Editor2 August 2017

The soliloquy of a down and out musician leads to reveries on bankruptcy and comic book cowboys in the San Marino selection from our Global Anthology

I’ve never quite understood it, but when it passed before me, I sensed it.
I’ve never understood it with any real certainty, but I sensed it, and still sense it now, passing before me.
I see it as a flash of black light, crossing the street of my vision.
It happens when some idiotic ringtone causes a whole table near the front of the stage to burst out in laughter, punching out the teeth of the velveteen chords and harmonic phrases I’d been summoning from my inner recesses, and which I would be smoothly emitting from the fretboard of my guitar if not for this stupid interruption…
Or when some Berlusconite is talking on TV, and the version of Italy he’s dreamed up fucks with the idea of Italy I have in mind;
…when the acidic song of crows cracks the glass of my windows;
…when the volume’s too loud and it turns my thoughts to pulp;
…when I can’t do a goddamn thing;

As a matter of fact, when I hear that rustling of satin…or maybe it was just nylon…and I can almost see it out of the corner of my eye.
I still see it sometimes; this flash of black light crossing the street of my vision.
When Brasi threw stones in the stream and my grandmother begged him to stop (who knows why she didn’t want him to throw them in the first place) but he just laughed and threw more and more of them. Brasi you brat, that’s not how one’s supposed to act! I couldn’t do anything besides bite him, and the next day Gina went complaining to my mother and everything became a huge mess.

What the fuck! He would have done the same thing, right?
No, that’s not what he would have done. He never did things that way. He’d come to the verge of it but…he’d stop himself, twist his incredible mustache into a smile, leave his “Z” mark somewhere, and then be off, lighter and more agile than I was ever able to be, even when I was playing soccer and exercising all the time.

My mustache never came out right when I tried to draw it in with my father’s charcoal sticks, even when I thought I’d drawn it just like his. But later I realized that if you look at the good guy’s face, a face that always has something moronic to it, actually, that kind of mustache just didn’t show up. And the bad guys, they always had goatees.
He had the good guy’s face, but not quite in the typical sense; he was a true good guy, not a guy like me, who’d decline the sweaty, chocolate eggs that Don Lino kept in his pocket for who knows how long, to give to the boys who went to catechism, where Don Bosco’s short films played, and the air was filled with the scent of incense and pine cones. No, I’d go play soccer instead.

He, I say, He was always happy. He joked and never once lost his cool, not even when someone tried to pull the wool over his eyes for their own profit. Then he’d get pissed off, but without actually getting pissed off. He’d intervene, but he never took credit for anything. He’d appear out of nowhere. How the fuck did he manage to just appear like that, already dressed in a cape and mask?
I never figured it out.

Actually no, Verbena knew how they pulled it off, because he always knew everything: in TV you can do anything, like it’s nothing.

But he wasn’t a character, dear Verbena, He was real.

When that stupid journalist forgot about the fact that I’d played a thousand shows in Bologna over the course of 20 years…
If only I too had a mute, false-deaf servant…maybe even false-mute too…
No one really knew I’d played all those shows. But you should have, you stupid journalist. Did you even do your research?
No, you didn’t. So quit being a snob.

We never stopped buying into it, and thought that Verbena had quit buying into it because he’d started playing with the older kids, people like the son of Tugnetta the Butcher. But Verbena did buy into the idea that Tugnetta the Butcher earned a billion lire a month, and once, to make us believe it, he told us he’d seen those billions in Tugnetta’s till, billions I’d imagined slightly smeared with the cow’s blood Tugnetta always had on his hands. Yes, because when I went with my mother to buy meat, he put the steaks in yellow paper and gave them to us. My mother paid him in cash, and he put it in the till where it got mixed up with all the other mothers’ money to become billions of lire.

We never stopped buying into it, all of it. Whenever I go to the Ausa River Park, I’m still inclined to take a peek where the wooden bridge used to be, just to see whether an eel might pass by. Verbena said he’d seen it, a huge eel in the Ausa river. We didn’t really believe him, and after spending a whole week searching for it, me and Giuliano understood that even Verbena had started bullshitting like the older kids.

But when Verbena, Tugnetta’s son, and the other guys in the shacks talked about grown-up things, and didn’t want me around, I too would have liked to have a fake-deaf servant; and when they snuck into the Titania at night, an abandoned factory that was about to be demolished to build a new movie theater in its place, and they still didn’t want me around, even if I’d gained points by telling that story—and it was true, I swear—that my dad, having just arrived in San Marino, was the one who painted the sign on the Titania in red and blue block letters, those same colors, I think, that were on Bologna’s jerseys, the time he took me to see them beat Inter, and I thought that the players (guys like Tumburus, Yanich, Pascutti, Haller) were little kids because from way up in the bleachers they looked so small…even then that flash of black light crossed my path.
I sensed it.
Every once in awhile I sense it, even to this day.

It’s not that I haven’t grown up. For example, now I know why my grandmother didn’t want Brasi to throw those stones in the Ausa: it was because years earlier there had been a flood that had washed away everything, including some little boy or girl, I’m not quite sure which, who floated away in a shoebox. Now that she’s not here anymore, every once in a while I want to send for her and say something like: I figured out why you didn’t want Brasi to throw stones in the Ausa River.
So, you dear stupid journalist, now you see why it was a good idea to give him a good bite!
You might say that Brasi didn’t have shit to do with this flood story, and you’d be right.

Regardless, He wouldn’t have done that.

He, I say, He would have dismounted his horse and, just like that, would have immobilized Brasi with a sword to the throat (and keep in mind that Brasi has since become a tank of a bodybuilder). Then, with a smile, He would have told the story of the flood, leaving Brasi to fume with anger as He turned his back and walked away at a luxuriously slow pace.
That’s what He would have done.
Not me though.
I didn’t want to float away in a shoebox, so instead I bit Brasi. That’s when the whole mess with Gina happened.

It would have been easy though, with a cape like that, even if it had been nylon instead of satin.
Easy, with a horse who’d come to you when you whistled to whisk you away from all your messes.
Now I have a goatee that’s starting to go white.
No mustache though.
I’ve never had a mustache.

I got close once, when I was in the military. I thought about growing one…but I couldn’t do it. It was all so strange in the military. For example, the barracks stunk of mold and urine, a stench that reminded me of the Titania where Tugnetta’s son had pissed on boxes full of invoices and receipts, boxes that were at that point no use to anyone; by that point the Titania had gone bankrupt, just like the Marmaca², the Sammarinese ceramic workshop where my father had been employed. That was around the time when Meris and I would wait around for him to come home at night, hoping he’d bring a large lump of sculpting clay. One day, he’d finally remembered it! And the lump was shaped like an elephant. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

“Bankrupt”³ was a word that I’d heard often. It had a ring to it, at once friendly and sinister.
When my father said that this boy’s father or that boy’s father was bankrupt, it didn’t quite add up for me, because I’d seen those same fathers laughing up a storm outside the neighborhood bar. So being bankrupt might have been a serious, difficult affair, but it must have also made one eager to laugh. Though maybe sooner or later their houses would fill up with moldy litter, and the big boys would come by to piss on it, and then…

Later on I’d seen a man, his shirt a bit untucked from his trousers and his tie hanging loose and askew, carried by two other men who were themselves quite well put together. They’d left Verbena’s father’s bar and dragged this man around back, where Brasi’s father kept his propane tanks. I didn’t have the courage to go see what was going on, but Nensi went around back on his bike and told me later that the man with his shirt untucked had vomited up a pink liquid.
Maybe his “bankrupt” state was no longer funny to him.

Once in my geography class, our teacher had called upon me to describe a “steppe,” but while I struggled to answer, she was called immediately away by the janitor. She asked Palmiro, a student who would only ever know success, to continue my interrogation, torturing me with this word “steppe.” What would it have cost him to leave me alone, or tell me himself what a “steppe” was, or at least just to have told the teacher that I had answered the question. But no. He kept at it, and told the teacher that I had no idea what a stupid fucking steppe was. I’d been bankrupted.

Then I thought that He, I say, He, if He had seen all that, he would have given Palmiro the works.

No…He wouldn’t have left me undefended, He would have known that “friendship” meant more than a “steppe.”

And the next day I would have found the school bankrupt, covered with “Z’s”, moldy litter, and pink liquid.

He, I say, He, in fact, wouldn’t have let the Titania go bankrupt.

And he wouldn’t have let it happen to the Marmaca, that incredible place filled with lumps of clay shaped like elephants that had called my father down from Castelbolognese because he painted porcelain like no one else could; like they’d taught him to paint years ago, in that school where he saw Picasso pass by one day.

He, I say, He wouldn’t have let that happen.
He would have intervened with a smile on his face, tracing a nice “Z” on the asses of all those fuckers who made the Titania and the Marmaca go bankrupt.

In which case Tugnetta’s son would have gone somewhere else to piss, maybe to his father’s butcher shop, who I could have cared less about, who’d amassed those supposed billions of lire. Billions my ass, because Tugnetta was also some kind of security guard at Manzoni’s Villa, and he would shout at us when we went into the park there to eat the pine nuts, which Verbena said, rightly this time, were for everybody.

True the pine nuts were for everyone, but if the Count Nichi Manzoni came by that would really be something to fret over, but I never understood whether it had to do with the Villa or not. I suppose it did. But one thing’s for certain: Tugnetta would have shot us without batting an eye, and what’s more, he had one of those pointy goatees and eyes that burned red like Mephisto’s. I’d seen them in that issue of Tex Willer that kept me up all night when I reread it.

Why did I reread it then?

Because these are the kinds of people you encounter when, 20 years old and fresh out of the army, you take some time off to work as the custodian of the tennis courts at the Tavolucci pool; just for a bit, a single summer, and who shows up on his scooter? The Count Nichi Manzoni-Mephisto. And he gets pissed at you because the courts aren’t cleaned to his liking.
But you may ask yourself: what does he have to do with the tennis courts?
He has very much to do with the tennis courts. He was the one who established the Fishing-Tennis Federation at the Tavolucci pool, and who knows what else.
Utter madness…

But where was He, I say, He, with his cape, his horse, and sidekick, when I could have died of embarrassment, such as the time Severi’s father saw me trying to get my moped started in the lobby of the condominium, and I’d thought I was all by myself. He was the most worn-out man I’d ever seen in my life. He was in his undershirt, slowly descending the staircase, on his way to open the pastry shop following an afternoon siesta, visibly at war with his chronic indigestion, which was caused by an over-consumption of cucumbers. And he says to me: “Maybe it’s time you got that spark plug changed.”
A flash of black light.

These kinds of things leave their mark on you, and you remember them forever.
He, I say, He, where was He?
I now know where He was: nowhere!

But I’m an idiot, and I continue feeling it, even now sometimes, for instance at Carnival when I could no longer stand my extravagant Indian costume, with the fringes my mother had sewn on, and the thousands of tomahawks I’d made for myself during solitary afternoons spent in the mystifying stairwells of our building. When I recall how I gathered and cultivated the greatest illusion of all illusions, how at a certain point I was sure that I too would be sporting a cape that threw forth lashings of black light…how I would have had it all—the hat, the mask, the shirt, the boots, a belt tightened around my waist, maybe even some foil…

Every step I descended, leading down to the landing, not to our own but to the one a floor below, marked one less tyranny, one less humiliation; here was the path by which I might finally confront my own destiny.

Myself, my mother, the doorbell, the heart that beat against my sternum; then Mariola, who came to open the door in her apron…a forest of pins and thread…a pair of scissors in one hand, a stick of chalk in the other. And behind her a mountain of boxes, ready to be delivered; real costumes that she had sewn herself and would consign to shops, where they would cost a fortune. But to neighbors, under the table, they were sold at a fair and honest price.

“Do you have the costume that I’d requested for my son, Mariola?”

She peered over her sewing glasses, the ones she would have used for my cape, I thought, so as not to miss a single stripe, so as to give it a perfect shape, a shape which my own life might soon possess, and possess forever. This is what I thought.

“I’m all out of Zorros, Gina, but I have a few pirates left if you’d like.”

Such is life.

Severi’s father lived next door, but he didn’t witness any of this. Maybe he was asleep, or was eating cucumbers, or was rearranging his collection of war ammunitions that he’d purchased at Gambettola.

Maybe even the Zorro factory had gone bankrupt. And so, to my dismay, I would be a pirate that year, and for years to come, long before the cyclist Marco “The Pirate” Pantani came along.

But there are still times that I sense Him pass me by.

* * *


¹ For this story, Monti used highly idiosyncratic grammar in the original Italian which includes a heavy use of italicization (particularly on nearly every proper noun) and verse-like line breaks. For the translation, we have romanized many proper nouns to help distinguish them for readers, while retaining other uses of Monti’s style in order to retain its flavor.

² San Marino is famous for its ceramics, which has long been a staple industry for its economy.

³ The Italian word for bankrupt, faillite, is cognate of “failure” and can be used to describe both a bankrupt institution and failed people (i.e. losers and deadbeats). As the English term isn’t as nuanced, all uses of faillite in the original have been translated here as “bankrupt” to coincide with the novelty this word might have to a kid.

Translated from the Italian by Ariel Zambenedetti. Roberto Monti is a musician and the author of several books, including the collection Il fatto che ancora non piova (The Fact that it Still Hasn’t Rained), from which this story is excerpted. The editor would like to acknowledge Paul Kron, who supplied the story for this translation; Ann Morgan, who wrote about Paul’s discovery on her site A Year of Reading the World; and Carol Cohen, a native Italian speaker who helped to solve some of the conundrums in translating this text.

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