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A day like yesterday
Translated by Rosemary Dawn Allison
“A day like yesterday”
Written By Emiliano D'Alessandro
Copyright © 2016 Emiliano D'Alessandro
All rights reserved
Distributed by Babelcube, Inc.
Translated by Rosemary Dawn Allison
“Babelcube Books” and “Babelcube” are trademarks of Babelcube Inc.
A particular thank you is directed to Andrea De Carlo who, with extreme sensitivity, believed in and supported my work guiding me to the avant-garde publishing of today.
To Martina and Emanuela for their support and having put up with my obsessive extravagant philology.
Further, a thank you and a sincere hug is sent to all those people who, in whatever form or manner, demonstrated an impatient desire to read my new novel.
Desire cannot, by its very nature, be satisfied,
but most men live only to satisfy it.
In less than no time I found myself walking along an old farm track.
Everything around me was wonderful and virtuously perfect. Behind me the cottage – contemplative and as stable as the languor of genuine indescribable tenderness – seemed to distance itself along with its rich history of impenetrable stories of desires without form and of love without lovers. That day nature seemed untouched and not yet polluted by the less than perfect traces of humans. The flower petals resembled colored tears, as the air I breathed held the titanic weight of an extraordinary, as much as it was organized, chaos. The quiet that besieged my brain brutally perforated my eardrums and my soul.
It was an anonymous month in August, many years ago, when I was invited to the country. Vain blood relatives, to be more precise, cousins, that, with the pretext of exhibiting the old family house that they were in the process of restructuring to the relatives, took the tedious opportunity of indulging those pathetic repatriates with piles of greasy food and red wine served in delicate and disturbing glasses. Woe to me if I were to deny that the shameless food was not tasty, but I cannot but admit to a form of discomfort as I drowned in the usual boring discussions like, “Remember when we were children? We always played in the open air,” and other pleasantries on the same sickly sweet topic.
I took advantage of the general post-lunch numbness for a walk.
Approaching what was once used as a stable, among the crazy crickets and oak trees, I saw the country from a different perspective. No more than forty meters, yet that slender tract made me look at the cottage in the same way as I had admired it as a child. Tears came to my eyes, but they didn’t have time to fall to my cheekbones for I immediately realized that, like my relatives I had gorged, and was allowing myself to go into recollections that were all too bleak.
I composed myself with dignity forcing myself to think of the future. I walked over to the rough walls with the rejuvenated spirit of those who have the firm intention of imagining how many other people could have crossed the threshold of the old house. I passed through the low wooden gate and went into the living room making as little noise as possible. Everyone was resting fearlessly displaying gaping mouths, lips troubled by wine and abdomens swollen like bagpipes. I began to walk the hallways and rooms trying to figure out how the restructuring would have improved what was in itself already fascinating.
In my silent pilgrimage every object, every corner, any tiny trinket, and even the stale odor rising from the wallpaper, took me to the times of the total carelessness of many summers ago. The photos on the dear departed aunt’s coffee table had taken on the color of time, but for me they were sparkling and as attractive as all those years ago. Even the dust that was embedded in the folds of the wood of the green velvet chairs, held the charisma of immortality. And who knows, maybe those apparently inanimate objects were truly eternal. In fact, everything seemed motionless, and at the same time all seemed extraordinarily dynamic and alive. Everything seemed to be talking, and the funny thing about that day is that I could answer with my eyes.
Come to think of it now, that has never happened to me since.
I walked slowly, crossed the library, and realized that the same books on the shelves reigned there twenty years before. The same disorderly arrangement, the same fragrance of parchment paper; however, they looked sad, perhaps because no one looked at them any more or because they had ceased to perform their primary task, if anything, a book can never stop being useful.
I went down the stairs leading to what was once the basement, which was later converted into the cellar for the transformation of grapes into wine. The walls, in contrast to those of the upper floor, had no plaster, and the sour musty stench pushed down my throat. Uncle’s old tools were still there, including the immobile press: opaquely brown on the outside and wonderfully vermilion inside, an indelible imprint of the tint of must. Time had stopped even for those tools; the cobwebs marked the seal of guarantee on the durability of things.
The solid partitioning walls had a thousand holes and deep caverns. I remember the many tools that had been arranged within those niches as though it were today. Hammers, rasps, nails, pincers, bottles and all kinds of things were inserted into those natural drawers. All placed in an orderly disorder that only uncle knew how to organize, and he could retrieve an object in seconds. He was the sole director of those crevices and woe betide anyone who tried to stick their hands inside. Thinking back now, it was all so extraordinarily pleasant; I wondered if after his death our aunt had sorted through his odds and ends. From what I remembered – and the thickness of dust and cobwebs – the cellar had long been abandoned. However I liked it more so, it gave a pleasant feeling of stillness; it seemed to offer the melancholy impression that in a short while my uncle would step out with the same anxiety as always: that of walking in the company of an indiscreet stick.
I greeted the basement with my eyes and climbed the stairs again, when I noticed an alcove on my right closed with a brick. It was strange that the late lamented had shut off one of them, after all only he had access to those small niches. I stared at that brick as if hypnotized. I confess, not without embarrassment, that I fantasized about ancient treasures and chests crammed full of gold, but then, finally released from the impressive stories of Salgari, I found myself in front of the clay rectangle again. It seemed to look at me; it was not just me looking at it, but that it was looking at me. I convinced myself that it was just staring at me, as if to throw down a challenge. And I willingly accepted that challenge! I stretched out my arm, grabbed it and looking at it, as an executioner would observe one condemned to death, I pulled it towards me.
It came out like a plant with deep roots and I threw it over my shoulder. The now open niche showed only a cavernous, bleak hole. There were no matches in my pocket, then, a little reluctantly; fearfully I slipped my hand inside. Nothing! There was nothing inside that hole in the wall. I rotated my hand on the four narrow walls, but nothing. Then I went deeper going in up to my mid-arm, but the results were the same as before. I began to taste the defeat of the challenge I had acknowledged.
What is certain that it was not very encouraging to be defeated by a brick, but I swore to myself that I would not mention this grotesque episode to anyone. The sense of scruples – seeing now that my arm was inside that trap – was to achieve at least one result: to touch the fifth wall and after having achieved this return upstairs, to the relatives anesthetized by food.
Despite the bold proposition, I was unable to achieve my intention: either my arm was too short or that thing was too deep. Trying to distance all the tiny and horrifying forms of life that could be held in that cube-shaped space from my thoughts, I crushed my face up against the wall, vainly hoping to touch the bottom. Disgusted and uneasy I succeeded. I touched the end of the wall with my fingers realizing that I had not touched anything. It was the last effort that gave me a jolt of pure adrenaline, when, moving my hand from right to left, I found something. The effect of the adrenaline stopped there, and then there was the fear of what I could be touching, because the texture was soft and, at the same time, almost dry. I instinctively pulled away from that thing, to return cautiously with only the tip of the middle finger. I touched something that not only seemed to be plastic, but it produced a strange crackling sound. Now certain that it could not be a fierce creature, the middle finger was accompanied by the index, then the ring, then the little finger, up to holding something that had a modest consistency. I cautiously dragged that object to the exit, and in my hands found a stout plastic bag, rolled several times around.
It held an object no larger than a book, and even the weight respected the size of my model. I unrolled the compact envelope and I was finally able to peek inside.
I found no gold, or precious stones, but only paper, a lot of old paper faded with time.
To be precise there were hundreds of sheets folded in two and each one was scrupulously numbered. It didn’t take me long to notice that, apart from the number at the bottom, those pages were thick with written annotations.
Trembling, I wondered what I had discovered. A moment later, an eerie punch in the stomach marked my amazement: it was uncle’s handwriting.
But how much had he written? And mostly, what had he written? And why had he hidden the sheets of paper? How long had they been in that crevice?
The only way to respond to at least one of my questions was to do the obvious and logical thing: read the contents.
I hastened to put the bundle back in the envelope securing it under my shirt, I returned the brick to the niche and went back into the living room. I found an excuse the moment I gave myself permission to leave the now depleted banquet.
The trip in the car, although it was relatively short, seemed longer than usual. The curiosity about reading what my uncle had written made everything else superfluous, extending minutes and even seconds. I drove into the garage and hit the opposite wall with the bumper; I climbed the stairs two at a time, crossed the living room, greeted my wife with a quick kiss and barricaded myself in the study.
No misgivings, and in one fell swoop, I freed the desk of notes, documents and manuals. Pulled out the cellophane casing from under my shirt and leaned on the desk.
After I had sat down on the chair, I began to stare at those folded sheets.
I could not believe it, I was there, before them and I was about to read them. Probably the expectation was enormous, I always had a vivid imagination; the fact is that I preferred to fantasize about enclosed ancient secrets, perhaps about deciphering codes and things like that. As if waking from a soft of numbness I decided to start reading.
Despite the eagerness about gobbling up kilometers of black ink, I laid out the sheets with great calm, perhaps to enjoy even a moment of that masochistic indefinable feeling of joy and yearning.
I pressed on the papers with the back of my hands in an attempt to return them to their original shape, but despite the effort the sheets remaining slightly bent in on themselves. It didn’t matter, in the end it seemed that I had an old book in my hands, which intrigued me far more.
There was not much to read on the first two sheets because my uncle had enjoyed drawing completely meaningless shapes. There were straight and convex lines, geometric shapes that had been thrown down in bulk. The only sketch that most resembled human physiognomy was the palm of an opened hand. Too bad the only understandable image was marred by a straight line cutting through part of the palm; it had the appearance of a long, deep gash, almost circling the wrist: a kind of scar.
Deciding on the artistic inclinations of my uncle, I came finally to the third page where, and I faithfully report, at the center he had written:
‘Die shits o pepper filden wi mix up notes and lung thinks, yo fin ‘em higgledi pig inna drawer f n warobe habandoned inna di cliff of Valle doste. Foun di eree whin gettin a bittle wood when, in dem shup torns lik dem pin nurses dem ‘ave, I saws dis biggin warobe hef bruk in bits. Inna me hed i sed hef ti ha bin trown dun di cliff inna di nord part, high up, bicos enna marks ittn hef fell ruffly. Beh wat mi he me ask o’ me is di road inna di nord onna di cliffen nothink lik ina car canna run o nebba ina motobik, ni dat bigger n big warob, ony mukkle strong o methinks inna wok di surciriss. Her’s hoppin dit dat warobe inna deh long long; t’era di musci grin onna wud. Beh, noto inna odder ting hilloks o musci dat sem dere long long time onna warobe; liken if gluen deh. Er canna no ken unna body trow dat warobe awiy likken dis, n inna dis time mich lessen. Inna mi lif ammit i likkle n not fin iffan one buk: well red dem peppers fas inna tri nites.
Iffen di fats sayin er stori ave inna success o no, bet i wanna no ho i foun de nam offen di writer, assen non signid, nefless inn scriffle. Beffen filin dis peppers ars holy inna def gard dis peppers. Pe mo stipo dem to sef plac, nu day giffen dem ti im sun inna mi brudder, di unno steddying ste tings likk bukkens inna stuff lik dat. Def be a giffen muckle enjoid.
What left me thunder-struck, is his brother’s son was me. Those unforeseen pages were destined for me. Essentially I had stolen something that was already mine, simply opening a niche that almost certainly had destined these objects to oblivion, those that pass only once in the upended nature of fate.
Among fragments of sentences pinned at the edge of the sheets, and a handwriting that was unknown to me, I went like a speeding train to the next page.
The passing of my uncle from this earth, and his memory would be enough to fill every moment of his absence. But with the unexpected gift, I returned to chatting peacefully with him, tricking the disappearance of a soul into even comparing notes about what I was going to read. Only memory was no longer enough for me. I wanted to ask him what he thought when coming to the end of the reading, and what change in relationship could be demonstrated between the papers and me. I figured I’d soon find out, or maybe I would read unnecessarily weak and unsatisfactory ideas. It could be everything and nothing, nothing and the absolutely immense, the extraordinary and the damnation of the wretched.
This thought in that eternal instant; endless moment broke when my eyes came to the first word printed on the sheet. I was aware of a sudden passionate excitement in my slight emotional structure.
So it was that I began to avidly read the details of that incredible story about simple people, secrets that can only be trusted to being whispered from ear to ear by speakers in the streets of a small village, of Selasia, of Bonamano and of his dreams, of Basilio and his tongs, but mostly the frantic pursuit of the truth.
The manuscript began the story with an impetuous exclamation: a start! The same jolt I’d received in my stomach, a thrill of eagerness that went up my back to invade my brain. A real jolt that came from the thrill of reading something fascinating and mysterious. A start, in fact, a throbbing jolt!
A jolt. It seemed that an electric shock had been targeting every part of Doctor Bonamano’s body. But it lasted a moment, just long enough for him to realize nothing serious was happening; the time it took between a sigh of relief and settling into a more comfortable position.
It happened to him every night, or almost.
Just as he was falling asleep, the damn step was going to come between sleep and the measured equilibrium of an assiduous person, who was becoming ridiculous in his own eyes. And exactly the same as on every other night, that evening, he tripped and fell. Actually he never fell except within his own fears; those that gathered each day between the work carried out by a doctor and the domestic chores. He would wake up with a start and beaded with sweat, he calmed himself with the same method he used with his patients, and inevitably, though dubious about such assurances, was able to sleep again.
Every morning – undamaged and the same as ever – was always dedicated to work, hours for the public: from nine until noon, relentlessly and without coffee bureaucratized by the benevolence of his patients. Nothing, zero.
The visits never ended for Bonamano before half past one. These were the unfavorable contradictions of carrying out a medical profession conducted in a small village in a modest region in the middle of Italy.
Since taking up office, the small room available for outpatients had turned into the destination of a mystical pilgrimage of as vintage as they were curious native personalities. If you wanted to get some sort of certified healing, you had to pass by there. And in fact Bonamano, focusing specifically on the eccentric personality of his clients, dispensed measures that had nothing to do with conventional medicine, or with the science that had taken up the better part of his youth. He had graduated, in fact, not exactly in record time. On the other hand, the many years spent at the seminary allowed him to recognize from the first who suffered the pain of the soul, and with priests for teachers, he had learned to handle them. And that’s why, in this small village of a few simple souls, his role was going to be confused with that of the parish priest. In fact, many times it was difficult to distinguish who was the doctor and who the priest, but one thing was certain: in their way they were able to solve most of the complicated problems.
For this reason, the doctor stopped dwelling on the rites of physical health, instead he gave ample space to the word, intense verb like an extraordinary placebo capable of prodigious cures that could rival the most innovative of medicines. Also, because it did not take time to understand, those daily processions to his surgery were only a means – perhaps the only way – that his insured patients had to escape the immobility of a place that was always in and of itself the same. An enchanted and uncontaminated place that at the same time did not allow for either the moment or the instant for the healing of wounds accumulated over time. And you know, it can become terrifying living in the midst of stale words, where the only certainty is determined by a place in the cemetery outside the town, reminding everyone of how life is probably no different from another, umpteenth deception.
But Bonamano knew these feelings, knew them, felt them on his skin every night before going to bed; he was certainly not free from that insecurity determined by torment. So he struggled to keep these thoughts out of his mind as he awaited the next person. He thought that, after all, it was his profession: good heavens, he’d studied for this, many counted on his help, and he couldn’t let them down.
He repeated to himself that losing is a question of style, and he’d lost the battle with his career with style. Most of his colleagues earned well; were satisfied with the role they held, gaining a slice of the world achieved by studying in the city, lavish homes, they frequented fine restaurants and fascinating women.
Gaetano instead, was forced to applaud the tireless faith of his clients, he had a clinic in the village, he lived in a modest house, was not married and occasionally took a drink at the only bar in the village. Often he was convinced that he was a hologram of himself that he essentially did not exist, even though everyone could swear that he did. But then he returned to believing in so many sacrifices, even in defeat, of course, but mostly the sacrifices that were the sole repository of medical truth in that godforsaken place. He represented science, not peanuts. Soon after, however, other negative thoughts took over.
Complex rhythms appeared in the thoughts of doctor Bonamano, harmonies hovered in equilibrium within uncertain alibis, gigantic insecurities erected in the depths of a cement temple. But these were his thoughts, he couldn’t do anything, they were the same that fed his disease: the fear of defeat on all fronts, the silence of solitude and the resignation of waiting.
Doctor Gaetano Bonamano’s days spun away like this, surgeon – more a doctor than a surgeon – without a wife and without specialization, with a pet cat with an uncertain oath to Hippocrates all those years ago, when he was young and full of life, when he was sure that the world had great things in store for him.
The doctor did not forgive his colleagues for their good fortune. He considered it an excessive dose of good luck since he was certainly not to be outdone in terms of skill. For heaven’s sake, I take care of an entire town – he brooded every day – a maximum of one hundred cases a year. And that’s the point – he thought – those four white coats, with few patients, are rich and happy, I get by with a whole village, I ruin the liver one day yes and the other as well, and I’ll never have the chance to feel a minister’s spleen, or of an actor, or even an usher because there are no offices here that really count. In fact, the most important institutes were embodied in a pair of figures, a maximum of three: the mayor, the parish priest and the pharmacist, when he was not drunk.
The effects of scientific socialism for all, coveted by Marx, reigned. In that place that smelled of wet earth were, by the strength of things, all the same. No one was privileged; apart from the three who had been named, not least because of the absence of privileges. Well no, if there was someone who could be considered privileged, perhaps more than the institutional triad, it was he, Bonamano.
Contrary to his townsmen, who lived only from the fruits of the earth, the doctor performed a profession that guaranteed him a roof over his head, and on the holy days his clients never failed to pay homage to the least worst. Household products and succulents, donated with the unmistakable style of those who, if they were unable to earn a place in the hereafter, they certainly did what they could to be treated better in the hereafter.
Yet, despite this, everyone’s doctor, at sixty-five years on the nose, seemed to experience all the discomfort of humanity. In one person, all the troubles of humankind, in the interstices of a physical provincial doctor, as if every effort to win a mature balance had gone by the wayside in favor of daily speculation to his detriment.
And what harm! He wanted to scream with his hands cupped around his mouth to better tell everyone that his was not a vocation, his genes were little connected to that profession, medicine was only a ploy to make a living in a less strenuous manner. The torment is that he could not even reach this objective, since his soul labored in that way. At this point he was more a candidate to be a patient than a doctor and, given the circumstances, would certainly be a special patient, one of those needing some authority to draw up a diagnosis.
After all he was good – he said repeating himself – no one had ever complained. But was this because no one was able to identify his shortcomings or because, with the years, experience had paid off? This was a decidedly psychopathic reflection, to be censored without pity and tossed over the shoulder.
The restlessness of man and, as a professional, he was relegated to the thin parentheses of that place. If he had built and then deconstructed his unconscious, almost certainly he would be able to understand that those insurmountable Gothic spires existed because he did not exist; they embodied the prospect of a frustrated man who was now invisible to his own eyes. He was insolvent before the indefensibility of an unchanging life, which inevitably would eclipse his being. Those simple people and they still visited him every day, like so many Chinese drops, they plied his brain like the land they worked every day, thereby depriving him of his creative energy.
At this point, the only shelter, the exclusive rest during which he could be truly happy, was situated on the one step that every night heralded the lethargy of a healthy rest. He jerked, there was a moment of uncertainty and then sleep. And that night, like the others, everything happened as expected.
A gasp, a moment of hesitation and the eyes closed.
So it was that Gaetano Bonamano that night, after closing his eyes, met that young man; drenched forehead, white as the tiles that lined the sink of the surgery and so visibly exhausted as to make his posture more convex than erect.
He grabbed a chair and saying nothing made him sit down.
It was not at all difficult to recognize that young man with the romantic and melancholy air. He would have recognized Riccardo at first glance; if it were not for the glasses he’d taken off to read the sports news in the newspaper. Everybody knew him in the village. By positive prescription for the health of those people, even Doctor Bonamano knew the young teacher; he existed on paper, on the National Health, whereas he had never been seen at the clinic.
Riccardo, the only teacher at the only elementary school in the village, had the Herculean task of holding twenty-two frantic little children at bay. In a classroom that housed a cast iron stove, a blackboard, a map, a locker, a window and five classes. A decidedly very unhappy relationship for the teacher: five to one. There were five classes, from first grade to fifth; all crammed into a single room, with one teacher and in addition, romantic, almost a tragedy.
The educational reforms and school board seemed to have ignored the school in that small town. Other schools had a janitor, instead they in turn had to fend for themselves; after all it was not that difficult to sweep the floor and clean from time to time, indeed, in some ways it could become painfully hilarious. Instead, it was less pleasant for Riccardo that he had to instruct twenty-two boys in five different syllabuses. This was a huge undertaking that he undertook with satisfactory results. Each year he was supposed to preside over the examination of the fifth and every year he had to greet the whimpering boys with handkerchief to the nose, as they were reluctant to tear themselves away from their mother’s skirts. With invisible armor he worked to refine the movement of ideas of so many small brats, frequently causing a tempest of brains, and often achieving an enlightened participation.
Every method was good, even the old system of the pointer resting on the desk. An anachronistic deterrent and reformer at the same time, which would cause a little controversy anywhere else, but not there, not in that immorally moral location. Not in that place where the township’s geographic expression was confined to a few hectares.
Riccardo engaged in teaching a sort of futuristic revival, sort of his own concept of the use of mutual aid between children. In practice: those of the second grade helped those in the first, while those in the third were concerned with those of the second and so on. An anarchy that had been organized with strict rules, where he, Riccardo, appeared to be from the viewpoint of democracy the undisputed despot.
He could be the opposite of himself as impotent as he was perturbingly disinterested. He educated to educate himself, scrupulous in the dialectic so as not to slip into the intellectual sloppiness that so tempted him, and perhaps he had married because he never wanted to be seen to be a bachelor. But this is only a guess, a malicious rumor that only the alleys of certain towns can allow. Probably they were jealous, because at forty he still had the look of a young man, a young man with a beautiful wife and a job that permitted him to cultivate many other interests. An environmentalist because it was fashionable, with a particularly artistic predilection for the microclimate of butterflies, Riccardo paid tribute to the birch trees to better confuse the ideas about him.
Both encyclopedic in affirmations as he was coarse and lacking in commentary, he led a successful life only on paper, long enough to drag behind him more animosity than compassion. And it was fine like this, a lopsided balance that made him feel serene.