by ALBERTO MORAVIA
DON’T talk to me about secrets! I had one — and it was the kind that weighs on your conscience like a nightmare.
I am a truck driver. One beautiful spring morning, while hauling a load of lava rock from a quarry near Campagnano to Rome, I ran square into a man who was coming in the opposite direction on a motor bike. It was right at the 25 Kilometer marker on the old Cassia road. Through no fault of his, either. I had kept going on the wrong side of the road long after having passed a car, and I was speeding; he was on the right, where he belonged, and going slow. The truck hit him so hard that I barely had time to see something black fly through the blue air and then fall and lie still and black against the soft whiteness of a daisy field. The motor bike lay on the other side of the road, its wheels in the air, like a dead bug.
Lowering my head, I stepped down hard on the gas. I tore down the road to Rome and dropped my load at the yard.
The next day the papers carried the news: Soand-so, forty-three years old, a jobber by trade, leaving a wife and several children, had been run down at Kilometer 25 of the Cassia road and instantly killed. Nobody knew who had struck him. The hit-and-run driver had fled the scene of the accident like a coward. That’s exactly what the paper said: like a coward. Except for those three little words that burned a hole in my brain, it didn’t take more than four lines to report on what was, after all, only the death of a man.
During the next couple of days, I could think of nothing else. I know that I am only a truck driver, but who can claim that truck drivers have no conscience ? A truck driver has a lot of time to mull over his own private business, during the long hours behind the wheel or lying in the truck’s sleeping berth. And when, as in my case, that private business is not all it ought to be, thinking can get to be really pretty tough.
One thing in particular kept nagging at me. I just couldn’t understand why I hadn’t stopped, why I hadn’t tried to help the poor guy. I lived the scene over and over again. I would be gauging the distances again before passing that car; I would feel my foot pressing down hard on the accelerator. Then the man’s body would come flying up in front of my windshield . . . and at this point I would deliberately block out the picture, as you do at the movies, and I would think, “Now, jam on your brakes, jump down, run into the field, pick him up, put him in the bed of the truck and rush him to Santo Spirito Hospital. . . .”
But, you poor fool, you’re just dreaming again. I had not stopped, I had driven straight on, with head lowered like a bull after a goring. To make a long story short, the more I thought about that split second when I had stepped on the gas instead of jamming on the brakes, the less I could make it out. Cowardice — that was the word for it all right. But why does a man who has, or at least thinks he has guts, turn into a coward without a moment’s warning? That stumped me. Yet the cold hard facts were there: the dead man was really dead; that split second when I might have stopped had passed and was now sinking farther and farther away and no one would ever be able to bring it back. I was no longer the Gino who had passed that car but another Gino who had killed a man and then had run away.
I lay awake nights over it. I grew gloomy and silent and after a while everybody shied away from me at the yard and after work: nobody wants to pass the time with a kill-joy. So I carried my secret around as if it were a hot diamond that you can’t entrust to anyone or plant anywhere.
Then, after a while, I began thinking about it less and less and I can even say that there came a time when 1 didn’t think about it at all. But the secret was still stowed away deep down inside me and it weighed on my conscience and kept me from enjoying life. I often thought that I would have felt better if I could have told somebody about it. I wasn’t exactly looking for approval — I realized there was no pardon for what I had done — but if I could have told this secret of mine I would have thrown off part of its dead weight onto somebody else who would have helped me carry it. But who could I tell it to? To my friends at the yard? They had other things to worry about. To my family?
I had none, being a foundling. My girl friend? She would have been the logical person because, as everybody knows, women are good at understanding you and giving you sympathy when you need it, but unfortunately, I had no girl friend.
ONE Sunday in May I went walking outside the Rome city gates with a girl I had met some time before when I had given her and one of her friends a lift in my truck. She had told me her name and address, and I had seen her again a couple of times. We had enjoyed each other’s company, and she had made it clear that she liked me and would be willing to go out with me.
Her name was Iris. She was a lady’s maid in the house of some wealthy woman who had lots of servants. I had fallen from the start for her serious little oval face and those great big sad gray eyes of hers. In short, here was just the girl for me in the present circumstances. After we had had a cup of coffee at the Exposition Grounds, with all those columns around us, she finally agreed in her shy, silent, and gentle way to go and sit with me in a meadow not far from St. Paul’s Gate, where you get a good view of the Tiber and of the new apartment houses lined up on the opposite bank. She had spread out a handkerchief on the grass to keep her skirt from getting dirty and she sat quietly, her legs tucked under her, her hands in her lap, gazing across at the big white buildings on the other side of the river.
I noticed that there were lots of daisies in the grass around us; and like a flash I remembered the soft whiteness of those other daisies among which, just a month earlier, I had seen lying still and dead the man I had struck down. I don’t know what got into me but suddenly I couldn’t hold back the urge to tell her my secret. If I tell her, I thought, I’ll get rid of the load on my chest. She wasn’t one of those dizzy, empty-headed girls who, after you’ve told them a secret, make you feel so much worse than you did before, that you could kick yourself hard for having spilled all you know. She was a nice, understanding person who had doubtless had her share of knocks in life — and they must have been pretty rough knocks if the sad little look on her face meant anything. Just to break the ice, I said to her, in an offhand way:
“What are you thinking about, Iris?”
She was just raising her hand to choke back a yawn. Perhaps she was tired. She said: “Nothing.”
I didn’t let that answer get me down but quickly went on. “Iris, you know that I like you a lot, don’t you? That’s why I feel that I shouldn’t hide anything from you. You’ve got to know everything about me. Iris, I’ve got a secret.”
She kept on looking at the tall buildings on the other side of the river, all the while fingering a little red lump on her chin, a tiny spring pimple.
“What secret ?” she asked.
With an effort I got it out: “I’ve killed a man.”
She didn’t move but kept on poking gently at her chin. Then she shivered all over, as though she had finally understood. “You’ve killed a man? And you tell me about it just like that?”
“And how else do you expect me to tell you?”
She said nothing. She seemed to be looking for something on the ground. I went on. “Let’s get this thing straight. I didn’t mean to kill him.”
Suddenly she found what she wanted: picking a long blade of grass, she put in into her mouth and began chewing on it, thoughtfully. Then, hurriedly, but without hiding anything, I told her about the accident, bringing out the part about my cowardice.
I got pretty wrought up in spite of myself, but already I was beginning to feel relieved. I concluded:
“Now tell me what you think about all this.”
She kept munching on her blade of grass and didn’t say a word.
I insisted. “I’ll bet that now you can’t stand the sight of me.”
I saw her shrug her shoulders, lightly. “And why shouldn’t I be able to stand the sight of you?”
“Well, I don’t know. After all, it was my fault that poor guy got killed.”
“And it bothers you?”
“Yes. Terribly.” Suddenly, my throat closed tight as if over a hard knot of tears. “I feel as if I can’t go on living. No man can go on living if he thinks he’s a coward.”
“Was it in the papers?”
“Yes. They gave it four lines. Just to say he had been killed and that nobody knew who had hit him.”
Suddenly she asked, “What time is it?”
Another silence. “Listen, Iris, what does a man have to do to find out what’s going on in that mind of yours ?”
She shifted the blade of grass from one corner of her mouth to the other and said frankly, “Well, if you must know, there’s nothing on my mind. I feel good and I’m not thinking about anything.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. I protested. “It can t be! You must have been thinking something about something. I’m sure of it.”
I saw her smile, faintly. “Well, as a matter of fact, I was thinking about something. but if I I tell you, you’ll never believe it.”
Hopefully, I asked, “Was it about me?”
“Good heavens, no! It had absolutely nothing to do with you!”
“What was it, then?”
She said slowly, “It was just one of those things that only women think about. I was looking at my shoes and seeing that they have holes in them. I was thinking that there is a big clearance sale on in Via Cola di Rienzo and that I’ve got to go there tomorrow and buy myself a pair of new shoes. There . . . are you satisfied?”
This time I shut up like a clam, my face dark and brooding. She noticed it and exclaimed: “Oh, dear! You’re not mad, are you?”
I couldn’t help blurting out: “Sure, I’m mad. Damn mad. Here I tell you the secret of my life, and it makes so little impression on you I wonder why I didn’t keep it to myself!”
This bothered her a bit. “No,” she said, “I’m glad you told me about it. It really did make an impression on me.”
“Well, what kind of an impression?”
She thought it over and then said, scrupulously, “Well, I’m sorry that such a thing had to happen to you. It must have been awful!”
“Is that all you’ve got to say?”
“I also think,” she added, fingering the pimple on her chin, “ that it’s only right it should bother you.”
“Well, you said so yourself. You ought to have stopped to help him but you didn’t.”
“Then you think I am a coward?”
“A coward? Well, yes . . . and then no. After all, a thing like that could happen to anybody.”
“ But you just said that I ought to have stopped!”
“You should have; but you didn’t . . .”
At this point I saw her glance down at something in the daisies. “Oh, look! How pretty!”
It was an insect, a green and gold beetle, resting on the white petals of a daisy. Suddenly I felt as if I were emptied out — almost as if that secret over which I had agonized so long had vanished in the spring air, carried away, lightly, like the white butterflies that were flitting around in pairs in the sunlight.
Yet with one dogged last hope, I asked: “But tell me, Iris, in your opinion, was I right or wrong not to stop?”
” You were right and you were wrong. Of course, you ought to have stopped. After all, you had run into him. But, on the other hand, what good would it have done if you had ? He was dead by that time anyway and you would probably have got into a terrible mess. You were both right and wrong.”
After these words, a thought flashed through my
mind. “This is the end of Iris. I’ll never take her out again. I thought she was a bright, understanding girl. Instead, she is really nothing but a halfwit. Enough is enough.” I jumped to my feet.
“Come on, let’s go,” I said. “Otherwise, we’ll be late for the movies.”
Once inside the theater, in the dark, she slipped her hand into mine, forcing her fingers through
mine. I didn’t budge. The film was a love story, a real tear-jerker. When the lights went on at the end I saw that her big gray eyes were filled with tears and that her cheeks were wet. “I just can’t help it,” she said, patting her face dry with a handkerchief. “Pictures like this always make me want to cry.”
Afterwards we went into a bar and ordered coffee. She pressed so close to me that our bodies touched, Just as the espresso machine let off a loud stream of steam, she said softly, “You know that I really like you, don’t you?” staring at me with those great big beautiful eyes of hers.
I felt like answering: “Fine. You really like me, but you’ll let me carry the whole weight of my secret alone!” Instead, I said nothing.
Now I understood that from her, as from everybody else, I could ask only for affection, nothing more than that.
I answered with a sigh, “I like you a lot, too.”
But already she had stopped listening to me. She was peering at herself in the mirror behind the bar, absorbed and concerned as she fingered the little red lump on her chin.
Translated by Hélène Cantarella