Our Friend Pasquale

Habit creeps into being unnoticed at first, like plantain in a vast carpet of slender green blades. Where it came from you are not quite sure, but there it is, established, hard to uproot. So it was with my stops in Spinazzola. In Southern Italy, even in the fifties of this century, the wise traveler did not expect to pick up a meal in a wayside trattoria. A trip was carefully planned to end at dusk in a town of sufficient size to offer a pseudo-decent hotel and dinner; the twelve hours between breakfast and steaming spaghetti were a dreary procession of cups of acid coffee, smeary glasses of whatever bottled drink was available, and packaged cookies. The first time I went to Spinazzola instead of taking the cutoff around town, I must have been in search of one of those delicacies. After the furnace of the Puglian plain, I was always thirsty.

The street was a corridor bisected at regular intervals by other corridors lined with two-story boxes of spotted yellow plaster. At each intersection doors and skimpy iron balcony railings in close-order ranks paraded off to the four points of the compass. A gusty wind sent trickles from public water taps cavorting in midair and sucked up gritty yellow dust just to spew it back down the streets in pirouetting corkscrews. There was no one in sight. Blue and white highway signs creaked and then wavered ambiguously, undecided about the exact direction to Foggia or Bari. The street opened out onto an enormous dusty piazza where a well-kept baroque building proclaimed itself to be the Palace of Government. Solid yellow buildings of lesser grandeur were neatly arranged around the other three sides of the square and along their facades ran a series of knee-high stone ledges which were crowded with the curled bodies of sleeping men. No other living thing was in sight, but there were four caffès, their doors veiled by tinkling aluminum chains that were supposed to keep out flies.

I am selective about caffes. In the sultry gloom of the first two I distinguished the eternal card games, the swarms of flies, and the old type of coffee machines with so many knobs, coils, spouts, and spiggots that they looked like chromium locomotives without wheels. The card games and the flies would be a basic part of the decor anywhere, but I wanted to avoid the old machines and their turgid brown liquids, a noxious distillation of coffee dregs and corroding metal. The third bar, along with the card game and flies, had a new machine which was tended by a young red-faced peasant woman with gleaming black hair and gold earrings. Her presence would ease my arrival; we could cling to each other for respectability, as it were, in this private domain of the male. While she made my coffee, she asked where I was going, if I had ever been there before, and if I traveled much. In ten minutes she knew the story of my life, and as though to offer an exchange, she leaned over the bar and said in a quiet voice that was not quite a whisper,

“Would you like to use the—“and she jerked her head toward the front door. “Not the one here. Next door—at the doctor’s house. My sister works there, and he’s out now. It’s all right, if you want to—” I nodded, it was worth trying. I could always make abject apologies to the doctor should we meet. She wiped her hands on her stained blue coverall, took my arm and led me out onto the sidewalk, into the next doorway, and pointed to a door split in two. “Just pull,” she said.

I did. Half the door snapped open, and then, as soon as I had sidled through, snapped shut again, I was in an up-ended coffin, an immaculately whitewashed coffin equipped with a miniature toilet bowl and a triangular corner basin. Even the floor glistened from recent scrubbing and what was more unexpected in the Southern Italy of the fifties, there was no gagging miasma. Neat squares of newspaper dangling from a wire spike were allpurpose absorbents.

“Which is your car?” my hostess asked when I joined her on the sidewalk. I pointed to it. “Bella! Veramente bella!” She nodded like an expert whose opinion has just been confirmed. “It must be nice to travel. Went to Foggia once. The bus made me sick, but I wouldn’t be sick in a car like that.”

The hint was too wistful; I changed the subject, asking why so many men were asleep on the ledges in the piazza. She turned to look at them and shrugged. “Nowhere else to go. Ashamed to go home. They didn’t get hired at the market this morning.”

“What market?”

“You know, the labor market where the padroni pick their crews for the day. These are the leftovers. They stay there until dusk and then go home. They’ll try again tomorrow.” It was an everyday fact of life, one of no interest to her, which the traditional laws of courtesy to strangers obliged her to explain. She paused, apparently weighing her words against her duty on some imaginary scale; it did not balance yet. “My brother-in-law, Pasquale Giampaolo, is over there. Got a head like stone, he has.” She sighed, “When will you be back? Stop again—it’s nice to talk to people who travel. I’m always here. Just ask for Lucetta ‘u barista. Everyone knows me.”

I tried not to smile at the name—Lucetta the barmaid. Her unfeminine profession had given her a nickname. I offered my hand. Lucetta took it and after a moment’s hesitation leaned over and kissed me on both cheeks. “Buon viaggio!”

And so a habit began. I always stopped at Spinazzola for coffee, a chat, and a brief visit to the immaculate little lavatory. Now, suddenly, in every town in Puglia I saw men sleeping in piazzas, some on the ground in the shade, some propped up against a church facade, sleeping their days away. I watched them get up and stretch lazily like dogs, shaking their heads, limbering their legs and then with the dog’s same meticulous concern rearranging themselves for another nap. They had always been there; my mind simply had not interpreted what my eyes saw. Every morning at dawn they waited in the piazza for the padroni and their overseers to come, to walk by looking them over. Sometimes the men heard themselves discussed as though they were dead fish on a counter. No, he’s too fat to work. One next to him looks stringy enough. Skip the third one down; he fights about quitting time. When the padrone had finished his inspection, he would walk up to a man who would serve as bait and ask, “What’s your price for a day’s work?” The man would mumble a figure. The friend next to him would say, “I’ll do it for 100 lire less,” and the bargaining would start. Sometimes it went on until the price of a day’s work was cut in half; then the landowner took his pick of the men and herded them off to the fields. Those left behind knew when there was no more hope. They could tick the owners off on their fingers: A took a squad for ten days; B took eight this morning; C, four for three days; D, twenty for today—and so on until there were no more. The slack-shouldered rejects turned up their jacket collars and slouched off to the nearest wall for a nap. As the sun rose they would turn away from the light until their faces ground into the walls, but they did not go home.

The town men—clerks, lawyers, doctors, and teachers—who ambled through their morning schedules of office-bar-barber-office-bar, ignored the lumps that littered the public square as they would have ignored slumbering drunks. When they stood talking, they turned their backs on them. Unsightly! “A disgrace to our fair cittadella” as they observed in the local paper at least once each summer, deploring man’s lack of dignity, but not the system that forced him to sell his flesh for a starvation wage and that only if he were one of the lucky ones.

After a number of stops in Spinazzola, though I never saw their faces, I imagined I could tell which men were missing from the benches. The gray striped pants patched in the seat were gone; the blue and red checked shirt; the straw hat. On my next trip those men and more would be back, rolled up like hibernating marmots, dreaming their bitter dreams of a world they hoped would disappear before they were forced to join it once more and give battle. I always wondered if their wives came to peek at the piazza, just to see if their husbands were gone and so have an idea of whether to plan on supper or another evening of bread and olive oil.

For all my fancies I did slowly learn more about Spinazzola. The accommodating doctor of the lavatory was the brother of the bar owner, Don Cosimo, who sat at a corner table wreathed in his own cigarette smoke, playing cards with his friends. He was a plump, balding little man in a rumpled white shirt, and though he always looked half asleep, he missed nothing that happened within the confines of that dark cavern. He heard every conversation, eyed every new arrival, gauging their claim to a chair or a place in one of the marathon games. He distinguished me with the extra courtesy of a half-sitting, half-standing bow that threatened to upset his card table, and he always signaled Lucetta to take me next door to his brother’s lavatory.

Lucetta longed to hear the details of my trips. Had I ever been to Milan? To Germany? No. She was disappointed. Her brother was going to Germany to look for work. I asked about the crops. She shrugged and flipped her hand palm up, then palm down. So-so. Her brother-in-law, what was his name? Pasquale Giampaolo. She nodded toward the piazza. “He’s out there, asleep like always. Keeps talking about a union, sort of a cooperative, I guess. In the meantime he sleeps there every day.” She tightened her lips and stuck her chin up and out in the silent gesture of disdain. I asked about her husband, if he had work. “Domenico? He always has work with the same padrone. Works hard and minds his own business—that’s the way to get along here. And that’s what that stone-head Pasquale doesn’t understand.”

These men I never knew became, somehow, friends that I asked about each time I stopped for coffee. Lucetta’s husband had a fever. “Not typhoid,” she said. Pasquale Giampaolo? “He’s still there and still talking about His cooperative. Wants them all to agree on what a day’s wage is and stick to it. He says the padroni would have to meet the price if the men stuck to it, but it won’t work, you know. We keep telling him, ‘Why should they start trusting each other now? Why should they trust you either? Forget it!’ But it doesn’t do any good. He’s mad at my husband. They had words the other night. Domenico says why should he get in a fight, with his padrone—he has work, the price isn’t right, but that’s the way it is. Now Pasquale—”

“That’s enough, Lucetta,” Don Cosimo called from his corner. “Don’t bother her with that brother-in-law of yours. Sooner or later he’s going to cause himself a lot of trouble. Take my word for it!” There was something sinister in the intensity of Don Cosimo’s voice, almost as though he too had a grudge to settle with Pasquale.

“He’s right. Why should I bother you? Tell me when you’re ready to go next door.” And she turned back to her rinse tub of cups and saucers.

That visit ended as all the others had with the pantomime of a kiss on each cheek and the wishful Have a good trip, which I never answered with the invitation she would have liked.

The last time I stopped at Spinazzola was one morning during the glorious but short-lived period after the sirocco of summer and before the fall torrents. The sidewalk in front of the caffè was covered with chairs and tables. Men, obviously prosperous ones in gray suits and straw hats, lounged and dozed. One or two of the younger ones read newspapers. Inside it was Don Cosimo, looking pale and harassed, who presided over the levers of the coffee machine. The counter was dotted with empty cups and puddles of water, and the curved steam spout hissed independently, but the confusion did not rob Don Cosimo of his normal gallantry. He was effusive. I must rest. He would see to a table outside. No, no, they’re just sitting. They can move. You must have a bit of air after your trip—even ten minutes will make the difference. Then when you’re ready—he slued his eyes meaningfully toward his brother’s house. To my question about Lucetta he muttered “Off for a couple of days. Death in the family.” Then he bustled back inside.

The air sparkled. The wreaths and festoons on the Palazzo del Governo facing me might have been the artistry of a master confectioner, and now that the haze of twirling dust particles had disappeared, the buildings cast shadows and looked lived-in with their shutters open, their laundry hanging on wires below the windows. Women scuttered back and forth with shopping bags, and men loitered to talk. They ignored the one note of summer dejection—the laborers who still slept on the ledges of the buildings that surrounded the piazza. Some had thrown their jackets over their faces as though trying to avoid recognition. They must realize no one paid any attention to them, that no one cared. Or did they? My thoughts were interrupted by the appearance of a knot of men shuffling, almost staggering under the weight of a rough varnished coffin. Behind them came several dozen women all in black, with their hair streaming down their backs. They mimed despair, tearing their hair, clawing their checks: the men shuffled on. A funeral. But no bells rang, no shopkeeper lowered his shutter. Only the silence of the men at the caffè acknowledged death. They stood up; a few took off their hats. Slowly the little procession passed on its way to the Corso, and I saw Lucetta dressed like the other women, in black, her hair loose. Unlike the others she was not weeping. Instead her halfshut eves darted restlessly about the piazza looking for something, anticipating some danger, I thought. A carabiniere in uniform brought up the rear.

“It’s Pasquale Giampaolo, Signora,” said Don Cosimo at my shoulder. He had pulled off his apron and came to watch. “They found him yesterday. Hung himself in his stall.” He sensed my question. “Why? It had to end. He hadn’t worked four days in four months. Can’t feed five children that way. No, in the end he did the only thing he could—he hung himself.”

“Would Lucetta like it if I walked a way with them. I didn’t know him, but out of respect—”

“She’d appreciate that, but I wouldn’t if I were you. See the carabiniere? They’re expecting trouble. No priest. You see, he was a Communist.” Don Cosimo’s voice was low, but entirely audible to the men standing nearby, two of whom turned to glance our way. They had been having coffee together, lounging in their chairs, talking occasionally. I had noticed them, even been amused by their shoddy cavalier twinness. They wore the clerks uniform of the period—slate-blue cotton suits with their jackets draped around their shoulders, open-necked white shirts grimy about the collar, and pointed orange shoes that cracked like cardboard. One’s face was blurred by greasy stubble; the other had rheumy brown eyes and a long talonlike little fingernail that he held high in the air as he drank his coffee. It was proof to the world that he did no manual work. I glanced at Don Cosimo. He was unperturbed and went on without lowering his voice.

“They’ll bury him outside the cemetery. That’s where the Communists go—” He was interrupted by a soft, obsequious murmur at his elbow.

“If you’ll allow me a word, Don Cosimo—entirely respectful, you understand—Pasquale never did join the Party. He wasn’t a Communist.” Stubble had eased over to us, and as he spoke, was inspecting me rather too openly.

“Must be true, if you say so,” muttered Don Cosimo, and then turning to me, added in a tone he might have used to explain the local street sweeper. “He’s head of the Communist section here in town.”

Stubble smiled and bowed to me. Nothing hurried him; he would not be dismissed. He looked at the procession for a moment and then back at us. “No, Pasquale never would join us. Said he didn’t want to be a ‘Communist heathen.’ Guess he thought the padroni were more Christian, but he knows different now, eh Don Cosimo?” He paused, but Don Cosimo’s gaze was fixed on some newfound detail of the Palazzo del Governo. “Not even a priest to bury him. Poor Pasquale! As you said, they won’t bury Communists in the cemetery, or suicides either.”

“That’ll do,” broke in Don Cosimo. His high bald forehead flushed a blotchy pink. “That’ll do. No reason to annoy her with your chatter. Now go along. Go back to your table.” He wheeled around with his arm outstretched as though to escort Stubble and almost ran into Fingernail.

“Annoying her?” he said. “We’re not annoying her. You started talking about Pasquale, and she ought to know the truth, that’s all.”

“From you, I suppose. Not even your own people believe you.”

“We didn’t kill Pasquale. We would have protected him,” interrupted Fingernail belligerently. “You padroni killed him.”

“Killed him! Killed him!” Don Cosimo was no longer supercilious. Because I was there he could not ignore barbs he would normally have dismissed with a shrug. “You talk about truth. The truth is those men out there killed Pasquale Giampaolo. Each one of them.” Slowly his hand swept around the piazza. “Did you ever see them edge away from him when the hiring started, like he had the evil eye on him? They were too scared to stick with him. Anything as long as they could get hired, even at half price. They’re the ones who killed him, not the padroni. Just too damned scared to stick together, that’s how they killed—”

“Now let’s don’t argue, Don Cosimo,” Stubble put in mildly. “Pasquale killed himself, and that means he can’t get into your heaven—even dead. Not that he expected anything but hell. That’s what his life was.” For the first time he sounded sad, perhaps imagining himself in Pasquale’s place. “We’re having a little memorial meeting this evening just to remind them that the padroni didn’t help Pasquale, but the Party would have. It’s their only hope, and they know it. You’ll see.” He nodded toward the men who still slept undisturbed on the ledges. “They’ll come. Got nothing else to do. One by one we’ll get them. Then someday—”

I stood there in the sparkling light, looking at the government palace with its fancy plaster icing and at those ragged men, the rejects of the day who lay curled, head to foot, in one continuous human wreath around three sides of the piazza. And I imagined them sitting that evening, as I had seen men sit in so many other towns, outside Party headquarters, hunched over on stools, their elbows on their ragged knees, their minds apparently glued to their boot tips. Passive as boulders in a landslide, they would listen to Stubble or Fingernail rant about “Our friend, Pasquale Giampaolo—” And when “Our friend, Pasquale Giampaolo” had been invoked for the last time and there was silence, then, without a look at their neighbors, they would slowly get up and slouch off down the street. Too bad about Pasquale Giampaolo, but he’s dead. Tomorrow is another day, and they are the living.

Ann Cornelisen is the author of Torregreca: Life, Death Miracles, which was published last spring by Atlantic-Little, Brown. This new story comes out of her experiences in another fictional town south of Naples.