Hard Times

The time: shortly after the end of World War II. Peace, as the saying goes, had just exploded in Italy. The country was overabundant in rubble and not much more. People dedicated all of their spare time (which, for many, was all the time they had) to the pursuit of food. The hunting grounds varied from open-air black markets to clandestine cellars, someone else’s victory garden, and country farms.

Not too far from Rome, nestled in the foothills of the Apennine mountains, are a number of small villages and farms. It is a rough, tough region, hard to travel, and, since Roman times, renowned for its poultry and pigs.

My memory takes me back to a village there, Nerola, and to a farm a quarter of a mile beyond. The village itself boasts nothing exceptional: a church, a square, a few old stone houses clustered at the very top of a rocky hill. The farm, also, has nothing special: at the bottom of the winding, steep road leading to the village, a stone farmhouse, a tin-roofed barn, and a fencedin muddy pen for a few pigs. It was owned then, as newspapers described her, by a fiftyish, dried-out, sallowfaced widow. She wasn’t legally a widow: her soldier husband had been sent to wage war in Russia and was never heard of again. She wore only mourning black. In those hard, dangerous times she had asked her sister-in-law, Carolina, who had also lost her menfolk, to live with her. Perhaps one day the men would return, but for now they were officially missing.

The ladies were not unique; there were many in the same situation. Entire families had been “dispersed.” Even when the war was over, it was not unusual for persons to leave home in the morning—“Ciao, I will see you at lunch!”—and never be heard of again. Carolina was younger and poorer than the widow, hence in a subservient position to her. She was also stronger and&– as city papers put it with some snobbery—peasantly attractive. Like everybody else in the area, they eked out a living by making and selling sausages and pork products, although of inferior quality. And soap being a rare and valuable item, the ladies collected leftover animal fat and bones, boiled them in a vat of lye and other ingredients, and with some industry produced rough, cheap soap.

One day, innocently enough, a local black marketeer came to visit as usual. It was his business, like that of many others like him, to make the rounds of the farms and buy products to sell, at great profit, in Rome. But that day he made a special offer: he proposed to buy all of the widow’s products, including the soap, for a ridiculous price. He assured her that his deal would protect her pigs’ health. There was a bad contagion abroad: the pigs of a nearby, uncooperative farmer had developed a death wish and had committed suicide “en masse.” To make things worse, the pigs had taken poison, which meant not only that they were dead but that their carcasses were useless to their owner.

The widow considered the offer and looked at Carolina, who then bumped the visitor on the head with a kitchen implement. Carolina was passionate in her impulses and strong. The visitor left this world without pain. The ladies dug a hole in the pigsty and put the body there.

A tense week went by. Since nobody inquired about the missing man, the ladies began to relax and went back to their usual affairs, making and selling soap and sausages.

The creaky buses that connected Nerola with Rome could not possibly make it up the steep hill to the village without stopping near the widow’s farm. The ladies sold mostly to people who, having trudged up to the village and having found nothing—or nothing affordable—there, would stop at the widow’s in desperation on their way back. Her soap and sausages were not the best but were cheap and better than nothing at all. Sometimes, people would go to the widow’s and for a few lire she or Carolina provided scrambled eggs, or a sausage cooked over the embers, or a glass of the harsh, strong local wine. And a chat.

One rainy day, a rubicund, jolly man came in. He ate sausages and eggs and fresh-baked bread and drank a glass of wine. And then another, and, the bus not in sight, another again. The conversation became lively and funny. The jolly man, in the country manner, told bawdy jokes and then made eyes at the peasantly attractive Carolina. Then he drank a toast to her health, then another to her strong bosom, and another again to her strong thighs. Then he showed her a bankroll and boldly asked Carolina to have a roll in the hay.

The widow, in a fit of resentment and perhaps of jealousy, hit the jolly man on the head with a skillet. She wasn’t as strong as Carolina, but strong enough.

Since it was raining harder than ever they decided to park the body in the soap vat. And since where he was going he would not need an overcoat or money, they kept both. In a few days all that was left of the jolly man was a gold tooth and a few bars of soap.

My memory now skips a few months, four perhaps, but it tells me that during that time more than twenty persons went to the widow’s farm and never came away. Some of the missing persons’ relatives called on the police, who were able to track a few of the vanished as far as Nerola, but all traces disappeared at the bus stop. When and if the victims ever got on or off a bus was too much for the overworked police to find out.

The buses of those hard times were not buses at all, but any self-propelled, privately owned contraptions that could move people or animals or both. Some were ancient trucks, some fourpassenger cars whose bodies had been ingeniously transformed into trucks, others were three-wheeled motorcycles made into trucks, with a penchant, under an unbalanced or restless load, for tipping over. All of them carried twice as many passengers as they should have. They had whimsical schedules, itineraries set by changing road conditions, and they broke down more frequently than not, leaving passengers stranded in the middle of nowhere. From there everybody was on his own: once you got on a “bus” your tracks were lost to the world.

The police went to the widow’s farm to see if, by chance, she could recognize any of the missing persons. The widow and Carolina examined the photos and declared that perhaps yes, but then not for sure, and then again there could be a resemblance . . . they had seen this man . . . no, it was this one . . . the photos were so poor . . . yes, he had stopped for a glass of water ... or was it a snack? . . . just before boarding the bus. The ladies tried their best, but they were of no help to the police.

The local police came back sometime later. A nasty rumor was spreading around that something odd was going on at the widow’s. She seemed to be producing—the rumor went—more soap and sausages than ever and, moreover, she had been knowm, of late, to be selling men’s clothes. To the investigating policeman (half of the Nerola police force) the women explained that the better production was the fruit of their diligent labors and, as for the clothing, the poor women had decided that there was no sense in letting the moths take their men’s old clothes. Better to give them away to someone who could use them now, in these hard times, in exchange for a few needed lire.

The policeman found the activity sensible, the explanation reasonable: only terrible rumors spread by envious, lazy neighbors. He accepted the peasantly attractive Carolina’s small parcel of sausages and her graceful invitation to come back any time he wished. She was able to inform him that the religious, good old widow never missed benediction at the church. Every night of the week, rain or shine, between six and seven . . .

The last missing person at Nerola was a fat, boorish city slicker. He worked at the Office of Registry in Rome’s City Hall, mainly shuffling birth, wedding, and death certificates. And those of “dispersi,” civilians or soldiers missing in action. He had an attractive, ambitious wife and a deluxe mistress. He could neither stand the wife nor keep the mistress. He devised a ploy that could, at once, keep him away from home for days on end and afford him money for the mistress. He borrowed days from his allotted vacation and toured Rome’s neighboring villages. He carried an attaché case containing important-looking documents, a list of relatives of “dispersi,” and, since he was given to heavy perspiration, a flacon of cheap cologne.

He went from address to address and told the missing persons’ relatives that he was in possession of documents that could shed light on the whereabouts of the loved ones. More definitive information could be obtained, but it required further research, the greasing of the palms of people in high places, etc.

. . . Lies, but with them he was able to extract from worried, loving, simple people a goodly amount of lire. To tell the truth, many were plying his awful trade: in those hard times they went by the name of hyenas or jackals.

Destiny brought him to Nerola, and finally to the widow. She disliked him on sight, and as soon as he opened his attaché case full of documents and spoke of sure information he had on certain missing people, his fate was determined.

He was disposed of with professional alacrity. With a touch of improved technology, the ladies produced a few bars of cologne-scented toilet soap.

After a few days, the attractive, ambitious wife of the fat, boorish city slicker went to the police. She hoped they would find him with his mistress and, adultery being a very serious crime for a man, put him in jail. Then she would be free to go and live with her lean, angry, ambitious lover, a struggling young reporter.

The police followed her husband’s tracks to Nerola, discovered his heinous preying on the sorrows of others, but lost all trace of him at the bus stop. They investigated at the widow’s and she and Carolina recognized his photo immediately. This was the man they had sensed had something terribly evil in him, to whom they had refused to sell anything, not even an egg, and who had left in a huff for the bus stop. The ladies, but they couldn’t swear to it, thought he got a lift on a passing truck with a Naples license plate. Naples was the capital of forged license plates (among other things), and the information led the police nowhere. And that is what they reported to the attractive wife of the city slicker.

Following an inexplicable impulse, she convinced her young lover to take her on his scooter to Nerola the next weekend. A morbid desire, perhaps, to see the place where her horrible husband had finally disappeared. They found nothing of interest in Nerola. On the way back to Rome, they stopped at the widow’s and bought a length of sausages and a bar of toilet soap.

Once at home, the attractive wife took a long, warm bath to recover from the exhausting ride. She used the toilet soap and its scent reminded her, almost palpably, of her husband. She felt uncomfortable and itchy: she never could stand that cheap scent.

Later she made herself a dinner of broccoli and sausages. Halfway through her dinner she got stomach cramps, the same nervous reaction she developed during the rare times she had dinner with her husband. At first she thought that her imagination was playing tricks on her; then she put two and two together and vomited. Then she called her lean, ambitious lover and told him. He came right over to console her and to wrap in a bag the leftover sausages and the wet toilet soap.

The next day he had them analyzed, went to the police, and with them went to Nerola.

It was his first big scoop as an investigative reporter, but it cost him his love of sausages for life.

That same love got the Black Widow, Soapmaker, and Monster of Nerola life in a prison for the criminally insane. Carolina, considered a slave to the evil will of the widow, and for her helpful collaboration with the local police, got a very—my memory tells me—mild sentence.

The moral to the story: In the eyes of justice it helps to have a peasantly attractive appearance; and that not much has changed in three decades, but in tough, harsh times, nothing goes wasted.