“The problem with having a car is that one gets into accidents. However trifling, these may have unexpected consequences.
“One bright winter day my bumper grazed a pedestrian, who promptly fell to the ground. I got out to make sure he was all right, which he said he was, but all the same I offered to drive him to the nearest hospital. Patting himself demonstratively on his sides and chest, he assured me that he was not in need of medical attention. Some days later a letter in the morning post informed me that the harm I had caused him was grievous, that he now walked with a cane, and that according to his doctor the condition was irremediable or at least beyond his financial means to cure. A meeting at my earliest convenience, wrote my victim, was consequently necessary to address the issue of material compensation.
“My lawyer inspected the letter and said that, before making any reply, he would look into the author’s background. In a few days he telephoned to suggest that I come with him on the following afternoon, so he can get me together, as he put it, with the right person. This I did.
“The right person, who inhabited a modest apartment on the ground floor of a building in the old town centre, was then nearing seventy. When speaking of Don F—, the locals never called him fat, preferring the term immense, and straight away I saw the point of this circumlocution. He was extraordinary in every way, in height, in girth, in weight, and in the eccentricity of his behavior that evoked the vanishing life of the city. He did not own a car, preferring to be driven about town the traditional way, in a horse and buggy; he was rarely without his trademark, a monumental white handkerchief as big as a pillowcase, which he used to wipe a profusely perspiring forehead; and he had no armchairs in the house, only straight-backed hard chairs, probably because, for him as for his equally quaint peers, rising from an armchair was a proposition injurious to one’s dignity.
“Towering on one of these straight-backed chairs, serene and vast as a coral reef, Don F— was silent when I entered his sitting room. I had been waiting in a small anteroom while my lawyer, who instructed me to come in and greet him yet say nothing further of my own accord, was speaking with him behind closed doors.
“‘Good afternoon, Don F— ,’ I began. I aimed at sounding respectful rather than obsequious, and on the whole I thought it came out all right.
“He scrutinized me for a few moments, and then his immense torso gyrated in the direction of my lawyer. He spoke in a strait dialect, yet with a cadence I scarcely heard before or since, one to which the lame dubbing of Sicilian parlance aspires in Hollywood gangster films released in Italy. ‘He seems a good lad,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you put it about that he and his family should be left in peace?” This was, I guessed, the authorization to speak in his name with which my lawyer had been hoping to forearm himself. We had done well.
“The next step was for me to travel with my lawyer to the problematic correspondent’s home town, a chaos of concrete, rust, and gaping windowpanes characteristic of recent forays into social engineering. We entered a bar, where the proprietor, who at once recognized my companion, had spent many years in America and consequently spoke a macaronic mixture of English, Italian and dialect. His greeting was along these lines: ‘Buonasera, Avvoca’, nice to see you come in here. I find you bello rusciano!’ Then he added: ‘He’s a coming, coming, he’s ‘biniennu.’
“A few minutes later my correspondent walked in the door, and at once I noted that, whatever the illness, the remedy had had an effect, because he walked unassisted and without so much as a shadow of the cane for support. In fact, he never once mentioned the illness. What he said instead was that there had hardly been any need on our part to invoke Heaven when the matter in question was so plainly of the Earth.
“So it all ended well, with the exception of the coffee that the victor was bound by convention to accept from the vanquished. Evidently the barman had quite lost the magic touch while in America.”
Andrei Navrozov, born in Moscow, lives in Palermo and is European editor for Chronicles. The former publisher of the Yale Lit, he is a widely published author and translator. His Italian Carousel: Scenes of Internal Exile was published by Peter Owen Publishers.