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Mario the butcher

You’ve read this once. It’s not a great story and I’ve written it long before we met. Yet, it’s part of our shared memory.

The night was a vortex of lights of every intensity, and of shadows thick andimpenetrable. Along the streets, snakes made of asphalt, cars moved slowly, speeding forward, describing curves, projecting cones of solid light that would rend the night and the dark that seemed to be willing to swallow them. It was the October 12th, 1982.

The girl ran breathlessly in the butchery; she was more beautiful than not, wore a violet raincoat, and a pair of horn glasses bought in the only shop in town, held by Ms. Turolla, a childless, sweet widow. The cuts of meat had been almost all placed back in the fridge room on the back of the shop, kept cold by a 1960 Gersteiner motor, of those that inspire trust in the average Italian as every machine built by Germans, while, in fact, it was Swiss. The counter occupied almost the whole width of the shop, leaving a small passage on the far right, to allow the butcher to get in and out. The cashier was placed on top of the glass, with a scale that showed the customers the weight of the meat that they were buying. The digits were shown with red LEDs on a triple screen, one for the weight itself, one for the cost of a kilogram, and the third with a custom message, that the owner had decided to be a generic greeting, valid throughout the day. When Christmas or Easter, but no other festivity, came along, the man asked the boy working for Mr. Brunelli, the barber whose shop was just across the street, to come and set up the season greetings.

It had been an intensely desperate Friday of a rainy autumn in a little suburb of the province of Rome. The man behind the counter must have been in his early forties; he wore his white apron, washed many times, with the remains of the stains that had accumulated over the seven years since he had started helping his parents run the shop. He protested when the girl had entered the shop, declaring that he was about to close it for the day. The girl insisted, looking desperate: It’s the only butcher that I’ve found open, please, ── she said ── I’m coming from a long shift at the hospital, I’ve got people coming over for dinner. He stretched, starting a long sigh; then, feeling rude, interrupted it, and went back behind the counter, smiling, asking how he could be of help.

Leaving the shop, she looked like a radiant young woman; tired, sure, but happy. Mario tried to imagine the people she hung out with, and who were lucky enough to spend the evening with such a lovely host, chilling out, or singing after dinner, the glasses of wine clinking against each other. He let down the shutter of the shop and ended the sigh that he had started before.

He walked toward Piazza Italia, turning right and taking the large road that connected to the stairs of the church of San Giuseppe. The small Piazza had been the place where the people of that town had started the rebellion against the Nazi occupation, in 1943. Some of the citizens were among the first to form a core group of the Resistenza, tired as they were of the insolence of the Germans.

On one of its side, the statue of San Giuseppe was standing in a niche, illuminated by one spotlight, slightly, making him visible in the general obscurity. Mario ran into Don Crescenzo, who was heading somewhere in a rush. He managed to wish him good evening; the priest, almost as if awaken suddenly from a bad dream, looked at the butcher, and replied to the greeting. He had the time to ask news about the health of Marios’s mother; he was heading to a deathbed, visibly shaken.

Viviano Merini was a pharmacist and a dear friend of the man since their childhood. Don Crescenzo had come to the town from outside, somewhere in the South, 50 years before. His family and Viviano’s had arrived almost at the same time, Viviano’s parents coming instead from Rome, where Raffaele Merini, Viviano’s father, had been a dentist, activity that he continued in the smaller context of the province; with much joy, it must be said, of his lovely wife, Greta, a novelist, who needed the peace of the outskirts to recover from a weak schizophrenia, almost surely caused by the stress of the city, and later by the birth of Viviano. Don Crescenzo wore a raincoat on top of his tunic; on his nose, he had forgotten his glasses, which he usually only used for reading. The big nose trembled feebly under the water and in the fresh air. He’d been one of the men of the Resistenza himself, and Viviano had been one of theirs, too.

The men parted ways. It was still raining lightly, but Mario kept the umbrella closed because the water on his face would clear his mind; besides, he liked to look at the passers-by, the handsome people walking toward their nice occupations. There were two girls with their musical instruments closed in the cases, talking thickly to each ot her, so that the music of their voices arrived at Mario’s ears like in a faraway, forgotten dream. He recognized Adelina, one of the two, to which he had imparted math lessons some time ago.

She was fourteen; she made her family proud. At the end the of road that from San Giuseppe led to Piazza Resina, on the side of the church of Saint Anna, there would open a court, with some car parked in the open, bearing quietly the insolent rain beating against the aristocratic chassis. A portal, covered by a small roof, offered shelter to a young homeless boy. The boy looked at Mario and seemed uncertain about what to do. He must have been less than thirty years old, quite short, with blond dark hair. He was often seen in Piazza Resina, trying to sell small poems to the customers of the two cafes standing on the two sides of the square, the Red Silk on one side, and Bar Ettore on the other.

Someone said that he was the secret lover of Rita, the wife of the owner of the Red Silk, whom some other voices said was beaten up by her husband from time to time, when he had drunk or when the business was not going well. Year in year out, the bar had resisted more than 30 years, even though Sergio and Rita were not the first owners. They had bought it from mister Ernesto Culavedra, who really came from Argentina, together with his wife Rosa and their daughter Irina; and the Culavedras had first come because their ancestor, whose name was Ernesto, too, had left the town in 1899 and went looking for fortune in South America; and so the descendants had thought to visit their ancestor’s home, stayed almost 20 years, and then sold the bar and disappeared, and no one heard anything anymore about them.

Mario looked at the boy, with a mix of fear and sadness in his eyes, then produced a key from a pocket, put it in a keyhole until it heard it click in the silent night. He pushed the door, went in, and closed it behind.

The stairs went up to the third floor, where he had a small flat. His father had bought it in 1970 with the money he had put away with the butchery, and by selling the small restaurant that he had kept until the ‘69. The restaurant’s specialty was, of course, the meat, prepared in all possible ways, with a huge barbecue at a fixed price on Sundays, where people went after the Holy Mass; and it wasn’t rare to see Father Jacopo himself, sometimes; nowhere close to Easter, needless to say. When Mario was a kid, he helped his parents after school; that is until he started college; and then again, when he dropped off to take care of the shop when his father had died.

Mario’s mother, ill, was sleeping in her room. She had left the TV on. A kid was playing on a beach under the loving look of a young, beautiful girl, maybe his mother, or his big sister. She had long brown hair, enticing eyes, and her hands were just lovely when she passed them in the kid’s hair. Mario would have liked to have a family, too, but he couldn’t build one. His father died in a car accident; he managed, together with his mother, the small butchery which served the few families that still lived in that place that the story ignores.

Many moved to the big city, in search of job or to change life, tired of feeling isolated from the world, feeling that they could be part of it only if they moved where the collective conscience counted a higher number of souls, where everything was noisier, believing that events and lives could be written intensely and fully only by screaming and moving continuously and quickly.

His mother had been sick for a whole year. The lungs. A young nurse took care of her during the day, but at seven sharp would leave, and Mario closed the butcher shop at the same moment, and whatever time it took to get home, no more than half an hour, was how long Donna Cristina would stay alone in her room. This arrangement had left him quite nervous, in the beginning, until he got used to it, after a few months, so that now he walked down the street without worry. And that night he thought that by helping the young girl, he would’ve been able to reconnect with the world and the happy life that he had spent not long ago and that he had forgotten, always running behind the needs and the responsibilities of daily life. He would run, too; no need to move to the city for that. It was already complicated as it was. He gave a look at the watch ── eight twenty.

Donna Cristina was lying with the rosary in her hands. He got closer to seat her more comfortably, or she would wake up full of aches the day after. He didn’t turn on the light to avoid waking her up abruptly, and besides, the light from the TV lit the room sufficiently. He took the remote and pressed the Mute button. The girl on the beach had started talking with a soft, distant voice, dubbed in Italian from a German show. Mario noticed her resemblance with Alina, the nurse that had left less than an hour before that very room where he was standing. He turned toward the woman and noticed something dark on the candid linen. He drew closer. It looked like blood. Terrified, he tried to shake his mother. She wasn’t breathing.

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