Experience has taught me that, to live with dignity, one cannot count on the favors of another, but one must use one’s own ingenuity and intelligence, without lowering one’s head like the herds of sheep. Instead of returning to my old friends in Lecce (and be immediately arrested by the Cartesian meeting of delinquency and juridical abstractions), I traveled north up the coast on foot, dressed like a vagrant. I carried with me few things and meager provisions (black bread and boiled rice). After two days of forced march and I don’t know how many kilometers, I arrived, completely exhausted, in a small port village, inhabited by fishermen and characterized by many small, anchored boats and a certain animation.
For an entire day, from dawn to dusk, I remained sprawled out beside a gigantic block of granite, as if I were a ghost, without the least energy to continue on my way. The people went by without saying anything to me and I was in no state to say a word to anyone. During the night, thinking I was not being watched, I ate several pieces of fruit that I pinched from the garden of a house along the way, then I set myself up to sleep on the deck of a motor boat that was moored on the shore and left unsurveilled. The first glimmers of the dawn came upon me before I had truly rested, but I wanted to refresh myself with the water from a public washhouse, graciously offered to the population by some noble family.
I washed all my clothes and, in particular, my shirt, then I returned to my rock, without budging from it for the rest of the day, as I was decided to conduct a veritable test of strength against public distrust. My behavior, which was really bizarre, had intrigued everyone, but I did not judge it opportune to take the first step (this is what my instincts would have suggested to me) and no one decided to stop ignoring me. To help myself survive, there was the usual fruit, enriched by a fish that had been overlooked (perhaps intentionally) on the deck of a boat and, in the shadows, I clandestinely boiled it.
News – as everyone knows – always arrives on the third day. In the end, a brave man, who was named Ferdinando Cavaliere, approached me and stated that he knew my situation. To break the ice, he asked me if I needed anything.
“I was not born here,” he said. “We came to this village twenty-two years ago, but I can tell you that the people here are good.”
“I would like to work,” I said. “Is that possible? I do not like remaining here without anything to do.”
“When one wants to work, one always ends up finding something to do, my boy. You are young and alone. Don’t you have a family?”
“All of my family died during the war, and I no longer know which way to turn. I would like to become a sailor; in this town, I can’t resist. Could you help me?”
“You are too skinny to be a sailor. You are truly as skinny as a nail. Come eat at my place and we will talk about it. Are you in good health? Do you know how to swim? Do you know how to row?”
“Of course . . . and since long ago.”
In this single response, I succeeded in telling two big lies, but they changed my life. When they understood – almost immediately – that I knew nothing of the sea, I had already become a part of the community, and it had not regretted it. I spent five very happy years there; I believed that I had forever buried the young hoodlum who was inside me and, at the same time, had ended my vocation as an adventurer. I slaved away without it weighing on me; everyone liked me; and, little by little, I learned all the tricks of the trade. At the start, I received board and lodging as my payment, but subsequently I received a small salary that allowed me to buy a small Vespa [motorcycle]. I was happy.
Cavaliere’s trawler could accommodate a dozen men and brought a lot back to him. It was equipped with a kind of refrigerating chamber, which was chilled by blocks of ice and stank more than any fish market. We went out with fishing lamps, accompanied by pimp boats that attracted the prey with groups of powerful lights. Seeing the way I climbed aboard that first time, my companions realized – without a shadow of a doubt – that I had never gone fishing, not even with a hook and line, but they didn’t say anything and showed me how, obtaining much more with their silence than they would have with a hundred reprimands. Cavaliere – boss and patriarch – told me that my lack of experience stirred distant memories in him and revived his nostalgia for his homeland.
The winter was very long, almost interminable. We rarely went out and, like the others, I spent my evenings in the only cheap restaurant in the neighborhood, listening to the tales of the sailors who, before stopping there, had traveled the world. Truth and fabrication were continually mixed together in their tales; it was impossible to distinguish one from the other. The passage of time had created a strange confusion, even in the minds of those who told them.
Judges always seek (with their idiotic distortions) to control the exact development of the useless fragments of reality, thus losing the meaning of the events in question (I subsequently noticed this, in the course of the many encounters I had with them). On the other hand, I love to hear about sunken ships, distant and strange lands, immense octopi, whales – and why not? – even winged monsters, dragons and mermaids. And my cunning as a hooligan raised among the alleyways of Lecce did not constitute a brake on my naïve passion for such tales. I only regretted not having heard them when I was a child.
There was a lot of talk about the Center-Left government when the spell [of the tall tales] was broken, but I’m not sure by what. More modestly, a certain Giuseppe, an unlikeable and brutal drunkard, decided to take me home with him, without allowing for the least reply; he obviously did not intend to release me if I did not accept. Pulled by the arm, I reluctantly followed this person who staggered along, and thus I ended up meeting his wife, Maria. I was immediately struck by the beauty of this young woman, who was obligated to serve her husband without receiving the least affection or material comfort in return. Scarcely upon entering, Giuseppe collapse on the ground, snickering at and awakening the two children that he’d had from a previous marriage. When the young woman returned from putting to bed the children who weren’t hers, the brute was already snoring, but I hesitated to go inside. I was young and alone, and she surely could not be satisfied with a marriage that had been imposed on her. It was almost natural that we would become lovers, and my motorbike proved very useful in protecting our liaison from prying eyes. Despite the worry (it wasn’t rare in those times to take a pistol shot or a hammer blow from a well-informed cuckold), we had a lot of fun together and fucked like rabbits. For hours and hours we wracked our brains trying to find reasons to get together for a few minutes, and any excuse was a good one to justify the gratification of our senses.
Feeling desired, Maria became even more desirable, and her availability was in some way the midwife of my natural state, which took the upper hand. I quite quickly began to pretend to be sick so that I could be ready to see her again every time that an occasion arose, and I succeeded, without too much difficulty, in passing the test of Ferdinando Cavaliere’s first visits, though he was particularly skilled in the analysis of the human spirit.
I worked less and less, and with less and less enthusiasm, especially after gaining the complicity of a mother named Rose, who was keen to favor our relationship, not only because of the small sums that I periodically gave her, but also because of an old hatred that she had for Giuseppe. Quite often, intuition precedes perception and, if no one could say that they had seen me with Maria, everyone was certain that I was hiding something. The initial balance was altered and the community reacted by conducting an investigation. The cord, quite tenuous, risked breaking at any moment, and I felt that I was being followed all the time, and both of us understood that we did not have long before we were discovered, with all the consequences that this would involve.
As we didn’t have the strength to revolt, we decided to part ways and never see each other again. Such a decision cost both of us a lot, but we had the impression that there was no other solution, and no doubt this was truly the case. It seemed preferable to us to break up dramatically, and I found myself in a trap in which I was willingly condemned to exile. In fact, a sailor had arranged for me to embark upon a very big ship, the Mar della Plata, which was to leave the port of Genoa for the East, and that’s all I knew. In my life (slightly more than twenty years), I had only gone a few kilometers, and suddenly one was speaking of distances that my mind could not place among comprehensible concepts.
In the middle of the morning, before the bus stopped to pick me up, I awaited Ferdinando Cavaliere, who embraced me with the affection of someone who understood that I had made a very human error and that my departure was the only decision worthy of a man whom he esteemed. “I regret this,” he told me simply, and I was very moved. When I sought news about him – quite a few years later – I learned that he had died from a very painful tumor, which saddened me very much. Of all my shams, my absenteeism at his expense was the one that cost me the most effort and was the most difficult.