A Crumb of Courage
So that my tale not differ from the fact
People often hesitate for no reason before proceeding to choose the flavors for their ice cream cone, peering through the glass in search of who knows what novelty. Of the four of us that evening, only Arbus answered without doubt: “Cream and chocolate.” “With whipped cream?” “No, none.” Moreover, in the era when the episode I’m about to tell took place—despite its almost total insignificance—even the most renowned ice-cream parlors offered only a few basic flavors, always the same, always those seven or eight at most, kept hidden in a stainless steel freezer. Only the ice-cream man knew which they were, and to dig them out with his big spoon he popped off the round covers of the tubs in rapid sequence, closing one while opening the next with a gesture both professional and jealous, not only to keep the cold from escaping, but also to hide from view which flavors were full and which empty or nearly empty, a fact we were given to know only by watching how deep his arm plunged into the tub.
Today the choices are so varied they make your head spin: wild bronte pistachio, mascarpone with pear and ginger, salted dulce de leche, or dark chocolate with avola almonds… maracuja...
“Choice provokes anguish,” Arbus said, as he began licking his ice-cream, while Marco Lodoli and I, as said, hesitated. Rummo, for his part, stood off to the side, courteous as ever. To know how to wait, to give way to others, to help oneself last of all; that was the moral rule practiced in the Rummo household, among his numerous family.
…because we wear the black shirt
they said we belong in chains
they said we belong in jail!
We all spun our heads toward the corner of Via Alessandria.
From the direction of Corso Trieste, three people came around the corner in that precise moment, heading straight toward us. The heels of their heavy boots echoed on the sidewalk. They weren’t walking; they were marching like soldiers, marking their steps, and like soldiers they wore uniforms. Two were grown men, big ones, with broad shoulders and shirtsleeves rolled up on their forearms. The other was a girl, as broad and square as the men, chest thrust out, pushing out her sewn-on breast pockets and singing at the top of her lungs, as though she wanted to be heard from the highest floors of the apartments along Via Alessandria. All three proudly sported black berets cocked at a sharp angle. The woman’s hair was very short, the men’s shorter still.
Arbus, Lodoli and I were standing on the sidewalk outside the ice-cream parlor while Rummo dawdled inside, paying for his cone, digging change from a pocket-bottom. At Rummo’s house the children always received their allowance in change. With the patrol still twenty steps away, Lodoli shook his curls and whispered, “Take a look at these guys...” then bent over his ice-cream—unlike Arbus, he had ordered strawberry and pistachio with whipped cream on top—and gave it a lick. Arbus was examining his cone and sculpting it with his tongue so as to maintain the original geometric form even as its dimensions shrank. I alone did not lick, but watched as the group came close. They oscillated their rigid arms back and forth in a way both martial and surreal.
We stepped aside to let them pass. Just as they came alongside us, they suddenly stomped down hard on the pavement, and all three stared at me straight in the eyes. I am still sure today, forty-five years later, that they looked only at me, perhaps because I was the only one not concentrating on his cone, or because I displayed curiosity about them. Or perhaps because, of the four high school freshman friends, I was slightly more developed than the others, betraying the first hints of manhood, while Arbus and Lodoli were tall but extremely skinny and Gioacchino Rummo, who had finally joined us on the sidewalk, although fourteen, still looked like a child, with his blonde hair cut at home, and those bright cheeks cheerful, innocent.
After having taken three or four strides, one of the patrol struck his boot on the ground, then turned his head back and squared me up again. Our eyes crossed. I didn’t pull my gaze away in time; now he was coming back. He came up to me, very close. His comrades watched with hands on hips. He was just barely taller than I was. He smiled.
“Why don’t you sing with us too?”
“I don’t know the song,” was what came out. It was a stupid answer, and in fact the woman burst out laughing, throwing her head back theatrically.
“You want me to teach it to you?”
I was mute. Anything I might say would be a mistake. I would have wanted to turn to my classmates for support, but the unknown man’s look, his black eyes, the thick eyebrows, and the stubble poking out under his shiny skin exercised total control over me.
“Come on, let’s sing together,” and he intoned:
“We don't give a shit. Lady Death / flirts in the middle of battle / she wants kisses only from the soldiers… Come on, repeat: we couldn’t care less, Lady Death…”
I remained mute. Ignoring my silence, he continued:
“Come on boys, let’s woo her!
Let’s give her a kiss as the bullets fly!”
If my heart hadn’t been pounding wildly I would have taken those words one by one, “death," “battle,” “kiss,” “bullets,” and recomposed them in a different order, changing the meaning. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t breathe.
I shook my head, peering toward my companions, who I imagined as far off as if a gust of wind had rolled them away down Via Alessandria, as if the squad’s war song had swept them off stage. But there they were, right next to me, not doing anything. In Lodoli’s eyes I thought I could make out a desperate, impotent desire to intervene in my defense, while those of Arbus displayed his customary glacial detachment… but it seemed that Rummo, incredulous or ingenuous, still had not understood the trouble we found ourselves in, or rather, in which I found myself. Because it was really with me, and only with me, that the comrades had decided to take issue. My schoolmates had to stay out of it; it had nothing to do with them.
“Aren’t you going to sing?”
I didn’t answer.
“So are you a fascist or not?
My short response darted out like lightning, faster than thought. Before I had time to calculate its effect, it had leapt spontaneously out my lips. I might claim now that the truth simply escaped, which is accurate, but I could also add that, even if I had been a fascist, I would have said “no” just the same. No. No. No is the answer into which a boy concentrates all his strength, especially if he doesn’t have much of it. One can even say “no” to oneself.
In our neighborhood, the Trieste quarter we called QT, it was a simple given that boys from good families were fascists. Of course they were, we assumed. But no.
“Ah, I understand,” exclaimed the man in uniform, delicately slipping the cone from between my fingers, the way an ice-cream man does when lifting a single cone off a stack, “What a shame!” And now he began to smear the ice cream onto my face. He did this, I repeat, with a certain delicacy, such that the thin wafer cone didn’t break, until both my cheeks were completely covered with cream and chocolate, the flavors I’d chosen in imitation of Arbus. Although I often do things to stand out, still more often I copy someone else, taking the other as my model, and in those days it was Arbus, the class genius. I imitated him almost without noticing, which was why I’d picked an ice-cream identical to his, just as I read the books he read and listened to Schoenberg's Transfigured Night, unable to hear a single musical phrase but enthralled, just because he listened to it." .
When the ice cream was almost completely spread all over my face, and now began to drip down, the man in uniform said, “Here we go…”, and pushed the cone onto my nose until it stuck there. “Pinocchio!” he laughed, “Pinocchio, stop lying…” That was the most humiliating moment because, paralyzed, I didn't dare shake my false nose away, but waited for it to fall off by itself. The comrades laughed. The one who had punished me slapped me on the back, and they all set off together, with the girl in the middle, toward Piazza Regina Margherita; this time with their arms hooked together the way people do during parades.
I had received a sweet punishment, very sugary…
Lodoli helped me clean my face with a bunch of paper napkins in a motherly way. Arbus murmured, “Pathetic bastards.”
As I made clear at the outset, this was quite an insignificant episode in my life, in the life of those years, the life of those years in our neighborhood, which was struck by far worse jolts of violence. But I have decided to make it public, shamelessly, only because a certain person, a certain person very dear to me, who I told the story to many years ago just for a couple of yucks together, kept asking me over and over why I hadn’t included it in a recent book of mine which is packed with anecdotes of this sort, from schooldays, of big, small, and infinitesimal neighborhood adventures. This dear person, who is convinced she knows me as well as her own pockets, and may well be right, insinuated that I had left this little story of the ice cream out of my enormous book because, all in all, I don’t come off very well in it… In sum, I shamed myself then and I’m still ashamed today about that ice cream smeared on my face by the fascists, without me lifting a finger. Without reacting.
It’s useless to admit that this person is fundamentally right. We schoolboys had superior numbers, while one of the others was a woman, no matter how glowering and athletic. I personally could have resisted against having ice cream smeared on my face, for which I would have received a couple of punches in exchange, which would certainly have been more honorable. It’s also useless to list the attenuating circumstances: we were boys, they grown men (the one who spread the cone on my face was probably thirty) and clearly well trained in giving and receiving blows. Furthermore, they took us by surprise while patrolling the QT, and they were looking for trouble. But it’s pointless; the attenuating circumstances are intellectual processes that come in a posteriori, when the defeat and shame are irreversible…. The shame remains intact.
After all, what happened to us didn’t even rise to the level of actual violence; rather, it was a lesson, a small lesson imparted by an adult to a boy who was proud enough to say no, but not enough to back up that “no” with virile action. Proud in word only, in word only....
Rummo was the only one of us to show a feeling other than either fear or shame or anger. Rummo was the only one to demonstrate a quality that rarely manifests itself in a pure, disinterested form, at least a crumb of it, that is, a crumb of courage. He scooped up my cone from the ground and ran after the trio, which had serenely started marching and singing again, and threw the cone after them. It fell at the feet of the girl, who crushed it with the heel of her army boot without even bothering to turn her head toward us to display scorn and disdain. And to think, Rummo was still really only a child, a Cub Scout or little more, who would only start growing a year later, and then keep on growing by leaps and bounds, becoming as big and brawny as all the Rummos, parents, brothers, and sisters. All tall, blond, and good.
We couldn’t care less. Lady Death
Flirts in the midst of battle…
I don’t know if what I’m about to say here is entirely true, but I need to declare it just the same. I’d rather be wrong about this than a thousand times right in other matters: True courage arises only when you're on the side of right.