Dreaming Lance Armstrong
Since my return I had come to love Vittorio. Ours was a strange relationship since he neither shared my love for books nor did he come often to my bookstore. We always spoke on the street or in the village café. I now know I was drawn to him because of the irresistible look of a dreamer in his eyes.
My mood had been dark all that day. It was the aftermath of a cold November day during which intransigent rain clouds swept down the valley from Switzerland. Helter-skelter, signs of approaching winter arrived from various directions, from Lake Como in the west, from the Stelvio Pass in the east.
Incongruous Brazilian music had played all afternoon in my empty store. Often I stared toward the valley, again wondering what I was doing back in Montagna. Toward evening then I sat near the window with a book of Chekhov short stories propped in an intimate circle of lamplight.
I was surrounded by the night. At a certain moment the silence of our compressed space between the southern and northern mountain ranges seemed to crush Montagna and me in its grip. And some unnamable dread came over me.
At about nine I went to the café for relief, and for entertainment and diversion. I went to laugh. But I should have known better—for today was Friday.
As every Friday evening Vittorio was sitting in the rear of the café with his back against the wall. Immediately I noted that his cards were arranged haphazardly. Some were sticking up higher than the others, one twisted to the right under his thumb, about to slip out of his lackadaisical grasp. His habitual distant look was in his dark eyes.
I sat down across from the card players to watch and laugh at the usual spectacle. The dealer peered at Vittorio. Vittorio threw down a card, lifted one finger, and picked up his new card. Idly he stuck it among the others, hardly deigning it a glance.
At the showdown he had three jacks. The other players shrugged in disgust. Someone pushed toward him the handful of small coins of the pot. Two players got up and walked away.
“Figlio di puttana! Again!” one said at the bar.
“Cazzo!” exclaimed the other.
Each Friday evening that fall I had watched Vittorio among the card players gathered in Caffé Paini. It was funny, the poker in the café. It was tragic, too. The truth was that no one wanted to play poker with Vittorio. It was uncanny. He won nearly every hand. But not because of any special astuteness or wile or poker know-how. Nor did anyone suspect that Vittorio was a ringer from Milan or Baden-Baden.
Though some players suspected he had some secret system and he never showed his hand, in reality his play was indifferent. And as a rule they dealt him dream hands. If there was some system at work, I believed it consisted of secrecy and luck.
Two pairs, three of a kind, four queens, a full house. If Vittorio had two kings, all he had to do was throw down one card and you could be sure they would deal him the king of spades. Everyone knew it was a case of pure phenomenal luck.
The crazy thing was that Vittorio didn’t seem to care whether he won or not. The stakes anyway weren’t high. For the others it was mainly a question of never winning.
By nature Vittorio was taciturn. When he played cards he seldom spoke at all. Silence was his chief quality. Just Vittorio’s presence was enough to provoke a kind of hush at Caffé Paini. The card players spoke in reverent tones. The contagious silence succeeded in putting a damper on the tendency to outbursts of rowdiness among younger card players. Even the brash barman and the loud proprietor spoke to each other and other clients in murmurs.
When they played tresette or scopa Vittorio didn’t try to disguise his boredom. He just threw down whatever card popped up without a glance at his or anyone else’s hand. Then when he did say something it was usually in one-word sentences murmured so softly that other players instinctively leaned toward him but seldom understood.
When after endless games of scopa the poker moment arrived Vittorio might lift his eyes. He would look around the café curiously as if he’d been away and was just returning home. Still, he didn’t play cards because he loved to gamble or take risks.
When I once asked him why he played, he said simply, “You have to do something in life.”
Vittorio reserved one of his longest sentences for those moments when others referred to his eternal good luck. Pronounced in his bland manner he repeated like a slogan, “If you’ve once been in heaven, what’s a royal flush!”
I think I was the only one to understand that he had in mind the paradise of the professional cyclist he once was.
Though Vittorio dressed more or less like others, he cared no more about his dress than he did about winning at cards. He always projected a disheveled look—a rip in his tight jeans, a shirt collar raised on one side, a shoelace untied. All together he looked and acted so harmless that no one would have thought to exclude him from the game.
Vittorio was of average height, long slim arms, a triangular face, thick eyebrows, small eyes and thinning dark hair. To see him at the card table you would take him for skinny, with spindly legs. Sitting erect, his back against the wall, his expression was something between ironic, mournful and indifferent.
I had long since concluded that Vittorio was a man without strong emotions. At least, not visible ones. He emanated a solid way of life, responsibility and self-discipline.
How wrong I turned out to be! For you never know about a dreamer. In contrast to my best friend Arnolfo or Celestina, the young mayor of our village, or even the village priest, Father Romano, among whom extreme emotions and chaos were the rule, a regal calm and quiet seemed to infect Vittorio.
Yet, as I gradually came to realize, his was a disquieting quiet. In fact, I had given up trying to understand him. It seemed hopeless to try to divine Vittorio’s real thoughts. Like guessing one’s reasons for desertion. Or betrayal. For he was a deserter. He had deserted his beloved bicycling as he had deserted the rest of Italy. He lived on another planet. He heard another music. He spoke another language. I thought his was a planet of fearful loneliness.
For him all the rest was just the world at large. He didn’t like the world out there. It was vulgar, he said. Hypocritical, like the doping tests that some said had eliminated him from his world of the bicycle.
Why him that time? his eyes seemed to ask over and over. It was that world at large that had rejected him.
Sometimes the ennui in his pale eyes and the mournful expression of his mouth gave him the look of a person dead but who continued to live.
Friday after Friday I imagined the same things happening in him, over and over, maybe good, maybe bad, a repetition of things, things which both bored and terrified him.
Whatever it was, he didn’t seem to be conscious of what was happening. He was somewhere else. He wasn’t involved. Whatever happened, just happened or didn’t happen.
When that evening the bells of San Giorgio marked midnight, Vittorio pushed at the table and stood up. Again I stared in surprise at his outstanding physical feature—his disproportionately protruding belly. Something hereditary, I wondered? A sickness? Or drink and diet?
He raised his hand in salute to the others, went to the bar and while paying for the round he had offered he drank a double grappa and picked up two bars of chocolate. He put on his leather jacket and orange baseball cap and stepped out the door.
A few moments later, I saw his silhouette on his bicycle pass in front of the window as he started out toward his house at Ca’ Bongiascia at over eight hundred meters altitude.
What he did up there in his stone house was a mystery.
He told me he lived up there because he liked to see the animals walking around in total freedom and never running away. There were no pens or corrals or fences. The neighbors’ chickens and cows and dogs and cats mingled with the people and one with the other around the group of houses, neither paying much attention one to the other. Even the sun and the sky and mountains, he said, enjoyed a freedom unknown farther down toward the valley.
I had concluded that Vittorio was two beings.
Vittorio was about forty. I believe he still dreamed of the times when he still had his obsessive dreams of becoming a bicycle champion. Sometimes at the card table a veil like a cobweb would fall over his eyes and I knew he had lapsed back into his dream. In him existed simultaneously the potential bicycle champion in the Tour de France and the lackadaisical card player at Caffé Paini.
His real life as a technician at Telecom unrolled under a gauze of unreality. He existed within a dreamlike ersatz being that hardly counted for real.
His unfulfilled dreams, I had decided, haunted him. Therefore the silence that hung over him like a magnetic field. I imagined him as a deaf-mute, isolated in his own separate little world, the other side of the moon from his dream of glory of racing up the Champs Elysées in the grand finale of the Tour.
Vittorio worked and played cards and rode his bicycle as if to the tune of a planetary music that only he heard. Distant like winds from the sea. Or like a stray piece of the Bora wind aimed south that dared to veer west and descend on the Valtellina. I imagined the stray winds had carried off chunks of the original Vittorio. For I believed that within his silence was a whirling and roaring inferno, the original chaos of before Father Romano’s I-am-who-I-am created it all.
After the long evening of cards and coffee and beer, the players came out of the café staggering, as if surprised there was still a world outside where ordinary people were doing ordinary things. The bells of San Giorgio had just sounded half past midnight. Carloads of people were returning home from the cinema down in the Valtellina. Young guys revved their motorcycles and drove up and down the road between the café and the cemetery. Gusts of winds from the north thundered through the village.
I looked up the street and saw Vittorio sitting on his bike in front of the Town Hall. He had on a red protective helmet. I recalled his team was once La Tempesta Rossa. Immobile, with his right foot on the ground, his left foot poised on the pedal, he looked as if he were imagining arrival at the finish line of a mountain manche.
I joined him and asked if he wanted to stop off for a nightcap in my store just up the road. He shifted from side to side on the saddle and looked up the mountain.
“It’s a hard ride uphill at night,” he said.
“Why do you live up there alone anyway?” I said. I had never understood his choice. He had a good job in Sondrio and no responsibilities. He could live where he pleased. Why that night ride on his bike? What had happened to Vittorio anyway?
I had asked my friend Arnolfo. I had queried Father Romano who knows everything. No one seemed to know the real Vittorio.
No one knew the facts of his life.
Suddenly he had come back from the racing world. His wife was gone. The fact was he was alone. Father Romano said cryptically that facts weren’t everything but of course our beloved priest believed in miracles. Arnolfo said that facts kill the truth. They mask it, then distort it, and finally murder it. Sometimes facts and truth are at opposite ends of the scales.
“You have to live somewhere,” Vittorio said. “And the air up there is enlightening. The air and the light are different. It’s the purity of the air. The meeting of the Alpine air and the warm Mediterranean air creates the sensation inside you that mountaineers know.”
It had turned bitter cold. The wind was blustering. Lightning flashed across the skies as if a battle were raging between the dark of the heavens and the shadowed earth. Rain began falling.
Ignoring the rain, Vittorio pushed back his crash helmet and looked at me slyly as if to ask if I had understood.
I didn’t. He was speaking in his favorite Aesopian language.
“Life is like the Tour,” he said and snickered in an ugly ironic way.
“The Tour de France, Vittorio?”
“Or the Tour is like life,” he said, holding up his hand to test the rain. “It’s not cheap, life’s not. You can die in the Tour like you die in life. Usually you do what you have to, not what you prefer to do. So I live up there.”
“Once you told me that life is like a game of cards,” I said sarcastically. “That you don’t have to reveal everything at once. That what first seems true turns out to be false. That it’s better to show a little at a time. Scare people a bit, you said, stun them, make them laugh and cry, and they’ll applaud you in the end.”
Vittorio was like that. Wherever he went, whatever he did, he somehow turned things upside down. He was one of those persons who showed you that nothing was as it seemed. Mentally I marshalled all my points about the writer’s calling but compared to Vittorio’s clean clear dream of winning the Tour de France my hopes were nebulous. Each day I just sat in my store, read my books, mulled over old ideas and tried to write down a few truths about myself.
He instead had discovered much more about himself cycling up and down our mountain. In silence. The darkness of his night rides. The invisible precipices. Chasms over the Valtellina. Music of the valley. Dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled. No matter! The dream remains, free and untethered like the cows on the Alpine pastures. Dreams are free of reality. You can manipulate dreams any way you desire, develop them, expand them, limit them … or crush them.
“Don’t you want the applause?” he said. “Isn’t that why you write your books? For the applause?”
“Well,” I murmured, embarrassed again. That was something else. With a single word Vittorio succeeded in flustering me, putting me on the defensive, hinting at the writer’s vanity.
The rain stopped. The wind died down. Vittorio adjusted his orange cap and grinned at me.
“And your bike?” I said, trying to suppress any sign of vindictiveness. I knew that the card playing had no importance for him. I believed I knew what his life was about. The freedom of the mountains, the free-roaming animals and the proximity of the skies, the freedom of winning or losing at cards, the freedom of his silence, the freedom of his dreams. The freedom that made his life thrilling and dangerous the way freedom always is.
“Oh that,” he said. Then: “Why don’t you come up tomorrow and I’ll take you for a ride down the trail of the Davaglione Valley!”
I looked at him, terrified at the suggestion. Not that I believed it but it was said that Vittorio rode the most difficult steep rocky mountain trails at night, using only a flashlight. To dare fate! I glanced at the front of his bike. There was no light.
He laughed. He was pulling my leg about my sedateness and my fear of heights. Who knows if he really took those night flights?
“The only thing is not to look down,” he said. “Don’t look down and you’ll be fine. If you look down from steep trails you start thinking of falling. Then everything begins to fall—your bike, the mountain, you.”
“Are you talking about bicycling or writing, Vittorio?”
He snickered and returned to his silence. The silence of his bike. In the night. On his mountain. Ca’ Bongiascia. Thinking of falling! That was as close I ever heard him get to an expression of private feelings.
Private feelings? Verboten! His feelings so entangled in his dreams. Or stored up in his bulging belly. That’s where he hid them. And held them prisoner. But, I told myself, who doesn’t have the problem of expressing private feelings. It’s hard enough to even think them. But to express them, in words, to someone else! We discuss politics and preventive war and globalization and socialism and medical care. But just try to discuss in a group of friends private feelings. Try it at the dinner table. You won’t get very far. Everyone clams up. And if you start speaking of your own feelings, everyone looks embarrassed. Poor you! And everyone falls into silence.
We walked slowly up the road toward my store and the cemetery and the Pisalocca. He pushed his bike and walked in his awkward gait as if unsure of himself on the ground. I asked him why he stayed here, alone, on the mountainside? Why not the world where he once rode?
“This is one of the world’s real places,” he said. “Real life goes on.”
I knew he meant things like going to work, shopping for food, hoeing in the garden, and playing cards on Friday evenings. A life where people meet other people and talk about the weather and the war and elections and love affairs and broken hearts. Among life’s questions of love and duty, of accommodation and social responsibility, he had chosen isolation. In the same way he had rejected the necessity of winning the Tour or a card game or building a new world.
“But here no one does anything reckless,” I said instead, “like racing in the Tour de France.”
Vittorio grinned his grim smile. He had his left foot on the pedal, half mounted, half grounded, as if he didn’t know where he belonged.
“Maybe not today,” he said. “But they once went to war and died for the Fatherland. That’s reckless. Their names are listed on the monument behind San Giorgio. The Credaro and the Paini, the Pelizzatti and the Gianatti. Recklessness was always at home here. It’s only sleeping today.”
Later, after it happened, bit-by-bit in my imagination I reconstructed how things must have gone after we separated there in front of my store. I sometimes thought if I only had not told him the story of the handsome kid Lodovico. ‘He came in to stick me up,’ I related, ‘and instead stayed for tea and confessed his sins and came back to sing songs in the Pisalocca.’
I remembered how Vittorio had followed my account curiously, with his meditative, otherworldly look on his face. I think it was in that moment that his mad idea was born. In the dark, in his solitude, in his desperation, Vittorio bicycled up the mountain to his house at Ca’ Bongiascia, his pumping at the pedals automatic, the image of himself in nocturnal flight taking shape.
It was about one a.m. Ca’ Bongiascia was completely dark. No lights, no sounds. Silently Vittorio parked his bike in a shed and took out his racing bike and parked it at the steps. Inside the house he probably made a pot of coffee and while he changed his dress he began drinking grappa from the bottle.
Carefully, precisely, like a matador dressing for the ring he first put on red skin-tight shorts that he’d had let out many times over the eight years since his retirement. He twisted to the side to admire the white stripes down the side and then frowned at his protuberant belly. How had it happened? Was it a sign? A warning or an admonition or a punishment? Did he really deserve it?
Next came the red jersey shirt with his number 7 on the back and the name of the great bank in Sondrio on the front. After wiping his cycling shoes with a cloth and checking that the holes in the soles were unobstructed for perfect balanced contact with the pedals, he laced them tightly. He examined his jacket doubtfully, then decided to wear it too—might as well be complete! The fingerless gloves still fit snugly; he pulled them high up his wrist and flexed and wriggled his fingers in front of the mirror as he admired his now red clad figure.
If it just weren’t for the belly! he was thinking.
As always when he put on his racing clothes the sensation of pleasure exhilarated him. At the same time the grappa, the cold night, his solitude, his disappointments and fears welled up into his throat. He began sweating cold sweat. His naked knees felt hot in the cold room. From a closet he extracted his racing helmet and methodically rubbed and polished it with a kitchen cloth before clamping it on his head and fastening it securely.
After a short hesitation he discarded the idea of the flashlight. It was out of place, unbefitting the event. Besides he knew the descent down toward Montagna by heart, every curve and bump and hole in the road.
It must have been shortly before two a.m. when he closed the door, went down the steps and mounted his racing bike, carefully adjusting his shoes on the proper pegs on the pedals.
I imagine but admittedly will never know for sure what he thought and how he reacted as he cycled steadily past the houses of Ca’ di Dosso and approached the top of the bluff over the waterfall of Pisalocca.
Nevertheless I like to imagine that Vittorio didn’t so much as pause. He was a decisive man of principle and determination. He had set his goal. He couldn’t waver now. I believe he accelerated. His legs pumping, the cold air in his face, the silence of Montagna crushing him, his hands gripping the handlebars in the center, thoughts and ambitions of glory behind him, free at last, he sailed out into the cold dark air over the loud cascading waters.
© 2006 Gaither Stewart
Gaither Stewart, writer and journalist, is originally from
. After studies at the Asheville, NC at Universityof California and other American universities, he has lived his adult life abroad, first in Berkeley , then in Germany , alternated with long residences in The Netherlands, Italy , France and Mexico . After a career in journalism as the Italian correspondent for the Russia daily newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad, and contributor to the press, radio and TV in Rotterdam and various European countries, he today writes fiction. He has authored novels and short story collections. His collections, Icy Current, Compulsive Course, To Be A Stranger, Once In Berlin, are published by Wind River Press. (http://www.windriverpress.com/ or http://stewart.windriverpress.com/) He lives with his wife, Milena, in the hills of north Italy . Other essays and stories by Gaither are available in Archives. Rome