La Scomessa (The Bet)
by Gaither Stewart
L'amour est un oiseau rebelle
Que nul ne peut apprivoiser. .
The Habanera,. Carmen, act 1.
Adriano and Zero have just consumed first one bottle, then a second of a classic Chianti at the City Lights Bar near the local train station in the north Rome suburb of Giustiniana. The two men have been close friends ever since they were classmates in an elementary school downtown. To the desperation of their wives they often go off on escapades which they always try to combine with something out of the ordinary on the outcome of which they make challenging bets. Any occasion is sufficient reason to celebrate and act younger than they are … and bet on it.
It was Saturday, around noon. They were celebrating their upcoming birthdays falling two days apart in the middle of December. For two days Zero would be fifty, forty hours before Adriano. For that reason Adriano sometimes called his older friend “Senior”, on which he automatically became “Junior.”
“My God, Senior, what a powerful scent surrounds you. How much of that stuff did you eat this morning?”
“Listen, Kid, I only had three cloves, subsequently chased with two bananas and a cognac-based mouth wash … of my own invention, of course.”
“Christ, I hope the waitress doesn’t ask us to leave ... despite your, er, your biological discoveries of the qualities of magic garlic.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time. You don’t want to remember the time you came out of the toilet, with not only your pants open but your little dick hanging out?”
“Well, that was embarrassing,” Adriano admitted. “But it was just a mistake.”
“And perhaps the grappa we had quaffed … on top of the wine and our empty stomachs.”
“Good idea! Let’s have a small grappa right now and I swear I won’t even go near the toilet.”
“Your suggestion has definite merit, Junior. But shouldn’t we have some lunch first?”
“Nah, much too early … and who’s hungry anyway?
“True. Not me. No hunger here. Anyway, we have to decide on the afternoon’s entertainment. This is a party, after all.”
“Well, a movie is out now. I couldn’t sit through one.”
“Not on your life. Sightseeing is also no good.”
“Zero, Senior, we grew up on that stuff. Can you think of anything in this city we’ve never seen? Like the Vatican’s former torture chambers or Nero’s cellar house of love or …”
“OK, OK, we’ve seen it all, so what about today.”
“Of course we could just sit around the bar and maybe sing some of the old songs ... “
“In our out-of-tune way? You know, I’ve always wondered where the melody in us goes when it vanishes,” the two-day older Zero mused.
“What? Where does what go?”
“The melody! The tune, the natural rhythm we once had in us. Where does it go when it leaves us?”
“I don’t get you. Is that another of you scientific ideas?”
“Remember how we could sing when we were, say, eighteen? Solos, duets, quartets. Just sing … even in harmony. Now it’s gone. We can’t even hold a tune.”
“We’re always out of tune, maybe you mean. But I suspect other meanings in your cynical mind.”
“Oh, you journalists and fiction writers always have more extravagant ideas.”
“No matter, Signor Senior. I love you anyway … out of tune or not.”
“Nein, mein jüngerFreund. Drinking’s no good for us. What do you think about the horse races at Capannelle? You always win a bundle out there.”
“Just to watch a bunch of horses running around a track! Not for me.”
“Listen to this then, Junior. My age permits me to impart to you some information I have recently gathered that might stir your imagination. It concerns the GRA.”
“The GRA, journalist! The Grande Raccordo Anulare, more popularly known as the Raccordo. That is, the Ring Road that circles our fair city. Sixty-seven kilometers of three-lane, toll-free, super autostrada-like highway without which Rome as we know it would die of suffocation under gas fumes of cars battling to enter the city gates. Now I have read that its total length is officially either sixty-five or sixty-eight kilometers. It’s unclear which. As tax-paying citizens of the Eternal City I consider it our sacred duty to know the exact length.”
“So what do propose doing about it?”
“I think we should investigate … while having a little fun at the same time. Besides, you can use it for an article.”
“What do you suggest, old man?”
“Well, as you know, the Ring Road with its forty-two exits and accesses occupies an enormous territory in tiny Italy. Some thoughtful, technical-minded persons have theorized that the discrepancy in the GRA’s official length because of its constant curving nature to form the ring lies in the aggregate difference in distance in the total length between the inside and outside lanes—without any empiric evidence to back up such theories, by the way. What I mean is, distance is one thing, but travel time another. Some drivers believe they travel faster in the outside passing lane because of the jams at every exit. On the other hand, others believe that despite the slowdowns at exits the number of cars leaving the Raccordo at those exits permits them then to accelerate and more than compensate for the slowdowns. Now since we are near the Via Cassia entrance onto and exit from the Raccordo, I suggest we give it a try. At this hour the traffic should be quite equal in both directions. We can start at the Cassia exits, you go one way, I, the other. We flip a coin to determine who uses the exit lanes and who the usually outside passing lane and then we meet back here at City Lights. The bet is of course lunch. It’s a race, yes, and we must promise to stick to the lane chance assigns us. And in so doing we should also measure the precise distance on our short trip device on the dashboard.”
“OK, OK, it’s all clear. It’s a race, a bet, and a scientific investigation. Great idea! But we’re both a wee bit drunk so we have to beware of traffic police.”
“Ah, no worry there. At this hour all the highway police, the Carabinieri and even the unmarked car police are at lunch or at home with their families … and I’ve heard that most of those electronic speed measuring boxes are fake, just to scare more cowardly drivers into slowing down.”
After paying the check and reserving the same table for about ninety minutes later, they went to their cars parked side by side on the huge parking area in front of the Giustiniana rail station. Both Adriano-Junior’s eleven-year old Golf and Zero’s ten-year old Passat were black. Neither of them really gave a hoot about cars, just happy that they worked, to the disappointment of their wives however, both of whom had insisted on some new classy auto like those advertised on TV, an Audi or a Mercedes they knew they could well afford. Senior and Junior made a bet on which of them would succumb first. Senior lost, bought his wife a Mercedes, a lost bet which he considered unfair because his three children joined his wife in the new car battle. A few days later, Junior bought his wife and one daughter the Audi they so wanted but got the free lunch at which the two of them got roaring drunk and had to be taxied to their suburban homes. Out of principle neither ever touched the wives-and-children’s new cars.
“You gotta coin?” Zero asked as they stood indecisively between their cars.
“Yeah, I think so. Here, you flip it. The 1 Euro side wins.
“I say 1 Euro! Up she goes. There it is. Uh oh. I lose,” Senior Zero concedes.
“OK, I’ll go west,” Junior says graciously “and I’ll be waiting for you back here at the bar.”
“Oh, all right. You have a Raccordo access right here in Giustiniana. You get all the advantages,” Zero grumbled. “My east access is three hundred meters and two red lights away.”
“Oh well, it’s Saturday so you’ll probably have less traffic. So, old friend, ciao. In any case I’ll be here waiting for you. Remember my turbo engine!”
What both men were forgetting was today’s dreaded general strike called by the CGIL, the General Confederation of Italian Workers, whose leaders had announced that the ring road was to be intermittently blocked by construction and railway unionists. And this time worker adherence was to reach an estimated all-time high of 96.5%. Everbody demanded more money and better working conditions. A blocked GRA— in Roman Empire times part of a road network of 400,000 kilometers, many of which stone-paved and still in use today after two millennia, serving the dozens of feeder avenues, the once great consular or military highways leading right into the heart of the Caput Mundi,—is more damaging than blocking trains.
As Zero headed east at an unexpectedly good clip, rejoicing as always in the mettle of his old Passat, he stayed put in the outer passing lane according to the pact with Adriano, instead of weaving in and out as many drivers did. He was so engrossed in his observation of the historical Sabine Mountains that he paid scant attention to the huge and rather frightening San Andrea Hospital on a hill on the city side of the Ring Road on the steep Raccordo side where strikers were holding a general assembly. As happens when you drive, his thoughts leapt first here, then there. He was also reconsidering the new research at the University of Kent suggesting that chickens and turkeys have experienced fewer gross gnomic changes than other birds as they evolved from their dinosaur ancestor, when he suddenly became absorbed in the rare appearance of the white mountains standing, it seemed, only a stone’s throw away just before him. He had long ago concluded that after the Alps and the Dolomites, the whole Abruzzi chain of mountains was less grand than historians would have us believe. Not that they had lost their majesty and beauty, but most days they seemed to have moved farther away from Rome ... if you could even see them for the smog. Cities of the world, he mused as he passed the Via Flaminia exit and began the long curve south-westwards, push against the mountains, displacing them in space and time. The Sabines stand there like monuments to nature and eternity, but they seem of little interest to most people. In north Europe the purple Alpine crests and craggy heights are beacons reminding people of vacations to come. Or they are the mirrors of history, and reflect a general unspecified nostalgia. But no one comes here just to see the Sabines. As he left behind him views of the Sabines, the main bulk of the Abruzzi chain covered in white appeared to his left. In their eternal silence the Sabines today seemed defeated and occupied. They had lost their impenetrableness. Sometimes in spring and summer nature in general seemed to have lost its voice. It was part of his work to note that summers today bring less butterflies than once, less grasshoppers and more mosquitoes. Rhododendron is less visible. Perhaps, he sometimes feared, his perceptions had weakened. The permanence of the Abruzzi mountains too seems less permanent, their purple faded, their majesty decadent. Yet the mountains somehow are irresistible, and irreplaceable. Mountains survive, and, he knew, in the end they would triumph. Man’s relationship with mountains has always been ambiguous, he reminded himself as he reached the imperceptible proximity of the exit for Florence and the long curving stretch toward the Ciampino Airport and the dozens of exits to places he no longer knew. The permanence of the mountains has tormented Italy’s invaders since the beginning of time, he recalled. The mountains were merely another hurdle to be overcome before reaching Rome. And today they continue to create hardships for the whole country of fragile earth m – avalanches and landslides. No wonder he preferred the peace of the warm seas practically surrounding his country. Only a perverse fate sent him toward the mountains on this stupid bet, while his friend who, perversely, loves the mountains and mistrusts the sea, was right now headed toward Rome’s own Tyrrhenian Sea. Former invaders perceived an unbearable solitude in the mountains, an isolation from the rest of the world. The ubiquity of the mountains caused some plains people claustrophobia, driving them to despair. Those gave up and returned to the plains. It seemed to him that everyone must choose between escaping from wherever they are or unconsciously accepting their fate and staying fixed. Yet what moves them to choose one or the other is mysterious. Those who leave are looking for something more fulfilling. Or they simply have to escape the labyrinth. Those who stay fixed accept their situation. They either feel no more need for fulfillment than their place in the world offers, or they do not even pose the question, or, perhaps circumstances decide for them. In any case, they feel no need to escape. The voyagers indict the stayers-behind. Stayers-behind cannot understand the motivation of the deserters. Only Adriano of the people he knew is different from those admittedly rather generalized categories: despite his joie de vivre, his carousing and his explorative bent, he seemed to live in a spiritual world or at least act as if he were seeking acceptance in that world. But the masses of people no longer understand each other, no more than they can understand their own strange faces in a mirror. In any case, all of these mountain people have come to know violence. Though most have forgotten, blood has flowed here. Their animal natures are vicious if roused. Zero concluded his ruminations on the philosophical note that all innocence feeds on violence.
In that moment of deep meditation he nearly did not see ahead the red flags waving and then the road block rising across the entire width of the GRA. Already cars whose drivers were unaware of what was happening in Rome were backed up at the barricades. He knew what he had to do: get his ass off this section of the GRA. Thinking fast he barely had time to swing to the right into the Florence exit lane, passed through a short tunnel and then abruptly cut across a twenty-meter grass highway divider, risked a bump or two over a centimeters-high curb back onto the GRA access road from the direction of Florence and managed to get back on the Raccordo headed again west toward Via Cassia and Giustiniana and the City Lights Bar.
Only in that moment did he become aware of the bird perched on his hood, quite near the windshield on the passenger side. He slowed, leaned forward and could hardly believe his eyes: it was a lone starling. He examined the bird that seemed oblivious to the speed of the car. Automatically, Zero looked toward the heavens in search of one of the famous starling “murmurations”, those magnificent formations of even ten thousand starlings performing an eerie aerial exhibition. But no, this one was definitely alone. An exile. It apparently chose flight and isolation from the flock. At ease on the hood it rode all the way to City Lights with him, its feathers not even ruffled despite the speed and switching back and forth among the three lanes, the accelerations and abrupt braking. When Zero parked in the same spot he had departed from some twenty minutes earlier, furious that Adriano’s car was already there, the bird seemed to be staring straight ahead. Not even the slamming of the defective car door disturbed it. Yet it turned its head to the left at the same moment Zero became aware of a shiny black crow settling in on the hood of Adriano’s car also perched near the windshield and also on the right side as if it hoped to close the gap between the two avian specimens, both outsiders but both linked to Rome, the crow natively, the starling an annual visitor to the eternal city. The bigger crow seemed sure of itself. The starling stared back at it defiantly. Now Zero’s friend obviously cheated and lied too and the occupation of his car by the crow sitting there observing the starling was the proof. Though neither bird had shown signs of aggressiveness, suspense filled the air as if an attack were imminent. Surprising therefore that the starling just flew away from this reputedly vicious bird, straight to the heavens where it seemed more in its element than on the hood of a ten-year old car.
He leapt into his eleven-year old turbo VW Golf, set the trip gauge at zero, zipped across the parking plaza, took a right and followed the still new shortcut down a long steep hill, and two minutes later was zooming westwards on the outer lane of the Raccordo on the long stretch whose exits here happen to be from the outer lane. Traffic seemed unusually light. At this rate he would circle the whole city in maybe less than an hour. He had passed Montespaccato at an average of around 120 kilometers an hour, turned on the Antenna 1 all-music station and leaned back against the headrest smiling happily to himself as the sexy Del Rey girl sang her song about summertime sadness and being so lonely, which always reminded him of his two years in the USA at the University of Indiana which today predictably made him wish he were in a bungalow somewhere in the Dolomites just after the first snowfall and the hills were covered in white powder.
No better place to think on a day like this coasting along the Raccordo unimpeded, he told himself. So what about my belated political awakening Zero keeps asking me about? That man! Though he is fair to all, civic-minded, an ecological society member, active in the animal rights movement, separates his trash and pays taxes and all that, I don’t believe a real political thought has ever crossed his mind. True, I was getting used to the easy way of life over there in USA and was almost hooked until … well, until I woke up. Many people fervently dedicated to the cause of justice and universal freedom, I’ve seen, are the same ones who destroy faith in progress with their “reason of State” and who opt for happiness at any cost; that is, even at the cost of cutting off heads without end. The Reason of State in the Fifties and Sixties of last century—Democratic, Communist or purely authoritarian—was no longer founded on divine right or any superior principles but on pure utility. Pragmatism had matured. Therefore Left ideology in his homeland had morphed not into philosophy or politics but into morality: one was not a moral man without a political ideology, and in Europe the only acceptable one was anti-bourgeois, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist Marxism. Such was the ideology of the absolutism that many first embraced, then rejected and abandoned: a faith of all or nothing. If you did not see the truth of Left absolutism, that is, for several decades also Stalinism, you were reactionary. At that point, the religion of progress became the new universal God: Happiness. Paradise on earth. The progressive God could be satisfied only by a will to progress pushed to the extreme limit: totalitarianism. The Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov told the Christ returned to earth after fifteen centuries that “man only wants to be happy. Man wants earthly bread.” That, he tells Christ, is the job of the totalitarian state: man’s happiness on earth. The Grand Inquisitor claims that the Church loves man more than does the creator who placed on man’s shoulders a burden too heavy to bear: the freedom of choice. Therefore state power and ideology must comfort all, the ignorant and the weak and the mean and the sick. Instead of the freedom and the uncertainty and suffering offered by the original Christ, the Church-State offers happiness. Since the weak, hungry and mean masses are not interested in heavenly bread, the Church-State promises earthly bread. The Grand Inquisitor and his Church-State opt for man. In one chapter the Grand Inquisitor articulates his devastating message: God is God and the Church is the Church; the Church does not believe in God and man no longer needs God; the Church promotes His work like a product and uses His name but it renounces Christ; the Church does God’s work for Him; it is a Church without God. The Grand Inquisitor and his Church have opted for mankind. The Church’s work is to correct Christ’s work. Thus the earth is at the most the reign of mediocre happiness … and, in reality he thought, toward universal unhappiness.
That is why I feel the sensation of the tiky-tock sound of the final mysterious word we all look for, the word that will explain all, the word that has to do with our place in the world. It is on the tip of my tongue and I know the unpronounceable of my life is within reach. But the word never arrives.
I once thought innocence was the right word because it is so permissive. Here, amidst the beauty and the boredom, in the good life and in the bigotry of sincerity, innocence has instead become a luxury. People are born, live and die, to the very end grappling at their innocence. And innocent of what anyway? In each man there is an instinct of innocence. But also an instinct of solitude, aloneness, non-involvement, non-responsibility, absolution. An instinct that is perhaps neither destructive nor creative—but a great luxury of a life lived for nothing. No role, no participation in the history of human life.
In that critical moment of his reasoning, a man waving from the emergency lane caught his attention. Adriano slowed and lowered his window in time to hear the man shout, “leave Raccordo at Aurelia or you’re fucked ... road bloc bloc bloc….” Adriano switched lanes to the exit feeder road and had just gotten onto Via Aurelia heading north when he saw the formation in the sky above, another of those annual murmurations headed vaguely south toward St. Peter’s and Vatican City. Traffic was suddenly heavy and he couldn’t even slow down but had time to note the perfect V formation of the usual estimated ten thousand birds flying as one. A few minutes later he took another right onto a country road back toward Giustiniana where he parked in the same spot in front of the train station. He had been gone eighteen minutes. Thank the good old dependable CGIL for the road block.
Walking toward the City Lights Bar, he sang to himself terribly off key Del Rey’s “I got my red dress on tonight, la la la… I’m feeling alive”, and felt deeply Lana’s summer sadness and her loneliness masked in the joy of life. Their table was free but Zero was of course not to be seen, probably tied up in traffic, optimistically speaking, at one of those unlikely places like the exit to Via Casilina or Via Prenestina. He ordered a double grappa.
When a couple of minutes later Zero walked in the door, Adriano stood up and moved away from the table, as if to underline that he too had just arrived and to suggest leaving. Zero instead sat down and called for two grappas. “You cheated, just as I expected you would,” he charged.
“I cheated!” Adriano said indignantly. “You were gone about twenty minutes … as was I.”
“Then we both cheated,” Zero said and sighed deeply.
“I met a road block and escaped.”
“So did I. You should have seen me ripping across the road dividers.”
“And me, speeding along the curvy country road of Via La Storta.”
Zero’s eyes lit up. They touched glasses and drank in relief.
“You know that Kent research I was speaking of …” Zero began
“In your mind, Professor, you were speaking only in your fervent mind. What about Kent?”
“The Kent project is part of a study by a consortium of leading scientists of bird genomes, which tells a story of species evolution. The living descendants of dinosaurs were thought to have undergone a rapid burst of evolution after most dinosaur species had been wiped out. The detailed family tree of modern birds has however confused biologists for centuries and the molecular details of how birds arrived at the spectacular biodiversity of more than 10,000 species is barely known.”
“I saw the most amazing murmuration on my complicated return route,” Adriano began.
Paying him no attention, Zero went on: “One of the Kent professors explained that bird genomes are distinctive in that they have more tiny microchromosomes than any other vertebrate group. These small packages of gene-rich material are thought to have been present in their dinosaur ancestors. And that the chicken has the most similar overall chromosome pattern to its avian dinosaur ancestor….”
“Well, most of us see birds as symbols of freedom,” interrupted the spiritualist Adriano. “And symbols of the future. Their ability to soar high into the sky and their proximity with the sky makes them the envy of us humans who cannot fly without substitute wings. Mankind has always considered birds to be signs of eternal life. Some folklore proposes birds as a transition between life and death. Many even consider them to be an idea or proposal for the future. A flock of starlings as if suspended against the skies offer a glimpse into the otherworldliness of animal life.”
“Listen to this, Adriano, friend and fellow cheater, even I, a one-track academic memorized these lines from Wordsworth’s Tales of a Wayside Inn:
Do you ne'er think what wondrous beings these?
Do you ne'er think who made them, and who taught
The dialect they speak, where melodies
Alone are the interpreters of thought?
Whose household words are songs in many keys,
Sweeter than instrument of man e'er caught!
“Now a strange thing happened on my twenty-minute jaunt, Zero went on. “A bird decided it wanted a lift, so to say. It traveled from around Via Salaria back here perched on the hood of my car and its feathers were not even ruffled. It was a starling.”
“A starling! But I thought they only traveled in flocks.”
“Not this one. And it was out there on my car looking at the crow sitting on yours.”
“A crow. That mean bird … with its god-awful croak of a voice.”
“Yes, but crows too are symbols of the 'other world'.”
“Let’s abandon City Lights and explore new territories for our late lunch,” Adriano proposed. “And I’m inviting because I cheated. There’s a place I want to show you. We can leave your car here.”
“Well now, let’s examine the situation. First of all, I accept your generous invitation. But as far as cheating is concerned, I admit that I cheated as much as you did.”
“Ah well, what’s a little cheating between best friends. As Malaparte once wrote there is nothing more rewarding than cheating on your friends.”
Zero stopped near their cars, disillusioned that the two birds had disappeared, and said sadly, “Still, they couldn’t stay there on the hoods of our cars forever. They have other things to attend to. Flying around here and there as they do.”
“OK, will you now please forget those fucking birds. They’ve got their world and we, we have to make do with ours ... You’ll see. Now, off we go to Testaccio! Free as birds, we are.”
“Oh, Adriano, my free-thinking philosopher friend, do you really think we’re ever as free as birds as you were saying. We have to keep our feet on the ground … as they tell us all our lives. Christ, where are we going anyway? Is this still Testaccio? I don’t recognize anything here anymore.”
“It is almost otherworldly, friend. Oh, God, speaking of worldliness I forgot to put my access-parking pass on the windshield. Hope the video camera didn’t get our image. Remember the old Via Galvani, well, just look at this now. Looks like Piccadilly Circus! Oh man, and there’s a parking spot, just where we want to be.”
In front of Checchino’s very elegant trattoria, they both stopped in their tracks, afraid to pass through the ivy-covered entrance way now guarded by two birds sitting like watch dogs on tables on each side of the entrance: Zero’s starling on one side, Adriano’s crow on the other – staring at them.
Gaither Stewart writes fiction and journalism. He is a senior editor for the American online publications, The Greanville Post and Cyrano's Journal Today. His works are published in venues throughout the world. His latest novel, The Fifth Sun and a collection of political essays, Recollection of Things Learned--Remembering Socialism are published by Punto Press, New York. He lives with his wife, Milena, in Rome, Italy.