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Gray Eminence
by Davide Mana

He wakes up every morning at six twenty.

Gets up, puts on his carpet slippers and goes to the bathroom.

Takes a leak, washes his face.


Goes to the kitchen and fixes up a coffee, with cream.

By six forty he is in his room dressing.

When his wife Eva died, back in '78, for a while he found himself unable to be fully clothed and on his way out before seven fifteen.

The adoption of Nescafe helped him get back to schedule.

That and a dishwashing machine.

By seven he is out of his door, observing his reflection in the elevator door glass as he waits for the thing to reach his floor. The sparse, precisely combed black hair adhering to his skull, the polished glasses. He adjusts his small tie-knot.

It used to come faster. Nowadays, it's usually up to the seventh floor, where the little bitch living there takes it when she comes home late at night.

By seven ten he is at the tram stop, waiting for number 18.

Number 18 usually arrives around seven twenty, give or take a few minutes as the system is slowly but inexorably deteriorating.

He sits down in the last seat, left.

The street on the other side of the tram window washes over his eyes without leaving the slightest impression.

Number 18 leaves him by the old building that used to house the local administration, and now belongs to the university.

It takes him twenty seven steps to get to the old cafe', unless it's snowing, and then it takes him forty two.


Looks around.

Goes to his table.

Orders an espresso, with a French croissant.

If it's monday he does not look at the newspaper, as it's generally devoted only to the sunday football matches.

The coffee and the croissant arrive.

A few years back, in '85, divining his routine, the bartender greeted him once with his order ready at his favourite table, and with a smile of self indulgent complacency.

He had paid the stuff and ordered another, leaving the untouched cup and the cake on the table.

Taught the uncouth slob his place.

Never happened again.

"Professore…" says Leo, the barman, as he deposits the battered Coca-Cola sponsored tray on the small round surface of the table.

The man somehow got the notion he's a retired teacher.

He hands him his due, exactly.

Not a bad sort, Leo, for a meridional. His greasy appearance is somewhat tempered by his almost human disposition and feelings.

He sits and observes the coming and going of students, with their black, oversize sweaters and thick scarves, the girls sheathed in leather short skirts and paratrooper boots, feeding at the counter.

He looks at them entering the Mathematics building that used to be the Casa del Fascio, when his mother was young.

The single chime of the clock of the nearby church awakens him from his mother lips and bosoms and hips reverie at eight thirty.

Stands up, goes to the door, crosses the square.

The Civical Library opens as he enters the lobby.

The doorman has been dissuaded from greeting him.

He climbs the steps to the newspapers collections.

He greets the librarian, and asks for a newspaper collection.

Always something between October 1922 and September 1943.

He has a special card allowing him to consult the originals and not the silly microfiched copies.

The assistant takes him to a private room, and sets the bound volume on the table.

He takes off his coat, places a small notebook and an HB Staedler pencil by the book, and sits down.

He knows these papers by heart.

Every single word in them.

While his eyes run along the black on sepia pictures and they focus in his mind, he jots down the things that need to be done.

Little more than minor adjustments here and there.

Funds to be allocated, resistance to be removed, attention to be deflected.

Very general things.

It's almost ten years, now, that he has not designed and executed something major.

He writes down notes till a quarter to twelve.

At a quarter to exactly, the black leather cover of the notebook snaps over the yellow pages covered with strange squiggly signs.

"You're a stenographer!" observed a young assistant four years back, coming earlier to collect the volume and stealing a glance at the notes.

She had been a little over twenty five, a good stud cow frame under the fancy charcoal colored tailleur, good bones, luscious black hair, the glint of craftiness coming from undeserved education sparkling in her green eyes.

Smart enough, in her animal way, to know what was coming, despite the heroin and the contusions, to know what was coming all along, and be scared.


Taking care of her had not been unpleasant.

The cleanup job had been less than perfect, though, a clear sign that the lower echelons were getting slack, and ample justification for the car crash that had taken the four enlisted kids as they were returning to their barracks after a weekend leave.

Blame it on saturday night, disco and recreational drugs.

Blame it in their damned criminal slovenliness.

But by that time it was too late already.

Being summer, the press had latched on the missing woman story like maggots on a ripe bit of flesh.

It had been necessary to take that neapolitan twelve years old in earnest and put him in the council reservoir to give them something tastier to bandy around.

Often, remembering the frantic exultation as the hubbub had died down, he reflects that after that Belgian moron got himself caught, that kind of diversion can turn out to be more dangerous than the prime target itself.

But thank God's there still the Albanians.

He has a light lunch in a small trattoria just off the square.

Bistecca alla milanese with salad, unless it's friday, when he takes a fillet of plaice with a boiled potato.

As he is waiting for the bill, he takes out the notebook, tears away the annotated pages and puts them in an envelope.

Some days there's more pages, some days less.

Some days it's a single row of glyphs on the yellow paper.

The envelope he drops in a mailbox just out of the ugly MacDonald they built on Piazza Castello.

The repulsive kids hanging out bathing in the oily fried meat fumes look at him and laugh, often.

"Guarda, un pinguino!"

They'll be dead in less than five years anyway, so he does not care.

They can take their leisure while they can.

It's now almost two in the afternoon.

He goes to the bookshop round the corner.

Browses the shelves, listening to the guy at the counter talking with the owner, a self proclaimed faggot and a kike to boot.

On thursday afternoons old miss DeBenedetti visits the bookshop.

She's an old frail woman with bluish hair and old fashioned clothes, the only survivor of her family.


She's extremely courteous with everybody, a sure sign that the Germans did teach her some proper manners while she was stashed safely away from the front and the action and the danger.

A walking corpse.

The sight of old miss DeBenedetti generally starts him on another of his mother reveries.

As the bookshelves disappear in a late autumn haze he tries to imagine his father's face.

A new one each time.

He sees him hovering over his mother, sweating, grinning, features contracted. Sees her face, too, eyes wide open as usual, moaning and groaning with each new thrust, sucking up the hurt and the laceration, relishing it.

Wonders how it would be, to step in this imagined tableau right now and extend his hand, like he did with the old priest back in '69, extend his hand and baptize his ivory-handed new dagger with his father's blood right there, as the faceless man is fulfilling his destiny implanting him in his mother's womb.

The dream fades.

Sometimes he buys a book that later he throws away, in one of the trash-bins along the road.

If it's thursday, and by now it's almost a quarter past three, he has to unload the charge that the sight of skeletal miss DeBenedetti has built in his loins.

The Via Nizza arcades are alive with birds by the station, jumping in their crowded cages, yellow canaries and outlawed goldfinches, as old men buy seeds and sand for their pets at home.

He buys one of the women hanging there.

It's impossible to find an Italian whore that's under forty five and not a junky, but he's not coming in foreign places.

And all the others are junkies too, anyway.

She takes him upstairs and names her price.

He takes her briefly, a rapid and painless switch that does not allow time for the filth in her brain to cling to his conscience. He fucks himself and then hands her back her carcass.

Drops the money on the floor and leaves.

It's four thirty, because he came here strolling along Via Roma.

The five o'clock number 18 tram is crowded with workers on their way to the FIAT second shift.

They smell of onions and talc powder, cheap soap, tobacco.

Talk about money, football, lottery.

They get their subjunctives wrong and talk too loud.

Their bodies press him, grunting and moaning they step on his feet.

A young man in a corduroy jacket looks up to him and rises, awkwardly, putting a black-covered English paperback in his pocket.

"Prego…" he says, offering his seat.

When this happens he shakes his head, and gets down at the following stop, and walks back home.

Walking and thinking.

He's home no later than seven.

There's never post in his box.

He climbs the short stair to the landing and pushes the elevator call button with his left thumb.

Steps in.

Nose twitches at the unpleasant smell of the fourth floor engineer's cheap sigarette.

Pushes the button again, this time with the index finger.

He's home.

He gets in, locks the door, takes off the coat.

Switches on the light, goes to the bathroom.

This last fifteen years he has no longer felt like dinner.

By nine o'clock the apartment is silent.

He goes back to his room.

The bed's been made, the window is open, unless this is between november and february.

Watches out.

Closes the window.

On sunday he rests.

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