The First Time He Saw Me
The first time he saw me, Vezzosi greeted me with shotgun blasts.
For fear of getting there late I had left the house way early, and it wasn’t even nine o’clock yet when I came to a very elegant wrought iron gate, all decorated with ornate figures, in front of which the horrendous mule path I had been following for kilometers came to an end.
Through the ample empty spaces between the decorations, I could see a big lawn and two giant oak trees that cast their shadows over the façade of the bulky box of bare stone that was Vezzosi’s house, immersed in absolute stillness. I turned off my motor scooter and tried calling the number they had given me, but no one answered. I took a look around. There was no doorbell, only a chain hanging from a little bronze bell. When I pulled on it, the bell swung back and forth in total silence: there was no clapper.
I was still smiling about that when I heard the loud blasts of three shots and the whiz of the bullets grazing by me. I ran over to a tree and flattened myself against its trunk, my back toward the house, my hammering heart vibrating in my temples.
“This guy’s crazy,” I told myself in dismay, gasping with fear, as I saw stretching out before me the twisting, dusky mule path, marred by potholes and razor-sharp rocks that I had just rode over to get where I was, the gloomy stand of oak trees where I’d been forced to take refuge, the cliff-like precipice I’d had to ride over, the clearing that had suddenly opened up in front of me, mysteriously, to reveal the desolate hilltop that the hulking house was perched on.
“A raving lunatic,” I concluded, and then I turned toward the house again and saw a guy running down the slope of the lawn, with something in hand. Terrorized, I leaped onto my scooter, turned it on, and gave it so much gas that the wheels skidded out from under me on the dirt road and both of us fell to the ground, me and the scooter. I sprang to my feet and was about to run away down the mule path, when I heard my name called:
“Doctor De Vito!”
I turned around. The gate had opened, and about fifty feet away from me there was a Black guy with silver hair, coming toward me. He must have been fifty years old, maybe a little older. When he got close, I saw that his skin was really dark, and there was a shiny little gold ring sticking out of his left earlobe.
“Good morning, Doctor,” he said with a little gasp. “I’m Mamadou, we spoke on the phone.”
“Oh, yes, sure. Good morning, Mamadou.”
I held out my right hand, which he closed briefly in an iron grip.
“Welcome. Go right on up to the house. Don’t worry, it’s safe.”
And he turned on the brightest smile I had ever seen in my life.
It wasn’t only the effect of the contrast between his white teeth and his skin; his whole face was smiling: eyes, mouth, cheeks all seemed to melt into a network of wrinkles to compose a portrait of benevolence. It was impossible not to trust someone who smiled like that, and so I smiled back, dusted off my shirt and pants, pulled the scooter upright, turned on the engine, and asked him if he wanted a ride, but he shook his head no.
“No, I don’t ride on those things,” he answered in perfect Italian, slightly tinged with Florentine, and showed me his iPhone. “Plus, I have to do my ten thousand steps.”
As I was going through the gate, I couldn’t help but admire the lightness of those thin strips that curled to form flowers and animals, and I had just come to a stop next to the front door of the house, when suddenly more shots rang out: still louder, still closer, incredibly close. I sure don’t know anything about rifles, but these weren’t the pops of hunting rifles. They were thunderous blasts, and dry, sharp, mean—the shots that are heard in war movies—and they sounded like they were exploding right over my head.
I made a jolt with every blast, and I didn’t get down off the bike. I didn’t move at all from where I was. I bent over and shut my eyes, and I kept them shut until I heard Mamadou coming toward me, chuckling. As I entered the house, I raised my eyes to look at the stone wall: there was a balcony; it too had a wrought iron railing, right above the door. That was no doubt where he’d fired the last shots from, the Maestro.
Mamadou was still chuckling as he led me into a large living room with a glass wall looking out on a veranda in pietra serena, which, in turn, looked out on a splendid view of Florence. I was asking myself how it was possible to see it so well, considering the long road I had traveled to get there, when I heard a voice bellow behind me:
“Zapata, good morning! Welcome!”
It was Vezzosi, coming toward me, all smiles, his hand held out, and the first thought that came to mind was that he was much, much older; the thirty-year-old with the ravenous eyes in the pictures taken in 1995 had turned into a fat guy with a huge chest that spread out in all directions until it blended into his belly, as though over the years his young man’s abdominals had grown a bulletproof vest made of flesh.
He was just under six feet, and he had broad shoulders like someone who swam a lot as a kid, a solid neck, strong legs, like a football player’s, and long, graying hair, almost down to his shoulders, a little wavy, a little dirty. He was wearing a jeans shirt with mother of pearl buttons that were pulled tight over his belly, light, wide-legged pants with a hole in one knee, and square-toed boots.
Handsome he was not, but he had regular features, especially his nose, perfectly straight, and being overweight flattened out the wrinkles in his wide, vivacious face, in which you could still make out the face of the little boy he had been. Small brown eyes, a high forehead by way of a slightly receding hairline, his shiny white teeth worn by years of grinding played a supporting role to a bright smile that gave the impression of having swept a ton of women off their feet, in the past, before something ugly had happened. Because, looking at Vezzosi, it was easy to see that something ugly had happened to him.
“I see you’re not exactly a giant, Zapata. Do you make it to five eight?” he said, squeezing my right hand.
I wasn’t prepared, and so I wasn’t able to respond to the squeeze, and it hurt a little, too, but I forced myself to smile.
“Good, then you must have a big dick. Good for you. Mine is short, but it’s got a nice circumference, and it’s still frisky, mighty frisky.”
He looked at me in silence for a few seconds. He seemed embarrassed, as though he had finished the lines that had been written for him, and he didn’t know what else to say.
“Well,” he went on, “now that we’ve introduced ourselves, Mamadou will show you your room and take you on a little tour of the house and the garden. After lunch you can do whatever you like. Read, write, study, sleep, contemplate, go for a walk, watch a movie, take a shower, or beat off. Whatever you want. This is a place where freedom reigns, and more than that, total anarchy. Not family, nor church, nor country, nor law. I’ll see you at dinner. At nine o’clock, sharp. Ciao, Zapata.”
“Can we take a picture together?”
My mother had asked me to, a picture of the two of us together. Take a selfie together.
“Absolutely not,” Mamadou chimed in.
“No, come on, why not? He’s got a nice face, this kid.” Vezzosi came over next to me and put an arm on my shoulder, and I suddenly smelled the tenuous, distant perfume of my dad’s aftershave, the one whose name was a number. I looked at him and smiled.
“What’s up?” he asked. And me:
And I snapped the picture.