by Peter Byrne
(Swans - January 11, 2010)
"He spoke to me," said Richie, excited.
Richie placed his backpack of schoolbooks on the sofa. It was heavy for a skinny eleven-year-old.
"What did he say?" asked his mother.
She was plump and forty, with an imperturbable manner, a good part irony, for use with children. Richie's father thought it less educational than she did.
"Oh, he asked my name and how old I was."
"Well that was easy enough to answer."
"He speaks Italian."
"He'd better or he'll starve in Italy."
"But why should he know Italian? He's black. He's from some weird place."
"I learnt Italian, didn't I? And I'm from a weird place where everyone speaks English."
"Yeah, but if you couldn't ask in Italian you'd still eat."
"Why is that exactly?"
"You're not different like him. You're white."
"More like gray with pink highlights."
"That's it. Your Dad's born here and wears clean shirts. I iron them. So we eat regular."
"The man didn't try to sell me anything. He didn't even have a pack of stuff to sell with him."
"Not all the immigrants are peddlers. Some of them pick our tomatoes. That's African tomato sauce we put on our spaghetti."
"But the men in the piazza at night are all selling things. CDs, lighters, clocks, umbrellas, and belts. Hundreds of belts. What's the idea of those?"
"Could be that some big-time preacher climbed up on a rock in the middle of Africa and told people how Italy was in trouble. The country needed help. All those shiny young men with muscles took it to heart. They set out on a crusade to lend Italians a hand to keep their pants up."
"Come on. I don't believe that. It's one of your stories."
"So did you ask this man his name?"
"I was afraid it would be one of those funny ones, like Whambo or something."
"Did you ask his age?"
"Of course not. He's a man. I wonder why he always hangs around in those trees by the old tower."
"That was your chance to ask him."
"I'll ask Dad."
"Your father thinks he's moved in to live there."
"He can't live there. It's not a house. One whole side has fallen down. There's no bathroom. And there's a tree growing right inside through the floor."
"The man may be only making do with the tower until he finds something better. Like us, when we were in that little apartment in town."
"No way! Not like us! Our place had two balconies and an old woman who swept the stairs."
"Your friend may be looking for some stairs and an old woman."
"Stop it, Mom. Can't you be serious? Is this man one of those illegals that Dad talks about?"
"Maybe, but you can't be sure."
"Well, legal or illegal, it wouldn't show on his face. He could have an identical twin brother who was legal while he was illegal. Or the other way around. Legal and illegal look the same."
"Someone would know, wouldn't they?"
"The police could find out. It would take two of them, one for each side of your friend."
"One carabiniere on his own might be ashamed or too lazy to do the job and tell his capo he couldn't find -- what's his name?"
"I said it might be something like Whambo."
"Or else the carabiniere on his own might ask Whambo for money for not finding him."
"That would be illegal."
"Yes. The carabiniere would be breaking the law and Whambo could be there legally."
"So only the carabiniere would be an illegal?"
"Right. That's why there would be two carabinieri, a bright one and a dumb one."
"Always a pair like that?"
"Always. They come that way, like married couples."
"What would the bright one do?"
"Ask Whambo for his papers. If he dug the right papers out of his pocket he would be legal. If he only came up with an old handbill from the supermarket or a greasy letter from home, he'd be illegal."
"You're not telling me stories again? Something illegal is a crime. The law gets broken. That's why they have jails."
"Yes, but there are different kinds of crimes. There's white-collar crime. That's something that one of your nice uncles might commit. Or not paying income tax -- half the people you see in church are committing that crime. Speeding in your car or triple parking are crimes too. Every second driver who passes on the road breaks that law."
"If most people are criminals, why would the carabinieri come to get the twin with the handbill and old letter in his pocket?"
"Because there are also different kinds of criminals. People look at them differently. If the criminal is someone like us, his crime is less serious. If he's someone the whole country knows, like our Prime Minister, it's only a comic-strip crime, something that runs in the papers for a while till people get tired of it."
"He doesn't go to jail?"
"Nope. Important people have more important places to go than jail. This -- what did you say his name might be?"
"Nobody knows Whambo. He's not like us. He might have a whole bellyful of strange crimes inside him waiting to pop out. That scares people. But they know the Prime Minister. They've seen his mother's picture in the paper and watched him having a fainting fit on TV. They've said tut-tut when they skimmed over the long list of his crimes. He's one of the family."
"But what could Whambo actually have done wrong?"
"He'd have come into Italy the wrong way."
"What way is that?"
"He might just have walked over the mountains or come with friends in a little boat. Once here, he'd have been too shy to introduce himself. He'd have had his mind on finding a place to sleep and a job."
"But what about you. You once came to Italy."
"I didn't walk. I knew where I was going to sleep. I wasn't thinking about work. I introduced myself properly."
"So you're legal and the others are illegal."
"I told you that it's hard to tell the difference."
"All that's not very good. It's confusing."
"Yes, everything was clearer a couple of centuries ago. If they decided you were illegal, they marked it on your body."
"You couldn't get the mark off?"
"It was pretty hard. If you managed, they had a better way. They'd cut your hand off. No confusion then."
"Just now, which of my uncles were you talking about?"
"They're all nice, aren't they?"
"I suppose so. Look. Why couldn't we get this Whambo some white collars? They can't cost much."
"That sounds reasonable. You ask your father to do it."
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