The square. The portico. The clock tower, standing out from the city hall behind the square, reminds the townspeople of the uncertainty of time. On the other side, the bell tower, beating time every sixty minutes, reminds believers of its presence.
On the sides of the square: coffee bar signs and small, unoccupied tables, lashed by the wind which stirs up dust and dirt. A filthy city. You can see it especially when the northwest wind blows; otherwise, you don’t even notice it.
And I wouldn’t have notice him, if this foul wind hadn’t chased away all the townspeople and tourists; that man, curled up in a little corner with his legs crossed, securing a stack of books in front of him with a few stones.
I am on my way home, but my curiosity gets the better of me. I approach him. He is in his fifties and very thin; he stares at me with a proud look, whilst I walk towards him. The books in front of him are all the same, so flimsy that they are continuously blown about by the persistent gusts of wind. The book cover has an awkward illustration: a name, a surname, and a title: Poems. The man trembles in his worn out coat whilst he stares at me with a hopeful look.
I can’t help myself but ask: ‘Have you brought these stones from home yourself?’
‘No, I picked them up today along the river. With this wind, I knew I’d need them’.
‘Are these poems yours?’ I ask him stupidly, pointing at the books.
‘Yes’, he says briefly.
‘Self-printed?’ I ask ironically.
He stares at me with a severe gaze. ‘No’, he says. ‘They were printed by a publisher who didn’t believe enough in them to distribute them. But if you want a copy, it’s just one euro’.
‘Have you sold many?’
‘Not a single one, today’.
‘An off-day then?’
‘It’s never a good day’, he smiles, as if he is about to make a joke. ‘But it’s normal, for someone who lives a hand-to-mouth life’. He coughs.
‘Unemployed?’, I ask him.
‘Fired’, he promptly answers.
‘You said one euro?’
‘Yes. Just one euro. Can’t you see how thin these little books are?’
I search my pockets, but I remember that I spent my last coin at the vending machine in the office.
‘I’m sorry’, I say taking out my wallet. ‘Do you have any change?’
‘What do you think?’, he replies ironically.
A ten euro note is the smallest I have on me. I look at the man, he is trembling and proud. I hand him the faded red note. ‘It doesn’t matter. Keep the change’.
He looks at me crossly, then he moves the stones and begins to pile up the books. When he has enough, he hands them over to me. ‘You paid for ten copies’.
‘What will I do with ten copies?’, I say without taking them.
‘Give them away. If you like what I wrote, it’ll be a nice present. And someone else will know my poems’.
‘Well, no, it doesn’t matter’, I say, moving back. ‘One is more than enough. And you will be all right for the day’.
He laughs. ‘And what a nice day it is!’. Then he becomes serious, and adds: ‘I can’t accept it. Either ten or nothing’.
‘So ten it will be’, I accept, yielding to his pride.
I take the books, put them in my pockets and smile at him. I’d like to say ‘have a good day’, but it would seem as if I was mocking him. ‘See you’, I say, and start heading home.
‘See you’, he replies as I walk away.
‘Will what he has written be any good, at least?’, I ask myself. ‘I hope they are worth more than what I paid. And what is the poet’s name? Oh yes, I didn’t ask him’.
I take the little books out of my pocket. I am about to read the author’s name, when suddenly a pedestrian bumps into me and without even apologising, makes me drop them. I bend over to pick them up, but they have fallen into a puddle.
I turn around to swear at the idiot, then I change my mind: I don’t want to quarrel, but just to go home, to my warm house.
I leave the books in the puddle: they’re spoiled by now. And in the end I bought them just because I felt pity for that poor man. Anyway, who still reads poetry these days?
Translation by Stefano Bragato (edited by Ester Tossi)