Lazily strolling around the city centre on a sunny Saturday morning, unusual for the season, Mr. Persichetti, a surveyor, impeccable in his tailored suit, noticed that a figure on the opposite side of the street, with his back turned to him, was looking in a shop window.
«Oh my God! It’s Mr. Oreste Acerbi, the accountant, the man who speaks in proverbs! Hope he doesn’t see me, otherwise I will have to…» and he quickened his pace to escape that unexpected encounter.
«Mr. Persichetti! Mr. Persichetti!».
Hearing that dreaded call he stiffened. The most boring human being in the world had identified him and now was calling to him at the top of his voice. He displayed a smile that would have been seen as false by any normal person, then pretended to be pleasantly surprised and held out his hand for the standard cordial greetings.
«Mr. Acerbi! It’s a pleasure!».
«Well, my dear Persichetti. Look who’s back from the dead!».
Here we go, thought an annoyed Mr. Persichetti, desolately remembering that the man not only spoke in sayings but had also the awful habit of beginning his sentences by repeating other people’s questions.
«So Mr. Acerbi, you’re right, we haven’t met for a while. And tell me… how are you?».
«How am I? Good heavens, I’m fine indeed! Health is the only thing I’m not lacking at all! Thanks to my strong constitution. Modesty aside, I’m still an old rock. As you know very well… An apple a day keeps the doctor away».
Persichetti the surveyor, disheartened by that first wave of platitudes, tried to keep things jokey.
«Sure, the constitution. Although, one must be careful because this government is doing everything possible to change the Constitution».
He realized his attempt had failed; indeed, expecting any appreciation of wit from such a limited mind was only a waste of time. «And tell me … how is your wife doing?».
«My wife? Oh! She’s fine, even if she has never got used to the pace of life in this big city of ours! My grandfather always told me. It is better to marry a neighbour than a stranger!».
«Why? Where is your wife from?».
«Oh, she’s from Piedmont. And you know the Piedmontese, false and courteous. She seemed to appreciate the endless possibilities offered by Milan, but for a while now she’s been insisting on returning to the Langhe, her beloved Langhe, as she calls it. Ah! How fickle women are! Women, wind and fortune, changing like the moon! Though I have told her loud and clear: remember my dear, whoever turns his back on Milan, turns his back on his living!».
Now their conversation was taking a turn for the worse. Persichetti didn’t want to get involved in other people’s family quarrels, knowing that they are, or at least may be, a source of hours and hours of empty babble. He brought it around to the topic of children, hoping not to stir up a hornet’s nest.
«What about your two children, Mr. Acerbi, are they all right?».
«My children? Oh, my dear man… you know what they say. Small children, small troubles, big children, big troubles! And since they are both grown up now, you know how it is…! My son, after two years of Economics at University, suddenly discovers a visceral love for the humanities and comes to me with the brainwave of starting over again by enrolling in modern literature. And I said, son, remember, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know“. But to no effect! Stubborn as a mule. The small one, well, I keep on calling her “my little girl” but she will be married in two months, you know? The small one, as I said, since the wedding day has been set has become intractable. Nothing suits her anymore, the silliest excuse can trigger endless bickering. However, you know, the old saying is exactly right: daughters to be wed, cannot be led».
Mr Persichetti listened sadly to the flood of words that, bar an unexpected and resounding accident, would go on for ever, Acerbi the accountant being a well-known bird of prey. Relentless with his victims, he was unlikely to let them go until he had tortured them with his beak and the claws of his dreary obviousness. And in fact, he continued undaunted in his irritating lament.
«In this absurd situation of anarchy, in my own house which has become a madhouse, I’ve lost all authority as head of the household, my wife always ready to comply with all the madness of the children. Actually, the man who thinks he can control his own house is deluded! Men are the heads of families, my friend, but women are the necks that turn those heads! And this is not a saying of mine, my dear man, it’s a Chinese one. It comes from a people whose millennial wisdom is second to none. Can you figure that…».
«And what about your job? How is your work going?» cut in Mr. Persichetti abruptly, fearing that the topic of his family could prove to be a bottomless pit.
«My job, you say? Oh, work is my only satisfaction. Working keeps you young! And then… That famous American playwright, whose name I always forget, used to say: “Work is a drug that looks like a medicine”. Think of the absurdity of the modern world! Young people nowadays spend a lot of time complaining about the lack of jobs and then the rest of their life complaining about the jobs they have found. But they don’t think… “a young man idle, an old man needy”. And then, I don’t remember where I read it, but one sentence struck me for its simple truth: Work makes you free!».
Persichetti eyes widened and a shiver ran down the length of his spine. He thought with dismay that, precisely because of the place where it was displayed, that ill-famed “Arbeit macht frei” that most ominous of all lies had, in the accountant Acerbi’s tainted mind, become a cliché, a nice little quotation, a shared and wise proverb to be filed between “you break it, you pay for it, you own it” and “an old hen makes a good soup”.
He decided that enough was enough and spared no effort in shaking off his intolerable acquaintance. He looked nervously at his watch and pretended to remember he had an engagement in a few minutes.
«I’m sorry, Mr. Acerbi, but it’s late and I remember I have an appointment I cannot postpone. I have to run off…».
«But where are you running to, Persichetti? Remember… Rush runs to meet disaster!».
Persichetti the surveyor was barely able to stifle the retort that this ill-chosen expression might have deserved on another occasion; he even refrained from making the usual gesture to ward off bad luck and quickly cut to his final greetings.
«…Give my regards to your wife, I wish your son all the best for his new university career and, above all, my best wishes for happiness to the bride. Mr. Acerbi, take care!».
«My regards to you too, my dear man. I wish you and your family a future of peace,” he added, getting ready to cross the street, still facing the surveyor Persichetti: «And remember what Lorenzo the Magnificent used to say: Let him who would be happy be so: tomorrow’s sun may never ri…».
The crash was terrible. Persichetti the surveyor, looking around to see what had caused the loud bang, saw the body of his acquaintance lying on the ground in a pool of blood. Just beyond, momentarily halted, stood the profile of a number 92 bus.
Persichetti the surveyor, with an ambiguous smile on his face, couldn’t help but sentencing:
«It’s true, Mr. Acerbi… “Life on this earth is nothing but a continuous battle”» and resuming his walk, he continued thoughtfully «or perhaps, on such an occasion “Death comes when you least expect it”! is more appropriate, or even “Death is a remedy for all ills”! No, no, better again … “Death is something you can’t do twice…».
Translation by Amneris di Cesare (edited by Roma O’Flaherty)