The Central was the historical bar in town, situated like a breach in the walls that surrounded the square along with an agonizing greengrocer’s store and a takeaway pizza restaurant. Gianluigi Cazzoletti, also called Cazzialtrui [Translator’s note: somebody who minds other people’s fucking business], had inherited the bar from his parents. Many years before, when his wife died in childbirth as did the baby she carried, he had changed the name of the bar calling it Aurora, like his wife’s name. No memorial operation ever was less successful, since for everybody it kept on being the Central coffee bar.
For many years, Maria had been a constant haunter of the square. She sprang out of the alley and sat on the benches that surrounded the fountain: in summer under the shade of alders and in winter in bright sunshine. She stayed there a while until her husband Bepi, seated next to her on a wheel-chair, made her understand that he was tired and wanted to go back home.
The poor Bepi had been a customer of Central bar. Always impeccable in his vicuna trousers and his tweed jacket with patches on the elbows, he looked like a real country gentleman, just externally though, because when he used to lose a match playing briscola [Translator’s note: a card game], he stood up making his chair creak, threw the cards on the table and insulted poor Pietro, his neighbour and, among the bar customers, the only one willing to partner up with him. He used to go out of the bar slamming the door and, once at home, he kept on heaping abuse on Maria, and sometimes he also beaten her up. At least, that was what Pietro was ready to swear.
One afternoon of some years before, Pietro had arrived at the bar with the news that Bepi had been rushed to the hospital for a stroke and that he was close to death. But he did not die. He had come back home half-paralysed and indistinctly angry with the whole world, but especially with Maria.
From that moment, Maria started to go regularly to the square bringing her husband to get some fresh air. Gigi approached them every day by saying: “How are you today, Bepi?” The man answered mumbling and Maria diagnosed categorically: “Today he is not looking fine”, meaning that it was not a good day and it was better not to insist. Gigi went back inside the bar and postponed his attempt to the day after.
Three, four, five years had passed. Nobody would be able to tell how many exactly. One morning, Pietro arrived at the bar announcing that Bepi had died. “What a relief for that poor woman!” he added. “His illness had made him even worse”.
“Yes, taking care of him must not have been easy”.
“Even if he did not speak, whenever he wanted something he was able to make himself understood well. He let out such screams! And Maria, just like a little dog, followed him, served and revered him”.
“And what else could she do, the poor woman?”
“Well, if I were at her place, I would have put him in a shelter and forget him”.
Maria did not show herself for a while. Pietro claimed that she stayed at home and licked her wounds because, for some unfathomable mystery, she was very fond of Bepi.
Some weeks after, coming from the alley at the end of the square a beautiful smart lady appeared. Her hair done, blue trousers, a small bright-red jacket at hip height and high-heeled shoes had taken the place of the house dresses she used to wear when she came to the square with Bepi.
Gigi recognized her only when she sat at one of the outdoor tables.
“Good morning, Maria, what a surprise! How are you doing? You look fine”.
“Actually, I am fine, thank you” she answered lowering her eyes and blushing a little.
“What shall I bring to you?”
“One cappuccino and a brioche, please”.
Gigi appeared a few minutes later. “Here you are!”, he said while placing the order on the table.
“I was really sorry for Bepi: It’s true that he had been sick for a certain time, but he was not so old. How old was he?”
“Seventy-five”, she answered in a brusque way.
“Well! He could have lived a little longer”, Gigi sighed.
“No, for heaven’s sake!”, Maria cried feeling immediately sorry for her outburst. She drank her cappuccino, paid and left Gigi pondering over that last sentence.
The ritual recurred exactly the same way during each of the following days: cappuccino, brioche and a chat with Gigi who had finally got confirmations of a series of information that he never had the opportunity of checking before. Maria was almost seventy and had two grandsons of ten and eleven years old that she had seen only a couple of times, because her sons lived ten thousand kilometres away from her. As for Bepi, to name him as if he were still alive, he was really a piece of work, if not worse.
“I was fond of him. But, lately, he had become heavy-going. And luckily, he went away because I could not stand the situation any longer”, she added once.
“Maria, don’t say such things. I’m sure that you miss Bepi”.
“Not at all! Do you know how nice it is not to have anybody screaming and complaining? You have no idea of what a treat is to come here for a coffee every morning and having the possibility of talking to you in peace. Now, there’s somebody else in my mind”, she added with a seraphic expression.
“And who is he? Somebody I know?”
“Of course, it’s you!”
Gigi turned embarrassed to the counter pretending to take something. He could not believe that!
“Gigi, do you know where people go dancing?”
“Well, honestly, I don’t know. I’m always here”.
“You know, when I was young, I loved to go dancing. What do you think, could we go together one evening?”
She is really trying it on with me, thought Gigi, surprised by the fact that those advances came from a woman who had recently been left a widow and that they were addressed to him who, twenty-five years after his wife’s death, was still in mourning.
“Well, I don’t know. I’m not really the kind who goes dancing”.
So Maria had paid and left him there stewing in his own juice.
Of course, she was really attractive: she did not look her age and the conversation with her was always sparkling. But Gigi was fifteen years younger. There would be nothing wrong to go for a dance with her, but if he met somebody he knew, how could he explain it? And what would people say in town? She has been a widow since such a short time! And he was alone since such a long time. He would not even know how to start with a woman.
“Hey, Gigi, is it you who comforts the widow?” His customers would have mocked him. Or: “You finally decided to have a woman! But you could have chosen one a little bit younger!”
He did not go for a dance, but each morning he looked forward to seeing Maria coming for her cappuccino.
“Hey there, Gigi, you will not see me for some days”, she announced one morning of a few weeks later.
He looked at her with a questioningly expression.
“I’m leaving for a cruise. One week”.
“Wow! And where are you going?”
“In the Mediterranean Sea: Greece”.
“And who are you going with?” he allowed himself to ask, pricked by jealousy.
“By myself. It’s a cruise for singles. What about you? You could come, too”.
“Me? And what about the bar? To whom shall I leave it? I should close it”.
“Isn’t there anybody who can substitute you for some days?”
“But without any warning…”
“So, what’s the problem? You will see: when you come back, you will find all your customers here. I will certainly come back for my breakfast”, she chuckled.
But obviously Gigi did not pull down the shutters and did not leave for that cruise. He maintained an unusual dumbness and the warm welcome usually given to his customers had changed into a less friendly coldness of one person who is physically present at the bar, but whose head is elsewhere.
“He is unhappy because Maria went on a cruise by herself!” Pietro threw out once. Gigi had gone red up to his thinning hair.
Finally, the week ended. Gigi was looking forward to seeing Maria back. He had decided to tell her that he would go for a dance, that he would bring her wherever she wanted and that he did not mind about their age difference.
He had caught sight of her from afar. He stayed behind the counter pretending to be indifferent. He had kept an eye on her while she was crossing the square. He was excited like when he had asked his dead wife to marry him and he was so thrilled that he had not noticed the suntanned grey-haired man who was following her.
“Oh, Maria, welcome back! Did you enjoy your holiday?”
“Oh yes, very much!”
The man sat at the table with her. Gigi had not yet had the time to even think: What does this one want? that Maria told him:
“As usual, Gigi, for two please”.
Translation by Paola Roveda, edited by Francesca Ceccarelli