The truck pulled over in the dead of night and Riccardo got out, leaping over the cargo bed. He put the sole of the foot down badly and stumbled into a hollow in the road: pain shot up to his brain, while the two men in the cab laughed and told him he was a dickhead.
He thanked them with a few choice words and, limping, took the path through the woods which lead to his house. The only sound to be heard that clear August night, except for some crickets wide awake, was the crunching of gravel under his heavy work boots.
Maybe because it was dark, maybe because he was tired, he saw that tangle of bushes and shrubs along the path, as if he was still a child, with a feeling that all the land was worried about him because he had been gone a week. In spite of hot weather, the sky resembled a nativity scene: blue, vast, surreally still.
Stumbling for weariness and strain, he decided in any case to smoke a last cigarette, gazing at the falling stars. What the hell, it was the Night of St. Lawrence!
As soon as he got home, he dropped his backpack on the ground, grabbed the old ladder, set it up in front of the porch and climbed onto the roof. It had been at least fifteen years since he had done that; the roof tiles creaked under his feet. Once on the top, he layed down, resting his head between two lines of roof tiles.
He started to feel pain everywhere. Work may ennoble man but to him, it caused just backache. He felt his wallet, bulging with cash, in his back pocket push against his but cheek; he pulled the cash out and counted it again: enough to settle his debts and breath easy for a while. He put it back again, lite up another cigarette and kept on staring at the sky: how many times had he asked someone to explain how stars worked, but he never understood anything. But it was fine. Both he and the sky would have survived anyway.
A couple of falling stars passed across the firmament and, as usual, he was unprepared as to what wish to make. Bollocks! He felt the dampness of his t-shirt on his back. It usually got drenched and dry a thousand times a day under the sun: wet with sweat, covered in baloney sandwiches, red Sax cigarettes and soaked in those huge beers which he drank to stave off sleepiness, fatigue and the dizziness felt when climbing scaffolding.
He was mustering the energy to get up and climb down, when he heard the door opening from below and a sound of slippers walking down the front door steps. He got up on his feet and in the courtyard he saw a long white dressing gown with his mother in it. Despite the darkness, there was enough light to see her eyes, bulging with fear and confusion. The few hairs left on her head were long, messy and red. She looked like a combination of the Virgin Mary and her ghost. After a while the woman look up to the roof, saw her son and exclaimed.
«Can I climb up as well?».
«So go on then», he answered.
His mother climbed up the ladder, unsteadily, while he held it from above. Once she got up on the roof, she held him in her arms and kissed him on the check.
«But… is it really you or am I just imagining it?».
«It’s me mom, it’s me», and he held her hands.
«When did you get back? Have you eaten yet?».
«Yes, yes. I’m just back. I have already eaten».
«What are you doing up here?».
«I came to see the stars».
She hinted a smiled, looking down into the void. «I want to see them too».
They lay down together on the roof. She held him tight, shivering. And looking at everything but the stars.
«How have you been these days?».
«How am I supposed to be, don’t you see me? Thirty every ten acres».
«Have you taken your medication?».
«Yes, they don’t make me feel any better. They’re worthless».
«That’s not true. You think so, but when you take it, you feel better», he rebuked her, knowing full well he was lying.
«Ricca’… I’m tired of living, of taking medication, of feeling better and feeling worse again. It would be better for everyone if I died. I’m just a burden. I know all of you are ashamed of me; do you think I don’t notice that? But I know you are right. I’m not able to be around people anymore, to make intelligent conversation. I haven’t slept in four days, I don’t eat, I don’t wash myself. You tell me if this is living».
Resignation and anguish were very clear in her voice, but different to the suicidal tendencies of before.
«I just hope I won’t ever wake up again», she added.
Some years before those words would have made his heart burst, but now Riccardo had a kind of wall inside, a fence that prevented him from suffering, from thinking, from smashing mobile phones against the wall.
He kept on staring out into the night, tight-lipped, with his mother’s head on his chest. Too many times they told her it was not like she thought, that they loved her and that she was the real cornerstone of the family. Too many times they dosed her up with injections of hope, deceiving her that and that sooner or later the moment would pass. But too much time had passed, and that dark storm still lingered in her mind, continuous and oppressive. Trying to comfort her her with words just made whoever tried to do so more and more desperate and helpless.
«I’m cold», she said with a hoarse voice.
They stood up and climbed down. She descended first, while Riccardo held the ladder with one hand and his back with the other.
They went into the house. The windows were closed and the shutters locked; the mugginess was unbearable and he began to sweat straight away. He was about to turn on the light, but his mother asked him not to do so. He went into the bedroom with her, groping around in the dark; from the hallway he could already hear his father snoring. In the dark room he caught sight of his naked thighs, his underpants and his huge belly wrapped in a white billowing vest. It was no wonder, he tought, that she was sleepless, depressed and harboured a death wish, having to spend all the nights of her life with a man like.
He put her to bed, he stroked her hair and kissed her forehead, wishing her a good night.
He went to the kitchen, opened the fridge. It was empty. It did not matter, after all he was not hungry anymore.
He passed through the hallway again and peeked into his brothers’ bedroom. They were sleeping, but not even sleep could iron out the wrinkles on their exhausted faces.
There were five of them in that house, one more lonely than the other.
Yet, it has not been always like this: once there was laughter, happiness and hearty meals.
What made everything disappear? What had screwed them over?
He went to the bathroom and, before undressing, he lite up what would have been the thirtieth cigarette since five o’ clock of the day before. He opened the window and returned to look at that clean and proud sky which didn’t give a damn about the darkness on the Earth below. It was gone four o’ clock. His father’s snoring was still resounding in his head, fierce and relentless, and in the intervals, his mother’s sobbing, barely stifled by the sheet pressed up against her mouth. Dawn was still far away, but he knew that sleep would not come easy. From the corner of his eye he saw another falling star: he wished that it would crash to Earth, or that it would slam against another star and set fire to all that shitty sky.
Translation by Irene Lami (edited by Ester Tossi)