The Commission

I live in Pigneto, which is considered the alternative heart of the capital, Pasolini’s old neighborhood, where every week some witty journalist comes on a mission to reveal to the world that between Prenestina and Casilina Streets there hides a Roman Williamsburg, and some inspired photographer follows him to immortalize the young hipsters who open clubs, reconvert old garages, emit metallic sounds from their Macs, shoot documentaries, and go shopping with their bicycles.

I carried groceries for Mrs. Perillo and then churned out at least two pages.

Josephine Devanbu, The Marriage, Distillation #2, 2012.

The only decent neighbor I had in my building died eight months after I moved into this apartment. From out the window I saw the ambulance arrive, then him on the gurney followed by his wife and idiot son. A young couple necking as they leaned against a scooter told everyone to fuck off because the ambulance had forced them to move. The next day there was a note with the date of the funeral taped to the door. Mrs. Bassi from the floor below rang my doorbell to ask me for ten euros. “It’s for the wreath,” she said with the air of someone who shouldn’t expect anything of me, seeing as how our interaction was limited to the handle of her broom banging regularly against my floor every time I tried to turn on the stereo. I handed her twenty euros. “I don’t have any change,” she said, slipping the bill into an envelope full of tens.

I didn’t go to the funeral, but I did write a condolence note and stuck it in the mailbox. I was really sorry that Mr. Perillo had died. He was the one who straightened out my electrical wiring and showed me how to put my shelves together. It may seem like a somewhat utilitarian expression of affection, but while writing the condolence note I got all choked up looking at the shelves. Without Mr. Perillo, all the books would have still been in those cardboard boxes, or maybe I’d have died before I’d had the chance to put the shelves together, fried by one of the electrical outlets. The day after the funeral I ran into Mrs. Perillo’s idiot son sitting in the building entryway with the condolence notes spread out in front of him. He took one, licked it, and pounded it with his fist.

“Ciao, Giovanni. They’re already stamped,” I told him. In reply he let out a little laugh that was his way of saying hello.

“I’m sorry about your father.”

“Dead, dead, dead!” he said with a sad smile. “Dead, dead!”

Giovanni’s about 40. If he didn’t say anything you wouldn’t be able to tell he was an idiot—though you might find his hand groping in the vicinity of your ass. This happened to me a few times as I was climbing the stairs, but I’d been warned ahead of time by his mother. Her son has a weakness for asses dressed in bright colors, so I try to avoid that. I walked out just as Giovanni banged his fist on my note.

In the café where I have breakfast I saw Mrs. Bassi paying for her espresso and anisette by pulling out the envelope of offerings.

“Nice wallet you have there,” I said, and she didn’t even flinch as she stirred the espresso with her lipstick-smudged spoon.

I live in Pigneto, which is considered the alternative heart of the capital, Pasolini’s old neighborhood, where every week some witty journalist comes on a mission to reveal to the world that between Prenestina and Casilina Streets there hides a Roman Williamsburg, and some inspired photographer follows him to immortalize the young hipsters who open clubs, reconvert old garages, emit metallic sounds from their Macs, shoot documentaries, and go shopping with their bicycles. But in the bar where I have breakfast there are only old people, ball-breaking geezers who never met Pasolini, never took part in the resistance against the fascists, and never had shit to say to posterity apart from bitching about their geriatric aches and pains. And in my building there are other ball-breaking geezers and a couple of ex-cons who leave their dogs’ turds in front of the entryway and spend the rest of the day dealing dope in the card room down below, where Pasolini is considered a bleeding-heart pederast.

Mr. Perillo was old, too, but I always saw him in shape, cordial and well-dressed, with socks that matched his tie. It seems he died of a heart attack. Just like that, with no warning, the way death should be. I ran into his wife a week after the funeral—she was coming back from the market loaded down with bags, scuffing her slippers under a burning sun.

“Hey, beautiful,” she said to me. “Where you going in this heat?”

“What about you?”

She let out the kind of fatalistic sigh produced by someone who has no defense against destiny.

“What can I do? Gotta keep going.”

I was in a great mood that day. After months of total creative drought I’d gotten an idea for a scene while I was having a shower, so I offered to carry her shopping home. No trouble at all, I assured her. I even upped the ante: “I go to the market every day. If you leave me the bags someplace I can pick them up and bring them to you.” Mrs. Perillo’s cataracty eyes opened wide. She wiped her brow with a handkerchief made from a dishrag and smeared a little residual sweat on my cheek as she gave me a thank-you kiss.

“You’re an angel. Who’d have thought I was gonna meet an angel?”

I brought the shopping to Mrs. Perillo every day for a week, if you don’t count Sunday when the market is closed. Then I came back home to write. As if by miracle my novel started flowing again. Okay, it was hard to demonstrate a logical connection between the two processes, but in the meantime that’s how things went. A lot of experts advise a little morning jog to get the day going in the right direction; I carried groceries for Mrs. Perillo and then churned out at least two pages. She made coffee for me, offered me cigarettes bequeathed to her by her husband, along with a bowl of stale pistachios, and to compensate she gave me a few cans of beer or a carton of Tavernello wine I never had the courage to refuse. One time she even gave me her rusted pasta maker. Giovanni stayed in the other room. He would watch animal documentaries on TV, hugging the fan and laughing at how it tickled his hairy chest.

One day Mrs. Perillo rang my doorbell and handed me a piece of paper with her writing on it. It was a shopping list. She couldn’t get out of the house that day.

“Look here!” she said to me, lifting up her skirt and slip to show me a cluster of varicose veins that formed an estuary network on her legs.

“Here,” she said, giving me her little bag, “and be careful with the change because shopkeepers are born to cheat.” Mrs. Perillo had been a shopkeeper who dealt with housewives for twenty years before turning into a housewife herself.

That day my writing soared to new heights. In the evening Giosi took me out for dinner. He wanted to celebrate the sale of one of his paintings, which got me wondering if my fatigue detail for Mrs. Perillo had begun to exude its beneficial effects on those around me, as well. The painting, in theory, was supposed to be a portrait of me—if not for the fact that Giosi had started it before we’d gotten together, so the shape of the head, the neck, and the clavicles belonged to his ex-girlfriend, and let’s say that from the breasts down—plus the fullness of the face, with its abstract brush strokes—it was meant to be me. But whoever bought it doesn’t know that they took home a sort of Frankenstein, also because I’ve always suspected that the hands were neither mine nor his ex’s. In any case, they paid well for it, so we celebrated with a meal and champagne. Giosi was a fanatic about champagne. He was convinced that it cleansed the blood of toxins. After having duly cleansed our blood, we wound up in my bed as Mrs. Bassi below served as metronome to our intercourse.

At eight in the morning I heard someone ring the doorbell. Shit, Mrs. Perillo!

“Can you open it?” I asked Giosi.

“Who is it?”

“It’s my neighbor lady.”

“What does she want?”

“She wants me to do her shopping.”

“Are you stupid or something?”

For as much as Giosi was an artist, he didn’t understand the importance of opening the door for Mrs. Perillo at eight in the morning with a hangover. So I got up. In order not to have to lift up her slip, she showed up in short pants, the blood still stagnating in her veins and her feet looking like they were pumped up with hydrogen.

“Sweetie, this time I have to ask you a huge favor.”

I went back to bed with the request forms I needed to fill out for Mrs. Perillo’s medical appointments at the clinic. She’d insisted that I go early because otherwise I ran the risk of not getting any numbered tickets that tell you your place in line.

“So?” Giosi asked.

“I’m going,” I said with a hieratic tone. “I have to do something for my novel.”

The whole operation at the regional health office lasted three hours and forty-five minutes. The guy at the window said, “I didn’t know Mrs. Perillo had a daughter.”

“I’m not her daughter.”

After which he started speaking to me like I was a dimwit, assuming that I was a Romanian caregiver.

“Everything clear? This here is an appointment. On the twenty-third. Twenty-three. No eat. When she comes, very important stomach empty. Understand? No eat, stomach empty, very important.”

“Very important. I understand,” I answered.

When I got back home, Giosi was gone. He’d left me a note near the coffee cup: “I’m happy you started writing again.”

Started writing again, very important.

Giosi had always been a compulsive artist and had trouble tolerating my lazy approach to life. But whenever I saw him at work, painting, I have to say that his cerebral activity was on par with someone in a vegetative state, so it’s normal that he can spend ten hours standing up straight with brush in hand; it’s like sitting in front of a PlayStation. Anyway, the three hours and forty-five minutes of waiting in line at the regional health office were worth six pages and twelve lines of a novel. An absolute record. I couldn’t tell if it was good stuff or not, but I wasn’t that concerned. The important thing was to commit the time, amortize the anxiety, and not think about getting a real job. Even though Mrs. Perillo had already thought about getting me one.

The doorbell ringing at eight in the morning became my alarm clock, definitively shifting the transoceanic time zone I’d set my life to. I spent two weeks dealing with the transferability of Mr. Perillo’s pension, trying to understand which bills to pay and which to blow off, deciding whether it was opportune to notify the electric, gas, phone, and cable companies of the deceased’s condition, answering condolence notes, explaining the obscure workings of an ATM machine, and unclogging the toilet when Giovanni threw his porno magazines into it. From all this I earned a case of Tavernello rosé, a slice of pie, Mr. Perillo’s shoe rack (with shoes included) and thirty-two pages of a novel. In the evening I felt pleasantly tired, called Giosi to find out what all the young people were up to, then went to sleep early.

Giovanni came with us when I accompanied Mrs. Perillo in the car to get her check-up at the clinic. His mother didn’t trust him enough to leave him alone so long, which probably kept me from having to unclog the toilet a second time. He sat next to me and put his hand on my thigh.

“Don’t mind him,” his mother reassured me. “He does it with me, too.”

I didn’t feel like going deeper into it.

Outside the clinic there was a clean syringe dispenser and a condom machine. Mrs. Perillo bought a packet of condoms and furtively slipped it into her purse.

I didn’t feel like going deeper into it.

While Mrs. Perillo moved from one room of the clinic to the next with the hem of her skirt tucked into her underwear so she could show her legs to all the doctors and paramedics, Giovanni and I waited in the corridor, me reading the newspaper and him surveying all the nurses’ asses. Which must have been rather frustrating, because those uniforms were the exact opposite of what he was used to before making them vanish down the toilet. Poor guy, I thought, he gets out of the house so little and the world outside is a total disappointment: mother in a wretched state, chaste nurses, elderly female doctors, and the girl sitting next to him poring over the newspaper for an hour.

In the evening Giosi called to tell me he had to see me. He had an ethical problem. The guy who bought his Frankenstein wanted him to paint his portrait.

“So?” I asked, seated at the table in front of another glass of champagne I’d be cursing the next morning.

“What do you mean, so? I’m an artist. I don’t work on commission.”

“Artists have always worked on commission.”

“That’s not the point.”


“Nobody tells me what I’m supposed to paint.”

“Okay, but how much is he paying?”

“As if that were the point!”

Giosi was always a little obsessive about getting to the point. Two days later he was at the guy’s house painting him in all his nakedness for about four times the amount of my book advance.

I got up to fifty brand-new pages. I sent the file to my editor in a total trance state. My creative apathy from a few months earlier had—paradoxically—turned into a sort hyper-productive apathy in which, oxymoron apart, I was aware of nothing. It was a strange consolation to see words lined up one after the other like dominoes. But they were only black marks. Those little squiggles you fill notebooks with when you’re leaning how to write. It wasn’t even grade zero of writing, it was grade zero squiggling.

After a week I got an email from my editor who wanted to see me. We set up an appointment for Tuesday morning.

Monday afternoon it was me who knocked on Mrs. Perillo’s door to ask if she needed anything. I didn’t like to admit that I had entered into a vortex of superstition, but it was too late to take back the admission as I went back to my apartment with a basket of Giovanni’s socks and underwear to mend. I looked up “how to mend holes in socks” on the internet and spent an hour surfing housewife sites devoted to re-codifying and diffusing knowledge with the same zeal as a medieval amanuensis. I finished sewing and called Giosi to get a drink, but he was still under commission.

When the light dims, the streets suddenly become epiphanic, and I was walking with the clear sensation that I had to understand something important. But the expectation diminished progressively at the sight of the silhouettes intent on the same divinatory operation—and destined, in a short period of time, to drown their anxiety in a glass of wine accompanied by slices of stale pizza. I don’t know where the old folks are sequestered in Pigneto at happy hour, but the population from eight onward isn’t older than 35. Whoever is on the cusp has to adapt to the aesthetic and ethical rules of the majority. The beauty of going out without Giosi is that I’m not forced to drink champagne and I can reintegrate the toxins cleansed from my blood. The downside is that he’s not there to pay. Anyway, toward nine-thirty in the evening, if we had ever been on the verge of any kind of revelation about the world, ourselves, or the human race, well, that moment had passed forever, even though it would return with the same force twenty-four hours later.

Tuesday morning I woke up very agitated. The thought that I’d sent my editor pages of shit had come to take the form of an anthropomorphic obsession. It’s something that often happens to me: my most anguished thoughts acquire human features. So I woke up next to a squat black kid who looked vaguely familiar and was staring at me satisfied, as if he’d just committed an act he was supposed to commit. I put the coffee pot on and my new friend climbed onto my back. I turned around quickly and recognized him. It was the guy who always tried to sell me knock-off men’s socks, especially the spongy white ghosts I assume are the biggest sellers. Once I gave a pair to Giosi, and he still throws that in my face. Mrs. Perillo ringing at the door made me forget the coffee on the burner, and the sock seller momentarily dissolved into nothing.

“Mrs. Perillo, this morning I can’t go shopping, I have a work appointment.”

“Work? What work do you have?”

“It’s not really work, I mean, it is, but actually.”

“Alright. But how much do they pay?”

“No, no, that’s not the point.” (Giosi had infected me.)

“Oh Sweetie, how is Giovanni gonna have breakfast without milk?”

I called my editor to inform him that my car’s timing belt had broken. That I’d be a bit late. I went to the market to ward off the possibility that Giovanni might have a traumatic awakening. The sock seller came with me to the appointment, perched up on the dashboard like a giant Arbre Magique air freshener. We parked the car half a kilometer from the café where we were meeting to conceal the fact that the timing belt was working perfectly. Then we sat at a table in the café: me, the sock seller and the editor.

I learned the meaning of “interlocutory expression” the first time I met my editor. In his case it was an expression that transcended both facial muscles and inner will. It’s something so intrinsic to his being that it vanishes with his body and soul at the moment of passing. We ordered a bottle of cold water and two espressos. The sock seller got no glass and no cup.

“I am amazed,” my editor said, though his interlocutory expression didn’t show the least sign of amazement.

The sock seller jumped onto the seat.

“It’s as if you were kissed by grace.”

The sock seller started to shrink to the size of a knick-knack.

“I mean, I’ve always liked your writing, but these pages are some of the most powerful I’ve ever read.”

The sock seller was no longer there.

I had my first spontaneous reaction in weeks. I started laughing and spit out a little no-longer-cold water onto the table. I thought about Mrs. Perillo, who smacked a sweaty kiss on me when I first offered to carry her shopping home, and imagining her as Grace elicited another burst of laughter. I believe my editor took it as a slight sign of hysteria. Maybe it was an objective sign of hysteria, because I started crying right after, and then I had an acute attack of deafness while he was talking to me with growing enthusiasm about those little black squiggles I’d been jotting down over the past few months. I thought again about Mrs. Perillo’s apartment as a witch’s hovel. The old hag had knocked her husband off and reduced me to a state of slavery.

That night I took Giosi out for dinner to celebrate I don’t know what. My high school Latin translation from my final exam came back to me: “There is nothing more shameful than voluntary slavery,” Seneca wrote. Centuries later I couldn’t even savor the bitter taste of shame, only the antipasto of raw fish, a little trophy for our recent artistic successes. Giosi told me he had booked a vacation on a Croatian island in the middle of nowhere that his friend Stefano, a war reporter and sailing enthusiast, had told him about. I would never have had the courage to tell Mrs. Perillo that I was taking a vacation, but he pulled out his iPhone and started showing me photos of the place. The idea was clear: me and him, crystalline water and deserted beaches, a house made of white bricks with a balcony overlooking the sea. No. I couldn’t abandon Mrs. Perillo. What would I tell her? The more I looked at those photos, the more guilty I felt imagining Mrs. Perillo passed out under the scorching sun trying to bring milk home to her son while Giosi and I indulged in our corner of paradise. And the more I felt guilty the more I felt a tremendous hatred toward Mrs. Perillo and the idea of spending my summer in Rome, alone under the sun, her caregiver. And if she died? What then?

I thought about all the unexplainable crimes in the news: the inhuman brutality, neighbors, friends, exes, relatives, strangers—stabbed, beaten to death, suffocated, bludgeoned with no real motive, in an instant of insanity that no one managed to intuit, the bewilderment of all those who should’ve understood in time that something was wrong, the subtle symptoms of mental unbalance. I looked Giosi straight in the eyes, as straight as possible, as intensely as possible. If something was starting to go wrong, he had his chance to understand. Now. But Giosi continued to slide his thumb across the iPhone, then turned the screen to me with a self-satisfied air.

“I’m about to retch,” I said.

“The champagne?”

“No, the banality of evil.”

This time the bell rang at seven-fifteen in the morning, Giosi was snoring in the bed, and I was in my pajamas, the night spent vomiting over the toilet—not because of the banality of evil or the champagne, but from the raw mussels. I rinsed my face, inspected my irises and pupils looking for a trace of insanity, and went to open the door.

“Sweetie,” Mrs. Perillo said in a suffocated rattle, “I’m sick.”

My heart started pounding. My resentment had caused her illness. I tried to break the spell that bound me to her in the most ignoble way. Without fighting, without heroism. I wished her death so I could go on vacation to some crappy Croatian island—me, who always hated the sea, the little bays, the sailboats, and the idea that tan skin is qualitatively superior. But before I could fall to the ground and beg her forgiveness she added: “They say I got a corn.”

“I beg your pardon?”

She tried to lift her leg to show me her foot, but she couldn’t manage, so I leaned over to find myself an inch from her blight. She had a rather hardened corn on the outside of her big toe, irritated by scraping against her slippers.

“So it’s not serious then.”

“Ah, to be young!”

Together with the diagnosis of the corn, the doctor had prescribed a thorough pedicure at least once a day. I bought the salts and scented oils from the health food store in the neighborhood, which survives thanks to the relentless spread of allergies and psychosomatic skin diseases among the Pigneto girls, all convinced they are intolerant of wheat, dairy, dust mites, preservatives, detergents, chlorine, and various less specific chemical agents. Mrs. Perillo sat down like a matron in her favorite armchair and turned on the television. As I took care of her feet, Giovanni emitted heinous grunts from the other room. I turned to the door of his little room, which was slightly ajar, and could make out the figure of a desperate man on his knees.

“He’s hurting. He needs to let it out,” Mrs. Perillo said.

“A good cry helps.”

Mrs. Perillo looked at me like I was stupid. Then I understood when the glint of another errand suddenly lit up her eyes.

Giosi was terribly offended because I messed up his romantic vacation in Croatia. “For months you did fuck-all,” he said to me, “and now all of a sudden you found out you’re Virginia Woolf.” Giosi always brings up Virginia Woolf when he wants to be sarcastic about my writing, though he’s convinced that she was the author of Wuthering Heights, which he says is one of his favorite books—so much that he gave that title to a painting. On the upside, Mrs. Perillo’s corn improved, and I continued to lay down my squiggles.

In early August Pigneto emptied out. Even at the market half the stands were closed for vacation, and at the café where I got my breakfast the only ones left were me and the old folks whose problems were too severe to get them ambulating. They’d ask me to move their wheelchairs from sunny spots into the shade. After threatening to break up, Giosi left alone, “full of bitterness.” The possibility of interferences, encounters, or surprises in my days was constantly approaching zero, the only sign that the world was still alive was the organic smell of piss on the streets. I bought a reserve of vodka, tonic water, limes, and Stendhal to pass the summer. If the afterlife looked anything like this, I’d have no complaints.

One Sunday afternoon, while I was lying on the ground watching the trajectory of a spider on the ceiling, Mrs. Perillo rang the doorbell. I went to open the door, staggering slightly because of the day’s third vodka tonic.

“Hey there,” I exclaimed happily, because those were the first words I’d pronounced all day.

She gave me a little package wrapped with a beautiful bow and invited herself into the house.

“I have to talk to you.”

I fixed a vodka tonic for myself and one for her, then I put aside the little package and looked at her, anguish-stricken. The thought that the package was for what I was afraid it was for assumed the semblance of the junkie who begs for change at the corner of Prenestina. He’s been trying to fill the gas tank on his scooter for the past four months. Maybe the gas tank has elephantiasis. The junkie jumped onto my lap and reached his semi-gangrenous arm out across the table to guzzle my drink in one shot. For the first time I saw Mrs. Perillo embarrassed.

“Sweetie, I’m sorry, but I’m desperate. Even the Nigerian girls have gotten too expensive for me.”

I took time out to reflect. Around ten o’clock in the evening I was seriously hammered, I heard Giovanni’s grunts in my head mixed with marvelous sentences for the novel, but then I started wondering if maybe they weren’t Stendhal’s. The junkie, meanwhile, finished the bottle of vodka, and proud of his doomed indolence pulled a book of aphorisms by Baudelaire down from the shelf. I called Giosi, who was cooking a barbecue on the beach with Stefano, and—judging by the racket—at least a dozen Croats. Between the Croats and the lapping of the sea I couldn’t understand shit, and luckily neither could Giosi. He must’ve thought that I was just beside myself, blinded with booze and jealousy, when I said I’d have sex with the neighbor lady’s idiot son so I could finish my novel. I hung up the phone and started crying. And yet it was impossible to distinguish between personal ambition, superstition, and human pietas. It had been months since I could distinguish between the three. It was a lasting feeling of ambivalence. The junkie came closer to console me. He became wise.

Qu’est-ce que l’art? Prostitution,” he whispered to me with a perfect French accent.

The next morning I took the packet of condoms Mrs. Perillo gave me and went to ring her doorbell. She smiled at me fondly. If she was a witch, then she sure knew how to dissimulate.

“I’ll leave you two alone,” she said.

I’d gone down there, I thought, with the intention of giving her gift back, or at least with the intention of having some sort of intention, but she closed the door behind me and left. I stayed in the entryway. Giovanni was closed in his room. As much as I tried, I couldn’t hate that place. I tried to look at the family photos, from when Mr. Perillo was still alive: the three of them in front of a wall, next to a Renault 4, at the seaside, the day of their wedding, Giovanni’s confirmation. It’s strange how in photos the past of others, by some strange vintage effect, starts seeming less unfamiliar. I lit one of the deceased Mr. Perillo’s cigarettes and got comfortable in what was his armchair. Why was I there? The fact that I had no answer was the only possible answer. Ambivalence shouldn’t be discarded, it should be lived. I slowly approached Giovanni’s room, and an inch from that closed door, an inch from my will, as luminous and supreme as a divine revelation, the end of my novel appeared to me.

—Translated by Stash Luczkiw

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