the minnesota review n.s. 58-60 (2003)

Stefano Benni

Born in Bologna, Italy, in 1947, Stefano Benni began his career as a journalist contributing to the Italian newspaper, Il Manifesto, then became a writer and a poet. Bologna's long history of associations with extreme leftist politics doubtless had an enormous effect on Benni. His fiction often returns to thinly-veiled political satire and uses allegory and talking animals in a way Bulgakov with his political ideology would have admired. Among Benni's many publications are a collection of poems, Terra! (1983); a children's book, I Meravigliosi Animali di Stranalandia (1984); and two novels, Baol (1990) and Spiriti (2000). His chameleon-like ability to write successfully in many genres only mirrors his ability never to sound like himself. Indeed if any characteristic can be said to recur in Benni's writings, it is the sense of defamiliarization and absurdity.

The Café Beneath the Sea (1984) is a very heterogeneous collection in which Benni experiments with all kinds of genres, from detective stories to political satires, from semi-mythological tales to science fiction. The framework that holds these literary adventures together is the love for storytelling itself, a storytelling which unfolds in an ordinary, yet magic ambiance: indeed, a café beneath the sea. Benni tells us hardly anything about the storytellers: he simply calls them "the young lady with a hat," "the mermaid," "the black dog," "the black dog's flea," etc. Everything is intentionally unconventional in the book, but any possible skepticism on the part of the reader is confronted directly: "I don't know if you're going to believe me," the author admits, "We spend half of our lives mocking what others believe, and the other half believing what others mock." Thus, if we choose to be on the mocking side, it's our loss.

"The Story of First-Aid and Beauty Case" is highly reminiscent of cartoons; special effects and grotesques of personae chase each other from beginning to end, and the grand finale, with the whole town taking part in a merry-go-round of traffic violations, is full of hilarious exaggerations. Yet, the story is not merely a divertissement. Typical motifs of Italian comedies (and, to some extent, of Italian culture in general), like the jocular disrespect for authorities, the almost innate solidarity among the lower classes, and of course a beauty that turns every head and pierces every heart, are in action in this hyperbolic depiction of small-town life.

The Story of First-Aid and Beauty Case

Trans. Chad Davidson and Marella Morris

When the going gets tough
the tough get going.
—John Belushi

Our neighborhood is directly behind the train station. One of these days, a train will steal us all away, or perhaps we'll steal a train. Yes, because our neighborhood is called Slyhand: you come in with what you got, but you leave without it. Without what? Without car radio, without wallet, without dentures, without earrings, without tires. They'll even steal your chewing gum if you're not careful: there are kids who work in pairs, one gives you a kick in the balls, you spit out your gum, and the other one grabs it on the run. Just to give you an idea.

First-Aid and Beauty Case were both born here. First-Aid is a good kid, sixteen-years-old. His dad works as a tire beautician: that is, he steals new tires and sells them to replace the old ones. His mother has a dairy farm, the smallest dairy farm in the world. Pretty much just a fridge. First-Aid was conceived inside there, at thirty degrees below zero. When he was born, instead of placing him in a cradle, they put him in the oven to defrost.

Ever since he was little, First-Aid had a passion for motors. When his dad brought First-Aid to work with him, that is to go steal tires, he'd place First under the hood of the car. In this way, First spent a good deal of his childhood stretched out between the pistons, and mechanics really had no more mystery for him. At six-years-old he built by himself a tricycle powered by a blender. It did ten miles an hour on a half-gallon of milk shake. He had to dismantle it when his mom found out he was stealing her milk.

So he stole his first motorcycle, a Guzzi Imperial Black Mammuth 6700. To reach the pedals, he steered holding on underneath the gas tank, like a Koala Bear on the back of its mother: and the Guzzi itself seemed like the Flying Dutchman, because you couldn’t see anyone steering it.

Right after that, First built his first souped-up motorcycle, the Lambroturbo. It was just an ordinary Lambretta; but with a few moderations it could do one-hundred-and-seventy miles an hour. And that was when we first started calling him First-Aid. In one year, he crashed his motorcycle two-hundred-and-fifteen times. Always in a different way. He'd pop a tire while popping a wheelie, he'd wipe out in curves, or while going straight, on gravel and on wet road, he'd fall while sitting still, he'd break up funerals, fly off bridges, cut into trees. By then, the doctors and nurses in the hospital were so used to seeing him that if he didn't show up one week, they'd call his house to see what the story was.

But First was like a cat: he'd fall, get right back up, and continue on. Sometimes, after having fallen, he'd continue to drag along for miles: it was one of his peculiarities. We'd see him come tumbling down from the end of the street all the way to the little tables in the café.

"I fell way back at Forlì," he'd explain.

"Well, the important thing is that you made it," I'd say.

Beauty Case was fifteen years old and was the daughter of a dressmaker and a diesel truck thief. Her dad was in prison for stealing a truck full of pigs. They had caught him trying to sell the pigs door to door. Beauty Case worked as an aspiring hair stylist and was a really sweet girl. They called her Beauty Case because she was tiny tiny but wasn't missing a thing. She had little, delicious curves all over, and there wasn't a guy in the neighborhood who hadn't tried to nail her. But she was so tiny she always managed to slip away.

It was one of the first nights of summer, when after a long hibernation your toes finally see light outside the sandals. First-Aid, all full of bandages and scars, was just cruising around on the Lambroturbo. A half-mile up the way sat Beauty Case eating ice cream, sitting on a bench.

I'll add three details:

One: In the summer, Beauty Case wore miniskirts her mother made out of her dad's old ties. One tie was enough for three of them.

Two: when Beauty Case sat down, she'd cross her legs like not even the toppest of the top models could do. She crossed them such that one leg caressed the other. And she had some great legs with slender ankles and tiny red heels that would pierce right into your heart.

Three: When Beauty Case licked her ice cream, the entire neighborhood stopped in its tracks. You remember in the film when Snow White sings in the forest, and she's surrounded by all the little bunnies and deer and turtle doves and sandflies who sing with her? Well, the scene was exactly the same, with Beauty Case in the middle licking her mixed-flavor, ninety-nine-cent ice cream while all around her little boys, tough guys, old men moved their tongues in unison with hers, because all the thoughts in the world came to them, from the nearly chaste to the nearly illegal.

So, we were saying that it was one of the first nights of summer and the sparrows were perched in the trees without twittering since the racket from First's motorcycle made that a lost cause. In the distance you heard his famous acceleration in four tempi: cruising, troubled, lively, fired-up, and then First arrived on the little pathway in the park driving with no hands and with one foot dragging on the ground. Otherwise, it just wouldn't have been dangerous enough. He saw Beauty Case and braked like he had never braked before. Actually, he didn't really brake at all since, out of principle, First never used his brakes. The first thing he did when souping up a motorcycle was to take the brakes off. "That way, I'll never be tempted," he'd say.

So First kept on straight and ended up on the kiddie slide, zoomed upward, bounced off the café awning, ended up on the second floor of an apartment, revved the engine in the dining room, ran into the refrigerator, went out on to the balcony, fell down on the street, caromed off a dumpster, smashed through one car door and out the other, and came to a stop against a Plane tree.

"Did you hurt yourself?" asked Beauty Case.

"No," said First. "I meant to do that."

Beauty gave an "ah," showing in plain view her blueberry-stained tongue. They stood there a moment just staring at each other, then First said:

"Nice polkadot miniskirt."

And Beauty Case said:

"Nice leather pants."

"What pants?" First was about to ask. Then he looked at his legs: they were so full of scabs, scars, and scrapes from the asphalt that they looked like leathern pantlegs. He was actually wearing shorts.

"They’re the Streets of Fire model," he said. "You want to take a spin on my motorcycle?"

Beauty Case swallowed her ice cream all in one gulp, which was her way of saying "yes." As she got on the motorcycle, she whirled her legs around, abruptly awakening the slumbering senses of various old men. Then she squeezed First's chest hard and said:

"You do know how to drive a motorcycle, don't you?"

At that, First gave a real story-worthy smile, blasted a cloud of gasoline vapors and took off zigzagging down the wrong side of the road. Those who saw him that day said he was doing at least one-hundred and seventy-five an hour. The power of love! They heard the noise of that tornado that came through, but saw nothing more than the light from a shooting star. First took curves so tightly that instead of getting gnats in the face, he had to be careful of earthworms. And Beauty wasn't the slightest bit scared. On the contrary, she cried out in joy. It was then that First understood she was the love of his life.

When they arrived in front of Beauty's house, First reared up the motorcycle and Beauty flew off through the window, right into the living room armchair. Her mom saw her sitting there and said:

"Where were you? I didn’t even hear you come in!"

In that same moment, they heard First coming to a stop against the roll-up door of a filling station. He got up: the motorcycle had lost one wheel and the gastank. No big deal. He filled up his mouth with gas and left for home on one wheel spitting mouthfuls of gas every now and then into the carburator.

He stretched out on his bed and declared to four cockroaches: "I'm in love."

"And who with?" they asked.

"With Beauty Case."

"Hot chick," said the cockroaches in chorus (around those parts cockroaches spoke colorfully).

The next night, First and Beauty Case went out again together. After thirty seconds First asked if he could kiss her. Beauty Case gulped down her ice cream.

They began kissing at nine fifteen and according to various witnesses the first to take a breath was First at two in the morning.

"You kiss great, where'd you learn to . . ." he wanted to say, but Beauty Case latched onto him again and they went until six in the morning.

When she returned home and her mother asked "What did you do with that motorcycle boy?” Beauty Case said: "Nothing Mom. Just two kisses." The girl wasn't lying.

Thus, the love between those two illuminated our neighborhood, and we felt so happy we hardly stole anything.

Yes, we were all model citizens, or just about, until one dark day Joe Ticketbook, the ace of the traffic police force, arrived. He was wearing his black leather uniform, S&M boots, and black sunglasses. On his helmet, a sign: "God knows what you do every hour. I know how much you do an hour."

Every driver in the city trembled at the mention of the name Joe Ticketbook. There wasn't a vehicle in the world he hadn't given a ticket to. When he happened upon a street where there were illegally-parked cars, he'd whip out his ticketbook and fire off tickets like a machine gun. Before parking, everybody looked around to see if Joe Ticketbook was anywhere near. If he wasn't, they'd throw the car in reverse, and when they turned back around, they found the ticket already under the windshield wipers. This is how Joe Ticketbook hit you: quickly and invisibly. Joe Ticketbook: the man who had ticketed a tank for not having spare treads.

Joe arrived one evening in our neighborhood on an armored Mitsubishi Mustang, a Japanese motorcycle that could do one-hundred and twenty an hour. At his passing, windshield wipers became numb with fear, and tires deflated themselves. He parked next to the café and walked in. Slowly, he took off his gloves looking at us challengingly. In his belt we saw his two ticketbooks, fifty-thousand calibur.

"Does any of you," he said, "know a certain First-Aid, a kid who gets his kicks running around these parts?"

No one responded. In the silence, Ticketbook let his boots clamber on the floor, stopping beside a card player.

"Are you Mr. Podda Angelo, owner of an automobile license plate number CRT 567734?"

"Yes," admitted the card player.

"Three years ago, I ticketed you for having bald tires. I said if you didn't change them, the next time I'd suspend your license."

Nothing escaped Joe Ticketbook's memory.

"Now then," pressed the officer, relentlessly, "you want to tell me where I can find First-Aid, or should we go give your car a little inspection?"

"I'll talk," said the card player. "First passes every night through the intersection at Via Bulganin and 42nd."

It was true. After going to pick up Beauty Case, every night First crossed the big intersection. He'd run red lights at almost one-hundred miles an hour, with Beauty Case on the back rustling like a handkerchief.

At that intersection, Joe Ticketbook lay in ambush. Hiding himself was his specialty. On the overpass directly above the intersection, there was a billboard for a sparkling wine. The slogan said: Taste for a few. It was a photograph of gentlemen and beautiful ladies sipping from flutes in a garden. Behind them, an eighteenth-century villa, and behind that the Bazzocchi factories smoking and stinking: that wasn't an advertisement; it was our neighborhood. Just as soon as the billboard had been put up, it had been smoke-stained by industrial waste, and the gentlemen and beautiful ladies, now covered in black dust and poisoned, seemed to say: Good thing it's only a taste for a few. Looking closely at the photograph, between the men in tuxedoes and the ladies in long gowns, you could make out behind the buffet table an unmistakable visage with black sunglasses. It was Joe Ticketbook camouflaged.

That night, like every night, First-Aid came up to Beauty Case's window and called her with a whistle. Beauty Case threw herself out of the window, landing on the motorcycle. They were by now most adept at this manouevre. When they arrived at the intersection, the light was red. As soon as First saw that, he gave the cycle all it had. Right then, there was some movement in the billboard, and Joe Ticketbook could be seen making his way through the people in evening wear, knocking over a tray of glasses, and jumping down onto the street.

There were less than one-hundred yards between them and the intersection. First saw Joe waiting for him with the two ticketbooks aimed and didn't hesitate. He braked with his feet and made the Lambroturbo spin back out of control. While the cycle was flipping end over end, shooting sparks, First kept on braking with everything he had: with his hands, with Beauty Case's little purse, with his butt, with a screwdriver that he planted in the asphalt, with his teeth. An impressive spectacle: the noise was that of a milling machine, with chunks of asphalt and cycle shreds flying into the air. But First-Aid was great. With one last skid, the cycle bit the asphalt and came to a halt precisely with the wheel on the crosswalk border.

Joe Ticketbook swallowed his bile and walked up slowly. The motorcycle was smoking like a locomotive and the tires were fused. Joe Ticketbook looked around a bit and then said:

"Tires a little bald, huh?"

"That motorcycle's got balder tires than mine,” said First.

"What motorcycle?" said Ticketbook, and he turned around. When he turned back, First had already mounted two new tires.

But Ticketbook wasn't about to give in.

"You can't ride double on this cycle."

"There are hardly two of us."

It was true. There wasn't a trace of Beauty Case. Joe Ticketbook searched for her under the gastank, but he didn't find her. Beauty Case had squeezed into the muffler. But she couldn't handle the heat and after a few seconds shot back out half-roasted.

Joe Ticketbook belted out a triumphant cry.

"Two-hundred-thousand lire in fines, plus the suspension of your license, plus the legal ramifications dealing with the underaged girl. You and this cycle are finished, First-Aid!"

From the overpass where we were observing the scene, we shuddered. First without a motorcycle was like a flower without earth. He would wither up. And so would the love of which we were all so proud. What could be done?

Joe had already placed the pen to the fatal ticketbook when he heard the sound of a car horn. He turned around and . . .

The entire street was full of cars. Some were parked on the wrong side, others on the sidewalk: there was one parked vertically against a tree, one on the roof of another. Two were parked sandwich-style on either side of Joe Ticketbook's cycle, one was lying wheels-up in the middle of the bridge with the sign "Be right back." Two truckdrivers were facing tail to tail with their trailers blocking the offramps. The old men of the neighborhood had gone out with their pre-war-era bicycles, some steering with no hands, some with a foot up on the handlebars, some in pyramid form in groups of five: it looked like a policeman's carousel. Completing the scene was a little old lady steering a combine harvester and sixtuplets on a bicycle with no brakes.

Joe Ticketbook started shaking as if he had malaria. He was in bitter conflict with himself. On one hand there was First trapped. On the other the scariest series of infractions ever seen in the history of law enforcement. His jawbone cranked up and down like a piston.

Right then, a blind guy in a stolen Maserati without a muffler revved up the car in his Ticketbook's face and said: "Hey there, Mr. Policeman, where's a nice busy street to take some curves at top speed?"

Joe Ticketbook put the whistle in his mouth, but he couldn't manage one sound from it. He fell to the ground. We had won.

Joe Ticketbook was released from the asylum and now manages the bumper cars at the amusement park.

First and Beauty Case got married and opened up a little business.

He does the cars. She does them over.

Stefano Benni is the author of a collection of poems, Terra! (1983); a children's book, I Meravigliosi Animali di Stranalandia (1984); The Café Beneath the Sea (1984); and two novels, Baol (1990) and Spiriti (2000).

Chad Davidson's poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Colorado Review, Doubletake, The Paris Review, Pequod, Poet Lore, and others. His first collection of poems, Consolation Miracle, won the Crab Orchard Prize.

Marella Feltrin-Morris teaches Italian at Binghamton University. Her most recent translation is Domenico Losurdo's Heidegger and the Ideology of War: Community, Death, and the West, published by Humanity Books.