12. The Illusion of Free Will

Act I: The Journey

A single raindrop, an imperceptible veil of fog, a hint of mist would at least contribute to creating the right atmosphere for the situation; instead, there is only the autumn sun carrying out its task as a routine, perhaps even with too much zeal. Then again, why expect the opposite? If life were a movie, the soundtrack would be enough to inform us what is about to happen and, who knows, maybe we could even lull the conviction that we choose the music ourselves.
“Did I ever tell you about the illusion of free will?” Max mutters to himself. Then he smiles slightly and lights a cigarette. Philip Morris Super Lights, that’s what he smokes now. Had they ever told him he would one day switch to that stuff, he would have laughed for a whole week; but time passes, and things change.
Max slows down a little to focus on driving directions. When he is sure of traveling in the right direction, he inserts a cassette in the car radio and lets the road guide him.
Memories present themselves at the party without an invitation, dancing in counter-time to the rhythm of the music, eager for protagonism; they don’t need an invitation, memories.
“Don’t forget the pain. Take it with you and listen to it. Once it tells you what it has to tell, it will leave.”
Max mentally thanks his dear friend Monica for these words and then forgets them. He forgets, the man. Everything. But oblivion, unfortunately, does not coincide with not having lived.

Act II: Murisengo

Welcome to Murisengo, reads the sign at the entrance to the town.
“Why would that be?” Max wonders.
A black Golf GTI whizzes by at light speed to his left.
“Go kill yourself, go,” echoes a disembodied, anonymous voice out of nowhere, barely anticipating Max’s thoughts.
An old red Cinquecento car, the only car in a deserted parking lot, swings and squeaks, swings and squeaks.
Max halts his car in front of a rusty gate that overlooks the highway, shortly after entering the town. He turns off the engine and gets out.
Carrozzeria Gavi, reads a card written with a felt-tip pen, fastened with wire to the gate. Closed for personal reasons, says another card written with a blue pen, just below it.
I’m afraid I will have to prolong my stay in Murisengo more than I expected, Max reflects, turning his gaze beyond the fence in search of something familiar that he cannot see. “Then let’s get into tourism,” he bursts out loud as he steps back into the car and turns on the engine.

Here it is. The town square.
“I can’t think straight at this time of the morning,” Carletto proclaims to his stray friends from a bench in the square. “I can’t think straight, I can’t think straight, I can’t think straight. What was I saying? Sorry, but at this time of the morning, I can’t think straight. I can’t think straight; I can’t think straight.”
The school bus stops its run in the square and opens the doors. The little girl with curly red hair searches with her eyes for her favorite tramp, finds him on a bench and sets to work.
The traffic policeman Angelo, angel by name and not by nature, halts an old man who spit on the ground, and states: “This is the last time: the next, you’ll end up getting a fine.”
“Walk straight or you’ll become a hunchback,” the mother recommends to the bachelor son of forty, chasing him and pulling him up by the shoulders.
“But Mom, I’ll be forty-one in a month. I’m old now,” he objects, desolate.
“Shut up, boor” is the phrase that accompanies the slap on the head. “It doesn’t matter. I am and will always be your mother.”
“Show me how much you love me, come on, show me how much you love me,” she says to him, both sitting on the edge of the fountain.
“I can’t,” he replies. “My arms aren’t long enough.”
The little girl with curly red hair keeps making faces at the tramp, unperturbed, showing off the croissant that her mother gave her for breakfast, voraciously biting it and chewing it with her mouth open to reveal the concept at best.
“Stop it, you’re rude!” he curses. “It’s not fair for you to do this,” the tramp says, almost with tears in his eyes. “It’s not fair…”

I’d give everything not to be here, thinks Max, parking the car and heading toward a cafe for a coffee. Even if I have nothing left.

Act III: The Traffic Light

Back in the car, back around the streets of Murisengo.
The red light.
The green light.
The Uno car in front that will not move.
The time that passes.
A couple of nonchalant taps on the horn.
The Uno in front that still will not move.
A prolonged blow of the horn followed by curses.
The Uno in front that just won’t move.
The yellow light.
The red light.
The cold observation that the figure driving the Uno has never moved for the whole time.
Max puts the hazards on, gets out of the car and approaches the Uno.
An elderly gentleman in his seventies, lying on the steering wheel; his time has come and gone.

Phone. 112. Carabinieri. Ambulance. Questions.
“Perhaps it was a heart attack.”
“Who knows.”
“Of course, with this heat…”
“Yeah.”
“But, haven’t the two of us met before?” asks the marshal who coordinates the operations, once all the operations to be coordinated have been coordinated.
“Who knows,” Max replies, returning to his car. And inexplicably, for a moment, the slight lameness that will accompany him throughout his life is accentuated and he slows his pace.
“You must come to the station to sign the report!” shouts the marshal to Max.
“I’ll come.”

Act IV: Thoughts

“Yes, we’ve already met,” Max mutters to himself. “About a year ago.” And how many things have changed since then. Or, perhaps, it would be better to say: how many things have changed back then.

The memories. God, the memories.

“I’m glad to go over there tonight. We have tried so long to organize such a thing.”
“Yeah, it was about time!”
“If you want, when we come back, I can stop by you.”
“If I want?”
“If you want.”
“I want…”

“And her?”

“In the morning, I would wake you gently; I’d spread some Nutella on you. And I’d have breakfast with you.”

“And her?”

“What do I want more in the world? The two of us. A house full of you and me. And of the things that are part of you and me.”

“And her?”
“You have to think only of yourself now.”

“You know, sometimes I’m really scared. All this is so beautiful that I am terrified it just can’t last forever.”
“We’re both old enough to know how it works. We have seen a lot of stories come to life and die, but I do not believe the fact that everything can end up sooner or later is enough of a reason to give up from the start.”

He forgets, the man. Everything.

Act V: The Dog

“Are we sure we haven’t met somewhere before?” asks the Carabinieri marshal to Max, once the report has been signed.
“Who knows,” Max answers while leaving.
“Of course, we’ve seen each other,” murmurs Max, getting back into the car and returning to the town square.
On the right, in a small square, a local native is tying a white mutt with black spots, like Tramp from Lady and the Tramp, to the bumper of the car with a rope. Max really enjoyed Lady and the Tramp.
“What did it do?” Max asks the local native, after driving to the side of the road.
“It stole a sausage from the kitchen.”
“It’s all skin and bones. Evidently it’s not given enough to eat.”
“It’s none of your business.”
“You say?”
Max bends to his knees and unties the dog, which immediately starts to flee. Then he stands to observe the eyes of the native. They smack of anger and violence. Max sees that his hands are shaking and hopes for an instant that the guy will hit him so he can pay him back for all the wrong he might have done in his whole life. But this does not happen. And Max steps back into the car and drives away.

Act VI: The Sun

The sun shines fiery in the sky above Murisengo.
“I can’t think straight in this heat,” Carletto proclaims to his stray friends from a bench in the square. “I can’t think straight, I can’t think straight, I can’t think straight. What was I saying? Sorry, but in this heat, I can’t think straight. I can’t think straight; I can’t think straight.”
The school bus stops its run in the square and opens the doors. The little girl with curly red hair searches with her eyes for her favorite tramp, finds him on a bench and sets to work.
The traffic policeman Angelo, angel by name and not by nature, halts a child who has thrown a gum wrapper on the ground and states: “This is the last time: the next, you’ll end up getting a fine.”
“Cover your head, or you’ll get a sunstroke” the mother recommends to the bachelor son of forty, chasing him and adjusting the collar of his jacket. “Did you take the cap?”
“But Mom, I’ll be forty-one in a month. I’m old now,” he objects, desolate.
“Shut up, boor” is the phrase that accompanies the slap on the head. “It doesn’t matter. I am and will always be your mother.”
“Show me how much you love me, come on, show me how much you love me,” she says to him, both sitting on the edge of the fountain.
“I can’t,” he replies. “I love you so much that you can’t measure it.”
The little girl with curly red hair keeps making faces at the tramp, unperturbed, showing off the cookies that her mother gave her as a snack, voraciously biting them and chewing them with her mouth open to reveal the concept at best.
“Stop it, you’re rude!” he curses. “It’s not fair for you to do this,” the tramp says, almost with tears in his eyes. “It’s not fair…”
This sun did not understand that we are in November: it will end up driving someone insane. And judging by what I see around me, it takes very little.
Max wanders aimlessly in Murisengo; every direction is the same and so is every road.
An old red Cinquecento car, parked in the cool under a big tree that Max, due to his ignorance, cannot classify, swings and squeaks, swings and squeaks.
Yes, this heat is definitely not normal in November. Someone will go insane.
A black Golf GTI whizzes by at light speed.
“Go kill yourself, go,” echoes a disembodied, anonymous voice out of nowhere.
And I am the first, concludes Max, as he crosses the threshold of Irma the landlord. It doesn’t make any sense, all this.

Act VII: The Dream of the Apocalypse

Cartoon sky and Apocalypse clouds, what else? All that is torn by a huge hand, with the forefinger facing the ground, to the poor mortals. And a thundering voice, otherworldly, like a loudspeaker.
“Three hours to the Last Judgment.”
And the fear, the panic, the hunt for the last pleasures, the last satisfactions and then on, toward the final repentance. The long lines at the confessionals, the frenzy of purification. And the anxiety of confessors: will they have time to confess in turn? All in homage to Buzzati, of course.

And Max?
A lit cigarette, gaze stuck on the Apocalypse clouds that obscure the cartoon sky.
“I’ll finally have answers,” he says. While the hand that stands out in the sky clenches into a fist and raises the middle finger in a solemn gesture.
We have odd dreams when the sun shines high and warm in the sky above Murisengo.

Act VIII: Time Passes

Carrozzeria Gavi, reads a card written with a felt-tip pen, fastened with wire to the gate. Closed for illness, says another card written with a blue pen, just below it.
I’m afraid I will have to prolong my stay in Murisengo even more than I expected, Max reflects, climbing back into the car and heading toward the town center.
A black Golf GTI whizzes by at light speed in front of Max, ignoring the give way triangular signal.
“Go kill yourself, go,” echoes a disembodied, anonymous voice out of nowhere.
An old red Cinquecento car, parked right in the middle of a meadow, swings and squeaks, swings and squeaks.
Then, the town square.
“I can’t think straight, right after lunch,” Carletto proclaims to his stray friends from a bench in the square. “I can’t think straight, I can’t think straight, I can’t think straight. What was I saying? Sorry, but right after lunch, I can’t think straight. I can’t think straight; I can’t think straight.”
The school bus stops its run in the square and opens the doors. The little girl with curly red hair searches with her eyes for her favorite tramp, finds him on a bench and sets to work.
The traffic policeman Angelo, angel by name and not by nature, halts a pigeon who has just shitted on a bench and states: “This is the last time: the next, you’ll end up getting a fine.”
“Remember to always burp after the meal,” the mother recommends to the bachelor son of forty, chasing him and giving him light pats on the back.
“But Mom, I’ll be forty-one in a month. I’m old now,” he objects, desolate.
“Shut up, boor” is the phrase that accompanies the slap on the head. “It doesn’t matter. I am and will always be your mother.”
“Show me how much you love me, come on, show me how much you love me,” she says to him, both sitting on the edge of the fountain.
“I can’t,” he replies. “My love for you has no boundaries.”
The little girl with curly red hair keeps making faces at the tramp, unperturbed, showing off the slice of cake that her mother gave her as a dessert, voraciously biting it and chewing it with her mouth open to reveal the concept at best.
“Stop it, you’re rude!” he curses. “It’s not fair for you to do this,” the tramp says, almost with tears in his eyes. “It’s not fair…”

“I will miss this place,” Max mutters, smiling as he walks in any random direction.

For rent, reads the sign on the front of a shabby shack just outside downtown. Call Brondi. Afternoon nap hours.

Act IX: Still Thoughts

Time flies when you’re having fun: it seems like yesterday it was this morning.

Act X: Still the Dog

Carrozzeria Gavi, reads a card written with a felt-tip pen, fastened with wire to the gate. Closed due to bereavement, says another card written with a blue pen, just below it.
“Nothing new under the sun,” Max murmurs, climbing back into the car and heading toward the town square.

Max’s car is parked by the side of the road, near a fountain. Max quenched his thirst and is now enjoying a cigarette sitting comfortably on the hood. Not far away, in the middle of the fields, an old red Cinquecento car swings and squeaks, swings and squeaks. Then the panting of a white dog with black spots and Max’s hand becomes wet.
“Hi there, Tramp!” exclaims Max, recognizing the mutt from a few days before. “Nice to see you, too.”

Act XI: The Car

Carrozzeria Gavi, reads a card written with a felt-tip pen, fastened with wire to the gate. Finally open, says another card written with a blue pen, just below it.
“Finally open,” murmurs Max, crossing the gate and heading toward the remains of what were once cars.
“Where did you hide, baby?”
Pain and sheet metal, here’s how you can summarize what Max sees. Pain and sheet metal and memories.

The memories. God, the memories.

Panda 750 Fire CLX petroleum blue, originally. Max has only seen the photos in the newspapers and photos of the appraisal, until now; but none of those images could in any way render the idea of what that car has become.
It’s in there that everything happened, is Max’s only thought. We were in there.
“Is that yours?” The voice of the coachbuilder is heard behind Max.
“Yeah.”

“I was notified of the release by the Carabinieri station in the town where I live. I came as soon as possible, but I could easily have waited a little longer.”

“Mine is an awful job. Whenever they call me after an accident, I always want a change of job. God only knows how many terrible scenes I had to witness. You cannot even imagine.”
“Perhaps, if I try.”
“People are crazy. Behind the wheel of a car, people are crazy.”
“Not just behind the wheel of a car.”
“You’re right. Do you see this?” asks the coachbuilder, pointing at the blackened carcass of what used to be a Ritmo car. “The other day a guy poured petrol inside the car, tied himself in the driving seat and set himself on fire. It must be this damn heat to drive people insane.”

Act XII: One Day About a Year Ago

Waking up a little later than usual, breakfast, a walk, newspaper, lunch at parents’ expense, grocery shopping, the return home, weekly cleaning, shower, fresh sheets, her, an appointment with friends, heat, dinner, laughter, glee, happiness.
Too much, maybe.
The return home.
That’s when Max had the impression of hearing God shouting his name.

Act XIII: Pain

Waking up on a stretcher in a hospital ward, with the Carabinieri questioning you and talking about cranial traumas.

Fighting against pain and against tranquilizers, for a tiny flash of lucidity. Asking every time you can, “And her?”
“She’s fine. Now you have to think of yourself,” is the obvious answer which says everything and nothing.

Fighting in vain against the pain of an open femur, contemplating an aching and deformed arm, distinctly perceiving the stitches that follow one another on the face and inside the mouth.

Asking again: “And her?” For the usual answer: “She’s fine. Now you have to think of yourself.”

Unwillingly expanding your knowledge of human anatomy. Making the most of the void left by the avulsion of the left incisor, using it as a seat for the straw with which you are forced to feed yourself.

Fighting, sweating, building a life. Finding a job, buying a car, setting up a home; small, modest, but still a home. Building a life, perhaps for the sole purpose of sharing it with her. And then go out, one night, a dinner and then to bed. Instead, no. Seeing your life reset in an instant; a life that, anyway, you could have no longer shared with anyone.

Suffering, but without any right to complain. Feeling lucky, but without any right to joy.

Not remembering, not knowing what happened with certainty. Listening to sentences that begin with it seems and perhaps; and only hoping you have done the right thing at the right time. For what it can be worth, at this point.

Crying in the dark, at night; longing for a chance to go back. And to trade your life for hers.

Thinking of her every moment of every day, in front of every beautiful thing and every horrible thing. For better or for worse, you can still live.

Dreaming of running, when you have all four limbs broken.

Dreaming of an embrace that will never happen again.

Dreaming of a life.

“And her?”
“You have to think only of yourself now.”

Dreaming. Dreaming it was only a dream. And then, unfortunately, waking up.

Act XIV: The Ballad of Max

“How is he?”
“He’s alive.”

Max has never seen his house again. Not having been self-sufficient for a while, he ended up dissolving the rental contract. That house really meant much to him; and then, one night he went out, not knowing that he would never return.
But that’s the least of it.

Max was out of the game for about six months. The consolidation of the various fractures and the countless cycles of physiotherapy have required some time spent in a wheelchair before and then with a couple of crutches. When he returned to life, Max still moved with his walking stick. Now he has recovered quite well but has not yet managed to fulfill his dream of running. Certain fractures, it was reiterated several times, leave their mark for life.
But that’s the least of it.

Max gave up trying to build something with another person. Max doesn’t want to lose anyone anymore. That’s why Max doesn’t want anyone anymore.
An old dream: sitting around the table in Max’s house, an old man and a child look at him with a sad expression. He, Max, is missing at that table; the intermediate generation is missing. And that child will never see the light.
But that’s the least of it.

Max is a wreck. He cannot even remember when he last opened his eyes, in the morning, happy to have woken up. And it takes little, really little by now, to lose him forever.
His head is full. And he feels tired, so tired.
But that’s the least of it.

She is dead.
This is what really matters. She is dead and Max is alive. Only this matters.
Because Max is the survivor.
Why is Max the survivor?
What pending future has made sure that Max would be granted more time?

“How am I? I’m alive. And I cannot understand why.”

Act XV: Crescendo

The sun shines fiery in the sky above Murisengo; so fiery that there would be nothing to be surprised about if someone went insane.
“I can’t think straight in this heat,” Carletto proclaims to his stray friends from a bench in the square. “I can’t think straight, I can’t think straight, I can’t think straight. What was I saying? Sorry, but in this heat, I can’t think straight. I can’t think straight; I can’t think straight.”
The school bus stops its run in the square and opens the doors. The little girl with curly red hair searches with her eyes for her favorite tramp, finds him on a bench and sets to work.
The traffic policeman Angelo, angel by name and not by nature, halts a couple of lovers on a moped and states: “This is the last time: the next, you’ll end up getting a fine.”
An old red Cinquecento car advances slowly in the main avenue; and, while advancing, it swings and squeaks, swings and squeaks.
“And you will get a fine, too!” shouts the policeman Angelo, angel by name and not by nature, toward the squeaking and swinging (which swings and squeaks).
“Walk slowly, if you fall you will scrape your knees,” the mother recommends to the bachelor son of forty, chasing him and holding him by his belt. “And then, don’t come crying to me.”
“But Mom, I’ll be forty-one in a month. I’m old now,” he objects, desolate.
“Shut up, boor” is the phrase that accompanies the slap on the head. “It doesn’t matter. I am and will always be your mother.”
“Show me how much you love me, come on, show me how much you love me,” she says to him, both sitting on the edge of the fountain.
“I can’t,” he replies. “My arms aren’t long enough.”

The little girl with curly red hair keeps making faces at the tramp, unperturbed, showing off the chocolate bar that her mother gave her just to keep her quiet, voraciously biting it and chewing it with her mouth open to reveal the concept at best.
“Stop it, you’re rude!” he curses. “It’s not fair for you to do this,” the tramp says, almost with tears in his eyes. “It’s not fair…”
A black Golf GTI whizzes by at light speed.
“Go kill yourself, go,” echoes a disembodied, anonymous voice out of nowhere.
Not a second goes by before the Golf swerves, out of control. It swerves first right and then left, then right again and then left again.
Then right again. And a bachelor son of forty will not be forty-one next month; and a dazed mother, motionless with her right arm stretched forward, continues to look for a belt that no longer exists.
Then left again. And an old red Cinquecento car that swings and squeaks welcomes it, in a roar of metal sheets and bodies that come together in a painful and final embrace; and the old red Cinquecento car no longer swings, and the old red Cinquecento car no longer squeaks.
“It’s not fair…” the tearful tramp murmurs to the little girl on the school bus, in the chaos that has now invaded the square, while everyone is running toward the Golf and no one cares about him. “It’s not fair,” murmurs the tramp, an instant before pulling an old rusty shotgun from under his shabby coat.

Act XVI: The Circle

The man known to all as the tramp advances slowly, the old and rusty shotgun still smoking. The little girl with the curly red hair is crouched under the seat, above her a broken window. A new cartridge replaces the first one, the barrel aims at the group of children in line to get on the school bus.
“No,” Max mutters, placing himself between them and the barrel of the gun.
The index finger of the man known to all as the tramp trembles on the trigger; at this point, there is no turning back.
The white mutt with black spots comes out of nowhere and pounces on the man known to everyone as the tramp, it bites and scratches, while the gun slides on the asphalt. The mutt is thrown away, the man known as the tramp gets up and turns his gaze toward the weapon, then toward Max, foretelling a race whose prize is life.
“No,” Max says again. And he smiles.
The traffic policeman Angelo, angel by name and not by nature, pulls his service weapon from the holster, takes aim and explodes a shot. The chest of the man known as the tramp turns red, the man falls on his knees.
“It’s not fair…” he murmurs, before falling face down on the asphalt.
The white mutt with black spots approaches Max, who bends over and hands him a soon wet hand.
“Well met, my friend,” Max mutters. Then his look goes to the children behind him, the children of men and women; men and women who have not given up on life. “Full circle, my friend,” continues Max, turning to the dog, arching his lips in a dull smile. “I am still alive, you are still alive, they are still alive. Full circle.”

Act XVII: End

It’s been about a month. Nothing else of particular importance happened. The heat wave that had ended up suffocating Murisengo has given way to a warm winter. Max rented the old Brondi shack and moved in with the few things he managed to get in the trunk of the car. He spends his days on the porch, in the rocking chair. He smokes his cigarettes, stares at the sky and at the landscape, and rocks slowly. His story, in the village, is now known to all. Some say he fell victim to his thoughts. Some say he is simply tired and resting. Some say – and this is the most widespread opinion – he is convinced that he has fulfilled his task on this earth and is doing nothing but waiting for the last stop to rejoin her. At first sight, however, he does nothing but rock.

END

[First written as “L’illusione del Libero Arbitrio” in 1998. Re-edited in 2018 with the help of Sonia Lombardo. Translated from the Italian by Sabrina Beretta and edited by Karen Rought in 2019.]
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