Artwork by Costel Iarca
We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. —2 Corinthians 4:10
Carlo Busso steered his cousin's old Vespa up the via Latina and around the corner of the via Vesuvio.
"Carlo, be careful," his girlfriend Mariaflavia yelled, but it was too late. All she saw was a flash of raven long hair and a wake of exhaust, and Carlo Busso was gone from sight. She sighed and then walked into the pizzeria, tamping out her cigarette on the sidewalk with a heel. So she was spared the squeal of breaks, the screams of bystanders, and the wail of the ambulance with its two notes, one high and one low, seeming to grow larger in space as they approached the scene, like two scissors slicing the air as each heavy, profound moment passed on the corner of vias Latina and Vesuvio.
The impulse to beatify Carlo Busso was there long before that early spring day when he steered his cousin's Vespa up the wrong way on the via Latina and was killed by a bus. Carlo was an elegant, dark young man with graceful, arching eyebrows, long, curly black hair, and a face of symmetry, proportion, and simple economy. He was raised by his Nonna and mother, his father having died when he was an infant, so his natural predilections were allowed to grow under the careful governance of the women, who pruned his personality here, nipped his psyche there, and watered his pristine roots just so, developing the full flower of the masculine ideal uprooted from their lives.
Even with the attention, all that praiseful "Carlo is this" and "Carlo is that" gave him no more than the essential allotment of self-love. Why force the issue with other people, why demand and require, if it would come naturally? Why worry about getting this or that when the circumstances of his fate, his position in life, his soft good looks and firm posture worked to bring the coveted goods of life into his hands?
When he was thirteen, Carlo's grandmother called him over:
"You've been confirmed, Carlo," she said, squinting through a veil of cigarette smoke. "Now always wear this." She hung a small red bead suspended from a black thread around his neck. Carlo fingered the bead.
"What is it?" he asked. He knew full well; he just realized there was a ritual to enact here, that his Nonna demanded this question.
"Put it under your shirt," she clucked. "Don't let the world see it. It's so people won't give you the evil eye. They will resent you. Your beauty and your brain. They will wish you harm. This will protect you, my boy." And she patted Carlo on the head and told him to go outside and play.
Carlo's mother worked, so on holidays Nonna Busso watched the boy. She attended Mass every day. She had been widowed for two decades—Busso men were never long in years—and she still felt she should be wearing black.
"I should be wearing black," she would tell Carlo on the way to Mass, clucking her tongue. "But it is so old-fashioned." Instead she wore pleated gold polyester pant suits with bright green buttons, or jumpsuits of primary colors with knee high boots. Her golden loop earrings elongated her lobes. False eyelashes fluttered beneath her well-defined brow. The boy and his grandmother walked down the via Latina to the little church. Scooters and cars sped by, ignoring stop signs and traffic lights. Nonna Busso wagged her finger in disapproval.
She prayed, she sang, she stood, she sat, she kneeled. She took communion, thrusting her tongue out at the priest—none of this new fangled cupping the Host in her own hand for her—and went to confession. After Mass the local priest always shook Nonna Busso's hand and tussled Carlo's hair. The church was nearly empty. Only the very young and the very old attended.
So it was particularly painful to Nonna Busso that, right after his confirmation, Carlo announced to both his Nonna and his mother he would no longer be attending Mass. He was a man now, he explained with dignity. It was his choice. The women exchanged glances. They disapproved but let him travel along his own benighted way. They allowed him to reflect the image of men they had known and loved who had died and inhabited the world of memory, repeated, urgent prayers, and a thread of long trailing regret.
Mariaflavia held Carlo's hand. They sat on a bench on the via Latina in front of a wall scrawled with a generation's worth of graffiti. A bus drove by, enveloping them in acrid exhaust.
"Phew," Mariaflavia waved a hand. "What a disgusting city."
"It's not that bad, baby," Carlo leaned into her, resting his head in the lap of her faded denim jeans. The warmth of her legs was soothing, even on this scalding summer day. She played with a lock of his hair. She looked down at him as if from far away.
"Is your Nonna home?"
"Where else?" Carlo scoffed. "She is always at home. No job. No husband. Just Mass and TV."
"I hate to do it in my apartment," Mariaflavia mused. "It doesn't feel right."
"Oh no," Carlo purred, running a hand up her thigh. "There you are wrong. It always feels so right..."
And they pulled each other down the via Latina, past a shrine to Mary in a niche along a pitted, graffiti-laced wall. All around the little statue were placards of supplication and thanks: GRAZIA PER GIULA and PER GRAZIE RICEVUTA or simply GRAZIE MARIA. Once in bed Carlo and Mariaflavia made very quiet love, for in the living room just feet away her young brother was studiously watching cartoons.
"Go with her," Carlo's mother pleaded. "I know you don't go to Mass anymore. But your grandma doesn't remember how to get around Rome. She'll get lost on the Metro." Carlo was fourteen and reluctant to go. He had no wish to see the exhumed remains of Padre Zisa's incorrupt body.
"It's disgusting, Ma... a dead body."
"It's only an afternoon. If you do it, you can stay out until ten tonight," his mother waved a pleading hand at her son. Carlo hung tough, so she said, "I'll give you twenty-thousand lire. You can stay out till ten and play video games as much as your heart desires."
"Fork it over," Carlo held out his hand. His mother rummaged through her purse. She placed a folded lire note in his palm. They looked at one another without apparent emotion. Then Carlo smiled, revealing his glimmering white teeth, and his mother patted his head and kissed his brow, depositing a layer of scarlet on his smooth, brown skin.
Padre Zisa was laid out in a brass coffin covered by a glass case. Tapers burned from high candlesticks. Flowers draped the coffin and festooned the low arches of the ceiling. Carabinieri stood at the entrance and the exit. When supplicants in line would dawdle, cry, pray, fall to their knees and begin the rosary, the carabinieri at the exit would lazily step forward and move them along. Thousands lined up to see the incorrupt remains of Padre Zisa. On the Metro ride Nonna had regaled Carlo with stories he had already heard about the miraculous powers of the famous Padre Zisa. The poor parish priest ran an orphanage and soup kitchen. He was crushed by his worldly duties in one of Rome's most squalid neighborhoods. His back was hunched, and he was blind in one eye. It was said he suffered from painful stigmata, although the Church did not officially endorse this rumor. When he died 20 years ago, nearly 40,000 people accompanied his remains to the grave. And now the Vatican had exhumed his body to beatify Padre Zisa, and not surprisingly they found his flesh had not decayed. It was as if, as Nonna Busso explained, the soul of the man had been so pure it had stamped an imprint of sanctity on his poor departed flesh.
After two hours in line, they reached the vestige of Padre Zisa on this earth. After all this time, even Carlo's interest was stirred. He peered through the glass: a waxy, shiny skin and a thin, yellowing beard. A tuft of frizzy hair ringing the head. Hands folded in prayer and a rosary intertwined between each finger. Nonna Busso told Carlo the bodies of the saints did not emit any odor but sweetness, but Carlo could not smell a thing besides the overwhelming odor of a dozen varieties of flowers, and before he could take another whiff, the carabinieri had whisked him and Nonna away from Padre Zisa and out into the bright street of an unfamiliar Roman neighborhood.
"Here it is," his cousin Fabio said, holding out the little banged up Vespa. "It's a little dinged up, but it's fucking free, you know? So don't bitch, Carlo."
"Jesus, thanks, Fabio," Carlo said as he sat on the scooter. He grasped the handle bars and turned the front wheel. Mariaflavia stood there, her arms crossed, chewing the end of a strand of hair.
"You bet," Fabio drawled. His hair was slicked back. From the top of his jumpsuit a plume of black chest hair erupted like a geyser. "You got a hot girlfriend, so now all you need is a hot ride."
"Shut up, Fabio," Mariaflavia snapped. "Where is the helmet?" she continued. Fabio shrugged.
"A waste of money," Fabio chuckled. "If you are gonna die on one of these things, there is nothing gonna stop it. And if you do live because of a Goddamned helmet, you are gonna wish you were dead."
"That's a stupid thing to say." Mariaflavia turned to look at Carlo, who was sitting on the Vespa, rocking back and forth like a little boy on a hobby horse. "Give it back to him, Carlo."
"Come on, Mariaflavia, don't be a pain in the ass," Carlo answered, laughing gently.
"Give it back, Carlo," Mariaflavia said again, more sternly. Both boys looked at her uneasily, ready to cede to her feminine authority. Carlo was the one to laugh first and break the spell.
"Get off it, Flavia," Carlo chided. "You're not my mother."
And Mariaflavia watched as both boys sped away on their Vespas, Carlo unsteady and following his cousin down the via Latina like a child's wayward top.
Carlo fell once and broke a finger. Then he fell a second time and cracked a rib. He stayed off the Vespa for a month, but when the rib healed, he was back again, riding the squealing bike around the neighborhood and in the campagna—the rolling, open fields just beyond the high rise apartments. They passed an old Roman ruin. A partially detached marker explained Emperor Ve-something—part of the name was illegible—had built this temple in honor of his lover, a boy who had drowned in the Tiber. This emperor had him declared a god, and this was his shrine. Fabio and Carlo raced round the circular foundation, trying to catch each other, like a dog chasing his own tail. Carlo skidded on some gravel and fell. He cursed. He dusted off his coat and hopped on again.
The police report dryly stated Carlo Busso, 18, of 525 via Latina, apartment 7B, had been disoriented by the afternoon light, had swerved out onto the via Latina in the wrong direction, and had been hit by a bus. He had died immediately. He was thrown from the Vespa and flew 30 feet to the sidewalk near the retaining wall of a hill overgrown with scraggly trees.
After the funeral Mass, the priest and Carlo Busso's women and friends accompanied the body to the Church of Santa Adenzia, where there was much wailing, crying, and raising of hands and arms to the sky.
A month later, the neighborhood association approved Carlo's mother's petition: a plaque was placed on the pitted concrete retaining wall where Carlo died. "IN MEMORY OF CARLO BUSSO," it read. "1972-1990. ALWAYS REMEMBERED." There was a niche for fresh flowers and a clear plastic plate affixed to the top of the plaque. Carlo's Nonna inserted his photo under the plastic. Mariaflavia replaced the flowers every three days. Senora Busso was too distraught to even look out the window at the spot where her beloved son had given up his sweet and gentle soul.
A year later Mariaflavia married a man and moved to another part of Rome. Nonna Busso replaced the flowers, but in another year she died. Six months later Senora Busso took a job in Milan and never returned to Rome again.
The little monument to Carlo Busso appeared to sink into the concrete wall. The etched letters bearing his name and the brief spell of his life—a crack of light between two walls of darkness—became chipped and splintered. One day the faded photo was gone and the plastic plate broken. The graffiti, which had been encroaching upon the memorial for years, was now profanely scrawled across it; the busy neighborhood swirled indifferently around the marker where Carlo Busso had stepped out of this life and into shadows.
Fifteen years later the Church of Santa Adenzia was forced by the diocese to sell its property, including the cemetery. The clerk sent letters to various Francesca Bussos in Milan but never received an answer. So the body of Carlo Busso was to be exhumed and reinterred at the Roman municipal cemetery.
Three workers dug the coffin out with a backhoe and shovels. In the fading winter light, the men were aghast when they unevenly raised the coffin and the lid slid away, revealing the body within. Carlo Busso's long hair, left perched on his shoulders in the coffin, remained a lustrous black. His face was smooth and the color of cocoa. His eyebrows were arched and full. His lips were red and slightly parted, revealing the gleaming teeth within.
"Holy Christ," the first worker said. "It's just like he is asleep!"
"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," the second worked cried. "It's like they buried him yesterday." Then he sniffed. "He smells like chocolate."
The third worker was silent. He simply peered at the body and made the sign of the Cross. All three quickly resealed the coffin.
"What do you make of that?" the first worker asked.
"How the hell should I know?" the second answered. "But we keep quiet. Agreed? We don't need the trouble."
But as the driver came out of the truck to help haul the coffin into the back, the third worker got on his knees and said an Our Father and three Hail Marys, and the others watched in respectful silence. When the truck pulled away, they all collected their tools and silently went toward home down the via Latina. A scooter swerved to miss them on the via Vesuvio, and the first worker raised his fist, ready to curse the rider and his mother. Then he thought better, and quickly lowered his arm.