“Club?” said the Director. “What do you mean, a club? Is that what you think we are, River Plate, or Newell’s Old Boys (a couple of Argentine soccer clubs), or some kind of boxing club?”
Boos, hisses, horselaughs. A jeering, cackling kind of laughter; nervous; one would have said, defensive. Cazzotto sat there on his log, next to me, apelike. I didn’t join in the guffaw; I looked at his face, red in the fire glow. His mouth was open, a thread of saliva between his lips; under thick brows his eyes looked darkly ahead, into the flames, as if he couldn’t understand why they were laughing; why, in a world full of funny stuff, everybody was laughing at him.
What I couldn’t understand was how anyone could be so damn stupid as to call the Young Men’s Christian Association a club, knowing how the Director, Raúl Stoltz, hated it. I looked more closely at Cazzotto’s narrow forehead, at the roots of his gelled pompadour, in wonder as to what, if anything, might be taking place inside. A caveman, I thought, a troglodyte.
Every evening the Director would go around the circle, pointing from his stool at us with his long, powerful flashlight, and posing to each boy the question: “So, what have you learned today?”
That evening I had come up with an excellent answer. I said that right after the morning softball game was over, I had realized why our team had won. Then, after a pause, when everyone was hanging on my lips for the big secret, I said that it was because we had been able to set aside our own selfish motives in favor of teamwork.
The answer was excellent for two reasons. First, my teammates would appreciate my recalling our victory of the morning – their victory, really, for I was a terrible player, I hated the game, and they put up with me only because I had to be in some team, according to the rules. And second, the Director was keen on teamwork.
Indeed, the Director seemed pleased. He turned his light on Cazzotto, and it was then that the amazing thing happened. “What I’ve learned today?” the wretch repeated in his throaty bass. “That in this club we need a punching bag.”
As I have already said, there was nothing the directors hated as much as hearing the institution being called a club. I can’t imagine what they found objectionable in the word “club,” but it was a fact that everybody knew, except, apparently, Cazzotto. The boys, who, for the most part, lived under the constant threat of Cazzotto’s punches, were bound to resent his mentioning a punching bag. So his answer seemed designed, if one believed Cazzotto capable of design, to provoke the most hostile reactions among the largest number.
While the next boy was explaining how he learned, after tremendous efforts, the overhead volleyball serve, I kept watching Cazzotto. He was cursing under his breath. Being the butt of all that laughter hurt him; he would have gladly swallowed back his foolish words of a minute ago. But he had been asking for it, always ready to punch and shove the other boys around, always too willing to project his power. The fact cannot be denied: Cazzotto was a bully.
After the what-have-you-learned-today bit, there was the usual fire-side chat by the Director. That night it happened to be about loving one’s enemies and turning the other cheek. It doesn’t come easy, the Director said: loving one’s enemies requires intensive training, like playing football, or competing in the Olympics. As for turning the other cheek, it’s the damnedest hard thing, almost superhumanly so, but that, and nothing less, is what Christ wants us to accomplish. Meanwhile, Cazzotto was sitting with his elbows on his knees, head down, staring at his sneakers.
“You think rockets, jet planes and nuclear weapons are new, powerful things,” said the Director. “But let me tell you, Christ’s injunction, to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors, is far newer and far more revolutionary. When you are smitten, turning the other cheek: that’s power, that’s real power, not like the false and cowardly power of the bully.”
I would have bet those last words were meant for Cazzotto. I watched him to see if there was any reaction: he hadn’t moved, he was still looking down into a spot between his sneakers. I noticed that he was puffing out, twisting and revolving his cheeks, and I said to myself: the clown pretends to be training for Christ’s cheek turn!
But a blob of saliva appeared on his mouth, growing bigger and bigger until it started a slow descent. I thought it was a rather tasteless way of expressing his spite. That blob of saliva glows in my memory like a pale and sickly lamp at the threshold of the frightful events that were to follow.
Cazzotto had a passion for bel canto: his dream was to become a basso profundo. Becoming a professional boxer was his other ambition – I guess there is no incompatibility between the two, as long as one doesn’t get hit in the larynx – and after that evening at the campfire and his infelicitous mention of a punching bag, boys got to call him “Boxing Club.”
When they first saw him posturing before the bathroom mirror and heard him sing with a nasal bass such well-known pieces of the repertoire as “Largo al factotum” or the aria “La Calunnia” from The Barber of Seville, the boys laughed. He didn’t take criticism well, and after he beat up two of the laughers nobody else dared to openly mock his lyrical exuberance.
I laughed too, but always behind his back. I praised his singing, offering some constructive criticism to lend more candor to my praise. I told him that when singing the line, “Come un colpo di cannone,” he should strongly emphasize the word “colpo” and accompany it with a swinging gesture of the arm, a kind of punch. Cazzotto liked the advice: from then on we would go off together up the hill, into the woods, where he would sing at the top of his beastly voice, gesturing wildly, and then wait for my opinion, which was unstintedly enthusiastic.
Other than my artistic coaching, something else assured me his protection. Although I was hopelessly clumsy at all sports, at the game of Questions & Answers I was unbeatable. The Director’s assistant threw questions at us – the capital of Liechtenstein, the mean thickness of the Antarctic ice cap, the name of the general who lost the battle of Ayacucho (I don’t understand why nowadays such bits of information are called “trivia,” being the essential kit of the educated man) – and the team which answered correctly won a point. As the captain of one of the teams, I had to choose nine more players from the fifty-plus kids: I started by picking Cazzotto, even though he couldn’t be of any help since other than Rossini and boxing there wasn’t a crumb on the white napkin of his mind. This gesture of mine won his gratitude for life; from then on any boy who wanted to bother me had to consider picking a fight with my protector.
It was an unforgettable night, the one that followed the Director’s cheek chat by the fireside. We slept four to a tent, and each tent had a leader: usually a little older boy, responsible for the observance of curfews and reveilles. Our leader was the sweetest guy; three years older than I (I was fourteen at the time), he had a placid and rotund personality, a maturity well ahead of his years. That, plus his long face and wiry hair made him look like a carpincho, the gentlest and largest rodent alive.
Every night at curfew the two other boys and I held a mock-serious ceremony. We sang a song borrowed from an old Walt Disney movie, mutatis mutanda:
“Tent number 5-is-the-most-freedom loving spot,
because heil!-heil! – Carpincho we must love.
And-who-e-ver-doe-sn’t-like him must be shot,
because heil!-heil! – Carpincho we must love!”
With each “heil!”, standing erect facing our leader, we gave the Nazi salute. Then we turned off the lamp and jumped into our cots.
That night, having been tucked in for about an hour, half-asleep, I heard noises. Muffled voices, stealthy footsteps. The flap of the tent door, a rustle of bed clothes. Carpincho’s scream, very brief, his voice suddenly stifled. Scuffle sounds. Then silence again.
I was frozen with fear. Wondering whether the other two boys had heard, and whether they were asleep or, like me, only pretending, I started whispering: “Carpincho... Carpincho...” Since no one answered, I kept quiet.
It wasn’t hard to figure out: Carpincho had been honeymooned. It had happened to another boy a few nights ago: the Honeymooners Pack had kidnapped him from his tent, carried him up the hill into the woods, stripped him bare, and shaved his pubic hair and an awful band down the scalp. Finally he was covered with honey from head to toes. The honey they stole from the kitchen. The honey we used with butter and bread for breakfast every day. As I lay on my cot, motionless, I tried to understand why now, of all people, Carpincho. Such a nice, decent guy.
Maybe because he was so nice, so placid. Yes, that had to be it. Or perhaps because of his hair, always sticking out, rebellious – one would say, inviting retaliation. I thought, could it happen to me? And I reviewed in my mind possible reasons why I might be honeymooned. It was bitterly cold at night up in the Sierras; lying under two blankets I tried to imagine myself naked, walking back from the woods, shaved and shivering, then trying to wash off the honey under the ice-cold showers. If I could be home now... but I couldn’t. I could only hope that Cazzotto’s protection would keep me out of harm’s way. That, and lying low, trying to remain inconspicuous.
In pursuit of my duties as Postmaster General, every morning I would cross the stream between the Boys Campground and the Families Compound, go over to the Administration Building, and get the basket of mail for the boys. Walking down there, kicking a pebble, I could be with myself, alone. It also meant that I could see Susie Gutman. She would leave her parents at the breakfast table and walk back with me up to the log bridge, where we would stop for a talk.
I’m pretty sure I was not in love with Susie. I didn’t particularly like her face, pale and freckled, and her brown, sad eyes. Certainly not her breasts, too big for a thirteen-year-old girl, too intimidating. I guess whatever I did like about her was concentrated in her fingers.
We usually talked about music, standing on the log bridge, elbows on the rail, looking down at the stream; about her favorite pieces of the Romantic piano repertoire. That morning I was still in shock from the events of the night before, and so I began by telling Susie how Carpincho was kidnapped by the Honeymooners, and how he finally reappeared two hours later, wet, half shaved, shivering from the cold. Today he was running a high fever, so I brought him breakfast in bed. There was coffee and milk and bread and butter, but Carpincho asked me to take away the honey: the poor guy just couldn’t stand the sight of it.
Very kindly, Susie said that since there was nothing but honey at the boys’ camp, she could get a jar of apricot preserve. There was, indeed, a speck on a corner of her mouth, which looked like jam, most unwelcome. For the last couple of weeks I had been trying, looking at Susie’s mouth, to imagine what it should feel like to kiss her: it was a delicate, cumulative construction, and now this speck of jam threw me off, introducing, as it were, a new parameter. No, I told her, Carpincho probably wanted a total reprieve from sweets.
As we looked at the fresh current of the brook below, we returned to our usual theme. She had told me about the mysterious Englishman who followed Chopin everywhere, beseeching the composer to teach him to play the G-minor Ballade. Now Susie told me about a piece by Schumann she had been practicing.
It started with a very short triumphal march: the young heroine leaving home for marvelous adventures. Susie’s teacher had advised her to picture herself playing the march on a wheeled piano gliding down the street, while from the balconies people threw flowers on her path. “Jumping octaves,” Susie sighed, “they’re so devilishly hard; so hard to give them the right force, not too loud, not too soft. Then, all of a sudden, those E-flat arpeggios: the heroine has found her hero. Arpeggios, says my teacher, are the expression of the thrusts of desire, the lunges of the heart. And ah, that melody, how you would love it, that beautiful melody in the high notes! With the little finger, see?”
And Susie’s fingers ran over the bridge rail, her little one pausing a bit so that while she hummed the tune I could get the full wonderful effect of the high notes.
Affected by Susie’s enthusiasm, the unwelcome speck of jam on her mouth now totally forgotten, I found that I had laid my hand on top of hers. She turned deep red, upon which I turned pale, and so I took my hand off from hers, and she took hers off the rail. There followed an embarrassed silence.
To break it, I asked about the name of the piece: it was one of the Davidsbündler Dances. “Schumann and his friends formed a club. They wanted to fight against stupidity,” Susie explained, reverting to her ebullient self. “Like David in the Bible, who fought against that giant...”
“Goliath,” I helped her.
“Right, and that’s why they were called the Davidsbündler.”
“But how did they fight against stupidity? With guns? With slings?” I let out a little derisive laugh.
“Oh no,” Susie said, “with music.” I looked incredulous but she went on.
“Robert Schumann fell in love with a beautiful girl who was the most brilliant pianist in the world. Her father, a very wicked old man, was absolutely opposed. They suffered a lot because of that, but finally their love prevailed, and they were married, in spite of everything.”
“And they lived happily ever after...” I added with a touch of sarcasm.
“Well yes," Susie said, “until one day Robert threw himself into the icy Rhine and died...”
We remained silent, leaning over the rail, looking down into the water which flowed on, humming always the same song, forever kissing the same mossy stones. The icy Rhine. Poor Carpincho, shivering, half-shaved. Then, suddenly, Susie proposed that she and I form a David’s club, with the purpose of fighting against cruelty and stupidity wherever we should find them.
“Hey, look who’s there.”
“Lots of mail? Took long to pick it up, uh?”
“Nah, he got a girlfriend down there.”
“Tell us, postmaster, she cute?”
“Yeah, does she f...art? Ha, ha, ha!”
I was about to make a dash for it, but they got hold of my arms. They took the mail basket and put it on the ground. “Where d’you think you’re goin’, kiddo? We really want to know about your sweetheart. Really.”
I was lifted and laid face down upon a table; then my pants were pulled down. I knew perfectly well what was about to happen: they were going to flog me. I felt cold, as if my innermost parts were exposed to the wind, utterly naked.
“She should see you now, your little piece of ass, she should see you now, she’d really like it,” they laughed.
“What's her name, uh?” Then, sharply: “C’mon, you better tell us, what’s her name?”
I heard a belt's lash against the table. “Susie,” I whispered.
“Susie! Oh, Susie, what a nice, sweet name!" They seemed to be possessed by the wildest joy. “Com'ere, Susie,” they hollered, “come look at your mail boy’s dirty ass!”
But a voice interrupted, “Leave the kid alone!” It was Cazzotto. Then, curt, masterful, “I said let him go!”
My tormentors backed off. When Cazzotto and I were left alone, I said: “Thanks, old buddy,” trying to appear nonchalant while pulling up my pants and picking up the mail basket.
“Assholes,” was his only comment.
A minute later the two of us were going up the hill, toward the woods, Cazzotto humming “Figaro qui, Figaro qua, Figaro, Figaro...,” while I told him about the terrors of the night and my suspicion that this same pack of five were the infamous Honeymooners Pack, responsible for Carpincho’s kidnapping, and that I was probably next on their list.
“Let’em try it," said Cazzotto. Then, after an expansive fioritura and a fantastic gesture of defiance, “and I’ll smash their kissers.”
Through the rest of the day I kept a low and grave profile. The little I said and the little I moved was imbued with dignity, to give neither the impression of being alarmed, nor of being overproud at having outsmarted my enemies. Just so everybody knew that I had a powerful and unconditional ally, whenever I saw Cazzotto with other boys I patted him on the back or whispered something in his ear. Nonetheless, I was anxious about the coming night, when the five cowards, I was sure, would try to honeydew me.
But I managed to keep my cool, and when, during the afternoon softball game I drew a walk and the first baseman hissed at me, “Susie’s pussy,” I simply smiled.
At dinnertime the Camp Director told me to take food to Carpincho. I found him lying on his cot, very quiet, the blanket stretched up to his chin. His face seemed paler than usual, but on his forehead there were purple blotches, as if blood, or pent-up anger, was trying to pierce through. I pushed the footlocker near Carpincho’s cot and set down the food tray. “How’s it goin’, buddy?” I said.
Carpincho was silent, and when I was about to touch his face to see if he was alive, he blurted out in a delirious staccato: “And-who-e-ver-doe-sn’t-like him must be shot,” then made a deep, gurgling sound, as if ready to spit.
“That’s right, man, that’s the spirit,” I said, and with a sinking feeling in my stomach left the tent.
Slowly, very slowly, I walked back to the dining area. Red-streaked clouds hung like menstrual debris over the Sierras. I kicked a pebble which rolled straight down the road: I decided to go on kicking it, it would keep me company. But after two or three more kicks I forgot it: an insane fear of the approaching night took hold of me, especially of my legs, which felt liquid. Yes, I would be next. I could already feel on my pubes the cold finality of the razor blade.
With something like relief I heard the uproar over at the dining area. Noise of clashing tableware, screams, the Director’s whistle. Then I saw Cazzotto being held by the Director, his assistant and several boys. I asked one of my tentmates what had happened. “Gomoso called him Boxing Club – hey, Boxing Club, pass me the salt, or something like that – and Cazzotto punched him.”
They were now carrying my protector like a sack of potatoes, and they laid him face down upon an empty table. The Director’s assistant, two of the guys who worked in the kitchen, and two of the bigger boys were holding him. The Director blew the whistle again. This boy, he announced, needed a lesson which he would never forget and which he was about to get for his own good. We had to do our part: we had to stand, the fifty or so of us, in line, and go by our comrade one by one, to make our forceful and wholehearted contribution to his learning experience.
Cazzotto’s pants went down, and a belt was produced. Gomoso, the kid who had been punched, was first in line: following the Director’s instructions, he raised the belt and brought it down with a crack on the naked buttock. Cazzotto was squirming, making supreme efforts to free himself. Behind me, in front of me, to every side, I could feel the mocking eyes of the Honeymooners. As I counted the lashes, I kept my eyes on the ground.
When it was my turn, I raised them and looked at Cazzotto. Threads of blood were running down his right buttock. The Director instructed me to start hitting the other side. It happened to be the side Cazzotto was facing to, and as I stood there, belt in hand, I caught his eye. He didn’t seem to recognize me. There was an awful grimace on his face, one of concentrated rage, as he repeated through clenched teeth, “Fucking club! Fucking club!” All eyes were fixed on me: I raised the belt and brought it down on Cazzotto’s other cheek, real hard.