December 9, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Bringer of bread

By |2023-02-01T16:04:13+01:00January 6th, 2023|Features Archive|
Without bread and without light, the mind begins to slip.

n the dog days of early July, when all cooling breezes resolve to leave the city, the aging screenwriter who lives in the building across from mine and from time to time brings me fresh bread, seemed also to vanish in the heat.

The superintendent of that building the three structures had gone on his annual holiday, so I lacked information on my bread-bringer. My broken eyesight made it impossible to do the simple thing, visit him 50 meters away, when his phone failed to answer. When you cannot see, such a task is of itself an adventure more daunting than any Magellan undertook.

So, breadless, I held out, hoping a few weeks would pass in a flash. They did not. By night I sat on my terrace, staring up at stars I pretended to know by their individually memorized luminescence. But even stars have their perils. Soon, in that circumscribing darkness, questions of personal meaning and purpose arise, not the sort of queries suited to humid nights. Soon, sweat and tears grow indistinguishable, and no Camus can save you.

By night I sat on my terrace, staring up at stars I pretended to know by their individually memorized luminescence.

Then came the phone call. Behold, it was in fact Ettore, Hector, and, he told me, he was in the direst of quandaries. His cinema “troupe” had left him stranded and alone at a small hotel on Rome’s outskirts and could I, would I, please drive out to fetch him. Strange situation, and a stranger request to a blind man who does not own a car. I expressed my regrets but in my astonishment, did not ask when he might next pass by with bread. He did not pass by, and I heard nothing more for several days, by which time I assumed the call itself had been some sort of verbal hallucination, the kind of thing predisposed to strike old blind men when they sit outdoors, breadless, in any given summer.

The first call had come on a Sunday; I remember the church bell sounding at midnight. The second came on some nondescript day of the week when I again found myself sitting motionless, lost in some vivid memory of driving along a coastal highway in California, blinded not by illness but the setting sun, and driving, as was my way once, very, very fast.

This time Ettore was even more frantic. Now he was in a room awaiting a producer who was to weigh in on the merits of his script and he had, by his account, been waiting hours, if not days, for the old moviemaker to come out of the room at his villa.


Where was he?

On the Amalfi coast, just outside of Salerno, and how could he be treated this way, he asked. He had, after all, that day lunched with De Sica.

I expressed regret for him but suddenly knew all was not right at the villa, or at the earlier lunch, since Vittorio De Sica had been dead for decades. Was this a slip? Was it heatstroke?

The third call came in the evening of the next day, in which Ettore finally announced he was coming home. His script had been accepted. A film would be made, called, he hoped, Zuppa di Caldo, Soup of Heat. But when I asked him about bread, about our arrangement, he expressed wonder. Did I not remember that I had two maids and what about my daughter, Felicia? Only then did he begin to sob, hanging up on the line, saying “It is such pain,” or perhaps “I am in such pain.” I heard no more from Ettore, no more about the script, nor my imaginary daughter Felicia. He did not come back and the summer went forward, after these communications, in a surreal way.

But when I asked him about bread, he expressed wonder. Did I not remember that I had two maids and what about my daughter, Felicia?

Only several weeks later did the superintendent return to his post. He rang my doorbell and I recognized him by his voice. He handed me a bag of “rosette,” bread rolls. “I thought you might need these,” he said, and then he told me what I had guessed but had chosen to avert truly knowing, since the blind loathe reality. Ettore had been hospitalized a month ago and found to have terminal cancer. He had been in terrible pain and in his mad, pained state, had actually tried to escape from the clinic where he’d been confined. He had died alone (he had no relatives) but “in peace,” the superintendent said, promising to bring me more bread regularly.

But I was not listening to him. I was thinking only of the two words, in peace, and their uselessness in the tricky and unforgiving scheme which we call life — even in quiet, the antithesis of peace. Blame the mind. So stubborn is mine, it never did fully digest those closing, explanatory summer words about how Ettore had come to go. Still now I lie awake in darkness thinking of ways to drive to the outskirts to get my friend and bring him home, or to go further still, the two of us in a red Fiat 1500 convertible, racing from Rome to Naples to make it in time for the opening shoot of Soup of Heat, sure finally that the movie in both our minds had come for us, to include us, forever.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.