By Attila Zønn
From that rolling cataclysm of time, a memory comes to mind, of a golden afternoon between four and five o’clock, gazing at expanses of tall grass meadows and the west wind blowing their greasy tops in shimmering waves.
It would have been either Thursday or Friday, late in the month, and with our minds in the heat of play, we had forgotten the terror of the month before.
But there occurred that moment when all play ceased—rubber balls no longer bounced but lay motionless on the ground and hiders no longer wanted to be sought. At that moment we turned in unison towards the north, past the bridge that spanned the creek, to where the road crested and there it would be, that quivering iota. One of us would yell, “He’s coming!” And that realization triggered the thumping of our hearts and in an instant we’d scurry into our homes in search of the deepest recesses, in that place reserved for this time, where we wouldn’t see or hear anything because…the Bottle Man was coming.
My attempts to hide were feeble and I realize now there were places to hide, voids where not a sound would be heard, but I chose instead to feel the fear—feel the tingle and sweat on my arms, feel the tumult of my stomach and the quivering at my genitals. My heart raced with the anticipation of that knock.
“Good afternoon gracious woman,” he’d say. “Could you spare your empty bottles so a wretch like myself might sustain his worthless life?” Then I’d hear the clink of bottles and the Bottle Man would say, “Oh, you’re so kind. So generous. A prayer for you and all in this house. God bless you.” The door clicked closed and I’d appear to find my mother standing at the window looking out after the Bottle Man, and she’d say, “There goes a poor soul.” She’d shudder and embrace herself. “Sometimes we don’t know how lucky we are.” I’d look where she looked and caught the back of the Bottle Man, atop his purple bicycle, wearing his gray hat and dusty blue suit, pulling a two-wheeled wooden cart clinking with empty bottles.
And once he had passed, we’d rush out and play again, knowing we had precious little time to bounce the ball before our fathers came home and our mothers called us in for supper, and then there was the evening, and then there was bed. And life went harmlessly on for another month.
We learned everything we knew about the Bottle Man from Giulio. Giulio was much older than us. He didn’t go to school or have a job, and when we played we’d see him watching us from a window in his mother’s house, and shortly afterwards we’d see him again, leaning against the wall in the laneway. Giulio’s left leg was much shorter than his right one and when he walked, his hips rocked from side to side.
Giulio knew everything about the Bottle Man. He said the Bottle Man had been wounded in the war and parts of him were missing—his nose, an ear and some fingers. He had one blue eye and one cloudy eye. I tried to imagine what a face without a nose might look like. Was it possible to see as far in as his brain? When he had a cold, how could he blow his nose if he didn’t have one? Was there snot mixed with blood oozing from that hole in his face? And what about his missing ear? Which ear? And what did a head without an ear look like?
Giulio said the Bottle Man had been a war hero, and when he rode his bicycle into our midst his chest glinted with the medals he’d received, and he wore a handkerchief across his face like a bandit, to hide his disfigurement. A piece of wood clicking against the spokes announced his arrival and the clinking of bottles fading in the distance told us he was gone.
Giulio told us the Bottle Man only ate two things—potatoes and sardines and he only drank grape juice freshly squeezed. “So stay out of the vineyards because the Bottle Man will be napping there.”
“What would happen if he caught us watching him sleep,” I once asked.
“He’ll JUMP UP!” Giulio said, lunging at me with claw hands extended. “Cut you open with his crooked knife and eat your liver! And bury you and no one will ever see you again.”
To this day, I shudder at the sight of vineyard rows.
Giulio wasn’t afraid of the Bottle Man. “I’ll stand here and wait for him. He won’t bother a cripple. We can stare and pity each other.”
Giulio didn’t know exactly where the Bottle Man lived. He’d stand on the road and point and say, “Somewhere over that hill.”
We looked up to Giulio. He was brave.
He told us stories from the books he had read. He told us stories about his life. How his father had fought with his mother and run away. He told us a story of when he was ten, when his mother had taken him to a holy place where if they prayed very hard Jesus would heal him. And Giulio was so happy that he would be healed, and he could run in the meadows, up the hills, down the hills and jump, jump, and kick a ball high into the sky like his Uncle Marco.
They boarded a train and the journey took a day and a night and a day. When they got there, they had to kneel and move along on their knees up to the holy place where Jesus would heal him. But Giulio wasn’t able to kneel. In his whole life, he had never been able to kneel, so he got on his stomach and pulled himself forward with his arms to the holy place where Jesus would heal him, and when they got there—a grotto with lit candles all inside and a small statue of Jesus with a red cloak, set into a hole carved into the stone—they prayed and prayed and prayed, and Giulio thought he could feel his leg straightening and growing, but then they were told to move along because other people were behind them and wanted their turn to pray so Jesus could heal them.
He wasn’t healed. His mother cried.
Giulio wasn’t disappointed. He was used to the way he was and had never known any other way to be, and running maybe wasn’t all that much fun anyway because it would make him tired, and kicking a ball into the sky would only be fun for a little while.
His mother didn’t speak to him on the train ride back home till the second day when she suddenly slapped him in the face and told him, “Jesus didn’t heal you because you didn’t kneel!” Giulio sobbed and told her he was sorry. His mother slapped him again for crying.
Giulio and his mother had terrible fights in their house. Everyone in the Contrada could hear them. Once after one of these fights, I was walking along the lane by his house and found him crying by his back gate.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. He wiped his eyes.
“I wish I could run,” he said. “Then I’d run so fast and so far away that this place wouldn’t even be a memory.” He looked at me and said, “My mother says I’m useless.”
One morning we woke to screams coming from Giulio’s house. Terrible screams. People came from their houses and ran to Giulio’s house.
Giulio was dead.
When his mother went to wake him in the morning he was dead.
They laid Giulio on his bed in a navy-blue suit, his arms folded across his chest, his hands clasped together, a wood bead rosary between his fingers. He didn’t look like Giulio. His face was ashen, his eyes shut, his lips flat. Giulio didn’t look real.
At the funeral, Giulio’s mother sat in a chair, rocking back and forth, wringing her hands and crying, “Oh, my son. My son.” Looking at her, I wondered if she regretted the times she called Giulio useless…
Copyright© Attila Zønn 2020