Doctor Abbastanza in America
i. The Law In Bethesda
When Doctor Abbastanza was younger, he spent some time polishing up his ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins or some other temple of eye-learning, and he spent a year with his wife in Bethesda, Maryland.
For him, it was just Bethesda, a quiet leafy friendly town, but for her it was heaven. She had spent most of her young life in Sardinia, her family had once owned one sixth of Sardinia but her great-grandfather had poured almost all of it down the maws of fast women and slow horses, and she had been brought up in a modest little house in an isolated village, seeing very little of life outside of the family house and the family olive trees and the little town a few miles away, where she was taken every Saturday to see the movies, the American movies, the movies about America. She adored America. And here suddenly she was there, physically there, in the middle of the world of washing-machines, juke boxes, convertibles, Perry Como, supermarkets, the Lone Ranger, hair curlers, malted milks. She couldn’t get over it.
One day they were out driving, and Doctor Abbastanza, though he came from in Verona which is the only city in Italy were they obey the traffic rules and Romans and Neapolitans who come there think they have stumbled into Switzerland, had never put much stock in traffic rules, and certainly saw no reason to give them the time of day in Bethesda and on a delightfully sunny day like this which was Sunday when everyone was in church and he could roar at a hundred and fifty kilometers an hour down the wide quiet shaded American streets past the churches and the supermarkets and the police station.
Only on this particular day there were screechings of tires and squawlings of sirens right behind them, and Dr. Abbastanza had to pull the car over, and then everything was just like in the movies, cops on motorcycles, cops in paddy-wagons, sheriffs with big guns in their big hands demanding identification papers. Doctor Abbastanza suavely took his Italian drivers licence out of his wallet. and handed it over, and the sheriff and his men grinned from ear to ear and patted their ample bellies, just like in the movies.
What they had read on the license, the only words they could read on the license, was the name of the licensee, printed in the Continental way with the surname preceding the Christian name. ABBASTANZA LUCIANO, it said, and you can see why they went ape. It was the time when every lawman in the land was trying to get his hand on: Lucky Luciano the King of the Underworld, who had got out of jail and gone back to Sicily, or some said Cuba, and some said he was on his way back to America to pick up all the dividends of Murder Incorporated, and here he was, unarmed and with a lordly smiles on his face, in their hands in Bethesda.
They put in more calls, there were more sirens, there were more calls, and when they locked Doctor Abbastanza up in one of the paddywagons, it was just like the movies. As they drove off with their prisoner, Signora Abbastanza jumped out of their car and ran down the street after them shouting in ecstasy, Don’t worry Luciano, I will come to visit you in your cell, I will bring you food, I will bring you fresh oranges.
ii. Peace and Love in Venice
Dr. Abbastanza, who was by now one of the most distinguished eye-surgeons in Italy, came with his wife and his daughter to visit his son who had taken up residence in Los Angeles where he had a good job working for a man who published counter-culture comic books with a social message.. They all went to the house of the boss, who turned out to be a fattish fiftyish veteran of the great hippy days,swearing a sweatshirt that said PEACE AND LOVE and he said PEACE AND LOVE whenever he started talking to a new guest.
Dr. Abbastanza was of course dressed like a proper ophthalmologist and he stood with quiet dignity listening to tales of that good life in the commune in the Tehachapis four decades ago. “You wouldn’t believe what went on there,” said the boss.. “The night the rattlers got into the sleeping bags. The day Ella Moskowitz saw the Buddha on a diving board in a motel pool. The eagle which chanted RAM DASS RAM DASS. The preachers that dropped in on us, and you know what we said to them, we said we were saved already, but there was a place they could go to, it was hidden in the woods and we gave them a map, and you know what the place was, it was a nudist camp.”
And much more.
“And how about you, Doctor Abbastanza? What were your early days like? Did you know about Peace and Love? Where were your roots?”
“All the records of my birth have been destroyed,” said the doctor with dignity, “and the ones I carry with me now are forgeries, describing my father as a merchant of antique furniture. In fact, he was a cardinal, a member of the Curia, one of the closest advisers of the late sainted Pius XI who entrusted him with his most intimate secrets.”
“Oh wow!” said the boss, “that's fantastic.”
“I was born,” continued the doctor, “in a scullery in the basements of the Vatican, but I was immediately spirited away to a house on a lonely Appenine, in the care of a priest who had been defrocked for his scandalous behavior but was still occasionally used by the Vatican for certain confidential purposes of which I am not at liberty to speak. The house where I was raised, once a haunt of brigands in the days of the Papal States, could be reached only by a long steep winding road guarded by great boulders which could be hurled down on any unwanted or merely suspicious guest by an ingenious machine of mingled wires which could be activated by pulling on a cord above the right of the fireplace. Here at long and unexpected intervals a long black automobile would mount to disgorge a man in an anonymous black business suit which could not disguise his immense dignity and air of authority. I would be taken out to be presented to this man and he would gaze at me in silence with eyes which might flash thunder when he reprimanded his driver or his armed guards for some breach of protocol, but which filled with a complex of emotions – a sadness, a tender joy, an all-encompassing acceptance of the will of God -- when they turned down to me in my little sailor suit which must have seemed so incongruous in that wild rocky setting. Then he would make a sign of the cross with a majesty I have rarely seen in church services, and I have attended many. And then he would turn and spring with remarkable agility into his car, pull down the curtains, and off he would go down that long steep winding road. And I would return to my Latin lessons, making strange guesses as to the identity of this person whom even at that age I knew to be one of no ordinary furniture-selling description.”
“Oh wow!” repeated the boss, “oh wow! what a fantastic story!”
He hadn't heard the last of it. The doctor went on through a sequence of secret voyages, secret meetings - including one with J. V. Stalin in a warship disguised as a yacht in the Black Sea, the details of which may not be made public until the year 2235 --, muffled interviews, glimpses of the secrets of the corridors and back rooms of the Vatican, every one of them good for a brace of wows, while his son and daughter twisted their hands and bit their lips, like the Three Musketeers when they were in the grip of strong feelings which they were not at liberty to express, till they bled and muttered frightful Italian curses in each other’s ears, and repeatedly thanked God that their mother did not understand a word of English and assumed that her husband was giving one of his discourses on the current state of ophthalmology which she found so boring.
©2006 Robert Wernick