by Jann Huizenga
All she wanted was a work permit.
“Signora,” reads the message in Italian, “we request your presence at Police Headquarters for fingerprinting on February 11.” This is great news: I applied for a work permit six months ago, and Roman authorities are finally getting around to making me legal. My eyes skid to a stop at the appointment time. 9:12??? Fantastico! This office sounds positively Teutonic—unlike the others I’ve known in Italy. I’ll sail right through.
On the chilly morning in question, I arrive twenty minutes early. A line of extracommunitar snakes partway down the block behind a police barricade—mostly young Chinese and North African men, but also some women: a young one with cenoteeyes and a diamond in her nose, a stout one in hijab, and an elder swaddled in white wool, completely invisible but for eyes, toes, and tattooed chin.
We compare notes—I’ve got the first appointment at 9:12, and the girl with eyes like cenotes has one for 9:17. It appears they’ve shoehorned us in at five-minute intervals, which sounds about right because, after all, how long could a digital scan of a few digits take? The men, some who have slots an hour or two from now, exhale puffs of clove-scented smoke, or grind butts into Rome’s chunky black cobbles.
Chink chink echoes from the auto repair shop across the street. I kill time by studying the long lists on the glass-paned doors of people whose work permits are pending:Mohammed Kahleq Bepary; Cai Xu; Alam Shafiqul; Qiong Li; Abou el ela Hamdia el Said Ali, etc, and try to guess their countries of origin.
A door swings open. A bald officer wielding an AK47 emerges to dig around for a pack of Marlboros in one of the police cars lining the block.
When he disappears inside, the girl with eyes like cenotes and I go to lean against the car.
“Non toccare.” Baldie has reemerged. Don’t touch.
“How come?” says the girl. “Siamo pulite. We’re clean.”
“My capo might show up,” he says with a peevish toss of his pink head. “A lui non piace.”
We unglue ourselves from the Alfa Romeo and within minutes a google-eyed sergeant with a week’s growth of spiny whiskers emerges. “ANYONE HERE TALK BANGLADESH?”
We shake our heads in tandem.
9:30 has come and gone, 9:40, 9:50. The crowd has expanded. I’m late for work. My teeth chatter. I poke my nose inside the doors. Laughter and singing explode from a closed office.
At 10:15, Bluebeard materializes again to bark the name of the 9:17—Mercedes Rivera! I trail her in.
“Scusami,” I say, “but I’m 9:12.”
He peers into his clipboard, then blinks up over bifocals at me. “ABDUL AZIZ FAROUK?”
“NON C’E.” No such thing.
Presciently, I’ve printed up my appointment letter. I fish it out of my bag.
He studies it, then his clipboard. A light flickers in his eye. “AH! HOLLES?
A middle name I never use, but I nod.
“CHE LAVORO FA?” What work do you do? His words come out in a blast of garlic.
My job description takes a paragraph, but he shoos the explanation away with a flick of the wrist before I’m threeparole into it.
“Ah, Americana. Pliz seet done.” With a flourish, he indicates a battered vinyl chair.
“I’ma speak Eenglish!” he crows to an unseen colleague in the back room, smile wide as a Mediterranean tuna.
“Cazzuto!” she barks out. Untranslatable.
Bluebeard retreats behind his vitrine.
“CHE LAVORO FA?” he bellows at the 9:17 who cowers at the window. There’s no hole for speaking, and I can see a soft vapor forming on the glass as she presses her forehead against it.
“Faccio la pulizia.” I’m a housecleaner.
“WHERE’S THE BABY?”
By now, a clutch of women, both veiled and unveiled, have squeezed into the office and are fixing their eyes on Bluebeard, hoping a collective stare will quicken his pace.
“Sick at home.”
“WHERE’S THE FATHER?”
After he’s done drawing blood from the poor girl, he dispatches her into the back office.
Rat-a-tat. He drums on the pane to get my attention.
I advance. He evaluates.Bionda, he scribbles, then checks out my eyes above his half-glasses. Azzurro, blue, he writes. I don’t correct him.
“How tall are you in centimeters?”
He can’t believe I don’t know. Like suns rising and setting, his bulbous pupils oscillate between my face and his paperwork. He seems to be hunting for distinctive features—scars, hooknose, warts.
I take stock of his: jug ears, hippopotamus eyes, and a smorgasbord of moles, like flecks of chocolate.
“Saro il suo ciccerone!” he trumpets in the direction of the unseen figure in the back office. I’ll be her chaperone!
Laughter from the back office.
“Sposata? Married?” he says, narrowing his eyes at me a la Roberto Begnini.
“Dove il marito?” Where’s the husband?
Non e cazzo suo, I want to say, none of your damn business. But I don’t. He has the power to grant or refuse my permit to remain in Italy.
“In the US.”
Now he’s grinning like a madman. “Madonna! ” he bullhorns to the back office.
“How perfect is that? Six thousand kilometers and an ocean between me and the husband!”
The women recoil in unison.
Bluebeard sends me into the back room, where a pretty cop wearing Chanel No. 5 hunches over a computer screen. The 9:17 leans into an electronic scanner—a small black box with a blue light. Something is wrong. She presses her fingertips onto the scanner again and again. Lady Cop clicks and clicks her RETURN key. Zilch.
“No good scans,” she yells.
Her office bristles with rusty file cabinets and shelves with fat folders, all alphabetically marked. B slouches against Z, P slumps against T, and so on. Wires and cables swirl through the room like untamed vines ready to choke the life out of us. The morning grinds on. 10:30. 10:40.
“No good scans,” she yells again.
Lady Cop finally gives up on the 9:17 and sends her outside to wait. “Let me try the Signora.” Now it’s my turn to press digits onto the glowing blue light. Nothing. More nothing.
“Cazzo,” she says. Fuck.
My heart sinks. I’Il have to return, endure all this again.
“What do we do now?” she calls into the other room.
Bluebeard ambles in to stare at the glowing screen. He may be the least handsome man I’ve ever seen.
He abruptly turns to me all twinkly-eyed. “I will be your ciccerone. We will visit the Colosseo! Fontana di Trevi! We will dine on onions glazed with vin cotto, on saltimbocca alla romana!” He gains momentum, a little white foam forming in one corner of his mouth: “Pigs’ feet with lentils! Rigatoni with tripe! Sheep offal soup!”
“With mandarini for dessert!” adds Lady Cop with a belly laugh.
“I show you Piazza di Spagna!” he crows, ever more delirious. “Villa Borghese! Piazza Navona! Il Colosseo! Sotto le stelle.” Under the stars.
I laugh out loud despite myself. Is this sexual harassment? Is this fun? I can’t decide.
“Come with me,” says Bluebeard. The three of us traipse back into the front office, now thick with stranieri waving appointment letters like distress signals.
From under a counter Bluebeard pulls out a roller on an ink-spattered tray with ink pad and roller and says something to this effect: L’Americana will please push up her snow-white sleeves and tender her palms while I rake the goop, thick as Marsala syrup, across them. He goes to work as if coating a 10-foot-tall wall. Ick.
“Horribile, I gasp, shocked at this common-criminal treatment. “I feel Mafioso.”
“IT’S YOUR BUSH WHO MAKES US DO IT,” he says in his disturbingly loud voice. A ripple goes through the crowd.
I press palms to paper, leaving behind two slimy paw prints. “Does this stuff wash off?”
“I WILL WASH YOUR HANDS TONIGHT, CARA,” he says, winking a hippo eye at me. “UNDER THE STARS.”
The flock of foreigners glares. Lady Cop cackles, hands me a few lemon-scented towelettes, and summons the 9:17. She tells me not to bother coming back to pick up the permit; no way it’ll be ready, Signora, before the Rome chapter of your life is over, six months hence.
The clock on the wall says 11:41. I slink away through the sea of hostile faces, rubbing at my stains like Lady Macbeth and think: what just happened?
Jann Huizenga has lived in Sicily on and off since 2002 and is at work on Kissing Sicilians: My Life in Ragusa, Sicily. “The Chaperone” won the Silver Award for Most Unforgettable Character in the Third Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
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