Resistance Is Futile

Walter Siti

Illustration by Shuxian Lee

Commodore 64


He was a slow eater, to the point that his mother used to fall asleep while breast feeding; this belongs to the realm of mythology, the stories that his aunt and his grandmother used to tell him to make his outsized appetite weigh on him. But childhood doesn't really matter: it's true that many things are determined in those years, but it's also true that there's no solution to them. Childhood is neither a justification nor a place to which we should want to return: how can we yearn to be transformed back into the little beasts we once were, weak and parasitic? Mamma on the other hand never took his overweight status lightly ("this kid doesn't just eat, he crams it in"), as early as the transition to baby food and the first pablums; but she never took anything lightly, her pregnancy had been the continuous cause of extortions and complaints. With superstitious ideas in her head, she'd even gone to see a Romanian woman because she thought that the pregnancy had somehow been jinxed, conceived under a bad star—she'd got it stuck in her head that the child had been generated the very night that her husband came home drunk (and as far as that went, nothing out of the ordinary), cursing and washing the blood off himself; they'd half-murdered a faggot who thought he was all that, just to teach him a lesson. "You still had all that hatred inside you, you poisoned my belly": she felt stabbing pains for which the doctor couldn't provide an explanation, as if the fetus was twisting and turning, trying to ward off shadows. Mamma sweated through that long hot summer and dripped popsicles all over herself, moving from one chair to another in the piazza unable to find peace; the baby was so big it practically choked her, and in fact it was born weighing almost ten and a half pounds.

Tommaso was born August 2, 1976, and when he started school he'd just turned six but was already the biggest, heaviest kid in the class: so he sat in the back of the room, and he got his first lesson in indifference, with the chair leg he'd crushed the blue plastic baseboard but nobody noticed. In the ditch behind the school, where they'd go to smoke, he almost always found himself alone with Nando, a redheaded kid as skinny as a nail; they'd talk about the racer Beppe Saronni's bicycle and the fact that it was hollow and weighed just one kilogram: "you get on that thing, you'd break it in half," but Nando never said it meaning to wound. The teacher did, in third grade, one time when they were playing capture the flag on the stairs, she'd made him stand two steps down, "if Tommaso jumps from all the way up there he'll dig a crater"; everyone started laughing, not even so much at him as at the new word, but then for the next month his new nickname was "crater."

A little black girl was pulling her skirt down to her knees so the others couldn't see that she was black all over, "the Lord just left her baking in the oven too long and she turned out burnt"; the teacher scolded them for making jokes like that, but then on Friday when they did their student mart the teacher always asked the girl to bring bananas. Those Friday lessons was something Tommaso especially enjoyed because he never got it wrong; in the courtyard (or in the school lobby if it was raining out) they lined up all the foodstuffs on the desks, usually fruit and vegetables, and did problems in applied arithmetic ("she gets herself a free pot of minestrone, that teacher of yours is no dummy," Mamma used to say); some of them played the part of vendors while others pretended to shop. By this point, multiplication and division wasn't even fun for Tommaso anymore, he'd solve the problems in two seconds, for Nando too, and in exchange Nando'd give Tommaso his extra Buondì snack cakes. He'd make bets on the variations he expected the following Friday: he'd noticed that usually if the teacher came in dressed in black, the prices tended to rise, but she was sure to lower them if she came in with her face made up and dressed in light-colored clothing.

Betting is a sin, the priest would grumble; one time the priest showed up accompanied by Zibibbo, who had spent time in jail and who, outside party headquarters, would grab women's derrieres and kick stray dogs, but there at school he acted all sweet and nice; the priest said to us: "children, just consider that when men aren't free, when they can't work or find a way of making themselves useful, and they always live in the company of bad people, they're practically forced to sin." From that moment on, Tommaso was filled with the urge to go far, far away, to a place where there were glittering glass buildings and you didn't have to feel you were in prison because airplanes would always shuttle you off to someplace else—but when he woke up the next morning he felt disappointed that the bedroom was still there.


His only real friends were Elah puddings and pre-made risotto; at midday Mamma had to stay at the factory to work (it was too far away for her to come home), and no one seemed to know where Papà even was. Tommaso came home from school at 1:30 and was greeted by a dish of risotto that he was supposed to warm up, but he preferred it cold—and the puddings trembling in the fridge. Then he'd go by Nando's place, where there was almost always a slice of rice pie waiting for him, or a salty slice of tortano bread with bits of cheese and prosciutto; but what he was really hoping for was something sweet: even when he shoplifted at the supermarket, what he stole were doughnuts or chocolate wafers.

His aunt claimed that was because she used to give him chocolate wafers when he was just a baby to make him stop crying; his mother denied it, chocolate wafers were a recent obsession and to keep him from filling his pockets with them she'd stitched them shut. But strangers fell for it, they'd see him big as he was at age eight or nine and they'd offer him food ("it's bound to take plenty to fill up that bag")—they failed to understand that it was precisely because people always gave him so much food to eat that he'd become so huge. In Pietralata in 1985 there wasn't the shadow of a doctor who could diagnose a cell dysfunction (excessive assimilation of nutrients) or even a genetic misfire (the OB gene which codes leptin, that is, the hormone responsible for a proper metabolism). They'd laugh when they saw that little boy, for whom every excuse was an opportunity to chomp down on something—when after all "chomp" wasn't really the verb, because Tommaso liked everything that was soft, everything he could gulp down without chewing. He didn't mind playing the neighborhood fool; he'd intentionally act up, jumping up and down on his bike so that people would tell him that you could make a hot air balloon out of his trousers.

He gulped and swallowed until he was full to bursting, and only when he really couldn't cram another bite into his belly did he feel free (it was an illusion, possibly the most dangerous one at the dawn of life; what was actually in charge wasn't fullness but emptiness: "no one responds to me and so I eat"). At age two, the way his aunt tells it, he ate the moss and blossoms of the gardens—so whipped cream and gelato were already a step forward. Not being able to survive with an empty stomach meant never giving hunger a chance, never waiting to eat; even at night he kept a pastry under his pillow. Sweets were his trenchwork, the partition wall that separated him from the world; there the laughter and the cruel jokes couldn't follow him, there he saw no one but a hero building up his strength to vault past all limitations—just what those limitations might be he couldn't have said, he was only nine years old; but certainly somewhere out there stretched the lands of plenty, of innocence, of public glory and unconditional love. In church he'd been taught that even just overeating was a sin, a sin of greed and pride; the saints shared their chunk of bread with the poor. "But we're poor ourselves," Nando mocked him, and at the Caffarella farm they'd steal eggs out from under the hens' asses. That was life, shared life. The ceremony of stuffing himself was another matter, to be celebrated in solitude; a six-egg omelette, smeared with stracchino cheese and strawberry jam ("I'll bury the sin deep inside me"). His belly is rumbling like thunder in the sky, Tommaso is a gigantic god at the dawn of the world.


It's not as though he's incapable of moving with agility: in spite of his size he's a pretty fast runner and in particular an excellent swimmer. Only once, when they were exploring the park of Cecafumo and were trying to inspect the ruins there, Tommaso was reluctant to venture into an especially tight passageway; he just couldn't fit through it, but in opposition to Nando who was egging him on ("come on, anyone could get through here") he came up with a fitting retort ("hey precious, I'm hardly just anyone"). Nando is loaded with self-confidence like a cannoli, faith in himself and in his fellow man: he never looks at things as if through a glass, if there's a situation he's unhappy about he heads straight for it, head down, determined to bring about a change; he might well lose because he fails to consider carefully, but at least he tries—abstract calculations and patient meditation aren't for him; he reaches out and gropes the girls in the halls at school and gets rudely rejected. Tommaso on the other hand is the king of twisted approaches: he promised to give a hundred lire to the cutest girl in the class, who was even featured on the cover of Primavera Missionaria magazine, if she could guess which cup the ball was under—he intentionally moved his hands clumsily so she'd be able to figure it out ("but until she did, I could smell her fragrance"). He'd peek down the blouses of the housewives coming home from the market loaded down with shopping bags, even the ugly ones, but Nando just had a good laugh and forgot about it immediately.

They'd become inseparable, a comical sight, one short and skinny, the other the size of a baby whale, like Laurel and Hardy; but it wasn't good for your health to laugh too loud because the pair of them could easily convert into a formidable military assault team. When Nando lost it, and he was always on a hair trigger, he'd come at you before you knew what was happening, and the one thing you didn't want to do was wind up on your back—because then that other one would lie down on you and getting up was fucking impossible.


Childhood memories are riddled with holes, you remember incidents more than normal life; family fights would burst out over one observation too many, when his mother would say, "hey Sà, why should I give a damn about respect? They give up their seat, it's true, but then they glare at me as if they wished they could cut my throat"—his father'd bang his fast down on the table: "Iré, what do you think, that I like it?" Every so often outsized characters would show up in their home, who looked as out of place as if a giraffe had entered the apartment: Tommaso remembers the owner of half of Pigneto who'd left his limousine parked downstairs with the chauffeur at the wheel, and a priest without a tunic but with the white collar talking intently with the chief of the gypsies of Maranella. After these meetings his father would sit there, mute and focused: if you distracted him you were just asking for a beating. "Cuidado because none of this is on board"; Tommaso thought it was a supercool phrase that he might be able to repeat at Pancino's bar, but he just couldn't figure out the first word: "Papà, what does cooey-daddo mean?"

His father had handed him a pair of the beignets he'd bought for the little reception: "plug up your mouth, why don't you."


When his father was taken off to prison, Tommaso was eleven years old and had just entered middle school; Mamma Irene hadn't given him a lot of details ("pull on the rope long enough and it'll break"), but everyone knew all about it at school and Nando had summarized for him, beating the others to the punch: Sante Aricò collected the contributions from shopkeepers for a sort of secret society, "some kind of insurance company"—only this one wasn't recognized by the government, in fact, it was against the law. Papà's friends, maybe because they felt guilty, every once in a while would toss a present in his direction; the boss's house was full of decorated marble and sofas with gold stripes that were so deep that when Mamma Irene sat down in one she couldn't get up again—she'd blush when she had to grasp the hand held out to help her. When he passed his first year in middle school and was promoted to the next class, they'd given him a computer; then and there it had been a disappointment because by then everyone had a Commodore 64 and they'd stuck him with an MSX computer, a less powerful Japanese standard, so he couldn't trade games with his classmates. Over time, though, it turned out to be a piece of luck: since he couldn't play games on it, the only fun he could have was programming the PC, "making it do things." To make the computer draw a circle, for instance, Tommaso had to write the equation for circumference; plane geometry took the place of pingpong and racing cars, which took him well beyond the miserable pittances that that fool of a teacher tried to test him on.


With the family suddenly reduced in size, and Tommaso and his mother left alone, he felt as if he'd been transformed into an adult; their economic difficulties had become more evident, his mother went to clean offices in a building on the Via Togliatti on Saturdays and Sundays. Glass and steel offices with dozens of computers, on the top floors overlooking all of Rome. Mamma would come home dragging her feet ("we'll make ends meet, tadpole"), by the time they got to the twentieth of the month she'd squint as she reviewed her accounts before venturing out to do the shopping at the market, this was far more serious than the practical lessons of the student mart, her paycheck never seemed to come in the mail ("I'm about to grow gills"); now she'd give him his own little budget at the start of the week and he was expected to take care of his own lunch.

Tommy would scrape together a little extra cash by doing some math classwork for the two class imbeciles with fathers at the ministry, but his new responsibilities only worsened his eating disorder: with his greater sense of freedom, he spurned healthy foods and stuffed himself with snacks, pizzas, and fried cheesy rice balls. He ate because he was bored (in the afternoons Nando worked as a waiter in a gambling den) and boredom doesn't deserve anything expensive: there was an Indian in Via del Peperino who'd sell him snacks at half price because they were past their sell-by date. Sometimes he'd sink so low that he just tossed into the trash a little tomato sauce and a few half-rotten green leaves he'd picked up on the way home, so his mother would think he'd eaten spaghetti and salad. More often, he'd scatter the guilty packaging around the apartment, the plastic wrap from the ice cream and the cartons the hot pockets came in, to see if his mother would at least scream at him; but she was so exhausted she never even noticed, by now she had already become accustomed to the idea that her son was a monster.

But Tommaso tries to change direction, he repents and makes new resolutions: "starting tomorrow I'll cook myself a little fish with some vegetables, and then I'll go down and play some soccer at the field." After all, he wants to be like everyone else, not always have to stand out; shout with the others at their collective victories, bellow songs of anger or triumph. But the food's right there, why wait? He ate especially after he'd already eaten, chasing down an unattainable pleasure; he'd curl up on the bed and let his farts keep him company, cataloguing them by their sound and duration. He'd have lengthy conversations with his own feces, leveling accusations as if in a court of law, as they cowered there on the white porcelain, just waiting for the flushing water to sweep them away. "Victories are shit and shit is what I'll reduce them to." I'll eat this plate of fried seafood before I start to feel nauseous, no matter what they'll never pass me the soccer ball. Uncertain whether to stay in or go out—the sky between the trees, downhill toward the rectory, is a giant squid cutting off his oxygen.

In the elections for class representative he came in second, which is strictly for losers; that day he wished he could beat up Jesus Christ, patient and emaciated on His cross. He sold a jacket that he couldn't even zip up anymore and he finally indulged in a spree at Zio d'America, wasting and spitting out salmon, caviar, pâté de foie gras (he actually did vomit that up because the flavor was so foul). "In any case, it's better to have too many calories than too few; as long as I go on eating I'm in the black, I incorporate energy that transmutes into phosphorus and therefore intelligence; mathematics will never disappoint me." The members of the Mickey Mouse Club receive folders with problems for the upper grades; Tommaso solved several meant for sixteen-year-olds and sent them out, hoping to be invited to Bressanone where the final competition would be held.

The Drunk's Problem. A drunk comes to the main gate of a city with a square plan; once he passes through the gate, located at one of the corners of the outer wall, he starts walking through the city blocks (indicated by the small squares), moving at random and never retracing his steps. At every intersection his decision is random. What is the probability of his finding the correct path and reaching the square marked with the letter O, which represents his home?

Solution. Every block has a certain probability—X—of being reached, and X is equal to the ratio between the number of paths that lead to the block in question and the number of possible paths in every line of the triangle (the one that extends from the angle of the gate to the middle of the square, which is where the drunk's home, O, is located). The probability of reaching B, for instance, is 1/2, the probability of reaching D is 1/4, of reaching H is 3/8, etc. If we represent this series of probabilities with histograms, we obtain first an ascending scale then a descending one; at the summit of that scale we find the drunk's home, O, square in the middle of the hypotenuse, with 6/16 of probability.

On the computer, by maximizing the number of intersections and blocks, the Gaussian bell curve appeared crystal clear; that was when, just as it occurred to him that perhaps the Lord did want to send Papà back home to him, Tommaso suddenly burst into tears.

translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar