February 28, 2015


James Lawless, a north American English teacher, is a former coeditor of an underground college newspaper, a history graduate from a foreign university and a published author. He's currently living near Milan Italy.


Wheel of Life 

     It’s early morning. We’re in bed. The room is dark and the house is cold. My wife begins to stir beneath the flannel sheets. “Please don’t take your body heater away,” I say while burying my sleepy head in the pillow.

    It’s good to have a place to light. I didn’t always have a house in Italy to live in. When I first came to this country I lived in a tent in the Alps . The tent was home. That image enters my mind behind my closed eyes. I hug my wife, and I imagine I’m in that tent. When one’s eyes are closed one can be anywhere. The house disappears. We’re magically sleeping again.

    Every day is like a holiday for me in Italy, except the holidays of course, because on holidays the people in our apartment building don’t go to work. And they make disturbing noises. Like now. Someone from the floor above is banging, maybe hammering a picture on the wall. This brings me back from Sleepville. The hammering starts a chain reaction that triggers the barking of our neighbor’s yappy dog, and we get up.

  There must be a way of turning this noise around and have it work for me.


  After lunch I take the bus to Milan . I enter in the back, so I don’t have to punch my ticket. It’s the Epiphany, an Italian national holiday. There’s never ticket controls on holidays. Most passengers are foreigners. Today we’re all foreigners. There are Blacks, Orientals, Indians, many people from eastern countries like Poland and Russia , but no Italians. Most people are fidgeting with cell phones: either with their heads bowed over them as if they were idols or talking on them in some earsplitting native languages. This used to bother me. All of those languages were just noises until I began studying them. It’s not like I learned much, just enough to recognize a few common words and phrases like “go, come, eat, thank you, how’s it going?”. This information is easily attainable in public libraries or on the Internet. A very small vocabulary is usually enough to decipher between Urdu or Arabic, Kurdish or Turkish or whatever language that’s being spoken. This interest changed my outlook for the better. Gallivanting around Milan became much more fun. 

  I get off the bus at Piazza Gobetti and walk to the Lambrate metro stop. On the top of the stairs there’s a large green plastic garbage bag tucked upside-down against the railing with a yellow ski jacket and blankets inside. Under the bag some wool sweaters lie on the pavement. I lift one of the sweaters and underneath is a dark green winter vest, the warm kind. I hold it up to my body. It’s my size. I’m dressed warmly enough, but I like the vest. I tuck it under my arm and descend the stairs. I’ve always been a rag picker.

  A young Black man about half my age is going down the stairs along side of me. He’s carrying a small drum in one hand and a ringing cell phone in the other. We’re both on our way to the subway entrance. He begins speaking an African dialect on the cell phone. He says, “Naka mu demee?”. Then there’s a pause, and he says, “hepikat”. My ears perk, and I keep step with him. After a few seconds of reaction time I figure out he was saying ‘how's it going?’ in Wolof. When he finishes his call at the bottom of the stairs we stop in front of the subway entrance. I say to him in Italian, “You’re from Senegal ”.

  “Yes. Have you been there?” His head lifts and his chin beard points in my direction. He shifts the drum under his arm.

  “No, but I heard you say ‘Naka mu demee?’. I don’t speak Wolof, but I know words and some phrases. I try to guess where a person’s from by the few words I know. It’s a game I play.”  His mouth stretches into a smile illuminating his even white teeth. “But there was this other word you said... ‘hepikat’”.

  “Hepikat,” he repeats with a smile as he runs his fingers down his goatee. “That’s my friend’s nickname. The word means ‘one who has his eyes open, a person that’s aware’”.

  I don’t say anything to him, but I recognize that Senegalese word as the origin of the phrase ‘hip cat’. The words ‘hip’ and ‘hep’ in beat slang English came from the word ‘hepikat’ in Senegalese, that means ‘one who is aware’. I read it in Wikipedia.

  As I think these profound thoughts I eye the ticket controller’s booth and see it’s empty. “I have a ticket;” I say to the Senegalese man.  “Do you want to enter the metro with me?” His dark eyes sparkle as they widen; his head nods just slightly. I insert my metro ticket into the subway gate slot and the gate’s plastic barrier opens. I walk in with the Black man at my heels in perfect ‘two for the price of one timing,’ a sort of piggyback dance. 

  “Grazie” he says crossing the mechanical entrance barrier just as it zooms shut behind us.

  “It was nothing,” I say with a shrug over my shoulder. The Black man goes to the right and I go down the stairs to the left. We twist our necks a bit to watch each other as we take our separate paths.

  The electric sign over the underground platform reads 5 minutes to the next subway. I turn the corner and see a middle-aged drunk man sitting on the pavement with his legs spread and his back leaning against a snack dispenser. He’s wearing multi-ripped blue jeans and a thin blue work shirt and shivering while staring at his shaking hands. His face becomes a wrinkled mess as his eyes blink tightly closed and then the wrinkles form in new places when he opens his eyes widely. After that he puts his face in his hands in a pitiful way.

  I fumble with the vest that was wrapped around my arm and open a package of crackers I was saving for a snack. I put one cracker in his hand. He holds the cracker in both hands and gazes upon it as if it were a holy host and he a priest. I put the rest of the package of crackers in the top pocket of his work shirt and drape the warm vest I was holding around his shoulders. He lifts his head and says ‘thank you’ in Albanian. My subway screeches to a halt and I board it.


  In Duomo Plaza there’s an old partially bald Romanian man sitting against a trash can with his legs tucked under him playing slow sad music on a soprano saxophone. He’s playing a tune called ‘Summertime’. The sole of his left shoe is detached and reminds me of an open mouth singing the words to the tune he’s playing, words only heard in my head. His green quilted winter vest recalls the one I gave the Albanian. The musician’s sax case is open and it contains two pictures. One picture is the sax player when he was a young smiling man with a full head of hair holding a baby. In the other picture he has his arm around a woman. There’s love in those pictures. Underneath the pictures is some writing in Italian that
 reads: ‘It has been 14 years since I felt happiness. Life is a wheel. Help me in this moment of difficulty’.

  I drop a coin in his sax case. As I’m about to leave someone in the crowd asks the sax player what he meant by ‘Life is a wheel’. He looks up and says, “Where I find myself today, you might find yourself tomorrow”.


    The winter darkness arrives early. I take the bus home from ‘Piazza Aspromonte,’ which means Bitter Mountain Plaza . Through the window of the bus I see the Albanian man I met previously in the underground. Now he’s ambling on the sidewalk. My fingers touch the cold bus window in an unseen gesture of communication. His body heater seems to be working better, and he’s more adequately dressed for the cold. His warm looking yellow ski jacket is zipped over his chin. There’s a green plastic bag slung over his shoulder. I recognize that garbage bag as the one I saw stuck in the stairway railing at the Lambrate metro station in the afternoon. That bag filled with blankets and the ski jacket must have been his all along, as well as the vest I gave him. I crane my neck to watch him as
 the bus pulls away. In my last glimpse he is eating a cracker as he walks the wheel of life.

~James Lawless

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