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Sobek’s Novelic Work in Progress, Part 1 February 27, 2012

Posted by Sobek in Travel.


When Peter went to Italy to study art, they warned him not to get in trouble with the law. They explained how dirty and dangerous the prisons were, how Italians don’t really have due process like in America, and how the police don’t think well of young foreigners. But no one ever warned him that no matter what, if you are in Italy, do not get sick.

Unfortunately for Peter, the day after he got to Italy, he got sick.

The plane ride into Rome was uneventful. He easily found the train terminal that would take him to Chieti, near the Adriatic coast. He managed to avoid the backpacking hippies asking for money, and he successfully ignored the Nigerians selling random crap spread out on blankets on the ground. His train car didn’t smell to badly of stale cigarette smoke. He was able to fall asleep and get some rest during the ride. In sum, his trip did not start with any ominous portents of disaster – no looming shadows of Sisyphean struggle against impenetrable, absurdist bureaucracy.

It is impossible to pinpoint the first sign of trouble, because the first symptom Peter had was a lack of appetite. When can you possibly notice a lack of appetite? It dawns on you very gradually, as the hours pass and you eventually realize it has been a long time since you’ve eaten anything, but you don’t want anything. And how can you know, when you first realize your appetite is gone, that it suggests some larger problem is looming? When his temperature started to rise, that didn’t necessarily mean he was getting sick; he was in Italy, in July, when it gets really hot anyway.

But that first evening in Chieti, when he went to eat dinner at the home of a host family, it was clear something was wrong. The last food he had eaten was on the airplane, over twenty-four hours ago. He should have been hungry by now, especially as he sat on a couch in the DiFede family’s living room with its cold, marble floors. The house full of the smells of garlic simmering in olive oil, hard-crusted Abruzzese bread, and thick meat sauce that Signora DiFede had probably thrown in the pan of slow-cooking tomato sauce eight hours ago. Peter was an art student, not a med student, but it didn’t take much education to know that if the smell of an Italian kitchen doesn’t make you hungry, something is seriously wrong.

By this point, Signor DiFede could see something was amiss. The pain was etched into Peter’s face. “What’s wrong? How can you look so miserable when you’re in Italy?” A fair point, to be sure.

“I’m not sure. I have a pain in my stomach.” He pointed at the right side of his abdomen, just under the rib cage.

“Ah, mal di fegato. Something’s wrong with your liver. You need some wine.”

“No, no thank you. I just, I’m not sure I can eat anything right now.”

Signora Di Fede overheard this. In a certain sense, it’s lucky that Peter was getting very sick, because suggesting to an old Italian woman that you don’t want to eat her food without an extremely credible reason can be very dangerous.

The first thing she had said to Peter when she met him (after “so handsome, so handsome”) was “You know what I liked about Mussolini?”

Peter stared in response. There was no way this was going to go well.

“I really liked his hat. When was the last time you saw Berlusconi wear a hat like that? I ask you. No one wears nice hats these days.” She was dressed in what looked like a black tent and she waved her chubby, spotted hands around her face when she spoke. She was probably old enough to remember the Unification of Italy, so maybe she was thinking about Garibaldi. Did Garibaldi wear a hat? He would have to look that up later.

“He doesn’t care about Mussolini’s hat,” interjected Signor Di Fede.

“The Pope, too. I like his hat. The Pope has a great hat. What’s so great about Berlusconi? He doesn’t even have a hat.”

“No one cares about Mussolini’s hat. Would you look at this skinny kid? He wants food, not to hear about hats.” His fingernails were yellow and hooked like claws, and he stabbed the air with them as he spoke, as though to poke out the eyes of anyone crazy enough to assume Peter could possibly care about Il Duce’s hat.

“What do you know about hats? You don’t wear a hat. If you wore a nice hat, people would respect you more. That’s a fact. Everyone knows this. It’s been proven scientifically.”

Signor Di Fede preferred a different line of conversation. “Listen, Peter, when you go back to America, I want you to do me a favor. You tell that President of yours to stop stealing all of the oil. It’s not his oil, you understand? It’s their oil, and it’s wrong to steal it. You tell him that. How would he like it if I came to America and took all of your stuff, huh? He wouldn’t like it at all. And that’s why people don’t like it when he comes to their countries and steals their oil. No one wants their oil stolen, not one person.” Adding to the air of stern gravity in Signor Di Fede’s voice was the obvious preparation and rehearsal the old man had put into his lecture. Peter briefly imagined himself flying back to America and being called in for a private interview with the President, and saying “Sir, I met this crazy Italian guy who says you should stop stealing people’s oil.”

But now that dinner was about ready, Peter’s face was looking more and more ashen, and he was starting to sweat, and he was not the least bit concerned about hats or oil or presidential interviews. The pain had evolved into periodic stabs of pain, like someone poking a long needle into his gall bladder or pancreas, punctuating periods of fever and dread for the next episode. Every two or three minutes another attack, another doubling over, clenched teeth, praying for relief that wouldn’t come.

Signora Di Fede saw the look on Peter’s face, too, and turned from a black-clad grandmother into an experienced interrogator. What exactly have you eaten? Tell me about every person you’ve seen since you got to Italy, and describe any symptoms they had. Have you had any ice water? Stood near any open windows while you were sweating? Any cold breezes while you were sweating? No, nothing that Peter could think of. It was a little twinge of discomfort at first, with a general feeling of being down, but it had been building up over several hours, and now he had a very real problem.

“We’ve got to get you to the emergency room,” announced Signor Di Fede.

A minute later, Peter was wedged into a dinged up Fiat Cinquecento that he was pretty sure he could bench press, if necessary, and Signor Di Fede was careening through the roller coaster streets of Chieti as though he intended to make damn well certain Peter would get admitted to the emergency room, if not for stomach pains than for a caved in skull. The old half of Chieti, called Chieti Alto, is built on top of a hill, and the roads twist crazily in line with geographic contours that were of no concern to city builders in the millennia before cars were invented. But now, if Peter had any food in his stomach it would have posed a very real risk of filling about a quarter of the volume of this tiny little Fiat.

The sun was down now, so by the time they got to the emergency room doors, Peter was thoroughly disoriented. He and Signor Di Fede pushed through a thin crowd of youngsters who were milling about for no apparent reason, and then past a thinner crowd of bored emergency personnel who were chain smoking and lazily chatting, and who got briefly curious about the American being half dragged through the sliding doors and into a reception area.

Inside this first, dismal room, every seat was occupied and there were four or five people standing. A man was clutching a dirty rag to a bleeding mess on his arm, over a shirt sleeve that looked like it had been shredded by a dog or a machine. A teenager was coughing violently into a handkerchief. There was a woman with a blue shawl over her head, slumped over and pale, her eyes closed, not moving and showing no signs of life save a faint moan. A young man in white approached and started peppering Signor Di Fede with questions about the young American kid with him. The room was spinning now. The thick cigarette smoke, the cries of pain, the insistent chattering of a dozen voices questioning him in Italian, the persistent stab of pain in his belly and the horrified anticipation of the next wave. A middle-aged nun with an air of competence and decision took both Peter and Signor Di Fede and moved them toward a hallway, or an elevator, maybe a stairwell? Not sure. He might have been in a wheelchair at one point. Twisting and turning through hallways that used to be white, but where the dirt caked up in the corners where the floor met the walls.

Past another reception area. There was a young nun with a pretty face and a kind smile sitting behind a desk. Two old men in their pajamas were sitting across from each other playing a card game. They each had a white cotton patch over the right eye. They looked at Peter with curiosity, but not enough to interrupt their card game.

Peter’s entourage of nuns and nurses had varied between four to eight during the frantic race through the hospital. Now there were three left who ushered him into a big room with twelve beds, an IV stand by each of them. Signor Di Fede was nowhere to be seen. There were ten patients in here. All of them had cotton patches on one or both of their eyes. They were all sleeping peacefully.

Peter was lifted out of his wheelchair and onto a bed. Someone stuck a needle into his left arm. His dizzy vertigo was intruded upon by poking fingers, incomprehensible questions, a different needle in his left arm.

Then they all got quiet. They moved aside for a short, pot-bellied man in a long white coat. “Is this our American?” he asked, and the others parted to make room for him to approach. “Welcome, young man,” he said. Both of his hands were thickly wrapped in white bandages. He reeked so badly of cigarette smoke that Peter thought he could see fumes coming from his clothes. “Don’t worry, son, we’ll take good care of you here. You’ll be all better before you know it.”

Then he got a confused look on his face. He leaned in close to the perplexed, agonized patient below him, and examined Peter’s face carefully. “What’s wrong with his eyes?”

“Nothing, Doctor. It’s his stomach.”

“Oh. What’s he doing in the eye ward?”


1. Retired Geezer - February 27, 2012

*pencils in the next few weeks to study Sobek’s manuscript*

2. Jewel - February 28, 2012

Bravo! I feel like I know those Italians:


3. BrewFan - February 28, 2012

Are there going to be any sex scenes? My friend wants to know…

4. Michael - February 28, 2012

When Peter went to Italy to study art, they warned him not to get in trouble with the law.

OK, I read the first sentence. Right there in the first sentence, I’ve got an editorial issue.

Does anybody really need a warning about legal problems in Italy? Of course not. Nobody needs a warning about Italy.

Jeebers, Sobek, try to make this story believable.

5. Michael - February 28, 2012

When I went to the Sistine Chapel, it was closed. This annoyed me, because the tourist book in my hand said it should be open, but some union thing was going on. I was tempted to confront the guard about this, and thrash him if he was not compliant (he did not appear to be armed, and was elderly).

But, I knew better than to have a legal problem in Italy.

Still have not seen the Sistine Chapel.

6. daveintexas - February 28, 2012

they should move him to the maternity ward.

7. geoff - February 28, 2012

These posts need a distinctive graphic so they stand out more and everyone can immediately identify them. Something like a hypodermic poking into the leaning tower of Pisa?

8. OBF - February 28, 2012

Do all one-eyed pirates come from Italy? If not then how did all those Corsicans end up in the eye wing of an Italian hospital. Wait a minute, I’m on to something now. If the short doctor in the white robe was a military veteran and was therefore an officer, all of the patients could say aye, aye Captain. Yea, this is coming together nicely.

9. Michael - February 28, 2012

Good thing for Sobek that he is posting this stuff at IB, where he can get constructive feedback.

*waiting for filthy sex scene*

10. Michael - February 28, 2012

*maybe some rhinoceros-humping in Rome would be a good idea*

11. Sobek - February 28, 2012

Michael, the Sistine chapel was closed when I was there, too.

Geezer, the posts are coming once a week, so hopefully it doesn’t take you more than one week to read each, or you’re really going to fall behind.

Michael, the point is that they warn you about the obvious stuff (don’t forget to eat some Italian food!) but leave out the really important stuff.

Geoff, if we put up a new post every thirty seconds like the Snausages, maybe it would be more of an issue. I trust my readers to be intelligent enough to figure it out.

12. daveintexas - February 28, 2012

A dead horse would be a good warning, like in that other book about the Jewish guy that got the shit beat out of him

13. Michael - February 28, 2012

I trust my readers to be intelligent enough to figure it out.

Trouble brewing.

14. LC Aggie Sith - February 28, 2012

Now I have even more questions than before, Sobek. Thank you 😉

15. Sobek - February 28, 2012

LC, in response to your question last time about the bell not working, no.

Any other questions, let me know.

16. lauraw - February 29, 2012

This story is in desperate need of a velociraptor wandering the halls of the hospital, but other than that, pretty nice.

17. Retired Geezer - February 29, 2012

This story is in desperate need of a velociraptor wandering the halls of the hospital, looking for a flying Leprechaun with a jetpack.


Michael - February 29, 2012

Bad idea. A velociraptor roaming around could interfere with the filthy sex with a nurse that I am waiting for. The leprechaun with a jetpack is an OK idea. The leprechaun could hover over the copulating couple, shouting words of encouragement with a cute Irish accent and giving them Lucky Charms for nourishment.

18. geoff - February 29, 2012

A velociraptor roaming around could interfere with the filthy sex with a nurse that I am waiting for.

Maybe it’s your polite, deferential kind of velociraptor.

19. skinbad - February 29, 2012

A multicultural, diversity-endorsing velociraptor.

20. lauraw - February 29, 2012

*is having creative differences*

21. Michael - February 29, 2012

A multicultural, diversity-endorsing velociraptor.

Can we give the velociraptor some big boobs?

22. lauraw - February 29, 2012

A multicultural, diversity-endorsing velociraptor.

That means he only eats white people, right?

23. Michael - February 29, 2012

That means he only eats white people, right?

Gotta be more specific for this to be credible. The raptor only eats Portuguese people.

Also, I think I already suggested that the raptor is a “she” with big boobs.

24. lauraw - February 29, 2012
25. lauraw - February 29, 2012

spam bucket

26. Michael - February 29, 2012


The sidewalk with the wavy pattern is the Avenida Atlantica, which runs along the Leme, Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. At the north end, up a side street, is Barbarella, probably the most famous strip club on the planet.

I’ve been on that cable car that goes up to the big concrete Jesus. The view is spectacular. You get warned to watch out for pickpockets at the base station. They are talented. Put your wallet in a front pocket.

27. Retired Geezer - February 29, 2012

I always keep my wallet in my front pocket since I read that in a Dick Tracey comic in the Sunday papers.

For reals.

28. skinbad - February 29, 2012

I always do too. It seems a little, um, gayish, but I lost mine out of a back pocket once (luckily backtracked and found it) and that was enough of a lesson for me.

29. lauraw - February 29, 2012

Scott switched to front pocket in order to fix his back pain caused from sitting on a wallet.

30. daveintexas - February 29, 2012

I thought about doing that but I didn’t want to go all homo.

31. BrewFan - February 29, 2012

I keep my wallet in my front pocket because my back pockets are reserved for potatos. I learned that in Idaho.

32. Retired Geezer - February 29, 2012

…I lost mine out of a back pocket once (luckily backtracked and found it) and that was enough of a lesson for me.

Same exact thing happened to me the night before I left on vacation.
I had a bunch of money in it (pre debit card days) and I panicked until I found it where I had been squatting down to pull cable to some lighting instruments.
There were 30 people wandering all over the stage but I found it before some interloper did.

33. Sobek’s Novelic Work in Progress, Part 2 « Innocent Bystanders - March 13, 2012

[…] Now on to the story!  Part one is here. […]

34. digitalbrownshirt - March 15, 2012

So far I like it. The only constructive criticism I can offer is the line “His train car didn’t smell to badly of stale cigarette smoke. ” has “to” instead of “too”.

35. Part 3 « Innocent Bystanders - April 17, 2012

[…] Part 1 is here. […]

36. thirdnews - August 4, 2013

I started with ‘Part 5’ thinking it was the title, and not a chapter; I had the impression it was a 50’s era story…now 70’s

I can’t give another writer any smart-ass remarks -it’s against our religion

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