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Autumn  7  The lunch box

(Italo Calvino — Autunno  7  La pietanziera)

The joys of that round, flat receptacle known as ‘the lunch box’ consist first of all in its being unscrewable. The mere action of unscrewing the lid makes the mouth water, especially if a person doesn’t know what’s inside — because, for example, it’s his wife who prepares the lunch box for him every morning. Once the lunch box lid is off, one can see the food squashed in there: salami and lentils, or hard-boiled eggs and beetroot, or polenta and stock fish, all carefully arranged within that circumference like the continents and seas on maps of the globe, and giving the appearance, even if there’s not much there, of something substantial and solid. The lid, once unscrewed, serves as a plate, and so you have two receptacles and you can begin to sort out the contents.

The labourer Marcovaldo, having unscrewed the lunch box and rapidly breathed in its smell, reaches for the cutlery which is always carried in his pocket, wrapped in a bundle, ever since he has been eating from the lunch box at midday rather than going home. The first stabs of the fork serve to awaken a little those benumbed comestibles, to confer the distinction and attractiveness of a dish just brought to the table onto foodstuffs which have already been huddling there for a good number of hours. Then he begins to see that the offering is small, and thinks to himself, ‘I’d better eat slowly,’ but already the first forkfuls have been brought, ravenously and in great haste, to his mouth.

With his first taste he feels the sadness of eating cold food, but the joys soon return as he rediscovers the flavours of the family table, transported to an unusual location. Marcovaldo now has taken to chewing slowly; he’s sitting on a bench by an avenue, near his place of work. Since his home is distant and to go there at midday would waste time and make holes in tram tickets, he brings his lunch in a lunch box, bought for the purpose, and eats it in the open, watching the passers-by, and then drinks at a fountain. If it’s autumn and sunny, he chooses places where a few rays penetrate; the shiny red leaves falling from the trees provide a napkin; the salami rinds go to the stray dogs who soon become his friends; and the breadcrumbs are picked up by the sparrows the moment that no one is passing along the avenue.

While eating, he thinks, ‘Why do I enjoy rediscovering the flavour of my wife’s cooking here, while at home, what with the quarrels, the tears, the debts which crop up at every conversation, I don’t get to taste it?’ And then he thinks, ‘Now I remember; these are the leftovers from last night’s supper.’ At which discontent takes hold of him, perhaps because he has to eat leftovers, cold and a little bit rancid, perhaps because the aluminium of the lunch box imparts a metallic taste to the food; but the thought that goes round in his head is, ‘Even the idea of Domitilla manages to upset my lunches a long way away from her.’

At that point, he realises that he has almost finished, and again it seems to him that the dish is something very delicious and rare, and he eats with enthusiasm and devotion its last remains at the bottom of the lunch box, which taste the most of metal. Then, contemplating the empty, greasy receptacle, sadness overtakes him again.

So he wraps and pockets everything, and gets up. It’s still too early to return to work. The cutlery drums against the empty lunch box in the big pockets of his jacket. Marcovaldo goes to a wine shop and has them pour him a glass filled to the brim; or he goes to a café and sips a little cup; then he looks at the pastries in the glass display case, the boxes of sweets and nougat, and persuades himself that it’s not true that he wants them, that in fact he desires nothing; he watches the table football for a moment, to convince himself that he wishes to beguile his time, not his appetite. Back in the street, the trams are crowded again, it’s nearly time to return to work, and off he goes.

It happened that his wife Domitilla, for reasons of her own, bought a large quantity of sausage. And for three evenings in a row Marcovaldo was presented with sausage and turnips for supper. Now that sausage might as well have been dog; the smell alone was enough to destroy the appetite. As for the turnips, that insipid and slimy tuber was the only vegetable Marcovaldo had never been able to tolerate.

At midday, the same thing: his sausage and turnips, cold and fatty there in the lunch box. Forgetful as he was, he always unscrewed the lid with greedy curiosity, not remembering what he had eaten for supper the evening before, and every day there was the same disappointment. On the fourth day, he stuck his fork into it, smelt it one more time, got up from the bench and, holding the open lunch box in his hand, walked off distractedly along the avenue. Passers-by saw this man strolling there with a fork in one hand and a receptacle containing sausage in the other, seemingly unable to decide whether to bring the first forkful to his mouth.

From a window a little boy called, ‘Hey, mister!’

Marcovaldo looked up. On the mezzanine floor of an opulent villa, a boy was standing with his elbows planted on the windowsill, on which a dish had been placed.

‘Hey, mister! What are you eating?’

‘Sausage and turnips!’

‘Lucky you!’ said the boy.

‘Hmm,’ said Marcovaldo vaguely.

‘Imagine: I’ve got to eat fried brains…’

Marcovaldo looked at the dish on the window sill. It was a frittura of brains, soft and curly, like a bank of clouds. His nostrils twitched.

‘Why, don’t you like brains?’ he asked the boy.

‘No. They’ve shut me up here as a punishment because I don’t want to eat them. But I’m going to throw them out of the window.’

‘And you like sausage?’

‘Oh yes, it looks like a snake… We never eat it in our house…’

‘All right, you give me your plate and I’ll give you mine.’

‘Hooray!’ The boy was very pleased. He handed the man his majolica plate with a finely ornamented silver fork, and the man gave him the lunch box with the tin fork.

And so the two of them fell to eating: the boy at the window sill and Marcovaldo sitting on a bench opposite, both of them licking their lips and saying that they has never tasted food so good.

When suddenly, at the boy’s back there appeared a maid with her hands on her hips.

Signorino! My God! What are you eating?’

‘Sausage!’ said the boy.

‘And who gave you that?’

‘That gentleman there,’ and he pointed at Marcovaldo, who interrupted his slow and careful chewing of a mouthful of brain.

‘Throw it out! What a smell! Throw it out!’

‘But it’s good…’

‘And your plate? The fork?’

‘The gentleman’s got it…’ and he pointed again at Marcovaldo, who was holding the fork in the air, on which was skewered a piece of bitten brain.

The woman began to scream, ‘Stop thief! Stop thief! The tableware!’

Marcovaldo got up, looked again for a moment at the frittura left half uneaten, went to the window, put the plate and fork on the window sill, stared disdainfully at the maid, and retreated. He heard the lunch box rolling on the pavement, the boy’s weeping, the window ungraciously being slammed shut. He bent down to pick up the lunch box and the lid. They were a bit dented; the lid didn’t screw properly any more. He shoved everything in his pocket and went to work.