Ellipses (a short story dedicated to Howard O’Brien and published in ‘Sugarpulp’ magazine)

I’ve recently written this short story — published in Italian in ‘Sugarpulp’ magazine — that is a mystery about a murder committed inside the new Regional Government building here in Milan.
The story’s heroes are the insurance detective Sauro Badalamenti, who is my serial character, and a very special guest, my best friend, my brother, my master… that gorgeous man by the name of Howard O’Brien, passed away of cancer on October 30th 2010.

Howard O'Brien along with detective Sauro Badalamenti


The windows of the skyscraper opposite seemed like eye-shaped hemorrhoids, many grim and shining eyes reflecting the total nothingness. Useless dark and menacing squares overlooking my two-dimensional life.

Suddenly, with an unexpected snap, one of the windows opened, and the mirrored surface began to capture great white clouds that chased each other in the sky. I stared at the spectacle, letting my mind get lost in the wanderings of fanciful conjecture. One thought raced after another with extraordinary speed, the same speed with which the blood flowed to my heart. The muffled voices in the meeting room became more distant, and my senses were pulled away from what was happening there. I stopped listening, forced my body to stay alert, while my mind freely wandered outside that window. With a perfect ellipse, a person could easily reach that skyscraper across the way and go through that open window, take part in another life, enter another world, perhaps – for a little while – be someone else.

Who or what was there in front of me?

I had never really asked myself that question. Perhaps another office like this one, maybe a company, perhaps an embassy, or private apartments. Or maybe just another meeting room with another tired and irritated director who tried in vain to put the blame on anyone but himself for the inefficiency of his new strategy. The thought almost made me smile … and what if I’d done all that laboring for nothing? If I had gone sailing over to that window only to find that beyond the glass there was nothing? Just a mirror which endlessly repeated my miserable life?

It was with some relief that I pulled myself together then, when the mirrored windows closed. My train of thought stopped, the clouds ceased to flow in the sky, and I went back to seeing only the black glass of the skyscraper, which reflected the building opposite, in a hall of mirrors with no beginning and no end.

This is exactly what I was thinking that day when I received an unexpected visit from Howard O’Brien. Despite his disenchanted gaze and sly leprechaun looks, I immediately saw that this good-natured man was visibly upset. As always, when he spoke to me, he tended to Italianize every word. In his own way, of course. He was angry, once again, with the pieces of shit buildings. It was his picturesque way of referring to the skyscrapers that now, in his native New York, expanded each year, replacing everything with the vigor of a harmful and poisonous carnivorous plant. The quaint restaurants were no longer. They had closed to make way for the giant multinational corporations, banks and private companies. He and I were very similar in the end. We hated the savage business, technology, gossip, and even sports. But he was almost worse than me. He didn’t have a cell phone, he had given his car away to a technical school, and in his studio apartment, the appliances were unplugged because he kept books in them. He claimed that people could also live well without innovations.

He had come to Milan for a conference on Gaelic, a subject that fascinates him greatly because of his distant Irish ancestry and, like a good language scholar, in that moment, he was extolling, in Italian, one of our popular proverbs that went something like this: to a fleeing enemy, bridges of gold.

I couldn’t quite understand what he was getting at, at least not until he waved the picture of Giuditta Sommaruga under my nose.

Slowly I began to put two and two together. The conference, he was telling me, had been held opposite the gigantic Regional government building, in Via Melchiorre Gioia, here in Milan. The history of that place, I must admit, was interesting. Giuditta Sommaruga, sole heir to a fortune estimated at the time to be something like one billion seven hundred million old lire, had left all her property in a legacy to the hospital, Ospedale Maggiore, in 1964. Then progress and the city’s endless need for expansion had produced the usual aberrant mutations. The entail of the donation had been bypassed, the Sommaruga nursery had been expropriated, and the Tar, the Regional Administrative Court, had confirmed the validity of the agreement between the Region, Province and Municipality to build a huge complex on the land inherited by the Countess Sommaruga, which now belonged to the Niguarda Hospital. Then, in a sort of alien opposition, even the plants in the Fumagalli nursery, during expropriation, had turned into a sort of living jungle, giving rise to what had gone down in history as the Bosco di Gioia, the Woods of Joy. I remembered that at that time that the citizens, celebrities and influential people, had mobilized to save those old plants from destruction, but the 26,000 square meters of property had been transformed into a complex system of curved glass and steel buildings, crowned by a monstrous tower 39 storeys and 161 meters high. Nursery schools, panoramic lookouts, auditoriums, restaurants and cafes were not enough to soften that deforming design that was an insult to the city and the best of the intellect that barely survived in our clouded minds.

The day before there was the blessing of the Madonna, with the participation of Cardinal Tettamanzi. One of the old Milanese traditions that barely survives the engulfing progress it that there is a Madonna on each of the highest points of the city, the Torre Breda, the Pirelli tower and Palazzo Lombardia, to be precise.

The newspaper reported that in the bathrooms that day, an attendant, an elderly woman, was found dead. She seemed to have been assaulted by a homeless man who was holed up in the building, using it as a place to sleep and shelter from the inclement weather. Nobody had found anything wrong, so the case was closed even before it opened. But Howard insisted on reciting this proverb and talking about a figure of speech in Greek oration, another of his many out-of-date passions, which involved the omission, within a sentence, of one or more terms that could underlie both.

He called it ellipse although for me, frankly, the word ellipse continued to evoke a geometric figure vaguely resembling a circle stretched in a particular direction, perhaps even that of a skyscraper with opaque windows like many evil eyes, shiny and rectangular, reflecting absolute nothingness. Useless dark and ominous squares witnessing the monotonous life of a poor attendant who, as a girl, was called Evelina Sommaruga.

Why had one of Countess Sommaruga’s heirs been killed in Palazzo Lombardia on the day of the inauguration? For someone like me who doesn’t believe in coincidences, this was definitely something to investigate, and this, perhaps, might also have been able to tickle my manager’s interest, that very same manager who over the course of that never-ending meeting, was looking for – with the despair a ruler about to be deposed – a potential gold mine to exploit. A cause against the three sisters?

Who could stand up to the three-headed Gorgon? Who would dare to challenge the powers of the Municipality, the Region and the province put together, if not that good Yankee in front of me, who, in his infinite humanity during a conference on Gaelic, been taken into confidence by an old woman who cleaned the bathrooms and who had once been heir to a limitless fortune?

Only then did I begin to see what Howard was suggesting. In the upper right hand corner behind the portrait of Countess Sommaruga, someone had hidden the original of the holographic will of the deceased, of which all traces had now been lost, along with another, insignificant little document. Evelina Sommaruga, before she was killed, had signed over Howard as a proxy.

Now we could take action and succeed where they had all failed. And only now, finally, did we understand the incredible perfection of that design, slightly elliptical, which from the windows of a skyscraper had brought me to the omission of a detail in a sentence. Nothing to say. From that day the term ellipse, in my eyes, took on a whole new meaning.

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