His anger was everywhere, fed by a spring, deep and paradoxically hot.
Avvocato Tapinella had been for years somewhat of a joke in the Calabrian town of Nocera Terinese, known as the good-natured lawyer who could be counted on to lose any case entrusted to him. Until . . .
His two-year-old son had developed intractable seizures, and the once precocious little boy had begun an inexorable developmental slowing, mental and physical. The town doctor, Dottore Cotrolaò, had referred the boy at once to the University of Naples, and from there he had seen medical experts in Rome and Milan as well, but there was nothing that could be done. He died in status epilepticus in 1932 at the age of five, no longer precocious. At the cemetery on the day they interred his little boy, Tapinella told Cotrolaò that the experience had been like watching his son, clamped in the jaws of a beast, shaken and slowly eaten alive.
Before the fury, there had been bewilderment regarding the role of the Almighty in all of this. “My dear doctor, why?” Tapinella asked, between anguished sobs.
Why, indeed? The practice of medicine had taught Dottore Cotrolaò, now nearing sixty years of age, more than he had ever wanted to know about the extent of God’s injustice to man, if little about the reasons underlying it. The younger Avvocato Tapinella, on the other hand, had spent his professional life learning—albeit slowly, it appeared from his record as a trial lawyer—about man’s injustice to man. Now life had taught him brutally that there was no injustice, no evil greater than the death of a child, and the pain and suffering that surround it.
Oddly, it was at such times that Dottore Cotrolaò was most convinced of the soundness of his choice of professions. To have taken up the law? No. Lawyers like Tapinella had, until tragedy befell them, no idea of how unjust the Judge Eternal could be. They were always taken by surprise because they had never learned that one must expect such treatment. Being spared undeserved pain and suffering was not a right but rather akin to winning the lottery, not the norm but an aberration. And what of those who had instead studied divinity? Their lot was the worst! Cotrolaò shook his head to himself. What an impossible situation to be in, he thought. Priests, after all, concerned themselves chiefly with man’s injustice to God. Yet when confronted with the human misery occasioned by a deity who was by all appearances either not all-good or not all-powerful or not all-knowing, what could the agents of God do? Formulate a theodicean argument? Useless at best. Apart from Tapinella, the person Cotrolaò actually felt sorriest for was Don Pontieri, the parish priest at San Giovanni Church, though not sorry enough to avoid distancing himself from his unfortunate friend.
“Avvocato, I’m not a priest. I have no idea why. Why?” he went on, shrugging, “Because, that’s why.” Though he had not meant for it to sound brusque or dismissive, he realized that it had, and cursed himself silently for his unkindness. Cotrolaò, surveying the cemetery, avoided Tapinella’s gaze momentarily before relenting and meeting it. For just an instant, Cotrolaò thought he saw something flash in the lawyer’s eyes. Then it was gone and Tapinella broke down and wept uncontrollably.
Thereafter, Dottore Cotrolaò saw little of Tapinella until one September afternoon in 1935, on the eve of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. In the interim, Tapinella had been very busy. Cotrolaò had seen much in his life, but he had never before seen a person transformed so dramatically as Tapinella. He had thrown himself into the law in a way that Cotrolaò would have believed impossible. The law became his obsession, and not just the cases he was trying, but the law in general. He spent every waking hour engrossed in the law. What time he did not spend preparing for his cases he spent learning everything there was to learn about the law—contract law, property law, trusts and estates, torts, criminal law, constitutional law, administrative law, international law, conflict of laws, civil law, common law, legal history, legal philosophy, and religious and canon law. It seemed he slept little if at all. On countless occasions Cotrolaò would be summoned on a house call to visit a sick patient in the middle of the night. Not once was the oil lamp in Tapinella’s study extinguished.
Following the death of his son, Tapinella would never lose another legal case. He had become the consummate legal advocate, and on one memorable occasion had convinced a wavering magistrate to decide in favor of his client against the weight of the evidence, arguing “Do not be troubled, your honor; your decision will be just because justice is what you will decide!”
The lawyer who had once been the object of derision became the object of the townspeople’s respect; but this respect was short-lived, quickly morphing into a contempt that was mutual. Tapinella had no time for anything or anyone else. He spoke seldom and smiled never. If addressed by another, Tapinella would most commonly ignore the remark without even deigning to look at the speaker. And yet those he so treated, humiliated though they were, did well to limit their response to smiling like idiots to hide their embarrassment, while hoping that no one had witnessed the episode. Those unfortunate few who, taking offense, refused to desist or—worse still—chided him for his incivility were treated far worse. Tapinella would freeze in his tracks for an instant, turn his head turret-like, and, using his by then considerable and unparalleled linguistic skills, unleash a barrage of personalized, caustic invective that would eviscerate his target.
Dottore Cotrolaò at first had thought that Tapinella’s immersing himself in the law was a psychological salve or a balm of sorts, the lawyer’s way of distracting himself from his immeasurable grief; it wasn’t until that afternoon in 1935 that he began to suspect that there might be more to it than that. On that occasion, Cotrolaò was seated in the piazza speaking with Don Pontieri when Tapinella happened by. Pontieri good-naturedly called out to Tapinella, asking him why he was working so hard and advising him to slow down a bit. The lawyer seemed inclined to ignore the priest and walk on by until Pontieri, seeing that Tapinella meant to do so, said resignedly “Very well, good evening then, my son.” Tapinella stopped, menacingly. Cotrolaò grimaced. Tapinella looked at the priest for an instant. Then his arm pistoned out, and he grabbed a fistful of priest by his Roman collar and the flesh of his neck.
“Have you no remorse?!” he exclaimed, spittle flying from his lips as he shook the stunned priest to and fro. “I will make you hang your head in shame! In shame!” before roughly releasing him from his grasp.
“Avvocato!” exclaimed Dottore Cotrolaò, flabbergasted.
Tapinella, his chest heaving, stared momentarily at the doctor, then turned and moved away. Cotrolaò asked Don Pontieri if he was hurt and began to attend to him, but the priest, adjusting his collar automatically, waved him off. “I’m fine, I’m fine, but . . . what did I do?” he asked, perplexed.
“Perhaps, Don Pontieri, it would be best if one avoided using the word ‘son’ around him?” Cotrolaò opined. Don Pontieri nodded in understanding. As he thought more about the matter, Cotrolaò realized that he himself had made the amateur’s error of mistaking a chronic wound for an acute wound. Tapinella’s immersion in the law was no salve, no healing balm. Rather, it was a complication of the wound inflicted by the death of his son; it was the psychological equivalent of “proud flesh.”
Partly by chance and partly by design, Cotrolaò would have no further contact with Tapinella until 1939. Italy was by then on the eve of a still greater war when an unwelcome Tapinella appeared in Cotrolaò’s office late one afternoon.
“Dottore, I’ve started to wear down.”
Cotrolaò, anxious to keep the encounter as brief as possible, asked simply, “How can I help you?”
Tapinella proceeded to share with the doctor his concern over having recently been unable to recall the name of a legal case. Cotrolaò tried to reassure him that minor forgetfulness was a part of the aging process and was not necessarily a cause for concern, but Tapinella cut him short. “You remember, Dottore, my father suffered from dementia?”
Cotrolaò nodded, remembering and trying to anticipate the lawyer’s next question. Would it be about prognosis? Prevention and treatment? Either way, their conversation, he knew, was apt to be a short one, since there was little to say.
Tapinella surprised him. “Dottore, does my resurrected father recognize his own grandson? Is my little boy without seizures wherever he is now? Or will your failures in this life be perpetuated in the next?”
Cotrolaò recoiled in his chair as if he had been struck, and felt himself flush with a mixture of anger and embarrassment. Before he could respond, Tapinella continued. “And I’ve begun to wonder . . . When someday I stand before the Creator with an opportunity to address Him, will it be as I was in my prime? Or will it be as the blithering idiot that I will likely become?”
Cotrolaò collected himself before answering. “Avvocato, though not nearly as much as do you, I miss your father and your little boy. What you have unfairly characterized as my failings—if failings they were—were failings of what we call modern medicine. As for the other questions you ask . . .”
“Yes, yes, as for the other questions I asked,” Tapinella interrupted, rising from his chair and putting on his hat while he made for the door, “you have already made clear that you’re no more a priest than you are a doctor. Good evening.” Tapinella closed the door behind him.
Cotrolaò sat in chagrined silence. He considered going after the lawyer, but to what avail? Besides, he realized, there were patients to be seen; and just as he prepared to turn his attention to the next patient, he heard a commotion in the street below outside his office. He hurried downstairs and outside to see a 1934 Fiat 508S Balilla coupé stopped in the street before him, its anguished and visibly shaken driver standing next to it, crying “O mio Dio! Oh my God! He never looked! He never looked! He was looking at the ground!” Cotrolaò nodded his head in understanding, placing a hand on the man’s shoulder as if to calm to him, then moved quickly over to where Tapinella lay, he having been thrown some distance by the force of the impact.
Cotrolaò knelt down at Tapinella’s side. He was breathing still, his eyes open but apparently unseeing. A rapidly enlarging blood stain appeared on the right side of the front of his pants.
“Avvocato . . .”
Tapinella turned blindly toward the sound of Cotrolaò’s voice. Cotrolaò used a Bergamasco folding knife to cut open the front of Tapinella’s trousers, revealing a compound fracture. Blood spurted into the air from a femoral artery laceration, an apparent complication of the fracture. Cotrolaò applied pressure to the artery in an effort to stop the bleeding. What other injuries have you suffered, he thought? As he began to turn his attention to this matter, Tapinella grasped his arm and asked, angrily, “Why?!”
Why what?, Cotrolaò wondered to himself. Just as he opened his mouth to ask the question aloud, Tapinella asked forcefully, “May it please the Lord, why?!”
Cotrolaò was familiar with the American jurisprudential phrase “may it please the court,” having come across it in Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson some years earlier. He knew now that Tapinella, already more in the next world than in this one, was addressing his question to the Almighty.
Someone had run to San Giovanni and summoned Don Pontieri, who appeared now at Cotrolaò’s side.
Cotrolaò thought back to 1935. “I will make you hang your head in shame!”? No. “I will make You hang Your head in shame!” Cotrolaò remembered, understanding only now that all along Tapinella had been steeling himself for oral argument before the throne of God. All along he had been preparing to debate the Deity Himself; and his “slowing down” had no doubt concerned him because of his uncertainty about the effect it would have on his skills as an advocate.
“Mi rispondi!” Tapinella hissed, angrily. “Answer me!”
The priest and the doctor exchanged glances, each realizing that the other had understood. Don Pontieri began the last rites, anointing Tapinella with holy oil and whispering so softly that even Tapinella could not hear him: “Through this holy unction and His own most tender mercy may the Lord pardon thee whatever sins or faults thou hast committed by sight, by hearing, by smell, by taste, by touch, by walking, or by carnal delectation.”
Cotrolaò had learned early on in his training that the practice of medicine could be reduced to asking and answering a single question: what can I do to help this patient? Watching as Don Pontieri administered extreme unction, Cotrolaò knew two things at once: that he could not continue to remain silent in the face of Tapinella’s supplications; and that he could not continue to apply pressure to Tapinella’s damaged artery, because from Tapinella’s standpoint he was doing more harm than good. Why?, Tapinella had demanded to know of the Godhead. “Te lo faccio spiegare tuo figlio,” Cotrolaò whispered in Tapinella’s ear, releasing his pressure on the artery and hoping that he sounded appropriately God-like. “I’ll let your son explain it to you.”
Cotrolaò saw all of the tension leave Tapinella’s body, and the lawyer smiled for the only time since the first of his little boy’s seizures.
Later, as the priest and the doctor walked side by side in twilight to the three fountains (referred to as “la testa”—the head—by the townspeople) on the edge of town, Don Pontieri heard Cotrolaò’s confession as it related to his handling of Tapinella’s wound. Had he done the right thing, he wondered, in allowing the lawyer to die? Or had he been motivated, at least in part, by rancor occasioned by Tapinella’s stinging comments to him a few moments earlier? He wondered aloud, also—too late now, he knew—whether he might have facilitated a suicide.
Don Pontieri shook his head in refusal. “I don’t believe it was a suicide. He was too God-fearing. He had too much faith.”
Perplexed, Cotrolaò stopped and stared at Don Pontieri. “He had too much faith? He was so angry, so unaccepting of the Lord’s will. He had no faith.”
Pontieri paused. “My dear friend, could you be more wrong? Did you know, Cotrolaò, that he never stopped coming to church?” Pontieri asked, smiling. “But, no, that was something you couldn’t possibly know.”
Now it was Cotrolaò who smiled, sheepishly. “Still, I imagine that ministering to him must have been for you as it as for me when I minister to noncompliant patients.”
“Cotrolaò, those patients you speak of—the ones who refuse your ministrations—how do you know they exist?” Cotrolaò started to answer, but the priest answered for him. “You know because they come to see you, noncompliant though they are. They believe in you. Those that don’t believe in you, well . . .”
Cotrolaò thought for a moment and realized that the priest was right, about Tapinella as well as about the patients. The two men resumed walking. Perhaps, Cotrolaò thought, the noncompliant were indeed more medical sinners than medical skeptics, and perhaps one of the iatrogenic stimuli for their visits was the need for medical absolution?
“If the truth be told, Cotrolaò, I needed the lawyer as much as he needed me, or more.”
Cotrolaò realized that his theory regarding the professions might be in need of revision, that their relationship might be more akin to a morra Cinese than a hierarchy.
“And too, I’d like to believe that I will have a formidable advocate above from now on,” Pontieri said.
As they washed the blood off their hands in the cool water of the fountains, Cotrolaò looked up at the trees on the mountains before them. Their branches, well rebuked it seemed, hung lower than usual.