I would like to acknowledge Dime Show Review, where this story appears in print.
I met him in the early morning hours outside the Protestant Cemetery in Testaccio. He was smoking a cigarette and finishing an operation on his wristwatch calculator. I greeted him with a nervous hello, and he in return gave an indifferent nod, cleared his throat and said, “I’d say I have about three solid years left before I need to forge another passport. Let’s get moving.” A strange figure we must have cut. Separated by two generations: This man, who everyone, even his closest friends, believed to be dead, and I, his nervous young acolyte, wan and speechless, like meeting a ghost.
He unlocked the cemetery gates and led me directly to the shed where he kept his arsenal of groundskeeper tools. A few rakes and various shovels, several bottles of fertilizer or weed killer, dissected parts of a sprinkler system, salts and a small desk hidden under a mess of work orders and a well worn copy of The Case of Comrade Tulayev. I asked if he lived nearby and he shot back a glance that said cop question. Then he handed me a pair of shears and we headed toward Keats’ wry headstone. His calloused hands glowing blue in the thin skin of old age started in on a patch of weeds, unrooting them with the efficiency of a machine.
Unsolicited he offered that he started every morning here as a reminder. Of what he didn’t say, but I read the engraving slowly back to myself a second, then a third time before grasping:
...in the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies
We spoke little between tombstone visits – various technical tips on garden maintenance, a couple of insects to look out for, especially around Shelley’s resting place – but by the time we made it to Gramsci’s tomb, he opened up about the fear of those first years. The shock. Not so much of the violence, the blood, but of having lived past the first half decade of roundups, torture and psychological terror nearly unmoved. He meant that literally, the groundskeeper job being his domain for fifty years. The Party had assumed him dead after the Palatine Massacre of 2021 and he, having read the news, took a page from The Outsider and lived on, only now under a masked self of his own design.
The writing continued, thankfully, under a pseudonym long assumed to be the real identity of an American political prisoner. In the long trough of political reaction, his research continued only because of his proximity to Gramsci’s body, a mecca of sorts for myriad radicals who were happy to share the latest work on the respected revolutionary made saint. At odds with the day’s earlier reports on his financial prospects, he predicted that he would himself be buried here soon. And that he needed my help ensuring as much.
Before returning to his workshed, he handed me a spade and asked that I dig beneath a collection of vases at the base of Gramsci’s ashes until I reached the locked metal box. He returned a few minutes later and handed me the key. The box contained his birth certificate and a small journal filled with memories of his fugitive life in Italy. One titled “Swimmers” told a happy story of bathing in the Bay of Naples. I skimmed for a while longer as we sat in silence, flashes of goats in Capri, drunk students running the Circus Maximus in late fall, the beautiful disorganization of the Museo Archeologico. The box’s only other contents was a true relic: a small zipdrive containing what he called his masterpiece. These, the proof of his life and his life’s work in refuge, produced here, beside Gramsci, would go back with me to New York. “My granddaughter will know what to do.”
Before I could ask my questions, the morning’s first guests, a German couple on holiday, arrived at the cemetery gates. The living apparition rushed away to greet them and signaled with one last indifferent nod my way to the exit.