The doctor came up to the machine where I was sitting and said: “What did you like best to do before the war? Did you practice a sport?”
I said: “Yes, football.”
“Good,” he said. “You will be able to play football again better than ever.”
My knee did not bend and the leg dropped straight from the knee to the ankle without a calf, and the machine was to bend the knee and make it move as in riding a tricycle. But it did not bend yet, and instead the machine lurched when it came to the bending part. The doctor said: “That will all pass. You are a fortunate young man. You will play football again like a champion.”
In the next machine was a major who had a little hand like a baby’s. He winked at me when the doctor examined his hand, which was between two leather straps that bounced up and down and flapped the stiff fingers, and said: “And will I, too, play football, captain-doctor?” He had been a very great fencer, and before the war the greatest fencer in Italy.
The doctor went to his office in a back room and brought a photograph which showed a hand that had been withered almost as small as the major’s, before it had taken a machine course, and after was a little larger. The major held the photograph with his good hand and looked at it very carefully. “A wound?” he asked.
“An industrial accident,” the doctor said.
“Very interesting, very interesting,” the major said, and handed it back to the doctor.
“You have confidence?”
“No,” said the major.
There were three boys who came each day who were about the same age I was. They were all three from Milan, and one of them was to be a lawyer, and one was to be a painter, and one had intended to be a soldier, and after we were finished with the machines, sometimes we walked back together to the Café Cova, which was next door to the Scala. We walked the short way through the Communist quarter because we were four together. The people hated us because we were officers, and from a wineshop someone would call out, “A basso gli ufficiali!” as we passed. Another boy who walked with us sometimes and made five wore a black silk handkerchief across his face because he had no nose then and his face was to be rebuilt. He had gone out to the front from the military academy and been wounded within an hour after he had gone into the front line for the first time. They rebuilt his face, but he came from a very old family and they could never get the nose exactly right. He went to South America and worked in a bank. But this was a long time ago, and then we did not any of us know how it was going to be afterward. We only knew then that there was always the war, but that we were not going to it any more.
We all had the same medals, except the boy with the black silk bandage across his face, and he had not been at the front long enough to get any medals. The tall boy with a very pale face who was to be a lawyer had been a lieutenant of Arditi and had three medals of the sort we each had only one of. He had lived a very long time with death and was a little detached. We were all a little detached, and there was nothing that held us together except that we met every afternoon at the hospital. Although, as we walked to the Cova through the tough part of town, walking in the dark, with light and singing coming out of the wineshops, and sometimes having to walk into the street when the men and women would crowd together on the sidewalk so that we would have had to jostle them to get by, we felt held together by there being something that had happened that they, the people who disliked us, did not understand.
We ourselves all understood the Cova, where it was rich and warm and not too brightly lighted, and noisy and smoky at certain hours, and there were always girls at the tables and the illustrated papers on a rack on the wall. The girls at the Cova were very patriotic, and I found that the most patriotic people in Italy were the café girls—and I believe they are still patriotic.