Today's Reading

"Signore?" the junior inspector called to him from somewhere very far away. "Would you like to see if you qualify for a payment plan?"

Signor Speranza must have nodded, because the junior inspector turned to a fresh sheet on his clipboard and rattled off a string of questions. Was Prometto home to any major form of industry? Did it have a shopping mall? Any unique or culturally significant tourist attractions? Was there perhaps potential for mining in the area, such as natural gas, or coal deposits?

No... no... no... Signor Speranza shook his head. Prometto didn't have any of those things. It was just a nowhere place. A going-nowhere place. Had the junior inspector ever seen it on a map? It was like a tiny speck at the bottom, just at the point where Italy's narrow boot might meet the pavement if it were grinding out a cigarette.

The junior inspector didn't answer, but just checked his boxes, and when he was finished, he sighed and returned his pen to his pocket. "I am very sorry, signore, but it appears your village does not have the resources necessary to qualify for a payment plan at this time."

Signor Speranza looked at him, dazed.

"No money," the young man said loudly, as if Signor Speranza were deaf. "There is no money here, signore. There is not even the chance of money."

* * *

The Lord works in mysterious ways. Signor Speranza would not be able to see it until much later, when everything was over, but the pointless, maddening time he spent at work that afternoon was destined to change the course of his entire life.

Three hours after the departure of the junior inspector, he sat at the back of the once-flourishing Speranza and Son's on the Via Sant'Agata, just him and his terrible secret: that they were all doomed. He had avoided his wife, Betta, on his way out of the door, and she had called after him not to forget the balloons for his uncle's birthday party, and just hearing the words had brought tears to his eyes. A party? What was there to celebrate? He had the town's ledger open on one side of his desk, and the Compendium on the other. He was no longer on speaking terms with St. Vincent Ferrer. He had, in fact, taken a permanent marker and, in full sight of God, run a line through his name. He should have known better than to trust the patron saint of plumbers.

The ledger had yielded no hope. As he had known already, there was no money in the coffers. He glanced around his shop, at the quiet ranks of vacuum cleaners and the dim coils of replacement tubing, and sighed. There was no money here, either.

He had discussed the matter only a week ago with Don Rocco.

"Understand me, Father. It's not the population," he had told him over glasses of lemonade at the café. "It's a matter of percentages. If one hundred percent—two hundred twelve people—were all to bring their vacuum cleaners to my shop, then..." Here, Signor Speranza had kissed his fingertips. "Mwah!"

Don Rocco, who was a young priest, and a thoughtful one, had stirred the ice in his glass. "Two hundred and twelve, signore?" he asked, his forehead rumpling. "But wouldn't that mean that every husband and every wife would have their own vacuum? And each of their children, also?"

Signor Speranza pulled a face. "If you want to split hairs, Father. You know what I mean. You have the same issue. It's the young people; they are the problem. We cannot even get them to stay in the town where they were born. They would rather have internet service."

Don Rocco frowned. "Just because they have left Prometto, that does not mean they have left the church, signore. It's possible they are going to Mass in those new places where they are."

Signor Speranza shook his head. "That's a very nice dream, Father, but we have to face the facts. Young people do not take care of vacuums, and they do not go to church. That is just the way it is. How many young people do you have going to Mass now?" Then he held up his hand. "And spare me Christmas and Easter, Father. Even the devil goes to church at Christmas and Easter."

But Don Rocco would not be drawn into talking numbers. "It's something we're doing, signore," he said instead, glancing forlornly at the little church. "We are doing something wrong."

Signor Speranza had taken a contemplative draft of lemonade. "People also like Ash Wednesday," he mused. "They enjoy the drama of that, I think. Have you considered giving out ashes on other days, Father? Might drum up business."

Yes, clearly, the young people were to blame. Hundreds of years, and Prometto had never been in a mess like this before. Signor Speranza closed the ledger now and glared across the shop at his own personal young person, Smilzo, who was perched atop a vacuum canister in the showroom and scribbling in a notebook, the tip of his pointy nose pink with concentration.

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