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Original Essays

Cat Scratch Febre

by Dave Bidini
  1. Baseballissimo
    $15.25 New Trade Paper add to wishlist


    Dave Bidini
    "Perfect for any baseball fan, especially those who still look for the artistry and poetry of the game." Edmonton Journal

    "We want to be Dave Bidini when we grow up." Toronto Star

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I had a terrible time writing Baseballissimo, but it's not what you think. The hardest part about constructing this tale of spending six months bird-dogging the Nettuno Peones — a B-Division Italian baseball team — up and down the Boot was trying to make sure that I didn't come across like I was having too good a time. The last thing a writer wants to do is make his reader jealous, so I was forced to pepper long rhapsodic passages concerning the art, beauty, and romance of Italy with thoughts like "the succulent, freshly-netted polipo that arrived drizzled with olive oil was, alas, slightly under-portioned." I interrupted my storytelling wherever I could to suggest that the Italians' pre-occupation with celestial wine and impeccable fashion was severely compromised by their inability to rock. I questioned the validity of a national sport — soccer — that awards a point for goal-less ties played with nets the size of Chad, to say nothing of how star players writhe on their backs and molest their own chest hair after nearly scoring. I did my best to find the boring in the beauty: "Espresso, cornetti, gelato, saltimbocca, and pasta di mare every day? How tedious!" — and cynicism in the cool: "Sure, those fabulous young Italians might appear healthy and relaxed, but really, they're coils of anger waiting to spring." Still, I could only maintain this charade for so long. Thankfully, I was rescued by the literary demons, who threw in a harrowing illness to make sure that my time spent writing a book in Italy wasn't all seaside sunning and cafe bliss.

A few days before the Peones most important game of the season, I awoke to discover that a handful of fleshy nubs the size of raisins had gathered around the more sensitive areas of my body (which is to say: my groin). At first, these eruptions felt normal, but they soon started to hurt, as if pinched by razor-like fingernails. A few hours later, my upper body, growing jealous of the attention afforded the lower half, produced its own set of sub-epidermal peanuts on my neck and the back of my head. Within days, I was riddled with topographic foothills, as if, at any moment, a clutch of tiny horses might come trundling from my loins.

Naturally, I thought I was dying. As in: "I've come back to the old country to die!" While I don't consider myself a hyponchondriac, my disposition becomes about as sunny as Darth Vaders' armpit whenever my body goes a creative route. And I was left to stare down the prospect of seeking assistance through the Italian medical system, whose bureaucratic entanglement makes the Russian Free Market look ordered.

After an evening spent twisting painfully in bed, my wife, Janet, collected our kids, Cecilia and Lorenzo, and bravely guided me through 40-degree-Celsius heat along Nettuno's old winding streets to the hospital, where, after navigating a series of eerily quiet hallways and empty rooms, we encountered Dr. Vela, a small, bespectacled doctor of communicable diseases. Since he appeared to be the only physician working in the five-story building — after several attempts to find the walk-in clinic's doctor, it remained unclear to us whether she existed at all — we asked (or rather, Janet asked) if he wouldn't mind taking a look. He said he'd do it, and as I passed my eyes over the posters on his wall — thinking, with typically fatalistic composure, Bubonic Snake Dementia? Yup, that's what I've got, or The Gathering Himilayan Croupe? Oh, that fits me to a tee — Janet explained to him the nature of my affliction, not once using, from what I could tell, the words grande bambino to describe my state of near deathly comportment.

After giving me the once-over, Dr. Vela approximated a guess: "Toxoplasmosis." Which is to say: cat scratch fever. While I've always been more of an Amboy Dukes fan, it's true that "Cat Scratch Fever" by Ted Nugent ("The Motor City Madman") was one of the first songs I learned on guitar. In fact, as a thirteen-year-old air-strumming in front of the mirror, I must have paused, at some point, to wonder how cool it would be to be stricken with a disease after which such a monumentally rockin' tune had been named. The Nuge, as the lyric goes, was afflicted after he "made the pussy purr with the stroke of (his) hand," which sounded like as good a way to get sick as any.

At the time, I hadn't suspected that a case of toxoplasmosis would come with about as much enthusiasm for stroking or touching as one might bring to a lamprey kissing contest. For three days, I felt like I was being stretched in one of those old Medieval branks, every joint in my body screaming worse than Axl Rose calling for his morning coffee. Dr. Vela, having seen me on a whim, said that since I hadn't passed through the proper bureacratic piping needed to be prescribed by him, I was required to see a GP should I desire medication. He gave me a list of local physicians and suggested I contact Dr. Vincenzo, whose office was located a few minutes from our home.

Sadly, I found very little relief after my first — and last — visit to see him. Unlike in North America, where doctors establish their practices in reputable medical facilities, Italian physicians often work out of apartment buildings. I was led down the hallway to his office by Mrs. Pantucci, who'd just come back from shopping. The place was dimly lit, as if its lack of sunshine was meant to emphasize the seriousness of the environs, possessing none of the vibratto of energy found in typical healing wards. When Dr. Vincenzo greeted me, I moved towards the examination table, but instead, was steered to his desk at the other end of the room. With a good five feet between us, we discussed in Italian how I was feeling, raising the possibility that, as a novice speaker of the language, I was providing him with the wrong information, thereby resulting in a faulty diagnosis, thereby resulting in my imminent demise. This detail became even more important when I realized that Dr. Vincezo had no plans to touch me. As he led me to the examination table, he walked around yours truly the way an art-goer might take in a sculpture, getting a full view of the piece without touching it. While this gave me newfound respect for Dr. Vela — who'd actually fondled my neck and head — it destroyed whatever faith I'd had in Dr. Vincenzo, who wore, not a labcoat, but sweater and slacks. He moved as if terrified of catching whatever I might have, at which point I realized the inherent absurdity of having a medical profession among a nation of people so paranoid of germs.

He prescribed aspirin. And blood tests. After mentally shaking him by the collar and demanding, "But is the cat scratch fever gonna kill me? Is it?," I slunk out of his apartment into the beating sunshine. Arriving home, I told Janet everything, then climbed in bed to die.

After missing team practice, word got out that I was feeling unwell. A few of the Peones players called to make sure I didn't have un febre (a fever), the Italians' harbinger of death. When I spoke to Pietro, the Peones' authoritarian manager, he seemed angry at me, the way my father used to get whenever I'd injure myself playing sports. He shouted over the phone, saying things like, "Why you get sick? Maybe you get sick because you think you're sick?" and making other unreasonable suggestions.

"You come for the game on Sunday, okay?" he asked me. Actually, he sort of told me.

"Well, I'm gonna try, you know, but..." I replied, my voice creaking like a cellar door.

"You no try. You come. I pick you up, okay?" he said, threateningly.

"Okay, I'll try. Really, I want to," I said, barely able to raise my fist over my head to punch the air.

"No febre, si?" he asked.

"Si, no febre."

The old manager harrumphed, then put down the phone. I ended up parading my misery in front of the team and the Peones' fans despite my affliction. It was a bad weekend — Nettuno dropped two games and I awoke feeling as if I'd been mounted by Mr. Fuji — but eventually the foothills disappeared. Returning to the grass of the San Giacomo field later that week was an exhilarating experience, not only because I was once again shagging flies, goofing around the infield, and taking hacks with Fabio From Milan and Chencho, but because my suffering had eased my greatest worry as a writer. Dragging myself back to our third story apartment into a writing room that sat ninety feet from the blue Thyrrenian surf, I poured myself a glass of wine, munched on a Nutella brioche, and started pecking away.

Me and my book would be okay. spacer

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