Filomena goes next, with another story of another Jew, Melchisadech, who also must reckon with Christianity as both a moral problem and an intellectual prospect. Filomena frames it as a story within a story within a story, because now all three of the great monotheistic religions that rose on the southern and eastern extremities of the Mediterranean are in play–as competitors for the loyalties of people on the verge of the end times, all desperate for the right answer to the wrong question, which is, who or what will save us?
In The Decameron story, Saladin the Saracen summons Melchisadech to a meeting where the intricacies of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity–the last for once absent an advocate–will be debated, as preface to an offer that can’t be refused. If your answer is wrong, Saladin says in so many words, I’ll have you hounded or imprisoned, whereupon, as Sultan, I will seize your assets (these are liquid because Melchisadech the Jew, is, of course, a money lender). If your answer is right, again in so many words, I’ll let you lend me money to pay off the debts my profligate kingdom has accumulated.
Melchisadech responds with a story about debt, inheritance, forgiveness, and forbearance, about the man who would be King. King Lear, that is. Yeah, I know. So did old Will.
Filomena leads with a playful critique of reason or restraint that might as well be Nietzschean, or Freudian, or Jamesian: “Well ye know, or should know, loving gossips, that, as it often happens that folk by their own folly forfeit a happy estate and are plunged in most grievous misery, so good sense will extricate the wise from extremity and peril and establish them in complete and assured peace.” Lovely.
By this point, early enough, Boccaccio is begging us to relinquish any belief in reason, or Christianity, or in any other way out of Florence in the time of plague, beyond this time and place. Pepys, Defoe, Camus, and Marquez just dither by comparison. Here’s my rewrite of Filomena’s story, updated for our time and place.
You’re taping this, right? I tell you this story to get me outta here, that’s when you’re gonna put me in witness protection. Otherwise I might as well “remain silent,” say I’m not a rat. Then I walk, I’m on the street five hours and I get my brains blown out, and that’s after they pull my nuts off. All right. As long as we’re clear about this. I talk, you listen, you keep your fucking word. I got handcuffs on, that’s my signature. What a you got? Ah, that’s what I thought. You want to wipe the blood away? I don’t like the taste. Yeah, yeah, thanks.
It ain’t about national fucking security just because you, the FBI and what else we got here, say so, just because the guy had a lot of money, a lot of muscle. Oh. Yeah, I “refer to” Joseph Saladino–he lived in the Bronx, he knew my cousin Danny G., we called him Joey Salad, but he wasn’t just another gangster, he was a banker.
What does that mean? Well, yeah, he was a towelhead, a fucking Muslim, but he had standards, what you call scruples, he wouldn’t gouge you on the loan, know what I mean? “No usury,” he always said. I don’t know, I think it means high interest rates, like on credit cards. I liked the guy.
OK, OK, yeah, he was a loan shark, a gangster, call him what you want. No, he didn’t use Melvin Israel’s money to carry out terrorist attacks on the United States of America. C’mon, man. You guys got this upside down.
All right, all right, enough with that. Jesus, I got any teeth left? You want the story? Let me tell you the fucking story.
Joey Salad is losing ground during the plague, the coronavirus is killin’ him, he’s like George Bailey’s Building & Loan, Jesus, we’re all losing money by this time, it’s just a question of how you get it back. But he won’t gouge the little guy, or the big guy, for that matter, he’s gonna do the right thing because he’s a Muslim. No interest, all patience.
\But how do you wait on the end of time if it’s already arrived? Yeah, his muscle in the Bronx was all veterans of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, but they were veterans for real, retired from the struggle, if you know what I mean. They’re tired, these guys. But they gotta get paid, too.
So Joey calls on Melvin Israel. Unlike my cousin Donny G., who was looking to collect, Joey Salad is overextended, got too many debts, he’s like a big banker in 2008, he’s gotta ask, where’s my liquidity? Who does he call?
Joey knows Mel has the money on hand because the old Jew is an uncanny investor. He moved all the assets he managed to cash in the fourth quarter of 2019, as Nero’s tuning his fiddle. What, Nero, you know, the Roman emperor who played his violin as the Roman Empire burned down all the way, to the ground. Mel, he sees what’s coming.
What, they don’t teach you fucking goons history anymore? All right, all right, leave the gums alone. I’ll chew shit when this is done, anyway, but you got a prison sytem ready for me?.
Joey also knows that old Mel will do anything to preserve his daughter’s life, and the grandson, too. So he’s gotta ask, what’s my leverage? You know, like, leverage. What is it you don’t get? He asks himself, would I kill Laila, that’s Mel’s daughter, you get that, his daughter, to get this done? Layla, you got me on my knees, Layla, that’s Eric Clapton, you understand?
Fuck off, you morons, this isn’t play time. Maybe you G-Men need some time out, time off, whatever? Take it, gimme a fucking break.. . . . You guys love pain, eh? As long as it’s, oh fuck, enough already, somebody else’s.
OK, we’re back to official interrogation. Yes? I’m so glad I get to make that announcement, you fucking shits are so–all right, all right, leave my eyes alone, a guy’s gotta read. On the record
All right, Joey needs leverage, so when he calls Mel he doesn’t say shit, he just mentions the man’s daughter, Laila, a doctor, a real MD, who’s working in the ER at Mount Sinai on the upper East Side, 2nd Ave, talk about a shithole, I been there, she was transferred from downtown, regular practice.
She’s losing her shit because the ER lacks everything except bodies, supplicants whose God won’t answer, not ever.
So, look, you gotta understand, these two never met until Joey asks Mel to dinner, there’s no “secret collaboration” going on here, OK? These are not fucking terrorists, they’re just people trying to get it right. Can you understand that?
What did they say to each other that night, when they met for dinner? I wasn’t there, I dunno, maybe you had the wire on it, you tell me.
All right, all right, enough with the Taser, you’re right, we had the wire. Joey Salad did a King Lear on Mel the Jew, the Merchant of Venice. So why do you want to know it from me? You had the wire on the wire, right? What else is there, take these cuffs off me. Confirmation? That’s beautiful, I mean, I love that, I know you’re gonna hear me out and then you’re gonna kill me. I got the handcuffs on. What a you got? Fuck you, and fuck you and . . . wipe it away, wouldja, I don’t wanna die with blood on my face.
Jesus. So I’ll “tarry with the negative,” if you don’t mind, my little brother the intellectual bigshot–an endowed chair of something somewhere–he always says that when he wants to make a fool of me. How about I give it to you as dialogue, how’s that, you fucking morons? Yeah, King Lear, Shakespeare and shit. You ready? I’m a do all the voices, you just listen in.
No? OK, you wait on headquarters, I’m doin’ this without, what you call it, prior restraint. Oh, OK, good, you got approval? Roll it.
INT. Generic prison house interrogation room.
JOEY: Glad you could come. I’m grateful.
MEL: Thank you, I have to wonder what I’m doing here.
JOEY: Always wanted to meet you, heard a lot about you.
MEL: Yeah, everybody has, I’m the Jew with the wrong money.
JOEY: That’s what I hope you’re gonna give me.
MEL: Why would I do that?
JOEY: Because I need it. Because Laila won’t survive if you don’t.
MEL: Do not threaten me. I will kill you if I have to. I have the means.
JOEY: Yeah, I know, the Rev Guard is not my favorite enemy. That wasn’t a threat, it was a prediction. For once there aren’t enough masks, or anything else. I want to save your daughter.
MEL: My daughter is a doctor, first do no harm, she has vowed.
JOEY: Too late for that, don’t you think? These are the plague times, you and I are wearing masks, for God’s sake, and we’re in the 27thprecinct, do you get that? Look, I got a question for you, and your answer will determine how I allocate the resources left to me. Take a look over there, beyond the glass, they’re watching us, can you watch them?
MEL: This is worse than tiresome.
JOEY: It gets even worse. My question is practical. How do you believe? Not what, but how? Given all the possibilities, where you at?
MEL: I’ve got only so much time, what are the possibilities?
JOEY: Jews, Christians, Muslims. Whose truth is the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? That’s where I send the money, through you, you got it? You’re my messenger.
MEL: Oh for Christ’s sake, there’s no such thing as the whole truth. You know that as a Muslim, I know it as a Jew. Ah . . . . . Let me tell you a story to prove the point. Once upon a time there was a Mafia boss who cherished the ring his father gave him as the token of his ascension.
This man had inherited a ring from his father, and wanted to bequeath it to one of his three sons–you think maybe Shakespeare, Coppola read this shit?–but he didn’t want to choose among them, he loved then all equally, “indifferently” in the vernacular Italian. So he finds a forger who makes two more rings, and even the forger can’t tell the difference between the original and the copy.
Now what? On his deathbed, the boss gives the three rings to his three sons. They have to decide which one is the original, or to give up the search and act as if there isn’t one, never was.
You know what they do? Nothing. And you know why? Because it’s not a choice, lesser of two evils and all that, it’s a decision made with the future in view. You see what I mean?
JOEY: No, I don’t.
MEL: Well then you’re fucked. You don’t know what’s coming. I do.
JOEY: Laila, up there on Mount Sinai? Tell me where she stands.
MEL: Tell you this.