Johnnie Rebello sat farting into the vinyl-covered corner booth cushion of Snoozie’s Trattoria. Dark-green upholstery, table top made of scarred railway ties, web-wrapped five-and-dime vanilla candle flickering in a desperate attempt to disguise the digestive fumes.
“So let me see if I got this right,” he said. Rebello squinted mean eyes through the cigar smoke he blew in my face. I recognized the ashy cloud as a challenge of sorts. I was certain that Johnnie had seen the gesture in some cheap mafia movie, because the bookshelf hanging on the paneled wall behind his fat head was filled with old VCR tapes of Sicilian mob fantasies.
“These two guys,” he said, “these two literati punks told the editor-at-large of some fish-wrap local rag that your story was — whatdya call it? — melancholy — that the right word? Too sad for an audience that lives in a happy part of the world where no one ever sneezes loud or has bad breath. So you murdered the story and now you want me to bring justice into an unjust world. How exactly?”
“That’s almost right, Mr. Johnnie.” I knew I sounded silly calling him Mr. Johnnie, and he knew it too, I’m sure, but the scene was written before we met, and I figured who the hell was I to change the master’s screenplay. Probably he got it from off the same dusty shelf where he kept his cigars and celluloid entertainment.
“It’s like as if they put the scalpel in my hand and told me to cut off all the meat and leave no blood behind if I wanted them to arrange it on the public plate,” I said. “So I did like they insisted. I trimmed the story down to cud and bone, and they sent my meal back to my kitchen.”
“Couple of mixed metaphors crawling around in there, but we can discuss that weakness another day. For now, just tell me this. These inkmeisters allowed the reading public in Happyland to go hungry cause they didn’t like your presentation?”
“No, Mr. Johnnie. Not that. They just served the crowd another chef’s meal.”
“Did you taste it? This other cook’s food? Was it any good?”
“I prepared filet mignon. He made them liverwurst and mayonnaise on white bread.”
“But the mayonnaise wasn’t melancholy, now was it?”
I hung my head and half-closed my eyes in an attempt to seem humble if not downright ashamed of myself. “Like always, Mr. Johnnie, you got right down to the heart of the matter.”
“It’s all right, kid. Mind if I call you kid? I mean most people don’t think I’m the kind of man who’s read Graham Greene. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’ve got problems with gas, or maybe it’s this fancy trattoria that makes ‘em think I don’t know good literature when I read it.” Johnnie lifted his left butt cheek, let off some steam and sighed. “So, okay, kid. So maybe this time round the busboys ate your steak while the honored guests feasted on liverwurst. But there’s always another recipe waiting to be born.”
“Hey, I like that last line. Could I maybe use it in my next story, Mr. Johnnie?”
“We can hash out a contract tomorrow. One-time rights I might consider. But today let’s discuss this problem you’re having with melancholy blood. I can tell you this much right now; only those who own passionate appetites enjoy blood for dessert.”
Johnnie snapped together two of his chubbiest fingers, and a waiter in a dark-gray, shiny sharkskin suit skittered over to the eight-track player that sat on the bar. He pushed a few buttons until Pachebel’s Canon filled the air and complemented the cigar smoke and neon-orange glow that buzzed from the blinking OPEN sign that hung in the wide picture window. I blinked through the haze, stared out the window and watched a Ford station wagon pull into the parking lot and stop in front of the barber shop across the way. A tall pale man wearing a short-sleeved polyester shirt got out of the car. He walked into the barber shop, in spite of the fact that his head was completely bald. I considered making the mystery behind that scene the major plot point of my next story. The station wagon I understood. But why a polyester shirt?
“Thanks for the background music, Rudy,” said Johnnie. “It’s a good song, kid, isn’t it?”
“One of a kind, Mr. Johnnie. But it lends itself to melancholia.”
“That and lost lust. Maybe that’s what you want to cook next. Lost Lust a la Mode. Fuck Happyland and mayonnaise, kid. They’re not your target audience. I mean you understand why Happyland’s population prefers liverwurst to filet mignon, don’tcha?”
“Not really. I gotta tell you, though, it wasn’t justice I came in here looking for. But then, you knew that. You always seem to know the end of your stories before you write the first sentence.”
“It’s all about experience, kid. And experience is a matter of intellectual eyesight. Some people think that because I’m kinda fat and old-fashioned — and because I spend most of my time sitting in this vinyl-covered booth — that I don’t see things for what they are. Like as if I don’t know the difference between liverwurst and beef. But you came in here looking for an exegetical explanation as to why your story was rejected.”
“Exactly, Mr. Johnnie. I couldn’t have said it better myself.”
“And you don’t want no steenkin’ critique, am I right?”
“No way, because –”
“Because critiques are all about encouraging imitation.”
“You sure are literary, Mr. Johnnie. I’ll bet you’ve read all three thousand pages of Proust.”
Johnnie lifted his right butt cheek and smiled. By the bubbly sound he muffled into the booth I could tell that at that moment he was feeling happier than anyone in Happyland could ever pretend to be. For one swift Proustian second I understood the difference between Johnnie Rebello and the bald guy in the barber shop.
“So let’s compare,” said Johnnie. “Your protagonist and the one the winning chef created. How were they the same?”
“They both became dead soon after the first paragraph. They both sired wannabe writers. They both were loners in a lonely world.”
“One was fat, the other was thin. One was poor, the other one thought he was poor even though he lived in a bland middle-class suburban neighborhood.”
“So okay, Marcel. Mind if I call you Marcel? Let’s get down to the business of melancholia. Both of these heroes were quick turning dead, and death is a lonely business.”
“So you’ve read Raymond, too?”
“Don’t change the subject. I know we’ve reached the painful part of this session, and Pachebel’s crescendo isn’t helping to lighten the mood, but if you want the public to eat your next meal and then lick the plate for more, then you’ve gotta stop lying by way of omission.”
Johnnie snapped two different chubby fingers together, and Rudy came running.
“Roberta Flack this time, Rudy. Killing Me Softly.”
“I think that tape skips somewhere, Mr. Rebello,” said Rudy.
“That’s all right, Rudy. Better to have lust and lost, as my dad used to say. Have I told you about my dad, kid? He’s dead now, of course, but man that guy could cook a crab and toot a horn.”
“Sounds like a good story.”
“Singing my life with his words. You understand that line, kid? Tell me, how’d your rejected story end? On what note, exactly? On a scale of Happyland to Melancholy, where did your story land?”
“Well, I guess the ending was sad. I’ll admit that much. I mean a man dies and leaves behind a son who wants to be Henry David Thoreau wearing muddy work boots as he traipses through a back-bay meadow.”
“And the winning chef?”
“More Russell Baker than Henry Thoreau. Background music described but unheard. No mud. No bay. No meadow.”
“There you have your answer, kid. In Happyland you can write about death, but you can’t expect readers to admit its odor.”