Verse I: Love In The Time of Horowitz

There is no urgent need to read these words. They won’t teach you how to build or fix anything. Nor will they inspire you to change your life. No sign of any paranormal zombies making insignificant love will appear between these lines. Neither will I attempt a cute, digital age push toward “liking” a social media site page I just created complete with a tawdry cover-art illustration of a hunk or hunkette’s buff chest across which lies a long-stemmed rose leaking drops of blood to signify a teenaged broken heart that beats inside a post-adolescent body that just barely graduated high school and considers itself an author by virtue of owning a computer and an Internet connection.

As well, heed my warning when I tell you that this is just the first part of a serial poem which will never reach its destination. Nothing I write will ever find Oz. So if it’s a happy ending, or even a satisfying conclusion that you seek, you might want instead to read a tinfoil romance novel or a comic book.

This first verse stars a man named Horowitz, who knew a man named Coburn. Both men knew an early version of me. Horowitz will never disappear. Coburn will reappear to star in the second verse of this poem.

I’ve never been able to finish a tinfoil romance novel. In some ways I wish I could manage the feat. I’ve tried for sake of understanding how to write by the fill-in-the-formula method. But their stories felt at least as thin as their paperback versions felt fat, and their repetitive sentences sounded a semi-literate grope-note for me, a melody similar to the stubborn squawk of a boom box on the beach.

That statement reflects an unfair bias, I know, but I don’t feel guilty about my biases. I’m not sure why we call biases unfair, because they have nothing to do with justice. They are rather opinions expressed without the coward’s use of the phrase, “seems to me.” Only liars claim they own no emphatic opinions; and only tag-along liars pretend to believe such claims.

Many female readers — although far from all — remain divided regarding the value of tinfoil romance novels. The young, naive believers eat them as if they were printed on chocolate paper, and the older versions of the same congregation complain when their own hunk heroes become paunchy and inattentive brutes, preferring a few cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a televised football game to a huggy-poo walk in the park. And so goes love and hatred.

NOTA BENE: The Comments section below this long chapter is where you throw down your pink penalty flags and cry foul (or fast-pitch your lover’s empty cans toward my hard head). I’m good at the yoga stance known as the Lucky Lotus Ducky.

And comic books? Oh, woe is I. I used to love everything about them. The daring colors of unreality, the square jaws of white man heroes, the inimical grimaces of master villains, even the aroma of their pulp-paper pages forever encouraged me to live inside the story worlds of books. I wanted to be Superman, not because he was strong and just, but because he was white and could part his hair; while I, the boy who consumed his stories, was condemned to own unruly curls, dark skin and an unsure body. Pretending to be The Man of Steel allowed me — for a brief slip of time — the same privileged status shared by all high school quarterbacks in the USA.

But when Superman and his worshipers began to speak about saving the Earth from plastic-bag pollution and defending the inalienable rights of undocumented immigrants, I lost faith and interest in contemporary illustrated fantasies. It’s not that I favor plastic bags over dog poop in my yard, or want to line our nation’s borders with Bradley tanks and neo-Fascist soldiers. It’s just that comic books should be as make-believe, pure and hopeful as a child’s imagination. And they still should cost no more than twelve cents a shot.

By the way, just to prove to you that I’m willing to stretch my elastic mind beyond my skull’s physical limits, I’ll here admit that I recently listened to a romance novelist as she read a scene from her latest tinfoil romance book. I requested that she treat the audience to a hot and juicy excerpt. So she turned to a page somewhere just before the climax (both; no need to get snarky), and read a few paragraphs wherein the main squeeze, hot hunk is lying on “the bed,” nothing on from head to toe, but blankets pulled up high enough to leave just his naked chest revealed.

Meanwhile, the horny hunkette tells the guilt-ridden hunk that she’s tired of waiting for the Hunk and Bunk Umph. To further convince this gentle lion of a man of her lascivious intentions, little Miss Alabaster Hunkette, drops a handful of packaged condoms onto her hairy, heaving, male beast’s pulsating chest, and then — if I remember correctly and without undue bias — the curtains close and the moaning begins. Not sure how many — if any — condoms they used.

So, maybe I’m too old to grow excited about the combination of condoms and hormones and hunks and hunkettes. Or maybe Superman at the border waving a white, plastic bag and breaking the law ain’t so bad after all.

So what have I been reading, if not comic books and chronicles of love gone to lust and back again to paunchy Pabst? This mess of words is — by my own definition — a literary contemplation, so I should sometime soon mention literature.

I’ve of late been reading several versions of the Tao Te Ching, but talking about the Tao defies and denies the possibility of becoming one with her; or him; or the ineffable, androgynous it. Whatever. As far as I understand the nature of the quantified expansion and contraction of a lima bean, the Tao has no need to disguise itself as a green dicotyledon, although perhaps the secret sauce of the salivating Source is woo woo woo.

Say ooooohhhmmm, eat your vegetables, snap your heels together and rub your belly till you grow excited and ready to surrender any notion that you can control a teenaged zombie’s appetite for love or an old man’s sense of disillusion.

Of course, if your tastes run to lima beans and spiritually enhanced texts, just click on any link roundabout and look into the eyes of the first guru you meet along the hyper-fireway to the stars. Your guru commander will be the guy — yes, a guy with a protuberant beer belly and a quarterback’s dumb courage; as of the date of this essay, the bouncer at Heaven’s Gate is still a fat man who will tell you it’s all muscle.

This self-medicated hero will be wearing a white, seamless robe; leaking mascara-infused tears of joy; and sporting a pair of glittery, polyester wings. His last name might be Chopra, or Dyer, or Krishnamurti, or even PaulNewmanSaladDressing; but it sure as hell won’t be anything so slippery and Sicilian as Toscano.

So check out the name badge pinned to the pocket of the angel’s toga before you beg forgiveness for the mortal sins you most enjoyed before you grew too jaded to look forward to crimes of thought word and deed. Mostly deed, because those are the ones that kill us all and force us toward a desperate faith in God or Krishna Newman Chopra Tofu.

I see my life as a scattering of scenes on the cutting room floor. Strips of film marked by dyed bordered frames, sprocket holes lined up straight along the edges, as if to force a soldier’s sense of order onto the convoluted chaos of a human being’s war with death.

Today I own no desire to sort and rearrange these frames in artificial sequence. I now understand that the concept of time I was taught when I was a child is useful only as a tool designed to stave off insanity, and that in the end that tool must fail its function. Call it rage, call it agony, or call it religion. No matter the name; we are all crazy when we die. And please, don’t bother asking me if my mind has defeated the counter force of gravity; because if that question occurs to you, then you’ve invested too much faith in Superman and feared too little that death might disappoint you. Death always disappoints the living. It’s not — in spite of popular, New Age bumper stickers that Boomers whose hair went gray or left their heads composed — all a matter of attitude. It’s rather a matter of deteriorating flesh and bone.

“Oh brother. Stave? Stave off insanity. Are you sure that phrase is grammatically correct? Look, your one faithful reader is standing beside you. He’s plain old Bill Horowitz. Bill Hor o witz. Here I am. I’m a movie theater projectionist. And in this story that owns no form or purpose for existing, you’re a kid of fourteen.

“The manager of this milk-glass-marquee joint with pine-scented urine pooled on its men’s room floor is a tired man who lives with a wife who hates him twice a day, once in the morning when he leaves the house, and once again in the evening when he comes home. Together they endure the company of a snooty child who hates him for being a stepfather and despises her for marrying the one man he was born to hate. This defeated stepfather manager’s name is Coburn. His face is ugly because his mouth remains wide open and his pale cheeks sag with dumbfounded surprise. And because his mouth is open, his saliva collects and coagulates itself into odoriferous white and stretchy strings that hang like obstinate spider-web threads from his parched lips and yellow teeth.

“Coburn is dying of oscillating cancer. Calcified tumors that resemble rubbery doughnuts clog his ear canals. Oftentimes he cups a hand to one of his ears and shakes it in a rapid, violent way that looks and sounds like a cat scratching fleas off its chin. Maybe he thinks he can annihilate the tumors by vibrating them into oblivion.

“Still, in spite of the misery that is the life of Coburn, the man loves you, kid, big oily nose and all. He hired you because you allow him to entertain the fantasy that declares you as the child he’ll meet at home after work each day, free of snootiness and hatred.

“But me? Bill Horowitz doesn’t love anybody anymore. My own wife, she snores and otherwise kvetches all night, so I can’t sleep, And therefore deprived of compassionate rest, much less reprieve, I cannot love or hate or even care about another human being during daylight or nighttime hours. Not even the characters I project onto the silver screen in order to earn a living prompt me to wonder about life and death.

“My face is wrinkled like Popeye’s because I’m old. Over the years I developed this habit of squeezing my eyes shut tight, as if to imply that I’m either thinking deep about the human condition, or suffering a bout with indigestion that I’d rather hold inside than expel and thereby chase company away by polluting the air we’re together forced to breathe. I don’t know why I care. I don’t know why I don’t let go and tell myself to fuck it all, tell the truth and die. Maybe the answer lies somewhere between Popeye and Superman, both men fallen into flames on the cutting-room floor.

“I am sure of nothing, except for the fact that the truth I cannot touch has nothing to do with pent up gas or profound cogitation. The truth is that I squint a lot because I smoke cigars down to their nubby nubs and the smoke makes my eyes burn and water. So you can’t really see too far into my eyes, much less doubt my intelligence or lack thereof. Not with any sense of certainty.

“I like to eat corned beef sandwiches and pretend my dick still gets hard when I wake up in the morning. And you, kid, you keep using words like stave. Please stop that shit now, or I’ll refuse to be a major character in this story; I’ll deny you your one loyal reader. It’s bad enough that I swing around words like profound and cogitation. At least those two words still sound somewhat familiar to the wider world of tinfoil romance novel fans. Stave, though, I tell you, stave sounds like the stick you sink into a vampire’s heart. Are you listening?”

I remember standing beside Bill Horowitz. I was a boy of fourteen. He was an old fart, a grouch, a grump, a recalcitrant recluse. Perhaps it would be better to say that I thought of him as being old during one particular afternoon inside of which I stood and I still stand. Remember that time is not a river. Time is a cruel joke, just as all jokes are at their centers cruel.

Nowadays, when I’m not busy standing inside a past moment that never passed, I myself am an old fart soon to die. So I try to seek wisdom from the aged folk who surround me and force me by way of their conversation to feel the shivered presence of my approaching death. My earnest effort to discover wisdom outside of myself never works the miracle I desire; because so many of us old people are too busy talking about the food we nibble, the sleep patterns we can’t control, the doctors’ bad breath we endure, and the legalized drugs we ingest to extend our weary lives. Still, I keep imaginary company with Ponce de Leon. The persistent habit is a matter of leftover ideals.

On that afternoon we shared inside the movie theater’s cutting room my inexperienced eyes insisted that Bill’s hair should be white. But hints of what once might have been blond pigment left the slicked-back neatness of it all looking like the color of pulp paper pages gone tired and yellow.

“You really think it looks yellow? That’s just the color of the air in this room. The light bulb’s yellow. The walls are yellow. Christ, even the window shade is the yellowed brown hue of Roman Empire era parchment paper. But, kid, I never was a blond. Now that you’re my age tomorrow, today, you should be able to understand how the dark, curly hair of youth goes white when you get old. Except for the new whiskers that sprout inside your ears.

“Dammit all, now you got me sounding a lot like Saul Bellow, what with the dark curly hair of youth metaphor. You thought that maybe I didn’t know what a metaphor is. Right? And don’t ask me about Bellow. The man began his career with some stories of universal application. Read his early books, the few from the forties. The Dangling Man, or The Victim are good if you own an ounce of belief in intellectual pursuit inside your Sicilian heart. Saul was good back then. Matter of fact, he was required reading in my family circle. But just like some dago scribes can’t stop writing about the Cosa Nostra — the literal one, as well as the mythical version — Saul got hooked on all things lox and bagel and lost his taste for any other flavor of humanity. Self-absorbed, repetitive and tiresome.”

I recall each detail of this particular afternoon in August with Bill Horowitz, because as I stood there watching, listening, and breathing slow and shallow, I told myself to remember the entire moment. No, let me put it this way: I commanded the impression to remain at the edges of my brain, inside a pocket that would remain easy to reach and pick much later.

All of it. Every detail of that yellow afternoon. The sights, the sounds the smells, and my interpretations of the thoughts that lay between the words we spoke to each other. Back then — which is still now — I did this kind of talking to myself a lot. I knew with absolute certainty that the magic trick would work. Back then I had no doubt about my power to convince the universe to do my bidding, and so the universe complied.

So I remember this.

I asked, and Bill resisted. I asked again, and Bill hesitated. I asked him why, and he said I shouldn’t have to die with him. I insisted, and Bill relented.

Bill Horowitz became my teacher because I begged to become his student. He showed me how to cut, trim, rearrange and splice together scattered scenes that in different orders told different stories.

I became the squinting sailor who smoked cigars down to their nubs, the tinfoil romance hunk waiting for his shallow succubus , the apolitical superhero, the ugly man with tumors clogging his ears, the counterpoint character to the snooty brat, the slippery Sicilian who smelled Jewish blood running through his veins, and most of all the intellectual storyteller.

Bill Horowitz taught me that creativity is a terminal disease, and then he died.

The Love Vendor

Costa Rican Coconuts

When the Love Vendor began talking about catching carnal coconuts in Costa Rica, Arthur Barnes decided that he would reactivate his long dormant Soul Insertion practice.

As the one and only scholar of all matters international who that evening attended the Love Vendor’s reading, Arthur Barnes understood that Costa Rica was just another tourist colony conquered by corporate imperialists from the USA. Still, he listened to Mr. Love spouting over-sweetened poetry about traveling there to meet up with his past life and that of his current object of extreme affection.

“How could it be?” the poet intoned in a voice trained to convey sincerity, self-depreciation and sacrifice for sake of dedication to the greater cause of all that is Good. “How could it be that we both like cashews and kalamata olives?” he begged his Partner in Sexual Poetics for an obvious, odious and self-serving answer.

“Could it be that we were . . . yes I wonder, as I stare into the fluorescent-lit heavens of this amphitheater occupied by my slavering fans . . . could it be that I, Leonard Lucrativo — acolyte of silk-robed gurus born somewhere in the Himalayas, Capitalist Consultant to the Humble, Bearded Candy Man to Lonely Hearts — could it be that you and I and we knew each other way back when, back then, on a different planet that resembled a Costa Rican Coconut? And were we meant to meet again and create a counseling corporation of our own?”

Arthur Barnes tried as best he could to take a mental break from The Love Vendor’s melodramatic performance. Rather than seem impolite by rising up from his seat and leaving the room, he backed away and crawled deep inside his memory vault.

Back to the sunny day in September 1956 when he first became aware of the special gift that the cushion of his mother’s womb had afforded him. On that Monday morning, Arthur was sitting at his desk in Mrs. Ambruster’s first-grade classroom, watching Ronnie Lee’s cheeks flush and fill with bloody anger because he couldn’t manage to draw Mr. Sunshine without breaking his fat, yellow crayon and shredding the sheet of manila paper. Arthur didn’t mean to intrude on Ronnie’s temper tantrum, much less to insert himself into Ronnie’s soul. But at that time Arthur didn’t understand that the act of staring into another person’s eyes was, for him, tantamount to opening a spiritual door.

And Ronnie Lee’s eyes were red and teary. And Arthur Barnes wanted to comprehend the source of so much frustration. And so he looked into Ronnie’s eyes and quick found himself behind them, trapped and blinded by a flood of rage and violent impulse.

Meanwhile, Arthur’s young body acted of its own accord, rose up and kicked away its chair, and ran from the classroom. Which act diverted everyone’s attention away from Ronnie’s tantrum. Mrs. Ambruster chased Arthur’s body all the way down to the end of the corridor that led straight to the principal’s office, inside of which Mrs. Pierpont waited to scold the corporeal presence she assumed was Arthur Barnes. Arthur’s body was sent home and spanked for its crime.

But that night — as he lay in bed wondering about the scientific principle behind the fact that the cold plaster wall felt so good against his hot hiney’s cheeks — Arthur realized that he owned a super power, a talent that could save others from suffering grief. After all and in the end, as a result of Arthur’s sacrifice — no matter how much unintended — Arthur’s hide was tanned and Ronnie Lee got off scot-free for throwing a fit over something as inconsequential as an imperfectly rendered drawing of Mr. Sunshine.

Arthur Barnes named his gift Soul Insertion, because he remembered Sister Jacqueline explaining the nature of souls and such in Catechism class, and he thought that getting behind someone else’s eyes felt sort of like bumping soul shoulders.

Leonard Lucrativo, aka The Love Vendor, owned suspicious eyes that tempted Arthur Barnes to slink inside. Slip, slop, slide and slurp. Oily was the journey, and dirty was the destination.

Because behind the poet’s darting pupils Arthur discovered a devious mind and an even more soiled soul than he might have imagined were the case had he remained no more than a member of the mad magician’s fawning audience.

A successful Capitalist Entrepreneur was no more a sinner than a poor man who lacks the intelligence, ambition and sense of determination required to become rich. This much Arthur understood. But a dark deceiver and a traveled trickster who would take advantage of confused individuals, in the studied opinion of Arthur Barnes, was a criminal to be reviled.

Arthur smelled the odor of deception as soon as he entered the bearded poet’s soul. Much like the stink of a rural Sunoco Service Station’s windowless restroom, the rusty prison cells of Lucrativo’s cranial chambers left a soul searcher’s lungs filled to capacity with methane gas and uric acid. Simply put, the man’s conscience had rotted to such a point that God’s personal surgeon might have refused with good cause to operate.

Arthur was, of course, appalled by what he discovered. Once privy to the sins that lived within the Love Vendor’s eyes, he followed one tunneled pathway after another on what turned out to be a hopeless quest for Costa Rica. No Love Coconuts here. No carnal cashews either. And not one kalamata olive to be found.

Just one long, high-ceilinged, narrow room. Night-black air, except for the dim light shed by a few flickering candles positioned at regular intervals along the castle walls. A threadbare narrow carpet that puffed ash with each of Arthur’s self-imagined footsteps led to a stone altar, empty but for one leather-bound volume inscribed on its front cover with a flourish of gold lettering.

As Arthur’s inward sense of sight approached the altar, and then rounded it so as to see the book straight up and forward facing, his soulful heart picked up a sudden and insistent jungle drumbeat that shook the upper atmosphere of this ersatz incarnation of Carnal Costa Rica.

Next, a spire of flame rose up from deep inside the book. And within that fire appeared the wraith-like image of a winged and bearded poet, hands clasped as if in prayer, eyes wide open and spinning wild inside their sockets.

And at the last the trembling echo of La Voz de La Love Vendor bellowed forth the title of the tome before him: If Coconut Love Be Near At Hand, Can Wealth Be Far Away?

Arthur might have granted The Love Vendor the benefit of doubt suggested by the possible definitions of the word “wealth,” had it not been for the poet’s hollow, tumbling roll of laughter. That and the sneer upon the man’s upper lip convinced Arthur Barnes never again to visit Costa Rica, or to try catching coconuts while eating cashews and kalamata olives.

THE END

I Am An Unrepentant Sinner

Raymond Carver

The story I’m these days busy writing, titled Gladiolas, is growing longer by thousands of thoughts, words and deeds than I imagined it would. I’m not surprised that it’s turning out that way. After all, if truth be told, I write in much the same manner as I speak: long in the tongue and oftentimes long-winded.

I’ve decided not to post any more of that particular work of art here (oh yes it is!). Not for now, maybe not forever. For the moment, anyway. Let’s say for the moment.

Because for the moment I’m having too much fun following the characters’ unexpected twists and turns through the dark forest, in spite of the tangled trees —  the complicated, foolish changes of heart that afterward seem as if they were inevitable. Too much fun to want to rush the mystery to a forced conclusion. The thing’s turning into a book, a book of the sort I like to read. Complete with moonlit nights, bay-windowed mansions, and lust-saturated love affairs.

I own a second reason for my hesitation to click the publish button just yet. I am a proud, card-carrying perfectionist. Yes, I understand the difficulties many writers experience in company with their schizoid-fractured voices, mental cross-eyed editors, dysfunctional inner-adolescents and armor-suited enemies of Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way Brigade. “The problem is,” the oft-repeated explanation goes, “we become our own harshest critics.”

But what’s wrong with paying heed to one’s inborn critical soul mate? I ask. Good for those armored soldiers who dare to challenge Julia on the battlefield, I say. We should be our own harshest critics. I wish more people who claim to be writers would criticize, edit, rewrite and polish their stories before they beam them down to Planet Amazonia or launch them on their way to Star Base CrushSomeWords.com.

Literary snobs, unite!

Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault; therefore I beseech the blessed memory of Maxwell Perkins ever-sanctified, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me. I am an unrepentant sinner.

So, although my half-dozen breathless fans have been nagging — nay begging — me to post Gladiolas, Part II, pronto, I must disappoint my audience. For now, at least. Perhaps for an eternity. Maybe, maybe, maybe comes the day I plant Gladiolas on Planet Amazonia, in the same garden that grows such fine works of art as How To Write How-To-Write Books and Sell Them To Chat-room Habitués Who Fancy Themselves Cameron’s Congregationalists.

Still, today I want some form of this show to go on, because I’m hungry to write and fill this long-unattended space.

And because I’ve been re-reading, and thinking about Raymond Carver. So I’ll talk about Raymond Carver, self-immolated artist and superior successor to Papa’s Pen.

I suspect that were Carver alive and writing today, he’d have difficulty finding curious, interested readers.

Why do I think this is true?

Carver’s style with words is spare. Most of the “language,” then, must exist between the lines he wrote, and therefore preexist inside a reader’s head.

Take for instance Carver’s story, Fat. The story’s narrator tells you, in words here paraphrased by me:

A fat man walked into a diner. He sat down and ordered a large meal. The waitress wrote down the order. She gave the order to the cook. The cook was her husband. The cook said, “That man sure is fat. He’s that fattest man I’ve ever seen.” The waitress served the fat man. She was kind to him. Each word she spoke was spoken in a respectful tone of voice. The fat man had fat fingers. He puffed when he breathed. He ate three slices of bread, smeared thick with butter. He ate a big salad. He ate meat and potatoes. He referred to himself as “we.” “We don’t usually eat this much. But we are hungry.”

The fat man ate not one, but two desserts.

Later that night, the waitress and her husband closed the diner and went home. The waitress cooked and served her husband a meal. The husband said again, “That man sure was fat.” The wife did not answer her husband. They went to bed. The husband wanted sex. He climbed on top of his wife. She let him do it, because she did not want to argue. But she felt fat. She could not feel her husband.

The End.

A reader needs to think in order to feel entertained by stories like Fat. Most people who nowadays read fiction don’t want to think too much. They want to escape, in much the same way as television sit-coms permit them to escape. Little effort. No dictionary necessary. Familiar plot lines. Outward action (Bang, bang shoot-‘em-up. No inner-emotional turmoil, please; I had enough of that at work all day).

But Raymond Carver won’t allow you to escape, not unless you choose to put his book back on the shelf and click the remote instead.

Lest you decide that I’m here condemning people for their unwillingness to invest effort when they read, permit me to say that when I first read Carver’s stories, although something about them tickled my fancy, I could not comprehend what I was reading. I thought, for instance, that Fat was about a fat man who ate too much, a cook who felt dazed by the sight of such a big man, and a waitress who went through the motions that had become her life, both at work and at home.

I understood no more than that. I “got” the point that the waitress was bored with living, but I understood nothing of the connection between her husband’s insecure arrogance and her disgust with him. I never considered the suggestion that her husband’s judgmental attitude made him far more distasteful a sight in her eyes than the self-effacing fat man’s pudgy fingers and ceaseless appetite. Matter of fact, until this very second, I hadn’t thought of any connection between the fat man’s appetite for food and the husband’s appetite for loveless sex (and isn’t that sudden discovery part of the magic involved with the writing process?).

Back then, on the day when I first read Raymond Carver, I was capable of understanding no more of life than that of the life I’d lived. Same is true, of course, today.

The year was 1985. I was a young man. I was an even younger writer. I was a hungry reader. I was a woman’s lover, and because of all this, I was full of myself. I didn’t so much think that I would live forever, as I thought that only other people died.

I walked the streets of Santa Monica, California. I parked my car near Fifth and Wilshire on a Saturday morning in summertime. For several years I’d been married to a Jewish woman in Philadelphia, PA. I adored her, and so she soon grew tired of being so much adored and so little respected. She left me, and I left Philadelphia. One-way ticket to the rest of my life.

I ate breakfast at Zucky’s Diner. I’d learned to appreciate diners and Jewish food when I lived in Philadelphia.

And books. After eating a breakfast almost as big as that of Carver’s fat man, I felt hungry for books. Half a block from the diner was a store called Pacific Books. Small store, perhaps a thousand volumes tops on the shelves. Literary titles. History texts. Atlases and scientific journals. I liked the aroma of the place. Quiet carpets on the floor. Faint classical music in the air. Customers who spoke in whispered tones.

I studied the books’ spines. I touched their covers. I pulled them close to my face and breathed the spice of possibility. Yes, I was like that. And yes again, I am still like that.

Raymond Carver lived on one of those shelves. I didn’t know him. I could not have known that day that he was busy dying, that he’d been killing himself for many years by way of alcohol, tobacco and dissatisfaction. I could not have known that in three years’ time he would be dead. All I knew that day, when I opened one of his books, was that a story named Fat was short enough that I could read it — from beginning to end — in brief enough a slice of time that I wouldn’t seem a stingy customer to the lady at the counter.

And all I knew, once I finished reading Carver’s story was that it made me think, and made me want to think some more.

Gladiolas, Part I

Pink Gladiolas

This story isn’t about me, although I have a kind of curiosity inside my personality that my friends tell me I had even when I was a little boy.

And that’s what this story is about, really. Little boys and the bad things that can happen to them later in life.

Of more concern to this tale is one particular little boy who grew up to become in most ways a stylish man, but who killed his mother in a manner that I’d describe as a murder, but that a judge and jury decided was some kind of manslaughter by “reason of insanity.” Which makes no sense to me, not if you look close at the facts of the case.

And because I’m the curious sort, I always look real close at people and their problems. We all of us have our problems. That sure was true of this boy turned into a cold-blooded killer. And even more true, of course, of his dead mother.

I don’t mean that last remark, by the way, to sound like a joke, either. The boy’s mother, Mrs. Connie Varello was her name, had serious mental issues — as they say nowadays — way before things came to blows between her and her son and her husband.

But now I’m going on ahead of myself; and when I do that I become judgmental and surrender to my prejudices before I consider the black-and-white description of things as they are.

So let me back up just a bit.

What started me looking into this matter — I’d come right out and call it a crime, truth be told — was the fact that all of this tragedy occurred just two doors down from where I live here in Cedarville. And said tragedy began to take root more than half a century ago, back when me and the boy — Johnnie Varello — were mates at Linden Avenue Grammar School.

Back then Johnnie was the smart kid in class, the one who always had his hand waving in the air, because he always knew the right answer, or at least he thought he did.

Johnnie, he’d grab a crayon from the box at drawing time and say something strange like, “This is oily wax.” The rest of us, of course, would look at him and wink at each other and tell him it was just a crayon and he could stick it up his nose if he wanted to. Well, not up his nose exactly, but then I don’t want to put dirty words in this story, because it’s sad enough without them.

In any event, Johnnie didn’t seem to get our jokes anyway, or maybe he chose to ignore them. Because he’d just answer us with more of his intellectual approach to life’s simple objects and say something like, “No, the word crayon means chalk and earth. Really. I looked it up last night.”

Crazy kid, Johnnie was, even way back then, although none of us could actually see what was building inside that house where he and his parents lived, all squeezed up together with no room to breathe, much less express their disagreements in a respectful manner.

Always squawking and screeching and banging away at each other, they were. These arguments — I guess you’d call them arguments, if you want to be polite about it — showed up most clearly in summertime, when in Cedarville the air was hot and sticky and so windows were wide open and people’s voices traveled back and forth from one place to another. Heck, during summers in our town you could all but make out the details of conversations mosquitoes were having with each other, if you were the curious type and cared to listen real close.

Now to be fair to Johnnie Varello, the evidence I heard with my own ears during those prosperous years of the 1950s tells me that his mom beat him up real good and often, maybe especially in summertime, what with the pressure that heat tends to build inside a human being. Many were the evenings when I’d be riding my Schwinn ten-speed up and down the block, chasing after girls or just following the cloud of white smoke wooshing out from the back of a mosquito truck, and I’d hear Johnnie yelling things like, “Please, no, Mother! I promise I won’t do it again.” Or some such desperate plea.

Still, in those days most parents hit their kids when they were being bad. And I’m of the opinion that if more of that were true today, in Cedarville and in the nation proper, blacks and Puerto Ricans and low-life white trailer trash wouldn’t rule the streets they way they do.

But that’s going off track again; and I want to make my point and finish this story, and maybe even submit a summary of it to the Cedarville Gazette’s opinion section for the public’s approval, or not.

I attended most every session of the trial, as is my rightful duty as a citizen of this great country. And the way Johnnie Varello told it inside the courtroom . . . well, he wanted all of us attending to believe that he lost his mind that hot summer night just by staring at a cluster of cut flowers that were sitting in a vase on his mother’s dining room table. Now don’t that beat all? Doesn’t feel like a logical sequence of cause and effect events to me. Not at all.

But the defense lawyer, Arthur J. Schultz, a man I know sort of well because he was in that same grammar school class with Johnnie and me, called a psychiatrist to the stand to bear witness to the effects of what the medical professionals call something like Traumatic Stress Repressed Memories. Try saying that one real fast. Sounds poetic, sure enough, but kind of silly, too.

Still, Artie Schultz — that’s what we called him before he got educated up to university — well, I trust the fact that he knows things I don’t quite comprehend.

The specific memory in question was all about, according to Johnnie Varello, that is — and confirmed by the psychiatrist of record — a long ago summer day and night back in 1956.

Seems like the Varellos were making a day trip to visit Mrs. Varello’s mom, who at the time lived down in Cape Point, which is still to this day a beach town tourist type destination at the southern tip of the state, where the map let’s off deep into the Atlantic Ocean and people like to play miniature golf, and eat some blue-point crab, and just plain enjoy their families while the getting’s good.

The way Johnnie told it, he was sitting in the back seat of the ’49 Chevy Deluxe, staring through the rear window, when all of a sudden he noticed one of those flower stands that were so popular at the time along Route 53.

From that point on, if my memory serves me as well as it usually does after I’ve listened close and careful to a back and forth exchange between a lawyer and a witness, Johnnie’s recollection of that day sounded something like a short story buried inside a longer book, a book I’d place on a shelf with the rest of the mystery novels I prefer to read and even try to write whenever the creative urge fires up inside me.

“Can we go there, Dad?” Johnnie said.

Mr. Martin Varello tapped the brake pedal, eased in the clutch and put her in reverse. In most ways, Martin was a darned good father who always wanted to please his boy. He was just afraid of his wife, a coward as it turns out, if you believe what most folks say looking back on it all. But aren’t we all afraid of our wives from time to time, what with a woman’s scorn and some such?

“You’re going to kill us all, the way you drive!” screamed the boy’s mother. Johnnie was used to hearing his mother screaming at his dad, especially when the family took the day-long trip to Cape Point.

“Look here, Connie,” said Martin. He just wants to bring your mom a bunch of her favorite blossoms.”

“She’s not my mom. Now if you’re going to do this, hurry up. We haven’t got forever, you know.”

“I know. No one does.”

Martin opened the Chevrolet’s heavy passenger-side door. He tilted his wife’s seat forward gently against her back to let the boy out. Connie wouldn’t budge a bit, however, not until her pocketbook fell to the floor and spilled its contents, which in turn caused her to bend down and gather all her beautifying paraphernalia and her prescription medications.

Johnnie slipped outside the car real quick, before his mother had time enough to catch her breath and start yelling again.

“Let’s get the pink ones,” said Johnnie. “Mama Mary likes pink. She drinks out of pink glasses, and she paints her toenails the same color as those gladiolas over there.”

“Show me where the pink ones are, son. Fast now. You know how your mother is about waiting.”

Johnnie saw his dad smiling, and being the intuitional kind of kid he was, he wondered how his dad could do so inside the circumstance that was his life with Connie.

In spite of his dad’s warning, the boy dawdled. He liked the sound of gravel crunching underneath his feet as they walked the road’s shoulder. That and the sweet smell of the surrounding farmland.

Route 53 was a two-lane highway that ran north and south, all the way from New York City at its top to Cape Point at its final tip. Martin had just moments earlier steered the Chevy across the Ridley Bay Bridge — a narrow, wooden structure that featured a shack midway that served as a toll booth. The old man who collected twenty-five cents a pop — for cars or trucks, the difference didn’t matter in those days — wore a dark-blue cap and gave the kids candy and a wink of his eye. Sometimes Johnnie wished that man were his mother, even though he understood that mothers had to be women by definition of their role in the scheme of things.

“Why doesn’t Mother like Mama Mary, Dad?” Johnnie stared straight ahead when he asked the question.

“She likes her well enough. It’s just that Mary’s her step-mom; and I think she misses her real one.”

“Did her real one scream all the time like her?”

“Let’s just get the flowers. We can talk about this another time. I can even show you pictures in the album we have at home.”

Johnnie approached the sales table and pointed to the fullest bunch of pink gladiolas he could find. “We’ll take those ones there,” he said to the lady who stood smiling underneath the canvas awning.

“They sure are a pretty shade of pink,” she said. “These for your mama sitting over there in that shiny Chevrolet?”

“No, they’re for my Mama Mary. She’s my grandma. My mother doesn’t especially like flowers.”

“Oh, I can’t hardly believe that. All mamas appreciate such jewels of nature. That’s what I call them — Jewels of Nature. And I’m someone’s mama, so I ought to know what mamas like. Isn’t that right, Mister?”

“You sure are on to something true enough for most,” said Martin. Then, real quick, he followed that remark by asking how much they owed.

“Seventy-five cents for the bouquet, and here’s a single stem of red ones for your mama, free of charge.”

Back inside the car, Johnnie laid the flowers on the seat beside him. He picked up the stem of red blossoms and held it over the top of the seat in front of him. His mother was busy reapplying her lipstick. She moved her arm backward and fast, like a person does when she’s swatting away a fly. The red gladiolas flew from Johnnie’s hand and fell to the floor.

“Not now, boy. Can’t you see I’m busy?” said Connie.

Johnnie didn’t bother answering. Instead, he slid his body far enough toward the edge of his seat so his foot would reach down to the floor, and he stomped that foot down hard on the red blossoms. He watched a red stain smear and spread its way into the carpet, and he smiled.

As the Chevy picked up speed, Johnnie stared out the window and allowed his mind to become as one with the scenery. Barns and silos. Peach orchards and yellow tractors. Railroad box car diners and two-pump gasoline stations. The entirety of this universe reminded him of the painted pictures he discovered inside the books he read while lying on the floor inside Cedarville Public Library on Saturday mornings when most of the kids from school were outside playing sports and talking tough.

Johnnie Varello knew he wasn’t tough. He couldn’t make a football spin as it flew through the air, and he was so afraid of a hardball that the Little League coach kept him sitting on the bench during eight innings out of every nine, and all nine if the game was tied near its end.

But Johnnie knew he was smart. And although he oftentimes cried when he curled himself up and buried his body inside his bed at night, he knew that someday he’d escape. Maybe, he thought, maybe I’ll even sneak out of bed one summer night and walk across Ridley Bay Bridge. Then I’ll wait till sunrise and begin my journey back to Mama Mary’s place. She’d take me in. She’d understand.

“Don’t you go doing too much for her. She’ll take advantage of you the way she always does.”

The sound of his mother’s angry voice startled Johnnie. He realized that he’d fallen asleep sometime ago. The fact that he’d missed the better part of the trip left him feeling irritable.

But at least they were there. Johnnie sat up, rubbed his eyes, and again looked through the window.

His mother most times criticized Mama Mary’s house. She spoke of so-called better days. Days when her father, Papa Dominic, owned a milk delivery company. Back then his milk trucks were Model T Fords, and in the darkness before dawn Papa Dominic changed the paper caps on each quart bottle to reflect a later date. Days that existed before what grownups called The Great Depression, when Papa Dominic — and his first wife and their daughter — lived in a richer part of the world known as Highland Crest.

Now Papa Dominic was many years dead, and Johnnie’s memories of the man were vague and faded, like the black-and-white photographs that sometimes looked as if they bled rust where they hung on Mama Mary’s walls.

Johnnie loved this house. Maybe, he thought, I love it especially because she hates the place.

Johnnie loved the peeling paint, the wide front windows, and the three crooked wooden steps that led up to a wraparound porch where two wicker rocking chairs sat waiting for him and his dad to make them creak.

But most of all Johnnie loved the sight of Mama Mary’s shadow when it appeared behind the front door’s lace curtain.

To be continued . . .

I Am An Ordinary Man

Proust On The Shelf

I am an ordinary man who owns extraordinary tastes in literature.

Plah, plah.

Proust and Updike live on my bookshelves, and yes, I’ve read them. Updike every word several times over. Proust now and again for a while, until I remind myself that Death awaits me at the end of a short corridor, and that therefore I might either finish Marcel, then cough and slobber through my final breath, or reach for one of Paul Monette’s tragedies or Auster’s New York Trilogy.

Like most ordinary men who suffer extraordinary tastes in literature, I am sometimes tempted to entertain the trashy part of my mind. She’s the Devil, a whore and a glutton. She’s Charles Bukowski’s puss-bloated boils. She’s Jim Thompson’s tree branches tilted to become a hungry, palpitating crotch. She’s Patricia Highsmith’s innocent nighttime stalker.

She’s the reason I am bound for Hell.

She’s the tender side of me.

Plah, plah.

I am a literary man without a valet. A writer destined never to become an author, because I refuse to surrender to the tawdry stampede of me-too digital personalities who try to outrun the bulls by branding themselves as cackling chatterers who just happen to write books.

So illogical some of their plans.

Not all, I agree. Not you and I. No way. We know that gurus come and go. I’m OK, You’re A Sucker. Seven Habits of Highly Effective Calendar Salesmen. The Secret Just Fell From The Sky and Killed You. Sock Drawer, Are You There? My Feet Are Cold.

Yes, some of us Hell-bound independents have lived long enough to understand that we are our own gurus.

Still, it’s a woeful fact that some less ordinary, less plah plah literary people these days say . . .

Follow my blogospherical, coffee klatch articles that compare my life to that of a sock drawer run amok. More than that, love me for the fact that some of my socks are missing their matches (so High Concept, because admit it now, I sound just like you, tee hee). Then please be sure that when my novel — my never-ending work in progress, my paranormal zombie romance self-help guide with a hunk and a hunkess on the cover — is published, you click on over to lightreading4thelighthearted.com and buy my book.

What’s that you say? Which chapter will be about mismatched socks?

Well, paranormal zombie hunks don’t wear socks. You must have missed that conversation in the comments section of my post about my life as a perfect pedicure.

You can what? You can read my chat-session blog for free, so why spend money on yet another guide to enhanced romance?

I told you already. I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual. And like we spiritual bloggers . . . like we . . . like we see things that other people don’t see. Like, one night, I was like Who’s that walking down my short corridor in the dark? And this zombie was like . . . well he was like sayin’ . . . it’s me. Like I used to live inside your sock drawer long before you were born. And like . . . I’m surprised you can really . . . I mean like . . . can you see me? Cause like that means you must be paranormal, and so am I. It’s like I’m a zombie, or maybe like a vampire who wants to like . . . slay you.

So now you’ll buy my book?

Sure enough. Like wow, why didn’t you say it was like about sex, not socks?

Well, like look at the cover.

But not I, yon teens. I refuse. I don’t give a damn about your sock drawer, unless it forces me to think about where my own feet travel. All my socks, by the way, are married and monogamous, folded neat and free from lint inside the footwear compartment of my mind.

Plah, plah.

I am an ordinary man who owns extraordinary tastes in literature.

I am my own guru.

And yes, I sometimes entertain my hungry whore.

So these days I am reading Paul Alexander’s biography of Sylvia Plath, Rough Magic. I’m a short way into the book, and a long way into the story.

Those of you who left the room after my mention of Proust, or somewhere between there and here, will likely not return to read what I discover in later chapters; as I intend to write more here about this book as I pursue it.

To the readers who might leave me comments about what a stuffed-shirt snob I am, I say thanks for a well-worded rejoinder. Life as we attempt to define it isn’t all about sad, chatty calendar salesmen and twenty-first century gurus young enough to be my children.

Rough Magic is a plah-plah book. No hint of paranormal zombies or coffee-klatch vampires. But for those of us who equate entertainment with intellectual challenge, its pages are more filling than a holiday feast of bloody feet.

And for those of us who are plagued by palpitating gluttons, there’s plenty of gossip and conjecture.

A couple of nights ago, I mentioned to a friend that I was reading this book, and she branded the story of Sylvia Plath a “downer.” Perhaps many of you yon teen bloggers are about as familiar with the term “downer” as I am nauseated by the frequent and misappropriated use of the word “like.”

Suffice it to say that my friend is not alone in thinking Sylvia’s life a sad affair.

I agree with her, but as my own life nears its end, I grow sadder for the prospect of oblivion. Sadness is a legitimate state of mind.

And did I yet mention that I love gossip? Not the tabloid variety that tells us what brand of toilet paper an ephemeral celebrity uses. But the curious kind that makes up most human conversation, spoken as well as written.

Ted Hughes, the dead Poet Laureate who married Sylvia Plath in 1956, suffered through the mad obsession of her depressive personality, and last left her bed to find a more intense flavor of hero worship in the arms of a woman more delicious than his wife.

His lonesome wife, now abandoned, caring for two diapered children, staring across a wintertime moor, pen, paper and passion in her hand. A tear inside her heart.

Ted Hughes was a thug who wore a cape to cover the slouch of his shoulders, shoulders far too weak to bear more than the weight of self-aggrandizement.

Professor Hughes, blowhard academic poet. His technical skills advanced, his conscience retarded by admiration for his own echo.

His hollow, wooden poetry praised by priests of Her Majesty’s Empire, subservient and obsequious members of the congregation one and all.

His cowardice ignored by all but the few who tried to chisel his name from Sylvia’s headstone.

The dead soul who for thirty-five years laid claim to grief by way his silent refusal to admit that adultery can kill a lover’s dream, if not her body.

The mean man who prepared his final, archival statement just months ahead of what he knew would be his death by cancer, yet who with purpose destroyed Sylvia’s last journal.

I’d like to condemn that man to company with me in Hell, but age, experience and my own list of mortal sins tells me not to dare such a claim to divinity.

That and the fact that no one cares what I think of Ted Hughes.

And isn’t that same fear — that no one will care about what a writer tries to publish — the more accurate reason that Sylvia sealed a dank and ugly room in Devon, then turned on the gas and placed her head deep inside an unlit oven? Was Ted Hughes, Plath’s second Daddy, an excuse for her own wrath?

I’ve read every word published by Plath, and I suspect that had she not committed suicide her name today would not be famous. The Bell Jar is a boring book, except for the fact that its somber story confesses Sylvia’s own and predicts her demise. Her Colossus poems fell flat before an absent audience, while at the same time King Edward James Hughes ruffled his hair in order to enhance his growing reputation as a wild romantic inspired by the gods.

And so what most attracts me to this pair of graves?

An ordinary man’s extraordinary taste for tawdry gossip? One writer’s probe into another writer’s pain? Love of a mystery left unsolved? A keen desire for justice, born of injustices resented during the course of my own lifetime? The tension of a mathematician’s need to make the numbers work in logical fashion versus the artist’s understanding that love and hatred aren’t based on numbers?

At this point, either I don’t own an answer, or I’m unwilling to confess another sin.

Maybe later I’ll have an answer. Then later still I’m sure to have a different one.

More Rebel Than Revolutionary

Love Bus

My Road To Self-Entrapment

Three of us sit around the dining room table. We’re talking about the way the world should be, as if any one of us owns even an idiot’s notion of the way the world is at that moment.

I lick the hair that grows above my lip and wonder if it might get in the way of a kiss.

Pink wallpaper flowers bleed rust rings on the walls, and a spider weaves its web in a dusty corner near the ceiling. Dylan moans through stereo speakers about times that are achangin’. I ask myself how much change Bob earned by selling vinyl records.

The skin on Cord’s high forehead rises and wrinkles while he delivers yet another political harangue, giving me a hint of how he’ll look when he is old. At twenty-four his chest muscles pull at the seams of his madras-patterned shirt. A red, jagged scar interrupts his left eyebrow and serves as a reminder of his rugby days when we were college roommates.

Sally passes me a two-quart jug of syrupy soda. Her pale-blue eyes grow wide and liquid as she giggles. We’re both addicted to the carbonated drink, in spite of the fact that we claim to despise the corporation that pimps the poison to oppressed sugar junkies who ring the globe, from New York City to Saigon.

“Guess we’ll wait until tomorrow to quit,” she says. We clink our jelly jar glasses together and guzzle down the bubbly brew.

Our apartment is on the third floor of a typical Philadelphia redbrick colonial building in a bad neighborhood that we pretend is a good neighborhood that gets a “bum rap” because members of the bourgeoisie — whoever the hell they might be — don’t like hippies, poor people, revolution or reefer.

That’s The Line. The Line is required reading for any self-respecting counterculture college graduate dressed in bell-bottom bluejeans and work boots. In fact, this always evolving mission statement is an essential article of the The Movement’s constitution.

Each of us can recite this and every other article and subsection of the We Shall Overcome decree verbatim, because we study the underground newspapers that are stacked above ground throughout Center City, and we memorize the mimeographed posters that are tacked to telephone poles at railway stations.

This evening’s constitutional convention, however, has nothing to do with pontificated proclamations or reefer revolutions. Tonight we gather to display our denim uniforms and gorge our guts with a peasant’s proper battlefield feast. Yo, King Henry, pass me the second drumstick!

But our kitchen smells more like a farmer’s fart than a pheasant, because Sally cooked us Tuna Supreme. Again. Boxed mac and cheese, canned tuna and frozen broccoli, all swirled together inside the one cracked casserole dish we own, then baked in the oven until the broccoli struggles to the top and spits out noxious gas, and the cheese sizzles and splatters onto the oven’s floor.

Tuna Supreme is the only meal Sally knows how to make look edible. So whenever it’s her turn to do the honors Cord and I smile and say silly things like, “Damn, Sally, the broccoli came out tender tonight,” or “Did you use a different brand of tuna this time? It doesn’t taste the least bit fishy.” Keeping a straight face while flattering Sally — who knows she’s not being flattered or insulted — is an unwritten rule that Cord and I never needed to discuss.

We have several other House Rules, however, all of which we voted into our By Laws after intense but cordial debate, and then posted on the bulletin board that hangs in the foyer.

Four of these rules, paraphrased for sake of jocularity:

1. No kicking Sally’s cat, Lester, when it spits up hairballs on the vinyl-covered stairs, and I step in the cold muck wearing no shoes or socks at 4:00 am on a frigid winter’s morning. Instead, put on a pair of slippers and thank Lester for her contribution to The Cause (yep, Lester’s a she).

2. If the subject of sex comes up in conversation, talk about your appetite in respectful, cleansed and metaphysical terms. If need be, cross your legs and wait till later.

3. If you can’t play good guitar, then play bad guitar.

4. Be a man and wash the dishes.

Cord and I don’t mind washing dishes; not even Lester’s crusty metal bowl escapes our diligent attention. And we both love Sally, in a Platonic Way of course. As well, we respect the fact that Sally’s not supposed to be able to cook just because she’s a woman. Truth be told, not only is Sally a dedicated Communist; she’s also a Liberated Woman who owns a tattered copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves (1971 First Edition) to prove her commitment to The Cause (whatever the hell that might be).

I stare past the mac and cheese that Cord just scooped onto my plate, through the tall bay windows of our apartment and then again through the shattered windows of the place across the alley. No one lives there anymore. Not one piece of furniture sits on the floor, because there is no floor. Not one picture hangs on the walls, because there are no inner walls. The building is a redbrick colonial that at one time matched our own, until an angry stranger — or maybe an insurance-money hungry landlord — lit the place on fire. Cord, Sally and I weren’t here for the celebration, but each day we’re treated to the pungent aroma of burnt wood.

“What time’s your night class?” Cord asks me.

I know that I answer his question, but only because I see Cord nod in recognition of my words. But I hear no more than what runs through my mind. “Why am I going to graduate school? I don’t want a career in academia. I just want to get out of this apartment, away from bad neighborhoods and  mimeographed revolutions and the pretense of The Cause. Tuna Supreme I can almost handle, although I hate the smell of broccoli even more than that of burnt wood, but the spider webs and the campfire atmosphere tipped me toward earning advanced degrees.”

Six days a week, Sally works long hours helping women who are victims of the depressed husbands who beat them up because they’re sick and tired of getting drunk and beating on themselves. Sally’s a witch, but a kind witch who owns an intense sense of loyalty. When my wife walked out, and I claimed the banner of self-pity, Sally first kicked my ass and then let me cry.

And Cord, I love Cord Cataleatto. Before Sally moved in with us, Cord and I signed the apartment’s lease. The cranky landlord thought we might be gay, which thought gave the crank cramps. So Cord and I said we were brothers, and we felt as if we told the truth.

Cord’s a romantic after the fashion of Lord Byron or Keats. His idea of springtime romance is taking a girl on a Saturday afternoon picnic in Fairmount Park, apples, cheese, and Rod McKuen’s corny poetry tucked into his backpack. Pink wine — sun-warmed, sweet and swollen — inside his leather canteen. The day topped off with lust dressed up to resemble love in a pool of evening shade provided by a maple tree.

The young man owns his serious side, too. He’s a self-styled community organizer, an upper-middle-class kid who tries his best to walk soul-to-soul with blue-collar steel mill workers, janitors and trash collectors. Organize! Unionize! Prod, poke and picket!

I leave half my meal uneaten. With my spoon and fork I scatter the remains around the plate in order to disguise the fact that I can’t stomach any more Tuna Supreme.

Cord volunteers to wash the dishes. I gather my textbooks, don my jacket that has an Omega sign patch sewn onto one shoulder, and make my way to the nearest trolley stop.

The squeal of train wheels combines with blue-fire sparks where pantographs meet overhead wires. I board the car and let my body rock and sway with it, so I won’t fall down. We dip down below street level, where the air smells like sweat and urine.

I pull the cord that signals the driver to stop and let me out on Broad, near City Hall. I follow a crowd of people whose combined stare is empty of hope or regret, and together we climb down the stairs that lead to the subway.

As I stand waiting for the next train, I shiver with shame and guilt. Cord and Sally are courageous soldiers, while I am a hypocrite who hides behind the front line. I say what I need to say to keep a roof above my head, and all the while I plan and plot my escape.

Any escape, even the easiest one.

Inside my mind I am still running, as I walk into the classroom.

Does Your Website Brand You As A Rebel?

Two Clowns

Lap on the left, Rebel on the right

Today I’m thrilled, skeptical and chuck-full of warm fuzzies as I welcome one of my many oddball friends to join me here for a “Thirsty Thursday Blog Fest Conversation.”

Simon Schmidtlap, PhD, and I were boyhood friends back in the 1950s, that decade of winged automobiles, pleated skirts and scent-free sex. Simon was the successful, lemming blender-inner; while I represented the cynical and suspicious portion of our partnership.

Simon said, “Yes.”

I said, “Why?”

We grew up together in the Cattail Region of Southern New Jersey, where on many Saturday afternoons we hunted rabid muskrats, watched box turtles lay their eggs and cover them up with genuine Jersey sand, and chased Vera Thomas because our preternatural mixture of hormones told us we should.

We attended Breed Avenue Grammar School, which was just one block away from Gill’s Delicatessen. The teachers at Breed all had blue hair, wore vacuous smiles and smelled like cherry lollipops. They liked Simon better than me, because Simon was a worshiper and I was a smartass brat who didn’t want to shut up and listen.

I always felt jealous of Simon’s success, and I remain inclined to envy him now that we are both old men. Still, if it weren’t for Dr. Schmidtlap, my own quixotic sense of passionate battle might have shriveled up and fallen away from the rest of my soul a long time ago. And whether or not we admit it, we all know how a disintegrating soul can upset our stomachs and wreak havoc on our libidinal nightmares.

So as I swim inside the paradoxical pot of spaghetti sauce that has become my life, I oftentimes thank Dr. Simon Schmidtlap as he swims past me.

Nowadays, Schmidtlap lives in Fricassee, Texas, where only two percent of the population isn’t absolutely affluent, where everyone loves God and Country because poverty is all but non-existent, and where most of the houses are clean and free of fingerprints.

And as you already know, my recalcitrant fans, I live in a bayside town in California, where most mornings are romanced by fog, where the air oftentimes reeks of rotting fish, and the houses are just as kinky as the minds who inhabit them.

Professor Schmidtlap is today a famous fixture at Fricassee Fundamentalist University. He’s known to the students who butter him up for a good grade as Lovable Lap. He teaches one advanced placement course called How To Be Social When You Don’t Really Like People and one course for at-risk students called The Rebel Instinct That Can Ruin A Reputation.

Which brings us to the subject of this edition’s conversation: Does Your Blog Brand You As A Rebel?

“Good afternoon, Professor Schmidtlap.”

“So good to see you again, Anthony. And may I say, before we begin our probe in earnest, that you need not be so formal with me? After all, our shared memories of Vera Thomas still run through the river that runs through us, so to speak, hah hah. Just call me Lovable Lap, or Lap for short. That’s what the sycophants I teach each day call me.”

“I hesitate to begin our talk with a cliche, Simon, but you haven’t changed a bit. You’re still a lemming, and if it weren’t for the fact that I don’t want to die in prison, I’d lead you down the nearest corridor, get you lapped and looped on Poe’s amontillado, and then wall you up for good. Hah hah.”

“Ever the jester.”

“Perhaps. But as you are my guest for this Thirsty Thursday Conversation, you own the privilege of leading our little parlez vous.”

“Well, then, AVT — may I call you by your monogram, dear sir?”

“Sure enough, Lapster.”

“Well then –“

“You just said that. Do you want to ask me a question?”

“Why do you think I’m a successful published author and a recognized expert on the subject of expertise in the twenty-first century blogosphere, whereas you remain an unpublished, dismal failure? I mean you no disrespect by asking you this so soon, but I believe in the direct approach. Beating around the forsythia bush won’t find us Vera Thomas.”

“Because you live in Fricassee, Texas, where all the people are affluent and clean, whereas I swim with the fishes?”

“Living in Fricassee helps, yes, of course. And your allusion to an aspect of your ancestry is clever. But no, AVT. No, not at all correct. Your success with failure can be attributed to one key aspect of your personality and to one specific crime you committed back in 1954.”

“Now you’re making me angry, Lap. If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you –“

“A thousand times?”

“Right. I never caught up with Vera that day we were hunting muskrat.”

“Relax. Do you mind if I puff on my Meerschaum pipe? Yes, yes, I understand what the doctors say about dying and the dentists say about bad breath, but blowing smoke helps me to maintain my sense of self-esteem.”

“Blow away, Professor. You’re my guest, so I’ll just hold my breath and force a smile. But if it wasn’t Vera Thomas you meant to mention, then what crime did I commit — that you knew about — in 1954?”

“Are you sure you want to reveal this sensitive a secret to your half dozen readers, AVT?”

“Why not? After all, the social media experts informed me yesterday that I’m not creating a viable platform here by twisting facts and torturing self-absorbed prose, that my concepts are fatally low, and my Klonk score is abysmal. So, sure enough, let’s make the leap, Lap.”

“Okay. I’m about to administer a kind of verbal Rorschach Test. Close your mouth. Then think about the following words –“

“Close my mouth? Why?”

“Because if we’re going to accomplish anything of worth by way of this conversation, then you first must perform an act that has to this date felt impossible to you.

“Good, AVT, now keep your mouth closed and inside what’s left of your mind blend these words in order to recall the memory of a distant sin. ‘Mrs. Schneider,’ ‘cloak room,’ ‘chocolate cupcakes,’ and ‘high heels’.”

“Cheesus, Simon! You remember that day? Why haven’t you mentioned this before?”

“No need, not until you began your hobbled attempts to embrace Cloud-based Social Networking and messed up everything, as usual, by asking too many questions and otherwise challenging authority.”

“You’ve heard, then?”

“No such thing as privacy anymore, AVT. This isn’t 1954, and in spite of your desire to dive off the train at Willoughby, Vera isn’t hungry anymore.”

“And I thought this idea of mine, this Thirsty Thursday Conversation blog bit would make my Klonk score soar, win me friends and convince readers that I wasn’t such a bad old fart after all. Shoot.”

“All is not lost, my friend. If there’s one lesson I learned while living in Fricassee, Texas, it’s that people in clean houses are willing to forgive so long as you attend Sunday services. But you must first — here and now — describe this crime for sake of your half dozen readers, that they might go forth and multiply good will.”

“Well okay, then.

“Mrs. Schneider was my fourth-grade teacher. Our classroom was on the second story of Breed Grammar School. The floor was made of gray, dusty wood. The blackboards were really black back then. My desk was freshly varnished, so it smelled like vomit.

“Mrs. Edith Schneider was screaming. Again. She screamed at us every day. I shut out her voice and just stared at her. I swear, that’s all I did. I didn’t mutter even one word.

“‘If looks could kill, Anthony, I’d be dead a thousand times,’ she said. ‘I’m sick of your dirty black looks!'”

“I wanted to cry. I wanted to open the tall window beside my desk and jump out into the fresh air. I wanted to disappear.

“And most of all, I wanted revenge.

“But I continued just to stare at her. Until she commanded me to enter the cloak room and close the door behind me.

“The cloak room was a long corridor with no windows. The air inside was black. When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I made out the hooks where jackets and sweaters hung. I got down on my hands and knees and moved my back against the wall. I crawled along the floor, and stopped when I came to Simon’s lunchbox. I flicked up the box’s metal switch and pushed up the lid. The inside smelled like sour milk and peanut butter. That and chocolate. Simon’s mother always included a TastyKake three-pack of chocolate cupcakes.

“I listened to Mrs. Schneider screaming as her voice vibrated inside the walls. I tracked that voice. When I knew she was at the end of the classroom opposite the cloak room, I opened the three-pack and gobbled down Simon’s dessert. All three chocolate cupcakes. The cloak room wasn’t such a bad place after all.

“And next I must have fallen asleep.

“When I awoke, the air around me fell heavy and silent inside my ears. After maybe two or three minutes, I risked crawling to the cloak room’s door. One inch at a time, I pushed opened that door, to discover that the classroom was empty of people.

“Gym class, we called it back in 1954. P.E. is what they name it today. Jumping jacks, relay races and kickball.

“Mrs. Schneider forgot that she’d sentenced me to solitary confinement. So I crept into the room and walked up to her desk. There, on the floor, beside the legs of her chair, lay my revenge.

“Mrs. Schneider wore high-heeled shoes to school each day. But before taking the class out to Gym, she always changed into a pair of canvas sneakers. I grabbed those high-heeled shoes, ran to the tall window, opened it, and tossed those polished babies out and down. They landed behind some bushes.

“Then I returned to the cloakroom and pretended to be sleeping.

“The class returned. Mrs. Schneider bellowed when she could not locate her shoes. I giggled. Up until the moment she entered the dark cloak room and pulled me up and out by my ear.

“And no matter how much she badgered me and peppered me with the same accusation and the same question — ‘You took them, you no good brat! Where did you hide my shoes?’ — I just stared.

“Mrs. Schneider of course called my mother that night to report my latest crime. In 1954, mothers believed teachers and backed them up. Even screaming wrecks of human beings who claimed to be teaching something other than their own frustration, anger and depressed of view of the world; mothers backed them up and believed them, too.

“But I denied any culpability. And no proof existed. Not until the next afternoon, when Mrs. Edith Schneider caught me glancing through the classroom window. She took the unintentional hint and led the entire class on a scavenger hunt.

“And you, Professor Lap. You, you sniveling little lemming. You found Mrs. Schneider’s high-heeled shoes. You picked up one shoe, pointed its sharp heel at me, and said, ‘He did it!’ ‘Look, Mrs. Schneider,’ you said. ‘Look, his face is turning red! He stole your shoe!’

“It was you, Simon. You were the one who committed the greater crime that day. You snitched.”

“Well, they were my TastyKake chocolate cupcakes. But let’s not quibble over tangential issues. The point is, AVT, that day you became a confirmed rebel. And your rebelliousness is ruining both your blogomatic brand and your blogospherical reputation.”

“Brand be damned, then. Go back to Fricassee, Simon Schmidtlap! Keep hiding inside the cloak room you made for yourself! No more invitations to Thirsty Thursday Blog Fest Conversations shall come your way.”

So readers, what do you think? Is Professor Schmidtlap right about me? Is Rebel not a High Concept brand? Are chocolate cupcakes and high-heeled shoes — when taken together — injurious to one’s health? Do you think I can learn to forgive myself for such an act of treachery as this gnarled conversation amplifies?

Woe is I!

Lesson Learned Inside An Italian Restaurant

Italian Restaurant

Soft, red and dim on any autumn evening

Today I have a battle plan.

The plan is not to plan what I’m about to write here. Instead, I’ll let loose the wild — some might say mad — and disconnected thoughts that have been racing through my brain since last Wednesday evening.

I will not — no I shall not; there is a difference — edit and polish before I surrender this set of buzzing signals to whoever might choose to touch my copper wire with wet hands. That mixed and senseless metaphor serves as evidence that my battle has begun. I’ve mounted my steed. My helmet is pure Roman. My shield accentuates the taut muscles of my imagined chest.

Drool, all ye who dare to enter.

This plan, no plan of mine, I’m certain, runs counter to the current and popular notion that I should be working here to establish my “brand,” my “platform.” I told you not so long ago that I am not a brand. But as I tried these past few days to shoo this wasp who refuses to fly away and let me relax, I agreed to admit to myself — and to the small world I inhabit here — that I have no brand, unless owning too many years and too much gray hair constitutes the label on my can of minestrone.

And the thought of minestrone yanks me back to where I thought I might begin today. A not-so-distant memory. (Oh no! Oh yes! I’m just another old, nostalgic man who wants to talk about the good old days.)

Food. Nourishment. Friendship.

Last Wednesday evening I enjoyed close company and delightful conversation with a friend. We went to dinner at an Italian restaurant. Whenever I discover an Italian restaurant whose food I haven’t yet tasted, I give it my Smell Test. If I were as formal as many of my tasteful friends and delicious enemies consider me to be, I’d have named it the Aroma Test. But to me aromas always entice, whereas smells own the power to remain neutral, or even to stink.

Anyway, maybe two years ago, I gave this particular Italian restaurant my Smell Test. I walked just far enough inside the main dining room to meet another pretty hostess and ask to see a menu.

My snooty snort test has nothing to do with the menu, mind you, but I cannot — not without embarrassing myself — tell my greeter that I came in just to sniff the place.

So I breathed in deep, and was glad to lose my mind again as it traveled backward in time, back to Mother’s cooking, or back to the heart of South Philly (where I gulped down many aphrodisiac lunches and gained not an ounce when I was young and often featured at parties as The World’s Greatest Dancer).

Therefore, thereby and without question, I knew I’d like the food my friend and I ate at this establishment last week. And I love my friend, so I also knew that she would complement the cuisine.

And if you accept my invitation to read this, gorgeous lady who so entertained me, please handle Anthony with care. I lie when I write, it’s true, but only about myself, and never about you.

This restaurant glows soft, red and dim on any autumn evening. The chatter of strange neighbors is well-dressed, polite and hushed. A room inside of which a man who would like to be a European of the 1920s can hang out with the local Hoity Toits Who Favor Candled Crystal Chandeliers to Plebeian Incandescent Light Bulbs.

I’ve always preferred dark restaurants to the open, airy, California kind. When I was young, this preference was born from that sinkhole we name a lack of self-confidence. Now that I’m old, I just enjoy believing that the sags and wrinkles that invade my face are softened by the misty light. Picture Wisdom At Rest. An oh-so-gentle, understanding, velvet melt inside my tired eyes.

My friend and I spoke. That is to say, we talked. Truth is that I led with lots of questions, both because her life’s details fascinate me, and because I like to avoid talking about myself. (Writing about the same presents an opposite problem.)

I suspect that because my manner is stiff and stuffy, bordering oftentimes on the pedantic pose that sexy women find irresistible, our conversation at first took on a heady tone. My intellectual way of stretching my stiff arm outward, fingers up and palm facing forward, as if to say, “Please keep your distance.”

But something unexpected happened between us. I’m sure that my friend became the catalyst, although exactly what she said or what she did — a tilt of the head?, a sly smile?, a clever word or two? — to alter the chemical combination that floated between us, I cannot say. But I began to laugh. I laughed at the silliness that is Anthony V. Toscano (and don’t forget the “V”). And folks, I swear, it wasn’t drink that poisoned my pose, because I did not imbibe one drop of the evil grape.

My friend can’t know this fact as I commit it this minute to a state of almost permanence, but after she dropped me off at the entrance to the drawbridge that when lowered allows me to cross my dragon’s moat, I continued to laugh. I entered my foyer, waved away my butler, stumbled my dizzy way upstairs, tossed my clothing onto a table and a chair, and sat down to giggle and groan, as I stared at my not-so-chiseled chest and hoped that the little pop that is my belly would somehow deflate by the next morning.

Oh woe is I, alas and what a pity! The following morning arrived — more correct to say that I survived the nightmares that all that garlic induced — and the little pop still lived. The chest continued its insistent journey toward Earth’s core, and the soft glow of evening became the tragic light of day.

Still, as I stared red-eyed into the bathroom mirror and thought about weeping with and at my reflected image, I reminded myself of how much better it felt to laugh.

Is there a brand hidden somewhere inside this wire of mine?

Worshiping Wonder

First, an introduction. No! Please, I always skip those parts!

The logo that tops this article is one I created a long time ago, as in back before my hair turned gray and my gait began to falter. I still own the domain name it displays.

Last year a stranger wrote and offered to buy this piece of Internet real estate from me. I think he was in the business of selling coffee. Our conversation was polite, maybe even warm. I told him that what few readers I have associate me with the SpilledBeans.com moniker.

What I chose not to say, but what is even more centered on the truth, is that I want to hold close this frivolous bit of my history on the Web. Call me nostalgic. Go ahead. I won’t mind. I’m old enough to admit that looking backward has become a habit that feels comfortable, painful and wise, all at the same time. It’s a habit I don’t want to break.

These days I use my full name as my geek-bound domain address. Somewhere along that line we imagine as “somewhere along the line,” I followed a tech guru’s advice to tie my online presence together with a digital ribbon named Anthony V. Toscano (and please don’t forget the “V.”). It’s likely a good idea to do so, maybe even a necessary one. If I want to be found, that is. And I want to be found, because I want to be read.

Need I say that times have changed since I began to spill the beans online? Of course not. SpilledBeans.com was a place to keep my online journal. Some of you Social Media friends, neighbors, relatives and strangers who post photos of your recent travels, your class schedules and five-megapixel-pictures of the kitties who sit on your keyboards might know that online journals were the precursors to BLOGS. And no matter what Wikipedia tells you, the word BLOG did not originally stand for Web Log; it stood for Biographical Log, as in online journal.

Today I find myself mired inside a different kind of geek advice, a set of well-intended, born-of-experience RULES for blogging.

I’m old, but I’m technologically proficient. I know a lot about designing websites, coding and the like. The most important thing I know about today’s technologies, however, is that there’s always someone “out there” who knows more than I know.

I’m old, but I like to stay current.

So I’m taking a course about How To Blog (the right way, I suppose). About discovering and marketing one’s writer’s brand. It’s so far been a good course. My classmates are eager, friendly and supportive. The instructor is an expert with a solid national reputation.

Still, I resist. I don’t want to be a brand. I’ll never sell a book, because although I am a talented writer, what I write is not publishable in today’s market. That’s not self-pity talking; it’s rather self-analysis.

I’ve long believed that the day soon will come when readers will refuse to pay for what other people write. Fact is, yon teens, Social Media, and the Internet before it, has granted anyone and everyone who owns a keyboard — or a touch screen, or a smart phone, or a . . . — and the desire to do so, the right to claim the title Writer.

That’s the reason that most times — although not always — I post stories, scenes and poems to this website, rather than BLOG POSTS.

I’m a writer, not a brand.

I began this bloggy article by mentioning SpilledBeans.com. Eleven years ago, I posted the following story to that website. Call me nostalgic for digging it out of a file drawer and re-posting it here today. Go ahead. I won’t mind. This is a habit I don’t want to break.

************

Worshiping Wonder

“My god is wonder,” said my friend to me. “What’s not to worship in that?”

“You’re right,” I thought. “Thank you, friend. You’re right.”

Late this afternoon, I visited an antique shop. The trash-turned-treasure kind of shop that I prefer. The arrangement of trinkets haphazard, the dominant aroma that of old books and cozy attics, the lighting dim and the window panes dusty.

Whenever I enter such a place, I feel somehow replenished, as if somewhere I just might own a soul.

As I move myself from sunlight to shadow, I realize that once again I’m looking backward, and that looking backward can quick become a dangerous habit.

The psycho-therapeutic gurus warn a man that he can go blind if he looks too far back or crawls too deep inside.

But, still, in the end and nonetheless, looking toward the past while standing inside a present moment is a paradox that I enjoy.

I insist that the psycho-therapeutic gurus, on this point at least, are just plain wrong. Nostalgia isn’t bad for you. Nostalgia just is. When I was a kid, a loaf of bread cost twenty-three cents at Gill’s Delicatessen, and that’s a sweet thought, and I was a sweet kid.

I strolled past the trays of costume jewelry, fiddled with a few science fiction paperbacks from the Golden Age, and then knelt before several cardboard boxes filled with tattered magazines. I was searching for an image that might suit my frame of mind, a picture or a photograph that I could scan, crop and slip between the threads of my next story.

Inside the third box I found her. Down deep and toward the back, under a tall stack of comic books that once cost twelve cents and today cost just as many dollars.

She’s a sexy young girl, dressed up to look like Santa’s urge to procreate. Long legs curved and curled, one knee touched delicate against the other, two thighs soft and warm enough to tempt a man to kiss the lock on heaven’s gate. A calendar girl whose flirtatious smile reveals even more than her outfit leaves to a hungry man’s imagination.

I suppose that I fell in love with her. If I am to be honest, then I can’t deny that I went looking for love, and so of course I found her. I think it’s true that a man finds love whenever and wherever he looks for it.

Please spare me your speeches about potbellied men who smoke rank cigars and sell baby-doll images for the sake of a sweaty buck. Because my Santa girl whispered in my ear. And who am I not to listen to a pretty girl’s whisper?

She told me that she’d been sitting there inside her dusty bin for quite a few years, yawning and stretching and smiling and waiting for me to pull her out, just so she could teach me a lesson about the playful side of humanity, a side and a shade that I so rudely overlook whenever I dive down deep into envy and resentment.

“Have fun once in a while, you old curmudgeon,” she whispered. “Next time you step into your pulpit, wear your Santa suit and wink at your parishioners. One of them just might wink back.”

But I could hardly hear my calendar girl’s voice, because behind me the shop’s one employee — a middle-aged woman with bottle-dyed hair, meow-meow eyeglasses and a name tag that read Hilda — began talking to me. Incessantly. No matter that I looked the other way. No matter that I found myself busy with love. No matter that I leaned toward the lock on heaven’s gate. This loquacious lady told me all about her past adventures as a school bus driver. She began with Chapter Two, wherein Hilda wounds herself in the line of duty.

I don’t think it was my manly presence that inspired Hilda’s soliloquy. After all, I’m just not that manly since my hair turned gray and my vision turned inward. No, I don’t think it was me. Not at all. I’m sure that the nostalgic customer before me heard Chapter One, wherein Hilda passes her driver’s test and dons her seductive uniform.

“I held on tight to the lever and I tried with all my might to yank the doors closed,” she said, “but the wind that day yanked back so hard that my spine has never been the same.”

“Yes,” I said. “The wind in these parts can be fierce at times.” Not my best line, I admit, but I was trying to concentrate on Santa’s urge to procreate, and I wanted Hilda to be quiet.

“But do you think the bastards I worked for understood the pain I suffered?” she said.

“No, the bastards never understand,” I said.

“They never thought I’d amount to much, because I was the only woman in the bus barn back then,” she said. Her voice began to curl and match the snarled curve of her eyeglasses.

“But I surprised them,” she said. “I won a trophy at the school bus rodeo.”

To this I said nothing, although inside I felt myself falling fast and hard toward unconditional surrender. I decided to carry my calendar girl to the register, to purchase her and later in the evening to wink and whisper with her, in the privacy of my den. I moved up close to the glass-topped counter. Hilda sat on an antique chair behind the cash drawer. She finished Chapter Two and immediately began to sing me Chapter Three, wherein Hilda seeks revenge and discovers justice.

I looked into the blue eyes behind her meow-meow lenses, and at that moment I decided to listen. Somehow I understood, perhaps by the lines in her face, that Hilda was just as much a character, with just as fine a story to whisper in my ear, as was my calendar girl. If I tilted my head at just the right angle, and adjusted my vision a few degrees forward in time, then I’d be bound to find the god that I was after.

I laid nostalgia on the counter top. Hilda rang her up and slipped her into a paper bag.

“The trophy was shaped like a steering wheel with wings,” she said. “You know, the wings pointed out and up.” Hilda’s fingers traced the shape of wings before my eyes.

“Those wings gave me a perfect idea,” she said.

“You must have worked hard to earn that trophy,” I said.

“Yes, I did.”

I watched the sadness inside Hilda’s eyes. Perhaps she saw the same in mine.

“I worked hard, but the bastards never appreciated me,” she said. “So you know what I did? I handed that trophy to my boss. I aimed its wings at his face. And I told him to sit on it.”

“Ouch,” I said.

The End

Bald Man In A Barber Shop

barbershop

Just Trim A Little Off The Sides

On a bright yellow morning in December of 1963 God taught me the reason a bald man needs a haircut, the fact that Jackie Kennedy didn’t care who shot her husband, and that I was supposed to hate niggers because I looked like one.

I was sitting inside The Buzzcut Emporium — across the parking lot from Snoozie’s Trattoria — smelling white powder puffing off the soft brush with a blond wood handle that Jimmie the barber was waving against the neck of the tall, skinny, bald man who sat in the swivel chair.

I didn’t like the way Jimmie made loud speeches while holding a straight razor close to the wiry man’s throat; and the bald man sneered and blew me a kiss. So I slumped, slouched and curled my body until I became invisible. Then I slid what was left of me back against the wall, and I leafed through a copy of Life Magazine.

I stared at the Abe Zapruder colored photos of JKF’s assassination. I stopped breathing when I reached the frame where his wife Jackie held her man still and wide open to the shot that turned one side of the president’s head into red mist.

“She was sad, but she was free,” said God. “The secret service man who climbed onto the limousine’s back bumper practiced his lines and moves ahead of time.”

I considered asking God a question about Calvin’s concept of Predestination, but the barber’s voice distracted me.

“You want I should blend the sides with the fuzz around your ears. That right?” said Jimmie.

“Yeah, that and give it a proper washing, maybe even lighten it up some for the summer months,” said the bald man. Then he pulled what at first looked like a squirmy guinea pig from the pocket of his permanent-press slacks and handed the creature to Jimmie.

Turns out the pig was his hair.

Pig, wig, what the fuck, I thought. This guy’s an independent thinker like me, or he’s a nut case like me; and in either event Johnnie Rebello was right to recommend that I write my next story about whatever might happen here on a Saturday morning.

I rubbed my hand through the mess of tight curls that sat on top of my brain, and I listened to the bell above the doorjamb jingle as a cop walked inside and approached Jimmie. That tinkling bell, I realized, appeared in far too many of the stories I wrote not to hold some mysterious significance inside my psyche. Something to do with arrival and departure.

The cop wore a hat. The kind the bread man wore in the early 1950s when I was too young by a slip to go to school. I think I was in love with the bread man. It was all about the way he smelled. Sweet and hopeful as lemon sunlight shining on baby-green grass.

The fact that the bread man’s visits interrupted the beatings my mother gave me for being a weird child who was born inside her gut and could get back inside her head anytime he wanted to go there served to deepen my affection for him.

He would knock on the door, and my mother would drop her weapon, quick stop screaming, and growl at me to suck up my tears. Then she’d start singing and smiling like a television housewife who smelled like lavender perfume even after lusty sex.

I was only four or five years old at the time, but my daily travels inside my mother’s mind led me to understand — in the vague but focused way that babies comprehend the complicated aspects of communication — the connection between the beatings and her intense sense of physical frustration. A few years later, when I learned how to make myself come, I realized what she’d been missing, and how the bread man’s visits fit into the picture.

“Come on in,” she’d say when she opened the door.

He was tall and handsome, and his fingernails were clean.

My dad was short and nondescript, and his hands were always dirty from working hard-labor jobs on the railroad. Pennsylvania Reading Seashore Line. Steam locomotives left over from World War II, dedicated to lugging tourists from Philadelphia to South Jersey and back again.

The bread man sported a fresh-pressed brown uniform and a snappy cap with a shiny black brim.

My dad wore grease-stained overalls and a pinstriped canvas hat that surrendered to his sweat.

The bread man filled the air with the aroma of sugar frosting and jelly doughnuts.

Dad stank of kerosene and coal tar.

And the cop carried no scent at all.

“Gotta stack of Wanted Dead or Alive posters here,” he said. His voice squealed past the fine hairs inside his nostrils and came out sounding like a sax gone sour. “Mind if I tape one to your window?”

“You know me, Bernie. Semper a Member of the Chamber. Here, I’ll hang one on the mirror, too. Who you lookin’ for this time?”

“Thug named Harry Felton. Guy wrote a book a few years back, then made himself drunk forever when no one but old ladies wanted to read the damned thing. Couple of months ago, he snorted down the wrong kind of cocktail and totaled a Packard automobile. Almost killed his own fat ass, and crippled his queer passenger, then escaped the hospital with the help of his agent just after we pressed him with a DWI. We suspect he went looking for an old dame named Gloria Lakeland. Seems like he had a score to settle with her.”

“Lakeland from down the road in Railsford? Did he find her?” said Jimmie.

“Yep, that’s the broad. She showed up yesterday lying in her own bed, naked, embarrassed and two days beyond dead. Her neighbors smelled her remains and called us. A note, written in red lipstick, was tacked to the headboard. Just two words: Epilogue Forthcoming. I’m not sure if I’m saying that right.”

“What’s this world coming to, Bernie?”

“I can’t answer that one. That kind of language is too twisted and high-falutin for me to want to understand.”

The cop left, and the bell tinkled.

“You’re next, kid,” said Jimmie. At first I didn’t know he was talking to me. I was too busy trying to stay invisible, and thinking about how much I hated Jackie Kennedy, to pay careful attention to the present moment.

And as far as present moments go, even back then I realized that time was a desperate concept we invented so we wouldn’t feel too dizzy and start to fall down. Being physically and emotionally tortured makes some children wither inside and turns other ones into hyper-sensitive psychics. I was a damned smart kid. Intelligence was the only thing I knew for certain that I owned, although intelligence disappointed itself by telling me that I could never be the best or the most.

“What’s wrong? Those big ears of yours not working today?” The tall bald man, who wasn’t exactly bald anymore, punched me on my shoulder and pointed to Jimmie. “Man’s talking to you, you bookworm faggot shrimp,” he said.

His trimmed and copper-toned guinea pig was sitting on top of his head. It slipped a little bit to the left as he bent down toward me. But his thin-lipped mouth tilted off to the right side of the universe, so on balance I made sense of the view.

“Thank you, sir,” I said. “I like your haircut.” I kept my facial muscles tight when I spoke, so as to be sure that my expression added nothing to my words.

Of course, I was being a wise-ass motherfucker by saying I admired his orange pig wig, but I’d learned from my mother’s beatings, and from the tough acting kids at school who spat on me and had wax inside their flat shiny ears, that given the choice between a subtly delivered wise-ass compliment and none at all, the insecure among us would always ignore the sarcasm and accept the compliment as a gift.

The tall, skinny man twitched his head from left to right, the way a spastic entertains an uncontrollable tic. He pushed his polyester shirt down deep into his permanent-press slacks, scratched his balls while he was down there, smelled the fingers he pulled out and turned toward the Buzzcut Emporium’s door.

And by force of habit I listened to the doorjamb bell tinkle.

“Climb aboard, kid. Mind if I call you kid?” said Jimmie the barber. He placed a padded board across the swivel chair’s arms. I shrugged my shoulders in answer to his question, wiggled my ass into position, and wished I wasn’t short like my dad.

“Please. Can you give me a flat top? Leave it longer right up front?” I said.

“Flat tops are for real hair, not for what God gave you. You got nigger’s wool. Only one way I can try to fix it,” he said. Then he grabbed the electric razor and I listened to it hum like an attacking squadron of green-head houseflies.

“My dad told me I don’t have to get a buzz cut this time.” I heard the pleading whine inside my voice and hated myself for begging this bastard.

“Your dad’s the little guy who works the switch house down the way, isn’t he?”

“He works hard,” I said.

“Not hard enough at controlling his wife. But look, kid, you don’t want to go through this life looking like a woolly headed licorice baby, so just let me do my job. The only reason I took you in here was because Johnnie called me from over at the Trattoria and said you had potential in spite of your looks.”

“You know Johnnie Rebello?” I said.

“Like a man knows his brother, cause that’s what we are. I’m Jimmie Rebello, but most guys call me Jimmie The Razor. You’re still a young punk, though, so just keep calling me sir.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Rebello,” I said as I watched my nigger’s wool fall to the black-and-white tile floor.

“Johnnie says you’re an author. That the way it is?”

“I write stories, but so far no one wants to publish them.”

“Well, what do you write about, kid?”

“Melancholy dead guys who live in Happyland. About them and about everything else.”

I thought about how if I ever wrote this barber shop into a story I’d have to change all the characters’ names, because no one would believe that they all ended with the same sound. Johnnie, Jimmie, Bernie, Harry. Then again, I thought, life was odd and so were my stories, so maybe I’d leave well enough alone.

“That might be your problem, kid. Trust me on this. Dead guys can be melancholy, but not here in Happyland.”

“Your brother, Mr. Johnnie, told me the same thing.”

“Must have heard it from me. We talk a lot. On the telephone, that is. I can’t convince him he should leave his favorite corner booth, walk across the parking lot and visit me here. He tells me that exercise is for fools who think they’ll live forever. Sometimes I think he’s got a point.”

“Mr. Johnnie is a wise man.”

“So I eat free of charge at the Trattoria once a month, and in return I give him a haircut to match his restaurant’s decor.”

“Like I said, Mr. Johnnie is a –“

“Quit while you’re ahead, kid. I don’t need you to praise my brother.” Jimmie swung me around in the chair. “You see the mug hanging on my mirror over there? Guy’s name is Harry Felton. He’s an author, too. Old, drunk and on the run from the law. He let a temporary need for love ruin his life. Happens to all you brooding artist types. I’d be careful if I was you.”

I stared at Harry Felton’s photograph, and then at my own reflection in the mirror. Harry had nigger’s wool, too. Gray to my brown, but his curls were just as tight. True enough, he looked lonely and just about dead. But he held his head high and winked at me.

I climbed down off the board and out of the swivel chair. I pulled two quarters out my pants pocket and handed them to Jimmie.

“Glad I met you, Mr. Rebello, sir” I said. “But I don’t need love. I need success. And the next time I want a haircut, I’ll look for Harry Felton’s barber.”

I remember leaving the Buzzcut Emporium, but I can’t be sure that the doorjamb bell tinkled on my way out.

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