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.

Rebello’s Advice On Getting Published

Snoozie's Trattoria

Snoozie's Trattoria

Johnnie Rebello sat farting into the vinyl-covered corner booth cushion of Snoozie’s Trattoria. Dark-green upholstery, table top made of scarred railway ties, web-wrapped five-and-dime vanilla candle flickering in a desperate attempt to disguise the digestive fumes.

“So let me see if I got this right,” he said. Rebello squinted mean eyes through the cigar smoke he blew in my face. I recognized the ashy cloud as a challenge of sorts. I was certain that Johnnie had seen the gesture in some cheap mafia movie, because the bookshelf hanging on the paneled wall behind his fat head was filled with old VCR tapes of Sicilian mob fantasies.

“These two guys,” he said, “these two literati punks told the editor-at-large of some fish-wrap local rag that your story was — whatdya call it? — melancholy — that the right word? Too sad for an audience that lives in a happy part of the world where no one ever sneezes loud or has bad breath. So you murdered the story and now you want me to bring justice into an unjust world. How exactly?”

“That’s almost right, Mr. Johnnie.” I knew I sounded silly calling him Mr. Johnnie, and he knew it too, I’m sure, but the scene was written before we met, and I figured who the hell was I to change the master’s screenplay. Probably he got it from off the same dusty shelf where he kept his cigars and celluloid entertainment.

“It’s like as if they put the scalpel in my hand and told me to cut off all the meat and leave no blood behind if I wanted them to arrange it on the public plate,” I said. “So I did like they insisted. I trimmed the story down to cud and bone, and they sent my meal back to my kitchen.”

“Couple of mixed metaphors crawling around in there, but we can discuss that weakness another day. For now, just tell me this. These inkmeisters allowed the reading public in Happyland to go hungry cause they didn’t like your presentation?”

“No, Mr. Johnnie. Not that. They just served the crowd another chef’s meal.”

“Did you taste it? This other cook’s food? Was it any good?”

“I prepared filet mignon. He made them liverwurst and mayonnaise on white bread.”

“But the mayonnaise wasn’t melancholy, now was it?”

I hung my head and half-closed my eyes in an attempt to seem humble if not downright ashamed of myself. “Like always, Mr. Johnnie, you got right down to the heart of the matter.”

“It’s all right, kid. Mind if I call you kid? I mean most people don’t think I’m the kind of man who’s read Graham Greene. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’ve got problems with gas, or maybe it’s this fancy trattoria that makes ‘em think I don’t know good literature when I read it.” Johnnie lifted his left butt cheek, let off some steam and sighed. “So, okay, kid. So maybe this time round the busboys ate your steak while the honored guests feasted on liverwurst. But there’s always another recipe waiting to be born.”

“Hey, I like that last line. Could I maybe use it in my next story, Mr. Johnnie?”

“We can hash out a contract tomorrow. One-time rights I might consider. But today let’s discuss this problem you’re having with melancholy blood. I can tell you this much right now; only those who own passionate appetites enjoy blood for dessert.”

Johnnie snapped together two of his chubbiest fingers, and a waiter in a dark-gray, shiny sharkskin suit skittered over to the eight-track player that sat on the bar. He pushed a few buttons until Pachebel’s Canon filled the air and complemented the cigar smoke and neon-orange glow that buzzed from the blinking OPEN sign that hung in the wide picture window. I blinked through the haze, stared out the window and watched a Ford station wagon pull into the parking lot and stop in front of the barber shop across the way. A tall pale man wearing a short-sleeved polyester shirt got out of the car. He walked into the barber shop, in spite of the fact that his head was completely bald. I considered making the mystery behind that scene the major plot point of my next story. The station wagon I understood. But why a polyester shirt?

“Thanks for the background music, Rudy,” said Johnnie. “It’s a good song, kid, isn’t it?”

“One of a kind, Mr. Johnnie. But it lends itself to melancholia.”

“That and lost lust. Maybe that’s what you want to cook next. Lost Lust a la Mode. Fuck Happyland and mayonnaise, kid. They’re not your target audience. I mean you understand why Happyland’s population prefers liverwurst to filet mignon, don’tcha?”

“Not really. I gotta tell you, though, it wasn’t justice I came in here looking for. But then, you knew that. You always seem to know the end of your stories before you write the first sentence.”

“It’s all about experience, kid. And experience is a matter of intellectual eyesight. Some people think that because I’m kinda fat and old-fashioned — and because I spend most of my time sitting in this vinyl-covered booth — that I don’t see things for what they are. Like as if I don’t know the difference between liverwurst and beef. But you came in here looking for an exegetical explanation as to why your story was rejected.”

“Exactly, Mr. Johnnie. I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

“And you don’t want no steenkin’ critique, am I right?”

“No way, because –”

“Because critiques are all about encouraging imitation.”

“You sure are literary, Mr. Johnnie. I’ll bet you’ve read all three thousand pages of Proust.”

Johnnie lifted his right butt cheek and smiled. By the bubbly sound he muffled into the booth I could tell that at that moment he was feeling happier than anyone in Happyland could ever pretend to be. For one swift Proustian second I understood the difference between Johnnie Rebello and the bald guy in the barber shop.

“So let’s compare,” said Johnnie. “Your protagonist and the one the winning chef created. How were they the same?”

“They both became dead soon after the first paragraph. They both sired wannabe writers. They both were loners in a lonely world.”

“Differences?”

“One was fat, the other was thin. One was poor, the other one thought he was poor even though he lived in a bland middle-class suburban neighborhood.”

“So okay, Marcel. Mind if I call you Marcel? Let’s get down to the business of melancholia. Both of these heroes were quick turning dead, and death is a lonely business.”

“So you’ve read Raymond, too?”

“Don’t change the subject. I know we’ve reached the painful part of this session, and Pachebel’s crescendo isn’t helping to lighten the mood, but if you want the public to eat your next meal and then lick the plate for more, then you’ve gotta stop lying by way of omission.”

Johnnie snapped two different chubby fingers together, and Rudy came running.

“Roberta Flack this time, Rudy. Killing Me Softly.”

“I think that tape skips somewhere, Mr. Rebello,” said Rudy.

“That’s all right, Rudy. Better to have lust and lost, as my dad used to say. Have I told you about my dad, kid? He’s dead now, of course, but man that guy could cook a crab and toot a horn.”

“Sounds like a good story.”

“Singing my life with his words. You understand that line, kid? Tell me, how’d your rejected story end? On what note, exactly? On a scale of Happyland to Melancholy, where did your story land?”

“Well, I guess the ending was sad. I’ll admit that much. I mean a man dies and leaves behind a son who wants to be Henry David Thoreau wearing muddy work boots as he traipses through a back-bay meadow.”

“And the winning chef?”

“More Russell Baker than Henry Thoreau. Background music described but unheard. No mud. No bay. No meadow.”

“There you have your answer, kid. In Happyland you can write about death, but you can’t expect readers to admit its odor.”

Secrets

Paul Monette

Secrets Kill

I read a lot of books these days, because writing won’t come easy. The fact is that writing won’t come at all.

I’ve grown too old to meet my ancient dreams of publication inside an empty corridor and welcome them with cliched open arms.  At my age, at least for me, dreams move backward in time. You hug yourself in the middle of the night and recreate the past. The second that you begin to wonder why, you switch the scene and imagine a different dream. Sometimes you sleep; most times you just forget.

One hope I entertained when I was in my thirties was to become business-like about, if not immune to, criticism of my writing. A story is no more than a product goes the flatulent wisdom so many gurus dispense to unsuspecting fools and willing customers alike. Push one out and then another. Don’t waste time contemplating a publisher’s unpredictable decision.

Maybe the poor girl felt constipated at the very moment she leafed through your manuscript, unable to relieve herself in time because her boss was in the bathroom, and anyway she had a crush on him and wouldn’t want him to think she had to poop. So instead she pooped on you, but not on you, on your story; because your story didn’t fit. This time. Maybe next time when the crush man isn’t next door dreaming her into bed, while she’s trying to settle her stomach by way of mere wiggling.

So get on with the next story. Forget the first one and the second. Matter of fact, stop counting.

But all of that ersatz wisdom is just empty advice. And too much advice abounds. And yes, I enjoy the word ersatz. Ersatz is art. Pretend is pedestrian.

Scene One: Two potential lovers bump into each other in a narrow corridor. They blush as they brush. Against each other. A slight brush, mind you, because it’s got to be about anticipation. The act itself rarely lives up to the first-draft rendition.

Art Ersatz walked out of the bathroom and into the narrow corridor. He was careful first to let the toilet finish flushing, so she wouldn’t wonder what he had been doing.

She was Pedestal Pedestrian, the slush pile reader. Art hired her just so he could one day blush and brush with her.

When they bumped, brushed and blushed, Art opened his cliched arms.

“Oh, Art! Your arms! I adore your open arms!” said Pedestal.

“You fit within the crux of them today. Want to get published with me?”

“Couldn’t we just anticipate for a while longer, Art? Can I call you Art? And didn’t you mean to say crook?”

“Sure enough, Peddy. But before we meet again, please delete the exclamation points. Exclamation points are verboten nowadays. Frank Conroy used to teach his Iowa Writers Workshop sycophants the sinful nature of exclamation points, although he ran amok with the same inside his arty masterpiece, Stop-Time.”

“Are you finished in the bathroom, cause I really gotta go.”

If I followed guru-given advice, I never would have written that scene. To tell you the truth, the whole truth and nothing but a lie, I wouldn’t be writing anything at all, because the pronoun I is as verboten nowadays as is Art Erstaz’s elevated exclamation points.

And next march forward the readers, the critical fans, the self-made editors with their own flavors and tastes expressed in one-part harmony.

“Oh, when is something going to happen? You know, happen. No one wants to read literature or poetry, and certainly no twenty-first-century, action-packed, numb-minded reader will accept the notion that writing can be art.

“No, no, no. No art for me. Give me Thomas Harris’s blood-soaked nightmares of frantic female prisoners held in tunneled dungeons by sadistic serial murderers who favor moths and butterflies over real sex. Or better yet, hand me a book by an award-winning nonsense man whose protagonist shoots people in the head with an airgun. Now that would make a great movie, yes. And by the way, can the word film; the notion is affected and the ticket price exorbitant.”

All good advice, and sure to water down the work and relieve a reader’s tension.

So instead of writing stories or otherwise poetic verse, these days I re-read books that once meant much to me.

This past week, I re-read Paul Monette’s Becoming A Man. I first read Paul’s story during the 1990s, when television images of men invaded by viruses resembled the alien forms introduced in 1950s’ Science Fiction flicks of fear. All about the nervousness of nuclear holocaust. While school teachers dressed in polka dot blouses taught us children to kneel and cover our heads when the siren sounded, flying saucers swirled and dipped toward Earth in black and white. Seamless doors swished open, and skinless creatures crept across the swamp and sauntered into suburbia, there to imitate us and at last to conquer our bland existence.

Paul Monette lost. First one lover, then another, and at the end himself.

Becoming A Man, I think, was his final book. And yes, it’s art. And yes, again, the story he told employed the first-person pronoun, as well as all manner of points exclaimed.

But this second time I read Paul’s book not to figure out a virus, nor to visit with an alien. Instead, I read and wondered how and why. How does a dying man — Paul died of AIDS not quite three years after his last book’s publication — find courage, much less reason, for writing about his own deterioration?

I am old now. My death will not likely be so exotic as Paul Monette’s, but just as sure, and equally inexorable will be the passage from now till then. I, however, can find no reason for writing anymore, not about life or about death.

A few days ago, I sat with a friend, cups of coffee and curiosity on the table between us. She told me that she couldn’t live without believing in an afterlife. In times past — distant history — I’d have mocked in silence her faith in such a messy manuscript. Today I admit my envy.

I don’t believe in god or in a heaven or hell, except in those manifestations I see and feel while still alive. So, unlike Paul — and perhaps unlike my coffee-table friend — I chuckle at the notion that from on high I’ll look down to see a man or woman reading a book I wrote. No. What I wanted and failed to produce was a book that I could see held in another person’s hands before I died.

There was a second reason I re-read Paul’s book, another reason that had nothing to do with his sex life or his viral invasion. I read to better understand the nature of keeping secrets. Secrets kill. Secrets kept and secrets revealed; they kill us from the inside out.

I’ve written much about being abused by my mother as a child. And I’ve been roundly criticized for writing about the subject.

First of all, it’s true that many people cannot understand the sheer brutality, the blood and the haunting that follows a person’s footsteps forward and into the grave.

My mother beat me with a strap, tied me down, hung me by the neck until I began to turn blue, bit my hand so hard that she left puncture wounds that resembled those made by a wolf, slapped my face black-and-blue, and then forced me to tighten back the tears for sake of an act to show a visiting neighbor or relative.

But the Brownie photographs with scalloped borders show otherwise. There I sit around a kitchen table with my mother smiling adoration for me and my younger brothers. There I kneel before a sparkling Christmas tree, surrounded by gifts, Lone Ranger’s guns, Mickey Mouse’s ears, Howdy Doody’s freckled face.

And so those of my readers who view those pictures become maddening gurus all over again, dispensing Art Ersatz’s fatuous advice. Leave it in the past, they tell me. How could you possibly limit your writing to such subjects?

Secrets, that’s the how of it. Because although the ranch house, tiny box of a prison, in which I grew up owned open windows, if not open arms, in summertime; although my screams for help soared through window screens; although my face bore the wounds, my eyes the sadness, my heart the hopeless sinking. Although all of that was true, everyone around me decided to honor my mother’s secret, that she was mad.

And how far different from my own forced secret was Paul Monette’s? Two different flavors. Paul’s a Sexual Sahara; mine a Tortured Tarantella. Both a form of suicide.

So I cheer Paul Monette, but not for his preference in lovers. I applaud him for the courage he owned, the courage to can the exclamation points, to forgo the gurus, to put the I inside the art and to write until the end.

Turning Error Into Art

Hawker Hurricane

The Art of War?

When I was a young child, I used too much glue whenever I put together a model airplane. I could see the fine details—the erect plastic nipples on each tab A, the receptive bellybuttons on each slot B, the ridges, the cutouts and the seams—but I couldn’t manage the combination of patience and coordination required to apply just enough pressure to the tube to release a tiny droplet of epoxy. Instead, I squeezed too hard, and clear sap leaked all over the wing, jammed up the landing gear and blurred the pilot’s windshield.

It’s not easy to wipe glue off plastic. Paper towels are useless—they tear and shred, and leave unattractive tatters of themselves behind—and cotton cloths aren’t much better. The glue thickens as it breathes, so you have to wipe fast, although even with a rapid swiping motion you can never get to all of it before scar tissue forms on the fuselage. Still, I tried my best to make my models neat and clean.

I used paper towels on the B-52, and cotton cloths on the Hawker Hurricane; and then, out of frustration with the inevitable, smeared deviation from exactitude—and out of respect for the Spitfire’s legend—I tossed the towels and cloths and I developed my own method for turning error into art.

I unscrewed the cap of the next soft-metal tube, pinched its bottom end, then rolled my thumb and index finger along its body, from foot to nozzle, over and over again, until all of the tube’s transparent blood oozed, seeped, ran and coated the model’s surface. Next, with the tip of one finger, I pressed, pulled and drew the thickening glue into a level sheen, as if I were painting the airplane without a brush. When I got it all as smooth and even as I could, I used an artisan’s razor to etch a few signature details. A bolt of zigzag lightning on the nose, the rough outline of a seductive lady under the window, my initials on the tail.

These lines that I drew folded in on themselves, changed course by force of gravity, and all but disappeared as the glue congealed like tired lava and then dried and flaked like a bad skin condition; but I knew what I’d meant to say by slicing them there.

My friends and brothers laughed at the results of my experiments. Back then I could not absorb ridicule any better than glue, so I gave up building the machines of war. I threw away the B-52, the Hurricane and the Spitfire; and in a fit of passive, inward temper, I declared that I’d hated airplanes all along and that I much preferred the force of nature to the power of weapons.

And yet, you cannot stop a spy from guarding secrets, nor keep a determined athlete from his sport, and so I soon replaced my glue-and-plastic art form with another exercise, this next adventure more forgiving of a young boy’s errant glance toward what delights him. I took up digging for Saturday-morning worms to use as lure for mindless catfish fed and swimming in the lake that lies below the highest hill in Bronwell Corners. I traveled muddy paths through wooded marsh at sunrise, filled my lungs with the erotic aroma of rotting vegetation, spied the flick and swoosh of rabbits darting through the reeds, nicked my fingertip on the sharp point of a fishhook, sucked the blood and cast the line.

I sat down beneath a canopy of maple leaves, listened to proud cardinals singing, and felt the summertime shadows run through me. I stared beyond the grassy bank, slipped off my shoes and socks, pushed my legs forward and let them dangle over the edge. My toes touched and then broke the lake’s cool surface. I shivered as the red cedar water tickled my ankles. I closed my eyes and imagined that a raft made of tree limbs and thick vines floated just a few hundred feet from where I rested.

A tall man dressed in a burlap toga, and wearing a straw hat on his head, rowed the raft. He smiled at me. His teeth were white and his eyes were yellow. When he’d moved the raft nearer to the shoreline, the man threw me one end of a vine.

“Tie me up, boy,” he hollered. “I have something to say to you.”

I stood up, grabbed the strong, green rope and tethered it to the tree trunk behind me. I tugged hard at the vine, letting the slack fall in circles at my feet, until the raft floated close enough to the bank that the man could jump ashore.

“You fishing or dreaming, son?” he asked.

“A little of both, I guess. It’s better than building model airplanes.”

“That’s why I’m here, boy,” he said.

I think my expression told him that I felt puzzled, because the tall man shook with a round belly laugh and then went on to explain what he meant.

“Was it the glue or the ridicule that drove you to dangle your feet in red cedar water?”

“I never really liked airplanes.”

“But you enjoy the aroma of rotting vegetation, and the flick and swoosh of rabbits reminds you that you can run like a frightened beast. That’s right, isn’t it? Flick and swoosh is what you called it, no?”

With that the man again began to laugh. This time he laughed so long and hard that he seemed to lose his wind. I watched as he chuckled and snickered, giggled and groaned, sniggered and roared, before he fell to the ground in front of me and rolled side to side, all the while holding on to his middle.

“I won’t ask you why you’re laughing at me,” I said.

I glared at the tall man and I waited. Eventually, he lay still and seemed to regain his composure. He looked at me through watered eyes and winked.

“I know that,” he said. “I know you won’t ask. You won’t even ask me who I am. I’m a little bit of God and a little bit of Jim the slave. I’m the poet you think you are today, and the craftsman you might not become tomorrow.”

“I don’t want to become you,” I said.

“Of course not. Not now that you see that my hat is made of straw and my toga isn’t seamless silk. You thought I’d be sporting a black beret and quoting windbag Whitman, didn’t you?”

“I told you, Mister, I don’t want to become you. I never wanted to become you. I don’t even want to know who you are.”

“I’m a bad-boy poet, son, and I work hard to earn a living. Sometimes I squeeze too much glue along the seams, but I’m too smart and too foolish to take up fishing. If you want to hitch a ride on the raft, then you must leave the windblown, black-beret attitude behind you. You’re too young to sound like a prophet and too old for plastic-model tantrums. And scar tissue, son, scar tissue is part of surgery, so get used to it,” he said.

“I don’t understand you,” I said.

“I think you’ll want to pull in your line now, then tomorrow return to etching zigzag lightning on the nose and a seductive lady or two under the window. There’s not much meat on even a well-fed catfish.”

And then the tall man left me sitting there alone.

Written in February 2000

Part III: Patient Harry Felton

A galaxy of sparkling diamonds

A galaxy of sparkling diamonds

Readers, This is Part III of Harry Felton’s story. See Part I here. See Part II here. See the ENTIRE TALE as it unfolds, from the beginning, here.

A necklace of sharp needles tightened, pierced, and then sank deep into his flesh. Next a scalpel’s blade slid between two upper vertebrae and severed his spinal cord, interrupting the initial blast of pain. A neat, clean, indifferent incision that ran from left to right beneath his hairline and then around and through his throat. He swallowed molten copper and listened to the echo of a gurgling wave that filled his lungs.

His body shot forward and joined a galaxy of sparkling diamonds. Each jewel reflected a separate aspect of his face. His mind reconstructed the torn flesh and shattered bone, pulled the puzzle pieces back together, until he saw himself. One eye swollen to the size and texture of an overripe plum, red-veined and leaking sticky tears. Hair ripped away from his scalp, leaving here and there a pond of purple blood and pus. Ear lobes, drooping with the weight of old age, now resembled sliced and trimmed cuts of meat upon a butcher’s block.

He choked on the odors of gasoline, urine and human feces. Gravity yanked him down into a ready grave. Black space closed in, blinded him and spun him fast, until dizziness dragged him toward unconsciousness.

Yet floating somewhere inside the unforgiving darkness he heard the familiar tap . . . tap . . . tapping of his keyboard. A repetitive and steady rhythm, perhaps too steady to suit the habitual hesitation of its master. Rather more like the staccato snap a pinwheel whispers when an unceasing wind whips it round in rapid circles. Or the incessant flutter of a hummingbird’s wings.

No matter that his ruined eyes squeezed tight against a sudden invasion of light, a harsh fluorescent beam insinuated and insisted, until the needle-studded necklace became a flexible but confining brace, and the clean incision revealed itself as a seeping wound. He realized that the odor, the blood and the shattered bone belonged to the stranger who was now trapped inside his mind, planning his escape, covered in a shroud and begging for absolution.

Gradually the whirring pinwheel came into focus as his friend’s familiar pencil. She held it laced between her fingers, waved it back and forth, struck an edgy drumbeat on her pad of paper with the pencil’s point.

“Gertie?”

“I’m here,” she said. “It’s been a while.”

“I’m . . . I’m . . . I’m not here. Where? This place? What is it? Gertie, what is this place? I can’t move my arms. Gertie, I’m paralyzed. I’m dying.”

“It’s all right, Harry.” She stood up and hovered over him. He noticed worry swimming in the water of her pale-blue eyes. “No, I take that back,” she said. “Truth is, you’re lying in a hospital bed. You’re busted up, but you’re alive. Your arms are clamped to the bed frame. Be quiet and look around. Focus on one object. That’s right. Just take it slow and gain your sense of balance.”

Harry glanced upward toward the plastic bags of liquid, some cloudy-white, others clear as water, then traced a tangle of plastic tubes that led back to his arms.

“I can’t feel . . . ” His words caught in his throat.

“You’re parched. Here, take this. And take your time.” Gertie placed an ice cube on Harry’s tongue. He swirled it around and let it melt.

“I can’t feel anything.”

“Fentanyl. The murky liquid inside this bag.” Gertie touched the plastic bag as if to confirm its presence. “You were in a lot of pain after the accident. Fentanyl’s a strong pain reliever and an anesthetic. You’re just now coming off the stuff.”

“Accident? You said accident. No. Someone tried to murder me. My neck . . . my throat. He cut my throat.” Harry heard his voice rising to the level of hysteria. His body shook and shivered. An army of people dressed in blue uniforms came running toward his bed. They surrounded him, leaned in close, grabbed him and held him down. His screaming grew louder. In place of words he howled the midnight melody of a desperate beast.

“Mr. Felton,” said an old man’s wrinkled face that almost touched his own. The old man’s breath, sour as it smelled, seemed fresh as new-cut springtime grass compared with the air Harry lately had been drawing in. “Mr. Felton, my name’s Dr. Webster. No one tried to murder you. That’s the medication talking. Sometimes Fentanyl causes hallucinations. We turned off the medication early this morning, and you’re waking up. Just try a deep breath or two.” Harry watched the doctor motion to the other blue uniforms. They let go of him and left the room.

Harry felt the doctor’s stethoscope laid flat and cold upon his chest. “That’s good,” said Dr. Webster. “Inhale. Hold it. Now exhale. Good, your heartbeat’s slowing down to normal.”

“I’m still alive? I drank my own blood and I’m alive?”

“You’re very much alive, Mr. Felton, but you need time to recuperate. Maybe a lot of time. I’ll be back soon to see you. I’ll tell the nurse who’s monitoring your vital signs to bring you something mild to relieve your anxiety once your blood pressure and heart rate stabilize. In the meantime, I’ll leave you to talk with your friend. You’re a lucky man, Mr. Felton. She’s been by your side since you were admitted.”

“She’s here to nag me. She always nags me.”

“That’s right, F. Scott Fitzfelton, you need me,” said Gertie.

Dr. Webster smiled, then clicked his heels on the tile floor as he walked out of the room.

“Gertie?” said Harry.

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“Gertie, you said accident. What did you mean?”

“The nurses call that milky goop they’ve been pumping into your veins Milk of Amnesia. Between that and the fact that you’re in shock, you probably don’t remember the details.”

“So remind me, why don’t you, go ahead, remind me.”

“You sure you want to hear this right now? Aren’t you tired? You look bone tired. Matter of fact, you look like shit.” Harry opened his mouth and tried to protest, but Gertie slipped another ice cube between his lips.

“Thanks for the compliment. If I can’t handle whatever you have to tell me, I’ll just ask Dr. Dictionary for another pill. So go ahead, remind me why don’t you. Go ahead.”

“You got behind the wheel of a car when maybe you should have known better. What the hell got into you, anyway? You hate driving. Must have been the drug convinced you otherwise.”

Harry turned his glance toward the ceiling and tried to turn a plaster patch into a map. On that map he identified a time and a place.

“The Packard. John’s Packard automobile. That the one?”

“Now you’re coming back home, Harry. You ran that baby right into a telephone pole. You flew through the windshield, and your passenger –”

“Piercehall. John Piercehall. Is he . . .”

“He’s a mess, but he’s alive and renting the Presidential Suite just down the hall.”

“Oh my God.”

“You can talk to God later, Harry. Next person you’ll talk to after me and the nurse will be a cop.”

“Harry struggled again to move his arms. The bed frame rattled and he began to growl.”

“You gotta calm down, show them that you’re calm and in control before they’ll remove the wrist clamps.”

“Are these damned things handcuffs, Gertie? Am I under arrest? You said cop. Did they arrest me? Tell me, please go ahead and tell me.”

“The doctor needed to stop you from digging at your wounds while you were under. Like I said, when you look more like your serene self, they’ll remove the clamps. Think you can act serene?”

“Cut to the chase. Did the cops arrest me?”

“Since when does Harry Felton use cliches like cut to the chase? No, not yet. Only one thing stopping them from locking you up. Well, maybe two things.”

“Please, fer chrissake, cut to the fucking chase.”

“So long as you floated in and out of consciousness, the police chose not to read you your rights. You have to show them you can understand what they’re saying to you first. Or not.”

“And the second thing?”

“The drug I mentioned.”

“I didn’t drink that much.”

“Not the booze. You were well below the legal limit. This time, that is. No, not the cocktail. Your blood test after the accident revealed the presence of another drug. Rohypnol.”

“Ro what?”

“A roofie, Harry. On the street they call it a roofie. It’s not legal, not even as a prescribed drug, not in this country. In the good ole USA kids use it to help them escape the prison cells we senile control commanders use as traps when we hunt them down.”

“I’m not a kid, Gertie. Look at me. I’m no kid. Please, go ahead and look at me.”

“That’s true. You’re no kid. You’re a foolish, self-pitying, old fart. And although you’re as banana yellow as the next alcoholic who lugs around a dead liver, I know you didn’t pop that roofie into your mouth. But someone fed it to you, someone you might know better than you’re letting on.”

“Look, Gertie, you were right to begin with. I can’t handle this bullshit. So just reopen the valve and let that milky medicine flow into me again. I don’t know what the fuck you’re saying to me.”

“You want more Milk of Amnesia? Tell Dr. Dictionary. But before you do, and before you have to talk to the cops, why don’t you tell me about Railford, Pennsylvania and the lovely lady Gloria Lakeland?”

“It was part of my book promotion tour. I delivered my standard speech.”

“Promotion tour, now that’s funny. That book you say you’re promoting, you published it several decades ago, and it’s been out of print for at least as long as the hair under my arms has been gray.

“But not that Railford, PA, Harry, and not the twenty-first-century model of Gloria Lakeland. The police detectives did some research while you were dreaming. The questions they asked me about Miss Lakeland and you left me puzzled and curious.”

“Questions? Why would the cops ask you? What questions?”

“Look, Harry, adorable as you are, you don’t have any next of kin. I had to beg the doctors and nurses to let me visit you in the ICU. I gave them the old ‘We have a long history’ line. I wasn’t lying, right? The cops became curious, so they tickled me for some information about you. Nothing formal, and nothing — so they told me — on the record.”

“You didn’t answer me.” Harry listened as his voice became a croak and then a gurgle. He began to cough up phlegm. His neck began to ache, and his thoughts traveled backward in time. Gertie grabbed a washcloth from the metal bedside tray, poured some water from a pitcher onto it and cleaned up his face. He leaned back against the pillows and tried to recapture the present moment.

“You want I should leave you alone for a while? Let you sleep? Maybe that’s best.” said Gertie.

“No. You got me all worked up and worried, and now you’re going to leave me here to suffer?”

“That’s right, Harry. Blame me for your sins against yourself. You must be feeling better.”

“Oh, shit. Why did I take that drink?”

“Quit the woe is me nonsense. I told you it wasn’t the booze. And if you don’t want me to leave, then tell me more about Gloria.”

“She’s a rich old lady with bad breath. She wears a lot of gaudy jewelry. Her house looks like a modern art museum.”

“Uh huh. Well, the detectives seem to think you knew gaudy Gloria back in the day when your testosterone level ran high. So now it’s your turn. You tell me, go ahead, tell me. Was it your memories of Gloria Lakeland that drew you back to Railford? Did she recommend you to John Piercehall, or did you recommend yourself?”

“You’re stepping in quicksand when you ask me these questions.”

“Yeah, well that’s pure poetry. But just why did you go back there? It was back there, wasn’t it? You bought a one-way ticket. Remember that? Was Gloria Lakeland the reason you returned? And who might have wanted you drugged and incapacitated?”

Harry stared, but not at Gertie. Gertie’s face he tried to avoid. Instead he returned his gaze to the map on the ceiling. And on that map, just a short distance from a certain bookshop, he watched a younger version of himself lying in a different bed, a different stranger snuggled up beside him, the aroma of her perfume and sex enticing him to float inside a galaxy of sparkling diamonds.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,176 other followers

%d bloggers like this: