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.”

A Slice of Virtue: Part II: A Time All But Forgotten

 How To Tell This Story?
This story is Part II of a book I’m writing called “A Slice of Virtue.” It’s all in that messy, first-draft stage right now. Find Part I  here. Find Part III  here.

An Entertainment, Part II

There was a time when he believed in Heaven, although much later he would learn that his belief had been untrue, for without complete contentment all such faith just disappeared.

It would be a mistake, however, to say that Jon Trainer was then incapable of passion. Making unkind judgments while looking backward is a habit all too often entertained by philosophers, poets and magicians. Life came upon him, then and as it always would, in whatever form and shade his vision would allow.

On perhaps their happiest occasion they met and kissed at sunset along what was to Jon an unfamiliar shoreline. Palm trees grew from the still-warm sand as it began to cool with the slow arrival of evening. They held, caressed and wondered at their good fortune. They stared into each other’s eyes. They pulled their bodies close together, pressed and even more insisted, till closeness seemed not close enough.

No words needed to be passed between them, but had he been asked by a stranger to describe their silent conversation, no language fouled by anger would ever have occurred to his imagination.

Young love looks forward with an unassailable sense that life for the two lovers is bound to improve upon the life of those who loved before. Our old folks — parents, uncles, aunts and all — somewhere, somehow they stumbled into imperfection. But we will not. We will, we will, we will succeed. We will because we will it to be so.

When the sun plunged into the ocean, Jon Trainer and Lydia Carson walked away from the beach where they’d been making love, and found a seat at a nearby, seaside cafe where they could spend an hour or so remembering it all. Their table was close to the cafe’s wrought-iron railing. Leaning backward in his seat, Jon watched the parade of summer tourists pass by in both directions.

The waitress soon arrived. Circles of perspiration showed under her armpits. Her light-brown hair, swept back to form a ponytail, was coming loose from the elastic band that tried to hold it tight together. Jon thought about how she might feel, naked and sweaty after a long day’s work; and almost immediately he felt embarrassed by his never-ending lust. The life he’d departed just a few months ago, he realized, had left him hungry for sex to an extent he’d never known before.

They ordered deep-fried artichokes with dipping sauce and two goblets of chilled chardonnay. Jon felt much richer than the story his wallet begged to tell.

“People from work will talk about us tomorrow if they see us here,” she said.

Jon smiled. “I want them to talk, Lydia. I want the world to know. Don’t you?”

“The world . . . I’m not sure which world I belong to anymore. My mother thought she had it planned, and I guess I did, too. And Mark. He’s a good man, Jon. I don’t want to hurt him.”

“Look, let’s just, for now at least, enjoy our meal. Mark will survive. You know, when I decided to come here, I never expected to meet someone like you, not so soon and probably not ever.” Jon stared away from her then, stared out toward the ocean that through the dark of night he could only hear and smell.

“I’m not sure you’ll even stay here, Jon. You said yourself that you have no definite plans after this summer is gone.”

“I gave up planning when I bought my airline ticket, but it was a one-way ticket, after all.”

Jon lifted his glass of wine in Lydia’s direction. She touched her glass to his, and they sipped, and next they swallowed deep.

“So, you think this house deal is going to come through?” she said.

“I’ll know for sure by Monday afternoon. That’s what Jackson told me yesterday. But I’m not worried about it. I’ve got the apartment for another six weeks or so, before Debra gets back from Hawaii. I’m comfortable for now.”

“But from what you told me about Jackson when the two of you knew each other back east, you can’t really depend on his word. Can you?”

“Jackson’s all right most days –“

Jon first noticed Lydia hesitate as she lifted an artichoke leaf from the heated cup of spiced oil and moved it toward her lips. And next he felt the shadows shift and flutter close behind him. Lydia’s face flushed red, and a spatter of oil splashed onto the tablecloth as she dropped her bite of food.

“Mind if I join you two? Don’t worry, Hon, I wasn’t following you. Me and Steve had a last-minute meeting with a client just around the block.”

Mark’s voice, and then his starched white shirt, maroon necktie and well-trimmed beard. Mark always looked freshly showered and shaved to Jon, no matter the time of day or night.

Lydia at first said nothing in response. Instead, she fumbled with her fingertips and tried to pluck the artichoke leaf from where it fell. Jon noticed that her hands trembled; this fact bothered him enough that he decided to counter Lydia’s apparent nervousness with an imperturbable pose in the face of what he perceived to be Mark’s not-so-subtle challenge.

“Please, sit down, Mark. Good to see you. Sorry you had to work so late, while your wife and I sat here enjoying a meal and each other’s company. What are you drinking? Chardonnay okay, or something stronger?”

“No, nothing for me. Just thought I’d stop and say hi before driving home. Saw you two sitting here, and wanted to tip my hat before I beat it back to the house. Don’t feel as if you have to hurry, Hon. I’ll feed the dog just as soon as I get in. See you whenever, then. Good to run into you again, Jon. I hope your plans are coming together the way you want them to.”

“Tip my hat?” thought Jon once Mark was gone. “The guy never wears a hat, and ‘tipping’ isn’t his style.” But Jon kept his thoughts about Mark to himself. Lydia’s face looked even redder now, and her glance averted his own.

“I’m sorry, Lydia. I didn’t mean to –“

“You have nothing to be sorry about. It’s more my fault for coming here with you. This place is too close to Mark’s office, and I should have known better.”

“Look, are you going to be all right going home to him? I hate to think about the two of you arguing because of me. You can come back to the apartment with me if you –“

“You know I can’t. I’ll be fine. Don’t worry. It was bound to come to this sometime soon. Mark argues by staying quiet and moody. Tonight I’ll just let it go. I’m sorry, Jon, but I have to go home now. I’ll drop you off on the way.”

“I’ll walk, Lydia. Walking helps to keep my body in shape and to clear confusion out of my mind.”

Jon stared after her as she walked away. “Young, hot-blooded and delicious to taste,” he thought.

Lydia jostled her way through the crowd, but left her scent behind. Jon motioned for the waitress, and when she arrived he ordered a double shot of scotch. The waitress hurried back with his drink. Jon poured it down his throat, long and fast. “Here’s to your new life, and to tipping your hat,” he said to himself. He wondered if he was falling in love with Lydia Carson, or if he was making another mistake, a mistake not unlike the one he’d made before he’d bought the one-way ticket.

Perhaps to be continued . . .