Bald Man In A Barber Shop

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.

For My Brother John

John Mark Toscano
John Mark Toscano, April 06, 1953 - April 22, 2010

The one of us who for a short while clenched
imperial power inside his elegant hands,
his birthday comes in April. Yesterday. Today
he likely sits inside God’s coastline mansion,

a shadow smiling through a picture window,
a soul not lost, but here inside me as I weep,
a man remembering the wife who loves him. Until
I read my mind this morning, I’d forgotten

the two of us together, we sound like stereo
signals spitting static through the wire. We sing
rich harmonies without benefit of practice. Both of us
worship Sinatra the Sicilian, chew loud on hard salami,

breathe in deep the aroma of books that make a man
think. We both claim to be right about everything
and wrong about everything else. Too similar, two men,
we search each other for the I each one of us sees

inside the you. Stubborn minds, dying hearts, and yet
we taught ourselves that blood can foster the unfair
expectation that brothers should do more than
love each other today, again perhaps tomorrow.

Anthony V. Toscano
April 2010

Clown Found Dead

Dead Clown
One Dead Clown

On Sunday evening, December 12, 2010,  the dead body of an unidentified clown was found in the quadrangle at the hub of the Bronwell Corners University campus, an apparent victim of a gunshot wound to the soul of his inner child. A thorough review of township records confirms the fact that no other person, not before nor since this darkest night of intellectual agony, ever died in Bronwell Corners, most especially not in the university quadrangle, and certainly not under the dreary veil of ludicrous impossibilities.

Mayor Carlton Ewing, who discovered the body soon after he awoke from a good night’s sleep on the wooden bench beside the public rest rooms that were named after his father-in-law, Billy Bonatelli, insisted to Deputy Rosco Galileo that he did not kill this particular clown. “Lookee here, son” said the mayor, “I’m an elected official with a keen sense of humor and an unassailable reputation to protect, so why would I shoot a man who wore lipstick and tried to make the kiddies laugh? I like clowns, so please don’t look at me that way.”

Several uniformed members of the township’s special task force, known to area locals as the Bronwell Brigadiers, arrived at the scene just in time to tamper with what little evidence they could find. A black gun lay beside the dead clown’s head, but the brigade’s chief lab technician, Mr. Arnold Fetuccini, who had never before been pressed into duty, determined that it was a toy. “My investigation reveals the fact that the gun was a play thing, which does not rule out the possibility that it was indeed the murder weapon,” he said. “Of course,” he continued, “that’s assuming that this clown’s corpse was a recent and unfortunate victim of homicide and not the remains of a funny philosopher with suicidal aspirations. There’s got to be a study sitting somewhere deep inside a dusty library that reveals the high rate of self-annihilation for those who live their lives wearing costumes and masks.” Mr. Fetuccini said all of this without stopping to think, and then he bent down close to the dead clown’s decomposing body and studied it for signs of foul intentions.

There was no blood on, nor in the vicinity of, the corpse. But the dead clown’s spirit most definitely looked damaged, ragged and frayed at the edges, wet and sticky to the touch, hard and cynical at its center. As the undeniable evidence of mortality slowly sank into the dull minds and weary hearts of horrified investigators, the clown’s smile loosened, sagged, stiffened in its new position, and then surrendered itself to reveal the vague outline of a life misspent.

“Grab the gun before we bury him,” cried Rosco Galileo to the mayor. “We cannot allow this clown to take an unregistered weapon with him to his grave.”

But before Deputy Galileo could wipe the sleep from his eyes and expel the shock from his system, the gun disappeared.

“If you consider this tragedy from the perspective of those of us who must go on living, then perhaps you’ll realize that we didn’t need the gun after all,” said Rosco Galileo. “One death, a death by violence or by any other means, is one death too many for the fine folks of Bronwell Corners,” he said. “We will get to the bottom of this mystery, even as we guard our township’s citizens from the threat that’s sure to gather steam beyond our borders. What we discover inside the belly of of this beast may confound our efforts to sleep in peace. In fact, we might never solve this case — nor should we ever attempt to solve any case that defies the truths we hold self-evident and inexplicable — but we’ll know a lot more about the relationship between death and laughter by the time we cremate this clown.”

Harriet Hampton, sole reporter for The Bronwell Bulletin, arrived at the scene of the crime just in time to hear Deputy Galileo make his grandiloquent speech and draw his vain conclusions. The story she penned that evening about this episode was based on rumor. In paragraph two Mrs. Hampton wrote that the purpose of all conversation among human beings is to quell one rumor by raising yet another. She went on to explain that our trade in fearful gossip is what we name our soul. Uninformed, delicious chatter, claimed Harriet Hampton, was perhaps what killed the clown.

The Bronwell Corners City Charter requires that all township citizens sign an oath, a promise never to threaten a friend with a lie and never to destroy an enemy with honesty. The populace, for the most part, remains pleased with, and faithful to, this arrangement. They therefore have no problem with existential mysteries and disappearing guns. Yet, this one dead clown lying in the middle of an otherwise peaceful quadrangle gave many people pause to consider the fact that no one knew the man, and no one ever would.

When the town’s mortician, Harriet Hampton’s husband Creighton, scrubbed away the dead clown’s makeup, he discovered that beneath the grease and gloss the man owned no face. So he stated in his report that the clown was indeed an impostor and not an actual person. This apparent fact, insisted Creighton Hampton, did not lessen the severity of the crime, although it did help to explain the nature of a bloodless death.

“A poet,” said Mayor Ewing next morning. He stood before the town’s one television camera and spoke into the microphone that the station’s manager had borrowed from the grammar school auditorium. Key members of the Bronwell Corners Brigadiers surrounded him at the lectern.

“A poet?” asked Harriet Hampton. She quick picked up her reporter’s pen and pad and recorded the mayor’s reply.

“Yes, a poet. It must have been a poet. Only a poet would kill a clown. The only poet who lives in Bronwell Corners is my father-in-law, Billy Bonatelli. We found him Monday at midnight, which would make it the first tick of Tuesday, hiding under an old wooden bench.”

“So you consider the mystery solved?” asked Mrs. Hampton.

“Not at all,” answered the mayor. “The suspect escaped the Bronwell Corners Community Jailhouse just ten minutes after we’d finished interrogating him. But we got enough out of him to determine his guilt. So although the mystery may not be solved — as we’ve not been able to relocate the toy gun or nail down the exact cause of death — the case is closed. The fine citizens of Bronwell Corners may once again rest easy tonight.”

Hanging high on the pine-paneled walls of The Bronwell Corners’ Township Council Chambers is a portrait of Warren G. Harding. Council members that very afternoon met and agreed that a return to normalcy was in order.

“Mayor Carlton Ewing is right,” said Arnold Fetuccini. “The killer must have been a poet. And we all knew that Billy Bonatelli, being as he was a poet and a hermit, was a narcissistic scoundrel.”

“What’s that you say?” asked Mrs. Hampton. “A narcotic what?”

“Let’s just decide how to settle down our neighbors,” said Mr. Fetuccini. “What’s our plan of action?”

“Remove the wooden bench from the university quadrangle,” said Mayor Ewing. “That’s what Warren G. would have done.”

And with a show of hands they all agreed.

Of Time and An Oak Tree

“Why are you sitting inside the shade of a grand old oak tree?”
“Feels good. I have time these days for feeling good.”
“What are you thinking about?”
“I was resting, not thinking; but since you ask I’ll tell you that this oak tree will likely outlive me.”
“Woe is you?”
“No, the oak tree is even prettier than I am.”
“Your hair is going grey, old man.”
“Call me silver, not grey. You seem jealous of my distinguished countenance.”
“You’re reading from one of those digital affairs. Good to see a man of your generation accepting modern technology.”
“You’re in a sarcastic mood today; and I don’t care to entertain you, but –“
“I meant my comment as a compliment.”
“You lie, but that’s all right, because I’m older than Bill Gates, and look what he accomplished.”
“He was young back then.”
“So was I. And before you mention the subject of money; no, I’m not wealthy, but I’m rich and I’m brilliant.”
“Rich. What are you now, a metaphysical hippie?”
“Those days bred bitterness. I’m finished with looking sour upon the world around me.”
“That’s untrue.”
“Yep. What are you reading anyway?”
“Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of The Vanities. Back in 1987 I felt far too busy to read long books. Care to join me for a cup of non-fat frozen yogurt? These days I’m addicted to the stuff.”
“Cheesus, you are metaphysical by nature. I’ll just watch. But don’t talk with your mouth full. You do remember what Mother always said about people who made noises when they ate, yes?”
“Forget Mother. The yogurt shop’s near a pond. Switch scenes, please.”

“So, okay, what do you make of Bonfire?

“Ronnie Reagan’s time frame. I liked Ronnie in many ways. Please, if you own a sense of mercy, don’t tell my former colleagues and current friends I said that, because they’re bound to take my admiration the wrong way, being confirmed Liberals on the outside.”

“So you’ve given me a weapon. Thanks.”

“Employ that sword and you’ll wound yourself.”

“Back to Ronnie.”

“No, rather back to restaurants, credit cards, too much wine and joyful extravagance. I loved it all. The aroma of garlic at Mama Mia’s, the shiny plastic tarjetas and the heady feel of false inebriation.”

“But you spent too much money, fool.”

“Regrets, I’ve had a few.”

“Please, not The Voice. Not tonight.”

“I sing well, and at one time I danced even better. Without lessons. Yes, you heard me. I never was much for form, although watching two romantics perform a Tango inspires me to believe I might yet be a sensual lover.”

“That yogurt’s going to your head.”

“Better than booze. Want to ride inside my blue pickup truck?”

“Where to?”

“A bench by the beach.”

“What’s got into you?”

“Friendship, affection and the thought of death.”

“Drive on.

“It’s windy here. Cold, too. But, I’ll bite. Why death?”

“I’ve faced my brother’s in recent days, and that always means facing one’s own.”
“Sad, are you?”
“No longer. You should have tried some yogurt. Tasted good; and I enjoy the breeze here.”
“Must you just sit these days? No more with writing?”
“My story of Frank Shaver continues, but I won’t say much more.”
“Just a bit, then?”
“Well, Frank’s sitting in his cell naked. He’s angry. He has an erection, and he’s demanding that the guards give him back his hat.”
“I shouldn’t have asked. What else are you up to besides sitting?”
“Sent a birthday card to a dear friend’s father. He’s going to be ninety years old. I included photographs of seven cats whose company I’ve enjoyed throughout the years. As well, I’m following the tales of a fellow writer who’s soon to celebrate his seventy-first. Gorgeous photographs there. He doesn’t realize this, but I’ve tracked down his location on several maps. If he weren’t such a sweet curmudgeon, I’d send him a card, the old-fashioned way.

“And tomorrow evening I’ll join yet another friend for supper. She’s lovely and loyal.”

“I guess you’re busier than I at first assumed.”
“Like I said, friendship, affection and the thought of death.”
“Of Time and The River?”
“No, an oak tree. I suspect that you’re thinking of the first Thomas, the giant with the tousled hair.”

John, You’re . . . Right Here

Dear John,

Yesterday, your wife Melinda told me that we lost you. Those were her own words: “We lost John at 3:20 pm,” she said.

Inwardly, I fumbled as I searched for some sense of equilibrium, for some sense of any kind, however mysterious, mystical, religious or just plain reasonable.

But of course, such deep loss owns no sense of reason, no purpose recognizable to those of us who are yet to be lost.

Relief was apparent in your wife’s voice as she spoke. As I squinted my eyes against no one in the room with me, although perhaps against the urge to cry out loud, I let her think that I was listening to her. I am a good, careful listener to those friends who know me, in spite of my habitual verbosity; but my silence on the line had nothing to do with listening, and everything to do with survival and with tenderness.

Yes, I heard her communion with relief, and for her release from all the pain that you and she shared over the course of many years I felt glad. Glad that finally we lost you.

I understood long ago, however, that even should I try to lose you, brother John, I could never succeed in so shielding myself from the heartbreaking pain. You are not lost, John. I cannot believe in religion — and never in the wistful myth of an afterlife beyond oblivion — but so too can I never escape contact with my soul. You are here today, touching me where it hurts the most.

Last night I spoke with brother Chris. In many ways he is the most vulnerable of the three of us who remain still attached to this planet. He, as always, is the first and the last to weep to those heavens that he imagines exist. Chris wanted to ask me questions, questions he’d never before put to me about my reflections and weak conclusions regarding our childhood familiarity with ugliness and with the hand-holding bond that such ugliness creates without intention. We talked into the deepest part of night, and I believe I helped him for at least one bitter slice of time.

After our telephone conversation, I braced myself with the knowledge that where brother Christopher is warm, I am a cold-hearted man. So it is, and there remains no use in denying the obvious.

A few hours before speaking with Chris, our brother Wayne had called me. “I called to ask if you’re all right,” he said.

“Yes, I’m fine,” I lied.

“Just want you to know that if you need to talk, I’m here,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said; and then I changed the subject fast.

This morning I awoke inside what is to an old man an unfamiliar frame of mind. Much like the young man who awakens to realize and remember that yes, he actually did it. He made love with a woman and survived.

I tried out all the war-torn, tired phrases. John is lost. John passed away. John passed on. John left us. John is in a better . . . no, that one will not work for me.

John is dead.

John, you’re dead.

John, I knew you were about to die. I thought I felt ready for the final news broadcast, but why then do I want to cry? Where is my cold heart when I need her most?

John, dear brother, where have you gone? You were younger than I. Not fair, my friend. Life isn’t meant to be fair, isn’t meant to be anything at all; I understand all of this, but please, I need some sense of fairness now, some sense of right and wrong.

In order to calm myself down, I moved toward memories, and not just the good ones. I know, I’m supposed this moment to remember only the sweetest times; but down the road toward sweetness lies more tears.

So I tried my best to recount the unjust sins each of us committed against the other, the resentments, the envy, the competition between two superior intellects who by nature of their superiority understood too well their flaws.

Yet, behind this narrative of betrayals, attacks and raging vanity, plays an insistent melody made of harmonies that only you and I could have composed.

My denials, coupled with a search for my cold heart, are of no use this morning.

John, my gentle brother, you are dead; and yes, cliche owns its proper place, because a part of me died with you, friend.

You are gone, you passed on, you left us, you left me, you son-of-a-mother-I-never-managed-to-love.

But, John you are not lost. John, you are right here inside of me.

I love you, John.

These photographs remind me of our childhood years; Wayne was yet to be born:

John, Chris, Anthony
John, Chris, Anthony
Anthony, John, Mother, Chris
Chris, Anthony, John
Anthony, Chris, John

Waiting For My Brother’s Death

What’s left of John’s body is with the Hospice organization now. What remains of his life lives inside our memories.

He lies inside a hospital bed, beside his wife, wide-eyed and brain dead, gone from us several weeks ago. Medical care is cruel, even as the doctors try to do no harm.

John’s wife’s telephone lies on a table where she can reach for it whenever she cares to call and ask me to make the journey to be with her when and if she wants it so. The last few times I spoke with her she said she felt unsure. “I still might go away for a few months immediately afterward,” she told me. “Somewhere that John and I never went and never spoke of going. I’ll let you know.”

I feel confounded, confused and numb. John has been dying for several years; the details just this moment seem unimportant to mention. I’ve told myself over and over again that I own a stoic personality (many would likely tell you that I am a cold-hearted man), and that I’ve had so much time to adjust and accept.

I don’t believe in God or in Heaven and Hell. Push aside any bitterness I felt toward the Church when I was young; I felt intense anger that dissipates as age comes on a man. Today my lack of belief has nothing to do with resentment, nor with logical argument. I just do not.

Still, neither am I so stoic as not to shed tears in private; nor can I sleep with any sense of peace except for the warm, snug feel of blankets pulled close as I go down.

I am, however, aware of my selfishness. Is each one of us human beings so self-centered, so closed inside our flesh and bone, that we must talk to ourselves of how another person’s death affects us, and not of how that death affects the dying one? Is John, without sign of any brainwave pattern, eyes wide open and staring without blinking, voice never to be heard again, somehow thinking of himself right this minute?

I just don’t know. And maybe that’s the only honest lesson that death can teach a man: You know nothing. Forget your books and stories and speeches. Forget your tender moments and your rage. Forget everything you’ve ever mentioned to a friend. Forget what passes for your mind and heart. You know nothing.

Memories remain; we all know this to be so. Chubby John, the boy whose tummy I smooched when he was a baby. Intellectual John who read each of the twenty-five volumes of Funk & Wagnall’s Encyclopedia and then discussed with me the articles that struck his fancy most (we sat inside a darkened corner bedroom of a cramped house, my hysterical mother always screaming threats to cut and kill us; our discussions saved us for a while).

John the university man who could not tear himself away from his mother, visiting her each and every weekend, in spite of the fact that I tried to convince him to explore the streets of Philadelphia with me.

John the graduate who rejected my company for more than a dozen years because I thought I left my past behind when I moved far away from dear South Philly and so much closer to my own death than I could have realized back then.

John the stately Philadelphia lawyer, tall and proud inside his flannel overcoat, always keeping company with the law books he carried inside his leather bag. We had reconciled and understood that love had never for a moment disappeared.

John the singer, fan of Frank Sinatra. John’s voice mellifluous, as was mine back then. We sang in harmony as we drove across the Walt Whitman Bridge.

John the hospital patient. In and out and back again, one crisis following the one before. I was there beside him much of the time, and for that time I feel grateful, and yet I want to cry again as I write of this particular memory.

John the dead man I will never see again. Please pardon me my momentary self-indulgence. Please forgive me, John, for whatever hurt I may have caused you.

And so here and now I wait for a telephone call, a call that will eventually tug me down in spirit and bring me to my sister-in-law’s side.

I love you, brother John. I will be there.

Whenever and wherever she may need me, I will be there.

La Cosa Nostra

After the war, my dad went to work for one of the big railroad companies. He became a member of what the bosses coyly named a carpenters’ crew, a gang of eight men who lived inside a couple of boxcars and traveled from town to town, from one railway station to the next, to make repairs to company property.

They cut, planed and nailed new boards into the shaky walls of signal houses. They slapped, splashed and brushed fresh coats of creosote onto war-worn railroad ties. They scythed tall meadow grass to keep the tracks clear and the horizon in sight. They shoveled cinder gravel onto steep embankments, stirred turpentine into five-gallon buckets of oil paint, drilled holes into metal, and pounded rivets into rails.

Years later, when I’d become a boy and they’d become a collection of folk tales and arguments, these same men — alone, in pairs, or in parties of three or four — came to visit my father, to see how much his kids had grown since the last time they met, to stuff their bellies with my mother’s pasta and pastry, to swig golden shots of sharp whiskey, to chug and swallow bubbly Dago Red, to cherish and embellish their memories until they gained the grace of legends.

They sat around the dining-room table, touched each other on the arm, clapped each other on the back, and refilled each other’s glass with more Dago Red whenever a more open expression of love threatened to break surface.

And they laughed out loud through our home’s open windows, loud enough to remind our neighbors that the war had ended and that a new world had been born from the blood these friends had left behind. A world connected by track, labor and legend; a giddy world of prospect and promise. A world where a man once again could feel safe enough to entertain stories.

His Story

He is the oldest son of a family that forever recalls the Mediterranean, and so he is required to sit at the table with these unshaven men whose words smell of creosote and turpentine. He sips wine mixed with ginger ale. He nods and he smiles, and always he agrees. He lets them call him Anthony, Sicilian king, first-born son.

He listens and he commits their tales to memory.

The time Gianni poured too much salt into the pot of spinach, on purpose, because the boys had been riding him hard about his lack of spice.

The day Frankie met Carmela at the five-and-dime counter and fell in love over a plate of meatballs and spaghetti.

The following day, when Rosario learned Carmela’s secret, and then stole her heart and hand away from Frankie.

The night Nicolas landed in jail after hitting the fat cop who had dared to call him a coward.

The night Mancuso cried in his sleep, and Rosario held the man like he’d hold a woman, wept and whispered into Mancuso’s ear that he understood, held the man close enough and long enough that Mancuso again began to believe that the war had ended.

The boy listens and grows drunk on the affection these men share by way of their stories, the same stories they tell each other each time they meet.

He never interrupts them. He owns no desire to speak.

He respects the sound, shape and curl of each and every word that passes into the wake of the word before it; and soon enough he understands the weight and wisdom of the breath inside each syllable.

These men are his lovers. Their touch is his caress. Their fondness for the past is his craving for the future, his yearning for a time when he too shall live inside a boxcar with a gang of men who love the boys who died beside them.

The boys who died begging for their mothers, while reaching for their fathers.

This crew, this table, this wine, this heart song is his blood.

This son is his father. From the moment he leaves his mother’s womb, he is to become his father’s encounter with a young boy’s terror.

His father will die and he will remember. He is bound to remember. The veterans seated round the dining-room table command him to remember the war.

To recall the Mediterranean.

To hold one’s weeping brother.

To kiss the edge of a nightmare.

To cherish La Cosa Nostra.