To all but an elite group of artists and wannabe artists who live not far from me, the floral pattern that decorates this text might be the soft-brushed, abstract vision of a rush toward Heaven and Hell. A sorting out of winners and losers, with streams of blood staining both the angels and the devils.
I consider that no one ever wins this imaginary battle. Yet, the fire-inspired homilies that speak with spirit to such divisions among us incite rushes of adrenalin that lead to fervor and then create a group-sculpted, fear-infused slimy creature that crawls up one’s legs, tickles the crotch in just the right spot, instigates the hips to dance as if ready for lust, and then slithers through eyes, ears and nostrils, to accomplish its ultimate goal of seeping into each member of the congregation’s frightened brain. “We believe!”
“Call our beliefs fear-based if you will. Yes, we feared there existed no supreme, ineffable Dr. God. But now we know that he is handsome to some, while to others she is pure (ooooh, a virgin!), yes, pure, and tempting by way of her purity. Still, she is never to be touched by whatever now touches us as we congregate, gyrate and undulate. Yes, now we believe.”
And, I, AVT, suspect that WE is good wherever WE is based on love (and a helping of lust sounds delicious). As well, I know that WE belief systems can, and do, sometimes turn toward evil. WE can quick become an immoveable monolith composed of brainwashed drones.
All of the paragraphs that preceded this one were written without edit. The writers’ cognoscenti who live “out there,” a regular cabal of all that is literary (including candlelit, clandestine caucuses held inside deep, dark caves), would have me delete that kind of foreplay. But I won’t this time, because it might be entertaining for any folks who read this to criticize, deconstruct, or even demolish that unnecessary prologue.
SIDE NOTE # 1: Many writers, published and not, will recognize that feathery battle graphic (above) for what it is. Perhaps they’ll tell us.
One famous author, in particular, a man we all love for his dedication not just to writing books that might well save lives, but dedication also to touring the globe (and beyond?) to hear from and talk with the young people of whom he writes. This author once told us that he wrote a great chunk of his first – now famous – novel quite near to where this tapestry lives. Speak up, sir.
This afternoon, I sit in the same hallowed hall where once sat poets of high renown. A friend drove me here, and left me to scribble notes that go nowhere but where my mind travels. I am not able to travel on my own anymore; so thank you friend; you are a dear, dear human being.
You might conclude from the photo that adorns this bit of text that this old and scruffy version of AVT, though persistent in the sense that he visits this Poets Hall of Fame in hopes of breathing in a whiff of their creative perfume, is well beyond his black beret days. You would be right to draw that conclusion. I am an old man with a good brain but without the kind of imagination necessary to create a story that doesn’t involve me.
Speaking of that stranger, me, AVT:
Yesterday I visited my new General Practitioner (GP). He is thorough. He is approachable if not warm. He is direct.
I beg your indulgence while I repeat myself. A little more than a year ago, I underwent major surgery. The surgery had nothing to do with my spine, but as a result of this surgery my spine was further damaged. A few of you who read me know the nature of my operation. The doctors were good. Doctor God stood guard. My life was extended.
But extended for what purpose? The pain, physical and mental, has never let up since being “saved.”
Yesterday, my GP looked at my latest blood test results and told me that my kidneys are failing, and that I’m an eventual – if not sooner – candidate for dialysis (two or three times a week, five hours each time). Doctor GP will soon send me to a nephrologist.
To me, that kind of life is no life at all. No, sir, not even for you, Doctor God. Not for anyone will I live like that. I’ve come close once. I know what close feels like. No. I will not “live” like that. I’d rather die writing. All alone and writing.
But I must first fill my eyes with the sun, moon and sky.
So today I decided to beg a ride from someone who dropped me off and then allowed me a few hours of precious solitude.
As a youngster, I stayed to myself so other children wouldn’t see my scars (they did anyway). As a young man, I taught myself to “be sociable” (i.e. ask people questions, then listen to their answers). I think I developed fair social skills over the course of many years.
But at the end of any social gathering, even in the company of people I love so much as to consider them family, I can just about wait to leave and when back home, enter my den of solitude. (Pseudo-Superman becomes Clark-The-Dark Kent.)
Yet, whenever I am alone, I try my best to look toward the pretty parts of this world of which I’ve been a member.
So, along the short walk from my friend’s car to The Poets Hall of Fame, I snapped a few photographs, photographs that added some color to my sometimes dark-shadowed life.
I’ve never been able to meditate. I’ve tried several to many recommended methods. But each method suggested that I toss away my thoughts in favor of being present in the “here and now.” That’s a nonsense notion to me. I am always in the here and now, even when I’m busy recounting or regretting my past. After all, I don’t time travel back to the 1950s and while there occupy myself with regrets I don’t yet know about. Oh, poofadiddle!
My cameras – I’ve owned many over the course of my lifetime – allow me to focus on the present moment.
So perhaps you’ll enjoy, along with me, some of the prettiness that surrounds all of us when we look for it.
Time is indeed limited, but for the short length of one human being’s life, the sun, the moon, the stars and the breezes that cleanse all wounds are limitless.
When I was young, I didn’t know the brutal limits imposed on beauty and on a lifetime. Inside that ignorance live all of my regrets.
I’m going to ramble here today. I’ll switch subjects often, which is likely considered even more of a sin for a writer than switching points of view in a way that confuses readers.
But then, I’ve always been more of a rambler than a writer. Writers make up stories. I just talk with a keyboard. Most of what I scribble is not fiction. Twirled and rearranged to suit a more balanced overall structure, yes. But it’s all me inside here, trying to escape the bounds of tangled branches and insufficient words.
I will ramble and twirl, yes. But I will not, however, apologize for my sometimes unpopular opinions. In late life, I discovered the value of being unpopular. Polite people have — and need to express — their opinions, even their unpopular ones, but they might best do so without employing mealy-mouthed prefaces, or subterranean apologies.
The gnarled oak trees you see decorating this loose excuse for an article never apologize for becoming bent over, never close their knotted holes in shame as they grasp for each other’s company, only to become entangled and unsteady in their final years. If I watch and listen to those twisted oak trees, I take away the lesson they offer. We are brothers.
So if I confuse or upset you, please stop reading. You might even next leave me a comment, telling me that my rambling style today turned you toward the kitchen, there to make Italian meatballs fit for throwing at me. I’d feel uplifted and uber-grateful even for such a garlicky comment. I’d attempt, of course, to catch those meatballs to eat for a late-night snack. Sicilians do not waste food, we eat it. Just as Sicilians do not get mad, we get even.
At least then I wouldn’t feel so all alone. You see . . .
I’ve been confined to my bed most of the time these past few weeks. I’m not complaining, just stating facts. My bed is comfortable.
My spine is slowly crumbling. The vertebrae began to fall apart some years ago. I lived a risky, foolish life, one that led toward misery and failure.
My risks cost me greatly. Among other parts of my body that I destroyed, I caused my already osteoporotic bones to deteriorate fast. Major surgery a little over a year ago meant that the surgeons had to split me wide open and pull my rib cage till some of my vertebrae began to weep, crackle and fall in upon themselves. This left me shorter even than I was before the surgery. Consequently, I avoid the company of those friends I love. Difficult enough to look up to them in a figurative sense (most are far better writers than I). But looking up to them by craning and cracking my cervical bones seems just too much to bear.
So, rambling back to the nature and purpose of beds; many other people are today and tonight sleeping on cardboard beds laid down in smelly alleyways. If I owned an extra bed, I’d give it to someone who needed a softer spot on which to sleep and there to dream of ways to help himself out of Hell. There are plenty of people who want to leave Hell and would do so with some help (not just cash). There are homeless people who want to and would rise again if given a proper lift. There are, as well, mental patients on the streets, there because our mental care facilities are too few, too inefficient, overwhelmed and ineffective when faced with the large population of people who suffer mental diseases.
But I’m not here today to argue in favor of the nonsensical suspicion that all people who sleep on cardboard beds laid down in malodorous alleys, want to improve their situations. For some, owning a home is considered a needless burden. I understand that idea. I hate having to call repairmen and then to pay them exorbitant rates. For the love of Mike, I wish I could hit a nail straight into a board, or connect two pipes together so the total drainage system wouldn’t leak. But I’m not masculine that way. Most women I’ve known – I’m heterosexual, not that that fact matters much at my age – they expect a male partner to be at least an amateur repairman. I can repair computers, but the last time I tried to hammer a nail, instead I hit my left index finger. I broke the last phalange of that finger. She now points westward, no matter the direction the rest of my body travels.
Side Note Interruption #1: (I told you I’d ramble): While growing up – and dodging the beatings my mother dispensed each and every day – I oftentimes heard my dad, when he was frustrated with my crazy mother, utter the phrase, “FuhDuhLuvUh Mike!” A few days ago, for whatever mysterious reason, I wondered, Who the hell was Mike? I ran a simple search and discovered where Dad acquired the phrase. Interesting bit of history. You might want to run that same search. Or not.
So, rambling back to the homeless person’s plight; whatever a homeless person’s sad circumstance, I admit that I’m just the kind of old fart who wants a roof over his head anytime snow or rain might wet my wrinkled face or seep down my shirt collar, there to freeze my sagging tits. Old age has turned me soft. I lived a bad man’s life, one filled with events that encouraged and made my body highly susceptible to infections.
As well, I witnessed miracles. When I was young, I camped with only a pup tent and a sleeping bag somewhere on the Outer Banks off of Carolina’s coast. While there, I once watched the sun rise in the east, over the watery bed of an imaginary horizon formed at the non-existent edge of the tumultuous Atlantic Ocean. Today, I miss The Atlantic. I wish someday to own good enough health to return, maybe even to end my life there.
The major surgery I underwent a little over a year ago, extended my life for however long a period of time the uplifting, yet tremulous and doubtful, notion of a merciful god who guided my surgeons’ hands and now guides my depressed spirit decides to allow. That merciful god has in my mind completed medical school, served his time in internship Hell, and has then earned the full title of Doctor. Doctor God.
Doctor God roams somewhere within the fog-brained cloud of side effects my brain incurs by swallowing my prescribed pills each morning and evening. Together Doctor God and those now digested medications demand that I rise from my mattress, forget the pain induced by my crumbling spine and the weave of nerve cells that remain caught between pieces of bone. Together they demand that I rise and hobble toward the bathroom in order to save myself the kind of embarrassment usually reserved for babies’ diapers. I touch walls and bookshelves that help me keep my balance while I walk first to the toilet and then back to my bed. Holding on and touching, I feel almost as if my gait were sure and steady. Thank you bookshelves. Thank you steady walls.
Back sitting in bed, I try to re-read portions of books I once loved, but I give up when a series of pages disappoints me. Occasionally I pull my laptop up to a pillow that rests on my own lap, and like today, I tap tap tap here, or I scribble onto a scrap of paper. I scribble or tap whatever thoughts arise from my drug-stimulated nightmares (i.e. prescribed drugs only).
Side Note Interruption #2: This day lives near the end of an election season in the USA. So I posted the following few paragraphs on one of today’s favorite Social Networks just this morning. Many folks seem to consider voting a “civic duty.” In my mind, jury duty is a civic duty, because refusal to take part in a jury pool is against the law. But voting? Not so. At least not yet. It is my right as a USA citizen to vote. But it is, as well, my right not to vote. Below, I suggest that in today’s oligarchic political climate, voting has little effect on the direction our country’s leaders choose to travel, dragging us citizens behind them.
I understand and respect those many who hold different opinions. Below are mine.
I Didn’t Vote, And I Will Not
IGNORE THIS POST if mention of political realities offends you. My intention is to state my beliefs during this election season in the USA. Up until recent times, I prefaced every statement I made in order to please those who might be offended by my sometimes unpopular opinions. Now that I’m old, I’ve learned that being unpopular is sometimes okay. Needless apologies (if I’ve done someone wrong, I apologize) strip a person of dignity. The silent sycophant gathers around himself people with whom he cannot be honest.
Rather than reading further, you may either pass this post by, yell a flag-waving retort, “unfriend” my rebel self, or look at the photo of me at 2 years of age. I was, even back then, a rebel.
I did not vote this year, and I *will* not. I reserve my right, as a USA citizen, not to vote. The USA, the country I love, has become a corporate oligarchy. The cash these mega-corporations wield in congress supersedes our votes.
Many years ago, another time arose in this country, a time when a citizen’s voice in opposition to our government’s policies had *no* effect on the decisions our rulers made. I should say *many* citizens’ voices.
A war expanded, and so more people were maimed and died. A war that had nothing to do with protecting our borders, but had much to do with protecting our economic interests and the international balance of power. I was young and strong enough back then to participate in the actions necessary to restore power to the people. We — many of our groups’ members were veterans of the unjustified war we sought to end — we went to the streets. We challenged authority in a direct way. We had more of an effect there than inside the voting booths. J. Edgar’s shiny-shoed foot soldiers kept a file on me and on many of my friends.
I am today too old, too weak, and far too ill to challenge authority in such a bold and physical way, but many other citizens are healthy enough and willing enough. The Occupy movement was just a beginning.
Meanwhile, I refuse to take part in what has become a charade. Let them vote, say the CEOs and the politicians who depend on their money to remain in office. Voting will no doubt make them feel better and therefore feel encouraged to forget about the topsy-turvy nature of our economy.
Just north of Guadalupe, California, lies one of the most scenic natural areas all along California’s coast, Oso Flaco Lake. To get there, three miles north of Guadalupe, turn west onto Oso Flaco Lake Road, this road will dead end at the parking area for this hidden State Park.
The lake has been called Oso Flaco, meaning “skinny bear,” ever since 1769 when Gaspar de Portola’s expedition passed through. The reason for this is attributed to a fateful meal shared by the explorers. The group saw, shot and subsequently ate a skinny bear they had seen on the shores of the lake. By the next day, several of the men had died. The tale goes that the native people, the Chumash, had fed the bear tainted meat which when consumed would cause the animals to sicken enough for them to be unable to compete for resources. With the inability to feed came the inevitable wasting that would have led to our ‘skinny bear’. It would appear though that the bear’s flesh had enough residual toxins to have also dispatched our ill fated explorers to a quicker demise.
Above text is from Oso Flaco Lake CA State Park website:CLICK HERE.
All photographs shown below were taken by Anthony V. Toscano.
This 38-acre natural park includes wetlands, willows, oaks and associated habitat and is popular with walkers and dog lovers. The park has recently been developed with a trail system, tot lot, and restrooms.
Above text is from City of Pismo Beach, CA website:CLICK HERE.
All photographs shown below were taken by Anthony V. Toscano.
If I were a convincing liar, I’d tell you that I went on vacation back in December 2012. I’d recall my non-stop flight from Philadelphia, PA to Rome, and then a railway trip southward, and at the last a ferry ride across the strait that led me to Messina, Sicily, home of my ancestors. I might tell you some of the stories I wrote while sitting in my whicker wheelchair, letting the sun turn my skin Sicilian Gold, as I watched the sweet-scented mandarin oranges and the sun-salted olives growing.
My companion, Rosita, who wore Messina’s coat of arms on her apron, brought me fresh-squeezed lemonade each morning. On each Thursday afternoon, at 2:30 PM, my kind Rosita placed a blanket –warmed atop a summer rock — over my legs and pushed me to the university founded by Ignatius Loyola. There I studied the history of this very town, the wars, the couplings that made our blood darker and more stubborn than that of mainland Italians, and of course the earthquakes that saw our structures crumble and our people insist on rebuilding. Insistence remains one of our traits, that and a quick temper that oftentimes leads to war within our own famiglias.
But no one would believe that delicious fairytale, not any more than any one of my few readers ever believes the lies I tell in my fiction.
No. The lie won’t do. If I fib, I risk losing my next – that is my first – self-publishing contract with Crushedsyllables.com. Bram Cloaker’s assistant, Alfred Gorithm, discovers false memoirs after the first series of ones and zeros click leftward through his gullet. He then and there spits out the offending passages, and dumps the lot into the “Send To Oprah For Review” pile.
The truth is – should you lean toward the notion that Truth lies somewhere dwelling within the human heart – that I became dreadfully ill four years ago. By Christmas 2012, friends and lawyers began talking with me about getting my things in order.
“Things? What things must I focus upon? Isn’t focus on death itself sufficient?
In any event, I haven’t many things to set in order.
Several score of first-edition books that will never sell on FootBook, where mediocre repetition –and lurid self-aggrandizement — reign.
A few computers that I keep more well-oiled than I keep myself.
Twenty identical pairs of over-washed under drawers, of various colors to match those of my frayed sweatpants.
A silver coin or two.
An ancient cat who poops wherever she pleases.
A rain-wrinkled overcoat for those frequent misty days, when I draw the hood close and hobble toward the nearby bay, incognito and alone with my dark, poetic thoughts.
And yes, I possess a stack or two of yellowed manuscript pages, and a long run of secrets buried here and there in digitized form. A journal, it is. Break the Cloud code, Gene, should I depart before the cosmic forces whisk you away. I pray that you outlast me. I’ve lost too many friends and relatives since I’ve gone bent and creaky. The losses hurt more than any physical pain I suffer. I know you don’t believe in man’s description of Heaven, but dammit, I wish someday I could meet you there. Together we have a long story to write for the angels’ reading pleasure.
Still, the conversations about my soon-to-be end — though muffled, distant and gray as such conversations tend to be– held my stunned attention perforce. This was Anthony these people were addressing. It was Anthony, dammit, that they were trying to prepare and entice for sake of their inheritances and the second coming of their ersatz tears. The same Anthony that I named myself each morning as I came awake and shuffled toward the toilet. The thought arose that perhaps I should change my name, give myself a moniker like Tex Buffalino. Become a cowpoke born on the marshes that abound in South Jersey. And yet, only those who believe in magic would understand Tex.
NEWSFLASH: AVT, reclusive writer of no renown, found on Cloud # 427, there giving hell to Hemingway for leaving a mess behind.
“Your Advance Directive. Please sign here if you agree.” She held out a gold-plated pen. I’m sure I signed. A lawyer, yes she was – and my unappealing color at the time being more high-yellow than robust Sicilian brown meant I couldn’t flirt – but damn she was a knockout. A chick, a doll, a really tough broad. See, I might not have felt free to saythose words, but now that my life was nearing its end, I could think them and smile without fear of repercussion. God would understand. After all, I’m sure He told Peter to open the gates for Bogart, Cagney and Edward G.
So I stiffened — my posture, that is — and I signed. I’m not sure that I hit the right line, but she seemed pleased. That much still mattered to me. Dirty old man. Sin in thought, word, and deed. Oh dear Lord, let me pray away my memories of lust-filled evenings.
By this time my stomach fluids were agitated, my body’s dew points became fragrant with the smell of rotting autumn leaves, and my mind heard voices as if they were echoes speaking through a desert wind.
Three and a half years later . . .
The call came at about 6:00 AM on Thursday, July 4, 2013. A four to five hour drive from where I live to the hospital, where a team of doctors would spent six hours splitting open my body and giving me a complete tune-up, including the installation of a new carburetor. The risks were numerous.
If you’ve been through major surgery, then you already know the routine. I woke up in the ICU, several tubes inserted into odd regions of my body: one into each side of my neck, two into my right side for drainage purposes, and one up my private part (a shriveled penis, once potent and proud, now given to embarrassment). I was unable to talk because another tube ran up my nose, so I wrote through the morphine and to the nurses.
“Where am I?”
“Stanford Medical Center.”
“What’s the day and date?”
“Saturday, July 6, 2013.”
I’d lost two days forever. That’s the first thought that came to mind. Only afterward did I think to tell myself, Anthony, your body is messed up, but you’re still alive.
And the beautiful nurses, male and female, ran that highly regarded hospital. I fell into helpless love with them all. Watching the mad runs they made from one ailing patient to the next, covering us in warm blankets, washing our sweaty and stinky bodies, medicating us when called to do so; all of that caused me to gulp down several smiles in spite of my discomfort. I made a point to say thank you to each angel. If by chance a nurse is reading this, know that I admire the way you work so hard and yet maintain a positive attitude and share a sense of camaraderie with your colleagues.
Three months later . . .
I’m home, but most days I’m bedridden. Physical pain and depression, along with a healthy dose of self-pity, froze my writer’s mind. I became at first rusty, then blocked and finally convinced that my writing owned no purpose. So why not just sleep?
The problem – beyond the pain, physical and mental – was that as I slept I continued to create intriguing dreams, recollections, specific memories of places and atmospheres. Most often these memories were of my Sicilian family. I knew that I had to write through my brush with death before I could tell you stories about mi famiglia.
La Famiglia Toscano: Introduction
So here, today, I begin the saga of my famiglia. There they are, in that sepia-colored, old photograph. They stand erect. Their expressions are formal and serious. A family photo taken in 1924 was a grand, expensive and formal occasion, an assurance that this famiglia would be remembered after every member died.
My dad is the young boy front and center. Notice that his father, my grandpop, places a hand on each of his only son’s shoulders. I, like my dad, was born the oldest son. And so on our shoulders one day would sit the kingdom’s responsibilities. Number One Promise was that we sons would take our parents’ places at the table once our parents passed on.
The blond-haired girl on the right is my dad’s sister, Carmella, who died of consumption not long after this photo was taken. As an adult, my dad and I visited Carmella’s gravestone many times Each time brought tears to Dad’s eyes as we prayed. I suspect that Dad never came to understand why and how his well-loved sister could waste away and disappear.
Grandpop Antonio Toscano looks austere, maybe even severe in this photograph. He had to show that he was the masculine head of a household. He did issue orders to his family, but in a soft voice; and no order was ever mean.
His wife, Sarah, was all about work. She spent the majority of her time each day cooking on a wood stove. Chickens walked the alleyway along the house’s left side. She boiled the hens’ eggs, snapped the necks of a few, plucked them in a tub-sized sink, and boiled them for soup and sauce.
I and my then two brothers, in private, giggled over the size of her breasts. We watched as she leaned over the railing that surrounded the house’s top level porch. She was there to wave goodbye and to throw us kisses. And I suppose that we were so young that the possibility of lasting hurt never entered our minds as we waved back at Grandmom’s watermelons that had fed six children.
So, because the doctors and nurses gave me a second shot at life, maybe I’ll someday make my fairytale come true. I’ll take that non-stop flight, and make that railway trip southward from Rome, and at the last take a ferry ride across the strait that will lead me to Messina, Sicily, home of my ancestors. I’ll write stories while sitting in my whicker wheelchair, letting the sun turn my skin Sicilian Gold, as I watch the sweet-scented mandarin oranges and the sun-salted olives growing.
I’m sure to find somewhere close by a companion named Rosita. I’ve seen her smile in my dreams. I’ll give her an apron that declares Messina’s coat of arms. I’ll beg her to bring me fresh-squeezed lemonade each morning. And on Thursday afternoons, at 2:30 PM, I’ll ask kind Rosita to place a blanket –warmed atop a summer rock — over my legs and push me to the university founded by Ignatius Loyola. There I’ll study the history of that very town, the wars, the couplings that made our blood darker and more stubborn than that of mainland Italians, and of course we’ll review the earthquakes that saw our structures crumble and our people insist on rebuilding. Insistence remains one of our traits, that and a quick temper that oftentimes leads to war within our own famiglias.
A young man’s dreams look forward to what he imagines might become his future. He creates scenarios with equal energy and effort while he’s awake and while he sleeps. His dreams are malleable and oftentimes buoyed by a joyful sensation. His imagination knows nothing about death.
An old man’s dreams become the cherished memories of his earlier faith in infinity and eternity, a faith he lost in gradual fashion, as the wind tore off one flower at a time from his face, then bent his stem toward the soil that once fed him, and near the end began to insist that his roots must be ripped away from planet Earth.
Oblivion seems a sad place, and so we invoke fairy tales that describe an afterlife. A giant’s castle inside a cloud, atop a beanstalk. The giant falls, as fell Lucifer.
I am that old man now. I own neither future nor faith. My face no longer blooms with color and fragrance. The weight of life bends me forward; my gait is slow and hesitant. My roots begin to loosen their grip. Today I rage, along with Dylan, against the dying light. Yet, I wonder if I’ll go gentle or go gutted by a struggle against the pain of disappointment. Those who say we must surrender are hopeful fools. The truth is that we are surrendered.
I was once that young man charged with boundless dreams, most of which — as survival demands — had to be perforce abandoned. So many pleasant scripts, now no more than yellowed pages littering the archives inside my mind.
One such vision I created placed me center stage, dancing.
I owned a gift, a talent, and a flair for floating across a dance floor.
On the afternoon of Friday, July 6, 1979, I snatched my carry-on luggage from the compartment above the seat I’d occupied for six hours, walked through a snaking canvas tunnel, and met two friends inside the airport lobby.
I’d purchased a one-way ticket from Philly to LA.
My friends entertained me for a couple of hours, then drove me to the apartment where I’d sleep for the next two months, while the signed tenant traveled through parts of Europe.
I was born beside the Atlantic Ocean. I grew up with the aromas of salt and sand embedded in my nostrils. The air of land’s end filled my lungs with nourishment more important than oxygen.
So on that Friday evening, I unpacked my suitcase, found a clever place to hide most of the seven hundred dollars I owned, showered, and dressed my body in what I imagined to be LA Chic. (My polyester Guido outfit failed the laid-back LA test, but no matter.)
Splashed with an abundant amount of Polo cologne, as all East Coast Guidos are bound by unspoken oath to splash, not dab, I ran from the apartment, followed the street-sign arrow that pointed west, and walked a few miles until I reached the grand Pacific.
That night, tangerine sunset sky enriched with smog, I tapped the nearest shoulder and asked, “Where around here do people go when they feel like dancing?” In order to be understood I had to repeat my question several times. I spoke East Coast Rapid in nasal tones acquired in New Jersey.
I found the dancehall. I paid the cover charge. As was my habit back then, first I sat and watched. I searched for the best female dancer, one with whom I knew I could fly.
And yes, I flew. I twirled and I curled. I sensed and followed both the prominent and the offbeat rhythm. I lost myself in meditation, the only kind of meditation that I ever could accomplish. Today I wonder how many Buddhists know how to dance.
And yes again, the crowd backed away, formed a circle around us, cheered us on and clapped out the joy we shared.
The old man I am today dances only when he closes his eyes and entertains his memories. His legs lost their onetime flexibility. The stem leans, and the roots ache.
And yes one more time, this old man feels blue when he considers the fact that back then he lacked the confidence to pursue his dancing dream.
Only my closest friends from back in the Good Old Days recall my amateur career as a minor musician and a major crooner.
When I was a child I sang as a way of traveling away from misery and toward hope. I remember one hot summer’s day back in the early 1950s.
I lived in a cramped – tight is perhaps a better word – house, in a small New Jersey seaside town. One of those places that began as a farming community, to the west of the Atlantic Ocean, in the 1920s, then grew with the “Boom,” that followed World War II. New Jersey was indeed, in those days, The Garden State.
My Garden State,
I’ll sing your praises evermore.
I want to live and die in dear old Jersey,
On the blue Atlantic shore.
I sang those lyrics while riding on a bus from Atlantic City to New York. A school class trip. I was in the third grade. Mrs. Henry called me up to the front of that bus and handed me the microphone. I never suffered the sin of humility, so I belted out the song in the sugar-sprung soprano tone of a young child’s innocent voice.
My star rose from there, then died as all stars must. I do not regret the flight.
Believe me, please, when I tell you that those glory days were not all about the oppression of women by way of girdles and forced kitchen labor. Nor did our reality feel like black-and-white, Eisenhower claustrophobia. Most of us – adults and children alike – envisioned the future as ours to create.
That dream may well have died an ignominious death, but its birth was all blue sky and orange sunrises.
My dad was a laborer. So it seemed were most men who were our neighbors. Dad’s parents, as well as my mother’s, came from the old country. They came to work, and work became their way of life.
My mother wore house dresses. She rose from bed before the sun appeared, cooked for Dad, me and my three brothers, washed clothes in a ringer machine (when I grew old enough, I helped by cranking the wet stuff through those ringers). Mother hung those clothes to dry – in spring and summer outside on the rope that ran on pulleys, in autumn and winter in the dark basement we called a cellar – then prepared coffee in a metal percolator, stained rich brown around its edges, on top of the stove.
Chores completed, the parade of visiting neighbors began. Neighbors, and one’s relationships with them, were a small town’s life’s blood. Of course, as a small boy I did not realize that our neighborhood would on a future day be named a microcosm of the American Melting Pot. Looking backward – a habit that as an old man with thoughts of mortality always on my mind, I much enjoy – I can now see the mix of nationalities and ethnic groups we were.
Facing my house, to its left side, lived Elvia Genoa (yes, I’ve changed names, not to protect anyone other than myself). Elvia was Jewish, although I didn’t know this. Neither did I comprehend what being Jewish might have meant. Elvia’s husband, Jackie, was Greek. My prejudiced Dad – Sicilian in the fullest sense — continually whispered warnings about how the Greeks would smile to your face while they “stabbed you in the back.”
But then so did, said my dad, the Calabrese and the Genoese carry hidden stilettos. And the typical Napolitano “had his nose in the air.”
The Sicilian people could be trusted. Of course. I’m proof of that dictum.
Still, Jackie Genoa ran his own business, which fact made him a king of sorts, and Jackie’s fine reputation made Elvia the neighborhood queen.
Jackie’s Tires was painted in bold letters across each side of his orange panel truck. (He purchased a new panel truck each September).
Jackie and Elvia had the avenue’s only in-ground swimming pool. An invitation to a summertime barbecue beside that pool lent a neighbor prestige. A member of the Royal Court.
Remember, please, that the Boom meant hard work that paid off in terms of upward mobility. The harder one worked, the higher one soared.
Years later, as a university undergraduate, I drove my old Ford Falcon down Ohio Avenue — beside the rusty, disused railroad tracks — into Atlantic City. To my left I noticed the faded gray sign that read Jackie Genoa’s Tires. That sign was perched atop a three-walled wooden shack, paint long gone to blue shadow. Through what would have been the fourth wall I could see piles and piles of old, bald tires (the type that back then required inflated tubes). Those piles held up what remained of the abandoned structure.
I asked my Dad what was what. Turns out that Jackie’s real business enterprise was that of a bookie, a numbers runner at the Atlantic City Racecourse (by then a disappeared arena).
Dad never made it big. He remained a laborer all his life. Never reached the rank of supervisor. Rejected time and time again for membership in any labor union.
Part of the reason for Dad’s “failure” was his refusal to run with the bookies and other smalltime Mafia “employees.” (Atlantic City really was the Mafia Capital of the northeast corridor. Johnnie Fontaine in the movie The Godfather was in reality Frank Sinatra. His “debt” involved an annual performance at the 500 Club in AC. Across from the Trailways Bus Station. Upstairs, above the showroom, was a house of ill repute, owned and operated by fat Nikki D’Amico.).
Back to our view of the front of my cramped house. To its right side lived Irma and Wilhelm Reichman. German farmers, direct from their old country. During the summer season, Mr. Reichman sat silent on his porch, apparently trying to cool off (no such thing as air conditioners for working stiffs in Our Town).
And I mean silent. I’d oftentimes walk by his house and wave to him. He never, to my recollection, waved back. One day I asked my mother if she could explain why Mr. Reichman never spoke. “People have their reasons,” was all she said.
Again, many years later, I came to understand that our German neighbors had fled Hitler and in the process lost their farmland. To compensate, however, Mr. Reichman turned half his backyard into a mini-farm, what we today would likely name an “organic” farm. Cow manure trucked in for fertilizer once a year. White powder (alkaline?) when the soil went fallow. Mr. Reichman raised the best tomatoes, melons, lettuce and corn in town. And he shared his bounty with us.
In a silent sort of way.
Mr. Reichman’s wife, Irma, owned a sweet gurgle of a voice. Her hair was tinted powder blue. Her housedresses sported quiet flower patterns. She wore aprons when she cooked. My favorite meal of hers was a bubbling pot of stewed tomatoes, generous dabs of butter melting on the top.
My mother considered that there existed only two kinds of food in the world, Italian and American. She frowned on American Food, so when Mrs. Reichman carried a pot of American Stewed Tomatoes to our house on a summer morning, I ate fast before she left for home again. Otherwise my mother would have tossed my treasure down the drain. Tomatoes’ only purpose in life, said Mother, was for making red gravy (not “tomato sauce”).
I’d like to believe that Irma Reichman knew what my mother thought of her cooking and so stayed at our house for a third cup of by then bitter percolated coffee, just so I could enjoy her recipe.
I could go on about the neighborhood. Maybe someday I will do so. Then again, maybe not. After all, this website of mine is all about abandoned dreams.
As well, I could – and probably should – return to edit this fractured article. Its phrasing and overall arrangement is far from my best in the field of amateur poetics.
But if I edit, then I’ll never publish anything here today.
And I’ve been struggling to write these past few months.
And anyway, I promised – in a roundabout way – to talk about my career as a musician and singer.
I remember that summer morning.
My mother’s life was a mental universe of confusion, and so I fell victim to her insanity. That’s life, and that part of my life exists in the past, although remnants will forever remain.
That morning, after chores were finished for the day, she slapped me hard across the right side of my face. I cannot remember my infraction. But I remember the burning sensation on my cheek, the needless shame and the redness of another bruise.
I walked slowly down our avenue. I headed toward Mrs. Santerian’s green-shingled house around the block, there to purchase a cardboard basket of her fresh-grown strawberries.
The heat inside my flesh became intensified by the heat of the summer sun.
I needed and wanted to weep, but instead I sang a song in the sugar-sprung soprano tone of a young child’s innocent voice.
Before I begin to satisfy the reading public’s unquenchable thirst for my always curious, yet never complete stories, please indulge me by scanning a few introductory paragraphs’ worth of a news item that was written about me. You may not need to know this stuff, but you’re bound to enjoy the delicious sin of responding with either unreasonable outrage or implausible approval.
Article From The Bronwell Gazette, May 31, 2012:
AVT Renounces Digital Reading Citizenship
No doubt many of you who frequent Pappy Amos’s Sugar Bowl Diner on Mullica River Road have already heard the rumor that several weeks ago Mayor AVT announced — nay, he declared — to his fans and enemies alike that he now encourages in an aggressive manner the publishing industry’s efforts to remain steadfast and loyal to their post printing-press roots by continuing to destroy as many recycled trees as it may require forever to produce books made of paper.
The mayor has established a charitable account with the Birch Bark Bank branch in Bronwell Corners, USA to fund an open conspiracy to put Misters Bozillionnaire, Smushpepsi, et al. out of the binary book business that has created a tidal wave of junk literature over the course of the past decade.
“The good books are still there swimming with the bad,” said AVT. “But finding a story that edifies as it entertains today requires searching an entire ocean to find one black pearl.”
Donations to the foundation can be made out to Kill A Recycled Tree, Make A Book. Paper checks only, please.
Witnesses to AVT’s Town Hall Declaration report that he was soon afterward heard to whisper at the top of his lungs — said susurration further enhanced by the exclamation points he traced into the crown of dream clouds that floats mythical about his head — “Kill more cows! Annihilate more alligators! Rout all remaining buffaloes if necessary! Just give me leather book covers of a quality proud to match the Italian shoes inside my closet!”
An astute reporter asked AVT, “Since you’re so hot on paper, ink and leather, how do you justify publishing your intellectualized tales of surrendered hope through a digital stream? I mean, come on now, what about your website?”
“It’s all just so much yakking with a keyboard. Every third person these days claims to be a writer, an author even. Most of these people, however, know little to nothing of Literature. They are rather talkers, typists, television addicts and purveyors of pale imitations of classic fairytales. What was once a noble art form has quick become just one more aspect of our consumer culture. People nowadays wear commercials on their tee shirts, caps and back pockets. Commercials for products that they might not even use.
“With the birth of MugBook, Gagme+, and the like, we’ve added a barrage of digitized book cover images to the list of those advertisements. For instance, you probably don’t know Arnie The Author — he lives in Kalamazoo County, Mars — but please ‘like’ his book anyway. You like my book, and I’ll like yours. No reading required.”
“And you, sir?” the reporter asked. “What are your claims inside the world of literature?”
“I’m a poor typist, a fair wordsmith and an incessant blabbermouth. My keyboard yaks, and I yak back.
“For a few decades I was a wannabe writer. I abandoned that dream. Nowadays I read good books and type out pieces of mentally entangled stories, the latter effort the result of force of habit.”
After AVT delivered his emphatic pronouncement, he allowed sufficient time for his audience of insatiable omnivores to grant him the gift of raucous applause. Next, he swung back his arm and began to toss his digital reading device through the Town Hall’s nearest open window and into the turbulent Atlantic Ocean storm that defines and defies the Bronwell Corners shoreline.
The particular silicon excuse for a library that he held was a 2nd generation Krandle, produced in a Korean sweatshop by indentured decadent drones whose smokestack helmets last year spewed comet tails of sulfurous steam that in turn so polluted the factory’s surrounding atmosphere that a thousand acres’ worth of onetime virgin fir forests spontaneously withered, bowed, crumbled, died and sought at last to coat the bones that slept inside old soldiers’ graves.
AVT’s silicon fastball pitch was at the last possible second thwarted. A local romance novelist of ill repute – her poor reputation earned and confirmed by way of predictable plotlines and overwrought scenes of curlicue carnality — as well as by her prodigious talent for composing countless and relentless numbers of poorly constructed sentences – caught the damned thing mid-air, genuflected on the beach and scribbled in the sand, “We cutting edge INDIE AUTHORS depend on these gadgets in order to create the illusion of a career in the arts, you frigging old fart,” we hissed, sneered, snarled, sucked and otherwise said in an erotic tone of voice.
AVT watched the next sea wave rise, crash, drag down and drown the venal wench as its foam drew backward against the mud and thus deleted both the romantic lady’s persistent mediocrity and all evidence of his Krandle’s digital archive.
And now on to today’s incomplete story:
The Adventure of The Primrose Mind
I met Sherwin Homes by chance, at a branch of the Public Library not far from the foggy fishing village where I live.
He sat across the table from me, reading a book, the type of book covered in cardboard and threaded cloth, its pages made of paper and imprinted with ink.
I occupied myself in the same way, with a book of similar construction (Chekhov’s stories), until an airborne rearrangement of electrons alerted my senses to a presence worthy of my attention. I glanced first at the man and next at the book he held propped up on the table. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
Homes twisted the ends of his bushy moustache, rubbed his hand backward through thinning white hair, and constantly pushed his metal-rimmed glasses back up to fit upon the bridge of his prominent nose. Yet, I could tell by the intense squint of his crystal-blue eyes that he remained unaware of the world beyond the story that held him so entranced.
I entertained the thought that this random juxtaposition of two old men, each man absorbed by his own imagination — which in turn lay open to the stimulation of a dead Russian’s distant voice — just might represent a genuine twenty-first century anomaly.
Perhaps the most odd aspect of this encounter with the past was that the two of us were reading, in of all places, a library.
The inside walls of this particular library branch are painted an intrusive shade of pale pink. In summertime, the children of parents who are apparently unable, or unwilling, to afford appropriate babysitting services run loud and wild. The men’s room serves as a way station for people who live on the streets of a onetime enchanted town of pedestrian shoppers and sober university students. Consequently, the toilet seats are oftentimes smeared with feces, the tile floors are splashed with puddles of urine, the sink area is unofficially reserved for sponge baths, and the air reeks of perspiration that imitates the foul aroma of rancid chicken soup.
I mention this vulgar and offensive atmosphere only because I soon discovered that the prospect of visiting that filthy latrine limited the amount of time that both Mr. Homes and I were able to stay the course before checking out our books and seeking an overpriced coffee shop that featured clean facilities and doors that locked from the inside.
“Pardon me, sir,” said Homes. “I notice that your bladder feels as full as my own.”
“Why that’s an astounding — and accurate — observation,” said I. “How ever did you come to that conclusion?”
“Elemental mental concentration, dear doctor. Which effort is not equivalent to outright clairvoyance.”
“And you recognize me as a physician by way of the same intellectual prowess?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes. You see, your tweed jacket gives off the aroma of old penicillin, the arch of your right foot just kicked the toe of my own right foot — which tippy toe touch indicates that your legs are crossed as tightly as are mine — and you continually glance toward the dungeon of horrors that is absurdly labeled a restroom.
“My name is Sherwin Homes. The walls inside my superior mind are painted a mild shade of primrose. And I really need to go. Might I suggest that we leave the premises now and together?”
“Why yes indeed, Mr. Homes. Forthwith we should depart. I am Doctor Siciliotson, and I’d like to record your adventures. On paper and with ink.”
Standing side by side at the library’s checkout counter, Homes winced and smiled at me. I returned the empathetic favor. The librarian mumbled at us, in as sweet a manner as I suppose she could manage while performing, under duress, the duties of a profession once considered dignified. She zapped Fyodor’s and Anton’s spines with a laser beam, then passed our treasures across the counter and toward us. Books in hand, Homes and I ran in tandem for the door — as best as old men can mimic the act of running, that is to say — and headed for the aforementioned coffee shop.
Because I am a chivalrous sort, I allowed Mr. Homes a first crack at the facilities. I sat down beside a glass case that contained butterscotch scones, and I crossed my legs even tighter than at the moment of our initial, serendipitous meeting. There I waited for Homes to return, all the while hoping to tame my pain, until at the last I surrendered to modernity and used the ladies’ room. (Always cleaner anyway, and not just because the tender gender finds it more difficult to splatter the floors. Ladies are called ladies for a reason. Even the dullest of male brutes might notice that ours is not usually referred to as the gentlemen’s room.)
When I emerged from that heaven sent chamber — proof that God just might exist? — I was pleased to see that my new acquaintance had ordered each of us a cup of chamomile tea, served in almost delicate glass beakers with proper handles, this minor detail a further extension of my anomalous encounter with a gentler era.
“Thank you, sir,” I said.
“You enjoy reading nineteenth century Russian authors?” he said.
“Their stories most times frighten and depress me, but I favor good writing over what passes for the same these days.”
“We are of a like mind in that regard, although my primrose mind of late has been leaking what remains of my intelligence. I am, of course, weaker for the leakage.”
“You mean to say that you’re growing old and feeble?” I said.
“No, not that, Siciliotson. I mean to say that a recent visitor to my primrose study of a mind — a guest who, I now realize, planned all along to invade and destroy my intellect — has poisoned me.”
“Dear Lord in Heaven, Mr. Homes. This visitor you describe, is she a career criminal?”
“Well, yes and no. She’s an Indie Author of contemporary romance novels. Matter of fact, she used her latest grocery counter story — disguised by use of a pseudonym she stole from Daphne DuMaurier — to facilitate entry to my erstwhile Literary State of Mind. I ingested her hemlock, and now I am dying of boredom.”
“My dear Mr. Homes. Perhaps we can together tick back the tock of time, reverse the force inside the grocery store tunnel, and thereby restore your sanity.”
“Perhaps,” said Homes. “Perhaps not. After all, you’ve never once completed a story in time to stop a reader from dying.”
For about ten years, spanning the last decade of the twentieth century, I visited numerous branches of local libraries, and browsed the shelves of many used-book stores — close to where I lived and while on the road — combing through stacks of magazines that were printed in the 1940s, the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s. Along the way, I purchased many copies of Life, Look, Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, and the like.
My most fortunate acquisition — although outside the time frame that piqued my initial curiosity — is a 1919 edition of Vanity Fair that includes articles by P.G. Wodehouse and Dorothy Parker. Wodehouse insists that H.G. Wells cheated him out of the $1.50 he paid for Wells’ latest book because the book turned out not to be a novel, but instead to be a treatise of some sort. Wodehouse claims that a novelist should remain faithful to his reader’s expectations by writing only novels. Today’s reader might well wonder whether or not Wodehouse — being Wodehouse — was joking.
In any event, this treasure trove of old magazines nowadays sits, protected and stored, inside my office, awaiting rediscovery by a younger soul well after my death. If I owned a reputation of any stature as a writer, I’d bequeath them all, along with my unpublished stories and jotted letters, to a literary executor who would be willing to ship them back to my ancestors in Sicily by way of the next luxury barge to depart Atlantic City, New Jersey.
My original plan was one day to write a book about what I conceived of as the visceral reality — that is to say the story of how I breathed, smelled and felt upon my skin the stain and sweat and sometime sweet perfume — of the years following the end of World War II through the years immediately preceding the cultural upheaval that took place in the USA and beyond, beginning in about 1964. I’d long considered — and still do now — that this time period is of one piece in terms of story arc.
Other writers, writers who own more talent and more standing than I will ever earn, had already penned competent historical accountings of the period, accountings well researched and well-documented. Most notable, and perhaps most current during the years of my shuffling about through mustiness and yellowed pages, was David Halberstam’s book The Fifties (1993). I forwent reading Mr. Halberstam’s work until just three years ago, long after I’d abandoned the notion that I would complete my own book.
My book, by the way, would have been neither factual nor historical at its heart. I planned my work to be based in blood, bias and suspect speculation. At best, I thought, readers might consider my series of tales journalistic in its original and most literal sense. At worst, they’d think the work a far-flung fantasy.
I would base my book primarily on the thoughts, feelings and memories provoked by my review of the advertisements inside the magazines I’d collected. The textual articles within those same publications; yes, of course I would read and reflect on what the authors said. But the pictures would come first.
That those illustrations were intended to sell products I well understood. But those same illustrations held within the curves, turns and angles of their lines; the depths and shadows of their colors; and the textures of their brush strokes the story of a culture born inside the womb of war. I was born inside that same womb.
I risk sounding trite by saying this, but if a picture can be worth a thousand words, then that same picture can be worth a million memories. And our memories, although perhaps less precise than our well-chosen words, cling closer to the tender nature of humanity that we admit when we aren’t busy trying to impress each other.
As a young man I’d read hundreds of thousands of words that attempted to tell the so-called factual story of World War II and its aftermath. The reason for my interest? My father was a WWII veteran, an army PFC who served in North Africa. As well, he was a storyteller.
Together Dad and I sat in front of the Motorola and watched Bogart, Bergman and Henreid conquer misery, fear and cynicism by way of love and loyalty in Casablanca. Dad told me what that desert city was like for him when he was there in uniform. He owned none of Bogart’s sarcastic barroom bravado, and he never understood the subtleties implicit in Henreid’s fictional character, but my father loved the African sand and sun and dark-skinned women. (Ingrid Bergman held no appeal for him or me; her approach was far too indirect and her manner much too weak and weepy to please an emotional Sicilian.)
Dad broke his leg while on a training exercise and landed in a Casablanca hospital just before his unit (part of General Patton’s Seventh Army) was ordered to sail across the Mediterranean and attack Sicily (July 1943), then move on and up the Italian peninsula. One of the Americans’ main missions was to protect the left flank of the British Eighth Army.
Patton was successful at capturing Palermo and then reaching Messina before Montgomery, but the Germans dug in and defended Italy proper with fierce determination. Many soldiers of my father’s unit were annihilated.
So in a quirky, nonsensical way, I’ve oftentimes imagined an “alternate,” “parallel” version of this universe, the one inside of which no brilliant, unsung author named Anthony V. Toscano ever wrote a word. Would hungry intellectuals then and there experience a vague and nagging sense of loss for a voice they never read? Or would they rather thank the God of Academic Snootiness for not insisting that their sagging shelves pay heed and bear the weight of yet another wordsmith’s diary of dust and bones?
I own the diary my father kept while serving in Casablanca. The book is small enough to fit inside the palm of my hand. Its cover is made of black leather. Its pages are now brown and brittle. My father’s pale ink scrawl looks to have come from a fountain pen. His notes are short and to the point, a simple record of thoughts and events. As I turn the diary’s pages I must fill in gaps in order to find the story; either that or refuse to entertain my practiced insistence that a narrative of my creation is the one he lived.
Rosario V. Toscano tells his unknown reader that he is in a lot of pain. As well, he says that medication to ease the constant ache and throb was scarce, that the doctors thought it better to distribute to soldiers on the front lines what anesthetic drugs were available than to inject them into GIs lying almost safe in hospital beds.
Still, suffering a shattered leg in the wartime African desert of 1943 was a matter much more fraught with dangerous ramifications than a similar wound might incur in a peacetime town or city in the USA. Dad’s scribbled notations reveal his fear and his loneliness, and thus his words convey to the old man I am now the sense of vulnerability he never would have included in the stories he told to me when I was a child and he wanted to be my invincible hero.
And indeed I was a child when my father told me his tales of the Last Great War. Like many — if not most — young children, any story told to me about the nebulous “past” belonged to an ill-defined and borderless period called History. The Egyptian pyramids inside of which The Mummy rose in response to incantation. The Old West, home to whiskered outlaws chased by The Lone Ranger. The nighttime alleys traveled by James Cagney and George Raft. Even the Antebellum South of Eli Whitney, or the blood-splattered guillotines of nineteenth-century France, that I read about in books I borrowed from the neighborhood library; all of these events converged, conflated and became for me one wild adventure titled, It Happened Before I Was Born.
Nowadays I realize that my concentration on a backward glance as backdrop to most of what I write is tethered to my search for the man who was my father. When I was in my mid-twenties I sat on bus stop benches drenched in California sunshine, and I read Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel, Of Time and The River and You Can’t Go Home Again. Those tomes contain much richness with regard to the lure of love and wanderlust. A train’s whistle rips through the dark of night and tempts a young man to follow the echo of its song, to defy the shiver of menace that runs inside his veins, to leave his father in order to find his father a second time inside himself.
I read Thomas Wolfe, and although I had left my own father a short while before (I’d moved from east coast to west), I believed that my life would be defined by that separation, not by rediscovery of the past.
Not until that sensation of physical separation became permanent and undeniable did I begin to comprehend Thomas’ compulsion to swim against the river’s current and next attempt to ride the nighttime train back toward home.
My father collapsed into his favorite chair and died of a massive heart attack on August 11, 1986. I’m glad that I wasn’t there to see him die. At the time, I couldn’t cry; and that fact left me feeling disgusted with myself. I thought my heart was cold. It wasn’t. I was strong for my brothers’ sake, but as well I was a coward. Now that I am old, I’m not so strong, and I’m even more afraid of dying. I don’t believe people who say they do not fear death. I just don’t believe them. Neither do I blame them for trying on masks. Masks and costumes such as religion and madness are a matter of self-preservation. We all want to live, until we’re so damned tired — or suffering so much pain — that surrender is our only course of inaction.
Just a few weeks before that August morning in 1986 I’d moved again, this time northward, from Los Angeles to the Central Coast of California.
The telephone rang early on that hot summer morning. For sake of originality, I’m told, stories shouldn’t begin that way, but then certain stories are insistent on breaking the rules that are handed to creative writers by those who would be gurus.
The telephone rang and jangled, and so I rolled out of my sleeping bag. Most of my furniture that day sat inside a truck’s trailer traveling slow up the 101 Freeway on its way to meet me.
The night before, I’d drawn the drapes across the sliding glass doors to my right. A loud knock that moment sounded repeatedly behind those curtains. I pulled back on the long, plastic rod that hung near the middle seam, and discovered my cat, Bomboli. She was frantic to reach the roosters who climbed down the grassy hill that backed the apartment building. She didn’t understand or respect the impenetrable boundary that glass imposes between the inside and outside world.
I tossed Bomboli — who scratched my arm deep enough to draw a trickle of blood — into the bathroom, closed the door against her howl, and answered the phone.
“His eyes rolled back, and I can’t wake him,” said my brother.
“Brother, I love you. Dad is gone. I’ll come home soon.”
I vomited into the bathroom sink while I shaved, packed whatever dark clothes I had hanging in the closet, grabbed a taxi to the airport, and traveled Thomas’ time and river back toward home again. I helped to carry my father’s coffin to his grave.
A few years after all of that, I began the writing project that at the outset of this article I described. I did not then consider that a connection existed between my desire to write this particular book and an equally strong desire to understand my father.
The book I planned to write will not be written. Over the course of those many years spent haunting libraries, bookstores and my writing rooms, I discovered that I do not own the talent or the skill to tie the results of my research together with the outline of a book. I am a writer, but I have no book inside me. Just words, strings of words that sound to me sometimes like music.
I was, of course, a younger man when I began to collect those old magazines, and to jot down my reflections.
I am an old man now, so insufficient time remains. Believe what you will, but sometimes it is too late.
Still, the energy I invested in this particular writing project gave me joy and benefit. And those notes and magazines, along with the mind that tried to make sense of them; I think they all deserve a record of themselves.
So on occasion here I’ll place the images that impressed me and the words that strung together make for suspect speculation about my time on Earth. Those images are either scanned or photographed from primary sources.
Unlike so many of today’s revisionist historians and prejudiced talking heads, I do not believe that the time period between 1945 and 1964 in the United States of America was all about the suppression of volatile emotion or the oppression of certain classes of people by gender, race and economic status than is our society today. We are perhaps more self-aware and cautious now than we were then. It’s certain that today we have in many ways made hatred and envy more a private matter than a public one. The naked and exposed expression of our urge to inflict pain on other people in order to rid ourselves of the same is nowadays suppressed somewhat by force of law. We have made progress.
But in essence we are just as pretty, and just as ugly, now as we were then.
I am a man who enjoys nostalgia. I am a person who understands that there was a lot of good in the good old days.
I should know. I’m a good man, and I was born in the good old days.
What follows is a brief introduction of yet another brilliant author of Sicilian descent, that introduction amplified by an extended, occasionally interesting, recounting of the ordinary circumstances that connect his life with my own. Factual inaccuracies are intentional. No names have been changed, because no one is innocent, not even Joan Baez.
Niccolo Fontana teaches at his alma mater, the University of Absecon in New Jersey, home of The Lonesome Gull. His most sought after courses include The Speleological Evidence of Social Media Site Addiction During The Late Paleolithic Period, The Psychopathology of Dead Egotistical Authors Like Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut, and The Similarities Between 21st Century Paranormal Romance Novels And Computer Viruses.
As well, Professor Fontana is a prolific author of fiction, nonfiction and falsified fiction books; short stories of resentment and revenge; and yawn-inducing articles printed in esoteric academic journals. His most recent publications include the soporific textbook, A Short History of A Nonexistent Revolution (Absegami Press, 2004), the pornographic masterpiece, Why Mary Jane Broke The Law (Farther, Stravinsky & Jareau, 2007) and the delicious short story, “Don’t Bogart That Legume” (Vegan Light Magazine, Issue 87, Spring 2010).
September 2012 will see publication of the first book of what he plans to become a three-part memoir. Volume I is titled, My Vanity Was Wounded At The Battle For Woodstock (Cocker, Jagger & Joplin Ltd.).
Mr. Fontana lives in Clam Haven Township, NJ, on the bank of the Mullica River. There he shares a clapboard cabin with his dog, Tom, his canary, Dick,and his muskrat, Barry.
Niccolo Fontana and I were roommates and putative close friends during our undergraduate years at Absecon University, years that featured Richard Nixon, William Westmoreland and Jane Fonda as both superstars and criminals. Together we grew our first fuzzy mustaches; analyzed our tepid sexual conquests; waxed philosophic about The Revolution we helped to foster; and became one with Krishnamurti at beach blanket, consciousness raising barbecues on The Marshland Quad.
Each one of our testosterone-dressed salad days arrived sunrise-spiced and golden with the aromatic promise of a future drenched in patchouli oil and sexual secretions. The universe beheld our hyperbolic sense of self-importance and moaned. Silken spirituality oozed from our pores. Love and lust had conspired to conceive us, and yet we enjoyed our misconception of their egotistical intentions.
Four years of incense, protest, pretense and nonsense. And then . . .
On graduation day – Rah, rah, roo! Abbey U.! — Niccolo Fontana and I exchanged vows of infinite and eternal camaraderie. I pricked his fingertip, and he pricked mine, with the flame-cleansed tip of a platinum-plated paperclip, blessed with holy water and lent to us by the frat house chaplain, Friar Primo Sullivan.
“Non importa quanto lontano siamo vagare, saremo sempre giovane insieme,” we sang. Our two voices curled round each other to form a Sicilian treble clef, then joined inside a wave of vibratory exaltation to become one haunted note of an archetypal melody known to man and beast alike since long before the day that abra met cadabra and tick first measured tock.
“When you meet the wizard, Nicco, do give me a ring,” I said.
“But where will I find you, AVT? How will I know your location? What if you change your telephone number twixt now and then?” said Niccolo. Even then my companion, Fontana, favored slippery synonyms like twixt and ‘twill and ‘twat’s the use of talking plain when fancy is more fun.
“Thanks for caring,” I said. “Today I begin my search for Dorothy. I hear tell she roams through boundless fields of toasted wheat and travels yellow roads that lead to weeping rainbows. So I encourage you to gulp the future’s honeyed air, my loyal Nicco, lover of literature and seeker of lost souls. Breathe in deep and crave the possibilities, until you detect the scent of Dorothy’s maple musk. Wherever she be, I too shall be. Me and she. We shall be we. Thus spoketh the apparition of she to me last night.”
In this solemn manner Niccolo and I departed each other’s company. Fontana — always the insecure, pragmatic, goal-controlled type of pink-cheeked and studious scholar – packed his leather attache case, slipped his feet into his scuffed suede shoes, donned his corduroy sports jacket and tiptoed his way to the dean’s office, there to be interviewed for the position of Associate Professor of Pathological Anthropology at Abbey U (The Gull Will Never Die!).
The dean sat drunk and almost dead of terminal academic isolation, so Niccolo got the job and soon assumed the dead dean’s throne.
Meanwhile, I found Dorothy teaching kindergarten in a remodeled convent in Carmel Valley, California. I’d earlier visited Joan Baez’s Institute For The Study of Nonviolence. Although my application for admission to the program was the only one ever rejected – I was deemed a loquacious anarchist – Joan’s manager, a short, hairy-armed guy named Manny Greenhill, advised me to try the next leftwing school down the street, a place called Lorenzo’s. Manny told me that the crowd there might be more to my taste, seeing as how they all waved their hands in the air even when they meditated.
“Seems far-fetched to me, considering the Mediterranean climate and aroma of the place,” said Manny, “but Joan’s students swear they hear a woman’s voice belting out a sweet, Gallic rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow from that exact location.”
I entered Room 247 of Lorenzo’s School For Dreamers just in time for Show and Tell. My yellow-brick love – who looked a lot like Judy Collins before plastic surgery ruined her nose, but whose voice echoed Bob Dylan’s nasal tones — strummed and hummed a quirky G, C, D progression on her Gibson acoustic, while I yodeled a few verses of “I’m In Love With A Big Blue Frog,” and the school’s janitor tapped his work boots on the unisex bathroom’s tile floor.
Serendipity. Get down, bro. Can you dig it?
Dorothy’s name turned out to be Eireen Sullivan (Friar Primo’s abandoned love child, reinvented, recovered and reborn). A devout hedonist she was, always willing to indulge her appetite for repetitive consummation.
We feinted, feigned and entertained restraint over plates of raw oysters for Sunday brunch, then muttered prayers before a statue of San Carlos Borromeo at the mission as the afternoon air splattered shadows over rows of parked Peugeots.
Late that night we shook the bedposts against the wall when we made love. The consequent rattled drumbeat irritated hell out of Eireen’s angry, frightened, insomniac roommate Natalie Bartolini. “Pre-marital sex is one thing,” said Natalie. Her voice squealed, squeaked and skidded its way across the breakfast table. “It’s been redefined as a venial sin since Vatican II corrupted Catholicism. But tempting me to do the forbidden rub and twang while naked is another matter entirely. I think the bishops call it aiding and abetting unnecessary pleasure.
“So please get out and please get married, before I call Friar Primo and have you both excommunicated and shipped back to Jersey.”
We followed the first command, and soon afterward we followed the second. And while Natalie Bartolini never rang Friar Primo, I suspect that she may still today be entertaining the memory of those rock-n-roll bedposts.
I taught myself to love Colcannon and Crubeens, studied the works of Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett, and memorized the lyrics to “An Irish Lullaby.” (My Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ra’s impressed my future mother-in-law, Innogen, enough so that she told Eireen, “Well, maybe with practice and a solid career to fall back on.”)
After a three-week courtship period, I declared the nature of my devouring devotion and popped my papist proposition, as Eireen stood and I kneeled, again in Room 247, during naptime for the itty-bitty children. Revisionist history’s rumor has it that on that day Room 247 stank of poopy diapers to everyone but me.
“Poop-polluted atmosphere be damned,” bellowed the Lord. “You, AVT, are destined to fall in thrall to Eireen Sullivan’s eau du maple musk.”
And so we set the date. I pretended confidence, and Eireen pretended that particular flavor of virginity that after The Summer of Love permitted a bride to wear white in America.
I dressed myself in a three-piece pinstriped suit and Italian ostrich-leather shoes, and attended the wedding shower. The restaurant’s Champagne Suite featured a panoramic view of the 101 Freeway at rush hour. Chicken cordon bleu leaked quick-coagulating grease into the green peas on our plates. Natalie Bartolini sat cross-legged in the corner and cried.
Still, there were a few positive indicators of a bliss-enhanced future for Eireen and me. Natalie spilled a glass of Rose wine onto her lap, blushed, and laughed at the shape of the stain. Eireen’s mother, Innogen, told me that her gardener had garlic breath, too. (“But he never let that stop him from owning his own business!”) And our pile of wedding gifts almost touched the Champagne Suite’s dropped ceiling tiles. Our unearned treasures included three fondue sets, a half dozen lavender love candles, and a perfumed negligee.
When we divorced a few years later, Eireen and I for a short time argued about how to divide the fondue sets so as not to destroy our claim of amicable separation. But we quick tugged back our tempers and decided to save the odd set as a present for Natalie should she ever change her mind, lose her virginity and celebrate with a coming out cotillion.
Eireen took our red Chevy Vega and the television set. I kept the stereo and our collection of Marvin Gaye albums.
I changed the locks, lay back on the couch, crooned along with Marvin, allowed my fans several encores, and otherwise devoted myself to sad regret and to the composition of an epic poem titled “Fugetabout Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ra.”
The pity earned by way of landing hard, low and fast can become a habit more addictive than any injectable drug. I asked for and received more attention by turning out the lights and refusing to answer knocks at my door than I’d ever received when Eireen and I hosted friends at our fondue spud parties.
I taught myself to shiver my voice, tremble my lips and cast my glance downward whenever someone asked, “How you holding up, AVT?”
I stopped shaving, exchanged my pinstripe suit for flannel shirts and dungarees, and tossed my last bottle of deodorant into the trash.
I told everyone I knew that I’d given up on love as a career goal and replaced the practice with that of writing defiant poetry and publishing a snooty literary magazine named Spilled Beans (I fancied the edgy shade of noir as it lent an air of valor to otherwise masturbatory confessional essays).
Still, at the end of any difficult workday — ink-stained fingers stiff from passing pages through the mimeograph machine, mind muddled with plotlines unresolved — I lay stretched out on my couch, alternating verses with Marvin; and I grew lonesome. This disturbed emotional state led me to recall how The Lonesome Gull spread and flapped his wings to signal determination in the face of an attacking enemy.
And that image of a noble, familiar, regal bird in flight against a headstrong and aggressive wind inspired me to attempt a reconnection with Niccolo Fontana. Perhaps the staid corduroy professor would remember our vow and grant an old friend – a recently accepted member of the literati – an interview, a conversation that put to print might well push a certain publication toward a prominent position, thus affording its editor and main author the prestige he deserved and had been so long denied.
I supposed that Eireen, or Manny, or Natalie, or maybe even Joan Baez in a sympathetic mood had informed Nicco of my brush with the tragedy we poets name Love. Fontana, always a sensitive soul, might well have hesitated to invade the privacy of a brokenhearted friend. This must be the case, I told myself. Otherwise, I surmised, Nicco would have long ago detected the aroma of Dorothy’s maple musk and come knocking at my door. (Had he tapped? Had I ignored? Quoth the seagull evermore?)
No use in guessing. I would have to make the overture. This artist, this sainted purveyor of the linguistic curlicue, I said to myself, needs to gather sufficient verve and courage to wake the academic from his solitary slumber.
But as is true of many youthful friendships, Niccolo and I lost touch as his career soared into the professional stratosphere, while my own accomplishments floated, comfortable and unheralded, much closer to Earth’s surface.
Still, in spite of the fact that Niccolo and I led separate, if in some ways parallel lives, I read every word he ever published throughout the years. As was true when youth blessed us both, as an older man I considered myself a fortunate beneficiary of Nicco’s off-center insights. I admired his poetic flair with stilted language. I marveled at his engaging sense of inbred Jersey humor.
I’d shut myself in for so long that when next morning I pulled up the window shades, unlocked the front door and stepped out into the sunlight, I was surprised to discover that a head-high stack of newspapers blocked my view of the world beyond my borders.
I snatched the topmost copy of the Absegami Times, a prestigious source of literary news that I’d had flown to my California compound each and every morning since the day I met Eireen and thereby tripped into tragedy. Back inside, a mug of steaming Taoist Tea by my side, I opened the sunlight-stained tabloid to the book review section.
There I read notice of Niccolo’s soon to be published memoir.
Serendipity? Get down, bro? Can you dig the Gull?
Miracle, sign, timing or mere coincidence; no explanation could make a difference. With the Absecon Gull to guide me, I must follow the feather. I could no longer justify resisting the temptation to contact my old friend. After all, I told myself, I was there, occupying the Jersey Marshland Quad with this living literary archetype of an author during several of the years his Volume I was sure to address. I wondered how Nicco Fontana might nowadays interpret the significance of those tumultuous times in our engaged, enraged and hormonal history.
And truth be told, I was curious to know whether or not Corduroy Nicco would include specific and colorful mention of the bellbottomed me when he told his story, our story if he were fair enough to admit as much. If such mention were made, then would I be a major or minor character, an Othello or a Lodovico? Might I be represented as a hero or a villain, a Caesar or a Brutus? Would Niccolo Fontana attempt to disguise AVT by assigning me a costumed name?
Would my dear friend and passionate paisano Nicco hold me in high esteem? Or would he instead first recall the time I stole away from the frat house, along with his girlfriend Kelly Liccardella, while he suffered through an interview with the drunken dean?
Would Niccolo Fontana honor the pledge of the platinum-plated paperclip?
“AVT who?” said the voice on the other end of the line.