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.
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.
The story I’m these days busy writing, titled Gladiolas, is growing longer by thousands of thoughts, words and deeds than I imagined it would. I’m not surprised that it’s turning out that way. After all, if truth be told, I write in much the same manner as I speak: long in the tongue and oftentimes long-winded.
I’ve decided not to post any more of that particular work of art here (oh yes it is!). Not for now, maybe not forever. For the moment, anyway. Let’s say for the moment.
Because for the moment I’m having too much fun following the characters’ unexpected twists and turns through the dark forest, in spite of the tangled trees — the complicated, foolish changes of heart that afterward seem as if they were inevitable. Too much fun to want to rush the mystery to a forced conclusion. The thing’s turning into a book, a book of the sort I like to read. Complete with moonlit nights, bay-windowed mansions, and lust-saturated love affairs.
I own a second reason for my hesitation to click the publish button just yet. I am a proud, card-carrying perfectionist. Yes, I understand the difficulties many writers experience in company with their schizoid-fractured voices, mental cross-eyed editors, dysfunctional inner-adolescents and armor-suited enemies of Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way Brigade. “The problem is,” the oft-repeated explanation goes, “we become our own harshest critics.”
But what’s wrong with paying heed to one’s inborn critical soul mate? I ask. Good for those armored soldiers who dare to challenge Julia on the battlefield, I say. We should be our own harshest critics. I wish more people who claim to be writers would criticize, edit, rewrite and polish their stories before they beam them down to Planet Amazonia or launch them on their way to Star Base CrushSomeWords.com.
Literary snobs, unite!
Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault; therefore I beseech the blessed memory of Maxwell Perkins ever-sanctified, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me. I am an unrepentant sinner.
So, although my half-dozen breathless fans have been nagging — nay begging — me to post Gladiolas, Part II, pronto, I must disappoint my audience. For now, at least. Perhaps for an eternity. Maybe, maybe, maybe comes the day I plant Gladiolas on Planet Amazonia, in the same garden that grows such fine works of art as How To Write How-To-Write Books and Sell Them To Chat-room Habitués Who Fancy Themselves Cameron’s Congregationalists.
Still, today I want some form of this show to go on, because I’m hungry to write and fill this long-unattended space.
And because I’ve been re-reading, and thinking about Raymond Carver. So I’ll talk about Raymond Carver, self-immolated artist and superior successor to Papa’s Pen.
I suspect that were Carver alive and writing today, he’d have difficulty finding curious, interested readers.
Why do I think this is true?
Carver’s style with words is spare. Most of the “language,” then, must exist between the lines he wrote, and therefore preexist inside a reader’s head.
Take for instance Carver’s story, Fat. The story’s narrator tells you, in words here paraphrased by me:
A fat man walked into a diner. He sat down and ordered a large meal. The waitress wrote down the order. She gave the order to the cook. The cook was her husband. The cook said, “That man sure is fat. He’s that fattest man I’ve ever seen.” The waitress served the fat man. She was kind to him. Each word she spoke was spoken in a respectful tone of voice. The fat man had fat fingers. He puffed when he breathed. He ate three slices of bread, smeared thick with butter. He ate a big salad. He ate meat and potatoes. He referred to himself as “we.” “We don’t usually eat this much. But we are hungry.”
The fat man ate not one, but two desserts.
Later that night, the waitress and her husband closed the diner and went home. The waitress cooked and served her husband a meal. The husband said again, “That man sure was fat.” The wife did not answer her husband. They went to bed. The husband wanted sex. He climbed on top of his wife. She let him do it, because she did not want to argue. But she felt fat. She could not feel her husband.
A reader needs to think in order to feel entertained by stories like Fat. Most people who nowadays read fiction don’t want to think too much. They want to escape, in much the same way as television sit-coms permit them to escape. Little effort. No dictionary necessary. Familiar plot lines. Outward action (Bang, bang shoot-’em-up. No inner-emotional turmoil, please; I had enough of that at work all day).
But Raymond Carver won’t allow you to escape, not unless you choose to put his book back on the shelf and click the remote instead.
Lest you decide that I’m here condemning people for their unwillingness to invest effort when they read, permit me to say that when I first read Carver’s stories, although something about them tickled my fancy, I could not comprehend what I was reading. I thought, for instance, that Fat was about a fat man who ate too much, a cook who felt dazed by the sight of such a big man, and a waitress who went through the motions that had become her life, both at work and at home.
I understood no more than that. I “got” the point that the waitress was bored with living, but I understood nothing of the connection between her husband’s insecure arrogance and her disgust with him. I never considered the suggestion that her husband’s judgmental attitude made him far more distasteful a sight in her eyes than the self-effacing fat man’s pudgy fingers and ceaseless appetite. Matter of fact, until this very second, I hadn’t thought of any connection between the fat man’s appetite for food and the husband’s appetite for loveless sex (and isn’t that sudden discovery part of the magic involved with the writing process?).
Back then, on the day when I first read Raymond Carver, I was capable of understanding no more of life than that of the life I’d lived. Same is true, of course, today.
The year was 1985. I was a young man. I was an even younger writer. I was a hungry reader. I was a woman’s lover, and because of all this, I was full of myself. I didn’t so much think that I would live forever, as I thought that only other people died.
I walked the streets of Santa Monica, California. I parked my car near Fifth and Wilshire on a Saturday morning in summertime. For several years I’d been married to a Jewish woman in Philadelphia, PA. I adored her, and so she soon grew tired of being so much adored and so little respected. She left me, and I left Philadelphia. One-way ticket to the rest of my life.
I ate breakfast at Zucky’s Diner. I’d learned to appreciate diners and Jewish food when I lived in Philadelphia.
And books. After eating a breakfast almost as big as that of Carver’s fat man, I felt hungry for books. Half a block from the diner was a store called Pacific Books. Small store, perhaps a thousand volumes tops on the shelves. Literary titles. History texts. Atlases and scientific journals. I liked the aroma of the place. Quiet carpets on the floor. Faint classical music in the air. Customers who spoke in whispered tones.
I studied the books’ spines. I touched their covers. I pulled them close to my face and breathed the spice of possibility. Yes, I was like that. And yes again, I am still like that.
Raymond Carver lived on one of those shelves. I didn’t know him. I could not have known that day that he was busy dying, that he’d been killing himself for many years by way of alcohol, tobacco and dissatisfaction. I could not have known that in three years’ time he would be dead. All I knew that day, when I opened one of his books, was that a story named Fat was short enough that I could read it — from beginning to end — in brief enough a slice of time that I wouldn’t seem a stingy customer to the lady at the counter.
And all I knew, once I finished reading Carver’s story was that it made me think, and made me want to think some more.
This story isn’t about me, although I have a kind of curiosity inside my personality that my friends tell me I had even when I was a little boy.
And that’s what this story is about, really. Little boys and the bad things that can happen to them later in life.
Of more concern to this tale is one particular little boy who grew up to become in most ways a stylish man, but who killed his mother in a manner that I’d describe as a murder, but that a judge and jury decided was some kind of manslaughter by “reason of insanity.” Which makes no sense to me, not if you look close at the facts of the case.
And because I’m the curious sort, I always look real close at people and their problems. We all of us have our problems. That sure was true of this boy turned into a cold-blooded killer. And even more true, of course, of his dead mother.
I don’t mean that last remark, by the way, to sound like a joke, either. The boy’s mother, Mrs. Connie Varello was her name, had serious mental issues — as they say nowadays — way before things came to blows between her and her son and her husband.
But now I’m going on ahead of myself; and when I do that I become judgmental and surrender to my prejudices before I consider the black-and-white description of things as they are.
So let me back up just a bit.
What started me looking into this matter — I’d come right out and call it a crime, truth be told — was the fact that all of this tragedy occurred just two doors down from where I live here in Cedarville. And said tragedy began to take root more than half a century ago, back when me and the boy — Johnnie Varello — were mates at Linden Avenue Grammar School.
Back then Johnnie was the smart kid in class, the one who always had his hand waving in the air, because he always knew the right answer, or at least he thought he did.
Johnnie, he’d grab a crayon from the box at drawing time and say something strange like, “This is oily wax.” The rest of us, of course, would look at him and wink at each other and tell him it was just a crayon and he could stick it up his nose if he wanted to. Well, not up his nose exactly, but then I don’t want to put dirty words in this story, because it’s sad enough without them.
In any event, Johnnie didn’t seem to get our jokes anyway, or maybe he chose to ignore them. Because he’d just answer us with more of his intellectual approach to life’s simple objects and say something like, “No, the word crayon means chalk and earth. Really. I looked it up last night.”
Crazy kid, Johnnie was, even way back then, although none of us could actually see what was building inside that house where he and his parents lived, all squeezed up together with no room to breathe, much less express their disagreements in a respectful manner.
Always squawking and screeching and banging away at each other, they were. These arguments — I guess you’d call them arguments, if you want to be polite about it — showed up most clearly in summertime, when in Cedarville the air was hot and sticky and so windows were wide open and people’s voices traveled back and forth from one place to another. Heck, during summers in our town you could all but make out the details of conversations mosquitoes were having with each other, if you were the curious type and cared to listen real close.
Now to be fair to Johnnie Varello, the evidence I heard with my own ears during those prosperous years of the 1950s tells me that his mom beat him up real good and often, maybe especially in summertime, what with the pressure that heat tends to build inside a human being. Many were the evenings when I’d be riding my Schwinn ten-speed up and down the block, chasing after girls or just following the cloud of white smoke wooshing out from the back of a mosquito truck, and I’d hear Johnnie yelling things like, “Please, no, Mother! I promise I won’t do it again.” Or some such desperate plea.
Still, in those days most parents hit their kids when they were being bad. And I’m of the opinion that if more of that were true today, in Cedarville and in the nation proper, blacks and Puerto Ricans and low-life white trailer trash wouldn’t rule the streets they way they do.
But that’s going off track again; and I want to make my point and finish this story, and maybe even submit a summary of it to the Cedarville Gazette’s opinion section for the public’s approval, or not.
I attended most every session of the trial, as is my rightful duty as a citizen of this great country. And the way Johnnie Varello told it inside the courtroom . . . well, he wanted all of us attending to believe that he lost his mind that hot summer night just by staring at a cluster of cut flowers that were sitting in a vase on his mother’s dining room table. Now don’t that beat all? Doesn’t feel like a logical sequence of cause and effect events to me. Not at all.
But the defense lawyer, Arthur J. Schultz, a man I know sort of well because he was in that same grammar school class with Johnnie and me, called a psychiatrist to the stand to bear witness to the effects of what the medical professionals call something like Traumatic Stress Repressed Memories. Try saying that one real fast. Sounds poetic, sure enough, but kind of silly, too.
Still, Artie Schultz — that’s what we called him before he got educated up to university — well, I trust the fact that he knows things I don’t quite comprehend.
The specific memory in question was all about, according to Johnnie Varello, that is — and confirmed by the psychiatrist of record — a long ago summer day and night back in 1956.
Seems like the Varellos were making a day trip to visit Mrs. Varello’s mom, who at the time lived down in Cape Point, which is still to this day a beach town tourist type destination at the southern tip of the state, where the map let’s off deep into the Atlantic Ocean and people like to play miniature golf, and eat some blue-point crab, and just plain enjoy their families while the getting’s good.
The way Johnnie told it, he was sitting in the back seat of the ’49 Chevy Deluxe, staring through the rear window, when all of a sudden he noticed one of those flower stands that were so popular at the time along Route 53.
From that point on, if my memory serves me as well as it usually does after I’ve listened close and careful to a back and forth exchange between a lawyer and a witness, Johnnie’s recollection of that day sounded something like a short story buried inside a longer book, a book I’d place on a shelf with the rest of the mystery novels I prefer to read and even try to write whenever the creative urge fires up inside me.
“Can we go there, Dad?” Johnnie said.
Mr. Martin Varello tapped the brake pedal, eased in the clutch and put her in reverse. In most ways, Martin was a darned good father who always wanted to please his boy. He was just afraid of his wife, a coward as it turns out, if you believe what most folks say looking back on it all. But aren’t we all afraid of our wives from time to time, what with a woman’s scorn and some such?
“You’re going to kill us all, the way you drive!” screamed the boy’s mother. Johnnie was used to hearing his mother screaming at his dad, especially when the family took the day-long trip to Cape Point.
“Look here, Connie,” said Martin. He just wants to bring your mom a bunch of her favorite blossoms.”
“She’s not my mom. Now if you’re going to do this, hurry up. We haven’t got forever, you know.”
“I know. No one does.”
Martin opened the Chevrolet’s heavy passenger-side door. He tilted his wife’s seat forward gently against her back to let the boy out. Connie wouldn’t budge a bit, however, not until her pocketbook fell to the floor and spilled its contents, which in turn caused her to bend down and gather all her beautifying paraphernalia and her prescription medications.
Johnnie slipped outside the car real quick, before his mother had time enough to catch her breath and start yelling again.
“Let’s get the pink ones,” said Johnnie. “Mama Mary likes pink. She drinks out of pink glasses, and she paints her toenails the same color as those gladiolas over there.”
“Show me where the pink ones are, son. Fast now. You know how your mother is about waiting.”
Johnnie saw his dad smiling, and being the intuitional kind of kid he was, he wondered how his dad could do so inside the circumstance that was his life with Connie.
In spite of his dad’s warning, the boy dawdled. He liked the sound of gravel crunching underneath his feet as they walked the road’s shoulder. That and the sweet smell of the surrounding farmland.
Route 53 was a two-lane highway that ran north and south, all the way from New York City at its top to Cape Point at its final tip. Martin had just moments earlier steered the Chevy across the Ridley Bay Bridge — a narrow, wooden structure that featured a shack midway that served as a toll booth. The old man who collected twenty-five cents a pop — for cars or trucks, the difference didn’t matter in those days — wore a dark-blue cap and gave the kids candy and a wink of his eye. Sometimes Johnnie wished that man were his mother, even though he understood that mothers had to be women by definition of their role in the scheme of things.
“Why doesn’t Mother like Mama Mary, Dad?” Johnnie stared straight ahead when he asked the question.
“She likes her well enough. It’s just that Mary’s her step-mom; and I think she misses her real one.”
“Did her real one scream all the time like her?”
“Let’s just get the flowers. We can talk about this another time. I can even show you pictures in the album we have at home.”
Johnnie approached the sales table and pointed to the fullest bunch of pink gladiolas he could find. “We’ll take those ones there,” he said to the lady who stood smiling underneath the canvas awning.
“They sure are a pretty shade of pink,” she said. “These for your mama sitting over there in that shiny Chevrolet?”
“No, they’re for my Mama Mary. She’s my grandma. My mother doesn’t especially like flowers.”
“Oh, I can’t hardly believe that. All mamas appreciate such jewels of nature. That’s what I call them — Jewels of Nature. And I’m someone’s mama, so I ought to know what mamas like. Isn’t that right, Mister?”
“You sure are on to something true enough for most,” said Martin. Then, real quick, he followed that remark by asking how much they owed.
“Seventy-five cents for the bouquet, and here’s a single stem of red ones for your mama, free of charge.”
Back inside the car, Johnnie laid the flowers on the seat beside him. He picked up the stem of red blossoms and held it over the top of the seat in front of him. His mother was busy reapplying her lipstick. She moved her arm backward and fast, like a person does when she’s swatting away a fly. The red gladiolas flew from Johnnie’s hand and fell to the floor.
“Not now, boy. Can’t you see I’m busy?” said Connie.
Johnnie didn’t bother answering. Instead, he slid his body far enough toward the edge of his seat so his foot would reach down to the floor, and he stomped that foot down hard on the red blossoms. He watched a red stain smear and spread its way into the carpet, and he smiled.
As the Chevy picked up speed, Johnnie stared out the window and allowed his mind to become as one with the scenery. Barns and silos. Peach orchards and yellow tractors. Railroad box car diners and two-pump gasoline stations. The entirety of this universe reminded him of the painted pictures he discovered inside the books he read while lying on the floor inside Cedarville Public Library on Saturday mornings when most of the kids from school were outside playing sports and talking tough.
Johnnie Varello knew he wasn’t tough. He couldn’t make a football spin as it flew through the air, and he was so afraid of a hardball that the Little League coach kept him sitting on the bench during eight innings out of every nine, and all nine if the game was tied near its end.
But Johnnie knew he was smart. And although he oftentimes cried when he curled himself up and buried his body inside his bed at night, he knew that someday he’d escape. Maybe, he thought, maybe I’ll even sneak out of bed one summer night and walk across Ridley Bay Bridge. Then I’ll wait till sunrise and begin my journey back to Mama Mary’s place. She’d take me in. She’d understand.
“Don’t you go doing too much for her. She’ll take advantage of you the way she always does.”
The sound of his mother’s angry voice startled Johnnie. He realized that he’d fallen asleep sometime ago. The fact that he’d missed the better part of the trip left him feeling irritable.
But at least they were there. Johnnie sat up, rubbed his eyes, and again looked through the window.
His mother most times criticized Mama Mary’s house. She spoke of so-called better days. Days when her father, Papa Dominic, owned a milk delivery company. Back then his milk trucks were Model T Fords, and in the darkness before dawn Papa Dominic changed the paper caps on each quart bottle to reflect a later date. Days that existed before what grownups called The Great Depression, when Papa Dominic — and his first wife and their daughter — lived in a richer part of the world known as Highland Crest.
Now Papa Dominic was many years dead, and Johnnie’s memories of the man were vague and faded, like the black-and-white photographs that sometimes looked as if they bled rust where they hung on Mama Mary’s walls.
Johnnie loved this house. Maybe, he thought, I love it especially because she hates the place.
Johnnie loved the peeling paint, the wide front windows, and the three crooked wooden steps that led up to a wraparound porch where two wicker rocking chairs sat waiting for him and his dad to make them creak.
But most of all Johnnie loved the sight of Mama Mary’s shadow when it appeared behind the front door’s lace curtain.
Johnnie Rebello sat farting into the vinyl-covered corner booth cushion of Snoozie’s Trattoria. Dark-green upholstery, table top made of scarred railway ties, web-wrapped five-and-dime vanilla candle flickering in a desperate attempt to disguise the digestive fumes.
“So let me see if I got this right,” he said. Rebello squinted mean eyes through the cigar smoke he blew in my face. I recognized the ashy cloud as a challenge of sorts. I was certain that Johnnie had seen the gesture in some cheap mafia movie, because the bookshelf hanging on the paneled wall behind his fat head was filled with old VCR tapes of Sicilian mob fantasies.
“These two guys,” he said, “these two literati punks told the editor-at-large of some fish-wrap local rag that your story was — whatdya call it? — melancholy — that the right word? Too sad for an audience that lives in a happy part of the world where no one ever sneezes loud or has bad breath. So you murdered the story and now you want me to bring justice into an unjust world. How exactly?”
“That’s almost right, Mr. Johnnie.” I knew I sounded silly calling him Mr. Johnnie, and he knew it too, I’m sure, but the scene was written before we met, and I figured who the hell was I to change the master’s screenplay. Probably he got it from off the same dusty shelf where he kept his cigars and celluloid entertainment.
“It’s like as if they put the scalpel in my hand and told me to cut off all the meat and leave no blood behind if I wanted them to arrange it on the public plate,” I said. “So I did like they insisted. I trimmed the story down to cud and bone, and they sent my meal back to my kitchen.”
“Couple of mixed metaphors crawling around in there, but we can discuss that weakness another day. For now, just tell me this. These inkmeisters allowed the reading public in Happyland to go hungry cause they didn’t like your presentation?”
“No, Mr. Johnnie. Not that. They just served the crowd another chef’s meal.”
“Did you taste it? This other cook’s food? Was it any good?”
“I prepared filet mignon. He made them liverwurst and mayonnaise on white bread.”
“But the mayonnaise wasn’t melancholy, now was it?”
I hung my head and half-closed my eyes in an attempt to seem humble if not downright ashamed of myself. “Like always, Mr. Johnnie, you got right down to the heart of the matter.”
“It’s all right, kid. Mind if I call you kid? I mean most people don’t think I’m the kind of man who’s read Graham Greene. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’ve got problems with gas, or maybe it’s this fancy trattoria that makes ’em think I don’t know good literature when I read it.” Johnnie lifted his left butt cheek, let off some steam and sighed. “So, okay, kid. So maybe this time round the busboys ate your steak while the honored guests feasted on liverwurst. But there’s always another recipe waiting to be born.”
“Hey, I like that last line. Could I maybe use it in my next story, Mr. Johnnie?”
“We can hash out a contract tomorrow. One-time rights I might consider. But today let’s discuss this problem you’re having with melancholy blood. I can tell you this much right now; only those who own passionate appetites enjoy blood for dessert.”
Johnnie snapped together two of his chubbiest fingers, and a waiter in a dark-gray, shiny sharkskin suit skittered over to the eight-track player that sat on the bar. He pushed a few buttons until Pachebel’s Canon filled the air and complemented the cigar smoke and neon-orange glow that buzzed from the blinking OPEN sign that hung in the wide picture window. I blinked through the haze, stared out the window and watched a Ford station wagon pull into the parking lot and stop in front of the barber shop across the way. A tall pale man wearing a short-sleeved polyester shirt got out of the car. He walked into the barber shop, in spite of the fact that his head was completely bald. I considered making the mystery behind that scene the major plot point of my next story. The station wagon I understood. But why a polyester shirt?
“Thanks for the background music, Rudy,” said Johnnie. “It’s a good song, kid, isn’t it?”
“One of a kind, Mr. Johnnie. But it lends itself to melancholia.”
“That and lost lust. Maybe that’s what you want to cook next. Lost Lust a la Mode. Fuck Happyland and mayonnaise, kid. They’re not your target audience. I mean you understand why Happyland’s population prefers liverwurst to filet mignon, don’tcha?”
“Not really. I gotta tell you, though, it wasn’t justice I came in here looking for. But then, you knew that. You always seem to know the end of your stories before you write the first sentence.”
“It’s all about experience, kid. And experience is a matter of intellectual eyesight. Some people think that because I’m kinda fat and old-fashioned — and because I spend most of my time sitting in this vinyl-covered booth — that I don’t see things for what they are. Like as if I don’t know the difference between liverwurst and beef. But you came in here looking for an exegetical explanation as to why your story was rejected.”
“Exactly, Mr. Johnnie. I couldn’t have said it better myself.”
“And you don’t want no steenkin’ critique, am I right?”
“No way, because –”
“Because critiques are all about encouraging imitation.”
“You sure are literary, Mr. Johnnie. I’ll bet you’ve read all three thousand pages of Proust.”
Johnnie lifted his right butt cheek and smiled. By the bubbly sound he muffled into the booth I could tell that at that moment he was feeling happier than anyone in Happyland could ever pretend to be. For one swift Proustian second I understood the difference between Johnnie Rebello and the bald guy in the barber shop.
“So let’s compare,” said Johnnie. “Your protagonist and the one the winning chef created. How were they the same?”
“They both became dead soon after the first paragraph. They both sired wannabe writers. They both were loners in a lonely world.”
“One was fat, the other was thin. One was poor, the other one thought he was poor even though he lived in a bland middle-class suburban neighborhood.”
“So okay, Marcel. Mind if I call you Marcel? Let’s get down to the business of melancholia. Both of these heroes were quick turning dead, and death is a lonely business.”
“So you’ve read Raymond, too?”
“Don’t change the subject. I know we’ve reached the painful part of this session, and Pachebel’s crescendo isn’t helping to lighten the mood, but if you want the public to eat your next meal and then lick the plate for more, then you’ve gotta stop lying by way of omission.”
Johnnie snapped two different chubby fingers together, and Rudy came running.
“Roberta Flack this time, Rudy. Killing Me Softly.”
“I think that tape skips somewhere, Mr. Rebello,” said Rudy.
“That’s all right, Rudy. Better to have lust and lost, as my dad used to say. Have I told you about my dad, kid? He’s dead now, of course, but man that guy could cook a crab and toot a horn.”
“Sounds like a good story.”
“Singing my life with his words. You understand that line, kid? Tell me, how’d your rejected story end? On what note, exactly? On a scale of Happyland to Melancholy, where did your story land?”
“Well, I guess the ending was sad. I’ll admit that much. I mean a man dies and leaves behind a son who wants to be Henry David Thoreau wearing muddy work boots as he traipses through a back-bay meadow.”
“And the winning chef?”
“More Russell Baker than Henry Thoreau. Background music described but unheard. No mud. No bay. No meadow.”
“There you have your answer, kid. In Happyland you can write about death, but you can’t expect readers to admit its odor.”
I read a lot of books these days, because writing won’t come easy. The fact is that writing won’t come at all.
I’ve grown too old to meet my ancient dreams of publication inside an empty corridor and welcome them with cliched open arms. At my age, at least for me, dreams move backward in time. You hug yourself in the middle of the night and recreate the past. The second that you begin to wonder why, you switch the scene and imagine a different dream. Sometimes you sleep; most times you just forget.
One hope I entertained when I was in my thirties was to become business-like about, if not immune to, criticism of my writing. A story is no more than a product goes the flatulent wisdom so many gurus dispense to unsuspecting fools and willing customers alike. Push one out and then another. Don’t waste time contemplating a publisher’s unpredictable decision.
Maybe the poor girl felt constipated at the very moment she leafed through your manuscript, unable to relieve herself in time because her boss was in the bathroom, and anyway she had a crush on him and wouldn’t want him to think she had to poop. So instead she pooped on you, but not on you, on your story; because your story didn’t fit. This time. Maybe next time when the crush man isn’t next door dreaming her into bed, while she’s trying to settle her stomach by way of mere wiggling.
So get on with the next story. Forget the first one and the second. Matter of fact, stop counting.
But all of that ersatz wisdom is just empty advice. And too much advice abounds. And yes, I enjoy the word ersatz. Ersatz is art. Pretend is pedestrian.
Scene One: Two potential lovers bump into each other in a narrow corridor. They blush as they brush. Against each other. A slight brush, mind you, because it’s got to be about anticipation. The act itself rarely lives up to the first-draft rendition.
Art Ersatz walked out of the bathroom and into the narrow corridor. He was careful first to let the toilet finish flushing, so she wouldn’t wonder what he had been doing.
She was Pedestal Pedestrian, the slush pile reader. Art hired her just so he could one day blush and brush with her.
When they bumped, brushed and blushed, Art opened his cliched arms.
“Oh, Art! Your arms! I adore your open arms!” said Pedestal.
“You fit within the crux of them today. Want to get published with me?”
“Couldn’t we just anticipate for a while longer, Art? Can I call you Art? And didn’t you mean to say crook?”
“Sure enough, Peddy. But before we meet again, please delete the exclamation points. Exclamation points are verboten nowadays. Frank Conroy used to teach his Iowa Writers Workshop sycophants the sinful nature of exclamation points, although he ran amok with the same inside his arty masterpiece, Stop-Time.”
“Are you finished in the bathroom, cause I really gotta go.”
If I followed guru-given advice, I never would have written that scene. To tell you the truth, the whole truth and nothing but a lie, I wouldn’t be writing anything at all, because the pronoun I is as verboten nowadays as is Art Erstaz’s elevated exclamation points.
And next march forward the readers, the critical fans, the self-made editors with their own flavors and tastes expressed in one-part harmony.
“Oh, when is something going to happen? You know, happen. No one wants to read literature or poetry, and certainly no twenty-first-century, action-packed, numb-minded reader will accept the notion that writing can be art.
“No, no, no. No art for me. Give me Thomas Harris’s blood-soaked nightmares of frantic female prisoners held in tunneled dungeons by sadistic serial murderers who favor moths and butterflies over real sex. Or better yet, hand me a book by an award-winning nonsense man whose protagonist shoots people in the head with an airgun. Now that would make a great movie, yes. And by the way, can the word film; the notion is affected and the ticket price exorbitant.”
All good advice, and sure to water down the work and relieve a reader’s tension.
So instead of writing stories or otherwise poetic verse, these days I re-read books that once meant much to me.
This past week, I re-read Paul Monette’s Becoming A Man. I first read Paul’s story during the 1990s, when television images of men invaded by viruses resembled the alien forms introduced in 1950s’ Science Fiction flicks of fear. All about the nervousness of nuclear holocaust. While school teachers dressed in polka dot blouses taught us children to kneel and cover our heads when the siren sounded, flying saucers swirled and dipped toward Earth in black and white. Seamless doors swished open, and skinless creatures crept across the swamp and sauntered into suburbia, there to imitate us and at last to conquer our bland existence.
Paul Monette lost. First one lover, then another, and at the end himself.
Becoming A Man, I think, was his final book. And yes, it’s art. And yes, again, the story he told employed the first-person pronoun, as well as all manner of points exclaimed.
But this second time I read Paul’s book not to figure out a virus, nor to visit with an alien. Instead, I read and wondered how and why. How does a dying man — Paul died of AIDS not quite three years after his last book’s publication — find courage, much less reason, for writing about his own deterioration?
I am old now. My death will not likely be so exotic as Paul Monette’s, but just as sure, and equally inexorable will be the passage from now till then. I, however, can find no reason for writing anymore, not about life or about death.
A few days ago, I sat with a friend, cups of coffee and curiosity on the table between us. She told me that she couldn’t live without believing in an afterlife. In times past — distant history — I’d have mocked in silence her faith in such a messy manuscript. Today I admit my envy.
I don’t believe in god or in a heaven or hell, except in those manifestations I see and feel while still alive. So, unlike Paul — and perhaps unlike my coffee-table friend — I chuckle at the notion that from on high I’ll look down to see a man or woman reading a book I wrote. No. What I wanted and failed to produce was a book that I could see held in another person’s hands before I died.
There was a second reason I re-read Paul’s book, another reason that had nothing to do with his sex life or his viral invasion. I read to better understand the nature of keeping secrets. Secrets kill. Secrets kept and secrets revealed; they kill us from the inside out.
I’ve written much about being abused by my mother as a child. And I’ve been roundly criticized for writing about the subject.
First of all, it’s true that many people cannot understand the sheer brutality, the blood and the haunting that follows a person’s footsteps forward and into the grave.
My mother beat me with a strap, tied me down, hung me by the neck until I began to turn blue, bit my hand so hard that she left puncture wounds that resembled those made by a wolf, slapped my face black-and-blue, and then forced me to tighten back the tears for sake of an act to show a visiting neighbor or relative.
But the Brownie photographs with scalloped borders show otherwise. There I sit around a kitchen table with my mother smiling adoration for me and my younger brothers. There I kneel before a sparkling Christmas tree, surrounded by gifts, Lone Ranger’s guns, Mickey Mouse’s ears, Howdy Doody’s freckled face.
And so those of my readers who view those pictures become maddening gurus all over again, dispensing Art Ersatz’s fatuous advice. Leave it in the past, they tell me. How could you possibly limit your writing to such subjects?
Secrets, that’s the how of it. Because although the ranch house, tiny box of a prison, in which I grew up owned open windows, if not open arms, in summertime; although my screams for help soared through window screens; although my face bore the wounds, my eyes the sadness, my heart the hopeless sinking. Although all of that was true, everyone around me decided to honor my mother’s secret, that she was mad.
And how far different from my own forced secret was Paul Monette’s? Two different flavors. Paul’s a Sexual Sahara; mine a Tortured Tarantella. Both a form of suicide.
So I cheer Paul Monette, but not for his preference in lovers. I applaud him for the courage he owned, the courage to can the exclamation points, to forgo the gurus, to put the I inside the art and to write until the end.