Prologue To A Book Never To Be Written

Happy, Happy Family!
Happy, Happy Family!

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 If I owned a reputation of any stature as a writer, I’d bequeath them all, along with my unpublished stories and jotted letters, to a literary executor who would be willing to ship them back to my ancestors in Sicily by way of the next luxury barge to depart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.

Verse I: Love In The Time of Horowitz

There is no urgent need to read these words. They won’t teach you how to build or fix anything. Nor will they inspire you to change your life. No sign of any paranormal zombies making insignificant love will appear between these lines. Neither will I attempt a cute, digital age push toward “liking” a social media site page I just created complete with a tawdry cover-art illustration of a hunk or hunkette’s buff chest across which lies a long-stemmed rose leaking drops of blood to signify a teenaged broken heart that beats inside a post-adolescent body that just barely graduated high school and considers itself an author by virtue of owning a computer and an Internet connection.

As well, heed my warning when I tell you that this is just the first part of a serial poem which will never reach its destination. Nothing I write will ever find Oz. So if it’s a happy ending, or even a satisfying conclusion that you seek, you might want instead to read a tinfoil romance novel or a comic book.

This first verse stars a man named Horowitz, who knew a man named Coburn. Both men knew an early version of me. Horowitz will never disappear. Coburn will reappear to star in the second verse of this poem.

I’ve never been able to finish a tinfoil romance novel. In some ways I wish I could manage the feat. I’ve tried for sake of understanding how to write by the fill-in-the-formula method. But their stories felt at least as thin as their paperback versions felt fat, and their repetitive sentences sounded a semi-literate grope-note for me, a melody similar to the stubborn squawk of a boom box on the beach.

That statement reflects an unfair bias, I know, but I don’t feel guilty about my biases. I’m not sure why we call biases unfair, because they have nothing to do with justice. They are rather opinions expressed without the coward’s use of the phrase, “seems to me.” Only liars claim they own no emphatic opinions; and only tag-along liars pretend to believe such claims.

Many female readers — although far from all — remain divided regarding the value of tinfoil romance novels. The young, naive believers eat them as if they were printed on chocolate paper, and the older versions of the same congregation complain when their own hunk heroes become paunchy and inattentive brutes, preferring a few cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a televised football game to a huggy-poo walk in the park. And so goes love and hatred.

NOTA BENE: The Comments section below this long chapter is where you throw down your pink penalty flags and cry foul (or fast-pitch your lover’s empty cans toward my hard head). I’m good at the yoga stance known as the Lucky Lotus Ducky.

And comic books? Oh, woe is I. I used to love everything about them. The daring colors of unreality, the square jaws of white man heroes, the inimical grimaces of master villains, even the aroma of their pulp-paper pages forever encouraged me to live inside the story worlds of books. I wanted to be Superman, not because he was strong and just, but because he was white and could part his hair; while I, the boy who consumed his stories, was condemned to own unruly curls, dark skin and an unsure body. Pretending to be The Man of Steel allowed me — for a brief slip of time — the same privileged status shared by all high school quarterbacks in the USA.

But when Superman and his worshipers began to speak about saving the Earth from plastic-bag pollution and defending the inalienable rights of undocumented immigrants, I lost faith and interest in contemporary illustrated fantasies. It’s not that I favor plastic bags over dog poop in my yard, or want to line our nation’s borders with Bradley tanks and neo-Fascist soldiers. It’s just that comic books should be as make-believe, pure and hopeful as a child’s imagination. And they still should cost no more than twelve cents a shot.

By the way, just to prove to you that I’m willing to stretch my elastic mind beyond my skull’s physical limits, I’ll here admit that I recently listened to a romance novelist as she read a scene from her latest tinfoil romance book. I requested that she treat the audience to a hot and juicy excerpt. So she turned to a page somewhere just before the climax (both; no need to get snarky), and read a few paragraphs wherein the main squeeze, hot hunk is lying on “the bed,” nothing on from head to toe, but blankets pulled up high enough to leave just his naked chest revealed.

Meanwhile, the horny hunkette tells the guilt-ridden hunk that she’s tired of waiting for the Hunk and Bunk Umph. To further convince this gentle lion of a man of her lascivious intentions, little Miss Alabaster Hunkette, drops a handful of packaged condoms onto her hairy, heaving, male beast’s pulsating chest, and then — if I remember correctly and without undue bias — the curtains close and the moaning begins. Not sure how many — if any — condoms they used.

So, maybe I’m too old to grow excited about the combination of condoms and hormones and hunks and hunkettes. Or maybe Superman at the border waving a white, plastic bag and breaking the law ain’t so bad after all.

So what have I been reading, if not comic books and chronicles of love gone to lust and back again to paunchy Pabst? This mess of words is — by my own definition — a literary contemplation, so I should sometime soon mention literature.

I’ve of late been reading several versions of the Tao Te Ching, but talking about the Tao defies and denies the possibility of becoming one with her; or him; or the ineffable, androgynous it. Whatever. As far as I understand the nature of the quantified expansion and contraction of a lima bean, the Tao has no need to disguise itself as a green dicotyledon, although perhaps the secret sauce of the salivating Source is woo woo woo.

Say ooooohhhmmm, eat your vegetables, snap your heels together and rub your belly till you grow excited and ready to surrender any notion that you can control a teenaged zombie’s appetite for love or an old man’s sense of disillusion.

Of course, if your tastes run to lima beans and spiritually enhanced texts, just click on any link roundabout and look into the eyes of the first guru you meet along the hyper-fireway to the stars. Your guru commander will be the guy — yes, a guy with a protuberant beer belly and a quarterback’s dumb courage; as of the date of this essay, the bouncer at Heaven’s Gate is still a fat man who will tell you it’s all muscle.

This self-medicated hero will be wearing a white, seamless robe; leaking mascara-infused tears of joy; and sporting a pair of glittery, polyester wings. His last name might be Chopra, or Dyer, or Krishnamurti, or even PaulNewmanSaladDressing; but it sure as hell won’t be anything so slippery and Sicilian as Toscano.

So check out the name badge pinned to the pocket of the angel’s toga before you beg forgiveness for the mortal sins you most enjoyed before you grew too jaded to look forward to crimes of thought word and deed. Mostly deed, because those are the ones that kill us all and force us toward a desperate faith in God or Krishna Newman Chopra Tofu.

I see my life as a scattering of scenes on the cutting room floor. Strips of film marked by dyed bordered frames, sprocket holes lined up straight along the edges, as if to force a soldier’s sense of order onto the convoluted chaos of a human being’s war with death.

Today I own no desire to sort and rearrange these frames in artificial sequence. I now understand that the concept of time I was taught when I was a child is useful only as a tool designed to stave off insanity, and that in the end that tool must fail its function. Call it rage, call it agony, or call it religion. No matter the name; we are all crazy when we die. And please, don’t bother asking me if my mind has defeated the counter force of gravity; because if that question occurs to you, then you’ve invested too much faith in Superman and feared too little that death might disappoint you. Death always disappoints the living. It’s not — in spite of popular, New Age bumper stickers that Boomers whose hair went gray or left their heads composed — all a matter of attitude. It’s rather a matter of deteriorating flesh and bone.

“Oh brother. Stave? Stave off insanity. Are you sure that phrase is grammatically correct? Look, your one faithful reader is standing beside you. He’s plain old Bill Horowitz. Bill Hor o witz. Here I am. I’m a movie theater projectionist. And in this story that owns no form or purpose for existing, you’re a kid of fourteen.

“The manager of this milk-glass-marquee joint with pine-scented urine pooled on its men’s room floor is a tired man who lives with a wife who hates him twice a day, once in the morning when he leaves the house, and once again in the evening when he comes home. Together they endure the company of a snooty child who hates him for being a stepfather and despises her for marrying the one man he was born to hate. This defeated stepfather manager’s name is Coburn. His face is ugly because his mouth remains wide open and his pale cheeks sag with dumbfounded surprise. And because his mouth is open, his saliva collects and coagulates itself into odoriferous white and stretchy strings that hang like obstinate spider-web threads from his parched lips and yellow teeth.

“Coburn is dying of oscillating cancer. Calcified tumors that resemble rubbery doughnuts clog his ear canals. Oftentimes he cups a hand to one of his ears and shakes it in a rapid, violent way that looks and sounds like a cat scratching fleas off its chin. Maybe he thinks he can annihilate the tumors by vibrating them into oblivion.

“Still, in spite of the misery that is the life of Coburn, the man loves you, kid, big oily nose and all. He hired you because you allow him to entertain the fantasy that declares you as the child he’ll meet at home after work each day, free of snootiness and hatred.

“But me? Bill Horowitz doesn’t love anybody anymore. My own wife, she snores and otherwise kvetches all night, so I can’t sleep, And therefore deprived of compassionate rest, much less reprieve, I cannot love or hate or even care about another human being during daylight or nighttime hours. Not even the characters I project onto the silver screen in order to earn a living prompt me to wonder about life and death.

“My face is wrinkled like Popeye’s because I’m old. Over the years I developed this habit of squeezing my eyes shut tight, as if to imply that I’m either thinking deep about the human condition, or suffering a bout with indigestion that I’d rather hold inside than expel and thereby chase company away by polluting the air we’re together forced to breathe. I don’t know why I care. I don’t know why I don’t let go and tell myself to fuck it all, tell the truth and die. Maybe the answer lies somewhere between Popeye and Superman, both men fallen into flames on the cutting-room floor.

“I am sure of nothing, except for the fact that the truth I cannot touch has nothing to do with pent up gas or profound cogitation. The truth is that I squint a lot because I smoke cigars down to their nubby nubs and the smoke makes my eyes burn and water. So you can’t really see too far into my eyes, much less doubt my intelligence or lack thereof. Not with any sense of certainty.

“I like to eat corned beef sandwiches and pretend my dick still gets hard when I wake up in the morning. And you, kid, you keep using words like stave. Please stop that shit now, or I’ll refuse to be a major character in this story; I’ll deny you your one loyal reader. It’s bad enough that I swing around words like profound and cogitation. At least those two words still sound somewhat familiar to the wider world of tinfoil romance novel fans. Stave, though, I tell you, stave sounds like the stick you sink into a vampire’s heart. Are you listening?”

I remember standing beside Bill Horowitz. I was a boy of fourteen. He was an old fart, a grouch, a grump, a recalcitrant recluse. Perhaps it would be better to say that I thought of him as being old during one particular afternoon inside of which I stood and I still stand. Remember that time is not a river. Time is a cruel joke, just as all jokes are at their centers cruel.

Nowadays, when I’m not busy standing inside a past moment that never passed, I myself am an old fart soon to die. So I try to seek wisdom from the aged folk who surround me and force me by way of their conversation to feel the shivered presence of my approaching death. My earnest effort to discover wisdom outside of myself never works the miracle I desire; because so many of us old people are too busy talking about the food we nibble, the sleep patterns we can’t control, the doctors’ bad breath we endure, and the legalized drugs we ingest to extend our weary lives. Still, I keep imaginary company with Ponce de Leon. The persistent habit is a matter of leftover ideals.

On that afternoon we shared inside the movie theater’s cutting room my inexperienced eyes insisted that Bill’s hair should be white. But hints of what once might have been blond pigment left the slicked-back neatness of it all looking like the color of pulp paper pages gone tired and yellow.

“You really think it looks yellow? That’s just the color of the air in this room. The light bulb’s yellow. The walls are yellow. Christ, even the window shade is the yellowed brown hue of Roman Empire era parchment paper. But, kid, I never was a blond. Now that you’re my age tomorrow, today, you should be able to understand how the dark, curly hair of youth goes white when you get old. Except for the new whiskers that sprout inside your ears.

“Dammit all, now you got me sounding a lot like Saul Bellow, what with the dark curly hair of youth metaphor. You thought that maybe I didn’t know what a metaphor is. Right? And don’t ask me about Bellow. The man began his career with some stories of universal application. Read his early books, the few from the forties. The Dangling Man, or The Victim are good if you own an ounce of belief in intellectual pursuit inside your Sicilian heart. Saul was good back then. Matter of fact, he was required reading in my family circle. But just like some dago scribes can’t stop writing about the Cosa Nostra — the literal one, as well as the mythical version — Saul got hooked on all things lox and bagel and lost his taste for any other flavor of humanity. Self-absorbed, repetitive and tiresome.”

I recall each detail of this particular afternoon in August with Bill Horowitz, because as I stood there watching, listening, and breathing slow and shallow, I told myself to remember the entire moment. No, let me put it this way: I commanded the impression to remain at the edges of my brain, inside a pocket that would remain easy to reach and pick much later.

All of it. Every detail of that yellow afternoon. The sights, the sounds the smells, and my interpretations of the thoughts that lay between the words we spoke to each other. Back then — which is still now — I did this kind of talking to myself a lot. I knew with absolute certainty that the magic trick would work. Back then I had no doubt about my power to convince the universe to do my bidding, and so the universe complied.

So I remember this.

I asked, and Bill resisted. I asked again, and Bill hesitated. I asked him why, and he said I shouldn’t have to die with him. I insisted, and Bill relented.

Bill Horowitz became my teacher because I begged to become his student. He showed me how to cut, trim, rearrange and splice together scattered scenes that in different orders told different stories.

I became the squinting sailor who smoked cigars down to their nubs, the tinfoil romance hunk waiting for his shallow succubus , the apolitical superhero, the ugly man with tumors clogging his ears, the counterpoint character to the snooty brat, the slippery Sicilian who smelled Jewish blood running through his veins, and most of all the intellectual storyteller.

Bill Horowitz taught me that creativity is a terminal disease, and then he died.

Rebello’s Advice On Getting Published

Snoozie's Trattoria
Snoozie's Trattoria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No way, because –”

“Because critiques are all about encouraging imitation.”

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

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

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

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

“Differences?”

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

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

“So you’ve read Raymond, too?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Sounds like a good story.”

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

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

“And the winning chef?”

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

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