I Am An Ordinary Man

Proust On The Shelf

I am an ordinary man who owns extraordinary tastes in literature.

Plah, plah.

Proust and Updike live on my bookshelves, and yes, I’ve read them. Updike every word several times over. Proust now and again for a while, until I remind myself that Death awaits me at the end of a short corridor, and that therefore I might either finish Marcel, then cough and slobber through my final breath, or reach for one of Paul Monette’s tragedies or Auster’s New York Trilogy.

Like most ordinary men who suffer extraordinary tastes in literature, I am sometimes tempted to entertain the trashy part of my mind. She’s the Devil, a whore and a glutton. She’s Charles Bukowski’s puss-bloated boils. She’s Jim Thompson’s tree branches tilted to become a hungry, palpitating crotch. She’s Patricia Highsmith’s innocent nighttime stalker.

She’s the reason I am bound for Hell.

She’s the tender side of me.

Plah, plah.

I am a literary man without a valet. A writer destined never to become an author, because I refuse to surrender to the tawdry stampede of me-too digital personalities who try to outrun the bulls by branding themselves as cackling chatterers who just happen to write books.

So illogical some of their plans.

Not all, I agree. Not you and I. No way. We know that gurus come and go. I’m OK, You’re A Sucker. Seven Habits of Highly Effective Calendar Salesmen. The Secret Just Fell From The Sky and Killed You. Sock Drawer, Are You There? My Feet Are Cold.

Yes, some of us Hell-bound independents have lived long enough to understand that we are our own gurus.

Still, it’s a woeful fact that some less ordinary, less plah plah literary people these days say . . .

Follow my blogospherical, coffee klatch articles that compare my life to that of a sock drawer run amok. More than that, love me for the fact that some of my socks are missing their matches (so High Concept, because admit it now, I sound just like you, tee hee). Then please be sure that when my novel — my never-ending work in progress, my paranormal zombie romance self-help guide with a hunk and a hunkess on the cover — is published, you click on over to lightreading4thelighthearted.com and buy my book.

What’s that you say? Which chapter will be about mismatched socks?

Well, paranormal zombie hunks don’t wear socks. You must have missed that conversation in the comments section of my post about my life as a perfect pedicure.

You can what? You can read my chat-session blog for free, so why spend money on yet another guide to enhanced romance?

I told you already. I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual. And like we spiritual bloggers . . . like we . . . like we see things that other people don’t see. Like, one night, I was like Who’s that walking down my short corridor in the dark? And this zombie was like . . . well he was like sayin’ . . . it’s me. Like I used to live inside your sock drawer long before you were born. And like . . . I’m surprised you can really . . . I mean like . . . can you see me? Cause like that means you must be paranormal, and so am I. It’s like I’m a zombie, or maybe like a vampire who wants to like . . . slay you.

So now you’ll buy my book?

Sure enough. Like wow, why didn’t you say it was like about sex, not socks?

Well, like look at the cover.

But not I, yon teens. I refuse. I don’t give a damn about your sock drawer, unless it forces me to think about where my own feet travel. All my socks, by the way, are married and monogamous, folded neat and free from lint inside the footwear compartment of my mind.

Plah, plah.

I am an ordinary man who owns extraordinary tastes in literature.

I am my own guru.

And yes, I sometimes entertain my hungry whore.

So these days I am reading Paul Alexander’s biography of Sylvia Plath, Rough Magic. I’m a short way into the book, and a long way into the story.

Those of you who left the room after my mention of Proust, or somewhere between there and here, will likely not return to read what I discover in later chapters; as I intend to write more here about this book as I pursue it.

To the readers who might leave me comments about what a stuffed-shirt snob I am, I say thanks for a well-worded rejoinder. Life as we attempt to define it isn’t all about sad, chatty calendar salesmen and twenty-first century gurus young enough to be my children.

Rough Magic is a plah-plah book. No hint of paranormal zombies or coffee-klatch vampires. But for those of us who equate entertainment with intellectual challenge, its pages are more filling than a holiday feast of bloody feet.

And for those of us who are plagued by palpitating gluttons, there’s plenty of gossip and conjecture.

A couple of nights ago, I mentioned to a friend that I was reading this book, and she branded the story of Sylvia Plath a “downer.” Perhaps many of you yon teen bloggers are about as familiar with the term “downer” as I am nauseated by the frequent and misappropriated use of the word “like.”

Suffice it to say that my friend is not alone in thinking Sylvia’s life a sad affair.

I agree with her, but as my own life nears its end, I grow sadder for the prospect of oblivion. Sadness is a legitimate state of mind.

And did I yet mention that I love gossip? Not the tabloid variety that tells us what brand of toilet paper an ephemeral celebrity uses. But the curious kind that makes up most human conversation, spoken as well as written.

Ted Hughes, the dead Poet Laureate who married Sylvia Plath in 1956, suffered through the mad obsession of her depressive personality, and last left her bed to find a more intense flavor of hero worship in the arms of a woman more delicious than his wife.

His lonesome wife, now abandoned, caring for two diapered children, staring across a wintertime moor, pen, paper and passion in her hand. A tear inside her heart.

Ted Hughes was a thug who wore a cape to cover the slouch of his shoulders, shoulders far too weak to bear more than the weight of self-aggrandizement.

Professor Hughes, blowhard academic poet. His technical skills advanced, his conscience retarded by admiration for his own echo.

His hollow, wooden poetry praised by priests of Her Majesty’s Empire, subservient and obsequious members of the congregation one and all.

His cowardice ignored by all but the few who tried to chisel his name from Sylvia’s headstone.

The dead soul who for thirty-five years laid claim to grief by way his silent refusal to admit that adultery can kill a lover’s dream, if not her body.

The mean man who prepared his final, archival statement just months ahead of what he knew would be his death by cancer, yet who with purpose destroyed Sylvia’s last journal.

I’d like to condemn that man to company with me in Hell, but age, experience and my own list of mortal sins tells me not to dare such a claim to divinity.

That and the fact that no one cares what I think of Ted Hughes.

And isn’t that same fear — that no one will care about what a writer tries to publish — the more accurate reason that Sylvia sealed a dank and ugly room in Devon, then turned on the gas and placed her head deep inside an unlit oven? Was Ted Hughes, Plath’s second Daddy, an excuse for her own wrath?

I’ve read every word published by Plath, and I suspect that had she not committed suicide her name today would not be famous. The Bell Jar is a boring book, except for the fact that its somber story confesses Sylvia’s own and predicts her demise. Her Colossus poems fell flat before an absent audience, while at the same time King Edward James Hughes ruffled his hair in order to enhance his growing reputation as a wild romantic inspired by the gods.

And so what most attracts me to this pair of graves?

An ordinary man’s extraordinary taste for tawdry gossip? One writer’s probe into another writer’s pain? Love of a mystery left unsolved? A keen desire for justice, born of injustices resented during the course of my own lifetime? The tension of a mathematician’s need to make the numbers work in logical fashion versus the artist’s understanding that love and hatred aren’t based on numbers?

At this point, either I don’t own an answer, or I’m unwilling to confess another sin.

Maybe later I’ll have an answer. Then later still I’m sure to have a different one.

Bald Man In A Barber Shop

barbershop
Just Trim A Little Off The Sides

On a bright yellow morning in December of 1963 God taught me the reason a bald man needs a haircut, the fact that Jackie Kennedy didn’t care who shot her husband, and that I was supposed to hate niggers because I looked like one.

I was sitting inside The Buzzcut Emporium — across the parking lot from Snoozie’s Trattoria — smelling white powder puffing off the soft brush with a blond wood handle that Jimmie the barber was waving against the neck of the tall, skinny, bald man who sat in the swivel chair.

I didn’t like the way Jimmie made loud speeches while holding a straight razor close to the wiry man’s throat; and the bald man sneered and blew me a kiss. So I slumped, slouched and curled my body until I became invisible. Then I slid what was left of me back against the wall, and I leafed through a copy of Life Magazine.

I stared at the Abe Zapruder colored photos of JKF’s assassination. I stopped breathing when I reached the frame where his wife Jackie held her man still and wide open to the shot that turned one side of the president’s head into red mist.

“She was sad, but she was free,” said God. “The secret service man who climbed onto the limousine’s back bumper practiced his lines and moves ahead of time.”

I considered asking God a question about Calvin’s concept of Predestination, but the barber’s voice distracted me.

“You want I should blend the sides with the fuzz around your ears. That right?” said Jimmie.

“Yeah, that and give it a proper washing, maybe even lighten it up some for the summer months,” said the bald man. Then he pulled what at first looked like a squirmy guinea pig from the pocket of his permanent-press slacks and handed the creature to Jimmie.

Turns out the pig was his hair.

Pig, wig, what the fuck, I thought. This guy’s an independent thinker like me, or he’s a nut case like me; and in either event Johnnie Rebello was right to recommend that I write my next story about whatever might happen here on a Saturday morning.

I rubbed my hand through the mess of tight curls that sat on top of my brain, and I listened to the bell above the doorjamb jingle as a cop walked inside and approached Jimmie. That tinkling bell, I realized, appeared in far too many of the stories I wrote not to hold some mysterious significance inside my psyche. Something to do with arrival and departure.

The cop wore a hat. The kind the bread man wore in the early 1950s when I was too young by a slip to go to school. I think I was in love with the bread man. It was all about the way he smelled. Sweet and hopeful as lemon sunlight shining on baby-green grass.

The fact that the bread man’s visits interrupted the beatings my mother gave me for being a weird child who was born inside her gut and could get back inside her head anytime he wanted to go there served to deepen my affection for him.

He would knock on the door, and my mother would drop her weapon, quick stop screaming, and growl at me to suck up my tears. Then she’d start singing and smiling like a television housewife who smelled like lavender perfume even after lusty sex.

I was only four or five years old at the time, but my daily travels inside my mother’s mind led me to understand — in the vague but focused way that babies comprehend the complicated aspects of communication — the connection between the beatings and her intense sense of physical frustration. A few years later, when I learned how to make myself come, I realized what she’d been missing, and how the bread man’s visits fit into the picture.

“Come on in,” she’d say when she opened the door.

He was tall and handsome, and his fingernails were clean.

My dad was short and nondescript, and his hands were always dirty from working hard-labor jobs on the railroad. Pennsylvania Reading Seashore Line. Steam locomotives left over from World War II, dedicated to lugging tourists from Philadelphia to South Jersey and back again.

The bread man sported a fresh-pressed brown uniform and a snappy cap with a shiny black brim.

My dad wore grease-stained overalls and a pinstriped canvas hat that surrendered to his sweat.

The bread man filled the air with the aroma of sugar frosting and jelly doughnuts.

Dad stank of kerosene and coal tar.

And the cop carried no scent at all.

“Gotta stack of Wanted Dead or Alive posters here,” he said. His voice squealed past the fine hairs inside his nostrils and came out sounding like a sax gone sour. “Mind if I tape one to your window?”

“You know me, Bernie. Semper a Member of the Chamber. Here, I’ll hang one on the mirror, too. Who you lookin’ for this time?”

“Thug named Harry Felton. Guy wrote a book a few years back, then made himself drunk forever when no one but old ladies wanted to read the damned thing. Couple of months ago, he snorted down the wrong kind of cocktail and totaled a Packard automobile. Almost killed his own fat ass, and crippled his queer passenger, then escaped the hospital with the help of his agent just after we pressed him with a DWI. We suspect he went looking for an old dame named Gloria Lakeland. Seems like he had a score to settle with her.”

“Lakeland from down the road in Railsford? Did he find her?” said Jimmie.

“Yep, that’s the broad. She showed up yesterday lying in her own bed, naked, embarrassed and two days beyond dead. Her neighbors smelled her remains and called us. A note, written in red lipstick, was tacked to the headboard. Just two words: Epilogue Forthcoming. I’m not sure if I’m saying that right.”

“What’s this world coming to, Bernie?”

“I can’t answer that one. That kind of language is too twisted and high-falutin for me to want to understand.”

The cop left, and the bell tinkled.

“You’re next, kid,” said Jimmie. At first I didn’t know he was talking to me. I was too busy trying to stay invisible, and thinking about how much I hated Jackie Kennedy, to pay careful attention to the present moment.

And as far as present moments go, even back then I realized that time was a desperate concept we invented so we wouldn’t feel too dizzy and start to fall down. Being physically and emotionally tortured makes some children wither inside and turns other ones into hyper-sensitive psychics. I was a damned smart kid. Intelligence was the only thing I knew for certain that I owned, although intelligence disappointed itself by telling me that I could never be the best or the most.

“What’s wrong? Those big ears of yours not working today?” The tall bald man, who wasn’t exactly bald anymore, punched me on my shoulder and pointed to Jimmie. “Man’s talking to you, you bookworm faggot shrimp,” he said.

His trimmed and copper-toned guinea pig was sitting on top of his head. It slipped a little bit to the left as he bent down toward me. But his thin-lipped mouth tilted off to the right side of the universe, so on balance I made sense of the view.

“Thank you, sir,” I said. “I like your haircut.” I kept my facial muscles tight when I spoke, so as to be sure that my expression added nothing to my words.

Of course, I was being a wise-ass motherfucker by saying I admired his orange pig wig, but I’d learned from my mother’s beatings, and from the tough acting kids at school who spat on me and had wax inside their flat shiny ears, that given the choice between a subtly delivered wise-ass compliment and none at all, the insecure among us would always ignore the sarcasm and accept the compliment as a gift.

The tall, skinny man twitched his head from left to right, the way a spastic entertains an uncontrollable tic. He pushed his polyester shirt down deep into his permanent-press slacks, scratched his balls while he was down there, smelled the fingers he pulled out and turned toward the Buzzcut Emporium’s door.

And by force of habit I listened to the doorjamb bell tinkle.

“Climb aboard, kid. Mind if I call you kid?” said Jimmie the barber. He placed a padded board across the swivel chair’s arms. I shrugged my shoulders in answer to his question, wiggled my ass into position, and wished I wasn’t short like my dad.

“Please. Can you give me a flat top? Leave it longer right up front?” I said.

“Flat tops are for real hair, not for what God gave you. You got nigger’s wool. Only one way I can try to fix it,” he said. Then he grabbed the electric razor and I listened to it hum like an attacking squadron of green-head houseflies.

“My dad told me I don’t have to get a buzz cut this time.” I heard the pleading whine inside my voice and hated myself for begging this bastard.

“Your dad’s the little guy who works the switch house down the way, isn’t he?”

“He works hard,” I said.

“Not hard enough at controlling his wife. But look, kid, you don’t want to go through this life looking like a woolly headed licorice baby, so just let me do my job. The only reason I took you in here was because Johnnie called me from over at the Trattoria and said you had potential in spite of your looks.”

“You know Johnnie Rebello?” I said.

“Like a man knows his brother, cause that’s what we are. I’m Jimmie Rebello, but most guys call me Jimmie The Razor. You’re still a young punk, though, so just keep calling me sir.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Rebello,” I said as I watched my nigger’s wool fall to the black-and-white tile floor.

“Johnnie says you’re an author. That the way it is?”

“I write stories, but so far no one wants to publish them.”

“Well, what do you write about, kid?”

“Melancholy dead guys who live in Happyland. About them and about everything else.”

I thought about how if I ever wrote this barber shop into a story I’d have to change all the characters’ names, because no one would believe that they all ended with the same sound. Johnnie, Jimmie, Bernie, Harry. Then again, I thought, life was odd and so were my stories, so maybe I’d leave well enough alone.

“That might be your problem, kid. Trust me on this. Dead guys can be melancholy, but not here in Happyland.”

“Your brother, Mr. Johnnie, told me the same thing.”

“Must have heard it from me. We talk a lot. On the telephone, that is. I can’t convince him he should leave his favorite corner booth, walk across the parking lot and visit me here. He tells me that exercise is for fools who think they’ll live forever. Sometimes I think he’s got a point.”

“Mr. Johnnie is a wise man.”

“So I eat free of charge at the Trattoria once a month, and in return I give him a haircut to match his restaurant’s decor.”

“Like I said, Mr. Johnnie is a –”

“Quit while you’re ahead, kid. I don’t need you to praise my brother.” Jimmie swung me around in the chair. “You see the mug hanging on my mirror over there? Guy’s name is Harry Felton. He’s an author, too. Old, drunk and on the run from the law. He let a temporary need for love ruin his life. Happens to all you brooding artist types. I’d be careful if I was you.”

I stared at Harry Felton’s photograph, and then at my own reflection in the mirror. Harry had nigger’s wool, too. Gray to my brown, but his curls were just as tight. True enough, he looked lonely and just about dead. But he held his head high and winked at me.

I climbed down off the board and out of the swivel chair. I pulled two quarters out my pants pocket and handed them to Jimmie.

“Glad I met you, Mr. Rebello, sir” I said. “But I don’t need love. I need success. And the next time I want a haircut, I’ll look for Harry Felton’s barber.”

I remember leaving the Buzzcut Emporium, but I can’t be sure that the doorjamb bell tinkled on my way out.

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.”

Secrets

Paul Monette
Secrets Kill

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.

Turning Error Into Art

Hawker Hurricane
The Art of War?

When I was a young child, I used too much glue whenever I put together a model airplane. I could see the fine details—the erect plastic nipples on each tab A, the receptive bellybuttons on each slot B, the ridges, the cutouts and the seams—but I couldn’t manage the combination of patience and coordination required to apply just enough pressure to the tube to release a tiny droplet of epoxy. Instead, I squeezed too hard, and clear sap leaked all over the wing, jammed up the landing gear and blurred the pilot’s windshield.

It’s not easy to wipe glue off plastic. Paper towels are useless—they tear and shred, and leave unattractive tatters of themselves behind—and cotton cloths aren’t much better. The glue thickens as it breathes, so you have to wipe fast, although even with a rapid swiping motion you can never get to all of it before scar tissue forms on the fuselage. Still, I tried my best to make my models neat and clean.

I used paper towels on the B-52, and cotton cloths on the Hawker Hurricane; and then, out of frustration with the inevitable, smeared deviation from exactitude—and out of respect for the Spitfire’s legend—I tossed the towels and cloths and I developed my own method for turning error into art.

I unscrewed the cap of the next soft-metal tube, pinched its bottom end, then rolled my thumb and index finger along its body, from foot to nozzle, over and over again, until all of the tube’s transparent blood oozed, seeped, ran and coated the model’s surface. Next, with the tip of one finger, I pressed, pulled and drew the thickening glue into a level sheen, as if I were painting the airplane without a brush. When I got it all as smooth and even as I could, I used an artisan’s razor to etch a few signature details. A bolt of zigzag lightning on the nose, the rough outline of a seductive lady under the window, my initials on the tail.

These lines that I drew folded in on themselves, changed course by force of gravity, and all but disappeared as the glue congealed like tired lava and then dried and flaked like a bad skin condition; but I knew what I’d meant to say by slicing them there.

My friends and brothers laughed at the results of my experiments. Back then I could not absorb ridicule any better than glue, so I gave up building the machines of war. I threw away the B-52, the Hurricane and the Spitfire; and in a fit of passive, inward temper, I declared that I’d hated airplanes all along and that I much preferred the force of nature to the power of weapons.

And yet, you cannot stop a spy from guarding secrets, nor keep a determined athlete from his sport, and so I soon replaced my glue-and-plastic art form with another exercise, this next adventure more forgiving of a young boy’s errant glance toward what delights him. I took up digging for Saturday-morning worms to use as lure for mindless catfish fed and swimming in the lake that lies below the highest hill in Bronwell Corners. I traveled muddy paths through wooded marsh at sunrise, filled my lungs with the erotic aroma of rotting vegetation, spied the flick and swoosh of rabbits darting through the reeds, nicked my fingertip on the sharp point of a fishhook, sucked the blood and cast the line.

I sat down beneath a canopy of maple leaves, listened to proud cardinals singing, and felt the summertime shadows run through me. I stared beyond the grassy bank, slipped off my shoes and socks, pushed my legs forward and let them dangle over the edge. My toes touched and then broke the lake’s cool surface. I shivered as the red cedar water tickled my ankles. I closed my eyes and imagined that a raft made of tree limbs and thick vines floated just a few hundred feet from where I rested.

A tall man dressed in a burlap toga, and wearing a straw hat on his head, rowed the raft. He smiled at me. His teeth were white and his eyes were yellow. When he’d moved the raft nearer to the shoreline, the man threw me one end of a vine.

“Tie me up, boy,” he hollered. “I have something to say to you.”

I stood up, grabbed the strong, green rope and tethered it to the tree trunk behind me. I tugged hard at the vine, letting the slack fall in circles at my feet, until the raft floated close enough to the bank that the man could jump ashore.

“You fishing or dreaming, son?” he asked.

“A little of both, I guess. It’s better than building model airplanes.”

“That’s why I’m here, boy,” he said.

I think my expression told him that I felt puzzled, because the tall man shook with a round belly laugh and then went on to explain what he meant.

“Was it the glue or the ridicule that drove you to dangle your feet in red cedar water?”

“I never really liked airplanes.”

“But you enjoy the aroma of rotting vegetation, and the flick and swoosh of rabbits reminds you that you can run like a frightened beast. That’s right, isn’t it? Flick and swoosh is what you called it, no?”

With that the man again began to laugh. This time he laughed so long and hard that he seemed to lose his wind. I watched as he chuckled and snickered, giggled and groaned, sniggered and roared, before he fell to the ground in front of me and rolled side to side, all the while holding on to his middle.

“I won’t ask you why you’re laughing at me,” I said.

I glared at the tall man and I waited. Eventually, he lay still and seemed to regain his composure. He looked at me through watered eyes and winked.

“I know that,” he said. “I know you won’t ask. You won’t even ask me who I am. I’m a little bit of God and a little bit of Jim the slave. I’m the poet you think you are today, and the craftsman you might not become tomorrow.”

“I don’t want to become you,” I said.

“Of course not. Not now that you see that my hat is made of straw and my toga isn’t seamless silk. You thought I’d be sporting a black beret and quoting windbag Whitman, didn’t you?”

“I told you, Mister, I don’t want to become you. I never wanted to become you. I don’t even want to know who you are.”

“I’m a bad-boy poet, son, and I work hard to earn a living. Sometimes I squeeze too much glue along the seams, but I’m too smart and too foolish to take up fishing. If you want to hitch a ride on the raft, then you must leave the windblown, black-beret attitude behind you. You’re too young to sound like a prophet and too old for plastic-model tantrums. And scar tissue, son, scar tissue is part of surgery, so get used to it,” he said.

“I don’t understand you,” I said.

“I think you’ll want to pull in your line now, then tomorrow return to etching zigzag lightning on the nose and a seductive lady or two under the window. There’s not much meat on even a well-fed catfish.”

And then the tall man left me sitting there alone.

Written in February 2000

Blue-Gray Days

Olde Port Fish Market
Down to the Olde Port Market

Written November 2009

I moved to this town many years ago, because the blue fog combined itself with the false impression of infinity that an ocean can provide if only an eye looks beyond the foaming coastline that signals a return to port.

For years before I came here, to this town of short-sleeved polyester shirts sitting proud around a boardroom table; this town of short walks to the Post Office or the sugary-pink bakery; this town of hello good mornings spoken to strangers; this town enveloped by a Sunday-morning, aromatic cloud of steam lifting off from crackling bacon and pan-fried onions; this town of inconsolable old fishermen and their exhausted wives. For years before I came to live with all of this, I vacationed in the next town over, just twelve miles away, but they were twelve miles that I never wanted to traverse.

Not until the morning I sat beside a wrinkled, fat and dusty man dressed in denim overalls, the two of us hunkered down over the diner’s counter, dipping burnt bread into sunny-side egg yolk, scooping dollops of homemade corned beef hash onto the wet and buttered toast. Not until we began to speak to each other, or rather he began to speak to me.

“Good to have an old-fashioned diner here in town. Mike, the tall guy who owns this place, comes from Atlantic City,” he said. His cheeks bulged with food as he spoke. His lips, full and chapped, looked slimy with the egg yolk he spilled there.

“Atlantic City? New Jersey?” I said.

“There isn’t any other, not that I know about.”

“My dad used to take me crabbing in Atlantic City.”

“Yeah, well you still have the accent,” he said. “I grew up there, too, along with Mike, though I expect that you and us came up at different times.”

“Sometimes I miss the place,” I said.

“There’s lots of crab and fish in the next town over. Just a short stretch, and I’ll be going there after breakfast if you want to come along. Won’t be much sunshine there today. Never is,” he said. “Want to come with me? Finish your meal, then.”

We both let the weight we gained from our full breakfast pull us down from the diner’s vinyl-covered stools.

His truck, rusty as a ripened crab trap, was parked around the corner. Along the way we walked past clean-shaven Christians holding hands with their pleated-skirt wives and pert college girls looking at their reflections in shop windows.

The truck door’s hinges creaked as I pulled her open. I climbed the distance from sidewalk to worn-cloth upholstery, sat and stared through a dirt-streaked windshield; and once out of town I allowed my glance to follow the four-lane highway’s painted lines.

My breakfast companion said nothing until we reached the exit that led to Our Town.

“Gotta drive down to the boat launch first, then we’ll ride back again and meet the crabs I was talking about. You game?”

“I’m game. You own a boat?” I said.

“No. I clean the fish that others carry up to the sinks. Then I sell what I can for them down to the Olde Port Market. Rest I give away to friends. It’s all part of the deal, the way I make my living now that I’m old. Once upon a time, though, I owned a side trawler. Many folks nowadays find it fashionable to condemn the man who trawls for the food they eat, but that’s just the way it is.”

“Is that why you gave it up? Because tree huggers criticized you?” I said.

“No. It’s a long story you don’t want to hear, but the short of it is that Manny, one of my Mexican crew, killed himself by being crushed in the winch’s cable. Nothing any of us could do in spite of his screaming. Once you’re caught, you’re dead. There’s a monument just the other side of town that makes mention of Manny and all the others lost to sea. Maybe someday you’ll say a prayer while standing there.”

I thought better than to ask the man any further questions. I figured that he needed time to think about Manny and then some more time to recoup his sense of purpose.

The boat launch felt like a lost and empty place, grey and filthy as the fog, constant rainbows of blood and guts flickering on the metal cutting boards beside the sinks. My breakfast companion worked fast and with the skill of a seasoned surgeon. I shuffled and humble-shifted my body around the several men working there, men who not once asked who I was, men who seemed so intent on completing their day’s work that nothing outside of that sweat-soaked reality registered as being part of the world.

My companion loaded several coolers, each filled with fresh-cut fish covered in ice, into the bed of his pickup truck, then wiped his hands on a blood-soaked towel and climbed back into the driver’s seat. I followed suit. We traveled less than a mile before he pushed his foot down hard on the brake pedal.

“There’s the crab tubs. Get yourself down and out, and go to look at them,” he said. “I’ll be inside talking business with Giovanni.”

To the left side of the Olde Port Market’s front doors sat two metal tanks filled with live crabs. A filter ran a continual bubbling stream of water into the vats in order to keep the crabs alive. I stared and ran my thoughts backward to the times I and my dad went crabbing just outside of Atlantic City.

“They’re beauties, ain’t they now?” he said.

I jumped when I heard his voice come from behind me. I’d been lost in thought, and now I felt irritated because of his interruption.

“No. No, they aren’t beautiful, friend. Matter of fact, they’re downright ugly,” I said.

“What’s got you pissed?”

“The hair on the back of their shells. I never saw, much less ate, a crab who needed a haircut.”

“This ain’t Atlantic City, you know, but it’s as close as you’ll come out this far away.”

“Maybe, then, just maybe I should turn around and make my way back home.” I said.

“I like you better without all that make pretend shyness, kid. Hash and eggs, and catering to old men like me won’t cure your disease, but –”

“Disease, what disease are you talking about?”

“Loneliness. Don’t go back now to pretending, because a second act can’t erase a first impression,” he said.

“I’m not particularly lonely. No more than most who move from one shore to another,” I said.

“Okay, whatever you say, but for what it’s worth, I think you’re right about crabs. You’re not the only one who remembers the oily smell of mud around Atlantic City. But home you are. Right here and now. Manny was lonesome for home, too. But in fact of things insofar as I understand them he died at home, right there crushed to bits inside that winch’s cable.”

I never again saw my breakfast companion, and I never want to see him on a different day. But on blue-gray mornings such as this one I oftentimes visit the monument he talked about, and standing there I say a prayer for all of us.

 

Dear Young Companion, Dear Old Friend, Part I

Dear Young Companion, Dear Old Friend

Dear Young Companion,

I watched you last night. Lying there on your antique couch, the one with the maroon brocaded upholstery and the wide-winged arms, one of which you use each day as an uncomfortable headrest, stiff and unyielding enough to leave your neck muscles in knots. Why do you remain there and refuse to climb into your bed each evening like any sane man would do?

Ludicrous of me to ask, of course. After all, I know the answer to every question I put to you. I am your old friend. I’ve been close to you for what seems to be a lifetime’s worth of days and years, and yet is just as short or as long as what human beings name a second.

I ask you questions so that you will ask them of yourself. If you want to survive these saddest days, then hear me and pay attention.

You will survive, by the way. I know this fact as well as I know myself. One day soon you’ll rise from your couch and walk out your front door for more than just a midnight walk.

For now, though, you must swim a while longer inside your self-made pool of tears. I could tell you not to worry. I could say that self-pity is a necessary step toward revelation and self-acceptance. But you wouldn’t believe me. Not today. You think you’ve reached your end. Fact is that you want your life to seize upon itself, at least that’s what your voice whispers whenever your mind settles on the subject of regret.

So she left you. You came back to the apartment that you shared with her, the home where you and she tried hard to destroy each other. Four weeks ago now. You walked through the door and smelled the odor of darkness that you kept safe by closing all the windows, all the shades drawn tight against your secrets. And there you found the note, the single scribbled sentence that you pretended would never come to meet you. There the note lay, on top of your prized writing desk, the desk that you and she in happier times pushed neat into the living-room alcove. The living room where death occurred each morning.

“I need some space, some time to think,” she wrote.

And you feigned anger in order to avoid spiritual disintegration. You screamed profanities. You blamed her for leaving you. You imagined yourself as an altruistic, noble gentleman who had been cruelly wronged. But no one heard you shouting. You knew that no one could hear you. After all, it was you who shut the windows of your second-story apartment, that very morning and all the preceding mornings, so that your neighbors and the angels flying by could not hear the ugly arguments that you and she entertained.

And there you stood understanding nothing of nobility or of gentleness. You knew that fact, too. Each day when you shaved your face — the same face you stopped shaving after she left — you saw the reflection of a sinner’s broken spirit.

I’ll pose just one last question for today: Why do you take those midnight winter walks through blizzard winds? Hear me. Pay attention. Ask yourself, and try to answer.

Dear Old Friend,

Somehow I know you’re here, your face close to mine, your lips kissing my mouth. But I cannot understand you. Why would anyone want to be near me? I’m a failure. I tried to love her, but I was born without sufficient capacity for giving love, without sufficient tenderness or empathy.

I’ve given up my desk. Instead, I lie here on the couch and scratch disjointed thoughts onto one pad of paper after another.

I changed the locks on the one door to this apartment. I go outside only after midnight. I never turn on a lamp. I want the air here to remain dark, black enough that I can think, think until the end arrives.

Yesterday afternoon, a friend came knocking at the door. “Are you there?” she asked. I slid my body silent to the floor and crawled, slow and careful, into the nearest corner, under a window sill. I held my breath until her murmured questions stopped. And then I held my breath a while longer. I stayed still inside the corner. I shut my eyes tight. I would not allow her to hear me moving.

She left, and I returned to the couch, to my place of refuge. There again I recorded the fearful moment. Someday soon I will destroy these pads of reckless paragraphs, but when I reach the bottom of the final page I’ll remember what I wrote.

I keep one dim light lit. A green glow behind a round clock face. There I can watch the clock’s hands move, listen as they tick off the needled steps toward midnight. At midnight I feel safe enough, alone enough to stand up and leave this place for a while. As I reach for my woolen coat, I can feel you holding it open, wide enough to allow me to slide my arms into its sleeves. This winter season, this season of my saddest, final days, is the coldest winter season I remember. So I wrap and tuck the scarf she gave to me last Christmas tight around my neck. I wear boots that keep most of the snow and ice away from my feet. I lost my gloves somewhere in the mess I made here, so instead I pull a heavy sock onto each hand.

I have nowhere that I need to be, no destination comes to mind, no one who asks that I visit. So I punch my legs into the snowdrifts, follow the misty orange streetlights that serve as background to windswept flakes, and I walk in circles. Until hunger returns to say, “Go there and eat.”

There is a sandwich shop at the intersection of two sets of trolley tracks. Each time I enter, the big man in the little kitchen throws a few slices of thin chipped beef onto the grill to join the pile of fried onions that lives there day and night. He asks me no questions; and for his silence I feel grateful.

I slip my body onto the vinyl-covered seat of an empty booth. I watch the man squirt pale-yellow oil onto the inside of a hard roll of bread, then press the roll down on top of the steak and onions. I breathe in deep the food’s cheap aroma, rise from my seat, snatch a cold root beer soda from the metal locker, pay the man and walk home with my food.

At the foot of the snow-covered path that leads to my apartment building, I stop and spy, just to be certain that no one waits for me there. That’s a nonsensical thing to do, isn’t it, old friend? Two-thirty strikes the darkest morning of my saddest day, Zephyr surrenders to the howl of frigid air, and I expect a visitor? Nonsense, yes, perhaps; but somehow I understand that it’s you who waits for me, you who will sit with me on my antique couch to share a meal, you beside whom I will sleep until tomorrow.