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 If I owned a reputation of any stature as a writer, I’d bequeath them all, along with my unpublished stories and jotted letters, to a literary executor who would be willing to ship them back to my ancestors in Sicily by way of the next luxury barge to depart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

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.