A young man’s dreams look forward to what he imagines might become his future. He creates scenarios with equal energy and effort while he’s awake and while he sleeps. His dreams are malleable and oftentimes buoyed by a joyful sensation. His imagination knows nothing about death.
An old man’s dreams become the cherished memories of his earlier faith in infinity and eternity, a faith he lost in gradual fashion, as the wind tore off one flower at a time from his face, then bent his stem toward the soil that once fed him, and near the end began to insist that his roots must be ripped away from planet Earth.
Oblivion seems a sad place, and so we invoke fairy tales that describe an afterlife. A giant’s castle inside a cloud, atop a beanstalk. The giant falls, as fell Lucifer.
I am that old man now. I own neither future nor faith. My face no longer blooms with color and fragrance. The weight of life bends me forward; my gait is slow and hesitant. My roots begin to loosen their grip. Today I rage, along with Dylan, against the dying light. Yet, I wonder if I’ll go gentle or go gutted by a struggle against the pain of disappointment. Those who say we must surrender are hopeful fools. The truth is that we are surrendered.
I was once that young man charged with boundless dreams, most of which — as survival demands — had to be perforce abandoned. So many pleasant scripts, now no more than yellowed pages littering the archives inside my mind.
One such vision I created placed me center stage, dancing.
I owned a gift, a talent, and a flair for floating across a dance floor.
On the afternoon of Friday, July 6, 1979, I snatched my carry-on luggage from the compartment above the seat I’d occupied for six hours, walked through a snaking canvas tunnel, and met two friends inside the airport lobby.
I’d purchased a one-way ticket from Philly to LA.
My friends entertained me for a couple of hours, then drove me to the apartment where I’d sleep for the next two months, while the signed tenant traveled through parts of Europe.
I was born beside the Atlantic Ocean. I grew up with the aromas of salt and sand embedded in my nostrils. The air of land’s end filled my lungs with nourishment more important than oxygen.
So on that Friday evening, I unpacked my suitcase, found a clever place to hide most of the seven hundred dollars I owned, showered, and dressed my body in what I imagined to be LA Chic. (My polyester Guido outfit failed the laid-back LA test, but no matter.)
Splashed with an abundant amount of Polo cologne, as all East Coast Guidos are bound by unspoken oath to splash, not dab, I ran from the apartment, followed the street-sign arrow that pointed west, and walked a few miles until I reached the grand Pacific.
That night, tangerine sunset sky enriched with smog, I tapped the nearest shoulder and asked, “Where around here do people go when they feel like dancing?” In order to be understood I had to repeat my question several times. I spoke East Coast Rapid in nasal tones acquired in New Jersey.
I found the dancehall. I paid the cover charge. As was my habit back then, first I sat and watched. I searched for the best female dancer, one with whom I knew I could fly.
And yes, I flew. I twirled and I curled. I sensed and followed both the prominent and the offbeat rhythm. I lost myself in meditation, the only kind of meditation that I ever could accomplish. Today I wonder how many Buddhists know how to dance.
And yes again, the crowd backed away, formed a circle around us, cheered us on and clapped out the joy we shared.
The old man I am today dances only when he closes his eyes and entertains his memories. His legs lost their onetime flexibility. The stem leans, and the roots ache.
And yes one more time, this old man feels blue when he considers the fact that back then he lacked the confidence to pursue his dancing dream.
For about ten years, spanning the last decade of the twentieth century, I visited numerous branches of local libraries, and browsed the shelves of many used-book stores — close to where I lived and while on the road — combing through stacks of magazines that were printed in the 1940s, the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s. Along the way, I purchased many copies of Life, Look, Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, and the like.
My most fortunate acquisition — although outside the time frame that piqued my initial curiosity — is a 1919 edition of Vanity Fair that includes articles by P.G. Wodehouse and Dorothy Parker. Wodehouse insists that H.G. Wells cheated him out of the $1.50 he paid for Wells’ latest book because the book turned out not to be a novel, but instead to be a treatise of some sort. Wodehouse claims that a novelist should remain faithful to his reader’s expectations by writing only novels. Today’s reader might well wonder whether or not Wodehouse — being Wodehouse — was joking.
In any event, this treasure trove of old magazines nowadays sits, protected and stored, inside my office, awaiting rediscovery by a younger soul well after my death. If I owned a reputation of any stature as a writer, I’d bequeath them all, along with my unpublished stories and jotted letters, to a literary executor who would be willing to ship them back to my ancestors in Sicily by way of the next luxury barge to depart Atlantic City, New Jersey.
My original plan was one day to write a book about what I conceived of as the visceral reality — that is to say the story of how I breathed, smelled and felt upon my skin the stain and sweat and sometime sweet perfume — of the years following the end of World War II through the years immediately preceding the cultural upheaval that took place in the USA and beyond, beginning in about 1964. I’d long considered — and still do now — that this time period is of one piece in terms of story arc.
Other writers, writers who own more talent and more standing than I will ever earn, had already penned competent historical accountings of the period, accountings well researched and well-documented. Most notable, and perhaps most current during the years of my shuffling about through mustiness and yellowed pages, was David Halberstam’s book The Fifties (1993). I forwent reading Mr. Halberstam’s work until just three years ago, long after I’d abandoned the notion that I would complete my own book.
My book, by the way, would have been neither factual nor historical at its heart. I planned my work to be based in blood, bias and suspect speculation. At best, I thought, readers might consider my series of tales journalistic in its original and most literal sense. At worst, they’d think the work a far-flung fantasy.
I would base my book primarily on the thoughts, feelings and memories provoked by my review of the advertisements inside the magazines I’d collected. The textual articles within those same publications; yes, of course I would read and reflect on what the authors said. But the pictures would come first.
That those illustrations were intended to sell products I well understood. But those same illustrations held within the curves, turns and angles of their lines; the depths and shadows of their colors; and the textures of their brush strokes the story of a culture born inside the womb of war. I was born inside that same womb.
I risk sounding trite by saying this, but if a picture can be worth a thousand words, then that same picture can be worth a million memories. And our memories, although perhaps less precise than our well-chosen words, cling closer to the tender nature of humanity that we admit when we aren’t busy trying to impress each other.
As a young man I’d read hundreds of thousands of words that attempted to tell the so-called factual story of World War II and its aftermath. The reason for my interest? My father was a WWII veteran, an army PFC who served in North Africa. As well, he was a storyteller.
Together Dad and I sat in front of the Motorola and watched Bogart, Bergman and Henreid conquer misery, fear and cynicism by way of love and loyalty in Casablanca. Dad told me what that desert city was like for him when he was there in uniform. He owned none of Bogart’s sarcastic barroom bravado, and he never understood the subtleties implicit in Henreid’s fictional character, but my father loved the African sand and sun and dark-skinned women. (Ingrid Bergman held no appeal for him or me; her approach was far too indirect and her manner much too weak and weepy to please an emotional Sicilian.)
Dad broke his leg while on a training exercise and landed in a Casablanca hospital just before his unit (part of General Patton’s Seventh Army) was ordered to sail across the Mediterranean and attack Sicily (July 1943), then move on and up the Italian peninsula. One of the Americans’ main missions was to protect the left flank of the British Eighth Army.
Patton was successful at capturing Palermo and then reaching Messina before Montgomery, but the Germans dug in and defended Italy proper with fierce determination. Many soldiers of my father’s unit were annihilated.
So in a quirky, nonsensical way, I’ve oftentimes imagined an “alternate,” “parallel” version of this universe, the one inside of which no brilliant, unsung author named Anthony V. Toscano ever wrote a word. Would hungry intellectuals then and there experience a vague and nagging sense of loss for a voice they never read? Or would they rather thank the God of Academic Snootiness for not insisting that their sagging shelves pay heed and bear the weight of yet another wordsmith’s diary of dust and bones?
I own the diary my father kept while serving in Casablanca. The book is small enough to fit inside the palm of my hand. Its cover is made of black leather. Its pages are now brown and brittle. My father’s pale ink scrawl looks to have come from a fountain pen. His notes are short and to the point, a simple record of thoughts and events. As I turn the diary’s pages I must fill in gaps in order to find the story; either that or refuse to entertain my practiced insistence that a narrative of my creation is the one he lived.
Rosario V. Toscano tells his unknown reader that he is in a lot of pain. As well, he says that medication to ease the constant ache and throb was scarce, that the doctors thought it better to distribute to soldiers on the front lines what anesthetic drugs were available than to inject them into GIs lying almost safe in hospital beds.
Still, suffering a shattered leg in the wartime African desert of 1943 was a matter much more fraught with dangerous ramifications than a similar wound might incur in a peacetime town or city in the USA. Dad’s scribbled notations reveal his fear and his loneliness, and thus his words convey to the old man I am now the sense of vulnerability he never would have included in the stories he told to me when I was a child and he wanted to be my invincible hero.
And indeed I was a child when my father told me his tales of the Last Great War. Like many — if not most — young children, any story told to me about the nebulous “past” belonged to an ill-defined and borderless period called History. The Egyptian pyramids inside of which The Mummy rose in response to incantation. The Old West, home to whiskered outlaws chased by The Lone Ranger. The nighttime alleys traveled by James Cagney and George Raft. Even the Antebellum South of Eli Whitney, or the blood-splattered guillotines of nineteenth-century France, that I read about in books I borrowed from the neighborhood library; all of these events converged, conflated and became for me one wild adventure titled, It Happened Before I Was Born.
Nowadays I realize that my concentration on a backward glance as backdrop to most of what I write is tethered to my search for the man who was my father. When I was in my mid-twenties I sat on bus stop benches drenched in California sunshine, and I read Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel, Of Time and The River and You Can’t Go Home Again. Those tomes contain much richness with regard to the lure of love and wanderlust. A train’s whistle rips through the dark of night and tempts a young man to follow the echo of its song, to defy the shiver of menace that runs inside his veins, to leave his father in order to find his father a second time inside himself.
I read Thomas Wolfe, and although I had left my own father a short while before (I’d moved from east coast to west), I believed that my life would be defined by that separation, not by rediscovery of the past.
Not until that sensation of physical separation became permanent and undeniable did I begin to comprehend Thomas’ compulsion to swim against the river’s current and next attempt to ride the nighttime train back toward home.
My father collapsed into his favorite chair and died of a massive heart attack on August 11, 1986. I’m glad that I wasn’t there to see him die. At the time, I couldn’t cry; and that fact left me feeling disgusted with myself. I thought my heart was cold. It wasn’t. I was strong for my brothers’ sake, but as well I was a coward. Now that I am old, I’m not so strong, and I’m even more afraid of dying. I don’t believe people who say they do not fear death. I just don’t believe them. Neither do I blame them for trying on masks. Masks and costumes such as religion and madness are a matter of self-preservation. We all want to live, until we’re so damned tired — or suffering so much pain — that surrender is our only course of inaction.
Just a few weeks before that August morning in 1986 I’d moved again, this time northward, from Los Angeles to the Central Coast of California.
The telephone rang early on that hot summer morning. For sake of originality, I’m told, stories shouldn’t begin that way, but then certain stories are insistent on breaking the rules that are handed to creative writers by those who would be gurus.
The telephone rang and jangled, and so I rolled out of my sleeping bag. Most of my furniture that day sat inside a truck’s trailer traveling slow up the 101 Freeway on its way to meet me.
The night before, I’d drawn the drapes across the sliding glass doors to my right. A loud knock that moment sounded repeatedly behind those curtains. I pulled back on the long, plastic rod that hung near the middle seam, and discovered my cat, Bomboli. She was frantic to reach the roosters who climbed down the grassy hill that backed the apartment building. She didn’t understand or respect the impenetrable boundary that glass imposes between the inside and outside world.
I tossed Bomboli — who scratched my arm deep enough to draw a trickle of blood — into the bathroom, closed the door against her howl, and answered the phone.
“His eyes rolled back, and I can’t wake him,” said my brother.
“Brother, I love you. Dad is gone. I’ll come home soon.”
I vomited into the bathroom sink while I shaved, packed whatever dark clothes I had hanging in the closet, grabbed a taxi to the airport, and traveled Thomas’ time and river back toward home again. I helped to carry my father’s coffin to his grave.
A few years after all of that, I began the writing project that at the outset of this article I described. I did not then consider that a connection existed between my desire to write this particular book and an equally strong desire to understand my father.
The book I planned to write will not be written. Over the course of those many years spent haunting libraries, bookstores and my writing rooms, I discovered that I do not own the talent or the skill to tie the results of my research together with the outline of a book. I am a writer, but I have no book inside me. Just words, strings of words that sound to me sometimes like music.
I was, of course, a younger man when I began to collect those old magazines, and to jot down my reflections.
I am an old man now, so insufficient time remains. Believe what you will, but sometimes it is too late.
Still, the energy I invested in this particular writing project gave me joy and benefit. And those notes and magazines, along with the mind that tried to make sense of them; I think they all deserve a record of themselves.
So on occasion here I’ll place the images that impressed me and the words that strung together make for suspect speculation about my time on Earth. Those images are either scanned or photographed from primary sources.
Unlike so many of today’s revisionist historians and prejudiced talking heads, I do not believe that the time period between 1945 and 1964 in the United States of America was all about the suppression of volatile emotion or the oppression of certain classes of people by gender, race and economic status than is our society today. We are perhaps more self-aware and cautious now than we were then. It’s certain that today we have in many ways made hatred and envy more a private matter than a public one. The naked and exposed expression of our urge to inflict pain on other people in order to rid ourselves of the same is nowadays suppressed somewhat by force of law. We have made progress.
But in essence we are just as pretty, and just as ugly, now as we were then.
I am a man who enjoys nostalgia. I am a person who understands that there was a lot of good in the good old days.
I should know. I’m a good man, and I was born in the good old days.
What follows is a brief introduction of yet another brilliant author of Sicilian descent, that introduction amplified by an extended, occasionally interesting, recounting of the ordinary circumstances that connect his life with my own. Factual inaccuracies are intentional. No names have been changed, because no one is innocent, not even Joan Baez.
Niccolo Fontana teaches at his alma mater, the University of Absecon in New Jersey, home of The Lonesome Gull. His most sought after courses include The Speleological Evidence of Social Media Site Addiction During The Late Paleolithic Period, The Psychopathology of Dead Egotistical Authors Like Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut, and The Similarities Between 21st Century Paranormal Romance Novels And Computer Viruses.
As well, Professor Fontana is a prolific author of fiction, nonfiction and falsified fiction books; short stories of resentment and revenge; and yawn-inducing articles printed in esoteric academic journals. His most recent publications include the soporific textbook, A Short History of A Nonexistent Revolution (Absegami Press, 2004), the pornographic masterpiece, Why Mary Jane Broke The Law (Farther, Stravinsky & Jareau, 2007) and the delicious short story, “Don’t Bogart That Legume” (Vegan Light Magazine, Issue 87, Spring 2010).
September 2012 will see publication of the first book of what he plans to become a three-part memoir. Volume I is titled, My Vanity Was Wounded At The Battle For Woodstock (Cocker, Jagger & Joplin Ltd.).
Mr. Fontana lives in Clam Haven Township, NJ, on the bank of the Mullica River. There he shares a clapboard cabin with his dog, Tom, his canary, Dick,and his muskrat, Barry.
Niccolo Fontana and I were roommates and putative close friends during our undergraduate years at Absecon University, years that featured Richard Nixon, William Westmoreland and Jane Fonda as both superstars and criminals. Together we grew our first fuzzy mustaches; analyzed our tepid sexual conquests; waxed philosophic about The Revolution we helped to foster; and became one with Krishnamurti at beach blanket, consciousness raising barbecues on The Marshland Quad.
Each one of our testosterone-dressed salad days arrived sunrise-spiced and golden with the aromatic promise of a future drenched in patchouli oil and sexual secretions. The universe beheld our hyperbolic sense of self-importance and moaned. Silken spirituality oozed from our pores. Love and lust had conspired to conceive us, and yet we enjoyed our misconception of their egotistical intentions.
Four years of incense, protest, pretense and nonsense. And then . . .
On graduation day – Rah, rah, roo! Abbey U.! — Niccolo Fontana and I exchanged vows of infinite and eternal camaraderie. I pricked his fingertip, and he pricked mine, with the flame-cleansed tip of a platinum-plated paperclip, blessed with holy water and lent to us by the frat house chaplain, Friar Primo Sullivan.
“Non importa quanto lontano siamo vagare, saremo sempre giovane insieme,” we sang. Our two voices curled round each other to form a Sicilian treble clef, then joined inside a wave of vibratory exaltation to become one haunted note of an archetypal melody known to man and beast alike since long before the day that abra met cadabra and tick first measured tock.
“When you meet the wizard, Nicco, do give me a ring,” I said.
“But where will I find you, AVT? How will I know your location? What if you change your telephone number twixt now and then?” said Niccolo. Even then my companion, Fontana, favored slippery synonyms like twixt and ‘twill and ‘twat’s the use of talking plain when fancy is more fun.
“Thanks for caring,” I said. “Today I begin my search for Dorothy. I hear tell she roams through boundless fields of toasted wheat and travels yellow roads that lead to weeping rainbows. So I encourage you to gulp the future’s honeyed air, my loyal Nicco, lover of literature and seeker of lost souls. Breathe in deep and crave the possibilities, until you detect the scent of Dorothy’s maple musk. Wherever she be, I too shall be. Me and she. We shall be we. Thus spoketh the apparition of she to me last night.”
In this solemn manner Niccolo and I departed each other’s company. Fontana — always the insecure, pragmatic, goal-controlled type of pink-cheeked and studious scholar – packed his leather attache case, slipped his feet into his scuffed suede shoes, donned his corduroy sports jacket and tiptoed his way to the dean’s office, there to be interviewed for the position of Associate Professor of Pathological Anthropology at Abbey U (The Gull Will Never Die!).
The dean sat drunk and almost dead of terminal academic isolation, so Niccolo got the job and soon assumed the dead dean’s throne.
Meanwhile, I found Dorothy teaching kindergarten in a remodeled convent in Carmel Valley, California. I’d earlier visited Joan Baez’s Institute For The Study of Nonviolence. Although my application for admission to the program was the only one ever rejected – I was deemed a loquacious anarchist – Joan’s manager, a short, hairy-armed guy named Manny Greenhill, advised me to try the next leftwing school down the street, a place called Lorenzo’s. Manny told me that the crowd there might be more to my taste, seeing as how they all waved their hands in the air even when they meditated.
“Seems far-fetched to me, considering the Mediterranean climate and aroma of the place,” said Manny, “but Joan’s students swear they hear a woman’s voice belting out a sweet, Gallic rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow from that exact location.”
I entered Room 247 of Lorenzo’s School For Dreamers just in time for Show and Tell. My yellow-brick love – who looked a lot like Judy Collins before plastic surgery ruined her nose, but whose voice echoed Bob Dylan’s nasal tones — strummed and hummed a quirky G, C, D progression on her Gibson acoustic, while I yodeled a few verses of “I’m In Love With A Big Blue Frog,” and the school’s janitor tapped his work boots on the unisex bathroom’s tile floor.
Serendipity. Get down, bro. Can you dig it?
Dorothy’s name turned out to be Eireen Sullivan (Friar Primo’s abandoned love child, reinvented, recovered and reborn). A devout hedonist she was, always willing to indulge her appetite for repetitive consummation.
We feinted, feigned and entertained restraint over plates of raw oysters for Sunday brunch, then muttered prayers before a statue of San Carlos Borromeo at the mission as the afternoon air splattered shadows over rows of parked Peugeots.
Late that night we shook the bedposts against the wall when we made love. The consequent rattled drumbeat irritated hell out of Eireen’s angry, frightened, insomniac roommate Natalie Bartolini. “Pre-marital sex is one thing,” said Natalie. Her voice squealed, squeaked and skidded its way across the breakfast table. “It’s been redefined as a venial sin since Vatican II corrupted Catholicism. But tempting me to do the forbidden rub and twang while naked is another matter entirely. I think the bishops call it aiding and abetting unnecessary pleasure.
“So please get out and please get married, before I call Friar Primo and have you both excommunicated and shipped back to Jersey.”
We followed the first command, and soon afterward we followed the second. And while Natalie Bartolini never rang Friar Primo, I suspect that she may still today be entertaining the memory of those rock-n-roll bedposts.
I taught myself to love Colcannon and Crubeens, studied the works of Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett, and memorized the lyrics to “An Irish Lullaby.” (My Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ra’s impressed my future mother-in-law, Innogen, enough so that she told Eireen, “Well, maybe with practice and a solid career to fall back on.”)
After a three-week courtship period, I declared the nature of my devouring devotion and popped my papist proposition, as Eireen stood and I kneeled, again in Room 247, during naptime for the itty-bitty children. Revisionist history’s rumor has it that on that day Room 247 stank of poopy diapers to everyone but me.
“Poop-polluted atmosphere be damned,” bellowed the Lord. “You, AVT, are destined to fall in thrall to Eireen Sullivan’s eau du maple musk.”
And so we set the date. I pretended confidence, and Eireen pretended that particular flavor of virginity that after The Summer of Love permitted a bride to wear white in America.
I dressed myself in a three-piece pinstriped suit and Italian ostrich-leather shoes, and attended the wedding shower. The restaurant’s Champagne Suite featured a panoramic view of the 101 Freeway at rush hour. Chicken cordon bleu leaked quick-coagulating grease into the green peas on our plates. Natalie Bartolini sat cross-legged in the corner and cried.
Still, there were a few positive indicators of a bliss-enhanced future for Eireen and me. Natalie spilled a glass of Rose wine onto her lap, blushed, and laughed at the shape of the stain. Eireen’s mother, Innogen, told me that her gardener had garlic breath, too. (“But he never let that stop him from owning his own business!”) And our pile of wedding gifts almost touched the Champagne Suite’s dropped ceiling tiles. Our unearned treasures included three fondue sets, a half dozen lavender love candles, and a perfumed negligee.
When we divorced a few years later, Eireen and I for a short time argued about how to divide the fondue sets so as not to destroy our claim of amicable separation. But we quick tugged back our tempers and decided to save the odd set as a present for Natalie should she ever change her mind, lose her virginity and celebrate with a coming out cotillion.
Eireen took our red Chevy Vega and the television set. I kept the stereo and our collection of Marvin Gaye albums.
I changed the locks, lay back on the couch, crooned along with Marvin, allowed my fans several encores, and otherwise devoted myself to sad regret and to the composition of an epic poem titled “Fugetabout Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ra.”
The pity earned by way of landing hard, low and fast can become a habit more addictive than any injectable drug. I asked for and received more attention by turning out the lights and refusing to answer knocks at my door than I’d ever received when Eireen and I hosted friends at our fondue spud parties.
I taught myself to shiver my voice, tremble my lips and cast my glance downward whenever someone asked, “How you holding up, AVT?”
I stopped shaving, exchanged my pinstripe suit for flannel shirts and dungarees, and tossed my last bottle of deodorant into the trash.
I told everyone I knew that I’d given up on love as a career goal and replaced the practice with that of writing defiant poetry and publishing a snooty literary magazine named Spilled Beans (I fancied the edgy shade of noir as it lent an air of valor to otherwise masturbatory confessional essays).
Still, at the end of any difficult workday — ink-stained fingers stiff from passing pages through the mimeograph machine, mind muddled with plotlines unresolved — I lay stretched out on my couch, alternating verses with Marvin; and I grew lonesome. This disturbed emotional state led me to recall how The Lonesome Gull spread and flapped his wings to signal determination in the face of an attacking enemy.
And that image of a noble, familiar, regal bird in flight against a headstrong and aggressive wind inspired me to attempt a reconnection with Niccolo Fontana. Perhaps the staid corduroy professor would remember our vow and grant an old friend – a recently accepted member of the literati – an interview, a conversation that put to print might well push a certain publication toward a prominent position, thus affording its editor and main author the prestige he deserved and had been so long denied.
I supposed that Eireen, or Manny, or Natalie, or maybe even Joan Baez in a sympathetic mood had informed Nicco of my brush with the tragedy we poets name Love. Fontana, always a sensitive soul, might well have hesitated to invade the privacy of a brokenhearted friend. This must be the case, I told myself. Otherwise, I surmised, Nicco would have long ago detected the aroma of Dorothy’s maple musk and come knocking at my door. (Had he tapped? Had I ignored? Quoth the seagull evermore?)
No use in guessing. I would have to make the overture. This artist, this sainted purveyor of the linguistic curlicue, I said to myself, needs to gather sufficient verve and courage to wake the academic from his solitary slumber.
But as is true of many youthful friendships, Niccolo and I lost touch as his career soared into the professional stratosphere, while my own accomplishments floated, comfortable and unheralded, much closer to Earth’s surface.
Still, in spite of the fact that Niccolo and I led separate, if in some ways parallel lives, I read every word he ever published throughout the years. As was true when youth blessed us both, as an older man I considered myself a fortunate beneficiary of Nicco’s off-center insights. I admired his poetic flair with stilted language. I marveled at his engaging sense of inbred Jersey humor.
I’d shut myself in for so long that when next morning I pulled up the window shades, unlocked the front door and stepped out into the sunlight, I was surprised to discover that a head-high stack of newspapers blocked my view of the world beyond my borders.
I snatched the topmost copy of the Absegami Times, a prestigious source of literary news that I’d had flown to my California compound each and every morning since the day I met Eireen and thereby tripped into tragedy. Back inside, a mug of steaming Taoist Tea by my side, I opened the sunlight-stained tabloid to the book review section.
There I read notice of Niccolo’s soon to be published memoir.
Serendipity? Get down, bro? Can you dig the Gull?
Miracle, sign, timing or mere coincidence; no explanation could make a difference. With the Absecon Gull to guide me, I must follow the feather. I could no longer justify resisting the temptation to contact my old friend. After all, I told myself, I was there, occupying the Jersey Marshland Quad with this living literary archetype of an author during several of the years his Volume I was sure to address. I wondered how Nicco Fontana might nowadays interpret the significance of those tumultuous times in our engaged, enraged and hormonal history.
And truth be told, I was curious to know whether or not Corduroy Nicco would include specific and colorful mention of the bellbottomed me when he told his story, our story if he were fair enough to admit as much. If such mention were made, then would I be a major or minor character, an Othello or a Lodovico? Might I be represented as a hero or a villain, a Caesar or a Brutus? Would Niccolo Fontana attempt to disguise AVT by assigning me a costumed name?
Would my dear friend and passionate paisano Nicco hold me in high esteem? Or would he instead first recall the time I stole away from the frat house, along with his girlfriend Kelly Liccardella, while he suffered through an interview with the drunken dean?
Would Niccolo Fontana honor the pledge of the platinum-plated paperclip?
“AVT who?” said the voice on the other end of the line.
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.
When the Love Vendor began talking about catching carnal coconuts in Costa Rica, Arthur Barnes decided that he would reactivate his long dormant Soul Insertion practice.
As the one and only scholar of all matters international who that evening attended the Love Vendor’s reading, Arthur Barnes understood that Costa Rica was just another tourist colony conquered by corporate imperialists from the USA. Still, he listened to Mr. Love spouting over-sweetened poetry about traveling there to meet up with his past life and that of his current object of extreme affection.
“How could it be?” the poet intoned in a voice trained to convey sincerity, self-depreciation and sacrifice for sake of dedication to the greater cause of all that is Good. “How could it be that we both like cashews and kalamata olives?” he begged his Partner in Sexual Poetics for an obvious, odious and self-serving answer.
“Could it be that we were . . . yes I wonder, as I stare into the fluorescent-lit heavens of this amphitheater occupied by my slavering fans . . . could it be that I, Leonard Lucrativo — acolyte of silk-robed gurus born somewhere in the Himalayas, Capitalist Consultant to the Humble, Bearded Candy Man to Lonely Hearts — could it be that you and I and we knew each other way back when, back then, on a different planet that resembled a Costa Rican Coconut? And were we meant to meet again and create a counseling corporation of our own?”
Arthur Barnes tried as best he could to take a mental break from The Love Vendor’s melodramatic performance. Rather than seem impolite by rising up from his seat and leaving the room, he backed away and crawled deep inside his memory vault.
Back to the sunny day in September 1956 when he first became aware of the special gift that the cushion of his mother’s womb had afforded him. On that Monday morning, Arthur was sitting at his desk in Mrs. Ambruster’s first-grade classroom, watching Ronnie Lee’s cheeks flush and fill with bloody anger because he couldn’t manage to draw Mr. Sunshine without breaking his fat, yellow crayon and shredding the sheet of manila paper. Arthur didn’t mean to intrude on Ronnie’s temper tantrum, much less to insert himself into Ronnie’s soul. But at that time Arthur didn’t understand that the act of staring into another person’s eyes was, for him, tantamount to opening a spiritual door.
And Ronnie Lee’s eyes were red and teary. And Arthur Barnes wanted to comprehend the source of so much frustration. And so he looked into Ronnie’s eyes and quick found himself behind them, trapped and blinded by a flood of rage and violent impulse.
Meanwhile, Arthur’s young body acted of its own accord, rose up and kicked away its chair, and ran from the classroom. Which act diverted everyone’s attention away from Ronnie’s tantrum. Mrs. Ambruster chased Arthur’s body all the way down to the end of the corridor that led straight to the principal’s office, inside of which Mrs. Pierpont waited to scold the corporeal presence she assumed was Arthur Barnes. Arthur’s body was sent home and spanked for its crime.
But that night — as he lay in bed wondering about the scientific principle behind the fact that the cold plaster wall felt so good against his hot hiney’s cheeks — Arthur realized that he owned a super power, a talent that could save others from suffering grief. After all and in the end, as a result of Arthur’s sacrifice — no matter how much unintended — Arthur’s hide was tanned and Ronnie Lee got off scot-free for throwing a fit over something as inconsequential as an imperfectly rendered drawing of Mr. Sunshine.
Arthur Barnes named his gift Soul Insertion, because he remembered Sister Jacqueline explaining the nature of souls and such in Catechism class, and he thought that getting behind someone else’s eyes felt sort of like bumping soul shoulders.
Leonard Lucrativo, aka The Love Vendor, owned suspicious eyes that tempted Arthur Barnes to slink inside. Slip, slop, slide and slurp. Oily was the journey, and dirty was the destination.
Because behind the poet’s darting pupils Arthur discovered a devious mind and an even more soiled soul than he might have imagined were the case had he remained no more than a member of the mad magician’s fawning audience.
A successful Capitalist Entrepreneur was no more a sinner than a poor man who lacks the intelligence, ambition and sense of determination required to become rich. This much Arthur understood. But a dark deceiver and a traveled trickster who would take advantage of confused individuals, in the studied opinion of Arthur Barnes, was a criminal to be reviled.
Arthur smelled the odor of deception as soon as he entered the bearded poet’s soul. Much like the stink of a rural Sunoco Service Station’s windowless restroom, the rusty prison cells of Lucrativo’s cranial chambers left a soul searcher’s lungs filled to capacity with methane gas and uric acid. Simply put, the man’s conscience had rotted to such a point that God’s personal surgeon might have refused with good cause to operate.
Arthur was, of course, appalled by what he discovered. Once privy to the sins that lived within the Love Vendor’s eyes, he followed one tunneled pathway after another on what turned out to be a hopeless quest for Costa Rica. No Love Coconuts here. No carnal cashews either. And not one kalamata olive to be found.
Just one long, high-ceilinged, narrow room. Night-black air, except for the dim light shed by a few flickering candles positioned at regular intervals along the castle walls. A threadbare narrow carpet that puffed ash with each of Arthur’s self-imagined footsteps led to a stone altar, empty but for one leather-bound volume inscribed on its front cover with a flourish of gold lettering.
As Arthur’s inward sense of sight approached the altar, and then rounded it so as to see the book straight up and forward facing, his soulful heart picked up a sudden and insistent jungle drumbeat that shook the upper atmosphere of this ersatz incarnation of Carnal Costa Rica.
Next, a spire of flame rose up from deep inside the book. And within that fire appeared the wraith-like image of a winged and bearded poet, hands clasped as if in prayer, eyes wide open and spinning wild inside their sockets.
And at the last the trembling echo of La Voz de La Love Vendor bellowed forth the title of the tome before him: If Coconut Love Be Near At Hand, Can Wealth Be Far Away?
Arthur might have granted The Love Vendor the benefit of doubt suggested by the possible definitions of the word “wealth,” had it not been for the poet’s hollow, tumbling roll of laughter. That and the sneer upon the man’s upper lip convinced Arthur Barnes never again to visit Costa Rica, or to try catching coconuts while eating cashews and kalamata olives.
The story I’m these days busy writing, titled Gladiolas, is growing longer by thousands of thoughts, words and deeds than I imagined it would. I’m not surprised that it’s turning out that way. After all, if truth be told, I write in much the same manner as I speak: long in the tongue and oftentimes long-winded.
I’ve decided not to post any more of that particular work of art here (oh yes it is!). Not for now, maybe not forever. For the moment, anyway. Let’s say for the moment.
Because for the moment I’m having too much fun following the characters’ unexpected twists and turns through the dark forest, in spite of the tangled trees — the complicated, foolish changes of heart that afterward seem as if they were inevitable. Too much fun to want to rush the mystery to a forced conclusion. The thing’s turning into a book, a book of the sort I like to read. Complete with moonlit nights, bay-windowed mansions, and lust-saturated love affairs.
I own a second reason for my hesitation to click the publish button just yet. I am a proud, card-carrying perfectionist. Yes, I understand the difficulties many writers experience in company with their schizoid-fractured voices, mental cross-eyed editors, dysfunctional inner-adolescents and armor-suited enemies of Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way Brigade. “The problem is,” the oft-repeated explanation goes, “we become our own harshest critics.”
But what’s wrong with paying heed to one’s inborn critical soul mate? I ask. Good for those armored soldiers who dare to challenge Julia on the battlefield, I say. We should be our own harshest critics. I wish more people who claim to be writers would criticize, edit, rewrite and polish their stories before they beam them down to Planet Amazonia or launch them on their way to Star Base CrushSomeWords.com.
Literary snobs, unite!
Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault; therefore I beseech the blessed memory of Maxwell Perkins ever-sanctified, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me. I am an unrepentant sinner.
So, although my half-dozen breathless fans have been nagging — nay begging — me to post Gladiolas, Part II, pronto, I must disappoint my audience. For now, at least. Perhaps for an eternity. Maybe, maybe, maybe comes the day I plant Gladiolas on Planet Amazonia, in the same garden that grows such fine works of art as How To Write How-To-Write Books and Sell Them To Chat-room Habitués Who Fancy Themselves Cameron’s Congregationalists.
Still, today I want some form of this show to go on, because I’m hungry to write and fill this long-unattended space.
And because I’ve been re-reading, and thinking about Raymond Carver. So I’ll talk about Raymond Carver, self-immolated artist and superior successor to Papa’s Pen.
I suspect that were Carver alive and writing today, he’d have difficulty finding curious, interested readers.
Why do I think this is true?
Carver’s style with words is spare. Most of the “language,” then, must exist between the lines he wrote, and therefore preexist inside a reader’s head.
Take for instance Carver’s story, Fat. The story’s narrator tells you, in words here paraphrased by me:
A fat man walked into a diner. He sat down and ordered a large meal. The waitress wrote down the order. She gave the order to the cook. The cook was her husband. The cook said, “That man sure is fat. He’s that fattest man I’ve ever seen.” The waitress served the fat man. She was kind to him. Each word she spoke was spoken in a respectful tone of voice. The fat man had fat fingers. He puffed when he breathed. He ate three slices of bread, smeared thick with butter. He ate a big salad. He ate meat and potatoes. He referred to himself as “we.” “We don’t usually eat this much. But we are hungry.”
The fat man ate not one, but two desserts.
Later that night, the waitress and her husband closed the diner and went home. The waitress cooked and served her husband a meal. The husband said again, “That man sure was fat.” The wife did not answer her husband. They went to bed. The husband wanted sex. He climbed on top of his wife. She let him do it, because she did not want to argue. But she felt fat. She could not feel her husband.
A reader needs to think in order to feel entertained by stories like Fat. Most people who nowadays read fiction don’t want to think too much. They want to escape, in much the same way as television sit-coms permit them to escape. Little effort. No dictionary necessary. Familiar plot lines. Outward action (Bang, bang shoot-’em-up. No inner-emotional turmoil, please; I had enough of that at work all day).
But Raymond Carver won’t allow you to escape, not unless you choose to put his book back on the shelf and click the remote instead.
Lest you decide that I’m here condemning people for their unwillingness to invest effort when they read, permit me to say that when I first read Carver’s stories, although something about them tickled my fancy, I could not comprehend what I was reading. I thought, for instance, that Fat was about a fat man who ate too much, a cook who felt dazed by the sight of such a big man, and a waitress who went through the motions that had become her life, both at work and at home.
I understood no more than that. I “got” the point that the waitress was bored with living, but I understood nothing of the connection between her husband’s insecure arrogance and her disgust with him. I never considered the suggestion that her husband’s judgmental attitude made him far more distasteful a sight in her eyes than the self-effacing fat man’s pudgy fingers and ceaseless appetite. Matter of fact, until this very second, I hadn’t thought of any connection between the fat man’s appetite for food and the husband’s appetite for loveless sex (and isn’t that sudden discovery part of the magic involved with the writing process?).
Back then, on the day when I first read Raymond Carver, I was capable of understanding no more of life than that of the life I’d lived. Same is true, of course, today.
The year was 1985. I was a young man. I was an even younger writer. I was a hungry reader. I was a woman’s lover, and because of all this, I was full of myself. I didn’t so much think that I would live forever, as I thought that only other people died.
I walked the streets of Santa Monica, California. I parked my car near Fifth and Wilshire on a Saturday morning in summertime. For several years I’d been married to a Jewish woman in Philadelphia, PA. I adored her, and so she soon grew tired of being so much adored and so little respected. She left me, and I left Philadelphia. One-way ticket to the rest of my life.
I ate breakfast at Zucky’s Diner. I’d learned to appreciate diners and Jewish food when I lived in Philadelphia.
And books. After eating a breakfast almost as big as that of Carver’s fat man, I felt hungry for books. Half a block from the diner was a store called Pacific Books. Small store, perhaps a thousand volumes tops on the shelves. Literary titles. History texts. Atlases and scientific journals. I liked the aroma of the place. Quiet carpets on the floor. Faint classical music in the air. Customers who spoke in whispered tones.
I studied the books’ spines. I touched their covers. I pulled them close to my face and breathed the spice of possibility. Yes, I was like that. And yes again, I am still like that.
Raymond Carver lived on one of those shelves. I didn’t know him. I could not have known that day that he was busy dying, that he’d been killing himself for many years by way of alcohol, tobacco and dissatisfaction. I could not have known that in three years’ time he would be dead. All I knew that day, when I opened one of his books, was that a story named Fat was short enough that I could read it — from beginning to end — in brief enough a slice of time that I wouldn’t seem a stingy customer to the lady at the counter.
And all I knew, once I finished reading Carver’s story was that it made me think, and made me want to think some more.
This story isn’t about me, although I have a kind of curiosity inside my personality that my friends tell me I had even when I was a little boy.
And that’s what this story is about, really. Little boys and the bad things that can happen to them later in life.
Of more concern to this tale is one particular little boy who grew up to become in most ways a stylish man, but who killed his mother in a manner that I’d describe as a murder, but that a judge and jury decided was some kind of manslaughter by “reason of insanity.” Which makes no sense to me, not if you look close at the facts of the case.
And because I’m the curious sort, I always look real close at people and their problems. We all of us have our problems. That sure was true of this boy turned into a cold-blooded killer. And even more true, of course, of his dead mother.
I don’t mean that last remark, by the way, to sound like a joke, either. The boy’s mother, Mrs. Connie Varello was her name, had serious mental issues — as they say nowadays — way before things came to blows between her and her son and her husband.
But now I’m going on ahead of myself; and when I do that I become judgmental and surrender to my prejudices before I consider the black-and-white description of things as they are.
So let me back up just a bit.
What started me looking into this matter — I’d come right out and call it a crime, truth be told — was the fact that all of this tragedy occurred just two doors down from where I live here in Cedarville. And said tragedy began to take root more than half a century ago, back when me and the boy — Johnnie Varello — were mates at Linden Avenue Grammar School.
Back then Johnnie was the smart kid in class, the one who always had his hand waving in the air, because he always knew the right answer, or at least he thought he did.
Johnnie, he’d grab a crayon from the box at drawing time and say something strange like, “This is oily wax.” The rest of us, of course, would look at him and wink at each other and tell him it was just a crayon and he could stick it up his nose if he wanted to. Well, not up his nose exactly, but then I don’t want to put dirty words in this story, because it’s sad enough without them.
In any event, Johnnie didn’t seem to get our jokes anyway, or maybe he chose to ignore them. Because he’d just answer us with more of his intellectual approach to life’s simple objects and say something like, “No, the word crayon means chalk and earth. Really. I looked it up last night.”
Crazy kid, Johnnie was, even way back then, although none of us could actually see what was building inside that house where he and his parents lived, all squeezed up together with no room to breathe, much less express their disagreements in a respectful manner.
Always squawking and screeching and banging away at each other, they were. These arguments — I guess you’d call them arguments, if you want to be polite about it — showed up most clearly in summertime, when in Cedarville the air was hot and sticky and so windows were wide open and people’s voices traveled back and forth from one place to another. Heck, during summers in our town you could all but make out the details of conversations mosquitoes were having with each other, if you were the curious type and cared to listen real close.
Now to be fair to Johnnie Varello, the evidence I heard with my own ears during those prosperous years of the 1950s tells me that his mom beat him up real good and often, maybe especially in summertime, what with the pressure that heat tends to build inside a human being. Many were the evenings when I’d be riding my Schwinn ten-speed up and down the block, chasing after girls or just following the cloud of white smoke wooshing out from the back of a mosquito truck, and I’d hear Johnnie yelling things like, “Please, no, Mother! I promise I won’t do it again.” Or some such desperate plea.
Still, in those days most parents hit their kids when they were being bad. And I’m of the opinion that if more of that were true today, in Cedarville and in the nation proper, blacks and Puerto Ricans and low-life white trailer trash wouldn’t rule the streets they way they do.
But that’s going off track again; and I want to make my point and finish this story, and maybe even submit a summary of it to the Cedarville Gazette’s opinion section for the public’s approval, or not.
I attended most every session of the trial, as is my rightful duty as a citizen of this great country. And the way Johnnie Varello told it inside the courtroom . . . well, he wanted all of us attending to believe that he lost his mind that hot summer night just by staring at a cluster of cut flowers that were sitting in a vase on his mother’s dining room table. Now don’t that beat all? Doesn’t feel like a logical sequence of cause and effect events to me. Not at all.
But the defense lawyer, Arthur J. Schultz, a man I know sort of well because he was in that same grammar school class with Johnnie and me, called a psychiatrist to the stand to bear witness to the effects of what the medical professionals call something like Traumatic Stress Repressed Memories. Try saying that one real fast. Sounds poetic, sure enough, but kind of silly, too.
Still, Artie Schultz — that’s what we called him before he got educated up to university — well, I trust the fact that he knows things I don’t quite comprehend.
The specific memory in question was all about, according to Johnnie Varello, that is — and confirmed by the psychiatrist of record — a long ago summer day and night back in 1956.
Seems like the Varellos were making a day trip to visit Mrs. Varello’s mom, who at the time lived down in Cape Point, which is still to this day a beach town tourist type destination at the southern tip of the state, where the map let’s off deep into the Atlantic Ocean and people like to play miniature golf, and eat some blue-point crab, and just plain enjoy their families while the getting’s good.
The way Johnnie told it, he was sitting in the back seat of the ’49 Chevy Deluxe, staring through the rear window, when all of a sudden he noticed one of those flower stands that were so popular at the time along Route 53.
From that point on, if my memory serves me as well as it usually does after I’ve listened close and careful to a back and forth exchange between a lawyer and a witness, Johnnie’s recollection of that day sounded something like a short story buried inside a longer book, a book I’d place on a shelf with the rest of the mystery novels I prefer to read and even try to write whenever the creative urge fires up inside me.
“Can we go there, Dad?” Johnnie said.
Mr. Martin Varello tapped the brake pedal, eased in the clutch and put her in reverse. In most ways, Martin was a darned good father who always wanted to please his boy. He was just afraid of his wife, a coward as it turns out, if you believe what most folks say looking back on it all. But aren’t we all afraid of our wives from time to time, what with a woman’s scorn and some such?
“You’re going to kill us all, the way you drive!” screamed the boy’s mother. Johnnie was used to hearing his mother screaming at his dad, especially when the family took the day-long trip to Cape Point.
“Look here, Connie,” said Martin. He just wants to bring your mom a bunch of her favorite blossoms.”
“She’s not my mom. Now if you’re going to do this, hurry up. We haven’t got forever, you know.”
“I know. No one does.”
Martin opened the Chevrolet’s heavy passenger-side door. He tilted his wife’s seat forward gently against her back to let the boy out. Connie wouldn’t budge a bit, however, not until her pocketbook fell to the floor and spilled its contents, which in turn caused her to bend down and gather all her beautifying paraphernalia and her prescription medications.
Johnnie slipped outside the car real quick, before his mother had time enough to catch her breath and start yelling again.
“Let’s get the pink ones,” said Johnnie. “Mama Mary likes pink. She drinks out of pink glasses, and she paints her toenails the same color as those gladiolas over there.”
“Show me where the pink ones are, son. Fast now. You know how your mother is about waiting.”
Johnnie saw his dad smiling, and being the intuitional kind of kid he was, he wondered how his dad could do so inside the circumstance that was his life with Connie.
In spite of his dad’s warning, the boy dawdled. He liked the sound of gravel crunching underneath his feet as they walked the road’s shoulder. That and the sweet smell of the surrounding farmland.
Route 53 was a two-lane highway that ran north and south, all the way from New York City at its top to Cape Point at its final tip. Martin had just moments earlier steered the Chevy across the Ridley Bay Bridge — a narrow, wooden structure that featured a shack midway that served as a toll booth. The old man who collected twenty-five cents a pop — for cars or trucks, the difference didn’t matter in those days — wore a dark-blue cap and gave the kids candy and a wink of his eye. Sometimes Johnnie wished that man were his mother, even though he understood that mothers had to be women by definition of their role in the scheme of things.
“Why doesn’t Mother like Mama Mary, Dad?” Johnnie stared straight ahead when he asked the question.
“She likes her well enough. It’s just that Mary’s her step-mom; and I think she misses her real one.”
“Did her real one scream all the time like her?”
“Let’s just get the flowers. We can talk about this another time. I can even show you pictures in the album we have at home.”
Johnnie approached the sales table and pointed to the fullest bunch of pink gladiolas he could find. “We’ll take those ones there,” he said to the lady who stood smiling underneath the canvas awning.
“They sure are a pretty shade of pink,” she said. “These for your mama sitting over there in that shiny Chevrolet?”
“No, they’re for my Mama Mary. She’s my grandma. My mother doesn’t especially like flowers.”
“Oh, I can’t hardly believe that. All mamas appreciate such jewels of nature. That’s what I call them — Jewels of Nature. And I’m someone’s mama, so I ought to know what mamas like. Isn’t that right, Mister?”
“You sure are on to something true enough for most,” said Martin. Then, real quick, he followed that remark by asking how much they owed.
“Seventy-five cents for the bouquet, and here’s a single stem of red ones for your mama, free of charge.”
Back inside the car, Johnnie laid the flowers on the seat beside him. He picked up the stem of red blossoms and held it over the top of the seat in front of him. His mother was busy reapplying her lipstick. She moved her arm backward and fast, like a person does when she’s swatting away a fly. The red gladiolas flew from Johnnie’s hand and fell to the floor.
“Not now, boy. Can’t you see I’m busy?” said Connie.
Johnnie didn’t bother answering. Instead, he slid his body far enough toward the edge of his seat so his foot would reach down to the floor, and he stomped that foot down hard on the red blossoms. He watched a red stain smear and spread its way into the carpet, and he smiled.
As the Chevy picked up speed, Johnnie stared out the window and allowed his mind to become as one with the scenery. Barns and silos. Peach orchards and yellow tractors. Railroad box car diners and two-pump gasoline stations. The entirety of this universe reminded him of the painted pictures he discovered inside the books he read while lying on the floor inside Cedarville Public Library on Saturday mornings when most of the kids from school were outside playing sports and talking tough.
Johnnie Varello knew he wasn’t tough. He couldn’t make a football spin as it flew through the air, and he was so afraid of a hardball that the Little League coach kept him sitting on the bench during eight innings out of every nine, and all nine if the game was tied near its end.
But Johnnie knew he was smart. And although he oftentimes cried when he curled himself up and buried his body inside his bed at night, he knew that someday he’d escape. Maybe, he thought, maybe I’ll even sneak out of bed one summer night and walk across Ridley Bay Bridge. Then I’ll wait till sunrise and begin my journey back to Mama Mary’s place. She’d take me in. She’d understand.
“Don’t you go doing too much for her. She’ll take advantage of you the way she always does.”
The sound of his mother’s angry voice startled Johnnie. He realized that he’d fallen asleep sometime ago. The fact that he’d missed the better part of the trip left him feeling irritable.
But at least they were there. Johnnie sat up, rubbed his eyes, and again looked through the window.
His mother most times criticized Mama Mary’s house. She spoke of so-called better days. Days when her father, Papa Dominic, owned a milk delivery company. Back then his milk trucks were Model T Fords, and in the darkness before dawn Papa Dominic changed the paper caps on each quart bottle to reflect a later date. Days that existed before what grownups called The Great Depression, when Papa Dominic — and his first wife and their daughter — lived in a richer part of the world known as Highland Crest.
Now Papa Dominic was many years dead, and Johnnie’s memories of the man were vague and faded, like the black-and-white photographs that sometimes looked as if they bled rust where they hung on Mama Mary’s walls.
Johnnie loved this house. Maybe, he thought, I love it especially because she hates the place.
Johnnie loved the peeling paint, the wide front windows, and the three crooked wooden steps that led up to a wraparound porch where two wicker rocking chairs sat waiting for him and his dad to make them creak.
But most of all Johnnie loved the sight of Mama Mary’s shadow when it appeared behind the front door’s lace curtain.
I am an ordinary man who owns extraordinary tastes in literature.
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.
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.
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.
Three of us sit around the dining room table. We’re talking about the way the world should be, as if any one of us owns even an idiot’s notion of the way the world is at that moment.
I lick the hair that grows above my lip and wonder if it might get in the way of a kiss.
Pink wallpaper flowers bleed rust rings on the walls, and a spider weaves its web in a dusty corner near the ceiling. Dylan moans through stereo speakers about times that are achangin’. I ask myself how much change Bob earned by selling vinyl records.
The skin on Cord’s high forehead rises and wrinkles while he delivers yet another political harangue, giving me a hint of how he’ll look when he is old. At twenty-four his chest muscles pull at the seams of his madras-patterned shirt. A red, jagged scar interrupts his left eyebrow and serves as a reminder of his rugby days when we were college roommates.
Sally passes me a two-quart jug of syrupy soda. Her pale-blue eyes grow wide and liquid as she giggles. We’re both addicted to the carbonated drink, in spite of the fact that we claim to despise the corporation that pimps the poison to oppressed sugar junkies who ring the globe, from New York City to Saigon.
“Guess we’ll wait until tomorrow to quit,” she says. We clink our jelly jar glasses together and guzzle down the bubbly brew.
Our apartment is on the third floor of a typical Philadelphia redbrick colonial building in a bad neighborhood that we pretend is a good neighborhood that gets a “bum rap” because members of the bourgeoisie — whoever the hell they might be — don’t like hippies, poor people, revolution or reefer.
That’s The Line. The Line is required reading for any self-respecting counterculture college graduate dressed in bell-bottom bluejeans and work boots. In fact, this always evolving mission statement is an essential article of the The Movement’s constitution.
Each of us can recite this and every other article and subsection of the We Shall Overcome decree verbatim, because we study the underground newspapers that are stacked above ground throughout Center City, and we memorize the mimeographed posters that are tacked to telephone poles at railway stations.
This evening’s constitutional convention, however, has nothing to do with pontificated proclamations or reefer revolutions. Tonight we gather to display our denim uniforms and gorge our guts with a peasant’s proper battlefield feast. Yo, King Henry, pass me the second drumstick!
But our kitchen smells more like a farmer’s fart than a pheasant, because Sally cooked us Tuna Supreme. Again. Boxed mac and cheese, canned tuna and frozen broccoli, all swirled together inside the one cracked casserole dish we own, then baked in the oven until the broccoli struggles to the top and spits out noxious gas, and the cheese sizzles and splatters onto the oven’s floor.
Tuna Supreme is the only meal Sally knows how to make look edible. So whenever it’s her turn to do the honors Cord and I smile and say silly things like, “Damn, Sally, the broccoli came out tender tonight,” or “Did you use a different brand of tuna this time? It doesn’t taste the least bit fishy.” Keeping a straight face while flattering Sally — who knows she’s not being flattered or insulted — is an unwritten rule that Cord and I never needed to discuss.
We have several other House Rules, however, all of which we voted into our By Laws after intense but cordial debate, and then posted on the bulletin board that hangs in the foyer.
Four of these rules, paraphrased for sake of jocularity:
1. No kicking Sally’s cat, Lester, when it spits up hairballs on the vinyl-covered stairs, and I step in the cold muck wearing no shoes or socks at 4:00 am on a frigid winter’s morning. Instead, put on a pair of slippers and thank Lester for her contribution to The Cause (yep, Lester’s a she).
2. If the subject of sex comes up in conversation, talk about your appetite in respectful, cleansed and metaphysical terms. If need be, cross your legs and wait till later.
3. If you can’t play good guitar, then play bad guitar.
4. Be a man and wash the dishes.
Cord and I don’t mind washing dishes; not even Lester’s crusty metal bowl escapes our diligent attention. And we both love Sally, in a Platonic Way of course. As well, we respect the fact that Sally’s not supposed to be able to cook just because she’s a woman. Truth be told, not only is Sally a dedicated Communist; she’s also a Liberated Woman who owns a tattered copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves (1971 First Edition) to prove her commitment to The Cause (whatever the hell that might be).
I stare past the mac and cheese that Cord just scooped onto my plate, through the tall bay windows of our apartment and then again through the shattered windows of the place across the alley. No one lives there anymore. Not one piece of furniture sits on the floor, because there is no floor. Not one picture hangs on the walls, because there are no inner walls. The building is a redbrick colonial that at one time matched our own, until an angry stranger — or maybe an insurance-money hungry landlord — lit the place on fire. Cord, Sally and I weren’t here for the celebration, but each day we’re treated to the pungent aroma of burnt wood.
“What time’s your night class?” Cord asks me.
I know that I answer his question, but only because I see Cord nod in recognition of my words. But I hear no more than what runs through my mind. “Why am I going to graduate school? I don’t want a career in academia. I just want to get out of this apartment, away from bad neighborhoods and mimeographed revolutions and the pretense of The Cause. Tuna Supreme I can almost handle, although I hate the smell of broccoli even more than that of burnt wood, but the spider webs and the campfire atmosphere tipped me toward earning advanced degrees.”
Six days a week, Sally works long hours helping women who are victims of the depressed husbands who beat them up because they’re sick and tired of getting drunk and beating on themselves. Sally’s a witch, but a kind witch who owns an intense sense of loyalty. When my wife walked out, and I claimed the banner of self-pity, Sally first kicked my ass and then let me cry.
And Cord, I love Cord Cataleatto. Before Sally moved in with us, Cord and I signed the apartment’s lease. The cranky landlord thought we might be gay, which thought gave the crank cramps. So Cord and I said we were brothers, and we felt as if we told the truth.
Cord’s a romantic after the fashion of Lord Byron or Keats. His idea of springtime romance is taking a girl on a Saturday afternoon picnic in Fairmount Park, apples, cheese, and Rod McKuen’s corny poetry tucked into his backpack. Pink wine — sun-warmed, sweet and swollen — inside his leather canteen. The day topped off with lust dressed up to resemble love in a pool of evening shade provided by a maple tree.
The young man owns his serious side, too. He’s a self-styled community organizer, an upper-middle-class kid who tries his best to walk soul-to-soul with blue-collar steel mill workers, janitors and trash collectors. Organize! Unionize! Prod, poke and picket!
I leave half my meal uneaten. With my spoon and fork I scatter the remains around the plate in order to disguise the fact that I can’t stomach any more Tuna Supreme.
Cord volunteers to wash the dishes. I gather my textbooks, don my jacket that has an Omega sign patch sewn onto one shoulder, and make my way to the nearest trolley stop.
The squeal of train wheels combines with blue-fire sparks where pantographs meet overhead wires. I board the car and let my body rock and sway with it, so I won’t fall down. We dip down below street level, where the air smells like sweat and urine.
I pull the cord that signals the driver to stop and let me out on Broad, near City Hall. I follow a crowd of people whose combined stare is empty of hope or regret, and together we climb down the stairs that lead to the subway.
As I stand waiting for the next train, I plan and plot my escape.
Any escape, even the easiest one.
Inside my mind I am still running, as I walk into the classroom.
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.