The Centerpiece

It is Italy, the Amalfi coast, a cafe that proudly serves wine with an ornate fasces on the label. He is a regular here in spite of knowing full well what the fasces represents.
    It is late afternoon. He recreates a tableau at his table in the deep, shady corner of the cafe: a carafe of rotgut burgundy and a glass, a smashed pack of filterless Camels. The cigarettes are positioned just-so, stacked by a companion Zippo as brittle and antique as his typewriter, the centerpiece to this composition: a fifteen pound Underwood with a broken ‘t’ and a broken ‘!.’
    For the absent t’s and !’s, he types the letter ‘x’ in their stead. Like a placeholder.
    In spite of its crippled keys and the myriad, marvelous technological tinkers writing implements have undergone since 1941, (the birthdate of that shit-piece relic) he begins humping away at the jalopy, just as he’s done for the past year or so.
    The thumping and grinding required to commune with the crippled device shakes his rickety table like a platter of jello. It’s why so many pages of his manuscript are wine-blotched and cigarette-burnt—accoutrements, he believes, lend the stale, rumpled stack of unreadable paper a certain authenticity.

The cafe's house wine label, specifically the fasces displayed therein (a small, crude axe symbolizing fascism—a surprisingly common holdover from World War Two in the Italian countryside), is his most frequent conversation starter.
    It is an unsolicited starter which always begins, “You know what that little axe symbolizes, don’t you?” As an opener it is an obvious and creepy maneuver he inflicts on the particularly vulnerable stream of hostel-weary Americans lonely enough to mistakenly entertain what follows. What follows is, of course, a suffocating and suspiciously practiced monologue concerning the innocuous little fasces and the heft it bears with these redneck Italians, which he pronounces, “eye-tayl-yuns.”
If his conspicuously predatory monologue is not effectively interrupted (no small task) it will inevitably wind its way through a selection of similarly rehearsed morsels of pseudo intellectual jetsam.
    In spite of this boorish buffoonery, which would render him a pariah back home in America, he is strangely tolerated by the waitstaff and suffered by the other regulars.
    Maybe they’ve grown fond of him?
    He is, if anything, immensely entertaining to watch—from a distance. Like a pathetic mascot haunting the dreary cafe corner—click-clacking at the galloping typewriter, interrupted frequently by spilled wine, or to put out a small fire, ignited by an errant cigarette.

Outside the cafe, from the last, sultry throes of an indian-summer’s dusk, comes a woman. She is a tall silhouette, definitely American. The typewriter stops. Everyone watches her hungrily as she wanders into the cafe from the cobblestone courtyard.
    She steps up to the bar, says something to the bartender. The bartender answers by kissing the fingertips of his hand and hurries for a bottle. She tries to pay, but the bartender will have none of it. Instead he ushers her to a seat next to the courtyard: advertising.
    She demures and, with the bottle and two glasses, leaves the evening light and the rowdy bocce volo to the seniors on the patio. She explores further into the musky armpit of the back cafe to a table across from a man, also American, profoundly sweaty and perching like an obese parakeet at his typewriter, the keys of which, ASDF–JKL and the little colon are all punched into a traffic jam at the lead.
    He untangles the jam of keys. Strains, squinting at the back-lit page. Impossible to read. Resumes typing furiously: ‘I can’t xhink of whax xo wrixe so insexead Iwill wrixe ax xhe xypewrixer unxil she xalks xo me. GOOD GODX Why doesn’t she xalk xo meXXX
    She is looking at the spilled wine on the floor.
    He can’t bring himself to look at her. He doesn’t need to. It keeps going around his head—two glasses. TWO!
    “Whatcha workin’ on?”
    He stops typing, adjusts his glasses. “I’m sorry?”
    “You’re a writer. So, whattre you writing?”
    He looks back to the page, feigning irritation at her distraction. He fake-reads a couple sentences and returns to her, waiting.
    “What?” she shrugs. “Don’t want to spoil the magic?”
    “I’m on a seance!” he answers.
    “A what?"
    “A seance! You do know what—”
    “I know what a seance is. It’s just—”
    There is a long obvious pause. She is slipping away.
    “That bottle,” he says, turning in his seat to square at her. “The label. You do know what that little axe stands for, don’t you?”
    It is night when her husband finally joins them. He finds his wife in the back of the cafe. She is standing. She is pissed. She is shaking her hand and tells her husband she might have broken it on that asshole’s face. They hurry out of the cafe.
    He is laid out, over his table, which has collapsed in a flurry of papers and wine and cigarette ash. Several important looking bits of hardware have escaped from the Underwood, he picks up one of the keys from the ground and strains past his throbbing, crunchy nose to make it out.
    ‘!’
    “So,” he chuckles, wincing at his nose. “We meet again?”
    There is so much blood. All he did was try to flirt a little, how could he have known she was married? That’s the problem with women today. No, it’s always been the problem with women: they don’t know how to take a compliment. They can’t just let a man make them feel pretty or special.
    He pulls together the wreckage of his table. The spilled wine and the papers. He gathers the Underwood’s scatter of dislodged hardware. He decides to remember her, commit her to memory so he can write her into a book later. Pensione Vengeance. That will be the title, though it hasn’t been written yet.

It is later. Nursing his broken nose, he pours over the pages of his manuscript that looks like it was wrestled from the mouth of an alcoholic crocodile. He’s crying a little, but not from the pain, which was substantial, but for the possible disfiguring features his smashed nose could very well assume.
    That woman, tiny fists, almost knocked his head right off his shoulders!
    And for what? All he did was put his hand on her leg.
    He gives up trying to edit the tangle of papers, impossible with a freshly broken nose. It’s a good thing he doesn’t believe in editing. Editing, as he states often and loudly, is the quickest, most sure-fire way to kill the spirit in your writing. It has always been a point of pride his reviews accomplish little retooling beyond adding the missing t’s and exclamation points, or to clarify text bled by spilled wine or torched by a cigarette.
    This was an extra effort he was happy to perform as long as the typewriter was the pièce de résistance to his meticulously constructed portrait. But what now? The evening’s scuffle had most certainly been the kiss of death for the horrid Underwood.
    He lays back in bed. A chorus of squeaks from the springs in the awful mattress in his awful hotel room, which he chose specifically because it was awful. He closes his eyes to the incredible, throbbing mash of nose. The bleeding is finally letting up.
    He decides, every true writer should have his nose broken at least once.
    Realizing this helps him embrace the injury. As far as a badge of honor, it’s no broken Underwood, but people will still look upon it with admiration and disgust.
    It has to be a good story though. Impressive.
    He recreates the event in his head, replacing the furious tourist with tiny fists to a gigantic, drunken brute. Russian probably? No, Russian is too obvious. Polish perhaps? Yes. A Pollack, groping women at the bar. Finally, he’s forced to inserted himself between the Pollack and some girl. The Pollack curses him, breath reeking of rancid sardines and Ouzo—a last, whimsical detail just before lights out. Bystanders will report what they saw: this man, huge and violent, simply put his massive fist, solid as the end of a log, through the American’s face.
    He’d have to leave town to tell a story like that, since everyone in this small town was there and saw what really happened.
    Maybe it was finally time to return to America? To return home.
    But then, what is America? What is home?

 

Not all that glitters...

Apparently, my college nemesis, Lawrencius, received news of my book, Luck Favors the Prepared. He sent me a letter.

The envelope was brown and coarse, probably a handmade paper with what looked like pine needles and feces pressed into the pulp. It was bound with a wax stamp displaying a frilly “L” and reeked of patchouli and college.

I opened the letter, in spite of the small bulge in the corner. The small bulge turned out to be glitter which exploded everywhere, covering everything. Myself, my living room, everything was instantly fabulous and would remain fabulous for weeks.

“Haha!” the letter read. “How do you like the glitter? Jerk!”

When you receive a letter with a wax seal:
1) call police
2) run
3) file police report about highly suspicious letter from possible college nemesis while running away from letter

His name wasn’t really Lawrencius (pron. lah-ren-suss). It was Seth, or David or Steve, but when we were classmates he demanded we refer to him by this pompous, made-up name. He signed all his papers, copies distributed for peer critique, with a similarly frilly ‘L.’

Lawrencius and I were instantly not friends.

Because we attended several of the same classes with an almost identical pool of students (common for a group who are all orbiting the same major), our mutual distaste bloomed as a spectacle for our small community.

Each writing assignment he submitted for review and class discussion, in addition to his ornate colophon, was introduced with the brassy fanfare of an indulgent preamble. He would actually stand at the front of the class to bloviate elaborately on his state of mind from whence his opus was composed. He would omit no context of where it was written, if its first traces were scrawled, post coital, on a bedside tablet or in a cafe filled with hot jazz and cold-eyed women. To my horror, these breathless prefaces were allowed to continue uninterrupted by our professors.

It is worth noting Lawrencius was a tremendous ass-kisser. His fawning attentions to our bevy of professors—whose egos purred at his persistent adoration—allowed that they were more than happy to yield their podium to his florid orations.

An actual quote from a particularly lengthy preface: “I was reeling in an ethereal plane of post-beat slam and pre-feminist utopian essays when I began to mold this piece…”

He went on and on like that (prompted by a small clutch of note cards) until, at long last, I’d had my fill.


“Why don’t you shut up?” I said.

Lawrencius, holding a grapefruit as a placeholder for poor Yorick’s skull, did just that. The grapefruit was a prop in his theatrical introduction to a sonnet, his most recent masterpiece, distributed for critique. It was only a brief pause but it was delicious. The silence, not the grapefruit.

“What did you say?”

“I said,” I said. “Shut up! You pompous blowhard.”

My point, which I thought was perfectly obvious and redundant to clarify, was that authors aren’t allowed a preface. They may include a preface to a written work, but for the author’s place in a world that’s short on time and likely doesn’t care about them, there are no such allowances. Just because we were a captive audience did not grant Lawrencius license to perform his never ending ballet of vanities.

It was a point that was not well received.

One of my classmates offered, “Why don’t you shut up?!”

“Yeah,” offered another. “You...pompous blowhard.”

I’d presumed as much, knowing Lawrencius was largely regarded a sort of defacto braintrust for our incestious little English department. Maybe he was a bouffant jackass but for all his wild claims to genius, his windy braggadocio, came a self-fulfilling foundation to which my classmates eagerly clung.

Lawrencius, emboldened by the chorus of supporters, again hefted poor Yorick the grapefruit to resume his monologue.

What did I learn from this—my sobering confrontation with Lawrencius? Humility? Worthlessness? All of that, yes, and much more.

It was a bitter pill.

I was impressed then, as I am now, how the earnest work of dedication and vulnerability is so easily trounced by the grand claims of an inferiority complex run amok.

For the skeptics out there, those who would turn their nose up at such a bitter pill, need only remember we are in the midst of Donald Trump’s presidency. And Donald Trump is arguably killing it among great swaths of our very own countrymen. These are grown men and women who feel a champion in Donald Trump. I’ll say that again, out of context, because it’s worth repeating.

Donald Trump!


In this grim landscape I’ve described, where is one to find purchase in the drilling headwinds of embarrassments and defeats and humility and on and on and on? How does one secure agency? The wherewithal to continue?

Search me.

I love weddings. One thing I love about weddings, (besides the whole wedding part), is that dance floor. Of course, much depends on the DJ, but likely, by the end of the night, I’ll be pouring sweat and my feet, which are not used to dress shoes, much less being forced to an evening of prolonged, violent exercise in dress shoes, will have rendered to throbbing bags of hamburger.

Whoever it was made the grave error of inviting me to their wedding, they and their whole family and their extended family and some coworkers and college buddies will look on breathlessly, “My god!” I can hear them gasp. “Is that poor white boy suffering a seizure?”

Here’s my secret:
    1. Give in to the likelihood that everything you do is stupid, ridiculous, temporary and probably offensive. Embrace everything opposite of dignity. Give in to the rhythm. You can feel that beat in your ass. Don’t deny it.
    2. Take a page out of Donald Trump’s playbook, “You’ll never be the punchline if you always, completely embrace the joke.” Okay, Donald Trump didn’t say that verbatim, but you know it has to be a Donald mantra. Otherwise he would have blown his brains out long ago.


Lawrencius’s glittery letter continued:
‘I heard about your so called ‘book.’ I heard you’re self publishing? I hear you’re having to do all your own marketing which is just as well since, if you can’t be a real author, then you might as well peddle trinkets. That’s so pathetic. In a sad way. Like a desperate cry for attention...’ His letter goes on and on like this. It’s pithy barbs lodged in my brain.

You can hear them in there still, rattling around in my head.

A Google search for Lawrencius and his many works pulled up scant results. There’s a lot of entries in vanity presses, whose contributors all paid someone $50 to consider and edit their submission in return for a free copy of the publication (distributed only to those who foolishly paid $50 for a shoddy lit rag).

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Google was also kind enough, to reveal Lawrencius’s address, which I followed to an apartment complex way out in the suburbs. I waited there for him, for a long time, and when he finally came out, I knew it was him since he still wore the same fedora with that stupid feather lodged in the brim.

He beeped the alarm to a small car parked just behind me. He got in and rolled down the window. I walked up to the car and said “Hey Steve!” and emptied a three pound bag of glitter into the open window. In his panic, cursing and flailing arms, my fabulous deposit was thoroughly distributed throughout the interior of the car, permanently embedding itself in the upholstery. Coughing and blinded, he sped off, windows billowing sparkling clouds like glittering streamers.

Where was he headed? I can’t say.

But I do know, when he gets there, he will show up looking absolutely fabulous.