The First Glass

 

John Dante’s Inferno, A Playboy’s Life - by Anthony Valerio


    HELL AND BACK


 In A Playboy’s Life, Anthony Valerio tells the story of an ordinary man who, almost without effort, finds himself in an extraordinary situation. This lively and skillfully written biography takes as its subject John Aimola, a son of Italian immigrants who renames himself John Dante and begins an intense relationship with Hugh Hefner, founder of the Playboy brand. The fascinating part of this book is the way Valerio relates John’s life to the great epic poem of his literary idol, Dante Alighieri, whose Inferno is based on the concept that the punishment for sin would resemble the sin itself.


 
John was born to immigrants who settled in Chicago in the early 1900’s. The family wanted their son to avoid the street gangs and mobsters in the Italian section where they lived and sent him to a boarding school run by Benedictine monks. The monks taught The Divine Comedy, the poem about a pilgrim – Dante himself – who must journey through Hell’s inferno before he can attain Paradise. At the school one monk would read the poem in Italian while another used a pull down screen to flash Gustav Dore’s famous illustrations of sinners in the circles of Hell.


 As John grows older he never forgets the monks’ lessons while at the same time he becomes aware after some early sexual encounters that he is attractive to women. John is handsome and good natured and smart and easy to like. After a brief stint in organized crime, and a short career as a bartender, he opens a night club in a poor area of Chicago and calls it Dante’s Inferno. He decorates the walls with Doré reproductions and places ads in Playboy – a magazine he read and collected. One night a curious Hugh Hefner arrives at the club and John Aimola introduces himself as John Dante. Hefner likes him at once and the meeting begins a decades-long friendship which ends when the two men grow older and the Playboy phenomenon subsides.


 Hefner hires John as a bartender and soon promotes him to manager of the Playboy club in Chicago. John is responsible for hiring not only the help but also the Bunnies. Later he would manage other Playboy clubs stateside and in England as the Playboy lifestyle catches on. John is given an apartment in the Playboy mansion and falls under the sway of Hefner and his hyper-sexual world. As a resident of the mansion and part of Hefner’s in-group, John meets and befriends not only the powerful men who pass through, but a train of women willing to provide sex to advance their careers, or simply to join the party. The artists and actors, the gangsters and their women, all touch John’s life, but none more than Hefner himself. The two men will take part in any number of orgies in Hefner’s bedroom. The group sex will include John, Hefner, often one or two male friends, but always more women than men. At a certain point the group sex turns ambiguous, the borders of acceptable male heterosexuality between the two men become porous, and John, who still retains his old world values, withdraws.


This might be a book about sex if not for Valerio’s ability to plumb John’s mind and reawaken him to Dante Alighieri’s system of sin and punishment,  something John has put aside until the Playboy life comes to its inevitable end, with age, with the death of his parents, and his own self-questioning. The end is hastened as Hefner himself grows older. Lines have been crossed between the two men. One day, and without telling Hefner, John packs the battered suitcase his mother brought from Italy and drives to Florida, consciously thinking of the dignity he’s lost and what he has to preserve. He settles into a rundown bungalow in Fort Lauderdale and wants to write a book about his life called Guest at the Party. His dream is to retire in Florence with the proceeds and to spend his last years in the city where his counterpart wrote the poem whose world mirrored his own. Valerio writes the biography for him, but John dies before his dream is realized.


 As Dante Alighieri peopled Hell with his contemporaries as exemplars of sin, Valerio presents John’s world in the same terms. It is Valerio’s genius to imply that humankind in our time has not changed, and those who live in excess, those who betray the public trust, have places in the underworld if only in our imaginings.


 End notes: Anthony Valerio is the author of eight books of fiction and nonfiction. His books are available online and from small presses. His short stories have appeared in the Paris Review and several anthologies. He lectures widely in the United States and in Europe and has taught writing at NYU, CUNY, and Wesleyan University.



Luck


            The house still stands, wrecked, silent, blackened and charred. Once the flames were extinguished an excavator ripped off part of the roof and flattened walls on the second floor to expose enough of the house so that the last ember could be put out. Now the second level is open to the weather. Bedding and household items have been disgorged onto the wreckage piled behind two giant locust trees that partly hide the house from view. An old cape built who knows when, a house without a crawl space, most likely with sills on a layer of stone, a house whose days were numbered. The woman who lived there has moved to town. During the fire she lost two grown daughters who died of smoke inhalation as they went back into the house to save their pets. Their bodies were found on the second floor. They were gone before the fire companies arrived and before I arrived as well.


           
About a year ago on the afternoon of a cold March day I came upon the house when returning from town. Smoke was pouring from a second floor window and seeping through the roof panels. No flames were visible. With no fire or smoke on the first floor, it was clear that the fire had started upstairs. Two men were already on the scene; one having called 911 waited on the road to direct the responders; the other had saved a pug dog, a pair of cats, and three pet birds. The woman who lived there had been told to wait in her car after crying out that her two daughters and more pets were still in the house. She wanted to go back inside.

            Telling her to stay put, I entered the house and stepped into the living room. A cloud of tobacco colored smoke poured down from the second floor. I called out, Is anyone up there! No answer. I called out again, Is anybody up there!  Still no answer. I called out a third time and maybe a fourth, my words lost in the dense smoke, a silent smoke, and with its muffling effect I heard no pop of kindling, no crackle of flame. No answer from upstairs, nothing but silence and smoke. So I left the house and told myself that I couldn’t do any more and that I would have heard their voices if they were alive.

            I can’t say my luck came at the expense of the family who lived there. Their story was already written. My luck was simple timing. Suppose I’d left town earlier and came upon the fire when the sisters on the second floor were still alive?  Suppose they answered my call and said, Yes come up and help us to get downstairs? What would I have done about that? Climbed through a cloud of smoke that would have killed me as fast as it probably killed them? And if, having heard their cries for help I’d have refused, how to live with that? To climb those stairs even if they would have held me, would probably have caused my own death.

            For the rest of that afternoon I’m a spectator. I stand apart as fire trucks and rescue vehicles from nearby towns arrive.  By then flames have appeared at the north gable window on the second floor. Firefighters extend a hose to a nearby pond and begin pouring water onto and into the house, especially on the second floor. Firefighters climb a shed roof on the south side and pour water through the window as an endless brown-green smoke continues gushing from the north and south gable windows. It seeps around the metal roof panels which cover a layer of smoldering shingles. Later on there’s talk among the neighbors about how little was known about the people who lived there and how it’s not uncommon for people to perish in house fires as they try to save their pets.

            Some of us on the road, including those who rescued the pets, helped the woman settle in town. Some helped more than others. The wreckage remains, a new owner will eventually clean it up, but for now the crumpled roofing and broken glass and buckets and cat boxes and bedding all recreate the tragedy. Those of us who live on the Augur Hole Road pass the house every day and review the event in the passing. The fire settles into the well of neighborhood lore along with other house fires and Irene, the flood which wiped out parts of our road six years ago.

            I was lucky then too, but that’s another story. 


Writing like a Painter 


Here’s one reaction to David Rohn’s recent show of watercolors at the Mitchell-Giddings Gallery in Brattleboro, For full disclosure, David is a friend. He’s an awfully good painter whose reputation stretches far beyond the rave reviews in the local media. I wish I could write like he paints. How I would love to give readers more pleasure than angst, but angst is part of writing, at least the kind I do. My question is whether writers work from different desires, different assumptions than painters. Does the play of light on objects and the composition of shapes and colors aim for the same effect as the written word, that the reader or observer will not turn away? Will he keep looking, keep reading, even remember a image or idea long after he closes the book or walks away from the painting?


You don’t hang fiction on your wall. Reading is an intimate act, a potential bond with the writer. Stories are often written out of pain, and about pain, based on what the writer has lived or observed, the actions of people who inspire his characters. Obsessions need to be made sense of, put into some attractive form. After that, if luck can place the work before a reader, it might be appreciated.


Images from the current exhibition at Mitchell-Giddings Gallery, Brattleboro


In David’s case you pause before rich watercolors depicting the objects of every day life, oranges, leafy greens, a bottle of water, a porch after a rain, a glass bowl on a green cloth, sketched so suggestively that you can see clear glass even though it isn’t there. The shapes are alive, they bleed colors never seen before. The eye zooms in, a prisoner, hooked like the hook in a story – Call me Ishmael! The eye travels where the artist wants it to go, no questions asked. And you say to yourself,  I’d like to have that one on my wall.


In writing you turn the page if the story hooks you. You arrive at an ending where characters either come to terms or don’t. They go on living or continue on their path until death makes its statement. Still, the question is whether a writer’s impetus is different than that of a painter. I don’t know what a painter like David starts with. Is it light and the relation of things to each other?  These watercolors are all still, there are no people – David also works in oils and the human form, and the source of that work might be another discussion.  


A writer can start with anything, a concrete image, a line of dialog, an abstract idea. Does the painter also work from that terrible freedom? Does a painter observing human folly, life and death, somehow invest that in his paintings, into his fruits and jars and plain air scenes? What does he see, and why does he see?


The answer must lie in the mystery, so I’ll settle for Henry Miller’s commandment to writers – don’t be nervous, work calmly, joyously, recklessly.... 


Finding America


            You grow up with prejudice, but that doesn’t mean you practice it. My Queens neighborhood was predominantly Irish and Jewish with an overlay of Italians. On Wednesday afternoon school was let out for religious instructions. The Jewish kids went to synagogue, the Catholics to St. Joan’s church. Stereotypes abounded and slurs were in the air, the Irish as drunks, the Jews as crafty, the Italians as gangsters. And yet so few people acted on the stereotypes despite the slogans and aspersions: Guns for the Arabs, sneakers for the Jews! Mick! Greaseball! much in jest but with that underlay of prejudice we can’t deny. In the public schools where we learned together there was rarely any ugliness, and yet as I say this, am I getting to the core, to the bottom? One day I walked into a store on Lexington Avenue wearing a suit and tie. A woman came up to me and said, “So how’s the Mafia today?” It hurt then, but am I such an angel? Do I secretly harbor those slurs and stereotypes from childhood conditioning? Do I measure each new person by that ethnic yardstick, or as I grow older and a little wiser do I ask how they don’t fit the mold. There’s still that residue of prejudice.


           
Ethnicity is our history, written about by each generation as they saw what was going on around them: James T. Farrell, Henry Roth, Pietro DiDonato, Richard Wright, Sherman Alexie, and now the Asian-Americans. The American story is an ethnic story, and the going was rougher for some than others. When one of our my sisters married a black man the reaction of my father and his Italian cadre was shameful, but they soon came around and welcomed a new member of the family. Why was that? Because they were immigrants too. I’m in the process of composing an email to some cousins in Sicily who want to know what I think about Trump. When I previously called him a Mussolini they weren’t so sure. Overwhelmed by refugees from North Africa, their city of Palermo has neither space nor money nor jobs. They want the refugees gone. When I answer their e mail I will explain that here in America we do have space, we can make space, those who come now will be no different than those who came before – those who made us stronger, more interesting, more daring as we learn to live with each other. There’s no backing away from that.


For the Birds


            My grandma believed that birds were the souls of the dead. She would throw out bread soaked in water for the sparrows, grackles and stray pigeons from the nearby coops. She also believed in olive oil as a universal cure and that certain people possessed “the evil eye.” When she walked around our house in Queens with the rosary beads wrapped around her fingers she prayed in a dialect that sounded like typewriters at high speed.


           
Our house in Jackson Heights was a block from the Roosevelt Avenue el with its periodic rumble of above-ground subway cars. The trains shook the ground and made speech impossible. The kids I grew up with were Jewish, Italian, and Irish. The Irish boys who dominated the parochial school at Saint Joan of Arc church were a rowdy bunch. They joined up with Italians like me while the Jewish boys for the most part kept to themselves and at times valiantly and physically defended themselves against slurs that horrify us today. All that is changed now. History moves fast. Visit the neighborhood today or watch the recent PBS Special on Jackson Heights and find the most diverse neighborhood in the city or even the world, from Latinos to South Asians, Chinese, Muslims, Koreans and others. Nothing looks the same except the el, and only a vestige of the European base remains.


            My grandpa made wine every year in the basement, and my three uncles would turn the press with an iron pipe to his admonition spoken through a Di Nobili cigar. “No squeeze!” Squeeze too hard and the wine will taste like seeds and stems. The oak barrels of red Zinfandel were stored in a wine cellar which also held cheeses and fresh green olives smashed with a hammer and left to marinate in brine. The olives were forever bitter. My uncles called Grandpa “The Boss” and gently poked fun at the old world ways instilled in that Sicilian town where he grew up. And when I developed an interest in family and asked why he’d come here, he had a simple answer: “There’s nothing over there!”


            The neighborhood that produced both John Berryman and Don Rickles – that master of insult comedy - always had something special, something I can’t define, an intensity and a history that provided a matrix for the diverse groups of today. Our house was a short walk to my grade school, Public School 69, it’s playground a stage for the formative drama of our lives. On the way to school I would pass the public library, and one day I wandered inside and did something that changed my life. By chance I picked up a young reader’s version of The Trojan War and read the book while standing. I read it again without moving from the spot. Mesmerized by the story of the wooden horse and the terrifying victory of Achilles over Hector, I became a believer. Now those final lines of The Iliad are with me always: Thus was the funeral of Hector, Tamer of Horses.


            There were two supper clubs within a few blocks of our house. The nearest was The Orchid Room, next door to the library and owned by a Columbo family capo named Sonny Franzese. As kids we would hang around near the door as the long black cars pulled up and out stepped our role models, the dapper men in dark suits guiding women in furs and diamonds under the awning and into the club. One night Franzese and a younger man were talking in the main room. A shot rang out and the young man fell to the floor with his cold pistol in hand. The story went that Sonny drew his pistol from under a five-hundred dollar suit and fired before the assassin could pull the trigger. The body was immediately dragged out to the street a block or so away. The blood was cleaned up and everyone played dumb when the police arrived. 


             A few blocks west was a club called The Blue Haven. This was one of the places in Brooklyn and Queens where Lenny Bruce started out, appearing under his real name, Lenny Schneider. On “amateur” nights Lenny would get up from the audience as if he’d never performed before and do his act, most likely impressions. He was twenty-five at the time and would eventually became famous for social commentary and his legal battles for protected speech now freely granted to today’s comedians.


            We moved out of that neighborhood when I graduated high school and returned for brief visits or funerals for those who stayed behind. My oldest uncle, at 97, one of those who made the wine, still lives on 78th Street, a half-block from the el track that imparts the neighborhood’s flavor and defining look, that rumble from overhead subway cars and the striped sunlight filtered onto the street below. When I was seven the uncle took me to my first baseball game and from the bleachers I witnessed the crowd going wild when Joe DiMaggio, nearly close enough to touch, made an over the shoulder catch that looked so easy that he could do it in his sleep.


            Here in Vermont with the squirrel proof bird feeder outside the window and the suet cake dangling from the maple tree beyond the reach of any bear, I sip my coffee and study the Jackson Heights of chickadees, doves, titmice, woodpeckers and the Cardinal who lights up the show with his cameo visits. So who are these birds? Is that noisy Blue jay tearing at the suet cake my father? Who are those grandpas, grandmas, aunts and uncles chomping on black oil sunflower seeds and holding innocent conversations while parts of the world are, in Lenny Bruce’s favorite phrase, in the toilet?

        

            I write this as the Liar in Chief with his Mussolini scowl now clogs the midtown of my city with a security zone at the base of his tower. Swat police armed like old Hamlet, cap-a-pe, head to foot, keep their index fingers on the triggers. He’s from Queens so I know the type. Go low and he’ll go lower. Ah what to do, write a letter, send a tweet, call your congressman and leave a message, post a cartoon with his hand up Liberty’s gown? I grew up with people like him who’d whack you with a Louisville Slugger and then play dumb. Who, me?


        Still, this is the hand I’ve been dealt and I wouldn’t have it any other way.


        As William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”



San Diego, Ocean Beach – November 17, 2016

           

           

            In the sweet morning air the tide is high and the surf is big and foamy. On the beach a woman in bare feet dances before the breakers, advancing and retreating with the wash, teasing the ocean with pirouettes and delicately fingered arm motions, the object of the dance to lure the water but to keep her feet dry. She spins and glides ahead of the wash, then follows it back, tossing her hair and daring the ocean to catch her, stopping, bowing, worshipping wind and water.

             
Out on the pier a pelican on the rail eyes me for a handout as the wind bristles the feathers of his crown. Below me a dozen odd surfers hang in the swells beyond the breakers, paddling in place. Astride their boards, they study the oncoming waves, most of which they don’t take.

            On the beach a surfer zips up his wet suit, attaches a safety leash to his ankle and bellies into the water on top of his board, paddling up and over a crashing wave, or ‘duck diving’ underneath the roll when a wave is to big to climb. Seconds later he pops up in the backwash and continues his two-handed paddle to join the others waiting for waves to break in their favor. 

            To the non-surfer’s eye all the waves look good, but a surfing wave doesn’t ‘crack’ simultaneously along the crest – it breaks from one side and builds ahead of the break. To catch a wave the surfers paddle furiously in front of the building crest, and when the breaking wave propels them forward they push up with their arms and stand on the board – this is the hard part. Now comes the balancing act, bent at the knees, hips and arms moving to maintain balance, they do their own dance as the ocean pulls and pushes on the board. With luck they can ride the constantly forming barrel and keep ahead of the inevitable breakup and roll. Those more experienced anticipate the wipeout and turn back up and over the wave when the ride is over. They remain standing until the board naturally sinks. Those with similar presence of mind fall backward when the barrel collapses. This keeps the board in front and minimizes the chance of a head injury. Those less experienced fall helplessly into the roll. Some dive off their boards at the last second while others disappear in the roll and pop up in the backwash spitting water and smoothing their hair before paddling back out.        

            This is the longest concrete pier in Southern California. At nearly a half mile, the pier begins at Newport Avenue in downtown “OB” - as it’s called – and ends in a long T. There’s a cafe and bait shop midway out. Because the pier gives access to deeper waters it’s a popular fishing spot, and even before sunup several fishermen already have their lines in the water. As a weak winter sun colors the ocean and warms the air, more fishermen come, wheeling their carts packed with spinning rods, ice chests, bait pails, and folding chairs. Gulls and pelicans on the rails look for bits of discarded bait. Many of the fisherman are Chinese and Mexican. The Chinese dress for the wind in flop hats tied under their chins, or wide bamboo hats we associate with the far east. The Chinese men, and women, tend to fish by themselves. Mexicans like to bring their families for a fishing picnic as fathers teach their kids how to bait a hook and cast a line. Rod handles are set in pre-drilled holes in the railing and the hopeful watch their brightly colored floats and wait for a bite. Others spin cast with a shiny silver spoons or live minnows tied to a hook. They retrieve the bait to imitate a wounded minnow, letting it sink, pulling it up, letting it sink again, hoping an angry bonito will take the bait in one thrilling swipe.

            At the end of the pier a Chinese man pulls up a cage net with a few small herring caught in the mesh. He saves the fish in a bucket of sea water and lowers the net back into the water. As the net sinks he throws in a few handfuls of wet dough which break up into powder. I lean over the rail and watch. The man’s friend comes along and after a few words in Chinese they revert to English.

            “Not much today,” says the fisherman.

            “Maybe later, when the tide goes out.”

            “Nothing yesterday either.”

            “How’s your back?”

            He shrugs.

            Off the pier now, I head north along the beach where the sand is good for walking. The city has pushed up a berm as protection against recent high tides. I sit on the berm and enjoy the ocean. There are more surfers, some swimmers even at this time of year, joggers with dogs, yogas, a man on a rock in bathing trunks saluting the sea with upraised arms. Sunbathers unfold their towels and blankets, beach volleyball courts are being set up. Some homeless occupy a grassy area just off the beach where the city provides bathrooms and outdoor showers. The showers have spring loaded spigots which squirt city water for a few seconds, long enough to wash the sand from your feet or your surf board. Under one of these spigots a homeless man with his possessions in a shopping cart is taking a full body shower. He knows what he’s doing. Shirtless and wearing athletic shorts, he hits the spigot button over and over to wet himself head to toe. Then he soaps and rinses top to bottom, one section at a time. This is a process of pushing the spigot over and over and gradually getting the job done. By a feat of legerdemain with a towel he also manages a complete change of clothes.

            A young man in a ball cap comes up to me and says, “I have a gift for you.”

            He holds out cupped hands. Okay, I think, this is California, no place for cynicism, no reason to think he might be holding an explosive device.

            “Will you accept my gift?”

            “Or course I will.”

            He opens his hand to a geode, a piece of multicolored quartz, cut and polished at one end.

            “Why are you giving this to me?”

            “Because I am in abundance.”

            “Thank you very much.”

            He moves off as I think of that Whitman poem, As Adam Early in the Morning, which ends, “Be not afraid.....”



Journal Entry – October 3, 2016


            Seventy-seven today. When my wife suggests a party I remind her that October doesn’t have the most positive associations. The whole month is gloomy, starting with hard frosts and dead greens in the garden. This is also the anniversary of the most horrible event in the lives of Brooklyn Dodger fans, of which I was a diehard. This was “The Shot Heard ‘Round The world,” Bobby Thompson’s walk-off homer in the National League Pennant race against my beloved Dodgers. Thompson hit an inside fastball served up by a young reliever named Ralph Branca, known as “the goat” thereafter. Adding insult to injury, news reports later said the Giants had a man with a telescope behind center field to steal the finger signals from the catcher. I was twelve and learning that boyhood dreams never die.

            This day reminds me that I’ll never shuck the weight of those early years which gave me a bank of material to process and placed me at some distance from family and friends. The writer’s curse, and blessing, is to stand with one foot in two worlds -  one lived in and one created for the sake of sanity as well as art. The only road to balance is to write one’s way out, and it helps to read about those who struggled and managed. Raymond Chandler, poor as a church mouse when he decided to write for a living, spent five months on a story called “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot,” his first and far from his best. The story was written ‘on spec’ for a magazine called Black Mask. It sold for one hundred and eighty dollars and Chandler never looked back. Stories, novels, and screenplays followed, along with a trove of essays and letters on the writing life. Chandler slaved over his prose and graced the seedy world of L.A. with his hard edged poetic style. Writing was his balancing act.            

            For writers who endure what Jack Kerouac described as “gloomier moments,” Chandler reminds us that the pleasure of crafting a good sentence or paragraph is itself a reason to live. He advises writers to analyze and imitate as the only way to learn and proudly admits that he doesn’t outline ahead of time. Plots just grow, and if they grow the wrong way he rips them out and starts over. For Chandler, any writer who hates the actual work of writing isn’t a writer at all.

           
In “Notes from an Unsuccessful Writer’s Journal,” Mario Puzo writes  despairingly that he might never succeed despite having published two well received novels, The Dark Arena  - drawn  from on his experience as a GI in postwar Germany, and The Fortunate Pilgrim, based on his early life in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen and called by one critic “a minor classic.” Puzo admits with pride that the central character in Pilgrim, Lucia Santa, is closely based on his mother; who raised a family in a tough neighborhood and without a husband. While writing The Godfather, Puzo claimed that whenever Don Corleone opened his mouth he heard his mother’s voice. In the journal’s record of his own gloomier days, the pre-Godfather Puzo asks himself why he's written so little. He ascribes his meager output to serious thinking: every minute of the day his mind is focused on what he’s going to write. Writing to him, like all art, is a shield against the poverty of the world as well as a force which holds our lives together.   

            That said, happy birthday to all.



Who Art In


            He was born in 1916 in a dirt road town off the Appian Way. His mother died in the Spanish Flu pandemic soon after. He came here at seven, grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, quit school at sixteen - it was the depression -  worked at who knows what, became a city fireman, then a bar owner, his first in Harlem called The Horseshoe, looted and lost in the riot of 1943; later The Marine Bar on South Street across from the Staten Island ferry. In my growing up years he kept me at home during the week so I wouldn’t quit high school and follow some of my friends into the military. In my college years he bought a bar upstate and in summers we worked it together. I opened up at eight for a customer named Smitty who needed four shots of rye before going to work. In late afternoon he took over and I napped in a spare room upstairs. We worked the night shift together and closed at four. Next came the all night diner for breakfast, after which I’d sleep for a few hours before opening up again. This was seven days a week. One night a drunk he’d kicked out threw a beer bottle from outside that hit the cash register and shattered in his face. In the course of this career his nose was broken five times. His marriage didn’t survive the temptations of the business and he left my mother when I was in my twenties. I resented him for everything. In his late forties he left the bar business and went into real estate, selling and owning property. This was work he finally enjoyed. In the end we made peace. The body that lived for work lost out to diabetes and Parkinson’s. From there it was dementia and the nursing home where he ogled the nurses and tried to sell the rooms as condominiums. He did what he could, gave me a gift, he’s always in the next room.



Moment

 

It’s closing time.

My father and I

pick up empty glasses

and wipe down the bar,

the door is locked and

everybody’s gone

except a heavy set blonde,

at the end of the bar

telling him all night

his son is better looking.

My father totals the register.

She watches as I untie my apron

and get ready to leave.

I have my own car.

He looks at me.

 



Youth

    He awoke in the back of a stolen Oldsmobile Starfire whose rapid acceleration from a red light shot fear into his heart. He'd been trying to sleep despite a stomach churning from alcohol. The Olds accelerated with neck snapping speed and sucked air like a straw sipping the bottom of a glass. The car headed west on Queens Boulevard with three boys in front and four squeezed in back, the radio tuned to the Symphony Sid Show and King Pleasure singing, My Little Red Top, its simple lyric of love driving some of them to sing along. Oh My Little Red Top/how you've got me spinning! With unceasing acceleration the Olds changed lanes without regard for the vehicles slipping by in a blur as they neared Calvary Cemetery, where his grandparents were buried. He now felt a heavy touch of shame at being drunk in a stolen car in the vicinity of his forebears, the salt of the earth, dead not two years, one having followed the other because life alone was untenable. In his mind's eye he saw the grave stone beyond the cemetery's boundary with its giant statue of Christ welcoming his flock to eternity. 


    Then a red light, but seen too late. With a screech of brakes a front tire exploded, the Olds skidded sideways, struck the curb and pitched out of control, the steering wheel spinning both ways through the driver's hands. Although the boys knew that a crash was imminent, these 'assholes' -  his father's word - yipped and yelled for the driver to go faster, displaying not a particle of fear at the impending collision. He realized at last that his father’s description was apt. These friends were crazy and reckless and stupid to celebrate as the smaller car, which they struck from behind, obeyed the Newtonian laws he'd studied. It shot across the intersection like a pool ball.


    After a brief pause the driver of the little car got out, a wiry type in his early thirties wearing a leather bomber jacket. Smiling, he approached with his open wallet held forth like a  crucifix in a vampire film. He jiggled the wallet so the police badge flashed as he neared the car to assess what he had inside.


    "Who is this mother fucker?," the driver asked. His last name was Freud, his nickname 'Ziggie.' 


    The man in the bomber jacket pressed the badge against the driver's side window, and his open jacket revealed a pistol in a belt holster, a small, nasty looking thing whose grip protruded like a cow horn, black and mean. He opened both doors on the driver's side, and with a theatrical gesture as if introducing the boys to an audience, invited them to step outside.

 

    "Hands on the roof of the car, fellas, then we'll see some I.D."

 


The

First

Glass


Vincent Panella


VINCENT PANELLA lives in Marlboro, Vermont and grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens where he attended Public School Sixty-Nine. 

He graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School and later from Carnegie Mellon University where he earned a degree in Metallurgical Engineering. After graduation he worked as an engineer in the aerospace industry and later at a New Jersey wire company.

He served for two years in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War years and then enrolled in graduate school at the Pennsylvania State University.  He received his Master of Arts degree in English from Penn State, and went on to the Iowa Writer's Workshop where he studied under William Price Fox.

He worked as a news reporter for the Dubuque, Iowa Telegraph-Herald and later as the Writing Specialist at the Vermont Law school.

In 1979 Doubleday published his memoir, The Other Side, Growing up Italian in America, with photographs by his wife, Susan Sichel. 

The first of his novels to be published was Cutter's Island, (Academy Chicago, 2000) which won a ForeWord fiction award.  Lost Hearts, his story collection, is published under his own imprint, Apollo's Bow.

TITLES

Cutter's Island: Caesar in Captivity


This is a revenge tale based on a little known event in the life of Julius Caesar. When he was twenty five, Caesar was captured by pirates and held on an island for forty days. The story of Caesar's liberation and revenge is briefly summarized by historians, but Cutter's Island is a retelling in Caesar's voice and in the context of his world.


The Other Side


The Other Side is a sensitive, candid portrait of an immigrant culture from a third-generation perspective. Vincent Panella portrays his family in Italian villages and American neighborhoods, and what emerges is an critical but loving view of the Italian-American experience: its cloying love, intense frugality, obsession with security, and its strong sense of family cohesion. He writes of his boyhood in Queens, New York, his father's efforts to shape his life, and the fact that "to be a member of an Italian family is never to be simply yourself.


Lost Hearts: Stories


The twenty-three stories in Lost Hearts comprise a rich and candid account of growing up and growing old in Sicily and America. The stories may be read separately, but they are also linked. Original Sin, the opening story set in rural Sicily in 1900, pushes a father-son conflict to its tragic conclusion. The protagonist, Peter Marino, emigrates to America, where his descendants - and especially his grandson, Charlie - experience the conflicts, hopes and the needs that add up to the human condition.


Vincent Panella’s titles are available from his site

vincentpanella.com

Cutter's and Lost Hearts may also be ordered from bookstores and the usual online sites. Both are available in paperback as well as kindle.

The stories from Lost Hearts have all been recorded in the author’s voice and are available on his Amazon page as  MP3 downloads for  99 cents each.


Harback copies of

The Other Side

are available

here