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Haunted by memories of a childhood stained with the so-called tough love of a God-lovin' alcoholic father and the inky residue of his own bigotry, the last 15 years are a blur of libations and amassing trophies, women...
Haunted by memories of a childhood stained with the so-called tough love of a God-lovin' alcoholic father and the inky residue of his own bigotry, the last 15 years are a blur of libations and amassing trophies, women and money. Carmine has spent his whole life distancing himself from his past, those crooked lines, the dusty red clay roads of the South. But when the winning streak ends and the phone rings, he ends up right back where he started: Eton, Georgia (population 318).
When the walls he's built around himself crumble, Carmine finds love in everything he's tried to escape: a black woman, forgiveness, himself, and the past. As he tries to figure out what the past means, what it means to be good, and what the future holds, he'll have to decide between love and hate, darkness and light, and all the things in between.
Sometimes you have to go back to where you started to learn the oldest lesson of all: you've got to let go of everything to gain it all. A story about love, about forgiveness, and about what it means to make a life worth living. Charming and deeply moving A Song for Carmine is a story that gives you something to leave with.
I have a tall bottle of Jim Beam in my hand. I hold its narrow neck and tip it back into my mouth. The sour liquid rolls down my throat easily, hardly a burn to it. I am slurring and singing old church hymns, centered on the ledge of the window fourteen stories up, with my back against the windowsill, one bare leg hanging out of it. I have lived on the edge my whole life; this is nothing new.
The wind is whistling almost in jest, my eyes blurring with the city lights below me. I sing louder. "Since I laid my burden down ..." I laugh, remember the lines in Mississippi John Hurt's face, know it ain't quite the same for me, but that I got a song too.
My mouth dries and my eyes begin to water. I swing my legs back and forth over the ledge, dare the weight of my bitter self to pull me down. I look out on the city of Dallas, search it, feel like a king, then a pauper, don't want to be anything if I can't be the man I've been so far.
I think about God, still wonder if he exists at all, remember Pa's church. The building, triangular at the top, its white siding, like Pa himself, so fragile, always at the mercy of the changing wind. What power does anyone really have?
I remember the feeling of uncooked rice beneath my knees as Pa punished me for something and told me to pray for forgiveness, to ask to be good, to show some goddamn respect. I wanted to be good. I remember the way his face looked as I stared at him, hovering above me, the coarse whiskers on this face, beat yellow by the sun, the smell of Ma's chicken grease in the air, all the little details stick out.
I haven't thought of Eton, Georgia (population 319), in years, but the memory of my father haunts me tonight. As if he'd always expected everything to end up this way for me, the prodigal son, personal failure the only thing possible for me. I bet he's somewhere laughing right about now, kicked back in a chair, whiskey in one hand, tattered Bible in the other.
I left Eton after high school and hit the ground running, running as fast as I could, out west, to another life, from the kid I'd been. Somehow I managed to navigate my way into a scholarship at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and the rest is history.
I wanted a better place to self-destruct, to live out my escape, anyplace other than Eton—no, I wanted a place that could swallow Eton whole and spit it out, a place where I could disappear. At SMU, I became unidentifiable among the other slugs there: I was popular, loud, drunk most of the time. I made an art out of handling straight shots of bourbon, holding back mouthfuls of digested pizza. For breakfast, I would gulp down hard liquor and fill my mouth full of chewing tobacco. After graduation, the advertising world welcomed me with daily libations. A martini here, a screwdriver there, and then you were among friends.
Advertising—it's the ultimate poison. Find out what people like, what makes them feel good, figure out a way to feed them the illusion of it, make them think they can actually have it.
Car commercials—leather seats, cruise control, wide tires, open highways, surround sound—I could put it all together and make someone feel like they'd never be alone, never have to hurt if they'd just buy that car, use that cream, subscribe to that idea, believe in those glossy words.
Credit cards were keys to real futures, soft and forgiving, forever young and safe. Even laundry soap could change a whole life. I knew what people wanted—deep down, I wanted the same things—but it was all smoke and mirrors.
Sometimes late at night, after I'd gotten laid by some girl I'd picked up at a bar, I'd pull out my old tapes, catalogs, pray to the manipulating copy, laugh out loud to the glossy commercials, write notes as I paced the room and thought of other ways to market happiness and safety and true love. It was power.
Melanie finds me out there on that ledge, humming to myself, punching right hooks into the air. She's been in and out of my life for years. There are pieces of a shattered champagne bottle everywhere on the terrazzo floors in my apartment, soaked drafts of presentations for the Carmichael account, an Armani suit, tie, Kenneth Cole shoes, other parts of my costume. She steps carefully through the rummage, careful not to step on the broken glass, and looks at me the way she always has. She longs. I falter. Together we are the things we both hate.
She startles me and the whiskey bottle falls out of my hand and down thirteen floors. The sound of the glass breaking, the implications of everything I do, so far away in the distance I can barely hear.
It all came crashing down. I'd forgotten it was actually possible to lose. The Carmichael account—it was ubiquitous. I'd come so far; I was to be a partner in the firm. It was supposed to be the top of a ladder I'd spent years climbing without looking down, a life of Superdome dreams, vodka martinis and sky-rise apartments. The last few years of my life have been a blur. My career became my religion, my identity, and the Carmichael account was to secure my spot in that superficial heaven.
I remember getting the news—the initial sense of relief that came, quick like lightning, then the anger. It happened so fast.
No one saw it coming, or maybe we did. It's one of those things that you wonder why you let happen—a $25 parking ticket that you don't pay till it becomes $600, a dull ache in your side that explodes into appendicitis, the small thread of your sweater that you let unwind until there's only a ball of yarn and nothing left.
Diego, the head honcho, called a meeting. It was quick and painless. The ride was over. No door prizes, no "you were here" T-shirt, nothing. The Carmichael account was gone, and there was nothing left for any of us.
I'd known Diego for years—heard all the stories about how he'd started out mopping these floors for a living, how he now owned them. He was a powerhouse. He hired me just out of college, and I wanted to be him. I wanted his life. The top floor, the women, the money, the power. He was everything Pa wasn't. He believed in himself; he had the power to conquer life, manipulate it, sculpt it into whatever he wanted it to be. To me, he was what a man was supposed to be.
I became his shadow, his protégé, and he taught me everything. He taught me how to pick up women and write copy and tailor my suits and schmooze clients, hold my drink, and draft airtight contracts. I was the son he'd never had, but secretly I planned to take him down, to wipe these floors with him someday, to be him, but better.
Sometimes I would find him in his office very late at night as I wandered the halls punching right hooks into the air, considering the exit sign, and thinking of new ways to climb and conquer and run away from anything just under the surface. I didn't want to go home, but I didn't really know what else I could do there either. Diego always sat quietly, his head in his hands, breathing so softly, the dim light of his desk lamp putting shadows on the walls, his face. There was more to the story. A man is rarely just the one thing.
He was always there. He created I carus Media, worked his whole life for it and only it, and it was all he had. Sometimes I'd study the deep, brown lines in his face, notice how the skin of his cheeks sagged, how he frowned from someplace deep. He'd spent his whole life climbing and walking on people and not looking back. The point was not lost on me completely.
After the announcement from Diego, I found an empty box, walked into my office, remembered a bottle of gin in the back of my drawer, tipped it back, and then proceeded to tear up everything. Without the Carmichael account, none of it meant anything. Not a goddamn thing. I didn't want to end up like Diego, but I didn't want this either.
I walked out, empty box in hand, gin bottle in the other. I got into my BMW, turned the music up really loud, and sucked down the dry gin as I drove a hundred miles an hour down the interstate, daring death to come take me. I wanted an easy out.
* * *
When Melanie finds me on the ledge, I've already been there for hours, laughing at the irony of it all, the way the mythical Icarus (Diego's hero) had gotten too close to the sun and burned his wax wings.
"What are you doing here?" She knows trouble and she seeks it and leaves its wake behind her. We go way back, this woman and I, and I can remember the path and its bumps, but I don't want to anymore.
She's dressed in a tight black dress which covers the voluptuous curves of a woman meant for prostitution or martyrdom; a girl who's childhood dreams included self-inflicted wounds and chases that never ended, nightmares in ranch-style homes whose shade of brown never pales with age. But like many women, her station in life is necessary and appropriate and it keeps her all but happy.
Melanie's blonde hair has the acidity of a mixed drink, wicked and potent. She looks happy in my bed, in a glass of ice, vacant but fitting, cold but kind.
I watch her as she picks pieces of glass up off the floor. She's beautiful—hollow, but beautiful.
"Picking up the pieces, as usual," she tells me.
"I've lost it all, you know," I tell her as I tip the bottle back again. I lean my head back and tap it on the cement wall; the traffic glows below me. It would only take one small move.
"What did you have to lose?" She walks to the kitchen and grabs another bottle of whiskey, takes a long, hard drink before handing it to me.
"Good question," I tell her.
I pull myself off the ledge and walk into the kitchen. When I turn the light on, I get a good look at Melanie, run my eyes over the contours of her red lips, notice the threads in her skintight dress, try to feel anything that resembles love.
I'd fucked women by the handful for years. Melanie just hung around, a glutton for punishment. I sampled them like shiny bottles behind a bar, the women tall and slender and light, sometimes cold to the touch, but always willing, long hair and light eyes, just out of college, middle-aged, it was all the same. The women were always as willing as the bottle, and I got off on it, the getting and the taking and the leaving. I consumed them.
"Hey, baby ..." I could turn on the southern charm when it was needed. I kept it in my pocket like the smallest of pills I could whip out on the fly. It slid down their throats like water, made them give me keys to apartments I would never visit more than once. I'd seen Pa work people the same way.
I saw only figures, shapes, and curves—shadows really. I never saw eyes or heard real voices. I wasn't that discerning. Bartenders were fair game, easy, within reach. They were cheap and disposable, easy to find. In some way they expected it. I regarded them less than the secretaries at the firm, whose stares would pierce my back as I walked by their desks.
I never met a match; they came and they went. Occasionally I thought of my mother. If I awoke in the night, in the early morning hours, sometimes I would find her sitting quietly in one corner of my mind, fidgeting, looking for me. Melanie was the only woman I ever really got to know, but only very distantly.
I open the fridge and pull out a wedge of cheese, a jar of pickles; under the cabinet there are crackers. I grab two glasses and pour them half full of whiskey.
I go to my bedroom to find a clean T-shirt, and when I come back, she's set the table for us. Sometimes it's like this. Our defenses low, we become just two people.
She's followed me for years like a stray puppy, and I've never considered it much. I take a good look at her across the table, wonder what she thinks of me now that it's all over, that I've got no temple to stand upon.
"Melanie, I've cared for you ..." My eyes dart all over the kitchen, away from her eyes. I pick up a piece of cheese and a cracker and put them both in my mouth.
She laughs, pushes her glass into mine so that they clink loudly.
"Carmine, don't bother. None of it matters anyway." She stands up and walks past me into the bedroom.
She's in my bedroom searching for her belongings. The glue that has held the remainders of this relationship together over the years: a pair of earrings she's hidden away in my nightstand drawer, a toothbrush behind the old can of shaving cream in the medicine cabinet, a small T-shirt at the back of my bottom drawer.
She says, "I feel so ridiculous for always coming around like this. You never gave me anything, and now you have nothing to give."
I remember the Valentine's Day several years ago when she'd given me flowers and a card that said, "You were made to love me, so why don't you?" I'd laughed out loud in the moment, pushed the card across my desk. I turn my eyes inside, squint when I remember how I'd promised to take her to dinner that night but had driven to a nearby lake and fished naked all night.
"I feel like a fool, Carmine, for loving you at all, because you don't know how to love anyone." She walks into the bathroom and slams the door behind her.
"Mel, please come out of there. I'll try to change. You'll see." I think of the prospect of having no job, no woman, nothing to fill all the space life contains.
I open the bathroom door and look right at her, kneel down to her and start to unbutton her dress, push my face into hers. Without looking her in the face, I slide into her and begin thrusting, her sitting on the edge of the toilet, clawing at me. When we're done, I walk out of the room, close the door behind me, search the apartment for the whiskey bottle, and wait.
She comes out and stands in front of me. Her lipstick is smeared and her face is red. I lift up her leg and pull off her high-heeled red shoes, one at a time.
"What are you going to do?" Melanie asks. "What's next for you?" She looks at me longingly, as though I hold the answers for us both.
"What else is there?" I ask and tip the bottle back again. I start singing another hymn I remember from way back when, about how troubles come and troubles go and when I hear the phone ring, I am not completely surprised to hear Ma's voice on the machine, shaky and wet.
"Carmine—you need to come home, son. Your old man is dying."
I hear groans in the background, then Pa. "Is that my boy? Captain, captain ..."CHAPTER 2
The old wide Greyhound bus whizzes past trees, meadows, dairy farms, patchwork quilts of fields—everything so stationary yet fleeting at the same time. The landscape changes from flat to hilly, then to mountainous and dark, the flatlands becoming hills, then inclines, then descents. My head pounds. I can still feel the whiskey traveling my veins, a muddy current.
When the light casts a reflection of myself onto the window each time it comes out of the shadows, I really get a good look at myself. I look like I've lived more than just thirty-two years. I can see the lines darting from the edges of my eyes, the slight sagging in my neck, the heavy fatigue. I've lived hard, but I've got nothing to show for it.
It gets harder and harder to keep my eyes open as the miles pass, the sun drowsing me, the bus rocking. I shift in my seat and watch the mile markers like they are birthdays, twenty-five, sixteen, twelve, five, remembering my life as they go, the things that have brought me here. I remember myself at five, a soft little boy, brown hair growing in pointed tendrils over my ears, my eyes bright. I am so small. The tenderness makes me wince, but the memory won't stop bleeding through.
I am on my father's shoulders and I can see part of his face, the sagging tan skin, the sharp whiskers; his hair is turning white at the edges and near his ears. I feel his body move us with each step, each of his feet landing with a heavy thump. We are both chanting something, some kind of game, both of us laughing and singing as we march through the woods surrounding Eton. He points out the names of trees, the sounds of different birds; the sun peaks through the tops of the trees and rests on our heads. When I look behind me, Ma is following, carrying a set of fishing poles and watching us. She is smiling too, full of energy, color in her cheeks.
Excerpted from A Song for Carmine by M Spio. Copyright © 2014 M Spio. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted July 13, 2014
Wow, just wow! Unusual, moving and well done. Set in the south, this is Carmine's story of forgiving his parents, handling his personal demons, accepting faith that is positive and not unforgiving, and meeting love for the first time in the face and arms of a black woman.
The whole book is182 pages on my Nook.