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By Anthony Giardina
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2006 Anthony Giardina
All rights reserved.
Billy Mogavero was my friend from the age of about eight, or whatever age it is that boys separate from their mothers, begin their forays outside the tight circle of skirts and family gatherings, and form their own, even tighter circles on playgrounds, or, in our case, on the long, broken strip of beach stretching from Boston Harbor all the way up to Gloucester. We were located in Winship, somewhere in the middle of those two points. There are boys who, at eight or ten, are more than normally handsome, well built, instinctive leaders, and I have noticed such boys nearly always have a streak of meanness in them. That was true of Billy, but we followed him anyway, because we had no innate leadership qualities ourselves, not Johnny Lombardi or Freddie Tortolla or Kenny DiGiovanni, or me, the only Irish kid in the group, the ethnic runt.
We all followed Billy, but Billy followed just one person, and that person only sometimes. That was his father. Mr. Mogavero was a tall, skinny man who had married late. He wore glasses, and he was the butcher for the Star Market. When we went there to meet him — when Billy needed money for the movies or to get a cut of meat his mother had asked him to bring home — his father would come out the door that led into the frosty inner harbor of the Star Market meat department and wipe his hands slowly and carefully on the blood-smeared apron he wore and look us all over. With the glasses on, he might have been a schoolteacher. He said our names carefully, one by one, as if he owed us all the respect he would give to men who had come on business.
It is odd that it begins this way, this story I have to tell, with us following Mr. Mogavero on the boardwalk on a series of warm summer evenings in the late sixties. There was, at that time, along the boardwalk, the three-quarters-empty shell of a once-great amusement park, Fantasia. Its memory still hovered over the town of Winship. The park had been built in the 1920s, a huge pleasure dome, a "city by the sea" imposed on the marshland that spread back and fanned outward from the beach. It had put us on the map. A train had once carried immigrant workers out of Boston on Sundays (The Fantasia Special, it was called) to pay their ten cents and ride the flume cars into the Great Lagoon, or to sit coupled in the scooped boats of Love's Journey and emerge, after a trip through the tunnel, under a shower of confetti. Or else to visit Dark Town, where Negroes played Dixieland music and staged mock alligator hunts. All that was left by the time we were kids were the roller coaster and the kiddie rides, the Dodge 'Em cars and the Caterpillar, and a sometimes-working Wild Mouse. Mr. Mogavero used to take us boys Sunday nights into what was left of the park, to dispense quarters so that we could play Skee-Ball, to stand and watch us on the Dodge 'Ems. He did not participate. He stood and watched, and when we were tired, he made us follow him in a direction opposite to home.
He led us to deserted places, places where the marsh had broken through the territory of the old park, other places where stores and warehouses had taken up residence. Some nights Mr. Mogavero would make a halfhearted attempt to explain what had once been here, what a ride like Tragic Honeymoon had looked like in its heyday, and how it had worked. "The couple would stand up there, and there was a mechanical illusion, made them look like skeletons." His hands would go up to describe the scene in the air, but he would give up halfway, as though exact communication was less important than pure suggestion. What we were left with was how strangely beautiful and spectral the old park remained for this quiet man.
There is nothing more to say about those nights except for the anger with which Billy endured his father's wanderings. No boy wants to see his father as in any way out of the ordinary. The rest of us were lucky: the Italian boys' fathers were big, hairy, energetic lugs, deliverers of oil, night watchmen in factories, bus drivers. My own father was a teller in a bank. They listened to baseball games on transistor radios; they sat on the stoops of their small, packed-together beach-town houses on summer nights and drank beer; they put down Negroes and insulted hippies and fags and asserted an American regularity we all deeply prized. We knew how to throw baseballs and catch footballs, they took the time to make sure of that, though it was not like now: they rarely came to the organized games we played in Little League or Babe Ruth. They took us to church and afterward scoffed a little at what the priest had said, so that we should know certain sins were not to be taken seriously. It was an easy life, without large expectations, and it probably surprised these guys to see the incomes their sons managed to achieve when, in the nineties, the economy picked us up on that high, curling wave we miraculously knew how to ride. One by one, Mr. Mogavero would return us to these waiting fathers, and they always exchanged words, but you knew right away from the way they looked at Billy's father that he was not a member of their club.
On those nights, I'm convinced, something started in Billy, an attitude toward the world essentially hard, as though his father's dreaminess were a strop he was sharpening his blade on. For me, it had another effect. I'd lie in bed after those walks and look out my window, which had a view beyond the houses and the TV antennas and the row of stores on the next block to the marsh where the great, dormant Fantasia now lay. Nobody wants to believe that there had once been a world better than the one you were born into, but if that is the information fed into your young consciousness, it tends to stay there.
One of the ways I have learned to accommodate the past — or maybe it's truer to say, one of the ways I have learned to fight its pull — is in the work I do now. I am a salesman for the textbook division of Endicott Press. Endicott has branched out in the last couple of decades to include historical survey books, and three years ago we launched a foreign languages division, which shows signs of doing very well. Our reputation, however, was made on the literary anthologies we began publishing in the early 1960s, when the market for literature began to boom on American campuses, and we have remained a leader ever since. We now publish anthologies of African American and Native American and Asian American literature; our selection of Chicano writings, published just two years ago, has done spectacularly well, particularly in the West, and a gay-and-lesbian anthology has just been published. Our bread and butter, though, is and always has been the book we refer to in-house as "White Guys." "White Guys" sells in the hundreds of thousands annually. It is the text of choice at community colleges and for the less-imaginative graduate assistants at the big state universities. It begins with an excerpt from Charles Brockden Brown and his eighteenth-century religious maniacs and ends with a story about a lovesick football coach in late-twentieth-century Albuquerque. Though it is not, of course, literally comprised of stories written only by white males, the bulk is still there: it is a testicular view of America, unquestionably.
Never a reader in high school or college, and having fallen into this job by benign accident (the father of a college buddy set me up), I took to the road as a very young man with a briefcase full of books and, finding time and a little energy on my hands, began to read from beginning to end the stories in our cash cow. I thought I was probably the only one of the young salesmen doing this, that it might give me some sort of leg up. Mostly what I felt, though, reading these stories in motel rooms in Utica or Wilkes-Barre, was how depressing most of them were, Henry James and Willa Cather and Sherwood Anderson chronicling lives that started out hopeful and then fell into some hole. After reading one of these stories, I would put the book down, go to the window of whatever motel I happened to be staying in, and, looking outside, feel something begin to shift for me; an easy and basically innocent take on the world that had served me well up to this point began to seem too weak an instrument of defense.
You have to understand who I was then: a young guy who had done little in the past four years except get drunk and half sleep through his classes, party, and watch a criminal amount of sports on TV. Nothing at all had happened to me except for one thing, and I had basically swept that under the rug. Nothing existed to stand in my way except that old affinity of mine for getting caught up in the dregs and eddies of the past. But now, gazing out into the light of the motel's commercial surround, I began to detect another light at the edge of my vision. It seemed the light of the stories I'd been reading. As old as many of those stories were, it felt like it was still out there, exerting a familiar pull — the light in which people failed.
I remember one such night in particular. It was early November in western Pennsylvania, and I'd been sitting in my motel room before dinner, reading a story by John Cheever called "The Country Husband." By the time I went out for dinner, the story's effect hadn't really gotten to me. But I found as I sat in this family restaurant, empty at this late hour except for a couple of solitary guys like me, other salesmen or divorced guys, and a couple who sat in morose silence in a booth near mine, that whatever it was I'd been pushing away in my first months on the road, whatever mood of fear and trepidation had been nursed through my reading of the stories in "White Guys," that mood was now squarely, frighteningly in front of me. I can't say it was "The Country Husband" alone that did it to me. But Cheever's story, with its emphatic suggestion of the emptiness of suburban marriage, of lives like my own hanging by a thread of misplaced hope, had reached me at a point where my ducks were all in a row. Cheever's well-chosen words had knocked them all down.
When do boys decide who they're going to be? I don't have the answer to that one, but I know I had decided by that point. I wanted something soft and ever-present in the life I saw around me. I wanted husbandhood and fatherhood and a certain kind of woman who attached to those concepts in my mind. I wanted, in a very basic, unashamed way, the life I saw in the movies, in advertisements, in which a couple, still young, sit in a car full of kids. I wanted the whole package that went along with that image: sofas and largescreen TVs, and a small boat, a Boston Whaler. It had not yet occurred to me that those dreams might be in any way insufficient.
I had little appetite that night. Things I had hardly noticed before suddenly seemed inescapable. Who were the lonely guys sitting in this restaurant with me tonight, and how had their loneliness been arrived at? Why weren't the couple in the next booth speaking?
I paid quickly and went back to the motel and lay under the covers, and here is what happened to me: I knew then that I did not merely want the Life — the wife and kids and dog and boat — I wanted it fiercely. I wanted this dream so badly it did not even require individuals to fulfill it: a specific wife, specific kids. I wanted to cling to forms. Almost anyone would do, as long as I could prove John Cheever wrong. Give me those beautiful forms, I promised myself in the way of young men, and I will love them to death.
The next day, I found myself wandering down the hallway of a small private college in western Pennsylvania. There is a light to the hallways of such third-tier institutions that is like the color of food that's been poorly wrapped. There is old dust and, always, a discarded book left outside a professor's office, a book that the professor in question has left there on purpose, secretly hoping someone will take it.
I had determined to make several cold calls, calls to men who had received sample copies of the newest revised "White Guys." But as soon as I found myself in that hallway, I began to wonder if it was possible anymore for me to do this job, never mind generate new revenue from it. I knocked on the door of a man to whom I had sent the book, a man named Professor Bill Adamcik, and listened to his gruff voice, inside, say, "Come in."
I took a seat in Professor Adamcik's office before I was invited to. He started to lift a hand in protest, then thought better of it. He told me he was busy before I'd even gotten a chance to tell him I was from Endicott. I asked if he'd had an opportunity to look over the sample copy. He scowled. No, he hadn't had time. Then, after a pause, he said, "Besides, that volume is too stodgy. I haven't used it in years."
I knew then that I had two choices: leave the room or go for broke. I chose the latter. I asked him the simplest, most naked question I could think to ask: Had he ever read "The Country Husband"?
For a long moment he gazed at me with a reluctant sense of curiosity. "I have, yes," he said, and shifted in his chair. "Why do you ask?"
"Well, when you call this volume stodgy, I don't know." I shook my head. "I'm going to take a guess I'm a lot like your students. I mean, we're all just trying to figure it out." I let out a very small laugh, to show him I could poke a little fun at myself while remaining, in essence, deadly earnest. "These stories, especially this one — I'm not ashamed to say they get to me."
Professor Adamcik's eyes narrowed slightly. Beyond him, outside his oversize windows, at the edge of the brown and yellow November grounds of the college, lay the athletic fields. Boys in maroon and black soccer uniforms stood in clumps. He saw me looking at them and settled lower in his chair.
"What — got to you?" he asked, and I could tell that he was testing me, to see if I'd really read it.
"Well, like I say, I'm a young guy, with it all sort of in front of me. And here's a story about a guy who's got it all, everything I want —" I leaned forward slightly. "Wife, kids, great house. And then he nearly dies in a plane crash, and he can't get his wife to listen to him. It's like the things in his life have taken over."
I shook my head, aware now that I was doing everything for effect, and marveling at my own newfound ability to lampoon, for the sake of a sale, things that had kept me awake the night before. "So what's Cheever saying?" I asked in the same breathless, highly charged mode. "That it's all meaningless?"
Professor Adamcik smiled at that. But then, after smiling, he turned and faced out his window. Beyond him, at the edge of our vision, the soccer players spread into formation. I considered his days on this patch of Pennsylvania devoted to sports, this man with his sparse dark hair and trimmed gray beard and eyes that seemed to have begun a steady retreat into that place where things mattered to him less and less.
"I know there are fancier volumes," I said. "I think we're aware — at Endicott — that what we put out isn't exactly cutting edge, but —"
"It's just one view," Professor Adamcik said, turning to me. "Cheever's. It's just one view of marriage, of ... the life you want."
I didn't respond immediately. I sat and waited, watching him as he looked me over. In my training in sales, I had been taught always to maintain dominance, to never let the buyer get ahead of me. It occurred to me now that that strategy might work with the dumb, but not with the smart, and professors were, of course, among the smartest. But what they also were was lonely.
So I allowed him to talk. I did no more than listen. He seemed reluctant to say too much, aware that I might be laying some subtle trap for him. But when I made no move toward bringing him to the point of sale, when the whole notion of my wanting anything at all from him (save to listen) seemed to have evaporated, I saw something begin to happen to him that I have since seen happen in a hundred other academic offices. I watched him fall into his need for me.
Excerpted from White Guys by Anthony Giardina. Copyright © 2006 Anthony Giardina. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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