Center of the Universe (66)
This One’s OK, But You Shoulda Seen Chapter 65, Wow
Yeah, that 65 was a peach. So good I had to hide all the names and genders and blur the details. And by good, I mean juicy. Innermost stuff. Deep, dark, judgmental. Embarrassing to teller and told-on alike, yet dotted with delightfully unexpected chunks of funny. Strong title, too: “Them.” So much in those four characters. Soul of pith. I put a lot of time into 65. I put a lot of time into all these things — which, I’ll admit, makes no material sense — but sometimes I put extra. Extra extra. In this case, the issue wasn’t so much the words, paragraphs and transitions, it was the cryptography. Making sure it was strictly a private flogging — well, private, as I wrote in Chapter 65, to the “eight to 10 people we both might think of as ‘everybody’ in this town.” In other words, the Sorellas Deep State.
And who was the floggee? Well, when we got to the sisters, he/she/they was waiting in the wee waiting area. That’s the problem.
My goal has been for this bloggish book serial thingy to be, per the subtitle, “True Tales of Life, Love and Lasagna in a Small, Strange Town.” It’s the “true” part that’s tripping me up, particularly in the context of “small.” I love to write about the most popular dining establishment — and social crossroads — in our cockamamie village of 7,500, and I also love to dine there (which brings up a maxim I’ve brought up before, but perhaps should take more to heart: “Don’t shit where you eat”). And by dining, of course, I mean hanging out with the living, breathing characters of my story — all of them, at the same time — including those living, breathing characters who work in the joint, helicoptering platter after platter of the finest Italian meat, fish, pasta and fresh Parmagiano-Reggiano, along with bottomless flagons of Sicilian vino, through the narrow passes and over the huddled masses and precisely onto the lacquered-vintage-movie-poster landing zone in front of us. And I don’t know which, gun-2-head, I’d be able to give up first, the scribing or the scarfing. But I do know if I had to give up both, if the sisters — as I’ve warned/pleaded more than once — ever closed, I’d move.
No offense, sweet Mayberry-on-Acid.
Anyway, I was having just this conversation with my longtime editor, Roni Hoffman, who patiently and inscrutably listens before unerringly informing me whether the latest chapter has gone off the rails or, more often, is liable to run over the feelings of someone we’re liable to be eating with in a few hours, when a text came in from Soy (which, to ensure this tale remains, in quote marks, “true,” I’m now bringing up on my screen):
“Hi Robert. You guys in England?”
Let me explain. Earlier in the week the thirteenth annual edition of Maintenant, which explains itself as “A Journal of Contemporary Dada Writing and Art” — a publication I had originally hooked up with, oddly enough, via Sorellas piano queen Wendy Fitz, who a million years ago (long before Steve) was hooked up with its publisher (long before Kat) — had enfolded within its hallowed pages my most recent effort at Dadaist versification, “Bless Me, Jimmy Page.” As I prepped a snap of the book for Insta, I remembered a brief video from a decade ago of the Satan-salaaming guitar god — still with Zep-era blackened hair — saying hello to me by name. I posted it alongside the poem and accurately slugged the location as London, England.
But we aren’t that jet-setty — impulsively, without proper notice to our best sisters, let alone their father, the anxious reverend, flitting off to the Continent or Levant — and we weren’t in England any more. We were shouting distance, not even, two blocks up the hill from Soy and her sprawling — or at least jam-packed — family compound (home to aforementioned elderly parents, blind mother-in-law, mischievous kids, precocious grandkid, pot-stirring husband, lush vegetable garden, loud rehearsal studio and, as far as anyone knows, a stable of polo ponies), three-and-a-half blocks from her restaurant, at our own dining room table.
When she can’t communicate in person, with that joyously crinkly smile and meticulously gentle hug — which she applies, quite credibly, to every vaguely familiar customer (in case you, like me, had ever got to thinking you were special) — Soy communicates mostly via text, often checking in on Saturday afternoons to see if I’m bringing eight, 10 or 18 to dinner, thereby threatening to gum up the already challenging traffic lanes of the back. Lately we’ve exchanged fretful messages — with Sister Sonia looped in and kibbitzing — re a mutual friend who’s been out of work for a miserably long time. In fact, this text from Soy was to announce that the drought was over: our friend had found a gig.
It was a momentous text. Huge, wonderful news. But my joy at the relief of our pal’s suffering was not, alas, unalloyed. I had just worn out my voicebox reading Roni a sad, stern, yet utterly affectionate, piece about this same unemployed friend and how he/she/they needed to get his/her/their shit together. I was counting on the new post — brilliantly illustrated with a purloined photo of a Christ statue (centered, shot low, against a partly cloudy western sky), a thing of penetrating psychological insight, uplifting aphorism and urbane phraseology — not only to inspire its main character to salvation, but to garner me many clapping hands on Medium, perhaps a smiley-face on Nextdoor, if not the new literary representation that has so far eluded my reignited non-copywriting writing career.
Me: HOLY SHIT!!! That’s great… Of course, I spent the last two weeks writing a piece about [redacted] and [redacted’s] need to get it together — no names. And I was just reading it to Roni.
Soy: You didn’t put it on your blob, right?
Me: Haven’t put it on the blob yet. Or, for that matter, the blog.
Soy: Don’t do it. My opinion… What does Roni think?
Me: But it’s loving and kind, if a bit tough on the diagnosis. I actually thought it might help.
Soy: Oh, OK then. Well, you know…
Me: Anyway, it’s a writer’s job to say things others can’t or won’t.
And as true as that might be — in the most heroic view of the craft — I could see, even through my own wincing, that, in a text to my cherished friend Soy, it was also irredeemably pompous. And Joan Didion put it better — or at least more forthrightly — when she said, “Writers are always selling someone out.”
Soy: Come tonight. Robert is here.
This was Friday. We mostly go Saturdays. I try not to go in both days — or any other days — because I try not to gobble pasta or guzzle wine more than once a week, in deference to my supermodel figure. Besides, my last posted post — a mix of irony and waggish musicology — was all about Robert, the restaurant’s other piano player. And I wasn’t yet sure if he was mad.
Me: Maybe. But I gotta eat trout. Getting too fat — again.
Soy: You can also have red snapper.
I’m a weak sister, especially for the sisters.
Me: I surrender.
I still don’t know if Robert was mad. He said hello and didn’t punch me out when, the Nero d’Avola pumping, I started belting along to “Jailhouse Rock” from over his left shoulder. But then Robert’s a nut. No less important, our mutual friend and would-be floggee — there by the door in the pristine flesh, a real, live human, not just a character in a tale — didn’t punch me out. By the vagaries of fortune in an infinitely serendipitous universe, he/she/they at last had no cause. When Soy came to guide us to a table, she looked at Roni, me, our mutual friend and at his/her/their friend — another of my unwitting story-puppets — and chirped slyly, “How many?” What else could I say?
“Four! Of course!”
As to the best damn chapter I’ll ever write, what’re you gonna do? Anyway, the 42nd annual Fairfax Festival is coming this weekend, and, between the local hippies, our wacky houseguests from Russia and Poland, and Sorellas being open all day, there’s sure to be plenty of blob-worthy weirdness. So, RIP, 65. See you in 67.