Billy Lombardo still remembers seeing his childhood friend Kenny Metke crouching in the Wallace play lot, catching softball after softball, his bare hand slapping each 16-inch “Clincher” ball with no end in sight.
These big leathery softballs weren’t easy to catch, especially for still-growing 13-year-old hands, but Kenny Metke was the best catcher in town. And this proved it.
Lombardo, who now lives in Forest Park and is a creative writing teacher at The Latin School of Chicago, was one of the boys watching Kenny in awe that day. He put this scene, along with many others from his childhood, to paper in The Logic of a Rose, a collection of short stories about Lombardo’s boyhood in the Chicago neighborhood of Bridgeport.
He tries to convey the emotion of the narrative”the actual events aren’t as important. “It’s about the characters. It’s about how it affects people,” Lombardo says.
Although the Wallace playlot was Lombardo’s childhood baseball arena and he didn’t even change his friend’s name, Kenny Metke didn’t really vow that he would catch 100 softballs in a row, as Lombardo wrote in his story. And Lombardo is doubtful that the parents really noticed beyond peeking out their windows; they certainly didn’t storm onto the field. But Kenny Metke with his hand curved to receive an onslaught of huge softballs”that image is authentic.
“This book is a testament to family, neighborhood and boyhood,” Lombardo says. “I want people to say, ‘I’m honored you took me here.'”
“Idyllic” isn’t the first word most would use to describe Bridgeport. A different image comes to mind: Lenard Clark, the 13-year-old black kid who was beaten into a coma by three white youths when he rode his bicycle through the streets in 1997. Bridgeport is known for racial intolerance, Lombardo admits.
But although Lombardo’s main character, Petey Bellapani, experiences racism, language and drugs, that’s not the focus of his stories. Lombardo wanted to show that there was another side to the neighborhood he grew up in. “I don’t think it’s given a real fair shake,” he says. “Race, drugs and violence, these were all parts of their characters. But to ignore their goodness, their desire to love and protect…they were very round characters.”
Lombardo wrote his stories as a personal effort to find out how growing up in blue-collar Bridgeport shaped him”for better and for worse. “There’s not a single story where I wasn’t getting choked up,” he says. “What I am is largely shaped by this place and these people.”
Lombardo’s next project is to finish the novel he’s always wanted to write”in this case, about baseball. Here, he will draw from some of his experiences in Forest Park, where he has spent most of his adult life. His two sons, Kane and Seth, have been involved in baseball since they were young and Lombardo has plenty of experience being a baseball dad, just like the main character in his novel.
“I’ve grown to love baseball through my sons’ involvement,” Lombardo says.
The music of the story
Affecting people is one of the most important parts of writing for Lombardo. He treasures his letters from readers and conveys “the music of the story” by sharing his work aloud.
“Being in front of people, that’s a real thrill for me,” he says. He has been doing “slam poetry,” performing his poems and prose for an audience, at the Green Mill Lounge and other venues since 1990. Performing isn’t a new discovery for Lombardo; in school, he was always the kid the teachers picked to read aloud.
“I read it with the passion that I want them to feel, the voice I think of as I write it,” he says. He knows he’s reaching his audience when he “shuts the place down,” when the glasses stop clinking and the whispers turn to silence.
Reading his work aloud was how he got started, Lombardo says. “I love the idea of an audience and writers rarely get that,” he observes. “I’m certain that’s where I developed my voice.”
Now, Lombardo is taking story performance one step further. He’s adapting the short stories in The Logic of a Rose to a play, with some help from his friend Marc Smith. “This story arguably works better onstage than on a page,” he says.
Bringing the story to life means extra work for Lombardo. Some of the original stories have no dialogue since the main character, Petey Bellapani, is a kid of few words. Petey can’t just be sitting on the sidelines during the play, so Lombardo had to give him more lines and action. He also had to beef up some of the minor characters to make them clear onstage.
Besides being slam poetry favorites, most of the short stories in The Logic of a Rose have already been published in literary periodicals such as Cicada, Other Voices, Bryant Literary Review, River Oak Review and Story Quarterly. Putting them all together in a book simply means that more people can read them, Lombardo says.
And in the end, that’s what keeps Lombardo writing. “I’m not going to make money off of this,” he says. “[But] I know other people will enjoy it.”
The work of writing
Writing isn’t just a quick bit of fun for Lombardo. He has a collection of literary magazine rejection letters and his short stories in The Logic of a Rose are the products of 50 or 60 drafts, many written in the early mornings while his wife, Elisa, and two sons are still waking up. He tries to do some writing every day.
“I put immense thought into every single word,” he says. The sentences must be lyrical and rhythmic, they must adapt well to being read aloud and they should vary in length and style. He looks for new ways to say things; for example, in “The Hills of Laura,” he describes a blonde girl’s hair as “like six white crayons and one yellow one, melted together.”
The worst part is cutting some of those hard-won sentences, he says. He pastes his favorite sentences in a special computer file. Often, he’ll use them in other stories. All 50 or 60 versions of each story are saved somewhere on the computer drive.
When he knows the music is starting to form, he’ll read it aloud to himself”usually as a “pat on the back,” he says. “It takes dozens of readings before you know a story is finished,” Lombardo adds.
He learned the value of rewriting after a submission to Cicada magazine. Instead of printing the story as is, the magazine shaved off about 400 words during an in-house edit and sent the story back with suggestions. Lombardo loved it.
“This is about revising, revising, revising,” he says.
He now runs a national high school literary newsletter, Polyphony H S, that teaches high school students how to revise their own work. Last year, the newsletter published only 23 pieces of prose and poetry, but he and his editorial board of 10 high school students edited all 150 submissions and returned them to the young authors. Lombardo never paid much attention in school and didn’t start to write in earnest until he was an adult, so he wanted high school students to experience the power of good editing at an early age.
“I think everybody has to have an art of some sort,” Lombardo says. Some people invest their lives into their work, some into their children, some into being atheletes or cooks, he says. Lombardo has dedicated his life to creating the music of his stories and his life.