As usual, I checked the mail when I walked in the door. There was the expected assortment of bills and junk... and one letter. The return address made me immediately tear open the envelope.
Let me back up a bit and go back a few decades. It’s now the early 1980s and I’ve sold my first novel, SLOW FALL TO DAWN, and started writing the second, DANCE OF THE HAG. SLOW FALL, which was dedicated to Denise, had yet to appear on the bookshelves. I’d already written the dedication to DANCE. It read, at that time, this way: “For John Massarella, who made the dance begin.”
I was really looking forward to the publication of SLOW FALL, not only because it was my first book, but also because I couldn’t wait to go back to Moeller High School, my alma mater, trudge up the stairs to the second floor English classroom, and -- with a grin -- hand a copy to the man behind the battered wooden desk piled with books and papers. I wanted to do that for a simple reason: without that man, without his guidance and encouragement and passion, the book might never have been written.
And I was really going to enjoy giving him -- one day in the future -- DANCE OF THE HAG, with the formal dedication to him. I’d made it a habit to got back to Moeller once a year or so, just to talk to John (and Charlie Wanda, another fantastic teacher). John and I would discuss his classes and my writing and life in general. John had read the first stories I’d published, and he knew I was working on a novel and that I’d actually sold it.
I described him once this way, in an article I wrote for Denise’s fanzine Greymalkin.
He was a small man, a head slightly too large for his body, a neck always too thin for his collars. He accentuated his shortness with a stooping, round-shouldered walk. The face was made specifically for caricature -- long, pinched, a bit hollow-cheeked, the nose prominent and hairy-nostriled, the mouth just s slash of lips, his short hair prematurely white, the stark white of bleached paper.
Mr. Massarella. John, to his fellow teachers. “Rat,” to his students. The nickname was affectionate -- he did bear a certain superficial resemblance to a rodent, but the similarities were all visual. The nickname must have set off errant vibrations in those who didn’t know him; he had none of a rat’s brutal cunning or viciousness. He was quiet and incredibly gentle, the archetype of the English Professor, a bookish man with reading glasses perpetually dangling from the precipice of his nose; a desk littered with books and papers to be graded; the blackboard behind him layered with haphazardly-erased vestiges of earlier classes...
I was never destined to give John either SLOW FALL or DANCE...
Oddly enough, the news came in a phone call from California from our friends Nancy and Steve (Steve was another of John Massarella’s pupils). Steve’s brother had called them with the news: John Massarella had suffered a massive and sudden heart attack on Christmas Day and died.
I went to the visitation, though I didn’t last long. I never knew John’s family. I signed the guest book, went into the room and stared at his familiar and now-still features in the coffin. I looked around the room and didn’t see anyone I knew, and at that time in my life, I was too shy to go to the family and introduce myself and say words that I knew could do nothing to ease the comfort. I couldn’t trust myself to even get the words out.
I left. I went out to my car and cried there.
I changed the dedication to DANCE OF THE HAG the next day... “For John Massarella, who made the dance begin, and who never saw the first one.” But somehow, a few years later when the book finally hit the stands, I didn’t send a copy to John’s widow. I really don’t remember why -- perhaps it was because I wasn’t sure how she’d react to it. I seem to recall once looking in the phone book for her address and not finding it, but I can’t say if that memory’s true or just wish fulfillment. But other books and many years followed. I thought of John from time to time, even mentioned him in an essay or two -- those mentors you have in life are always with you, no matter how hidden.
Flash forward two decades to the present...
So when I saw the name “Alice Massarella” on the return address of the envelope, I immediately opened it with some curiosity. The letter inside (written in impeccable and correct English grammar) made me gasp in surprise and delight...
Dear Mr. Leigh,
It is with belated but nevertheless profound gratitude that I write regarding your dedication in DANCE OF THE HAG to my late husband, John...
I’m still not certain how it all unfolded -- though I assume someone performed a name search on one of the internet search engines and found mention of John Massarella on my web site -- but John’s wife learned of the dedication and wrote to me, almost twenty years after the publication of the book. Her long and touching letter made me remember again the gift that John Massarella gave me -- the gift of his enthusiasm and support, the gift of words.
Thanks again, John. And thanks, Alice, for writing... That, too, was a wonderful gift.
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