Monday, December 29, 2008

Gone fishing

I'm pretty much on break this week. Be back after the first of the year, hopefully, with new tales to tell and things to say.

Thanks for 2008.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Emo McSourpuss

I'm going to move 2008 into the win category. Where I failed, I'm disappointed. It would have been nice to have a vacation that didn't feel like a short trip to the 5th circle of Hell. I made far more trips to the local Chinese restaurant than I ever did to the gym. I didn't keep in touch with the people I should have, including my grandmother, my parents or anyone except a few friends from high school, who mostly kept in touch with me. I've gotten skittish about dragging the people I care about into what amounts to my serial misadventures. I unload some on the blog, but the truth is it's hard to burden others with more clouds when they have enough gray in their skies.

I save that for you people. Some of you love watching me twist in the breeze. It's okay. I like writing about it. It's gallows humor among friends.

But... there were some high points. I finished my book. I sent it off to agents. There is a wall of rejection notes (some of them pretty funny in their callousness) to prove it. I started another and I'll be damned if I won't finish it. I managed to read a bunch of good books. I'm now a fan of Cormac McCarthy and Haruki Murakami.

I did a reasonable job as a father and a husband. I did the right thing more times than not. I worked fewer nights than ever before and spent more time with my family. I opened my home and gave refuge when it was needed. I was and am proud of my wife for taking night classes and proud of my daughter for trying to join the band. I let myself be amazed by the wonder and innocence of a three-year old. I also accepted the inevitability of the milestones that have to happen as you get older.

I played video games unapologetically, read comic books and never, ever felt cheated when I gave a man a dollar on the street. I flew. Sure, it was to Cleveland, but it was an experience long overdue. I opened a savings account. I wrote a couple of good articles for the paper. I grew a beard (but hated it). I had a couple of really good cheeseburgers and one decent steak.

I lived a little and learned a lot.

I finish this year grateful to a number of people. In the magical fun house world of blogs, thanks to Donutbuzz and The Film Geek, to Reverand Elvis Drinkmo and to Moneytastesbad. Thanks to Buzzardbilly and Barbiegirl. Thanks also to HippieKiller, RagingRed and to Jay (damn you, Jay. Damn you to hell). Some of you, I know your secret identities... some of you I don't. It doesn't matter either way. Thanks to my old friend, Jody, who looks more and more like a serial killer every year and to my almost old friend, Corey, who hasn't changed at all. Thanks to Amy, in the desk behind me, who puts up with my silly shit and for my buddy Amy in North Carolina who keeps me company with her endless supply of e-mail quizzes. Thanks also to Melanie, who has my back and would probably knee cap somebody if I asked her to. Thanks to my family, especially the ones I haven't mentioned.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah or whatever whacked out religion you tend to follow. Thanks for 2008.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

1999- Xmas

Nobody really came dressed up for the Christmas party. To be honest, it wasn't going to be much of a party. In years past, the radio station had hired out a restaurant, served a nice buffet and opened up the bar. There had been music, a little dancing and some jokes. It was a pretty good time.

1999 was different. The manager of the station was having an affair with the owner. A pair of nasty divorces were on the horizon. One of those divorces would precipitate the selling of the radio business, but not yet.

To avoid a hassle and a headache of being in public (as well as the potential, it was believed, of one or more of the jilted spouses putting in an appearance), Sandy, the manager, decided we would have our little Christmas party at the radio station. This was billed as the company holiday luncheon. It was a wildly unpopular idea, but mandatory and not open to discussion. You did not say no to Sandy. Once she had some idiot notion in her head (which was often enough), you did what she wanted or your ass got canned.

Food and booze was brought in. It wasn't great food and it wasn't great booze. There was a little ham, a little turkey and some shrimp. There was probably greasy chicken in a box. All the beer was by Budweiser. Most of the supplies came from Wal-mart or the Kroger deli. It was pretty sorry compared to the toasted Bree, crab puffs and Canadian lagers available at the last decent Christmas party the station funded.

People complained about the party for weeks. Even, Carol, the bitchy old lady who acted as Sandy's spy hated the implied obligation. Nobody wanted to be there. Nobody could get out of it. Everyone resented it. If given our choice, we'd have all been happier taking the five or ten bucks a head the party represented as a half-assed Christmas bonus. It would have beat the staff shirts and office supplies they gave us. Instead, we were all stuck with having to smile and pretend like this was all cool, like this was just what we needed.

Right at noon, like some twisted version of "A Christmas Carol," we were all herded into the conference room, wished a Merry Christmas by the boss. This was all for us, we were told. This was our thanks for a good year and a job well done. Thank you, she said. Nobody believed it. It was such an abysmal gesture of good will. I watched people roll their eyes as she winged her way through her holiday notes. It all sounded like another one of her sales meetings and a not particularly inspired one. We were encouraged to eat, drink and be merry --but not too merry, because we all had to drive home.

Sandy, by the way, could only stay for a few minutes. She had to split. There was a flight to catch or another, more pressing party to attend. Each of us had our own opinions as to where she needed to be and what it was the owner was going to have her do when she got there. I sort of imagined her wearing reindeer antlers and a harness.

We waited about as long as it took for her to leave, then the place cleared out like someone had thrown a hand grenade into the room. Everyone grabbed their coats and went home --except me. I went to the car and grabbed my Tupperware. While everyone else was getting the hell out of dodge, I collected a couple of pounds of ham and turkey. I filled a container with shrimp, another with meatballs and tied up the bagged bread. I took cookies and brownies and loaded up on the beer, which was cheap domestic swill, but better than nothing.

I didn't take everything. Even I had misjudged how much would be left over, but I took a lot. I packed it in the trunk of my car and like a reverse Santa eventually sped off for my empty house. I drank, ate shrimp and probably watched whatever porn my room-mates left in the VCR. It wasn't much of a Christmas party, but the leftovers were pretty good.

Friday, December 19, 2008


One of the books I read every year is George Orwell's 1984. It's an important book because it takes a large idea and crushes it down to a human level. The book's concept of history as being flexible is remarkable because Orwell isn't showing us a new idea. He's basically just holding up a mirror. Our possible pasts have always existed. We choose to remember what we want. On a national level, we remember George Washington as a patriot, as the father of our country and not a guerrilla, a terrorist and a rebel who fought against his country. We remember how the pioneers settled the west and fought hostile Indians. We kind of forget the lands were inhabited, the pioneers were heavily armed, occasionally religious fanatics and/or criminals. Because the indigenous people had a different standard for property, we played games with semantics to say even they thought they didn't own it.

On a personal level, we gloss over our own histories. Our pasts are tweaked in one direction or another. We usually had either a great childhood or a troubled one. The truth is many of us had both. We remember relationships (old girlfriends, boyfriends, etc) as either tending toward the negative or the positive. It changes as we repeat the story to suit the situation or our current psychological makeup.

A couple of years ago, I knew a woman who used to talk about a very wealthy, old man she worked with. At some point, he gave her a pair of tickets to a country music concert. What is interesting is how the relationship evolved through the retelling of the story. In the beginning, he was a fatherly type, she was fond of. He was old, nice, but a bit thick-headed. As the story evolved, he became a lascivious kind of flirt not above using his wealth to bed a young woman --not that she ever succumbed to his checkbook charms.

Everybody does this. Maybe they don't turn sad old pudding heads into pimps, but we all change the characters we create from the people we meet to make the story fit our own personal narratives. Truth is hard. We lie to ourselves first.

The difference in 1984 is the state takes control of every one's story. Everyone becomes a minor character in their own life. That's the danger of letting someone have control of your narrative, the danger of censorship. You become who they want you to be.

The book has a bleak ending. Inevitably, the main characters follow a prescribed path of rebellion from society. It is the one laid out for them by their society with a specific end: sooner or later, they'll be caught, forced to confess and recant. They will be reeducated, then eventually executed. Orwell shows us this. What I've found interesting is they might have escaped. They might have regained control of their lives. The mistake was doing what was expected of them.

In its way, 1984 is a manual for how to resist having your narrative changed by someone else.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Monday, December 15, 2008

Due dilligence

Along into the last quarter of the show, the happy couple found their seats. The pair of them were clearly overdressed for the occasion. He had on a black suit, complete with white linen shirt and tie, shoes polished to a gleam. His head was freshly shaved and still pink from the razor. She was in a designer skirt, boots that crept up to her knees and a blouse that revealed the shape of her cleavage without actually showing the goods.

I was a little taken with her, not because she was beautiful, which she was, but because of the obvious effort and expense put into making her this gorgeous. Few people go to the trouble for something as casual as a concert. Her nails were freshly cut, shaped and polished. The woman's blond hair was one-hour-away-from-the-stylist perfect. Her makeup was perfect. She practically shimmered.

The pair of them sat down and laughed along for about a minute, which was just enough time for whatever they'd been taking to sink in. Like they were watching a 3-D movie, the two of them each put on a pair of sunglasses. The tall, bald man in the black suit stumbled off. Walking was a challenge. The woman, his companion, slowly turned to stone.

She crossed her long legs then propped herself up on the arm rest. Her angle was not unlike that of a crushed soda can. On stage, Seinfeld told his jokes. People laughed. They roared. She didn't move, except to breathe.

Over the next fifteen minutes, her date came back twice. He sat, tried to hold her hand and watched the show. Always, something attracted his attention and he shambled off, moving like a man wading in a creek. I kept an eye on her and guessed which drug had been her choice this evening. My best guess is they were snorting heroin.

By the end of the show, the man hadn't returned, but the woman was still there, still locked in the same slack position, just shy of being asleep. The crowd around us filtered out. The folks in the other aisles went past her like a viewing at a wake. I stood next to her, not sure what to do.

"Miss," I said. "I need to get out."

She scooted her legs back just an inch or two and I slipped past. I looked at her from the edge of the aisle. She hadn't moved, except that tiny bit to let me out. I stared at her, saying nothing, doing less. The theater was nearly empty. I looked around for the man in the black suit, saw him sitting in the back row. I decided to leave it to him. I had an errand and a deadline to deal with. She was fine. He was fine. They were both just very, very high. I walked to my car, but it was a little too easy to rationalize doing nothing.

I'm not really kicking myself over leaving. It's just an acknowledgment of the truth of my own character. It's who I am now, but I want to be the guy who doesn't walk away: not a hero, just human.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Learn to be still.

I remember the end of Autumn, two years ago. I called the landlord about a leaky pipe in the basement. At the time I was working two jobs full-time, as well as plugging in stories as a freelancer wherever I could. It was a pretty black time. I was never home and not a lot of help with taking care of the kids. The baby was still a baby and the neighbors didn't like us.

We aren't quiet people. We'd like to be, but we're not. We're loud. We're disturbing. We're weird.

But on the day the landlord stopped by, we were worse. We were messy. The house was a wreck and we had two cats. It was a violation of our lease. No pets, even though the neighbors on both sides of us had dogs. I tried to talk our way out of it. I tried to explain the house wasn't usually that big of mess, but it had gotten out of hand recently. I hadn't been home. We'd had a baby. It was right before the holidays. He'd just caught us on a really off day.

He didn't want to hear it. He spewed out some kind of verbal assault I couldn't make heads or tails of. Really, it didn't matter what either of us said. He just wanted us gone.

I remember being furious, but heart-broken.

"I'd never want to stay any place where we're not wanted," I told him. "I'll have us out as soon as I can."

We moved.

Pretty naturally, I don't like to trouble our new landlord. I'd just as soon not bother him when something little goes wrong. I'd rather just work on it myself. I don't want him poking around. I don't want him thinking about us, except when he cashes the rent check. I want him to think nothing but happy thoughts involving rainbows and unicorns.

Last night the furnace went out. It was 40 degrees in my living room when I got up. This morning, with dread, I called the landlord, explained the situation. He said he'd be right out to take a look. He went to my place while I was at work, while the only ones at the house were the two cats. He called me back.

"Yeah, I'm just going to replace the nasty thing," he said. "I'll get you a couple of heaters to get you through the weekend."

We're pretty much the same people, living the same way. I don't work as many long hours as I used to. At least, there's not so many long hours away from the house. The baby is now three and makes more of a mess than he ever did, but the neighbors have been decent. They get, I think, that we're just trying to get along.

How nice just to get to stay.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Agony for a good cause.

The polar plunge is back Saturday, February 7. This is the opportunity to dive into icy waters for the Special Olympics and feel about ten minutes after your last breath. It is that kind of fun.

I'm doing it. This makes year two.

Some of you expressed an interest in coming along for the ride. If so, you've got a couple of weeks to think about it. Officially, I'll start with the donation thing after January 1 and start looking into costume options.

If you're interested, check it out here.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Cancer man

For a while there, the American Cancer Society had me driving for them. I'm still registered as a driver. They just haven't needed me. Nobody calls. I guess there are plenty of drivers, just not enough people out there who know about the program.

One of my patients was a guy named Bob. Bob was in his 80s. He was an engineer, worked at one of the chemical companies and is one of the few met who were involved with World War II. Bob had an uncomfortable to talk about kind of cancer. I learned all kinds of things about my penis, my prostate, and why I should never stop having sex of some kind. According to Bob and his doctor, having lots of orgasms prevents the oh-so-ugly loss of your prostate.

Use it or lose it, he said, which sounded pretty creepy coming from a guy in his 80s.

He, evidently, had followed his own advice. All things considered, he was doing pretty well. He was in his 80s, and his cancer wasn't unbeatable. At least, nothing was going to be removed. Nope. There was just some radiation involved, followed by a long bout of diarrhea.

No matter how often I've tried to block it out. I still think about what the old guy told me about the plumbing of old people. I have come to the conclusion that one way or another, the future is going to suck. It is unavoidable.

I kept in touch loosely with the man for a little while. We had a couple of lunches together. We talked on the phone a couple of times. It was really a kind of friendship that was struggling to light. The last time I heard from him was in June. He was going to go visit his grand kids. He might be gone for a couple of weeks. I was going to call him when he got back, but then I didn't. Every week, I remembered him, but never found time to give the old guy a call.

He died last week. I spotted his name and picture in the obits the other day. Like me, he's donated his body. I didn't know that. We didn't talk about it. Mostly, we bitched about how lousy the service was at Los Agaves, talked about cancer, and tried to find common ground about music. We never quite made it, but he listened to me. I listened to him. We were nearly friends. I'll miss the guy.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Screw it

I decided to go ahead and do a list or resolutions for next year. 2008 was a banner year. I didn't even get half of what I hoped done, but as I promised, I'm not going to get too upset about it.

Next year, I thought I'd go in a different direction. I'm not asking for any radical changes. I think the list speaks for where I am. This list isn't about self-mortification or rejecting who I am in favor of a new, improved me. The main thing is to be a little happier. Everybody could use that, right?

Looking back, I did some things right in 2008. I spent more time with my family. I was home more often than I've been in years. I fought for my kids. That may not be apparent to everyone, but it's what I did. I kept food on the table. Nobody went hungry in my house this year, unless they wanted to.

I never did lose the weight, didn't get in shape, but I took less shit. So far, I'm not dead. All of these are pluses.

I haven't been published yet, but I'm trying. I've also started another book. I'm at the squirmy end of it right now and will be fixing the whole damned thing for months to come. I'm a writer. Of that, there is no doubt in my mind. I'm just not published. I'm not an author.

So, I have a new list and I'm still adding to it. Jaded, but ever hopeful, I'm looking forward to a new year.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Meeting Odetta

I guess it was about four years ago when I met Odetta. She was one of the guests for a winter show for Mountain Stage. I was recording interviews for their Black History Month program, and I was should absolutely try to get her. A typical child of the 80s, I had no idea who she was, had no idea about anything other then the big, brush strokes of the civil rights era that filtered through television dramas. God knows they didn't teach that stuff much in class. I graduated from a high school where the class president was the only black kid and history was never more than partly cloudy.

If I remember correctly, we spoke right after the show. I was told not to keep her long, but she didn't mind. She seemed glad to talk, even though I was clearly ignorant. My questions, quite frankly, sucked and were just shy of being of the "What's your favorite pizza topping?" variety. After plodding through a quick five minutes of nothing, I asked her what she thought of the politics of now. She shook her head and told me we were in a lot of trouble.

"But you can't let the bastards win," she said.

At the time, I was amused by a frail, 74 year-old woman casually swearing, but I've remembered what she meant as much as the strange jolt of her words. The bastards weren't just the Bush administration, though yes, she believed they were bastards. The bastards were the oppressors, the people who manipulate, connive and threaten to make the rest of us do as they say.

Not every lesson is a new lesson. I've certainly heard the phrase, "You can't let the bastards win" a hundred times. Her telling of it was the one that made it stick for me.

Odetta died yesterday. I got to spend a few minutes with her. It was a good few minutes.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Back in black.

The food sucked. Of that nothing more needed to be said and we all agreed on this point. The turkey was the culinary equivalent of particle board: pressed, packed and glued together, then sliced in uniform khaki colored slabs. Festively, someone had thought to drench it with translucent slime, which when warmed assumed the proximity of gravy, but still resembled 30 eight oil. It was quite a spread. There were several meats: Turkey, chicken and what had once been some kind of fish. There was a variety of tinned then reheated vegetables. The freshest and best flavored was the vanilla pudding.

I take no responsibility for Thanksgiving dinner at Shoney's. To be honest, I sort of looked forward to it: no cooking, no clean-up, no having to get the house in reasonable order. Driving around Charleston, I'd seen a sign up at the restaurant in Kanawha City. They promised oysters and seafood. That sounded pretty good to me, but of course, we weren't eating in Charleston. No, much maligned Charleston wasn't good enough for everybody. We had to eat in the culinary center of the state: Summersville.

There were reasons. There are always reasons to do something as monumentally stupid as eat at the equivalent of a rural truck stop during a high feast day. I'm sure each and every reason was explained to me, but I only have fuzzy remembrances of them now. Some of it was the reasonable excuses about hating preparation and clean-up of the meal. Part of it had to do with a grandmother, who doesn't like to travel. Another part had to do with a sister-in-law who might or might not be bringing her sort-of transgendered girlfriend, who simultaneously amuses and annoys me. They were traveling a great distance, but didn't make it in time, which was really a pity. I was keenly looking forward to seeing them.

Everyone took it well. We chewed through and managed a second plate a piece. My daughter, who has an aversion to any food containing water, thought the food was great. That she would rave about the food made perfect sense. She had multiple plates of syrup-boiled ham and pineapples, loaded up on the cottage cheese and even ate a slice of the restaurant's very own extra-special pumpkin pie.

I had a great time.

I got to watch people. I watched the gay men with their shaved heads and perfectly shaped mustaches eat dinner and gaze lovingly into each other's eyes. I watched middle-aged and likely divorced hunters, still wearing patterned greens, glare at their food and eat sullenly. There were a few families like ours. The smart ones ordered off the menu and skipped the steaming shit being served at the bar. The dumb ones, like ours, circled the serving area like frustrated flies and looked to the door and their wrist watches.

I watched an old lady watch my daughter. There's always one. She was working up the nerve to say something, but never did. She might have noticed I was looking right at her. Yes, I was aware my daughter was flailing and making strange noises in a public place. No, we don't need an exorcist. Have a nice Thanksgiving. I saw a mother and son, possibly the ghost of some possible future. The boy was pushing fifty. His mother had to be seventy by my math. They were both wearing new holiday sweaters, the kind that usually have reindeer or trees on them. He was ruining his by refusing to swallow the things that went in his mouth didn't agree with this tongue.
At long last, the meal was over. We collected our jackets and muscled our way to the door. The waitress reminded us they were open for dinner today, too, and not just lunch. I couldn't speak for anyone else, but I was already calculating the quality of the sandwich I could make just as soon as I got home. It turns out I could make a pretty good sandwich.

Friday, November 28, 2008

50 K

I hit my 50K on the new novel, which means I have successfully completed the National Novel Writer's Month thing. The book is still in development. I didn't have part of the story until basically yesterday, but it was significant part.

It's still about the happy little town of Cartersville. There are still an awful lot of snakes, but the book is a long way from being done. I'll be working on getting the rest of the raw material out probably until Christmas, then the rewrite.

Since I have completed my required 50K, I promise not to make much mention of the thing until I get the thing skinned, scraped and pelted. Everybody has endured my caterwauling about the subject for a while. About the least interesting thing I do here is talk about my writing.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Giving Thanks

No list this week. I have to stop, at least for a while.

I got a letter from an agent in California. He's willing to take a look at the first 50 pages of my book and a one-page synopsis. This is definitely not a "no." It's a very clear "maybe."

I'm keeping my expectations low. Odds are he'll take a pass. I expect to get a couple of agents willing to look at the book, but who will turn it down for any of a million reasons. It would be highly unlikely, I think, to get a rep without a little more suffering on my part.

Still, it's a start. It's the next level of disappointment and it's going to hurt more now.

On a side note: I'm also wondering if it was my revised query letter that got through. So far, I have not received any of the improved letters back with some kind of scrawl at the bottom wishing me the best of luck, but please don't stalk me. I'll have to check my notes on what I sent. If so... heh... guess who'll be getting letters again in about two months? Right. Everybody I've already pitched at.

Anyway, I'll be sending off what is requested and waiting through the holidays for a response. Best case scenario is he tells me to send the remainder, he loves it and we go into the business of making me a published author in 2009. That is what I want more than just about anything in the world.

If not, we'll resume sending out mailings in January. From several sources I've read agencies and publishers tend to feed stuff from the slush pile (the term for unsolicited manuscripts and the like) into the furnace at the first of the year. I was going to have to knock off soon anyway. With a little more luck, I'll have a crude first draft of my new novel, tentatively titled "The Snake handlers of Lee County" by January. That's what I'll work on through the Winter and maybe Spring.

So, as gloomy as it sounds like I'm being, this is really good news.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Nose to the Grindstone

Okay, as has been pointed out, I missed the list last week.

Here is who I'm sending stuff to:
Victoria Sanders
Wendy Schmalz
Wendy Sherman
Eleanor Wood
Robin Strauss

Albert Zuckerman
Robert Brown
Susan Zeckendorf
Helen Zimmerman
Pennie West

I've picked up a few more rejections and one note asking I re-send my work via e-mail. While this isn't the same thing as someone saying they're going to read what I've written, it is different than the usual fortune cookie cutter letter telling me it's not for them, but they wish me the best of luck. I am ever hopeful even if Lawrence Block (written about a hundred books) says most first novels are largely unpublishable. I believe in my little book, but it wouldn't be the first time an author's first work was published later as a second or third book.

I am at 28,000 words on my current writing project. You learn, I think, as you go what works. I have a 20,000 word ceiling I have to break. If I can hold the story past 20K, I think I can get it to the end. For those of you interested, yes, I am sticking it out with Fry Cook Bob, Mr. Pulaski and the snakes of Lee County, Cartersville, USA. This may consume me through the early part of the year with edits, rewrites and many sleepless nights turning it into something that makes sense. Currently, it is very, very confusing.

I've enjoyed other blogs more since I've been off the blogging. I chimed in over at Film Geek when someone brought up "It's A Wonderful Life," possibly the most tragic holiday film ever made. I love the thing, but in it's way, it's worse than "Requiem for a Dream." Frank Capra was completely insane. I've also been throwing in comments over at 5th Column, but not to any real use.

And the holidays are coming up. The mad scramble has not begun just yet, but will be happening soon. I've scrimped and saved again with the hopes of putting something under the tree for the kids that isn't completely pathetic. It's not a lot and I am mindful of the last time I saved up with the hopes of making a bright Christmas --we ended up getting kicked out of our place and had to spend most of the money I'd put away on a new place to live. I'm not going to have nearly as much cash as I had two years ago, but it's better than where I was last year.

The close of the year reminds me of my resolutions. Most of them failed. I look over at that bar to the right and cringe. I can make no other resolution for next year than to try again. So, the upside is that's already taken care of for me. I don't need to make another list and besides, fortune favors the persistent.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Nose to the grindstone

First, a foremost, to the Obama supporters... congrats on your guy winning. While I voted for the man, I wouldn't call myself a supporter -just another cog in the system. I took no pleasure in casting my vote. It was just something I had to do, like floss.

The upside is the currently whacked out Republican party took a much-need spanking. Maybe they'll come back with something in two years that isn't abortion, gay marriage or putting Jesus on the eight dollar bill. Say what you want. The Republican Revolution in the 90s and the Contract with America had some good ideas.

Second, the word count for my November novel is 11,600. It's a fair start, slowed by an over-interest in last night's election coverage. I'd like to be at double that by next Wednesday.

I'll post my promised list of five people I'm sending my book off to, but later today. The list is incomplete currently.

I have gotten a couple of polite rejections. The best, so far, was from a guy in California who sent back my query letter, but penned a note at the bottom, telling me it wasn't really his kind of thing.

I'm really starting to think I'm doing it wrong, but... I sort of expected to get shot down a lot before I got on base. It's disheartening and disappointing, but I guess if I wanted to do something easy, I'd just make grilled cheeses for a living. I can do a pretty good grilled cheese.

So, I'll hit the library today, research cover letters and maybe try revising my synopsis. Fuck, maybe I'll start sending random coupons I get from off my desk -stupid bribes to beg these fuckers to read my book. I've got two for some shitty coffee from McDonalds and one from chick-fil-a.

This actually may be a plan, not a good plan, but it's a plan.

The list for who is getting the book queries this week:
Shannon O'Keefe
Aaron Priest
Susan Ann Protter
Helen Rees
Scott Gould.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Gone fishing...

Officially, the blog is on semi-hiatus, pending the completion of National Novel Writer's month.

Halloween Project 4

(This is the last of the October special. There is no more of the business with the flies --at least not at the moment. I haven't decided whether that little device has evolved itself out. All the usual warnings apply, including my continuous complaints about blogger. It was fun. Thanks to those of you who stuck it out and read my stories.)

Part 4: Country roads

On the drive from Beckley, I asked the old guy, “Does Cartersville have a problem with snakes?”

Mr. Walker, the old guy, sent by my aunt to pick me up in Beckley, looked over and laughed.

“That’s a funny thing to ask.”

I laughed with him, but it wasn’t really funny. My aunt had a problem with snakes: a big problem. Two weeks ago, they started showing up in her kitchen, in her car and squirming out of the drawers of her desk at work. They were everywhere, and there could be no doubt, they weren’t getting in on their own.

If not for my aunt, I'd have never come back to Cartersville. The place was poison. Alice was the only family I'd had. After what happened with my brother, Albert, ten years ago and my mother, she took me in. She’d practically raised me. I’d grown up in Nebraska, where she’d lived since before I was born. She used to tell me leaving Cartersville was the smartest thing she ever did.

"Nothing but heartache and hunger back there," she used to say. "Nobody should stay."

Last winter, after Christmas, she did the inexplicable. Alice moved back. She bought a big house on the side of a hill. She cashed out her company stock and opened up a little office, selling insurance. Everything was fine. She called me every week and told me everything was fine. She was catching up with all the people she hadn’t seen since high school, including a couple of old boyfriends. It wasn't so bad.

"You ought to come home for a visit," she said. "I'd love to see you."

But I was at school in California. Coming home to Cartersville was as difficult as it was unappealing.

I told her I might try to fly out around Christmas. I didn’t promise anything, but I knew I was lying then she called me about the snakes.

“At first, I thought it was nothing,” she sputtered. “I found a couple of black snakes in my kitchen."

Alice said she bolted from the house, used a neighbor's phone and called the sheriff. The snakes were caught and dropped off far down the road. Black snakes, at least the kind found in West Virginia, usually aren’t poisonous, but it wasn’t unheard of for one or even two to sneak inside someone’s house through a hidden crack or hole. She said she had someone come out and look at the house.

"But Randal, my house was fine," she said. "I spent two hundred dollars on a full inspection. There wasn't anything."

She found the snake in her car a couple of days later, coiled and sleeping in the front seat. There could be no doubt about how it got in. Snakes do not, as a rule, break into motor vehicles.

“The sheriff asked me who I’d pissed off," she said. “Damned if I know.”

They opened an investigation. Meanwhile, the plague of black snakes continued. At lunch, she watched them slither across the parking lot of the Tastee Freeze. Another turned up in the frozen food aisle of the Cartersville IGA where she did her grocery shopping. A stock boy was given the unenviable task of trapping the reptile in a box, then disposing of it. Everyone was talking about it. People in town stayed away from her. It had gotten so bad, she said, she had to get her bills and letters from the postmaster. The mail carrier wouldn't stop any more. He was afraid to open the box.

Aunt Alice was a nervous wreck.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I hate to ask, but can you come home, just for a little while?”

Of course, I could. I’d never say no to her, not for something like this, and I had a way with snakes. For lack of a better description, I had a “gift” with snakes. It was a family thing. My father used to collect snakes for the local Pentecostal churches. It was yet another way to make money in the hills and something he did before he went off to Vietnam. My brother and I tried our hand at it, too. We were all perfectly safe.

I don’t know what killed my father. Government reports on the sort of ways men die in far off places can be a bit vague, but I know what killed my brother. It wasn’t a snake, though I was there when the copperhead bit him. I watched him die.

Because of what happened to my brother and because I was from a place where people took up the serpent and played chicken with God, I’d always been fascinated by the animals. I had more than a passing interest. After I graduated from high school, I went to UCLA to study zoology with the intention of specializing in reptiles. I had a part-time job at the L.A. zoo feeding rats and bugs to the lizards, dragons, turtles and to lots and lots of snakes.

“You and your damned snakes,” my aunt laughed when I told her. "I don't know how you can stand to touch the things."

Now, she was counting on me to be an expert, to help her get rid of the snakes. Of course, the snakes weren’t the problem. The problem was who was leaving them out for her. She didn't need a junior year Herpetologist. She didn't even need an exterminator. What she needed was a strapping twenty year-old willing to swing a baseball bat at the first person to come creeping through the back door with a sack full of reptiles.

I was glad to oblige.

It was late when I got to Beckley. I called Alice from the Waffle House. She sounded both frantic and relieved to hear I was so close. I'd taken a bus from Cleveland to get to Beckley. I told her I didn’t want to be out hitchhiking after dark, especially to Lee County, so I was going to get a motel room. I’d call her in the morning and she could come pick me up.

“You just wait there. I’ll get someone out to pick you up.”

It was all the same to me. I sat at a booth, read the local paper and ate a chicken salad sandwich. I read it again, smoked cigarettes and drank cup after cup of industrial strength trucker’s coffee while avoiding the baleful glance of the fifty-something waitress with the bleached blond hair. An hour later, around ten o'clock, Mr. Walker showed up in his rust bucket pickup truck.

“You, Randal?” He asked.

There weren’t a lot of other choices. The Waffle House was practically empty.

"Here," he said. "I should get your things."

He introduced himself as Robert Walker. He was overly polite and had to be in the vicinity of sixty years old, though he moved like a man half that, which was something for a man of his size. He was big. I wondered if he was an old boyfriend of my aunt's or just a widowed neighbor. I didn't see a wedding band. It seemed to me asking another to make a drive out to the next county after dark was only the kind of imposition reserved for someone who might have intentions of a sort.

He grinned. He wanted me to like him. He collected my duffle bag then led me out to the truck, which seemed looked like it had been on its last legs ten years ago.

“Don’t mind the body.” He tossed the duffle bag into the bed. “It’s what’s inside that counts. It runs just fine.”

The engine started up on the first try.

He seemed a nice enough guy, though he wasn't much of a driver. On our way out of town, he ran two stop signs and barreled through a yellow light.

"What's the hurry?" I asked.

He shrugged and I tried to get comfortable with the scenery. Even dark, the road was familiar. My parents had driven this way a couple of times, usually late in the summer. We came to Beckley to buy school clothes. We passed through on our way to the State Fair. We drove to Bluefield once to watch a circus. I couldn't see much, but I remembered the curve of the road. I knew what was hiding under the shadow of night. Here and there, I saw lights in the hills that belonged to houses. There were a few more than I remembered, but it had been a long time.

Mr. Walker seemed content to let me drowse or dose, if that was what I wanted to do. He said nothing until I did.

“Did my aunt tell you anything about her snake problem?” I asked.

“No, she didn’t, but I know about it. Most of the county knows about it, I expect. They’ve kept it out of the local paper.” He laughed. “Which isn’t saying much.”

The Cartersville Gazette was little more than a weekly church newsletter. People read it for the rec league softball standings, the school lunch menu and to find out what the Senior Citizens groups were up to. The peace of mind that came from living in a place like Cartersville came from feigning obliviousness. They could get all the fear and fright they wanted by reading the Beckley or Charleston papers. It was purely optional.

“Nobody else is having the same problem,” he said. “I can tell you that much.”

I nodded. I had my suspicions.

The summer before I left Cartersville for good, my brother Albert and I were hired by a local minister to collect snakes for a tent revival. We were supposed to get him a hundred snakes and he was going to pay us two hundred dollars if we delivered, but he cheated us. He left a snake in the bag, rather than pay what we’d earned. My brother was bitten and he died.

I remember how sick I felt watching it happen. There wasn’t anything I could have done and nobody would listen. It was word of a ten year old against that of a preacher. So as best as I could, I got even. On the night of the revival, I stuck a bag of black snakes in the backseat of the man’s car. I knew they wouldn't kill him, but they might scare him. It is one thing to willingly take up the serpent for the sake of God. It is another to have a dozen creep up from under your seat. In the dark, he wouldn't have known if they were deadly or not.

I got what I wanted, I guess. The snakes shook him up good. He left his church over it, left town not long before I did. Of course, he might have come back eventually.

“You mind if I smoke?” I asked.

Mr. Walker shrugged indifferently. I fished the package of cigarettes out of my shirt pocket and predictably, in a dark car, fumbled with the lighter and dropped it. It bounced somewhere on the floor, but I couldn’t see it.

“Is the Holy Assembly of the Believer church still around?” I asked.

“No, they haven’t been around in years. Did you used to go there?”

“No,” I told him and looked for the lighter. “I’ve never been much of a churchgoer. You?”

Mr. Walker sighed and drummed his rough fingers uncomfortably on the steering wheel.

“I should go,” he agreed. “I really should. A man my age should be going in that direction, right? You got to get right, right?" He looked at me, pleading. "But my job. It’s hard to get away. I work a lot of Sundays.”

I nodded. Light from a street lamp caught the smooth silver of the Zippo.

“You find it yet?” He asked.

The sign by the side of the of the road read, “thirty-five miles to Cartersville.”

“It’s here someplace,” I said. “So, what do you do?”

“Oh, I do a lot of things," he said. "Mostly, I just work at the Tastee Freeze."

“That’s still there?” I said surprised. I don't know what the lifespan of a hamburger stand is, but only McDonalds or Burger King seemed eternal. “My Mom used to work there. Her name was Bridget.”

“You’re Bridget’s boy?”

“Yeah,” I said. "That was me."

Cigarette in one hand, I reached to the floor under the dash for my lighter.

“Ain’t that something,” Walker muttered.

“Does Mr. Creevy still run it?” I asked, then from the corner of my eye, saw a dark, but familiar and dangerous shape shift on it’s own. I couldn’t tell for certain, but I think it was looking right at me.

Walker droned on, oblivious of the animal curled under his seat.

“Mr. Creevy died years ago. Real bad accident. His wife, Nan, took over. She’s still there. So, is his stepmother. Do you remember Nadine, blonde lady, looks like she stepped out of the pages of a Sears Catalog?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I remember,” but I wasn’t listening.

“She's still the same," he said. "Maybe the grease is good for the skin.”

Moving slowly, cautiously, I leaned back.

“Mr. Walker,” I said. “You might want to go ahead and pull over.”

“Why? Is there something wrong?”

“Not really,” I said. “I just want to check on my stuff. I think I hear my shaving cream rolling around in back.”

“Oh sure.” He nodded and brought the truck over to the shoulder.

When the truck was still, I told him.

“It’s under your seat,” I said. “I saw it move. I can’t tell what it is without the right light. It might be another black snake.”

He nodded, then put the truck in gear and drove.

“What are you doing?”

“What I have to,” he said solemnly. “Ain’t none of this my idea, kid --none of it. It would have been better for the both of us, if you’d never come back.”

I looked out the window and wondered about my aunt.

"You got no place to go," he said. "If you tried to jump, you'd likely break your neck, but you might just get off with a broken leg. Either way, I'd have to come back and collect you. You're wanted alive, but dead will do, if that's all there is."

"Who wants me?" I asked. There could be but one man, Mr. Pulaski, but Bob couldn't bring himself to speak his name.

"The devil, himself," he said.

"Where's my aunt?"

He looked away. I didn't want to know.

I grabbed for the wheel. He batted me casually away, flung me hard against the rugged metal door then he reached over, grabbed me by my hair and pulled me close to him. My fists were dandelions tossed at the limbs of an oak tree.

He swallowed hard and held my head close. His eyes were watery. His face was tortured and grieving.

"I didn't want to do this. I really didn't. I don't want to do any of this. I don't want to be here. I don't like driving at night --a man my age? I need my sleep. My eyes ain't so good, and,” he stuttered. “I got to be at work in the morning."

Suddenly, I knew this man by a different name. He wasn’t Robert Walker, the possible neighbor or potential boyfriend of my aunt.

“Bob,” I said. “They used to call you Fry Cook Bob, didn’t they?”

“They still do,” he whispered.

It wasn’t the only name they called him. Behind his back, he was Convict Bob or Killer Bob. He was supposed to be Cartersville's town's greatest hero and greatest failure. He was a marine, fought in World War II, and won a bunch of medals. After the war, with a parade and the mayor waiting at home to give him the key to the city, Bob stopped off at a bar. He got into a fight and killed the man with his bare hands.

The parade was cancelled. The key to the city was put back wherever such things are kept. Instead he spent fifteen years in prison. He got out when Kennedy was president.

My mom told us not to worry. Bob, she said, was harmless, just a nice guy who did a really bad thing a long time ago. He didn’t seem particularly harmless now.

He turned loose and pushed me back into my seat.

"Don't try that again. Don't make it worse than it already is."

There was no point. Things were at their worst. I was locked in a truck with a convicted killer and a snake, driving along a nearly deserted country road.

"What’s this about Mr. Walker?”

"This ain’t about me," he said. "I’m just doing what I’m told."

"Alright," I said. "What does Mr. Pulaski want?"

Bob was stricken. The name was like a curse.

"He hates you," Bob whispered. "He hates you more than anything and that's a lot. He hates everything."

"So, he hired you to," I wouldn't say it. I didn’t know if my aunt was sitting at her house waiting for me. I didn’t know if she was lying in her bathtub, just a couple of inches from fresh air. I needed to keep my head. So, I asked him, "So, he hired you to come get me? You work for him?"

Bob shook his head. No, not that. Nothing like that.

"Belong," he groaned miserably. "I belong to him. He owns me and I have to do what he says."

"You don't have to do anything you don't want to," I tried.

He shook his head. He raked a big hand through his thick, gray hair.

"You don’t know," he moaned. "You don’t know," he sobbed. "When the man calls, I have to listen.” He glared at me and hissed. “He sent one of his snakes to be sure, to make sure I obeyed.”

Crazy, I thought. I wasn’t riding with just a convicted killer and a snake. I was riding with a maniac and a snake.

"Everybody has a choice," I said.

He turned to me shaking.

“No, they don’t. Not me. I got to do what I’m told.”

"You supposed to kill me? Is that it?"

"No, that’s not what I’ve been told to do. I only hurt you if I have to. I'm just supposed to come get you, help you carry your things. I was told to be polite, be friendly and only talk if you wanted to. If you asked, I was supposed to tell you I met your aunt in church."

I’d have never believed that.

“What’s with the snake?” I asked.

“It’s one of his,” he said. “You know.” He rolled his eyes unhappily. “I do what he says, exactly what he says, but he doesn’t trust me. The snake will tell him if I fail. It will tell him if I try to disobey.”

Bob sounded impossibly honest and improbably sober. Whatever else, he believed the snake under his seat was watching him. He believed he was bound to do the will of another. It was insane, but there were rules to be followed. In his own bizarre way, he had given them to me.

We passed a deserted gas station. It was deserted ten years ago, when I left the county: only twenty-two more miles to go by the road markers. Cartersville was now closer than to turn around and go back to Beckley.

“I don’t have no choice,” he said, though I don’t believe that to be true.

“Try it,” I said and lit my cigarette.

“Try what?”

"Can you turn on the radio? Did anyone say if you could do that?"

Bob shook his head. No, he wasn't given that instruction. He reached over and turned the radio on. It crackled and hummed. There was nothing for it to pick up, at least nothing worth picking up right now.

He turned it off.

"Can you roll the windows down?"

Bob rolled his window down. I did the same. We propped our elbows on the edge, hung them out the door. With a hard jerk, the fry cook pulled me back entirely inside the cab. He glared at me murderously. His eyes bulged. Spit hung from his lower lip.

"You stay in the truck," he growled.

I nodded and put my arm down. Bob's elbow dangled over the edge.

“You were told to keep me inside the truck, to not let me loose until you got to your destination. That’s why you ran the stop signs. It’s why you’re driving like you are.”

He said nothing.

“You don’t have to do this.”

“Of course, I do,” he said.

“No, Mr. Walker, think it out. You only have to do what you’ve been told. Pick me up, drive me someplace, keep me in the truck, but there’s a hell of lot he didn't tell you to do.” I took a drag from my cigarette. “And he made a mistake.”

Walker nodded. He knew.

“It’s all equal to you,” I said. “Every part of the instruction. It’s just a list. The commands are not ordered by importance.”

Bobs eyes smiled. I understood. He’d been trying to tell me.

“Mr. Walker,” I said. “I think I still hear that shaving cream can banging around in back. I need to get that secured. Would you mind pulling over?”

“Don’t try leaving the truck,” he warned.

I knew. If I tried he’d come down on me like a sledgehammer. There was really only one way for this to play out and just the one chance.

He pulled off onto the shoulder, but didn’t turn off the engine. I only had a moment to act. He opened his door, stepped out onto the road and closed the door behind him. I pinched my cigarette between my fingers, crushed the coal then dropped it on the floor in front of the snake. The snake lunged at the warm shape, which was roughly the size and shape of a bug. I caught it behind its head. It squirmed, but the reptile’s fangs never came close to sticking me. I tossed it out the open window. I mashed the clutch, swung the car in gear and drove.

I left him there, holding my duffle bag, and keeping company with a rattlesnake. Maybe someone came by and picked him up. Maybe he walked the rest of the way to Cartersville, where undoubtedly he would have some explaining to do. I drove the truck all the way to Charleston then left in a parking lot. I locked the door and tossed the keys in the river. I bought a bus ticket and went back to California. I called my aunt from the road. She never picked up, which only confirmed my worst fears.

It took two days to get home. Two calls from the Cartersville Sheriff’s office were waiting for me on my answering machine. They wanted me to call them.

It could only be bad news. They regretted to inform me, but my aunt was dead, apparently from heart failure. He told me she’d been sick for some time, had shut her office down for a couple of weeks while she tried to get better. None of her neighbors, he said, suspected she was so sick. If they’d known, somebody would have taken her to the hospital.

I asked him about the snakes. The sheriff didn’t know anything about that. It was the first he’d heard.

Arrangements for her funeral were already taken care of: one of the advantages to my aunt being an insurance agent. Details had been worked out long before. They were paid for. There wasn’t anything for me to do except to talk to a few people on the phone, which was as close as I wanted to get to Cartersville. I didn’t attend the ceremony, didn’t go when a lawyer called about a reading of her will.

I’d been given the closest thing to a warning as I was going to get.

I couldn’t be sure that Fry Cook Bob, Mr. Pulaski or someone else related to them might track me down. I suppose they could have if they wanted to, but they never came. After the school year was over, I volunteered for a program to look for evidence of snakes in Alaska. There were rumors people had seen garter snakes, but never anything poisonous. Prevailing opinion was they were probably animals that had been transported to Alaska: escaped pets or stowaways with produce from down south. Still, the native tribes had a few legends of serpents. There may have been snakes in the north at one time. It was a fool’s errand, but there was grant money. I was offered class credit and the chance to participate in writing a paper on the subject.

I was ready for a season without snakes. One day, I'd have to go back to Cartersville, but not yet. I wasn't ready but they were.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

eyes to the wasteland

Well, I voted today. I voted my conscience. I believe Sarah Palin anywhere near the Oval office is bad. She bothers me. What I know about her suggests the worst aspects of both Nixon, Clinton and Bush II all wrapped up in a perky little package that makes the evangelical boys pant with lust. I believe so strongly in the wrongness of her being so close to the highest office in the nation I decided not to vote of Ralph Nader. I could not accept the possibility of contributing to the possibility of giving her a legitimate shot at the presidency. The best way to do do that was to vote with the herd.

Ralph is right when he says I'm politically enslaved if I don't get to vote for the candidate of my choice.

I'm a slave. I'm a 21st Century American slave, a well-fed slave, but a slave nonetheless. There is no happiness here, just an endless, tiring pursuit.

I don't believe in Obama, but I voted for him.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Nose to the grindstone 3

Here is my list of people I'm currently bugging about my novel...

Charlotte Gusay (she likes pursuing stuff that could translate into movies. As I have often said, I'd love for their to be a movie about my life, starring Samuel L. Jackson as me)

Kimberly Cameron

Moses Cordona (The dude is into comics. I'm taking that as a sign)

Julia Lord

Stephanie Lee (She likes Gen-X related stuff and 'Click' is very definitely a Gen-X flavored sort of thing, though I don't obsess about video games, cartoons or breakfast cereal)

Kristin Nelson

From the two previous batches, I haven't received anything back. Obviously, the best case scenario is someone bites and they ask to see the manuscript. This is what I want next, a new level of disappointment and pain. Hopefully, what I'm doing now will eventually lead to the sort of self-destructive behavior that is only the product of wild success. Meanwhile, I'm expecting half of my queries to return responses.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Burn notice

Thanks to some kind of weird glitch in the Child Support Enforcement Bureau's program for collecting child support, I found out late last week they were going to collect double what I'm supposed to contribute. I have two jobs, so their computers, magical accounting gnomes or whoever, were going to draw money from both jobs.

Given that I live hand to mouth, pay everybody late and sweat the aftermath of every single dollar I spend like it's a beating waiting to happen, the imminent loss of over three hundred dollars from my monthly budget is horrifying. Good-bye hamburger. Hello roadkill.

So, I called Child Support... after the third call, second message and a collective waiting time that would have got me through the first act of Wagner's Ring Cycle, I spoke to a nice lady who explained that their fucking me wasn't personal. It wasn't even meant as being unfriendly. It was accidental, but mostly my fault. I should have mentioned that I'd gotten a second job. I explained to her I've had the second job for approximately 16 months longer than I've been a client of theirs.

They said they'd send a cancellation order. I explained I wasn't overly concerned about their end of things. I was willing to believe, but I was a little iffy about who they were dealing with on the other end. WVPBS and I have a tortured history concerning my pay and benefits. The discussions never really go anywhere and they tend to pass the buck fast.

So, then I contacted WVPBS and asked about the check. They don't handle it and aren't responsible for that sort of thing. It was all a big mystery. That's all taken care of through the State Auditor. Of course, once I asked the person I'd been told was in charge of checks about whether there was a deduction or not, it didn't take them long to find out how much was being deducted and by who.

I said this seemed all wrong. The newspaper told me before they started deducting money from my check this was going to happen. Shouldn't they have done the same thing? Shouldn't someone have mentioned it? They said, sure, but they didn't know who that someone was. They were pretty sure it wasn't them. Besides, they couldn't be expected to keep track of every outside deduction from an employees check, could they? WVPBS has about a hundred people working for them. That's a pretty big payroll.

This could even be seen as my fault since I didn't tell them... even though I didn't know this was going to happen until last week... when I got the notice from the Child Support Enforcement division.

So, then off to the state auditor's office and a brief conversation with a nervous sounding clerk who couldn't do a thing for me, except offer to switch me over to direct deposit. After declining, I was sent me to the voice mail of someone who may or may not be able to help me. In the meantime, I know I'm losing 53 dollars out of the check I should receive this week -not as bad as it could have been. Of course, I don't know if the auditor's office has received the cancellation order or if the remaining 270 dollars of the 320 I typically pay in support will come out in a couple of weeks.

At this point, I have to wait for a callback from the State Auditor's office, which may lead me all the way back to the Child Support Enforcement division for another round. I'm sort of counting on a second round --possibly a third. God, this shit seems endless.

To sort of close this, my wife sent me a note about a public information specialist position for a state agency. We talk a lot about money and our lack of funds. Both of us are having to consider new lines of work. The listing looked like it could be significantly more than I make talking to bass players for the Gazette. I've thought about it. The deadline is today. The application is still in my desk. The answer to not being able to beat them, may not be to join them.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Bleak November

Okay, I did this last year. I'm going to do it again this year. November 1 through the end of the month, I'm going to cut blogging to work on another novel. This year, I'll stop in on Wednesdays, give word counts and a quick bullet points of whatever it is I want to unload.

November is National Novel Writing Month. The basic idea is to hit 50,000 words in roughly 30 days. It sounds both easier and harder than it actually is.

Thanks to the Halloween project I now have an idea that interests me enough to hold my attention and I have a plan, which is even better.

For some, me taking a break is overdue. People who read this thing tend to fall into different camps. A few like almost everything. Others like the fiction or the occasional references to what I do with the paper. Most people, however, come for the train wreck. They like to hear about me running out of groceries, falling asleep next to a drug addict on the bus or otherwise feeling like a kicked dog because of my family, financial status or whatever. As one guy put it, "I like checking in to make sure you haven't offed yourself. It's kind of a surprise that you haven't."

I have the bestest fans.

But a break is good every now and again. Hell, and I might even finally switch over to wordpress by December 1.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Halloween project 3

(As promised, here is part 3. It's a bit rough. I had a harder time getting to the end. Blogger also isn't cooperating on format. What else is new? But I'm still completely digging the project. At some point, I may expand this some. Some of the characters of these little stories are starting to introduce themselves. I can see them much clearer. Anyway, enough of the chatter. Thanks for reading.)

part 3: The tale of Fry Cook Bob -scene 1

It's the same dream every night now...

Fry Cook Bob is running for his life. Down the hill and through the woods, tripping and stumbling like the fat oaf he is, Bob needs to get to the road. He needs to get help. The green branches scourge his skin. He feels the pain and the overwhelming dread of what's behind him, what's chasing him off the side of a mountain.

He's slow and fat from too many hamburgers, too many foot-long hotdogs with extra chili and onions. They don't call him Fry Cook Bob for nothing. Stupid old man. Can’t run fast enough. Can't run far enough. Can't run long enough.

He breaks through the trees and sees the road. There's a woman standing on the white line, cradling a baby in her arms. She looks so sad, like she wants to forgive him, but she just can't.

This is the dream that will be with him for the rest of his life.

The dreams started a couple of weeks after Jimmy Creevy, the owner of the Tastee Freeze and Bob's employer, snapped his neck on the basement stairs. After, the hamburger stand fell into the hands of Jimmy's wife, Nan, and her mother-in-law, Nadine. Nan and Nadine were great gals, great pals, but they were grieving over a husband and a son. It was a wonder the store was even open. Then their luck turned sour. Don Cooper, at Cooper’s Farms, their beef supplier for years, decided to raise his rates.

"Everything is going up," he said. "I can't be giving it away."

Nobody believed it. It was nothing but greed. He thought he could take advantage of two women. Nadine, who seldom had a bad word for anybody, told Cooper he could go take his hamburger and go to hell.

"We're going to have to get it somewhere," Bob told Nan.

"Well, of course. I know that," she said.

So, they went through Jimmy's notebook full of phone numbers; the same book his father had used. In a pinch, there had to be back-up suppliers. Such shortfalls were known to happen even in the best of times, which these weren't. In the book, they found Frank Pulaski.

"Frank?" Bob asked Nadine. "He any kin to Tom, the preacher? The one over at Holy Assembly?"

Early last summer, the preacher at Holy Assembly of the Believer, a snake handling church, had been bitten after a tent revival and taken ill. It was a terrible scandal. Pulaski quit and nobody had seen him since. It was a small town mystery.

"Now Bob,” Nadine asked, “how would I know something like that? I'm a Methodist."

Bob shrugged. He wasn’t much of regular churchgoer himself. He was just curious.

They phoned Frank. After introductions and explanations, Frank said yes, he and James Creevy did some business back fifteen years or so. There was some kind of falling out, though Pulaski was at a loss to explain why. Nadine didn't seem to care. Pulaski owned a small farm on the other side of the county, but was still closer than Cooper's Farm. He raised cattle and he was pleased to do business. Don Cooper's loss was his gain.

"Ask him if he's any relation to Tom," Bob whispered.

Nadine covered the mouthpiece and told him she would do no such thing.

"You send me up an agreement and a schedule," he said. "And you can take a look at my animals, if you like."

"I'll have somebody up tomorrow morning." She looked at Bob. "Well, I guess it's up to you."

"Me?" He asked.

Nadine rolled her eyes.

"You were the one who wanted to know about whether he was kin to Tom Pulaski," she said. "You can ask yourself. All I need you to do is look around. If something looks funny, just come on back. I trust you."

"Nadine," he said. "I don't have a car."

"You can borrow Jimmy’s truck," she said.

Jimmy’s truck was an old heap Nadine’s stepson kept parked out back of the store. He’d spent his free time, and there wasn't much, tinkering with. It was less reliable than a politician and twice as ugly. Even the upholstery was coming apart. Jimmy kept a ratty blanket over the seat to hide the bare stuffing. Bob couldn't remember the last time Jimmy had started it up.

"Nadine, I don't have a driver's license."

As a paroled convict, Bob was forbidden from leaving the state without all kinds of permission. Getting a license just seemed like a waste of time.

She handed him the keys.

"I won't tell if you won't."

The next morning, on his way to the Pulaski farm, the truck, predictably, stalled out. After piddling with the engine for over an hour, and trying out half the tools in the toolbox under the seat, it miraculously returned to life. He had no idea what he did. It seemed to just make up its mind to go, not that it helped. On his way across the county, he got lost and spent another hour and a half looking for the wrong mailbox on the wrong road. By the time he got to the farm, it was afternoon. Nobody was home. There wasn't so much as a stray cat sleeping on the porch.

"Well, now what?"

Bob parked the truck in the road, between the small, one story house and the barn fifty feet away. The edge of a fenced field was further up the mountain. He didn’t see any cattle. Well, there was the barn. He figured he could at least take a look at the cows and get an idea of what he had. If they looked okay, he could just leave the agreement on the porch.

He strolled over to the barn. Nothing was locked down so he slid the bar from the latch and eased the door open. The last thing he wanted to do was have to go chase after cows.

What he saw stopped his breath. In the center of the room, a young, bruised and very pregnant woman squatted on the floor. She was collared, like a dog, and chained to a post. She hid behind bound hands and cowered from the light behind him. There was a gag in her mouth. She looked up at him fearfully, helplessly, expecting the worst.

"Hey, Miss,” he said. “Wait a second. I'm." He looked away, stunned by what was before him. He'd seen some ugly things in his time. He'd done some ugly things, but he'd never laid eyes on anything like this. He shook his head, then asked, "Can I help you?"

She seemed doubtful, distrustful, but didn't run when he approached. There was nowhere to go. The chain only gave her a few feet in any direction.

Fry Cook Bob's fingers were thick, scarred and awkward. He'd burned them a thousand times by now, could barely feel the tips, but he made them nimble. He pulled and tugged and freed the girl's mouth.

She coughed then spat. Under the dirt, he guessed she might be eighteen, maybe not even that.

"Who are you?" He asked. "What are you doing here?"

Horror and agony welled up in her eyes, but no tears. There were none left by now. She opened her mouth wide and pointed. She only had her teeth --most of them, anyway.

"Who did this?"

The answer was behind him, in the modest house with green curtains. He was a fool for asking.

"Hang on a second. Let me get something to cut you loose."

In the toolbox, he found an old box cutter. The blade was rusted, but it was sharp enough to free her hands. The collar took more effort, but it came loose.

She grunted, pointed at herself then drew the name "Kathy" on the ground. She pointed at the house across the way, started to write something, then scratched it out. There wasn't enough dirt to explain.

"We're getting out of here now," he said.

He picked her up into his arms. Except for the swollen belly, she was all skin and bones; barely weighed anything at all. He carried out of the barn and pushed the door closed behind him. She didn't need to look in there ever again. He put her in the truck then gave her the blanket from over the cracked and split vinyl seat. She wouldn't complain about the smell. He climbed behind the wheel on the other side, but the engine remained silent.

Angry and panicked, she kicked the floor and hammered the dash with her grubby, raw palms. He didn’t try to calm her. Bob took a deep breath, then tried again, but the engine was dead. The young woman slumped in the seat, hopeless. He put his hand out to her and touched her shoulder to calm her, to soothe her. It was going to be alright. They were not sunk. This was going to turn out fine.

"He's got a phone. We'll call for help."

Kathy looked at him and managed a grotesque smile that for the sake of pity, he managed to return.

"Come on," he said.

She looked at the house then shook her head: no thanks. She’d already seen it and didn’t want to go back.

"Kathy," he said. "It’s easier for me to protect you, if you’re where I am."

This was a fact: Pulaski might come back. There wasn’t any choice.

"We're just going to use the phone,” he told her. “And look for a gun."

The front door wasn't even locked. With the nearest neighbor a couple of miles away, it wasn't really necessary. Burglary gets harder the farther away from people you get and the homeowners tend to keep guns. This was what Bob was counting on. They crept in softly while a grandfather clock tapped out the seconds, counting them one after the other. The whole place was very clean, but staged like a department store window. The furniture looked new. The pictures on the wall were Sunday School prints of handsome, smiling Jesus working miracles and talking to children. In this place, it was a mocking perversion.

He didn't see a phone, but there had to be one somewhere. Nadine called here just yesterday. He looked around, while Kathy stood motionless, afraid to go further than just inside the door. The phone was in the bedroom, sitting on the nightstand next to the bd. Beside of it, there was a framed picture of two men. Bob had never laid eyes on Frank Pulaski before, wouldn't even know his voice, but he recognized the other man. It was Tom Pulaski, the former preacher at Holy Assembly.

He picked up the receiver and dialed the Tastee Freeze. Nadine picked up on the fourth ring.

"Nadine," he said. "This is Bob. I'm up at the Pulaski place." Nadine started to talk, to complain. He was late for work, but he cut her off. "Call the sheriff. Get him over here as fast you can. Something bad is going on up here."

"Bob, what are you talking about?"

He thought about how she'd just lost her son. He couldn't bring himself to tell her.

"Please," he said. "Just call him. Get him up here now."

He hung up. There wasn't time to talk. Frank would be back. He wouldn't stay gone forever. Bob needed to find a gun.

It should have been easy. This far out, everybody kept at least a rifle. He checked through every closet, even looked under the bed, but didn't find anything. He pulled open dresser drawers, yanked out neatly folded clothes and old photographs. The closest thing he came to finding a weapon was a shoebox full of arrowheads and an old knife with a long iron blade and a bone handle.

"They're on their way," he called out. Nadine wouldn't let him down.

He took the knife; just in case.

He helped Kathy back into the truck, then tried the ignition again. Not a damned thing. He popped the hood. Maybe he'd get lucky again, but then standing out by the bumper, he heard the slow rumble of tires grinding gravel. The owners of the farm had come home. He had to stall them until the sheriff got here.

He looked over at Kathy then handed her the knife. He took a flat head screwdriver from the tool box, shoved it in between his belly and jeans, threw his shirt over it. He stepped out of the truck.

"Stay down," he told her. “Keep the blanket over you and don’t move.”

Frank Pulaski was a small, balding man in boots and stained overalls. He had big meaty hands used to hard work. His face was tanned and creased like old leather. The preacher stepped out from the other side of the truck. No one in the county had seen the man in over a year. Dressed now all in black, Tom Pulaski looked as if he’d aged thirty years. He was wiry thin, but not frail. His pale sheen was as if the sun’s rays refused to touch him. Frank’s mouth was a thick, dull line. Tom’s smile was broad and leering. He held out his hand, a greeting Bob was loathe to meet.

“Hello preacher, ” he said. “My name is Bob. I’m Nadine’s hired man.”

Tom Pulaski enjoyed the recognition.

“Have you been waiting long?” He asked.

“No,” Bob said. “No, not at all. I was late. The truck.” He pointed to the old heap behind him. “It’s on loan and not particularly reliable.”

Tom nodded. Of course. Frank simply stared.

“Have you had a chance to look around?” Tom asked.

Bob shook his head.

“No, I just got here and my engine died on me.”

The preacher walked over to the truck.

"Bad luck, that," he said. "If you need, Frank can give you a ride back into town. After he shows you the cows."

“Mr. Pulaski, can I be honest with you?”

Tom chuckled, amused.

“By all means.”

“Nadine.” He shrugged. “She’s a good lady, but with the troubles with Jimmy…”

“Ah, yes,” the preacher said thoughtfully. “It was a terrible tragedy. So young.”

“I think I’ve seen as much as I need to.” He retrieved the simple agreement from his back pocket, handed it over to Frank. It was all laid out. “You can look at it when you want, bring it with you after you drop off our first order.”

“Oh, no,” Tom said. “It’s a matter of faith –good faith. You have faith that my cousin can deliver what he says. It’s very admirable. We must return that trust. Frank, go fetch some of your cows.”

Frank shrugged then started off toward the field.

“While he brings you his stock,” the preacher said. “Can I show you something else?” He looked up in the sky, seemingly for inspiration. “I'll show you where we process everything. We do everything out back, in the cellar, but it's very clean."

These were very dangerous men. He knew that, but he was a good head taller than the preacher and easily a hundred pounds heavier. Frank was just an old farmer, but he plodded slow and stiffly. Bob wasn't a young man by any stretch of the imagination, but he could handle himself. He could do that even before he did fourteen years in Moundsville.

"I'd like to see that," he told him. "Cleanliness is next to Godliness. That's what they say, right?"

"Yes," the preacher beamed. "That's exactly what they say."

Anything to keep them from the house. Anything to keep them from the truck and from Kathy. Anything to keep them busy and waiting until the police arrived. If the crazy pastor tried anything, he'd stick him with the screwdriver.

He followed Tom around back. He led him down the steps, then pushed the door and ushered him in.

“Watch your step.”

Light streamed in from narrow, green glass windows, casting a murky glow. Weird symbols were painted on the panes, meaningless to him, but they inked bizarre shadows on the debris-strewn floor. The whole place smelled of rot and sickness.

Bob coughed from the stench and reached for the screwdriver.

“What have you got down here?”

“Just what the girl didn’t show you.” Tom said. "You forgot to put the bar back on the barn door."

Tom next to him, but waited. He wanted him to see this. It was a underground compost heap, a nest of broken furniture and garbage. Illuminated by the filtered light, covered in corruption and dirt, a pile of puzzling shapes he did not recognize. Among them, something small stared back through the hollow sockets of doll-sized skulls.

"Oh, Jesus," he whispered.

Something under the trash moved. He saw its sleek, iridescent flesh slither under the rags. Its painted scales flashed in the swamp light. He heard its belly scrape against the dirt and rustle amidst the refuse, then watched in terrible awe as the thing lifted its head to look at him.

"Behold, the wisdom of the serpent," Pulaski said.

Bob could not turn away. The great snake looked into him. It gazed, not like a hungry animal, but with inhuman contempt. Tom gripped the screwdriver and slipped it out.

“There, there,” Tom said and clapped a cold hand on Bob’s shoulder. “Don’t struggle. There is so much more to show you.”

The snake edged toward him, glaring, but the preacher’s grip held him firm. Bob could not move away. He swung at the preacher and felt the sharp point sink into flesh, but the man only laughed.

With a cold hiss, the snake raised up, bared its long fangs and plunged into Bob's shoulder. It was over quick, but the pain was exquisite. Oily, black poison oozed from the wound, taking with it all of his resistance. His fingers loosened. The screwdriver clanked to the cement floor. The room teetered and Bob fell to meet it.

He woke up a day later in Nadine’s house. The sheriff’s deputies, she said, found him lying drunk and passed out in Frank Pulaski’s yard. To celebrate the new business deal, Frank had cracked open a bottle of his best homebrew. There was nothing wrong with the spirit, Frank said. He’d had a glass himself, but Bob had shown no restraint. He’d swallowed half a bottle and gone crazy.

“You shouldn’t have been drinking,” Nadine told him. “You nearly scared me with that call. I didn’t know what to think.”

He was just drunk so the deputies brought him to Nadine. Nadine felt responsible for sending him up on the errand in the first place. She remembered Bob had tried to talk her out of it. She should have known better so she agreed to keep him until he sobered up.

“What about the girl?” Bob asked and winced. His head and neck hurt something fierce.

Nadine said there hadn’t been a girl. It had just been the two of them, unless he thought old Frank was a girl.

Bob could barely remember anything. The whole day seemed a blur, like a strange and frightening dream that clung to him.

Mr. Pulaski was very understanding about the whole thing. A small farmer had to take whatever business he could get.

“Lucky for us,” she said. “He’s got mouths to feed.”