Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Cancer Man Christmas Future

She had to get a surgical mask before she could leave her apartment. The week before Kathy had taken the bus out, picked up a bug and spent part of the week before Christmas in the hospital. It was nothing personal, but she didn't want to do that again for New Year's --and besides, she'd ridden in my car. It's pretty awful.

Kathy looked good, but was in a bad way. Good people having a bad time will often talk about others who somehow have it worse. That would be a tall order in this case. A few months ago, they lopped off a breast. She's on her second round of Chemo and they want to try her on some experimental drugs.

Dying of Cancer is hard all the way down and that is what she's doing. I can't say how it is with other cancer patient drivers, but all of my patients have died. This makes particularly miserable sense. Almost all the people I've helped have been either isolated or dirt poor and isolated. They don't have much of a support system except the wavering kindness of their church, if they have one. If they had community or family, they wouldn't need to ask for a stranger to get them where they needed to go.

The more alone you are in the world, the harder it is to stay in the world. There's nobody to hold on to and nobody to hold you back.

We talked all the way up and back. It was a short ride. Her son was home for Christmas. He had problems dealing with her diagnosis and acted out, she said. Juvenile authorities had placed him in a facility to help him get his head together. He was 14 or 15 and sleeping on the couch when we left for the doctor's office.

"He's got to go back first of the year," she said. "I'm hoping he'll be back in March, but he's got to make his goals."

She told me a lady she used to work for called her. Kathy used to sit with the woman's father as he slowly disappeared into the murky death that is Alzheimer's. The woman is of some means, owns buildings and has a 30 year-old daughter addicted to Meth.

"They got her doing rehab," Kathy said. "But she's still looking at doing two years in prison."

It doesn't sound like a first time offense.

The woman called Kathy because she said her daughter needed a friend. Kathy thought it sounded like she was trying to get a babysitter.

She shook her head.

"I told her she could call and talk, but I didn't want her coming over to see me. I don't need that, not right now."

There's Meth all over and maybe people who use Meth would also like her pain pills, she thinks. Kathy is terrified of drug dealers and drug users, even though a town cop lives in the same apartment complex. The police cruiser in the parking lot is hard to miss, but Kathy doesn't feel safe. She worries about having to be on the street, about walking to the pharmacy and back to get her pills. Every noise behind her is a guy with a knife, a stick or a gun.

She has to walk now, has to take the bus if she wants to go anywhere beyond the end of the street. Her husband, who is in a training program, served her with divorce papers as an early Christmas present.

"He told me I was half the woman he married," she said. "If he thinks that, I don't need him."

She's right, but she needs somebody.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Vic Chesnutt

Vic Chesnutt died the other day, an apparent suicide. I interviewed the singer/songwriter a few months back, when he appeared on Mountain Stage. He wasn't who I wanted. I wanted Neko Case, but she wasn't talking to the likes of me.

Chesnutt was my clutch, a last minute choice. I fired off an e-mail through his website and was startled when he e-mailed back.

In most cases, nationally known musicians don't do their own e-mail. Even the indie guys like Chesnutt don't do their own e-mail. Somebody else takes care of the calls, the websites and the scheduling. On the lower levels of the game, duties like that are handed off to managers or agents. Higher up, they get web managers, publicists and all kinds of fatty, protective layers who keep the artist snugly secure.

Chesnutt had no layers protecting him. He fired back an e-mail within an hour or so of me sending it. He gave me his home number (another sort of rarity), but told me to speak up and identify myself. He screened his calls.

It was kind of a novelty and maybe speaks to the situation he was in.

Chesnutt was broke. According to reports, he was deeply in debt for medical treatments, many of them linked to a car accident he was involved in when he was still a teenager.

I only got about ten minutes with him over the phone. Our interview sucked. He struck me as lonely and bitter, but smart. We just didn't really gel. Conversation was forced. He was guarded and we couldn't seem to find enough common ground to make it interesting. We couldn't even really talk about his latest project. The album I'd been given was his last album, not his latest. We didn't have a point of reference.

It was just a mess. He deserved better than he got. I just didn't ask the right questions.

Chesnutt seemed like a good guy, someone who deserved better than the hand he was dealt, but who just got tired of trying to play and finally just threw out.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Remembering snow

I spent the night in a radio station for the first time in about fifteen years the other night. The roads were icy. The ride in to work was a bob sled straight to hell. I took it slowly, creeping in at just barely above five miles an hour. I had little interest in spending the night on the bottom of the river.

Sleeping at the station wasn't so bad. They had a couch and there was a little food left over from the company Christmas party. Compared to the drafty old building where I spent my first overnight at, this was heaven.

Fifteen years ago, I had a lousy job at a low-watt talk radio station in Beckley owned by a small mining company. The owner, Hugh Caperton, was seldom around, but you couldn't blame him. He bought the building because it had a good location, not because the building was any great shakes. The place was a slum haunted by rats, real railroad-hopping hobos and the occasional paint-huffing addict. The previous owner kept a sawed off shotgun in his office, which he'd supposedly used to fire at vagrants he saw fiddling with his car one afternoon.

The new guy didn't have a gun, but he didn't come in as much and never stayed after dark.

One night, before I was supposed to go in for my Saturday morning shift, I got word about an ugly storm coming in. By the time I left from Athens to get to Beckley in the morning, heavy snow was falling and had crusted the roads. I knew before I hit the interstate I wouldn't be driving home. I just didn't know how long I was staying.

Before noon, warnings were issued that motorists should just stay home. Accident reports were coming in. The weather was getting worse and just when I was settling into the idea that I was going to be sticking around until at least the following morning, the guy for the second half of Saturday came in. His name was Chris and I didn't much like him.

Chris was an asshole: judgmental, small-minded and a little holier-than-thou. He was hard to be around, made all of us uncomfortable with either his indifferent hygiene or the bizarre things that went through his head. Chris liked to regale us with droning stories about the aircraft he admired, the new ham radio set he installed in his vintage piece of shit station wagon and occasionally, very dangerous ideas about politics.

Chris was a fascist, which fit in pretty well with the talk station format. He was also extremely religious, which didn't fit in at all with the collection of drunks, porn addicts and outright super villains who patrolled the halls from nine to five every weekday. He'd have been fired for just being plain unpleasant if not for two factors: He worked the shifts nobody else wanted and his father was the station engineer.

Chris got to the station early that day, about an hour before he was scheduled and immediately, we both agreed neither of us could drive anywhere. Since I was still on the clock, he offered to run down the street to the local convenience store to get supplies. I handed him a few bucks, told him to pick up food and a pack of cigarettes. If we were going to be stuck, we should be stocked.

He came back with a loaf of white bread, a two-liter of Mountain Dew, a giant bag of peanut M&Ms and a package of lunch meat.

I was a vegetarian, which everyone knew, and I even mentioned to him before he left. He also refused to buy the cigarettes, though I'd specifically asked for them and he'd said nothing about not buying them. Instead, he'd blown the money on the kind of party crap you'd find at a sleepover for young Methodists then come back to tell me he didn't think I should smoke.

By the time I was officially off the shift, the store had closed and the wind was starting to pick up. There was nowhere to go. So, I did three days and two nights in a drafty building with a cabinet full of Halloween goodies, no smokes and Mr. Personality to keep me company.

It was a long, fucking weekend. Chris followed me around. Wherever I was, he had to be. If I made coffee, he stood in the doorway and watched. If I went down the hall to the studio to read the weather or (ha!) play a commercial, he took a seat and stared. Even after we switched to the overnight and had a little time to sleep, he followed me to my office. I slept in my chair, behind my cheap desk. He slept on the floor.

This went on for two more days.

You'd think two people trapped in the same place, half freezing to death, and just trying to do a job might bond in the face of adversity. They might share some stories, get to know each other, maybe become friends. Honestly, I don't remember what we talked about. I remember being sick on sugar and caffeine, feeling like hell from nicotine cravings and hoping none of the junkies living in the basement or sub-basement would get smart enough to find their way up to the ground floor. I remember also thinking that if they did, I'd give them Chris then make a run for it.

It was a weird weekend. Some of the black preachers who did their shows on Sunday morning couldn't make it in. They called in and told me to play records and also to announce plans for bus rides to the Million Man march in Washington. Eventually, I started to lose my voice and had to gargle warm water right before I went on the air just to croak out the weather reports.

Monday afternoon, the roads started to clear and the engineer showed up. He and his other sons dug my car out of a snow drift and sent me on my way. I went home, ate like a pig and slept hard.

The radio job eventually ran its course. A few months later, Caperton went into a licensing agreement with another radio station and they more or less fired us all. I was the last of the on-air guys. The engineer kept me on as long as he could because I had a family to support.

I saw only a couple of the people I worked with at the radio station ever again. I bumped into the receptionist at an adult bookstore a few years later. She tried to sell me a dildo, but really I just wanted to get a cheap bong. I was newly single. Getting high seemed like something I should consider doing, though I never got around to it.

Chris, however, was a different story.

Years later, an investigator for the human resources department of the FBI was in the wrong place, but looking for Shane, the owner of the radio station that had taken control of my station. The investigator explained he was following up on a background investigation. An applicant named Chris had cited Shane as a reference. I surprised the guy when I knew Chris's last name.

"So, what do you know about him?" He asked me. "Is he responsible? Dependable? Would you consider him to be trustworthy?"

I laughed and told him the story about being stuck with Chris at the radio station. I told the investigator I thought he was very responsible, very dependable and one of the most moral men I'd known at the time.

"But," I added. "He's a dick. He's a self-righteous prick and he's dull, like watching paint dry dull."

The investigator thought I was pretty funny, though he said whether Chris was a jerk or not wasn't really important in his investigation. All they wanted to know is whether he could be trusted to handle sensitive information.

I said he could handle that, then asked if my name would be used in his report, if it would get back to Chris. He laughed and assured me it would not.

"Too bad," I said.

Monday, December 14, 2009


By my reckoning, I'm finishing 2009 on a positive. I did get to the gym. I did lose weight. I wrote my grandmother something like 25 or 30 letters. I breezed through and even managed to not completely flip out on my birthday.

So, I didn't get published. I did get a nice collection of rejection slips and I'm still working on my book. One of these days... I'll make it. None of my short stories made it either, but it's a pretty tricky sort of business with those. Short story publications are very rare to begin with and mine kinda sucked, I guess. When I make them suck less, somebody might want them.

I didn't make my goal weight by Christmas. So Project Captain America by Christmas gets shortened to Project Captain America. We do this until we get it done, then I'll have that stupid tattoo. I'm doing my part. I have a new gym workout and a new eating plan (not a diet. Those don't work).

Meanwhile, I'm working on what I'd like to accomplish in 2010. As usual, getting a book published and another one written are high on the list. Finishing the things I started this year would be nice, but I'm also taking suggestions for new things I've never tried. Already, a few people have suggested ideas like trying to do stand-up comedy or entering a toughman contest. Both have their charms. I've never been beaten senseless or boxed.

What could be fun is if I came up with a sizable list --a sort of bucket list-- then sort of chronicled my misadventures. Who knows? A plot and some kind of point to the thing might evolve. I could turn it into something. Crazier things have happened to other people. At the very least, it would make for some good blog fodder.

Feel free to contribute your ideas. They can't be any worse than mine --actually, mine are pretty bad. So, really, think about it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Ten Years After

A few props to Donutbuzz for making me think of looking back.

Ten years ago, I was recently divorced, broke and trying to come up with a little Christmas money by working part-time at a telemarketing firm --one of the most evil jobs I've ever held. I was living with a couple of friends who took me in when I no longer had a place to live.

It was a pretty grim season.

By then, I hated the assorted parts of my life. My job was wearing me down. I was emotionally involved with someone who was not emotionally involved with me, and I was trying to figure out who I was in the context of having become single again, but still being a father.

I was a mess, and this was pretty close to the bottom.

A year and a half later, I met the woman I'd eventually marry. A year and a half after that I start writing again after an absence from print for a decade. Then we moved to Charleston, where everything would change at a seemingly impossible speed. I'd find my way at long last into the writing life, discover Buddhism and become a cat owner. There would be another child, a little boy named Emmett who is both like me and yet so different.

None of these things I foresaw or expected --not really. I never expected to marry again, have more children or write for newspaper. I never expected to like Charleston, even though I'll never stop staring at the highway and wondering where those roads lead.

The last ten years hasn't been easy. It's been a series of struggles and battles for survival and sanity. I still live month to month and hand to mouth. A good day is when there are beans to eat. A great day is when I don't have to eat them. I work as much as ever, but maybe not as hard. I've had a lot of fun, but don't take vacations --or if I do, I screw them up and wind up miserable. Some people are meant to be at rest. I'm not one of them.

I live in a bad house in a good neighborhood. That's an improvement. I've lived in good places in bad neighborhoods and bad places in bad neighborhoods. At least, I have a house. The space I have sucks, but it's separate from the people next door. I don't have to hear the pill heads in the other apartment drown a litter of puppies in the bathtub because the dog they bought with drug money managed to get knocked up by the wrong mutt.

So, here's where I am: Ten years later, I'm a little wiser, a little older and a lot better off in most every way except my checking account. I count all of the people I had as friends ten years ago still friends and I've added to that list. By the reckoning of Clarence, George Bailey's guardian angel, I am a wealthy man, indeed.

I'm a better person than I was ten years ago, happy most of the time and hopeful. I laugh every day. My life might be a little second hand, a little shabby, but it's still pretty good.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

zero, zero, zero

At long last, we come to the end of the list. 100 books in 365 days and I still have over 20 days left. Huzzah, but I'm not doing this again next year. I'll find something else. Whiskey sounds good.

Possible Side Effects: Augusten Burroughs -Consider it a companion piece to "Running With Scissors," this is Burroughs having more fun sort of confessing his failings and foibles while we all laugh. It's not just that Burroughs has a dysfunctional relationship to his family. The entire world has a dysfunctional relationship with him.

Burroughs hates his grandmother (on his mother's side), likes his horribly disfigured skin doctor and would rather sit in his hotel room in London eating junk food and watching television than see the sights. He eats too much, drinks too much (well, not any more --probably) and he chews $600 worth of nicotine gum a month. Yes, he's a mess, but a likable mess --and I have way, way too much in common with him.

I like his apparent honesty. Do I think everything he writes happened just the way it happened? No. Do I particularly care? No, but I admire what I perceive as his truth. I could do better with telling the truth sometimes. In my old age, I've gotten so skittish about speaking my own truths of late, a little afraid to offend, a little bound by a sense of responsibility.

Getting letters from that lawyer didn't help. It still bugs me.

Anyway, Burroughs is someone for me to admire and emulate --perhaps not the blackout drinking or the gay sex or even the piggish eating habits --but writing with less fear.

So, I made it to 100. Thanks to those of you who stuck with me through the book reports, rants and rambles. I'll try to do something less boring next year.


Friday, December 4, 2009

2 and 1

We're down to the next to last books.

Summerland: Michael Chabon --Chabon is sort of hit and miss with me. I loved "Wonderboys" and "The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," but couldn't really find my give a damn about "The Yiddish Policemen's Union." I may give the last another try.

However, I didn't much like Summerland. It was a flabby fantasy tale built around the game of baseball, including elves, giants, magic and a lot of various mythological references. In parts, it read like a story arc in the comic book "Fables." At others, it felt like a lazy knock-off of Stephen King and Peter Straub's "The Talisman."

I read it because I had to, not because I wanted to.

The Rock and The Pebble: Mark Defoe -An extremely brief book of poetry by local poet Mark Defoe and really not all too terrible. I'm not really sure how well his work scans and I miss the beat on a couple of his poems, but I like his use of language. I'm a sucker for a well-turned phrase.

Just one more book to go... Then we turn in the list and get the magic gold card. Yippee.

Monday, November 23, 2009

4 and 3

The Fountainhead: Ayn Rand -First off, I hated Atlas Shrugged. I hated it. I read it because reading it was something I felt like I had to do.

I liked The Fountainhead, maybe not a lot, but enough. From a reader's standpoint, the story had tension and a good plot, even if the characters are basically philosophical points on a intellectual graph pitted against each other in story form. This also means the characters aren't particularly rounded. They tend toward caricature.

Reading this book and also thinking of Atlas Shrugged, I am a little confused by the conservatives who embrace Rand. Rand was against so many of the things they would tend to support. She didn't think much of religion, marriage or what might be termed traditional family values. Tradition was for suckers, but she very much liked free speech, particularly as talking truth to power. She'd have disdained Fox News and been amused and revolted by the tea baggers and birthers, mostly because so many of them are clearly being manipulated.

Rand did seem to have a warped affection for the working class, particularly tradesmen and laborers, which I think she saw as cogs in a working machine. She didn't particularly see them as people, but as necessary parts of the machinery to help raise up the ideas of the truly exceptional. In her books, the wise and righteous know when to shit-can their own aspirations to serve the greater man's idea.

She was very much an elitist, a lover of capitalism, but with a funny view of wealth. She hated taxes, but respected a love of work and creation more than actual money. Money was fine, of course, but in Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, the honest acquisition of money is more of a mark of achievement, a way to validate her point of view. Her heroes are all wealthy people, but scarcely spend it on much except on utility.

So, it's about the money, but it's not about the money for Rand.

I find Rand to be endearingly naive, and she makes some valid points. Is it fair for a working class slob who puts in an honest day's works have to pay more for a less nice place to live than someone on the dole? Should creators of industry be made into villains just because they profit? Isn't a certain amount of selfishness necessary, even admirable? Really, before you can help anybody else, including accidentally improving society, don't you have to take care of numero uno first?

It's all in how you put the question, I guess. Rand turns things to fantastic extremes. The Fountainhead is Lord of the Rings for miscreants and the narcissistic. It is a fable for the selfish, set in the middle earth of unlikely America. The poor are the lazy goblin minions of the soulless, selfless (yes, I mean selfless) liberal intellectuals who mesmerize but produce nothing. The great fight is against their mediocre crusade to make things slightly better for all because in the end it will fuck things up for everyone.

Still, if you take the book as an unusual novel about ideas, not characters, and look at it as a conversation, it's not a bad way to torch a couple of weeks of free time. So, I kind of liked it.

Candy Freak: Steve Almond - Loved this book. Almond is a sugar fiend. He loves his candy and somehow he convinced an editor to let him write about his passion. So, he rambles around the country, visiting fellow candy nuts and regional candy manufacturers, whose products most of us are barely aware of, including the Idaho Spud and the Goo Goo Cluster.

Almond approaches it like a half-assed adventure, full of often odd and funny observations. It's a travel book and a food book and a book about his own connection to confections.

As I am on a diet and have been now for a fucking long time, perhaps reading about candy wasn't the brightest thing to add to my reading list. Still, it was fun and I got a list of things to try... in moderation.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bookstore Days Revisited

I don't go to Books-a-Million any more. Funny. Right after I stopped working there, I stopped going. I think we both needed a clean break. By the time I left, I'd watched a lot of people go through the machine. Most of them left pissed off. You couldn't blame most of them.

I lasted longer than almost everybody. I did about three and a half years, met some great people, made some friends and laughed a lot more than I probably ought to have in a retail job --mostly at the expense of the company. I had a good time moving books on caring for horses and goats into the romance section, occasionally dropping chunks of dry ice into the urinal and generally horsing around with the customers and staff.

Some of these people became friends and still are.

I also helped facilitate the mischief of others. In the men's room, where graffiti grew out like weeds in the cracks, I added to notes left by angry and frustrated men, changed the meaning by tacking on religious references, nonsensical Bible verses and overly earnest statements of love and affection. Sometimes, these incited strange and hilarious graffiti arguments that went on until management sprung for a new coat of paint.

Once, someone tossed a penny in the urinal. Unwilling to fish it out, I picked up a marker and wrote "Wishing Well" above the silver handle. The next day the drain was overflowing with change. Naturally, the thing was bailed out (no idea what they did with the change, but my guess --considering the company --they probably put it into circulation) and the note was painted over.

It didn't stop people from trying to bring back the Wishing Urinal. People have needs, I suppose. Several times, others put the sign back or tossed a coin in the urinal. It was one of my favorite running jokes, next to the old guy who kept stealing newspapers. Management was prohibited by corporate from chasing after him. They begged to do it, but all they were allowed was to glare and watch him leave.

So, the other day, I went back for a visit, to get a cup of coffee and decline the discount card. The store looks better than it ever has. The shelves were clean, organized and in good repair. They don't seem to have an impossible overabundance of home improvement books, children's storybooks or the word of God. Everything is in its right place or at least, a lot closer to its right place than when I worked there.

A lot seemed the same. Employees still quietly drifted toward each other from around the store, looking for some kind of company among the thousands of books. Quietly, with an eye toward the office door, they laughed a little, talked, and tried to be absolutely invisible to paying customers. Nobody was getting paid enough to care too much.

They seemed like the same kind of kids I worked with before I left, just maybe better at their jobs than I was. I kind of hoped they'd get as much out of the old place as I did and I think they will. On my way out, I stopped in at the rest room. A small circle of new copper looked up from a pool of urine.

It made me want to come back again, if not to work, then to just watch.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Return of Cancer Man

The coordinator on the phone joked about why she hadn't called to schedule me to drive a cancer patient.

"You probably thought they came up with a cure, didn't you?" She laughed and I squirmed.

I hadn't driven in ages, at least a year. My last patient was a woman living in a tiny, cramped house that smelled like an open carton of Winstons. She'd looked like she was: a woman dying very slowly and clinging to life with waning interest.

There had been a long time when I thought it would be fine if the Cancer Society didn't call. All of my patients, all three of them, had succumbed. They'd died and all within a month or so after my last visit with them. That kind of thing sort of makes you question the efficacy of modern medicine or makes you feel like the angel of death. I'd taken two of the three hard. I'd gotten to know them some and I'd thought if nobody called me to drive again, I'd be okay with it.

But I took the call and took the assignment.

My new patient is a mother in her early 50s, diagnosed with breast cancer in July. Doctors had already taken her breast. She'd been through her first round of chemo.

"The hardest thing wasn't the surgery, it was shaving my head." Absentmindedly, she touched the ugly, pink cap she wore. "I had to do it," she said. "You have to do it, you know? Your hair is falling out and it's better to just get rid of it than watch it come out in clumps."

She told me she appreciated the ride. Her husband had been out of work for a while and was part of some sort of government training program. The hours were weird.

"He told me he'd ask for the time off." She talked him out of it. "We only got one income coming in right now."

Her youngest son took the diagnosis hard, grew angry and found himself in a juvenile home, where he'd been for most of the fall. She hoped he'd be home for a visit at Thanksgiving. She implied he wouldn't be staying --not yet.

She was glad I was willing to do the driving. Being sick scared off some of her friends and brought a new class of people into her life. During the first round of chemo, one of the women she used to work with at a grocery store stepped up and took her to treatments.

"Then she started asking me if I'd give her whatever pain pills I didn't want."

She decided it was better to take the bus after that, but it left her weak the first time. She couldn't do it a second time, she was sure, not without help.

"If some Samaritan could just walk me across the street," she laughed. "I wouldn't need nothing else."

I told her she didn't have to worry about the bus or waiting in the cold. I'd get her there just fine and be waiting for her when she was done. The car would be warm and I'd get her to her door. She could also keep her pills. I was more of a coffee drinker.

"OK," she said. "You're hired."

Monday, November 16, 2009

Holding steady

No book reviews this week. Because I'm a fucking smarty pants, I decided the best way to ride out my final five in the hundred books in a year thing was to read a couple of giant bricks. I am already rethinking this, but have committed to the first one: Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead." Yes, I supposedly swore off Rand after I slogged through "Atlas Shrugged," but Rand is all the rage again. So, I figured... eh, whatever.

This book is a better. However, if you consider the characters as philosophical positions, you realize they're all partially full of shit, including the hero: Howard Rourke. Still, an engaging read. It's surprisingly addictive.

Anyway, I'm halfway through with that and another book. I'll have the official overview/review next week --unless I'm crippled suddenly and having nothing else to do.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Very, very Old News

I don't remember when I did the Glory Hole story. It was a long, long time ago --could be five or six years back. The whole thing revolved around a woman (alleged) who'd opened up one of these things in Huntington to basically service five or six men anonymously. I'd heard of the practice, though considered it to either be mostly an urban legend. Seriously, the logistics of blowing someone through a hole cut into a wall sounded like too much of a hassle for all but the most devoted of cocksuckers. And really... I just couldn't see it as being really all that attractive (or comfortable) for those electing to receive. That's a lot of trust to invest in a stranger's kindness.

Apparently, however, it was and is something done --mostly, as a novelty in the gay community. In the straight community, women, for some inexplicable reason, aren't into this -- at least, not without receiving a sizable donation.

That's the background. I did the story. I interviewed the purveyor of the glory hole. It was an e-mail interview (and one of the reasons why I learned to detest the format because it leaves out a lot), but for a photo, I took my camera and went to the nearest adult bookstore. It was the big, blocky one in Spencer. I went in, paid like five bucks to go to "the arcade," and very nervously stalked around, looking for booths that were empty. I wanted to just take my picture and get the hell out.

The inside of the place was appropriately awful, dungeon-dark with a maze of cheap and warped booths. Adding to the surreal fun of the place, there were actually a couple of video games inside, propped up in the corners of the room --in case you got bored, I guess. Inside each booth was a half-fried television and a channel change device, where you could switch to one of several different porn channels. They had all the usual flavors: hetero, gay, lesbian, gay, bondage, gay and something involving an entire community theater troupe.

I got the picture, but then argued with myself about whether I should leave right away or if I shouldn't stay. The clerk saw me go in, of course. I had to buy the token from her in the first place. She might judge me.

I didn't stick around, went home and that was it for the story. I did the whole thing to see if I could make the new management at Graffiti squeal --and I'm pretty sure they did. Actually, I remember that part. Oh yeah, they squealed. They didn't run it and later I posted it here before the great purge I did a couple of years back, but otherwise, it's gone.

Anyway, the story or at least the story of me doing the story has circulated for a while. And periodically, somebody will come looking for me to ask about glory holes and maybe how they can find them.

Today, the guy was an older guy, pushing 60 --and not very lucky in love. To my knowledge, he's never married and has only dated sporadically over the roughly ten years I've known him. He's not a bad guy, but he's a guy and he wants to get his swerve on. So, with no real prospects at the moment, he started taking some chances. He got accounts with adult match sites. He went to a swinger's club. He paid 60 bucks as a cover and was essentially ignored by the women and couples in the room, probably because he's a 60 year-old guy who looks his age and wears it awkwardly.

Somehow, word about my knowledge of glory holes got to him. So, we talked about what was going on with him, what he was doing to improve the situation and how it wasn't working. I couldn't give him much advice. I listened and nodded, told him it was a lousy thing for him, but no, I didn't know where there was an active glory hole.

In a situation like that, there is no giving good advice. He wasn't looking for love or an actual relationship. He was looking to get laid, which as most of us know by now, is a separate article. If you get into a relationship (i.e. get married), you aren't guaranteed sex and sometimes, the relationships available to you aren't worth the agony to maybe get the sex.

Of course, the problem is sex with few strings is less likely for people who aren't especially good looking and charming or have one of the great equalizing traits like money or the complete Star Trek the Next Generation series on DVD. In the old-old days, I had friends who could pull off the casual sex thing effortlessly. It was like being good at parallel parking. Most of them had good looks, a certain amount of charisma and money to throw around (which was funny, since they were also terrible about spending any of it on the girl). However, for the majority of men I know, casual sex was and probably is mostly an urban legend.

It could also be I tend to run with a pack of losers or well-meaning liars.

Still, I tried to be helpful, suggested he could check the personals. Maybe Craigslist would have something for people wanting to pair up temporarily. He left disappointed. I gave him nothing he hadn't thought of before.

I felt a little sick about the whole thing. I am a sucker for weird and uncomfortable stories. I never look away. I can't. Beneath the man's hunger is a need to just be touched by someone, to feel physical contact with another human being. It's something most of us crave and it hurts when all we get is rejection, when others shudder at the look of us. Still, to me, the great sadness is his desperation and disappointment. He's cast aside the idea that another person ought to care about him and has settled for seeking a meager, impersonal release.

It's a terminal kind of hopelessness.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Old News

I don't take my job too seriously. I'm a writer before I'm a journalist. I'm here to learn, not so much about the world, but how to tell a story well. So, I look for stories I think I can tell and stories I'd like to try to tell.

I'm often surprised at what takes off and what doesn't. I expected to get all kinds of hits and action over my Kanawha Players piece. Got virtually nothing. I didn't expect much of anything over the calendar girl story, but then the comments section went through the roof and Melissa Ann got kicked hard. I feel bad about that, not bad that I wrote the story or bad that people read it, but bad that people set upon her like a pack of wolves over a bag of pork rinds.

Eventually, the comments were shut down.

I was attracted to the story because I thought it was kind of neat someone in their 40s would do a swimsuit calendar. No, I don't think she's precisely your average housewife. She lives in an upscale neighborhood, though she could probably use some work on her house. I noticed water damage on the ceiling. It probably needs a new roof.

She's a former beauty pageant contestant and winner. She's also modeled and, from what I understand, is married to a plastic surgeon.

Some of the commenters thought she'd had surgery, had botox, had something. Maybe she did, maybe she didn't. Maybe it doesn't even matter --not these days. It wasn't really important. Sure, anybody can have plastic surgery and theoretically get the perfect body (though actual miles may vary), but not everybody would want to put the results up on somebody's wall.

It really didn't matter. The aesthetics of the calendar don't matter --except maybe as a discussion related to feminism, body issues, societal expectations and female objectification --things I sound like a moron talking about.

What mattered to me was 20 years ago, she was a model and a pageant contestant. For one reason or another, she got out of it. It's a little brave to give it another try when you're middle-aged, have kids and live in an out of the way place like Charleston.

Some would say and probably did say she should have just focused on being a mom --as if having children negates every other hope or wish in someone's life. She had the three kids and maybe doing this wasn't so good for them. I tend to doubt it has any lasting impact or has no more impact than the usual ways parents routinely traumatize their children when they choose to pursue something that has nothing to do with being a parent, like playing tuba in a community brass band (particularly mortifying if you're a Goth kid), joining a belly dancing troupe (oh, recital night would be like hell) or deciding to devote 40 hours a week writing a novel (kids, I'm sorry, but this may pay for junior college and won't that be sweet?).

I don't really know what kind of a person she really is. You don't always get that after sitting with them in their living room. Sometimes you do. Other than the calendar, she seemed pretty normal.

Did she want attention? Yep. Is that a bad thing? Nope. Is she a good person? Hard to say. I didn't do a lengthy character study where I went through her diaries and checked her tax returns. This wasn't about stripping her history for the masses to gawk at. She committed no crime and had not put herself up as a paragon of morality or an example of absolute coolness. It was a people piece, not an investigation.

My whole story was really about why she wanted to put a picture of herself on someone's wall for sixteen months. And you know why she wanted to do that?

Because she could. Because it was possible. Because she had the resources, one way or another, to pull it off --and she did. The calendar got made. She's selling it. Somebody is probably buying it. And from my standpoint, she did no harm. Do I think it's all about self-esteem? Not really, but here's the thing... If she can hold her head up after the kind of ass kicking she got in the comments section of the paper (and the little bit of ridicule she's probably taking on the street), you know, she might really have something to say about the subject.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Yeah, I've been slacking. How many times have I said that? A bunch, but I'm down to the last five books.

Love Comes First: Erica Jong -If I based whether I'd read a novelist by her poetry, I'd give the novelist Jong a pass. Full of dull Greek mythological references, this is poetry meant to impress. Why yes, she is very learned and has an appropriate respect for guys like Shelly and Byron, but this is crap only a masochist would read for fun. I was hoping for sexy, for sensual, I got horse shit. Maybe her novels are better. They'd pretty much have to be.

Naked In Dangerous Places: Cash Peters -A funny and insightful book about travel television (if not exactly travel0. Peters was the host of "Washed Up," a travel show about an unprepared guy who washes up alone in some odd location and sort of explores, gets to know the indigenous culture and finds his way. It's kind of like "Man Vs Wild," without the drinking urine through the corpse of a snake bit.

Of course, it's reality television, so it's not very real. The basic premise is impossible with a camera crew following him. Peters is unsuited to the job and the show is eventually canceled, but the book turned out pretty well.

Thank-you and You're Welcome: Kanye West -If you can imagine idiot pop stars as philosophers, Kanye West is hip-hop's Nietzsche. With a tiny (and often large print) book, the rapper gives out his maxims for surviving and thriving in today's world. As far as thought-provoking material, it is just slightly below the wise words of Jar-Jar Binks from Star Wars, Episode I, but just above what my (probably) brain-addled cat might write if I taught him to type.

Amusing for all the wrong reasons, it's like a 50 page tract for the church of stupid and as an added bonus, Kanye actually brought on a co-writer. It's hard to believe with statements like, "Believe in your flyness... conquer your shyness" he needed someone to help him flesh out his thoughts.

He might be laughing all the way to the bank on this, but somehow, I doubt it.

Not That You Asked: Steve Almond -A collection of essays and biographical pieces ranging from his love of Vonnegut to becoming a punching bag for right wing pundits over his decision to resign from his teaching post in protest over Condoleeza Rice speaking at Columbia University's Commencement. Generally, a good time. I plan to pick up his book "Candyfreak," on my next visit to the library.

Monday, November 9, 2009


I've always been a little behind with new technology. I was one of the last people my age to get an e-mail address. I didn't get a cell phone until late and had to be prodded and pushed into blogging, Myspace and Facebook.

In truth, I've spent a lot of time on Facebook lately. It's been a real drain on my time. Part of the attraction is the superficial conversations with old friends that seems like you're really connecting, even when you're not. None of it gets into the grit of their lives. It's all status updates and personality quizzes. It's getting points for hiring hitmen or planting flowers. There's not a lot to it and I've had a great time using it as my own personal performance space.

But I think I'm giving it up.

An old friend from high school black listed me. It happened months ago. I only noticed today.

My history with this friend goes back a long ways. She was one of the smartest people I knew and an early encourager of my writing. Officially, she was the second person to ever tell me I should write and the first person to recognize I needed to.

We had a bit of a falling out our senior year. We stopped speaking. She went her way. I went mine and neither of us said anything to the other for fifteen years when I found her e-mail address. I sought her out. I tried to open up the lines of communication and it worked. Back and forth, we caught up some. We both talked about our jobs, our relationships and even our hopes for the future.

Things settled down a lot over time. She was a lot busier than me. She's a scientist, a researcher and a teacher. I'm just a scribbler, an odd jobber.

Everything got quiet between us sometime last winter and it was during those cold, dark months, she decided she didn't want anything to do with me.

The funny thing is I thought she'd just pulled the plug on the internet, on Facebook. It never occurred to me that she'd just pulled the plug on me --not until today, when I happened to notice her name attached to another friend's status update. It was in black and the picture was blocked.

I'd never seen it before and the realization of what she'd done hit me pretty hard. So hard, I didn't think, I just fired off an apology. Me annoying someone with something I've written has been done many times. It has sometimes led to litigation.

I wasn't looking for an explanation. I just wanted her to know I probably didn't mean any harm. She wrote back, told me it had nothing to do with offending her. She thought I'd misrepresented myself and my life. She accused me of being insincere, said she had no idea who I was, said she didn't think it was even possible for her to know because I seem to change depending on who I'm talking to. She didn't know me and maybe she never had.

I could see her point, at least partially. I am a man who blends in with crowds. I get mistaken for cousins, uncles and old friends from the neighborhood. This has been the way of things since I was ten. I have one of those faces, one of those voices. I am one of those people, but I have always believed my friends could see me for who I was, that even if I looked as common as a stone, they'd have some sense of the man I was.

I don't know I believe that right now.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

shock to the system

I've really fallen behind on everything over the last few weeks. There is no explanation. It just sort of happened. My Halloween project is pretty much kaput. I got wrapped up in other things and didn't make time to write.

Plus... sure, I'm going to try for another 50, 000 word pile of crap in November and I still have another nine books to read before the end of this whole hundred books thing. I've been busy.

I wrote a piece on Smith and Pyle that ran this week after I met them at an autograph signing last week. As funny as it sounds, it was my first experience witnessing one of those. Usually, when it comes to that part of entertainment, the actual worship, I skip it. As a viewer and a listener, I like the show. As a writer who sometimes writes about music and entertainment, I prefer the green room, the dressing room, the empty hallway where everybody is just being regular folks.

I like glamor. It's pretty, but it's less fun than what's under it.

The whole thing was eye-opening. I spoke to a lady who brought her daughter down from Pittsburgh to meet Shawnee Smith, one of the stars of the "Saw" movies. The girl, 16, had her stomach tattooed with the lyrics to a song Smith and Pyle recorded on their debut album. I met another woman. She and her boyfriend are big fans, but really came for the signature to document the experience as something special they did together, a kind of adventure.

She was a 39 year-old grandmother and looked ten or fifteen years older than Smith, who is 37. She looked older than me.

It's pretty easy to imagine that whatever the 39 year-old had been through to age her so much was probably more harrowing in its reality than whatever the fantasy on the screen.

There was a father who brought his three teenage sons to see the movie and to get autographs. They were stopped on the way in by the ticket clerk, but went through after he said he was coming in, too. They got a group picture with Smith, making this a family event, and as an extra piece of weird, one of the boys asked Smith to autograph a copy of "SAW" the video game.

She winced. Her smile was forced. Parts of what she was doing there definitely got under her skin. It was a job. It was clearly a job to her only and one she might have been acting part of her way through just to complete.

Oddly enough, I ended up with an autograph. I didn't ask. I don't collect these things and have never approached anyone for one. I'm more trusting of my own memory, which if it fails, won't be able to recall who signed the paper or photograph anyway. They gave it to me. I was there. I was writing about them. It was a gesture of goodwill and a thanks for coming out.

I understand some of what getting an autograph is about, what memorabilia is about. Some of the time, it's about marking a moment in your own history, noting a specific day or hour. Maybe it's to remember when got your first kiss or that first date or maybe it where you were right after or just before you told the old bag to go fuck herself. It can also be for art. Art moves us and maybe you want to remember what that felt like. A trinket can help, whether it's the program from a rock concert, the tickets stub from a gallery or an autograph from an actress in a movie.

It was, however, a little disturbing to think any of these things could be attached to a movie like this.

I guess I can hope that most of the people were there because Shawnee Smith is sort of famous. It was just about seeing a star, even if she's a small star. Smith is a pretty fair actress. I liked her in "The Stand." Seeing famous people, getting close to them for a minute, looking at them, can be hopeful. It shows you they're human, they're people and if they can become beloved by someone and vaguely wealthy, maybe it's not impossible for you.

In the end, I left feeling sad: sad for the teenager with the tattoo, sad for the dad who bonded with his kids over simulated acts of depravity, sad for so many of the people who came through wanting to see what fame looked like close up. I was sad for me because while I'm not the kind of guy who seeks out trinkets, I'm not so different than them.

If anything, I'm a little worse.

So, I took the autograph home then went looking for my family. I hugged them, then I sat behind my computer, wishing, hoping, I'd write something somebody would care about as much as a movie where a woman has a trap strapped to their face set to go off if she didn't kill somebody.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Okay, a bunch to dispatch with. Really, I'm getting behind on a lot of things.

The Naked Buddha: Venerable Adrienne Howler -Spirituality is a hot and cold affair. Sometimes, you're on. Other times, you're off. I've been off more than on lately and so I picked up a short book on Buddhism, just to get my head straightened out. This book is definitely a light read, but a decent overview of what the whole thing is really about --which is simply living in a way that's beneficial to yourself and others. Not a lot of heavy lifting intellectually, but a good introduction to some of the ideas.

The Complete Maus: Art Spiegelman -I wasn't going to include my graphic novel diet in this list. Otherwise, I'd have been done in June. I read a lot of comic books. Maus is one of the rare few that are bigger than the medium they're part of. They story deals with the author and his relationship to his father, as well as his father's recollections about surviving the Holocaust. It's a story of loss and trauma handed down from generation to generation. Really, a moving piece of work.

Reheated Cabbage: Irvine Welsh -I love this guy. A magical bunch of stories about drinking too much, making the wrong choices and using drugs. Welsh is the same guy who wrote "Trainspotting." Not always an easy read. Welsh occasionally writes in a Scottish dialect, which can be hard on those of us used to less colorful language. Still, a lot of fun and occasionally touching.

Running With Scissors: Augusten Burroughs -A funny and tragic biography about growing up OK even when your Dad is a drunk and your mom is a narcissistic asshole who pawns you off on her dodgy shrink and his goofy, dysfunctional family. Incredibly foul at points but sort of uplifting. Makes you look fondly back at the beatings you got as a kid and think, "Well, at least none of that other shit happened to me."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

14, 13

Again, another crazy week, but enough of my bitching. Here are the two books from last week I meant to put up, but didn't.

99 Drams Of Whiskey: The accidental hedonist's quest for the perfect shot and the history of the drink: Kate Hopkins -A fun, if not entirely scholarly look at whiskey, including Irish whiskey, Scotch, Canadian whiskey and Bourbon. Still, a nice read with lots of suggestions for drinks to try and drinks to avoid. She comes down hard on the Canadians, mostly for being unhelpful when it comes to her research, and she's perhaps a little too glowing of Scotch, which admittedly, I hate. I like Irish Whiskey, usually Bushmills and have really developed a taste for Maker's Mark Bourbon -neither of which I drink too often or ever in quantity for fear of devastating entire city blocks.

Human dark with sugar: Brenda Shaughnessy -a very sensual poet who makes me want to drink too much and go into porn. Well, okay, maybe not that, but she definitely writes a lot of words for a certain kind of mood. She's very accessible and does for earthy sensual love what others I read aren't so hot at.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Halloween -part 2

(part 2 -Phantom Limb)

Night in the country was loud. Summer in the country was hot. Dust and unfamiliar flavors hung in the air, captured beneath the canopy of leaf covered branches. Reptiles, lonesome birds and insects frantically called in desperation and terror in the dark, then settled into a black, hidden silence.

Nothing was comfortable and each breath oozed its way out of their mouths like wood smoke.
Drowsy, but dreamless they listened to their aunt in the next room snore, babble and pass gas.

They were used to the heat, but also accustom to the cool comfort of air conditioning. Cecelia only had a fan, a big, cheap box fan, she kept parked during the day next to the open screen door, aimed at her sagging armchair.

“You think it’s hot now,” she laughed when they complained in the morning. “You wait until August. You’ll get used to it.”

None of them believed that.

Cecelia sent them outside.

“Go play,” she said. “I’ll call you back when it’s time for lunch.”

It was too hot to play. Peggy and Jack took the gifts from the preacher, settled under oak trees in the yard and followed Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer down the Mississippi. Amy measured the dirt road, saw where it began at the mailbox then passed her foot. It ran farther, snaked past the house and climbed up the hills.

“You know what’s up that way?” Amy asked.

Jack shrugged. “No idea.”

“You want to go check it out?”

Jack shook his head. He was already committed.

“Why are you reading that?” Amy asked.

Jack didn’t look up.

“It’s something to do.”

“So is figuring out where that road goes.”

“No thanks,” Jack said and went back to his book.

Peggy was at least as unenthusiastic about moving from her spot. They were a matched pair.

“But where does it go?” Amy wanted to know.

“It probably goes to one of the back fields,” Peggy told her. “The farm is pretty big, like a hundred acres. You could get lost if you don’t know where you’re going, which you don’t.”

“Not if I stay on the road.”

“Suit yourself.” The issue was settled.

It wasn’t permission, but good enough. If Cecelia asked, she’d blame her brother and sister. Half an hour down the rain-gutted and rutted road, her leg beagn to bother her. The wound was healed. A mass of scar tissue pressed against the snug cradle of the prosthetic. She’d get used to the uncomfortable pressure. The doctors said she would, but she’d never like it and walking like this under the growing heat of the sun, she was reminded how much she resented the leg, the limp and how she got it.

She needed to rest, let the stump dry out. If she kept walking, the tender skin would break against the smooth plastic, but the grass on either side of the road was high, hiding bugs and burs and wild animals. Amy frowned. Jack or Peggy should have come with her.

On the verge of tears, Amy sat in the middle of the road and unlaced the prosthetic. Miserably, she thought, if some wild animal were to approach, she’d beat it back with her plastic leg.

Just a short rest.

For the comfort of it, she fished the ungainly pocket knife from her jeans and flipped open the blade. Cecelia said she and Peggy could wear jeans on the farm, but to church, to school, to anywhere else, they had to wear skirts and dresses.

“You’ll get used to it,” Cecelia promised.

Everybody was always saying that. You’ll get used to it, but she didn’t want to get used to it. Amy wanted to wear her jeans every day. She wanted to go home. She wanted two real legs and two real parents.

The blade of the cheap knife gleamed in the light. She held it up and watched a sunbeam bounce off its silvery blade.

As she sat there, watching the knife cut the light, with the artificial foot next to her, a scrawny looking boy in a dirty t-shirt pushed through the high grass and stepped out onto the road. He gasped when he saw her. They both gasped.

“Wait,” he said and clutched the sack he held, close to him. “I’m sorry. I didn’t see you there.”
Amy lowered the ridiculous knife to her lap.

“You scared me.”

“I scared you?” He exclaimed. “You just about gave me a heart attack.”

They looked at one another for a moment, then laughed.

“Sorry,” she giggled and he shook his head, grinning.

He was about her age, but funny looking: too thin, underfed and pale under the dirt. His shirt was just a rag, riddled with holes and black stains.

“Why are you sitting in the road?” He asked.

“What are you doing here?” She asked. “This is my aunt’s farm.”

He shrugged. It didn’t seem to occur to him he was anywhere.

“Just passing through,” he repeated.

“Where are you going and what’s in the bag?”

The boy looked out distantly at the wall of weeds surrounding them, looked back at where the grass had spat him out and where he was going. He didn’t seem to know.

“What’s in the bag?” She asked again.

The spell was broken. He shook his head and said, “Nothing.” He opened it for her. The bag was empty.

Amy didn’t know what to make of him. He was acting peculiarly, wouldn’t tell her where he was going and hadn’t volunteered his name.

She sighed then slipped on her leg. He stared, but everybody did.

“Do you mind?”


She rolled her eyes and asked him his name.

He smiled. “Albert. Albert McCoy.”

“Well, Albert McCoy,” she said tightening the leg to her stump, “You going to help me up or not?”

He nodded and pulled her to her feet. Amy stumbled and he caught her in his arms. The knife blade in her hand pointed toward the sky between them. They stood that way for a moment while Amy’s heart pounded.

“Sorry.” He pulled away, embarrassed. “I probably stink.”

She nodded, not that she noticed. She folded the knife and pushed it into her pocket.

“So, what’s supposed to be in the bag?”

He shook his head.

“I don’t think I’m supposed to tell you.”

“What? Is it some kind of secret?”

He laughed. “Oh, nothing like that. I just wouldn’t want to scare you.”

Amy crossed her arms and frowned. She wasn’t frightened of a scrawny little boy holding a beat-up bag.

“Fine,” she said and turned to walk away.


A cold shiver ran up her spine. She stopped and turned around.

“Snakes? Why on earth would you want a bag full of snakes?”

He laughed, then said, “Well, I don’t. I got me a deal with this preacher, from one of them snake handling churches? He said if I brought him thirty snakes, he’d give me sixty dollars.”

Amy shook her head. She knew nonsense when she heard it.

“Oh, you’re full of it.”

Albert shook his head. He was serious.

“No, really. Mr. Cruise from over at Holy Assembly asked me and my brother to bring him snakes for his church. We just got a week to get them, though.”

Amy had never heard of such a thing, but then again the one church she’d been to since she’d come to the farm had been stranger than anything she’d ever seen, what with the shouting and the twitching.

Cecelia had tried to explain to them when the spirit moved some people, they spoke in tongues. Cecelia called it a holy language, a miracle. They spoke in the language of the angels and God. It was a blessing for the whole church to hear it.

“Why would anybody want snakes in a church? That’s crazy.”

The boy didn’t disagree, but this wasn’t about what he believed in.

“I’m really more interested in the money,” he told her. “Times are kind of tight, you know? Sixty dollars is sixty dollars.”

And he was right, of course.

“But isn’t that dangerous, I mean, picking up snakes?”

The boy nodded.

“But I got fast hands.” He frowned. “My brother Randal was supposed to come along, just to hold the bag, but he ran off before I got up.” He was disappointed. “Randal is kind of a chicken. He’s not like us. He’s still little.”

Amy didn’t think she’d be exceptionally brave either. In fact, Randal sounded like the smarter and saner of the two.

Before the boy could suggest she might help him, Amy told him she had to get going. “My aunt will wonder where I am,” she said. “Good luck with your snakes.”

He nodded solemnly and started back into the weeds.

“Hey,” he said suddenly. “What’s your name?”

“Amy,” she told him. “Amy Foster.”

He waved at her and grinned. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”

“Maybe,” she said, hoping.

Amy hiked “home.” Her leg throbbed all the way. His name was Albert McCoy. He talked to her. He said she wasn’t little, not like his brother. He didn’t think she was a kid.

She couldn’t help but smile. Her leg hurt, but she didn’t care.

Jack and Peggy, of course, were still reading, though now they sat under the same tree. She’d only been gone for a little over an hour. It only seemed longer, but Aunt Cecelia hadn’t noticed.

Jack looked up. “You find anything?”

She almost told him, about the boy, about the story of the snakes, but then shook her head.

“I didn’t get too far,” she said. “My leg, you know.”

Her brother looked guilty after she said it.

“I’m sorry,” he told her. “I guess I should have gone with you.” He closed his book and stood. “If you want, I’ll go with you next time.”

She shook her head. “No, that’s okay. It’s probably good for me. The doctors said I have to get used to walking on it.” She looked up and down the road. “I think we’re going to be doing a lot of walking around here.”

Jack frowned and nodded.

“I don’t think I’m going to get used to this place,” he said. “I don’t know if I want to.”

Amy smiled. “Oh, it’s not so bad.”

Friday, October 9, 2009

Halloween-part 1

(Screw it on the other short story. Too much to try and accomplish and I wasn't happy with where it was going. Anyway, here's part one of my Halloween project.)

"Inverted World" 1981

Amy fumed sullenly and stared out the back window. She hadn’t been allowed to bring the Nintendo, the one gift she got for Christmas from her parents she really liked.

“Aunt Cecelia doesn’t have a television?” She’d asked.

“Of course, she has a television,” Mrs. Grayson said. “But why would you even want to bring a video game to a farm? You’ve got a whole farm. The last thing you need is to hole up indoors punching a little button and shooting, what do you call them, meteors?”

“Asteroids,” she corrected, though that wasn’t one of the games she played. “Why can’t I bring my Nintendo?”

“You need fresh air,” Mrs. Grayson said. “You need to move around.”

This was because of her leg. It had been six months since the doctors stood around her bed, shook their heads and told her what no 10 year-old should have to hear.

“I don’t want fresh air,” she said. “I don’t want to move around. I want to go home.”

Her brother Jack looked over at her, then Peggy. They both nodded grimly. Amy needed to shut up. They were traveling light –just their clothes and a few small, personal items. They had a little money, each of them. If she wanted, maybe she could get another Nintendo when they got settled. This had been explained.

Nobody wanted to go through with this, not Amy, not the twins, not even Mrs. Grayson, but their options were limited. It was either Aunt Cecelia in West Virginia or foster care.

Amy sighed and stared at the ceiling while her brother and sister went back to their books. They could read anywhere. Amy didn’t have the patience and besides, reading in the car made her sick. She hated riding in the middle.

“It’s going to be fine,” Mrs. Grayson said.

No one believed that. Fine wasn’t a choice.

They rode all day, from first light until the dark of the night, stopping only for hamburgers and cokes once and to use dirty, dimly lit rest rooms behind gas stations. They drove until the straight roads wound around darkened mountains and the only light ahead shone from Aunt Cecelia’s kitchen window.

“Sorry about the porch light.” She’d waited up for them. “The bulb burned out. Usually, I get Bob to change it for me, but he won’t be here until Sunday.”

No one blamed her. Aunt Cecelia was a gross, fragile woman. She moved with a slow, swaying shuffle. Every step forward was a risk. If she fell, she’d burst.

Amy and the twins barely knew her. She was their mother’s aunt, their grandmother’s younger sister, and a peripheral character in the few stories they’d been told about their mother growing up.

Jack volunteered to fix the light in the morning, before Mrs. Grayson went back to Michigan. She was supposed to stay until Sunday, just to be sure Cecelia could handle three kids, but the social worker seemed to think things were going so well. It wasn’t going to be a problem.

“And when will the checks start coming?” Cecelia asked, a little too eagerly.

“You should start receiving their social security benefits within a couple of weeks,” she told her.
“If you don’t see anything by the end of next month, give me a call.” Mrs. Grayson handed her a card which Aunt Cecelia took guiltily.

“It’s OK,” the social worker told her. “You’re going to need that money before school starts. Raising kids is expensive.”

Mrs. Grayson gave the same card to Jack before she climbed back into her empty Ford.
If there was a problem, they should call. Otherwise, she’d be in touch. She didn’t say how or when, just she’d be in touch.

After the car drove out of sight, the yoke of abandonment settled on their shoulders. Cecelia went back inside to start lunch while the children sat on the porch looking at the road and the tree line beyond it. Finally, Amy slipped off her left leg.

Two weeks before Christmas, a delivery truck ran a stop sign and rammed the side of their car. Elvis Presley was singing “Blue Christmas” on the radio. Amy was in the backseat, sitting in the middle, right where she always sat because each twin demanded a window seat. It saved her life.

The twins weren’t there. Their parents had dropped them off at a party just a few blocks back. Amy hadn’t been invited because she was younger and a burden in middle school social situations.

The driver’s side of the car was caved in. Only Amy knew how bad it really was, what their father looked like after the accident. She never lost consciousness. The other two never had to see.

The delivery truck pushed the car through the intersection and into a tree. Their mother’s head bounced against the window once and her neck snapped. She went quick, at least, and for a minute the truck driver and everyone else gathered around the car thought she might just be stunned.

It was confusing and chaotic. Amy’s leg was caught in a snarl of metal. Everyone was shouting, demanding, soothing, praying. Amy screamed through the noise, bled and begged and watched her parents die.

Amy missed the funeral. The twins had to see that through on their own. Each of them had their own little part of the grief to bear.

Neighbors, friends and a couple of kind teachers gave them places to stay while they finished the school year and the state figured out what to do with them. Jack and Peggy were 12, almost 13. Amy was 11. The only way they could stay together was if someone took them in, a relative. In the end, all they had was Cecelia, a woman they barely knew and her brother Bob.

Cecelia lived on the family farm. It belonged to their grandparents. Bob did not live there, but he helped her take care of the house and drove her around –as his job permitted. He was a fry cook at the Cartersville Tastee Freez.

The children hadn’t been to the farm in a long time, not since their grandmother passed away, and that was years ago. Even then it hadn’t been a working farm since their mother was a teenager. The barn, henhouse and stable were rickety homes for field mice, spiders and ticks listing toward collapse into dust and splinters.

Cecelia warned them to stay close to the house and not to go messing around.

“You’re liable to come upon a snake,” she said.

The house and the acre and a half Bob mowed would have to suffice. The land beyond was wild, unkempt and threatening.

“Y’all just stick close to the house,” she said.

But Aunt Cecelia didn’t want them underfoot. They would need to find ways to amuse themselves, at least until school started in two months. She was far too busy to entertain and they weren’t guests.

The first day alone with their aunt passed quietly. She fed them lunch, then four hours later, dinner. In the evening, they watched Hee-Haw, which none of them had ever seen before. Roy Clark and Buck Owens sang country songs in between jokes too corny to be anything but intentional. Ceclia offered them ice cream, had some herself, then ushered them off to bed when it got dark.

In the dark, in the room the three of them shared, with eyes wide open and staring at the dark ceiling, Peggy sighed and asked, “So, now what?”

“Don’t ask me,” Amy replied smugly. “I wanted to bring the Nintendo.”

Bob showed up in with his truck in the morning to take them to church. He didn’t say much, except for them to sit down low in the back and hold on.

“The road gets a might bumpy.”

Cecelia’s attended services at “The First Assembly Of The Believer” on the other side of Cartersville, a crude, little building painted a rough shade of white. Bob helped them out of the truck, but wouldn’t come in. Cecelia didn’t even ask.

“I’ll wait for y’all out here.” He lit a cigarette and sat behind the wheel while Cecelia pushed them toward the door.

The children’s parents weren’t regular churchgoing people. They’d never been required to bathe and comb and dress so early on a summer day. Weekend worship was pancakes served just
before noon with everyone still in their pajamas.

The church’s sanctuary was small, just twelve narrow wooden pews arranged in a half-moon around the rough wooden pulpit. People were packed on the benches like books in a bookcase, side by side and elbow to elbow. Women in thin, plain dresses fanned themselves with stiff paper fans on sticks. Even with the windows open, a thin sheen of sweat covered most of the congregation before the preacher stepped through the door. They were drenched before he left.

Aunt Cecelia sat them in the front row.

The sermon was like nothing they’d ever seen or heard before. The preacher’s name was Pulaski, Mr. Pulaski. Nobody called him by anything else, at least not to his face.

He wasn’t a big man, didn’t have a deep, booming voice, but listening to him preach was like sitting under a tall tree during a thunderstorm. Pulaski prowled the pulpit. He paced, shouting and admonishing those who’d fallen to get right. God did not hold the hands of the weak and unrighteous. He put their feet to the flame and demanded they repent. Now.

It was spellbinding and terrifying.

All around them, people rocked in their seats. The pews trembled and creaked. Some who’d come to worship spoke out in firece, garbled words. Pulaski pulled them from their seats. He put his hands on them, and like a wolf, threw back his head and joined them in their frightening howl to God.

It was relief when, finally, he blessed the country congregation and bid them wearily to go forth with the love of Jesus in their hearts.

“I want you to meet the preacher,” Cecelia told them, but Amy, with her bum leg, still managed to swim through the teeming masses to find cool air outside.

The twins weren’t as lucky. While Amy slipped under the looming shapes of the adults, Pulaski held the hands of her brother and sister and marveled at the slightly askew mirror image.

“What a blessing. All men are born alone in this world.” He smiled. “Except for twins.”
Amy marched, lunged forward awkardly to the truck, because she could not run. Bob sat where they left him, a pile of cigarette butts on the ground beneath the window.

“Don’t leave out like that,” Bob said. “He’ll know it.”

Amy looked back at the preacher who seemed busy taking in the pleasant adoration of his flock.

“That one you don’t want to take an interest,” Bob told her.

“Is that why you don’t go in?”

Bob coughed, a kind of laugh, then dropped the cigarette onto the ground at Amy’s feet.

“No,” he said. “I done killed a man. There ain’t a half a dozen would want to sit next to me.” He shook his head, considered, then added, “That’s what I tell your Aunt, anyway.”

“Who’d you kill?” She asked and Bob smiled. It was a question nobody asked, but still not a question he had a mind to answer.

Cecelia and the twins came around a short while later. Cecelia scolded her for not being more sociable, for being rude on her first day to church.

“I’m sorry, Aunt Cecelia,” she said. “There were all those people and it was so hot.” Amy sighed darkly. “I don’t like closed in spaces no more.”

Jack and Peggy looked at her funny. They knew she was lying, but neither of them called her on it. Amy knew they wouldn’t.

Cecelia nodded, as if she understood, then put her arm around her grand-neice.

“Well, maybe Wednesday night we can sit next to the door.”

Their uncle took them around town, slowly showing them the sights of where they were going to grow up. He took them over to the middle school, where they’d be attending in the fall. Cartersville Middle School held grades six through eight.

“You’ll be over at the high school next year,” Bob shouted to the twins from the window. “It’s nice. They just built the new building last year.”

Sunday afternoon, there wasn’t much open, not that there was ever much open most of the time. The entire town seemed only slightly larger than their old neighborhood, just a handful of necessary businesses, a post office and generic, granite town building that housed the municipal court, the mayor and sheriff’s office and the town jail.

Bob dropped them off at the drugstore to look at magazines and get candy while he took Cecelia to get their groceries for the week.

“We’ll be back in one hour,” Cecelia said. “You be here or you’re walking home.”
Where were they supposed to go?

The drugstore was busy Sunday afternoon. Every stool and booth at the lunch counter was occupied. Clean, well-groomed locals wandered the aisles looking at nothing in particular; killing time.

“This town needs a movie theater,” Jack said sourly.

“I hope it’s got a library,” Peggy added.

Amy counted the money in her change purse and wondered what she could buy here. Whatever she got would have to last the week. Cecelia had explained she didn’t come into town much, just when Bob brought her.

Jack spent half his money on comic books, while Peggy looked at the Hollywood gossip magazines. Amy stared at a glass case full of pocket knives, then bought a shiny, black camp knife that came with a folded spoon. It was cheap: eight dollars.

“What are you going to do with that?” Peggy asked.

She flipped out the shallow, metal spoon.

“Eat cereal?”

Jack thought it was pretty cool. He promised to share his comic books to look at it: a fair deal.
An hour later, Bob came back with Cecelia and told them to hop in. He took them for chili dogs at the Tastee Freeze, which were a different kind of hotdog than they got up north, but still good. Nadine, the pretty, young woman who ran the place, refused to take Bob’s money.

“It’s on the house,” she said. “Your family is our family, Bob. You kids ever get hungry, you come here.”

When Nadine’s back was turned, Bob told them never to do that. If they wanted a hamburger, he’d pay for it.

“Nadine’s got a kind heart, but she’s got a business to run.”

Bob blushed when he said her name. He was so much older than Nadine. Only Cecelia seemed to miss the bright red heart pinned on her brother’s sleeve.

“I will take care of their feeding,” she corrected.

At the farm, Peggy helped Cecelia with dinner while Amy and Jack played with her new knife.

“What did you think about that church?” Jack asked.

“Don’t like it,” Amy repeated, again. “Don’t want to go ever again.”

“Yeah, but we’re stuck,” Jack said.

Amy nodded, then blurted out, “Bob told me he killed somebody.”

Jack already knew. It was supposed to be a secret.

“Dad told me,” he said. “At Christmas one year, we got a card from him. He threw it away.”

“Who’d he kill?”

Jack didn’t know. He doubted their father knew.

While they were taking turns cutting up sticks and exploring the other functions of the cheap utensil, Peggy found them.

“Cecelia said to tell you not to get dirty. Company is coming for dinner tonight.” She didn’t look particularly happy about it.

“Who?” Amy asked.

Peggy frowned and crossed her arms.

“No.” Jack shook his head. “Please, not him.”

But it was.

“Son of a bitch,” Jack spat.

Mr. Pulaski arrived in a big, black car driven by a giant named Henry.

“Henry won’t be dining with us,” Pulaski told Cecelia. “He has some errands to run, but was kind enough to carry me out here.”

Henry nodded then took his leave without any discussion of when he might be back.

Dinner was a more elaborate spread than anything Amy or the twins were used to. Cecelia cooked for an army most days, but for the preacher the table was loaded down with three meats, half a dozen side dishes and two kinds of pie, plus biscuits and corn bread. A pitcher of iced tea sat precariously on the edge of the table.

“Cecelia,” Pulaski said warmly as they took their seats. “I hope the trouble you went to was mostly on account of the children.”

Cecelia blushed to be acknowledged and also to be called out on the conditions of her hospitality.

He smiled and asked everyone bow their heads while he asked the blessing for the meal. With a quiet “Amen” he picked up a knife and began carving the roast.

“So, tell me about where you’re from,” the preacher asked. “I don’t get to the city very much and haven’t been north in…” He shook his head. “It’s been a while.”

He asked questions and the answers poured out of them. Jack and Peggy told him about school. Jack wanted to play football when he got to high school.

“The Confederates would be lucky to have you,” he laughed. “Big, healthy boy like yourself. You favor offense or defense?”

Jack didn’t know for sure, just that he wanted to play.

“Their daddy played some in high school,” Cecelia added.

“I’ll bet he was a fine sportsman.”

Peggy was interested in science. She liked animals and wanted to study to be a veterinarian one day. Cecelia winced. She understood women worked outside the home, knew plenty who did, but seemed to think doing such a thing was less of a choice and more of necessity.

“Tending to animals is a sacred calling,” the preacher said. “We are directed to watch over them by God, you know?”

Peggy said she didn’t know that. Cecelia piped up, suddenly remembering what the preacher said was true.

“That’s in Genesis, right?”

Pulaski smiled and nodded. Cecelia’s cheeks bloomed pink again.

They talked pleasantly throughout the meal, though he scarcely spoke to Amy or Cecelia. Jack and Peggy did most of the talking. The preacher asked polite questions and responded to the things they said.

“I imagine our country ways are a bit different than what you’re used to,” he said. “Tell me, did your parents bring you to church?”

Jack and Peggy looked at each other, then shook their heads.

“We’ve been to church,” Jack said.

“We go at Christmas,” Peggy elaborated, leaving out the part about how their attendance even then had varied from year to year. “We go at Easter and maybe one or two other times a year.”

“Mom and dad worked,” Amy explained. “Dad worked night shift and weekends sometimes. I guess there wasn’t a lot of time.”

Cecelia looked appalled, but the preacher merely nodded. He seemed almost pleased.

“Part of the trouble with cities,” Pulaski said. “There’s so little time for family, even less time for worship. Well, I guess you’re in luck.”

The thought they were lucky had never crossed their minds.

“What I mean,” he said. “It’s different here. There’s time for family.” He smiled at Cecelia. “There’s time for God.”

After dinner, the preacher asked the children to help their aunt clean up. Peggy could put the food away. Jack scraped the plates while Amy and Cecelia washed them at the sink.

Jack and Peggy finished far sooner, of course. The kept the preacher company on the porch, still talking when Cecelia and Amy came out with a tray of glasses and a pitcher of lemonade.

The big, black car came up the road by the time the preacher finished his last sip.

“Just a second, Henry,” he told the driver. “If you might open the trunk for me.”

Henry, wordlessly, complied.

“I should explain,” Pulaski said. “Henry can speak. I’m afraid he has a bit of a stammer, which troubles him.” He sighed. “We each must bear our burdens the best we can. Henry chooses silence.”

From the depths of the trunk, Pulaski retrieved a pair of books.

“Your aunt tells me the two of you like to read,” he said. “It’s a good habit and lucky again, I happen to have these.” He gave them copies of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. “They’re old books, but good books. I hope you haven’t read them.”

Amy almost spoke up. Cecelia sent the same books at Christmas. It was how the social service people had gotten her address, how they’d discovered the children had a living relative who might take them in.

“Now, I’m sorry,” Pulaski turned to Amy. “I don’t have anything for you this time. Your aunt told me you like video games.” He laughed. “So far, nobody has turned in one. If they do, I’ll make sure we get your cousin Bob to bring his truck.”

The preacher thanked Cecelia for inviting him to her home, said he hoped he’d see everyone in church Wednesday night, then he and the mute driver left.

Cecelia went back inside while they watched him leave.

“Why did you take those books?” Amy asked them. “You already have them.”

Jack shrugged.

“Yeah,” Peggy said. “But we never read them.”

“We just didn’t.” Jack added, uncomfortably.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Halloween Update

I am still running a little behind. The short stories have turned into a novella. I've got the first two parts done, but haven't quite caught up with getting the third short story from last year posted. I needed to make an adjustment.

It's been a busy couple of weeks. If I explained why, it would be more obnoxious than I could stand --but let's just say I've been talking to lots of people.

Anyway, the short story from last year will go up tomorrow (hopefully). And part 1 and 2 of the novella will go up Friday. Part one is called "Inverted World." The second is titled "Phantom Limb." These titles may seem familiar.

Monday, October 5, 2009


There's been a bit of a backlog due to everything else going on. This will be quick and merciless.

Underground: My Life with SDS and Weathermen -Mark Rudd: Rudd was a student radical and a member of the SDS, then the notorious Weathermen, who incited riots, bombed and plotted against the government over a range of issues including civil rights and the Vietnam war. Rudd was a firebrand and a rabble rouse, but kind of a dumb ass domestic terrorist. As he describes them, the Weathermen came off as middle-class kids raging against a machine they didn't understand with crackpot ideas that occasionally meant well.

Rudd went into hiding, came out of hiding to much fanfare then wound up as a professor, where he still believes in progressive ideas, but isn't so much for overthrowing the government. He sort of apologizes for his activities, but also tends to distance himself from the major decision making.

Skinny Bastard: Rory Freedman and Kim Barnoin -What looks like a take no prisoners approach to nutrition and dieting is really a tedious Vegan diatribe about how if you simply give up meat, quit smoking and stop drinking coffee you'll get a hot body which women will paw all over. The authors jettison what the reader wants --which is to be thinner, healthier and more attractive -- to push a suspect agenda. If most women in the English reading world were Vegans, yes, they might have a point. Most are not and the whole idea of converting to munching on tofu and sipping decaf green tea to attract anyone is laughable unless you are already so inclined.

Other than doing your part to save animals from unnecessary suffering and the relentless barrage of descriptions of what you're actually eating, they're comparatively vague on things like exercise or goal setting.

Still, in fairness, I did find some good information and it did make me think about what I eat, but there was a lot of garbage to get through.

My verdict: I shit on this book.

A Good Man Is Hard To Find: Flannery O'Connor -A decent collection of O'Connor's short stories. Very dark and insightful. Also good for the season.

Men, Women and Ghosts -Debora Greger -I never warmed up to this collection of poems. Greger trips through the past to the point of distraction. I tried. I just didn't love it. Somebody else might have better luck.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Halloween Project -last year, part 2

Here is another of the stories from last year. This one deals with the odd goings on at the local Tastee Freez, where Randal and Albert's mother worked.
I'm still setting up for the stories from this year. The first of the new is taking a bit longer than anticipated. It's long and may have to be broken in two parts. I might not have it ready to go until Sunday.

Hamburger (1972)
By Bill Lynch

We were all real sorry about what happened with Bridget. I knew Bridget. She and I worked the counter over at the Tastee Freez here in Cartersville. She was a real good worker, a nice girl, dependable, pleasant. We miss her.

But I guess you lose a child and it changes you. That's what I hear. I've never had any children of my own. James Senior and me tried for years, but he was older and besides he already had a son, Jimmy. He's a sweet boy, as good as my own. That's always how I've seen it.

Jimmy was sweet on Bridget -always had been. She was older than him, had two half-grown babies, and of course, he owns the Tastee Freez, people would talk. They did when I married James Senior, but he didn't care. A little more time and he might have worked up the nerve to ask her out. They’d have made a cute couple.

Bridget just couldn't get over losing her little boy. She took to drinking and sooner or later that stuff will kill you. It's slower, I suppose, if you stick just to whiskey. Bridget switched to gasoline and a quart of that will kill you right off or so I hear. I don't drink.

For the longest time, Jimmy just moped and the Tastee Freez suffered. He wouldn't hire anybody to take Bridget’s place. He couldn't stand the idea of coming in to work without her there.

Of course, Jimmy never loved coming to work at the Tastee Freez in the first place. Jimmy wanted to be a doctor, but then James Senior went and put his car in the creek four years ago. It fell to Jimmy after that. He didn't want to be there and tried to make it easy on him. We all did. I kept an eye on things upstairs, while Jimmy hid down in the basement, reading his books and smoking cigarettes, just like his daddy before him.

It ain't exactly a prison. The Tastee Freez doesn't look like much, but we make money.

People wonder why my husband didn’t leave the store to me. Let me tell you. Second wives get sort of second-class status, but maybe he was thinking of me. When we got married everybody thought I was after his money. He was a good deal older than me, but James Creevy wasn't stupid. He'd have said, “So long” if I was up to something, if I really wanted his money. We were married ten years before he died, and I was a good wife. I didn’t always agree with him, didn’t like some of his friends who came around and stunk up the basement at the Tastee Freez with their cigars, but at least, they didn’t come to the house.

Work is a comfort to me, particularly after James Senior's death. We spent most of our time together here and this little place was a lot more interesting than our big house on the other side of town. Back in the twenties and thirties, James Senior told me, he used to run whiskey out of the basement. He never got caught, though he was smart and got into something a bit safer. There's a lot of room down there. We use it for storage. It's where we keep our coolers. James had a little office down there, which Jimmy took over. Both of them practically lived down there.

Me, I like being where there's light, but every king must have his castle, I suppose.

While the boys stayed in the dungeon, I ran the store. It doesn't take an army to make hotodgs and hamburgers -just a couple of girls and an ex-con everybody calls Fry Cook Bob. James Senior installed a doorbell for us to call him if we needed him, not that he was always much help when he came. Jimmy was some better, but after Bridget died, he wouldn't answer the bell. I had to really bug him to get some help.

“All right, Nadine,” he told me. “I’ll get somebody in.”

We'd have probably been better off if I'd have kept my mouth shut. First, Jimmy hired Claire and Sadie: pretty girls, but useless. Claire was sixteen and had about hundred boyfriends, all looking for a free meal. Sadie was seventeen, but smoked and cussed like a forty year-old trucker.

They both hated me. Every time I went downstairs to fetch another bag of French fries, I swore one them was going to lock the door behind me.

“Oh don’t worry about them,” Jimmy laughed. “I got the key.”

Neither lasted. Good help is hard to find. Luckily, bad help is hard to keep. Claire ran off with one of her redneck boyfriends. Her mama said she'd done it before, but so far had never gotten married any place where her sister's birth certificate was valid I.D.. Claire's mama said she'd be back, then asked if we’d hold her job.

Jimmy, of course, said yes.

Sadie we caught stealing, was stuffing five dollar bills in her pockets when she thought nobody was looking. Jimmy fired her on the spot, but didn't call the sheriff.

Next, we got Jeanie, a doper. She was twenty, out of high school and could work lunch. She also hung out with the Heathens motorcycle club. They came around on the weekends. Sheriff Noble had to break up fights next to the picnic tables. I was glad to see her go. When she stopped showing up for work, the bikers went with her.

Finally, there was Nan. Nan did two years in Alderson for stabbing a man with a broken beer bottle.

"It barely broke the skin," she told me.

I did not take to Nan at first. Jimmy liked her, but up to this point, Jimmy's ability to judge a person's character was a bit suspect, as far as I was concerned. Nan, naturally, was blond and prom-queen pretty, but she was wicked and mean. She had Jimmy's number right off. Nan didn’t mind going down in the basement. She took her time getting back. It wasn't long before she had Jimmy on a leash. He'd do anything for her and would put up with anything.
Nan came and went as she wanted. Sometimes she worked. Mostly, she didn't. It wasn't anything for her to just punch in then go downstairs. She'd punch out at the end of the day. Jimmy gave her money and while I was glad to see he was getting over Bridget, I was worried about who he was replacing her with.

Of course, something like that couldn't last. Nan stopped showing up and I thought she'd moved on to greener pastures or found a hillbilly boyfriend who didn't take kindly to her making time with the boss.

“She’ll be back,” Jimmy promised, but he stopped putting her on the schedule.

Finally, he hired two decent girls: Irma and Kate. They were good workers and nice to be around, not that Jimmy noticed. He stayed in his basement with his books.

The Tastee Freez settled down. We got back to work.

A month later, Sheriff Noble came by asking about Claire, Sadie and Nan. The boy Clarie ran off with, his truck had been found in a deep pond on a farm over in the next county: no sign of Claire or the boy. Sadie had just plain disappeared. Her parents were frantic and then there was Nan.
Nan was on parole. Her parole officer hadn't heard from her since her last day at the Tastee Freez.

“It's looks kind of funny, Jimmy,” the sheriff said and Jimmy agreed. He told him he'd had nothing but bad luck since we'd lost Bridget.

The sheriff was sympathetic, but asked if he they might look around.

“Anything you want, sheriff,” Jimmy said and he took them everywhere, especially the basement. The sheriff spent about an hour downstairs going through boxes and the cooler. The worst he came up with was a dusty jar of whiskey and an old, dog-eared girlie magazine. It had to be his father's; the things a wife has to put up with. The sheriff let Jimmy keep both, then Jimmy treated them to a couple of chili dogs --to go.

“Call me if you hear anything,” Jimmy asked. “I'd kind of like to know.”

Jimmy was rattled. The sheriff might not have noticed, but I did. There was something he wasn't telling.

A couple of hours after the sheriff left, Jimmy came up the basement stairs, screaming his head off and holding his hand. He'd cut off two fingers while slicing onions. Blood was everywhere. Bob had to take him to the hospital.

It seemed very strange, but he was funny about it. He didn't want any of us to clean it up. Jimmy told us to stay out of the basement.

“It’s my fault,” he said. “I’ll clean it up.”

It was his restaurant.

The next day, while he was downstairs mopping up blood and looking for his fingers, Nan turned up. She strolled in right at lunch, looking thin and hollow, like she hadn’t had a bite to eat or a night’s sleep in days.

“Let me speak to Jimmy.” It was all she wanted.

They talked downstairs for a while, then Jimmy called her parole officer, told him she'd taken some time to work out a problem.

"I asked Nan to marry me," he said and the parole officer agreed to cut Nan a break -with some considerations.

It was a small ceremony. Half the town turned out to wish Jimmy luck. The other half just came to rubber neck. Nan looked nice, though white seemed a stretch.

Nan was different now. She was pleasant, polite and a real hard worker. There were no more stories of ten dollar tricks, bar fights or police chases. I got to like her. She was good company.

Of course, a change like that would have a price.

Last Sunday, we closed the store down for annual inventory. Bob got the day off. He was in prison a long time, doesn't like his schedule disrupted, but this was family business. It was just the three of us: Nan and me and Jimmy. As usual, Jimmy was in the basement. I buzzed him because I couldn't find a case of mayonnaise.

After ten minutes, I told Nan I was going to check on her husband.

"What should I do?" She asked.

"Keep counting cups. I'll be back."

But Jimmy wasn’t there. The basement is big but it isn't that big. I was getting to the ridiculous point of checking the inside of the freezer when Jimmy came out of a little square in the the basement floor I'd never seen before.

"Jeez, Nadine," he yelped. "You nearly scared me to death."

"What are you doing?" I asked.

It was a funny moment. He looked down from where he’d come, then told me, "Come here. I want to show you something."

I followed him down long, stone steps that wound down into a mine shaft. Electric lights were strung on thick, black wires and dangled from the beams. The air stank of bad booze, dodgy wiring and rotten hamburger.

“Dad and his friends used to come in and out this way. It goes out to the old quarry, but that’s been flooded for years."

“Bootleggers?” I asked.

“Dad wasn’t a bootlegger.” He kicked a piece of glass gently. "You don't remember this place, do you?"

I looked around. There was nothing to remember.

"Come on." He took my hand and led me further down the tunnel, to an adjoining room. "Watch your feet."

This was a place no light was meant to touch and no eyes were meant to see. It was hidden for a purpose. Nothing good had ever been done here. In the center of the room, a stone table raised out of the floor. A shallow indention ran the length of it. It was just long enough for a man to lay down. The stone was stained and ooze glistened from the bottom.

“I remember when he lost his eye,” Jimmy said. “Nothing worthwhile is ever gained without sacrifice.” He held up his mangled hand. “That's what he told me after I found the magazine.”
Jimmy picked up the dog-eared skin magazine the police had discovered from off the ground and handed it to me. I didn’t even want to touch it.

It was all in black and white, on cheap rough paper that hadn’t faded enough over the years. On the cover, a woman in fishnet stockings, heels and very little else was bent over, as if straightening her hose, but looking back at the camera, smiling.

“Jimmy, I don’t want to see this,” and pushed the magazine back to him.

He sighed, took the magazine, then opened it up to one of the greasy pages.

“Look,” he said.

It was more of the same.

“Just look at her face,” he said. “Look at her face, Nadine.”

An ice cube blossom in my stomach. The hair was different. She had one of those old stiff hairdos the women on television used to wear, like June Cleaver or Donna Reed, but I knew the face.

“That’s not me,” I said. “I would never do anything…”

It was so private. The thought sickened me.

“Of course, it’s not you.” Jimmy took the magazine and put his hand on my shoulder. “Not exactly, anyway.”

James Senior, he explained, had been part of a club, like the elk’s lodge, but more peculiar and very secret. They'd been up to no good. That much Jimmy knew. The police had almost gotten wise to them, but then the quarry flooded. They disbanded --mostly.

"I thought the old man was off his nut." He shook his head. "I mean, the man sold hotdogs and hamburgers.” Jimmy was dumbstruck. "But he showed me."


Jimmy pointed at the stone table.

I looked into the hollow. A brown, bloody crust skimmed the bottom. Tatters of blue fabric decorated with sunflowers poked out from under the scab.

"I'm sorry." He emptied the jug onto the table. "I haven't had time to clean up."

"What did you do?"

"Nothing my father didn't do before me."

Then it all came back. I had been here before. I remember eating the eye. Something was said to me, but in words impossible to repeat, like swears, but also like rules. I was like clay to be molded into whatever shape he dictated, told who I was, what I would be and what I would know. The memory was put aside. I don’t think I would have married James Senior if I’d remembered.

I was the first, but I wasn't the last. She was upstairs counting cups.

"Oh, Jimmy. You killed those girls, didn’t you?"

"It wasn't like that." He kicked a stray pebble to the side. "Not exactly. I was going to make her like Bridget.”

He had a photo album: wedding photos from the newspaper, a page from a high school yearbook. There were snapshots: Bridget in a swimsuit at the beach, another with her boys. “I was going to make her again, but closer to my age, change the color of her eyes, make her a little taller so people wouldn’t think it was really her.” He frowned. “She was the girl I wanted, but then the police.” He groaned. “I had to do something. So, I made her look like Nan."

It was unspeakable.

“I’ve never been good with girls. I wanted someone I knew I could count on, who'd never leave me. I wanted someone beautiful.”

It was tragic.

“Nadine,” he said. “I've known you for more than fifteen years and you look the same as you did when Dad brought you home. You're perfect and you don't get tired. You only sleep because you think you have to and you're strong. You could carry boxes up and down the basement stairs from now until doomsday and never break a sweat."

I have always prided myself on being a hard worker.

I looked at the table. This was where I was born.

"Nadine?" He asked.

"Your daddy," I said. "He killed other women to make me?"

"Well, not exactly," Jimmy admitted. "You need life to do this, the divine spark, but the spell isn't picky. Dad must have collected every stray dog and cat in the county, but I couldn't do that.” He shook his head. “A bunch of cats and dogs turn up missing and we'd never hear the end of it."

He had a point. The new health inspector was a monster.

"What happens now?"

"Nothing," he said. "You, me and Nan are a family." He looked at me. "And I've been thinking. You don't have to answer right now, but we could open a second store over in Red Hook. You could run it for me. How’d that be?"

It was something to think about.

"We better get back," I said. "Nan will be wondering where we went."

He agreed, but added, "There's just one more thing. Don't tell Nan about this. It’s a rule." He looked back at the table. "It was in Dad’s books. He probably wanted to tell you for years, but he couldn’t. He loved you, you know?”

I never doubted. Working with him side by side for ten years, sharing his bed, keeping his home, listening to him, I knew how he felt about me. He told me, but he never had to. It wouldn't have mattered.

“She can never know. It's a rule."

I remembered all the rules. My heart sank.

“Jimmy,” I said. “Nan and I can’t have children. She won’t grow old, but she can’t give you a son either.”

“That wasn’t in Dad’s notes,” he said. “Are you sure?”

I nodded. We weren’t designed to be mothers. We were servants, playthings, slaves...bound to our creators. We could be given the shape of women. We could look like women, act like women, think like women, but were never women. I would never have granbabies.

It was plain to see he hadn't thought any of this through nearly as carefully as was required.

“We should get back,” he said abruptly.

“Okay, Jimmy.”

We walked back up the dry stone steps that led to the basement. There wasn’t much for either of us to say. I reached down and helped him up. He seemed lighter somehow. When we were both clear, he pressed a brick in the wall. The door in the floor disappeared.

He looked around asked me, “Nadine, what'd you come down here for in the first place?"

"You know," I laughed. "I don't remember," then I hit him. I wasn’t upset or anything. It was just what needed to be done. I hit him as hard as I could. If I’d wanted to, I could have explained how he’d voided the contract his father made when he created me. Ownership passed to him in his father’s will, like the Tastee Freez. I could have told him ignorance isn’t just bliss, it’s protection. A made thing must never know it is made. Otherwise, it’s released from its bond. I could have told him, but instead I grabbed him by the collar, picked him up and carried him, squirming, to the top of the steps.

“Nadine,” he whimpered.

“Shhh… Jimmy.” I snapped his neck, then tossed him to the bottom. He laid in an awkward pile next to a case of --mayonnaise. That’s what I needed.

Nan was still counting cups when I opened the door. She’d done this several times since I’d left.

"You were gone a long time," she said.

"I have to call the police," I told her.

She nodded.

"You're going to have to cry a lot," I said. "We both will."

She looked at me innocently.

"Should I start now?" She asked.

"No," I said. "You can wait a while, at least until we get the lids counted, too."