Annual Halloween Story!

Every year since my children were small, I've written a Halloween story for them. Since they're adults now, I'm writing them more for my own amusement. Hope you enjoy this year's effort!

The Visit

 

            Letitia Bally, known as Letty to her family, had achieved a master’s degree in decorative arts, specializing in early nineteenth century, a feat which surprised no one in her family.  They knew she had eccentricities, but she used them well in her graduate studies.  Letty had never looked her age, with her long brown hair tied in braids and a galaxy of freckles bright on her pale cheeks. She wore rose water for her cologne and black lace up shoes that were favored by those who dressed Goth, but which for her looked old-fashioned. Her camisoles she made by hand and added antique lace, and a cameo she’d bought at an antique shop was her only jewelry. It always covered the top button of her blouse, except when it was very hot, and then she’d pin it to her collar. Those who didn’t know her wondered if she was the child bride of a cult leader with twenty teen-aged wives, her clothes were so odd and hemmed to the tops of her ankles.

            Her parents accepted her eccentricities and her, because they loved her, but they worried that she never dated, had never had a beau, and was getting close to thirty. They’d hoped she’d outgrow her antique affectations, and her father promised to but her a convertible Volkswagen Beetle if she’d wear something more modern, like jeans. Didn’t happen. Letty didn’t care about cars, except as the currently acceptable mode of transportation. Secretly, she wished she could take a horse and buggy to work.

            Her one true gift was an ability to spot an antique and where it had been made, with unerring accuracy.  In school, her teachers had remarked among themselves that she seemed to have “the gift.”

            “It’s almost as if she speaks their language,” they muttered, simultaneously envious and proud of their prize pupil.

            At least, her parents consoled each other, she had a job. Much to their surprise, her graduate degree landed her a gig working for a museum in the South. She was tasked to travel the countryside, looking for authentic period pieces that the museum could collect. American decorative arts were hot items in the antiques world, and getting scarcer than hen’s teeth.

“What kind of assurance do you have that you’ll be safe?” Letty’s father wasn’t thrilled with the idea of their only child driving the back roads of the redneck South alone.

“The museum receives hundreds of letters every year, with photos falling from envelopes or attachments to emails, displaying family furniture and pictures that are for sale. Those that look the most promising received a return phone call, and sometimes an appointment is set up for a look-see.” Letty wasn’t worried. At least she wouldn’t be cooped up in an office cubicle.

“I get to give the piece a thorough examination, and if I recommend it, it gets brought to the museum for a final inspection before an offer is made.” Letty was quite proud of her authority, but knew it was justified.

            Her boss said Letty had the “eye.” While he thought her style of dress an affectation, he had to admit she was right 99% of the time when she suggested an offer be made for a piece. The one percent wasn’t a failure of authenticity, but of need. The museum had a narrow focus, and sometimes, while a sideboard or tall chest was especially nice, they already had one a bit nicer or they just didn’t need anything from that region at that time.

            “Well, keep your cell phone handy and don’t stick around anywhere that makes you feel uncomfortable.” Secretly, Letty’s father wanted to go with her, but knew she’d have a fit if he suggested it. For the first time in her life, Letty felt like she fit in and had purpose.

            Staying in cheap motels and eating fast food wasn’t Letty’s idea of heaven, but the museum per diem was pretty paltry, and besides, those were usually the only offerings where Letty was sent, into the middle of nowhere. She pretended her beat-up Toyota was a curricle, the awful hotels a posting house on the way to London, and McDonald’s was the equivalent of pub fare. It was all worth it when she saw the treasures she was sent to assess, and a diamond of the first water, as she put it, was waiting to be rescued from some sad little trailer sitting behind a decrepit barn.

            Today, however, had been a roster of disappointments. Nothing she’d seen had made her drool with joy.  The sun was hot, the car hotter, and she was feeling totally disgusted with the list her boss had given her to check out. The man was an idiot. Never had she seen such junk.

            The next site on her list was one she should have put off to the next day, but she decided to hurry to get everything seen so she could head home sooner rather than later. So she drove on. The letter sent to the museum was in her briefcase, but there’d been no photo of the sideboard. Strangely, the letter was handwritten in pencil on lined school notebook paper, and the handwriting large and loopy, as if a child had written it. But the description of the sideboard was precise, with excellent provenance given, and its history laid out with scholarly precision. Whoever had written the letter, for the signature was illegible, knew exactly what he or she was doing to pique the museum’s curiosity. It was probably a hoax, Letty decided. The perfect end to a perfectly wasted day.

            The summer sun dallied on the hilly horizon as Letty pulled her car into a dirt driveway. Rusted out pickups, both old as the hills, teetered on broken axels beside the front of the two-story house, and broken plastic milk cartons and mangled bicycles added to the sad ambiance of the place. Frowning, Letty wondered if she’d gotten the address right.  A quick check of the return address on the envelope with the letter sent to the museum matched the sad mailbox at the end of the drive. Yep, she’d gotten it right.

            Huge vines draped the bare wooden siding of the house, engulfing the chimney and trailing over windows on the second floor. No one came to the front door, which often happened when she visited the properties set up for her by the museum. She knew a call should have been made, telling the owners generally when to expect her, but she was hurried and not hopeful, so who cared?   

            She didn’t encourage anyone’s hopes that the museum would make an offer, and the general disappointment had depressed her. The unending poverty of this part of Georgia, the trailers with rotting roofs and mongrel dogs guarding the front door, had all melded into such a depressing picture of an America she hadn’t known existed when she was growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. Let someone else crush the fragile dreams of fragile people, she thought as she tapped the car horn to announce her presence.

            She should go. No one came to the door, or from anywhere. Putting the Toyota into reverse, Letty felt the wheels slip. It almost felt as if she’d gotten the car stuck in a snow bank.

            What on earth, she wondered? Getting out, she checked all four tires.  Flat as pancakes.

            Stunned, she sat down behind the wheel and tried to think. She had one spare, and that certainly wasn’t going to do the job. Pulling out her cell phone, she held it aloft at different angles to try to get a signal. Nothing. What next? She drew a blank until she realized the highway ran beside the house, close enough the bushes to the left of it swayed with the breeze as tractor trailers blew by.  She had one option – head down to the highway and hope she could flag down someone who would send a tow truck.

            Sighing, she retrieved her briefcase and began walking down the driveway, not looking forward to the danger of the highway. She knew she shouldn’t, but what else could she do? With no cell phone service and no one at home, she was out of ideas. Striding along with a false sense of bravado, she ran smack dab into an invisible wall, bouncing back so hard she ended up on her backside in the dirt.

            What the. . ? Her nose hurt where it had hit the barrier, and she thought she might have wrenched her knee. Dragging herself upright, she was astounded to see nothing in front of her. Feeling like a fool, she hoisted her briefcase strap to her shoulder, and took a step forward.  This time she stumbled back without landing on her keister. 

            No, no, no, she silently screamed. This couldn’t be happening. What was going on? The highway sounds had grown fainter and now she was aware of someone breathing hard. Harder than she was. Turning slowly, she was shocked to see a small figure on the front porch.

            “Okay, what the hell is happening here?” Letty demanded. “I want to leave.”

            “We thought you’d come to see the sideboard, if you’re Letty Bally.” The voice was deeper than that of a child. “Sorry to have kept you waiting. We were . . . busy.”

            “I did. Come to see the sideboard. Why can’t I leave? What is going on?” Letty forced herself to remain calm. As calm as she could be, given the pickle she was in. Pickle, she realized, being as stupid a description as she could dig up. What kind of trouble was she in? Everything she was experiencing was too far beyond her normal life for her to think logically.

            “Would you like a cup of tea? It will refresh you, I am sure.” The girl gestured to the front door. “We’d love to have you join us.”

            Staring at the figure on the sagging porch, Letty hesitated. She was there for a job, after all. And she was thirsty. Maybe she’d think more clearly after a cup of tea. Obviously, her long, hot, and disappointing day had affected her hold on reality.

            “I’d be pleased,” Letty replied, finding pleasure in the old-fashioned acceptance.

            The figure, dressed, Letty could now see, in a flowered gown with an empire waistline that brushed the ground, disappeared through the front door. Ascending to rickety stairs, Letty hesitated a second before following her inside. What if this was some sort of trap? Then again, what kind of trap could a child set? And she really should see the sideboard.

            Entering the foyer, she felt like Alice dropping through the rabbit hole. Nothing outside the decrepit house hinted at the exquisitely decorated interior. Instantly recognizing the Louis Quatorze chairs and Regency table, Letty tried, unsuccessfully, to keep her jaw from dropping open.

            “Tea is served in the sun room,” the small woman smiled as Letty halted in her tracks. “This way, if you please.”

            She was a woman, Letty realized. Under five feet tall, but a woman for sure. With her hair pulled into a bun on top of her head, stray curls dangling down her cheeks, and a thin linen scarf wrapped around her neckline, she looked as if she’d walked out of an illustration of an 1820s novel. 

            “Ah, I see you’re intrigued by the sideboard.” Without realizing she’d been staring as she was guided through the dining room, Letty had halted in front of the piece she knew she’d been summoned to see. “You’ve arrived in the nick of time. We sent the letter ages ago.”

            “Your description failed to do it justice,” Letty answered, studying every line, every inlay detail, the types of woods used for the inlay, the shape of the legs, every detail she could catalogue in her head belonging to a Charleston master craftsman. “How did you come by it? I know you said it was purchased by the family in Charleston, but I thought it must be in pieces. And how did it get from Charleston to here?”

            “Oh, my, I hope my letter wasn’t misleading. The sideboard was a wedding gift after the Revolution to my great-great-great grandfather upon his marriage to our three times great grandmother. I believe Mr. Edmund was the gift-giver. We have a letter somewhere in which he hopes our relatives will enjoy the sideboard for many years, his best felicitations to a true patriot, et cetera. The letter has always been in the bottom of the silverware drawer, but we decided to keep it with other family papers while Ryman is working on our history. He’s almost done, I’m afraid. We’ve seen neither hide nor hair of him for a twelve month.” She smiled apologetically, and Letty noticed a few missing teeth. “He refuses to leave his room while he’s writing, except for trips to the necessary.” She blushed at her reference to a bodily function.

            “May I ask your name? I couldn’t quite make it out in your letter to the museum. I’m Letty Bally, the museum’s rep, as you know.”

            “My manners are sorely lacking! My stars, how sister will give me a hard time. I’m Genevieve Grayson, and my sister, who is awaiting us in the sun room, is Grace. I will make proper introductions when you can see her.”

            “Can see her?” The words slipped out before Letty could stop them.

            “She’s rather shy. You’ll understand, if she makes an appearance. I was hoping she’d stay after laying out the tea set, but it’s never a given. Even for me to see her.”  Shrugging, Genevieve led the way through a parlor loaded with more antiques, some of them so spectacular Letty wanted to get down on her hands and knees and pull out her magnifying glass.

            “Your family has quite the collection.” Letty tried to play it cool, but she knew her enthusiasm was showing. “Why, may I ask, are you willing to part with the sideboard?”

            They’d reached the sunroom. Tacked onto the house off the side, it was reached through a butler’s pantry that gleamed with sparkling sterling silver tea sets and serving pieces displayed in glass-fronted mahogany cupboards. Ferns hung from the ceiling, while potted plants lined the window sills. Colors from the stained glass window panes rioted against the white-washed walls. Displayed on a wicker table was a rose-painted tea set and silver salvers covered with scones and tiny sandwiches.

            “Grace is quite handy in the kitchen. It’s a good thing she is, or we’d starve. We can’t get kitchen help way out here, not anymore.” Genevieve sighed as she glanced at the chairs flanking the table. “I’m afraid Grace is reluctant to make an appearance. I hope you won’t mind too much.”

            “Your brother never eats with you two?”

            “Oh, no, as I said, not until the family history is complete. That’s why we asked if you’d like to see the sideboard, I mean, your museum, of course. We understand it has the highest standards, and as we’re rather taken with its history, we’d like it to have a home where as many people as possible can enjoy its beauty. Beauty fades if it’s not admired, don’t you find? Like a pretty girl who withers without the watering of compliments.”

            Sinking into the wicker chair to the right of Genevieve’s, Letty didn’t know what to make of such a strange statement. All she could muster was a noncommittal “ummm.”

            Pouring the tea, Genevieve chattered on. “I do get tired of having no one to talk to half the time, but please be assured, dear Miss Bally, that my siblings and I are in complete agreement about the sideboard leaving us. You must save it.”

            Letty let that sink in for a bit. Over the tea cup she’d raised to her lips, taking care not to drink anything, she studied her hostess. Her face, unlined but unnaturally pale, was plain enough to be called homely. Her lips, though thin, could have been helped by lipstick, and her eyes by liner and mascara. After making such a judgment, Letty was embarrassingly aware of her own lack of makeup. She’d never thought it necessary before, but now she wondered how she appeared to others.

            “Scone, Miss Bally?” Genevieve tapped the edge of a silver platter.  “They’re a particular specialty of my sister.”

            “In a moment,” Letty stalled. The colored design of a drooping lily reflected on Genevieve’s chest. “I’d like to know what else you have to authenticate the sideboard. Do you know the name of the maker?”

            “But of course. I have everything in an envelope for you, which I will retrieve from my brother’s room. Now, there’s something else I must explain before our time is up.” Glancing at the stained glass window that was reflecting on her breast, Genevieve frowned.  “Grayson must be closer than I thought to his last sentence. We must hurry.”

            “Why?” The sunroom was growing hotter, and Letty wished she could ask about opening a window, but they seemed to be nailed shut.

            “There’s no easy way to tell you this, so I guess I must just lay it all out. Spill the beans, so to say.”  With a worried glance up at the ceiling, Genevieve cleared her throat as if it hurt her. “I hope Grace is getting ready. Time is shorter than I thought.”

            Letty had no idea what was making Genevieve so nervous, but the woman’s anxiety level was increasing by the second. “What do you mean, time is shorter?”

            Genevieve flinched. “I can’t really explain. Believe me when I say I know this sounds a bit, um, crazy, but we chose you because of your reputation. That you understand the old ways of things that have lived a long and useful life. We asked many pieces of furniture and they all said, to a piece, that you could be trusted.”

            “I’m flattered, but I hardly think furniture can talk.”  She was gathering her briefcase and purse closer, readying herself to jump up and run. This woman was certifiable, Letty was sure of it.

            “But it does. It lives and breathes as much as you and I. With memories, loves, hates, and a desire to live. But all lives come to an end, and that’s true of the sideboard. It won’t survive this ending, but the other pieces in this house will live on, with us, wherever we land in the next few minutes. We’re never sure, but there’s always a place waiting for us.”

            Letty could only stare, digging her nails into her palms to keep from laughing and crying. Why the heck hadn’t she kept on driving this evening? What on earth possessed her to pull into that dirt driveway when she’d seen the house was deserted looking?

            “We only have so many lives to relive, you see, and the sideboard was our first piece. We’re inordinately fond of it, because it’s lived with us all of our lives, of course. We’d like you to save it. Make sure it ends up where it’ll be appreciated and admired. It’s rather vain, you see, because we’ve always told it it’s so special and gorgeous, which it is, you must admit.” Genevieve’s smile was sad and sweet, and Letty found herself almost believing Genevieve believed what she was saying.

            “I don’t see how that’s possible, that furniture, that things, have a soul, have feelings, can live or die. I’m sorry, but I really must be going. Please accept my apologies and give my regards to your brother and sister.” Briefcase tucked under her arm, slinging her purse over her shoulder, Letty rose.

            Then she heard it. A soft murmur of voices, high, low, and in between. At first, she thought they were coming from upstairs, but then she realized it was all over the house, top to bottom. A lone voice stood out from the rest, masculine, rusty-sounding, and definitely excited.

            “Grace, Genevieve, it’s finished! Are you ready? I am! Can’t wait to start the next one!”

            “That’s Grayson,” Genevieve explained, sounding apologetic.  “Just as I feared. How I wish we’d had more time. You’re just as you were described to us, and I know the sideboard will be fine in your hands.”

            “How? I don’t have a company check on me, I need to arrange transport back to the museum for a final appraisal, there’re a ton of steps to take before the museum assumes ownership!”  Pausing in the gilt-flocked wallpapered foyer, Letty took a final glance at Genevieve. 

            Smiling, the tiny woman raised one thin hand and waved. “So lovely meeting you. Don’t forget us, will you? I mean, you never got to meet Grace or Grayson. . .”  Turning her face towards the ceiling, it appeared that Genevieve was listening.  “Yes, I know. You must leave now, Miss Bally. Cherish our dear friend. I do so regret we can’t take it with us, but you will give it a good and loving home. Remember that it likes orange oil now and then!”

            The front door sprang open by itself, and Letty decided to run. Heaven knew what was coming next, but she didn’t think she’d like it.  Racing down the steps, Letty stumbled and tripped at the bottom. Sprawled in the dirt, she looked at the house, half expecting Genevieve to come running after her with a butcher knife in her hand.

            Instead, the kudzu grew and entwined even faster around the house than Letty could believe. Every inch of the claptrap siding sank beneath the vine’s weight. Even so, she could smell smoke. An acrid, thick smoke, which curled from beneath the kudzu like licks of cold air.

Shivering, Letty inched backwards on her fanny, unable to take her eyes from the curls of smoke escaping the green rectangle of house.

            Her car. Could she reach it? Clearly, the house was on fire. Would she be able to get the Toyota to move now? Should she run back inside and try to drag Genevieve out with her? Call 911 for a fire truck? Pausing in her scramble, Letty dumped the contents of her purse on the ground and fumbled for her cell. Even as she opened it, she remembered the lack of cell tower signal in the area, and the reason she hadn’t called ahead about the appointment. Maybe she could find a store or gas station at the next exit off the interstate and call from there. 

            Her mind racing, Letty didn’t notice at first the sideboard at her side. As she struggled to her feet, she grasped its edge to steady herself.

            “What…?” Letty gasped when she realized what she held.

            It was there, beside her. The Charleston sideboard. Patting it with both hands, Letty assured herself she wasn’t dreaming. Gleaming in the setting sun, the sideboard shone with a breathtaking beauty. Even as Letty admired it, she felt something else coming through her hands from the wood beneath them. At first, she thought it was her imagination, but then she realized, she couldn’t get her hands off the furniture.  As if held by a big magnet, her hands tingled, then she felt vibrations running from them, through her whole body. Music. It was a form of music, a song she’d never heard. And it hummed through her with a language she instantly understood.

            Don’t be afraid, it said. They’re just moving on. I am yours now, my time with them is finished.

            Letty couldn’t have screamed if she’d wanted to. Nodding, she accepting the message for what it was, a declaration of truth. “I won’t take you to the museum,” she promised out loud. “Only I will know your story.  Will you tell me the whole thing?”

            It may take a lifetime, the sideboard answered. It will be my honor and privilege. Miss Genevieve gave me instructions on how to carry on, in honesty and truth.

            Nodding, Letty acknowledged the statement. “And I will do the same with you.” 

            Her hands released, Letty knew exactly where to start. She dialed a number she had in her contacts list, for a special transport that specialized in delicate objects. She tried to text a message. After a quick description and directions to the house, Letty hung up.  The message had gone through. Turning from the sideboard, she saw the house was a pile of smoking rubble. The conflagration had consumed every inch in the space of minutes. She’d never have been able to rescue Genevieve or anyone else.

            With one hand resting lightly on the sideboard, she felt its sadness. “I am sorry for your loss,” she murmured. “So many years. But there’s good to come.”

            She didn’t know how she knew that, but she did. Without knowing how or why she came by the knowledge, she was sure she’d have a successful career dealing in antique American decorative arts. Instead of collecting for the museum, she’d find homes for objects that still needed to be loved, to be admired, to be used by living human beings. And her sideboard would be with her through it all, grounding her, keeping her focused on her goals. To make sure these precious objects were loved. She settled into her car to wait. The night passed, but she never felt alone or afraid. The sideboard was there to keep her company.

            As the special transport truck pulled into the driveway the next morning, Letty emailed her resignation letter to the museum. No explanation necessary. She was done collecting furniture to put it in isolation, lonely and unnecessary.

            The transport driver had brought other men to help load, being accustomed to the museum’s requirements. What he wasn’t prepared for were the instructions he received.

            “Deliver to this address.”  Letty handed him a piece of paper. Her parent would be happy to store the sideboard until Letty got her business address up and running. She knew they’d be thrilled at her new adventure. Maybe she’d even start wearing makeup and dressing for success, she chuckled silently as the transport disappeared back to the Interstate highway.

            This time her car was able to leave the smoldering remains of the house with no problem. As Letty merged into highway traffic, she wondered where Genevieve and her siblings ended up with their precious friends, the antiques that had surrounded them.

            The family that had squabbled for years over who was to pay the tax bill on the old family homestead was notified of its fiery destruction. None of them grieved over its loss. They finally agreed to sell the remaining land to a gas station that would erect a huge sign over the interstate to draw in gas-hungry drivers and their cars. One day during excavation for the gas tanks, a silver cake knife, untarnished and intact, would be turned up. The bulldozer operator would take it home to his wife, who was thrilled to own something so beautiful.  She would use it to served their daughter’s seventh birthday cake, and hold on to it for many years to be passed down in the family.  Everyone loved it.

           

           

             

           

           

             

           

           

 

Porches and Books

The two seem to go together, don't they? I have no idea why, but I've been thinking about porches quite a bit lately. My grandmother in Georgia had a screened-in front porch, complete with a swinging love seat on a chain, bouncy chairs with multiple cushions, and an overhead fan that kept the air moving on those still, humid Southern nights. It smelled of the grass mats she used for rugs over the terra cotta tiles. With stacks of old books from her attic and piles of trashy magazines, the wrought iron lamp casting a yellow glow, I read for hours. I never wanted to to bed. My grandmother would hold my insomniac brother's feet in her lap on the swaying love seat, rubbing his toes and singing lullabies to ease him into sleep, and I knew I was where I should be. Porch as protector, entertainer, the center of all that was lovely and loving. I was a lucky girl.

My other grandmother always wanted a back porch. She had a concrete sort-of porch, with steps leading into her pine-tree-filled back yard.  A dedicated gardener, she designed her yard carefully, and with the edict that only those plants that bloomed would suffice. Her grass was lush, the Adirondack chairs uncomfortable, and the cocktail parties usually ended up under the shade of the pines. She never built her porch, and I always felt it was a shame. Then one day, in her early nineties, she tumbled off the concrete block porch (which had no railings) into the flower beds that surrounded it. She was wearing her old high heels, of course. and a dress. And a girdle and stockings. The flowers cushioned her fall beautifully, and she ended up laughing at herself, sprawled in unladylike display, crushing her cherished plants. She tore the knee from her hose, got a bump on her shin, and that was it. No real damage except to the nasturtiums. I realized then that it could have been so much worse if she'd fallen onto a concrete porch floor. Her flowers literally saved her life. She lived several years more, surrounded by beauty and nature, with no screens or walls between her and them. 

To porch, or not to porch? I think I like the idea of both. I read voraciously, every genre, and I could never limit my horizon to one type of book over another. I am my grandmothers' heir in more ways than DNA. 

The Fabric of My Life

I saw a bumper sticker years ago that read "She who dies with the most fabric, wins." I should have had that engraved on my mother's tombstone. She was the queen of fabric scraps, with an attic and closets filled with leftovers from sewing projects.  When I was first married, she pieced a quilt from bits and pieces of clothing she'd sewn for me throughout my childhood, and I remembered each and every garment as I admired the quilt.

I swore, however, that I wouldn't be the one to win the fabric contest. I try valiantly to throw away bits and the odd quarter yard when I'm finished with a project, but it hurts me all the way to the bottom of my heart. Admittedly, I have a few boxes filled with material "too good" to toss. But my real hoarding instincts kick in with the garments. The romper I made for my first child, on which I did a counted cross stitch of her initials.  The Halloween costumes.  The Easter dresses. In fact, I have a hand-smocked dress my grandmother made for my mother in the early 1930s, which my eldest wore in a school play.  My great-aunt's lace dress hangs in a closet, one her mother, my great grandmother, made for her when she was a new bride.  They mean more than clothes to me.  They're part of the women who made, and wore, them.

I was folding clean dish towels last night when I did a doubt-take a one linen number, well-worn and perfect for drying crystal.  No one's name was embroidered on the hem. I need to explain that giving linen dishtowels with one's name embroidered on the hem is a tradition in my family.  When tossing out the remnants of an estate, we NEVER toss a linen dishtowel. Hence, I have a stack embroidered with "Nada," "May," "Gertrude," and "Judy."  And I use them every day, remembering the women behind each towel. We are bound by fabric, needle, and thread.

I need to stitch some new towels with new names.  It's time to carry on the tradition and the memories. 

Whatever Lola Wants

You can see there's a new book if you've looked at the pictures of covers for my books on this site.  WHATEVER LOLA WANTS is finally up on Amazon, and I'm sorry it's taken so long. LOLA is the book I've been protecting for years now, since I just wasn't sure how it would be received. Since it involves some people I have come to love (the main characters as well as their supporting cast), I've been reluctant to submit them to any form of criticism.  LOLA is about a librarian approaching middle age in a small town in Georgia, who is trying to adopt a mixed race child.  Supported by the loving uncles who raised her, both of whom are gay, she thinks all is going well until Lola, the little girl, wants a father to dance with at the father/daughter dance.  From that day on, life spins out of control in the form of NASCAR driver who finds out the hottie he thought was a working girl, isn't; a husband who never got divorce; blackmail; a biological father showing up to assert parental rights; and a woman desperate to protect the child she hasn't yet formally been able to adopt.

Doing what is right for Lola is the hardest decision of all, for all parties involved.  I hope you like it, and that you'll fall in love with everyone in this story, just the way I did.

A new home for this blog

It's been quite a while since I've given this blog the benefit of my not-so-brilliant musings, but now that it's been moved to my web site, I'm feeling invigorated about the whole shebang.  Not terribly interesting, but then again, it's too hot to think interesting thoughts.

I thought I'd start with my to-do list. First of all, thanks to Jessie Gemmer for moving my blog to this site, where I can write my blog directly.  Secondly I'm happy to say WHATEVER LOLA WANTS will be going up soon on Amazon.  Love the new cover, and if I can find time to proof it ONCE MORE, it'll go live soon. (Proof reading is the bane of my existence.)

Next, I hope to update everyone on my sewing efforts. I have no idea what possessed me to want to make a gown from the 1740s, but I'm going at it. Bought some interlining for the corset today, and the lady cutting the fabric asked what I was going to do with it. "Make a corset," I replied very casually. She looked at me for a second, then said "Well, I didn't expect that." Me either. This may be an exercise in futility, but I'll learn something, I hope.

For some reason, I feel the need to mention Frieda Fuzzy Paws, alias Grand ChampionCornish Rex, Flower Power. She's about 15-16 now, and we inherited her upon my brother-in-law's demise. She's lost her looks, I'm sorry to say, and she's mostly deaf and covered with ugly bumps, but after living with us over a year, she's decided she likes us. It must have been quite a shock when she didn't have her beloved papa doting on her every second, feeding her by hand, and letting her lick the ice cream remnants from his bowl.  She lets our other cat, Mina, and Dazy, our beloved mutt, know who is Queen Bee around here, however. Cat people will understand.

Finally, a huge thank-you to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. You are my idol, madam. Don't apologize for speaking the truth about Trump. And may I thank you for your concurring opinion on the topic of clinics providing abortions.  To Sonya Sotomayor, your opinion dissenting to the unequal treatment of minorities during traffic stops was nothing but the truth.  Two strong women with enough life experience outside of a courtroom have made a difference. May they live long and prosper.

 

CREED

We saw CREED last night, and I thoroughly liked it. While the story wasn't earth shattering, it was well written. Small bits of dialogue mattered, and I would see it again just to pay more attention this time around. The fight scenes are amazing, and Michael B. Jordan is a wonderment. While Stallone is getting all the glory for his role (a still sentimental favorite, for sure), it's Jordan who makes the film real. I still remember him in Friday Night Lights, one of my favorite TV series, where he played a high school football star in East Dillon, Texas. Tessa Thompson (hope I have her name right) as the singer with progressive irreversible deafness, was just as good at holding her own against two such powerful male actors. What a surprise - woman love interest who has her own career, her own problems, and isn't afraid to tell the hero to take a hike while she concentrates on her own life.

Go see it while it's still on the big screen, if only for the fight scenes.

What's up?

Evidently, quite a lot if evidenced by my neglect of this blog. Christmas is always a crazy time, but still . . . mea culpa.

Anyhow, I've been reading, especially nonfiction. I finished up Woodward's book on Alexander Butterfield, THE LAST OF THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, and found it to be fascinating.  While the picture of Nixon that emerges is much less than flattering, I wonder why the American people are so quick to put lesser men into office. Is it because the candidates are just clever enough to hide their baser natures until it's too late for the masses to complain.? Or do we look for men who promise to give us what we want? I am totally befuddled by Nixon's ascension to power.  And by the men who hung onto his coattails and ruled by hook or by crook, as he so desired. The sheer ugliness of the man's personality is scary, yet his "men" would never have dreamt of saying no to him. Must admit, I keep seeing Trump in my head when I was reading about Nixon.

I am into ONE SECOND AFTER, which deals with the chaos that ensues after an EMP destroys the electrical grid on the East coast. Electromagnetic Pulse, in other words, an electronics-destroying event that will leave us in the dark and without communication. Though this book is fiction, it's scary enough to be real. I am going to be ready, especially since reading that ISIL has tried to crash our grid already. They failed, but only because they haven't yet learned the trick.  Don't laugh, but I'm dehydrating food as fast as I can. 

And stockpiling paper and pens. I can always write the old-fashioned way, LOL.

Greeks, Turks, War, and Aspic (Thanksgiving 1967)


Greeks, Turks, War, and Aspic

Thanksgiving of 1967 was our family’s second in Turkey.  Ankara, the capitol, to be precise. My dad was the army attache and as such, all things Turkish and military were in his bailiwick.  Intelligence work was, as my brother and I had been told, part of the job. My dad and mom had decided that living in the part of town where all the foreigners resided was contrary to their mission, so they chose to live in a very nice, very Turkish neighborhood. Life wasn’t easy (think the U.S. in the 1930s), toilet paper and Kleenex were black market gold, but my brother and I adapted. We didn’t have a typical American childhood any way you cut it, but on the other hand, we’d travelled places the rest of the world is only now getting to. Hittite ruins,  Roman aquaducts and ampitheaters, the seven cities of Asia Minor in the Bible, Cappadocia, Nemrut Dag by horseback, sleeping in Kurdish villages, all educated us in ways our contemporaries stateside, weren’t.


We, of course, ignored everything exotic and wonderful when it came to celebrating Thanksgiving, our favorite holiday.


The year before had been a low point in our Thanksgiving celebrations. Turkeys, believe it or not, weren’t available in Turkey. Lamb, however, was plentiful. Lamb does not Thanksgiving make, and my brother and I did little to hide our disappointment. This year, 1967,  my mother had scored like a black market queen. Somehow, the Air Force Attache had flown in turkeys, stuffing, and miracle of miracles, celery, from Germany. My mother, ever the charmer, managed to get some of each, and one big bird. In celebration, she invited all of the attache’ office’s staff for Bird Day. 

Silver was polished, the good linens freshly pressed, extra chairs and tables commandeered, and best of all, the cooking began. Shakir, our Turkish cook, was given a lesson in making aspic the Southern way, with celery. My brother and I kept a close eye on that aspic, mouths watering for the celery within. We’d never before, in all our postings, lived without celery, and it had turned into the Golden Goose in our minds. The big bird was just a bonus. Thanksgiving this year would be the way it should.


 World affairs, unfortunately, paid no attention to my mother’s Herculean efforts to provide a full-fledged American Thanksgiving to the embassy staff and her family.

The night before Thanksgiving, the Greeks pulled one of their military moves on Cyprus that sent the Turks into a bellicose frenzy.  The situation, looking back, was serious, but all we, self-centered teenagers that we were, were concerned with was our sumptuous, American dinner. My mother, undaunted by the prospect of war, started the turkey in the oven early the next morning. Dinner was at 2, and by golly, she was serving it.


The appointed time came and went, and my dad called with the news that the entire embassy was locked down, and no one was going to get to eat The Bird. My brother and I circled like vultures, drooling, past each of thirty or so salad plates set by each place setting, filled with pretty red aspic circles stuffed with celery. We knew we were in trouble when my mother announced she would fill each plate, wrap it up and have dinner delivered to the embassy by our Turkish driver.

As I recall, my brother and I helped jam each plate so full, there was no room for the aspic. Off went dinner in the back of the embassy car, and we three sat down to the remnants. My brother and I grabbed every plate of aspic we could, and proceeded to feast on the tomato-y and celery delight.  What a score! We had the best dinner ever that day, one we remember fondly.


Oh, by the way, my dad called from the embassy the next day, and told me to get on my horse (a stunning,if crazy, Arab stallion named Simuzer), and ride into the countryside, along a certain road, and tell him if any Turkish tanks were rolling. I guess he thought no one would notice an American girl on a flashy horse. I did, tanks were rolling, and I counted every one, like the trained spy I was (not). Such was the life of an army brat.
This year's Halloween story. Enjoy!                                                            (c) Tracy Dunham, 2015


The Red Jacket

The photo wasn’t doing what she wanted it to do. Lily punched the delete button and sighing, tried to frame the scene with her hands. She didn’t know why it wasn’t working. She should have knocked out this assignment hours ago. Freelancing didn’t pay unless you got the shot the client wanted, and so far, she was earning zilch. Nada. Nothing.

The damned trees insisted on swaying too much, the sun played peek-a-boo with the clouds, scuttling all her F stops, and any sense of scale appeared to be an impossible goal.  The firm, an agricultural magazine its client, wanted pastoral, calm, and lush for its magazine cover.  All Lily was getting was flat, boring, and overshot.  Grunting with disgust, she flung her camera in front of her, shut her eyes, and pressed the button. Rapid fire clicks, hundreds of them, responded as she twirled slowly in the middle of the field she’d chosen, praying that at least one of these random shots would be sufficient to earn a paycheck.

The light left her, and as she packed up to head back to her tiny cottage, she glimpsed a flash of red among the browns and sepias of the tree trunks in the nearby forest. Perhaps it was just a stray red leaf, floating to the ground that had caught her eye.  Something like a spot of red could help her picture pop, but she didn’t have enough light to get any more shots.  She drove home, far enough from the field that she couldn’t hear the hunters going after ducks as if they were the enemy.  She hated the sound of gunfire.  It reminded her too much of her former career as a stringer for the AP in all the wars she could find.

Parking her old Jeep beside her ramshackle house, she dragged her bag with all her photo equipment into the studio in the backyard.  Even though she had a headache from hunger and probably, disappointment, she flicked on the overhead lamp and pulled out her cameras. One by one, she flashed through the pictures on the screens, discarding them even more quickly.

Then she saw it. The very last shot. It possessed that special something she’d been searching for, and without even knowing it, she’d lucked into her money shot. Uploading it onto her computer, she worried about what she needed to fix in order to sell it, when she saw that flash of red. The same brief splotch of color she’d seen just before she packed up to go. Too big and colorful to be anything in nature, she decided the red was a piece of clothing.  But why hadn’t it been in the earlier pictures? And where was its owner? Surely the hunters who’d been blasting away in the distance hadn’t left it.

She printed off a copy to keep in the house. Maybe she’d take a look later, after she’d eaten and had some rest. The magazine was closed for the day, anyway, but she shot off an attachment of the picture to the editor who’d hired her, asking if this would work for the cover.  Certain of her success, she carried the print out to her house, and setting it on the kitchen counter, studied her fridge for an idea for dinner.

She and food were on a first name basis most of the time, but tonight she couldn’t think of anything tempting to eat. Not that there was much to choose from. In fact, starvation was around the corner if she didn’t get paid by someone very soon. Ignoring the ache that bit at her stomach, Lily fished out a loaf of ancient bread and popped a couple of pieces in the toaster. She’d lived on less food when on assignments in war zones. She’d get by. Adding a cup of tea, she carried the toast and tea over to the worn sofa and coffee table that faced the small picture window.

She studied her view. The back yard was filled with plants she collected in her travels for assignments, back when she was in demand and making enough money to pay cash for this place. Whenever she felt as if she were wasting her time on her so-called career, she’d spend hours in her garden, photographing plant, and in the process, remembering how her camera had captured man’s inhumanity to man in each place she’d taken a speciman.  Once upon a time, she’d believed her photos of the horrors of war could work for good, hastening to end a conflict that never should have been.  When she’d realized that it seemed death had dogged her all her life, she gave up. Planting reminders of the dead and dying had once given her hope that beauty could rise of ashes. That had been a stupid idea, she learned the hard way. So she gave up and kept the reminders fertilized and pruned, so she’d never forget. 

She never had. Love didn’t exist in the black world of violence and senseless death, so she did without love.  Just as she could forego food, she didn’t need human affection. Or so she’d thought, back when she was young and life seemed so unfair yet manageable.

Now she wasn’t at all sure she’d taken the right path. None of her best work had done anyone any good, least of all her. Now she was just another cheap hire for third tier magazines. Her choice. Now, it was making her art fit into commercial boxes that sapped her soul and gave her fits. Which, she realized, was why her bank account was always empty these days. She just couldn’t win.

Sipping her tea and playing with toast crumbs, Lily stared at the printout and tried to decide if she wanted to investigate that sudden splotch of red further. Anything was better than ruminating on her dark past and bleak future.  If the object was some bit of flotsam left by a hiker, did she really care enough to find it? And if it had been dropped by someone, why hadn’t she seen it in her first hundred photos? Still, who was she to look a gift horse in the mouth? That bit of red was just the touch her composition had needed. She couldn’t wait to get an approval tomorrow from the editor, and her check.

That night, Lily dreamed of a floating forest, where trees switched places with one another, and water shifted from the sky to the ground, and a little girl cried behind a maple tree laden with gold and crimson leaves.  She couldn’t find the child in her dream to help her because the tree moved every time she got close, and  she awoke exhausted. Chalking it up to not having properly eaten the day before, she slugged down some stale cereal and another cup of tea before turning on her computer.

The email from the magazine editor awaited her. Yes, she liked it, but felt it needed to be taken from another angle. Blah, blah, blah, and could Lily get her another picture by this afternoon, early?

The cereal turned somersaults in Lily’s stomach.  She’d already checked the weather, and clouds filled the sky and were expected to hang in there for another day or so.  “Damnation and hellfire,” Lily cursed, flipping back all the curtains. She didn’t have a hoot in hell of a chance of getting the same great light as she had yesterday. Didn’t the idiot editor know that she’d have to wait until it cleared up?

She had to try. Maybe she could wait out the cloud cover. A few seconds here and there of sun, and she’d be set. Thinking on a positive note, Lily hauled herself and her gear back out.  She was now in the category of hired help with equipment. Not an artist, just a person who could do a passable job.

Where and when had she lost her panache? Her flair for the unexpected? Her pride, if the truth be told, in her art. If she was going to be honest, and she figured it was about time she was, she’d lost her edge in the many wars she’d covered for the big magazines. Photographing dead and maimed, sorrow and misery, had sucked the life out of her art, and her. Both were barely hanging in there, and she hated it.

Maybe if she’d had a family, a husband and children, she’d have been able to shed the ugliness her art had recorded. Simple joys had once been basic to her life and creativity. A newly bloomed mum, an inch worm dangling from a rose leaf. Even her garden shots were marred now, blight on a bush, a row of wilted tulips, as if the camera was afraid to record anything pretty or happy. Or she was. Because she knew exactly how much ugliness existed in the world, and it was a limitless supply. She never felt clean anymore, no matter how much she scrubbed her skin and stood under a scalding shower. How could her art express anything but what she felt? When had she chosen death as art and why? What a stupid girl she’d been, back when she believed she was capable of handling any shit life threw at her.

Without realizing she’d been crying, she parked the Jeep where she’d stopped yesterday, and dragged herself and her gear from its rear seat.  Trudging back to the edge of the pond, she turned in a slow circle, trying to find an angle the editor would like. She had no idea what she wanted, and it didn’t really matter for the cover of this minor publication. The woman just wanted to jerk Lily’s chain, because she could.

Dragging herself to the edge of the copse, Lily, looked back where she’d stood yesterday, and pulled her camera to her eye. The whirr and click of the lens working as she pressed the button was the only sound. Strange, Lily thought. There should have been geese honking, shotgun echos, wind rustling leaves at this time of the year. She was sure there had been yesterday. Turning to check out the forested area, she didn’t see so much as a single leaf flutter to the ground.

But she did see the red object that had appeared in the last shot of the day. A few feet in front of her, it was draped over a tree stump, as if someone had planned to retrieve it. Without thinking about what she was doing, Lily walked to the stump and picked up the anorak.  A woman’s jacket, with pockets and a drawstring waist, a hood, and nary a smudge of dirt or spot.  The thing could have been brand new. After checking out the pockets and finding them empty, Lily held it up to her torso.

The size seemed about right, though a bit big. Slipping it on, she gave a little twirl, amazed how it lifted her mood. She could certainly use a new jacket, and even if this one was too bright, she’d wear it.  Whoever left it in the woods hadn’t returned in the past twenty-four hours, so she figured it was finders-keepers at this point. Or was it?

The jacket warmed her in a way her sweatshirt hadn’t. Deciding it was an omen, Lily traipsed deeper into the woods, determined to get a few more shots and call it a day, clouds and the editor’s demands notwithstanding. Just as she raised her Nikon to her eye, she was struck by a dizziness that sent her crashing to her knees, camera dropped, both hands pressed to the forest floor for purchase. 

She’d never fainted before, not once.  Head swirling, she tried to be rational about what had just happened. She hadn’t had much to eat yesterday, of course she was light-headed. She’d been sleeping poorly, taunted by worries over which she had no control. Despite her logic, her stomach roiled, and for a second time, she felt herself falling, this time to her side, her cheek pressed against pine needles and musty, dead leaves. Forcing herself to breathe, she wondered if she was having a heart attack. Every inch of her ached as if she’d been hammered with baseball bats, and her head throbbed with migraine-like pain.

“No,” she whispered, her throat aching, “I won’t die here.” Despite her declaration, she wasn’t so sure she wasn’t passing away. Shouldn’t she be seeing her past flash before her? Look into a bright light or the smiling faces of welcoming dead relatives? 

The trees surrounding her swirled like a merry-go-round and staring at them was the wrong thing to do. Shutting her eyes, Lily refused to give up, no matter what the symptoms seemed to be. She would not go gently into Dylan Thomas’ good night.

Then, just as quickly as she’d been stricken, Lily felt all the pain and dizziness stop. Just like that. Amazed, she uncurled her fists from her chest and checked her hands. They seemed to be solid.  Glancing down, she was still in the red jacket, and she could wiggle her feet.  In fact, there was no lingering pain, no disorientation at all.  Rolling to her knees, she pushed herself upright and glanced down to retrieve her Nikon.

The only problem was, there was no camera, no forest, no cloudy October sky.  Her boots were standing on the brick path in her back garden, behind her little house, and rose bushes and jasmine bloomed in sunny glory all around her.  Nary one of her foreign plants lined the path.  She couldn’t be home, she hadn’t driven anywhere after getting dizzy, so was this some kind of crazy cosmic joke? Heaven was her house, but not?

“Hey, hon, where’re the band aids?  Fleur has a boo-boo.” A smiling man, dark hair, bright blue eyes, and a sheepish grin, poked his head from the upstairs bathroom window. “No emergency, no arterial blood.  A nasty splinter, which I removed with a minimum of tears, thank you very much. I think I’ve got it covered.” 

He must have registered the alarm on her face as concern for the unknown Fleur.  “Uh, band aids are under the sink. Blue box.”  She didn’t know how she pulled that one out of her mind, like some magician’s rabbit and the classic black top hat.

He shouted down a distant “Got it.”

Who the hell was Fleur? And who was he? Maybe if she stayed in the rose garden long enough, she’d get back to the woods where she’d been stricken ill.  Before she could run for the garden gate, she stopped cold. It wasn’t there. Her rickety little wooden picket fence had been replaced by a brick wall, covered with climbing roses. Covering her face with her hands, Lily sucked in deep breaths and tried to analyze the panic threatening to take her down for the third and final time. She was drowning in different-ness. None of this made sense, and she didn’t know how it had happened.

“Here’s mommy. I told you she’d be back in a few minutes.  Tell mommy how brave you were.”  The man with blue eyes wiggled through the small back door, holding a little girl old enough to walk on her own, but who was clinging to him with weepy, identical blue eyes.

“Who are you?”  Lily didn’t have time to play games. The longer she was stuck in this fantasy, the longer it would take her to return to her real time.  “Look, I know this is an illusion. What do I have to do to get out of it?”

Setting the little girl, about four years old Lily guessed, down, the man hurried to where Lily was backing up towards the brick wall.

“Sweetie, what’s the matter?  Are you ill?” Reaching for her, he hesitated as Lily lifted her clenched fists and assumed a fighting stance.

“I’ve been a black belt for years now, don’t come an inch nearer.”

“Black belt? What is this, a joke?  You hate violence.”  Still, he hung back as if he believed her.

Good thing he did believe her. She’d never taken a defensive class in her life.  “Just tell me how I get out of here.  I have a life waiting for me.”

“Lily, honey, you’re scaring Fleur.  Let me fix you a cup of hot tea.”

“Daddy, why is mommy crazy?” whined the little blue-eyed girl who blended her daddy’s gorgeous eyes with flaxen hair and delicate skin the color of pink satin.

“Good question, Fleur.  Maybe mommy can tell us why she’s pretending to be a fruitcake.”

“I hate fruitcake,” Fleur mumbled through the thumb she’d stuck in her mouth.

“Oh great, now she’s thumb-sucking again.” The man rolled his eyes and addressing Fleur, gently removed her hand from her mouth. “You’re a big girl, Fleur sweetie, you don’t need to suck your thumb. Remember, we threw away your pacifier into the river because you’re a big girl now?”

“Being a big girl ain’t what it’s cracked up to be,” muttered Lily.  “All I want is out.  Just tell me how to get back to my real place and time.”  Lily addressed the man, ignoring the big tears slipping down the little girl’s face. “Which definitely isn’t here. I don’t have any idea who you are and why you’re in my house.”

“Lily, it’s me, Aaron, it’s okay, I’ll get you some help.  But I swear to God, if you’re making this crazy act up, I will kill you.  I mean it. Now make up your mind, are you okay or do I need to call an ambulance?”

Aaron. The name slid into her brain and visited several rooms before it found the correct  one. “Aaron Levine?”  She couldn’t believe it. The boy she’d loved disappeared in a boating accident when he was seventeen and she sixteen.  She’d spent years mourning what could have been, the worst kind of grief.

“Good, we’re getting somewhere. Now tell me, Lily, did you drink anything odd? You know you always try something funky at the Tea Leaf when you go to town.  Or did you leave a cup of tea unguarded when you went to the restroom? Could someone have slipped you some drugs in it?”  Still holding the little girl behind him, Aaron drew closer to Lily. “Think honey, this is important. You’re not right, and my bet is, it’s pharmacological.  You sound like a teenager tripping on a date drug.”

Could he be right? Was she someone else, someone who lived a totally different life than the one she’d had just this morning? Why did she remember all the plants in her garden, every trip abroad where they’d been collected, all the wars she’d covered for top newspapers and magazines, all the times all she’d wanted was to hole up in her little house and never leave again?  There could be an answer, but did she really want to hear it?

Fingering the bottom edge of the red jacket to assure herself it was real, Lily glanced into big blue eyes of the little girl, staring at her from behind Aaron’s jeans.  One eyebrow crooked over her left eye in a definite triangle, just as one did on Lily’s face.  No, it wasn’t possible.  She’d remember if she’d had a child. A mother would never forget someone like Fleur, with her thumb in her rosebud mouth and tear-filled eyes swimming with fear such as she’d never known before.

“Show me your boo-boo, Fleur.”  Fleur, such an old-fashioned name.  Kneeling before Aaron, Lily held out her hands for the little girl. But Fleur was having none of it.  Shaking her head, she used both arms to hold onto Aaron’s right leg.

“Lily,” Aaron warned. “If you’re playing games, stop it. You’re being cruel.”

Staring up at him, Lily felt her own eyes fill with tears.  “Who am I?” 

With one hand on Fleur’s head, he reached for Lily with the other, and quickly scooped her up against his chest.  “You’re Lily Levine, you’re my wife and Fleur’s mother, and you teach art to elementary kids at Lewis Elementary. You went into town to buy groceries early this morning, and you’re safe now, you’re home.  Back where you belong.”

Being held against his chest felt right.  Nodding slightly, Lily took a good look around the garden. She liked the unruly, riotious colors of this garden better than the horrid memories each plant represented in her old one. Why had she planted something from each war-torn country? To remind her of the horrors she’d recorded with her camera?

“I have a question.”  She mumbled into his chest.  “Is this jacket mine?”

She felt the chuckle against her cheek. “No, honey, it’s mine. You steal it whenever you can get your hands on it. Why don’t you just buy one for yourself?”

How could any of this be happening? “Did you lose it?  Or put it down in the woods? And did you know I would find it?”

“ Whoa, darlin’, what’s so important about the jacket?”  Stroking her back, he calmed her as one did a skittish colt.

“Nothing,” she mumbled. “But can I keep it?”

“Anything you want, sweetheart. Anything at all, if it means you’re okay. Are you? Okay?”

“I think so.”

Nothing in her old life called to her but her bad memories. Memories of war and disappointment.  Memories of a life on the edge of falling off a cliff.

And a memory she’d forgotten, of a boy she’d loved with all her heart and a life that could have been.

___________________________________________________________________

The hunters hurried to what they thought was a deer they’d bagged. Sure, they’d jumped the gun on deer season, but not by much.  The woman’s sprawled body sent them staggering backwards.

“Damn, Henry, we’re in deep now. How the hell did this happen? I swear, I thought she was a buck.”

“Maybe she’s alive?” Henry knelt beside the woman and felt for the vein in her neck.

“Is she?”

“Christ, no. What’re we gonna do?”

“We should call for an ambulance, is what we should do. You willing to take the fall for this?”

“Shit, no. I’m a family man, I got kids to feed.”

“Me too, you dumb ass.” Bobby looked as if he was going to vomit.

Henry grabbed him and dragged him away from the body.  “We got to make sure we pick up all our shells. Then we get the hell out of here and never talk about today. Not ever, you hear me? We never hunted this forest.”

“I don’t like it. It’s not right.”

Henry nodded. “I hear ya.  But fuck, Bobby, we gotta think about our families.Won’t take long for the weather and the critters to take care of her.  Leave her be.”

“I don’t like it,” Bobby repeated.

Henry hitched his shotgun over his shoulder and turned his back. “Don’t have to. We got to take care of our own selves. We can’t go to prison over some stupid bitch.”

“I guess so.” Bobby glared at Lily, her hair spilled over her face, one hand clutching a bunch of dead leaves, one last time. “Stupid bitch. All her own fault.”

“Yeah, that’s right. All her fault.”

           

















Being old and wise, or at least old, I know a bit of this and that

Heard about a wedding this past weekend where the term "bridezilla" doesn't begin to describe the woman at the center of this disgrace called a new marriage. When the mother of the groom cries nonstop the two hours before the wedding, you know the family dynamic is going to be a bit, um, difficult. If only those of us who have been around the block a few times (which is a lovely cliché to describe old and wise to a small degree) could intervene. But some people just have to live their mistakes and hopefully, learn from them.  Having been a divorce lawyer for a bit in my years in the practice, I think I heard it all. Sometimes it was obvious the wedding should have been called off.  Sometimes, cold feet are a good thing. And sometimes, the monsters crawl out of the woodwork after the first rush of lust burns out for good. Did I ever tell you about the time my client's husband grew overly fond of their dog? (I should have called the SPCA, I swear.)

Wisdom is hard-earned in most cases. The grass is seldom greener on the other side of the fence, and it's just plain tacky to find another Great Love while you're married to your first one. Figure it out before the children arrive. Or just don't make everyone miserable if you are. I think most young couples expect too much, but basic requirements are part of the deal. No adultery. No yelling. Be respectful when you disagree. Remember that you swore to love this person through thick and thin. Play fair. Share. Give it what you can and work on the rest as you're able. Most of all, remember all relationships have ups and downs, and the good ones make it because the people involved work on it.

It just occurred to me this could apply to political candidates wooing the electorate. ROFLOL!


This is so boring

Normally, I don't mind a rainy day or two. It provides a good excuse to curl up with a book, see a movie, clean out the closets, have lunch with friends and not feel guilty that I'm not doing something constructive, and generally stay dry and decadent. For me, decadence means doing something that isn't productive. Every now and then, this is a good thing. It keeps me from driving my loved ones bonkers because I insist THEY do something productive, as well.

But this rain stretch has migrated into nutso territory, and I'm feeling a tad bit mildewed and stir crazy. When I wear my waterproof boots (my husband insisted I buy them, so I did, tho they look like nothing I'd wear in a sane moment) every time I step out the door, you know I'm in trouble. And the critters! They are as rain-insane as I am. The cat has reached the stage where he doesn't care about getting soaking wet, he HAS to go out! Missing our long walks, the dog has glued herself to my side, giving me guilty-inducing stares, as if to say "make it stop!"

So I'm forced to tackle projects that have languished because other priorities rose up and demanded attention. These are the ones I'm not quite sure how to handle, but I'd better take a stab at them, or all bets are off. Must do work! Too much downtime! Must be productive!

Now you know how I drive everyone around the bend in my house.  Thank God they love me anyway.

The King Must Die

I happened upon a more recent paperback copy of Mary Renault's The King Must Die, and found myself transported back fifty years or more. Instantly, the memory of being swept into another place and time washed over me. Bought the book, took it home, and with some trepidation, started reading it again. Would it hold up? Was the magic still there?

Damned straight it was and is. Once more, I can barely put it down.  I am in Greece right now, even though my body is at the lake and the fam is out fishing.  Looking back, I see now how my fascination with archaeology got started, and remember how it felt to walk the remains of the palace at Knossos. Crete was a hot, dusty, boring little rock in the sea, so what magic trick did it pull to become a political powerhouse?  Even then, I wondered at the fear the Minoans brought the "civilized" world. Reading Mary Renault's books taught me so much.

Even more clearly, it has come to me how she influenced me as a writer. First person voice, sometimes in the present, sometimes looking back from an omniscient future Theseus, is still my own favorite writing device. I want the reader to be the character. Renault does it perfectly.  How odd it is to discover one's writing roots and see so clearly how they grew.

I have an old first edition of  The Bull From The Sea, and barring hell or high waters, will start it next. How wonderful it is when the revisited past is alive and well, and not one whit diminished.

My bad

To be honest, I've been busy, busy, busy. Jenn and Carolyn, my writing buddies, and I did a small writing retreat, and I had the fire if all fires lit under my tail feathers.  Which is a good thing.  Then there's summer and the lake, birthdays to celebrate, and the fun part of  working in the yard. Except, it's too hot for to be it fun right now.  I need to record the deafening roar of the cicadas and the bellowing of the bull frogs for the snowy days heading our way all too soon.  Love summer. Hard to keep the butt in the chair and hands on the keyboard, that's for sure.

Read an author new to me, Nancy Pickard. (Hope I have her last name spelled correctly.). The book is  The Scent of Rain and Lightning.  The mystery is good, but the real strength lies in the characters. Wish I'd written it.  Now to track down her other mysteries!

July: and the rains came and so did the next Harper Lee book

While the West is withering under the effects of an earth-killing drought, we are swimming in the wet. Rain and more rain. Humidity that is forcing creation to add gills to humans.  God bless, but it has been wet! And this is July. Picture me shaking my head slowly, wiping sweat from the back of my neck, and running my third shower of the day. If I'm going to get wet, I want it to be of my own choosing.

I fully intend to sound like a wet, woolly, icky blanket. Maybe the weather has made me cranky, but I will not, cannot read Go Set a Watchman, the "newly discovered" precursor to To Kill a Mockingbird. The NYT review revealed that Atticus, in this early version, is a racist bigot. I cannot imagine why any author would allow a revered and venerated character to be morally assassinated in another book. And now we know why Lee's elder sister, Alice, kept the manuscript locked up. Only after she passed on did it get "discovered" by her successor guardian, a shady deal if ever I heard one. Harper Lee doesn't need the money. So why did she allow this to happen, now that Alice is gone?

We'll probably never know the reason. Lee has stated that Alice is Atticus Finch. Maybe she wanted the world to know, finally, that her father, the purported foundation for Atticus, wasn't, in no uncertain terms. Graduate degrees will be given on an analysis of the two books and what happened between their writing. I really don't care.

I refuse to destroy a good and noble book that has influenced generations to seek justice and protect those who need it most. Atticus Finch will stay as he has been lo these many years, at least in my imagination.



Family Trees

I have in my office a copy of a family tree, sketched by some relative many, many years ago, long before I was born. The tree shows long branches, cut-off branches, and a sturdy trunk, but the handwriting is so spidery, and everything is so jammed, it's hard to make out what's going on. Being a problem-solver, I thought I could untangle this branchy web with a diagram. Wrong. All I did was create more confusion. Then it came to me - I really don't care about genealogy, what I care about are the family stories.  So I picked out a few names and did some research. Now that's fun!

I am doing the same thing with my current WIP. I have a family tree of sorts for my characters, but it's filled with their ages, heights, hair colors, who is married to whom and what they do for a living, etc. This background may never be used in the book, but it matters to me. This is part of their stories. I list their nicknames, their foibles, their loves, and what scares them silly. It's all linked on a neat sheet of paper, and whenever I feel as if I'm losing touch with a character, I refer to it.

It also keeps me from making that most horrible of mistakes, changing eye color in mid-book!

J. Rodney Johnson

When I realize how young Rodney Johnson was when he was my Wills and Trusts professor in law school, I'm gobsmacked. He seemed much older to a 23 year old me. In many ways he was. Deliberate of speech, careful in his pronouncements, a man who thought things through before he opened his mouth, he was one hell of a teacher. I can think of maybe four teachers in all my scholastic career I will never forget and always be grateful I was a student of theirs, and Professor Johnson was one of them. Miss Blazer (honors high school English), Dr. Niederer (art history), Richard H. W. Dillard (creative writing), and Rodney Johnson were the best. Richard still is, since he's the only one still with us.

Wills and Trusts was a required course when I was in law school a thousand years ago, and I really wasn't in the right frame of mind for it. I wanted to be a criminal defense attorney. As far as I was concerned, spend your money and don't leave any for your heirs. That philosophy only works when you're 23. Rodney Johnson was a no-nonsense kind of teacher who expected you sit up, pay attention, and think.  I respect that in a professor, so I grudgingly did what he asked. Along the way, I learned a heck of a lot that was fascinating and showed me how the legal landscape of wills and trusts was fraught with time bombs and not for the faint-of-heart lawyer. Yes, people killed over estates. I soaked it all in.

I can't say I ever wanted to work exclusively with wills and trusts, but I learned enough to take my time, research, and ask the right questions. If I had a sticky situation that had me wondering if I was writing a document correctly, I could always pick up the phone and call my former teacher. He'd start with his slow drawl and pleasantries, then say "well now, let me make sure we're clear about the problem." And he always helped me regain my confidence, or he'd steer me in another direction I hadn't realized was there. I will be forever grateful to him for his kindness and professionalism.

He was a good man who gave unstintingly of himself to others, and not only his former students. His dedication to his family, especially his lovely wife, his church, and his faith were givens. No one ever doubted his sincerity or his joy in giving of his talents to those who needed them.  It's pretty much a cliché to say the world will be a lesser place without him, but in this instance, it's horribly true.

I wish I'd known he wasn't going to be with us for long.  I'd have written or called, and I will always regret that I didn't.  The best thing I can do to honor his memory is to pay it forward.  I will.

Valuing our work

 I've never given my books away online. There, I've said it. I'm just not convinced using "freebies" will get you new readers.  Imagining a vast wasteland of ereaders jammed to the gills with free downloads, I just can't bring myself to toss my hard-worked, sweat-of-my-brow, blood of my soul stories into the ether for free. I worked hard on those books, damn it.

I feel as if it would be a betrayal to give them away. I don't mind an occasional story or bits and pieces. Sometimes I just need to know if something is working before I spend the next six months of my life on it.  And as a woman, I recognize the fact that we get paid a hell of a lot less than men for doing just as good a job, or even better. So the issue of the laborer being worthy of her hire strikes a resonating chord with me.

I'm also suspicious of what people will think of a free book. Will they think it's less good, less valuable, less worth their respect or time?  I know I feel that way. Or else, I wonder why a writer considers this book to be a throwaway. None of those feel right to me.

Marketing Ebooks online seems to me to be like herding cats with an invisible net.  If there were a sure-fire way to garner huge readership by giving away free copies, I'm sure the writing world would be doing it en masse. Me, I think the real idea is to write a damned good book. Let the readers take it from there.

Cherries

Grocery shopping is one of those necessary evils, like laundry and house chores. I get it done, then collapse in a heap of OMG, I survived another Kroger's run.  But yesterday I bought cherries. Yes, cherries, my saving grace.

Every year, I wait for this season not just for the weather (61 degrees in June! really??!!), but for the flowers and fruit. Cherries are a vice, I swear. How can any one fruit (except for sweet Georgia peaches) taste so wonderful? It's a struggle to parse them out, because I want to dive head first into the bag.

They also bring back a very early memory. My family bought a house when I was in preschool that had several mature cherry trees.  I can still see the fruit falling on the driveway, the trees were so laden. My mother decided this was a waste, so she put me to work pitting the buckets-full she collected. I loved how the cherries stained my hands and nails a bright red. The next step involved making cherry preserves and pies. Now, my mother was not a die-hard kitchen fan. Cooking wasn't her forte, but she couldn't stand wasting all those cherries. I remember my dad getting involved in sealing jars with hot wax, the steamy kitchen, the counters filled with bowls of newly pitted cherries, my mother rolling pie crust.

That was a magical summer before my foray into first grade. Cherries filled my dreams. When I arrived in first grade, I was reluctant to leave that hot kitchen filled with wonderful smells and food. So I learned the art of daydreaming. After all, Dick and Jane led incredibly boring lives and had never pitted cherries. I rolled pie crusts in my mind. My teacher, young and pretty and prissy, was not amused. A conference with my mother ensued.

As my mother told the story, the teacher remarked, after introductions, "Well, now that I've met you,  I understand Tracy." My mother wasn't sure whether she should be flattered or insulted. So she chose to be amused. After all, my mother was a college grad and pretty darn smart.

I promised my mother to hide my boredom. After all, I could read already, and that's all my mother cared about, not my prissy teacher's opinion. It all worked out in the end.

I still love cherries, and not only because of their flavor.

The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills

I finished this book a couple of weeks ago, and have been debating with myself ever since about writing what I think about it.  Well, not exactly writing about the book, but about the subject - Nelle Harper Lee.  Then I realized I wasn't going to get any peace until I put my thoughts down on paper, or in this instance, the screen.

Disclaimer here: I grew up with To Kill a Mockingbird and it probably influenced my first career choice, the law. If I could have been another Atticus Finch, I would probably still be practicing. 

First of all, I totally believe Marja Mills had the Lees' permission, both from Nelle and sister Alice, to write the book.  Mills has written what is basically a softball piece, filled with compliments, admiration, and respect for both women. Alice comes across as the better of the two sisters, most definitely. A tireless worker (she practiced law into her hundredth year), her sister's shield and advocate, she epitomized, as Mills says, a female Atticus Finch.  She was a woman to be reckoned with.

Yet it is Nelle who dominates the book, probably because she's the subject the publisher wanted and because of who she is: the reclusive Harper Lee.  Mills admits she deleted stories and people about whom NHL spoke because NHL didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings.  The friends who accepted Mills into their homes were open and inclusive, and spoke, apparently, with NHL's permission. Otherwise, I can't imagine one of NHL's closest friends revealing the late night drunken rants over the telephone that came from NHL. He finally put a stop to it when his wife was home alone and on the receiving end of the ugliness coming out of a bottle.  This brief mention of alcoholism and another mention by a professor who opined that NHL didn't write a book she briefly researched because of the alcohol are the only mentions of a severe, crippling problem.

What has me in a funk is this: what a waste of talent and life.  NHL wrote well, and it is a crying shame she never wrote again. (The book coming out in July is supposedly the first draft, from the viewpoint of an adult Scout, written before TKAM.) In fact, it's criminal that she chose to retreat into a bottle and whatever demons she battled instead of facing them. What she could have given the world!  I keep imagining NHL marching with protesters in Ferguson, and what that would have meant.

Nothing can change the fact that she chose to disappear as much as possible, with appearances here and there.  If only she had used her talent wisely and given us more to remember than one very good book.  It's always horrible to learn your idol is a drunken, selfish, and sometimes less than nice, curmudgeon.   I just hope I can separate her life from the book, or one of my lynch pins is going to buckle and break.

Maybe one day I'll get over it.

When it doesn't go as planned. . .

I was cleaning up the deck at home, hauling out lawn chairs, pulling cushions from their winter hidey-holes, and generally rejoicing in a perfect day, weather-wise.  We were just back from a quick trip to the lake, and feeling the need to continue the great outdoors adventure.  So I hauled the umbrella for the dining table from the shed, and quickly dropped it through the hole in the tempered glass table.

Big mistake. The explosion was immediate, the shock quickly followed. Glass everywhere, including in my skin.  I stood there for what seemed hours, as the tempered glass crackled and continued to break from its death place on the deck floor. Slivers of glass had shot into my jeans and my shoes, and all I could think was, how on earth do I clean this up and start over? I wished I could I go back to five seconds earlier and re-do everything I had done, which was clearly a mistake.

There are no do-overs for shattered glass or writers, once a book is published. When it's done, it's done.  I can't tell  you how often I will read a paragraph here and there in one of my books, and think to myself, I need to do another rewrite. If I have the rights back, I sometimes will.  But not often. It's crazy, but warts and all, it's my baby and it needs to be what it is. I just have to get over myself and my compulsion to rewrite the heck out of everything.

A story loses its sparkle, at least for me, when I'm compulsively rewriting it. One day, I'll learn to let it go. It'll fly or sink on its own.

So there. I need to go clean up the million pieces of glass all over the deck. At least I know what to do with that.