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.

Rereading the classics

A few books stay on my keeper shelf forever. Others have wandered away (NoMoreLendingBooks!), leaving only their memories. Some, I mean to reread and analyze. Others, I can practically quote them verbatim. In that category:

 Theophilis North by Thornton Wilder. What a charmer. A writing style I will never achieve.

 Falling Woman by Pat Murphy. So cool, even years after the first reading blew me away.

Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer is going to get an analysis - I'm going to outline the structure - because it's so unusual.

Anne Tyler's A String of Blue Thread is going to get the same treatment. The death of the narrator in the middle of the book threw me a loop, but she manages to weave her back into the story in the second half with effortless style. I don't think I can do that, so I need to learn how Tyler pulled it off. Or if she didn't, and I'm just hoodwinked.

Laura Kinsale's Flowers from the Storm. What a hero. What a heroine. What an incredible opening. I still see certain scenes, and I haven't read the book in a long time. Must go find it now. . .

There are many others, but these always jump into my head first thing when I'm looking for a book to pick me up and give me something wonderful all over again.

Oh, and of course, Pride and Prejudice. Or as it's referred to in our house, P&P. Wish I owned stock in that book. It has paid me incredible pleasure dividends over the many years since I first found it.  Dialogue to kill for.





The skies are gray

but it's coming - that elusive sprite, Spring!!! Feels like a Mamas and Papas song, right? Anyway, I'm busy buying out the greenhouse store, collected a new pair of garden gloves, and my snips and trowel are already in action. Yep, I'm getting happy. Humming Pharrell Williams as I dig.

I found a doll stuck in a box the other day, a Madam Alexander Cissy model that was my mother's. I remember my father giving it to her in the mid-50s for Christmas. The doll has red hair, wears a lacy teddy and thigh-high stockings, and is in perfect shape. I wish I knew the backstory, but I don't. Maybe my mom had wanted a doll like her when she was a girl, and never gotten her. Still, it's odd to think of my father, the army officer, buying this sexy looking doll for his wife, the mother of his two children.  She was very proper, my mother. And she kept that doll through moves all across the world, until she passed away.

When I was 8, I got a Cissy doll for Christmas, too. Mine is named Helen, and she has a wardrobe filled with clothes my mother and grandmother made for her. She had high heels that laced around her ankles, pearl studs in her ears, and a white satin evening gown with a bunny fur wrap.  She was the most beautiful doll I ever received, and I, too, still have her. Helen, however, is in much rougher shape than my mom's doll. Helen saw a lot of imaginative play and hair combing and clothes-changing. We are still buddies, even though she resides in a pink doll case. I can't imagine parting with her. 

Especially since my eldest daughter looks just like her.

Running away

I casually mentioned to a friend that, if the weather didn't improve substantially (when will the &* sun come out?), I was getting in my car and heading for Key West. She said to let her know, she'd be there. At that moment, I almost threw a toothbrush in my computer bag, loaded up the laptop, and headed for the gas station for a full tank.

This interminable winter (no daffodils, really???), has given me some inspiration, however. I read an amazing YA book years ago about what happens when the moon disappears and the subsequent climate change kills all crops and descends the Earth into freezing darkness.  The images are vivid in my mind, to this day. But what happens if the climate change is a gradual chilling, not global warming? It's so subtle, we are in trouble as a planet before we know it. It's not a catastrophic Ice Age, but endless summers of cool rain and pale, sickly grass, wet grain, and sweaters. As a metaphor, it works. Society has grown so hot with conflict, it has to cool down somehow. Mother Earth takes matters into her own hands.

Where this will lead, I'm not entirely sure. But I find the premise is intriguing, and as these things go, people will begin populating this dystopian world and hopefully, tell me their tales.  I hope I like them enough to care what happens next.

If not, there's always Key West.

A long thirty days

Not long after I posted the picture of Julia Cabaniss Hayden, my brother-in-law died.  Hours later, in fact, much to our shock and dismay, he passed away quietly in his sleep. No real physical reason for his passing, the doctors said. They couldn't figure out what sent him on his way to his next experience. They were as shocked as we were. He was only 66.

I am sure he decided it was time to go onward. I believe we have to give our consent to pass into the next phase of our existence, and he was worried that his time here was going to become hampered and uncomfortable. He didn't want to be a burden on anyone. Diabetes was getting him down, and he was tired of fooling with it. Two days earlier, he'd had to put down one of his beloved Cornish Rex cats. Nothing felt right. So he made up his mind to leave us. With no wife, no children, and a cold, gray winter, he must have felt as if checking out was the sane thing .

We buried him in the family plot in Illinois, where the deep snow and ice had to be plowed aside to make room for him. I told him he'd better run when he sees me coming in the next life, because he's in deep trouble with me.

Believe me, next time I see him, he's going to get a piece of my mind. A big chunk of it, in fact. We miss him. A lot.

Julia Cabaniss Hayden

Found this daguerreotype totally by accident on Flickr. She's related to my father's mother, through the Henings of Virginia.  My grandmother and her siblings always talked about Aunt Julia of Smithfield, and I have some silver spoons with Hayden engraved on them. It's amazing to see such a lifelike likeness of someone who is just a name on a genealogical tree.  Mr.Hayden was her second husband - her first, J.D. Wilson, died. My great aunt Dolly's real name was Julia Cabaniss Batten, in fact.

What a pretty lady.

First Drafts and the Harper Lee Saga

I have to admit, the news of a new (old) Harper Lee novel sent me into a heavenly place. How wonderful is this, I thought. Then I had a second, third, and even fourth think, and I'm getting goosebumps. Not the good kind. The creepy kind.

So I pulled out the copy I own of Shields' unauthorized biography of Ms. Lee, titled MOCKINGBIRD.  It's well written and feels very grounded, and I haven't read it in a while. So I looked up the pages about Mockingbird's evolution, and what I read reinforced the icky goosebumps.

Go Set the Watchman was a first draft, all right. The agent Maurice Cairn and his wife, Annie Laurie Williams, who agented film rights, saw it as a great start, but anecdotal with no story arc. It needed rewriting, so Ms. Lee rewrote and rewrote, for two and a half years. She produced the best book she could, and it was To Kill a Mockingbird.  I'd been wondering at this news of a "newly discovered" manuscript, when it was clear the agents and Lippincott's editor, Tay Hophof (? I'm sure I've misspelled the editor's name) knew and had read Watchman. Why hadn't they published it after Mockingbird, especially since they were dying for a follow-up novel?

I'll tell you why. First drafts are usually so ugly only their mothers can love them. Then they go through growing pangs and the awkward phase, until they mature enough to be shown to the world. I have first drafts hidden in the attic that I should take out and burn. My bet is, Watchman is that first draft that was filled with passion but plot problems. We've all been there.

Anything by Nelle Harper Lee is worth its weight in gold. I get that. But after years of refusing to put out another book, I can't help but wonder what changed Ms. Lee's mind. 

I can only come to ugly conclusions, none of which taint Ms. Lee, but only those she has trusted.  I would hate to learn who it is, singular or plural, because the wrath of the reading public can be vicious.  If only it doesn't taint Ms. Lee's literary heritage and well deserved stature as a great writer and social conscience.

I pray that is so.

Darkroom

Jane Lewis photographs the dead.  Inside, she's half-dead herself.  Burying her past will be harder than it would be to lower her into the ground in a box.
Chapter 1

 

     Staring at the decomposing body, swelling like living tissue with insects, flesh slipping into the dirt as another bone sank into the loam, Jane forced herself to do what she’d come to do.  Shoot the dead woman.

Sliding the glass into the box she’d made just for this project, she draped a black cloth over her head, the camera, and her body.  Wearing deepest black for this shoot made sense.  No one else was mourning these newly dead bodies.

     Sliding the cap off the lens, she held her breath as pale light poured into the camera, onto the silver, forging images of the decomposing body of a woman of an age that no longer mattered.  The corpse’s flesh had sunk into a filmy coating for bones that would last a while longer, as long as the wild animals were kept at bay by the Body Farm’s razor wire fence.  Gazing through the lens, Jane counted slowly until the image was firmly planted on the glass.  The lens cover slid back into place with no hint of anxiety.

     Jane’s hands shook as she folded the black drape and dropped it into the back of her Suburban.  She had to expose the plate quickly.  Slipping into protective gloves, she began the chemical wash that would turn this nameless, faceless body into art.  A silver plate she’d call “Beauty from Ashes No. 3.”  As the image developed, she had to bite her lip to keep from shouting.  She knew she had ‘it’ right this time.  This poor woman, unknown and unburied, had been relegated to the scientists after the medical examiner finished with her and no one stepped up to claim the remains. What was left of her red hair fanned the ground. Though her final bits and pieces would one day be excessed to the crematory, she’d live on as long as Jane’s shimmery, ethereal picture survived. 

     “I won’t forget you,” Jane murmured as she fixed the plate with the reverence of a pall bearer touching the coffin for the last time.  She didn’t want it hurt during the long drive back to her farm.

     Stripping off the gloves, Jane secured the camera and the rest of her equipment and climbed into the driver’s seat.  With a honk at the guard, she let him know she’d finished for the day.  Getting permission to photograph the decomposing bodies at the Farm had taken a bit of arm-twisting.  Much as she disliked it, fame held some perks.  Her agent assured the scientists who studied the rates of bodily decomposition that Jane would treat her subjects with respect and dignity.  Showing a few of her prior pieces in the Beauty from Ashes series to the gruff, older men who spent their lives trying to find out how and when people died, she’d earned their trust.  She didn’t know if they understood the questions she was asking in her art, but they’d quickly comprehended she wasn’t a sensationalist.  Dr. Brody had even paid her a quiet compliment, when he’d told her he had the same feeling whenever he saw the dead.

     She drove the long hours back to Culvert without seeing the road.  Somehow, every face she’d shot today morphed into that of her mother the last time she’d seen her - dead in the dirt of an embankment hidden from the highway, her murky eyes staring straight at Jane’s four year old self.

     Now, though, she had to get back to the farm and get ready for the work that paid for her rolling acres and all that expensive fencing.  As she pulled off the paved state road onto the gravel drive, flanked by ancient magnolias, she felt some of the tension that rode her shoulders ease up a bit. 

     The white farm house, a classic American four-square, Granting in the shadows of the huge oak trees that guarded its corners, welcomed her with its solid plain lines.  She’d worked long and hard for this home.  Her roots ran shallow, but they grew deeper each day she lived on the this land, these gently sloping pastures, by the pond with its mud-trampled bank where the horses watered each morning when she let them out of their stalls.

     Life in the city had given her a name in art circles, showings in the right galleries, and the luxury of paying for a big chunk of Virginia countryside.  Now, she went to bed to the rustle of leaves or the burping of mating frogs, instead of emergency sirens and neon lights.  The trade-off between the energy of the city and hours that slipped by without notice was worth every penny her farm had cost her.

      Parking the Suburban by the back door, Jane unloaded the plates onto the enclosed porch.  As she turned the knob into the kitchen, she paused, part of her listening still for Beau’s raucous greeting.  His bark should have shaken the house’s framing by now.  Sadness swept over her, a deep, bone-chilling grief she lived with every day. 

     She’d buried the Russian wolfhound near the pecan tree by the stable.  Beau’s affinity for horses hadn’t been returned by the equines he’d wanted as friends.  Nipping playfully at their heels, expecting a game of chase, he’d dodged too close to a cranky mare named Letty.  One hoof caught Beau under his chin, killing him instantly. 

     She’d run to his body, too late to save him, too late for the vet, in the middle of the yard, his blue eyes clouded with death, his skin growing cold.

     Her hands ached to stroke his fur, to run down his spine to his tickle spot, sending his tail beating against her leg.

     The quiet kitchen gave her no greeting.

     “I should get another dog,” she muttered, carting the precious glass plates into her darkroom. 

     She wouldn’t, however.  She seldom made a mistake like Beau. Everyone she loved died.  The horses had been purchased to serve as subjects for her art, nothing more. She’d become death’s child at the age of four and the Grim Reaper had settled in for the long haul.  Beau was just his most recent victim.  Eventually, death would cart her off too.  Often, when the quiet in her head threatened to explode, she wished it would be sooner rather than later.

     “Not tonight,” she protested as she jerked off her filthy clogs and tossed them by the back door. 

     Food.  Work.  The trappings of normalcy, or as close as she could come.  She shook herself out of memories of Beau by staring in her refrigerator. 

Nothing there.  Bread and peanut butter would be enough. She hauled them out of the pantry and made dinner.  Popping her answering machine on, she listened as a man’s voice on the recording boomed into her quiet sanctuary of a home.

     “Just making sure we’re on for tomorrow.  I’ll be in the cabin out back, let yourself in through the garden gate,” he continued after tossing his name out first.

     Grant Winston.  Former stock car Cup winner.   More money than God, and that was before his other enterprises.  Part interest in a professional baseball team.  Much to her shock, he was a Culvert neighbor.  None of her neighbors recognized the name as someone famous. In fact, was he just another farmer, raising big, black Angus cattle on his many acres, using hundreds more as an environmental refuge.  She knew that part had stumped the locals, who wondered why any farmer in his right mind wouldn’t use every acre to its fullest capacity.

     Evidently, the environmentalists backed by Grant wanted to use his image in an ad campaign. A Jane Lewis portrait had been his request, her agent told her, and since her astronomical price had been accepted, Jane was stuck.  She’d really hoped she wouldn’t have to do another portrait, and her fee would force them to turn her down.  Evidently, Grant Winston wanted her and no one else, her agent had told her when she’d called with the bad news.

     Chewing on the sandwich, Jane flopped on the ancient couch in the front room and threw her feet onto the hassock.  She was in no mood to pamper some fancy, spoiled stock car racer with more money than sense.  Not that her portraits were flattering, even when the subject sizzled with natural beauty.  Beneath the skin and bone, blood and tendons, everyone was a skeleton.  Eschewing color, Jane found the core within each subject in brutal black and white.  

     Often, the results weren’t pretty.  In fact, if you looked at the Beauty to Ashes series, they were far from it.  Grant Winston would get what he wanted, a true Jane Lewis.  If he didn’t like it, well, tough.  As a neighbor, she seldom saw him.  Picking up dog food for Beau, she’d spied him now and then at the Southern States store, that was all.  His name had meant nothing to her.  It still didn’t.  Nascar and stock car racing held no interest for her, even if it seemed that every man in town sported a ball cap with a number 24 or 8 emblazoned on the bill.

     A raindrop struck the porch’s tin roof with a quick ping.  Another followed.  Pulling her thoughts from Beau, Jane tried to remember if she’d rolled up the driver’s window in the Suburban. Rain had drenched the valley for a month, making it the wettest spring in memory.  She’d pulled into her yard in a rare lull in the deluge, sucking in fresh air through the opened windows like a drowning victim. 

     A flash of lightning followed by a roof-shaking burst of thunder jerked her to her feet.  Summer storms in the valley had brutalized the lower-lying areas, swelling creeks over roads and into basements with sudden savagery. Oblivious to the rain that now pounded her, she hurried into the yard, car keys in her hand.

     Sure enough, she’d left the window down.  Inside, she turned on the power and pressed the button that raised it. As rain sluiced down the windshield, she relaxed into the leather seat, careless of her wet clothes, her soaked hair.  She loved the sound made by rain on the roof.  The downpour promised air cleansed, even if only for a few morning hours, of the humidity that bore down on the valley this time of year.  Crisp light. Clarity for her lenses.  If the storm blew over before morning, she’d try her pinhole camera.

     First, though, she’d check on the horses. Braving the pelting rain, she popped out of the Suburban and raced for the old barn.  Chris would have brought them in from the pasture and fed them.  Eleven years old, he lived in a rundown farm house on the north side of her property, a small buffer between her farm and that of Grant Winston.  Chris showed up at her door one day and offered to take care of the three animals in return for riding rights.  She’d been glad to take him up on it. 

     The horses embodied beauty to her, nothing else.  Chris had shown her their power and personalities, and along with his lessons, she’d grown to know and admire this resilient child who refused to let anything stand in his way.  If he continued to grow at his current rate, however, he’d never become the jockey he believed was his destiny.  Maybe, Jane mused, staring at the storm from the safety of the barn door, she’d find a way to get him some work with a trainer.  Trainers didn’t have to weigh a hundred pounds. 

     Inside the barn, the horses wickered with the next clap of thunder.  Jane checked each one, stroking soft muzzles to calm them as Chris had taught her.  Unsettled but fine, she decided, as she returned to the opened door to risk a run to the porch.

     The torrent rampaging across the muddy paddock swept soil like a broken dam across the ungrassed yard between house and barn.  Shoeless, Jane didn’t worry as she stepped into the muddy mess. Head down, she raced for the house, cold water pummeling  her back. 

     A large lump of cloth and something else, something that seemed familiar, caught her eye.  Skidding to a stop, she shoved rain-soaked hair from her eyes.  Not here, not now.  She’d just driven back from the Body Farm.  How could this be in her own back yard?

     Not this, but she.  Touching the fabric, caked with mud and debris, Jane made out a flower pattern.  A bit of tattered lace.  A mother-of-pearl button.  A skull.  Bones tangled in what remained of a dress.

     A dead woman.

Fresh Eyes

Taxes. Oh my stars. Hate the whole deal. The paperwork, getting the paperwork together, adding receipts, forgetting something crucial after a ton of work which will have to be redone... Shoot me now.

So to give myself something to look forward to, I'm going to post bits of works I haven't yet given to the reading world. I'm hoping you all will give me honest comments. My writing group has gone into hibernation (because I can't be available, my fault totally), so I need fresh eyes. Anyone willing to give it a go?

                                                SAVING THE SUN GOD
                                                         By Tracy Dunham


Chapter 1

            The day my father was murdered, I bought a Sig Sauer because the goateed guy told me the handgun would stop a three hundred pound crack addict on a high. I also paid cash for a permit and a box of ammunition. Then I drove into the country until I found a dead tree in the middle of a field choked with weeds, and I pulled the trigger until my arm ached and my finger throbbed and I finally stopped crying.

            I wanted to kill the FBI agent who talked my father into helping him recover a stolen Vermeer in some cheap hotel room in Copenhagen. The men who’d stolen the Vermeer killed my father and got away with the money and the painting.  The image of my father dying on a dirty hotel floor ate holes into my gut. Before I go after his killers, though, I am going to terminate the man who put my father in harm’s way.

            That my father would risk his life for a Vermeer wasn’t beyond my comprehension. What made me so furious was that my mother and I had no idea he’d signed on to play hero. My gentle, antiques expert father, with his owlish glasses, his shiny bald head, and rounded shoulders should never have been recruited in the first place.

            Now, at least I’m not in jail for murder, which is a good thing, since my mother lost her mind the minute she heard about my father’s death. Cameron Loudon was the center of her life, and I was part of the circumference. Isabelle Langly Loudon, my mother, art and antiques dealer with my father, now spends her days making ornate, museum quality picture frames that hold nothing but air.

            I should have moved into the family business after finishing my graduate work at Winterthur and a doctorate in art history from Yale, but there’s no way I can drag my mother back into the life she knew with my father. She’d probably stop gluing and gilding the frames she makes day and night, and slit her wrists with an X-Acto Knife. So I took a job teaching art history in a small college in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where I try to enlighten kids who prefer their art on their iPods, pixilated and miniscule, to slides of the stolen Vermeer that got my father’s throat cut.

            I keep the Sig Sauer in my desk drawer, and whenever I’m sick of grading idiotic freshmen essays on the similarities between Titian and Andy Warhol, I imagine what I’ll do when I meet the man who led my father to his death and my mother into madness.

            Now, I know how to use the gun. And I will. When I find him.
______________________________________________________________________________

Chapter 2

“You really shouldn’t burn those.”

            Leslie is a former student I hired to watch my mother while I’m lecturing or holding office hours. She’s a lanky girl with long mousy hair and thick glasses, the same sort of nearsighted my father was. I think that’s one reason why I hired her. That, and the fact that after she graduated, she drifted into my office one day and said she thought I needed her and she needed a job, and she liked my mother, so I should hire her.

            I have no idea why she gravitated to my mother while she was an undergrad, but I’d come home and find her in my tiny kitchen, having a cup of tea with mama, chatting away about the latest Hollywood gossip while my mother nodded and smiled and didn’t answer.

            She hasn’t talked in two years. My mother, not Leslie. Leslie has a running mouth that would drive me to distraction if I had to be with her eight hours a day, but her chatter seems to calm mama down. When Leslie’s around, she works less maniacally on the frames, and Leslie makes sure mama doesn’t start swallowing glue or nailing her hand to the workbench.

            The elegantly coiffed woman with a chignon and classic Chanel suits now wears a pony tail, when I can get her to sit still long enough to tie one, and baggy shirts over sweat pants. Feet that strode in three-inch heels handmade in Italy now shuffle along in sneakers with untied shoelaces. I used to dab some Joy perfume behind her ears, hoping the scent would wake her out of her malaise, but she bats me away now when I try it.

            I’ve collected today’s output of picture frames, only two, thank God, and per usual, I’m headed for the college’s waste burning facility. Usually, I toss them in the heap headed for the fire simply because there’s no place for any more empty frames in the tiny, two bedroom house I’ve been assigned on faculty row. All the little brick houses, with their 1960s sameness, share an anonymity I crave.

            Before my father’s murder, my mother would have slept on the sidewalks in London before agreeing to live in such blandness.

            “Why shouldn’t I burn them?” I’m willing to give Leslie a say in this. I really don’t care about the damned things.

            “Let’s have this conversation outside. Will you excuse us, please, Mrs. Langly?” Leslie pats mama’s hand and gives me a look, which has become, strangely, adult.

            She moves the teapot closer to mama. “The tea’s still warm if you’d like another cup, Mrs. Langly,” Leslie tells her.

            Mama stares at the table as if reading an enthralling book.

            I’m always startled when my mother and I are addressed as “Langly.” Even after two years, it sounds odd, as if we’re not real people, but actors in some bizarre play.

            I’ve taken my mother’s maiden name and made sure everyone uses it for her too. After father’s murder, the FBI couldn’t offer any assurances that the art thieves who killed him wouldn’t come after us. Father was well known in the art world, as was mother. The federal agent who briefed me implied that the thieves might assume mama was in on the scam to steal the Vermeer back, and revenge was a definite possibility, especially since the ransom money, all brand new American dollars, disappeared into the void. The Vermeer’s thieves were madder than Rasputin that they didn’t end up with the cash, feeling, as amoral idiots are wont, that they deserved it and the Vermeer.

            The man who warned me had a twitch at the corner of his left jaw and fingers that tapped his knees. When his eyes refused to meet mine, I knew the threat was worse than he’d said. “Take measures to protect yourselves,” he said.

            Leslie and I stand on the front porch, which is really just a concrete stoop, and I’m not paying too much attention. Everything’s out of kilter these days: the weather, my temper, mama’s frame-making mania. I just want to shut my eyes and make the world reverse two years.

            Leslie’s explaining something to me about having senior art students learn framing from mama, when I realize there’s a car coming up the hill, one I don’t recognize. Faculty row is jammed with older Toyotas and Subarus, economical cars that suit young and newly minted PhDs, counting the days until the tenure vote. The black Mercedes with tinted windows defies the norm.

            “Whose car is that?” Interrupting Leslie, I nod at the Mercedes. “Seen it around lately?” I can’t see the license plates clearly enough to tell if they’re in-state.

            Glancing at the car, Leslie shakes her head. “Some rich kid coming to check out the school, probably heading up to the stables to see if it’ll be good enough for the horses she’s planning on bringing.”

            A plausible explanation, I think, until I notice the driver’s wearing dark sunglasses and has a grim mouth. My distance vision, much better than my ability to see up close, seldom fails me. Instincts for self-preservation jump through the barrier of my seasonal malaise and I grab Leslie’s arm and shove her into the house.

            “Get mama,” I hiss, trying to remember my plan, “and take her out the back door. Go to the stables through the trail in the woods.”

            A line of old forest rims the small back yards on Faculty Row. Riding students trot along an uneven trail looping through it to reach the lower campus to avoid leaving horse droppings on the road. When I’m tired of hiding in my office, I strike out on the trail, stalking its dirt path from its end at the highway a couple of miles uphill to its end at the main entrance to the school.

            "Why, what's wrong?" Leslie's staring at me as if I've grown horns and fangs.

            I glance at mama, unsure how much I should say to Leslie with mama within hearing distance. When mama’s eyes lift to mine, I’m shocked at the recognition in them.

            “There may be a problem. I don’t want you and my mother here, that’s all. It’s probably nothing, but I’d like you to do as I’ve asked, and get out of here. Now.” Taking mama’s hand, I pull her to her feet as gently as possible, but Leslie’s frowning at me as if she’s contemplating calling Social Services to report a case of elder abuse.

            “Mama, it’s okay, I can handle it.” I need my Sig Sauer, just in case, and then I’ll feel like facing whatever’s coming up the hill in that black Mercedes. “Go with Leslie and pat the horses. I’ll be up to join you in a bit.”

            Leading mama to the back door, I practically shove her out of it. “Leslie, don’t argue,” I interrupt as her mouth opens and I recognize the stubborn glare in her eyes. “This isn’t the time, do as I ask, right now. Stay in the woods and don’t come back until I fetch ya’ll. Do you understand?”

            My dreams, night after night, exhausted me as I tried to work out an escape plan from the college, should we need one. In every one, I was as unprepared as I am now. Yet the woods figured in each panicked flight through my nightmares, offering the only hope of safety. I’m nowhere near as prepared as I thought I was. In fact, I’m about to lose it.

            “How long…?”

            “I don’t know. Now go,” I watch Leslie tug mama across the small grassy area towards the first tree line while my mother stumbles and turns to me, her eyes, I swear, imploring me to come with them. I wish I could.

            The Sig Sauer is in my room beside the kitchen. Fumbling in the drawer of the bedside table, I grab it and slip in the full clip I keep with it. Women my age sleep with condoms nearby – I keep a weapon instead.

            Fisting it into my hand, I’m at once relieved and terrified. Even with hours of practice, I doubt I’m going to be any match for a professional who kills for a living. My only chance is that whoever wants us, mama and me, wants the money more. The money that disappeared while my father bled to death on the floor of a cheap hotel room. The money the FBI agent said was in a briefcase one minute, and gone the next, along with the Vermeer. Neither have surfaced in two years, and the bad guys and the FBI are royally pissed. The bad guys expressed their displeasure by killing my father. Even though the FBI says the money didn’t go home with their agent, I’ve always wondered.

            So I am both maniacally angry and worried. I feel as if hours have crept by while I argued with Leslie about taking mama to the stables, but when I check, peering through the front curtains like a neighborhood gossip, I see the Mercedes hasn’t yet made it as far as our house. If they’re looking for us, mama and me, they saw me with Leslie on the front stoop. Running will only send them after mama, so I need to handle this on my own.

            I’ve never understood the expression about knees knocking up with fright, but I do now. My hand frozen on the Sig Sauer’s grip, I have no idea if I can shoot someone I haven’t dreamed of killing. Revenge is one thing, but this may be another.

            Sure enough, the Mercedes stops in front of my tiny house. I wait for what seems like hours. Finally, a door snicks open. Somewhere where I don’t want to face this, I’m thinking about German engineering and its precision, realizing their standards apply to weapons as well as cars. Thank God.

            “Dr. Loudon?” Sunglass Man, his shoulders straining the seams of his dark jacket, wears a black shirt, opened at a very large neck. No chest hair peeps out. His skin is as pale as a grub’s.

            “Sorry, no. Can I help you?” I pray I sound as nonchalant as I think I do.

            “My employer wishes to speak with you,” His English is accented, but his meaning in clear. “Dr. Loudon.”

            “I’m sorry, you have the wrong person. Check with security in the administration building. Better yet, I’ll call them for you.”

            “Don’t do that.”

            Before I realize he’s moved, he’s striding up the walk to the stoop. My instincts say run, but I’m tired of my instincts. For two years, I’ve waited for this moment, and now that it’s here, I’m not about to give in to my fears. Not again. I don’t know what’s changed, but I want this to be over with, once and for all.

            “My wife told you she’s not the person you’re looking for. Is there a problem?”

            Jumping at the sound of a voice coming from behind me, I twirl and fall face-forward into the arms of a man about six inches taller than I, blocking the door to my house.

            “Who’re you?” I blurt into his shoulder, where he’s pressed my head with one large hand as his other splays against my lower back.

            His chest hard against mine, I fight to free myself until I realize it’s useless. He’s as strong as anyone I’ve ever met, although, granted, academicians and antiques dealers don’t tend to work out much, if at all.

            “Shut up and do as I say.” Whispering in my ear, he jerks me behind him, hiding me as effectively as a brick wall. I’m insanely grateful I don’t have to face Sunglass Man by myself, but still, how the heck did he get into my house?

            “What the…?” I stumble into the small foyer, sure I’m in the middle of some bizarre dream. Hunching over, I can see what’s happening on the walkway from under my fake husband’s arm. The Sig Sauer seems awfully small in comparison to these two men, facing each other like gunfighters in a spaghetti Western.

            I just hope my guy has the faster draw. I like his size compared to Sunglass Man’s, but that doesn’t mean he’s quick. He’s wearing a worn denim shirt, smelling like it needs a good wash. I don’t care, he’s between me and Sunglass Man.

            “No problem. We’re looking for Isabelle Loudon, and we understand she’s living with her daughter, here at the college. Her daughter Francesca.” Sunglass Man spreads his legs, his knees slightly bent as if he’s getting ready to leap, his hands crossed under his jacket.

            “No one here on Faculty Row by that name. Like my wife said.”

            “I’m calling Security,” I croak from behind the dark-haired man who’s taken over my house and seems to know why I’m terrified of the Mercedes and its occupant. Words has a hard time emerging when there’s a huge, scary lump in your throat.

            The older men who form the campus security force, most of them retired from the military, are no match for the hunk of muscle blocking my walkway. I don’t want them hurt any more than I want to die. I’m all bluff, but no one needs to know that.

            “You heard the lady. Good day.”

            If someone talked to me in that tone of voice, I’d turn tail and run like the wind.

            My intruder’s shoulders are as wide as those on Sunglass Man, looming on the sidewalk. Turning his head slightly, his eyes still on the front door, my imposter of a husband slams it shut behind him. His eyes blue and dark with intensity, he gives me what he probably thinks is a smile, but the lines beside his mouth look as if they hurt.

            “Run. Don’t stop until I find you.”

            I have no idea how he got into my house or where he came from, but as far as I’m concerned, I’ve been given another chance. To heck with facing my fears and fighting them out on Faculty Row. If my savior is half as smart as he is handsome, he knows what he’s talking about. Twirling, I try to race for the back door, my heart thumping peanut butter and my feet encased in leaden shoes. The horror of my nightmares floods over me, carrying me into the fear that I’ll scream and no one will hear, that my mother will bleed to death at my feet, and I won’t be able to move to help her. I can’t get beyond the kitchen.

            “Didn’t you hear me? He’ll kill you and your mother.” His words, almost a hiss, cut through the images terrorizing my paralyzed brain.

            Facing him, my hands knuckled into a knot over my pounding heart; I can’t move a muscle. “I know that. I’ve got a gun.”

            “Can you use it?” He darts into the kitchen, glancing around the room as if expecting to find a rocket launcher on the counters. “Any other weapons?”

            Wow. He sure changed tactics quickly.

            “Who’re you?” Why would he think I have a stash of guns, for heaven’s sake?

            “It doesn’t matter who I am. Where’s your mother? I’ll get her out of here too. Keep the gun handy.”

            The pounding on the front door added to the knees quivering despite my best efforts to still them. “Gone. I sent her away when I saw the Mercedes.”

            “Will he find her?” His hands envelop my shoulders, and I feel safer the instant he touches me.

            Now is not the time to fall in love, but I think I am doomed to do so if this man can get us out of this horror show in one piece.   I shake my head. It’ll take mama and Leslie at least twenty-five minutes to reach the stables by following the horse trail, as slow as mama walks. “I’ll call the stables and ask the groom to hide them somewhere.”

            “Do it.” Pulling a weapon from his shoulder harness, my mystery man flattens himself against the kitchen wall, facing the front door sideways. “From a bedroom phone, Stay out of sight.”

            There’s no time to dart into my room before the front door splinters and Sunglass Man barrels inside, both hands fisted on the biggest gun I’ve ever seen. Frozen in the kitchen, I know now’s my chance to kill the bastard, whoever he is.

            But I can’t get the Sig Sauer out of my pocket.

Rule breaking

When my daughter was a senior in high school, the administration declared Senior Prank Day dead. Basically, it was a senior tradition that in the spring, the graduating seniors would do something silly, like wear crazy clothes and cartwheel in the hallways, etc. It didn't involve anything dire or dangerous. But as old white men who are principals in large high schools are wont to do, the principal decided he'd had enough. Anyone participating in Senior Prank Day would be suspended. I thought the whole thing ridiculous and said so.

My daughter is a rule follower. In fact, she gets very annoyed at those who don't follow the rules. I'm very grateful for her sense of obedience and basic inability to get into trouble on purpose, but I'd been hoping she'd screw up at least once before she turned 18. After all, that's what the teen years are for. Make mistakes while you're young, learn from them, and go forward a wiser person into adulthood.

So when she came home from school and said she'd been suspended for participating in Senior Prank Day, I couldn't help but give her a high-five. "Yes!" I crowed. "Good for you!"

She couldn't believe it. Here I was, her mother the lawyer, ecstatic she'd broken the rules and been suspended. Only it wasn't true. She was pulling my leg. She and I had a good laugh, and I gave up my hopes she'd ever misbehave. I was cursed with a perfect daughter, something I'd never been. How could I have gotten so lucky?

Rule breaking has its place, however. Passive resistance, freedom marches, the Underground Railroad, the Suffragettes, you name it, there's a history of changing the ways things have always been by breaking the law or shaking up the status quo. Fighting for justice, equality, and the basic freedoms of all mankind haven't come cheap. Lives have been lost, empires have fallen, good people have done what needed doing to bring about change no matter the personal cost. I admire them all.

Writers need to break the rules, too. We need to take the story where it needs to go, and if it's not comfortable or acceptable in the unhallowed halls of modern publishing behemoths, too bad. The book will find its audience. Nothing can stop a right idea.




Can't tell you

how many blog posts I've written in my head. Fat lot of good that does. Words slip away with the next project as easily as melting snow in the sun.  When I'm composing in my mind, it's all pithy, witty, or relevant (I'll settle for one of the three), and I go on my  merry way, feeling as if I've actually put the fingers on the keyboard.

A lot of writing is like that. Bits and pieces get stored in my brain until I think I'll explode, bone and hair all over the walls.  That's part of my process. I think about a story, a character, a scene for years until it's time for it to get the heck out of the little gray cells (as Poirot calls it) and onto something more permanent.  Wait a minute, I, of all people, should know there's nothing permanent or protected about a hard or jump drive. I have too many 3" disks that can't be read anymore, they've deteriorated so much.  And that's why there are boxes of manuscripts sitting in my attic. Everything I do goes on paper in the end. Not that paper survives, but at least it'll last as long as I do. I hope. Fire and flood notwithstanding.

Right now I have a story thread, and I mean a slim thread, banging in the frontal lobes. I really like it, but I'm not sure what to do with it. It'll get there, or it won't. If it slips away in the night, it wasn't meant to end up on paper.

I just finished Tana French's Broken Harbor. I love her writing, but I fear that her lovelies won this book over plot. The theme -there is no why - got hammered in once too often.  It felt as if she went back and inserted the theme in just those words to make sure it got recognized in the midst of the poetic prose and clever craft. Not my favorite book of hers. I did love one character though - a total original, a failure in some ways in his life, but great success as a character. He's the true innocent, a man who cares too much. Liked him way better than the hero.

And now it's January, that gray, ugly, and barren month. I swear I'll wear red just to perk things up, but I find myself instinctively reaching for black, just to fit in with the this month's mood. Good time to write scary stuff.

Attic Finds

I was putting wrapping paper and gift boxes away in the attic, and couldn't believe it when I unearthed a hat box containing these two treasures. The one with tulle is my wedding hat, made by my mother from antique lace. The other is part of my mother's wedding veil, made by her mother from real Brussels lace.  I thought them both long lost.

My wedding dress was designed by Becky Besoulis, a Chicago designer known for her leather and lace creations in the eighties. My dress was exquisite lace over silk jersey - very unbride-like but perfect for me. My mother's gown looked like a pale pink explosion of tulle and lace. She refused to wear white because it made her freckles stand out. I played dress-ups for years in it, and its hoop skirt petticoat lasted even longer.

Wasted effort

I am ticked. About a book. A book with real style. A solid story premise at the start.  Great cover. And it fell apart in the last quarter. I don't get it. Where are today's editors and why aren't they doing their jobs? When there's a hole in the logic of a story, that's unforgivable. I can only imagine there was a rush to get the book out, and no one noticed the glaring question, never satisfactorily answered, of why the hero wanted to kill the heroine in the beginning. And one sentence seems to be all the explanation the reader gets as to why he changed his mind. Blah!

Remember J.K. Rowling's first mystery written under the nom de plume of  Robert Galbraith, I think?  Liked the sleuth a ton. Decent mystery. But there was never an explanation for why the murderer hired the hero to find the killer - himself. Yikes!

I've read lots of books with super first three chapters, and after that, the mundane and banal is all we get on the printed page. As a writer, I think I know what happened. The author polished the heck out of the first three chapters to get the book sold based on the beginning and an outline. After that, the deadline interfered with the same level of commitment to rewrites. It is a sad truth of the industry.

I won't buy any more books by this author, which is a shame. But I won't be fooled a second time by a killer cover and super opening chapter.


Third Grade, 1953

My DH's 50th high school reunion was held this past summer. For a variety of reasons, we didn't go, though we'd planned on it. Anyway, he just received a packet of nostalgic items from the reunion organizers, including a booklet containing the bios of classmates, their updates about their lives, and a picture of the third grade classroom many of them were in together. All thirty of them.

My DH's classmates have led interesting and constructive lives. Many, many have found ways to contribute to justice and the environment, while quite a few chose to teach. His generation was one of givers - even though they were in the thick of the Vietnam era and had to serve in the military. It's as if one bad hand was parlayed into a winning game, and they took advantage of it. I must admit my admiration.Those Midwesterners know how to do the right thing, and do it they did.

 But the most interesting part of the packet for me was the third grade class picture. Most of those seven and eight year olds graduated from high school together, and their lives are open books to one another. One girl killed herself not long after cap and gown time, another died of cancer. Some lost their lives later, and like young men in my class, several came home from Vietnam in body bags. Some married high school sweeties, only to divorce down the road, and being good Midwesterners, they were embarrassed by the failures of their marriages. It's an interesting amalgamation of old-fashioned with the seismic shift of values that roared in with the sixties. I was younger then, and my high school life was in the throes of the sixties revolution, while my DH's was out of college and being drafted. Those few years made quite a difference.

I also didn't grow up with the same people my entire life. Leading a nomadic life was the norm for both of my parents, as well as my brother and me. Friendships lasted the length of an assignment, then it was on to the next school where you were the new kid all over again. While there were many obvious drawbacks (three different teachers for me in third grade, three different high schools), I learned how to be happy wherever I was. Friends and cliques didn't define me. I never felt the need to conform. I was who I was.

Yet I wish I could hear from my third grade classmates (at least one classroom) and find out what defined their next fifty-six years. How did they make it through the sixties? Or did they implode? I'll never know. It's like a wonderful book I'll never get to read.

I envy my DH his deep roots.

Thanksgiving 1967

Thanksgiving was always white linens, sparkling silverware, and the good china in our house. My mother believed in family sit down dinners, big time. Often, we were living where Thanksgiving wasn't even a holiday ( always felt wrong to me, I mean, who doesn't believe in giving thanks?), but we still had a big family feast. Aspic with celery, ambrosia, oyster stuffing, wild rice, asparagus, etc.

In November of 1967, or it could have been '66, I'm not sure, my mother had invited a large number of Americans working for the embassy in Ankara.  She'd snagged some celery root for the aspic (buying celery stalks was unheard of in Turkey back then), and she and the cook had been working on the dinner for days. Tables were set, crystal sparkled, and we were ready for the traditional American feast, a tiny reminder of home in a foreign land.

Unfortunately, there was a political and military crisis involving Cyprus or Israel, I don't remember which, and everyone was locked down in the embassy. Twenty-four hour work went into effect, and our Thanksgiving dinner was over before a forkful was lifted to lips.  Mama arranged plates of food and sent them to the embassy via the embassy driver.  Then she, my brother, and I surveyed the remnants.

My mother's aspic was famous in our family, but it didn't travel well. Twenty-four aspics remained on the fancy tables. My brother and I took one look at each other, grabbed silver forks, and began eating.  I still remember that aspic as the best Thanksgiving dinner, ever.

I've never been able to duplicate that memory of my mother's aspic satisfactorily.

What's in a name?

Recently, I called about setting up a new account with a company I've never dealt with before. The young woman on the phone (probably younger than my kids) said she couldn't do it in my name with my husband 's because we had two different last names. I almost dropped the phone but managed to sputter, " but we're married!"

No deal. Their system couldn't handle it, even though women have used their real names, not their husbands' last names, since I was a youngling in the women's lib movement. I've handled all the prior incredulity over our different last names with some aplomb and a modicum of grace, I like to think, over the past thirty years or so. My own mother gave me grief, and she was quite the feminist.

But for some reason, this recent impasse really ticked me off.  I was fuming around until my husband (to whom I offered  my last name when we married, but he declined ), placed it in perspective for me.

" How 1950s of them, " he chuckled, and went back to what he was doing. Okay dear, I get your point.  I can't control antiquated thinking.  Rant over.

But I can't help thinking how odd it is that I can write under multiple names, and no one blinks an eye.


A Quiet Place

I have a home office.  Love it. Filled with bookshelves, lots of windows and light, favorite pictures, and a desk, I've spent many hours here writing. When our tabby was with us, he would curl up in my lap while I typed away and keep my  lap warm. When a book wasn't behaving, he'd helpfully pounce on the keyboard to make it straighten up and fly right.

Now, though, my office has become a sort of family hub. Everyone wants to congregate in here, and why the heck not? The comfy wing chair with its own over-the-shoulder light is perfect for reading. The conversation is usually lively. We enjoy each other's company. But. . . .

I need alone time. Crave it. One cat is all I can handle when working full tilt on a book. So when the perfect solution presented itself, I pounced. More later, with pictures, when everything is finalized. No, not leaving my husband or ditching les enfants.  We're even adopting two cats. (It'll take two to replace one wonderful tabby.) But I can't wait.

I've been thinking of new stories and characters. The old ones are so well engrained, I'm wondering if I want to play with them for the next year or so. It's hard to leave the familiar, but I'm ready, I think, to take the plunge. Growing up, we moved every few years, so change isn't anything new. But it has been a while.

If I'm not here for a while, you'll know what's happening. Sort of.