Four Damn Days

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Raymie was with me until he saw a run-boat set adrift in the crest, jumped out and fetched it in. He offered me a spot, but I trusted him less than the cops who told me to evacuate. He took most of my water and all of my food, piled it into that boat until it was almost under. I couldn’t have gone noways.

Four damn days I was on that roof, smelling the flood stink and watching the driftwaters. I saw the damnedest things, including a couple bodies. Don’t know who they was on account they stayed face down.

 

Friday Fictoneers

Bad Bargain

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It was the sort of thing you might see in a comedy: the husband, slightly daft, is taken advantage of by a sharper who sells him a bit of beachfront property in a prime location for what seems to be an impossibly low price, especially for more than three thousand square feet with an ocean view.  He keeps it secret from his wife, telling her instead he has a surprise for her and to keep her questions to herself. “All will be revealed in time,” said with a sly and knowing smile.

And then, of course, the punchline. The address on the direction leads to a small shack hardly the size of an outhouse. It is constructed of thick concrete block set with an iron door.

“At least the key works,” the husband says uneasily, turning the great lock with creaking difficulty. A set of steps leads down to a tunnel rimed with salt and damp as any tomb, ancient conduit dull with rust running along the ceiling with the occasional dim bulb every dozen feet or so.

The deeded property as written is for one of the old war fortifications at St. Margaret’s Bay on the South Foreland coast, a glassless machine gun emplacement jutting out over the sea itself, the naked gales howling through it like an enormous flute.

“A coat of paint and a couple windows installed will do wonders,” he says in a voice utterly devoid of conviction.

 

Sunday Photo Fiction

Three Novels

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In the late spring of of 2013, my father was stricken with a swift and sudden illness that took him from a reasonably healthy 76-year-old to a bottled oxygen-dependent invalid in a matter of a few hours. In a few weeks, he was dead. In his final days, he was unable even to speak.

My father, a man who lived for the spoken word, a consummate storyteller who almost never wrote anything down, left only memories in his wake. I had no letters, no stories, not even a tape recording of his soft and wonderful voice.

A couple of weeks after he died, my ex moved a couple thousand miles away, taking my younger daughter with her. My elder daughter went off to college in New York the same day.

Sitting there in my empty apartment, my girls’ rooms now little more than shrines to what once was, I took a solid inventory and found my life wanting.  More than wanting, I found my life downright empty. A hollow grief, then, and one  I could neither escape nor numb as I had escaped and numbed all grief that came before.  So what then? This I asked myself.

The answer came from my father, from all he did and did  not do. He did tell stories, marvelous stories full of rich humor, irony, tragedy, and redemption. Stories about his past, my family’s past, about Gilgamesh and Jack Aubrey and Gus McCrae. He told stories of his grandmother and my grandmother, of his daughter, of his friends. All of his stories changed in the telling– that, he always said, was the point and why he disliked writing anything down –but they were always true (though not strictly factual), and they were never dull.

But as I said: he did not write them down. He had notes, sketches, summaries, but no finished work. Certainly nothing that had gone through a revision process or the hands of an editor. He was the only professor I heard of who never published anything after his doctoral thesis. Not a paper, not an essay, not a book or short story.

He did write, though. He wrote a poem about our old dog dying that was deeply moving. I’m told he wrote some short stories, but the only one I read was a draft  called My Father’s Dreams in which he told of his dad dreaming of a boy, a former employee,  who dies in war. I remember but a single line from that story: My father’s dreams, lost in expostulation and reply. The other parts of the story are tangled up with the ones Dad told many times.

And rich as his stories were, they weren’t novels. He told me he wanted to write a novel about our family, sort of an Angle of Repose about the Arizona territory. He took copious notes, but no novel came out of it.

So I wanted to learn by what he did not do. As Faulkner says in Shingles for the Lord: “Only think I know about work is until it’s done it ain’t done and when it’s done it is.”

A novel. That’s a shit-ton of work.

I liked some novels and hated others. Some of them died in the third act, some died earlier. But some were perfect. The Great Gatsby was the first perfect novel I read. The Shipping News. The Ogre. Gilead. Post Captain. The Adventures of Augie March.  What made them great? Why did I like them? And how in the hell could I ever write one?

Czeslaw Milosz said of the novel:
A novel should interest, thrill, and move us. If it does not, it lacks the traits of a true novel. By nature sentimental and melodramatic, it resembles a fairy tale. This has often been forgotten from the moment the novel was charged with a multitude of duties.

So I set out on this terrible, thankless task. I had no idea what to do. I just started writing. No outline, no idea other than one: I wanted to write a novel my dad would like.

I decided the subject should involve a shared love of ours, B-17 bombardiers. Once, when I was about ten, my dad and I watched a WW2 propaganda movie called Bombardier. Dad knew a lot about the planes and the job, about the missions and the bombsight and even their leather jackets. In that one evening, I fell in love with them too. I built several models of B-17s and read all about them. For a number of years this lay dormant, but Ken Burns’s documentary The War brought it fully to life in my mind. I wanted to write about that.

But soon I learned that a  novel needs more than setting. It needs to have a plot. It needs to have tension and stakes. But most of all, it needs people you care about, people in whom you have an investment so that when they are in peril, the peril becomes your own. I dusted off an old character of mine from a neglected vignette. In that story, a washed up salesman named Hews goes back to the Catholic orphanage where he was raised. It was long on atmosphere and short on story, but the character was there. I renamed him Hawes after a bebop pianist I admire, Hampton Hawes, and started writing. He came to life almost immediately, especially when I added a friend to the mix. The friend I named Meyer, an obvious homage to John D. MacDonald. And lastly I added an enemy. Of all three of these, I suppose I bear the most resemblance to the enemy.

As for the story, it took many, many drafts. I was fortunate to lose my job and have a number of months where I did little but write, sometimes eight or nine hours a day. National Novel Writing Month came and went, and I finished 50,000 words in about two weeks. Then came revisions and corrections. My unemployment left me too poor to afford an editor, and I was too scared to find an agent. So instead I published it myself, learning all the pitfalls of that firsthand. Revising, correcting, revising. Eventually I called it good and Hawser  made its debut in late 2014, about fifteen months after I started it. It never sold very well, but I never tried very hard. I have been told it’s a good book by people who don’t normally like war stories. A couple of people even told me it made them gasp.

Confident, I started number two. It was a noir follow-up to the first, referring to it but not necessarily a sequel. The title, I thought, was a killer: Fifty-Cent Soul.  It’s a 1948 LA  detective story with plenty of celebrity cameos and a crazy plot that might make Raymond Chandler blush. It was very difficult for a lot of reasons. I believe I completely rewrote it three different times. Finally, I am calling it done. I am not publishing it myself this time. Instead, I’m seeking an agent.

Why? Because I just finished the third novel in what seems to be a trilogy, Miramar. This one I am especially proud of, since it’s an epic that starts in Alcatraz but largely takes place in revolutionary Cuba. It’s the biggest of the three at 120,000 words, but I hope it’s the best.

I have no illusions about literary success at my age, but I want to have the thrill of having somebody I don’t know and have never met pick up my book and feel that same fairy tale quality Milosz wrote of. I carry many characters from my favorite stories around in my head: Travis McGee, Abel Tiffauges, Scout Finch, Stephen Maturin, Yossarian, Ruthie from Fingerstone, Lady Bret Ashley. I hope that somebody might carry Viola Sykes or Schmecky or Hawser around with them the same way, that these characters will have a life of their own long after I too am dead.

 

Third Class Passage

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Perhaps it was the long despair of seasickness that kept him to his bunk as the Carpathia opened New York Harbor.

Perhaps it was fear.

He never spoke of it, the long nights of silently crying into his blanket as remorse overtook him, the longer days when he could not sleep and was left to wander the vast, anonymous ship where he knew nobody, loved nobody.

He stared for hours into the foaming wake, looked past it over the boundless horizon of slate sea.

What lay behind him and what lay ahead of him, the ship a lonely, perpetual present.

 

Friday Fictioneers

A Pyrenean Idyll

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Aitor shook his stick at  the BMW crawling its way up the steep road to Bayonne. “Fucking Germans,” he spat. “In a hurry to get to their hotel,  no doubt. Probably called ahead to have whores waiting for them.”

“Daddy!”  said Eguzkiñe, pretending to be shocked.

“It’s true, darling girl. All Germans are horny as goats. That’s why we we haven’t blown up this road. We don’t want them to get out of their cars.”

“Daddy! Please!”

“Imagine the crop of half-German bastards they’d leave. Three thousand years of Basque heritage ruined. And I’m only talking about the farm animals!”

 

 

Friday Fictioneers

American Express

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The boy had disappeared now, his promised bargain an obvious sham.

How could I be so stupid?  she thought. Then, that should be my mantra.

She tightened the strap on her purse and tugged it around so it lay flat on her belly. She imagined this would be how a mother might protect a newborn. Or perhaps a female kangaroo.

Everything was in the purse. Money, passport, credit cards. She mentally rehearsed what she might say at the consulate, assuming she survived. Istanbul was supposedly safe, but who knew, really?

She heard a sound behind her. The boy was laughing.

 

Friday Fictioneers

Hard, Cold

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Old John was safe buried by the time winter fell full, thank God. The bone-break cold came first, terrible weeks of it, the ground iron hard before the first snows came. At first we thought to conserve our coal and built niggardly fires you could snuff with one hand, but Maisie said we would run out of anything to burn save the roof over our heads well before spring would save us, so we might as well be warm in the meantime. It was a cruel logic,  but we saw the sense in it, and for a time lived comfortable.

 

Friday Fictioneers

An Episcopal Tour of English Architecture

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The boy let out a wail of dismay loud enough to be heard by the bus driver, who naturally assumed it was an emergency and braked so hard he threw the passengers sharply forward and spilled all manner of travel cups and canisters, drenching many a sweater and lap. It was just after they’d had stopped for tea, which only added to the misfortune.

And still the boy wailed, pitch and volume rising in tandem until even the most deaf of the geriatric tourists could hear him.

The boy’s grandfather was first on the scene, an ancient man with guard’s mustaches the color of old linen. He struck the screeching lad smartly on the shoulder with his swagger stick and commanded him to buck up. When this had no effect, the feeble grandmother shouldered in and took the now red-cheeked boy in arthritis-twisted hands, cooing and stroking his hair.

The boy wrenched from her grasp, insensible with rage and pain. He waved the dead game console above his head like a talisman and screamed over and over that he was bored.

 

Sunday Photo Fiction

John Lost Returns

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When he first left England he was a young man with no particular destination. He found himself months later in the hills of Cambodia, squatting by a cook fire and sharing millet from a single bowl with three strangers, the act of eating their only common language.

His name was acquired perhaps in Tibet or Nepal. By this time, the identity of the British boy had long since disappeared, along with any trace of accent. He hardly spoke anyway, mistrusting words, preferring the transient solidity of gesture.

She had found him at last, this long-ago sister who begged him to return.

 

Friday Fictioneers

Él No Se Pierda Este Día

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Father Estrella was drunk, but not too drunk to hear confession. Marco used to joke  it was better to have a drunk priest hear your litany of recent sins, since any righteousness on his part would be offset by the hypocrisy of his own weak soul– not that Father Estrella was ever especially righteous, even when sober.

“Say three Hail Marys and two Our Fathers,” said Father Estrella through the shutter, the wine on his breath giving the confessional a pothouse odor. “Go with God.”
She crossed herself and genuflected outside the booth, then hurried past the line of old women, wondering as always what sin a woman that old could commit.
Marco had said once that they likely borrowed sins from the radio plays, or else invented them altogether.
“But isn’t that blasphemy?” she asked, appalled.
“To a drunk priest?” he laughed.

The  square was bustling with villagers and merchants setting out painted skulls, cascarones, piñatas, and food for the fiesta. Bunting had been draped between trees and luminaria were set along the clean dirt paths. She heard somebody playing a trumpet in the distance. This would be the first Day of the Dead since Marco was killed. It had always been his favorite holiday.
“The only real holiday we have,” he  said.
She hoped he would come.
She hoped with all her heart.

 

Sunday Photo Fiction