Tuesday, November 25, 2014

First Shot (64)

The banging itself wasn't what brought Blow fully awake. He'd heard it before. It partially woke him hours earlier on the stinking couch where he'd crashed and fallen instantly asleep. Startled to imagine it might be Rust or Salzwedel returning after some mishap in their mission to take the wounded Donnie to the mainland, he struggled to his feet in a somnambulant daze and shuffled to the door. A quick peek outside revealed nothing but the same blackness and blasting rain that had made the journey from Rust's boat to the house a living nightmare. He still heard the banging but consigned it to something loose on the house the wind was torturing.

Monday, November 17, 2014

First Shot (63)

A gray wool blanket covering everything but her head, Sarah huddled knees up on the plank floor next to an orange-glowing kerosene heater. A hissing gas lantern nearby gave off a strange light that seemed a mix of fierce white with vague greenish-bluish tints. The odd color spectrum played theatrically on her face, adding to the intensity of the stare she'd fixed on Blow with a feral vigilance.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

First Shot (62)

Salzwedel was the first to see the light, or at least to recognize it aloud. The teacher's blurted “Look!” had an effect on Blow of mitigated surprise as his eyes already had registered the feeble glow while his mind had yet to process its significance. The luminance wavered like a dying moon's vestiges in the encompassing blackness. As an ocular phenomenon it fared poorly against the adversity of sporadic lightning sheets, warping rain and the intermittent flashes from Frank Rust's lantern as the old mariner navigated through unfriendly terrain.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Tree

It was known locally as The Hanging Tree. No history to corroborate the name that Sutton knew of, but he allowed there was enough circumstantial evidence. At least one if not others of its massive reach of sturdy horizontal branches might well have held a rope or more back in the day. And it was old enough. Sutton knew that. At least two centuries under its ragged bark. And huge. Hips big as an Asian elephant's. In fact, damned thing looked like the child of a wild night 'tween a mastodon and a giant squid. Frozen, though, were that the case, save for the trillions of leaflets waving like royal fingers in a parade.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

First Shot (61)

Follow the oyster shell road, follow the oyster shell road...
Although he doubted either Rust or Salzwedel would hear him, Blow struggled to quell a giggle forcing its way up in tribute to the munchkin voice that set to chirping in his head when Rust mentioned their immediate objective: the road he said his grandfather had built of oyster shells leading from the boat landing to his boyhood home somewhere beyond in the rain-blasted darkness.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

First Shot (60)

Blow knew immediately the clap wasn't right. It didn't follow any lightning, at least none he saw, and all of the thunder he'd heard up to then had been the low rumbling kind. This was the sharp, bone-jarring crack that comes almost simultaneously with a strike so near it scares you out of your wits. Its distance precluded such a visceral effect, but made it the more unsettling.

Shit,” muttered Rust, “shotgun.” He was staring inland where nothing could be seen beyond various intensities of black. Soon the howling started. It sounded at first like the baying of a wolf followed by a coyote's yips. The second time, as the wind paused for a gasp, the howl rose in volume and pitch until it had become a shriek, sustained maddeningly until the next wailing surge of wind shattered it into fragments. The men looked at each other.

Monday, October 27, 2014

First Shot (59)

Blow was watching the egg yolk sun darken to a rich orange as it spread toward the horizon when a ragged black maw reached up and snapped it out of the sky, swallowing it whole. Suddenly it was night. A black night as there was no other light, no moon, no stars. Then, as if the sun gave out a last brilliant gasp in its struggle to live, a blinding silver incandescence lit the entire sky. The flash lasted less than a second, Blow reckoned, but it burned a vestigial image into his retinas of furious coiling nimbi seemingly all around overhead.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Last First Trip (a review)

Ground control to Major Tom.
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
You can? Good. Or bad, I mean. Bad news, that is. We have a new president.
Yup. That's the one. She's cut the NASA budget to smithereens.
Smithereens? Sorry, vernacular. It means you can't come home.
Nope, never.
That's right. Sorry, Major Tom.
Oh, yes. That's guaranteed. your wife will receive the full pension.
Uh...you're welcome. Goodbye, Major Tom.


The above conversation, or something similar, might well take place between Earth and Mars in a future installment of “Marshab”, scifi writer L. Probus's new series following teams of Earth scientists trying to develop a habitable human environment on our nearest planet neighbor. Their challenges include differences in gravity, atmosphere, soil and politics—the latter a perennial earthbound question mark for any program that depends for its success and, in some cases, its very survival on federal funding.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Riders on the Storm

I will miss Sam McCain. He's the lawyer/detective who thinks he's Robert Ryan. Word on the street is that Riders on the Storm will be his final adventure solving murders in his Iowa hometown. If this is true I don't know what I shall do, because after accompanying him through all ten of his adventures I've begun to think I'm Sam McCain.
Perfectly understandable, I think, identifying with this small-town hero, considering that I grew up in a Midwest town about the same size and character as Black River Falls. And I grew up in my town about the same time Sam does in his. The voice is nice, too. Sam narrates these cases, and by George if he doesn't sound a lot like me!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Jump Jackson and the Second Easter Mystery

Going back to Easter Eve 2014 and looking ahead to the next morning, I know now I would without hesitation choose what was about to happen. Were the choice mine, I would take what happened over winning a billion dollars in lottery gold.
One reason for this is I've always been a tad superstitious. Often joked that the same infinitesimally small odds of Fate smiling upon me in a way that would bring unimaginable riches could as easily bestow a frown carrying proportionally hideous fortune.
I would not turn the gold away. Yet along with the delirium of my life-changing bank deposit likely would arrive a vague unease. The possibility of an abrupt turnabout in Fate's fickle nature, now that she had plucked me out of the muddling crowd, would attend as a Damoclean sword at the end of an invisible thread suspended above my head indefinitely from somewhere in the cosmic haze.
But this is not why I stopped buying lotto tickets. My “lucky” number, now forgotten, might well since have brought material wealth to another mortal who I pray enjoys the windfall in good health.
My fingers hesitated a beat before typing the word “pray” in the above sentence just now, as they routinely did before the event of Easter 2014. My prior hesitations had to do with trying to stay true to my beliefs, or my lack thereof, by making sure my usage of “pray” could be taken in its secular sense, much as “love” is used at the end of a letter to a friend implying nothing more compelling than simple affection. Yet, just as there are special times when “love” is intended with the full, unambiguous extent of its power so can “pray” at its maximum carry an appeal beyond the tepid wish for simple good luck with no mystery strings implied.
My intention with “pray” in the previous paragraph was to imply the strings. I've been learning to use it this way since Easter, as a child learns to walk or to speak.
Until this Easter the only consistency in my spiritual progression had been a vague, uncomfortably childish superstitious nature regarding circumstances beyond my immediate control. A sort of low-grade neurotic sense that someone “up there” might have his eye on me and could make pleasant things happen for me if I did right, and could mess me up if I didn't. In the middle grades I had a friend whose father was a pastor. Russell was bright and fun, but he had one odd trait: whenever he cussed he'd immediately say, “Excuse me.” He wasn't saying it to me or to anyone else in our group, but quietly, to himself. It was a semi-private little ritual, the way a Catholic makes the sign of the cross. I don't recall ever mentioning it to him, and I grew accustomed to it.
I remember my father as an avowed atheist who fancied himself something of a psychic. I don't believe his atheism was as firmly established in his mind as the feeling that he possessed extra-sensory powers. He was a lawyer, and as such loved to argue. He would boast that he could take either side of an argument and win. I never heard him discuss religion with a believer unless it was to mock my mother's quiet Lutheran faith or to threaten her pastor with stopping our dues when he dared come by the house to protest my membership in the Boy Scouts. I admired my father for the latter, his standing up for me, but even at this tender age I recognized the cruelty to my mother and I shared some of her pain.
Despite my father's attitude we attended church as a family, but only on special occasions such as funerals, Easter and Christmas. My father behaved then, but perhaps only because in our small town he had to consider his reputation among potential clients and, being active in local politics, the voters. Only one such occasion sticks in my mind—a Christmas, I suspect—and this is because of something my parents discovered early in the service. I like to think my father noticed it first, but it might have been my mother. They both enjoyed it immensely, and shared their delight with my sister and me afterward. They were too discreet to point it out during the service, assuming correctly that we kids would be unable to contain our mirth. What struck my parents at first was the odd shape of the shoulders of a man sitting in the pew directly in front of us. He was wearing his overcoat. Eventually the silver metal hook of a wooden hangar revealed itself peeking above his coat collar to solve the mystery.
This was around the time, or perhaps I was a little older, when I threw myself into faith. I thought I believed in a Lutheran God, went to church, prayed, kept a journal, looked for signs. I tried summer Bible school, which met on Sundays after church or between the early and late services. I didn't last long. I liked the teacher, at first. He was pleasant and low key, not preachy.
I was innocent of the term “fundamentalism” and had no concept of its strict approach to Bible interpretation. Despite my reliance on emotional reaction in most instances I had begun to feel an incipient curiosity urging me to question things despite the apparent authority behind them. My father's habit of skepticism likely had infected me, and it might have been my teacher's suspicion of this that colored his response to my two questions, each of which he abruptly dismissed, leaving me disenchanted more by his irritated tone than by the answers he gave. My father in fact had contributed nothing directly to either question.
One had to do with the age of humankind. The teacher said it was around six thousand years. I mentioned an article I'd read in Life about radiocarbon dating that indicated the age of prehistoric hominids to be in the millions of years. I suspect I called them “cave men”, because my teacher responded in kind, pronouncing “cave men” with a sneer and denigrating my source as virtually evil next to the Holy Bible. I trusted my source, yet I knew better than to argue. The teacher's response shocked me, but it left me confused rather than angry.
The other question was equally innocent, sprung unplanned during a discussion of the Devil appearing before and speaking to biblical characters. I asked why the Devil did not appear to us in this way. The answer was a good one. Perhaps the evil one appeared to us more subtly, say, in the form of money, my teacher answered. Yet, his voice carried the same condescension as it had with the other, making it clear such questions were inconvenient and unwelcome. No one else participated. I wonder today what might have come to pass had just a single classmate joined me in these queries.
I believe my exchanges with the teacher came during two separate sessions. It was the second that disillusioned me so completely I dropped out, for the summer and for good.
For the bulk of my life thereafter I drifted spiritually, although a pilot light of hope for finding some redeeming entity continued to flicker throughout my rambling journey. The term “pilgrimage” may seem apt, but I was no pilgrim. I traveled without compass or plan. “Vagabond” might be more appropriate, but Walker Percy's “wayfarer” plays gentler on my palate.
Yet neither is this precise. Not for then. It fits today, as I find myself on a steadier course. Then, my progression was less directed, more like a pinball bumping among various notions and pausing to ring up the lights at whichever idea struck my fancy in the moment. My wayfaring took place mostly in books.
Some of it stuck. From my flirtation with Buddhism I keep catching jars in strategic locations in my apartment. Most every creature with which I choose not to share my abode, from flies to wolf and brown recluse spiders, get a free ride to the glorious outdoors. That is if I can catch them. The only recluse I've seen thus far, scuttling confidently across my bedroom carpet, scuttled happily into the former yogurt-making jar, moments later to dance away into the welcoming arms of the boxwood bush under my kitchen window. The wolfies are quicker and wilier. The three I've engaged most recently—two in the kitchen and one in my bedroom closet—have eluded eviction. I'm guessing their lone encounters with me have reinforced their instinct to stay hidden in my presence, as I have not seen them since. I understand they will bite, but I keep a careful eye out to avoid any surprise close encounters. Even the occasional mosquito gets safe passage provided she cooperates. If she makes it clear her blood appetite overrides her good sense my patience in a flash can give way to ruthless action.
In sum I have benefited significantly from the lowered levels of irritation and hostility these creatures once engendered in me. I've moved incrementally toward the clearer mindset from a moment of acceptance I no longer remember in particular. The credit might go to the Buddha, or to a whim from within. No matter. It's become part of my ethic.
My readings have neither been extensive nor methodical. They've been limited mostly to fiction, but to a fairly eclectic sampling. Notions that impress me enough to hold for reflection come from diverse sources. Norman Mailer, for example, caught my attention with his theory of an existential God. This God, he said, is as uncertain about the cosmic mysteries as are we. Mailer's God may feel in some sort of competition with other potential gods in the realm of ethos. Moral courage, he said, could be the fuel his God needs to sustain itself and to prevail should such a competition be realized. The courage comes from our actions as mortals. I do not recall if Mailer addressed what might become of us after death, other than that the courage with which we lived would live on within the God it fed. The author, acknowledging human limitations, accepted in his writings that one need exert with courage no more than fifty-one percent of his energy at any given moment in order to be of value.
I was serving in the military when I started reading Mailer, and his theory so intrigued me I kept it with me for years. Around the same time for social purposes I considered myself a Unitarian.
Love is the essence that shines in Scott Turow's novels. Turow puts his theory forth without Mailer's declarative thunder or his godhead linkage. Put most succinctly, love between human beings is the essential antidote to feeling utterly alone in an apparently indifferent universe. While this as a concept could fit easily with more defined spiritual theories and provide a comfortable foundation for agnostic or atheistic outlooks, Turow is not so specific. His heritage is Jewish, but Judaism does not appear defined as a theme in his fiction. Not that I would recognize it without its ecclesiastical trappings if it did. I am largely ignorant of Judaic doctrine, although a cousin having made some genealogical inquiries believes our paternal grandmother might have been of Jewish heritage.
I have friends who are avowed atheists, with some more avowing than others. At a certain point any avowing begins to resemble proselytizing, taking on an arrogant, bullying aspect. Ordinarily I flee folks who seem bent on getting me to see things their way, especially with religion and politics. I see little value in challenging or merely questioning “true believers” on their beliefs. At its worst challenging them is counterproductive, leading to fights to “win” rather than to persuade. I will stand against someone's actions when I find them unjust. My response could include attacking their motivating premises, be they religious, political or simply ignorant. Otherwise my position is to believe and let believe.
My pilot light of hope came near flickering out at times during this odyssey of pinballing around the galaxy of theological notions. I suffered brief episodes of despair so debilitating I had to remind myself to breathe. The reasons rarely were unique--the usual ego torments that can feel like death but make good fodder for merriment in retrospect.
What remains with me from those times are two graces that hark back to my Lutheran days. One is the Lord's Prayer, which I would recite silently to get me through dark patches in the day. I did tinker with the wording at one point, switching “lead me not into temptation” to “protect me from temptation”, as it occurred to me no god worthy of trust would lead anyone away from righteousness. These recitations could calm me, give me the strength to move or to stay afloat. The other was the image of Christ kneeling in prayer on Mount Olive. An image from a famous painting, it was featured prominently in one of our church's stained glass windows. Bringing the image into mind when nothing else worked helped me sleep.
Half-assed religiosity. Verbal and visual remnants of impressions embedded in childhood, carried forward as iconic security blankets and sustained by hope but unable to withstand the cool breeze of intellect. The questioning nature I discovered in that summer Bible class stayed with me too. Nourished by my vocation as a newspaper reporter, this skeptical outlook matured into a stern adversary of unqualified faith. The prayer and image continued to work, but it carried an undertone of uncertainty. I was a secret thumb sucker, my faith closeted behind a door of doubt.
As usual, I sought answers in books. Wait, “seek” is not quite the right word. I felt no strong desire to explore these questions, hesitant maybe to face what I might find. As a writer I'm attracted to works by accomplished practitioners of the craft. Three who happened to tackle religion head-on were unable to provide satisfying answers. The ferociously articulate Christopher Hitchens argued for atheism, while novelists Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy spoke as avowed Roman Catholics. The problem with all three is that they based their thoughts on the one book whose authority I find most questionable: the Bible.
I shall not rehash disputes over whether the words in this book are those of God or of men to whom God might have spoken. My dispute is with Hitchens, O'Connor and Percy for starting with the biblical assumptions that the God in question was the universal grand designer and continues to reign as the grand manipulator. I agree with Hitchens this most likely is hooey. What I do like about his approach is an admission that he sometimes wished he could believe in a deity.
Drawn to the novelists' formidable narrative skills I came upon their Christian faith incidentally and found compelling the outspoken strength of their beliefs. O'Connor was raised a Catholic, and claimed never to have doubted what she'd been taught. She was comfortable with the “mysteries” of Christ's incarnation and the concepts of Heaven and Hell. Irrespective of this the magic she spun with words has not the power to reconcile for me the disparity between the Church's intramural logic and the observable realities outside it.
Percy was Catholic by conversion, and this after some dedicated reading of the likes of Kierkegaard, Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. He cites Kierkegaard's On the Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle as tipping the scales for him. Percy saw the genius as the theorist, who bases belief on the provable. The theorist as scientist reports observations that are accessible to anyone. The apostle brings “news”. In this context news comes from an unknown realm and must be accepted on faith. Percy opted for the Church-embodied apostle's report over the theoretical, which he blamed for such atrocities as the Holocaust and what he saw as a general malaise in the prevailing modern consumption-obsessed consciousness.
Thus when it came to choosing the Church, he wrote, “What else is there?”
I'm not convinced. While I respect verbal gymnastics, and can be awed to a stupor by brilliant argument, I cannot agree with its conclusion unless I find it irrefutable. I think slowly, the kind of student who is not insulted when an exasperated teacher asks, “Must I draw you a picture?” I'm not ashamed to nod my head. A spiritual descendant of Doubting Thomas.
An event on April 20, 2014 brought about a disruptive see change in my perspective. Looking back now it is obvious to me that a series of seemingly unrelated circumstances laid the foundation for what was to happen early Easter morning. Perhaps not surprisingly all of these circumstances involved books.
The previous winter I read an autobiographical account of the communist revolution in China. The book was written by a woman who had lived in China then and whose father, a Communist Party leader, had endured abject humiliation and torture under the regime of Chairman Mao, arguably the most evil human being in all of history. A friend who had lived in China as a missionary recommended the book, and in gratitude I gave her another book written by the same author. She reciprocated on Easter Eve with the gift of a book by Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian who converted to Christianity from atheism, became an evangelical minister and eventually suffered more than a decade of torture in a communist prison for his faith. His faith never wavered. It was so strong that his example helped convert some of his captors to become followers of Christ.
I read several chapters that night. The graphic account of his ordeal so disturbed me that it tormented my sleep. I found myself comparing the courage of Rev. Wurmbrand and the Chinese official. Both had endured intense suffering by dint of their faith—Christianity for one, communism for the other. Despite their opposing values each man staked his life on faith alone. I felt bereft. I felt shame that I had no faith that could bear me through anything much beyond moderate deprivation. To speak nothing of torture. In this respect I envied both men. But shame and envy were not enough by themselves to ease my doubts.
Another worry troubled me that night. I was stuck in a novel I was writing. This was not unusual. For me writing almost anything, including this, involves continually coming to the end of a path of thought and not knowing where to step next. These moments can be terribly disconcerting. Dread is a constant companion, and it often leaves me close to panic wondering if even the path I've traversed was the wrong one. I can't recall the particular problem that hung me up Easter Eve, only that its combination with the febrile sense of impotence Rev. Wurmbrand's book had triggered denied me more than an hour or two of broken sleep all night.
I gave up and crawled out of bed about 4:30, an hour earlier than usual. I turned on NPR, as usual, and caught the tail end of a show I'd not heard before: Blues Before Sunrise, a Chicago-aired program hosted by Steve Cushing. I was finishing breakfast when Cushing read the list of artists he had featured. I heard the name “Jump Jackson”, and nearly choked on my toasted bran muffin. Or maybe I nearly spit coffee on the damned thing. Whatever. “Jump Jackson” meant nothing to me, other than as the name I had made up a month earlier for a symbolic character in the novel that had me stumped.
I had started the novel mid-March, soon as I moved into my apartment after my ex-wife and I finally sold the house we'd put on the market around the time she decided to divorce me after twenty less-than-blissful years. This is incidental, by the way, to the epiphany I experienced when I heard Steve Cushing pronounce the name of my invented character over the airwaves at about 5 on Easter morning.
Forgive me, if you will, for the mix of voices I find myself using here. Revealing my awakening is awkward, as I've yet to settle this new outlook comfortably among my regular personae. I have used the expression “Jesus freak”. I have denied Him countless times. I still slip, daily. I know it will take awhile. I've been touched, gifted from beyond all reason, and I have never accepted compliments or gifts easily.
But it isn't just Jump Jackson. It's a combination, the old one-two. The first punch hit me about thirty years earlier, coming as only a love tap, also on Easter. And it involved another novel. My first attempt. It never really got off the ground, and I do not remember much about it other than that it starred a giant twister. I'd done some research on tornadoes. I knew the plausibilities of size and duration, and I thought I knew the directions they routinely followed. My tornado would originate over St. Joseph, Missouri, coincidentally the point of origin for Pony Express runs. I don't believe this had much if anything to do with the story.
My tornado would cross Lake Michigan before it ran out of steam. I knew it couldn't go much further than the lake's opposite shore, and I studied the Michigan shoreline in an atlas for an appropriate location. I wanted it to have some significance, yet I had no idea what that might be. I was fishing, day after day. I know now this might simply have been an excuse not to write, a hazard I've since found to be common. But then, a novice in the craft, I took my failure to find a significant end point for the tornado's path as a true crisis. Despair loomed, as newspaper headline writers are wont to say.
That Easter morning, with panic hovering over my shoulder, I took a magnifying glass and began to search once more, resolved to stay at it until I found something. And I did, within minutes after making the commitment. There it was, right at the edge of the lake: St. Joseph, Michigan.
The effect was electric. It washed over me like a warm wind. It wasn't enough to make me pious but it commanded my attention. It gave me a new and intimate appreciation of a holiday I'd never made much more of than candy, bunnies and colored eggs. More importantly, as I see it now, the experience gave me a mystical encouragement for my desire to write.
I've never felt the call to try my hand at spy novels, but I've read a lot of them. One of the spy world's trade-craft maxims these novels taught me was the coincidence rule: one time is probably random. Twice, it's a different story. The second coincidence must be regarded as designed. Jump Jackson was my second. I'm not a spy, but I cannot ignore the odds. Too lazy to try the math, I couldn't tell you what the chances might be for two novel Easter surprises thirty years apart. I think it's a safe bet, though, they would correspond nicely with hitting a hefty lottery jackpot.
Would I rather that had been the case? Not on my life.

(posted 19 Dec. 2014 as a comment on Ed Gorman's blog)

Why must we accept the Bible literally to believe in God, especially as it claims the hardest thing of all (for me) to believe, that God created anything? Is it irrational to think that maybe we created God? Not in the sense suggested by some cynical philosophers of a God of the imagination, same as our childhood invisible friends, but something of us that survives after death--call it soul or spirit? Consider that the spirits of all beings coalesce into something akin to Jung's collective unconscious, growing continually and perhaps reaching into the living to inspire, console, even to guide those who are receptive?

"Intellectuals" likely would have laughed at the idea of radio waves in the days before they were proven. We know brain waves are real, measurable scientifically. Could they, do they survive as a dynamic, perhaps interactive essence beyond corporeal life? Can it be proven they do not?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

First Shot (58)

They went over the truck as carefully as they could knowing the sun soon would be gone. They knew that if Sarah was on Turtle Island they would have to head there, too, preferably with some daylight. They still were not certain where she might be. Several feet from the driver's side Salzwedel stooped and picked something up.
Keys,” he said quietly, holding up a faded blue metallic caribiner from which dangled a half dozen silver and brass keys, a silver medallion and a black hard plastic remote pad with controls to lock and unlock a vehicle and operate its horn. The medallion was set with an enameled image of Confederate Col. John Singleton Mosby.
Cy's.” Frank Rust made this determination after taking the keys from Salzwedel and squinting closely at them. He had already found the ignition key in a cup bucket between the dash and the front seat. Kellam always left it in the truck. Rust had seemed surprised the truck was left unlocked. And now, finding the missing remote on the ground nearby and with the shotgun still unaccounted for, he moved from surprise to a new concern.

Sunday, September 28, 2014


Little ditty 'bout five males, one a cat:

Dinky washes car in parking lot.
Seized with sudden fury, shouts to White Guy and anyone else within range, rhetorically,
What's that snitch doin' here?

White Guy sees shiny black Mercedes parked across street by laundromat. Snitch, long in leg and torso, eases out, stretches, shakes loose with jive moves.

Snitch carefully groomed in sloppy street blinged finery, cap bill pointed correct way of day. Girl exits Mercedes, prances into laundromat.

Mr. Hill murmurs to leashed Precious in grass beside laundromat.
Therapy cat, same as his brother, father and grandfather, Mr. Hill tells White Guy.
Mr. Hill speaks softly, articulates with casual care.

Snitch yodels at Dinky:
Dink you bring dat rag here so's I can give her a wipe yo!

Dinky (no inverse name) responds with gusto:
You want this rag you come here and get it!

Snitch boogies up and down, saunters over, supercool, displays verbose command of au courant black screen argot.

Dinky turns his back, buffs customer's car.

Snitch jabbers, boogies up and down.

Girl prances out to Mercedes, hops in.

Snitch lopes back, joins girl.

Mr. Hill lifts Precious to his shoulder.

Dinky buffs customer's car.

Mercedes cruises off.

White Guy wonders at the spelling: duh or doh?

Saturday, September 27, 2014

First Shot (57)

The sun was low in the sky when they found the old faded blue Chevy pickup. Frank Rust was first to see the orange flash bouncing back from behind a derelict shanty near the pier. Rust had parked his pickup at the edge of the gravel apron between the pier and the road end, and Blow pulled in behind him. By the time he and Salzwedel had gotten out of Homer's car Rust was already scoping the vicinity.
They heard his gnarled voice coming from behind the lean-to, a neglected arrangement of weather-tortured blackened planks drooping to oblivion in a maw of climbing weeds. “She's here, boys. This here's Cy's truck.”
The truck was hidden in more weeds under the limbs of a nearby live oak. Rust stood back, between the tree and the shed, implying by his caution he was afraid of what might be inside the truck. “She's a good girl.” His voice was low and solemn. “But there's times...she...just goes off and does things.”

Monday, September 22, 2014

First Shot (56)

She was waiting by the door. Her face, distorted in worry and refracted light, peered intently at them through the glass. The eyes darted quickly from Salzwedel to Blow, then softened as her features melted into a welcoming smile. She released the latch and nudged the door open. The inviting aroma of food cooking reached them an instant before Helen Kellam spoke.
“Come in.” Her voice sounded friendly, almost timid. She was dressed in faded jeans and a plaid flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled halfway up her forearms. Her smile brightened when Salzwedel introduced Blow, and he saw that she was beautiful. The smile seemed natural, giving her face an innocence that was enhanced by light-brown hair she wore in a casually tended pageboy. Only the wearied caution in her chocolate eyes betrayed this illusion.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

First Shot (55)

Blow was feeling foolish and vulnerable when he arrived at the Kellams. He'd begun having second thoughts about the wisdom of bringing Homer into his drama when it quickly became apparent nobody was following anyone—neither Blow in Homer's car nor Homer in the hardware store's van. He tried to console himself with the argument that caution was always advisable when even a fragment of doubt existed that an action might endanger someone. But while the argument was valid it wasn't enough to dispel his sense of having overreacted, that he was wasting his friend's time imitating a clichĂ© movie scene.
It also occurred to him it was entirely possible Sarah Kellam was not innocent, that maybe she did kill Gunther. Technically not her lawyer although he had offered his services to her mother, he had to be careful he was not instrumental in helping destroy potential evidence.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

First Shot (54)

Within ten minutes of Blow's arrival at Price Hardware he was heading south in Homer Price's maroon Dodge Charger while Elmer, Homer's employee, was in the store's van driving north. Homer, driving Elmer's black Chevy pickup, was following Blow at a discreet distance to watch for any tails Blow might pick up.
“In case they saw through your 'Homeboy' code, clever though it was. You don't know who might be listening, do you?” Homer's impromptu plan was to lead anyone astray who might be expecting Blow to take the van.
“I don't, Homer. That's a good idea.”
“You're not even sure anybody is, right? Listening to you?”
“I realize I sound paranoid, but this is getting pretty hairy. I'm responsible to my clients. Can't afford to take any chances.”
Homer put a hand on Blow's forearm. “Hey, buddy, I'm not questioning your judgment. I know this is big. I just want to get the setup straight in my head. I'm on your side, Counselor.”

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

First Shot (53)

The call came while Blow was walking. He had dropped Mary off at the house, where she had parked her car. After he watched her car disappear down the street, he started toward his office door. As he trod up the walk from the parking pad he became aware of a weakness in his knees. It worsened as he mounted the steps, and he grabbed the wrought-iron railing to steady himself. Fumbling with his key ring at the lock he was alarmed to see how badly his hand trembled, so badly it extended past his wrist up the forearm.
He breathed deeply and let the air gush out of his lungs. He did this several times until he felt a dizziness and realized he was in danger of hyperventilating. With a panicking rush that came as a blackness surrounding him and that reduced his muscles to palsied rubber and bathed his upper body in sweat, he leaned heavily against the door and then, feeling collapse was imminent, managed to lower himself to a sprawling position on the top step. There he found comfort leaning against the vertical rail struts, both as something benignly solid and, oddly, despite the breezy afternoon chill, from the metal's bracing cool.

Monday, September 15, 2014

First Shot (52)

They drove aimlessly for nearly an hour. To a disinterested observer their conversation, as well, might have sounded unfocused. Thinking aloud, Blow bounced developing thoughts off Mary, his only noticeable reticence being that guided by obligations of confidentiality. Mary displayed her curiosities with a faint undertone of cunning. She responded without palpable guile to Blow's remarks, yet she pushed ever so gently to learn more than he seemed willing to give. Her persistence yielded one nugget of new information.
“OK, Mary, I'll save you a little time. Now that we're out of my problematically compromised house, I'll dispense with the barbecue smokescreen—not that you won't find it useful if in fact you like Dad's recipe.”

Saturday, September 13, 2014

First Shot (51)

Blow waited until he heard the car door slam before he walked to the window. The slam had come only seconds after Gladstone departed the office, or Blow would have strolled into the front room where he could view his Ranger pickup to see if the big man was so brash as to stick a tracking device under the truck. As it was, he watched the shiny sedan roll off his parking pad and ease on down the street in a direction that would take it to the highway. Mary's voice behind him pulled his mind back into the room.
What an act. Did you hear him say harumph? I've never heard anybody say that before.”
Blow turned and saw that she was still sniffing the cigar Gladstone had given her. “You gonna smoke that thing?”
Oh, heavens no. I'll probly just keep it as a souvenir. What a buffoon, huh?”
A dangerous one. He's quite an actor.”

Thursday, September 11, 2014

First Shot (50)

Ex-Sen. Bartholomew Gladstone, aka Bart Bullshit, preferred to stand and pace as he expounded on the “matter of vital national importance”. After squeezing out of confinement with a scrape of expensive fabrics against the arms of the solid-wood chair that held him, he stood for a moment, hirsute hand on chin as if pondering critical implications, and rotated his cannonball head to assure himself of rapt attention first from his host, across from him, and then from Mary Lloyd at the adjacent desk where she sat still holding and occasionally sniffing the Cuban cigar he'd given her during the ceremony of introductions.
When he started speaking, Gladstone's voice was lower and slier than the barking bonhomie he'd affected earlier. And with the speaking came the stalking, the deliberate plodding back and forth across the small office. A caged, feral beast.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

First Shot (49)

They heard a car door slam as Mary, wearing her red and blue quilted coat, approached Blow's office door to leave. She saw him first. She was reaching for the brass door handle when she froze, then pivoted.
Oh my god, Blow, it's Bart Bullshit!” She stepped back to let Blow look out its mullioned window pane. A bulky, broad-shouldered man in a dark overcoat stood beside the shiny sedan parked next to Mary's light brown Saturn. He was looking up at the office door. His unnaturally ruddy, full-moon face contrasted with the bush of silver hair that covered the top of his head. Occasional bursts of icy breeze ruffled the hair, whisked away the puffs of steam from his breath and flapped the tails of a white silk muffler draped around the back of his neck.
Big galoot, isn't he,” Blow muttered, turning to Mary, who was easing toward the door leading to the hallway outside the office.
Hey, stay here, Mary. You'll get your scoop, and I may need a witness.” She smiled.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

First Shot (48)

This is good barbecue, Blow. You should open a restaurant.” Mary Lloyd's words came out muffled through her chewing, the gusto of which alone obviated a need for comment. But Blow smiled in appreciation.
I'll tell Dad. It's his recipe.”
Secret? One of those you'd-hafta-kill-me-if-ya-told-me kind?”
I don't think so. He told me, and he knows I can't keep a secret.”
You did alright with Callahan.” She waited a beat. “And me.”
Those aren't secrets, Mary, they're mandates. Professional life-and-death, if you will.”
She picked some coleslaw from her teeth. “Not even a hint?”

Monday, September 8, 2014

First Shot (47)

Sons of Lexington? Blow was replying to Lt. Callahan's text message nearly two hours after its time stamp. He had no idea where Callahan might be, but knew that if he was still in his office, texting would be the safest way to communicate. Blow had decided to volunteer more information to the cop than professional prudence might indicate. He justified this in his mind to temporarily distract Callahan from suspecting the musket as a modern murder weapon.
Blow was having enough trouble fending off intimations of the plausible irony that a distraught teen might have employed a weapon used by her ancestor in a passionate murder more than three centuries earlier to commit another. Gladstone had suggested as much, pointing out the efficacy of the rifled barrel to extend a musket's range and accuracy. Such a weapon could easily prove lethal up to four hundred meters, he said, a hundred meters beyond Callahan's estimate of the distance from the park sniper's nest to the spot where Gunther lost his head.
That wasn't in the story. Callahan's return text told Blow the game was afoot. He handed his phone to Mary.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

First Shot (46)

Damn you, Blow!”
Mary Lloyd's angry voice seemed to shake the storm door's glass while her breath clouded its surface, obscuring for an instant the fury blazing in her eyes.
The unexpected assault caused Blow to flinch before he released the lock and pushed the heavy door ajar.
What's the matter, Mary?”
Let me in, dammit, it's cold out here.”
He felt her eyes scorching his back as he led her to the kitchen. He thanked himself for having started a new pot of coffee brewing minutes before he heard her at the door. He hoped the aroma would have the same mollifying effect with her as it always did with him. In fact Blow detected an easing of her tone if not the words when she next spoke.
I never would have expected you to ignore my calls. I thought we were friends.”

Monday, September 1, 2014

First Shot (45)

A nimbus seemed to emanate from the letter's last page as it lay on the table before Blow. He knew the glow around this centuries-old linen document was a product of his imagination feeding on a mingling of appreciations: for its vital importance at the time it was written, for its significance now to historians and to investigators seeking to unravel the mysteries of two murders, and for the heartbreak and aching guilt of a teenage girl.
After musing over it for a while, he carefully lifted the sheet and placed it with the others. He intended to make photocopies of Willie Hosner's letter and return the original to the box, and later consult someone experienced in document preservation in order to keep it as safe as possible until a permanent disposition was determined. He turned his attention to the book.

Friday, August 29, 2014

First Shot (44)

7 of May 1775

My Dearest Wife Charlotte,

I know you must hate me more than anything on Earth, more than plague or pestilence or even the King and all his men. And I would not, nay I could not begin to bring myself to blame you, for I know what I have done has left a scar on your heart you will carry with you unto the grave, which, with the Gentle Lord's blessing, will be many score years away.
I write this in the lodging of a new acquaintance in a place in Connecticut it would be less than prudent for me to identify. I have joined a Provisional Regiment here that needs the services of an industrious and clever smith. My rifled musket has won the admiration of the men in this company, and our Battalion Commander has said he will arrange for a nearby forge to prepare one dozen barrels with my specifications to be fitted to new Charleville muskets for a Brigade shooting competition.
Under different circumstances, my dear beloved Charlotte, you would, I am most certain, be proud that you did take Willie Isaac Hosner as your loving wedded husband.
I can not say when this letter will be delivered to you, if circumstances should ever allow that it shall, and so I am writing it more to myself, to that part of me--my wounded heart--where you now live and where I will hold you dear so long as this heart shall beat and the smallest breath of my life remains to be extinguished.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Unbearable Lightness of Prunes (a review)

Always hesitant to engage heavy dialect in writing, a reluctance I developed in childhood reading Tom Sawyer, I took the plunge with The Unbearable Lightness of Prunes on the recommendation of a friend. She's not only still a friend, but a more trusted friend than ever before. This long story, which Ms. Langstaff has said she plans to include in a book about the protagonist, a tormented, mischievous boy named Jerrold, quickly smacked down my dialectal squeamishness and seduced me into a world of linguistically quirky humor I eventually came to savor thanks to a late-blooming appreciation for that same Mark Twain who'd stymied me in my tenderer years.

I need not say one whit about the prunes and their weight, or lack thereof, as suggested by the title of this delightful plum of a story. If you have ever eaten a prune, or even seen a bag of them dried like gargantuan raisins, or smelled them stewing in water in a pot on the stove, you will most assuredly feel an instant rapport with poor Jerrold whilst thanking your lucky stars to be a mere voyeur as the lad suffers with surrogate angst for your own private indolence and dietary trespasses.

The story is rich in and of itself, and the language beyond the dialogue brings depths of brilliance and humor of a sort I haven't seen since those miracle days discovering the voice bewitching me with the likes of The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County was the same one that frightened me as a lad about the same age as Jerrold in this splendid, uproariously entertaining tale about prunes, potato guns, horrible adults and the kind of crazy aunt we all would love to have in our family tree.

Monday, August 25, 2014

First Shot (43)

Blow arrived home just as Barbara Bassett, his secretary, was leaving for the day. He saw her behind the wheel of her Mazda after he'd parked beside it on the pad outside his office. She rolled her window down, and he walked over to say hello. Slow morning, she said, which gave her time to catch up on her filing.
Lt. Callahan called around ten, wondering where you were. He said your truck was over at the Salzwedels but you weren't anywhere around. Said he tried calling you but your phone was out of service. You OK?”
Everything's fine, Barb. I was with a client. Probly in a hole for the phone.”
She studied him a moment, and he knew he'd hurt her by not saying who the client was. It wasn't that he didn't trust her, just didn't want to take the time to explain. He was anxious to look at the documents. She smiled tightly. “Those holes are a pain. You have a good day, Joe.” She said, and drove off.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

First Shot (42)

“Right Here. This is where the shot was fired.” They had come to a place sealed with yellow police tape, about six hundred yards from the designated parking area. They'd reached this spot having walked along a narrow hiking trail in the north end of Leicester County's Algonquin Park. The tape stretched around the nearest trees—a sweet gum, a live oak and two scrub pines—blocking the easiest access from the path through underbrush to a less dense space that overlooked a broad cleared area. “And out there?” He raised an arm and aimed his index finger, “There's your battlefield.”
Blow moved to get a better view. Part of a field was visible through the dense growth to the space beyond. A carpet lined with rough streaks of green and gold in the midday sunlight. It felt unfamiliar from where he stood, missing the colorful Colonial uniforms and the rattle and smoke of muskets, but he knew the geography was right.
“How far?”
“A good three hundred yards to the edge, another hundred to where Gunther was hit. Still an easy shot with a modern rifle.”

Friday, August 22, 2014

First Shot (41)

Sarah fought through ragged surges of emotion as she explained why she blamed herself for her grandfather's death. Periodically she dabbed her tears away with a sheet of toilet paper she tore from a roll in one of the desk drawers. The old wooden office desk seemed to impart some of its authority to her. Instead of a youngster playing in daddy's office she'd become a young adult engaging a burden beyond her scant years.
“It was that damn Yankee piece of trash.” She said this in low, quiet voice, as if to herself, but she looked from one of her guests to the other as she spoke.
Blow wondered if he should point out he was born and raised in Leicester but he remembered Salzwedel was from Maryland. The two men shot quick glances at each other, which Sarah apparently noticed. She gave them a weak smile and rotated her head gently a couple of times.
“That old gun, the musket. That's what Gramps always called it. A damn Yankee piece of trash. He really hated Yankees. I mean he really really hated them.”