Wednesday, November 25, 2015

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

Greeks, Turks, War, and Aspic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

This year's Halloween story. Enjoy!                                                            (c) Tracy Dunham, 2015

The Red Jacket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He shouted down a distant “Got it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think so.”

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

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


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

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

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

“Is she?”

“Christ, no. What’re we gonna do?”

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

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

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

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

“I don’t like it. It’s not right.”

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

“I don’t like it,” Bobby repeated.

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

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

“Yeah, that’s right. All her fault.”


Monday, October 12, 2015

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 03, 2015

This is so boring

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 03, 2015

The King Must Die

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 06, 2015

My bad

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

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

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Family Trees

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

J. Rodney Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

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.

Thursday, June 04, 2015


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.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

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.

Monday, May 04, 2015

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.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

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.

Friday, April 10, 2015

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.

Monday, March 30, 2015

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.

Monday, March 23, 2015

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.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

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.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

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.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015


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.

Friday, January 30, 2015

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.