Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Hav-A-Tampa

Hope all of my fellow Americans had a lovely Thanksgiving last week! I know I haven't been blogging much lately, but I'll get back to a schedule again soon. So in my post-Thanksgiving continuation of giving thanks, let me say how appreciative I am of all of my readers who support my little blog, even when I take a hiatus.

But as always, since it's Wednesday, I have some fiction for you! Journalist and author, Richard Alley, is sharing an excerpt of his extended short story, Headwaters, with a section title "Hav-A-Tampa." Richard writes a regular humor column about parenting in The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal and was the grand prize in the 2010 Memphis Magazine Short Fiction Contest. In 2010, he was accepted into the Moss Workshop for Fiction at the University of Memphis with novelist Richard Bausch. You can see more from Richard at his website and his blog. Enjoy!

Hav-A-Tampa
By Richard Alley

They drove all day, his father smoking one wood-tipped Hav-A-Tampa cigar after another from a box he kept on the floorboard, and drinking coffee from an old Thermos of chipped plastic. To this day, when Ben thinks of the man, it is the smell of tobacco and coffee mingled with the sweat of the road that he recalls. The air in the truck hadn’t worked, Ben wasn’t sure if it even had an air conditioner, he’d never known the vestigial vents to blow more than warmed-over engine air at him. They rode the whole way, from Illinois to Tennessee, listening to the farm report going in and out with the radio’s reception. The windows were down and Ben worked his hand up and down in the rush from the warm air; up and down, up and down, like a wave. By the time they made Memphis his right arm was a shade darker than his left.

At the cotton merchant’s warehouse on Front Street, they stood in a cavernous room while the inspectors studied his daddy’s cotton bales by the sunlight streaming in through floor to ceiling windows. Ben sidled off to one side to watch an old black man push a steel rod into stacked bales, mesmerized by the fuzz set free to float around in the shafts of light. Ben tried holding his breath as long as possible to keep from breathing in the minute fibers.

“He’s aerating ‘em,” a man with a push broom and toothpick in the corner of his mouth said. “Keeps ‘em from bursting into flame.”

Ben only looked up into his creased face and then back at the man with the rod.

“Whole place’d go up with fire.”

After a lot of talking and laughing, and one of the men covering the wood-planked floor around him with tobacco juice, they all went to an upstairs office where one of the inspectors gave Ben a Coca-Cola and helped him onto a windowsill as wide as a sofa to watch the river below. The men, including his dad, all signed papers and shook hands and then Ben and his father left.

“Let’s go to the Greek,” his daddy said as they walked along a sidewalk crowded with men in seersuckers and women discreetly patting their damp faces with stark white linens.

The restaurant was only slightly cooler than the city air, but smelled of pork frying and coffee brewing instead of horse piss and diesel. The place held row after row of red vinyl booths and Formica tables, and the two slid into a booth against a far wall where Ben could see all the action, could watch as the waitresses came and went from the kitchen or poured drinks at the soda fountain against the back wall. Customers entered and left, and the owner worked the register as though greeting family at the front counter.

There were four waitresses working and Ben was glad when the prettiest approached their table with two tall glasses of ice water beaded with condensation, some of which dripped onto his bare knee. He lunged for his glass, drinking down half of the water while his father looked over the menu.

When she came back to take their order, she brought a sweating silver pitcher to refill his glass. “Somebody was thirsty,” she said, flashing him a smile. “What can I get you gentlemen today?”

Without consulting Ben, his father ordered them each pot roast with mashed potatoes, corn and collared greens, a coffee for himself and another Coke for Ben. At home he never had more than one Coke in a day and he wondered if this was something he should keep from his mother. The waitress wrote the order on her pad, took the menus from the table and, before turning to leave, Ben caught her smile and wink at his father.

Ben had heard his daddy called “handsome” by ladies back home. He was tall and lean, the kind of muscular lean you get from eating three square meals a day and working hard in the fields from sun up to sun down. He was a deep nut color year-round and his forearms were strong and sinewy with pronounced veins protruding through the wiry, blonde hair, and rolling down to his fingers. His cheeks were hollow with high, angular bones and his hair, white ever since Ben could remember, and when not under the cover of his red IH cap, was swept back from his ample forehead.

The other waitresses smiled, too.

They ate their meal in silence and, afterward, the Greek’s mother brought Ben baklava. His father stood to stretch his legs and commiserate with the Greek’s elderly father, a half-blind ogre who kept watch over the hallway that led to both the lavatories and the kitchen. As their conversation wound down, his father took the elder man’s hand and squeezed it, patting him on the shoulder and then, Ben was surprised to see, cupped his cheek with a massive hand as though scooping up a kitten. The old man smiled and nodded, looking just to the left of his father’s face.

When they left and walked up the alley, Ben asked him what he and the man had talked about. “Being old,” he said.



##



The smell of the tobacco shop hit him in the face with the force of a feather pillow, all smoke, wood and age. The selling floor was long and narrow with dingy tile flooring and a ceiling that rose up thirty feet, towering over Ben so he had to tip back to see the nicotine stains there forming patterns on the plaster like clouds. His father spoke to the shop’s owner, a slight, bespectacled man with a straight-stemmed pipe jammed into his grin, who must have had twenty years on Ben’s father. His father leaned in to speak quietly and gesture over his shoulder back the way they’d just come. The proprietor peeked around his father as though he expected to find someone there, but only nodded and pointed to the back. Ben followed his father up a slender, creaking staircase to a loft that looked out over the whole of the store.

There were five men huddled around a table in the center of the room underneath a light illuminating the table’s felt; blue smoke, and little else, issued from the men. His father nodded hello to the players, they nodded back, and one opened a box to offer whatever was inside to him. He shook it off and pulled a Hav-A-Tampas from his shirt pocket, lighting it with the silver Zippo he’d had since the war.

As they’d come upstairs, his father had pointed him to a dimly lit corner with a few mismatched chairs and a small table. As his eyes adjusted to the light, Ben saw someone, a human form he’d missed before. He approached and sat across a checkerboard from a gangly black boy about his own age, with overalls and yellow eyeballs. Without speaking, the boy moved a checker piece one space towards Ben then looked back up into his face. Ben, feeling challenged, moved one of his own pieces. They played three games this way, without speaking. Ben won one, his adversary two. During the fourth game, Ben asked him what had happened to his daddy. There was only one black man sitting at the table and he had a leg bandaged from foot to mid-calf, his own overalls pant leg sliced to the knee. “My grand-daddy,” he said before jumping and capturing a piece.

He told Ben that his grandfather had been out fishing from his jon boat in the flooded fields of Arkansas, just across the river from Memphis, when a cottonmouth dropped from a tree into the boat. His grand-daddy pulled a shotgun and blasted the snake away, killing it, but also sinking the boat.

“He walked two miles through water to his waist for the highway, and on the way he was bit on the ankle by a copperhead,” the boy said.

Ben thought for a minute before letting out one shrill bark of a laugh followed by a snort. His new friend, the storyteller, laughed aloud at this and slapped his thigh again and again. The men at the table stopped their game and talk to turn toward the boys who fought to stop their laughter and resume their own game.

Later, through a haze of sleep and smoke, Ben watched as his father peeled bills from the stack he’d won and paid the owner of the store for a box of hand-rolled cigars and a handful of Hav-A-Tampas. The old man tried to give him change but he waved it away and called for Ben to follow. After making one stop for coffee before leaving town, with his daddy giddy on rye and a winning night of cards, they drove straight through the night to Illinois.

Though a silent man, his father talked and talked about farming and people he’d known and city life versus the farming life. He spoke of his own father, a man of stone from a place called Minis that Ben had never visited and wasn’t even sure still existed. His daddy talked with purpose, as though he had to; as though not to would cause him to burst into flame. It was the most he’d ever spoken to Ben at one time and Ben tried his best to stay awake for it, but a 10-year-old boy just doesn’t have the capacity for long-windedness that an adult has.

He must have kept at it all night because as they pulled into their long, rutted driveway and Ben awoke, he was still talking, not stopping until he cut the motor and sat staring at the farmhouse, a deep cigar-rattled sigh preceding silence and keeping time with the cooling of the truck’s ticking engine.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Wake Up Slow

Hello all. Hope you enjoy today's excerpt from a novel, Wake Up Slow, which follows a family of creative entrepreneurs who are forced to live under one roof to try to make it during the recession. The author, Rea Frey, is a personal trainer, nutrition specialist, and lifestyle writer who was recently voted best local nonfiction writer for the Chicago Reader. She writes a monthly vegetarian column for Martha Stewart's website, is a common guest on WGN radio, and discusses how to live a balanced life here. Her book, The Cheat Sheet: A Clue-by-Clue Guide to Finding Out If He's Unfaithful (Adams Media) was released in June.

Milton
By Rea Frey

This is what I want it to say on my tombstone: Milton Stewart was the greatest writer who ever lived. No date of birth, no “beloved,” no dried flowers sprinkled around the gravesite. Just that one important line. Of course, I would have probably had to publish a book, or even write something from time to time, but A) I just liked the way it sounded, and secondly, I wanted to be remembered.

Sometimes, in my home, nestled behind a TV tray, I was afraid I would die and no one would remember me. My friend Harry would find me three weeks after I’d passed, a sad, saggy nub glued to his rocking chair. I’m sure that’s a common fear when you get old and live alone, but when you are seventy-two, have two prosthetic legs and a house full of books, it’s not entirely irrational.

Every step could be my last. All the heaps of books and junk and clothes were like landmines to a cripple. I could trip and asphyxiate myself on an unwashed pile of sheets. I could knock my head on a stack of Russian poets. I could get one of my limbs wrapped around an antique tea set and fall down the steps to the basement. It’s amazing what a dangerous life I led. It was kind of exciting when I stopped to think about it. Which I rarely did.

Luckily, my daughter offered me some help. Or rather, she insisted I move in when she stopped by to drop off some mail. The shame crossed her face as she maneuvered between dirty dishes and mounds of dictionaries.

“You can’t live like this,” she said.

“Well, I’m alive, aren’t I? I’m still breathing.”

“You know what I mean.”

Because I didn’t want to disappoint her, I agreed to move in with her and her husband. They lived a nice, quiet life. They had two empty guest rooms. I even got to pick which one I wanted: orange or green. I chose green. It was my wife’s favorite color.

My daughter lived on the other side of town in a suburb of Nashville. She had a gigantic house she’d bought with her husband before the economy had crashed; before her husband lost his job and she started working again, and before her two children got divorced and crushed her lofty dreams of grandchildren filling that big old house with their small footsteps and lively screams.

Because she had no grandchildren, she had cats. Now, she would have me. Perhaps I wasn’t the only embarrassment.

Tomorrow, I would have to pack up my house. But today, I would sit among my possessions and pretend I was somebody great. Every novel was my novel. Every great word that had ever been written was constructed in this very room, with a pen and a pensive look out my dirty window.

Perhaps at this moment in some alternate universe, my wish was coming true. Perhaps I had been a great writer, and that’s why I was so called to words. I lived my life surrounded by dead authors and live ones. Could my novel be tucked somewhere among the thin and thick volumes? Maybe, I thought. It’s not too late. Though I knew it was for me.

Rustling through my junk, I found an old yellow legal pad and a chipped pencil. I brought it up to my tiny writing desk I’d bought at a flea market for $10. I had an Underwood typewriter, sans ribbon, collecting dust. I liked the way it looked, and I often went over and pressed the keys just to hear the melody they brought to the empty room.

I cleared my throat and looked at the stale cup of coffee that had been sitting on the corner of my desk since 1952. I pressed my pencil to the paper, excitement building as it always did – for I figured today might be the day that inspiration hit and I would have a bestseller on my hands. As I pressed the pencil to the paper, the lead broke. I was too tired to look for a pen.

Another successful day of writing: check.

I hated my daughter’s children. Was that wrong to say, since technically, they were my grandchildren? Mainly I hated them because my granddaughter was a writer, and she had just published a book, so really I loved her. She’d actually published two books if you counted her first one, which I didn’t, because it was with a bad publisher and never saw the inside of a bookstore. Her second book was legitimate.

Every time she came in from Chicago with her long, feathered earrings and modern tattoos, I wanted to shake her down for information. What’s it like to have an editor! What do you and your agent talk about! What was it like the first time you held your book in your hands! I also wanted to yell: You have feathers in your ears! You have a husband with a mohawk! You wear platform shoes! Real writers don’t wear platform shoes!

The truth: She was a great writer, and I envied her abilities. She wrote for about fourteen different publications and complained about how much she wrote for such little pay. I scoffed. To be known as a writer, even in this oversaturated world, was much more important than getting paid.

My grandson was a bit more traditional. A schoolteacher, he’d had two marriages in the span of five years, and his new wife (also heavily tattooed) had a real dick of a son from a previous relationship. Every time I was around, Trevor ran around naked with his little uncircumcised penis waving in the air like a human baby toe. He would place it on me, brushing up against my shoulder, my knee, or setting it on my fiberglass legs while I was taking a nap, so when I woke, he would be standing there with his appendage looped over my fake shin like an earthworm.

Every time he opened his mouth to scream, he looked like a scary clown. He did whatever he pleased, and I found myself wanting to yank him up by his elbow as my mother had when I was a boy to tell him that little boys didn’t disobey their parents they way he did. “What a little brat,” I said once, and my grandson’s wife had shot me a look that could have killed me.

“He’s four,” she said.

“Exactly. Who’s the parent here? You or him?”

That was the end of my conversations with my grandson’s wife.

My son-in-law, Duane, was wonderful. Mostly because he was quiet. He was secretly a writer too, and secretly I hated him for his talent, which was wide and gaping and reminded me of Ted Hughes – his poetry was just that remarkable.

My daughter was the best human being I knew. Emma. I’d adopted her with my wife when she was one year old because no one wanted her. She’d had brain surgery at just six weeks old – otherwise her head would have grown to the size of a watermelon – and when she looked up at me in that orphanage, her red hair shining in the bright Nashville sun, I’d fallen madly in love.

“We’ll take her,” I’d said.

Anna had slapped my arm. “She’s not a couch, Milton, she’s a person. There are rules here.”

“Rules schmules. How much is she?”
And so I’d bargained for my daughter, who was the best purchase I ever made. The fact that I had given her a roof over her head, and now she was giving me one over mine seemed cyclical and very ironic.

I’d adopted Emma when I was twenty. The majority of my life had been filled with women. When Anna died five years ago, I’d let things fall apart. I had no desire to cook or clean. I collected things because I no longer collected memories. My house resembled a bookstore that had been attacked by a tornado.

Now, standing in front of my daughter’s door, I fidgeted with my suitcase. I missed my books, my dishes collected over the years, my twenty-five pairs of khakis hanging according to their various hues in my closet. Emma was hiring movers to sell the rest of my belongings and store some of the possessions I just couldn’t bear to part with in a storage unit across town. I loved her for taking care of these things, for getting my house in some sort of working order to sell. I had made what was once a happy home sad and depressing. If anyone could give it life again, it was her.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Like This

Hi everyone. How about a dose of contemporary YA flash fiction on this Wednesday afternoon? The author, Valerie Kemp, is an award-winning independent filmmaker turned YA writer, and she's sharing with us a piece about the perfect, the imperfect, and oblivious boys. After checking out Like This, head to Valerie's blog where she writes collaborative short stories.

Like This
By Valerie Kemp

It is like this.

The boy walks by in that way the cute ones have. You know, half-loping, half-strutting. Head high, eyes all around. Not sure if they’re the watcher or the watched, but not really concerned. Either one must be good, because life is good.

His life, anyway.

And she sits, breath half-held, half-swallowed. Frozen in that state of “casual” – the one that always looks forced. Cursing herself for being so obvious. Cursing him for not noticing.

Why are they all so oblivious?
She wonders, absently striking a pose of disheartened fury. If there is such a thing. She probably just invented it now – her awkwardness always creating something unheard of. She is beautiful that way, but doesn’t know it. A blessing and a curse, or maybe just the way it has to be.

He smiles, crooked teeth and all. So imperfect he cannot be improved upon. It is unfair she thinks, that two odds make an even, and two evens make an even, but the odd that is her is made up of incomplete parts. She is all halves and quarters – unfinished despite so many pieces. Too many to figure out what’s missing.

No, she thinks and boldly points at him inside her mind. He’s missing.

As if he felt her imaginary finger, he turns. Eyes that seem to know so much more about life than she ever will scan the room, pausing with effect on hers for the briefest of moments, but a moment, still.

An old love song she learned in Spanish class, “Contigo En La Distancia” floats through her mind and she thinks (always thinking) yes. That’s it. Someday, somewhere, they will come together. The imperfect perfect and the just imperfect. He will fill her empty spaces. Put her together like the jigsaw puzzle she believes she is.

Yes, she thinks again, and remembers to breathe. The gasp rises from her sharply, pushing its way to the ceiling. The place where dreams sit waiting. Where, if you can reach, you can pluck them down and turn them into a tangible thing.

She watches the flawed boy continue on his way. The blandest of scenery in the journey that is his life. He tilts his head back, staring into the dreamspace with a faraway look, and all at once she understands. She knows what she must do to make her dream reality. For the first time in an eternity, she smiles even though no one is watching.

It’s simple (she thinks, and feels her heart flutter).

She must learn to fly.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The Basement

Hi everyone. If you need a quick break today, I hope you enjoy this quick bit of flash fiction by Michael Zambotti. Michael is a writer living in New Jersey who despite a background in finance has decided to make a serious go at writing. His flash fiction piece, The Basement, was inspired by a child's birthday party, to which he was "dragged." Enjoy!
 
The Basement
By Michael Zambotti

The car was gone from the driveway, no telling when it would come back. I'd better make this quick. I leaned my bike against a tree and surveyed the overgrown backyard once more before hopping the chain-link fence. I found a path between the weeds and put my hand on a rusty barrel to keep steady. An unoccupied raccoon trap was off to my left. The thick, summer air smelled of wet dogs and dandelions. Crickets and my heart beat were the only sound. An ancient birdbath had tipped over and now served as home to a beehive. The path pulled me to the house. I was certain no one was inside, although I tried not to make a noise. Quiet as a mouse peeing on cotton, as my dad would put it. The brass doorknob was cold under my hand. It turned. Success!

Adrenaline surged. I felt pricklies all over my arms like when I reach into the pine tree to get the wiffle ball back. This was it. Twelve years old and I was going to be a hero! I was going to discover the trove of bodies in Old Man Smith's Den of Horrors. Jimmy and I had snuck out a few nights ago-- we were supposed to be camping in his backyard-- and saw the lights and heard the scraping, grinding noises coming from the basement. We had planned this entire operation together, but at the last minute Jimmy had to go out of town to see his relatives. I was scared, but secretly glad he wasn't there. I wanted to be the hero, all by myself. I'd be sure to mention Jimmy to the reporter, though. I'd already gone over what I'd say in the interview several times. I turned my “Rick's Drugstore Red Sox” ball cap backward for good luck and pressed forward.

The house wasn't nearly as messy as I'd pictured it in my mind. The kitchen smelled of flowers. As I progressed down the carpeted hallway, I noticed a light coming from under a door and heard a grinding noise. I opened the door and peered down the wooden stairs. The grinding got louder and the air held a hint of smoke. Was he down there? Would I catch him in the act? Too excited to turn back now, I double-checked my camera and put an unsteady foot on the top step. No noise. I lowered myself onto the second step. Quiet. Yes! The third and fourth step were silent. When I hit the fifth step my heart sank. A loud, obnoxious squeak sounded and a graveled voice said, “Who's there?” I froze. A weathered face covered by a worn engineer's hat poked through the door frame. Should I scream? Run? What should I do?

“WHO'S THERE?”

“Come down here, I want to show you something.”

He lunged toward me and took me by the arm. The jig was up. The grinding noise was even louder. Red lights periodically flashed from the other room. I wished Jimmy was here.

My throat was frozen and my fingers felt icy. I followed the man sure to be his next victim. I turned left and entered the large room and saw it. Stretched out in front of me was the largest train set I had ever seen. It was an exact replica of our town.

“I've been working on this for months.” Smiled the man. “What do you think?”

“Uh, um, it's a..... killer layout, sir”

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Happy NaNoWriMo Day!

It's Opening Day of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and it's a day that usually fills agents with dread. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write an entire novel in a month. It's basically a month-long cram session, only there is no final exam. The reason agents get antsy about it is because once November is over, December queries pile up with hastily written novels from hundreds of eager writers. And right in the middle of the holiday season when we're all trying to clean out our inboxes, no less!

Personally, I think NaNoWriMo is great. It's completely unnecessary and necessary at the same time. In my head, it's no different than holidays like Valentine's Day or Thanksgiving. Sure, we should always show the person we love that we appreciate them and yes, we should always be thankful for what we have. And how many of us have used "but it's my birthday!" to have an excuse to do something out of character or take an expensive trip or just get all of your friends in one place when life interrupts other plans?

Just like writers should always be working on their next novel, sometimes we need something like NaNoWriMo to get us to just sit down and write. It's easy to take time for granted (it is infinite, after all), so creating days to specifically set aside for what we should be doing year-round is a good way to make sure nothing else can get in the way.

To have a successful NaNoWriMo, remember these things:

1) Take it seriously. This is your excuse to finally finish that novel you've been "meaning to get to." Don't waste it. Set a word count goal for each day, and don't go to sleep until you reach that goal.
2) Don't expect what you write to be brilliant. See above. As long as you reach your goal, then you're golden. Don't worry about plot holes, character continuity, or whether the prose is even pleasing to read. Just write.
3) Push yourself to go further. One of the goals of NaNoWriMo is to have a "50,000 word novel by the end of the month." That is not a long novel. If you're writing a YA or adult novel, you'll need to add 10K-30K to that amount. Don't do the bare minimum just to reach the goal of the project. Reach your own goal.
4) Be smart with revisions. You just ran a marathon. Rest before you start over again. Try not to even think about whatever it is you just wrote in November (you were probably blacked out half the time anyway). Sometime in the first two weeks of December, read it from start to finish and see which parts need revising. Try not to do more than simple copy-editing while reading it over. Then once you get a feel for the entire scope of the novel, take another month, or longer, to go into heavier revisions.
5) Have a life. Eat, sleep, go out, play with your kids, be a normal functioning human. As we already established, the Great American Novel will not be ready by December 1st. NaNoWriMo is just your way of getting it all down on paper. So enjoy your life and don't let it consume you.

And finally, Be Smart About Querying. This is a race to get your novel written, not a race to get it published. Treat it the way you would anything else you've written. Research which agents would like your genre, what their guidelines are, and which agents are open to submission (remember holidays seasons and even early January are typical "closed to queries" months for many agents).

Are any of my readers participating in NaNoWriMo this month? What are your plans for reaching your goals?

Happy writing, everyone!