Description: To see the mountains, valleys, and travel across America is the adventurous life Joel Hester seeks. He wants nothing more than to put his former life of hopeless dreams and unfulfilled desires behind him.Riding the rails for the first time, he meets a couple characters that inspire him to follow through with his new life of drifting and to meet new people and visit other towns and cities. However, when Joel discovers the town of Paradise, he finds that not everyone is so warm and welcoming of who he is, and leaving on his own may not be an option.
Monday, April 18, 2016
Wednesday, March 23, 2016
Moonshiner’s Justice is a continuation of my short story Faith, Love and Moonshine: An Appalachian Tale, which I’d written about five years ago and now stands as the first chapter of this book. I’d received feedback from a few readers wishing Faith hadn’t ended where it did. They wanted more. Although the story was a standalone, I knew it wasn’t quite complete. I tweaked and revised the storyline just a bit, but no drastic changes were made. Now, five years later, Moonshiner’s Justice is born.
Description: Moonshining is a common way of life in the poverty-stricken region of eastern Kentucky. For Frank Jamison, backwoods distilling is his primary means to surviving the harsh and uneconomical time.Three years have passed since the ratification of the 18th Amendment, which banned the sale and distribution of intoxicating liquors. It was also then, in 1920, Frank had his first run-in with the federal revenuers. The encounter resulted in a temporary setback for his business, but also led to the tragic loss of his oldest daughter. Now, an insider has tipped-off the authorities and Frank is once again feeling the pressure of losing his operation. It's Frank's father, an old-time moonshiner with an itchy trigger finger, who steps in with readied guns to set matters straight and help restore the reputation of the backwoods distiller.
Wednesday, January 20, 2016
Copyright 2016 Sunrise Publishing
This story is included in the short story collection Under the Willow Tree and Other Stories.
It was an ongoing chatter of squawks and barks that rattled Ian McAllister from his sleep. This noise woke him the same time every morning, but there was no one to blame for it except Ian. Two weeks earlier, he had nailed an empty soup can onto the outside ledge of the kitchen window and filled it with handfuls of corn. Two lively squirrels had accustomed themselves to this routine and were awaiting their daily handout.
The old man opened his eyes and looked high above to the square, wooden ceiling beams running parallel with his bed. They ran from one wall to the other, adding to the sound structure of the one room cabin.
Slowly, he swung his legs over the side of his bed and slid his bare, boney feet into his house slippers. He yawned, stretched, and stood, joints stiff and cracking.
“I’m coming, you rascals,” he said, scratching his round belly from over his nightshirt.
He grabbed his walking cane that was beside his bed and paced wearily to the kitchen cupboard. He opened the door and scooped a cupful of corn from a small burlap sack. When Ian raised the window, the squirrels leaped to the snow-covered ground and returned to the ledge after he filled the can and shut the window.
“There you go,” said Ian, looking on as if he were a proud papa.
With pleasure, the old man watched the squirrels—the large red one, which he had named Arthur, and the smaller grey, dubbed Maxwell—nibble yellow kernels between their tiny paws, standing on the window’s ledge.
What fascinating creatures, Ian thought, standing in front of the frosty glass. Lifting his gaze, he looked past the furry squirrels beyond the grey fencing that surrounded his front yard, and out to the wooded hillside. Ian marveled at the pine trees blanketed with fresh fallen snow. He loved this secluded countryside that he had called home for more than thirty years. He reveled in the wonderment of the morning, and shortly after, stepped away from the window and sidled over to the coffee pot.
It had always been these little things—the playful squirrels, the beautiful landscape—that had brought comfort and joy into Ian’s life. Such were the small pleasantries of a lonely writer, whose wife had died long ago, and who was without anyone to call a friend.
After making his coffee and pouring himself a cup, Ian ventured a few steps over to his roll-top desk. He set his cup on top, eased down in a cushiony chair, and leaned his cane against the side of the desk. The desk had been his grandmother’s and the smell of her stale pipe tobacco still permeated the old wood, which hurled him back to his youth every time he sat down to write.
The old writer pulled out his notebook, and with pen in hand, he stared down to yet another intimidating blank page. He contemplated a plot line that he had been mulling over, but found it weak and disposed of the idea.
“That’ll never work,” he said. This was his common response to any inkling of creativity that he had had in recent months. It was the mindset that had ruled his thinking much of the passing year.
Creating stories had become a struggle for Ian. He had run into nothing but disappointing dead ends. However, he had never given up. This life, the one of a writer and storyteller, was all he knew. Every day he drudged forward, hoping to revamp his creative talent which he fervently believed was lying somewhere within.
He grabbed his coffee cup, sipped, and again glanced over to the kitchen window—adjacent to his desk—to watch the squirrels devour the kernels of corn. The squirrels were the only reliable entity in Ian’s life. They brought him comfort and happiness.
Again, Ian sipped and then placed his cup on top of his desk. He returned his concentration to the vacant page of his notebook and tapped his pen mindlessly, searching for the slightest glimpse of hope.
“If only I had a muse that I could count on,” he said while twisting the end of his white mustache.
Several minutes passed and still no words or ideas came forth. He rotated his neck, trying to unbind the stiffness which was setting in faster than usual. An hour went by and then another and not a single scribbling of a sentence or word occurred.
Becoming frustrated, Ian slumped in his chair and said, “Damn you, muse! Where are you? I need you more than ever.”
With his fingertips, he massaged his head at the temples and again he glanced to the kitchen window and noticed the squirrels were gone. They had gotten their free meal and headed back to the wooded hillside.
In a small way, Ian felt used. Maybe it was loneliness causing his feeling of dismay. Maybe it was his inability to create the marvelous stories for which he was once widely known. Whichever the case, he had never felt this way about the little woodland squirrels.
“You creatures are like all the rest,” he said. “You’re no different from the agents and publishers who are constantly putting their grubby hands into my pockets.”
As Ian finished his complaining and looked again to his notebook, a discharge of knocks came from the front door of his cabin. He was not one who startled easily, but he jumped slightly and expelled a few obscenities under his breath. He grumbled and rose from his chair.
More knocks came and Ian grabbed his cane and walked across the one-room cabin. When he turned the deadbolt and opened the door, the old writer’s eyes gazed upon a being that made his bitter heart flutter and dance.
“Good afternoon, Ian,” said the visitor.
Ian stared giddily. Standing before him was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen—a woman with hair as black as the night sky and complexion equal to that of the fallen snow behind her. She wore a long, elegant red dress that sparkled in the sun’s reflection. Draped over her shoulders was a shawl fashioned from the fur of an exotic animal.
“It’s you,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
She walked through the doorway, going past him.
“My goodness,” said the woman, “someone could catch a deathly cold out there.” She rubbed her arms, as if trying to induce circulation back into her limbs. Ian shut the door behind her, and his enchantment of her soon turned to irritation.
He asked, “Why are you here, Tamara?”
The elegant woman unfastened her shawl, exposing vast cleavage and ample breasts. Ian took notice of her sexual allure. It had been years since he had witnessed such erotic splendor. From the tips of her shiny high heels to her long, straight locks, he absorbed it all with much delight.
“My, aren’t we getting touchy in our old age?” said Tamara. “Can’t a person stop by and see a dear friend whenever she wishes?”
Ian said, “I’d never realized we were such dear friends.” He turned his eyes from her enormous bosom and headed back to his desk.
“Surely you don’t mean that,” said Tamara. We’ve been friends for so many years. Don’t be so bitter, Ian.”
He said, “How am I supposed to feel? You’ve been away for a long time now.”
“Yes, I know I’ve neglected you,” she said with a voice absorbed in guilt. “But I’m here now, aren’t I?”
Ian ignored her out of spite. He grabbed his pen and thought he might write a line or two. For a moment, he had truly felt a jolt of inspiration. And at last, he did write. He jotted two brilliant sentences.
He had loved her dearly. The pain and agony grew within him each passing day.
Ian stopped writing, sat back in his chair, and stared down to the page.
“I haven’t been able to do that in months,” he said, astonished.
Tamara said, “It feels wonderful, doesn’t it, Ian—to produce your prose once again.” While she spoke she stood behind him, watching over his shoulder.
“Yes, it does. I’ve been waiting for this moment a long time.”
“I know you have,” said Tamara. “I heard your wish. That’s why I’ve returned to you. As you said, you need me. And there are plenty of wonderful stories floating around inside that magnificent mind of yours, waiting to make you a best seller once again. I can make that happen, Ian, just like before.”
Ian turned in his chair and with suspicious eyes stared up at her.
“How can I be sure you won’t leave me again? How can I be certain that I can trust a muse like you?”
“Muses do come and go, Ian. We all know that.”
“True,” said Ian. “But I don’t care for that uncertainty. I’ve lived this way for far too long. I need to know that you’ll always be there when I need you. And I’m old. I don’t have much time left.”
Tamara leaned over, pressing her large breasts on the back of Ian’s neck. She breathed heavily and seductively into the old writer’s ear. Ian’s old heart thumped in his chest.
“Now, Ian,” she softy whispered, “we’ve been through this all before. We both know what it will take so that you’re able to write your stories at will. Better yet, so that we’ll be together forever. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? Nothing has changed, Ian. My offer still stands.”
The feel of bare cleavage on his neck and the smell of Tamara’s exotic perfume sent a pleasing chill down Ian’s back.
“But why must I sign over my soul?” he asked, remembering the terms that she had introduced the year before. “There must be another way.”
The seductress sank her hands into Ian’s shoulders and neck and intricately massaged his old, tired muscles. And again she lowered herself, whispering into his other ear.
“I wish there were, Ian, but I’m afraid there isn’t. The gods of the underworld will need your immortal soul if you wish to write as you did before. That is the only way. You owe it to your fans.”
For the old writer it seemed like ages since he had published any respectable works. It had also been ages since he had received his last piece of fan mail. Ian missed that connection with his readers, the corresponding back and forth. He missed touching their lives as he had done when he was a young, prolific writer. He wanted to be the free-spirited writer from the days of old.
“And you can promise me the words will flow as freely as I please? No more struggling. No more misery?”
“Of course,” said Tamara. “I promise all that—for the rest of your days.”
Ian pulled away from the muse’s persistent pawing, grabbed his cane, and pushed up from his chair.
“I’m still not convinced,” he said, walking over to peer out the kitchen window. He hoped to catch another glimpse of his furry friends, and he wished he had not felt so bitter toward them earlier.
“How can you say that?” asked Tamara. “Wasn’t that wonderful feeling of writing a few moments ago convincing enough? Ian, you can have all that again and so much more. All you have to do is give up your soul. Hand it over and write as you’ve never written before.”
Staring out the window to the snowy hillside, Ian listened to the words of his muse. She continued her swooning and coercing. The longer she talked, the more sense she made. He was tired of this burden of being unable to write, but most of all he was heartbroken because he was unable to enjoy his craft.
Ian turned to Tamara. “Okay, I’m ready.” After a moment of silence and a deep breath, he said, “Take my soul and do with it as you wish. I don’t need it. Just give me back my will to write.”
Tamara walked over to Ian, her high heels clacking on the hardwood floor. Smiling, she placed her soft, pale hands on either side of the writer’s whiskered face and caressed gently.
“You’ve made a wise decision, Ian,” she said in a caring tone. “Your love of writing will return as will an outpouring of story ideas that will indeed touch your fans, just as you have wished.”
She pulled her hand away from his face and darted toward the front door.
“Wait. Where are you going?” asked Ian. “I thought we were going to be together forever.”
Stopping at the front door, Tamara refastened her shawl and turned to him.
“I’ll always be with you in spirit, Ian. And I’ll drop in on you from time to time. When you awake tomorrow morning, everything you’ve wished for will be as it should be.”
Tamara walked out the front door leaving a skeptical old man in her wake. Ian did not attempt to write any more that evening. Instead, he would wait until morning to see if the muse stayed true to her word.
After a night of unsettled sleep, Ian rose again to the squawking sound of the squirrels. He was glad to see they had returned.
“Here you are,” said Ian, dumping the corn in the soup can.
This time he did not admire the critters while they ate. Instead, he brewed his coffee and quickly took his seat at his desk to continue with the wonderful story he had started the day before. Relaxed and confident, he pulled out his notebook and pen.
With little effort the words and ideas streamed from Ian’s pen onto the page. He could not contain the huge grin emerging on his creased face.
“Remarkable,” he said to himself, energized as he continued to write.
After only an hour, Ian had completed an entire story. And it was not just any story; it was one of brilliance. He felt as if it were one of his best. Reading over the finished work, he basked in the joy and comfort of something he had not been able to do for a long time. Most importantly, he felt no different. He did not feel like a man who had lost his soul. He was not even certain that he had. He was however convinced of one thing: he could write again. To Ian, this was all that mattered.
Day after day, until a week had passed, Ian repeated his routine of feeding the squirrels, preparing his coffee, and writing his stories. Each story, saturated with the old writer’s style and flair, possessed a quality unlike any story of the present day. To Ian, each one appeared almost lifelike. And in true Ian McAllister fashion, each story covered his favorite subjects: chaos, death, and destruction. He had written many stories of this nature throughout the years, but none as magnificent as the ones he had churned out in the past days.
One evening while in the midst of another writing session, Ian stopped briefly to read over his work. This story was starting out to be even better than the one he had written the day before. He thought this could possibly be the greatest work to date.
His starry eyes scanned the page and again he noticed the intricacies of his writing, possessing realism unlike anything he had ever written before. It had been so long since he felt this way about his craft and he sensed his talent as a writer was improving day after day. The old writer fed from this natural high and felt Tamara had indeed held true to her word; although, he still did not feel like a soulless scribe.
While Ian wrote, Tamara, all charm and allure, again appeared at the front door wearing the same dress and shawl that she had worn on her original visit.
“I’ve noticed you’ve been a very busy man, Ian McAllister,” she said, walking into the cabin, high heels clacking on the hardwood floor.
“Oh yes. More than ever. You’re truly remarkable, Tamara. I won’t doubt you again. Thank you for all that you’ve done for me.”
The muse walked over to Ian’s desk and gently ran her hand along its top and down the side.
“I’ve come to thank you as well, Ian,” she said, admiring the craftsmanship of the wooden desk.
Perplexed, Ian said, “For what? I’ve done nothing—nothing that I know of.”
She picked up Ian’s notebook that lay on his desk.
“Your stories are changing the world, Ian—even as we speak. The gods of the underworld are extremely pleased with you.” She quickly flipped through the pages of stories.
“Please forgive me,” Ian began, “but I haven’t submitted anything to my publisher. My fans, or the rest of the world, know nothing of my stories.”
Tamara threw the notebook back on the desk and laughed.
“You really have been busy, haven’t you,” she said. “Even too busy to know what’s going on all around you.”
“What do you mean?” asked Ian.
“Turn on your television.”
“My television? Is this some sort of joke?”
“It’s not a joke. Just turn on the TV,” Tamara said again.
The old writer shuffled over to the end table by the sofa and picked up the remote to the television. Hesitantly, he aimed and pushed the power button.
When the screen’s illumination was at its fullest, Ian saw flashes of brutal chaos and destruction. This was something often showed by the news stations so it was nothing unusual for Ian. He glanced over to Tamara.
“What is it I’m supposed to be witnessing?” he asked.
“Flip to the next channel,” said Tamara, watching the screen, intently, enjoying the scenes as each played out one by one.
Ian did as she said, and again the screen displayed the same bloody suffrage.
Breaking News, the headline stated. Many Dead after Today’s Catastrophic Earthquake.
Somewhat rattled, Ian flipped to the next channel.
“Bodies burnt alive,” said the news anchor. Again, the old man changed the channel.
Every station depicted mayhem—nothing but widespread death and chaos. The old writer became uneasy and sensed something was not right, in fact, something was eerily wrong. He turned off the television and tossed the remote onto the sofa.
“What the hell is going on?” he asked.
“You’ve gotten your wish,” said Tamara, elated. “Your words have once again made a huge impact on the people of the world.”
It was then Ian understood her. All the turmoil on the television mirrored that of the stories in his notebook—the topics Ian loved to write about most: pandemonium and destruction.
“You mean I’m responsible for all of this?” He gave a nod to the television.
“I’m afraid so,” said Tamara.
Ian stood stone-faced; not wanting to believe the moment was real.
“You fooled me,” he said through a trembling voice.
“Nonsense,” said Tamara. “I’ve made you the most prolific writer in the world—just as you wished for. There was no trickery involved.”
“You are evil in the purest form,” said Ian. “How could you have allowed this to happen? Innocent people are dying!”
Tamara said nothing. Instead she walked over to a painting hanging on the cabin wall.
“For an old man you are naïve,” she said. She bumped the frame a little to the left, squaring it with the other pictures hanging on the wall. She turned back around. “Evil is everywhere in the world, Ian. Don’t you see that? It’s greedy people like you who spread evil. If you hadn’t bargained your soul for your precious writing career, none of the destruction would be happening right now. You’re the only one who’s to blame. Not me.”
Ian was not sure how to respond. He thought for a moment, and then stood up a little straighter and blurted out the first logical thought that came to his mind.
“Then I’ll quit writing.”
Tamara laughed. “I’m afraid it’s not that simple. You’ve made a deal with the gods of the underworld. They will force you to write your stories. And even if you try to stop, you won’t succeed. You are without a soul, Ian. You have no choice in the matter.”
Ian was in disbelief. He had always been a gentle, caring man. He had never wished any harm on anyone. He had always loved Mother Nature and the woodland creatures, and he respected his fellow man. He had no idea that one day his words would lead to worldly devastation.
Walking to the front door to leave, Tamara said, “I hope you understand this has nothing to do with you personally. Good and evil have always existed in the world, Ian, and it’s always been a balancing act between the two. I hope you understand. And I want to thank you for your contribution.” She walked out, shutting the door behind her. The old writer dropped his cane and quickly walked over to turn the deadbolt.
Distraught, Ian nervously ran his fingers through his white hair. He walked to the kitchen cupboard, pulled from it a bottle of whiskey and a glass, and unscrewed the lid from the bottle. With his shaking hand, he poured a generous shot into his glass and gulped it. He poured another and drank again. Ian tried not to think of his stories but was unable to avoid them.
With every attempt to sway his mind, Ian found himself steering back to his latest story. Ian grabbed the bottle of whiskey and his glass and made his way back over to his writing station. After sitting, he poured another, this time filling the glass to the top. He took a large gulp and then placed his glass where his coffee cup normally sat. He opened his notebook and with pen in hand he began to write.
Even with concentrated effort, Ian was unable to stop himself from writing and so he eventually gave up and let the muse’s influence prevail. Subconsciously, he was aware that the story was of pure evil, although he did not mind. It was the writing, the act of creating, the act of producing art, something that he had missed for far too long, that took over his being. He had always loved and valued the art form, and did so as he scribbled out the words in his notebook. But at the same time he loathed it as he never had before.
On and on, into the early hours of the morning, he wrote with nothing holding him back. Finally, Ian stopped and looked down to his words when a welling tear broke from his eyelid, rolled down his whiskered cheek, and splashed onto the page of his notebook. He wrote one final sentence, scooted from his desk, and made his way to the bedroom area of the cabin.
It was an hour later when the sun started rising above the wooded hillside, just past the grey fencing that surrounded Ian’s front yard, that the frolicking squirrels were already at the window’s ledge, wanting their morning ration of corn. For a solid half hour they squawked, barked, and played, trying to capture the attention of the one who had been feeding them regularly for the last couple of weeks. Even with the squirrels’ playful persistence, the one who filled the soup can did not come to the window this time.
Through the frosty window, past the old, roll-top desk, a shadowy figure gently swayed from one of the square, wooden ceiling beams of the log cabin. Ian McAllister’s lifeless body hung suspended by a stretched rope that had elongated his neck to unnatural proportions. No more would he hurt anyone else. No more would this caring man have to worry about wreaking havoc on the world with his words. Ian McAllister had written his last story.
On the desk with the half-filled bottle of whiskey and empty glass, sat Ian’s notebook, and on the bottom of the last page of his final story was his final request:
God, forgive me.
And someone please feed my squirrels.
Sunday, May 31, 2015
The Good Neighbor is available in the collection Under the Willow Tree and Other Stories.
Peter Hughes lathered the final corner panel on his ‘68 Camaro. Washing this car, his most prized possession, was his duty, which he did at least once a week. Besides his outdated house, with the peeling paint, warped window frames, and cracked and slanted sidewalks, the car was the only item of any importance that Peter had been able to keep in that painstakingly drawn-out divorce. He had asked for nothing else.
He swirled his sponge and wiped while soapsuds slid down his scrawny forearm, covering the small name that he’d had tattooed there a few years ago. Valerie, a name he intended to have removed by laser surgery whenever he could save up the money.
With the garden hose, he rinsed the foamy water and exposed the car’s shiny canary-yellow finish. Stepping back, he admired his baby as the last of the evening sun danced and paraded over the contours of its flawless body.
Perfection once again, he thought.
Soon after, his admiration for his car was interrupted when his neighbor, Guy Fickly, torqued the throttle on his new Harley-Davidson. From dual, chrome tail pipes black smoke bellowed, crossing the street and drifting toward Peter and his freshly washed car. The engine screamed and thundered throughout the usually quiet neighborhood.
Peter had enjoyed that rumbling engine for the first day or two. The sound had made his adrenaline rise, and he almost considered buying a bike for himself. He’d pictured cruising on the open road without a care in the world, enjoying the fresh country air and the freedom that he felt he sorely deserved.
But now, he scoffed every time he heard that blaring pain in the ass. He despised the noise more than he despised his cheating ex-wife. When Guy had bought the bike one week earlier, the roar of the engine could be heard at any time of the day or night. On most nights, Peter would lie in his bed and hopelessly clutch his pillow around his head trying to mute the chaos from across the street. Through his scarcely insulated walls, he heard wrenches clanking, Guy’s cussing, and the engine revving to its highest rpms.
Now, eyes puffed and dark from smoke and lack of sleep, Peter stood in his front yard, breathing in the black cloud, glaring in Guy’s direction. His first thought was to get his 12 gauge Remington from beneath his bed and put the mechanical monster out of its misery. He found much glory in this idea, but a more subtle approach would have to do for now. He dropped the sponge in the wash bucket and tossed the garden hose aside. He grabbed two Coors Lights from his ice chest, which sat on the cracked, slanted sidewalk, and took out across his yard and the road into Guy Fickly’s driveway.
Walking up, Peter noticed the countless cigarette butts discarded over the newly blacktopped driveway. A disgusting habit, he thought. When Guy saw Peter approaching, he cut the engine.
Guy was a shorter, stockier individual who had a rough-edged look. He had a buzzed haircut and scruffy beard and was probably a person you would want on your side if a barroom brawl broke out.
“How’s it goin’, neighbor?” said Guy.
“Going well,” said Peter, showing his cordial side even though he wanted to lash out. “Come to check out this new beast of yours.” He fought his way through the cloud of lingering black smoke.
“Yeah, always wanted one,” said Guy. “Thought, what the hell, I ain’t gettin’ any younger. So, I just went out and bought the son of a bitch.” Peter handed one of the beers to his neighbor. “Thanks, Pete.”
Peter nodded. He cracked open the tab and then took a drink while circling the machine to get a better look.
“Sure is a beauty. What year is it?” he said.
“Ninety-five,” said Guy. “She’ll get down the road screamin’ like a banshee. You wanna take ‘er for a spin?”
Peter thought on the matter, and was tempted, but instead said, “No, better not. Already had a few too many suds today.” He didn’t want to appear hypocritical, especially with what he was about to say.
“Yeah, better not then,” said Guy.
Peter swigged from his beer, cleared his throat, and said, “Hey, Guy, I hate to be the one to say this, but a lot of people are starting to complain about the noise you’re making with this thing.”
He had lied, but was sure the other neighbors had to find the noise as disturbing as he did. He assumed they were probably too intimidated by Guy’s burly swagger to bring up the issue directly. Although, he couldn’t blame them. Guy was a scary-looking sort whose bad side you probably didn’t want to be on.
Guy popped the top of his can, took a healthy drink, and squatted beside his motorcycle.
“Hell, Pete,” he said. “You know I don’t give a damn about what people think of me. Besides, I’m just tunin’ ‘er up. A man has to take care of his equipment. You know that better than anyone.” He set his beer on the driveway and grabbed a spark plug off an oily rag. He then grabbed the ratchet that was lying next to the bike’s front wheel.
Peter scratched his head. He wasn’t expecting Guy’s response to be so logical. He couldn’t rightfully argue with someone who was only trying to maintain his equipment.
“I wasn’t saying you shouldn’t take care of your bike, Guy. But you know how easily annoyed old man Baker becomes over everything.” With a nod of his head, Peter gestured to the house next door to Guy’s. “It’s probably just a matter of time before he starts complaining to Town Hall, or goes to some other extreme.”
Guy made the last turn of his ratchet, grabbed his beer, and stood.
“I’d like to see that old geezer try somethin’ stupid like that. Next time his damn cat comes over and confuses my flower bed for a litter box, I’ll send it home screamin’ with a pellet in its ass.”
Maybe mentioning old man Baker had been a bad idea. Peter didn’t want to start trouble. He was only trying to make life a little easier for himself. He took another drink from his beer.
“There’s something else,” he said.
“What’s that?” said Guy. “Ferguson runnin’ his mouth too?” He was clearly irritated, and now looking toward the house of his other neighbor, Clive Ferguson.
The thought of unintentionally starting a neighborhood civil war crossed Peter’s mind. “No-no, it’s not that,” he said almost in a panic. “It’s just…well…I’m having trouble sleeping at night with all that noise you’re making.”
Tensing, Peter waited for Guy’s response.
“Hell, Pete, why didn’t you say that in the first place? I don’t have a problem workin’ in the daytime.” Peter felt relieved by his answer, until Guy said, “Except it’s a hell of a lot cooler at night, you know.”
Damn it. He’s right again, thought Peter. The days had been blistering hot, and he couldn’t blame Guy for wanting to work in the cooler night air. He’d also remembered Guy’s mild stroke last summer. He thought a bit longer and took another pull from his beer.
“Well, you shouldn’t work in the heat, Guy. That could be dangerous.”
“Hell, I’m too ornery to die,” he said. “But I hear what you’re sayin’. I’ll try to cut the evenin’ a little shorter from now on.”
“That’d be great,” said Peter, surprised by Guy’s answer.
“But I’m only doin’ it for you. Not for that old bastard over there.” Guy pointed and emphasized with the end of his ratchet to old man Baker’s house. “Or Ferguson, either.”
“I sure do appreciate it, neighbor,” said Peter.
“Not a problem,” Guy replied. “Not a problem at all.”
That night, Peter stared happily at the mirror while he brushed his teeth. He felt relieved knowing he was on the brink of getting a restful night’s sleep. Tonight, there would be no engines blaring, no clanking wrenches, and no loud, thoughtless cursing.
He spat, wiped his mouth, and proceeded to the soft pillow top mattress and sat on the edge of his bed. He longed for vivid dreams and restful slumber. He knew he wouldn’t meet the morning with contempt and despair as before. Instead, he would rise vigorously and full of joy.
He kicked off his house slippers, slid comfortably under his cover, and reached to push the switch on his reading lamp. There would be no reading tonight. Peter was prepared to reach that golden state of blissful rest and relaxation.
He lay peacefully, hearing only the soothing sounds of the chirping crickets outside his open window. A breeze slipped through the window screen, cooling his face, and he formed a gratified smile. He sank deeper into the mattress’ thick cushion, expecting his mind to drift away at any moment. Not long now, he knew, and off to sleep he would go.
While nestled in his blankets, Peter’s mind drifted away. But soon after, a violent stagger of kick-drums and distorted guitar-riffs penetrated the walls, causing his heart to bounce and skip. He rose, panting, grabbing his chest.
“Goddamn it!” he blasted. He stretched his arm and fumbled for the switch on his reading lamp. He slung off his cover, stood, and marched to the other bedroom window, pulling apart the blinds, and stared with crazy eyes toward Guy’s lighted garage.
“What’s wrong with these fucking people?” he said.
Guy’s son, Austin, and his garage band were playing their music again. The teenage boy and his band had intruded on Peter’s sleep on more than one occasion. Peter had talked to Guy about the blaring noise, and he thought they had come to a reasonable understanding.
“No problem, Pete,” he remembered Guy saying. “I’ll take care of it. Won’t happen again.”
Enraged, Peter spied through his blinds. And through the small rectangular window of Guy’s garage, he could see Guy’s greying, buzzed head keeping to the beat of the music.
Peter jerked his hand away causing the vinyl slats to slap back to their original position. He couldn’t understand why Guy would let this happen again. Maybe this was spiteful turn play for his request to stop the roaring motorcycle engine. No matter. It was late and Peter would have to deal with this another time.
The next morning Peter arose with heavy stubble on his face and chose to bypass his usual shower and shave. He ambled to the kitchen to make coffee, and then to the corner of the living room where his desk and laptop awaited. He didn’t feel very productive, but the deadline for his advice column loomed.
The keys of his laptop clacked as his article began to take shape. If anything could distract his mind, his writing could. Whether trying to steer some helpless soul out of depression or advise would-be college students on the importance of an education, this job was rewarding to Peter.
He typed away until a sequence of stern knocks on the door pulled him from his writing muse. He opened the front door and discovered a smiling, bright-eyed Guy Fickly staring back.
“Mornin’, Pete,” he said, puffing a cigarette.
“Good morning, Guy,” Peter half grumbled. Unlike him, Guy appeared fresh and lively.
“Wonderin’ if I could still borrow those posthole diggers?” he asked. “Goin’ to start on that fence in the back yard.”
With jaw clenched, Peter held onto his diminishing composure.
“Yeah–sure,” he said. “Meet me around by the side door.”
“Okay,” said Guy.
In the hot, unventilated garage, Peter shuffled around bags of aluminum cans he’d been saving, bypassed a garden tiller, and scooted aside a few totes that were full of his ex-wife’s belongings. Not only was his intrusive neighbor annoying him, but he also felt an old, unsettling rage stirring deep inside. He had phoned Valerie multiple times telling her to come and get her totes, and the rest of her stuff. He became infuriated every time he had to move the damn things to get to something he needed. And this time was no exception.
Eight more of Valerie’s totes were stacked in the corner. Behind the stacks were the posthole diggers that Guy needed for his new fencing project. One by one, Peter lifted the heavy totes from the stack and placed them on the garage floor. He grabbed another, but his hand, now sweaty, slipped from the handle and the container’s sharp, plastic lid scraped down his arm and the corner struck him in the chin. He went down, toppling over the other totes and onto the bags of aluminum cans.
Jutting his jaw, he checked its hinging motion, and when nothing seemed dislocated or broken, he scrambled back to his feet, cussing. Peter grabbed the posthole diggers, and a few moments later, he met Guy at the side door.
“Here,” said Peter while beads of sweat ran down his brow and into his eyes. Again, he opened and closed his jaw.
“Thanks, Pete. I really appreciate it. I’ll bring ‘em back as soon as I’m done.”
“No hurry,” said Peter, wiping the sweat from his eyes.
“You really are a good neighbor,” said Guy. “There ain’t too many people like you left in the world.”
“No big deal, really,” said Peter, still blinking the sweat away.
“What’s the matter? Get somethin’ in your eye?” asked Guy.
“Just a little sweat.”
Peter wiped his eyes again. He remembered the loud music that kept him up most of the night and early into the morning.
“That’s quite the band your son has,” he said.
“Thanks,” said Guy. “I really think they have a lot of potential.”
Yeah, the potential to drive someone bat shit crazy, Peter thought.
“The drummer, he’s a little subpar, but learnin’ fast,” Guy continued. “They didn’t keep you up last night, did they? I tried sound-proofin’ the garage.”
Peter said, “It was pretty loud.”
“Damn, Pete. Sorry about that. It’s just…well…they don’t have anywhere else to practice. They’re only tryin’ to get better. They could be out vandalizin’ shit or stealing cars—or somethin’ worse.”
“True,” said Peter. “But maybe they could turn down the volume some.”
“Sure thing, neighbor. And thanks again.” Guy headed back across the street, slinging the posthole diggers up and onto his shoulder.
Inside, Peter grabbed a paper towel from the kitchen and wiped his sweaty hands and face. He then settled in front of his laptop and tried to lose himself once again in the sheer joy of his craft. He stared at the screen, but couldn’t produce any words.
“You can do this,” he muttered. “Just concentrate.”
As his mind loosened and he forgot about his life’s frequent annoyances, the words flowed freely onto the screen. While Peter made the final changes to his article, a series of yells came from outside. He got up and pulled the curtain on the front window and saw Guy’s son, Austin, and a couple of his band mates riding skateboards up and down the road in front of his house.
In the middle of the street was a homemade ramp fashioned from a piece of ply board lying on a cement block. Each boy, one after the other, took the apparatus at full speed.
As he and his board landed perfectly on the street, Austin let out another ripping, celebratory scream and skated past Peter’s driveway where he then maneuvered a sharp U-turn to fall back in line behind the other boys.
Next, Peter watched another boy zoom down the road, picking up speed, going faster and faster. When his wheels hit the ramp at an awkward angle, the boy and the skateboard went air borne, flying in opposite directions. Peter watched the kid land awkwardly on his side on the street, and the skateboard torpedoed through the air in an arching motion.
When the board landed, it hit one of the elevated cracks on Peter’s slanted sidewalk where it toppled end over end until it smacked crudely against the passenger door of the mint ‘68 Camaro. Wasting little time, the boys gathered their skateboards and makeshift ramp and fled the scene.
Peter’s heart fluttered and his face paled. He came close to vomiting. He was past the point of no return. This on going aggravation, this stirring rage, he could no longer contain.
Maybe I really should go get my gun, just say fuck it, and blow these bastards away. He went to the kitchen, grabbed a beer from the refrigerator, and thought the matter over.
He chugged his beer while trying to form these vile thoughts into more rational views. He tried desperately to see reason in all the torment he’d endured from his neighbor. Maybe Guy wasn’t a peripheral thinker. Maybe he was unable to see the harm that he was doing.
Another burst of loud knocks lured Peter away from his soothing contemplation of an all-out neighborhood massacre. Repulsed, Peter’s first thought was that one of the boys had come to confess the terrible catastrophe that they had committed. But instead, when he opened the door, he found a cheery Guy Fickly staring back, holding the spade end of the posthole diggers in one hand and the broken handle in the other.
“Afraid I had a little mishap, Pete,” he said.
Peter flared. His eyes pierced and danced. “Is that so?”
“Startin’ a little early, aren’t we?” said Guy, noticing the beer in Peter’s hand.
He took another gulp and shot back. “Sure, why not?”
Guy shrugged and said, “Well, I started diggin’ and got down about a foot or so and the damn end snapped right off. Sorry, Pete. I’ll pay you for the damage of course.”
Peter didn’t respond. His mind fogged over and he peered joyfully up to the beautiful morning sky. He smelled the wonderful aroma of freshly cut grass and heard the humming of old man Baker’s riding lawn mower from across the street.
“You okay, Pete?” asked Guy.
Stripped away was his sanity. The long, restless nights were showing their ill effects on this once spirited and charismatic man. His engaging witticisms were no more and his striking handsome features had vanished as well. Peter had reached the end of the line.
“Sure, Guy. I’m fine,” he said. “No need to pay me. I bought it at a yard sale for five dollars.”
“Well, here, let me give you your five bucks back,” said Guy, setting the handle down and reaching for his wallet in his back pocket.
“No, it’s all right. Really.”
Guy hesitated and said, “Pete?”
“Can I say somethin’?”
“I don’t mean to sound like an ass, but maybe you should lay off the booze and try gettin’ a little more sleep at night. You’re lookin’ a little run-down.”
Peter snapped from his foggy realm. And just when he appeared to take offense, he cracked a smile. The smile broadened and morphed into a subtle snicker, and then a roaring laugh. Peter held up his beer and pointed to it, confirming Guy’s take on his early morning drinking habits. But that wasn’t the reason for his uncontrollable outburst. That wasn’t the reason at all. It had come from the misguidance of an ignorant neighbor, unaware of the unspoken rules of how to be a good neighbor.
He laughed hysterically at a worried-looking Guy who stood on the front porch step holding the broken digging apparatus. Peter swung the door closed and lurched across his living room, set his beer on the end table, and sank onto the sofa. His laugh then changed to a deep, sorrowful cry, and tears streamed down his face. He fell over, burying his head into the sofa’s cushion and cried until falling into a deep, delightful sleep, a sleep that he’d longed for, a sleep that had until now eluded him. He slept all day and night and didn’t wake until the next morning, unbothered by man, woman, or neighbor.
Thursday, May 21, 2015
There is something about the realist writer that appeals to me. I enjoy reading their stories and books and poems concerning the lives and struggles of genuine day-to-day people. The old drunk on the corner drinking his wine from a paper sack, the man who can’t get a girl to go on a date with him, and the single mom who’s at odds with her teenage, drug-addict daughter, these are the people and stories I want to read. These are the people to which I most relate—the real people.
I gain an immediate connection to these characters when they have the same goals, desires, and heartaches as I do. I want to know about the man working down at the local factory who is facing layoff. How does he cope? How will he provide for his family? What are his options? Take me into the mind of the school teacher turned prostitute. Make me interested in her thoughts and emotions. Make me sense her emotional pain as she lies down with a total stranger for the fifth time in one night. These are the stories I want to read.
I’ve always held the lives of the ordinary men and women in high regard. These “ordinary” people make for extraordinary stories. No magic, no science fiction, just realism. Solid, barebones, storytelling.
Friday, May 8, 2015
I’ve studied and read some of the greatest writers of the 19th and 20th centuries. I’ve delved into Chekhov’s short stories, admiring them, falling in love with his style and storytelling. I’ve let myself fall into Neil Gaiman’s realm of magical realism. I’ve nodded in agreement, sneered, and shaken my head while reading the gritty tales and poems of Charles Bukowski. There are many writers to read and discover, yet not enough time in which to do it.
Most read to escape. I open a book to gain insight. I want to discover truth or a hidden door that leads me into a mindset that I’ve never ventured to before. I want to hammer away at the shell of ignorance and uncover a part of myself I never knew.
When I read it’s at night, in my bed, while my body and mind are at their most relaxed. I absorb the words on the page and only this time and space exist. Real work doesn’t exist. No coworkers. No bosses. The moment is guarded. Nothing else matters.
In these stories, I admire the heroes that make me laugh, that make me feel that I am marching alongside them. I admire the writer who makes me a part of her story whether I want to be or not. I admire the characters with real-life struggles and hardships. These are my people.
Reading the stories by these writers, I’ve learned many wonderful lessons, as a writer myself and as a human being. What I probably enjoy more than the story being told is the tone and style in which it is written. In my efforts of reading and studying these magnificent writers, I hope to grasp a little of what makes them who they are and redefine it as my own.
For any writer, to have her own style and tone for which she’s known is a gift, or prize. I want the woman who lies in her bed at night reading as I do to know that what she reads unmistakably belongs to me. I want the words to be my own. I want a little of my soul left on the page.