I kissed Arlene goodnight. The room was shrouded with blankets and black curtains. A dull 40-watt light bulb constantly shone on her night table, displaying a cluster of pill bottles and cups of stale water. Her forehead was warm, and her hair dull and fine. Her breathing was steady but shallow. The skin on her face looked too tight. And her hair smelled like black tea. I don’t remember if that was its natural smell or if it’s just a never-ending memory, a smell concocted from the drugs and the sweat of dying. I think her hair always had that smell, and it was something always uniquely Arlene. I don’t remember a time when she wasn’t dying.
I can’t tell you how much my heart broke with every goodnight kiss. I sat beside her for a few minutes each night and stroked her hair. I don’t know if she knew I was there, or even sensed it, but it calmed me. I would cup the side of her face and, though it was always damp and somehow greasy, I could feel the soft underneath-skin, the skin I caressed and kissed and marveled over. Minutes would turn to more minutes until I was afraid to leave her, afraid to stay. I don’t know that I had the courage to see her – feel her – die in my presence. I think that kind of courage was beyond me. But I would. I wanted her last physical perception to be my hand stroking her hair, with a kindness that let her know I was still amazed that she chose to be with me at all.
He took me to a shed on the back of his property. The ground was still hard from all the rainless days we endured and it sounded hollow under my boots. The grass was an unnatural shade of green for late October. The clippings near the shed door were uneven and frowsy, and it spoiled the illusion of perfection. Still, Kincaid probably spent more money on his lawn than I spent on groceries. I tried to shove my resentment aside, but the hard feelings wanted to bubble over.
I don’t know what I expected to see in the shed. A workbench, maybe, with all the tools lined up in alphabetical order; a coil of garden hose, a freshly hosed-off lawnmower. I knew there was something darker inside, so only part of me was surprised when I saw a dead man sprawled across the wood plank floor.
The man had been gut shot. Kincaid spread an old bed sheet over the man’s torso, but what was once white was now a soggy maroon. If I had to guess, I’d say the man died roughly the time Kincaid made his telephone call to me.
Then I could see the trail of blood from the door to where the man now lay. I looked back and saw that Kincaid had roughly raked over part of the blood trail, masking it with torn grass and dirt. If you weren’t looking for it, you wouldn’t notice.
Fifty-seven years ago, Jimmy Wheat killed a boy…. and the gunslinger followed.
One of my least favorite things about completing a project is writing the synopsis. I can tolerate the editing, the countless re-writes, the sacrificial offerings of sentences (or paragraphs, or even entire chapters) to the writing gods. But boiling all that hard work down to a single easy-to-digest cup of wholesome goodness? It’s hard work. When you’ve spent months or years on something, your mind has been focused on a landscape of ideas, character nuisances, tragic or funny dips in the road. Paring it down brings the mind into focus, in 300 words or less. Okay, what was this sucker really about, and why would anyone want to read it? Good question.
Man meets boy. Man kills boy. Boy comes back 57 years later and kills man. And stuff in between.
Of course I need to do better than that.
It really is just a matter of distilling all those words into an informative and tasty aperitif. It sounds simple, it should be simple. So why isn’t it?
Maybe I’m over-thinking it. Start again:
A man accidentally kills a boy; years later, he confesses his guilt to his victim. Is the boy a hallucination? A dream? A ghost? What was the catalyst for the tragedy? Who are these people, and who else was involved?
There. A little better. Time to get back to work.
So we drove, me and Mom and Dad, we drove around Handsome like we were gypsies, riding our own little caravan to nowhere. Scrap houses with cracking whitewash porches and washboard lawns. Buffalograss as yellow as parchment. I felt a primal ache seeing those ragged houses; all of them the same, beaten down by neglect, and I knew we belonged to the same lost tribe. Something ran deep and sad in me those days, like brown tap water. You know you can handle it in yourself, but when you see all that ruination, it brings a catch to your throat. All you can think about is sorrow upon sorrow. I could tell it ran in my father, too, by the lonesome look in his eyes.
I see those oversized streets, cracks streaming through the pavement like spilled syrup, rusted oil tanks skulking behind tangles of horseweed. Everything is the same brown crayon smudge.
My first blog, my first Twitter account, my second or third Facebook account. It’s work. I admit it. I’m a man from an earlier era, a pre-facetwit time when telephones had dials and digital meant you just got a cool new wristwatch for your birthday and it glowed in the dark!
I just turned 55 yesterday and I don’t feel as old as, say, my grandparents were when they were 55. Or my parents. It’s a number. I get it. But still….
So I’m learning all this new social media stuff in earnest. Trying to figure out what goes where, what I need to cut-and-paste from one site to the other. Accidentally closing tabs I needed open. I’m reasonably intelligent, but it gets overwhelming for a man of a certain stubbornness. It’s not that I’m resistant to change… it’s just that I wish it wouldn’t, at least not so fast.
I had the simple idea of writing a book. It took me a long time, many drafts, many distractions, but I wrote it. And edited it. And rewrote and re-edited. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words through the years, probably a dozen earlier novels packed in cardboard boxes, but Ordinary Handsome was different for me. The idea came to me when I was in my thirties, half-written, and then set aside. I picked it up again about three years ago, scrapped most of it, but left the core. And it grew. And it haunted me. It’s not the same novel I began when I was in my early thirties. And I hope like hell people like it. And even if they don’t, that’s fine. I like it. And that’s a big deal to me, because I’ve waited this long to publish something that I liked well enough to send out to an unsuspecting public.
So I had to learn (and am still learning) self-promotion. It’s a bitch for a shy man to promote himself and his work to the world, but here we are. My first blog. Enjoy! And let me know what you think.