I can see the dead on their faces. It’s in the way they wear their skin, you know: it’s the sorrow that is consecrated to the shapes of their mouths, the unrepaired seams around their eyes. Turn your head quickly and you can see it. It’s no mystery, certainly no secret. But it is a quiet thing, of course. The dead are always on their faces, yes, and I love them all.
Oh, honey, there are shapes beneath these roads. They push me and they drag me, and, God help me, I’m yoked to every mile. I am numb to the drizzled headlights and smudged taillights, the curves, the swerves, the nerves of bumper-to-bumper, the mathematical sinew of the overpasses, the posterboard landscapes, the flat hallucinations of the alpha and omega. Oh, and sweetheart, the construction, the obstructions, the crazy and the caffeinated, they want to pour their horsepower into the concrete while I’m steering left-handed, trying to pry the goddamn plastic lids off the goddamn Styrofoam cups, and honey, I always spill the hot coffee on my fucking wrist.
These have been my nights and days since I left you.
And then I came upon this place: a slender space beside the swagged shoulders of an unmarked highway. I recognized the tarnished ancianos who were waiting for me. There were six men and a woman, and they were sitting in a straight line on the sloped walkway of the Motel Fatigado. A flat line of hands rose to guard eyes against dust and sun. They studied my silhouette for a moment, then resumed their pinched slouches.
An old man dismounted from his chair and approached. He was wearing a shredded straw hat and baggy jeans. His shirt was a clean button-down, faded antediluvian white. He could have been an Old Testament priest soliciting confessions, eager to pore over fresh sin. More likely, he was tired of sitting.
“You have el bagaje? Suitcase?” he asked.
He pulled a packet of folded tissue paper from his shirt pocket, and offered me a cigarette. He told me that Room 8 was vacant and clean. He did not ask me my name. I accepted his tobacco, and he lit it with a wooden match. His hands were narrow and veiny.
He said his name was Cándido, and the woman was called Melancholia. “The new guests always ask about the woman. You see her? The beautiful woman who sits among the dogs? She is clean-handed. You understand? Inocente. She knows magic. You prey on her, you will leave with bruises.”
“Sit with us,” Cándido said. “Melancholia keeps the plastic cups in her room. We have tap water and tequila. Perhaps there is ice. I will introduce you to the others.”
Forgive me for my long absence. I’ve been dealing with some health issues and slowly working on a new novel. I hope to get back into regular posting and visiting soon, so please bear with me. 🙂 – SB
I used to be a good man. There are memories, strong, of sitting on the porch with Marcie. We drank sweet tea from jelly jars. The porch was cluttered with flower pots and lawn chairs and Marcie’s rainbow of flipflops. I rested my hand on her thigh and we watched the alfalfa fields shift in the wind, like feathers rising from water, and imagined shapes in the chameleon clouds. Sometimes I plucked dandelions from the lawn and tucked one behind her ear. She laughed, then scowled, then laughed again. Eventually, the sweet tea became bourbon, and the laughter became the deepest part of our summer nights. We were young, so young. I remember I wanted her and she wanted me, and then somewhere, somehow, we became poison to each other. I was a good man once, but that might just be a dream, a desire for long-ago soundness.
Fifty-seven years ago I killed a boy. Tonight, Euart Monroe walked into my room with a Mossberg 510 and a stained hobo mattress and fired a shot into my belly. It should have killed me right off, but he didn’t want that. He wanted me to know who pulled the trigger.
I’m excited to announce that Ordinary Handsome is now available in paperback. It’s an oversize 6.69″ x 9.61″ book with a matte cover and cream pages. Pardon the indulgence, but it really is quite handsome. Weighing in at a whopping 187 pages, it’s got a spanky new cover and even a tiny author photo on the back for your mustache-drawing indulgence. Please check it out and let me know what you think. As always, thank you for reading. — Steve
I got all these feelings bundled up in a snarl, all the should-have’s and supposed-to’s and unfair verdicts of past mistakes. There are all these bricks of grief and regret and wondering if I could have changed just one moment. Just one. And when I try to build something out of them bricks, they crack and shift into different shapes, and then they fall into a heap worse off than when I started. I know Gram was thinking about Daniel. We’d been stepping in and out of his shadow since I first showed up here, neither of us wanting to conjure him up for real. Thinking about Daniel made me tired and sad, cracked at the spine, broke in the heart.
Excerpt from Maggie, now available from Amazon. Many thanks to D. Wallace Peach for her remarkable editing skills. I was under a particularly tight deadline to complete this story, and Diana’s suggestions and thoroughness gave Maggie a little more shine. And I won’t mention all those damned commas. Thank you, my friend.
I could lay it down at a lot of people’s feet, but I lay it down mostly on myself for being foolish and lonely. But like Gram says, it ain’t a sin to be lonely.
“Look at me, honey, look at me,” she says.
I try real hard to shroud the sorrow from my eyes, but she always sees it. I smile and pull her close. Her arms are narrow but strong, and she folds herself around me and I feel the warmth of her old steady bones.
“I’m happy now, Gram,” I say. Just a whisper. “But I really need to pee. I could pee beans right now.”
She chuckles in my ear. “You always was frank. Go use the toilet and then we’ll sit out here. The wind is cool, but I do like Mister Sun this time of day.”
I allow myself a few seconds to enjoy her face. It’s the only face I know that dares show kindness to me, a frank love that makes me shiver inside. It’s a hard face from so many years of living, but I see the mildness underneath. Maybe I’m the only one she shows it to.
“You ain’t redecorated or nothing?” I ask. “You ain’t moved the rooms around so I can’t find the bathroom?”
“Same old,” she says. “Still in the back. Though I do think there’s a new stopper in the sink since the last time you was here. Got that maybe two years ago. Now you git, and I’ll pour us some tea.” She pauses. “The tea is new, too. Bought it just last week.”
I skitter along like the girl I was, right up them steps like I don’t have any gravity in me at all. I ain’t skittered in a long time.
The big dreamers weren’t anywhere to be found in my bar that day. You know the kind, if you’ve ever been in a saloon. The big talkers who like to think they have life by the throat. If they were just a little luckier, or if fate was a little pluckier, they could improve their lot in life in a minute.
But you hear all those dreams, those half-lit ambitions, and you know they’re not going anywhere but from the bar stool to the privy, and back to their bar stool. And the drunker they get, the loftier the dreams.
Old Walt Zuckerman, who used to manage the Red & White, he always had the dream of buying himself a house boat. Said if he had one, he’d float on the lake all day, drink beer, and enjoy the fruits of his labor. What particular fruits, and what particular labor, he never said, but he was keen on buying that boat. And on what lake, I don’t have any idea. Wasn’t a lake within 200 miles of Handsome. I guess if you’re going to dream something up, the matter of a lake shouldn’t have no bearing.
Then he decided he was going to build that boat. He studied diagrams in Popular Mechanics, and even bought a garage-full of lumber. He said he sent away for blueprints from a company in Pennsylvania.
Walt spent endless weeks talking about that boat, and how he would name it “The Marie” after his high school sweetheart, and how he’d paint it green and stencil her name on it with bright orange paint. He would have a fully stocked kitchen, which he called the galley, and eat pork and beans and put ketchup on his eggs and leave a bottle of bourbon on his bedside table at night because no one could tell him he couldn’t because he would be the goddamned captain of The Marie.
Of course, the lumber gathered termites, and his hammer and nails turned rusty, and it came to pass you couldn’t buy Walt a drink if you mentioned The Marie. He was done with it, and he never spoke of her again.
Time slipped away, like it always does, and life got in the way. And so it is with everyone who leaves a crumpled dollar bill on the counter of my bar. For every “trade her in for a new Cadillac, maybe next summer,” there’s another greasy sawbuck in my cash drawer.
Excerpt from Ordinary Handsome, available here. Thanks for reading!
I dreamed of that ballroom we saw in that movie, you know the one, with the old-timey music that flooded the air, Glenn Miller I think, or maybe Jimmy Dorsey, and those tiny tables that could only fit napkins and two martini glasses (at least our TV trays can fit a Hungry Man Dinner and a biscuit). The couples danced in rhythmic seizures, the war was over or maybe not begun, bright colors and balloons, sweaty but not in a smelly way, and everyone was crazy alive, and they looked like Blondie and Dagwood. Yeah, I dreamed we were dancing, really moving, and we danced the Charleston, hands and grins all over the place, and people watched and they envied our sway, and I looked up and saw elegant chandeliers, and I remember you said we should get one of those for the cabin, and I promised you I would look. And now it’s 4 a.m., I’m online, and honey, I don’t think it would fit in the living room. But I did find a nice set of candles and a Big Band CD collection, and we can dance like stink in the backyard if we want, and maybe drink wine coolers from our much bigger TV trays.
Death is one contentious motherfucker. His name carries your weight and it should be enough. Still, you cannot rise. Dying would be like bathing in someone else’s skin. A hello, a goodbye, a perfect eyelash on your cheek. He lifts his hand and you are parched.