Now available in paperback

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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.

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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

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Handsome review

A wonderful review from my friend D. Wallace Peach at Myths of the Mirror. She has been a constant champion of my work, and I am so grateful. Please check out her site… she’s an amazing writer and I think you’ll be mesmerized not only by her work but by the depth of her imagination. Her review is here.

Revised cover

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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.

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Excerpt from Ordinary Handsome, available here. Thanks for reading!

Charles Clowe

Charles Clowe was a good-looking boy. Ruffled black hair, eyes as gray as a funnel cloud. Bad teeth, though; them Clowes never did have a good set between them. But you forgot that when he fixed his eyes on you. He was a smooth talker just like his daddy. Honey on toast, he was. But there was something underneath, like he was laughing right at you, same time as he was beguiling you. Maybe it was just the way he was raised, thinking he was born a few steps higher on the staircase. He sure dressed better, with his pressed shirts and pleated pants. And wingtip shoes! Yes, a boy in wingtips! The rest of us comported ourselves in bibs and hand-me-down mud dogs, and he cocked around like he was assessing the worth of our souls.

His eyes, though, the way they shifted from light to dark. Irises clear as rainwater one minute and a standing brook the next. I guess there are better words to describe it, poetic words maybe, but his eyes pulled you in. When you were inside them, you might consider him an artist or a philosopher. But he wasn’t nothing like that. He was stark crazy. That’s as simple as I can say it.

I don’t know. It’s all the same repetition of effort to get to the bones of it, the same pecking away at how I felt about him. People liked Charles, men and women both – and women, certainly – but sometimes it felt they were liking him against their will. That was Charles as a boy.

Charles the man wasn’t the same after the Japanese paid a visit to our shipyards in ’41. He deepened and toughened. Any childhood left in him was finished. He slicked back his tumbleweed hair and parted it in the middle, and he grew a pencil-thin mustache that made him look a little like Clark Gable. He was more refined, somehow, like the war had polished him hard. His smile was shinier, his face more provoking.

You don’t have to be damaged in war to be damaged. Charles was damaged from the start. I don’t know why or how. He just was. Maybe there was a short circuit in his thinking, or maybe it was something more commonplace, like a failed romance or a reckless ego. With him, all you saw was the surface, a face scoured clean of all the underneath. He played a cultivated man in a town full of corn pickers.

The tourist

Wait. Maybe I’ve been telling you wrong, trying to add more gravity than I mean. Ghosts, yes. But this town had good people. Simple and solid. Those who were dealt a unjust hand and were still first in line to set out a dinner plate for you. Listen. They lived hard lives and didn’t know any other way but raw hand-to-mouth. They held on through the Dust Bowl, they sank deep in the Depression, but it did not bury them. Not all of them moved away, not if they could stay. The realness of hunger and deprivation and heart-sickness emptied a lot of houses. Some found comfort in their faith, some were just plain stubborn, and they all held to family as tight as they could. They stayed. And they built what they could. Hard, hard work, but they shored up their walls and planted their lean fields. Their hands were grimed but their hearts stayed clean. And when they died, what was left of the town mourned hard. That was life back then.

So what became of Henry Wasson and his hotel broke a lot of spirits. I know there are stories about the man. How he was a drunkard who burned down his damned tavern, then himself, but I think they’re mostly lies. Henry was a drunkard, but a good man. I knew him. He loved his boy more than anything. But stories always build from the lie on up and a lot of people considered him a part of this down’s demise. That’s foolishness. He was a good man, and I’ll carry that with me wherever you want. He was a drunk, but he was not cruel. He did not kill this town. No sir.

Take a look at this empty lot. On a clear night I can still smell the embers. I know it’s only in my head, but I still smell them. The spot is still pitch, it burned so hard. People tried to turn it into a communal garden, but nothing ever took. No geraniums, no daisies, not even witch grass. And no fool was going rebuild it into something worthwhile. So there it sits, as good a symbol of this town as anything. The iron benches in front are rusted to ribbons now. No one ever sat in them, because that would make them accomplices to the deed, or so they thought. So now it’s a place where only the dirt collects, and the phantom smell of smoke hangs like rags.

But never mind, never mind. That story is done.

There’s another one I want to tell you. I’ll warrant you haven’t heard it, because most of the folks who lived here never did. It’s a darker secret than all the midnight burials you may have caught hold of. Those who heard those stories are all gone. All but me.

Walk me over to the Memorial Park – it’s just over on Colborne Street – and I’ll tell you. It’s about a man named Charles Clowe. There was a man with secrets. The darkest secrets you ever heard.

Are you ready? Are you sure? Then pick up your boots and walk slow. I’ll tell you….

Ordinary Handsome available here

A ghost town, revisited

What? Do I believe in ghosts? Of course I do. I’ve seen them. Cozied right up beside them on the park benches of Joe Soldier Trailer Park, in the moldy seats of The Odeon, the busted stools of the Clatchy. We talk. We mostly reminisce, but sometimes we talk about the uselessness of mourning their dead selves. They don’t agitate me because they are the people I have known. Sometimes they are fussy, and some of them are damn fools because that’s what they always were. But they’re not awful. Mostly, they are the same. Except they’re not. They’re dead and they’re ghosts.

I see that smirk, boy. You think I’m the damn fool, or I’m pulling a fast one. Or maybe I’m just a senile old jackass who appreciates living company. No sir. And it don’t matter what you think. You were the one come looking for me. You heard those whispers in the gas stations and restaurant booths in proper towns, in living towns. Stories about an old man who still walks this dead place. You’ll write up your piece for your Sunday supplement, and your friends will buy you steaks and liquor, and you’ll have a good laugh at this old fool’s expense. But let me tell you, sonny, you’ll wake up in the middle of the night when I’m done with you, and you’ll wonder. You’ll think about ghosts. You’ll think about me. You won’t be so sure. Because that young smirk of yours will disappear as you get older. You’ll think about the peeling spaces between day and night. You’ll think about ghosts and you’ll see that I was right. And when you’re old enough, you’ll want to join them. You’ll want to clench hands and jump right in. You still have miles of years ahead of you, but I don’t. I measure my days in inches. That’s okay. That’s the blessing of talking to ghosts. You get familiar with them. Comfortable, even.

You can see me now. I’m right here, full of years, full of blood and talk. You can put your hand on my shoulder and you can feel the bones under my shirt. I’m real. I’m not a ghost. I could do the same with you, and we’d be alright, because we’d both know we were still here, clothed in life and light.

But what if that’s a trick? The endless secret? What if we’re the ghosts and everything we see and feel isn’t real to anyone but us? What if no one else can see us? Or hear us? Or touch us?

What if, boy?

Good. That smirk is gone. About time. I was befooling you. Of course we’re real. We’re still solid clay. But you think upon that. Think about it whenever you get to feeling you know everything, and everything you know is real. Because it ain’t always. No sir. It ain’t always.

***

The Town of Handsome crept into my head recently and I haven’t been able to let it go. So I think it’s time to revisit. It’s never really left my imagination….

Ordinary Handsome available here