Mara

A whoop of dry wind hoisted me awake. The curtains were a catch-all for the early light, where it gathered in the folds and shimmered like river water. Morning was already dressed up, rosy-cheeked, wearing a braided stink of highway grit.

No one came to my door to remind me of late check-out time, or to let me know there was fresh coffee in the office pot, or to tell me the cleaning staff was waiting. But there were voices outside, muffled by the cool cinder block walls, and they spoke in a low auditory blur.

Every morning (how many now?), I stepped outside to take a piss in the low brown weeds behind the Motel. Every morning, I hid my face in the crook of my arm and cried until I was husked. I was still listening for you, and, hearing nothing, I waited by a dead highway.

Tú allí!” she shouted, and I jumped. “You there!”

Mara stood at the edge of the parking lot and gestured for me. She did not seem angry or irritated, but I did not know her well enough to know her. She often wore her hair plaited, sometimes wrapped in a scarf. Now it was loose, and it flowed below her waist. She wore a blousy ivory caftan that almost matched the color of her hair, and a pair of holystoned sandals.

For a moment, I saw myself caught in the geometry of light that boxed her against the horizon. If I were an artist, I would draw her in dark crayons, and if I were a photographer, I would have filled a camera with her.

I waved, but she looked straight through me.

***

From a work in progress, tentatively titled The Death of Edison.

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Maggie – A novella

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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.

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.

***

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

Ordinary Handsome: An excerpt

ordinaryhandsomeiiThough it’s approaching two years since I published Ordinary Handsome, I still have deep affection for it. I still think of it as the benchmark of everything I’ve written since.  It’s the simple story of a thief, a mistake, a dying town, and the ghosts, real or imagined, that haunt the town of Handsome. If a writer is allowed to say such a thing, it still haunts me. Enjoy, and thank you for reading. – Steve

Link and reviews here.

***

Fifty-seven years ago I killed a boy. Tonight, you walked into my room with a Mossberg 510 and a stained hobo mattress and fired a shot into my belly.

But we’ve had this conversation before, haven’t we, Euart?

The memories get scattered like buckshot every time I revisit them. I play them in my head until the sentences become clearer and my confessional feels more sincere. Everything has been garbled and meaningless, tangled in memories and false perceptions; all right, lies.

I’ve lived with a lie for fifty-seven years, and built upon it my cathedral, and you were the only one who knew it. I’ve been expecting you for all these fifty-seven years. One lie built a thousand until I couldn’t cut through them without anything but honest confession. And, maybe, a Mossberg 510 to pare away my guts.

I’m still not sure you’re not a hallucination, though this blood between my fingers tells me different. At this point, it doesn’t matter.

The clock reads: 3:18.

I know I’m finished, and it would have been true even without you in front of my bed. Put down that damned mattress and I’ll tell you what happened that night. If there are any lies, it’s only because I’ve been swimming in them for so long that I don’t know the feel of dry land. They are not intentional lies, just the way I remember things.

Let me put my hands back on the wheel, hands at ten and two, and drive through that night again. And then you can let me be.

Ronny Salmon was hungover and in a nasty mood. His wife left him three days earlier and he’d been living on Evan Williams bourbon-fried egg sandwiches. Archie Dollar was attending a Baptist circus tent revival, so it was Ronny and me, and it was a coin toss as to who was the better driver. When Ronny was in that kind of mood, it was better to let him be, so I ended up with the keys. Would it have made a difference? Maybe not. If Archie was driving, it would have made all the difference. Or maybe not. Sometimes fate squeezes its hand around your throat no matter what you do.

Arlene was… not so well. It was more obvious every day. So I needed more money for treatments that wouldn’t work and I needed more work so I wouldn’t have to see her deteriorate. Selfish? Of course. But I also didn’t want her to see me deteriorate. I was operating on ninety percent grief and ten percent need. It was the right decision, I think. I was there at the end, that’s what counts.

But until it happens, grief is just a word. You may think you know it, but it runs deeper than cancer, more malignant than regret. What the hell did I know about grief? I was sad that my wife was going to die? Is that all? But never mind. You know what I’m talking about.

I needed something quick and uncomplicated. We weren’t showmen, Ronny and me. But we were efficient. And we….

No, that’s not right. We were simple crooks. No finesse, not much better than thugs. Smash and grab, that was more like it.

I said I’d be honest, and listen to me. Daydreaming about the good old days, a couple of daring pirates in an old Bel Air. No. I wasn’t that good or that smart. Any planning came down to: who do we hit/got your gun/what’s the fastest way out of here? It was a job. I needed the money. Simple.

It was another gas station. We were never audacious enough to try anything better. A liquor store once in a while, but mostly gas stations. Fill your tank, check your oil, keep the change.

You know there’s no decent place to rob in a place like Handsome. We usually took our show on the road. But the sky was filling up with some nasty weather, and we both wanted to get home. Maybe not Ronny, all he wanted was a bed and another drink. And maybe not me either, because all I had to go home to was a dying wife. But neither of us were particularly ambitious. It was just workaday until we punched our card. And neither of us wanted to be out in the storm that was coming. We were going through the motions for a few hundred bucks.

Even though it was gray overhead, it was dark gray. Heavy gray. It was going to come down hard. We almost called it off. But when the weather is going to turn, that may be the best time to do a job. Little or no traffic, and you know the poor bastard you’re going to hit isn’t going to care. He just wants to go home, too.

That deepest night

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You met her at a roadside cafe just outside of Little Rock. It was two in the morning and you were on your third cup of coffee. You’d been hitchhiking for three days without much sleep. She was a waitress and you were her only customer. She took her cigarette outside and waited for you to finish. But she kept sneaking peaks at you, and you knew it.
You knew you smelled bad, and your eyes were as red as sundown, but you were polite and didn’t have liquor on your breath. You knew you looked used-up, but she saw something in you no one else did. She saw you as someone lost and looking to find a way back home. When she came back inside after her third smoke, she sat right down beside you and introduced herself. And she was bold! Asked you if you had a place to stay, and offered you a decent bed. Not to share it with her, Lord no, but she kept a small spare bedroom that was warm. You could clean yourself up before you hit the road again, and she wouldn’t mind if you did a few chores for her. But nothing funny. She kept a loaded gun in her bedroom and wanted you to know it.
You were so overwhelmed – and surprised – by her kindness that you couldn’t think of a decent excuse to walk away.
So she took you home and you slept in her spare bedroom in the back, next to the laundry room, and you slept for most of a day.
And she was with you every day from then.
Sometimes, in the deepest heart of the night, you woke up clinging to her tightly, fiercely, and you remember that same kind of fierceness as when you were holding on to a pine tree in the middle of a rain storm, that deepest heart of that deepest night. And you swore you’d never let go.

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Excerpt from Ordinary Handsome. Available at http://www.amazon.com//dp/B00P46ZPA0 for only $2.99.

burial

I won’t bore you with the details of the burial. Out of necessity, it was a shallow grave. I buried him where I laid him down. The trees were closely bunched together, but the earth was soft. It didn’t take me more than half an hour. He was so small.

***

Excerpt from Ordinary Handsome: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00P46ZPA0

Transparent blue

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There was a loud crack of thunder nearby. It was very loud. I looked to the sky, and it was transparent blue; if you could see beyond it, you could see all the stars. I turned to Jeremiah, and he was

falling to the ground, his belly red and wet. It wasn’t thunder at all, but a gun shot.

He reached for his tobacco pouch. “I wish you wouldn’t do that when you’re driving,” I said. “You get it all over yourself and make a mess of your shirt.”

I’ll be more careful,” he said, and he frowned.

I will never get all that blood out of his shirt, I thought. It was an odd thought, removed from everything, a wandering flea in my head.

Gunth kept an old bentwood rocker on his porch,” he said. “Maybe it’s still there.”

The road was flat, shimmering heat rising already. It would be a hot day, and I was glad for the big shade tree in our yard.

A common sound, except when it is unexpected. A common sound, except when it tears a hole in your husband’s belly. A common sound, except when your legs are stone; no, not just legs, but everything. I was stone eroding from inside. Everything I knew was a single ruined thought. Too shocked to speak, or scream, or beg time to step back for a moment, to contemplate what had been done. And Jeremiah stood still for a moment, for the rest of his lifetime, his hands cradling his damaged stomach. His eyes saw nothing but whatever thoughts were left behind them. And then he fell. Collapsed in the dust, and the dust chuffed up and surrounded him, unconcerned.

And there was another shot. My legs were stone. I understood.

Excerpt from A Very Tall Summer. Available from Amazon:

Kisses

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I wanted to tell you what that first kiss tasted like, but didn’t, because then you’d know it wasn’t you. Your kisses were always affectionate, but awkward. You never knew what to do with your mouth, or where your tongue should or shouldn’t go. I should have told you to trust your mouth, let your tongue weave until it became as natural as drawing breath.

I was seventeen and Mam was weeding bull thistles out of the garden. I offered Henry Miller a glass of lemonade. He was a neighbor boy who sometimes helped when things were run down or busted. We’d known each other since childhood. We were talking about the dust and the wind, and then he snuck a kiss. I felt his tongue dash around my teeth, and it startled me. But it was so sudden and sweet that I didn’t push him away. Not at first. It was like a spark set off in my head. Then he tried to slip a hand under my blouse, and I pushed him away, more afraid of Mam if she saw us than of what he was doing. Henry didn’t take offense. He knew he was being a rascal. He was two years older than me, and awfully presumptuous. I didn’t say a word to him, and he smiled, like he knew something about me that I didn’t.

Excerpt from A Very Tall Summer

Available at:

Dull company

Did he even see me?

There were weeks when he was the only person I saw. Hard winters, we’d be together, isolated with only each others dull company. And the more I think upon it, the more I believe Jeremiah was ashamed of how he looked, and could not confront his pug face every morning. Those set-back eyes and brooding, gray eyebrows. What did he see when he saw himself, I wonder. The terror of being lost in the vastness of a flat world, those acres and acres of disappointment and resentment? It’s all he had, all he knew. He was no accountant or artist, not a shopkeeper or salesman. He was a farmer. He knew the soil and I think he grew indifferent to it. The land could be cruel, and that cruelty grew in him, no matter his mild supplication of hope each spring. A man could tend to it the best he could, but it was beyond his will and desire. What was the point of it, but empty, wasted years with a wife who moved from room to room to avoid the emptiness.

What did he see? The same thing I saw, but magnified? And how did he see me? A disappointment? Someone whom he could lay claim to and control? There was kindness there, in the beginning, but it curdled with isolation. We had nothing in common other than our wariness of each other; fear of the land, fear of a stretched horizon that bled brown into an infinite sky.

Excerpt from A Very Tall Summer – now available

Free sample – Low Corn

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Seeing as A Very Tall Summer has sold only one copy in two days, I thought I’d offer readers the chance to sample the first chapter. It’s fairly lengthy and might entice anyone who’s interested.

I’m not going to whine… I know self-publishing is a risky business. But I love to write, and I truly hope there are some who would enjoy reading it. Success isn’t just about sales (though that would be awesome)… it’s about the joy I get from creating, and then sharing the work with others.

But enough about me.

May I introduce you to a woman who’s isolated and angry….

http://verytall.pressbooks.com/chapter/chapter-1/