Category Archives: Fiction

Southern overexposure

A problem facing writers like myself is establishing an identity. It helps if one’s homeland conveys gravitas (which sounds cool even if it’s a buzzword) and by default plants you in the same ballpark with giants like William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. So by virtue of the fact that I’ve lived way down below the Mason-Dixon for a while, and have absolutely no shame about self-promotion, I hereby do proclaim my humble self a Southern Writer.

(Please don’t be put off by this topic. I know that writers who write about writing are sometimes way past running on fumes and in desperate need of a Literary Inspiration Tow Truck. But this post is a voyage of longing, self-discovery, and angst about my place on this earth, all of which are SOUTHERN to the core. Don’t click away!)

Lest y’all think it was easy, I will have you know I’ve struggled to adapt since I came down from Up Nawth. I no longer get weepy and misty-eyed from watching blizzards on the Weather Channel, and I’ve learned that a “Meat and three” is not a rock band. However, I still don’t know or care what a “restrictor plate” is, except that it’s not what they serve your meat and three* on at the meat and three. I sure haven’t morphed into one of those noxious noodniks who still haven’t figured out they lost the Civil War.

Lots of real-life stories have a Southern tinge, like the one in which a cat caused a lady to lose control of her pickup, which “traveled across the west bound lanes of Lafayette Street, onto the side walk and into a utility police.” And nowhere but the South would you hear about the amorous couple who used a fish farm as their lovers’ lane and ended up, uh, sleeping with the fishes.

Unfortunately, the phrase “Southern writer” still calls up an image of a man (why always a man?) in a Panama hat, white shirt, and suspenders, sitting on the veranda under a ceiling fan with a typewriter, a glass of hooch, and a cigar. This guy probably wrote Southern Gothic stuff, hilariously satirized by James Thurber in “Bateman Comes Home,” in which old Nate Birge sits “watching the moon come up lazily out of the old cemetery in which nine of his daughters were lying, only two of whom were dead.”

The New York Times recently posed the question, “What Is a Southern Writer, Anyway?”, pointing out that the genre is changing along with the region. As novelist Lee Smith put it, “It is damn hard to put a pipe-smoking granny or a pet possum into a novel these days and get away with it.”

Oh yeah? Well, one of my relations once had a cat named Possum and I’ve heard of another Southern gent who kept an alligator named Kittycat in the bathtub of his mobile home. So here’s the first sentence of my next book: “Grandma got drunk on Cousin Junior’s moonshine and threw her pipe at Possum but instead hit Kittycat, who jumped out of the tub and chased Grandma, who was nekkid, plumb out the door of her doublewide and all the way down Dead Confederate Mountain.” Am I Southern or what?

*Vegetables. Including fried okra, macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes, field peas, butter beans, cabbage, corn on the cob, creamed corn, green beans, turnip greens, fried green tomatoes, baked beans, Brunswick stew, potato salad, and onion rings.

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Alternative Dave

“A top aide to President Trump said the new White House is using new metrics to assess the size of Trump’s inauguration:’ alternative facts‘” – USA TODAY, January 22, 2017.

In the spirit of bipartisanship and cooperation with our new president, I humbly offer these alternative facts about myself:

I possess a full head of striking blonde hair with nary a trace of grey. I also have the physique of a young god and a set of dazzling blue eyes that are often compared to those of the late Paul Newman.

I am a Pro Bowl tight end for the Super Bowl-bound Atlanta Falcons.

My short story “The Fourteenth Pelican,” shattered sales records and led Carl Hiaasen to quit writing fiction about Florida. “This guy’s too good. I’m done,” said he.

I’m the first man in history to climb Mount Everest naked. (Got to use that physique for something!)

I graduated from college in two years flat with an unprecedented quadruple major: nuclear physics, philosophy, sports writing, and music performance, with the focus on being the world’s first punk-rock oboist. I still have Johnny Rotten’s phone number.

No matter what you heard about Bob somebody winning the Nobel Prize for literature, I am the actual winner! I delivered my acceptance speech by streaming video from the driver’s seat of my BMW M3 GT2 while competing in the 24 hours of Le Mans, which of course I won, while setting a new course record of 21 hours.

I don’t like to brag. I’m a humble, reticent Midwesterner, reflecting my roots on the great prairie of Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I lived with my parents and eleven brothers and sisters.

As a boy, I could plow 100 acres in a single afternoon. With just my fingernails!

I usually know when to stop writing.

Reds

Author’s note: This is the first time I’ve posted fiction here. None of the characters are based on real people, the setting is not a particular place in Atlanta, and the story is not based on actual events.

****************

Brianna was afraid she wouldn’t get to see the president. The principal confirmed the rumor right before school ended for the day, his usually grouchy voice on the intercom bursting with pride: “The President of the United States is coming to visit us, right here, because of what we’ve done.” Bree clapped and cheered along with the other kids. But now she sat on the bus with her good friend Val, heading home through the northwestern suburbs of Atlanta, thinking about what her parents would say.

Unhappily, she recalled the middle-school parents’ night a few years earlier, after the last election. Mrs. Nelson, who she loved, had innocently remarked to Bree’s mom that the kids had gotten a great lesson in democracy. Vickie Bailey’s smile vanished and Bree had to stand there, squirming, listening to her mom lecturing her teacher: “This election was stolen from us by the media. They never reported how he’s a Muslim and he rammed all this socialist healthcare down our throats. And they made up all those lies about Romney.” (Of course, her folks had voted against Romney in the primary, convinced he was far too liberal and that Mormons weren’t real Christians.)

“What are you gonna wear?” asked Val, sitting next to Bree.

“Wear to what?”

“The assembly. We might be on TV.”

Bree grimaced. “I might not even get to go. My parents hate him.”

“Mine do too but I don’t care,” Val replied. “They grounded me for skipping school. So what are they gonna do, ground me again for going to school?”

*****

Bree knew she’d be in for a battle. Her mother would have the TV on Fox News as soon as she got in from the bank. Her dad’s sales job with a chemical company kept him on the road all day listening to Rush, Hannity, and the others, and he usually came home stoked, eager to talk about the latest outrage.

She couldn’t get a break at other kids’ houses either. Bree and her folks had gone to a neighborhood cookout one time on a big-game Saturday in October. She sat near the grill and started texting friends while the men came to hang out with the host, Ward Pierce, as he cooked, and pretty soon the talk turned to politics.

“I hear they’re starting Obamacare. So what does that mean – Medicare covers crack and cheap wine?”

“Don’t ask me. I wouldn’t buy into that garbage if I was on my deathbed.”

“My brother says if they hadn’t delayed the small business part, he’d have had to lay off a third of his people. You believe that?”

“Yeah, and this guy keeps talking about how he’s creating jobs. Bull-shit.”

“What I still don’t get is how we elected him in the first place,” said Mr. Pierce, flipping burgers and chicken. “Somebody must’ve stuffed a lot of ballot boxes, ‘cause I’ve never met a white person who voted for him. Or at least who’ll admit it.”

Bree felt uncomfortable. She was in plain sight, not snooping, but was this what they wanted their kids to hear?

Then Mr. Raney spoke up. He lived outside the subdivision in a house that had once been a farmhouse, but everyone in the neighborhood knew him. He was in his early forties with a scraggly brown beard and fierce eyes behind his glasses.

“That black sonofabitch isn’t fit to live,” he said slowly. “And mark my words, if he ever shows his goddamn face around here, he won’t live long.”

Some of the others chuckled a bit nervously. “Better watch out, Paul,” one man said. “Hope there’s no FBI here today,” another one cracked. But nobody really challenged or criticized what he’d said.

*****

The bus lurched to a stop. “Let me know what they say, ok?” Val said.

“I will. Later.” Bree walked to the door, stepped down, and adjusted her backpack. She’d take her time walking home so she could think about how to convince her parents. Maybe if she pretended to be even more excited than she was and talked about how all her friends and the whole school would be there…

She walked into the kitchen and said, “Mom, you’re not going to believe this,” but Vickie interrupted her. “I already heard. You’re not going,” she said nonchalantly, as she sliced peppers for a pasta. “I don’t like it when anybody uses kids for props and I definitely don’t want him using you.

“And it’s not just you,” she added. “I talked to Richard and Marcia across the street and some of the other parents, and the school board is going to hear about this.”

*****

Bree didn’t argue yet. Her father got home late due to what the TV called “a huge Friday afternoon meltdown on the topside Perimeter.” If she waited until they were together, she might convince one and have more leverage with the other.

But when she came down for breakfast Saturday morning, Greg Bailey was already going on about ISIS and terrorism, his favorite issue. “We’ve got to go in,” he said, gesturing with a forkful of scrambled eggs. “Remember when he backed down and the French president got mad? When those people think you’re a wimp that’s pretty bad.”

Her mom laughed. “And now he wants to tell all our poor uneducated kids how brave he is,” she said, handing him his coffee. “Well, I know one girl who’s too smart for that.”

“He’s not going to be talking about terrorism,” Bree said. “He’s coming because the test scores are so high and the refugee kids are doing so well. That’s what the principal said.”

Her dad snorted. “Refugees? Probably the same people who are trying to kill us all.”

“Honey, this is a smokescreen,” Vickie said. “He’s trying to hide things. Because of him, we’re not safe anymore.”

Her father sipped his coffee and leaned across the table. “We have to stop this before we have another 9/11. You’re too young to remember that but it was horrible. We need to send soldiers, the NSA, whatever it takes.”

“So should I join the Army after I graduate?” Bree asked. “I read they’re allowing women in combat now.”

Her folks stared at her in surprise. Bree had surprised herself by saying it, but hearing her dad’s spiel again was more than she could handle. “Whoa. Whoa there,” he said.

Vickie jumped in. “Sweetie, you’re only in tenth grade. When you graduate you’re going to college and then you can do what you want but I hope it’s not the Army. Not for combat.”

“Absolutely not.” Her dad got up for more coffee. “That’s another dumb liberal idea.”

“But if the terrorists are so dangerous, shouldn’t we all be doing something?” Bree blurted, a little louder than she intended. “And how come you were never in the Army?”

Her dad’s face hardened. He banged his cup down, spilling the coffee, and walked swiftly toward Bree. She shrank back in the chair but he pulled her to her feet. “Greg!” her mother cried. He looked at her, then down at Bree, then after a moment let her go and walked out.

*****

“He’s really sorry,” her mom said. They were in Vickie’s Chevy Traverse on the way to Bree’s flute lesson. Looking out her window, she saw a few birds flying among tall pines against a pale grey sky.

“I know. He told me,” Bree replied. “But it scared me and I still don’t understand it.”

Vickie sighed. “He wanted to serve in the military but it just didn’t work out. It’s always been hard for him, because your grandfather was in Vietnam and his father was in World War II, in Italy. He was a real hero,” she said, shifting lanes. “That’s why he’s kind of sensitive about this.”

“Kind of? Mom, he was going to hit -”

“No, he wasn’t,” Vickie said firmly. “I wouldn’t have let him and he wouldn’t have done that anyway. He just lost his head for a second.

“But your generation doesn’t have to worry about things like mine did or our parents did,” she said. “Grandpa didn’t want go to Vietnam. He didn’t have any choice.” The Chevy sped up, not much, but enough for Bree to notice.

“And all the things you kids have, I swear,” Vickie continued. “Remember when your friend Katie was over the other day and was talking about how she just had to have all new clothes?” The car moved a little faster. “I wanted to talk some sense into that girl.

“I wonder how she’d like it if all her clothes, everything she had, came from the Goodwill.” A pause. “With her own cousin telling everybody you’re wearing what she gave away.”

Bree looked at her mom, startled. Vickie said, “I’ll bet she never has to rub her poor mama’s feet after she’d waited tables all day.” Bree had never heard that either.

The Traverse kept accelerating as Vickie seemed to forget she was behind the wheel. “And her daddy’s a good man,” she said, her voice suddenly cracking. “He’d never -” choking back a sob, “He’d never slap her face in a restaurant just for asking if she could have a piece of pie.”

One after the other, the tears appeared, trickling down Vickie’s face below her sunglasses. She stared ahead, not talking, as the trees rushed past and Bree looked fearfully at the speedometer. “Mom, are you all right?” she said. “You’re going almost 65 and this is a 45 zone.”

“Oh my gosh oh my gosh, I’m so sorry,” Vickie said, quickly braking, then stopping at a light and dabbing at the tears with a tissue. “I got distracted. Don’t ever do that when you learn to drive.” She pushed the gas pedal, gently, as the light changed.

“You never told me any of those things,” Bree said. “It must have been awful.”

“Honey, it’s my cross to bear,” Vickie said. “And I’m out of that place, and I’ve got you and your father. I’m fine.

“But nobody ever gave us anything. I waited tables too and did lots of other jobs because I had to. Now everybody in the world just wants handouts, and the president will give them what I earned and worked for.” She looked closely at Bree. “That’s why you’re not going. We won’t have any part of it.”

*****

By Sunday night Bree was resigned to missing the assembly. After dinner, she sat by the window in her second-floor bedroom looking out over the front yard, reading her biology book. The window was open and a light breeze drifted through the screen, but with her earbuds in she almost didn’t hear the car pull into the driveway. Looking down, she saw Mr. Raney at the door as her father opened it. “Paul,” he said, sounding surprised.

“Hey,” said Mr. Raney. “Sorry to bother you but I need to ask you something. You used to work for Danielson Chemical, right?”

“Yes, I was there before I started with Chemico. Why?”

“You ever go up to that warehouse out at the end of Shallow Run Road?”

“Sure. But –”

“What kind of security they got?”

Her dad didn’t answer right away. Then as Bree listened intently, Greg said in a worried tone, “Why would you want to know a thing like that?”

Mr. Raney chuckled. “Just a little project I got going. Y’all will find out about it this week.” He lowered his voice but Bree could still hear him. “Let’s just say I’m giving our visitor a big welcome and he’s going from here straight to hell.”

Bree froze. It was several seconds before her dad spoke again. “Paul, I don’t believe this. I hope you’re not saying what I think you are, but I don’t want anything to do with it. You’d better leave right now.”

Mr. Raney didn’t move. “Look around,” he said in a low rasp, grabbing Greg’s shoulder and gesturing with his other hand. “Look at all those houses. You think there’s anybody in any of them that doesn’t want that bastard dead? Think you’re any different?”

Terrified, Bree looked down as Mr. Raney glared into her father’s face. “You’re just like me. Except I got the guts to do something.” He stepped off the porch, saying “Trust me, you’ll be happy and the kids won’t get hurt. But you better not say a goddam word.” He got into his car and drove away.

*****

Carefully, Bree stepped back from the window, her heart pounding and her brain feeling like it was caught in a tornado. After what happened on Saturday morning, she didn’t want to tell her dad she’d been eavesdropping. But she’d heard some neighborhood whispers about Mr. Raney having spent time in jail. And she couldn’t stop thinking about what he said.

She went to bed early that night but barely slept. The next afternoon, she sat silently on the bus. When she got home, both cars were in the driveway, and as she came in she heard low, urgent voices upstairs. She started up the steps, changed her mind, and walked out to the deck.

Standing in the cool afternoon, hands in her sweatshirt pockets, she rehearsed what she’d decided to say to her dad. Suddenly she heard sirens, then with no warning the roar of a helicopter right overhead. Running to the deck rail, she watched the sleek black chopper land in Mr. Raney’s yard as a silver Hummer barreled into his driveway. Five helmeted figures with rifles jumped out and ran through the door, followed by three more from the helicopter. A moment later they led Mr. Raney out, struggling, handcuffed behind his back.

Bree heard more copters. Running back through the kitchen, she saw BREAKING NEWS on the TV as a reporter said, “Law enforcement sources tell us the suspect was stockpiling chemicals for a bomb plot directed against the president, who’s scheduled to visit this area this week. We don’t know if anyone else is involved but our sources say this was a credible, serious threat.”

Bree raced up the stairs, then stopped outside the bedroom as she heard her dad say in a hushed, pleading voice, “What was I supposed to do? He was here at our house! We’d all be in jail!”

“It doesn’t matter!” her mom screamed. “You don’t call the police on a neighbor! And we could’ve been rid of Obama! How stupid can you be?”

*****

Bree stood there, stunned, as her father yanked open a drawer and stuffed the contents into a gym bag. “Oh, that’s good,” Vickie snapped. “You’re running away. You’re such a coward, just like in R.O.T. -”

Greg grabbed something off the dresser. An instant later, the heavy antique ashtray flew across the room. Vickie shrieked as it smashed into the mirror behind her and the glass shattered. Not even looking at her, Bree’s father charged downstairs and slammed the door hard enough to rattle the whole house. Her mother stood, her eyes wide and her body shaking, as the last few shards fell off the wall. Outside, tires screeched as Greg’s car roared out of the driveway.

*****

Later, as they sat in the kitchen, Vickie told Bree how her dad washed out of the Reserve Officer Training Corps in college after failing a bayonet drill, in which he not only couldn’t skewer a dummy but nearly got sick to his stomach. “I shouldn’t have called him a coward,” she said quietly. “I shouldn’t have said any of those things. I know that. But that’s no excuse. I still can’t believe it.”

Vickie buried her face in her hands. She sat for a long moment as Bree waited, not knowing what to say, while the TV described Mr. Raney’s plan and his crude map of the presidential motorcade route. Finally her mother raised her head.

“My dad threw a whole stack of plates at my sister once,” she said. “I thought all that was over. You try to forget the hurts and hold onto the good things and what you’ve always believed, and it seems like the whole world’s against you.”

“Is he coming back?” Bree asked.

“I don’t know. I’d have to forgive him but first he’d have to answer his phone.” Vickie looked sadly at Bree. “Lord, I’m so sorry we put you through this.”

“I’m okay. And they’re not cancelling the assembly. I just got a text.”

“Oh no. Don’t even think about that. Nothing has changed.”

“Mom, are you kidding?” Bree cried. “Everything has changed! Do you want me to be the only one who doesn’t go?”

*****

“So what’s going on with your dad?” Val asked. “It’s been three days.”

They were in a long line inching toward the gym for the assembly. Bree checked her texts; nothing from her mom. “I don’t know yet,” she said. “They were up late talking on the phone last night, but I guess they’re still mad.”

“At least you got to come.”

Bree sighed. “I’m so not used to this.” They were close to the gym now and could hear the band playing inside as the kids around them talked and laughed excitedly. Just then her phone buzzed. He’s back. Please come home as soon as you can. Love, m.

Bree clutched the phone tight, closed her eyes for a second, and started to turn away, then stopped and walked forward toward the Secret Service agents at the door. She was in the bleachers when a flourish of music quieted the crowd and a voice announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.”

“Reefer and Jesus”

I’ve got some actual news to talk about, and I’d say “Stop the presses!” but the big scoop is that they’ve started the presses over at the Birmingham Arts Journal in Alabama, on an issue that includes my short story, “Reefer and Jesus.” This is my first published fiction, i.e., published by someone besides my own self (though my two self-published stories are still out there on Amazon too).

I’m as happy as I can be that this effort appears in the Journal amid lots of great stories, poetry, pictures, and general creative spirit. It’s all good reading; my favorites in this edition include “Thirteen Reasons I’ll Never Be a Saint” by Jerri Beck (especially #4 and #8), and Shawn Wray’s “Quality Assurance.” Bookmark the Journal and enjoy.

New short fiction about a very long war

nationcoverI’ve published another short story on Amazon, and not a humorous piece like “The Fourteenth Pelican” this time. “A New Grateful Nation” is about people coming back from our country’s longest war, but for whom it’s not over just yet. It’s also about those who’ve been fighting equally important battles on the homefront all along.

It may become a full-fledged novel someday. For now, I hope you’ll enjoy the short version. You can find all my stories, recent Tweets, and more on my author page.