Sentimental Journey


A few months ago, a writer friend of mine casually dismissed my novel Ojibway Valley, saying “It was too sentimental for my taste.”

At first, his remark stung, as I respect his talent and skill as a writer.  Then I got to thinking, of course it’s sentimental, what isn’t?  A little while later, I’d figured out what he was really saying.  “Too sentimental” was code for “unsophisticated.”  His “taste” was too advanced for my simple story and writing, and “unsophisticated” meant that my work was lacking in subtlety and depth.

Whatever. I’m not going to argue with him about that.  I do want to say something about “sentimentality,” though.

Pick up any great book in the history of American literature, and I’ll challenge you to deny the sentimentality that is at all of their cores.  Huckleberry Finn?  Please, the scene when Huck decides he’d rather burn in Hell than rat Jim out is one of the most overtly emotional turning points of any book.  The Great Gatsby – what is it that makes Gatsby so great?  It’s his ability to doggedly hold on to and believe in a dream when all around him is decay and cynicism.  To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee’s writing drips with nostalgia, and paints a world we all recognize as a shared romantic vision of Americana.

And then there’s this, from that shameless sentimentalist Charles Bukowski:

Google’s on-line dictionary defines “sentimental” as “of or prompted by feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia.”

And what triggers these feelings? I think it’s loss. My sweeping proclamation of the day is that nearly all art is an attempt by the artist, in one way or another, to deal with loss. In Huckleberry Finn, Twain describes Huck as coming of age and learning to form his own opinions.  But that freedom comes with a cost – the loss of childhood and innocence.  So too is Gatsby, one of the most doggedly haunted characters ever created, trying valiantly to reclaim what he’d lost.  “Mockingbird” longs for the simple and beautiful innocence of Lee’s childhood.

I would never be so pompous as to compare Ojibway Valley to any of these iconic masterpieces.  I reference them just to make a point. As for examples of loss in Ojibway Valley, let’s take a look at how the main characters have been affected by loss:

Winston Bellamy – as a child, he loses both of his parents, his mother to murder and his father to alcoholism.  The result of these losses is his inability to relate to other people, and he ends up living a solitary, hermit – like existence.  He denies his true identity, disowning his Native American ancestry and inventing a new name for himself. He carries with him the only thing left of his mother – a small photograph of him as a baby in her arms.

Dan Wilcox – Through the years, he suffers the loss of both parents and finally, the devastating loss of his young son. Grief breaks up his marriage and drives him, alone, back to the valley, where he hopes to be healed as an adult like he was as a child.

Jessie Morris – Experiences the loss of his older brother, and is sent to live with his father and grandmother in Iowa.  He returns to the valley as an adult, with unresolved anger and violence, and is unable to commit to any kind of romantic relationship.

Laney Harper, Ella Davis and the one legged men:  Ella Davis sees in Ike Nelson the romantic courtship she never had with her husband, Billy Davis. The beautiful and lonely Laney Harper has trouble understanding how the physically repulsive Ella can have two lovers when she can’t find one. The loss of Billy Davis and Ike Nelson’s legs makes them physically incomplete, while Ella and Laney are emotionally incomplete. Ultimately, this is a story of the loss of youth and coming to terms that with the fact that the great romance is either a lie or unlikely to occur.

The book is essentially loss piled upon loss. It may be too much, my writing style might be too much this and too little that.  But the subject matter, and the themes of loss and redemption, came from a very honest and personal place.  When I was writing Ojibway Valley, I was trying to come to terms with the loss of my father and my oldest brother, as well as my own diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease, which brings with it loss of a different type.

Whatever criticism a reader might have, that’s fine.  What bothers me about the “It’s too sentimental for my taste” is that it’s a cheap cop out, and doesn’t really say anything except that “my tastes are superior to yours.”

Of course, the remark had no effect on me.  It’s just coincidence that now, six months after hearing it, I’m still thinking about it, and writing this response.

I need to develop a thicker skin.

 

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Spring Thaw


This weekend, I attended the 25th annual Writer’s Institute conference in Madison, Wisconsin.  It was my second time, and the first since self publishing my first novel, Ojibway Valley.  It also felt like the beginning of spring after what was a long and brutal winter, in more ways than one.

In the prior months, as the winter progressed, I could feel my Parkinson’s disease symptoms worsening.   There were balance problems, including a couple of falls (nothing serious, fortunately), increased issues with my speech, and an overall decrease in stamina.  The combination of these symptoms and the solitude of being locked up in my house while outside the snow was deep and the air was frigid lead to feelings of isolation and depression.  The result was, even though I had lots of time to do nothing else, I got very little writing done, particularly on my second novel. Bottom line, I was in a rut.

In addition, after self publishing Ojibway Valley in January and seeing some early modest sales, by the time March arrived, sales had completely dried up.  I knew I wasn’t marketing very aggressively, and I knew I was in this thing for the long haul, and that huge numbers of sales were never important to me, but it was still disappointing. I had registered to be a part of a book sales / book signing event at the conference, but given the funk I was in, and per my general neurotic nature, I expected depressing results, having visions of sitting alone at a table with copies of my book, being ignored and humiliated.

So as I drove to Madison on Thursday night, my expectations and enthusiasm for the conference were low.  I got there late, checked in to the Madison Concourse hotel, where the conference was held, and tried to start writing a short story I had an idea for, but after a clumsy hour of trying to plow through the disjointed words and phrases that passed through my constipated brain, I gave up and went to bed.

I woke up Friday morning, took my meds and a shower, and made my way downstairs to the conference.  I looked for an acquaintance, Thomas Cannon, a fellow writer from Oshkosh, who had also just self published his first novel, The Tao of Apathy. He wasn’t hard to find, as he must be about 6’8”, and towered above everyone else.  We talked in the hallway between sessions, and met up and ate lunch together in the hotel restaurant.

Friday morning, I attended an excellent session about independent publishing hosted by the independent author Kimberli Bindschatel, who’s first novel, A Path to the Sun was a quarterfinalist in Amazon’s breakthrough novel award. Her presentation was great, and gave me some much needed confirmation that I’d taken the correct path in self publishing Ojibway Valley.

The topic of the next session was writing about home and included a writing exercise.  I was able to put aside the self consciousness I felt about my voice to step up to the microphone and read a passage of my writing, feeling completely at ease and comfortable.  This was a big moment for me, as I’ve always had a morbid fear of speaking in public, heightened by the speech impediments Parkinson’s has imposed on me.

By the time Thomas and I met for lunch, I became aware that I was feeling good.  Really good. I was enjoying the conference more than I expected to, and I felt the dark cloud of the funk I’d been in being lifted.  It occurred to me that I was in my element, surrounded by people with the same passions.

Saturday morning kicked off with a panel discussion in the grand ballroom with local booksellers, including Joanne Berg, owner of the Mystery to Me bookstore in Madison and John Christensen, manager of Arcadia Books in Spring Green, Wisconsin.  They lead a very entertaining and informative discussion about the future of independently owned and operated book stores, and how they can’t compete with the price and convenience of buying books on-line.  What they have to offer is the bookstore experience; the magic of walking off of a busy street into the hushed presence of fully stocked bookshelves, the feel and the scent of a new book in your hands, the difference between discovering and searching.  Google can return things searched for, but it can’t discover things the way you can wandering through the aisles of a bookstore.

Then it was time for the keynote address, “Writing From the Heartland,” delivered by New York Times best-selling author and Wisconsin favorite son, Michael Perry.   Perry is one of my favorite writers and something of a hero to me, coming from and writing about the same landscape I wrote about in Ojibway Valley.   I had the great pleasure and privilege last year to interview him via e-mail for the 2nd First Look website; later I had the opportunity to meet him in person, at a book signing event in Chicago.  His address was outstanding, funny and personal, and when he talked about how he loved the act of writing more than anything else and how lucky he was to get to do it, it resonated with the whole room.  For me it perfectly articulated what the conference had already done for me, and reminded me of how much I love to write.

Afterwards, it was time for the book signing event, and as I lingered outside the ballroom for instructions on where to go to set up, I stumbled upon Perry.  I said “Hi, Mike,” and as he looked at my name tag, a spark of recognition lit in his eyes and he smiled and said “Hey.”  I told him it was as usual a great presentation, and he smiled a “thanks,” and I let him go.

About a half hour later, I was assigned a table to sell my book from, and I saw Perry setting up at a table not too far away.  I was eager to show him Ojibway Valley and get some reaction, maybe some advice, but I was hesitant to approach him, fearing that I’d come across as Kathy Bates to James Caan in Misery.  However, emboldened by our earlier exchange of pleasantries, I went up to him anyway. I took a copy of his latest book, From the Top, a collection of essays he wrote for the NPR show he hosts, Big Top Radio, and leafed through it, regaling him with my memories of two of my favorite episodes, one that featured Rickie Lee Jones, with Perry’s essay on being cool, and the episode featuring Steve Earle, where Perry’s essay included a mention that he knew the names of all of Earle’s ex-wives, which Earle (sarcastically) thanked him for later in the show.  I commented that I doubted that Earle remembered all the names himself, to which Perry replied, “I’ll bet his accountant remembers.”  We talked like that for a couple of minutes, and it felt like I was talking to an old friend, the exact way I feel when reading his books (even though on some level I felt like Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live interviewing Paul McCartney – “Remember when you were with the Beatles? That was cool.”).  I appreciated this, and decided against thrusting Ojibway Valley in his face, that it would be an intrusion on his good nature.

The book signing event was much bigger than I thought it was going to be, with dozens of authors peddling their wares.  All the nervousness I felt beforehand quickly faded away, and as we waited for the doors to open to the public, I went from table to table, talking to each author, asking about their books and how they published and so on.   It was great, there were a lot of great books and writers, and I felt like I was one of them, like I belonged, and that all the cold winter nights I spent alone in my office trying to tap out something coherent weren’t a waste of time after all.

Then the event began, and the public entered.  All told, in about two hours, I sold and signed four books.  That doesn’t sound like much, but when it’s four more than I was expecting to sell, it felt like I’d made the New York Times best seller list.  It was the conversations I had with people more than anything else, conversations about the book, about the cover (for which I received so many nice comments), about why I wrote it, about where they were from and what they did there.  I had several people take my business cards, so maybe some will visit my web page, and maybe a couple more of them will buy my book on-line.

Near the end of the session, feeling brave, I took a copy of Ojibway Valley and approached Joanne Berg, owner of the Madison bookstore and panelist from the morning’s session.  “Wouldn’t this look great on the shelves of Mystery to Me?”  I asked.  She politely took down my name and contact information, and as I thanked her and walked away, I saw her fellow panelist and owner of the Spring Green Arcadia Books, John Christensen, leafing through the copy of my book I had left with her.  A couple of minutes later, after I’d returned to my table, John approached me and told me he thought my book might do well with his clientele, and gave me his business card, saying that maybe we could schedule an event at his store.  I tried to project a cool and calm exterior as inside I was saying, “Yes, yes, yes!”

Later in the afternoon, with my Parkinson’s fatigue catching up with me, Thomas Cannon and I went to one last session, on “Demystifying Marketing,” again hosted by Kimberli Bindschatel.  It was another great session, instead of the usual “have a web site, use social media, establish a platform,” focusing on understanding yourself, your customers, and the content of the messages you deliver.  It gave me lots to think about, things I’ll be working on in the next few days.

Saturday night, I stayed in my room, stiff and exhausted, and watched the Badgers heartbreaking loss.  I slept well, and woke up and packed my bags, deciding to get an early start home.  Before I checked out, I took what remaining books I had down to the basement parking lot and put them in my car.  On the way back to the ninth floor, the elevator doors opened, and there, standing in front of me, was my “old friend”, Michael Perry.  “Hi, Mike,” I said, and he said, “Oh, you’re going up?  I’m going down.”  We waved to each other and the doors shut.   I went back to my room, got the rest of my bags, and returned to the lobby to check out.  I got to the front desk just as Perry was leaving.

We smiled and waved good bye to each other, just two writers going their respective ways.

Thanks to Laurie Scheer and everyone else at UW-Madison’s Writers’ Institute for a great conference!

Status Report


About two weeks ago, I posted an update on progress with my novel, Ojibway Valley.   In that piece, I told how I’d decided to give up on the traditional model of querying agents and small presses, and my frustration with the process, and that I was going to go ahead and self-publish.

Well, it only stands to reason that after posting that article I should hear back from one of the many small presses I had queried.  I queried this press last July, so six months had passed before they replied, expressing interest in seeing my entire manuscript.   I looked them up on the internet, remembering that I’d found them through Duotrope, and that they were fairly new, having been formed in 2012. I figured what the Hell, I haven’t self published quite yet, so I sent them a copy, with a note saying that I’d give them two weeks to respond, and went back to the process of performing the final edit on my manuscript.

Exactly one week later, last Friday evening, I was working at my computer when an e-mail showed up in my in-box.   It was from the same small press.   I opened it, expecting another rejection letter, when much to my shock I found a short note saying they were happy to inform me that they wanted to go ahead with publication, and that they’d attached a generic contract for me to review.

I was stunned.  I quickly called my wife into my office and had her read the note, and she was stunned, too.  It was the moment I’d been waiting for since sending out my first query, about fourteen months earlier.

But that old Groucho Marx / Woody Allen joke played in my head.  It goes like this:  “I would never belong to a club that would have somebody like me as a member.”   I looked a little closer at the publishing company, and at the contract they sent me, and I found some discouraging items.

The first was that the guy who sent me the letter had the title “editor” next to his name.  I also noted that he was an author of two of the four fiction titles listed on their webpage.  So far, so good.  I clicked on his first novel, and was taken to a Goodreads review which blasted the book.  Again, nothing wrong with that, until I got to the end of the review, where the reader commented on the errors and typos that were all over the published work.   This made wonder about his skill and experience as an editor.  If I wanted to publish a book filled with errors and typos, I’d self publish – one of the advantages of having a small or big press publish your work should be the professionals available for review and design.

Then I took a closer look at the contract.  Nothing jumped out at me; it all seemed to be legitimate, until I noticed that in the header of the word document, it indicated that it was a contract between them and an author whose name I recognized from the only non-fiction title on their web page.  They had obviously copied his contract but forgotten to clear his name.  This struck me as a little careless at best, and as a breach of the other author’s privacy at worst.

Then I looked up the non-fiction work of the other author on Amazon, and while its title denoted that it was a serious book about a serious and topical issue, it was only 56 pages in length.  I don’t know how one writes a comprehensive book about such a serious topic in only 56 pages.

So I had enough doubts about this press to second guess having them publish my book.   To be clear, I don’t believe they’re up to anything crooked or unethical, I never got the sense that they were trying to scam me.   It’s just that I didn’t get a warm and fuzzy feeling that they would add enough value to my work.   In the end, I decided that I would stick with self-publishing.  This morning I wrote them back a very respectful and sincere e-mail, telling them with regret that I’d chosen other alternatives.  In return, I received a very nice note wishing me luck.

Lesson learned #1 – shame on me!  All the research I did Friday night I should have done prior to submitting to them last July.   I would have saved both their time and effort and mine.   Submitting query letters is hard enough work; submitting them to the wrong audience only wastes their time and adds to the backlog I complained so much about in my previous posting.  We wait months and months for a positive response; when we finally get one, it is a true shame to decline it.

Lesson learned #2 – contrary to lesson number one, before you sign a contract with anybody, you owe it to yourself and all the work you’ve put into your book to make sure you double-check everything and that you are comfortable with what you’d be getting into.  While I regret the wasted investment in time and energy, I remain the strongest advocate my little novel is likely to ever have.  I have to trust my instincts, and do what’s best to protect my work.

So the  update – I just finished my “final” edit and have re-submitted my changes to Create Space.  They’ll package my changes by tomorrow sometime, and I’ll review it again.  If all goes well, it could be out on Amazon available for purchase by the middle of this week.

Next step – put the finishing touches on a marketing plan I’ve been playing with.

The Longest Journey Begins With …


If you look to the right of this posting, you’ll see a book cover with my name on it under the heading, “Coming soon.”    I’m interested in any feedback you might have.   Does it look professional?  Does it make you want to read the book?   Does it induce nausea?

So yeah, my book is finally getting “published,” “self-published”, that is.  I gave the traditional find an agent or publisher path more than a year, and received nothing but irritation and frustration.  It’s no wonder they say that this model is dying.  It’s not the rejections that bother me – I came to appreciate them, even the form letter responses saying they’ve read my query letter or excerpt and it’s just not a fit at this time.   At least they have the decency to send something back.  What really bothers me is the number of inquiries that got no return at all.  I understand that these poor agents and editors are so overloaded, their slush piles are so high.   But to not even respond?   There were a couple of times where they asked me to send a transcript after reviewing my query letter, and then never answered, even when I sent a tepid reminder some weeks  later  per the instructions on their web pages.  Please, tell me that I and my work suck, it’s better than not telling me anything at all.

I get it, they are overworked and overloaded.  I can appreciate and understand that.    But what I can’t tolerate is rudeness.  To me, it is simple rudeness not to answer someone’s query letter.   I think these agents and publishers need to think long and hard about what it is that keeps them in business.   It’s the writers out there.  And the more overloaded they are, the more likely they are to find that diamond in the rough, the next Harry Potter or Twilight or whatever.   They should be grateful that their slush piles are full.   Every time I read a column or a blog or an interview where an agent mocks the amateur and talentless dreamers and their laughable queries, I wince.   They should be treating all of these neophytes with dreams bigger than talent with the respect that they deserve, or they should get into another business.

Anyway, I’ve given it the allotted year, and now I am going to self-publish, print-on-demand and e-books.   I’m going through my final edits, and sometime in the next few weeks, Ojibway Valley will be out there on Amazon.   I have no illusions about sales – I know they are going to be modest, more than likely embarrassingly modest.  I have trouble articulating exactly why I am self publishing and exactly what I hope to accomplish.   I guess it’s because I’ve written a book, and I think it’s not bad, and I want other people to read it, and maybe some small percentage of them will think that it’s not bad, too.

Over the past few years, I’ve invested a lot of time and energy in my writing.  I think I’m getting better, but I know I still have a long way to go.   Publishing Ojibway Valley now feels like the right thing to do at the right time, like taking a GPS reading and getting my coordinates for where exactly I am on my journey.

I’ll post more as things progress.   In the meantime,  any feedback is welcome!

Pitch Count


Next weekend I’ll be attending the annual Writer’s Institute conference in Madison.  I’m looking forward to going, to meeting new people and learning more about the craft and trade of being a writer.  It will also serve as the occasion to launch the first edition of the new annual literary journal, “The Midwest Prairie Review,” which is going to include a short story I submitted, “A Leg Up.”  I am looking forward to seeing the finished publication, and, of course, seeing my work in print.

The most highly anticipated part of the conference promises to be the live pitch sessions with literary agents.  I have signed up for sessions with two agents to try and get representation for my first novel, Ojibway Valley.  The sessions are eight minute one on ones where the author pitches his or her work.  It’s a rare opportunity to have face to face contact with the people whose job it is to wade through thousands of anonymous query letters.

I’m very proud of Ojibway Valley, but I’m also realistic.   I know the odds are stacked against me.  While I think it’s a good book, when I look at it now, I tend to only see the things that I could have done better, and I assume that’s what the agents will see.  Still, I’m preparing what I’ll say, and trying to summarize the book into short and concise statements that reflect what it’s about and why it’d sell enough copies for a big publishing house to take it in.

I’m nervous about these scheduled sessions.  I really want to go the traditional route, have an agent who hooks me up with an editor and finds a publishing house and gets the book out.  I have no illusions about it ever being a best seller or making millions of dollars off of it.  I’d be thrilled if it was just published and looked professional and if a handful or readers got a hold of it and found something worthwhile inside.    I suppose the self publish or e-publishing paths are options worth pursuing, and something I may look into eventually, but first I’d like to give the traditional route a try.

I’m nervous for a number of reasons, chief among them being that I hope to have my work validated and see my dream of having a published novel come true.  Adding to the pressure and the stress is my instance of Parkinson’s Disease, which, among other things, impacts my speech and my handwriting.    With only eight minutes to make my case, it’s going to be imperative that I communicate efficiently, that I am clear and concise, and I want to make a good impression.   Typically, the more stress I am under, the worse my speech is, and I stutter and stammer and slur my words.  So I have to decide, do I tell the agent up front about my condition, and waste valuable time discussing my condition, or do I just start my pitch, and risk sounding like a babbling moron?  Hopefully, stress won’t initiate the tremors it sometimes does, and I won’t be shaking or jerking about too much.

It’s awkward enough going to these conferences anyway, because one of the things Parkinson’s has taken from me is my handwriting.  I never had good handwriting, but now it is completely illegible.  If I don’t have my laptop with me (my phone has texting capabilities, but with my unsteady fingers, I do not) I can’t jot down a phone number or add an item to a grocery list.  This means while at a conference, I have to lug my laptop with me to take notes or engage in writing exercises.  It can become clumsy at times, and another thing I have to think about when I am in my pitch sessions – do I bring my laptop with me?  It seems rather impersonal in a one on one meeting to open up a computer and start typing.

Parkinson’s is the elephant on the table.  It’s the reason I’m home all day, the reason I left my job as a manager in I.T. two years ago.  It’s the reason I’m writing now – it’s how I fill my time, and as long as my fingers can work a keyboard and a mouse, it’s how I’ll spend my remaining time.  Writing’s been my attempt to make the best of a bad situation, to fill my time with purpose and meaning.  The thing is, I don’t know how much time I still have left.   I’ve read stories of other authors taking as long as twelve years to get their prize winning novels published – I don’t know if I can wait that long.  So it adds an element of desperation to my work.

I don’t have a bucket list.  I just don’t see the point.  I’m happy as long as I have my family and my writing.  When I started writing Ojibway Valley, I was just beginning to transition from memoir writing to fiction writing.  Now, I’m addicted to writing fiction.  I’m about 40% through my second novel, and everyday I’m learning more about how to create fictional characters and situations, the different ways  to tell a story.

I dream of having my work, particularly my novels, published some day.  I’ll do whatever I can to make that happen.  In the meantime, while I wait for someone to publish my first novel, I’ll finish my second novel.  When that’s done, I’ll start my third, and I’ll continue until, to paraphrase the National Rifle Association, they have to pry my keyboard from my stiff and rigid fingers.

 

Accomplishment


Last Saturday, September 22nd, 2012, I finished the last chapter to my novel.  Since then, I’ve been going back over it, to see if it’s readable, if it’s sequenced correctly, if it’s properly paced, and looking for major inconsistencies in character placement and chronology and setting and so forth.  Then I’ll have to go back through it with a keener eye and start editing, looking for the grammatical and stylistic shortcomings that are all too often overlooked whenever one reads his own manuscript.  In short, there’s still a lot of work to be done before I dare submit it anywhere.

That being said, I still feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment and pride.  Not that it’s a great book or anything, but I did it, I’ve written a novel, even if it is only a rough first draft.   This is something I’ve dreamed of doing all my life, and about the fourth time I’ve tried.  The other three attempts were undertaken at various points in my life and were miserable failures.  I’d  get about  50 to 100 pages written and realize that what I was writing was crap and was going nowhere.    More than anything, I didn’t have the will to stick with it, to get rid of the crap and salvage the scraps that were good.  I was unwilling and unable to learn from the process.

I’ve always been able to write.  In school, it was one of the few things I did well, and I was able, with a minimum amount of effort applied, to consistently have my papers read aloud by my teachers.  I recognized that I’d been born with some talent.  It came easy for me.

That was the problem.  Soon after I was out of high school, I tried to sit down and write, some short stories and my first attempt at a novel.  I quickly found that, gift or no gift, writing, when not given a specific assignment and a deadline, is damned hard work, and requires discipline and determination, two things that I had no concept of, two things that quickly sucked any joy out of the endeavor.

So any dreams I had of writing were put on a shelf somewhere in the dusty attic of my mind.  I went to school, focusing on the more economically viable and growing field of Information Technology, and started a career and raising a family.  I grew fat, dumb, and happy – seriously happy.  I loved my life as a husband and a father, and found both roles to be extremely gratifying.    For the most part, I enjoyed and took great satisfaction from work.

Still, from time to time, while putting other things away, I’d stumble across those musty attic shelves and blow the dust off my writer dreams and attempt another go at a novel, the memories of praise from high school teachers and my mom serving as inspiration.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that trying to impress your mom isn’t a good enough reason to write, especially when you realize she’s your mom, and is pre-disposed to liking anything her child produces.   Mainly, I still wasn’t ready for the perspiration, the hard work required.

Then in early 2005 I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.  Not long after my diagnosis, I began to suffer from serious sleep irregularities.  I found myself up in the middle of the night, unable to go back to sleep for hours at a time.  One night, tired of playing the sports simulation games I normally passed the time with, I opened up Word and started writing.  I started by writing descriptions of vivid dreams and childhood memories that had recently been flooding my mind.  I went on from there to write essays describing my experiences with Parkinson’s.  It occurred to me that maybe my children would someday find value in knowing what their old man was going through, what he was thinking and feeling and what he was doing in the middle of the night.  I finally had a reason to write, and more importantly, a desire to get better at it.

I joined a local writers group (the Kenosha Writer’s Guild), not knowing what to expect.   It was the best thing I’ve ever done.  They were kind and generous and supportive in receiving my work.   More importantly, I found amazing and diverse talents in the group.  I’ve learned so much from their support and critique of my work, I’ve learned even more reading and critiquing theirs.

I wrote a series of essays and tried to get a collection of them published as a memoir focusing on my experiences with Parkinson’s.  I had a couple of feelers from a couple of literary agents, but they both eventually turned me down.  I could see why; I knew what I was lacking, and that I just didn’t have it in me to fix them yet.  It’s not that I wasn’t willing to put in the work, it was more a realization that the story I wanted to tell wasn’t ready yet.  This plus the fact that I was growing bored with the subject of the memoirs – me – lead me to, almost two years ago now, start work on a novel.

At first, the thought of writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, was daunting.  I’d become very comfortable with the essays and memoir material, learning to some degree how to craft personal experience into something a bit more universal, how to articulate my view and experience of the universe in a way others could see and relate to.  In fiction, it seems you have to create the universe first.  I’d have to articulate what I imagine, and that seems much more personal than the fact-based world of memoirs.

But that quickly went from daunting to liberating.  It was the realization that in fiction, you can still describe what is important to you, but you are no longer limited by the constraints of experience.  If you strongly believe something but you don’t have fact based experience to support it, you can just make something up to fill in the gaps.

Still, I knew nothing about writing a novel.  When I started, I had a setting that I wanted to write about, and a handful of characters, but I really didn’t have a story.  So I dove into it, and soon a story began to reveal itself.  I followed it for a while, but I quickly found it wasn’t going anywhere I was interested in.  I still liked the setting and most of the characters.  So I started off on a second storyline.   Like the first, it wasn’t going anywhere.

What I had at this point was a setting and some characters and some random, disconnected stories about each of the characters, but still nothing to connect them.  I then decided, screw it, I’d write one of the stories and see what happened.  The story was about a middle aged woman who is married to a man with one leg and has an affair with a second one legged man.   I wrote the story, and when it was done, I thought, this is the best fiction I’ve ever written, there has to be something there.   I then wrote another story, with one of the main characters from the first, and I liked the second one even more.

At about the same time, I read the book,  “The Temple of Air”, by Patricia Ann McNair, a collection of loosely connected short stories about a Midwestern community.  It’s a great book, it knocked my socks off, and for a while, I thought, that’s what I’ll do – I had all these story lines and characters, I’ll just keep writing the stories and see what happens.

Eventually, though, I was able to find the thread that connected the stories, and wrote several chapters that were strictly transitional – so it seems I have a novel after all.

Now I have to tweak it and get it ready to submit.  I am realistic enough about my own talents and the nature of the market place to know that publication is unlikely.   That probable frustration still waits – for now, I am going to enjoy and take pride in the sense of accomplishment of actually getting a first draft done!

In the Nick of Time


(I continue to work on my novel, and as a result have been neglecting this site.   So I figured, what the Hell, I may as well post the most recent chapter I just finished.    I think that it’s self contained enough that it doesn’t need any background.  It’s a bit longer than what I usually post, but, oh well …)

Bernard LaRoche woke up in his recliner in the living room.  He’d been asleep for only a short while, long enough for the late afternoon shadows to creep in and spread across the corners of the walls and floors and ceilings, steadily consuming daylight as they advanced.  His dog, Max, a Gordon setter, lay curled up in a black ball, asleep at his feet on the braided rug.  Through the open windows, a cool breeze blew in from the west, a reminder that as warm as the days had been lately, autumn was not far away. 

Bernard got up and crossed the room to the windows.  The dog woke and raised his head and watched as Bernard shut each one, then got up and followed Bernard into the kitchen.

“What’s the matter, buddy?” Bernard asked. “You hungry?”  Bernard reached down and picked up the empty dish.   As he reached into the cupboard, where the bag of dry food was stored, the dog started wagging its tail.  Bernard filled the dish and opened the refrigerator.  He emptied the remaining contents of the open can of soft food in with the hard food and took a spoon and mixed them together.  He bent over and put the dish on the floor, and as Max buried his snout in the mix, he gently rubbed the top of his head, saying, “there you go,” pleased by the dog’s satisfaction with his meal.

After rinsing his hands in the sink, he opened the refrigerator again and took out the plate wrapped in tin foil and set it on the counter.  He removed the tin foil to reveal a dinner of meat loaf and mashed potatoes and green beans, then placed the dish in the microwave and set the timer.  As he waited, he took out some silverware and a glass, and pulled a gallon of milk and the bottle of ketchup out of the refrigerator.  He methodically set his place at the table, adding the salt and pepper shakers and a napkin to the silverware and condiments and took the opened half loaf of bread out of the breadbox and placed it and a stick butter on the table as the microwave beeped.  He opened its door and grabbed the plate, using a dish towel to insulate his hand from the heat, and set it on the table.  He pulled a chair out and sat down and poured a glass of milk.

Dinner was meant to be eaten in the kitchen, at the table.  It had always been that way, from his childhood through the years he was married and raising his family, and all the years since they’d been gone.   Even after Marie and her husband, Patrick, got in the habit of eating dinner in the living room, while watching the evening news or “To Tell the Truth” on the television, Bernard took his meal in the kitchen, at the kitchen table.  It wasn’t that he was superstitious – all those years he could barely tolerate his wife, Edith, having to say grace every night – he was just set in his ways.  Now, more than twenty years after burying Edith and five years after Marie and Patrick had moved to town, he sat alone at the table, with Max eating on the floor next to him, the kitchen lit by the evening sunlight that streamed through the window above the sink.

Max finished eating first, and, like he did every evening, stared at Bernard.   Bernard, like he did every evening, said, “You done, buddy?  Time to go outside?”  Max’s tail wagged as Bernard got up and opened the back door and let him out.  Bernard sat back down and finished his meal.   It was good, he thought, as he dabbed a forkful of meat loaf into the puddle of ketchup on his plate.  Marie always made good meat loaf.  Hell, everything she made was good, she was even a better cook than her mother was.   She ran dinner plates out to him about three times a week.  Once he moved to town, she promised, she’d bring him something to eat every day.  It’d be easier for her to look in on him once he was in town.

He’d long ago accepted the need to be looked in upon.  It was the moving to town part that he still wasn’t comfortable with.  He’d already paid the deposit for the apartment in the senior center.  It was small but nice, consisting of a kitchenette, a small living room, a bedroom and a bathroom.  He didn’t need a lot of space.  Best of all, it was self contained and independent, a small stand alone structure that opened up to a sidewalk, to the outdoors.    It wasn’t like the old folks home on Highway 47 he’d seen too many of his friends end up in.  That place was little more than a glorified hospital, where people were sent to die, where they were given a room that opened up into a hallway that god knows how many other rooms opened into, each one filled with another old person, the uncirculated air stale with the sterile aroma of death.

The apartment was opening up and he’d be able to move in on the first of October, in two weeks. The current tenant was moving to the twin cities to be near his son.  Bernard had slowly been packing his things for some time now.  Patrick recently listed the farm, but there was no hurry to sell, especially with the market the way it was.  Bernard had already been renting most of the fields out to the Talbert brothers for the past few years.  They weren’t in a position to buy just yet, but Bernard liked them, and was sure they could work something out, a deal where they could get the remaining equipment, including his 1946 Allis Chalmers tractor.

He’d reluctantly agreed with the conclusion that Marie and his oldest daughter, Annie, came to some time ago that he was too old to live alone out in the country.   For years, Annie had been imagining nightmarish scenarios of tragic outcomes, from Bernard slipping in the tub and hitting his head to lopping an extremity off in the tool shed, that he and Marie laughed off, until the time in the previous February, after the storm, when Bernard slipped on the ice on the front porch and threw out his back, and laid there for an hour before Marie, on her cleaning day, stopped by and found him.  The incident scared them both, and for the first time, he realized how helpless and vulnerable he could be out in the valley by himself.

He finish-ed eating and got up and washed his dishes.  From outside, he heard a single bark, and he went to the back door and let Max in.  It was shortly after 7:00.  He went to the living room, turned on the television, and sat in his recliner.  The rabbit ear antenna picked up only three stations, the NBC affiliate out of Eau Claire, the CBS station from Lacrosse, and the PBS station from Menomonee.   He settled on “Real People” on channel 13, and although his eyes were pointed in the general direction of the images on the screen, his mind drifted.

He was thinking about tomorrow, about the hayfield behind the Ojibway Inn that he would bale, the last field to be baled, not just for the season, but forever.  He’d been very conscious lately of all the things he was doing for the last time.  He fought hard against the melancholia that was consuming him; he’d never been the kind of man to complain or worry about things.  He knew that at the age of 87, it was past his time.  He’d heard the remarks from the Talberts, Dennis and Dean, about how they hoped they’d be going as strong at 87 as he was; he’d heard these remarks for years now, it was just the number that changed, from 70 to 75 to 80 and beyond.  The only farming he still did was mowing and baling hay, it had been several years since his shoulders and back enabled him to put the hay up in the loft.  The Talbert brothers did that now; all he had to do was drive the tractor and make sure the baler had enough twine and didn’t jam.

He was also thinking of the town of Neil, population 2,045, and if he’d be able to sleep at night.  He’d lived all but one of his 87 years in the old farm house, the same house he was born in, in 1895, on the same farm on Ojibway Valley Road.  He was used to country darkness and country quiet, and since Marie and Patrick moved out, he’d grown used to the house being empty.  Like Bernard, the house was feeling its age, with floorboards creaking and drafts seeping in under doorways and through weathered storm windows when it was cold out.

Bernard lit about the house, double checking the things he’d packed, the books and photo albums and the silverware and bathroom supplies.   Each time he thought of an item he couldn’t remember packing, he’d check the boxes and find it.   He repeated this procedure over and over.  By the time he was finally able to devote his undivided attention to the television, it was 9:00 and dark outside, and Quincy, starring Jack Klugman, was just beginning.  He fixed a tall glass of ice water and settled into his recliner, his body aching from the four hours of sitting on the tractor that morning.   The living room was lit by the grayish light from the television.  Max lay stretched out on the couch across from him, sound asleep, worn out from the morning chasing birds and butterflies and cottontails as Bernard circled the field in the Allis Chalmers.  Max was the smartest dog Bernard had ever owned.  He instinctively knew the boundaries of whatever field or woods they happened to be in, and even when hot on the trail of a squirrel or rabbit, he never strayed, never lost track of where Bernard was.  In the afternoon, when Bernard was inside, Max would be outside and lay in the shade of the house until Bernard came out, when he couldn’t contain the joy he felt at having someone outside with him, and he’d run circles around the yard until he found a bird or butterfly to chase.   Then, when Bernard went back inside, he’d return to his place next to the house, and wait patiently until he’d see Bernard again.

Bernard was relieved when the director of the senior complex said that pets were allowed, so long as they didn’t prove a nuisance to the other residents.   Bernard introduced Max to her, and like everyone else who ever met Max, she immediately fell in love with him.  Her only advice was that Bernard should make sure to keep him leashed, at least until he adjusted to town life and the new boundaries.  She could tell that Max was well trained and gentle and that there’d be no issue with him jumping up on or scaring other tenants.

Quincy was over and the 10:00 news was just starting when Bernard got up and turned the television off.   He climbed the stairs, with Max following close behind him.  Bernard headed for the bathroom off the hallway as Max went to the bedroom and curled up on his mat on the floor next to Bernard’s bed.  Bernard finished his nightly ritual of washing up and tending to his dentures before returning to the bedroom and laying out tomorrow’s clothes.  Like he did every night, he set the alarm clock for 5:00 A.M., even though he couldn’t remember the last time he didn’t wake up before it went off.  He finally shut the light off and climbed in bed.  He pulled the covers up to his chin, rolled onto his right side, and quickly fell fast asleep.

In his dream, Bernard was deer hunting, up on West Ridge, on county forest property, in the big woods.  It was still dark, before sunrise.   He’d parked his truck on the side of Logging Camp Road and uncased his 30.06 and walked down the fire trail, looking for a good knoll to sit atop of.  He came to a clearing that opened up into a broad field and sat behind what was a perfect natural blind, with downed branches in front that opened into a window he could watch the field from.   In the darkness he could make out the shapeless black masses of other clumps of brush; it looked like someone had come in with a brush hog and cleared the undergrowth away from the clearing.

As the sun rose the black masses revealed themselves to be crushed wrecks of crashed automobiles, and he realized that the window of brush he was looking through was in fact the glassless window of an almost flattened blue Ford Mustang he found himself sitting in.  The clearing he thought he was in was actually a graveyard of abandoned automobile bodies, a small junkyard.  Just as he was processing this, out in the field, in the faint early morning sunlight, a few hundred yards away, he could make out the shape of four or five deer, silently grazing, too far to shoot at just yet.

As he watched the deer, behind them, way in the distance, a small rolling black mass appeared, moving like a cloud through the field, until it got larger, and he could make out the shape of a herd of some kind of African antelope, thundering across the field,  into the clearing now, toward him.  He watched as one of them butted its horns against the car he was sitting in, shaking the rusted frame of the Mustang; a couple more leapt right over him.  As the rest of the antelope stampeded by, he clearly saw, in front of him and to his left, an old male lion, its mane speckled with gray, running along with the antelope; it too passed. 

After the stampede, the field was empty and the deer had vanished.  The sun was now high in the eastern sky.  Disoriented, Bernard decided to walk back to his truck, and left the crushed car and started back down the trail.  As he walked, the familiar path grew increasingly unfamiliar, as the woods thickened, and soon he was walking in a tropical jungle.  He came upon a small clearing and looked about and suddenly, without warning, he realized he was surrounded by three enormous tigers, a few feet away from him, each lying on the ground, giving no indication of having seen or having any interest in Bernard.  In the distance, through the underbrush, he could see his parked truck, and one of the tigers, the biggest, laid between him and the road.  He crept quietly around the tiger, getting closer, and he could see that the tiger was holding something green and red between its front paws.  He got close enough to take a better look, the tiger showing no interest in him, until he could see that the item was the severed and bloody stump of a human arm, in the sleeve of a U.S. Army fatigue jacket.  Looking closer he could read the name “Alexander” in black stenciled letters printed on the sleeve.

He jumped awake, his breath taken away, and slowly gained his bearings.  It was the middle of the night and the house was pitch black and still.  The stillness and the dark made him uncomfortable.  He turned the lamp on the nightstand on.  From his mat on the floor, Bernard could see Max open his eyes and look up at Bernard, and then the dream faded and his anxiety waned.  It was another in a series of nightmares he’d been having over the past couple of weeks, and with each one he woke up gasping for air. He had the nagging feeling that the old house he’d slept comfortably in his entire life was suddenly haunted.  In the darkness he could feel the presence of those who’d passed, of his mother and father, his wife, and his grandson.  He thought of the dream and of the charred remains of young Joe Alexander, forever hidden from him in the closed casket that he returned home from Vietnam in, more than fourteen years earlier.

 They’d received the news on July 3rd, 1968.  He’d been out in the fields and just missed the visit from the priest and the officer; it was when he came in for lunch that he found out.  Patrick met him on the front porch.  Inside, through the screen door, behind Patrick, he could see Marie, slumped in the chair in the living room, as if something had knocked all of the air out of her.

“Bernard,” Patrick said, “its Joe.  They came and told us.  He’s …”

Bernard looked at Patrick, his eyes wide, and said “No.” 

Patrick looked down.  Bernard said “No,” again, firmer and stronger as he opened and stomped through the screen door.  He looked down at Marie, and she looked up, her eyes big wet puddles, and he said, anger in his voice, “No.”

Marie broke down and started crying, putting her face in her hands, and Bernard knew it was true, it was real.

He fell back asleep and woke up at 4:51, nine minutes before the alarm was set to go off.  He turned on the light and put on the clothes he’d laid out on the counter the night before, slipping on the white t-shirt and blue work shirt before climbing into the fresh overalls.  Max barely lifted his head as Bernard went down the hallway to the bathroom to shave and put his teeth in.  When Bernard returned, Max was up, stretching his legs.   Max followed Bernard down the stairs into the kitchen.   It was still dark outside when Bernard opened the door and let Max out.  He made a pot of coffee, poured the first cup and sat at the table, waking up, planning his day.

By 6:30 he was out in the machine shed next to the barn.  The morning air was cool and crisp, cold enough that Bernard could see his breath.  The sun was just above the horizon and the sky was a deep and cloudless blue.   Bernard made himself busy readying the Allis Chalmers and the baler, hooking the baler up to the tractor, filling the tractor up with gasoline and loading the spools on the baler with twine.   Around 7:00 he could hear the roar of the Talbert’s diesel as the truck pulled in the driveway.  Max recognized the sound, too, and ran out to greet them, his tail wagging rapidly.

“Hey, old boy,” Dean exclaimed as he stepped out of the still idling truck and scratched Max behind both ears.  Dennis got out of the passenger side.  Bernard stepped out of the barn and waved to them.            

“How ya’ doing this morning?” Dean asked.

“Good, good,” Bernard replied.  “Gonna be another beautiful day.  I should have that last field knocked out by noon or so, it’ll only take a couple of hours, once this dew dries up.”

“Hell, we can’t keep up with you!”  Dean said, smiling.  There was no mistaking him and Dennis as brothers.  They both had the same square face, the same hard jaw.  Dennis, in his early forties, was the older of the two, with a slight powdering of gray in his black hair that Dean was yet to acquire.  Dennis wore a light jacket, a black windbreaker, with the words “The Snow Palace” printed in white letters on the back; Dean was wearing an un-tucked red and black flannel shirt and blue jeans.

 “Well, we’ll start getting the bales put up probably tomorrow,” Dennis said.  “Gotta  get started on the corn today.  Checked the weather report, and it ain’t sposed to rain until next week sometime, so we should be okay.”

   “That’s okay by me,” Bernard replied.

 “How are you doing?”  Dennis asked.  For a moment, his eyes caught Bernard’s eyes, and they both knew why Dennis was asking.  Bernard quickly looked away and tended to the baler.

 “I’m doing good, real good,” Bernard replied. 

 Dennis sensed the evasiveness in Bernard’s body language and that he wasn’t comfortable talking about the end of haying season, the end of Bernard’s time on the farm.  “Well, like I say, we’ll be by first thing tomorrow morning with the wagon and start putting them bales up,” Dennis replied, “assuming you’re around to supervise.”  He was grinning and winked a knowing eye to his brother.

 “Don’t worry, I’ll be here,” Bernard replied.  “Somebody has to keep you kids in line.”

 Dennis and Dean both laughed, and they got back in their truck.  “You need anything for today?” Dennis asked through his rolled down window before Dean put the trick in gear.

 “No, I’m all set.”  Bernard replied.  He was standing beside the passenger side of the truck by now.   “Gotta run to town this afternoon.  You guys need anything?”

Dennis and Dean looked at each other and shook their heads.  “We should be okay,” Dennis said.

“Okay,” Bernard said.  “I’d love to stand here all day and chat, but there’s work to do!”    Dennis returned his smile.

“Okay, old man.” 

There was an element of sadness in Dennis’ eye as Dean put the truck in gear and backed out of the driveway.  Dennis waved and watched as Bernard stood there, his back to the towering barn, waving to them, looking smaller, shrinking, as Dean pulled out onto Ojibway Valley Road and put more distance between them. 

It was past nine o’clock by the time Bernard pulled the Allis Chalmers out of the yard and down the rutted path that lead to the last field, the 20 acres behind the Ojibway Inn.  Max ran alongside the tractor.  It was a Thursday, the hay he’d cut the previous Friday laid there, raked and dried out and waiting to be baled.  He maneuvered the tractor through the field, occasionally taking a swig of coffee from his thermos whenever he felt the first signs of sleepiness settling in. 

It was late morning, about 11:30, and he was almost done when he passed the end of the field that was directly behind the Ojibway Inn.  He glanced toward the parking lot at the exact moment she got out of her car, a blue Ford Mustang with Illinois plates, one of the recent models, late 70s or 80 or 81.   He recognized her immediately, even from the distance, and watched her walk to the front porch.   She had long black hair and wore blue jeans and a blue and white flannel shirt.

Bernard wondered if his mind was playing tricks on him, seeing her just as he was finishing baling for the last time, two short weeks before he was to move out of the house and into town.  He wondered if he imagined her, or if she was a hallucination, if senility was finally setting in.  After all, he’d been feeling the presence of dead people recently, especially his grandson, Joe.  Maybe seeing her was an extension of these feelings.

He’d been feeling Joe’s presence at night, either in dreams, like the one that woke him up the previous night, but more often he felt him when he went to bed, before he shut the light off, standing in the doorway, like he did that night just before he left for the army.  Most nights he replayed their conversation from that night, and now, with almost all of the hay baled, he replayed it again on the tractor.

“Grandpa?”  Joe asked.

“Yes?”

“Were you scared?  When you left?”

Bernard took his glasses off and set them on the nightstand next to his bed.  He rubbed his eyes.  “Yes, I was.  I’d never been out of the valley before.  I didn’t know what to expect.”

“I’ve never been out of the valley, either.”  Joe said. “I mean, not really.”

“You’re going to be just fine.”

“I’m scared.”  Joe looked at the floor.

“That’s only natural.  At least you admit it.  It’s good to be scared.   It means you know there are things bigger than you.  Use that.”

Joe got up to leave, and standing at the door, he turned to Bernard.

“Grandpa?”

“Yes?”

“You’re the reason”, he stopped and started again, “you’re the reason I’m going.  I’ve always looked up to you.  I love you, grandpa.”

Suddenly a flash of black appeared in the field in front of the tractor, and Bernard jerked, and he recognized the form of Max, running in the center of the field in front of him.   Awakened from his trance, he realized he’d drifted.  He slammed the tractor to a halt.    He was suddenly aware of the perspiration that was soaking him.  He took the big red handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his face, and got his bearings.   He’d strayed off course. 

He composed himself and finished up the baling and went back to the house for some lunch.  He parked the tractor and put the bailer away, deciding he’d wait until the next day to clean it.   Grey clouds moved in and filled the sky, but it didn’t feel or smell like rain.  Max followed him as he climbed the back steps and entered the house, stepping into the kitchen.  He made himself a sandwich and sat in the living room in his recliner.  He was too tired and his joints ached too much for him to dwell on the events of the day, and soon he was asleep in his chair, satisfied and aching and content.

He woke up about 3:30 and remembered that he had to run to town to get his prescription for his blood pressure medication refilled.  He got in his truck, a dark blue 1981 Ford F150 with the manual transmission on the column and the words, “Alexander Ford, Neil, Wisconsin” printed on the tailgate.

The sky was still overcast as he drove past the Ojibway Inn. He scanned the parking lot for the blue Mustang he’d seen that morning.  It wasn’t there, and he was beginning to convince himself that he’d imagined it, that his mind had been playing tricks on him, that maybe he’d fallen asleep on the tractor and dreamed the whole thing.  Then he turned down Cemetery Road and there, in front of the church, a blue Mustang with Illinois plates was parked.  He slowed down and saw her again, standing in the rows between the graves, underneath the massive oak tree.  It was her, all right.  There was no mistaking it.

Bernard pulled his truck into the parking lot next to the Mustang and got out.  He walked to his grandson’s grave, where she still stood.  As he approached her, he noticed the fresh bouquet of flowers on the grave.  She saw him and a sad smile of recognition formed on her face.  The breeze was out of the south, and she absent mindedly brushed her hair from her eyes.

“Hi, Bernard,” she said.

She was still stunning, still breathtakingly beautiful.  She was always a beautiful girl, but the years had filled out her face, and added even more depth to her dark eyes.   She was, simply put, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

“Hi, Kim.” 

She stepped to him and threw her arms around his neck.  He gently reached around and patted her on her back with his right arm.  As she pulled back, she dabbed at her eye with her shirt sleeve.  There was an awkward moment of silence.

“I see you brought flowers,” Bernard said.

“Yes,” she replied.  “I forgot just how beautiful it is here.”  She turned and looked at thr grave.  Bernard’s eyes followed.  It was a substantial but plain granite stone, with the words:

                                                                JOE ALEXANDER

1948-1968

U.S. Army 

“It’s a nice spot,” she added.  “Peaceful.”

“Yes, it is,” Bernard said. They stood silent for a moment.  They could hear the breeze blowing through the trees.

“It’s been a long time,” Bernard said.

” I know.”

“How have you been?”

“I’ve been doing well.”  She was still staring at the grave.

“I hear you’re married now.”

“I was married.  Not anymore.  Divorced.”  She said it matter-of-factly.

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

 “Don’t be.  I’ve got a daughter now.  She’s nine years old.”

 “Is that so?  Did she come with you?”

 “No, she’s with her Dad this weekend.”

There was more of the same uncomfortable silence.

“You’re probably wondering why I’m here,” she finally said.

”Nah, I always knew you’d come back someday.”

“I guess I did, too,” she said, running her hand through her hair.   “I didn’t expect it to take so long, though.”   

“Sometimes these things just take longer than you’d think.”  

She appreciated his gentle acceptance.  She’d been worried about how he’d react if he saw her.

“So how are you?” she asked.  “You don’t look much different.”  She was telling the truth.  Other than a few additional lines on his face, Bernard looked pretty much the same as he did the last time she saw him, more than fifteen years ago.

“Nah, just older, not any wiser though.”

“Do you still live on the farm?”

“Funny you should ask.   For the next two weeks.   Then I move into town.  Getting too old to be out here by myself.”  He was trying hard to come across as nonchalant.

“Wow.   I was planning on looking you up.  Looks like I came back in the nick of time.  How about Marie and Patrick?”

“They live in town now.  Patrick’s owned the Ford dealership for the past five years.  You plan on looking them up, too?  I know they’d be thrilled to see you.”

“I’d love to see them, too.  I just wasn’t so sure they’d want to see me, since I didn’t come to the funeral and all.”  Kim looked at Bernard, trying to gage his reaction,.   She’d been very anxious about how she’d be received, coming back after all these years.

“Oh, Hell, don’t worry about that.   They understand.”

“Do they?  They were always so sweet.  I felt so bad for them.”

“Well, I’m not going to kid you, it hit them hard, losing their only son like that.  But what can you do?  You gotta keep on.”

“Yeah, but that’s easier said than done, isn’t it?”

Bernard recognized the flash of anguish in her voice and eyes, and he knew, at that moment, how painful it had all been for her, and how important coming back was to her, and his admiration of her grew. 

“How about I call Marie and Patrick up and we go out for dinner tonight?  It’ll be my treat.”

“That sounds wonderful.”

“We’ll go to Gustafson’s.  I’ll pick you up around six?

“It’s a date,” she smiled.

Since he’d be going to town now that evening anyways, Bernard decided he’d pick up his prescription then, and he went back home.  He immediately called Marie and told her Kim was back.  Marie was shocked and started crying on the phone, saying that she couldn’t wait to see her and that she and Patrick would be glad to have dinner with her.

Bernard showered and put on clean jeans and his best western shirt, the cotton, off white long sleeved button-up splattered with the pattern of the brown form of a small cowboy riding a horse between two cacti.  At 5:20, he called Max in and filled his dish, and he was off to the Ojibway Inn to pick up Kim.

She was waiting for him on the front porch, dressed in a white blouse and a black sweater and black pants.  Her smile radiated when she saw him pull in, she was up and at his passenger door before he had a chance to get out.   She climbed into the passenger side of Bernard’s truck.

“Hello, there,” she smiled as she got in.

“Hello.”

“Well, I’m good and hungry.  How about you?”

“That makes two of us.”

“Were you able to get a hold of Marie and Patrick?”

“Yep, they’ll be joining us.  Marie is excited about seeing you again.  They’ll be meeting us at the restaurant.”

They drove for a while in silence.  The clouds gave way to the late afternoon sun.   It shone brightly above West Ridge on the woods and fields that ran along Ojibway Valley Road.  Some of the trees, the maples, mostly, had already turned to their autumn golds and reds.  “Gosh,” Kim said, “it hasn’t changed a bit.  It’s still as pretty as I remember it.”

“It’s a pretty time of year,” Bernard agreed, “Fall has always been my favorite season.”

“I remember Joe taking me down the river.  It was October, and the colors were just amazing.”

“Yeah, got about three, maybe four more weeks until they reach their peak.”

“I think about that trip a lot.  Whenever I think of Joe, that’s how I remember him.”

Another uncomfortable silence followed.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“For what?”

“You know, bringing up those things.”

“Ah, don’t be sorry about that.   That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, I guess it is.”

“For what it’s worth, I think about him a lot, too.  Especially lately.”

“Why’s that?”

“Oh, I dunno, I guess with me leaving the farm and going to town and all.  I’d always figured Joe would inherit it someday.”

“Oh, he would have been glad to.  He loved the farm.”

“Yes, he did.  He was my right hand man once he was old enough to walk.  Used to follow me everywhere.   Folks called him my little shadow.   Used to sit on my lap on the tractor for hours at a time.”

“He told me about all that.”

“He had a true love of farming, and I knew, I just knew that someday I’d pass the farm on to him.  Old Patrick, he tried hard, but he never wanted to be a farmer.  He always wanted to be a businessman.   Gotta give him credit, though, all those years he worked on the farm, he never complained once.   Living in another man’s home, had to be rough on him.”

They pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant.  Patrick and Marie stepped out of the Ford Horizon with the dealer sticker on the window, and as Kim and Bernard got out of the truck, they were there to greet them, each taking turns hugging Kim.

“My, oh, my, you’re just as pretty as you ever were,” Marie exclaimed through watery eyes.

They went inside and Patrick told the bartender they were going straight to the tables in back.   As they seated themselves, a waitress appeared with menus.  There was a handful of people at the bar, and in the back, two of the other tables were filled, one by an elderly couple and one by a mother and father and their two young children.

“So how long are you back for?” Marie asked as they settled in to their seats and studied the menus.

“Until Sunday.  Have to be at work on Monday.”

“And what is it you do?”

“I work for a big Hotel in Chicago, I’m a concierge.  I majored in Hotel Management in college.  Plus, I’ve got to get back to my daughter.”

“Bernard said on the phone that you have a little girl.”  Kim reached in her purse and took out photographs.   “Oh, she’s adorable.   She looks just like you.” 

The waitress came and took their orders and left.  While they were waiting for their food, Kim told the story of the first time she’d ever heard of Gustafson’s supper club.  “It was that first night I met Joe, at that benefit dance at the church.  My little brother, Josh, he was so cute back then, he’d won a coupon for a fish fry dinner here in the raffle.  He was so proud.  Anyway, we had to leave the next morning, before we could cash in his coupon.  He was so upset, he ended up giving it to Joe that morning, but he went on and on about it so much that the next year, when we came back, we had to have fish fry here that first Friday night.”

“I remember that night,” Marie said.  “Joe came in like he was walking on air.  We kept pressing him about what had happened, and he finally said, ‘well, I met this girl.’  That was all he said.”  Marie looked up and caught the emotion in Kim’s eyes.  “I’m so sorry, Kim”, she said, as Kim started gently crying, holding her napkin to her face.

“No, don’t be sorry, it’s all right.”  She was trying to smile through the tears.  “It’s just, it’s just ….”  Marie gently put her hand on Kim’s wrist.

“There, there,” Marie said.

“I thought I’d be okay, I thought enough time has passed.  But I don’t think I’ll ever be okay.”

Patrick and Marie looked at each other.  “We understand,” Marie said.  “We’re just glad you came back.  It’s so good to see you again.”

They eventually got back to safe small talk.  Patrick talked about taking over the Ford dealership and how bad business had been with the interest rates as high as they were and how he hoped Reagan would do something to turn the economy around.  He mentioned that they were putting the farm up for sale, too, but that the best they could hope for in the short term was to keep renting the fields out.  They talked about Bernard moving to town, how they’d only be a couple of blocks away from each other, and how creaky and drafty the old house was getting.  They talked about the Ojibway Inn, how impressed Kim was with the remodeling that Willard Caffey and his wife Emma,had done since buying it from Marie six years earlier. 

Finally, after finishing their meals, and after Bernard won the fight over the check, they were out in the parking lot.  It was dark now, a warm September evening, as they stood under the neon sign that said “Gustafson’s Supper Club.”  Kim hugged Patrick and then Marie.  Marie held on to her for a long time, and they separated, their eyes wet, and said one last goodbye, before climbing into their respective vehicles.   Bernard steered his truck out of the streetlights of town into the two lane darkness.

“That was nice, seeing Patrick and Marie again,” Kim said.  “Thank you so much.”

“Thank you,” Bernard replied.  There was more silence.  Bernard chose his words very carefully.

“I know that had to be difficult for you,” he said.

“It wasn’t so bad.  I’m sorry I got so emotional there for a while.”

“No need to apologize.”   They went on for a while in silence.

“You know, I’ve got some things for you.” Bernard finally said.

“I know.  You’re referring to the ring, aren’t you?”

“Why yes, yes I am.  And some other personal effects I saved.  But mainly the ring.”

“Thank you, but I couldn’t take it.”

“It’s okay,” Bernard said.  “I know he asked you.  And I figured you said no.”

“That’s not what happened.  Why do you think that?”

‘Well, afterwards, after word came about him, I was going through his things up in his room, and I came across the ring.  I figured since you didn’t have it, you must have said no.”

“That’s not what happened,” she repeated.  “Anyways, it was a beautiful ring.  I always thought it was more than he could afford.”

“Well, if it’ll help at all, he never asked for any help for it.  It was paid for, too, I saw the receipt.  Somehow he’d saved up enough money to pay for it all himself.  He’d told me, the night before that he was going to ask you.”

“What happened is this.  We talked about it.  And he said he was going to ask me.  And trust me, I would have said yes, no question about it, I would have said yes, yes, yes, a thousand times, yes.  But then he said, he didn’t feel right about asking me and then leaving right away, and that if something happened, something happened to him or something happened to me to change my mind, he didn’t want me to be bogged down – that’s just how he put it, bogged down – with a diamond ring. He said he’d keep it in a dresser drawer, and when he got back, he’d ask me then, and if we still felt the same way, we’d get married.  And that’s what really happened.  Only thing is, I’ve been bogged down ever since anyway, bogged down with his memory, bogged down with his decency – I’ve never met anyone with as pure or beautiful decency as Joe had.”

“I’m so sorry,” Bernard said.  “I found the ring in his dresser and just assumed.”

“What did Marie think?”

“I never told her about the ring.  She knew, or she had a hunch that he was going to ask you.  But he never told her about the ring.  He told me about it about a week before, and we talked about it that night, he asked for my advice, and I told him to go ahead and ask you.  I just assumed he took my advice.”

“Well, that was Joe, he thought things through and made up his own mind.  Just like going to that goddamned war in the first place.  He’d thought that over and made up his mind.”

Bernard grew quiet. The night was dark, and, as he turned off the bright lines of Highway 47 onto the faded center line of Ojibway Valley Road, it got darker.   The darkness seemed to be consuming them.

“He sure looked up to you, though” she started.  “He always …”

“It was my fault,” Bernard flatly interrupted.

“What?”

“It’s my fault.”

“Bernard, what are you talking about?  Nobody …”

“That last night,” Bernard said.  “He came to my room and told me, I was the reason he was going.  Cause I was in World War One.  I filled him up with all that war hero crap.”

“Bernard, you mustn’t blame yourself.”

“I knew it was all a load of crap.  But I filled him up all those years.  If only I’d taken the time to tell him the truth, that none of it was worth it, that there was no honor or glory.  There was just death and destruction, that’s all it boiled down to. It was that way in World War One, and it was that way in Vietnam, and it’s been that way in every war that’s ever been fought.  Only he didn’t know that.  But I did.  And I never told him.”

“Bernard …”

“That kid belonged on the farm.  He belonged with you and your babies and the fields and the crops.   He sure as hell didn’t belong in some goddamned jungle on the other side of the world.”

“Bernard, it’s okay.”

“Don’t you see, he told me.  I’ve been carrying this around for fifteen years, even before he was killed.   He told me clear as the day that I was the reason he was going.   If only I’d stopped him.  But I didn’t.  So it’s my fault.”

They rounded the big S curve and the bright neon sign for the Ojibway Inn came into view.   Neither one said anything as Bernard pulled into the parking lot and put the truck in park.  Before she got out, Kim said, “Bernard, I’m sorry.”

“What on earth do you have to be sorry about?” he asked.

“I shouldn’t have come back.  I didn’t mean to stir up old things like this.”

“No, it’s not that way at all, Kim.  I’m glad you’re back.  I’m thrilled.  Really, I am.”

“Yeah, right.”

“These things have been coming to a head lately anyways.  I guess with me moving out of the house and all.  I’ve been thinking about Joe more than usual lately anyways.”

“And then I had to come along …”

“But I’m so glad you did.   You don’t know how much I’ve wanted to say that, to speak those things, to another human being.”

“Well, for what it’s worth, I think you’re wrong.”

“Kim, thanks, but …”

“If you’re going to take the blame for him leaving, then you’ve got to take credit for all the good that was Joe.  Joe was and will always be the great love of my life.  I only knew him for a short time, but long enough to know how special he was.  And it’s true, he adored you.  But if you are going to blame yourself, make sure you give yourself credit where credit is due.  He was who he was because of you. Okay”?

“Oay,” Bernard mumbled. 

His head was down, he was staring at the floorboard of the truck, when he felt her lean over and plant a kiss above his right eye.  Then she opened the door and got out of the truck. Before she closed it, she said, “see you tomorrow?”

“Sure,” Bernard replied. 

“I’ll stop by around lunch time,” she said. 

Then she was gone, up the porch steps and through the front door. Bernard pulled out of the lot and drove home. The house was dark; he fumbled for the keys and unlocked the back door.  Max greeted him, all happy wiggles, as if he had returned from the other side of the world.  Bernard reached down and scratched behind his ears and under his snout, his two most favorite places.

The next morning, at 5:00, Bernard was awakened by the sound of the alarm clock.   Max was standing next to the bed, his tail wagging, waiting for Bernard to get up and let him out.  Bernard made his way down stairs and let Max out and put on a pot of coffee.  He looked out the kitchen window to the west, and the sky was clear again.  It was going to be another beautiful day.

By 6:30, Bernard was working, hooking the hay elevator up to the opening in the north end of the loft.  At 9:00, Dennis and Dean Talbert pulled into the driveway, pulling the flat wagon stacked high with bales of hay.  Max ran and greeted them, and Bernard followed.  Dennis was driving; he pulled in and positioned the diesel so that the wagon was lined up with the hay elevator.

“Morning, old man,” Dean said, as he and Dennis got out of the truck.

“Good morning, guys.”

“Well, I see you got the elevator ready,” Dean said. “Guess that means we have to get to work.”

 “You bet your ass it does,” Bernard said.  Dean laughed as he entered the barn and climbed up into the loft.  Dennis took his spot at the end of the wagon.  He turned on the elevator and the pulley lurched into movement, climbing the angle to the opening in the north end of the barn. 

Dennis climbed to the top of the wagon and one by one, took the bales off the top two rows and threw them down to the ground.  Bernard reached over to pick one up, and Dennis quickly said,”Now, now, now, we’ll have none of that.”

Bernard stopped, red faced, feeling helpless.

“You just leave us to do all the lifting,” he said to Bernard.  “After all, it’s my horses that are going to be eating the damn stuff.”  Dennis’s wife, Connie, owned three quarter horses and boarded another three on their farm.  The hay was largely for them, and was figured into the rental fees the Talberts paid Bernard for the fields.  Their loft was still pretty full with bales from the second cutting, what they were putting up in Bernard’s loft was what would get them through the winter. 

Dennis climbed down and started feeding the elevator, while up above, in the loft, Dean took the bales and stacked them.  “Well,” Dennis said to Bernard, “how’s it feel to be retired?”

“I ain’t retired yet,” Bernard said.  “Still gotta keep you kids in line.”

Dennis laughed, and then said, “Seriously, how are you doing with everything?”

“I’m ready,” Bernard said.  “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t gonna miss it, though.”

“I’ll bet,” Dennis replied, grabbing another bale with the hooks he held.  “Anytime you want, you just drive on out and see us.  I mean it.  You’ll always be welcome at our place.”   Dennis and Dean were relative newcomers to the valley, having bought the Johnson farm, about three miles south of Bernard, five years earlier.  Dennis and Connie took over the old farmhouse and lived there with their two children, Peter and Samantha.  Dean and his wife Joan bought the old Anderson place, about a mile away, and together they operated the 160 acre farm.  They were renting another 200 acres of fields from Bernard.  Bernard recognized that they were good farmers and hard workers, and he was pulling for them to succeed.

“I appreciate that”, Bernard said.

By 10:30, Dennis and Dean finished unloading the wagon.  “Well,” Dean said as he climbed down from the loft, “one down, about four more go go.”  They got back in the truck and left to fill the empty wagon up with the second load.  Bernard climbed the steps in the loft to review Dean’s work.  The loft was hot and thick with hay dust. Bernard put his handkerchief over his nose and mouth.  He found the bales neatly stacked in the rear of the loft. 

He started down and saw Max lying at the bottom of the steps, waiting for him.   Once Max saw Bernard, his tail started wagging again, and he danced, spinning in excited circles, until Bernard’s feet hit the floor, then he was off, out the barn door and into the deserted pasture behind the barn, running, his strides fluid and long. 

Bernard busied himself with a pitchfork, raking up the stray strands of hay that Dennis and the wagon left behind into a small pile next to the elevator, when the blue Mustang pulled into the driveway.  Max ran up and barked at the car, and Kim got out, wearing a red sweatshirt and blue jeans.  She was carrying a brown paper bag. Bernard tried to resist what he didn’t dare admit to himself, that he was in love with her, but it was no use.

“Hi there, old timer,” she said, smiling as she approached.

“Good morning, Kim.”  He looked at his watch to make sure it was in fact still morning.   It was 11:30.

“I hope you’re hungry,” she said.  “I ran to the IGA this morning and picked us up some stuff for lunch.”           

“You didn’t have to do that,” Bernard said, as they stepped through the back door, into the kitchen.

“Yes, I did,” she replied, “especially after you bought dinner last night.”   They went inside.   Bernard excused himself and went to the bathroom and washed his hands while she emptied the contents of the bag on the counter.  “Sit down,” she said, “and let me make you a sandwich.  I got a good loaf of French bread and some deli meat.  There’s baked ham and roast turkey and, my own personal favorite, pastrami.  I also have genuine Wisconsin Colby-jack cheese and lettuce and fresh tomatoes.  Now if you like, I could slice you off a chunk of bread and stack all of this together – wait, do you have any mayonnaise?”

“In the fridge,” Bernard said, taking his seat at the table.  Kim opened the refrigerator and found the jar of Hellman’s.

“Ah, perfect.  What do you say, sound good?”

“Sounds wonderful,” Bernard replied. 

Kim asked Bernard where the silverware was, and started working on the sandwiches. “It’s another nice day out, isn’t it?” she said.

“Yes it is.  They say it might rain later this afternoon.”

Kim was looking out the window above the sink.  “That sure is a beautiful dog you have.  What kind is he?”

“That would be Max.  He’s a Gordon Setter.”

“I’m not familiar with that breed.”

“Neither was I. He’s supposed to be a bird dog, but I never took the time to train him.”

She was watching him through the window, laying in the shade of the elm tree next to the house. “I just love his markings.  Those patches of brown above his eyes.”

“I found him at the shelter.  He was just a pup.   That was seven years ago.  He’s by far the smartest dog I’ve ever owned.”

“What are you going to do when you move?”

“All ready checked on that.   They allow pets in my new place.”

“That’s good.”  She turned around and handed Bernard a plate with a perfectly constructed boat of a sandwich and a pile of potato chips. 

“Whew, that’s an impressive sandwich.”

“Thanks.   Can I get you something to drink?”

“Just water, from the faucet, will be fine.  Glasses are up in the cupboard next to the sink.”  She poured him a glass and started making her sandwich when she turned and saw Bernard, politely waiting for her before he started eating.

“Go ahead,” she said, “you don’t have to wait for me.”

Bernard took a bite of the sandwich.   “What do you have planned for the rest of the day?” he asked

“Oh, I don’t know.  Thought I’d drive around a bit.  Enjoy the countryside.”   She finished fixing her sandwich and joined Bernard at the table. “I think I’m going to head home tomorrow.”

“You’re not staying till Sunday?”

“No, I  don’t think so.  It’s such a long drive, and I miss my daughter.”

“I understand.  I hope you found what you came back for.”

“I think I did.  I have to admit, it was harder than I thought it’d be.  But last night, talking to you, I think that really helped.”

Bernard nodded, and said, “I think it helped me, too.  Oh, before I forget, excuse me ….” He dabbed his mouth with his napkin and went upstairs.  He returned a couple of minutes later with a cigar box.  He handed it to Kim.  “I want you to have this.”

She opened the box. Inside were Joe’s army dog tags, and an ancient black and white photo of a woman with a small child in a sailor uniform sitting on her lap.  “Who is this?”

“I have no idea,” Bernard replied.  “It sure isn’t anyone I recognize.   But it must have been important to Joe.”

There were old baseball cards, and there was the ring.  But it was the raffle tickets that caught her eye.  “Oh, my God,” she said.

“What?”

“He saved these.   I can’t believe it.  These were the losing raffle tickets from the night we met.”  Tears were running down her cheek.  “Thank you, Bernard.  Thank you so much.”

“I’m just happy to have had the chance to give them to you.”

They finished their lunch, and Kim was just getting ready to leave when the Talbert bothers pulled into the driveway with the second wagon full of hay.   They started up the elevator and Dennis started unloading the wagon when Kim and Bernard walked out.  Kim was carrying the cigar box.  Dean and Dennis both did a double take at the vision of beauty that accompanied Bernard to the Mustang, trying their best to mind their own business.  Bernard could feel their stares as he walked Kim to her car.  Before she got in, she hugged him, and gave him a peck on the cheek.  “You take care of yourself,” she said.

“You, too,” Bernard replied.  “If you ever come back, look me up”

“I will.  And I’ll be back.  It’ll be easier, now.”

She got in the car, and they waved good bye, and she was gone.  Bernard made his way back to the hay elevator.  Dennis and Dean were surprisingly quiet until, from up at the top of the elevator, Dean cried out, “Why, Bernard, you old dog, you!”

Dennis broke into laughter and a wry smile formed on Bernard’s face. “Just because there’s snow on the chimney,” he said,”doesn’t mean there ain’t fire in the stove.”

For the rest of the afternoon, Dennis and Dean brought wagons stacked high with bales of hay and unloaded them into the loft. Bernard “supervised”, making sure things were out of their way and engaging in the idle chit chat farmers have used for years to pass the time spent working.   They talked about the weather, about crops, about cars and trucks, and deer hunting.  Bernard was enjoying himself so much that he didn’t have time to dwell on his pending “retirement.” The sky gradually grew darker as the afternoon passed by until, as if on cue, just as Dean was putting the last bale up, a loud crack of thunder sounded, and a couple of minutes later, a soft rain began pelting the ground.  

“How about that,” Dennis said.  The three of them were standing in the barn, behind the wide open doors, watching the rain.  Max was in the barn, too, curled up in a pile of loose hay, dry and happily asleep and exhausted from a glorious day spent chasing birds and mice around the farmyard.

“Just in the nick of time,” Dean said, and, turning to Bernard, added, “are we good or what?”

Bernard laughed, “You’re good, all right, just that I ain’t figured out what for yet.”  

“Well, old man,” Dennis said, extending his hand, “happy retirement.”   Dean extended his hand too, and Bernard shook hands with both of them.

“Thanks, guys.” 

“Well, Dean, we’d better go get that tarp up before it starts raining any harder.”  Then they were off, in their Diesel, Dennis beeping the horn at Bernard as they pulled out of the driveway on to Ojibway Valley Road.   Bernard stood alone in the barn and waved good bye.

Two weeks later, on September 30th, Bernard was all packed.  Marie and Patrick were going to come by the next day and move him into his apartment.  The sun had just set when Bernard realized there was one last thing to do.   He loaded up the supplies in his F150 and drove to Dennis Talbert’s house.  He got out and rang the front bell.  Dennis opened the door.

“Hi, Bernard.”

“Dennis, there’s something I need you to do for me.”

“Sure, anything, you name it.”

“I need you to come out to my truck with me.”

Dennis stepped outside and they walked to Bernard’s truck.   Bernard opened the door, and Max jumped out, his tail wagging.

“What is it?” Dennis asked.

“Take him,” Bernard said.

“What?  I couldn’t …”

“Just take him.  He won’t be no trouble.”

“I thought you were taking him with you.”

“He won’t do any good in town.  He loves it out here.  He can’t run in town.”

“Bernard, I can’t …”

“Please?”    Bernard was looking directly into Dennis’ eyes, his face red, his eyes wet, pleading with Dennis.   Dennis silently nodded.  Bernard reached into the back of his truck and pulled out a bag with all of Max’s things – his dish, a leash, the mat he slept on, and the bag of hard food and the cans of soft food.  He gave it to Dennis and then he took a folded up sheet of paper out of his back pocket and handed it to him.  “I wrote everything down that you need to do.”  Max was up by the front porch when Bernard said, “Thanks, Dennis.”

“Bernard,” Dennis said, “don’t worry.  We’ll take good care of him.”

“I know you will.  Now, if you don’t mind, take him inside before I leave.  It’ll be easier that way.”

Dennis nodded that he understood, and took Max inside with him.    Bernard backed his truck out onto the highway, and drove straight into the last night he’d ever spend in the house he was born in.

A Novel Approach


There are three rules for writing a novel.  Unfortunately, no one knows what they are

                                                                                  W. Somerset Maugham

I’ve been working on writing a novel off and on for over a year now, more on than off in the past several months.    After several fitful starts and stops, I seemed to hit my stride about three months ago and things started taking shape.  Somewhere around January I decided to go in a significantly different direction and threw out much of what I had previously written, and then, as I started down this second path, I changed direction again and took off down a third path.  So far, I remain on this latest path, and have managed to retain my enthusiasm for it.  It helps that I think I’m writing better than I ever have (which admittedly isn’t saying much) and that I’m actually learning some craft and developing some new skills.  I’m hoping to finish the first draft by the end of summer – I’m about 80% there – at which point I’ll try to get some editing help.

Whether I’m going about the writing in the correct way is doubtful.  For example, I have rough outlines that I try to follow, but I frequently deviate from them when a whim hits me.  I still have major plot holes to fill, and some plot elements that still feel a little shaky.  I’ve written what I have so far wildly out of sequence.

On the plus side, I think I’ve created some really strong and interesting characters, and I’ve learned a great deal on how to keep the narrative moving.   Several themes, some planned, some not, are revealing themselves.

I think I have the foundation for what could be a good book, and my dream remains to find a publisher.  I recognize, though, that the odds of it ever being published are very slim.  There are many reasons for this, not the least is my status as an unskilled and anonymous amateur, in addition to some basic gaps I haven’t addressed:

–  I have no idea what genre my book would be categorized in..   I only know that it isn’t young adult, or romance, or suspense, or erotica, or science fiction, or whatever.  I don’t intend any disrespect to these genres or the people who write and read them – it’s just that the story I’m telling doesn’t fit into any of these categories.

–  I really haven’t given any thought to who the target audience would be, other than I think it’ll be a book that I might enjoy reading.

I’m probably coming across as one of those oversized egos who say “I write only for myself.”  My ego is healthy enough, thank you, but I’m not that naïve or pompous.  I don’t think anyone writes for themselves, I think anyone who puts words down on a page or a screen is doing so because they want to be read, they want to be noticed, they want other people to respond, they want to be validated on some level.

That I haven’t thought these marketing things through would seem to be cardinal sins for any writer who has, for as long as he can remember, secretly harbored dreams of one day writing and publishing a book

I am 53 years old, an advanced enough age for anyone to embark on a literary career.  Take into consideration that I am almost eight years into a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease, and the realization that it is even later than it seems hits you pretty quick.  Time seems to be of the essence.  I can’t help but wonder how long my fingers will be able to work a keyboard.

That being that, here are some things I’ve learned about time and writing:

–  Having wasted too much time for too long, you can’t make up for it by short cutting through the learning process.  I know now that whatever skills or talent I may have been born with pale in comparison to what I need to learn.  In the past couple of years I’ve learned more than I could have ever imagined about writing, from my fellow members of the Kenosha Writers Guild but mainly by putting my head down and working.  And as much as I’ve learned, I recognize that there is so much more learning still to be done, and as much as I’d like to learn it all by tomorrow, I know I can’t and I won’t.

–  Much as I’d like to, I can’t rush the process.  I can work hard, but the book will be finished when it’s finished, and not when I want it to be.  I can curse the detours I’ve already taken, but really they were necessary – the first couple of paths I was taking were simply wrong, and it took some time for that to be revealed.   I’m sure there are more twists and turns and surprises in the road ahead; I’ll just have to navigate those as best I can.

– As for genres and audiences – maybe I’ll figure this out, maybe not, maybe the end product will never be published, maybe I’ll self publish, maybe I won’t – I can’t worry about those things now because I have to focus on finishing the damn thing first.  With time being what it is, I want to write the book I want to write, in case I don’t get another shot.

I could wax philosophical about how writing my novel has mirrored my life, how both have been filled with unexpected twists and turns, but it’s getting late, and I have work to do.

Excerpt


(I’ve been working on a novel in recent weeks, resulting in fewer postings to this web site, so without any other new material, I thought I’d post a short excerpt.  The novel is about a fictional northern Wisconsin community, and is currently very fragmented and disorganized.  I’ve been having fun making lots of terrible things happen to lots of the characters I create, but I thought I’d share a kind of sweet and innocent moment –this scene takes place in the early 1960s.  The characters are 15 years old and just met at a church benefit dance and have instantly become smitten with each other)

“Would you like some punch?” Joe heard himself asking Kim.

“That sounds nice.”

He went up and returned a moment later with two plastic cups filled with punch.  She was standing up when he returned, they were both feeling restless.  He handed her a cup, and they wandered together back to the hallway.

“This is good”, she said after taking a sip.

“Yeah, it is.”  Joe said.   “It’s too bad you have to leave tomorrow,” he added.

“I know”

“I mean, if you weren’t leaving, I could show you and your brother and sister around”

“I’d like that,” she said.

Silence overtook them, neither knowing what to say, both sensing the mutual attraction as they sipped from their cups.  Finally, Joe said, “Let’s go outside.”

Kim trusted him enough to go with him.  They stepped outside.  The air was warm and still and crisp.  Joe led her out away from the church, to the center of the parking lot.  The music faded to a faint murmur.   Darkness engulfed them when Joe said, “Look.”

Kim had to squint in the darkness to make out the silhouette of his arm pointing up to the sky.  Looking up she could see, scattered across the night sky above them, a million stars and their dust.   It was the first cloudless night of the week, and the first time Kim had ever seen so many stars.

“Wow”, she said.

“There’s the big dipper”, Joe pointed, “and there’s the little dipper.  See them?”

“I do”, Kim replied.  “Wow, it’s so beautiful.”

“They look so close, but they’re so far.  They’re so far it’s taken thousands of years for their light to reach us. “

Kim was looking up, her eyes wide and moist.   Joe could see, in the darkness, the reflection of stars, and he knew that that moment, with the light from thousands of years shining in her eyes, would stay with him forever, and it occurred to him that when he first saw her earlier that evening, standing by the table reading her raffle ticket, that same reflection was already there, it was what made her shine and glow.  He didn’t understand any of this; he just knew it, and he felt it, like he had never felt anything before.

After a while, they went back inside, even dancing a couple of dances, with Joe teaching Kim the little he knew about polka dancing.   They spent some time sitting with the rest of the Hamel family, Joe feeling more and more comfortable with them, everybody in high spirits, everybody having a good time.

The night slowed down and came to a halt around 11:00, the hallway slowly emptying as people made their way to the parking lot. The Hamels offered to give Joe a ride home, and he accepted, climbing in the back seat of their station wagon, with Karla sitting between him and Kim.  Josh had climbed far in the back and curled up; he was fast asleep before the car made it out of the parking lot.  They turned down County Highway O to drop Joe off.  Joe promised he’d ride his bike to the Mighty Casey’s in the morning and see them off.  Then they were in Joe’s driveway, a light was still on in the house.   He said his good nights to the Hamels, opened his door and got out, taking one long last look back at Kim, lit by the car’s dome light.  He shut the door and stood in the car’s headlights and waved as Dean backed out of the driveway.   Then he became aware of the cool, still night air, and the night song of a thousand crickets keeping perfect time from the depths of the darkness.    Everything seemed fresh and new.  It was as if he had never felt the night air or heard the sound of crickets before.