Saturday, December 08, 2012

Country Acres rough draft update

As promised, I will keep regularly updating my rough draft (at least once a week) until it is finished. Some have asked how I could feel comfortable publishing my novel before it's officially published. I'm not worried because this is a rough draft. Subsequent drafts will stay offline, except for possible excerpts, until after the novel is published. The finished form of this novel will look very different from the rough draft. If some poor sap feels like stealing my ideas, go ahead. I'll still come up with a unique product that can't be stolen. Besides, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, though I know copywrite lawyers would beg to differ.

Here it is, for all 8 or 9 of you faithful readers, is the continuation, post National Novel Writing Month, of my novel, with the working title Country Acres.

Crow camped amongst low stands of briar and honeysuckle, on a rise just at the edge of a flood plain on the north banks of the Kishemuka River. The plain was forested, with tall oaks, maples, hickory and Chinese elm, and there were many deadfalls and collections of driftwood. The ground was spongy, muddy, often barren of any vegetation. Only the deep-rooted could survive the frequent flooding. Most creatures that passed through, didn't have the benefit of cover. And they often left muddy tracks. So Crow was certain, upon further inspection, that the red fox he saw flitting around his camp each morning wasn't the shapeshifter fox of his dreams.


No doubt it was a mother fox, for he often saw her going to and fro with a mouse in her mouth, gathering food for her young. Crow was tempted to follow her to her den, but

didn't want to disturb her activity. She became another creature for Crow to talk to.


"How are you doing today, little lady?" Crow asked, just sitting up, wrapped in his bed roll, eyes and nose the only parts of him exposed to the elements. "What goodies do you have for the kiddies? Oh, you walk so dainty, my dear, like a lady in high heel shoes."


This dialogue was better, Crow thought. For though it was between animal and human, and, of course, was one-sided, at least he was addressing a living, breathing, track-leaving creature. What is my state of sanity, Crow thought, when I have to find an animal's tracks just to verify it is not a hallucination? And whose to say I'm not hallucinating the animal tracks as well?


Maybe it was time for a verification of sorts. Some human contact might be necessary, though these weeks in the woods, broken, of course, by forays into town for early morning dumpster diving, had been good for Crow. The fear and paranoia following in the wake of the shooting had left him. He figured whatever fall out from that traumatic event had already played itself out, and wondered if Chalmers would be around when he returned. And as long as things don't start talking back to me, he thought, I guess it's okay to talk to them.


Snow was falling as Crow broke camp. He stuffed his bedding into cinch tie garbage bags and then put those into another huge, 50-gallon size garbage sack. He then stuffed the pile into a large hollow log, hiding it from sight and further shielding it from the elements. Barring a chewy rodent invasion, this would be safe. He pissed around the trunk, hoping the testosterone in his urine would scare off damaging incisors.


The fat flakes muffled the air. Crow could only hear the crunch of his footsteps. It was about a mile and a half to town, and he had a route that went in the wastelands beyond an industrial park, along derelict railroad tracks that once fed into these factories, and behind the backyards of some newer build houses. He didn't touch pavement until he was almost downtown. He was surprised at how derelict the downtown was. Hardly any cars were parked. All the businesses were closed, except for a gas station at the edge of downtown.


Crow didn't know the time or the date, but figured it must be mid-morning. Was it Sunday? Even then, there would be more traffic. Did he miss out on some sort of apocalyptic event? Who knew? The world had passed on in its usual way without him these past weeks.


When he got to the Augusta Inn, he noticed the lot was almost empty of cars. Of the two cars there, only one looked like it was in use. The other had a flat tire and was covered with successive layers of snow. It had been there for months. Stoops threatened to have it towed, as the sign on the falling garage threatened, but then had forgotten.


When Crow tried the basement window, he found it to be locked. He looked inside and noticed the piece of cardboard had fallen. The window had locked of its own accord. The only option would be to try Mackey. Crow came back around and climbed the fire escape stairs up to the second landing, and then a metal ladder up to an even smaller landing below Mackey's window.


Crow was in luck, for Mackey opened the window even before Crow had the chance to knock.


"I heard you coming," Mackey said. "And figured it was you. It couldn't be Santa Claus, I thought. I'm one of the naughty ones."


"Here, let me get these boots off," Crow said. "I don't want to track all over your place."


Crow stamped the snow off his boots, took one off and stood precariously on one foot as he handed one boot to Mackey.


"Get your ass in here before you fall off," Mackey said.


Once inside and settled on Mackey's couch, Crow asked Mackey where everybody was.


"Well, you know, everybody goes home for Christmas," Mackey said.


"It's Christmas day?" Crow asked.


"Well, yeah," Mackey said, incredulous. "You don't know what day it is?"


"Let's just say I've been out of touch," Crow said. "I've been hanging out in the woods for weeks now."


"I could smell," Mackey said.


"Do I stink?"


"You could use a shower, but you just smell like a campfire and like dirt. It's not a bad smell, but, damn, man, you're dirty. Why don't we get you cleaned up?"


"That'd be nice. I need to get to the basement anyhow. I think I've got a change of clothes down there too. You got a spare towel?"


"Sorry, but I don't. Mackey pointed to his lone threadbare beach towel hanging on a nail near the north window."


"No bother. I'll make do. Well, Merry Christmas to you. I'm glad you're around. Haven't talked to anybody in a while."


"Well, I'm glad to see you, too, old timer. Its been pretty quiet around here with everybody gone. You gonna stick around awhile."


"I'm time wealthy, good sir. One of the richest men you'll meet in that regard. The day is mine to see fit to do what I want."


"Good. Take your time in the shower. Scrub good. I may not have a towel, but there's plenty of soap and shampoo already in there."


 While Crow got cleaned, Mackey went downstairs and worked the combination lock on the refrigerator he shared with two other housemates. He placed the lock on top of the fridge, figuring it could stay unlocked for awhile with most everyone gone for the holiday weekend. He didn't have much. Some frozen peas, a loaf of bread, a half a pan of leftover meatloaf from earlier in the week, and hot dogs. But on the shelves he had a few cans of beans. He had it in mind to make a Christmas dinner. What he had would be paltry compared to a traditional sumptious array, but neither would the men go hungry.


Although Mackey's plans hadn't changed -- he was going to drink beer and watch football games and a horror movie -- he was glad for the company. As he stood over the stove, stirring hot dogs into a small pot of beans, someone knocked on the back door. Mackey could see it was The Colonel, with whom he had an easygoing, if antagonistic relationship.


"What the hell do you want?" Mackey yelled.


"If you don't let me in, I won't tell you," said The Colonel, stamping snow off his shoes on the back porch.


"Well, shit, I don't know," Mackey said. "If you don't invite the vampire in, he can't harm you." He walked over to the door.


"Ho fucking Ho," said The Colonel, stomping into the kitchen. "Hey, now, look. Is there anyone else hanging around today?"


"Fuck if I know. Crow's upstairs getting a shower. I know Chalmers and them are gone over to Misty's folks. Haven't seen anybody else, though."


"Well, let me check and see."




In lieu of a direct answer, The Colonel stomped past Mackey, through the dining room and into the front landing. He yelled, loud enough to make Mackey recoil, "IS ANYBODY HOME?! HOOO! IS ANYBODY AROUND?" He let out his infamous war whoop, "WHOOT WHOOT WHOOT - pause - WHOOT WHOOT WHOOT!!"


"What the fuck?" Mackey said.


"Hold a minute. I think I hear somebody."


A robed person, obviously awakened by their groggy shuffle, appeared at the top of the landing.


"Fire drill?" he asked. It was Xian Jiao, a Chinese exchange student, studying graduate level physics at ISNU. He was also an intern at a particle accelerator laboratory in the nearby suburbs.


"No, Chin Chin, it's just me, The Colonel. Hey! Look! We're having a big ol' pot luck dinner across the way. Come on over. You don't have to bring nothing if'n you don't want to."


"Pot latch?" asked Xian.


"Pot luck," corrected The Colonel. "Food, man. Mon gee Mon gee!" The Colonel put his hand to his mouth and made munching sounds.


Xian nodded his head in understanding.


"Country Acres. Across the way. Come on over."


"Thank you. Thank you." said Xian and turned back around to go to his room.


"So that's what all this fucking racket is about." Mackey asked. "I forgot about the infamous Country Acres Christmas extravaganza. You making your world class chili again?"


"Shit's already bubbling away." The Colonel said. He produced his trusty bowl, made out of gas stove pipe parts, and took a hit. "Tote?" he asked, passing it to Mackey.


"Don't you mean 'toke?'" asked Mackey.


"Toke. Tote. What's the difference? Do you want a hit or not?" The Colonel waved the bowl at Mackey.


Mackey waved his hands around his mouth as The Colonel exhaled. "Fuck no. I don't touch that shit. Messes with your mind."


"That's the point." The Colonel took another hit. He exhaled as he exited through the back door, the smoke wreathing around him, pausing briefly, and then rushed out the door ahead of him with the escaping heat. The spectral effect was not lost on Mackey, who thought briefly of his own ghost.

Upstairs, Crow was luxuriating in the warmth and steam of his hot shower. It had been weeks. And the time spent outdoors, in the cold, had made his skin dry and itchy. His legs itched from the warmth of the water. His extremities, which he'd not even noticed were numbed, tingled back into sensation. Even the pad of his buttocks revived itself with feeling and warmth. The body retreats into itself in the cold, along with the mind, Crow thought. Afterwards, for lack of a towel, Crow stood there. He looked up, noticed a hole in the ceiling, looked around and noticed the mildewed tile, a spreading, blackening bloom like pubis around the tub's faucet, the peeling wallpaper. Every space on the lip of the tub had a near empty bottle of shampoo or liquid soap. Patience and gravity rewarded the soap seeker with enough drops to get a healthy lather.


The sanitary conditions of this shared bathroom were far worse than Crow's other accomodations, the locker room showers at the ISNU campus swimming pool. On weekends, the pool was open to the public. Staff there knew Crow used the showers, but he often came early enough to avoid detection. With the school on holiday break, though, the showers would not be open. While the Augusta Inn shower wasn't as clean, Crow enjoyed its privacy and that he need not be in a hurry.


Crow was hesitant to put on his clothes, for he could smell the wood smoke and body odor in them. He had some spare clothes downstairs, though. He put on just a pair of pants and a shirt, and carried his pile downstairs. Mackey was in the kitchen as he passed through.


"The basement's already unlocked," Mackey said.


"Thanks, buddy. Is there soap for laundry down there too?" Crow asked.


"Same thing as the bathroom. Whatever you find down there, you can use."


Crow hoped he had a spare change of clothes. Otherwise, he'd have to wear dirty clothes while he washed and do two loads to get all his layers cleaned. As he suspected, wrapped up in grocery bags, Crow found a pair of sweat pants, underwear, socks and a t-shirt. The shirt had a cartoon drawing of a kid dressed up in hip hop garb: baggy pants, oversize shirt, and large backwards cap. He stood with his arms folded. Written on the front of the shirt in a scrawled graffiti: "Here is irresistible!"


Crow smelled the clothes. They had been infused ever so slightly with the damp mustiness of the basement, but otherwise smelled fresh. After changing, Crow conjured enough detergent to get a cupful for a load. Back upstairs, he saw Mackey putting together his share of the feast. In addition to the beans and franks, Mackey had another pot with stuffing and peas, and the leftover meatloaf broken up into hunks.


"I wish I had something to add, but all my food is out at the forest preserve," Crow said.


"Don't worry," Mackey said. "There will be plenty to go around. There's a party going on across the way. The Colonel's already been by to let us know."


"So, that's the racket I heard in the shower." Crow said.


"You know how it is around here," Mackey said. "If there's any kind of noise and bother, The Colonel's gotta have something to do with it."


By the time Crow's laundry was washed, Mackey had finished heating up the food. Crow went back upstairs and got his boots on, and both men walked across the driveway and down the steps to the basement landing of Country Acres.


"Set your shit up over on the counter," said The Colonel as he handed out beers to four men sitting on two couches. Football was on a 19-inch television set placed on a folding card table.


"Do y'all know Mackey and Crow?" The Colonel asked.


Crow recognized the crew cut young guy on one end of the couch as Mike Verbic. He was a sullen Croatian. He had a tattoo of an eight ball on his forehead and pierced nostrils, eyebrows, and tongue. He'd lived in Country Acres a couple years, but Crow was surprised to see him because he knew Verbic had family in town. Mike seemed engrossed in the game. He nodded his head and looked their way, but then turned his attentions back to the game.


Andy Vilinovich sat next to Verbic. He stood and shook Crow and Mackey's hands.


"It is good to see you'se guys," Andy said. "Long time, no see, Crow. What brings you out of the woodwork?"


"The smell of The Colonel's chili, of course," Crow said.


On the other couch was Hosmi Abbudah. "How you guys doing?" he asked. "Hey, Mackey. You got a smoke?"


Mackey reached to his chest pocket and shook one out of his pack. He started to put the pack back, but then shook out two more.


"Here. Take these, but don't ask again, okay?" Mackey said.


"Thanks, man."


Mackey knew that Hosmi almost never had his own smokes and made the rounds of smokers until he'd worn out every last ounce of generosity. Then, he would roll smokes out of The Colonel's pipe tobacco, of which there seemed to be a never-ending supply. This wasn't far from the truth. The Colonel liked to buy his sundries in large quantities. The top shelf of his closet had at least 10 cans of tobacco, taking up space with stacks of sardine cans and potato sticks. Hosmi had seen this once, but also knew how far The Colonel's graciousness about generosity extended. Once he saw the signs of indignation, he'd back off and not even ask. Still, he'd often he'd had to endure the verbal lashings of The Colonel, but it was a small price to pay, for The Colonel always seemed to have tobacco, weed, and beer in abundant supply. 


Next to Hosmi sat Mimbe Odunka, another foreign exchange student from Uganda, who came to ISNU on a Fullbright scholarship and was studying urban planning.


"How do you do?" Mimbe nodded at the men. He spoke in a French accent.


"Hey, where's the chink?" The Colonel asked.


"I think you woke up Xian earlier. He probably went back to sleep." Mackey said.


"Oh well. His fucking loss." The Colonel said.


"Maybe he went out to find a stray cat to contribute to the pot luck," Mike said, eliciting groans from the other men.


There was room on the couches for Mackey and Crow to sit, but rather than take up the middle cushion and sit elbow to elbow with the other men, they elected to grab chairs from along the wall nearby. The basement area was large and open, with fluorescent lights casting a bright glow in the kitchen area. The TV area was more dimly lit. A large, plaster cast base lamp with yellowed shade, teetered precariously on the card table next to the television.


The windows dripped with condensation and the concrete walls had a sheeny glow. The room was almost hot, especially when one stood up, but an insistent draft came down the stairs at either end of the room.


Conversation revolved around the game as Andy tried to explain the rules of American football to Mimbe. He was explaining what the line of scrimmage was after one of the teams was called for an offsides penalty. When play resumed, Andy pointed to a gray line.


"See, the line of scrimmage. It's gray. That's where they line up the ball."


"I see. I see." Mimbe nodded his head.


The Colonel, who had gone upstairs for a moment, stomped back downstair and stood next to Mike. He placed a joint to his lips, took a couple long puffs and passed it to Mike.


"I know you don't touch this stuff, Mackey," said The Colonel. "But I know you won't turn down this." He tossed a beer at Mackey, who, surprised by the toss, had the beer slip between his fingers and fall into his lap. "One for you too, Crow," who was ready when the beer was tossed to him.


Of course, Hosmi took a bunch of extra hits, and by the time the joint got to Mimbe, the cherry was almost an inch long.


Mimbe, who had not smoked marijuana before coming to the United States, had been turned on to its pleasures by The Colonel, and now partook every time it was offered, though his hits were smaller and the clumsy way he handled the joint made The Colonel nervous.


"Here, let me fix this," The Colonel said. "Gotta stop that run."


The Colonel licked two fingers and wiped some of his slobber onto the joint. The others, knowing what he was doing, were non-plussed. These men were macho, hard-scrabble, and one man kissing another could lead to a fistfight. But sharing spit on a passed fatty joint didn't seem to bother them.


After the joint reached a certain point of resiny unmanageability, someone produced a bowl and put the roach into it.

"Sit on that, or smoke it as you will." said The Colonel. "I've got at least three more jays pre-rolled and ready to go."


"Well, c'mon man. Bust it out. Let's party," said Hosmi.


"Easy, easy. Pace yourself Palestinian," The Colonel said. "We'll have a nappy tryptophan THC post-meal joint soon enough."


"Is the food ready?" Andy asked.


The Colonel walked over to the kitchen. He lifted the lid off his big pot of chili.


"Chili's ready, and most of what you guys brought came ready, right?"


With no further fanfare, no gathering before a table, and certainly no prayer, the men got up and came over to the kitchen area to get their food. In addition to The Colonel's chili and Mackey's contribution, Verbic had made corn bread, Mimbe a corn and couscous mixture, and Andy chips and salsa. Hosmi's contribution a pile of caramel candies wrapped in wax paper. Everyone drank beer except Mimbe, who was Muslim.


A rare, brief silence fell over the men as they concentrated on their victuals. Suddenly, over the sounds of scraping silverware and the football game, could be heard a scream, and then yelling, though no words could be made out.


"What the hell is that?" asked Mackey.


The Colonel and Hosmi gave each other a knowing glance.


"That's our resident freak," said The Colonel. "He lives in the infamous red room."


"What the fuck is his problem, anyhow?" asked Mike "Is he pissed because he wasn't invited to the Christmas party. Get his ass down here, then."


"Who said he wasn't invited?" asked The Colonel. "I knocked on his door and told him what was going on, but he never responded. He never does. Dude's a nut job. Lives in his own fantasy world. Just sits around up there all day, fighting with himself."


"I've heard him many times," said Mimbe, "but I've never seen him. Does anyone know his name?"


"C'mon Colonel. You know everybody. What's this dude's story?" asked Hosmi.


"I met him once. He was boiling up some perfume or some such or other. He was stinking up the joint and threatened me with a knife when I confronted him. So, uh, no. I never got his name. Asshole McNutjob. How's that? Put that on his mail slot."


"That'd be a good way to get his name," Crow said. "Check his mailbox for any incoming mail."


"Isn't there some federal law against mail tampering or something?" Mike said.


"No. Jesus. It's not like Crow's asking you to open it. That'd be something else," The Colonel said. "I look in his mail slot every time I check my mail. Believe me. I'd like to know his name too. But he doesn't get anything beyond the general mailer. Either he doesn't get any mail, or he has post office box somewhere."


"Or he picks up his mail before you do," said Mackey.


"No, smart ass. I practically meet the mail man every day," The Colonel said.


"What about asking the landlord?" Mimbe asked.


"There's an idea. She's gotta know. Unless he's got an alias." The Colonel said.


Muffled yelling continued and the men stopped what they were doing to listen. Hosmi even muted the television to get a better listen.


"I can't make out what he's saying," Andy said. "Imagine. The poor soul. All alone on Christmas. Doesn't he have any family to be with on Christmas day?"


"Nah. He's like the rest of us," Mike said.


"Well, at least we have each other," Crow said.


"That's so fucking touching," said The Colonel. "I think I'm going to cry."






Saturday, December 01, 2012

A reflection on NaNo, et al.


What a month of writing it has been. I have often fantasized about being a full-time writer, never knowing if I have the stamina, the attention span, the overall fortitude it takes to be one. And while my life dictates that I work a full-time job, nay, one that takes up 60+ hours per week, I still long to write, but wondered if I could conjure the discipline and long-term vision to see a big writing project to fruition.

I've made money before as a writer. I've written short stories. One was even published in a fanzine. I self-published a collection of Appalachian Trail fiction short stories in 2003. I've written countless essays and papers for college classes and had more than 1,000 articles published in daily newspapers. I've edited and wrote the introduction to two editions of an Ice Age Trail guide. Once, in California, I found this guidebook in a book store and showed my name to the person I was with. That was a cool moment.

But I've always dreamed of writing a novel. Ever since I was little. Ever since I had aspirations to be a writer.

I've started countless novels, only to have them peter out about 10 to 15 pages into them. When I reached a snarl in the plot, it usually doomed me to failure. A little voice inside said, "Hey, if you can't do this well. If you can't be brilliant, then why even try?" I neglected the craft. I put my creative energies into teaching, and then music, finding a necessary outlet for that love of art and craft that rages inside of me.

But there it was, on the edge of my consciousness, this desire to write a novel. "But I don't have the time," I thought. "Nobody reads anymore." "Family and friends could care less." "What if you write it and you don't get published? Won't you be crushed?"

But the ideas were there. I've got rough ideas for no fewer than five novels in me right now, including a work of historical fiction set in Nebraska in the 1920s and based on family letters, a novel centered around a minor league baseball game, a youth fiction/ graphic novel series about a character, the insidious Drain Monster, of whom I've already told a drawn-out narrative to my son (he loves them!), and one about life at a small-town daily newspaper, loosely based on my own experiences. There's also a futuristic dystopian science fiction love story... we'll see about that.

In short, I'm brimming with ideas, but have severely lacked in execution.

Until NaNo, short for National Novel Writing Month, a 50,000 word sprint that takes place every November. I'd heard about it a couple years ago and wanted to participate last year, but I made up some lame excuse about not having a regular schedule and didn't even try.

This year, I resolved to give it my best effort. And I did. I wrote on average two hours each day, every day (except one), the entire month. And now I've got a novel that's more than half complete, with an end in sight, characters fleshed out, conflicts presented and unresolved, work still ahead, to be sure, but with a climax and denouement in sight. NaNo is over, but I write on. The end is in sight.

And then we get into my comfort zone. I've always enjoyed editing and re-writing, and agonized over rough drafts, as if the creative muse was afraid to reveal herself because she knows the harsh critic that awaits.

I anticipate finishing the novel by the end of January and would like to get the re-write done by the end of February. In the meantime, I need to learn about the publishing side of things, as I know virtually nothing about how to get a work of fiction published. I know it involves publishers and most likely an agent, but that's about it.

I am very thankful to the local writing group, which I'm happy to know continues to meet beyond November. That's probably been the greatest boon of NaNo. It has connected me with a fellow community of writers. Writing is such a solitary act. It is nice to have a community to bounce ideas off of, to find inspiration from, and, to me, just not feel so alone in my endeavors. As I said, my friends and family are just not that into it (although my immediate family has been VERY supportive this entire month), so it's nice to discover this community of fellow writers. I look forward to getting to know them better in the months and years to come.

And I am very grateful to the Facebook community and those who lent supportive comments and feedback. The very platform of social networking provided an accountability tool that kept me on task when I felt like slacking off.

The novel continues. Keep reading the blog from time to time as I will continue to post rough draft material as I write it. Any feedback is greatly appreciated.

Happy reading... and writing.

Friday, November 30, 2012

NaNoWriMo Day 30

Crow knew many of the residents of the Augusta Inn by the unique stamp of their feet. Chalmers walked with a heavy stomp, quick thuds. Misty was more like a slow, sliding shuffle, like brushes across a drum head, as was her older daughter and middle child. The baby, Jeramie, was a lighter version of his father, thumping along precariously in his first footsteps. And the heavy foot traffic of visitors was easy to tell. The pipes right above where Crow left always gurgled and rushed with the sound of running water whenever anyone used a sink or flushed a toilet.


Crow had no access to the other floors. The basement entrance was outside. It used to be two doors covering the stairs leading down, but those had been replaced by a fence with plastic slats, and plastic overhang to keep rain from the roof from pooling at the bottom of the steps. Despite these efforts, there was almost always some puddle at the landing. Right inside the door was the laundry room, a washing machine, dryer, and a couple metal clothes racks, from which hung a few dusty, unclaimed coats and hangers in a variety of sizes and styles.


At one point, the basement was one open room, but sometime after the Vanderhoys died out, one of the series of owners leading up to Bob Stoops, the current owner, had tried to capitalize on the extra space by charging renters for storage. Plywood walls were erected and pieces of plywood attached with a hinge were secured closed with combination locks. Although none of the current renters used the space, three of the four "rooms" were locked tight and had not been accessed in years.


The room where Crow slept was different. It had walls made of concrete blocks and its entrance had no door. The furnace, water heater, the electric box and meters were in here, so the room had to be accessible. The one window opened out from a hinge on top. Crow had rigged it so that it looked closed, but if he slid a carefully placed piece of cardboard, he could unsecure the window and gain access by sliding in and landing on an old kitchen counter.  He kept his bedding stash pieces of cardboard to lay on tucked away in the back of the cabinets. He slept on the other side of the furnace, between it and the wall, so that even if the rare surprise visitor happened to walk in on him, he could curl up his knees and disappear from sight. Crow had only been surprised once in the five years he'd made use of this room. One early February morning Stoops (who didn't know about Crow and would likely evict him for "insurance reasons" and on general principle that he was not paying rent) and a meter reader came in. Crow hunkered in the shadows as long as he could as the men kept their backs turned to him. They left the room in a minute.


Every once in a while, a resident would discover Crow as he was coming or going. Once, when confronted, he said he was friends with Mackey, and asked for him. No one, beyond the errant rat or spider, had ever caught him asleep in his hideaway corner.


Crow tried not to take advantage of the accomodations. He had a couple places on the ISNU campus where he could sleep in a pinch, and if he needed to be indoors during inclement weather, there was always the public library or the vast stacks at the university. The university library also had the extra advantage of being open until 2 a.m. during the school year and 24 hours a day during finals weeks.


As a general trend, Crow, never much of a social butterfly by nature, became even more introspective during the fall and winter months. It was easy, he'd long ago discovered, to live unnoticed on the periphery, to keep one's contact with civilization to the wee hours, and to mind one's days in nature and solitude. In these later seasons, the cold motivated him to suspend his can collecting operations. It was also unprofitable during the holiday break.


Before returning to the Augusta Inn near Christmas time, Crow had spent most of his time in the large forest preserve north of town. Because there were cross country ski trails throughout the preserve, the county rented out a shelter house year round. It was near the entrance to the forest preserve, but to Crow's benefit the bathroom was often unlocked. It was convenient to use, and, more important, the sink had potable running water, which Crow stocked up on, using a liter bottle cut in half to fill up four gallon jugs. It was often sweaty, difficult work, but on the weekends, when he could be assured the bathroom was open (for it would most likely be locked during the week, he discovered), Crow would stock up on water for the week. He could get by on a gallon or a little less per day. Freezing was a problem in winter months, so Crow kept the water stashed in a compost pile he'd put together at the base of a pine tree, essentially a pile of leaves, dirt and duff that put out a surprising amount of heat as it decomposed. Crow could pull out a jug, and not only would it not be frozen, but when he poured himself a cup of water it steamed.


Crow loved living in nature. He found its slower rhythms and quietude good for his spirit. Buck deer would sometimes snort at him in the middle of the night to assert their territorial rights. Skunks, raccoons, possum, crows and robber jays often visited his camps. If he needed meat, rabbit and squirrel were in plentiful supply, and fairly easy to trap. Though Crow still liked to rely on dumpster diving for most of his food. He found hunting and foraging often consumed more calories than he gained for his efforts. It was far more profitable to venture into town and live off the discards of others.


In the winter, the nights were long, and condensation made it hard to keep things dry. But Crow had good camp skills and stayed comfortable. He found the extra darkness enervating, and would sleep 10 to 12 hours each night. This is the way people were meant to live, Crow thought, with the cycle of the seasons. Most of the psychosis and illnesses of modern life, cancer and diabetes, stress headaches, heart attacks and the like were a result of humanity's disconnect from the cycles of nature. In this way, Crow thought, animals were smarter than humans. Electricity and the combustion engine had provided a buffer zone, cutting off people from nature and creating a 24-hour, seven days a week mad rush to consume. It was the great beast called society, and by its very disconnect from nature, it threatened to destroy what it did not know.


The only thing that worried Crow during these long nights of slumber and short days of ease was he was beginning to question his sanity. He'd always had a strong inner dialogue, which gave him the ability to live alone without feeling lonely, but in the last few weeks he'd caught himself talking out loud, and to those long gone from his life, his deceased ex-wife Deborah, and his missing son, Jamie.


"Would you check out the knot of that tree. I bet that would put off a good fireworks show if it was in a fir, Debbie girl," Crow said. Or, when hunting, he would talk to his son, giving instruction as if he were there. "Now, why would I place the string like that?" Crow asked. "You're right. It's so that it remains taut. Remember what I said. The string is a spring."


Often, Crow would catch himself and smile at the foolishness of talking to himself. Other times, he would relive family dialogues from years past, vivid arguments about past money problems or schooling decisions for Jamie. He would get worked up to a tizzy, get downright irate, and then reach a peak of emotion that would break the spell. He'd look around and realize he was in the woods -- alone -- of course, for now, until someone heard him and locked him away.


Thursday, November 29, 2012

NaNoWriMo day 29

"Elfjin and I have been through a lot together," Stella said. "I originally won him at a carnival, so he was the product of achievement. But shortly thereafter I got a really bad case of chicken pox. I hear kids don't get that anymore. I guess my generation was the last to go through that rite of passage. But my case of chicken pox was awful. I still have scars on my forehead and arms. See?"


Stella tilted her forehead towards the light. Gerald looked closer. This would be a good opportunity for that kiss... But not yet. She showed him her arm. He grabbed her by the hand, looked at her face for approval, and stroked her inner arm.


"Feel it," Stella said, barely, in a whisper. "There. And there."


"Right," Gerald said. He let go of Stella's arm, but she stayed closer, sitting on the end of her bed.


 "Ouch. I imagine those must have been awful. I had chicken pox when I was in Kindergarten, but it was mild. The only thing I remember from that time is that I got to drink grape soda, and I drank so much I got sick, and I can't drink grape soda to this day. Grape juice. No problem. But grape soda? No way."


"Goodie," Stella exclaimed. "More for me. I love grape soda."


"You can have it," Gerald said, and made retching motions, pretending to put his finger down his throat. "But what about this here Elfjin? You won him at a carnival and he saw you through the chicken pox. Why is he your favorite?"


"I guess I always root for the underdog," Stella said. "Look at him. He's all homely looking and warty. Somebody needs to love him. Plus, when I had the chicken pox and was all covered in painful, weeping sores, I looked at Elfjin and didn't feel so bad. He's warty. I mean, that's a permanent condition. Somehow I took solace in that."


"Would that be an example of Schadenfreude?" Gerald asked.


"I don't know," Stella said. "As I understand it, doesn't Schadenfreude imply that you are taking joy in the suffering of others because they deserve it?"


"Possibly. Or it could be a case of There-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I."


"That sounds like catharsis. Like Greek tragedy."


"I don't know. When I think of Schadenfreude, I think of just desserts. When I think of catharsis, I feel a sense of relief that it wasn't me, and also a feeling that what I feel catharsis for didn't necessarily deserve the tragedy that befell it.


"Honestly," Gerald continued. "I haven't given it much thought at all. I'm totally BSing right now."


"That's okay," Stella said. "I am too, but I heard a professor talk about it once in a class. And I love tragedies. Shakespearean and Greek."


"God, I can't remember the last time I went to a play. It has to have been at least 10 years."


"I'll have to drag you out sometime. The university puts on student productions a few times a year. Many of them are written by students as a master's thesis. I go to as many as I can. They are so easy and accessible."


"That sounds like fun."


"And if it wasn't fun, then I could watch you squirm, and it would be good Schadenfreude."


"You just like saying that, don't you?"


"What? Shadenfreude? Why would I like to say Schadenfreude?"


"I like the word too."


"Let's try to incorporate it into every conversation we have."


"Okay. I guess. I don't know how appropriate that would be."


"The more inappropriate, the better."


"I like your sense of irreverence, Stella. It shows a naughty side of you I didn't know existed."


Stella tapped her fingers on Elfjin and drew the doll close to her face, and pretended to whisper in its ear, "Ha. Ha. We must not reveal the dark side too quickly, no?"


"Okay. That's just plain weird."


"I figure I should be upfront with my quirky tendencies. If you can handle them, then at least you know what I'm about right away."


"Fair enough."


They spent the next hour and a half trading quirks, each trying to outdo the other. It certainly was not the way Gerald had anticipated the evening going. He discovered that Stella didn't drink or smoke, and could hardly stand the smell of second-hand smoke. And while she had been to parties, she didn't like them and preferred gatherings of two or three people. Gerald revealed that he agreed with her about parties. He had a hard time distinguishing voices in a crowd. He called it his attention deficit disorder ear. When amongst a large group of people, if someone wanted him to respond to something, they had to get right next to him and talk into his ear. Some people thought he was deaf, but he just had very selective hearing.


Just as Stella was telling him about her abject fear of possums, Breanna walked in and interrupted their conversation to talk about business exclusive to the floor. She disappeared for a few moments, but then came back and plopped herself on her bed in a huff, clearly annoyed at Gerald's presence.


Gerald took the hint and rose to go.


"Well, I guess it's about that time," he said, looking wistfully at Stella.


"Let me walk you down to the main floor," she said.


And as they parted, Gerald gave her a kiss, more soulful than a peck, but with only a hint of passion, and walked down the sidewalk alongside the dorm. He turned around to once to see if she was looking after him, and she was. He gave an awkward smile, waved, and promised to call her soon.


He called her the next day.


Chapter Fourteen


Crow had never seen a man shot before. Unlike The Colonel, he got a student deferment from the Vietnam War and never joined the military.


So when he saw Higgins get shot down, from 70 feet away, as he crouched in alarm in a dumpster, Crow was shocked beyond belief. He stood and watched as Detective Hartwig rumbled over, gun at the ready, and checked for life before covering the body with his jacket.


And then Crow made a quick escape, staying behind the dumpsters with his bike as a chorus of sirens hove in on the fraternity house. To see such violence left a marked impression on Crow. Every time he heard what sounded like gunshots, he crouched in fear. And this gave Crow the realization that what he was experiencing paled in comparison to the shell shock he'd heard about with soldiers from the other wars, what is currently called post-traumatic stress disorder. Those men and women had seen horrors like what Crow witnessed on a daily basis, and the ever-present threat of a violent death ate away at their pysches.


Crow just complained about having some vivid dreams. And over time they went away. But he put together some pieces. He had an inkling of what had happened Corn Fest weekend, for he recognized Detective Hartwig as the person who talked to Chalmers. And, putting two and two together, knowing Chalmers was a bigger-time drug dealer than Higgins, Crow figured out that Chalmers must have told Hartwig about Higgins, which, in effect, had determined Higgins's fate. And Crow knew that if someone as inconsequential as he knew about this connection, others had to know as well.


Crow figured he would need to watch his back at the Augusta Inn. He didn't want to get in-between whoever was going after Chalmers. Otherwise, it was none of his business, and knowledge better kept to himself.


And it would be better to stay away for awhile and let whatever heat from this blow over. Who knows who saw him at the scene of the shooting. He didn't want to deal with going into the police for questioning. While he had never been harassed by police, being homeless meant he was always susceptible to be charged with vagrancy or any other slew of scoff laws designed to harass the indigent and down and out. Bonneville was a very progressive community, tolerant of outsiders and the mentally ill, as long as they could be tracked and easily-located.


But Crow worked on the periphery. He did his best to not look like he was homeless, thus explaining the well-hidden caches of his stuff. A loaded backpack or shopping cart was a dead giveaway. And he camped in places where he knew he would be undetected, avoiding places where social footpaths tread, usually presenting some kind of obstacle, such as raspberry brambles, or a swamp, to deter the errant intruder.


And this is where Crow lived in the weeks following the shooting, benefiting from a warmer-than-normal November. He ventured into town on Thanksgiving to enjoy a meal at the community center, where he was a well-known volunteer. But no one asked about his absence about town, and he volunteered nothing about the shooting.


After days of struggling to keep warm in the week after Thanksgiving, Crow finally relented and returned to the basement of the Augusta Inn. He could hear from the shuffling of feet overhead that Chalmers was still around, still alive and well, along with his woman and kids.



Wednesday, November 28, 2012

NaNoWriMo day 28

"Your ghost is most likely a Vanderhoy," Morgan said. "Or not. The ghost could not only be from another time, but another place as well. It's not like the nature of the supernatural is fully understood. Or ever will be. Mystery is half its allure to me."


"Yeah, I was never into ghosts before this. I've seen them in movies, but didn't, you know, give much thought into them being real. Or, if they are real, why they even exist."


"As we've seen tonight, supernatural phenomena is a lot like historical research. They exist in a parallel reality, if only we have the lens in which to see them. Apparently, for reasons unknown as of yet, you've been given this window to this phenomena. And I must admit, your case is unique in that the ghost appears so regularly and for such a regular interval."


"Why do you think that is?"


"It has something to do with the nature of the temporal shift. The strings of time in this case may move in a rhythmic regularity, like the rays of the rising sun hitting the back of a cave wall. And speaking of time, I'd better get you back in enough time to enjoy the phenomena."


As Mackey put on his coat to leave, he looked around the living room, which was bedecked in Christmas lights and a tree, with presents underneath it. Leland sat in an armchair reading by his own lamplight. The kids played a board game on the floor nearby. Somewhere, the family dog's collar rattled as it lapped water from its bowl. The air was infused with cinnamon and the lingering garlic presence of the pizza. This is the life, Mackey thought. He wondered if Morgan and her family gave any thought to the good fortune they enjoyed.


And as Morgan dropped Mackey off back at the Augusta Inn, back to his dingy world, even with its window into another world, Mackey felt a little bit of the sadness and futility overcome him again. But he decided to linger in the cold, on the porch a minute, and stare up at the stars through the barren branches of the maple tree in the front yard. He thought of the Vanderhoys, the furniture maker and his family, long gone, but for the quality woodwork,  the stairway, all of the balusters still in place. The glimpses of other lives he'd seen this night stayed with him and while, in perspective, the census data of his own life seemed lacking, he had a sense of the vast history that lay at his feet.


And he recognized he was part of the slipstream, a participant in the continuum, and that someday others in the future may twine their strings of time with his, and Mackey may be the touch of the supernatural in this undetermined future, a mirror holding a mirror to a mirror, ad infinitum.


Chapter Thirteen


Stella Charles had kept every stuffed animal she'd ever received since she was a baby, and knew the provenance of each one. And she'd brought them to college with her. Above her desk, she'd strung a net hammock from her bed post to the top corner of the window, securing each end with layers of black duct tape. The various sizes of stuffed dolls filled out the hammock and piled nearly up to the ceiling. It was a ponderous collection and looked like it was always on the verge of collapse.


This was the first thing Gerald noticed when Stella opened the door to let him into her room. Stella's roommate, Breanna, was on the floor, but working on a project in the main living area. She would appear briefly every few minutes for supplies. By contrast, her side of the room looked barren next to Stella's clutter.


It was a Friday night, and the floor was pretty quiet. ISNU was close enough to the suburbs that it was considered a "suitcase campus." Many of the students went home on the weekends, so the campus lacked some of the vitality of universities of similar size. But Stella said she usually stayed. Her home was a little further away, Lake Forest, on the shores of Lake Michigan. Her commute home involved a bus ride and two trains. She said she made it home once every six weeks or so.


Gerald had surprised Stella earlier that afternoon, tapping her on the shoulder in the student center. After she finished her song on the piano, she stood and gave him a hug, first contact, and thanked him for coming.


The piano was in the common area of the student center and was wired to play itself electronically, which it did during the day, garnering little attention as it provided background music to the passing blur of students and faculty. Stella said she'd figured out how to turn off its player mode, and would sometimes sit and improvise her own jazz and classical melodies now and again to vent off steam when studying. The university's programming director saw her one day and instead of scolding her, he'd remarked how refreshing it was to hear live playing on this piano.


And then he did something spontaneous that surprised Stella, offering her a paying gig, $20 a session to play for an hour or two every Thursday and Friday afternoon at 1. Stella had been doing the gig for two semesters now.


"It seems that no one pays attention," Stella said. "But you wouldn't believe how many times I've been approached and complimented for my music. I kind of like that it is a passive performance rather than before a sitting audience. I think I'd be nervous and too self-conscious otherwise. But here I just cut loose and don't worry about it. The time just seems to fly by."


"I hope I don't ruin it if I hang out," Gerald said.


"Well, sit over there," Stella said, pointing to a couch along the wall behind Stella's line of sight.


And so he did, reading a book while Stella played. Her style lent itself to passive enjoyment, strings of arpeggios and a steady rhythmic sensibility. No structure, but a series of sounds blending into one another. Every once in awhile she'd find a phrase she liked and build around that, changing keys, altering the rhythm slightly, and then returning to the original phrase.


Afterwards, Gerald complimented her. "I can see why you were hired," he said. "You're very melodious, but not intrusive. It's good music to study by."


"It's just a change in routine from the player mode," Stella said, shrugging her shoulders, downplaying the performance.


"How did you learn to play like that? Did you take lessons?" Gerald asked.


"Of course, I took lessons as a child, but I was never the best student. I didn't have enough discipline or know-how or whatever to read sheet music, so I improvise." Stella said. "I did know how to read, but have forgotten over time."


"You don't do any covers?"


Stella shook her head, frowning as if it was a shortcoming, sensing disapproval.


"Oh, no. It's much more creative to be able to conjure your own music. There's a certain boldness and individuality to your approach."


"Music is therapy to me. I've never desired to play in an ensemble or to perform publicly. This gig is the only one I've ever gotten. I've never been in a formal band or anything. 'Doesn't play well with others' describes me to a tee, I guess."


"Well, darn it, I guess there goes my plans." Gerald said, and laughed softly.




"I was hoping we could put a set together and hit the road, you know, set the world on fire, as it were."


"Umm. Not happening." Stella rolled her eyes, and Gerald noticed how young she looked when she did this.


Was he foolish to be interested in someone so young? Was he taking advantage? He knew many of the rules of seduction and was playing them as casually as Stella played the piano. He made sure to be passive, but attentive, ask good questions, maintain eye contact, keep open body language, and read for the small cues of interest and attraction. And so he raised his eyebrows when she stood close to him and pulled back her hair with one hand. Such a sweet move, Gerald thought, and a clear tell. He was wise enough to know when a woman was interested in him. And Stella was naive enough to not hide the signs of her attraction. By Gerald's estimation, there was nothing coy about Stella. And he knew this meeting would end with a kiss. More, if he could have his way, but he wanted to take this slow.


He actually liked Stella. And he hoped he'd outgrown the phase of sexual conquest, where each individual encounter was an event, a non-emotional thing, an experience to be compared with other experiences and nothing more. He was a reasonably good looking man. All it took was a little charm and effort to bed a woman. There was no thrill in that. But to discover, to meet and make contact with another human soul, to be open to love again, he hoped it was possible.


Just as he'd never held a job more than a year and a half, Gerald had never had a girlfriend longer than a year. Mostly this was his fault. As soon as it got boring. As soon they ran out of things to talk about. When that air of uncomfortability, or worse, unconscious ease entered into the picture, it was time to bail. He tended to favor artistic, outgoing types who could complement his more introspective nature. Past girlfriends were always the life of the party, and Gerald, a good listener, could always be counted on to interject the timely punchline.


It's just that inevitably, sooner rather than later, he grew sick of the prattling, tired of having to pretend to pay attention. He was ever restless, ever seeking out a new narrative to explore.


And maybe Stella could be different. She was certainly younger, less jaded, than Gerald's 30-something contemporaries, most of whom had been through the relationship mill, as Gerald had, and were more driven, more desirous of a spouse, babies, or, sadder still, to reclaim their lost youth. In any case, Gerald hoped Stella was more a tabula rasa than all that. Complication was the last thing he wanted in his life. If he couldn't be a monk -- such a notion was impossible, on second thought -- then at least let him maintain a simple existence. Keep things light and easy, he thought. No baggage.


Gerald was surprised when Stella invited him up to her room. This was much more forward than he'd imagined. But when she told him her roommate was around, she knew it for what it was. He was going to be assessed not only by Stella, but from the impartial eyes of a third party, maybe more. No doubt he'd be the topic of conversation well into the night after he left. It was so collegiate. Such a youthful move.


Stella's roommate had the same air of studiousness as Stella, but was not nearly as pretty. Her angles were sharper, the lenses of her glasses a little thicker, the frames bigger. She wore sweat pants with ISNU letters on the butt, and a sweat shirt spackled with paint. Dowdy is the word that came to mind when Stella introduced her. And she was otherwise occupied and made a swift exit.


Gerald sat at Stella's desk, the hammock full of stuffed animals hovering over him. As Stella explained the reason for the stuffed animals, Gerald asked which one of the stuffed animals was her oldest.


She held up a tattered blue teddy bear. One of its eyes was missing and the ribbon tied around its neck was frayed and faded.


"This is Blueberry," Stella said, hugging it to her face and looking at Gerald with a pouty look. "I've had him since I was born. Aunt Edna included him with a congratulations bouquet she sent to the hospital. There's a series of photos with Blueberry and I when I was a baby, up until about age five. In the first one, we're about the same size."


"That's a good idea," Gerald said. "And is Blueberry your favorite one?"


"No, that distinction goes to Elfjin," Stella said. She put Blueberry back and grabbed a smaller, round, green one. It looked like a troll with a pointy felt hat, tiny stuffed pointy shoes, and a pointed nose.


"Really?" Gerald asked. "This one's your favorite? He looks kind of menacing, like a monster in 'Where theWild Things Are.'"