Wednesday, May 17, 2017

An excerpt from Faster

Posting this on the side od the road in rural Tennessee as I,can get no signal at the truck stop. Here is an excerpt from another trail story,  Faster.

Speck caught Old Hickory at a picnic table in front of Wilson Creek Shelter. Speck took his pack off and dropped it in a heap at his feet. He grabbed his water bottle and sat at the picnic table across from Old Hickory.They had the shelter to themselves.

"How do you do it?" Speck said. "What's the secret? How are you doing these miles?"

Old Hickory smiled and looked up from his cooking. "How do you think? I walked here, same as you."

"You didn't hitch?"

"No."

"But I'm a fast hiker. Really fast. And I'm younger than you. And it looks like you carry more than me. How come I couldn't catch you?" Speck's fatigue showed through his voice.

Old Hickory's didn't. "Were you trying to catch me?" he said.

"Yes," Speck admitted, embarrassed. "And I couldn't. I didn't take a break all day and I never saw you."

"All I do is hike," Old Hickory said. "I don't do nothing fancy. I'm hiking the trail same as you. Just trying to get some serious miles under my belt. I don't treat it like a race. I came out here to get away from competition."

"I'd like to know your secret," Speck said. "I've never seen you actually hike the trail. For all I know you could be flying or driving from place to place."

"Sometimes, I wish, but no."

"Maybe I'm too slow for you. Maybe I've met my match," Speck looked down at his aching feet. "I just don't get it. I'm younger. Stronger. There's no way you could have stayed ahead. It just isn't right."

"It's not a matter of right or wrong."

Speck looked up at Old Hickory. The sight of the grinning, self-righteous bastard burned Speck to the core. "So that's it.You're just faster than me?"

Old Hickory looked Speck in the eye, his gaze gentle and content, the steam from his meal wisping between them. "I guess so," he said. "Yup. But, hey, it's no big deal."

"I don't know how you do it," Speck said. "But I'm going to figure you out. I'm gonna find your secret. And when I do I'll announce it up and down the whole trail."

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Visitor (continued)

I posted a Twilight Zone inspired start of a story called The Visitor on May 10th where an asteroid lands in a suburban neighborhood. I've listened to some audiobooks by British authors Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, working my way through the Discworld and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series respectively. Both are light, fast patter, absurdist fun with the same sense of irreverent wit and dry British humor as Monty Python's Flying Circus.

So, in that spirit, I'm continuing The Visitor with these authors in mind, not knowing where it will go, but with fun at the forefront. So, without further ado (not sure that any ado was offered in the first place). Here we go...

The Visitor (continued)

Sally Fensterbottom, who, at nine years old, was taller than a fence post, as long as the fence post was less than four feet seven inches tall (and most are, considering how most barnyard animals have gotten lazy in this age of factory farming) did not stir when all the hubbub with the meteor happened in the morning. She'd stayed up late the night before, even though it was a school night, watching cartoons. Her mother was lax with bedtime discipline. Muriel Fensterbottom was not in good graces with the Cotulla Valley neighborhood association for a plethora of perceived slights - barking dogs, yard litter, loud music, loud yoga pants, and gum smacking. And no doubt the competitive Yuppie stereotypes of a network drama series about suburbia would voice their disapproval of Sally's late night pixelated stimulation.

And so, because of the late night, Sally was groggy on her walk to the bus stop, and frequently unscrewed the cap of her 20 ounce bottle of soda (more ah-hahs and snickering rebukes from the mom judges, high-fructose corn syrup on par with crystal meth and skateboarding in their eyes) to drink and help her wake up. At first she didn't notice what looked like a long green snake trailing beside her through the grass. But when she stopped, the creature widened out as large as a sidewalk square (at least a standard Cotulla Valley sidewalk square, which, following a mold, were uniformly, except on corners, four feet square) and reached out a globular tendril to Sally's soda.

And Sally, being at least awake enough to mind her sugary sustenance, screamed when she saw a green square with a octopus like appendages enveloping the bottle. She dropped it and ran back toward's home, to mother, to Muriel, who was actually doing Yoga in her pink and purple yoga pants when Sally burst through the door.

"Mommy, mommy," Sally said, speaking like a winning athlete being interviewed after a game. "The monster.. the green octopus monster thingy... Mommy... It stole my soda."

Muriel, straining to hold her rising sun pose and feeling a slight disturbance in her third chakra, said, "Sally, dear. I swear. You're so impressionable. This is the last time I let you watch TV before bedtime."

"But Mommy, it's true... I ... Saw.. IT!"

Monday, May 15, 2017

An excerpt from Hike Your Own Hike

Yesterday, I spent a few hours completely revamping a short story I wrote 15 years ago and included in a self-published book of Appalachian Trail-themed short stories. I wasn't satisfied with it then. Some of the dialogue was clunky and I wanted to reveal more background about the main character, Manna.

The following is an excerpt from Hike Your Own Hike:

Manna came from a strict Pentecostal family. When she was 16, her parents put her into an inpatient drug treatment program when her mother found a joint in her purse. She ran away from home, hurt and unprepared for independent living, at age 18, within a week of high school graduation.  She lit out with Lydia, from church, who was also tired of living under parental and religious oppression. Lydia's boyfriend knew of a place to crash out in Seattle. That first summer on the road, within the space of a month, she'd lost her virginity, dropped acid for the first time, and fell in with Dobbins at a Rainbow Gathering. By September, Lydia was in San Jose (or was it San Francisco?), and Manna and Dobbins hitched their way to Missouri to join the commune.  

Manna was now 21 and it had been over three years away from home. At least she talked to her mother a few times a year. They knew about the hike, but were not supportive because they knew Dobbins would be with her and they'd be “living in sin.” The last time she was home, Manna’s parents insisted she go to church and had a laying on of  hands ceremony for her, replete with loud yelling, flailing, speaking in tongues, and demands she return home, return to the faith, to leave the wilderness of sin and degradation.

Manna realized something on this hike. Her whole life she'd been a follower. From her parents to the Rainbow Kids, to the commune, to the dominating influence of Dobbins. The long hike, the hours of walking, of living in her own head alone on the trail, had caused her to do some soul searching. She was tired of following, of just going along with the flow, the whim of others. At some point she was striking out on her own. To do what, she did not know. Not yet, at least. But she was determined to be the master of her own fate.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Howler

This story was originally published in Tickled By Thunder 28 (fall 2001). It is based on Screamer, one of the more original hikers we met  on the Appalachian Trail  in 2000.

Howler

"Says here all you need to do is add water," Joel said.

Serena unrolled her air mattress. "What's on the menu?" she said.

"We got three cheese lasagna, lemon chicken or macaroni and cheese.What do you want?"

"Mac and cheese."

Joel produced a fluorescent nylon sack from his pack. In the sack were freeze-dried dinners, nutrition bars rubber-banded together, oatmeal packets and dried fruits. Joel picked through the dinners.

"Here it is," he said. "All you need is water."

"You said that already," Serena said.

Joel sat in the cool quiet of the shelter and looked out to the forest. He and Serena were the only ones at the shelter. It was mid-afternoon. Joel noticed he couldn't hear the low hum of traffic.

A gray jay, smelling Joel's food bag, swooped from nearby pine to edge of the shelter's tin roof.

Serena sat at the edge of the shelter and searched her pack.

"I can't find anything," she said.

"What are you looking for?" Joel said.

Serena turned and said, "The mini coffee grinder. I can't find it or the coffee beans either. I think I forgot it. It's probably in the back seat of the car. All we got are hot chocolate packets."

"No coffee?" Joel said. He groaned as he got up and went to the picnic table with an armful of cooking supplies and set up the stove. He opened the fuel valve, but did not close it. When he lit it a ball of flame exploded in his face. He jumped back to avoid it.

"Turn the fuel down!" Serena said.

Joel did and when it simmered he opened the valve until the flame burned blue and even. He poured water in a pot and placed it on the stove. He heard a strange sound, like a scream, and at first thought it was the stove.

But then he heard it again.

"What's that?" Serena said.

"I don't know," Joel said, and stood up. "Sounds like somebody's in trouble."

Five minutes later Joel poured water into freeze-dried pouches and set the alarm on his watch.

A hiker appeared in the clearing. The first thing Serena noticed was his mane of black hair, thick, lilting half-curls past shoulder blades, and the equally thick, woolly beard which framed his ruddy face.
Joel saw shabbiness. Overalls stained a reddish brown, frayed straps, and a
gray cotton windbreaker. Holes and patches. No backpack. The man had an
Army-issue duffel bag with rags and t-shirts duct-taped to the one shoulder
strap for cushion.

The stranger wore the most beat up pair of Chuck Taylors Joel ever saw. Blackened, sooty stub toes poked through rubber. Serena looked the man in the eyes, deep, brooding in their sockets, brow

like a cliff ledge keeping them in shadow. His eyes were calm, and, to Serena's
surprise, alert, resolute and distant.

Joel assumed the stranger was homeless. He looked around to take survey of his belongings.

The stranger was the first to speak: "Have you seen my crow? He's gone, but I'm sure he'll return." He looked at Serena.

"Micro? Is that the name of a through hiker?" Joel said.

The stranger turned to Joel, looked him in the eye and then looked up.Then he screamed.

Joel stood up and away from the picnic table. Serena stayed.

"Are you all right? What's wrong?" Joel said.

"All right? All right? Nothing's wrong. I'm good." the stranger said.

"Then why are you screaming?"

"To call Him.To call crow."

"Who is crow?" Serena said. "Is he a hiker?"

The stranger laughed to himself and shook his head. Then he laughed again. "Well, yeah, I guess you could call Crow a hiker.You'll see."

Joel's watch beeped.

"What's that?" the stranger asked.

"It's my watch. It's telling me it's time to eat."

The stranger shook his head and turned away. He spread a blue plastic tarp on one side of the shelter and unrolled two wool blankets on top. Joel joined Serena at the picnic table.They ate in silence.

The stranger sat on the edge of the shelter and watched them eat.

"Do you want any?" Joel said. "I've got more where this came from."

"No, thanks," the stranger said. "Too many preservatives."

"So, you out for the weekend, or longer?" Joel said.

"The woods are my home," the stranger said. "I go where crow leads. Mountain. Valley. River. Desert. Gotta go with crow."

"Well, we're just out for the weekend. A friend of ours thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail a few years ago and has been trying to get us out here ever since."

The stranger nodded and smiled. He got up and disappeared in the woods behind the shelter.

Serena craned her neck looking for the stranger then turned to Joel. She
whispered, "This guy's going to be sleeping next to us tonight."

"What do you expect me to do? Kick him out?"

"No.You can't do that. Maybe we should move. Maybe we should set up our tent."

"Do you know how to set up the tent?"

"No."

"Neither do I."

The stranger returned with an armload of twigs and branches. He sat down next to the fire ring and laid three rocks at his feet in a triangle. He took a pinch of cotton like fabric and a single match from a pocket in his overalls, placed the tinder along with some pine needles in the center of the rock triangle, lit the match and set it afire, creating a neat column of light and smoke.

There was no breeze.

The stranger added larger pieces of wood until flame filled the triangle.

He reached into his duffel bag and got a round metal grate and a tin juice can with the top cut off. He took a two-liter plastic soda bottle and poured water into the can.

The stranger piled embers together with a stick and placed the grate on top of the charred stumps of wood, followed by the can. He put his cheek to the ground and blew gently on the embers.

"What are you cooking?" Serena asked.

"Creamy chicken ramen noodles.They're my favorite."

"Don't they have preservatives?"

"No." The stranger grabbed a couple plastic-wrapped noodle packets out
of his bag and as he crushed them against his chest he screamed again.

Another hiker came into the clearing. He was shirtless, bandanna wrapped around head. No beard. Clean cut. Military.

The new arrival nodded at Joel and Serena, but quickly turned his attentions
to the stranger. "I thought I heard you! Man, it's great to see you."

The stranger smiled, "Crow led you to me. We're gonna have good fire tonight."

"You bet we will."

Joel spoke up, "How are you doing? You guys know each other?"

The new arrival nodded his head. "Yeah, me and Howler go way back to around Waynesboro. Wasn't that about right?" Howler nodded through a mouthful of noodles.

Serena had never heard of Waynesboro. She wanted to ask if it was a town
along the trail, but didn't want to appear naïve. She knew it had to be at least
a day's drive from Kent.And she couldn't imagine the distance on foot.

"What's your trail name?" Joel said.

"Mudslide," Mudslide said.

Howler got up and disappeared into the forest again. Joel and Serena decided
to set up in the shelter, more secure in the presence of Mudslide.

Mudslide was still cooking dinner when another hiker appeared. He was older, short and skinny with long, straight gray hair, gray beard and wire-framed glasses.

"Is he here?" the man asked Mudslide.

Mudslide nodded. "He's out getting firewood."

"Is it true about the bird?" the new stranger, whose trail name was Slim,
said.

"Yes.You got to see it to believe it."

"What else do you know about Howler?"

"As far as I know he's got no money, tent or sleeping bag and lives off trail magic and hiker boxes. He's a strange fellow, with that screaming and all, but
everybody likes him."

Howler came out of the forest dragging two clumps of deadwood. By the time he got the fire roaring, it was dark and everyone settled. Joel, Serena,

Mudslide and Slim sat around the fire. Howler stood.

"Now is the time to call crow," he said. He screamed. Mudslide and Slim followed in chorus. Joel and Serena looked at each other and smiled. Then they screamed.

Howler let out another, long, sonorous yell and looked out across the tree tops. All paused when they heard the flapping of wings. Howler turned and looked to a pine bough. He raised his arm. A crow, black and shiny, a stygian shadow against the haze starry night, flapped and landed on Howler's arm, careful not to dig talons into raw flesh.

Everyone looked at the crow as Howler stroked waxy feathers on trusting head. No one spoke. Words were unnecessary to make sense of the situation.

Crow gurgled and bobbed its head. Howler raised his arm and watched as
crow took off and disappeared over the treetops. He screamed one last time,
then smiled and sat in the circle.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

A perfecr day

The following is from a journal entry I wrote in 2009. Much of it is still true, though I could always add or delete things.  After all, perfection is a vague pipe dream impossibility.  Also, I can't remember that last time I read Jonny to sleep before bed. We still read together often as a family, but the tradition of picking books to read as a bedtime tradition has fallen to the wayside. Ahhh, but the memories remain.

The Perfect Day

Wake up at dawn. Exercise for an hour. Walk, run, bike, hike, whatever. Outside, moving.

Back home, clean up, eat a big bowl of oatmeal with raisins and brown sugar. French press coffee with cream.

Four to six hours of intellectual pursuits starting no later than 8 a.m.  - reading, writing, a project, Internet. The perfect day would involve me losing track of time writing, taking advantage of a lightning satori strike of inspiration. I would also read a really good book for some of this time.

Mid-afternoon, 2-3 p.m., another short walk or hike, run an errand or two. Take a nap. Play with Jonny. Go to a park with him and Esther. Listen to the last few innings of an afternoon Cubs game.

And what would be the perfect meal for the perfect day? Anything with hot sauce or wasabi. Grilled anything. Mac and cheese. Spaghetti. Meat, vegetable, carbs. A glass of merlot. A glass of water. For dessert spumoni, an Italian ice cream, “a Lino’s portion,” as my dad says.

After dinner, you guessed it, another short walk. The perfect day must involve a sunset seen outdoors.

Back home to fireflies and dusk. Jonny picks out five books and I read him to sleep.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Another excerpt from The Hockey Heist

"But to get back to your question, Terry." Kip said. "Right after the Peace Corps, I didn't fly home. I got a job on a cruise ship in Dakar. Nothing fancy. Just washing dishes. Preparing food, you know. And then I somehow ended up in Spain. I met a girl there. We hiked the Camino de Santiago. Then there was Italy. The Dinaric mountains. Turkey... You get the idea."

"Now that really does sound exciting," Joe said. "Sure as hell puts Terry and I to shame. Looks like we got ourselves a bona fide vagabond hippie bum on our hands here."

Joe sniffed the air around Kip's shoulders. "Is that patchouli I smell?" he said.

Kip smirked and waved a middle finger at him.

"Youse guys took your own paths." Kip said. "Terry. No doubt you have more tied into your 401K than I can ever hope to achieve. There's something profitable about sticking at one job over the long haul. And Joe. Man. Teaching is a real calling. And bless you for dealing with other people's brats for a living.

"Sometimes, you know, when I'm out on some long trail, or freezing my ass off by the side of the road trying to get a hitch, I think about all the good people of the world like yourselves, indoors, warm and snug, surrounded by loved ones, financially secure, raising kids and stuff. And I wonder what the hell am I doing being a bum like this?"

"Well?" Terry said. "Why don't you settle down? Are you going to wander forever?"

"I've tried. Believe me." Kip said. "Had the chance to marry a really sweet girl. I don't know  if you can relate to this at all, but when I'm in any one place, any job, any town, for more than a few months, I just get antsy. It's like some kind of manic thing. If I don't keep moving... you know. It's like, remember that video game from back in the day? It had a roller ball controller, like Centipede, ya know. And you were a skateboarder and this big, booming voice would yell out, 'Skate or die!!' And if you were still for too long, this black cloud of flies or something would chase you around.

"That's kind of how it is with me." Kip said. And then he imitated the loud basso profundo of the old video game. "Wander or die!!"

Joe was topping off their mugs while Kip spoke. He raised his beer to initiate a toast. "Here's to the wanderers of the world," Joe said. "Not all who wander are lost, right? Here, here."

Kip raised his glass. "You just had to bust out a Tolkien quote, didn't you?"

"What, you've heard that one before?" Terry said.

The three clinked their glasses.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A poem for Grandpa Smith

My grandfather died when I was a boy. He was an avowed atheist, and not very emotional.  I have very few memories of the man. One was riding on the back of a tractor with him one of the few times my grandparents watched me when I was a child. Another was thinking how strong he was. He was a big, powerful man, like his son, my Uncle Burt, who is also now deceased. I'm a pretty big guy too. But I'm not as big as my grandpa or uncle were.

My mother tells how when Grandpa found out he had cancer, he had such a helpless look on his face. She said this look of helplessness was because he didn't believe in God. I don't know. No one, believer or no, could be expected to take a death sentence with ease and grace.

When I think of Grandma Smith, I think of cats, her knitting, her loom, and how, in the last days of her life, she carried on vivid conversations with family and friends, many of them already dead, as I listened in the summer sunshine in another room. But this poem I wrote about my grandfather recalls a few of the objects that remind me of him.

My grandpa

smoked cherry scented tobacco

in a Meerschaum pipe.

He sat in a recliner

by a window

looking out to a driveway

and a big green lawn.

He had a rubbing stone.

“I’ll work it through,” he said.

But  he died in ‘83.

I held the stone to my eye

To the sun

And saw its glow

Through a pearly haze.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The visitor

It happens not far from here. Maybe even in your neighborhood. You know. Leafy street. Fall. Early in the morning. It's quiet. A bright light appears in the corner of the sky. Is it a comet? An asteroid? It gets bigger. Brighter. It's coming this way, right to this particular example of a suburban grid. And no one notices.. Not even old man Zimmerman who suffers from insomnia and takes his dog for walks at 3 in the morning. He's asleep. No dog barks. No sixth animal senses engaged. No birds atwitter. No mice wrinkling their noses in alarm.

The ball of light grows bigger and brighter in silence until just as it's about to land a loud whooshing noise, like a freight train after all the bells and whistles have been sounded. It's a heavy sound, a sound of movement, of great speed. And then a sonic boom, car alarms, objects falling off shelves. Everyone will have their story. Where they were. What happened in their homes. Then a thud felt as the impact reverberates through the earth. Someone calls the cops. A pajama-clad crowd gathers in the street.

"Did you hear it?"

"Where did it come from?"

"Over here."

The crowd moves, its collective will stirred into action.

But when they arrive, they are disappointed by what they see. Instead of a crashed airplane and all the carnage it would bring; instead of an asteroid, a glowing, smoking ball of rock, instead of aliens and pytotechnics and fire and all the gruesome things imagination can conjur, there is.... A fallen tree. Dead grass. But nothing else.

A TV crew comes out. There's a short blurb on the morning drive time shows, but by the evening it is forgotten.

Only there was something. Something from another world. Something sentient and alive. Something intelligent. And it is still around...

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

An excerpt from Hockey Heist

A cozy scene. The low ceiling, exposed rafters. The lathe, various sanders, clamps, table saw, and lots of wood chips. Classic rock on a paint-splattered boom box, power chords and soaring keyboard licks a backdrop to the scritchety scrape of sandpaper on wood. Joe worked on a yellow maple night stand with knife gouges inflicted by a previous owner. He had bought it at auction almost a year ago. Its previous owner had committed suicide. He offered it as a night stand to his youngest boy Rawley, but the lad balked at the idea. Joe should have never said anything about the suicide, but he got a kick out of scaring the boy.

"I don't want it," Rawley said. "That thing is probably haunted."

"Its not like I had to clean blood off it or anything," Joe said. But it didn't matter. Rawley's vivid imagination, the same faculty of mind that allowed him to get lost in drawing fantastical variations of his favorite Pokemon characters, spooked him away from the night stand. And so, with no great demand for an object of such sad provenance, Joe let it sit in his workshop. Until today.  

As Joe sanded, getting into a groove, a light sheen of sweat forming on his forehead, he speculated about the origin of the knife gouges. Could the same knife that caused this damage be the one its owner used to cut his wrist? Joe laughed and tried to share Rawley's apprehension, but he couldn't. An overly rational outlook, borne by time and responsibility, kept his imagination from getting out of hand. Truth was, Joe didn't know the name of the previous owner, or even a gender, much less the method of execution. He wasn't even sure it was a suicide. All he knew was based on the word of a salt and pepper-haired stick of a lady standing next to him at the auction who leaned over conspiratorially to whisper, "It's so sad. How could it get so bad that it would lead to suicide?" Joe shook his head, but said no more. It was an auction, after all, and he didn't want to inadvertently make a bid with some conversational gesture.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Books I read in 2016

Books I read in 2016.

Labor Day - Joyce Maynard (242)

They made a movie out of this, but I haven't seen it. This is typical popular fiction. I really felt for the boy because he his mom is a nut job and he has to grow up too soon.

The Three Investigators: The Case of the Cranky Collector - M.V. Carey (182)

I loved the The Three Investigators series when I was a kid. This is the last book in the series. I read this after reading the first three, just for comparative purposes. The quality had definitely fallen off by the end, lacking the suspense and verbal panache of the first books.

I Hike - Lawton Grinter (193)

Lawton hiked the Pacific Crest Trail the same year I did. His book is a humorous and well-written narrative of life on the trail. I was witness to one of the stories, about Disco (Lawton) escaping hypothermia and then enjoying an incredible dinner and virtuouso guitar performance by a caretaker at Ollalie Lake, Oregon.

A Match to the Heart: One Woman's Story of Being Struck By Lightning - Gretel Ehrlich (200)

An insightful examination of the spiritual and neurological effects of getting struck by lightning. I found this book at one of those "Little Libraries" in Sycamore, IL.

The Natural - Bernard Malamud (228)

Easily the best book I read this year. This is a classic for a good reason, a simple tale of redemption that's darker, but full of all the mythos than the movie adaptation.

The Pacific Crest Trailside Reader: Adventure, History, and Legend on the Long-Distance Trail (California) - edited by Rees Hughes and Corey Lee Lewis (303)

A series of articles about the Pacific Crest Trail that not only explores the hiking experience, but horse packers, local lore, the history of the trail, geology, and poetry. I took my time reading this, turning to it each time I need to virtually escape civilization.

A World Out of Time - Larry Niven (246)

Tripped out science fiction. I found the book somewhere. There's time travel. The earth is out of orbit. The seas have boiled away. There's cat-snake creatures. It was a fun, phantasmagoric read.

Jaguars Ripped My Flesh - Tim Cahill (306)

Travel narratives that originally appeared in Outside magazine. A good book for the armchair traveler. Well-researched, thoughtful stories with liberal doses of humor. And drinking. Lots of drinking.

The House on the Borderland - William Hope Hodgson (149)

A classic of horror fantasy. I heard about this book from a New York Times interview with Alan Moore, who brags about having a mint first edition copy of this book. It's a little dated, but is a groundbreaking work that melds science fiction and horror. Too many adverbs, though.

Nostalgia and Glee - C.R. "Luke" McLagan (344)

A history of Sycamore, IL, that is told in a non-chronological series of vignettes. Because it was written in the early 1960s, many of the businesses and place names McLagan mentions no longer exist, and I had a hard time guessing where they were located. I like the reminisces of people hanging out by a wood stove in a hardware store in the winter. And the stories about the many commuter trains that came to town makes me wish public transportation would become popular again.

The Backbone of the World: A Portrait of the Vanishing West Along the Continental Divide - Frank Clifford (274)

Like the earlier volume I read about the Pacific Crest Trail, this book is not about hiking the Continental Divide Trail, but about the hardscrabble lives of people who live year-round near the trail, like ranchers, sheepherders, lumber operators, eco-warriors, and homesteaders. Clifford is a former reporter from Los Angeles who has written human interest stories about life in the American West for more than 30 years.  

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Big Band and Death Metal

From my journal, Friday, November 15, 2013.

I'm tired on a typical Friday night. We went to a fish fry at the Knights of Columbus in DeKalb and I told Jonny the story about the barf tape at Sahara.

You see, the first job I ever had was bussing tables and washing dishes at my mother's Friday night fish fry, in the basement of Sahara, a biker bar in Loves Park, IL. Bob, one of the co-owners of Sahara, worked the bar downstairs every Friday, and he liked Big Band music and would play it at low volume in the dining room on a tape deck that could play both sides without flipping the tape and also on a repeating loop.

I too liked Big Band music, rather an anomaly for a 15-year-old in the late 80s. Maynerd Ferguson was my introduction, but soon I fell in love with the music of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Stan Kenton, and others. I even played songs by these guys in drum and bugle corps and band.

I dubbed about 90 minutes of Big Band music onto a cassette and had about 30 seconds left on side B. So I had my neighbor and death metal aficionado extraordinaire, Galen, dub some evil riffs and the sounds of someone throwing up. Just awful retching. And someone said, "Dude! It's coming out his nose!"

I persuaded Bob to put this tape on the stereo behind the bar and told him it was some Big Band music I like. He seemed amused that some snot-nosed kid would like this stuff, so he agreed, and it was pleasing to the ear, or at least eighty nine and half minutes of it was. The first time the death metal chords followed by the retching and the "Dude!" played, Bob looked around, wondering if a patron had had too much to drink. It was during the busy rush. Others looked around too, but then, when it stopped, they just resumed their meals in peace.

But later, when it replayed, the place was almost empty and Bob was easily able to trace the source of the cacophony. He got mad at me, the buzz cut Marine Corps vet, and flinged a few choice swear words at me. But I feigned ignorance. He ejected the tape and handed it back to me, shaking his head, lips pursed.

"From now on," he said. "We play music, and only music, from my collection!"

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Brute force and sleight of hand

Excerpt from journal, February 21, 2014

Ten minute free write and must keep the pen moving. Thinking about Harry Houdini, the Hungarian proud son of Appleton, Wisconsin. Handlebar mustache, wearing an early 1900s bathing suit, thin shoulder straps that made grown men look like walruses.

Harry Houdini, magician, strong man, believer in the occult and beam strong. BEAM STRONG. A mixture of the strong man and the magician. The graceful sleight of hand and the brute. But it was the brute in him, his pushing of physical limits, that did him in. One too many cannon balls to the belly, a burst appendix, poisoned from within.

How many have died attempting to recreate Houdini's stunts? What would old Harry have said was his greatest feat? The straightjacket escape? Buried alive? The underwater locked box? And what kind of traditional tricks did he do?

Harry Houdini, a product of the Jazz Age, the Galloping Ghost, Red Grange, the Dempsey/Tunney bout, the original age of the mass spectacle.

What was the secret code Houdini had with his wife, Bess, to let her know, definitively, no hoax, no subterfuge, that it was him communicating from the dead? She lived another ten years, but never heard that code, and never revealed it either. She never felt his supernatural presence.

And yet the smoke and mirrors phantasmagoria of the seance, the mystic claims of spiritualism, live on today in the modern day ghost hunters, who divine spirits via technology such as night vision  and infrared cameras and other other sensors. [look up the tools of the ghost hunting trade, for they are essential, or at least mentioned in my novel] [Brackets are used as commands to self, if ever I get back to reading this rambling tripe]

Which I did, randomly turning to this page on a Saturday night in May 2017.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Your Blip, Your Moment

An excerpt from my journal, from March 2, 2017.

Esther and I took Jonny to his guitar lesson at Mr. G''s in downtown Sycamore. Mr. G shares space with surplus stock of an antique dealer. Esther and I sat on some creaky old chairs and listened to Jonny work out a few songs with the expert accompaniment of his teacher. I looked out the front window and soaked in the ambience of downtown Sycamore.

I then got up to look around and stared closely at a touched up photograph of a turn-of-the-20th-century couple in a round-frame with curved glass. No one knows who this is, I thought.  These people are long dead, yet they look 20 years younger than me.

They look so serious. He, with his severe part and high, starched collar. She with her bun, her plain, severe farmer's wife face. But they were young and now they're gone and this once-prized centerpiece has a price tag on it in the corner of an antique shop.

Yet this moment, this captured moment,  like all moments, is rare and fleeting and charged with an extra poignancy. Because,  hey, this is it. Your blip. Your time to live. To listen to your son play guitar, to read together as a family after dinner, to lie with the dog in the dining room morning sunshine. To be home and soak it all in.

Because the moment is all we have. And then, blip,  it's gone. On to the next. And on and on...

Thursday, May 04, 2017

The Rookie (Part 4)

A snarl of leather clad bikers burst out of a worn out ranch home, beers in hand, pissed, surveying the scene. They spotted Vance's truck and realized he was the source of the untimely blackout. But as they started towards the truck, Mullet man called out to them.  Vance watched as Mullet went over to the bikers, arms raised at his side, and said, "Boys! Boys! It's not like he did it on purpose."

And they stayed there, circled in their front yard around Mullet, drinking their beers instead of throwing them at Vance's truck. Mullet pointed to his garage, to the roof, to the satellite dish. Then he reached in his pocket, pulled out a garage door opener, and hit the button. The door rose slowly, giving away its secret early as the big screen reflected off the waxed concrete floor. The men crossed the street with Mullet. But they were not a mob. It was almost halftime and the Vikings just punted.

More neighbors came over, slugging 30-packs of Old Style, another with buns and brats, a bag of chips, everyone paying a food admission of sorts as the bikers helped Mullet set up more chairs and tables. Up and down the block neighbors got wind of the party and, as if adhering to a sacred protocol, each one brought something to share. And soon the card tables set up behind the couches and even onto the nearby bar table were full of chips, crock pots with pulled pork simmering, three varieties of guacamole, beans and dip, chocolate cake and brownies. The grill fired up and the smell of cooking meat filled the air. Vance, sitting in his truck waiting for the police, heard yells and gasps in intermittent bursts as the action of the game dictated.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

The Rookie (Part 3)

The man waved both arms in disgust and slowly turned back towards his house. Vance put the rig back in gear and started forward again. That's when he heard the sound of scraping on the roof of his trailer. It must just be a tree branch. Then he looked in the his driver's side mirror and mullet mustache man was waving his arms and running over.

"Aw, shit, man. You really did it now!" he said, giddy to have something to renew his ire. "You clipped a gawd damn wire!"

Hazards back on. Parking brake hiss. Door open, eyes up, confirming the worst. Now it was Vance's turn to take on an air of disgust. He stepped back in his cab and grabbed his phone. He had to call the police, his fleet manager, a claims department within his company. There was a little card he had to follow to a tee in case of an incident or accident. But this was Vance's first "incident," "accident," or however it would be classified. And his hands shook as dialed 911.

The cops hadn't come yet, but as Vance listened to flute and guitar hold music waiting for some weekend claims department person to answer, he noticed a crowd gathering around the struck. First came a scrawny bearded man about 50, screaming about the game. Then mullet man said, loud enough for Vance to hear, even though his windows were closed, "Shit gwan get ugly. You clipped the cable, man!! During a Bears game."

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

The Rookie (Part Two)

Here is a second excerpt from my short story about truck driving, "The Rookie."  I am not including the entire story because I am submitting it for publication and a publisher may not like it if the entire story is already free on the Internet.

A brief synopsis: Rookie driver accidentally turns into a neighborhood street. In this scene,  he's just cleared a difficult turn when he's confronted by an angry neighbor.

But as the semi crawled down the street, a man burst out of his house, arms raised, yelling. Was he trying to get Vance's attention? This was answered when the man stepped in front of the rig. Vance rolled down his window. He did not set his brake.

This man came from small town central casting. He wore a torn flannel shirt and had a 100 length cigarette smoldering, waggling back and forth  between the index and ring fingers of his right hand.. Torn blue jeans. Plastic frame glasses with tinted lenses. And a crew cut with hair long enough in the back to qualify as a semi-mullet. The only odd thing about him was that he had a thin, meticulously groomed mustache a la John Waters or Clark Gable. It was an incongruous touch of the debonaire. And, man, was he pissed.

He squinted his eyes and pointed his cigarette at Vance, as if sighting down a rifle.

"What the hell you think you're doing?" he yelled.  "Ain't no trucks allowed on this street. Mark my words, one of these days a kid's gonna get hit."

.

"Shit, man, I know I shouldn't be here," Vance said. "It was a sumbitch clearing those last two corners."

"Well, then what the fuck you doing here?"

Vance pointed to the warehouse, just beyond the man's backyard.

"So the fuck what? See Harvest Drive over there. It's wide. It's accessible from the state highway. So what you gotta cross some railroad tracks. So what it's a little farther from the interstate."

"Believe me, man. Next time I have to come out here, I will definitely go that route. Trust me, man. If I would have known about that street, I'd a took it."

Monday, May 01, 2017

The Rookie (Part One)

I am working on a collection of short stories about truck driving. The one excerpted below is the first one I've finished. I plan to submit them for publication individually and then publish them all together in a single book.

Here is the first part of "The Rookie."

It was a Sunday afternoon in October. Vance Brigham wasn't used to working on the weekend yet. He'd gone through truck driver training in June, learning to back what seemed like a huge rig between a couple cones at a 45 degree angle. Blodgett, one of two driver trainers, he of the grizzled, tall skinny variety, who smoked every free chance he could get and had 20 years experience, warned the class, "There's no such thing as nine to five in truck driving." He wasn't lying. A driver's schedule depends on the delivery. Some guys will find a way to regulate their schedule. But not rookies.

This greenhorn inescapable truth of truck driving is why Vance was pounding gears down I-80, escaping Chicagoland, housing tracts finally giving way to corn fields, on a Sunday morning. Some mom and pop out in Bum Flippin' Egypt had a live load appointment with his name on it.

But weekend work was still work. And Vance was glad to have a job.  Traffic was light. A breeze was kicking up some warm air, but the leaves were still wet and clumpy from a long overnight rain. He got off at the exit and took the four lane state highway towards downtown. The truck GPS and his phone directions concurred. Take a left on Biloxie and the shipper should be on the right half a mile down.

Vance put on his signal, but as he made his turn, he was wary and slowed to a crawl. Houses on both sides of the street. A neighborhood. No place for a semi. These streets were TIGHT. But there were no signs indicating "no trucks" or weight limits.  And he could see, off in the distance, a squat blue warehouse with a yard and two docks. The shipper. The destination. A mom and pop street for a mom and pop shipper.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Back in action!!

I have had this blog for 15 years and it has gone through various phases of activity and neglect.  I haven't taken the time or care to develop an audience, and I won't. If someone finds a post that interests them, they can discover it on their own without my hucksterism. 

About the only thing I will do to promote this blog is post links to it on Twitter and Facebook. I don't have the time or inclination to read too many other blogs, participate in forums, or comment on other blog posts.

What I will do is make an earnest effort to post every day. Most of it will be 100-200 word excerpts from my journal, commentary on the news of the day, the occasional video post, and, most importantly to me, samples of fiction I am working on.

I am a truck driver. Most of my hours arw spent driving. I fit writing in the margins, but am increasingly disciplined about this because writing gives me so much joy and purpose, and is an outlet for soul searching and creative expression.

So... I promise to try. A post a day. Here on this ancient blog.

An excerpt from my journal:

I went to Burger King today.  I know. Bad choices. My change was $1.19. I handed the cashier an extra penny so I would get two dimes. He tried to hand me 19 cents.

"My change is 20 cents," I said.

"It says a dollar nineteen," he said.

"That's why I gave you an extra penny. I didn't want more pennies."

He didn't know what to say. A manager had to intervene.

Another customer said, "I worry about kids these days. They're getting dumber every day."

I disagree, but I didn't want to get into an argument.

"I remember when I used to have all my friends and families phone numbers memorized," I said.

Every technological innovation makes obsolete whatever skill set it replaces. The oral tradition has never quite recovered from the advent of writing.