Showing posts with label Fiction. Novel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Fiction. Novel. Show all posts

21 November, 2011

A Salvation Cool as Morning Porcelain [from The Muckraker's Chronicle]

Lord, help me make it through the morning.

Maybe it was the wine. Whenever I drink white wine, I end up with a Class A mind fuck hangover. And that's if I can manage to keep it down. White wine – even the more expensive ones – turn my stomach like sour milk. The only thing I can do to keep from puking up whine wine and stomach acid is to throw some beer on top of it.

I could tell by the way she was talking to me that she knew I felt like shit. There was a time, not so long ago, when she probably would have given me a hard time about it; she would've made some comment about the mandatory Alka Seltzer cocktail , or the fact that even my sweat smells like booze. Or, she would've just given me that look she used to give me – the expression of her deep disappointment in my lack of impulse control. And there was a time, even before that, when she would've tried to exploit my frail condition by trying to say things that would make me throw up. She never did understand why I considered losing my lunch to be a mark against my manhood; and for that matter, I never understood it either, other than the fact that every man's man I ever knew thought of it the same way.

Some might consider her relative acceptance of my condition as something resembling progress, and I know more than a few old drunks who might say I have it good and that I shouldn't bitch about it too much. And if I didn't know better, I'd think that maybe she had achieved some level of enlightenment about the general condition I would prefer to be in.

But then I'd have to forget what she told me. Maude told me last week that she had come to terms with the fact that I was going to end up killing myself.

And the part of it that really fucked with me – as if such a statement in and of itself wasn't enough – was that there was no hint of attempting to guilt me into changing. No manipulative tone. No sidelong glance. No heavy sigh. Not even a qualifying remark about how, if I cared about her at all, I'd try and go more than a day without a drink. There was none of that then. And none of it this morning, when I was clearly hung over and trying to put myself together so I could go cover the monthly county board meeting. I desperately wanted to avoid the meeting – being locked up in a small, inadequately ventilated back room of a dilapidated county courthouse that's built like a goblin's labyrinth with 15 county board members, two other reporters, the County Clerk, and whoever else decided to sit in the peanut gallery. Didn't want to go and listen to the posturing and the pandering. Arliss County is a decidedly conservative county; but like most staunchly conservative corners of the country, there's always that freak underbelly. It's the physics of political karma. For each ass tight narrow-minded stooge there is a direct and opposite version within a three mile radius. Maybe that's how the world keeps from imploding on itself, collapsing like a burned out star. And as it happens, I'm always more comfortable with the freak contingent. I don't know why; I think maybe it just helps me maintain some sense of balance.

There's also always that sense that the uptight crowd is just as fucked in the head as the freaks and lunatics are, except that freaks and lunatics are a bit more at home with themselves and with the world. Total apathy come with a certain freedom; I think of it as something similar to the Buddhist concept of enlightenment. Attachment causes suffering. Complete detachment causes Enlightenment. Beautiful. Simple. Next to impossible.

“Where are you going today?” She was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, checking her hair. She must have to be somewhere, or have to talk to somebody. Did she mention it to me? Was it something I needed to remember?

“County board.”

My stomach turned just a little. Maybe from the wine. Maybe from talking out loud. Maybe from the thought of having to deal with the county board meeting. Sometimes I missed having a bullshit 8-5 straight job... some anonymous cubicle to hide in and nurse my hangover until lunch. It had been so easy. But I had long ago proven to myself that I had neither the prerequisite personality of a domestic abuse victim nor the overwhelming fear drive that kept most people in jobs they hated.

At that moment, I chose to blame the wine.

“What about after that?”

“I don't know. The usual. Probably come back here and work on the story.”


No indication that I was supposed to remember anything. Anniversary? Nope. Still had a few months. Birthday? Nope. That'll come in the summer. I tried to think of all the dates on the calendar that I was supposed to remember. Nothing stuck out as likely. It was Thursday. Was this Thursday any special day in particular?

Thinking was making my head swim and my stomach swim. “Fucking wine,” I muttered. “That's the last time.”

“What'd you say, Jay?”

“Huh? Nothing.”

“Do you want me to drop you off by the courthouse?”

“Sure. Thanks.”

“I'm going to be ready to go in a second.”

“'Kay.” I looked down to make sure I had all the usual requirements. Shoes, check. Socks, check. Pants, check. T-shirt, button down, sweater, check. All I needed to do was grab my coat. I'd have to walk back, though, so grabbed an extra layer. Old habits die hard. You'd think for as much walking as I do, I'd be a skinny little son of a bitch. Maude says I would be if I drank less. Ah, sweet irony. That karmic balance that keeps all fools in line. My sluggish Germanic blood fighting my Irish liver. Every single time.

I sat down and waited for Maude to finish. She wasn't much of primper, not like other women I'd known. But she did have her morning ritual. I wondered sometimes if she was even aware of how consistent she was. I suppose I'm the same, and I suppose that most people are. My grandfather on my mother's side always took a cup of coffee and the newspaper to the bathroom and didn't leave for a half hour. He drank, he read, he shat, he smoked. And that was the start of his day. He was a carpenter and could work 12 or 15 hours straight with barely a break for lunch as long as he had that uninterrupted half hour in the john.

Nothing happens for me until I have the first sip of coffee. And that, was another part of the problem. My stomach was so turned around that I didn't think I could keep coffee down. And without coffee I'd melt into a puddle of a remanded bridge troll within a 10 minutes of getting to my meeting.

The solution was an easy one. All I had to do was puke. But I didn't dare do it in front of Maude.

For some reason even the shortest ride seems longer when you're trying desperately to hold your stomach in. You start to notice every pothole, crack or uneven space in the street. You begin to notice which side of the street slopes more than the other. You begin to take notice of the excessive number of stop signs and the unreasonable amount of traffic. Everything conspires against you. It's almost like having to take a shit in the worst way but you're nowhere near a bathroom. Pressure builds up in your body; muscles tighten; heart starts pounding; if it's warm enough, or you're in bad enough shape, you begin to sweat profusely. There's a point – right before your guts tell you you're going to be losing what ever passes for the contents of your stomach – that you consider stepping in front of an oncoming car. Avoidance through pain has a long and heralded history. Not familiar? It's the idea that if your head really hurts the solution is to smash your thumb. Then you're not thinking about your head anymore.

Hangovers are your body's way of telling you that sobriety is overrated. It's a built in caution sign of what the world will feel like if you never take another drink. This, in those abominable 12 step programs, is often referred to as a moment of clarity: that moment when you realize that the Buddhists and the Baptists had it right. That life really is about suffering.

Maude stopped at the corner. The jolt made me nearly lose it on the passenger side dash.

“Thanks,” I said, trying to sound genuine. “Have a good day.”

“You, too.”

“I'll try.”

I opened the door and got one foot out the door when she said “I have a board meeting tonight.”



“Do you remember me telling you about it?”

Fuuuck me. “Sure. Of course.”

“So you remember that there's a dinner thing before and that you promised you'd come with me, right?”

No. “Sure, baby sure. No problem.”

“You need to wear something nice.”

“Ok,” I said. “I will.”
I almost made it out of the car. I was reaching a crisis point and wasn't even sure that I'd make it much farther than the sidewalk.

“What are you going to wear?”

Christ!Why did she have to pick that exact moment to micro-manage my wardrobe. “I don't know. Something nice. I promise. I'll try and match and everything.”

“Ok...” She didn't sound convinced. “I'll have to change at the office and then come pick you up.”

Great.“Okay, babe. Gotta go.”

“6 o'clock,” she said.

“Ok. 6 o'clock.”

Both of my feet made it to the side walk. Surprisingly enough, something about being outside settled my stomach. I made it up the steps fine and walked carefully towards the County Court House. I'd be a little early... plenty of time to splash some cold water on my face, settle down. It would give me time to hurl in the downstairs bathroom just inside the door if I needed to. I was starting to feel a little better about my prospects and my day.

That was when I ran into Johnny Franz, the County Board Chairman. We had sized one another up several months before. He thought I was a liberal stooge and I knew he was a Class A Prick. He was one of the richest farmers in the county and he stayed on the county board to make sure it stayed that way. I'd been trying, bit by bit, to eat away at his Napoleonic control. It was probably all but pointless. But it was something to do. And he made it easy. Whenever he opened his mouth and said something stupid – which he did often – I put it in the paper. Last month during the Zoning Appeals Committee report he made a comment about how he dealt with undesirable neighbors. “If I don't like somebody who's living around me,” he said, “I just buy them out and knock down the house.”

We arrived at the door at the same time, briefly made eye contact. Could he tell I was hungover? He always looked slightly stoned anyway, so it was difficult to tell whether he was paying attention or not. He was dressed the way he always dressed – jeans, a button down work shirt, and dirty cowboy boots. I tried to imagine how those worked in a corn field; but then I reminded myself that men like Johnny Franz didn't work in the field; men like Franz underpaid hundreds of other people to do that for him while he fucked the secretary and played the commodities exchange in an attempt to manipulate the price of corn.

“Rafferty,” he said as cordially as I'd ever heard him speak to me.

He reached for the door, maybe to let me walk through first. And I was about to say something... didn't know exactly what... but instead of words, I puked all over his cowboy boots.

And you know, there's never quite an appropriate apology when you need one.

28 February, 2011

Another Quote From The Muckraker Chronicles

"People think the world is a complicated place. But the world isn't complicated. It runs on a very simple plan -- the same plan since the beginning was the beginning. The plan is this: the people who pull the strings keep the rest of us dancing. And it works because the best plans are always the simplest ones that require the least imagination." -- Wallace Gimley, The Flying Man From Pin Hook

12 February, 2011

EXCERPT from The Muckraker's Chronicle: In The Back Room

The Arliss County Animal Control and Mental Health Committee met every second Wednesday at nine in the morning in a back room at the dilapidated white wooden paneled building where the Mental Health Board had their offices. The building had, once upon a time, been where the Highway Department had their offices; but they built themselves a new brick building with better windows, more insulation, and with floors that didn't buckle in places, along with with a bigger, more modern garage for the equipment and trucks. The building sat empty for another couple of years until the county, whose hand was forced by the state, created the Mental Health Board. Then, the (at the time) new board chairman Johnny Franz pushed through a measure to consolidate the committees – which led to Animal Control and Mental Health being made into a single committee, since nearly everyone agreed that the only thing more useless than worrying about crazy people was worrying about stray dogs.

The first few minutes was generally conciliatory and boring. Going over the bills. This never took long, because there were never a lot of bills to pay. Stan Sheraton, the committee chair, wasn't one to dawdle over such things as signing off on checks. He wanted to get business done and get back to North Eustacia, where he was the part-time Assistant Fire Chief. There weren't many fires in North Eustacia – but once upon a time his brother was the mayor and his older cousin was the Fire Chief – an unpaid position at that time that primarily allowed him to drive the fire truck in parades. Sheraton was given the title of Assistant Fire Chief primarily because his cousin had a tendency to lock himself in the back room of the barn where the fire trucks were kept and drink homemade rye until he was blind drunk. Later, when the people of North Eustacia had decided they'd had enough, they pushed to make the position a paying one so that the Chief would at least stop siphoning off the fire truck gas to sell. Even this didn't last, however; an honest to god fire happened that resulted in the death of a 10 month old girl named Ada-Lee. Not only was the chief too drunk to respond, but he'd managed to drain the gas tank. The ripple effect of this was that the mayor lost his reelection bid by a land slide and the new mayor hired someone else to be the new part-time Fire Chief, completely jumping over Sheraton, who was kept on because no one really had any issues with him other than his family being littered with fools.

As a result, Stan Sheraton was very conscious of public opinion – which was in part why he was elected to the county board and given the less than glamorous task of chairing the most irrelevant committee in the county.

After the bills were taken care of, Jon Simms the county Dog Catcher – who insisted that he be called the Animal Control Officer in spite of the fact that he never did anything but pick up stray dogs, since he despised cats and refused to handle any wild animal calls – gave his report. In short, there was nothing to report. There was only one dog call, he said, and it turned out to be a rabid raccoon.

“And you didn't try to capture the animal?” asked Babette Rooney. She was handpicked by Chairman Franz to finish the term of Doug Tourney, who died of extreme heart failure at the age of 57. Rooney, who had married into one of the biggest farm families in the county, had once been Don Franz's high school sweetheart, and it was thought by some that he either chose her out of some kindness at the memory of her after their senior prom or because the relationship had continued off and on through the years, or because hers was the only farm in the county that rivaled his for size and affluence in the county. She didn't like her committee assignment any more than Sheraton... but unlike Sheraton, who was a Democrat, Babette was a dye in the wool Republican and so was also given a Tourney's old seat on the Finance Committee. She didn't like Jon Simms, who had been given the duty of Dog Catcher to keep him from falling drunk in the gutter, and she didn't like that the county had to worry about stray dogs at all. That, she figured, was what a bullet was for.

“Well,” Simms shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “It was a RACCOON, and I didn't have the right tool in the truck.”

“So what happened?”

“The complainant shot the animal.”

“And what did YOU do?”

“I... uh... collected the remains and took it to the vet to perform an autopsy.”

“And what's the point of THAT?”

“To... uh... make sure it wasn't rabid.”

“But it was already DEAD. Right?” Old Charlie Bale asked that question. He, like Sheraton, had been relegated to that committee due his ignominious party affiliation.

“Uh... yes.”

“So what's the point in an autopsy?”

“State law requires that any animal suspected of being rabid be tested.” Simms recited it like he'd read and practiced it in front of the mirror that very morning.

Babette rolled her eyes and shook her head. “State law.” She spit the words out. “And who has to pay for this... dissection?”

“Uh... we do.”

“Sheesh!” She said. That was as close as she got to cussing... most of the time.

“So... uh, anyway... other than that...” Simms looked like he was ready to run for the door. “There's not much else to report, really.”

“What's this, on your expense report about $50 for a new pair of boots?” asked Willis Cranston, another committee member. He was also on the Zoning Committee – an appointment he'd wanted in order to push through a zoning change around his house to make his property easier to cut up and sell. He'd been on the committee for a year and had his eye on the chairmanship of that committee come the next election.

“Well,” Jon shifted in his seat and looked at the floor. Whenever he shifted in the old wooden chair, it creaked and wobbled like it was going to come apart any minute. It was also significantly shorter, like it was made for someone even shorter than he already was. “Boots wear out and you gotta replace them.”

“Do you ONLY wear the boots while you're working?” Babette asked.

“Uh...well. Not NECESSARILY.”

“How much did the boots cost again?” That was Mike Seaver. He could barely walk and had two hearing aids, one on each ear. He often excused himself from meetings to go to the bathroom, and when it was too icy outside, someone had to meet him outside and help him in so he didn't fall and hurt himself.

“FIFTY DOLLARS,” Sheraton spoke loudly.

“They must be fancy boots,” Seaver commented.

“So...” Babette leaned in and took aim. “You don't just wear these boots while you're doing your duty...” she paused as if the word choked her “.., as Dog Catcher?”

“Not only while I'm Animal Control Officer, no.”

“Ugh. Fine,” Babette said with disgust. “ANIMAL CONTROL OFFICER. But if you didn't wear them out on the job, why should the county have to buy you boots?”

“Well, I did...”

“You're telling me that you don't make enough money to buy a separate pair of shoes?”

“Well, I don't think we should ask the tax payers of Arliss County to buy you a new pair of boots just because you can't manage the money you're paid.” Babette's dark eyes were gleaming. She knew she had won the argument and was now just enjoying watching Jon squirm.

Sheraton cut the victory short, though. “Did you use county money, Jon?”

“Uh... no. I was hoping that I might get reimbursed...”

“Ha!”Babette snorted.

“We can't reimburse you for boots you use for other than official county business,” Sheraton said.

“Can't I get partially reimbursed?”

“What percentage of time would you say you wear the boots for official county business?” Babette asked.

“Huh?” Jon looked like his eyes were about to explode out of his head.

“If you can give use some … PRECISE ACCOUNTING … on just how much time is spent doing your job when you wear the boots, maybe we can come up with an acceptable percentage.”

Simms looked at the floor. It looked like he was thinking – hard – about what to say next. It was difficult to tell if he smart enough to see through Babette's statement. If he gave a generous percentage, they'd make him explain what he did. If he gave a more honest one, they'd ask him why his job was needed in the first place, or why they should bother keeping him as Dog Catcher.  Sorry. Animal Control Officer.

He spoke very carefully. “I... uh... don't have those numbers.”

“Well,” Babette sat back in her chair like she had just finished a large meal. “Then I don't see how we can grant you a reimbursement.”

“Sorry, Jon,” Sheraton added. But it was pretty clear that he wasn't really sorry.

“Can we move on to Mental Health?” Willis asked as Jon skulked out of the room. “I need to get back.”

“Is there anything on the agenda for Mental Health?”

Babette looked through her pile of papers. “No.”

“Then I motion to adjourn the meeting,” Sheraton said.

“Second,” said Babette.

“Is the meeting over?” asked Seaver.

“It is now,” Cranston answered.

“Oh, good,” Seaver said. “I need to use the facilities.”

“Meeting adjourned,” Sheraton said.

07 February, 2011

[Except] The Muckraker's Chronicle: The Gauntlet

 I drove one town over to talk to Sam at the newspaper office. The office for The Arliss Star Advocate was actually a large garage that had been converted into a print shop, and later a newspaper. It was a squat, dirty looking building nestled in behind his house the way a shy child nestles against it's mother in the presence of strangers. Sam inherited the business from his father, along with all the petty territory wars and grudges that have always been a part of small town journalism. He was, I think, nearing the end of his tether. While he wasn't an old man by any stretch of the imagination – he had 20 years on me, but that's far from old in this day and age – it was a hard 20 years, the last 10 of which he'd spent as publisher, pot stirrer, and lightening rod for the voice of progress in a part of the country that fears change as much as it fears a dry growing season.

His version of progress wasn't the same as mine; although he never came out and said, so, I suspected that he was a closet Libertarian and a strict constructionist in his interpretation of the Constitution. This meant that we agreed on some basic tenants: the drug war, like most foreign wars, was completely unnecessary. Taxation should be minimal and fair. Mostly we shared a staunch independent streak. The only difference is that Sam still believed in Democracy and I believed I had been born to watch my civilization fall into decline.

I walked in and rang the bell on the counter, announcing myself. The only other person in the office at the time was Virgil, Sam's son. Virgil had no interest in journalism; he was hiding from out from the economy, working for his dad and living at home. He'd been living in a Chicago suburb when the bottom fell out.

“Hi Jay.” He was the only person who ever called me Jay. I'd always gotten the sense that Virgil didn't like me, though I was unsure why. Before I started writing for the paper, I sat through an interview with him during which he seemed incredibly uncomfortable. I know I make people uncomfortable sometimes; I thought maybe I wasn't urbane enough, or that he expected someone different when he read me on paper. Interacting with Virgil wasn't the first time that it occurred to me that I wasn't civilized enough to do the kind of work I was doing. Not refined enough. People assume that once you've reached a certain level of education that refinement is inevitable. That being literate and having an above average vocabulary means that nothing gets to you. Mostly I've found that what most people mistake for intelligence or gentility is rampant dishonesty. Be polite, but not kind. That sort of bullshit spreads like a disease. And in spite of the fact that I interviewed well and that my credentials were solid, Virgil didn't call me back and I had to hound Sam to get a chance at writing for the paper.

“Can I help you?” He's always so guarded and oh so polite. I wasn't sure what he did before he moved back home, but I was sure it was customer service related.

“I'm here to see Sam.”

“Oh.” Was that disappointment? Or masked annoyance? “He's in the back.”

Of course he was. “Thanks, Virgil.”

Sam's office was a large windowless closet in the back corner of the building, just big enough for a desk, a file cabinet, a small computer table (one of the cheap roll away kind) and a couch that had probably been salvaged from somebody's garbage once upon a time. The few times I'd actually visited Sam in his office, it was always in a state of total disorganization; the desk was littered with piles of papers that didn't appear to be organized, and he was almost always on the phone, trying to get a new advertiser or wrangling money owed from one he already had. This time was no exception. He was on the phone when walked back and stood in the doorway; when he saw me, he waved and motioned me towards the couch.

I sat down and waited for him to finish. The couch sunk down and it felt like I was almost sitting on the floor. When he was finished he hung up and turned to me.

“Thanks for coming down,” he said.

“Not a problem. I was wanting to get out of the house anyway.”

“Do you have anything going this week?”

“A few stories I'm trying to tie the loose ends on. It's been a pretty quiet week.”

“Have you talked to Don Parton lately?”

Ah I thought. Here's the reason. “Don Parton?” I paused and pretended to think about it. “Nope. Don't think so. Why?”

“He called me last week.”


“He called to talk about you.”

“Nice to know he cares.”

“He cares enough that he's threatening to sue you.”

“He threatens everybody.”

“He threatened to sue the paper, too.”


“You remember that article you wrote about people trying to get a concealed weapon law on the books?”

“Yup.” I'd about a group of citizens that had been meeting with the intention of petitioning the state to make “fundamental changes inherent and necessary to the free American Spirit outlined in the Declaration of Independence.” The group, calling itself the Arliss County Auxiliary, was a mixture of social conservatives, gun nuts, and anti-government paramilitary paranoids – among them, Don Parton. I attended a meeting, interviews Parton and several others, and wrote it up as it happened. The ACA's first objective was to get a concealed carry law passed in Illinois like the one that passed in Arizona – all that John Wayne / armed against the criminals rhetoric that the NRA used to bandy so effectively until Charlton Heston started loosing his marbles.

“Apparently he thought your coverage was less than objective.”


“And...” Sam stopped and shook his head. “Look, he called and screamed at me for about 45 minutes.”

“What'd you tell him?”

“I told him he should write a Letter to the Editor.”

“Sounds good.”

“He said he had no intention of being the butt of a public joke.”

“He's already an ass most of the time. How would it be any different?” That made Sam smile a little. Parton's pro-gun stance was not all that interesting, nor was it surprising. But when he launched into his litany of things he saw that “required a 2nd Amendment Remedy” – including everything from the current administration to the county health department to gay marriage to the “problems that fester in Niggertown” – some people's name for Chicago – apparently he felt I was too specific in my depiction of him as a raving dumb ass. Go figure. “So what's he wanting?”

“A recant.”

“Based on what?”

“And he wants me to fire you.”

“Did you tell him I'm freelance?”


“He said he didn't care what your job title is.”

“So ARE you going to fire me?”

“Were you disingenuous in your article?”

“You mean, did I make up any of the shit they said?”


“No. They don't need me to make them look stupid. They do just fine on their own.”

“I know.” He sighed. “Look. I think I can appease him with an editorial response.”


“I know you do good work,” he said. “But we can't afford a lawsuit. And a guy like Parton would keep it going just to make a point.”

“I know. You're not firing me; right?”

He shook his head. “No. I just wanted to make sure you were aware.”

“Okay. No problem.” I knew where this was going. Sam knew I was right, but I was going to get thrown under the bus. He'd write an amicable editorial response proclaiming the paper's support of all our Constitutional rights, and throw in some of Parton's propaganda bullshit to make it all feel balanced. The fact is that Don Parton, other than being one of the biggest land owners in the county, was also known as one litigious son of a bitch by everyone who knew him. I'd heard that was how he acquired the last 25 acres of his property; he sued somebody over an easement issue and kept it going so long that eventually the other person went broke, gave up, and sold him the property at a massive loss. The American Dream in action.

“Alright, then.” His mood lightened somewhat and we talked some more about nothing particularly important. Maude would be relieved that I didn't lose my job; but she'd probably freak out over the possibility of being sued. I was debating about whether I should mention it to her when I left, drove back to Mount Arliss, and headed straight for the Moose Head.

21 January, 2011

[All Indications Contrary]: Excerpt from THE MUCKRAKER'S CHRONICLE

 I had a message from Sam. He wanted to talk to me. Mostly we exchange emails about the articles I send him and about when he's going to pay me. Sometimes we talk on the phone; but I hate talking on the phone.

“What does he want to talk to you about?” Maude asked. She was trying not to sound too worried. I would like to say that her worries were unfounded; but since I have a history of telling supervisors, foremen, editors, and publishers to go to hell, I can't really blame her for being a little concerned. To her credit, she does a better job of keeping it in context, or at the very least masking the depth of her worry.

“He didn't say. He said he wanted to talk about some things, is all.”

“He never told you what it was about?”


“Do you KNOW what it's about?”

“What's THAT supposed to mean?”

“Exactly what I said.” It was her turn to cook. She was making chicken and dumplings using her great-grandmother's receipe. She hadn't made it in a long time, but I knew it was going to be good. When we first got married, we ate a lot of dumplings, usually sans chicken because it cost too much. Chicken bullion broth and dumplings. Flour was an easy commodity to afford, and for that I always felt lucky. That we could now afford to use chicken and even incorporate some vegtables I saw as an indication that things were still better than they once were.

“I'm not worried about it.”

“But you NEVER worry about anything!”

“That's not true. I worry about things all the time.”

“Like what?”

I thought for a second. “World peace?”

She wasn't amused. “You nearly quit the last time he wanted to have one of these talks.”

That was months ago, and I was over it. I had gotten pretty pissed off – justifiably – after Sam gutted an article I wrote about the Arliss Church of God and it's relationship with the Arliss Town Council. Apprently several members, some of whom own businesses that frequently advertise in the Star Advocate – said I was picking on “a fundamentally American Institution.” At least, that's what one of them wrote in a letter that she didn't want printed in the paper. Sam showed me the letter. The author, one Fay Parris, was also upset that I spelled her last name wrong. That her husband is also a respected church elder and majority owner in the one of the biggest graineries in the county also had something to do with it. Sam wasn't so much concerned about the fact that I was highlighting what we both see as a problem, even though Establishment Clause issues tend to have little place in small town discussions. He was more concerned about losing the advertisers – which is his concern, not mine, and that's what I told him.

“Relax, will you? I'm not going to quit.”

“He might fire you.”

“He can't fire me. I'm freelance.”

“Well, he could stop taking your articles, then.”

“He won't.”

She snorted. “Why?”

“I'm the best writer he's got.”

“That's why I love you; you're so humble.”

“And here I thought it was because I don't leave the toilet seat up.”

“Not anymore.”

“See? Proof that I can change.”

She finished stirring the pot on the stove and turned the heat down to let it simmer a little longer. The house was starting to smell like chicken and dumplings, and it was making me hungry. She came back into the living room, sat down, and lit a cigarette. “You're not taking me seriously.”

“I am. I just don't think there's anything to worry about.”

“What did you write about this week?”

“The usual. Small town intrigue. County politics. Committee meetings. Boring shit, really.”

“So why does he want to talk to you?”

“Maybe he wants to give me a full-time job.”

She shook her head. “You wouldn't take it.”

“Probably not. But it's always nice to be asked.”

I could tell by the way she was smoking that she was getting pissed off; when she smokes when she's mad, she guns them, like she's trying to get every bit of smoke before it burns down to the filter. I didn't see any reason to worry about Sam's intentions. Sometimes he just liked to check in with his writers; Sam had the personal touch. His operation employed three full time employees not including himself, his wife Sandy, and his son David, who was the business manager. He was a politic and considerate guy, with an ocassional tendency to fly off the handle in ideological discussions. I didn't always agree with his truths, but I liked that he had them. Sam didn't always like my truths, either. But no one's perfect.

“I know you think it's a big fucking joke,” she said, “but some of do actually worry about whether or not we're going to have a roof over our heads.”

“I didn't know that was a concern at this point.”

“It's ALWAYS a “concern”,” she said, stamping out the butt of her cigarette in the small plastic ashtray sitting between on the end table between our chairs. “It's just not always YOUR concern.”

“That's unfair,” I said. “I'm working, right? It's not my fault there's shit here to do that doesn't include shoveling cow shit and farming corn. We knew it was going to be this way.”

“So it's my fault?”

“No. Who said anything about fault? It's not about fault. We moved here for your job; we discussed it, decided, and did it. I was okay with it. I'm still okay with it.”

“You were going to lose your job in Phoenix anyway.”

“Yes. I know.”

“And the problems started out the exact same way. And then one day, you get called in for “a talk”, and ...”

“I told you I wasn't going to screw this up, okay? Trust me. He just wants to talk. It'll be fine.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because I haven't done anything to piss anybody off lately.”

“Huh. How would you know?”

She had a point. “I'd know. That's all. People here are obvious.”

“No. They just don't tell you to your face.”

“So they're cowards. How is that my problem?”

“Because instead of telling YOU they tell ME.”

Sigh. And that,I thought, is the point.

“What have you heard?”

Not me. Peter.”

“Again? Doesn't that spineless bastard have anything better to gossip about?”

“He's the President of the playhouse board,” she said. “People tell him things.”

“Are they trying to threaten your job again?”


Yes. Just not directly.

“I just don't understand why you have to be so difficult.”

“I'm only as difficult as the situation demands,” I said. “If people would just behave, I wouldn't have any problems with anyone.”

She smiled. A little smile. “Maybe you're the one who needs to behave.”

“Maybe you need to teach me.”



She stood up and walked into the kitchen. “Dinner's ready,” she said.  


26 December, 2010

Excerpt from THE MUCKRAKER'S CHRONICLE: The Flying Man From Pin Hook

The Flying Man From Pin Hook

By JJ Rafferty for The Arliss Star Advocate

Pin Hook – Wallace Gimley has carried the same dream with him since the age of five: he wants to fly. He says he was inspired by comic books and old film clips of inventors trying to test flying contraptions.

“Hawk Man was always my favorite,” Gimley told me as we sat together in his barn that he turned into a make shift study, design, and building space. “I read the comics first. Superman could fly, of course, but that was different. He flew because he was Superman. But Hawk Man, he had wings. Actual wings.”

It's not difficult to see that Gimley takes his passion seriously. The proof hangs from the rafters and are set around on tables; drawings and scraps of paper with scribbles and calculations and sketches cover nearly ever inch of the barn that once held animals back when he was growing up on the farm set far back on Pemblebrook Road. The only thing left of the tractor and the cows, horses, and pigs is that lingering odor of straw, old manure, and rust. Since inheriting the farm after the death of his mother after a long battle with cancer five year ago, Wallace Gimley has turned it from a working farm with 50 acres of good crop land to a design and manufacturing facility focused on the production of a single product – a contraption that will enable him to fly. Not an airplane, which he says puts too much between him and the air, and not even a glider, which he calls “cheating.” No. Wallace Gimley intends to build something that, in conjunction with his own body, will enable him to fly on his own power.

“I call it my own private Menlo Park,” he joked, showing me around. The allusion is intentional. Gimley says that Thomas Edition is one of his heroes and his primary inspiration. “Everyone thought he was nuts, too,” says the self-proclaimed inventor. “He went around talking about this thing called electricity and how people didn't need to light candles all the time just to see. He envisioned entire towns lit up in the night with these strange filaments. And look what happened! And just think,” he paused to light a home-made corn-cob pipe. “Just think about what the world would be like if Edison had listened to all those yahoos and forgot about electric lights.”

He points out several designs to me – all of them, failures. But he says with each failure he learned something new, something that he was able to fix in the next design. His early designs took him less than 6 months to design and build, starting from the age of 10. Now however, he says he takes more time to plan things out. He may spend as much as a year on design, and that much time on small scale testing. He throws out terms like lift, aerodynamic, wing span, center of gravity. That's the secret of his next design, he says. Center of gravity. He wouldn't go into details but said, “That's the mistake they all made. Even the Wright Brothers. “They all understood what Newton said about gravity. But they didn't move beyond the apple falling from the tree.”

And if you're thinking that Wallace Gimley went to school and studied aerodynamics, wing design, or physics, you're wrong. In fact, Wallace Gimley dropped out when he was 14 years old. “I wasn't learning anything.” But he points out that there's a difference between schooled and educated. His parents, hoping to encourage him to put himself back in school, made him work everyday on the farm; and he says that even though they were trying to manipulate him into giving up on his dreams, he's thankful for every day of hard work. Without it, his body might've gone soft... which would have ultimately made his dream impossible. “It's as much about the man as it is the contraption,” he said, smiling.

Gimley educated himself by reading. He read everything he could get his hands on, even when he was exhausted from work. He read history and science and math. He inhaled books about inventors and about flying. When his grandparents died, he inherited their collection of National Geographic Magazine, going back nearly 40 years, a complete collection fo Encyclopedia Britannia, and a four volume American Heritage Dictionary, including a Thesaurus. He claims to have read them all several times over, except for the Thesaurus, which he says is only useful “when a person wants to sound smart instead of be smart.”

So how does a man with an 8th grade education support himself enough to be able to focus on his dream of flying? He sold all the animals except for a milk cow, and he leases out the crop land to one of his neighbors. He grows a garden and hunts when it's in-season. He also sometimes builds things or repairs things for his neighbors; he's as handy at fixing a tractor as he is sewing a stitch. Most of the money he makes goes into building his contraptions, and what's left is enough for him to get by on.

“I don't need all kinds of nice stuff,” he says. “But I do need to fly.”

He's made six attempts over the years; the contraptions – or the remains of them – hang high from the rafters of his barn. Gimley says he's broken his collar bone twice, his left arm once, sprained both knees and gotten five concussions. But he has no intention of quitting, even if his neighbors, who have tolerated his … eccentricities … for years would prefer that he live quietly and farm his land much in the way his father and mother did. Gimley says it's not the contraptions that bother them so much, but the occasional explosions and “evidence of experimentation.” But he insists he's a good neighbor in spite of his oddities. He also insists that each and every one of them will change their tune after he tests his seventh contraption. That one, he claims, is the one that will fly. And when it does, they'll all brag about being his neighbor rather than commiserate about it.

Gimley leads me to a the back corner stall in the barn; there's a large object there, covered with a sheet. He won't show me what's under the sheet. “That's the contraption,” he says with a smile. “That's the one that'll fly.” He plans to test it as soon as the weather is warmer, maybe as around early summer. Until then, he tinkers and tests and makes his calculation and prepares to fly.


17 December, 2010


 “Do you really want to piss off the only person in town that still likes you?”

Maude has a way getting straight to the point. “Parton doesn't like me. I'm not enough of a bigot.”

“ENOUGH of a bigot?”

“You know what I mean. He's a moron.”

“I'm not talking about him,” she said. Her voice was tired. She was almost always tired when she came home from work. When we first moved to Mount Arliss, I would try to have supper on the table when she came home. But it became impossible to know what time she'd be there; sometimes she worked late if she had a lot of ticket sales, or if she was working on a a new pamphlet or poster or some other marketing tool. Sometimes she said to hell with it all and came home early. But it was impossible to tell exactly what she had planned and she never called to say she was on the way home or to say hello. I'd call her sometimes, just to see how her day was going. If it was going good, she was too busy to talk. If it was going bad, she was in too lousy a mood to talk. We both have cell phones, yet I never seem to be able to get a hold of her; granted, cell phone reception in Mount Arliss isn't the greatest. But if she wants to find me and she can't, I end up hearing about it later.

She was tired because she'd had another in a string of bad days. There was a time when I would try to get her to talk about her bed day. Her strategy for dealing with bad days was different from mine; she would simply not talk about it and hope that by ignoring it all, that all the bad feelings would simply vanish. It's a beautiful system in idealized form; something out of the 1950's image of the prosperous American. Smiling wife serves dinner in a spotless, perfectly ironed dress. Husband smiles and shovels food in his mouth, content that he's done his bit for god, country, and family that day. Bad feelings? Depression? Anger? Push it away. Bad feelings are the enemy. They're communists. They're islamofascist terrorists. Ignore them and they'll go away. Then no one has to listen to anyone else's bullshit and everybody can be happy. Happy happy joy joy. The problem with her method was that outside of the idealized form, it doesn't work. The human psyche isn't built to hold in an infinite amount of negativity. When it reaches the fill point, rather than expand to take on the extra load, all that badness and negativity spills over into the body, becomes aches, pains, sickness. High blood pressure. Diabetes.

My strategy is less elegant. I simply howl at the universe until I feel better. This tends to annoy other people, but since they're generally part of the reason I'm howling, I figure they might as well take on their share.
Maude never says so, but from the way she acts, she thinks my approach is the more selfish of the two. She's probably not wrong.

“Well who ARE you talking about?”

She sighed and looked at me with a weary expression. Thick as a brick me, I finally got who she was talking about. I didn't answer and opted to pour myself another drink instead.

“Why do you have to do that?”


She pointed at my glass of scotch. “That. You're drinking more than you used to.”

“Not really. I pace myself better than I used to. I've slowed down, comparatively.”

“Compared to what? It was one thing when you sat around drinking beer...”

And, I thought, you didn't like that either.

“...but now you sit around drinking whiskey...”

“It's not whiskey,” I said. “It's scotch.”

She rolled her eyes. “It's the same thing.”

“Not really.” Maude didn't like it when I drank whiskey. She always said it turned me into a different person. I never really thought it did anything but make me more honest... temporarily removed the filter in my head that kept the more acerbic parts of my personality at bay. There was a time when I was horribly concerned about the little green demon in my brain. The one that scrapes and claws at me and wants me to simply be, without all the hang ups of worrying about anyone else. I sued to try and keep it under control because of a similar statement I heard once from my ex-wife. She used to say that when ever I lost my temper I became a different person. She said I even looked different. I never knew how to take it, and I wasn't absolutely sure that she wasn't just trying to manipulate me into feeling guilty; that was some she did often and was very proficient at. That was before I learned that guilt, and the heaping of it upon the self and others is all based on obligation and expectation. A husband, according to my ex-wife, was supposed to fulfill certain expectations, play a certain role. And I had certain expectations of myself too – higher ones than I was capable of, I eventually came to realize. That was when her manipulations stopped working, and it not long after that I left and we divorced.   

One of the wonderful things about Maude is that she doesn't try to manipulate me. She's far too direct for that, which makes her – as far as I can tell – a rarity among womankind. Most women manipulate the men they “love” because maybe there was a time when that was the only real social power they had. Like it a kind of defense mechanism against the patriarchy. Most women not only manipulate their men, they try and manipulate other women, too. It's about status, position. Men who pick up on this trick and adapt it to their own ends become politicians, local busybodies, church officers. But Maude, god love her, doesn't do that, and she hates it in other women. The impact of this is that it makes her more direct, more honest. And while I take this as a good thing, a rare thing to be cherished, there are times when her directness borders on something else.

When we first got together, I was a drinker. I've been a drinker for many years. Back then, she drank too. As a matter of fact, she could drink me under the table. But she tapered off and eventually quit drinking. I didn't.
“It IS the same thing.”

“Okay,” I conceded. “It's similar. But it's different, too. It's about the age and the fermenting time...”

“Don't change the subject.”

“Fine.” She knew me too well to be baffled by bullshit.

“It's not good to sit around and drink the way you do.”

“Some people eat chocolate. Some people drink.”

“Don't try and be cute.” She paused. “You're a drunk. You know that, right?”


“When was the last day that you didn't have a drink?”

I shrugged. Probably a truly miserable day.

“Do you think it's healthy?”

“I think it's healthier for me to drink than it is for other people.”

“Oh please...” she snorted. “Because YOU'RE so different?”

“Everyone's different,” I said.

“I don't like who you become when you drink.”

“Who am I when I drink?”

“You're just... different. That's all.”

I didn't answer.

“Sometimes I think you want me to end up sitting next you in a hospital, watching you die. Is that what you want?”

It wasn't. I'd seen people die from drink. Fucking horrible way to die. Besides the pain of it, the worst thing about dying is that people don't really care about you when you're dying. You're liver's cashed, your kidneys are failing, your body is swelling like an overfilled water balloon because you can't get rid of toxins anymore. If you're in a hospital, they end up jacking you up on morphine until your body finally wears out; this isn't mercy as much as a way to quiet the moaning and groaning. It makes the doctors' and nurses' lives easier. There's no mercy in the world for people who drink themselves to death, just like there's no mercy for junkies or the homeless or people who eat too much. No mercy. That goes back to obligation, too. It's generally agreed upon that the good, the upright, the useful, they live in a certain way and in a certain manner. They work. They save money. They pay taxes. They aspire to upward mobility. They live in nice neighborhoods and lease new cars every two years. And when you step off the worn-out path into indulgence, intoxication, or living in a way that most people probably would if they had the balls, the price you pay, among others, is the absence of mercy.

Maude wasn't merciless. On the contrary, she probably had too much mercy. But I was starting to realize that maybe I was wearing her down; that didn't surprise me as much as that it had taken this long for her to get to that point. But it wasn't just the drinking. It was that she was really the only person in town that I ever talked to, in spite of the fact that we'd been living there for a year. I never made friends easily. Not like her. People were just drawn to her, her energy, her enthusiasm for things she cared about. Part of the reason she was always so exhausted was that she always put everything she had into whatever she was working on. She was like that with every job she'd had since she and I had been together. Maude didn't know how to be any other way, even though her work ethic had been taken advantage of time and time again. She gave until there was nothing left, and then she would simply implode. I'd never known a person who had been hollowed out by the world so many times and still went back at it in the exact same way.

“That's not going to happen,” I said.

“How do you know?”

“Because I just do.”

She shook her head again gave up. But I knew we'd have the same conversation again, sometime soon.

“I love you,” I said.

“Do you?”

“You know I do.”

“Do I?”

“Yes, goddamn it, you do.”

She stood up, patted me on the head, grabbed her pack of cigarettes that were sitting on the end table next to my chair, and lit a cigarette. Then she asked what my thoughts were on dinner.