Thuvia, Maid of Mars

She placed the wooden box on the red bedcover, reluctant to open it. As soon as she recognized the odd sense of fate she laughed at herself, It’s not like he’s Blue Beard or something and anyway the box isn’t big enough to fit a head into! – And besides, it wasn’t as if the box had a lock she’d need to break open.

Charlene pulled the wooden lid back and peered in. Sure enough, Linda’s missing photograph of Rob and herself laying on their sofa was on very top of the box, just where Carl had claimed it would be. Underneath lay a jumble of boy’s treasures, the usual collection of any adult. Charlene lifted the picture out carefully, the old photo thick and heavy in her fingers. Careful as well of her husband’s privacy, gently she placed the lid back and returned the box to its place at the bottom of the closet floor.

Charlene began to dial Linda’s number on her cell phone as she turned back to the room to retrieve the photograph. The image of Linda and Rob looked up at her from the red bedspread, stained a color like wine in the bright afternoon sunshine from the window. Linda would be relieved to hear it was safe and sound.

Charlene picked the photograph back up and more photos fell and fluttered down to the bedspread. Apparently they’d stuck to the back of the first photograph after years of laying in the darkness of Carl’s treasure trove.

Charlene stared down at photos she’d never seen and hadn’t known her husband possessed. The first one was a gray photo, slightly blurry and out of focus, taken from the railing of a ship. A whale’s flukes were just visible in the background. The only elements clearly in focus were Rob’s huge grin and outstretched hand, pointing excitedly at the gigantic mammal.

Two photographs were close ups of a radiant, exhausted Linda holding Jennifer, their newborn baby. The infant couldn’t be seen through the swaddling of the baby blanket wrapping her, but it was clear these were photographs Rob had snapped as he welcomed home his wife and first born child in the middle of winter, snow piled at either side of the front doorway.

Charlene fanned the photos out on the bed and she sat down. She looked the images of a baby in winter and felt frozen. What in the world? Charlene dropped the cell phone. The phone call to Linda would have to wait.

Carefully she put the photos in a perfect stack and set them on the mound of the pillow on her side of the bed. She pulled the box back out of its hiding place and placed it in the very center of the bedspread where she’d have the most room. Her heart pounding, Blue Beard indeed! Charlene reopened her husband’s childhood box.

Charlene grimaced as she looked down into a jumble. It was a random collection, the emotional residue of any small boy’s life. But this didn’t explain what the photographs belonging to Linda and Rob were doing there. She began to slowly remove objects to review each of them more carefully.

The sun moving across the bed winked at her when light glinted off ruby glass in the box. Charlene gasped out loud as she recognized the eighth Venetian cordial glass that had gone missing so many years ago. The last time she’d seen it was at the dinner party to introduce Carl into her circle of intimates. In all the years since, she’d thought two glasses had broken. Carl had never bothered to correct her assumption and now Charlene knew why: that night, he stole one of those glasses.

Charlene sat very still. Then, with one swift motion, she upended the box and dumped its contents out onto the bed. A golf ball rolled off the spread and bounced over into a corner. She retrieved it and turned it over in her palm, biting her lips. It was signed in red ink with the name Jack Nicklaus, 1980.

“I hate golf,” Carl claimed; he found the game mind numbingly boring to watch on television, and not much of a sport to play in real life. Charlene thought, What’s he doing with a golf ball signed by the man considered to be the greatest PGA Championship player of all time?

Terry Rundell, she thought with the next breath. Terry and Carl worked together, and Terry was an absolute golf freak. Charlene had no actual proof that her husband stole the ball. But she knew. In light of all the other tokens she was looking at on the bed, Charlene knew.

Suddenly they were no longer random. With her fingertips Charlene picked up the single, ominous pearl colored silk stocking she’d overlooked. Charlene draped it over her left forearm and held it out in the sunlight in front of her where she perched on the red bedspread. One stocking. One. Stolen from a clothesline, maybe. Or filched from the back of a dresser drawer from a house where they’d been invited for dinner, or drinks, or an innocuous social gathering. Who had it belonged to, and what was it about the woman to compel Carl to steal her stocking?

Her mouth twisted in disgust and she dropped the silky, filmy thing into a pile. She continued to sort through the other items.

An old paperback had landed on the bed half-opened. Its cover was yellowed, the edges of the pages cracked and cuThuvia Maid of Mars-1920.jpgrling. Charlene placed it with the cover up in front of her. Thuvia, Maid of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Her brain racing, Charlene recalled that Edgar Rice Burroughs had written the popular Tarzan series. This book must be one of his potboilers.

She turned cautiously to the first page. For Timmy, as promised! With love from Grandpa Brent was written on the flyleaf in an old man’s shaky, old-fashioned penmanship. Underneath he’d added, Xmas 1966. It had to be the treasured present of a boy from Carl’s grade school class, or later. Charlene knew adults have even stronger emotional attachments to items from their childhoods than children do. Well, wherever Timmy might be, this book left his possession years ago. She placed a tender palm on the cover as she closed the book and set it by the crumpled stocking.

Next Charlene opened a little bag with a drawstring and dumped out a bizarre collection of markers from children’s board games. The doll’s house teacup and Barbie shoe in the bottom of the bag bothered her the most. Those items were just too weird to find in a man’s box of memories… Charlene placed all of them back into their bag, firmly retied the strings, and went on to the next objects.

She frowned as she turned over used beer coasters. Those might be from the wet bar in the basement of one of Carl’s friends, someone he admired. Had Carl taken them as mementos of a night out drinking? Or were the coasters part of some guy’s foolish beer decal collection?

Charlene thought over who the friend might be as she jiggled the box absently. An object bumped against the bottom, and Charlene peered back into what she now considered Bluebeard’s box. Dislodged now, inside rolled a rare, colored, tiger-eye marble belonging to the little kid next door.

Determinedly Charlene picked up the box and shook it upside down. “What next!” she muttered, and out fluttered a single stamp. She plucked it from the bedspread and held it up in the sunlight. It was from The Cook Islands, 3 cents. Charlene didn’t have to use her imagination to picture a stamp collection belonging to someone who had the misfortune to come within Carl’s orbit. If the owner hadn’t noticed it yet, he or she or they, young or old, new to the hobby or an impassioned and seasoned collector… somewhere at some point, the person would notice a tiny object they had once thought theirs was gone. And they would lament the loss without knowing where it had gone, or who had removed it.

– from my short story “Carl Possessed” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Thuvia, Maid of Mars & A Princess of Mars, A. C. McClurg Publisher, 1920. (Photos from Wikipedia)

Speed Dating – Part 2

“Jesus, cancer!” Rick shuddered in his chair at the mental image of watching a loved one waste away, or bearing witness to a beloved person’s features distort with pain. “Maybe my life style as a Good time Charlie was actually good protection. It always worked pretty well, as long as I wanted it to. Well.” He looked away to the back wall of the bar, refocused on the present and the woman listening carefully at the other side of the small table. “And you? How did you survive those years in the jungle?”

Maricela took a deliberate slow swallow from her non-alcoholic beer. “I would go out dancing on weekends, with my friends.” She looked away, her gaze on somewhere in the past. “I drank,” she answered quietly. “I went on short term binges. I didn’t really have relationships, or if I did, they sure were fluid ones. All high-percentage based.”

She gave him a wry smile and raised the near beer in a toast. “I had one black out too many. Finally I figured out I could get the smallest of buzzes from a near beer and it tastes just close enough to the real thing. Most people thing women drink these because they’re trying to avoid the calories.”

Maricela laughed softly; Rick thought she sounded sad. “I don’t judge you,” he was prepared to say, wanting to comfort her. He was shocked when she turned her face to him and he saw she was grinning.

“Holy shit! I was such a wild thing. I had fun, that’s for sure! I only regret I can’t remember more of it.”

Maricela’s utter candor and what sounded like a total lack of shame were attractive. She had no idea how sexy it was, the unfolding mystery of her past – her honesty about it – and the acceptance of both who she was now and what she had been like. She had no idea of the affect this had.

They sat in a bar and grill, perhaps an odd place given Maricela’s most recent story. But when he looked across the table at her she seemed at peace, happy to be with him eating lunch. Maricela talked on, unconcerned. “My friends, the women anyway, sit around and do the ‘Woulda coulda shoulda’ game. Where it went wrong, why it might have gone wrong, how they should have been stronger, or more assertive in their careers, or better mommies, or more giving to their ex-husband. Or rather most of the time, how they should have been less giving to the s.o.b.! In the end it’s all the same.

“Not me.” Maricela pierced Rick with a look. “Regretting the past doesn’t make it go away, or erase the mistakes. As nice as that would be… It’s mental masturbation. You root around in old dirt and feel guilty or bad about yourself over, and over, and over again.

“At first there was no way I was going to do a 12 steps program. Who needs to go into critical self-analysis when you can grow up Catholic? The gift that goes on giving: guilt. When I finally decided to stop drinking, I got a year of therapy to help me figure out why I liked drinking so much.”

“And?”

She laughed out loud again and the sound was truly joyous. “Well, it’s the reason I still drink non-alcoholic beer. I like the taste! I like beer! When I drank, I drank too much. There were no big revelations, which might have been the biggest revelation of all. We go hunting for deep answers, if my father had been more affectionate, if my mother only praised me more. I drank because I worked so hard. And since I weigh 130 pounds, it didn’t take much to help me unwind. I don’t have any buried family trauma, and I don’t have tendencies to be drug dependent. I never even smoked cigarettes, so I didn’t like smoking pot. When I tried smoking a joint it just tore out my lungs.

“But now I am sorry, I’m blathering on suddenly about all this! It’s old history, it’s really ancient. I haven’t gotten drunk in over a decade! It’s no big deal, Rick, I’m not a heroine or anything; I just got a little smarter about how I was living my life and what I want from it. One of the major things though, is I decided, if I met someone I wanted to see again, I have to be up front about who I am and who I’m not. And I am definitely not a drinker any more.”

“Yo, I’ve done some drinking in my time too. Not to worry. I think it goes with the territory of being young and getting older and wiser.” Inside he exulted.

They sat silent for a few minutes and Maricela resumed eating her cooling food. The silence wasn’t awkward; she really did seem at peace with herself and with the long speech she’d just given him. Rick waited until she finished eating and her hands were back in her lap before he reached over and, taking her left hand in his, silently raised it to his cheek. It was dated, the gesture: but Rick meant it.

Much later, Rick woke to feel Maricela’s presence in his bed beside him. She lay curled on her left side, the hand he’d held to his cheek earlier at lunch brushing against him.

– from my short story “Speed Dating” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available in paperback or eBook at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.

 

Speed Dating – Part 1

Slowly Rick garnered the pertinent facts about Maricela. She came from a large family where education was a priority. All five of the Howard siblings had at least some graduate school time or professional training under their belts. Maricela was an intellectual prodigy and had gone to college entirely on grants and scholarships. She’d been a natural scholar, the acknowledged golden child of any seminar class. Ironically, his parents moved briefly to Brookville when Maricela had finished up her undergraduate work there; they’d just missed one another.

She worked as a financial advisor with an ethical investments firm, a job she loved since she began there eight years ago. She had been promoted twice and refused the next offer for further advancement, preferring to keep close to her individual clients. Her field of expertise was alternative energies and fair trade. Maricela firmly believed the phrase sustainable and responsible investing was not an oxymoron.

She’d had one, failed, live-in relationship. When she discovered his coke habit she ended the relationship. “It wasn’t just that he lied to me about how much he used,” Maricela explained. “And it wasn’t the way I found out: catching him in the kitchen over the butcher block, for God’s sake. He promised he’d ease up on what he was using, but I know too much about how much fun partying is.

“Speedy drugs weren’t ever my thing. They just made me nauseous and I preferred alcohol anyway, so it wasn’t like I felt holier than thou. It was the way he wasn’t willing to stay clean, and how cagey he was being about the realities of that fact. He kept pretending he was in control of his habit and lied about how much he did. Typical user behavior. It was the set up for more hiding and bullshit stories that eventually made me end it.”

The tone might have made Rick suspicious, because in the voice of the wrong woman it sounded phony. Worse, it sounded like what someone with a martyr complex might say. But Maricela was simply stating the facts. Her ex hadn’t wanted to be honest about needing to snort coke; and Maricela was unwilling to settle for a relationship based on prevarications.

Maricela’s friends held her in affection and quite often in awe. Despite her formidable brainpower her personality was easy and accessible; there was nothing of the intellectual snob about her. She’d cohabitated for the last 3 years with a long time friend named Sarah. Together the two of them had rented the converted loft space.

When Sarah was diagnosed with cancer the prior spring, Maricela put her own social life on hold in order to be there for her friend. That was the reason why she’d been out of the dating pool. It had nothing to do with an unwillingness to engage with other people. On the contrary: a deep commitment to the people she cared about led Maricela to prioritize how she used her time.

Almost every bit of information Chris and Sybil had offered to describe Maricela turned out to be accurate. The only piece of information they’d gotten wrong was her choice of alcohol. Instead of wine, most of the time Maricela drank near beer.

Rick noted all of these things and thought, This woman is someone worth getting to know, no matter where it leads. Surprised, Rick actually asked himself if he’d be willing to just be friends with her if the physical chemistry didn’t pan out. He was even more surprised when the answer to that question was, yes.

“I’m not being coy about bringing you home with me, you know,” she informed him one day; the two were having lunch. “Trust me on this one. In my earlier days we’d already be there! But Sarah’s really sick. She’s going through chemo, and the procedure is quite simply hell. It’s really important right now that we keep the apartment as germ-free and sterile as possible. You understand, right?”

“Sure,” Rick said, and hesitated. “No, actually, I don’t. I doubt if I can even begin to understand. I don’t think I’d know how to handle it if someone I was close to got cancer,” he admitted. “Or if I could be as supportive.”

Maricela turned what he’d said over in her mind and shrugged. “She’s my best friend. I sit with her when she’s awake half the night throwing up because the poisons in the chemotherapy mean she won’t keep anything down for long. The other half the night she can’t stop crying because she knows she’s getting weaker and weaker, and feels sicker and sicker. She’s really terrified that this is it, she’s going to die, and in the end all the chemo and medical attention in the world aren’t going to make a bit of difference. She’s scared maybe she’s putting herself through hell for nothing. And me along with her.

“Next,” continued Maricela relentlessly, “Sarah lost her hair. It was coming out in patches so Sarah had it all shaved off. Then she went through this awful period where her face puffed up. Her skin was reacting to a combination of the drugs, and she couldn’t go out in bright sunlight because of allergic reactions to some of the other meds. And when you’re a friend, all you can really do is just, be there. It’s not your sickness or your pain.

“Trust me. When you see it, you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy.

“The only thing you can do is fetch the bucket, get a cup of herb tea, and offer to do the shopping. Just being there for your friend and not being afraid to do that little extra helps more than anyone imagines. A person with cancer needs you to be normal, because nothing else in their life is any more. Nothing else around them will ever be the same again. I won’t go into the gruesome details about the bouts of depression Sarah endures, but picture your blackest, darkest thoughts. Magnify those by about a thousand and maybe you have some idea of how deep the depression of a person with cancer and on meds is. A cancer patient doesn’t know if it’s her or the heavy-duty medications doing the talking, or thinking, or feeling all those awful things.

“Every day becomes a big surprise, and not one you want to wake up to. Are you going to manifest new symptoms? How’s the old mood going to be, will you feel incapacitated or can you function again? What fun tests, and diagnostics, and medical procedures do you have scheduled this time? What will the news be, and how are you going to be able to bear to hear it? There was a phase where all the test results were bad; every one of them was really horribly grim. Sarah started going in and out of depressions where she couldn’t stand to be around anybody at all. What she was feeling, the agony, the fear, and exhaustion finally overwhelmed her.

“It’s not a question of staying supportive,” Maricela repeated. “Cancer survivors travel to hell and back. All I do is let her know I’ll be waiting there each time she returns.”

Rick listened to Maricela with both admiration and dismay. “I’m not so sure. I’d be scared I’d react the wrong way and make things worse,” he persisted. “Or that I wouldn’t be able to face someone else’s illness. I don’t know if I’d be up to being supportive.”

He looked at Maricela’s face as he admitted that, afraid to see her light brown eyes darken. But he didn’t want to present himself in a false light, especially when compared with the relentless clean light of her frankness. Only honesty was admissible.

He was silent, thinking about all of the relationship games he’d so willingly played over the years. One set of games to get close enough to climb into bed; another set to extricate himself from the mussed up sheets afterwards. When he realized she was waiting patiently for him to talk, or to remain silent, just as he wished, Rick surprised himself for the third time in an hour. He opened his mouth and as if in the third person, Rick heard himself really talk.

“I don’t know what I’d do if someone I loved was ill, much less going to die. I’ve never been in that situation! My mom was always great. She’d make home made chicken soup with egg noodles, nothing fancy, but it was like the great home remedy for anything that ever made a little kid feel bad. I would pretend to have a really, really bad cough, just to get her to make it.

“It’s the only dish I ever make for someone on a regular basis.” Rick was thinking out loud; silent, Maricela listened without judgment as he began to peel away protective layers.

“My mother made soup, but it was about emotional support. When I make it for anyone it’s, soup. The emotional support’s what I get, by recreating the atmosphere of my mom. It’s never about doing something for another person at all.

“Jesus! Why didn’t I ever notice this before? For me,” his voice was almost at a crawl. Maricela actually leaned across the table so she could hear him without having to interrupt to ask him to speak more loudly. “For me, relationships were, are, something to have fun with. It’s all speed dating. I never put much energy into the mutual support aspect of it, beyond being honest and not cheating on a girlfriend as long as we’re together.

“Jesus, cancer!” Rick shuddered in his chair at the mental image of watching a loved one waste away, or bearing witness to a beloved person’s features distort with pain. “Maybe my life style as a Good time Charlie was actually good protection. It always worked pretty well, as long as I wanted it to. Well.” He looked away to the back wall of the bar, refocused on the present and the woman listening carefully at the other side of the small table. “And you? How did you survive those years in the jungle?”

– from my short story “Speed Dating” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available in paperback or eBook at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.

The Gift of Gab

I’ve belonged to a writers’ group for two years. How did I survive so long without the company of my crazy peers and fellow wordsmiths? I have no idea what I did before I hooked up with these people.

In my group you find: Short stories. Essays. Erotic (really erotic) poetry. Autobiographies. Journalism. Novels. Urban fantasy. Flash fiction. Song lyrics. Wistful thinking (this is how a member explains what he writes, and I love his description).

We come together to share and critique works-in-progress. We use writing exercises to loosen up our creative muscles. And we’re committed to public readings.

Two roosters singing at a microphone, isolated Stock Photo

A little café named Wir Sind Babel was one venue. A brightly lit coffee house with marble floors and comfy chairs was another. And the last one…. well, that venue gets a blog post all its own.

An Irish pub I’ll call The Blarney Stone seemed like the ideal spot. The bar’s slowest weeknight was the perfect time.

We could use a side room for our event. The space looked like a library room filled with bookcases, a perfect setting for our brilliant words. Even better, the owner promised us  if we could total 50 people we’d get the main room – and he had a microphone we could use! They often feature live musical acts and the entire bar was already wired to hear us. Sweet!

A Toast Master offered to be our MC. He’d read short bios to introduce each reader. We printed up fliers for the tables and info sheets to hand out ahead of time. It was all perfect…

Doesn’t this sound too good to be true?

That Tuesday we arrived with high expectations. The bar was packed. Our side room grew too small for all our friends and guests, but the main room had filled with patrons who, sadly, were not there for our earthshaking literary creations.

Every chair was taken and people sat and stood everywhere. Waiters and waitresses had to slither their way with plates and drinks through the crowds. Then we realized our side room had no door, and that meant no barriers against the noise levels that kept increasing.

No worries. We were as cool as the collective cucumber, because we had the ultimate secret weapon: the microphone. The first reader began to recite her piece.

And then the m crophone we were loan d began sh rt ng out w th ever sec nd sente ce and nex with ev ry thi d word. It g t wors . The m ke beg n to let o t awf l and ear splitt ng sccccrrre eee ee ech hhhhiiiing fee eeedb ck. We checked that the batteries were fresh and the wiring solid. We tried holding the mike in different parts of the room, closer to our lips, away from our mouths, up in the air. We recited louder, and then more quietly; none of it made a difference.

At that point every writer in the room knew we’d been rat f cked. Without saying much (not that we could have heard one another anyway over the noise in the pub) we had that group moment of grokking that this evening would not be the literary triumph we’d all awaited.

The first reader gamely made it through her piece. The second reader performed in a different corner of the room. By the time it was my turn to read I lay the mike down on the pult and basically yelled out my piece, observing every pause, emphasis and careful nuance I’d practiced.No one heard a word over the pub din.

But I am so very proud of all of us. We observed grace under pressure. We went forward despite impossible conditions (and false promises made to us). We made the best out of the debacle… and it really brought us together as fellow failed performers.

The pub owner got more than fifty extra paying guests on what was his slowest night of the week! I’d like to say he bought us a round of drinks to make up for it. I’d really like to say that our words triumphed over noise decibels. But no, that night the gift of gab got stuck in a malfunctioning microphone.

Microphone Stock PhotographyMicrophone Stock PhotographyMicrophone Stock Photography

Our next public reading is in a month, and it will not be held in an Irish pub. The first moral of the story? To get over stage fright, sometimes you have to scream. The second moral to the story? Don’t mess with writers, because at some point we will write about you and what you did.

We’ll be back at the newly renovated Wir Sind Babel. The date is Thursday, May 22. Doors open at 1900. Hope to see you all there!

NOTES:

http://www.wirsindbabel.de/selbst.html

Eckladen Uhlandstrasse 26 am Olgaeck /70182 Stuttgart
0711-620 2118

Images courtesy of dreamstime.com

Hit & Run 4

Inevitably Joe’s determined curiosity widened to include the rest of the world. As his medical condition worsened, his parents curtailed family outings without saying a word or ever referring to the involuntary confined nature of the shorter vacations. “Any chance of a trip somewhere exotic, Dad?” he asked, once. He saw the anguished looks and exchanged, entrapped glance they shared over his head. Joey never asked again.

Joey’s queries toned down and became more secretive. On his way to the public library, he discovered a table covered with stacks of old postcards in a junk shop. Joey fanned out sanitized images of capitol cities and stared transfixed. He fingered the old thick cardboard and posited himself there, an alternate Joe someplace seen by him only in his imagination. He knew kismet had randomly assigned him the death card.

Perhaps a few freebies were in the mix as well.

Some magazines had coupons for glossy brochures of vacation getaways. He filled out coupons in his careful script and sent them off. He started writing away to travel agencies and to the embassies of foreign countries.

Descriptions began pouring in from around the globe and woke a deep hunger in him for all the things and places he’d never get to see. His reading matter shifted to books about exotic locales. Joey did weeks of research on the wide, wide world in the library’s travel and geography stacks. He read about Europe first, and next he planned to move on to Africa, and South America, and Asia, last stop the Antarctic!

Lou found an application sheet his brother had hidden. “A new opportunity for a new life …Whatever your origins, nationality or religion might be, whatever qualifications you may or may not have, whatever your social or professional status might be, whether you are married or single, the French Foreign Legion offers you a chance to start a new life…”

Lou went on reading, incredulous. Joey had filled out the forms right up to the paragraph indicating that selection for the Legion was carried out in person near Marseille, and that the applicant had to be physically fit to serve at all times in all places. Lou put the form back in the desk and never told his brother he’d seen it.

– from my short story “Hit and Run” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available as paperback or eBook at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere. Go to my posts Hit & Run 1, 2 & 3 for more on Joey, Lou and Margaret.

Hit & Run 3

He entered magazine contests and it didn’t matter what the prizes were. Mrs. Bocci was the first housewife in their neighborhood to own a brand new Maytag dishwasher. He won an extra dryer, which his parents passed on to their aunt and uncle for Christmas that year when his newest cousin was born.

He loved the surprise of each free gift. Sur-prizes, he called them. Joey sent away for samples of things just for the hell of it. He had the time; what else was he going to do with all those hours stuck sitting in his wheel chair? His family received the first volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. A through Androphagi. He kept Mom in perfume and the rest of the family in soap and shampoo. Any time a new product came out, such as the first mint toothpaste, Joey ordered it. The Boccis were always the first ones on the block to try any of them.

His past time took on epic proportions. They didn’t just have free food samples to try. Joey ordered free animal feed samples too: packets of birdseed. Hamster food. Gold fish pellet food. Pouches of cat food and dog food, even horse feed. His parents finally told Joey to stop with the animal feed already; they couldn’t even have any pets because of the danger of allergies or infection from scratches. Joey’s dad donated it all to the local animal shelter.

Once or twice a week the mailman delivered a package containing free items with company logos. Joey would read about a new product being promoted and bing, the coupons were clipped and filled out and in the mail before anyone could stop him. The Bocci household received free tote bags, baseball caps, tee shirts and socks and other products. Actually his parents didn’t try to stop him from sending away for those items once they realized how much money his obsession was saving them on clothes.

He won a ride in the local weather helicopter – and because he couldn’t fly because of air pressure and collapsing sinus issues, Lou and Mr. Bocci went in his place. Now that was cool!

Here the tale ended abruptly, the silence Margaret’s cue to ask questions. It didn’t matter what she asked, really, as long as it gave Lou an idea of what she wanted to hear about next. “Was he persistent or just incredibly lucky?”

“Margaret,” Lou explained patiently, “no one was ever stupid enough to call Joey lucky. But yes, he had a run of luck where it seemed like the Universe was giving him a break to make up for the crap cards he’d been dealt just by being born. He really did have fun entering contests and winning stuff.”

“What’s the coolest thing he ever won?”

Lou frowned. “I just told you: the helicopter ride. At least to me and my Dad it was the coolest,” he amended, yielding to the apologetic look on his girlfriend’s face. “And he won fourth prize in a contest for a new Pontiac. My parents took the cash from that one and put into savings bonds. That money helped put me through college.”

“It was okay with Joe? He didn’t want the money for himself?”

“Well,” Lou said slowly, “by then his lucky streak was running out. Joey hid it from the rest of us. He’d started getting weaker again instead of stronger… He didn’t have a whole lot of time left. And I think he was trying to win money and prizes for us to make up for the gap that would be there after he was gone.”

Margaret sighed and hugged her boyfriend. “Jesus, Lou. How could your family stand it?”

Lou shrugged. “We didn’t get calloused or anything, but it wasn’t like any of us didn’t know the end was coming. We just kind of… went on as we had been. What else is there to say? Joey was the glue for a broken situation; it was broke from the minute he was born. He was the glue holding the entire family together in spite of everything.”

“I just think, I mean, I can’t imagine how you all dealt with it.”

“Margaret, I never cease to be amazed at what people just deal with when they have to. How did my family deal with stuff? We just, did. Until we couldn’t any longer. When Joey went in the hospital the last time we thought it was temporary, just more of the usual batteries of tests. When his doctors found the tumor I think everyone knew that this was going to be it.”

“At least you all had each other. Your family was so strong!”

He looked at her with a strange expression. “Babe, that’s the whole point of what I’ve been telling you. We weren’t strong. Joey was! We were people he was supporting through his illness. The only thing we had in common was the DNA connection. Joey was never related to anybody I could figure out, not really, unless it was some kind of genetically defective super hero who hasn’t been invented or born yet.”

– from my short story “Hit and Run” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere. Go to my posts Hit & Run 1 & 2 for more on Joey, Lou and Margaret.

Hit & Run 2

Joey sat in the school library for hours. He hid there during recess and lunch periods, but the sounds of everyone out on the playground came through the open windows. Hearing the sound of other children shrieking was bad, and as Joey listened he tried to imagine it came from children somewhere far away. When he did see them the distance apparent between what they could do and what he could not was too terrible. He would perch at the dark wood of the windowsill, holding himself upright and steady with one hand as he watched. Children in groups skipped ropes, chased balls, played tag. The teacher with recess duty wore a light jacket and an expression of endless weary patience. He or she sometimes called out across the tarmac, “Hey! That’s enough of that, Loreen!”

Unseen and unimportant, from the high window Joey observed when the teacher rushed to the aid of a fallen child or broke up a playground fight. He hated it. Watching reminded him that no one would ever need to run to prevent him from doing something he shouldn’t; watching only reminded him that he couldn’t run.

Joey moved to a table where he could sit with his back to the windows. Determinedly Joey closed his ears to the cries of his peers playing outside the walls and forever beyond his ken.

Eventually Joey made his way through all of the school magazines. He began to take the bus to the public library. After school Joey sat among the adult publications where he felt less excluded. Around him sat members of his home city’s increasing homeless population, noisily turning pages and keeping a careful eye on their oversized bags of belongings. There were a few students, or grown ups coming in to claim the copies of recent novels they had put on hold, and every so often a class of younger children arrived for reading hour. Otherwise though, Joey could feel like he was simply another library user, ageless and without handicaps.

This was when he discovered adult magazines with their endless advertisements for write-in contests, coupons to win prizes, and teasers to learn more about great deals. Joey flipped pages hunting for things to win, things to present to his parents. Joey wanted, Lou said thoughtfully, to present them with distractions from the nonrefundable item they’d brought home from the hospital: their youngest son and his damaged body.

– from my short story “Hit and Run” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere. Go to my post Hit & Run 1 for more on Joey, Lou and Margaret.

Write A Revolution

Interview with self-published author Jadi Campbell

Posted by Steve on December 2nd, 2013

This week we are delighted to welcome over talented self-published author Jadi Campbell, the creator of Broken In, the latest collection of stories that we have found extremely hard to put down. Jadi is a well-travelled writer currently residing in Germany who has taken her varied cultural experiences and moulded into her latest offering. We know you’ll love Broken In and our interview with Jadi.

Hi Jadi, congratulations on Broken In, it was a fantastically crafted collection of stories and we thoroughly enjoyed reading through the book.

It is enormously satisfying to be told that you noticed how I crafted the book.

The stories show how you can skilfully develop characters. No lead role is wasted and each has varying dimensions to their persona. What is the secret behind writing such strong characters?

Take the time to get to know them. In Punctured, for example, I knew that Jeremy’s wife Abigail was younger than he and quite shy. But something was missing and the tone (because this story is pretty tragic) felt terribly somber. I set it aside for a while and when I returned to it I had the key: Abby has a wicked sense of humor that only her husband is allowed to see. It gives a needed lightness to their story, and suddenly she became 3-dimensional. If your characters don’t feel real, allow them the time to develop.

Is there any part of the story or side to the characters that is autobiographical or taken from people you know or knew? I like to think that a feisty real life Lisa exists somewhere out there!

Thanks! I want to create realistic characters. One of my strengths (from what my readers tell me) is that as you read, you recognize yourself or people you know. No character is based solely on someone I know in real life… and all my characters are amalgams of who I know and what I witness every day in the real world.

Lisa’s experiences to Bangkok are my own and definitely autobiographical. But I had to express them through the lens of a 20 year old rather than my own adult age. It was fascinating to try and figure out what such an inexperienced young person would make of Bangkok’s chaos and decadence.

You split Broken In into separate, interconnecting stories rather than chapters in a straight-running novel. Why did you decide to approach the book in this manner?

When the Muse started tapping on my shoulder I wasn’t sure if it was she planned to stick around. I took the opportunity to experiment with short stories, a new genre for me. It was great fun and then the idea to base a novel on interconnected tales came from the story Surprises. I realized that I could tell the story of everyone of the characters in it, and the book was born.

Can you explain why you chose to call the book Broken In?

The term is active and passive: you break in new shoes to make them comfortable, and learn the ropes at a new job that way, too. But it’s also what happens to us. It’s the break ins, losses, challenges, and things that intrude on our lives or break our wills. I like the way ‘broken in’ is both ominous and promising.

Do you write elsewhere, like on a personal blog or website where you flesh out ideas and/or connect with readers?

I blog at jadicampbell.wordpress.com and belong to 2 writers’ groups. We share works-in-progress and give each other thoughtful, honest criticism and feedback.

As the passage below shows, the dialogue and prose is often raw, direct and uncompromising. Did you write the stories to fit a particular genre or did you just write naturally and leave in, basically, whatever hit the page? Does this extract generally encapsulate your writing style?

“It was Steve, naturally, back with the same old bullshit. How he didn’t want to live life without me, and how he hadn’t slept in weeks. That part was probably true. He looked awful. At first I felt bad for him. But I was pissed. Who the hell did he think he was, sneaking around my yard waiting for me to come home, looking to see if Freddie was downstairs or not? Was he turning into a stalker? The little bubble of emotions I had left for him dried up right then and there. I owed him nothing, as far as I was concerned, nothing. Stalking behavior cancelled out the slate and left it dry. 

“Here Judy’s words took on the cadence of a carefully rehearsed speech.”

This is a great question. I wish I could leave whatever hits the page, but find constant revisions are the way to hone down to the true heart of a story. This particular passage is someone speaking, and dialog has to sound natural. I’ll write conversations and then read them aloud, looking for the rhythms of speech. I hope that the naturalness of this passage does reflect my characters when they are talking. As far as my writing being raw, direct and uncompromising (and thank you for that!), I shape scenes until I find their essence. I love writing descriptive passages, and seek the beauty in a moment or emotion perfectly described.

jadiIn JJ’s, the bartender and a teenaged patron plan exotic trips. JJ’s chef meets several men who’d kill for her. Valuables and peace of mind literally get stolen. Couples celebrate, or split up. In a rainy night accidents happen and people vanish. These are the stories of people whose paths cross – or crash. The tales begin in a bistro and move on to Bangkok, a carnival midway, and the bottom of a lake, among other places. Broken In: whether totally random or according to plan, after tonight life will never be the same.

What are you reading at the moment and what could you recommend to us?

I just finished David Eggers’ book Zeitoun about Hurricane Katrina. For fiction, anything by Geraldine Brooks is a feast. I recently reread all of Ray Bradbury.

What are you currently working on or what can we expect next?

I’m about 3/4s finished writing my next book. I’m at the hardest stage of the writing, and that’s figuring out both what to cut and how to join any still disparate parts together. It’s tentatively titled ThanksGiving. I have a third book in the works as well: a short story collection.

What are the major challenges that you have faced in your writing career?

Marketing. I did the writing first and the self-promotion afterwards. Aspiring writers (and all artists) need a marketing plan, or a manager. Preferably a manager…

What do you advise new writers to do? Best practice, writing tips, etc.

Join a writers’ group! The feedback of your peers is invaluable. And you’ll realize that you aren’t alone with your fears and hopes. Most writers create in isolation, so discovering others who think and feel like you do is a lifesaver in a sea of self-doubt. An added bonus is if you can find a group that likes to write together, the combined creative energies will inspire all of you! I meet every Friday with a group at a café and something wonderful happens when we’re all typing away on our laptops…

What is your background away from the writing desk and how did you get into penning novels?

I earned a B.A. in English Literature but wanted experience working in the real world for a while. I spent time in a San Francisco corporation in Marketing and Underwriting, and then became a massage therapist. I wrote as European Correspondent (great title, little dough) for a massage magazine for a decade. Took some years off from writing after that. Then the Muse returned stronger than before, and I’ve been following where she leads ever since. I still love massage work, so I’ve kept my hand (sorry, couldn’t resist) in a very people-oriented profession. It’s the perfect foil to the isolation writing demands.

Getting a self-published book noticed and into the hands of readers can be tough. Could you offer our readers any tips/hints or advice on promotion or marketing?

Send out emails to everyone you know. Start a blog and find your voice. Join a writers’ group that does public readings. Work to get your book reviewed: those reviews in turn allow you to contact fine websites like this one. AND – take the long view. It requires a year or longer to write a book; don’t expect to experience overnight success. It’s all baby steps and frustratingly slow… but each success builds on the prior ones.

What is your opinion on the power and potential of social media? Do you use the likes of Facebook, Goodreads, Google+ etc to connect with fans and promote your work?

I link my blog posts to Facebook. As for the power of social media, I find it’s a fine line to walk between developing a public presence online and giving away details about my private life. But yes, with the right amount of care the power of the Internet and social media can – and in many cases, do – help me promote my work effectively.

Who did you get to do your cover design, eBook formatting/conversion to Kindle and the like? And editing…was this all outsourced or did you do some yourself?

For the cover artwork I turned to Walter Share, an artist in Seattle. He has a website at Waltercolors.com. I am hoping he’ll agree to do all my covers! My husband did all the formatting work. I edited a guidebook for a trusted friend, and she returned the favor and edited Broken In.

Do you read self-published work yourself and could you recommend any independent authors’ work that we may enjoy reading?

Valerie Davies is a British woman now living in New Zealand and writes a gorgeous blog filled with her meditations on life. Valerie’s stories are collected together in Chasing the Dragon: An Addiction to Living.

Where can readers pick up a copy of your books from and what formats are available?

Broken In: A Novel in Stories is available on Amazon all around the world in paperback and eBook forms. My blog provides a link to the books as well.

Where can readers find out more about you, and/or get in touch?

I invite readers to visit me at jadicampbell.wordpress.com. I’m also on Facebook.

Many thanks for talking to us Jadi and best of luck with your future projects!

Thank you so much for featuring me. It was a pleasure to answer your questions.

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Hit & Run 1

Lou became a different person when he talked about his dead brother. Each time he mentioned Joey’s name Lou’s own plain, pleasant face would animate. It was as if a locked cabinet door suddenly swung open, each time letting out bright treasures long stacked up and locked away for safekeeping.

Margaret learned not to interrupt the flow of memories; when she asked too many questions the stories might derail. Plus Lou tossed out medical terms that meant nothing to her. She had no idea he knew so much about medicine and genetic diseases.

She preferred the details about what his days with Joey had been like. “We’d sit on an old couch in the rec room and watch TV,” Lou recalled, and it took shape as he spoke. It was yellow and brown plaid and really ugly. Mrs. Bocci had covered it with a clashing afghan, luckily out of sight down in the remodeled cellar. Lou and Joey watched television down there in the darkened room, drinking cokes and eating candy bars. Or Lou did; Joey had to avoid sugar as his parents and medical team tried successive diet regimes to control his myriad conditions.

Lou and Joey were exactly the same height, and they had the same features. The boys were monozygotic, what they call identical twins. They were truly identical. Only 8% of twins are monozygotic, and double births like Lou and Joey make up only 3 in every 1,000 deliveries worldwide, regardless of race. The chances of a fertilization ending in monozygotic twins are the same, for every population everywhere, all around the world.

Really cute twins Royalty Free Stock Photos

Lou’s voice took on a slightly lecturing tone as he recited each fact about Joey and his life. Margaret ate them up. The more facts he imparted the smarter she became, both about the topic of twins and about her boyfriend. With fraternal twins, Lou told her, the most frequent occurrence is brother/sister births. In identical or monozygotic twins, brother/brother births are the rarest births of all.

When the boys were out together in public it was more than obvious something was wrong. Clearly Joe was confined to a wheelchair or needed to use a cane to walk. If the viewer didn’t see the handicaps, though, Joey and Lou were identical. Without the cane or braces in plain sight, it was only when Joey coughed that someone could identify which twin was which.

As they aged they would likely become more alike, with the same IQ and personality. How twins are brought up, whether in the same house or separated at birth – that factor makes surprisingly little difference. Of course, the fact Joey was born with congenital defects complicated the math equation for the prediction. But the boys loved being twins; it was cool. Because of his brother, because of Joey, Lou was automatically special. While Joey was still alive, Lou stopped wanting to be an astronaut. For a time he wanted to go into genetic research.

Margaret went home each evening to sleep that was attended by strange dreams. Cells replicated in her dreams, forming up on the left into a perfectly regular human shape. On the opposite side, a tragically beautiful über-human took form. The gestalt was unquestionably male. But then the contour of the image blurred and curled at the edges, unable to hold his ideal form.

She woke up thinking about Lou and his frail, pale double.

Margaret began looking at Lou with different eyes. He simply wasn’t the same person as before. Lou hadn’t changed, of course, but his past and the absent twinned half that had been tragically cut down by illness, the part of him inexorably gone was the part Margaret found mysterious. The lost duplicate cells were of endless fascination for her.

In the hours between dates with Lou, Margaret daydreamed about her lover. How many other seemingly ordinary men and women might there be in the world, persons who seemed so common on the outside, all of them with their secrets and old tragedies. How many people had strange cloned or parallel universe doubles, tragically vanished and never to be retrieved? Maybe, she mused, maybe we all have doubles we sense on some strange level, and we mourn them without ever realizing it. When we talk about the search to find your soul mate, maybe what we really mean is your other half, the part you lost in some earlier life. And when you meet again in the current incarnation, you come together to be whole without even recognizing it’s happened. It’s just your missing twin, whom you’ve refound.

She scoffed at herself for such fanciful notions, but Margaret was a little bit envious of her boyfriend’s past history. Strangely, his incompleteness made him whole. Lou wasn’t a decent guy with a good if boring career. He was somehow so much more than the sum of his parts, both those existing and the ones that had vanished. Or maybe especially those parts that were dead. Not only did Margaret observe Lou with new eyes; she really saw him for the first time. Margaret began to fall in love.

– from my short story “Hit and Run” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere. Go to my posts Hit & Run 2 &  3 for more on Joey, Lou and Margaret.

Photo courtesy http://www.dreamstime.com

Just Riding Around

“No one must ever come here,” Danny commented. Jilly was focused on the forest floor and didn’t answer, but he was right. The carpet of woods was undisturbed, and the trail she and her brother were following was unmarked by old boot tracks from anybody else.

Danny stopped to sit back on his heels and look up into the clear sky. The sound of Jilly’s woodpecker was louder; either they’d gotten nearer, or else the bird (or whatever was making the noise; he still wasn’t convinced it was necessarily a pecker) had flown in their direction. Tap tap tap tap thwock tap thwock. He stood back up. “Come on. Let’s go find your not-bird.”

Obediently Jilly followed, too happy with the day and the peace in the woods to respond to the comment. The trail narrowed, and the siblings walked single file without making noise as they followed an occasional tap thwock. The noise was less frequent and had stabilized itself to a point somewhere not far off.

Jilly looked behind her to see if she’d missed anything back down the trail, and promptly ran into her brother. Danny stood in the middle of it, concentrating on something ahead.

“Someone lives out here.” He pointed left. The trail rose a little, and they stood on the only point where the building could be seen clearly at all. Jilly squinted; she would need glasses soon, but so far nobody had noticed. Jilly’s quick wits compensated for what she lacked in visual acuity. Jilly narrowed her eyes into slits until she made out a dull brown building. It was a small hut, and the builder hadn’t bothered to clear out any of the trees or surrounding underbrush.

Danny and Jill went nearer, moving more slowly but intensely curious. Danny didn’t say anything as they kept following the trail. He ignored the No Trespassing sign nailed to a tree; Danny knew his sister hadn’t seen the other signs either, all warning they were on private property.

The trail ended abruptly. They stood at the edge of a wall of brambles, towering 4 feet above their heads. The screen of thick blackberry canes shielded the cabin from sight. Sharp points grabbed onto Danny’s knap sack when he went nearer, and he shrugged the pack off his shoulders and set it on the ground as he searched for a way through the thorny wall. The surrounding ground was awkward with rocks.

“We’ll never get through this,” Danny said.

“Over here.” His sister had found a path cunningly cut into the bramble, low enough that an adult would need to duck down to see it at all. The two children were just the right height to make out the path, visible only if you were searching for a way through the thicket. Jilly and her brother made their way into the low brush, moving carefully to avoid getting snagged.

They came out on the opposite side of the briar hedges and discovered they were close to the dwelling. It was constructed of smooth planks of wood and had a single door that was closed, and no windows. Jill moved back to the trees beyond the cabin, still looking for her bird. She vanished almost immediately into the darkness created by shadows of the tall trees. Danny circled around the side of the cabin.

He stepped into a messy clearing filled with wire cages, some of them with busted wire netting, all of them empty. Other than the ground under the abandoned cages, nothing had been cleaned or cleared. He discovered another, smaller hut almost completely hidden by the bushes and saplings crowding back into the forest.

There was no longer any sound of the hammering. “Told you there wasn’t a wood pecker,” Danny began to call after his sister. Before he could finish the words a shrill yapping drowned out his voice.

Danny shrieked and something banged against the hut’s inner walls. It went on banging without pause, as if a gigantic creature with fifty frantic scrabbling legs climbed up the wall in a desire to attack him. The yaps didn’t let up for a second. Things were hurling themselves against the planks, rabid with anger. For a moment the clearing was suddenly, terribly still, all sound sucked out of the day and into the creatures trying to break their way out of the cabin.

Danny glanced wildly around the clearing. He ran over to the cages and put his weight on the nearest one to see if they were stable enough for him to climb up out of biting range. He was testing the surprisingly thick wooden frames when the cabin’s owner stepped out in front of him.

Danny wondered why the burly man was wearing boots on a warm day, but the shovel the man carried took up his attention. “What’s your name? What do you think you’re doing?” The adult went on talking without waiting for an answer.

“I’m Danny Tarbery,” Danny answered. “I was just riding around, out exploring, that’s all.”

“Danny? Why, that’s my name, too.” The man came closer. “Danny. Dan. You can call me Big Dan. Little Danny, you’re a long ways from town for exploring.” Danny swallowed hard and tried not to make a face. Big Dan smelled unbelievably bad. It was a stench of very old sweat, the crusty plaid shirt he wore, and the mud caking the shovel and his boots with a combination of earth and partially decomposed swamp grasses.

Big Dan was directly in front of Danny but he didn’t stop coming. Danny backed up until he was cornered between the man, the cages, and the cabin. He stumbled a little as his body touched the back wall. The dogs became aware of his presence against it outside and Danny felt the boards yield. They threw themselves against the wood over and over, the movements harder and more insistent.

The man bared his lips and brown teeth showed in an incongruously attractive smile. He flicked almost white hair out of his face and never let go of the dirty shovel. “What d’you think you’re exploring for?”

There was a pause inside as the canines heard the older man’s voice. The thudding began again even harder. Danny literally felt them as they scrabbled up and down the other side of the thin planks. The frame and walls shuddered; the dogs were rabid to get outside. Danny began trembling, and couldn’t stop.

“You had to come looking even though the road out there has a bunch of No trespassing signs, right?” The owner pointed in the direction of the dirt track, clearly indicating it as the road in question. “You saw the signs, don’t pretend you didn’t.” He looked at Danny, calculating. “Boy, how old are you?”

“My step father’s waiting for me,” Danny began.

He heard the snapping of brush littering the ground off to the right on the far side of the cabin. The door to the cabin creaked as it opened and there was silence for four seconds. The air filled back up with shrill barking. Danny listened terrified as dogs sniffed the air and dashed towards where he stood trapped against the back wall of the cabin.

Calmly the man with the terrible smell turned and called out, “We got a visitor here. Stop!”

Danny watched in incomprehension as three dogs, far too small to have produced the huge amount of chaotic noise, immediately stood at attention. He wanted to laugh, but he was too scared. “Chihuahuas?” Danny said.

(Photo from Wikipedia)

– from my short story “Just Riding Around” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.