Monday, August 2, 2010

So, one thing I've been up to lately is revising an old story ("John Wayne in My Tower") and submitting it (new title is "Guard Duty") to the Willamette Writer's Kay Snow Contest. As it turns out, I won second place in the adult fiction category. Yahoo! Anyway, the revision process is very interesting, and the main reason I revised "John Wayne" was to see how the years between when I first wrote it (mid-80's) and now might have influenced my take on the basic situation: two guys in a guard tower one night in Vietnam. If you'd care to, you can read both stories and comment about which works best for you ... or doesn't work. Anyway, here's "Guard Duty":

Guard Duty

It was dark, about ten o’clock, and the pounding monsoon rain exploded on Billy’s rucksack, the tarmac, our ponchos and helmets and M-16s. He said, “I brung somethin’. Ya wanna see ‘em?”

I played dumb. “What the hell’re you talking about?”

He half turned to me. Under his helmet, his face was a dim, pale, smiling mushroom. “Some pitchures. Of Verla.”

I laughed, trying for a snigger, a snort, a dirty chortle, like a kid with a mirrored shoe in a roomful of skirts. “Yeah, sure.”

We were walking to the perimeter, into another wasted night of guard duty. It had been two months since Charlie had launched a mortar or a sapper tried to blow something up. But Reets had said to keep our eyes peeled and our cocks stiff, because you just never know. The pictures, Billy figured, would help to pass the time. He patted the front of his poncho. “Keepin’ ‘em nice and dry, up next to my heart.”

The ignorant sap was in love.

We crossed the flight line, where a row of Hueys and Snakes hunkered in their revetments. “Don’t let Charlie blow them up,” Reets had said, reminding us of the obvious. The rain poured off their rotor blades and streaked down their Plexiglas eyes.

At the perimeter, Billy shrugged off the ruck and pulled out a roll of electrical wire and a claymore mine. He handed them to me. The claymore was about ten inches wide and five high, packed with C-4 and 600 steel balls. The Army called them “anti-personnel devices,” which is like calling God god. Its curved, plastic-coated face was embossed with FRONT TOWARD ENEMY, a reminder of who was who and where they’d be.

I unfolded its two pointed legs, knelt down a couple of yards from the first coil of rusting concertina and stuck them into the sandy ground. I attached the wire leads, then stood and began spooling out the wire and backing away, about twenty yards to our post for the night, tower eighteen.

I followed Billy up the ladder to the observation platform. It had waist-high sandbag walls and a tin, corrugated roof. It looked down upon a free-fire zone of trip flares, mines and snarls of concertina. Bright floodlights cast a yellow glow. Our stretch of responsibility was about forty yards deep and over a hundred yards wide. The perimeter was, as the Army might say, a gauntlet of inconveniences. Houdini, it was said, couldn’t make it through. There was a Prick-25 field phone and a cot. Billy set the ruck down. It held our food and Cokes, a few clips of extra ammo, a flashlight and flares. According to that night’s SOP, a green flare signified “Enemy Contact,” white screamed “My Position Is Overrun” and red meant something like “Tell Mom I Love Her.”

We leaned our ‘16s in the corner and shucked our ponchos off. Billy fastened the wires to the clacker and set it on a sandbag. One squeeze of the clacker would send a few volts charging through the copper wire to the C-4 and the resulting explosion would wipe out up to 600 of the nonexistent enemy.

Behind us, invisible through the thick rain and darkness, the guys of D-Troop were diddling whores, writing letters, watching movies or cutting z’s. They were of less strategic importance than the choppers.

Billy reached inside his field jacket, pulled out the envelope and removed three Polaroids. He laid them side-by-side on a sandbag. He sniggered, his yellow teeth a lewd crescent. “Fetch the light.”

I got the flashlight. He grabbed it and switched it on.

Verla: his sixteen-year-old and very pregnant wife—a cotton farmer’s daughter with tan lines so sharp she seemed half a ghost—standing naked from the waist up beside a horse, her big white belly hanging out above her blue jean cut-offs, her tits big-scoop vanilla cones, her smiling at the camera, teasing ….

Verla: astride the same horse, a stallion by the hang of him, at a full gallop, the dirt flying from his hooves, her tits and belly bouncing, her grinning down at the camera, saucy ….

And, finally, Verla: leaning up against a barn, her cherry nipples the same exact shade as the red paint on the barn, as if painted by the same brush, her laughing at the camera, taunting ….

I looked off into the dark night, and Billy stared till the batteries got weak.

Awestruck, he said, “Ain’t they dandies?”


“They’s a leakin’.”

I tried again to chortle—that kid looking at his shoe up skirts.

“I’m gonna dream ‘bout squeezin’ ‘em tonight.”

“You’re a lucky bastard.”

“Gaw damn right. They ain’t for no hands ‘cept mine and the baby’s hands.”

He said that like the laying on of hands conjured miracles.

But then he frowned. “They was s’posed to be a letter. But gaw damn tarnation.” He shined the dimming light into the envelope. “They ain’t.”

I shrugged. “Verla just forgot to put it in.”

He shook his head. “Always before, they was a letter.” He picked up the Polaroids, stuffed them into the envelope and slipped it back inside his jacket.

I said, “Okay. I’ve got the first watch.” We’d alternate in two-hour shifts.

Billy climbed onto the cot, pulled a poncho liner up to his chin and yawned. “Time for that titty dream.”

“You lucky bastard.”

I set the phone on a sandbag, dialed in the freq and ran a commo check with Reets. “Hey, butter bar, got your ears on?”

“Go ahead, eighteen.”

“How’s the hammer hanging?”

“What the hell’s your sit-rep?”

“We’re copasetic.”

“Roger. And fuck you, Winters.”

I laughed and hung up. For an officer, Reets was half human.

Billy was already snoring. I propped my elbows on the bag and scanned over the perimeter. No movement. And still none ten minutes later when Billy began moaning. He cried out, “Ride, baby, ride!”

The sap meant the horse, I think.

Even for a nineteen-year-old hick from Arkansas, Billy was over-sexed. At least a mile over. He claimed he’d “fawwk a buzz saw if’n Verla were a tooth in it.” He swore the tower was a “dick symbol” that inspired “blue veiners and cum dreams,” and he believed with every fiber of his sweet, dumb heart that if he dreamed real hard it’d come true.

Tower eighteen squatted on a rise of ground, and the lights stretched all the way around the firebase like a bright pearl necklace. It was too beautiful. I wanted ugly. During my months in Nam I hadn’t seen one live Charlie, just those seven black-pajamas heaped in the horseshoe pit one day, VC, shot up in an ambush. They were nothing to write home about, and only counted in someone else’s war. I’d come to Vietnam to use my trigger finger.

I lit a cigarette and thought about Sergeant Stryker in The Sands of Iwo Jima, which I’d seen twelve times as a kid ….

Stryker tips his helmet back, Zippos his Camel, takes an insolent drag and blows the smoke at the night. He eyes the wire. Japs are in it, low-crawling, only a hundred or so. He bides his time, his Thompson hanging eager at his side. Their leader, a colonel with facial scars and sneering lips, leads the way. He leaps up, waves his Samurai and screams “Banzai!” and the others charge forward, their guns blazing. Stryker doesn’t blink. His gaze steely and his chin strap dangling, his Thompson spits death from his hip and mows them down ….

The cigarette was bitter and I flicked it away, and in the deep shadows at the farthest edge of the perimeter a shadow moved. Or had it? My eyeballs locked on, but it dissolved into nothingness, and then materialized once again, a shape, a creeping dark blot, low to the ground and skulking closer.

Maybe I blinked and swallowed and felt a chill. Maybe I backed up a step and nudged Billy, and maybe he just kept dreaming. Maybe I almost grabbed the phone and called Reets again to ask him what the hell to do, and maybe I fired up a flare into the black night, a red one.

I did grab my ’16—or maybe it was Billy’s—and it was a dumb gun that didn’t know its butt from mine. I jerked it to my shoulder; the barrel seemed a mile long, aimed at nothing. No where did it say POINT TOWARD ENEMY.

Floating up from down below and cutting through the thumping rain, a whine. It unnerved me, made my trigger finger go limp. I looked harder. The skulking blot was brown with white spots and had four legs. It was a dog.

I lowered the gun.

One leg wasn’t working, the left front. The dog limped on its three good ones down a tunnel of concertina wire. Its belly hung heavy and low and its muzzle slung from side to side. It stopped, raised its head and looked around, staggered through a gap in the wire, coming closer. Now it was in the middle of the perimeter, where it halted again and sniffed the air. It angled through the wire, stumbled and veered into a coil. It yelped and jerked away and drops fell from the wire. It shook itself, a weak shudder of its tail. Its front shoulder and leg were matted dark, the fur. It hobbled forward ten more yards to a point directly in front of me, maybe five yards from the claymore, where it collapsed. It lay there on its side and panted ragged, shivering in fits.

Her belly and teats were swollen. She was pregnant, a Verla.

She trembled and stiffened, then curled her nose around to between her rear legs and started licking, and a pup slid out into the wet sand. She tongued it off, nosed it to a teat, and then she uncurled flat on her side again, panting. She panted louder than the rain. That pup was holding on, a part of her. She shuddered, a violent seizure. She labored her head around again, between her legs, and nosed out a second pup, and then a third and fourth. She nudged each of them to a teat, and then lay down flat on her side and didn’t move, not even her nose.

I pulled my chin strap tight and thought about Queenie, my boyhood dog. Before I was out of grade school she’d littered three times. Dad called her a bitch like he called me his son, but I called her a good-old-girl.

The clacker sitting on the sandbag beside me whispered something, a wordy breath of passing air.

The ’16 had a twenty-round clip. I ejected it and slid out three 7.62 millimeter rounds. The word millimeters struck me as obscene. I leaned over the sandbags and tossed the three rounds down at her, and they arced brassy through the pearly light and twanged off the wire.

Still, she didn’t move.

I stepped over to the ladder and climbed down to the ground and turned toward the perimeter. The claymore was planted between me and her. It scared me, its claim on territory, and how from that distance the dim light cast it in innocence, like a cabbage. I walked up and around it and then in front of it. That indistinct whisper came floating by again.

She was still sprawled over on her side, motionless, the pups suckling, squirming. Raindrops cratered the sand. She’d been shot in her shoulder.

I took my helmet off to feel the rain on my head, to make the whisper go away. I got down on my hands and knees and reached through a gap in the coils. Her leg was too far away. I shouldered against the wire and it bent back and razors pierced my jacket and one sliced an ear. Behind me, the claymore was sending whispers up the wire and into Billy’s dream, saying Verla’s tit is a clacker.

I pushed the wire back enough and grabbed her paw and pulled. She slid closer. The pups hung on to their teats. Her shot leg had bone sticking out. It didn’t matter who had shot her. I used my knee and a free hand to force an opening, and dragged her and the pups out.

They lay in front of me. I wondered how long a dead mother gave warm milk. I let them suckle. The rain soaked us. When I pulled one off its mouth kept smacking. It was a male, maybe five inches long. I tucked him into a pocket and gathered up the others, all females, a mix of brown and white and black, and settled them one by one into the same pocket—not the one with Billy’s missing letter.

I was the Troop’s mail clerk. When Verla’s letter came that morning I steamed it open and saw the pictures and read the letter. I pocketed the letter and put the pictures back in and resealed the envelope. He got it at mail call. Verla wasn’t who he thought she was. She was a bitch.

I scooped out a deep hole in the sand, my fingers clawing and scraping, hoping for dry sand. There wasn’t any. I dug deeper, using my helmet. Blood dripped from my ear. Tears came hot and blinding. I lifted my face to the rain and sobbed for what I knew. I picked her up—not a bitch, a dog—and lay her at the bottom of the grave. I tossed the letter in. He’d never even thought to wonder whose horse it was, and whose barn. The perimeter was a good place to bury two mothers—an in-between place, not here or there or us or them. It confused mines.

Back at the tower, one rung at a time, I climbed the ladder to where Billy’s moans greeted me. He was drowning in another dream—about to go wet, judging from his rising song and grinding hips.

I shook the cot and tugged his sleeve and yelled, “Dog in the wire!”

He startled. His hands grabbed his crotch and his body went stiff. His eyes popped open and must have seen what his brain didn’t see. “Verla, that you?”

I pulled a pup out of my pocket, stroked its warm belly and held it out.

He blinked and shook his head. “What ’n tarnation?” He threw off the poncho liner and swung his legs off the cot and stood.

“Here, you take her.”

He cupped his dumb hands and took the pup and brought her close underneath his chin. His smile was the quarter moon above the clouds. “Gaw damn!”

I gathered up the other three pups. They fit in my palm. My helmet was down at the grave filling up with rain. “When you dream your next dream, we need a good mother.”


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

What I've Been Up To

So, what have I been up to, writing-wise? A lot.

First, I've kept sending out queries for "Trout Kill": Peter Miller Agency, ; Prospect Agency, ; John Hawkins and Associates; (A same-day rejection! Very efficient!); Irene Goodman Lit. Agency,  ; and Donald Mass Lit. Agency,

Second, "TK" has been edited and revised. I feel good about where it is. Thank you so much, Debra! I am so grateful for all your help. And Tin House Books in Portland has request to see the entire manuscript. That makes two publishers who will read it. Ooligan Press, also located in Portland, is the other.

Third, I've revised an old short story to submit to the Kay Snow Writing Contest. We'll see ....

Fourth, I've begun a critique group, 3 guys so far (Shawn, Sean and me). We're looking for a fourth, preferably a woman. We've met once, mostly a get-to-know-you session, but with some great discussion, too. We're all working on novels, or maybe Sean's is a memoir. Great fun, and am already looking forward to our next meeting.

And finally, I've begun the second novel in my trilogy. It's time to cut my emotional ties to "TK" and focus on "TR" (Trout Run). So far, so good.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Joys of Hell: V

Sometimes weird things happen. For example, I queried The Bent Agency on 3/10 and got a fast rejection the very next day (my birthday--Ouch!). Jenny said, "Thank you so much for writing me about your project. I read and consider each query carefully and while yours is not exactly what I am looking for, I would certainly encourage you to keep trying. I know your work is important to you and I am grateful that you wrote to me. All best." Now, as far as rejection goes, this one was timely and seemingly sincere and encouraging.

My email response was, "Jenny, Thank you for your careful consideration of my project, and may your day be filled with floral scents."

Here's the weird part: No sooner had I sent my response than I got this automated reply: "Thank you very much for sending your query to The Bent Agency. It is our goal to respond to every query so please do resend if you haven't heard back to us within eight weeks of receiving this notice."

It seems because my "floral" reply had the word "query" in its subject heading, the software program that reads the agency's incoming email automatically generated the quick "Thank you."

This automation, of course, makes me wonder how "sincere" the rejection was. Perhaps it's just another form letter, rather than a sentiment from Jenny's heart. Ah, the mind games we play with ourselves.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Joys of Hell, IV

A velvet-clad rejection sledgehammer from Jessica at Bookends on 3/8:

"Thank you so much for giving BookEnds a chance to consider your work. While I found your query intriguing I’m afraid I wasn’t sufficiently enthusiastic to ask for more at this time. As I’m sure you know, publishing is a subjective business and I’m sure there’s another agent out there better suited to your work. I wish you the best of luck and the greatest success."

LESSON: For you really bad romance writers, here's a line for your next  really bad novel (Feel free to plagiarize): "She looked at him with disdain in her eyes--the kind of disdain you might see in a dog's eyes when you reach into your coat pocket for a doggie treat, only to realize they're all gone, and so you pull your empty hand out and, instead of giving the mutt the treat he's already slobbering over, you offer up instead a lame pat on the head--and, after slapping him viciously on the cheek of his face, as opposed to the one on his ass, she snarled, 'Are you sufficiently enthusiastic to ask for more at this time?'"

But, there's some good news, too: a couple of local presses, Ooligan and Tin House Books, have said they'd like to see a partial manuscript, so I'm sending them the first fifty pages. Oh, the joy, the joy! But, let's not get ahead of ourselves--and why am I suddenly writing in the plural form, as if you're in this Hell with me? Stay tuned ....

A Weirdosity of Stupendous Magnitude

Over twenty years ago I wrote “Marlene,” a short story, and recently I resurrected it from its file-cabinet grave, brushed off the dust, “fiddled” with it a bit, changed the title to “Leghorn Love,” and posted it as the very first entry of my blog. Okay, nothing weird so far about that, right?—except perhaps my insecurity, how I felt compelled to once again “fiddle” with a piece that had been, back in the day, fiddled ad nauseam in order to, you know, “make it better.” Okay, enough about my insecurity.

Anyway, Lori, my musically astute—and, I’m quickly learning, literarily astute, as well—neighbor read the story on my blog and emailed me, commenting she liked the story but, she observed, it seemed to be missing a scene toward the end, between the time Larry, the protagonist, makes a phone call to Marlene, the antagonist, and the concluding (and brilliantly conceived!) scene. She even envisioned a few ideas (involving a few beers, etc.) as to how one might fill in the allegedly missing scene.

Well, I attributed her “missing scene” as a sign of her over-active imagination, or a misreading or misinterpretation. I even suggested she try writing a story of her own to, you know, give her imagination a proper cathartic workout. There was, I knew, no missing scene at all. I must confess, however, that I was so sure of being correct in the matter that I didn’t bother checking the blog and seeing for myself. And you know the old adage: Pride goeth before a fall.

I was going to read the story that Saturday at our monthly “emotive” gathering, comprised of a bunch of crazy neighbors and friends of various artistic backgrounds, Lori among them. (she's a fantastic singer of classical music). It was to be hosted by another neighbor, Ricardo, an escapee from a Columbian mental asylum—but that’s another story.

So, having just “fiddled” with the story for my blog, I now had to “fiddle” with it for the reading. I revised it on a Word document and, wanting the version on my blog to be identical, copied the Word version to my blog. I did this several times, going back and forth between Word and blog. When I read the Word version Saturday evening, I noted the end didn’t seem right. For one thing, a line was repeated. This should have been a head’s-up about the possibility I’d screwed up the blog version.

Anyway, Lori commented [either that night or the following day, I’m not sure which, and I attribute this lapse of memory to the cheapness of Ricardo’s wine] that I had added the “missing scene,” the one she had noted a few days before on my blog. She even said, I believe, that I'd incorporated some of her imaginings. I politely disagreed, stating the scene had been in the original story, written over twenty years ago and so, therefore, it was in the blog, too, just as it was included in the Word version.

Yes, this is a classic example of faulty logic and, yes, this whole thing is also getting very confusing.

To conclude: As you have, I’m sure, already surmised, Lori was right. In all my going back and forth between blog and Word, I had somehow omitted the scene on my blog.

The weirdosity is this: Lori’s “imagined scene”—that is, what she envisioned with the beer, etc.,—matched up darn well with what I’d originally written a long, long time ago.

This fact should be a really, really scary thing for Lori: She thinks like me!

And I've learned the hazards of excessive fiddling (which I'll ignore, thank you very much). Lori said when Beethoven composed, he did so rather manically, with lots of visions and revisions and revisions of revisions ("before the taking of a toast and tea"?); with Mozart, though, an inviolate epiphany in the form of a complete symphony would spring from his fertile mind. I hate him, and I'm sure you do, too. Most writers, I believe, are Beethoven's.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Joys of Hell, III

My novel is a worm (and who doesn't like worms?) dangling on a hook (i.e., the "query") in a big lake (i.e., the "publishing industry') of big fish (i.e., agents and editors), and every once in awhile the tip of my pole quivers (i.e., I get a reply) and I seize the rod (with HOPE!) and yank out another pair of fish lips (reel in an empty hook, dripping with cruel REJECTION).

I feel like the proverbial one-arm fisherman who, when asked how big the fish was that got away, holds up his one arm and says, "This big, at least!" Okay, enough with the allegory!

So, here are my two most recent rejections: Michael, at Dystel & Goderich Lit. Agency, who I queried 2/26/10, responded very politely on 3/4/10: “Thanks so much for letting me take a look at your materials and please forgive me for responding with a form letter. The volume of submissions I receive, however, makes it impossible to correspond with everyone personally. Unfortunately, the project you describe does not suit my list at this time. I wish you the best of luck in finding an agent and publisher for your work and I thank you, once again, for letting me consider your materials.”

Wow! That's a well-phrased, courteous and professional "form" way of saying "fuck off and drop dead." No, actually I'm not that bitter. Honest. I understand completely: I do not "suit" his "list." I mean, if back in the day when I was dating, had I asked a girl for a date, she could have merely said the volume of submissions she had to deal with was overwhelming, and that I didn't suit her list, and then she would have thanked me for letting her consider my materials. I simply would have said, "No prob!" and then drowned my sorrows with another beer, wondering how in the hell she could have checked out my "materials."

Over the years between then and now, nothing much has changed, I guess, in how I deal with rejection, except perhaps wine is now my drowning drug of choice.

Here's the second one: Scott, at Trident Media Group, LLC, in his 3/4 response to my 3/4 query [pretty quick reply, huh?] says, "I respect the time and effort that you have put into your project, which is why I regret to tell you that it just does not feel right for my list. I read every query that is sent to me via e-mail and because the volume of these queries is so huge I am forced to be extremely selective about what I ask to see.” I like his employment of alliteration, with "respect" and "regret."

I'd throw "rejection" into the mix, too. But, okay, I can see a two-fold "theme" emerging: (1) all these people are busy with "volume" and (2), they have a "list." There's not much I can do about "volume," except perhaps begin a terror campaign directed at novelists across the country. Hmmm, not a bad idea, but how can I manage to get them all aboard the same airplane and airborne at 30,000 feet?

Yeah, I know, that's not funny.

But what about this "list" thing? Do I have any control over it? I do my research, or what I call "research." It consists of reading an agent's bio, his/her (more her's than his's--by far, it seems) description of current projects and preferences, the house's list of published works, etc. If I see the words "literary fiction" anywhere, [Are you ready for another bad dose of allegory?] I'll deem him/her an appropriate "big fish" in that "big lake" and bait my hook and cast and hope for a bite.

Ahhh, to one day say, "Baby, they're bitin' like bulldogs!"

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Joys of Hell, II

So. I've spent the last few days expanding my list of agent and publisher queries, which has grown to ten. They include the following: Joy Harris Agency, Ann Rittenberg Agency, Scott Waxman Agency, Dystel & Goderich Agency, Ooligan Press, Trident Media Group (2 different agents), The Bent Agency, and Hawthorne Books.

You may notice that I've approached two different agents in the same agency, Trident. What are the ethics of this, or do ethics even apply? And no, I didn't notify either agent of my "multiple" query. I will admit to some ignorance in the matter of "acceptable practice" for submissions and queries.

Years ago, the standard practice included explicitly stating, if you did the multiple thing, that you were doing so. Now, however, that doesn't seem necessary. In the case of Hawthorne Books, their website said they were backlogged with submissions until December of 2010, and that they wouldn't be reading any new submissions, but I queried them anyway, saying my novel is ready now. Is this "risky"?

I consider my queries and submissions, whether or not they follow the exact letter of submission/query requirement, as "shots in the dark." (I actually use this phrase in some queries.) So far I've taken ten "shots," and as far as I can tell most of them are still speeding through the immense and very dark world of publication and hitting nothing.

I've gotten one reply, from the Scott Waxman Agency, saying they "won't be pursuing representation at this time." I immediately fired back an email asking, "Why?" So far, no response.

Update: I've been chastised by a dear writing friend, Jessica, about the ethically-challenged practice of multiple queries to the same agency, and I promise I won't do that anymore. Honest.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Being a Kid, I

Who knows where or when one's heart first warms to the idea of writing. I suppose many writers can trace their love to some fondly remembered moment during kidhood, such as when a parent or a teacher read them an exciting story, or they received a journal or a diary as a gift, or perhaps they simply fell in love with the feel of a pencil in their hand.

My kidhood, though, was stacked against me.

I cannot remember a time when either my father or my mother read a story to me. In their defense, I imagine they were too busy making a living (Dad was a logger) and raising three kids (mostly Mom). We were poor, although at the time it didn't seem so. Mom and Dad did, though, have a few books and magazines around the house: for Mom, romances and scandal rags like "The National Enquirer," while Dad preferred crime stories and thrillers. I learned the basics of reading and writing in grade school (no pre-school or kindergarten), but have no remembrance of a "special moment" when I fell in love with anything, except, that is, the mile-and-a-half walk to and from Westside Elementary. There were horse pastures and orchards and lots of rocks to throw along the way. I still love walking and throwing rocks. No, in grades 1-3 we mostly sat in circles and read picture books, and in grades 4-6 the pictures went away. There is, though, the recollection of practicing our skill at penmanship. We would hold those too-big pencils in our too-small hands and painstakingly trace out (between the lines, of course) all the letters of the alphabet, both in upper- and lower-case. I did like doing that, so perhaps my love is based on a tactile memory. Who knows?

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Joys of Hell, I

I'm spending a good part of today in Hell, writing queries to prospective agents. It feels like I'm somewhere in Dante's Circles 2-5, where sins of incontinence are punished ... those souls who were not very adept at resisting their passions. My passion is writing, not querying. (Is that a word?) But there's a method to my sinfullness!

I've gotten tons of good advice from a successful, local writer (Jessica), and from my nextdoor neighbor, who's also a writer (Ricardo). Let's call her Virgil 1, and him Virgil 2. (Are you keeping pace with this stunning literary allusion?)

I've known Virgil 1 three or four years, and several weeks ago I contacted her about "picking her brain." You see, I'd just finished my novel ("finished," that is, until an agent, editor or publisher says otherwise), and I hoped she might offer a little free advice about acquiring an agent. She graciously agreed, even to the "free" part. We met a few days later at a local bistro (beer for me, wine for her), and she was a veritable fountain (Yeah, that's a cliche.) of information: names of agents, blog sites, tips, cautionary advice, etc.

Wow! I told her she's an angel! (Or so she seemed!) So, that's what I'm doing today: the dreaded "follow-up" to that bistro meeting, a classic case of an angel leading a poor innocent to Hell. (Yes, I'm mixing my metaphors, Virgil and angel ...) So far, I've queried two of the agencies Virgil 1 suggested (I checked them out first, seeing if they were suitable for my novel, which I describe in my queries as "a realistic literary novel, in the vein of "Sideways" and "Sometimes a Great Notion," and is completed at 120,000 words. It is the first part of a prospective trilogy, the theme of which appeals to a universal commercial market: man’s struggle for love against the powerful currents of the past.") [Pretty cool, huh?]

The two agencies I've thus far queried (this serves as my official notification of a "multiple query") are the Kimberley Cameron Agency and the Ann Rittenberg Agency.

Virgil 2, my nextdoor neighbor and fellow swiller of cheap wine, is a man who's passionate about writing and writers. He and his wife host a literary event each month in their home. It's a rather mad, spontaneous occasion, which attracts a crazy, eclectic group of artists, singers, writers, jugglers, etc. "Emotive" is the term he would use to describe it. It's his favorite word, to the exclusion of all others. Anyway, he suggested I query a local publisher, Ooligan Press, which I did a few days ago.

What these two Virgil's have done for me (to me?) is incalcuable, and I deeply thank them ... or curse them, since they've led me into this Hell, and haven't yet pointed the way out.

Anyone know the way to Purgatory?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

John Wayne in My Tower (short story)

Note: I first wrote this story over twenty years ago. This version remains fairly true to the original, but has substantial changes--hopefully, for the better.


Billy Green and I walked across the tarmac that night toward our guard post, and the monsoon sky opened up with black rain splattering off our ponchos, and had I believed in omens at the time, the ugly downpour might have qualified. But as it happened, I was nineteen and ignorant, and so the two of us just trudged down the flight line heading for the perimeter, oblivious, M-16’s slung over our shoulders, and Billy toting a rucksack and a bandolier of claymore mines.

Billy was from Arkansas and, therefore, given to bragging about Verla’s tits. “Ain’t she got a pair of dandies?”

I nodded, and water poured off my head. “You bring the pictures?” She’d mailed him three nude photos: Verla standing beside her horse and showing off her dandies; Verla riding the horse at a gallop, her dandies bouncing; and Verla’s dandies sprawled across the hay in the barn.

“Nah. They’s back at the hootch.”


The rain eased a little, and ahead we could see the glowing lights of the perimeter, our first line of defense, a bad-assed place full of obstacles and lurking guard towers. But during that particular time in 1970, and at that particular firebase in the Central Highlands, the enemy had apparently forgotten all about us: They hadn’t launched a single mortar or rocket, or sent even one sniper or sapper for a visit in months. But nonetheless, on any given night a commie or two might infiltrate and blow something up. We’d been told by the Officer of the Day, Lieutenant Reets, to keep our eyes peeled and our cocks stiff. That night—and every night we pulled guard duty—the choppers were the objects of our responsibility: Whatever happens, don’t let Charlie blow them up. That sounded simple enough. As we walked along, the Cobras and Hueys squatted inside the walls of their revetments.

Our tower—number eighteen—was twenty feet high and built with creosoted beams, sandbags, sheets of tin and lumber. A roofed platform was perched on top. From there, you could look down into a defoliated no-man’s land of row after row of concertina wire, stacked two- or three-high. And then there were the hidden trip-flares and mines and free-fire zones and other inconveniences. It was supposed to be Charlie’s worst nightmare.

I said, “You plant the trip, I’ll plant the clacker.”

Billy nodded okay.

We walked past the tower to the concertina wire, where he pulled two claymores from the bandolier and handed one to me, along with a roll of electrical wire and a clacker, a triggering device. The mines were about a foot wide, six inches high and two thick, sheathed in olive-drab plastic, each loaded with C-4 explosives and shaped so that when the C-4 detonated, about 700 steel balls would blast across a 60-degree kill zone. In Army nomenclature, the mines were known as an “anti-personnel device.” I unfolded the thin scissor legs on my claymore, knelt down onto my knees and shoved the legs into the sand. Now the mine faced the perimeter. The funny part was this: Its convex face had FRONT TOWARD ENEMY embossed on it. To win a war, I guess, you have to keep things simple. But of course, that didn’t work in Vietnam. Anyway, I secured the wires to the mine and backed away, spooling out the wire as I went.

Billy set his claymore about ten yards away, to my left, directly in front of the tower. Its trip wire was stretched taut a few inches above the ground.

Back at the tower, I climbed the ladder, taking the spool with me, and Billy followed. The accommodations weren’t much, just a Prick-25, two chairs and a small cot. I fastened the wires to the clacker and set it down on the sandbags. To detonate the mine, all I had to do was squeeze the clacker.

Billy leaned his rifle in the corner. “You takin’ the first look-see?”

I set my ‘16 beside his. “Sure.”

We’d alternate throughout the night: two hours on duty, then two hours of cot time. The Prick was a standard Army field phone, a hot line to the guard shack and Lieutenant Reets. The rucksack contained food, four Cokes and some different colored hand flares. According to that night’s SOP, green meant “contact to my front”; white meant “my position is overrun”; and red meant I’ve kissed my ass goodbye—or something like that.

Billy set the phone on a chair, dialed in the freq and ran a commo check: “Hey, Reets, ya got yer ears on?”

“Roger, eighteen, Go ahead.”

“How’s the hammer hangin’?”

“What the hell’s your sit-rep, Specialist Green?”

“There ain’t no need fer ya to git yerself all bowed up. Eighteen’s snug as a bug.”

“Roger, and out.”

We settled in for the night, and there wasn’t much to do except shoot the bull, but Billy wasn’t too keen on that, and we’d had a six-pack of Hamms after chow, so he lasted about five more minutes before his head started nodding. He shucked off his poncho and crapped out on the cot, pulling a thin blanket over himself. “Time fer some shut-eye and dreamin’ ‘bout Verla.”

I took a seat, propped my elbows on the sandbags and checked the perimeter for the slightest sign of enemy movement. There wasn’t any. Right away Billy started snoring, and then moaning—quietly at first, but then with growing passion, until he cried out, “Ride, baby, ride!”

I nudged his shoulder and he shut up and rolled over. He claimed the towers were phallic symbols and, as such, they inspired fantastic wet dreams about Verla, and he truly believed that if you dreamed on something hard and long enough, it was bound to come true, but since I was stuck with him for eight more hours twenty feet up in the air in a foreign country where unknown numbers of bullets had my name written on them, or with “To Whom It May Concern,” I wasn’t in the mood for his dreams, wet or dry.

Tower eighteen was perched on a little rise of ground, and I could see the perimeter lights all around the firebase, a ring of bright pearls in the dark. It was too damned beautiful and, in truth, a bit disappointing, since I was itching for something far uglier. During the months I’d spent in Nam I hadn’t seen one live commie, either a VC or an NVA. I felt cheated and unpatriotic. There was a morning a few weeks back, when seven VC were stacked up by the horseshoe pit, shot to shit in an ambush, but that was nothing to write home to Mom about. She was only interested in the live ones, too.

I got to thinking about how, when I was a kid, I was the cherry pit spitting champ, so I leaned over the sandbags and peered down at the ground, searching for a likely target. I spotted a rusty can, worked up a nice wad of spit, accounted for the elevation and wind, factored in the wad’s viscosity, and then let it slide off my lip oh-so-oh-so carefully. It bulls-eyed, splashing into the rainwater in the bottom of the can.

Boredom worked me over in a funny way. I stood, pulled my poncho up, stepped over to the ladder, unbuttoned my fatigue pants and let a stream of Hamms beer loose. I tried writing my name in the sand, in cursive. The trick is to start the first letter before the first drop lands, and to be successful it takes a keen eye, fine motor skills and visualization. I almost finished before things petered out. The penmanship was bad, and I hadn’t dotted the i.

I zipped up and sat back down again and chewed a stick of Doublemint and thought about Carol, my girlfriend back in The World. She hadn’t sent me any nude photos, but with my imagination I didn’t really need them. The main problem with thinking like that is it makes a guy lonely, or horny, or homesick, or depressed, or crazy. As I recall, it made me three out of the five.

I looked out across the wire and imagined scenes from “The Sands of Iwo Jima,” which I’d seen twelve times as a kid. I was John Wayne, aka Sergeant Stryker, the hard-drinking, tough-talking platoon leader. Stryker lights up a Camel and turns his back to the perimeter—only for a moment—and when he pivots back around a thousand gooks have slithered into the wire. They’re half-invisible, camouflaged with the freshest jungle foliage. They’re damned good at blending in, but no match for Stryker’s eagle eyes. Their leader, a colonel with facial scars and sneering lips, leaps to his feet and lets loose with a bugle blast, and the foot soldiers rise up and charge forward in the banzai fashion … and Stryker mows them down in his fashion: from the hip, eyes steely, helmet perched at a jaunty angle, chip strap unfastened.

And then my actual ears said to me, “Hey, there’s a REAL noise coming from out there.”

I shook my head to clear the dead bodies out, and then peered down into the rows of concertina wire. I didn’t see riddled bodies or a sneering colonel or anything out of the usual. Then, from out of the deepest shadows on the far side of the perimeter, and just inside the farthest snarls of concertina, a lighter shadow haltingly emerged. My eyeballs locked on … and it dissolved quickly into nothingness. Maybe I was seeing things. I remembered a night-vision technique they’d taught us in basic training: let your gaze drift around the edges of what you want to see, and your peripheral vision kicks in, which is better for seeing in the dark.

There was something there, alright, a dark blot creeping low to the ground, then halting, then coming closer. It could even be a REAL enemy. Shit. I grabbed my M-16 and fumbled it to my shoulder, then looked at it dumbly, momentarily clueless as to its purpose and functionality—and why, oh why hadn’t the Army stamped POINT TOWARD ENEMY somewhere on the damned thing.

I nudged Billy, trying to wake him, but he just moaned and rolled over.

Then I heard a low and throaty whimper, a sort of agonized whine, and the unnerving sound somehow gave a familiar shape to the shadow. It was a dog, a mangy reddish-brown one with white spots, and it was picking its way through the wire toward me. I almost phoned Reets, but what the hell would I say? That I’d need a different colored flare, maybe russet, for “dog in the wire”?

Its head slung low and tail dragging, the mutt lurched into the middle of a coil, and then staggered down the center of the looping wire for a ways. It lurched sideways into the wire, jarring the coils stacked above and loosening a pelting shower of water. It yelped and jerked away and limped its way directly to a spot in front of the tower where, like some dogs do before they lay down, it hauled itself around in a couple of worrisome circles, as if obeying an ancient bed-making instinct, but then its rear legs just collapsed and it heaved into the sand. It pulled it self forward a yard or so by its front paws, and then let out a sharp yap and rolled over onto its side and lay there panting.

She didn’t look like a commie dog, just a very pregnant one—her belly swollen, her teats swollen, her tongue lolling out the side of her mouth.

And by the looks of her she was hurt bad. The fur on her left flank was matted dark with what looked like blood, and her panting was so ragged you could hear it over the rain’s soft patter on the roof.

I’d grown up with my own dog, Queenie, part elkhound but all her other parts were unknown. She littered three times, and we gave all the pups away—and the next thing I knew the dog in the perimeter was birthing pups too. She did a full-body shiver and the first one began to emerge, and she kept shivering and licking at it until it slipped all the way out and onto the sand, where she tongued it some more and then nosed it to a teat. She lay there for a minute recuperating, with that one pup latched onto a fat teat. Then she let out a piercing whine, and out slipped another pup, faster this time, and then two more, one right after the other. She sniffed each the just-born pups as they were born and nudged them to a teat, and then her body just uncurled itself flat and she didn’t move at all, not even her tail or her ears. It seemed as if another pup might have half slipped out of her, but she still didn’t move.

Billy moaned in his sleep again, and both Sergeant Stryker and I didn’t know what to do next.

I ejected the clip from my ’16, leaned it back into the corner and slid three rounds from the clip. I tossed all three and they arced downward through the yellow light and twanged off the wire and she still didn’t move.


I stepped over to the ladder and climbed down and stood on the wet ground staring at the dog, about thirty yards away. Surrounded by the wet and dark night, without a weapon and a dead mother in the wire, I wished I’d brought my helmet: Maybe the steel shell would have helped my head think better. I walked around the base of the tower and headed toward her, wondering what I was going to do once I got there, and just before I reached the concertina, I remembered Billy’s trip wire. It was a couple feet in front of me, about toe-high. The mine was behind and off to my left side. I’d halted one step short from being really fucking stupid. I couldn’t help but laugh, but it felt hollow, like when you’re in a dark cellar and something cold brushes across the back of your neck, and then your heart jerks a beat and your hand jolts up and swats a sticky strip of dead flies hanging from the ceiling. I laughed how your heart laughs when it figures out it will beat again.

I stepped over the trip wire very carefully, lifting one foot ridiculously high, and then the other foot equally high, using the same kind of extreme caution I’d used when I’d fumbled on my first live rubber.

The mother dog still hadn’t moved, still sprawled over on her right side in the middle of rusted coils of tough-assed steel razor wire, and the four squirming pups had their faces buried in her teats. There was a fifth pup, and it wasn’t moving. And I’d guessed right about the blood: She had an ugly crease of seeping flesh along her flank. Maybe she’d been shot.

I got down on my hands and knees in the wet sand and reached through a gap in the coils, trying to reach her leg and drag her to me, but it was just beyond my fingertips, so I shouldered against the wire and bent it back. I grabbed her back paw and pulled her toward me, and the four live pups clung to her teats, and the dead one was pulled along by the afterbirth. A razor snagged my poncho, and another sliced into the lobe of my right ear.

To this day I sometimes find myself reaching up to that tiny jag of healed-over scar tissue. It’s almost impossible to see or feel, and no one’s ever asked about it, and it’s too bad they don’t give Purple Hearts for wounds like that.

I pulled one of the warm, blind pups from a teat, its tiny mouth smacking, its eyes pinched raisins. It was a male, maybe four inches long, and its brown fur was slick from rain and birth. I tucked him inside my poncho and into a pocket of my field jacket, and then gathered up the others, all females, and settled them down into the same pocket. I scooped out a shallow hole in the sand, held the dead pup for a moment in my cupped hands, lifted my face to the night and felt the tears come hot and blinding. Then I laid it in its perimeter grave, which seemed a good enough place for it, an in-between ground.

I pulled the mother out of the wire, scooped her limp body into my arms and carried her back to the tower—careful to avoid the tripwire. One rung at a time, I climbed the ladder to the platform, where I stepped over to the cot.

Billy was snoring away, curled up with his back to me. I laid the mother down beside him, so her back was up against his back, and he must have felt her there because he turned over and, still half asleep, he draped an arm over her body and pulled her against his chest. He must have been dreaming about Verla because he wore a shit-eating grin, but he was as dead to the real world as the dog.

I tugged on his sleeve. “Billy, wake the fuck up!”

He grumbled and tried to turn over again but I grabbed his shoulder and squeezed it hard and he startled awake. He sat up and saw the dog and jerked away from it. “Gaww damn! What ’n tarnation?”

I pulled the four pups out of my pocket, stroked their tiny bellies a few times, and then held them out for him to see, and his eyes galloped between me and the dead mother and her pup. I said, “I need you to dream up four of Verla’s dandies.”

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Leghorn Love (short story)

Note: I wrote the short story "Leghorn Love" (formerly "Marlene") several years ago, and you'd think in the intervening years I would've learned a thing or two about women. I haven't ... except for one thing: In the battle between the sexes, I'm a real chicken.


A jukebox in the corner of the joint plays one of Marlene’s three-for-a-quarter tunes, and she listens intently, bobbing her head with the beat, her red hair bouncing. She’s nursing a beer with a couple of sips left, and she’s lavishing the beer and the song with far, far, far more intimacy than she’s ever shown me. Sure, she’s sitting right across the booth from me, right here in Pete’s Bar and Grill, with only a blue Formica tabletop between us, but there’s a lot more than Formica separating us. Or, for that matter, blue. Her heart’s flown the coop again to some distant place, and it’s a faint speck on the horizon of tomorrow.

The song ends and her head stops. “How’s your beer?” she asks.

“Still cold,” I say. Like you, I don’t say. If she were sitting beside me, we could hover over our beers together and touch and be warm. But no. We held hands once, and hers were cold, and we’ve never kissed and … oh, hell, just forget about it.

She fingers the gold chain around her long, white neck. “Did you know that Pete’s adding fried chicken to his menu?”

“No kidding.”

“Of course, good chicken depends on how it’s prepared and cooked, don’t you think?”

I just nod. With Marlene it’s just miniscule talk, Lilliputian talk, or quantum-sized talk—ideas so small they slip between the wrinkles of your brain. I know she cares for me a little bit, and I don’t need all her love, but its total exclusion makes me crave it all the more. It gnaws at me.

She finishes her beer, and I know better than to ask if she wants a second one. She never does. Absolutely, positively never. Pretty soon, though—five minutes, max—she’ll ask me to walk her home, and I will, and that’s the way it always goes.

She reaches across the table and touches my hand, a calculated brush of her skin on my skin, so lightly felt it could be a passing breeze. With her it’s all a charade, a pretense without substance, but I play along because she’s such a sad case, somewhat laughable and pathetic. What I’m supposed to do next is seize her hand in mine and squeeze gently, and then she’s supposed to squeeze mine back—a purely reflexive action—and then I’ll squeeze hers again, and then she’ll squeeze mine again. It’s supposed to be a regular squeeze-fest. So I do. I grab her hand and squeeze it, and she squeezes, and I squeeze, and she squeezes, and then our hands beat a hasty retreat back across the Formica to the safety of our laps.

She says, “It’s been fun, Larry, I mean the park and picnic and all ….” She has picked up the salt shaker, and now she’s rocking it back and forth, so the salt slides this way and then that way and, I guess, she wasn’t talking to me, but to one of the grains named Larry.

I say, “Sure, we’ll do it again, sometime soon, okay? Together, I mean. Maybe we could go to the circus, or something. A movie? Yeah, well. You know?” To be brutally honest, the picnic and park were an utter drag-fest. Her feeding the ducks, me skipping a few stones across the pond, her brushing the pussy willow catkins across her lips and ooohing and ahhhing, both of us dipping a super-sized order of chicken nuggets in barbeque sauce—I’m sure she’s had a lot more fun than that with lots of other guys.

“How’s your beer?” she asks again.

I begin to fold my napkin into small and smaller squares. “It’s still cold.”

She looks right at me, a faint sparkle in her brown eyes, one I can’t recall being there before. Once in a great while she’ll pull something like that—stare right at you, unblinking, eyes aglitter. But soon enough she looks up at the clock above the counter, then over at the menu beside the cash register, and then down at the far end of the joint where the pool hustlers hustle. She turns her beer glass upside down on her napkin and says, “If you’d care to, you can walk me home now.”


The screen door is closed, and she’s standing behind it, and the wire mesh is masking her face, and I’m standing across the porch on the top step of her parent’s house. I say, “Tell your mom and dad ‘hi’ for me.” Her mom’s an apparition who sometimes peeks out between the red curtains, which are usually closed, and her father owns a gas station. They’re upright Christians and are often gone for work or church business.

She says through the tiny mesh of screen, “Thanks again, Larry. I had a wonderful time. I hope you find a job really, really soon.”

“Yeah, me, too.” It’s the beginning of summer and I haven’t worked since last year. I’m pretty broke, and the infrequent beers and picnics add up to more than pocket change. It’s been like this since last October, when we started seeing each other. I’m in no financial position to make demands, and I’m growing sick and tired of our so-called relationship. It hasn’t evolved. But Marlene’s happy with it, apparently, and could go on like this forever. She thinks I’m “comfortable.”

We say goodbye, and she closes the front door and disappears inside, and I turn and hurry down the step to the sidewalk. It’s hotter than hell for early June, and the sky’s a stark, blue bitch, and it hasn’t rained for two months. I head down the baking sidewalk toward home, a mile away on the other side of town. The thought of her cold hands cools the back of my neck and almost makes the sun bearable. Why, I ask myself, do I keep fooling myself? Marlene must think I’m a no-job jerk and—hell, I am, but she’s a bitch, too, just like the sky.

Farther down the block there’s a telephone pole with a circus poster, yellow and red and black, with elephants and lions and a half-dressed woman. The Greatest Show This Side of the Mississippi! Down at the bottom there’s a note tacked on: Help Wanted. See Tony.


Tony’s Italian, or maybe Romanian or Greek. Dark hair and eyes, a mustache, but he talks like a regular guy. “Use white leghorns,” he tells me. “They show the blood real good.” He eyes me. “This work ain’t easy like some folks think. A guy’s gotta get to know his audience so he can play ‘em, squeeze ‘em with the right timin’ and flair.” He holds up a costume mask and waves it at me. “You gotta have flair!”

“How much it pay?”

“Fifty cents a customer.”

“How many shows?”

“Three a day, five on Saturdays and Sundays.”

“How long’s the circus in town?”

“Four weeks.”

“What happened to the last guy?”

“He ran off with a girl.”

“And the mask?”

Tony tosses it to me. It’s a black swath of fabric, with eye holes and an elastic band, like a Zorro mask. I try it on. It’s a perfect fit around my eyes and nose, but a little tight by my ears. I say, “I’ll take the job.”

The geek show’s in a blue and red tent just off the midway. It’s baking inside, smelling of sun-baked canvas, sweat, popcorn and dried chicken blood, and it’s especially hot right now, the night of my first performance. Tony and I are standing together behind a pair of drawn red curtains. I peek between them and see a small wooden stage and, beyond it, my first audience—a group of guys, some of whom I recognize, old high school buddies. They’re sitting on two benches, punching each other in the shoulder, laughing and having a good time. At fifty cents a head, I’ll make about seven bucks. There’s a white leghorn in a cage on a small table. I’m nervous and scared, shaking and almost peeing myself.

Tony puts his hand on my shoulder. He smells like Brut aftershave. “You can do this, yes?”

I nod.

“Is it a woman you do this for?”

I shake my head. “Hell no!”

He shrugs. “Your gloves. Put them on.”

I’d forgotten that. They’re tucked into my belt. I slip them on. “Okay, I’m ready now.” Tony pulls the curtain back, and I step out onto the stage, and every guy’s head turns and looks.

One of them yells, “Come on, geek, do that chicken!”

Another shouts, “Pluck it, baby!”

“Do it, chicken lips!”

I stand there dumbly, thankful for the mask, but scared shitless someone will recognize me. Then I remember Tony’s instructions. I step to the cage, open it, reach in and grab the leghorn by its foot. It’s a real scrapper, scratching and pecking at my gloved hand and squawking. It’s a fluttering white hurricane, but I grab its neck and manage to get both its feet in my other hand. Arms raised, I stretch it out above my head, and then behind the curtain Tony plays the recorded drum roll, and its rapid tap-tapping is like my heart.

The leghorn’s still squawking, and I yank it tight between my hands and it quiets, and the crowd quiets, and my heart almost quiets, and I wonder when I’ll see Marlene again.

When the drum roll stops, I lower the leghorn till it’s right in front of my face. It smells like alfalfa and fear. I open my mouth and close my eyes and draw the leghorn to my lips and feel its feathers. It goes bonkers, twisting and flapping and spraying crap all over the stage and me. A leg slips free and spurs my ear and the mask, and I imagine an audience full of Marlene’s. I piss my pants. No matter what, Tony had said, never let it go. I pull the neck deeper between my teeth and bite through flesh and bone; I twist my head and shake the bird till blood dribbles down my chin and the chicken spasms.

I spit the head onto the stage, and spit feathers out, and I hold the spurting carcass up. The crowd goes ape.


“How’d you get the scratches?” Marlene asks.

“My dog.” I walk down the steps of the front porch. She follows, but not closely enough.

“And your finger, too?”

“He’s got distemper or something.” I don’t like lying about the dog, and guilt walks along beside us for awhile as we head down the sidewalk. We’re going downtown. I’ve got some money, and I’m going to buy Marlene a nice gift.

“It can get infected,” she says matter-of-factly, “especially from animals.”

“I put some hydrogen peroxide on.”

“Mercurochrome is better.”

Her concern is part of her act, like she feels obligated to feel sorry for me, a sort of pathetic identification. She’s probably glad she doesn’t own a dog.

Downtown, I steer her into a JCPenney, and she’s impressed when I lead her into the lady’s wear department. “Pick out anything you like,” I tell her. “I’ve got money.” What I don’t say is, it’s blood money: In the last few days I’ve done twenty leghorns. The technique’s been pretty well mastered, and now I’m working on my flair. Flair’s the most important thing, Tony says, for building an audience.

Marlene chooses a plain white blouse and goes into the changing room to try it on. She comes out smiling and says, “It’s lovely.”

I wish she would’ve picked out a colorful one, but bright colors probably don’t exist in her life. When I pay for it, Marlene smiles at the clerk, and for a crazy moment I wish she’d be afraid of me the way a leghorn is when, just before I deliver the coup de grace, it flutters and ruffles. But no. She’s all cool and calm.

We walk over to Pete’s and I’m hoping that, this time, she’ll drink more than just one damned beer. Two would be a miracle; three, I’d drop dead. The blouse ought to be worth at least two.

I sit and invite her into the booth beside me, but she sits across from me and sets the blouse on the table between us. I wave at Pete for two Oly’s, and when he brings them over Marlene sips the foam off of hers, draws a face in the sweaty glass, and then asks where I’ve been lately.

“Still looking for a job,” I say.

“No luck?”


“Daddy says times are tough.”

“Yeah. Maybe I’ll go back to school and take up agriculture.”



“You need school for that?”

It’s been thirty-two minutes since we sat down when Marlene finishes her beer and turns her glass upside down. The signal. She asks if I’ll walk her home, and I say yes, and I do walk her home, and when we say goodbye through her screen door she doesn’t kiss me, again.


I raise the leghorn over my head and wait for the drum roll to stop. The tent is jammed with people. During the past three weeks, I’ve worked hard to improve my flair. I wear a costume now, all in red and blue, with a sequined lightening bolt across my chest. And I’ve begun tying silver ribbons to the wings of the chickens, and now when they do their death flaps it’s a tornado in a hurricane. Tony says I’ve got great flair and timing. Marlene, I’ve decided, doesn’t and never will.

The drum roll stops, and I lower the chicken.

Only it’s not a chicken. It’s Marlene. She’s stretched out between my hands, pulled tight by her head and feet, naked. Her hair is silver. She wiggles, but when I pull tighter she quiets. I’m in command. The audience rises and crowds forward to the front of the stage. They’re spellbound fools for blood. I lower Marlene and suspend her before me for a tantalizing moment. The crowd leans closer, reminding me that Marlene’s never close. We’re through, damn it. I’ve got money in my pocket, the circus is leaving for Seattle in the morning, and I’m going with it. Marlene is a bitch.

A second drum roll, louder than the first. The lights are cut to pitch black, then a spotlight stabs me and my lightening bolt sparkles. Marlene’s arms flap wildly, a protest against intimacy and love. The drum roll stops.

I draw her neck to my lips. Her skin tightens, and then the tearing of her muscle … her bone … a burst of hot blood and her head falls to the stage. I hold her body up, her arms flapping, her legs jerking.

The crowd goes ape shit.


I pick up the phone and call. “Marlene?”


“Look, I’ve gotta say something to you. I’m at Pete’s.”

“I can’t come down right now, Larry. I’ve got cookies in the oven: peanut butter.”

“Screw the cookies. Pete’s, fifteen minutes, be here.” I hear her gasp and it thrills me, and I want desperately to slam the phone down as an exclamation point, but I can’t. And then she breathes again. She meekly says, “I’ll take this batch out, and then I’ll come right down.”


I’m on my fifth angry beer when she arrives. She’s late. She walks between the pool tables and stops beside my booth. She’s wearing a pleated dress and a beaded necklace that highlights her slender neck.

“Sit down,” I tell her, and point across the booth.

She does. “This better be important. The way you talked over the phone ….”

“It’s over between us. Consider this our last performance.”

Marlene picks up the salt shaker. “I don’t understand. Your mood on the phone, the way you’re talking now. Things between us—”

“That’s the problem. I don’t like the things between us.”

She looks confused. “What things?”

“You tell me.”

“You’ve been in a foul mood lately, like you’re—I don’t know—always thinking of something big.”

She’s forgotten all about the salt shaker, and her gaze lands everywhere except on me. “And what might I be thinking of?”

“I don’t know. You’ve always been so nice. Is it something I did … or said?” She plucks at one of the beads on her necklace.

“No. It’s what you don’t do.” I finish my beer and, determined to get plastered, wave for another one.

“I’ll have one, too,” she tells Pete. He nods, gets two fresh glasses and heads to the taps.

“Do you realize,” I say, “that’s the first time you’ve ordered a beer for yourself? Amazing!”

“But you’ve always ordered for me.”

“No more. I’m leaving tomorrow.”

She looks concerned. “To where?”

“Seattle. I’ve got a job.”

“What kind of a job?”

Pete brings our beers, and Marlene raises hers and powers half of it down. Always, always, always before she just sipped. She stares into her beer. I’m feeling strong and sure and in total control of my audience. I exude flair, and I imagine the lights dimming, a lightning bolt across my chest, and the corner jukebox playing a drum roll. “Poultry,” I tell her.

“Oh, so you are going to school?”

“No, it’s a job, and I like it.”

She lifts her gaze and looks at me oddly—but she’s looking right at me, nowhere else. “How long will you be gone?”

“The rest of the summer, maybe longer. Who knows? The money’s good.”

Marlene guzzles the rest of her beer, and then waves for another.

God damn. She’s having two.

“Look,” she says, staring into me with her brown eyes, “things have been comfortable between us. Do you want that to change?”

“I want comfortable to disappear like feathers in a hurricane.”

She puckers her mouth in a way I’ve never seen before, as if she’s kissing the air. “Do you want more … involvement?”

“Maybe I did once, but not now. We’re over with. This is our final act, the curtain closer.”

Pete brings her beer, and I order another round—for both of us. Marlene gulps her Oly as if she’s thirsting for all the answers I won’t give. But her eyes are certain and steady, like the grip she has on her beer. Someone plays “Losin’ My Head Over You” on the jukebox. Marlene says, “Sex, is that what you want?”

“God, no!”

“What do you want, then, Larry?”

“Things could have been different. But it’s too late. I’m leaving.”

“How different?”

“Warmth … that’s it. You’re never warm with me.”

“Sex isn’t warmth?”

My flair has slipped a bit, and now I’m holding onto my beer with both hands. I want to be one of the pool hustlers, a man who’d know what to say.

“Do you want it?” she asks. She takes another long pull, drains the glass, and then turns it upside down on the table. “You’re afraid of it, aren’t you?”

For a crazy second things spin around and I don’t know if I’m breathing. She takes my hands in hers and squeezes, and our hands are hot together.

She breathes my name: “Laarrryy.” And then: “Please walk me home now.”


We’re on her front porch, and for once we’re standing close together, very close, and her face isn’t obscured by the wire mask of the screen door. The only thing between us now is a warm inch of wet space. We’re both soaked, from a summer shower during our walk back from Pete’s. She’s holding my hand, and hers is hot, and the door leading into the living room is wide open, allowing in the breeze, and she turns and opens the screen door and pulls me inside by my hand.

The walls are painted red, and the carpet and the over-stuffed couch are blue, and the peanut-butter smell of baked cookies still lingers. The door closes behind us, perhaps shut by a sudden gust that draws the air from the house.

She looks right into me, and then pulls me against her wet dress, her stomach and legs and breasts, and we kiss, and her mouth sucks the deepest air out of me, and I’m lost within her lips, a complete surrendering.

There’s a long crescendo, but not of drums or from jukeboxes. It’s a beat full of urge from my own pulsing heart. And then, as if I’m nothing in her strong hands, she lifts me off the carpet and high up toward the ceiling, where I’m held steady, steady, steady by my head and feet. Her breath is a tickle to my feathered neck, and then her teeth pierce, and then the flutter and ruffle of coup de grace, and then my head drops off to applause.