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Saturday, July 29, 2017

Stern Agony

                                                                                Stern Agony

    In the underground corridors of D-Max-Three, lights burn night and day. One solitary yellow bulb caged to the ceiling above each cell--wayward suns.
    Shaw Pence, housed in cell nine, eighty-four square feet of precast concrete, sits one solid steel door from hell. He's been here awhile, and is doing just enough to ensure his solitary existence. It's better this way, for everyone.
    It’s 10:00 pm. The bulblights dim. Hum of an electrical impulse. Up and down the row, cells lock in unison. Twice latched, twice bolted, like the clang of a coupling train.
   Spent from writing, Shaw dozes. As consciousness dissolves into those first oily portals of slumber, his recurrent night terrors awaken. The sordid allegations, the facts of the crime, bleed through his hypnagogic haze. Fleeting images jolt his memory—the tire iron in his bloody hands, the girl, hushed voices of men. 
        Paramnesia, his alcoholic blackout that night eleven years ago, still muddles his brain, his grasp of details slippery as grease. 
   Counseled by memories and worried with dreams, his mind drifts. Hints of remembrance shudder through him, his conscience revolting at the notion he could have done as they say. He’s learned to battle these visions by rocking himself on the bed—wanting to remember, terrified he will.
   Alone for a decade, blue like this, there’s no one to call. He could write someone, but whom? He tries floating images through his head, sweet memories, but all he conjures is dread.
  Through cobwebbed moments of interrupted sleep, he thinks of Cassie at her office in New York. He’ll take a chance, mail a letter, make it hopeful, apologetic, then ship her his manuscript. He’s desperate to tell her. Cassie has to know. But he wonders if, by now, it’s too late.
  He’s been thinking this way for a while, that everything's too late. That he, Shaw Pence, is finished. He'll die in this concrete box, then join the rotting train of ages in a wooden one. 
   Late in the night there is only his heartbeat and the drip of some leaky pipe. Transfixed to the beat-beat rhythm of time in his chest, he rocks himself to the thump-thump-thump as if his pulse were music—drumbeats, sounding off his sentence.
    In this gray room. In this hard place. 


January 6th, 2011

 One wintry morning a letter arrives at my office in New York. No return address. With my thumbnail and index finger, I unseal the envelope.

Dear Cassie, 
     I’m probably the last person you wanted to hear from. Please bear with me.
     In a few days, a box will arrive at your office. It’s my manuscript. Look for it.    
     Not sure how publishing houses handle things, but don’t want my story in the wrong hands. I just want you to read it. Then maybe you’ll understand, not be so disappointed. You have no idea how sorry I am.
     Parts of my story include your mom and, much later, you. I’ve changed it from first person to third so maybe it won’t seem so personal. I’ve always wanted to be more than just an old friend. I fancied myself an uncle of sorts, your mentor. But this entire saga has been so bizarre, I won’t blame you for ignoring me. I just hope you won’t.
    There’s been a change in my case. After dozens of petitions, they’ve agreed to apply the new technology. They found DNA. They’re still testing. I doubt it’s mine, but I still can’t remember. All I get are flashes, odd feelings about that night, bits of memory.
    The review process will take months, years, and even then you never know. I may be stuck in Big Mac another eleven years, or forever. I have a new lawyer. She’s young, court appointed, but bright. I’m teaching her, helping her along with my case. God knows I’ve handled enough of them. 
   I’ve sent you my story, lessons from my life, and a bit of yours. It may be painful at times, but I’m begging you to read it. So much I want you to know. My writing has been cathartic. If nothing else, solitary confinement keeps a man focused.
    Loved your novel. I’ve worn it out. Proud of you, but understand your position. I’m inspired by your success. Whether I hear from you or not, I’m wishing you a great 2011.
PS: I think  I might be innocent. Don’t we all?

     Five days latter, Shaw’s box arrives. After a distracted day of copyediting and, needing to breathe, I take off work at three. It’s sleeting. I wrap the unopened box in a garbage bag and stick Shaw’s letter in my purse. Upon exiting Random House Tower, I cross Broadway and turn left on Seventh toward Central Park. To my left, halfway down an alley, the green dumpster awaits. I glance down at the garbage bag, hesitate, but decide against it. 
    I backtrack to Barcelona Bar on Eighth. Place is empty. Bartender’s wiping things down. I drop the bag, put down my purse and shed my coat. Raising my index finger, I take my regular seat at a corner table for two.  
     It’s just one dirty martini. Then another. One more. 
           I force myself outside, to the sidewalk, the curb, hail a taxi. Midtown, downtown, uptown too, the entire city thronged in the perplexity of inclement rush hour.
   In freezing drizzle the cab ride lasts almost an hour, me sitting with this trash bag of hurt on my lap.
   At home—cold, anxious—I stick Shaw’s letter in the garbage bag, toss it in the closet of my writing room. A Google search finds Shaw’s case, State of Oklahoma vs Shaw Pence, reopened on new evidence. I won’t mention any of this to anyone, not even Joe. I build up a fire, pour a glass of Chardonnay, and pace. I can’t help feeling pleased Shaw’s read my novel. It’s sold all of seventy copies since I self-published the thing in September. But still…

   Home from work that Thursday—in a mellowed funk of tipsy after two goblets of Merlot—I open the closet. I grab the garbage bag, take out the letter and read it again. I lift the box. I want to burn it, want to open it, but resist exposing old wounds. Instead, I find a black marker and scrawl ‘return to sender’ across the top of the box. But rather than post it, I imprison it in the bag and stick it back inside the closet.
  As with Shaw Pence, so with my memories—they belong in the dark.

  When I think about scars, the ones on my heart, my mom comes to mind, my bold and feisty mother. She told me she’d turned nineteen the week I was born. Just the two of us for years, a couple of Cancers. God, we were poor. Mom had grown up in a family of hired hands working on the Jespersen Ranch in northeast Kansas. She’d worked horses and cattle all her life, but hated old man Jespersen, called him perverted and deranged.

     With me little more than a promise in her womb, she hit the rodeo road.
     In those days, rodeo and carnivals followed the same circuit. Starting in Waco, Texas we followed that circuit from town to town, fairground to fairground. We toured all across middle America seeking money and men, cowboys Mom would attract like flies to meat. She was beguiling, singular, resilient--tougher than cowboys, tougher than me.

         My most vivid recollections date from August, nineteen-eighty at the fairgrounds in Chickasha, Oklahoma. I was six. We were living in some bull rider’s 1972 Dodge cabover camper.
    Most rodeo folks slept in camper trailers near the livestock barns, but Mom always insisted we set up among the carnival workers in Carny Land, a grassy area of tents and campers just behind the Ferris Wheel. Mom liked the clamor of fairgoers, the lingo of barkers, smell of popcorn, the glitter of lights. We’d wedge that Dodge truck right into the middle of Carny Land like we belonged. Carnys work sixteen hour days and stay pretty sober compared to cowboys, so maybe Mom thought it was safer. Over time, I realized everyone in Carney Land knew Zella Zanger, the ZZ Rodeo Queen. The Carneys looked after me. I’d get free rides and treats, and teddy bears make soft truck pillows.

  Maybe I’ll google that truck. Faded red and with spots of rust. I think they called it a Dreamer Cab with camper—not that I cherish reminders—but that old Dodge truck was home. 
  I pour another Merlot.

  Behind the truck, we pulled a trailer for Penny, Mom’s filly, a big horse to feed. By this time, Mom had started putting on a exhibitions with Penny, a gorgeous black Thoroughbred, at county fairs, gala rodeo parades, the Grand Entry, the National Anthem Salute. She said the horse had been a childhood gift from Shaw Pence’s grandfather, a neighboring wealthy ranch owner she referred to as, Gramp.
   With what we know now, I’m suspicious why any man would gift a horse that could race in Kentucky to a fifteen year old girl. But Mom loved that horse. Despite our circumstances and Little Bill’s harping, she’d never sell Penny. 
  In Chickasha, it all clicked when a reporter for the Oklahoman and another from KOMA radio jointly decided to feature Mom on the local news. Next day she got invited to State Fairs in Oklahoma City and Hutchinson, Kansas and the following week to the famous 101 Wild West Rodeo in Ponca City.
   Riding Penny, Mom became known on the rodeo circuit as the ZZ Queen, had the ZZ moniker emblazoned on her saddle, her hat, her right shoulder. She was pictured on flyers and posters right along with other side show promotions: the bearded lady, giants, dwarfs, fire-eaters. She’d doll up with her signature look: black cowgirl hat and matching sleeveless top, deep purple scarf. Her waist-length hair matching Penny’s flying mane, they'd hurtle around the arena to ovations, Mom's muscled arms cradling the American flag.
         Until midnight when everything shut down, I’d frolic alone amid the carnival bustle, the color and clamor of folks having fun. Mom said just keep an eye on the Ferris Wheel and be sure to wear one of my ‘L’il Z’ t-shirts. I had the run of the place. I'd watch families enjoying rides and games, things I took for granted. A dad beaming at his daughter on the merry-go-round; a mom making sure her little girl didn’t miss her turn at the duck pond; dad winning her a teddy bear.
    I accumulated so many bears. My favorite was Z Cubby. I have somehow managed to salvage Cubby from the wreckage of those days. A group of Carnys got me the huge Panda. Sig, the Carny that operated the Pony Ride, had his wife sew 'L'il Z' across Cubby's chest. Right now Cubby's sitting in the dark with Shaw’s manuscript. At times I slept with Cubby and Mom in the camper, but more often up front on the truck seat with all my bears. Little Bill, the bull rider, insisted.
   Little Bill stood six-four in boots, broad shoulders, narrow hips. He was like most of them—an agreeable cowboy, a mean drunk. With the sloppy violence of inebriation, Mom and Little Bill fought a lot, with each other and anyone who interrupted their high. Next afternoon they’d be rested and ready to ride. By evening, they'd be at it again.
   I asked Mom about it once. In Tucumcari, New Mexico when I was ten. By lunchtime Mom was up and around. Little Bill had gone to the burger concession for our food.
  Mom, coffee-sober, sat on the end of the horse trailer surrounded by ropes and leather working tools. Her fingers danced deftly, securing the bridle to its many buckles.
“Why do you do it, Mom?”
 She didn't look up. “Do what, L'il Z?”
 “Drink, get high. It makes you weird, sick. Why”
 “Well, its…” She adjusted her legs like she was about to stand. She looked up at me and blinked, squinted as if I’d just shined a light in her face. She looked down at her hands, dropped the bridle, then reached to pick it up. She spoke toward the ground. “It’s an adult thing. It’s not a big deal. You just think it is. We’re just having fun.”
 “I’m not. And I need five bucks.”
 “Okay. Sure. What for?”
 “Darts? Don’t you have enough bears, L'il Z?”
  “I want to win one for myself. And call me Cassie."
  Little Bill arrived with sacks of food. I took the five and went to the burger concession, then ate in the shade of the freak show tent. We never spoke of it again.

   When Bill dug his heels and kept his free hand from touching the bull, we’d eat steak for supper. Otherwise, we’d eat leftover corn dogs and midnight popcorn. I took these late meals in the truck where I slept and did schoolwork. I peed in the camper unless is was busy—or locked.
    Mom said I’d been schooled at Dodge University, because she insisted on teaching me in that truck every day. Once I got the hang of it, I read constantly, from books we’d get at flea markets, or steal from stores. Not that Mom knew much about schoolwork, but during these sessions she’d often talk about Shaw Pence, a kid she’d grown up with back home. A fucking genius, she said. She claimed Shaw taught her more about reading and books than she’d ever learned in school. When drunk, she’d sometimes talk about their childhood hangout, some hideaway called Dry Creek. Any mention of Shaw Pence brought Mom around to the value of education. She’d grown tired of ‘the stupid’ in her family, our surroundings. “Sick of the hick,” is how she’d say it, wanted me to read and study, “maybe grow up genius like Shaw Pence.” And it wasn’t long before I read better than any of them.

  For years we traveled the rodeo tour from Wyoming to Texas, then wintered south of El Paso and on into Mexico where Mom and Little Bill would chase the same gigs, deal with easier cops. Mom raced Penny against quarter horses owned by drug cartels. She gave the Mexicans odds, head starts, but still kicked ass for drug money, purer crystal meth. Kentucky Thoroughbreds can fly. 
  I liked Mexico because there were lots more kids in the back lots and side streets. I still speak fluent Spanish. ¿Puedes ayudar a mi mamá? No puedo despertarla. Andate a la cresta.
   We formed an unspoken pact, me and Mom. When sober, she'd look after me; when not, I'd look after her. I'd dilute her scotch, cut her gak. Aquí vienen los policías.
   I’m not saying Mom was always shitfaced, gassed. Perhaps, I over-exaggerate because I lost her then and it scared me. Drugged or boozed, she changed, as if there was something fundamentally wrong and she’d lost her zest, her purpose. She’d talk with her eyes half-shut, her face as slurred as her speech. Fizzled like a wet firecracker. Mom was the kind of woman most cowboys had in mind—stunning, natural, direct. But boozed or drugged, she’d get easy. And they liked that too. I’d hear them back there ganging up on her--like carnivores on fresh kill--but if I called 911, they'd all be arrested and I'd end up in a shelter. 
     So I'd just stand outside the camper and scream.
   It’s Sunday afternoon and my husband's watching the playoffs. Joe never misses Tom Brady and the Pats. Out the window of my den, flocks of blackbirds explode along the street from winter trees. I close my MacBook Pro, get up from my desk and lock myself in the bathroom. I stare into the mirror in a way I haven’t since I was ten, back when my mirror was the rearview in the 1972 Dodge. When radio was my best friend—Billie Jean, Jack and Diane, When Doves Cry. Music helped me stay brave, helped me breathe. Sometimes, it kept me from crying. I’d sit there waiting for Mom to finish whatever she was doing in the camper. I’d hear grunts and groans and shrieks and sobs, then imitate them as facial expressions, interpret them like an actress would while staring at that rectangle above me on the windshield. 
    I do this now, remembering, making faces, emulating my mother, a beauty who could express herself so forcefully, so memorably in a glance. And it was her in the mirror looking back at me, the bloodshot eyes, weary slack face. At thirty-six, we could be mistaken for twins. I wonder what the ZZ Queen would think of her little girl now? What’d be her expression for that?
  On Friday evening, Joe finds the box while rummaging for the back-up printer. The return address gives it away: McAlester State Prison. Big Mac. A Google search finds Shaw’s case, State of Oklahoma vs Shaw Pence, reopened on new evidence.
  I hand Joe the letter, retrieve a bottle of Merlot, and pour two wineglasses. We sit on the floor in front of the fireplace, the box between us. Joe reads. I watch fire.
   Joe folds the letter back into the envelope and sets it beside him. “Open the box. You have to read it.”
  I take the last red sip from my wineglass, and slit open the box with a butter knife. Shaw’s manuscript is a good four inches thick, the last page numbered 569. The typeset looks both antique and familiar, recalling some relic machine from the seventies, maybe a Smith Corona. Must have taken most of the eleven years to write.
“Better break out another bottle, Joe.”
“You sure? Better take it easy, hon.”
“Let's not start that, okay?”
 While Joe messes with the cork, I get up and stoke the fire, jostle logs with the poker, resisting the urge to toss in the box, manuscript and all. I sit back down, look up at Joe, tears in my eyes. Neither of us speak. I pour more wine. 
 “Why does he want me to read this, Joe? What’s he after?” I take a drink.
 Joe puts down his glass without taking a sip.
      "Don't give me that look."
      He averts his gaze to the stacked manuscript. “Details he can’t put his finger on. All he gets are flashbacks. Maybe he’s looking for clues to what happened. Something he can’t remember.”
  “Or that you would read it. You’re the psychologist. A plea for help?”
   “No. That’s not it. Like he said in the letter. There’s things he wants you to know. He’s begging you, and from what I know about him, begging seems out of character.”  
   I pause, catch a ragged breath. “And why now?” I hand Joe my wineglass. “Be right back.” I go to the closet for Cubby and return to the fire.
   “Why the bear? Things filthy.” 
   “Don’t say that.” 
    When Cubby hits the top log she explodes into flame. I return to my seat on the floor. I take my wineglass from Joe and drain it.
    He reaches out and strokes my cheek. “Shaw said writing the manuscript has been cathartic.” He taps the stacked pages with his forefinger. “Something happen back when you were a kid?”
    I feel my past rushing toward me, rolling over me. I look at my husband, then turn my head and speak toward the flames. “I think we’re about to find out.”
    I’ve edited what follows. It fits with my job. Trust me, it’s a story the world needs to hear. 
    We start on a ranch in Kansas. Four years before I was born.  
    So far as I know, every word of Shaw’s story is true.


                                                                                Chapter One

      By the time the world starts for us, we’ve survived a bloody mess. It get’s worse. It’s why we tell stories.

April, 1970.
For Shaw Pence, the bus ride home was the last good thing of each school day. 
Zella Zanger, in her customary seat next to Shaw, tore a page from her notebook. She looked at it and muttered, “Arithmetic’s fucked. Reading’s one thing, but math?” 
Zella folded the paper and jammed it inside her math book. The book rested in the sag of her dress between parted knees. As she moved it higher on her lap, her dress came up, exposing her thighs. It’s what she did to him, playing her wanton game.
She sat back, crossed her legs at the ankles. Tattered blue Keds, no socks. 
The bus pulled to the side and stopped.
Little Molly Hansen, yellow dress, lunch pail in hand, stepped from the bus. She stood near the bar ditch waving to the bus driver. As the bus eased away, Molly looked toward the back window and gave Zella the finger. Molly grinned, then charged down the lane toward the open arms of her waiting mother.
“She’s figured it out,” Shaw said to Zella. “Pretty good for a third grader. You taught her well. She’s not using her thumb to hold down the other fingers, anymore. Her mom will be so proud.”
Zella flipped Shaw the identical bird.
The bus driver, Mr. Kelp, tuned his radio. He’d found Creedence, Fogerty warning of some bad moon on the rise. Shaw, recalling the schoolyard fight, rubbed his sore jaw.
Zella and Shaw rode thirty-two miles roundtrip every school day: first on, last off. The oldest kids on the route, they’d sat together since fourth grade. By now, nearing the end of  junior high, they had the bus to themselves most of the way. Each day after little Molly had departed, Mr. Kelp, with one hand on the wheel, would slow the bus to a crawl. He’d crack open his window, jack out a cigarette, light it, then reach into the canvas military duffle at his feet and pull out his transistor radio—a red Philips Babette, black handle, knobs along the top. He’d telescope the silver antenna full length, and tune in the after-school rock show from 710 WHB in Kansas City. That rousing music: Beach Boys, Doors, Beatles, Stones.
Shaw eyed Zella as she bopped her head to the Clearwater beat, his gaze sliding down her neck, her shoulders. All that thigh. 
When the song ended, Zella, bent toward the floor, reached toward her satchel and stuck the notebook inside. As the math book slid off her lap, she scooched down in her seat, her dress inching higher. She began toying with the hem, fingering it.

Zella and her family worked as tenant farmers for old man Jespersen and lived in one of his converted bunkhouses about a mile west of Shaw’s ranch. Their place reminded Shaw of a scene from Grapes of Wrath—neglected and weathered, clapboards begging nails and paint. The Jespersen Ranch was prized ground, a reputed spread, but down in the hollows, on the backside of the Jespersen where Zella and her family lived, was hardship and gloom. Rusted farm implements and tarnished junk hid among the pokeweed of their cluttered rut-yard. Skinny old chickens and one mud-caked hog rooted around free as pets.
Mr. Kelp turned up the volume again: Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild”. 
Zella had pushed her feet, the Keds, under the forward seat. She drew them back, bent her knees, began bouncing her legs to the music. Shaw opened his book, Jean-Paul Sartre on existentialism, bent his head, snuck glances at legs. 
Oh, she knew.
 The bus banged every hole in the road.
Zella’s parents and four older brothers were fair-skinned and blonde. But Zella, the last to arrive by six years, had nut-brown skin, dark eyes. According to Gramp, no one blamed Maude Zanger for straying, being married to a crusty jackass like Vernon. 
Although she lived within the grunge of poverty, Zella sparkled, especially her black hair. Oh, that riotous mane—homemade-soaped, carelessly dried, and left uncombed for the wind.
As a Kansas boy, Shaw loved the wind, and in those promising 1970’s days of short skirts, what it did around women, especially Zella, aroused him—naughty images for boys. On weekends or in summer while sitting on the ledge at their Dry Creek hideaway, he’d hold his breath at the flare of her dress in the breeze, enthralled by glimpses of those legs.

Zella sat up, brushed back her hair with her hand. A whiff of that morning’s shampoo. 
She opened her book and handed Shaw the notebook page, the math assignment. 
“You want me to solve these equations?”
“For sure. Do ‘em now. Quit reading that philosophy shit. We got nine more miles.”
“Can’t read. Too bumpy,” said Shaw over the racket of the bus. “I’ll bring them to Dry Creek, tomorrow.”
“Can’t come this weekend. Jarod’s sick. Got a million chores.”
“You work too much. I get bored hanging out by myself. I’ll bring them Monday, then.”
“All I got at home are crazies. At least you got Cassie.”
What he wanted to say was: Dogs aren’t pretty girls—but he couldn’t. 
Halfway home, the school bus crested a hill. Mr. Kelp downshifted. The bus gathered speed. 
Caleb Cranston’s half-ton Ford F 100, freshly painted the color of Gerber peas, nosed behind the bus, honked. Sunlight glinted off its windshield. It honked again and passed, blowing dust. 
Countryside streamed past the windows, cropland and pasture interspersed with woods. That humusy funk of just-plowed fields.
Shaw reached down and placed Zella’s math paper inside his book bag. “Hey Zell,” he said, sitting up. “I could’ve handled the fight myself.”
“Bullshit. Weren’t for me, Big Franks would’ve hit you so hard your kids be born dizzy. And don’t call me Zell.” She faced him. “Damn, little buddy, your face is all swelled up. Your eye’s a mess. I should’ve jumped in sooner.” 
Zella leaned back, stretched, and her dress—the blue one, sleeveless, cut above the knee—tightened across her chest. 
“Franks hates me,” said Shaw, thinking tits. “But I can’t figure why.”
“‘Cause you’re a genius—and a smart-ass. Hell, Shaw, you better hope he’s out sick come Monday. Franks is a stink. He bothers you and I’m not around? Grab his nuts and hang on.” She threw a fake punch just short of Shaw’s face, flexing the workaday muscle of her bare shoulder.
Nine months older, almost fifteen, Zella seemed more woman than girl. And not just the hard body, the curves, or the absence of leg hair, but something mysterious, intoxicating.
At the bottom of the hill, gears shifted, grated, meshed. The bus clattered across Hatcher’s Creek bridge and lurched into a rumbling climb. 
A pinkish crayon rolled down the aisle. Shaw stopped it with the toe of his boot. Bending over, using his index finger, he rolled the crayon into his palm. He held it up to his face, reading: ‘Bittersweet’. Odd name for a color, but it suited Zella. She hated Zell. Didn’t much care for Zella, either.
“Hey, look at this,” said Shaw, holding out the crayon. “Be a good nickname for you.”
Zella took the crayon, inspected it. “Them’s two words jammed up together, dumbass. Bittersweet ain’t a name, or a color. It’s a mouth thing.” She lolled her tongue, made a sour face.
“I know. It’s a peculiar taste, one to remember.” He smacked his lips.
She rolled her eyes. “I keep telling you. Call me Zee, not Zell. Sounds like hell. Sure not Bittersweet. You don’t like your nickname, Penny Pence. If you call me, Bittersweet, I’ll call you, Penny.” She stuck her tongue against the inside of her cheek, aimed the crayon and hurled it toward the back of Mr. Kelp’s head. It fell short, hit the floor, and began rolling back and forth to the sway of the bus. 
“Missed. Fuck it. ” She jerked her head sideways, flipping the hair from her face. 
She was something all right. Despite her weird older brothers, living thickly in that crowded house, Zella spun family stories with affection. She claimed all seven of them squabbled, violently at times, over workloads, food portions, sleeping arrangements, and who’d be last in the bathwater. Instead of television, reading, or cards, the Zanger clan played drinking games, staged shooting matches, held lying contests, and competed in feats of strength. Zella said she lied the best—no surprise.
Shaw often imagined Zella in better clothes. Used to, the kids made fun of her grunge. Not anymore. Maybe he’d get her a necklace, earrings, a bracelet. His mother had hordes of such trinkets. But Zella’s brothers would probably steal them, sell them for beer and cigarette money. By reputation—gossip mostly—Zella’s family were known as Arkansas hillbilly kooks. No telling what happened over there.

As Shaw watched the crayon lurch along the floor, a memory buzzed in his head. He and Zella had been hanging out at Dry Creek listening to rock songs on Shaw’s radio. The Stones started up and Shaw cranked the volume, “Satisfaction” blasting out over the gorge—drumbeats resounding, guitars driving the beat. 
Zella rose to her feet as Jagger sang. 
With the sun setting behind her, she danced along the ledge. Shaw watched in awe as she grooved to those pounding rhythms, mesmerized by the inner curve of her thighs sunlit through her dress. The arch and surge of her body like torch flame cavorting with wind. 

Shaw had no inkling, then, how Zella’s desires might differ from his own. But he’d begun to understand the suffering in hope. The rosy tongue that wet her mouth. Lips so hot, he bet her kisses tasted red.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Stern Agony--The Premise

      In sum, Stern Agony is a story of a man's life, a man who begins this journey as a precocious teen, living in wealth and privilege, but also mired in alcoholism, drug addiction and abuse. What will become of Shaw Pence and his beloved Hollows Ranch?

    The premise of my novel demonstrates that life is indeed just a game and nothing more--and everything more--that whatever happens in life is simply what happens. It's in how we move forward that we find significance. 

     Stern Agony demonstrates that what ‘will happen’ is key to a fully lived life, and what 'will happen' is entirely dependent on us. The main character of our lives is us; we are cause and effect for everything--the good, the bad, the random. What didn't happen, what could have happened, or might have, or should have, or did, are simply old stories we tell ourselves, barren landscapes littered with useless objects best ignored, twice told tales of failure, of acclaim, of excuse. Our past is not prologue; our past is dead to us.

The world is, in fact, but a stage; the things in it are givens. Our intention is our through-line, and the point of it all is change and understanding. Without change there can be no depth, no progress, no understanding, and we remain forever and always at the shallow end in a pool of excuses. Without purpose and intention, without challenge and change, we may as well be stalled boats on a pond, and when the water dries up, dead trees. 

     It's what we intend to do, will do, actually do, that's important. Just having understanding, and nothing more, no desire, no purpose, no movement, is like having a fervent desire to do something never done--and then never doing it. We must keep our sails furled, harnessing the wind, our ship sailing toward shore, because someday the lake bed will shrivel and crack. 

Just ask Shaw Pence.

1. The poem Thanatopsis, by William Cullen Bryant serves as a source for the novel's title, Stern Agony.
Following are the relevant passages, as alluded to on page 102 of the novel, wherein the poem serves as a clue to Gramp's hidden treasure:

"To him who in the love of Nature holds   
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks   
A various language; for his gayer hours   
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile   
And eloquence of beauty, and she glides   
Into his darker musings, with a mild   
And healing sympathy, that steals away   
Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts   
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight   
Over thy spirit, and sad images   
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,   
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,   
Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;—   
Go forth, under the open sky, and list   
To Nature’s teachings, while from all around— 
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air— 
Comes a still voice—"...

2. The co-progatongist's name, Cassie (short for Cassandra) was chosen purposely from the ancient greek Myth of Cassandra, alluded to in Homer's Iliad and elsewhere in literature. The myth is mentioned by Gramp and it would behoove readers to familiarize with the Myth:

Cassandra was a daughter of King Priam and of Queen Hecuba of Troy in Greek mythology. In modern usage her name is employed as a rhetorical device to indicate someone whose accurate prophecies are not believed by those around them.
In an effort to seduce her, Apollo gave Cassandra the power of prophecy: when she refused him, he spat into her mouth to inflict a curse that nobody would ever believe her prophecies, despite their complete accuracy. She falls asleep in a temple, and snakes lick inside her ears so that she can hear the future.
Cassandra is a literary figure in epic tradition and tragedy.

3. Legend of sacred Native American burial grounds.  Indigenous peoples thrive on traditions of merging with the land, physically and spiritually. After death, restless spirits can be trespassed and wronged. Native Americans are more present and powerful in their burial and sacred places, because they have merged their essence with the land itself and the land spirits there. And when the land is damaged, disturbed, built on...the spirits, the land, nature, revolts. The average American feels that when they die, they go to heaven or hell, or somewhere else. The traditional Native American may have an idea of a distant "happy hunting ground" but also that some part of their spirit is fused within the land, especially where they are buried. Stern Agony explores this idea when Shaw and Zella unearth artifacts in a cave on Hollows Ranch, unleashing the Myth of the Wet Man

Friday, December 25, 2015

Climate Change and Population Growth

     Planet Earth has too many people.

     Climate Change is real. It's been with us since the birth of the planet. In fact, climate change, extended periods of warming and cooling, made the planet. 

    The Sahara Dessert, millions of years ago, was a vast area of verdant growth, forests and abundant rainfall. Now, it's sand and heat. Millions of years ago, Kansas was under an ocean. Six hundred thousand years ago, the area around Topeka and Lawrence was under an icecap five hundred feet thick. The earth's climate has changed and the planet has warmed and cooled thousands of times, mostly during periods when there were no people and no fossil fuel industry.

    Demonizing a single industry as cause is nothing short of ludicrous. Fossil fuels help billions provide for themselves. Fossil fuels have done more to help the masses than any single thing.

    If climate change is caused by fossil fuels, if climate change will wreck havoc on worldwide coastal cities and crops by 2100, then Big Government had better start planning evacuations and food storage, because curtailing fossil fuels is never going to happen in time. China and India and other less developed countries are pumping carbons at historic levels, building coal plants and burning oil like never before. They have to; their populations are exploding. And they use old technology. Again, they have no choice. When the planet grows from one billion people in the year 1800, to seven billion people today, there is necessarily going to be massive usage of every kind of fuel and energy source imaginable.

    By 2030 global population will have grown to 8.5 billion people. The birth rate worldwide exceeds the death rate by 250,000 people per day! That's right; by this time tomorrow, there'll be another 250,000 mouths to feed, a quarter million more humans to muddy the water, dirty the air while finding a place to squeeze in.

    Soon, there will be too many people for our planet to absorb. 

    We must therefore advocate for population controls---early, first term abortion on demand and a one-child policy worldwide. We have no alternative. 


Monday, June 3, 2013

Literary Fiction

I enjoy reading "literary fiction," loosely defined as a novel that is more character driven than plot driven and where the reader is expected to do a little work, read between the lines and be engaged in something more than simply: "what happens next in plot" or, "who done it." In literary fiction, readers are asked to discern hidden meanings and nuance while experiencing both the external and internal lives of characters. Every word, every phrase, counts for something in literary fiction. It's not for skimming or quick reads. Literary authors are careful about such things as foreshadowing, word choice, metaphor, character depth, setting, atmosphere and internal conflict.

There is little worthwhile and lasting in commercial 'thriller' fiction, stories in which we are presented with a plot puzzle as to who committed the murder and/or how the culprit can be brought to justice. I really don't care anymore. These novels are so utterly forgettable. I suppose they are entertaining, but I'd rather be entertained with something of depth and meaning, something that changes me, and that I can carry forward. Commercial novels, or "plotters" all read about the same to me. Read one of these and you've read them all. I can't remember one from the other after little more than a week.

Give me Olive Kitteridge, The English Patient, Love in the Time of Cholera, Suttree, All the Pretty Horses, Affliction, The Human Stain etc etc. If you want a murder in your story try, "We Need to Talk about Kevin."

There is a reason crime novelists can crank em out by the dozens. Once they have the formula, they just plug in different scenarios and voila, another generic novel gets published. It's up to us readers to demand better than pablum. Let's read literary fiction and kill dumbed down writing.

...and then there is 50 Shades of Grey and its sequels...writing doesn't get much worse than as exhibited in those novels. Even steamy sex can be hard to enjoy with writing this bad. Certainly, these books have garnered huge success, which speaks volumes about the degree to which horrible writing is accepted by the reading public. Surely we, as writers, can demand higher standards, standards created by the authors of literary fiction.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Craft of Writing

I began to write fiction in 2010. As a retired trial lawyer with three decades of courtroom experience, I knew how to write. Didn't I? Legal arguments, opening and closing statements for trial, correspondence, memorandums, briefs and on and on. How hard could it be to write good fiction?

Turns out, I had no idea how difficult writing fiction would be. I bought the books. I tried my hand at a few stories, concocted some scenes. Even wrote a poem or two. Stuff you can't throw away fast enough for fear someone might read it.

When I look back at that early writing--the stuff I forgot to delete--I am aghast at the poor quality. Embarrassing stuff, filled with adverbs and telling, point of view all over the place, misplaced modifiers and overwritten passages that did little else but call attention to itself.

After years of study and effort, I am still deleting some but saving more. I have reached the conclusion that writing fiction is beyond complete mastery by anyone, the greats included. Which is why writing is such a wonderful thing. You can never conquer it. You can never say, with honesty, that you have mastered the craft of writing, not wholly, literally, utterly. Can't be done. They say golf is hard to master. I've played golf. It's not even close.

The muses, after all, are quite fickle maidens. You just keep working, editing and rewriting, with the hope that eventually something will sing. And then that someone, anyone, will read and understand.