TUESDAYS WE PLAY GIN RUMMY

                

Lila woke up and wondered where she was. This wasn’t home. It kind of was but certainly not the home she lived in most of the time. Her bed had been…no, not an ace. Not a king. Oh, well. Whatever kind it was this wasn’t supposed to happen. She’d have to tell Arthur to call someone. The roof was leaking. Had it rained last night? Must have and now her gown was wet.

“Arthur?” she called out. He didn’t answer. Where was that man? She padded into the hall and then the den. Her daughter, Jean, rose from the breakfast table, just visible past the half wall. Having coffee with her was…was…

She couldn’t remember. The man Jean had married. What’s-his-name. “Mother?” Jean asked.

“Where’s your father? The roof is leaking. It got me and my bed all wet.”

Jean came to her and put an arm around her shoulders, turning her back the way she’d come. “You’ve wet the bed again, that’s all.”

“I did not!”

“It’s ok, Mother. Let me help you get cleaned up and dressed.”

Lila went into the bath next to the room she’d come out of. Jean turned the water on to warm it and fetched a washrag and that stuff that smelled so good. It was kind of vanilla-y. “You don’t have to baby me,” she groused. “I can do it.”

“Okay. I’ll strip the bed and start the washer. Put your gown and underwear outside the door.”

Jean gathered up the wash and went to the laundry room, smiling at Joe as she passed the table. “Maybe it’s time for the adult pull ups,” he suggested.

“I guess so,” Jean sighed, a little piece of her heart breaking off. She knocked on the bathroom door. “Mom? Have you washed up?”

From behind the door came a scared voice. “Come in here, Jeannie.”

She entered the bathroom and stood behind her mother, looking at their reflections. Mother smelled a little fresher but it was definitely shower day. Pointing at the mirror, Lila asked, “Is that me or someone else?”

“It’s you, Mother. It’s just time for a dye job and a perm.”

“I’ll say.”

Jean held out the robe. “Put this on and come pick out what you want to wear.”

Lila moved the hangers around, looking for…”Here it is! I just love this dress!”

Jean crossed her arms. “It’s too cold for that. How about that pretty peach sweater and the white slacks?”

“Oh, I guess so,” she grumbled. “It doesn’t feel that cold to me.”

“That’s because we’re inside where it’s warm. This afternoon we can go for a walk if you want.”

“Maybe.”

She followed Jean to the table. Carefully, she examined the flatware for spots and made an appreciative noise when a cup of coffee was put in front of her. The husband stood up and kissed Jean, folding the paper and putting it under his arm. He bent and planted a kiss on top of Lila’s head. “Behave yourself,” he told her.

Lila smiled. “Have a good day, Gerald.” She caught the look that passed between them. “What?”

Gerald shook his head and walked to the door. Jean sat and looked at her with thin lips. “His name is Joe. Gerald was the boy I dated in high school.”

“Oh.”

“How about some eggs and toast?”

“That’ll be fine.” She’d really wanted pancakes but decided to not make a fuss. Maybe she’d make pancakes for everyone for supper tonight. “Where’s your father?”

Jean’s mouth made an O as she brought the plate to her. “Don’t you remember? Daddy’s gone.”

“Yes, but where?” Lila frowned and picked up the pepper shaker. “I suppose he’s off with that little tramp of his.”

Jean patted her hand. “No, Mother. I mean Daddy passed on. He’s been dead for six years now.”

“He has not!” Lila exclaimed indignantly.

Jean clamped her lips shut. Perhaps it helped her to cope, thinking he was catting around instead of in the ground. “Do you know what today is?”

Lila bit off a corner of her toast. “Veterans Day?”

“No. It’s Leta’s birthday.”

Smiling warmly, she chuckled. “My sweet little Leta. She’s ten this year, isn’t she?” Jean looked so crestfallen Lila got embarrassed. Maybe she was eleven. Or was it nine?

“Sweetie, Leta’s a sophmore in college.”

“Is she?” Lila forked up some eggs to cover her blunder. “How time flies.”

“Do you know what day of the week it is?”

“It’s not Sunday or Gerald—I mean Joe, wouldn’t be leaving for work. Is it Friday?”

“No. It’s Wednesday. Can you look at the clock and tell me what time it is?”

Lila dropped the fork on the plate and threw her napkin across the table. “What is it with all these questions? Why do you want me to tell you what time it is? You have a perfectly good watch on your wrist.”

Jean leaned over and retrieved the napkin. She wouldn’t look Lila in the face. Small wonder. She was acting funny. “I’m just checking something.”

“What?”

“Never mind. I’m sorry if I upset you.” She got up and cleared the plates while Lila finished her food. Once the dishes were in the dishwasher and the skillet had been washed she looked to see if her mother was done. To her dismay Lila was pouring coffee over her toast. “Mother, what are you doing?”

Lila looked down at the plate then into her coffee cup. “I could’ve sworn this was syrup. Guess it’s because I woke up with a taste for pancakes.” Her bottom lip quivered and she looked up at Jean like a confused child. “I made a mess, didn’t I?”

She barely heard Jean’s soothing and recoiled just a little when she hugged her. It had seemed all right at the time but now that she’d done it Lila was surprised. And scared. She’d never had coffee on toast before. Why had she thought she’d like it this morning? “I’m full, Jeannie.”

Jean opened the sliding glass door to the patio and handed her the leftover piece of toast. Lila remembered what to do with it. Crumbles for the birds. She scattered the little balls she made of the bread then took an out of the way seat to watch. “Hey, Mr. Bluebird,” she sang softly. And to the robin red-breast, “When the red, red robin comes nob, nob, nobbing along.” She couldn’t remember what the smaller birds were called but a gospel song went with them.

She poked around the rose bushes and made spluttering noises over what a shame it was that someone hadn’t watered them. Not a bloom one! She uncoiled the water hose and proceeded to give them a good drink. Just as she was getting something done Jean came out and made her jump when she cried out. “Mother! You’ve gotten your feet wet. Come in and change your shoes or you’ll catch cold.”

Lila dropped the hose, couldn’t remember what to do with it now. Jean stalked past her and now it came back to her. You had to turn the water off. Chastised, she followed her daughter inside after pulling the muddy shoes and socks off. She’d done it again.

But she hadn’t meant to do anything bad. “Don’t be mad at me, Jeannie.”

That got her a nice hug and smile. “What were you doing with the water hose?”

Lila blinked back her tears. “The roses are dying. No one’s watered them.”

Now it looked like Jean might cry, too. “It’s winter, Mother. They’re supposed to look like that.”

“Are they?” Lila ruminated on it for a minute. “Are the lilies dead, too?”

“They’ll all be back in the springtime.”

“Oh, that’s good.” She took the socks from Jean and pulled them on. “Just like that?”

“Just like that. We won’t have to do anything. It’s a kind of magic.”

“Awww.” She put on her lace up booties and bent to tie them but must not have done it right because Jean shooed her hands away and did it slowly, explaining each step. At one time she known this, hadn’t she?

Jean turned on the t.v. to a cooking channel and after a minute Lila got tired of it and went to the cabinets beneath the bookshelves. It was like finding old friends, all that junk in there. She pulled out a red handbag. The only thing in it was aa wadded up handkerchief. Way in the back was a pair of dress shoes with those skinny heels. Lila hadn’t seen them in ages.

Sitting on the couch, she removed her booties and slipped the heels on. When she stood and walked around to get the feel of them she began to teeter. Her legs wobbled and her ankles bowed then she fell right on her rump. It scared her more than it hurt. When Jean came running and cried out it scared Lila even more. “What on earth! Are you all right?” She knelt down and took the shoes off her and wiggled her feet. “Does that hurt? Did you twist your ankle?”

“No. I’m not hurt. I landed on my pillow.”

Jean laughed with relief. “Sweetie, we talked about not trying to wear heels, don’t you remember? No? Never mind. Let’s get you off the floor.”

Lila did as she was told and put her arms around Jean’s neck. Jean grabbed her by the waistband of her pants and lifted her, setting her into the rocker. It made her mad at herself. She didn’t know she was doing something stupid until it backfired. “I’m so much trouble, Jeannie. Maybe it’s time I went home so you don’t have to be bothered.”

“That’s not a good idea, Mother. If you’d fallen at home who’d have gotten you up?”

“Your father, of course.”

Jean clamped her lips shut and put the booties back on her feet. “Do you remember catching the stove on fire?”

“I did that?”

“Yep. You, Joe and me sat down and discussed why you shouldn’t live alone.”

“But this is putting an awful lot on you,” she pointed out.

Jean took her face in her hands and looked deep in Lila’s eyes. “No, it’s not. I want you here and so does Joe. It’s my turn to take care of you, okay? Just as you took care of me when I was little.”

“But mothers are supposed to take care of their kids.”

“Yes. And it’s perfectly fine for daughters to take care of their mothers when they can’t do it anymore.”

Lila’s heart melted. She had raised a wonderful girl. “I love you so much, Jeannie.”

“I love you, too, Mother.”

“Always?”

“And forever.”

Lila felt agitation rising and she clutched Jean’s arms. “Please don’t put me in a nursing home. I’ll stop wearing high shoes. Tell me what not to do and I won’t do it.”

Jean swallowed the lump in her throat and sniffed. “I’m not going to put you in a nursing home. Cross my heart and hope to die.” She stood up and took her mother’s hand. “How about we get out for a while?”

“Can we go to the flea market? Maybe get ice cream?”

“Why not?”

After the first five minutes of browsing through the stalls Jean knew she’d have to keep an eye on Lila. So many things about her behavior had reverted to the age of five. More than once she had to tell her mother not to put things in her pocket without paying first.

Lila was having the time of her life. It was good to get out of the house once in a while and if you could see old friends at the same time, all the better. Judging from the way many of her acquaintances didn’t seem to remember her, a trip to the salon needed to happen this week. She argued with the vendors and talked them down a little on the price and was, on the whole, pleased with her purchases. And Jean didn’t need to know about the little ceramic dog in her pocket. She’d worried her daughter enough for one day.

After ice cream they headed over to a neighborhood she thought looked familiar. When Jean pointed out the church she and Arthur had attended all through Jean’s childhood she was excited. “Oh, I want to go this Sunday! Do you think they’d let me play the organ again?”

“They might.” Jean went into the cemetery and they got out. She led the way to her father’s grave. “Look, Mother. Who’s name is that on the headstone?”

“Arthur McLellan.” Her head popped up, eyes wide with surprise. “What do you know? Just like your daddy.”

Jean hid her smile. “No, this is Daddy’s grave. And on the other side of the stone is your name and birth date. When you’re laid to rest beside him we’ll add the date of your death.”

“Are you sure it’s not some other Arthur?”

“Yes. Positive. There couldn’t possibly be two Arthur McLellans with the same date of birth with a wife that has your name and birth date.”

“I suppose not.”

“So do you see now that daddy’s not running around on you with another woman? He didn’t leave you, he died.”

Lila burst into tears. “Why did you show me this? It was easier thinking he was out there being naughty but would come home when he got tired of it. Now he’s dead and he won’t ever come back.”

Jean hugged her mother and let her cry. “I’m so sorry. It worried me that you couldn’t remember he was gone. That’s something I didn’t think you could ever forget. And I didn’t want Daddy’s good name besmirched, even by you.”

Lila took the tissue Jean offered and blew her nose. “I guess it’s better that he’s dead than fooling around on me. Thinking that just about killed me.”

They drove home and had lunch. Jean got out the calender her mother marked on and gave her a pen and her address book. Lila stared at the squares and tried to recall what they meant. This was her handwriting but what had she written? Jean glanced over her shoulder now and then. It cut to the bone to see how much her mother’s dementia had progressed in just a year. The notations for birthdays and hair appointments and small daily plans had become a string of letters and numbers or untidy scrawls.

“What did you say today is?”

Jean answered, “Wednesday. December the second.”

“All right. Next Tuesday is when the girls come over to play cards.”

“Yes. Tuesday is rummy day.”

Lila wrote it down. “I think I’ll serve…those things. You know, those things. The serving dish looks like a parfait glass and you put shrimp in them and that red stuff.” She stopped and stared at the wall for a moment. “I forget what else.”

“You mean shrimp cocktail.”

“Well, it’s not something you drink, you know.”

“I know. That’s just what they call it. The only thing you forgot is the lemon slice.”

“Do we have those kind of bowl glasses?”

“If we don’t I think we can make do. The girls won’t care.” She set a tuna salad sandwich and a glass of tea in front of her mother. Getting her own sandwich she sat across from Lila and watched somberly as she planned a card game that wasn’t going to happen. One of the foursome was in worse shape than Lila. Two had died and the other was in an assisted living facility.

Well, now, hold on a minute, Jean thought. Why not have a rummy game on Tuesday night? She and Joe and Mother. It would be good for her and she could serve shrimp cocktail. The game would in no way resemble gin rummy but what did that matter? The important thing was to let her do what she could for as long as she could. Keeping the brain active is a must, the doctor said.

Lila flipped through the address and phone book and wrote down her friends’ numbers because she couldn’t keep them straight anymore. What fun, what fun! Lots of gossip and reminiscing.

Jean said a prayer of thanks for each day her mother held on and brushed back tears for the woman she would be no more. It hadn’t been easy moving her into their home and giving up the job she loved to care for Lila full time. Would she regret it later? No. The only regrets she could imagine were those she’d have if she didn’t take this fragile, broken time and cherish every sweet, exasperating moment.

She pushed her sandwich plate away and leaned over toward her mother. “Hey, Lila Belle.”

The face that still held traces of the young bride she’d once been lifted when she heard her name. Soft blue eyes looked at her with the web of smile lines around them. Lila knew those wrinkled cheeks were as soft as a little girl’s. Her sweet mama. She hoped this second childhood was as happy as the first. “I love you,” she said, reaching for Lila’s hand.

A beautiful smile lit up the young-old face. “I love you, too, baby.” Lila squeezed her hand then let it go and picked her pen back up. “When you’re not being a bitch.”

Jean burst out laughing and couldn’t stop until tears were rolling down and her belly hurt.

I Smoke Too Much

by Dee Caples

Even immortal gatherings after a departure are comprised of guests holding plates of delicacies and vying for the too-few seats. Ops makes an unfortunate choice when she perches on an antique three-legged stool and breaks it to pieces. With a shriek she goes down, splattering red punch all over her lacy pink dress. Roaring with laughter, Shango pulls her to her feet. “Guess you didn’t go on that diet soon enough.”

I move my feet to make way in the crowd as Pan comes by, balancing a platter of grass and ranch dressing on his front hooves, the rear ones clicking delicately on the hardwood floor. I scoot over on the divan but he shakes his head. “No, thanks, I’ll stand.” Trying not to feel hurt, I smolder.

Aphrodite, my wife, glides into the spot, her lean thigh pressing close to me on the right side. That prompts Mut, on my left, to lean forward and give her a big smile. “Hello, my dear. It’s been ages since I saw you.”

Lovely, red lips smile and she politely swallows her bite of fruit before speaking. “It sure has. You don’t look a day over two thousand. How do you do it?” Aphrodite reaches up and brushes a strand of silver hair back. She complains about it but to me there’s no one more beautiful. I’m a lucky god.

Mut sighs. “I’m just sorry we had to meet again under these circumstances.”

“I’m going to miss Athena terribly,” I blubber. “After so many eons, who’d have known she’d decide to join the Starry Host? In an effort to get a grip, I blink and look across the room at Ambrogio, the vampire god, reclining with the grandchildren on his lap.

I listen to the little ones’ chirping voices but it doesn’t do the trick. See, I can’t cry. When I’m upset I put everyone around me in danger. My feet are getting very warm and despite all effort, heat spreads up my legs. Aphrodite pats my thigh. “Hephaestus, you gave me your word.”

Pan’s jaw grinds side to side, chewing his cud. “You need a glass of iced tea?”

Mut rolls her eyes and Aphrodite shoots him a look of censure. A shudder ripples through my body. “No! I’ll be fine!” I smile at my wife and put an arm around her back. “I’ll be fine.”

“Come on, Poppy! Do it!” the female grandchild urges Ambrogio. Her brother echoes the plea but, thankfully, he shakes his head. Surely this isn’t the day for performing magic tricks, even to amuse one’s grandkids. Great entertainment aside, this is hardly the proper venue.

Or is it? Am I the only one mourning Athena? Chipper conversation floats through the air, punctuated by laughter. Old friends hug with the joy of standing in the company of friends unseen for centuries. Hands are being pumped and wings unfurled in a show of unbridled happiness. Does no one care we won’t see Athena until night, and only in spring, at that?

A buzzing figure lands behind me on the back of the couch. One of Aphrodite’s erotes sips her tumbler of moonbeams then rubs her nose and takes flight again. “Careful, old boy,” Mut warns, leaning closer even though smoke is rising from my suit coat. “Osiris won’t thank you if you singe his couch.”

From the direction of the recliner come peals of laughter from the children. Ambrogio has given in and rotted. Quickly forming again, he grimaces a little and raises his foot to reveal a large, gooey spot he’s failed to reincorporate. A couple of deities applaud. “Oh, but that’s okay, huh?” I snort.

The smoke is getting thicker and drawing attention. Aphrodite hands her bowl over and gives me a little push. “Take this to the kitchen. Walk it off.”

I huff and ignore Quetzalcoatl, raising a hand to cover his mouth as I pass. Ganesha gives me a comforting pat on the arm with his trunk and asks, “You all right, buddy?” The bastard thinks I don’t see him wink at Bhudda. I have to get myself under control. It really steams me that immortals are becoming as self-righteous as humans about smoking. It’s not like I can, or should be, expected to hold back. Fire is my power, my strength. I hadn’t asked for this!

Taking a deep, calming breath, I put Aphrodite’s bowl in the sink. The low purr of a classic muscle car approaches the house and blats one more rack of dual pipes before the motor is cut.

A few nymphets and a couple of matronly goddesses squeal like sprites at the feet of Apollo. “He’s here!” Hera trumpets, waving her hands as she runs to the parlor.

I know the sound of that GTO engine and grind my teeth. A cherub floats down, picking a soothing tune on his harp. “Chill out, man,” he advises.

Too late for that. I hurry to the porch and sit on the swing, panting, tasting brimstone on my tongue. Closing my eyes, I listen, my temperature rising. It’s Loki, the last person I want to see. He has no conception of solemnity. My disgust is compounded by hearing the women vie for his attention like he’s some kind of rock star. Worse yet, he’s taken to disguising himself as Tom Hiddleston since the movie Thor came out.

My hair begins to dance with tiny pinpricks of embers the closer he gets. I hear Aphrodite beg him to not start anything. “It’s cool,” he jokes as the screen door squeaks open. I force myself to look at his handsome, grinning face. “Hephaestus! How’s it shaking?”

I scowl. “How do you think? Athena’s gone.”

Loki tries his best to hold a straight face but I can see the corners of his lips quivering. “Yeah, I’m sorry about that. I know how close the two of you were.” He lifts his long necked bottle of Corona and takes a healthy swig, distilling trails of sweat running down to his fingers.

Lifting a mocking brow, he points back to the kitchen. “Would you like me to get you one?” Faking dismay, he slaps his forehead then puts a hand over his heart. “I’m sorry. That was thoughtless of me.”

Flames rise from my shoes and shirt cuffs and I can’t hold back a growl of anger. This guy really knows how to get me hot under the collar.

His mouth falls open with amusement. “You’re still holding a grudge, aren’t you? It was just bocce ball, dude.” He snaps his fingers, ego oozing from his pores. “I know. Let’s settle it over a game of badminton.”

That does it. I roar in fury and combust. Running off the porch into the yard doesn’t cut it. The damage is done. From inside the house comes a shout of “Fire!”and thumping feet. Atalanta runs around the corner of the house, carrying her basket of golden apples. She doubles over, giggling. My embarrassment is complete now. You have no idea of how devastating it can be to have a pretty blond catch you with your clothes burned away. I stand there, mortified, wishing I could die.

Mercury speeds to the rescue, grabbing the water hose to put out the porch roof and swing. My wife pulls me to a safer location. “Can we go now?” I ask. Gods! I sound so whiny!

On the porch Artemis and Poseidon are leading the Greek chorus of merriment at my expense. Aphrodite crosses her arms and glares at me. “I can’t take you anywhere.”

When Eras Collide

Not until after World War II did women truly come into their own. Prior to that we were still mostly wives and daughters. When the men went to war, we went to work and just like the song, how were they to be kept on the farm after that? The song was about soldiers and the coming vision of an urban world tempting them to leave their small farming towns. It was also about the work force that had been made up of Rosie The Riveter and the satisfaction women got from keeping the home front going and helping their men overseas by turning out war machines. Not for much longer would we be content to do the laundry and rear the kids. We wanted to learn to drive and earn the money for our own damn bank account.

But that’s not really where it started, is it? One could say it began with Mary Shelley writing ‘Frankenstein’, a real departure from the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen. Or maybe it began with the women’s suffragist movement and gaining the vote. Women have always been nurses and healers and midwives but in the late eighteen hundreds they began to fill secretarial positions that had once been the milieu of men.

Other occupations were sought by women and they had to begin somewhere, right? In ‘The Alienist’ we see the female lead, Sara Howard, appointed as the first female in the New York City police department. Of course, she’s in a secretarial position but it’s as the assistant to the newly appointed police commissioner, Teddy Roosevelt. Not bad, Sara. In this touted role, and under the auspices of a tolerant but often exasperated boss, our girl throws herself into what she really wants: a detective’s job.

Let me say first that the people who designed the sets and man the cameras for this TNT television masterpiece have done a bang-up job of recreating NYC just prior to the year of 1900. Its roads are only slightly less clogged, but this time it’s with horse drawn carriages. Crowded tenements are criss-crossed with outdoor clothes lines and chickens and pigs roam the streets freely. If the dingy streets are illuminated at all it’s with gas lights and often the colors are washed out completely to give that nice, eerie black and white touch. Sitting in your easy chair in front of the tv you can feel the cold fingers of the soupy fog.

The story is a mix of genres. Thriller, detective mystery and horror with a little romance thrown in for spice. Mix it all up and you have a show that’s hard to watch at times. Season one’s plot was centered around the murders of boy child prostitutes. This was not the New York of modern times where we find such things to be shocking but, honestly, it’s probably no less prevalent today nor is the plight of homeless children. We’d like to think so because it’s become a cause celebrated by famous people and the stuff of headlines, movies and television but it’s still going on. Social programs haven’t fixed the larger problem.

The Alienist shows us a John Q. Public who turns a blind eye to these horrid happenings because they aren’t deemed edible by a polite society. A matron might contribute her time and money to found a charity but she wasn’t about to make a trip to the Bowery and get her hands dirty. Men adopted a laissez-faire attitude and left it to the police.

Not Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), Dr. Laszlo Kreisler (Daniel Bruhl) or New York Times reporter John Moore (Luke Evans). Together with the emerging men of forensic science, Marcus Isaacson (Douglas Smith) and his brother Lucius (Matthew Shear), they plunge headlong into hot water with the police force, often run by corrupt officers who are getting fat off graft and their association with the criminal element preying on these exploited children.

I wondered what an alienist was when I heard the commercials for the show. To my surprise I turned around and saw it was a period piece and not some new sci fi offering. Okay. Then I found out it was the early term for psychiatrist, that people who were mentally ill were thought to be “alienated” from their true nature, therefore, a doctor of the mind was an “alienist.” Oh.

Dr. Kreisler, the alienist, is a man with compassion rather than a compulsion to lock away insane people. His approach is to find out what trauma resulted in a sane person committing an act deemed to be the result of insanity or outright brutality. He champions their cause and testifies in court for a more humane approach in dealing with pathological criminals.

John Moore scoops every other reporter by his willingness to walk the mean streets and fight for his shocking articles to make the front page. He’s a dark horse in the newspaper business and doesn’t hesitate to use his skill to follow a lead, right into the very mouth of madness.

The forensic detectives are the beginning of what will eventually become pathologists and CSI technicians. We get to see them try out a new idea that will become fingerprinting and cheerfully, but with all due respect, cut into the bodies of victims and discover cause of death. They’re invaluable members of the team and the forerunners of scientific police methods.

Sara Howard is respectable and moves in the upper echelons of New York society but she doesn’t hesitate to use her position to further her ambition or cram well-crafted insults down the throat of her detractors. She smokes, drinks bourbon straight and is a crack shot with a pistol. She’s also generous of heart and fearless in her determination to bring justice to the helpless and downtrodden.

So, here’s to you, Sara (and Ms. Fanning). It had to start somewhere. Probably with a true-to-life woman a lot like you.

What Makes Dennis LeHane Worth Reading

Most of what I read is crime fiction. We can taste the grit of Los Angeles in the writing of Michael Connelly. Lehane grinds Boston into the enamel. Whether it’s Dorchester or the fictional setting of Shutter Island, we get dropped just a little too close for comfort into the setting of his novels. Streets and parks and triple-layer apartments, he encourages us to hold the hand of the characters and walk with them, see what they see. We don’t mind being led around by the nose because he does it so well. The spiritual questions his people ask are never answered because they’re the same things men and women have been wondering about since the dawn of time. How can people be so evil? Where is God when unspeakable things happen? When was the last time you heard a satisfying reply to the truly hard matters? LeHane and his characters have nothing they can tell you. They’re slogging through the morass, too.

This past month I’ve read three books by him, having already seen the movie adaptations. It’s no wonder they chose his books to bring to film and the screenwriters were faithful to his work. First I read Mystic River, a novel about three friends whose lives are indelibly stamped by the abduction and molestation of Dave. Tim Robbins flat-out earned his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for portraying the adult Dave. The book fleshes out the man trying to overcome his childhood tragedy and live up to Wolf Boy, his alter ego that bravely, narrowly, escaped from his tormentors. What makes him such a haunting character is: How has Dave managed to not get sucked in the maelstrom and become the very thing he hates? Sean Penn won Best Actor for playing Jimmy Markum, neighborhood bad boy who turns his life around (mostly) after the birth of his daughter that is later murdered. Rounding out the trio is Sean Devine (played by Kevin Bacon), the homicide cop investigating the killing, pulled between two loyalties and memories of growing up with the boys of this rough neighborhood.

Next came Shutter Island. LeHane said the location is based on a Massachusetts mental institution he visited as a child. You can feel the moisture dripping from the stone walls. There’s less hope of escaping this forbidding island than Alcatraz. It’s unnerving when the federal marshals (Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo) begin interviewing inmates and the people responsible for their care because some of the patients, at least at first, don’t seem all that insane and not all the wardens are particularly sound of mind, either. While hunting for an escaped patient, there’s the twin threat of a hurricane and downed power lines that open the electric cell doors. It has a whopper of a surprise ending I wouldn’t give away for anything. Read the book first if you haven’t seen the movie.

A few hours ago I finished Gone, Baby, Gone. This thriller about a kidnapped child has as many sharp turns as a mountain road. The characters, a pair of private detectives and several morally challenged cops, are more complicated in their depiction than any I’ve read in quite some time. Especially in these ambiguous times, it’s hard to fault the bad guys for what they’ve done when LeHane makes his argument here against the nauseating abusers of children. Patrick Kinsey (Casey Affleck, brother of director Ben Affleck), the narrator, and his partner Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) take the job of finding the lost little girl even though they know it’s not going to go well, never dreaming it will end the way it does. Neither does the reader/viewer. Does Patrick do the right thing? It doesn’t matter, in his opinion. He questions only the outcome. Never in his own mind does he doubt himself until it’s too late. In the movie he finishes the job he was hired to do in a manner never predicted. Again, I’m not going to be a spoiler here.

What makes Dennis LeHane worth reading is his ability to draw you in. You can imagine life in a grimy Southie apartments, listening to the neighbors quarrel. You envision the poor living conditions of those unfortunate bastards in C block on Shutter Island. Enter the impoverished quarters of an evil child molester and you want to shoot him, too. Smell the garbage and unwashed bodies. Make your feet move faster to exit the bar before you get a pool cue upside your head.

Mr. LeHane’s Boston is grim and dirty and stricken of hope as it is of money. Drink and drugs are waiting to drag the citizens down as surely as one generation is likely to follow the next in a low-paying job, probably raising a family in the same house they grew up in. The outlook is stark, bleak and humorless. Then, one of his clever people crack a joke ringing with the same irony cops and doctors use in order to do their harrowing jobs and maintain a bit of reserve. You have to laugh, too, because it’s not funny. It’s painfully true to life. Neighbors come together to face tragedy and roast hot dogs while the minimum wage dads crack open a beer, maybe get into a fistfight. Pull a chair onto that sagging front porch of an evening, wave to folks unafraid to take a walk because they’re just as tough as the streets they come from. This is Dorchester.

…And it finally happens!

One could argue that I, at last, wrote something good enough to get paid. Since one of the accepted stories was one I’d already submitted before and had turned down, that would be half true. I’m convinced that what happened is I finally found the right niche for them. Instead of trying to pound my square peg into a round hole, I exerted patience and waited to send them in to publishers that were looking for that kind of story. That way, when the ball came to home plate I hit it out of the park. The pay wasn’t great but I’m a pro now.

I’d read when I started this that most writers still keep their day job. If you’re determined to write short fiction for a living you’ll likely lose your house because the money isn’t that abundant. You have to be really good to get into Clarkesworld or The New Yorker and what writer is prolific enough, or good enough, to hammer out that kind of stuff and keep the lights on? No, I don’t plan to quit my job just yet. What I’m going to do is keep writing, force myself to finish one of the longer works I have (books, ya’ll) mumbling in the backwater of my documents file and shop around for the person most likely to take them home.

If a romance publisher tells you they don’t accept science fiction, don’t send them a romance about a woman who meets a man from outer space. There are places looking for just that kind of thing. Go to the bookstore and browse the racks for who’s printing what, then go online and hunt for publishing houses taking manuscript queries from writers without an agent. Duotrope is supposed to be a good place to start looking. If you’re lucky enough to have an agent, that’s their job.

Join writer’s groups or form one of your own if there isn’t one in your hometown. There are some good ones on social media, too. Often members post places looking for submissions. The more you submit, the more likely you are to get accepted. Keep sending in stuff that won’t pay such as literary journals, though some of those do pay as much as $100. Most don’t pay because they’re running on a shoestring or put out by colleges. Once you get a few publications under your belt you can add that to your cover letter. You’re more likely to get published if you already have been, just as I’ve heard it’s easier to find a job when you already have one.

Don’t just look for magazine or anthology publishers, either. You could get accepted, as I did, by a You Tube audio channel. I also got hired to do a script for an ad. There’s more than one kind of writer but you won’t get your name out there if you never send anything to the right place. Do your research, and for crying out loud, read and believe what they tell you they want. As the saying goes, Submit,wait, fail, submit, wait, fail, submit….

…accepted!

NOTHING ELSE TO DO?

During COVID most Americans have found themselves binge watching television. And why not? You can’t go anywhere except for groceries and take out. Some businesses are opening back up but I get the feeling we’re a long way from being back to normal. Movies and shows about epidemics and disaster are big right now so here’s my top pick for virus movie. 12 Monkeys. You have your pick, the 1995 film directed by Terry Gilliam or the SYFY series which ran from 2015-2018. Haven’t seen them? If you watch one you might as well watch the other.

The movie’s tighter, fast-paced but movies don’t have the luxury of spreading the story over four seasons. The script by Chris Marker and David and Janet Peoples captures the frenetic pace of the hero, sent back in time to find the origin of a plague that’s wiped out most of humanity. His controllers wink him out and back in to check his progress, furthering the mania already present in the poor man. I couldn’t tell if the people kept in cages only large enough to lie down in are potential test subjects for time travel or if everyone lives like this. It’s awful to imagine and the social spacing of these cages is prescient.

Bruce Willis plays James Cole, the traveler, a man driven by his misery to agree to it all and we find him collecting specimens and tracking down Dr. Cassandra Railly, a virologist who left a message for the future. But how did she know? That’s what I love about time paradox films and this one is a whopper. Madeleine Stowe (Dr. Railly) looks quite fragile. She’s anything but as Cole drags her around the city, fueled by his mission, crippled by his mental instability and she gets drawn all the way in to the madness.

Against type, the real corker is Brad Pitt as Jeffrey Goines, the schizophrenic son of Dr. Leland Goines. Pitt got the Oscar for his portrayal of Jeffrey, a young man with a heavy bent on animal rights and anti-corporation, the leaders of a shadowy group called The Army of The Twelve Monkeys. That’s precisely who the future scientists are looking for.

I don’t want to give anything away because three quarters of the thrill in this movie are due to Cole’s flashbacks to a scene at an airport and the real flashes from past to future. The script manages to keep us unaware of what’s going to happen until the last few minutes of the movie.

The series stars Aaron Stanford (X Men) as Cole and Amanda Schull (Devil’s Gate) as Dr. Railly. They did a brilliant piece of casting when they hired Emily Hampshire (Boy Meets Girl) to play Jennifer Goines. It proves that a girl can be as lunatic and mesmerizing as a guy.

Even though I found the series development to be a little far flung at times, it’s still fun to watch. Hampshire’s antics provide much-needed comic relief and there was time to further a romantic sub-plot between Cole and Cassandra. As I already said, I love time travel shows and 12 Monkeys is all about time hopping.

If you care to check it out, both movie and series were based on a 1962 French short film, La Jette, directed by Chris Marker. It’s mostly narration over still photos with the actors never speaking. The time travel is replaced here by post-nuclear. In my current mode of immersion, I’ll probably have to watch it, maybe on You Tube, in spite of their annoying tendency to interrupt with commercials. I hate that crap. Why don’t they have the courtesy to wait until the end so we can hit the stop button? They already post ads that won’t let you skip them and go on to what you wanted to watch in the first place.

I already know the answer. You can’t sell anything that way.

Success…but no money yet

Every writer aspires to be the next Gaiman, Patterson or King. We all want to make beau coup bucks and get invited to appear at major book signings. That was my goal thirty years ago and I suppose it’s still one of my favorite dreams. Now that I’m older I’ve decided to settle for the unacknowledged necessity that is the basis of an author’s ambition: getting published.

You can’t be famous if you’re never published and there are precious few writers that hit one out of the park with their first novel. Most of us have gone for years sending in stuff and getting our feelings crushed with each rejection. Think of what you’ve learned in that time. Your skin got tougher, for one. I bet your chops did, too. When I read some of my old work I think, “Good thing I didn’t send that in.”

I tend to write in short, chopped sentences. My editor says they don’t flow well. There’s no descriptions or feeling to enrich them.

Now, how do I improve what I just wrote?

I have a tendency to write short, chopped sentences that my editor says have none of the natural flow of prose. There’s no adverbs or adjectives to enrich the imagination, no color to give them depth.

Better, but….

I should say “choppy” instead of “chopped”, take out “that”. I’ve used the singular “there’s” instead of the plural because I’m talking about more than one thing with “adverbs and adjectives.”

I have a tendency to write short, choppy sentences my editor says have none of the natural flow of prose. There are no adverbs or adjectives to enrich the imagination or color to give them depth.

When I edit what I’m writing I take out a lot of thats and other determiners. I have to watch my use of “just” when it’s not necessary and guard against the Texan in me to come out in what I’ve typed. It’s okay for your characters to talk in your local dialect but it’s not desirable in the text.

Can you use a comma rather than and and and? Do you begin sentences or paragraphs with ‘but’, ‘so’, ‘and’? Do you overuse with? What about run-on sentences? They’re clumsy and confuse the reader by going on and on and saying the same thing over and over and detailing too much that could have been said in shorter sentences that wouldn’t leave the reader thinking they’ve read this all before and are hearing it again and again? (See? That was awful, wasn’t it?)

What does this have to with writer ambition? Editing, baby. When I learned to be a better editor, my work improved and I found more publishers willing to accept what I submitted. You can have a unique plot and engaging characters, all the arcs in all the right places but if you can’t write in a compelling language no one’s going to take your story.

After you’ve edited the hell out of your short story or book send it in to as many publishers as you can. Beware those that don’t take simultaneous submissions unless you’re willing to wait for their acceptance or rejection. Many publishers say it’s all right to submit elsewhere as long as you inform them upon being accepted elsewhere. Don’t get a bad rep.

I don’t know how I’ve gotten accepted for publication this month three out of four times. One reason could well be that I’m not getting paid for it. Don’t let this discourage you or stop you from sending something in. Read the contract they send you. I’ve yet to see one that wants to retain the rights to my story. It always says that they want first rights only and if I get it published later they want credit for the original printing. In other words, ” ‘Wipires’ was originally published in 2019 by Altered Reality Magazine.” I can still send that short story to someone that does pay unless they specifically say in the submission guidelines they don’t take reprints.

Probably the reason I’ve been accepted is improved writing skills. Like any skill, it gets better the more you work it. Editing the words of others opened my eyes to what I’m doing wrong and reading the books of established writers can show you how to craft meaningful sentences. Study how they bring the characters to life and what they do to make you engage with that world you’re holding in front of your face. Create your own and see if someone else wants to come inside.

Here’s your exercise: take this post and edit it. If yours sounds better than mine I don’t want to know, okay?

Quarantined With Your Clock

We all have a lot of free time so you might as well write. Start submitting those short stories to online (and otherwise) magazines. You can find them on writer’s groups, Facebook and by subscribing to Author’s Publish Magazine. Google them, gird your loins with bravery and send them in. All they can say is no.

There is lots of writing advice out there you can get for free just by doing a web search. I’m a fine one to talk about boning up on creative writing since I have a ton of material I haven’t looked at yet but, I swear, I’m going to. On Monday while I’m off I’m going to force myself to turn off Netflix (the death of writing for me) and read.

http://critters.org/c/join.ht is the link to join a very nice writer’s critique group. My editor said one of the best ways to improve your own writing is to critique others. After you put some credits under your belt you can offer up your own work for criticism. So far I haven’t but I’m gonna do that, too.

Get out your old English textbook or find a free online creative writing course. I don’t think there’s a writer out there that can’t benefit from polishing their tools of the trade. You probably think you’re a fair grammarian but you might be wrong about that. English was my best subject in school but I was floored to find out how much I’d forgotten and how off base I was about things I’d assumed to be fact.

This may sound boring as all get-out but breaking out and reading the dictionary can’t possibly hurt you. While you’re at it, crack open a thesaurus. Words are a writer’s crown and you can’t be effective if you don’t know and love words. http://www.dictionary.com is just one example of online help, a port to a huge database of word spellings and meanings as well as origin. http://www.merriam-webster.com offers dictionary and thesaurus look ups as well as Word Of The Day and a tips and tricks feature for word help.

Right now we have an unprecedented chance to record some pretty wild history as it’s occurring. If you’re a fantasy or sci-fi writer this is golden, baby. Ask yourself a few questions: Was this virus created for nefarious reasons worthy of the Illuminati? How is it going to affect human immunity? What will we do if this thing mutates and we never get out of the house? Are we headed for another worldwide depression? Is your mother-in-law Patient X?

I consider myself very lucky to still be employed, unlike many of you out there in this uncertain time. With the help of God and each other we’ll get through this craziness just as we hurdle every obstacle in out path. Hang in there, cough into your elbow and we’ll make it.

Watching ‘Messiah’

“Raise up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.”

That’s in the Bible. I believe in this holy book with all my heart. At the same time I’m a very disobedient child. There are warnings aplenty for those who say and don’t do. That they’ll be cut off. That they’ll reap the whirlwind.

What will I reap? What have I sown? Am I damned? Or is my faith so unshakable in the premise that my belief and acceptance of Christ is the foundation of Heaven and my salvation is not of works? This little light of mine seldom shines. The older I get, the more prodigal I feel.

Into my inner turmoil comes the Netflix presentation of ‘Messiah’, created by Michael Petroni who is also executive producer along with Mark Burnett, Roma Downey, James McTeigue (who doubles as director on six episodes with Kate Woods directing the other four) and Andrew Deane. The writers are Michael Bond, Amy-Louise Johnson, Michael Petroni, Kelly Wiles, Eoghan O’Donnell, Bruce Marshall Romans, Brandon Guercio, and Emily Silver.

Mehdi Dehbi has the title role of Al-Masih (Messiah), a poker-faced political dissident who attracts international attention by preaching during an unprecedented sandstorm that drives an invading army from Damascus. When it’s over he leads a group of refugees to the Israeli border only to abandon them. He miraculously (with the help of a chartered plane) reappears in Texas just as a tornado is about to land in a small town.

John Ortiz is Felix, the pastor of the only church in the tiny town of Dilley. His budget is in the red, his daughter is a hellion and his wife an alcoholic. Running away, his daughter escapes being blown away by hiding in a drainage tunnel where she is found by Al-Masih, earning him the gratitude of her parents. Felix becomes his most loyal disciple. At first, at least.

Michelle Monaghan plays Eva Geller, a widowed CIA agent with fertility problems. She smells a charlatan from the very beginning and sets out to prove it. Tomer Sisley plays her Shin Bet counterpart, Aviram Dahan, a man estranged from his family and haunted by the things he’s done for the sake of his job and Israel.

Outbidding Felix for the job of truest believer is Jibril (Sayyid El Alami), an illiterate Palestinian orphan who follows Al-Masih to the border and embodies symbolic protest when he braves gunfire to lead the refugees into the promised land. His pal Samir (Fares Landoulsi) is more skeptical and hangs around for lack of anything better to do. We can forgive him that because he reads The Little Prince to Jibril with such touching innocence in a war-weary setting. Both teenagers become pawns of a hard-line Muslim sect after their faces are plastered over television news shows.

The plots are predictable and the characters do what we imagine they would. This isn’t the fault of the actors, though, and the writers do form compelling story lines. Monaghan’s lovely face expresses such bitter determination and Sisley is downright scary in portraying a man so devoted to his job and nation he’ll do anything for them. Mehdi utters carefully worded platitudes that espouse no particular religion even as he draws on monotheistic themes. It’s no great wonder there. Islam, Christianity and Judaism are the only ones looking for a messiah.

Al-Masih draws heavily on the ideals of Jesus, all the while never claiming to be. His early-on healing of a boy shot on Temple Mount and walking on water at the Washington Memorial are evocative of the miracles of the Son of God. The intrepid Agent Geller uncovers his Iranian heritage and a brother who reveals they were raised by a magician uncle who taught the boys all his tricks. But how is he able to get under the skin of his Doubting Thomas nemeses with such unerring skill?

What this show gets right is the parallels between Christ and Al-Masih. Jesus was called a faker and religious rebel. Crowds thronged around both. The searchers, the desperate, the fearful all flock to this mysterious man. Discord is sown among those in doubt and rioting and looting are rampant both in America and the Holy Land. And when the wash gets hung on the line Felix, like Apostle Peter, is the first to hit the dirt.

I was reluctant to waste my time watching this at first but have concluded I’ll tune into season two. Why? I don’t believe they’ll try to put Al-Masih forward as a real messiah. I, as a Christian, believe He’s already been here, done that. What’s more likely to happen is Al-Masih being outed as a fake and The Amazing Randy going on tv to show how the walking on water was done. Someone’s bound to uncover footage of the boy’s “miraculous” healing of the gun shot being staged. What I’m going back for is to see how the writers finesse the mystery. Are they going to find a deeper meaning to the word “faith” or are they just going to dismiss believers as a bunch of weak fools who need the opiate of the masses?

Ecclesiastes 10:18

I’m a great believer in procrastination but I’m trying to get better. Who wouldn’t rather read a book or do anything but wash dishes? Drinking a beer while watching a movie is preferable to disposing of the junk piling up in my unused dining room. My stack of unsorted mail grows with every delivery.

My parents always said I was lazy and I can’t dispute that. Every time I drive up and see the unpainted fascia and moss-stained brick on my house I wince. Walk the dog, come in the back yard and there it is, a huge pile of crap waiting for a junk tag from the city to motivate me. This accretion of possibly usable stuff is a side effect of meth addiction. Hey! This might come in handy someday and I won’t have to buy it because it’s in a drawer or box or closet somewhere!

Late May of 2020 will be my one-year anniversary of being clean. I wanted to say sober but that wouldn’t be true. Before I began putting a needle in my arm damned near every day (and sometimes more than once a day), I drank quite a bit. Now that I’m off meth I’m drinking again.

Bad, bad, bad idea. Some people might think that’s okay but it’s not. Booze may not be against the law but it’s addictive and hard on the entire body. You won’t hear me trying to justify my consumption. I can’t. I know I’m an addict and what always seems to be a good idea at the time never is when it comes to substance abuse. The first week off meth had me eyeing the cold beer case at the neighborhood Walmart store. I chose the super-duper variety pack of Mike’s Hard Lemonade and ignored that little voice inside that said, “Aw, shit! Here we go again!”

As I sit and drink one or two or three beers and watch endless, but funny, videos of birds and cats on YouTube my house is falling apart. There’s a verse in the bible that says “by idleness of hands a house droppeth through.” Literally. The floor in front of my refrigerator got soft from a leak and now the tile floor has peeled away and the wood floor is flaking.

Getting off your duff and back into the real world is essential for every recovering addict. To put it in the vernacular, you just got to do it . It moves you away from the drug of choice and back to what you really need to be doing besides getting stoned. Despite my drinking, and while I am, I’ve forced myself to be more sociable, go to the gym, clean the house and continue writing. I don’t miss the meth, much, and I don’t drink at work. On my days off is another story.

Sarah Evans wrote a very good post on WordPress, Addiction’s Seismic Effects On The Family. I looked high and low for a place to comment on it because her heartbreak and love for her son is so clear. I wanted to tell her, as an addict, there’s nothing she can do to make it all better. She, her husband and the boy’s sister have done nothing wrong. They didn’t miss something somewhere along the way. It’s all on Sam. He’s the one walking on fire and he’ll be the one to determine when he’s tired of burning his feet. All you can do is continue to love him, even if you have to put him out of your life.

This I know: if I can stop a thirty-five year needle addiction I can quit drinking one day, too. Pray for me. Pray for the family of Ms. Evans.