Monday, January 31, 2011

Outside Eddie's Room In the World

Eddie combed the doll's hair. Then another and another. Many dolls, all told. More than he could count. He looked at the room of family photographs hanging on walls and leaning in corners while he combed.

Some he knew, recognized from the slant of eye or the dip of shoulder, others he did not. A man cocked against a company truck. Hair slick, morning fog climbing down from the mountains behind him to swallow him. Another done professional of Eve and her family, the boy and the girl who died three years back.

Drove into town at midday and didn't come back. Deputy Calhoun found both of them behind the old Hobbs store with blue powder hanging from their noses like early morning icicles.

It was Eddie who tried to explain to Granny Barb what happened. He used words like "pills" and "snort" and "plague." Granny Barb said she took medicine but it never left her dead like her sweet grandbabies. Eddie stopped trying and Eve and her husband R.B. just never tried. They left Granny Barb to soak in her own confusion and pain while they plagued themselves long enough to forget why it mattered to start with.

Eddie stacked one patch of dolls into another corner. He tucked the comb in his back pocket and eased into his recliner. Nearly dozed off, his hand-held scanner blared out in the quiet. Static in heartbeats and then the cops talking in numbers. He listened for names in between the numbers. He knew most of the codes. He knew the codes for fatal wrecks and overdoses, gunshots fired and so on. It was a rock slide on Creed Hill blocking traffic. Nothing much happening this morning. Maybe later today.

Every doll had a name. Eddie named one for every family member gone. More dolls than he could count. Counting slaughtered sheep. But he tried, and finally went back to sleep in his chair, one ear cocked for static and numbers and the plague, always there somewhere outside his room. In the world.


Friday, January 28, 2011

Lists, Waves and Smiles, Monkeybicycle and Border Towns

Ravi Mangla made a list of Wigleaf stories, not eligible for inclusion in the Wig's Top 50 for obvious reasons, because Ravi makes lists. This is a good one. Work from Amber Sparks, Jim Heynen, Anne Valente, Mel Bosworth, Steve Himmer and truck loads of others.

Waving and smiling, Martha Williams also made a list. I'm addicted to lists. Martha listed up some blogs for folks to read and some journals for folks to read. I think she's right, right and right. And I thank her from the bottom of my bottle for including A-Minor and Bent Country on that list. Writers include Michelle Elvy, Christopher Allen, Kirsty Logan, Sam Rasnake, Robert Vaughn, Claire King, and all the others good stuff waving Martha's way and waved by to us like wind magic as pixie dust. Journals deservedly dropped into the list include Ramon Collins' The Linnets Wings, Metazen, The Pistol Mice (formerly BLIP and formerly before that other things), and some I've not yet read but will soon.

Go take a ride on Monkeybicycle, okay? It's a nice ride today and here is the permanent link to a group of the one-sentence stories they have up there today. One ultra-fast awesomeness from Donora Hillard, Len Kuntz, Brad Modlin, Bruce Harris and varying other ninjas of the one-sentence form. Reading this reminded me again of the maybe the most important rule in writing micro or mini-micro stories. Titles are everything in this form. Everything.

There are more good stories than you can shake a stick at 52/250 this week with the theme "Border town" as a prompt. This week some fine folks keep up the flashing tradition. So, open your robes and join in. Read while you flash. Write while you flash. Flash.

One year ago today J.D. Salinger died. I'm reminded of this by Katie Jean Shinkle who posted this killer cartoon at Facebook. Thanks, Katie.

Metazen has a new sister-cousin website called HOUSEFIRE. It's hot. Hot like Scarlett. Put some oven gloves on and have a look, kay?

And lastly, the fights have come to an end. The wrist tape has been cut away at Mel Bosworth's Eye Brains "writer fights." Matt Bell emerges victorious against Blake Butler while Roxane Gay took out a scrappy xTx in the second fight. It's all good either way. I'm convinced a person should get his or her ass whipped at least once a year. A bloody nose or black eye has a steady way of putting things back in perspective. It's never failed for me.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

This Cigarette Pinched Between Her Lips and Others Things

Spoke with a friend of mine yesterday about a poem he wrote years ago. I remembered the poem because it won an award, but I didn't remember the actual poem itself.

What I didn't know was that he wrote the poem after running across an old photograph of a young girl in a sun dress and pigtails and all that but with one glaring strangeness. The little girl had this cigarette pinched between her lips.

This detail took hold of his imagination, he said. And more eloquently, and in his own words, he said this about how the poem itself came to be: "It was like it was already a poem. It was a poem I needed to write a poem about." I love that.

Just finished watching the HBO series DEADWOOD. I thought it was fantastic. An ensemble cast with fast and smart dialogue that ranged from the profane to the lyrical, and a storyline that would almost write itself – the transformation of a camp into a fully realized town. If you've not watched this show, I would do so soon. Favorite line: "I don't drink we're I'm the only one with balls!" – Calamity Jane.

Quick note: Tom Robbins wrote the greatest preface of all time in his book EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES. The greatest.

And since I've jumped back to the subject of writing (I can never stay away long and rarely think of much else) I've been enjoying the "writer fights" over at Mel Bosworth's blog Eye Brains. Maybe you would, too. Here's the latest between Roxane Gay and xTx.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

It's Raining In The New Old West

It's raining outside and the newsroom where I work smells of sewer. Men mostly now dead if not entirely placed the system in town during the WPA days and open grates line the sidewalks. When it rains, those grates, they fill up, cause a stir.

In the newsroom we adjust.

Living in the mountains, adjustment becomes a default position. And folks say we can't change. Change is all we can ever manage. Some things stay the same, but survival demands adaptation. Dealing with the scent of raw sewage is a walk in the park compared to watching train after train take coal out and come back empty while our buildings and schools stand in disrepair, while three blocks away more than a dozen people stand outside a community action program door waiting to hear if they can get help with heating assistance.

A walk in the park.

Hardly noticed while the new industry is the pill trade. People I watched grow up are now adults, enterprising young adults honing their business skills by filling prescriptions of painkillers counties or states away and rerouting them back to the mountains to be sold at $10 or $15 or $20 a pill. Selling themselves for pills. Selling others for pills. The new trade.

The New Old West – Eastern Kentucky. And folks don't always like to look this problem straight in the eye. Many would rather dwell on the natural beauty of our land, the Appalachian Mountains cast in morning fog, etc. etc. And that's fine. I do plenty of that myself. I think we are a resilient people, as has been said more times than I can count. But the reality is if you don't own a gun as a resident of this place, you're going to need to buy one.

But I ramble.

The rain has eased up, but the scent it brought remains. Five people I worked with not more than two weeks ago don't have to worry about this problem today. They are now unemployed, the offices where they will go for help, a few blocks down from the community action's post, offers a crowd of people three times the size. They stand in line and hope for work while the young adults sit nearby, waiting on a buy, and smiling.

Maybe everyone shouldn't have a gun.

Monday, January 17, 2011

THE LIT LAB: Alan Stewart Carl On His Story "What Our Fathers Knew"

So, when “What Our Fathers Knew” first came out, it led to a lot of really fantastic writers – like Sheldon, here – contacting me or linking to the story. And I didn’t understand why. Seriously. The story was fine, I thought, and I knew I owed a debt to the Bull editors for helping get it into better shape, but I didn’t understand why this particular story was getting such a strong, positive response. I’m going to try to figure that out here – take a two-years removed look back and pick apart the story from the inside to see what I can see.

I remember that the story began life as an attempt to write a poker story. I was thinking bad beats and suck outs and all-ins. But, as stories often do, it unfurled differently than expected. I think this is because fiction is poorly suited for poker. Cards have no agenda; they don’t care who wins. But a story does care who wins. This is why the last scene in Rounders and the poker scene in Casino Royale suck so much. They remove the game’s amorality and thus its suspense.

I don’t know if that problem/realization is what pushed me to tell the story in first-person plural or not, but I suspect the POV choice was more-or-less an attempt to not have a protagonist whose fate was dependent on me inventing dramatic hands of poker. Once I made that POV choice, the specifics of the game – the actual hands and the bets and all of that – became meaningless to the story. I mean, you get a group of guys together to play poker and some lose and some win. That’s inevitable. Suddenly, the story was less about poker and more about this dynamic of friends where some are doing well and some aren’t and how that disrupts things for all of them.

That disruption within the poker games is, of course, what allows the men to think about the other, bigger disruptions in their lives – the wants of their wives, the needs of their children, etc. And it’s what, ultimately, makes them pine for the perceived stability their own father’s enjoyed.

And now I’ve gotten to what I think is the heart of the story: the role the remembered fathers play. And when I think about that role, I think about the way these fathers are portrayed as these manly men who had no worries. But what I really key on when I reread the story is the line: “Or so we think. Or so we hope.”

That line – as it relates to the validity of the memory of the fathers – turns a story about dissatisfied men into a story about myth making, about the ways we recreate our pasts and twist our perceptions to fit a reality we wish existed, rather than the one that does exist. These men in “What Our Fathers Know,” are remembering a past that almost surely didn’t exist – a manly past where men were fully in charge and unbothered by life.

If it sounds like I’ve thought about this aspect of myth-making before, it’s because I have. I don’t know if the myth-making is what other people respond to when they read “What Our Fathers Knew, but it’s what I see when I reread this. And when I see it, I can feel myself within the story. Because, when it comes to life/writing, I’m fascinated by this idea of reality, by the way we construct our own truths and all the ways those constructed truths come to disappoint/ruin us and, occasionally, save us. I’m sure this personal fascination with the heartbreaks of reality is why so much of my fiction involves myth making and mentally skewed people and/or fantastical worlds. It’s probably also why my favorite last line in all of fiction is: “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”

Because, you know, it IS pretty to think so. Until it’s not. Until you’re sitting at a poker table and realize there’s probably no good explanation for anything. That’s what this story is about, I guess. Disillusionment.

Friday, January 14, 2011

UPCOMING: In The Lit Lab with Alan Stewart Carl

I've thought it could be interesting to have an occasional post here called The Lit Lab where a writer will lay out his or her story on the cutting board and peel back the layers for us.

The first of these will be posted Monday as Alan Stewart Carl puts his story "What Our Fathers Knew" under the knife. The story was published at BULL: Fiction for Thinking Men and caught my eye, along with many others. If you've not read it, I would happily suggest doing so.

I look forward to sharing Alan's thoughts about it here and hope those who can will drop by for a visit Monday.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

How To Lose a Hummingbird and Catch a Gun – Part 2

Norella had not been at the church the day my dad had collapsed. She closed shop and took Sundays for fishing at Porter’s Pay Lake. During revivals she would sometimes close Saturday, too, for lack of business, and camp at Filler’s Dam and surely forget the town ever existed.

She wouldn’t have seen my dad pitch forward over the Silvertone and spread out across the floor, still-water eyes now turned inward, pulled inside a blazing skull full of scorched nerves so that all that was left on the outside was a wasted man, broken and lost. But I was sure she had heard about everything later – how his brothers carried him to the ambulance and followed closely all the way to the hospital. While counting out cash for pawned wedding rings and shooing kids away from the gun racks, Norella had heard about the five weeks at Kingston, the therapy and how the church had prayed for weeks afterwards to run the devil from his mind, and then later the deeper demons of heartbreak after my mother left with the other man and his good, Christian parents took me in when no else could.

By the time my dad showed up with the Hummingbird tucked under his arm, she had heard enough to know there was nothing to do but accept it. Even more than the desperate and senseless, the heartbroken were not to be reasoned with.

Norella dipped her arm up to the elbow inside the glass case and pulled the gun from the second shelf and placed it between them where it sat quietly atop the thick glass, black and oily, no fight or flop. I left the store with the gun wrapped in a worn and thin dish towel and a box of shells in my back pocket and the palm of my empty right hand tingling like the creased and pinched end of an amputated limb, itching through to the dirty fingernails.

The Hummingbird might have swung just a touch from its peg when I closed the door behind me.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

How to Lose a Hummingbird and Catch a Gun – Part 1

The Hock Shop was at the top of Tilly Hill, at the county line and about two-hundred feet from Bill C's beer store. It was a place of old magic and unnamed smells, warm colors and strange music, of feeling up and down, depending on circumstance. Instruments of all types hung from pegs at the tops of the walls. Below that were still more instruments. Guitars, banjos, mandolins. Each one hung quietly like tacked up butterflies full of color and the possibility of beauty.

I walked slowly, deliberately down the line of guitars near the back of the shop. At the counter Norella Sizemore watched with a phone at her ear. The guitar case in my hand shuffled toward the floor and then back to the ceiling and again with each teardrop step I made to the Hummingbird in its place at the end of the wall.

It was my grandmother’s and had been here for five years, untouched, unwanted. Scratched, scuffed with spots of curved wood seemingly deadened by years, but deceptive in that way. Its sound was that of rich, aged experience, years and years on front porches and early evening church services, late nights cross-legged on the living room hardwood, heart pumping with industrial folk and deep blues. And the curves of the wood, the very insides of the instrument, had drawn all that into it and left its haunted mark.

“What’ve you got there, Greg?” Norella asked. She was still at the counter, the phone back in its place. Her voice carried across the empty shop, boredom bred from familiarity. She sat hooked across the counter, bird-like, her thin forearms covering a book of crossword puzzles. Her skin clung tightly to muscle like masking tape to tree bark.

This wasn’t my first visit, and where I stood now, in front of the Hummingbird, my grandmother’s guitar, was the usual spot. Inside the guitar case I carried was the 1966 Silvertone, my dad’s guitar which I inherited at sixteen. The fret boards grooved out with channels from his father’s fingertips over the years of practice and performance. I felt I had contributed nothing to those grooves, playing along fret boards, plucking strings, but never serious enough, never good enough, loud enough, inspired enough, to leave a lasting impression of any kind on anyone or anything. I placed the guitar case on the glass counter with the twenty-point diamond rings and necklaces and guns swimming like hot pavement underneath, popped the latches and said, “You seen this before?”

Norella took a pair of spaghetti colored glasses from beside the phone and slid them up the thin slope of her nose. “Yeah, I seen this before. You wanting to sell or trade?” She looked sideways across the room at the Hummingbird. When I said nothing, she shook her head, her small mouth lost inside smoke-soaked wrinkles. “What the hell for?”

“That.” I pointed to a dead black 9mm revolver under the glass.

“I don’t mean what for. I mean why?” She took the glasses off and leveled her eyes at me. She might have been beautiful once. Light blue eyes, thin, attractive features, a playfulness that could have been nice years ago, before the smoke and swapping in this dive of a shop had pressed in on her and took her energy, her youth, her ability to see the goodness in people. All that was left in her gaze was the sure notion that people would sell their father’s most prized possessions for near to nothing if it all came down that bad. She closed the case and took a long cigarette from under the counter, lit it and took a long drag.

“You know why that Hummingbird is still hanging on that damn peg over there?”

“Busted up guitar. Hard sell,” I answered.

“Bullshit. I could’ve sold or traded that thing years ago. Hadn’t been here two weeks and I had three or four offers. Folks like a guitar like that, especially if they play it, you know, give it a test run.” She took another draw from her cigarette and the smoke from the ember clouded up the space between us, carried in a heavy silence. “Your daddy should’ve never brought that thing in here.”

I snapped out my wallet and produced four ones and a ten, held them up. “Unless you think that’s enough to do it, then we’ll need to talk about trade.”

“Hell, I’ll give it to you, the Hummingbird.” I raised my eyebrows. “You think I won’t?” she asked.

“I need the gun,” I said.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Grass Will Show Itself Again, I Know It

Many a foot of dusty snow here in County Floyd in Eastern Kentucky, but the icicles hanging from the eve are dripping just outside the window and so the sun is coming with purpose and determination. Grass will again be seen, sprouting, striving, continuing, those blades of pure and beautiful, a sensibility of always and forever.

Wrong Tree Review's second issue, online this trip around the mulberry tree, seems a success. So grateful to those who have visited the site and of course to those who contributed. Jarrid Deaton will continue to do good things with this journal, and I will always be proud to have been a part of the beginnings of WTR. I still believe in it as a venue for work just a bit different than the average story, the vision Jarrid and I have always held to in regard to fiction dating back to our earlier adventures together in publishing. Again, a drink and make it a double for WTR!

I'm moving again tomorrow. Nomad. That's the word. A close guess would place me living between 50 to 150 different places since I was knee high to a grasshopper. Most of the time those moves were never more than a county over. I lived in more than 20 places in one county at one point. But this move is different.

For about seven years my brocuz Gary and I lived with our grandparents. Seven years. That's the longest I was ever in one spot. After Sunday, I'll be living there again. It's as close to a homeplace as I have. I'll be tending to my grandmother (who I, and everyone else calls Mother). I look forward to it, to say the least, and if at all possible I'll die there in that house, either two years from now or seventy. Whichever.

Well, the sun got scared and went behind the mountain, or maybe a cloud. But the icicles are still dripping and the mountain roads will be clear tomorrow, in time for moving. Before I go, I'd like you to indulge me in giving a list of things I'm reading at the current time:

Kentucky Straight by Chris Offutt
Airships by Barry Hannah
How They Were Found by Matt Bell
Dogs of God by Pinckney Benedict
Various (and amazing) online work from writers and friends honestly too numerous to name.

Okay, cats and kittens. I'm going out to check to see if the snowplows have salted and laid blade on the secondary roads, see if the roads out to the marketplaces are passable.


Tuesday, January 4, 2011

It's A New Year But Things Still Feel The Same.

Scot Siegel has two micros up today at A-Minor. Stop by and take a look when you have time.

Also, Jeff Callico at Negative Suck extended a fine gesture in having me as his featured author for NS's January issue. Thanks to you, sir. Just navigate to the "Current Content" tab and there I'll be with many other writers with grand work in this issue. Jeff was generous enough to publish six of my stories for this month. Each can be found by following the links marked "Compton" at the end of each piece.

I'm working with a few other writers on an Exquisite Quartet story for Used Furniture Review. I think readers will enjoy the end result of this collaboration. Thanks to Meg Tuite for inviting me to take part.

New today, also, is a story of mine called "He Finds Her There" at Pure Slush, Matt Potter's fine new publication. Matt also talked with me via PS's Hue Questionnaire about my favorite color. I liked that made me think. Much thanks, of course, to Matt for all of this. A fine writer, editor and person, he.

I was witness to my friend's wedding this weekend and he gave me a witness gift – Barry Hannah's Airships. How wonderful is that? Thanks, JRock, and, again, congrats.

It's a new year, but things still feel the same. We'll see what happens next.

Yes, I googled myself. But look what I found!

I googled myself yesterday. It wasn't the first time and it won't be the last. I have a busy online life and so I like to see what...