Monday, September 19, 2011

Private Property

When I was nine years old, my mother cleaned her closet, culling her wardrobe in the process. Mama is a tiny woman and weighed barely a hundred pounds at the time. Me, well, I’m not so tiny. My father is 6 feet, 2 inches tall, a big-boned farmer with a thick, strong body. I’m somewhere in between. I’m sure they were probably still too big, especially through the chest, but I selected several of my mother’s old shirts to add to my own closet. My favorite was a navy blue cotton number with three-quarter sleeves, a Peter Pan collar, and a row of shiny blue buttons up the front.

I wore it to school soon after. I remember almost nothing at all about that day. It was neither warm nor cool, although I do remember it was sunny. It must have been after lunch because my nearly fatal embarrassment took place as we filed out the front door, across the large expanse of cement in front of the school building and down the sidewalk to the playground in back. I heard a laugh, then another, and what I can only describe as a guffaw. I realized almost immediately the laughing was directed at me. I felt air across my chest, and to my infinite horror, when I looked down I saw skin. Bare skin. My blouse was losing buttons.

We’ve all felt exposed, whether literally or figuratively, and such exposure in childhood is devastating in the moment. It’s humiliating and often lasting. Paule Constant’s novel, Private Property, describes moments such as these over and over in the life of little Tiffany Murano. From the second of her arrival at the Catholic girls’ school in southwestern France, nine-year-old Tiffany feels miserable and out of place. She misses her parents, French expatriates still living in Africa. The nuns are distant and dismissive; the other girls seem foreign and are cruel, teasing Tiffany, ignoring her, shutting her out of their conversations, their play, and their world. Having spent her life until now in Africa renders Tiffany an outsider.

Although Tiffany internalizes the rhythms and routines of the school, she never really sheds her alien status. She moves through her days detached and observant, longing for companionship but misunderstanding the social order so completely that every effort she makes disintegrates into a mortifying blunder. In one painful episode, she goes through the motions of befriending Cathy even though she is told outright she’ll be dropped like a stone the second a popular girl looks Cathy’s way. When the inevitable happens, Tiffany is more upset about her undone, unkempt hair than the departure of her false friend. Tiffany simply watches as the years pass her by. Soon she is thirteen.

Tiffany’s only solace lies with her grandparents, the reserved grandfather and her charming, devoted, but ailing grandmother. She spends her weekends with them, first at a city boarding house, then later on traveling to the Private Property of the title. The big house sits among orchards of apple, plum and hazelnut trees, looking over the picturesque village below, flanked by its own farm complete with livestock, and backed by an imposing range of mountains. Every joyful experience, every peaceful moment, and the only sense of belonging left to her are embodied in the beloved grandmother, the grandfather, and the Property.

Constant’s prose, even in translation, flows gracefully. She is at her lyrical best during the last third of the novel, moving between the school and the Property, between Tiffany’s resignation and her happiness, using only the quality and essence of her language to communicate the acute, turbulent changes. When Tiffany’s grandmother dies after a long, unspecified illness, the girl’s world is shattered. Constant renders her mourning and utter confusion in language so raw, so palpable, it makes the heart ache. Tiffany disintegrates back at school, lying awake at night, her head spinning her lesson’s facts into a kind of emotional armor. We are witness to the imminent fracture, helplessly watch her hurtling toward disgrace.

After finishing Private Property, my mind wandered over my own school years, marking embarrassments, remembering slights, rifling bittersweet memories. I relived a bit of that evening after the buttons fell from my shirt. I picked the buttons up, put them in my pocket, took them home. But with the dark shirt and buttons in hand, I went to the trash can instead of asking my mother to sew them back onto the shirt. I didn’t want to be reminded. Constant draws Tiffany in clear, stark relief, creating a character who throws shadows so large they cover you up and remind you for days.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Hell of Their Own Design

The people populating the small towns and backwoods of southern Indiana meet with grisly ends throughout Frank Bill’s short stories. Simple shootings just won’t do for these twisted, nasty characters. A blade slices through both of a man’s eyes, a man lassos and hangs his father-in-law at his wife’s behest, silent dogs bite their way from a bulging calf to a vulnerable throat, and then, there are the flames: a barn of dead dogs set afire, homemade bombs exploding and burning the attacker instead of the target, a lit cigarette flicked into a circle of gasoline. Crimes in Southern Indiana: Stories overflows with senseless violence alongside righteous, brutal vengeance.

Men, women and children wind in and out of these stories linked and rooted by place. Families take shape from one story to the next, an often gruesome shape, melding into the fabric of the action or serving as a backdrop, a connection, or an explanation of the deep mysteries of human motivation. The tone is pessimistic and sardonic. “The only time life is easy is childhood, but by the time a person realizes this, it’s too damn late.”

Bill paints his law enforcement with the same dark pigment used for his criminals. Even the good guys exhibit flaws, bad behavior, and judgment tainted by personal interest or annihilated by tragedy. Ordinary people fall victim to their vices. Innocence is shattered for no conceivable reason. Children commit violence, are raped and killed. Lives ruined in an instant. Everyone is fair game. It is the rare man who emerges on the other side and no one gets away clean.

The transgressions accumulate like crappie on a fish stringer, so fast that you lose count. In Trespassing Between Heaven and Hell, the breach lays not so heavily in the act as in the cover-up, but once events are set into motion, sin piles upon convenient sin, complicated by the relationship of brothers and the wrecked psyche of a man incapable of leaving war wounds behind him. Already broken people shatter beyond repair.

The aftermath of war figures into The Old Mechanic as well. Perhaps the most compelling story in the collection, the narrative is told from the point of view of an adolescent boy meeting his grandfather for the first time. The boy grew up hearing savage accounts of the man’s behavior. Despite his mother’s misgivings and his own searing fear, the boy goes off alone with the man. The simple words than run through the boy’s head while he accompanies his grandfather to a gun show, to dinner and finally to the old man’s home, elucidate a mixture of repulsion and curiosity, clearly illuminating the irresistible pull of blood and history. In the end, pervasive guilt wracks the grandfather’s existence with hope of only the merest hint of redemption.

The Penance of Scoot McCutcheon is a love story. It's the accounting of an ordinary home and a happy marriage, told by a doting husband. A young wife described in tender, intimate detail. But it is a love story of the dead and the dying, told in retrospect and tinged with regret. It is the least violent tale here, the crime secondary to an emotionally devastating centerpiece. Haunted by his own actions, a man in perpetual disguise runs from himself for years before surrendering to reckon for his sin, making peace with his own conscience but unable to shake his staggering guilt.

This story collection is an astonishing debut. Bill peppers his writing with generous description, some perfectly rendered, some slightly distracting. Hair and eyes “stained like a walnut”, “flesh giftwrapping bone”, or “Frail would describe her as muscular,” evoke just the right image. Even the few less successful passages bring a definite vision into the mind. Inducing and conveying raw emotion seems almost effortless for Bill, particularly in the case of men in love with their women. The stories race along, visceral, strong, and stunning, transporting the reader into a dirty, dangerous world of drugs, alcohol, incessant violence, and the terminal pastimes of decaying rural life. These people of southern Indiana inhabit an unrelenting hell made up partially of circumstance but primarily crafted from their own design.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Ted and Ginger and Dianne

My grandfather served on the USS Salute in 1945. That year, on June 8th, she sank, broken in two pieces after striking a mine in pre-invasion activities off Brunei Bay. Each year since 1985, the sailors of the Salute meet during the week of that anniversary. They bring their families, exchange tall tales, and tell the stories of their childhood and their service to a historical volunteer. The last couple of years the interviews were filmed. We sit in the meeting room and watch the stories unfold, each the same and each quite different. As the years pass, the men age and are slowly lost to sickness or to time.

For the last couple of years, they held the reunions here in Oklahoma. I’ve been close and lucky enough to attend. This year we all traveled to Bartlesville, an oil-boom town in the northeastern part of the state. My grandfather and my mother grew up there, my father and I just across the county line to the east. It’s familiar country, a place sprung from Delaware and Cherokee Indians, hard-scrabble pioneers, back-breaking work and the bounty of a part of the state deemed “Green Country”.

I’ve never been close to my grandfather. Ted is a small, handsome man who’s led a hard life, mostly by his own choice. When he tells stories of the war, he speaks of women he chased through California where he was stationed, the buddies who accompanied him, and his repeated instances of being absent without leave, which he casually refers to as “jumping ship”. His first wife, my grandmother, was Californian by way of Illinois. Ginger, as she was called, caught rheumatic fever as an adolescent. Her heart badly damaged, her parents moved the entire family out west for the sunshine and the clean air. That’s where they met. He tried to marry her when she was just seventeen, but her father blocked the union. Ted went to war. Ginger waited.

When the Salute sank, my grandfather sustained a head injury, spent about two weeks unconscious, and woke up state side. With his medical discharge in process and a keen sense of his own mortality, he picked Ginger up, took her to Arizona and married her there. Ginger stood four feet, eleven inches with blonde hair, pale skin, and light eyes, a lovely, tiny young woman. My mother was born in California in April of 1946. By May of 1949, Ginger’s rheumatic heart failed. She died at the age of twenty-two leaving behind her husband and a three-year-old daughter.

My grandfather quickly remarried a woman who preferred to pretend his first wife did not exist. I know very little about Ginger, only hearing how my grandparents met for the first time last year, after the second wife died. Ginger is a cipher, a beautiful face in a black-and-white photograph, an almost entirely unknown quantity.

My daughter, at twenty, stands about five feet, two inches tall, with blonde hair, luminous pale skin, and hazel-green eyes. She is a lovely, tiny young woman. In the hotel this past June, as the reunion group lingered over breakfast, my daughter came to visit. I was upstairs in my room, still preparing for the day, so she went down to the lobby with the old sailors and their families. My mother asked my daughter questions about college and my daughter, an animated student of theater and French, began telling stories. My grandfather watched her with obvious delight. When I came into the room a bit later, she rose to hug me and the conversation lulled. My mother overheard my grandfather say to the sailor next to him, with a smile on his face, “She reminds me of my first wife.”

My daughter, unbeknownst to her, gave my mother a precious gift that day: an idea of what her mother may have been like. It’s a sweet and precious debt, one that will never be repaid.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Dianne at Sixteen

lost on our first night in Paris
she stayed calm, ordered crepes
smeared with coconut and nutella
then later on strolling Montmartre
bought fingerless gloves,
and a blue hat with a tassel
skipped the Eiffel Tower
and a float down the Seine
but couldn't miss Père Lachaise
or the museum of Salvador Dali
passed up the catacombs
to shop at Galeries Lafayette
and look down on the Palais Garnier

Sunday, April 3, 2011


liquid existence
slips cooly into oblivion
leaving no trace
of the mossy
platinum velvet
ashy palette
by my body
my presence
my love

Saturday, April 2, 2011

wish you were here

thirty-one degrees below zero
ten days on it's seventy-two
hail and winds, straight or tornado
tree-breaking ice
eighteen inches of snow
over a hundred twenty days in a row
welcome to Oklahoma

Friday, April 1, 2011


my hiding place
stood silent
I climbed up
sat in the fork of two limbs
reached for blue sky
in our old oak tree

a purple cover
adorned with sisters
vivid sunlight through branches
wind honeysuckle sweet
a sparrow alights up high
she sings to me

Jo high in her garret
me on a leafy perch
an apple each and some ink
a jumble of words
tears on the page
wondering just how things will be

Thursday, March 10, 2011

for whatever it's worth

I published a little piece of writing. A little piece of writing about someone else's big piece of writing. About their brilliant, important piece of writing that boasts hard covers and a dust jacket. A lovely, real book filled with beautiful, sublime art which I never even bothered to mention. I wrote 715 words reacting to someone else's luminous, difficult, gorgeous, almost tragic life story.

It is unbelievable really. Astounding. I have clicked that link at least a dozen times. My name in cyberspace. Not the name I sent them, but's my name.

I sent the review to the managing editor on January 18th. By the time I received a message telling me he loved it, the review had already been posted for a day and a half. Had I bothered to look, I would have seen it sitting there, right on my hated Google Reader page. But no, I did not look at all on March 7, 2011.

Until I received the news, I had been writing. Stories. A little journaling. A bit of poetry I used to destroy a perfectly good piece of paper (thank you, Betsy Lerner).

Yesterday I managed to write a journal entry. About the review, of course. Then I worked for an hour on a story about a boy, his sister, the big oak tree in the back yard and what happened there one sunny, bright day. There wasn't a word I deemed worthy of keeping. So I deleted it all and promptly left the house with my children for dinner at The Cheesecake Factory.

I'll write again. I know I will. But I can't help looking at that damned review and wondering if I will ever publish another thing. Nearly every word I choose seems wrong or repetitive, every adjective superfluous, every verb weak. I am, for the most part, okay with my nouns. Maybe. Well, not all of them.

Is this a crisis of confidence? Crippling fear that from now forward someone will actually read the words I write? Worry that the editor hasn't gotten back to me because he changed his mind about wanting to review more of my work?

Whatever it is, maybe it's on its way out the door. After all, I am getting ready to hit "publish" on this blog post. Maybe. I think.