Puma Capricornensis

A discarded excerpt from my Novella: In the Neighborhood Named for the Stars

As the winter released its full-nelson on the land and the ground water began to seep up through the soggy lawns, I sat alone on the wrought iron furniture on my mother’s front porch, in the early evening just as the glass-sliver stars began appearing in the broad blue wash of sky over the houses across the street. I saw a large, low shadow move between the houses, and being that age, you know, the age before fear? I did not resist my curiosity and went to seek out its source. I saw his long thick tawny colored tail in the patterned lawn light of the Older’s backyard and froze. Before vaporizing into the forest, he turned his impossibly huge head to me and slowly closed his amber searchlight eyes.

Because still, every year you arrive, summoned by Eostre, to spill the blood of winter and leave in his place the virgin lamb of spring.

I knew well enough not to follow him, turned around and returned to my house. But I wanted to reach out and touch his fur, to speak to his unimaginable wildness. Unable to articulate ideas of this scale, I simply let my mind move on to the present concerns of my young life, dinner and television, content to process it when and if I could, later.

I know now that Puma concolor, is called by 40 different English names. By that count, it is the animal with the most names found anywhere in the world. People in the Midwest call him a cougar or a mountain lion, but he is more kin to a common housecat than any sort of lion. I have witnessed his scream sounding more like a woman being dismembered than the roar of any big African cat.  Imagine him, glowing golden eyes hunting the tar black night. Loose furred pelt, undulating over taught muscle-wrapped bone. Sinew and cartilage stretch connective tissue. Silent, predatory and cautious.

More than a century ago he roamed in our nocturnal woods solitary and reclusive. His range is still vast, known to cover up to fifteen hundred miles. One spotted in Connecticut was thought to be a released exotic pet. A day later, the unfortunate animal was killed by a car. DNA tests proved he came from the Black Hills.

*

I saw him that night, but I never thought to speak of it. Even then I could understand he traveled the underground arteries in secret, flowing between broad rural tracts and narrow wildlife reserves, avoiding the human encroachment that blots up every natural space as a sponge absorbs a pesky spill.  An animal like that collapses the distance between present and past.  Stalking, ambushing, gorging, advancing.

If the man I am now could be in the blackness then, I would speak to that ghost of the Eastern lion, “You know our woods do not go on forever.” You can remember where forever began and can see the end, just over the next daybreak. Your habitat is like a mirage evaporating in the sun of human progress. Yet still you come, traversing interstates in secret, pressed against clapboard siding, crouched beneath closed windows, passing unknowing hearth gathered inhabitants believing their superiority. They’re whistling past the tombstone of a crumbling civilization sinking on thinning layer of fossil fuel.

Marten and fox will beware your unstoppable procession, set into orbit at a time before time when earth spun on a different axis; they know, in this vernal hour, their season is ended. Puma Capricornensis, proud messenger, driven into secrecy and unaffected by time. I welcome you on your sacred mission. Because still, every year you arrive, summoned by Eostre, to spill the blood of winter and leave in his place the virgin lamb of spring.

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Putting Away Childish Things

cowsWhitey Roy mopped sweat from his forehead with a gear oil-stained red bandana. Everybody knew that the ancient gas pump at Dunnavant’s service station ran slower as the temperature climbed. Though the faded printing on the oversized disk thermometer, nailed crooked to the side of the office door, topped out at 105, its rusty red needle was pinned far beyond that. Whitey figured it was at least 110 degrees.

Across Pigeon Roost Road, Mac Murphy’s hay field wavered like smoke, as though the landscape was smoldering in the late afternoon sun. A few dun-colored cattle stood still as statues, except for the occasional fly-swatting swish of a tail. A puff of breeze raised dust on the gas station’s buckled pavement. It felt more like an open pizza oven than wind. All the while, the faded numbers on the pump rolled slowly. At this rate, he thought, it’ll take an hour to fill this five gallon can.

The pump said: “Klackity-chuff, squeeek. Klackity-chuff, squeeek. Klackity-chuff, DING.” From the tired sound of the thing, Whitey could definitely tell it was running down. He wanted a cigarette and a beer. If the damn gas nozzle still had the auto-clip on it he would have left it stuck in his battered red gas can and lit one up in the shade of the scraggly hackberry tree at the edge of the parking lot. Whitey Roy knew he was not the sharpest tool in the shed, but, as he repeated often, “My momma didn’t raise no dummy.” He could smell the fumes from the 97 octane like he had his face right there in the can. He mopped ineffectively at the sweat running into his eyes and squinted at the hay barely shifting in the blast furnace air. “Ker-poof,” he said, imitating the last sound he would likely hear if he lit a match near that pump.

Everything looked burned around the edges; a comic book portrayal of some rural hell where all the colors were washed out. The grinding innards of the pump slowed noticeably. It was too hot to get excited, but Whitey considered it. He could have gone to the Phillips 66 further up 31 at the end of Buford’s Station, but that would have taken another half hour and he was already behind in raking his hay. He sighed.

A shadow poured quickly like paint, spilled over the station, plunging him into shade. The relief was overwhelming. Before he could look up at the cloud that caused it, the pump squealed to a halt. The numbers stood frozen at three point three gallons. He clicked the handle twice and looked into the nozzle end, shook the thing a few times, and said, “Aw, c’mon!” That’s when he felt it.

At first the rumble seemed to be in the air around him. After a moment, he dropped the pump handle and clapped his hands over his ears, but it didn’t help much. Charley Spits’ beagles started howling and yapping next door. It got darker, and cooler, and the wind rose and threw candy wrappers, empty beer cans, and small stones around the lot in spirals.

“Mus’ be a tornada,” he murmured.

Something hard smacked him on the shoulder and the vibration in his legs felt like an earthquake. The rumble became a violent shaking.

Whitey bent forward with an unavoidable wave of nausea and projectile vomited his turkey sandwich onto the oil-stained pavement. He fell to his knees, grinding skin into the tar and shredding his jeans. The low frequency pulsing was joined by a piercing high note that descended the tonal scale so rapidly that all the glass in his truck windows, the store front, and the face of the pumps exploded, spraying shards of glass .

The pressure grew inside his head; blood leaked from his ears. He opened his mouth to scream, but the sound was drowned out. A barn-sized disc shot out of the dark above him and descended over the hay field and stopped fifty feet above the small herd who did not seem to notice the commotion.

The rumble and squeal blinked out and the wind died. The resultant silence revealed a quieter purring sound that came from the direction of the disc. Cows lowed, tails swished. Whitey Roy tried to catch his breath. He couldn’t.

He was still on his bleeding hands and knees when he realized that the pavement was scorching hot. Jumping to his feet, he wiped at his runny nose and eyes with the sleeve of his dirty denim shirt. He tried to focus on the disc hovering above the cattle. It was at least two hundred feet across. The surface was dull, dark gray, like primer paint. There was no texture or marking on its smoothness.

Whitey wanted to run, but his legs refused to obey. He fought the urge to vomit and defecate simultaneously. The part of his mind that usually held a running commentary about things was mute, struck dumb by the enormity of the thing. His heart felt like a clogged drain. Not enough blood was getting to his head.

As though a vacuum cleaner were switched on, two of the four or five cows flew up into the sky disappearing into the bottom of the disk. One more followed, tumbling head over hind and mooing once just before vanishing. The last two evaporated similarly.

Whitey mumbled, “Cows…”

Without a sound, the disk swooped off at a forty-five degree angle and paused like a hummingbird several miles away. He looked up into the darkness and realized that the clouds he thought had covered the sun actually looked like the reflection of a city in the surface of a river. The disc shot into an opening in the face of this upside-down city. After a moment it began to move away slowly, growing smaller as it receded, the low rumbling was much quieter but still present. Soon it had become small enough for the afternoon sun to shine under it, illuminating the sides of buildings and the sparkling glass of a hundred million windows. Within a minute, it shrunk to a dark smudge in the sky’s bright blue field.

Whitey stood in the glaring sun, mouth agape, for a second. The pump began to gush gasoline, soaking his boots, cuffs and calves. He reached out toward the handle, but before he got it, the pump rang one final time and the flow ceased. The wind picked up again, slightly cooler now, though the sun was just as searing as it had been moments before the darkness approached.

Whitey shivered. His mind was as blank as a flat rock. A scrap of lined notebook paper blew against his chest and stuck there like it was glued to his shirt with paper hanger’s paste. He pealed the sheet off and looked at its surface. It was a brightly colored crayon drawing done by an unsteady child. The picture clearly showed a pink, four fingered hand reaching down toward five tan cows in a field of tall green grass. Whitey Roy’s arm dropped to his side, fingers relaxing. The wind snatched the page away. It shrank to a speck, finally disappearing into Mac Murphy’s field.

›š—

This story is included in my short story collection, Hey, This is it. I’m Going to Die,
published by Libros Igni in 2014.

You can get the book direct from me, or at Powell’s in Portland, OR and if you don’t mind supporting the evil empire, it is also available as a print on demand from Amazon.

Out Like a Lion

This was an excerpt from my novella: In the Neighborhood Named for the Stars. It did not make the final cut, but still has a place in my heart.

As the winter released its full-nelson on the land and the ground water began to seep up through the soggy lawns, I sat alone on the wrought iron furniture on my mother’s front porch, in the early evening just as the glass-sliver stars began appearing in the broad blue wash of sky over the houses across the street. I saw a large, low shadow move between the houses, and being that age, you know, the age before fear? I did not resist my curiosity and went to seek out its source. I saw his long thick tawny colored tail in the patterned lawn light of the Older’s backyard and froze. Before vaporizing into the forest, he turned his impossibly huge head to me and slowly closed his amber searchlight eyes.

I knew well enough not to follow him, turned around and returned to my house. But I wanted to reach out and touch his fur, to speak to his unimaginable wildness. Unable to articulate ideas of this scale, I simply let my mind move on to the present concerns of my young life, dinner and television, content to process it when and if I could, later.

I know now that Puma concolor, is called by 40 different English names. By that count, it is the animal with the most names found anywhere in the world. People in the Midwest call him a cougar or a mountain lion, but he is more kin to a common housecat than any sort of lion. I have witnessed his scream and it sounds more like a woman being dismembered than the roar of any big African cat.  Imagine him, glowing golden eyes hunting the tar black night. Loose furred pelt, undulating over taught muscle wrapped bone. Sinew and cartilage stretch connective tissue; silent, predatory and cautious.

More than a century ago he roamed in our woods; reclusive, nocturnal, solitary.

His range is still vast, known to cover up to fifteen hundred miles. One spotted in Connecticut was thought to have been a released exotic pet. A day later, the unfortunate animal was killed by a car: DNA tests proved he came from the Black Hills.

I saw him that night, but I never thought to say a word. Even then I could understand he traveled the underground arteries in secret, flowing between broad rural tracts and narrow wildlife reserves, avoiding the human encroachment that blots up every natural space like a sponge absorbs a pesky spill, An animal like that collapses the distance between present and past; stalking, ambushing, gorging; advancing.

If the man I am now could be in the blackness then, I would speak to that ghost of our Eastern lion and tell him, “You know our woods do not go on forever. You can remember where forever began and can see the end, just over the next daybreak. Your habitat is like a mirage evaporating in the sun of human progress. Yet still you come, traversing interstates in secret, pressed against clapboard siding, crouched beneath closed windows, passing unknowing inhabitants within, gathered around hearths believing their superiority. You know they’re just whistling past the graveyard of a crumbling civilization propped up on thinning supplies of fossil fuel.

Marten and fox will beware your unstoppable procession, set into orbit at a time before time when earth spun on a different axis; they know, in this vernal hour, their season is ended. Puma Capricornensis, proud messenger, driven into secrecy and unaffected by time. I welcome you on your sacred mission. Because still, every year you arrive, summoned by Eostre, to spill the blood of winter and leave in his place the virgin lamb of spring.

Harry’s Thanksgiving: An Ovation of Love

In this excerpt from my first novel, Happily after Ever, Harry is remembering a Thanksgiving from his youth.

He used to play with the younger brother, Tommy, and he spent countless hours spying on and speculating the mysteries of teen-age sister Patricia, but Harry was in love with Mandy Eastman. Mandy lived next door and was in his seventh grade class, and he would go to unheard of lengths to breathe her air.

Of course, being a major lame-ass nerd, Harry could not be seen with or even look at Mandy in school. There were mysterious unwritten rules and penalties in middle school. It was a wonder that anyone learned them at all, let alone survived the breaking of one of them. Harry knew his place was at the nerd table in the cafeteria, in the corner near the poison ivy end of the dirt play yard at recess, and on Stevie Dobin’s side of a dodge-ball game in gym. (Harry was always on the side with the losers.) It didn’t matter who else was Stevie’s side. The supreme rule, however, was that Harry was never allowed anywhere near girls like Mandy Eastman. One afternoon he saw Dave Hendrickson between sixth and seventh period standing face to face with Mandy, fingering her left breast, and it nearly broke his heart. His twelve-year-old mind couldn’t articulate a feeling of that immensity, but the image stuck with him all of his life. He felt a yearning for Mandy to this day, some eighteen years later, though he had completely lost track of her.

During the summer, Harry’s little street was far away from schoolyard politics and the cliques that governed them. At home on Briar Glen Lane, he and Mandy were just neighbors. Harry would rake leaves for Mr. Eastman, go with the family to ballet recitals for Mandy’s younger sister and generally suck up to all the Eastmans in order to be near Mandy. She usually treated him with the respect reserved for lesser life forms, but during those summers Mandy and Harry were simply kids and shared a love of the trees and woods and creeks. Though not best friends, they were the next-door neighbor sort of “friends by default.”

Patricia was instructing Mandy, unbeknownst to Harry, in the subtle art of tease flirting. Mandy knew Harry had a crush on her. It was obvious to everyone but Harry. That is how Harry found himself at Thanksgiving dinner with ten of the Eastman clan. The main problem was Harry’s allergy to turkey, an allergy of which he was ignorant because he had never even tasted turkey. Harry had a deep visceral aversion to any food that was unusual in texture or possessing a strong smell. His favorite foods, what he actually lived on, were Velveeta cheese, Skippy crunchy peanut butter, and Krispy brand saltine crackers. Harry could not tolerate vinegars in either smell or acidity, and thus would not eat salad. He was suspicious of baked potatoes because his father had once used some sour cream preparing one when he was young. Sour anything caused Harry to retch involuntarily. His mom stopped coercing him to try new foods when he was five. He had ruined her dinners by vomiting in his plate too many times. She simply gave up.

To say the afternoon was a disaster is a gross understatement; like calling a rattlesnake a problematic babysitter. Afterwards Harry didn’t show his face around the Eastmans for months. He avoided using the front door of his own house because he was too embarrassed be seen by Mandy’s mom.

It began well enough, if not a little uncomfortable. Harry had not eaten any breakfast in nervous anticipation of this dinner date. In fact, he was so unnerved by the prospect of eating with so many strangers that he couldn’t tell if he was hungry. The Eastmans were not fundamentalists, but they believed in observing various Sabbaths and thanking the almighty whenever they ate. Because Harry was a guest from outside the family, he held a position of honor at the table. Marjorie Eastman, Mandy’s mom, asked Harry, “Dear, would you like to say grace?” Mandy knew Harry had never attended any church service and would have no idea how to begin, even if he could get over the terror at having all eyes upon him. Mandy and Patricia marveled at his discomfort. The older sister stifled a laugh; it sounded like a snort. The rest of the family ignored the sound, except Mandy’s Uncle Jack, a Merchant Marine cook who had already had three J & B’s.

“Straight up no ice, Marjorie. Thank you.”

He was Mrs. Eastman’s older brother, thus facilitating Family Etiquette Rule #1: The embarrassing drunk brother is always invited to family holiday meals, and no matter how obnoxious, he is never expelled. Mr. Eastman would have the right, if he were stupid enough to exercise it before bed on the eve of a day off, to whine and growl to his wife later after Jack had passed out or stumbled to his car. Paul Eastman, like most men, wanted to get laid, so he would keep his opinion of Jack to himself.

This was years before Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. At this pivotal point in American history, friends didn’t screw with their friends’ right to drive shit-faced, if friends didn’t want to get the living puke beat out of them. Cops normally let drunk drivers sleep it off and released them in the morning. Intervention in white middle class lives was regarded as a civil rights violation. Nobody talked about the many homicides committed by belligerent morons like Jack Monroe.

This Thanksgiving, however, Jack was Harry’s champion. Jack had noticed the way Patricia and Mandy treated the boy. Jack was intimately familiar with being the lame-ass nerd-boy, and he had scars to prove it.

“Christ, Marge,” he slurred. “Why not have Miss Prissy Panties invoke the blessing? And when the hell can we get to the wine, I’m thirsty!” He leered at Patricia through his thick lenses, a possible foreshadowing of abuses yet undiscovered. Harry never knew.

Mrs. Eastman covered her anger like the survivor that she was. Her father had drunk himself to death just in time to spare Marjorie’s mother the trouble of murdering him in his sleep. It would have been self-defense, though, as the old man beat her mom most nights, only beating Marge occasionally as a diversion.

After a moment’s pause to collect her wits, Marge said, “Well then, Patricia, would you?”

The teen tipped her head piously and placed her pale white hands together, fingertips pointing upward toward God. She spoke clearly in her girlish soprano, “Thank you, oh Lord, for these, thy gifts, which we are about to receive and Lord, may this food nourish our souls as our bodies, and make us truly grateful. Amen.”

She crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue at Jack. He regarded her from beneath sleepy eyelids like an over-fed tiger slouching across the table from her.

“Amen,” he grumbled.

“Make us grateful,” Harry mumbled aloud. He momentarily rose out of the throes of his memory to the dimly lit room in his Nashville duplex.

Out in the backyard, the crows had given way to two grey squirrels, one possessing a woeful stump stuck full of mangy pin-feather-like hair, the other with a proud bush of a tail. They looked remarkably like two bantamweight boxers as they argued over a black rubber super ball. Stumpy was chattering and running around in circles. Bushy, holding the ball between his front hands, was hopping around in order to continue facing his maniacal opponent. Harry could see a small chunk missing from the inky looking globe.

Both squirrels were due to be sadly surprised when they tried to eat that nut.

Harry hardly noticed. A painful memory had his mind in a hellish tape loop. He drifted back.

Anyone who has attended a big-family Thanksgiving dinner knows the chaos that followed. In short, the promise of a civilized meal turned into a pig fest. Several conversations sprang up at once with loud drunken punctuations injected by Uncle Jack. Mrs. Eastman insisted that Harry sample everything on the table. Steaming plates paraded past: ham, turkey (white and dark meat), chestnut stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy, candied yams, cream corn, green beans baked with Durkee fried onion curls, sautéed pearl onions, pickled cucumbers with sour cream, boiled summer sausage with sauerkraut, and several plates and bowls containing unidentified sauces in colors ranging from bright red to slimy grey.

legs under tableHarry politely tried to eat a little bit of everything. He didn’t talk. He sat next to his sweetheart, though he could hardly look at her. He glanced once at her bare knee. She had her hand resting in her lap on top of a white linen napkin. Harry glimpsed her cream-colored thigh below her hiked up skirt. His heart raced, his stomach gurgled.

He tried the turkey and the stuffing. Though the consistency bothered him some, the taste was pleasant enough; nutty and warm, the meat not gamey or dry. He relaxed a little. When the pickled pig’s feet came around, Harry’s stomach groaned again. He mistakenly thought it was hunger. In response, he ate all of the potatoes and gravy on his plate. Up to this time, Harry liked potatoes. Mrs. Eastman, who assumed that the blank place on his plate meant he loved her cooking, responded by plopping down a half pound more, splashing brown, gelatinous gravy over the whole runny mountain. The smell of the sauerkraut assaulted him, preceding an unmistakable wave of nausea. Harry had a gas pain. He would soon learn that intestinal distress was his body’s standard reaction to turkey. He only tried to eat it once again later in his life with similar, involuntary results. He felt ill, but he did not want to excuse himself. He had an unnatural fear of stranger’s bathrooms, and the thought of being sick in one repulsed him.

He thought, I only need to fart, and his stomach lurched again. The noise in the room was deafening. The adults had consumed a considerable amount of alcohol. He could tell that Mrs. Eastman, for one, was less inhibited. She was pouring gravy on her mother-in-law’s plate with abandon. The brown goo had already created a lake on the lavender tablecloth and a river was flowing toward Mandy at Harry’s end of the table. Harry could not hold back. He tried to let it slip out unnoticed, but a cramp gripped his lower intestines at that moment and forced him to push involuntarily. What came out of him was not gas. At least, that is not all that came out of him.

The clatter and bustle of the table ceased. This was no pause, no lull. It was instant silence. Diners sat staring at Harry with forks and glasses suspended in midair. Harry sat miserably in what he imagined to be a puddle of diarrhea much like the river of gravy that was pooling around Gramma Eastman’s plate. His gut wrenched again. That was when the smell reached his nose.

It apparently reached Uncle Jack’s nose, as well. He bellowed: “Christ’s balls kid, what the fuck crawled up your ass and died?”

Harry hardly heard Jack. Everyone at the table was looking at him, aghast. His stomach lurched again and he looked helplessly at Mandy. He wanted to say he was sorry, but when he opened his mouth to speak, he vomited his entire undigested turkey dinner into his beloved’s lap.

Signed Copies Available

HeacockCover.inddMy short story collection from Libros Igni is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle format.

You can also get (while my supply lasts) a signed copy.

Click on the cover image above for the direct buy page which includes all three options.

 

The Shape of the Thing

Writing has a form. Beyond understanding and becoming competent in the traditional elements of fiction (such as plot, conflict, character, setting, point of view, etc.) understanding the language of form can help a writer uncover the (metaphorical) shape of the work. “The Shape of the Thing” refers to the whole form your writing takes, from the twist and turns of a sentence to the more global view of the plot puzzle.

One way to examine the shape of a novel (short story, memoir, essay, etc.) is to look for a character’s arc following a pyramid map. As old as Aristotle, this shape includes rising action, falling action, climax and denouement. The study of The Writer’s Journey (based on Joseph Campbell’s work) adds the influence of myth and archetype in modern dramatic works.

When we take the study of shape and patterns such as found in permaculture and apply them to writing, we uncover a myriad of framework tools that can guide a written work. One way we learn is through example and copying that example. Copying shape is no different. In our workshops we help writers:

  • Identify the shape of a craft-based habit in a published work.
  • Reduce it to a general rule.
  • Apply liberally.

Come prepared to play with forms, use diagrams and reduce plot points to post it notes that will swirl around the page. Knowing the shape of your work will help you with the most important aspect of your writing— knowing the shape of your story. Come and expect to have fun at our workshop at the Writer.ly Pub Camp on November 15, 2014 in Seattle for more.

###

 Come hear me talk  at Seattle PubCamp on November 15th. As one of my friends, you get $60 off the regular ticket price when you use the promo code “friends.” Hope to see you there! Yes, I want to go!

NOTE: This article was written by Ron Heacock and Karen Walasek.

Veterans Day 2014: Sharps Rifle

This is a Repost from January 20, 2014

sharps rifle

I did not ask for the gun, but I am honored to have received it. The dogs knew the boy was there before I did and although they tried to warn me, I could not understand. You see, like most rural residents, my dogs are my alarm system. Of course they create a ruckus over almost any disturbance; it doesn’t have to be a threat. The Little One doesn’t see very well and, for some mysterious reason, the others think that she is some kind of early warning system. She hears a pipe ping or catches the shadow of a fluttering leaf and it’s a four alarm fire. The other two idiots just react and amplify.

There is a different kind of barking that they indulge in now and again. That’s when a usurper has crossed into their domain. Traditionally it is another dog. People in my county know better than to wander uninvited onto someone else’s land. You might get yourself shot. When the dogs detect a trespasser they go berserk, like a motion detector has been tripped; some faint seismic activity, invisible and silent to my dull senses, causes repeated alerts at all hours.

That night they started in around midnight. Now, at my age, I don’t normally sleep more than a few hours, but they were ringing the bell every hour on the hour, so by dawn I realized I had not been sleeping at all.

In late June the sun comes up before five and even though I had no reason to be up that early, the sun was a welcome excuse to get up already and let the damn dogs out. Usually the lazy mutts will not even come downstairs when I go to make the coffee, but they were whining and door-scratching. I figured there was a stray sniffing around the chickens.

Being stiff and sleepy, I shuffled down the stairs and opened the front door without even looking. “Git-em,” I mumbled, as they exploded outside, a howling dog tornado. Before I could even get the door latched I heard a ferocious “BANG” and a yip.

It’s funny how some sounds can just rattle the sleepiness right out of you. I was awake and in the front lawn before I knew how I’d gotten there wearing nothing but a pair of boxers and torn cotton T shirt. The dogs had scattered. Finn and Little One were on the porch already, dazed and panting. The terrier, Loki, was nowhere to be seen. I rounded the corner of the house to confront the source of the noise and caught sight of what appeared to be a teen-aged boy dressed in an ill-fitting Yankee civil war re-enactment costume. He was fumbling the breach open, apparently attempting to reload a long barreled rifle. Without thinking I called out, “Hey, what the hell…”

He snapped around to face me, bringing the firearm up, its bayonet glinting in the early morning sun. I raised my hands over my head and yelled across the yard to him: “There’s no need for that son.  Put down the gun and let’s see what this is about.”

His image seemed to waver in the rising heat. He did not lower the gun. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the intensity of the colors; the green of the covering sugar maples and the lushness of the grass; every blade and leaf stood out separate and vibrating slightly. The rust-red barn behind him and the black wood fence running up to the forest-green tube gate were almost glowing. The sky, an unusual shade of ultramarine, was streaked with tattered wisps of silver.

And then there was his uniform. It was the deepest navy blue and the jacket buttons were bright gold. Funny thing I realized later is that there was no heat; the wavering must have been something else, because I didn’t imagine it. The image is burned in my memory as clear as a high-resolution photo: green grass, blue boy, red barn.

I was pretty sure he hadn’t had time to reload and, standing a hundred paces in front of me, the bayonet posed little threat. It crossed my mind that if he decided to charge I would look pretty ridiculous, an old man, sprinting through the lawn in my underwear. The thought made me smile. I guess it smoothed my voice out when I said, “Son, you don’t want to hurt no one. Lower your weapon and let’s you and me have a talk.”

You know, I couldn’t really see his face at that distance. Just the same, I could swear that I saw the tears in his eyes before I heard the sob. He fell to his knees. The bayonet point stuck into the lawn as he bent forward and pressed his face into his hands.

I will always be a father no matter that my children have long ago moved away from home. And that young soldier, even though he was only dressed up as one, crying before me touched a deep place in my heart.

I walked over and knelt beside him. He looked directly into my eyes and said, “I’m not a man who kills widows and babies. She looked like my sister. I will never wash the blood from my hands. Look.” He held his dirty palms up to my face. I did not see any blood. “It has stained them permanent and I will be damned to hell forever for what I have done.”

He just fell over before I could speak. I didn’t know if he was asleep or unconscious. Loki had showed up and he licked at his face. The boy mumbled, “Mercy, please.” At least he wasn’t dead.

I couldn’t leave him out there on the grass, but I had no intention of dragging him into the house. I started up to the porch and turned around thinking, “It might be best if I just put that gun inside for him while I go about getting dressed.” I called Loki, but he wouldn’t budge. He’d hunkered down in the grass next to the boy. I figured that it had been a while since he had a young man around. Kids go off and leave their childhoods at home along with their childhood pets. I went inside and dressed, filled a glass with cool water from the fridge and brought it back outside.

When I stepped off the porch the shimmering around the boy’s body had intensified and the colors were brighter still. The landscape behind him changed as I watched. I heard a strange out-of-phase wind blowing. I do not know exactly how to describe the sound of it. The subtle blanket of the morning birds slid between forefront and background with a clanking rumble of voices, animals and harnesses.

Smoke drifted from somewhere nearby. The fences of my front field evaporated and, replacing the rolling pasture, normally dotted with cattle, was the most astonishing panorama I have ever witnessed. This was no civil war re-enactment. This was real. A sprawling army of men and tents, horses and wagons, cannon and low lying smoke covered the scorched battlefield that now ran from where Pigeon Roost Road should have been, across Sneed’s thousand acres to the woods beyond. I shook my head to try and clear it. In response, the scene became more vivid, crystallizing. A pair of uniformed men supporting the boy on their shoulders led him away and down the incline toward the heart of the encampment. He forgot his hat and damp hair hung limp across his face, his head lolled from side to side as they half-dragged, half-walked him away. I distinctly heard him repeat: “Mercy, please,” and one of the others answered, “We need all the mercy we can get, William. Come on now, you’ll be better soon.”

Loki trotted along at his heel, looking up at him as though he had a rare steak in his pocket. I thought to call after him but I didn’t. In truth I couldn’t speak. My throat had closed up and tears were blurring my vision. I blinked hard to clear my eyes and wiped at my face with the back of my hand. The smoke was acrid and greasy, the sky over the encampment purple and bruised. All the earth surrounding them was pitted with cannon craters and several trees were splintered and burning.

My horror grew the longer I watched. My ears were filled with men’s screams and the shrill whinnying of horses. Every so often a loud gunshot punctuated the background murmuring of this writhing city.

I could take no more.

I turned away and looked past my back yard to the rolling hills dotted with round bales fresh from the first cutting. I suddenly realized that I still had the boy’s gun. Without turning to look at the army on the front fields, I went into the house and grabbed the rifle. I did not consider how I would explain myself: a Southern man in a Northern encampment. My only concern was returning the weapon to a soldier who would need it.

When I stepped off the staircase into the yard the entire bivouac had vanished. It took a long moment to realize my mouth was open. I closed it, scanning the fields again for a sign of the army that I had just witnessed. The smell of all that death and smoke still filled my nose, but the sky was clear and a cow lowed in the distance. As I crossed the dirt driveway, walking toward my front fence, my toe caught on something sticking out of the soil. With the gun in my hand and I bent down and pried a Federal army crossed-cannon emblem from the soil. A little scratching around unearthed an engraved name plate and two brass hat buttons.

Loki never returned. I guess that boy needed him more than he needed me.

The gun is an 1861 Sharps, 54 caliber falling block action three-band rifle; it has only been fired a few times. There is a pellet primer still in it and an unfired brass-cased round. Presumably, William actually got it loaded, intending to shoot the dogs or me. Its existence is impossible. You see, aside from the proper patent engravings and the serial number, which falls in the range of the Berdan Sharpshooter rifles, the iron it was forged from is very unique. It was founded from ore mined in northeastern Massachusetts. It has a specific spectrographic signature. This ore ran out in 1870. But the gun that I took from William, as well as the primer cap and bullet, are new. They show no sign of age and no wear from use. It is as if the gun and cartridge were made a few years ago. There were only 500 of these fire arms ever made.

After considerable expert wrangling, the gun was pronounced an authentic civil war artifact and appraised at 1.5 million dollars. I will leave it to my children. I cannot bring myself to sell it regardless of my need and its value.

As final note you should know that boy was William Heacock. His name was engraved on the plate that came from his hat and his initials were carved into the burl walnut buttstock of his rifle. His family lived in Bucks County Pennsylvania. He had a sister and four brothers of whom all but one died on the battlefield across from my farm in 1864. The one surviving son was named Emerson Heacock and he was my great grandfather. I have never told anyone where I got that gun until today.

Sharps Rifle is part of the short story collection, Hey, This is It, I’m Going to Die, due from Libros Igni on November 15, 2014. Contact me for signed copies. Pre order on Amazon:
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Kindle Version of Hey, This is it, Now available for preorder

I read an article the other day that said once you publish a book you become an employee of your former self. I think it’s begining.

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Anyway, the plugs will now begin. Please tell your friends.

I can send review copies to anyone who actually wants to write a review. Leave a comment here or post a comment on my Facebook Writer’s Page.

You can also Email my publisher, Libros Igni for a more formal communication.

I will have printed copies after the workshop I am doing at PubCamp in Seattle on November 15. You can register on their site.

Reviews are welcome.

What Good is this MFA?

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  1. It was a great way to spend $8000 a semester of student loan money (and if I can’t get a job I will not be able to pay it back, so I am not obsessing about it, yet).
  2. I will have a terminal degree (which I thought was going to allow me to teach at college level – but I seem to be competing with every out-of-work teacher in the entire world).
  3. It will be packaged in a nice blue padded folder. (That’s nice, isn’t it?)
  4. Even though I never cared for titles, I will be able to put those three letters after my name…
  5. It taught me to be a better writer, to know a lot about literature and to conduct heady diatribes about Bruno Schulz, Clarice Lispector and Raymond Carver.
  6. I am more broke and displaced than I was when I started but at least I am out of the South.
  7. I met some of the most talented and original writers in the world and I will forever be part of their cohort.

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#7 is the main benefit of any graduate program and mine is no different. One through six are just a rant. Though I do love writing and found all of my reading time (and all of my creative writing time) very fulfilling – I even learned how to hammer out critical work, though I dislike it. I went to a self proclaimed progressive college called Goddard. Some interesting people have come out of Goddard: Mathew Quick, author of The Silver Linings Playbook, Phish, David Mamet, William H. Macy, Piers Anthony…It is a pretty open program where you get to create your own courses. Don’t think for a moment that this is in any way easier than a traditional MFA – it isn’t. At the same time, they did not do much for my ability to teach. And my self esteem suffered while I tried to figure out if I was shit or not – but I figure every program does that to you.

While I was in my Undergrad I got to work with some pretty amazing people, Walter Butts (who’s iconic voice I can hear whenever I read his notes to me),  Ryan Boudinot and Bob Braille among them. I am officially still a student in the MFA program, so in keeping with the adage that one not shit where they eat, I will withhold all comments about the graduate program until I have that diploma in my hot little hands.

The main reason I wanted the MFA was so I could teach college. Sigh.

So looking over the precipice of my impending commencement, I have been occupied with the big beginning and ending question: What the fuck am I gonna do now?

I have been sending stories out and I got some published. I have been trying to meet some writers in my area and get out to read more. I am editing on a couple of journals – this is highly recommended.  But none of these activities are paying me anything and I don’t expect much to change even if I were to get an agent or a publisher. ANd I have been working with both, but it is a long long road.

I just don’t have enough information to predict.

Before I went back to school in 2009 we ran HillHouse Writer’s Retreat for about 8 years. Here is a link for a video we did as part of our failed KickStarter grant attempt back in December of 2012. It shows Karen’s enthusiasm and love for our farm. It also gives you a little visual information to put with HillHouse Writer’s.

But if there is one thing that living on the planet Portland for the past 2 years has taught me, it is that Tennessee is much more alien and twice as hard to make a living in – and we have been nearly homeless here.

No, if we are going to run retreats, we are not going to be able to use our house. We are not going back. But, what if we ran one week retreats in other more exotic locations around the world?

And with a nod to Goddard, the college that both Karen and I got all of our degrees from (up till the end of this year when Karen will get her Master’s in Education from PSU), we have been talking about running a 15 week packet and follow up. I guess that I should explain that a little better for those of you who have never attended Goddard.

The idea is that you figure out what you want to learn and what you are going to do to learn it. Then you create a contract with yourself and the school called a study plan. Then you spend a week talking to your assigned advisor and the other people in your advising group, attending workshops and eating meals (HillHouse had the meals thing down) and listening to other visiting writers and industry folks. Then, every 3 weeks (for 5 sessions or 15 weeks) you send a packet of your creative work to your advisor and the advisor marks your writing up and sends it back.

At the college, you do this for a few years and you get a degree (along with #1 above).

We are trying to keep it affordable, maybe around $2,000.

We are just in the planning stages, but the first retreat might be as soon as November.

I want to open the advisor positions up to others from my cohort who have their MFAs – We would all be in charge of marketing (which is a much needed writer’s survival skill that no one seems to remember to teach) so we will all get plenty of experience trying to figure out what works.

It seems a little weird to me to be arriving where I left six years ago. Of course I am more qualified now, more knowledgeable and a lot more experienced, but really. I had to do all of this work to find out that I was pretty close to the right spot when I started. Even so, it has a certain ironic logic to it.

I am looking forward to feedback about this. I invite all of my friends to chime in with positive ideas (even if they are warnings). Use the comments section on the blog so we can interact with the widest audience.

I am, at heart, an entrepreneur. It doesn’t take much time for me working for someone else’s bright idea to realize that I have bright ideas too, and that I will be paying myself more than a poverty wage on contingency. Please join me for our latest adventure.

NOTE: I added sex to the tags for this post. I was not being disingenuous. Really getting down to the guts of writing is more like sex that you might want to admit. And sex is at the root of everything, without it, there wouldn’t be any writers or readers.