Monday, July 30, 2018

Pride by Barbara Taylor



Pride

My sister Pride is slow. Mama and Daddy acted as if she was no different than anybody else. Folks in Pine Level went along, but they know the truth, of course. No one in their right mind stands by a stop sign and waves at all the cars, yet the mayor named her the town's "Official Greeter." Mama, sick as she was, got dressed up, Daddy wore a suit, and a photographer from the Raleigh newspaper came and took a picture of Pride in the mayor's office holding a big cardboard key over her head.

Soon after that, Mama was in a hospital bed in the living room, and the new Methodist preacher came over to visit. While I served lemonade, Pride perched on the Naugahyde ottoman wearing that faraway smile, winding her hair around a finger and proclaiming “I love Tiger Woods,” in her chirpy bird voice. Daddy chuckled like she was the cleverest thing. He died in his sleep six months after Mama.

It’s not that I resented moving back home to take care of Pride, but I won’t deny she’s been a hindrance to my living a normal life. Finding a husband, for one thing. Nobody ever says it directly, but I know they think her condition is hereditary. The only man willing to take a chance on me was Harold Hatchett.  

Hatchetts have lived on the same tobacco farm in Johnston County for generations. I married Harold, my one chance at happiness, at thirty-four. The heredity factor wasn't a concern for long, because he got himself run over by a tractor--pure carelessness--and all he wanted to do was eat after that. We’d been married twelve long years when high cholesterol got him. What was I supposed to do then? Go on living in the Hatchett’s falling-down farmhouse with Harold’s Aunt Coral and Uncle Milo’s doublewide out back? Besides, somebody had to look after Pride. If it wasn’t for me, she’d have ended up in one of those group homes in Raleigh.

I got rid of the hospital bed and started organizing the place. Pride was prone to shuffling things around where I couldn’t find them and dragging the golf clubs out of the hall closet. They remind her of Daddy. She carried a putter to his funeral and people actually cried at the sight. At 7:00 in the evening, she turned on Jeopardy! at top volume the way she and Daddy liked it. Their favorite was the golf channel, though. She got lonely watching golf alone, so she placed the clubs beside Daddy’s empty recliner and sat on the floor with her arms around the bag. Sometimes she yelled, “Let’s make it a true daily double, Alex!” in spite of the fact she was watching Tiger lining up a shot. When Pride got emotional and discombobulated like that, I was tempted to call the mental health hot-line and talk their ears off.

Every week I scheduled a beauty parlor appointment. This was my time. Pride had to stay home because she couldn’t be bothering the other customers while I got a perm or a wash-and-set. I paid for this brief respite in the long run. She’d get into mischief while I was gone and spill Cranapple drink all over the linoleum or deliver leftovers to the shut-in next door. Mrs. Bundy got Meals on Wheels; the last thing she needed was the half-eaten chicken legs Pride deposited on her coffee table, yet she claimed she loved my sister to death.  

Lula, my beautician, begged me to cover up my prematurely gray hair, join the Adult Singles Class at the Methodist Church, and volunteer at the Ava Gardner Museum. “You might meet someone new,” she said, lifting a penciled eyebrow. I explained about my crushing responsibilities and why it had been a challenge to get married the first time. “You have a life, too, you know,” she said. Lula can be so wise. “Weight Watchers meets at the church every Wednesday at noon.”  

It's true; I let myself go when Harold was still in the picture. He drank his tea sweet, and there were the pork rinds, biscuits, and sausage gravy. Aunt Coral was forever baking banana bread and three-layer red velvet cakes. All that unhealthy food killed Harold and ruined my figure. Then Pride’s eating habits became the problem. Everything had to be fried or covered with chocolate sauce, and she wouldn’t touch a green vegetable.

As hard as it was to put myself first, I did everything Lula suggested. People started commenting how nice I looked when I brought Pride to church with me each week. Pickings were slim in terms of available employed men in Pine Level, but on the basis of a couple of things Lula said, I decided to get my new life in gear and strike up an acquaintance with parishioner Grover Cowgill.  

“Grover may not look like much,” Lula whispered after services at coffee hour. To be honest, he put me in mind of one of those gnome yard statues. “But he’s a bachelor, so there aren’t any ex-wives or stepchildren to wrestle with. And I think he’s taken a shine to you. I see him staring over at your pew.” Lula also confided he’d sold some family land for a big shopping center on Highway 70. She convinced me to invite him over for Sunday lunch, ignoring how difficult Pride could be. “Take a risk,” she said with a wink. Sure enough, he agreed to a spur of the moment get-together and followed us home in his green Plymouth Duster.

Grover sat silently at the head of the kitchen table and Pride scurried off somewhere. He breathed through his mouth and cracked his knuckles while I got out the Fiesta Ware. I’d settled on a man’s meal of country fried steak from the freezer and heated this in the microwave. Pride reappeared with the golf clubs in their orange plaid bag.   

“I love Tiger Woods,” Pride said, plopping down at her place and sticking her napkin in her collar the way Daddy used to do. I thought I would die of embarrassment, but Grover didn't miss a beat.

“Tiger’s playing this afternoon. But I warn ya, I’ve been known to take a nap in front of the TV.” When he smiled, his tiny eyes were nearly covered by his fat, ruddy cheeks.

Despite my efforts to converse at lunch, Grover turned all his attention to food. I was used to this, given my experience with Harold. It was encouraging to note that the new man in my life enjoyed my cooking. After finishing our fruit cups topped with Cool Whip, Grover, Pride and the golf clubs moved into the den while I put the dirty dishes in the sink to soak. The television blared. Then I heard a sound like a hog being slaughtered and went to investigate.  

It was Grover, snoring loudly in Daddy’s recliner. That was a first. Pride hadn’t allowed anyone to sit there since Daddy died. She was on the floor, hugging the golf bag and cheering Tiger Woods. Grover came to with an alarming snort and suggested escorting Pride and me to the cafeteria after church the following Sunday. Before I could accept, Pride yelled, “This is Jeopardy!”  
    
I walked Grover out to the Duster. I felt I owed him an explanation about Pride’s situation, since we were now officially dating. 
    
“I’m thinking of investigating some homes in Raleigh,” I said. Pride was banging on the kitchen window and waving. 
    
“But you have a home right here,” he said, pointing to the house. I was touched he was concerned I might be relocating.
    
“Homes. For people like Pride.” I raised my voice because I noticed the hearing aid when one side of his hair blew up like a trap door. I was accustomed to men with handicaps and adjusted accordingly.  

“Where are the durn keys?” he mumbled, groping around in his pockets. I sensed it was too early in our courtship to talk about future living arrangements. As he drove away with a blast from the defective-sounding muffler, I tried not to dwell on Grover Cowgill’s shortness of stature. I chose to concentrate on his forbearance and open mind. He didn’t seem to hold Pride against me, and that was a refreshing change.
  
Just as Grover had promised, the following Sunday he arrived to take us to the K&W in the Duster. I couldn’t help but notice some rude individual had written “WASH ME” on the trunk lid with a finger. Come hell or high water, Pride was determined to wear Daddy’s old light blue golf cap and sit in the passenger seat. Grover tactfully didn’t protest and waited for me to open my own creaky door and climb into the back. I smelled motor oil and saw a can dripping onto the floor mat. Because of the odor, Grover rolled down his window, Pride did the same, and my hairdo was ruined by the time we reached the cafeteria. As soon as we got out of the car, Pride tore off across the parking lot. Grover waddled ten steps ahead of me with a side-to-side, bow-legged gait.  

“Here we are at a restaurant together for the first time,” I called, but I don’t think he heard me.

Once inside and in line, Pride and Grover chose fried chicken and I, not wanting to appear greedy when out with a date, selected a tossed salad with low-fat Ranch. When we reached the desserts, they grabbed individual chocolate pies coated with unnatural-looking tan meringue.  
    
“Hershey’s syrup,” my sister demanded in her shrill tone. A white-coated server handed her a plastic bottle, and she turned it upside down and squeezed a river of chocolate sauce over her pie. I neglected to warn against spectacles like this before we left and planned to apologize to Grover later when we were alone.  
    
“You must really love chocolate,” the server said.
    
“I love Tiger Woods,” Pride said. Grover’s eyes disappeared into his cheeks and he paid the cashier with a $100 bill. I got my water and lemon wedges. By then, Grover and Pride had found a table in the dining room. When I spotted them, Grover was talking in an animated way with his mouth full. He was making the effort to chat with Pride, never an easy task.
    
“You’re eating your pie before the main course.” I felt an obligation to point this out to Pride, but Grover was doing it, too. Maybe he thought it made sense under the circumstances. They were sitting side-by-side in a booth, so I had no choice but to slide into a seat opposite. “I, for one, am sticking to a sensible diet,” I said. They became silent as they inhaled the rest of their pie and then their chicken. I contemplated my future with Grover. There were adjustments to be made on both our parts, but, things could be worse. Not once had Harold Hatchett suggested the K&W, before or after our wedding day. 
    
“Time for golf,” Grover said, glancing at the watch on his chubby wrist. I was barely half-way through my salad, but my sister jumped up and ran for the door and Grover chuckled the way Daddy used to do, pretending Pride was normal. I decided he was an optimist, unlike Harold.

Ten minutes after arriving home, Grover was fast asleep in the den. Again, it sounded like hog-killing time on the Hatchett farm. When I described this scenario to Lula at the beauty parlor, she led me by the arm into the empty shampoo room where we wouldn’t be overheard and gave me all the details about sleep apnea and how it could be fatal. 

“You’d better work fast,” she said, as that eyebrow went up. I told her about Grover surprising me with a greasy bag of fried flounder, tartar sauce, and hush puppies from the Dixie Drive-In and making himself at home with a TV tray in front of Jeopardy! “Ohhh, it’s a regular thing. He’s smitten,” she squealed, and I treated myself to a manicure with daring iridescent nail enamel.   

Pride adjusted surprisingly well to Grover’s constant presence in Daddy’s recliner. I didn’t have to remind her to bathe or change clothes and she stopped delivering scraps to poor Mrs. Bundy. One night, during a commercial break, Grover pulled out a box from the jewelry outlet at Value Village and popped the question. To Pride. The first time he spotted her in church, he liked the way she looked in Daddy’s golf cap and tube socks. He outlined how much they had in common, like favorite foods, television shows, and golf, plus both of them could sleep through an earthquake.  

At first I was confused; then shocked. But Lula later pointed out I’d have the house to myself after the newlyweds moved to their brand new one, complete with media room, in Raleigh. My options were wide open without a troublesome sibling to take care of, and I should be grateful that all she wanted were the golf clubs.  

My sister squeezed into Mama’s satin wedding gown and insisted on carrying the putter instead of flowers. The sanctuary at the Methodist church was packed--even Mrs. Bundy came--and I could barely hear the organ for all the sobbing. "The town won't be the same without that sweet little gal," I heard Mr. Crocker say, before blowing his nose with a giant honk. The ceremony went smoothly until Pride announced she loved Tiger Woods. But everyone in Pine Level understood. Pride has always been the slow one. 

-End-

Bio Barbara Taylor is a survivor of both a Southern boarding school and a Southern women’s college. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Scarlet Leaf, Corvus Review, and Mused. She lives and writes in North Carolina.

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Thursday, July 12, 2018

Ink-Quisitions with Mike Creeden

Q. Like Hector Duarte Jr. you earned a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in Creative Writing from Florida International University (FIU). But to enroll at FIU you relocated about 1,500 miles from Massachusetts—and set aside your lucrative career as a Technical Writer to become a poor bastard. What tempted and compelled you to make such a drastic lifestyle change and take a gander at writing fiction?

A.  First, I’m marking this as the first time the word “lucrative” has ever been used to describe a portion of my life, so thanks for that. I’ve loved reading my whole life, and a desire to spin my own words led me to pursue my undergraduate writing major. But as a first-generation college student, I had to study something practical: and technical writing fit the bill. Thirteen years of writing in such thrilling genres as online help, computer manuals, proposals, white papers, and software test plans hadn’t managed to kill my desire to write fiction. So I packed up the car and headed to Miami to study at FIU on what I thought would be a three-year break from the real-world. Sixteen years later, I’m still here. Hopefully my days of living in the real world are over.

Q. If I understand correctly, the first draft of your debut novel, ALL YOUR LIES CAME TRUE was written while attending FIU. So how do you think your creative writing studies helped your development? Do you think it’s likely you would’ve enjoyed any success writing fiction if you hadn’t enrolled at FIU? Or might you have achieved success—but perhaps your path might have been longer?

A. I think FIU helped enormously. And I doubt I would’ve had much success, if any, without FIU and the people I met there. As for the MFA experience in general, getting into a program is a confidence booster because you have people with some experience telling you “we think you have potential.” For that they gift you three years of focused time to read, write, and hang out with people who like to do the same. You can get all that at most MFA programs, but what makes FIU special in my mind is that their program not only focuses on storytelling and craft, they also embrace popular fiction. 

I remember talking with a friend who was studying at another big name school about what we were doing in FIU workshops and classes. She sighed deeply and said: “Oh wow … you actually talk about craft? Over here we try not to indulge the baser instincts … like thinking about readers and markets.”  

Obviously, I’m paraphrasing—but I think you get my drift. 

While I was at FIU I got to know and study with some great writers who mentored me and steered me toward my first publications: people like John Dufresne, Lynne Barrett, Joe Clifford—who was a classmate—and Les Standiford.

Q. Like many authors, prior to getting your novel published, you’ve also written short stories: and some of these have appeared in a trio of anthologies. Several of these works showcase the antics of two young adults named Kenny and Leanne. Kenny’s been described as a Keith Richards wannabe. And Decklan St. James—the central character in AYLCT—also happens to be a failed guitarist who still thirsts for rock-n-roll fame. 

What influenced you to create characters like Kenny and Decklan?

A. I’ll save the gory details for my memoir. For now let’s just say that with the exception of the Desert Hot Springs bedroom scene in ALL YOUR LIES CAME TRUE—which takes place when Deck and Stevie are locked in the basement—I’ve experienced everything Kenny and Deck have.

I guess these characters are alter egos of a sort. Deck’s the devil on one of my shoulders, and Kenny’s the angel on the other. Kenny’s a version of me in my early twenties: innocent, but longing to be a badass cool guy. While Deck is the version of me ten years later: no longer innocent—still trying to be cool … but often stuck on being a selfish asshole.

Q. Punk rock drummer turned Crime Writer Steve W. Lauden recently shared that the two of you teamed up with Joe Clifford, Tom Pitts and Eric Beetner to form a band of your own.  But a la REO Speedwagon, you guys quibbled over artistic differences—and decided to split up before your first rehearsal. How did you cope with this tragedy? Did you start shooting black tar heroin?

A. Let me start by saying that as a drummer Steve W. Lauden is definitely playing against type. Drummers can be pains in the ass, complaining constantly while not doing much to get stuff done. But in our Supergroup that never was, Steve was the voice of reason, the leader, and the one person who was really trying to make it happen. If that Punk Noir band ever gets its shit together to the point where we plug in and make some noise, the world will have S.W. Lauden to thank.

When we broke up prematurely, I coped as best I could—drowning all my sorrows in donuts and black coffee—while playing along to YouTube versions of the songs we should have covered.

Q. Your short story “Sunday Morning, Coming Down” appeared in the Anthony award-nominated Johnny Cash tribute anthology, JUST TO WATCH THEM DIE—edited by Joe Clifford on behalf of Gutter Books. As an amateur musician, how did it feel to be included in this anthology? And what drew you to this particular Cash song for your title?

A. It was amazing. I’ve loved Johnny Cash since I was a little kid, and that collection includes some of the coolest writers on the crime scene right now. 

Sunday Morning, Coming Down is one of my favorite songs of all time. And probably the best evocation of that hung-over, depressed, “I do-not-want-to-participate-in-normal-life” feeling that’s ever been put to vinyl. It’s like a short story—the protagonist waking up, popping a cold one, throwing on his cleanest dirty shirt, then stumbling out into Sunday morning—where he walks a few blocks … sees a loner kid, then a kid with his father—and eventually he listens to Sunday school worshipers singing. I feel like I spent my early childhood driving around with my father … songs like that playing on the AM radio: dead of winter in Massachusetts, heat blasting in the car, windows shut, my old man lighting one Pall Mall off another, neither of us talking much … just listening to the radio and soaking in the sadness.  

For what it’s worth, I think the definitive version of Sunday Morning is the done by songwriter, Kris Kristofferson on the Austin Sessions record that came out in ’99 when Kris was already in his sixties. 

As an added bonus, we get backup vocals by Steve Earle.

Q. This story once again features Kenny and Leanne. But after reading this tale, I had to ask myself if these two characters are evolving or plotting devolution. As the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher it seems like Leanne’s transformed herself into a Christian Vixen—who’s trying to redefine the boundaries between heaven and hell. And while Kenny’s tales have traditionally been spun as first-person narratives, you decided to pen this revenge story from a third person perspective. 

What impetus led you to craft this story and its plot in this particular fashion? 

A. If I ever sit down to write the collection I envision for these two, then one focus will be how different the inside and the outside of the same person can be. And how twisted—but not necessarily evil—the inner lives of spiritual people can be. 

When Kenny visits a Pentecostal church for the first time, he’s this rocker kid who seems cool on the outside. But on the inside he’s inexperienced and immature. He’s a follower. First he idolizes Leann’s father, Jack Moody: the reformed badass turned preacher, who pastors the church. But then Kenny falls for Moody’s daughter, Leanne. She and Kenny, I guess you could say, are drawn to their opposites. Kenny sees Leanne’s savvy—and Leanne digs Kenny’s innocence. “Sunday Morning, Coming Down” is where the sparks between these two start to catch fire.  

Q. These days, besides sweating in Miami, you’re devoting much of your writing time to penning more novels. And rather than continue with Decklan, you’re creating new characters while taking your themes in a different direction. Without talking plot, what kinds of characters are you building at the moment? 

A. I’m playing around with two different stories. One’s set in South Beach and features a female bodybuilder who does fetish sessions and stumbles into detective work. The other characters include a bunch of gaming nerds, some washed-up celebs—and possibly a Buddhist monk. The second is set back in Massachusetts. This one involves three childhood friends: a woman and the two men who used to crush on her—as well as a drug-addled bad mom, and a satanic cult.  

My stories often feature some kind of cult because most days I walk around thinking everyone out there has life’s answers … and they’re keeping them from me. I also think that when the world is really fucked-up—like it is now, people go for easy answers in comprehensive story form—which is what cults offer. 

Q. You and your wife Adrienne discover you’ve been assigned to play host to a quartet of Crime writers who are in Miami for the weekend. Where would you take them to dinner on Friday and Saturday nights? 

A. None of these places are protypical of Miami, but they are some of our faves: 

The Yardbird is a five minute walk from where we live in South Beach. Southern cooking. And they do the best fried chicken and waffles this side of Roscoe’s in California. 

Mandolin in the Design District does Mediterranean. Lots of Greek dishes. Excellent vibe—outdoor dining and great service. It’s where we take our classy (read: Adrienne’s) friends for a night out.

And since I’m heading home to Fall River, Massachusetts in a few days—and dreaming about the great Portuguese food that can be had almost everywhere there?  I would definitely take them to Sagres. Lots of fresh baked rolls. Spicy Shrimp Mozambique for the appetizer. And a Portuguese steak for the entrĂ©e—which means a fried egg on the steak. And we’ll do fries and rice on the side. Because you can never get enough carbs. And who needs vegetables when you’re on vacation?

Anyone who wants to sink their teeth into some great fiction—including Mike’s story, “Sunday Morning, Coming Down”—can buy the kickass Gutter Books Johnny Cash tribute anthology JUST TO WATCH THEM DIE on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Just-Watch-Gutter-Books-Anthologies-ebook/dp/B075KKGT7H/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

Rock music junkies can check out Steve W. Lauden’s 2016 interview with Mike on Steve’s Bad Citizen Corporation blog: https://badcitizencorporation.com/2016/08/01/interrogation-mike-creeden/

And you can visit Mike on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100007571499908

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