Short Story, “Testimony,” Wins First Prize in Fiction Contest

My short story, “Testimony,” recently won first prize in the College of DuPage 2016 Writer’s Read Emerging Voices contest. Published in the Prairie Light Review, Vol. XXXVIII No. 2. I have posted it here for your enjoyment.

Testimony

Copyright 2016

 

Mr. Brody, before the day you shot the deceased, how long had it been since you discharged a weapon?

I didn’t shoot Audie Johnson.

He shot himself then?

Inadvertently, yes.

But your hand was on the weapon.

I had one hand on his wrist and I gripped the hand in which he held the gun with my other hand. We struggled and the gun fired. My fingers never went near the trigger.

You struggled with the deceased but your finger never touched the trigger.

That’s what I said.

How did you come to struggle with the deceased?

When he entered the house, I lunged at him, reaching for the pistol. I gripped his wrist with one hand and the gun hand with the other.

The other what?

My other hand.

Your wife and your mother were also in the house, is that correct?

Yes.

What were they doing while you struggled with the deceased?

Bleeding.

I beg your pardon.

They were bleeding from wounds they suffered when Johnson shot through the living room window. My wife was wounded in the upper chest and my mother sustained cuts to her face from flying glass.

Where were they at the time of your struggle with the deceased?

In the hallway at the rear of the house.

How did they get there?

I carried my wife and led my mother.

You didn’t want any witnesses to your confrontation with the deceased, did you?

I didn’t know there would be a confrontation. I was concerned for their safety.

How long had it been since you last visited your mother?

Objection, your honor. Relevance?

Sustained.

Weren’t you worried that your wife and mother would sustain additional injuries when you moved them from the living room to the hallway?

There was a lull in the shooting and when I looked out the window, Johnson was reloading his pistol. I used that as an opportunity to move them.

What did you do after that?

I called 911, reported the shooting, requested police and an ambulance, and then crept back into the living room.

Why didn’t you stay with your wife and mother?

I was fearful for their safety.

How was abandoning them in the hallway going to guarantee their safety?

If Johnson attempted to enter the house, I was going to try and stop him.

Stop him.

Yes.

How?

I had no idea. I knew my mother kept no weapons in the house.

How did you know the deceased was at the patio door?

At first I didn’t, but it was the only way he could have gained entry.

How is that?

There’s an iron fence with a locked gate at the front door. The garage can’t be opened from the outside without a door opener. That left the side gate to the yard. If he climbed that fence and entered the patio enclosure, then the side door would be the only place he could get in.

You argued with the deceased earlier that evening, didn’t you?

Not exactly.

What do you mean, not exactly?

An argument requires at least two people. I didn’t argue with him.

Thank you for the clarification. Please describe what did happen earlier that evening.

Johnson is my mother’s neighbor. She’d invited him to the house to meet my wife and me.

What was the nature of his relationship with your mother?

Objection, your honor. Relevance again.

I’ll allow it.

I don’t know anything about their relationship.

But they did have relationship?

I don’t know.

How did the meeting with you and your wife go?

He went to the refrigerator and opened a beer for himself and then the conversation turned to politics. He used a derogatory term to refer to the president.

A derogatory term?

That’s what I said.

Yes, of course. What term did he use?

He called him a raghead n-word.

Raghead n-word. What exactly did he say?

Objection, your honor. Is this necessary?

Sustained. Counselor, we all know the word Mr. Johnson used. Move on.

Sorry, your honor. So he used the n-word, which made you angry. Is that accurate?

Not entirely.

What do you mean?

I felt angry, yes, and disappointed.

You were disappointed?

That people still use the word, and that Johnson specifically used it in referring to the president.

Did you vote for the president?

Objection, your honor.

Goes to motive, judge.

Sustained. A different line of questioning, counselor.

What happened after the deceased used the n-word?

I told him I didn’t care for the term.

What was his reaction?

He laughed and said it a few more times in succession.

And did that make you angrier?

No.

Then what did you do?

I told my mother that my wife and I were going into our bedroom, and would she please let us know when Johnson had left.

You simply left the room?

Yes.

You didn’t argue with the deceased?

I already said I didn’t.

I find that hard to believe.

I imagine you find many things hard to believe.

Your honor.

My Brody, please confine your testimony to answering counsel’s questions.

Sorry, your honor.

How much had you had to drink by then?

Part of one beer.

And the deceased?

I wasn’t counting.

Back to the initial gunfire. You moved your wife and mother into the hallway, called 911, and then returned to the living room. Is that correct?

Yes.

What did you do after that?

I waited.

Waited for what?

For what Johnson would do next.

How did you know what he would do next?

I didn’t.

But you were preparing for something, weren’t you?

No.

Please describe your actions as they led up to the shooting of the deceased.

When I left the hallway and returned to the living room, I crept to the window and looked outside, but didn’t see Johnson. That’s when I worried he’d try to climb the fence. I moved to the side door and stood beside it, flat against the wall.

Was the door locked?

He had a key.

The deceased had a key to the door?

Yes. My mother had given it to him to use in emergencies.

Was he a frequent guest at your mother’s?

I don’t know.

Why don’t you know?

Objection. Relevance. Counsel is fishing again.

Sustained. I told you to move on from this line of inquiry.

So the deceased let himself in with a key your mother had given him.

Yes.

How did he manage the mechanics of using a key and holding a pistol at the same time?

I was on the other side of the door, so I don’t know.

It seems it would be awkward to juggle both the key and the handgun.

Okay.

When the deceased opened the door, what did you do?

At first I remained still.

You just stood there?

Yes.

What were you waiting for?

For him to come in.

He didn’t enter immediately?

No. I suppose he might have been putting the key back in his pocket.

So you waited. Then what?

He stepped from the patio into the living room, holding the gun in his right hand.

You saw the gun?

It was the first thing I saw as he stepped in. He was holding it out in front of him.

Then what did you do?

As I said earlier, I lunged at him, grabbing his wrist with one hand, and the hand holding the gun with my other.

And that’s when you, when the gun fired.

Yes. I pushed him against the door when I lunged. The barrel of the gun slammed into his abdomen and fired.

What did you do then?

I retrieved the gun from where he’d dropped it and placed it on the dining room table.

Did you offer any assistance to the deceased?

I checked his pulse. He was dead.

What did you tell the police when they arrived?

Just what I’ve testified today.

Do you feel responsible for Audie Johnson’s death?

No.

No?

Objection, your honor. Asked and answered.

Sustained.

You feel no culpability about this man’s death?

Objection.

Sustained, counselor.

You have a very convenient conscience, Mr. Brody.

Your honor!

Withdrawn. You put the gun on the dining room table, correct?

Yes.

I assume that’s why your fingerprints were found on the weapon.

I suppose.

And you never touched the trigger, but that’s where I’m confused again, Mr. Brody. I’m confused by how your fingerprints got onto the trigger guard and onto the trigger itself. How do you explain that?

Nothing to say, Mr. Brody? You testified you never touched the trigger, but your prints were found on it. Forgive my irritating confusion, but can you help me with this? Can you clarify for me why the evidence contradicts your testimony? What exactly is your explanation for this inconsistency, for this irregularity in your testimony?

Evolving Routines of Writing

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My writing routine settled into a new pattern recently: working at the desktop computer in my studio, I labor toward a daily goal of 1,000 quality words on my WIP, Failing Billy. The novel is contemporary and mainstream with a literary bent, but also delves into speculative fiction. The protagonist possesses an unusual ability. I don’t want to go into the specifics now. No spoilers. But back to the routine. Several hours in the studio, hammering out the narrative. Reassessing sentences, phrases, and of course, even words, for their propriety within the work. I break…downstairs for a meal. 20160223_120327Then it’s revision time. Sitting at the small round table in our front room, beside the picture window that overlooks the park across the street with its pond. A few weeks ago my vista included ice skaters, but now the ice has melted and geese skid onto the pond’s surface as they pause in their journey north.

 
At my laptop, I review, revise and reconsider the morning’s work, making notes about where to begin the next day, what path to take, which direction to steer my characters (or more often, my characters whisper to me where they intend/prefer to go). I hadn’t intended this dual location routine for drafting and revising. It evolved, as I’m sure other habits will evolve in the future, and I’m finding it useful, even productive. Place is important, can be determinative. The locations have not become exclusive or restrictive. It’s not as though I cannot draft on my laptop or edit on my desktop, but the development of these practices fascinates me. Prior to this I occasionally reviewed the day’s writing late at night on my iPad, checking for typos, etc. But the laptop sessions are more elaborate, with substantial rewriting and reworking of the day’s progress. The mechanics of writing, mine and that of others, intrigues me.

 
I recently signed with an agent, who now is approaching publishers about the manuscript I completed last spring: “Summers on the Nebraska Shore.” I edited the manuscript a few times with readers’ suggestions, compiled both a short and a lengthy synopsis, as well as a bio. Why is it that a book’s synopsis seems more difficult to draft than the novel itself? Here’s the longer of the two synopses:

Edwin Garside, a successful and acclaimed novelist, lived a nomadic life: moving to a new town or city whenever he completed a manuscript. Following the death of his father, Edwin inherits the family farmstead in central Nebraska, where as a child he spent two weeks each August with is grandparents. The summer visits enthralled him when he was young; exploring the farm and its environs entertained and amazed him. Entering his teens, the visits to the farm felt like punishment and he resented being banished from his friends. His grandfather died when Edwin was sixteen years old, resulting in a final visit: the man’s funeral. Watching his father console his grandmother affected Edwin in ways he had not anticipated, and observing the restrained emotions of the mourners who flocked to the farmhouse after the memorial service inspired him to write his feelings in a notebook. His birth as a writer. He enrolled at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. During his freshman year, Edwin experienced the loss of a childhood friend, killed in Vietnam. The friend’s funeral stirred emotions similar to those he recorded in his notebook at his grandfather’s. Upon returning to the university, Edwin began a short story based on the notes and observations gleaned from the two funerals. The story was accepted for publication in The New Yorker, earning Edwin praise and easy acceptance to the Writer’s Workshop graduate program. When he graduated from the program, Edwin had completed his first novel, secured an agent, married a fellow student, and fathered a child. Hired by a liberal arts college in western North Carolina, Edwin settled into the life of an academic and began work on his second novel. His first novel earned him minor celebrity status on campus. Waiting lists developed for his workshop classes. Students fawned over him and one in particular tempted him into an affair, which ended with the student disclosing the relationship to the college dean in a spiteful act. Edwin lost his job and his family over the dalliance. His wife, Angela, dismissed his apologies and fled to her home in Missouri with their son, Jacob. Edwin fled to a small town in Vermont to finish his novel-in-progress, beginning his life as a literary nomad.

When he inherits the farmstead, Edwin decides to convert what is left of the acreage (much had been sold off to neighboring farmers) into a writer’s retreat. His son, an architect in Omaha, designs the buildings to house the visiting writers and oversees the renovation of the farmhouse in which Edwin will live. Jacob’s wife, Greta, an interior decorator, assists in the furnishings for the farmhouse. Estranged for nearly all his life from his son, Edwin attempts to close the gap between them…he senses time is not his ally. When Greta telephones, asking if Edwin’s grandson and his girlfriend can stay at the farm for a day or two, he balks at the invasion of his privacy, but relents, hoping his acceptance will aid in the repair of his bond with his son. His grandson, Joshua, and his girlfriend, Abby, arrive, and Edwin learns the boy fled a gambling debt in Chicago, where he’s a journalism student at Northwestern. His mother agrees to settle the debt, provided he retreats to the farm to reflect on his actions, as well as his promise that he will cease his gambling, which began as research for an article he was writing about underground gambling in the city. Underscoring all the events surrounding Edwin’s decision to live at the farm he came to resent as a teenager is the loss of his longtime lover, Charlene Barlow, a talented and award-winning photographer. Her death stunned him as no other event in his life had. The intrusion of Joshua and Abby upon his lingering grief, however, transforms Edwin. When Joshua asks him if he will read and critique the article he has written, Edwin agrees but then suggests the boy convert it to a short story, enticed by the themes of family, redemption and commitment. He also lends one of Charlene’s cameras to Abby, who studies theatrical lighting at Northwestern. Joshua’s gambling problem has strained the relationship between Joshua and Abby, such that the boy decides to return to Chicago to finish his story, while Abby stays at the farm with Edwin for an indefinite period.

Edwin uses his work-in-progress (of which a few excerpts appear in the novel) as a surrogate for the anger he feels about Charlene’s death at the hands of a mugger. A local bully parallels the action in the WIP, serving as inspiration for Edwin’s catharsis. His and Abby’s encounters with the bully propel the plot toward a disastrous climax. The bully sets fire to the farmhouse and lies in wait with a rifle to ambush Edwin.
Summers on the Nebraska Shore explores the dynamics and fluid nature of family. Love, passion and loss feature prominently. Edwin Garside reviews his nomadic life, second-guessing many of his decisions, while using the writer’s retreat as a tool for both solidifying his literary legacy and his connections with his family; goals he learns are entwined. The theme of isolation peppers his many novels and the notion of retreating to the farmstead, but surrounding himself with young writers and family, stirs within him a desire to reclaim, or rediscover, those links and connections he abandoned decades earlier. Charlene’s murder influences every decision, every nuance of his actions. When the fire destroys his dream, he steps back and examines the plans he had formulated. He shifts, refocuses on what now seems more important to him: family. He stops trying so hard to cement those bonds and instead places himself within their sphere with the intention of allowing relationships to grow more organically, less forced. It’s a happy ending that is earned. Joshua might follow his example as a writer of fiction. Abby will probably not abandon her studies in theater, but has certainly been bitten by the photography bug. Jacob and Marta are enlisted to assist in the renovation of a loft space in Omaha where Edwin will finish his work-in-progress. His contentment after everything that happens calms him, fulfills him. An epiphany about his aspirations suffuses him with peacefulness.

I recognize that Nebraska is landlocked…that’s part of the novel’s charm. Ever hear of the honor of Admiral in the Great Navy of the State of Nebraska? Probably not unless you lived there, which I did for fifteen years. My Omaha friends will chuckle at the novel’s title.
The current WIP now exceeds 85,000 words and I anticipate concluding the draft in a month or so. The merger of the three main characters is underway and their final interaction will conclude the boo. It’s always exciting to see the end approaching, and I have to stem the urge to race toward the finish line.

An Interview with Author Maude Epman

During a recent promotional tour book tour, author Maude Epman granted me some time for an interview. We sat in the shaded portion of a park near the bookshop in a western suburb of Chicago where she had conducted a reading and book signing of her new novel, Shadow Bender.

Me: It’s a standard question, but I’m sure many people are interested in how you became, or were inspired to become, a writer.

Epman: Even as a child I realized that telling lies was far more interesting and entertaining than telling the truth. I’m not saying I intended to be dishonest, but I learned by watching the reaction on my parents’ faces that the truth suffered when compared with a good story.

Me: So story-telling is no better than telling a lie?

Epman: In essence, even though great story-telling brings us closer to truth than fact.

Me: The old adage, then?

Epman: Certainly. Fiction speaks truth, even if it’s just the writer’s truth.

Me: Your fiction has been praised for strumming universal chords of human experience. So it seems you’ve been successful in speaking beyond your truth alone.

Epman: That’s especially rewarding. And also a testament to the commonality of human experience. We relish in the fact that each of us is an individual, but the nature of our existence shows the repetition of so many similar feelings, emotions and sentiments. Nothing new under the sun, except for the manner in which that is expressed.

Me: That segues nicely into my question of how you toy with the classic form of the novel. Is it fair to say that the techniques you employ, dual narrative and parallel but disparate plot lines, abets the truth that you wish to express?

Epman: That word, toy, is perfect for what I feel I do. It’s play at work. In Shadow Bender I explore that mechanism. I carefully chose the title to make the reader play with the notion of trying to bend a shadow. If you puzzle over it long enough, you reach the conclusion that the only way to bend a shadow is to toy with the object and the light that cast it.

Me: Your novels have described as puzzles for the mind. Is that fair?

Epman: No more than day-to-day existence is a puzzle for the mind. There’s nothing linear about someone plodding through an average day. Thoughts leap back and forth. What-ifs occur constantly. Fantasies bloom at the oddest and most inopportune times. Yet writing fiction that parallels true experiences tends to upset folks.

Me: Maybe they’re seeking in fiction what they can’t achieve in their lives.

Epman: Escapism? I think the way they act outside of my books is far more escapist than what they might read within them, although I suppose if someone writes me and says I’ve patterned their life precisely in what I’ve written, then I’ll feel as though I approached perfection. No, I think people, not all but many, read to eliminate the distractions, those digressions we entertain throughout the day, little paths away from what is or should be demanding our attention. Demands that often bore, anger or enrage us. So, now I’ve come full circle. Linear writing is escapist!

Me: But not yours?

Epman: I suppose by my own words, no. I want to clutch the reader and fly her as close to the sun as possible that she gets uncomfortably warm but never burns.

Me: I like that image.

Epman: Thank you. It’ll reappear somewhere in my work, I’m sure.

Me: You often have male protagonists and you write them convincingly.

Epman: You’re going to get me into trouble, I can tell.

Me: There’s been so much made about women writing men, or maybe men writing women, and falling short of standards and expectations.

Epman: Doesn’t that really depend on the character? I mean, I could take the bait and profess that men are such simpler creatures that it’s easy to write them, but that’s so simplistic only a man would think of it! (She chuckles). But the character challenges the writer with is, or her, complexities. I can create a shallow, clueless male or female character, or a layered, shaded, and unfathomable one. Both have their place in fiction, serving the truth, or one of its variations.

Me: The main character in Shadow Bender is man who seems tempted by the paths not taken, those digressions you mentioned earlier.

Epman: Harassed or haunted might be a better way to describe how he deals with his choices, how he second-guesses them. Phelan explores those options more graphically than others might, even going so far as attempting to live as though he had made different decisions, taken some of those different paths. The reason he considers the other paths is because they might lead to outcomes better or more satisfying than the ones he has. Presenting the reader with a glimpse of the path not followed can be frightening, even dangerous. It can display an array of emotions she’d rather not consider.

Me: Do you consider linear fiction inferior or less authentic?

Epman: Not necessarily. I suppose I enjoy my form more than traditional, realistic fiction. I like putting a character in the position of doubling back and choosing the other path, of foregoing all the memories, the happiness and sorrow, if given the opportunity. I find myself straddling the line with characters between self-absorption and self-awareness. They confront restrictions and either capitulate or overcome them. If I succeed, then they achieve selflessness.

Me: What motivates you? Do you have choices you wish you could revisit? Decisions you could undo?

Epman: What most frustrates people is that choice by its nature involves exclusion. So I, too, fantasize and envision what my life might have been like had I made different choices. Not in the abstract, but specific choices. About love, career, values. Diving into the particulars creates an atmosphere far more tactile than generalized speculation.

Me: Thank you for making time to talk with me.

Epman: You’re welcome.

Creating Community in My Novels

In three of my novels…A Life Without Grace, Harmony House, and The Dreams of Teddy Schreck…I employ a neighborhood surrounding a strip of greenspace…Iske Park. The U-shaped park, isolated in a residential area of a Chicago suburb, serves as either a partial or total setting within these books. Main characters from each of them appear as secondary in the other two. I enjoyed rotating the protagonist among the novels and viewed the park as an extension of them.

I live across the street from a public park, dominated by a pond, but which also has a playground for young children at one end of it. Roughly two dozen homes surrou001 (3)nd the park, and among their residents live some of my closest friends. We’ve lived on Prince Pond for 26 years and have seen people move in and move away during that time. There’s a self-selecting quality to people who choose to live across the street from a public space. The loss of a degree of privacy accompanies the enjoyment of the area. Each spring and summer children and adults alike fish from the path that rings the pond. In winter, the park district waits for the ice to freeze to a suitable depth and then plows and polishes the surface for the ice skaters who proliferate. Long-term residence here can tempt one into feeling a bit proprietary about the view, about the property itself…”IDSCN0324t’s my park!” That sense of community is what I had hoped to inject into the creation of Iske Park as the setting for those three novels.

I must have succeeded at some level. A friend of mine the other day, an excellent author…Cynthia Hamilton…sent me an email and referred to the park across the street from my house as Iske Park. The confusion of fact and fiction made me smile. Neighbors who have read my books recognize the artifice of the fictional park, wonder if it represents the real park, and even jump to the conclusion that perhaps one of the characters in the book reflects them. Such is the burden of an author whose friends read her or his work…constantly offering reassurances that those friends have not been lifted and dropped into a novel. The more discerning get it. They trust and respect imagination and are more inclined to see the author in the work than themselves.

But the community…in my case Iske Park…was an important aspect of each of the three books. (By the way…the name Iske comes from my wife’s mother’s maiden family name. I had hoped to honor the woman in a small way, but unfortunately, she passed away before my first novel, A Life Without Grace, was published. But the rest of the family understands.) Sense of place in a work always affects the characters and I wanted Iske Park to be both a unifying factor as well as a buffer between and among characters and their relationships. The park is secluded from the day-to-day scrutiny of the village in which they live, creating an environment for which they feel both responsibility and loyalty.

In my current work-in-progress, the themes of rooted familiarity and legacy continue. This time a family farmstead that evokes the sense of place that drives the actions of several of the characters. The draft should be finished sometime toward the end of March, with an expected publication date in mid-Spring.

 

Short Story as a Birthday Present for my Niece

My nDSCN1602iece’s birthday is in a week and her mother confided to me that what she wanted was a short story about herself. I’ve never received such a request before and thought at first I would not be up to the task, because I don’t write either children’s or YA fiction. While considering how to let her down as tenderly as possible, a plot occurred to me, along with some themes I thought she might find pertinent. So the next day I set aside my usual fiction-writing time and began this short story.

On Thanksgiving last week, we celebrated her birthday early, and I read it for the assembled family. I hope you enjoy it.

 

Lilia’s Morning Ride

 

Lilia stepped off the cabin’s porch and glanced at the sky, where banks of clouds billowed above the distant mountains. A cool spring morning. Perfect for a ride. She followed the gravel path along the pasture fence, curving toward the stables where Bobby waited with her mare, Ribbons. Her breath condensed in the crisp air. When her mother suggested the trip to the ranch for her spring break, Lilia was surprised. It was the first time the little sister would be away from home…alone and on her own. But her mother knew how she loved horses and believed this opportunity…to ride every day, to groom and care for them…would be the perfect vacation. They hadn’t counted on the high plains being so chilly, but once Lilia mounted her horse and trotted out of the corral into the fields and forest, she felt warm and comforted. Ribbons was a gentle ride, responsive and temperate. Lilia stared into her huge brown eyes the first day she walked among the stalls and pointed to her.

“This one,” she told Bobby, the stable hand.

“That’s Ribbons,” he said. “Good choice.”

Each morning she rode the mare and then returned to the stable, where she brushed her, fed her and whispered to her when Lilia was certain no one else could hear her. She confided about her friends at school, her teachers, her sister and her parents…Ribbons was the perfect listener: she bobbed her head, the long hair of her mane flopped, the flesh of her flanks rippled, and occasionally she snorted, as though commenting on something Lilia said.

This morning she turned into the tall central corridor of the stable and waved to Bobby, who held Ribbons by her bridle.

“Chilly today,” Bobby said, his brown cowboy hat hiked back on his head.

Lilia nodded. She liked Bobby, who had been helpful and kind to her, had shown her how to care for Ribbons, but she just didn’t talk much to the other people at the ranch. She kept to herself and read in the evenings after dinner, curling up on one of the love seats near the huge stone fireplace; she loved to escape into a book, imagining herself as one of the characters, immersing herself in the world created by the author. The first few days on the ranch Bobby rode out with her, along the lower trail that led to the meadows, and then on the upper trail that wound through the tall pines and around the rock outcroppings. Lilia liked the mountain track better, for the variety of experiences it offered. She enjoyed the rustle of the wind in the tree limbs, the muted footfalls of the horse’s hooves on the pine needles that cushioned the trail, the shrieking call of an eagle as it glided above the forest, seeking prey, as well as tiny feet scuttling through the underbrush as Ribbons plodded along.

Bobby helped her mount the mare and led her out of the stable. “Have a good ride,” he called as Lilia gently guided Ribbons toward the trailhead.

In three days she would return home to her family in Evanston, to the boredom of school, homework, chores and being the little sister. She missed her father, mother and sister, but here at the ranch, Lilia felt bigger than herself. More independent. Almost more important. She didn’t completely understand the change in her outlook, but she liked it. A lot. At home she was constantly reminded that she was a daughter, a sister, and a student…but on the ranch she was a rider, a groom, and a ranch hand. She was someone other than how people knew her.

A few hundred yards beyond the corral fence, the trail began to climb, a delicate incline at first, but as it wound along the side of the hill, it steepened and Ribbons huffed as she clopped along; Lilia leaned forward in the saddle and gripped the horn. The sky opened a bit, clouds parting to let jagged patches of blue sky show through. As she and Ribbons crested the hill, the trail forked, one path following the sloping ridge toward the valley, the other rising toward the tree line. Lilia tugged Ribbons’ reins and steered her toward this trail, toward the higher elevation. The two rode quietly for a while, Lilia thinking about school, about her friend Ashley’s birthday party the week after she returned home. She and her mother needed to buy Ashley a present. “What do you think, Ribbons?” she asked the horse. “Some earrings. Or maybe a book?”

The trees thinned, spiky brush crowded either side of the trail, branches grazed against Lilia’s jeans as Ribbons maneuvered through the undergrowth. To her right a startled bird suddenly fluttered up into the air and Lilia caught her breath, then laughed to disarm her surprise, speaking softly to Ribbons as the mare ambled along. The vegetation changed to tall grass, pines dotted the fields, and Lilia sat upright in the saddle as she peered down the trail. On the edge of a clearing below the path, a small, dark blob writhed. As Lilia approached she heard sounds, a sorrowful whining, painful and sad. Standing in the stirrups as they neared the sight, Lilia glanced across the field and saw a bear cub. Ribbons snorted loudly at the animal’s scent and stuttered on the trail. Lilia leaned forward, patted the horse’s neck and tried to calm her. The cub appeared to have entangled one of its front paws in the barbed wire of an old fence. It thrashed, bleated out in pain and stopped, then repeated the movement.

Lilia dismounted and stood beside Ribbons, who tried to back away down the trail. She gripped the reins tightly and commanded the horse to stay. The cub fought the wire once more, unsuccessfully. Lilia’s first instinct was to remount Ribbons and hurry away. She knew a cub in trouble would have a protective mother somewhere nearby, and that a mother bear was a dangerous animal. But the sight of the cub in agony, trapped in the barbed wire…she saw blood on the paw wedged in the strands of the fence…wounded her as plainly as it damaged the animal. Ribbons tugged, sensing the danger; Lilia deliberated, quickly assessing the situation, asking how she would live with herself if she allowed the cub to remain trapped in the fence, if she fled and condemned it to die.

She walked Ribbons to a small tree and lashed the reins around a branch, then looked around the clearing…no sign of the mother bear. Lilia walked across the short distance to the fence and stopped near the cub, whispering to the frightened animal, hoping the tone of her voice would calm it, would cajole it and convince it that Lilia was there to help, not to hurt. She studied how two strands of the barbed wire had crossed over the cub’s paw, gripping it in such a way that every time the animal tried to free itself, the wire bit into the paw more tightly. If she could work her hands alongside the paw and pull the strands apart, then the cub could extract its paw and limp away to find its mother.

Suddenly she heard Ribbons cry. Lilia stood and turned to watch the horse rear up on her hind legs, ripping the reins free of the branch, and then gallop away as the cub’s mother lumbered through the grass toward her. The girl froze, her hands at her sides, her heart pounding so heavily in her chest that she feared it might leap through her ribs at any moment. The bear’s mouth gaped open as she halted a few feet from Lilia, her teeth bared, spittle flying as the head swung back and forth and an enraged growl escaped that fired a shiver along Lilia’s spine. Her shoulders shook and she inhaled sharply then held her breath. The cub mewed like a kitten and Lilia glanced down…she knew the mother bear could do nothing to free her cub. Opposable thumbs, she remembered from one of her classes…primates differed from all other mammals by their opposable thumbs. She wanted to run but knew that would be a mistake…it would just confirm her fear and entice the bear to chase her, which she knew was very bad. Bobby had told her early on her visit to the ranch that it was foolish to try and outrun a bear. If she encountered one…and he assured her the chances she would were very slim…she should stand very still, look down, avoid any eye contact, and then slowly back away from the animal.

“Hi,” she heard herself say to the cub’s mother. “I’m not going to hurt your baby. I thought I might help.”

What was she thinking? Lilia wondered. Talking to Ribbons when no one was around, well that was one thing, but talking to an angry bear was just plain crazy. Her sister constantly told her she was crazy, but Lilia didn’t think this was what she meant.

“It’s okay,” she continued. “I can help.”

The bear stepped forward and then raised back onto her rear legs, waving her front paws as she towered over Lilia, who closed her eyes as tightly as she could and waited. To suffer the pain of the sharp claws and long teeth. But while the bear growled…a terrifying sound…the beast held her ground. Lilia opened her eyes and marveled at the sight of the beast. Dark brown fur. Eyes so black they looked almost bottomless…not like Ribbons’ soft brown, or even her own, a tender brown with copper flecks.

“I’m going to step closer now,” she said, and Lilia eased toward the fence, stepping over the fallen strands and situating the cub between her and the mother bear. “I’m going to try and pull the wire apart.”

She eased into a crouch and held her hands up, showing the bear her empty palms, then bent over and gripped the wire, a strand in each hand. The cub whimpered and the bear snarled, taking another step toward Lilia, who paused, praying for the bear to understand her intentions. She saw blood on the wire and on the matted green grass below the fence. She pulled the wire, striving to separate the strands that bound the paw. The cub, which had squirmed when Lilia crouched before it, now stilled, aiming its snout at her as she struggled with the wire; she leaned into the effort, listening to the rasping as the two strands separated. The cub’s paw slipped from the clasp and Lilia released the wire. The cub gazed down at its paw as though shocked it had been freed; Lilia grasped it softly and turned it over, reaching into her pocket for the red kerchief she carried when she rode. She balled it and blotted the trickle of blood on the skittish cub’s paw.

The animal lurched from her grip and swung toward its mother, who tumbled forward onto all four legs and lowered her massive head to sniff the cub. It held out its injured paw and she licked it with her pink tongue. The bear nosed the cub to her side and laid a large paw along its back, guiding it through the tall grass. As the pair shambled away, the mother halted for a moment and swung her head back in Lilia’s direction; she opened her mouth wide and growled, but Lilia didn’t interpret it as a threat. The cub disappeared in the undergrowth and Lilia soon lost sight of the mother as well. She rocked back and collapsed in the grass, aware suddenly of how her hands shook, uncontrollable tremors. She wrapped her arms across her chest and sandwiched her hands in her armpits, breathing deeply and then exhaling in a rush that emptied her lungs completely. Lilia laid back and stared at the sky, where bulbous clouds framed stretches of the bluest sky she felt she had ever seen. Her family would never believe what she’d done. Would never think her capable of such an act, of such courage.

Lilia sat up as she heard the approach of horse’s hooves. She rose unsteadily to her feet and saw Ribbons hanging back some distance down the trail, jerking her head up and down, the reins flipping back and forth. Lilia stepped over the barbed wire fence and slowly made her way across the clearing to the trail. She looked in the direction the bear and its cub had retreated but saw no sign of them. When she neared Ribbons, Lilia laid the side of her own face against the horse’s, murmuring softly.

On the ride back to the stable, Lilia didn’t pay much attention to what she passed, just relived the moment when the intimidating bear had risen on its haunches and loomed over the unmoving girl so closely that Lilia had felt the animal’s warm breath. When she turned into the stable and dismounted, Bobby walked to her and asked about her ride.

Lilia hesitated, then said: “It was fine,” deciding at that moment to keep secret how the incident had affected her. She paced out of the stable but then paused, holding her arm out in front of her, parallel to the ground, examining her hand. No shaking like before, no shuddering or quavering. Firm and steady. Lilia felt changed and as she sought for the words to describe the difference in her, she accepted that they might not come to her immediately, but over time, as the change in her revealed itself in stages, during encounters at school, with her friends, and even with her family. A little sister had left Evanston for this ranch vacation, but a new Lilia would return. One they might not recognize.

In her room she searched in her backpack for the purple journal she took everywhere…at home she kept it hidden under her mattress…and began writing. She described her mood when she walked into the stable that morning, the mountain scent in the air along the trail, and the details of her confrontation with the cub and its mother. She paused as she again strove to find the exact right words to describe the effects of the meeting, jotted a few of them…strong, courageous, and frightened…and then closed the notebook and lay her head on the feather pillow. She gritted her teeth and shut her eyes, then relaxed her muscles, starting in her toes and consciously moving up her body to her neck. When she sloughed her shoulders into the mattress, Lilia grinned, a broad happy smile, and laughed loudly, the sound of her voice bellowing in the room, and in that moment she didn’t care who might have heard her. It didn’t matter.

Weekend in Ann Arbor

Last weekend my wife, Robin Tryloff, and I traveled to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Robin serves on the Leadership Committee for the Organizational Studies Program. It’s an annual trip. 20141009_184644Somewhat of a pilgrimage to Mecca for Robin, who is an alum (saying proud alum is redundant). We drove in on Thursday and attended a fiction reading by Andrea Barrett, as part of the Zell Visiting Writer Series. She is a gracious author, extremely talented. I often wonder when I read a novel if the voice I establish in my head bears any resemblance to the author’s voice. Andrea Barrett’s voice perfectly matched the one I’d imagined. Afterwards at a book signing, she was cordial and inquisitive about my own writing. I recommend her work to everyone who enjoys quality, literary fiction.

Robin was in meetings all day Friday, so with a friend I toured bookstores, (especially love Literati Bookstore) boutiques and met a beautiful baby, Clayton, at the Dancing Dog Gallery. That night we all attended a production of Good Kids, written by Naomi Iizuka, performed by the U of M School of Music, Theatre & Dance. It’s a heart-wrenching play, dealing with themes of sexual abuse, social media and accountability. The cast and the artistic staff presented a solid production.

20141011_192755Saturday was game day…Michigan hosting Penn State. Michigan football hasn’t earned many bragging rights this year, but did eke out a win against the Nittany Lions, mostly with good defense when it counted.

Back home Sunday, back to laboring on the current work in progress Monday morning: Summers on the Nebraska Shore. Yes, I know, Nebraska is land-locked. You’ll have to read the book when it’s published to understand the title, although with some imagination, you might guess its origins. I’m pleased with the progress and the quality of the draft.

Have a great day, all, and peace.

Manuscript Finished, Let The Doubt Begin

In the nearly two-and-a-half years since I retired, I have simplified my life immensely. My obligations are few. To family (mostly only my in-laws) and friends (who seem to leave me alone quite a lot, which is fine…I’m not the kind of personality sought out by many; just mostly tolerated), and my wife.

My writing is my center. Surrounding it are reading, playing guitar and exercising to maintain my health. I’ve written three books since I retired, edited another two older manuscripts, and recently completed the draft of my seventh work of fiction, a novel entitled The Unabridged Songwriter, which should be published in about a week or two. I self-publish, or indie publish as some want to say, because I’m not concerned with my writing making me a great deal of money or with garnering me a hefty dose of fame. I simply love to write, to tell stories I feel have value that might provide a reader with insight and entertainment. I believe I am a talented writer, but also suffer (like most writers, I suppose) doubts about my abilities and accomplishments. When I complete a manuscript, I encounter a moment of relief soon followed by another moment of worry that the novel is lackluster, substandard, and let’s face it…bad. The first step of the editing process is a re-read of the manuscript, during which I am at times wonderfully amazed at how good some of my writing is, as well as recognition that certain passages failed and need to be reworked.

As the manuscript is being scrutinized by my beautiful and honest in-house editor (my intelligent, well-read and critical wife), I customarily avoid working on the next project, preferring instead to slice away at the backlog of books to-be-read (which now numbers more than 130!). As I finish an author’s novel, I register it on Goodreads and send a short note to the author, thanking them for the reading experience. That small gesture has launched a few online friendships that I now value very highly. Most authors reply to my emails, and the best replies are those where the recipient thanks me for making their day. That’s an even trade, since their books often make my day.

I’m considering two new projects. The respective titles are: In Search of the Perfect Stranger and Summers on the Nebraska Shore. Very different books from one another and I’m not certain which I will start first. But I know now the writing process will benefit me more than any reader can understand, perhaps even imagine. Writing can be at best such a personal journey of self-discovery, and I treasure it.

Look for The Unabridged Songwriter soon. I’ll post a reminder a few days before it’s available. And thanks to all my readers…you make my day, too.

 

The Isolated Life of a Writer

Last Monday I listened to an engaging reading and presentation by the best-selling author Elizabeth Berg at the Bloomingdale Public Library. What a marvelous evening. It raised an interesting issue for me: the fellowship of writers.

Writing is an isolated craft. A lonely art. I cannot imagine collaborating on a novel with anyone. The effort of writing is far too personal, and admittedly, the ego far too arrogant. But I remember studying creative writing in studio classes at the University of Nebraska-Omaha Writer’s Workshop, with my friend and mentor Richard Duggin puffing on his pipe, directing a spirited, if novice, discussion of some student’s work. Those sessions, despite their amateur haughtiness, established each of us as writers, at least in our own minds. Learning experiences. in how to write and how to accept criticism.

Years later, I reminisce about those sessions with nostalgia for the beauty of the group dynamic. Those same students often retreated to the Dundee Dell on Dodge Street to continue conversations inflated with hopes and braggadocio about our futures. Well, our futures have arrived. I miss the fellowship, the camaraderie, of those beer-infused evenings. Listening to Elizabeth Berg read from her latest masterpiece (I bought a copy Monday night and finished reading it the following day) made me long for an opportunity to talk to her about writing: about the process, the joy and disappointments, the rewards. To share.

I live in a Chicago suburb and the practicality of commuting to meetings of a writer’s group in the city conflicts with my lazy nature. I’ve investigated workshops, those that meet regularly or annual events, and dismissed them The Unabridged Songwriter Cover Smallfor a variety of reasons. What I want is a monthly meeting of a few accomplished, creative and imaginative writers, who would enjoy spending an hour or two talking about writing. Perhaps using the group as a sounding board for works in progress. or not. To talk shop. To find kindred souls. I know the virtual world provides analogous outlets, but online groups can’t provide the eye-to-eye connection. My wife is an excellent photographer and enjoys a creative group of other photographers. When they meet they share recent work, explore the nature of creativity in their art, and appreciate one another’s input.

There’s no immediate resolution to my conundrum. This is merely a bit of venting.

On another front, the draft of my next novel, The Unabridged Songwriter, came to a halt last week. Frustrating me. I’d reached a  point in the plot where the main character’s actions felt unsupported by the foundation I’d laid in the first chapters. I was 185 pages into the manuscript, uncertain how much of a rewrite I needed to undertake to right the ship. All you can do in that situation is sit down with a print-out of the draft with a pen and begin reading. That’s what I accomplished this week and the scope of the rewrite was narrower than I feared. I actually erased much of the self-doubt that accompanies creative expression and walked away from the edited draft quite satisfied with the results. I anticipate I’ll finish the draft sometime this summer.

On Monday the writing begins again, with a newfound vigor.

 

The Dreams of Teddy Schreck Chosen by NABE as the Pinnacle Book Achievement Award Winner

The National Association of Book Entrepreneurs chose my novel, The Dreams of Teddy Schreck, as the winner in the “Novel” category of the Pinnacle Book Achievement Award Winners for Fall 2013. A full list of the winners can be found by clicking on the seal to the right.NewPinnacleAward3D2

The Dreams of Teddy Schreck, my fifth work of fiction and the third to use the Laurel Woods neighborhood of Iske Park as a setting, focuses on a retired salesman, who obsesses about retaining his mental acuity. One website advises writing a long-hand journal to keep the brain elastic and active. The possible subject of this journal eludes Teddy until one night, when he dreams of cataloging his dreams. The following day he makes his first of many entries in his dream journal. He mentions the project to his neighbor, Bill, a retired historian, who suggests expanding the scope to include Teddy’s aspirations from his early life. Teddy agrees.
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Bill and his wife, Margaret, have been life-long friends of the Schrecks. Margaret anonymously authors an atheist blog; her posts attract the anger of a religious zealot, who in his threatening comments on the blog indicates he not only knows Margaret’s identity, but where she lives. Teddy interjects himself into the conflict, for a variety of aspirational reasons, including an unfulfilled desire to be a hero to someone. His wife and daughters caution him, but he ignores their advice, entangles himself in the back-and-forth between Margaret and “The Lord’s Sword,” as the dangerous zealot labels himself. Events unfold with tragic consequences for both families.

One website advises writing a long-hand journal to keep the brain elastic and active. The possible subject of this journal eludes Teddy until one night, when he dreams of cataloging his dreams. The following day he makes his first of many entries in his dream journal. He mentions the project to his neighbor, Bill, a retired historian, who suggests expanding the scope to include Teddy’s aspirations from his early life. Teddy agrees.

Bill and his wife, Margaret, have been life-long friends of the Schrecks. Margaret anonymously authors an atheist blog, which attracts the anger of a religious zealot, who in his threatening comments on the blog indicates he not only knows Margaret’s identity, but where she lives. Teddy interjects himself onto the conflict, for a variety of aspirational reasons. His wife and daughters caution him, but he ignores their advice. Events unfold with tragic consequences for both families.

I’ll admit to a shred of pride in the award, and hope it might spur a few of you to download or buy the book and let me know what you think of it.

Thanks.