All Is Bright

My serialized story "All Is Bright" was completed on Christmas Eve. My deepest thanks to anyone who read it, whether the entire story or just a few installments. For ease of reading, I have compiled the individual installments into chronological order, so the entire story is now available in a single post.

December 28, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (24)

Novak locks the front door and checks his watch—a few minutes until midnight—then moves back to the doorway of the storeroom, where he flips off the light switch. The dining area falls dark, as does the kitchen, but from the weak light of the storeroom he can see that he left his coffee cup on the counter where he stood talking to the salesman.

Installment twenty four (the finale) of "All Is Bright."

December 25, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (23)

The door closes behind George with a rush of cold air, and they watch him shuffle past the front window, moving much more casually than one would expect on such a frigid night. Maybe he really does like the fresh air, Larry thinks.

Installment twenty three of "All Is Bright."

December 24, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (22)

George’s offer to watch the diner while Novak was away—so politely refused, and then not even needed after the cop offered to deliver the phone order—were nearly his last words of the evening. He has been left alone with his thoughts, which at first dwelled on how to get back into St. Luke’s without being caught.

Installment twenty two of "All Is Bright."

December 23, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (21)

Other than the streetlights, the fluorescent light beaming out from the storefront is the only illumination on the block or, from what Larry had seen during his drive, the entire downtown. Although the sight is inviting, he remains in the car for several minutes, waiting, thinking.

Installment twenty one of "All Is Bright."

December 22, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (20)

As the young cop leaves, Maggie is relieved. Not that she wouldn’t have helped, even gladly; she could have easily stayed at the diner for another twenty minutes while Dave Novak was away. It was the sort of thing that local business owners do for each other—little gestures when someone else needs help, small moments when they look out for each other.

Installment twenty of "All Is Bright."

December 20, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (19)

He can’t quite comprehend what he’s seeing. He’s only been on the job for four hours, so he isn’t tired enough to be hallucinating, but outside the front window there appears to be a police officer holding what looks like a bag of food, and gesturing toward him as if the bag is his.

Installment nineteen of "All Is Bright."

December 20, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (18)

Larry is again behind the wheel but has no idea where or how long he’s been driving. He is no longer drunk, or at least not as drunk as when he first came home. The fight with Michelle—the one-sided onslaught—sobered him, as did the gripping blast of cold air that hit him as he stepped outside.

Installment eighteen of "All Is Bright."

December 18, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (17)

Jim Brock has worked at the courthouse for two years, for American Eagle Security. This is his first job with the company, and also his first in government. Previously he worked in warehouses—night shift, like this job—for three other security firms. He came to American Eagle looking for something more than warehouse work.

Installment seventeen of "All Is Bright."

December 17, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (16)

Officer Pearson sips her coffee and checks her watch, seeing that the time is 9:50. Her coffee feels—if not tastes—good. Nothing against the diner, just that she still hasn’t quite acquired a taste for coffee. She ordered it more than anything for its heat.

Installment sixteen of "All Is Bright."

December 16, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (15)

Within just a few moments, even before the front door opened, Maggie already regretted her promise. Though she promised to look after the diner while Novak was out, she felt a sudden urge to be home, under an afghan on the couch, with the Christmas tree lit up and holiday records on the console stereo, like she and Frank used to do.

Installment fifteen of "All Is Bright."

December 15, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (14)

The room has gone silent. Maggie and George are finishing their meals, and Novak, with nothing to do for another five minutes until he begins filling the phone order, is busying himself around the kitchen, or puttering as Lorraine Novak used to say.

Installment fourteen of "All Is Bright."

December 15, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (13)

Novak came home but never left, the one-year leave of absence stretching to two years and then three as his father worsened, increasingly confined to the house and his oxygen tank.

Installment thirteen of "All Is Bright."

December 13, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (11)

She kept her head down, eyes to the floor, as she walked toward the back room. Looking up, she would have seen things around the bar, details that all, in one way or another, reminded her of Frank.

Installment eleven of "All Is Bright."

December 11, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (10)

He devours the double cheeseburger, lustily enjoying every bite, and contemplates having another. But first he has a taste for something else.

Installment ten of "All Is Bright."

December 10, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (9)

Officer Reggie Pearson has been driving around downtown since 3:00 in the afternoon, along the same twenty streets, past the same buildings, past the same scattered parked cars.

Installment nine of "All Is Bright."

December 9, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (8)

The fight seemed to almost sober him. Almost, for he was still very drunk, though somehow more coherent and functional than he was when he first pulled into the driveway.

Installment eight of "All Is Bright."

December 9, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (7)

Novak had never imagined himself owning the Marquette Diner.

Installment seven of "All Is Bright."

December 8, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (6)

The Buick veered from the center line to the curb and back again, down the length of Chapman Street, from the outskirts of the city to the river.

Installment six of "All Is Bright."

December 6, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (5)

Novak had just filled Maggie Kiernan’s coffee mug for the first time when the front door swung open, and the inrushing wind was followed by an older man who walked in head-down, cringing as he released the door handle.

Installment five of "All Is Bright."

December 5, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...a cheering effect on the citizenry.”

Richard Russo, from Empire Falls (2001):

For the last several years, the Gazette had taken to running old photos of Empire Falls and its denizens during their glory days. The series was called "The Way It Was," and earlier in the summer they'd run a photo of the Empire Grill, circa 1960, with old Roger Sperry looking like he belonged on a lobster boat instead of behind a cash register, and a lunch counter full of working men extending into the background behind him, and the restaurant's grainy, shadowy booths full of customers. A sign on the back wall advertised a hamburg steak with grilled onions, mashed potatoes, a vegetable and roll for a buck and a quarter. One of the younger men pictured at the counter still came in and always sat at the same end stool, if it was available. For reasons that mystified Miles, the series apparently had a cheering effect on the citizenry. People actually seemed to enjoy recalling that on a Saturday afternoon forty years ago Empire Falls was hustling with people and cars and commerce, whereas now, of course, you could strafe it with automatic weapons and not harm a soul.

It's mostly (though not entirely) coincidental that I happen to be reading Empire Falls at the same time as I'm writing a story that's centered on a diner in the downtown of a struggling small city. I'm not consciously incorporating aspects of Russo's novel, though I suppose some of it might be seeping into my story.

December 5, 2019 in Books, Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (4)

George had barely reached the opposite side when the car sped past behind him, engine roaring, but with no blaring of the horn or even a yell to indicate the driver had even seen him. Over his shoulder he saw the car—a big, dark sedan, the make unknown to him—drift from side to side, over the center line and then to the right-hand curb, and back.

Installment four of "All Is Bright."

December 4, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (3)

She sliced a lime in half, then another and another. Three limes should be enough, don’t you think, Frank? If anyone still ordered gimlets at Kiernan’s Tap—and no one did, not for decades—she would simply uncap the old bottle of Rose’s Lime Juice that she kept in the cooler below the bar.

Installment three of "All Is Bright."

December 3, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (2)

Three or four Christmas carols after the meager dinner—stringy turkey, dry mashed potatoes, a single teaspoon of gravy each, and too many green vegetables—would have been plenty for George.

Installment two of "All Is Bright."

December 2, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

“All Is Bright”

Dave Novak stands with his back to the grill, his hands folded behind him, gently gripping a spatula. He instinctively leans toward the warmth of the grill on this, the coldest night of the young winter...

My serialized Christmas Eve story, “All Is Bright”, is now live. First installment is here.

December 1, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Introducing ALL IS BRIGHT

I am not a diligent writer. Though story ideas come to me easily, the will to do the actual work of writing is often lacking. I find that I need structure to make the writing happen, whether it’s the narrative framework that I choose to write within, or a fixed routine. I’ve written a few serialized pieces, but only to a single, specific reader, and never for the general public before the story is edited, polished and ready for the world. This time, I’m trying something different.

I recently read an ad for a “short-story Advent calendar.” For a not insubstantial price, one could buy a collection of 24 individually-bound short stories in a fancy box. I gagged on that price, and quickly decided against it, but the ad gave me the idea of writing a long-ish short story in daily serialized installments. And given the season, the story would be set on Christmas Eve, with the first installment appearing on December 1. 24 installments later, the story would be complete, also on Christmas Eve. But the twist is that only minimal editing will be done - each installment that is published will have been written the previous day, and will appear nearly verbatim (other than corrections of spelling errors or major grammar outrages) as first written, in longhand in my notebook. What you’re seeing is almost exactly as it was written, with no editorial second-guessing. Writing in 24 discrete installments, rather than writing the entire story at once and chopping it into 24 pieces, might also revive in me the discipline of writing every day, something I greatly need.

The story is called “All Is Bright.” Directions will appear here tomorrow.

I’m both excited and terrified to be attempting this. I think I have a pretty good story in mind, but as I mentioned earlier, ideas are the easy part for me. Whether I can do justice in writing to the story that right now exists solely in my head, remains to be seen. So, please be patient. By Christmas Eve you’ll either have a story you’ve enjoyed, or something to be forgotten in the midst of your holiday festivities.

November 30, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Quote

“I have nothing against domestic stories, I wrote plenty of them. But they are no longer enough in the world we live in. I have to try and look outside my own fence.” - Edna O’Brien

I agree...even as my latest fiction project (which should - should - launch in a few days) will stay inside my own fence - only the second story I’ve set in Joliet. 

November 27, 2019 in Books, Fiction | Permalink | Comments (2)

David Berman

My ski vest has buttons
like convenience store mirrors
and they help me see
that everything
in this room right now
is a part of me
oh yeah, is a part of me
- David Berman

Last week saw the sad passing of musician and poet David Berman, who took his own life at age 52. He battled mental illness and substance abuse for much of his life, and apparently it finally became too much for him. Tributes continue to pour in for him from both the music and literary communities. It's clear that he and his art were greatly loved.

The only Silver Jews album I own is American Water (1998), which is widely considered the band's masterpiece. I'll admit that had never heard of Berman or his band before this album, and was only drawn in by the involvement of Stephen Malkmus of Pavement, who was Berman's musical partner off and on for years. But the otherwise bold Malkmus mostly kept to the background - singing backup vocals (with only the occasional lead) and playing lead guitar - and conceding the spotlight to his longtime friend Berman. Instead of being a Pavement side project (as it was often characterized back then), the focus was on Berman's rough-hewn voice and wonderful lyrics. The lyrics above (from "We Are Real") are just one small example of his gift - every song is full of similar brilliance.

That album once meant enough to me to inspire a short story, "Alleys Are the Footnotes of the Avenues", which I wrote way back in 2008. The title is a line from Berman's "Smith & Jones Forever", and the story flowed directly from the preceding line, "They see the things they need through the windows of a hatchback." This slight nod is the best tribute I can make to Berman and his artistic influence.  

Yesterday I dug out and recharged my old iPod, and listened to American Water for the first time in years. The album is every bit as great as I remembered. Check it out if you can. 

August 13, 2019 in Books, Fiction, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

”Wind and Sun”

“Wind and Sun”

Yesterday is a wind gone down,
A sun dropped in the west.

Today is rising winds,
Brightening skies and warming air.

Yesterday is past, frozen, set.
Decisions made and actions done
That cannot be brought back.
Decisions cannot be unmade,
What was done ever remains done,
The past never erased.

Today is possibility,
A time to act, make things happen
Not the fixed yesterday
Nor the uncertain tomorrow.
What is determined this moment
Will change all days to come.

Wind and sun have fallen,
Wind and sun will rise again.

 

(The first two lines are by Carl Sandburg, from “Prairie.” The rest is my attempt at a poetic response.)

August 2, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

“Everyday People”

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I’ve been very tardy in passing this along, but Ben Tanzer and I recently had a great conversation about Where the Marshland Came To Flower, writing in general, and Chicago, and our talk can be heard on his venerated This Podcast Will Change Your Life. Enjoy.

April 1, 2019 in Books, Chicago Observations, Fiction, Marshland | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Midnight Clear"

(I wrote this story in one week. Last week, I volunteered to do a reading with Don Evans at Volumes Bookcafe, which would consist entirely of Christmas-themed readings, only to realize that I had never written even a single story that had anything to do with Christmas. So I had to scramble to write this one, and the reading went well. The story is based on "The Bells Will Ring For You", from Where the Marshland Came to Flower, but set forty-five years earlier, on Christmas Eve, 1960.)

 

MIDNIGHT CLEAR

Eddie’s eyelids were heavy as he glanced again across the living room toward his father, who slept soundly in his armchair. Martin Cullen had said he would sit for a few minutes, just to rest his eyes, but they all knew his Christmas Eve tradition of resting his eyes for a few minutes after dinner, followed soon after by deep, sonorous snoring.

“Martin, it’s time to start waking up,” Eddie’s mother called from the kitchen, where the slosh of dishwater and the rattle of plates had diminished, which meant to Eddie that dinner would soon be cleaned up and it was almost time to leave for Midnight Mass. Eddie looked at his father, who didn’t stir.

“Marty, come on. Wake up.” Her voice came louder this time, less gentle and with more of an edge. She appeared in the doorway, looked at her sleeping husband and then to Eddie, and back again.

“Maybe you shouldn’t have drank so much at Mike’s office party.”

“He didn’t drink that much, Mom,” Eddie said, still drowsy. “He was fine when I brought him home, and he didn’t drink at dinner, not even the wine.”

She shook her head and turned away, back to the kitchen.

Eddie had been sent, every Christmas Eve since he was ten years old, to fetch his father from the Christmas party at his Uncle Mike’s insurance agency on Chicago Avenue. That night, when he arrived, he saw that only a half-bottle of Canadian Club remained, with five empty bottles standing on the table behind it. Mike Cullen sold policies for Hibernian Benevolent and the big corporate carriers to neighborhood homeowners and the executives and employees of nearby factories, many of whom, along with the policemen and other merchants on the block, shuttled in and out during the afternoon, taking a drink or two and nibbling on green and red sugar cookies and mince pie that Mike’s secretary had baked. Eddie politely declined Uncle Mike’s offer of a drink, saying he had to get Dad home.

“Does your mom really think she’ll get him to Mass?” Mike said, laughing, as Martin retrieved his coat.

“Yes, she does,” Eddie replied. “She always tries.”

Eddie and his father chatted amiably as they walked home, but when they came through the kitchen door Martin fell silent under Kathleen’s stern gaze. Still, the conservation at dinner was spirited -- euphoric, serious and not so serious.

Euphoric, as the family still basked in the afterglow of John Fitzgerald Kennedy -- Martin always stated his full name -- getting elected President.

“I never thought it would happen,” Martin said, eyes twinkling, his elbows on the table and his hands clasped. “A Catholic in the White House.”

“I knew it would,” Kathleen said. “But not this soon.”

Serious, as Martin told of two more families -- the Connollys and the Riordans -- from the other side of Lavergne Avenue who sold and moved out, bound for Berwyn.

And not so serious, as Martin bemoaned the season of his beloved Chicago Bears, who lost their last three games and finished with a losing record.

“Casares and Galimore weren’t that great,” Martin said.

“Yeah, and they really need a quarterback,” Eddie said. “Bratkowski isn’t the guy.”

“They should get a good Irishman. John Brodie, or that Frank Ryan kid from Los Angeles.”

Martin talked on about people from the neighborhood, stories he must have heard that afternoon at Uncle Mike’s office, though Eddie saw how he carefully avoided specifically mentioning the office, and the party he knew Kathleen disapproved of.

As dinner progressed and Martin drank only milk, Eddie saw his father’s speech clear from a mild slur to an even tone, but from there Eddie saw fatigue slowly set in. Martin had worked another twelve hour day, even though it was Christmas Eve, and then stopped by Uncle Mike’s, so Eddie knew he would soon be slumped in his armchair, snoring away.

On the couch, Eddie’s eyes had just closed again when he heard his mother’s voice, sharp and short. “Come along, Edward. Your father obviously isn’t coming.”

At the kitchen door he bundled up, with a wool watchman’s cap, two scarves, gloves and a heavy overcoat, trying to hold as much of the house’s warmth as he could. As they stepped outside, the thermometer read thirteen degrees.

Even at his mother’s slow pace, the walk to St. Albert’s would take only ten minutes, yet they still left the house at eleven p.m. She always insisted on leaving early for Midnight Mass, to get a good seat near the front. For the first few minutes they walked in silence, the only sound the snow crunching beneath Eddie’s dress shoes, now and then where a neighbor hadn’t shoveled the sidewalk.

“Your father is fading,” she said, suddenly, at which he turned toward her, while still walking.

“What do you mean?” Eddie said, his breath rising in a frozen cloud before his eyes.

“Don’t be alarmed. He’s not dying, just slowing down, getting older. And getting more distant.”

They were silent as they approached the church. When they reached the tall wooden doors, she looked above at the massive stained glass window, with clear admiration, but then shook her head.

“He didn’t go to Mass this year,” she said. “Not even once.”

The walk home seemed even colder, probably from the tiredness they both felt. They walked in silence. Eddie could think only of sinking into his bed, buried under blankets, and sleeping late no matter what gifts he might have under the tree. He wouldn’t be getting up at dawn, as he always did when he was a kid.

At home, Kathleen lingered in the kitchen while Eddie continued toward the living room. As he walked in the familiar darkness he realized that he couldn’t hear his father snoring, and a sudden fear came over him. He remembered his mother’s words about his father fading, and for a moment could only imagine the worst. In the half-light he could see his father in the armchair, silent, unmoving. Maybe...

“I’m awake,” Martin said. “How was Mass?”

“It was good...good,” Eddie said, catching his breath. “Lots of people there. Uncle Mike and Aunt Edie, the McConnells, the Flahertys. Even Frank Kelleher and his mom.”

“Father Michael’s homily?”

“Good, the usual.”

“Hmm. I’m not sure I even remember what the usual is anymore. Well, anyway, I’m glad you went. It means a lot to your mother, especially with me...”

Martin paused. Eddie saw his eyes draw inward, in reflection.

“Listen, Eddie. You’re devout, like your mother. And if that makes you happy, brings you peace, I’m all for it. Your mother is disappointed in me, I know that. For not being devout. But it doesn’t do anybody any good -- our family, Father Michael, St. Albert’s -- for me to pretend. I have to be honest.”

“You’ve always been honest, Dad. I’ll say that for you.”

“Thank you for that. Well, it’s late,” Martin said, as he lifted himself out of the armchair. “I’m going to bed. And Santa Claus has work to do.” He winked. “Merry Christmas, Eddie.”

Eddie sat alone on the couch, staring from the distance at the creche that was arranged on the fireplace mantel. The Holy Family, the shepherds, the animals, the star above all the rest that glimmered from the streetlight outside the front window. He thought about his parents, and how both of them were a part of him. His mother for his faith, his father for almost everything else. He remained until his thoughts blurred and his eyelids again grew heavy, tired but not comfortable. The chill of the room had finally become too much; the furnace was turned down for the night, and wouldn’t be up again until daylight. At last he rose stiffly and moved toward the hallway and up the stairs, barely conscious, thinking only of the warm bed that awaited him.

December 8, 2018 in Fiction, Marshland | Permalink | Comments (2)

Published!

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The big day is here. My new story collection, Where The Marshland Came To Flower, has hatched and is now taking its first tentative steps into the big outside world. It's available in paperback for $6 (a steal) on Amazon, and in e-book for free (REALLY a steal) on Smashwords. If you'd like to have a signed paperback but don't expect to see me in person anytime soon, just hold off on buying it and I'll arrange to get you a signed copy soon. The book was eleven years (off and on) in the making, and I'm very glad to finally see it in print. A few of the stories are among the best stuff I've written so far, I think.

August 9, 2018 in Fiction, Marshland | Permalink | Comments (0)

Where the Marshland Came to Flower

I am very pleased to announce the upcoming publication of Where the Marshland Came to Flower, a short story collection in which each story is set in a different Chicago neighborhood. The book is being published by the wonderful Pablo D'Stair at Kuboa Press (who also published Wheatyard) sometime by the end of May.

The collection has been a long time coming, with plenty of twists and turns - I started writing it in 2007 but didn't finish the first draft until June 2010, the second draft in January 2012, the third draft sometime in late 2012, and the fourth and final draft in April 2013. (My compiled comments about Marshland over the years are collected here.) Finishing and selling Wheatyard took up a lot of my time between 2007 and 2013, of course, but so did my chronic bouts of non-productivity. And since I finished it, I haven’t been aggressive about finding a publisher.  

My biggest concern about Marshland is that it might be too Chicago-centric, and not necessarily of great interest to many non-Chicagoans, and so when trying to sell the book I specifically targeted Chicago indie publishers, in the hope that they'd be more receptive. But though the city has a few great indies, it's far from a big publishing center, and when I had no luck with those indies I thought of Pablo, who has made Wheatyard a great experience for me. Though he had no Chicago connections that I'm aware of, I pitched him the book, and he readily agreed, saying he loved the stories. Which gives me hope that the book will appeal to a broader audience than I had first assumed.

I don't expect the book to be a smash success, but if it does nothing more than connect with anywhere near the hundred-something readers of Wheatyard, then that will be success enough for me. My current writing has been in a lull for much of the past year, and with any luck the enthusiasm of Marshland's readers will re-ignite me into working on my next book.

April 30, 2018 in Fiction, Marshland | Permalink | Comments (0)

This is just so wrong.

I earned more money from the five tossed-off microfictions that I sold to Le Meridien Hotels in 2006 than Poe earned (even after adjusting for inflation) for “The Tell-Tale Heart”, one of the greatest short stories ever written.

December 27, 2017 in Books, Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Spectacle"

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I'm pleased to announce the publication of my flash fiction piece "Spectacle", in the journal Chicago Literati. In case you're not a Chicago aficionado, the photo above should give a strong hint of the story's historical context. 

This is my first publication in almost two years, the delay being partly due to the fact that I only rarely submit to journals any longer, and also from lack of fresh material, as I've been writing long-form work lately instead of short stories. Though I might have to rectify this - seeing the story online this morning was quite a pleasant jolt. 

July 9, 2017 in Chicago Observations, Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

First draft

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The photo is the typed first draft of my new novella, which is (very tentatively) named Good Advices. The longhand draft was finished about a month ago, but that version (jammed into a composition book in my scrawled handwriting) is all but impossible to edit, so now that it's typed and printed, the editing can finally begin. (Or conversely, the excuses for not editing have ended.)

I'm going to read it through once or twice (without a pen) to  really get a sense of what I have here, before I start to edit. I'm pretty happy with the storyline so far, but it still needs a lot of work, both for itself and for the interconnections with the two other related books I'm contemplating, which I'm collectively calling the Reckoning Trio. Publication is years away.  

May 17, 2017 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Warmth"

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You had nowhere else to go. There were other hotels, dozens nearby, but none any different, or better, than where you ended up. That night, after long cold hours on the streets - the hotel didn't admit inmates until 6 p.m. - you slept fitfully, though just well enough that you never smelled the smoke. You should have smelled it clearly, with the tops of the cribs covered only with chicken wire, but the day's cold exhaustion laid you low. You had paid your sixty cents, and were intent on sleeping as well as you could, even though your lanky frame meant you had to draw up your long legs to fit the six-foot bed. The fire was the only warmth you had felt in months, and as you slept, your body must have told your mind that the warmth was good, so good, and you shouldn't stir or else the warmth would be lost. Whenever you stirred in the mornings, and were forced to rise, you had to go back outdoors into the cold, so that night your body told your mind that it would keep still for as long as it could. Your mind agreed, savoring the vicarious thrill of the fire's warmth. By the time your mind realized your lungs had filled with smoke, it was already too late. The other men may have been trampled, or coughed to death on the icy sidewalk, but not you. You never rose, never left your thin mattress, and stayed warm, for the first time that winter, right up to the end.

April 7, 2017 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (1)

What I'm writing

Yes, I realize it's been a very, very long time since I've been able to do a blog post with that heading. But I've reached a semi-milestone, so I thought I'd share. I'm fifty handwritten pages (no idea of the word count) into a new novel, with the working title of Good Advices. I've just started to transcribe what I've written so far into my laptop, instead of waiting until the full draft is finished before typing it all up at once. The latter is how I've always done it in the past, but the new method should make the typing less overwhelming, and also give me a chance to reflect on what I've written as I go.

For the moment, here's the opening paragraph:

He climbed the ladder slowly, intent on his task yet cautious, but after a few moments at the top he found that the screws had rusted and would not budge. Hardly surprising, he thought - the sign had hung there for nearly forty years, exposed to the weather, and now the screws that secured it to the planks of the old barn refused to give. He regretted his choice of screwdriver - its teeth worn and unable to hold - and wished he had first gone for power drill. He sighed, slipped the screwdriver into his back pocket and eased his way back down the ladder.

The writing has been slow but steady, and I like how the story is progressing. I hope I learned enough from Wheatyard to make the editing and crafting of this book much smoother.

December 27, 2016 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Lord of the Ratios"

I just rediscovered this pseudo-story - my somewhat inspired effort to reimagine my dull banker workday as an epic quest. I wrote it as a series of Facebook status updates, back in January 2011.


Lord of the Ratios

Peter Anderson...

...sets off on an epic quest, armed with nothing but his wits and willful spirit, to his destiny - a commuter train, a non descript office and a dragon's horde of credit approvals. The august and lordly loan committee awaits.

...mounts the noble steed Metra and journeys from the Golden City of Joliet, through the riverside villages Lockport and Lemont, then the forest idyll of Willow Springs and verdant glade of Summit. At last he arrives at the forbidding fortress of Chicago, breaching it by stealth through the tunnel under the old post office.

...arrives at the council chamber and meets his fellow thains, and together they address the assembly: Lord Lynculf and Prince Rynnel, High Priest Morthgar and Crown Prince Hophemil, and at the head of the immense table, King Brusstal the Valorous, kindly ruler and hero of past wars.

...and the other thanes - Cristeff, Gawain, Jolgor - humbly make their request: land for the forge, gold for the warehouseman and continued favor for the livery.

...leaves the chamber, the council having merely grunted its assent, yet he feels no sense of triumph. He settles into his quarters for the rest of the workday, knowing this less-than-epic quest will resume the next week, and every week after.

...thus concludes the Lord Of The Ratios saga.

January 12, 2016 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Siren"

I'm very pleased to announce the publication of my short story "Siren", in the latest edition of CCLaP Weekender. It's noir, replete with a femme fatale, a smoky bar and a burglary caper, but with a few twists added to keep it fresh. My sincere thanks to Jason Pettus, Behn Reza and everyone else at CCLaP.

I wrote the story over the entire course of 2014, one section per month, in longhand on postcards which I sent to my good friend Joe Peterson. (Extra big thanks to Joe for his enthusiastic reading of the story as it progressed - without his support, I probably never would have finished the story.) The process was very improvisational - each month when I sat down to write a new card, I really didn't have a strong idea where the story was going. I just had a mental image of the bar and the two characters that stayed in my head, and I just let the story go where it wanted. The finished version of the story varies very little from the longhand original.

At first I had hoped to publish the story in serial form, with twelve installments corresponding to each of the original twelve postcards. That (besides knowing Jason for quite a few years) is what drew me to CCLaP Weekender in the first place - its weekly publication schedule seemed to make it the most likely venue for serialization. But after discussions with Behn, it turns out that the individual postcards/sections were too short (around 300 words) for the magazine's layout, so we agreed to publish the story as a single piece. CCLaP Weekender is always beautifully designed, and this issue is no exception - I'm thrilled with how it turned out, and especially with the unexpected addition of the photograph of a mysterious redhead who could easily pass for my protagonist.

October 16, 2015 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

"One Last Smoke"

image from http://www.boogaj.com/.a/6a00d83451ce9f69e201bb0859d341970d-pi

One Last Smoke

As Richie reaches the car, his cigarette has burned nearly all the way down. He sits behind the wheel, alone with his thoughts, remembering, and flicks the dead stub through the window.


From his first meeting Richie admired Bill, sensing the older man’s confidence, his calm, his quiet strength. Bill would lean back in the folding chair, hands behind his head and legs stretched before him, and effortlessly tell the story of his life. Not like Richie—hunched over, elbows on knees, staring at the floor—and the others, who stammered out their stories when they could tell them at all.

Richie looked forward to meetings and especially the quiet times afterward, when they would linger outside on the sidewalk, smoking, gazing at passing cars, chatting about the week ahead.

Bill would bum a cigarette—"That’s another one I owe you,” he would say—and as he lit up, Richie would brush him off, saying, “You only owe me the one.” Bill smiled as the smoke billowed from his lips and rose past his eyes, where Richie recognized his knowing look.


The words—his own, the others' encouragement and the group leader's guidance, Bill's chatter while they smoked—always reassured him, but also faded whenever Richie found himself alone. Late at night was the toughest time, when he couldn’t sleep and again felt that thirst.

“I could really use a belt,” Richie said on the phone, struggling to keep his voice from cracking.

“You don’t need it,” Bill replied. “You’re better than that. You’re strong. Booze doesn’t rule you. Live without it.”

The call would sometimes go on for an hour or two, Richie admitting his weakness over and over, Bill saying he would get through this, until Richie felt the urge fade away and calmness settle in. He often wondered if Bill, despite his brave words, ever felt the same weakness and doubt.

Once, at the end of a call, Richie thought to thank him.

“You’re the best, Bill. It’s like you’re my guardian angel.”

“I don’t believe in angels, or any of that stuff,” Bill replied. “But don’t tell Dennis I said so.”

They laughed. Dennis was their group leader, full of faith and scripture, invoking Bible passages for strength and encouraging prayer, like all of the group leaders.

“Not a real angel, then," Richie said. “Figurative.”

“That, I’ll take. Your figurative guardian angel.”


In the car Richie peers at the dark clouds looming in the distance. He worries about the Marlboros he left on the gravestone getting soaked, and ruined.

“I’m only taking the one,” he had said, palming one and lighting. "Now you’re paid up. We’re even.”

Richie hopes the rain will hold off, for hours and maybe days, so someone else can enjoy one last smoke there. He pictures that someone, smoking, musing over the cheap angel figurine—Richie bought it with the cigarettes, at the Citgo on the drive over—and remembering Bill.

Bill, who also helped that someone through the toughest times.


(I wrote this piece as an entry for the Summer Flash Fiction Series at Midwestern Gothic, where it failed to make the cut, so I've posted it here instead.)

Photo Credit: "James Dean Grave (Detail)", by David J. Thompson

July 29, 2015 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (2)

What I'm writing

As I mentioned earlier, I had two specific writing projects for 2014. The second project, a serialized story, was completed on December 30. I wrote the story, a pseudo-noir with the working title "Get in the Sentra", in twelve monthly installments, with each written in longhand on a postcard. I mailed each unedited installment to my writer friend Joe Peterson; knowing that Joe was eagerly awaiting the latest installment was great motivation for me to keep writing. I'm fairly pleased with the story, despite the fact that right now it's only a first draft; I'm looking forward to hearing Joe's feedback as I craft the story into finished form this year. I'm also still deciding whether to attempt to get it published as a conventional story, or to be faithful to the story's original conception and somehow get it serialized.

January 4, 2015 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

What I'm writing

The first of my two 2014 writing projects has been completed. It's called Fifty Sketches; I hesitate to say "stories", since only three or four are full drafts right now, and probably ten more will never even make it that far, with the remainder being in various stages of becoming genuine stories. I wrote one for each week of the year, excluding the first and last weeks which I took as a breather. I wish I could say that I finished each two-plus-page piece within its weekly timeframe, but the truth is that I regularly fell a week or two behind, and had to scramble to get back on schedule.

Most of the sketches were written early on weekend mornings, before my family woke up and the house was nice and quiet, though during a few of those catch-up periods I got up at 4:30 a.m. on weekdays to get some writing done before I started to get ready to go to work. The good thing about writing all of these raw sketches one after the other, without going back to edit, is that I now have a nice pile of material to work with. The bad thing is that it's a pile of material: far from finished, and with me lacking a good grasp of exactly what I have. Even after reading through the list of titles, I realize that there are at least ten sketches that I remember nothing about.

One of my writing goals for 2015 is to read through this material thoroughly, several times, to see which sketches have the most potential to become legitimate stories. And then begin the arduous process of building, cutting and polishing the raw material into something worthwhile.

The other writing goal is to finally get back to work on my "trio" of novellas. I've written about 15,000 words of the first ("Junker", which I set aside early this year) and the details of the other two are slowly coming to me. We'll see how all of that goes, but given my typically slow writing pace, it could be quite some time until this concept comes to fruition.

December 23, 2014 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (3)

What I'm writing

I haven't been doing any book-length work this year, but I'm still writing my weekly two-page stories. Nothing publishable there yet - still mostly first drafts that I haven't worked on further - but a lot of promising material. Whether or not any of it ever reaches finished form, it feels good just to be productive. I always feel much better about myself after a few early-morning hours of weekend writing.

On Friday afternoon the first hints of a new story came to mind, after seeing two older ladies walking arm-in-arm down Wells Street. An uncommon sight, at least on days when the Civic Opera isn't doing a matinee performance; at any rate, I don't think there are matinees on Fridays, so I'm not sure what brought these two ladies downtown. Yesterday morning I wrote the first draft ("Muriel and Lillian") which I edited in the afternoon into some semblance of a finished story.

Or so I thought. This morning I woke up half an hour before the alarm, and as I lay there, the story came back to me. I thought about the ending, which now seemed too tidy and summary, and came to the realization that the story isn't finished yet. Since then I've had further thoughts on how to continue the story and reach a more satisfying conclusion. Interesting how the mind works.

July 21, 2014 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Doing the work

This week I found myself inspired by the following quote from Ted Thompson:

I still think the day I became a writer was not the day I sold my book, nor the day I was accepted to a la-di-da program. It was probably the first time I set an alarm and actually got out of bed, when I went to the kitchen and ground the beans and poured the water, and most importantly when I told myself to sit down and get to work because this mattered.

A few days ago, I woke up an hour before the alarm, but instead of resting awake in bed, I got up, went to the kitchen and did edits on a story draft ("The Golden State") that I wrote earlier this summer but had since ignored. Thompson's comment was running through my head as I got up and did the work, and I'm glad I did. Because I do think this story, and my writing in general, matters.

(Via Matt Bell.)

July 11, 2014 in Books, Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Mother and Child, Tuam"

I wrote this story yesterday morning, after being saddened by this report a few days ago. Ordinarily I sit on new stories for a while, and slowly hone them into shape before loosing them on the public, but this one had an urgency I couldn't resist. For the most part this has been only minimally edited from what was originally written, so I apologize in advance for any errors or inconsistencies. Getting the story out seemed more important than getting it perfect.


Mother and Child, Tuam

Rest assured, dear, that your child is in a better place. Now, I can’t recall, was it a boy or a girl? A boy, yes, that’s right, a dark-haired imp, full of spirit, destined from birth to be trouble. What’s that? Red-haired? A ginger? Oh, I had forgotten that. Even more so, then. Full of trouble, though maybe with the right guidance from the sisters over there he might have found his way into the holy life. Maybe even had the call, and became a priest. Wouldn’t that be a fine thing? Glorious, even.

Maybe that’s what his life has become, though they do things differently in America than we do here. Life there is...freer, they probably say, but I say looser. To them faith isn’t so important, just a part of their lives with their careers and chasing money, and not the biggest part as it should be. The men carouse, the women smile and spread their legs, and if something happens there’s a doctor to take care of it. Carousing men, loose women.

Why no, dear, I don’t mean to say you were loose, wanton, even if the same something that happens to American women happened to you. That Kenny of yours...right, that Gordie, he should have done right by you, marrying and making you an honest woman. Instead of a fallen woman. Now, dear, don’t cry. You can’t deny you’re a fallen woman, no matter that Gordie was the cause of it. Yes, you’re fallen, but the wonderful thing about falling is that you’re not down forever, but you can take the hand of God and be lifted back up. This is 1955, not the Dark Ages, and you won’t be stoned to death for your sins. You’ll be forgiven, if you’re truly repentant, and lifted back up. Which will be easier without the burden of a child.

Your boy is off in America, with a good family - originally from Cork, I recall - and surely has a better chance at a good and holy life than he would here, with you. That is, if he can fight the temptations. The Church isn’t as strong there as here, but there he can be raised in the faith and someday find honest work, in a factory at least and not here digging ditches or the like.

Why yes, dear, of course he’s in America, with a good Cork family. We had to take him away that one night, deathly ill with what we feared was consumption, but after a few weeks in hospital we found it was a false alarm, and we brought him back to you - don’t you remember how he hiccuped and smiled when I handed him to you? - and soon he was right as rain. Yes, he did come back, and not long after the sisters found a home for him in America.

We’ve done well, surprisingly well, in finding them homes. Far better than one might expect from a small order in Galway, and an even smaller mother and baby home, far from America or London or even Dublin. But Mother Eileen has close friends in Dublin and New York, sisters she went through convent school with as a child, who know powerful people who know families eager to adopt children from the old country. We’ve sent hundreds of boys and girls to England and America, and though we’re supposed to be humble I must admit my pride in our success. Indeed, hundreds of children, maybe seven or eight hundred, I’ve lost count...

Yes, dear, we brought your boy back from hospital. Enough. I’m tired of reassuring you, over and over. He was sick, very sick, when we took him from you, but he recovered enough to bring him back. I handed him to you myself, remember? He hiccuped, and smiled. But maybe you were delirious then, even hysterical. Yes, I remember now, you certainly weren’t aware of all that went on back then. After you delivered the baby you weren’t right for a long time. Now, don’t cry. Enough. Enough!

And don’t keep asking about your boy. He’s healthy and safe and living with a good Limerick family. No, Cork - a Cork family in America. Yes, he’s healthy and safe, and there’s no need to worry. So, enough.

June 8, 2014 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

I've been published by Akashic!

...well, sort of. Their top blurb for Aaron Petrovich's The Session is taken from my review of the book, which appeared in the Chicago Reader in 2007. Good book, by the way - well worth your time.

May 15, 2014 in Books, Fiction | Permalink | Comments (1)

Powell's reading, this Wednesday!

Powells

I'm doing a reading this Wednesday (7 p.m.) at Powell's University Village (1218 S. Halsted in Chicago, adjacent to UIC) with my good friends Ben Tanzer and Joe Peterson, along with several other writers. I'll be reading a story from my still-unpublished Chicago collection Where the Marshland Came to Flower. Come one, come all!

May 5, 2014 in Books, Fiction, Marshland | Permalink | Comments (2)

Happy Birthday, Wheatyard!

My debut novel Wheatyard turns one year old today, having been published on April 30, 2013. At last check, 94 paperback copies have been sold, plus there have been 374 free ebook downloads. It's been a fun year - plenty of good wishes, a handful of nice reviews, a tiny bit of cash, but first and foremost the reassurance that all of this writing is worth the trouble.

April 30, 2014 in Fiction, Wheatyard | Permalink | Comments (1)

Goreyesque success

I really enjoyed reading "The Afternoon Party" at the Goreyesque reading last night, but even more I enjoyed hearing the other readers, especially Danielle Wilcox with "Little Sister" (with a wonderfully unexpected narrator) and the incomparable Joe Meno with "The Use of Medicine", a vivid story (from his first story collection Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir, and written in direct tribute to Edward Gorey) which perfectly captures the adventurous curiosity, innocence and sadness of childhood.

Afterward I reintroduced myself to Meno, and thanked him for being an ongoing influence and inspiration. I took a writing seminar from him years ago, before I had even published my first story, and his positive response to my work (specifically my novice novel, Eden) really helped me believed that yes, I was indeed a writer.

My sincere thanks to Todd Summar and the rest of the Goreyesque crew for letting me be part of this.

April 30, 2014 in Books, Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)