Thursday, August 17, 2017

Amanda Smith 2

In the last blog, you met Amanda Smith. In this one, you will see how she reacted to her daughter's abduction. On August 12, 1980, while swimming with her friend, Joey, someone killed Joey and abducted Jeanne Smith. Thirty-four years later, authorities had no idea who kidnapped her or where she was. Amanda Smith, Jeanne's mother, dying of cancer, in a last chance attempt to find her daughter, hired John LeGrand, the Cajun PI. What John discovers is a string of missing girls spanning four decades. This is the premise of my new work in progress. The following scene will never make it into the book; however, it will give me an idea of is happening in the background. Next week, you'll meet Jeanne.

Amanda Smith
August 12, 1980

Amanda usually staffed the desk near the entrance to the Helping Hands Nursing Home when she wasn't working with the residents. The home was a plantation-style building, which housed the elderly and the infirmed. A former member of the Louisiana Society of Helping Hands had willed the building and the two hundred plus acres surrounding it to the charitable organization with the stipulation that it be turned into a low-cost nursing home. Kristin Ivers, a nurse and her supervisor, was passing on some instructions to Amanda when two Ellisonville Police Department officers walked in. For some reason, she could not explain, she shivered at the sight of the two men.
When the overweight red-faced man walked to the desk and asked for Amanda Smith, she knew it would not be good news, but when he told her that Jeanne was missing, and Joey had been shot, it was the worst possible news she could have imagined. She took a deep breath, held it in for a few seconds and then exhaled. She had to be calm—find out what it all meant.
"What do you mean 'missing'?" she asked in an even and controlled voice.
The red-faced officer turned to his partner, who nodded.
"We think…That is, the state police believe she was kidnapped."
When she heard the word, kidnapped, she blinked.
"Who would do such a thing?"
"We don't know yet, ma'am."
"I see." Amanda took another deep breath. She felt as if she were losing control, but she had to find out what happened.
"Are you all right, Mandy?" Kristin asked.
Amanda shook her off with a wave of her arm. She had to concentrate.
"You say Joey was shot. Is he dead?"
Again, the red-faced officer looked at his partner, and he nodded again.
"Yes, ma'am."
"Oh, my God," Kristin exclaimed and placed a hand on Amanda's shoulder.
"How was he shot?" Amanda asked.
"Ma'am, we're not allowed to give out any more information than that."
She nodded.
"Was my daughter shot, also?" She resisted the urge to cross her fingers, something she did as a child when faced with bad news.
"We don't think so."
"Ma'am." The other police officer, a tall dark man with a buzz cut, stepped forward. He had been standing back until then, watching her reaction closely. "We need some pictures of your daughter for identification purposes and maybe a couple of articles of clothing for the dogs."
"Dogs?"
"Bloodhounds."
"Of course." Amanda took a step forward, but her legs would not work. She could not support herself, and she fell, seated on the wood floor. Then the grief and despair overwhelmed her, and she let out a howl that reverberated from wall to wall in the old building. Then she sobbed, a series of convulsive explosion that emptied her lungs of air, and she knew she was going to die.
She was going to die without ever knowing if her daughter was alive or dead.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Amanda Smith

On August 12, 1980, while swimming with her boyfriend, Joey, a stranger killed him and abducted Jeanne Smith. Thirty-four years later, authorities had no idea who kidnapped her or where she was. Amanda Smith, Jeanne's mother, dying of cancer, in a last chance attempt to find her daughter, hired John LeGrand, the Cajun PI. What John discovers is a string of missing girls spanning four decades. This is the premise of my new work in progress. The following scene will never make it into the book; however, it did give me an idea why Amanda is so determined to find her daughter. I don't always write scenes for my secondary characters, but occasionally, I find it important enough to do so. Enjoy.

Amanda Smith
1960

Amanda Smith's life was not an easy one. The daughter of a sharecropper, a sweet potato farmer for Alcide Rozas, she suffered the taunts of the other kids who did not want for new clothes, food, and a house with electricity and running water. She swore that if she ever had children, they would not want for any of those things.
At sixteen, she did not go to the Junior/Senior Prom Night at Serpentville High School because she had nothing to wear, and even if she could have somehow afforded something decent, she had no date. No boy would ask her to a prom. She was not ugly. She was plain. Plain-colored hair. Plain face. Plain body. Plain intelligence. Plain clothes. Everything about her was plain. In fact, the photographer taking the Junior pictures for the yearbook grimaced when she sat for him.
At seventeen, when prom time at EHS rolled around, she figured there was no hope that anyone would ask her, but someone did. Shaking from nervousness, Johnny Smith snuck up on her in the library and asked if she would go with him. Johnny was nerdy, a math whiz. He had an oversized Adam's apple, wore thick black-rimmed glasses, khaki pants, and a checkered shirt over a soft, flabby body. Several zits stood out prominently on his face, and his oily black hair was combed back from his forehead. He was not handsome by any stretch of the imagination, and no girl would consider accompanying him to the prom, but Amanda was no stranger to logic. She figured out his reasoning immediately. Since no girl would go out with him, and no boy would go with her, they were a perfect match.
She was so startled by Johnny's invitation that she stuttered.
"I…don't…know."
"Oh," Johnny said, lowering his head and shoulders and walking away.
"Wait," she called out after him. "I didn't mean I wouldn't go with you. I just meant I don't know if I can."
He turned and sat down at the library table, across from her.
"When will you know?"
"Tomorrow. I'll know tomorrow."
Amanda's father's shack was just off the Isaacton gravel road, about three miles north of Ellisonville. The school bus route ran four miles west, going over a network of graveled and paved country roads. The driver turned the bus around at an abandoned farm house, doubled back for about a half mile, then turned northeast again traveling through another maze of country roads. The scenery was always the same, changing only with the seasons. The farms were mostly cotton with soybean and sweet potato fields sandwiched between them. In the spring, the cotton plants were babies. In early summer, they flowered, and in late summer the cotton bolls popped open. In the fall, there were only dead stalks left in the fields. In the winter, there was nothing except empty rows, bare and brown.
When the bus finally arrived at the dirt lane leading to her father's shack, Amanda ran home, an armload of books in her arms. She wasn't sure what to think about Johnny asking her for a date to the prom. On the one hand, he wasn't exactly the dream date. On the other, at least, he was a date. She decided that if she could convince her parents to buy her a dress, she would go with him.
She asked her mother, but when she realized that the prom dream would cost over twenty dollars, she balked.
"Your daddy is not going to go for that, honey. We just can't afford it. Twenty dollars would buy a lot of food."
When Amanda approached her father, he said basically the same thing her mother said, but he did have an idea.
"Let me talk to Arlene." Miss Arlene was Mr. Alcide's wife. "Maybe there are some odd jobs you can do for her to earn the money. Mind you, you'll still have to do your chores here."
Miss Arlene and Mr. Alcide Rozas were a childless couple, and Amanda had sat at her feet many times, listening to her tell stories of the "old days," while she sewed or knitted. They were not rich, but they owned their own home and enough land to sharecrop out. They lived comfortably enough compared to her family.
Miss Arlene sent word through her father for her to come by. She had a few chores for her to do. As payment, she would buy her a dress and fix it up.
Amanda was going to the prom.
***
The decorations committee had built a large papier-mâché replica of two opened hands side by side. Seated on stools in the palms of the hands were the king and queen elected by the student body.
Amanda met Johnny at the entrance to the gymnasium. Her father drove her in his old Chevrolet pickup and dropped her off in the parking lot. Johnny, dressed in a powder blue tuxedo, waited for her at the entrance. When he saw her, his eyes widened, and he let out a small gasp of surprise.
"You look beautiful."
Amanda had never felt beautiful before, but on this night, she felt like a queen. She wore a white full-length dress. The bodice was powder blue, matching Johnny's tux, and dipped down emphasizing her shoulders and just enough of her breasts to be exciting. A powder blue band encircled her waist and tied into a bow whose ends dangled the length of the white skirt. Her long dark hair hung straight, just above her shoulders. Her mother had ironed the hair to insure straightness and cut her bangs evenly across so that they dangled just above her eyes—a very mod coiffure that Mrs. Manuel discovered in a copy of Vogue.
Johnny gave her his arm and escorted her into the gymnasium. They received several surprised stares, but neither had eyes for anyone except each other.
For Amanda, the prom had been a dream come true. It was everything she could have imagined—romantic, exciting, and entertaining. She and Johnny danced until her legs ached. When it was over, he offered to take her home. She agreed and toe to toe on her front porch, he kissed her—a wonderful kiss that lingered long after he'd left.
They became a couple after that. Dowdy Amanda had a boyfriend. Insipid Johnny had a girlfriend. They did things together. He loved jazz. He took her to the Jazz Festival in New Orleans. They walked from stage to stage. They danced, kicking up dust that covered their legs like a fine mist. Amanda loved hiking, so he took her to Kisatchie National forest where they hiked and explored for an entire day until they were too tired to go on.
After they graduated from school, Amanda secured a job at the local Walgreens pharmacy. Johnny attended Louisiana State University under a scholarship. He wanted a degree in accounting. During his junior year, when he came home for spring break, Amanda had some news for him. She was pregnant.
He did not hesitate. He married her, and she moved to Baton Rouge to be with her husband. He lived in a rundown apartment—really, a room in a house. He shared a kitchen and a bathroom with three other students. She found a job clerking at a nearby quick stop store while he attended school and worked at a student aid job.
They found a tiny garage apartment within walking distance of the college. Jeanne arrived on November 24, 1963, a beautiful perfectly healthy girl. Amanda quit her job to take care of the baby. She quickly became the focus of their lives.
Johnny graduated six months later and immediately enrolled in a master's program, which he finished in two years. He applied for a job with Magnolia Financial Group in Ellisonville and was hired. He loved his job and climbed the executive ladder so fast that by the time he died in a car crash in 1975, he was one of the top administrators at Magnolia. As one member of the financial group said at his funeral, "Johnny Smith's future with the company was nothing short of stellar. He will be missed."
Amanda was devastated, but she did not mourn for long. She had Jeanne to think of—all that was left of her life.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Stress: The Great Motivator


The deadline is tomorrow. You have known about this cutoff date for weeks, but you were so busy with other matters, so you put it off. The venue is perfect. It pays well, and the guidelines speak directly to you. You have a half-finished story that you know would work.
Now what?
If you are anything like me, this has happened often, and you know there is only one thing to do. Pull up the story and start on it, but until it is on its way, you will stress. You will ask yourself stupid questions like, "Why am I doing this to myself? Why didn't I start on this earlier? Is it worth it?"
Of course, it is worth it. It is what you love to do. Therefore, you forge on, one word at a time, one sentence at a time, one paragraph at a time, until you see the end, and the stress pours from your shoulders like sweat.
I teach at a small college. I earn enough doing that to support my family and myself, so after a long day in the classroom and in the office taking care of all the detritus that comes with the job, the last thing I want to do is sit in front of another computer and string words together. However, I do because stress in the form of guilt forces me to. Let's face it, I have heard repeatedly during my college days: If you want to be a writer, you must sit down and write. It's a truism, and I know it, so I sit and write. Not doing so would mean that I have given up and that is simply not in my DNA.
I'm a writing teacher and that means papers to grade—not just papers, but mostly badly written papers. I will do anything to avoid grading them—mow the lawn, wash dishes, surf social media, and work on stories or novels, of course. Some of my best work comes from avoiding grading papers. I constantly admonish my students for putting off starting their papers, and here I am, putting off grading those same papers. Eventually, I will grade them, of course, but at three in the morning because I promised to have them to the students by eight. Bleary-eyed, I walk into the classroom and hand my students their marked-up essays.
One of the great benefits of being a college teacher is that I can take the summers off if I want, and believe me, I want. This summer I set a goal of no less than five pages a day. Not an especially high bar, I admit, but I know my limits. Still, that's approximately three hundred and fifty pages. There were days when I simply didn't want to sit and write—days when the spirit deserted me—but the stress of not meeting my goal encouraged me to place butt to chair and fingers to keyboard. I wrote every day, and often exceeded my five-page goal. In fact, this summer break, I wrote and edited one novel, wrote another, nearly completed a novelette, and cranked out two short stories. I owe it all to stress. To quote one of my ex-students, "I do my best work under stress." Ah, there is truth to that.
Here how it works for me. I know I need to get the goal done, but the process of sitting in the chair and writing is difficult. There are too many distractions, so I stress and create scenarios in my mind. I imagine that I'm writing the words down and soon, the excitement and the fear that I might forget all that "brilliant" stuff I thought up builds, and I must put the words down in the computer. Once I start typing, the words string together like magic. Not all them are keepers, of course, but I'll come back and clean it up in the editing stages. The main point is to move the story forward, steadily moving toward the conclusion.
Like I said earlier, I know me. I'm a procrastinator. There is always something I'd rather be doing than what I should be doing, but stress motivates me. Guilt too, I suppose. So, I wait and wait and at the last moment, I complete the task. This blog should have been completed two days ago; however, I waited until this morning to get it done. Now, I should go back and clean it up, but I think I'll wait until this afternoon. The Fred Charlie Cajun Show is on, and I'd rather listen to some good Cajun music.
The blog can wait.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

A Dream Transferred

Seth LeClerc Sr. did not expect to see Almer in Joe's Saloon. He certainly did not expect him to make the offer he did. He had not seen his old friend for at least a year. Almer lived almost too far away to visit on foot, and he seldom came into Serpentville anymore.
"Seth," Almer said, once they settled down at the bar. "I don't want to put a damper on this get together, but it wasn't exactly by chance that I’m here. C'est pas un accident." Almer spoke Cajun with an occasional slip into Creole. He rubbed the palms of his callused hands against his faded jeans as he talked.
Seth was well aware of Almer's habits. They went back a long way. Almer was the oldest.  He had taught Seth how to drink wine and beer and where every honky tonk was located in Ellison Parish. The Ellisonville police chief warned them both not to set foot in his town again.  Shortly after that warning, Almer married and became a family man.
"I was headed to your place," Almer continued, "when Joe told me that you come by here every Saturday night. I have a serious proposition to make you, and I don't want to make it until after we have a few cold ones. Let's visit a while first." Almer took a long drink from his beer and licked the foam off his lips. "I might be a bit drunk when I make you this proposition, but remember what I said because I'm telling it straight now that I'm sober. C'est sérieux. Plenty serious."
Seth drank his beer and wondered what his friend had on his mind. It wasn't like Almer to be so mysterious. He knew from word of mouth that Almer was having some sort of money problems, but just about everyone around that part of the country usually had money problems from one time to another. These things usually had a way of working themselves out.
"It isn't like you to be so serious, Mer. There was a time, I remember, when I couldn't shut you up."
Almer smiled revealing tobacco-stained and rotten teeth.
After he married Bernice, Almer sunk whatever money he had into a little farm he bought from Clancy Fontenot and rarely came into town anymore. He became responsible.
"It sure is good to see you, Mer," Seth said as the evening wore on. "It's been too long." He paused and drank from his mug. "How's Bernice and the kids?"
Almer stared down at his callused and dirt-stained hands wrapped around his empty beer mug. "I can't make it no more, Seth. I got hit real hard last year with the weevil, and I lost almost all my cotton crop. On top of all that, my sweet potatoes were nearly wiped out, too. It doesn't look like I'm going to do much better this year. I can't even afford to feed my family anymore. I owe so much the law is likely to put me in jail or take my place away from me. And then what?"
Seth bought another round of drinks to hide his confusion. In all the time he had known Almer, he had never heard the man sound so hopeless.
"You don't know what it's like," Almer continued, once the beers arrived. "I'm a fairly good man. I never hurt anyone when I could help it. Oh sure, you and me, we had us a pretty wild time there for a while, but we never hurt no one that didn't deserve it or expect it. It's been thirteen years since I started my farm, me and Bernice. Now, I can't even afford to feed my family proper. I've been doing some thinking, and there just isn't much for this man to live for."
"That's fool talk, Mer. Hell, at least with you around, there's some hope. Without you, your family is on their own."
"Hope? Yeah, there's some hope, but it doesn't rest with me." Almer paused, rubbed his hands on his thighs, and took a long drink from his beer. "I said earlier that I had a proposition to make you. You want to listen to it?"
"If it'll get you off that fool talk, I'll listen."
"I got seven kids, Seth," Almer began. "Except for Billy, my youngest, they all work in the fields along with me and Bernice. It's not that I got anything against the youngest. In some ways, I think I favor him more than I do the rest, but he doesn't do any work and probably won't be any use in the fields for another two or three years." Almer paused and leaned forward a little, closer to his friend. Seth could smell stale beer and cigarette on his breath. "I know this sounds bad on my part, but he's just dead weight. I can't afford to feed him if he doesn't do any work. Me and Bernice, we talked it over and well, we'd like to give him to somebody that can raise him and give him what he should have." Seth started to protest, but Almer stopped him. "Before you say anything, Seth, let me tell you this. Me and Bernice, we talked it over for a long time. It's been close to a year since I first mentioned it to her. At first, she was dead set against it. But with the loss I'm taking again this year, she finally had to see it my way. We want you to keep the boy, Seth."
Seth tried to digest what his friend had just told him. Someone dropped a nickel in the jukebox and a Nathan Abshire tune filled the saloon. Joe swiped a rag over the bar.
"I'm not God to be judging what you do with your kids, Almer," Seth began. "But to pick me doesn't show much sense. I think you've been drinking too much."
"Bernice said just about the same thing when I told her I wanted you to raise the boy. 'Him?' she said.  'He's no good except for drinking and chasing women.'"
Seth grinned.
"Sounds to me like Bernice has some sense, Almer."
"Let me finish, will you. I know better than that. You were always good people. Even when we were doing all that drinking and stuff, you were the one who kept me in check. Why, if it hadn't been for you, I'd still be sleeping in the Ellisonville jail or under it." Almer shook his head and grinned. "You did some fancy talking with Marchand. We were lucky he didn't lock us up. What did you say to him?"
"I told him that the man you cut up said some nasty things about his wife, and that’s why you did what you did. You were just defending the chief’s wife is all."
"For true?"
"I'm afraid so. I guess he believed me."
"I'll be." Almer rolled a cigarette and lit it. He inhaled deeply and allowed the smoke to trickle out through his nostrils. "I talked to Emit and Elcid a while back, and they both told me that you were upright and honest and didn't drink more than the next man, but that isn't the point, though."
"Just what is the point, Mer?"
"The point is that you can afford to drink. I had my talk with Bernice like I told you, and I let the facts talk for me."
I haven't heard any facts, yet." Seth drank from his beer. Almer placed a hand on his shoulder.
"Seth, the facts are as plain as that nose on your face. With me, the boy hasn't got a life to talk of, except in the fields, and that's only if he is lucky. With you, he's got a future. How old are you? About thirty, I suspect?" Seth nodded. "You're old enough to be responsible, and you're single. It doesn't cost you much to live and besides all that you have a good job working for Emit."
"That's just it. What'll happen to the boy when I go to work?'
"He'll go with you. He's good at doing things by himself. You could get Pete's wife to keep her eye on him while you work. Rowena would do it for you."
"You got all the answers, don't you, Mer?'
Almer shook his head.
"No, I don't, Seth.  If I did, I wouldn't be sitting here asking you for this favor."
"What if I meet some woman and want to start a family of my own?"
"I don't see that as a problem. The boy will always be welcomed back to his real family. Maybe I'll be out of this hole I'm in."
"What if I say no, Mer?"
"Then I have no choice. I'll do what I can. He won't have much of a life. I was counting on you, Seth. I wasted all my dreams, and now, there’s no more left. What can I give the boy except a miserable life in the fields? He can forget about any schooling. He's going to have to work, so I can afford to feed him. That's what you'd be saying no to. Don't you see, Seth? With you, he has them dreams I wasted away. With you he has a chance.” Almer ground out his cigarette in an ashtray sitting next to his elbow. “Please believe me, Seth.  This is not something I’m doing lightly.”
***
Seth spent a restless night. He had finally agreed to meet with Almer's son. It had not been easy to accept Almer's story in the bar, and the doubts multiplied with the morning light. He wasn't sure whether he was the fathering kind. He needed more time to think the situation over. He and Almer were playing with a human life. What if what they were doing was the wrong thing? What then? How do they correct the mistake?
Seth spent the better part of the morning wondering whether he should keep his appointment with Almer, or whether he should just stay home and send word to his friend that he decided not to meet with the boy. Eventually, his commitment to his word won out, and he decided to go. The matter of the boy would be decided once he saw how everybody reacted.
He walked to the back pasture and called Emit's Pinto pony. It was a long walk to Almer's house, and if he did decide to bring the boy back with him, he wanted him to ride. Once he had the pony bridled and tied to the front gate, he pulled a bottle of Calvert whiskey from his back pocket and took a long pull from it. The liquor felt warm as it worked its way down to his empty stomach. He addressed the horse.
"It isn't exactly decent for a man to hit the bottle this early in the day, Prince, but I have to calm those nerves of mine. I'm as jittery as a groom."
He untied the horse and led him up his grassy lane to the gravel road that led to the Ellisonville blacktop. He would follow the blacktop for five miles until he reached Serpentville, and from there, he had another five miles to go along the Isaacton gravel road before he reached Almer's shack. The sun had already made its presence felt. His khakis quickly soaked through in the humid Louisiana heat. Occasionally, he would stop and suck on the pint of whiskey while the horse drank out of the drainage ditches along the roads whenever he found one with water in it. There was little traffic on the Isaacton gravel road, and what there was, raised a cloud of dust that settled over everything. He reached the lane that led to Almer's shack, late that afternoon. He wasn't as nervous as he had been that morning; the whiskey had done its job. He hummed to himself, creating a tune out of the plopping sound his shoes made in the thick dust. When he noticed what he was doing, he stopped.
"Listen to me humming like an idiot, Prince. Come on, boy. Let's go find some shade and set a spell before we go face those people."
He led the horse to a clump of scraggly dust-covered cottonwoods and sat leaning against one of the tree trunks. It was cool under the trees. From where he sat, he could see Almer's shack. It looked neglected. Most of the imitation-brick tarpaper had peeled off, and the unprotected cypress boards underneath had taken on that hard-gray color that comes from being exposed to the weather. There were large patches of orange and brown on the mostly rusted roof tin. Two empty windows faced Seth over the sagging front porch. He had seen the shack once or twice before, when Almer first moved into it. It had been a strong house. Almer talked about adding on to it. He was going to replace the cistern with a well. Bernice was thinking of putting up lace curtains in the windows. They were going to paint the porch green, the same color as the little cedar tree, which stood in the front yard. Seth shook his head from side to side. The cistern was still there after thirteen years, and although the cedar had grown into a big tree, the porch was the same hard gray as the exposed boards.
Seth gazed at the field that surrounded the shack. Almer was guiding a plow pulled by two mules. His family was scattered behind him, kneeling beside potato crates, sorting, grading, and crating the sweet potatoes exposed by Almer's plow.
Seth stood and brushed some of the dust from his clothes. He pulled the pint from his pocket, but replaced it untouched. It was time for him to face the boy.
***
He tied his pony under the cedar tree and sat on the battered front porch steps. He watched as two of Almer's boys made their way across the field to where he sat.
"Hello, boys," he said.  "Is your daddy coming?"
"Oui, monsieur Seth," the older boy answered in the formal Cajun. "He'll be here in a minute. Soon as he's done with that row he's on. Me, I gotta go back to my work." He turned to his little brother. "Bye, Billy boy.  Take care."  He ran back into the field before Seth could get another look at his face.
"That brother of yours sure is in a hurry."
The boy did not answer. Seth indicated that he could sit next to him, but he remained standing. He was a frail thing, probably three or four years old. He wore no shoes, and two bony knees peeked out of torn jeans. He kept two dirt-covered hands at his side. His face needed washing. Streaks of dust mixed with  sweat caked his face and made him look like a little savage. There was no hint of what was going on inside his head except a small knotting of his eyebrows. Under the dirt, the face revealed strength and character. Someday, the boy is going to make a mighty good man, Seth thought. If he can keep his inside and outside separate.
"You sure are a quiet fellow," Seth said, after a few minutes of silence.  "Don't you talk any?"
"No, he doesn't," Almer said from across the yard. He had tied the mules to a fence post under the shade of a young water oak.  "Not much anyway. He likes to keep to himself."
"So, there you are. You know, we said a lot of things last night. Made a lot of promises. I came here not knowing exactly what to expect.”
"The proposition still stands. The boy is yours to raise as you see fit. He's been told." Almer sat next to Seth. "You know, Seth, the Lord is hard on us farmers. He starts you out with nothing, and let's you build up your hopes from there. Then when you think that you've got no way but up to go, bang, he shoots you right back down to the beginning. Hell, I'm worse off now, than I was when Bernice and me started this little farm. At least then, I didn't know what I was up against. The Lord's got no call for doing that to me and my family. I've done nothing to deserve that."
"It's not all his fault, I suppose."
"Maybe so. Maybe I just started off wrong." He stood and looked at his family, working in his field.  Then he turned and looked at Billy. "He hasn't got any hope with me.  It's my duty to give him a chance to start off right."
"Almer, do you know what you're asking me to do?”
"If anybody knows, I do."
Seth studied his friend's face.
"I'm still not so sure that this will work, but okay. The boy comes with me. There's going to be some conditions, though." Almer nodded. "For one, the boy will keep your name. I want him to know who his real daddy is, and I want you to swear that you'll come by to visit him every once in a while. He's going to be your boy. I'm just taking care of him until you get back on your feet."
"You're a mighty good man, Seth. Très bon."
"My horse and I need some water, and then we'll be on our way. As it is, it'll be long dark by the time we reach my shack. Maybe the boy would like to say some goodbyes before we take off."
"He said his goodbyes last night. He hasn't got but a few things stuffed in that flour sack by the front door. The bucket by the cistern has some fresh water in it. You can give that to your horse."
Seth gave the bucket of water to his horse and stood next to him as he drank. Almer stood next to his son in silence for a moment, and then grabbed the boy's flour sack. He carried it to Seth.
"I appreciate this," he said.
"I'm doing this because you and me go back a long ways and because you think I can do the boy some good."
"I know." Almer walked back to the boy, seated on the porch steps.
"Billy boy," he said standing over the boy.  "It's time for you to go with Seth, here. I want you to treat him just as if he was your daddy. You're going to have to do what he says. Now, go get on the horse." The boy obeyed and walked to where Seth and the pinto stood. Seth helped him straddle the horse.
"Good. Make me proud. Be good." Almer left without another word. He walked to the mules waiting patiently where he left them.
Seth took the pinto's lead rope and started up the lane. When he reached the clump of cottonwoods, he stopped. He heard a sniffle from the boy.
"Look," Seth said softly. "I won't pretend to be your natural daddy. It wouldn't be honest to both of us. Let's just say I'm your temporary appointed daddy. That way you and me can be friends without all those rules that sometimes, natural daddies make up. I'm going to promise you two things. One is that you will never have to go anywhere again if you don't want to. Second, I promise to do right by you. I'm not one for much talking, especially about feelings and such, so I'm going to tell you this right now and probably won't mention it again, so remember this. I'm going to raise you as if you were my own blood. That'll mean you'll have to take the good along with the bad. There will be both. All I ask from you is honesty and fairness. I promise to give you the same." Seth gazed at Almer and his family in the field. "Now, I spoke my piece. If you want to cry for what you left back there, go ahead." Seth motioned the field with his head. "It can't be easy leaving everything you've ever known, but it seems to me, you got lots of crying left to do in your young life. You might want to save some for when you need it again."
The boy swiped a dirty arm across his eyes and sat up on the pony.
"Allons-y," he said in a small voice.
"Come on, Prince," Seth said, smiling. "Let's me, you, and William head on home."


While I was in college, I wrote this piece trying to capture a story about my father, who, like Seth, raised a child for a friend going through some extremely hard times. The boy lived with Daddy for several years, got an education, turned out to be a successful television repairman, and became my parrain, my godfather. 



Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Problem with Dogs


Recently, my wife and kids convinced me to adopt a puppy, a mixed breed, Jack Russell Terrier and possibly Black Labrador. In my defense, it was Christmas, and I was filled with the feeling of goodness and giving that often accompanies that time of year. I regretted my decision, but as a father, once you have said yes, there is no going back.

In that moment of fatherly benevolence, I forgot several things I did not like about dogs.

1. Dogs can be insane whiners and barkers. My adopted puppy whined constantly although her favorite time to whine was between midnight and sunrise. When I dragged myself out of bed to yell at her, she stopped, wagged her tail, and looked at me with penitent, loyal, liquid eyes. I shot a few choice curse words in her direction and returned to my bed—the whining began again. I lay in the dark, stared at the ceiling, and wondered why my wife and children were not awake. I fell out of bed in the morning, bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived, and dragged myself to the dog food and fed the very animal that was the source of all my misery and discomfort. There was something inherently cruel in that. The puppy devoured the food, oblivious to my suffering.

"Take comfort," someone, who obviously never owned a dog, told me. "Your dog will mature and stop whining.

My puppy did stop whining, of course, only to start barking. She barked in the morning. She barked during the day. She barked at night. She barked at people, cars, and imaginary bogeymen. She barked at any sound—a rustle in the tree would elicit a wild cacophony of yaps, yelps, and woofs up and down the block.

"Conspiratorial barks," my friend Will called them—he believed that dogs were conspiring to drive him mad. The barking drove him to the point of near insanity. One dark night, I found him roaming the neighborhood, wearing only his pajamas and carrying a baseball bat. "I thought hard for us all," he muttered repeatedly. He was going to kill every dog in the neighborhood. I suggested that the authorities might lock him up if he did that. He seemed to relish the idea—"I'm weary wi' hunting, and fain wald lie down." I placed an arm around his shoulders and led him back to his garage apartment.

Dogs were a mixed blessing for Will. He was a poet. The dogs kept him awake. With little else to do, he wrote poetry. The longer he went without sleep, the more angst, pain, and suffering appeared in his poetry. Will moved to Ohio and then to England, I believe, searching, I suppose, for that dog-free environment; a place where the muse speaks, and does not bark.

2. Dogs bite. They have vicious fangs designed to pierce and tear flesh apart, and the smaller the dog, it seems, the sharper, and more dangerous the fangs. I am deathly afraid of Chihuahuas, for example. I find them much more dangerous than Pit Bulls.

When I lived in Massachusetts years ago, I was out walking my puppy, a Dalmatian/American Foxhound mix, along the beach on a sunny spring day when from out of nowhere appeared a nasty little brown Chihuahua. He barked at me, his protruding eyes flashing angrily. Then he mounted my puppy. I pointed out to him, in a very reasonable tone, I thought, that they were both males and that he would get very little accomplished if he persisted, but he would not stop. I yelled at him. He growled at me and humped faster. I yanked my dog out from under him. He growled and remounted my puppy wrapping his forelegs tighter around him. I tried shooing him. He growled and pumped faster. I placed my foot under him and tried to lift him off my puppy. I knew better than try to grab him. I propelled both he and my puppy into the air. The leash stopped my dog who uttered a tiny umph. The Chihuahua sailed on at least three feet further. I figured he would tuck his tail under and run back to his owner.

I underestimated the little devil. He leaped to his feet, his eyes protruding even further, and remounted my puppy, leaping onto him from three feet away. I was shocked and amazed. I raised my foot to kick him. (A quick note here: I am normally a very compassionate person. I would not intentionally hurt an animal, but you must understand, I had reached my limit.) He growled and sank his vicious pointy little teeth through my jeans, my socks, and into my skin. I screamed out in pain, fell sitting, clutching my bleeding limb. The Chihuahua never stopped humping.

A man and a boy appeared, running down the beach toward our strange pack.

"Stop, Chi Chi," the man yelled, still considerably far away.

I searched the beach for a weapon. I saw a piece of driftwood about ten feet away. I dragged my puppy with the Chihuahua attached to him until I reached it. I hefted it. It felt heavy enough. I raised it in the air.

"Wait," the man said, out of breath. He looked like an executive, nice suit, tie, and dark shoes. "Don't kill it."

"Give me three reasons why I shouldn't?" I am normally a very calm man, a very fair man, but at that moment, I would not have given that dog much chance for survival.

The Chihuahua was still attached to my dog. The man slowly and gently reached over and pulled it off. He handed the dog, still humping in his hands, to the child next to him. The kid was crying. Snot, mixed with tears, ran into the corners of his mouth.

"Hold on to him, Jimmy," the man told him. Then he turned to me. "That is the most worthless dog I have every owned," he said, as if I did not know that already. "My wife gave him to my boy, and if something happened to the dog, I don't know what she would do."

"The dog is horny," I said angrily, only now, lowering the driftwood. "Find him a suitable partner."

"He's fixed," the man said. "I don't understand it either. He mounts everything that moves, cats, chickens, and legs. It's a real problem. We have to lock him up whenever we have visitors."

"Look what he did to my ankle," I whined. I pulled up my pants leg and pulled down my blood-soaked sock. Four nasty holes, two on each side of the ankle, slowly oozed blood.

"I'm sorry," the man said. He handed me a card. "Here's my card. Go see a doctor and have them send me the bill." I took the card and stuffed it in my back pocket, hoping the doctor would order the little diablo shot.

"I'm sorry," the man said again, and he and the boy left, the Chihuahua struggling to jump out of the boy's arm. I half wished he would—I had not dropped the driftwood, yet.

To this day, my ankle aches every time I see a small dog.

3. Dogs have another annoying habit. They multiply at the drop of a dog bone. When I was about fourteen or fifteen, I adopted a little bitch, a cute orange thing that looked almost exactly like a fox, down to the bushy tail, so I called her Foxy.

When Foxy first turned up pregnant and dropped a litter of five puppies, I was ecstatic. I found homes for all but two—Momma said I could keep them if I cared for them. The dogs were barely weaned when Foxy turned up pregnant again. This was the sixties, and we were extremely poor. Fixing Foxy was not an option.

"Get rid of the dog," Momma told me.

I tried giving her away, but nobody wanted a pregnant dog. I convinced a neighbor to drop her off as far as he could from our house. The next day, she showed up at our front door acting as if nothing had happened.

"Get rid of that dog," Momma said.

I posted flyers all over my community, hoping that someone would take her. Nothing happened.

"Get rid of that dog," Momma said.

"How?" I asked. "Nobody wants her."

"Shoot her," Momma said.

"I can't do that."

"Just get rid of that dog," Momma said.

I thought about hiring a hit man, but where was I going to find such a person in Chataignier?

I finally solved the dilemma when a neighbor told me about an elderly woman who lived just out town. She had no one and was lonely. I took Foxy to her, and the two immediately bonded. She agreed to take Foxy and the future puppies. I breathed a sigh of relief.

4. I suppose I could forgive dogs if all they did was whine, bark, bite, and propagate, but dogs have another disgusting habit. They urinate and defecate whenever and wherever the urge hits.

They do this mostly in the house, on the floor, on the carpet, behind furniture, in hard to reach places, and in secret hiding places where the stench is noticeable, but the source is not. They do this in the yard, at the bottom of the steps, on top of the steps, near the garden patch, where I kneel to tend the crops, or in the garden patch, where I reach in to let the "good" earth slip through my fingers. Unlike cats, dogs do not use a litter box. They do not find a corner of the yard to do their business. They carefully place their piles of feces where they do the most harm.

Dogs defecate whenever they get the urge, which is usually at the most inopportune time—such as when I am walking them and someone walks by. The dog will squat, his derriere swinging two or three inches from the ground, a look of profound concentration on his face, and just as the person looks down, he does the nefarious deed. I can only cringe and jerk on the leash, "defecation-interruptus" my only revenge.

Often is the time I have been provoked beyond reason by dogs—the time I hurried to class along a cobbled-stone street on Beacon Hill, and I stepped in a carefully placed turd. Even after carefully cleaning my sneaker in the school bathroom, I could still smell the stench. I wanted that dog. I wanted my hands around its throat. Or the time I walked along Dollison Street, and a nasty Pekinese, second only to the Chihuahua for ferocity, appeared, from out of nowhere, and yapped and nipped at my ankles. I wanted to kill that dog. I wanted my hands around its throat. Or the time I dozed through a batch of student papers, and my neighbor's dogs barked me awake—they are huge wolf-looking mutts with deep bloodcurdling woofs that awaken all sorts of dormant primordial defensive reactions—the hairs on the back of my neck and arms stand up when I hear them and my ankle throbs. I wanted to kill those dogs. I wanted my hands around their throats.

Or the time I lay in my bed at midnight, listening to our new puppy's obnoxious whine. I slipped out of bed, forced my sluggish body to the back door, and in a stupor opened the door.

"Shut up, you stupid dog," I yelled into the night air. The puppy slipped by me, and in her delight at being rescued, promptly peed on the floor and my bare feet. In a fit of passion, I clenched a fist and gave her a death stare. She dropped to the floor, lifted her leg in submission, and gazed at me with those dark liquid eyes of hers. You are my master, they seemed to say. See how I degrade myself for your love and attention.

"Damn," I said and cleaned up her mess. Then I gave her a doggie treat and threw her back outside.

I spent most of the night lying in my bed, listening to her whine, wondering why my wife and kids did not hear her. At some point, I remembered something my father told me long ago: "A dog is a reflection of his owner." I bolted upright with the force of those words. Maybe the problem was not the dog, but the master.

I dragged myself out of bed, opened the back door, and called out to the puppy. She slipped by me and peed on the floor again.

"Okay," I said. "I'll wipe it up, if you promise not to do it again." She looked up at me with those liquid eyes of hers. I'll try, they said. I returned to bed, and she found a spot at the foot. I shrugged and settled down for a peaceful night's sleep when I felt my wife's hand shaking my shoulder.

"What's that damn dog doing in the bed?" she asked, and I knew the problem was not going to be settled that easily.


(I wrote this a while back (the mid 90s perhaps) and decided to revisit it recently. Before you report me to the SPCA, I must tell you that I am a devoted caretaker to two wonderful dogs, a grouchy old cat, and a rabbit, and I love them all.)

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Woody

My new work in progress is another John LeGrand, Cajun PI, mystery. Woody Bergeron, LeGrand's old college roommate, hires him to find Teresa, his missing wife. There's only one problem with the job. He had planned to marry Teresa when Woody wooed her away from him. As always, John is hard up for money, so he takes the case. Not only does he have to find her, he must put up with Woody, who has always been a thorn in his side.
The novella, currently at seventy-eight pages, about twenty-thousand words, is finished as far as putting words on the screen. I just finished adding the last period on it. Now, I must rewrite and edit. Hopefully, I'll have it ready for publication in September or October. As I always do, I create a mock interview with the characters to help me get to know them better. Woody is one of my favorite characters because he's so unusual. His is a two-part interview—the young college-aged Woody and the older married Woody. I thought I would share the younger Woody interview with you. Hope you enjoy him.

Me: How did you come up with the name Woody? I mean, is it your real name?

Woody: My real name is Woodrow Alexander Bergeron. My mother was cruel and sadistic. You like that word? I leaned it in this stupid psychology class the university said I had to take. Anyway, she named me after my uncle Woodrow Bergeron and Alexander Graham Bell. What crap. My daddy wasn't there when I was born. He took off when he found out my mother was pregnant. In high school, this girl I was seeing regularly called me Woody, and I liked it, so Woody it was. I was also pretty good in the sack, so it fit me, if you get my drift.

Me: Describe yourself?

Woody: If you mean physically, I'm five nine, skinny, what my Uncle Woodrow, the bastard, called a scarecrow with skin. I've got long black hair, because I don't want to look like every other twerp out there. I wear black all the time 'cause it fits my mood, and it makes me stand out in a crowd. Oh, I like chains. I got 'em hanging off me all the time. If you mean mentally, I'm smart, but you wouldn't know it from listening to me or looking at my college grades. I pick what I like out of those college classes, and the rest can go to hell for all I care. I mean, who gives a damn if Mark Twain was a racist or not, or if Hitler was gay or not. What does that have to do with what they did? If you want to know for sure, go ask 'em. If they're dead, then deal with what they did and move on.

Me: What do you like?

Woody: Music and drugs, in that order. I like music that fires me up, you know, that works me up. That Beatles' stuff is passive, doesn't do a damn thing for me. Hardcore Punk. That's where it's at. As for drugs, I'll do anything. If it messes my head, I'll try it. Don't get me wrong. I'm not one of those idiots who sits alone in his bedroom shooting H or whatever into his veins and dreams of whatever. For me, drugs are for partying, for getting the blood pumping, for embracing the music, the experience.

Me: How do you live? Do you have a job?

Woody: I got a job. I work at a bowling alley in Lafayette. Get this, I take care of the pins. You know, pull 'em out when they get stuck, setting 'em up again when the machines screw up, and they do all the time. I also keep the lanes clean. For that, I get paid a few bucks. But it's also a great place to do drug deals. Not big time, but, you know, a little pot or cocaine, nothing that'll bring the cops sniffing around. As for living, my landlady kicked me out, accused me of being a devil worshiper. That's a crock, man. I got no love for the big D. I met this John LeGrand dude at the Black Cat Bar, and we worked out a deal for me to crash on the floor in his roach-infested apartment. He's strictly establishment, you know, studying all the time, watching that football crap on TV, collecting VA bucks from the Uncle, but I kinda like him. He puts up with me.

Me: Is there anything you'd like to add to this interview? 

Woody: People see what they want to see in me. They think I'm a lazy worthless bum, a drain on society. So be it. I'm always on the lookout for someone who sees beyond the clothes, beyond the attitude. When I meet one, I'm a friend for life. Teresa, John LeGrand's woman, is like that. The first time she met me, she saw deep into me, and I saw deep into her. John pretends he dislikes me, but I see deep into him too, past the attitude. I love and hate just like everybody else, and if you can't see that, then you're no friend of mine.

---


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

First Lines: Windows into the Stories


I have always been interested in first lines, especially in short stories and novels. Reading a first line often will tell you right off what the setting is, what the conflict is, what the tone or mood of the work is, or a combination of all three.

 Terrifying Tales by Edgar Allen PoeTake for example Edgar Allen Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." Here is the first sentence in that story: "During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher." Words like "dull, dark, and soundless day," "clouds hung oppressively low," "dreary tract of country" and "the melancholy House of Usher" have a sinister and foreboding feel to them. Poe is a master at setting up the mood early. In this sentence, you get setting and mood, and you read on to find out why.

Another Poe story that I have enjoyed throughout my reading life is Poe's "The Telltale Heart." Here is the first sentence of that story: "True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?" Immediately, you are made aware that you just might have an unreliable, even mad, narrator, but not only that. Poe has tricked you into reading on to find out why he is "very, very dreadfully nervous." It is one of my favorite first lines.

 Collected Stories by Raymond Chandler
Here's one by Raymond Chandler in "I'll be Waiting" that sets up time and place. "At one o'clock in the morning, Carl, the night Porter, turned down the last of three table lamps in the main lobby of the Windermere Hotel." It is one o'clock in the morning, and the hotel is shutting down. Rarely does anything good happen at one o'clock in the morning. What sort of mischief will the main character get into? You read on to find out.

 A Rose for Emily by William FaulknerWilliam Faulkner's first line in "A Rose for Emily" is nothing short of brilliant. "When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant—a combined gardener and cook—had seen in at least ten years." There is a mystery here. Why had no one been inside Miss Emily's house in at least ten years? Why do the men see her as a "fallen monument" and the women are merely curious? Not only that, Faulkner lets the reader know right away that the point of view is atypical of what h/she is used to. One word, "our," is all he needs to tell you that."

 Sixty Stories by Donald  BarthelmeDonald Barthelme's first line in "Me and Miss Mandible" grabs you by the throat and pulls you into the story immediately. "Miss Mandible wants to make love to me but she hesitates because I am officially a child; I am, according to records, according to the gradebook on her desk, according to the card index in the principal's off, eleven years old." Could this story really be a case of pedophilia? But wait. The narrator says he is "officially a child" suggesting perhaps that he might not be, so you read on to find out for sure.

 Mickey Spillane
Mickey Spillane's first line in his novel Kiss Me Deadly, introduces us to character and scene that demand to be read. "All I saw was the dame standing there in the glare of the headlights, waving her arms like a huge puppet and the curse I spit out filled the car and my own ears." She's not a woman; she's a "dame." He doesn't just curse; he spits it out. This narrator is not a banker. That's for sure. There is a mystery in that first line also. What is the woman doing standing in the middle of the road, "waving her arms like a huge puppet" in the middle of the night? You read on to find out.
 An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce

Finally, this first line by Ambrose Bierce in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" comes to mind "A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below." Is he going to jump? Is he merely admiring the scenery? You move on to the next sentence to find out, and Bierce has you hooked.

I was thinking of first lines when I wrote this one for my story, "If This was a Movie." It is told from the point of view of John LeGrand, a detective. "If this was a movie, the camera would start from out of space somewhere, pan on earth, pan on North America, pan on the United States, pan on Louisiana, pan on Ellisonville, pan on a white two-story house with a lighted window on the second floor, pan through the window to reveal a dead woman sprawled over a bed and me, standing over her, holding the gun that killed her." But it isn't a movie. It's a story and his to tell. Hopefully, the reader will read on to hear it.

In closing, I will leave you with this thought. All great stories, whether novel or short story, must start somewhere. Why not start with a first sentence that will contribute to the story. Create a mystery that the reader can't resist. Define a character as interesting or mysterious. Build a mood or tone that envelopes the reader as h/she reads the story. A first line will not insure that readers will keep reading; you must have a good story, after all, but it will draw them in, and there's a good chance they will keep reading.


 Books by Jude Roy

Amanda Smith 2

In the last blog, you met Amanda Smith. In this one, you will see how she reacted to her daughter's abduction. On August 12, 1980, whil...