Sunday, May 5, 2013

THE PICK-UP: A tale for #ShortStorySunday

Does every jukebox in America have this song on it?  I know Elvis is the king and all, but at 2:30 in the morning after driving for practically ten hours straight, the last thing a guy wants to hear is "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You".  Sure you can, Elvis.  It's a lot easier than you think.


Did I make a mistake going into this line of work?  I suppose there's something to be said for a regular nine to five type gig. A small house in some suburb, the little woman lying in my arms, Junior dreaming away in the room down the hall.

Who am I kidding?  Why do I always get these delusional fantasies at 2:30 in the morning in some generic bar off Route 66? It must be the damn song that does it to me.  Time for a reality check.  That stuff is best left for Norman Rockwell paintings.  Two mortgages on one house, Junior needs braces, the lawn needs mowing, and I just can't get it up for the little woman anymore.  Who needs it?  I'll stick with my 18-wheeler, the open road, and a cold beer on a hot night.

Well what have we here?  The other advantage to the life of a truck driver.  A new, anonymous, one time only, warm body on any given night.  I've always been partial to blondes.  It's probably a dye job, but if a woman can make her follicular wishes come true, who am I to judge?  She's got nice wide hips, just the way I like 'em.  Five pounds more would be too much.  Five pounds less and there wouldn't be enough to grab on to.  The breasts aren't bad either.  Always been a breast man, ever since my mama was nursing me.  A few years down the road they'll be sagging down to her waist.  But for now they're standing firm and proud, and now is all I'm interested in.      

"Mind if I buy you a drink?"

"It's your money," she says.

A woman with attitude.  I like that.  But even if I didn't, it makes no difference.  The game plan is the same either way.  An hour or so of small talk and alcohol, followed by a night of pleasure and then breakfast in bed tomorrow morning.  There's nothing like a home cooked meal before hitting the road.

"The name's Jack."
~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~
"Hello, Jack.  I'm Lonette."

Here we go again.  I'm sure he's out looking for a quickie.  They always are.  Then once they're done using your body and unloading your refrigerator, you never hear from them again.  Haven't I had my fill of empty promises?  I had happiness once.  Fifteen years of it.  I'm not going to find another man like Bill in some roadside bar.  Men like him are too few and far between.  I was lucky to find Bill, and luck like that only comes along once in a lifetime.  So why am I here? 

For the same reason I show up every weekend.  Hoping luck might decide to be kind and strike twice.
~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~
"Two more of the same, bartender.  That's a real shame, Lonette.  I bet you two had something special."

She's a widow.  I probably won't even need a full hour.  Widows are God's gift to the truck driver.  They're lonely, and horny, and desperate for someone to love.  They'd prefer a lifetime but will take whatever they can get.  I just have to appear sympathetic, which should be no problem, cause I suppose I am.  It must be pretty hard to lose someone you've been with for so long.  You base your motivation to wake up each morning on the idea of that person being there.  Then one day they're gone, and suddenly you have no life.  That's one pitfall I plan to avoid. I live for no one but myself. 

"Don't you get lonely driving around all the time?" she asks. "Don't you ever think about settling down?"

"I guess it has to do with temperament.  You're the type who couldn't stand always being on the move.  I hate sitting in one place."
~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~
"I think meeting the right woman might ground you."

"Anything's possible," he says.

He has nice eyes.  They're honest and direct, like Bill's were.  When I looked into them I saw that I had nothing to fear. I recognized that before me stood a man who wanted the same thing as myself, to do right by someone. 

Bill was just passing through as well, but as soon as we caught sight of one another, somehow we both knew what was meant to be.  When two people connect like that, it's such a rare thing they'd be fools to ignore it. 

I sense something about this truck driver.  Maybe it's the beer, or the music, or my imaginative loneliness.  Or maybe it's what I've been waiting for.  The second strike.
~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~
"Fifteen years is a long time to be with someone.  And five years alone must seem a whole lot longer.  Another round, bartender."

I feel kind of guilty, almost.  But that's silly.  I'm not doing anything wrong.  The worst anyone could say is that I'm using her.  Or I will be soon, anyway.  But she'll be using me too.  The way I see it, it's an even trade.

"Some days are longer than others," she says.  "So where are you headed to on this trip?"

"San Diego."

"Ever since I was a little girl I've wanted to travel.  First see America, then Europe.  Bill and I just never had the time or the money.  I read a lot, so I have a head full of places I'd love to go.  But I'll probably never get to most of them.  I envy you that.  You must have seen a great deal."

"I've seen a lot of highways.  They all pretty much look the same."
~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~
It's ridiculous pinning my hopes on some smooth talking vagabond, but hope is a mighty powerful force to contend with.  If I leave now, I can spare myself the disappointment.  But I might be missing out on something special.  It's all a crap shoot, life and love.  You have no chance of winning if you don't put your money down and toss the dice.

"Which is your favorite of the places you've been?"

"I'd have to say Texas," he answers.  "I've gone through four or five times, and I always seem to have a good time one way or another.  Maybe when I get tired of the road I'll settle down there."

"I suppose it's the only place big enough for you not to feel crowded in."
~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~
"You might be right."
It's almost time for us to get off these hard bar stools and between some soft sheets.  Chivalry aside, I prefer when they make the suggestion.  I guess it's an ego thing.  But if she isn't so inclined, I'm certainly not opposed to bringing up the notion.  I can't wait to have her legs wrapped around me.  There's no better feeling in the world. 

Her eyes are starting to glaze over.  The beer must be taking effect.  Come to think of it, I'm getting sort of buzzed myself.  Wild, drunken sex with a beautiful woman I've never seen before and never will again.  I don't know why God makes nights like these, but I'm sure glad HE does.         

"Fill them up, bartender.  Keep the change."
~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~
"Don't you just love this song, Jack?"

"Sure do," he replies.

I like his hands.  They're strong, but gentle.  He's probably a good lover.  If he knows what to say, he must know what to do.  I'm feeling dizzy from these beers he's been plying me with.  It feels good the way he's rubbing my arm.  It feels just right. 

Maybe he's not my Prince Charming.  Chances are he won't stick around for tomorrow.  So what?  At least I'll have tonight, and I owe myself that simple pleasure.  Perhaps the man I am fated to be with will come around some other day.  Or maybe waiting in vain for his arrival is my destiny.  If so, might as well have some fun while I'm at it.  Let me put self pity and hopeless daydreams aside for a few hours and just enjoy.  I deserve it.
~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~
"Love me tender, love me true," croons Mr. Presley.  "All my dreams fulfilled.  For my darling, I love you.  And I always will."  Maybe Elvis does have the right idea.  To feel that way about somebody, to find the person who fulfills your dreams.  How can that be a bad thing?  I've been running from commitment for a long time now.  Ever since Charlene left.  That was over three years ago, but the wound has somehow managed to remain fresh.
My head is spinning.  Guess I went a little over my limit with the brews.  Lonette really is beautiful.  I can't wait to be in her embrace.  It hasn't felt right in any woman's arms since Charlene. There's something about this pretty small town widow.  It's like she understands me somehow, even though she hardly knows me.  Maybe this time will be different.  Perhaps this one will last.  I can't keep driving past life forever.  Sooner or later, I'm bound to hit a stop sign.  Could this be it?  Could this be what I've been looking for?  

"You truly are a remarkable woman, Lonette.  I didn't think I was ready to lay my heart on the line, but I guess it's not up to us to determine when the time is right.   How about we go over to your place to talk in private?  To talk about changing my travel plans, perhaps."

I know it sounds like a line, but I couldn't have been more sincere.  I can only hope she realizes this, or that I will eventually be able to convince her of my noble intentions.

"Whatever," she says in response, as if speaking her final word of resignation to the head of a firing squad.
~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~
There they go.  I've met some interesting folks since I started bartending, but those two definitely take the prize. Last night they were an English professor and his star pupil.  The night before, he was a congressman and she was an intern.  Before that, he was a personal trainer and she was one of his clients.  My favorite was when Bill pretended to be a rock star and Charlene gave an Oscar caliber performance as a groupie.  I made good tip money that time, a lot more than tonight.  They try to be as realistic as possible, and it makes sense that a rock star would tip considerably more than a truck driver.

Every night is Halloween in their world.  Must be kind of nice.  For sure it takes a good deal of imagination and energy to do what they do.  But the alternative is going through the motions of a humdrum existence day after day.  I applaud any attempt to escape the mundane.  I suppose I'm doing the same thing through my job.

Oh, I don't mean bartending.  I'm really a writer.  I just do this to pay the bills and put myself in a perfect vantage point to observe people in their most open state, perhaps steal a story or two.

I guess everybody role plays to some extent.  We divvy up our psyches in order to present ourselves in different lights to different people, to accommodate their specific needs and expectations.  We're one person for our lovers, another for our friends, another for our co-workers, another for our parents, another yet for our children.  Most of us are just dabbling in the game as we deem it necessary.  Bill and Charlene raise the enterprise to the level of art.

My creative juices are beginning to flow, thanks in large part to the performance of my favorite couple.  Within the hour I'll have the old writer's cap on.  My imagination is most fertile just before dawn.  But there's an important piece of business I must take care of first.

"Last call!" 

Friday, May 3, 2013

Reviews...of books of course

Below you will find reviews of varying lengths and degrees of analysis for the novels I've read most recently. Well, technically one of them was not read since I did not make it all the way to the end.  Not even close.  I only got about 70 pages in.  The remaining 10,000 pages (perhaps I exaggerate a bit) were left unexplored for reasons you'll see noted below.  Some of these reviews are raves, other books were panned.  I call them as I see them, and my opinions may differ considerably from your own.  If you've read any of these novels, please share your thoughts with me in the Comments section.  If my recommendations steer you towards or away from any of them, let me know.  As always - Happy Reading!

The Girl on the Green Bicycle (Monique Roffey) - Monique Roffey is a fine writer and her vivid descriptions of Trinidad make readers feel its tropical heat and lush ripeness. Trinidad is as much a character as the setting. In "The White Woman on the Green Bicycle" readers are transported to this island (not too far from my birth place of St. Thomas) and observe its shifting political climate over the course of turbulent decades. The struggle for independence from the authority of Europeans is backdrop to the story of a rocky marriage that is up front and center. In the first section the title character does a great deal of complaining and bemoaning her situation. I found it difficult to like or relate to this miserable woman. Even though her husband is no saint, at first he is the more tolerable of the two. Yes he's an alcoholic and a serial adulterer, one who in his older years does not bother to have mistresses but settles for prostitutes. But we also see decency in his dealings with people and root for his efforts to atone and win back his wife's affections. I don't want to divulge any spoilers so will simply say that after the dramatic conclusion of the first section, we are brought back in time to when the couple first arrives in Trinidad. They are much younger, more vibrant, seemingly deeply in love with each other, more open to giving things a chance. But while the husband is happy to be in Trinidad where he knows he can be far more successful than he would have been in England, his wife sees island life as a temporary necessity to experience, and then to endure. The cause of her unhappiness is the same from beginning to end, and she is honest about it all along. Her husband selfishly and dishonestly leads her to believe throughout the years that he has an exit strategy, that they will eventually be returning home. But in truth he feels that they already are home, and believes/hopes that his wife will come around in time. If she does not, so be it. Rum and women and professional achievement and growing wealth help him deal with the aggravation of having a wife who hates where she is yet won't/can't leave. Time marches on and revolution is in the air. If the Trinidadians achieve the freedom they long for, perhaps the woman on the green bicycle will get what she desires as well. But she is waiting for this outcome to happen, not making it occur by taking action. She does not attempt to change her circumstances but instead suffers them noisily, as well as quietly in letters she writes but does not send to a politician. The book draws to a close as the day of her personal emancipation seemingly draws near, but we know it must be a mirage because we have already learned that Trinidad will not let loose of its grip on her fate. Not everybody can enjoy a book that is about someone who holds a little less hope and a little more bitterness with each passing day. By the end, which is the book's beginning, she is relentlessly resigned to her fate. But that doesn't mean her bicycle doesn't have one last ride left in it. I'm happy to have read this sad book.

The Marriage Plot (Jeffrey Eugenides) - Girl likes boy. Girl likes other boy as well. Both boys like her. Which one will she choose? Which one should she choose? If she chooses wrong does she get a re-do? That's my simple synopsis of an uncomplicated story (nothing at all complicated about love no matter how much trouble it somehow manages to cause) that is interesting and compelling and wonderfully written.

Tinkers (Paul Harding) - Basically a beautifully written poem about the slow art of dying. I don't recommend it if you're looking for plot driven fiction. If you enjoy a canopy of words eloquently interlocked, check it out. I could say more, but I've probably said enough.

The Cutting Season (Attica Locke) - I love a good mystery. I was intrigued by the mystery within a mystery concept of this book. I may have liked it even more if the narrative went back and forth following the two connected storylines, alternating between the present and slave days, only not via time travel the way Octavia Butler wonderfully did it in Kindred. The fact that Attica Locke sticks to a single setting is by no means a flaw, and like Octavia, Attica is also an excellent writer. That said, I can't say that I was blown away by this novel. I was thoroughly sucked in to the story, but emerged from it wishing there had been a little more. A little more of what I'm not quite sure. Plausibility perhaps. Things wrapped themselves up a bit too neatly and swiftly for my liking. My favorite type of mystery is the kind that's solved due to brilliant deductive reasoning rather than things (like drunken confessions) falling into one's lap. I especially like when I'm given the same clues and information as the character(s) trying to solve the crime, so I have at least a fighting chance at figuring it out on my own. Deciphering between misleading and critical details is my favorite part of reading a mystery if the author plays fair. I found The Cutting Season to be no better than average in my personal scale of judging a whodunnit, but the quality of writing and depth of characterization was excellent, so I'll certainly give other books by Attica Locke a shot and I would not hesitate to recommend this one.

 The Taste of Salt (Martha Southgate) - The Taste of Salt chronicles the effects of alcoholism on an African American family. Liquor destroys a marriage that begins with much promise, its grip not loosening on the father until he has been sent off to make a new life for himself. Their son Tick becomes an alcoholic as well, remaining sober for long enough stretches to set up an enviable situation working on the training staff for a NBA team, but repeatedly losing his battle to take things "one day at a time" and having to start all over again. His sister, like their mother, is not cursed with alcoholism but with having alcoholics as her closest blood ties. Josie copes with the pain and embarrassment by being away from her family. She has a dream fulfilled job as a scientist who studies her beloved ocean far removed from Ohio where her parents and brother reside, and she is married to a good man who treats her with respect and tenderness. In this setting it seems she has escaped the hurt that her parents and brother must endure. But Josie has self destructive tendencies also. She may not need a drink to make it through the day, but her inability to reach true intimacy with the man who has opened his heart completely to her wreaks its own brand of havoc. To survive their separate yet connected hurts, Josie and her brother and parents need to forgive each other and themselves. In clean and easy to read prose, Martha Southgate shows us that not everybody in this often sad world is strong enough to do that.

Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace) – DID NOT FINISH.  I gave up about 70 pages in. This highly acclaimed book did nothing for me other than agitate and repeatedly put me to sleep midway through a sentence. Serpentine run on sentences in a tiny font filled with 6-syllable words may be attractive to some readers. They may even be attractive to me if used to establish a plot, a setting, a central cast of characters that I come to care about. Perhaps the author was paid by the word or character count, in which case a great deal of money must have been earned. I don't give up on books easily. I fought mightily to get through the pages that I read. The battle was lost. I didn't want to fight in the first place but simply wanted to enjoy a good book. Perhaps the next one will accommodate me.

The Lost Symbol (Dan Brown) - Dan Brown delivers again. I've enjoyed each of his Robert Langdon thrillers and hope he keeps them coming. He's a master at pacing, never a dull moment even as he bombards the reader with easy to digest information about symbols, religion, science, architecture, etc. Is it formulaic fiction? Certainly. Writing of the highest literary caliber? Certainly not. But as any baby will tell you, when formula is created just right it will be lapped up eagerly. One emerges from a Dan Brown caper feeling that a few new things have been learned in the process of being thoroughly entertained. Works for me. When I'm in the mood for a genre read I feel confident that Dan Brown won't steer me wrong. The Lost Symbol is the latest piece of evidence that he does what he does particularly well.

See Now Then (Jamaica Kincaid) - This book just did not do it for me. I am a fan of Jamaica Kincaid from previous novels so my hopes and expectations were high. Even had they been low, See Now Then still would have fallen short of them. Nothing that I disliked about it is unintentional. It wasn't a case of poor execution. Kincaid wrote this story in the manner that she did with purpose that simply did not appeal to me. The constant repetition of certain words/phrases did little to lull me in. This is a short novel, coming in at under 200 pages. If the repetition was minimized to a more customary amount, the word count of See Now Then probably would not even qualify for novella status. It would have to make due with categorization as a long short story. There is no plot to speak of. Kincaid's goal is not to tell a tale so much as to invoke a mood. The mood is that of hatred. A man hates his wife, his family, his life. We aren't told why specifically, except towards the end when we're informed that the wife was condescending and mean spirited to a waitress. I suppose there is no why. Once you fall out of love with someone and yearn to be with someone else, anyone else, you feel like a prisoner who of course loathes the jailer. But the narrative isn't about the event with the waitress or any other one in particular. It's about a woman being aware that the man she loves does not love her in return, and eventually he does something about it. And it's about the relativity of time, how Now and Then are basically one and the same, a point repeated ad nauseam. We are made aware of the husband’s unhappiness from not much after the first sentence - a very long one, as the vast majority of them are, yet another characteristic that I didn't find endearing. The rest of the book serves only to reinforce this point. Gorgeous language can carry a non plot driven story a long way, but I wasn't so swept away by Kincaid's prose that I didn't notice or care that nothing was really happening. Not externally. Not internally. Not at all. I don't care to what degree this or any other novel may be autobiographical. I only care if I was absorbed by the tale, if I came to care about the characters. I was/did not. This is a subjective opinion, as they all are. You may love this book, and if you do, I promise not to hold it against you.  :-)

The Lincoln Conspiracy (Timothy O’Brien) - Since I'm a sucker for historical fiction, particularly when the setting is one I'm familiar with, especially when a fictional conspiracy is involved regarding events that really happened, I was quick to pick this book up. The Lincoln Conspiracy contains all of these elements, as it takes places in Washington DC shortly after the assassination of President Lincoln. John Wilkes Booth is the killer, but was he a lone zealot or acting on behalf of others? Timothy O'Brien asks these questions and makes up an answer for us. On the chase is a cop named Temple who walks with a limp that he turns to his advantage by making convenient use of his cane as a weapon on multiple occasions. Abe's wife Mary Todd has a cameo, and one of their sons plays a role in the plot as well. Sojourner Truth is also put to use. But celebrity cameos aside, The Lincoln Conspiracy is basically a cop story with horse chases in place of car chases. Temple finds himself thrust into the middle of a grand scale mystery and is determined to follow through to its resolution, no matter how much opposition is thrown at him. Will he get his man? What do you think? Since the official story we all know in 2013 is that Booth acted alone, presumably Temple is not able to prove and expose what he learns. This book makes for breezy reading that you'll zip through from beginning to end. Thanks to the well received movie, Lincoln is currently a hot topic and that has probably helped sales. I've read better in the genre. I've read worse. O'Brien did a pretty good job of visualizing the setting for readers but this book fell well short of wowing me.

Home (Toni Morrison) – The divine Toni Morrison has been giving us shorter novels to enjoy lately.  As with A Mercy, Home comes in at an unintimidating page count.  But in this novel, in addition to brevity (it can easily be read over the course of a day if you have some spare time) we are also gifted with greater accessibility.  Many non-book readers, and non literary fiction readers, steer clear of Toni Morrison because her exquisite use of language does not make for light reading.  Her poetic verse can be challenging to those unable/unwilling to sit still and focus.  If you have been avoiding her magnificent body of work for these reasons, avoid no more.  Home is the book for you.  Morrison’s prose, which remains as lush and eloquent as ever, is more straight forward here than in her previous books.  Faithful fans will get their fill and I encourage new ones to jump on board.  Just don’t expect a leisurely beach read.  She hasn’t gone quite that far.  A synopsis comes easily, contained in one sentence.  A veteran of the Korean War, haunted by blood soaked memories of his time there, returns to his hometown in Georgia to rescue his ailing sister.  Along the way, Toni Morrison paints the backdrop of their lives.  Cee has spent the majority of hers dependent on the kindness or lack of it displayed by those she encounters via circumstance.  Frank comes back to save her life, but in order to claim and do something of worth with it, Cee realizes she must develop her own inner strength.  Frank is wrestling too many demons to always reliably be her hero.  Much has changed over the course of the years since Frank last set foot in the town where they were raised.  Plenty remains more or less the same.  Home is there to provide familiar comforts, even though our return to it is inevitably in the form of a different version of ourselves.