Tag Archives: smalltown

In the wake of the mayhem

13 Oct

Let me get this out of the way first: This is not a post about gun control.

Okay, now we can move on.

As I write this, the Mass Shooting Tracker has logged 373 mass shootings in America this year. Check here to see the current number. The tracker defines a mass shooting as any situation in which four or more people, including the shooter, are shot. Simple as that. The FBI defines a mass shooting as any situation in which four or more random victims are killed, not counting the shooter. In either definition, families are left in a world of hurt. Yet, the volume of mass shootings has caused many of us to become inured to stories of them.

That’s what my new novel, Come up a Cloud, is about. “Come up a Cloud” is an old expression that means it looks like rain. It can portend menace, or it can indicate hope. In Come up a Cloud, I cloudcover_fbimagine how a mass shooting in a small town affects its residents. Because the killer shot himself, where will the families of the victims direct their hurt and anger?  Will they seek revenge against someone else? Or can they forgive?

And what about the parents of the killer? How can they properly mourn? How can they forgive themselves and their son?

Here’s the prologue:

The bald tires whined on the bucket-of-bolts truck as it rattled past Sandstrum’s Machine Shop on Route 4. Out of the corner of his eye, the farmer behind the wheel glimpsed a plump figure in camouflage pants loitering near the back corner of the corrugated tin building. The old man would have assumed it was one of the machinists taking a smoke break, except the person wore an odd headpiece. It looked like a Viking helmet, like the ones you saw at Minnesota football games. The other odd thing: The Viking held a rifle canted downward. The gun looked like one of those fancy Bushmasters, which copied M-16s like the one the farmer had carried in the jungle.

The farmer rummaged his brain for any hunting season starting in early August. Squirrel season wouldn’t kick off for a few more weeks, not that a flimsy law stopped anyone who craved pan-fried rodent. He’d heard Bushmaster made a .22, which wasn’t much more than a peashooter dressed up like a serious piece of work. Anything more powerful would rip a squirrel to thunder. And wearing desert camo to hunt squirrels? That was even less necessary than an assault rifle, unless squirrels had gotten a lot smarter than they used to be.

The farmer decided the hunter was one of Sandstrum’s friends, a city fool who had come up to pretend-hunt. That didn’t explain the helmet, but lots of things city people did were hard to explain. He headed down the road to Snoots for a lunch of ham sandwich and PBR. He would give the camoed figure no more thought until he heard the sirens thirty minutes later.

The novel is not a basket of warm and fuzzies. Still, it is not without hope, and I hope you will find it worthwhile.

You can buy the book here.

Better yet, support your local independent book seller. Here’s mine.

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Encouraging Ignorance and Suffocating Nuance since 1995

17 Oct

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. –-Hanlon’s Razor

If you know anything about the Steubenville rape case, you don’t need me to rehash it here. If you are unfamiliar with it, welcome back to Earth. How was your space flight? Like most people, I followed the case only superficially, but I formed my opinion anyway, and I was glad to see convictions in the case. It bothered me none that mud stuck to the town of Steubenville. It became synonymous with small-town culture that values its high school athletes above much else. I found it amusing that the hacker group Anonymous got involved by hacking personal information on some of those involved.

Now another case, with a few similarities, has grabbed the national and international media’s attention in Maryville, Missouri. I’m sure many in Steubenville are keeping their fingers crossed that Maryville will take their inauspicious mantle. I won’t outline or debate the facts of the Maryville case here – thousands of other imbeciles with no knowledge of the situation have that covered. However, this situation hits a little closer to home. My brother and his wife live there. My sister was born there. Two grandparents, many aunts and uncles, both parents and all my siblings graduated from the state university there. Even so, when I read the story early Sunday morning on the Kansas City Star’s web site, a small part of me thought, You deserve what’s coming Maryville. You brought this on by failing to push for prosecution. I had spent ten minutes or so reading a news story, and I believed I had enough information to draw a conclusion. That put me in the company of millions of other fools.

250px-Nodaway-courthouseWhen the the national media got hold of the story like a Rottweiler grabbing a shank bone, I read a few more media reports, which were mostly re-hashes of the Star story, as well as an earlier series by KCUR, a KC public radio station. I rarely view reader comments online because I tend to lose faith in human intelligence when I do. I did not have to read far before recurring themes emerged. Words like “inbred” appeared liberally. The sheriff of the town was tritely labeled as Barney Fife.

Here’s a comment from a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reader:  “There’s just something about the NW corner of Missouri. The people there have no concern for what is lawful.” There’s a broad-brush statement that deserves one in response: Everyone who submits ill-informed comments on news web sites is a certified jackass.

From the Los Angeles Times, a common comment: “What a bunch of freaking HICKS.”

No, they’re not hicks, though some may be brighter than others. They’re just regular people like everyone else. Good ones, bad ones, and mostly in-between ones. People who make mistakes just like the rest of us. No better, no worse.

I texted my brother, Jeff, a Maryville resident: “Let me know how it feels to live in the new Steubenville.”

So far, he’s taking it well. That’s in part because he does not own a TV, being a hick and all, and he has not seen coverage from CNN et al.  He said one of the largest employers in town, a customer of his construction business, shut down its computer system after Anonymous hacked another manufacturer. These companies are not the sheriff’s office, the prosecutor, or anyone connected to the story. They are companies employing hundreds of people, some of them likely unaware of the story before this week.

I began to realize how the actions, or inaction, of a few people can impact so many others.

Maryville is a good place, but not unique. Jeff says, “A lot of people here think this is a special town, but it’s no better or worse than anyplace else.”  Jeff should know. He lived for several years in Africa before settling in Maryville, and he has traveled internationally many times. I guess that makes him a well-traveled hick, contradictory as that may seem. He’s right, though. Don’t we think our communities are something special, as if other places have a higher percentage of nuts, lowlifes and buffoons? We believe we would act differently —better, of course — in crises. Just watch the next time there’s a catastrophe such as a tornado or earthquake. You’ll see a quote like this: “We’ll get back on our feet. People here in (town/city name) are tough, resilient.” As if people elsewhere were not.

If we live in a high population area, we assume our rural neighbors are ill-educated hillbillies. I am the only one of my parents and four siblings who lives in a city. Yet, I am the least educated of the bunch with my piddly bachelor’s degree. My parents live in a town of about 200 people. My sister lives in the country. My younger brother lives in a town of about 1,000 people. They drive trucks and go to church. They also listen to NPR, hold a range of views on social issues and worry about the cost of gas just like everyone else. Because they choose to live in rural areas, however, they are considered ignorant hillbillies who would, of course, let injustice reign in their communities because they know no better. (Disclaimer: I don’t equate education with intelligence; some of the highest-degreed individuals I’ve met are some of the dumbest. The converse is also true.)

Rural folks don’t get a free pass either. They can be just as guilty the other way. For example, I’ve heard several times how lucky a country resident is to live some place where they don’t have to deal with violence on a daily basis, as though we in urban areas can’t step out our front doors without ducking shots or feeling the crunch of used syringes beneath our Topsiders.

I suppose we have always been ignorant about our fellow humans, but the Internet brings it to the fore more readily. The Web delivers more information daily than we can consume in our lives, but it also allows us to demonstrate how little we know, particularly about each other.

We would like to think if we found ourselves in the same situation as Maryville at the time of the crime/incident, we would have reacted differently. We would have, by God, stood up and made sure the cops and the prosecutor did their jobs, even if we did not know all the facts or have any other direct involvement in the case. No, we wouldn’t. We don’t realize that Maryville is just like us.  No better, no worse, just human.

From the other side of death

26 Mar

An excerpt from The Savior of Turk.

After I died, I figured I’d possess a clear memory of my whole life, from the day I popped out of my mama’s belly till they put a sheet over my head at the hospital. In eternity, I had in mind that I’d go back and forth over everything that happened to me like I was playing a movie, re-watching the nice parts and fast forwarding through the others until I about wore out the tape. But chunks of my life are fuzzier than others. Whole pieces got lost somewhere, things you’d think I’d remember. I recall but a few of the kids’ birthdays. Just a handful of Christmas mornings made the cut, and those memories are like looking through a window smeared with Vaseline.

BeachOther recollections are as clear to me as if they happened a minute ago, in vivid Technicolor. But they’re not necessarily the kind of memories you’d think would have stuck. Like the time our daughter Kimmie — I reckon she was around two because it was before Karl came along — got her fingers slammed in the door of our car as she was getting out. I hadn’t been paying close enough attention, and I took for granted that she was clear of the door when I shut it. She bawled bloody murder for close to half an hour. We’d crossed up to Iowa to spend a Sunday afternoon at a state park where there was a little sandy beach, and we had just parked the car when it happened.

For the occasion, Polly had bought Kimmie a purple swimsuit with a little yellow frilly thing around the waist that made it look like a tutu. Kimmie wore it to bed the night before. She was so hopped up about going to the beach that she liked to have never got to sleep. Then I had to go and ruin it by slamming her fingers in the door. Her right pointer and middle fingers swelled up like hot dogs. We had some ice from the cooler to help the swelling, but it didn’t make her feel any better. She sat next to her mom on a beach towel and whimpered the whole afternoon. Never got in the water. I didn’t either. I felt so bad and wished I could have done something to make it right.

I don’t know why a memory like that would be so clear to me, but I guess I’ve got plenty of time to figure it out.

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A profane family history

15 Mar

I was nine or ten the first time I heard my granddad pepper his speech with cuss words. I could still point out within a five square foot area where I stood in his barnyard when he let loose one of those forbidden four-letter words in my presence.  I had crossed some invisible line of male-dom where Granddad decided my tender ears could hear those words without catching fire. I don’t recall being overly happy to hear that good man use those words, but I got over it soon enough.

Soon after that, I crossed the swear-word line with my dad, too. He was his father’s son when it came to cussing, following certain unwritten rules: Never overdo it, never swear in a house, and absolutely never swear in mixed company, particularly around the saintly woman I called Grandma.

By the time Dad started cussing in front of my brothers and me, I was already a semi-rehabilitated swearer. It seems quaint now, but I had a habit of inserting “damn” in every other sentence when I was six. My parents warned me to stop before I got in big trouble, but they never took serious action. I didn’t get the cure until after I cussed in front of my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Kraft. In addition to missing recess, she ordered me to drag my desk outside in the hallway and park by the classroom door for a while. She wanted me to spend that time to consider cleaning up that potty mouth of mine. That was Mrs. Kraft’s worst punishment for scofflaws like me, boys who were on a direct path to reform school because “damn” had become our favorite adjective.

Spending a bit of time in the hallway wasn’t such a terrible ordeal, except my dear father was also the superintendent of our tiny school. He rarely had reason to walk down two flights of stairs from his office to the first grade classroom in the basement. But I had only been serving my hallway sentence for a few minutes when he came by.CCI03022011_00002

“I hope you’ve got a good reason for sitting out here,” he said.

I considered saying I had been given the honor of Hall Monitor, but we didn’t have such a thing in our school. Even if we had, my dad knew that responsibility wouldn’t be trusted to me.

“Cussing,” I said, without bothering with specifics.

Dad said nothing, but he shook  his head and walked away. I had embarrassed him. Damn, I thought. I’ll never cuss again.

For the most part, I didn’t swear much after that until I reached twelve or thirteen. That’s a monk-like period of abstinence for a boy who grew up around people who tossed around profanities with the same deftness Peyton Manning throws passes.

Even then, I never cussed around my father. Still don’t. When my brother Jeff and I were teenagers, Dad took us aside one day to sternly reprimand us for using a word that  offended our mother. He warned we had better stop using this particularly foul word immediately or there would be serious consequences.

“What word are you talking about?” we asked Dad.

“I’m not going to say it, but you know exactly the word I mean,” he said.

“No, we don’t.”

“Don’t play dumb with me. Just quit using it.”

If the word was so offensive that even Dad wouldn’t repeat it, it must have been a doozy. Because we didn’t cuss around Mom, the word had us stumped. It had to be so terrible that even Jeff and I didn’t know it was a curse word. Jeff and I pondered this question for many years until we finally decided the word that offended our mother was… mother. As in, “That bolt sure is one tough mother to get off.”  We must have used “mother” that way several times a day.

My dad says he turns forty-eight today. This is amazing considering that makes him younger than me. But he suffers from AOBD (Adult Onset Birthday Dyslexia), which causes him to invert the digits in his age, so I’ll give him a break. Anyway I hope he has a damn fine day and one mother of a birthday party.

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A lesson regarding the use of bovines in car spots

11 Oct

As I watched the jittery heifer pace along the makeshift barbed wire fence, something from my past warned me the situation was about to go to hell in a hand basket.

I should have seen it coming. As a kid, I got a crack at Granddad’s prized herd before he sold the rest at auction. I bought two steers, naming the red one with the white face Elton and black-white faced one John. (At the time, I thought Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was the greatest album in the history of album-dom.) My other grandparents ran cattle, too. I spent more of my childhood than I preferred helping count, chase, castrate and doctor cattle. The worst bunch was a herd of steers Dad bought to fatten up for a quick sale. The steers acted like teenagers on spring break the entire time we had them. They occasionally found an escape route from the pasture, and they didn’t make it easy to get them back in. We even raised an orphaned Angus calf in our back yard. With that much animal husbandry experience, I should have been smarter when I was assigned to produce a TV commercial, with cattle as extras, in St. Louis. Yes, in St. Louis.

About twenty years ago, my boss at the ad agency, Glenn Kleier, (now a novelist) had a big idea. Our client in St. Louis, one of the largest car dealerships in the country, was close to selling its twenty thousandth car. Glenn figured twenty thousand cars would roughly equate to forty miles of cars lined end to end. He wanted to make a commercial showing forty miles of cars extending from the Arch in downtown St. Louis.

First, I located on a map the poetically named Clover Bottom, Missouri about forty miles away as the crow flies from downtown St. Louis. Perfect. In the TV spot,  lab-coated “scientists” would measure the precise length of twenty thousand cars as they stretched end to end from the city to the country. The penultimate scene would be the last few cars along the road leading into Clover Bottom, with pastured cattle in the background. The last shot would be an old farmer on his porch watching the guys in lab coats measuring each car. He’d ask his wife, “What the heck are they up to?”  His wife, knitting in her rocking chair, would say, “Oh, about twenty thousand cars.”  I smelled an Emmy.

As with most car spots, I had a tight budget. I couldn’t fake the beginning of the commercial–the line of cars with the Arch in the background–but I could stage the ending somewhere closer to the city than Clover Bottom.

I had worked with a production crew in St. Louis many times (even taking over a shopping mall after hours one night to drive cars through). They never flinched at the sometimes crazy requests I made. This time, I asked their help in finding a “rural” location. Oh, and I needed some cattle, too.

The crew located an old house with some acreage and a small barn. It was actually in a populous St. Louis suburb. But the production company promised they could shoot the scene so that no one would know the difference. Great, I said, but what about the cattle? No problem. One of their guys had a second cousin whose uncle on his Mom’s side owned cattle. He would haul some to us. I didn’t  have the time or budget to fly to St. Louis to scout the location myself, and I  had to trust these guys. They had never let me down before, but they were a video company used to shooting Bud Light commercials. They weren’t cattle wranglers.

I showed up on site early on a Sunday morning. We often shot on Sundays because the dealerships were closed. The client had given us thirty cars and drivers to work with. We would shoot them in various orders in different spots around the city, always framing the camera so that no one could tell they were the same cars. When editing was finished, it would look like we  had twenty thousand cars lined up long the streets of St. Louis.

We started with the most difficult shot–the one with the cattle. The crew had already strung a barbed wire fence along an area behind the house. When the cattle arrived, they would be unloaded in the temporary pen.

While the crew was still setting up, getting cars in position, etc., a pickup pulling a stock trailer arrived with our bovine extras. I was expecting a few docile milk cows. Instead, I got one cranky Hereford heifer, who had just hours before been enjoying a peaceful Sunday brunch of grass alongside  her buddies. Now, she was in the city hawking Buicks and Toyotas.

The heifer’s owner backed up the stock trailer and shooed the heifer into the temporary pen. I was already worried. The success of my spot depended on a juvenile cow that literally had the poop scared out of it. The shot wasn’t ready, but the heifer already looked like she’d had enough.  A mature cow might stay put long enough to get a decent shot. A heifer surrounded by lots of people and strange noises? No way. For most cows, a fence with a couple of strands of barbed wire clipped to metal fence posts is more of a suggestion than an inescapable pen. If a  one-ton heifer wants to be elsewhere, little can be done to stop her. When  it came time to get the first shot, a half-dozen people, perhaps none of them who had ever been around a cow other than in the form of a T-bone, tried to coax our star into position. Instead, the heifer jumped the fence and began a long romp through the neighborhood.

I could either cry, chase the heifer, or try to salvage the shot. While part of the crew chased the heifer, I stayed to save the shoot and my job. The owners of the property had a goat and some chickens. I turned to the goat and said, “You’re on, baby. Don’t let me down.” In addition to the goat, we also tried to shoo the chickens into the shot, but they weren’t interested in fame and glory. The goat,  however, was the perfect sport.

While we were shooting, I had visions of the heifer running across busy roads (which I heard later that it did) and causing wrecks. I could imagine TV news copters capturing footage of The Great Heifer Chase. I also could see myself going to jail for letting a frightened heifer terrorize half of St. Louis.

We completed most of the shots (other than the ones near the Arch) when the head photographer returned from chasing the animal. He had a good coating of cow crap on his pants. The heifer had run far and hadn’t given up easily. Finally, worn out from destroying petunias and leaving cow patties on sidewalks, she had been wrestled back into the trailer and taken  home. A cop had stopped to help, but he was more amused than anything. It beat writing traffic tickets.

By comparison, the shoot near the Arch, which temporarily blocked traffic on one of the busiest streets in the city, went much better. The final product, even with a goat as the stand-in, wasn’t terrible. However, it wasn’t equal to the stress it caused.  The old production rule that warns against working with animals was never more true. Especially ones that outweigh humans.

A Horse That’s Dead is Heavy as Lead

21 Sep

Habeas Equus

a short story

I’d previously thought dead weight meant lazy, because Dad had hung the words on Fossie when he forgot to trim the weeds around the elm stump out by the road. I learned better that day in the barn when the three of us couldn’t budge the dead mare from the stall floor — right where she had fallen like a one-ton bag of cement sometime the night before. The palomino hadn’t been much to look at when she was living, with bones poking against her skin like she was a sack of walnuts on four legs. But death had changed the old girl, made her seem bigger, too big for the three of us to yank her from her resting place.

“At this rate, we’ll be here all day and into tomorrow,” Dad said. Those were the first words he’d spoken since the horse had turned up dead. Dad never cared much for shooting the breeze, and he was extra quiet that day. Out of breath from tugging at the horse, my father looked like he might keel over, leaving me and Fossie to deal with both him and the horse. Dad wasn’t exactly light as a feather, so I doubted we could budge him either.

Dad leaned against the barn wall, pulled a wadded handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped sweat beads from his brow. His shoulders drooped like they were being forced down by the weight of his jowly head. He had added a few pounds in middle age, which wouldn’t help us to get the dead horse any closer to the barn door.

I was busy pouting, more or less on general principle, and had nothing to say on the matter of the horse or anything else. I just wanted to get the thing over with so I could retreat from the lung-sucking heat of the barn. I couldn’t see how chattering away was going to get that done. But Fossie, older than me by three years, hardly ever shut up. He leaned against the wall next to Dad with his arms folded and asked, “How much you think she weighs?”

Dad grunted. “At least a pound more’n we can handle, it would appear.”

“I bet we’d get her out quick if we had another set of hands,” Fossie said.

“You keep an extra pair in your pocket?” The Old Man was well-past frustrated with the status of his equine property, a problem he hadn’t counted on the day he was supposed to be off the place he rented.

“I bet Cloyd’d help out if we asked,” Fossie said. I could have choked him right then if my hands had been big enough to wrap around his thick neck. Only someone as stupid as my brother would bring up Cloyd Farris the day before Dad headed to prison.

If you’re interested in reading the rest of Habeas Equus (about five pages), go to Smashwords and use this coupon code to download it for free: AR73P

Spotlight on Budda

10 Sep

Budda’s in the spotlight at Books by Centeno.

“New” Short Story ready for download

6 Jul

“I did not personally witness the events I’m about to tell you about, though I do know the people involved in them. It was one of them who told me this story. He is sometimes given to stretching the truth an inch or two, not in an ornery way, but to reward anyone who takes the time to listen. I do not believe, however, he strayed much from the facts in this particular story, because he surely would have made himself look a little better in the telling of it if he had…”

First Comes Marriage first appeared in Big Muddy: a Journal of the Mississippi River Valley. It’s available FREE at Smashwords.

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Cover Design

13 Jun

Cover Design

The new cover for The Night Budda Got Deep in It, out late this summer.