The Sensitive But Violent Artist

 

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The Painter, by Peter Heller

It’s always interesting to read the second novel by authors whose first was highly praised. For various reasons too numerable to name here, there’s something of a sophomore jinx afoot that trips up writers who receive literary praise perhaps too quickly in their careers. This is the case, I think with The Painter, and with Peter Heller.

Where The Dog Star established Heller as a writer with a consistent, wickedly humorous voice, as a formidable scene setter, and writer with philosophical underpinnings, this second novel shows those strengths fraying a bit. He’s adopting a voice here that isn’t always his own; he toys with his sentence structures, their nature that of Hemingway and Raymond Carver, and the effect is a bit clumsy. However in the book’s second half he returns to vestiges of his first novel’s voice and overarching sensibility, and this is where his story becomes compelling.

Heller’s protagonist, Jim Stegner, is an unschooled but talented painter who struggles with drink, with womanizing, and with his temper. These traits have led him to be a killer, although Heller goes to great pains to let us know these acts are not premeditated. They’ve also, in accordance with these United States’ innate streak of violence, allowed him to be a cult figure – a talent around whom one feels it necessary to walk on eggshells. (For what it’s worth, this trait is to this reader and social observer the cause of a hollowness within the national psyche.) Stegner wants atonement for his acts, but he doesn’t know how to go about that. So Heller must allow Stegner to be the subject of retributive violence, which allows the painter, as might happen to a pre-adolescent child, to have atonement forced on him. Stegner is as a person and as a literary creation, a mess. Perhaps Heller intends him to be a faux Hemingway: hard drinking, bullying and a crybaby when those tables are turned on him. Stegner doesn’t seem to have the backbone about which an anti-hero’s fatal flaws can be built, though; he’s too much at the whims of fate for that. Heller tries to create philosophical depth for Stegner, but these attempts ring hollow. What he has created in Stegner, however, is a depiction of an instinctive artist, something the American psyche always seems to want from those of an artistic bent: talent and success untrammeled by subjecting the artist’s potential to training and the lessons of culture and history. That Stegner is, in the end, a talented but pitiful figure, should tell the reader something very important: instinct that refuses at least a small measure of acculturation eventually become debased.

That I can write all these things about Heller – and Stegner – speaks to the talent that still lies untapped in Heller, who may yet become a great voice in American literature.
My rating: 15 of 20 stars

 

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The “Just Is” Life

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan

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The best novels are useful tools in ways that perhaps readers never consider, i.e.; to inspire, similarly to religious texts. This may seem a rather odd comparison, but novels do tread the same ground as religious texts—not to give you rules to live by that were established eons earlier by tribal societies, but to reinforce the more or less eternal values and qualities of life’s constant changes by allegory, by story. While the novel is a fairly recent device, its progenitors are the myths that attempt to explain and understand life, the sagas and oral stories that depict the same.

The story in Man-Booker Prize winner, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, is a deceptively simple one: the horrors of WWII’s Asian theater mark forever the lives of hundreds of Australians—and their Japanese keepers—both parties tasked with building a railroad through the jungles of Burma. Flanagan wishes to leave us in a cautious, pragmatic state of mind as we explore the life of surgeon, Dorrigo Evans, and with him his POW mates who are in virtual slavery to this Japanese rail project. While the Australian men’s spirits dictate survival here, the Japanese see the POWs as disgraced by their willingness to be taken alive. In Flanagan’s hands, the Japanese prefer death to such a life as the POWs are subjected to, and are more than willing to work and starve these unfortunates to death.

But Flanagan’s story doesn’t end with the war’s end. He tarries to explore these men’s damaged lives upon their return to civilian-ship, even the Japanese, who must contend with the conflicts of combatants who have fought—and lost—a war. While Flanagan’s narrator claims to see life on earth as “just is,” life built on perpetual violence, he doesn’t deny his characters a shot at love, at the community of their fellow men and women. The problem is, the only community, the only love, these ex-POWs seem able to know is that which they experience in coaxing one another to survive their horrid existence in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

My rating 19 of 20 stars

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The Bandit Little Red, by John Hoddy.

I’ve made something of a habit of buying books by self-pub authors – at least the books that interest me. One never knows what to expect from such books – an unknown gem, perhaps. Or sometimes reading one feels like needles stuck in one’s eyes.

Front cover copy

John Hoddy and I were classmates at the U.S. Naval Academy, Class of 1966, he a sometimes bearded submariner and later a bureaucrat. As it turns out he and I lived on similar paths – educated in technical fields, but with a life-long love of books and writing. His first major work, The Bandit Little Red, is a 580 page read, but it’s hardly a tiresome read. In fact, I place it in the gem category above.

John consented to this interview, so I’ll let him tell you the rest of the story.

author picture

GF – – Given your background, how did you become interested in writing?
JH – – I began writing at an early age, starting with poetry as a third-grader and a brief excursion into a science fiction “epic” in the seventh grade. My first excursion into serious writing, and my first published work, was in college, with a horror story that came into mind pretty much fully formed. A couple of other short stories followed, all of which were published in the college magazine.
After college, I set creative writing aside for years, although I continued writing poetry, and I dabbled with a Tolkien-esque fantasy. Lots of technical and bureaucratic writing filled the years before I took up the creative side again. Bureaucratese is deadly to prose. That meant unlearning any number of bad habits, and learning how to tell a story again.

GF – – This is a largely a fantasy work. How did you decide to write in this genre?
JH – – Blame Tolkien for that. The Fellowship of the Ring was an assigned work in my college literature class. It took half the book to get into it, and then I was hooked. When I started a work of my own, it was the aforementioned quest novel, where a hearty band of [fill in the blank] set off to save the world from [fill in the blank] etc. The faded hand-written text from that effort still sits on a shelf somewhere, but—
Once you’ve created characters and invested them with personalities and motivations, they never entirely go away. I’d check in on my creations from time to time, see how they were doing, find out how the lives were progressing and the like. Alisa was originally a secondary character in her 20s, the blue-eyed blonde sister of my intended protagonist Lathin, and the romantic interest of an antihero. The epiphany that led to The Bandit Little Red and plans for works to follow came when I was watching a PBS presentation of Riverdance. The lead female dancer was a tall, statuesque redhead. Watching her, it was as if Alisa turned, looked me in the eyes, and said: “I’m not a blue-eyed blonde, I’m a green-eyed redhead with a personality to match, and I have a story to tell. If you’ll get these muscle-bound oafs off center stage, I’ll be happy to tell it to you.” The rest led from there.

GF – – The locale for the book’s story seems similar to Eastern Europe, possibly the Middle Ages’ tribal Rus area, from what is now Russia to the Caspian Sea. Was this intended?
JH – – Yes and no. I modeled the time and setting on post-Roman, early pre-baronial Europe, where long-established political structures have broken down and new ones are being formed. I had the steppes of Central Asia in mind as a model for the location, although as the story evolved, the area you describe became the more accurate model. Apparently the story and its characters knew better than their writer did. That’s a region crossed by trade routes, inhabited in Classic times by the Scythians, superb nomadic horsemen, and later by Cossacks, people sharing a number of similarities with Grisha’s bandits.

GF — Please describe briefly for our readers Alisa’s evolution from a relatively well off child to a teen bandit.
JH — When the story starts, Alisa is on the cusp of her 14th summer, growing up the youngest child of an aristocratic merchant family in a walled city-state named Thysandra. Her brother is stopping by with the military, heading into an ongoing war that claimed her father’s life some 10 years earlier. Within a matter of weeks, her people’s military suffer a disastrous defeat with her brother presumed dead, and enemy troops are camped outside the city walls. When the city falls, she is among the few survivors. Alone and starving, she joins refugees from the continuing war headed for nearby Elbion, a city that surrendered to enemy troops without resistance.
Titled wealth still awaits if Alisa can make it to her father’s native city a week’s trek distant. Spending six months living on the streets of Elbion, she waits for a break in the fighting and the weather to try to make it to her father’s home. Before she can set out, she’s caught in a sweep of the city by slavers hired to rid Elbion of a vagrancy problem. On the way to distant slave markets, the convoy carrying her is sacked by bandits in an ungoverned region called the Wildlands. When she sees slavers dead and those like her promised relocation and given better treatment by the bandits than that received from civilized society, she determines to make a stand where events have carried her. Arguing her way into probationary status with the bandits, she intends to make it back to titled wealth when she can, but sees no reason why the waiting shouldn’t include a little adventure.
The remainder of the story has her winning her way to a place as an equal in a male oriented society. The outlaws, a rough but compassionate lot, make her no allowances. She must prove herself at every step as she seeks to become the bandit Little Red.

GF – – Perhaps the most memorable character interaction in the book is between Alisa and Leandra. In fact, to this reader, Leandra almost steals the show from Alisa. How would you describe their relationship?
JH – – It’s easier for me to write the interaction than to characterize it. In Leandra, I set out to create a character tough on the outside, caring where it counts, responsible and hard-working to a fault, and almost impossible to live with. She’s also one who’d never turn away a stray dumped on her doorstep, and Alisa fits the description. Want her for a housemate or not, practically the first thing she does with the half starving Alisa is to feed her.
Their relationship as the story progresses becomes one of older/younger sisters, with rough around the edges Leandra another mentor for her young housemate. Alisa gives as well as she gets, with the back-and-forth between them keeping things lively.
From an author’s perspective, I enjoy Leandra’s character and have a good time getting into her persona. Some of the elements come from my Appalachian born second-generation Irish grandmother. A tiny woman, into her 80s she could still work the rest of us into the ground.

GF – – Grisha seems something of a mentor to Alisa. Can you speak in more detail to their relationship? How is he similar and/or different to/from Lathin?
JH – – Grisha is a father figure as well as a mentor. Alisa grew up without a father, killed in battle before she can remember. Grisha lost his daughter into slavery years earlier. The two keep everything distant and formal, but each fits a psychological void in the other.
Earlier, before Alisa’s world was torn apart when her city fell, eight years older Lathin played a similar role, doing the best he could to fill the missing father’s place. When the story begins, he’s been absent two years overseeing the family’s broader business and political interests.
The two are similar in their caring about Alisa, mentoring her, and looking out for her where they can, something she doesn’t always make easy. They differ in that there was never any doubt that Lathin was nothing more than a big brother. Alisa sometimes sees Grisha as the father she never had.

GF – – What are you working on now? A sequel to The Bandit Little Red?

JH – – Yes. The sequel, In the Company of Thieves, is about 90% complete in first draft. The tale picks up about a month after The Bandit Little Red concludes. Alisa has just settled into her new life when she finds that her brother is threatened. Only one person can get him a warning, although that means crossing snow-choked mountains in the middle of winter, and it jeopardizes her hard won standing in Wildlands bandit society. Two more volumes in the series are planned, Vengeance and Fine Wine, where Alisa must do what she can to get a bounty lifted from her head, and Blood Will Find Blood, with Alisa finally reuniting with her brother, extracting retribution against the general who sacked her city along the way.

Growing Up Is Never Easy

BlueBike

What happens in your life during your youngest, most formative years will likely stay with you the rest of your life. This is the challenge Artie Royal continues to face into his middle age years in our novella, THE BLUE BICYCLE.

He’s a good kid, despite having lost all those people who matter to him, and despite his generosity and love of family, his later years are never what they could have been.

The following Synopsis and Discussion Guide for THE BLUE BICYCLE will give potential readers insight into Artie’s losses, his hope for a better life represented by that old hand-me-down bike.

The Blue Bicycle – A Synopsis

Eight-year-old Artie Royal is excited—absentee father Casey is to visit and play catch with him. But Casey has committed a robbery and doesn’t show. Casey does return, he and ex-wife Marie involved in a custody struggle over Artie, a conflict Artie can only rise above through bike rides. But then Marie tells Artie she must leave him in great-grandfather Merle Jongleur’s keeping.

At seventeen, Artie, or A.J., grudgingly carries out a promise to Marie to care for a now-mentally incapacitated Merle. A.J. is ashamed of Merle, his derangement and poverty, and rich girlfriend Sandy is now A.J.’s only emotional refuge. Seeking to escape Merle, A.J. enlists in the Navy, and he hopes to marry Sandy before he departs. After much procrastinating, he proposes—but Sandy turns him down. The next morning, A.J. smells smoke—Merle has set fire to his garage. The old man tries to save the blue bike for A.J., who in turn tries to rescue the old man. Both are hospitalized, and as Merle lies dying, he makes a last, odd demand of A.J.: Go to Nova Scotia.

During Art’s Navy years, and during a naval attack on Iraq, Merle’s voice returns to haunt Art. Following his Navy enlistment, Art marries Katie, the couple living in Art’s remodeled childhood home. Katie has her own set of issues here: a vague dissatisfaction with the marriage, increasingly aggravated by Art’s renewed friendship with Sandy—and by his restoration of the blue bike for Mortie, the child Sandy has had in Art’s absence.

Artie moves in with Sandy and Mortie, and he soon receives notice of his inclusion in a Jongleur family estate. During a visit with the Nova Scotia family, Artie forms an emotional bond with Mara, an eight year-old cousin. Family matriarch Jacqueline offers to settle the estate by deeding Artie the family’s lobster boat. On a brief ocean outing, Artie falls overboard in an effort to rescue Mara. He experiences an oddly restorative relationship with the sea during his minutes in the icy water and sheds Merle’s haunting presence. Safely back with the family, he accepts the boat, flies Mortie to Nova Scotia, and presents the blue bike to Mara.

Discussion Guide for The Blue Bicycle

• In the 1980 section, how does Artie’s mother, Marie, figure into his life? Is she a positive force or not?

• How is Merle’s music like Artie’s blue bike? • In high school, is Artie wise to be involved with Sandy? How about in the 2004 section?

• In the 2002 section, Artie has his first wife, Katie, learn a bit of verse by John Donne. How do you think this applies to Artie’s life? To Katie’s?

• Why do you think Artie took the boat in the 2004 section? What did it mean to him?

• Following Merle’s death, why couldn’t Artie get Merle’s voice out of his head?

• How is the tone of each of the book’s four sections different? • What was Artie’s attraction to the sea?

And here’s a great trailer for the book:

Visit my website here to find out more about THE BLUE BICYCLE, or to buy the book. And there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

Home and Heart

Belonging

Sometimes it takes a push to get us out of our rut, the habits that would have us waste the precious days of our lives. And when we fail to see the love and support of those around us for what they are, well, it’s time to hit the road, to clear our senses and minds of their accumulated crud. Stephen Banks, in the following passage from A Place of Belonging, had to clear the air in just this fashion.

At one in the morning, they stopped for coffee and gas on the Gainesville connector. Then the roadway lighting and the green overhead signs led them to Atlanta and onto the northern leg of its beltway. This perimeter road, once a rural road, is now a haphazard fabric of too-wide urban laneage passing through business high-rise developments and random, sprawling subdivisions. Workers were patching and overlaying the eastbound lane at this hour, while traffic was at its least dense. The asphalt arc ahead of Banks and Ginger hosted a scattering of red taillights, eighteen-wheelers, and automobiles as they droned to the west.

Ginger sat, legs doubled, her head resting on the cab’s seat back and cushioned by her right arm. Warwoman lay silent and unmoving on the cab’s floor. Banks occasionally eyed the incandescent high rises until they gave way to the more muted lighting of homes buried in the tree cover of suburban neighborhoods. Then more high rises before he crossed the Chattahoochee River and Interstate 75. He swung southward toward Interstate 20, the way west. Again, he crossed the ‘Hooch, as the river is called by the locals, its waters tumbling silently southward.

He stole a glance at his watch. A quarter until three. The signs and lights and buildings dimmed and then shrunk to the horizon at his rear. The highway before him transformed – dropping lanes, darkening, becoming once more a quiet, thin passage as it snaked through rolling, grassy hills. He shifted in his seat, right arm over the seat back, his left hand guiding the truck through the road’s gentle curvature. He held his speedometer to sixty-five, assumed an easy place within the flow of westbound traffic. Now oncoming lights became an unbroken stream as rush hour loomed. Soon random starlight gave way to the luminous gray dome of morning.

He stopped at a rest area just across the Alabama line. Ginger woke, fumbled with the door handle, and finally shoved it open. Warwoman jumped and began to nose the ground.

“Not time to eat yet, girl,” said Banks. The dog circled him, yapping. He bent to a nearby water fountain and stuck his thumb into its stream, guided a line of water into the grass. Warwoman lapped at the dampness.

“I’m hungry, too,” said Ginger. She blinked and yawned, arms crossed, hands squeezing her shoulders in the coolness of morning.

Banks smiled. “All right, I know when I’m outvoted.”

A small cinderblock grill stood at the end of the closest intersecting walkway. Banks opened the camper and dragged the cooler to the tailgate. Together, he and Ginger carried it to the grill, their feet spinning up white walkway pebbles as they lurched under the cooler’s weight.

Ginger climbed into the pickup’s rear while Banks probed the cooler’s contents. She returned with the Coleman stove and a plastic grocery bag. She drew out a box of instant oatmeal and a tin of coffee. Banks went to the truck, returned with a gallon jug of water, a cooking kit and a small, battered aluminum camp percolator. He poured one of the cooking pots full of water and measured coffee and water into the percolator. Then he mixed shreds of luncheon meat with stale bread and milk into a metal bowl and set the dish on the ground. Warwoman pushed the bowl across the grass as she ate. Banks watched her for a while, and then he killed the Coleman stove’s flames.

Ginger had set two steaming bowls of instant oatmeal side by side on the picnic table, a plastic spoon before each. They ate their fill, huddled together against the chill. Banks poured coffee. They sipped and watched the crown of the sun transform from a red hillock to an enlarging orange sphere.

Ginger rose and scrambled across the park grounds. Minutes later, she emerged from the restroom building, her hair pulled into a ponytail. Her cheeks were flushed from the cold water, and she had buttoned her denim jacket, hands tucked into her armpits for warmth.

She and Banks sat side by side once more, facing the swelling fire on the eastern horizon. Truck doors slammed below them as drivers awoke and stumbled stiffly to the restrooms. The morning began a slow warming, the Interstate’s atonal hum growing louder.

“We should go soon,” said Banks.

Ginger snuggled closer. “I remember traveling on roads like this,” she said.

Banks turned. “You remember this highway?”

“No. Not really.”

“What, then?”

Her brow knotted. “I remember people I met. Some of them were mean to me. They said I was a tramp. But a lot of them were nice.” She shook her head. “A lot of them were like me. They didn’t have homes like you and Mattie do.”

Banks looked away. “Yeah.”

“Most of them were like us,” said Ginger. “They were looking for something. They didn’t know what, or where, but they were looking.”

Neither spoke. Then Banks said, “We really need to go. We have a lot of country to cross before nightfall.”

He finished his coffee and poured the pot’s remainder into his cup. He helped Ginger clean, dry, and reassemble the cooking gear. By the time they boarded the pickup and nosed back onto the Interstate, it was almost seven o’clock.

Ginger switched on the radio, and they listened to a wavering drivetime talk show until it collapsed into static. The land seemed to have awakened as the sun rose, cattle grazing on undulating, fenced-in plots of land. After a while, Banks slowed and pointed to people emerging from their homes – blurred, animated figurines beginning to make their peace with the morning.

An hour later, a roadway sign announced they were nearing Anniston, Alabama.

Ginger bent, turned the radio dial from station to station. She settled on a rollicking country song:

 

I love the road, baby can’t you see me flying

I love the road, it’s no lie

It’s all about going over yonder

Just to see what’s up around the bend

 

Banks grinned, wriggled into a more comfortable position on the bench seat. Though he yet failed to recognize it, some dormant thing within him was slipping its moorings, making him antsy, eager. For the moment, danger lay to their rear, over the horizon to the east, an ill dream to be dealt with later. This day promised adventure – a new world beckoning, as complex, as unknown as the roads they were traveling, effusive as life itself. This was what he needed – a constantly regenerating feeling of vitality, everything new and enthralling.

“I think I’ll get off here,” he said.

“Why?” asked Ginger.

He chuckled. “Like that song said, just to see what’s around the bend.”

He took the off ramp and turned north. Soon, Anniston lay before them on Highway 431, a highway sliced through solemn forests lining the western side of the Talladega Mountains, leading to the Coosa and Tennessee Rivers.

Anniston is an old Alabama town grown to a small, new city. Banks guided the pickup off the Interstate and through its quiet streets, past its economic lifeblood, Fort McClellan. There, the pathway branched, and they took the road toward Gadsden, to the northwest.

Deep in the north Alabama hills, the countryside changed from quiet, pastoral beauty to the silent decay of poverty. They passed small, rusted mobile homes behind large, unkempt autos and trucks guarded by lethargic dogs that occasionally lifted their legs on the vehicles’ tires and yapped dispassionately at passersby.

Near Gadsden the road widened to four lanes, separated into pairs by a swale and a swath of grass. They crossed the Coosa River. Gadsden blurred as they passed. They stopped at a service station on the north side of town for a bathroom break. Then they drove on, through a gauntlet of shops. They passed the outlet malls of Boaz, slipped through Albertville, and on down a mountainside.

Banks’ truck flounced onto a long bridge over Lake Guntersville, a dammed segment of the Tennessee River, clouds of mist suspended over the lake’s still waters. Deep in the mist, they could make out small, clustered islands.

He held the pickup to the road’s curves and swells, the truck’s large, six-cylinder engine churning easily up the gentle mountain slopes toward Huntsville.

The road twisted into a maze of turns as they climbed. Banks and Ginger oohed and pointed, the heights allowing them for the moment to own the panorama rising above the western leg of the Tennessee River. Clean, fragrant air swept past them. They rolled down the windows, breathed it in. They listened to birds hallooing from fences and telephone wires paralleling the road. Warwoman rose, her hind legs planted between Ginger’s legs, her head out the window. She turned to Ginger and barked as wind and birdsongs streamed past them.

Huntsville, originally named Twickenham in honor of English poet Alexander Pope’s home, emerged just ahead, a town chiseled into mountaintop rock, as if it were meant to be a jumping-off place to the stars. They drove the crest of Huntsville’s backbone, passed the Redstone Arsenal and the Air, Space, and Rocket Center, where German technicians had once gathered to labor over the birth of space travel. Those German scientists, Banks thought, they must have felt at home here in this clean, kept town.

They stopped in a roadside park north of town, made sandwiches from the cooler, and sat for a while beneath the pencil-straight pines. The afternoon had grown warm at the road’s edge, heat rising from the roadway and preventing cooler air from escaping the evergreens. Ginger took Warwoman for a walk through the trees. Banks opened one door of the pickup, stretched the length of the seat, and slept.

He woke nearly two hours later, face moist with sweat. His nose itched. He slapped at the itch. Finally, he opened his eyes. Ginger hovered inches above him, grinning. She drew back the feather she’d held to his nose and then arced it toward him again.

“Don’t,” he said.

She giggled, touched the feather to his nose. He grabbed at it, missed.

Then he rubbed his eyes and looked to his watch. Three-thirty. He wriggled from the truck, stood, scratched, removed the hunting jacket, stuffed it behind the seat.

“We went down the mountainside, Banks,” said Ginger. “We saw a raccoon and a hawk, didn’t we, girl?”

Warwoman barked her agreement.

Banks peered past them to the precipitous slope and its tangle of underbrush.

“It was fun,” said Ginger, “but I had to pick ticks off Warwoman.”

She smiled and turned shyly away as he scrutinized her. She now wore about her neck a garland of weeds and mountain flowers. Banks inspected it. It had been woven carefully and precisely. She looked up, hands clasped primly at her waist. Her dark eyes gleamed. She seemed different somehow; more like a Native American, he thought. Her hair hung loose, cascading over her shoulders. She’d tucked a feather into her hair along the crown of her head. She’d removed her denim jacket, had tied it about her hips, the white of her tee shirt a stark contrast to the bronze of her arms and face.

Since he’d met her, she’d displayed moments of anxiety, even fear, alternated with a child-like playfulness and contentment. During her quiet moments, she’d often seemed preoccupied, brooding, perhaps over lost memory. Now, whatever had been hovering about her appeared to have dissipated. She smiled, as much a part of the quiet stateliness of the place as the pines and mountains and underbrush.

“Come on,” said Banks. He climbed into the cab and started the engine.

“Can’t we have a snack first?”

“We’re going to stop for the day soon,” said Banks. “Get in.”

Ginger and Warwoman climbed into the truck, the dog in Ginger’s lap. Warwoman shoved her way to Ginger’s window, tongue hanging, wind ruffling her fur. They crossed the Tennessee line, and less than an hour later neared Fayetteville. They stopped at a vacant roadside saloon and took turns urinating behind the building.

A faucet topped a piece of pipe next to the long, clapboard-clad building. Banks turned it on. Brown water sputtered from it. Then the coffee-colored fluid paled to a clear stream. Light caught its surge, jeweled droplets spewing into the gravel. He took off his boots and shirt and washed. Then he filled a rusty bucket he’d found nearby and carried it to the building’s rear for Ginger. While he and Warwoman played in the parking lot, Ginger stripped and bathed.

He set the Coleman stove on the truck’s tailgate, opened a can of collard greens and another of pinto beans, and warmed them. Then he fried three large slabs of ham in a skillet. Ginger spooned the vegetables and meat onto two steel plates and added slices of wheat bread from the loaf she’d stowed in the cooler. Banks cut up the remaining piece of ham and kneaded it into a mixture of beans and bread for Warwoman.

By the time they’d finished eating, the sun had slouched its way to the western horizon. Ginger sat on the hood of the truck and clapped as the sun’s red and yellow arc dimmed and then swooned into dusk. Banks leaned against the pickup hood, peered to the west, and waved his goodbyes to the day.

Caught up in the sunset, they failed to notice an approaching car until it had stopped and the driver had slammed the door. Banks seized Ginger’s hand, turned. A police car – FAYETTEVILLE POLICE stenciled on its front door.

The policeman eyed Ginger, then Banks. “You folks planning to spend the night here?”

“Hadn’t given it much thought yet,” said Banks. “Might want to, though.”

“Where you from?”

“North Georgia. From the mountains. We’re on vacation, camping out.”

“Your mountains as pretty as these?” The policeman waved a hand toward the dimming horizon.

“Yep,” said Banks.

“I love it,” the policeman said. “Wouldn’t live anywhere else.”

“I can see why,” said Banks.

“Y’all pull off to the other side of the building, into the trees, and you’ll be out of sight. Nobody’ll bother you there.”

Banks nodded a thank you, and the police car crept onto the road toward town.

Ginger let out a cry and hugged Banks to her.

“No need to be scared, Gin. We haven’t done anything wrong.” He stroked her hair.

“But he’s a cop.”

“Yep. Just like me.”

She gave him a tentative smile. They climbed back into the cab, and Banks pulled into the trees on the far side of the building.

The temperature dropped quickly as the sky darkened. For a while, they sat on the still-warm truck hood, listening to the crickets, their chirping fluttering back and forth through the pines and poplars. Then Banks made a nest for Warwoman under the pickup, and he and Ginger climbed into the camper and sprawled across the air mattress.

“I’m happy now,” said Ginger. She moved closer and touched Banks.

He grunted.

Her hand moved across this chest, then down his abdomen to his legs.

He didn’t move.

“You’re thinking about Mattie, aren’t you?”

“Yeah.”

She moved a leg over him and kissed his ear. “She’s okay, Banks. I can feel it.”

He didn’t answer.

“Everything’s perfect,” she said. “For me, and for you. It may not seem like it, but things are perfect for Mattie, too.”

He rolled over in the cramped space. Moonlight had filled her eyes, doorways to something placid and enduring within her.

“How can you say that, Gin? Everything is –” he waved a hand in the cramped space, “– in such chaos. This trip is going to upset my whole life.”

She stroked his thick hair. “We don’t know what’s going to happen next, but that’s the fun of it, Banks, don’t you see? We don’t know, but it feels right. Isn’t that enough?”

Her finger touched his lips. “Shh,” she whispered. “Sleep.”

He turned, settled into the quilted mattress. Then her arm again crept across the bulk of his chest. She sighed. Her breaths lengthened, and she began her soft snoring.

Banks tried to keep Mattie from his thoughts, but he couldn’t. What was he doing? A day ago, happily ensconced in Georgia, today running, to some undetermined place, from a danger as yet without a face or purpose. He had abandoned Mattie. For Ginger. He lay, eyes closed, gently rubbing Ginger’s arm. She burrowed deeper into his warmth.

As he lay there, he could still feel the truck’s gentle sway; he could see the mountains, the towns and countryside they’d driven through, as they streamed past him once more. Mattie’s voice came, harsh at first, then dimming to a whisper. Finally, he surrendered to sleep.

Visit my website here to find out more about A PLACE OF BELONGING, or to buy the book. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

And here’s the trailer: