Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Arcola Girls

On Saturday night, Arcola girls would come north on the two-lane for the dance.  The road, Route 45, was flat, and the grass grew right up to the edge, crowding in on them, narrowing the alley of their headlight beam.  With their windows open they could smell the warm, damp night air and the cornfields as they came.  They could hear everywhere the swarms of crickets.  Sometimes grasshoppers would land right on the windshield or thump onto the hood.  Crows would sweep from the wires, stay on the road until the last moment, picking at run-over barn cats and field mice.  The car tires would thump on the seams of the concrete road.  It was a seven-mile drive.
          By eight in the evening their white Chevys and green Mustangs and burgundy Corvairs would be cruising through the drive-in and making the Webster Park loop.  They would glide through the downtown, past the community building where the dance was just getting started.  Sometimes you’d hear their tires screech as they stopped, or they’d peel out at the intersection, showing off.  You could hear them laughing.
          One of them, named Kelly, had beautiful blond hair, long like that of Mary Travers.  There was one named Karen who was famous for singing like Connie Francis, and sometimes at the dance she’d join the band and sing “Where the Boys Are,” just for fun.  Another, Sandra, was very tall, and her hair was ratted in a bubble after the fashion.  She had odd eye-habits, always seeming to observe.  Sometimes, playing in the park, she’d be running—her strides were long and confident like a boy’s.
          They all wore shorts and colorful sweatshirts, white tennis shoes.  At the dance they would d huddle together in a corner, doing committee work on the latest rumor, the latest dirty joke.  Sandra, alert in the corner of her eyes, would look over her shoulder in case anyone was coming.
          “I think you love those girls,” my girlfriend said to me on the phone one night, “the way you watch them.”
          There were two bad S curves in the road from Arcola.  They were where the highway was rerouted fifty yards west of itself for a certain short stretch because it would always flood in a heavy rain and people would get killed.  So, instead, people got killed in the curves.  Late one night in that particular summer, early June, Karen with another Arcola girl named Marie, ran off the road at high speed on their way home.  They went over the ditch and deep into the woods, through a fence, flipped into a field.  They weren’t found until morning.
        The crumpled ghost of their Chevy rusted most of the summer and part of the fall where the wrecker let it down, half a block from the Dairy Queen in the wreck lot of Ford Motor Sales.  I don’t know what the fascination was, but sometimes I’d go by there.  Through the crunched, blue-tinted windows, in the folds of the damp, bent seats, I could see a Beatles album and a soggy package of Kools.  There were stains of blood in the driver’s seat.  One of their shoes was decomposing in the gravel next to the car.  I’d find myself staring.  This was before Vietnam really got going.  Back then, the whole idea of people dying who were about my age was a rare and somehow fascinating thing.  The Arcola girls, Karen and Marie, they were the first I remember.
          There was one Arcola girl named Rhonda Hart, a wild girl with dark brown hair and strange blue catlike eyes.  Each Saturday night, late, when the dance was almost over and the room was humid and warm like hot breath, a group would gather around Rhonda, who was by then dancing alone, doing, if the chaperones weren’t looking, a pantomime of taking her clothes off to a grinding on-and-on rendition of “Louie, Louie” that the local bands had turned into the theme of the summer.
          I remember that her legs were skinny, but she was round and ample under a pure-white sweatshirt, and her menacing cat eyes stared into the group around her, mostly boys, her lips pouting like a bad girl.  She’d make-believe unzip her candy-colored red shorts at the back, make-believe slip her panties off her hips and slide them down the skinny legs to the cold cork-looking floor of the West Ridge community building.  A little kick at the last and, imaginary pale pink, they sailed through the imaginary air.  And on she danced, her arms out to you.  She was pretty good.
          At Webster Park, there was an old bandstand the Arcola girls used to gather at on summer nights.  They would park their cars in the deep shadows.  The local high school boys would go there, too, and in the black shade of the park maples they would all play, smoke, make out, the Lord knew what else (there were always whisperings, strange rumors going around).  These were country girls.  Maybe some of them wouldn’t have gotten a second look from the boys in Arcola, but in West Ridge, they were exotic and different, from a place that, to us, then, seemed far away.  They made the air palpable with sex and play.
          The first time I ever heard a girl say “fuck,” it was an Arcola girl, and she didn’t say it mean or loud, but it seemed to echo all through Webster Park, down the length of it into the cluster of pine trees, beyond that to the ball diamonds, the deserted playground and city pool, the walking gardens.
          “You’d love to go out with one of those girls,” my girlfriend would sometimes say.
          We’d be at the drive-in and one of their cars might spin through.  The curb-hops would jump back to avoid it.  I might crane my neck to see who it was.
          “Cathy says they’re all as dumb as posts,” she’d say.  Cathy was my girlfriend’s friend.
          “Cathy should talk,” I told her.  I’d turn up the radio, the manic rabble-rousing prattle of Dick Biondi, WLS.
          That summer a couple of classmates of mine, Bob Reid and Buzz Talbott, slipped into a slumber party in Arcola.  They climbed in a bedroom window, bringing with them their sleeping bags and beer.  Rumors were it had been some great party.  The rumor was that somebody’s farmer-dad caught them, though, and there had been a shotgun fired and a quick getaway.  Bob Reid, and a kid he paid who was taking shop, had spent an afternoon rubbing out and painting a couple of pockmarks on the white tailgate of his dad’s pickup.
          Sarah, a buxom little Arcola cheerleader, maybe the prettiest in the whole group, got pregnant that summer and disappeared.  They said she went to Texas.  It seemed like everything you heard about the Arcola girls was an exotic, strange, wild tale—full of skin and possibilities.
          So one Friday afternoon I called up Rhonda Hart to ask her out.
          “Tonight?”  She seemed real indignant.  “Out where?” she said.  “For chrissake,” she added.  She was chewing gum.  “Give a girl some notice sometime, will ya?”  It was her Mae West act.  She was laughing.
          “Mattoon.  A movie.  Champaign—I don’t know.”
          “Mattoon a movie Champaign you don’t KNOW?”
          Shouldn’t have called, I thought to myself.  Her voice was hard and confident.  The Righteous Brothers were playing in the background.  I’m different from her, I was thinking.  She knows more about the world.
          “We could just go talk or something.  I don’t know,” I said.  It was all wrong.
          “I’m not sure I know who you are even,” she said.
          “My name’s Tom Nichols,” I told her.  I tried to explain myself to her.  Told her I was a friend of Bob Reid and ran cross country with Talbott.  Tried to recall for her times when I was the guy with somebody she did know when we were doing something she might remember, such as getting a pizza or buying a Coke at the Sinclair station like a bunch of us did one night and all stood around making wisecracks.
         “Well, let’s drive around West Ridge—we don’t have to go any place special,” she said.
           “That’d be okay,” I said.  “I thought a movie maybe.”
           She was quiet a moment.  “So you don’t wanna be seen with me or what?”
           “Nah.  I just want—I don’t know—quiet or something.  That’s all.”
           “Right.”  She laughed.  She really liked that one.
           “Wanna go dancing?” she said.  “Up at the Chances R?  I heard the Artistics are up there.  I love their lead singer—he looks exactly like Elvis.  Let’s go dancing.”
           Sometimes I’d see her cruising with Bob Reid in his pickup.  I knew she occasionally went out with him, and he was never known to dance.  So what did they do when they went out?  Couldn’t we just do that, whatever it was?
           “Okay,” I said.  “We’ll find a dance or something.”
           “You don’t sound real enthused.”
           “I’m enthused.”
           “You don’t sound like it.”
           “Look,” I said, “I must be a little enthused, I’m calling you up.”
           “Down, boy,” she said, laughing, chewing her gum.  She thought about it for a while.
           “Don’t make it a gift from the gods or something,” I said finally.
           “Right,” she said.  “Hang on.”  She put the phone against something soft to muffle the sound, and was shouting.  Then I heard the phone clank down and she was gone, to ask her mom.  You’d always forget that Arcola girls had to ask their moms.
           “Yeah, I can go,” she said when she came back all breathless.  “What time?”
           “Eight.  Suit yourself,” I said.
           “Dancing, right?”  She seemed to be setting it out as a condition.
           “Eight o’clock,” I said.
           “Seven or eight?” she said.
           After I hung up I went out in the backyard and sat in a lawn chair.  I was nervous about this.  Rhonda seemed different from my girlfriend, rougher and faster.  Then my sister yelled from the house that I had a call.
           “Hi.  This is Rhonda,” she said.  I didn’t say anything.  I expected a cancellation.                “Remember me?” she said, and laughed.  “One more thing.  Let’s make it around ten-thirty, and you meet me at the bandstand at the park.  What do you say?”
           “Right.”  She was talking quieter than in the first call.
           “No way,” I said.
           “I got something going I forgot about.  I can get loose by ten-thirty.”
           “What’s wrong?”
           “It’s too late.”
           “Look,” she said, I want to introduce you to my friends.  I’ll ride up with Kelly, and you can bring me home.  You know Kelly?”  Kelly had the silky, white-blond hair, freckles.
           “Yeah, I know her.”
           “Well, I just talked to her, and she doesn’t know you.”
           “I think I’m losing control of this.”
           “Ha.”  She seemed to fade away.  Then she was back.  “You can handle it.  See you at the bandstand.  Ten-thirty.  Wait if I’m late.”  She hung up.

          At eight I was on the highway to Arcola.  I’d decided to try to get to Rhonda before Kelly did.  The sun was going down and the Illinois sky was red in the west.  The locusts were loud, wheeting in a pulsating rhythm.  Much later the moon would rise full and red, blood moon.  Jupiter would linger near it all across the sky, stalking.  The whole thing was a mistake.
          I’d never been to Arcola on my own mission, but I found her house, using the phone book in the booth just outside a place downtown called the Youth Center.  I parked down the street on the opposite side and watched the house in my mirror.  It was dusk.  I got out of the car and walked back toward the place, trying to think of what to say.  I hadn’t thought of anything by the time I knocked and Rhonda’s mother came to the door.  She was all fixed up, maybe thirty-nine or forty years old.  Her perfume wafted through the screen door.
          “Hi,” I said.  “Is Rhonda home?”  I told her my name.
          “You’re Tom?  I thought she was with you,” she said.
          I turned around to see if she was, a little joke.  “Nope.”
          Rhonda’s mom didn’t laugh.
          “I’m kind of late,” I said.  “Are you sure she isn’t here?”
          “God, I’m almost sure she’s gone,” she said, “but I’ll check.”  Her voice was raspy, had that same worldliness as Rhonda’s.
          She asked me in and had me sit on the couch.  There was what appeared to be a half-gone seven-and-seven on the coffee table.  I heard her go up the stairs.  There was a cat on the couch with me, staring at me, and there was the tank of fish in the room that I’d been able to see from the car.  The whole room had the fragrance of Rhonda’s mom’s perfume.
          “Look,” she said when she came back in, “I can’t find her.  I think she went out already.  I thought I heard you come to pick her up half an hour ago.  I’m really sorry, but she’s gone.”
          I sat there on the couch, looking at her.
          “There are a couple of places you might find her, is all I can tell you,” she said, sitting down next to the cat and facing me.  I looked out the window into the Arcola night.  I noticed that sometimes she herself was looking out, over my shoulder.
         I didn’t say anything.  I didn’t move.
         “She might have gone to West Ridge, is all I know.  Although if she did she’s in trouble.”
        Rhonda’s mother was wearing a cotton blouse, a tight dark skirt.  Her deeply tanned hand was on the back of the couch near me.  Her fingernails were ruby red.  The house was quiet, immaculately clean.  My quietness was giving her some trouble.  On the wall was a picture of Rhonda when she was little.  Next to her her father, a truck driver..  They were posing in front of his fancy new semi.
       “I’m very sorry about this,” she said to me.  Her teeth were kind of crooked.
       “Maybe she took off because I was late or something.”
       “I don’t think so.  There must have been some misunderstanding.  She was looking forward to this, she really was.  She probably told you, I’ve had her grounded for a couple of weeks because of that drunken slumber party business.  She’s supposed to be with you right now.  The condition for this whole thing was that she was going to the movies with you.  She’s in trouble.”
       “Well, I said.  “It was a misunderstanding maybe.”
She was pretty in a grown-up way, as she shrugged her shoulders and half smiled at me.          “Well, she’s in trouble.”  Rhonda’s mom was standing up by then, my invitation to go.        “Good night, Tom,” she said.  “I’m sorry about this.”

On the way back to the car I looked up at the sky.  Moonless, clear as a bell.  But a moon was coming—I remembered that from the night before.  As I was pulling away, I noticed that a car behind me was passing slowly.  I thought it might be Rhonda and Kelly.  I drove around the block, and in those few moments, Rhonda’s mom had turned off the lights and locked up and was darting across the dark yard to the car.  It was a white Oldsmobile Starfire with the wide band of stainless steel on the side.  I couldn’t see the driver before the arching trees and distance intervened.
          I imagined that Rhonda had gone north with Kelly and that West Ridge was now aware of my foiled, clandestine date.  I decided to drive around the streets of Arcola for a while.  West Ridge and Arcola, they were little towns.  You could stand in the center of either of them, facing north, and see the bean fields at the city limits to the left and the right; standing there at dawn you could hear the roosters welcome the day out on the farms.  In both towns there were the same white clapboard houses with an occasional red brick estate, the same livery stalls down along the Illinois Central railroad where the Amish parked when they came in from the country to shop.  There was a grain elevator on the railroad, too, and a lumberyard, and an old hotel downtown.  All the themes of West Ridge played out in a variation in Arcola.
          I passed the Arcola policeman parked in the shadows up an alley, waiting.  I could see the glow from his cigar as I passed.  I would turn left at this corner, right at this one, for no reason, but it was a small town and soon I was in front of Rhonda’s house again.  The lights were all off, except for a lamp near the fish tank in the living room.  I decided to park and sit a while.
          Before long Kelly’s car pulled up next to mine.  Rhonda looked over at me.  I felt like I’d been caught doing something.  Then Kelly pulled ahead of me and parked.  I saw the car door open, and Rhonda was coming back my way, walking like a curb-hop in her tennis shoes.
          “Is it you?” she said.  No recognition whatever.
          “I thought we could go south from here and catch a movie in Mattoon,” I said.
          Now Kelly was coming back, too.
          “That’s great,” Rhonda said, “bit it’s not the plan.  What about my friend?”  She introduced me to Kelly, who did not quite look at me.  She’d been kind of pretty at a distance, cruising by, but close up she had a hard mouth and a spacey stare.  Both girls were chewing gum.  I turned up WLS real loud.  “What about my friend?” she said, talking over it.
          “Does Kelly have a date tonight?” I asked Rhonda. 
          “You do, I thought.”
          Rhonda looked at Kelly impatiently, like I was missing the point.
          “She can come with us if you want,” I said.
          “Look,” she said.  “I’ve got a problem with this.  What are you doing at my house?”
          I looked up beyond the trees, at the ARCOLA in big block letters on the water tower, lighted from somewhere below.  I had once climbed the West Ridge water tower.
          “I mean this is real creepy,” she said.  She looked back up the street, chewing her gum mouth-open style.  “Did you blow this thing with my mom?”
          “Blow what?” I said.  “She seemed real nice.”  Before she could say anything, I said, “Your mom says you’re supposed to be with me.  Let’s just have an ordinary date, wha’d’ya say . . .”
          “I’ve got something I’ve got to do, that’s what I say.  Don’t you understand that?”  She looked at Kelly.  “I think he blew it with my mom.”  Then back at me.  “I’ve got something I’ve got to do,” she said.
          “Yeah, yeah.  Do that tomorrow night.  Go with me now.”
          “I’m busy tomorrow night.”
We both laughed at that one.
         “Look,” she said.  “Kelly and me talked about this.  I was thinking maybe you’d come with us.”
I stared ahead.  No answer.
         Finally she said, “Look.  Park the car over at the Youth Center and get in with us—we’ll swing by and get it later.  You know the center?”
         I was thinking about it.
         “C’mon!  I’m in a big hurry.”  She walked back to the car.  Almost there, she turned around and gestured big.  “I’m in a hurry.”
         I parked my car at the Youth Center and climbed in with them.  I sat in the back seat.  They paid very little attention to me as we drove around.  It was clear they were up to something.  Maybe they even went a little out of their way to be mysterious.
        “She’s supposed to be a good one,” I heard Kelly say to Rhonda.
        “Right.  I can imagine.”  She hummed the tune they play on Twilight Zone.
        “Seriously, she’s got a certificate from some institute or something.  What time is it?”
Kelly reached into a grocery bag in the front seat.  She pulled out a jar of kosher dills and handed it back to me.  “Open this and you get the first one,” she said, keeping her eyes on the street.  I opened it, took a pickle, and handed the jar up front.  They both chomped pickles for a while.
        “What time is it?” Kelly asked again.  The radio answered the question.
        “Slow down, Nutso,” Rhonda said as we approached the alley where the cop was.  “Hey Fat Jack!” she shouted and waved as we went by.  He remained where he was.
        When the evening train whistle sounded from out north of town, Kelly turned around in an alley and headed back toward the downtown.  By the time we got there, the train was through and the Oak Street crossing gates were going back up to let people pass, except nobody was waiting.  We drove down a lane along the railroad, a sort of alley.  We went alongside the steel Quonset-frame warehouses of the local broomcorn factory, passed the railroad depot completely closed down and boarded up, and pulled up in front of an old trailer.  Dogs were barking off in the dark.
          “Where are we?” I asked them.
          “We’re at,” Kelly said, “a . . . dark . . . house trailer.”
          She laughed nervously, stared at the place, snapped her gum.  Nobody came out.  “Looks pretty dark,” she said in a loud whisper.  The nervous laugh again.  “Shall I honk?”
          Kelly lightly tapped the horn a couple of times and blinked the lights.  The neighborhood dogs intensified their barking.  The trailer had burned at some time and had scorch marks above the windows.  Several were completely out.
          Kelly turned completely around in her seat and asked me if I would go check in the trailer to see if the woman was in there.  She reached down under the dash.  “It’s worth another pickle to us.”  She handed me a flashlight.
          “What woman?” I asked.
          “Jesus!  Just go see if anybody’s in that trailer.  Okay?”
          So I went to have a look.  The only thing not burned inside the trailer was an overstuffed couch.  On it, sure enough, was a woman dressed in black.  She was staring straight ahead and the flashlight did not seem to startle her.  “Ah.  You’re here,” she said.  “Are you Kelly?” she asked.
          “No Ma’am.  Kelly would be a girl.”
          “What’s that?” she said, coming to the door.
          “Kelly would be a girl, ma’am,” I said.
          “She would, would she?  If what?”  With my help she stepped down from the trailer to the ground.
          “She’s in the car, ma’am,” I said.  She was dressed in a black flowing robe.  She smelled like a scorched mattress.
          “So Kelly’s a girl, is she?  Where is she, then?”
          “Right, ma’am.  She’s in the car.”  I pointed toward the car, and we walked that way.  She breathed hard as we went.  We had to step over junk.
          “Who’re you?” she asked.
          “I’m a friend of Rhonda’s.”
          “A friend of who?”
          “Rhonda.”  I shined the light ahead so she could see the clear path to the car.
          As we were getting there, she asked me, “So how far’s this barn?”
          “What barn would that be?” I asked.
          Kelly heard the question.  “Hi,” she said.  “It’s about six miles out.”
          “Are you Rhonda?”
          “Kelly,” Kelly and I answered simultaneously.
          The woman bent down and looked into the car on Rhonda’s side.  “Never mind names.”  Her eyebrows seemed unusually heavy.  “I need to be back here in time for the Panama Limited—10:52.  Is that going to be a problem, you think?”
          “No,” said Kelly.
          “What’s that?”
          “No, ma’am,” I said, for some reason acting as Kelly’s interpreter.
          The woman sat in the back seat with me.  She was maybe sixty and wore a dark paisley bandana in her graying hair.  She was very serious.  Kelly started the car and we headed out. 
          “Did the train thing work okay?” Kelly asked her/
          “It worked very well.  I thought it would.  It’s a whistle-stop, real chancy. And sometimes they don’t stop and you end up in Carbondale.  But I knew they’d stop for an old woman.  I come from the age of trains.  We speak the same language.”  She was smiling as she said this, attempting to be a typical passenger on the Illinois Central.
          Now that we were heading out of town, the woman said, “Girls, I usually am paid in advance.”
          Kelly looked over at Rhonda, who rummaged in her purse.  She came up with a leather bag of change which Kelly reached over and took and started to hand back.  No telling how much.  Rhonda stopped her.
          “You know Kelly’s mother, right?” Rhonda asked.
          “Yes,” the woman said.
          “And we don’t’ want her or anyone else to know about this.  You know that?” Kelly said.
          Rhonda handed over the bag.
          It disappeared into the black flowing clothes.  “Onward, ladies,” she said, satisfied.
         After we left the lights of town, there was very little talk in the car for a while.  Occasionally Kelly and Rhonda might confer on the right direction.  Out on the country road there was a roar of crickets and frogs.  The air was almost hot coming in the back window.  I slumped down.  We were starting to get far enough north that we were in familiar king territory for West Ridge.  We turned, sure enough, onto the Black River Road, crossed the old iron bridge, and went down into the bottoms.  We turned onto the predictable tractor path, went along the river and then across the field to the barn, the barn, the great monument in West Ridge parking lore.
          We were about two hundred yards from the barn, on a tractor path serving as border between head-high corn and hip-high soybeans, when Kelly and I spotted something at exactly the same moment.
         “Oh God, Rhonda, don’t’ look,” she said, “don’t look,” and she actually groped to cover Rhonda’s eyes.  We were quietly passing the tail end of the white Starfire, partly hidden in the corn.  Rhonda stared straight into it as we passed.
        “It can’t be.”
        “Don’t look,” Kelly said.
        “What’s the deal, ladies?” the old woman said.  “you’re giving me the heebie-jeebies.  What’s happening?”
        “Nothing,” Rhonda said.  “We thought we saw somebody, but we didn’t.
        “Out here?” the woman asked.
        “We thought so,” Kelly said.  “Wrong again, though.”  She tired to almost sing it.
        “Wrong again,” Rhonda muttered.  Is that dumb or what?” she said to Kelly.  “Coming here?  Is that goddamned stupid, or what?”  She was saying this real quietly, her head down almost on her knees.  “How could this be happening?”
         I sat frozen.  I realized something amazing.  Just as surely as the summer sky was blue, Rhonda’s mom was an Arcola girl, too.
        We went on down the tractor path toward the barn, Rhonda staying low in her seat and saying nothing.  Once she squirmed up and looked out the back window, but there was nothing to see.
        “You wanna forget this?” Kelly said to her, referring to the woman in the back seat.  “No big deal.”
        “Oh come now, ladies . . .” the woman said.
        We parked the car at the side, and all of us went into the barn.  The woman selected a spot on the dirt floor in the middle of the dark, musty space, and Kelly produced six candles from the same bag she’d gotten the pickles from.  The woman lit them.  Kelly and Rhonda sat and the woman sat next to them, a triangle.
        Suddenly the woman looked at me.  “He will have to join us or get out,” she said.
       “Sit down here,” Rhonda said to me.  She was stricken, very tense.  I sat down.
       “My boy, this is a seance, what we call a ‘circle.’  We’re here to call forth the spirits, and I’m not kidding, the good spirits of departed friends, Karen Ann Kreitzer and Marie Beth McClain.  Can you handle it?”  She read the names off a small card in her hand, slipped it back into her robe.
I looked at Rhonda.
       “They were our friends,” she said to me, her voice actually trembling.
       I pictured their car in the wreck lot, the blood in the seat, and the shoe in the white gravel.  The woman was bowing forward, toward the ground, staring down, changing postures from moment to moment.  The candles made the whole barn jump.  Gray webs dangled from the crossbeams.
       “What happens if somebody drives up in the middle of this?” I whispered to Rhonda.
       “We won’t be here real long or anything,” Kelly said.
       The woman’s arms were out, embracing us as a group.  “Is there someone who can tell us of Karen and Marie?” she asked the night air.  The night air was very quiet.  “We wish for only good souls to speak to us, friendly souls and no bad souls.  Satan lives and we want none of that.  Does anyone know of Karen and Marie?  And if you do, can you, will you, join our circle?”
       The river-bottom sycamores rustled.  I realized I could hear the river.
       “We join our hands here to form a circle.  We invite you to be with us here.  We are all concentrating, thinking toward you, remembering you—your eyes, your smile.”
        Her arms reached out on both sides, and she took the hands of the girls.  Then they took mine.
In the candlelight the woman was alternately very soft and friendly-looking, then hard and witchlike.  It depended on the candlelight, her movements.  I realized there was an old red Farmall not far off behind Kelly, and an old red hay baler attached to the back.
       “Now, ladies, I want to tell you,” the woman said, “that these young girls might well not be ready to talk.  It may not be easy for them right now.”
       Rhonda and Kelly said nothing.  I was wondering if they had a money-back guarantee.  Rhonda’s hand was cool and damp, Kelly’s hot as fire.
      “I suspect that could be the case,” the woman said.  “That they aren’t ready.”  Again she bowed forward, her arms out, her hands joined to ours.  Again she moved side to side, staring off.  “We require the help of a friendly soul, a good soul,” she said, “in order to speak with Karen Kreitzer.”
     “Or with Marie,” Kelly said very quietly.
     “Marie?” the woman said, suddenly tensing up.  She held herself very straight, upright, rigid.
Kelly looked at me and rolled her eyes.
“Marie honey, are you sad?” the woman asked.  She held herself rigid for several long moments.  Amazingly, the woman’s eyes teared up.
       In a second, Rhonda began to cry also.
      “I almost had Marie there,” the woman said to Kelly.  “She was near.  Did you feel it?  She was with us in this barn.  She passed through here.  She passed through us.”  She looked around.  “Marie, please talk to your friends, to Kelly and . . .”  She was stumped.
       “Rhonda,” the girls said in unison.
       “Kelly and Rhonda are here to talk to you, Marie.”
        Silence.  A long way off a private plane was swooping in to Land at the West Ridge airfield.  I listened to the river, the trees’ rustle.  I could hear a bird steadily cooing in a tree out there somewhere, peaceful sound, made me feel better.  I think I had expected something violent to happen any moment—a barn door to fly open wildly, a ghoul to appear, the old woman’s head to do a three-sixty, her eyes to light up like the devil.
        “Ladies,” the woman said, “this room is full of ghosts—restless souls from this land all around, souls from all ages.  There are Indians here and old settlers, pioneers—children and farmers whose bones are buried in this ground.  We have made a hole in the firmament and they are crowding to it.  Can you sense that they are with us?”
        The girls didn’t answer.
       “Karen?  Karen, have you come to speak with us?  Will you join our circle?  No,” she said in just a moment, quietly, “it’s Marie who comes near.  Marie!  Will you speak to your friends?  Karen?  Are you there, my dear?”  The woman’s eyes were closed in fierce concentration.
       “Karen?”  Kelly said quietly into the black.
       “What’s that?” the woman whispered.  “Did you hear that?”  She thought Kelly was a spirit talking.
        Kelly looked at her.  “It was me,” she said.  Kelly clearly conveyed impatience.  This seemed to deflate the woman completely.
       “Ladies,” she said after a moment, “these are girls who have died very young.  Maybe to you your age doesn’t seem real young.  I believe that they are  not yet ready to talk.  They are still very sad, I think.  There is the sign that they are not happy on the other side.  They will be, but they have died young and they aren’t happy yet.  I’m sorry.”  She broke hands with Rhonda and Kelly and leaned forward and blew out the candles.
       “Or else,” she said, “something’s distracting you ladies and keeping us from fully communicating.”
        Abruptly Rhonda went out the door.  I suddenly realized where she might be going.  Kelly followed me out but ran by me very fast, disappeared on the lane ahead.  She wanted to stop Rhonda.  I was having a hard time believing Rhonda was really going where it looked like she was.  At one point I came around a bend in the path, and could see that Kelly had caught up to her.  The two of them were talking, Rhonda waving her arms—she was pretty upset.  Kelly had her hands on Rhonda’s shoulders—trying to talk sense, it looked like.  Then in a moment Rhonda was coming back toward me, and Kelly was heading on back toward the car parked in the corn.
       “What’s going on?” I asked when Rhonda was close enough. 
       “Kelly’s gone bushwhacking,” she said.  “She’s going to get a ride home for her and Ghost-woman.”  Not knowing I knew what I knew, she lied for my benefit:  “I guess Kelly knows those people or something.”  She looked at me to see if it was going to fly.  I let it.  “Anyway, I’ve got Kelly’s keys, in case there’s a problem,” she said.  Now she was running back toward the barn with me right behind her.  “Give me your keys,” she said to me, “so Kelly can get back out here in your car.  Then we can go dancing and she can go to West Ridge.
       “I don’t get this,” I said.
       “Hang in there,” she said.
       The windows on Kelly’s car had misted up in the night air.  The woman standing next to it.  The moon was just up, red and looming low in the east.  “The car broke,” Rhonda said.
       “It what?” the woman said.
       “Kelly says it won’t start.  But you wait here—Kelly’s going to get you to the train on time.  Him and me . . .”  Rhonda indicated me.  “We’re going to hide from the people in the other car, then stay and guard Kelly’s car until Kelly gets back.  How’s that?”
       “You mean she’s gone to—er—interrupt those kids parked back yonder?” the woman said.
       “Yeah.  So you can get to the train.  Give these to Kelly.”  Rhonda said, handing my car keys to the woman.
       “Well what are those kids going to think of Kelly and me out here alone?” she said, as the Starfire headlights glanced high off the side of the barn and changed the shadows.
       We were retreating into the standing corn.  “What are you worried about?” Rhonda shouted.                “You’ve got a whole bag of money.”
        Later we were near the swimming hole, in a stand of oaks, sycamores, and river willows.  Rhonda was munching on a pickle.  There were hedge apples on the ground, and I lobbed a few into the river.  Maybe she seemed a little shorter than I imagined she was.  I’d never stood near her before.
        “Pretty strange evening,” I said.
        She didn’t answer.  After a while, though, she turned and stood there looking at me.  “We paid her seventy bucks.”  She kept looking at me.  I did my best not to react.
         The moon was up brighter now, and it gave enough light for me to see the rope I thought I remembered being there, attached high in a sycamore, for swinging out over the water.  The night was muggy and hot.  Rhonda said nothing.
         “Try to tell me what was going on back there.”
         “You mean Ghost-woman?  Just something completely insane,” she said.  “Kelly gets these great ideas.  Kelly’s mom knows this nurse up in Champaign who does this stuff—reads palms, all that.  I forgot this was the night.  That’s why I messed you over.  Forgot.”
         “Oh.  I thought I was the front man.  So you could get out of the house.”
         She said nothing to that.  She was sitting on the riverbank.  I sat down next to her.
        “My mom’s having an affair with the local veterinarian.”
        She looked downriver into the dark.  “Jesus, I’m coming apart,” she said.  She was quiet for a minute.  “I feel so sorry for Dad.  I can’t think about it,” she said.  Then she was crying, her head down on her arms, which were resting on her knees.
I sat next to her.  I couldn’t think of a thing to tell her.
         “I thought we might reach Karen,” she said after a while.  “I really loved her.  She was my best friend.  My best friend.  I’m definitely coming apart.”
         There was nothing to say.  I ate a pickle and regretted it.  I rolled a couple of hedge apples down the bank into the water.  Finally I stood up and kicked my shoes off, dropped my wallet on the ground next to them.  I tested the rope to see if the limb would hold me.
         “What if Karen had talked tonight?” I said.  “What would she say?”
         “Don’t tease me.  It was a nutty idea.  Karen would talk to me if she could.  You’re going to bust your ass swinging on that thing.  I’ll tell you what, that woman was a complete fake.”  After a while she said, “Didn’t you think so?”  She didn’t move.  “Kelly says a medium like this one helped her contact her father.”
         “Kelly wishes,” I said.  I swung out over the river, a warm wind in my ears.  “One thing I know is that Karen and Marie aren’t sad.  You are, but they aren’t.”  I grabbed a hedge apple, and I swung out over the river dropping it straight down.  It was hard to tell how far above the water I was.  I told Rhonda,
        There’s not anything to say, is why they didn’t talk.  They died and that’s all.”
Her head was down.  “I just don’t believe your friends can die like that,” she said.  “Not your friends.”  By now it seemed to me like she’d been crying off and on for hours.
       “It’s a real pretty night, you know it?  You ought to try to relax.”
       “Ha.  Relax,” she said.
        I swung out again and again on the rope.  I realized it would have been better if she could have been left to herself.  “Lucky I’m here to keep you company,” I said.  At the far point of the arch, I could see all the way to the iron bridge.  Out there, the moon broke through the trees, and I could see the movement of the water downstream.  Sometimes I could hear a carp break the surface.
        “I didn’t want to go dancing anyway,” I said.  When I swung, I could hear the rope grating on the big limb high above.  At one point while I was far out on the rope, I heard Rhonda slip into the water.  I swung back to the bank, took a run and swung far out again, trying to spot her in the inky black below.  I could hear her swimming.
         “It’s nice and cool,” she said.
At the far point this time I let go of the rope and dropped.  En route to the water, in a moment when I was anticipating splashing hard into the Black River, in a turning and falling motion in the dark, I happened to notice Rhonda’s clothes in a little moonlit pile on the riverbank.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Wild, Cheryl Strayed's Memoir of Walking the Pacific Crest Trail from Mojave to the Columbia River

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed (March 2012)
Requirements: ePUB Reader | 2.3 Mb
Overview: A powerful, blazingly honest memoir: the story of an 1100 mile solo hike that broke down a young woman reeling from catastrophe — and built her back up again.

At 22, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother's death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life: to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State — and to do it alone. She had no experience as a long-distance hiker, and the trail was little more than “an idea, vague and outlandish and full of promise.” But it was a promise of piecing back together a life that had come undone.

Strayed faces down rattlesnakes and black bears, intense heat and record snowfalls, and both the beauty and loneliness of the trail. Told with great suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild vividly captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her. 

This eBook edition includes a Reading Group Guide.
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir,


About an hour ago I finished Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. The book has of course been made into a movie, and I saw that also, but the book, as is the usual case, trumps the movie by some measure. Rarely have I read of such an emotional journey, Strayed walking from the Mojave Desert to the Columbia River mostly alone. That's more than a thousand miles, mostly going up and down in the mountains with a backpack she nicknamed "Monster" because it was spectacularly heavy. I was pumped to write about the experience of reading this book, but right now all I want to say is read it.

One of the most pleasant aspects of the book is the masterful handling of flashback. As Strayed walks the PCT, she finds herself mesmerized into sorting out the past. This is by no means the most challenging aspect of the long walk, though she thought, as she planned, that there would be plenty of time on the Trail to think about stuff.  It turns out that the Trail itself, and its challenges, were the main things Strayed had to confront, from extreme temperature changes (mountains, desert) to rain and snow and 100 degree heat. The Trail forced her to let go of all her idealistic plans for self-reflection and apply herself to maintaining her forward momentum in trail boots that were too small and equipment she was carrying that a professional hiker had to advise her to dump off.

That summer she was the only woman on the trail hiking alone, and with one exception she found that the men she encountered on the trail were in awe of her--they nicknamed her The Queen of the PCT.  They followed her boot tracks, read her short handwritten paragraphs in the trail logs that she spent some time filling out along the way.  She also was broke most of the time.  She was having boxes of replenishment sent ahead to her to trail stations along the way, but it was that same trail pro who told her that she could get new trail boots free by calling REI and telling them that the boots she bought there were too small and she needed boots a size larger--and where to send them.

Most of the Trail she traveled in great pain, her feet feeling like they were broken sometimes, her toe nails coming off, blood from the blisters saturating her socks. She carried a first aid kit and had to do work on her feet almost every night. She carried several books, also heavy, that allowed her to escape the pain and the realities of the trail, short stories by Flannery O'Connor, Lolita by Nabokov, poems by Adrienne Rich.  She learned to burn the pages of the books as she read them, to lighten the load.

At the end of the Trail, in Portland, she finds that she is stronger and that her mind has cleared, not because she did obsessive self-reflection on the Trail but because the Trail hike contained so many challenges that occupied her. One challenge was that there was unusual amounts of snow fall in the highland areas, and with some regret she began to mull over detours that would take her around the snow at lower, warmer elevations.  Her maps and compass always showed her how to find her way back to the PCT, and since the Trail had engaged and challenged her, she did want back on it.

I'm sure she kept journals of her trek. The book Wild is chock full of the kinds of specifics that her walking journal might have recorded, including encounters with rattlesnakes, bears, a llama, and numerous other hikers who knew her by reputation on the trail and would finally catch up to her. Many of them had started hiking in Mexico and were on their way to Canada. While she knew she'd most likely never see them again, she was still very happy to sit around a campfire on a picnic table and exchange stories with them.  It is amazing how engaging her book is, a masterwork in the memoir genre for sure.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Self Publishing in a World of Literary Democratization

Vanity publishing, it used to be called. It happened because the author of a book was not willing to go through the gauntlet of rejection and revision. I've seen so many self-published books in which the author was not well-served by the publishing outfit that was happy to take the money but not at all willing to provide editorial services to save the author from his or her self. That's the history.

But in recent years the big house publishers have been overwhelmed by the number of submissions of viable manuscripts. They can't publish them all. Worthy manuscripts are rejected and end up in boxes. Part of this dilemma has been solved by a whole raft of small presses emerging. These presses make beautiful, well-edited books. Authors accessing these presses are not self-publishing, but they are making a tactical decision to get the book out and in front of people, and to begin the next one. My book, Forty Martyrs, soon to be published by Burrow Press of Orlando, FL, has stories in it that are 25 years old, go back to 1986. The stories in the book have been cited in Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart Prize and have to be seen as worthy of print. One of the stories appeared in the Kenyon Review, one the New England Review. One of the happiest of developments with Burrow Press is that they are giving me the opportunity, over a year, to make the manuscript the very best it can be. With the help of Ryan Rivas of Burrow Press, I'm combing over the stories, I'm working to sequence the stories in a proper and defensible way, so that there is a "flow" to the narrative, without impeding each story's ability to stand alone. I'm working with Olive Kitteridge as a model, one of my favorite books ever. This is not vanity publishing. The principles of Burrow Press used to be the principles of the big houses, in the time of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Regrettably, the big houses now are not run by book people. They are corporate, and they have to generate a profit for their stockholders. How many "blockbuster" biographies of Burt Reynolds and the Clintons do we need?

But there is a place for self-publishing. Authors who are well known format and proof their own work, make their own beautiful book, and put it on the market. They reap the profits straight away. Well known authors are not going to press with manuscripts that are not proofed and are not beautiful books. The big houses no longer market or fund book tours. The promise of publishing by a big house is, like many things in these times, receding. Self-publishing is a tactical option for a career author. It is not a newbie shortcut.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

More on "River," the Final Story in Olive Kitteridge; Anticipating Revisions of Forty Martyrs

Elizabeth Strout

For a few weeks I've been thinking about "River," the closing story in Elizabeth Strout(pictured above)'s wondrous novel-in-stories Olive Kitteridge.  As noted before, my interest is self-interest -- trying to solve a problem in my own novel-in-stories tentatively titled Forty Martyrs..  I wrote my novel-in-stories over 25 years.  When I won the Flannery O'Connor Award, the series editor, the amazing and wonderful Charles East (RIP), recommended that my long story (40 pages) "Forty Martyrs" come out of the collection because it was the 12th story in the set and would have run the book to over 300 pages.  At that time, I thought "Forty Martyrs" was my best story ever (circa 1986), but we agreed it could serve as foundation for another book.  In 1994, eight years after its omission from Silent Retreats, the story appeared in the New England Review, thanks to acting editor of the NER David Huddle, and that year was listed in "100 Other Distinguished Short Stories" in the back of Best American Short Stories 1995, affirming, I thought then, that it was my best.  Still I've never regretted it being omitted from Silent Retreats.  I was, I thought then, banking it for the future.  It was the first story that included (in cameo) my second recurring character after the infamous Skidmore of Silent Retreats.  His name was Lowell Wagner, a clinical psychologist and college professor, and in a way it could be said that he is the Olive K. of Forty Martyrs, the glue holding the stories together.

I was a psych minor in undergraduate school, and I met regularly with Jim Kenny, chair of the psych department there, for four years.  I count my therapy in undergraduate school as 40% of my liberal arts education, and I embraced social psychology as my minor in my doctoral program at UVa.  I have a number of friends, including Jim Kenny of course, who are shrinks, psychologists, and MSWs with whom I check after writing something about Lowell, just to make sure I'm tracking with best practices and worst mistakes of professionals in the field.  I have most of the recent diagnostic manuals on my book shelf, well thumbed through and bristling with post-its.  The Lowell stories in FMS currently number seven, not counting the closing story "The Kopi" which was a pathological mess and didn't work at all.  The stories have all been published in good places.  Since publication they've been massaged to click with one another in that interesting way of novels-in-stories.  Don't laugh, but when I first started writing Forty Martyrs Suite, I thought I was inventing that form. I thought then that that was the form a short story writer should attempt when writing long work. I had many ideas about it all:

  • the stories could be read in any order because they weren't really set down in chronological (it turns out that it's best if they are read in the order in which they appear in the book);
  • the overall effect of the book would be a series of slices of life, which is how life is experienced (I thought back then);
  • if read out of order, no harm done except getting a peek at the book's future, what happens, which is of minor interest in a character driven novel;
  • the final story would not be saddled with the task of pulling things together because in real life nothing pulls everything together -- we just move on (I still think that);
  • the links between and among the stories are not plot links but character links (the action of the story in a novel-in-stories happens in the mind of the reader as she gets to know the characters and as the characters act).

Chapters in a novel-in-stories are called "stories."  The stories are self-standing, can be marketed to journals and magazines.  Published alone, they are not excerpts from the novel.  They are stories.  I pictured a thin vertical line between interconnected story collections and novels-in-stories.  My copy of Olive Kitteridge doesn't categorize the book as a novel or a collection.  It is, as they say, what it is.  Still, readers like a sense of direction in long work, so the publishers will say, but Olive Kitteridge has no sense of direction.  We don't actually follow Olive around Crosby watching what she does, nor does the plot thicken.  Each story is like a new beginning, and the point of view characters are frequently not Olive or Henry but someone else in the town and Olive just happens by.  What the reader can count on in the book, since the plot doesn't really ever tighten down or amp up the tension, is Olive being her rough-hewn, complex, outspoken, sometimes impossible self.  We get glee simply from "knowing" Olive and marveling at the consistency with which she behaves in the way we know she will.

The Book

At the opening of "River," we see this one more time.  She lives alone now, and has settled into routines and habitual thoughts, such as she doesn't mind dying but wants it to be quick.  She is, as usual, fast to judge others, usually uncharitably, negatively.  When Jack Kennison wanders into her path as she's backing up one day, she recognizes him and recalls how she and Henry thought Jack was an elitist idiot.  This is typical stuff from Olive, and Strout is letting us review her (Olive's) behaviors and malfunctions, all of which make us feel we really do know her as we approach the end of the book.  But we have also seen Olive be quite giving in the foregoing stories, how she attempted to counsel a starving girl, how she intervened when she encountered a former student who might have been a few minutes from shooting himself, how she stayed in touch with her husband for years while he lingered in a comprehensive care facility with no ability to communicate.

Midway, then, in "River," she comes upon Jack laying on the walking path where she takes her routine early morning walks. She hurries to his side and comes out with a prototypical Olive query.  She barks, "Are you dead?"  He's not.  He is recently widowed and depressed. While sitting on the bench he had fainted.  Jack is having intimations of mortality.  They are a mile from her car (and his), and when she says she's going for help, Jack says, "Don't leave me alone."  Just as Olive doesn't want to die slowly, Jack doesn't want to die alone.  Somehow she gets him up onto the bench, and she sits with him for a while until he's ready to walk back to the cars.  She takes him in her car to a doctor, and waits hours while the doctor runs tests to try to diagnose the problem.  Jack sends a nurse messenger to the waiting room to tell her he's worried about her sitting out there all that time, and Olive realizes she has a real purpose being there, and she likes having a purpose, she is more than willing to wait for him and to give him a ride back to his car.

This begins the soul connection between Olive and Jack.  After a couple of political arguments that end in a draw, they settle into each other.  Nothing we would have remotely expected from Olive.  In former years neither of them would have chosen the other, but at this time they do.  Olive figures a few things out about people, how for years she's been driving them off, and Jack's mood levels out.  Olive has changed on this journey.  The journey has changed her, in the nick of time. That is the reward of the book for the reader.   

What tendencies does Lowell have that we are concerned about, and what is the prognosis for him addressing these matters in his remaining years?  Is it feasible that there could be signs of his changing  in the last story; but first, is the reader really tracking Lowell's malfunctions or does the book design demonstrate them too quietly, like butter on toast spread too thin?  That is the puzzle for the revision, and for the last story in Forty Martyrs.  Not a capstone, not a pulling together of all the random plotlines.  Rather, simply some promise that the book knows what it is about and that there's hope for Lowell, my flawed protagonist.