Books

THE TWELVE FACES   |     CARAVAGGIO’S WHORE     |     FINDING MIRANDA

When I was twelve I was something of a proto-slacker, which is another way of saying that I was an especially lazy kid. Our family lived on a thousand acre farm and if acres equal work, the labor required to keep such a big place running smoothly was a lot. Especially if the father running things insists on really high standards of smoothness. Being the oldest son, I soon came to realize that I was facing a  good six years of indentured servitude, even though there was a permanent hired man to help with the load. As laziness was part of my nature, I skipped out on farm work every chance I got.

It was late spring. I don’t remember the month. April? May? I’m guessing May because it was starting to get hot. I was stretched out on the  floor of the the screened-in front porch, reading the newest Superman comic book when my reverie was interrupted by the rumble of my father’s pickup coming up our long, steep gravel driveway. I looked up to see my father staring at me through the open cab window. He was sweating and covered in dust from hours of hoeing our recently planted corn. His big meaty farmer hands were tightly gripping the steering wheel in a way that should have warned me what was coming.

See, back then, once you planted your crop, you had to hoe the rows to keep the weeds down because Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready seed was still just a glimmer in some scientist’s eye. The old man liked his fields weed-free. He took pride in that. He’d mutter his disgust whenever we’d drive past another farmer’s field that didn’t measure up, that might have a few errant weeds nestled in there with the crops. All this is to say that back in the sixties we did a lot of hoeing in the spring when the corn and soy beans were sprouting.

I just nodded at my father and turned back to my comic. Which was a mistake, of course. A wiser child would have noticed said father’s exhausted, frazzled state, the white knuckle grip on the steering wheel, and taken measures to deflect the coming shit storm. But I was at the best part of a Superman comic. It was the very end of the story, just a page to go, and Superman was flying through the air to save the world. Again. So instead of leaping to my feet like a wise son, I kept reading. A second later the truck door slammed, the screen door flew open and my comic book went flying across the porch, pages fluttering. Then I heard the eight most hated words in the English language: “Get up. I’ve got a job for you.” I scampered to my feet, hopped into the truck and we drove down to the bottom land where I was tasked with counting the rows of corn in a two hundred acre field.

Corn is planted approximately eighteen inches apart, more or less, which makes for a lot of rows, especially when the field is a million and a half miles wide. As I got out of the truck my father yelled after me, “And if you get it wrong, I’m going to make you do it all over again.” I knew he meant it.

As he roared off in a ball of dust, I turned and looked across the wide expanse of two inch high corn sprouts. Then, with nothing for it but to do it, I began to count the rows. I counted off a hundred rows then stuck a twig in the dirt. I looked back across my first count and wondered: Was that really a hundred rows? What if it was ninety-nine rows? Or a hundred and one? And how would my father even know? Or maybe he already knew. And why did he care how many rows there were anyway? Whatever the reason, I double-backed and recounted those rows again. I counted ninety-nine this time. Shit! So I counted them again on my way back to that first twig and this time I came up with a cool one hundred. Leaving the twig in place and drawing my toe through the freshly tilled dirt, I counted off the second hundred, doubled back for a recount and again returned to the second twig, counting as I went.

The day wore on and I continued to triple-count those rows. Twice I saw my father’s pickup slow as it passed the field on its way from wherever to wherever. I suppose he just expected me to walk the field once and call it a morning but I was guessing by his ongoing surveillance that he had an even more odious task awaiting me once I finished my count. So I kept at it, slowly, deliberately counting, recounting and re-recounting. On the surface it looked like I was just avoiding more work (which I was…) but something else was happening too. I was discovering something about myself that hot spring day. I was discovering the power of repetition, and the rhythmic trance-like state it induced in me. Like a deep bass beat that connected me to something bigger and just out of reach. Of course, at twelve I wasn’t thinking this consciously. I thought I was just fucking with my father’s head, watching him watching me as he tried to figure out how I was managing to turn a two hour make-work chore into a day long task. But it wasn’t a task for me anymore. It was something else. Something more.

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The day wore on and my black sneakers turned a dusty gray. The twig markers multiplied behind me. Meanwhile, I  began to notice stuff.

Like how straight the rows of corn were. Like how moist and dark brown the earth was beneath its gray crust. Once I stopped and squatted and watched a dung beetle roll its little ball of poop up and over a furrow. The sky seemed extra, super blue and the corn especially and brilliantly green. I forgot my resentment at not being allowed to finish my comic book. Besides, Superman was going to save the day, right? Superman always saved the day, right? That was what he did. Remember, this was the sixties before you could find meta-stuff between the covers of a humble drugstore comic book.

When I finally returned to the house early that evening, my father was sitting at the kitchen table sipping on a can of Schlitz beer. I handed him a piece of paper covered with my figures and a total at the bottom circled several times. I stood at the sink and drank a couple of glasses of water then retrieved my comic book from the porch, and took it up to my room.

From then on I didn’t slack off where anyone could see me. I slacked off in private. I wasn’t giving up Superman. I was just sticking him in the closet, out of sight of workaholic farmer fathers.

Years later, I was all grown up, sharing a beautiful house with a beautiful woman in as-yet-to-be discovered Portland, Oregon, and working a dream job in the film business. I was content. I was happy. Then, out of the blue, I was flooded with a vivid memory of that long-ago morning in that corn field. Eighteen years had passed since I had spent all day counting rows of corn but I somehow got it into my head that this memory would make a perfect opening chapter for a novel. Never mind that I hadn’t written a word of fiction in my life. Never mind that I wasn’t one of those people who came out of the womb knowing they were destined to be a writer. I went upstairs into our shared office, slipped a sheet of paper into the manual typewriter my girlfriend used to write up her invoices, typed out the title Green Rows at the top of the page and went at it, eager in my innocence.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into but, being the arrogant S.O.B I was, I didn’t let that stop me. Words and characters began to pour out of me. That beginning chapter turned into a massive, messy, nearly unreadable book that I promise will never be inflicted on the world, though truth be told I came within a hair’s breadth of selling it to a British cookbook editor who seemed as much mystified as she was intrigued. But the stories kept coming. Row upon row of black letters on white sheets of typing paper and soon after on a computer screen. As the pages piled up and the stories kept coming, it began to dawn on me that I was not a special little snowflake of a writer. No, not at all. I had a lot to learn. But I was stubborn and persistent. I knew I had to churn out my ten zillion pages.l had to write my Many, Many Words.

I eventually did okay. I got some short stories published. I lucked into a couple of workshops on fiction writing led by some extremely talented and empathetic pros who actually knew how to write AND teach. I  somehow landed an agent who I’ll call V. V represented some heavy hitters; best selling authors who were and are legends. Household names, if you will. Looking back I’m not sure why V took me on. Maybe it was a temporary lapse in judgment or maybe he was having a really good day and was feeling generous. I turned in three manuscripts, none of which sold. V turned me over to one of his junior agents who taught me a thing or two. V’s calls came further and further apart and eventually stopped coming altogether. The man had bigger fish to fry; famous writers with books that still populate the shelves of bookstores around the world and are read by millions.

While my own short stories and novels piled up so did the bills and my growing frustration. The beautiful woman grew weary of me and invited me to leave the premises. The dream job grew exponentially less dreamy and finally my bubble burst. I wrote V a goodbye email I doubt he even bothered to open and decided to quit writing. That will show them, I thought.

Except I didn’t. Some part of me just couldn’t. Finding myself alone in front of my computer screen, now in color and high definition and connected to the internet, I stumbled upon computer gaming and then gaming forums and began posting. That led to a position as an unpaid staff member at a small but quality gaming website where I sporadically turned in reviews, essays and the like. But something was missing. Missing right at the core of my being. A friend who noticed this dragged me to an improv theater class which helped. For two years I worked with actors and artists, writers and dancers, week in and week out learning to connect with that ineffable other deep inside me. I felt it stir. I felt it open its sleepy eyes and peek out through mine.

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Soon after I began to write fiction again.

Fast forward to the present. A couple more novels have been added to the pile of manuscripts though I don’t write short stories anymore. I was never that good at them and rarely read them. See, for me, it’s all about the long form. I love novels. Writing or reading them, love, love, love them. There is little that compares to creating an immense, wide open world, and populating it with interesting characters. Characters in big trouble.

I’ve gone back to some of the books I wrote while agented and realized they still worked, and that maybe V saw something in me after all. I’ve rewritten a few.  I’ve had them professionally edited. Then copy edited. I’ve commissioned covers from people who design covers for a living. Finally I’ve had this website built as a home for it all. There are at least, five people involved with every book. To do it right.

The books I’m writing now are different books. After all, well over a decade has passed since I first walked away from fiction writing. The books have gotten a lot shorter and a lot more personal.

But occasionally, when I’m writing, I think back to that long ago day in that cornfield, to that boy counting those rows with an obsession he didn’t understand and I recognize the beginning of an urge to get it right. To keep going over and over it until something inside clicks and I know I have it the way I want it.

So what you see here are the books that made the cut. My cut, in this case. There are more to come. A couple of older ones I’m working up to snuff and a couple of new ones I’ve gotten to different stages of drafting. I’m working on a three-book series, loosely connected and set in the seventies, that have murder and mystery and ghosts and sex and drugs and a recurring main character.

That’s about it. Everything else is in the books.

Oh yeah, please buy one. Better yet, buy them all and tell your friends.