A Teaser for the New Novel

I’m still hoping to publish Dungeness and Dragons by the end of April. Here’s the first chapter:

 

1. The Wreck of the Johnny B. Goode

 

MONDAY, JANUARY 7, 2019. The first storm of January had begun in earnest. Although the sun had not appeared all week, today the roiling black clouds seemed to suck even the faint remaining light from the late afternoon sky, creating a premature twilight. In the darkness, the twelve-foot swells were liquid mountains, rushing headlong toward them, indifferent to the boat bobbing on the surface, unforgiving of any mistakes the three-man crew might make. Even with the howl of the wind and the slashing of the rain, the men could hear the whistler buoy astern, moaning like the soul of a drowned fisherman.

“Are we having fun yet?” Derek Lea shouted to his crew mate Rick Perrins over the roar of the wind. The rain smacked his bright yellow foul-weather gear with a ferocity that seemed bent on shoving him overboard. Waves thundered over the bow, drenching him with walls of water. His mouth filled with the briny taste of the sea. Even through his layered clothing, the cold was leeching the warmth from his body.

“This is nuts!” his partner yelled back. They could barely hear each other, but each knew what the other was thinking. Long familiarity with the hazards of the Pacific made them almost telepathic. Perrins shivered in the onslaught and spat onto the deck. “What are we doing out here?”

“Earning a living, numb nuts!” He drew his hood tighter over his head.

“There’s gotta be an easier way!”

“Of course there is! But everything else is boring!” With the deft hands of years of practice, Lea gaffed the line from a crab pot resting on the sea bottom in fifty feet of water. He looped it over the block, a circular winch at the end of a stainless steel arm, bent at the elbow over the side of the boat, its hydraulic muscle ready to haul the heavy pot out of the water. The pots or traps were round disks about three feet in diameter and a foot high. Metal grates were wrapped around steel frames, making cylindrical cages. One-way doors on opposite sides of the traps allowed crabs to crawl in toward the bait, but not back out.

He engaged the block. The line tightened and came thrumming in. When the three white marker buoys shaped like artillery shells reached the winch, he flipped them away from the gear and back out into the water. As the pot broke the surface, he hit the lever on the gunwale, and the arm of the block extended upward and swung toward the boat, lifting the pot within easy grasp of the two men.

“Heave ho!” Perrins opened the door on top of the trap and the fishermen spilled its contents into a trough between them. They were greeted by a mass of flailing legs and claws as the Dungeness crabs struggled to right themselves and take shelter. The men tossed the large ones into the hole that dropped into the live tank under the deck. Perrins put a gauge across the shells of the smaller ones to make sure they were of legal size, tossing those too small and any females over the side. In moments, he was attaching a new bait bucket filled with frozen squid and sardines inside the pot. Lea disengaged the line from the block, and the men heaved the trap back into the water. The entire operation took less than two minutes.

“There were some big ones in that bunch!” Lea reached for the boat hook again.

“Current’s getting stronger,” his partner complained. “It won’t be long before it pulls our buoys under and we won’t be able to find them until the tide changes.”

“We’ll fall off that bridge when we come to it. Let’s just get the next one.”

The men had been working the Johnny B. Goode for five years. It was a good ship, 48 feet long with an 18-foot beam, used to rough seas. The large wheel house at the forward end held all the living space, including bunks for the crew and a modest galley. Before launch, 250 crab pots had been carefully stacked in the stern of the craft, the lines for each in serpentine coils on top. The Johnny B. Goode was all business.

The men’s fathers and their grandfathers before them had been crab fishermen, and it was all they knew. “It’s in our DNA,” Lea was fond of saying. Neither had ever given a thought to doing anything else, despite the dangers of their chosen profession. Each was a family man, Lea with two sons, ages 12 and 14, and Perrins with three daughters, 5, 10, and 13. On the upper deck of the wheelhouse sat their skipper, Carl Hamisu, piloting the craft and minding the electronics. He spoke little, but he knew the ocean. Widowed five years before, catching crabs was his way of managing his grief.

Lea stretched over the side of the boat to gaff the line just as the ship rose high on a large swell. His feet slipped on the wet deck. He grabbed for the gunwale and caught himself.

“Don’t talk about falling off just yet, big guy!” Perrins laughed.

“Not funny, wise ass.” He drew the line in, looped it on the block, and engaged the machine. The line grew taut but stopped.

“Shit! It’s sanded!” Strong currents sometimes buried the pots in the sand, making them impossible to retrieve. Played by the gale-force winds, the tight line began to whine like the string of a violin.

“Look out!” Both men averted their faces as the nylon line snapped with a sound like a gunshot. The broken line whistled by them, barely missing Perrins’s face. He had not been so lucky last year, and he still bore a scar on his right cheek as mute testimony to the bite of the line. He gathered the loose cord and threw it on the deck until he could coil it later.

“That’s the fourth one this trip. It’s starting to cost us.”

“What?” shouted Lea. “My teeth are chattering so loud I can’t hear you!”

“You crazy sonofabitch! I’m telling the skipper we need to haul ass back to port. It’ll be pitch dark soon and I hate going over the bar at night.”

“We’ve done it a hundred times. What are you scared of?”

“Not scared. Just trying to be smart. This storm has only just begun. It’s gonna get a whole lot worse before it’s over.”

“Hurry back, buddy. Duty calls.”

Perrins made his way forward to the wheelhouse, slowing down through the worst of the swells to maintain his balance. He climbed the stairs and entered the enclosure, pulling the door closed behind him, relishing the sudden warmth now that he was out of the wind.

Carl Hamisu sat in his chair, his signature captain’s cap perched far back on his head, his eyes riveted to the array of instruments before him. His features were a mixture of Asian and Native American.

“Skipper, we need to beat feet outta here. It won’t be long before we can’t see our buoys anymore, and the storm is only growing stronger.”

Hamisu looked up, nodding his head. “Agreed. New weather report says this howler may reach 65 mile per hour gusts in the next couple of hours. I say we head home and come back out tomorrow.”

“Thanks, Carl. I’ll let Derek know. We’ll stow our gear and batten down the hatches.”

He stepped outside. The frigid cold struck him like an icy slap as he made his way back to his friend. The boat pitched as another wave surged into its bow, and he grabbed the gunwale. The spray soaked him.

“Skipper says we’re going home,” he yelled. “Shut it down.”

“Fine by me. I could use a cigarette and a drink.”

When the deck was secure, the two men went forward into the galley. Once out of the roar of the wind, they could hear each other again. They sat on opposite sides of the small wooden table.

“Your lips are the color of the blueberries my little Dakota picked last summer from our garden.”

“It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. Let’s goose this heater.”

As the temperature rose, they shed their hooded coats but left on the rubberized pants and boots. Lea grabbed two cigarettes from the pack in the overhead cabinet, lit them both, and handed one to his partner.

“Let’s think warm Hawaiian thoughts.”

Perrins exhaled a large plume of fragrant tobacco smoke as the boat heaved hard to port. “He’s gotta turn this baby fast. Glad he’s so good at it.”

“You and me both.” Lea pulled at the long black beard on his face, wringing water from it. “What I wouldn’t give for three fingers of Irish whiskey right about now.”

“Skipper runs a tight ship. No alcohol while we’re working.”

“I know. Just saying.” He relished the kick of the nicotine after hours without it. “Sure am looking forward to my warm bed tonight. Holly will make me all toasty.”

Perrins smiled and nodded his head. Heidi would do the same for him. Friends often asked them if it was strange being married to sisters, but each had always denied it. Instead, it seemed to make their own friendship stronger. “A hot shower first. Wash this ocean off of me.”

“Amen, brother.”

Suddenly, Perrins leaped from his bench. “What was that?”

“What?”

“That…nothing.”

And then Lea heard it, too. The absence of the constant drone of the diesel engine, the sound to which each had grown so accustomed that it only drew attention to itself when it stopped.

“The goddamn engine quit! Christ almighty!”

They ran from the galley to the upper deck. They found Hamisu frantically scrambling over the electronics, searching for the cause of the failure, trying to get the diesel restarted. “Get on the horn to the Coast Guard! Now!”

Perrins picked up the radio. “May Day! May Day! Johnny B. Goode. Engine died.” He looked toward the Skipper. “Where are we at?”

“Just outside the Driftwood Bar.”

“We’re just off the Driftwood Bar,” he called into the radio. “Need help fast.”

Johnny B. Goode, this is Coast Guard Cutter Thomas Jefferson. We are just off your stern. Get you pronto. Hang tight.”

Perrins put the radio down. “Hang tight, he says? Hang tight? If we turn broadside in this shit, we can kiss our sorry asses goodbye!”

 

Aboard the Thomas Jefferson, Captain John Hartford was barking orders. He ran his hand over the charts spread before him. His face screwed into a frown. “Regents, get outside with the lights and see what we’ve got. Brady, keep your eyes on the radar. If their engine is down, they have only minutes.”

“Skipper, what are those damn fools doing out on a night like this? Jesus!”

“I know Carl Hamisu. He’s a good man. He must have his reasons. But he’s too careful to let his engine die on him. That’s what I don’t understand. He’s been around this ocean a lot more years than I have.”

On the deck, Regents tried to peer through the wind-swept curtain of rain, made dazzling by the bright glare of the search lights. He could just make out the fishing boat ahead, a dark shape bobbing helplessly in the onslaught. He held tight to the rail as the cutter crashed through the waves toward the crippled vessel. The wind and the waves and the rain shrieked in protest.

“Shit! Shit! Shit!” Regents shouted. In the glow of the lights, he caught the shadow of a massive wave bearing down on the Johnny B. Goode. The mountain of moving water pounced over the bow of the hapless boat, flipping it broadside like a toy. With an animal roar, it rolled the boat over and swallowed it.

Regents clambered back inside as quick as a cat. “She’s capsized, Sir! Took one amidships and went over!”

“Sweet Mother!” The Captain wiped the sweat from his brow and took the measure of his men. “OK, every man we can spare, get out there now. Get all our lights on her. Find those men! Carlson, you hold us steady.”

The men scrambled out into the storm. Hartford did a quick mental calculation of how long a man could survive in 49-degree water before lethal hypothermia snatched his life. And that didn’t take into account waves that could gobble a man whole. He cursed under his breath. How long before they could no longer call this a “rescue” operation?

Sometimes he hated his job.

 

The next day, the sun briefly peeked through the cloud cover at the horizon before disappearing again, but the sky remained an eggshell white, nothing like the inky black of the day before. As ferocious as the storm had been, it was gone by morning, leaving only its unquiet sea behind. Ten-foot swells rolled toward the shore in a lazy, regular rhythm. The wind had died to a mere breeze, barely able to keep the scrounging seagulls aloft. Their cries were a welcome greeting after the howling crescendo of yesterday. The beaches were swept clean, with the exception of a few great logs half-buried in the sand.

Alongside the bay, a bearded cameraman and a young female reporter in a hooded red overcoat were setting up shop. A 4:00 A.M. tip to the newsroom in Portland had sent them scrambling to the little seaside town for the story.

“Hurry, Barry. It’s almost time. How do I look?”

“Laurel, you look little red riding hood, only cuter. Now let me concentrate on this equipment.”

The woman touched her earpiece. “Here they come. Are we ready?” She saw the red light on the camera and looked into the lens. “Good morning, Julie. I’m standing here by the bay in Driftwood, in front of two rows of upright pylons, all that’s left of the Driftwood boardwalk after it was destroyed by the famous fire of 1967. Now look behind me. Just look what yesterday’s storm did.”

The camera panned around behind the reporter. A small group of early morning beachcombers were staring upwards.

Impaled like a giant insect on one of the stanchions of the burned-out boardwalk was the Johnny B. Goode. A pillar had pierced its hull and protruded above the main deck, just aft of the wheelhouse.

“The Coast Guard reports that this commercial crabbing boat, the Johnny B. Goode, capsized last night in heavy seas and was hurled up here into the bay by the storm surge. The rescue boat Thomas Jefferson was unable to reach them in time. The body of the fishing boat captain, Carl Hamisu, was found on the beach this morning by a woman walking her dog. The crewmen, Derek Lea and Rick Perrins, have not been found, but are presumed dead.”

The camera returned to the reporter’s face.

“The tight-knit community of Driftwood is mourning the tragic loss of favorite sons, heads of families who had made their livelihoods here over several generations. They were well-known and well-liked, and two of the men leave behind grieving widows and young children. If you’ll come with me now, we’ll speak with some of the people who are beginning to gather here.”

She turned and walked toward the group near the water’s edge, her cameraman following dutifully behind. As she approached, two men separated themselves from the group and began to walk away. Both were wearing knit caps pulled over their ears against the cold. She found it difficult to determine their ages, since the faces of both looked leathery, etched by long exposure to wind and weather. One had a long black beard beginning to show streaks of gray. The other was clean-shaven. She thought they might be brothers.

“Excuse me,” she called, as she extended the microphone before her. “Please wait. Did you know these men?”

Both looked uncomfortable, unwilling to speak. After a moment of silence, the bearded one said, “Yes, we knew them. Good men. Tragic. Tragic what’s happened. They shouldn’t have gone out in that storm.” He swung his head in both directions, reminding her of an animal in a live trap, looking for an escape. As other people from the small crowd drew near, the two men slipped away.

“We knew them,” a woman hollered, raising her hand to be seen above the others. “Good men. Good families. Terrible loss.”

The newswoman returned to the camera. “I’ve been told that Darby Gallaway, owner of the local Reef Coffee Shop, will be starting a GoFundMe page to benefit the stricken families. Memorial services are being planned for later in the week.

“Now back to you, Julie.”

As he turned off the camera and lowered it, Barry said, “Nice job, hon. Shall we interview some of the others for the evening spot tonight?”

Laurel pulled some gloves from her pocket and put them on. “Good idea. That woman in the crowd seemed pretty eager to talk. Then we’ll walk around the town and take a look. Driftwood’s been out of the news since that club fire last year. What was it? Chaos? Anyway, let’s see if there’s been any changes.” As she turned back to the onlookers, she whispered, “Let’s milk this story for all it’s worth.”

 

 

 

Christmas Letter 2019

Christmas 2019

 

Dear Family and Friends,

 

Truth be told, I didn’t want to write a Christmas letter this year. As you know, 2019 has been a terrible year for me. My son died suddenly, at the age of 42; my dear son-in-law’s father died after a long, debilitating illness; my former mother-in-law, the mother of the mother of my children, died. A Trifecta of tragedy.

I know St. Paul tells us not to grieve as do those who have no hope, but I have found that very hard to do. I’ve raged at God for many weeks. In fact, I may not be finished with that yet. I’ve read books on grief. (They didn’t help.) I confess that I rather liked one book for its raw honesty: Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved), by Kate Bowler.

I haven’t really prayed or worshiped much in the last six months. I cry or get choked up every day. When Sharon isn’t home, I’ll scream a string of profanities to the empty house. I do read a chapter of Scripture daily, and I attend church every Sunday. I tell myself it’s for the discipline, but maybe it’s just an old habit. That said, I’ve found the messages during this Advent season to be profoundly disturbing. More than once, I’ve heard the pastor encourage the congregation (and me—right between the eyes) to let go of anger and bitterness, to surrender the rage and confusion and doubt. Then last Sunday, I was reduced to tears just before the communion service.

I’m not schizophrenic (at least, not yet!), and I don’t usually hear voices, but it felt as though God were speaking to me. “You had your son for 42 years. My son had only 33.”

I suddenly realized something that’s quite cliché, but that I had never really appreciated before. Everything—all our relationships and all our possessions—are on loan to us. Spouses, children, grandchildren, parents, siblings, friends are on loan to us, and we don’t know the term of the loan. As a pastor friend told me at breakfast last Tuesday, “Do you want to be bitter about the years you won’t have with your child, or rejoice in the ones you did? Choose now.” I want the latter, but it’s an excruciating, uphill battle. And as I write this right now in the Red Fox Bakery in McMinnville, I’m reminded of the origin of the term “excruciating”—”from the cross.”

So if you’ve left for work, and you had an argument with your spouse on the way out the front door, stop now. Turn around and go back home. Kiss him or her and open your heart. If you’re not on speaking terms with a sibling or a parent or had a shouting match with your son or daughter, fix it before you do anything else. It’s your last chance. After all, we never know when the term of the loan is coming due…

I raise a cup of coffee to you now—and later today, a glass of wine—to family and friends near and far. In tears of sorrow and joy, Sharon and I wish you a blessed Christmas and a better New Year in 2020.

Book Review: The Party House: Texas Gulf Coast Schemes and Dreams, by L.Wade Powers

I was hooked (as in “hook, line, and sinker”) by the end of the first page: “There were memorable characters in the inside world in those days and some of them need to be protected, I suppose. Some of them don’t deserve to be, but my lawyer said to go easy and change the names. She also said to be free and loose about the facts and not too heavy on history or memoirs, at least not to the extent that people would recognize themselves and file papers. We don’t want that, do we? So, if you happen to be reading this, which I doubt, and recognize yourself or someone you think you know, well that’s just too damned bad. Oh, I mean, it’s probably just a coincidence and it ain’t you at all.”

It’s the early 1970s, and Peter Gilbert has come to Port Tarpon on Mustang Island (where there are no mustangs), to conduct field research on the behavior of fiddler crabs for his doctoral dissertation. Against the advice of his academic colleagues, he gets inducted into the gang of misfits who frequent The Party House, a tavern with an indelicate reputation. Before long, he is tending bar part-time for extra cash, seduced by the lure of the hard-drinking and hard-loving locals. What follows is a droll, sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking exploration of the quirkiest characters and relationships in recent literary memory.

Powers is a master of his craft. His characters are fully alive and draw on our sympathy, even when they do the most outrageous things. Their adventures become the stuff of personal legend—stories I’m sure the narrator will tell to his friends over and over again decades later. I still find myself laughing when I recall “The Great Barroom Bicycle Race” or the launch of “The Good Ship George Dewey.” And who couldn’t cheer for a south Texas softball team that calls themselves “The Armadildos?”

There is sorrow here as well—relationships that misfire, love that grows cold, the intrusion of “reality” into the hijinks and carousing. Ultimately, time wins every battle. The capriciousness of youth gives way to the sobriety of age, and something vital is lost along the way. And there’s no going back.

My only criticisms are petty ones: I wish the Kindle version had a table of contents so I could more easily navigate to favorite chapters and re-read them. I also wish the author had kept the whole novel in the first person, told by Pete. A couple chapters are in the third person and they caught me off guard.

That said, I give this book my highest recommendation. It’s a funny, poignant, bittersweet masterpiece, and it will haunt me for a long time to come. Kudos, Mr. Powers!

Here’s the link: The Party House

Movie Review: Joker

How to describe a movie I found so disturbing it was hard to talk with my son as I left the theater? Joker is a grim and unrelenting descent into darkness by a man who strives unsuccessfully to manage his mental illness in an unforgiving world. To call it a “comic book movie” does it a disservice. It is a harrowing meditation on the roots of violence and the nihilism it spawns. As such, it is definitely not for everybody (NBC News and The New York Times hated it). It is dark, somber, and cringe-worthy at times. The first two-thirds has the slow pacing of an art-house film, until it erupts in violence. Then all hell breaks loose. By the end of the film I was reminded of the anarchist riots we have endured here in the Pacific Northwest.

But if you want to see a performance by an actor at the top of his game, you might want to consider it. Joaquin Phoenix is on the screen for the entire running time, and he is outstanding. Slam-dunk Oscar nomination. But be warned: it is not a movie I would even think about bringing my wife to see—and I’m not being sexist in saying that. The movie’s bleak portrait of humanity may leave you desperate for an antidote. If that’s the case, go see The Peanut Butter Falcon, which will leave you smiling and grateful to be human. Or re-watch Yesterday.

Book Review: Coming to Terms by K.D. Girsch

K.D. Girsch has created that elusive holy grail of literary novels: a story that captures in simple but elegant prose the complexity of human emotions and relationships. Her protagonist Ellie suffers devastating losses and struggles to come to terms with what life can possibly mean when, as she says, “Everyone who loves me dies.”

But as excruciating as Ellie’s grief and despair are, they are not the whole story. With painstaking care, the support of a new love, and the wisdom of a compassionate therapist, Ellie begins to heal and rebuild her life. A sliver of hope enlightens her darkness. Beyond denial and distraction, she finds ways of integrating her losses into the new future she is creating for herself.

I do have two minor criticisms, but they may be too idiosyncratic to be entirely valid. Rage is conspicuously absent from Ellie’s panoply of emotions. I would have expected Ellie to be furious at what Camus called “the benign indifference of the universe,” an indifference that could allow such tragedies to occur. Instead, she seems almost too stoic.

My other observation is that the novel does not seem to be as anchored to place as it is to person and time. We know that Ellie’s story happens in the Finger Lakes region of upper New York, New York City, London, and on a Yorkshire farm, but the descriptions of those places are so sparse I felt I had to invent them myself. I may be too cinematically oriented, but at times I felt the characters were acting before a “green screen,” with the environment to be added later by the reader.

That said, I don’t wish to quibble, and I cannot diminish Ms. Girsch’s accomplishment. She has written a lucid, luminous novel, and I give it five enthusiastic, well-earned stars. It is truly excellent—and just short of transcendent. Here’s the link: Coming to Terms

Book Review: Moon Over London by Shawna Reppert

It’s back to Victorian London for the second outing of the Werewolves and Gaslight series, with the unlikely sleuthing trio of Detective Inspector Royston Jones, Catherine Fairchild (a.k.a. Dr. Charles Foster), and Richard Bandon. Jones is the bastard son shunned by his wealthy family. Fairchild is a champion of women’s rights but finds that her society makes her practice alchemy under the guise of a man. Bandon is an aristocratic scion who must keep his true identity as a werewolf secret or be expelled from his family.

This is a society where the class to which you belong means everything, and the lowest class is werewolves—often denied employment and their most basic rights, seen by many as sub-human.

Now werewolves are disappearing at an alarming rate. Jones suspects they are being abducted, experimented upon in ghastly ways, and murdered. He enlists his colleagues in a frantic quest to apprehend the culprits before more victims are lost.

The setting in old London, the vocabulary and pacing, all lend authenticity to the writing. But don’t be mistaken. This is not merely a steampunk, urban fantasy take on the Conan Doyle/Sherlock Holmes archives. As in the first book in the series, A Hunt by Moonlight, Reppert has crafted an allegory for our current day, critiquing the way we treat our most marginalized citizens. Both entertaining and thoughtful, I give this novel an enthusiastic five stars. Here’s the link: Moon Over London

Book Review: Of Mice and Money by Winifred Morris

“I even found a realtor here in Broken Pine–a one-street town just past Postage Stamp, on the way to Bakeoven–who, once he figured out I wasn’t lost–at least not geographically–drove me around in his pickup truck and showed me the perfect place.” The perfect place for Kiva is a “classic farmhouse,” a falling-down, mouse-infested relic on the dry side of Oregon. What better place to hide away with the trunkful of cash she’s stolen from her drug-smuggling, soon-to-be-ex-husband Carlton? No one will find her here!

Except everyone does, including her husband, who decides she’s purchased the perfect safe-house for his operations, her estranged daughter, who may want to get even for being abandoned, her “ex-hippie” parents, who aspire to selling Thai sticks to seniors in casinos, and the “gorgeous hunk” who’s just crawled up out of the ravine in her backyard. And maybe the Feds, who are following her and listening in.

I hate to sound like a snake-oil salesman, but as with Morris’s novel Bombed, Of Mice and Money is a cure for what-ails-you. The pages crackle with her understated, self-deprecating humor. Like a snowball rolling down a hill, the story gets funnier as the quirky characters get more entangled in their bizarre goings-on.

If you enjoy the wacky humor of books like Skinny Dip, by Carl Hiaasen, or Lunatics, by Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel, you’ll find that Of Mice and Money delivers the goods. I personally feel it’s way, way better than Prozac, but I have to acknowledge, the FDA has not approved of this review. Enjoy!

Book Review: Falling in Love and Other Misadventures, by L.Wade Powers

How to describe so diverse a collection of short fiction? Between these covers, the reader finds 22 stories of romance, humor, suspense, sci-fi, and sober reflection on the stuff of life and death.

Powers has peopled his quirky tales with a cast of characters who are sometimes deceptively ordinary: an Air Force trainee pursuing his first sexual encounter; a ten-year-old boy shoplifting a roll of Life Savers candy; a self-conscious woman trying to escape a nightmarish first date; a young door-to-door encyclopedia “consultant” seeking his first sale.

On the less ordinary side are the man willing to risk all in his exploration of lucid dreaming; the attractive alien taking a job as a waitress in a country diner; the man seeing ghost birds no one else can.

All of these stories—these “misadventures”—are vehicles for the author’s wry observations of the human condition. They become reflections on love and death and the passage of time. Powers holds up a mirror before the reader: The joys and sorrows and fears we see are our own. Kudos for a masterful work!

Click here for the link to the book.

Click here for his website.

Free Short Story: The Girl on the Boardwalk

The Girl on the Boardwalk

by William J. Cook

I step out of my car and inhale the pungent smells of salt and seaweed. The surf pounds in my ears like the beating of my heart. My breath catches in my throat. “Lara,” I say to the wind.

I had vowed never to come back, never to poke the scar. But here I am on the Spit, that small bar of sand along the bay, where we hung out as teenagers. There were no malls back then, but we had something better—a boardwalk. Built in the 40’s by some forward-thinking city planners, the Driftwood Boardwalk rivaled its more famous cousins in southern California. It ran east to west, parallel to the shore of the bay, stopping just before it reached the heavy surf of the Pacific. On the north side were quaint little shops, filled with trinkets and treasures and the forerunners of fast foods. It was a go-to place on the Oregon coast until Friday, July 21, 1967—fifty years ago to the day.

I’m here in Driftwood on business. I have a staff of paralegals working for me, but I like to do some of my own research. Besides, anything that gets me out of the Portland office on a summer day is a good thing. The hour and a half drive to the coast was pleasant, and the Friday morning traffic was light.

I slip off my suit coat and tie and lay them on the back seat. Then I reach in for our token—the secret gift Lara and I had shared every summer. The sun is warm on the Spit. My shiny black shoes aren’t meant for beach-combing, but I don’t care. I walk by a few sunbathers lying on blankets and hear the cries of children splashing in the bay.

All that’s left of the boardwalk are a dozen support pillars, rising above the incoming tide like the rib cage of a dinosaur picked clean by scavengers. The expense of rebuilding it after the fire had been far more than the small town of Driftwood could afford, so it had been abandoned to the waves.

As I approach the mouth of the bay, where it empties into the ocean, the sounds of the crashing surf become louder. In that white noise, I hear the calliope music of the carousel and the Ferris wheel, children squealing on the tilt-a-whirl, barkers shouting to draw crowds to their attractions. The carnival that camped along the boardwalk the third week of every July has come to town.

And I remember everything…

#

FRIDAY, JULY 21, 1967. I couldn’t wait to show Lara my new car. I had just driven off the lot in a 1960 Ford Falcon—my Green Machine—paid for by working almost every night at Rosco’s Burger Heaven. I was king of the world.

I pulled up in front of Stan’s house at about noon. He was waiting at the front door.

“Jeez, Jimmy, you did it! Holy shit! A car! Our summer just got a whole lot better.”

Greg came running from across the street. “No way, man! You never told us you were getting a car. Damn! No chick is safe!” He ran his hand along the hood. “I’m in love! C’mon, let’s take it for a test run to Newport. Practice our cruisin’.”

Forty-five minutes later, crooning along with Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco” blasting from the radio, the new cocks-on-the-block made it back to the Spit. Our usual routine was to walk the beach and check out the babes, then head up to the boardwalk for fries and pop and continue our perambulatin‘, as Greg liked to call it. Of course, during the third week of July we walked the midway, maybe even took a ride on the Ferris wheel or the carousel, if they put the rings out. Greg snatched the gold ring yesterday and turned it in for a teddy bear, which he hoped to give to one of the girls who prowled the carnival in groups as we did.

“Nothing smells quite like the carnival, does it?” I said. The odors of sweat mingled with the aromas of french fries and fried clams, the sweet perfume of burnt sugar from the cotton candy and candy apples, the smells of grease and exhaust from the engines operating the rides.

“Picked up the new Sgt. Pepper’s last night,” Stan said. “You guys gotta come over and listen to it with me.” He frowned. “Oh, I forgot. Jimmy’s never free at night anymore.”

“Sorry, guys. It’s only for a week. It’s the only chance I get to see Lara. She has to wait till her old man falls asleep. But I can come over till about 9:30.”

“He goes to bed that early?” Stan said.

“Gets drunk and passes out every night.”

“Sounds like my kinda guy,” Greg quipped.

“She’s afraid to introduce me to him. But I’ve seen him. Works the ring-toss and the shooting-gallery on the midway. Sometimes runs the tilt-a-whirl. Looks angry all the time.”

“We’ll have to stop by and relieve him of some of his prizes,” Stan said.

“Hey, can we hit the boardwalk before I take a bite out of one of you guys? I’m starving.” I preferred our local fare to the carnival’s offerings.

They didn’t need any persuading, and in moments we were scarfing down french fries and slurping sodas.

“Hear the news?” Stan kept us up-to-date on current affairs. “Race riots in Newark? 26 people killed, 1500 injured, 1000 arrested.”

“Now why do you wanna go and spoil this beautiful summer day with downer shit like that, nerd?” All Greg cared about was getting laid this summer before he went off to college. With Vietnam getting worse, we all worried about the Draft, and getting into college seemed the best way out.

“Just sayin’. This country’s a powder keg. You wait. Lots of other cities are going up in smoke before it’s over.”

“Well, thank you, Walter Cronkite. Now shut the hell up.”

We were quiet for a long time after that. Greg finally broke the silence. “You guys are holdin’ me back. I gotta do some cruisin’ on my own.” With that he went down the stairs and back to the carnival.

Stan shook his head. “I think I’ll head home early, Jimmy. I can walk.” He looked unhappy.

“But we just got here, man. Stick around. Greg’ll be back.”

“Yeah, well, my dad wants me to finish painting the house this summer, and I got a long way to go.”

I shrugged my shoulders and waved as Stan walked away. With nothing better to do, I sat on a stool under the awning of an ice cream shop and ordered another pop. I decided to count the minutes till I could see Lara.

#

I had met her four years ago, the summer of my freshman year. It was the first night of the carnival, when it stayed open till midnight. I had wandered around behind the carousel, where the workers parked their trailers. On the metal stoop of an Airstream sat the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. Her blonde hair glowed silver in the moonlight, which reflected off the tracks of tears on her cheeks. The shadows turned her red lipstick black.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” she said. “This is private—carnie crew only.”

“I’m Jimmy.”

“Well, Jimmy, you’re trespassing.”

I wasn’t about to be brushed off so easily. “Why are you crying?”

I expected her to tell me it was none of my business. Instead, she sighed. “Wanna go for a walk? I don’t wanna wake him up, talking under his window.”

“Who?”

“My father. C’mon.”

In moments we were on the midway, then up on the boardwalk. The wind had died, and moonlight speckled the swells of the gunmetal sea.

“You must live around here,” she said.

“About half a mile down 101 and then up on the hill. How about you?”

“In the Silver Twinkie.” I’m sure she saw the confused look on my face. “The Airstream trailer. Looks like a Silver Twinkie, doesn’t it?”

“I guess it does. Never thought about it before. But where’s your house?”

“No house. Just the trailer. School?”

“Driftwood High. You?”

“Oh, I get some schooling when we winter in Florida. But I’m way behind.”

“You guys come here every July, don’t you?”

“Ever since my mom died eight years ago. The central coast is good for us. People come down from Pacific City and Netarts and Oceanside. Even Tillamook. Up from Depoe Bay, Newport, and Waldport. Sometimes Florence.”

“Where else do you go?”

“Usually bigger cities. Salt Lake City and Phoenix on the way out here. Seattle and Spokane afterwards. Then it’s mostly Florida. St. Augustine, Tampa, Orlando, Miami. But you can’t beat July on the Oregon coast.”

“You like living out of a trailer?”

“It sucks.”

We walked down the boardwalk and back. I became oblivious to the sounds of people around me, to the smells of popcorn and cotton candy. My world had shrunk to the presence of this beautiful creature at my side.

“How come I haven’t seen you before? I spent every day at the carnival last year. I would’ve remembered you.”

“Daddy usually makes me stay inside. Afraid I’ll meet some bad boy who’ll do me wrong.” She stopped and looked me up and down. “You a bad boy, Jimmy?”

I didn’t know what to say. My heart began to pound and my hands started to shake. “I-I guess I’ve dreamed about being one, but I’m not. I think my mom and dad would say I’m a pretty good kid.” I returned her gaze. “Hey! You know my name but I don’t know yours.”

“Lara.” Her voice sounded like an angel singing.

And I was head over heels. We met every night after that. By the second day, we were holding hands as we strolled the boardwalk. On the fifth day, while we stood at the end of the pier, looking at the moon and the lights of the fishing boats on the horizon, she kissed me. I staggered home, drunk on the pleasure of it.

On the evening of July 21st, the day before the carnival would pack up and leave for Seattle, Lara greeted me at the trailer with a finger to her lips. “Shh! He’s having a hard time falling asleep. I don’t want him stumbling out here and seeing you. Go to the boardwalk and wait for me.”

I left immediately. The minutes passed with agonizing slowness. I kept looking at my watch, pacing back and forth.

“Heavy date comin’?” It was a gray-haired lady standing behind the counter of Driftwood’s Best Fried Clams. Her voice sounded kind. She had my mother’s smile. “So who you waitin’ on?”

“My girl,” I blurted out.

“She must be somethin’, havin’ you all antsy like that. What ya got for her?”

I shrugged my shoulders.

“Girl like that needs a gift. I’m closing up shop now, so here, take one of these. My husband, bless his heart, brought me some flowers today for our anniversary. Careful of the prickles.” She handed me a single red rose.

“I-I don’t know what to say.”

“You just give her that. Don’t hafta say nothin’.”

A half hour later, Lara came running, out of breath. She threw her arms around me and buried her face against my chest. I felt her warm tears through my shirt.

“I’m going to miss you so much, Jimmy. Promise you’ll come back to see me next July?”

“Of course I will.”

She pulled away. “It isn’t fair to tell you not to see any other girls while I’m gone. But don’t forget me. Please.”

“Forget you? I love you, Lara. I don’t want to see other girls.” I drew her close and kissed her lips. “You’re my girlfriend. My only girlfriend.” I gave her the rose.

“How sweet!” She took my hand. “Walk me to the end.”

I felt my soul warring within me, joy and grief locked in combat. I was desperately in love with a girl I wouldn’t see for a whole year. And a year was forever.

Fortune smiled and gave us another glorious evening, the breeze off the sea cool on our faces, the stars whirling overhead. When we reached the end of the boardwalk, she turned to me and held up the rose. “Do you love me?” she said, as she pricked her finger on a thorn.

My eyes grew wide as I watched a small red drop stain her white skin. “Yes, I love you. You know I do.”

“Then prick your finger and mix our blood together.”

I winced as I did and wrapped my bleeding finger around hers.

“Now we have a sacred pact, sealed in blood. That thorn is all the things that try to tear us apart, the obstacles that block our path. But we’ll overcome them all. Now throw it in the water.”

I threw the flower as far as I could, and we watched it tumble into the waves. We gave our souls to the night.

#

I moped until school started again, too sad to enjoy being with my friends, too bored to read a book or go to a movie. Lara had punched a hole in my heart. How could I be so hopelessly in love with her after only a week? Yet why did I feel I had always known her? I couldn’t explain it to myself, let alone to my parents or my school guidance counselor. I didn’t come out of my cocoon until after Christmas, when at last I gave myself permission to enjoy things again.

At school, Christie Aaronson wanted me to take her to the Valentine’s Dance, but I pretended to be sick. I finally relented in May for the last dance of the year, but I actually felt guilty the whole time. That cured her infatuation with me. I just wanted school to be over and the carnival to come back.

My prayers were answered. Like magic, the carnival appeared full-blown on the morning of July 15th. When I went to see Lara that night, I was terrified. What if she had found another boyfriend? What if she didn’t care about me anymore? I crept up to the trailer without making a sound. I didn’t see her on the stoop, and my heart sank. I waited for several minutes. Then I heard shouting from inside. Her father’s voice, drunk.

“You can get some fresh air, but stay close by. And don’t you let any boys come sniffing around. You know all they want is to get in your pants.”

Lara came running out. Even in the moonlit darkness, I could see her eyes were puffy from crying. She grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the midway.

“He’s getting worse. I’m so afraid of him.”

“Does he ever hit you?”

She turned away and didn’t answer. Several minutes passed. “I need to be on the boardwalk with you.”

We never talked about her father again. Instead, we treasured every moment, if only sharing a burger and a soda, nibbling a candy apple, or splitting an ice cream sundae. Each night we strolled the boardwalk hand in hand, watching the water and the moon. “You come in like the fog off the ocean, and you disappear just as mysteriously.”

“So you’re a poet now?”

“You make me want to write poems and sing songs and dance like a madman.” I took a deep breath and plunged ahead. “And be with you for more than just a week every summer.”

I’m not sure what I saw in her eyes. She took my face in her hands and kissed my mouth. “Take me back to the Twinkie now.”

And almost before it began, the week ended. We repeated the ritual of the rose on our last night and I was bereft again.

But this time we had the experience of weathering a whole year without each other and had proof we could do it. I threw myself into my studies and spent the weekends with Stan and Greg. In the blink of an eye, it was July again, and the carnival returned.

The summer of my junior year, we became more intimate. We would hide in the shadows behind the Ferris wheel and let our fingers and our lips explore our bodies. It was always gentle and loving. Though we both felt the hunger—the desire that grew in us—we never went all the way. Without saying it, we both knew we were saving ourselves for marriage. The bloody rose sealed our love once more.

When the carnival returned during the July after my graduation, something was different. This was the summer of decisions. Would I go off to college? Would Lara? If so, would we see each other next year? Lara had changed, too. Though she had always been beautiful, she was radiant now, her cheeks rosy and full, her curves more obvious even in the baggy clothes she wore. And how I wanted to show her my new car!

#

The hours dragged by. I made small talk with little children who came to the shop for ice cream and cold drinks. By five o’clock, the marine layer had moved in from the ocean, blotting out the sun and dropping the temperature almost ten degrees.

“Rain before long.” It was the shopkeeper, a twenty-something guy with long black hair pulled back into a ponytail. “You’ve been sitting here all day, man. You’ll wear that stool out. What’s up?”

“Waiting to see my girl.” I looked at my watch. “Another few hours if you don’t mind me taking up space.”

“I don’t mind, man, but she must be some hot chick. Here, have an ice cream cone. On the house. Gotta support the true romantic.”

As nine-thirty approached, I got up and stretched and walked to the Silver Twinkie. The hours alone with my thoughts had convinced me. I would buy a ring and ask Lara to marry me.

I found Lara weeping on the metal steps of the trailer. She got up and ran to me, hugging me with an embrace that took my breath away.

“I’m here, honey. Everything is OK.”

“No, it’s not.” She took my hand and walked toward the pier.

“I’ve got something to show you first. It’s in the parking lot.” I didn’t answer the quizzical look in her eyes, but pulled her in the other direction.

“Ta da!” I said, introducing her to the Green Machine with a sweeping motion of my arm.

“You own a car?” Her eyes went round with disbelief.

“Bought it myself today. Here, hop in and check it out.” I opened the door for her and she scooted into the passenger seat. “The radio works. And the heater. Supposed to be pretty good on gas, too.”

She stroked the dashboard as if assuring herself of its reality. Then she turned to me with a look in her eyes I had never seen before. “Let’s run away together.” I heard desperation in her voice.

“What?”

“Let’s just go. Somewhere far, far away, where nobody knows us, and we can start a new life together. You’ve graduated high school. You can find a job anywhere.” She became thoughtful for a moment. “And if you’re worried about the Draft, we could go to Canada.”

She had caught me completely off guard. She saw and heard my hesitation.

“I’m sorry. That wasn’t fair. Your parents are here. Your friends. I have no right to ask you to do something like that.” She leaped out of the car. “Let’s go to the boardwalk.”

I didn’t know what to say. We walked to the wharf. I couldn’t hear the sounds of the crowd, the cries of children on the Ferris wheel and tilt-a-whirl. My vision went in and out of focus. At the end of the pier, the wind was strong, whipping her hair across her face. The sky was starless.

Lara took both my hands and pulled me close. Her eyes brimmed with emotions I couldn’t decipher. “I’m pregnant.”

I rocked back on my feet as if she had slapped me across the face. What she said didn’t make sense. How could that be possible? Confusion and shock became anger. “You didn’t tell me you had another boyfriend.” My pulse pounded in my ears. My breathing came in tortured gasps. I felt dizzy and out of control.

“I don’t have another boyfriend.”

I let go of her hands and slammed my palms into either side of my head. “Of course you have a boyfriend!” I pointed an accusing finger at her belly. Then came words I would regret for the rest of my life. “You’re nothing but a slut!” I shrieked. “How can I compete with boyfriends in Phoenix and Seattle and Miami? I’m such a fucking idiot for believing you loved me!”

I can’t remember what else I said, but ugly words spewed from my mouth, vile and unclean, slashing at her like knife blades. I watched her face crumple in despair, her eyes drain of all hope. I turned and ran, stumbling on the rough wood of the pier, regaining my feet without looking back.

When I reached the parking lot, I jumped into my car and started the engine. Before I put it into gear, I pounded my fists on the steering wheel until the pain stopped me. But that hurt couldn’t match the agony in my heart. I raced toward home as fast as the little car would go. Without saying a word to my parents, who sat in the glow of the television in the den, I ran upstairs to my bedroom.

I was awakened at midnight by the wail of fire engines speeding down 101. I looked out the front window and saw the whole of the western sky aflame, billowing clouds of black smoke silhouetted in the crimson glow. I threw on my clothes and ran to the door.

I drove as close as I could get to the fire. Police cars had cordoned off four blocks to keep the gathering crowd of spectators safe. I left my car and hurried to the barrier, where a grim-faced policeman cautioned me back.

The whole carnival and boardwalk were ablaze, flames raging above the Ferris wheel, engulfing the carousel and shops, a storm of hot ash and sparks streaming across 101. Firemen were hosing down the roofs of nearby buildings to prevent the holocaust from spreading. It had not rained during the night, but the wind had risen to gale-force gusts, creating a blast furnace that consumed everything in its reach. The roar was deafening; the heat, scorching even at this distance.

“Lara!” I cried to the inferno.

I stood there for hours, until the wind diminished and the day dawned weakly through an amber haze of smoke. Engines from as far away as Salem and Cannon Beach had come to the aid of the Driftwood firefighters, and with the dying of the wind, they finally gained control and containment. By noon the hoses were quenching the last of the smoldering hotspots. Exhausted, I staggered back to my car and drove home.

The evening news said the fire was “of suspicious origin.” Police said it had burned so hot it was difficult to identify the bodies and even to determine how many had died. It could be weeks before they finished their investigations. The carnival and the boardwalk were total losses, every trailer reduced to ash. I wanted to believe that Lara had escaped, perhaps made it to shelter in Seattle, where she could have her baby and live in peace away from her father.

By the next summer, my therapist said I was doing well enough to be weaned off my medication. I was eating and sleeping better, and it had been a month since my last nightmare. I still wept whenever I remembered my last conversation with Lara. I sought absolution from the priest at our church, but my guilt was resilient.

My adolescent brain hadn’t believed Lara. She didn’t have another boyfriend, just as she had said. So I devoted myself to school—first college, then graduate study. When I got my J.D., I knew exactly what kind of law I wanted to practice. It was the least I could do.

#

So here I am on the Spit, on the 50th anniversary of the worst day of my life. I have a long history as a district attorney, prosecuting child molesters. And I’m good at it. The judges like me because my cases are so air-tight, and the defense attorneys cringe when they see who they’re going up against in the courtroom.

I walk to the end of the bay and face the booming Pacific surf. A wedge of brown pelicans flies low over the water, and two seagulls argue over a dead crab on the beach. With a slow and deliberate motion, I raise the rose I hold in my right hand, prick my finger on a thorn, and hurl it into the waves.

The End

The New Audiobook is Here

At last! Gary Crane and I have finally given birth to the audiobook version of Seal of Secrets. It’s been an enlightening and engaging experience, to say the least. I am so curious to see what happens next. Will people like it enough to buy it? Although I will be simply delighted to earn back my initial investment, I have to confess that I have my own personal “winning the lottery” scenario: that phone call or email that says, “Mr. Cook, we’re interested in optioning your property for a screenplay…” Oh, yeah! But I haven’t even been struck by lightning, so I’m not sure of the odds of that happening. I guess you can’t blame an old guy for dreaming!