WE ARE CROSSING HIGH DESERT in eastern Oregon on a January night. A split-apart family of three, we are together at that moment by accident or design, depending on our different points of view. I’m hunched over the wheel watching for the next suicidal jackrabbit. Maggie sits in the shotgun seat with our five-year-old Trajan on her lap. When a jackrabbit starts across the road, she stiffens through my dodging and braking and yells, “Do something Jack!” then cringes or relaxes, depending on the results. Trajan’s gestures mimic hers, but even as I concentrate on the next frozen animal, I can see adventure in his wide-open eyes.
It is after midnight. This high desert is new country I might have seen if not for the late start I allowed, for my own sake. The explosion of stars is some compensation, but the immediate situation presses hard: the gas tank needle approaches Big Ugly E; we haven’t seen an open station in hours; we have at least fifty miles to the next town, a small dot on the map named Cumby, written in the smallest letters. My stomach churns with guilt for having raced through John Day without stopping for gas, and with discomfort at the prospect of not reaching Cumby. The heater works overtime to push out the January cold, and the January cold pushes back and whistles through the windows’ worn seals. Trajan squirms on Maggie’s lap. I look at him in his stiff little parka with its fur hood pulled close around his head almost to his eyes. Maggie wears her gloves.
“Jack, our feet are cold,” she says in her low, throaty voice. Still lovely, that voice, even through my anger at her being here. “Switch to heat,” she demands.
In Filling Up In Cumby I have collected several of my stories about matters of the heart: the bonds and trials of lovers and friends, fathers and sons, even strangers in the midst of chance encounters. My hope every time is to reveal the interiors of everyday people working through dilemmas I hope you will recognize as much like your own. If I’m lucky – or perhaps I should say successful – you will find these stories full of nuance and emotional honesty. I want you to see the characters’ struggles, their lessons, losses, and triumphs through their own eyes. In other words, I try to treat you to richly detailed evocations of very personal situations, but without you being left with the feeling that I, the author, is the one who is talking to you. That would be the sin of authorial intrusion!
Here are the sneak previews, given in the hope that you will be enticed and that we might have something to talk about:
In the title story, when a father’s ex-wife appears at an inappropriate time, he struggles to protect their son by keeping a healthy distance from the woman who still fascinates him and from her effort to get close to him. It is no easy task to provide the young boy with an adventure with both of his parents rather than a painful experience. You decide how well he succeeds and what is likely to happen after this part of the story is over.
In “That Girl,” a mother cooking dinner for her live-in boyfriend must persuade him to soften his harsh approach to her pregnant fifteen-year-old daughter. I have hoped to portray the subtle power of a mother who, like the father in “Filling Up In Cumby,” has something to protect.
In “Uncle Eno’s Bad Day,” a gas station attendant with more wits than meets the eye delivers an important lesson about what matters and what does not to a man worried about being late for a meeting. Once again, I find my narrative character behind the wheel of a car in a compromising situation.
In “Highway 47,” (a car again!) a man stuck in a diner by a snowstorm, hoping for the fulfillment of a long-held fantasy that he has never thought possible or wise, finds something of much greater importance than a night with a lovely woman. He drives away on the frozen road, unsure of what happened, what did not, and what he will do when he gets home. Again, you get to decide.
In “An Apple Totem,” a father preparing to take his ten-year-old son to live with his ex-wife in a distant town receives an unusual gift to commemorate their seven years together. Then it is time for the journey and the parting. By this time, you might be tired of automobiles!
In “Moschovitz And Pasternak,” I put a man in line in a polling place. He gazes at an older man with a most pleasant, familiar countenance. After a few moments of introspection, he is treated to a brief encounter of unusual depth and satisfaction. He leaves with a memory worth keeping.
“In The Middle” I bring you a man asked to mediate between his housemate, a woman with a young child, and the visiting father. In a most difficult situation, he struggles against his conflicting feelings about her, his fascination with her former lover, and his biases in order to do the right thing for everyone, including his desires.
“The Blue Note” describes in detail a couple’s effort to repair their marriage broken by an up-close infidelity. Like the title story, it is filled with backstory. Only parts of it take place in cars! I suppose I should do something about all those cars.
Last, in a single page “Brotherhood In Beijing” describes a touching moment between strangers who cannot speak the same language. Entirely within a car! Perhaps I should have thought of a different title.
You might be interested to know that the front and back covers of Filling Up in Cumby come from two pictures hanging in my living room. A dear friend painted them for me. She read the title story, listened to my vision for the covers, and presented me with a visual record of what I have tried to show in words. Why do I tell you this? Perhaps to say that stories written with evocative detail, both of interiors of their characters and the settings in which they find themselves, can leave you with pictures. If the stories are good enough to remember, what you will most likely forget the words but keep the pictures.
Think about it. Isn’t a picture the first thing you remember when you look back? Perhaps even the biggest part of a memory? Let’s chat about it.
AS THEY DROVE BY the corner pocket park, Marvin Midalka noticed a man in a stained overcoat standing at the corner, hunching against the cold, his hood pulled tight around his head. He held a sign that said “WILL WORK” in bright red, well-formed letters that were all the cardboard had space for. A patched canvas pack leaned against the tree beside him. On its top lay a rolled blanket covered in plastic, save for one protruding end.
“There’s more bums down here than I expected,” Marvin said, shaking his head side-to-side. He looked at Danny Flamion filling the passenger seat. “This Boston weather will show them.”
In ten blocks they had attempted only the slightest pleasantries, no more than a sentence at a time. Marvin blamed himself for that. He struggled against thinking of this off-duty ride with his new sergeant as patrol, especially when he was taking the man to lunch for the first time. Try against it as he might, Marvin scanned the streets and alleys for anything that might need their attention. The good part was that it saved him from as much talking as he expected Danny would want.
“World’s the same everywhere, Lieutenant,” Danny drawled out the window, “but the view depends on the ground a man’s holding. For the homeless, it’s ugly.”
In Last Night At The Vista Cafe, I return to matters of the heart, exploring the interiors of my everyday characters in the hope that readers will recognize their situations as much like their own. I try to take a worm’s eye view of the bonds, attachments, and trials of lovers and friends, family members, even those that grow in the chance encounters between strangers. The common dilemmas that affect all of us, that I feel so deeply in side myself, are what motivate me to write. I try to describe each situation with careful attention to the details, sometimes even small ones, of character and place. When I feel successful, it is because I have shown my characters’ foibles, stumbles, and reasonable triumphs with a bit of nuance, realism, compassion, and – this is most important – scrupulous honesty. In everything I read I love richly detailed evocations of very personal situations. That’s what I aim for in my writing.
Here are the previews. As grist for the mill, you may see bits and pieces of these stories on the pages of this blog:
In my title story, a reclusive man tries to get through the closing night of his favorite restaurant and say goodbye to the staff, particularly the salty waitress who has ministered to his wishes every Friday night for seven years. She offers him help he is reluctant to receive, but she is persistent.
In “Southern Comeuppance,” a police sergeant breaks ranks to give his new lieutenant from up East a lesson in how to deal with a homeless man on a cold winter’s day. The homeless man gives him lots of help.
In “Bones,” a long-divorced couple reaches an unexpected closure as they talk on the phone about burying the family cat. It is not the closure that the man would prefer, but it’s what he tries to realize is the most he can expect.
In “Her Way,” a somewhat imperious but gracious mother, on her deathbed but still sharp as a tack, struggles to show two generations of her large family the right way to die. Conflict simmers in the room, but help comes in an unexpected way from an unlikely source, especially in dealing with a recalcitrant son.
In “Flat Tire,” a college teacher stuck on the side of a mountain road is bailed out by a former student, a young Indian man who has outgrown him in several important ways, especially in dealing with disappointment.
In “Movin’ Up,” a working class girl struggles to decide whether a well-to-do college boy is interested in more than her body. With help from her grandmother, she strengthens herself against her alcoholic mother who hates “college boys.” The young woman must make a decision about what she is going to do.
“Lost And Found,” a man looking for directions home feels threatened by a posturing gang of young men at a gas station in a poor neighborhood. Again, unexpected help (a thread in my stories?) comes from what he thinks must be one of the most important figures in that part of town. In the process he must deal prejudices he did not think he had toward the young men and the powerful figure who arrives out of seemingly nowhere to help him find his way.
In “Jenna’s New Refrigerator,” a man visiting his crotchety old uncle for perhaps the last time must deal with the return of desire for and from a cousin with whom, long ago, he nearly tread on dangerous ground. Much to the irritation of his uncle, who knows why his daughter is late getting home and where she has gone, she at last arrives for their reunion. She has a big surprise.
In “Last Chance,” a son plays golf with his father for what is certain to be the last time (another recurring theme?). The son must deal with his robust father’s weakened state and request for the truth about an old lie. Faced with the biggest challenge of his life, the boy must make an irreversible decision.
In “Her Bower Bird,” a man with great affection for a woman he describes as a “flutterby” because of how she comes and goes and the shortness of her visits, learns why he is her bower bird and what he must do to keep her without keeping her.
In “First Passage,” a teenage boy must deal with his first great lesson: the death of his best friend whose illness he cannot accept because of what he believes to be its origins. Though it appears to be about his relationship with his friend and their group of friends, it is also about his parents and an older man in the neighborhood.
In “Milt’s Advice Booth,” a man repeatedly mistaken for someone else when he has breakfast in his favorite restaurant starts playing along with his misidentification as a therapist. Eventually he must face the danger of being discovered.
Like my stories in Filling Up In Cumby, I hope you find them to be morsels for savoring one at a time…if, of course, you choose to buy the collection! If not, this blog will be, I hope, a place you come to talk about reading and writing.
Thanks for listening.