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The following is an excerpt from Hometown Boys, a work in progress featuring Kelly Durrell. Kelly returns to the Midwestern town where she grew up to attend the funeral of her aunt and uncle. They’ve been murdered by her ex-boyfriend from high school, Troy Ingram, a meth addict destroyed by chronic drug abuse. Kelly is unwillingly drawn into the case when Troy’s lawyer asks her for help. The lawyer has evidence that Troy was coerced into committing the murders, but Troy refuses to talk about it. The lawyer hopes Kelly can persuade him to open up and reveal who wanted her aunt and uncle deadand why.

In this flashback she remembers meeting Gene Countryman, one of Troy’s friends from their high school days. Now a successful businessman, Gene may not be as respectable as he appears.

In the dark he became a stranger

Certain moments stayed frozen in her memory. Like photographs, she thought with a pang. She warded off thoughts of Day Randall, her murdered friend and a talented photographer, whose body was still missing. Memories decayed faster than photographs. A lot faster. But the vital details, the ones whose emotional charge held the memory in place—those never changed.

It was her second date with Troy. Or maybe third. That unimportant detail had decayed. He picked her up down the block from Steph’s house, where she was supposed to be sleeping over. He pulled to the curb in a pumpkin colored Buick, a carriage waved into existence by a fairy godmother with a twisted sense of humor. The bucket seat sagged beneath her weight. Smells haunted the interior—marijuana and cigarette smoke and something like vomit. The engine made odd choking noises, and when they headed out of town, Kelly worried that the car might break down and leave them stranded in the country.

“What’s wrong?” he asked. “You look uptight.”

“No, I’m fine.” She peered beyond the reach of the headlights and ignored the uneasiness that hollowed her out. “Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.” In the dark he became a stranger. He could pull the car to the side of the road, strangle her, and roll her body into a cornfield. For a moment she wanted to go back to Steph’s house, pop some popcorn, and watch TV. Then she summoned the image of his lucid blue eyes and knowing smile, a smile that intimated life was a joke and nobody got it but the two if them. He was dangerous, but not to her.

Somewhere along the highway leading to Uncle George’s place, Troy turned onto a side road. Gravel crunched under the Buick’s tires, and the headlights played over milkweed and a drainage ditch. Treetops emerged from the darkness of the sky, then windows illuminated with bluish light winked into view. She couldn’t see much else of the house, only the silhouette of high eaves and a front porch, its roof slumped with age. The Buick jolted over a rutted driveway and arrived in a small clearing where several other vehicles were parked. Smothered music drifted from the house.

“What is this?” Kelly asked.

“What’s it look like?”

A party in the country. Obviously. Yet, for reasons she couldn’t pin down, the place seemed furtive and sinister.

Troy got out of the Buick, slammed the door, and strode toward the porch. Kelly scrambled to catch up, so young and smitten that she accepted his rudeness. And he set the pattern. The boyfriends who followed him differed only in degree—until she met Cash, whose old-fashioned father taught him to open doors for women, not because they were weak or helpless but out of respect. Kelly wondered now why she’d valued herself so little, why she’d taken so long to move beyond her teenage insecurity.

I am the passenger

Inside the house Iggy Pop crooned, “I am the passenger, I ride and I ride . . . ,” the song’s bass notes booming like distant thunder. The raw smell of mud drifted from a field. They stood for at least a couple of minutes. She was fretting that no one had heard Troy knock when the door swung wide. A skinny man stood in the threshold. His hair ebbed from his domed forehead and hung in greasy dishwater strands to his shoulders. Later she found out he was twenty-eight, but lines scored his face from his nostrils to the corners of his mouth. His irises, almost colorless, were ground zero in a bloodshot explosion so intense that he seemed about to weep blood.

Troy leaned forward and said something. The skinny man’s gaze jumped frenetically between her and Troy before he finally nodded.

Troy grabbed her upper arm and pulled her toward the door. “Say hi to Gene.”

She mumbled a hello.

Gene raked his fingers through the stringy hair. “Troy says you’re cool. Is that right? He’s not full of shit, is he?” He sounded like a clarinet with a bad cold.

“No. I mean, I am. Cool.”

“How old are you?”

“Eighteen.” She fudged her age by fifteen months. Lying made her nervous, but he wouldn’t ask unless he needed to hear the magic number.

Gene’s mouth twitched. “Yeah, right.” But he let them in.

As Troy shepherded her through the entryway, she noticed a mahogany hall tree, the varnish on the bench top cracked and bubbled where liquid—someone’s drink, maybe—had been spilled and left. To Kelly, who loved old furniture, it seemed like desecration.

They went into a front room where a dozen or so partiers lounged on a couch and chairs and huge pillows scattered over the floor. Everyone there was older than her. Some were way older—not quite her parents’ age, but almost. Troy dropped into a chair and patted on its wide upholstered arm, indicating that Kelly should sit there. Pretending not to notice, she sat cross-legged on a Persian rug. Several burns pocked its glossy pile. She stroked the rug with her fingertips as if to comfort it.

Most people don’t feel much of anything

A nearby table was also scarred with burns and littered with an overflowing ashtray, a couple of metal pipes, and the leftover butts of smoked joints. “Look at them fat roaches,” Troy said. “Can’t let ‘em go to waste.” He picked out the longest roach and held it to his lips. He removed a book of matches from his T-shirt pocket, opened it, and struck a match—all with one hand in a single fluid motion. The feat of dexterity had impressed her at sixteen. Remembering it at forty, she wondered how many hours he’d wasted perfecting the trick.

He sucked on the stub and blew out acrid smoke, then offered the smoldering butt to Kelly. She shook her head. He gave her the knowing smile. “Come on, don’t be a narc.”

She pinched the roach gingerly, its heat a millimeter from burning her fingertips, and brought it to her lips. Maybe if she pretended . . . She barely inhaled, but she sucked in the smoke anyway. Her throat closed like a fist, and pressure backed up in her chest. She hacked and coughed loud enough to be heard over the music. An overweight woman guffawed. A man with a wispy goatee snickered. Kelly felt trapped in a cartoon where it was her fate to do one stupid thing after another.

She  braced for anger or disgust from Troy, but he asked, “Are you okay? Want something to drink?” She might have started loving him at that moment. It was a slight kindness. Basic courtesy. Yet . . .

He left the room and quickly returned with a can of soda. It was already open and not cold enough to have come straight from the fridge. She guessed someone—Troy, she hoped—had already drunk from the can. She didn’t care. Its fizz soothed her parched mouth and throat.

When he passed her a lighted joint, she took a drag to make him happy and gave it back. A minute later, he offered the joint again. She shook her head. “I’m new at this. In case you haven’t guessed.”

Troy smiled and stroked her cheek. “You’ll be okay. Most people don’t feel much of anything their first time smoking.”

She took another drag. And a few more.

She leaned against the chair where he sat. She listened to Iggy Pop snarl the lyrics of “Lust for Life.” The music had a depth and shape she’d never experienced before. She pictured the drummer twirling his drumsticks like batons and pounding drums the size of trampolines. The silver pinwheels of the drumsticks spun before her eyes. She bounced on a giant trampoline, soaring high—higher with each bounce, more weightless. Time froze. She became the silvery sticks between the drummer’s fingers. Spinning and spinning. Her stomach pitched and her mind reeled. Vomit soured her throat. She needed a toilet before—

The darkness in their faces

Hand clamped to her mouth, she staggered down a dim hallway into the harsh fluorescence of the kitchen. Several men leaned against an old-fashioned oak dining table and a counter cluttered with beer cans and gallon jugs of wine. The men turned and stared at her. Something about their faces. A darkness.

Gene Countryman held a small metal pipe between his thumb and fingers. A pistol was jammed into the waistband of his jeans, snug against the small of his back. Had it been there when he let them in? Kelly struggled to think. Many of the grownup men she knew, her father included, owned guns and hunted deer and birds. None of them stuck pistols down their pants like a movie gangster. Show off, Kelly thought, but she couldn’t let go of the darkness in their faces.

Gene noticed her, and his mouth curled in a sarcastic hook. He nodded toward a door. “Over there. And try not to miss.” Scattered laughter chased her into the tiny windowless bathroom.

She raised the toilet seat and lowered her head over the bowl. Someone had peed and forgotten to flush, and shit smeared the porcelain just above the water line. Her stomach contracted. She’d thrown up her half-digested dinner, and the sour reek had triggered more vomiting.

All these years later, she carried an image of Gene Countryman’s gun in her memory—the black textured plastic of its handle and the way it wiggled when he straightened his back, as if trying to escape from his too-tight waistband.

Later, driving back into town, Troy had reassured her. Lots of people barfed the first time they smoked and—who knows?—the weed could have been cut with something.

“Like what?”

“Who knows? Meth or angel dust.”

Kelly never wanted to smoke weed again, and he would keep insisting. She hoped she could say no to his impish smile, his blue eyes shaded by dark lashes. It didn’t matter. After the way she acted, he wouldn’t ask her out again.

Only he did. And Kelly said yes for the stupidest of reasons. He was giving her another chance after she embarrassed him. How could she do any less for him?

 

 

Last year I got an awesome deal on a camera. I “saved” over $500 off the purchase price. (And no, I didn’t buy it off the back of a truck. It was last year’s model, on sale, and I had credit card points.) Of course I could have saved more by passing on the camera and continuing to take photos and videos with my phone like most people.

FlowerI justified the purchase in various ways. I was writing a novel, Darkroom, in which a photographer and her photographs play a central role. Hands-on experience with an actual camera was research. (The photographer in the novel is old school. She uses shoots with film and develops her prints in a darkroom. I wasn’t ready to go there, especially since darkroom equipment is hard to find.)

Instead of shelling out money on stock photos, I could use my own high-quality photos on my blog and in the process learn more about working in Photoshop. And I could make videos!

I could ask an onlooker to videotape some of my riding lessons so I could study and improve my form.

As webmaster of the local Scrabble club, I take pictures at the meetings. This particular camera has a setting called “Beauty Shot” (I’m not kidding) that processes images of faces and eliminates flaws. I could get better shots of the people who hate having their picture taken. They might stop threatening to kill me if I posted photos of them online.

PlaygroundAnd the shiny new camera would give me a reason to detach my brain from my iPad and get my butt out of the house once in a while.

Once I started snapping pictures, I came to some unhappy realizations. All the fancy features were pointless until I knew how to use them, so I studied the manual enough to be minimally competent. More than that would take practice. A lot of practice.

SAMSUNG CSCAnd I soon realized were things that my camera couldn’t do. A few outdoor sessions showed me that even with the correct settings I couldn’t capture birds in flight. My husband, Joe, a sometimes photographer who gave me invaluable help in researching Darkroom, explained that I needed a lens with a longer focal length, which would cost almost as much as I’d spent for the camera.

HydrantMaybe someday . . .

It wasn’t only the camera that had limitations. I lacked the eye for photography. My gaze slipped past the unlikely objects that make good photos. I didn’t think in terms of frame or perspective or angle. Joe helped me. When I walked around town taking pictures, he came along and pointed out what I overlooked. He set tasks for me. One was to photograph the fire hydrants in our neighborhood. I came to think of the project as a travel guide for the dogs who might journey to Charleston, Illinois.

His tutoring helped. I learned to see more possibilities in places so familiar that I’d stopped  seeing them.

Locked

And I made a heartening discovery. Photography helps my writing. Not only do I see the world in a new way, but my photographs have become a kind of memory, capturing mundane images in more detail than I could ever remember.Shadow Box

But there are limitations here as well.

Memory is more than an visual image. It’s the smell of mud, the bark of a dog and the rumble of distant thunder, the flutter of the wind and the damp touch of the air. Above all it’s the convergence of thoughts and moods with the input from the senses—that complex thing called experience.

Broken Dishes

The moment finally comes. The first copy of Darkroom arrives from the printer. Excited and anxious, I tear away the cardboard shell and behold the cover. It’s even more striking and sinister on the paperback than on the computer screen.The colors are deeper . The man lurking at the cover’s edge looks more compelling and mysterious. The designer has done a terrific job. I run my fingers over the glossy surface. Oh, it feels good.

Darkroom

I feel a bit shaky as I open the book. The interior is entirely my work, and although the PDF has been proofed by a professional and I’ve been over it  a dozen times, I fret that I’ve overlooked something so blatant and stupid that I’ll want to crawl into bed and hide beneath the covers. I thumb through the pages. The margins are right. The chapter headings look exactly as I’d envisioned, and none of them is out of place. The headings haven’t mysteriously vanished from any of the spreads.

Finally, my anxiety dies down. There’s probably an error lurking in there somewhere, but not a major error. I can relax and celebrate the launch of my newest novel.

Be sure to join me for the Dangerous Darkroom Blog Tour May 2-6, organized by the lovely people at Novel Publicity. You’ll get sneak peaks of the novel, interviews with me, and exclusive insights to the story and characters that make Darkroom a novel you won’t soon forget.

Enter the blog tour drawing for a shot at winning these special prizes:

  • A paperback of Larry Clark’s famous photo essay Tulsa. Darkroom features a talented photographer whose photos, like Clark’s,”uncover the secret of a face, its elusive life, so it becomes the portrait of an intimate you have yet to meet.”
  • A set of 10 custom note cards with envelopes, featuring a photograph of Boulder’s iconic Flatirons by moonlight. Photograph by Charles Pfiel.
  • Autographed copies of my dark fantasy horror novels Talion and Daemon Seer.
  • A $25 Amazon gift card.

Darkroom is a suspense thriller with a noirish atmosphere and unexpected twists. Art curator Kelly Durrell goes looking for her missing roommate, talented photographer Day Randall, and becomes entangled in a demimonde of powerful people who will stop at nothing to protect their secrets. Here’s what advance readers and reviewers have to say about Darkroom:

“. . . tight, compelling, and convincing writing.”  — Jon A. Jackson, author of Hit on the House and No Man’s Dog

“A thriller with unexpected plot twists and suspenseful action.”  — RT Source

“Kelly Durrell is a deftly-drawn, intelligent, and likable heroine.”  — Daiva Markelis, author of White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life

“A solid mystery that involves a satisfyingly diverse range of characters.”  — D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review

“[Maddox’s] prose flows with beauty and clarity.”  — Tahlia Newland, author of The Locksmith’s Secret

The paperback is now available through Amazon and will soon become available through other online sellers. The Kindle edition is coming May 3, and you can preorder a copy right now at the special launch price of just $0.99. The price is going up at the beginning of next week, so don’t wait too long!

It would happen as I walked to school alone, or sat in the cafeteria with schoolmates chattering around me, or came home to find my mother had left work early and stopped at the liquor store for a fifth of vodka, now half empty. I suddenly knew this wasn’t my life. I belonged somewhere else, to different parents. Why they’d abandoned me I had no idea. They must have had a good reason, I thought, and someday they would return for me. I imagined my real parents as powerful, unearthly beings who could transport me in an instant to the unknown and hardly imaginable world where I belonged. They might come anytime, I told myself. One more minute and I could be out of there.

The reasons for my make-believe were plain to see. I was an introverted kid with not many friends. My mother was depressed and numbed her misery with alcohol. “I wish I was dead,” she said often. “If I had any courage, I’d find a gun and shoot myself.” My brother, Steve, the only one who shared my experience, had gone to live with our father in another town. But his absence hardly mattered. Something had changed between us since we became adolescents. The onset of adolescence probably had something to do with my feelings of strangeness as well. I hardly recognized my body anymore. Hardly recognized myself. I felt alone and insignificant, and my fantasy allowed me to feel special.

A changeling is a child left by fairies in exchange for a child stolen. An inferior, sickly thing left in place of what is precious, like the fake diamonds a jewel thief might leave to conceal his theft. I wanted to believe I was worth the trade. I wanted to become, like David Copperfield, the hero of my own life. But first I had to accept my life as it was. Once I did, things got better.

I worked harder in school and won encouragement from some of my teachers. I joined high school organizations and made more friends. After losing ten pounds and getting fitted with contact lenses, I found a boyfriend. And if I wanted to enter unknown and hardly imaginable worlds, I picked up a book or wrote a story. Eventually my stories and plays won national contests sponsored by Literary Cavalcade magazine, which led to a scholarship at Knox College, a school famous for its program in creative writing.

Looking back, I know my unhappiness wasn’t that unusual. I’ve met people whose childhoods were far worse than mine and who had the same sense of not belonging, of being an outsider. Now I value the experience. Though it caused me plenty of suffering then — and later — it made me a writer. It helped me imagine Lu, the hero of Talion and Daemon Seer, a teenager trapped in hopeless circumstances until the daemon Talion tells her who she truly is.

I wonder how many others have imagined themselves as changelings of one kind or another. I would like to know their stories.

I wrote another version of this post almost five years ago. Now that I understand my life better, the story has a happier ending.

What would you do to stay young and beautiful?

Melissa will do whatever it takes.

She has the wealth to buy eternal youth and destroy anyone who challenges her. Then she meets a young artist with a secret . . .

I’m offering my new short story Catalyst free to all subscribers of my newsletter. Here’s a short excerpt:

The young man in Melissa’s parlor stank of mildew and tobacco. The stench kept her from inviting him to sit, but she couldn’t stop looking at him. He was beautiful. His black hair fell in loose curls around his face. Wide blue eyes, sculpted cheekbones, full lips — an angelic face. “Do you smoke?” she asked.

“My girlfriend did.

“She quit?”

“We’re not together anymore, but the smell gets everywhere.” He studied the painting on the wall above the sofa. “That’s a Rothko. An original?”

“My husband acquired it not long before he died.” Melissa smiled. “You know something about art.”

“I’m a painter.”

Which explained why he needed money. The artists and writers were the saddest of all those Gerard brought to her. Doomed to awaken from their dream in a dark place, youth and hope gone. Nobody cared about their creations except family and a few friends. She felt a stab of sorrow for him. “What’s your name?”

“Chad. What’s yours?”

“You’re twenty-two, is that correct?”

“Yeah.” He cleared his throat with a phlegmy rattling that alarmed her.

“Are you ill?”

“No, it’s just sinus. Allergies.” He spoke too fast.

“You’re sure?”

“That and the pollution. The air feels good in here. Pure.”

Something in his voice, a mix of bitterness and yearning, twisted her heart. She stopped the pity. It was one luxury she couldn’t afford. “I want you to take a hot shower. Would you like that?”

“Yeah, why not.” His nonchalance amused her, touched her a little. He couldn’t possibly afford a place in the city, not on his own. No doubt he lived in a cramped apartment with several others, and they all shared a slimy little bathroom half the size of her shower stall.

“Then Gerard will —”

“First I want to know what I’m getting.”

“Twenty thousand. Cash. Didn’t he tell you?”

“Not the money. The blood.”

Melissa studied her hands. Emerald polish gleamed on her shapely fingernails. No freckled spots yet, but the skin was starting to crepe. The hands of a middle-aged woman. The treatment would plump and smooth them. “Standard, from a blood bank. The donors were screened for disease.”

“How old were they?”

“I have no idea,” she said. “All ages, I suppose.”

Both of them knew better. The young sold to a more lucrative market than blood banks. Only the old and desperate traded a measure of their precious lives for a few dollars.

“So I should bounce back pretty fast?”

To read the rest of Catalyst, just subscribe to my newsletter using the button below or the form on the sidebar. Within 24 hours you’ll receive a message with a link to the download, available for Nook or Kindle.

I hope you enjoy the story!

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My new novel Darkroom follows museum curator Kelly Durrell as she tracks her missing friend, Day, into a demimonde of drug traffickers and sexual predators. In this flashback, Day’s lover remembers his older brother.

When Gee was sixteen, Renny showed him how to do business.

He remembered the kids skateboarding in the darkening street, their raucous shouts joined to the chorus of starlings settling to roost. The scent of lilacs wafted from somewhere, too sweet. Gee hung back on the porch steps. Renny swaggered to the door, his thumb hooked in the front pocket of his jeans. No one answered the bell. He stepped to the window, cut the screen with his jackknife, and sent Gee inside to unlock the door.

Dougie was taking a shower. Light from the bathroom shined on Renny’s rapt smile. Gee heard the shower curtain rip, hooks popping off the rod, and a croaked “What —?” Thumps and scuffling. Then a louder thump and a scream.

They dragged Dougie into a bedroom and hogtied him with twine. He was a small dude with a hairless chest and not much pubic hair. He curled on the dirty carpet, wet hair pasted to his face, bleeding from his mouth and panting like a dog.

“The shit I tasted was rock,” Renny said. “The shit you delivered was stepped on.”

“The suppliers —”

Renny slammed his fist into Dougie’s face. “I bought from you, not them. Ain’t my fault you trusted a bunch of fucking spics.”

“Basement,” Dougie jabbered. “Third shelf up. Cinder block.”

“Check it out, Gee.”

Gee found the basement door where he expected it to be. Same with the light switch. As if the floor plan of Dougie’s house was burned into his brain at birth. As if he never had a choice. The shelves held the usual clutter — a busted toaster oven, a couple of bowling trophies, a glass jar of pennies. The money was stashed in the cavity of a cinder block. Not enough. Gee brought the pennies too.

The bedroom stank of urine. “Nine hundred seventy.” Gee tossed the roll of bill to Renny. “Plus change.” He shook the jar of pennies and placed it on the floor. Doing things like that — provocative things — made him less afraid of his brother.

Renny grabbed a sock from the floor and stuffed it in Dougie’s mouth. Shadows warped his smile into something monstrous. “You owe me seven large. I want my money, bitch. You gonna give me my money?” When he struck the first match, Gee looked away. A scream gargled in Dougie’s throat. The bedroom carpet was green and littered with tiny pebbles and burnt-out matches. The useless details stuck to Gee’s memory like lint. He wanted to bolt. But Renny would be waiting at home and their parents wouldn’t protect him. Dad thought weaklings deserved what they got, and Mom was just a slave.

“Where should I burn the cocksucker now? I’m thinking his balls.”

Gee tasted vomit. “He’d probably like it, the faggot.”

The hogtied body thumped like a landed fish. Dougie made an urgent whimpering noise. He had more to say. Renny yanked the sock from his mouth.

“Cl-cl-closet.” Dougie’s gaze jerked upward. “Sh-sh-shoe box.”

Gee pulled shoe boxes from the top shelf of the closet. In two of them he found Dougie’s real stash. Hundred-dollar bills and fifties and twenties, sorted into piles and rubber-banded. He showed his brother the money and began counting out loud. “Two hundred, three, four, five, six . . .” The diversion worked. Renny came and stood over him while he counted the money. Nine thousand, two hundred and thirty dollars.

“Asshole could’ve just paid me.”

Gee hoped it would end there, that his brother would be satisfied with a 3000-dollar profit and let Dougie keep his life. But Renny strangled Dougie with a belt from the closet and then tossed Gee the car keys. “There’s a can of gas in the trunk. Bring it.”

The firefighters showed up fast. Their station, it turned out, was two blocks away. Dougie’s body was mostly unburned, and the cops lifted a partial fingerprint from the belt. It wasn’t a certain match, but a neighbor IDed their car and Dougie’s friends testified to Renny’s psycho reputation.

Gee never rolled over. He was handcuffed to a table for hours. He begged for the toilet, but the two ugly cops just laughed. They laughed more after he pissed himself. They claimed a witness saw his face and showed him a drawing that looked like him. But Gee wasn’t stupid. It had been too dark for anyone to make him. The cops yammered on and on about their solid case and how he would be so popular in the slammer his asshole would be looser than his mama’s pussy. Now and then they changed tactics and called him a good boy, straight-A student, and promised him Renny was going down so he’d best cut a deal while he could. Through it all Gee kept the guilt and horror locked inside. And finally they had to let him go. They had nothing.

Renny was confident he would walk free, too. Gee had been in the courtroom when the jury came back. Had seen his brother’s face when the foreman spoke the word guilty — the rapt smile, like the moment he sailed into the bathroom to take Dougie down.

Darkroom will be available early next year.

You could write a book on why readers dislike ambiguity in fiction. Someone probably has. It might seem arrogant (or at least reductive) to address the question in 500 words or less, but I’m going to try.

The answer comes down to what a reader wants — challenge or comfort.

Ambiguity is a lack of clarity or certainty in a situation. In fiction, it’s found in open endings, unsolved disappearances, characters whose nature remains mysterious, events that may or may not be real. For me, ambiguity enriches a story and keeps me thinking long after I put the book aside. It makes the story more real. More like life.

We live with ambiguity every day. Someone texts a friend several times and gets no reply. An insecure person thinks, “I did something to make her hate me.” A fearful person thinks, “Maybe she’s in trouble.” An optimistic person thinks, “She’s having too much fun to check her messages.” The point is, people feel the need to come up with an explanation.

Oftentimes more is at stake. You interview for a job. The interviewer promises to get back to you, but doesn’t. Maybe you should call and ask whether you’re still in the running. But what if your call annoys the interviewer?

You meet someone and want to start dating. But maybe he’s a con artist with a string of ex-wives. You run an online search and hope it uncovers the truth. Some of the truth anyway.

The uncertainty of life can be exhausting and anxiety provoking. What a comfort to escape into a story where the mystery is solved, the lovers are united, and both characters and reader stand on solid fictional ground.

The trouble is, the real complexity of experience is missing from those stories.

Margaret Atwood’s “Death By Landscape” is a short story built on ambiguity. The protagonist, Lois, goes to summer camp and meets Lucy. The two girls become friends over several summers together at camp. One day while they’re alone on a hike, Lucy goes off to pee and never comes back. A search of the surrounding countryside turns up nothing. The owner of the summer camp blames Lois.

For the rest of her life, Lois carries the guilt and perplexity of not knowing what happened to her friend. She collects paintings of wilderness landscapes but otherwise pushes the experience to the back of her mind — until she gets old. With her husband dead and her children gone, the mystery of Lucy’s disappearance reemerges. Lois spends her days gazing at the landscape paintings in search of Lucy.

“Death By Landscape” illustrates how devastating lack of closure can be. Lois seeks closure in her collection of landscapes. They are attempts to recapture Lucy by placing borders around the uncharted territory that swallowed her up.

Many readers seek closure in fiction and abhor the holes where certainty and clarity disappear. I can’t really blame them.

In her novel The Wife, Meg Wolitzer tells the story of a talented writer who sacrifices her own career to marry a man who becomes a famous novelist. Or rather, Wolitzer lets Joan tell her own story, beginning with her decision to leave her husband, a narcissistic philanderer, as the two of them are flying to Helsinki, where Joe will accept a prestigious award. The couple are in their sixties, their children long gone from the nest. Their comfortable golden years await.

After one or two pages I was already wondering why Joan stayed so long. The novel provides a complicated answer, a tangle of circumstances and character.

In a series of flashbacks, Joan relates how she and Joe meet and fall in love back in the 1950s while she’s a student at Smith. He’s her creative writing instructor (what a surprise), married with a newborn daughter (even less of a surprise). Their affair discovered, they flee the college in disgrace and begin their life together in a shabby Greenwich Village apartment. Joan goes to work to support Joe’s ambition to become a successful novelist. Although she has considerable talent as a writer, she sees little point in trying to pursue a career of her own.

In the 1950s the literary establishment was dominated by men and the stereotypical male novelist — a lusty, macho guy who wrote sprawling novels. Think Normal Mailer and James Jones. With a few exceptions, women’s writing was undervalued.

While at Smith, Joan attends the reading of Elaine Mozell, a writer whose first novel had good reviews but dismal sales. At the party afterward, Elaine warns Joan she cannot hope to win the attention of the male reviewers and editors “who decide who gets to be taken seriously, who gets put up on a pedestal for the rest of their lives.” These gatekeepers make sure “women’s voices [will remain] hushed and tiny and the men’s voices loud.”

Elaine Mozell’s warning echoes in Joan’s head for years afterward, a reminder that she would have failed anyway.

In the 1970s the literary landscape begins to change, but by then Joan has settled into the marriage. She has three children. She thinks it’s too late. So she stays in the marriage and puts up with Joe’s preening and fooling around with other women. By the end of The Wife, the extent of her sacrifice becomes clear. It’s heartbreaking.

Despite the sad story, The Wife is often savagely funny. Wolitzer gives her protagonist acute vision, cutting wit, and rage all the fiercer for having been suppressed. Of her once sexy husband Joan says:

Now he was old, with a humbling bio-prosthetic heterograft porcine valve (however you slice it, it’s just pig meat) stuck like a clove into his heart, and pig memories somehow looped into his brain: happy images of rooting around among old nectarines and tennis shoes.

Wow. Joe is sleeping beside a razor and doesn’t even know it.

Days after finishing The Wife, I’m still pondering Elaine Mozell and the role she plays in Joan’s choice. Elaine speaks the truth without regard for the damage it will do. I guess that’s a good thing. Better than lying, anyway. But it’s truth shaded by bitterness. Come to think of it, Elaine never tells Joan to stop writing, only to forget about impressing the men. She says, “Find some other way.” Advice so buried in negativity that Joan doesn’t understand it for decades.

I want to believe there’s another way — always — and failure won’t happen unless I give up. But I know too much about the intractability of life to think it’s that simple. Sometimes there are no good choices, only bad and worse ones. I’ve gone the wrong way more than once. And probably will again. I value Joan’s story, with its less than happy ending, for showing how even a terrible choice may be redeemable if one can face the truth.

I love finding new words. As a Scrabble player I see each one as another way to score. But as a reader and writer I value a word for its sound and texture and nuances of meaning. Certain words amaze and delight me when I first come upon them. This happened more often when I was young, less after I grew up and became a teacher. Task-oriented reading has a way of squashing delight before it is born. One is less likely to pause and savor a word when one has five dozen papers to read (which right now, thank the moon and stars, I do not). Anyhow, here are three words that amazed and delighted me as an adolescent reader.

Apoplectic Chestnuts

Apoplexy is stroke – a blood vessel starts leaking into the brain, causing all kinds of dire symptoms up to and including death. But the adjective apoplectic may be used in a figurative sense to describe someone who seems on the verge of having a stroke, or something that causes a stroke or resembles a stroke. Charles Dickens uses the word a lot. In Nickolas Nickleby there is “an ancient butler of apoplectic appearance” and in A Christmas Carol he describes “great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence.” I love the way the word sounds, the plosives one after another, popping off like a chain of fireworks. I imagine an apoplectic person as red-faced, bad-tempered and chronically frustrated – like a huge pimple on the verge of bursting.

Anger by Thomas Perkins

Apoplectic Man

Never Drop a Mercury Thermometer

Mercurial means volatile, unpredictable, fast-thinking, imaginative. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “Originally such qualities were associated with the god or the planet; the sense is now usually understood to allude to the properties of mercury the metal.” As a teenager I loved Greek and Roman mythology, so I associated mercurial with the wing-footed god. Then there came the incident in chemistry class. Mr. Hawks, our teacher, warned us to be careful with the thermometers. A hopeless klutz, I usually let my lab partner handle the equipment while I wrote the report. I was good at the writing reports. But one day I somehow ended up holding the thermometer. And of course I dropped it. The mercury hit the floor and scattered, then drew itself into tense little beads that seemed alive, as though any moment they would slither together and form a pulsating blob that would devour us one by one until it filled the entire classroom. Mr. Hawks confirmed this impression by ordering us to stand back as he vacuumed up the perilous beads.

A Colder Kind of Snotty

A phlegmatic character is the opposite of mercurial. He’s the guy at the party who sits like a lump watching TV and never cracks a joke or laughs at anyone else’s joke. She’s the gal who never dances and falls asleep after one glass of wine. As the OED puts it, being phlegmatic means “having, showing, or characteristic of the temperament formerly believed to result from a predominance of phlegm among the bodily humours; not easily excited to feeling or action; stolidly calm, self-possessed, imperturbable; (with pejorative connotation) sluggish, apathetic, lacking enthusiasm.” There are four bodily humours, or fluids, thought by the ancient Greeks to influence health. One of course is phlegm. The others – blood, yellow bile, and black bile – have words associated with them as well. Sanguine for blood, bilious for bile. But phlegmatic is the most fun of the humourous words. It sounds as though somebody spliced phlegm to automatic to create Phlegm-o-Matic, the amazing new snot-producing machine. I guess that would be just about anybody with a bad cold.

Quack, quack!Sometimes I feel unlucky.  Then something happens to remind me of the good fortune in my life

In the early ’70’s, I attended Knox College, where I earned a B.A. degree with Honors in creative writing. Back then, Knox had one of the few undergraduate creative writing programs in the country. Now you can thumb through any issue of Poets and Writers or The Writer’s Chronicle and see ads for dozens. But Knox’s program continues to stand out.

Earlier this month, I read twenty-four stories by Knox students and chose the winners for two contests, the Proctor Fenn Sherwin short Story Award and the Davenport Literary Prizes in Fiction. I travelled to Knox and met the eight writers whose stories were winners or runners up.I asked these students why they chose Knox College. All eight of them declared they came because of the creative writing program. It has a national reputation. Catch, the student literary magazine, has won four prestigious prizes in the last six years. The stories I read confirm this excellence. All showed talent and craftsmanship. It was extremely difficult to narrow the field and select the winners.

Clearly Ma has better things to do than garden.Two weeks ago I blogged about a reading I would be giving for the Knox Writers’ House. I had no idea what to expect. Here is what I found. With help and guidance from their advisor, Monica Berlin, students travel throughout the region and record writers as they read their own work and that of writers they admire. The students also conduct interviews, asking biographical questions and questions about place – the rewards and challenges of being a writer in a particular place. They asked me about Charleston, Illinois, where I’ve lived for years. (I couldn’t find much to recommend Charleston except that I belong to a great writers group here and the town offers few distractions. And this area has some  engaging quirks as the photographs show.)

Eventually the archives of the Writers’ House will be posted online as a public resource. It’s an ambitious project, but these students have the energy, enthusiasm, and dedication to make it happen. Those were qualities I observed in nearly all the student writers I met. They want to work. They enjoy reading. They love literature and writing.

Free eats!

Their teachers deserve some of the credit for that. The creative writing program has grown to a core faculty of seven, with as many visiting and/or cooperating faculty. Two were teaching when I attended Knox – Robin Metz and Robert Hellenga. It was wonderful to see them again. Others were new to me, but all have the same devotion to writing and teaching. Some writers see teaching as a gig, an easy way to make money. Not the faculty at Knox.

My appreciation for my alma mater has grown through the years as I came to understand the value of what I learned there. Returning has reawakened my love for the place and my dedication to writing. It has reminded me who I am.

I’ve been asked to take part in a project called The Knox Writers’ House.  At this point I don’t know much about the project, only that  it’s associated with my alma mater, Knox College, and that I’ll be interviewed then recorded as I read two selections – something I wrote and something by a writer who inspired me. Choosing my own work was easy. I decided on “What Love Is,” a story about childhood sweethearts whose love ends in disaster. It’s the right length and reads well  out loud. The other choice was harder. So many writers have inspired me at different times in my life.

My first idea was to read the opening of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. The novel shocked some people when it was published in 1955 because its hero is an unapologetic paedophile. But any literate person knows we’re not talking about porno. The tale of Humbert Humbert’s love for thirteen-year-old Lolita is a tragi-comedy written in elegant prose, lyrical and satiric, razor-sharp in its intelligence. It begins, “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.”

Lolita is the greatest novel of the 20th Century, but I also love it for personal reasons. Two courses shy of graduating, I left Knox and moved to Chicago, where I moved in with a friend and looked for a job. I was deeply depressed and drinking a pint of vodka every day. Unsurprisingly, the only job I found was waiting tables at a seedy restaurant, the sort of place where I wouldn’t dream of eating now.  I was fired after a week or two. Not that I cared. Now I had more time to go out drinking. Remembering some of the crazy things that happened then, I feel like I’m channelling someone’s else’s nightmares. During the day I slept and watched TV. Only friendship kept my roommate from kicking my ass out.

One day I got sick of soap operas and picked up a book. It happened to be Lolita. I was awed. I remembered something I’d forgotten – that a writer creates meaning from the chaos of experience, and I knew chaos would swallow me unless I escaped. A few days later I took a train back  to Galesburg and moved in with Joe Heumann, now my husband. I forgot to warn Joe I was coming, but that’s another story.

I owe my life to Lolita, but in the end I decided to read “The Grave” by Katherine Ann Porter instead. For one thing, it’s brief. I can read the whole thing, not just a chapter. For another, it’s an unforgettable story with a kick-ass opening sentence: “The grandfather, dead for more than thirty years, had been twice disturbed in his long repose by the constancy and possessiveness of his widow.” Right away the reader knows that some things don’t stay buried. But most of all, I couldn’t have written “What Love Is” without having read “The Grave.” Porter showed me how a story can span decades in a few pages and that buried memories are the most haunting.

I feel incredibly honored by the invitation to help with this project and look forward to telling you more about The Knox Writers’ House. Meanwhile, you can find “The Grave” in The Virginia Quarterly Review and “What Love Is” in The Scream Online.

My Face in the Mirror

Exam week looms. I have more than sixty research essays to read and mark. They must be finished in time to return at final exams. Grading research essays requires additional work because I require photocopies or printouts of written sources, and I check to make sure students are citing correctly. The workload is daunting enough that I thought about skipping this week’s post, but then something happened.

The second essay I read contained plagiarism. This was not a case of the writer forgetting to put quotation marks around language taken from somewhere else. The plagiarized sources were not on her works cited page, nor would they have any place there. Both came from Web sites that sell essays to students. Typically, samples of the proffered essays are shown. My student copied and pasted two of these samples, one for her introduction and one for her conclusion.

Other instructors will understand how I recognized the plagiarism. Every writer has a voice. Part of it consists of the writer’s facility with language, vocabulary, and sentence construction. When a marginal student suddenly uses polysyllabic words, creates complex sentences, and strings together three or four cogent thoughts, I get suspicious.

My student received a zero on the research essay, which counts for twenty percent of her total grade. As a result, it has become impossible for her to pass English 1002. It will cost her considerable time and money to retake the course. No doubt some people think I’m being harsh. Only two passages, after all. Only fifteen percent of the essay. But students take the risk of plagiarizing because they count on leniency if they happen to be caught. Many of us exceed the speed limit on the highway figuring the cop will let us go with a warning, and even if we get a ticket, paying it isn’t a crushing financial hardship. I sometimes drive too fast. I’ll no doubt complain when the cop pulls me over, but I’ll deserve the ticket.

As seasoned criminals put it: If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.

In this situation I become the cop. I dislike the role – I’m a writer, damn it – but since I have to play the cop, I get to make the call about whether to issue a warning or impose a penalty. A zero for the assignment is actually the mildest penalty and the one I typically impose the first time someone plagiarizes. This student deserves it for stealing other people’s writing – even if it is for sale and therefore an invitation to plagiarism.

Photo by Cheryl Casey