North Beach Blues

05/02/2017 at 9:33 pm (Exercises, Publishing News)

Very excited, and a little nervous, that my very first novel will be officially released in just 3 months from now – Tuesday, August 1, 2017! I have my Book Reading/Signing lined up at Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue for Monday, Aug. 7th, and I couldn’t be happier to launch my novel from a place that holds so many great memories for me.

While I was working on Bear, trying to figure out who my characters were and why they behaved they way they did, made the choices they made, I started writing short pieces about them. I have earlier posts about Rose, Stephen, and Ken here on the site.

The piece below is my take on Stephen’s abandoned-them-for-New-York dad, Thomas O’Neill. Here his name is David, and the locale is San Francisco.

 

North Beach Blues

Lily stood at David’s apartment door, still in her hungry i waitress uniform less than half an hour from when her lunch shift had ended. She listened to the strains of an acoustic guitar escaping from his living room, imagining his slender, forceful fingers making love to the strings. A Rolling Stones song, it sounded to her like “Prodigal Son,” accompanied David inside. Keith Richards finished his solo and when a break in the music ushered silence into the hall, Lily timidly knocked.

Another song, “Stray Cat Blues” started up with more of Richards’ guitar licks, and she knew this was the Beggars Banquet album she’d bought for him down on Embarcadero the week before. She was happy that he was wearing the grooves down and practicing his guitar along with it, but she wanted him to hear her, excited for him to let her into the apartment. Still wired from work, Lily needed to come down a bit, have her boyfriend of five months make love to her like he did to that six-string instrument.

After almost a full minute of her knocking, the music lowered to a mumble and she heard his bare footfalls as he moved over the hardwood floors and toward the door.

“Hey, babe!” David, bare-chested, stood before her with only a pair of ripped blue jean shorts on his skinny frame and the neck of his cherry-wood guitar in his hand.

Lily pushed her body into him, her tongue taking command and wrestling around his mouth. She wasn’t normally the aggressor, but today her hormones compelled her to action and her mind floated upward and out of her head with elated thoughts. He tasted like cigarettes and hummus, with a hint of Chablis as well. That’s good, he’s eaten, she thought.  He’ll have plenty of strength for me.

David pulled her into the apartment, kicked the door closed with a hairy big toe and placed his guitar down on the dining room table. He collapsed with her on top of him into a rabbit-white bean bag. Pieces of mail fluttered out of her hand and onto the floor.

Lily whipped her head back and broke the kiss, her ponytail swishing behind her. “Oh, shoot, sorry.” She picked up the mail, then moved back into a straddling position over David.

“That mine?” David asked, his hands unbuttoning her uniform at the base of her spine.

“Your mailman was kind enough to let me deliver these to you myself.”

“Hey, Mr. Postman,” he said in a falsetto, his voice scratchy and deep.

Lily unfurled her ponytail and brushed out her leopard spot-black mane with her unpainted fingernails. “You really are a great father.”

“What makes you say that?” David finished unbuttoning her food-speckled uniform, peeled it off her arms to expose a white t-shirt of his that she’d borrowed the last time she’d spent the night in his North Beach apartment.

“Because it’s true.” She held up an envelope from the small batch of mail. “This is from your kids, isn’t it? Your birthday’s next week, this looks like a card or something.”

“Could be,” he lay back, leaving Lily half-undressed.

She leaned into him, grabbed his arms and helped him pull the shirt over her head. He threw it across the room, where it landed on a pile of books that she’d bought him when they’d first started dating. Books from City Lights, where David sometimes read his own poetry or played his guitar. She was thinking of a few other books she wanted to buy him, but they wouldn’t carry them there. She’d have to go to one of the bigger book stores, where the bestsellers by Harold Robbins, Erica Jong and Dr. Spock’s parenting manuals were plentiful.

“It’s so great how much they adore you, in spite of what a witch your ex-wife is.”

David unfastened his shorts and slid them down his legs, effortlessly lifting Lily’s body off his lap and then back down again. “She’s not so bad. Do we need to talk about her right now, Lil? Or anything, for that matter?”

She sprouted a mock-pout, then wriggled the rest of the way out of her uniform. “I just … it gets me excited when you talk about being a dad. I mean, your girls, they’re gorgeous.” She whipped her hair toward a framed picture on the mantle behind her. “And they love all the time you spend with them, whenever you can get back there to see them.”

“It’s been a while, though.”

She noticed he’d stopped playing with her nipples. She touched his face, caressed his full beard. “I thought you were in Oregon last week. You didn’t see them?”

David laughed, but Lily thought it sounded grim, mirthless. “Look, babe, I don’t … Jesus, let’s go down this road right now. I don’t want to lose it, you know.” He pointed down at his johnson, but she kept her eyes on his face. It was full of lies, she now saw. But which lies, about what?

She peeled herself off him, draped her uniform over her breasts and belly. David sighed, too loudly, and Lily picked up the envelope with an Oregon return address hand-written at the upper left-hand corner. She looked at the name. “This is from her, from their mom, but I thought it was from them …” She breathed in a large breath. It came out in chunks, confused and choppy, with a sob lurking somewhere in her diaphragm.

“You’re so goddamn curious, Lily, why don’t you just open it.” David lifted himself out of the bean bag chair and slipped his shorts back on, his penis flaccid and uninterested now.

She looked up at him, unsure. He waved an arm at it, like what the fuck, and then took his guitar over to the window. He turned the ear-like metal lock, lifted the heavy wooden frame, and allowed the traffic sounds off Columbus into the studio apartment. A pack of cigarettes lay by the windowsill and she watched him tap one out before slipping it between his lips.

Lily sliced open the back of the envelope with her thumb and removed a letter. It looked formal, and she noticed it was a law firm’s stationary, like the kind her uncle in Newark had. He was a partner in a big lawyer’s office back east, and he had sent her letters from time to time, always using their letterhead. Lily didn’t think David’s ex-wife worked for a law firm, she thought he’d told her she was a beautician.

“So what does it say?” David asked when she sat with the unread letter for more than three full minutes.

She touched the embossed lettering at the top, pressing down hard on it with her forefinger in hopes of rubbing it off and making the letter itself just disappear. Her eyes met the first line of the second paragraph, the word “divorce” jumping out at her. She read on, her mouth suddenly dry bedrock, hard and filled with silt.

“You’re not … divorced.” She heard the meekness in her voice, the hurt and fear and confusion all rolled up into a Persian rug, the dead body of their relationship stuffed inside.

“Those must be the divorce papers,” David said, sucking in a mouthful of smoke.  He exhaled and shrugged his bony shoulders. “Well, don’t that fuck all. Her timing was always pretty great that way.”

“What else, David? What else have you lied to me about? Where have you been going the past few months, if not to see your kids?”

“Listen, we never said we were a solid item, right? No exclusivity or anything? At least, I never said it.” A large truck’s horn bellowed on the street below them, as if to emphasize David’s words.

Lily sat on the floor, staring up at her boyfriend, sick to her stomach. Nausea came in on a wave, but she forced it away. There would be time for that later. Now, she needed him to tell her a few truths.

“So what about your girls? Do you ever see them?”

“When’s the last time …” David stared out the window, his back to her. She hoped he was feeling shame, but assumed he probably felt nothing but caught. Lily hated herself right now for misjudging him, for trusting the word of a failed musician who worked nights as a barker for Carol Doda at the Condor Club. For trusting in his word that he was a good and loving father, a dependable man for his girls. And maybe a dependable father for her … child.

David took a drag off his cigarette, blew a set of rings out the window, the late afternoon sunlight illuminating them like angelic halos. “Probably been at least a year and a half. I stopped calling them a while before that. Too much hassle, trying to deal with Susan and her garbage. I guess she finally got fed up, saw herself a lawyer. No blaming her, I guess.”

On her feet, Lily lifted the T-shirt from the pile of books, then dropped it back down. She fed her legs into the waitress outfit, cinched it up her waist, and buttoned herself up. Found her shoes and when she was all dressed looked up at David, his head still turned away from her and staring out the window. He flicked his cigarette out the window and she turned toward the door without a word.

As she exited his apartment, she held the tears in, determined not to lose it, not within hearing distance of David. She would cry later, back in her own room, where she would make plans about the baby, who would definitely have a great mother, if not a great father.

 

North Beach 1973

 

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The Avenue

03/10/2011 at 10:48 am (Exercises, Senses, Telegraph Ave.)

As I continue working on the novel, I’m attempting to add physical details that are true to Berkeley and the 1976 setting.  But I’m also concerned with other senses – not only the sights of the time and place, but the sounds, smells, tastes and the tactility of Steve’s surroundings.

This short exercise lists certain scents associated with Telegraph Avenue in the 1970s:

Suds and lemony detergent escaping the laundromat on the corner across from the 7-Eleven, which always smells like Slurpees and beef jerky;

b.o. so strong it makes anyone walking downwind of the aged black homeless man it belongs to gag involuntarily – the smell known notoriously as Bum Scum;

human feces in People’s Park;

poet Julia Vinograd’s musty chapbooks she shoves under the noses of every single passerby who happens to glance her way, only three dollars, plus she’ll sign it for you;

LaVal’s pepperoni pizza — covered with chili flakes — being consumed on the Northside by a study group of bleary-eyed undergrads during finals;

the aromatics of Caffé Med, where the Turkish coffees overpower the Ethiopian blends every time.

 

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photo by Justin McFarr

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The Bystander

02/15/2011 at 11:04 am (Exercises, Janet's Prompts, Short Story Excerpts)

What initially started as a 500-1000 word exercise, using Janet Fitch‘s prompt of The Word “Open” last summer, turned into a 3,500 word short story that I am currently revising.  Exploring Ken, the boys’ stepfather, I chose to write close 3rd-person in hopes of  discovering some secrets about him, as well as understanding what motivates his behavior.  The excerpt below comes about halfway through the piece, with Ken looking back at a defining moment in his childhood.  Right now the story is tentatively titled,

The Bystander

Ken had been five years old at the time, his mother out of the hospital barely a week with his new sister Claire.  It had been the early fifties, when fathers traditionally sat in the bar across the street from the hospital while their wives gave birth, only returning to hand out cigars and chauffeur their families home.  His father was a man of that time, but there was a tenderness in him that Ken cherished and grew to covet once he was gone.

He and his father played cribbage at the kitchen table, while his mother nursed Claire on their antique sofa owned by long-dead Polish immigrants he had never met.  Cards were fanned out in front of him, his pegs creeping toward the end of the flat wooden board.  His father’s pegs, which he always called spilikins, lagged behind, with the outcome all but predictable now.

“You learn fast, Kenny,” his father said.  His attention was split between the game and his wife on the other side of the room.  Every few minutes he would squirm in his chair, then stare away from the game as if looking for some sign from Claire or her mother.

“You taught me good, Dad,” he said.

“Well,” his father corrected him, gently.  “I’m going to check on your mother,” he finally raised out of the chair and moved toward the couch.

His little boy self was anxious, impatient for his father to do whatever he was doing with his mother and new sister, then return to the table.

“Can I take over for awhile, dear?” his father said, standing over his mother.  He folded a heavy blanket that had fallen to the floor, then replaced it on the top of the couch. “Maybe you can rest for awhile.  In the bedroom?” he pointed down the hall, as if she had forgotten where it was.

Ken’s view of his mother was blocked by his father’s large body.  But he heard her, clear as Clarabell’s horn from Howdy Doody, when she hissed, “Shoo, Bert.  You leave this to me.  You have your job.  This is mine.”

“I want to hold her, too.  I want to hold my daughter,” his father said, in a low, defeated voice that barely reached him at the table.

“It’s not time.  I’ll tell you when it’s time,” she said and he slinked away.  Past Ken, into the kitchen where he poured himself a shot of the bourbon they reserved for company.  He came back to his son, gave him a tender kiss on his forehead, and then turned away as if he planned an escape from the room.  From his life.

His father stood there, silent and unmoving, before turning around and sitting himself back at the table.  He gathered up the loose cards, shuffled for a fresh hand.  “Don’t get too comfortable over there,” he teased, “this game isn’t over yet.”

Two years later his father was dead from a work accident—in the middle of his ten-hour shift at T.S. Feed Supplier, his arm got locked in an industrial grain separator and he bled out before the doctor arrived—and his mother accepted the out-of-court settlement the company offered her.  She never remarried and raised them both on her own.  The only father he had lived in the photographs pressed inside faux-leather albums on top of their dust-coated mantle.

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In Our Room

02/08/2011 at 10:07 am (Exercises, Senses)

I realize it’s been a very long time since I’ve posted anything on this site.  There are multiple reasons for this, but I’m back, hopefully adding new creative work more frequently, from this point forth.

This “welcome back” post is an exercise I did recently for my novel-writing class at USC.  The first part of the assignment was to take a character (in this case, Bear‘s protagonist, Stephen) and describe a room from his point-of-view.  Only details, no emotion, no commentary on the scene.  The second part built on the first part, describing his reaction to the room, how the character felt about this private space and his place in it.

In Our Room

(1)

The bedroom that I shared with my brother Demian when I was eleven and he was six will always look like summer to me.  I remember that whenever I entered the room from our door off the front hall, it always appeared to be drowning in light.  No shadows on the wall, no moody corners ever met my eye; the entire room was suffused by the sun, bursting inside through a window without drapes.  There were always finger smudges on the inside of the glass — and outside, occasional droplets from the morning dew that had swept across the San Francisco bay and accumulated on our window — but the insistence of the daylight obliterated those marks by mid-day.

The worn wooden headboards of our two twin beds grazed the bottom ledge of the white window frame, where Demian had positioned his action figures like a battalion of soldiers.  His plastic Spider-Man, which used to be mine, had its perch at the top of his bed, as if ready to spring down upon his bedspread, where Pinocchio and Bambi lay unaware that arachnid-danger loomed above them.  My bedspread lay crumpled on the floor, library copies of Jack London books and my personal collection of oversized Tintin paperbacks — with the adventures of a Belgian boy and his dog Snowy nestled inside — scattered across the yellowing sheet.  A half-empty glass of Pepsi and a ravaged box of Wheat Thins commanded the majority of space on the nightstand that separated our two beds.

On Demian’s side of the room, posters that had been thumb-tacked on the sun-burst walls struggled for space.  A Benji movie poster nuzzled up against an Incredible Hulk banner, which loomed above a March-of-Dimes walkathon announcement.  The blast of colors and shapes and material — from glossy to newspaper-print to the black velvet from a flea-market-bought mini-painting of the Fonz — stood in contrast to the walls on my side of the room, bare but for a small calendar of the Alaskan wilderness.

Strewn along the floor, miles from the bamboo hamper in front of the closet, were his clothes and my clothes, commingled in an almost perversely intimate way.  From under the bed poked more t-shirts and holey socks, in addition to half-broken toys and comic-books that had been abandoned for other pleasures.  This was our room, in 1976, and it looked and smelled like summer.

(2)

Even though entering the room I shared with Demian looked and smelled like a three-month break from school, it felt more somber than hopeful.  The blinding sun through the poorly-insulated window made me sweat whenever I tried to read a book on my bed in the middle of the day.  The mess of the clothes on the floor was my responsibility as well as my brother’s, but thinking about cleaning it up fostered resentment toward him, so it stayed in unclean piles until my mother finally caught the overwhelming odor of foot wafting into the hall and demanded that we toss it into the wash.

All the posters on Demian’s side of our room reminded me that he had more zest, more appreciation for life and its bright colors than I did.  At eleven, I saw those monthly photographs of frozen tundra as a place of physical escape, while experiencing my internal world in the same cold, bleak terms on a daily basis.   All my young-boy possessions served to ground me, to anchor me to my life, for a little while, and then the reality of the space outside that room would throw everything I thought I knew into disarray.  I felt suffocated and trapped in this bedroom filled with old memories that were becoming tainted by new truths.

I didn’t feel safe in my room anymore, didn’t know who I could trust or how much to trust them.  Demian’s bed, his belongings, his vibrant personality inside this room made me feel alternately relaxed and anxious.  Relaxed that he was safe and unaffected by the small fissures I had begun to notice in the foundation of our family and the neighborhood around us, but anxious thinking of what I needed to do to keep him from discovering that our world was slowly becoming an unstable and hazardous place.

The sounds of the train whistle, far off and otherworldly in the middle of the night, filled me with visions of travel and escape.  I wanted to create my own unique trill, one that would signal the departure of my brother and me from a depot crowded with detachment and blindness.  Demian deserved to be protected, and while our room served that purpose for the moment, I knew that eventually the roof above us would collapse and it would be too late for me to do anything to save him.  Or myself.

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