Friday, January 30, 2015

Fresh Eyes

Taxes. Oh my stars. Hate the whole deal. The paperwork, getting the paperwork together, adding receipts, forgetting something crucial after a ton of work which will have to be redone... Shoot me now.

So to give myself something to look forward to, I'm going to post bits of works I haven't yet given to the reading world. I'm hoping you all will give me honest comments. My writing group has gone into hibernation (because I can't be available, my fault totally), so I need fresh eyes. Anyone willing to give it a go?

                                                SAVING THE SUN GOD
                                                         By Tracy Dunham


Chapter 1

            The day my father was murdered, I bought a Sig Sauer because the goateed guy told me the handgun would stop a three hundred pound crack addict on a high. I also paid cash for a permit and a box of ammunition. Then I drove into the country until I found a dead tree in the middle of a field choked with weeds, and I pulled the trigger until my arm ached and my finger throbbed and I finally stopped crying.

            I wanted to kill the FBI agent who talked my father into helping him recover a stolen Vermeer in some cheap hotel room in Copenhagen. The men who’d stolen the Vermeer killed my father and got away with the money and the painting.  The image of my father dying on a dirty hotel floor ate holes into my gut. Before I go after his killers, though, I am going to terminate the man who put my father in harm’s way.

            That my father would risk his life for a Vermeer wasn’t beyond my comprehension. What made me so furious was that my mother and I had no idea he’d signed on to play hero. My gentle, antiques expert father, with his owlish glasses, his shiny bald head, and rounded shoulders should never have been recruited in the first place.

            Now, at least I’m not in jail for murder, which is a good thing, since my mother lost her mind the minute she heard about my father’s death. Cameron Loudon was the center of her life, and I was part of the circumference. Isabelle Langly Loudon, my mother, art and antiques dealer with my father, now spends her days making ornate, museum quality picture frames that hold nothing but air.

            I should have moved into the family business after finishing my graduate work at Winterthur and a doctorate in art history from Yale, but there’s no way I can drag my mother back into the life she knew with my father. She’d probably stop gluing and gilding the frames she makes day and night, and slit her wrists with an X-Acto Knife. So I took a job teaching art history in a small college in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where I try to enlighten kids who prefer their art on their iPods, pixilated and miniscule, to slides of the stolen Vermeer that got my father’s throat cut.

            I keep the Sig Sauer in my desk drawer, and whenever I’m sick of grading idiotic freshmen essays on the similarities between Titian and Andy Warhol, I imagine what I’ll do when I meet the man who led my father to his death and my mother into madness.

            Now, I know how to use the gun. And I will. When I find him.
______________________________________________________________________________

Chapter 2

“You really shouldn’t burn those.”

            Leslie is a former student I hired to watch my mother while I’m lecturing or holding office hours. She’s a lanky girl with long mousy hair and thick glasses, the same sort of nearsighted my father was. I think that’s one reason why I hired her. That, and the fact that after she graduated, she drifted into my office one day and said she thought I needed her and she needed a job, and she liked my mother, so I should hire her.

            I have no idea why she gravitated to my mother while she was an undergrad, but I’d come home and find her in my tiny kitchen, having a cup of tea with mama, chatting away about the latest Hollywood gossip while my mother nodded and smiled and didn’t answer.

            She hasn’t talked in two years. My mother, not Leslie. Leslie has a running mouth that would drive me to distraction if I had to be with her eight hours a day, but her chatter seems to calm mama down. When Leslie’s around, she works less maniacally on the frames, and Leslie makes sure mama doesn’t start swallowing glue or nailing her hand to the workbench.

            The elegantly coiffed woman with a chignon and classic Chanel suits now wears a pony tail, when I can get her to sit still long enough to tie one, and baggy shirts over sweat pants. Feet that strode in three-inch heels handmade in Italy now shuffle along in sneakers with untied shoelaces. I used to dab some Joy perfume behind her ears, hoping the scent would wake her out of her malaise, but she bats me away now when I try it.

            I’ve collected today’s output of picture frames, only two, thank God, and per usual, I’m headed for the college’s waste burning facility. Usually, I toss them in the heap headed for the fire simply because there’s no place for any more empty frames in the tiny, two bedroom house I’ve been assigned on faculty row. All the little brick houses, with their 1960s sameness, share an anonymity I crave.

            Before my father’s murder, my mother would have slept on the sidewalks in London before agreeing to live in such blandness.

            “Why shouldn’t I burn them?” I’m willing to give Leslie a say in this. I really don’t care about the damned things.

            “Let’s have this conversation outside. Will you excuse us, please, Mrs. Langly?” Leslie pats mama’s hand and gives me a look, which has become, strangely, adult.

            She moves the teapot closer to mama. “The tea’s still warm if you’d like another cup, Mrs. Langly,” Leslie tells her.

            Mama stares at the table as if reading an enthralling book.

            I’m always startled when my mother and I are addressed as “Langly.” Even after two years, it sounds odd, as if we’re not real people, but actors in some bizarre play.

            I’ve taken my mother’s maiden name and made sure everyone uses it for her too. After father’s murder, the FBI couldn’t offer any assurances that the art thieves who killed him wouldn’t come after us. Father was well known in the art world, as was mother. The federal agent who briefed me implied that the thieves might assume mama was in on the scam to steal the Vermeer back, and revenge was a definite possibility, especially since the ransom money, all brand new American dollars, disappeared into the void. The Vermeer’s thieves were madder than Rasputin that they didn’t end up with the cash, feeling, as amoral idiots are wont, that they deserved it and the Vermeer.

            The man who warned me had a twitch at the corner of his left jaw and fingers that tapped his knees. When his eyes refused to meet mine, I knew the threat was worse than he’d said. “Take measures to protect yourselves,” he said.

            Leslie and I stand on the front porch, which is really just a concrete stoop, and I’m not paying too much attention. Everything’s out of kilter these days: the weather, my temper, mama’s frame-making mania. I just want to shut my eyes and make the world reverse two years.

            Leslie’s explaining something to me about having senior art students learn framing from mama, when I realize there’s a car coming up the hill, one I don’t recognize. Faculty row is jammed with older Toyotas and Subarus, economical cars that suit young and newly minted PhDs, counting the days until the tenure vote. The black Mercedes with tinted windows defies the norm.

            “Whose car is that?” Interrupting Leslie, I nod at the Mercedes. “Seen it around lately?” I can’t see the license plates clearly enough to tell if they’re in-state.

            Glancing at the car, Leslie shakes her head. “Some rich kid coming to check out the school, probably heading up to the stables to see if it’ll be good enough for the horses she’s planning on bringing.”

            A plausible explanation, I think, until I notice the driver’s wearing dark sunglasses and has a grim mouth. My distance vision, much better than my ability to see up close, seldom fails me. Instincts for self-preservation jump through the barrier of my seasonal malaise and I grab Leslie’s arm and shove her into the house.

            “Get mama,” I hiss, trying to remember my plan, “and take her out the back door. Go to the stables through the trail in the woods.”

            A line of old forest rims the small back yards on Faculty Row. Riding students trot along an uneven trail looping through it to reach the lower campus to avoid leaving horse droppings on the road. When I’m tired of hiding in my office, I strike out on the trail, stalking its dirt path from its end at the highway a couple of miles uphill to its end at the main entrance to the school.

            "Why, what's wrong?" Leslie's staring at me as if I've grown horns and fangs.

            I glance at mama, unsure how much I should say to Leslie with mama within hearing distance. When mama’s eyes lift to mine, I’m shocked at the recognition in them.

            “There may be a problem. I don’t want you and my mother here, that’s all. It’s probably nothing, but I’d like you to do as I’ve asked, and get out of here. Now.” Taking mama’s hand, I pull her to her feet as gently as possible, but Leslie’s frowning at me as if she’s contemplating calling Social Services to report a case of elder abuse.

            “Mama, it’s okay, I can handle it.” I need my Sig Sauer, just in case, and then I’ll feel like facing whatever’s coming up the hill in that black Mercedes. “Go with Leslie and pat the horses. I’ll be up to join you in a bit.”

            Leading mama to the back door, I practically shove her out of it. “Leslie, don’t argue,” I interrupt as her mouth opens and I recognize the stubborn glare in her eyes. “This isn’t the time, do as I ask, right now. Stay in the woods and don’t come back until I fetch ya’ll. Do you understand?”

            My dreams, night after night, exhausted me as I tried to work out an escape plan from the college, should we need one. In every one, I was as unprepared as I am now. Yet the woods figured in each panicked flight through my nightmares, offering the only hope of safety. I’m nowhere near as prepared as I thought I was. In fact, I’m about to lose it.

            “How long…?”

            “I don’t know. Now go,” I watch Leslie tug mama across the small grassy area towards the first tree line while my mother stumbles and turns to me, her eyes, I swear, imploring me to come with them. I wish I could.

            The Sig Sauer is in my room beside the kitchen. Fumbling in the drawer of the bedside table, I grab it and slip in the full clip I keep with it. Women my age sleep with condoms nearby – I keep a weapon instead.

            Fisting it into my hand, I’m at once relieved and terrified. Even with hours of practice, I doubt I’m going to be any match for a professional who kills for a living. My only chance is that whoever wants us, mama and me, wants the money more. The money that disappeared while my father bled to death on the floor of a cheap hotel room. The money the FBI agent said was in a briefcase one minute, and gone the next, along with the Vermeer. Neither have surfaced in two years, and the bad guys and the FBI are royally pissed. The bad guys expressed their displeasure by killing my father. Even though the FBI says the money didn’t go home with their agent, I’ve always wondered.

            So I am both maniacally angry and worried. I feel as if hours have crept by while I argued with Leslie about taking mama to the stables, but when I check, peering through the front curtains like a neighborhood gossip, I see the Mercedes hasn’t yet made it as far as our house. If they’re looking for us, mama and me, they saw me with Leslie on the front stoop. Running will only send them after mama, so I need to handle this on my own.

            I’ve never understood the expression about knees knocking up with fright, but I do now. My hand frozen on the Sig Sauer’s grip, I have no idea if I can shoot someone I haven’t dreamed of killing. Revenge is one thing, but this may be another.

            Sure enough, the Mercedes stops in front of my tiny house. I wait for what seems like hours. Finally, a door snicks open. Somewhere where I don’t want to face this, I’m thinking about German engineering and its precision, realizing their standards apply to weapons as well as cars. Thank God.

            “Dr. Loudon?” Sunglass Man, his shoulders straining the seams of his dark jacket, wears a black shirt, opened at a very large neck. No chest hair peeps out. His skin is as pale as a grub’s.

            “Sorry, no. Can I help you?” I pray I sound as nonchalant as I think I do.

            “My employer wishes to speak with you,” His English is accented, but his meaning in clear. “Dr. Loudon.”

            “I’m sorry, you have the wrong person. Check with security in the administration building. Better yet, I’ll call them for you.”

            “Don’t do that.”

            Before I realize he’s moved, he’s striding up the walk to the stoop. My instincts say run, but I’m tired of my instincts. For two years, I’ve waited for this moment, and now that it’s here, I’m not about to give in to my fears. Not again. I don’t know what’s changed, but I want this to be over with, once and for all.

            “My wife told you she’s not the person you’re looking for. Is there a problem?”

            Jumping at the sound of a voice coming from behind me, I twirl and fall face-forward into the arms of a man about six inches taller than I, blocking the door to my house.

            “Who’re you?” I blurt into his shoulder, where he’s pressed my head with one large hand as his other splays against my lower back.

            His chest hard against mine, I fight to free myself until I realize it’s useless. He’s as strong as anyone I’ve ever met, although, granted, academicians and antiques dealers don’t tend to work out much, if at all.

            “Shut up and do as I say.” Whispering in my ear, he jerks me behind him, hiding me as effectively as a brick wall. I’m insanely grateful I don’t have to face Sunglass Man by myself, but still, how the heck did he get into my house?

            “What the…?” I stumble into the small foyer, sure I’m in the middle of some bizarre dream. Hunching over, I can see what’s happening on the walkway from under my fake husband’s arm. The Sig Sauer seems awfully small in comparison to these two men, facing each other like gunfighters in a spaghetti Western.

            I just hope my guy has the faster draw. I like his size compared to Sunglass Man’s, but that doesn’t mean he’s quick. He’s wearing a worn denim shirt, smelling like it needs a good wash. I don’t care, he’s between me and Sunglass Man.

            “No problem. We’re looking for Isabelle Loudon, and we understand she’s living with her daughter, here at the college. Her daughter Francesca.” Sunglass Man spreads his legs, his knees slightly bent as if he’s getting ready to leap, his hands crossed under his jacket.

            “No one here on Faculty Row by that name. Like my wife said.”

            “I’m calling Security,” I croak from behind the dark-haired man who’s taken over my house and seems to know why I’m terrified of the Mercedes and its occupant. Words has a hard time emerging when there’s a huge, scary lump in your throat.

            The older men who form the campus security force, most of them retired from the military, are no match for the hunk of muscle blocking my walkway. I don’t want them hurt any more than I want to die. I’m all bluff, but no one needs to know that.

            “You heard the lady. Good day.”

            If someone talked to me in that tone of voice, I’d turn tail and run like the wind.

            My intruder’s shoulders are as wide as those on Sunglass Man, looming on the sidewalk. Turning his head slightly, his eyes still on the front door, my imposter of a husband slams it shut behind him. His eyes blue and dark with intensity, he gives me what he probably thinks is a smile, but the lines beside his mouth look as if they hurt.

            “Run. Don’t stop until I find you.”

            I have no idea how he got into my house or where he came from, but as far as I’m concerned, I’ve been given another chance. To heck with facing my fears and fighting them out on Faculty Row. If my savior is half as smart as he is handsome, he knows what he’s talking about. Twirling, I try to race for the back door, my heart thumping peanut butter and my feet encased in leaden shoes. The horror of my nightmares floods over me, carrying me into the fear that I’ll scream and no one will hear, that my mother will bleed to death at my feet, and I won’t be able to move to help her. I can’t get beyond the kitchen.

            “Didn’t you hear me? He’ll kill you and your mother.” His words, almost a hiss, cut through the images terrorizing my paralyzed brain.

            Facing him, my hands knuckled into a knot over my pounding heart; I can’t move a muscle. “I know that. I’ve got a gun.”

            “Can you use it?” He darts into the kitchen, glancing around the room as if expecting to find a rocket launcher on the counters. “Any other weapons?”

            Wow. He sure changed tactics quickly.

            “Who’re you?” Why would he think I have a stash of guns, for heaven’s sake?

            “It doesn’t matter who I am. Where’s your mother? I’ll get her out of here too. Keep the gun handy.”

            The pounding on the front door added to the knees quivering despite my best efforts to still them. “Gone. I sent her away when I saw the Mercedes.”

            “Will he find her?” His hands envelop my shoulders, and I feel safer the instant he touches me.

            Now is not the time to fall in love, but I think I am doomed to do so if this man can get us out of this horror show in one piece.   I shake my head. It’ll take mama and Leslie at least twenty-five minutes to reach the stables by following the horse trail, as slow as mama walks. “I’ll call the stables and ask the groom to hide them somewhere.”

            “Do it.” Pulling a weapon from his shoulder harness, my mystery man flattens himself against the kitchen wall, facing the front door sideways. “From a bedroom phone, Stay out of sight.”

            There’s no time to dart into my room before the front door splinters and Sunglass Man barrels inside, both hands fisted on the biggest gun I’ve ever seen. Frozen in the kitchen, I know now’s my chance to kill the bastard, whoever he is.

            But I can’t get the Sig Sauer out of my pocket.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Rule breaking

When my daughter was a senior in high school, the administration declared Senior Prank Day dead. Basically, it was a senior tradition that in the spring, the graduating seniors would do something silly, like wear crazy clothes and cartwheel in the hallways, etc. It didn't involve anything dire or dangerous. But as old white men who are principals in large high schools are wont to do, the principal decided he'd had enough. Anyone participating in Senior Prank Day would be suspended. I thought the whole thing ridiculous and said so.

My daughter is a rule follower. In fact, she gets very annoyed at those who don't follow the rules. I'm very grateful for her sense of obedience and basic inability to get into trouble on purpose, but I'd been hoping she'd screw up at least once before she turned 18. After all, that's what the teen years are for. Make mistakes while you're young, learn from them, and go forward a wiser person into adulthood.

So when she came home from school and said she'd been suspended for participating in Senior Prank Day, I couldn't help but give her a high-five. "Yes!" I crowed. "Good for you!"

She couldn't believe it. Here I was, her mother the lawyer, ecstatic she'd broken the rules and been suspended. Only it wasn't true. She was pulling my leg. She and I had a good laugh, and I gave up my hopes she'd ever misbehave. I was cursed with a perfect daughter, something I'd never been. How could I have gotten so lucky?

Rule breaking has its place, however. Passive resistance, freedom marches, the Underground Railroad, the Suffragettes, you name it, there's a history of changing the ways things have always been by breaking the law or shaking up the status quo. Fighting for justice, equality, and the basic freedoms of all mankind haven't come cheap. Lives have been lost, empires have fallen, good people have done what needed doing to bring about change no matter the personal cost. I admire them all.

Writers need to break the rules, too. We need to take the story where it needs to go, and if it's not comfortable or acceptable in the unhallowed halls of modern publishing behemoths, too bad. The book will find its audience. Nothing can stop a right idea.




Thursday, January 15, 2015

Can't tell you

how many blog posts I've written in my head. Fat lot of good that does. Words slip away with the next project as easily as melting snow in the sun.  When I'm composing in my mind, it's all pithy, witty, or relevant (I'll settle for one of the three), and I go on my  merry way, feeling as if I've actually put the fingers on the keyboard.

A lot of writing is like that. Bits and pieces get stored in my brain until I think I'll explode, bone and hair all over the walls.  That's part of my process. I think about a story, a character, a scene for years until it's time for it to get the heck out of the little gray cells (as Poirot calls it) and onto something more permanent.  Wait a minute, I, of all people, should know there's nothing permanent or protected about a hard or jump drive. I have too many 3" disks that can't be read anymore, they've deteriorated so much.  And that's why there are boxes of manuscripts sitting in my attic. Everything I do goes on paper in the end. Not that paper survives, but at least it'll last as long as I do. I hope. Fire and flood notwithstanding.

Right now I have a story thread, and I mean a slim thread, banging in the frontal lobes. I really like it, but I'm not sure what to do with it. It'll get there, or it won't. If it slips away in the night, it wasn't meant to end up on paper.

I just finished Tana French's Broken Harbor. I love her writing, but I fear that her lovelies won this book over plot. The theme -there is no why - got hammered in once too often.  It felt as if she went back and inserted the theme in just those words to make sure it got recognized in the midst of the poetic prose and clever craft. Not my favorite book of hers. I did love one character though - a total original, a failure in some ways in his life, but great success as a character. He's the true innocent, a man who cares too much. Liked him way better than the hero.

And now it's January, that gray, ugly, and barren month. I swear I'll wear red just to perk things up, but I find myself instinctively reaching for black, just to fit in with the this month's mood. Good time to write scary stuff.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Attic Finds

I was putting wrapping paper and gift boxes away in the attic, and couldn't believe it when I unearthed a hat box containing these two treasures. The one with tulle is my wedding hat, made by my mother from antique lace. The other is part of my mother's wedding veil, made by her mother from real Brussels lace.  I thought them both long lost.

My wedding dress was designed by Becky Besoulis, a Chicago designer known for her leather and lace creations in the eighties. My dress was exquisite lace over silk jersey - very unbride-like but perfect for me. My mother's gown looked like a pale pink explosion of tulle and lace. She refused to wear white because it made her freckles stand out. I played dress-ups for years in it, and its hoop skirt petticoat lasted even longer.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Wasted effort

I am ticked. About a book. A book with real style. A solid story premise at the start.  Great cover. And it fell apart in the last quarter. I don't get it. Where are today's editors and why aren't they doing their jobs? When there's a hole in the logic of a story, that's unforgivable. I can only imagine there was a rush to get the book out, and no one noticed the glaring question, never satisfactorily answered, of why the hero wanted to kill the heroine in the beginning. And one sentence seems to be all the explanation the reader gets as to why he changed his mind. Blah!

Remember J.K. Rowling's first mystery written under the nom de plume of  Robert Galbraith, I think?  Liked the sleuth a ton. Decent mystery. But there was never an explanation for why the murderer hired the hero to find the killer - himself. Yikes!

I've read lots of books with super first three chapters, and after that, the mundane and banal is all we get on the printed page. As a writer, I think I know what happened. The author polished the heck out of the first three chapters to get the book sold based on the beginning and an outline. After that, the deadline interfered with the same level of commitment to rewrites. It is a sad truth of the industry.

I won't buy any more books by this author, which is a shame. But I won't be fooled a second time by a killer cover and super opening chapter.


Thursday, December 04, 2014

Third Grade, 1953

My DH's 50th high school reunion was held this past summer. For a variety of reasons, we didn't go, though we'd planned on it. Anyway, he just received a packet of nostalgic items from the reunion organizers, including a booklet containing the bios of classmates, their updates about their lives, and a picture of the third grade classroom many of them were in together. All thirty of them.

My DH's classmates have led interesting and constructive lives. Many, many have found ways to contribute to justice and the environment, while quite a few chose to teach. His generation was one of givers - even though they were in the thick of the Vietnam era and had to serve in the military. It's as if one bad hand was parlayed into a winning game, and they took advantage of it. I must admit my admiration.Those Midwesterners know how to do the right thing, and do it they did.

 But the most interesting part of the packet for me was the third grade class picture. Most of those seven and eight year olds graduated from high school together, and their lives are open books to one another. One girl killed herself not long after cap and gown time, another died of cancer. Some lost their lives later, and like young men in my class, several came home from Vietnam in body bags. Some married high school sweeties, only to divorce down the road, and being good Midwesterners, they were embarrassed by the failures of their marriages. It's an interesting amalgamation of old-fashioned with the seismic shift of values that roared in with the sixties. I was younger then, and my high school life was in the throes of the sixties revolution, while my DH's was out of college and being drafted. Those few years made quite a difference.

I also didn't grow up with the same people my entire life. Leading a nomadic life was the norm for both of my parents, as well as my brother and me. Friendships lasted the length of an assignment, then it was on to the next school where you were the new kid all over again. While there were many obvious drawbacks (three different teachers for me in third grade, three different high schools), I learned how to be happy wherever I was. Friends and cliques didn't define me. I never felt the need to conform. I was who I was.

Yet I wish I could hear from my third grade classmates (at least one classroom) and find out what defined their next fifty-six years. How did they make it through the sixties? Or did they implode? I'll never know. It's like a wonderful book I'll never get to read.

I envy my DH his deep roots.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving 1967

Thanksgiving was always white linens, sparkling silverware, and the good china in our house. My mother believed in family sit down dinners, big time. Often, we were living where Thanksgiving wasn't even a holiday ( always felt wrong to me, I mean, who doesn't believe in giving thanks?), but we still had a big family feast. Aspic with celery, ambrosia, oyster stuffing, wild rice, asparagus, etc.

In November of 1967, or it could have been '66, I'm not sure, my mother had invited a large number of Americans working for the embassy in Ankara.  She'd snagged some celery root for the aspic (buying celery stalks was unheard of in Turkey back then), and she and the cook had been working on the dinner for days. Tables were set, crystal sparkled, and we were ready for the traditional American feast, a tiny reminder of home in a foreign land.

Unfortunately, there was a political and military crisis involving Cyprus or Israel, I don't remember which, and everyone was locked down in the embassy. Twenty-four hour work went into effect, and our Thanksgiving dinner was over before a forkful was lifted to lips.  Mama arranged plates of food and sent them to the embassy via the embassy driver.  Then she, my brother, and I surveyed the remnants.

My mother's aspic was famous in our family, but it didn't travel well. Twenty-four aspics remained on the fancy tables. My brother and I took one look at each other, grabbed silver forks, and began eating.  I still remember that aspic as the best Thanksgiving dinner, ever.

I've never been able to duplicate that memory of my mother's aspic satisfactorily.