On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

EYE OF THE SUN: A Judge Godbold Mystery (Book 1)



He stood in a small clearing in front of his easel.  Water was nearby, a fast moving stream that cut through bluffs of limestone.  He liked water, the stream, the pond, the waterfall.  Its movement and changing colors excited him.  The sun, low in the northwestern sky, struck full across the side of the bluff and outlined its surface.  As always, he seemed to see a face made by the shadows outlined in the rock.  Sometimes he thought it was the spirit of the woods, sometimes his own face.  Now from the corner of his eye he noticed a quiet, darting movement among the harboring trees.  He turned to look, but it was gone.  Nothing.  
Painting like this, in these hills, he felt more strongly than ever his keen pleasure when as a youngster he ran among these woods.  Sometimes, even then, he stopped to draw on the tablet his sister had bought him.  Life had been good then.  He remembered a dog they had–Blondie.  Not his dog, though she ran with him.  Sister’s dog.  Both were gone now, many years, he thought.  Poor Agnes.  She was older, so she had to take him and move to Nashville after Mama died.  She wrote things, little Bible stories for the man who paid her money.  Then she died and he went to The Place.  He didn’t draw or paint for a while.  How long?  He couldn’t remember. 

They let him go finally, and he got his check once a month so he could buy his paints and canvases.  Sometimes he’d go by the shelter where the people there would buy him canvases.  He needed more and more canvases so he could go to the park in Nashville and paint.  There, he felt more at home.  Then he found out buses came near here, and he could walk the miles into the hills with his box of paints.  He brought along cans of beans and a pan to heat them in.  Apples, too.  Crackers.  He liked crackers to munch, and a candy bar or two.  When he ran out of food and canvas he went home again to the old downtown hotel where they gave him a room that didn’t cost much.  But there was a store here, and he thought he might dare to buy food now.  He didn’t want to leave again except to go to Nashville and get his check so he could buy more paint and brushes and canvases. 
He could barely remember his days in the old house not too far away in the little town, or his mother.  He searched for the memory of that feeling when he could run and see with the happy eyes of a child.  Mostly he got the feeling when he stood alone and watched his hand make the picture that was in his head.  The colors he saw inside of him stood out the most; all the people and trees and lumps of hills and pooling waters were soft, bright colors that belonged to him.
He wiped the brush and stepped back to see his work.  The  palette knife now, for the water.  He liked it quiet, not noisy like the city.  But the silence of these woods was not silent at all.  He had again grown used to the small sounds around him and overhead‑‑rabbits, woodchuck, squirrels, birds.  He had made no friends among the creatures of the woods; he also kept away from the few people he saw in the woods.  Sometimes he put the people in his paintings if he was sure they hadn’t seen him.  He needed no one, no living thing except those few creatures, human or animal, he happened upon and could use in his paintings.
Footfalls came from somewhere beyond the clearing and blended with other rustlings.  He would pay no mind to the sound, he decided, but still they intruded.  Then he felt a creeping of the skin along his spine, a danger signal, not the first time he had had to take cover.  He turned his head for a glance.  But no, the figure coming nearer was a familiar one, safe, would leave him be.  He turned back to his painting.  The soft steps through deep wild grasses grew closer.

He couldn’t quite fix what happened when the blow came, the sensation of being struck hard, and again.  Rock met bone, and a scream, his protest at extinction, arose in his head and died in his throat as the light faded.

The person beside him watched him fall like a log onto the earth.  Blood seeped from the wounds, pooling and then mingling with the dry grasses under his head.   It took no longer than a few seconds to walk to a nearby sinkhole hidden by a large hawthorn bush and toss in the bloody rock to endless depths.
Now to drag the body out of the clearing.  It was too large to go into the hole, but the bush would cover it.  The paintings and paint things were stuffed in the cardboard box and hoisted up onto a strong shoulder.  Then the figure with its awkward burden set off and soon disappeared among the trees and underbrush.

Chapter 1

The old Mercedes tooled along the nearly empty highway at a moderate speed, rounding curves solidly, slowing down occasionally as the driver glanced around here and there to examine the countryside.  She’d left the interstate thirty minutes ago, traveling on the two-lane highway that led her closer to the village of Barton.  It had been many years since Judge Penelope “Baby” Godbold had been in the remote foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains.  She and Dan had gone to a concert at the University of the South–how long ago had it been?  At least fifteen years.  And now she was making this trip, fulfilling some need that had been building since Dan’s death almost two years ago.  Funny how even her job had paled without him to discuss legal points and their respective cases.  With his practice in civil defense litigation and her work in Chancery, they ran into many of the same issues.  It was mainly because of the bleakness that now overhung her life, the emptiness that yawned before her, that she’d decided to retire much earlier than she’d planned.  Life must hold more for her, and she was determined to seek out new adventures.  Thus, this trip to the hinterlands of Tennessee.  And she couldn’t have picked a more beautiful time for a trip to Barton.

The early April weather was always changeable in this part of the country, as if teasing the locals into believing spring had arrived.  But even though the day had been mild when she left Nashville, and March had gone out like a lamb, spring was not necessarily around the corner, especially in the hill country.  Of course, many of the trees had begun to sprout leaves, showing off their delicious new green colors, and some of the flowering ones like the dogwood and redbud were starting to bud out, giving the roadside a more decorative look.  Backing the smaller trees were the conifers, huge and dense, and beyond them were what seemed to be virgin forest.  But that wasn’t possible.  Baby knew the land had been settled and, if not developed around tiny hamlets, was owned by timber companies with the trees routinely harvested and the strips, obviously, replanted.
The swelling hills she traveled over were like stepping stones across the deep gorges that cut into the land, a wild and wooly landscape to her eyes.  She was more accustomed to the gentler slopes of the Nashville basin where the land undulated with the geosynclines that swept across middle Tennessee.  These were formed during the subsidence of the inland sea from an earlier geologic era and had become rich farmland.  Still, Baby appreciated the ever-changing landscape of this very different, rougher country.  She suspected the people would be different, too, from what she was used to, as she believed the land played a role in developing the character of its inhabitants.  She was curious to know how Guy and Marnie were adjusting to living in Barton.  Dan would have been amused to think his citified nephew had actually taken up residence in a rather remote village, commuting to his law practice in Chattanooga.   Unquestionably, this was a very strange sort of place for the both of them!
After passing the mountaintop hamlet of Monteagle, the road straightened out and before her lay the ribbon of highway, rising and sinking here and there but not a curve in sight for miles.  She sped up without thinking, even having to press rather hard on the stiff accelerator to jump the big motor into more revolutions.  It settled into a cruising speed that seemed as easy and comfortable as riding in the gondola of a Ferris wheel.  Then from behind a clump of trees in a lane, she glimpsed from the corner of her eye the distinctive outlines of a patrol car.  The term “crouching” came to mind, but she braked swiftly.  In the rear view mirror a light flashed and she heard the bleep of a siren.

She drove the car onto the narrow shoulder, came to a stop, and turned off the motor.  She began to rummage in her capacious purse for her billfold and then rolled down the window, smiling at the young highway patrolman who seemed to be looking sternly at her from behind his dark glasses.
“Hello, ma’am, did you know you were going eight miles over the speed limit?”
“No, officer, I didn’t.  The road was clear, the day is lovely, and I suppose I felt like flying.  I’m terribly sorry to have gotten carried away.”  She handed him her license.
“Well, even though there’s not much traffic–ah, are you by any chance Judge Godbold?”  He bent toward her and gave her a sharp look.  When she assented, he smiled at her.  “I guess you hadn’t checked your speedometer, and with these big cars and the straightaway, it’s easy to speed a little.”  He handed her back the license.  “Where are you bound for, Judge?”
She told him about going to visit relatives in Barton for the first time, and he nodded.  “You’re only about five miles from the turnoff.  Let me escort you so you won’t miss it.  Watch the speed limit in these parts, y’hear?  We don’t want anything to happen to the famous Judge Godbold.”  He saluted her briefly by touching his cap, turned and went back to his cruiser.  Baby sighed and watched in the rear view mirror until a couple of trucks passed by and then the officer’s car pulled around her.  She followed him as they proceeded down the highway at a stately pace, turning at a well-marked road toward the town of Barton.  The sign invited visitors to the “Historic Barton Restorations.  Houses and Lots For Sale.”  It might prove to be an interesting place to check out, she speculated, but she could only hope she’d not be subjected to yawning boredom.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

EVITA and Then Some



Seeing the recently presented stage show Evita in Nashville was a fascinating experience on at least two levels, one for the experience of watching a full stage production by a local theater company who were hosts to the Broadway principals; and secondly for a chance to delve into the personality of the title character.  Rarely has a show like Evita been taken over so completely and expertly as this one, with Studio Tenn in cooperation with TPAC providing the set, costumes, and ensemble.  To my rather critical eye, having for several years in the long ago past being involved in theater work as Executive Director of the Hendersonville Arts Council, all aspects of the production were professionally, even beautifully handled.  From the impressive architectural backdrop that represented some sort of public building with a suggestion of old world Spain, to the appropriate costumes, and even one particularly spectacular gown worn by Eden Espinosa, who portrayed Evita, the locals held up their end extremely well.  Still, for me, what kept me engrossed was the historical woman herself as depicted by lyricist Tim Rice and the memorable music of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Eva Peron’s story is a mixture of raw ambition, determination, cleverness, and deceit, motivated only partly by greed.  After seeing the show, really an operetta with the dialogue sung in recitative fashion, I was driven to Wikipedia for further information.  I’m old enough to remember the real Evita, but this production stimulated my interest in her background as well as her connection to Che Gueverra played by Ben Crawford, who as narrator gave a masterful performance, being on stage for nearly the entire two and a half hours.  As it turned out from my further investigation, Evita and Che were connected only in a limited way in real life.  Che, the scion of a prominent family, was a highly educated revolutionary who was destined to die in another South American country.  Evita, on the other hand, would have been beneath his contempt, both because of her illegitimate birth, and her lack of that idealism that informed his own misguided life.  As a matter of fact, her low estate kept her from achieving any access to the aristocrats of Argentina, no matter how high she ascended in politics. 

Early on, making her way on the stage she attracted attention by her beauty and a voice interesting enough to get her radio spots as well.  Her life would have been a hard one as she fought to lift herself from the gutter and achieve some sort of fame.  But it was when an older man who had just been involved in a military coup to take over the government saw her that her life changed dramatically.  Juan Peron was forty-eight, exactly double of Eva’s twenty-four years when he threw out his current mistress and took in the aspiring young woman.  Soon she became his wife, having ideas of her own on how to win over the hearts of the populace.

As any writer of biographies knows, trying to wrap a sympathetic story around a character of low morals, unseemly ambition, and a rapacious love of money makes for difficulties.  The librettist of Evita had his work cut out for him, but as we watched Eva Peron’s life unfold, as she gathered the desperate poor around her and through it all revealed her need to be accepted and loved, we could feel a sneaking sympathy for the woman.  Her interest in raising the status of women, even going so far as to institute a women’s political party, was a hallmark of their administration.  She and Juan, at the height of their power in Argentina took what they termed a “Rainbow Tour” of Europe, obviously expecting to be touted for their great achievements, whatever they might be.  In Spain, the dream of adulation came true for Evita as crowds hailed them wherever they went.  In Italy, a rather mixed reception awaited them, as was true in France.  But in Switzerland, they were pelted with tomatoes and even rocks, using their sojourn there to open several bank accounts in their individual names.  King George of England refused to receive them, and so they returned to Argentina a bit chastened.  Shortly thereafter, Evita took ill and died at the age of  thirty-four from cervical cancer.  Her death was mourned by the common people, especially the women, whom she had drawn to her in life as if she were a saint.

Saintly she was not, for after the Peron government fell, the once prosperous country was left in an abysmal condition, raped by the greed of Juan and the ever demanding Evita. Nonetheless, she was a force to be remembered and examined, a task successfully accomplished in this production.

Monday, June 13, 2016

On Loving and Losing Pets



Growing up, nothing seemed more important than trying to convince my mother I needed a pet.  She had been a farm girl before her marriage, and now that she lived in the city, she believed animals were out of place in houses or tied up outside.  Once, a friend’s cat had kittens and I brought one home, playing with it by dangling a strand of yarn.  I thought my mother couldn’t resist how cute the little thing looked, but resist she did and the kitten went back to my friend.

My only choice in pets was two goldfish named Minnie the Moocher and Winnie the Pooh, named for obvious reasons.  They were improperly housed in a little bowl of tap water and didn’t survive long, though I had no idea I caused their demise.  I was so desperate to have something of my own, that I took charge of a live chicken given to my parents by my uncle Fred, a farmer.  It was intended to have its head cut off the following day, but I thought I might tame it.  I somehow managed to tie a string around its neck, but it almost pecked it off, so I had to lock it up in the garage.  Altogether, it was an unsatisfactory pet, and I neither shed tears nor hesitated to eat it when it appeared on the dinner table.

One Sunday, my father agreed to take me to the pound to pick out a dog, and I was beside myself with joy.  I could hardly believe he and Mother were allowing this.  I still can’t believe he knew the pound was closed, but it was, and that trip was never to be repeated.  I actually think I caught them both in a weak moment, for my mother came flying to the door, rather excited, when I pretended I had a dog by giving out little yips and barks.

All this frustrating background with attempts to have a pet resulted, quite naturally, in my husband and I acquiring two Siamese kittens within six months of our marriage.  It only took a month for us to return one of them since it became clear our furniture and curtains couldn’t survive the siblings tearing around the apartment in rambunctious play.  We kept the big male, Chula, named for the prince in Anna and the King of Siam.  He quickly became my own cat and he also quickly became a source of a severe allergy.  I wouldn’t admit it, of course, denying the cause of my coughing and wheezing.  Eventually, we were to move from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to Richardson, Texas, because of my husband getting a transfer, and though we made preparations for taking Chula by getting him some tranquilizers, we gave up after a hundred miles of his yowling and pacing in the car.  We dropped him off at an animal clinic and for months I had bad dreams about that cat following us to Texas on bloody paws.  

But that was not the end of our pet story.  Several moves later, we ended up in Tennessee, and after a couple of years there, a friend’s poodle had pups. She asked me if I’d like one, and I couldn’t resist, and so we got Sophie, a chocolate miniature.  We loved Sophie, who was smart and sweet and obedient.  Again, she became my dog, much to my husband’s chagrin, as he always thought of himself as the animal lover par excellance.  Sophie was tended to like a princess, and through the years she went everywhere possible with us.  Our older boys babysat her when Max and I took trips, and finally when she was in her dotage at the age of seventeen, Max called our friend, Dr. Jim Hale, a vet, who came to the house and put her to final rest.  As it happened I was at my sister’s in Virginia, and missed the sad event, a kindness on Max’s part.

We swore never again to have another pet as we got too attached and their care was burdensome, but fate took over and we ended up with Louie, a ten-pound papillon.  We had been without a pet for twenty years and now retired, we had decided to move to the Houston area to be nearer our son Brad.  There we met the little guy, and after a year went by, circumstances placed Louie in our care.  So at the age of three and a half, he became Max’s dog, sleeping at his feet for the next fifteen years.  Because Louie had a difficult upbringing with many disappointments and in some cases, cruelties, his personality was affected.  He didn’t wag his tail until he was fourteen, and he never licked anyone even when he felt great affection.  Obviously, he’d been punished for that and also for jumping up when greeting people.  His method of relieving excitement was to run madly around the room in figure eights.  He, too, went everywhere possible with us or we had our pastor’s daughter dog sit.  Louie never had to stay in a kennel, and when his health became a serious problem at the age of eighteen, we called in the vet to put him to sleep in his little bed.  Only pet lovers know the pain of that kind of loss.  We’re too old now to get back into taking care of an animal but we both realize how much our pets added to the richness of our lives and we remain ever grateful.