Friday, March 10, 2006

Reading through the RAIN

Winter is my time of hibernation, the time to read more than to write. And I've really been indulging my need to read.

A couple of non-fiction books I recommend are TALK TO THE HAND by Lynne Truss and OUR ENDANGERED VALUES by Jimmy Carter.

TALK TO THE HAND proved to me that someone in this world is more of a curmudgeon than I am. Does everything everybody else does bug you? Then TALK TO THE HAND is a book for you. Not quite as useful as Truss's EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES, it is still filled with British humor. (If you haven’t read “WATCHING THE ENGLISH” by Kate Fox, you might want to give that a look, too, especially the sections on British humor.)

In OUR ENDANGERED VALUES, President Jimmy Carter provides evidence and commentary to support his two propositions: that “fundamentalist” Christianity actually contravenes traditional Christian values and that the alliance of fundamentalist Christians and right-wing Republicans is turning the U.S. from traditional American values. The Baptist church Carter describes—the one in which he was raised—isn’t much different from my childhood church. However, whereas I see organized religion as a large part of most problems in the world, Carter sees religion as a force for good if it is turned into good works and not into judging all those who don’t believe as you do. (But don’t look to Carter for support for gay marriage; he’s against it.) At the time I read this, I had little hope that the U.S. government, with all three branches in the hands of right-wing Republicans, would change course—or that Democrats would be up to the challenge of regaining power or even moral authority. Since then, I’ve seen glimmers of hope, just glimmers.

Other than those two books, it’s been a feast of light fiction for me.

Having seen the movie “Brokeback Mountain,” based on a short story by Annie Proulx, I decided to read BAD DIRT, WYOMING STORIES 2 by the same author. (She also wrote SHIPPING NEWS, which I strongly recommend to anyone who hasn’t read it.) This little book is full of stories and tall tales about the eccentric residents of Elk Tooth, Wyoming. Its mix of splendid humor and humanity is deeply satisfying.

PREDATOR by Patricia Cornwell and FIRE SALE by Sara Paretsky are fine diversions for a rainy afternoon or a trip to the beach. (Summer is coming, right? Or spring at least?)

In PREDATOR, Kay Scarpetta and company find links between apparently unrelated deaths and follow those links to a man called Hog. Although the plot is satisfyingly intricate, the end seems rushed. (Monster die, bye-bye?) And does EVERYBODY in a Scarpetta novel have to be so darned depressed?

FIRE SALE brings back my favorite private detective. Nearly blown up in a South Chicago flag factory explosion, V. I. Warshawski backtracks to tell us what led up to the big boom and then goes on to solve the mystery of why the factory and its owner went up in smoke. In the process, V. I. coaches a girls’ basketball team and locks horns with the family that owns By-Smart, a huge chain of stores that runs rough-shod over suppliers and poor employees alike. (No, By-Smart, not Walmart.) When I finished this Paretsky novel, I felt, as I always do, that this was the best book in the series so far.

Finally, saving the best for last, there’s NIGHT WATCH by Sarah Waters. Leaving Victorian England behind for this novel, Waters takes us to London during and immediately after World War II. The story is told in three parts. In 1947, the characters (Julia, Kay, Helen, and Duncan) try to live with the consequences of choices made during the war. In 1944, their actions precipitate changes in the relationships among them. In 1941, the sequence of events is set in motion. No, I didn’t relate the parts backwards; Sarah Waters did. This book proves that every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order.

So pick up a book—or start typing.

Monday, March 06, 2006


Bailey liked to pretend that her father had left her the big brass belt buckle. Actually, she found it in a cardboard box, Arrowroot Potatoes in black print on the side, that her mother had put out for the trash. A pair of jeans, butt worn clear through, a gray work shirt, “Pete” sewn on the pocket, probably from a factory job that lasted one whole winter, and this belt buckle, a brass oval with the outline of a man riding a bronc and the engraved words, “Let ‘er buck!” Little Bailey snatched the buckle from the box, and, wrapping it so tightly in her hand she could feel the cowboy’s spurs, smuggled it back into the house.

So, when anyone asked the grown-up Bailey about the buckle, she said, “My old man left it to me.” Although she didn’t remember her father wearing the buckle, it must have been his. And, if he hadn’t left it to her, he had left, so she figured her story wasn’t that much of a lie.

On this particular night, Bailey was leaning against a bar in some town in Wyoming, not Cheyenne or Laramie, but some place as full of tourists and cowboys. Not that this bar was likely to have any cowboys in it, if you get my drift. It was near the end of the fire season, and Bailey had taken leave from the Forest Service. Like her “leaves” from all those other jobs, this one might turn permanent.

Bailey had hoisted her snakeskin boot onto the bar railing and told some pretty little thing from Ohio or Iowa or one of those small square states—some state with a lot of corn—about the buckle being the only thing she had left of her father’s, when she felt a hand land heavy on the right shoulder of her green and black striped Tony Lama shirt.

Bailey turned quickly, figuring anyone who touched her new shirt without a by-your-leave might need a lesson in manners.

The hand came off her shoulder and, matched with the owner’s left hand, rose in the universal sign for “no-harm-meant.” Bailey looked into as open and honest a face as she had ever seen, an unlined pink face framed by short black curls, a face that reminded her of that round-headed kid from the comics, Charlie What’s-his-name. Except, of course, this was a female face.

“Buy you a drink?” Without waiting for an answer, the round-headed woman signaled the barkeep, this time using the “another of whatever she’s having” sign. Bailey’s new friend from Ohio or Iowa had already wandered away, so she shrugged and picked up the cold bottle of Moosehead the bartender set down.

The beer’s provider showed that she did have good manners by waiting while Bailey enjoyed a long swig. Then she asked, “You don’t remember me, do you?”

This wasn’t the first time Bailey had heard that question. She was a veteran of failed relationships, an expert at leave-them-before-they-leave-you. So she just shook her head and took a cautious swallow.

The woman, far from put off by Bailey’s silence, smiled fit to fill her big pink face and said, “I’m Carmaline. Carmaline Mathers.” This tickled something far to the rear of Bailey’s brain, somewhere between the name of her first dog (Skipper) and the first street she remembered living on (Carlisle). “Your cousin, dipwad!”

“Dipwad” more than the name or the declaration of kinship did it. Some connection shifted into place, and Bailey remembered a face—a very small, very round face—pressed firmly against a screen door. “Auntie Vernie, can Bailey come out and play?” Sing-song, a high whine that repeated over and over until “Auntie Vernie” found Bailey wherever she was hiding or pulled her away from whatever she was clinging to and thrust her toward the kitchen door.

“Carmie?” Bailey asked, voice as low and quiet as if she were still that hiding child.

“That’s me.” Recognition evidently conferring rights, Carmaline threw her arms up and around Bailey’s shoulders and squeezed long and hard before letting her go. Bailey, conditioned two decades before to defer to her cousin’s wants and whims, not only put up with the hug but, accepting yet another Moosehead, followed the shorter woman to one of the bar’s wooden tables.

After they were settled across from each other, Carmaline studied Bailey’s face for a good minute, all the time with that huge grin that seemed to say, “Aren’t we lucky to be here together after all this time?” And then the first thing she actually did say was, “Aren’t we lucky to be here together after all this time?”

Bailey nodded. And smiled. Sort of. She was still a little wary of relatives, even those who could probably be counted on to say, “hi,” buy a couple of Mooseheads, and then disappear for another twenty years.

“I knew it was you. I just knew it,” Carmaline went on. And on. “I mean, I heard you tell that girl—do you think she’s even old enough to be in a bar?—anyway, I heard you tell her your name was Bailey. How many women are named Bailey? Not many, right? And you look just exactly like I remember Aunt Verna, God-rest-her-soul, standing like a Sequoia on the other side of her kitchen door. And then I couldn’t help but overhear that story about your belt buckle. A tall, red-headed woman named Bailey with her father’s rodeo buckle. That had to cut the odds, didn’t it? I mean, it had to be my cousin Bailey from Bent Lake, didn’t it? Well?”

Bailey tried to catch up. “I guess not that many women are named after a hat company. At least, I’ve never met a Stetson or another Bailey. And I do take after Verna. But the belt buckle?”

Carmaline shook her head. “Not the belt buckle so much. I don’t remember seeing that before. I barely remember Uncle Pete. But I remember my mother telling me that, if Aunt Verna had one regret, it was throwing out Uncle Pete’s belt buckle, the one he won at the Oakville Rodeo.”

Regret and her mother didn’t go together in Bailey’s mind, but she bit anyway. “How come?”

“Because Uncle Pete told her, ‘You give this to Bailey, something to remember me by.’ Mom said that Aunt Verna was too mad at Uncle Pete, and she threw the buckle out with some of his old clothes. She thought better of it later, but, when she went to get it back, the trash man had already taken the box.” Carmaline, whose mouth had settled into a straight line at the thought of her aunt’s regret, smiled, her more natural expression. “Mom must not have known the whole story, ’cause you’re wearing the belt buckle your father left for you. Everything worked out just fine. No harm done.”

Bailey took another swig of her Moosehead and set it back into its wet ring on the table. She thought of all the times she told folks about the belt buckle, how she wished all these years that what she said was true, that her father really gave a damn about her. Realizing that Carmaline had stopped talking, Bailey looked across at that round face that was the same as all those years ago, just the same as when it had a screen door cross-hatching it, just the same as when Bailey knew her dad would leave but always come back.

Bailey cleared her throat before speaking. “Yeah, Carmaline. You’re right. No harm done.”


The problem wasn’t the new cat. It was a pretty cat, black and white, what his wife called a “tuxedo.” The problem was that it was the thirty-seventh cat.

Bill’s wife Cora had always brought home stray cats. Some stayed, but never more than eight or nine at a time. Five years ago, when Bill finished his and Cora’s dream house at the lake, he helped Cora move the cats that shared their apartment in Vancouver. They were part of the family.

But now there were cats on the sofas and beds, cats on tables and chairs, cats on the sideboard and dressers. Tigers, tabbies, calicos, tuxedos… The screen porch facing the lake, where for the first year Bill and Cora shared breakfast, was now filled with litter boxes.

Oh, Cora took good care of the cats. She bathed the new arrivals in the deep sink Bill had installed for her and treated them for fleas and worms. She kept records of shots and vet visits. She made meals that met their special dietary needs. Regularly she scooped their boxes, so that Bill and Cora’s house, while it smelled of cat, never smelled of cat litter.

But with the arrival of the thirty-seventh cat, Bill had to face it. No matter what promises Cora made, nothing changed. Except the number of cats. There would be a thirty-eighth cat and a thirty-ninth. Someday there would be a hundredth cat, and every surface would be covered.

The day after the tuxedo cat arrived, Bill drove into the city to see Dr. Fulton, Cora’s physician. He described Cora’s obsession with cats. Dr. Fulton told him that thirty-seven cats were a lot, but they had a big house in the country. Besides, adopting strays demonstrated Cora’s kindness, and Bill wouldn’t want her any other way, would he?

Driving back to the lake, Bill realized cats weren’t hot flashes, and no doctor could cure Cora of them. But there was a solution: a house for the cats. All Bill had to do was build it.

When he brought up the idea to Cora, she said cats need a home, not a kennel. Bill told her it wouldn’t be like that. Just as he had built this dream house for Cora and himself, he would build a dream house for the cats.

Cora put her heart into planning the cats’ dream house. It would be built on a corner of their lot. The front would be a picture window facing the lake. There would be a small kitchen for preparing cat meals, even a bathroom, although Bill didn’t see why cats needed that.

Finally, the house was completed, and, of course, Cora wouldn’t move the cats over. A home is more than windows and beds and chairs, she told Bill.

Bill guessed it was also more than a microwave, a shower, and a toilet. A home required a television set and cable, too. He would see to those before he moved in.