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Dog story

Last week, we went to a Labor Day gathering at the home of our friends Rebecca and Chester.  Naturally, everyone who came to the gathering prepared way too much fantastic food, so it was a feast that never seemed to get any smaller no matter how much we ate.

One of R&C’s dogs is a three-legged pooch called Tripod.  A very sweet animal, it gets by just fine with just the three.  While standing around Rebecca’s kitchen, one of the other attendees asked how Tripod came to lose a leg.  Chester began to tell the tale, but Rebecca stopped him and said she had thought it would be funnier if they passed the storytelling baton to me, as the writer in the room, and let me come up with a story on the spot. No pressure.

“Get to work,” my wife said.

“Okaaaaay,” I said slowly, allowing me a few seconds thought.  “So there was this orphanage that was on fire, you see,” I began.  “And Tripod–well, the pre-Tripod, mind you–was rescuing all of the orphans from the fire,” I continued at a measured pace.  “One by one he just kept dragging them out until he finally got to the very last orphan.  Then, just as he was pushing that final orphan out into the safety of the night, the frame of the building collapsed…”

“And chopped off the leg,” Rebecca said.

“No, no.  He narrowly escaped the collapse…” I continued, dreaming up another tragedy that could befall the poor dog.

“Tripod’s a girl,” my wife said.

“No.  Not at that point in the story,” I quickly said.  “That happens later.”

The Floyd Radio Show

Elizabeth LaPrelle and Anna Roberts-Gevalt.

Back in March of this year I was invited to be a player and writer in the live Floyd Radio Show which was to and in fact did take place on the stage of Carnegie Hall in Lewisburg, WV.

The radio show itself originated in Floyd, Virginia, at the historic Floyd Country Store.  The store itself was already a haven for live folk music on the weekends.  The way I heard the story, musicians Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle were already regulars there when the owners approached them with the idea of them hosting a live show there in the style of an old time country radio program, bringing the music and traditions of Appalachia to a much wider audience.  This would be streamed live during the show itself and recorded for posterity and podcastability down the line.  They had never done anything like that before but said “sure” all the same.  In addition to music, though, the ladies and a rotating number of co-writers began crafting fake commercials and comedy sketches that would pop up throughout the show, acted by members of the bands featured on the show and themselves.

The Floyd Radio Show live from the Floyd Country Store

Eventually the ladies took the show on a tour to other towns in other states, which is how it came to Lewisburg.  Since they weren’t able to travel with bands, the show invited regional performers to come and be a part of the show in its new locations, and sought out local folks to help brainstorm and help write sketches for the show itself.  From what I understand, they were given the name of Josh Baldwin, editor and publisher of the Greenbrier Valley Quarterly, a publication for which I occasionally write.  He in turn sent them my name as a writer/performer.  And so on the evening of March 25, I was invited to what turned out to be an Algonquin Roundtable of local Greenbrier County types, whose brains the ladies wanted to pick for local history and stories that might be fuel for the show.

Interior bar of the former Masonic lodge, now turned semi-private performance space.

We met on the top floor of what used to be a Masonic Temple on Court Street in Lewisburg, but which is now a private bar/performance space.  (For about five minutes, it was a public bar/performance space until some fire code issues nixed it.)  I’d only heard of there being such a space on the third floor of the former lodge.  I’d never actually seen how cool it is.  It has a bar with pool tables, comfy seating and a stage area for performances.  We all sat around the bar and gnoshed on pizza and beer and shot the shit for three hours or so, regaling the ladies with tales of local legends and Lewisburg luminaries.  There were probably a core group of 12 of us at first, but maybe 25 people filtered through during the evening to share stories and their take on stories.  I only knew a handful of the people assembled.  It was fascinating to be a part of, though, because I also only knew about a quarter of the stories and history being discussed, so it was a real education for me, too.  The ladies took great notes.

I was invited to help write the script for the show and chose a couple of topics from their brainstorming notes to tackle.  The ladies gave me access to their Google Doc for the script and I was given free reign to punch up or edit any material there, just as I invited them to alter my material however they saw fit.  Most of my writing was done during rehearsals for The Skin of Our Teeth at the Greenbrier Valley Theatre, which occasionally caused issues when I was late for my cues because I was in the lobby writing.   The ladies were great in their edits of the stuff I wrote.  They knew what would work for their audience and what would not.  They also altered the script somewhat to take advantage of some classic radio Foley equipment they had borrowed from the Greenbrier Valley Theatre, finding ways to incorporate it into the show.  After several more drafts of the script, we finally assembled on the afternoon of the show itself to do a full cast readthrough.  Many of the performers of the night were readers in the sketches, which were assigned as we read.  I got to do a number of voices as well.  A schedule of music was posted with sketches layered in between.

What truly astounded me about the program, though, was how calm Elizabeth and Anna were in the face of a show that was kind of assembled and edited on the fly.  They did not appear nervous in the slightest even though they were working with a number of people who were not performers for an evening of entertainment that could go any number of directions.  And while most of the rest of us had the scripts in hand, providing a net for our high wire act, they did a good bit of unscripted material during the show.  They were also great at making adjustments to the intended script both before and during the show itself, as they jettisoned two or three written bits along the way for time consideration.

The stage was set up with eight mics on stands, as well as a number of sofas and chairs in which performers could sit and watch the show from the stage itself.  The show’s producer and stage manager was on top of things, too, as far as alerting the players in the sketches as to when they were supposed to step out.  When it came time, we just went to the most convenient mic and did our thing.  It was all very relaxed and the ladies kept the show always moving forward at a nice pace.

What was really fun to experience was the green room, where the musicians who played throughout the show tuned up via impromptu jam sessions.  They really seemed to enjoy it and it was a pleasure to watch.   The other thing that you’ll not be able to enjoy as a podcast listener, but for which I got a front row seat for, was Elizabeth LaPrelle’s dancing.  She does a traditional Appalachian step dance which is impressive.  I just happened to be hanging out in the wings of the far side of the Carnegie stage when she stepped within four feet of me and began dancing in time to the music.  You can likely hear it in the recording, but it was really cool to see.  It was a window on a traditional part of Appalachian culture that your average West Virginian just doesn’t get to witness very often these days. The whole evening was a terrific night’s entertainment.  My wife says it was among her favorite things to have seen me perform in.

My one regret is that I did not have A Consternation of Monsters finalized as a title at that point.  The collection itself was already assembled and undergoing last minute editing, but the title I had chosen for it at that point, Ten Monsters Walking,  just didn’t feel like the final title to me and I was hesitant to promote it by anything other than its final name.

That was all back on March 27.  Why, you might ask, has it taken so long for the show to be released as a podcast?  Well, I don’t know the particulars, but I expect it’s because the Floyd Radio Show is a monthly event and is typically released as a podcast on a monthly schedule.  Doing a few road shows in a row, as they did, allowed them to bank a few shows that can be slotted in between the podcasts of their Floyd-based shows.

You can find Part 1 of the two part podcast, at the Floyd Radio Show site.  And you can find Part 2 HERE.

I think for the time being I’ll keep it a secret as to which bits of the show I had a hand in writing.  I got to perform in quite a bit of the show, but my performances are not limited to the things I wrote, nor did I perform in all of the things I had a hand in scripting.  So far people who saw the show live who’ve made guesses as to what I helped write have mostly gotten it wrong, though.  which I guess attests to how close to the show’s sense of humor mine may be.  Elizabeth and Anna were delights to work with.   I’d do it again in a second.

Who is this Mister Herman fellow, anyway?

It’s the question of the ages, at least around this website.  Who is Mister Herman?

In short, Mister Herman’s Home Page has been the name of my website since I coded my very first one back in 1995.  It’s been around in one form or another, from one ISP or another, for over two decades.  The actual origin of Mister Herman, however, extends well before that–technically even before my very birth…


At some point during his 20 year career in the Navy, my father acquired the head of a mannequin.  It was not the sort of head that once sat upon a mannequin body, but more of the sort of fiber-glass, life-sized head used to display hats or sunglasses.  As a kid, I named it Eddie and it took up residence in my bedroom, usually as the support of whatever hat I happened to like at the time.  It used to have painted eyes and uniformly painted reddish brown hair, but over the years of my youth I used the head as a base for sculpting faces in modeling clay.  The many times I scraped it off with a kitchen knife have scared and chipped away at the paint, until I eventually just filled it in with liquid paper.  At some point, I gave Eddie a touch of gray at the temples, due to his resemblance to the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards.  These days he sports a set of welder’s goggles, which hide his seemingly cataract-coated eyes from the world.

Jump ahead to my sophomore year of high school.  I made what was perhaps an error in applying to receive information about educational opportunities from a major religious college in Virginia.  I was then and remain a religious fellow, so I’m not knocking the institution itself.  However, in this particular institution’s zeal to secure my place as a student with them, they sent me approximately one metric shit-ton of mail.  For the better part of at least three years, I received on a fortnightly basis at least one thick envelope stuffed with brochures, followup notes, encouraging form letters, and earnest pleas to come visit the campus.  Again, this began when I was a sophomore in high school and was entirely my fault, but it became annoying to me quickly all the same.  For the first year I simply dropped their letters into my sister’s gerbil cage, where they were happily shredded into bedding.  By the time I was a senior, I had pretty much had an assful of these letters.  (When you’re young, you take seriously the small amount of mail you receive and are prone to take offense at any you feel are wasting your time.  Did I mention the fact I was receiving all of this resented mail entirely due at my original request?  Oh, it was all my fault.)

In what can only be described as a wildly passive aggressive and immature move, I began a new tactic: whenever one of their thick envelopes would arrive, I would remove from it the postage-paid envelope that was always within, then I would shred every other piece of paper within the original envelope into tiny confetti bits, then stuff those bits into the postage paid herm-anenvelope, write “Mister Herman’s Mental Home” as the return address, in crayon, and then pop them back in the mail.  It only took about a year of doing this before the mail from them stopped entirely.  Again, I’m not claiming I had any kind of moral high ground in this battle, nor was I acting maturely; I was 17.

Mister Herman’s Mental Home was born from this and is what I began to call my bedroom.  I even had a sign.  And the symbol of all things Mister Herman became a drawing of a partially deflated smiley balloon, which I also used to draw on the return envelopes.  To me it represented warped optimism, which is about the best I can claim on any given day.


Photo courtesy Matt Myles (2014)

During college, Mister Herman took on a new life.  I began working on the writing staff of a summer theatre camp called Summer Scholars Onstage.  As a lark, I started writing top ten lists, inspired by those of David Letterman.  Wanting to join in the fun, a number of other staffers became co-authors of the lists.  Not wanting to take credit for their work, I decided to use the collective name of Mister Herman’s Top Ten List in order to have a neutral party at the helm.  Those began in 1991.  I’m proud to say that the top ten list tradition of that camp continues to this day, though they have had several other names over the years, including Uncle J.J.’s Top Ten List and Rick & Bill’s Top Ten List.

As I mentioned earlier, in 1995, as a project for a college introduction to computer concepts class I was taking, I created the first version of Mister Herman’s Home Page.  It was pretty bare bones then, but soon grew to house such things as the archive of Top Ten lists from camp, my then ongoing series of college-themed recipes, my series of Mister Herman’s Cat Games, my Horribly True Tales stories, my short fiction stories (some of which now appear in A Consternation of Monsters), and, of course, the Rules of Joe–a lengthy and inside-joke-choked guide to the dos and don’ts of interacting with my friend Joe Evans.  Before MySpace, Facebook and Twitter essentially gave everyone their own home page, this one was mine and remains so to this day.  Only now I use it to hock my wares in addition to blogging and fun stuff.


A bit further down the line, I started operating under the heading of Mister Herman’s Production Company, Ltd., an umbrella entity I use for webdesign, graphic design, and my podcasting and voiceover work.  It seemed only natural when I began looking into publishing some of my work that Mister Herman take over that as well.  Ed’s a good guy to have around.

As for Mister Herman himself, he still remains a fixture in my office.  He’s had a number of other hats over the years, but is currently wearing only three.  He occasionally even comes back to Mississippi with me for the Summer Scholars camp.


The Talkin’ New Mailin’ Address, Mailbox Full, Blues

Just got a letter from the U.S. Postal service, alerting us that our official postal mailing address is now the same as our physical address. We may start using it as our official mailing address for all mail correspondence and bills.

We are to never again, it said, use the old rural route and box number, never ever.

We are to update the DMV with the new address.

We are to update insurance policies with the new address.

We are to update our bank accounts with the new address.

We are to update our voter registration with the new address.

We are to update our Christmas card/Personal address lists with the new address. (I am making none of this up.)

We are to update our utilities with the new address.

Naturally, when I attempted to update our various utilities online, they, to a one, refused to accept the new address–at least, on the first try. Bank of America finally allowed me to force it in, but begged me not to. All others I tried gave me the finger.

And when I called the phone number for the local county contact in charge of assisting me with any concerns I might have, I got a message that said, with strain in its voice, “Mailbox full.”

Yeah.  This should go smoothly.


Copyright © 2015 Eric Fritzius

WV Writers Podcast interview with author Ed Davis


A new episode of the West Virginia Writers Podcast has been posted.

Ed Davis is the WV-native author of the novels I Was So Much Older Then  and  The Measure of EverythingHis third novel, The Psalms of Israel Jones was recently published by WV University Press.  It tells the story of a legendary hard-living, hard-lovin’, hard-drinkin’, and hard-druggin’ rockstar who, in his later years, develops something of a cult following.  Literally.  His son Thom, a conservative minister with some possible moral issues of his own, is led to join Israel’s tour by a mysterious phone call.  He finds himself once again thrust into his estranged father’s chaotic world of tour busses, dive-bar shows, and… snake-handlers?

In Episode 75 of the West Virginia Writers Podcast, I sit down with Davis for an interview about the novel and his other work.  This was recorded during the Lewisburg Literary Festival on August 8, 2015.

Listen to it HERE.

Literary Festivities

Had a blast at the Lewisburg Literary Festival this weekend!  Sold a goodly number of books and the “cemetery” performance of the play adaptation of my story “…to a Flame”  had a fantastic turnout and, despite some initial sound problems, went nigh on perfectly.  A big thanks to Devin Preston for co-starring with me.  You were a great Virgil Hawks.  And thanks to Dr. Larry Davis (the original Virgil Hawks in the Greenbrier Valley Theatre production from a few years back) for introducing us.  As I told Larry, I’d planned for Devin and I to do a reading of “The Ones that Aren’t Crows” for the cemetery reading up until two weeks ago when I realized that the already in-existence “…to a Flame” stage play would be a more satisfying fit for a performance.  If I’d thought of doing it sooner, I would have had Larry and another local actor, Curtis Pauley, step in and star.  But I thought it was too much to ask on too soon a notice.  Since Devin and I were already supposed to be involved, and since he can memorize lines like a super human, it seemed the way to go.

Apologies should be issued to the handful of folks who waited at the Old Stone Cemetery, the original location for the play, rather than the revised location of the green space in downtown Lewisburg.  The story of why the location had to be changed the day before the event is long and wrought with controversy.  It is also one I do not plan to tell here (though it miiiiiiiiiiight get told in a podcast in the very near future… just sayin’).   Needless to say, we at the LLF dropped the ball in not sending someone to stand in the cemetery and redirect traffic.  And Devin got chewed out for it good by the folks who stood there for half an hour waiting.  Again, this is entirely our bad.  In what little defense we have, though, my acting partner and I were simultaneously trying rehearse for the first time in over a week, test our wireless microphones, load sound equipment, and paranoidly checking weather apps on our phones to see if it was about to pour rain on said equipment.  (Nary a drop.)  It slipped our minds that some folks might not have gotten the memo about the venue change, and for that we are sorry.

Thanks also go to Eliot Parker, who held down the fort for Publisher’s Place’s table in our Literary Town Square and shared proximity to the Mr. Herman table.  Thanks also to S.D. “Sam” Smith, author of the fabulous young person’s book The Green Ember  and his publisher at the Story Warren, Andrew, who both kept us all entertained (and fed, cause Sam bought us lunch on Saturday).

Thanks to Cat Pleska, Fran Simone and Ed Davis for leading great workshops and traveling a distance to be a part of the event.  I got to interview Ed for the West Virginia Writers podcast, but I’ll repost that here as well when it’s edited and ready to go.

Thanks to all the folks behind the scenes at the LLF (Greg Johnson, Josh Baldwin, Cindy Lavender-Bowe, Mary Cole Deitz, Erin Hurst, Laura Lee Haddad, Sarah Elkins, and so many more) for all the time and effort they volunteer throughout the year and throughout the event to keep things running smoothly.   Very few fires had to be put out.  Thanks also to Aaron and Monica Maxwell, co-founders of the event, who stepped down from the LLF board this year, but who still did quite a bit to make it happen and are missed dearly.  (We never knew exactly how much work you guys did for the LLF until we had to do it in your absence.  It took six of us to pull it off and we still got things wrong.  Hats off to your three years of making it happen and for what you did to assist this year.  Come baaaaaack!)

And thanks to my lovely wife for womaning my table while I had to go do introductions for speakers, rehearse plays in alleys, and haul sound equipment.  She sold more books in two hours than I did before she got there.


Ed Davis, S.D. Smith, and some guy in corduroy author armor.


Sherrell Wigal, Eliot Parker and the author.


Devin Preston and me in the dramatization of “…to a Flame.”


The One that Almost Wasn’t “The Ones that Aren’t Crows”

The latest episode of the Consternation of Monsters Podcast adapts my story “The Ones that Aren’t Crows.”  It is is one of three award-winning stories in the collection, the others being “Nigh” and “…to a Flame.”  However, when this particular story won 2nd place in the Animals Category of the 2011 West Virginia Writers Annual Writing Contest, it did so under the title “Native Arts.”

I never liked that title.  I often don’t like my first choice of title and tend to use them as placeholders until I can find something that feels like a better fit.  It was not until a later draft of the story, a revision I made prior to a live-reading of it, though, that the new title suggested itself and felt perfect.

As to the origin of the story itself, it is a quad-fold affair.


Home sweet home.

The first fold:  Back in 2007, the wife and I took a two-week trip to her home state of Alaska.  It was a three week trip for her, as she had gone up to present a poster at a medical conference, in her capacity as chief resident at the local hospital.  (She likes to downplay the significance of the chief resident part, as she was the only person in her program for that year, so she was the only available candidate to be chief resident.  I maintain she would have been chief regardless of other candidate availability, but that’s a question for an alternate universe.)  I flew up after that first week and we rented a Winnebago in which to vacation, touring around Alaska to see the various places where she’d lived and grown up.  Our first leg of the journey took us down to Seward, where we spent a couple of days on the shores of Resurrection Bay–occasionally venturing out onto the water for chilly June tours of the Kenai Fjords and the glaciers that could be seen there.  Oh, and the whales.  We saw a goodly number of whales, though due to the slowness of our camera we mainly took pictures of their tails as they disappeared again beneath the surface.  The ranger on the tour was sure to point out the rDSCN3243estricted speeds for the tour boats in the bay, done to give whales plenty of time to get out of the way.  We had a great time.


Tour boat

One of the things I noticed during our trip, though–which brings us to the second fold–was the amount of native Alaskan art on display, everywhere you went.  There were brightly-painted totem poles in most of the places we visited, as well as other totemic art that depicted whales and bears and birds and fish, all with bright red, teal, black and white coloration.  Curious, I began reading up on the traditional stories of the native peoples.  They offer some very interesting tales of how the world came to be, and the interesting gods and figures who helped shape it.  The standard fantasy trope of “what if these aren’t just myths” began to ring in my head.  Or, more importantly to a common theme in the stories I write (and those of many other writers) what if belief in the myth is the power necessary to make it real?

DSCN3779Another source of inspiration, perhaps the third fold, came during one of a number of, perhaps, ill-advised solo hikes I took during our time in Alaska.  I like to explore, especially when there is the promise of a cool view, or a waterfall to be seen, and I’m willing to go above and beyond to reach that goal.  I always invited the wife to come along, but she’s rarely interested, especially if the journey will require strenuous physical effort.  One of my hikes, in Valdez, was to try and climb up the lower section of a mountain, to try and reach a step where the lower part of the mountain jutted out, creating a natural incline that continued on up to a much higher elevation.  It looked like the sort of thing a person could reach and then walk up to get a great view.  The wife thought the plan was foolhardy and a lot more work than I knew, but I insisted on trying it.  Because neither of our cell phones worked well there, I said if I didn’t come back in an hour and a half she was to assume I’d been lost or eaten by a bear and call the authorities.  It was, as she predicted, more difficult than I’d thought, because to simply get to the foot of the mountain meant having to walk pathways through the thick brush leading up to it.  While in those paths, I came upon the remnants of a lunch interrupted.  There was a plastic grocery sack which had been torn open and its contents shredded.  My memory of this is that it was a grocery store pre-made sandwich and some chips, but all food items were gone, leaving behind shredded remnants of their packaging.  The most curious item from the mess, though, was a 16 oz plastic soda bottle, its cap still in place, but empty due to a VERY large tooth hole in the side of the bottle.  (I thought I had a picture of this, but evidently not.)  The tooth hole, to my eye, could only have been made by something the size of a bear.  I was then on my guard, as this meant bears were in the area, or had been in the area.  I still continued on my trek, though, eventually making it to the foot of the mountain, and then, slowly, step by step, handhold by handhold, clawed my way up the steep slope of the foot of the mountain.  It was tough going.  But while I did it, the image occurred to me that it would be super creepy if, suddenly, I were to discover the claw marks of a bear on the side of that slope, except the claw marks in my image were of a bear being dragged UP the slope by something much larger.  And I instantly knew what that something would be.  It’s the same creature that went on to inspire “The Ones that Aren’t Crows”  and is a short story that may yet appear in next year’s volume of tales.  (I did manage to make it to the top of the step, but it took way more work and way  more time than I’d planned for it to.  By the time I got up there, it was time to head back or risk the wife calling out the authorities.)


Me snoozing on the tour boat, dreaming of gods and monsters

The fourth fold of this tale’s origin happened over a year after we returned from our trip.  We had left Lewisburg and moved to Princeton, WV, in 2008.  I had been looking for a job there, but things were pretty scarce.  So I began seeking other possible employment opportunities.  I saw an ad online for a job as a transcriptionist.  I thought this might be something for me, since I type superhumanly fast.  The application process involved learning the formatting, in which the transcriptionist types all the words being heard, down to the ums and uhs, and any incidental sounds or other business that can be heard–doors opening in the background, coughing, sneezing, etc.–is included in bracketed statements. I learned the format, took the transcriptionist test and thought I did pretty well.  Never heard anything back from them, which led me to believe that what they were really trying to do was sell me the expensive transcriptionist foot-peddle-pause button, which seemed to be mentioned a lot in their materials as being something serious transcriptionists used.  I didn’t bite.  But I did think that the idea of a short story formatted as a transcription was something I’d not seen before.  I even thought of a way for the format itself to become part of the storytelling.   After that, it was just a matter of plugging in a story and I knew just the one that would fit.

As I said before, this story has been read live on a couple of occasions and turns out pretty well.  It does require a second reader to provide the transcription notations.  I’ve always read the captain’s part, with someone else doing the transcription voice.  The first time I read this live, back in 2011, my wife did the voice and was excellent at capturing the cold, flatness I heard in my head.  Unfortunately, when I recorded that reading, only I had a microphone, so her voice could not be heard in the recording.  The second time, she was unavailable for a reprise, so I recruited my friend and fellow actor Joe Lehman.  We performed it for the Greenbrier Valley Theatre’s Literary Tea series in 2013.  I had a much better recorder by then and we were both miked.  It was a great performance, too.  Joe was great at keeping the exact same tone on each of his repeated words and I felt especially in good bronchial form as the captain.  Unfortunately, when I stopped the recorder after the show, something went amiss and the recording vanished into the ether never to be seen again.  It was a tragic loss, as that would have been a recording for the archive and probably would have been podcasted in some form long before now.

I’m still pleased with how Episode 04 turned out, though.  The text-to-speech program I used for the transcriptions is not without his charms.  I may have to hold on to it for future use.



Another review has appeared before me!

Ed Davis (author of The Psalms of Israel Jones: A Novel) has written a lovely review of A Consternation of Monsters that appears at Zoetic Press’s blog Our Rizomatic Ideas.  Check it out, there.

Also check out The Psalms of Israel Jones, which is the book I coincidentally am finishing up this week.  At it’s heart, it’s a father-and-son relationship struggle story, but in which the father is a hard-drinkin, hard-loving, hard-living folk/rock legend with dozens of albums to his name, and the son is a recovering alcoholic preacher, pursued by a moral quandary or two of his own. It’s a very good read with some truly beautiful turns of phrase and quite a bit of insight into the human condition.

Another interlude involving camps and cats…

I had not planned to return to Starkville to see the camp show this year.  I always want to, but with the Lewisburg Literary Festival coming up on August 7 & 8 and me with a 10 minute play to memorize and rehearse it seemed a foolhardy thing to do.

About mid week, Leigh Ann, wife of my best friend and brother Joe Evans, called to alert me to the fact that Joe was to be inducted into the Summer Scholars Hall of Fame this year.  The Hall of Fame is something that’s been done for the past 10 of our camp’s 34 plus year lifespan, honoring people who have served the camp in a variety of capacities.  Joe has been one of the longest-serving staff members, coming in at around 30 or 31 years of service, by my memory.  This was all being done in secret, too, which would be great if the secret could be kept until the ceremony.  This is not precisely easy to do, though, for Joe is a pretty savvy guy and might already suspect something like that was in the offing.  I wanted to be there to see him recognized.

I texted Leah, back at camp, and asked if they’d had to give away my room to someone else.  “Nope.  Come on back,” she wrote.  My driving hands began to itch.

On Thursday of last week I learned that my scene partner in the play we are rehearsing could not meet until Tuesday of this week.  Seemed the chance to go was mine if I would take it.  But how to sell this to the wife?

My wife has a love/hate relationship with camp, as do most of the long-term staff spouses.  On the one hand, they know we love the camp and would do anything we could for it.  They know it’s a constant draw, especially for those of us who help the campers in creating it (as I did as script consultant).  We want to see the finished product and get antsy when we can’t.  On the other hand, camp takes us away from home for long periods of time, which causes rippling effects on those who are used to being able to rely upon us being around.  And for those of us who live 11 plus hours away, it can be even more of an effect because there’s fuel costs to be considered.  I had told her that I wasn’t sure if I would be able to go back.  Now that I had the free and clear time-wise, though, I wondered what she would think.  Would she approve or had she already assumed I was staying and made other plans for us?

Naturally, she saw right through me.  After moping around for most of Thursday afternoon, wondering silently how to present my case, my wife hit me with, “So, are you going back tomorrow?”

“I’m seriously thinking about it,” I said, hands continuing to itch.  I then began packing the car to make them stop.  I sent Leah a text to let her know I was coming and not to tell Joe.  I then wrote the associate director and told him, as well as Leigh Ann.  They would be the only three to know my plans for sure, now to throw scent off the trail…

On Facebook, I found an appropriate photo of the set from this year and wrote: *sniff*

Joe quickly responded to this by saying: “This is your own fault, Eric Fritzius.”

Heh heh heh.

I lit out before 7 a.m. on Friday.  I had to get to camp before the show started at 7, preferably an hour before.  I didn’t exactly have a plan of what I was going to do, but figured something would occur in the moment.

When I stopped for gas, I looked up the Summer Scholars Facebook page on my phone and wrote: “Everybody in the show tonight break a leg. I really really wish I could be there to see it with my own eyes.”

A little while later, my friend Tristan Durst wrote: “I still hold out hope that you’re going to show up and surprise us. So. Don’t let me down.”

Took me 40 miles to come up with a response, so at the next rest stop I wrote: “If I had a Tardis, I would be there yesterday.”

Then I went radio silent for the rest of the way.

I arrived in Starkville around 5:15, just enough time to grab some grub before putting my plan into action.  It would be a matter of timing.  See for decades now the staff of Summer Scholars has organized an acapella ensemble to sing a song at intermission.  And for just as long they have met at 6 p.m. in the back corner stairwell to rehearse that song in preparation for debuting it to the campers after they’ve warmed up in the theatre’s scene shop. I snuck in the costume shop door at 6p and headed into the scene shop, expecting to see costumed campers waiting.  However, only my friend Gand frequent clone Glen was there.  And from the amount of general stuff in the middle of the floor, I knew plans had changed. Glen revealed that the kids were downstairs in the lab theatre and the singing ensemble was in a different place to rehearse.

“Hey, check this out,” he said, passing me a program for the camp show.  I saw the logo for the title IN A BIND on its cover–mighty sweet–before Glen flipped to the back cover where Joe’s face stared out.

“Does he know about this?” I said, disappointed that the secret might have been spoiled.

“I don’t know how he couldn’t,” Glen said.  “These are everywhere.”

wpid-20150724_180418.jpgAh, well, I thought.  Someone else’s department.  I had a reveal to accomplish, so I swore Glen to secrecy and headed down to the lab theatre.  A few campers saw me along the way and gave me hugs, but mostly I was just a generic staff-face, able to blend in.  Even after I arrived in the lab theatre, I made no big deal about my presence and all but a few campers seemed to notice me.  My plan, such that it was, was to hang out in the lab until the ensemble arrived.  I might hide, or I might just lurk until I had a chance to reveal my presence to Joe.  But this was tricky.  I didn’t want to be discovered mid-song and interrupt things.  Then I spotted it, a lone black rehearsal door over at one end of the black box theatre space.  It was perfect.  The two campers who were seated beyond it were engrossed in their phones and headphones, so I just went over and stood behind it, out of the way and mostly out-of-sight.

I see a black door and I want to paint it... oh, wait.

I see a black door and I want to paint it… oh, wait.

After 15 minutes or so, I heard Tristan’s voice and I peeked around the corner to see if it was her.  She spotted me and started crying immediately.  I told her my plan was to wait for Joe and crew to arrive.  I had still not worked out what I was going to do once that happened.  A few minutes later, the kids began warmups, all in a circle on the other side of the door, which was, itself, aimed at the entrance to the lab theatre.  They did vocal and physical warmups and then Tristan signaled me that Joe and crew had arrived.  I was able to use the door’s peep hole to spy on them as they circled up in the middle of the circle of campers.

“I want to open the door,” Tristan whispered.  I grinned.

Someone shushed the group of kids and everyone began to grow quiet in preparation for the song.  When it was almost completely quiet, I struck.


There was laughter from the kids, but only a few knew what was happening.  “Who is it?” someone said, but no one opened the door.  What I only learned later was that my banging on the door was infuriating Joe.  Here he was trying to get this song sung so he could get back to the important work of making sure everything was working so he could direct the musical accompanists from his position on the front row while they were secreted at the back of the stage with no physical line of sight (long story there), and some jerkweed camper was banging on the door and being an ass.

I happily banged again.  BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM!

Finally someone opened the door.  It swung on its hinges and I stared out and into the angry, then shocked, then elated face of Joe Evans through it.  I started to say “Avon calling,” but was drowned out by a sea of cheers, as most of the people in the room had no idea I was even there to begin with.  It was awesome.

Joe and I hugged it out, then they got to the serious business of singing an acapella version of “Dr. Worm” by They Might Be Giants.

Leigh Ann had saved me a seat on the front row.  There I sat, saying hi to friends, staff, and former campers.  There were indeed programs everywhere, but Joe didn’t seem to have one.  Then the show started and my enjoyment began.  Act I was great.  Then, at first intermission, Dr. Joe Ray Underwood and associate camp director Joel Rutherford came out to conduct the hall of fame ceremony.  It looked something like this…

Joe swears he had no idea up until the point when they said his name.  He later said he could see the evidence was all around him, but he never paid much attention to any of it.  The strangest thing, he said, was that Leah wouldn’t give him a copy of the program before the show.  It was great to see him honored for all the work he’s done for the camp and for the kids who’ve attended it over the years.  Joe truly is the heart of Summer Scholars.  And his own words in the ceremony tell you precisely why.

The show was fantastic!  One of the all time best in terms of performance, sound mix, lighting, set, costumes, direction, dancing, and, yes, script.  The kids wrote a good one.  It was pretty light lifting for me as these things go.  wpid-20150725_123359.jpg

The following day, I went out to breakfast with the parents and then went back to their house to see kitty Abin.  I was prepared for a tearful reunion, in which he ran to me and leaped into my arms to once again see the savior who rescued him from hunger, disease, and the elements out on campus.  He ran, all right–away from my ass.  And hid.  Took quite a while to coax him out and more time to get him to let me pet him, let alone pick him up.  By the end of my visit, though, he seemed to like me well enough.  Dad suggested that Abin thought I was coming to get him and take him away again.  Perhaps he thought I was going to take him back to the bushes I found him in.

He’s doing great in his new home.  He’s bonded with my dad moreso than Myra, but seems to be developing into a great housecat.

The rest of the weekend was spent hanging out with great friends, seeing the show a second time (even better!), wagering on which camper would cry first during our final meeting (I won $10 in the pool last year, but I picked a bad horse this year), eating stupid amounts of bad food, and watching Sifyl and Oly at three in the morning.  Despite a few complaints along the way, and a near record number of characters to have to write for, it was one of the best years on record.

I always feel a strange mixture of anticipation and dread as camp approaches.  Gives me night terrors and butterflies in my stomach, and this year a case of the shingles.  Right now, though, I find myself oddly looking forward to next year.

An interlude involving camps and cats…

Just got back from my annual trip to Mississippi. I actually usually make more than one trip to Mississippi, but for the past eight years or so I’ve been back each summer to work at the Summer Scholars Onstage camp. It’s a theatre camp for junior high and high school students who write and produce a three act musical comedy in the space of three weeks. Of course, they have lots of guidance and direction at this, and I get to help with that.

Lo, back in the day, in the years of our Lord 1989 and 1990, I was a camper there myself. And for six years afterward, I stayed on as staff for writers camp, moving from writing assistant to act leader and eventually working my way up to boys counselor. After college, though, I got wrapped up in actual employment and a relationship with the lady who would become my wife that took up all of my vacation time. Ten years went by during which I did not have any relationship to the camp except as an alumnus. Each summer in July, though, I knew it continued and would feel the pain and longing of not being there. In 2006, I was asked if I would like to come back and give it a whirl on the writing staff again. I was an act leader, meaning I was in charge of helping guide the campers assigned to write one of the acts in the show. I had a blast doing it and made lots of new friends. I was unable to return in 2007, but came back in 2008 where I was given the new responsibility of Script Coordinator, who is the guy charged with guiding the whole show, giving notes to the acts on improvements to make, and, ultimately, editing the whole thing together. For all but one year since then I’ve continued in this role, helping to channel all of the amazing creative talent the students bring into a three act play, or three one act plays.

Now, many volumes could be written when it come to this camp, its history, the folks who’ve gone through it as campers, many of whom have gone on to work in professional theatre, media, acting, etc., and what the camp has meant in the lives of those who’ve attended it, not the least of which, from my perspective, is my own. But that’s not what I set out to write about today. Instead, I want to write about a cat.

Summer Scholars takes place at Mississippi State University, where the camp has been based from a variety of dorms. (The university prefers us to refer to them as “residence halls,” but we care not for such niceties. They’re dorms, dammit.) For the past several years, though, we’ve maintained a home in proximity to the theatre in which our show is performed. And it was outside of this dorm, early in the Writers Camp week, that I spotted a tiny orange kitten. I first saw the kitten on the way back from dinner, early during Writers Camp. It was lurking in a long row of bushes directly beside the busy campus road that runs in front of the dorm, moving from bush to bush, watching us as we walked back. The kitten looked like it was in rough shape. It had what looked like a puncture wound on its neck, surrounded by a patch of bare skin, almost as if it had been shaved; it also had blinky eyes, as though something was wrong with at least one of them. One of our party theorized it might also have some hip displasia.

At first I was determined not to have any thoughts about this kitten. It was one of hundreds of stray cats that live on MSU’s campus and I can’t save them all so there was no point in getting attached to this particular one. Never mind the fact that it looked remarkably similar to Winston, my cat from college through marriage, who died back in 2008. This was a completely different creature. It would move along to another dorm or another dumpster and that would be that. But I caught another glimpse of it through the window of the camp’s office and found myself being concerned that it was still lurking so close to the road. Other people on the staff and a few of the campers noticed it too, but all reports were that it would not allow anyone to get close.

A day passed and I didn’t see the kitten, though I still found myself looking for it. It was gone, though, and that was for the best. Hey, maybe it even had a home somewhere? Right? Then, on the way to lunch, I saw it creeping along the sidewalk, near the road again. Someone made the comment that it should be captured and taken to the Humane Society, which reportedly was a no-kill shelter. I thought this was a good idea, but no one seemed to have any definite plans to do anything about it. When one of the staff asked me if I needed anything from Wal-Mart, I gave her some money and asked her to pick up a small bag of kitten food. I didn’t know at that point that I was going to try and catch the cat, but I thought I could at least do something to help keep it healthy by feeding it. That night, I took some kitty food out in a cup, prepared to pour it on the ground. However, I found two small clear plastic bowls in the bushes. Food in one, water in the other. I then sprinkled some food in a couple of other places along the bushes and called it a day.

The food was all gone the following day, so I replaced it and then again the following day. By Saturday, though, I still hadn’t seen the actual kitten for a while. Any number of animals could have eaten the food, including exotics such as skunks–which are known to inhabit campus.

Saturday night, around 9 o’clock, as we walked back from the theatre, a small group of us were just entering the area of large concrete planters and seating areas outside the dorm when an orange streak bolted from one of them and skittered past the door and into the bushes. It was the kitty. Only as we approached the door, it popped back out and came creeping toward us, mewing pitifully. I went right in the dorm, right to my room and brought it out some cat food and water. I didn’t see it any more, though, no matter how much I called for it.

The following day was to be a big one. The second Sunday of camp is traditionally the day when I lock myself in a room for 15 plus hours and do a final pass edit of the script. It doesn’t matter how well-written the script is (and this one was pretty good going into editing) it’s going to take at least 15 hours to go over every single word of a 60 page document. I left my room early to catch breakfast so I could get started. And there at the front door was the little orange kitten, lapping milk out of a bowl one of the campers had placed outside. For some reason, the sight of this made me tear up, both at the pitiful appearance of the cat, with its puncture wound and blinky eyes, but also for the compassion shown by the kids toward it. The chief compassionate camper was a girl named Olivia, who lives on a farm and has a soft spot in her heart for animals of all kinds. I told her I’d been feeding the cat already, but that I was going to have to leave camp to head back home soon. That being the case, I would turn my bag of kitty food over to her. She instantly understood this meant she would be able to keep feeding it. Even as I said it, though, the idea of simply capturing the cat and taking it to the humane society came to mind again. It wouldn’t leave me, to the point that I finally looked up the hours for the humane society. They were not, naturally, open on Sunday, nor were they on Monday. They would not open until Tuesday at 11 a.m. I then texted my dad to ask if he happened to have a cat carrier. Their last cat, Thug, passed away a couple of years ago, but I figured they had kept his carrier since it would also fit their tiny dogs. They had. I also knew my dad had a small live trap, cause I’d seen it. Plans began to formulate.

On Monday, the script complete, I got it printed and delivered to the campers so they could begin deciding which characters they wanted to audition for Monday night. I then popped over to Dad’s to pick up the trap and the carrier. The trap itself was pretty small, probably ideally suited for a rat, but I thought it might just work for a kitten. It was a rectangular cage with a door at either end that could, ideally, be set to close as soon as a creature touched the triggering platform at the center of the cage’s interior floor. Unfortunately, its operation was not completely obvious and it had been long enough since Dad had used it that he was not entirely sure how to set it. I took it back to the dorm and got my buddy Joe to have a look, since he’s good at solving puzzles. He figured it out and showed me how to set it. Now for bait.

I was afraid it might be a chore to find Olivia, but she was standing in the camp office as I came out of the staff hallway and was the first person I saw. She saw the trap and immediately knew what my plan was. She ran up to her room with a cup to fetch some kitty food. I took it and a bottle of water with me and went outside, retrieving the plastic bowls from their place in the bushes. I placed food and water into the cage, set the mechanism and gingerly lowered the whole thing behind a semi-circular concrete bench, located midway between the front door and the northernmost edge of the dorm. It was not a high traffic area and I figured the trap would be out of sight of passers by, but still likely in the kitty’s range. I saw no sign of the kitty while doing this, so I walked back along the entire length of the dorm searching for it. When I reached the southern end and turned to come back, who should I see on the sidewalk just beside the area I’d left the trap, but the little orange kitty. It mewed at me as I approached, but skittered away when I came closer than 10 feet.

I sat down on the concrete wall across from the semi-circle bench and stared into the decorative bushes and trees beyond it. Eventually I saw a kitty face peeking among the leaves. I called to it softly.

My friend and fellow staffer Leah Rabbideau came walking up shortly after this. She had heard about the kitty and was happy to hear that I was trying to capture it. As we talked, the kitty jumped up on the semi-circular bench and mewed at us.wpid-20150713_172411.jpg I quickly took its picture with my phone, as I didn’t know if I would have another chance, but it didn’t like the movement very much. I gave Leah my keys and asked if she would go to my car and get the cat carrier, because I might just need it. Capturing the cat by hand was not part of my original plan—especially with less than half an hour left before I had to be at auditions and supper still uneaten. But you know what they say about a kitten in hand being worth more than two in a live trap in the bush.

I cautiously moved over to the semi-circular wall and sat on the edge of it. I poured some dry foot out on it, a couple of feet away from me, and the kitty came over to have a bite. Any time I moved my hand to reach for it, though, it would skitter away a few feet. I continued to try, hoping it would let me pet it and pick it up, hoping it wouldn’t then bite me and force me to take rabies shots, but it wouldn’t let me even move. We kept up the routine even after Leah returned with the carrier.

I then tried to stand and move into a position where I could better block the kitty’s escape. It decided to show me that this was foolhardy of me by disappearing off the back side of the bench and into the shrubbery. At least the trap was back there with it, I thought, but heard no SNAP of it closing shut. I retreated back to my original seat, across the sidewalk, where I kept a view of the brush. Eventually the kitty reappeared within it, laying prone on the ground within it, tucked in a sunbeam, where it washed and stretched and flexed its claws in the air. I stood up to get a better view and the cat didn’t seem at all bothered. It was like it was saying: “Yeah, I know you want to get me, but you caaaaaan’t.” I tried coaxing it with soft words and by scratching a brown magnolia leaf along the concrete, but it was having none of it.

I was getting hungry. By my phone, it was 5:50, which meant I only had ten minutes until auditions and I still had not eaten. There was a very real danger that the campers had devoured all of whatever food we were having that night, too. I might be staring at jelly beans for dinner if I wasn’t careful. I silently prayed that if I was meant to capture this cat, God might intervene on my behalf.

After a bit the cat gave up with luxuriating and got up to go explore. It moved out-of-sight, but toward the wpid-20150713_175135.jpgtrap. I braced, waiting for the metallic clank, but heard nothing. I didn’t dare risk peeking over the lip of the concrete seat, though, for fear of scaring it away from the trap, assuming it was already there. Then I again spotted the kitty moving in the brush. I called to it, telling it how sweet it was, how I just wanted to help it, and how it would have a safe new home if only it would come out and let me catch it. I guess I was far enough away from the bench that I was not seen as a danger, for the kitty hopped back up on the curved bench and mewed.

I remained still and just continued to talk to it. It wanted to move back down to where I had food sprinkled, so I tried to gently ease my way in that direction, but every step made it scurry away along the bench. I soon found myself between it and the food, so I went and sat on the bench and held out my hand to the cat. It mewed, but wouldn’t move closer until I lowered my hand. Every time it would approach, though, I would slowly raise my hand, palm down, fingers loose, hoping it would see this move as friendly. It took a couple of minutes, but the kitty finally came close enough that it could sniff my hand, but then it darted away again. So we went through the process again, with the kitty lingering with its sniff before darting away. Then it lingered and let me touch its nose. Then the top of its head. I prayed and prayed that I wouldn’t do something to scare it away for good and that no cars would backfire and startle it. It was nearly time for auditions to begin, but I couldn’t give up and trust the trap to work if I was this close to befriending it.

At last, the kitty got close enough for me to not only touch the top of its head but to scratch it behind the ears. And that was all it took. It was like the kitty had never been petted, but had always wanted to be, and now that it was getting its ears scratched it was fully locked in place with no fear. I did not immediately try to pick it up, but continued just petting it and scratching it. The kitty purred loudly and rubbed its head on my hand. Then, I calmly curled my fingers around its underside and lifted it to my chest. It didn’t make a peep, didn’t claw me, or give me any trouble at all. I stood up, walked over to the cat carrier, pulled open the door and placed the kitten inside before locking it shut. Then I took a breath, because evidently I had not been breathing for some time.

I gathered trap and carrier and headed back inside. A number of kids saw what I was carrying and came running up to ask about it.

“You caught the kitty!” more than one said.

“Shhhhhhh!” I said in return.

Members of the dormitory in-house staff were hanging out at the central desk in the lobby and I had not wanted to draw their attention. There are strict rules against animals in the dorm and the last thing I would want to happen is to cause any trouble for camp. One of the dorm staffers did seem to give me a glance, but didn’t seem to register what I was carrying. Just in case, though, I headed past the desk and toward the back door, as if leaving with my prize. I turned back at the door to see if I was being watched, but I did not appear to be, so I booked it for the camp office.

On the way, I spotted Olivia waiting for the elevator and held up the carrier proudly to let her know I had been successful. We set the carrier down in the office so people could look in and see the kitten. It didn’t seem too put out by the attention. While I was standing there, though, I decided to go ahead and hit the trip switch in the trap to close up it’s doors, rather than risk it tripping on its own and startling me or the cat. I reached in and hit the switch. Nothing happened. I hit it again, this time with more force. The doors remained up. I had managed to set the trap in such a way that it would not have worked at all. If I had not caught the cat by hand, I would not have caught the cat.

I left the carrier in my room, then dashed back to where dinner had been laid out, grabbed a heaping spoonful of spaghetti and then headed for the auditions room. On the way, I asked another staffer if she would mind making sure the kitty had food and water in the carrier. Before auditions began, I wrote to my wife to let her know of my success. “Will we have a new cat?” she texted back. “Not if I can help it,” I replied. Shortly after this, my dad texted me to find out if I was going to join them for breakfast.

“Complicated. I caught the cat,” I texted.

“Cool! How about bring it by and show us?” he replied.

Gears in my head began to mesh, but it was too soon to call it a thought machine.

During breaks in auditions, I went back to my room to check on the kitty. It seemed to be fine and was sleeping peacefully. After the auditions were over, though, I learned that it may not have been alone for very long. One of the other staff made the comment that while it was a very sweet cat, it was difficult to get back into its carrier once released. And from the shifting of my luggage under the bed upon my return to the room I don’t doubt he was telling the truth. While in the office, I made a makeshift litterbox out of a leftover cardboard plasticware box and some shredded up napkins. I hoped it would work, but had few other options at that point.

At 1:30 a.m. I was at last able to return to my room. The kitty was still sleeping, but woke up when I opened up the cat crate. I coaxed it out, gave it some petting and tried to get a good look at it. Still wasn’t sure what gender it was, though I was thinking male. Also, while it did have a puncture wound on its neck, the wound did not seem to be infected—at least not any more. It was mainly just a scab, so I put some antibiotic ointment on it anyway. Then I put the cat back in the crate, refilled its water, inserted the makeshift litterbox, and went to bed. Sleep did not come, though.

At 2 a.m., the kitty began to mew.

And mew.

And mew.

And then I smelled the unmistakable odor of kitty poo.

And then all was silent once again.

I sighed and got up. I fetched toilet paper from the bathroom and cleaned up his poop. He had at least not trod in it. Then I decided that since I was clearly not able to sleep, I would just pack up all my stuff so I could move out in the morning. At last, at 2:30, exhausted, I hit the hay.

I awoke around 7:30 and was wide awake. The kitty also rose and had a few bites of food. Then it mewed and pooed once more, which I had to clean up. I hoped the cleaning staff didn’t smell it.

After packing most of my stuff into the car, I grabbed the kitty and prepared to leave, too. Leah was in the office and stopped me so she could meet the kitty. She said she wished she could take it, but that she had just acquired a kitten. This was a common thing amongst the other members of the staff, none of whom could take the kitty, but all of whom wished there was another option beyond the humane society.

“Why don’t you take it?” she said.

“Cause I’d have to drive back to West Virginia with it,” I said. “And we already have two cats,” I added. And of those two I was pretty sure Emmet, a.k.a. “Fatty Lumpkin,” would eat him. “No, I have another idea,” I said. See while the little kitty greatly resembles my old kitty Winston, it even more greatly resembles Winston’s half brother, Lucien, who was my step-mother’s cat—a lanky orange thing with an super long tail, and who, despite having no claws, could punch with the best of them. Lucien has been gone for a number of years, but he was one of her favorites. My best guess was that she would take one look at the new kitty and announce that she would like to keep it. To me this would be the ideal situation. Kitty gets a good home with folks who will love and care for it, I’d be willing to foot the vet bill for shots (which I was already planning to do in donation form at the humane society), and I would get to see the kitty on future visits. Win win. Sure, it might seem a calculated move on my part, but keep in mind that Dad asked me to bring the kitty over for inspection. I told all of this to Leah and said that I would not say a word about my own wishes in the matter, but would just let nature take its course.

And, naturally, this is exactly what happened.

Okay, it took a little while longer for Dad to come around to the idea, but my step-mother announced she wanted the kitten within a minute of first laying eyes on him. After that it was just a matter of time.

After breakfast, Dad and I went to the vet for shots. It had been 30 years or so since I’d set eyes on Dr. Anthony, and vice versa, but he was still the kindly veterinarian of my memory. He told us we had a good cat on our hands. It was orange and it was male and orange male cats were his favorite kind of cat; they always made for good cats, he said. Furthermore, while this one was in need of some shots, nothing seemed too out of whack. The neck wound was mostly healed, the bare patch around it was caused by the hair dying off when it had been infected, and the fleas it was coated in would be easy enough to remedy.

The kitty was also an excellent traveler. During all our car journeys, he made nary a peep. Kind of had me wondering how few peeps he might have made during a 12 hour car trip to West Virginia.

wpid-20150714_141806.jpgKitty spent most of the afternoon snoozing in his crate. He and my parents dogs even mostly got along, though the dogs are understandably a bit standoffish because all previous kitty experiences they’ve had has been of the clawy hissy variety. Toward the end of the day, though, he crawled on and took his new litter box for a test drive. He took to it like a charm, though there was a bit of time when he just sat on the pile of litter like Bill the Cat. Then he hopped out and had a snooze leaned up against the leg of his new owner, my step-mother, Myra. He even has the beginnings of a similarly long tail to Lucien’s.

Dad consorted with his computer to come up with a proper name for the kitty. Of the five frontrunners, the name that seemed to best fit, was Abin. (Pronounced Abe-in, as in Abe Lincoln, not Abin as in Abin Sur, nerds!) As soon as he told me, I agreed it was a winner. Better still than my plan on naming the kitty after the dorm I’d found it at.

On the following day, I had to leave to return to West Virginia. I went and said goodbye to Abin and scratched him behind the ears as he likes. The parents thanked me for introducing them to their new kitty. Meanwhile, I thanked them for giving “my kitty” a proper home.

I think I will forever think of Abin as “my kitty” since I suspect he bonded with me first, and me with him. You don’t put as much work into capturing something as I did and not have feelings for it. However, I also think it was the better move to leave him with the parents. He will be of more valuable use there. It’s been a while since the parents have had the pitter patter of kitty feet.


Home sales!

I’m proud to report that the Book Mart & Cafe in my home town of Starkville, MS, is now carrying A Consternation of Monsters.  So if you’re in the Starkville area and are hankering for some modern fantasy/horror reading material, that’s where you can go to find it.  At some point in the Autumn, I will return for a signing.  Keep watching this space for details on that.

Nigh on the Shortest Story in the Whole Book

The most recent Consternation of Monsters podcast features a recorded live reading captured at the 2015 West Virginia Writers Summer Conference, during its open mic entertainment on Friday evening.  It is me reading my short story “Nigh,” which appears in the collection.  As I explain at the start of the podcast, the very night of the reading this year essentially marks the 11th anniversary of the first time of not only the first live reading of that story but also my first reading at a West Virginia Writers conference at all.  I first read the story at the 2004 Conference as part of the Friday night People’s Choice Prose competition.  (Technically, the anniversary happened on July 9, as that was the date of the Friday night of the conference in 2004, but you get what I’m saying.)  The story then wound up winning first place for that night, as judged by the attendees of the event, as well as the other participants.  (No, I did not vote for my own short story.  I voted for Jann Hoke’s short story, because it was very funny.  She took second place that year, but I would have been happy to be second to her first had the voting gone that way.)  It’s a story that lends itself to a short reading time, which for People’s Choice is a 5 minute limit.  Currently it’s about a six minute read, but back in 2004 the whole story still fit on one piece of paper.

Go read the story or listen to the podcast before proceeding, because here there be some spoilers.  I’ll wait.

Okay, you back?

Much like the character in “Nigh” I spent a lot of time thinking about the End of the World (in caps) as a kid.  It used to really bother me, because from what every TV preacher (as well as a number of preachers in churches I attended) said, the End was just around the next curve in the road and we were barreling toward it in a custom van with flames painted on the sides. It was a foregone conclusion.  Why else would The Omen have made so much money in theaters?  The math I didn’t do then, and which not enough people do even today, is that the end of the world has ALWAYS been just around the next curve, and people have been making that claim for thousands of years.  This was first pointed out to me by my grandmother, who had heard tent revival preachers say “The End is Nigh” when she was a little girl, World War I was in full swing, and things looked very much like it was lining up that way.  However, with folks like Hal Lindsey walking the earth, publishing titles such as The 1980s Countdown to Armageddon, things seemed a bit grim to me during the actual 1980s. There was also the matter of some kid at school who had said he’d been told that Nostradamus had predicted that the world would end sometime between 1990 and 1996.  Somehow that prediction-via-game-of-telephone seemed more real to me than a thousand books saying otherwise and I took it as gospel that Nostradamus (a man that kid at school also said had never ever been wrong on a single prediction and had not only predicted his own death but when, decades later, church officials had to exhume his body and move it somewhere else, they found a plaque on Nostradamus’s dead-assed chest with that day’s date inscribed on it, in a kind of EFF you from beyond the grave) would not be proven wrong.

After 1996 came and went, I started rethinking where I needed to be burning the most calories in terms of worrying about things beyond my control.  I had long since done the math that the end is always predicted to be around the corner, but it still felt good to know that kid at school had been wrong after all these years.  So jaded was I to any predictions of doom and gloom that I hardly batted an eye at the whole Y2K thing.  Most predictions of doom and gloom are made to sell newspapers and feed the 24 hour news culture we now find ourselves in.  Not to say that bad shit can’t happen, but 9 times out of 10 it does not.  And when it does, you’re usually blindsided by it anyway.

So with that background understood, writing about the end of the world was no problem.  The base idea behind “Nigh” occurred to me sometime in the late 1990s and I wrote it down in my writer’s notebook (or the file ideas.doc in my creative directory, as the case may be).  The gist of the idea stemmed from the Bible verse mentioned in the story, Mark 13:32, which says on the subject of the end of the world: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  It was a verse that had been cited to me by my father when I, in the 7th and 8th grade, would be in the doldrums of depression over the idea that the world was about to end, or the Russians were going to nuke us, or that I would be swallowed up by an earthquake when the New Madrid fault burst.  I don’t know if it made me feel any better, but he said it a lot.

What occurred to me about the verse, though, was that it would be semi-logical for a character to use it as a Biblical legal loophole.  The character would assume that God, in his wisdom, would never allow the end of the world to happen on a date that some Joe Average human had predicted it to fall upon, and so that character, noticing the signs and portents of the world around him, might decide to take it upon himself to prevent the end of the world by… on a daily basis… publicly predicting that the world will end… tomorrow.  I figured he would even have a yellow The End is Nigh sign, as well, in homage to a certain character from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ The Watchmen.  And that’s about all the idea I had for quite a while.  I didn’t do anything with it.  I just had it saved in my ideas file and there it sat, waiting for me to pick up the gumption to do something with it.  I knew it was a good idea, I just didn’t know how to frame it.  It didn’t seem like something that could support a ten page short story.

Now, I don’t think I’d even heard the term Flash Fiction when I first decided to write the story in 2002.  I knew that short short fiction existed, but I don’t think I’d heard the term flash fiction until around 2005.  But I was inspired by Neil Gaiman to write something very short.  He had, after all, written brilliant 100 word short story “Nicholas Was…” as an exercise in writing story that could fit on a Christmas card.  I didn’t think I could do the 100 word story, but surely I could fit one onto a single page?

With this in mind, in 2002 I issued the challenge of writing a one page short story to some writer friends and gave us a deadline in a couple of weeks.  I then began looking in my ideas file for something that might fit the bill and found again my idea beneath the heading of “The End is Nigh.”

After thinking about it a bit, I supposed that if a man (Mr. Daniels, to borrow the name of a prophet) was going to forestall the end of the world by predicting it would come tomorrow, everyday, then eventually someone out there was going to take notice–someone who might not want the end forestalled.  I also thought it would be neat if someone was there who would come to understand what Mr. Daniels was doing, who might then realize the gravity of the situation and set out to take his place.  And it also occurred to me that it would be funny if the end of the world began at a Starbucks.

The original version of “Nigh” fit on one sheet of paper, single-spaced, with one line for the title and byline and one line for “the End.” Everything in between was story. My writer friends liked it, gave me some critiques and I polished it up, still keeping it on the one page.  This is the page that I took to my first WV Writers conference a couple of years later.

After my win, I expanded the story, not only in line spacing but also in detail, adding more sensory details and the like.  This I did not only to try and improve it, but also because I wanted to submit it to an anthology called Dark Tales of Terror, which paid by the word.  It still topped out at two and a half 1.5 spaced pages, though, because it just doesn’t need more.  It was accepted for the anthology and saw print in Dark Tales of Terror, published by Woodland Press in 2010.

If I’m ever asked questions about the story, the question most folks want to know is the identity of the driver of the Infiniti. There are a handful of logical beings that might fit the bill, from God to the Devil to points in between.  However, it’s a question that I never ever answer directly.  I know who it is, and there are hints to be found (not only in “Nigh” but in another story within the collection), but if you take “Nigh” as a self-contained story, me answering that question could negate the assumption of the character’s identity on the part of the person asking the question.  Their version of the story might be better for them than the one I intended.  (Or, they might be right on the money.)

Then there’s the story of the time “Nigh” was optioned for a film…



Reviews and more Reviews!

The book has received two glowing reviews in the past couple of weeks.

A brand new review, posted just today, is from the Unlimited Book Reviews blog.  I’m frankly lucky to have had my book reviewed by Ingeious Cat at all, for she does not dig on the horror.  Fortunately, my characters and funny won out in the end.  She does a lot of reviews of ebooks and beyond and offers a free update service to let you know when new reviews are posted, which is how I saw my review when it arrived.  Thanks much I.C.!

And a review that I mentioned on the A Consternation of Monsters Facebook page, but somehow neglected to mention here, is Joey Madia’s amazing review of it at his New Mystics Reviews blog.  What’s impressive to me is that Joey’s review hits mighty close to the target on a few points I intentionally left vague in the stories. For instance, he nails the setting of a story in which the setting is left veiled at best. And the fact that he picked up on Kindred Spirit’s similarity to Ekhart from the 1989 Batman is nigh on the money. (Kin’s look was definitely an inspiration for that character, when that story was first written, in a year way closer to 1989 than to 2015.)  Thanks much, Joey. Glad you liked it.

I can feel… I can feel the urge to buy a Suzanne Vega album!!!!

The lovely Suzanne Vega was in concert recently at Carnegie Hall WV, in Lewisburg.  I have had my ticket in hand for months now because I consider myself a huge Suzanne Vega fan.  However, as the concert drew closer, I began to question my own faithfulness as a fan.

When I was in highschool, I enjoyed Vega’s music on the radio, with her breakout hit “Luka.”  But I have to admit that it probably wasn’t until the remix of “Tom’s Diner” by DNA hit the airwaves that I decided to jump in whole hog and actually buy her album Solitude Standing.  It quickly became a favorite.  I just loved her quiet, sorta smoky voice, and the stories she told.  “Luka” and the original stripped down “Tom’s Diner” were not even my favorite songs on it.  The title track was great, “Gypsy” and “Calypso” beautiful and intriguing.  I was already into bands like 10,000 Maniacs and dipping into R.E.M., but Suzanne Vega quickly became another in the line of gateway drugs into more substantive artists who weren’t just the standard, bubblegum, Debbie Gibson pop.

I managed to miss her next album, Days of Open Hand, on its release, but eventually did pick it up.  The next of her albums I gravitated to, though, was 99.9 F° (1992), was a departure from the style of Solitude, but I got over the more industrial-sounding hump and really started to enjoy it.  Again the title track was a winner, as were Rock in This Pocket and Blood Makes Noise.  At some point I went back and picked up her 1996 debut.

By the time Nine Objects of Desire was released, in 1996, I was in college radio at WMSV at Mississippi State.  At the time, the station was not focused on playing singles, so we could play anything on the album.  Most were sexy gems, made even more enticing to me by her picture on the cover–that red hair against the green of the background and the apple.  So nice.  I loved “Caramel,” “World Before Columbus,” and “Honeymoon Suite” the best.  Her storytelling continued just as complex and concise as always, her voice still slightly smokey.  If I’d known what smooth bourbon was at the time, I might have applied that description, but I was still 15 years away from any kind of appreciation of that.

I graduated in 1996, immediately became very poor, and did not buy a lot of albums for a couple of years.  But I continued to listen to those of hers that I owned, particularly Nine Objects.  I’m a bit strange with music I love, though.  There are a number of cases in my collection where I love a given artist and a given album or albums by them, but am very hesitant to spend a lot of time on newer material by them.  I often still tend to buy their music, but it sometimes take me several listens to really decide if I like an album and if I don’t do that right away then the chances of me doing it at all decrease.  I think it was often easier for me to get into music back in the days of cassettes and CDs, before digital music, where you basically had a physical object sitting around to remind you you hadn’t listened to it yet.  I still buy CDs, but I immediately rip the music and it winds up in the cloud.  I store the CD in a binder sleeve, gut the CD case itself and keep the liner notes in a box with all the others.  Saves space, but makes for a crappy display.  And everything is out of sight, out of mind.  My music listening has dropped off tremendously even though I have every album I own at my fingertips at all times via my computer and my phone.  Irony, no?  Suzanne Vega should write a song about it.

I’m embarrassed to say that I did not do a very good job at at keeping up with new albums.  It’s kind of what happens to some of us who leave our primary music-fandom-formation years.  I did buy 2001’s Songs in Red & Gray at some point, but have no memory of listening to it.  I think I bought it as part of a multi-album purchase and it got put away somewhere safe before getting listened to.

Because of this lack of faithfulnessI was already questioning how big a fan I truly was of Suzanne Vega as her concert approached.  She’d released nearly at least as many albums as I already owned since the last album of hers I’d really dug into.  So I was anticipating a concert that could possibly have lots of music I was unfamiliar with.

As I sat in my sixth row seat near the middle of the house, the nice lady next to me said, “So… What song of hers are you most hoping she’ll play?”


I couldn’t even recall the titles of any of her songs.  Oh, sure, I had “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner” easily in hand, but you don’t want to be the guy who says the very VERY obvious answers.

“Wow,” I said.  “Probably something from Nine Objects of Desire.”

“Oh, you really do know her work,” the lady said.  I explained that “Nine Objects” was my favorite album of hers and that my library after that was actually pretty thin. Really, I was just hoping to hear some favorites from across her range.

And we did.

Suzanne Vega gave a lovely concert, a nice mixture of new and old with, naturally, more emphasis on the older songs, going back to even her debut album.  However, the ones she noted were fairly new were excellent.  She was charming and full of stories about the origins of some of the music.  Her voice was every bit as gorgeous as when I first heard her in the late `80s.

After intermission, she returned to sing more familiar tunes and a few ones from older albums I owned but which I had forgotten.  Toward the end, she thanked everyone in her crew, and the venue, and then began her big hit “Luka.”  I had to force myself not to sing along with her, as I have hundreds of times on that song before. Then, at the end of the chorus after the second verse, she was about to head into the third verse then, just as she reached the place where she was supposed to come in… didn’t.  She continued to play, as did her electric guitarist (Gerry Leonard, who was a badass), but looked a little thoughtful as she did.  Then she smiled and said, “I just sang the third verse in place of the second. And now I’m trying to remember the lyrics to the second verse.”  She kept playing as the audience began to chuckle.  “`Yes, I think I’m okay’ … no, I sang that,” she said.

“Maybe it’s because I’m clumsy!” I called out in a loud voice from the sixth row.

“`I think it’s because I’m clumsy,'” she said, correcting my paraphrase.  “That’s it.”  And then, with perfect timing, as she’d reached the entrance to the verse in what she was playing, she instantly began singing, “`I think it’s because I’m clumsy, I try not to talk to loud…'”

I beamed from my seat.  That might have just made my year.

Thinking about it in the minutes that followed, I felt grateful to have witnessed a quirk of memory that plagues great performers like Suzanne Vega and those of us on my much lower performing level as well. You might have sung a particular song thousands of times, more than any other song you’ve ever sung in your whole life, and know it by muscle memory.  However, muscle memory can occasionally develop a cramp–especially if you get the elements of that memory out of the order your muscle has memorized it by.

Afterward, I stood in line for an autograph on her CD from last year, Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles.  I thought of lots of things to ask her and tried to winnow this down to something memorable and short, since it was already after 10p.  When I reached the front of the line, I passed her my CD and said, “Hi.  I was your prompter.”  Then, thinking she might have been bummed out by it, I added, “Sorry.”

“No, no,” she said with the most genuine smile. “I actually love it when people help like that.”

And then, just like that, all the additional stuff I had thought to say to Suzanne Vega, back when I was standing in line, was no longer in my memory. Instead, I thanked her, told her the concert was lovely and then slipped away into the night.

The album is very good.  True to Suzanne Vega form.


Quentin Tarantino Vs. Jack London (Part 3)

As promised, here is the original draft of the story that became “Wolves Among Stones at Dusk,” cussin’ and all.  Certain names have been redacted to protect certain contests that are ongoing.

“Wolves and Stones”


Atop the low mesa, in the scorched-orange glow of the setting Arizona sun, a Mexican Gray Wolf paced in frustration.  Few humans have ever seen a member of this rarest of North American species of wolves, fewer still have ever heard one growl, and fewer than that could claim to have heard the gurgle of hunger pangs coming from the stomach of such a creature.  The man seated on the edge of the mesa’s cliff, a few feet away from the wolf, might have been able to accomplish all three of these rare feats, had he only been paying attention.

The wolf eyed the old man silhouetted against the sun.  Even squinting against the light, the wolf could see the long and stringy gray fur of his quarry as it fluttered behind his head in the breeze of dusk.  Similarly caught in the breeze were the strings and ribbons of the torn fabric that still adorned the man’s body.  Dozens of growing shadows also stretched out from the many paw prints the wolf and his pack brothers had left in the dust of the rock shelf over the past months.

The senses of wolves are fine-tuned receptors of many levels of information broadcast by their prey.  They can tell, for instance, when an animal is wounded by the rhythm of its breathing.  They can savor the delicious smell of fear and know from it precisely when their prey is about to bolt.  The old man, however, gave off little information, which was frustrating, for the wolf.  He may as well have been concentrating his senses on a blank patch of air for all the good it did to turn them on the old man’s body.  The man’s smoky blue eyes—which were on some days closed, but more often, as they were now, merely narrowed—remained focused on some place in the far distance, motionless and with no indication of internal activity.  The only emotion any of his pack brothers had ever been able to sense from the old man was an occasional flicker of deepest regret.  And, as this was an emotion alien to wolves of any species, neither he nor his brothers we able to recognize it as significant.  The man appeared much as other gray-furred humans did when they neared the end of their lives.  However, there was something about him that made the wolf certain this human was far older than he appeared.  The wolf could smell the old man’s blood—even beneath the layers of grit that coated his pale skin, but its flow was almost imperceptible.  The wolf listened.  After nearly a minute, he heard the beat of the man’s heart, the stir of his blood, and then silence once more.  Instinctively, the wolf knew this was wrong, for animals and humans were creatures of blood, even those foolish enough to stray into this place of heat and dust.  Blood was their essence and their life—both of which were the wolves’ right to take as they pleased, or as they dared.  A creature whose life did not flow even as fast as that of the hated greenshells was not a natural creature.  However, as the wolf had long ago reasoned, it was still blood.  This old man—whose blood refused to flow properly, whose skin refused to rend beneath fang, whose bones refused to break when, in impotent rage, he and his pack brothers had toppled the man’s body from the edge of the cliff—was a continuing puzzle in the wolf’s mind.  His pack brothers had all but given up, but the puzzle was what brought the wolf back to this mesa nearly every day.  His own chipped teeth served as an ever-present reminder that this stone-like man had not yet been caught, despite the fact that he had also never fled.

Padding two steps closer across the still scorching surface of the dusty mesa, the wolf allowed himself a whine of irritation.  His impulse was to rush at the man, to bound off of the muscles of his back and send his body over the edge again.  At barely seven cactuses in height it was not a long fall to the desert floor.  To investigate the fallen form, though, would have required a journey back along the mesa, to where the treacherously steep and rocky terrain gave way to a more easily traversable slope down to the desert floor.  Despite making that same journey many times, he knew that it would be a fruitless waste of previous energy.  And, as always, he would only find the old man at the foot of the mesa, his body still bent in its seated position, unharmed save for fresh rips in the fabric covering his body.  And there the old man might remain undisturbed for days, or even weeks until it would one day be found seated again on the edge of the mesa’s cliff, eyes staring into the distance, face timeworn like that of the mesa itself.  None of the wolf’s pack brothers had ever observed the man making the return journey to his perch, nor had any of them ever seen an indication of movement from him.  But clearly he did move when it suited him to do so.  Fungus, one of his pack brothers, claimed to have once seen an old woman on the mesa as well.  He claimed she had emerged from a wooden cave in the air and had carried a shiny stick.  She had screamed noises at the old man for some time, but even then he did not move and the old woman returned to her wooden cave in the air and closed its door.  None of the other pack brothers had witnessed this, none of them had seen the wooden cave, and none of them would admit that they did not know what a wooden cave looked like let alone how it came to be in the air.  Fungus was crazy.

The wolf remained seated a few tail lengths distance from the old man and waited as the evening slowly grew darker.  Prey of a more animated nature would be stirring before long and the wolf knew that his hunger would soon be sated.

In the distance, across the dry lake bed overlooked by the mesa, there came a humming, growling sound.  Within a short time, two lights appeared to accompany the sound and the wolf knew that this signaled the approach of one of the long, armored, round-legged beasts that had been tamed by the humans.  The wolf had seen such beasts before, but their territory was usually limited to the long gray stretches of flat rock the humans had arranged on the far side of the lakebed.  On occasion, however, the humans and their beasts had strayed into his pack’s territory.  The wolf knew that he must be on his guard for moving humans were less predictable than the still old man.

As the long beast came closer, the wolf could see that it was black and with two fins at its rear, much like the creatures he had seen rushing through the distant rivers in the rainy season.  It stopped moving some distance from the foot of the mesa, perhaps not wishing to venture close to some of the larger rocks that had fallen from its face.  The beast stopped growling, but light continued to pour from its eyes.  Presently the black armored sides of the beast opened, causing a low buzzing sound that only ceased when the humans had emerged from the beast and again closed its sides.  The wolf could at once smell their sweat and then their blood.  It was pumping just fine.  Then the humans began to make their usual noises.

“You have got to get a new ride, man!” one of them said, striking the side of the beast with his foot.  The wolf observed that the man’s lanky form might lend itself to swiftness.

“I said I was sorry,” the other one bellowed.  He was taller and stouter than the lanky man.  The wolf didn’t understand him either, but thought the big man could prove to be a powerful, but slow opponent.

“No A/C, broken window crank… It’s like an oven in there!  Probably cooler in the damn trunk.”

“If I’d known we were coming all the way out here, I would’ve borrowed a different car,” the bigger man said.  “Maybe Donny’s new one.”

“That hatchback piece of shit?  What an asshole!”

“Hey, he got a great deal on it.”

“I don’t care if he got it for free,” the lanky man said.  “It’s still a hatchback piece of Japanese shit and Donny’s an asshole for buying it.”

The wolf felt a flash of anger from the big man, but it quickly subsided.  “Don’t worry about it,” he said.  “It’ll get plenty cool here once it’s all the way night.  We could probably just leave him and go.  He’d be froze by morning.”

“We’ll leave him, all right,” the lanky man said.  The man then reached into his clothing and produced a small white stick.  His paw then seemed to catch fire and he touched the tip of the stick into the flames until smoke began to puff from his mouth.

“Let’s do this,” the lanky man said.

From his perch on the mesa, the wolf watched as the two men walked to the rear of their beast to open what must have been its armored, flat tail.

“Oh, look.  He’s awake,” the lanky man said.  “Get him out of there.”

The bigger man reached into the rear of the beast and, with some effort, withdrew from it another human.  For a moment, the wolf entertained the notion that the humans were born from their armored beasts.  But then he became distracted by the new sensory combination of sweat, blood and, most deliciously, fear, as the newly born man was dropped to the ground.  It took a moment to see the new man clearly, but his top legs appeared to be bound behind his back and his lower legs bound at the ankle.  The bound man smelled younger than the first two men, scarcely older than a pup, but he wasn’t a small man either.  Another growl of hunger escaped from the stomach of the wolf and he padded closer to the edge of the cliff, watching as the big man looped his paws into the pits of the bound man’s top legs and pulled him along the desert floor and into the light of the beast’s eyes.  The lanky man followed and propped one of his leather-covered lower paws onto the beast’s lip.

“Hiya, (NAME REDACTED),” the lanky man said, puffing out his smoke.  “Welcome to the desert.”

The bound man made noises, but his jaws were covered by something.

“What’s that?  You don’t like it out here?” the lanky man said.  He laughed.  “Aww.  Ain’t that sad, Mike? (NAME REDACTED) comes out all the way out from the East Coast and he doesn’t want to see the sights.”

The big man gave a chuckle.  “Yeah, it’s a… it’s a real shame.”

The lanky man leaned down over the prone, bound man and began making louder sounds.  “It is a shame.  Cause if (NAME REDACTED) didn’t want to see the desert, all he had to do was stay home in the first place.  Right, (NAME REDACTED)?”

The bound man made an aggressive sound from beneath his mouth covering.  The lanky man flashed with anger and struck out with one of his lower paws, connecting with the bound man’s midsection.  This elicited a muffled groan of pain.

“No, if he’d just stayed home and played in his own sandbox, we wouldn’t have had any reason to give him a ride to ours.”

The bound man made more muffled noises.

“Oh, look there, Mike!  I think (NAME REDACTED)’s starting to see the light.”

The big man laughed, but he smelled nervous.

“What is it they say about hindsight, Mike?”

“Um,” the big man said.  There was a long pause.  “It’s good to have?”

“That’s right,” the lanky man said.  “It’s good to have.”  He then reached one of his paws into the back of his leg-coverings and returned with something heavy and black.  “Trouble is, it’s only useful to have it if you’re still around to learn a lesson from it afterward.”

The bound man instantly began making louder, more frantic sounds.  His heart was racing.  Fear was pouring out of him, causing the wolf’s mouth to water.  He wished his pack brothers were near.  Together, they might have a chance of catching at least two of these men before any of them could hide in the guts of their armored beast.  After frustrated months of wondering what an easy human meal might taste like, this opportunity was tantalizing.

“Sorry, (NAME REDACTED),” the lanky man said over the cries of the bound man.  “Some mistakes you only get to make once.  If it’s worth anything to you, though, we’ll be sure to send (OTHER NAME REDACTED) a condolence card for you.”

The bound man’s body thrashed, striking out with one of his back legs, which had apparently come free of its binding.  The lanky man dodged out of the way, scarcely avoiding the strike and the bound man’s foot connected with the lip of the beast instead with a thunk.  The armored beast did not cry out.

“I told you to tie him good!” the lanky man screamed, his fire stick falling from his mouth.

“I did!” the big man shouted.  Anger.  Nerves.  Fear.

The wolf now stood at the very edge of the cliff.  He could see the bound man still thrashing on the ground, rolling partially out of the beast’s eye lights.  If it were half an hour later, he would have rolled into pitch blackness, but in the twilight he could still be seen even by the humans.  The wolf could smell the sweat and dirt that now caked the man’s face, could practically see the blood roiling beneath the thin skin of his neck.  He longed to sink his teeth into that neck.  Without his pack, though, he did not dare move.  For now, he would simply stay upon the mesa, next to the stone-like old man, and watch.

The lanky man shouted below and waved his heavy black thing some more until the big man seemed to find his motion.  He stepped around the edge of the armored beast, leaned over and struck out with a clenched paw.  The motion wasn’t precisely quick, but it was powerful enough to still the movements of the bound man.  The wolf could smell urine almost immediately, but the bound man’s heart was still beating strong.

“Where’s the rope?” the big man said.

“Fuck the rope.  Just do him.”

The big man looked down at the bound man.  “W-what?” he said.

The lanky man bore his teeth.  The wolf could smell firestick smoke and onions on his breath—pathetic plant-eaters.  “We didn’t drag him out here to play dress up, Mike.  Do him.”

“But I… I don’t want—” the big man said.  The wolf could feel the pulsing of his nerves.

“You’re doing this,” the lanky man said.  “If you want to keep working for Lance, you’re going to have to prove yourself useful.  He knows you’re good for fist work, but he says you ain’t got the stones for nothing else.  I’m the one that set him straight about that.  Got it?”  The lanky man turned the heavy black thing over in his paw and held it out to the big man.  “Do it.”

That was when a rock fell from the upper face of the mesa.  It fell five cactus heights before impacting noisily against the slight slope of the otherwise almost vertical face of the mesa.  The wolf didn’t know if his own weight had caused it to fall, but he could see that it had drawn the attention of the men on the desert floor.  They had turned toward the sound and were holding their paws up to block the glare from the armored beast.  While the sun had already set, the wolf knew there was possibly still enough light for even the humans to make out his shape and that of the old man.  The wolf stood his ground.

“Something’s up there,” the lanky man said after a time.

The lanky man moved to the rear of the armored beast and reached inside its still open rectum.  He brought out another stick, the end of which burst into light, and turned its beam in the direction of the mesa until it found its target, shining directly onto the old man’s glass-eyed staring face.

“It’s a dude,” the big man said.

The wolf drew away from the beam, but his movement must have been noticed, for the light quickly flicked into his eyes.

“It’s a dude and his dog,” the lanky man said. “Probably some Indian off the reservation, or something.  Probably drunk.”

“But he might have seen us,” the big man said.

“Yeah.  No shit.”

The light flicked back onto the old man’s face and remained there as the lanky man walked forward toward the cliff face.

“Hey!  Hey, mister?  Nice night for a walk, huh?” the lanky man said, bringing the heavy black thing up just behind his light stick.  “We’re just out here, playing a trick on this friend of ours.  You want to come down and see?”  The lanky man paused for a moment, watching.

“He ain’t moving, Tito,” the big man said.  “You sure he ain’t dead?”

“He’s got a dog,” the lanky man said, moving again toward the face of the mesa.  Then he tripped over one of the many loose stones in plentiful supply near the foot of the mesa and stumbled forward, flailing his top legs to keep his balance.  His light flickered down for a moment to check his footing, but returned quickly to the wolf’s face and then the old man’s.

“Got some primo whiskey in the car, man.  Firewater?”

“What are you doing?” the big man said from where he remained near their beast.  The lanky man stopped moving and seethed, but didn’t shift the light from the old man’s face.

“I’m just coming over to invite our new buddy up there to play a little game with us.”

“A game?”

“Yeah,” the lanky man said.  “That’s right, Buddy.  Play a game with us.  Your doggie can play, too.”  The lanky man again raised the heavy black thing behind his light.  “I like to call this game, `Target Practice,’” he said.

The black thing spat out three bursts of fire that were louder than thunderclaps.  The wolf dropped into a startled crouch, but had already felt the vibrations as two of the fire bursts struck the face of the mesa below, sending more rock raining down.  The third struck the old man’s knee, rocking him on his perch, but doing no damage.  Even the cloth covering of the man’s legs was untouched, for it had been torn away during the old man’s many tumbles from the rock at the hands of his pack brothers.

Carefully, the wolf raised his head to see over the cliff.  The lanky man was covering his face with one of his top legs against the shower of rock chips. Then his light shone again across the old man’s unchanged face.

“Did I hit him?”

“I… I dunno,” the big man said.  The wolf could smell the big man’s fear nearly as strongly as that of the bound man before.  And beyond the edge of the armored beast, the wolf could hear a low moaning from where the bound man lay.

The lanky man lifted the heavy black thing and it spat another burst of fire and noise.  This time the thunder burst struck the old man on the chin and flew off into the sky.

“He moved!  I saw him move!” the big man called.  Indeed, the wolf saw that the old man had been rocked back from the force of the burst, balanced momentarily on the pivot of his rear.  Then he fell forward again into his seated position. Other than a small spot where the fire blast had chipped away some of the crust of sand and dust on the old man’s chin, though, there was no sign that he’d been struck at all.

“Goddammit!” the lanky man shouted.  “How am I missing?  He’s only like 50 feet away!”

“I seen him move,” the big man called again.

“He ought to be running,” the lanky man said.  “This old fuck’s either dead drunk or dead stupid.”

The wolf peered over the edge of the cliff, but was hit by the beam of light and jerked his head back.  Another thunder burst sounded, sending up a blast of rocks from the edge of the cliff where the wolf’s head had been moments before.  Then another burst followed, this one bouncing off the old man’s shoulder, spinning his body around slightly until his bent knees caught on the edge of the cliff.

“Son of a bitch!” the lanky man screamed.  The light beam danced frantically across the old man’s front.  There then followed a loud click and an angry cry from the lanky man.  “Shit!”

The light vanished.  The wolf couldn’t see what was happening below, but from the sound of it he didn’t need to see.  He could hear the lanky man’s pawsteps as he moved back down the slope of the foot of the mesa.

“Bring me the bullets from the map box!” the lanky man screamed.  Even as he was making this noise, though, the wolf could hear the sound of rocks sliding beneath the man’s back paws.  The lanky man’s heart rate increased as he flailed his top legs to compensate.  More stones could be heard sliding as the man scrambled through them, and then there came a shout that ended abruptly as the lanky man’s body struck the rocky slope.  Instantly, the wolf could smell the tangy scent of blood in the air, just as he felt the sharp increase of the man’s body systems reacting to pain.  The wolf’s mouth watered anew and he stepped back to the edge of the cliff.  Now he could see the lanky man below, lying awkwardly on his back amid the rocks.  The light stick had tumbled further down the hill, as had the heavy black thunder-spitter.

“Tito?  Are you okay?” the big man called from near the armored beast.

“My leg… my back… my goddamn leg!” the man moaned between gasps for air.  He tried to bend to reach for his shin—which the wolf could smell as the source of the blood—but the lanky man was scarcely able to raise his own head.  The big man ran toward his fallen friend, but he too tripped on a rock and went flailing through the darkness before regaining his balance.  He reached the light stick and used its beam to guide him to where the lanky man lay.  There followed a long time during which the lanky man screamed a number of times in anger as well as a number of times in agony as the big man attempted to help him to his paws.  They were so engaged in this that neither of them noticed that the bound man had risen to stand upright beyond the armored beast.  Just as the big man was at last able to raise the still howling lanky man to a standing position, the now unbound man pulled open the side of the armored beast, causing the buzzing to return as he climbed into its guts.

“What the hell?” the lanky man shouted.

The beast roared to life, causing its eye lights to blaze even brighter.

“Get him!  Stop him!”

The big man stood still, supporting the lanky man’s weight.

“He’s taking the fucking car!” the lanky man screamed.  “Get him!”

“The gun!  Where’s the gun?!” the big man said.

“Go! Get him!  Just fucking get him! Go! Go!”

The big man let go of the lanky man, who crumbled into a screaming pile.  The wolf then saw the light stick beam darting along the ground as the big man ran through the rocks as best he could toward the armored beast.  It was too late, though.  The unbound man had guided the armored beast to move backward and then to turn its round legs toward the lake bed.  It then leapt forward, bounding smoothly back in the direction of the human’s usual territory—where their hard, gray stretches of land extended from horizon to horizon.  The big man ran after it, but, just as the wolf had suspected earlier, he wasn’t very fast at all.  The light still clutched in his paw, swinging as he moved, the big man continued to run after the armored beast long after the red fin lights and the white light of its still open rectum had vanished.  Then the big man tripped and the light stick dropped and went out.

From his perch on the top of the mesa, the wolf threw back his head and howled.  A moment later, he felt glory at the mixture of pain and terror that exploded from the desert floor below.  In the distance, he heard a return cry and he bounded away to greet his pack brothers and lead them to what might only be their first kill of the night.

Seated on the edge of the cliff, his body cocked at a slightly acute angle, the old man remained, his expressionless, stone-like face staring into the cold desert night.



Copyright 2010-2015 Eric Fritzius, Mister Herman’s Publishing Company.  All rights reserved.

Quentin Tarantino Vs. Jack London (Part 2)

So, like I was saying, “Wolves Among Stones at Dusk” began as a paragraph in my ideas file. And I still have that scrap of an idea, from that file, in its original form, punctuation errors and all. It reads:

A mobster/serial killer brings a new victim out into the desert to kill them. He, unfortunately spies Stone sitting on a cliff in the distance and believes him a witness.   Another character is a coyote with broken teeth, who’s been hanging around Stone’s body for quite some time in the hope he’ll finally be able to eat him. Killer is killed while failing to kill Stone. The coyote gets to eat the killer, to which Stone wakes up and says “Satisfied?”

Right away, those of you who’ve read the story or heard the podcast can tell there are some basic differences between the finished product and the original germ of an idea. For instance, the story’s not called “Coyotes Among Stones at Dusk.” I don’t recall the specific reason for trading out one canid for another, but probably it’s just that wolves make for more traditional predators, and if I was going to have metaphorical predators present in the story as well a wolf would be a better fit. I do recall researching just what sort of wolfy creature might inhabit the deserts of Arizona and came upon the Mexican gray wolf.  Their rarity gave me the opening paragraph to the story, which I rather like.

Another difference is the mention of the character of Stone by name.  That is what the old man seated on the cliff of the mesa in the story is known as.  He’s a character who’s been with me for over 20 years now and he began life in a completely different story that is not included in this collection. As you might have noticed, though, at no point in “Wolves Among Stones at Dusk” is this character named or otherwise explained. All the reader is given is that there’s an old man seated on the edge of a mesa who is clearly alive, but who is also clearly not affected by the desert conditions around him, whose blood does not flow like that of most humans, who only moves when it suits him to, and who is so impervious to physical harm that wolves have chipped their teeth trying to eat him.  (The whole mysterious old man seated in the desert thing, I acknowledge, is very reminiscent to me of a similar character from the aforementioned A Canticle for Leibowitz, though I assure you that while there are similarities, the two characters do not share the same origin and are not of the same religion.)

I know who Stone is, why he’s there, what brought him there, why stuff doesn’t hurt him, etc.  Is it important that the reader know any of it for this story to work, though?  Absolutely not. In fact, I think it’s better for it that they don’t because I’m fine with the old man’s presence being left as a mystery. I like it that he just sits there, as still and timeworn as any of the other stones present.  He never physically moves, but remains a vital moving gear in the mechanics of the story. Without him, this would just have been the story of two criminals executing a third in the desert, as witnessed by a wolf.

And that was the other major reason for keeping Stone’s background details thin.  I was trying to limit the story’s perspective to that of the main character, the wolf, so layering anything else becomes difficult to do. If it is difficult and unnecessary to the story, why try to force it in, I say?

Plus I was plenty busy trying to set up the backstory of the mobsters themselves…

In the original draft of what was then called “Wolves and Stones,” the story’s perspective was still the wolf’s, but I also included written dialogue between the human characters to help explain why they were out in the desert, trying to rid themselves of one of their own (the guy in the trunk). There are some criminal politics at play in this, as well, in that the lanky man is attempting to force the big man into pulling the trigger as part of an initiation, to get in good with their boss. They then spot the old man on the cliff and things proceed. Being two-bit hoods, there’s lots of cussin’ involved, too. Which is partly the reason Belinda described the story as Quentin Tarantino Vs. Jack London.

Belinda is not a fan of cussin’ in her writing.  She doesn’t write about two-bit hoods; she writes poignant stories about small town life—where the politics and emotional turmoil can run just as deep, but tend to happen over bingo cards, and any dead bodies found in car trunks tend to be in cremated form, sealed within a well-burped Tupperware container.   F-bombs are not her bag, and among her initial notes about my first draft, (dutifully turned in by Tuesday evening, midnight) was the comment that perhaps I didn’t need quite so many. In my defense, I only had four, but she thought I might not need any. My argument, which still stands, is that capturing natural-sounding speech is the job of the writer and when writing about men who communicate largely via cursing there was some degree of it to be expected in their depiction. She, of course, understood and even grudgingly agreed. Being a proper lady, though, she still felt the need to encourage me to find creative way to maneuver around the matter.  I bristled at this and resolved to remove not one single f-bomb. I might have even added another one, just for spite.

I tinkered with the story for a bit more, and even submitted it to the Animals category of the 2011 WV Writers Annual Writing Contest. (I actually won 2nd place in that category, but for a different animal story, one called “Native Arts” which eventually became “The Ones that Aren’t Crows,” as found in A Consternation of Monsters–further illustrating how long it takes me to find a proper title.) That’s where I left it.  For a while, at least.

A few years later, after we’d moved back to Greenbrier County,  I was called upon to do a live reading for a local annual literary event and was casting around for a story I’d not already read in a previous year. I had several candidates that had never been read live, but none of them would fit into the 20 minute time limit I was given. Even “Wolves and Stones,” as it was still called, didn’t fit because at 14 pages it would have taken around 28 minutes to read (using my usual estimate of 2 to 2.5 minutes per page). Plus there was all that cussin’, which would have been a bit uncomfortable to read before the standard literary tea crowd.

That’s when I finally decided to answer a question that had come up in my mind during the original writing of the story: if the story was truly told from the wolf’s perspective, and if I really wanted to show events exclusively from the wolf’s point of understanding (cars shown as metal beasts, cigarettes as burning sticks, etc.) how could I then also include English dialogue that he be unable to understand?  Sure, you can’t convey the same level of detail in the backstory of the criminals without it, but if I was creative there would be ways to suggest a lot of it that would not require dialogue.

As an experiment, I went through the story and removed the dialogue. The actions, as witnessed by the wolf, still told most of the story. Explaining every single thing I knew about the backstory was not necessary provided the characters actions could convey most of that story. Sure, you lose the fine details, but you get what’s happening all the same. Furthermore, it cut out around four pages and all the EFFing cussin’ to boot. Suddenly, I had a story I could read.

That night, I explained to the attendees at the reading that my story was still a little experimental, but I was pretty sure they’d be able to keep up. They were. It seemed to go over well.  More tinkering followed until we have what we have.

One thing that I did not find a way to convey in the story, however—and it’s another plot point that isn’t largely important to the story itself—was a way to reveal the identity of the man inside the trunk. I won’t spoil that here—at least not just yet. I will say, though, that he’s a fairly pivotal figure in the connected world of stories within A Consternation of Monsters. In fact, if things had gone differently for him in this story—if he had not lived, for instance—at least half of the other stories in the collection would not have happened at all, or would have happened very differently. In some ways, he’s the lynch pin of the whole collection.

My inclination is to run a contest of some sort, giving away a copy of the book to whoever can successfully put a name to the guy in the trunk. However, I also suspect that not enough people have read the book, and the character does not appear in any of the podcast adaptations so far, beyond “Wolves…” So it would be one of my friends who would win—and probably one who read the first draft to begin with. I hate to not do a contest, though.

Tell ya what…. Go read the interview I did over at the Inspiration for Writers blog. I’m giving away a free book there and it’s far easier to qualify for than reading a whole book. Go read to the end and you’ll find out how.

But, if someone who has read the book wants to drop me a line with a guess as to whom is in the trunk, I’ll come up with a suitable prize for the first person who gets it right. Might be a free story. Might be something I mail you. Might be that person’s name written into a new story. It’ll be fun.  Send in your guesses to

I guess, though, this means I’ll have to redact the actual character’s name when I post the draft of “Wolves & Stones” complete with dialogue in part 3 on Monday.

The other thing that occurred to me about the origins of the story itself is that they owe a great deal to a comic book short story by Paul Chadwick, featuring his character Concrete.  For those who don’t know (and shame on you for not), Concrete is a comic book that first saw publication in 1986, featuring a character named Ronald Lithgow, a former political speech writer for a senator, whose brain is transplanted, by aliens, into a gigantic rock body.  He escapes them they flee the planet with his old body, and he’s basically left to start his life over again in this new and amazing form.  Naturally, you probably assume he becomes a super hero and starts fighting crime.  But he doesn’t.  That’s not Ron.  Instead, he basically becomes a celebrity by default, because in order to live among regular people the government concocts a cover-story that Concrete is a government-created cyborg.  He instantly becomes a celebrity, gets his 15 minutes of fame, then the world moves on to the next big thing in pop culture and Ron is left to figure out what to do with the rest of his life, with his newfound abilities.

During one particular story, Concrete spends the night in a desert, watching the animal life around him using his enhanced vision.  At one point in the story, a car arrives and a man gets out and goes to the trunk of the car.  The man pulls a large bag from the trunk, of the size and weight that might contain a body.  Concrete assumes this man has murdered someone and is about to dump the corpse.  He wonders what he should do.  Only when he investigates, he finds that what the man is truly dumping is not a body but a giant bag of junk food.

I can’t help but think that this story influenced my own back when I wrote the original note in my ideas file.  I doubt I knew it at the time, but the fact that Concrete is stone-like, and Stone is similarly tough to kill, had to be a factor in there, at least subconsciously.  That and the potential killer/actual killers are the only points the story shares otherwise.  However, the original image I saw in my head that inspired the story in the first place was of Stone seated on a very similar desert hillside to the one Concrete sat upon, at night, only with a coyote seated beside him with a mouthful of broken teeth.

(If you’ve not done so already, you should read some Concrete.  The entire run has been collected into a series of nifty paperbacks.  Or you can track down the mini-series collections, some of which are in color.  I prefer Chadwick’s art in black & white, though.)

As for my original ending, Stone didn’t get to wake up and speak, as I’d intended.  He just didn’t want to when I reached that part.  I’m always a firm believer in listening to what the story and its characters are telling you.  They’re not often wrong.


Quentin Tarantino Vs. Jack London (Part 1)

Titles are tricky.  Sometimes they suggest themselves immediately.  In fact, sometimes—though rarely—they can be in place before the story is even written (as was the case for “The Hocco Makes the Echo”).

It took me a very long time to come up with a satisfactory title for my story “Wolves Among Stones at Dusk,” though.  For a long time this story was just called “Wolves and Stones,” which I was not a fan of, but couldn’t think of anything better.  My writing mentor, Belinda Anderson, suggested I call it “Quentin Tarantino Vs. Jack London” because of the whole mobsters vs. canines angle.  I liked this a lot, though I had to amend the suggestion to what I felt was a more accurate title: “Quentin Tarantino Fights Jack London (while Walter M. Miller, Jr. watches).”  If you’ve read some Jack London, and Miller’s grand post-apocolyptic epic A Canticle for Leibowitz, and then watch Reservoir Dogs, and then squint really hard, you might be able to see what I’m talking about.  Or maybe it’s just me.

While the above title might have been accurate, it still didn’t feel like a proper fit.  The final title came when I was assembling this collection.  I just sat down, stared at my screen, and refused to move until I could think of something better.  “Wolves Among Stones at Dusk” popped in a few minutes later and it works for me.   It’s a very Neil Gaimany-sounding title, which is always a good thing in my book.

The origin of the story, though, is a longer journey that also involves Belinda Anderson.  One of the reasons she’s my writing mentor is because for many years she taught a twice-annually, eight-week writing workshop.  The workshops would be one night a week, sometimes weekly, sometimes bi-weekly, and I took every one of them I could.  Even after my wife and I moved an hour and a half away to Princeton, I still made the journey back.  Eventually, though, schedules of the participants no longer meshed and the workshop came to an end.  I was lamenting this to her on the phone one day.  I told her my writing output had suffered because I work best with a deadline.  Her classes guaranteed me at least one story per 8 week workshop.

“Okay,” she said.  “I want 5,000 words by Tuesday.”

“Um, do what?”

“You heard me. Deadline,  Tuesday, 5,000 words.  Get to it.”

“Yeah, um…. Okay.”

This was on a Friday.  I’ve produced more writing in less time, but usually only with a plan already in place.  Coming up with a story from scratch in that time would be a stretch, so I decided to consult my Writer’s Notebook.

Like many writers (the good ones, I’m told) I keep a notebook for ideas, plots, characters, TITLES, and whatall.   Okay, that’s sort of a lie.  These days I keep an Evernote file in my phone.   And rarely have my Writer’s Notebooks actually been physical notebooks.  Usually the ideas would start as notes jotted on napkins, receipts and scratch paper from the library, gathered in a pile on my desk and eventually transferred into an IDEAS file in my computer.  A number of my short stories have started this way, but I believe only two from A Consternation of Monsters qualify: “Nigh” and “Wolves Among Stones at Dusk.”

Once again, it is probably helpful if you’ve read this story before proceeding, as many spoilers will follow.  However, you can hear the whole story for free by checking out the Consternation of Monsters podcast page, which features an audio adaptation of “Wolves…”

Go and listen to it now, then come back here for part 2.  I’ll wait.


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