Regrets and Regressions (Time Traveler Series, Vol. II)

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Falling Through Time (oil on board, 8×6″), cover image for “Regrets and Regressions”.

Judy and I have been working on a sequel to “A Narrow Slice of Time” over the past year.  This new novel is another time travel adventure, but has a modern noir atmosphere.  It features characters from the first book, mainly employees of GURUTECH.

GURUTECH is a time travel company founded by physicists and monks from Kerala, India.  It’s stated mission is:  “Changing the past to make a better future.”

One of the protagonists, a dive bar singer, takes a trip to a moment in his past to make one small change.  Vincent Garber succeeds in radically altering the course of his personal history, but his new life brings him confusion and even greater difficulties.  His troubles spread to GURUTECH, and it becomes apparent to everyone involved that the survival of the company rests on answering one question:  what kind of man is Vincent  Garber?

I’ve just completed the third round of edits and rewrites and am ready to upload it, per Judy’s final approval, to Amazon.  We’ll get a dummy book printed for one final editing run, and then we’ll put it up for sale.

Now that’s it’s nearly finished, I get an odd feeling akin to the emotion of sending a child off to college.  Freedom looms, but I’m not quite sure what to do with myself now that this responsibility is over.

The tentative title is, “Regrets and Regressions”.  Below is a sample from the third chapter.

Then there was blackness. A sliver of light appeared in the far distance and he began to rush toward it. The sliver grew larger and brighter as he approached. He shot through its center and began to spiral down to a green and blue planet, to America, to Pennsylvania, and his feet touched the earth in a small wood. He could see the back of Granny Florence’s house in a clearing directly ahead of him.

He skirted her yard and trotted to the country road that ran in front of her house. There was a filling station with a phone booth on the opposite side. He crossed over and pulled the doors shut on the booth, fished a quarter out of his pocket and called the fire department in Reading.

“Yeah, I saw a leak in a pipe coming out of a storage tank at the BrassTech foundry, the one south of town along the Schuylkill River. Yeah. I called them, but they told me to mind my own business. There’s a pool forming—it’s yellowish orange—Yeah. It’s gonna run down into the Schuylkill if the leak isn’t plugged. My name? Hey, I’m an employee there. I need the job. Yeah, well, if you need a name for your form, call me Chuck Bupkis. That’s right. Don’t get mad at me. Do something about that spill before it’s too late. Gotta go. It’s been swell.”

Vincent hung up and stood by the road. The house looked deserted, but he knew his granny was inside. He crossed back over, but no one answered when he lightly rapped on the aluminum frame of the screen door. He heard snoring inside.

Granny lay on a couch in the back parlor, a scarf wrapped around her silver hair. She wore a summer shift printed with yellow daisies, saddle shoes and white socks. A rivulet of drool eased from the corner of her mouth, and Vincent was shocked by the plainness of her face, the lumpiness of her body, the fragility of her bony arms and birdy legs. And he realized that his sweet memories of her were based on her warm smile and the tenderness of her hugs.

He had told the monks that he was going back to warn her that her young grandson would grow up to become a brat, a little punk who needed careful supervision. Vincent would quote Bible passages and pretend to be a preacher who had the gift of spiritual insight. He would prove his abilities by predicting that she would break her ankle going down the icy front steps of her porch the coming February, and that young Lester would stop stuttering once he entered the third grade. When those events transpired she would believe his prophecies and take care to keep her charge close at hand when he turned fourteen.
But he had no intention of doing that. He wasn’t sure if that would work, or if the old woman would be capable of remaining vigilant long enough to prevent him from running off to Philly. No, he’d have to go to the source.

He found seven year old Lester Fenstermacher playing in a creek near the hen house. The chickens clucked as Vincent passed by, and the scrawny little boy turned to look at him. He had a frog in one hand and a stick in the other, and his calves and feet were smeared with mud. He looked like a hick.

“Whatcha doin’ there, young fella?” Vincent asked the boy.

“G-got me a frog. I’m g-gonna roast it on this stick and eat f-frog legs.”

“D’ya think that Mr. Frog is gonna like that?”

“Tough luck for h-him, good luck for m-me. Who are you? Are you a stra-stra-stranger? I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”

“I’m a ghost. I used to be your Great Uncle Jimmy.”

“You are not. You’re not a ghost. You’re s-solid as a rock.”

“We’ll see about that…I got something important to tell you.”

“What?”

“You gotta stay in school, grow up smart and work hard, and you must never, ever run away from home—especially from your Granny.”

“W-why would I do that? I like Granny.”

“When you turn fourteen you’re gonna be a little fool. Watch yourself. Don’t run away.”

“You’re crazy, mister, and I don’t think that you’re a g-ghost, and you’re not my Great Uncle Jimmy.”

“I look just like Jimmy. Look me up in the family album. You’ll see.”

“No, I won’t!”

A warning buzzer went off at the base of his skull, and Vincent knew he had just a few seconds left. He took a step toward Lester, and Lester backed away. The little boy was getting frightened.

Vincent said, “I’m going to go soon, but there’s one more thing I’m gonna tell you.”

“What?”

“Being a singer sucks.”

“W-what?”

“Show biz is no kind of life,” Vincent said.

“But Granny says she likes my singing. I’m good at it-tit.”

Vincent knelt so that his eyes were level with Lester’s. He said, “Being good at something doesn’t always make you happy. And if you do become a singer, I’m gonna come back and haunt you. You won’t like that.”

Little Lester opened his mouth to argue, but his words caught at the back of his throat. The strange man who claimed to be his dead Uncle Jimmy vanished, but not all at once. At first he shimmered: his skin, hair and clothes became shiny and flexible like clear plastic wrap. Then he became a spectral image that slowly faded in the bright sunlight.

Lester stared at the spot where the ghost had just knelt before him. He was rigid with fright. He dropped frog and stick and walked slowly forward in a daze. He placed his foot inside the shoe print that dead Uncle Jimmy had made in the mud bank, and he began to cry. The frog hopped away.

His Granny Florence called from the house: “Lester? Lester! Where are you boy? It’s time you came in and had your bath. Lester!”

Lester wiped his nose on his sleeve and ran to her.

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Big Two-Fisted Introvert

A recently found story by Ernest P. Hemmingway.

Nick rolled out of bed.  Midmorning light bleached the pattern on his rug.  He tucked in the sheets and plumped the pillow.  It was a good pillow.

Nick brushed his teeth and whizzed, put on a clean white shirt and cargo shorts, and sat down at his computer.  He booted the computer, and it loaded quickly.  His screen saver glowed green, silver and blue.  A trout leaped out of a stream.

Nick wrote a short story about fishing.  He liked to write; he liked to fish.  He never got lonely when he fished.  Nick waved when fishermen passed by in boats, but it was good when they turned a bend.  It was good when they disappeared. The quiet of the river swallowed them.

Nick’s phone rang.  The phone was in the kitchen.  Nick waited until the ringing stopped, and then walked to the kitchen: time to make coffee.  His receiver blinked.  He picked it up.  He checked for messages:  one from mother.  Nick deleted his mother’s message.  He had heard her talk before.  He’d heard enough.

Nick drank the coffee hot and black.  It burned his tongue.  The burn stung.  He wanted to swear, but didn’t.  The phone rang again.  Caller ID said that his mother had dialed his number.  He saw her holding her receiver like a fishing rod.  She would pull him in if he took her bait.  She would ask about last night.  Nick did not answer the phone.

Last night Mother made a meal for him.  She served it on china plates.  The silverware was silver.  Candles lit the room.  They ate roast beef, boiled potatoes and green peas.  The roast beef was dry.

Nick drank too much whiskey.  He often drank too much at Mother’s.  Mother talked.  Mother invited women to dinner, women she wanted him to marry.  Nick did not want to marry.

Nick was not gay.  He liked women when they were quiet.  He liked women who fished.  He liked lying with women on sun baked pine needles on paths in high mountains.  He liked to “make the earth move”.

Last night Miriam talked more than Mother.  She talked about dresses, her hair, an article in a woman’s magazine.  Nick’s finger itched as he ate his food and listened to her talk.  He wanted to kill himself with his shotgun.

He knew that Miriam was not talking about fashion and cosmetics.  She was talking about babies, houses, insurance policies and retirement plans.

Nick did not have a retirement plan.  He did not like babies when they cried.  A man did not need insurance, and died before he retired.  If he grew too old to be a man, he went deep sea fishing in a leaking, rickety boat, he ran with the bulls at Pamplona and let the bulls catch him.

Right now Nick had hunting, fishing, and writing.  He had what he wanted.  He did not want Miriam.

The phone rang again.  Nick went to the case in his study and pulled out his 12 aught shot gun.  He rubbed the steel barrel with an oily rag.  It glistened cold and deadly.  He slotted a shell into the breech.  He walked twenty five steps to his kitchen.  Nick shot his phone.

Nick sat down at his computer.  He poured two shots of whiskey into his coffee mug.  It tasted better that way.  He reread his story.  It was good.  Nick smiled.  He was alone.

 

Reading and Writing: A Growing Addiction

My mother is an obsessive reader.  She finishes every novel she starts even if she despises it after the first few pages.  She used to try to read all the novels in alphabetical order on the shelves of our local library, and succeeded for a short time to escape from the A section.  When she had gone a few books into the Bs, however, she noticed that the library had added new authors in the As, and she returned to them out of some need for literary completion.  She eventually abandoned her quest and began to buy piles of books at a local church festival.  I contributed to her addiction on her birthday, Mother’s Day and on Christmas by sending her novels, memoirs and books on fashion.  Friends and fellow obsessed readers have lent her additional books, and she always has ten or fifteen in her queue.  She’s often said to me that she doesn’t know how some people get along without books.  They are tools of survival for her, and she uses them as escape pods when her life gets difficult.

I read a lot when I was a kid and got the reputation for being a bookish nerd.  I played basketball on our school team in middle school, and was mocked for buying a biography about Connie Hawkins.  My classmates thought that I was trying to learn how to play better by reading instead of practicing.  I had a bookshelf in my room, and when a couple of guys came over for a visit they refused to believe that I owned and had read the fifteen or twenty novels on display.  I didn’t tell them that my Mom and Grandpa Reger had gotten me hooked at an early age on novels by Booth Tarkington, Mark Twain and Kenneth Roberts.  I had read hundreds of books by the time I hit eighth grade.

I’ve been an artist since the 1980s and am thoroughly aware of the ins and outs of creating visual art.  I got used to the mental and physical struggles that came with painting a landscape, a portrait, a still life. One of the plagues of doing such work is that my mind is free to roam at will as I apply my brushstrokes.  Subconscious crap rises to the top while I’m adding layer after layer of paint, and sometimes I’m busy battling enemies from long ago while also trying to figure out the shape and color of a model’s nose.  The background noise gets very loud and disruptive sometimes, and I dread going to my studio on days when I know that I’ve got plenty of mental garbage stored up.  I’ll sift and sort through memories, consider present difficulties, and worry about the future as the painting creeps along to the finishing line.  I’m like a marathon runner dragging bags of sand behind him as he tries to keep moving forward.

I began to write short stories, plays and novels about ten years ago as an alternative means of being creative.  When I’m writing I get lost in a world of imagination.  Characters and scenes take on an intense life in my mind, and there’s no space for my inner demons and trivial concerns to jump out of their hiding places and jabber at me.  For a time I can escape the prison of my preconceptions, obsessions and self-delusion.  I still paint, but can no longer claim that it is my favorite means of self-expression.

I read little when my kids were young, but books have become important to me once again now that I have a bit more free time.  I read a novel and enter a world that is not tainted by me.  I’m choosier than my mother, however, and only stick with novels that feel amenable.  Sometimes the attraction is based on plot, on interesting characters, or on rich language.  I’m a sucker for a redemption story (not religious redemption, but personal redemption) and hate novels that are slow motion train wrecks.  I love “Nobody’s Fool” by Richard Russo.  The main character, Sully, struggles to come to terms with his life and the influence of his abusive father.  He wins out, unexpectedly at the end, over crushing difficulties.  I hate “Children of a Lesser God” by Arundhati Roy.  She telegraphs a tragic ending from nearly the first page, and makes the reader wait a long time until the desperate moment finally arrives.  This book reminds me of childhood visits to a dentist who never used Novocaine.  I had plenty of time to dread the inevitable in Dr. Roley’s waiting room as I listened to a drill drone on and on while his victims whimpered in pain.

I have lots to do in the concrete world around me, and can’t afford to live in the land of imagination constantly.  But there are days when I’m in the middle of an excellent book and it’s difficult to disengage to go to work or do household chores.  I feel like a deep sea diver who must slowly rise to the surface in slow stages.  For ten or fifteen minutes after closing a book I live in a world that’s tinted with the colors and emotions of the printed page.  I see things through an author colored lens.  The full weight of duties and responsibilities eventually presses down on me again, and it’s a sad moment when the glow of an alternative light fades away.