Working with an editor- Outside Perspectives

It’s funny how a little outside perspective is all you need sometimes. It confirms thoughts you had, allays doubts, or just gives a little adjustment to a view you’ve held on to that might be all you need to get over a hurdle you’ve put in your own way.

I’m at the point with “Roads” that I felt I needed that outside perspective, and luckily I know a really great editor and writer– and the choice was easy about WHO to work with. I’ve been following Leigh for years after I stumbled across her blog The Future Is Red I believe it’s offline now). It really spoke to me, as it was about the life change she made and how she and her husband just decided the rat race wasn’t for them. They had sold everything and hit the road traveling with an infant. She understood the wandering spirit, and I knew instinctively she’d like the book and have the insights I needed.

I’m super excited. I feel I’ll have a good first draft by the end of this year, and then it’s time to find a publisher. Finally. After a lot more years than I care to think about. I’m finally ready.

Creative People

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Ira Glass

Government Cheese Moon

The road unfurls at 80 miles per hour (don’t lie, 90) across west Texas. The stars begin to fall, one after another, and the half-eaten moon hangs low and sullen, yellow as government cheese.

After Marfa and the 100 potholes on U.S. 90 beating my tires to death I can see the vivid flashes of lightning in the belly of a massive beast of a storm ahead over Van Horn, billowing unfettered into the upper reaches of the atmosphere. In the inky velveteen blackness I fly past the Prada store and its ironic greenish light stretching toward the empty highway. Consumerism, duly mocked.

We Don’t Rent Pigs

I’ve been at a writer’s retreat in the Big Bend area this week…here’s a little something I worked on as an assignment.

The assignment was to write a non-fiction scene, in the style of a journalism long-form story. This was chosen as a stand out piece of writing to be presented to all attendees and instructors at a reading at the close of the retreat.


Freddy drops a quarter into the parking meter in front of the TV, turns the knob and you can hear it drop and clink with its fellows. The meter is an old-style one with a little gold plate that says “Police Officers Will Not Turn the Knob,” meaning maybe that it was from the day when actual cops had anything to do with parking tickets and people expected that cops should be there to help instead of hinder. The flag inside the glass bulb drops, and Freddy has two hours.

“It’s for Cowboys games, when he tries to come in here and camp out all day,” Harry said in his thick German accent, rolling his eyes. “Nobody wants to hear him going off like that; at least he can pay for it if we have to.” He grins toward Freddy, and you can tell it’s a subject that’s come up through the years over and over. Like the same long Texas evening, like when you step inside this place with the cow bones all over the porch roof, the same day just keeps replaying. Where the fun never stops.

It’s hot and sticky inside even with the swamp cooler and all of the fans blowing at once, kind of like sitting inside someone’s beer-scented mouth while they’re panting and sighing. Outside, a few locals are strumming guitars and a mandolin, taking turns singing and passing the same couple of women around. One has tattoos above her lady business, and cut off shorts and tube top to make sure you can see them – the other wears sweats and no makeup, with tough eyebrows like the cholas I knew in high school. She doesn’t smile.

“It’s 3 to one men to women out here,” the cute brown-skinned female bartender smiles. “I just stopped dating when I moved to Alpine for school.” She flips her short dark bob as she turns to serve another icy Lone Star – (Estrella Sola! The man she’s serving asks her, and she looks at him like he’s asking for Courvoisier. He explains it means the same thing as what she’d been handing him all night, just only in Spanish this time) – Harry leans in and says she does hav e a boyfriend who she doesn’t call her boyfriend. She disappears a little later with the non-boyfriend. 3 to one odds you’ll end up with one of those out here, I figure.

The guy with the gas pipeline company has been kicked out at least once today, but he comes back in and buys the whole bar a round, so they let him stay this time. He’s good and drunk, having a hard time focusing on anything and sweating all the way through his Stetson. He has small eyes, fat pink lips and I don’t like him, partly because he stands with his sweaty arm against me when there’s a whole bar to his left, partly because I’ve heard him talk about the female bartender who threw him out, repeatedly calling her a bitch and whining to anyone he buys a beer for that “she hates me.” I figure she knows him well enough to judge, since Freddy and Harry both say he’s a good guy. You can’t trust what they say, since they’re drinking the beers he just bought. Miller High Life and Natural Light, respectively.

“I raise pheasants, and let ‘em go out here,” says Freddy conversationally. “I just let 20 go in Ft. Davis. I put an ad in the paper in up there to let people know not to shoot them ‘til December. I want to reintroduce them to this part of Texas. Gotta keep the rednecks and Mexicans from shooting them all, though! At least for a while, give ‘em time to breed,” he laughs, rubbing his big belly. “I put the ad in Spanish and English.” He’s Hispanic – about 45, greying, with the body of a long-haul truck driver. He says he’s not bitter about his wife leaving him with their two daughters. But that was 12 years ago and he hasn’t dated much.

“Freddy’s probably the smartest guy in town, even though it doesn’t seem like it,” Harry says to me, keeping up his revelatory side conversation. “He’s just acting dumb.” I’m not sure why Harry’s giving me the inside scoop, maybe to set himself up as the guy who knows everything about everyone. If I lived here, I don’t think I’d tell Harry anything unless I had a reason for piping information into the gossip mill. Just like when someone tells you “Don’t trust so-and-so,” I make it a rule never to trust the speaker of those words.
Scott the pipeline guy oozes back inside to lean against a bar stool next to mine – too much cologne, undertone of sweat, liquor and ready-to-hump. “It’s so dang hot! I can’t stand it,” he complains, trying to get someone to talk to him. He pulls out his phone and sloppily tries to text. I glimpse the screen and two words in his conversation before he makes a “How Dare You” face and slaps it against his chest so I can’t see it. He pouts his lips, playing coy, like, I can’t believe you peeked!

“She fucks,” the text says. Over the bar, a sign says “We Don’t Rent Pigs.”

Mom speaks

My name is Mary Ramsey….Roethle.

Why the pause in your name?

Chuckles. I wanted to make sure Ramsey got in there cuz that’s really who I am. Roethle is you guys’ name.

Why did you take that name?

Cuz I wanted to have the same name you guys had.

Did you ever legally take that name?

Uhh..no. Not really. Kind of. Laughs. Right after I met your dad and he wanted to get married…we just kind of had our own little ceremony. So I took my Ramsey driver’s license…we were living in Prescott, Arizona. And.I was young, and I was….pretty and there was a man in there that was the DMV officer, and I told him that I had just gotten married and I wanted to get a new driver’s license. And he didn’t ask to see any proof. Laughs.

What year was this, do you think?

1:25

Let’s see…met your dad in 78. It was probably around 1980 maybe.

So what was your ceremony like?

Laughs. We were in Las Vegas. We were standing out in front of Circus Circus hotel, just out in front there. And we said a little ceremony to each other, and that was it.

I always hated Circus Circus.

It was a creepy place.

Why did you decide to get married?

Because I loved your dad. I was in love with him. And I was perfectly happy to spend the rest of my life with him. So I thought. At the time.

Things change, huh?

Yeah.

So how old were you, and how old was he?

I met him when I was 20, I was just getting ready to turn 21. And he was 28 or 29.

You guys were young. That’s a lot of years together.

Journal Entry- August 28th, 2011 Fallon, NV

Describing the drive across the Nevada emptiness – something you feel more than think. The comparative busyness of Arizona with its big highways and changeable scenery starts to fade east of Vegas. The bones of the land rise stealthily, underground stone serpents slithering just out of reach of your notice. The shadows become more blue, the sage and scrub brush more pervasive. There are no more trees, as if their entire race was obliterated here. Wait, no, a lonely pair of young cottonwoods have been planted as the wilting guards on either side of the burnt gash of a road leading to the blood-reds and pus-yellows of yet another strip mine. The earth bleeds and cries freely here and there is nothing and no one to comfort her. When there is an end-time, it will mirror this and we can say we saw the portents. Clouds stay high above the flatland, streaming down from a mile overhead, sometimes the rain reaches the ground to be blown violently across the road and fill the washes. The old-timer at the Hard Luck Store in Mina called these “gullywashers.” “We don’t want it to rain too much, not now,” he responded to my “But isn’t this nice?” His bleary blue eyes rolled over me to glare out at the thin freshly-washed strip of blacktop.

The smell of the rain is the smell of the dusty breath of the sagebrush, held for months in anticipation of this brief half-assed blessing. The colors and the light are like nowhere else. It’s as if, in death, the land deserves this heavenly illumination. As if the sky feels sorry for the stones it exposed, and drenches them in forgiving saturated color. If there is a place for the hills to have eyes, it is here. You can feel them on you all the time. You just hope the engine keeps running, and the air conditioner doesn’t give up.

4 p.m.

We just got invited to  a shotgun wedding in the park. She’s about 9 months along, 16 or 17 at the most. I say hell yeah!

Happy One Year of Blog Writing to Me!

Wow, a whole year working on this project! That’s a record for me, and it means there’s something here. I’ve started and let go of a couple of blogs, mostly because they didn’t feel right. I’m not a travel writer, I just love to travel. I only write erotica because it’s easy to publish. My heart wasn’t in those stories because this is the story I’m supposed to be writing now. Finally- it’s been getting in the way of my other projects for so long.

It’s as if we have to get our story out first, our real story, before we can write the made-up stories or the parts of our real stories that turn into fiction. It’s like a small insistent voice at the back of my mind that I was never quite ready to tackle. “Here I am,” it whispers. “Time to tell, time to tell.” Is it like that for you, other writers? Do you have to get things out before other things can start? I’m interested to hear from you.

I am finally ready.

Roads on Her Face #20: Push Came to Shove

There are things I’m still pissed off about years and years after they happened. I wish I could let them go, but even if I laugh them off now they still hang on to the edges of my psyche. The school zone ticket I got after school hours, and the small-town asshole judge that talked with the offending officer about their upcoming fishing trip, after the “trial.” The fat woman who loudly asked what was wrong with my brother’s face, when he got out of the hospital after being wounded in Iraq. The old bag who threatened to call the police in a park somewhere in Idaho, who was sure the ragged little kids on the swing set had to be good-for-nothings.

You have to take a break now and then after hours on the road with kids, and public parks across the states are a quiet place to rest and let them out to run off some energy. Parking lots and rest areas do in a pinch, but green grass, shade, and jungle gyms do a lot to tame the wild beasts.

It was a cloudy day, almost chilly. We must have been headed south, skittering like leaves before a winter storm. We were trying to park overnight, so we had to keep a low profile and not look like we were planning to do what we were planning to do. The kitty was beside the car with her cotton rope leash tied to the side mirror. She lay quietly in the grass, being a smart kitty.

Mom was reading in the car, and Dad was listening to the radio. Sophie was sleeping quietly, and Reno was driving a Matchbox car through the Sahara-like dunes of the sandbox on one side of the playground. Rowdy and I were over by the swings. “Push me!” he called, swinging his legs and looking back at me. From out of nowhere a fat kid with cheeks like biscuits arrived on the scene. He made a beeline for my brother and announced “I wanna swing!” I looked around, and didn’t see any parents.

Shit! I hated confrontation, mostly, though I didn’t avoid or mind the shot of adrenaline that came when you knew you’d have to do something soon. The fatty was way bigger than Rowdy, who was staring up at him in blue-eyed shock. We weren’t used to people arriving on the scene. We didn’t have to talk to other people, and most of the time we weren’t supposed to.  Fatty unceremoniously shoved Rowdy off the swing. OK, time to do something.

I was a lot taller than fatty. You could tell he didn’t often talk to girls, mostly by the cheeks and the small piggy eyes. They glared at me out of his reddening face as I walked right up to him.

“Get away from my brother!” I said, picking Rowdy up and grabbing the swing. “We were here first, go play somewhere else.”

From behind me I heard the war-shriek of Grandma. “You get away from my grandson, I’m going to call the police!”

“Shut up, lady,” I said, the adrenaline showing up. I was talking back to a grownup I didn’t know, and that was a new feeling. I swallowed the lump in my throat and turned to face her. “You can’t do anything about it.” I wanted to tell her how her grandson was fat, and she should make him exercise. Also he was a bully, and that he needed to get his ass kicked. I wanted to tell her that neither she nor he nor anyone else had the right to push us around, but “Shut up” was going to have to do.

Her mouth hung open, and I could see the family resemblance clearly, though she probably hadn’t had as much food as this kid, being raised in the Depression. She hadn’t been spoiled, so she made sure her grandpiggy was. Also I decided it was time to get back, because she had said “police” and Dad would not have taken kindly to anything involving police. Us three little ragamuffins scurried quietly back to the car, flying under the parental radar. My heartbeat slowed, but I never forgot. It was easier to tell people to fuck off after that.

Roads on Her Face #15: Empty Desert Days

I’m from “the road.” It is less a place than it is a feeling, a feeling of shiftlessness, of moorings being loosened and of floating away down a river of concrete, headlights bouncing back at you from the reaching hands of trees and the bones of bushes in stark relief. It is resting your face against the cool glass of a window in the hot of night in the desert, of seeing endless stars float silently above the backs of dark, sullen mountains, the whir of the tires and the warm sleepy feeling in the base of you, where your seat meets the car. It is not knowing where tomorrow is, nor caring when it arrives. But Arizona will do, when I need a place to write in the blank spot on forms that asks for “Place of  Birth.” Lake Havasu City, AZ, I write, and try to recall something about the town. It hides low between hills, cradling the precious water that flows into the big man-made lake as if trying to keep it from the greedy sun. Spring-breakers know it as a good place to get naked and drunk and fall off cliffs, and the guys with the boats far too big for inland lakes like to come and beat up a good wake to make it harder for the water-skiers and wake boarders to have a good time. It’s hot, hotter than death, like the rest of Sonoran Desert. If you go in the summer you’ll want to move directly from your air conditioned car into the bathwater of the Colorado-turned-Lake Havasu. The shores will be lined with people bobbing apple-like and red in the middle of truck tire tubes with cans of beer held just above the water. The tourists will be out snapping pictures of the London Bridge, moved stone-by-stone from London and rebuilt here as a tourist attraction.

That, and my first friend Jacci lives there now with her beautiful family. There’s a Wal-mart and some tourist shops, and lots of trailer parks for the snowbirds. That’s all I know about the place I’m officially from.

We often took the route through here, depending on where exactly we were going at the time, because there aren’t a lot of north-south highways in Arizona. You can take 93 south through Wickenburg toward Phoenix, and there’s 17 south from Flagstaff- a better option but farther east and hills that would suck gas and slow us down especially if we were towing a trailer. If we were headed south it was usually 95, south from Vegas or Needles or Kingman. All of these towns we knew well, where we could park without being bothered, where we could take a shower and where the parks were so we could get out and play and stretch our legs. We spent a lot of time at city parks, making picnics, taking naps in the grass, scaring the town kids.

We also took that route if we were headed out to Jim’s Place. My dad had some kind of deal with Jim, who was just happy to have someone parked out on his place and didn’t care too much who it was. He didn’t need someone to show up on time to work, he just needed some people to keep out the drifters or those who might like some car parts for free. So much the better if the people he had parked out there were armed and didn’t like strangers. Jim had a towing business in Parker, AZ which you can find on Google Maps if you scroll down along the river south of Lake Havasu. He had some property out in the middle of the desert where he took his extra wrecked vehicles, and where he liked keep a trailer for himself and his wife Bobbi-Jo to get some peace and quiet once in a while. Follow 95 south of Parker, and where it splits into 72 follow 72 to Bouse. You’ll miss it if you don’t zoom in far enough, all that’s there is a post office and a general store, and some hardy desert rat souls who’ve scraped out some sort of living away from anything. Now scroll out farther, and farther, following 40 miles or so of the dirt roads snaking seemingly pointless across the brown flat desert. Jim’s Place is out there, and so were we. Zoom in farther, and you’ll see the tank tracks and the spots where people have parked scarred into the earth’s crust. You’ll see the washes, the creosote, and the cactus, you will see the strangely flattened (by satellite imagery) humanoid suspension towers that carried the high-voltage lines along Powerline Road.

I had a particular feeling of dread when we were headed out there, moving there for the winter or sometimes, oh holy Jesus no, for the summer. It wouldn’t have been so bad, summer, if we had had electricity for air conditioning, or running water. When the little digital thermometer stuck to dad’s metal and wood ramada read 110 degrees in the shade, you knew it had to be at least 120 in the sun.

I dreaded the isolation, the long weeks or months with no one and nothing around as far as you could see. We got to where we could hear vehicles coming from hours away, where we could feel the slight change in the atmosphere as an engine grew closer until we could hear it with our ears. We got to where any slight change in the days provoked great excitement, like Mom’s going to town today!! Or Jim is coming next week sometime! Or, it’s fill-up-the-water-truck day!

But there is something about the desert, yes. There is something that digs its claws into your soul, and makes you forever its possession. There are the brilliant skies, the countless stars, the way the day-hidden life awakens as the sun slips away for the day, the day the monsoons come and everything blooms for a week before it dies. There is the season for the ocotillos to bloom, the time for hummingbirds, the migration of geese far overhead. There is great beauty out there. There is beauty in your surroundings, and there is beauty in the inner calm and understanding you gain when it’s just you, your family, and the desert.

Roads on Her Face #13: Life Sucks, and Then You Die

Dad used to say that a lot, that “Life sucks, and then you die.” He would laugh, a cackle really, and bite down on the cold stump of his Cuban cigars. I never knew where he got those cigars from in the height of the Cuban embargo. They were probably fakes, rolled from tobacco grown on the East Coast somewhere, with the little gold Habanos rings slipped over them like false promises of ‘til death do us part’ slipped onto girlish naïve fingers. The stumps always smelled like a wet ashtray, and saliva, and from the rolling of the stump from left to right there were permanent yellowed streaks in his mostly-grey beard on each side of his mouth.

He would give me the cigar boxes if I asked nicely, and I would wait impatiently for him to finish the 25 cigars, for the perfumed treasure chests of pinkish cedar, the aroma of the wood and tobacco and the apple slices he used to humidify them creating a heady scent that would permeate the foreign bills, and pieces of dyed snakeskin, the notes and drawings that I thought important enough to take with me everywhere, through the changing homes of cars or buses or trailers, to stash in my backpack while letting go of the other things, old comic books or sketchbooks or clothing.

But that wasn’t what I set out to write about. I considered how to write about it objectively, and there is only my own objection. There is only what I know about myself, and my own feelings, as there only ever is. In thinking about the whys of me, the wherefores, the whens, I have to consider the whys of him, of others in my life. It’s hard to do, but easier because I know certain things, things I have learned with adult hindsight and things I knew instantly without thinking. I know he was not as hard as he liked to pretend, that he must have been angry that he always felt he had to run, angry at his parents and their too-many children, angry at his own shortcomings, angry with the government and the way-things-were. Angry with my mother, for wanting, for needing. He must have felt powerless. So he bought a lot of guns, and he drank, and he screamed, and he railed against it all and he grew more frustrated and impotent. He killed, not people, but helpless things that couldn’t fight back. I think it is why the innocent things tear at my heart so, why I pick up the injured animals and bring them home, why I take in the rescues and why I love them so hard it hurts. It’s why I don’t want to understand him, not really, because to be in a place where your only power comes from hurting others is a sad place.

He took a whole litter of kittens, once, and he stomped on each of their tiny heads until my brothers ran sobbing away. He didn’t bother to wipe the blood from the bottom of his boots. He always had a good reason, and this time it was that we couldn’t feed them all. “If that cat gets knocked up again the same thing is going to happen,” he said. He would laugh when he told people the story of how he got a free goat, a pet goat that the owners wanted a good home for, and he said he walked into the yard and he cut that goats’ throat in front of them all and watched the blood and the horror flow all around him. “But we needed the meat, you know,” he would say, as if that made the brutality justifiable. “They didn’t see that one coming, huh? Bet those kids had never seen anything like that shit.” I bet they hadn’t. I never doubted the story.

He brought home a puppy, in a moment of thinking of us, he said, and we all fell promptly in love with the little pitbull mix. A few weeks later he ripped up a bicycle seat, and when my dad beat him mercilessly and the puppy growled at him in pain and fear, he shot it in the head with his .45. Thinking of us, again. The blast rang in my head, over and over, a death knell, and I let go of the feelings I had for the puppy.  “Don’t go out there,” Mom said, perfectly still. The puppy’s yelping had stopped with the sound of the gunshot, instantly. “He was no good, he would have been a killer,” Dad said. “If they growl at you like that you can tell.”

I cry more now than I ever did as a child. When an emotion comes I try to embrace it, to let it be. The feelings weren’t easy to read on my face when I was a child. I took care to hide them and all signs of weakness, because life was hard and it would eat you up and spit you out if you showed you were weak enough to allow it. As a protective measure, I could shut it all out behind a big, smooth wall that stretched farther than I could see. I would withdraw, and I would forget for the moment until I had space to think about the things that hurt.

I am surrounded by love now, and permission to be, and gentleness, and kindness. Those things flood your heart, and make you weaker so you succumb to the tears and the feelings. I know that dad tried to make us hard, and it worked. We were all as hard as kids could be, our faces locked into masks and our feet thick as leather from running on stones. I hope that my siblings meet someone that can break that wall down for them, that they have not let the wall become them. Feeling the world hurts, yeah it does, but that’s what it takes to live. You can’t run and hide forever. I mean, you can, but at the end what do you offer to eternity – do you hold in your two hands the broken pieces of your heart? That’s what my dad will hold, and I hope he has regrets.  I plan to hold my whole heart with all its scars, and to look back with love and thankfulness and joy. It all does matter, I know it does. Every kindness, every beautiful moment.