Afraid to Face the Light

HERE I EXIST IN THE SPACE BETWEEN STARS
AT THE FRINGE OF A SPOTLIGHT’S BEAM.
THE DARKNESS OF DUSK IS A BLANKET UNFOLDING
SPREADING TO COVER ME.

THEN THE SHUTTERS CLOSE
THE WINDOWS GLOW
AND THE MUSIC SPARKS THE NIGHT.
THEN THE DARKNESS TURNS
THE PIANO BURNS A SONG THAT SETS THE MOON ON FIRE.

BUT THEN THE MOONLIGHT FADES
THE SPOTLIGHT DIMS
THE STREETLAMPS TURN TO FROST.
THEN THE DAYLIGHT BREAKS
DREAMS DISSIPATE.
EVERY STAIN AND SCAR IS SEEN.

 DOES THE SONG GO ON
WHEN THE BEAT HAS STOPPED?
DOES IT LINGER THROUGH THE DAWN?
OR DO WE LOSE IT ALL
WHEN THE CURTAINS FALL?
DOES IT VANISH LIKE A DREAM?

I’M AFRAID TO FACE THE LIGHT
I HATE TO SAY GOODNIGHT
EVERY SHOW MUST HAVE ITS END
AND SO WILL MINE, MY FRIENDS.

 

Tragic Bike Stories Part I

I remember my first bike, a brown, stiff artifact of the World War II era, salvaged by my resourceful uncle, a NASA scientist, used and abused by my older cousins, before finally being handed down to me. At first I didn’t want to ride it. I was too self-conscious to suffer the embarrassment of pedaling down my quiet Oklahoma street, past the houses of my friends, and past the home of our small town’s biggest celebrity, an Olympic gymnast.

I was a late bloomer when it came to bike riding because I was hopelessly stuck. My parents didn’t want to shell out money for a new bike until I committed to learning to ride, but since I refused to ride the antique my uncle had given to me, I would never learn.

The brown bike collected dust in our shed until I finally sucked it up. I was eight—much too old for any training wheels—so I relied on my dad running alongside me, helping me balance. It didn’t take long before I was free from my dad’s balancing hands and flying down the street. I became addicted to riding, but I still didn’t have a new bike that I could ride without shame. So, I’d ride at twilight after all the other kids in the neighborhood had been called in for dinner, or sometimes right before a storm when no one else was outside.

One night I was pedaling down the street at full speed. On the horizon, clouds mushroomed quickly like only Oklahoma clouds do. I dodged lasers firing at me as I tried to race ahead of Darth Vader who was hot on my tail. The road was ending and the Death Star was in my sight. I took aim and fired my proton torpedoes. At the exact moment I imagined the explosion, a boom of thunder rattled the earth, the timing so perfect yet unexpected that I wobbled and fell over, skinning my elbow and leg on the pavement.

I learned a valuable lesson that day. You can’t relax and let your guard down after blowing up the Death Star…even when the force is with you.

Grill Euphoria

As one fire ascends the jagged horizon of wooden fence

the nightly creatures, red-faced and salivating, converge toward the glow

carrying torches and tridents and thick slabs of raw meat.

 

A phosphorescent glow radiates from the coal,

the first smell—bitter and dry—billows from the pit

embers dance,

at the first sizzle, conversations cease.

 

The men grin their wet teeth

as the aroma summons hunger, curiosity, and unwanted advice.

 

Then comes the boy—naïve, untrained, and premature—with barbeque sauce

in a squeezable bottle

 

He is admonished and shamed.

This is the day he learns:

Never disrupt grill euphoria.

grill_euphoria

 

Teetering

Every night it’s easy to escape

Through midnight tunnels

And return with the stretch of an eyelid

But to run away with mind and body

Takes a great deal of courage

To trade pain for loneliness

Which is not a good trade when there’s no

Hell worse than being alone

Unless you can’t bear the heat of the flame

Which is why we teeter on the window ledge

Or dance between gas and brake

Depending on the moment at hand

And whether the greater fight is hanging on

Or letting go

IMG_0109

The Death of an Artist

An Interview with Chance Casper (Part One)

“Your perceptions are in the angle of reflection that meets your eye.” – Chance Casper

chance guitar

Closing time.  Fargo’s arctic chill blasts through the bar’s propped doors.  Bright lights flood the room alerting the remaining stragglers that it’s time to go.  They trudge out into the snow.  I’ve come to Fargo to see an old friend play his last show. It is a different crowd and a different time here at The Cauldron, the hottest live music venue in Fargo if you believe their radio ads, but there aren’t any flashing cameras, or backstage groupies, or even a real backstage at this venue.  The only noise comes from a trickle of beer seeping out of a toppled bottle and falling from the table to the concrete floor with a sigh.  There’s a stench of alcohol and smoke advancing toward the stage, but it’s not going to arouse the drummer who’s passed out at his set, his head planted on a bongo.  Seated on a wobbly stool in front of the drummer, too sore to stir, is the man I’ve come to see.  Chance Casper.

Dried blood coats his leathery fingers.  His angel of pain lies facedown, unplugged at his feet, the snapped E-string wrapped around the neck.  He looks up and recognizes me.  His expression is both of embarrassment and relief that I held true to my promise to interview him after his last show.  I counted thirty-two people in attendance tonight, and I know this isn’t how he wanted to go out.

His last song of the night, appropriately titled This is Goodbye, would seem to be a fitting farewell between an artist and his followers at his final show, but it is unmistakably clear the lyrics are directed inward, the singer saying goodbye to the artist.

Musicians (and writers) talk frequently of writing only for themselves as if writing for an audience would be a massive sellout.  While it’s true that people can write simply for themselves as some sort of cathartic experience, art itself does not exist in a vacuum.  The whole point of art is to communicate something that can affect an audience in such a way that can be achieved only by the medium the artist has chosen.

Great art is religious in the way that it touches truth or achieves a sensation that resides a level below conscious awareness.  It doesn’t matter how much effort and craft went into the production of the art; if it doesn’t communicate its message, how can it be appreciated?  Was it even a worthwhile effort?  Art that gathers an audience of thirty-two might be interesting, but it will never be important.

This is Goodbye, despite its stubbornly simplistic groove and arrangement, is a complex yet forgettable song where the melody and lyrics have this very discussion about art.  Lyrically, the song is about looking back and reflecting on the journey that sacrificed happiness for a greater goal.  Melodically, the song is interesting because while it is in the key of G, the melody never touches that root note.  In the verse, which is patient and plodding, the phrase feels like it’s building to the G but gets hung up on F# before falling back down to the B.  In the chorus, the music intensifies, the intervals become more bold, and the melody once again battles all the way up to the F# before retreating once again without tasting the tonic G.  Finally, when the melody climbs and reaches the G in the dissonant bridge, it hits it not with a bang but with a whimper.  The payoff is anticlimactic, like an artist toiling for years before calling it an end in front of an audience of thirty-two.  This is Goodbye.

“A glorious plane crash ten years ago would have been a better end,” he tells me.

I laugh until I realize he’s actually serious.

Instrument cables slither across the stage under Chance’s gaze as Paul, the young bartender/stagehand, loops the cords around his shoulder.  “You think you can move?” Paul asks him.  “I need to get the barstool off the stage.  We’re closing.”

“Did you know this was my last show?” Chance asks the kid.

Paul shrugs.

“Well, can I have my paycheck?”

Paul pulls it out of his pocket and hands it over unceremoniously.

Chance unfolds it, sees the total and hands it back.  “No.  This isn’t right.  This is only two hundred.  The deal was for five.”

“We only had thirty-two tonight.  You promised you’d fill the place. We’re taking a loss as it is.”

“I can’t help it that the blizzard kept people away!”  Chance stands and confronts the tired kid.  “Don’t you know who I am?”

Paul takes the opportunity to snatch the stool and disappears quickly into the back.

“Look at me.  Fighting for pennies!”  He then offers to buy me dinner at a diner down the road.

We step outside and are hit with a choke-the-life-out-of-you cold that makes me feel like I’ve been face-planted into a snow cone.  It’s my first time in Fargo since the 90s and can’t say I really miss it.  But this is where Chance wanted to end it.  Concertgoers in Fargo are pretty savvy, and they depend on music in the worst way, since the wet chill can make life pretty harsh.  Maybe it’s this seasonal brutality that keeps people trapped here in this valley, but then again, even on those odd days when the weather clears and the wind forgets to blow, people just can’t tear themselves away from Fargo and its grid-ordered streets, stubbornly symmetrical buildings, and imported elms that line the curbs like obedient school kids.

The generic sign for the Woods’ End Diner burns its neon glow into the darkness.  I’m prepared for a long night.  Every night with Chance Casper is a long night.

“Why is it that genius is never recognized until we’re dead and the Mozarts of the world have to lie in pauper’s graves?” he wonders aloud.

I can never tell if his unabashed conceit is just part of his Chance Casper persona or if he’s just testing my reaction.

“The reward for greatness is never prompt,” I answer to placate his ego.  “But maybe someday they’ll have good things to say.”

He stops suddenly.  I try to do the same but I slide on the icy pavement and have to grab his arm to keep from falling.  I’m losing control of the interview.

He holds my arm to his chest like it’s a guitar and says, “They’ll say I could make rain with my voice and thunder with my guitar.  That my music dripped with an awareness of all that is pure and true, baptizing chaos.”  His voice is lyrical but raspy, like a radio song fighting through static.

I try to take back my arm, but he holds it tighter.

“You know, they have computers now that tell you what songs are good, what people will listen to.  I’m not shittin’ you.  They take stats of every hit and computers track the characteristics of these songs so they can tell you ahead of time whether your work is crap.”

It’s true.  The first company to do this successfully was Spain-based Polyphonic HMI and was followed by Music Xray.  Both use sophisticated algorithms that use data of past hits and analyzes beat, melody, and chord progressions to determine what songs will be hits and to allow record company execs decide which songs they’re really going to push.  It predicted the success of Nora Jones’ Come Away With Me when music critics had already written it off.  This is scary.  Computers are better at telling us what is good than we are.  I think of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball and wonder if art, like athletic potential, will be assessed by complex algorithms before it ever reaches human consideration.

“If you only look at the past to shape future behavior, you never go anywhere.  Just wait until this software is available to young musicians on their home computers.  They’ll just be writing songs that achieve the highest scores in the program as if artistic expression were some game.”  He winks at me.  “Maybe computers will decide whether your writing is worth a shit before letting people see it.”

As we arrive to the diner, he studies his reflection in the window.  His face has gotten a little chubby and he’s shaved the mane of hair before his receding hairline could conquer it first.

“I’m not so sure about this late night snack,” he says.  “Last thing I need is to look like I’ve got a taiko drum stuffed under my t-shirt.  Besides, who knows what kind of people are gonna be there.”  He gathers courage and pushes open the door.

(continued)

Superheroes

oak

“Whatever you do, no climbing any trees while I’m gone,” my mother had said before she left the house to go shopping.  The simple warning had slipped out of her mouth, fallen to the floor, wiggled through the carpet, squeezed behind the TV set, crawled up the wall, wafted over my head out the window, and caught up with me thirty minutes later as I was shimmying up the largest oak tree in my neighborhood.

Dressed in my Spiderman suit—which were really pajamas with sleeves that no longer reached my wrists and tattered bottoms that extended just beyond my knees—I stopped just as I reached a broad, upwardly expanding limb.  I watched in wonderment as Steven carefully eased himself away from the trunk, avoiding prickly branches as he neared the end of the limb.  His Superman suit fit him perfectly, and the falling sun cast a phosphorescent glow on the red cape tied neatly around his neck.

“I don’t think I’m supposed to be climbing trees,” I called out as I made the critical mistake of looking down.

Steven remained focused on the branch supporting his broad chest.  “You don’t have to.  I just want to see how high I can get.  I’m Superman, remember?”

I looked up.  We weren’t even halfway to the top, but we were higher than I had ever climbed.  I timidly followed my friend out onto the limb, hugging it securely and ignoring the pricks on my forearms and ankles.

I had a sinking feeling.  With our combined weight the branch bent until it was nearly horizontal.  But it didn’t break.  Steven sat upright and flung his cape proudly over his shoulder.  He watched with compassionate concern as my fragile frame inched closer to him.  A semi-circle grin rounded out my elated face, and I was beginning to maneuver myself upright, to sit beside greatness, when I heard the crack.  The geometry on my face reversed itself as I whipped my head around to see what had happened.  The limb remained securely attached to its trunk, but my reaction had been too abrupt, and I lost my balance.  The world flipped as I swung around the limb, my arms flailing but catching nothing but empty air.  My legs, though quivering, held strong, and I hung upside down staring at the hard ground that awaited my head.  I cried out in fear.

“Grab my hand,” said Steven.  I strained my neck to find his silhouette framed in a flare of sunlight.  Reaching out my arm, I swung it until I found his hand.  My fingers wrapped around his, and I sighed in relief as I began to be pulled upright.

What happened next was one of those rare unexplainables, like biting into a salad fork or poking an eye while putting on a t-shirt.  My feet suddenly lost their grip, and though I tried to hang on to Steven’s hand, I flew—miraculously feet first—toward the ground.  Impact sent a violent shock throughout my entire body.  Pain had no identity, but it overtook me.  I squeezed my eyes and rolled on the ground in anguish.  I needed my mother to absorb my pitiful groans.  Burying my head in the ground, I let the tears puddle beneath the bridge of my nose.  It was my own fault.  I couldn’t let Steven see this—my defeat.

Even as I suppressed my barking breaths, they lingered, orbiting around my head.  After what must have been almost a minute, I took a deep breath and held it, but the gasps continued.  I realized they weren’t my own.  I cautiously lifted my head, and my eyes climbed the tree and followed the limb to the red cape firmly in the grasp of prickly branches.  Dangling several feet below, his head in the noose of the cape, was Steven.  His strong fingers struggled to untie the knot around his neck.  His legs thrashed the air as raspy whimpers escaped his throat.  My tears hardened as I watched in horror.  I was going be in trouble if my mom found out where I’d been.


Months later, standing on the stage in front of my classmates, I accepted the wooden, shield-shaped plaque amidst the chorus of cheers.  My mom had taken off work to be there for that day, and my eyes teared when I saw her smiling proudly at me from the back of the auditorium.

I stood uncomfortably beside the principal of our school as he gave my little hand a firm shake.  He put his hand on my shoulder and spoke into the microphone.  “Steven Keller wanted to fly like Superman, and for a brief time he did.  He was a model student and this award, in his memory, is given to a student who best exhibits exemplary behavior.  You should be very proud, son.”  He handed me the award and pushed me forward to the front of the stage to accept the applause.

I didn’t know what “exemplary” meant at the time, but in my mind it was something horrid.  My refusal to speak since Steven’s accident had been mistaken for good behavior.  Exemplary behavior.

But to this day, every time I hear the word, I remember the scared little kid who ran home and cowered in his bedroom while his friend dangled from a tree.

I Confess. I Cheated.

cheat

You’re in school taking the most important and hardest class you’ll ever take.  There’s a lot of pressure because if you make an A you’ll be guaranteed a job.  A B might get you the job depending on how everyone else in the class does.  But you’re pretty confident because you’ve worked harder than your classmates.

First test you make a B.  A few of your classmates make Cs and Ds but the majority make As, and you wonder how they did that.  Soon, you hear that one of your classmates has a copy of all the semester’s tests, obtained perhaps by cleverly hacking into the professor’s computer.  The ones who are cheating ask if you’d like to come over and “study” with them for the next test.  You decline because you don’t want to be a cheater.

You study more than you did for the last test because you know you have to just to keep up.  You end up with a B plus.  They make As again.  They’re contacted by job recruiters.  You are not.  Even some of the ones who made Cs and Ds on the first test are now making As, moving you closer to the bottom of the pack.  You’d like to tell on them, but you have no proof.  Besides, that would really tick off the whole group, and they pretty much detest you anyway for your goody-two-shoes routine.

You do what you have to.  You join them.  You make your A.  You get the job.  You’re financially independent and so happy about that.  You get married and have kids, whose piano and tennis lessons you can pay for thanks to that good job.  Your family is happy.  No regrets.  You and your college buddies laugh about that class years later.

Now you’ve got this great job in a tight economy.  Again, you’re working your butt off, eating lunches at your desk, never taking sick days or personal days, yet the productivity of your co-workers is surpassing your own.  You know they’re cutting corners, backdating documents, shredding customer complaints and doing what they can to stay a step ahead of the curve.  One misstep and they could be fired.  They know that.  You know that.  At the same time, you know that management tacitly condones this behavior as long as they don’t make an obvious blunder that forces management’s hand.  You have a family and hate taking risks especially when it comes down to your livelihood.  However, you wonder that if you can’t keep up with the pack and their inflated numbers, you might lose your job.   You give up vacations, work on holidays, extend your work week to eighty hours just to do what your co-workers claim they do in a forty hour week.  You have your integrity.  You keep up this pace for twenty years, put your kids through college, watch them have families of their own, and finally you retire.

When you look back, you wonder what it would have been like to spend just a little more time with your kids?  You regret not spending more, because when it comes down to it, isn’t the family the most important thing?  You feel bitter at the rest of the world who seems happier than you with fewer wrinkles around the eyes.  They never faced the consequences of their misdeeds.  Or were they really misdeeds?  You wonder if making three follow up calls and fibbing on the required fourth would have made that much of a difference.

We face these kinds of tough decisions every day, sometimes without even considering the moral and ethical significance.  Cheating and getting ahead is the easy decision.  Choosing not to cheat is the tough one.  However, cheating does, after all, imply getting a competitive advantage.  What if you are at a competitive disadvantage if you don’t cheat because everybody else is?  It’s easy to justify it in our own heads when we are pursuing our goals to be successful and respected.

Let’s be honest.  What we all want is to be successful.  Society puts pressure on us to be successful.  In our culture, success is measured by the acquisition of things.  A businessman who nets one million dollars is more successful than one who nets a hundred thousand dollars.  No one asks to compare their bookkeeping or business practices.  An NBA superstar who has five championship rings is more successful than one who doesn’t have any.  Even successful parents are ones who produce successful children, children who are able to obtain a lot of things and money.  Sometimes we need to see ourselves as successful.

It’s time for me to come clean.  I am a Scrabble cheater when it comes to games played on my mobile device.  At first I just played against a friend at work against whom I racked up a record of twenty wins and no losses.  I branched out and began playing other players online.  I’d lose a few games here and there, but I was much more serious about the game than ninety-five percent of the other people that I played, so that in itself gave me an advantage.  There was one guy I liked to play.  We’d have close games but I’d win about eighty percent of the time.  Then his average score suddenly shot up by sixty points.  I’d been playing long enough to know the difference between making good use of the board and pulling insane words out of nowhere, and not just crazy two or three-letter goofy words like ZO and ZA that every Scrabble player with a hundred games under his belt begins to know.  These were words like ALUNITES or HODJAS or ORIGAN (no, not “origin” or “Oregon” but “origan”, in botany, another name for marjoram).  I didn’t want to directly accuse him of cheating but I sent him a message that said, “Are you a Muslim botanist and chemist?” to which he replied, “No.  Someone just played these words against me once, and I remembered them.”

Whatever.  I knew he was cheating.  It’s easy to hop onto the internet and use an anagram solver, and no one on the other side can ever prove it.  He started beating me.  It made me mad.  I watched my win/loss record fall below ninety percent, not that it really matters since no one but me ever looks at it.

So then, I started doing it, using the anagram solvers.  I started to beat him again.  And it felt good.   I didn’t feel guilty about it.  If that’s the way he wants to play, that’s the way I’ll play, I told myself.

The point of all this is not to suggest that cheating is the proper way to go but merely how easy it is to justify to ourselves that not only is cheating the better way but also the vital way.  There is an insane pressure placed on us from birth to succeed, and although many of us are brought up in the Christian tradition of humility and charity, we all know that piety and moral purity are not the main criteria society considers when labeling a person a success.

Since we are social beings, how others see us is so important to how we define and view ourselves.  We want others to like us and we naturally hide our flaws.

So now we come to Lance Armstrong.  Of course I had to watch his interview with Oprah.  I genuinely feel bad for him not because I sympathize with what he did but because I can only imagine how painful the fall from the top to the thorny pit of despair must be.  The truth is, we’ve all been in his situation.  You might say my Scrabble example is nothing like Lance Armstrong because there was nothing really at stake.  But really, that makes my actions even more preposterous.  The only thing at stake was my own vanity.

I’ve talked to some who might understand why he cheated, but cannot tolerate the way he viciously went after the people who accused him of cheating.  Anyone who has had an affair and is trying to hide it will scorch the earth before they reveal their lie.  It’s not noble or right.  It’s just a desperate attempt to stay above everything and scrape and claw at whatever might catch before the inevitable avalanche sends us tumbling down the mountain.  The deeper and more important the lie, the more people we are willing to hurt to protect it.  The way I see it, a man at his worst is usually no worse than most men.

To be clear, I’m not excusing Lance Armstrong’s behavior.  His titles should be stripped, a ban implemented, and his legend in the sport of racing tarnished.  But I don’t hate him either.  I’m just considering the reality that Lance Armstrong, like us all, is human.  Perhaps that is the biggest disappointment.

lance

Snitch

secret

Dragging with her the gossip queen
She slips away to hidden space along the edge
Where whispers are suppressed by industrial woosh
And where webs are weaved
And transgressors trapped
And where ears sneak into seismic cracks
This is the real business
Salt and pepper to the filet of mundane
 Can you believe
    No way, no how
    It’s the truth
    Here’s the proof
    Maybe it’s something misunderstood
    But how can it be, how can it be
    It is, it is

The shame of secrets spilled
From voices
from voices I know
Nowhere better to follow the show
Than from behind a thin sheet of drywall

Let me tell you something…something about what they said
As I…As I heard it all.

Mr. Lin’s Family

Also made it in the latest issue of the Sagebrush Review.

MR. LIN’S FAMILY

Mr. Lin awoke before sunrise, jabbed his arms through the sleeves of his stitched-up winter coat, slung his burlap rice sack over his shoulder, and opened his front door to the cold rush of air and the sound of cars whisking over the Manhattan bridge.  A spark of moonlight lingered in the sky basking in the urban glow.  Fall had been unseasonably temperate, but luckily, on this day the wind was from the north, blowing the stench of rotten garbage and excrement back towards the East River.  When Mr. Lin arrived to New York City a few years before from the humid climate of Guandong, China, he found the winds irritating and more nimble than even the rats at burrowing through unseen openings and interrupting sleep, but now he welcomed the fresh air with open arms and smiled at his good fortune.

His home was the marvel of the Canal Street shantytown.  He had built it without the traditional tools of nails, hammers, hinges, and saws.  Mr. Lin’s specialty was knots.  Discarded packing cords held together the mattresses and bedsprings that made up his walls while dusty rugs and sheets of canvas tied over wooden pallets formed his roof.  On the outer walls, hanging along streamers of bright florist ribbon were fresh oranges elegantly secured in yellow plastic bows labeled “CAUTION.” 

Read the rest in the latest issue!

http://www.amazon.com/Sagebrush-Review-Volume-Brooke-Wallace/dp/098234533X

Meet the Author

“The only way to get there is to pass through Griffin.  No one wants nothing to do with Griffin.”

Gabby arrived to the conclusion that she wasn’t going to get any help from the man in the orange hammock, but she felt it would be rude just to walk away.  The last customers of the day were loading their haul of junk into their pickup trucks.  She wondered how any of these items actually sold.  They weren’t really antiques as the sign advertised.  They were just unfinished, well-weathered pieces that had never seen better days.  “So once I get through Griffin, where do I go next?  Wait, Griffin’s a town, right?”

The man in the orange hammock sat up.  His face looked worn as if the sun had tattooed an old leather glove onto it.  He wore workman’s overalls and had an oval patch with “Dan” written on it in white, cursive letters.  “You ain’t curious why no one wants to go through Griffin?”

“I just assumed it was because it didn’t have a Dairy Queen.”

“Oh, it gots a Dairy Queen.  Fact, looks like any ordinary place.  But once you step outside, you’ll know you ain’t in just any ol’ town.”

“I don’t plan on staying.”

“Hah!”  His laugh was coarse and guttural.  “They ain’t gonna let you leave that quick, I promise you that!”

“Can you just tell me where he lives?”

“I can tell you, but you really need someone in town to show you.  It’s kinda complicated—a couple forks in the road, some landmarks that are tough to see.  That’s how it is in these neck of the woods.  Why you so bent on seein’ Mr. Salvador?  You an author, too?”

“Me?  No.  I’m a nobody.  At least for now.  But I’ve read some of his stuff.  Meet the Author was the one that did it for me.”  It was no exaggeration.  After reading that story she had to meet D.F. Salvador.  It was like her existence depended on it.  The story hadn’t answered any questions or exposed hidden truths, but it connected with her, like she knew exactly what the author had gone through in writing it.

“I read that one,” Dan said as he flicked a fire ant off his arm.  “There was a big to-do ‘bout that one ‘round here when it got published, you know, on account of the familiarity of it and all.”

Gabby thought about biting her tongue, but she couldn’t resist.  “I can’t help but notice, but in that story he had a guy in overalls on an orange hammock.  Did he base that character on you?”

“Nah.  I based me on that character.  Honestly, I don’t care for the man.  After the drought, he bought out my deeds forcin’ me out here to the fringes.”

“So you know where he lives?”

“Sure.  Right on the banks of the Oeeokee River.  If you can find it.”

Gabby pulled out her map and studied it.  “Now I know you’re messing with me.  There’s no Oeeokee River on the map.”

He tumbled out of the hammock and stretched his limbs.  “That’s cause it didn’t exist until Mr. Salvador moved in.”  Dan put his finger on the map, leaving an oily smudge where he dragged.  “He dug some trenches along here, moved some boulders around, redirected the flow of that other river you do see here on the map.  Made the old house riverfront property.  Suppose he wanted to make an oxbow, but I guess he didn’t have time to finish.  Problem is the Oeeokee ain’t got nothing to flow into, so it kinda bottles up and busts its banks whenever we get a good rain like we did last night.  Floods the place.  He’s always cleanin’ up the place, but the waters always comin’ in faster than he can clear it out.  That’s what happens when you fight nature’s course.”

“Does he live alone?”

“Yup.  He has some children in town, but he let go of them some time back.  You’ll probably run into them.  Griffin’s a small place.  Maybe they can tell you where to find him.”  He coughed out another laugh.  “You best be goin’.  Storm’s comin’ in.”

He seemed to be ushering her back to her car, now the only vehicle in the dirt parking lot, but Gabby felt somewhat compelled to buy something, at least for Dan’s time.

“How much for that Velasquez print?”

“Ma’am, that ain’t no print.  That is a genuine painting.  Lost Manyness, I think is what it’s called.  It reminds us of when we lost our many niceties.”

“It’s Las Meniñas.  It’s by Velasquez.  It’s like in every art book.”

“Then this Velasca fella’ must’ve copied this work here.”

“It was painted in Spain—”

“Still could’ve seen this one.”

“—like five hundred years ago.”

“How you know so much about art?  You an artist too?”

“Maybe I am.”

“Good luck findin’ your writer friend Mr. Diego Savador.”

Dan walked Gabby to her car, a shiny, new hybrid.  He held her door open as she got in.  She thanked him and said goodbye and tried to pull the door shut, but he held firm.  “They say he killed a man,” he said.

“Do you believe that?” she asked.

“The important thing is if you believe that.  You’re the one goin’ to see him.”  He finally let go of the door.  “But you can’t believe everything you read.”

Gabby pulled out of the dusty parking lot of the antique shop and followed the road north to Griffin.  When she rolled into town, she was struck by the familiarity of the places lining the main road—the pizzeria with the cartoonish pepperoni pizza missing one slice painted on the window, the coffee shop with the wrought iron cafe chairs on the patio—but they existed together like an impossible memory, incongruous with the reality she knew.  She had never been to Griffin before.

She stopped her car when she came to a red light.  She found it peculiar that there should be a stoplight at a point in the road where there was no intersection.  Minutes passed.  Was this what Dan had meant when he said the town wouldn’t let people go?  She was about to run the light when a sheriff’s cruiser pulled up behind her.  She waited longer.  He inched closer.  She didn’t know what to do.  The sheriff turned on the flashing red and blue lights, but she still had nowhere to go without running the light.   Finally, the sheriff pulled alongside her in the southbound lane where oncoming traffic would have been had there been any traffic.  He gestured for her to follow him to the Dairy Queen parking lot.  She followed.

She parked, rolled down her window, turned off her car, put her hands ten-and-two on the wheel, and waited.  The officer walked to her door and leaned in.

“You must be lost.  The road pretty much ends here, or a little ways down the road.  The only people who stop here at this light are people who are lost.  Everyone else just drives on through.  So, what exactly are you doing here?”

Gabby wasn’t sure if she’d done anything wrong.  “I don’t know exactly where I’m going.  I’m looking for a writer,” she said.  “D.F. Salvador.  Do you know him?”

“I sure do!  If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be sheriff!”

“Can you help me find him?”

The sheriff removed his cap and scratched his head.  “Well, you follow this road until it comes to a T-intersection.  Take a left…you know, it’s complicated.”  A few more cars pulled into the parking lot diverting the sheriff’s attention.  “I’m late for a town hall meeting, too.”

“At Dairy Queen?”

“You think we have a town hall?  Look, I’d help you, even drive you out there, if it wasn’t such a big meeting.  It’s our Third of May Celebration tonight.  You should stick around.  Bring your gun.”

“A gun?”

“Yeah.  Everyone fires off at midnight.”

“Wouldn’t that be the fourth of May?” she asked.  The sheriff began to slowly retreat toward the Dairy Queen, and Gabby wasn’t sure if he’d heard her snide question.              “Listen,” he said.  “If you’re looking for your author, just listen for water and head in that direction.  You’ll probably find him in the river.”  He backpedaled a little faster.  “Sorry, I can’t help you more—”

Gabby stepped out of her car and called out, “I heard he has family in town.  Do you know where I can find them?”

The sheriff laughed.  “Everyone in this town is related in one way or another.”  He pointed a finger pistol at Gabby and winked.  “But try to make it tonight.”  He disappeared inside the restaurant.

Suddenly, something prodded Gabby in the back.

She spun around and found a scraggy, one-legged man waving a crutch.  His other arm was in a sling, propped up at a 90 degree angle.  “You’re looking for Diego Salvador, aren’t you?” he said, falling hard back onto his crutch.  “Do not let him see you or he will use you.  He will, he will use you.  You know, he did this to me.”  His eyes were expressionless, but she quickly realized it was because he had no eyebrows.  He was painfully lacking.

“You know where to find him?” she asked.

“Last time I went looking for him, this happened to me,” he said, nodding to his limp arm.  “Here.  Take this.”  He held out the crutch.  “I need to give you something.  Hurry!  Take it!  Do you want me to help you or not!”

She put a hand on his shoulder and took the crutch.

He continued to hop around while he searched his pants.  He yanked out a gun.  Gabby recoiled, nearly making him fall in the process.  “Gimme my crutch,” he said.  He waved the gun wildly as he tried to balance himself.  “Here.  Take this,” he said, offering the gun.  “Trade.  Gimme my crutch.  Quick!  Before I fall and break my one good limb.”

She didn’t want it, but she she didn’t want to see him fall either.  And she certainly didn’t want the gun to go off accidentally, so she took it.  It felt warm and heavy in her hands.

“You seem like a nice girl.” the man said.  “You have a name?”

“Gabby.”

“You’re a lucky one, I can tell.  I just don’t want to see what happened to me happen to you.  It ain’t easy being half a man.”

She tried to hand the gun back to him.  “I’m sure he didn’t intentionally hurt you.”

He pushed it away.  “Are you his mouthpiece now?  He’s using you and you don’t even know it.”

“I don’t need a gun,” she said.

“Keep it.  I really have no reason for carrying it.  I guess I just had it for the celebration.”  He smile widely.  “But tonight, you’re the celebration.”

Gabby pulled the gun closer to her.  “I don’t know what you want me to do with this.”

“You’ll need it.  I’ll show you exactly how to get there, but first you have to promise to me to do something.”

She followed the directions, moving slowly down the path.  She had been warned not to startle him.  She had been warned not to step in his shadow or pass over his reflection.  The one-legged man had warned of many things, but the consequences of ignoring the warnings were vague.  As long as she beat the storm, which gathered strength at the edge of the tree line, she’d find him on the river, which would be the “safest place to confront him.”

It was when she felt the first twinge in her chest that she first turned around and assessed her progress, wondering if she’d be able to return the same way she came or if she’d even recognize the path from a flipped perspective.  Why had she trusted the one-legged man over her own instincts?  She closed her eyes and dampness closed in on her senses until it filled her body.  Thunder just beyond the tree line.  The natal smell of rain.  Water.  Water flowing.  She opened her eyes and followed the sound.  She hopped over prickly plants, trusting the stability of makeshift stepping stones.

Finally, a shallow stream swarmed around her ankles.  She’d reached the outer nerves of the Oeeokee River.  The little house was where she knew it would be, but she knew D.F. would not be inside.  Upriver, a cluster of boulders parted the river, unleashing rapids on one side and a calm flow on the other.  A small tree sprouted from the largest of the boulders.

She mapped her way there, choosing the flattest rocks and stones and imagining the occasional leaps and feats of balance that would be required to reach the cluster.  She knew she’d find him there on the other side of the largest boulder.

She moved quickly but quietly.  A few rays of sun broke through the clouds.  Her shadow danced along the boulders until her shape took form in the reflection of the river. She was aware of her pounding heart as she climbed atop the boulder.  She gave one final look at where she’d come from and she caught a glance of her reflection, full and colorful, in the river below.  She felt more resolute than ever as she pulled herself atop the boulder.

There he was under the shade of the tree, his back to her, his journal in his hands.  The rolling water obscured her footsteps as she crept up behind him.  Before she did anything else, she had to see what he had written.

On the page were two sentences and his hand hovered above, prepared to add more.  She moved closer to read what he had written.

The only way to get there is to pass through Griffin.  No one wants nothing to do with Griffin.”

            Then

Gabby arrived