First a couple of housekeeping details. I said I would share what my April Fools prank was for this year. It turned out to be on me. My granddaughter Piper sent home a cold through my wife who takes care of her and it hit with full force that day, rendering me barely able to function, let alone be a wiseguy. Second, Brenda Buchanan’s list of crime stories by county in response to the column I wrote back on March 13th was amazing and is worthy of a prize, so if you’re reading this, we need to arrange for something cool to be sent your way.
This getting ready for retirement stuff is extremely interesting. Not a day goes by without someone looking me right in the eye and saying, “So you’re really gonna do it,” almost immediately followed by “so what ya gonna do?” Depending my level of insanity at the moment, my reply varies but the most common one is, “Read the obituaries, If I’m not listed, I’ll probably get out of bed. I might get dressed and if the dog covers his nose and whimpers, it’s probably time to take a shower, then I’ll read until I decide to read some more, then I’ll write.” Notice, there’s nothing in my reply about jumping into 7011 new civic organizations or hobbies. I’ve seen too many people go down that path only to lament that their retirement life isn’t satisfying.
That’s not to say I’m checking out of the library profession completely. I’m remaining as a volunteer in the background for the Hartland library and will continue handling the sales for at least a year to give my replacement steady cash flow and more time to put their brand on the place. I’m also going to stay involved with the Maine Balsam Libraries Consortium as a cataloging resource and may even spend one day a week helping a school that’s not automated get their holdings into the catalog.
It took about four months to get my head to work through the whole identity thing. When I worked at the old Augusta Mental Health Institute, I knew a scary number of people whose self-image was so closely tied to their work, that they didn’t know who they were when they were off. Sadly, it killed a few well before their time. There’s a some of that in every job that’s important, more in one that’s particularly satisfying and mine certainly is. I’m past that now and it’s a good feeling, because not a day goes by but what I don’t encounter a situation where my first response is to tell myself, “Why am I stressing over this. In five weeks, it’s someone else’s issue.”
It will mean more time to do things that freak out many people. Right now, I spend an hour going through recycling up at the dump every weekend. I pull out coupon inserts that I share with a couple friends after I cut out the ones I want, I save the free ad forms inside the covers of discarded Uncle Henrys, I go through the Chinese cardboard bins and get any discarded codes from Coke twelve and twenty-four packs, I rip off any of the boxtops for schools points and send them to daughter Lisa in NYC and I grab any codes from Kelloggs products and email them to daughter Sara so she can use them to get stuff. When it’s decent temperature wise, I can shag enough of the latter codes so my granddaughter gets a free book from Scholastic (about thirteen so far). When I’m retired, I’ll hit this funky resource a couple times a week. I’m also going to do more walking with plastic bags, partly to snag returnables and on other trips, to clean up the nearby roadsides so Hartland looks a little better.
Retirement will mean some interesting and fun changes. We’re heading to Vancouver a week after I am done to take an eight day trip by rail through the Canadian Rockies. We loved our week doing a similar excursion in Colorado four years ago. Despite the fact that I could barely breathe on the summit of Pike’s Peak, it was a memorable vacation and I expect this will be as well. Instead of having the house to myself one day a week, I’ll have that luxury Monday through Friday as long as Beth continues taking care of Piper. Kate and I have had numerous discussions about the challenge of writing successfully when a spouse is around. It can be done, but it’s not easy, especially when you’re in one of those amazing grooves when the fingers can’t keep up with the words showering out of the brain. If I’m home alone, I have a nice ritual starting with coffee and whatever book I’m reading, Then it’s off to mail anything I’ve sold or traded and when I get home, I open any incoming goodies. Then it’s time to sit down and write. I have a couple really dark tales that need a final edit before being sent off the the Level Best and Al Blanchard contests
Now for confession time. I like to write and after twenty years or so at it, I think I’m fairly good. That being said, I’m a coward. Writing’s easy, getting published and promoting your work, not so easy. When I listen to Kate and others who are totally serious about the profession, I get cold feet. I also have to accept the reality that when I hit a period of depression, I’m not worth a damn as a writer and I can’t do much besides ride it out and when the creativity and focus return, get back on the horse and start riding. I have seven books and an anthology of young adult short stories set here in Maine that have been written and set aside. One of my hopes is that once I have that new block of free time, I’ll get serious about the parts of writing that I’m shying away from.
Reading is a very seductive process. When our mother, A. Carman Clark was alive, she could usually be found on one end of the couch in her living room and the rest of said couch was covered with piles of books, some bought, some library books, some given by friends or swapped. One of my regrets is that I never asked her how many she read in a year. I’m sure the number was impressive, particularly for someone who got up every morning at five and wrote for a couple hours. I inherited that love of reading. Thus far, I’ve read 91 books in 2015, mostly young adult fiction because that’s what I like.
All that reading has benefited me in ways that are just now becoming apparent. When I hit a creative wall while writing Finding Ginger, I set it aside My plan was to venture into new territory by starting a juvenile mystery set here in Somerset County, but at the beginning of April, another idea for a book leapfrogged ahead of it and refused to leave me alone. The story was originally going to be a foray into the genre known as New Adult, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was better to stick with young adult because that’s where I’m most comfortable. Singin’ The L.A. Blues is the working title. I’m at the 55,000 word mark and what has been particularly interesting is how smoothly it’s flowing. I got a hint of the interest level last Thursday when I read a couple sections while at work to Briana, who is an avid YA reader and future librarian. Halfway through my reading, I looked up and saw six other patrons listening eagerly, so I think I’m on the right track.
Part of the reason it’s going so well is due to some of the stuff I’ve internalized while reading other stuff. Another reason is that I’m including a lot of places and experiences I’ve had myself. I particularly enjoyed taking the main character, Skye, on her first plane ride from LAX to Bangor by way of Detroit and Boston. There’s also a wild car chase through the blueberry fields in Deblois. I’m including the first few pages below for you to read. Keep in mind that this is coming from the first draft.
When the bus moved on, I didn’t bother to look back, I was still steaming and full of dark hurt. What do you do when you realize that you no longer fit in? Long Beach was the only place I knew and now it seemed like a hostile and foreign country.
My hand was shaking so hard that I dropped the key twice before getting our apartment door open. Nothing like upping my stress level to go with everything else messing with my head. I put water on for tea while I changed into shorts and a tank top. I eyed the dress that mom had scrimped so hard to buy me for the spring dance. Well, that plan had gone sour pretty quickly. Maybe we could salvage something by putting it in a consignment shop. Given the way today had gone, I couldn’t imagine myself wearing it or any other dress again. Yeah, I was over the top pessimistic, but life for mom and I hadn’t been particularly kind.
The whistle from the kettle roused me from my introspective misery and I looked over the tea selection in the cabinet. Mom was big on the therapeutic qualities of herbal tea and despite my initial skepticism, I’d come around to her way of thinking five years ago when I turned twelve.
Just as I was reaching for the Orange-Mint Stressbuster, I heard the doorbell ring. We seldom had anyone use it because the neighbors, at least the few we’d made friends with, generally hollered or knocked. When I opened the door, the mailman was standing there smiling.
“Hi Skye, can you sign for your mom. I know she’s at work, but I don’t think the postal gods will care if you sign her name.”
“Sure, Mr. Benson, no problem.” I signed for the envelope and he handed me the rest of our mail, such as it was.
I looked through it while my tea was steeping. It was mostly junk and bills, but the return address on the certified letter caught my eye. It had been sent to my mother by a law firm in a place called Machias, Maine. I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce it, let alone know where it was. To be honest, what little I knew about the state came from a project we did in eighth grade when I teamed up with Maria Hernandez to do a diorama and report on different state. We’d been hoping for Massachusetts, but got beat out by a couple boys, so we settled for the Pine Tree State.
My curiosity was aroused now, so I hurried to finish my tea and went into my bedroom to see if I could find the report in my closet. I stole a look at myself as I passed the hallway mirror. The girl looking back at me wasn’t smiling and I could understand why. Still she wasn’t that bad looking, with dark blonde hair that had lots of natural reddish highlights, hazel eyes, a decent nose, a dusting of freckles across cheeks that weren’t too prominent. My ears could have been better shaped, but I fancied them as a heritage from my elven father, at least that was what I told myself, same with the slightly narrow mouth and defined chin. I’d watched all of the Hobbit movies and imagined myself fitting in Rivendell perfectly.
It took quite a while to dig through all the junk stored in boxes at the back of my closet, but I managed to find the report. I made another cup of tea and settled onto the patched sofa in the living room to refresh my memory about Maine. As I read, I wondered what had happened to Maria. She and I became casual friends during the time we worked on the project, but she ended up going to a different high school and I lost touch with her. That was pretty much the pattern of my life, either losing touch with people I liked, or doing nothing as they drifted off on their own.
Most of the stuff we’d written was pretty boring, but I started paying attention when I hit a section Maria wrote about Maine agriculture. Among the things the state was famous for were wild blueberries and this Machias place was right in the middle of where most of them were grown.
I was getting really curious now, so I turned on the computer mom and I shared. When it came to life, I resisted the urge to check my Facebook page and did a search on Machias and blueberries instead. It turned our that they’re a pretty big deal, not only in terms of how valuable the crop is, but I found a lot of research about how their antioxident level is higher than almost any other fruit. Suppose Mom knows that, I wondered.
Just out of curiosity, I opened up another browser window and checked on the law firm that had sent the letter. Everything I saw looked legitimate. They had been operating for almost seventy-five years and the three partners seemed to be liked and respected by a lot of local people. In face, the senior partner was so popular he’d been elected to the state legislature as a democrat, something that apparently was unheard of in that part of Maine.
Mom wouldn’t be home from work for another two hours. Knowing I’d hate myself for being weak, I gave in and opened my Facebook page. Sure enough, the comments under Peter’s post were at best lukewarm defenses of me, but most were the snarky and mean kind that made me leery of Facebook most of the time. In fact, I’d only created a page to fit in after we started going out last fall.
I had no clue who my father was. Mom shut down every time I brought it up, so I stopped asking her around age thirteen. In fact anything about family seemed to be off limits. I had no idea who my grandparents were or if I had any cousins. Mom had dated a few guys over the years and a couple of them were really neat, but both times she’s broken things off when it looked like they might get serious. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d gone out with anyone except her friends from work.
I knew mom had gone to college, but not where. She worked in the Long Beach Police Department crime lab as an evidence analyst and had for as long as I could remember. In fact, I had trouble remembering living anywhere except for this apartment and those memories are really fuzzy because it was back when I was three or four.
I re-read Peter’s posting, trying to see if there was anything there that might make me feel the slightest bit of hope. I should have known better. After the disaster during the end of school party at his cousin’s last night, what could I expect. Everyone was intent on getting trashed including Peter. Sure, it wasn’t the first party we’d attended where there was plenty of alcohol and drugs available, but he’d also been really pushing me to have sex and lately it seemed like getting into my pants was more important than listening to me and making me feel wanted.
We hadn’t been there more than half an hour when Peter vanished, leaving me to deal with his friends who were already wasted. I handled the comments about my body for a while, but when his cousin tried to grope me, I hurried into the house from the pool area and went looking for my boyfriend.
I closed my eyes as the burning sensation that always preceded a crying episode started building. Things inside had been even worse. Lamps were smashed, I had to do a quick skip when some guy I didn’t know started vomiting in the hallway and the mixed smoke from grass and tobacco was so thick it burned my eyes and made me cough until I thought I’d pee my pants. I guess I should have realized that fate was telling me to go home, but like an idiot, I went upstairs in search of a bathroom and Peter.
I found both. The bathroom would have fit in anywhere in the rougher parts of town. It was filthy and shredded toilet paper was everywhere. I tried to hover above the seat as I relieved myself, but hit the seat when someone started pounding on the door. I didn’t even bother to flush as I zipped my pants and unlocked the door. Two guys stumbled past me as I left. Neither one looked like they were still in touch with reality.
I was entering panic mode when I opened the bedroom door at the end of the hall, hoping there was a phone I could use to call Mom and beg her to come get me. Like an idiot, I had left mine home because I’d forgotten to charge it. My heart plummeted, then seemed to freeze when I opened the door. Peter was lying naked on the bed with not one, but two girls from our soon to be senior class. One was going down on him while he was stimulating the other in a very sensitive area.
“Wanna join us? Probably not. That’s right, you’re saving it for a special time, aren’t you Skye. Too bad you’re so ordinary. Close the door on your way out.” He winked at the girl giving him head and closed his eyes.
Every possible thought had run through my mind as I ran from the party and stumbled to the closest bus stop. One minute I’d be raging, the next feeling like the world’s biggest loser. When I got home, Mom was asleep, not that I could have felt comfortable talking to her about my night of heartbreak and embarrassment, so I took a scalding hot shower to get the physical crud off me and then went to bed.
Oddly enough, I fell asleep pretty quickly, although what dreams I remembered the next day were pretty bizarre. One fragment had me riding a donkey through the jungle while everyone from the party pursued me on screaming elephants as they hurled rotten fruit at me. It took every bit of energy to get up and go to school. If it hadn’t been for getting our final grades and the awards assembly, I would have skipped, but I knew I’d be recognized for the one thing I was good at and hell could freeze over before I’d let something stand in the way of my moment of glory.
While I was only five foot nine, I was one of the top high school basketball players in California. Our high school had gone to the county finals twice during my three years on the team and had won this year. I would get my league MVP trophy at the assembly and nothing Peter “scumbag” Briggs did today would stop me.
I’d survived, but the victory was bittersweet. Most of the kids who were at the party didn’t bother to applaud when I accepted the award. As soon as I could, I left the assembly and hid out in the library until it was time to catch the bus home.