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Monday, September 24, 2018

Help Decide the Fate of My "Redneck Da Vinci Code"

It's been a hell of a year and I'll be honest, I'm way behind on getting the next book out.  The truth is, it's been stalled due to an idea I had to make it better.  The effort to incorporate that idea is almost like rewriting the damn book but I do believe it's worthwhile.  

I've been hammering away at it, but as any author can tell you, sometimes you start to get sick of your own story.  That's exactly what was happening so I put it down for a bit.  I really like this one and the characters in it and I want to keep it that way.

So while it's sitting and gelling, I've revisited an older one that's vexed me for years.  That's the one I need your feedback on.  

Years ago, I came up with the idea for a story that just lit me up from head to toe with excitement.  I've referred to it as my "Redneck Da Vinci Code" and I've worked on it in fits and starts for the better part of a decade.  The reasons I've had so much trouble finishing it have more to do with my buckling down on it and less to do with roadblocks, etc.  However, one of the main reasons is that I've often thought it was just too "eccentric". 

Something keeps drawing me back though.  So recently, I reworked the first two chapters and read them to the Orange County Fictionaires group that I attend.  I got great feedback on what worked and what didn't, but one thing about reading to other writers is that sometimes it doesn't answer the question, "Would a non-writer read this?"

So for those of you interested, I've posted the first two chapters below.  Let me know either in the comments here or on Facebook if you'd be interested in finding out more about what happened to Lee and Jacob, or if it just doesn't grab you.

Thanks for your time.

 Chapter 1:  LSD and Willow Trees

We are sitting behind a dumpster looking at the branch of a willow tree.  You.  Me.  We’re just staring.  The dumpster stands to the left of the willow and in the small space between them, we can see down an alley that seems to stretch forever. I am here for a story.  Presumably you’re here for the same, however forget about when and where you were a moment ago.  The story doesn’t exist there.  To hear it, you have to be here with me.  It is 1991.  We’re sitting in a Buick LeSabre behind a row of condominiums along Sunset Blvd.
The willow tree is magic.  We’ll get to that.

Looking out through the windshield of my rented car, my brain is struggling very hard to make sense of a world that seems to have gone completely insane.  Lights blur, buildings melt, their bricks dripping in big glops onto the asphalt of the alley and the very air feels electric.  This is due to an unreasonably high volume of LSD (in the form of three small pieces of paper each adorned with a green peace symbol) that I placed on my tongue about an hour ago.    
Tomorrow evening, I’ll be catching a plane on my way to a new life, but that is far from the forefront of my mind as I watch the magic willow tree do its dance.  Did I mention it was dancing?  Between the breeze and the drug it seems to be doing a tango of some sort and that’s fine with me.  Like I said, I’m just here to be entertained, but I’m yearning for something big, bright and fun to kick this experience up a notch.
So, it’s remarkable that you’ve picked this instant to join me, because it’s precisely the moment when the willow tree lets me in on its secret.  You see, up until this point, everyone who has ever wandered past it, just considered the tree a decorative member of the plant kingdom, provided to help add some color to an otherwise washed out urban area.  Little did they realize that years of evolution combined with genetic modification of plant seeds had created a willow tree that not only grew a beautiful green year round, but also granted its friends and admirers the ability to travel back and forth through time. 
That’s pretty amazing when you think about it but probably even more amazing is that all a person has to do in order to be granted this fantastic power by the willow tree is to simply ask for it.  
It also helps to have a metric ton of LSD lighting up your brain prior to asking. 

So it is by pure luck that I happen to be tripping my eyelids off when I audibly ask,"Damn, couldn't this get even a little better?" 
The willow tree  practically jumps out of the asphalt with excitement.
I’d almost given up! it declares. I've been waiting for someone to ask for years!

My smile extends from ear to ear. 
“Okay.  What have you got for me?” I ask.

A true story, it says.  It’s got intrigue, suspense and even alligators.

Instantly the windshield in front of me swirls and I find myself gazing into a giant rabbit hole.  At the other end is a past I could not possibly have known existed.  I see glimpses of wooded night, bustling sidewalks and a very large man cursing at something. 
It’s a mystery, the tree says. I’ll help you connect all the strings.  You’re going to love it.  

“Who are you?” I ask.

Salix Sepulcralix is my Latin name, but I go by Manny.

And with that, his branches pluck off wisps of sparkle and tie them in a neat little bow.  It resembles a filmstrip and it loops gracefully across the brilliantly glittering sky.  I smell buttered popcorn and warm caramel. 
All you have to do is sit back and enjoy the show… and pass along what you saw to someone else.

“Pass along?” 

The story.  You need to tell others the story.  What good is a story if it’s never told?

So that’s why we’re here.  In 1991, I sat behind a dumpster as a magic willow tree told me a story.    Some of it sounds true.  I’m not really sure what is or isn’t, but here we are staring at that tree, just waiting for the opening credits to roll.

The branch nearest us bends straight up.  The willow stands majestic and then leans down.  It grins at us in a way that only a willow tree can.

How would you like to see a little something with Burt Reynolds?

Chapter 2: Death on the River

We're pulled through the windshield and there is a moment of falling but only a moment.  As if the floor dropped a foot or two.  The words, October 14, 1968 – Marion County, Florida appear in the air in front of us.  Things seem strange.  The world seems small.   

Mere moments ago, we were sitting behind the wheel of a Buick LeSabre but now, we’re most definitely lying on the bottom of an aluminum boat on a river in a forest and I’m pretty damn uncomfortable.

I complain about this to Manny but he doesn’t respond.  Instead he kind of gestures with a branch as he fades out of sight and I notice that I’m not alone.  In the boat, there are two men and both are frightened and frantic.  Hearts are beating in their chests at rapid fire paces.  

Instinctively, I know that the two men in the boat are named Lee and Jacob.  To them, everything they’ve known and all the plans they’ve made in their lives have come down to this one instant and it’s going horribly wrong.  They are hunkered down in the 20-foot craft, each clutching a rifle, but the boat has stopped dead in the water.  The engine is running and the propeller is spinning but the boat isn’t moving at all.  

At least not forward.  Instead, it's shifting.  We can feel it.  It’s no longer pointed up river.  It’s slowly beginning to turn toward the shore; its nose pivoting on something.  Lee is looking at the side of the boat.  There are dots of moonlight scattered across it.  Jacob is breathing heavy and whispering something about God, damnation and the sons of dogs. 
The beautiful, glittering, fascinating world we’d been looking at has been reduced to the inside of a boat, sitting on a river in the middle of Florida and what strikes me first is that it’s amazingly quiet.  There’s nothing moving but the water.  No crickets chirruping.  No frogs.  There’s just the sound of water moving past the boat, Jacob whispering and a feeling like the night is a heavy curtain that has come down prematurely. 
Lee grips the end of his shotgun tighter.  He pulls his knees up and shifts his weight over, cursing at how the aluminum ribs hurt his knees.  He raises the rifle and blindly squeezes off a shot into the woods.  The sound reverberates through the forest like a thunderclap.  Underneath it there is a low ‘whump’ and Lee’s left forearm explodes as he falls back into the boat.  Bones are shattered.  The wound is tattered and messy, and now there is another sound.  The sound of his heart in his ears.  The sound of adrenaline and his own cries of pain.  

We can hear all of this.  I can feel him trying in vain to hold back a yell but he fails miserably.  He half roars, half cries.  It’s the sound of a wounded predator. 
And all the while, Jacob is still lying motionless in the boat.  He’s trying not to say anything.  I can see in his eyes that he wants to reach over to help Lee but he doesn’t dare.  Lee lies on his back,  holding what’s left of that arm with his other hand; pleading out to someone he can’t see.

“You can have it!  You can have it!  Just let us go,” he cries.

Jacob stays quiet.  He grips the shotgun, rolls from his side onto his back and wraps his finger around the trigger.  

Someone yells for him to stand up and put his hands in plain sight.  Lee whimpers and pulls himself up slowly.  There is that dull thump again and he falls back into the boat.  Something wet and sticky splatters across Jacob’s face.  He’s afraid to think about what it is.

Honestly, so am I.  

The boat is still shifting, slowly. 
Someone yells out, “When it gets sideways haul it into shore!”

“Okay,” comes another voice.

The boat continues to turn and Jacob stays still.  He’s got his breathing under control but I can still hear his heart pounding.    

I try very hard but I don’t hear Lee breathing at all.

The first voice yells back, “There were two people in that boat! Watch out!”

Jacob remains motionless, cradling the shotgun.  He raises his head slightly and looks down by his feet at the metal army trunk against the back of the boat.  It’s the first time I notice it and I immediately wonder what’s inside.  Whatever Jacob is searching for, he seems to find it.  He puts his head back down. 
And then we hear something clatter into the boat.  It’s a grappling hook and as it pulls taut, we are moving again.  There’s a shudder, a rat-tat-tat-tat and I realize the bow was held by a net, the knots making tooth-rattling vibrations through the metal hull as the current and the motor keep us jammed against it. 

“They’re pulling us to shore,” I say, but Jacob doesn’t seem to hear me.  

He is looking straight up into the clear, moonlit night, trying to see more area than he has ever tried to see in his life, looking for any movement at all at which to aim.  Looking for one good reason to swing the shotgun up.   
The sour smell of swamp and decay are getting stronger as we leave the current. The buzz of mosquitoes gets louder.

There comes a tree branch, low, maybe six feet above us. 

Jacob stays silent and still, shotgun at the ready.

If this were a theater I would be on the edge of my seat but instead, I’m lying across from Jacob feeling alone, scared and sad.  

Just like that, he sits up, brings the barrel around and fires.  There’s a scream as the explosion rolls through the trees.  He pumps the expended cartridge out of the chamber and swings around in the direction of the voice.
Fire spits from the barrel again and I hear something big hit the forest floor.

“Son of a bitch!” someone yells. 

The line has gone slack now and the boat feels like it's moving backward.  He pumps the shotgun again and moves to leap over the side.  There’s the low ‘whump’ sound and Jacob flies back into the boat.  He goes to his knees, hands to his throat.  The shotgun clatters to the floor and goes off. 
The flash happens right in front of me.  I should be dead, but instead there’s just a hole next to where I’m lying and the smell of spent powder all around me.  

Jacob’s hands are wet and black in the moonlight.  I see him struggling to get a breath as he falls next to me.

He’s staring up again and I follow his gaze.  Overhead is a tree limb, Spanish moss dangling down from it and small jewels of moonlight peaking through.
“It’s an oak,” I think for no reason at all and I get a brief glimmer of a memory.  It’s Jacob under a different oak in a different time. Then it’s gone.

I turn my head to look at the army trunk and I swear it glows as the world around me shimmers and shifts like asphalt on a hot day.  
Then it all disappears.  

The river is gone, I’m back in the Buick and the dumpster is in front of me again.  Manny’s branches are waving wildly, leaving tiny traces of starlight behind them.

He’s jovial.

I just watched two men die.  

This is not what I meant by "entertainment".

Monday, September 17, 2018

A Man of "Immovable Character" - Don Kilgo

These last few weeks have been a son of a bitch to get through.  I lost someone very important to me and I’m still trying to deal with it.  While being around family and grieving together has helped, the fact is that writing is the most effective outlet for me, so here goes...  

Don Kilgo came into my life when I was about three years old.  My mother had filed to divorce my father and sued for custody of me.  The thing was, Stuart, Florida was a very small town and everyone was in each other’s business to some degree.  My mother’s actions were instantly discussed through a lot of the town and since my grandfather worked in the Martin County Sheriff’s Department, she felt a lot of pressure to keep her image squeaky clean.  She knew she had to go in front of a judge who likely knew my grandfather and if there was anything to build a case against her keeping me, then it would be held up in evidence.  Her own mother didn’t approve of the divorce and basically just stopped talking to her completely while this all played out.

However, my mother is a strong woman.  Have no doubt about that.  Had Don Kilgo not entered our lives, she would have pulled through with custody of me just as she eventually did.  It might have been harder and would certainly have been messier, but she would have done it.  The important thing for both of us though, is that right when it counted, Don came calling.

Don was raised in Augusta, Georgia.  His parents were people of their time, which is to say that I didn’t really like either of them much and don’t have a lot to say about them.  Funny thing was, Don didn’t like them much either.  They were obsessed with status, money and class.  They wanted him to dress nice, attend the best schools, marry into an important family and socialize with those who could take him to the next level.   Don wanted to hang out at truck stops, drink beer with his friends on the weekend, chase girls and see just how fast his car could go on a two lane street on a Saturday night.  He’d been a great athlete in high school, playing football, running track and earning himself a basketball scholarship to a nearby college.

That scholarship lasted less than a year as he found he was just not ready for school yet.  He bounced around to a few more colleges until he finally enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.  This was at the height of Vietnam, but Don wasn’t deployed to the jungle.  Instead, he rode out the war stateside and when he achieved his honorable discharge, he finally got his degree.  He somehow ended up in Stuart and worked in and around the same industry that my own father did.  That’s how he first came in contact with my mother and I don’t know whether it was love at first sight or if they just recognized a kindred spirit when they first met, but I do know that when the shit hit the fan and my mother was looking over her shoulder constantly wondering if someone was going to come take me away from her, Don Kilgo showed up at the door.

At first, he just offered to help with things he knew she couldn’t do easily.  He’d change the oil in her car or mow her lawn.  My great aunt, Maude, lived with us at that time and was helping take care of me.  She took a liking to him instantly and would fix dinner for him on occasion.  My mother, Don and Maude soon all discovered they had a shared love of card games and he came over pretty regularly for marathon games of Canasta, Hearts and later Bridge.  

Reading this, I’ve glossed over something that he told me years later.  He didn't just come around because he saw a woman who needed help.  He told me that he thought my mother was one of the most beautiful women he’d ever set eyes on and unlike all the girls he'd chased before, during and after the Marine Corps, he'd decided on playing the long game with this one.  He had designs on spending the rest of his life with her and after some famous prodding from a four-year-old me (who asked him point blank why he didn’t just marry her already), he did. 

From the moment he married my mother, he became “Dad”.  He never once, in my memory, ever called me his stepson.  I was just his son.  When my brother and sister were born, none of us were treated any differently from the other two.  This was despite his parents not being nearly as inviting and welcoming of our new family.  They were not at all excited about having a divorcee with a young child as a daughter-in-law.  In short though, Don didn’t give a shit what they thought.  

He as much as told them that very thing.

Just as importantly, Don never once said anything negative about my real father in front of me.  He always supported him being in my life and felt it was important that I knew who and where I came from.  He always talked about my father with respect and that made it so that instead of having a "broken" family, I just had two regular families.  One I lived with most of the time and the other I saw less frequently but which was still an important part of my life.  

Don spent the next 45 years married to my mother, who he called his "best friend".  Through all of those years, they played hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of card games.  They rarely spent a night apart.  They raised three kids and gave us a living, breathing model of how a successful marriage is achieved.  It wasn’t about social status, money or putting on the proper “look”.  It was about respect, love, teamwork and most importantly laughter.  We laughed as a family more than any other family I know. Their example is why I waited until I met my own best friend before marrying her.

When Don died, all three of us kids were together within 48 hours, this despite the fact that we literally live all over the world.  We sat in a room in my mother’s house, jet-lagged and devastated, and laughed our way through some of our favorite memories of him.  We cried too.  I’m crying now just thinking about it, but that laughter was the important part.  Don would not have wanted us to sit around crying.  He’d have wanted us to give him as close to a “going away party” as we could manage. 

No one dressed up for his memorial service.  He’d have hated that.  In the late 1990’s, he offered my sister $10,000 free and clear if she promised to elope instead of ever holding a formal wedding.  He just didn’t want to wear the tuxedo again after my brother’s wedding and then mine.  That’s why, at his service, the dress code consisted of jeans and Georgia Bulldog gear.   After the service, I sat and talked with friends, cousins and family members.  No one had a single bad thing to say about him, but if you knew him, that was to be expected.  He ended his life surrounded by nothing but friends.  Not an enemy in sight.

The amazing thing about Don Kilgo, and the thing I want to make sure to get across here, is something that my brother, Patrick, captured perfectly in his eulogy.  Dad’s greatest trait was a “quiet and kind consistency”.  He truly felt that everyone should be given the same benefit of the doubt.  It wasn’t about what a person said or what they looked like.  Don based his impression of the people he encountered on the merits of their actions and throughout his life, that's how he conducted himself.  It didn't matter if you were black, white, gay, straight or whatever, you were just another human being in his eyes and that's how he treated people, consistently.

That’s why, growing up in the Deep South, I was taught at an early age not to suffer racism kindly, not to stand by quietly when a friend was singled out by others for his race or religion.  He taught me to stick up for those who were being held down.  He taught me to love my roots and the small town way of life, but never embrace the mistakes of the region’s past.  He taught me the importance of lifting others up around you, so they in turn could do the same.  

Ultimately, we differed politically but we always agreed on those points.  We just disagreed on the way to go about achieving them.  I’m a liberal.  He was a conservative, but we continued to come together and while he would gladly argue his side of things with me, he never shut me or my view out entirely.  Ours was one of those few family relationships where we could be complete opposites politically and love the hell out of talking to each other still.

In closing, I want to say one thing.  Some may think that I’ve written this because I missed the chance to tell him how I felt while he was alive.  That’s not true.  Twenty five years ago, I wrote him a letter and in it, I thanked him for all of the same things I’ve mentioned here.  Don wasn’t much of a collector, so imagine my surprise when I found he still had it.  It was in his file cabinet, in a folder with my name on it.  It’s the most important thing I could possibly have found over these last three weeks because I know for sure he understood how much his influence meant on my life.   

There are so many stories I could tell.  So many instances where his life touched mine or another’s in a way that was unforgettable.  In his eulogy, Patrick went back to a conversation with Dad’s best friend, John, during a round of golf.  John had pulled Pat aside and told him how much he admired Dad and particularly how he admired his “immovable character”.  That’s the thing that sums up Don Kilgo more than anything.  He was one of a kind, in the best way possible and I miss the hell out of him every day.  I know that I’ve spent my life trying to live according to the example he set and will continue to do so.

I also know I’ll never meet a man like him again.