Monday, September 26, 2016

The Butterflies Were Kung-Fu Fighting . . .

Everything’s fine until I walk in the door at Koto, the Japanese grill in Salem where we’re doing our author reading.
I chose what I’m going to read a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been practicing since then, reading it aloud almost every night—sometimes twice, just because it’s fun—even though I’m pretty sure I have it down cold. I tell myself I’m just trying to make sure the piece falls within my allotted time, even though I know it does. Hell, it only takes half the time. I’m sure of this: the clock in my phone has a well-used stopwatch function. I’ve been looking forward to this since I signed on for it. I like reading to people!
But now I’ve walked through the door and, well, there are people here. For the moment there are just a couple of customers, a couple of staff, a couple of writers who have come out to support the event, and three of the other writers who’ll be reading, so it’s not, like, you know, a crowd, but . . . people. This isn’t like speaking the words alone in my room, or even when I used to do storytime with my son. I know I’ve practiced, but what if I flub a line in front of watching eyes? And Christ, there’s a microphone up there, set in a tall stand. I talk with my hands a lot—what if I knock the damn thing over? What if I . . . this is just me thinking here, so no need to put a fine point to it: what if I suck?
It’ll be okay, I tell myself. It’s just a few people, and I know half of them . . . though I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse. I look around. Pretty empty in here so far. Maybe it’ll stay this way?
Look, it’s not like I want the event to fail or anything. I don’t. But for all the times I’ve written something to the effect that one of my character’s bowels “turned to water,” as a couple more customers come in and take seats back here by the stage, I start to feel just a little bit . . . liquid.
I get directions to the restrooms and have some success dehydrating myself. My insides still feel a bit cool and sloshy. I try to go again—better to be safe than sorry—with minimal success. The third try is a complete failure—there’s nothing in the tank—and I’ve already read everything written on the walls four times in an effort to distract myself; I now know more than I ever wanted to about a girl named Alana, and my advice to Rashid, should that little bit scribbled in the corner be true, would be to go see a doctor. Fast.
Okay, I can’t put it off any longer, I have to go back out there. Besides, it’d look really weird if I went into the bathroom and just never came out—though there are a few people out there right now who would turn that into a story, so I’d really be doing them a favor if I . . . no, no, I have to go back. So I exit the restroom, walk to the other end of the hall, open the door leading back into the restaurant proper, and holy shit where did all those people come from?
I’m not even kidding, the place has started to fill up. I tell myself I’ll be fine. I wanted to do this, remember? I volunteered, I helped promote the event, I practiced, and I have it down cold, right? No worries. I’ll just make my way to my seat—
My seat has been taken by a spectator. It’s getting that full.
Deep breaths.
I wind up over at the bar when the readings begin, nursing a Cola so as not to require another trip to the bathroom. I’m scheduled to read fourth in the list of six, so I have a little time for the butterflies to quit kung-fu fighting in my colon. Then, midway through the second reading, the staff sets up an extra banquet table right in front of the stage to accomodate the growing crowd.
Perhaps I could slip off to the restroom again?
I stick to my guns at the bar—actually, I’m afraid that if I walk too far that liquid feeling will get the best of me, and I’ll have to change my pants—and watch the readings on stage. One after the other these authors get up there, they all look so damn comfortable, and their readings are terrific. Part of me hates them, but most of me is merely really aware that it’s my turn.
The emcee introduces me, and I step up behind the mic, Kindle in hand. I look out at the crowd and my sphincter quickly goes so tight I’m pretty sure the people at that table right up front can hear it squeak. So, I think, this is what it’s like to have fifty, maybe sixty people all staring at you in anticipation. I stare down at my Kindle, and I can’t make out the words. I didn’t think it was possible, but my sphincter actually tightens more. I thought I’d set the text to be large enough to read easily on stage. What did I do, make it smaller?
Oh, no. My hands are just trembling so much the text is all a blur. I take a breath, will them to be still, and I begin.
Less than a page into my reading, it happens.
My voice steadies. My hands may be still be shaking, but it’s hard to tell because they’re darting about as I gesture. I begin to smile. To scowl. To feel. I know the story cold—in part because I wrote it—but this doesn’t feel like I’m just repeating what I wrote; I’m almost part of the audience, along for the ride, because this isn’t me telling a story anymore: this is the characters telling their story, and they tell it like they were there. Because to them they were. When we wrote their story I was their pen, and now that we’re telling it I’m their mouthpiece, and as I let go, and they take over, telling their story through me, the reading becomes what I signed up for. It becomes what I was looking forward to.
This is fun.
When the event is all over I have to say I feel pretty good about it. Better than pretty good: fantastic. I don’t understand why I always get so nervous before I perform a reading when I usually wind feeling great about them afterward. Maybe it’ll be different at the next one I do, which is . . . oh, that’s right. I have another reading in a week.
Oh, damn. I have to go home and read over the story I chose for that event. Maybe I’ll practice twice—even three times—just because it’s fun. Right? I mean, after all, I have a week to get it down cold, don’t I?
Aw, crap. Here we go again . . .

Talk to you later!

Monday, September 19, 2016

My Story About Robert

Robert Hill—A Story About a Story

It was a warm night on the hotel patio, as I sat listening to Georgia’s nocturnal noise. In the morning we would all be busily getting ready for my aunt Alison’s wedding, but right then I was relaxing and enjoying the evening. Being a bit of a night owl, I was just wondering what to do with myself until sleep finally took me, when out of the darkness strolled my other aunt, Stacia, and her husband, Robert.
They stopped to talk for a bit—it wasn’t often we could just walk up to each other, the couple having flown in from their home in England for the wedding—but Stacia soon decided to take herself off to bed; she had a sister to help guide through a wedding in the morning. Robert wasn’t ready to retire, though, and we sat whiling away the night in pleasant conversation. My uncle seemed designed for pleasant conversation, with his soft, smooth way of speaking, and a smile both gentle and infectious.
At one point—it must have been around 2:00 am—I was telling Robert the story of a large fish I’d caught somewhat by accident. I was quite enthusiastic about fishing at the time, and I’d gotten fairly involved in my story. I enjoy telling stories, and I was in full voice, and using intricate gestures . . . and halfway through the tale I realized, from the questions he was asking, that Robert didn’t know all that much about fishing. It occurred to me that, for someone who doesn’t fish, hearing my rendition of how I landed the big one might be akin to my having to sit through a shot-by-shot description of someone’s golf game: I’d rather have a tooth pulled.
Assuming he was merely being polite, and feeling an ass for not figuring it out sooner, I cut the tale short and apologized for keeping him up so late; this was his opportunity to quietly slip up to his room where he could tell Stacia how he’d  finally managed to escape her babbling nephew.
“No, please,” he said, taking me quite by surprise. “Do finish your story."
So I did, in just the way I’d been telling it before. Eventually the fish was landed, the story complete, and we sat there a minute, looking at each other across the patio table and listening to the quiet night. For my part, I was wondering if he had simply out-polited me, something I could very well imagine Robert doing. For his part, it appeared he was trying to figure out how to tell me something.
“You know,” he said, finally—and somewhat seriously. “I really don’t know much about fishing.”
“I figured that,” I said, feeling the blush creep up my cheeks.
“The odd thing was, it didn’t matter. The way you went about telling it, a minute or two into your story I already wanted to know how it turned out.”  Then he broke into one of those beautiful, infectious smiles of his, leaning forward a bit with the happy urgency of his idea. “Have you ever thought of writing these stories of yours down? I really think you should.”
He had no way of knowing I’d been wrestling with that very idea, wanting to start writing but more than half convinced no one would want to read what I wrote. As I sat there, somewhat joyfully stunned, he went on, and though I can’t remember his exact words anymore, I remember his enthusiasm, and his grin, somehow gentle and intense at the same time. It was very late by then, and we said our goodnights and went off to our rooms . . . but that smile of his was still on my mind, and the happy feeling he’d given me clung like a warm second skin.
A couple of months later, that very fish story won a small writing contest, becoming my first published work.
That was a few years and quite a few stories ago. Nowadays I do occasional public readings, and writing events, and one of the questions I’m most commonly asked is How did you start writing? And every time, my mind goes back to that patio table and chairs, that warm Georgia night, and that gentle-yet-intense smile pouring forth words of unexpected encouragement.
Robert Hill casually reached out that night and changed my life very much for the better. He didn’t intend to; he wasn’t even aware he was doing it. He was simply being Robert Hill: gentle, enthusiastic, and oh-so sweet. He created a moment in my life that I will never forget, and I thank him for it with amazing regularity. Perhaps now he will hear me when I do.

Thank you, Robert.

—Rob Smales
New Signature.jpg


Robert Ian Hill passed away on 1st September, 2016, aged 72, beloved husband to Stacia, father to Peregrine, Elliot, Naren, Shami and Clemency, grandfather of eight, and proponent of wonder and imagination.

He will be sorely missed.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Welcome to Boston (Recycled)

Okay, so here's the story.
This morning, while I was working on an editing job—a rather long editing job—my Chromebook decided to go toes up,  and fade away, never to be heard from again.
It’s dead, Jim.
So, needless to say there was no writing being done on my lunch. Or even after work—I was too busy running about getting a replacement Chromebook so life could go on tomorrow as if nothing untoward had ever happened. To make a long story short (too late, I know), I didn’t write a blog post for today. Instead—and you can thank my old Chromebook for this—you’re getting another look at the blog post from this week back in 2012.
Welcome to Recycleville. Enjoy!
Welcome to Boston
(original post date, 9/14/2012)

My friend SB was out here visiting from Colorado a couple of years ago. Now, she had never been out here before, and I had actually gone to great pains to impress upon her the . . . uh . . . “different” way we drive in Massachusetts, and in the Boston area in particular. She had been here for a day or so without mishap, and aside from being amazed at the thickness of the woods that line the highways (and believe me, if you’ve ever been to Colorado you’d understand her surprise, especially in the Denver area—talk about “wide open spaces!”) she had really seen nothing all that different from the way they drive in her home state. Then I almost took the wrong exit.
It was entirely my fault. We were having a conversation, and I was sort of driving on autopilot. I can’t even remember where we were going at the time, but I think we were on Rt. 95, and I was in the right lane. As we were talking I looked over at her, and when I looked back at the road I was cruising merrily onto an off-ramp—the wrong one. I wasn’t on it yet, though, and I immediately checked my mirrors, looked left, and saw I had a small gap I could fit into and stay on 95. I stomped on the gas to gain a little clearance from the car to my left and yanked the wheel. My Jeep jumped left into the regular traffic lane, saving me from (embarrassingly) taking the wrong exit—but my rear bumper had barely missed the car that was now behind me.
SB looked at me a little worriedly and said something, I believe it was along the lines of that was close, referring to the car now riding right on my bumper. I agreed, and checked the rearview mirror. There, leaned forward until her chin practically sat on the steering wheel she now gripped with hands gone white-knuckled with force, was the kindliest little-old-grandmotherly-lookingest woman I had ever seen. It was a face that should have been baking cookies, or knitting sweaters for grandchildren, maybe while telling those same grandchildren stories of how she and their grandfather met at the spring fair waaayyyy back when they were just kids themselves as the grandchildren sat gathered ‘round her rocker and ate homemade cookies.
That face, though, was now flushed and tight-lipped with anger.
“Whoops,” I said. “I didn’t mean to, but I just cut her off.”
“I noticed,” SB replied, squirming about in the seat to look behind us. “She’s like, right there.”
“I know,” I said. “Hang on, I want to get a little distance here. I don’t want to be driving along with her glaring at me like that.”
I put the pedal down and picked up speed. I started weaving through traffic a little, knowing that I would still look like a jerk to the sweet-looking woman, but a far-away jerk. I moved up quite a ways in the flow of cars, and I had started to slow a bit to just merge with that flow again now that I had left the angry granny behind, when I caught sight of my rearview mirror again. There, surging through the gap between two cars I had just passed myself, was Angry Granny’s car. She was right on my bumper and all I could see of the woman was white knuckles and angry eyes as they gripped the wheel and glared at me through horn-rimmed spectacles, respectively.
“Uh-oh,” I said.
SB cranked around in the seat again. “She’s still there?”
“Apparently. I think I made her pretty mad.”
I glanced sideways at her, then sighed and put my foot down hard on the gas once more. The Jeep leapt through the surrounding cars and trucks once more as I juked left and right, dodging through the traffic. I watched my speedometer climb swiftly past seventy-five, past eighty, and start creeping toward eighty-five. The whole time there was a neat, clean, well-maintained Mercedes on my tail, matching me move for move. I imagined I could feel the malevolent stare of the little old granny boring into the back of my neck, and I started to feel more than a little foolish.
“She’s still back there,” SB reported.
“Yup,” I replied, my response short due to concentration on my driving, and, I must admit, not a little embarrassment. The speedometer had climbed past eighty-five and was nearing ninety as we broke free of the long pack of cars that was motoring along. With nothing to weave around, I settled in the left lane and simply maintained speed. I watched in the rearview as the Mercedes made its way out into the clear road, swung into the right lane and the old woman goosed the gas. The car whooshed up beside me and settled there, holding on my right. I looked over, across SB who was studiously looking straight ahead, avoiding any possibility of eye contact with the speeding septuagenarian riding in the lane next to her.
“Terrific,” I said.
SB looked at me, and I jerked my chin toward her window, encouraging her to take a peek. She looked . . .
 . . . And saw the sweetest, most grandmotherly-looking woman you ever saw, energetically giving us the finger from four feet away, at ninety miles per hour. The fingers was up, almost touching the glass as she thrust her hand forward. She saw us looking and began to pump her hand and arm vigorously up and down, jabbing the stiff finger viciously into the air again and again as she carefully mouthed a phrase, over-enunciating each word so there would be no mistaking her message.
@#$% you!! . . . @#$% you!! . . . @#$% you!
It was too much for SB, and she burst out laughing. Granny Finger, seeing her reaction, apparently decided that enough was enough and dropped back to a more normal speed as we sped on down the road, finally putting some distance between us and my new biggest fan. SB laughed hard for a while, but eventually her guffaws slowed enough to get out a few words.
“Oh . . . my . . . God!”
I looked over at her, her face flushed, eyes filled with the tears of humor, and said the only thing I could think of.
“Welcome to Boston!”
She burst out laughing again.
Talk to you later.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Got A Pen?

Greetings, WYMOP readers!

It was a mid-week day. Wouldn’t have been anything special, but things had gotten a little crazy. One of the books I’m editing for had been pushed back, and back, and back again, waiting for some of the authors to get their work in. We’d had to shuffle other things around—this wasn’t the only furshlugginer project to be pushed back by authors missing deadlines—and rather than going into work two hours early to write, as I usually do, I’d decided that morning to edit at home and go in at my scheduled time. At home I have a two-screen setup, and those screens would make it easier to work on some of the editing I had to get done, and get done now.
So I’d sat down at my desk at 5:00 and stayed there until 7:30. When I finished the edit I looked down at myself and realized I’d not dressed before sitting down . . . nor had I made a lunch . . . nor washed up and brushed my teeth . . .
I sprang into action. If they ever make a movie of my life, this part will be covered by an 80s-style montage, with scenes of me putting soap on my toothbrush as I scrub my face with Crest©, hopping across the room in my underwear as I try to force my foot into a sock, shoving things into my work bag, shoving things into my writing bag, hopping back across the room working on the second sock, vaulting down the stairs with a bag on one shoulder, sprinting back up the stairs and then stumbling down once more carrying the bag I’d forgotten. In the kitchen I tore open the cabinets, yanked out bread and peanut butter, and started making a couple of sandwiches to get me through the day. About halfway through the process I decided spreading the peanut butter with a knife would be easier and opened the drawer for one of them, too.
My stomach rumbled then, reminding me loudly that I’d not had breakfast, either.
More bread hit the deck and I slapped together a third sandwich to eat in the car. I checked the clock: 7:40. I could still make it. This is why I just go into work early and do my writing/editing there: to avoid all this last-minute running about like a chicken no longer in need of a hat. I cleaned up my mess, made damn sure I had both bags this time, and ran for the Mini. The good news was I’d have time to eat my breakfast while I sat in traffic.
Traffic. Right. My greatest friend. No matter what I do to avoid it, no matter what I say to it—sometimes in incredibly vulgar terms and at the top of my voice—it’s always there for me. I sat behind an SUV—which in a Mini means all I could see was that SUV—and wolfed down my sandwich because somehow I thought speed of eating would translate into speed of driving. It didn’t. It translated into indigestion. I made the rest of the stop-and-go trip slightly queasy and burping up peanut butter.
What do they put in peanut butter that makes it taste so foul the second time?
I pulled into the parking lot nearly two hours later than I normally do, so the spot I usually park in was taken. In fact, all of the spaces near the building were gone, and the Mini screamed across the lot toward the only open slot I could see, just as far as you could get from the building and still be on government-owned land. As I shut off the car I noticed the dashboard clock: 7:59.
I hot-footed it to the building in that awkward half-jog-half-walk late-running idiots like myself somehow think is more dignified than just a straight run. It isn’t. Not by a long shot. I jalked (wogged?) right in the back door to the timeclock . . . and saw the Mini’s dash clock was running fast again. I had three minutes to spare.
Son of a bitch, I thought. This has been a crazy morning. Jesus, remind me again why I do this?
There you are!”
Coming toward me, carrying something in one hand, was one of the clerks . . . one of the clerks not known for being nice. Known for being somewhat harsh, actually. She knows it. She owns up to it. I sometimes think she revels in it. Oh, man, I thought, this isn’t fair. I’m not even on the job yet! Instinctively I began to shift my weight, preparing to flee—but the time clock was ticking, and I had to punch in on time.
I was trapped.
If they ever make a movie of my life, this scene will be filmed in super slo-mo: my eyes widening in dismay as she closes in, shifting my weight uncertainly; her striding forward, thrusting the thing in her hand toward me, insisting I handle whatever it is now, right now, unwilling to wait until I’m getting paid to do the work; my shoulders slumping in defeat, eyes squinting with pain, assuming this day was shifting from crazy to sucky in one smooth move—and then my eyes widening again, this time in astonishment.
The thing she was thrusting my way so insistently was a book . . . my book.
“Can I get you to sign this for me?” she said, breaking into, of all things, a smile. The book, I saw, showed signs of wear—the good kind of wear, the kind a loved book is supposed to show—and the bookmark sprouting from between the pages showed her to be almost finished, if it were to be believed (probably somewhere in the latter half of “Wendigo,” for those of you who have read Echoes). My surprise must have shown on my face, for she suddenly grinned wider and gave the book a little wiggle. “I thought you’da been in earlier. This is good!”
I’d like to say I broke into a grin to rival her own, but I didn’t. It dwarfed her smile. Hell, I nearly sprained my face. And through that face-straining toothfest I forced the only response that came to mind:
“Have you got a pen?”
She didn’t. We went off in search of one. By the time I got back to the clock I was punching in late, but found I didn’t care. As I swiped my card I remembered what I’d been thinking just before being accosted by the new World’s Greatest Clerk: Jesus, remind me again why I do this? Looking heavenward, I spoke aloud.
“Hey, thanks for getting back to me so quick on that one. If you’re in that kind of mood, I’d like to take a moment to talk to you about lottery tickets . . .”

Talk to you later!