Those of you who enjoy fiction, or who enjoy supporting artists, or who simply like the cut of my jib should head on over to your local Barnes and Noble to pick up a copy of Image, issue 58, which carries my third ever published short story. The title is "Name," and I'm quite fond of it.
If you're interested in subscribing to Image, or if you just want verification that I'm not pulling your leg, you can check them out online. Here's an excerpt from the story:
I squinted, searching her face for pity. But there was only the cream skin, the gentle curves of her smooth cheeks, her rich brown eyes, and then, the slight turning up of her mouth. "Soon, sweet," she said. She said this as a woman, knowing all the things soon meant to a man. As she took back the cup, her hand squeezed my own. I watched her pick her way across the clotted dirt, and into the kitchen. I have always been so faithless. In the Bible there is a man who says to the Christ, I believe, Lord, help my unbelief. This is who I am.
We found ourselves in Wichita last night, where we did some last-minute grocery shopping. My wife and I are southerners, and thus no Fourth of July can be celebrated on our property without watermelon. As we wandered through the wide produce section of the fancy Dillons, I spied this abomination: "Personal Watermelons."
Apparently some farmer who has not read Wendell Berry thought it would make sense to raise miniature watermelons. It's not enough that most homes in America now have a television for each member of the household, or that children have cell phones, or that when I register my eight year-old for the Lego Club, they expect him to have his own email address. Now we are going to have our own personal watermelons.
This is simply wrong. The watermelon is a communal fruit. It is meant to be grown with seeds, and shared by a whole passel of people, who in between taking bites spit the seeds at one another. It's not a proper celebration if your little brother doesn't go to bed with a watermelon seed stuck in his hair because you quietly spit it there.
But now I suppose people will take their personal watermelons from the faux antique washtub filled with chipped ice, daintily spear a boneless filet of tasteless chicken from the shiny gas grill, and then retire to their separate rooms to watch whatever pleases them on Blu-Ray disks while emailing people who haven't known them nearly as long as the family members they are too good to share a big watermelon with.
Is this what our nation's Founders shot all those Limeys for?
Yesterday I was supposed to spend the afternoon painting. We have many square feet of wood in need of paint. This was my mission.
Instead, we drove into the biggest honky tonk near our wilderness spread, which happens to be the little Kansas town of Newton. Little Newton has two worthy bookstores, and a health food store, and at least two nifty diner-type eateries. Also a local donut shop. Doughnutery. Whatever.
Isaac and I wandered off on our own and into the health food store, where we found a tray of free chips and spicy spinach-asparagus dip. We agreed that lunch hadn't really tided us over in the manner to which we were accustomed, and so we stood there grazing until people began to give us disapproving looks. Double-dip one time and everybody gets completely pharisaical. It's not like this is cold and flu season, people.
We all spent about an hour in the bookstore. The way this works is Caleb immerses himself in books, while Eli and Isaac make a faithful effort for approximately ten minutes, in the older boy's case, and ten seconds, in the younger boy's case. Isaiah alternately squawks to be picked up or put down, whichever is most inconvenient for you. The way to handle Isaiah is to give him Cheerios. We are teaching this boy to squawk for Cheerios. When he is grown he will sit on a milk crate in Times Square, holding a big sign that says: "Will squawk for Cheerios." You don't often find street people who can spell "squawk," but we are aiming to home-school the child, after all.
So the point is, I bought a nicer paperback edition of Canterbury Tales to replace my worn-out version at home. Please don't take that to mean I am a Chaucer scholar. I only read it one good time in high school, and that was because they made me, and because I discovered it has lots of dirty parts.
Anyway, I like to see the names of people who owned books before me. My old copy of Canterbury Tales was once owned by Martha Ann Elliott. I don't know anything about Martha Ann Elliott, except that she wrote her name on the title page of my book in curvy cursive letters, as well as at the top of page 241. Perhaps she did that to snare the clever thief who might purloin her book and rip out the title page. The constable would have him by the collar, demanding that he return the book to Martha Ann Elliott, only this devious thief would sneer: "Look, her name isn't in it. Possession is nine points of the law." Criminals always know the law better than the rest of us. Case in point: lawyers.
But because she had been so foresighted, intrepid young Martha Ann Elliott would confidently step forward, coolly flip to page 241, and in so doing send the wretch to reform school. Afterwards, Martha Ann Elliott would skip with her best friend to the soda shop, where they would share a chocolate malted.
I don't know where Martha Ann Elliott grew up, but I like to think it was a place with constables and reform schools and chocolate malteds. I like to think that Martha Ann Elliott led a life with many adventures, and that years later, as she lay in her comfortable dying bed surrounded by her rambunctious yet respectful grandchildren, she wondered about this copy of Canterbury Tales, and sent a good thought to the person who owns it.
As for my new copy, it was once owned by Mary Esther Hill, who wrote her name on the title page as well, in sassy, forward-slanted cursive. I don't have a story made up for Mary Esther Hill yet, except that she greatly admired Flannery O'Connor and raised peacocks on her family's milo farm. But I think she had a fine life as well. I'm happy to report that neither she nor Martha Ann Elliott underlined the naughty parts of Canterbury Tales. I appreciate that because sooner or later my sons will start perusing these books, and I want them to have to hunt for the naughty parts, just like I had to do. Start coddling your kids and they'll end up on a street corner begging for Cheerios.
But the real point is this: I've gone from Martha to Mary. I like to think that means something, if perhaps only that I should aspire to do so. Which is why I'm writing to you instead of painting. Now I'm going to go inspect each boy's Lego spaceship, which they have been laboring on in the basement for the past half hour. And then maybe I'll paint. Or maybe I'll see if there's anything to Chaucer beyond the naughty parts.
I hit a snake in the head with a rock the other day. It was a fat water snake, the kind that all the experts say isn't poisonous, and is more afraid of you than you are of him, and a lot of other baloney that you shouldn't believe coming from somebody who likely as not managed all the A/V equipment in high school and was captain of the Dungeons and Dragons Club before getting his snakeology degree. (Speaking of D&D, check out my friend John Miller's essay in the WSJ.) All I know is that this snake had a triangular head like a viper, and showed no intention of moving as I approached. I think he wanted me to step on him.
(Brief and graphic aside: Did you know I was almost bitten by a water moccasin as a child? He was five feet if he was an inch, and he looked to be ten feet to a kid. He was as big around as my bony leg, and he came out of a bunch of reeds at me. My testicles didn't drop back down again for a month. Only guys will understand this.)
So there I am on my property with that slithery snake who thinks it's his property. I pick up a few rocks, and sizzle one just past his head. No movement. He's one cool customer, this snake. So I try a different approach, with a rock the size of my fist. I launch it like a basketball. It lands on his head with the sound a walnut might make if you whack it on your tabletop.
This gets his attention. It also gets my dog's attention. She comes running over to investigate, and at this point I'm wishing I had one of those aggressive hunting type dogs, instead of an old once-abused lab-retriever. She thinks she can be friends with anyone. But this snake, nursing a headache now, isn't feeling friendly. So he lunges at her, and she jumps out of the way, and then he starts slithering into the reeds by our pond. I launch another rock at him, and hit him in the tail, which makes him jump like a certain Woodlief baby who recently learned to keep his wet fingers away from electrical outlets.
And then the snake was gone. I like to think he is lying dead in the reeds, but I suspect I'll be seeing him again. And since he's shown he doesn't like to cede his ground, next time it's for all the marbles. Mano a snako, if you will, just like John Wayne would have done it. And don't think the Duke wouldn't have used a gun, even if all the so-called experts say water snakes in these parts aren't poisonous.
We bought a bunch of algae-eating fish yesterday for the very same pond where Mr. Snake is in residence. Two animated grass carp and a bunch of wiggly fathead minnows. The boys stood with me on the dock while I opened the thick plastic bags in which the irritated fish had been placed, and then emptied them into the water. It probably would have been wiser to squat at the edge and ease them in, so differences in water temperature didn't cause some kind of fish shock. But see the above section about the water snake. I dropped in the fish like they were Airborne Rangers, and if they can't hack it, I'll go buy some tougher ones. Does anyone know of a fish that eats snakes?
Maybe I should take an approach like the U.S. military hunting Talibaners in Afghanistan, and just start firing buckshot all along the shore. If nothing else it would relieve some stress. But if snakes are anything like Islamofascists, I'll only attract snakes from all the neighboring ponds, and find myself in a protracted holy snake war on hostile terrain. Probably better to win the hearts and minds, with limited psych-ops. I wonder what music most repels water snakes? The Alan Parson Project? Mr. Mister? The Carpenters?
Or perhaps I could adopt the tactic used by the little boy in There's an Alligator under My Bed. I would have figured that my most tender-hearted and imaginative child, six year-old Eli, would not want a book about a large carnivorous creature under a little boy's bed. Instead it is the only book he wants to check out from the library. I suppose we are going to have to break down and buy it. Or perhaps he might enjoy Mercer Mayer's lively reading. Check it out and tell me if you think it will work with snakes:
Friday afternoon it was just me and Isaiah, biggest grump and littlest grump. I was painting when he woke from his nap, and so I fetched him from his crib and we tried to figure out what to do with each other until the Mama and brothers came home. I put on my Best of Steely Dan CD. There's something both troubling and endearing about seeing one's year-old baby wiggle in delight to:
"The Cuer--vo Gold, the fine Co--lum--bian..."
But we went with it. For all Isaiah knew, they were singing:
"Some Ma--ma milk, some squished up ba--na--na..."
You didn't know this, but Isaiah has had trouble swallowing. He would gag even on baby food, and he wasn't gaining weight. The doctor had his throat X-rayed, which revealed nothing abnormal. We were relieved by this, though perturbed by the extra year's savings I'll have to put away to pay for the therapy he's going to need after the psychological trauma of the X-ray, which involved me handing him over to strangers who shoved him beneath a big scary machine. If he refuses to get in cars when he's older, and insists on sleeping outdoors, and has trust issues, we'll know why, won't we?
The point is, we've been excited by little milestones, like his not choking on mashed sweet potato. So there we sat on the kitchen floor, Isaiah and me. He had a lean and hungry look, young Isaiah, and I was feeling a rumbly in my own tumbly. So I fetched the Cheerios.
I sat down in front of him and opened the box. He did a happy, anticipatory wiggle. "I think you're ready," I told him. He wiggled. I gave him a Cheerio. He gummed and chewed at it, let it float around in his mouth for a minute, and then swallowed with a smile. I clapped, and he wiggled, and then he squawked for another.
So we sat on the kitchen floor and ate Cheerios, and it was a good afternoon.