Thursday, September 22, 2011

Dead Brother & Prom Queen Make Their Debut

It's not as bad as it sounds. It's a lot worse-- and a lot better. When Julie Geen and I read the call for submissions for the anthology Tarnished: True Tales of Innocence Lost we knew we couldn't let the opportunity pass us by. Not when we had such a vast wealth of material to draw from. Not when the editor was Shawna Kenney, author of the cult-classic "I Was A Teenage Dominatrix," the first book I reviewed after calling my old editor from the bathroom of my new job where they'd made me put on an apron, begging to write for him again.

And so, last winter, Julie and I holed up in a seedy motel to write our hearts out. (And eat chocolate.) And re-write our hearts out. And dot the i's and cross the t's splayed across the polyester queen bedspread where we examined a few of those moments that changed us forever-- when we weren't eating chocolate, that is. And then we put the bloody things back together. It was excruciating and it was fun. It was exhilarating and it was exhausting. And in the end, it felt good to get these stories off our chests and between the covers of a book. And now we feel really honored and tickled by the opportunity to read together- twice in the next three weeks. First, at a bookstore that feels better than home and next at Atomic Books: Literary Finds for Mutated Minds where John Waters picks up his mail. Join us, won't you?

Read on for a little taste of each of our stories:

DEAD BROTHER by Julie Geen, an excerpt

I played the dead brother card for years after he died. Weekdays, I waited for the bus to take me from the suburban Colorado prairie, a land made more empty by the tract houses that replaced miles of waving grass, to a city school. My cruel best friend Wendy waited with me. Her David Cassidy haircut, the very best thing a person of either sex could have in 1974, and her ability to smoke at age twelve without coughing, made her my master.

“All you talk about is horses, and it’s boring,” she told me, bringing instant tears. When she rolled her eyes and asked what was wrong I said, “I’m crying about Mikey.” She narrowed her eyes, but she got quiet.

It really only worked once. After that, she said, “You just want me to feel sorry for you.”

We have a home movie of when he was just home from the hospital. He’s a little clay infant, and my mom is trying to breathe life into him. She’s animated and uses her whole body and her mouth moves, pumping him with encouraging words. He has the round, bland angel face of all Downs babies, his eyes unfocused and his body at once stiff and limp. It’s fruitless, you can tell.

My father had a knack with the Super 8. His shots were well staged: he came in late and left early, like a good director should. He captured rainbows, my mom with her arms curved reverently around a lapful of kittens, Christmas trees radiating tinsel, my brother like a little owl in his bouncy seat taking it all in. And, of course, me. My first ecstatic, out of control ride on my new rocking horse, my cakes, my friends in pointed party hats. There is also lots of footage of my mom’s butt. Pretty much every time he picked up the camera he got a shot or two.

I played with my brother. We shared a room in our tiny ranch house, me in my twin bed and him in his crib. He would lie on his back and stare, and I would pretend he was my husband and cook things for him, prattling away, pumping him with my own words. He sucked up all the attention in our house. He needed all the life we had.

PROM QUEEN by Valley Haggard, an excerpt

After driving past a dozen stands on the side of the road selling vegetables to eat, wear or hang as art on the wall, we pass a green highway sign that says “Gateway, Arkansas; Population: 67.”

“This is it,” says Will Jr. “But I’ll have to change that sign.” He laughs. “Sixty-seven plus us. Sixty-nine.”

Going to live with his recently widowed dad in Arkansas seems like a better option than waiting tables in Virginia and living with my mom. On the road, we take turns driving and camping in my little tent with only half its poles. The heat he generates in the sleeping bag is almost enough, but not quite, to make me love him.

Last summer Will Jr. had asked me to marry him on a dude ranch in Colorado. He’d been a wrangler and I’d been a cabin girl, but after getting pregnant, I’d given him his ring back. I was twenty-two and not ready to be anyone’s mother, or wife.

Arkansas, however, with its shaggy fields of bulls and buffalos stretched between doublewides and junk stores, I love instantly. In a new place like this, anything can happen and I pray that it will. Will Jr. tells me that his relationship with his old man isn’t easy and I ask him to tell me any relationships that are. “Us,” he says. “You and me.” But I begin to count cows instead of saying anything back and he jiggles his knee up and down for the rest of the drive, turning at last onto a dirt road that winds through the trees to his father’s farm. Will Sr. is waiting for us on the front porch of a wood cabin, a cigarette dangling between his lips as if he’s been there all day. He is wearing a red flannel shirt, a white t-shirt, blue jeans, leather boots and a cowboy hat. He’s not exactly handsome, but his blue eyes light up bright when he sees us and the white hair swirling around his temples seems a wild sort of distinguished.

“Welcome to your new home,” he says, leading us through the overgrown field to the blockhouse, a small metal shack about a hundred yards past his cabin. A bare double mattress is crammed between raw lumber and a tangle of shovels and rakes. Will Jr. pushes our canvas army sack through the cobwebs under a workbench as I sit down on the mattress and watch dust float up around my thighs.

There is no sink or toilet and I can’t name half of the rusted tools or machines on the shelves above our heads, but at least it’s completely different from what I’ve left behind.

“We’ll take it,” I say. “Home, sweet home.”

Come hear the rest!

Sat., Sept.24
7 pm
Chop Suey Books
2913 West Cary Street
Richmond, VA

Sat., Oct. 15th
7 pm
Atomic Books
3620 Falls Rd.
Baltimore, MD

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