Mary WrightHE BOOK: Threads


THE AUTHOR:  Mary Howard Wright

: Jamie Rand, Virginia Tech.

: Xlibris 

SUMMARY: Adventure and necessity calls to Fletcher Broce. He heeds and leaves his familiar homeland, Germany, to go to Virginia to  work in the coal mines. A farmer by trade, he has much to learn. He leaves behind his beautiful bride, Rachel and their two young sons, his parents and a brother and sister-in-law. He hopes to earn enough to bring his wife and children to America. He realizes this move might mean he’ll never see his mother, father and brother again. He goes with everyone’s blessing. Fletcher manages to secure a job on a merchant ship to earn his passage. He longs to be reunited with his family. The few letters to and from his homeland keep him going. Finally, the big day comes when he is able to return to Ellis Island to welcome his family to the beautiful New River Valley that has stolen his heart. What should have been a wonderful reunion turns tragic when he learns of his wife’s dark journey to America.  

ThreadsTHE BACK STORY: On June 29, 2012 a powerful Derecho storm hit our church in Dublin VA. It tore off the roof of the fellowship hall, ripped loose the gas line to the HVAC and dumped water into the building, causing much damage. The building was so severely damaged, services couldn’t be held there much of the time. About half the congregation and the Pastor left in the next six months. A decades old church body was on the brink of extinction with eroded finances, ensuing mold issues, a slow response by the insurer, etc.

And, in the midst of it all, I was given this book, an inspirational, historic fiction to write. It had nothing to do with the church storm, but I dedicated half of any profit from my book sales to the church building fund. I never had writer’s block. The story was a gift. 

While the book is a work of fiction, I wanted to keep the vibrant Appalachian culture and rich history of the area authentic. The research took about 4 months and the story about 5 months. I talked to living history books, people who related their family recollections. I pored over historical register information. This may sound unusual, but I looked at thousands of pictures from various archives. The pictures brought the backdrop to life for me. I studied the faces of immigrants stepping off the ferry at Ellis Island. I observed their attire, their belongings they toted, the children, the elderly. I saw despair and fear in many, but in others that little glimmer of hope…hope for something more.  

WHY THIS TITLE? This book is the first in a series that will be 4 or more books. I see this family’s life and struggles as a part of a Tapestry which is the name of the series. The essential raw material is thread, so Threads became the title for Book 1. Once I got started, I needed a pattern or a design for their story, thus Designs is the upcoming book. From the design begins a pattern or highlights begin to emerge, book 3 will be called Brocade. In the course of anyone’s life, certain events or times stand out and are immediately apparent to both others and ourselves. Those events in and of themselves may overshadow the background. What essential values do we cling to? Who were our ancestors? How did they influence the people we are today? The 4th book in the series will be called Heirloom. All the stories, the rich ancestry, the culture make us an heirloom to future generations. Something precious passed down from one family and cherished by the next.

WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? Readers have told me that they can see their own family in the pages of my book, can relate to the local area references and are intrigued by the little known historical nuggets the book reveals. Some have even asked if I wrote about their family home or family member. 


“Fletcher and Rachel’s love spans from Germany to Blacksburg, VA where they move. This first book describes when they fell in love, their journeys on the ship from Germany, and Fletcher getting things together in Blacksburg to have his family come over later. He works in the Big Vein coal mine in Montgomery County, VA in order to save enough money to be able to afford to bring his family over from Germany to be with him. The trials they face, the hardships they endure, and their growing love for each other are realistically portrayed. I enjoyed this glimpse into life in Germany before coming to America and how their life started here in Montgomery County, VA. Fletcher and Rachel’s story is about life, love, sickness, death, faith, and hope.”

“I look forward to reading the other books in the series. Wright drew me in with her story and her life-like characters. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series to see what happens. Each chapter is preceded by a scripture reference. I would recommend this book to anyone who is curious about their ancestors from Germany and what they went through to come to America, has ties to the Montgomery County area of Va, or those who enjoy a great story about the early settlers. — “Must Love to Read,” on Amazon.

“I finished reading the novel “Threads,” last night, just could not put it down. I must say I loved it. Mary has written one of the best books; I rank it to be equal to the first book I ever read and loved; that kept me reading, “The Covered Bridge over Madison County.” What a masterpiece Mary; so much heart and soul you put into this 1st series. I thought of it all day, you really surpassed talent on this one. The story was so faithful and heartening, it felt real, and surreal. I don’t know how Mary got all those episodes in one book, but she did. She poured out so much of how things were, I could feel it! It was kept so clean in such a Godly manner, even through the hard moments. How Clyde made himself a better life; and the rape assault. How wonderful you turned ugly into something so special. And even managed to get in some Real Estate moments; that was nice. And what the value of a dollar was then. Wow, I sometimes wish it still were. Such a caring wonderful family setting; even though I knew the mother knew; made me smile. Smiling face with smiling eyes It ended so beautiful; I was thrilled they found a home just right. The book touches me also, because my Grandfather worked the mines back then. What a struggle of a life it had to be. And for us who live so well now and don’t even know it; well, they should read this book. Oh how technology has softened us. I found myself feeling like your characters; how they felt; how they hurt; how they kept moving forward. How family had the real meaning “family,” together all the way. I fell in love with the characters and I will always treasure this book! Anticipating reading Series 2. It ended so well, makes you want to follow the dreams of these people and watch them grow. A definite wake up story. Thank You Mary for sharing such a wonderful story. — Deborah Cruise.

AUTHOR PROFILE: I grew up poor in Montgomery County VA, the first of 8 children in 12 years for my mother. With a step-father who was always on the road driving tractor trailers cross country and a mother working long hours to support us, tensions escalated on the home front. All children were removed from the home and placed in either foster care or up for adoption in the late 1960’s. I had the blessing of a loving foster family who nurtured me and made me feel like I could do anything my heart desired. I loved to read and read every book I could get my hands on. Necessity made me a banker and a Realtor but passion drove me to write. I run a real estate company, NRV Gateway Realty and write whenever time and inspiration meet up.    

 My book is a “good, clean” read. A child could read it and delight in knowing what and approaching snowstorm smells like, a teen could pick it up and appreciate the love story between the pages, an adult or a senior could find themselves reminiscing about bygone times. I think my book manages to evoke nearly every emotion at one time or another. The characters are real to me, and I hope I bring them alive for my readers.


LOCAL OUTLETS: Directly from the Author, iane’s Hair Care in Christiansburg, Chapters Bookstore in Galax

WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Amazon, Barnes & Noble. 

PRICE: $19.99 – Paperback

$29.99 Hardcover

$ 3.99 E-Book

CONTACT THE AUTHOR:; 540 392-8908.



Weather Report, Jan. 18



This week’s books are all about warm — in the case of Kelvin Christopher James’ “People and Peppers,” very warm. We also offer two very different novels revolving around southern families– Talya Tate Boerner’s “The Accidental Salvation of Gracie Lee” (Arkansas) and Mary Howard Wright’s “Threads” (a historical novel set in Southwest Virginia). Read them, and dream of spring.


Our very first featured book last May was Brian Simpson’s “Island Dogs,” about a rollicking bar on the Caribbean island of Antogia.  Now we’ve come full circle with Kelvin’s spicy Trinidad romance in which the world’s hottest pepper is one of the central characters.

Writes Kelvin, who is working on a string of well-received novels set in his native Caribbean: “Gossipy, intimate, and provocative,set in Trinidad and New York City, People and Peppers gives a diverting peek into the nuances of a Caribbean island’s callaloo of inter-racial and multicultural social mores. James’s main characters are complex, motivated, and fun to know. Tall and handsome, the main protagonist, Vivion K Pinheiro, is the bastard of a half-Portuguese, half Afro-Haitian woman, and an attractive New Yorker with carrot-colored hair who danced beautifully. Accomplished as well, Vivion has earned national prestige as a scholar and athlete. As a young man trying to realize dreams, he can be selfish yet thoughtful, deceptive yet generous—no real villain, just a callow fella getting over by pulling the tricky strings of privilege and personal charm.

“Read it for the pleasure of its lilting voice, the use of language. Learn about a different culture and its mores without spending on a plane ticket. Become acquainted with fun characters with attitudes and strengths and failings and quirks just like people you already know. This story is fit for all audiences.”


The Accidental Salvation of Gracie Lee is southern fiction set in the Mississippi River delta region of Arkansas in the 1970s. The protagonist, ten-year-old Gracie Lee Eudora Abbott, is the daughter of a hardworking cotton farmer who, in Gracie’s words, drinks too much beer, is mean as the devil himself, and is probably going to Hell. Mature and perceptive beyond her years, Gracie is unwilling to be seen and not heard. Her mind is crammed packed with questions—simple questions about day-to-day things and bottomless thoughts like why she was born to Lee and Anne Abbott instead of Elvis and Priscilla Presley. As Gracie tries to understand and save the world around her, she often lands in trouble, even in a place where nothing exciting ever happens. Themes of Accidental Salvation include coming of age, loss of innocence, man versus nature, family struggles, end of life issues, isolation, and salvation. There is humor too. Regular, real-life, laugh-out-loud humor.


Adventure and necessity calls to Fletcher Broce. He heeds and leaves his familiar homeland, Germany, to go to Virginia to  work in the coal mines. A farmer by trade, he has much to learn. He leaves behind his beautiful bride, Rachel and their two young sons, his parents and a brother and sister-in-law. He hopes to earn enough to bring his wife and children to America. He realizes this move might mean he’ll never see his mother, father and brother again. He goes with everyone’s blessing. Fletcher manages to secure a job on a merchant ship to earn his passage. He longs to be reunited with his family. The few letters to and from his homeland keep him going. Finally, the big day comes when he is able to return to Ellis Island to welcome his family to the beautiful New River Valley that has stolen his heart. What should have been a wonderful reunion turns tragic when he learns of his wife’s dark journey to America.  


Katya Mills, whose novel “Girl Without Borders” was featured on Nov. 17, has developed a very proactive way of publicizing her work. On her blog, “K Is Silent,” she regularly does on-line video readings in a unique style.

And this from Charlotte Rees, author of “Did Ancient Chinese Explore America?” (July 7): “Did I tell you that a high school US history textbook is coming out in 2016 that shows my father’s map and mentions his research and mine? Yes!”





Judith Raskin 2THE BOOK: Close.


THE AUTHOR: Erika Raskin.

CloseTHE PUBLISHER: Harvard Square Editions, an indie publishing house run by Harvard alumni, is dedicated to bringing out provocative literary fiction.

SUMMARY: Close is a novel of family and suspense. Wry single-mom Kik Marcheson is dancing as hard as she can — teaching at the university, struggling with the family’s finances (which may soon include having to return the long-gone advance for her unfinished second novel), and coping with her increasingly challenging daughters.

Doone, the oldest, is swimming in the deep end of adolescence; Casey, the middle child-slash-good girl, is slowly coming undone and little Tess, the quirky kindergartner, has somewhat alarmingly introduced an invisible playmate into the family constellation.

When Doone’s activities can no longer be ignored, a TV therapist offers a hand. Caving to Casey, Kik sets aside serious misgivings and agrees to let the family participate.

And then things go from bad to terrifying.

WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? Despite their issues the Marchesons are engaging and sympathetic. When catastrophe strikes, their narrative becomes one of pounding tension. (A personal aside: During a huge, crazy Raskin-Family vacation I was sitting next to one of my niece’s friends who was reading the novel. When her arm shot out and knocked the air out of me I knew exactly what page she was on.)

THE BACK STORY: Close is the love-child of two of my passions: writing and watching TV. A few years ago I started (guiltily) rubbernecking at therapy shows – trying to understand how seemingly nice people ended up baring their deepest secrets to the whole country. Then I began to wonder how the experience itself would alter their trajectories. Close was born.

By providing a shifting point of view between teens and their mom, the novel appeals to young adults on up. Judith Viorst called Close “a cross-over book like The Fault In Our Stars.”

WHY THIS TITLE? It’s a play on different meanings of the word.

AUTHOR COMMENTS: I penned Close because I found myself worrying that people were being exploited during moments of despair — for ratings. One of the questions the book asks is whether family therapy should be a spectator sport.

AUTHOR PROFILE: Both of my parents were authors and though I took the long way around the block I eventually joined the family business, writing both fiction and real life. I’ve been married to my college crush for thirty-five years. We have three (adult) kids and a grandboy.

I’m finishing a book of linked short stories and I edit the fiction section for the arts quarterly, Streetlight Magazine. My second novel is coming out in 2017 with St. Martin’s Press.


“Raskin easily balances humor and drama in this novel about parenting, reality TV and family…A welcoming and nuanced novel…”

5 Stars, Foreword Reviews

“…a poignant and edgy story of a divorced-family dynamic through complex characters and the real life struggles of parenting and adolescence.”

5 Stars, LitPick

“This book is all about relationships between people and knowing when to forgive and when to let go. It focuses on the theme of trust and what happens when that fragile trust is broken. CLOSE by Erika Raskin is a great read for any teenager…”



Copyright © 2014 by Erika Raskin

Chapter One

Sometimes the dread was just a light tapping on the edge of awareness. Other times it was a howl in that dark space between anxiety and terror. Kik was lying in bed listening to the roar, waiting for her sixteen-year-old daughter to sneak in.


The strange maternal emotion of heartache-slash-outrage wasn’t helping anything either.

Doone knows Thursday is my worst day at work!

Kik was looking at grueling back-to-back sections of Creative Writing. In the best of circumstances, teaching the class of fragile-shelled freshmen took lots of careful tiptoeing. Doing it on no sleep was going to be a crapshoot. There could be casualties all over the place.

A sudden scream pierced the quiet.

“Mother! Help me!” Tess wailed. “Hurry, hurry!”

Kik leapt up and ran into the hallway, heart charging her ribs. She almost plowed into fourteen-year-old Casey, who was also racing towards the kindergartner’s room.

“What is it?” Kik panted, as she groped for the light. “What’s wrong, Tess?”

“Someone is trying to get in the window!”

“Oh, honey, no, no!” Kik soothed, scooping the child into her arms. “It was only a bad dream. We’re all the way up on the second floor! No one can reach up here!”


Right then there was an angry rap on the glass and the three of them jumped.

“See!” Tess cried, two parts misery, one part triumph.

“It’s a branch, sweetie. It’s really windy out.”

“Well, I do not like it!” the five-year-old announced, pink-flannelled chest still heaving. “I would prefer if you could make the tree stop. Please and thank you.”

Kik and Casey exchanged a bemused look over the little one’s head. Tess’s odd diction, including a staunch refusal to use contractions, cracked them up. With the exception of Doone, everyone found it endearing.

“Perhaps Sister might have a cozy in here?” Tess asked, already scooting towards the wall. “It will help me to understand that it was only the tree knocking. Not a very scary man like I was worrying.”

Kik shuddered.

“I’ll stay in here if you let me brush your hair tomorrow, Tessa-messa,” Casey negotiated.

“We should discuss that in the morning,” Tess demurred. “I am awfully tired.”

“And on that note,” their mother smiled, bending to kiss them. “Good night, my lovelies.”

Kik’s daughters were variations on the same doe-eyed, olive-skinned theme. But Tess had insane corkscrews that bounced from her head and Casey’s mane fell straight down her shoulders like a satin scarf. While Doone was clearly related she’d modified her appearance with piercings and a chop-cut dyed a flat, mother-torturing black.

Kik returned to her room and glanced at her own reflection in the mirror. Her resemblance to the girls was evident.

In this light, the forty-three-year-old thought glumly.

She pushed Bean, the aging black Lab, over to his side of the mattress and got back under the quilt next to him. In the process, she accidentally allowed her gaze to settle on the family portrait Doone had done.

Back when she still sort of liked me.

The oil was a dead-on rendition of the four of them stretched across Kik’s bed, hanging onto Bean like a pool raft. The painting’s boundless artistic promise could induce hope or despair depending on how Doone was doing.

Kik quickly looked away, went back to waiting. Her frustration was intensified by the nowhere-to-be-found cordless phone, which emitted another strangled, too-brief warning from its undisclosed location. Missing for nearly a week, the battery was about to die altogether.

And then the stupid thing will be gone forever!

The concept of lost drove her crazy. Kik was pretty sure she could remember every item she’d misplaced since elementary school.

She checked the clock again and actually groaned. Not only was her first class looming, so was the compulsory dinner party at the new chairman’s house, an event Kik had been dreading since the invitation popped up in her inbox like a suspicious skin mole.

She suddenly remembered she’d forgotten to ask Casey to babysit and felt a rush of guilt.

I wish I didn’t have to rely on her so much. But who knows what would happen if I left Doone in charge?

The tears that had been threatening since her eldest’s missed curfew suddenly spilled.

Why is everything so difficult now?

When Casey and Doone were small, the Marchesons’ light and art-filled house vibrated with kids and classic rock and craft projects spread for days at a time over the dining room table. Kik threw elaborately themed slumber parties for the girls, baked bread and made pizza from scratch. She sewed matching doll dresses and nightgowns. Doone’s

storms blew over quickly. Life was messy and loud and full of laughter. Kik wrote and wrote. And though it didn’t sell a lot of copies, her novel got good reviews. Which led to the great teaching gig. Everyone seemed happy then.

Even Owen.

The past was crammed with haphazard snapshots that Kik was sure could be separated into two albums: When My Husband Loved Me and After He Stopped. The first picture in the second volume would be the celebratory dinner she’d made in honor of Owen becoming the youngest full professor in the Biology Department. He’d come home from work that night and steadfastly plucked offending ingredients from a dish that she’d spent hours on.

“You eat raisins in restaurants, Owen!” Kik had complained, hurt. “You like curry!”

“Please don’t tell me what I like,” he’d said, continuing to Balkanize his plate. “I guarantee you have no idea.”

From that night on his voice downshifted into the somnolent whisper of the Permanently Disappointed. Kik responded by dancing as hard as she could. She struggled to keep the house cleaner and the girls quieter when he was home. She stopped sleeping in sweatpants. She bought him the high-end road bike he’d bookmarked on the computer.

But her husband remained detached.

The solution came to her a few weeks later when she peeked into a stroller at the park and saw the balletic movements of a newborn. The sweet dance of the infant triggered contraction-strength longing and Kik had been shocked by the clarity of the answer. That very night after the two girls went to sleep, she propositioned her husband.

“Owen, let’s have a dessert baby! Remember how much fun it was when Casey and Doone were teeny? How happy we were?”

(How much you loved me in their glow?)

“What do you think?” she’d pressed. “Wouldn’t it be great?”


“No it wouldn’t be great or no we can’t?”

“Both. Either.”

“Can we at least talk about it?” He just shook his head, went into the kitchen. Kik followed. “Owen, please. Let’s talk about it.”

“There’s nothing to discuss. I said no.”

In a culmination of unnamed fears and frustration, she picked up a dirty plate and pitched it towards the sink. A mound of spaghetti landed on the floor. When Bean ran in to lap it up, Owen tripped over him.

“Yeah,” he hissed, limping back to the bedroom. “It’d be a great idea to bring another baby into this.”

Her breath caught. “What’s this?” she repeated, trailing him. “What do you mean?”

Owen dropped onto the edge of the bed. His eyes looked feverish.

“Kik,” he whispered. Then he put his hand out. All of their worst news had been shared with their fingers laced. Owen’s brother’s death. Her father’s.

Heart pounding, she refused the touch.

“Kik, we need to talk.”

She shook her head.

“I didn’t mean for it to happen.”

Kik froze. Her throat felt tight. An unfamiliar voice finally came out. “You didn’t mean for what to happen?”

“I’ve fallen in love with someone else.”

She could hear her pulse beating in her ears but was unable to get her mouth to work.

“Say it again,” she eventually whispered.

He did.

“Who is it?”

“Her name’s Vivy. Vivy Karr.”

“The one who wrote that article about your funding? Last year?”

The duration of the deception added to the injury. In a fleeting, piercing moment Kik imagined the unfolding of the whole relationship. She envisioned all of it. The first time Vivy went to Owen’s lab to interview him about his big oxygen transport grant. The instant mutual attraction. The phone call for unnecessary follow-up questions and the easy decision to just finish the interview over a coffee. A long coffee. Leading to chatty emails and teasing texts. And then lunch. And then more lunches that could be written off as innocent since they took place in public settings. But private topics would have already been broached. Tentatively at first, eventually breached with abandon. The first time he put his hand on the small of her back. And then the inevitable admission of feelings and desire.

Kik began to sob so intensely she couldn’t breathe. Owen tried to quell the volcanic spasms with a tight hug.

“You’ll be okay, Kik. You will.”

“But I love you, Owen! I love us,” she begged into his chest. “What can I do?”

“Shhh,” he whispered, holding soundly. He stroked the back of her neck and the unexpected tenderness became a kiss. And then a forlorn passion overtook them both.

Afterwards, Owen began shoving things into a suitcase. He was frantic. Shirts unfolded between drawer and bag. Sock balls rolled under the bed.

“Is the embassy falling?” Kik asked, stunned by the frenzy to escape. “The rescue helicopter leaving?”


“Are you afraid I’m going to keep you captive? Or are you feeling guilty for cheating on your girlfriend?”

He didn’t respond and she went to splash cold water on her face. She felt drugged. The medicine cabinet was open, the blue case holding her diaphragm at eye level. She gasped. Owen came in and saw what she saw. His scientific brain did a quick calculation.

“Where’s the spermicide?” He grabbed the tube and applicator from the cupboard and thrust them at her. “Here! Put some in!” Panic caused his voice to rise and crack. “Call your doctor! I’ll run into town and get the emergency contraception. I can’t believe this! It’s the exact wrong time of the month for you to have unprotected sex.”

His desperation woke up her fury. “You know what, Owen? I’m done trying to please you. It’s my body. And you can just get out. Now.”

Disgust chased shock across his face.

It wasn’t an end-run to trap him. It was just an attempt to control a little piece of her careening world. But Owen’s ovulatory prediction was accurate, of course. Their third daughter was the product of his exit interview. Basically, Tess was conceived while her father finished packing.


Kik declined Owen’s weak offer to reprise his role as labor coach. It was Kik’s sister, Maddie, who eventually accompanied her to the hospital. And it was Maddie who asked the hospital chaplain to speak with Kik when she cried for two straight days following her C-section.

The newly-single working mother-of-three eventually reached equilibrium. What most hastened her journey back was the discovery that Vivy left town shortly after Tess was born. The departure of the Other Woman provided a liberation of sorts. Kik still got to hate her. But at a safe, non all-consuming distance. (Which isn’t to say she didn’t regularly search the web for the reporter’s byline in order to chart her geographic and professional shifts.)

For a long time, Kik engaged in full-length reconciliation fantasies starring herself and an earlier, more relaxed Owen. And even though there was a conveyor belt of middle-aged women who appeared one after the other to wave from the car when the girls were being transported by their dad for weekend visitations, Kik’s imaginings always ended with her magnanimously agreeing to let him come home.

Then last year she saw another one of Vivy Karr’s bylines. In the Charlottesville paper. The Mistress was back in town. Owen reconciled all right.

With the woman who broke up our marriage!

Kik was looking at the clock again when the back door finally creaked open and Bean, who’d slept through the earlier crisis involving the knocking tree, suddenly jumped from a dead sleep to the floor. He never barked at Doone’s stealth entrances because the pragmatic vegan carried sandwich meat in her backpack to keep him quiet.

Kik listened to the dog’s nails make a happy clicking sound all the way to the kitchen below.

I should go down, too; have it out!

But her last conscious thought before slipping sideways into sleep was that of surrender.

I am lost. And, as Tess would say, getting loster.

The fading cries of the wayward phone entered Kik’s dreams, a child gone astray calling for its mother. She awoke a few hours later, fractured and exhausted, to the radio announcer excitedly calling for afternoon snow.


The mere prediction of precipitation could wreak havoc, triggering a full-on child-care scramble. Kik was sure her sanctimonious new boss would be monitoring everyone to see which members of the faculty had things under control — and which poor planners had to cancel classes and scurry home.

Why can’t Owen just pick Tess up if school gets out early? He’s tenured — I’m tenuous!

But her ex wouldn’t offer to leave his lab and Kik wouldn’t ask. She knew the rules. Owen’s graying ponytail of false advertisement disguised the rigidity that had come to characterize him. He took the girls on the agreed upon days.

Well, Casey and Tess, anyway, Kik thought. Doone refuses more often than not.

Kik steeled herself for the morning dance with her eldest. The last parenting manual she surreptitiously read, hunched over by the bathrooms at Barnes and Noble, recommended children deal with the results of their own behavior. Which made sense in theory only. Because the

eventual outcome of Doone not getting up would be Doone flunking out. Which seemed pretty extreme.

“Rise and shine,” Kik said, knocking first on Tess’s door.

“We’re downstairs,” Casey called from the kitchen below.

“We’re downstairs!” Doone mimicked snottily from across the hall.

Kik’s shoulders crowded her ears in nervous anticipation of the impending struggle. She took a deep breath.

“Please get ready, Doonie. Dress warmly, though! It’s supposed to be really cold.”

“Thank you, Weather Channel chick.”

A myriad of responses flashed. Many included storming the room and snatching the teen out of bed by her hair. Before she became a parent, Kik never would have guessed that boundless love plus fathomless worry added up to deeply pissed.

Doone’s behavior had nose-dived after the divorce. Not that she had ever been easy. Her school struggles began before she even lost her first tooth. Mysterious challenges that defied labels — and therefore treatment.

“Unspecified learning disability,” according to the ridiculously expensive school-recommended psychologist. “Low tolerance for frustration.”

Very helpful.

Kik received countless calls ‘inviting’ her to come in and meet with the pre-school team. The teachers were concerned about Doone’s tantrums when paper would rip instead of cut. Or when regular milk was provided instead

of chocolate. But what most troubled them was her flitting from one learning station to the next, never alighting anywhere for very long.

Not me, Kik had wanted to say. Give me a short attention span over hysterics any day.

She went to dress, choosing a blue sweater and gray pants with an elastic waistband. Comfort clothes that didn’t cut into her softening midsection or self-esteem. Then she brushed concealer on the bags under her eyes and wondered why puffiness didn’t smooth out laugh lines. Kik didn’t really mind those, though. She thought they made her look kind.

The two younger girls were down in the kitchen, Tess mid-monologue.

“And not only that! I shall also be asking Santa for jewelry. Pierced earrings. And a locket. But he knows that because I asked last year. He just forgot. And some more movies from before my time. Black and white ones, too. And perhaps a hamster. Did you know soon it will be my turn to bring Pinky home on the weekend? We used to have two hamsters at my school but one of them dieded.”

“I think I heard about that,” Casey responded.

“That is the problem with hamsters, you know. They die.”

Kik smiled as her middle daughter changed the dicey subject. “You look pretty, Mom.”

“Not haggard and peri-menopausal?”

“Ew,” Casey laughed.

“Oh, Mother!” Tess said, eyes wide. “I forgot to tell you that I discovered the phone. It was in my doll bed all along!

Underneath all sorts of items. I think, perhaps, Harperly put it there. She can be quite naughty at times.”

“I’ve noticed.”

Harperly was Tess’s imaginary friend who had recently taken up residence. Kik played along but found something slightly off-putting about her baby suddenly having long conversations with, and about, thin air.

Because, basically, the idea of invisible playmates is creepy!

“I’m just relieved you found it. I thought we’d have to have another search party. Did you put it in the charger?”

“No, but Casey did.”

Which reminded Kik to ask about babysitting.

“No problemo,” the teen answered. “I’m just going to be doing homework.”

“Thank you, sweetie.” Kik put a mug of water in the microwave, then noticed Tess had on her snow boots, apparel she generally refused. “Look at you! I’m so glad you’re wearing those, babiest-girl! Otherwise I’d be worried all day about your piggies being cold!”

“Casey said she would give me a dollar for each one if I did not cry.”

“Thank you,” Kik smiled at her middle daughter. “I know that was no mean feat.”

“They are not mean,” Tess shouted. “They just do not like to be sweaty!”

When Doone finally turned on the shower upstairs, Kik put her cell phone in her bag and kissed the younger girls goodbye. Little by little her shoulders unbunched as she passed the sprawling horse farms on the winding back roads into Charlottesville. The rolling hills, even in their

denuded condition, were her own private tranquilizers, and by the time she turned towards campus she felt calmer.

Kik decided to spring for parking rather than getting amped up again racing from her appointed space in Siberia. She pulled into a close-in lot and hustled over to the little kiosk graffitied with the esoteric musings of uber-educated attendants, handed the cute kid her keys, and ran across the street. Although rushing, Kik still noticed the elegance of the postcard-pretty college grounds, replete with red brick buildings and balconies held up by smooth white columns. The school’s beauty always left her cold, though.

It had been built on the backs of slaves.

The classroom had a frat party vibe when Kik arrived. She smiled at the sudden quiet and carefully examined the reading glasses hanging on her chest. She’d learned from an unfortunate encounter with a sesame noodle that accessorizing with eyewear was tantamount to strapping on a highchair tray.

She smiled again at the group.

“Okay. So, a) I apologize for being late and b) I really enjoyed your essays about character identification. I was impressed by how many of you independently chose biblical figures as literary corollaries.”

Luke, an adorable lacrosse player who probably got young teachers in trouble back when he was in high school, raised his hand. “What about you? Would you say you’re most like the protagonist in Heading South?”

Kik actually felt herself blush.

Did he read my book?

“I’m sure we share some characteristics.”

“Such as?” Luke pressed.

“Let’s see. We both worry about things like how many participants a prayer chain actually needs. We’re both seriously steadfast. Think Horton Hatches the Egg. And our hair color is the same. Though I’m not crazy about her cut.”

Everyone laughed.

She kept glancing out the window throughout the day, praying for the forecasted snow to start falling.

Mandatory attendance at Martin’s party will surely be waived for inclement weather!

But the temperature aggressively stayed in the high forties all afternoon and Kik raced home after her last class. Casey and Tess were sitting at the kitchen table in the glow of the TV that lived on the counter. It was tuned to The Dr. Price Show.

“Who’s on, Case?” Kik asked.

“This woman who’s addicted to plastic surgery. She’s had like forty operations.”

“Yikes,” Kik leaned towards the small screen, squinted. “She does look good, though.”

“Mom!” the teen laughed.

“Kidding. What’s Price say?”

“That this kind of thing makes him sad.”

Out of all the therapy shows that Casey had a baffling affinity for, Kik kind of liked the British import. While the other TV shrinks reminded her of medicine men pitching product from the back of their horse-drawn buggies, Price didn’t go in for the self-aggrandizing hype. He seemed more interested in helping his guests. More than once she’d gotten sucked into watching an intervention done by the

stoop-shouldered shrink with the nice eyes, and ended up in tears.

She bent over Tess, busy lining up a battalion of crayons in front of a coloring book, and kissed her head.

“Where’s Doone, Case?”

“Um, she texted. She’s studying with a friend.” The obvious lie was repeated without commentary.

Furious, Kik grabbed the landline and tried to call Doone but went to voicemail. “It’s me. You do not have permission to be out tonight! Especially after last night! I want you home now.”

For icing, when Kik went to change she discovered her strappy stiletto had been shoved inside a stretchy sock. Probably thinking it was some kind of new toy, Bean had chewed a good quarter inch off the shoe’s heel. She hobbled downstairs and asked Tess if she’d been playing in her closet.

“I might have done,” the little girl said earnestly. “It is just that I do not want your things to think I have forgotten about them! I have not visited in quite some time.”

“Casey, is it noticeable?”

“Don’t worry about it, Mom. No one’s going to look at your feet. Just try and enjoy yourself, for once!”

“I did mention where I was going, didn’t I?” But she was taken aback. “You’re my rock, Case. Thank you.”

“Am I a rock?” Tess asked. “Or am I still a gravel?”

“You are my helium balloon,” Kik said.

The temperature outside had dropped and a noisy funnel cloud of papery leaves danced across the unpaved driveway. Kik shivered. She just wanted to cozy up on the couch, be close with the girls.

All three of them!

Dread tapped her on the shoulder and she took a deep breath to try and shrug it off.

She steered the car onto the curiously named Dick Woods Road, then into the dark template of a heavily wooded, half-built community. It was clear that like Charlottesville proper, nothing made sense layout-wise. Street names changed willy-nilly. The bumper scraped ominously and Kik suddenly feared becoming seriously lost, her body not discovered until spring by heavy equipment drivers.

If the party wasn’t at Martin’s, I’d just bag it.

Her phone rang.


“What, sweetie?” Kik smiled in the dark. Tess had learned everyone’s numbers while she was still in nursery school. And used them freely.

“Casey says we cannot make brownies and I have a very large yen for them!”

“Did she say why not?”

“Because she has to work on a Spanish paper. Even though she could do that after my retirement at eight o’clock!”

“Let me talk to her.”

“Arghhhh,” Casey groaned in Kik’s ear.

“Hi baby. Listen, it’s probably in your best interest to go ahead and just let her make them. The mix I got the other day, all you have to do is add water.”

“All right,” Casey sighed. “Are you at the party?”

“No! I can’t find the freaking house. I’m beginning to feel like Meriwether Lewis out here. I’m pretty sure I’ve crossed parts of the county no one else has.”

“Oh, Mom. Poor you.”

Suddenly a parade of parked cars leading up to a McMonticello petulantly facing the woods instead of the street, appeared. “Wait a minute — I’m here!”

“Good luck,” Casey giggled.

Mindful of her fragile heel, she stepped carefully along the Shuster’s candle-lined path. As far as she was concerned the homey touch with the luminaries was akin to a well-decorated waiting room outside an oncology office.

The lead-up might be nice. But for the most part you’re hosed as soon as you cross the threshold.

When Martin joined the faculty just two months before he said his tenure would be characterized by camaraderie and gentle stewardship.

An enormous, big, fat, mean lie.

He’d been making a concerted effort to distinguish instructors from the real professors, dropping in on so many of Kik’s classes “to observe” that the last time he slithered into a seat she had a nearly insurmountable urge to peg him between the eyes with an eraser.

The rumor was that Martin planned to bring in more degreed faculty, ratchet up the qualifications of the department as a whole. Perhaps even phase out instructor-level teachers altogether.

Which would be just perfect. Then what will we do?

A sleek sports car with the vanity plate BSTSLR was parked near the top of the drive.

This just keeps getting better.

Though not an actual member of the department, Dorian True, the polka-meister of prose, the walking embodiment of self-promotion, and the reigning Southern champion of shiv insertion, had apparently wormed her way onto the guest list. Kik hated everything about the self-appointed doyenne of the Charlottesville writing community: her gaudy sentences, the plots she recycled from one book to the next, and the bizarre braid that sat on top of her head like a basket lid.

Kik tried to do that deep breathing thing from yoga but couldn’t remember if it was inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth, or the other way around. She’d had to flee class when she got intractable giggles after the guy on the adjoining mat let one rip during downward dog. She never went back.

The door swung open before she knocked.

“Klara! I’m delighted you could make it!” the mini-man pronounced.

“Sorry I’m late, Martin,” she lied. Behind him a hideous copper contraption poured water down the wall like a plumbing emergency. “Nice fountain.”

“Thank you, my dear. We had it custom made by one of Japan’s most renowned water sculptors.”



An awkward silence grew.

“Can I offer you a rum toddy?”

“Please!” she said a little too desperately. A table set with a crystal punchbowl sat right inside the foyer. Little glass cups hung from it like shrimp hors d’oeuvres. “What

a great idea, Martin! Entryway cocktails! I should try it at home — steel myself for what lies ahead.”

The compact little man stared at her appraisingly and Kik put the drink to her mouth to prevent further logorrhea. Ever since his appointment she’d been plagued by her landlord dreams. She hadn’t had them for a couple of years. The recurrent nightmare was an actual replay of the security deposit walk-through of her first apartment. The landlord had opened the oven and gasped as if he’d just discovered the remains of a voodoo sacrifice.

The dreams first started right after Owen left, stealing sleep night after night. It took therapy to understand they were about inadequacy. And humiliation. It wouldn’t require a return to the couch to uncover the reason for their comeback.

Martin Shuster had arrived like some academic avenger after the laid-back former Chair had had a debilitating stroke. It was a widely known secret that Martin had been the search committee’s second choice. The first had withdrawn his name at the last minute after being accused of taking credit for intellectual property not his own.

Kik had been amazed by how much a new manager could screw things up. She used to love going to work. It was like summer camp for artsy adults. Now there was backbiting and paranoia and serious job insecurity.

On Monday, Martin stopped her in the hall and casually mentioned that he was going to assign a full professor to help her edit the students’ award-winning literary journal. Kik had been speechless. She’d been the faculty advisor since the inception of Or Perish. Her eye twitched just

thinking about it again. Behind her the doorbell rang. She turned.

“Hi you,” she grinned.

Parrish Boudreaux beamed back.

“Go join the party, you two,” Martin commanded. “There’s just one more tardy guest.”

“Micro-manager taking attendance?” Parrish muttered when they were out of earshot.

Kik giggled.

“Hey, girl, I heard you won again. Congrats!”

“Thanks. It’s been the bright spot of my week. Oh, who am I kidding? Year. The bright spot of my year.” She took a sip of her drink. “Martin’s probably trying to think of a way to rescind it. Decree that the students can only vote for their favorite tenured faculty.”

“You know if you sat your little butt down and finished your novel it’d be a non-issue. Your stock would soar. You’d get a promotion.”

“Are you trying to push me deeper into the abyss?”

“Why don’t you get in touch with your agent over Christmas?”

“Because I haven’t written anything!”

Suddenly Dorian waved grandly from the sunroom off the kitchen. “Mr. Boudreaux!”

“The barnacle’s here?” he whispered, jovially waving back.

“I’ll protect you.”

“She can rub up against me all she wants — just don’t let her talk.”

“I don’t know,” Kik said innocently. “I’m kinda interested in what she’s working on these days.”

“I’ll kill you dead, woman. Do. Not. Get. Her. Started.”

One of their favorite games was Six Degrees of Dorian True, throwing out topics ranging from spontaneous combustion to gastric bypass, just to watch her divert conversational traffic back to herself. Dorian had even commandeered a recent article on a poet’s death. Kik and Parrish had taken turns reading it aloud. Dorian talked to the reporter about how she and the departed came up together, describing the literary salon for the ‘myriad of successful writers in Charlottesville’ that they had co-hosted for years (first Kik had ever heard of it), finally segueing into how she’d be dedicating her next novel, Country Roads, Shining Stars, to the deceased. Parrish said all the obit needed was an order form and Kik had almost wet her pants in the faculty lounge.

“How long do we have to stay?”

“Just stick with me, young lady. And seriously, podna. You’d better pace yourself in the drink department. Office parties are factored into job evaluations.”

Her anxiety shot up but bumped against Parrish’s wandering attention.

“Hey, is that Cisco’s wife over there?” he asked.


“Packed some pounds on, huh?”

“She had twins, Parrish.”

“Did they leave one in?”

She shook her head and in return he did his slow grin thing. Which didn’t generally work on her. But she looked away just in case. Women tended to pulse around him. He was tall and lanky with a Cajun accent and dark brows that

arched high over dancing brown eyes, making him seem perpetually bemused.

“Forty-nine more minutes,” he said.

“Until what?

“I blow this pop stand. I’m catching an obscenely early flight to New Orleans.”

“You’re leaving me here? What time is your flight?”


Kik snorted. “Want a wake up call?”

“Couldn’t you just nudge me?”

“Aren’t you ever afraid it’s going to snap off?”

His hands flew to his crotch in the universal male sign for the world coming to an end.

Kik laughed. “Anyway, as you never tire of mentioning, I’m a day older than you. Which means I’m about two decades past my prime.”

“No such thing, darlin’. Hey, you wouldn’t be able to take care of Orbison for a few days, would you? He hates the kennel.”

“Uh, no? That’s all I need. Your flamboyant mutt harassing Bean all weekend. How’s Colette?”

“Good. I won’t be, though. Patsy awaits.”

“What’s going on?”

“Just the usual.” His struggles with his ex had been percolating for years, ever since Patsy took their little girl back to visit family in Louisiana — and stayed. Parrish not only learned about the marital dissolution long distance, his wife also came out to him during the same conversation. In one of life’s little ironies, the world’s biggest heterosexual flirt had inadvertently married a lesbian. “How’s Doone?”

Kik shrugged her pain.

“Oh well. We’re a pair. Let’s go mingle. Consider it a wise career move. None of your usual marginalia. Laissez les bons temps rouler!”

“Whoa. What do you mean wise career move?”

“Come along.” He led her towards a resolutely middle-aged woman in a red and orange quilted jacket who was sauntering around like she owned the place. He introduced himself.

“I’m delighted that you were able to come tonight, Parrish!” the woman in the tea-cozy barked. “Martin was telling me you’re going to teach song writing when your sabbatical is over?”

“Yes. And the Build-a-Novel course,” he smiled. “Allow me to introduce Kik, which is acronym-ious for Klara Isabella Kaufman.”

“Marcheson,” Kik added, “is my last name.”

“She’s one of the stars of the Mixed Arts Department,” Parrish went on. “Just won the Faculty Prize in fact!”

“Pleased to meet you,” the woman pinched out.

The insincerity was so unmistakable Kik felt hot shame. She mumbled appreciation for the dinner invitation and could have cried with relief when her cell phone began ringing in her purse.

Kik excused herself and walked back towards the quieter kitchen. “Hello?”

“Mom, I’m sorry to bother you again but — ”

“Is something wrong, Case? Is it Doone? Did she get home?”

“No. But, um, Dad just called and, um, Vivy just got asked to be on The Suzanna Show tomorrow about an

article she wrote and Dad wants to know if I can go, too. He said it could be an early birthday present.”

“You want to go on a trip with your father’s girlfriend?”

“Dad’s going, too.” The three words contained a world of hurt.

“Casey. I’m sorry. You should definitely go. Really.”

“Are you sure? Because I won’t if you don’t want me to.”

“Honey, I do. I want you to go.”

Please let me have sounded more sincere than Mrs. Shuster.

“Thank you, Mom!”

Kik immediately began worrying about how this would play out with Doone. Tess’s exclusion could be chalked up to age — but what about Doone’s?

Oh, who am I kidding? I can barely get her to go out for dinner with him. He hasn’t even seen her since she began stretching her earring holes to National Geographic dimensions!

Martin tapped a spoon on a wineglass to announce dinner. The guests were ushered into a huge dining room where beskirted chairs brushed the floor with mauve hems and candle centerpieces sprouted from rings of gold-tipped pinecones.

“It’s like walking into one of Dorian’s paragraphs,” Kik whispered to Parrish, a tad too robustly. Their assigned seats bookended the woman.

Martin asked the room to bow heads for prayer. Beneath the heavy tablecloth Parrish’s fingers began doing itsy-bitsy spider up Kik’s thighs.

“Cut it out,” she hissed.

His face remained in placid contemplation until Martin finally sat and waiters appeared with salad plates.

“Are those anchovies?” Kik whispered.

“Stop pouting. It’s unbecoming.” He turned to the woman on his right, abandoning her to Dorian.

“So, Kik, how are you?”

Here we go.

“Fine, thanks. How are you, Dorian?”

“Very well. You’ll appreciate this — I just had the most interesting discussion with my editor. Oh! That reminds me! I saw a copy of your little novel — ”

Little novel!

“— at the library sale. I picked it up for you since it’s out of print. It was on the last day so it was 75% off. You owe me a quarter,” she laughed merrily. “I’ll put it in your faculty box next time I’m there.”

Kik’s face smoldered as Dorian plowed on.

“Anyhoo, what I was going to tell you was that some of the mid-list authors are throwing absolute hissies about not getting enough post-pub support. They’re all over. Tweeting and posting, complaining — ”

“Why shouldn’t they complain? The whole system is rigged, Dorian. Do you really think you and Nina What’s-Her-Name are the only novelists in the country?”

“I don’t understand what you’re getting at.”


“It’s just that there are all sorts of really great writers out there who either can’t get published or who are buried by marketing for better-known authors.”

“Careful, dear,” Dorian patted Kik’s arm, all Southern comfort and false concern. “Someone could get the idea the dinner wine came from sour grapes.”

That’s it. Game on.

“Anyhoo, Dorian, I’m really glad we’re sitting together because one of my students asked a publishing question and I was totally stumped.”

“Fire away.”

“She wanted to know the ethics behind a writer having the same friends she thanks in the foreword provide the blurbs on the back cover. She mentioned the objectivity factor. And the thing is, she brought in one of your books! As an example,” Kik said, lying through her teeth. “How should I have answered?”

“You could have just explained that the more successful an author is, the smaller the peer group.”

Ok, that’s a wash.

“Hey, I enjoyed that article about you, Dorian.”

In spite of the flying knives, the woman’s cheeks pinked up. “Which one?”

Parrish squeezed Kik’s knee before she could answer, choking off what he knew was coming.

(Your friend’s obituary!)

Then he and Dorian started talking about the Charlottesville Book Festival and Kik checked out. She suspected the annual literary event had been designed to make her feel like a failure in her own backyard. Successful authors, agents and publishers made a pilgrimage to town putting on panel discussions about all things writerly. It generally set off a career-related depression.


She excused herself and walked quickly down the hall in search of a bathroom. Her unsteady gait pushed the weakened stiletto to its limit and the thing snapped off altogether. She sat on the toilet lid awash in apocalyptic sadness, and unstrapped both shoes.

What is wrong with me? Why would I take on Dorian True?

Kik closed her eyes. Eventually a knock startled her from her stupor.

“Just freshening my make-up,” she announced, lest anyone think she was in there so long for some bodily function. At least she didn’t have to flush. When she opened the door Parrish was waiting with her purse and both of their coats. While he helped her into hers, he nodded towards the vanity where a bonsai tree, pebbles and a miniature rake sat in a tiny jade saucer.

“Small man, small garden?” he asked.

That got a smile.

“You okay, Klara?”

“More or less. Mostly less.”

“C’mon beautiful. Let’s go.”

WHERE TO BUY IT: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Harvard Square Editions PRICE: 17. CONTACT THE AUTHOR:

Relative Strangers

Margaret Hermes 2THE BOOK: Relative Strangers


THE AUTHOR: Margaret Hermes

THE PUBLISHER: Carolina Wren Press. The mission of CWP is to seek out, nurture, and promote literary work by new and underrepresented writers, including women and writers of color.

SUMMARY: A collection of short stories, Relative Strangers won the Doris Bakwin Prize for Writing by a Woman and a special second place award in the 2012 Balcones Fiction Prize.

Relative StrangersThe fourteen stories are thematically linked by their close examination of relationships. In the title story, relatives are shocked by revelations about the buried pasts of family members. In ”Transubstantiation,” a long-wed couple discovers they are strangers to each other. In “Meet Me,” a much younger couple is all too willing to believe they are strangers to each other. “The River’s Daughter” explores an uneasy relationship between siblings: “Even though I came first, once Carrie was on the scene I never came first to mind. I bore the distinction of being both the oldest and an afterthought.” With effort, they’ve managed not to let men come between them, but the river of the title threatens to permanently separate the sisters.

Sometimes the connection, or misconnection, is cross-generational, as in “For the Home Team,” where a boy is sent away to his uncle’s farm during the breakup of his parents’ marriage. When Daniel bemoans his father’s absence and silence over the course of the difficult summer, his uncle replies, “Sure, sure. He is stupid. I mean no disrespect. Men are stupid is all. They don’t know how to act.”

Daniel tells us he was glad to find that he and his uncle were somehow “excluded from this society of morons.”

The characters in Relative Strangers – ranging from a high school valedictorian fascinated by bees to a boy who goes through sexual awakening against a backdrop of bigotry — experience warmth as well as alienation, humor as well as heartache.

The collection is meant to draw the reader in with characters and settings that might seem familiar but never ordinary. I grew up in Chicago and live in St. Louis and some of the stories are set in those cities, while others take place on a South Carolina farm, in a hospital in Duluth, at a baseball game at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan, in a mythical town in the Missouri Bootheel, in a suburban nursing home, or in a nameless village in Eastern Europe where “everything was heavy — the coats, the shoes, the sky, the hearts.”

THE BACK STORY: These stories, published singly in literary magazines, were written over many years.

“Meet Me” (see sample chapter) took about two hours, plus subsequent airbrushing. I had asked my partner to just pick a title for a story out of the air. I wasn’t feeling inventive and apparently neither was he. In a hurry, he declined and began to lay out plans for the afternoon. “Meet me–” he said and I said, “That’s it!”

On the other hand, “Growing Season” took two years. That’s a story enriched by fragments from other people’s pasts. Various men among my acquaintance shared details from their youth that lodged in my memory and gave heft to the boy who matures over the course of the story. I worked long and hard on the structure to achieve a flow – an undercurrent really – between two forms of bigotry, religious and racial. So the innocence lost in this coming of age story is more than just sexual.

WHY THIS TITLE? The stories in this collection are tied together by a common theme. In some fashion each explores the many ways in which people remain unknown to one another. I think we’re all strangers from time to time to the people who should know us best. How we get through that — or run from it — intrigues me.

The title story was originally called “Family Matters” and that was the rubric I intended for the book. Then I became aware of Rohinton Mistry’s novel by that name and abandoned it. I tried “Family Business” and a couple other clunkers before I settled happily on Relative Strangers. I love that it suggests both people who are merely acquainted and relatives who are estranged from one another.

An additional benefit is that the title inspired my artist daughter, Lucy HG Solomon, to create the striking image that the publisher used for the cover.

WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? Change is what really drives my interest in any story. In theatre, I am not a fan of the one-person show. I want to see a character develop on stage, not see them at the end of their development or hear about how they developed into what they are now. The change can be internal – an epiphany – or external. Ideally, for me, a story will have both.

In the first of two connected stories, “Second Lover,” the change, apart from the change in the primary relationship, is in what the first person character is willing to accept in order to have a physical relationship; in “Foreign Exchange,” the following story, or the story within the story, it’s in how the protagonist views herself.

Aside from being intrigued by the way the characters – people! — develop, I hope that readers will be drawn to the writing. I am an ardent admirer of the short story form, the spareness and precision of it.


“Relative Strangers is a stunning collection of stories. Every single story is vivid and memorable, and yet, equally powerful is the collective thematic effect. So many of these characters are strangers within their own families and their own lives – people thought to be  dead are resurrected and another’s survival is akin to death.

Change, loss, alienation; it’s all here. But so is humor and compassion and a fresh spin on the way people deal with the most vulnerable aspects of life. The range in vision is also powerful as we view – in one story – the adult world through the eyes of an adolescent who senses in his mother’s tremor ‘an earthquake unsettling my world’ and then just as easily we view life from the other end of the spectrum as characters look back on the change and loss and choices that shaped  everything  in life that followed. This movement between innocence and experience is constant, as is the weighing of love against passion and lust. Margaret Hermes is a wonderful writer and this is a moving and powerful collection.” —Jill McCorkle, Doris Bakwin Contest Judge

“Stories that feature a keen understanding of what makes people tick, but not click, in a dysfunctional America…sprinkled with tender and provocative examinations of familial relationships.” — St. Louis Beacon

“Hermes’ descriptions are colorful, her dialogue believable, and her word-play wondrous.” 
 — Walrus Publishing

“The stories are short, but the characters’ histories are deep and immediately intimate to the reader; Hermes has a knack for inviting the reader into her prose with brevity amid description. There’s something about the way Hermes’ characters portray themselves to their external worlds while battling their conflicting inner selves that makes them so human, so relatable, and yet so intriguingly dysfunctional.” – Los Angeles Review.

“Hermes rewards readers with deftly drawn portraits and an economy of language that perfectly matches her short-story template.” — St. Louis Post-Dispatch Sunday book section:

AUTHOR PROFILE: My short stories have been published in a wide range of literary magazines and university journals and occasionally anthologized (Under the Arch, Antares Press; 20 Over 40, University Press of Mississippi). My published and performed work includes a mystery novel, The Phoenix Nest (Contemporary Books), and book and lyrics for a stage adaptation of an Oscar Wilde fable, The Birthday of the Infanta, commissioned by Metro Theatre Company. (I think of the latter as a musical tragedy for children.)

As a child growing up in Chicago I was much read to, and then evolved into a voracious reader. It helped that I had no sisters, four athletic brothers, and myopia that went undiagnosed until I’d become a hopeless bookworm. But I also inherited my aspiration.

My mother grew up with a passion for books in a small coal-mining town. Having no library and no wherewithal to purchase books, she began writing her own in grade school. Mostly tales of adventure in the American West. They were written on butcher paper and shared with friends and their families. Instead of becoming an author, she turned herself into a full-time housewife and mother, so somebody had to take up the pen.

A resident of St. Louis, I am a longtime advocate of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. When not writing fiction, I’ve written about the dangers of radioactive wastes and worked on behalf of a better built environment as well as for clean streams, the preservation of parkland, and the protection of wilderness areas.

AUTHOR COMMENTS: Most of the stories in Relative Strangers contain slices of the real. For some, no research was needed, but the opening story, “The Bee Queen,” was inspired by an incident that haunted me since childhood. Planning to write about that vivid event involving wasps, I decided to spend an afternoon at the library familiarizing myself a bit with stinging insects. That research stretched out not only over time but into my main character. The facts that fascinated me gave rise to Bette who also found them fascinating, even if most of those facts didn’t make it into the story.

“Transubstantiation” emerged from a horrific event that befell friends. Writing about that was difficult on so many levels. I wanted to examine the transformative effect of calamity on individuals and relationships, the notion that even if the victim returns to her former life she can’t resume it: she is forever altered. I didn’t want to turn the couple I knew into characters, so I was acutely conscious of choosing attributes that would distinguish the husband and wife in “Transubstantiation” from my friends. That complicated the telling of the story.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s “Parings,” a fable that came directly from a dream.

SAMPLE CHAPTER: the 5th and shortest story in the collection:

Deborah’s knee protested with each step she took down the basement stairs. She tried balancing the laundry basket on her other hip, but the pain persisted. She was afraid she was going to have to give up running. Another part of herself gone.

Some of the changes were the by-product of marriage – the loss of autonomy, the compromises in taste. Some were the direct result of Rob’s asking her to change: she gave up smoking; she took up bicycling. Other changes were harder to pinpoint, or to pinpoint their cause. Did people find her less interesting and attractive simply because she was married now, settled? Because she and Rob had settled for each other? When she was single, and even engaged, she felt the eyes in a room, men and women’s alike, appreciating or appraising her. Lately, she felt invisible.

Mechanically, she set about emptying the pockets of Rob’s pants. This was one of the changes he’d failed to make to accommodate her. Pens, stamps, his watch, antacid tablets were but a few of the items she had rescued. Kleenex was the worst offender. When it disintegrated in the wash cycle, the bits would be distributed over the entire load in the dryer and adhere like elfin flecks of papier maché.

She pulled dimes and pennies from his left pocket and a book of matches from his right. A tilted silver cocktail glass with three bubbles rising from it shimmered on the black matchbook cover. On the flip side was printed Christopher’s in silvery script. Deborah frowned at the object in her palm. She didn’t know of a place called Christopher’s. And why would Rob, the anti-smoking crusader, be carrying matches from there or anywhere? She fumbled with the matchbook and the lid slid open revealing a scrawl of blue ink against the white interior: Meet me.

Deborah sat down on the concrete floor amid the piles of laundry. Was he cruising bars? How long had this been going on? Was it just the one woman or was he a serial pick-up artist? Who was this person she was married to?

She thought about how he, more often than she, was too tired or distracted for sex. Now there was a context for his tiredness and for what was distracting him.

Maybe he, too, had never been to Christopher’s – yet. Maybe the matchbook was her way of choosing the place for their next assignation.

She tried to stand, but the pain in her knee radiated to her ankle.

Suddenly her first suspicion rebounded within her. Cruising bars. What if he wasn’t chasing women after all? Christopher’s. It even sounded like a gay bar. No wonder she had never heard of it.

A wave of nausea hit her. She lay down, her cheek against the cool concrete. Well, the difference in their sexual appetites was accounted for. She had hated him for those moments while she believed he was seeing other women, but now she didn’t know what she felt. Revulsion, yes, and anger that he’d deceived her. But pity, too. For the two of them. Her last conscious thought before retreating into sleep there on the basement floor was that they would have to talk about this but she didn’t know how and she didn’t know when.

* * *

When Rob returned from taking the last of their garden tomatoes to his mother, he found Deborah sitting at the kitchen table folding laundry, one leg propped up on another chair and an ice pack draped over her knee.

“What happened?”

“Nothing,” she said. “At least nothing I can be sure of. “ She pushed a stack of his underwear toward him. “I think it’s probably the running.”

Rob heard the sadness in her voice. He wasn’t surprised. Deborah was addicted to running like he was addicted to caffeine. “It’ll be okay.” He gave her shoulder a squeeze.

“You think?”

“You’re doing all the right things.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“Rest. Ice. Just give it a little time.”

“You know, I won’t be able to go biking tomorrow.”

“I guess not.” Rob was disappointed. They had signed up for the Labor Day ride months ago. “So we’ll go next year.”

“We’ll see. Anyway, you’re going tomorrow.”

“Not without you. We’ll do something else.”

“Rob, I know how much you were looking forward to it. I’d feel a lot worse if you didn’t go.”

“Are you sure?” he said, already gone in spirit, coasting down a hill on a curving county road.

She nodded. “The one thing I’m absolutely sure of.”

The next morning, in semi-darkness, he packed his pannier while she slept – trail mix, wrench, sunscreen, windbreaker. He rummaged through Deborah’s purse for the essential gadget – the little can of pepper spray attached to her key ring. Too often he’d been chased by dogs while biking along country roads. He hoped he wouldn’t have to use the spray, but he was taking it. Before his fingers found the keys, they hit upon a familiar, disturbing shape. He drew a matchbook from the leather folds. “Shit,” he said softly.

She had promised him she’d given up smoking. How could a runner continue to fill her lungs with smoke? And lie to him about it. He hated deceit more than anything.

He looked at the cover. Now she was going to bars without him. Looking for a safe haven for smokers, he supposed, a smoking club with dues to be paid later in the cancer ward.

He wondered where this Christopher’s was. Near her office probably. That would explain why she was late getting home twice last week.

He flipped the lid and in the dim light squinted at the hasty scrawl. So that’s what the late nights were about. And now the farce of the injured knee. She wanted Rob out of the way. She’d have the whole damn day to meet him.

WHERE TO BUY IT: Relative Strangers can be purchased online from the publisher’s website

It is also available from Amazon.

PRICE: $15.95


Mommy Writings: Mommy, Would You Like a Sandwich?

Mommy, Would You Lie ...THE AUTHOR: Suzanne McMillen-Fallon.

THE EDITOR: Kathi Anderson.

THE PUBLISHER: Strategic Book Publishing and Rights Agency (SBPRA). SBPRA is a “help-publishing” company that offers book publishing and marketing services for all genres.

SUMMARY: “There’s one thing I know – God exists.” At age nineteen, MaryAnne McMillen severed two vital nerves at the base of her skull when she suffered a near fatal fall. This was followed by an out-of-body experience, life after death, in which she heard the words, “It’s not your time.”

Suzanne McMillen-Fallon IIWhen the two nerves fused together, MaryAnne was left in unrelenting, excruciating pain. Being the mother of a young son and married to a philandering brute of a husband when the accident occurred, the family disallowed the use of any medicine because it was against their religion. After fourteen years of agony, doctors were finally able to perform a unique surgery known as intraspinal rhizotomy. This story weaves together the idea of family and faith, while also creating a sense of longing in the reader’s own life for something bigger than themselves. Mommy’s Writings is the extraordinary memoir of the love between a mother and her young son, and a great-grandmother whose intense devotion to the two of them kept their little family together. It is a story of faith in God, of forgiveness and acceptance, and of gratitude.

THE BACK STORY: As it’s written in Mommy’s Writings’ Conclusion: “With this novel, I’ve fulfilled what I perceive as a heavenly Father’s purposed plan for my life. It gives my soul rest (Ps. 139:13-14).”

While the story reveals an existing intrigue underwent by the McMillen family, some of the characters’ names have been changed, so as not to inflict harm upon people still living.

“Because God is, this story belongs to everyone. (St. Matthew 22:21 [AV]; Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25). For, as awareness is, so is God consciousness.”

This is a lingering tale of a mother’s head injury and her vulnerable four-year old son’s love for each other. Together they are tethered by an intense unyielding great-grandmother’s love for the two of them that further binds them to their home in Warren, Ohio. As written in Mommy’s Writings’ Preface, “What began as a private writing for my son Chad is now a tie that binds a family’s times and inspires the love of God.”

WHY THIS TITLE? While his mommy lies in bed, and as it’s written in the book, “The afternoon’s sun warmth is felt through the bay window, as its soft radiance brings a pillow to rest over my head. It will ease my eyes from the remaining daylight that somehow adds to the spasm’s cruelty, which is ever more callous today. I accept my thoughts, for God carries me now.

Surely, another pill will do some good.

“Mommy, can I play with my cars?”

“Yes, darling son. I’d love it if you would.”

I won’t sleep, but I’ll probably lose consciousness, as thoughts of a heavenly Father’s loving compassion then cradles us.

Lord, God Almighty, I’m so fragile – as if I’m barely alive – but I’m not afraid. Please don’t let your little child Chad be afraid for his mommy.

My thoughts are on Chad, what little I can think; and as tears well-up and make their presence known, soft facial tissue holds the tears escaping into an emotion of God’s presence, which embraces and helps my precious little boy accept that mommy’s okay. I hear Chad’s sweet, loving voice as he retrieves his toy Matchbox cars from the parking bay he used earlier in his play atop and across the bedcovers, to drive over superhighways and onto their destinations. It is this which somehow has me feel a child’s innocence and compassion.

“Chad, I love you bunches.”

“I know, Mommy! I love you bunches too!”

This is my child. Unexpectedly, my son parks his little Matchbox cars in the parking bay and then stands thoughtfully. Chad looks deep into my eyes as he walks the length of the bed to place his one hand into mine, having his other arm on the edge of the bed that leans in toward me, and all the while our eyes keep within each other’s world.

“Mommy, would you like a sandwich?”

My child, with his little man ways, then places another tissue to catch my tears.

“A sandwich, Mommy?”

Chad’s a child who isn’t even five years old. How does this relate to hope or faith?

“Thank you, Chad. Perhaps a little later.”

“Mommy, don’t you know? I’m here to help you feel better.”

Life isn’t fair—God is. But when a child must furnish compassion to his mother, life is upside down. My thoughts remain quietly within.

Dear God . . . Why?

WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? The book will change your perspective on life: with enlightenment, as in the words of Sartre’s reality, “I think, therefore I am. No matter, the mindset. ”Does God exist?” “What’s life all about?”

This true story novel does not proselytize. I’m not a religious person. I believe in God. The story is based on my life, what was experienced on February 14, 1969, in an out-of-body experience, life after death, in which I heard the words, “It’s not your time.”

In Mommy’s Writings, it begins with my simple words to a friend, “I’ll help with your gifts, but first let me open the garage doors, Cynthia.”

“MaryAnne, lift up on the center latch to open them.”

I step out of the car and onto the pavement to stand before my friend, whose car’s headlights are bright in the nippy night air against a sky’s brilliant star backdrop, which are now a part of me. I can’t see her through the headlight’s intensity, but knowing Cynthia, she’s smiling. I glance upward, where the stars almost feel like you can touch them in such night clarity, which reminds me of life’s treasures: our friends that are given to us by a higher consciousness whose intention gives such blessings to his creations. I think, Treasure life.

I turn and open the double-door garage, and then, in a single step backward into a cement pit, my life changes forever.


“This book has touched my heart to see what a mother will go through just to make sure her child was safe and raised to the best of her ability. The trials and errors we go through in life can sometimes Feel like we are alone, but always remember God is with you, as Suzanne has taught me.” – Jeffrey Miller.

AUTHOR PROFILE: In Washington State, my second husband, Gene D. Fallon, retired. With our focus then on writing, I worked part time for Hallmark Retail, Inc. (Andrews’s Hallmark, and then Amy’s Hallmark), and attended to Fallon’s failing health. He was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia, at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; with our commuting for his care at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance building, shortly after moving to Mukilteo, Washington in 1996. It’s in Fallon’s latter days, when his strength was little and he slept mostly, that the novel “Mommy’s Writings: Mommy, would you like a sandwich?” flowed through me. It was inspired. As I could see his resting form, a body slowly weakening from a fatal disease, but never removing away from him his loving nature. The injections I gave him finally were of no earthly use, and Gene David Fallon died on 12-1-2003; but not before his reading of my creative work, Mommy Writings Series Book 1.

It’s in my marriage to Fallon, during those years, when the dear Lord had me learning the writing process. “Would I have accomplished this work without my patient husband’s support for his Suz? Let’s just say, with his love and respect that his Suz finds strength in two hearts now released as one.”

Yes, I knew I’d someday write this story. In spite of the head injury, and the permanent brain impairment, I live with. Yet, it’s like author Darrell Laurant shared with me in his October 15, 2015 e-mail, “…there are also the wild cards of prayer and personal determination.” And it’s true, this I know.

When defining who she is, Suzanne McMillen-Fallon writes, “Mother of Chad C. McMillen and author.” In her younger years, she was an artist. After the 1983 surgery, she is a published writer of poetry and prose, and co-authored the book Shadows of Yesterday with her late second husband, Gene Fallon. Her next book, Parallax Crossroads: Finding My Way (Copyright January 25, 2012) continues the Mommy Writings Series.

Suzanne McMillen-Fallon was previous business owner and CEO of the Center for Communication Arts, Inc. in Orlando; having been associate director of Television Workshop, Inc. with Gene Fallon in Cleveland, Ohio. Past business experience includes apartment house ownership and management and a family-owned business affiliation in the oil and gas industry.

Ms. McMillen-Fallon has a background in the performing arts in theatrical production at the famed Youngstown, Ohio Playhouse; developing an amazing role-playing ability than used as a teaching technique in Florida, where becoming the instructor’s protégé, she acted out parts audiences easily related to.


LOCAL OUTLETS: E.G. Toledo-Lucas County Library:; Sno-isle Regional Library System, WA State:; NOLA Regional Library System:;

WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Mommy Writings Series Book 1, Mommy’s Writings: Mommy, Would You Like a Sandwich? – A True Story (ISBN: 978-1-60976-456-2) By Suzanne McMillen-Fallon is available for $24.50 and can be ordered through the publisher’s website: or at or

Wholesalers: This book is distributed by Ingram Books and other wholesale distributors. Contact your representative with the ISBN for purchase. Wholesale purchase for retailers, universities, libraries, and other organizations is also available through the publisher; please email

PRICE: $24.50.

CONTACT THE AUTHOR:; Google:; Twitter handle: Suzanneasmf; Facebook page:

Weather Report, Jan. 11




This week is about families. All kinds of families — supportive, connected, broken, and in transition. And the subject is examined through three different lenses, ranging from a  collection of short stories (“Relative Strangers”) to a novel (“Close”) to a memoir (“Mommy Would You Like a Sandwich?”).



Close is a novel of family and suspense. Wry single mom Kik Marcheson is dancing as hard as she can — teaching at the university, struggling with the family’s finances (which may soon include having to return the long-gone advance for her unfinished second novel), and coping with her increasingly challenging daughters.

Doone, the oldest, is swimming in the deep end of adolescence; Casey, the middle child-slash-good girl, is slowly coming undone and little Tess, the quirky kindergartner, has somewhat alarmingly introduced an invisible playmate into the family constellation.

When Doone’s activities can no longer be ignored, a TV therapist offers a hand. Caving to Casey, Kik sets aside serious misgivings and agrees to let the family participate.

And then things go from bad to terrifying.


The characters in Relative Strangers – ranging from a high school valedictorian fascinated by bees to a boy who goes through sexual awakening against a backdrop of bigotry — experience warmth as well as alienation, humor as well as heartache.

The fourteen stories are thematically linked by their close examination of relationships. In the title story, relatives are shocked by revelations about the buried pasts of family members. In ”Transubstantiation,” a long-wed couple discovers they are strangers to each other. In “Meet Me,” a much younger couple is all too willing to believe they are strangers to each other. “The River’s Daughter” explores an uneasy relationship between siblings: “Even though I came first, once Carrie was on the scene I never came first to mind. I bore the distinction of being both the oldest and an afterthought.”

The collection is meant to draw the reader in with characters and settings that might seem familiar but never ordinary. I grew up in Chicago and live in St. Louis and some of the stories are set in those cities, while others take place on a South Carolina farm, in a hospital in Duluth, at a baseball game at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan, in a mythical town in the Missouri Bootheel, in a suburban nursing home, or in a nameless village in Eastern Europe where “everything was heavy — the coats, the shoes, the sky, the hearts.”


“There’s one thing I know – God exists.” At age nineteen, MaryAnne McMillen severed two vital nerves at the base of her skull when she suffered a near fatal fall. This was followed by an out-of-body experience, life after death, in which she heard the words, “It’s not your time.”

When the two nerves fused together, MaryAnne was left in unrelenting, excruciating pain. Being the mother of a young son and married to a philandering brute of a husband when the accident occurred, the family disallowed the use of any medicine because it was against their religion. After fourteen years of agony, doctors were finally able to perform a unique surgery known as intraspinal rhizotomy. This story weaves together the idea of family and faith, while also creating a sense of longing in the reader’s own life for something bigger than themselves.

Mommy’s Writings is the extraordinary memoir of the love between a mother and her young son, and a great-grandmother whose intense devotion to the two of them kept their little family together. It is a story of faith in God, of forgiveness and acceptance, and of gratitude.




Aftermath Lounge


Aftermath Lounge


THE AUTHOR: Margaret McMullan.

THE EDITOR: Martin Woodside.

THE PUBLISHER: Calypso Editions. Calypso Editions is an artist-run, cooperative press dedicated to publishing quality literary books of poetry and fiction with a global perspective. On their website, they write, “We believe that literature is essential to building an international community of readers and writers and that books can serve as a physical artifact of beauty and wonder in a world of digital saturation.”

Margaret McMullanSUMMARY: Set primarily in the small coastal town of Pass Christian, Mississippi, Aftermath Lounge is a novel-in-stories about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed 95% of Pass Christian. With a 28-foot storm surge, the highest recorded in U.S. history, 55-foot waves, and winds reaching 120 mph, the town was wiped off the map—temporarily.

Calypso Editions released Aftermath Lounge on the 10-year anniversary of Katrina.

THE BACK STORY: Katrina hit my parents’ home in Pass Christian, almost destroying it, but not quite. Immediately following the storm, my father was among the first to rebuild. During this time, we witnessed so many unusual and small acts of heroism that inspired me to write about the community and its people, and how tragedy shapes our character. In 2010, I was awarded a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship to complete the project.

WHY THIS TITLE? One of the first temporary buildings that went up in Pass Christian after the storm was a restaurant to feed volunteers and any locals still there. It was called Kafé Katrina. Many folks wanted a bar as well, so the owner of Kafé Katrina added on a Karaoke bar called The Aftermath Lounge.

WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? It’s a great book about wonderful and bizarre southern characters. Older women still write to me wanting to meet Catch, the handyman. One reviewer wrote that the place comes to life in Aftermath Lounge, suggesting what it really means to be from a place, how place stays with us, despite its transformations, because of the versions of us it keeps as we move on. There are also a lot of dogs in this book.


“Aftermath Lounge is a masterpiece.” – The Huffington Post

“The work of Katrina fiction I have always wanted to read has arrived.” — The Sun Herald

“This is a wonderful and devastating book about damage both manmade and natural.”– Jackson Clarion-Ledger

“Each entry is a shot to the chest…Writing a good short story is no easy feat. Writing one consisting of a few paragraphs that not only fills the frame but paints a heartbreaking picture is an awe-inspiring talent.” – Malcolm Avenue Review

AUTHOR PROFILE: Margaret McMullan is the author of seven award-winning novels including In My Mother’s House and Sources of Light. She and Phillip Lopate recently curated Every Father’s Daughter, an anthology of essays about fathers by great women writers such as Alice Munro, Ann Hood and Jane Smiley. Margaret received a Fulbright to research and teach in Hungary for a new book Where the Angels Lived. She was the Melvin Peterson Endowed Chair in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Evansville in Indiana where she taught for 25 years. Now she, her husband Pat O’Connor, and their dog, Samantha, live in Pass Christian, Mississippi, the setting of Aftermath Lounge, where she writes full time and serves as a faculty mentor at the Stony Brook Southampton Low-res MFA Program.

AUTHOR COMMENTS: I have always been interested in how ordinary people behave during extraordinary times — what they do and what they don’t do is the story. In 2005, I was working on a young adult novel set after the Civil War in Smith County, MS when Katrina hit. That book, When I Crossed No-Bob, is about how a little girl reconstructs herself during the reconstruction era. I couldn’t help but turn to Pass Christian’s reconstruction as well.


The Swing

            He lit a joint and smoked it as he drove past the Gulf Coast Pak & Ship, which still had its sun-faded WE SHIP FOR THE HOLIDAYS sign up from last year. It was Friday, Christmas Eve, and he was going to fetch his holiday bonus from Mr. Zimmer in the big yellow house, his last paycheck for the week. Squinting from all the light coming off the Gulf, Catch smiled, and his fingers slid along the steering wheel, anticipating those crisp, new bills Mr. Zimmer would count out from his silver money clip.

            He passed the old-people’s home, and through his open window he could smell the stuffing and sweet potatoes cooking. He always did like mushy food, and he laughed thinking about what a good old person he would be. He snuffed out his joint, slipping the charred nub back into a Ziploc bag for later, and reached into the passenger seat for some cheese crackers and beef jerky. He still had the open box of Satsuma oranges and divinity candy from Mrs. Gimbel and the sugared pecans from Mrs. Anderson. He’d save those for later. A man on a bicycle wearing a Santa hat waved, and Catch waved back.

In the Zimmers’ drive, Catch slammed his truck door shut, straightened his hat, and laughed out loud looking at the Christmas display on the lawn next door: Santa was riding his sleigh, holding a whip to the reindeer, while two white wire angels with flashlights stood in front of the sleigh, looking like those people who guide planes in for landings. The Zimmers didn’t go for outdoor holiday decorations, and this, combined with their last name, had made Catch think at first that they were Jewish, but it turned out they were Lutherans.

Around back the Zimmers’ grown daughter was swimming laps in the heated pool, steam dancing off the surface of the water. She slogged back and forth without once stopping or looking up. The daughter’s young son sat in the wheelbarrow parked next to the pool, reading a science book bigger than his head.

“Hey, partner,” Catch said.

“Hey,” the boy said, his mouth going back into the little green scarf someone had wound around his neck. What was his name again? He was tiny and blond, his eyes were big like his mother’s, and his mother’s mother’s. He looked like he wanted to smile but couldn’t; like he thought he had to ask permission.

“Excited about all the presents you’re going to get?”

The boy nodded. There was silence, and then the boy asked, “How are you?”
Catch wasn’t accustomed to a seven-year-old talking this way, and he had to get used to the boy again. Teddy – that was his name. This kid wasn’t stupid and not a bit shy, but if the Zimmers weren’t careful, he was going to turn into a wormy, womany sissy. Catch liked to give it to him straight. “How am I? you say? Could be better. Could be worse. I’m still standing. Still breathing. I call that a victory.”

Teddy looked curiously at Catch, then tucked his mouth back into his scarf.

Catch inspected the green yard he’d seeded with rye grass a month earlier. He’d learned to anticipate what homeowners needed. There were a lot of house-proud people in this neigborhood. Catch could fit five trailers inside the Zimmers’ house. He didn’t know where all the money that had landed on this street came from, but he figured either out-of-state sugar or oil. Nobody ever made that kind of money in Mississippi; you had to leave, make your money, then bring it back with you. Some of these folks lived on the Gulf year-round, but there were others, like the Zimmers, who came down for the winter. They needed a local to keep up the house and the lawn. Catch often wondered why the Zimmers kept coming back here, why they didn’t keep a place in, say, California.

The little porch on the martin house was rotting off. The birdhouse was made to look like the big house, and Catch felt obligated to make it look as nice, but Mr. Zimmer wanted him to concentrate on the big jobs: trimming the boxwood around the tennis court and cutting back the line of bamboo. Last Christmas, Mrs. Zimmer had ordered a fancy swing from a catalogue, but with so much on her mind, she’d left it outside on the ground for a month, and after several heavy rains, the seat had cupped and split. Catch had told Mrs. Zimmer he could make a better swing himself anyway. Leave it to him; he’d get around to it. He’d even picked the perfect live oak to hang it in.

The Zimmer’s kitchen door opened, and oniony smells wafted out; there was Mrs. Zimmer, looking frantic.

“Catch,” she said. “Oh, I’m so glad you’re here.” She gave him an envelope. “That’s for the month and there’s your bonus, too. Now, I know it’s your day off, but I need you today and tonight. Could you help? Please? The lawn needs mowing again, and we can’t put up the tree by ourselves. We’ve got guests coming over at six. And tomorrow’s Christmas. I just don’t know if I can manage. Do you want to come in for coffee? Have you had breakfast?”

She was on up in age, but Mrs. Zimmer wasn’t quite like the other old women down there. Lady up the street wouldn’t even let Catch inside her house; at lunchtime she opened up a can of Vienna sausages and dumped them out on a paper plate, then handed the plate to Catch with some saltines, like she was feeding a cat. Catch was a white yard man. He wondered what that woman had fed the black men who’d worked for her before him.

Catch tipped his hat, said he’d had breakfast, and sure, he could take the mower for a once-around.

Riding the John Deere, he lit the rest of his joint: just enough to make the morning feel like a celebration. The air was cold and hurt Catch’s teeth. At least it wasn’t August or September, when he would have been sweating into his eyes. Riding a mower and smoking some weed the day before Christmas suited Catch just fine. Pot was the only drug he liked to mess with. His former boss at the lumber yard had had a bad cocaine habit. Catch could deal with just about anything but that. One morning his boss had knocked the cowboy hat off Catch’s head and lit into him, yelling and waving a knife. Catch punched him in the face, good and solid, then picked up his hat and left. That was the end of that job.

After Catch had finished mowing, he went back up to the house to see what else Mrs. Zimmer needed. She stepped outside, holding on to the screen door so it wouldn’t slam. Catch thought she seemed to be she was moving much better after the hip surgery. She had put on a few pounds, but the weight looked good on her. So did the tangerine lipstick and the blue flowered dress. Mrs. Zimmer didn’t study Catch the way the other old women did, the way Catch was used to being studied. He knew what they thought of him. He lived alone; he drank. Some knew about the dope, but most didn’t. Everyone knew he was quick to anger. He got into fights. He got kicked out of places. Some might have felt sorry for him. He knew he wasn’t happy happy. He knew people studied his kind of not happiness — he didn’t want to call it “unhappiness” or “depression” or “post- traumatic stress disorder”: he’d been like this before and after the two tours in Vietnam.

“I know this is your day off, Catch, but can you help with the tree too?”

“Help” meant put it up. Mrs. Zimmer liked to tell people Catch “helped” with the yard and the gardening when, in fact, he did it all. He never bothered correcting her, of course.

The tree lay on the back porch, or what Mrs. Zimmer called “the gallery,” and Catch knelt down on the cold marble and screwed last year’s stand onto it. Upright, the tree was small and bushy. He wondered how much the old lady had paid. She’d probably been ripped off.

“Oh, it’s perfect,” she said as he hauled it in from the porch.

He would have gotten a bigger one, taller. Why else have twelve-foot ceilings like that?

“Can you put on the strings of lights too? We’re only doing red and silver decorations this year.”

Catch opened the lights and colored balls and put them all on the tree. At the last minute, the old woman gave him one more box to hang: twelve sea-glass ornaments, a gift from some woman named Nelia.

“Oh, that’s perfect Catch, perfect. I don’t know how you do it.” She handed him a package.

“Thank you, Mrs. Z. You oughtn’t have,” he said, thinking the bundle felt too light for a ham.

“I was wondering if you could put it on. For tonight. We’re hoping you could play Santa at the party. It wouldn’t be Christmas without Santa.”

Catch opened the package. It was a lot of red inside.

“You’ll be a Victorian Saint Nick,” she said, staring down at the red velvet suit in his hands. “It wasn’t a cheapie.”

Outside, the daughter was still swimming laps in the pool. It made Catch’s head hurt just watching her. Why did people make their lives more difficult than they already were?

Catch drove home to eat and think. He lived in a trailer park but was saving up for a nice brick ranch house on the bay. He wanted his own dock and a motorboat, so he could go fishing first thing in the morning, maybe take the boat to Wolf River if he had a mind to.

He boiled three hotdogs, and still carrying the Santa package, took a seat on the lone aluminum chair out front. There was no grass, but he kept the ground swept. He didn’t mind the passing trains so much anymore, not when he thought of how he would have the boat soon enough. Between his trailer and the train tracks, he grew tomatoes and peppers in tires, coffee cans, and milk jugs cut in half. He breathed in the smell of sweet olive, magnolia and pine, then popped open a beer. He knew he drank too much, because lately he felt old in the mornings. One day he’d quit.

Part of the beard hung from the package, tickling his thigh. He opened the box. The beard was big and curly, but they’d skimped on the boots: vinyl flaps that strapped onto a regular shoe. There were some things that just shouldn’t be.



Mrs. Zimmer was waiting for him on the front porch, and when she saw Catch in the suit but still wearing his work boots, she said no no. She noticed things like shoes. He strapped on the flaps.

Mrs. Zimmer led Catch into the house through the front door. The living room was all lit up, and there were more people there than he’d expected: older people with no kids, neighbors from front and back and sideways. He mowed lawns for many of them, maybe one square mile all together.

“Here they all are and there they all come,” he said to Mrs. Zimmer, and he thought he heard her say, “that’s right, Catch” like they were in on something together.

Shrimp and oysters on the half shell sat for the taking in a big crystal bowl full of ice on a round table covered in white linen. He didn’t know why the Zimmers put out such a fine spread for people he was sure didn’t appreciate it. Why didn’t they just do like that old man down the street did? On Christmas day, he gave any relative who came by a hundred dollars. Catch got fifty and a pie. No fuss, no muss.

“Pardon me,” Teddy said. He had a gap in his smile where his two front teeth were out; the new teeth were coming in crooked. “Are you Santa Claus?’

“You bet, partner. How about you tell me what you want for Christmas.”

“I think you’re supposed to sit down first,” the boy said. Mr. Zimmer came into the room with two drinks. “But not in that chair. Grandmother doesn’t like for people to sit on that chair. It’s from some other century, not this one.”

Mr. Zimmer told Teddy to get Santa some gumbo, and he led Catch to a big leather wing-back chair and put a hot toddy in his hand. Then Mr. Zimmer counted out three twenties, a ten, and a five from the wad of money in his clip. No wallet, this guy.  Catch tucked the cash into his red velvet suit and sipped the toddy. He overheard a lot of talk about the hurricanes they’d had in Florida that year: Charley and Frances. “They had to gut Emma’s condo because of the mold,” some woman said to Mrs. Zimmer. Teddy came with a cup of gumbo. Catch took a taste. Someone in that kitchen knew how to burn a roux good. Lord Almighty! Right now, he could drink up the afternoon.

One wall of the room was all glass, and Catch could see the whole Gulf of Mexico from where he sat. Even though the water was polluted, it was pretty to look at and think on. When he was married, he and his ex-wife Norma would spread out a blanket and picnic there on the beach, smoke a little weed, then lie back, close their eyes, and just listen. It was only a drab little spot of sand, but the sound of the water was just the same as it would have been on some Hawaiian island. Those were the best nights in Pass Christian – you all but forgot about the poisons in the water.

Mr. Zimmer plopped the kid on Catch’s lap. Catch knew he smelled of weed, and what with the hot toddy and the gumbo on his bad stomach, he hoped to God he didn’t get sick.

“It’s Christmas Eve,” the boy said. “Shouldn’t you be working?”

“I am, son. And what do you want for Christmas?”

The boy shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Catch looked around the room, where everything and everyone sparkled. Someday it would all belong to this little kid. He wouldn’t even have to ask for it. It was just automatic, a fact of life. It would be his. “I suppose you don’t have to want anything,” Catch said. “Used to be all I wanted for Christmas was snow.”

“I sort of already know what I’m going to get. Santa always brings me lots of new books and clothes, a new coat, and maybe a ball. And Mom gives me candy and new stationery for thank you notes. Last year it was Curious George.” He sniffled, then reached into his pocket and pulled out some blue Kleenex covered in penguins.

“Well what is it you want? Hell kid, you got everything right here.”

The boy looked at Catch with a you-don’t-get-it-do-you? look. “There aren’t any kids to play with.”

“Maybe you’re just a little homesick,” Catch said as the boy blew his nose. “I heard a nasty rumor. I heard you like Chicago.”

“I live there. You ever been?”

“Once, in 1992. Too many people. Too many people where I’m at now, too. I’ll move further up North.”

“Norther than the North pole?”


“You don’t like people?”

“No real need for them. Look. Kid. Ted. Let’s figure out what you want for Christmas, huh?”

“I don’t know what’s wrong with my Mom. She acts mad all the time, ever since Dad left.”

Catch looked across the room at the kid’s mom, a good-looking woman, her skin saggy, not from age, but from weight loss. She’d married and divorced some Chicago Yankee who used to show up on holidays with all those fruit-named gadgets, like Apple and Blackberry: little computers that turned into phones; phones that took pictures. Now he wasn’t showing up anymore.

“All my life I’ve been trying to get away from rooms like these,” the daughter said to some neighbors, her eyes circled with the red indentations from her swim goggles. Someone needed to feed that poor woman a plate full of red beans and rice with some good andouille sausage, or maybe just a steak.

“She’s just disappointed is all,” Catch said to Teddy. “Haven’t you ever been disappointed?”

The kid thought for a minute. “I went to a birthday party once, and they didn’t have cake.”

“That’s what I’m talking about. Sucks, don’t it.”

The kid showed Catch a clip attached to the buttonhole of his shirt. The clip looked like it might hold a mitten to a coat sleeve. “This is where I keep my lucky rock. I clip it here. Then it sucks out the luckiness, which gets into my coat, which is next to my sleeve, which is next to my arm skin, and I get charged with the luck, and then I am powerful.”

“All right. Now you’re thinking,” Catch said. “Anything else on your mind?”

“Why do people swing their arms when they walk?”

“Jesus, kid. I don’t know. Helps them keep moving, I guess.”

“Making your list, checking it twice?” Mr. Zimmer said, putting another hot toddy in Catch’s hand, God bless him.

“You have a lot of fur on your hands,” the boy said to Catch. His nails were dirty too. They were always dirty from work the day before, and the day before that.

“Yeah well. So what do you want for Christmas?”

The boy shrugged. “A surprise is all.”

“Come on, kid. Ask for something big. Your granddaddy — I mean, I can get my elves to make you anything. How about a BB gun?”

“I’m not allowed.”

Catch could hear an old woman he used to work for giving somebody details he didn’t want to hear about her woman-surgery. She sighed loud, shook her drink, and said, “Really, at my age, all you’ve got left is your posture and your jewels.”

“All right, then. How about a treehouse?”

“Grandmother says it will ruin her view.”

Catch nodded and gulped his drink. Mrs. Zimmer hobbled toward them, smiling. There were lines on her soft, pale face where she’d been smiling all her life. “Santa, please have something more to eat, or another drink.”

“No Mrs. Z. I’ve got too much to do tonight. You and I both know I’m on duty.” Catch winked and then lifted the boy from his lap. The boy whispered in Catch’s ear, “I think my grandmother’s hard of hearing.”

“Well, that happens when folks get old,” he whispered back to the boy. “We lose stuff along the way.”


The wind off the Gulf was colder now, and as Catch drove back up the highway, still wearing the Santa suit, he wished he had saved the rest of that joint. He considered going to the casino – maybe he could double the money in his pocket. He pulled off onto a quiet street, stopped the car, and got out to vomit. He puked up all of it: gumbo, oysters, shrimp, everything. A dog came trotting by and started eating up the mess, which made him puke all over again. He got some on his suit, and he wondered briefly how he would clean it.

Catch stopped at a gas-station pay phone to call a girl he knew, but he got her machine. “Hey,” he said into the phone after the beep. “It’s just me. I was wondering if you was at home or what.”  When he got back in the car, he regretted the call and headed for the McDonald’s drive-through, the only place still open at dinnertime on Christmas Eve. Hoping to settle his stomach, he ordered a big dinner, paid, drove off without it. Halfway home, he realized what he’d done, and he went back.

“Pardon me,” he said to the girl taking orders. After he’d said it, he remembered these were the same words Teddy had used. The words sounded strange to Catch in his own voice. He explained to the girl that he’d forgotten his food and tried to laugh at himself. As he waited at the window for her to put his order together again, he looked inside to see his ex-wife, Norma, standing at the counter. She was wearing a blue velour jogging suit and ordering, he was certain, a Filet-O-Fish sandwich. It was what she always ordered when she was high on something. No way did he want to see her now, smelly and dressed as he was.

After he got his food, he parked across from the public park facing the Gulf and he started in on his fries. Used to be he and Norma would swing on those playground swings and walk that very beach. She’d left after she hooked up with her dealer, Catch’s old boss at the lumber yard. She was high and swearing up a mean streak the day she walked out, throwing her things into a big plastic garbage bag, yelling until her voice finally got cut off by the door as it slammed shut behind her.

A car passed on the street, and Catch could feel the thumping rap music in his loins. Some of the kids inside the car threw Mardi Gras beads, which hit the hood of Catch’s pickup. People around there, they got a little money, and they went out and bought cellphones, DVD players, and sound systems for their cars. As far as Catch could tell, it all landed up at the pawnshops near the casinos.

He unwrapped his first burger and then bit into it. Well fuck. There was no meat, just bread, sauce, and lettuce. The other two were the same. Ha ha to you too, he thought, sure this was some damn joke that McDonald’s girl had played on him. Maybe Norma had even had something to do with it. This stuff didn’t just happen on accident. Nothing just happened.

Catch turned the key to the ignition. He had in mind to go back and ram the place with Norma in it. He hit his steering wheel hard, honking the horn. In the distance, a horn honked back. Dogs barked, and someone yelled, “Merry Christmas!” He caught a glimpse of his fake white beard in the rearview mirror, the curls dirty and sagging now around his neck. He took a deep breath and let it out with a cough, then turned off the engine, opened the windows, and looked again at the Gulf.

Back in Khe Sanh, his best friend had had a Zippo lighter engraved with a motto: If I had a farm in Vietnam and a home in hell, I’d sell my farm and go home. Catch had kept the lighter after he’d zipped up his friend in a body bag.

Catch thought about what the Mississippi Sound was made up of. There it was, half the country’s rivers spilling their guts out into the Gulf of Mexico, the ocean waters taking on the world’s poisons, the whole of it creeping back with the tide, inching its way towards land like so many injured soldiers crawling back home. Dying waters, but not dead yet, going back and forth, up and down the beach. And every now and again, a hurricane came along, and those sorry waves partied hard on the land, flattening beach houses, wiping the earth clean.

And slowly Catch started missing his ex-wife; or not so much Norma, as just having a wife. A buddy of his had told him once about how French girls had come in groups came to the Mississippi Gulf Coast back in the 1700’s, chaperoned by Ursuline nuns. They came with trunks and they were called the “casquette girls,” because they came with suitcases to marry French settlers. Better than mail-order brides, these French girls were carefully selected, skilled, and pious, and some of the proudest Creoles trace their ancestry to them. They made a movie about it years ago, a musical in black and white. Looking out at the horizon, Catch felt like one of those early settlers now, and just as those brides had come to all those lonely men, he hoped some big idea would come to him and make his life better.


On Christmas morning, in the dark of predawn, Catch snuck into the Zimmers’ backyard, a knife in one hand and his flashlight in the other. He’d gotten a good, solid board, weatherproofed and treated. He had good rope too, thick and sturdy, and he carried all this in the pack on his back. He would have worked faster without the dope, but still, in a little over an hour, he put the swing together right. Recalling how the boy’s knees hit him midshin, he adjusted the height just so.



            “Oh Catch. Catch.” Mrs. Zimmer stood on her back gallery with a tray of rolls and coffee. She poured him a cup and put it in his hands. “Merry Christmas. I’m so glad you stopped by.”

They watched the boy swing higher and higher, the toes of his red footed pajamas almost touching the tree’s leaves.

“Do you think that branch is secure?” Mrs. Zimmer said.

“Oh, it’ll hold.”

“Santa knew, didn’t he?” Mrs. Zimmer said, smiling up at him.

Catch would always remember this moment. He thought so even then. And when he’d come back a year later to see all the wreckage from Katrina, to see how the boardwalk from the Gulf had landed in the backyard, along with the bits and pieces of furniture and house, Catch would stand there in wonder to find that swing still hanging from that tree, unharmed.

Catch cupped his hands over his mouth and shouted to Teddy, “What’s it look like from up there?”

“You and grandmother look like ants,” the boy shouted back.

“Suits us just fine.”

Mrs. Zimmer touched his arm. “Do you think you could help me throw out all these boxes? The presents I had shipped for everybody came so overpackaged.”

“Now? Won’t the kid see, then start asking questions about… you know, Santa and all?”

“Oh, I hadn’t thought about that. But surely he doesn’t still believe. Do you think?”

They watched the boy slow the swing down, scraping the grass with his toe, then push off again.

“Tell you what. I’ll get those when he goes back into the house.”

“Catch, you’re wonderful. I don’t know how you do it.”

“Mrs. Z., about the Santa suit: I need to get it cleaned before I return it.”

Mrs. Zimmer shook her head. “Keep it, Catch. You’re a natural. Save it for next year.”

He laughed and said, “Now, just wait a minute, Mrs. Z.”

But Mrs. Zimmer touched his arm and Catch put his hand on top of her hand. This was before Katrina took away the Zimmers and the town and all those other people he’d just gotten to liking. This was before. And for that moment, the two of them stood there on the back gallery, smelling the jasmine growing up alongside the house and watching the boy swing.

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