People Just Like You

Caesar's Palace, Atlantic CityAtlantic City, New Jersey. Asheville, North Carolina. State College, Pennsylvania.

These are places I’ve lived near, Atlantic City and Asheville, or in State College. While living there, I wrote short stories that took place in those towns, stories that are now included in the short story collection I’d Tear Down the Stars that I’ll be releasing in the fall. I met this week with my publicist to talk about plans for a book release party in October, and I’ll discuss details of the event later as I have them. (Hint: Have you ever seen a fat man shot out of a cannon to land on a blue elephant? They both love it!)

And don’t make that scowly face for having to wait. It’ll be here before you know it. For this blog post, I’m doing something I did once before, giving a sample pulled from three of the stories in the collection, from the towns mentioned above.

Everyone’s a Winner Here [set in Atlantic City]

“Let me drive down the street a couple of blocks,” says Francis. “I want to see the place. I never been here. This place looks crazy.” They drive by Caesars, fountain out front, four giant white horses with golden hooves and harnesses. In a chariot behind the horses is a snow white Roman, could be Julius himself, wearing a gold vest, bright red cape flying behind him, like an ancient Superman. A Muslim woman is walking past the statue, all in black, only the eyes showing. Wild West Casino has a wild west scenario, fake rocks, fake cacti, real seagulls flying overhead. Bally’s palace of sex, easy money, and imitation delight looks all glass and chrome, and one corner of the building is rounded, like the torch from the Statue of Liberty. Several overweight Hispanics are on the corner, waiting on the bus. Across the street is the Frank Sinatra wing of the Atlantic City Medical Center. So party! The Frank Sinatra wing of the Atlantic City Medical Center is just across the street.

Francis is worried where he’s going to park, but hark and behold, the ancient Romans have built a parking garage next to Caesars. Francis pulls in, turns a corner, and suddenly slams on the brakes. Screeches. Nearly hits a man in a wheelchair. Angel of Death flies away, cheated. The hysterical bitch pushing the wheelchair pounds her fist on Francis’s window.

“Hey, I’m sorry!” Francis yells through the window. “I didn’t see him! I’m sorry! I’m really sorry!” He backs up, goes around them, and drives off too quickly, squeals the tires.

“Way to go, dude,” Jack says. “You nearly creamed that guy. We could’ve had a dead cripple on our hands.”

The Smallest Dreams in the City [set in Asheville]

Anton must have been drunk, because he was laughing. He boarded upstairs in the old house where my family lived, but my mama didn’t know he drank whiskey when I was around him. She had no idea. Maybe she figured tiny men were different from regular men. He was telling me about religion that cold afternoon. “You know, Lilly,” he said, “there was a man back where I came from—” he came from the town of Tuckasegee, North Carolina “—who ran a pool hall, but he wanted to be a preacher. You know what a pool hall is?”

I said yes. I guess Anton thought seven-year-old girls never heard of pool, but my papa drove a truck long distance, and when he was home in Asheville, he loved to play pool.

“Do you? So he ran a pool hall and sold beer, but he couldn’t forget about preaching. Guess his mother raised him right. And he wouldn’t let anybody cuss while they played pool—you know what cussing is?”

I said yes.

“Do you? Well, don’t that beat damn all?” Anton laughed some more. “Couldn’t cuss while you played pool. Nobody ever played worth a damn with a hen-pick rule like that. Except my brother. He played pretty good pool. If you said ‘Praise Jesus!’ whenever you drank your beer, then once in a while the preacher would give you a free beer. Praise Jesus! There sure was a lot of praising Jesus, but you know what, Lilly?”

I said no.

Anton took another drink from his green bottle, then said, “That guy was only fooling himself, that preacher. Nobody meant it. They only said ‘Praise Jesus’ to get free beer. Oh yeah, free beer. Praise Jesus.” At the time it didn’t occur to me that Anton was not one of the men playing pool. What little I knew about pool, I figured Anton was a pool player, too, but it’s hard to play pool when you only stand three feet, six inches tall.

A Night at the Carnival [set in State College]

Farther down the street where she was walking after leaving her apartment, she saw the bright light of a small diner. As she got closer, she saw what a charmless place it was, a one-story rectangle, partly red brick, partly brown aluminum siding, with a single large window filled with hand-lettered notices proclaiming various menu items. Apple pie like Mom. There were no cars parked nearby, but through the window she could see people inside.

“Missy! Missy!” A slightly nasal voice on her right caused Toni to turn. A woman wearing a long, flower-print skirt and a ragged green sweater, in spite of the warm summer night, was standing on the sidewalk several feet from Toni. “Hey, missy,” the woman said again. “You got a quarter? I’m only asking for a quarter. Maybe I can get something to eat.”

“You won’t be able to buy much with a quarter,” Toni said.

“Just a quarter,” the woman said. “That’s twenty-five cents. I’m only asking for twenty-five cents.”

“Are you hungry?” Toni asked.

“Yeah, missy. I haven’t eaten all day. I used to teach college at the academy, and now I’m hungry.”

This ragged woman with hair that needed washing didn’t look like she had ever taught anywhere. “Do you want a sandwich?” Toni decided that the woman must be about her own age, in her mid-forties. I could wind up like that, she thought, wallowing for a moment in the horror of the idea.

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Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming), How We Create Magic

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