Monthly Archives: July 2012

My dad has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. I can’t think what else to say. Here is something I wrote last year which was supposedly about me but was really about him.

The Nebraska Panhandle, 1988

First water, we called it—the first water of the summer irrigation season—first water was coming. On the Fourth of July, 1988, the summer before I entered seventh grade, my father had my whole family at the end of a field of Great Northerns laying ten-inch irrigation pipe over new corrugations.  It was 111 degrees in the shade and all I wanted was to be at the lake with the guys, riding in a motorboat, waterskiing, maybe sneaking a can of beer from a cooler to pass around.  But beans don’t irrigate themselves.

My father was talking about Cincinnatus, the hero that saved Rome and then refused to be dictator, returning instead to his fields.

“This country could use a Cincinnatus or two,” he said.

My grandparents, resolute Catholics, had deemed it their duty to apportion a son to the Church.  My father had been shipped off to seminary at age thirteen, joining the last wave of men to receive a pre-Vatican II education.  Just shy of ordination, he decided celibacy was too heavy a cross to bear.  He bolted for co-ed college and Vietnam and this farm, toting along his classical education like sharp jeweled shards.  It has always seemed to me that these shards jab his brain even when he is about the grittiest of farm labor.  Perhaps more so then.

Cincinnatus was a favorite theme.  We heard the story many times.  I think about him still in moments of reverie, dreaming of accomplishing heroic deeds myself in the camera’s unblinking eye, refusing all offers of position and prestige, returning to my farm with a final wave to the hushed TV masses.

We had to unload the pipes from a trailer hitched to an old open-cab Oliver tractor, my ten-year-old brother Travis at the wheel.  The pipes were hot and I had forgotten my gloves at the house.  My father shook his head and gave me his.

“Don’t be sorry,” he said.  “Just don’t forget.”

As the trailer jounced over the corrugations, we rolled pipes onto the dirt, my father on one end and my eight-year-old brother Nate and I on the other.  Dust whorled around our ankles.  My mother dandled my little sister Michaela under the elm trees in the shade.  Michaela was just three and, left on her own, might go chasing a moth under the wheels of the tractor.

After the line was deposited, the pipes had to be joined.  Everyone had a job.  Nate went along slamming shut the four-inch square surge gates that controlled the flow of water down the corrugations.  Travis checked the gaskets.  I lined up the pipes so the male end would penetrate the female.  The old pipes were dented and warped.  They didn’t fit together so well.  My father butted a slab of creosote-stained railroad tie against the pipe-end to thump with a sledge hammer.  He wielded the sledge with the precision some men swing golf clubs.  He used to lay these lines of pipe by himself.

If my end didn’t pop in after a couple swings, I’d sit on it to add a little weight.  I was very judicious about this.  If I sat wrong, my particulars got stung good.

“Move it, boys,” my father roared after popping a joint in, grinning, swinging the sledge up on his shoulder.  “You’re slowing me down!”

We raced down the field, whooping in the heat.  I grabbed a dirt clod, winged it at Travis.  I missed by a mile but my mother saw.

“Quit that,” she called.  “You’re going to put an eye out.  And fix your bandana.”

“Ah, Mom,” I said.

“Don’t you look at your mother with that tone of voice,” my father said.

My mother made us wear bandanas under our ball caps to shield our neck and ears from the sun.  We each had different colors: yellow, purple, red, a little tribe of bedouins on the western Nebraska prairie.

Lunch was in the shade trees by the tumbledown beet labor shack, built during the premechanized days when gangs of migrant workers roamed the country seeking fieldwork.  We ate baloney sandwiches soggy from the heat and guzzled fizzy Squirts chased by water out of a frozen milk jug so cold it hurt my teeth.  The breeze was hot sandpaper on our faces.

My father talked about how the conquering Mongols lived on meat cured between a saddle and a horse’s back.  He admired true grit above all else, and the first book I can remember being proud enough to show him I had read on my own was called Genghis Khan.

“Back to it,” my father said.  “Christmas is coming.”

We made good progress.  I started to get hopeful about the lake and meeting the guys.  I wouldn’t tell them why I was late.  Town kids didn’t understand pipes or first water or Cincinnatus.

Storm clouds mounted in the east, giant black thunderboomers that mushroomed a mile into the sky, crackling with sheet lightning.  We worked until thunder rolled overhead and cool gusts knifed through our sweaty shirts.

“Jim,” said my mother, coming from the trees, toting Michaela.

“All right, all right,” said my father.  “Let’s mount up.”

As we retreated the world went electric with lightning like flashbulbs pressed to my eyeballs.  The sky spit hail, and we took cover in the beet labor shack, standing together in the front room watching pea-sized hailstones shimmy like popcorn through the empty window frames.  Then the hail stopped, and a last squall pelted the splitting wood shingles with crooked rain. Not a bad storm, though electricity continued to strobe the sky.  The beans would make it, but all my friends would have fled the lake.

The shack consisted of three tiny rooms, no indoor plumbing, no electricity.  Slats showed through jagged cracks in the walls.  Chunks of plaster were scattered pebbly on the warped floorboards.  My father picked a chunk up, thumbed powder from the edges.

“Luxury,” he said.  “Thomas Aquinas wrote the Summa Theologica in a stone monk’s cell with a quill pen and a candle.  Men like that have about gone the way of the gooney bird.”

No way would I have told my friends, but around then I wanted to be a priest, thinking sainted thoughts, clacking beads over penitents.  Times had grown permissive, though, and, at a much earlier age than my father, I realized I couldn’t hack celibacy.  Nevertheless I have come to mimic St. Thomas, hunched in close rooms alone, writing.  The saint would not own me, I wager.

Michaela started crying.  “Let’s get them back up to the house,” said my mother.  “Who knows how long the lightning will last.”

We loaded up in the back of the pickup and headed home.  My father dispatched a couple oatmeal cookies with us then returned to finish out the line.  First water was coming.

My dad has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. I can't think what else to say. Here is something I wrote last year which was supposedly about me but was really about him.

The Nebraska Panhandle, 1988

First water, we called it—the first water of the summer irrigation season—first water was coming. On the Fourth of July, 1988, the summer before I entered seventh grade, my father had my whole family at the end of a field of Great Northerns laying ten-inch irrigation pipe over new corrugations.  It was 111 degrees in the shade and all I wanted was to be at the lake with the guys, riding in a motorboat, waterskiing, maybe sneaking a can of beer from a cooler to pass around.  But beans don’t irrigate themselves.

My father was talking about Cincinnatus, the hero that saved Rome and then refused to be dictator, returning instead to his fields.

“This country could use a Cincinnatus or two,” he said.

My grandparents, resolute Catholics, had deemed it their duty to apportion a son to the Church.  My father had been shipped off to seminary at age thirteen, joining the last wave of men to receive a pre-Vatican II education.  Just shy of ordination, he decided celibacy was too heavy a cross to bear.  He bolted for co-ed college and Vietnam and this farm, toting along his classical education like sharp jeweled shards.  It has always seemed to me that these shards jab his brain even when he is about the grittiest of farm labor.  Perhaps more so then.

Cincinnatus was a favorite theme.  We heard the story many times.  I think about him still in moments of reverie, dreaming of accomplishing heroic deeds myself in the camera’s unblinking eye, refusing all offers of position and prestige, returning to my farm with a final wave to the hushed TV masses.

We had to unload the pipes from a trailer hitched to an old open-cab Oliver tractor, my ten-year-old brother Travis at the wheel.  The pipes were hot and I had forgotten my gloves at the house.  My father shook his head and gave me his.

“Don’t be sorry,” he said.  “Just don’t forget.”

As the trailer jounced over the corrugations, we rolled pipes onto the dirt, my father on one end and my eight-year-old brother Nate and I on the other.  Dust whorled around our ankles.  My mother dandled my little sister Michaela under the elm trees in the shade.  Michaela was just three and, left on her own, might go chasing a moth under the wheels of the tractor.

After the line was deposited, the pipes had to be joined.  Everyone had a job.  Nate went along slamming shut the four-inch square surge gates that controlled the flow of water down the corrugations.  Travis checked the gaskets.  I lined up the pipes so the male end would penetrate the female.  The old pipes were dented and warped.  They didn’t fit together so well.  My father butted a slab of creosote-stained railroad tie against the pipe-end to thump with a sledge hammer.  He wielded the sledge with the precision some men swing golf clubs.  He used to lay these lines of pipe by himself.

If my end didn’t pop in after a couple swings, I’d sit on it to add a little weight.  I was very judicious about this.  If I sat wrong, my particulars got stung good.

“Move it, boys,” my father roared after popping a joint in, grinning, swinging the sledge up on his shoulder.  “You’re slowing me down!”

We raced down the field, whooping in the heat.  I grabbed a dirt clod, winged it at Travis.  I missed by a mile but my mother saw.

“Quit that,” she called.  “You’re going to put an eye out.  And fix your bandana.”

“Ah, Mom,” I said.

“Don’t you look at your mother with that tone of voice,” my father said.

My mother made us wear bandanas under our ball caps to shield our neck and ears from the sun.  We each had different colors: yellow, purple, red, a little tribe of bedouins on the western Nebraska prairie.

Lunch was in the shade trees by the tumbledown beet labor shack, built during the premechanized days when gangs of migrant workers roamed the country seeking fieldwork.  We ate baloney sandwiches soggy from the heat and guzzled fizzy Squirts chased by water out of a frozen milk jug so cold it hurt my teeth.  The breeze was hot sandpaper on our faces.

My father talked about how the conquering Mongols lived on meat cured between a saddle and a horse’s back.  He admired true grit above all else, and the first book I can remember being proud enough to show him I had read on my own was called Genghis Khan.

“Back to it,” my father said.  “Christmas is coming.”

We made good progress.  I started to get hopeful about the lake and meeting the guys.  I wouldn’t tell them why I was late.  Town kids didn’t understand pipes or first water or Cincinnatus.

Storm clouds mounted in the east, giant black thunderboomers that mushroomed a mile into the sky, crackling with sheet lightning.  We worked until thunder rolled overhead and cool gusts knifed through our sweaty shirts.

“Jim,” said my mother, coming from the trees, toting Michaela.

“All right, all right,” said my father.  “Let’s mount up.”

As we retreated the world went electric with lightning like flashbulbs pressed to my eyeballs.  The sky spit hail, and we took cover in the beet labor shack, standing together in the front room watching pea-sized hailstones shimmy like popcorn through the empty window frames.  Then the hail stopped, and a last squall pelted the splitting wood shingles with crooked rain. Not a bad storm, though electricity continued to strobe the sky.  The beans would make it, but all my friends would have fled the lake.

The shack consisted of three tiny rooms, no indoor plumbing, no electricity.  Slats showed through jagged cracks in the walls.  Chunks of plaster were scattered pebbly on the warped floorboards.  My father picked a chunk up, thumbed powder from the edges.

“Luxury,” he said.  “Thomas Aquinas wrote the Summa Theologica in a stone monk’s cell with a quill pen and a candle.  Men like that have about gone the way of the gooney bird.”

No way would I have told my friends, but around then I wanted to be a priest, thinking sainted thoughts, clacking beads over penitents.  Times had grown permissive, though, and, at a much earlier age than my father, I realized I couldn’t hack celibacy.  Nevertheless I have come to mimic St. Thomas, hunched in close rooms alone, writing.  The saint would not own me, I wager.

Michaela started crying.  “Let’s get them back up to the house,” said my mother.  “Who knows how long the lightning will last.”

We loaded up in the back of the pickup and headed home.  My father dispatched a couple oatmeal cookies with us then returned to finish out the line.  First water was coming.

I’m running the Bareknuckles Pulp Dept. at Out of the Gutter & here is a review of The Disassembled Man

I’ve taken over as Editor at the Bareknuckles Pulp Department at the newly-revived Out of the Gutter. Got some great stories posted already, and from time to time I’ll post other stuff. Like this review of The Disassembled Man, below, which I’ve reprinted here:

****

The Disassembled Man
by Nate Flexer

Are bad men born, or are they made? I don’t know. Nate Flexer might, though. The author of The Disassembled Man is at least certain of one thing: a bad man can make things very, very much worse for himself. And the poor bastards around him.

Here’s the kind of ultra-antihero Frankie Avicious is:

I saw an old woman walking with a cane. Her hair was blue and she was wearing Ray Charles sunglasses. She was holding a flower purse. I asked her for the time, then shoved her to the ground. She fractured her hip. I grabbed her purse. As I fled the scene I rifled through the contents. Drivers license, American Express, dirty handkerchief, photo of her dead husband, photo of her ugly grandchildren, pack of gum. Twelve dollars in cash. I did some quick math. At this pace I’d have to mug more than 300 grandmas. That might take me all night.

This ain’t even close to what he’s capable of.

Frankie quits his job at an Arizona slaughterhouse by torturing a steer and setting it loose on the killing floor, determined to change his destiny, to climb out of his shithole on a vapor trail of cheap booze. His fat wife, who he hates, has a rich father, see. Oh, and he’s in love with a stripper named Scarlett Aces. Who just so happens to be under the protection of a local gangster. Meanwhile a mysteriously omniscient salesman keeps paying him visits, selling nothing but smug advice. Oh, and did I mention Frankie’s past is littered with bodies and blood? You might guess that this won’t end well.

I’m here to tell you: it’s worse than you think. Frankie Avicious relentlessly kicks against the pricks, but there’s always more, and they’re always coming for him.

Flexer is unflinching, man; nothing is too low for Avicious to stoop to, or Flexer to document. A gripe you could level is that no one, anywhere, seems able to grasp even the tiniest shaft of hope. Unremitting darkness runs the risk of collapsing into reverse-image sentimentality. It’s a tough line to walk, but Flexer manages it. The ending, true enough, will have you cringing from your Kindle. But it does let a little whiff of justice into the story, which you may or may not find a touch jarring, depending on your theological outlook.

The Disassembled Man is chockablock with moments you’re not sure you should be laughing at, but you do anyway, even as Frankie Avicious spins deeper and deeper into his own muck. Skeletons dancing on a shallow grave way out in the desert, passing a bottle of mescal around: you’re starting to get the idea. Totally contemptible and utterly dispicable, Frankie Avicious will nonetheless insist that you come along for the ride, and Nate Flexer’s got the writing chops to make sure you keep your hands and feet inside the car. You’ll be glad you weren’t made a man like Frankie Avicious. Nor born one, either.

Buy it here.

*Note: the title of this post is one of my favorite one-liners lifted straight from the book.

I'm running the Bareknuckles Pulp Dept. at Out of the Gutter & here is a review of The Disassembled Man

I’ve taken over as Editor at the Bareknuckles Pulp Department at the newly-revived Out of the Gutter. Got some great stories posted already, and from time to time I’ll post other stuff. Like this review of The Disassembled Man, below, which I’ve reprinted here:

****

The Disassembled Man
by Nate Flexer

Are bad men born, or are they made? I don’t know. Nate Flexer might, though. The author of The Disassembled Man is at least certain of one thing: a bad man can make things very, very much worse for himself. And the poor bastards around him.

Here’s the kind of ultra-antihero Frankie Avicious is:

I saw an old woman walking with a cane. Her hair was blue and she was wearing Ray Charles sunglasses. She was holding a flower purse. I asked her for the time, then shoved her to the ground. She fractured her hip. I grabbed her purse. As I fled the scene I rifled through the contents. Drivers license, American Express, dirty handkerchief, photo of her dead husband, photo of her ugly grandchildren, pack of gum. Twelve dollars in cash. I did some quick math. At this pace I’d have to mug more than 300 grandmas. That might take me all night.

This ain’t even close to what he’s capable of.

Frankie quits his job at an Arizona slaughterhouse by torturing a steer and setting it loose on the killing floor, determined to change his destiny, to climb out of his shithole on a vapor trail of cheap booze. His fat wife, who he hates, has a rich father, see. Oh, and he’s in love with a stripper named Scarlett Aces. Who just so happens to be under the protection of a local gangster. Meanwhile a mysteriously omniscient salesman keeps paying him visits, selling nothing but smug advice. Oh, and did I mention Frankie’s past is littered with bodies and blood? You might guess that this won’t end well.

I’m here to tell you: it’s worse than you think. Frankie Avicious relentlessly kicks against the pricks, but there’s always more, and they’re always coming for him.

Flexer is unflinching, man; nothing is too low for Avicious to stoop to, or Flexer to document. A gripe you could level is that no one, anywhere, seems able to grasp even the tiniest shaft of hope. Unremitting darkness runs the risk of collapsing into reverse-image sentimentality. It’s a tough line to walk, but Flexer manages it. The ending, true enough, will have you cringing from your Kindle. But it does let a little whiff of justice into the story, which you may or may not find a touch jarring, depending on your theological outlook.

The Disassembled Man is chockablock with moments you’re not sure you should be laughing at, but you do anyway, even as Frankie Avicious spins deeper and deeper into his own muck. Skeletons dancing on a shallow grave way out in the desert, passing a bottle of mescal around: you’re starting to get the idea. Totally contemptible and utterly dispicable, Frankie Avicious will nonetheless insist that you come along for the ride, and Nate Flexer’s got the writing chops to make sure you keep your hands and feet inside the car. You’ll be glad you weren’t made a man like Frankie Avicious. Nor born one, either.

Buy it here.

*Note: the title of this post is one of my favorite one-liners lifted straight from the book.