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Sunday, December 30, 2018

New Year's Resolution: Break Writer's Block

I don't do New Year's resolutions, but decided 2019 would be different. I'm going to break the block that is keeping me from moving "Indigenous Clay" forward. This will be the third novel in the Phillip McGuire series about a burnt-out foreign correspondent who returns to his college town to buy and run a bar. Adventures come his way.

The first, "Tortured Truths," introduces Phillip and explains how his left hand got mutilated after he was kidnapped by the Hezbollah in Lebanon and why he left journalism to run a bar. The second, "Heart Chants," opens with him being asked to house a Navajo student from the local Indian college because two Navajo women have gone missing.

The third, "Indigenous Clay," got off to a good start. I like the characters and the situations and dialogue and have a good idea about the plot, but I'm stuck someone. One of the characters is a potter that Phil soon takes a romantic interest in. There's some good stuff going on in this book and I need to force it along. So that's my resolution.

I thought to get me going I'd post what I have done here and hope for some response.



Extending my bad hand in front of me, I inched forward into the silent, dark space. If one of my hands were going to be hurt, it might as well be the bum one. The right was clenched, ready to strike. I didn’t turn on a light: if I couldn’t see the intruder, the intruder couldn’t see me. Living in the country—this evening’s sky moonless and cloudy so not even stars provided any hint of light—the blackness in my huge living room was total. I knew this space so well I could move and avoid furniture. The large windows were that way, to the west. The living room opened onto the kitchen behind me to the east where the compressor of the fridge had just kicked in. I knew the sofa was just in front of me and I slid a step along its back. Mostly I stayed still, hoping to hear the other person move, giving me some indication where they were.
“Wo Zhuo ni!” I heard the Chinese and felt the small arm around my neck as its body leaped on my back.
“Am I getting worse at this or are you getting better?”
“Oh, Poopy, I can feel your energy field. It’s so easy.”
“Why can’t I feel yours?”
“Fortunately, I’m half Chinese. You’re all gwailo,” she said. I reached to a lamp I knew was nearby so there was light and I could see the small beautiful face and felt my heart swept by the same emotion I experienced every time I saw her: incredible love.
She called me Poopy because I called her Poopy Pants when she was acquiring language and other skills. She appropriated it to apply back at me.
Her name is Jian because that’s what her mother named her. Her last name is McGuire because I’m her father. It’s complicated.
“Where’s Mrs. Wu?” she asked.
“It’s the anniversary of her husband’s death. She likes to be by herself with her memory of him,” I told her.
“I see. Tell me again about Mother.”
God, how I hated that demand. I gave the standard answer.
“Your mother was beautiful. She was a Chinese student here and we fell in love. But she went back to China to be part of the Democracy movement and got killed in Tiananmen Square. Before that, she gave birth to you in Hong Kong and I went and brought you here,” I said, sticking to the story I had first given to her when she was seven.
Jian, the twelve-year-old, gave me the look that said “One day I’ll get it all out of you.” She’d never asked me why my left hand wasn’t normal. I wondered what I’d tell if she ever did.
Her hair—a light brown when she was a baby now getting darker every year—was tied back into pigtails. She was wearing a gi.
When I’d brought Jian back from Hong Kong, the CIA having been good to its word that all her documents would be in order, I knew I needed real help with a baby. I needed a nanny. I thought I’d had the good sense to try and find a Chinese woman. Jian should know Chinese, I reasoned. So I contacted Rick Kramer who knew everything going on in Lawrence’s small Chinese community and he said Professor Wu had recently died and his wife, though not needing a job, was depressed and Rick thought she needed something to help her out of it. Perhaps raising a baby was just the thing. So I met Mrs. Wu with Jian in my arms and she instantly took her into her own. When I told Mrs. Wu Jian’s mother had died in Tiananmen it sealed the deal. Their son had perished there, too. I moved her into the house.
As soon as Jian could toddle, she started imitating Mrs. Wu doing her Tai Chi movements in the morning. It was really funny watching a kid who could barely stumble doing Tai Chi, but it meant that soon she wasn’t stumbling at all, moving with a grace I thought amazing. Ballet lessons, I considered. Mrs. Wu had another idea.
I was sitting in the car, waiting for Jian to exit pre-school, when I spotted her pig tails. A boy, a head taller and twice her weight had his hands out, rushing to push her down. She made a slight turn and grabbed one of his outstretched arms to take him to the ground. Then she did an amazing thing. She reached out a hand for him to help him up. I told Mrs. Wu about it when we got home and she said, “She’s ready.”
“Ready for what?”
Sometimes Mrs. Wu decides not to answer. The next day when I got home from the bar Jian was wearing a gi with a white belt.
“She had her first Kung Fu lesson today,” I was informed.
Now, at 12, the gi is bigger and the belt is black.
A coyote howled.
“Bear,” she said.
“How can you tell?”
“How can you not?”
She had soon learned to roam the woods around the house. I happened to be standing on the deck when, at age 8, she walked out of the tree line holding something in her arms. I thought it was a puppy. It was a puppy—a coyote puppy. I ran down the steps worried that mommy might be nearby and be none too happy.
“I heard him crying. His name is Bear,” she informed me. “His mother died. We’ll have to take care of him.”
“How do you know it’s a boy?”
“I know.”
I worried Mrs. Wu was teaching her some Chinese psychic stuff.
So Bear joined the household. When he matured, he avoided me, tolerated Mrs. Wu, adored Jian. They explored the woods together. Coyote urges would have him gone for days at a time. We’d hear a pack howl at night and Jian claimed she knew which one was Bear. They all sounded the same to me.
“He’s hurt,” she said and went running to the stairs that led outside. I switched on the outside lights and followed her. Mrs. Wu came out of her room in the walk-out basement.
“What’s wrong?”
“Jian says Bear is hurt.”
Outside, we saw Jian running to Bear who was hobbling toward her with blood on his right haunch.
“I’ll get some towels and antiseptic,” Mrs. Wu said.
I knew Bear wouldn’t hurt Jian, but wounded he sure as hell might hurt me. Mrs. Wu, who was soon rushing past me, could judge for herself. Bear let her examine and clean his wound as Jian held his head in her hands talking to him in Chinese.
“Fight?” I asked.
“He says you should see the other guy,” Jian said.
I worried about her sometimes, thinking she could talk to a coyote.
“Bear will be okay,” Mrs. Wu said as she passed by me, bloody towels in hand. I moved back inside as Jian brought him to the area next to the house under the first floor balcony. He snarled at me like he did anytime I got close.
“I don’t think he likes me,” I had commented to Jian the first time it happened.
“It’s because you’re male. He doesn’t like any competition for me.”
“Then I feel sorry for any boy who ever tries to date you.”
She replied in Chinese, which she did whenever she didn’t want me to know what she was saying.
I often felt I was in the middle of a feminist plot when Mrs. Wu and Jian conversed in Chinese, especially when they would look at me and giggle or, worse, when they would look at me and not giggle. I complained about it one time to Mrs. Wu, who had this reply:
“Learn Chinese.”
Maybe I would—on the sly. Become a spy in their very midst.
Jian and Mrs. Wu got Bear to lie down: Jian petting his head, Mrs. Wu running her hand over his back. Damned if the coyote didn’t stretch his tongue out to lick Jian’s hand.
“I’m going upstairs and have a Scotch,” I announced.

I had this house built 13 years ago. My bar business was good enough that I had the money to buy land in the country and design the house the way I wanted. The first floor was basically one room. A large kitchen with its island counter opened to a space that led to floor-to-ceiling windows looking out to the east at the sloped hills. The second floor rooms were arranged along a kind of balcony so when you walked out of the rooms up there you looked down into the living room. Outside, the tinted stucco never needed painting and went great with the Spanish tiles.
I went behind the bar I built on one side of the room and reached for the Glenlivet. Got a glass, put ice in it, poured the Scotch, set it on the bar. And remembered Jian’s mother and how much she would have loved Jian and what she was becoming.
Soon I heard their steps coming up and when I saw them I knew Mrs. Wu would be wondering about dinner for Jian.
“I took a pizza out to thaw. I didn’t think you’d want to cook tonight, Mrs. Wu,” I said.
Jian chimed in. “It’s a special day. You’re remembering your husband. Pizza’s fine for me, too.”
“Not fine for Mrs. Wu,” she said and went to the kitchen.
‘Jian, you want a juice or something? I want to talk to you about Bear.”
“Talk does not cook rice. I’ll help Mrs. Wu.”
Mrs. Wu had extracted her wok from its keeping place then went to the refrigerator and started choosing vegetables while Jian got out a cutting board and knife to cut them.
They started talking in Chinese and it seemed pretty serious. This time Jian was nice enough to explain.
“She’s cooking one of her husband’s favorite meals. A simple stir-fried pork dish.”
I sipped at my Scotch and ruminated.
I liked living in the country, the closest neighbor 10 acres away. I liked the silence, the sounds of nature in that silence, and the weather.
My bar, the Bierstube, was doing a good, steady, reliable business. It had matured into the place I had envisioned. Mrs. Badir was the first to arrive to make coffee the Swedish way I had taught her. Then she started the simple breakfast we offered buffet style: scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, sausage. We opened at 7 and her daughter Zoreh came to help her and tend bar for the drinkers who got off work from their night shifts. The day bartender came in at 10 when the first of the day drinkers arrived. Kristi, the new bartender, was working out pretty good. She had a mouth on her, but guys kinda like that. I got there after I dropped Jian off at school. I made the deposits to the bank, did the ordering, but used an accountant so I didn’t mess that stuff up. The night shift was strong, which Roger had even improved when he took over from Mike, getting a crowd that was more art-related than the sports types Mike had cultivated. Mike had worked for me for five years when he suggested we open a second location and make it a sports bar with lots of TVs and he’d manage it. I had plenty of time on my hands so agreed. I found space to lease in the growing area of West Lawrence. A strip mall was being built and that’s where we opened the Bierstube West. That bar had become my worry. It was doing pretty well, good enough that I thought I should be seeing more profits and wondering if some skimming was going on. I knew I should spend more time there, but the truth was I didn’t like the place. Worse, I didn’t like the clientele.
“Come on, Poopy, dinner’s ready,” Jian called out.
“Brain’s got the last wall completed,” Jian announced as we ate.
Brain is really Brian, my carpenter friend who quickly became Jian’s best buddy. He’d sweep her up in his huge, powerful arms and swing her around until she cried “Stop, Brain! Stop, Brain!” I tried to teach her to say “Brian,” but he and she seemed to prefer “Brain.”
Four months ago he had come into the bar and I set his brand of beer in front of him and asked: “How you doin?”
It wasn’t a casual hello. A month previous he had lost his wife to a particularly vicious and quick pancreatic cancer. He’d met her when he went to Japan to study and work with a Japanese carpenter. They got married and moved back to Lawrence. Meiko was happy in her new environment and that environment found out she was extraordinary at flower arranging. People wanted to learn from her and offered to pay and she refused. A growing group developed around her sharing their arrangements. Brian would bring some by the bar.
It had been bliss for a year. And then she died. So my question “How you doin?” was seriously asked.
“Terrible. Awful. I wake up in the morning and still cry.”
I wanted to tell him it would get better. Balls.
“I want to build her a tea hut on your land.”
“Okay. Sure. Why not?”
“I want to use materials I can just get off your land.”
“Okay. Sure.”
“I won’t use any electrical help. All hand tools.”
“Can I start right away?”
And he had.
Jian and I had gone walking with him to pick a site.
“This would be perfect,” he said when we stood in a stand of saplings near the small creek.
“Might flood,” I noted.
“Poopy, nothing is permanent,” Jian said and Brian started, looked at Jian, and then reached down to take her up in his arms and give her the biggest hug she’d ever received.
I watched the tears wet his big red face as he kept Jian squeezed against him.
“You still need to build this thing?” I asked.
“Oh, yes. It’ll be my gift to Jian.”
So a tea hut was being constructed on my land. Jian and I—sometimes Mrs. Wu coming along—would go down to watch him work. The saplings he took down to make room for the structure he used for forms into which he put dirt and packed it down. It was an ancient Chinese construction method, he explained. He had made a tamper out of an iron plate and iron rod. I could barely lift it, but he’d pull it up and slam it down, compacting the dirt, adding more, and compacting that until a wall started to appear. So now the walls were done.
“Walls are good,” Mrs. Wu spoke. “Wall in Chinese also means city, civilization. Walls bring order. Good for Brian. His mind needs order. I’ll buy special tea for when he finishes. Brian is a good man.”
Jian listened with rapt attention like she always did when Mrs. Wu spoke for such a long time. When I expressed an opinion they sort of tolerated it. I wondered if Mrs. Wu thought I was a good guy. I wondered if I thought I was.
“Any new plans for the garden this year, Mrs. Wu?” I asked.
“Fence for the melon area.”
“Told you I’d be happy to fence in the whole area.”
“Bear kills rabbits. I don’t mind sharing with the deer, but they get greedy,” she said.
Last year she had planted melon seeds sent to her from China. They did great. She had come back from the garden one evening last summer smiling, something you didn’t often see. “Can pick melons tomorrow,” she declared.
The deer got ‘em all that night.
Her garden was a joy to me, not just because of the vegetables she grew there. The garden was the rare instance when I put one over on her. It was hard to get anything past her and it had been a gamble. Shortly after she moved in Mrs. Wu asked if she could put in a vegetable garden and if so, where?
“Sure, why not. But let’s find a spot where I can have a water well drilled for it.”
So we went outside behind the house and I picked up a y-shaped tree branch and started walking around, the Y ends of the stick in each hand. When I got to the place where I remembered the Navajo elder had pitched his tent and told me water could be found there I manipulated the branch so the free end of the stick pointed downward and glanced up at Mrs. Wu, who had a quizzical look on her face.
“Water is here,” I proclaimed.
And indeed that’s where the driller found it. That Navajo healer, a singer, an hataathlii had known whereof he spoke.
Mrs. Wu still hadn’t figured out how I did that. Guess they didn’t have dowsers in China. As the driller was going to work she told me the Chinese were the first to do deep drilling. It was one of many Chinese brags she made. When Jian was little and a snow came I mentioned that no two snow flakes were alike and Mrs. Wu had said: “Chinese discovered snowflake crystals more than a thousand years before Europeans.”
“Just put some stakes at the corners where you want that deer fence and I’ll have it put up. Chain link is pretty cheap and I know a guy,” I told her. Good think about having a bar is you get to know a lot of guys who can do a lot of things.
“Chain link is ugly, but I can grow cucumbers on it,” Mrs. Wu said.
“And morning glories,” Jian added.
“Jian, help me clean up and we’ll do calligraphy and then you finish your homework,” Mrs. Wu dictated.
“I’ll wash up. You two go on,” I said.
Yen Li would have been very proud of her daughter. She got top marks in school and I had Mrs. Wu to thank for that. And she hadn’t just taught Jian to speak Chinese, she was writing it as well and practicing calligraphy also gave her an artistic outlet.
They went up the stairs to Jian’s room. I washed, dried, and put away the dishes then got myself another scotch.
Jian was having another growth spurt. I couldn’t believe she’d soon be a teenager. The decade of my 40s had whizzed by as she grew and Mrs. Wu and I raised her. Mrs. Wu didn’t seem to age other than a white streak in her hair over her forehead. Me? My half century mark was coming up. I had to face the fact that in just a few years Jian could leave me to go to school somewhere if she didn’t want to attend KU and have to hang with her gwailo Dad. I was going to be alone with Mrs. Wu, if she stayed.

I didn’t go out with anyone after I had brought Jian home. I concentrated on helping Mrs. Wu raise a baby. Then when Jian began school I just didn’t feel right bringing a woman home with me. Mrs. Wu was understanding when I’d tell her I’d be pretty late. She knew I was probably going to visit “some woman,” but I never stayed the night with them because I wanted to be home in the morning for when Jian had breakfast. And I never introduced them to Jian. Those “some women” soon found all that pretty unacceptable. I hadn’t told Mrs. Wu I’d be pretty late for a long time.

Monday, December 24, 2018

An Experiment My Newspaper Columns

 In 16 years working for two newspapers I wrote a lot of columns. I had thought to publish selected ones in a book, but never did so. But I did assemble and retype the ones I wanted to use and had them edited. And they have languished all this time. Thought I'd see what scans of those sheets would look like online. What think ye?