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    • The Vale of Cashmere

    • by Sean Elder

      green forest

      This story first appeared in Voice from the Planet, FREE from March 30 – April 3, 2017 at Amazon Kindle US, and Kindle UK among others.


      Truth was, she used to be able to organize her thoughts, until Floyd retired. Now he was always hanging around talking to her, asking what she was doing. Every time he went out, which wasn’t often enough for her taste, he would ask her if she needed anything and then look angry if she did. Sometimes he’d look angry if she didn’t. Now she looked for errands for him, just to get a moment’s peace. When she sent him off for milk this morning she could have lived without it. But she couldn’t have stood listening to him complain about the bus ride to Atlantic City before it happened, not non-stop for the next two hours.

      “You’re creating your future,” she told him. “Whatever you’re thinking and feeling, that becomes your reality.”

      “Don’t give me that shit,” he’d said, putting on his coat and hat. He had been wearing that same damned hat with the stingy brim so long it had come back in style.

      “It’s the law of attraction,” she’d continued. “You can deny it all you want but that don’t mean it’s not true. “Everything coming into your life you are attracting into your life. You’re like a magnet.”

      “Well, this magnet’s going to attract some milk,” he’d said before going out the door.

      He had made fun of her ever since she first heard Oprah talking about The Secret but deep down she thought that maybe he believed her. Or would, if he would just give it a try. He would come home so angry about something that happened out there – the security guy asleep in the chair, or someone who wouldn’t give his seat up on the subway – and she would tell him, “Every bad thing that comes into your life, you make happen.”

      Sometimes that really made Floyd angry. “Is that right? Every bad thing? I made happen every bad thing that came into my life, Marcy?” He would tower over her, breathing heavily, staring at the top of her lacquered hair until she was silent.

      She looked closely at the big digits on the clock by the bed. It was almost 8:30 and she still had not done her makeup. From the drawer in the nightstand on her side of the bed she looked for her own pill organizer and then realized she had already taken it out. She put it under the light, right beside that picture of her two boys, smiling in the lap of a black Santa, and looked at Wednesday. There were still pills in the morning box but the evening box was empty. Maybe she took the evening pills by mistake. Not that it mattered ‘cause they were basically the same. Or maybe she hadn’t filled the PM part.

      Looking at the rainbow colored compartments (Wednesday was green, Thursday red) she thought of Wilson, who had the hardest time with his R’s when he was little – “Weeding Wainbow,” he would say about his favorite show, and his brother would laugh at him. She felt overcome for a moment and then heard her husband’s keys in the door.

      She took the morning pills, four altogether, as Floyd shouted at her from the kitchen.

      “Do you know how much they wanted for a half-gallon of milk?” She imagined his face as he said the price and the way he would look at her afterwards. He might be looking that way right now, even though she wasn’t there.

      “Cost of everything is going up,” she yelled back. Then she stood and headed for the bathroom. “I got to get a move on.”

      “Ain’t you even going to drink your milk?” She heard him swear as she closed the bathroom door.

      The bus driver turned out to be some white guy who’d been sleeping in the back while people waited outside. The whole bus was talking about it, even after they got out of the Holland Tunnel and were getting on the turnpike, people tisking and hmm-hmming until Floyd wanted to yell, “Who told you to stand out there in the first place? It’s not even cold.” But he kept quiet and sat by a window, alone thank you very much, though Tommy insisted on sitting right in front of him, while Marcy huddled on the other side with a bunch of ladies. They outnumbered the men five to one anyway; he let Tommy represent, going back and forth across the aisle like some congressman making a deal. Each time he went over to the ladies he would say something so low that Floyd couldn’t hear and they would all laugh and holler.

      “I think it’s about time for some music,” Tommy said after one of his sorties. He had a gym bag with him that also said Mets on it, and from it he pulled a boom box that he tried to balance on the seatback in front of him. He pushed play and Johnnie Taylor started in on “Who’s Making Love” and the ladies all laughed, even though the sound was kind of wobbly. From the front of the bus the driver said something, they could see him looking at them in the rear view mirror, but no one tried to hear him. In fact Tommy stood up, with the boom box on his shoulder, and started to shake it in the aisle, which made the driver get on the mike.

      “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to sit down.” He had some kind of accent, Russian or something, but no one really paid him any mind.

      The hits kept coming; it must have been some kind of collection since Floyd never heard a deejay. Tommy jammed the boom box between the headrest and the window so it wouldn’t fall down and turned around to look at Floyd, but not before looking at the driver, who had his eyes on the road again.

      “How ‘bout a little taste?” Tommy said, taking a half-pint in a brown bag from the pocket of his jacket.

      “Too early for me,” Floyd said, looking out the window. To him it always looked like New Jersey was halfway through being torn down.

      Across the aisle Marcy was in the middle of a conversation with the other ladies but she didn’t feel quite right. It started as soon as she left the building; she had picked out a brooch to go with her blue blouse, a little gold tree with red apples on it, but she had left it sitting in front of the mirror. Now she felt naked, all that blue stretching out below her chin like an empty ocean almost and she felt like she was being pulled back from drowning each time one of them stopped talking. That meant somebody was supposed to say something, you were supposed to jump in like it was a game of double-Dutch.

      “What I value most is the privacy,” Marcy said, but no one answered. She had a feeling she had said that before. The topic was assisted living and how to know when you needed it.

      “Until you wake up privately dead,” said the lady in the Kente cloth. Marcy didn’t remember meeting her before, a friend of Helen’s was how she was introduced, but she didn’t like her now. She had these gray and white streaks in her hair, extensions by the look of it, but it reminded Marcy of mud. Besides she was probably the youngest woman of the bunch, what was she talking about dying for?

      “My boy checks in on us every night,” said Marcy and immediately wondered why she had. It wasn’t true. Most times she had to call Eric and he never sounded too happy to hear from her. He did come to visit though, once a month at least. They saw less of him after his divorce, though you’d think it would be the other way around.

      “Where are we?” she said suddenly, looking out the window. Everything looked the same.

      “You keep asking that,” the lady in the Kente cloth said, or maybe she said. Marcy wasn’t looking at her and the music Tommy was playing made her feel lost.

      “Sending this one out for all you ladies,” said Tommy, like he was some deejay, and they all laughed but Marcy didn’t think it was funny. It was that song about sitting on a park bench that always made her sad. “I see her face everywhere I go/on the street and even at the picture show/have you seen her?”

      There was a hospital up there high on a hill and for a second she felt that the bus was going to take off and fly straight up to its doors. She closed her eyes and felt herself rise.

      They parked in the lot of the Showboat casino. Though they could have gone anywhere they wanted, the thirty odd passengers that disembarked made for the Showboat as if summoned, shuffling and limping toward the entrance in a broken conga line.

      “No one says we got to go to this casino,” Floyd said to the crowd of ladies leading the way.

      “The Showboat has a Mardi Gras theme,” said the lady in the Kente cloth. She turned around to give Floyd the fisheye, pulling down her glasses as she did. “Besides, we got coupons for the Showboat.”

      He fell in line sullenly beside Tommy who offered him another drink. Floyd took a swallow this time without pulling down the brown paper to see what it was. It tasted like mouthwash.

      “Jesus, what the hell you drinking?”

      “Little peppermint schnapps.” Tommy tried to slap Floyd on the back but the big man danced away, handing the bottle back as he moved.

      “What she mean by a ‘Mardi Gras theme,’ anyway?” Floyd said.

      Tommy shrugged. “As long as they got free drinks and blackjack I don’t much care.”

      Seagulls screamed overhead. Floyd saw his reflection scowling in the window of a parked Humvee. He went to New Orleans during Mardi Gras when he was in the Navy, how many years ago? He got lost and someone stole his wallet. A man dressed as a woman tried to put beads around his neck, he remembered. You could have your Mardi Gras.

      Marcy was among the first of the women to enter the casino and the air conditioning hit her like a cold wave. “Good thing I remembered my shawl!” she said but no one answered. The music and the sound of the slot machines, dinging and ringing with sirens going off every five minutes as if some crime was being committed, swallowed her voice.

      Marcy had thought to bring rolls of quarters and silver dollars. While the other ladies were getting change she was already pouring her silver into a red plastic cup provided to her by a girl in the shortest skirt she had ever seen.

      “You must be freezing!” Marcy said but the girl didn’t seem to hear her. Maybe she just got tired of people trying to talk to her.

      The slots area had thousands of machines and at noon it was already half filled, mostly old timers like her and Floyd. He and Tommy had set off in the other direction like there was a sign saying ‘Men, That Way.’ The carpets were in a pattern of red and orange and gold that reminded her of a kaleidoscope and the ceiling was made up to look like stained glass, though she knew real stained glass when she saw it and this wasn’t it. She felt like if she didn’t sit down she might just fall into the colors. She sat down at a quarter machine and began feeding it. She didn’t know where the other ladies had gone and looking over her shoulder left her none the wiser.

      “Y’all gonna have to find me,” she said and as if summoned a different lady in a short skirt appeared.

      “How you doing today?” she said. She had a tray filled with drinks and a notepad tucked into her belt. “Can I get you something to drink?”

      “Well I suppose you can!” Marcy turned in her chair to show her appreciation. “My name’s Marcy by the way, I come here from Brooklyn with a bunch of folks from my church group.”

      “Now isn’t that nice? My name’s Kim Sue. What can I get you?”

      Marcy smiled and opened her mouth. But she could not think of the names of any drinks, not just the fancy ones but any drink. She felt a trickle of sweat run down her back underneath her blouse.

      “It’s funny,” she said, embarrassed. “My mind’s just a blank today.”

      “Sure, no problem!” Kim Sue smiled back at her like one of those Chinese dolls, her name right there on her badge. “We have beer and wine and soda and mixed drinks.” She kept smiling at Marcy and continued. “I could make you a nice white wine spritzer, if you like.”

      “Oh, that sounds nice,” said Marcy, and it did sound nice, like a sprinkler in the summer time, the kind the boys used to play in. Kim Sue left and Marcy returned to the machine. Cherries and plums rolled past, never stopping at the same time.

      Eric used to chase Wilson through the sprinklers in the park and sometimes when Marcy wasn’t looking he would hold his little brother down and try to pull off his shorts in front of all the other children. She would get so mad at him, always teasing like that, knowing it would make Wilson cry and come looking for her, but she had a job then, looking after a little white boy named Oskar whose parents lived in Park Slope and worked all the time. Oskar’a parents didn’t mind too much when she brought her boys with her when she took him to the park. “As long as you remember,” the father said, “that Oskar is your first priority.”

      Well of course he is, mister doctor man! Why would my own flesh and blood come before your little prince? Good gracious, the things that man would say. If the wife heard him she would weigh in and try to soften the blow. “What my husband means is that we don’t want you to get too distracted. Three children is a handful.”

      Now that was the kind of thing only a white person would say. Where she came from three children was just getting started, even if she was done after Wilson, something her own mother could never understand.

      “Oh, don’t worry, ma’am,” Marcy would say. “I won’t ever let Oskar out of my sight.”

      All these people thinking someone was going to steal their child then, like the whole country had gone crazy. Soon they’d be putting their pictures on milk cartons and billboards and on TV during the news – “Have you seen Brandon?” Usually white kids. If a black kid went missing generally people know who took him.

      “Here you go, ma’am.”

      Kim Sue was back with her drink. It was in a big plastic cup with a straw that went in curlicues, like a roller coaster, like this was for a child. She started fishing in her coin cup.

      “Drinks are complimentary, ma’am.”

      Like I didn’t know that. She pulled out a Susan B. Anthony and put it on her tray. “That’s for you,” she said.

      “Very nice of you, ma’am. And if you need anything else you just let me know.”

      She turned to leave and Marcy was afraid to see her go. “Kim Sue, it’s like your momma gave you two names.”

      “Kim is my family name. Family name comes first in Korean.”

      “Is that right?” said Marcy. “Well I think family should come first, don’t you?”

      “Yes, ma’am.”

      Marcy thought that was something else she should write in her book but realized that she hadn’t brought it with her, and then forgot what she had said. “But they probably don’t spell it like that in Korea, do they? The Sue, I mean.”

      “No, ma’am, we have a different alphabet.”

      “Now isn’t that something?”

      She was balancing a tray full of drinks while she talked to Marcy so she let her go, disappearing into the big Tiffany lamp around them. A band was playing Dixieland and Marcy strained her eyes to see them. The music seemed to be coming from everywhere at once, “When the Saints Come Marching In.”

      “Let me tell you another,” she said, sipping on her drink. The lady at the machine next to her looked at Marcy and then moved away, taking her quarters with her. She watched as the drink spun up the straw when she sucked. Here we go loop de loop.

      Sometimes Eric would help her push the stroller as they went around the park, and Wilson would run so far ahead she would shout after him. “Don’t go where I can’t see you!” she’d holler, and Oskar, too big to be pushed around in a stroller, would try and stand up and yell after her. “Go where I can’t see you!”

      Wilson would hide like that at home as well; hide so good she couldn’t find him sometimes. They were living in Prospect-Lefferts, more house than they needed but you could afford those big limestone buildings then even on a Con Ed salary and Wilson would go into different rooms and be so quiet that she would get hysterical, be practically beside herself by the time her husband got home. Then they would hear him laughing. “Got you!” he would say and emerge from the cupboard or from behind the sideboard and Floyd would get so mad. That one time he came out of her closet wearing her bra and Floyd just about went crazy; took off his belt and chased him.

      She put in a coin and pulled the lever: a watermelon; a bell; the number seven in gold.

      “What numbers are you playing today?”

      She turned her head but nobody was there. Who had spoken? Just turning her head made the colors around her move and when she looked at the floor she saw the pattern there was moving too. It was like a flying carpet, the Vale of Cashmere –

      The Vale of Cashmere! That was the name of that strange corner of the park where she took the boys now and then. They were getting older; other boys took the place of Oskar, and Eric got too big to want to be with them. But Wilson kept her company as she made the rounds, bought them ice cream and wiped their sticky hands. People used to call it The Swamp and there was a muddy pond okay and some hanging trees.

      “How come you don’t play with boys your own age?” one of the kids had asked him once.

      “I just like to help my momma,” he’d said.

      He was the one who found out the real name of The Swamp, checked an old book out of the library and showed her on the map. There was a poem that went with it and Wilson stood up by the pond and put one finger in the air as he read: “Who has not heard of the Vale of Cashmere/With its roses the brightest the earth ever gave?”

      Another babysitter saw them by the pond once and came over to warn them. “You shouldn’t be down in there,” she said, afraid to come too close with her stroller in front of her. “They say men get together down there.”

      And after that Marcy noticed them, lurking about, standing in the trees. Once when she came down with Wilson and a stroller two men ran out, going in different directions.

      She didn’t think about it again for years, until Wilson was grown and still living at home, and he came back one night that first time with his face all bloody, drunk or high on something and smiled at her, blood on his teeth.

      “Hey, Momma, I been to the Vale of Cashmere!”

      That’s when Floyd said no more.

      “What numbers are you playing today?”

      She turned and the colors whooshed like a scarf being wrapped around her head. She saw her this time, a little woman, no bigger than a dragonfly like the ones the boys chased in the park, Wilson would put them in a jar with holes punched in the top, while Eric tried to cover it up with his hand so they would smother.

      “I’m looking for three sevens,” Marcy said to the dragonfly woman. “Are there some other numbers to play?”

      “That is the question, isn’t it?” said the faerie. “Are there other numbers to play?”

      And then she flew away, just like a little hummingbird, and Marcy got up to follow her, passing into the pattern of colors and leaving her cup of coins behind.

      Floyd went through all his money the first hour. Not all his money but all the money he’d meant to spend, the money he put in his shirt pocket, seemed to fly off the table. Dealer beat him every time: if Floyd had 18, the dealer had 19; if Floyd sat on a 19, the dealer hit him with two bricks.

      “I guess this lady feels like she has to show us what a blackjack looks like,” said Tommy, when the dealer drew her third in ten minutes. She apologized to them both, even though they didn’t tip her, and Tommy’s luck was better than hers: He doubled down twice and made a hundred bucks in the blink of an eye. All Floyd could do, once he had spent the money he had earmarked for this outing, was sit there and simmer in his resentment while Tommy’s chip pile grew.

      That was when Helen, the lady in the purple pantsuit, came and asked if he knew where Marcy was.

      “I thought she was with you,” said Floyd. It came out like an accusation.

      “Well, we agreed to meet for lunch at three,” she said, “but then nobody could find Marcy. We figured maybe you two went off together.”

      And that’s how well you know us, Floyd thought. “Maybe she just went off to another casino by herself,” he said. Even though he was losing, and wasn’t even playing at the time, he didn’t want to have to leave his spot and go look for his wife. “There’s no law says we got to stay here.”

      “Blackjack,” said the dealer, flipping another ace.

      But after a minute he did get up to look, as he knew he would, leaving Tommy, who still had a hot hand and no doubt wondered what all the fuss was about.

      “Did you try the ladies room?” he asked Helen.

      “That was one of the first places we looked. They have sofas in there, you know.” She paused. “Do you think we should call security?”

      The suggestion made his blood pressure rise. “No, I don’t think we should call security. Christ sake, grown woman goes off for a few minutes and you want to call the cavalry?”

      “Does she have a cell phone?”

      “Our son gave her one but she couldn’t figure out how to use it.” This was literally half true: Eric had given them each one last Christmas, and neither of them could figure out how to use it. By the time Floyd got the hang of it he realized that the only person he would call was his wife, which was kind of stupid since he saw her all the time anyway.

      They looked all the places that they had already looked and the lady in the Kente cloth joined them, acting more concerned that Floyd felt. “We need a system,” she said, as they circled the room for the second time. The place was more crowded than ever and Floyd could hardly hear what she was saying. “How about I go stake out the buffet and you stay here?” she suggested to Helen.

      “How ‘bout I go stake out the buffet?” Helen said. “I haven’t had lunch yet.”

      Floyd said they could both go feed themselves and take their time doing it; Marcy would turn up. He stood like a sentinel beneath the bells and sirens of the Mardi Gras slots, scowling most of the time. He hated slot machines; there was no sport in it, as he often told his wife. Blackjack at least you were playing the odds. Slots to him was just dumb luck, like a rabbit betting it wouldn’t get run over when it ran across the road. Twice he thought he saw his wife, and each time he took pleasure in anticipating just how much grief he was going to give her. But each time he was wrong.

      By four o’clock they were back together, Tommy too, and they began to set out in search parties. They were a small group: most of the travelers didn’t want to leave their stations, since the bus was scheduled to leave at six and this whole business had already cut into their time as it was. The lady in the Kente cloth, who finally introduced herself as Niobe, took charge. She contacted the hotel security, who seemed to have some experience with old folks wandering off, and as the witching hour neared, and the day-trippers started heading back toward the bus, she went out and argued with the bus driver, who was pretty adamant about leaving on time.

      “You can’t just go off and leave an old lady alone,” she scolded him. The engine was already running, gently shaking the bus, while the AC gusted out the door in heavy welcoming breaths.

      “I won’t be leaving her alone,” the driver said. “I will be leaving you to find her.”

      He agreed to wait as they made one last search. A handful of them fanned out, going to neighboring casinos and restaurants, off the boardwalk and into the side streets. Floyd couldn’t help but think that Marcy was messing with him the whole time, and when he saw the impatient faces of the other folks on the bus – they’d lost their money and had their fill, they just wanted to go home – he couldn’t help but side with them.

      Most of the people he saw as he wandered were wearing shorts and T-shirts. Used to be people would get dressed up to go someplace. And when did everybody get so fat? Walking down the boardwalk, bag of French fries in your hand, what did you expect? The new motto for the city was “Always Turned On,” which he found kind of creepy. There was nothing that he saw that turned him on.

      Doors were open, air conditioning blasting out, cooling nothing. Floyd took to popping into places and doing a quick look around, not even asking half the time if they’d seen anyone who looked like his wife. One, they couldn’t hear you with all that noise and two, half of them couldn’t speak English.

      “You seen an old black lady?” he shouted at one girl scooping ice cream. Her nails were so long he figured they might end up in somebody’s cone. “Blue shirt, about this high?” She stared at him like he was the one with the language problem.

      He kept walking. Going in and out of the summer sun was making him dizzy, to say nothing of thirsty. He wished for the first time that Tommy was with him. That man would always stop for a drink. He saw people in those rolling chairs, being pushed by young people, girls sometimes. And you wonder why you so fat?

      Down at one end of the boardwalk he found what looked like a real bar. The crowd had trickled off as the sun sank lower in the sky. Go on, get out of here. A lot of good you been. Floyd ducked inside and felt the rivers of sweat roll out from under his hat and chill on his face and neck. His glasses steamed as he took a seat at the bar and ordered a gin and tonic. He perched on the stool and looked up at the game on TV. The waitress brought him his drink and man did that taste good. No skimping on the gin, either. He forgot to ask her about Marcy. His wallet was bothering him, he felt like he was balancing on it. When she asked him if he wanted to start a tab he simply nodded.

      “You got a phone?” She pointed to an old-fashioned booth in the back, kind Superman used to change in. The place was filling up, young couples waiting for dinner. Went back to the hotel to put your dress shorts on? Once inside the paneled wood booth he forgot who he was going to call. Eric, right. He searched the scraps of paper in his wallet for the number he never had cause to memorize and let it ring, go to voicemail, and then dialed again.


      “This ain’t no telemarketer.”

      “Hey, Pop.” He did not sound happy to hear from him and Floyd had already put enough change in the machine so he cut straight to the point.

      “We in Atlantic City and your mother’s gone missing.” He backtracked from there, explaining the whole afternoon in greater detail than Eric needed, but never did his son sound any more excited than Floyd felt. He asked the obvious questions – had they called the police? Who else was looking?

      “Did she have her cell phone?” he asked, pointedly.

      “That’s why I was calling,” Floyd said. “I figured maybe she’d called you.”

      Eric was silent, and Floyd knew that he knew he was lying. He imagined him at home, still in his work clothes, the sound on the TV muted, his eyes on the game. From his perch in the booth Floyd could see the TV over the bar. Jeter was trying to steal.

      “I’m sure she’ll turn up, Pop. I mean, where’s she gonna go?”

      “I know that.”

      “You got your cell phone with you? So I can call you if she does?”

      Floyd muttered something and got off the phone. That boy would go to his grave asking about those damn phones. He should just wrap them up and give them back to him for Christmas. Turn ‘em into salt-and-pepper shakers.

      When he got back to his seat at the bar Jeter got picked off and he ordered another drink. Now they could send the search party out for him. The tumblers were tall and when he turned in his seat he found he had company. Big old white dude with long hair and a pointed beard. He was sipping a Budweiser longneck and looking at the screen. His arms were covered in tattoos; dragons, snakes and skulls disappeared into his shirtsleeves.

      “Fuckin’ Yankees,” he said and turned to look at Floyd. “Nice hat.”

      Floyd turned to face his own reflection in the mirror behind the bar. “You wouldn’t believe how long I had this hat,” he said.

      “There isn’t much I wouldn’t believe,” the man said.

      They got to talking. Turned out he worked in a tattoo parlor on the boardwalk, which explained all the ink. Half way through his second drink and Floyd was feeling generous in his opinions.

      “Back in the day,” he said, “man had a tattoo it meant he’d been someplace. In the service, in the joint, you know.”

      “I hear you,” the man said. “These days it just means you been to the mall.” He drained his beer and held up the empty. “Buy you a drink?”

      “Let me buy you a drink,” said Floyd, and pulled out the fat wallet that had been giving him such a pain and laid it on the counter. Soon he had the pictures out and was showing him snaps of Eric, bragging on his job even if he wasn’t exactly sure what he did. Then one of the whole family, when everyone was young.

      “Where’s your other boy?” the stranger asked.

      Floyd made a face like he was sucking on a lime. “Wilson got killed in a hold-up ten years ago,” he said.

      “Oh, man, I am sorry. They catch the guy who did it?”

      “No, it was in Prospect Park one night. Lot of crime in there.”

      “That’s why I could never live in the city,” the man said, which struck Tommy as funny. Most people would be scared of him, even in Brooklyn.

      “So what happens when folks get old?” said Floyd, changing the subject. “Maybe they don’t want all those tattoos any more.”

      “Shit, you don’t have to wait ‘til your old to regret something stupid you did.” The man laughed and Floyd got a glimmer of a gold tooth in his head. “People come in all the time wanting to have tattoos taken off, usually the name of some girl that don’t love them anymore.”

      “Can you do it?”

      “Sure,” the man said. “Hurts like hell and costs twice as much. But we can do it. Easier just to change it, though.”

      “How do you mean?”

      “Well, there was this one girl who loved a guy named Chris and had it tattooed on her ass. Until she found Jesus and then we just added a ‘T’.”

      He didn’t smile at first and it took Floyd a minute to figure it was a joke. He smiled first. “Hey, I got one,” he said. The stranger’s eyes gleamed in anticipation. “There was this guy who loved this old girl so much he had her name tattooed on his Johnson.”

      “Now that’s gotta hurt!”

      “Hell, yeah.” Floyd wiped his mouth. “Then they broke up, you know, and soon he started missing her real bad. So he went all over looking for her, from Wisconsin all the way down to Jamaica. Then he’s in the bathroom one day and he looks over and he sees this other guy’s dick.” He stopped for a minute. The stranger kept staring at him. “Now I can’t remember that girl’s name.”

      “Is it important?”

      “Yeah, it’s the whole punch line.”

      “Uh, oh. Better have another drink.”

      He felt flushed and excused himself to go to the bathroom. There he stared straight ahead at the wall and read all the graffiti as if looking for a message. And by the time he got back to the bar he was not surprised to see the stranger was gone and with him his wallet though all Floyd could feel was a keen sense of disappointment: He remembered the end of the joke now. He had remembered that old girl’s name.


      voice from the planet

      ‘Vale of Cashmere’ was first published by Harvard Square Editions in Voice from the Planet, FREE from March 30 – April 3, 2017 at Amazon Kindle US, and Kindle UK among others. Sean Elder’s writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, New York Magazine, Salon, Slate, Vogue, Elle, Men’s Journal, Men’s Health, O: The Oprah Magazine, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Details and many other publications. The essay he contributed to the collection of men’s writings The Bastard On the Couch (Morrow, 2004) was reprinted on three continents; his essay on ecstasy, included in the collection of drug writings entitled White Rabbit (Chronicle Books, 1995) was called “seminal” by Granta; and a piece he wrote about being a stay-at-home dad for Oprah was included in her best of O collection, Live Your Best Life (Oxmoor, 2005). He has co-authored several books, including Websites That Work with designer Roger Black (Adobe Press, 1997) and Mission Al Jazeera with former Marine captain Josh Rushing (Palgrave, 2007). He also works as a book doctor and helped edit the forthcoming Making Rounds with Oscar by Dr. David Dosa (Hyperion, 2010). He lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife and daughter.

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    • All at Once: Excerpt of the Novel

    • I step onto a wide stone platform surrounded by water and lie on my stomach to peer down over the edge. At my approach, tiny fish scatter like drops of colored light; crabs pause, wary, then scuttle along the sides of the basin, stuffing their mouths as fast as they can with alternate pincers. After a while, a kind of brown finger wriggles out from the shadows. Another one emerges, then two more, and finally the bulbous body of an octopus comes into view. It skims along until the water is too shallow then starts to walk, using its tentacles as legs. When the water gets deeper it pushes off against the sandy bottom to glide, once more, just beneath the surface. It circles round and round my platform.

      aao cover

      My back begins to prickle, and I realize I’ll be burnt to a crisp if I don’t find shelter pretty soonthe ocean breeze masks the sun’s virulence.

      Standing up makes me momentarily dizzy. The tide has gone out, uncovering rocks studded with barnacles or slick with thick green hair. I head back toward the flat sand and continue walking, looking for a place to rest. I’ve just about resigned myself to the idea of a plastic chair, when I spot a barraca that’s not open for business. The beach in front of it is empty, the small structure shuttered; its thatched roof casts a nice, wide stripe of shade onto the sand. Gratefully, I set up camp, taking out the water and crackers I brought, spreading out my towel to sit on, and leaning against the barraca wall with the empty backpack in between for cushioning. A sigh of relief.

      The ocean is now more white than blue. At the horizon, a wavering smudge might be a cruise ship or an oil rig. The great mass of water is barely disturbed by shifting waves, fretful and sluggish like a dog settling down to sleep. There’s an occasional bloom of white spray when a wave breaks against rock; wisps of cloud trail across the sky. I yawn, lie down on the towel, and close my eyes.

      Now the landscape is reduced to the rustle of wind in the palm thatch, the faint piping of a distant bird, and the dull roar of the ocean. I stretch my arms and let them flop back down. Rolling my head slowly from side to side to loosen the tension in my neck, I notice that this movement causes the pitch of the ocean to vary ever so slightly. Intrigued, I try it a few more times, just to make sure.

      There’s a lesson in that, I reflect: reality changes according to your viewpoint. I roll my head once more from side to side then lie still again, listening to the tiny, ceaseless fluctuations within the monotone.

      An insect lands on my footwithout opening my eyes I flex my toe to chase it away, and realize that the gesture produced an infinitesimal shift in the ocean sound. Bizarre! I can understand the position of my head influencing what I hear, but the position of my toe? (more…)

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    A Plot Twist for Hank Phillippi Ryan’s Career

    by Mary Yuhas


    is the on-air investigative reporter for Boston’s NBC affiliate. She’s won 33 EMMYs, 13 Edward R. Murrow awards and dozens of other honors for her groundbreaking journalism. A bestselling author of eight mystery novels, Ryan has won multiple prestigious awards for her crime fiction: five Agathas, two Anthonys, the Daphne, two Macavitys, and for THE OTHER WOMAN, the coveted Mary Higgins Clark Award. National reviews have called her a “master at crafting suspenseful mysteries” and “a superb and gifted storyteller.” Her 2013 novel, THE WRONG GIRL, won both the Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel and the Daphne Award for Mainstream Mystery/Suspense, and is a seven-week Boston Globe bestseller. TRUTH BE TOLD is the Agatha Award winner for Best Contemporary Novel, an Anthony Award nominee and a Library Journal BEST BOOK OF 2014. Ryan also won a second Agatha Award in 2015 for Best Nonfiction, as editor of WRITES OF PASSAGE, an anthology of essays by mystery authors, which was also honored with a Macavity Award and Anthony Award. Ryan’s newest novel, WHAT YOU SEE, is a RT Book Reviews Top Pick for “Exceptional suspense!” and named a Best of 2015 by Library Journal, which raves, “Mystery readers get ready: you will find yourself racing to the finish.” She’s a founding teacher at Mystery Writers of America University and 2013 president of national Sisters in Crime. Visit her online at HankPhillippiRyan.com, on Twitter @HankPRyan and Facebook at HankPhillippiRyanAuthor.

    LITVOTE:  You were already an award winningl investigative reporter when you started writing? What prompted you to start a second career?

    HANK: What prompted me to start a second career? I grew up in very rural Indiana, reading Sherlock Holmes and Nancy Drew, and always wanted to be a mystery author, or a real life detective. My life went a different direction, but come to think about it, I became kind of a detective and storyteller, right? I’ve been an investigative reporter for three decades now, and a journalist for 40 years! But one day–11 years ago when I was 55!– I simply got a great idea for a plot.  I remember the moment perfectly. And I went home and said to my husband: I have a terrific idea for a mystery, finally, and I’m going to write it.  He smiled, and said “Honey do you know how to write a novel? And I laughed, newbie me, and said “How hard can it be?” Now I know.

    But I am proof that it is never too late to start a new career. And I am delighted every day about it.

    LITVOTE:  How long did it take to find a literary agent/publisher for your first book?

    HANK:  It took longer than I would have liked… But not as long as it takes for some. I thought it would be much easier, especially since I already had a well-known name, in New England at least, and hoped that might make a difference. It didn’t. I may have blanked out how much time it took, since every time I got a rejection, it felt like forever. But I think I maybe got 10 rejections before I got my agent. I know now that that is fabulous.

    My first book did not sell instantly, but soon enough, and I hope I never have to worry about that again. I am so happy now with my publisher, Forge Books, and humming along delightedly.

    Writing a novel can be a series of rejections, and much of success has to do with persistence.

    Oh, and some magic, too.

    LITVOTE: Do you outline before you start a book?

    HANK: Can you hear me laughing? Every time I write a novel, I swear that I will do an outline. And then I think oh, maybe not, maybe I’ll just start. So bottom line, I have never done an outline for a book. As a result, I don’t know what is going to happen until I write the next word, and the next sentence, and the next scene.

    You know there are two kinds of writers–plotters and pantsers. In other words, those who outline, and those who write by the seat of their pants. And I am a pantser.

    I start each book knowing it will be about Jane Ryland, a smart savvy reporter, and Jake Brogan, a Boston police detective. I also know one cool unique plot point—one unique gem of an idea that will make the book special and original and riveting. I don’t start writing until I know the first sentence, but after that, anything goes.

    It’s an intriguing tight rope, isn’t it? To begin a project, knowing that in a certain amount of time you have to have a certain amount of words, and you have faith that you will get there… Even if you don’t know where “there” is.

    So far, it has worked. But not without some bumpy roads. But it is a joy, and some days I burst out laughing with how terrific it is. Other days, not so much.

    Although I write thrillers, I don’t even know who the bad guys are when I begin!  When I was writing WHAT YOU SEE, I was almost finished, and in despair. I came out to the living room, and told my husband “I can’t finish this book I have no idea how it ends.”  Jonathan said “You at least know the villain, don’t you? And I said no.

    People say –wow the end of WHAT YOU SEE surprised me! And I say yeah, wasn’t that a surprise? Talk about surprise endings. I surprise myself. Every time.

    LITVOTE:  Do a lot of the twists and turns in your stories come from your experiences as an investigative reporter?

    HANK: Oh yes, absolutely! One of the wonderful things about this dual career as investigative reporter and crime fiction author is that every day I am on the job–as I have been for the past 40 years!–I get ideas for my stories. My books, however, though ripped from my own headlines, are not my stories made into fiction. Not at all.

    But I have wired myself within cameras, and confronted corrupt politicians, got undercover, and in disguise, and chased down criminals. I’ve had people confess to murder, and convicted criminals insist they were innocent, covered hostage situations, and ice storms, and shootouts and tear gas and riots. So of course, all that brings veracity and an authenticity to my novels.

    Plus—I’ve had to write a story every time. So I’ve also learned the ways to tell a compelling story!

    LITVOTE: How do you find time to work full time on television and write?

    HANK:  Ha. I have said that if I had an autobiography, I would call it The Juggler. Because all I do is juggle! I am very organized, and have lots of lists, and I keep track of my writing progress. Maybe surprisingly, I am not a multitasker. I focus on one thing at a time, and try to get that done. Right now I am on national book tour, so must focus more on writing, and my station has been very generous and flexible about that. As an investigative reporter, there is much I can do remotely, research and interviews and scriptwriting. I have even tracked my pieces in other cities!

    In my personal life?  Cooking I must say, was the first to go, and then laundry. And then vacations, and movies, and dinner parties. So I juggle, and my supportive and enthusiastic husband does too.  So far, so good.

    LITVOTE:  Are Jane Ryland and  Charlotte McNally ─ the protagonists in your two series ─ your alter ego?

    HANK: Well…no. They aren’t. Jane Ryland is a 35-year-old journalist, just getting her sea legs, and learning her way in the business—she’s so ethical, she keeps getting fired when she refuses to cut journalism corners. She is a 35-year-old person in 2015, and I was a 35-year-old person in… Whenever that was. So it’s a treat to get to be 35 again, but she is Jane at 35, not Hank at 35.

    Charlotte McNally, well, she’s not my alter ego so much as she is flat out me. I fear is a lot of me is Charlie, and I embrace it. She also is younger than I am, but as a 46-year-old and television reporter, Charlie is worried that what will happen when she is married to television, but the camera doesn’t love her anymore. This is a rite of passage every woman in television… And other businesses! –goes through. So it was fun for me to explore, with Charlie’s trademark humor, that professional and personal journey.

    Again, both characters often surprise me! Sue Grafton always says her main character Kinsey Millhone  revealed herself to Sue more and more in every book, and that is exactly what happens to me with Jane and Charlotte.

    (You can read my novels in any order—just like you can watch any episode of Law & Order!)

    LITVOTE: After successfully writing eight books, what suggestions can you give to aspiring authors?

    HANK: It’s amazing to see that number eight, almost nine! And working on number 10.When I despaired, for a while, over book number one!

    But my advice is simple: go for it. There is no one who cares about this is much as you do, no one who is going to make you do it, or force you to do it, or give you a prize if you do it. It is all about your passion, and your commitment, and sitting down in the chair and writing the best book that you can. That’s all there is. Devotion, and persistence, and that crazy wild confidence that any new author must have.

    The road to successful publication is inevitably paved with rejection, and disappointment. There is also a beautiful light at the end of the tunnel (which is actually a new beginning!), and sometimes gorgeous lights along the way. So just keep at it, and work as hard as you can, do the absolute best you can, and give it 100 percent every moment of every day.

    One big secret? There are no short cuts none at all. It is all about work.

    LIT VOTE: Do you read your book reviews?

    HANK: Yes I do, and, they are the scourge of authors. I often only remember the bad ones. If I could avoid reading them, I would. But I love hearing from readers, and it’s my goal to make certain they have a terrifically enjoyable reading experience, so, of course, I want to know if I have succeeded.

    And the joy, the glorious joy, I get from the good ones is so marvelous and intoxicating. WHAT YOU SEE has received the best reviews I’ve ever seen for any book in my life! “Superb”, “highly entertaining,”  “as good as Dennis Lehane,”  “flawlessly done.”

    And it was just named a Library Journal BEST of 2015!  Wow.

    But when someone criticizes me unfairly, for something bizarre like my “profanity”– of which there is absolutely none in my books!–I shake my head and I vow I will never read another review.

    Sometimes I think if people only knew what a dagger to the heart an unkind word is, they might be more careful about what they cavalierly say.  But that’s all part of the biz.

    LITVOTE: What are the most common mistakes that first-time writers make?

    HANK:  The most common mistakes? Not being careful enough, not realizing that every word you choose has to work, and has to matter, and that you can’t just bang out a book and have it be good. It takes a long time to write a terrific novel, and then it takes even more time to make better by revisions and changes and rethinking.

    There is art, and there is craft. You can be the most incredibly talented person in the world, but if you don’t know how to write a book, it’s rare that it can succeed. There’s an interesting balance of skill and talent on one hand, and sheer education on the other. When I was halfway through my first book I had a little epiphany: That I had no idea what I was doing!

    I took a class or two, and read some books, and after all my years as a journalist, it didn’t take much to educate me. I still study writing all the time! And hope to improve with every book. But again, there are no shortcuts. So if writer thinks “la dee dah this will be easy”? That’s wrong.

    Writing a book is a marathon. It is easy to feel defeated. If you love it, please don’t make the mistake of giving up.

    LITVOTE:  What’s next?

    HANK:   So many exciting things! In 2016 my first series, the Charlotte McNally books, will be re-issued by Forge with brand-new editions and brand-new covers. I am so fond of these books– they are fun, fast-paced mysteries set in Boston. The first, PRIME TIME won the Agatha for Best First Mystery. Robert B Parker loved the Charlotte McNally books, (and I hope his fans will, too!)  and I am so happy that soon they will be available to readers again.

    I have two short stories being published in 2016 as well, and hilariously, they are so different! One is in an anthology of X-Files stories, can you believe it? Edited by Jonathan Mayberry. And the other is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche which will be in an anthology edited by Laurie R. King and Les Klinger.

    I was named Toastmaster, a huge honor, of Malice Domestic, the ‘traditional mystery’ convention held every year in Washington DC.

    And then, along with James Patterson, I have been named the American guest of honor for Bouchercon, the world mystery convention, held in Dallas in 2019.

    Book five in the Jane Ryland/Jake Brogan series, SAY NO MORE, will debut in October 2016. I am so excited about it! It is about witness intimidation, campus sexual abuse, and the power of silence.

    And of course, I will be writing my next book, called OUT COLD! Which, oh, I should go start right now.


    Mary Yuhas is a journalist and and has contributed to Sun-Sentinel, USA Today, China Daily USA and Washington Times, MapQuest among others, creator of Baby Boomers the first reality blog and the author of the upcoming memoir, QUIT AND BE QUIET, about growing up with a severely mentally ill mother,  featured three times on Scribd.


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    On Coventry by Matthew Schultz

    Book Launch at the Vassar College Library on Friday, October 23rd at 7:00pm – Matthew Schultz will read from and sign copies of On Coventry

    A creative exploration of the past-haunted-present, On Coventry features a nostalgic protagonist who is at once homesick and sick of home. It is a bildungsroman that charts the progressively disenchanted relationships of Eliot Hopkins, his working-class parents, and immigrant great-grandparents as a way of mapping the economic and cultural decline of Cleveland, Ohio, across the 20th Century. The figure of George Simmel’s wandersmänner is at the center of this historical narrative about the entropy of American dreams and longing for auld lang syne in a once great city.

    Though Matthew’s first novel, On Coventry provides the creative hinge upon which his scholarly work swings. His first book, Haunted Historiographies: The Rhetoric of Ideology in Postcolonial Irish Fiction (2014, Manchester University Press), identifies a set of contemporary Irish novels as historiographical fictions that revisit and revise the partisan architecture of Ireland’s founding mythologies. By juxtaposing canonical and non-canonical texts that complicate previous representations of four definitive events in modern Irish and British history (the Great Famine, the Irish Revolution, World War II, and the Northern Irish Troubles), Matthew demonstrates how the figure of ghosts helps authors to expose the process by which such history is constructed.

    His next book will interrogate the role of nostalgia in 20th century Irish fiction. Like On Coventry, this project is particularly interested in ‘reflective nostalgia’ (to borrow a term from Svetlana Boym) and its significance as an enduring Modernist obsession in the work of contemporary Irish novelists such as Colm Tóibín, Mary Morrissy, and Sebastian Barry.

    On Coventry transcends generations in a tale of serendipity, about all the lucky and unlucky events that lead up to each individual’s present. It asks us to think about how we all create the fabric of society, are influenced by and influence the places we’re from, and the necessity to empathize with one another despite (and, perhaps because of) our differences.

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    Author Laura Novak explains the ins and outs of writing an eBook

    By Mary Thurman Yuhas

    new Laura Novak imageLaura Novak worked in the news business for more than 25 years before turning to her first love ─ fiction. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Barnard College and a Diploma with Honors from the University of Leningrad in the Soviet Union. The following year she earned a Master of Science from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University where she was selected as the David Jayne Fellow by ABC News. She worked for the network in London and New York for four years before taking flight for the West Coast where she started as a writer/editor at KCBS radio in San Francisco. From there, she became an on-air reporter at KFBK radio in Sacramento where she sat alongside a guy named Rush Limbaugh. Moving back into television, she reported for the CBS, NBC, and Fox TV stations in San Francisco and Oakland. Her specialty was crime stories, and she was dubbed the ‘blood and guts reporter’. Those days provided some good fodder for material now appearing in her mystery series! Following the birth of her son, she wrote for many years for “The New York Times” on health, business and the arts. If she is not swimming or writing with a cat nearby, she is usually recycling anything in her path.


    LitVote: After all your years in journalism, your books, Finding Clarity, and Murder at the Mailbox, are fiction. What inspired you to write them?


    Laura: “Murder at the Mailbox” is built around a real medical case that a doctor tipped me off to, as well as stories I found in the news and the public record. They were all so outlandish they begged to fictionalized. I had a great time creating a madcap mystery weaving all of these elements together. And it was natural for me to ferret out real stories because of my career as a journalist, first as a TV news reporter, like my protagonist, Clari Drake, and then as a print reporter, including many years writing features for The New York Times. Finding Clarity,” and “Murder at the Mailbox,” have mysteries at their roots, but they are also social satires and commentary on Berkeley, California. I get a lot of feedback that I have tapped into the soft white underbelly of life in this fabled city.


    LitVote: What did you learn after writing your first book?


    Laura: The long form is naturally much harder than daily journalism and even feature writing. As a journalist, at some point, you have to stop and turn in your copy to an editor. With a novel, new material can come your way. You have new experiences all the time and life is full of fodder. It’s difficult to know when the story is finished or when all the elements have come together and it’s time to put the pen down.


    LitVote: When we talked, you said, self-publishing is so much easier than it was. How so?


    Laura: When I launched Finding Clarity in 2011, indie authors were riding the crest of a big new wave. Many of us were putting chapters up on Scribd for feedback. We were selling books there and a few other places. Then Amazon launched Kindle Select which provided a number of services in exchange for exclusivity. There was all sorts of excitement about free give aways and how to handle promotions. But to get to that point, authors needed to format and upload. The words Mobi and ePub entered our lexicon. I recall watching Youtube videos on how to format for Kindle. It was a nightmare converting a Word document into something these online stores could then publish.


    Fast forward to this summer when I formatted, “Murder at the Mailbox.” The real game changer for indie authors is an application called Vellum (,http://180g.co/) created by two guys who worked at Pixar and left to start their own company, 180g. Now, formatting is easy and gorgeous. Vellum generates files that can be uploaded directly to Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Kobo and Google Play. Books no longer have to look like typed xerox copies. Vellum has totally changed the eBook game.


    LitVote: Do you recommend self-published writers use an editor?


    Laura: Self publishing still carries a stigma, but it doesn’t have to. Some of us choose to spend the time building our own team and producing our own books. And that takes a lot of energy and effort. Others would rather spend that time trying to find an agent who then has to find a publisher. And that’s fine too. But to turn out a respectable product as an indie author, yes, you must hire good editors and cover designers. I hired a developmental editor out of New York who has worked with some big names. And my copy editor is a former colleague of mine from our days at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia, as well as, “The New York Times.” He just retired from there in fact. Our timing to work together on, “Murder at the Mailbox,” was perfect!


    LitVote: What is the best way to find a book cover?


    Laura: I used the same designer for both my books. She is a very skilled and seasoned designer who does much more than book covers. We work well together. But if an author doesn’t know anyone, then that author needs to become a journalist and dig and dig and ask everyone until they come up with names and referrals. Or they can contact me on my website and I can share the names I have.


    LitVote: For those who have completed their manuscript and are just beginning their self-publishing journey, what do you suggest they do first?


    Laura: Step away from the book. Step away from the book! Take some time away – literally a few months if possible – and move on to the next project. Then, return to it and see all the things you didn’t see the first 100 times around. Then, when you really feel you are done, hire a developmental editor to see the holes in the manuscript that you can’t find. When that is done, hire a copy editor. They are two very different disciplines. And, in fact, the copy editor should probably take two spins on the book. Then, pursue a cover designer. And then, by all means, investigate Vellum. It really is the game changer for formatting a beautiful book.


    LitVote: How do you market your book?

    Laura: I promote it on Facebook and Twitter and even Instagram. And I rely on the kindness of friends and strangers to help share the news.


    LitVote: Any advice on what not to do?


    Laura: Distraction is a writer’s worst enemy, so it’s important to get quiet and do the work. I never talk about what I do. I just do it. Yet paradoxically, if we aren’t alert and available to new experiences, then we don’t gather new material. It’s a delicate balance.


    What are your plans for the future?


    Laura: “Murder at the Mailbox” is the first in a series I’ve planned. It takes place at Halloween on the most famous street for that holiday in Berkeley. My next book, of which I’ve completed about 25 percent takes place at Thanksgiving and involves, what else? Food. Berkeley is deeply rooted in the food culture of the Bay Area. We can’t converse about this colorful city without including its amazing culinary scene.

    Laura Novak’s web site: lauranovakauthor.com

    Mary Yuhas, is a journalist and has contributed to Sun-Sentinel, USA Today, China Daily USA and Washington Times among others, creator of Baby Boomers the first reality blog and the author of the upcoming memoir, QUIT AND BE QUIET, about growing up with a severely mentally ill mother, featured three times on Scribd.




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    Birds of Passage, An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story

    Joe Giordano, author of Birds of Passage, An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story, released October 8th, 2015

    The great wave of Italian immigrants to the United States started after Italy’s consolidation in 1871, but il Risorgimento, did not create a nation. As one statesman put it, “Italy has been made. Now we must make Italians.”

    The south of Italy, or Mezzogiorno, spoke different languages, had been dominated for centuries by foreign powers, and had distinct cultures. Many in the north of Italy held southern Italians in disdain. The south was already poor when Italy was united. The economic policies imposed by the north made economic conditions worse. As a result, many Italians emigrated to North and South America to find work.

    In Argentina, Italians were early immigrants and welcomed. Pope Francis’s parents were Italian immigrants. In Brazil, Italians replaced freed blacks on coffee plantations. Treated little better than slaves, Italians moved to other pursuits. Today the richest state in Brazil, Sao Paulo, has more people of Italian heritage than the founding Portuguese.

    The Italians who arrived in New York found the Irish and Tammany Hall running the city. If an Italian wasn’t a mason, a tailor, a barber, or a shoemaker, and didn’t open a shop with his family, he was consigned to manual labor. The padroni system for finding employment was Italians exploiting Italians. Workers were often recruited in Italy and controlled by a padrone in New York who took a cut of their wages. As new immigrants to the U.S., Italians occupied the bottom rung on the socio-economic scale. Often, they were used as “human steam shovels” to build the skyscrapers and subways of New York.

    Birds of passage was the name given to Italians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries because they were the first U.S. immigrants who returned to their home country. Many made multiple trips to earn money in the States. After World War I, when U.S. immigration laws tightened, Italians could no longer guarantee their return, so many decided to stay. That’s when they brought their families.

    As with the character Guido Basso in Birds of Passage, both my grandfathers were ragmen. Their labor was dirty and backbreaking, but they were their own padrone. My father was the last immigrant in my family. He acquired just a seventh-grade education before he set out to work. Unemployed for a long period during the Great Depression, he found a job in a warehouse. Working rapidly to impress the boss, he reached up for a box. Someone had left a vase on top. The glass knickknack slipped and shattered onto the concrete floor. My father was fired on the spot. Not deterred, he started his own business. My mother was one of five daughters employed at home doing piece work so her family could earn enough money to leave the tenement. Eventually her family purchased a home in Brooklyn.

    As a boy, when my father and I passed a man doing hard manual labor, he would say to me, “See that? Go to school.” Many of my fellow Italian-Americans stand upon the shoulders of parents and grandparents who were intrepid enough to try and make a better life in a new country. Birds of Passage is not about my family, but I’m old enough to have known Italians born in the nineteenth-century. In the novel, I tried to capture how Italian immigrants of past generations thought and acted.


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    Everything you wanted to know about Downton Abbey

    By Mary Thurman Yuhas

    PR shots 2014 www.sarahweal.com

    Jessica Fellowes

    Jessica Fellowes is an author, journalist and public speaker. Formerly a celebrity interviewer at the Mail on Sunday and deputy editor of Country Life magazine, she has written seven books as well as touring with her lectures on Downton Abbey from Cheltenham to California.

    LitVote: Sadly for many of us, the upcoming season of Downton Abbey is the last one. It has enjoyed an incredible estimated viewership of 300 million worldwide. The next series, The Gilded Age, takes place in the 1880s in the U.S. and showcases families such as the Vanderbilt’s. Will you be co-writing it with your uncle, Julian Fellowes, creator and writer of Downton Abbey?

    Jessica: No! I have nothing to do with Julian’s script writing at all, and in fact he always writes alone – he’s extremely unusual in not leading a team of writers for Downton Abbey. However, I adore the era he is writing about for The Gilded Age, so if there was an opportunity for me to explore the series in the same way that I have done for Downton Abbey, I would jump at it.

    LitVote: Why did your uncle choose to write about Americans for the next series?

    Jessica: You’d have to ask him to find out but I imagine it was a combination of NBC (who have commissioned the pilot) wanting a show based in the U.S. and Julian wanting to explore that territory. It’s ripe for a series – the building of New York, the rich families, the cowboys, the British aristocracy marrying into them…I can’t wait!

    LitVote: Some of the lines in Downton Abbey have become iconic. One of the most memorable was Maggie Smith’s character, Violet Crowley, the Dowager Countess, when she said, “What’s a weekend?” Your uncle, Sir Julian Fellowes, grew up in an aristocratic household. Is Downton Abbey somewhat of a memoir for him?

    Jessica: No. He – and my father, as well as their four brothers – were the children of a ‘mixed’ marriage in that their father was from an aristocratic background, though he was the poorer relation, and their mother was middle-class stock. She suffered terribly at the hands of her husband’s snobbish aunts, and Julian has drawn a lot from those stories for the show. His was a comfortable, enjoyable childhood but not of Downton ilk.

    LitVote: Why do you think that people from all over the world fell in love with the characters?

    Jessica: I think for a start there is a wide range of them, so whoever you are, you should find at least one to relate to, or recognise or even just like to hate! Plus the master/servant relationship is at the centre of so many classic dramas – even without having servants or being one, we’re all familiar with the workplace environment and certainly with families.

    LitVote: Did you or your uncle expect such a positive response to the show?

    Jessica: He was certainly hopeful and very excited about it but we couldn’t have possibly anticipated the extraordinary phenomenon that it became!

    LitVote: The scenes in the bedrooms and kitchen are all shot on a set. Only the living areas and dining room are filmed in Highclere Castle [this is the real-life name for Downton Abbey.] What are some of the other fun facts that most viewers probably don’t know?

    Jessica: The funny consequence of the two sets – which are about 50 miles apart – means that they have to film in blocks of two or three weeks. So when a footman leaves the kitchen with a plate of food, he doesn’t emerge in the dining room until a fortnight later!

    LitVote: You’ve written three beautiful companion books with photographs about the show and characters. Is Highclere Castle as beautiful as it photographs?

    Jessica: I’ve now written a fourth companion book – out Nov 10 – ‘Downton Abbey: A Celebration’, with even more beautiful photographs! The house in which the show is filmed is certainly handsome and impressive – the architecture is one of Victorian confidence, which is what Julian and the producers specifically wanted. Inside, the Great Hall, library and dining room are all in real life as you see them on the screen. But I think the beauty we associate with ‘Downton Abbey’ the show comes from the brilliant technical and creative achievements of the art department, costume designer, lighting cameraman, good-looking actors….

    LitVote: The costumes are magnificent. What happens to them when the show ends?

    Jessica: Initially, some were made, some were bought and many were hired – so they were returned to the hire companies. Cosprop lent a great many of the costumes and together with Carnival (who make the show), they have staged a marvellous costume exhibition that is currently touring the USA (dressingdownton.com). The later series, under the hand of costume designer Anna Scott Mary Robbins, hire very little but buy in or design and make their own costumes – they are, of course, an asset now, because of the success of the show. They are carefully stored – beaded dresses, for example, cannot be hung or the beads will pull the material they are sown on – and I hope there will be more exhibitions!

    LitVote: Now that you and your uncle have five years experience writing and filming a period piece, is there anything that you will avoid or add in the upcoming series?

    Jessica: Again – I only write the companion books, not the show! But I have read the scripts for the final season and I can promise you that it will not disappoint. They are going out on a very high note.

    LitVote: What do you see in your future?

    Jessica: I hope to be lucky enough to continue to work as a writer, both non-fiction and fiction, and enjoy many happy days with my family.

    *      *     *

    Mary Yuhas, is a journalist and has contributed to Sun-Sentinel, USA Today, China Daily USA and Washington Times among others, creator of Baby Boomers the first reality blog and the author of the upcoming memoir, QUIT AND BE QUIET, about growing up with a severely mentally ill mother,  featured three times on Scribd.

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    The Goliards

    A story by Brian Sloan, Author of Double Crossed: The Imperium Impunged

    Nearly one thousand years ago, a loosely knit band of student clerics, collectively known as the Goliards, roamed what are now regions of England, France, and Germany. They were a lively, sinful bunch despite their priest-in-training status. Most historians see eye to eye on the fact that they were vagabonds; though, few have made the logical conclusion that they were on the run. Heresy, in those days (and for centuries beyond) was punishable by a tortuous death, usually of the burning at the stake variety—and sadly, much to the delight of the public.

    Some historians have viewed the Goliards as the most scholarly of the time, while others have labeled them drunks.   Scribed history must be especially viewed with a skeptical mind. Skewing the truth of the day’s events isn’t just a recent phenomenon of this digital age (CNN v. Fox), but an effective tactic since the beginning of time for those who have sought influence and power.

    Works of art, however, have survived in a more pure state over time and while masterpieces have been commissioned with the intent to influence, art has, and always be, subjectively interpreted. In the early 19th century in what is now, Germany, a collection of poetry, short stories, and music was discovered that has been attributed to the merry Goliards. Most of the collection takes direct aim at their employer, the Roman Catholic Church.

    The Carmina Burana would likely remain unheard of except for German composer, Carl Orff, who in the early 20th Century scored the cantata which too is titled the Carmina Burana. Cue Fortuna Plango Vulnera, the 2nd movement from his opus magnum, and most will rightfully claim they’ve never heard it. Cue the first movement, Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi, and nearly all who have watched commercials or movies will recognize this piece instantaneously. Not many could sing along, and fewer yet can comprehend the lyrics, but it’s seemingly loved just the same.

    In writing Double-Crossed: The Imperium Impugned, I borrowed the translated lyrics from the first movement to frame the outline for this novel.   My intent was to create an intriguing story in the most beautiful place, with the most beautiful people, marred by the ugly truth. It’s a story about how quickly life changes and the importance of exploiting each and every moment. And like the Goliards, I placed anagram and acronym clues to answer the readers’ questions as they arise in the story. Can you make an anagram from Goliards?


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    Faggot: An Appalachian Tale, Surviving Bullying
    Frank E. Billingsley
    Book Launch at Serendip Spa
    Place Stephanie, Brussels, Belgium

    by Frank E. Billingsley, PhD

    As an American expat author in the capital of Europe, I launched my new novel, Faggot: An Appalachian Tale, Surviving Bullying, at Serendip Spa in Brussels Belgium. The owner of this award-winning spa, Melissa Rancourt, offered me the opportunity to be the first author to host the newly created “Wine and Books” evening. I was incredibly flattered to be the author to initiate the event. As the day of the event grew closer, I could feel myself becoming more and more nervous. What if no one wanted to come meet the author a controversial book?

    crowdOn July 3rd, the event commenced, and I was a little more than nervous. But, as the familiar and unfamiliar faces started to appear, the room slowly became more crowded, and I could feel myself becoming more at ease. The event was a wonderful experience for a new author: the genuine compliments, and wishes of congratulations filled the warm summer evening’s air.

    FrankSigningI am overall honored and humbled to have had such a wonderful turnout. Serendip was the perfect venue to discuss the book, and why the story was important for me to tell. The discussions led to great debates about words that have touched us all for the better and for worse. The venue offered a safe place to discuss those words, and how they have left a mark on our lives. And, further, it helped toward realizing how the words have molded our characters and made us the individuals we are today. Overall, what a great experience, which has led to the next book signing event on July 29th at the Book Loft of German Village, Columbus, Ohio.

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    Haw puts a new spin on dystopia

    Interview via eco-fiction.com

    June 19, 2015 – Author Sean Jackson’s Haw was just launched today.

    Haw is the gripping story of a father’s struggle to save his son from a corrupt society in a pitiless, bleak, futuristic America. Sean Jackson has published numerous short stories in literary journals, from the U.S. to Canada and Australia. Haw is his debut novel. He was born in Raleigh, North Carolina. He lives in Cary with his wife and two sons. I want to warmly welcome Sean and thank him for speaking with Eco-fiction.

    Mary: Your novel, Haw, takes place in a future world where climate change and related problems have degraded the planet, yet reportedly your book offers some hope. Do you think that literature can effect social moods and ideals–and, if so, do you think dystopian views or hope is the better motivator (or a combination of both)?

    Sean: Literature has a dramatic effect upon the way we think, socially and politically. It’s just a matter of whether writers want to address these larger issues. I understand the desire to write for a larger audience, but I’ve always felt that if you’re not bringing something new to the table, if you’re not agreeing to a dare of some kind, then you are probably cheating yourself. When I was younger I felt that the only worthwhile writing was found in the books and stories about change and revolution, like in Dostoevsky or Sartre or Ibsen. I’m lucky in that I still feel this way.

    Dystopian literature has been around a long time. It’s in the religious scriptures, and you can find it in Homer. I’ve been a big fan of Richard Bach for years. He writes both very simply and very mystically about our stations in life. Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy take darker views into human nature. I tried to put some of both in Haw. The story just didn’t seem to work without keeping the compelling and unbreakable nature of love intact.

    Mary: They say that a story, first and foremost, is what draws a reader. Your novel has been described as humorous, brilliant, and moving. Please describe what’s going on in your novel at a pure and essential story level.

    Sean: Unchecked power corrupts and destroys. That’s the nut graph. Expanding out from there, I explore the possibility that future generations could become even lazier with holding their governments accountable. You cede more power to a ruling entity, it only craves more power. It’s a vampire-and-host relationship. The people become weaker, the rulers grow stronger. Scarce resources cause white populations to systematically destroy dark-skinned people. None of this sounds very humorous, but I assure you that some comic relief is sprinkled throughout; otherwise it would get too grim. And sometimes dark comedy works best. Hopeless people can be funny. It’s often their only way to survive. Unfortunately, violence is the only remedy to the problems of the future landscape in Haw. I think we’ve seen that in America recently in places like Ferguson and Baltimore.

    Mary: There is an LGBT element to your story as well, something that is unique (so far) in the flood of novels coming out about climate change.

    Sean: Across the country, there is what feels like a war against the LGBT community, simply because they have sought equality. It’s a repeated cycle, with the suffragettes, then the Civil Rights marches, and now the rainbow flags are the battle flags for many people. It’s a taboo that many writers want to shrink away from if they are seeking a mainstream audience. I have a transgender daughter and I noticed over the years that if I referenced a work that featured homosexual characters, it was often written by a lesser-known writer such as Jean Genet or John Rechy. People were saying, by omission, that gay people did not belong in novels. So I created gay characters that are a part of the setting just like they are in real life. It’s weird that this hasn’t been done before.

    Mary: I’m glad that you are not being exclusive. Mitch Cullin (Tideland, A Slight Trick of the Mind) described your novel as a potentially seminal work in contemporary American fiction and likens your novel to Brave New World. What are some of the similarities?

    Sean: I hope Mitch is right. The book takes a straight-on look into a potentially bleak future, unless we can rein in these people who think the Earth is invulnerable and that minorities are disposable. How long can we keep this up? I think Aldous Huxley and George Orwell are more relevant than ever before, more so than even the Cold War era when nuclear war was the looming disaster. I think it’s been a while since widely read American authors have tackled social issues.

    And there is a genetic issue similar to Brave New World, only darker: some people aren’t bred to be more perfect but rather more imperfect. Populations of dark-skinned people (the citoyens) are fed into systems of poor nutrition and economic hopelessness so that the white society exists in a matrix of plenty.

    And there is a trip into the American West that could remind a reader of Huxley’s novel. Brave New World showed the dangers of utopian society, and I feel Haw depicts an even more extreme and imminent threat, of having wealth-inequality force the majority of people into deprivation so that the depleted natural resources can sustain and nourish a select few.

    Mary: You’ve published in several literary journals thus far. What kinds of works have you published before, and are you working on anything else at the moment?

    Sean: Short stories written in the literary fiction vein, quite different from Haw. I’m trying to finish and revise a couple of stories currently being published in journals so that I can put together a collection. I want these stories to reflect the struggles that poor, young families and strong women encounter in the modern world. I’m not sure if they’ve “gotten there” yet. But I’d like to get a book of stories published next year. We’ll see.

    And I am toying with the idea of writing a sequel to Haw.

    Mary: I will be looking forward to it! I’ve been asking all the authors I interview: who were your greatest inspirations (authors) when growing up?

    Sean: I’m from North Carolina, so Thomas Wolfe is near the top of that list. The old standards, Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Raymond Carver, Hemingway, and Willa Cather, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill, are there. And I read a lot of French authors after high school. I wanted to teach French lit after college, so I read Gide, Camus, Hugo, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Collette and the great Louis-Ferdinand Celine.

    Mary: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to Eco-fiction.com. I’m looking forward to Haw!


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    The Truth Behind FOR THEIR OWN GOOD

    By Bradette Michel, author, For Their Own Good

    The idea to write my novel, For Their Own Good came after I attempted to confirm a family rumor that my grandmother had been committed to the mental hospital in Jacksonville, about sixty miles from her home. Modern privacy legislation prevented my access to her treatment records, but I did gain information about the history of the asylum and a woman who was locked up in the hospital long before my grandmother’s time—Elizabeth Packard.

    In 1860 Mrs. Packard was committed to the Illinois State Hospital for the Insane in Jacksonville, Illinois for disagreeing with her husband’s religious beliefs. I was stunned by her fate, but sadly found she was not alone. Many nineteenth century patients were locked in this institution and others like it for reasons that had more to do with the needs of their families than any mental aberrations. Deemed unfit to live in their communities, these outcasts were rejected by society, often lost custody of their children, and were deserted by spouses.


    Mrs. Packard

    Legally, Reverend Packard was not required to seek a court hearing before committing his wife. Instead, he enlisted the sheriff to bring her to the hospital by force. Naively, Mrs. Packard thought that since the hospital was experienced with the treatment of the insane, staff would recognize her as sane and refuse to admit her.

    The institution’s superintendent, Dr. Andrew McFarland diagnosed Mrs. Packard’s illness as monomania, a condition in which the patient is sane in every way but one. Dr. McFarland concluded that Mrs. Packard’s insanity came from religious excitement. Only by agreeing with her husband’s theology, would she show evidence of being cured.

    The Jacksonville hospital was one of many built across the country in the early nineteenth century through the efforts of social reformer Dorothea Dix. Dix convinced Illinois state legislators that asylums were the best way to cure the mentally ill. The Illinois State Hospital for the Insane in Jacksonville, Illinois, admitted its first patient in 1851.


    Like many other asylums built across the country at that time, the Jacksonville hospital was designed by Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride. Kirkbride and other medical professionals believed that locating these hospitals in rural areas with landscaped grounds and farmland stimulated and calmed patients’ minds, as well as reduced costs by providing food products and livestock for the facility. Large and multi-storied, these institutions were most likely the biggest structures country patients had ever seen.

    Kirkbride Buildings were intended to facilitate a new method of the care for the mentally ill—moral treatment. Moral treatment advocated placement in the hospital, away from vaguely defined causes of insanity, where meaningful work and recreation regulated the mind, encouraged physical fitness, and fostered social skills. Recovery could only be achieved in the asylum under the Christian guidance of a strong superintendent who acted as a wise father to all in the facility.

    Residents were classified according to gender and symptoms before they were placed into wards on either side of the administration building. The most disturbed patients lived on the lower floors, in wards far away from the civilized activities of the central offices. The better-behaved patients resided near the administrative center on the upper floors.

    Moral treatment’s tenet that good behavior be rewarded motivated some, but also created an atmosphere of fear of placement in the worst wards for bad behavior. Those wards had windows as well, but the expected therapeutic views of the grounds were blocked by metal screens to deter escape.

    Mrs. Packard continued to defy Dr. McFarland’s instructions and refused to accept her husband’s beliefs. As a result, she was moved from a ward near the administration building to Jacksonville’s infamous Ward Eight, which housed the most disturbed residents. Mrs. Packard worked diligently to improve the filthy conditions she found there, while keeping a strict personal schedule to maintain her own sanity.

    The implementation of moral treatment soon proved to be anything but simple. Patients did not always respond positively to the so-called healthy environment provided by the hospital. Staff returned to the use of restraints like the holding chair, opium, and punishing cold baths—old practices that Dix had found shocking. Even traditional medical practices, such as bleeding and blistering were revived. It became difficult to tell the difference between the use of these methods as treatment and their use as punishment for what staff deemed sinful behavior.


    Holding Chair

    Because of the ease of commitments and the lack of any standardized definition of mental illness, the asylums quickly became dumping grounds for what society deemed as misfits, who were forced to live with truly dangerous residents. The total control of staff and confusion over appropriate therapeutic interventions created an environment ripe for mistreatment of patients.

    Asylum superintendents adamantly defended the hospitals, establishing the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane (AMSAII), forerunner of the American Psychiatric Association. As heads of these institutions they had attained secure and well-paid employment. Their families lived in spacious, well-appointed living quarters in administration buildings, complete with attendants to serve their needs.

    RBased on absolutely no research on best practices for the treatment of the mentally ill, but utterly convinced of their own expertise, superintendents maintained support from power brokers and the public—for a time. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the system began to crumble. Crowding, expensive operating costs, and no evidence of the effectiveness of moral treatment made it difficult for politicians to justify funding the asylums. Reports of abuse and unsanitary conditions within the walls sped up the hospitals’ demise.

    Mrs. Packard contributed to the system’s downfall as well. In spite of Dr. McFarland’s refusal to provide her writing paper, she acquired writing materials surreptitiously and wrote almost continuously about the asylum’s mistreatment of patients, and how many women were locked up as a result of their husbands’ selfish purposes. After her release, she published her writings and lobbied state legislatures across the country to enact laws requiring a trial before commitment. In spite of the objections of the AMSAII, Illinois and other states passed such legislation.

    Interestingly enough, Mrs. Packard’s release did not lessen her impact on Reverend Packard and Dr. McFarland. They followed her to several states, testifying before state legislatures that her opinions were the ranting of an insane woman.

    Mrs. Packard’s story inspired me to write For Their Own Good, but my challenges as a twenty-first century woman do not compare to her struggles against persecution. The agents of nineteenth century society attempted to break her, but in the end, as with all trailblazers, attempts to contain Mrs. Packard only made her stronger.


    Carlisle, Linda V. Elizabeth Packard, A Noble Fight, University of Illinois Press, 2010.

    Packard, Elizabeth, The Prisoners’ Hidden Life Or Insane Asylums Unveiled (1868) Kessinger Publishing, LLC (February 21, 2008).

    Sapinsley, Barbara, The Private War of Mrs. Packard, Saint Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House Books, 1991.






    Bradette Michel small

    Bradette Michel served as a counselor and teacher in locked institutions. She has degrees in psychology and human development counseling. A published non-fiction author of Supervising Young Offenders, she has authored several online courses.  For Their Own Good won second prize in the Florida Writers Association’s 2013 Royal Palm Literary Awards historical fiction category. She and her husband live in south Florida.

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    Nature’s Confession Receives Hon. Mention at NY Book Festival

    The epic tale of two teens in a fight to save a warming planet, the universe . . . and their love, received an Honorable Mention at the 2015 New York Book Festival. The panel of judges determined the winners based on the story-telling ability of the author and the potential of the work to win wider recognition.

    Via The Guardian:

    Nature’s Confession by JL Morin: The eco-novel is wonderful and reminds me of classic science fiction I watched or read as a kid. It was a genre that fascinated me then, and this book has joined that memory. The novel is epic in that it doesn’t just tell a story (which it does do too), but it puts our very survival into question while romping through the universe or discovering new quantum physics that are both scientific and spiritual in nature. In the meantime, universal symbols are unearthed, codes are investigated, fat corporations are dominating, a romance is blossoming, computers come alive, and native tribes and Nature on another planet bring our own treasured past into the future.”

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