Post Deadline

The Way I See It
350 (or so) words on: #The Moaning Bench

The Moaning Bench is a murder mystery set in Atlanta and rural Georgia in 1980, as Atlanta is in the grip of a serial killer who’s preying on children.

That August Reverend Jimmy Lee Hightower is killed. His son, Rufus, is found standing over his dying father screaming at him. The murder weapon is missing. Rufus isn’t talking.

Detective Cleveland Mock, just booted off the Missing and Murdered Children’s task force, is pressured to close the case quickly and charge Rufus with murder. But he thinks the nineteen-year-old college student is covering for somebody. Is it:

  • The lovely widow, Liz, who is clearly hiding something and who seems all-too eager for a new romance?
  • The other son, Corey, the playboy preacher who knew his neglected wife, Laura, was sneaking around with Jimmy Lee?
  • Was it Laura herself, a passionate, high-strung beauty with an ax to grind?
  • Or William Stone, Jimmy Lee’s shadowy political godfather, and his murderous chief henchman, Tiny Weaver?

Mock’s investigation takes him to rural Pate County, Georgia, where he forms an uneasy alliance with Sheriff Ed Meaney, who has his own agenda. He meets Mama Kalie, a witchy old psychic who foresaw Jimmy Lee’s murder years earlier. Mock digs into a viper’s nest of hidden motives and secret hatreds before coming face-to-face with a demented killer.

 (Coming in January)

The Moaning Bench © 2016   

 

 

350 (or so) words on: Covering Tragedy

The jurors deliberating the fate of Dylann Roof, who killed nine people at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, have already heard his taped confession. They heard him laugh as he talked about the shootings, which came after he sat through Bible study with a dozen members of the oldest black church in the South.

     That was always the most chilling aspect of this twisted, insane act: That a person’s heart could be so cold as to let him to sit for nearly an hour in a house of worship, to fellowship with those poor people, and then to open fire.

      The Charleston church massacre was the first major national news story after I left journalism in March of 2015. On the morning of June 18, 2015, the day after the shootings, I got up as always and turned on the local news radio station. It was the lead story.

     My first thought was, Oh, shit, I gotta get to Charleston. 

     My second thought was, No, I don’t.

     My third thought was, Thank you, God.

     I still thought of news events in terms of difficulty of the story: how to tell it, who would have to interviewed, etc. Those kinds of stories are the hardest. You have to find people whose loved ones have been suddenly snatched away, and get them to share their experience.

     It affects you deeply. Or it did me. I covered the Oklahoma city bombing in 1995. I was on a team of Philadelphia Inquirer reporters assigned to write about the children killed in the daycare center on the first floor. We all hated it: Day after day after day. When the editors said one of us could go home, I won out because I had small children at home. I packed up my laptop, my clothes and my emotions, and got on a plane.

     Ten years later, I was back in Oklahoma City for something else. I visited the memorial to the 168 victims. I sat there in the stillness of the morning, and suddenly, it all came rushing back. I cried the tears of a father that I had swallowed as a journalist.

    This past summer, we visited Charleston and Mother Emanuel. As I took pictures, I saw Kim crying. I went over and hugged her. “Let it out,” I said. “Don’t carry it home.”

350 (Or So) Words On: Christmas Toys

So the hottest, must-have toy this Christmas is something called Hatchimals.

Y’all know about these?

It’s a toy animal of indeterminate species that comes inside an egg. Kids care for the eggs — like interactive little hens. They tap the shell, and the animal inside taps back. They can gauge the mood of the animal inside by its eye color, which is visible through the shell. They take care of it until it “hatches” into one of several animals that kids teach to walk, talk and dance.

Apparently, children love them. In fact, the toy is so popular right now that when I went to Google, I only entered H-A-T, and the first two things that popped up were “Hatchimals” and “Hatchimals Amazon.”

Spin Master, the toy creator, posted a message on its website for parents whose frantic search for Hatchimals is proving fruitless: “The consumer response to Hatchimals has been extraordinary, exceeding all expectations…. We have increased production and a whole new batch of Hatchimals will be ready to hatch in 2017.”

In my exhaustive research for this article (that is, when I Googled Hatchimals), I saw prices ranging from $59.99 at Target, to $234.73 at WalMart, to $2,500 on eBay (but that one had free shipping, so there’s that). Apparently, versions are manufactured exclusively for certain retailers.

The Hatchimals craze calls to mind some of the other must-have toys of Christmases past.

In other years, parents sold their souls at Christmastime to acquire Nintendo Wii, Tickle Me Elmo or Buzz Lightyear. Before that it was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, Pogs (coin-like disks whose popularity I never understood) and Teletubbies, to name just a few.

Remember when the Furby came out?

In 1998, Tiger Electronics released the cute little creature that started out speaking “Furbish;” kids taught him to speak English. I hated him. I spent countless hours that year frantically searching stores all over North Georgia trying to find one for my daughter, Jeffrey. I ended up buying one off somebody in a parking lot for, like, $125.

If you have a lasting memory of a hot Christmas toy, please post a comment.

And happy hunting!

 

350 (Or So) Words On: Writing #TheMoaningBench

 

      My novel, The Moaning Bench, will be published in exactly one month.

      It’s been a long time coming. I began the story – a murder mystery set in Atlanta and rural Georgia – more than fifteen years ago. After about three years, I sent the manuscript to a group of avid readers for feedback.

     They liked it; some made excellent suggestions. I incorporated their changes and showed the book to people I knew in publishing. They weren’t interested.

      So it was back to the drawing board: More polishing, more fleshing out of this and trimming of that. Then back to publishing folks, different ones this time. Again, they didn’t bite.

      I showed the manuscript to friends who are published writers. They made some very good recommendations, which I accepted with great appreciation.

     I outlined a sequel, featuring some of the same characters, and began writing it.

     By this time, about ten or eleven years have passed. I’ve been raising a family, building a career in newspapers, enjoying a fulfilling and rewarding life – but always working on The Moaning Bench. Not always consistently, mind you: There were times when I’d go many months without touching the book.

      It became sort of a running joke with my extended family and close friends:

      “Hey, Larry, you ever gonna finish that book, man?”

       “Dude, if you leave it in a drawer it’s just a well-written paper weight.”

       Finally, two years ago, I showed it to my son, Travis. He loved it: He got it in a way that no one else had. Travis hounded me to self-publish. But alas, the years of rejection had taken a toll. I was afraid people would hate my baby.

      He kept after me. “We’ll self-publish, Dad. I’ll help you.”

      I resisted. Until one day he said, “Okay, I’ll just publish it after you die.”

      My God, that jolted me. If my book was published, I wanted to be there to reap the kudos if any came. Much more importantly, I needed to be there to defend and explain it.

      So here I am, one month out. It feels a helluva lot like waiting in the delivery room.

 

350 (or so) Words On: One Man’s Weeds….

     At our last house, there was an especially persistent species of weeds in a little clearing by the mailbox. Try as I might, I simply couldn’t conquer those ugly little buggers. Cut them, and they grew back. Pulled ‘em up, they came back. Leave them to winter’s wrath, they were back in the spring.

     Finally, the utility company had to dig up that area to lay some cable, and that did it. I didn’t let them come back.

     We moved soon afterwards.

     Now, a quick bit of background: As a general rule, Kim buys the plants and I take care of them.

     So one day she shows up with two big potted plants. I glanced at ‘em, then looked again and froze.

     It was the mailbox weeds.

     “What are those?” I asked, recoiling as she set the pots on the counter beside me.

     “It’s purslane,” she said. “It’s a superfood. We can put these on the back porch and break off a little bit every day.”

     “They’re weeds. We had ‘em by the mailbox on Mosswood.” I smiled modestly. “Until I got rid of ‘em.”

     No, she said, purslane was actually higher in omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy green plant. “We can eat it instead of fish sometimes,” she said.

     Turns out it’s also an excellent source of vitamin A, and a rich source of vitamin C and B-complex vitamins like riboflavin, niacin and carotenoids.

     It’s been quite common for ages in India, and is grown as a staple vegetable food in parts of Asia and Europe.

     Well, bully for them, but in the good ol’ USA, we know it mostly as a nuisance weed with a stubborn bent. Growing alongside brick walkways, in gardens, along driveways – and next to mailboxes.

     “So we’re gonna eat it, huh?” I asked.

     “Yeah. It’s pretty good,” Kim said. She broke off a shoot, rinsed it off and handed it to me: Crunchy, kinda tart and a little peppery, with a little bit of an okra-slime finish.

     So now we’re regular consumers of purslane. We snip a few shoots to put on salads, or sometimes just eat it by itself. (She even eats it on oatmeal; I’m not there yet.)

     And I gotta admit: Sometimes when it’s just me and the purslane on the back porch, I kinda contemplate ripping it out and tossing it in the trash.

     Ha ha. Just kidding, Kim.

 

 

 

350 (or so) Words On: School Bus Safety

They started holding funerals over the weekend for those six little children killed last week in that Chattanooga school bus crash.

     Police say the bus driver was speeding when he crashed on a narrow residential street. Driver Johnthony Walker faces multiple counts of vehicular homicide. According to The Chattanooga Times Free Press, parents and administrators previously had complained that the driver was speeding, driving recklessly and showing disregard for the children on his bus.

     Walker, like a growing number of those who drive the nation’s school children, worked for a private contractor. He will be dealt with by the courts.

     But the crash raises an interesting question: Why were there no seat belts on the bus?

     The American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Safety Council recommend three-point seat/shoulder belts, similar to those in cars, on school buses. But federal regulators leave the matter up to the states. Only New York, California, Florida, New Jersey, Louisiana and Texas require them.

     Five years ago, the U.S. Department of Transportation, which says school buses are the safest form of school transport in the country, opted not to pursue a propose rule that would have mandated three-point seat belts on school buses.

     The agency said that such a federal mandate would have saved two lives a year – and that’s assuming 100 percent seat belt usage.

     In a twist of cruel, sad irony, the DOT said that the added cost of installing seat belts on school buses – estimated at about $7,000-$10,000 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — could very well force local communities to reduce the number of school buses.

     Such a reduction in available school buses would push students toward less safe modes of school transport – which could result in an additional 10 to 19 deaths a year, the DOT said.

     All of that makes sense.

     But I can’t imagine it providing even a shred of comfort to the families planning those funerals.

350 (or so) Words On: Murder Mysteries

     I love murder mysteries. My favorites are series with compelling protagonists. There is almost nothing I enjoy more than spending an afternoon with some sleuth as he or she dopes out the clues and tries to figure out who did it.

    This obsession goes back forty-five years. I was 12, and a stone-cold bookworm. I would check five or six books out of the county library on Friday and return them on Monday. By then I had read the Hardy Boys series, and some of the Nancy Drew mysteries. But I had outgrown those, and was reading just anything and everything that summer.

     I happened across John D. MacDonald’s “A Purple Place for Dying,” wherein I met the legendary Travis McGee. I quickly read everything else in the series. I saw a blurb from Rex Stout on one of the Travis McGee paperbacks, which led to Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Then it was Ed McBain and Detective Steve Carella in the 87th Precinct series (actually police procedurals). Then Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, and Robert B. Parker and the Spenser series.

     I followed all of them. I also discovered the hypnotic darkness of Andrew Vachss’ off-the-grid anti-hero Burke; the great Lawrence Block’s dogged Matthew Scudder, and the lyrical poetry of James Lee Burke and his protagonist, Dave Robicheaux. I met Tony Hillerman’s cops, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police; Loren Estleman’s hard-bitten Detroit operative Amos Walker; Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, and Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware.

     I was thrilled when Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins appeared on the scene in 1990! He was black, and cool as a mofo. He and his sidekick, the inimitable Mouse, and the world they inhabited were all pitch-perfect. Over the next decade or so, I also discovered Michael Connelly’s Hieronymus Bosch; Robert Crais’ super-cool, wise-cracking PI Elvis Cole and his partner, Joe Pike, and John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport. I later added the adventures of George Pelecanos’ team of Derek Strange and Terry Quinn (then went back and read everything else he’d written).

     After all these years, John D. MacDonald and Rex Stout are still near the top of my favorites list: Every two years or so, I go back and re-read all twenty-one Travis McGee novels, in order, and all of the Nero Wolfe stories (33 novels and 39 novellas).

     I know, of course, how they all turn out. And whodunit.

     The amazing thing is, I revisit each of those stories with the same sense of wonder and awe as all those years ago.

     Like visiting with old friends.

350 (or so) Words On: The Franchise

     My very earliest perception of voting was formed as I watched my great-uncle drive to the county seat in Hamilton, Georgia to vote. I was perhaps 5 or 6, and didn’t fully understand why he attached such importance to the act. He was a man of few words, but I had learned to read his face, and I knew he was very happy that day.

     Uncle Morgan was born in 1900, and he took voting seriously. (I learned many years later that his grandfather — my great-great grandfather — was granted the voting franchise on Aug. 12, 1867, after he and thousands of other former slaves swore their allegiance to the United States.)

     I voted for the first time in 1978, the year Uncle Morgan died. I have tried to do it diligently thereafter in tribute to him — and to those who bled and died for me to have the franchise.

     But I confess: There were some elections in the intervening years that I’ve missed. My preferred candidate was too far ahead or behind, or I wasn’t interested, or was too busy.

     Not this year.

     This election feels important — really important, doesn’t it?

     Not in a purely aspirational way, like 2008 (although there is an element of that). This time, it feels really important to go into that voting booth to say, This is who we are as a nation, and who we are not.

     It feels like that’s what we have to do, after a political season that has been unbelievably base, unacceptably foul. Exercising the franchise this time feels like saying, We demand more of our political discourse. We are better than this.

     So I was really looking forward to Election Day, Nov. 8.

     But it felt like this was too important to wait. So I drove to the early-voting precinct this morning and walked in, savoring every step.

     I reflected on how fragile freedom really is.

     And then I voted my conscience, channeling Uncle Morgan.

     Then I drove back home and took a long, hot shower to wash away the grime of this political season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

350 (or so) Words On: Ghosts…

     So there we were, settling into our new (very old) house.

     We’d finally finished most of the interior renovations on the 113-year-old bungalow we bought a couple years ago in Atlanta’s Historic West End. So we’d decided to take the rest of the year off before launching on the exterior renovations.

     Not a bad place to be after grinding for almost two years.

     But then a rather unsettling moment: We found, on a West End-related website, a letter from someone who lived in our house many years ago who said that living in the neighborhood was really nice – but the house was haunted.

     Wait, what?

     We had had no inkling whatsoever of a … presence in the house. None.

     And we have a bit of experience with ghosts. Seriously!

     There was almost definitely a ghost in our previous home when we first moved in. We bought the house from an older, widowed lady who had lived there with her husband and remained after he died. She’d sold the house, because her daughter did not want her living alone anymore, and moved cross country to live near her daughter.

     Apparently, nobody told her husband that she was moving.

     For the first few months we were there, doors would open or close unexpectedly. The dog would be in a room alone when he would suddenly yelp and run out of the room. One night Kim and I were on the bed making out when something turned the bedroom lights off. We were used to the kids cock-blocking, but a ghost? 

     We weren’t scared. I think we felt like, Okay, you were here first, but we’re paying the mortgage now. So you can hang around if you need to, just don’t expect to run things. We turned the lights back on and proceeded.

     After a few months, the odd incidents stopped happening. Either the husband had learned to tolerate our presence or he had left to search for his wife, we assumed.

     So now we had another ghost?

     We were extra vigilant for a couple days, but then we just sort of forgot about it.

     We just assumed that perhaps the ghost here, like the one at our other house, had moved on – perhaps long before we even got here.