A lively discussion with the JOYful Readers Book Club in Glen Carbon, Ill!

Thumbs Up from the JOYful Readers Book Club!

We received a very warm welcome this weekend from the members of the book club, which is based at Mount Joy Church in Edwardsville, Ill.

 I did a reading and signing on Saturday in nearby Glen Carbon. Most of the book club members in attendance had read the book, and let me tell you: They are careful readers!

Their questions were informed, pointed and thoughtful. They asked questions about plot, characters and story that delved deep into the novel and made me appreciate their attentiveness as readers. We even had a lively discussion over the origin and meaning of the novel’s title, The Moaning Bench.

I owe a debt of gratitude to the book club members for having me, and a greater debt for their careful reading of my work.

Kim and I were hosted by my cousin and Copeland Road home girl, Linda Crawl-Jackson, and her husband, Pastor Steve Jackson. They were fresh off a celebration of his 39th year as Pastor of Mount Joy Church in Edwardsville, Ill., and her 20th year as First Lady, and they still took the time to prepare an elaborate spread for us.

Linda and I hadn’t seen each other in some four decades, but the years just melted away as we sat and chatted.

Kim and I also had a chance to do a bit of rainy-day sightseeing in nearby St. Louis, Mo., including a visit to the Old Courthouse Museum.

This is the courthouse where Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, first sued for their freedom – a case that led eventually to the loathsome 1857 Supreme Court decision, which found people of African ancestry could not claim U.S. citizenship. That asinine and totally political ruling was later overturned by the Fourteenth Amendment.

In the meantime, please stay tuned for the first Atlanta book signing and reading – coming soon!

The Moaning Bench

The Moaning Bench is now available on Amazon as a hardcover, paperbook or Kindle eBook.

Getting here was not an easy journey: Self-publishing  is not for the faint of heart.

Everybody – everybody — told us: You have to hire an editor. I knew we needed one. Almost every truly good story I wrote as a journalist was improved by an editor’s touch. But we were publishing on a shoestring. Less than that: on an eyelet. We couldn’t afford an editor.

And boy, are we paying for it. I knew from years of cranking out copy that when only one pair of eyes sees a story, those eyes sometimes see what they expect to see – not necessarily what’s actually there.

Which brings us to The Moaning Bench. I read and re-read the draft approximately twelve times during the publishing process. (This is after I was finished with it as the writer.) We were finally ready to send it off to the printer. Travis and I wanted to order 100 copies; Kim insisted on just one copy each of the hardcover and the soft cover. She prevailed – because, well, because.

(An International Standard Book Number is a unique, 13-digit code that identifies books and similar products for commercial purposes. Each version of a book – hardcover, soft cover, some eBooks – gets its own ISBN. Each time the book changes substantially, the publisher assigns a new ISBN.)

So the two books arrived. They were pretty much a mess: The title and author name on the spine ran top to bottom, not left to right. We’d forgotten the Copyright Page! There were two Chapter 24s, but no Chapter 23. We’d left the blurb off the jacket. And on and on and on. That was the First Edition.

We made the fixes, again without another pair of eyes reading it, and sent if off, ordering 100 copies this time.

Well, guess what? You got it. There were other things I had simply missed. A soda that magically changed from a Coke to a Dr. Pepper. The dumb-ass writer didn’t know the difference between further and farther, and couldn’t spell rutabagas. Along with about 11 other glitches.  

I fixed those. After some serious debate, we decided we had to change editions – and ISBN numbers. But that’s it. No more. We’ll try and fix little glitches as they pop up, but they will remain Third Edition copies.

And next time, we hire an editor – even if we have to pay them in books!

1980’s Atlanta: An excerpt from The Moaning Bench

In this excerpt, Detective Mock drops in at a fleabag hotel to speak with a snitch who has strong connections to the Georgia Ku Klux Klan.

(Mock) was driving through the stretch of Ponce that cops called the Jungle. This had once been one of Atlanta’s proudest streets. But two decades of white flight and official neglect had taken a toll. The Jungle was a long swath of flophouse hotels, abandoned buildings, empty lots, liquor stores and take-out joints. A lot of the city’s white hookers worked this strip.

Some of them operated out of the Diablo Motel, a four-story eyesore that had been a luxury hotel in its glory days. Now, streetwalkers rented rooms by the hour, and end-of-the road drunks and small-time hoods by the week. The Zone 2 boys were in there a couple times a week.

He hung a right, pulled into the small half-circle driveway in front of the Diablo, got out and pushed through the revolving wood-and-glass front door. The carpet was wine-colored, so greasy and grimy he wished he had some newspaper to walk on.

In its glory days, the lobby had been the size of a ballroom. It had long since been partitioned off to make more rooms, and now was about 12-by-12. It held a cigarette-scarred registration desk, two faded purple chairs with an ashtray on a table between them, and three telephone booths along one wall.

Behind the desk, a big-chested blonde, in a light blue men’s shirt and enough makeup and eye-shadow to sink a battleship, was grinning ear-to-ear as he pushed through the door.

“Hey, Cleveland. What you doin in these parts?”

“Hey, yourself, Maggie May.” He had known her for years. Her name, when she came up from Macon at age fifteen, had been Peggy Ann McDaniels. He had arrested her a half-dozen times when he worked Vice, tried to set her on the straight and narrow. He had never succeeded, but she didn’t stay on the street long: She was too smart for that. Maggie Mae had been running a string of girls out of the Diablo for fifteen years. “What you know good?”

She grinned. “Ain’t nothing good out here, man.” Under her easy tone, he heard a tremor of fear. Her face was so tight, it looked like her skin might crack. She knew he worked Homicide now. She was worried that his visit was about one of her girls.

He got to it. “I need to talk with Charlie Mack Hulsey.”

Her face relaxed. “He’s in Room 412. I better call if you going up.”

Mock had seen Charlie Mack’s room. He didn’t relish the idea of going back up there. “I’m not going up. Tell him to come down.”

From The Moaning Bench © 2016

350 (or so) Words On: Rufus Hightower

In this excerpt from The Moaning Bench, Margaret Holmes, the girlfriend of Rufus Hightower – who is a suspect in his father’s murder – is remembering the first time she noticed Rufus, at Piney Bluff Baptist Church in Pate County, Ga.

But (Rufus) was always up to mischief.

One Sunday, a Communion Sunday when the Piney Bluff sisters were serving dinner between the morning and afternoon services, she saw Rufus play a trick on big old Sister Minnie Hudson.

Sister Hudson, who weighed a good three hundred pounds, always fixed herself three heaping plates of food when they had dinner, then ferried them to her table. She always did this, whether there was enough to go around or not. On this Sunday, Margaret watched as she waddled over to her table with a plate laden with fried chicken, ham and potato salad, and another one straining under its weight of collards, black-eyed peas, green beans, squash and rutabagas.

She set these down, turned on her wobbly-heeled shoes and made her way back to the three long folding tables pushed end-to-end as a buffet. She picked up a plate of cornbread, cake and sweet potato custard. While her back was turned, Rufus slid up to her table, got the plate of meats and snuck it back to the buffet table.

When Sister Hudson got back to her table with her breads and desserts, she was perplexed that her meat was gone. She looked around, spied it on the buffet table and slowly made her way back over there. This time, Rufus took the bread and cake plate and snuck it back to the buffet table.

Sister Hudson was beside herself.  She looked over at her plate on the buffet table, shook her head furiously and headed back that way.

Rufus, just about to make the switch for the third time, looked up and saw Margaret watching him. She was about to burst, trying not to laugh.

He saw she wasn’t going to bust him, so he took Sister Hudson’s vegetable plate to the buffet table then snuck out the side door.

The following Sunday, Margaret struck up a conversation with him.

From The Moaning Bench © 2016. Coming Jan. 27th.

Now available at a discount during pre-ordering. Pre-sale info below:

350 (or so) Words on: Pre-ordering The Moaning Bench

 

 

 

 

350 (or so) Words On: Tiny Weaver

In this excerpt, Detective Mock arrives at an isolated spot to meet William Stone, a reclusive figure who’s operated in the shadows of Georgia politics for decades. Stone is a suspect in Jimmy Lee Hightower’s murder.

 The only other cars were a white Chevrolet Laguna, a blue Ford pickup and a black Lincoln. The Lincoln was backed in to the curb, and a very dark-skinned man with a tight, scarred face was standing by the front bumper, looking casually at Mock. He was huge, standing about six-six, and about half that wide. His black suit looked like it was straining to contain him.

Mock nodded at him and started up toward the picnic tables.

“Mr. Mock?” the big man called softly. In his black derby, clean white shirt, black tie and black shoes, he looked like a very uncordial undertaker.

“Yeah?”

“Mr. Stone said to bring you. He’s waiting for you.” He held the Lincoln’s back door open. Mock hesitated for a second, then walked over.

“My name is Tiny Weaver. I drive for him.” He extended a hand the size of a dinner plate, and Mock shook it.

“Cleveland Mock.” Thinking, That lump in your left armpit is not your lunch.

“Mr. Mock, I need for you to put this on.” Tiny held up a black blindfold.

Mock cocked an eyebrow. “If I say no?”

Tiny shrugged, and it looked like a landslide. “Then you don’t see Mr. Stone.”

Mock looked at him for a long moment, then nodded. Tiny slipped the blindfold on him. “Watch your head now, Mr. Mock,” Tiny said as Mock bent into the car. “There you go.”

The Lincoln smelled of cigar smoke and bourbon. As they rolled off, Mock idly wondered if those would be the last aromas he ever smelled. He shifted a bit in the seat and Tiny said, “Not much farther.”

“This seems a bit extreme.”

He heard a grunt, then: “He a careful man, Mr. Mock. It done helped him out-live a lotta other men.”

 From The Moaning Bench © 2016. Coming this month.   

350 (or so) Words On: The Demons in Detective Mock’s head

His nightmares about the young men he lost in the war have been in his head so long he can sleep through them.

His anger, regret and sorrow over the death of his wife are fresher. But he has learned to live with that as well.

What troubles his sleep now is the murder of the Meecham boys. Leon and Jerome, brothers age 11 and 12, who vanished one afternoon on their way home from school. Their bodies were found two days later along some abandoned railroad tracks.

The boys’ murder was very similar to the other child killings in Atlanta in 1980. It looked like the work of the elusive serial killer who’s been stalking the city for months.

But Detective Cleveland Mock knew in his gut that his cases were different. He knew it, but he couldn’t prove it. And when his bosses insisted on adding the Meecham boys to the Missing & Murdered Children’s list, Mock went to the media. That got him kicked right off the special task force investigating the murders.

Mock is just about to get handed some new nightmares.

Because there are so few other detectives available, he gets assigned to the murder of Reverend Jimmy Lee Hightower. The charismatic preacher, whose name was a household word in the ‘80s, at least in Southern households, is found stabbed and dying at an Interstate rest stop.

His son, Rufus, a young man with a troubled past, is found standing over his dying father. But the murder weapon is missing and Rufus is standing mute.

The killing pushes an already-tense city toward the breaking point. Many believe Hightower was killed because of his civil rights work around the South. Protesters ring City Hall demanding Rufus’ release.

But Mock soon comes to believe that Rufus is covering for somebody: The Reverend was killed by someone close to him. Mock travels to Hightower’s hometown of Almah, Georgia, in Pate County to find answers.

In Pate County, he uncovers a trove of long-buried secrets – secrets that someone will kill to keep. And he encounters a sadistic killer guaranteed to add new nightmares to Mock’s collection.

The Moaning Bench © 2016

Coming in January

350 (or so) Words on: Mama Kalie and The Knowing Business

Pate County, Georgia has a lot of secrets. Mama Kalie knows most of them. The ageless psychic and midwife learns things from The Sight, as she calls her gift – but also from people who trust her with their darkest secrets. But even she doesn’t know who killed Reverend Jimmy Lee Hightower. Or does she?

Detective Cleveland Mock, investigating Hightower’s murder, is skeptical of Mama Kalie’s abilities. But Pate County Sheriff Ed Meaney finally convinces him they should talk to the mysterious old seer. In this excerpt from The Moaning Bench, Mama Kalie has just invited Mock and Meaney to have a seat on the ancient sofa in her tiny house.

 

They sat side by side on the couch, which was far more comfortable than it looked.

She made a little half smile with her lips closed. “Y’all here for a readin or a blessin?”

Mock grinned. “Why don’t you tell us, Mama Kalie?” he said slowly. “You’re in the knowing business, aren’t you?”

She stared at him a long moment. Those dark old eyes danced and sparkled. Then she gave a cackle and fell over sideways, slapping her thigh. It took him a second to realize she was laughing. “The knowin business.” She sat back up. “That’s a good one.” She laughed again. Meaney laughed with her. “Y’all here for help on Jimmy Lee, ain’tcha?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Meaney said. “We was hoping you would talk with us a little bit.”

“It a be a dollar,” she said.

“Ma’am, we’re police officers,” Mock said patiently. “We don’t have to pay for information.”

Mama Kalie cackled again. This time she nearly doubled over in mirth. When she finally got her breath back, she said, “You do when you git it from me.”

Meaney handed her a single from his wallet.

Mock said, “How did you get my home phone number?”

She pointed a gnarled forefinger at him. “Like you said, I’m in the knowin business.

 

From The Moaning Bench © 2016     

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!