Right Now: Grasshopper

So …

Here we are, you and me, me and you. Where do I begin?

Okay, how about from the beginning.

Stick with me a few minutes. I’m not sure how this is going to work out.

Eddie Van Halen died. Most, if not everyone, knows that. Then the best friend of someone I am close to at work passed away. Here it is a little more than a week after that and someone I know passed away. 

Please, don’t leave yet. This is not going to be all doom and gloom. Sure, the first part will be, but I promise I will try to pull it back, try to be positive at the end of this. Okay? Stick with me a little longer?

When Eddie Van Halen died, I saw a lot of comments on websites and blogs where people wished they would have been able to tell him how much of an impact he had on their lives. He had an impact on a ton of musicians, and so many of them wish they could have told him that. Here’s the thing: they could have. In today’s world of social media and websites, it’s so easy to contact sometone through their various pages. Would they see it? Maybe not. Someone else might read these things and Van Halen may have never seen the first ‘hey, thank you for what you did.’ Would he respond? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. However, you said your peace, you sent him the message and that effort is what matters. You could have told him. You could have. Now you can’t. 

Those last few sentences seem harsh, but they are not meant to be. They are meant to show you a way to actually attempt to tell someone what they mean to you. 

Okay, one more thing before I continue, one more link to Eddie Van Halen. The song Right Now came out in 1992. I was twenty-one at the time and angry at the world, which was kind of my default setting. The song is about living in the moment, not putting off until tomorrow what you can do today. It’s about not being afraid. We only have right now. The past is gone. The future is never obtainable. We have right now. That is it. Right Now.

Fast forward to a post I saw on Facebook. Another author tagged me in it. I read it, smiled and realized, though this was the author’s way of showing how he got to where he is today, it was also his way of saying ‘thanks for what you’ve done for me.’ This was his Right Now moment.

Let me be upfront about something before I continue on: I’m horrible with praise. I’m uncomfortable when I get praised. Don’t get me wrong, I like it. I just don’t know how to take it. It’s such an oxymoron.

The author said I took him under my wing, that I challenged him to be the best he could. I say this: that is true. I did take him under my wing, and I challenged him, but there were times I was an utter jerk about it. There were times where I would fuss at him and point out minor things when he was starting to get the big picture. I was so frickin’ hard on him when it came to his social presence and how he presented himself on social media. The words he said in some of his posts drove me nuts, or some of the argumentative stances he took were bad looks. 

We had a lot of good conversations about writing and life and life and writing. I called him Grasshopper. He didn’t seem to mind.

But I fussed at him so frickin’ much when it came to writing. I was hard on him. 

When I was a kid, my dad taught me about discipline. I got in trouble one time and he didn’t yell at me, he didn’t spank me or smack me around. He didn’t do anything until Saturday morning when I wanted to sit down and watch School House Rock and the Saturday morning cartoons. 

“Boy, come on outside,” he said to me.

“But …”

“Come on outside.”

I went outside and my dad said, “You see those boards and bricks?”

“Yes, Sir.” (It was always yes or no Sir. Always.)

“I want you to move them over to that corner of the yard,” he said and pointed to the opposite corner—the furthest possible spot from where the pile was. “But before you do, you need to clean that corner up so it’s not a mess when you get finished.”

For the next four hours I cleaned the corner of the yard he wanted the boards and bricks, then moved them, and stacked them neatly.

“I’m done,” I told him. By then School House Rock was over and the Saturday morning cartoons had given way to whatever movies played that day. 

My dad looked at the pile, then back where they had been. He shook his head. “I don’t like them there. Move ‘em back, but before you do, clean that corner up.”

I can’t remember what I did, but I’m certain I never did it again.

This was how I was disciplined. This is how I was raised. This is how I treated the young author. My dad wasn’t being a jerk. He was teaching what not to do in life. I didn’t feel like I was being a jerk but teaching this author about things in writing others wouldn’t. 

I saw promise in this young man. I also saw a steady influence of comic books and action hero movies in his writing. That’s great for, I don’t know, comic books and action hero movies, but not necessarily for fiction. 

We did a couple of competitions, which he didn’t win. But I saw effort, and effort is important. Effort shows you want something, and you will work to get it.

Then he challenged me to a one on one competition. The subject was Switchblade monkeys, whatever that is. We both wrote and posted the stories in the online group we were part of. He won. The story was good, and he deserved to win. I didn’t like losing, but his story was better.

I don’t know if he believed he had arrived at that point by beating me—I didn’t lose many competitions back then—but that’s when I saw the effort wane. Or maybe that’s when I realized he could do better than the effort he put into it. 

I rode him harder after that. I didn’t feel like he was giving his best in every story he wrote. I felt he phoned in a couple of the ones I read. I ripped them apart, pointed out issues, things he knew better than to do. 

But what the heck? He kept coming back. He kept asking questions, like the annoying little mouse in the Warner Brothers cartoons. It wasn’t that he was annoying, I just felt like he wasn’t getting it. But he was. That’s the thing, he was. 

I saw improvements, but there was always something that wasn’t right. It’s as if I was a dad saying to his son, “You came in second place, that just means you’re the first loser.” He was a better writer than when I met him, but I still rode him like Bobby Knight in an Indiana basketball practice.

Then we had a falling out. It was part his fault, part mine. We didn’t talk for a while. The details aren’t all that important. 

Out of the blue he sends me a link to an interview he did. I didn’t look at the interview for a couple of weeks. He sent me a message, asking if I read it. I didn’t respond. Then I read it. He mentioned me in glowing terms. In. Glowing. Terms. That’s the first time he said I had helped him, that part of the reason he was the writer he was is because of my help. 

I responded with something that wasn’t a thank you or a thanks for the shout out. It was my normal “You came in second place, that just means you’re the first loser,” type response. I was still angry. He had extended an olive branch and I wanted nothing to do with it.

A year or so later, I went to Amazon and looked him up. He had several books out, some of them good, some of them okay. I contacted him about a couple of the reviews, focusing on the negative ones. “What about these?” I asked him. “Are you good with this?”

Still. Riding. His. Ass.

We may not have talked too often, but I still followed what he was doing, who he was signing with, what books he was putting out and how he acted in social media realms. Some would say that is stalking. My daughter calls it Intensive Research. I call it checking on someone who had so much potential. I realized something by stal … umm … checking in on him. He had listened. All those years of me riding him, he had listened. Something got through and he had listened. He had taken a little bit of this and a little bit of that and mixed it with a little bit of him and created his voice and his style of writing. 

He not only listened, but he learned. 

Not too long ago, I contacted him. We had been on again off again in our friendship/relationship/whateveryouwanttocallitship. It could be the Good Ship Lollipop. I don’t know. I said something to him I never said before: “I’m proud of you.”

And I am proud of him. 

I see writing differently than most. I’m not a traditionalist. I’m not someone who follows all the rules. I believe you should always be learning, and you should always try to improve how you write. I also believe stories should come from a desire to put together something amazing. I believe you should experiment with your words. I don’t believe in action, action, action, swearing, swearing, swearing, sex, sex, sex. I believe a good story doesn’t rely on crutches. And I don’t get bothered by other writers who think I do things wrong. Each person has their own belief on how it is done. And that is the key. 

This author has his own belief on the way to write that fits him. He’s no longer the writer who sees things with a comic book and action hero movie influence. He can put together a story, in his own way, and at the end of the day, that’s what matters.

Did I ride him hard? Yes. Did I ride him too hard? Sometimes. Was I jerk? On multiple occasions. Do I regret the way I was with how I taught him? Let me see: He’s grown into a fine writer. He’s matured in how he presents himself to the world. And I’m proud of him as if he was my own son. No, I don’t regret it. 

I’ve gone on for a long time here. Lots of words have been spilled on this subject. Except for two, the name of the author. His name is Lucas Pederson. He is a horror author and I’m proud of him.

This is my Right Now for today. I just wanted to take this time to say, “You’re not the first loser, Grasshopper.”

Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

Communion, A Short Story

My dad sat on a tree stump every day before dinner. It was about three feet tall and stood near the back fence. Dad looked more like he was leaning when he sat on it. Usually both hands dangled between his legs and he stared off beyond our yard toward the trees that ran along the backside of the neighborhood. If you walked through the trees, you could only go about ninety or so feet before you came to a stream that split the center of the wooded area. 

It didn’t matter how hot or cold or rainy it was, he went to the tree stump, sat for a few minutes, then came inside. On some days—mostly in early fall—he would sit a little longer, sometimes with his head bowed as if he were asleep or maybe praying. Dad wasn’t the religious type, so I doubt he ever prayed.

I guess I was four or five the first time I noticed him go outside and to the stump. I went to go after him, maybe so he would play with me, but probably out of curiosity more than anything. 

“No, Heath,” Mom said from where she stood at the counter, cutting a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in half for me. 

I looked back at her. “I wanna go outside,” I said—or I think I said. Time has a funny way of playing with memories. 

“Not right now.”

“Why?”

“Your dad’s having communion.”

“What’s com-u-non?” I asked. 

“It’s what your dad is doing right now.” She set my sandwich on the table. “Now sit down and eat. Your daddy will be inside when he is done.”

I didn’t sit and eat. Not at first anyway. I went to the back door. It was open and the screen door was shut. I could see Dad from there. His shoulders were slouched like he was tired. His head was down. I thought he just might have fallen asleep. Then I saw his shoulders go up then down a couple of times. His head bobbed in sync with them.

“Sit down, Heath,” Mom said and steered me away from the door with both her hands. She closed the door gently.

I ate my sandwich and set my plate on the counter. Dad came in as I was leaving the kitchen to take a bath. He looked so tired. His eyes were rimmed red and there were angry red squiggly lines in them. The tip of his nose was pink. He wiped it as he went by me and to the bathroom where he washed up. He didn’t say anything to me as he passed, just went by without even glancing in my direction. I remember how bad it felt. He walked by me as if I were invisible. Maybe I was.

“Get ready for your bath,” Mom said when she saw me standing at the foot of the hall looking toward the bathroom where Dad went. She sounded irritated. That was her default setting.

“Dad’s in there.”

“He won’t be for long, so do what I said to do.”

I went to my room and gathered my night clothes, then took a towel from the hall closet. I waited outside the bathroom door until it opened, and Dad walked out. His eyes were no longer red, and he didn’t look as tired. 

“Hey there, Heath,” he said with a smile. He bent down and picked me up, then gave me a big hug. His hugs always made me feel safe, like everything would be okay. He set me down and all was right again. He didn’t look worn or weighted down at all. He didn’t look sad. 

Every day for the next six years, I stood at my window, watching Dad out on the tree stump. After the first time I was shooed away from the  back door, I didn’t think Mom would take too kindly to me going and watching him as he had communion. 

I still didn’t know what that meant.

***

I was eleven when Mom died. She wasn’t really the loving type. She was stern and rarely gave hugs, kisses or said ‘I love you.’ I should have felt more, but I didn’t. I think I felt more ashamed that I wasn’t as sad as I thought I should be. It didn’t help that we had argued before I left for school. I wanted to go to Jerry’s house before coming home. 

“Not with your grades, Heath. You come straight home and do your studies.”

I guess it wasn’t much of an argument after all. I left for school, angry at her for the umpteenth time in my life. 

Mom died while I was at school and Dad was at work. It wasn’t anything terribly tragic like the house caught on fire and she couldn’t get out or she was in a car accident, or even someone broke into the house and murdered her. No, it was nothing like that. Mom choked on a piece of toast. 

I found her when I got home from school. She lay on the kitchen floor, faced down. She was still in her bath robe and nightclothes and her face was a shade of purple that bordered on black. I stared down at her. And I didn’t feel anything, at least not right then.

I called Dad, then I called 9-1-1. Then I sat on the front porch and looked out on the road in front of our house. 

The ambulance made it there before Dad did, but not by much. They were inside tending to her body when Dad pulled up in his old truck. He was out of it in a hurry. He forgot to close the door before he ran across the yard to me. His face was red, as were his eyes. I had seen that look every day for the last six years of my life. 

I stood.

Dad reached me and put his arms around me. Just like when I was little and he would pick me up, I felt safe. I know it sounds crazy, but even with Mom in the house dead and the emergency people inside the house doing what they do, I felt safe in Dad’s arms. Everything would be okay.

Dad released me and went inside. I walked over to his truck and gently closed the door.

For me, everything was fine. Like I said, Mom wasn’t very loving, and we never really got along. But for Dad, nothing would ever be the same again. 

One thing didn’t change, though. Like every night since I could remember, Dad went out the back door to the tree stump. He sat, stared off into the woods, but this time I could tell he was crying. I stepped away from the window and sat on my bed. And I cried. too.

***

Dad did the best he could. He was a widower and he and Mom had been together since they were kids. They were high school sweethearts and married right after graduation. 

For the better part of my life since her death I’ve regretted not being closer, not trying, though she never really tried either. Guilt is a funny thing. You don’t realize you’ll feel it until you do.

***

I was sixteen when I finally worked up the nerve to ask my dad why he went outside every day before supper. He was already out there with his coat on and his hands between his knees. His head was down, and I could see his lips moving when I approached him.

“Dad?”

He didn’t jerk in surprise of my presence. His head didn’t swivel on his neck and he didn’t look irritated to see me standing there, my hands jammed into my coat pockets, vapor pluming from between my lips.

“Everything okay, Heath?” His voice was shaky.

I nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, everything is okay. I just …”

“You just what?”

I shrugged. “Dad, why do you come out here and sit on this stump every day?”

He looked away from me, back in the direction of the woods. By then, some of the land had been sold and some of the trees further down from our place had been removed. The frame of a house stood like a silhouette in the dying sunlight. When he looked back at me, he had tears in his eyes. He wiped at them and looked away.

“My Daddy died cutting this tree down.” He patted the side of the stump with one hand. “I was a little older than you, eighteen, I think. He had a heart attack and died where he fell. I come out here to be near him. It’s like he never left. I can feel his presence.”

Dad looked back at me again. His eyes shimmered with tears. “I know it sounds crazy but sitting here makes me feel like he’s still around and not dead and in some box in the ground in Meacham Cemetery. I come out here and talk to him. Then I listen for his voice. I reckon you can say I come to have communion with him.”

I never bothered him while he was out there again. I still looked out the window from time to time, but I never bothered him. It was sacred for him.

Now, I understand why.

***

Barely two years later, Dad passed away. I just turned eighteen, and yes, I see the foreshadowing in our lone conversation about his visits to the stump. He died before supper, and yes, he was sitting on the stump.

He had aged so much in the seven years since Mom passed. He looked older than his fifty-four years. If you do the math, you can figure out my parents had me when they were in their mid-thirties, but Dad looked like he was in his mid-seventies that last time he walked into the back yard to the stump to have communion with his father. 

I stood at the back door, something I hadn’t done since that first time when Mom shooed me away. He sat gingerly on the stump. As always, he looked out to where the woods used to be, but now they were all gone. Houses now sat where trees once stood. His head dipped, his chin touching his chest. Then he leaned to one side and fell.

“Dad,” I yelled and ran from the house. I vaguely heard the clatter of the screen door as it slammed shut. Dad was gone by the time I reached him. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my cell. Much like when Mom died, I dialed 9-1-1. This time I didn’t wait on the front porch, my elbows on my knees and my head down. No, this time I waited in the back yard, Dad’s head on my lap. 

***

It’s been two days since his funeral. The coroner said he died of a massive heart attack. He was dead before he hit the ground. I can still see him toppling off the stump. I can still hear me yelling for him. 

Tonight, just before I sat at the table by myself for the first time in my life, I walked out to the stump where my dad died, and where his dad died. I sat down on the stump with my hands between my legs. Tears spilled down my face.

“I miss you, Dad.”

Then, like so many times as a child, I felt his arms around me, and I knew I would be okay.

AJB

10/15/2020

Halloween, O Halloween

Good morning Type AJ Negativites. Negativites? Really? That’s the best you can do, Mr. Writer Dude? Yeah, it’s lame. 

This is going to be a short post. 

There are two things on the agenda today: Five Deaths and a poll.

First, after months of pushing back the release of my latest novel, Five Deaths, we are going to go forward with the release on January 12th, 2021. More to come in the near future. Stay tuned.

Second, we all know why y’all come here. For the free beer. What? We don’t serve beer here? Really? Hmmm … that might be why attendance is down. How about for the stories? Y’all come here for stories, right? With it being October, I wanted to do a little poll. Who wants a Halloween story this year on Type AJ Negative? Click a response on the poll below. I will leave it up until October 20th. 

That’s all I have for today. See, I told you it would be short. Seriously. That’s it. Stop scrolling. The post is done. Go vote. Seriously.

Until we meet again, be kind to one another.

A.J. 

Stop scrolling … vote on the poll. Seriously, this is the end of the post.

Learning, Training, Practicing–Say What?

I talk about writing a LOT. I talk to anyone who will listen. However, I usually don’t talk about my work, my stories, what I am working on unless I am asked. Most people don’t want to hear about it, so no need to bore them with the things I find exciting in my work. Unless you are my wife, my editor or my publisher, you won’t hear me start a conversation about my writing.

Writing has brought me a lot of joy over the years. It’s been therapeutic. I’ve been able to express my sadness, anger, jealousy and resentment in stories. I’ve also been able to express my happiness, love and humor. I’ve been able to creep people out, make them cry, make them smile, make them feel. Having someone feel something after reading one of my stories is one of those things that drives me to get better, to learn how to write better with each story I tell.

Learning. That’s the ticket, as my old friend, Chris, would say. 

The entire sentence is important, but that one word … that one word makes the sentence and, for lack of a better term, the story. 

Learning is one of the most important aspects of life, and not just as a child, but as an adult as well. 

As a child, you learn how to roll over and get onto your stomach. Then you learn how to crawl. Eventually, you learn how to pull yourself up to a standing position. This is followed by many attempts to walk the way you see your parents or older siblings or anybody else in the world who, well, walks. You learn the most important word of your childhood by hearing your mother repeat, “Say Mommy.” Interestingly enough, saying Mommy or Da-da is like a competition for the parents, with each one hoping their child will say their moniker for parent first.

You learn by watching what others do, by listening to what they say. I find it interesting that as children under the age of two, we are/were at our most attentive, listening, seeing and learning selves. Little ones soak up everything you say, everything you do. Then they try these things, like walking and talking. It’s amazing. Don’t believe me? Cuss one time in front of your child and see what happens. At such a young age, we train ourselves to do things we see others do. Yes, I said train. I’ll come back to this in a second, so stick with me for the next couple to few paragraphs.

At some point, most children want to learn how to ride a bike. Most first bikes come with training wheels. They’re called training wheels for a reason: they help you stay upright on a bike as you learn to peddle and steer, as you train. You get on the bike and Mom or Dad gives you a gentle push, maybe even walking right alongside you as you first put foot to peddle and make the bike go. By doing this, you, the bike rider, are both learning and training yourself on how to do something. The learning is mental. The training is physical. Your brain tells you, push down on the peddle with this foot, then push down on the peddle with the other foot. With conscious effort, you put your foot on the peddle and push down. The peddle turns the gears with the bike chain wrapped around them. The bike goes forward. 

The effort is the training. When you actually physically do what your brain tells you to do, you are training your body how to do it and your brain how to remember it. In this case, your brain tells you how to peddle and you physically attempt it. You’ve seen someone do it, so you are already learning what you are supposed to do. The first few times are usually awkward and difficult, but eventually, the muscles in your legs and feet and hips all work together and you begin to ride the bike with less difficulty.

Then the training wheels come off and you get that push or that parent running alongside you and the front wheel wobbles as you try to steer while looking down at your feet, at the peddles that don’t want to do what you want them to do. You probably crashed a few times as you trained your legs to peddle and your body to balance and your hands to steer the handlebar straight so you don’t tip over or crash into something. 

Eventually, though … eventually, what you learned in your mind, you trained your body to do and you rode that bike. You got excited and probably screamed at the top of your lungs in happiness and exhilaration because, by God, you rode the bike. And you probably crashed. But for a moment, you rode that bike and you were the king of the world as Jack said in Titanic. 

You learned, mentally, what to do. You trained, physically, to be able to do what you learned. 

So far: learning is mental and intellectual, and training is the continued attempts to do what you learned. 

Life isn’t only about learning things and training is not just physical. It’s also about training your mind and your body to do things. 

Early in life, I was not all that great at math. Two plus two equaled four like it is supposed to, but multiplication and division and algebra were struggles to learn. Being told four multiplied by four is sixteen is great but being shown was better. Being shown was great but given problems to solve was better. I also hated it. The higher the numbers got, the more difficult it was for me to learn their totals. You want me to multiply eight by nine? Are you serious? Are you some sort of math psycho who relishes the struggles of us non-mathites? 


I also found math boring. 

Then I started watching sports. Sports is all about math. The scores are done in numbers. The statistics are all numbers. The records are numbers. Numbers. Numbers. Numbers. 

In order to understand statistics, I sat down in my room with a pencil and paper and wrote out the multiplication table, starting with one and going to twelve. I struggled with it until I realized that each number was simply added by the number of its multiplier (something the teacher could have explained and I probably would have understood a lot quicker). For example: six multiplied by seven is six added up seven times. 6+6+6+6+6+6+6= 42. I then wrote out every problem as I did in that example in the last sentence. I added them as if they were simple addition problems. 

By doing it that way, I trained my brain to add quickly. So, if someone said, ‘Hey, add this up for me,’ then tossed out a few numbers, I was/am able to tell them the answer fairly quickly. 

Learning the multiplication table wasn’t difficult, but it took training my brain to process those numbers for me to learn math. Now, math is second nature to me, and I can usually spout the answers off without much thought. 

Training is mental as well as physical. 

As we get older, learning and training become more difficult, not because it is, but because we make it difficult. I’m too old to learn new things. We make excuses as to why we can’t do something. For most of us the truth is we don’t want to learn something new, we don’t want to train our brains or our bodies to do something new. And that’s where we fail, not just in learning, but in becoming better at something … anything. It’s arrogance. It’s ignorance. It’s laziness. 

Are you still with me? I hope so.

I have a friend. Yes, just one. His name is Dameion. We both write and we both have our own viewpoints about writing and storytelling. (For the record, Dameion is one of those writers I am envious of. His words just spill off the paper.) He’s like a brother to me, one I never see, but talk to when we are both available. We were talking recently about writing. You learn how to write in school—or at least you used to. You learn basic sentence structure and punctuation but that’s pretty much it. Most of this stuff you forget. Why? Because you are told about it, not shown how to do it. When you are shown, you’re only given a handful of assignments or opportunities to actually practice it. You take a test, pass or fail, then move on to something else, so it doesn’t stick. 

What sticks is when you physically do something. By physically doing something repeatedly, you train your brain and your body to remember how to do those things. It becomes muscle memory and you do it without thinking once you’ve practiced it. For example: they say once you learn how to ride a bike, you never forget. You might get rusty, but if you learned how to ride a bike at six and you stopped riding a bike at sixteen, at fifty-three you will be able to get on a bike and ride it. Muscle memory.

Telling a story, orally, is easy. If you’ve ever told a good joke, then you have told a story. Why did the chicken cross the road doesn’t count. Okay, fine, we’ll let it count, but only if you told it to someone who had never heard the joke. Good luck with that.

When you verbally tell a story, you get into it. You add little things to show the person (or people) listening something about where you were or what was going on. You can become animated with hand gestures and tone of voice and facial expressions. By doing all of this, you show your listener(s) the story. If you are really good at it, you can be a comedian. 

You learned how to tell a story by listening to others tell stories. If they were good at it (as my grandfather was), then you will pick up some good pointers by watching them. If they were bad at it, then the lessons you pick up will not be the ones that help you tell a good story. When you’ve seen someone who can speak, either in public or private, it doesn’t mean you can become a great speaker. It just means you have seen someone else do it right. It is up to you to gleam what you can from it and practice what you learned. The practice aspect is part of the training. It’s where you train your mind to think, your voice to have tone, your facial expressions and hand gestures to be coordinated with your words.

Writing is the same. A lot of your learning comes from reading. You learn neat turns of phrases, styles, descriptors, pacing, dialogue, and plenty more from reading. The trick is to not just learn these things, but to practice them. 

When I wanted to become a better writer, I picked the brains of other writers. I asked questions and read stories that were suggested to me. If I wanted to know about dialogue, I asked questions about it, then I wrote stories that were dialogue heavy to see if I could move the story along using conversations. If I wanted to learn descriptions, I asked questions about it, then wrote stories heavy on descriptions, then flipped the script and wrote stories light on descriptions in order to try and find the sweet spot for descriptions. The talking to writers and gathering information was the learning part. The putting words to paper and writing was the training part. 

Then came the practicing.

Are you still with me? Hang on a little longer. We’re nearing an end to this (probably) confusing topic.

Practice is honing what you have learned and trained yourself to do. 

I was a good basketball player. When I was a kid I loved Len Bias, who played for the University of Maryland. He was smooth and fascinating to watch. He was, in my opinion, the greatest basketball player to never play in the NBA (he died of a drug overdose the day after being drafted by the Boston Celtics—I cried). Though I wasn’t a fan of the University of Maryland, I watched their games when they came on television just so I could see Bias play. I paid close attention to the way he shot the ball, the way he played defense, the way he moved up and down the court. Then I would go outside and try to teach myself what I saw him do. After a while, I moved on to other players who did things that interested me. Jeff Lebo played for the University of North Carolina and was a great outside shooter. Michael Jordan (come on, do I need to say who he played for?) was a phenomenal defender and a better passer than most people give him credit for. 

I watched them to learn what they did. I trained myself by trying different ways of doing what they did. I practiced daily.

Practicing something you have learned and trained on will only make you better. 

All of this points to one thing in particular: training your brain. When you train your brain, it becomes muscle memory after your body is trained to do it. All of us have something we are good at, but we didn’t get good at just by saying we were going to be good at it. We became good at it after we learned, trained,  and practiced. All of that starts with your brain, with a thought your brain has, with you putting forth the effort to learn, then applying what you learned. 

The bottom line to the previous 2300 words is this: if you ever want to be good at something (you know, like writing), you need to learn it, train yourself to do it, then practice at it. Hmm … I probably could have just said that to start with …

Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.


A.J.

19

Mike sits in the dark. He always does on this day. It doesn’t matter hlong its been or how long it will continue to be. It doesn’t matter how many years have passed—19 as of today—the pain is still there, like a fresh wound, always open and no amount of bandages or medication can help it heal. He knows. He’s tried several remedies since that Tuesday morning 19 years ago. Alcohol didn’t work. Neither did cocaine. All those did was cause him to lose his job for a brief period of time, at least until he got out of rehab clean and sober.

On the television a plane crashes into the South Tower in lower Manhattan. He’s seen this image a thousand—no, a million—times. It’s 9:02 by his watch. He pauses the video, wipes his nose with the back of one hand. In his lap is an old cell phone, one he can’t bare to let go of. 

Mike closes his eyes to the still image of glass shattering and a fireball erupting in that once tall building. He takes several deep breaths as he stares into the darkness behind his eyelids. 

So often people say, I remember where I was when the towers were struck by planes, or I remember where I was when the towers collapsed. Like everyone else, he remembers in clear detail where he was, but not when the towers collapsed. He knew exactly where he was when he received the voicemail on his phone, though he didn’t have his phone on him. It was sitting in his car, accidentally left behind on the passenger’s seat. He, however, was underneath a car in the shop he worked at, having just got off vacation the day before. 

He slid out from under an old Buick with a leaky transmission and looked around. The garage, though full of cars that needed work done, was empty of mechanics. Earlier, the place was full of men chattering about the game the previous night. He even hard Hal McDaniels mention to Jim Brookings that one of “those Broncos receivers broke his leg.”

Where’s everyone? he wondered as he grabbed a rag from his shop rack and wiped his hands of transmission fluid. He had found the problem and the owner wasn’t going to be too thrilled. He was certain of this. He reached into his back pocket for his cell phone and frowned. It wasn’t there. Mike looked around his bay and on the floor and didn’t find it. 

“I must have left it in the car.”

Mike headed for the office, a little unnerved by the silence of the usually busy, loud shop. He rounded the corner and left the garage. It was 9:49 when he entered the shop’s office. Where’s everyone turned out to be in the office around a flat screen television mounted on the wall. 

The room was a silence so loud it was deafening.

“What’s going on?” he asked Jim.

“A couple planes crashed.”

“What?”

“Yup.”

“Shhh …” Brock Charmine gave the universal get quiet gesture of his finger to his lips. 

“I’m going to get my cell phone out of my car, okay?”

Jim nodded but didn’t look back. It was 9:51.

From the office to his car and back took him seven minutes. Seven ho hum minutes that he—and no one—would ever get back. He didn’t know why the phone was off when he plucked it from the seat. He pressed the button on the side and walked back to the office as the phone booted up. 

He clicked on the voice message icon and pressed play. As Kimberly’s voice came through the phone, he looked at the television. 

“Is that the World Trade Towers?” he asked aloud, not meaning to.

“Yeah,” Jim said without turning around. 

Over the phone, the message played Kimberly’s calm voice.

Mike, listen to me. Mike, I don’t know if this is the last time I will ever speak to you, but please just listen. I’m stuck on my floor. The building’s on fire and … and I can’t get to the stairwell from here. Just know I love you. I will always love you and for the brief time I’ve been married to you, I’ve been the happiest woman on the planet. I love you, Mike. I love you. I love you. I love you.

By the end of the call she was crying and the South Tower collapsed on the television screen. 

“No,” he whispers. “No.” Tears form in his eyes. He swallows a lump in his throat and stares at the television. Other mechanics speak or cry out in horror and sadness, but he doesn’t see them or hear them or feel anything in the world but the certainty his wife just died and he wasn’t there for her. He wasn’t even there when she called him and … and she died alone without him with her or without hearing his voice. 

Mike Johnson sits in the dark. From the bedroom comes the sound of his alarm clock. It is 9:58. He picks up the old cell phone and clicks the voicemail icon. He puts the phone to his ear and listens to his wife of nine days, the woman he had just come home from a honeymoon with, the woman he kissed goodbye that morning and whispered I love you in her ear before heading in. 

“Mike, listen to me. Mike, I don’t know if this is the last time I will ever speak to you, but please just listen. I’m stuck on my floor. The building’s on fire and … and I can’t get to the stairwell from here. Just know I love you. I will always love you and for the brief time I’ve been married to you, I’ve been the happiest woman on the planet. I love you, Mike. I love you. I love you. I love you.”

On the television is the still image of the South Tower right after the plane struck it. 

Mike feels his heart break all over again. In the dark, he weeps. 

AJB

9/11/2020

August Blues

Happy September to everyone out there in TAJN land. For those who are wondering, yes, I took a month off from the website. Yes, it was intentional. I will briefly explain. 

Going into the year, we had a plan to release five books to the masses. We had it scheduled out and spaced so a new book would come out every eight weeks starting at the beginning of March. Each year my wife and I set up events (festivals, conventions, book clubs) where I can promote my books in person. I find I do better face to face or in a group setting than I do through online connections. Personally, I hate promoting through the various social medias. It feels like I am screaming into the void and no one hears me because everyone else is screaming, too. But face to face, I get to meet you, see your personality, hear your voice and you get to see me, learn my personality (which is humorous and sometimes intelligent) and hear my voice. Face to face is, in my opinion, a better way to connect to you, the readers. 

Back in March, we did a book club, signed books, had a fun time with about a dozen women who enjoyed Cory’s Way, my first novel. The day before the book signing, we released My Summer Vacation by Jimmy Lambert, my fourth novel. I was excited to see how people received it. The next week the world began shutting down, people started getting sick. By the beginning of April, stores and businesses began shutting down. One by one, the events for April were cancelled. I was still hopeful we would get in the two we had schedule for May. Nope. By mid-April, they had been cancelled. 

During that month of April I kept myself busy with several writing projects and I made sure to post stories daily on TAJN for the duration of the month. I updated the blog and turned it into the website you are currently visiting. (Have a look around. There are many stories you can read, book links, reviews and other stuff.)

As the months rolled by with no end in sight to this pandemic more and more events were cancelled. We pushed back the book releases, dropping them from five this year to four to three to two … to just the one. I know I could have released the books anyway and stayed on schedule, but without events to go to and only social media to promote, it didn’t strike me as cost effective. In order to purchase books to sell to y’all, I had to be able to sell the ones I already had. I don’t make money in online purchases—Amazon gets almost all of that cash. I make money face to face. The revenue wasn’t there, so the books didn’t get published. 

At the end of July, I received a phone call from one of my favorite events. It was scheduled for October. They were cancelling the event and were letting their vendors know by phone call instead of email or social media.

~Sigh~

This is where I got disheartened. I like being behind a vendor table or in front of a group of people discussing books or answering questions. With nowhere to really go and nowhere to really meet new readers and socialize with them, I sunk into a kind of mini depression. I couldn’t write. The very thought of writing frustrated me. I got angry and I couldn’t sleep. I talked to my wife and my editor, both of whom usually can help me get out of my funk. Nothing helped.

So, I decided to take a break to try and recharge the batteries. I don’t think I needed a break, but inspiration. One of the things Cate and I did a lot of before the pandemic set in were day trips, even ones that were only half an hour or an hour away just so we could get out of the house. I didn’t realize how important those little trips were for us, and especially my writing, 

In late August, we took a drive to North Carolina to try and find a waterfall that wasn’t all that popular among touristy types. We eventually found it after hiking through the woods, going down the wrong trail and almost giving up. It was fun and hot and we were tired when we finished, but it was good to be out and about and in my element—seriously, I love wooded areas and mountains. 

On the way home I sat with my notepad on my lap as Cate drove and I began penning a story in purple ink (don’t judge—that pen is smooth). For the first time in several months I knew where a story could go. I only wrote five pages before stopping—the bumpetty bump of the car on South Carolina roads makes it difficult to write. I will share with you the first couple of paragraphs:

Kane Linthrop died on a Wednesday in late summer in the south. He was beaten to death by Eddie Strohm for a piece of meat from a rabbit Kane had killed. Food was scarce and fresh meat was a luxury many couldn’t attain.

Eddie came across Kane, not entirely by accident, but he would play it as if he had. He first noticed the smoke from as far away as the riverside where a concrete path had been laid, presumably in place of a natural one that had been worn in by feet—both by men and animal. Eddie had chased a rat into the tall brush and cursed the day for being long when the rodent escaped. His stomach grumbled and he placed a hand to it, hoping to silence it and hold the hunger pangs at bay. It didn’t work. 

 It’s kind of rough, but it’s a start. When we got home that night I started writing on another piece—typing this one. A couple of days later, the story was done. Finally, I had written my first new story since April. It was a relief more than anything. I’ve started several other stories and have worked quite a bit on the handwritten one—yes, still writing it in purple ink. I’m not entirely sure I am over the hump, but I think I am on my way. That’s a good thing.

I’ve started developing a plan for 2021, both for pandemic and non pandemic situations. I hope to release five books next year, maybe even six, since the plan was to do five this year and four next year. I don’t know yet, but I know it feels good to have written something and to be able to update all of you. I didn’t need a break. I needed inspiration. 

Thank you for following along and not leaving me during this break. As always, until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J. 

14 Days …

Fourteen Days

Quarantine was only supposed to last fourteen days. Fourteen. 

The world went on lockdown on June 17th. The virus, worse than any ever seen before, had spread quickly in the previous twenty or so days, starting somewhere not here, with an incubation period of fourteen days at most, three at the least. Symptoms are basic sniffles and sore throat at first. No real cough or sneezing. Then … then the headaches start, the eyes swell and muscles cramp. Finally, the Infected, as they have been dubbed by some jerk on CNN, become violent. 

The only cure right now … well, there is no cure other than ending the life of an Infected, either before or after they reach the violent stage.

At the beginning, Kaycee and I had plenty of supplies—she saw it coming, having watched her town and world get disrupted a few years ago, thanks to another infectious disease no one knew much about. We played board games and binge watched some of our favorite shows. We had sex a few times—I never knew boredom could lead to that, but I took what I could in times such as these.

Through three days, we both felt fine. No symptoms. Not even a hint of one. On the fourth day, Kaycee woke with the sniffles. 

“It’s just allergies,” she told me as she wiped her nose of the steady faucet drip. 

My first mistake was believing her. Why wouldn’t I? She had allergies more in the summer when things are dryer than in the spring months when the pollen is everywhere. Knowing that, what reason did I have to disbelieve her? She took her allergy medicine and we thought nothing else about it. 

That’s not entirely true. I did think about it, especially when she kissed me and … other things. I thought about it even more on the sixth day when she woke, not just with a bad case of the running nose, but also with a voice that sounded like she gargled with a handful of razors. 

“Kaycee, are you okay?”

She sniffled, shook her head and swallowed hard. Her throat seemed to expand and she grimaced. It was hard to watch. “I don’t feel too good, Cole,” she said. Her eyes held tears in them. I think we both knew what was happening, but neither of us wanted to admit it, at least not out loud. 

Kaycee laid down on the couch and turned the television on. She clutched herself in a tight hug as she shivered uncontrollably. I covered her in a blanket and went to the kitchen. With tears in my eyes, I stood at the counter, knowing it was only a matter of time—a little more than a week, or a little less—before … The deep breath I took rumbled in my chest. I wiped my eyes and made her an old fashioned hot toddy, heavy on the whiskey. By the time I got it back to her, she had fallen asleep on the couch.

The next two days, Kaycee mostly slept. Occasionally she would wake and I would give her medicine I knew would do no good. Then she slept again. I sat on the love seat across from her, my knees pulled up to my chin, my arms wrapped around my shins. I rocked as I sat, alone, though Kaycee was no more than fifteen feet from me. 

Kaycee woke with a headache on the ninth day. She clutched the sides of her head as if her hands were clamps. She cried and snot ran from her nose. Hot compresses did nothing to soothe the pain. Neither did the bit of high dose drugs I still had from the surgery on my back seven months earlier. 

On the tenth day, her eyes bulged. Her eyelids had swollen and when she opened them, her eyes looked as if they would pop right out of their sockets. It was then that she made her request.

“Kill me, Cole.” 

She shielded her eyes from me when she said this, as if she didn’t want me to see her with blood dripping from her sockets. I shook my head. 

“Kaycee …”

“If you love me, you will not let me suffer through this.”

“Kaycee …”

“Don’t you understand?” she yelled. She moved her hands from her face. Her once green eyes had become darker and tinted red. They pulled at their lids as if they were too big to be contained behind them. Blood trickle from the corners where skin had torn. The most beautiful person I had ever known was now one of the Infected and she was asking me to kill her. “I’m going to die, Cole. I’m going to die, but before I do, I’m going to get worse, and I am going to try to kill you in the process. People get violent from this. They lose themselves, Cole. They lose themselves.”

Kaycee plopped onto the sofa and put her face in her hands. She looked up at me a minute later. Tears, mingled with blood, fell down her face. “I don’t want to lose myself.”

I nodded. “Okay.” There was nothing more I could say.

She took a deep breath and tried to smile, but it came out as a sneer that I wish I could forget. 

“Take some of your sleeping pills,” I said. “When you’re asleep …”

Kaycee nodded, stood and walked over to me. She put her arms around me and cried into my shoulder. She said ‘thank you,’ and kissed my cheek. I said nothing when she walked away. Half an hour later, she lay in bed, sleep about to claim her one last time. 

“I love you, Cole,” she said.

“I love you, too, Baby,” I responded and held her in my arms until she fell asleep.

I left the room and went into the living room. I pulled the curtain aside and peered out the window trying to work up the nerve to kill my girlfriend, my best friend, my lover. What I saw made my heart sink. What I saw …

A man ran down the street. He wore a pair of dark blue warmup bottoms and nothing else. He was bare foot and shirtless and his eyes were so huge they wobbled with each step he took. His feet were bloody, as were his arms and hands and mouth. He looked like a man who had just ripped the flesh from a person’s body with his teeth. His hair was disheveled and he didn’t seem to focus on anything or run in any direction. He zigged and zagged and stumbled along until he crashed into a parked car not more than forty feet from our house. His head hit the back window. His legs snapped at his knees and he fell to the ground, leaving a smear of blood on the trunk. I wasn’t positive but I believed he was dead. 

This man had lost himself. Kaycee would do the same soon. 

On the morning of the eleventh day, I went into our bedroom. It was still dark out and would be for several more hours. Kaycee lay on her side, her eyelids barely closed because of the swelling of her eyes. I looked at her, my heart broken. In one hand I held a pistol. In the other, a pillow from the couch. I thought I would hesitate, maybe even turn around and walk away, unable to end her misery. 

I didn’t.

I put the pillow over her head and pulled the trigger. The sound of the gun made me jump. I left the pillow in place and walked out of the room. I closed the door, locking it from the inside.

The last two days—numbers twelve and thirteen for me—I’ve stood at the window, staring out at the dead man who had crashed into the car. Flies buzz around him. I can’t help but wish I could go close his eyes, but that is impossible. They stare blankly at the sky day and night. 

Day fourteen, the last day of quarantine if you have shown no symptoms. I woke to a runny nose. I wiped at it with my hand. The smear of snot doesn’t scare me like I thought it would. It could just be a cold. Maybe it’s allergies. Maybe I’m one of the Infected now. 

Outside the front window, no more than forty feet from my house, a man lay dead, one of the Infected who lost himself. 

I don’t want to lose myself. I don’t want to be like him. I don’t want to go that way. I guess … I guess there is only one thing left for me to do …

AJB

3/23-3/24/2020

I wrote this at the beginning of the Covid 19 mess we are all currently dealing with. I now realize it could be so much larger, but I’m not sure that is a story I want to tackle.

At The Top of the Hill

Getting older is a process. We all experience it every day of our lives. We either get older or we stop aging. 

I turned 50 last week. It was just like any other day, any other birthday. But it wasn’t. It was a big deal. In sports the number 50 is a big deal. You hit that many home runs or throw that many touchdown passes or score that many points in a basketball game or score that many goals in a season and you have had a monster year. It is celebrated and often rewarded. In sales, 50 is a big deal. You reach 50 in a given time period and you’ve done well for yourself.

When I turned 50 there were a lot of jokes made about being old or over the hill. A couple of ‘Hey, you qualify for AARP now,’ comments were made. It was in good fun, but it is also telling of how we see that number in relation to age. I joked with someone when they said I was over the hill that “I’m not over the hill. I just reached the top of it and now I’m holding on to the tree up there to keep from tumbling down it.”

Go ahead. Picture that. I’ll wait.

Are you done laughing?

Here’s the thing about 50 as an age: it should be celebrated (and mine certainly was), but not for ‘getting old,’ but for the possibilities that are ahead of you when you turn that age. If you make it to 50, then you have lived and experienced things. You have, hopefully, become wiser and smarter and learned from your mistakes. You’ve also had the opportunity to earn a living and possibly been successful at a few things. 

Life doesn’t end at 50. It is a chapter—just like the other 49 you went through—and it should be experienced with the same wonder and excitement as ages 7, 13, 16 and 21. Don’t buy into the belief that you are over the hill. Buy into something more important: that great things were achieved by people over the age of 50. Here are some examples:

Laura Ingalls Wilder began writing the Little House books at age 65. Harland Sanders (better known as Colonel) had developed his fried chicken recipe and sold his Kentucky Fried Chicken around the country at the age of 65. Grandma Moses started painting at age 77. Jack Cover created the taser after he turned 50. Bram Stoker’s Dracula wasn’t published until after he turned 50, and let’s be honest here: how many people know of him beyond Dracula?

Here I am at that age where folks believe you are over the hill, that you should begin your ride off into the sunset. I’ve climbed the hill and I’ve had a rocky go at it over the years. But I’m not done. And neither should you be. Life doesn’t end at this age. For some, it is just the beginning. 

I’ve tried making my way in the writing world. I’ve garnered a handful of fans along the way. Maybe you’re one of them. Maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree. Maybe I’ve not found my stride. Maybe I should focus on doing something different. Whatever I choose to do, it will be done after having lived five decades. I don’t know what will happen, but I know I’ve got a lot of miles left on me, and I’m not holding onto a tree at the top of the hill. I don’t need to, and I think I will enjoy the view up here for a while. 

Until we meet again my friends, be kind to on another.

A.J.