GEORGE SINGLETON has published four collections of short stories (These People Are Us, The Half-Mammals of Dixie, Why Dogs Chase Cars, Drowning in Gruel); two novels (Novel, Work Shirts for Madmen); and one book of writing advice (Pep Talks, Warnings, and Screeds). A new collection of stories, Stray Decorum, will appear in 2013. His fiction has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Oxford American, Playboy, Georgia Review, Zoetrope, Southern Review, Kenyon Review, Epoch, Glimmer Train, and so on. His work has been anthologized widely, including ten appearances in the annual New Stories from the South. He was a Guggenheim fellow in 2009, and received the 2011 Hillsdale Award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Singleton teaches at the S.C. Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, and lives in Dacusville.
Photo: Glenda Guion
My wife’s childhood friend, Dottie, I assumed, never encountered an etiquette handbook, or never had the common sense and decency to contact any number of social skills experts who offered advice in daily newspapers or internet web sites. How hard is it to take a deep breath, drop the knitting needles, and contact a grief counselor or birth consultant in these days of omnipresent bloggers? You’d think that the first half-dozen times Carol miscarried would’ve taught Dottie to stay home and wait for an all-clear. I don’t want to accuse my wife of impatience, but maybe—what with three early miscarriages behind her within two years—six or eight since we officially married—she shouldn’t have told her friend Dottie, or my relatives, or even me. One time I got on the internet and found a pregnancy authority who said that, until every childhood disease had a cure and car seats got deemed foolproof and failsafe, an expectant mother shouldn’t announce her pregnancy until the kid enrolled in second grade. Maybe the specialist exaggerated. I’m beginning to think that a number of everyday bloggers like to show off their sarcastic viewpoints, that they sit back in their rooms alone laughing over what people might undergo in the realm of bad luck and poor judgment.
“You might as well leave now,” Carol told me right before Dottie showed up the early afternoon after the last miscarriage. This was a Saturday. Two nights before, Carol went to the bathroom, et cetera. We didn’t go to the emergency room, or call an ob-gyn. I’d always said, “Do you want me to take you to the ER?” because it worried me. I would always say, “We need to see someone more specialized than a general practitioner.” I think I stole that line from a husband-character I watched one time during a made-for-TV-movie.
She and I didn’t even have regular GP doctors. It’s not like we were Christian Scientists. Carol and I, it seemed, were the type of people who believed that bad news and worry caused sickness and premature deaths.
“It’s nothing,” my wife always said. “It’s not even noticeable. There’s not much difference than sitting down first thing in the morning and finding out your period started in the middle of the night.”
I’d looked up some information myself, quietly. I ruled out some kind of Munchausen Syndrome seeing as Carol would more than likely deliver a child and then push it down a flight of steps if that were a valid diagnosis.
“Please don’t let Dottie come over,” I said. “She’s an idiot, and you always get upset afterwards.” I didn’t say anything about how, on top of her initial stupidity, Dottie’d gotten “born again,” and couldn’t participate in a two-person conversation without Matthew, Luke, John, and Mark horning in and spouting off.
Here’s Dottie: Carol announces her pregnancy, way too early—“A miracle, at age thirty-six!” or –seven, -eight, -nine, and Dottie will get to work knitting an afghan. Two or three weeks later my wife tells everyone about the miscarriage, and Dottie shows up with one square of the baby’s afghan, announcing, “You can use it for a trivet,” or oven mitt, or something to set down between a terra cotta planter and wooden table.
Carol said to me, “Go to the bar for a few hours. Go watch football games. Call up Eddie and Albert and have them meet you down at the Side Pocket. I’ll be okay with Dottie. She means well, really. And if you’re here I’ll get all nervous and either be mean to her, you, or both of y’all.”
That’s another thing that showed up in all my miscarriage research: Certain women couldn’t be left alone, certain women insisted on being left alone, some women preferred only the company of strangers, and others sought out old childhood friends in order to reminisce about middle school P.E. teachers that they later realized were lesbians. The percentage of those women who eventually left their husbands was pretty high.
What I’m saying is, there’s an infinite number of possible ways each mourning near-mother will act. I guess if I should ever weigh in on the subject and leave a comment on some of those blog sites, I might add, “Certain women lose all rational abilities and force their husbands to go out binge drinking with Eddie and Albert,” et cetera.
I left the house, but didn’t contact my friends. We worked together, the three of us, thirty miles away at Die-Co, the die cutting outfit. Eddie and Albert were my best friends, but even after working together fifteen years whenever I saw Eddie and Albert I thought “Eddie Albert,” which made me think of the actor who played Oliver Douglas on Green Acres, which caused that theme song to play in my head for some time afterward.
Or I thought of the actress Eva Gabor who, from what I learned, got married five times and never had a child.
Eddie and Albert didn’t know about Carol’s other miscarriages. They never said to me, “When y’all going to have some kids?” even though Eddie had three daughters and Albert a son named Albert, Jr. I don’t accuse my friends of being inattentive or self-absorbed. Die-cutters, on the whole, think about protecting their fingers most of the day, and at night the severed fingers they’ve seen on the floor.
Maybe I don’t always feel like drinking outside the house when Carol’s friends came over and my wife shuttled me out. Carol worked the cosmetics counter at a Belk department store thirty miles in the other direction of our Calloustown abode. Her co-workers—I forget their names, but they worked Fine China, Lingerie, Children’s Shoes, and Handbags—showed up at times, always complaining about the store manager, no commissions, mothers who accused their kids of growing out of clothes on purpose, and the lack of basic human civility in general. Anyway, the co-workers drove all the way out to our house on occasion, and Carol requested my absence, and so on.
Like almost every time this occurred, on this particular day of the most recent miscarriage I drove into two-block-long Calloustown, parked my truck, and found myself inside Southern Exotic Pets, a place that specialized in reptiles, tropical fish, the irregular chinchilla, and– according to rumor—trapped and shipped dingoes from Australia. If I know my canines, the dingoes were nothing more than pointy-eared thin dogs from the swamps down in the lower part of the state and southeast Georgia called, plainly, Carolina Dogs, and recognized by the AKC. For what it’s worth, unlike typical, non-feral purebreds, Carolina Dog bitches underwent three estrus cycles in quick succession, much like my wife.
Southern Exotic Pets stood between the Side Pocket bar and Calloustown Grill. Across the street we had a pawn shop, a fireworks outlet, and a storefront long vacant and unrentable due to the ghosts living inside ever since Grady Dorn shot and killed his entire family and then hanged himself there inside what had been his Calloustown Florists business. It’s not like a curious person couldn’t wile away a good few hours, which often made me wonder why Calloustown never seemed to attract northern retirees and/or fugitives in need of relatively-safe refuge.
I walked into Southern Exotic Pets and waved at Spence, the owner. He yelled out, “Sorry to hear about Carol!” too loudly. I nodded, held up my hand, and turned toward the stacked up aquariums. I passed blue neon guppies, tetras, angelfish, the usual. I tried to stare down an apartment complex of Siamese fighting fish, but they seemed bored. On down the aisle Spence kept a couple piranhas and a slither of eels—which made me think that a sushi joint should open up in Grady Dorn’s old flower shop seeing as the chef could cross the street and get his fresh ingredients—and then I rounded a corner to a line of snakes, lizards, salamanders, and tortoises.
If a five-year-old boy had not mistaken me for his father—at least that’s the original scenario I concluded–I might’ve leaned down to a ball python and thought about Dottie showing up and constricting all the air out of our house. But the kid, two terrariums down from me, tapped on glass and said, “Here’s what I want. It’s a corn snake, but I can tell everyone it’s a coral snake. ‘Red touch yellow, kill a fellow.’ This has red touching black, so it’s a corn snake.”
I walked over and bent down to see. He looked up and said, “Hey, you’re not…”
Growing up, I had mistaken a stranger for my father, too, a number of times. I never realized if I was the one who strayed off inside grocery and hardware stories or if my father wasn’t the most conscientious guardian. To the kid in front of the snake I said, “How long will that corn snake get?” and hoped that he wouldn’t start screaming out, what with how modern parents implant fear and paranoia into their children’s heads, rightly or not, to the point of it being impossible to approach any child aged two to nineteen and say, “Hello, kid, do you know anything about how that Kentucky Fried Chicken box you’re holding got die-cut?” without a mother appearing out of nowhere, already punching 911 on her cell phone.
“Hey,” the boy said. He didn’t need to introduce himself, I thought. He wore a stick-on Hello My Name Is nametag on his shirt with “Rex” written in block letters. Who let his kid walk around in public with a nametag? I thought. Now that was an unconscientious guardian.
“Hey back at you, Rex. I’m Duane.” I said, “Do you want me to help you find your father or mother?”
Whenever Eddie, Albert, and I got together, Albert got stuck thinking non-stop about Duane Eddy, the guitarist who recorded the 1960s instrumentals “Peter Gunn” and “Rebel Rouser.” Sometimes when Albert didn’t respond to questions both Eddie and I knew he’d gotten those twangy notes stuck in his head.
Rex looked like he belonged in a breakfast cereal commercial. There weren’t many children left in Calloustown—occasionally someone over the age of forty might have an unplanned pregnancy—and I thought about how I’d never seen this kid before. Maybe he lived in a town even smaller than Calloustown, a place like Gruel or Level Land that couldn’t support a store that specialized in pets other than calicos, Dachshunds, and minnows.
Rex said, “A coral snake’s one of the most dangerous snakes in America. There’s the rattler, and water moccasin, and copperhead. But the coral snake’s better.”
I’m not sure why I decided it was the proper time to tell this little innocent boy about a non-existent mythical creature my crazy uncle Dillard told me about when I was Rex’s age. I said, “Coral snakes are scary, but not like a pine gator. I doubt they sell pine gators here. They’re too rare and vicious.”
Rex shook his head sideways, then said, “What?”
“A pine gator,” I said. “It’s kind of like a regular alligator, but it has a monkey’s tail. Pine gators are shy, reclusive animals that mostly live in the Appalachian mountains. They hang down from tree limbs, you know, and wait for people to walk by. Or deer. Pine gators have been known to eat the heads off bears that aren’t paying attention, or that are spending too much time by a pine gator’s personal tree sniffing around for honeybee hives. You can hardly even see them, they’re so camouflaged. A pine gator’s hide looks just like a pine tree’s bark.”
I felt sure that Rex wasn’t from here, or even the state of South Carolina. It’s not difficult to make out a stranger—the men have haircuts performed by professionals, the women pluck their eyebrows consistently, and children don’t squint, stammer, and wear long sleeves in summer to hide their scars and bruises. Strangers ask for directions back to I-26, I-20, I-85, or I-95, they try too hard to use double negatives when talking to us, they leave tips at the Calloustown Diner.
Rex said, “I used to have a pine gator for a pet. I had one.”
“You did?” I said. “I never had one. I’ve seen a couple, but I got scared and ran. I didn’t want my fingers bitten off, seeing as I already work as a die-cutter.”
“Mine’s was named Gypsy,” Rex said. The corn snake in front of him lifted up toward its cage’s roof, then dropped down.
“That’s a pretty good name for a pine gator,” I said, though I didn’t mean it, seeing as we didn’t live far from Irish Travelers, and I knew that the term “gypsy” wasn’t all that right a thing to say. “I believe that if I ever had the good fortune of owning a pine gator, though, you know what I’d name him? Gypsy! I’d name him Gypsy, that’s what I’d do, no doubt.”
“Hey, that was my pine gator!” Rex said. He laughed, and stomped his feet. “I just said that!”
He walked toward me, and then, without my having to take his hand or shoulder, followed me to the cash register where, I assumed, we’d find his parent. “I came across this little snake aficionado over in your snake section,” I said to Spence.
“You did?” Spence looked over his drugstore-purchased reading glasses. “Nothing I like more than to have a herpetologist in the room.”
The kid said nothing. Spence and I stood there looking at each other for too long, then we looked around to find no other adult in the pet store. I said, “Rex, was your father or mother in here with you earlier?”
He said, of course, “Why do you keep calling me Rex?”
We ran outside and yelled for help. We looked down aisles, behind aquariums, in the storage room, in the restroom. We did everything three times. In between I said, “What’s your name?” and “How did you get here?” Looking back, maybe I didn’t give the kid enough time to answer. When he started crying—wailing, really, just like any kid in a movie about divorced parents or not getting a toy—I didn’t know what else to do outside of calling Carol and interrupting her sullen rendez-vous with Dottie.
“We got this kid down here at the pet shop don’t know his real name his father or mother seems to have abandoned him!” I yelled over the phone.
My wife said, “Try ‘Jacob.’ Try ‘Jacob,’ ‘Jason,’ ‘Joshua,’ or ‘Jeremy.’ Those are the most popular names right now.”
I looked at him and asked if those were his names. He said, “I’m not supposed to say my name to strangers.” He’d quit crying, but Spence needed to hold a Kleenex to the boy’s nose. I wasn’t going to do it.
“Just bring him home,” Carol said. “We’ll figure this out.” She turned her head from the mouthpiece and said to Dottie, “You see any Lost Child posters on your way over here?” To me she said, “Dottie says check his pockets and tags of his shirt and underwear.”
“Good idea,” I said, and hung up.
The three of us stood there at the register. Someone next door beat on the wall, either excited or upset with the football game being aired. I told Spence what Carol said. “I ain’t doing that,” Spence said. “Ten years from now Little John Doe here will have some questionable memories and the next thing you know you and me’ll be sharing a prison cell with Father Fudgepacker.”
The kid said, “I want the corn snake.”
I pulled the back of his t-shirt and looked at the tag. His parents hadn’t printed a name there. I said, “Is your daddy’s name Rex? Did you get that sticker from your daddy?” I thought I’d come up with a good idea, logic-wise. My father always let me wear the paper bracelets they wrapped around his wrist at the hospital, back before drinking and driving was a sin and my father wrecked his car often.
Spence said, “Who wants a corn snake?” and smiled.
“I do,” the kid said.
“I don’t know anyone named ‘I.’ You’re going to have to be a little more specific, or Duane here’s going to take you out on the sidewalk and pull your pants down.”
I said, “Damn, Spence, shut up. You’ve already gone too far with the Father Fudgepacker thing.” I said to the kid, “I’m not going to pull your pants down. Do you want a Tootside Pop or something? Spence, you got any Tootsie Pops back there?”
“Who is it that wants a corn snake?” Spence said again.
”George Washington never told a lie,” the boy said. To me, he no longer looked like a child actor who starred in cereal commercials. I kind of didn’t like him—or his parents—and maybe thought about how lucky I was not to have to deal with a kid daily.
I wanted a drink something bad. I felt it necessary to go to the Side Pocket and pull for colleges I’d never heard about. It wouldn’t’ve taken a gun to my head to drive home, shoo Dottie, and get to work impregnating Carol until she kept a baby to term.
Spence said, “No, you idiot, I don’t have any Tootsie Pops. Does this look like a candy store? Why would you even get the boy’s hopes up in such a way?”
The boy started bawling again. “I want a Tootsie Pop,” he blurted out. Something flew out of his nose, then returned. It looked like a moray eel, I swear to God.
Spence said, “Who wants a Tootsie Pop? I don’t know anyone named ‘I.’ Again, you have to be more specific.”
I thought about how a five-year-old child wouldn’t understand “specific.” The child, though, said, “Wyatt Speight, Jr. wants a Tootsie Pop.”
“See?” Spence said. “That ‘junior’ part sure makes it easier.”
I said, “I know that you can’t leave the register, so keep an eye on him and I’ll canvas the block looking for his parents.” To the kid I said, “Did Wyatt Speight, Sr. bring you here, or your momma? Or Wyatt Speight’s parents? Do you know what your mother’s maiden name is, in case I need to look for those grandparents?”
Little Wyatt shrugged his shoulders. Spence told me to shut up, go ask around, and look for a sucker for the kid while I was at it.
Because I’ve seen the news, City Confidential, Cops, America’s Most Wanted, 20/20, Dateline, and those other television programs that delve into the uncompromising side of evil human beings, I knew better than to walk into the Side Pocket, stand on the bar, and yell out, “Is anybody in here looking for a little five-year-old boy?” I don’t want to say anything about my Calloustown citizens during rough economic times, but there was the chance that some of them might want an extra kid around for cheap labor, and the others for possible ransom demands. No, I walked into the bar, ordered a beer from Pony Robbins, the owner, and looked around for unfamiliar faces. I seemed to know everyone, and if not by name I knew them enough not to be named Wyatt or Speight or senior. I said to Pony, “You seen any strangers in here today?”
He wore a long ponytail, which I guess he grew what with his official, given name. Sometimes Pony Robbins got drunk and said, “I’m glad my daddy didn’t name me Mohawk or Fu Man Chu. I’m glad my parents didn’t name me Beehive, or Bob.”
Pony said, “You just missed Eddie and Arnold.”
“There’s a little kid next door who’s lost his parents. You know anybody around here named Wyatt Speight?”
Pony shook his head No. “Only locals and regulars today. You can pretty much tell if an out-of-Calloustowner’s been in here by examining the bottom of this.” He held up an empty tip jar. He handed me a glass of draft beer. “You look like you seen a goat,” Pony said. He always told people how a goat’s eyes scared him more than a wisp of specter crossing an empty street, say from the old florist’s place over to the bar.
I drank my beer, ordered another, and placed a five-dollar bill on the bar. “I’ll be right back,” I said, and went to the diner and called out “Wyatt Speight, Sr.?” then repeated the process up and down the street, sticking my head in storefronts, and so on.
Somebody at Calloustown Diner said, “Wyatt Earp” immediately after my summons, evidently thinking I wanted to start up a bastardized game of word association.
When I returned to the Side Pocket fifteen or twenty minutes later, Carol and Dottie stood beside my empty stool. They had Wyatt Speight, Jr. with them. The kid had a piece of yarn tied to his wrist which, I learned later, originated from a pot holder Dottie knitted, et cetera. My wife held the other end of the yarn.
“I told her you weren’t in here,” Pony said, “but she recognized the five dollar bill you left.”
I thought he joked. I said, “No one showed up at the pet store? We need to call the police.” To Wyatt I said, “Did someone drop you off and leave you? Did you hit your head? Do you know your address?”
Pony said, “Your wife goes through your wallet and memorizes numbers on the bills. Then she can go to places you say you haven’t been, and trades money from the register in order to look through all the serials.”
Dottie said, “How old are you, Wyatt Speight, Jr.?”
He said, “Five and a half.”
“Hey, didn’t you have a miscarriage five years and eight months ago, Carol?” Dottie stomped one foot down and opened her mouth wide. “If you ask me, this is the Lord’s way of giving you the baby back to you. And that’s how good Jesus is! He’s saved you from dirty diapers, vaccinations, a breast pump if you so chose that option, potty-training. The list goes on! Jesus probably saved y’all’ses marriage seeing as old Duane here didn’t have to lie and sneak out of the house when he couldn’t take the kid howling from colic any more. Jesus saved you a fortune in having to buy gripe water.”
I looked at Carol, hoping she’d be able to read my eyes, with which I tried to say two things: “We need to ditch Dottie somehow,” and “Do you really go through my wallet?”
Wyatt Speight, Jr. said, “Are you my new mommy?” Maybe he had some kind of wall-eye problem, but he appeared to be asking Pony.
Out of everyone involved, Spence—who may or may not have bought and sold cobras, Inland Taipans, black mambas, bushmasters, cottonmouths, and diamondbacks to questionable breeders and collectors—called up the sheriff’s department and the Department of Social Services to report the situation. When Deputy Leonard Marder showed up to ask questions, we left the bar and returned to the pet store in case anyone—namely the kid and me—needed to re-enact the scene.
We let Spence give the appropriate answers. In a place like Calloustown, die-cutters were considered much more reliable than housepainters, roofers, or pulpwood drivers, but not shopkeepers. There were a number of occasions wherein I allowed someone else to talk to an authority figure, mainly because Die-Co came out Dyke-o to most people’s ears, and a cop, or meter reader might be prejudiced immediately.
“What time did you first notice the boy?” Marder asked.
“I don’t know. What time was it, Duane?”
Dottie said, “I come over at noon.”
My wife said to Dottie, “Let’s let them figure it out. Let’s go get some coffee.” I don’t know if I said, “Thank you, Carol, thank you,” audibly.
To Marder I said, “Yeah, I’d say about noon.”
The kid said, “I had Cocoa Puffs for breakfast.”
I didn’t think anything of the statement, but Deputy Marder might’ve had better training than I understood. He said, “So you’re not from Calloustown, are you? We don’t sell Cocoa Puffs around here.”
I said, “What the hell’s gripe water? Dottie—the woman who just left with my wife—said something earlier about babies needing gripe water.”
Leonard Marder said, “Where you been, Duane? I thought you and your buddies took your bourbon with gripe water. Go on over to the Bag ‘n’ Pay and look in the formula section. Or in Mixers.”
He seemed unnecessarily adamant about his directive. Maybe I breeched the law enforcement officer/witness protocol.
Spence said, “Every minute counts, I’m thinking.”
Wyatt Speight, Jr. said, slowly, a series of numbers. It wasn’t little-kid-trying-to-count numbers, either. He didn’t go, “One, two, three, eight, fifty!” He counted out seven digits, which Leonard Marder wrote down while I concentrated on a defense strategy, seeing as that’s how I ran my life daily with Carol and my boss.
Spence said, “You can use my phone here.”
Leonard Marder said, “I don’t know why they went and got us all cell phones. Got to drive out of the county to get a proper and reliable signal.”
I learned later, on Monday, that everything worked out for little Wyatt Speight, Jr. and his parents. There had been some disharmony in the family, evidently, and Wyatt, Sr.’s father-in-law tried to scare his daughter. The old man kidnapped young Wyatt, young Wyatt escaped, and his grandfather chickened out and drove two counties away. Was he going to ask for ransom money? Did he plan on re-inventing his life elsewhere, complete with very young son? Eventually, I felt certain, Leonard Marder, or the Department of Social Services caseworker, or a minister, would recognize the entire story.
My wife and I had returned home without saying much to each other. I don’t want to say there was a tension between us, but something caused us both, I felt sure, to feel a need to be alone and with one another simultaneously. Perhaps it was guilt—I beat myself up for owning seed that couldn’t grip for more than a month, and I got that Carol, too, underwent a sense of hopelessness in regards to our ever filling the extra bedroom with a crib, mobile, and stuffed animals reminiscent of what thrived in tiny cages at Southern Exotic Pets.
Carol sat down in the den and tried to teach herself how to knit.
I stared at her more often than not for the rest of the weekend, in hopes that—should words come out of my mouth—I wouldn’t say something that might make her cry.
We didn’t answer the telephone when a television news reporter called from fifty miles away. I kept the TV tuned to the Weather Channel and concentrated on a documentary about Hurricane Hugo which had affected Calloustown peripherally twenty years earlier. Carol and I didn’t answer the phone when a newspaper reporter called, or when Dottie called, or even when Wyatt Speight, Sr. called and left a message of gratitude.
I said to my wife, “We would make the best parents ever, more than likely.”
Carol’s needles clacked out a noise that—if I remembered rudimentary Morse Code well enough from back in Boy Scouts—spelled out either S-O-S or S-O-N.
Like I said, I learned the entire story on Monday. I had called in sick, and figured it safe to go buy a newspaper to check out both Saturday and Sunday’s scores.
I read where Wyatt Speight’s father promised his son that corn snake, as it ended up. And, right there on page 2A under Local News, the father mentioned how his son really wanted a “pine gator,” but a snake would have to do, after this ordeal. He said, “I want to thank all the people who helped bring my boy home,” and said that he wouldn’t be pressing charges against his father-in-law, a man who “fought some demons.” Evidently the grandfather thought Wyatt, Jr. like dinosaurs more than snakes, thus the “Rex” ploy.
My wife and I ate Alpha-bits for supper that night, as we had most nights, spelling out words to each other, and waiting without complaint.
Interview with George Singleton
Meg Pokrass & James Whorton, Jr.
Can you tell us any history about “Gripe Water” the title, how it came about, was born… any backstory on it? We love it here.
A: First off, I wrote a story about eleven years ago called “Gripe Water” that got published in Zoetrope, except the editor there didn’t like the title and changed it to “Seldom Around Here.” Then, when that story was in a collection called The Half-Mammals of Dixie, my editor, Shannon Ravenel, didn’t like “Seldom Around Here” or “Gripe Water,” and asked that I change it to “Page-a-Day.” Gripe water—I think it’s kind of an old-fashioned tonic for a child with colic—always stuck with me, and I finally tried to write a story that I could honestly call “Gripe Water.” So there’s that. As to this particular story, I’ve been writing a slew of stories about a fictitious town called Calloustown, where Reconstruction never took place so much, and I wanted to meld the very old South with something as omnipresent and contemporary as Amber Alerts.
Do you find it irritating that in our media-packed culture we have now become self-conscious and paranoid… and we have to feel weird about being friendly to kids? I love it in the story that you tackle this lightly it is done just right.
A: I have a friend who went into a public restroom to take a leak. A 13-year-old boy said the guy fondled him. My friend’s face was all over the local news. The kid later said, “Oh, I just made it up.” Funny how the news didn’t cover any of that. Yes, it’s a scary, paranoid, litigious world. I haven’t seen anything like this since the Old Testament.
What is it about teaching high school kids that you love the most? Tell us about what is happening in your writing program? What is new there?
A: I don’t have to unteach most of my students. I teach at the S.C. Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, a public residential school of about 240 students. They have to audition and interview to get in, and it’s mighty competitive in creative writing. We take 12 students per year. Now, when we get them—most of the time they’re close to the top of their classes, et cetera—they’re either treading water or doing the backstroke. None of them are drowning. It’s not so hard to teach a kid how to go forward, toward the closest, and most logical, shore. They’re in my fiction writing class for three hours per day, five days a week. They smoke–wait, I smoke, but I have to walk off campus about ten miles to the closest damn “smokers’ bench. They smoke stories out like crazy. I require 30–45 pages per nine weeks.
Over the last few years we’ve had a number of kids win the Scholastic National Portfolio Awards (7 in the country, we had two this year, a couple four years ago, one last year), and kids win the National Merit in the Arts Awards (20 in the nation, two in our classes this year.) One of our graduates—who is a junior in college now—had three poems accepted at Poetry his freshman year in college. One kid who just graduated last month from USC film school signed with an agency for a novel he wrote. The list goes on. They get out of South Carolina, go to places like Princeton, Duke, Harvard, Brown, Kenyon, Chapel Hill, Rice, Penn, and so on. I want them to come back.
Back to the question (sorry about the advertisement): These students want to be in class, so they do their work. They are sponges. I have them read a story (at least) per night, and they have to do 60 reader-based responses per nine weeks. More often than not students will read, say, “I Dated Jane Austen,” by T.C. Boyle, then go read a dozen more of his stories.
(from Jim W.) How do you feel about teachers assigning your work to their students?
A: There are a number of sadistic professors out there. Lord, lord, lord. Seriously, I love it, of course. One time I had a story in some kind of anthology that had a “Teacher’s Edition,” though, and for my story there were all these allusions to what I was doing that I had no notion of as I wrote the story, or after I finished the thing. Who’s writing those things up? As long as teachers or professors let their students read a story, then say, “What does this mean to you?” and then say, “You are correct, that is what it means for you,” then I’m okay with it.
You told me that you like flash fiction. I would pay you hundreds of dollars to say something nice about the form. Here at BLIP we like it and run a lot of it.
A: Flash fiction: Easy to write a piece, horrifically difficult to write a great one. I attempt to write flash fiction once or twice a year, just in hopes of writing a decent piece. I don’t think it’s happened yet.
How has the internet messed with us as writers and how has it helped us as writers?
A: Because I’m a curmudgeon, and have been since the age of about 30, I have detested the internet/computers for the most part. I still used a typewriter in 1994 or thereabouts. Man, when you think about it, things really happened fast, didn’t it? I remember first seeing word processors in about 1988, then everyone had one of those little boxy Macintosh things about a year later.
I hate to admit it, but the internet is a great thing for writers, for the most part. My only problem is looking up, say “gripe water,” then ending up reading about how Louis XIV was a colicky child or whatever, then looking at photos of the Palais de Versailles, and so on. My fault.
What kind of nasty things do writers do and or/say to each other? What are the good things writers..do and or/ say to each other? (hm) (maybe skip this)
A: I don’t live around a slew of writers. Well, I take that back. I live within a stone’s throw of Ron Rash, Ashley Warlick, Keith Lee Morris, and others. Good things writers do or say: “Hey, man, way to go,” when another writer has good fortune. A writer has good fortune, for the most part, for working hard. I’ve always said that writing is not a competitive sport—worrying about what other people are doing doesn’t help. (I would like to add—curmudgeon here—that it’s not a spectator sport either, and I want all those odd people to quit writing their novels and looking all dreamy-headed at coffee shops.)
Do you have a person in mind that you are writing a story FOR when you write stories? Someone you are talking to?
A: Level-headed, rational, befuddled, liberal-minded men and women.
Have you ever been in jail?
A: I live in South Carolina. On top of that, skin is the largest organ, yet the smallest prison.
If you could do anything now, this second, what would it be?
A: Find some level-headed, rational, befuddled, liberal-minded men and women who actually bought books. How come my royalty statements keep going backwards? Who’s in charge of those numbers, that dude from NASA doing the countdown for rocket take-offs?
What is next for you as a writer? What are you working on?
A: Next collection of stories is called Stray Decorum, but it won’t come out until September 2013, if there’s still a world. I have a short novel called I Would Be Remiss that’s all Acknowledgements, but I don’t think anyone’s interested in it. No sweat. I’m still working on these Calloustown stories, and when I get about 50 of them, I’ll dwindle it down to fifteen or so. Big-ass garden this year, too: tomatoes, jalapenos, squash, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, cantaloupe, Brussels sprouts. Brussels sprouts! Who eats those things?