Book Preview – My Last Lament by James William Brown

Growing up, I read a lot of novels that centered on the Holocaust and World War II. Many of those novels were part of the public school curriculum and they frequently told tales of the persecuted and the brave people who tried to shelter them. While I still find myself drawn to historic novels set in that time period, in recent years I’ve found many more books that go beyond just the years of the war itself, just the Jews hiding in Germany and Austria and Poland, extending their stories into the years after the war officially ended and the world began piecing itself back together. Seeing examples of the lasting damage and turmoil across Europe after the Nazis had been defeated carries more weight for me now than it would have when I was in elementary and middle school. James William Brown’s upcoming My Last Lament is one such novel.

An old woman now, Aliki lives in the same village in Greece where she grew up but she is among the last of her generation and is the area’s last lamenter. An American student wanted to study and document her laments leaving a tape recorder behind so Aliki can record them when it’s convenient for her. In the process of trying to fulfill the student’s wishes, Aliki records the story of her own life beginning with her teenage days when her small village was occupied by German soldiers and two boys came into her life whom she would constantly find herself torn between. Takis is the young son of the woman who takes Aliki in after her father’s death and becomes a brother of sorts to her, though there is something strange and sometimes dangerous about him. Stelios is a little older than Aliki, a Greek Jew in hiding whom Aliki grows to love. But the lives of all three are threatened and tossed about as Greece reels in political unrest following the defeat and retreat of the Germans. Continue reading

The Things We Find When We Clean…

“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” – Joseph Addison

When you’re a book lover and you move, your books provide as much physical exercise as they usually do mental exercise. Between packing up and carrying duffel bags of books to and from the car, up and down the stairs, and then maneuvering, carrying, disassembling (when necessary) the corresponding bookcases, I have to actively look at the process as contributing to my much neglected exercise regimen so that I don’t get too frustrated and rashly decide to give away my library-in-progress. I still have one bookcase to move and resettle (it will join the seven bookcases and one smaller mounted shelf-unit already in place).

The moving process is full of blessings and curses. In addition to the workout/hassle of physically relocating possessions amassed over time, there is the necessary evil of cleaning. And not just the superficial dusting or vacuuming but going through boxes of old things that haven’t seen the light of day in years. Of course, this can lead to unexpected strolls down memory lane and discoveries of days gone by. My niece, for instance, has been having a ball playing with costume jewelry from my own dress-up days and learning about toys I’m not sure they make any more (do they still make Lite-Brite or Wee-Waffles?).

One of the discoveries I made during this cleaning/moving period is a short story I wrote for class during my sophomore year of high school. Since I’ve removed some of my other pieces for publishing purposes (fingers crossed), I have decided to share this blast from my past entitled “The Price of a Good Time.” It’s nowhere near as dramatic as the title suggests (and keep in mind, this is at least ten years old now).

Here’s a little taste:

Krysten drummed her newly polished nails on her bedside table and sighed. Though the radio was blasting music from her favorite station, Kiss 108, on the other side of the room, all she could hear was the thick silence from the phone she held up to her ear. She shifted position so that her feet were at the head of the bed and her head at its foot. Nervously, she blew on her nails again to make sure there was no chance that they were still wet.

“Com on, Jen. You’re running up my phone bill. Where are you?” she said into the receiver. No answer. She hated call waiting when she was the one stuck waiting. Her foot began tapping against the headboard as she always did when sprawled on the bed in such a manner.

The next instant her friend was back.

“Sorry about that,” Jennifer apologized. Krysten wished Jen could see the look on her face. That would make her really sorry. “My mother is so… she must have asked me a million questions about school and how things are here. I mean, come on. I’m sixteen, I think that I can be at home alone for a few hours and survive. It’s almost like she doesn’t remember the fact that I spend more time baby-sitting for other people than I spend at home. If I can keep four kids under the age of seven out of trouble, I think I’m capable of taking care of myself.”

“Jen,” Krysten cut into her friend’s frustrated monologue. “You were saying something before you put me on hold…

“Oh, yeah. Sorry. Keith, my cousin’s friend Keith, is having a party next Saturday,” her voice was suddenly all business and serious, like a partner giving an update presentation for a Board of Directors. “I can get us in. Can you make it?”

 

Read the full story here.

Heinde’s Sight – A Short Story

“People only see what they are prepared to see.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

This short story was inspired by a dinner conversation my friends and I had where we tried to come up with the most useless super-hero powers imaginable. I struggled to find the right voice and the right words for this story so that it would be entertaining and the concept would be understandable. I’m still not sure that I’m there so please let me know what you think so that I can continue to improve on it.

Claire has unique visions when she falls asleep at night. Her visions of futures that will never come to pass for the individuals around her can make it difficult to fit in but they also allow her a freedom unknown by those same people.

Excerpt from “Heinde’s Sight”

Everyone at the local pizza place knew about Claire Heinde and her odd ways. Well, all the regulars knew about her. They knew that her closest confidante was the crazy homeless guy who collected cans and used the money from returning them to buy aluminum foil, which he would wrap around streetlights, telephone poles, and parking meters to mess with the signals the aliens were beaming to Earth. They knew that Claire had this way of looking at a person that could make them feel like the biggest failure in the universe or with such blatant admiration that they couldn’t help but blush. They knew that while Claire didn’t have regular days, she’d come into the pizza place twice a week, sit at the counter on the stool meant to be a seat for the elderly customers forced to wait in line, and after ordering a slice of cheese-less, toppings-less pizza and a chocolate milkshake, she would open up a black composition book, scribble furiously, tear the page out, rip it up and let the pieces blow out of her hand as she walked away from the Slice of Seventh Heaven Pizza Parlor.

The old timers would talk about how she’d always been a little daft in the head and that it was a shame since her parents had been bright enough. Every once in a while, a new addition to the regular crowd would ask what had happened to Claire that made her act that way. One would swear she’d been dropped on her head as a small child, a complete accident. Another would claim it was that car accident a while back and why was he the only one who remembered how she’d acted normally before but came in the week after getting out of the hospital and started scraping the cheese from her pizza. A third would call the second nuts and remind him she wasn’t even in the car that crashed, wasn’t even in town when it happened; it was abuse that had put poor Claire out of her mind. Perfect family like that had to be hiding something. There were chemicals in the area where she lived that leeched into the Heide’s vegetable garden. She was on a medication for something and it messed with her ability to interact with others. Too much therapy in her formative years. Not enough.

In truth, none of them knew much about Claire and that should have made them uneasy. It would have made them squirm if they had any idea how much she knew about them without even trying to discover anything (in fact, she tried very hard not to know more about them than they could ever know about themselves).

What happens when you try to bring your past into your present?

“You can clutch the past so tightly to your chest that it leaves your arms too full to embrace the present.” – Jan Glidewell

“Second Guessing” is a short story about a young woman wrestling with her past and a relationship that never was.

I wanted to explore the way that memory is anything but solid. Its meaning can change if you try to look at it from another perspective and knowing what comes after that moment can also change the way it looks. Emotions like desire and fear can also affect what we see when we look back. Are we remembering things as they really were, or as we want them to have been?

Excerpt from “Second Guessing”:

A puddle has formed on the floor at my feet as I’ve stood here, holding open my closet door, mentally trying on each dress and throwing them onto the floor in disgust. Maybe the towel is wrapped around my head too tightly. It doesn’t matter what I end up wearing tonight; it won’t accomplish what I want to, need to tonight. Only I can do that.

Still, looking my best won’t hurt, or make my job harder. I grab a few dresses on hangers. Whoops, not going to wear that one. I put the red spaghetti strap dress back in the closet. I refuse to wear the dress I wore to my senior banquet again for my ten-year reunion (even though it fits better now than it did then; probably because my boobs finally grew in and I don’t have to pad to keep the neckline symmetrical and in the right place). I don’t want to be one of them, those tacky probably-ex-cheerleaders who have had a few kids but think they have the same figure they had before they popped them out.

I think I’ll go with one of the blue ones. They go best with my skin tone since it’s too cold out for the sun to be allowed an opportunity for changing that. The halter dress is a little uncomfortable and frankly, makes me look like I should be standing at a street corner in the red light district, even before I apply makeup.

Spoiled – A Short Story

“As for a spoiled life, no life is spoiled but one whose growth is arrested.” – Oscar Wilde

“Spoiled” is a short story that was an idea I had for a novel back in middle school. The flashback episodes were supposed to be more numerous and developed. I changed my mind and wrote it as a short story the summer after high school. I actually like it better as a short story.

The first draft is written on the backs of sale flyers from the store where I worked that summer. I had an epiphany about the way the story should start while I was ringing up customers and grabbed a flyer to write it down on when I got back to my car after my shift ended.

When I decided to include it in my thesis collection, I made up little book cover style images to go with each of them (I’ll go back and edit the post and page for “A Mother’s Love” to include that image too). The image for “Spoiled” is perhaps my favorite of the group.

Excerpt from “Spoiled”:

A buzzer sounded and echoed off of the concrete, steel, and razor wire that held the prison together. It was visiting day and the guards were in the process of reading off the numbers of those prisoners with people waiting to see them (there were more on the list than one might expect). Joe Wilson heard his number rattled off with the others and sighed.

He knew who it would be the same way he always knew who it would be. As much as she wanted to see him, he didn’t want to see her. There had been other times when he’d hoped to see Elizabeth or their son, Danny, sitting in the folding chairs on the other side of the bulletproof glass holding the telephone’s receiver up between them so they would both be able to hear him, eager to talk with him, see him with their own eyes, hear his son call him “Daddy” just once more. But he’d long since given up hope of ever seeing anyone other than his mother, or on the rare occasion his father, waiting for him on the other side of the glass.

At that same moment, Kim Wilson sat impatiently fiddling with the cuff of her shirtsleeve. She pulled on a thread making the cloth fray further. She would need to mend it when she got home later. Right now she was poking her fingers through the hole, slowly making it larger. As usual, she was feeling nervous about seeing her son. Each time she came to this place she hoped that when he was escorted into the room by the guard he would be happy to see her.

Honing my rewriting skills

“I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.” – James Michener

Now that my thesis is officially and completely done, I’ll be posting some of the short stories that were included in the collection (and will be posting about the progress of trying to get some of the others published). Actually, the name of this blog, Nightmares, Day Dreams, and Imagined Conversations, was the title I gave my thesis project.

The first story from that collection, “A Mother’s Love”, I originally wrote in high school. My friends and I wanted to spend a summer making a movie and needed a story to start the process. I wrote it with the intention of adapting it to a screenplay but we never managed to coordinate and we didn’t have the right equipment anyway (as it turns out, having a camera that works with the computer so that filming and editing can actually happen are key components to the filmmaking process). The story was written for a small cast and the descriptions of place and objects are based on the intended filming environment, my parents’ house.

I have rewritten it a few times now, most recently for the inclusion in my honors program thesis project. Because of the length of the story, I haven’t had success with it on the literary journal circuit. It was published in my high school’s literary magazine my senior year (though my position as secretary probably didn’t hurt).

Excerpt from “A Mother’s Love”:

Lavinia opened the door and got out of the car. She allowed her mother to take her arm and lead her to the house. Her father took her things out of the trunk. He opened the door with the third key on the ring and held the door open for the other two. No one said anything to the others. Lavinia’s small bag was placed beside the door as they encouraged her to look around the house and reacquaint herself with everything.

There were framed photos along the wall leading up the stairs to the second floor bedrooms. Lavinia pointed to a young girl in one of the photos. “Is that me?”

Her mother nodded and smiled broadly towards her husband. He nodded and smiled meekly back. They remained silent.

Lavinia walked closer to the photograph behind the glass, set in the gilded frame. The girl was sitting between her parents at a professional photographer‘s studio, smiling with her hair pulled away from her face. She didn’t even recognize her own picture. Did she really look like that only a few years ago? How much her face had changed during those pivitol years of adolescence. “I don’t remember,” she declared, never taking her eyes from the girl’s face. The smiles disappeared from her parents’ faces but they continued to encourage her. She gauged their reactions from what she could see reflected in the mounted photo.

“It’ll come back to you. It’ll just take some time, but it will all come back,” her father said. It was like an order for her mind. Her mother walked over and placed a hand on her shoulder. Lavinia shrank back from the woman’s touch. The mother’s face couldn’t hide the pain. She quietly excused herself and left the room with tears in her eyes.

Lavinia sighed when she realized it was her fault. “I’m… I’m sorry. I want to remember, but… I don’t know how to make it come back.” Lavinia continued to gaze at the girl.

Are you a big schmuck or a little schmuck?

“A scout troop consists of twelve little kids dressed like schmucks following a big schmuck dressed like a kid.” – Jack Benny

“Always Be Prepared” was written as an assignment for one of my high school classes. It was meant to follow the flood archetype or something like that. It was about five years ago now so I don’t remember the exact wording of the assignment.

Excerpt from “Always Be Prepared”:

“Are you sure that you’ve got everything? Extra Band-aids? What about bug spray?” Flitting around from cooler to back pack to the bathroom’s already emptied medicine cabinet, Tracey Austen rechecked everything. Her husband, Bill, sighed and shook his head but let her continue with her self-reassurance.

Their nine-year-old son poked his head in the front door to the house to check on their progress. “Dad, how much longer?”

Buzzing as fast as I can

“A bee is never as busy as it seems; it’s just that it can’t buzz any slower.” – Kin Hubbard

Well, it seems like it would be a good idea to kick off the blog with a short story. “Bees” was an exercise. I asked my roommate one day to give me something to write about and she said “bees” so this is what I came up with. I’m still figuring out how to link everything together the right way so if it doesn’t work right away, let me know and try again later.

Excerpt from “Bees”:

They’re everywhere. I have welts all over my body. I’m surprised I’m not dead. My cousin fell but he had too many stings and it overwhelmed the epinephrine we were able to give him, so he was lost to anaphylaxis. We’re all huddled inside the house suffering from a different kind of shock.