Sunday, December 13, 2015

RIP, Darling

"In writing, you must kill your darlings."
--William Faulkner

             I've been working on the final revisions to That Hidden Road, which are due to my publisher by February 1st. This deadline, of course, is not the hard part. The hard part is following Faulkner's sage advice to cut those words, sentences, scenes, and chapters of our writing that we may have great affection for but that don't serve the needs of the story. Thus, I present to you one of my darlings, whose life I snuffed out yesterday. I used a pillow, so there was lots of thrashing around. Also, I wept the entire time. To ease the pain, I've also included some pictures.

"The Gospel According to John from Portland"

Somewhere in the Ozarks I met a biker heading in the opposite direction who told me that if I went through Farmington, Missouri, I had to stop at Al’s Place. The warm rain pelted us as we stood there astride our bikes, so I didn’t get many details about it other than that it was a biker’s hostel. I had forgotten about this conversation until late afternoon several days later, when—racing the rain—I ride into a little town and see painted on the ground the words “Al’s Place TA Trail Inn” along with two white arrows.

These stenciled announcements reappear every couple of blocks, turning me this way and that until I’m near the center of Farmington at the corner of Franklin and Liberty and staring at a two-story limestone and red brick building.

I peer into the windows in front, and all I see is a storeroom stacked with boxes and chairs. In back, though, there’s a black steel staircase leading up to a door. 

I lean Rusty against the stairs and walk up. The door has a keypad lock and a phone number to call, which turns out to be an office at city hall. Once I tell the woman on the other end that I’m a biker, she gives me the code.
Inside is a space that looks like a high-end urban loft. There’s a laundry room, a television area with two big couches, a table and chairs by a full kitchen, a big bathroom, a computer table in back, and several rooms filled with bunkbeds, clean sheets, and towels.

I call “Hello?” but no one responds.
Back downstairs, I detach my two rear panniers, my two front panniers, my rear bag, and my handlebar bag. This doesn’t take nearly as long as it sounds, but carrying them up is a different story. Because of the weight, I make two trips up the stairs and into the first room—the smallest, with only one set of bunk beds. Rusty comes next, hoisted over my shoulder with one hand while I grab the metal railing with the other and negotiate the rain-slick steps.
Once everything is upstairs, I take a closer look around. The bathroom has two showers and two sinks, and like the rest of the place, they’re spotless. Counting up all of the beds in the rooms, I figure that fourteen people can bed down here. More—many more—if some are willing to sleep on the couches or the floors. The computer has internet access, the television has basic cable, and the fridge and cupboards are stocked with pasta, sauce, crackers, drinks, and enough pots, pans, and utensils to cook just about anything.
I take a shower, and by the time I get out, the skies have opened up and the earlier drizzle is now a bona fide downpour. I hear thundercracks, too, and the last place I want to be in an electrical storm is out on the open road with a big hunk of steel between my legs.
On the wall opposite the kitchen is a gigantic frame containing a yellow, red, and blue biking jersey with “Long John Silver’s” emblazoned across the front. Next to this jersey is a sheet of typewritten paper explaining that the “Al” of Al’s Place is Al Dziewa, an avid biker who owned a Long John Silver’s in town. In 2003, just like me, he was diagnosed with cancer, and in 2005, the year I was cancer-free for two years, he died at the age of forty-nine. Some friends on the city council voted to turn this building, a 140-year-old decommissioned county jail, into a biker’s hostel.

             I poke around some more and find a sheet on the wall by the door labeled “Al’s Rules.” The only one that gives me pause reads “ABSOLUTELY no bikes upstairs. Please lock your bikes in the storeroom downstairs with the key provided.” To the right is a key attached to a wooden dowel. I glance into my room, where Rusty is propped up against the back wall.

I look out into the rain and tell myself that I’ll lock Rusty up when the rain lifts. I don’t think Al would mind.
After the rain stops about an hour later, I don’t move Rusty, but I do walk a few blocks to take a look around Farmington and get something to eat. By the time I get back, two more bikers are there. Alan from New Zealand and John from Portland. Both are riding the TransAmerica Trail, but in opposite directions. After the introductions, Alan goes back to checking his email at the computer down the hall and John joins me by the TV area. He looks to be about fifty, and he’s wrist-deep into a quart of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
“My son tells me I need to eat one of these every couple of days and drink a half gallon of juice every night,” he says.
Over the next hour, I get to hear much more about John’s son and his wealth of knowledge about bike touring. I hear all of his son’s tips about nutrition. I hear all about why his son believes that touring with a trailer—as John is doing—is far superior to touring with panniers. Emboldened by his son’s obvious authority in all matters bicycling, John issues some authoritative statements of his own regarding the importance of sticking exactly to the TA Trail as opposed to “cheating” by finding shortcuts. He also asks me no less than three times what my name is. Now I don’t claim to be a memorable guy, but I’ve never had problems with people forgetting my unusual name. I’m convinced that he’s trying to establish some weird kind of dominance in the conversation.
I turn on the television and find ESPN.
“You’re not going to tell me that you miss TV, are you?”
I just look at him.
“God, getting away from all that has been one of the true blessings of touring. My son told me how much I’d appreciate being out on the road, but I had no idea.”
The SportsCenter guys are sitting down with LeBron James, who plans to announce what team he’ll be playing with next year. “You like basketball, John?”
“Do I like basketball?” he says, looking thoughtfully up at the ceiling. “Now that’s an interesting question…”
He doesn’t say anything else for a good fifteen seconds. I figure that as long as I keep looking at him expectantly, he’s going to keep quiet, so I turn back to the television.
“Well,” he says. “I used to do some IT work for the Blazers, and let’s just say that I had some insights into the sport.”
Or let’s not, I think. Better yet, why don’t you jam some ice cream into your ear? Or does your son not recommend that?
I gesture at the TV.
“Watch,” I say, “they’ll take what should be a five-second statement and stretch it into an hour.”
“Oh, he won’t say anything,” John announces.
“Yeah, it’s a special show for him to make his statement.”
John laughs, shaking his head. “That’s not how it works. The agents are in charge of this whole deal. The fans just eat it up, no offense.”
Before I have a chance to hit John between the eyes with the remote, Alan comes over and sits between us. The talk shifts back to biking, and Alan is more than happy to ask John all sorts of questions about the road ahead. Ten minutes later, when the wire ticker on the bottom of the screen delivers the news that LeBron James will leave Cleveland for Miami, I’m tempted to jump up and shout “Aha!” but by then I’ve resigned myself to the fact that John is a douchey little peckerwood and I hate him.

A little later the front door opens and a guy in a suit walks in. He introduces himself as Greg Beavers, a member of the Farmington City Council. He’s one of the guys who helped turn the old prison into Al’s Place, and he likes to stop by to meet the bikers and find out where they’re from. Alan, being from New Zealand, makes Greg’s eyes go wide, at which point John quickly points out that he and Alan are actually biking the same distance.
“So, the only thing we ask is that you keep the bikes downstairs,” Greg says. “I saw someone’s chained to the railing…”
“That’s mine,” Alan says.
“We have a storeroom downstairs,” Greg says, looking at us. “Did you guys find that…?”
Rusty is about twenty feet behind us, behind the closed door of my room. It’s pouring again outside.
“Yeah,” I say. “The key was right over by the front door.”
I’m smiling at Greg, but I can feel John’s eyes on me.
“Yes, I locked my bike down there,” John says. “Is there more than one storage room?” he asks Greg.
“No, why?”
“I thought my bike was the only one down there,” John says, turning to me for an explanation. Greg’s eyes follow his. He doesn’t know what this is all about; he’s just politely following the flow of the conversation.
I should just say that I didn’t see the rule until after I brought my bike up and that it was raining and that I plan to take it down as soon as there’s a break in the weather—all reasonable courses of action—but before I can get any of this out I hear myself say, “Nope, I put it down there when I got here.”
John frowns and tilts his head as if he’s analyzing some evidence that doesn’t quite add up. “Hmmm. Wonder why I didn’t see it.”
“I put in the back corner.” I’m committed now and can’t blink.
Greg’s clearly not interested and wants to get going. “Well, listen…if you guys can think of anything else you might need, let us know.”
Greg takes off, Alan heads back to the computer, and I retreat to my room to get away from John.
I leave Al’s Place early the next morning, partly to stay ahead of the rain and partly to avoid having to talk with John again. Unfortunately, he’s eating a bowl of cereal as I walk out of the bathroom. He’s still eating it or maybe another one—as per his son’s recommendation, no doubt—after I get dressed and carry my bags down the stairs. He’s still there when I return and head to my room, and when I come back out with Rusty, he’s standing on the edge of the kitchen, nodding and smiling tightly as he delivers his final judgment.
“I thought so.”

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Good News!

Just a quick update that I'm making in part because I have timely news to share and in part because it's been over a month since my last post.

So, the news. I received word just before Thanksgiving that my memoir, That Hidden Road, was accepted for publication by Apprentice House Press, and the fact of all this is still sinking in. AH is a small press that's affiliated with Loyola University in Maryland, and it's a great fit for two main reasons.

First, in the editors' wish list were "travel stories" and "memoirs of personal discovery." Check and check.

Second, AH has a story that really resonates with me. Here's an excerpt from their website:

Apprentice House is the nation’s first entirely student-managed book publisher. Students at Loyola University Maryland are responsible for every aspect of the publishing process, from acquisitions to design and publication of every book. Our mission is, first and foremost, to educate students about the book publishing process.
As a program within the Communication Department at Loyola University Maryland, it is driven by student work conducted in four courses: Introduction to Book Publishing, Manuscript Evaluation & Development, Book Design & Production, and Book Marketing & Promotion.
Therefore, students in these courses serve as staff in Apprentice House’s acquisitions, design, and marketing departments, respectively.  After students leave the courses, AH professors and AH student staff sustain the on-going operation of the company and market its frontlist and backlist titles.

Though I spend a fair amount of time writing and like doing it (most of the time), I consider myself a teacher first, and the teaching project of which I'm most proud is my college's literary magazine, Bravura, which is a much, much smaller version of what they do at AH.

So I'm looking forward to working with the students and teachers at this press, and I'm looking forward to seeing That Hidden Road in print, which should happen in or around next fall.

Next up is my deadline is February 1, when I need to turn in the final revised manuscript. So, if you'll excuse me, I've got work to do...