Glimpse: This still doesn’t have a title

from Chapter 2: His best is yet to come.

Marie stood in the walk-in closet of the master bedroom, looking at Oskar’s clothes. Shirts pressed and all in order, more suits and sport coats than he needed. Not a pair of jeans, blue or otherwise. Few casual shoes. In life, he was vain and bought new every season, giving away things no longer in fashion. He bought clothes for her according to his taste, not hers. On her side of the closet were dresses she’d never worn.

Marie pulled an elegant dark gray suit, fingering the Dormeuil. He’d worn it to some affair at the club that winter, she couldn’t remember which. He drank heavily at dinner and ridiculed her, telling a story about her losing the car keys while shopping, how they were later found in the organic vegetable section after he’d sent a spare key to her with a taxi driver. That much was true, but to embellish the story, he told their dinner companions that Marie rode home with the groceries and the cab driver, leaving the car at the market. She laughed along with the others when Oskar acknowledged that the last bit was fictional.

She removed the hanger, dropped it and the trousers to the floor. She carried the jacket into the bedroom, laid it on the king-size bed. Marie got a pair of scissors from her dresser and returned to sit on the edge of the bed. She considered the suit jacket for a moment and then began snipping off its buttons one by one, including the useless, decorative ones on the cuffs of the sleeves. She held the coat up for a moment, returned it to her lap and snipped out the lining. Humming softly, she continued the dismemberment by lopping off circles from the right sleeve. A long spiral in the left sleeve, all the way to the shoulder. Marie held the butchered jacket up to consider her handwork. She cut away most of the breast pocket so it hung limp.

She nodded, dropped the jacket on the floor and returned to look from more in the closet.

Two hours later, when Naomi came upstairs to ask what Marie wanted for supper, there was an impressive pile of Oskar’s re-tailored clothes on the floor. The widow was intently scissoring the crotch out of a pair of dress slacks.

“What are we doing now, Missus?” Naomi asked.

Without looking up, Marie said: “A woman’s work is never done.”

Naomi approached, holding out her hand for the scissors. “You can give me those now, Missus. Enough work for one day.”

Marie looked up, nodded and slowly offered the scissors. “It will go a lot faster with the hedge clippers.”

#4 Thing to do in Hyattsville

Visit the Loneliest Little Free Library in Town

Centennial Park is arguably the most visible and least visited park in Hyattsville. A patch of grass too small for anything else, squeezed between US 1, the bridge curving over the railroad tracks, and a more commercially viable lot. My guess is it was designated somewhere around the city’s 100-year anniversary, roughly 1986.

It has Little Free Library #457, although the LFL database thinks #457 is about 370 feet away and on the other side of the Rhode Island Ave. So maybe it was moved at some point. Given its charter number, it’s one of the oldest Little Free Libraries around.

Upon my first inspection a few weeks ago, I was bothered by the makeshift latch – worn twine stretched across two bare screws – that keeps the library door closed and protects its contents from the weather. Friday morning, I rummaged around in my shed for an awl and found a hook-and-eye latch still in its wrapping. When I got to the park I realized I had forgotten to bring a tool to remove the two screws sticking out of #457. Fortunately, the friendly man who manages the Hyattsville Vacuum Service next to the park loaned me borrow a pair of pliers.

The best that can be said of my handiwork is that it’s an improvement. I took the opportunity to contribute a copy of AutoFLICK to the library, one with the fancy cover designed by my wife.

There is a lively mural on the wall of the vacuum cleaner repair shop next to the park. And a tree with a fence around it dedicated to a civil servant who worked for the city for 25 years. There is also a Birds-I-View exhibit entitled “Vainglorious.”

In 2003, Prince George launched the Birds-I-View public art competition in which artists were given 5-foot-tall fiberglass bluebirds to decorate. Some 75 creations were installed around the county and 14 were chosen to be auctioned off. My wife and children made two bluebirds: one was placed outside the county seat and the other inside a library.


Book Review: Miss Iceland

Auður Ava Olafsdottir

A young Icelandic writer stays true to her purpose in a world that wants her to be something else.

There is a lot to like about this novel. I was drawn to its simple storytelling style that accomplishes so much with relatively little. This chapter start, for example:

“Suddenly he’s gone. My sailor.

A tremendous downpour and storm have broken out and there are few customers in the dining room. Then I spot him standing at the door with his duffel bag and I know he’s saying goodbye.”

Another writer might draw this out, but Olafsdottir’s sparing prose delivers the emotional impact without great expansion. The story is told in short chapters that are typically just one scene. There’s little tap-dancing to link the parts together because it isn’t necessary.

And there are wonderful connections among the four principal characters, each facing separate but parallel challenges. Particularly in the similarity of the resolutions. A satisfying, credible conclusion that leaves plenty for the reader to conjure.

I had this on my bookshelf for over a year, saving it for when I got to the Iceland section of the novel I’m working on.  It was useful in helping to recreate the atmosphere in my head: the main character comes from places where my story takes place. It’s from a similar era. But it was also a great read from a voice new to me and a place we don’t often hear from.

Icelandic writers have about as bleak a prospect as anyone. Though appreciation of literature is remarkably strong in their culture, it’s a small country (366,000) with a language that’s not spoken anywhere else.  Nobody makes money writing in Icelandic. Hardly anyone does in English.

The Washington Post recently published an article about Thomas Savage, who wrote the novel that was the basis for the film The Power of the Dog. The book sold fewer than 1,000 copies when it was published, and the rest of his work received little attention: most of the titles are out of print. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a good movie. Bet you $1 it isn’t better than the novel.

Go find Miss Iceland. It’s in English.

Perspective | ‘Power of the Dog’ author Thomas Savage died in obscurity. It’s time to honor his work.

Research notes: Chapel of the Sea

I made two short trips to Newport, RI, for field research. A rainy weekend a couple Januarys ago that was a useful, soggy introduction to the town. I went again last summer better prepared with a list of specific things I wanted to see and do.

The Newport Public Library was on the list. I wanted to read copies of the local newspaper that were published during the timeframe of the novel: summer 2009. Back issues of the Newport Daily News are in the library database, but you can’t access them remotely unless you have a library card and you can’t get a library card unless you live in Newport.

In the library, they set me up with guest credentials that, unfortunately, expired after 60 minutes, so I had to keep going back to the reference desk to get a new secret code. Another bummer was the fact that the section of the library where most of the stacks were was being re-carpeted and was closed to the public. Therefore, no serendipitous discoveries while browsing.

As usual, I found more details about what was going in Newport than I could ever use. There was a film festival, but the famous Jazz/Folk festival hadn’t been held there for a few years. Remnants of indigenous people were considering bidding on real estate the U.S. Navy was giving up. Trinity Church, the landmark Episcopalian church in the historic district, was celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Seaman’s Church Institute, which it established in 1919. It didn’t seem like anything I could use, but I made a note anyway.

Next day, I’m walking around the Newport waterfront looking for buildings that could be the model for a warehouse that my protagonist owns. I notice signage for Seaman’s Church Institute on the side of a building and there is a café on the ground floor and I drink a lot of coffee. Upstairs, I find the Chapel of the Sea, a small room with a lot of marble and a series of paintings: “a visual homage to Christian saints associated with the sea.” Sat for a while, thinking about Italy.

Still had no idea of how this could be in the novel. Some weeks later in the home office, the manuscript tells me that Marie, one of my characters who was walking along the Newport waterfront, could be enriched by a minor,  accidental religious experience. Voila.

Research notes: The virtue of old maps

A few petroglyph sites in the Great Basin are easy to find. Nevada has two rest areas along U.S. 50, one with camping, at rock art sites within shouting distance of the road. A paved road plows right through Parowan Gap in southwest Utah, one of the richest sites you could hope for.

Others are far from the beaten path, their exact locations rarely given. Vandalism is a problem. Some sites have White graffiti scribbled on them from the mid-19th century. If you scroll deep enough, you can sometimes find old websurfer accounts of visiting these places that offer hints. Some of them show up on out-of-print maps and books.

I wanted there to be a site to be in a mountain range roughly in the middle of Nevada. Couldn’t find anything until I stumbled over a vague reference to a hunter-gatherer site somewhere in the national forest that covers most of the range. Searched online maps closely. Quite a few of them and eventually found one outdated map with “INDIAN PETROGLYPHS” hand-lettered near the confluence of two streams flowing from the heart of the range. The site was about seven miles from paved road. Remnants of an early stagecoach line tracked loosely along one of the creeks.

When I returned to Nevada in the spring of 2021, I rented a four-wheel SUV. A GPS app allowed me to superimpose my location on a digital version of that old map. I set off one morning to find the lost site.

Got fairly close to the destination when the primitive road got too dicey for a rental. Hiked the last few miles. The higher I went, the more snow. The app said I was darn close as I came to a cliff. At the base of the cliff, a large cave. Scrambled up to the cave and found some signs, in red, as well as black markings. There was no trash, but I knew I wasn’t the first modern person to be there.

If these marks were anything, they were pictographs (paintings), not petroglyphs (rock carvings). It was possible that petroglyphs were elsewhere, perhaps on top of the cliff, but the GPS altitude reading suggested that the cave was the correct elevation. It would be hard work climbing up to the top of the cliff. I am old. I was far from anything.

I took the bird in hand, sat around in the mouth of the cave, listening to the mountains, bathing in sunlight. I was going to try to find a hot spring that afternoon.

Glimpse: A bird does not sing in a cave

From Chapter 19. Claudine vs. the Ants

A few miles later, Hendrik slowed and pulled off the highway onto a dirt track that was blocked by a homespun barb-wire gate. David got out, opened the gate while Hendrik drove through, and closed it behind. There was a muttered acknowledgement when David got back in the car.

The dirt road was mostly smooth and the pace leisurely. A herd of antelope came springing out of the sagebrush, dashed in front of them as they gawked, and bounded away in the desert until the last white rump disappeared. They had arrived so suddenly and disappeared so quickly that the fresh print in memory dried and faded. Hendrik resumed driving.

There were a few more gates to pass through, and the trail was rocky at times. It followed a creek up into the mountains, past a crumbling stone building, an abandoned ranch, through some dodgy puddles, deeper into the range. After a few miles, they came to place where another canyon full of aspen joined from the side. The trail ahead looked too much for the Town & Country. We walk from here, Hendrik announced.

Outside, a thin veil of clouds turned the sky white, suffusing a burning sun beyond. Among the aspens, they found carvings in the white bark: initials, dates and then figures. A rough sketch of a ranch house. Elke asked if Indians had done this.

Basque shepherds, Hendrik answered. In summer, they camped in the mountains with their herds.

Sunlight burst momentarily through the gauze, briefly igniting the white trunks, spring’s emerging aspen leaves. Hendrik found Roslyn alone, admiring a primitive depiction of a woman in high heels and a garter belt, etched by a lonely Basque. Not so easy to carve into an aspen tree, but the intent seemed clear. Probably not the shepherd’s mother. And likely not that long ago, given the lifespan of aspen.

Is she your type? Roslyn asked, teasing.

I might have seen her once in a bathroom stall, Hendrik replied.

It got lonely with just those sheep, she noted, smiling his way. Too obvious, maybe.

Hendrik cleared his throat. Actually, I have … I have a sort of confession to make.

For one beat, he had her attention and was about to plow ahead. But her eyes left him, glancing over his shoulder to something behind him. A different look in her eyes when they came back to him.

I’m not the Mother Superior around here, she said, half-joking.

They weren’t alone anymore. Someone behind him.

What’s he got to confess? Finn intruded.

No. It’s nothing, Hendrik fumbled, abandoning the thing he’d spent much of the day talking himself into. It’s just that shepherds get a bum rap.

Boys will be boys, she said.

And sheep be nervous, Finn added.

At this point, it started to snow. Not seriously, mind you, it was one of those faerie blizzards, filtering down on a wave of colder air, drifting through the aspen grove. Hendrik looked up into it, the sun glimmering through the translucence.

Geez, Roslyn said. This is some desert. Wearing a sweater with no jacket, she shivered.

Hendrik at that point thought he had dodged disaster and hoped like hell that Roslyn would not at some later date ask him what he was about to tell her when Finn walked in on them. He should forget the whole thing, keep his trap shut.

The pilgrims regathered. Given the way the weather was turning, Roslyn wanted to stay in the car. It still didn’t look like a real snowstorm to Hendrik, just a casual flirtation. He said he would keep hiking and would have been happy to go it alone, but David and Elke joined him. Hendrik was relieved that Roslyn was staying at the car, less so that Finn was staying with her.

He led David and Elke deeper into the canyon.

More flurries mixed with sunlight. All the same, it was a good walk in a narrow, eerie wilderness. The higher they climbed, the more snow. At first, banks of it in shadows, then a soggy carpet on the trail itself.

Hendrik was struck how upbeat Elke had become, and supposed she had some kind of crush on David. It was a mystery to him that David – who was a such a hopeless hermit in college, who couldn’t cope with the girls they’d picked up on the aborted spring break – had become a magnet for beautiful women. This further confirmed the one truth Hendrik had discovered while he was still in college: that despite his study of philosophy, he didn’t know shit from a tree. He was going to be a half-assed lawyer, but at least no one would expect him to know anything about life.

They reached the place where a new stream joined from the west, winding deeper in the mountains. According to the gazetteer, the petroglyphs would be up this canyon, not too far away.

The trail clung to a stream. It squeaked underfoot where the snow turned the gravel into something like wet concrete. Spring flowers broke the snow in spots, melting a skirt of mud around them. As they rounded a large rocky prominence, there was a deep, wide cave about thirty yards up the hill.

This is the place, Hendrik announced, and he scrambled up the loose footing at the base of the mountain. There was little to hold onto. When he reached the lip of the cave, its ceiling had been blackened by smoke. Instead of petroglyphs, there were painted designs on the rock, pictographs.

David and Elke reached the cave and began jabbering about the whimsy of the designs, a sign in red that looked like a scarecrow, daubs of red and white. It was not the most spectacular display of rock art they had seen but the two of them were absorbed in it all the same. Hendrik wondered how two people who had only met a few days ago, with little in common, came to have such an understanding of one another. They didn’t try to translate what they found, only respond to it.

And the philosopher-turned-attorney understood that this simple stimulus left centuries ago by an anonymous, unlettered hunter-gatherer, had proved to be more permanent than most other human expression. Even in this remote spot nearly off the edge of the map, people were still reading signs left by someone who probably didn’t waste much energy wondering how big his or her audience would be. Or what people would think of their work.

Hendrik trudged down the gravelly slope to the trail, paused to look back amused by the picture of the cave temporarily inhabited by his college mate and the liberated suburbanite, surrounded by whispering sagebrush. He felt pride in the pilgrimage, even if he was not coming within a light year of understanding anything about rock art. I should study shepherd porn, he thought.


Book Review: The Sentence

Louise Erdrich


A ghost leads a modern Native American woman to find herself.

Don’t get too comfortable with this, because it’s going to change. It’s going to start someplace, go where you don’t expect, come back and find another new turn and when you think you’ve got a handle on it, the pandemic arrives. Could it be less twisty, more straightforward? Maybe, but Erdrich’s prose is so entertaining you don’t mind getting led along.

It reads naturally, like this was a year or so in the life of a real person, not a highly scripted novel.

Lots of good bits, amazing bits, really. There’s a very satisfying scene where the protagonist dons blue rubber gloves for some kitchen-sink scrubbing. This arouses her husband. Light comedic banter. A nice turn when they later discuss whether the gloves should come off.

This is a first-person narrative by a modern Minnesota Native American raised under troubling conditions in the city. She is duped into committing a crime that sentences her to a long prison term. It is just the first sentence of significance in the story and gives her enough time to discover reading. Books. Another novel about books. She ends up working in a bookstore. Nearly all the major characters are Native Americans from Minnesota, as is Erdrich. Who also owns a bookstore there.

It’s interesting enough to walk in their shoes, to see modern life – right through voting day 2020 – to get a glimpse of their lives. It is flat-out wonderful to witness, second-hand, the preservation of culture. Among other things, you get to relive the George Floyd experience through the lens of contemporary Native Americans. Which raises issues for the protagonist about her past and her marriage.

A few little things. I sometimes drifted off when the story dove into detailed descriptions of scenes that don’t seem so important. The novel is all first-person narrative until three-quarters of the way through, when she switches briefly to third-person. It didn’t seem necessary to me. Found a typo on page 207. And two instance of the phrase “try and [verb]” instead of “try to [verb].” One of the peeves I nourish.

One of the best books I’ve read in 2022, right up there with The Lincoln Highway, maybe a little more demanding but worth the effort.


#3 Thing to do in Hyattsville

Exploring Deaf Geographies

Rainy Thursday afternoon in February. Have sold sufficient hours of labor for the week. Set out on foot for “Exploring Deaf Geographies” at Pyramid Atlantic Art Center.

The work of five deaf artists is at hand. Can’t say whether knowing the work was by deaf people shapes my interaction with it, but it probably does. It helps that I am the only one in the exhibit space at the time. There is but little background noise from nearby. I looked at the work on Pyramid’s web site ahead of time. It’s more intimate in person, aware of the quiet, leaning in close.

I see something of myself in “Incidental Exposure” by Laural Hartman. A distracted look, a reverse mohawk hairline. This may be an abstraction sprung from a specific journey in her life, her exhibit notes suggest.

A sense of movement in “Awake” by Youmee Lee. A marshy, aquatic landscape under the moon. Birds in flight. A stream of consciousness trails behind a central figure.

“F Bomb” by Melissa Malzkun seems to exemplify De’VIA, art that comes from the deaf experience and culture. One of a series of prints meant to show “how glorious rich sign language is.” The bomb in question is the raised middle finger, one of the very few signs understood beyond deaf geography.

In his notes, Aaron Swindle doesn’t discuss his artistic process but mentions that he likes jamming on his drum set. Which gives me pause. “Sleepwalking” feels like its title, a fleshy amorphous shape emerging from a darker, more crammed space into a lighter, place of simpler images.

“Virtual Flower from a Hand” by Yiqiao Wang, a precise, skilled papercutting of a red flower growing from a person’s hand. The fingers might have eyes. Brings to mind When the Moon Was Ours (Anna-Marie McLemore), a novel about a woman from whose body flowers grow.

The exhibit notes explain: “Deaf Geographies are at once both physical and abstract spaces, ranging from Deaf community hubs such as Washington, DC, and Rochester, NY, to conversations, impressions, and memories shared by Deaf people expressing their identities.”

Highly regarded colleges for the deaf in each of those cities. The show was curated by Tabitha Jacques, director of the Dyer Arts Center, which is associated with the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Looks an interesting place but unfortunately far from dear old Hyattsville.

Just down Route 1 is a brewpub founded by graduates from Gallaudet College. If you go there, it helps if you know ASL. I usually just point to things on the menu and hand over my credit card.


Virtual Artist Panel by Zoom on Feb. 23 

Artist Reception on Feb. 25.

De’VIA  Deaf View/Image Art

A unique type of art that focuses on, examines and tells a story Focuses on examines and tells a story that comes from the deaf cultural, cultural, linguistic and intersectional POV and experience, often based on one of three environmental prompts: resistance, affirmation, and/or liberating celebration of the Deaf experience.