Many thanks to Jill for contacting me to assist with this article. It's a big deal to be asked by the largest photography retailer in the world to help keep people safe and sound. More than happy to help y'all.
...As a bookend for the encounter, Jenks offers one last piece of etiquette for the end of the night. “As you load up and prepare to leave, turn back to where you’ve worked and thank the land. Say, ‘Thank You’ out loud,” he suggests. “Show a bit of gratitude to the land that provided your images and this experience. For me, it puts food on my table, but it also puts joy in my heart.” - Jill Waterman, B&H.
"Trump Pinata, Pinata Factory, North Stone Avenue, Tucson, Arizona" (c) 2016 Stu Jenks.
The birthday party is in full swing.
The father hands his adorable four-year-old son a long broom handle.
"Hit it really hard, Chuy," he says. "For your abuela Rita."
"Yes, Daddy, I will," says the polite young man. "I really miss Grandma."
"Me too," say the handsome dad.
With the first whack by Chuy, a foot come off Donald Trump, spilling candy onto the dirt in the backyard.
And the children scream with delight.
"Aravaipa Lightning, Arizona" (c) 2016 Stu Jenks.
Don't die dumb.
That's my motto.
I was preparing to hike to the top of C.J.'s Fault yesterday, to shoot lightning just past sunset, when I noticed lightning bolts hitting a similarly high ridgeline a few miles to the east. I walked a few hundred yards toward the peak when I heard these three words in my head.
Don't die dumb.
Yeah, I thought. I know.
I walked back to the car, put my gear in the Buick, then drove to a lower elevation. I shot these two images an hour or so later. They are probably not as good as what I would have gotten atop C.J.'s Fault but that's OK.
Because I didn't die dumb.
"Did you hear what happened to Stu Jenks?" a not-so-close-friend says to another acquaintance.
"No, man. What?"
"He was hiking up to a high ridge last week to shoot lightning but then lightning hit him on the head and killed him."
"That's a bummer," say the other guy.
"But here's the kicker," says the first guy. "The hill he was on top of? It was the same hill he wants to have his ashes placed after he died."
They both laugh.
"I guess they didn't have to move his body very far," says the second guy.
They laugh even louder.
I don't want to hear those two dudes laughing from the other side. Ever. No-sir-ree-Bob.
Above and below are free PDF downloads of my Fatal Figures book. Apologies for the few typos in this PDF.
It's available as a chapbook through the StuStore, but not as an e-book right now. Sorry about that, guys.
I'm feeling particularly generous this morning, so here's a freebie for you all. It's quite the little story.
On Facebook, someone asked "What did you paint on the streets?" I painted these.
So Donald Trump gave Mike Pence an air kiss last night on the main stage of the Republican National Convention. Am I the only one who finds that especially icky?
And word has it that Pence will be in charge of foreign and domestic policies if Trump is elected. Donald will simply be in charge of 'making America great again.' I'm not making this shit up.
But let's get back to the important stuff, like how a young, naive, stoned, Southern art student made waves on the streets of Chapel Hill, North Carolina in the 1970's.
And thanks Bo, for ghosting this 30 years ago. Couldn't have done it without you.
Love, light and luck,
Heading out tonight to shoot, equipped with battery-powered Christmas lights and with my grandmother Nannie's mirror. Wish me luck. I always go with some plan, that I tend to throw away once I'm in the space. Hope plan B works out, but you never know. I have high standards for my stock photography work. If it's crap, you won't see it here.
Also, I'll be talking more about politics on my blog.
One of the unspoken rules of being a working artist or musician or writer, who isn't rich to begin with, is to not to speak your political mind because a good 1/3 of our customers are conservative folk, that we don't want to insult, so they don't then buy our work. Well, screw that. There is too much going on in 2016 for me to keep quiet any longer.
Arizona is in play this election. Polls show Thump is only up by four points in Arizona, a Republican Goldwater state, mind you. Senator McCain might lose his re-election bid to a very competent Democratic woman. And a narcissistic businessman with orange hair wants to be the king of America.
No matter what any of the talking heads on TV says, there are really no undecided voters out there. It's all about turnout. If progressive people of colors, forward-thinking women, hopeful young people, and liberal and moderate white folk don't show up at the polls in November, Donald Trump just might win. If however we show up in force, it will be a landslide of biblical proportion. Ann Kirkpatrick will send John McCain back to Sedona, and we might actually get the U.S. Senate back in Democratic hands. (Sadly, due to gerrymandering, the U.S. House is pretty hopeless, but who knows. Maybe.)
So vote, ye moderates and liberals. The other side, those conservative white folks out there? They will show up, no matter how much they dislike Trump. They will vote for him. We need to vote for our side.
And if you hate or distrust Hillary Clinton and are a progressive, you need to get over that, hold your nose, and think of the greater good.
Three words, people.
The Supreme Court.
I frankly don't want to see one of the guys from Duck Dynasty on the Court. Or freaking Chris Christie either. Abortion needs to stay legal, Obamacare need to not be overturned, and voting rights needs to be restored, just to name a few important issues.
Politics may be athletics for ugly people, but policies matter. Laws matter. The Social Contract matters.
So here endeth my political message for today. If you disagree with me, fine. Just don't be a jerk and type troll shit back to me. It's not polite.
Wish me luck tonight. Hopefully I'll get some good images that I can make a little coin with, and that will make y'all smile.
I'll listen to what the land and the sky says to me, and I'll bring those voices back home.
Love, light, and luck,
Image: "Chagford Hoop Dance, Dartmoor, UK" (c) 2013, 2016 Stu Jenks.
1997, Photography Studies, Pima Community College, Tucson, Arizona.
1979, Bachelor of Fine Arts, Studio Art: Sculpture, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Selected Solo Exhibitions:
2016, “20 Years: 1996-2016,” Wee Gallery, Tucson, Arizona.
2015, “The Little Ones,” Wee Gallery, Tucson, Arizona.
2014, “The Ancients,” Wee Gallery, Tucson, Arizona.
2009, "At-One-With," Jewish Community Center, Tucson, Arizona.
2008, "Nine Prayers," Hotel Congress, Tucson, Arizona.
2007, "A Very Large God," Unity of Tucson, Tucson, Arizona.
2005, "If There's a Heaven...," Endicott West Art Foundation, Tucson, Arizona.
2004, "Mystery And Magic,” Metroform Limited Gallery, Tucson, Arizona.
2002, "Circles and Spirals," Tohono Chul Park, Tucson, Arizona.
2001, "Analog and Digital," Safehouse, Tucson, Arizona.
2001, "Circles and Spirals," The Image Gallery, The Screening Room, Tucson, Arizona.
1998, "Sacred Spaces," Hercules Florence Gallery, Pima Community College, Tucson, Arizona.
2016, Victor Mothershead: U.S. Secret Service by Stu Jenks, Fezziwig Press
2015, Step Zero (The Special Edition) by Stu Jenks, Fezziwig Press.
2014, Balthazar and Zeeba: A Christmas Novella by Stu Jenks, Fezziwig Press.
2014, A Rolodex Of Haikus by Tunafish Smith (Edited by Stu Jenks), Fezziwig Press.
2014, Air & Gravity by Stu Jenks, Fezziwig Press.
2013, Pamela’s Baby Rocking Chair by Stu Jenks, Fezziwig Press.
2012, Step Zero by Stu Jenks, Fezziwig Press.
2012, The Fatal Figures (Or How I Got In Trouble With The Law In Art School),
by Stu Jenks, Fezziwig Press.
2011, The Transpersonal Papers: 1861-2010 by Stu Jenks, Fezziwig Press.
2011, Bozo In Love by Stu Jenks, Fezziwig Press.
2011, Dementia Blues by Stu Jenks, Fezziwig Press.
2009, Hoop Dancing: More Journeys Through Nocturnal Photography,
by Stu Jenks, Fezziwig Press.
2008, Flames Spirals: Journeys Through Nocturnal Photography by Stu Jenks, Fezziwig Press.
Music And Audiobooks:
2003: The Three Surrenders: Soundtracks for Photographs, Vol. One, Fezziwig Press.
2005: West Of The Fires: Soundtracks for Photographs, Vol. Two, Fezziwig Press.
2008: Gladstone Mothershead: Soundtracks for Photographs, Vol. Three, Fezziwig Press.
2010: Hoop Dancing (The Audiobook), Fezziwig Press.
2011: Deaths & Injuries, Fezziwig Press.
2013: Pamela’s Baby Rocking Chair (The Audiobook), Fezziwig Press.
2014: Balthazar & Zebba: A Christmas Novella (The Audiobook), Fezziwig Press.
2015: Angel Ghosts, Fezziwig Press.
Selected Group Exhibitions:
2016, “Into the Night: Contemporary Art and the Nocturne Tradition,” Tucson Museum Of Art.
2016, “In Full Bloom,” Tohono Chul Park, Arizona.
2015, “Small Works,” Tohono Chul Park, Arizona.
2015, “Dia de los Muertos,” Tohono Chul Park, Arizona.
2015, “The Photographers,” Contreras Gallery, Tucson, Arizona.
2015, “The Sky Above,” Tohono Chul Park, Arizona.
2014, “The Trees: Myth, Symbol and Metaphor,” Tohono Chul Park, Tucson, Arizona.
2012, "Vicios y Virtudes" (Vices & Virtues), Raices Taller 222 Gallery, Tucson, Arizona.
2010, "Night Moves: After-Dark Images," Tohono Chul Park, Tucson, Arizona.
2009, "Print Pop," Lulubell Toy Bodega, Tucson, Arizona.
2009, "Curious Camera," ArtsEye/Photographic Works, Honorable Mention, Tucson, Arizona.
2008, "La Celebración y el Sufrimiento," Union Gallery, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.
2008, "The September Show," Point Of View Gallery, Raleigh, North Carolina.
2008, "Big Ideas, Small Frames," Dinnerware Artspace, Tucson, Arizona.
2008, "Darkness, Darkness," Three Columns Gallery, Harvard University,
2007, "Salon Des Refuses," Dinnerware Contemporary Arts, Tucson, Arizona.
2006, "Big Deal 13," SOMarts Gallery, San Francisco, California.
2006, "Transcending Boundaries," Point Of View Gallery, Raleigh, North Carolina.
2006, "Tough Lovelies: Agaves and Yuccas in Art," Tohono Chul Park, Tucson, Arizona.
2006, "The Art Of Photography,” Lyceum Theatre, San Diego, California.
2005, "Día de los Muertos: Contemporary Expressions," Tohono Chul Park, Tucson, Arizona.
2004, "Hotshoe Salon" Studio 455, Tucson, Arizona.
2004, "Wildfire!", Tohono Chul Park, Tucson, Arizona.
2003, "First Annual Winter Group Exhibition," Metroform Limited Gallery, Tucson, Arizona.
2003, "Small Works Invitational," Metroform Limited Gallery, Tucson, Arizona.
2003, "46th Annual International Awarded Exhibition," San Diego Art Institute, San Diego,
2002, "Rocky Mountain Biennial," Museum of Contemporary Art, Fort Collins, Colorado.
2002, "Spite: Ten Years of The Toole Shed," Museum of Contemporary Art/Hazmat Gallery,
2002-2004, "Saguaro: Popular Image and Cultural Icon," Arizona Commission of the Arts
Touring Exhibition (with Tohono Chul Park), Arizona.
2001, "Response," Tucson/Pima Arts Council, Tucson, Arizona.
2001, "In God We Trust," Zahorec Hughes Gallery, Cincinnati, Ohio.
2001, "Michael Cajero, Stu Jenks, and Rudolph Nadler," Jewish Community Center's Fine Art
Gallery, Tucson, Arizona.
2000, "La Petite VIII," Alder Gallery, Coburg, Oregon.
2000, "44th Annual International Awarded Exhibition," San Diego Art Institute, California.
2000, "Visions VI," Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, Covington, Kentucky.
2000, "Nocturnes 2000," Pacific Media Arts, San Francisco, California,
Curator's Choice Award.
2000, "Tucson/Pima Arts Council Fellowship Exhibit," Tucson/Pima Arts Council, Tucson,
1999, "43rd Annual International Awarded Exhibition," San Diego Art Institute, San Diego,
1999, "La Petite VII", Alder Gallery, Coburg, Oregon.
1999, "Visions V", Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, Covington, Kentucky; Jury's Award.
1999, "Arizona Biennial '99," Tucson Museum of Art, Tucson, Arizona.
1999, "Photowork '99," Barrett Art Center, Poughkeepsie, New York.
1999, "Miniatures," The Galleria, Bisbee, Arizona.
1979, “Bachelor of Fine Arts Show”, Ackland Museum, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
2012, “Open Circle for Pamela,” Glow Festival of Lights, Oracle, Arizona.
2009, "Open Circle Plus Seven," Metanexus Conference, Tempe, Arizona.
2004, "Ancient Spirit, Modern Voice: The Mythic Journeys Art Exhibition," The Defoor Centre
Gallery, Atlanta, Georgia.
2002, "The Open Circle Cairn Project," Museum of Contemporary Art, Tucson, Arizona.
Grants & Fellowships:
2000, Tucson/Pima Arts Council, Visual Arts I Fellowship Awards (Honorable Mention).
Selected Lectures, Juries & Workshops:
2011, Juror, Third Annual Curious Camera Competition, ArtsEye, Tucson, Arizona.
2010, Co-Executive Director, "All Souls' Procession 4th Annual Photography Exhibition
Competition," All Souls' Procession, Tucson, Arizona.
2009, Juror, "Blue Nocturne," The Nocturnes, San Francisco, California.
2006, Presenter, "The Rhythm of Mythic Journeys '06," Mythic Imagination Institute, Atlanta,
2001, Juror, "A Little Night Music," TheNocturnes.com, Pacific Media Arts, San Francisco,
1998, Guest Lecturer on Sepia and Selenium Toning, Photography Program, University of
Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.
Baker + Hesseldenz, Tucson, Arizona.
Fezziwig Press, Tucson, Arizona.
Image: "Callanish With A Plastic Brownie 127 Camera, Isles of Lewis and Harris, Scotland" (c) 2016 Stu Jenks.
Posted at 08:52 PM in 12 Step Fiction, Arizona, Atlanta, Atmospheric Music, Audiobooks, Balthazar and Zeeba, Bisbee, Black & White Photography, Books, Bozos, Cactus, California, Cds, Christmas and Winter Solstice, Churches, Circles, Commerce, Current Affairs, Dementia, eBooks, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fezziwig Press, Fiction, Flame Spirals, Installations, Music, My Grandmother Nannie's Mirror, Nannie's Mirror, Nocturnal Photography, Novels, Pamela's Baby Rocking Chair, Rolodex Of Haiku, Sexuality, Star Circles, Step Zero Series, Stu Jenks, Stu's Resume, The Step Zero Series, The Transpersonal Papers, Tunafish Smith, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)
"Organ Pipe In Shadow, Organ Pipe National Park, Arizona" (c) 2016 Stu Jenks.
"Dead Saguaro, Organ Pipe National Park, Arizona" (c) 2016 Stu Jenks.
"Pamela's Baby Rocking Chair, Organ Pipe National Park, Arizona" (c) 2016 Stu Jenks.
"Nannie's Mirror, Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona" (c) 2016 Stu Jenks.
"Pamela's Baby Rocking Chair, Coalmine Canyon, Hopi Reservation, Arizona" (c) 2016 Stu Jenks.
"Pamela's Baby Rocking Chair, Coalmine Canyon, Hopi Reservation, Arizona" (c) 2016 Stu Jenks.
"Pamela's Baby Rocking Chair, Route 66, Winona, Arizona" (c) 2016 Stu Jenks.
"Big Rain, Dripping Springs, Arizona" (c) 2016 Stu Jenks.
I've been asked to write for B & H Photo, regarding safety and etiquette when shooting nocturnal photography.
I've made my mistakes in the past. Yes I have. (See the chapter in my book "Flame Spirals" regarding the shooting of “Owl's Head Flame Spiral.” I had a white gas incident where I used too much of the fuel but I had a fire extinguisher at hand. And luckily within seconds, the flames dissipated. Dumb.)
I learned and grew from those mistakes. (See "Altar of Repose" where I created the illusion of the flame spiral, made with a Zippo lighter, being much closer to the lace than it actually was.)
I also changed lighting instruments over the years to be less dangerous. (See "My Ghost Likes To Travel" or "Abajo Mountain Hoop Dance" that were created with large hula hoops with Christmas lights attached.)
And of late, I've gone lighter, making it easier to hike into the wilds or around the cities. (See "Paris Hoop Dance," "Catawba Falls Hoop Dance," and “Avebury Hoop Dance” where I now use swinging strings of battery-powered LED Christmas lights.)
Here are some simple rules that I try to live by when shooting at night.
Rule One: Do no harm. Don't hurt the plants and trees, disturb the rocks, or make a mess on the streets. Go in, get the shot you want, and then leave the land or the cityscape as you found it.
Rule Two: Don't be a jerk. This is a big one and those of you who are jerks don't think you are. But you are nonetheless. You getting that cool shot at any cost. Good folk with morals and values feel guilty when they hurt the land or are loud and obnoxious around other people or burn an old abandoned store to the ground just to get that cool steel wool shot. Many photographers and people in general, feel no shame these days. We live in a very self-centered, shameless culture now. I don't know what to say to change that. Jerks are jerks. Some people just have to get The Shot. Whatever. I'm telling you, your photos are not as important as you think. Nor are you. For the good folk out there, (and I would include most everyone reading this article), just be the good man or woman you are. Be respectful. Be quiet. Be kind. Be generous. Be nice. Not only will you feel better, but your photographs will look better.
Rule Three: I quiet my mind as I unload the truck to go shoot at night. I say a little prayer. I take a deep breath. I close my eyes and meditate for a couple of seconds. I open my eyes in the full moon light and see what I see. I think. I feel. I plan. I throw away that plan and do something else. I breath. I breath again. I take a better photograph than the one I first had in mind. By quieting my mind, I open my eyes.
Rule Four: Bring at least two extra camera batteries. Bring at least two flashlights.
Rule Five: Hiking boots with hopefully good ankle support. Really. Even in the city. I mean it.
Rule Six: Don't fall off a cliff while shooting a shot. (See "Ghost Horses.” Dancing with that hula hoop of light was a little dicey there for a moment. It was a long way down. I almost went. Glad I didn't. My motto now? Don't die dumb.)
Rule Seven: As you load up your vehicle at the end of a shoot or sling your bag and tripod over your shoulder as you prepare to leave, turn back to where you've taken your photos and thank the land. Say it out loud. Say "Thank you." You, as an American, are living in a relatively safe country, where you can walk the city and trek into the woods and out into the desert, and shoot these images without the fear (mostly) of being shot and killed yourself. So show a bit of gratitude and thank the land that gave you this image and this experience. For me, it puts food on my table, but also puts joy in my heart.
Hope this helps, buckaroos. Be good out there shooting at night. Remember, the condition of your body and soul are more important than the pixels stored in your camera.
Love and light,
P.O. Box 161
Tucson, Arizona 85702
All photographs (c) 2016 Stu Jenks.
Posted at 02:39 PM in Arizona, Art, Black & White Photography, Churches, Coalmine Canyon, Color Photography, Deserts, Emotions, England, Ethics, Fire, Flame Spirals, Hoop Dancing, Love, Native People, Nocturnal Photography, Paris, Photography, Prayer, Prayer Towers, Religion, Stained Glass, The West, Tucson, Utah | Permalink | Comments (0)
Below is a cover letter I sent to The White House with a handbound copy of my new book Victor Mothershead: U.S. Secret Service. Some of you will like this. Some of you will think I'm naive. Some of you will hate this letter. Do me a favor. Keep your negative internet opinions to yourself. I'm a sensitive soul who hurts easily, and when I get hurt, I get mad or sad. I'd prefer to just feel happy about sending a nice note to a President I voted for twice. If you want to talk politics with me in person or on the phone, great, but don't type shit to me, all right? All right. Enjoy the letter. Or not.
Dear President Barack Obama, and First Lady Michelle Obama and First Daughters Sasha and Malia Obama,
Enclosed is the fourth book in my Step Zero series in which I write about The United States in the years 2079-2080. In this and in previous books, I created a fictional character named Sasha Obama Fulbright. I’m simply honoring the good work you and Michelle have done for our country, by making that character, a tough, sweet, elder, female President who has helped America also return from very tough times. I’m not crazy nor dangerous or anything. I’m just a writer and an artist with a good imagination. Hope you like the book.
Thanks again for the thank-you note and the lovely photo of you all and the girls, that you sent a few years back when you received the first book. (By the way, Mr. President, you make a brief appearance in the first book, Step Zero, as a loving ghost. Just saying.) The photo and note are framed in my house and are one of my most priced possessions.
Maybe in 2017 you might be able to read this book, after you leave office, but it’s not a big thing if you don’t. What is a big thing is the true and loyal service you have given to our country. I too believe, like you, that change is incremental, that justice and progress often happen slowly. But you have done much, Mister President, to kick the can of American Goodness down the road. Thank you for that.
I’ll miss you a lot, Barack, come January. I think Hillary will be a fine President, but frankly, she can’t tell a joke as well as you. She just doesn’t have your timing.
Much love and thanks again for all you have done.
Tucson, Arizona 85702
All photos by Stu Jenks (c) 2016. Top photo is a kaleidoscope image taken in front of The White House. Bottom photo was taken off my TV of the President crying after another mass shooting, in which children were killed. Again.
Book design of Victor Mothershead: U.S. Secret Service by Gail Cross of Desert Isle Designs in Mesa, Arizona.
Victor Mothershead: U.S. Secret Service is now for sale, both as a handbound book-book and as an e-book. E-books are at the low, low price of $2.99, at Apple's ibook store and on the Amazon Kindle (just search 'Stu Jenks' in those stores and you'll find me.) The hardbound editions can be bought locally at Tucson Touch Therapies and through my online store at https://squareup.com/store/fezziwig-press/.
Below is the introduction/cautionary note to the readers of Victor Mothershead: U.S. Secret Service. My previous Step Zero novels have produced, how can I say it, some interesting and unexpected emails. ("Stu Jenks, you suck."). This intro was written to help quell some of nastier emails, if that's at all possible in the digital online wasteland of people with personality disorders. But I try.
Enjoy this little excerpt and buy my books if you are a reading-kind-of-person. And if you want to simply support my creative work in general, just click on this link and go to the bottom of the webpage, and you can donate $5 or more to the cause.
And if you steal the ebook online, by striping out the code and putting it on a pier to pier site, to hell with you. I ain't going to pray against you, but I ain't going to pray very hard for you either.
Bottom Line? The new novel is out, and I'd like you to buy.
A Cautionary Note From The Author:
You hold in your hot little hands, either as an e-book or as a real-live-book-book, the fourth installment in my Step Zero series, but I believe some polite warnings to readers are needed here, given questions and concerns I have received in the past.
This is a stand alone novel but if you haven’t read Step Zero, the first book, or Air & Gravity, the second book, some of the plot twists, suspense reveals and arch conclusions here may spoil some of your enjoyment of those two previous books, if and when you read them. (Balthazar and Zeeba, the third book in the series, is a Christmas novel with its own individual side arch, which will not be affected by reading Victor Mothershead.)
Victor Mothershead: U.S. Secret Service is a hard R rated book as are Step Zero and Air & Gravity. There is a ton of cussing and a bit of sex in this book. Victor himself is a polite, soft spoken man who rarely speaks profanity but in the Step Zero world of 2079, particularly in the American Southwest, folks cuss like sailors on drunken leave and have sex like they will never ever screw again. It’s just how my characters roll. So if foul language and hot sex upset you, thanks for buying this book but you might want to give it to your college nephew to read. (Regarding the age appropriateness of this book, 17 years old and above seems about right. Use your best judgment. You know your kids.)
Many of my characters in the Step Zero universe believe in a spiritual force called God-Goddess-All-There-Is or GGATI. It’s a made up higher power by me, not affiliated with Wiccan or Pagan faiths (Not that there is anything wrong with those.) I was simply trying to expand the spirituality and religiosity of 2079 to include a specific feminine side as well as the masculine and universal aspects.
The politics of many of these characters is progressive and in some cases, specifically Democratic. The Presidents mentions in the Step Zero series are all Democrats. If you are a Republican or an Independent, and don’t agree with some of the policies mentions in this book, relax. It’s OK. This is speculative fiction. It’s the United States in the year 2079. I’ve just made this stuff up. Sasha Obama of course is a real young women today, but President Sasha Obama Fulbright and Vice President Florence Biden are completely made up people. You don’t have to agree with the politics here to enjoy this read. The characters are fun, the story I think is strong, and did I mention there is sex in this book?
Lastly, 12 Step fellowships play a major role in many of the characters’ lives in Victor Mothershead, U.S. Secret Service; one, a real program, Alcoholics Anonymous, the other, a fictional one, Mormon Tea Anonymous. None of the characters here represent any living or dead members of Alcoholic Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Al-Anon or any other 12 Step groups. That being said, I have talked with many clean and sober members of these fellowships over the years and I have attended a few 12 Step meetings myself, but I will neither confirm nor deny if I personally belong to those groups. There are by-laws regarding anonymity of members speaking publicly. The problem is, if you thought I was in A.A., or C.A., or N.A., and you hated this book or disliked me personally or think in any way I poorly represent a particular recovery program, you might feel reticent to seek help from those 12 Step programs if you ever needed it. They tell me these by-laws or ‘Traditions’ are there to protect the fellowships from its own members’ mistakes, yet recovering people want very much to be available and to help everyone, regardless of gender, race, color, creed, economic situation, and political leaning. Bottom line is no one in this book is any one person in A.A., but the views of some of the characters do reflect the beliefs of some members of those Fellowships.
I truly hope you enjoy this book. I’ve enjoyed making it for you.
Keep your lamp trimmed and burning, and as President Fulbright often said: “Be nice.”
All photographs by Stu Jenks. Book design and layout by Gail Cross of Desert Isle Designs, Mesa, Arizona.
Posted at 10:57 AM in 12 Step Fiction, Ancestors, Angel/Ghosts, Arizona, Commerce, Current Affairs, eBooks, Emotions, Faith, Family, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fezziwig Press, Fiction, Good Folk, Guns, Humor, Love, Mountains, Novels, Nudes, Sex, Speculative Fiction, Spirituality, Step Zero Series, The South, The West, Trains, Tucson, Victor Mothershead U.S. Secret Service, Virginia | Permalink | Comments (0)
All my e-books are available on Amazon Kindle, Apple iBooks, Bookbaby.com and many other digital providers. (Links below go only to my Amazon Kindle pages.)
Audiobooks at the new low prices are only available on CDbaby at this time. (Links below go only to my CDbaby pages. Hopefully iTunes and Amazon will soon update their prices.)
E-Books at Amazon.com:
Audiobooks at CDBaby.com:
Thanks for reading and listening to my books and buying my stuff. It puts gasoline in my tank, a roof over my head and a smile on my face.
Posted at 01:38 PM in 12 Step Fiction, Air & Gravity, Angel/Ghosts, Arizona, Audiobooks, Christmas and Winter Solstice, Commerce, eBooks, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fezziwig Press, Fiction, Flame Spirals, Hoop Dancing, Mary Jenks, Pamela Jenks, Pamela's Baby Rocking Chair, Rolodex Of Haiku, Spirituality, Spoken Word, Step Zero: A Sober Love Story in 2076, Stories, Stu Jenks, The Step Zero Series, The West, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)
Below is a very kind review by David Moyer of my first novel "Step Zero." Book four of this series, "Victor Mothershead: U.S. Secret Service" will be coming out in early July of 2016. "Step Zero" is now available at a new low price of $1.99 on the Amazon Kindle and Apple iBooks. Book two, "Air & Gravity" is now $2.99. Book three, "Balthazar & Zeeba" is also $1.99.
Start at the beginning is what I say.
"I wasn't sure at first if a book heavily influenced by and full of references to the 12 step program would be to my liking, but to my surprise, it added to, rather than detracting from the story. Stu Jenks has written a great adventure story that takes place in a very plausible future, and he has made it very intimate by bringing you all of the characters in the first person. I felt that I knew and empathized with his characters, even those I didn't like. I highly recommend this book and look forward to reading the sequel." - David Moyer.
Posted at 09:51 PM in 12 Step Fiction, Air & Gravity, Ancestors, Angel/Ghosts, Arizona, Art, Balthazar and Zeeba, Books, California, Cheyenne, Christmas and Winter Solstice, eBooks, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fezziwig Press, Fiction, Fire, Flame Spirals, Forgiveness, Good Folk, Love, Mountains, New Mexico, North Carolina, Novels, Speculative Fiction, Spirituality, Step Zero: A Sober Love Story in 2076, Stu Jenks, The Road, The Step Zero Series, The West, Tucson, Wyoming | Permalink | Comments (0)
There is nothing like a failure to show how I make my nocturnal images.
That's me in shorts on the left. The zippo flame painting didn't work well in this exposure so I stopped painting halfway through. Exposure time is around a couple minutes. Usually my film exposure are around 15 minutes, half that on digital. Shot on a full moon night. Black and white negative printed in a chemical darkroom on color paper.
And I disappear in long exposures because the moonlight erases most of me. But you can still see, in this failed exposure, that I have nice legs.
This tree is between 4500 and 5000 years old. The primary reason that Bristlecones eventually die is from erosion, over the millenniums, of the soil off of their roots. They simply die of thirst.
This night image was taken in the Methuselah Grove. The oldest living thing on the planet lives there. It's 5065 years old. That's right. That tree sprouted at the beginning of the Bronze Age.
This is one of my favorite places on the planet. Walking there puts everything in perspective. The prayer 'I am small and I need your help' comes to mind. If you are ever on the east side of the Sierras near Bishop, it's worth the side trip.
Not so fun fact: While driving up the last few miles to take these nocturnal images in 2008, I got a call from my poor demented mother from a psych ward. She was very frightened. The people at the high end assisted living/nursing home where she lived (The Villas at Sin Vacas in Tucson) had sent my mother to the psych facility, because a) they had no room in their own locked ward and b) because Mary walked around too much for them and was underfoot. I got back to Tucson as soon as I could, got Mary out of the psych ward, and moved her, with the help of others, to Crossroads Adult Care Homes, where she lived another two and half more years and was taken very good care of there by its staff. Thanks, Wendy.
I wouldn't send a dog I didn't like to Sin Vacas. Neither should you.
It'll be five years soon since Pamela and Mary Jenks died. Five years. Seems much longer ago than that.
[Pages from the uncorrected proof of Step Zero. To purchase the limited illustrated hardbound edition of this novel go to The Stu Store at Squareup.com. To purchase the non-illustrated ebook, go to those places where ebooks are sold. To start from the beginning, simply search this website for other installments. Thanks, y'all.]
Peter Saum, Jr.
Monday, March 9th, 2076: 10:05 p.m.
On The Sunset Limited
East of The Salton Sea, California
Found an empty seat just a few rows back from Artie, Georgia, Michael, and Mags. They don’t know I’m here. Hell, they never know I’m here. But I need to be here tonight.
I don’t know what’s going to happen but I just had this funny feeling while cruising around the Solar System today. Like that time Artie almost got killed three years ago. So I’m here. I can’t do much, except shine Light and send Love, but that ain’t no spiritual chicken feed.
Pretty girl in front of me. Hair blowing in the wind from the desert air coming in through the train car window. Window’s only down an inch or so, but it’s moving her auburn hair like a dance of red strings. Quite beautiful. Pretty night, too.
Then I see the first bullet enter the car. Comes through the girl’s window, right in front of face. Glass shards soon behind. Like in slow motion. I can see in slow motion when I want to, or when things go down. Things are going down.
Red-headed girl looks all right. Face looks OK. She’s on the floor. Got a pistol in her hand.
Then I float to over where my family is.
Georgia “G” Swann
Monday, March 9th, 2076: 10:07 p.m.
On The Sunset Limited
East of The Salton Sea, California
As soon as I hear glass shatter, I have my .357 out of my bag. I look over at Artie. He’s still grabbing for his gun. Mags’ already gone to at the other side of the car, yelling orders.
“Kill the lights,” she screams. Someone flicks a switch. Most but not all of the lights go out.
“Everyone without weapons, hug the floor on the right side of the train,” she yells. “Everyone with, over here on the left.”
Quick motions in the dark of the unarmed crawling right and the armed heading left. I’m behind Mags. She turns to speak to me.
“You any good with that?” asks Mags.
“Pope shit in the woods?” I say.
“Yes, he does,” say Mags with a smile.
“What do you see?” I ask.
“Nothing. Nothing at all. Might have just been some assholes fucking with us. Might be robbers though. We’ll know in a few minutes.”
“We’ll know?” I ask.
“If the train comes to a halt,” Mags says. “Means they got through the locomotive door or put something on the tracks. Have to be something big to stop this train though. These new locomotives have hellish counter measures to combat robbers. Top secret stuff. You don’t want to know.”
I squat beside her in the dark and wait for the train to stop. One minute. Two minutes. Still moving. I feel Artie’s hand on my waist, just letting me know he’s there. Still nothing. Train’s still flying along. I hardly breath.
Then, silhouetted against the light desert sand, I see horses and then men on horses and then more horses and more men. Couple dozen at least.
“You see them?” says Mags.
“I do,” I say. “What do you think?”
“Nothing. I don’t think they mean to rob the train. Just trying to put the fear of God into us. Showing us who’s boss, and it’s not you, assholes,” say Mags, more to herself as anyone else.
“Glad you’re here,” I say.
She turns to me and smiles.
“I’m glad you all are safe,” she says, looking at Artie and I.
“No gun?” she yells across the isle to Michael.
Michael shakes his head in the dim light.
“Want one?” say Mags.
“Thanks. Not right now,” says Michael.
“If I need you, you in?” Mags asks Michael.
“He’s in,” say Artie. “Just not until it’s time. It’s not time yet.”
“Oh,” say Mags. “You’re right. It’s not time. Pray it doesn’t become time.”
“GGATI, help us,” I say.
And for the first time, in days, I think about my family in Cheyenne.
Peter Saum, Jr.
Monday, March 9th, 2076: 10:30 p.m.
On The Sunset Limited
East of The Salton Sea, California
Artie’s OK. Everybody else too, but one.
“What happened?” asks Melissa.
“You got shot,” I say. “You’re dead now.” “Really?” she says, brushing the white hair out of her face, or rather her white angel ghost hair. She’s new to this.
“Damn, I was going to visit my grandkids in San Bernardino,” she says.
“You still can,” I say. “They just won’t be able to see you. You can still send Love to them. The Love Of The Ancestors. Still watch over them too, or you can come back as a human right away or go to the Great Big Sea. You have lots of choices.”
“Am I an angel?” asks Melissa.
“An angel and a ghost. An angel ghost. It’s hard to explain,” I say.
“Is there a God? A Goddess?” she asks.
“Close your eyes, Melissa.”
She does. Then she glows. Literally glows with the Light. Her first angel ghost time with the Light of God Goddess All There Is.
I hold her hands and wait for her to decide.
I love this part.
Arthur “Artie” Saum
Tuesday, March 10th, 2076: 6:45 a.m.
On The Sunset Limited
Just south of San Bernardino, California
“Who was she?” I say through a yawn.
“Melissa Bartlett. 63 years old. From El Paso. On her way to visit family in San Bernerdino, judging from her papers and such,” says Mags.
“Family know she’s dead?” asks Georgia.
“Don’t know their number.” say Mags. “We checked her phone, but there are no last names with the caller IDs. My guess is someone will be at the station to pick her up, and we’ll tell them then.”
“Jesus,” says Michael.
“Yeah,” says Mags.
The train starts to slow. Dawn breaks over the mountains to the east.
“Did I sleep through Palm Springs?” I ask Georgia.
“Like a baby,” she says.
“I miss anything?”
“We stopped for fifteen minutes, picked up a half dozen passengers, and we were on our way,” say G. “The conductor whispered ‘Palm Springs” over the intercom. Sweet of him to not want to wake everyone up, even though most of us were up, due to the shooting. Except you.”
She’s not mad. Just teasing.
I give a crooked grin. I was tired, plus with Mags with us, I figured we were fine.
“I’m up now,” I say.
Georgia kisses me. Not a big kiss, but not a little one either. Damn good regular kiss.
“Check that out,” say Michael, pointing out the window.
“Wow,” I say.
For miles, all I see are concrete pads for houses. No wood, no pipes, no roofs, no homes. Just a sea of rectangular pads of concrete, with some rusted old gasoline cars mixed in. I’ve seen this before, out at Continental Ranch, a suburb of homes outside of Tucson, but not like this. I don’t get too sentimental about pre-War days. From what I can gather from old-timers, and some books and newspapers, Americans were a selfish, spoiled people, afraid of their own shadows and with little resilience to endure the ups and downs of living. But seeing all these pads, I’m reminded that families lived here, thousands of people loved and worked here, and did the best they could. Families and friends. And my family and friends are the most important thing to me, next to my sobriety. Be honest with yourself, Artie. I know if I ever lose my sobriety, I’ll lose my family and friends, or rather they’ll lose me.
“Something, eh?” Michael say.
Mags sees what we are seeing.
“Worse as you get to closer to Los Angeles. Much worse,” she says.
“We have to change trains in San Bernardino,” says Georgia, but we all know this. “You staying on the train, Mags and heading into L.A.?” she asks the Marshal.
“Nope. Maybe on the way back I’ll come through Los Angeles, but I’m getting on the Southwest Chief for a few hours, then I’ll transfer to the San Joaquin Train in Barstow, and head straight to Oakland.”
Georgia gets up from her seat, crosses the isle and hugs Mags tight.
“Ah, I’m guessing you folks are taking that route as well,” says Mags.
G smiles and nods and hugs Mags again.
Arthur “Artie” Saum
Tuesday, March 10th, 2076: 8:40 a.m.
Santa Fe Depot
San Bernardino, California
“We have a two hour layover here,” Georgia says to me, looking at her schedule. “Let’s get something to eat.”
We exit the car to the platform. I’m traveling light with only my backpack, and a smaller bag that carries my ukelele and my gun. G has a small backpack and a mandolin case. Michael’s the one who decided to bring his Martin, but he’s not over-loaded. Most people carry instruments when they travel. At least everyone under the age of 50. Like the old priests who carry Bibles, we carry guitars, fiddles, mandolins, ukeleles, flutes, and skin drums. If it sings, we bring.
At the far end of the platform, I see Mags talking with a family. Mom, Dad, and a teenage girl. The father starts to cry. Mother and daughter hug the man. Ms. Bartlett must have been his mother.
This depot’s huge. Kind of Spanish Revival meets Moorish something. Beautiful. Four round tile domes top the lobby building with red roofs extending a hundred yards on either side. Wonderful to see the old architecture preserved. Amazing it escaped the scavengers. And there’s our next train on the far side of the tracks. Now that metal crosswalk that arches over the tracks isn’t Spanish Revivial. That Post-War Federalist Steel architecture. Not that pretty but it works.
There sure are a lot of people at this depot. Must be a few hundred. Families of three and four. Couples arm in arm. Dusty old men and women. Marshals and government workers. Blacks, Whites, Asians, Hispanics, Natives. And if my eyes don’t fail me, some men from El Grupo who are trying to look respectable. They aren’t wearing any colors but I know the smell.
Shit. Robbie Rod is here.
“What?” says Georgia, sensing my change of mood.
“A guy I used to run with in El Grupo is over there,” I say.
“Where?” she asks.
I point with my eyes.
“Tall drink of water. Black hair. Blue jean jacket.”
Michael walks up.
“Let’s get something to eat. I’m starved,” he says.
“In a minute,” I say.
I look over to Michael, than back at Robbie. He knows.
“Guy from back in the day?” asks Michael
“Want to say hello?” he asks
“What do you think?” “Fuck ‘em,” says Michael. “Let’s eat.”
We head toward the lobby, G’s hand in my arm. Michael walks behind us. He glances over his shoulder at Robbie. Glad Michael came.
“This is the best burrito I’ve ever eaten,” says Georgia with a mouth full of food.
“You always say that when you’re hungry,” I say.
“But it is,” say G. “Tortilla is fresh, salsa’s divine and the beans are amazing” she says.
“It is pretty good,” says Michael. “Have a bite of mine.”
“No, Thanks. I’m not that hungry. Cup of coffee is just fine.”
I’m looking down at my hands. I then raise my eyes and look at my two best friends. They both give me this ‘what the fuck’ look, like two pissed off cats.
“Sorry,” I say over the table. “I’m just spooked by Robbie Rod.”
“Nothing will happen here,” says Georgia. “Too many Feds, and shit, honey, that was three years ago.”
“I doubt Bunny’s forgotten,” I say.
They both nod and then go back to eating their breakfast.
“I’ll buy you a burrito for the train,” says Georgia “I know you’re not hungry now but you will be and you get even moodier when you’re hungry.”
She winks at me. I reach across the table and squeeze her hand.
“I’m going to go over to that bench and have a quick clove smoke, and pray a quick prayer. Y’all watch my gear?”
“Sure,” say Michael.
Near the end of the outside dining area grows a young tree. Don’t know what it is. Don’t know my California trees. Could be a eucalyptus. I light a clove cigarette. I close my eyes. I speak a quiet prayer, so only I can hear.
“God of the Sky, Goddess of the Earth. Hear my prayers,” I quietly speak. “I need you both to guide me through these scary lands. I need you both to help me stay sober, stay sane, stay on the right path. I need you both to help me love and protect my friends. I need you both to shine light on me and mine. I am small. You both are big. But I have some of both you God and you Goddess in me and some of All There Is. May my GGATI harmonize with you GGATI. Without you all, I am lost. With you all, I am whole.”
“Hey, Artie,” say a voice behind me. I turn.
“Hey, Robbie,” I say, “How are you?” I am scared but not that scared. The prayer has helped and I don’t sense any danger.
“I’m OK,” says Robbie. “Did I interrupt anything?”
“You kind of did,” I say. Now I sense something. OK, Robbie, please don’t fuck with me now.
“You got a minute?” he asks.
“Sure. But just a minute,” I look over toward Georgia and Michael. They both see Robbie. Michael gets up from his seat. I raise my hand to him to stay. Michael sits back down.
“I have to catch the train to Barstow,” I say.
“I’m getting on that train too. Been in Los Angeles for about a year. Staying close to my family there. Heading to Wyoming now to look for work.”
“Good luck with that,” I say.
“Yeah,” he says, looking away from my eyes. “Anyway, It’s been around what? Three years since I saw you in Santa Rosa?”
“Something like that.”
“Well,” Robbie continues, “I may be an idiot and my sponsor will probably think I’ve lost my mind, but I need to make amends to you, Artie. When you got shot up in Sells, when we were transporting that Brigham to Tucson. Well, I told a lie about you to Bunny. I told him that you were working with the Feds, that you couldn’t be trusted. I was pissed off that you were sleeping with that girl. I wanted her too but she wanted you, not me, so I figured if I told Bunny you were a Fed, he’d kill you and she would be with me.”
“I didn’t know it was you,” I say, “But I figured somebody thought I was a snitch. Or maybe Bunny just needed to shoot at someone. So it was you?”
“Yeah, it was me,” says Robbie, “I was smoking more Tea than even you back then,” he laughs and then stops the laugh.
“Anyway,” Robbie says, “I’ve been going to Mormon Tea Anonymous in Los Angeles. It’s a 12-Step program for those of us trying to not use Brigham, to be and stay clean and sober. Going to A.A. too. And I wouldn’t blame you for shooting me right now, but I was the one who tried to get you killed, and I’m sorry about that, and if I could go back and change it, I would but I can’t. But I can commit to you that I’ll do my best not to lie for my own selfish gains again, and definitely not lie so someone gets shot or killed. I’m really sorry, Artie. Really, I am.”
I just stare at him for a second and don’t say anything. Is he playing me? I look hard into his eyes. I don’t think so.
“So if I get this straight, you just happened to be in San Bernardino at this train station on your way to Wyoming, and you see me, a guy you tried to get killed, and you figured that since our paths crossed, you’d come up to me and apologize?”
“Try and make amends. Make things right. Not apologize,” he says
“Right. Make amends,” I say.
He is for real.
“Well, Robbie Rod, I’ve got some news for you,” I say, trying to look mean but I can’t pull it off. A big smile breaks across my face.
“Robbie, My name is Artie and I’m an addict and an alcoholic. I’ve got two years clean and sober last month.”
Robbie’s mouth drops open.
Peter Saum, Jr.
Tuesday, March 10th, 2076: High Noon
On The Southwest Chief
North of San Bernardino, California
Back on the train. I loved trains when I was alive. Didn’t ride them much at all back then. We had planes and gasoline cars and all of that, but my studio was just a couple blocks away from a crossing and I would hear whistles blow as I recorded in my studio. Two long whistles, a short and a long. Dad taught me that. Sometimes, I’d leave the whistle in on the intro of a piece of space music. Gave it extra atmosphere. Wish I had ridden the train more. I don’t exactly ride anywhere now.
Really enjoyed that little miracle on the platform. A Ninth Step amends completely out of the blue. Seems Artie accepted it well, but I can tell my grandson doesn’t fully trust Robbie. If I overheard right, Robbie’s got six months clean and sober. A good amount of time but not really. Depends on the man or woman in recovery. Some people have a psychic change right away, others it takes years. I guess we’ll find out more as it is revealed, as they say in A.A. and in M.T.A. But Artie and Michael are smiling and Robbie looks relieved. The three of them are thick as thieves. Hmmm. Not my best analogy.
Georgia and Mags do look worried. They have good reason I guess. I’m hoping they have no reason to distrust Robbie. But I don’t know. I can’t read minds. I can read the faces of my descendants like Artie pretty well, but that’s only because he’s blood. I’m just as mystified as I ever was regarding human behavior.
One very big advantage to being on my side of things is I can travel anywhere, anytime, in an instant. And I have traveled quite a bit over the past 40 plus years and seen much.
A folksinger once sang, ‘You’ve never seen everything.’ I’ve come close to seeing everything and much of what I’ve seen is ugly. But now, I just go where my people are, and a few of their friends. I no longer need to explore horrors.
I have seen Barstow, California, our next stop on this train. Stopped there just last year on my way to the ancient Bristlecones Pines in the White Mountains.
Barstow’s not a pretty place.
I’ll stay close.
Deputy U.S. Marshal Magdalena “Mags” Gutierrez
Tuesday, March 10th, 2076: 5:05 p.m.
New West Train Station
“Hijo de perra,” I say.
“What the matter, Mags?” asks Georgia.
I mouth ‘just a minute’ to Georgia.
“The Bakersfield Princess is late,” I say to my boss, Kirk Bledsoe, on my Sat-phone. “Seems there was a freight derailment near Boron.”
“What’s that, Chief?” I ask. “The Princess isn’t going to be here in Barstow until tomorrow morning at the earliest? Fuck. Sorry, Chief. Sir, have you ever been to Barstow?”
“No, I haven’t,” says Chief Bledsoe on the phone.
“Well, civilization has barely made it back here,” I say. “There are no craftspeople, if you know what I mean. I am a little worried. I need a room for the night. Can I put in on the Fed card?
“No problem, Mags,” says Kirk.
“Great. I’ll need two rooms.”
“Why?” he asks.
“I’ll tell you later. Trust me. It’s OK.”
“Just don’t break the government’s piggie bank, all right?” says Chief Bledsoe.
“I won’t,” I say, “I’ll call you when the train leaves for Bakersfield tomorrow. I can’t thank you enough.”
“Just tell me what’s going on tomorrow,“ he says.
“I will,” I say. “Hasta.”
I close my Sat-phone.
“What did he say?” ask Georgia.
“Two rooms. One for you and me, the other for the boys.”
“Great,” say Georgia, and give me a hug.
Georgia may be the huggiest person I’ve ever met. I don’t mind.
Artie, Michael and Robbie stand under an awning outside the rundown station. Georgia and I walk up.
“So?” says Artie.
“Train to Bakerfield’s not going to be here until tomorrow,” I say. “But no worries. I’ll get rooms for all of us at the Jasper Hotel. Let’s go get checked in, and then we can find something to eat.”
“Sounds like a plan,” say Michael. Robbie is quiet.
We all pile into a taxi, not a Flex-car but an old electric jalopy, and head up the hill toward Hotel Alley.
“The Jasper, please,” I say to the driver.
“You got a hundred dollars?” asks the cabbie.
“A hundred for just up the hill?” I ask.
“Mags, we can’t spend that kind of money,” says Georgia.
“It’s OK,” I say to Georgia. “I got it.”
GGATI save us.
And off we go.
Seems like washing isn’t something they do much here in Barstow. Then again, water is expensive here. Everything expensive here. And it smells, a mix of body odor, rotting plants and something else. I shouldn’t be so judgmental. It’s just a railroad switching town. What do I expect? A craft fair, with organic gardens?
After a couple minutes, we arrive at the Jasper.
“Here’s a hundred. Keep the change.”
“There is no change,” says the cabbie.
“My point exactly,” I say.
“Bitch,” says the cabbie.
“What did you call her?” says Artie to the cabbie.
“It’s OK, Artie. Let it go.”
We grab our bags and the boys get the instrument cases out of the trunk. We walk over to the lobby. Oh Goddess.
The Jasper is what’s left of an old motel lodge from fifty years ago, when people used to drive on The Interstate. Doesn’t seem like the maintenance man has been around much. All the wooden doors to the rooms are gone, replaced by chain-link grates across each doorway. No wood at all that I can see. Lots of wood got burned during the 41 nights. Some glass windows are intact but not many. Welded bars over most of the windows.
“I’ll go in and get our rooms,” I say.
They all look a little scared. I’m scared too. Artie, Michael and Georgia are tough cookies, not scared of much, but this has them on full alert.
I walk up to the hotel desk. A short bearded man with snot coming out his nose greets me.
“Evening. What can I do you, ma’am?” he says.
“I need two rooms for the night.”
“How many people?” he asks.
“Five. Three men, two women, all adults. Do you take The Federal Plastic?”
“Only plastic I take. You a railroader?”
“Marshal,” I say pulling my badge from my front pocket. I don’t wear the badge, nor any kind of uniform. Some people like to shoot cops for fun, you know.
“Well, Marshal Gutierrez, welcome to the Jasper Hotel. Staying one night?”
He grabs my Fed card and punches the numbers into a Sat-phone, then takes a pic of me with his phone. This is going to cost.
“Card’s good. So are you. Can’t be too careful. You could be impersonating an officer of the law.” he says, still punching in numbers. “Total for two rooms for one night will be $1200 even.”
“Even,” I say. “That’s nice,” shaking my head.
“I’ll need your thumbprint, Marshal.”
I push my thumb on the face of his phone.
“Thank you. Need to tell you a few rules and things,” says the clerk. “First, sorry about the lack of solid doors but those grates keep out everyone from rats to drunks. I try and keep a quiet place here and most people go to bed pretty early, don’t you know. You can bring alcohol into your room but no drugs, no Brigham, but I don’t guess that’ll be a problem for you, Ma’am.”
He smiles. Two teeth is all he has for a smile. One for meat. One for soup.
“Also, there is a pretty good restaurant, just up the hill. Johnny’s Cafe,” he continues. “Not bad. Not great. And I can call a taxi for you anytime, to take you back to the train station. Oh, over on that little hill, there are a few chairs in a circle, around a small fire pit. We have wood if you want to a fire. $100 a bunch. Some travelers go over there to play music, other’s have prayer meetings, other’s just hang out. Got a nice little view of the town and it’s away from the hotel so the music doesn’t bother the other guests. So help yourself to that.”
“You expect to be full tonight?” I ask.
“I do. I suppose you were trying to get to Bakersfield too?”
“Yeppers, it’s going to be hopping here tonight,” he says, licking his lips. He hands me two metal keys for grates to our rooms.
“And don’t forget to bring back your keys in the morning. If you forget, it’s an extra $300 on your card. And check out is at 11 sharp.”
“Thanks, and have a good night,” I say. Might as well be nice, even in this hell hole.
“You too, Marshal,” says the clerk and then he looks at my tits. Great.
The five of us go check out the rooms. Beds seems OK. Scratchy sheets but at least they’re clean. I don’t want to think about what those stains are on the floor. None of us leave anything in the room. This is just a bed.
“Y’all hungry? I’m buying.” I say.
“You don’t have to, Marshal,” says Robbie.
“I know, but I want to,” I say. “There’s a cafe just up the hill. Hope they serve strong coffee. I’m getting a caffeine headache.”
Tuesday, March 10th, 2076: 7:30 p.m.
“That wasn’t terrible food,” I say.
“Tell that to my stomach,” says Artie.
“The coffee was OK,” says G.
“And I liked the oatmeal cookies,” says Robbie.
“The cookies were good,” says Mags.
“Yeah, the cookies were pretty tasty,” I say to Artie.
“Brother,” Artie says, shaking his head. “That was my worst meal in years. You know I’m not picky but I just hate Synth Meat.”
Changing the subject, I ask, “So you want to look for a meeting or just stay close to home tonight? I vote for staying here. I’d like to maybe just play some tunes and hit the hay.”
“The desk clerk says there is a circle of chairs on that little rise behind the hotel,” Mag says. “Says people use it for playing all the time. Fire pit too, but you have to buy the wood.”
“Cool, but I’ll pass on the wood.” I say.
“I’m just going to stay here with Mags,” say Georgia. “Why don’t you boys just go over there and play. We’ll watch our gear.”
“Great,” I say. “Well, grab your uke, Artie. Robbie, you play?”
Robbie pulls from his bag what looks like a penny whistle.
“Fantastic,” I say. “You know any Celtic jigs?”
“My name might be Rodriguez but my grandmother was Scottish. Rest her soul.”
I put my arm around Robbie’s shoulder.
“Brother, you’ve just made my night,” I say.
Georgia “G” Swann
Wednesday, March 11th, 2076: 2:11 a.m..
Artie sleeps next to me. Mags is in the other bed. Michael and Robbie sleep next door.
It was quiet until just a minute ago. Now I hear crying. I rise from the bed, pull on my jeans, put on my blouse and slip on my boots. I walk to the metal grate door, unlock it and tippy toe outside. I’m curious.
It’s coming from the second floor across from what used to be the parking lot. It’s a woman’s voice, and a man’s.
“I don’t want to go to Bakersfield. I hate it there. I hate those people,” the woman’s voice says through tears.
“I know honey, but I have a job there,” says a masculine voice. “I have to go. There was nothing for us in San Bernardino.”
“My mother was there,” she says. “Momma was there.”
“Mary, your mother’s grave is there, but she’s not there anymore.”
I hear no more talking. Just crying.
I got back to my room and back to bed. I cuddle next to Artie. I pull him into my body.
“Goddess, protect us as we travel.” I whisper. “I know in my prayers and meditations to you the answer has always been ‘Go with Artie to see his grandmother.’ but I’m frightened now. We are far away from home. And I don’t expect you, GGATI, to come down and save us from all harm. I know my job is to align the Goddess in me with the Goddess you are, but I’m still scared. Please help me be in the moment so I can be of use to you and to all people. And to Artie and his friends. Goddess, I don’t spook easy, but I’m spooked now.
I kiss Artie’s shoulder. I’m so sleepy.
Then I hear three shots ring out. Bang, bang, pause, then bang again. They sound close.
Arthur “Artie” Saum
Wednesday, March 11th, 2076: 1:44 p.m..
On The Bakersfield Princess
West of Boron, California
“Damn, I wish Mags was here,” I say.
“Me too,’ Georgia says.
Michael and Robbie nod in agreement.
“So there’s no Marshal in Barstow?” asks Robbie.
“There is but he’s up here somewhere near the derailment. Mags is detaining the woman until he gets back,” I say.
“Poor bastard,” says Michael. “So you heard them talking before she killed him.”
“I did,” says Georgia. “She was crying about having to go live in Bakersfield. Guess she didn’t want to live there.”
Robbie laughs. None of the rest of us do. Robbie cuts off his chuckle. It’s really not that funny. Maybe a little.
“Would you look at that?” I say, looking out the window as we pass. “Never seen train cars on fire before.”
Most of the freight cars have burned down to the metal but these three still blaze with blue, green and orange flames. Must be some chemicals or something.
“We’ll be slowing our rate of speed for a few miles, folks,” says the conductor. “Just have to get past this derailment.”
I don’t think this was just a derailment, but what do I know.
Soon we’re past and picking up steam.
Hours later, I can see the Sierra Nevadas in the distance. Still some snow on their peaks. Starting to get a bit nippy in the car. I take my fleece jacket out of my backpack and put it on.
Georgia sleepily gazes out the train window. None of us got much sleep last night.
“Hope we see Mags soon,” says G. “But who knows,”
“She has your Sat-phone number, G,” I whisper. “I told her we’d call her once we get to the Bay Area, if not sooner.”
“Good.” she says. “I miss her.”
“Me too,” I say. “We should be in Bakersfield around sunset, Fresno by midnight.”
“I’ll get us rooms in Fresno,” says my sweetie. “I’ll pay this time.”
I squeeze her hand. Having a Richie Rich as a girlfriend does have its advantages, though I rarely take advantage of her. And we work at keeping it a secret, given the obvious consequences.
We hold hands and continue to look at the snow capped mountains in the distance.
Soon, we’re climbing toward Tehachapi. Beautiful country. Foothills of the Sierras to the north, rolling hills like out of an old movie to the south, and windmills for as far as you can see. Thousands of them, white and shiny, a hundred or more feet tall, fins turning in the breeze. Makes me happy to see.
We stop in Tehachapi to load up on some coal, or so the conductor says. Wonder if I have reception on Georgia’s Sat-phone. Two bars. Hot damn.
“Michael,” I say, nudging him awake. “We’re in Tehachapi. G and Robbie went to get some ice tea. You want anything?”
“I’m good,” he says.
“And I’m going to call Craig, Bill and Pete on G’s Sat,” I say to him. “Want to talk with Craig when I get him?”
“No,” says Michael. “Just give him my love. Plus it costs a fortune to talk on Sats.”
“I know,” I say, “but G’s OK with sharing her coin.”
“Thanks, but I’m fine,” he says.
“All right,” I say.
I open the Sat-phone and dial.
“Pete, it’s Artie.”
“Artie, little brother, where are you now?” asks my boss.
“Tehachapi, just a little east of Bakersfield.”
“Ah, you’re coming up on The Loop?”
“What’s that?” I ask.
“The Loop. The Tehachapi Loop. Where the tracks go in a complete circle to make it up the grade,” says Pete. “or in your case down the grade.”
“I didn’t know you rode the train out here?” I ask Pete.
“Haven’t,” says Pete. “My grandmother told me about it. She says it’s quite a thing. Stay awake for it.”
“OK. Anyway, Georgia and I are fine. We picked up a couple road dogs on the way. Marshal Mags Gutierrez from Tucson was with us a while, and I meet an old friend in San Bernardino.”
“Good old friend or bad old friend?” he asks.
“Bad then, good now.” I say. “And guess who decided to come with us.”
“Michael Dollaride did,” Pete says.
“How in the hell did you know?”
“I know Michael’s boss at the pottery shop. Seems Michael burned a month of vacation to come with you all.”
“I figured that,” I said. “It’s so great to have him with us.”
“Craig came in to buy some strings, yesterday,” says Pete. “Asked if I had heard from you.”
“Would you call him for me and give him the update on us?” I ask.
“You bet,” he says.
“And I’m sorry Pete for leaving you for so long,” I say. “I know there’s a lot of repairs at the shop.”
“I don’t care about that. Well, I care a little about that,” Pete says. Long pause. “Artie. Listen to me. Going to see your grandmother before she dies is a wonderful thing.” “We don’t know that she’s dying,” I say.
“Artie, I love you, but you know if she’s not dying, she’s damn close.
I say nothing.
“I’ll call Craig,” he says, “Don’t worry about the shop.”
“You are a saint, Pete,” I say.
“No, I’m not,” says through a laugh. “I’m just a bad man trying to be good.”
“Phone’s breaking up. Pete, I love you.”
“I love you too, little brother. Give my love to Georgia and to M...”
The phone dies.
I close G’s Sat. I hate fucking phones.
Pedro “Pig” Ortiz
Wednesday, March 11th, 2076: 5:30 p.m..
At The Tehachapi Loop
“We could blow up the tracks,” Big Jim says, “Like they did in Boron.”
I pull out my revolver and stick it in Big Jim’s face.
“Or not,” he says.
“Now listen to me good,” I say still holding my gun in his face, “If you are thinking about thinking about anything, stop and think ‘I need to talk with Pig first’, before you do any fucking thing, like think. Got it?”
“Sure, Pig. I just thought....”
I click back the hammer of the Smith and Wesson with my thumb.
“If you blow up the tracks,” I say to him, “No other trains come through, and then a bunch of railroaders and Feds come up here to fix the tracks. Now, what might that mean, Jim?”
His face knots up in thought.
“That we have to leave?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say, “And what else?”
“Then we can’t sneak on trains and do our business,” Big Jims says. “And we have to go someplace else where the train runs slow, so we can rob and steal and kill and such.”
“Yes,” I say, “And such.”
I lower my pistol and hoister it.
“Jesus, Pig, I didn’t mean anything.”
I glare at him and he stops talking.
My Sat-phone rings. I open the phone and look at the screen. My brother Bunny.
“Pig, here,” I say.
“Goddamn hope so,” says Bunny.
“What’s up, Bro?” I ask.
“I need you to kill someone for me.” says Bunny. “They’re on the Bakersfield train heading west. Should be there soon. I’m sending you a pic now.”
I see the picture on my screen.
“Fast or slow,” I say.
“I don’t give a shit,” says Bunny. “Just dead. Then send me a pic of their dead face.”
“I’m on it.” I say. “I’ll do it myself. Sounds like fun.”
“Thanks, brother,” says Bunny.
“Hasta,” I say.
Peter Saum, Jr.
Wednesday, March 11th, 2076: 5:40 p.m.
At The Tehachapi Loop
I didn’t see the picture on Pig’s phone. Could be someone else, other than my people. Not that it matters that much, since I can’t stop anything. But I’m going to send a shit-load of Light and Love, and hope for the best.
Sun’s just dropped below that ridge. May be dark before the train comes through. I don’t know.
I can’t do anything!
Georgia “G” Swann
Wednesday, March 11th, 2076: 6:15 p.m.
On The Bakersfield Princess
At The Tehachapi Loop
Even in the fading light, this valley is beautiful. And I love all of these rail tunnels. Then, I see the tracks in front of us curve hard to the left and go behind a hill with a Jesus Cross on top of it. The track reappears below us and then we head through another tunnel that goes under the tracks. We are hardly moving at all, the train traveling at a man’s walking pace. The wheels squeal loudly, sounding almost like birds. The train curves left and left and more left, leaning hard to one side. Wow. This must me the loop Artie told me about.
I touch Artie’s shoulder as I lean forward to get a better view out the window. He has the window seat. I smile at Michael in the row behinds us. He smiles back. First time I’ve seen him smile in days, in weeks. Robbie’s mouth hangs open in wonder as he looks over Michael’s body to see out the window. This is pretty cool.
Then I see something out of the corner of my eye. Motion. Metal. A hand. Michael sees the look in my eyes and turn toward where I’m looking. He sees the man too, the gun, the hand.
Robbie’s mouth closes. He jumps into the aisle, running toward the man with the gun. I grab for the LadySmith inside my small bag. My hand wraps around its grip. I start to pull my gun out of my bag when I hear a loud pop, then another. My ears ring from the shots. Then another bang, and then screams. Then I have this burning in my leg. I look down. I don’t see anything but, Goddess, it hurts.
I turn toward the man with the gun but I don’t see him. Don’t see Robbie either. Don’t see Michael.
Then I get tunnel vision. I look at Artie. I see his face, looking toward the back of the train. Then the circle of his face gets real small. Then smaller. Then black.
[Pages from the uncorrected proof of the novel Step Zero. To purchase the limited illustrated hardbound edition of this novel go to The Stu Store at Squareup.com. To purchase the non-illustrated ebook, go to those places where ebooks are sold.]
Image: "The Death of Self, Emmerton, Virginia" (c) 2016 Stu Jenks.
William “Bill” Monroe
Wednesday, March 4th, 2076: 8:15 p.m.
Downtown Alano Club
What in GGATI’s name is that newcomer talking about? OK, Bill. Just calm down. Remember you’re here to help and be helped, not judge and be judged, and remember what Larry used to say to you: ‘All those newcomers going on and on, and not making any sense? Well, it may be what keeps them sober tonight.’ Yea, Larry, you were right, like you were so often. I miss you Larry. Rest in peace, brother.
That girl’s kind of cute. Ain’t seen her before, and she looks around my age. Wonder if she’s a newcomer. Hope not. Maybe she’s a visitor who just got off the train. We do get some cute sober women traveling from California from time to time. Now, Bill, you ain’t here to get laid. You’re here to stay sober and help others to get sober. She is pretty though. God, I can’t remember the last time I made love to a woman.
Good to see so many new faces tonight. Must be three new men and maybe that pretty woman if she ain’t visiting. I love my home group, the Wednesday night God/Not God group of Alcoholics Anonymous. I love these people. And there’s Michael and Craig chuckling over there, and Joy and Sammy holding hands, and Josh and Melissa by the door and Roy and Robbie, and Tony leading the meeting tonight. Oh my. I’m being such a judgmental prick. Newcomers never make sense. Did you, Bill? Hell no. You didn’t stop shaking for three days and all you did was scream about fucking jarheads for your first month. And what did these people do? They loved you, Bill. They loved you. So love them back.
And there’s Artie, one of my sponsees. Good kid. I was too hard on him the other day. I need to make amends to him after the meeting. Tell him I wasn’t really angry at him going to California. I’m just scared for him is all. And he’s going to get his grandfather’s harmonium. That’s pretty cool.
Well, maybe I’ll share next. Sweet God, those newcomers are so full of shit. Now, now, Bill. Love and tolerance of others is our code. Love and tolerance, Bill.
Sounds like Roy is winding up.
“Thanks for letting me share,” says Roy.
“My name is Bill and I’m an alcoholic.”
“Hi, Bill,” says the group.
“It’s been over ten years since I’ve felt it necessary to take a drink and for that, I’m truly grateful. And if you’re new, keep coming back. I remember when I was new. I wanted this so bad, but I was so full of shit, I even scared myself.”
“But that was OK,” I say. “I was here. I was sober. I went to a meeting every day. I got a sponsor on day three. My first sponsor, Larry. Many of you all remember Larry. He taught me a lot. He had me working the Steps immediately. ‘You think you’re an alcoholic,’ he asked me after my fourth or fifth meeting. ‘I know I am,’ I said. ‘Do you believe that a power greater than yourself can restore you to sanity?” he asked me? ‘I hope so,” I said. ‘Are you willing to turn your will and your life over to the care of God, as you understand him or her or it?’ ‘I don’t know,’ I said. Larry paused and then said with a big grin his face: ‘That’s OK.Two out of three ain’t bad’
“God, I miss that old son of a bitch,” I say.
I can’t talk. I start to cry. I didn’t realize how much I still missed Larry. He’s been dead a year now. I don’t know if I can share anymore. Just one more thing.
“Larry helped save my life,” I say through the tears. “If you’re new, let us help you get and stay sober, like Larry and many people did for me. We are rooting for you to live. We’re rooting for you. That’s all I’ve got. Thanks for letting me share.”
“Thank you, Bill,” say many in the room.
I look over at Artie. I see he’s crying too. He knew his grand-sponsor Larry. I smile at Artie. He smiles back. I wipe the tears from my eyes and look down at my hands. I look up. Other people are wiping away tears too.
Larry was a hell of a man.
His love saved my life.
Georgia “G” Swann
Thursday, March 5th, 2076: a little after Midnight
Her and Artie’s House
Artie’s sleeping but I can’t sleep. I hold a glass of iced tea in my hand. A slight breeze blows down our street. Tabitha, our cat, rubs against my leg.
I’m worried about this trip and Artie too.
Every since he decided to go, his nightmares have gotten worse, and just last night he yelled Bunny’s name in his sleep. He hasn’t done that since he got sober. Fucking Bunny.
I take a sip of my tea. It’ll be OK or it won’t, like the Goddess says. And I’ll be going with him too. And we’ve got plenty of ammo. We’ll be fine or we won’t. Can’t let fear keep us from living.
To the east, I see an Almost-Full-Moon rise over the Rincon Mountains. At least we’ll have the Moon with us. His granddad used to love these nights, or so Artie tells me. Artie too. Me, not so much. I like New Moon nights with the Milky Way shining overhead. Not Artie. He likes the bright nights before and after the Full Moon. He walks the streets on Full Moon nights. Must run in the family.
I’m worried. He’s not walking with the Moon tonight.
I hear a moan from inside. Must be having another dream. I rub Tabitha’s head then head back to bed.
Monday, March 9th, 2076: 7:51 a.m.
San Agustin Train Station
Downtown Tucson, Arizona
This may not be such a good idea, but I meditated on it and the GGATI inside of me said a single word. ‘Go.’ So I’m going. And Harold, my boss, said go too. Can’t argue with Harold or God.
I know I should have borrowed a gun from somebody but I hate guns. If I have a gun, I’ll think about killing and I’ve done enough killing for this lifetime. And the next. Pause when agitated they say in the Meetings. I can do that if I’m unarmed. But I can’t if I’m packing. I’ve proven that.
Got my ticket, my backpack and my Martin. Paper cup of coffee in my hand. Twenty people on the platform this morning for the Sunset Limited. The smell of coal and steam in the air. I love the smell of trains.
There’s Artie and Georgia. They don’t know I’m coming. Won’t they be surprised.
“Hey, guys,” I say.
They smile at me, then see my backpack and guitar case. Artie’s smile broadens. Georgia’s mouth falls open.
“You coming?” Artie asks.
‘I am,” I say.
“Oh man,” he says, and all three of us hug. A nice group hug.
“Thank you, Michael,” Georgia whispers in my ear.
Georgia “G” Swann
Monday, March 9th, 2076: 8:21 a.m.
On The Sunset Limited
Near Picacho Peak, Arizona
The boys have broken out the instruments—Artie on uke, Michael on guitar. Michael’s singing an old Gillian Welch song. Strangest lyrics, about how “one monkey don’t stop the show.” I think the men like this song because it mentions slow freight trains and having a purpose.
I’m looking out the window of our train car. The old Interstate 10 is vacant of any traffic, just a couple hundred feet west of the tracks. Hundreds of rusty cars, trucks and semis fill both lanes, some spilling onto the shoulder. Only the occasional Flex-truck weaves its way through the abandoned vehicles and they seem to be scavenging for parts and scrap. Every once in a while, I see a white human skull or a pile of bleached bones. I’ve seen this hundreds of times and it doesn’t bother me that much, but I’ve never really gotten used to it. Picacho Peak’s anvil summit rises out of the desert, the morning light hitting its sheer walls, making the mountain shine. Saguaros stand at attention at its base. A Red-tailed Hawk rides an updraft between the train and the Peak. The light’s just wonderful this morning. Goddess is healing the planet. She’s been good to me, to Artie, to Michael, to all our friends. I’m so grateful to Her.
I open my handbag and take out a glass water bottle. I take a sip of Sun Tea, handing the bottle to Artie who shares it with Michael. They hand the bottle back to me. The boys are having a time.
“You know how all those old-timers in A.A. used to say that behind every skirt there’s a slip?” say Michael. “That you need to not get into a relationship in your first year of sobriety?”
“Yeah, I’ve heard Bill use the saying once or twice,” Artie says.
“Well, I’ve been thinking. You know most women don’t even wear underwear anymore. So I guess, behind every skirt is...crack.”
“You guys,” I admonish Michael.
“It’s just a joke,” he says, laughing.
“Yeah and not a very good one at that,” I say.
I then elbow Artie in the ribs to stop him from laughing. He does and gives me a kiss on the cheek.
“You better kiss me,” I say.
“Ah, honey,” he says, giving me a squeeze too.
“Don’t ‘ah, honey me’,” I say, but I’m just teasing him.
Suddenly, Michael stops laughing. He’s looking over at I-10. Artie follows his gaze, as do I.
Five men and two woman on horseback canter south toward Tucson on the shoulder of the Interstate. All seven wear the fire-engine red shirts of El Grupo. The last guy in line stops, letting the other six ride on. He turns his horse to face the train. He pull sout his shotgun from its holster beside his saddle, raises the gun above his head and shakes it at the train, smiling a manical grin the whole time. He then turns his horse, and catches up with his partners.
“You brought your pistols with you, I assume,” Michael says.
“Yep,” I say, craning to see the last of the riders as they disappear from view.
“You?” Artie asks Michael.
“I don’t own a gun anymore,” Michael says.
“I forgot,” says Artie.
Artie holds my hand for a while. Michael stares out the window. We don’t talk.
Deputy U. S. Marshal Magdalena “Mags” Gutierrez
Monday, March 9th, 2076: 8:27 a.m.
On The Sunset Limited
near Picacho Peak, Arizona.
I’m fortunate to be a civil servant. I have a Sat-phone. Well, anyone can get a Sat-phone, but they cost a fortune. The Richie Riches and the Mormon Tea growers have Sat-phones of course, as do all government workers but most Americans only have Flex-phones, which are much cheaper but you can only get coverage in cities and big towns. Most people hate phones, texts, and computers. I need it for my job and lucky me, I got my mama an old out-of-date Sat-phone and we can talk and text each other.
Speaking of the devil, it’s a text from my mother in New Mexico. Asks how Stephanie is. Says the river is high and the snow is melting. I miss the Rio Grande, but I don’t mind that they transferred me to Tucson two years ago. Tucson kind of reminds me of Albuquerque except hotter, but the people are just as friendly. But ABQ doesn’t have a huge Tea problem. Some Brigham, but not like here where they grow the damn stuff. No, I miss my family but this is where I need to be.
The Chief is sending me to San Francisco to pick up a prisoner and transport him back to Tucson for trial. Not my favorite job. I could fly but I’m not. The train will add a few days on the trip but no sense using oil resources for some scumbug in the Tea trade. Plus I like trains. No, I love trains. My favorite thing to do is to sit in my backyard at night, drink some iced coffee, and listen to the trains whisper through town. Second favorite thing to do, actually. Favorite thing is to be kissing and touching Stephanie.
I put away the Sat-phone and look out my window. Picacho Peak looks pretty this morning. And I get paid for this.
Then I see them. Seven of them.
Shit. Red shirts.
What are they doing here? They’re not doing anything illegal that I can see, but damn. Well, look at that. I think that’s Bunny Ortiz at the head. There’s a warrant out for his arrest. Double murder. Damn it. I’m on this train and there’s no law enforcement on The Sunset Limited, except me and three railroad dicks. And what can I do? Stop the train and then run after them on foot?
Well, they’re gone now. Just have to get Bunny when I get home. Like I wish.
I open up my Sat-phone again and dictate a quick text to my mother.
“Dear Momma,” I say into the phone, “I’m off to San Francisco for a few days to pick up a prisoner. You know I wish I was with you and Papa, looking at the Rio Grande flow, and eating your chile rellenos, but I’m a hard working woman these days. And if Stephanie was here she’d send her love. I gotta go. I love you Momma. Kiss Papa for me. Love, Magdalena.”
I send the text and close the phone. I gaze out the window again at Picacho Peak. Then I think of Stephanie’s breasts. I shake my head. Stay frosty, Mags. No time to be thinking about having sex with your girlfriend.
Arthur “Artie” Saum
Monday, March 9th, 2076: 10:10 a.m.
On The Sunset Limited
Outside of Casa Grande, Arizona.
Standing between cars, smoking a clove cigarette. I don’t smoke many. Can’t afford them, but seeing El Grupo messed me up. Actually, it was seeing Bunny for the first time since I got sober that did it.
“Mind if I join you,” says Michael exiting his car.
“Hey, Michael. Sure. Want a clove?”
“Can’t stand ‘em, but thanks.”
“I forgot,” I say.
“You all right?”
“Yeah, sure.” I say, looking at him and wonder why I’m lying.
“No, I’m not,” I say. “That was Bunny back there.”
“Yeah,” Michael says.
I take a long drag off my clove. I need to quit these.
“Don’t tell Georgia but I really want to use right now,” I say. “I can taste the Brigham in my mouth. That’s why I’m out here having a clove. I haven’t been this triggered in months. Jesus fuck.”
My hand shakes as I bring the cigarette to my lips.
“You prayed about it?” he asks.
“To have God Goddess All There Is remove the obsession to drink and use.”
That brought a smile to my face.
“I didn’t even think about that.,” I say. “Geez. Do I feel dumb.”
“You’re not dumb, Artie,” says Michael. “You’re just an addict. I forget to pray all the time.”
“But I bet you didn’t forget to pray when El Grupo rode by just now,” I say.
Michael looks down at his feet, then looks out toward the desert barreling by.
“No, I didn’t,” he says. “Didn’t think so,” I say. “You’re the most spiritual man I know.”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” he says. “I just have a daily reprieve from my addictions, contingent on my spiritual condition or something like that. You too.”
“I know,” I say.
“Life still sucks sometimes,” says Michael. “I can’t be helped.”
I exhale some clove smoke.
“I’m glad you came out here,” I say. “I needed to talk with another addict, about how I just want to jump off this goddamned train, steal a horse in Casa Grande, catch up with Bunny, and completely ruin my whole fucking life.”
“One addict helping another, and all that shit,” he says.
“Yeah, all that shit,” I say. “I do feel better talking with you. Not a lot but a little.”
“You’ve listened to me talk about all those murders so many times,” says Michael. “About time I listen to you talk about wanting to leap from a moving train, leaving the love of your life, so you can get high one more time.”
“True,” I say. “You have killed a shit load of people, and listening to you talk about that, Michael, plum wore me out.”
Michael punches me in the arm. I then grab his shoulder and give it a shake.
“Seriously,” I say, “Thanks for coming to look for me.”
I take a last drag of my clove, and flick it off the train.
Damn it. I forgot to stub it out. I hope I don’t catch the desert on fire.
Jesus “Bunny” Ortiz
Monday, March 9th, 2076: 10:15 a.m.
On Interstate Ten
Near Red Rock, Arizona.
“Chuckie, get your ass up here.”
“What do you want, jefe?” says Chuckie, galloping up on his horse.
“You fucking pendejo,” I say. “What the fuck were you thinking, shaking your rifle at that train?”
“Nothing.” says Chuckie. “Just letting them know we owns this goddamned road.”
“Really?” I say “So you were just fucking with them?”
“Yea, pretty much, Bunny.”
I pull out my .357 Smith and Wesson and shoot Chuckie in the head. He falls from his horse.
“Roberto, grab the reins of his horse.”
I look down at Chuckie’s body. He’s missing the top of his head. Cool.
“Chinga tu madre, asshole,” I say.
I turn to the other five.
“Let’s get off this road, so none of you find it necessary to screw with any more customers. We’re the good guys remember.”
“OK, jefe,” I hear a couple of them mumble.
We’re trying to win the hearts and minds of the people, goddamn it. And make some serious dinero for Christ’s sake.
Mary save us.
I need to get home to Santa Rosa.
I look one more time at Chuckie’s body and shake my head. A waste of a perfectly good bullet. I should have just sliced his throat.
Deputy U. S. Marshal Magdalena “Mags” Gutierrez
Monday, March 9th, 2076: 11:20 a.m.
New Union Station
Good to stretch my legs, and get a cup of coffee. Interesting assortment of individuals on the platform. Old dirt-poor desert rats. Young people going to California. Of course, government officials, and some business men and women. Funny, you can always tell business people. They don’t wear sensible shoes.
Looks like Marshal Piehole over there, from Phoenix. Or what’s left of Phoenix. Guess I’ll have to say hello. He’s such a jerk, always looking at my tits.
“Hello, Marshal,” I say.
“Why hello, Mags. How are you?” saying this directly to my breasts.
“Good. What brings you down to the station?” I ask.
“Business, says Piehole.
Thanks for being specific. Jerk.
“You?” he asks.
“Going to California to pick up a convict. How’s life in The Valley of The Sun?”
“Same old, same old. Protecting the farmers along the Salt River. Busting some Brigham dealers. The occasional murder.”
“Anybody still living in Phoenix?” I ask.
“Just a few crazies is all,” says Piehole “Most everyone else lives along the Salt and Gila Rivers you know. Growing corn and beans. Making babies. Making pots and furniture. Some damn fine Mesquite tables and beds being made along the river now.”
“I have a Mesquite chair at home, made on the Gila,” I say. “It’s beautiful.”
“They are pretty,” says Piehole.
Then I see Artie Saum on the train platform. Well, I’ll be.
“Got to run, Marshal,” I say. “I see one of my old wards over there. My love to the missus.”
“Oh. OK, Mags,” he says. “Safe trip.”
“You too.” Pompous ass.
“Artie!” I yell.
Artie turns his head to the sound of his name. He smiles.
“Mags!” he says. He walks up to me and give me a hug before I even ask for one.
“Artie, how’ve you been?” I ask. “It’s good to see you.
“Thanks,” says Artie.
“So who this?” I ask, looking at the pretty blond woman standing next to Artie.
“This is Georgia Swann, a very girlfriend,” he says. “Georgia, this is Mags Gutierrez. The Fed who arrested me, and went to bat for me, so I didn’t go to prison. Mags also is a killer harp player. She came into the store just last week to buy two more Marine Bands. A and D, right?”
“Good memory, Artie,” I say.
“It’s my business,” he says.
“Nice to meet you, Georgia,” I say, shaking her hand.
“Pleasure’s mine,” she says
“And this is Michael Dollaride.” Artie says. “Another good friend. He’s coming with us to California.”
“California? What’s in California?” I ask.
“My grandmother. My Dad’s mom. She’s in a nursing home in San Francisco. I’ve never met her. Talked on a Sat-phone with her twice and we’ve exchanged lots of letters, never laid eyes on her.”
Artie pauses. A weird pause.
“I think she is dying, Mags,” Artie says.
He looks really sad. His face is so open now. He’s changed so much.
“So I want to meet her while I can,” he says, “and she says she has my grand dad’s harmonium, and she wants to give it to me.”
“No kidding, an old harmonium. Does it still play?” I ask.
“I think so,” says Artie “And if it doesn’t, I can probably fix it. At least I hope so.”
“And you’re going right to San Francisco proper?” I ask.
“Yep, a little west of downtown in what’s called the Inner Sunset district.”
“What?” Artie asks.
“I’m going to the Federal complex, in Downtown San Francisco,” I say.
“No shit.” says Artie.
“Far out,” says Michael.
“Thank God,” says Georgia. All three at the same time.
“Yes, sir,” I say.
“Hey, want to be one of our road dogs?” asks Michael.
“Can we call it something else?” I say.
“You can call it anything you like, Mags,” says Artie. “We’re just happy you’re on the train with us.”
Georgia lightly places her hand on my arm.
“Come sit with us,” she says. “We have some food, some Sun-Tea, and Michael brought his guitar,” she says.
“Please tell me, Mags, you brought a few harps,” says Artie.
“I did,” I say.
Then Artie does a little dance right on the platform. Funny kid.
Monday, March 9th, 2076: 6:40 p.m.
“Yuma,” yells the conductor through the intercom.
“Dinner break. We’ll be resting at the station for a couple of hours. Keep your tickets with you if you decide to get off, even though I’m pretty good with faces.”
The conductor laughs, then coughs. Guy’s a comedian.
“We’ll be leaving Yuma around 8:45 p.m.,” continues the conductor. “Arriving in San Bernardino around midnight. If you get off the train, be sure to be back in your seats by 8:30. Enjoy your visit to Yuma, the hottest town in Arizona. Temperature-wise, that is.” The conductor chuckles again and then clicks off the mic. Bet he’s used that joke a hundred times.
“Want to hit a meeting?” I ask Artie.
“Well, I was thinking of just staying on the train,” he says.
“Go ahead, honey,” says Georgia to Artie. “I’m going to stay on the train and get to know Mags better. And maybe she’ll tell me some dirt about you guys, from back in the day.”
“I won’t say a thing,” says Mags to Artie.
“She already knows everything, Mags.” Artie says.
“Everything?” I say.
“Most everything,” Artie says, shrugging his shoulders.
“Don’t worry, boys,” says the Marshal. “It’ll mostly be girl talk. Mostly.”
Both women laugh. Wonder what the Marshal knows about my past? Christ, I’m being paranoid. I’m not that damn important.
“Let’s hit that meeting,” I say to Artie.
“OK,” he says. He gives Georgia a kiss.
“Don’t forget. Be back on the train, a little after 8,” says Mags. “The train waits for no one.”
“Time too,” I say.
“Smart boy,” says Mags.
Least she’s a law-woman with a sense of humor.
Grijalva Station is a weird wood and steel thing they built a few years back, since there was no train station left after the 41 Nights. It has an open lobby and new wooden benches, the windows have no glass, only shutters to ward off the sun and rain. A nice wraparound porch and tamale and taco vendors everywhere. It smells like home. Hotels and brothels and mixes of both. Then I see the new St. Paul’s Episcopal Church across the street. I pull out the Arizona M.T.A. schedule from my backpack. Yep. Meeting’s been going on since 6:30. As long as you make it for the prayer at the end, you aren’t late for a meeting. That’s what my sponsor used to say.
“Meeting’s over there at the church,” I say.
“Cool,” says Artie.
A small ‘M.T.A. is here’ sign leans against a door jam to a classroom that faces the street. We walk in.
“...I want my wife back, but my sponsor keeps telling me that I need to stay sober for myself. But I miss her so bad. And my kids. My mother-fucking kids...”
A large Hispanic man talks. We find our seats.
“...she’s a goddamned whore, fucking...”
He starts to cry.
Artie and I settle into our seats and pay attention. No one touches the man. No one says anything. He has all of our attention. It’s what we give. We give our attention.
“...she’s not a whore. She’s a good mom,” continues the Hispanic man. “She just hates me, and for good reason. I was hanging out with El Grupo, running errands for them, making some good money, then I started spending all the money, and she left me and is back living with her mother. She doesn’t want to see me until I have a month clean. I have 15 days today.”
A smattering of applause. Neither Artie and I clap.
“...so I guess I have to make it 15 more days. Or just tonight. And then another day. One day at a time, right?”
No one speaks. Many of us nod.
“Yeah, one day at a time,” he says. “Thanks. That’s all I have to say.”
“Thanks, Chuy,” a number of people say.
About twenty of us in the room. I’ve never been to this meeting, but I feel welcome. It’s always that way.
“My name is Sally, and I’m an addict.”
“Hi, Sally,” says the room.
“I’ve been sober almost a year now,” she says. “I came in here to get my kids back. I didn’t get them back. Jack took them to his folks in Blythe. He went too. I was three months sober when that happened. I miss them so much. I went to visit them around Christmas. It was great. His folks still don’t like me very much. I don’t know. Maybe it had to do with me, stealing their shit. I only did it once.”
“All right, three times.”
The room erupts.
“I gave it all back,” says Sally. “Well, some of it.”
“Seriously, I don’t mind that they don’t trust me. I don’t fully trust myself. I only think about using about once a week now. And I pray to have Goddess remove the obsession, or I call my sponsor on the Flex, or I get to a meeting or all three. And it’s a hell of a lot better than it was when I came in. I thought about Mormon Tea all the time then. All the fucking time...”
Ridden hard, hung up wet, with mad-dog blue eyes. Easy to love now. Hard to like when she was using.
“So I have a good job at the food co-op, and I’m learning to play the banjo...”
No one laughs at her learning the banjo. Music was fun before the shit hit the fan, the old timers say, but it wasn’t sacred back then. It’s holy to play an instrument now.
“...I have a good teacher. Big Mike from A.A. Y’all know Big Mike? Been sober ten years, works for the Marshal Service as a computer mechanic. Good guy. Hell of a player. He’s teaching me on one of his old Gold Tone banjos. Teaching me now this sweet little old claw hammer tune called ‘More Bad Weather On The Way.’ by Steve Martin. Tells me if I stay sober a year, he’ll give me that old five string....”
She starts to cry, not out of sadness or frustration like Chuy, but out of joy.
“...I can’t tell you how much I feel GATTI when I play, and when I think about Tea, I just pick up that loaner from Mike, and practice my scales or just play something in G. I’m so grateful to be sober. And I kind of lied before. I think about Tea a lot.”
A couple of chuckles. All smiles from us. All of us have tried to pretend we’re more sober, more sane than we actually are.
“Yeah, I miss my kids just awful,” she says in the direction of Chuy, “but I have to get myself right, or at least righter than I am if I’m going to be any good to my kids. So I pray, and I talk with other addicts and alcoholics, and I come to meetings and I play that old five-string of Mike’s...”
She cries through all of this. She transforms from a middle-aged woman who has been beaten down by about a half dozen things to one of the prettiest girls in the world. She just shines. Makes me smile. She’s my gift of sobriety tonight.
“...so if you’re hurting just keep coming back. And maybe pick up the banjo. That’s all I have.”
“Thanks, Sally,” says the room.
“That was a great meeting, wasn’t it?” say Artie as we walk back to the station. “That Sally woman talking about the Goddess and her banjo? That’s just how I feel when I play my old Martin, or when we play together. It’s so sacred. Like with each note, we are breathing a little more life into The Earth, that God Goddess All There Is grows with each tune we play. With each note I strum. We’ve talked about this. I know you feel it too.”
“I do,” I say.
“It’s better than booze, better than Brigham,” he says.
“It is,” I say.
“Almost better than sex,” Artie says.
“I won’t say that,’ I say. “Then again, it’s been a long time since I’ve even kissed a girl.” Artie puts his arm around my shoulders as we walk back to the station.
“Well, maybe we can change that on this trip.”
“I ain’t looking to get laid, Artie,” I say.
“And that’s just when you meet the girl of your dreams,” he says.
“Or my nightmares,” I say.
“Ah,” he says, and pushes me away.
"Ed-Lil, Along The Rappahannock River, Virginia (c) 2002; modified print version, 2016 Stu Jenks.
(From the hardbound book and e-book, Flame Spirals: Journey Through Nocturnal Photography)
Dad's been dead nine months. Mom has to sell the river house so she can invest the cash and survive on the interest. Dad didn't leave Mom enough money to live on. Dad didn't believe in life insurance.
People loved my father, for he had the public persona of a funny, happy-go-lucky, smart, old Southern man. But his private face was darker. At home, he was a cynical loner who feared poverty and preferred his own company to that of his family.
But oddly, all that doesn’t seem to matter now, the man he was when he was alive, for I can feel him around me. I can call him to me, simply by saying his name. He seems to be this pure good soul now: loving, tender, accepting, and kind. I feel he actually likes me today. (And whether I'm making it up in my own head or Ghost Dad is really hovering around, the kind energy of my father is nice to be around.)
Months ago, I had to send Dad away for a week because the new-glowing-light-Dad was interfering with my grieving process of the newly-dead-Dad. I needed to be mad at my father for a while, but when God’s-Light-Bulb-Dad was around, I couldn’t feel that feeling and then let it go. But I called him back after awhile, after I released that rage. Unlike the living Stuart, Ghost Dad understood completely.
When I'm worried about money and going further into debt around my failing art photography business, I hear him softly say, "Don't worry, son. The money will come, and if it doesn't, it doesn't matter. You have the love of your friends, the love of your Art, the love of us." Other times, when I'm filled with self-doubt and internal hatefulness, I hear him whisper off my left shoulder, "I love you just the way you are, Son. You don’t need to change a thing." A month ago, when Ghost Dad was saying another ethereal message of Love, I actually said out loud, "Who is this guy?”
A little about Ed-Lil, The Jenks’ ancestral summer home on the Rappahannock River, which Mom is selling:
It was bought by Papa Edgar Jenks, my grandfather, in the 1920’s from Johnny Mothershead. It consisted of a two story house with five bedrooms and a bath, and a smaller one story house that had the kitchen, the dining room and a tool shed. My father deeply loved the Rappahannock River, the Ed-Lil house, and the people who lived along its banks. Loved them since he was a teenager.
Every August, Mom, Dad, Pamela and I would come to the river for two or three weeks. I hated the river as a kid. Hated the mosquitoes, the fleas, the stinging jellyfish but mostly I hated being around my parents. They were so judgmental, so critical, so volatile in bullshit ways. I couldn’t wait to get back to Raleigh and back to school in September. But then, 25 years ago, I started coming here because I wanted to, not because I had to. I always had a car, so I could come and go as I pleased, if things got too dark.
After Dad retired from IBM in mid 80's, he built himself and Mom a modest three bedroom house next to the old houses. He then tore down the bedroom house and the kitchen and left the old dining room as his workshop. The dining room/tool shed was and is gorgeous, with its ancient tongue-in-groove wood walls, the rusting gas fixtures from the 1920’s that still hang from the ceiling, and the tattered and stained white lace curtains that haven’t been washed since the Eisenhower Administration. The new smell of gasoline is added to the mix, that comes from the riding lawn mower that’s parked on the shed’s stained hardwood floors. An old map of Richmond County is pinned to the wall. It’s been crudely attached there since before I was born. Change is good sometimes, but consistency and tradition are beautiful, too, if they are humble. That is one humble map. This is one humble room.
I'm standing in the old dining room this afternoon, with the lace and the tongue in groove and the old map on the wall. A big rain is coming. Spirit Dad is here, but I sure wish Old Living Stuart were here right now. Dad and I so loved watching big storms cross the river.
The window facing the river looks great. So would a flame spiral next to it. Wonder if I can pull it off. It’ll have to be a short exposure, maybe ten seconds. I put all the red filters I have on the lens of my Rollei and hope for the best.
I open the window, get out the Zippo and wait for the storm.
A line of rain crosses the seven-mile width of the river. The river slowly goes away, replaced by a dark gray of big rain. Halfway across the river now. Just a mile away. Almost here. Now it’s here. The storm is here.
Thunder crackles in the corn fields behind me. Lightning highlights the lace curtains. Heavy dense rain blows in through the open window. The river completely disappears.
I open the Rollei’s shutter and ignite the Zippo. I paint a spiral to the left of the window. I close the shutter after ten seconds. I do this a few times.
Then suddenly, in between exposures, a small gray finch flies through the open window. Confused and wet, it lands on the lens of my camera. We stare at each other. He's scared, fidgety and soaked to the bone. My first thought is, “Don't shit on the lens. Please don’t shit on my camera.” The bird's first thought is probably something like, “Where the hell am I? How did I get in here, and who is that guy?” He stays perched on my camera for at least a minute. We continue to look at each other. I don’t care about bird shit anymore. I just care for the little bird.
Suddenly he flies off the camera, but now, poor thing, he can’t find the open window. He’s feverishly flying around the dining room. I quickly grab a broom. I open the ancient screen door and prop it open with an old gas can. The finch is banging itself on the ceiling of the room, completely frantic now. I gently put the straw broom head on the ceiling and usher the bird to the door. He see the open door and streaks out into the pouring rain. Success for both of us.
I go back and paint another Zippo spiral, this one for the bird. The exposure feels right. I call it a day. I put the lens cap on the camera and sit in an old chair now, looking at a large puddle of water forming under the old cedar tree out front.
I love the River now. I'm going to miss it. But you got to do what you got to do. Mom needs money to survive, and she really doesn’t like living this far away from civilization anyway. She only came here because Stuart came here to live. Now, he’s gone. Now, it’s time for her to live where she wants, for her to have her own life now.
She’ll be soon living in a cute little house next door to the organist from church. Glen’s his name. He’s a wonderful guy. I'm hopeful. For all of us.
From the hardbound book and e-book, Flame Spirals: Journey Through Nocturnal Photography
The last thing I wanted to do was get into a fight with my Mom, words like 'Stop being such a god damned martyr!' and 'Quit trying to control how Dad is dying, will you?' flying out of my mouth.
Bottom Line: Mom is scared. She's not the asshole. I'm the asshole.
While I was yelling at Mom, Pamela was in with Dad, quietly singing to him.
Now, the fight is over. Pamela’s on the front porch swing. Mom’s at the kitchen sink, crying. I feel like shit.
I go into see Dad, who hasn't been awake since yesterday.
"Dad, I'm sorry," I say to the unconscious man, "I'm trying to get along with your wife, but it is hard. I'm trying. Really, I am. Again, I'm so sorry, Dad."
I go out to the kitchen.
"Mom, I'm sorry."
"Just leave me alone, OK?" she says through tears.
I touch her shoulder. She cowers away. I remove my hand and take a step back.
"I'm really sorry, Mom."
She doesn't say anything, just turns and walks away.
I couldn't feel any guiltier for yelling at Mom. I've been keeping my powder dry for the last month, ever since I arrived to be with Dad as he dies, to be part of this odd makeshift hospice group of my mother, my sister and me. But the keg finally blew tonight.
I go out on the porch and talk with Pamela for a while. She suggests I yell at her instead. I know she’s trying to help. It doesn’t. I don't yell at her.
A couple of hours pass.
It's quiet at the river house now. Mom has gone into the bedroom to lay beside her husband. I'm back out with my sister on the front porch. We're making small talk now, smoking cigarettes.
Then Mary comes out to the porch.
"He's gone" she says, "It was so beautiful. He just stopped breathing. So quiet. So peaceful."
"Are you sure?" I say.
My first thought is pure selfishness. Oh, Dad, not tonight. Don't die tonight. Not after I've had a big fight with your wife. Now who is trying to control how Dad dies?
We all go into the bedroom. Not much different than other times, but it appears Dad isn't breathing at all. I place my hand under his nose and feel some air coming out.
"Mom, I think he's still breathing."
"He's gone," she says.
I bend down closer to him and realize that his skin is beginning to change color. I ask for a mirror and put it under his nose. Nothing. He's getting paler. I know he’s dead.
“Remember, Stu, what you said? That we need to open the window to let the soul out?” Mom says.
“I’ll do it,” says Pamela.
I said this Window/Soul thing over a dozen years ago. It was just a bit of conversation. I think I was reading about Navajo Spirituality at the time. I don't really think Dad's soul will get trapped in this house, but I say nothing as Pamela opens one of the windows. Then I open a window just to go along. I'm in shock right now. Dad's dead. My father is dead.
Mom says it's time to dress Stuart. I've been dreading this moment since the day Mom told me that she wanted Pamela and I to help her dress Stuart in his favorite shirt and khaki pants after he dies. I thought it would be difficult to manhandle the old man, both physically and emotionally. But after being such a jerk tonight, I'm going along with whatever Mom says.
Pamela is at Dad's head. Mary and I are on either side. We take off his nightshirt and make him naked. We grab his pants and pull them on him. We have to pull hard to get them to his waist.
It all feels completely right. We are performing a ritual that has been done for centuries: The dressing of a dead loved one for his passage to the other side.
Pamela holds Stuart's head. We pull him up into a seated position and we put on his favorite plaid Dockers shirt, the one with the turquoise checks. We gently lay him back down. Mom buckles his belt. I'm standing next to Dad holding his hand. It’s cold and slack. A lifeless hand but still my Daddy's hand. Mom leaves the room to call the minister, the nurse and the undertakers. Pamela stays a bit longer then she leaves too.
Then it’s just Dad and I.
I whisper to his body.
"I'm so sorry Dad about getting into a fight with Mom. I'm so so sorry. If I could go back in time…” I can't talk through my tears.
Scott, the priest at St. Mary's Whitechapel is the first to arrive. The nurse and her husband are next. The undertakers have to come from Richmond, so it'll be an hour plus before they get here. It's after midnight now. Dad died a little after 11. Everyone is on the screened-in porch making small talk. I was there for a minute or two but it felt a little disrespectful somehow. I kept thinking my father is dead in the other room and we're talking about the weather? I seem to be going back into Dad's bedroom a lot, holding his hand, watching him change color from red to pink to white. I can't help but wonder if he's really dead. It's hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that Dad is truly gone. I hold his cold hand again. The undertakers will soon be here. I'll only have a few more opportunities to touch my father.
I want to hold his hand forever.
I'm in the kitchen getting a soda when the nurse comes up and says, “Stu, are you planning on being in the room when they take your Dad out on a stretcher?”
“I might,” I say.
“I would really suggest you not be there for that. All you'll remember is seeing him put into the bag. That memory will overshadow all the rest. You may want to go upstairs or go outside when they do that.”
Pamela walks in on the conversation and gets the gist.
“I’ll go up stairs,” she says.
“I'm going out to the pier,” I say.
The next hour is so weird. More small talk on the porch, but I can't hang there. I drift back to the bedroom to hold Dad's hand, outside to have a smoke, back to his bedside. At one point, the nurse's husband comes up and talks with me. I don't have a clue what he said.
Finally at around 1:30 a.m., a black hearse comes up the drive and two men enter our kitchen. One is a very skinny man, in a huge black suit that fits him about like a tent. Next to him is large fat man with a small black suit that fits him like a child's hand-me-down that’s two sizes too small. Wait a minute. They seem to have on the exact same size black jacket, the one-size-fits-all-undertaker's-jacket. When did I enter a David Lynch movie? When will the midget appear? Is Dali going to walk through that door?
The skinny man holds his hands together in that earnest creepy sort of way. The fat one just stands there. They talk with the nurse and Mom for a bit then they go outside to the hearse to get the stretcher. I take this as my time to exit stage right and head for the pier. I grab the cordless phone as I leave the house.
Out on the pier, I call Annie to tell her that Dad's dead. I already talked with her earlier about the big fight with Mom. Annie's trying to help me not feel so guilty about it all. God bless her, but her words give me little comfort.
“I feel so guilty about the fight,” I say. “I wish Dad had died tomorrow instead."
“I know, sweetie,” she says.
I talk with Annie a bit more, saying I'll call her tomorrow. I also ask her if she will call Len and Virginia, my mother's sister and brother-in-law in Tucson. “That would be great,” I add. “And check on plane tickets for you and Len to come to the funeral. You are coming, aren't you?"
"Of course," she says.
"I really need you, honey."
I'm back at the house now. The undertakers are gone. So are the nurse and her husband. Scott the priest is still here. Pamela is nowhere to be seen. I tell Mom I'm going back to the pier. So glad Scott is here. Mom loves Scott. She seems OK, considering she’s lost the love of her life.
I walk the couple of hundred feet to the pier again, this time wrapped in my Dad's old Marine Corps blanket along with the phone. I call Michael and tell him about Dad's dying. He's great as ever. We talk for half an hour then I hang up and put the phone down.
I've barely noticed the weather these past few hours but I sure do now. The wind has really picked up. Must be a storm in the Bay or a front moving in. The river is choppy. The wind howls.
I begin to talk to my Dad. The wind swallows my words. I'm sitting on a step at the far end of the pier, looking out into the dark Rappahannock River.
“Dad, I'm so sorry,” I say to the wind.
“I'm really sorry about yelling at Mom. Please forgive me. Please forgive me. Please.” I just keep crying. I don't speak for a while. I just cry.
Then I feel a presence. I don't trust it at first, but then I know it's him. It's Stuart.
Dad then sits down beside me on the steps of the pier and put his arm around me. I could feel the light pressure of his hand on my shoulder. And I swear to God I hear him speak.
“I forgive you, son.”
“I love you, Dad.”
“Me too, honey,” he says.
Dad always called me honey.