Phil’s next surprise

Goodbye, Maggie (160 pages), which was short-listed in the William Faulkner — Wisdom Competition, is scheduled for January 2020 release. If anyone would consider giving an honest advance review, query drggautier@gmail.com and I’ll send typeset pdf (and notify you when a Kindle copy is listed for free after release).

Summary: In a culture of health food stores, gurus, quacks and seekers, a young man’s stagnant life goes topsy-turvy when his charismatic brother shows up with the news that he has murdered someone and asks for sanctuary.

For the opening page, click here.

For an excerpt from late in the novel (“Phil’s next surprise”), see below …

Phil is shaky, fresh from the bed and weak. Gus supports him. The priest walks away, past the cracked headstones toward the moss-laden oaks and cypress trees at the perimeter of the cemetery. Perhaps his concern for all souls has brought him here but his better judgment has him scurrying away before anything pagan breaks out.

The voodoo priestess stands and speaks.

“Close your eyes and feel, feel this city of the dead come to life to help our sister cross over. The city of the dead is come to life and we are but its shadows.”

Gus whispers to Phil: “This is definitely not like my aunt’s funeral in New York. The cities of the dead here feel like they might really come to life.”

A raspy, middle-aged woman’s voice hammers down from behind.

“What you mean, ‘might come to life’? You must be blind as a bat. Look around you and what do you see? Flesh and blood and spirit mixing and churning.”

They turn and see Madame Peychaud.

“Damn fools,” she adds.

“Madame Peychaud?!” Phil exclaims.

“Where the hell did you come from?” asks Gus.

“Got a letter from poor little Maggie. She told me when and where to come. Always directing things, even from the city of the dead. She said y’all had the essential oils business all ready.”

Gus and Phil look at each other confused. The conversation continues as they walk out of the cemetery.

“Yeah,” Phil says. “Yeah, sure, we’re ready. I just, we don’t actually have the, have the oils.”

Phil hears his own voice echo off the cemetery’s iron gate. He is speaking to Madame Peychaud, looking at her. Perhaps he’d never seen her in a dress, never seen her exposed to the shoulder. And the echo – and what he sees – captivates him. For a second, he ponders in sheer curiosity, trying to remember where he had seen it before. He is still speaking to Madame Peychaud but he doesn’t know what he is saying. Where had he seen it before? And suddenly he knows. His mouth dries out. He knows where he saw it. The tiny image against the caramel skin of Madame Peychaud’s shoulder. But he is too frail from his ordeal. He drops.

Someone is being carried. Someone is carrying. A white man being carried. A black man carrying. Other characters populate the scene. They are going down a street. Phil feels that he is somewhere in the scene but he doesn’t know where. Is he the white man being carried? The black man doing the carrying? One or all of the others? Or is he the trees, the sun, the stucco facades, the atmosphere itself. He floats into the atmosphere. Up, up he floats, surveying the scene below – a black man carrying a white man with a huddle of people moving along with them down the street. He is on top of a cathedral. The mime is there, on top of the cathedral. The bells ring.

“Wake up, baby.” The voice is Madame Peychaud’s.

Phil is back in the fairy queen’s bedroom.

“Where are we?” Phil ventures. “Why are we …”

“Hush, baby. We don’t have to be out of this room just yet.”

Phil is still groggy. Everything seems symbolic.

We don’t have to be out of this room just yet.

He starts to dream again. He is back in the hollow, at the pond with Maggie. She is young and beautiful.

“Do you know about my parents?” she is saying.

Phil doesn’t answer. He is lying in the grass, feeling the sun, watching the leaves waver overhead, hearing the occasional “plip … plip” of a fish jumping in the pond.

“Once upon a time, I thought that he too betrayed a loved one.”

Strange, Phil thinks. This conversation. Viewing our lives with such calm. Feeling the truth of things, but from a distance. Detachment. Compassion. They only work together. That’s where he got it wrong. That’s where people get it wrong. They think detachment and compassion are opposites. No, they are brothers, sisters, twins, always together. They only work together. Unconditional love means never missing anyone. If you miss them, your love is tainted by attachment, interest, possessiveness. As long as you’re capable of missing someone your love is conditional. It’s like a veil was lifted for Phil. He is getting excited. And his excitement breaks the spell. He looks at Maggie but the scene is fading, dissolving. Someone is standing across the room. Someone with her back to Phil. She is rinsing out a small towel in the sink. He hears Madame Peychaud’s voice.

“This wild goose chase you been on the last few weeks, hunting around like that. It isn’t really about Hermia, is it?”

“No ma’am. It’s about Magnus.”

Did he really say that? No ma’am? Is he a child again? No, he is just disoriented. He gathers his thoughts.

* * *

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Goodbye, Maggie

Unrelated to the previous post, here’s a draft opening for a different novella-in-progress (Goodbye, Maggie). If you prefer one to the other (or have other thoughts), let me know.

* * *

D E S I R E
says the neon above the Royal Sonesta door on Bourbon

H U G E  A S S  B E E R S
screams the street vendor’s sign

H O M O  S E X  I S  S I N
exclaims a navy-blue banner sailing through the crowd with bold white print

To their credit, the men with the banner, who alternately huddle around it like a lodestone and spread through the crowd like feelers, are not reducibly homophobes. Draped from their shoulders, in the spirit of Corinthians 6, are full-length body posters decrying fornicators, liars, blasphemers, adulterers, thieves, hypocrites, drunkards, abortionists, witches, atheists, and money lovers. They are in the right place on this Mardi Gras day in New Orleans.

One could enjoy this scene from any of the wrought-iron balconies overlooking Bourbon St. On one such balcony, a petite woman with woven dark hair and stunning violet eyes (no one could forget the eyes), costumed as a fairy queen, surveys the festive crowd below. The unholy throng carouses the street in waves. The fairy queen disappears from the balcony. The crowd revels to a crescendo and subsides.

The fairy queen returns to balcony but with her back to us, a red chrysanthemum in one hand. After a moment, she falls, face up, arms spread like an angel in flight as her body nears the street.

* * *

A rickety old paneled Datsun mini-wagon clunks into a supermarket parking lot. Phil, nerdy, early thirties, image of mediocrity, gets out. He tries a couple of times to shut the door but the latch works poorly. He finally kicks it shut and heads toward the store.

“Piece of shit,” our hero mutters.

Phil browses the cake counter for a second. A hefty, middle-aged woman stands behind the counter.

“I’ll take that pink and yellow one. And could you put ‘Happy Birthday Mary Elizabeth’ on it?”

“Too long,” says the countress, heavy, languid, but with a spirit like a coiled spring. Phil wonders. Her hostility. Is it racial animus? Does the black woman behind the counter resent his whiteness? Is she simply beaten down by the drudgery of her job?

Phil wipes his glasses. “What do you mean, too long?”

“It’s too long, baby. All them letters on that lil’ cake. How about just ‘Happy Birthday’?”

No, she is not hostile. Phil remembers what Hermia said. He needs to allow for different personalities. But now he is aggravated.

“I can’t take a cake with just ‘Happy Birthday’! It won’t look … it won’t be special.”

“How about a bigger cake?”

Yes, she is hostile.

Phil browses impatiently.

“OK, give me that one.”

“Which one, baby?”

No, she is not hostile. But Phil cannot tone it down all the way.

“That one there. The one the size of Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch.’”

The server pulls the cake from the display case. She is mumbling, shaking her head. “Heard a no cake look like a watch.”

Phil fidgets as the server decorates the cake. She brings it over. It says, “Happy Birthday Mary Elizabeth,” and has a watch at the center. He looks at it, cocks his head.

“What’s that?”

“You said you wanted a watch.”

“I didn’t say I wanted a watch.”

The server sighs, moves her chin slightly, and shouts toward a woman by the oven.

“Hey, Bertha, you heard that man say he wanted a watch?”

“Yeah, sugar. He said a watch.”

The server looks back at Phil.

“Bertha heard you say a watch.”

Yes, she is hostile. Phil does not need this.

“OK, OK, look, can you just turn it into the star of Bethlehem or a gift from the wise men.”

“I thought you said it was a birthday cake.”

“Yeah, well, it’s Twelfth Night, too.”

“Twelfth Night? What the hell is that?”

“Feast of the Epiphany.”

She looks at him puzzled, as if awaiting an explanation. There is empathy, connection in her puzzlement.

“Epiphany,” Phil repeats. “Today’s the feast of the Epiphany.”

* * *

An art show is being held in a large, old, city home. People, some in costumes, are viewing paintings and art objects. A black cat masker observes a dark, richly colored landscape. She hears a voice.

“Too dark.”

She turns, startled by a close-up red and black Satan mask.

“Darkness,” says the Satan masker, “always comes with a tinge of light, doesn’t it?”

She moves on, uncomfortable.

* * *

Phil is in the parking lot with a couple of bags and the cake. He tries clumsily to put the cake on the roof of car, but it slowly slides off and crashes face-down in the parking lot. We in the audience well up with tears.

* * *

A burst of laughter at the art show. The Satan masker is away, observing another landscape including an apparent pagan ritual. He hears a voice.

x x x

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Love’s Ragged Claws

Below is a draft opening for my novella, “Love’s Ragged Claws.” Feedback welcome.

x x x

It was dark in the small chamber behind the purple curtain. So dark Gabriel could barely see. So small he could barely kneel. The sound of wood sliding. A small sliding door. A tap of finality as the sliding door hit its mark. A dim light came through cross-shaped holes in the wooden panel, face-level, that remained before him.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” Gabriel said.

“God forgives all who repent sincerely. When was your last confession?”

A pause.

“Fifty years ago.”

A muffled aspiration could be heard from Father Angelo’s side of the screen – a sigh both of compassion for one so long lost and of relief for the prodigal returned. As Father Angelo felt this pleasant mixture of wholesome feelings in his heart and head, his stomach growled. How many times had he tried to put all worldly thoughts behind him to focus on the Lord’s work? And yet he was late for his lunch, and a little part of him, a sinful part, was demoralized at the thought of the day’s final confession dragging on.

“That’s a long absence from grace, my son. But your reconciliation is near. The Lord cares not how many the sins but only how true the penance. Fifty years of sins can be washed away in a day. Now recount your sins, my son, no matter how many. Begin at the beginning, and do not rush through, but reflect as you go.”

“But, Father,” said Gabriel. “I only have three sins.”

* * *

Eva gazed out from her cabin window in Colorado. She could see a few rooftops of the town, and in the distance, the forest, thick with blue spruce and bristlecone pines, rising vertically up to the snow-capped peaks.

Rat-a-tap-tap-tap.

Funny how she knew Gabriel’s knock, how deeply embedded it was in the rings of her memory. She opened the door, and there he was, smiling, a little older than the last time she had seen him, but still willowy tall with arms thrown about, a patch of thick white hair on his head. Still smiling the same smile.

“Hallo, love,” he said, tossing off his knit hat. Still a spring in his step, she thought.

“How are you feeling, Eva?”

“Good,” she said, and she let him hug her.

“More or less,” she added.

That’s my old Eva, Gabriel thought. In that one phrase, he recognized layers of her psyche at work. She had been a dental lab technician, crafting the tiniest contours of the human tooth, each one unique, in simulacrum. Good at it, too, but crippled by perfectionism. She could never finish anything for fear it would not be good enough. Never be too hopeful. To be hopeful is to be crushed when perfection is missed. She felt good in his presence; he knew that. And through the lens of that goodness he could see all the folds her beauty. Her features themselves, well, all her life she had been known for plainness of features. And look at her now. Still the round boyish face, the pixie haircut, but with more gray. Yet she knew how deeply Gabriel saw in her plainness a pristine beauty. And she loved it. But no, it raised expectations to an insufferable level. She must moderate expectations to avoid the crushing moment of their falling short.

“More or less,” she repeated, and they held each other’s gaze for one second more, a second in which each recognized the other’s penetration, saw their hidden graces and flaws exposed, the little psychological mechanisms that they could not control and that seemed so serious at other times, reduced to mere curiosities when unmasked by trusted eyes.

“Should we go into Boulder?” asked Gabriel.

“Yes, let’s,” said Eva, and down they went through the winding canyons.

x x x

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