Fiction and the old neighborhood

No one has asked me yet, but I have the answer.

The question has to do with the title of my new Detective Red Shaw novel: North of Grand.

Why that? I’m glad you asked.

Much of Des Moines, Iowa, is north of Grand Avenue. It cuts through the city east to west – or west to east, depending on your point of view.

I was born there, grew up there, and lived there for a long time. I worked there. Mrs. Smith and I bought our first house there, a block north of I-235 in a neighborhood known as North of Grand. We lived there when our son was born.

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Not me. Pixabay image

South of Grand was another world. It’s where my mother took me and my five siblings on occasion to marvel and gawk at big, beautiful, expensive homes when we were kids. They were especially awe-inspiring when lit up for the holidays. She took us to a different neighborhood on the southeast side sometimes, too, to see how the truly poor people lived.

We were somewhere between rich and poor, a family of seven in a three-bedroom home on Merle Hay Road. (Why seven? One divorced woman plus six kids. She slept on the sofa.)

In high school I worked at a pharmacy just a block north of Grand Avenue, delivering prescriptions to old ladies in the neighborhood, driving a car with a manual transmission that I learned to drive in a panic on my very first day on the job.

The same little store housed the best soda fountain around, with real ice cream made right in the store. I served malts and shakes and cherry cokes and lime phosphates and great sandwiches and other treats to pretty Catholic girls from the nearby high school, to the friendly florist from across the street, to other people that I don’t remember quite so well.

I was a drug-running soda jerk.

The people and the crimes portrayed in North of Grand are purely imaginary. Really bad things do happen in Des Moines, of course, but none that I’ve witnessed.

A young guy did threaten to kill me and a friend when we were in high school, but we managed to talk him out of it. One night years later someone reached in our son’s bedroom window at our little house on Iola Avenue and took off with a diaper bag, but that’s the closest thing to crime that came our way.

All things considered, Des Moines is a pretty good place to live or to be from. We’ve been away for years now, but it never seems that long ago.

North of Grand is in my blood. It’s in my bones.

Read on.

B.J.

Fencing out ravenous beasts, and the inevitability of loose ends

The Smith Compound has taken up temporary residence in far northwestern Montana. We are surrounded in our little borrowed cabin by pine forest, the faint smell of smoke, and a fence high enough to keep hungry deer from eating the neat flower gardens that decorate our well-watered grounds.

0906181758a~2The first thing you see inside the cabin’s front door is a canister of bear spray on a window ledge. As I sit here on the front porch typing, I can’t help but wonder if it is there just in case a grizzly decides to ignore the fence and the massive gate in the driveway, or as a courtesy for us to borrow when we venture out for a hike. We did bring our own, and I will not hesitate to use it should my hiking companion prove able to outrun me.

Mountains are a rumor to the east through haze that lifted but once yesterday on our trip from Pacific time in and around Coeur d’Alene, which is widely known as CDA in the lingo of northern Idaho.

A road trip gives a body time to think, as I was doing yet again just now until a pine cone bounced off the deck a few feet from where I sit. A barely perceptible rustle in the branches 30 feet above me gave away the perpetrator, who I swear gave me a squirrelly scowl as he came head-first down the trunk of the pine a couple of minutes later.

If I remember correctly, I’d been thinking about loose ends, of which there are many in every life of any length. They multiply as time goes by. Earlier this morning, back when the cabin’s wifi was within reach, I came across some true words about fiction and how we don’t always get the endings we want. An author can surprise us, disappoint us, confound us. Sometimes characters surprise the author and do or say things their creator could not or did not foresee.

Nonfiction is much the same. Characters surprise and disappoint. Body parts and murder weapons are not always found. Bad guys go unpunished. The innocent go to prison. Things we should say and do go unsaid and undone. We can confound ourselves.

Looking back, with open minds, we see loose ends dangling here and there like fishing lures caught on a wire by the lake road. With luck, we see tidy resolutions somewhere back there, too.

B.J.

Crossword question

New “Red Shaw” novel coming soon

Get an email when it’s published!

northofgrand_amz_2017_aA special little excerpt for my Des Moines friends…

Shaw dropped Vega at 25 East First, drove back over the river and pulled into a parking spot across from the Ruan Center. He found some humor in the towering icon of commerce being at 666 Grand. While the beastly number didn’t particularly scare him, he was glad the modest Catholic diocesan headquarters was just across the street to keep a watchful eye on things.

…but earlier…

Zach Costa didn’t see the thing that killed him. He couldn’t have described what it was even if someone had found him before his swelling, bleeding brain shut down for good. It took a few minutes.

First there was nothing. Then came a semi-conscious awareness of crushing pain, hands pushing him, probing his pockets, pulling an arm, a leg. He heard a voice, someone whispering angry words that meant nothing to him. He tried to speak. He saw his mother, his brother. An older man, too. Pop? A vision of Emma floated by, naked, beckoning. He tried to reach out. She faded into nothing.

He tried to remember something he was supposed to do. Get to class on time? Take out the trash? Get the box. That was it. If he could just get the box, he could ride on home. The pain turned to fire and blinding light and then it stopped.

Get the first Red Shaw novel on Amazon now: Blood Solutions

The Blink of a Wolf’s Eye

The wolf was watching me from just outside the campsite, I told the boy. It took just 3 nanoseconds for a stream of photons to dart from my military-grade flashlight into the eyes of that wolf.

“That’s pretty fast,” the boy said. “How do you know?”

It’s simple math, I told him. Aren’t you curious about the wolf?

He shook his head. “The math sounds fishy.”

I explained. The speed of light divided by 20 feet–the wolf was that close–is 3 nanoseconds for the light to get from here to there.

“And back?”

What do you mean?

“Did it take 3 nanoseconds to get there and then 3 more to get back from his eyes to yours so you knew that the wolf was there?”

I allowed as how that must have been the case, but at that speed it might as well be an instantaneous transfer of light energy.

“I suppose you’re right. There isn’t much difference between 3 nanoseconds and 6 nanoseconds.”

Not to us, there isn’t. Nanoseconds are just constantly flying by, just zooming by so fast we don’t even notice them.

“I’m going to check your math later,” the boy said.

You go ahead and do that, I told him.

“So what did the wolf do?”

Well what else would a wolf do? It blinked, of course, then it ran away.


Words in #writeoutloud are for warming up, stretching, keeping the writing muscles loose and flexible.

 

#CovertLessons

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The Shoe Man

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The bald-headed man came to the thrift shop every few weeks, always wearing a black-and-gold Iowa sweatshirt, faded jeans, and well-worn running shoes. On each visit, he bought two pairs of shoes. First, he would try on some size 9s and walk back and forth the length of the aisle several times until he found the right fit. Next, he would pick a second pair from the children’s shelf after carefully examining each shoe, from sole to laces, toe to heel.

He paid cash.

One day he arrived just as my shift ended. I waited by the bus stop on the corner until he came out with a plastic bag in hand. He turned right and walked north, so I headed the same direction on the other side of the street, lagging behind a little in the hope that he wouldn’t notice me.

Five blocks along, he turned right again and headed toward the pedestrian bridge over the parkway. Above the westbound lane on the far side of the road, he stood facing the traffic, watching vehicle after vehicle speed by below him. He reached into the bag as the traffic thinned, pulled out a child’s shoe, and pushed it through a gap in the chainlink barrier that arched over the bridge.

The shoe landed on the shoulder of the parkway, inches from the outside lane. He stood there and watched several cars and a bus pass below him, then descended the ramp on the far side of the bridge and walked away.