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.

The age of reflection

As someone who just acknowledged* the passing of yet another year since my birth, I couldn’t help but reflect a bit on how long I’ve been around.

I suspect some think I’m kidding when they hear me say I’m surprised to be here. While I am happily surprised, I am serious nonetheless. I would never have predicted this.

My written reflection will be brief, but the day and its inexplicable milestone status had me thinking more than usual about family and friends who died far, far too young.

I miss them. I hope to honor them this year by making it one of my best as a husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend.

Out walking around...
Out walking around…

* Celebrated would be an exaggeration. My actual age in human years is irrelevant unless you’re going to offer me a discount on something.

The path back to life in technicolor

I mentioned recently that I know what to do when my nemesis comes skulking around, wrecking my mood, sapping my energy, and sometimes rendering me grouchier than usual. It took me a good while to figure it out some years ago.

hot air ballloonYour own path back to the technicolor world is unique to you, but these things help me:

  • Bicycling. I’ve said before and it proved true for me again over the weekend, exercise always helps. You don’t have to ride fast or far, but ride — or run or walk or do something else that suits your capabilities and makes you feel good.
  • Talk about it or write about it. I’ve done both, the first with Mrs. Smith and with professionals on occasion, the second right here and elsewhere. Great combination for me.

It isn’t always easy to act. Getting results can take time.

Now, back to the final edit of my new crime novel.

Pedal on.

B.J.

Nemesis begone

My nemesis had not stopped by in many months, maybe years, to remind me that it was still there, waiting. It returned almost imperceptibly.

The thing arrived in recent days like Sandburg’s fog, on little cat feet, while my attention was somewhere else. By this morning all the vibrant colors of the world had faded to black and white and then to drab shades of grey.

Sleep is a haven and waking unwelcome. Numbness is a blessing.

Now that I recognize the old signs I’d almost forgotten, I know what to do, what help I need to send this depression back to its dark lair. Maybe someday it will remain there.

For now, a little patience. Soon it will move on, and so will I.

 

Final words about jury duty, a Boulder murder trial and vicarious trauma

My recent summons to jury duty came as I was nearly done writing the manuscript for North of Grand, my second crime novel. Having no idea what was on the docket, I tweeted something to this effect shortly before leaving home for the Boulder County Justice Center:

Reporting for jury duty. Potential fodder for a new crime story?

I deleted it soon after learning about the nature of the case.

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Pixabay image

As it turned out, I wasn’t among the first 44 individuals to be questioned during voir dire, so I expected to be done soon. I was wrong. Several people in that group were excused for various reasons so other names, including mine, were drawn from the pool of dozens of prospective jurors.

One of the prosecutors asked if I thought I’d be a good juror, and why. I said yes. I mentioned that I had a longtime interest in the workings of the justice system, that I’d served on a jury in a criminal trial in the past and had covered police and courthouse beats at times as a reporter.

I also mentioned writing crime fiction, just in case that might be important to anyone. The prosecutor smiled and asked if I would be using the case at hand in a story. Not directly, I said, adding that listening to real courtroom dialog again and seeing how people interact certainly could be useful in some way.

Eventually I found myself one of 16 jurors who were sworn in to serve on the panel. We could only wonder about which four of us were alternates until after the lawyers’ closing arguments. I was among the final 12 tasked with reaching a verdict.

During the three-week trial it was difficult to focus on much of anything else. I fell farther behind where I had hoped to be on my new manuscript. No urgent day-job deadlines loomed but I was able to do a few tasks some evenings and weekends.

It became almost impossible to walk by my suitcase in the basement without seeing things I cannot unsee. A touch on the shoulder or a bit of pain in my hip brought to mind the sight of a reciprocating saw and other cutting tools that were used to dismember the body of young Ashley Mead.

After reading the guilty verdicts in the courtroom and releasing us from jury duty, the judge asked us to meet with her in a conference room. She thanked us, answered a lot of questions, and asked us for feedback about the experience. We learned that there is something called vicarious trauma, and that the county would pay for two counseling sessions for each of us. The judge gave us a list of several professionals who would make time for anyone within 48 hours, and she encouraged everyone to contact one of them soon. I know I wasn’t the only juror to take advantage of the offer.

Now that the trial is over, I’m back to work on my day job, where there is no bailiff to say “all rise” before I enter a room. It’s good to be inconspicuous again.

I am also back working on my new manuscript, the second crime novel featuring Detective Red Shaw. There was no trial in Blood Solutions, and there will be no trial in North of Grand, but it will be a better story for the delay.

I did move my suitcase just a little farther back in the space under the stairs to the basement, recognizing as I did it that hiding it completely would be futile. I do trust that the images it brings to mind will fade with time.

That’s one of the positive things I can think of right now. Another is that the trial is history and I don’t feel compelled to write another word about it.

B.J.

A few words about a murder trial

Imagine being plucked from your day-to-day routine and plunked down in a jury box for three weeks.

Imagine what you see and hear as prosecutors try to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant murdered, disemboweled and dismembered the mother of his child, stuffed her headless, limbless torso into a suitcase, and dropped it in a dumpster in another state.

Suppose you can discuss this with no one, not even your fellow jurors, until the appointed time comes to deliberate.

That time came for me yesterday. The trial ended a few hours ago. The jury on which I served found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder and three other charges.

I leave the details to your imagination and the news media because for now I don’t have the words to describe the experience beyond this:

Whatever discomfort the jury felt, it was nothing compared to the horror that many others in that courtroom have been through and will remember with such pain and sorrow for the rest of their lives.

If I write about the experience again, in this space or elsewhere, it is simply my way of coping. Some questions are too difficult to discuss in person other than with my closest family and friends.

B.J.