The wonderful Kathryn Milan sent me these photos of a couple of my books on display at the Austin Central Library. Thanks, Kathryn! And thanks Austin Central Library!
Here I am reading the first Episode from Normal School. Chapters 1, 2, and 3. Listen and be amazed! Then go over to Normal School and read the whole thing!
Readings and Ridiculosities Five: Normal School Episode One
And then go to Amazon and buy some books....
Busy closing out the semester and working on classes and grading and Normal School and Burnt House and about a jillion other important crucial worthwhile projects...and my students drew pictures of American Eagles....
I've been making a few final corrections on Burnt House, which is [UPDATED] NOW OUT.
It's good--you're going to want to read it! To convince you to read it, here's one of the shorter chapters....
Baby Never Grew
Vesta Talbot was my grandfather’s older sister. I knew her when I was little—knew her, loved her, my favorite aunt, a nice old lady who always dressed in green, who made a skimpy living giving piano lessons at her big gloomy house in Weston, a lady who made me fudge, who read me stories and talked about books. Vesta wasn’t all sweet, of course—she was a real person. She could be bad. I remember them talking about how she killed her neighbor’s tree, a sycamore that dropped leaves in the yard of her gloomy house, and the leaves made her mad, so she went out one night and poured vinegar and salt water all around the roots of the tree and killed it. So I knew Vesta was ornery. But still—she made me fudge! She read me stories! She always talked to me when no one else would. She took me seriously.
When she died suddenly of a stroke I cried and cried. But even though I was just a kid—a sad kid, at my first funeral—I noticed through my tears that no one else was crying. Nobody else even seemed sad. Pap and Uncle Rence, her brothers, sat stony-faced and grim in their good black clothes, and my mom sat in the back with some ladies, talking and laughing about something. Irene, my mom’s sister, my aunt, didn’t even come in for the funeral. There were only six or seven people at the funeral home—only six or seven people, and she’d lived in Lewis County all her life, eighty years or more—and not one of those six or seven was crying except me, and I cried and I cried until Grammaw Talbot grabbed me by the arm and jerked me outside and sat me down hard in the car and told me to be quiet. To stop acting up! To stop embarrassing everyone! Then she went back inside and I sat blubbering in the hot car by myself.
Years later, one summer when I was in high school I was out with Pap Talbot on the porch and Pap was talking about growing up over on Rocky Fork. The people who lived there then were all dead now, I never knew them, they were nothing but names to me, but of course I always liked hearing him talk. I was in the swing reading Catch-22, which I didn’t like too much then. Didn’t dislike it enough to stop reading, but it wasn’t as funny as the blurbs on the cover said it was supposed to be. I didn’t get it. I kept on reading with mounting irritation I didn’t understand. Old Pap kept talking about dead people—Ramseys, Sleeths, Frosts. Hennens. Renners. Fishers. All just names. He was talking to himself more than he was talking to me. Remembering. Then he said something about Aunt Vesta. How Vesta sure thought she loved that Fisher boy. How then she went and poisoned his dog.
Poisoned his dog.
I thought, What?
“Huh?” I asked.
“What?” Pap asked back.
“Somebody poisoned a dog? Vesta poisoned a dog?”
“Oh,” Pap said. He leaned forward and tapped out his pipe. “Goddamn Vesta thought she loved that Fisher boy—that Matt Fisher. He was one of those Fishers that lived up above Sand Fork. But he wouldn’t have her, so she poisoned his dog.”
I leaned up on my elbow and looked at the old man. “What?”
“Your Aunt Vesta, she always thought she was better than everybody else,” Pap said. “You know that. She was always acting so big. She was always talking about how she went to college and studied music, how she played the piano, how she wanted to go off to New York and be in an orchestra. Well, shit—me and Rence went to college, too, and you never saw us acting big like that.”
“But about the dog.” Killing a tree was one sad thing—but killing a dog.
“I guess there’s some things you don’t need to know.” Pap filled his pipe and lit it, put the red Prince Albert can back in his shirt pocket. Puffed a couple of times. I just lay there in the swing, twisted around, watching him. I didn’t need to know but I knew he was going to tell me anyway. “Vesta thought she loved that Matt Fisher, but he turned her down, so she poisoned his dog.” Puffed. Always a wet sticky sound when he puffed that pipe, I’d been hearing it all my life. “This was after she had that baby that wouldn’t grow.”
“A baby.” I stared at him but he didn’t say anything. A baby that wouldn’t grow. Vesta’s baby. I asked, “Vesta had a baby? That Matt Fisher’s baby?”
“I guess,” Pap said. “She never would say who the father was.”
“She wasn’t married.”
He said, “No.”
I thought for a minute. Tried to do some math in my head. This would have been—the 1910s? The teens, probably. Maybe the 1920s. Not later than that. Maybe earlier. Unmarried and pregnant would have been a big deal, then, in those days, a very big deal. Shameful. Shame for the whole family.
I asked, “So, what happened to the baby?”
Pap shook his head. “Well, that baby wouldn’t grow.”
“What do you mean?”
“It wouldn’t grow….”
“Well, later,” Pap said. “But the little son of a bitch never would grow. It just lay there in that crib and it wouldn’t grow.”
That didn’t make any sense. The old man made it sound like the baby didn’t want to grow.
Like it was a bad baby.
I asked, “Why didn’t it grow?”
“Hell, I don’t know,” Pap said. “It just didn’t.”
“Didn’t they take it to the doctor?”
Pap laughed. “Nobody went to the doctor in those days.”
“Didn’t they feed it?”
“Of course they fed it!” he said. “Jesus Christ!”
There was a glint there. Pap was getting pissed at me. About what? He was the one who brought poor Vesta’s dead baby up.
I asked, “But why didn’t it grow?”
“I don’t know, goddamn it,” the old man said. “I told you—it just didn’t grow and it later died.”
“But—” I said. I was—I don’t know—shocked. I had this mental picture of a tiny monster bad baby. “But—that’s terrible.”
“Now, why the hell are you a-wanting to know about that dead baby?” Pap asked. Now he was really mad.
“I don’t know!” I said. I was really mad, too. “Why’d you start talking about it?”
Pap didn’t say anything. He just sat there puffing his pipe.
I opened the book and stared at the pages.
The words made no sense.
An earlier version was published in Chagrin River Review.
Scholars: read it and note the revisions. You can thank me later.
Everyone: you can buy BURNT HOUSE and read the whole darn thing.