Culture

'Scarf Intercepts an Imperious Beagle Who Wanders Close'

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Editor’s Note: Since March, PJ Lifestyle has been highlighting some of the most innovative fiction writers at the recently-launched new media publishing platform Liberty Island, featuring interviews and story excerpts. Click here to see our collection of 24 so far. To learn more check out this interview Sarah Hoyt conducted with CEO Adam Bellow: “It also has a unique mission: to serve as the platform and gathering-place for the new right-of-center counterculture.” Also see COO David S. Bernstein’s recent essay here in which he defines Liberty Island as, “an imaginative playground where brilliant and creative people can test their ideas without being harassed or threatened by the new breed of ‘community activists’ who police thought and speech in the media.” Also see Bellow’s recent cover story at National Review: “Let Your Right Brain Run Free.” 

1. Who are some of your favorite writers, books, movies, and intellectual influences?

I was very much into monsters and horror as a youngster, a predilection probably as compensation for the fact that I was rather an unpopular kid. It’s tough being a mama’s boy and the teacher’s pet. I related to the outcast monsters, the classic, relatively humanistic monsters of old, and was able to parlay that interest into the first thing I ever did that impressed my classmates.

I remember standing at the front of my sixth grade class, awkward and gaunt, holding them rapt with my spoken-word version of the kind of tales I read in EC Comics. A cultural gear-shift occurred when my father–doubtless noticing my obsession and hoping to elevate it–brought Shelly’s Frankenstein, Stoker’s Dracula, and a collection of Poe home from the library.

I became an inveterate reader, and though I would eventually leave the horror genre to others, I know that when trouble comes into my stories, it often comes by way of those early, scarified sensibilities. Literary fiction is my highest aspiration as a writer.

Turning to journalism in high school, I became the rock columnist, and later a community college whiz kid, promoted to managing editor at Chabot College, winning a statewide editorial contest, all while keeping my readers up to date on Grand Funk Railroad.  To this day, I am regularly inspired to write about my favorite music.

2. How do you describe yourself ideologically?

As to my ideological influences, aside from Vincent Price, my departure from the long 60s-70s party was concurrent with the election and presidential terms of Ronald Reagan. For all my suburban hedonism, I’d never really bought into the progressive lifestyle or value system, and now, then, I suddenly needed to distance myself from it. Reagan was the road back.

Other influences include Rush Limbaugh. I am a charter subscriber to the Limbaugh Letter, and still have my 1989 copy of the very first issue. Make no mistake. I learned how to write for Republicans (the kind of writing that far and away has been most lucrative for me) by absorbing the LL’s style. Later, I subscribed to the Weekly Standard, and devoured the viewpoints and arguments therein.

The advent of Fox News was a watershed event in my perception of the news media  industry. I watched Fox from the jump, digging the Factor, getting Hannitized, harboring a grudging respect for Alan Colmes. I haven’t paid attention to the major network news since 1996.

3. Which thinkers/commentators have influenced you?

As far as what’s been on my nightstand politically, I’ve read lots of Patrick Buchanan, most of O’Reilly’s books, two of Ann Coulter’s books, and many single volumes by conservative writers. I recently read Charles Krauthammer’s Things That Matter and realized I’d already read many of the columns in my hometown Oregonian.

Otherwise I’m reading historical and general nonfiction, literary fiction, and, any intriguing title that comes my way. I recently read Sam Keen’s Fire in the Belly, 22 years too late for it to do me any good.

Some of my favorite movies are Schindler’s List, Terms of Endearment, the Exorcist (did I mention I’m Catholic?), Psycho, and On Golden Pond. I’m nonplussed by the zombie plague, and still consider Failsafe with Henry Fonda one of the scariest movies ever made. Despite my hard rock and metal roots, I am known to sit for periods of time in front of Lady GaGa videos.

4. What’s your craziest hobby/pastime/interest?

My craziest hobby, pastime, interest etc. would have to be my real job, the only real job I’ve ever had, as a painting contractor. My self-published memoir, Ladder Memory, Stories from the Painting Trade, offers a glimpse of how crazy the world of a housepainter can get. Though sales have been modest, my business has improved considerably. I often have the sense that customers are Googling me and finding “Death Penalty Now” while I’m outside painting the house.

5. Where can people find/follow you online?

I’ve avoided having a website for two reasons. First, I’m old school, and am used to contributing work in the context of a larger entity. In the second place, there’s nothing sadder than a middle-aged-man whose website gets a total of 34 hits in its first six months. I’ll take my chances on the open market.

I’ve been a features writer for the now-defunct Brainstorm NW Magazine, a reporter for the Multnomah Village Post, and an advertorial writer for Pamplin Media. I am currently a reporter/content writer for the web-print combo, the Northwest Connection, and a contributing writer at the conservative UChoose Education Forum

I did get talked into a Twitter account for Ladder Memory, which I use to send out tweets of my various screeds, which only occasionally have anything to do with applying paint.

6. What are your writing goals?

As far as my writing goals, I’ve extolled the virtues of Honey-Baked Ham, offered perspective, attempted analysis, and covered the gatherings of fed-up Republicans.

Now I have two novels-in-progress, and in the process of being professionally edited.

Check out Mark Ellis’s “Temblor” at Liberty Island. Here’s an excerpt:

The bed shakes, the window rattles in its sash.

By the time Andrew fully wakes, the low rumble has stopped. He rises from the bed and walks to the pine-paneled kitchen for a glass of water tapped from Cambrian sources beneath the soil and duff of the Redwood Empire. Returning down the small hall of the cottage, his weight creaks the wood-planked floor.

He looks in on Ellie, asleep, undisturbed by the earthquake. Scarf looks up from the foot of her bed, the rattle of a growl beginning low in his chest, as if he’s returned to the litter, the cold canine night, the lair. It’s common knowledge that animals sense imminent earthquakes.

“Good dog,” Andrew whispers to the Jack Russell terrier he purchased for his daughter from a farmer out on Cutback Road. Three months now, and Scarf has tuned into Ellie deeply, territorially–the farmer said he’d do that. Ellie sighs in her sleep and turns slightly toward the wall. Her Wendigo Elementary School backpack is ready, a sad note for the transplant kid still intent on belonging after just over one full year. Her sixth-grade classmates have been mostly kind, she says, though one accused her of being a “Bay Area person.”

Andrew finds the charcoal shadow of his own bedroom door.

There was a big earthquake here once. It knocked over the marquee at Wendigo Theater. It is something he will wait to tell Ellie.

He lies back down, knowing that if he heard certain songs right now, or thought certain thoughts, he would weep, but hears instead the cry of a raven for which the night has been mixed in its blessings, and thinks nothing.

The off-leash area is set near a low rock cliff at the base of which two mature elms take divergent paths upward from the stone. Dry whacks of a tennis game on a nearby court counterpoint the listlessness of the sun-drenched giants, which predate Columbus, even Jesus. This first October in Wendigo is profoundly hushed, the weight of ages heavy and warm on yet another one-strip redwood gateway. A forested crossroads morphed from a trapper settlement and is now home to retirees who can afford it, service people driving fuel-efficient cars, and a complement of pot growers who zealously guard their crops, some of them hardcases. Count the tourists too, always, but especially in summer.

Ellie’s swim lesson leaves Andrew alone with Scarf at Muir Park.

His cell phone throbs, and the natives glance disapprovingly. It’s Carol, Jana’s old best friend

“Can’t wait to see the redwoods,” she says.

“But you’ve been here before,” Andrew reminds her.

“Yeah, ages ago, as a kid.”

Jana and Carol met at Devon Hill County Club, philanthropic division, Carol newly divorced, but the combination of happily married and just divorced somehow melded. They became an almost everyday thing, the kind of hip-joined women friends who would have been thirtyish stay-at-home moms in another era. Andrew theorized that Carol represented some free bird of a woman to Jana, and to Carol, Jana was a proximity of marriage to cling to…but what did he know? They shared in their relative affluence a calling to give back to the community.

You could call Andrew close to Carol too, fraternally, as befits a happily married husband. They became a trio on Saturday nights, with occasional guest appearances by Carol’s dates.

Her voice is dry and revved up, the connection clear from Orinda.

“How do you think it will be for Ellie, me coming?” Carol asks.

“We’ve gotten a dog, Scarf.”

“You’re a good dad, Andy. See you tomorrow afternoon.”

Scarf intercepts an imperious beagle who wanders close, and they sniff. He’s always more volatile in Ellie’s absence. It’s like the dog knows she is regenerating somehow and wants his part of it. With Andrew it’s just the opposite. There’s this distinct impression that Scarf wishes the apparent leader of the pack would snap out of it, do something exuberant or adamant, or even show fury. Like Scarf feels an instinctual aversion to a disgraced alpha, a being untrustworthy for its aura of collapse.

The cell phone throbs again, and the natives are mulling the newcomer’s sense of propriety.

Alarmingly, it’s the director of the community swim center.

“We’ve had a little incident here, but Ellie’s fine.”

She does seem fine, sitting up in the director’s office.

“What happened, honey?”

“I don’t know–I just got a cramp.”

“Our lifeguard got to her within seconds,” says the director, with a perfect blend of concern and legal awareness.

On the ride home she’s quiet, but that’s not unusual. Andrew can smell the chlorine in her drying brown hair.

*

That night Ellie talks about a boy named Sean, a member of Wendigo Junior High School’s swim team.

“He has a dog, Delta,” she announces from the wood-framed couch. Such talk has never been big between them. She has taken Jana’s cue, who had seemed to think men needed a lot of quiet time, and that a mother was the one for talking. The best times at Devon Hill were when they’d take on a task together, rounding up some Christmas decorations at the mall or turning a flower bed for one of Jana’s plantings.

“Delta?”

“His family came here from Antioch.”

“How old is Sean?”

“Fourteen.”

“What does he want to be when he grows up?”

“Dad.”

It figures the first boyfriend would come now. It had to happen someday.

Jana was like that, one for the boys. It makes sense her little girl would find her bearings with a boyfriend. Andrew wraps his mind around Ellie coming of age, how time registers differently in the Redwood Empire, the childhood vacation that is now his life. He has forgotten when Wendigo resonated in his search and Devon Hill was only resonant with grief, that his redwood memory sprang from the deepest of all summers on earth. It is different living every week, every month, every somnambulant minute of the year–and now their first autumn–under the ancient trees. Down deep where he almost won’t admit, he hopes they intercede. Work a miracle cure, like the opposite of headstones. He hopes they have some capacity only to be found here. He has the strangest feeling the trees will be there for him when he is ready.

Scarf senses something, looks up and licks Ellie’s face unexpectedly. For that brief second it’s like Jana is still alive, perhaps folding clothes in the back bedroom.

It is just over a year since Loma Prieta, the rumble that left them bereft.

Click here to finish reading at Liberty Island

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image illustration via shutterstock / Ross Stevenso