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A melancholy Christmas tale by David Hogan

December 15, 2016

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GIFTSx2700From our collection Gifts: Bittersweet Christmas Stories 

David Hogan’s melancholy Christmas tale serves to remind us to gather our friends and family close to us as the dark of winter draws in. All about the power of stories in understanding our hopes for the future, his tale is the perfect accompaniment to staring out of the window and waiting for Spring to begin again.

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Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White

by David Hogan

The cards fall in perfect order: king, queen, jack… diamonds first, followed by hearts, clubs, and spades. His hands are steady, surprisingly so, as he flips the top one from the deck. Even now, his hands are skilled; even now, with the arthritic fingers bent in odd directions and the subtle quiver, his hands don’t betray him. His hands remember. He inspects each card before placing it down, leaning forward to within inches of its face. Sometimes, when he realizes that the card he is looking at is precisely the needed card, there will be, in his abandoned eyes, a spark. And in that spark, her lost father re-emerges, awash in the cross currents of time and consciousness and wonder. 

It’s because of this spark that Mary called her brother, Brendan, back to Boston just before Christmas when he’d have preferred to be with his own family. It’s because of this spark that Brendan is now gathering leaves on this grey and bitter December morning. Today will be their final gift as children, a Christmas gift of sorts, and there will be the leaves and an unknown woman and water and a window. 

Mary looks out at the park across the street. She played tag and hide-and-seek in that park and kissed her first boy behind the big tree in the corner. He’d been a curly-headed boy named Patrick, and they missed the first time they tried, his lips landing on the bridge of her nose. But Mary was a stubborn sort and she let him try again, having committed this far, feeling she’d gone past a point, and there was no sense in turning back no matter how bad Patrick’s aim was. He connected with her chin on the second attempt, but on the third he was successful. She was eleven, and when their lips met, soft and wet, she sprinted back to the house where she was now standing with her father playing Solitaire behind her. 

“Dad,” she says. “I have to talk to you.”

But she doesn’t. Not really. Even if he acknowledges her presence, or calls her by her late mother’s name — who passed peacefully four years ago – there will be no discussion, no explanation, no consent. He’s past that. She would like to talk to him about what she intends to do tomorrow. To lend him some residual dignity. But age – it wounds, confiscates, and undermines, and dignity must be re-defined. Her father’s eyes resemble tunnels, dark with forfeitures he’s no longer aware of. Once again, Mary weighs the value of responsibility, the cost of guilt. Considers how love is the tilted scale on which they are appraised. 

“Mary. Mary, can I talk to you?”

It’s as if she actually hears him say the words, as if he is once again the man with bushy, black eyebrows that she knew when he was driving her to college for her first year.  Her eighteen year old heart had been broken that summer, and Mary had refused herself the usual teen-age consolations of music and verse and alcohol. She spent hours each day motionless on her bed, wallowing monastically in her heartache. Determined. Stubborn. She didn’t want sympathy. What she wanted was to work through it, understand it and subdue it. 

Her parents seemed to understand and, by the end of that summer, as she rode in the car with her father on her way to college, the subject of her break-up had never been mentioned. She turned on the car radio to avoid a last chance at such a conversation. Turned it to a news station that she thought her father might enjoy. She smiled and looked out the side window thinking she just might escape, that the issue would never have to be addressed. But when they entered the Mass Pike, her father turned off the radio, and her heart sank. This is it, she thought, the discussion I’ve spent three months avoiding.

“Can I tell you a story?” he said. 

“Sure,” she said. Her father wasn’t one to tell stories, and Mary wondered how long he’d been rehearsing this one. She expected a story about his break-up with some ‘sweet gal’ who was a ‘great dancer’, and how badly he’d been hurt, but that if he hadn’t gone through that he’d never have met her mother and she might never have been born. Something along those lines. Mary was thankful that it was a story though, and that she could sit and listen and not have to engage. 

“Thanks,” her father said, as if he knew it was a burden for her to listen. “So yeah, one day just after I’d started college, like you’re about to do, I was walking to campus in Chestnut Hill. Now, I was older than most of the students, having fought in the war.” He turned to her. “The Korean War.”

“I know what war, Dad.”    

“I suppose you do. Now, I had a little bit of money, and I can remember clinking the coins against each other in my pocket. I always liked that sound. And the wind was blowing, and the day was kind of damp and cold. And there were wet leaves on the ground, and maybe they were rotting or something, I don’t know. But they had a peculiar smell.”

She sighed, too loudly, wondering if she was going to have to listen to him describe the weather for the next two hours. Maybe that’s why he never told stories, she thought.    

Her father laughed, unoffended. “Give me a chance, Mary.”

“Sorry, Dad.”

cherry-blossoms-reed-2“I’m going on, I know,” he said. “But it seems important, you know, the leaves, the smell, the cold, all that. Because just before I got to campus, I walked past this open window, and there was this girl’s bare leg hanging out of it. There was loud music inside her room, and I can still remember the song, Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White. Don’t know where they got that title.  Where do they get song titles from?”

“I don’t know, Dad.” She spoke to the window. 

“Doesn’t matter. So, you know, I was walking by that window and saw this girl’s leg, and I just stopped. I can remember it like it was yesterday, me standing there wondering why this girl’s pretty bare leg was swinging there. Was it for me? Did she know me? It was so cold, and it didn’t seem to make sense. You didn’t see a lot of bare legs in my day. Not in winter and never hanging out a window. It was just hanging there, so easy, so free and – now I hope you don’t mind your old man saying – even sexy. And right then, right then, Mary, I realized that I could do anything in the world. I could talk to this girl and ask her why her leg was hanging out of the window and would she like to go to a movie. Or I could tug on her foot and pull her into my arms. I was on my way to college, college for God’s sake – I didn’t think I’d ever go to college – and I could study anything in the world, science or religion or history. Or I could run away and join the Merchant Marines. There were no adults around and no more missions or orders to follow. Nothing. I had a little money in my pocket, and there was nothing in the world but this girl’s leg and just… possibility. Right then, the whole world was just possibility. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt that way again. 

“So that’s it, Mary. That’s all I have to say. I‘ve thought of that moment many times since then, and it’s my hope, now that you’re going to college and will be on your own, that you have some moments like that. You’ve had a tough summer, and I just want you to try and have as many moments like that as you can. Can you promise me that? Mary? Just that?”

She continued staring out the window, away from her father, afraid to turn back, afraid to let him see how he’d gotten to her, that this was perhaps what she needed to hear, the sort of wisdom she’d been looking to find all summer. She wiped away the tears with her sleeve, hoping her father wouldn’t notice. If he did, he didn’t mention it, merely turned the radio back on.

williamandmary.jpgAs far as Mary can recall, that’s the only story her father ever told – her one-story father who’s just now finishing another game of Solitaire and coming to what is, for Mary, the astonishing part. Because somehow her father knows to scoop up the cards in reverse order, row by row, ace to king, spades first, then the clubs, the hearts, the diamonds, the sequence never varying, so that when he lays them out again, they’ll be in the right order. The cards will be perfect again. And she wonders how, in the chaos of his mind and memory, he knows how to do such a thing, wonders what determines the things that go or remain.      

Brendan walks in the door stomping dirt from the bottom of his boots. When their father became ill, Mary and Brendan made an arrangement. She would leave her job as a news producer for a local television station and move back home, and Brendan, who made good money working for a bank in Charlotte, would pay the bills. It’d worked for both of them. Until recently. Until she could no longer provide the care her father required and asked Brendan to return home before Christmas.

“Let’s do it,” he says now from the doorway. 

Half an hour later, Mary is in the back seat of Brendan’s rent-a-car with her father clothed in layers and tightly strapped next to her. She has a bottle of water in her pocket and they are all headed to Chestnut Hill, on the west side of Boston, where her father attended college. He’d resisted when they pulled him away from the card game and made it clear by going rigid that he wanted to stay. Mary wondered if they weren’t being cruel. The cards might be enough for him, perfect game after perfect game, each one as extraordinary as the one before. 

Her father is mute during the trip, his head bobbing slightly as they drive down the road. This will be their last trip as a family, and Mary thinks it fitting that it’s being taken on this road, Route 9, which had been the central corridor of their lives for so long. She looks at the back of Brendan’s head, his hair just beginning to thin. He’d been the wilder of the two children, often getting into trouble for drinking and staying out too late. He didn’t drink anymore and was the father of twins, a boy and girl, who were sophomores in a large Charlotte high school.

“Do you let your kids go to parties?” she asks. 

Brendan catches her eyes in the rear view mirror and smiles. “No. No drinking, no dates, no parties, no late nights.”

“What do you say when they ask you what you did?”

“I lie, Mary. Flat out, I lie.” He thinks about this for a moment. “It’s funny. First, you lie to your parents, then you lie to your kids.”

You don’t have to lie to Dad anymore, Mary thinks, but she doesn’t say it. She doesn’t know how to say it in a way that doesn’t sound offensive to one or the other of them. She doesn’t want it to sound offensive. She wants it to sound true, which is what it is, but she’s not sure how to do that and so says nothing. They arrive in Chestnut Hill and park on the side of a two-lane residential street. 

“Give me a minute,” Brendan says. 

He walks down the street and enters the screened-in porch of a brown two-story house.

“You okay, Dad?” Mary asks her father, but he doesn’t respond.        

Brendan returns and they help their father from the car, Mary holding their father’s head down so he doesn’t hit it on the top of the door. On the sidewalk, Mary takes her father’s left arm and Brendan grabs his right and they start toward the brown house, arm in arm in arm. They seem like something out of the Wizard of Oz, Mary thinks, following the yellow brick road. 

“Around the side,” Brendan says as they come to the brown house.

Brendan leaves Mary and their father on the sidewalk and walks to the front door.  He rings the bell once, then returns. 

Hogan“There it is,” he says, pointing to a small pile of leaves. 

Slowly, they walk toward the pile. Mary is disappointed with Brendan. She’d expected a bigger pile for some reason, as if that would matter to her father, as if the number of leaves would make any difference. When they reach the pile, a window on the side of the house opens and a short-haired woman with hoop earrings sticks her head out. 

“Ready,” she says. She’s wearing a Boston College sweatshirt and her voice is high-pitched. 

“Let’s do it,” Brendan says.

The woman ducks back inside and a few seconds later Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White begins to play. Mary has heard the song only once in her life, after she planned this outing and called Brendan to explain what she wanted to do and say that she couldn’t do it without him. Reluctantly, he agreed. Since he’d stopped drinking, he almost always agreed, Mary had noticed.

As the girl swings her bare leg out of the window, Mary removes the bottle of water from her pocket. She dumps the water onto the leaves and, indeed, a faint odor rises, not much, but maybe enough.

“Dad,” Mary says. “Dad.”

She drops two quarters, three dimes and a nickel in her father’s pants pockets. She takes his hand, his hand that remembers, and places it into that same pocket. Brendan puts his hand over their father’s pocket, trapping her father’s hand, and then moving it so that the coins jingle.

“Look, Dad,” she says. “Look.”

Her father is distant and empty, and she needs him to focus, just this once, this one last time. Mary removes his coat thinking that the cold might shock him into some sort of awareness. Then she takes his head in her hands and points his nose at the leg dangling out the window. As she feels the weight of his head in her hands, she begins to feel foolish. She wonders again if this hasn’t all been a big mistake. That maybe she did it merely to mitigate her own guilt, if it wasn’t all for her after all. She wonders why she thought it would work in the first place.

Mary crunches some wet leaves with her foot and is about to call the whole thing off when she feels it, a tremor of sorts, then a tightening of muscles and, gradually, the lightening of the weight in her hands as her father, ever so slightly, lifts his head toward the girl’s leg, still swinging playfully. Mary remains behind her father and can’t see his eyes, and so will never know if they spark, but she feels his head rise and knows he must be aware of something. Something. She looks at Brendan, her wild and dutiful brother, and together they release their grip and back away from their father, who remains.        

Tomorrow, she will surrender him to the nursing home and they will both begin new lives – but that’s tomorrow. Today there are trumpets playing and wet leaves on the ground and the bare leg of a pretty young girl in the window. Today it’s almost Christmas, and her father’s war is over, and there’s a little bit of money in his pocket as he stands alone and for the last time on the broken precipice of possibility.

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David Hogan is the author of The Last Island, published by Betimes Books in 2013.

He is also an acclaimed playwright whose works have been widely produced. A dual citizen of the US and Ireland, David Hogan lived and worked in Greece for a number of years.  He currently resides in Southern California.

Sam Hawken’s Bad Santa

December 8, 2016

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GIFTSx2700From our collection Gifts: Bittersweet Christmas Stories 

Feliz Navidad  is a sombre Christmas tale from Sam Hawken that serves as a powerful and poignant reminder that Christmas is a time when we need to reach out to others. Encompassing the importance of the gift of charity, and of extending a compassionate welcome to all people, Feliz Navidad is a story that explores the true meaning of Christmas.

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Author’s note

In mid-2014 a wave of undocumented migrants swamped the United States’ southern border. Most of them were under the age of eighteen and many were as young as six or seven years old, all traveling without adults to accompany them. They came from all across Central America, fleeing the scourge of violence American demand for illegal drugs has created. These children believed that if they turned themselves into the American authorities, they would have a chance at a new life free from danger.

The massive surge of youths has abated somewhat, but the journey north continues for many thousands desperate for safety and opportunity. This is the story of one such child.

Sam Hawken, author of La Frontera

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FELIZ NAVIDAD by Sam Hawken

favela2.jpg“On the day Raúl Navarro left San Pedro Sula in Honduras, his older brother, Osvaldo, was killed in the street. They didn’t know if he was shot deliberately, or if he had simply been unlucky enough to be on the scene. Two others died in the same incident. Raúl packed his things in a blue Adidas gym bag, said goodbye to his mother and younger brother and went out of the apartment and down the stairs. He had he had five hundred and eleven dollars in American cash in his pocket, everything his family had been able to put together. He was fourteen years old.

He took a bus to the city limits, riding until there were no more stops to be made. He was the last person on the bus besides an old man with a ratty paperback book with no cover. Raúl helped the old man get off at the end of the line, then turned south and walked. 

It took him the better part of two hours to reach Chamelecón at the southeast corner of the El Merendón National Forest, and he was feeling good about the journey. He stopped only for a bottle of water at a vendor selling from a cart. He kept on, walking along the CA-4 highway. It started to rain.

He walked for the rest of the day, and when it grew dark he stepped back into the forest out of sight of the road and lay down under the spreading branches of a pine tree, his bed a thick layer of old needles. This kept the worst of the rain from him, and the ground was not soaked. It was cooler than it had been during the day, but it only dropped into the twenties. He was warm enough in his fleece running jacket and jeans, though he woke up with dew forming on his body.

Things went on like this for three days until he made the border with Guatemala. He was ragged by then and his clothes were dirty. The men at the border crossing looked at him suspiciously, but he tried to smile when he lied to them about where he was going and what he would do when he got there. He knew it was another three or four days’ walk to Guatemala City and already his feet hurt and his legs were very tired. It was only the beginning. They ignored the fact that he was only fourteen and let him through.

Raúl was careful with his money and he didn’t eat on opposite days, and then only a little. He knew it robbed him of energy, but he only had a small amount of cash to make the journey and he could not afford to spend much. On a bad day he was forced to drink from a puddle of rainwater formed in a depression in the road. He kept wearing the same clothes he left wearing until he was close to the Mexican border, and he only changed when he was within sight of the crossing, ducking between two buildings and shucking off his filthy garments to replace them with fresher ones.

“Where are you from?” the Mexican at the crossing asked him.

“Honduras.”

“I’m not stupid,” the Mexican said. “You have a Honduran passport. Where in Honduras?”

“San Pedro Sula.”

The Mexican exchanged glances with the uniformed man nearest him, then looked back to Raúl. “And you’ve come to Mexico to visit your Mexican relatives.”

“No, I—”

“Mexican relatives,” the man said firmly, cutting Raúl off. “Did you say they were in Oaxaca?”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Oaxaca,” the Mexican said, and he stamped Raul’s passport. “Your mother is coming up in line?”

“Um… yes.”

“Good, because I cannot let a minor across the border without an adult escort.”

The Mexican gave Raúl his passport still open. The ink from the stamp was fresh and dark. “Thank you, sir,” Raúl said.

“Don’t thank me. Move along.”

Raúl moved along. He crossed with a collection of adults and children he didn’t know and took up alongside the highway as he had all the way from his home. The numbers had changed, but the road was just the same: two lanes heading in either direction, the middle lines nearly invisible from sun and rain.

He forgot what day it was. All there was for him was walking and restless sleep in doorways and alleys and out in the wilds between towns. He followed the signs north through Chiapas, aware only that he was moving forward step by step and that eventually the journey would come to an end. When he reached Tuxtla Gutiérrez he spotted a date on a calendar in a small shop where he bought a sweet bun and a carton of milk.

He had been on the road for two weeks. He was unclean down to the pores and his skin itched all the time. He found a public washroom and waited until there was a lull, then he stripped to the waist and washed himself in the sink, using a dirty shirt as a washcloth. There was only powdered soap in the dispenser and it was gritty against his body, but when he was done he did not smell so bad and even his hair had lost some of its greasiness.IMAG1205.jpg

Ten days to Oaxaca, the city where the Mexican pretended he had family. Nine days to Mexico City. More than two weeks to walk the distance to Monterrey and then four more days to reach Reynosa on the Rio Grande across from McAllen, Texas. He dragged into Reynosa with numb feet, feeling drained in every way. His clothes fit loosely on him because he had lost much weight on the journey. He had run out of clean clothes a long time before and hadn’t wanted to spare the cash to clean them at a lavandería. Now he saw the river beyond a metal fence with many holes in it and on the far side America.

He didn’t wait. He pushed his bag through a hole in the fence and then squeezed through after it, tearing his shirt. The embankment was steep, but he crashed down to the water and plunged in. It was colder than he expected.


The current was strong, though the surface seemed placid. He tried to swim while holding the Adidas bag, but he couldn’t. It was gone in an instant. He heard shouting in English from the far bank. He stroked with his arm and kicked with his legs. He wished he’d left his shoes behind.

In the middle of the crossing he managed to look up on the far side and he saw men in uniform and a white truck with a green stripe. The men had something round and orange and they climbed down their side of the river, which was reinforced with concrete. They threw the orange ring into the water and it landed a distance to Raul’s right. He struck out toward it, brushed it with his fingers, got a grip he would not release. He put his other hand on the ring and hung on as they hauled him in.

The men grabbed him under his arms when he reached the American bank, hauling him dripping from the water. One of them was speaking Spanish to him, but he didn’t understand because his head was whirling. They laid him down on the dirt. Raúl struggled to focus on the man who spoke.

“You could have died!” the man said in Spanish. “You could have died!”

UNITED STATES BORDER PATROL WORKS TO SECURE THE UNITED STATES BORDER WITH MEXICO ALONG THE RIO GRANDE RIVER.Raúl reached for the man’s arm and caught it and squeezed. “I am not dead,” he said. “I am in America.”

An ambulance came. An overweight medic examined him with his shirt off, and Raúl knew the Border Patrol officers watching him were talking about how thin he was. When the examination was over, he wrapped up in a plastic thing like a blanket, only it looked like tinfoil.  It kept him warm all the way to the hospital.

At the hospital he was stripped completely out of his wet clothes and given soft footies with rubber strips on the soles, and two gowns he could wear front and back to cover himself. He lay on a comfortable bed in a room with a television playing an English-language station, and an orderly brought him food, real food. It took all his willpower not shove the sandwich into his face with both hands, or to slurp the Jell-O out of its container. He consumed a whole banana in two bites. The milk he got in a paper carton was guzzled down in a second. After a while, the orderly came back to him and asked him a question in English. “No hablo Inglés,” Raúl told the man, and the orderly went away.

Eventually he saw a doctor, who took his vital signs and asked him in Spanish to do things like breathe deeply and say ah. “Have you been sick recently? A cold or anything?” the doctor asked him.

“Not sick. Very hungry.”

“I’ll see about getting you some more food,” the doctor said. He was dark-skinned and Latino, and the name on his hospital identification was Garcia. “And then they’ll want to take you.”

“Take me where?”

“Somewhere you can rest and sleep.”

“Can’t I stay here for a while?”

Dr. Garcia looked at Raúl with sad eyes. “I’m afraid not. This is a hospital, not a shelter. Don’t worry. It will be all right.”

The same orderly as before brought Raúl a fresh tray of food. He ate in a more measured fashion this time. By the time he was done he felt almost full.

It was an hour before men in uniform arrived. Raúl didn’t recognize their badges or their faces, but they were authority, and that was all that mattered. They brought him clothes: white socks and underpants and a t-shirt, white slip-on shoes and then loose pants and a top made of bright orange linen. “Put these on,” said one of them. “Don’t take too long.”

Raúl reluctantly shed the hospital gowns and got into the clothes. It was prisoners’ clothing, though it lacked any writing to indicate where the wearer belongs. When was finished dressing he said, “I’m ready,” and the uniformed men re-entered the room. One of them put handcuffs on him, though they cuffed his hands in front.

He was led out of the hospital past many faces, white, black and brown. They watched him with a mixture of emotions, though most seemed sad for him. Others looked strangely, inexplicably angry, including a white man who flushed red when Raúl marched by. The man whispered something to the woman with him and the both of them glared at Raúl until he was out of sight.

The uniformed men put Raúl in a white van and they drove for a while. He could not be certain how long. They were in McAllen properly now, not just in the part that skirted the river. Everywhere there were unreadable signs in English and cars and activity. Spanish appeared regularly as if to comfort him, offering drugstores and televisions and places to cash checks. Though it was not so terribly different from what he saw in Reynosa, it was also alien.  These things he saw were American and he was not in his home or the home of anyone south of the river.

They approached a forbidding, angular building made of red and gray stone. The van cruised past a line of police units on the way to a gated entrance manned by another uniform.  The van drove down an angled slope into an underground receiving area where finally the driver killed the engine and Raúl’s escorts got out.

He was released from the back of the van and brought through two sets of doors with electric locks into a room with a long counter divided into sections. People were at every section, speaking in Spanish or a mixture of Spanish and English to the men and women in uniform behind the counter. All the people doing the talking were cuffed like Raúl.

“Wait behind the blue line,” said one of the men with Raúl. The other one left. Raúl stood behind the blue line.

It took most of an hour before someone at the counter could see him. Raúl listened as his escort talked to the woman in his section in English. They both laughed and then finally Raúl was alone with the woman. A man on his left spoke animatedly in Salvadoran-accented Spanish. On his right, a Mexican woman was barely audible through the tears she shed.

“My name is Agent Flores,” said the woman behind the counter. “What is your name?”

“Raúl Navarro.”

Agent Flores typed. Raúl could not see the screen. “Where are you from, Raúl?”

“San Pedro Sula. In Honduras.”

She looked directly at him. “How old are you, Raúl?”

“Fourteen.”

“Where are your parents?”

“My father is in prison. My mother is at home.”

“You came alone?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Raúl hesitated. “They say… they say if a boy comes here, he can stay. That they won’t send him away. Is that true?”

“Sometimes,” Agent Flores said, and Raúl thought she looked sad. His eyes strayed past her to the Christmas decorations on the wall. Santa Claus and snowmen and mistletoe and holly. And Christmas trees and snowflakes.

She asked him other questions, about how many brothers and sisters he had, and where he had gone on his long walk. She asked him how much they said he weighed at the hospital and how tall he was. She asked him if he had relatives in the United States. She asked him question after question for a long time until finally there were no more questions.

“What happens to me now?” Raúl asked.

Agent Flores smiled unhappily. “They’ll take you somewhere to stay.”

***

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The building was full of many halls and doors. Someone new took Raúl up an elevator to a high floor and brought him out into a concrete hallway ringing with the sound of children’s voices. It sounded like a school before the first bell rang, high laughter and shouted jokes and cursing and the rush of a hundred simultaneous conversations. After a short stretch of hallway the interior of the building opened up and there were bars on both sides.

The teenagers were broken into two groups, boys on one side and girls on the other.  There were a two hundred or more in each holding area and many of the tinfoil-looking blankets. Rubber sleeping mats lay haphazardly all over the floor, being trodden on by kids in sneakers and in white slip-ons like Raúl’s. The boys closest to the bars were yelling to the girls, trying to get their attention, and some of the girls were yelling back, not always friendly. Raúl tried to keep his eyes straight ahead.

He was turned toward a door and the door was opened with a heavy brass key. The man who escorted him said, “Look at me.”

Raúl looked at the man. He was tall and straight and heavy in the chest and shoulders like a man used to lifting weights. His hair was shot through with grey. “Yes, señor?” Raúl asked.

“No ‘señor.’ It’s mister. I am Mr. Martinez. I’m in charge of this floor. If you have questions, you ask to speak with me. If you have problems, you come to me. If you have a need, I’m the one you look for. Do you understand? Mister Martinez?”

“Yes, Mr. Martinez.”

“Good. And don’t let any of these little bastards give you any shit. Later someone will bring you a mat for sleeping and a blanket. You’ll be all right until then.”

“Yes, Mr. Martinez.”

“Go.”

Raúl went. He let Mr. Martinez lock the door behind him and he faced the pandemonium of the holding area. There were a few tables made of stainless steel and bolted to the floor, along with their seating, but they were overrun with boys. None of the boys he saw seemed younger than thirteen, but some were clearly close to eighteen or over it. There were angry looks and curious looks and looks of complete indifference.

All at once the looks turned into talking and Raúl was asked a dozen questions at once.  Where he was from, what he was doing here, did they say anything about letting anyone out, would they bring extra food for dinner, how old was he, was he going to a family in the States, and on and on and on.

He tried to answer all the questions as well as he could, but there were too many to keep track of, and very soon the eager questions stopped, and he was back to being ignored.  Raúl worked his way through the crowd along the bars, settling into a spot where the corner met the cage, and sat down. He put a hand on a bar and felt the cold metal under the mint-green paint. For the first time since he left home, he felt like crying. The voices pummeled him endlessly.

Every half an hour or so, a man in uniform came by to check on them. Raúl also noticed cameras in the ceiling, protected inside plastic bubbles, looking down on them all. He imagined Mr. Martinez keeping an eye on him in his corner, alone among a multitude, and telling the other men in uniform that this kid was all right. Decent and respectful. They taught them well in Honduras. Not like those Salvadoran kids.

His eyelids drooped despite himself and he drifted into a sort of half-sleep. The roar of the voices, echoing and re-echoing off the flat concrete, reduced to a background tumult and there were images of soft beds and his room and trays of food, each more delicious than the last.

Raúl wasn’t sure how long he drifted this way, but eventually he opened his eyes again and nothing had changed. He felt a pressure in his bowels and he stood up, looking for a place to go. He saw the word RESTROOM emblazoned above an open doorway, and under it the word BAÑO. Little by little, he worked his way through the crowd until he could get there.

With each step closer to the restroom he could smell the growing stench of urine and feces. By the time he was at the door, the odor was almost overwhelming. He stepped over the threshold, and his clean white shoe splashed in a shallow pool of water. He saw the whole interior of the restroom was flooded to the depth of a centimeter, and the water was not clean. Chunks of raw excrement lay on the floor, some swathed in toilet tissue that had soaked through.

He went to the stalls to find a toilet and discovered the first one was so full of waste that it had mounded up over the seat and begun to spill down the sides. The next one was the same and the next and the next. Some of the boys had even taken to moving their bowels into the urinals along one wall, so that half of them were clotted with stools.

The pressure was too much to ignore. The food from the hospital had worked through him rapidly. He stepped into one of the stalls and took down his pants and his underpants, only he could not let them fall to his ankles lest they soak in the filthy water. Nor could he sit on the seat because of the accumulated filth. Instead he half-bent and half-squatted over the clogged toilet and did what he had to do. When he was done, he used what little toilet tissue was left in the dispenser to clean himself.

He washed his hands in a sink and fled the restroom as soon as he was able. When he returned to his spot by the bars and sat down, he did cry, though he hid his face and made no sound.

Food time was a time of chaos, as the dozens pressed up against the one open door, trying to grab a meal before anyone else could. They were given small paper bags with a cold sandwich and a bag of chips inside and a small container of apple juice. Eventually, all the mob were sorted out, but for a long time Raúl thought he would not get any food at all.

He ate in his corner and ignored the sound of chewing and intermittent squabbling over who had rights to what bit of a meal exchange. The sandwich was tasteless, the bread soaked in something that was not mayonnaise. Raúl ate it anyway, because he knew without asking that to leave any food uneaten in this place was to lose it forever.

From time to time he looked out through the bars at the girls in the opposite holding area. They were much the same as the boys, sparking up into screaming matches that burned out as quickly as they started. He saw a girl sitting near the bars almost directly across from him, her back to the others, looking out at Raúl while she ate and he ate. She raised a hand to him in a half-wave and he waved back. They said nothing to each other.

After the meal there was a collection of the garbage, and once again the single door was mobbed. Once two teens broke out into the passageway and tried to run, but Mr. Martinez and the other uniformed men put them quickly back in place. Raúl did not try to escape. He did not know where he would go even if he were to slip out of the holding area, out of the building and onto the street. The entire plan had been to make the crossing and surrender to the first American in a uniform he could find. That was done, though this was not the result he had been led to expect.

Raúl held off using the restroom as long as he possibly could, but finally he was forced into the mire to urinate. He would rather have died than face the toilets again. He huddled up in his spot, gently rocking himself. The girl was still there, glancing up at him from time to time, but not staring.

He heard her voice for the first time a little while later on. “Oye,” he heard her say.  “Hey. Hey, you!”

German edition of Sam Hawken's novel LA FRONTERA

German edition of Sam Hawken’s novel LA FRONTERA

He looked. “What do you want?”

“What’s your name?”

“Raúl.”

“I am Beatriz.”

“Okay.”

“How old are, Raúl?”

“How old are you?”

“Fourteen.”

Raúl straightened a little. “I’m also fourteen.”

“Where are you from?”

“Honduras.”

“I’m from Mexico. Do you know a place called Xalapa?”

Raúl thought about it, and shook his head. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“It’s a city. Do you come from the city or the country?”

“The city. San Pedro Sula.”

“Where is that?”

“I said it’s in Honduras.”

Beatriz made a sour face. “If you’re going to be rude, then I won’t talk to you.”

“I’m sorry.

Footsteps sounded in the passageway, and Beatriz suddenly became very interested in her lap. Raúl strained to see farther down the hall, but he could not see who was coming until they were nearly upon him. He recognized Mr. Martinez, and saw that the man carried a rolled up foam mat and a folded blanket like all the tinfoil-looking blankets in the holding area.

Martinez spotted Raúl and pointed toward the door. “You,” he said, “meet me over there.”

Raúl hurried to get to the door, stepping over and around the densely packed crowd.  Mr. Martinez opened the door, but there was no rush to escape this time. The other boys fell back instead, and Raúl stood alone at the threshold with the man.

“These are yours,” Mr. Martinez told Raúl, and he thrust the bedding into Raúl’s hands.

“Thank you.”

“I read through your documents and it says your brother was killed not long ago.”

“Yes, Mr. Martinez.”

“You have another brother, though.”

“Yes.  He is eleven.”

“It’s good that he isn’t here. It’s almost Christmas. He should be with his family. Like you should. This is no place for a boy. Not for any of you. Why would you come here and put yourself through this?”

Raúl shook his head slowly. “In my country there is so much killing. The gangs control everything. What they can’t take, they destroy. The people who won’t follow them, they murder. Someone has to get out and tell Americans what is happening. So my mother and my brother can come here and be safe.”

Mr. Martinez looked down at him. “Your mother and your brother are never coming here.”

He closed the door and walked away. The level of conversation picked up around Raúl, and the circle closed. Soon it was as if the man had not been there at all. Raúl retreated to his spot.

Beatriz was watching him. “Your brother died?” she asked. illegal_children_at_border-590x331

“Yes.”

“That’s terrible. My uncle was killed by the narcos. It’s everywhere.”

“Not here.”

“No,” Beatriz agreed. “Not here.”

They had nothing else to say to each other after that, and soon it was time for lights out. One of Mr. Martinez’s men came through yelling in Spanish for everyone to lie down and go to sleep. Half the overhead illumination was shut down so it was not truly dark. Raúl found he could not unroll his mat entirely in his place, nor could he unwind his body to lie full length. He was forced into a curled position, almost hugging his knees, with the papery blanket over him for warmth.

Despite himself, he drifted. In his dream-state he heard Beatriz whispering to him. Then he realized it was not a dream at all, but her urgent whisper through the bars and across the space that separated them. “Hey,” she said. “Hey, Raúl!”

“It’s time to sleep,” Raúl hissed back.

“In a week it will be Christmas. Good things happen at Christmas.”

Raúl only nodded, and then he went back to sleep.

Each day it was the same. Food came three times a day, sandwiches for lunch and dinner and a sticky roll and milk for breakfast. Every other day they were taken out in shifts to use showers. They were locked into the stalls alone and given five minutes to clean themselves. The toilets were mucked out once, but soon were clogged with filth, and the process started all over again.

Talk began to spread among the teenagers on this level, both on the girls’ side and the boys’, that something special was set to happen on Christmas Day. Beatriz was the one who first told Raúl this, and one of the boys near him overheard them talking. The rumor spread rapidly. Soon everyone demanded of the uniformed men and women who looked after the floor what was going to happen. They were told to sit and be quiet and mind their own business.

Some of the boys and girls were taken away and did not come back. This fueled the speculation even more. But then new boys and girls were brought in to take their places. The holding areas were jammed head to toe, and there was barely enough space to form a thought.  Raúl held onto his station and refused to be budged.2014-07-26-childrenatborder

Mr. Martinez came once a day to look in on them, and he took time to speak with Raúl at his place by the bars. He knew many of the other boys by name, but Raúl felt especially singled out whenever Mr. Martinez spoke to him. He did not like talking to the other boys, and Beatriz could not talk to him all the time, so Mr. Martinez was the best of all possible worlds.

“It’s Christmas tomorrow,” Mr. Martinez told Raúl one day.

“I know. There is a lot of talking about—”

“I know what they’re talking about. They’ve been on about it all week. Don’t listen to them.”

“But something must happen on Christmas,” Raúl insisted.

“Maybe something will,” Mr. Martinez said. “We’ll see.”

And that was the end of their conversation. The day before Christmas went on the way every other day had, with talk and jokes and fights and shouting and singing and chaos. Raúl kept himself to himself and didn’t speak even to Beatriz.

There was night and then it was Christmas day. The lights came on and the holding areas awoke with stretching and yawns. Raúl struggled to bring some life into his stiff limbs. Every night he spent curled up was harder than the night before. His joints ached. He felt old. Lines formed for the restroom and the reek of urine was everywhere.

Breakfast did not come on time and there were rumblings. After an hour’s delay there was anger in the air.

Raúl heard the sleigh bells first, and then the jolly sound of someone booming, “Ho, ho, ho!” There were many footfalls in the passage. And then there he was: Mr. Martinez in a red suit with white trim, a floppy cap with a puffball on the point draped over his skull. He was followed by the morning crew with the breakfast carts.

A loud and rousing cheer rose from the boys’ side of the floor, and then a higher-pitched response from the girls. Soon the doors were open and food was dispensed. Mr. Martinez kept chortling away and the bags were all distributed. Inside, along with the usual milk and roll, was a piece of wrapped chocolate and an orange. Soon the smell of orange zest was in the air instead of the earthy stink of the restroom and the closely packed bodies.

Raúl ate and was happy and saw Beatriz smiling at him as she sectioned her orange.  There was more laughter and less shouting now than there had been on days before. Raúl felt light.

It was close to lunchtime when Mr. Martinez returned without his Santa suit. He came with another uniformed man, and they opened the door to the boys’ holding area. “Raúl!” Mr. Martinez called. “Raul! Honduras! Come on! Bring everything!”

Raúl gathered up his things and hurried to the door. He hadn’t yet unwrapped and eaten his chocolate yet. “I am here,” he said.IMAG1203.jpg

Mr. Martinez smiled at him. “Come with us.”

They took him down from the high floor to another place with many rooms and offices. He was put in a new cell, much smaller, all alone. A little while later a woman brought him a large paper sack. In the sack were the clothes he’d worn the day he’d crossed the border. “Put those on,” the woman said. “They’ve been cleaned.”

He stripped off the orange suit, but he kept the socks and the underpants and the undershirt even though he was sure they wanted him to take those off, too. He changed into his old clothes and waited. After a long while someone else came to get him, and he was brought through to another holding area, still fairly small, where he was held with three boys who were very young.

Mr. Martinez came to them after a while. “This is the end of your time with us, Raúl,” he said.

“Is it time?” Raúl asked. “Have they decided to let me stay?”

“Your case was reviewed by a judge. His decision was to let you go. There’s a plane leaving the airport in three hours. You’ll be on it.”

Raúl’s vision blurred. He felt tears and wiped at them. “I can’t go back to Honduras! I can’t! I came so far!”

“I know,” Mr. Martinez said somberly. “I’m sorry.”

The other boys were crying, too. They had only a few things between them and soon they were all picked up by men in uniforms and put in a van and taken to the airport. They were given seats on the tightly packed planes, and a man with a badge, but no uniform, flew with them. The flight to Honduras took five hours. There was time to reach home for Christmas dinner.

On the day Raúl Navarro left San Pedro Sula again, his cousin, Emilio, was killed in a clash over drug territory. Raúl packed his things in a pale green pillowcase with clouds printed on it, said goodbye to his mother and younger brother, and went out of the apartment and down the stairs. He had one hundred three dollars in American cash in his pocket, everything he had left from his sojourn north. He was fourteen years old.”

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Festive fun: Jackie Mallon’s Fairytale of New York

December 3, 2016

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Jackie Mallon

Jackie Mallon

Blue and Unassuming Under the Christmas Star is a seasonal spin-off from Jackie Mallon’s book, Silk for the Feed Dogs. The story returns to the problems of the loveable but habitually disaster-prone Kat as she tries to find some Christmas spirit in the hearts of the famously grumpy New Yorkers.

Jackie Mallon manages to capture what it is that is so terrifying and exhilarating about the city. So for anyone longing for a proper winter and a proper Christmas, this is the perfect story to help you pretend that you’re in the city that can never be beaten for festive excess.

Blue and Unassuming under the Christmas Star

Author’s note

Kat, a farmer’s daughter from rural Ireland, and Edward, a preppy Economist-reading builder’s son from Birmingham, met five years ago in London at an illustrious school for fashion design. Forced to collaborate on a project, they became unlikely friends and upon graduation, embarked upon an exploration of the “Bella Vita” in Milan, Italy.

My debut novel, Silk for the Feed Dogs, follows the agreeable pair through the ruthless and hierarchical fashion system, as they design the course of their careers, talk Italian, and practice in the fine art of seduction, Italian-style.

In Blue and Unassuming under a Christmas Star, we find Kat a year later, landing in New York from Paris, where she and Edward have been living since leaving Milan. She is to meet Edward, who is arriving in town on the tail end of a work trip, at their hotel. Kat anticipates the kickoff of a glamorous holiday sojourn enjoying their friendship, the world-famous sights and revelling in the Big Apple’s gung-ho conjuring of the Christmas spirit. But one mishap threatens to throw a damper on it…

1-the-new-york-palace-hotel_650.jpg

“She realizes she has left her phone on the AirTrain. A sign on the back of the cab driver’s seat informs her the airport is fifteen miles from Midtown Manhattan. Therefore she is about seven and a half miles away from her phone, and light years away from Edward. He’s stuck in Shanghai with no idea when he will board a flight. This she found out after landing at JFK. In a hurried voicemail message, he recounted a story about a lorry load of knit samples being stolen en route from the factory, leaving them with only thirty-five percent of the Spring collection. He would have to scramble to put everything into work again, and it was the night before he was supposed to leave, the night before he was supposed to join her for their glamorous Manhattan Christmas.

We couldn’t organize a piss-up in a brewery, thinks Kat, looking out at the light snow flurrying between one lane of traffic and the next.

From the hotel she will call him. What if it’s night-time there? She’ll write him an email briefly explaining the loss of her phone and describe a hastily composed itinerary for the day. Then she’ll make her way back to the hotel and call him again around lunchtime. Otherwise she’ll just see him whenever he checks in. Whatever day he arrives. She looks down at her lap. She has been picking the skin on her thumb which she does when she is anxious. The distant Manhattan skyline stretches out alongside the cab like a misty hedgerow.

“Do you know the cross street, Miss?”

“Um, no, just the address, 204 West 29th?” The driver doesn’t look too impressed with her organizational skills either.

Why isn’t the street address enough here? And why isn’t the price advertised the price you end up paying? She is already fretting about what tip to give him.

This short story is a part of GIFTS, a collection of Christmas stories from our authors

This short story is a part of GIFTS, a collection of Christmas stories from our authors

The hotel lobby is medieval dark, dotted with untreated wood and hunks of dulled metal slabs edged with rivets posing as furniture. The soft lighting is mostly provided by the rows of laptops on low tables. She waits for a well-shaven man in a narrow cut suit to finish with another guest. He approaches beaming a wide, white-toothed welcome.

“Hello. My name’s Kat Connelly. I’m checking in.”

He studies the computer screen. “I don’t seem to have anything by that name.”

“Oh, of course not! It’ll be under Edward Brandreth. He made the reservation. Two single rooms.”

Wide, white-toothed understanding. He hits several keys. “No, I’m sorry, we have nothing under that name either. Are you sure you’re in the right hotel?”

The piece of paper in her right hand shows the name and address of this hotel, her handwriting. “It is––I mean, it should be. It was booked weeks ago. Are you sure? Can you just check again?”

No white teeth this time. “Do you have a confirmation or booking number?”

She hadn’t thought to print it out. “My friend Edward booked.”

He taps repeatedly the same key. “Wait up. I have a Brandreth for tomorrow night. Two single rooms. Ten days.”

“Oh, thank God! You had me there! I knew he couldn’t be that dizzy—I mean, dizzy enough, obviously, as the booking should include tonight, but at least all’s not lost. Phew!” With no effort she matches the width of his smile. “That’s a relief. Can I have a room for tonight, please?”

His smile goes again and the lobby darkens. She watches him shake his head. “I’m sorry, miss, it’s the week before Christmas, we’re full up.”

“I’ll take a double, whatever you’ve got. I don’t mind paying more.”

His demeanour softens and he leans in, his elbows on the counter. “Girl, you’re going to have trouble getting in anywhere no matter how much money you got.” His accent had eased down-home. “I mean, maybe a Holiday Inn in the boroughs but, seriously, come on, a room tonight? New York is busier than a one-legged dog with fleas.”

There it is: the calamity she feels has been looming since leaving the airport. Alone in New York City with nowhere to sleep. She and Edward should have figured out alternative arrangements in case something went wrong, because with their track record something always goes wrong. It seems inconceivable she didn’t get a copy of the confirmation email. Instead of discussing the details of the booking, they had spent most of their last phone conversation giddily quoting Christmas movies:

“If it’s Serendipity, I’ll get in two hours after you. I’ll meet you just left of Miracle on 34th Street.”

Copyright Jackie Mallon

Copyright Jackie Mallon

“Can you believe it, Jack Skellington? Next stop, shopping in Christmastown!”

“‘What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey. That’s a pretty good idea. I’ll give you the moon, Mary.’”

“‘I’ll take it. Then what?’”

“‘Well, then you can swallow it, and it’ll all dissolve, see… and the moonbeams would shoot out of your fingers and your toes and the ends of your hair!’”

Weighing the pointlessness of sitting in a hotel where she is not a guest versus the aimlessness of wandering the city alone, Kat chooses the latter. She’ll be able to think as she walks; neurons will wake up, band together, and storm her cranium to arrive a solution. She curses the people of Shanghai as a bunch of Scrooges trying to spoil their holiday merriment, all over a few sweaters.

If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart!

The desk clerk agrees to hold her luggage until the evening. “It’s against hotel policy if you’re not a guest but, geez, far be it from me to contribute to your troubles, child. Quick, leave it there, I’ll pretend I don’t see.” Theatrically he turns away. “I see nothing!”

Taking a deep breath, she steps out into the circular currents of snow and asks someone directions for Fifth Avenue. Considering herself well-travelled, she is surprised how much New York intimidates her with its size and noise and brashness. What becomes immediately clear is she’s not wearing the right shoes. image-3-1200Her toes are clenching in retreat from the damp that’s seeping through the seams of her vintage leather. She studies the feet that pass; even the lower legs of the women wearing dainty pencil skirts culminate in one of two ways: a quilted nylon blob, somewhere in the vicinity of a ski boot gathered by drawstring at the calf, or a garishly patterned rubber boot resembling children’s footwear that waggles about the leg. Both serve to annihilate the line of calf to ankle. Parisians would opt for being born with a cloven hoof rather than have that happen, regardless of the weather, she thinks, then reminds herself that this is the land where chic lags behind comfort. In every company she has ever worked, jersey knit, the ultimate leisure fabric, sold best in the US market. In her line of business, she can’t help but compare how people dress from place to place and what they tote, forming opinions, reaching conclusions.

She catches a glimpse of herself in a window. Hands clasped before her, she looks like she’s praying. She resolves to be less of a blip moving erratically across a grid and more attuned to her surroundings.

She wonders how she ever found her way about or did anything before smartphones, and then gives a grunt. Smartphones render their owners idiots.

Even as her thinking desperately turns to public pay phones, she notices how many people are bearing down on her at speed, heads bent over their own personal screens and keypads. Pate first, they charge; a herd of headlong bovines branded with Apple or Samsung. A telephone booth, there has to be one or two left. The words telephone booth sound so cozy as she trudges on, the prospect of curling up in intimate seclusion for a chat with a friend so appealing. It suddenly sounds as archaic a term as hat box, penny farthing, and powder puff. Still, there just has to be one or two left.

dscn0041A massive stone building, beautiful, opens up on her left with sculptures of robed men lining the ledges against the sky, four sets of twin columns flanking tall arched entrances, and two stone lions on podiums. The brave pair wear wreathes around their necks and matching jaunty red satin bows tied at the throat. Carved into the stone in large capitals are the words New York Public Library. A library is for the people, she reasons, a bricks and mortar font of information left over from the pre-Information Age, immobile, uninvolved with satellite signals, and from what she can see, open. Hurrah for the old world! She climbs the steps, past the lions surely guarding the last of the city’s public telephones, heartened by the sight of the gold and red Christmas tree twinkling warmly just inside the central archway. A security guard steps forward, asks to search her bag. He peeks inside and taps the leather reassuringly to move her on.

“Can you tell me where the public telephones are, please?”

“Payphones, you mean?” He smiles. “Huh, now, there’s a question. Do we still have them even?” He looks around, purses his lips. Without warning he calls out, his voice echoing through archways, up stairways and crashing off ceilings “Hey… Hey Curtis! Yo, we got any payphones up in here?”

When those echoes subside, new ones ripple in from a hidden Curtis. “Yeah, bro. Saw them the other day. By the children’s section.”

The security guard points over his shoulder to the right. “Just through there, the second room.”

Her eyes glisten with unspoken thanks as Curtis’s voice soars in again. “They all broken though. Somebody needs to make it their business to call a repair guy.”

The sight of her downcast face touches the security guard, compels him to offer what he thinks is a serviceable solution.  “Miss, we have Wi-Fi though. On every floor, in every reading room and even in the grounds outside.” With a nod and smile, his duty done, he beckons the next visitor forward. Kat heads back down the steps to be reclaimed by the Fifth Avenue throng.

6a00d8341c90b153ef019b01133b5e970cThe ground is laced with white now. As she walks she imagines herself at the centre of a Christmas movie scene, the city’s noises, already dulled by snowfall, overtaken by some soaring Henry Mancini soundtrack with added jingle bells, the cameras panning out to focus on her lone black figure growing smaller on the city’s grand grid, progressing uptown, yes, uptown because now she is at 49th Street. She finds the architecture miniaturizing, yet when she manages to forget for a second her predicament, it’s uplifting too. She could be protagonist or extra in any story here, feel like a star or be extra anonymous. On impulse she reaches out and touches the expensive plaid sleeve of a passing woman’s coat.

“I’m terribly sorry, would I be able to use your cell phone briefly to make a call? I’m alone in the city and––” The woman flicks Kat’s fingers from the plaid without stopping. Kat tries this with three more strangers. An older woman steps back alarmed which makes Kat fade embarrassed into the crowd, her heart pounding. A teenager tells her to get lost. Finally a man pauses and listens to her tale with his head cocked to one side. At first it might be a business pitch he’s hearing but presently Kat detects in his eyes a glimmer of compassion. Then at the mention of Shanghai, he splutters “Yeah, right!” and bolts with a flap of his topcoat. Bolstered, however, Kat fishes ten dollars from her purse and holds it in both hands as she approaches another man in a suit, tie and topcoat. These corporate types seem to be the most amenable to her intrusion, and she ignores her uneasiness when she thinks how it must look: young female approaching older businessman leading to a sidewalk exchange of money.

“Listen, I’ll help you out, but if my wife calls, I need to answer it, you got that? She’s been chasing me all day and I’ve sent her to voicemail four times.” He looks down the street, both ways, turns his lapel up. “She is not happy.” He waves away her money and hands her earbuds. “Use these. I’ll keep hold of the phone.” Glancing up gratefully and with clumsy fingers, she inserts them in her ears, pulls the same piece of paper that contains the hotel address from her pocket and punches in Edward’s cell phone number. Her forefinger picks a shard of skin from around her thumbnail and she barely registers the sting of it as she listens to the dial tone. Curse him to Almighty for not answering. She can picture him squinting at the screen, lifting it up to study the number, pursing his contrary little lips, then replacing it on a desk with a sniff and turning back to what he was doing. It goes to voicemail and she feels like hurling the stranger’s phone into the traffic.

Edward Copyright Jackie Mallon

Edward
Copyright Jackie Mallon

“Hey, it’s Edward. Why are you disturbing me with a phone call? Nowadays it’s much less invasive to text. Oh, while you’re here, go on then, leave a message. If you must.”

BEEP. Barely managing to keep from shrieking, she launches breathlessly into her message, “Bloody hell, Edward! You booked the hotel for tomorrow night, not tonight. I’m stranded in New York with no place to sleep! I’ve lost my phone and––” There is a noise, not a promising one. The phone gulps and she realizes the man has shot off in the other direction with the phone to his ear, the chord of his earbuds dangling between her fingers.  “Hey! Wait, please! I was in the middle of talking! WAIT please, I’m begging you!” She runs after him and pulls at his coat, his sleeve, his flapping scarf; he jerks away. “No it’s no one, honey. I promise. Don’t be silly, it’s just some crazy person on Fifth Avenue. Tis the season, after all. Look, I’ll be home early; we’ll go to our place.” He turns, mouths sorry and hurries off.

She drops onto the steps of St Patrick’s Cathedral. Mentally exhausted and with nowhere to sleep, she now recognizes the lumbering juggernaut of jetlag encroaching from the peripheries. The dusting of snow on the step turns to water under her rear, no doubt marking her best coat in an unfortunate, truly homeless-looking way. Over her shoulder a long queue snakes from the door of the neo-Gothic cathedral around the block, a mixture of prayer book and guidebook believers anticipating the exalted stained glass, the Tiffany-designed altar, the lofty marble columns fanning out like palm leaves to the ceiling, and the pietà that’s three times the size of Michelangelo’s Pietà. She thinks about joining them and curling up just inside under the holy water fountain till morning. She could light a candle and leave it to the heavens to seal her fate. If Edward were here he would say, “You don’t come to New York to go to church, Kat, you can do that anytime. I personally don’t do religion unless I have drink in me. See? I’m more Irish than you think.”

She picks herself up and crosses the street alongside a trio of singing Santas bearing a Salvation Army donation bucket. Their accelerated harmonies of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” make shoppers dance and sway.

She fights to extract herself from behind a group of Italians who have halted smack dab in the middle of the pavement. They are all dressed in the same quilted jacket but in different colours and resemble a little barricade of activated airbags. She attempts unsuccessfully to go around them and the old irritation arises in her even though it has been over a year since she left. Loitering with lack of intent she called it. You can take the Italian out of the piazza but you can’t take the piazza out of the Italian.

Permesso?” She sighs dramatically. “Mi fate passare?

Looks of surprise. The airbags are deactivated. “Prego, Signorina!”  Just like that, she has removed the look of the tourist from each of their faces by generously placing them on familiar territory. Sure enough, she feels their eyes work their way down the length of her and make the return journey.

Mille grazie,” she says haughtily, passing through their centre. A few steps later, she, like them, stops short, infuriating those behind her.

Of course, there is its stature, but she is already used to the bigness of big here. That isn’t what makes it special. It is the inch-by-inch attention to detail on such a scale. The Rockefeller Christmas tree. There isn’t a pine needle that doesn’t sparkle against the fuchsia-lit facade of the skyscraper behind it. It is the Taylor-Burton diamond of Christmas trees. It symbolizes ambition, hope, confidence.

Kat has to believe this energizing trio must surge through the city all year round but at Christmas they really come into their own, accompanied by French horns, gussied up with flashing lights and tied with bows. Quiet confidence is an oxymoron here, quiet hope akin to hopelessness, quiet ambition no ambition at all. That must be the New York way from what she has observed. Just four hours since landing and she marvels at the unapologetic volume of people’s voices. Everyone’s an announcer. Italians yell at each other in the street, a barrage of obscenities or the same predictable Ciao Bellissima, but New Yorkers make you privy to the full-throated details of divorce settlements, bank accounts, therapy sessions, troubled childhoods, this verbal release ushering them on to greater things. All the neuroses of a Woody Allen film seem to sputter from the city’s orifices like natural waste, better out than in. Beside her, with the Rockefeller spectacle as his backdrop, a man on his cell phone describes being audited by the tax authorities, having his screenplay rejected by a famous director and getting hit by a yellow cab––and no health insurance!––all in the same week. Then he turns and offers her a toothpaste commercial grin. Built on the smoldering remains of trauma and dysfunction rises the city of eternal hope; white teeth in the face of adversity.

She decides she would do well to learn a thing or two from them and quit being such a defeatist. All she needs is a room for the night. There are infinite possibilities that could yet unfold. A brass band bursts buoyantly into “Good King Wenceslas” and she feels grateful she didn’t leave her wallet behind instead of the phone. She drinks in one last view of the tree and adjusts her thinking. I am in control of my own destiny. Look around! Here I am in the heart of Manhattan despite less than ideal circumstances but how can I complain if I am at the centre of the world? This isn’t called the Empire State for nothing.

haider-ackermannThe corner of Fifty-Fourth and Fifth offers prime people-watching opportunities. New Yorkers have a possessiveness to their stride; every purpose-filled step is a flag planted in the patch of cement they have landed on. Even though their foot abandons it immediately in search of pastures new, for that fleeting moment, that square meter of the city is all theirs, a successful mini takeover bid. Kat tries to mimic this and with renewed resolve, enters two nearby hotels and requests a room. Both times the hotel staff wear the same looks of worried confusion that the previous hotel clerk wore.

Then Kat sees it, blue and unassuming under a Christmas star of neon fixed to a lamp post: a public telephone. It’s clear it’s working because a man is talking into it, and quite animatedly at that. The brass band plays on and Kat blesses their merry souls. She almost tingles with the certainty that this time she will get through, that Edward will have listened to her truncated message and will be on alert for her to call again. Dare she hope it?

As she draws near, there is a new noise discernible above all the rest, a sound like the animalistic grunt boxers make when they suffer repeated blows to the head. The telephone user’s voice. “Look behind me, he says. Behind me, motherfucker?  I ain’t no fool. Put your head back in your Facebook. Tell me, does this train run express? Huh, does it? Holy shit, this carriage stinks.” His head, wrapped in a purple bandanna that’s tucked under an orange baseball cap embellished with badges, jerks back with the delivery of every short sentence as if with the force of a punch. He pokes the air for emphasis. “It’s the Uptown train I need, motherfucker. Get out my way!”

He removes the phone from his ear and stares the mouthpiece down. With his lips pulled into two taut slivers, he mutters between clenched teeth and strikes the corner of the payphone with the receiver, a gut-wrenching noise, simultaneously slamming his fist against the numbers, once, twice, three times. Kat is beside him. “No-no, please, no don’t do that, no…” She seizes the receiver, prizing his fingers off it one by one. His hand falls limp. Puzzlement knits his features. He frees the telephone receiver and runs off, turning to look back at her as he cuts through the crowd.

Close to tears, Kat hangs up the receiver. She can feel the pulse at her wrist stampeding. She lifts the phone again, her body slack with pessimism, and holds it to her ear. Not a sound. Probably wasn’t even working in the first place.

The bobbing and curtsying sound of the brass band can be heard from several blocks away, mocking her.

Mallon 2And the Grinch said, “Blast this Christmas music… it’s joyful AND triumphant.”

Up ahead, a sign propped against a homeless man’s knees catches her eye, and its gallows humour manages to draw from her the vaguest smile: “I always wanted to be someone but I see now I should have been more specific.”

“I love your sign,” she tells him, yearning for conversation. “Profound.”

“Could you spare some change please, Miss?”

She can’t resist asking his name. Sean. Sean Donnelly. He is a down-on-his-luck corn-fed All-American boy with an all-round good Irish name. His sign informs her he needs bus fare back to Kansas. She empties her purse.

Sean counts the different sized coins she has poured into his hand and looks up at her. “Sixty-four cents? You’re giving me sixty-four cents?”

“Is that all that’s there?” Back in her purse, nothing; she fishes in her pockets, nothing. “I’m sorry, that’s all I have. I haven’t been to an ATM machine yet.”

“Man, I cannot believe it. What the fuck am I supposed to do with that?”

In Sean Kat recognizes not a point of conversation anymore but the repository for all her frustrations. “Give that money back, you little shit. Go on, hand it over.” She holds out her hand and several shoppers gasp. “Come on, it’s Christmas, let it go,” says one, “you won’t miss it.” “You mind your own business,” she hisses, bracing herself menacingly at the passers-by who walk on, shaking their heads and muttering, “Some people have no sense of charity, and at this time of year…” When Kat turns back to Sean, he wears a look somewhere between amusement and challenge.

“Well, now.”

“You’re disrespecting me. You don’t deserve my money. I didn’t have to give you anything, I could have walked on by like everyone else. This is not a place for pennies, I can see that. Well, fair enough, give it back, come on. Hold out for some of those great big dollar bills you’re waiting for. And good luck to you!” She looks at the yoghurt pot he uses to collect money, gives it a light kick. It contains silver and copper but only two notes. “It looks like they’re harder to come by than you think.”

“You’re a feisty wee one, aren’t ye?” His accent evokes less of the Kansas cornfields and more of the Wicklow Mountains. “If you want your money back you’ll have to come in here and take it.” He puts the hand holding the coins down deep into his sleeping bag.

“You’re not even American. You and your transatlantic false accent.”

“Who broke your train set? Don’t you have no Christmas spirit? You’re in the wrongest place on earth then, aren’t you?”

“Bah humbug.”

She hunkers down and leaning against the wall of a men’s luxury tie store, she breathes in deep, falls silent. She secretly enjoyed that outburst, probably because Sean is the first company she’s had since she left Charles de Gaulle. She eases up and finds him to be a decent listener as she confides in him her run of poor luck.

“There’s a YMCA on Forty-Seventh that might have vacancies if you don’t mind the bedbugs, cockroaches and constant smell of marijuana, as well as the long walk down The Shining corridor to get to the shared bathroom. It’s where I go when I’m feeling flush after a win on the horses, it being a smidgen closer than the Waldorf Astoria.” He smiles wryly and produces from his sleeping bag the latest iPhone which with a swipe of his finger casts a festive glow onto his features. He hands it over. “Call them.”

“You got the newest one. How? There’s even a waiting list.”

“I took my sleeping bag and camped outside the Apple store overnight. I got the second last one.”

The Hispanic lady who answers the phone tells Kat there are no vacancies but sometimes there are no-shows and she should stop by that evening around seven when they give out unused beds on a first come, first serve basis. It’s the most encouraging news she’s had since she landed. She visits an ATM machine and drops twenty dollars into Sean’s yoghurt pot. Then adds another ten in exchange for making a second call to Edward.

This time she expects no response and isn’t disappointed. She leaves a message stating that she will be at the YMCA Vanderbilt at seven and will hopefully stay there that night. “Otherwise I’ll be temporarily residing in a cardboard box on Fifth Avenue––cross street?––Fifty-Sixth beside a nice Irishman called Sean whose phone I’m using to make this call that you can’t be bothered to answer. But the cardboard box will be Bergdorf Goodman’s largest because this was supposed to be a glamorous holiday after all, and it will have oodles of tinsel draped over it because, God forbid, I lose the Christmas spirit. Hope you’re warm and cosy toasty with a dirty martini at arm’s length. Ciao.”

“Ah, sarcasm. I do miss me ma.”

While Sean slides his iPhone into the depths of his sleeping bag, Kat rises and hops about to warm up. “I can only imagine what else you’ve got down there.”

He flashes a crooked smile. “It’s not the most subtle of advances I’ve heard but what the hell, cease imagining immediately, woman, and hop on in.” He lowers the zipper and holds open the mouth of the sleeping bag. “I’ll show you mine if––”

“Oh, God, I didn’t mean that! I mean, I wasn’t, God, total embarrassment.”

“Ach, I’m only messin’ with ye.”

She smiles. “Right. Well, I’m going to have to keep moving or I’ll catch pneumonia. Although of sturdy stock, today I’m being sorely tested. Care for a walk?”

“Can’t, doll. Guy’s gotta make a living.” Sean’s American accent is back. He spirits the bills from the yoghurt pot, shakes the coins up and looks expectantly into the faces that pass. She wishes him merry Christmas and melds with the crowd.

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Soon she is in the thick of Manhattan’s fanciest shops, passing Prada, Henri Bendel, Gucci, Tiffany, Dolce & Gabbana. Street carts sell roasted chestnuts and hotdogs but she can’t account for the smell of cinnamon everywhere. It hangs under her running nose. Eartha Kitt purrs from every doorway, “Santa cutie, fill my stocking with a duplex and checks. Sign your X on the line…” She should feel right at home; it’s the New York equivalent of strolling along Via Montenapoleone or rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré as she and Edward had done so often in the past. She wishes he was beside her, the sight of luxury goods making her feel surprisingly melancholy. The window displays are like spreads from her favourite fashion magazines, opulent optical feasts curated with an eye for theatre, and yet, she can reduce them to towers of expensive white-frosted clutter in a second.

She joins the little assembly of fashion devotees paying homage outside the first window of Bergdorf Goodman. The window is as large as a room, with all the pomp and ceremony of a Broadway stage. Kat’s eyes gorge on human-sized marionettes brandishing trumpets, frilled candy-striped lampshades resembling the petticoat skirts of Toulouse-Lautrec’s dancers, crystal-flecked Venetian masks and studded pink suede shoes, little caped drummer girls, bunches of swollen grapes tumbling from goblets and confetti-flecked doughnuts as big as wreathes suspended above vintage cars; velvet purses under icicles and whipped cream pies arranged in a still-life with jellyfish, tapestries and reptiles; Audrey Hepburn’s pearls are strewn across the leather and chrome of a Harley Davison parked in a glacially lit grotto next to a stuffed peacock; giant slices of cake with chocolate dipped strawberries may have been made of papier-mâché, but Kat would eat them all anyway. This glorious lack of cohesion makes her want to lick every window. She craves all of it, her nose to the glass in the hope of at least smelling it. She hadn’t known this ravenous consumer was rushing about inside her, clamouring to get out.

A liveried horseman in a frosted, duck-egg blue carriage pulled by a horse sprouting feathers from his forehead and a lei around his neck passes close to the sidewalk. Kat turns around just as the lascivious clap of manure hitting Manhattan’s tarmac rings out. A voice at her shoulder says, “Kat, how is it possible that livestock still know just where to find you, all these years after leaving the farm?”

“Edward!” The heads of the Bergdorf Goodman pilgrims swivel in unison. She squeezes him so tightly he yelps.

“You’re throttling me, you daft apeth! It hasn’t been that long. I just saw you a couple of weeks ago!”

“Are you joking? Did you get my messages? I’ve been worrying all day. How did you know where to find me?”

He winks. “As Cary Grant says to Deborah Kerr, “‘If you can paint, I can walk––’” She joins in, “‘––anything can happen!’ An Affair to Remember!” She squeezes his arm. “Yep, you’re real.”

“As real as Christmas, and twice as camp.”

“But still, how did you know in all of New York I’d be here?”

“It required no great calculation. I know you too well. I knew you’d stare moony-eyed for hours at these windows. Of course I did. What else would you do on your first day, the zoo? I’m not saying you’re predictable or anything. So I sat in the Plaza Hotel by the window and waited with a piping hot toddy for my trouble. I was getting worried. Would I be able to see you when it got dark? Lo and behold, I stepped outside to smoke a ciggie and saw you turn the corner right at the window that has the perfume bottles sliding down the mini ski slope. What a relief. I’ve picked up the cargo, crisis averted, now, let’s go. I’ve wangled a night at the Plaza for us from a rather charming gentleman I met. You’ll meet him too. Incidentally, do you know how much those suites cost? Cripes, try our whole holiday budget and then some! See, turns out I made a little mistakeroo with our hotel booking but don’t worry about it. They serve the best sidecars in the upstairs bar here and we can dine on truffle-flavoured popcorn––what are you looking at me like that for?”

“But I was planning on staying with the cockroaches at the YMCA, dining on the lingering smell of marijuana?”

“Suit yourself but it’s really rather nice over here. Aren’t you cold? You look a wreck. Why is the arse of your coat all black? You look like you’ve slept on a park bench. This is the Plaza we’re talking about!”

“Did you see the Valentino shoes in that third window?”

The bar upstairs at the Plaza is doused in crimson light. Everything dances and flickers, down below the magnificent chandeliers sparkle in the art deco foyer, its domed ceiling of sepia stained glass florals trellised with black shedding a benign serenity over the heads below. The Christmas tree is trimmed with ropes of crystals and shimmering glass balls and at the heart of all these lights, beams, sparkles and glimmers, Kat and Edward’s eyes dance as their conversation meanders.

Outside, the white-gloved doormen welcome guests from town cars. The horse drawn carriages have bottlenecked at the entrance to Central Park. Yellow cabs circle the Pulitzer fountain arriving and departing the hotel’s red carpeted front steps in steady numbers. At the centre of it, Pomona, the goddess of abundance, with her basket of fruit raised, looks off contentedly, to the right of Kat and Edward, beyond the trees into Central Park, past the ice rink and the Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis reservoir and to the dark empty grassless greens of Strawberry Fields and Sheep Meadow, now completely white.”

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Craig McDonald about the challenge of writing a series

November 29, 2016

BetimesBooksNow

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 Not the end of something?

By Craig McDonald

In autumn 2007, HEAD GAMES was published by Ben Leroy and Bleak House books.

It went on to earn best first novel nominations for the Edgar Award, the Anthony, and the Sélection du prix polar Saint-Maur en Poche in France, among others.

It also launched a series of ten novels featuring protagonist Hector Lassiter, pulp magazine writer, crime novelist and sometimes screenwriter.

Signing ARCs at Book Expo America 2007

Signing ARCs at Book Expo America 2007

Betimes Books has just published the climactic novel in the series, THREE CHORDS & THE TRUTH, set in Nashville about a year after HEAD GAMES, and bringing back several characters from that first novel.

CHORDS was always envisioned as a kind of HEAD GAMES sequel and definitive circle-closer.

I actually wrote the “last” Lassiter novel many, many years ago, much of it in situ in Nashville, Tennessee. I interviewed various songwriters and sat in on sound-checks to gather source material and atmosphere.

But mostly, I focused on putting a capstone on the Hector Lassiter saga.

Few are the mystery series in my experience that round out with the fulfillment of a charted character arc or larger story.

Most series simply trail off into oblivion because of soft sales, or the death of their author.

If the series is particularly popular, when the creator dies, some other writer is brought in to keep churning out inferior, never quite satisfying continuations, again toward no planned end.

There are very few exceptions to this rule of the never-ending series.

Most of those that occur still don’t typically deliver a unified story arc carried to a planned climax built toward across the span of the series.

More often, some poor author gets a dire diagnosis and so races the clock to close out their series before they too are “closed out.”

Others elect to do something mirroring Agatha Christie’s strategy of writing a series closer well ahead of time, then holding it in reserve for posthumous publication.

(Though in the Dame’s case, even killing off her character didn’t stop others from publishing further Poirot novels following the appearance of CURTAIN.)

I’ve long acknowledged James Sallis’ cycle of Lew Griffin novels as the inspiration for the Lassiter series.

Dublin reading, August 2016

Dublin reading, August 2016

Sallis wrote an interconnected and finite series of novels that together tell a larger story and build to a final revelation regarding his central protagonist.

With the Lassiter series, I wanted to do something similar: Construct a series toward a known end, allowing each book to stand alone, more or less, but in sum telling a much larger story regarding the character of Hector Lassiter and his eventual fate.

It was an audacious or perhaps even foolish goal to write a whole series ahead of any contract commitments. Certainly, given what I now know of the vagaries and failings of much of the publishing industry, it was a very naïve and hopeful thing for a baseline cynic like myself to undertake.

Yet I wrote first drafts of the novels in the series in the space of about three months per title, back-to-back, working toward the known conclusion of this last, Nashville-set series-closer.

The later entries in the series were mostly well into composition before the second novel, TOROS & TORSOS, was even contracted for publication by Bleak House Books.

Please let me run a highlighter over that point: Most of the series, including the last volume, was virtually written before the second book reached the galley stage some time in the summer of 2008.

There was never any guarantee the books would all see print. There was every chance the project might stall around book four or five and the rest of the novels would remain in limbo.

The first translation: French (La tête de Pancho Villa, Editions Belfond, 2009)

The first translation: French (“La tête de Pancho Villa”, Editions Belfond, 2009)

But the series has hung in there, collecting an international audience through translations in Spanish, French, Italian, Russian, Korean and Mongolian, among others.

In English language form, the Lassiter series currently encompasses four different publishers.

HEAD GAMES was also quickly optioned for graphic novel adaptation by First Second Books, prior to its Bleak House publication. I wrote the script for that project over a weekend nearly ten years ago (the art came much more slowly).

Next October, nearly ten years to the day that HEAD GAMES the novel was released, HEAD GAMES the graphic novel will at last appear.

A short story collection will also follow next year from Betimes Books, which now prints uniform editions of the entire series.

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Paris, March 2011

The short story collection will feature a never-before-published Lassiter novella set in the 1920s that roughly approaches the word count found in HEAD GAMES.

So while THREE CHORDS does represent the climax of the Hector Lassiter series as originally set forth, the Lassiter saga still has some moves left.

Hector has opened remarkable doors for me and provided international travel opportunities for my family.

He is forever there somewhere in my head, sometimes whispering in my ear. When you write this much about a single character for so long, you actually begin to see the world through his eyes.

Telling this storyteller’s story has resulted in years of wonderful correspondence and conversation with readers of all ages, nationalities and interests who’ve followed his saga.

I very much look forward to hearing the reactions to this “last” Hector Lassiter novel.

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 Contact us for a free electronic review copy!

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Adopt a Minotaur this Christmas

November 22, 2016

BetimesBooksNow

“If all the ways I have been along were marked on a map and joined up with a line, it might represent a minotaur.”     Pablo Picasso

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“Minotaur” by Man Ray

Craig McDonald’s novel Toros & Torsos is based on a theory that the famous Los Angeles “Black Dahlia” murders were inspired by the Surrealist masterpieces of the 1930s. McDonald took this idea even further and created a murder masterpiece that suggested a conspiracy of serial Surrealist killers. A particular inspiration was Man Ray’s “Minotaur” in which the pose of the subject was eerily similar to the body of the Black Dahlia.

The surrealists were always captivated by the myth of the Minotaur. The beast trapped in the maze became the symbol of the surrealist subject lost in the labyrinth of his own subconscious desires. The artists embraced the beast for its representation of the self-reflexive nature of monstrosity that comes from the Minotaur being created from both human and animal.

"Dora and the Minotaur" by Pablo Picasso

“Dora and the Minotaur” by Pablo Picasso

Although never a subscriber to the movement, Picasso was nevertheless interested in the Minotaur, and the animal is increasingly present in his work in the 1930s.

For Picasso, the Minotaur acts as the keeper of taboo sexual secrets and also the subconscious fulfilment of them.

Scroll down to read an excerpt from Toros & Torsos in which the myth of the Minotaur is described.

A limited edition hard cover copy, signed and fingerprinted by the author, would make the perfect Christmas gift for any crime & mystery lover.
Available to order HERE for €40.

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Hector lit a cigarette and said, “Bishop, I’ve been looking over Le Minotaure some more. What exactly is it with the bulls…the Minotaur thing? What’s the significance to you surrealists?”

Bishop pulled out one of his own cigarettes and then fastened it to the end of a long, black cigarette holder. Hector lit the little man’s cigarette with his Zippo and then lit another for Rachel. Hem, a nonsmoker, scooted his chair around a little closer to Harriet, who also wasn’t smoking.

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The Minotaur continues to fascinate artists: A sculpture by Jivko. Exhibition Place Saint-Sulpice, Paris, Oct. 2016

“Partly, I think it’s just a preoccupation of our times, driven in no small part by this man, here.” Bishop gestured at Hem. “First with The Sun Also Rises, and now with Death in the Afternoon. Hem has made us all fascinated with the myth and ritual of the bullfight. And many of us in the surrealist movement are Spainophiles and aficionados in our own rights. But it is also the myth of the Minotaur that fascinates us and made us choose the Minotaur to serve as our kind of surrealist emblem.”

Hector said, “I’m just an old boy from Southern Texas. My Greek mythology is, well, it ain’t great. I mean, I know it involves something about a maze, or something, and some fella going into to kill the half-human, half-bull who lived at the center, but…” He shrugged. “But that’s as far as I go.”

Bishop said, “Harriet here is quite an avid folklorist. You tell Hector, dear.”

She smiled and blushed, her gaze darting around the table. It was apparent the little woman was intimidated by her story-teller company, but she pressed ahead:

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“Theseus and the Minotaur”, ca. 550 BC

“The story goes that Poseidon, the sea god, gifted the king of Crete — Minos — with a white bull. Minos was supposed to sacrifice the white bull, and when he didn’t, Poseidon retaliated by making the king’s wife, Pasiphaë, fall in love with and actually couple with the bull. Their offspring was a hideous creature, the Minotaur, a giant human hybrid with a bull’s head. Minos then hired Daedalus to construct the labyrinth to contain the Minotaur. Once a decade, Minos sent seven men into the labyrinth to their deaths — and to be food for the beast inside. Finally, a hero, Theseus, volunteered to be one of the seven sent to their deaths. Theseus was in love with Minos’ daughter, Ariadne. He planned to kill the Minotaur. Ariadne provided Theseus with a long spool of thread, so that after he had killed the monster, Theseus could follow the thread back out of the labyrinth.”

Hector blew a smoke ring and said, “Things went to plan, and then this Greek boy and the king’s daughter, Ariadne, they lived happily ever after?”

“Oh no,” Harriet Blair said, shaking her head. “Theseus abandoned Ariadne soon after. He was off on his next adventure.”

“In that, it sounds like one of my books,” Hector said. “But I see now — the myth, I mean. It’s a psychological minefield.”

From Toros & Torsos, Craig McDonald, © 2008

An unmissable book at an unbeatable price

August 9, 2016

BetimesBooksNow

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Bring New York on holidays with you with this August promotion of Richard Kalich‘s Central Park West Trilogy : it’s only £0.99 on Amazon UK until the end of the month!

***

– So we are going to do this like a courtroom drama, or an interrogation?

– Yes. We are. We are indeed.

– Why?

– Because most of the book is done in that style.

–  I see. Was the book impressive?

– Yes, very impressive. Mr. Kalich is a great writer.

– And he appears in the book too?

– Yes, if it really is him, if you know what I mean…you can call the book postmodern, or that he uses meta-narratives or…RK on his terrace with view-page-001

– That all sounds a bit confusing.

– In theory yes, but it’s a very entertaining book. Says a lot about writing. And the creative process. It’s playful, but not flippant. We’re dealing with a serious artist here.

– Oh, really?

***

Read the full review of Penthouse F, one of the novels in Central Park West Trilogy, on Colin O’Sullivan’s blog.

***

Cover image and art © Bernard Piga

Something Parisian for your home

May 6, 2016

BetimesBooksNow

We are pleased to announce that you can now order any illustration from our book IN LOVE WITH PARIS as a limited edition print, numbered x/50 and signed by the artist.

The book contains 67 colour illustrations by Gérard Ramon and quotes about Paris from Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, Ernest Hemingway, Julien Green, and others.

Flick through the book and contact us to order your print!

Size of the print: A3 (297 x 420 mm / 11.7 x 16.5 in). Size of the image: A4 (210 x 297 mm / 8.3 x 11.7 in)

Price: 95 Euro (free delivery worldwide)

Original artwork also available (watercolours and mixed media on paper). Contact us.

Kindle promotion in Australia for TOROS & TORSOS

March 24, 2016

BetimesBooksNow

Kindle edition for only 99 cents!

 

3 TOROSx2700“Nothing short of a surrealistic masterwork.”  —Chicago Tribune

“McDonald’s imaginative tale takes an enjoyably different approach to art and murder.” —Publishers Weekly

“In his lush, sprawling novel Craig McDonald draws together both the timeliest markers of mid-century America—modernism, surrealism, film noir, pulp fiction, communism—and the eternal touchstones of classic crime literature—desire, chaos, obsession and loss. It is a bold, bloody landscape, but McDonald never lets its scale become so big that we lose sight of the lively characters at its dark center. Wily and wistful Hector Lassiter, a complicated, rueful and haunted Ernest Hemingway and dozens more draw us close to their chests, anchor us, win our favor and, in the end, break our hearts.”  —Megan Abbot

HEAD GAMES features in Amazon Australia’s Winter Sale

July 23, 2015

BetimesBooksNow

After the big success of the first five Hector Lassiter novels, Australian fans of the series can discover the now-cult  Edgar® Award finalist HEAD GAMES — for only AUS $0.99:

http://www.amazon.com.au/Head-Games-Hector-Lassiter-novel-ebook/dp/B00SFQEQ92/ref=sr_1_6?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1437602800&sr=1-6

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Read Craig McDonald’s blog post to learn more about the novel and the series:

http://craigmcdonaldbooks.blogspot.ie/2015/07/head-games-hello-again-australia.html

Australian readers discover Sam Hawken

April 22, 2015

BetimesBooksNow

Poignant and timely, Sam Hawken​’s novel LA FRONTERA is currently on #promotion in Australia: http://www.amazon.com.au/Frontera-Sam-Hawken-ebook/dp/B00GZRNOAU/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1429693493&sr=1-1&keywords=La+Frontera

“I put aside books from Michael Connolly, Ken Follett and a dozen others to read this. And I was not disappointed. I rarely do reviews. I think a lot of them are phoney. This one isn’t. Sam Hawken is at the very top of American crime writing. I enjoy his sparse, hard-hitting style far more than the crime novels I see on bookshelves everywhere. This novel is exceptional. Truly engaging. Truly touching. Hard to put down, with striking images of the terror people go through on the Mexican-American border this book opened my eyes and entertained. It’s not often that happens.”   — Amazon reader’s review

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Australian promotion for REACH THE SHINING RIVER by Kevin Stevens

April 22, 2015

BetimesBooksNow

Australian readers, don’t miss Kevin Stevens beautiful historical crime novel REACH THE SHINING RIVER for only 0.99 AUD:

http://www.amazon.com.au/REACH-SHINING-RIVER-Kevin-Stevens-ebook/dp/B00JYBISXM/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1429692688&sr=1-1&keywords=Reach+the+Shining+River

“Not only a solid murder mystery, but equally a colourful and thought-provoking study of a moment in time. With the rhythm and cadence of the prose, echoing the blues soundtrack that underscored the whole book, Stevens easily achieved that balance between crime fiction and literary fiction due to his exceptional characterization and engaging prose.” —Raven Crime Reads

Reach the Shinning River

PERMANENT FATAL ERROR on Kindle Bestseller list in Australia

March 24, 2015

BetimesBooksNow

PERMANENT FATAL ERROR by Hadley Colt in Australia:
• Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #5 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
• #1 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Thrillers > Suspense
• #3 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Thrillers > Crime

Capture

Video trailer and excerpt from PERMANENT FATAL ERROR by Hadley Colt

March 19, 2015

BetimesBooksNow

 

The following excerpt refers to Everett Hyde’s letter:

“Ashley’s former professor drew a deep breath and said, “Tough stuff, isn’t it? I received it, via his publisher, about three months after the publication of his third novel, Rain Dogs. About a year before the death, as I recall it. I was asking his publisher to pass along to Hyde some questions for a biographical section I originally envisioned opening my book on Hyde and his first three novels. This is what I received instead.”

Chase had placed the professor on speaker-phone after Ashley had called Adam Greenwood, engaging him in a bit of small talk and reminiscing about classes with him before explaining about Chase and his new project and then passing the phone to Chase.

Rubbing his jaw, Chase said, “Rain Dogs. That’s an interesting title. What’s it mean?”

Ashley narrowed her eyes, then raised her hands in a, “Why are you asking that?” gesture.

Professor Adam Greenwood hesitated, then said, “You haven’t read any of Hyde’s novels, Mr. Alger?”

“The first, I think, but it’s been a long, long time ago,” Chase said. He squirmed in his chair, trying to avoid Ashley’s eyes. “Rest assured, I’m knuckling down to re-reading them soon. I was freshly struck by that title when you said it just now.”

“Tom Waits, the singer-songwriter, used it for an album title not long after Hyde’s last book appeared,” the professor said. “Maybe it was done in homage to Hyde. Anyway, it’s from an obscure turn of phrase. In New York City, or any large urban area, the dogs may wander the streets at will, but sometimes the rain comes, hard and unexpected, and the dogs lose their trail for the path back home, the scent washed away. So they wander around lost and stray, or rain dogs.”

“Evocative,” Chase said.”

***

To our Australian readers: don’t miss the Kindle Daily deal for PERMANENT FATAL ERROR on March 23: http://viewbook.at/permanentfatalerror

“Lying Still” by David Hogan

February 16, 2015

BetimesBooksNow

David Hogan’s The Last Island is currently on promotion in Australia.

David Hogan - Writer

Hospital Bed

When I was 17 years old, I dove into a swimming pool and broke my neck.

Until that moment, I’d been relentlessly active, my days taxed with dread of missing something somewhere. I was on the student council and participated in a wide variety of school clubs. I always secured a part in the school play and rode a unicycle in talent shows. I ran cross-country in the fall, track in the spring and was co-captain of the basketball team in between. I was an honor student who worked full-time in the summer and caddied most weekends in the spring and early fall, except on certain Sundays when I served as an altar boy. I’d never had a drink or a smoke, and I rarely swore. Yet that pleasant summer day, for reasons still unclear to me, I plunged into a six-foot deep above-ground pool and slammed the top of…

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Anti-Valentine! Excerpt from CHARLIE P by Richard Kalich

February 14, 2015

BetimesBooksNow

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From the chapter “The young harpist”

At age fifty-seven Charlie P fell in love with a twenty year-old Bulgarian harpist entering Juilliard on scholarship. Besides being young and beautiful, she came from a good family, too. Her mother not only taught ethics at the university, but practiced what she preached. Her father discovered the cure for cancer. Her grandfather assassinated both Hitler and Stalin, and what makes these deeds even more remarkable is that he accomplished them before the War. It has been thirty-three years since Charlie P had last been in love. And now this. How lucky could he get. Miracle of miracles. Wonder of wonders. Charlie P never thought it would happen to him again.

On their first meeting, Charlie P wanted to buy the young woman the world. And with an outpouring of generosity that the world has rarely seen, he bought the young woman all of Manhattan as well as the Brooklyn Bridge. And in the wee hours he sneaked off with her to Paris and brought back the Eiffel Tower, too. At the date’s end, for his generosity and kindness, the young woman told him she loved him. But when Charlie P leaned his head forward and pursed his lips, all she gave him was a peck on the cheek. It’s only to be expected, said Charlie P. What else could an old man like myself expect from such a young and beautiful girl. Who comes from a good family, too.

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From the chapter “Love is war”

What if the love of his life is not all he made her out to be? What if only for a fleeting second Charlie P opens his eyes and can see?

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From the chapter “Do you know the difference…?”

“Do you know the difference between an artist and a businessman?” said Charlie P in one of his many arguments with the young harpist. “I’ll tell you.”

“A businessman is interested in power, lives for power, first and always is power, he’s a power monger. No amount of money or power is enough for him. Only those things tangible and palpable, of flesh and blood reality, those things he can touch, smell, see and hear, interest him. To obtain those things he instrumentalizes and manipulates the world. Accumulation, more and more is his sole aim and credo. His raison d’être and clarion call.”

Charlie P pauses for a deep breath. When he continued his voice had changed noticeably.

“The artist on the other hand pursues truth and meaning, and the making of all things beautiful. He has no use for the tangible and the palpable. The functional and the material. He’s sensitive and delicate and cannot pass a glowing sun or a pale moon or a patch of cloud or a sheet of rain without stopping to gaze in awe and wonder. He lives in the clouds with only the starry constellations spinning in his head.”

“Just as I thought,” said the young harpist. “I know the difference.”

“You do?”

“Yes. And I prefer the businessman.”

 

Valentine’s Day: “Let’s get that ring a mate”

February 14, 2015

BetimesBooksNow

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Excerpt from Forever’s Just Pretend  by Craig McDonald

“She bit her lip. “Have I scared you buying us a love nest, Hec?”

“You, the nomad, bought a house?” Hector could hardly believe what he was hearing. Brinke was the consummate globetrotter. He bit his lip, watching her. Well, well.

“We promised one another so much in Paris a year ago,” Brinke said. The candlelight  flickered in her charcoal eyes.

“All this time apart has only made me goofier for you. A real Dumb Dora. I mean to keep my vows, darling.” She put down her fork and squeezed his hand. “So what about you?” She was holding her breath.

“I’m here,” Hector said.

“We made another promise, remember, Hector? A promise about vows. Remember?”

“I proposed. I remember just fine. I asked you for a trip up the middle aisle and meant it.”

“And I accepted.” She held up her left hand. The candlelight caught the diamond in her ring. “I still have this. I’ve never taken it off . The only tan line on my body now. But are you still sure? You’ve always seemed so proud and protective of your solitude. In Paris, you were always declaring yourself solo lobo and pleased and proud to be that way. At least to all appearances.”

“Playing the lone wolf was souring, even back then,” he said. “You can only make yourself your own mark for so long before it becomes your life or plays out very badly. Let’s get that ring a mate.”

Brinke smiled and squeezed his hand harder. “When?”

“Just as soon as you can arrange it.  That church, St. Mary, Star of the Sea—why not get married there? Do it lickety-split?”

“You mean that, darling?”

“No second thoughts,” he said.”

 

And a song to go with it:

 

 FOREVER’S JUST PRETEND is available here: http://getbook.at/ForeversJustPretend

Willow Weep for Me

February 13, 2015

BetimesBooksNow

img1jazz“By the time the singer appeared, the house was full. Arlene Gray stepped elegantly on the stage and approached the microphone, one hand moving in time with the music, the other resting against the curve of her hip. There was warm applause. Light-skinned and full-figured, she wore a black, strapless sheath with sequins that sparkled in the house lights.

She looked like a diva, but her voice was delicate, almost shy. She opened with “Willow Weep for Me”. Six years ago, when he was courting Fay, it had been the torch song for a generation. Irene Taylor had the hit, a big, show-stopping number with orchestral flourishes and quavering grace notes.

But Arlene Gray’s version was low-key and off-center. She sang as if speaking to her audience, and the phrases moved gently and rhythmically, like the sound of lapping waves.

Whisper to the wind and say that love has sinned

Left my heart a-breaking, and making a moan

Murmur to the night to hide its starry light

So none will see me sighing and crying all alone.

The sad music washed over him. Unused to whiskey, he grew maudlin. He thought of Fay. A lost cause. Solving the case wasn’t going to make any difference. It would land him the job with her old man and make him a shitload of dough, but none of that mattered. She might stay with him for what he could give her, but she hated something inside of him.

Something that wasn’t going to change.

He drank his whiskey. Let Mickey get the dirt on her. Let him find out the worst.

At the end of the set he moved unsteadily to the bar. He ordered a double. The bartender was brisk but deferent. He wiped the counter with a cloth and set the drink on a beermat.

“She’s something, huh?” Emmett said.

“Yes sir. M’s. Gray, she know how to sing.”

— Excerpt from REACH THE SHINING RIVER by Kevin Stevens

Available here: http://viewbook.at/reachtheshiningriver

A single kiss

February 12, 2015

BetimesBooksNow

1-bottlenose-dolphin-tursiops-truncatus-jumping-out-of-water-sunset-rene-frederick“A shooting star zipped across the sky. I watched it streak behind the mountain on the other side of the island as I thought about the woman against the opposite side of the concrete wall, so very different from me – or anyone. She was a genuine being, pure in spirit and without pretense, willfully removed from possessions, greed, artificiality, and guided, not by tradition like the fishermen, nor by desire or competitive­ness as I’d been, but by her imaginings and passions and, to use her word, interpretations. Either because of or in spite of her past, she’d become a culture unto herself, far removed from anyone or anything I’d ever known and, for that, there was something uncorrupted and beautiful within her – unlike myself, the waste of a man beside her, who’d been given much and only wanted more, and who’d traded love and purpose for the grotesque satisfactions of a smirking man.

I turned around, reached for her dirty hand through the bars, and kissed it; and nothing in mind and memory seemed more honest, more true than this single kiss.”

— Excerpt from THE LAST ISLAND by David Hogan

 

 

Available here: http://viewbook.at/thelastisland 

The Last Island is currently on promotion in Australia.

 

Come on, baby, light my fire

February 10, 2015

BetimesBooksNow

Atomic Boy copy“Come with me, little girl,” said Fausto, leading me back inside. “I’ll light your candy cigarette for you.”

The easiness of us surprised me. I had thought a relationship with an Italian man would be fuelled by arguments and accusations, judging by the amount of couples I came upon in the street doing their impression of a Punch and Judy show. I hadn’t wanted to acknowledge the old stereotypes until I realized Italians wholly embraced them: women liked to be whistled at because it signified an appreciation of their femininity and the efforts they made with their appearance; men wore the lothario label proudly as a tribute to their manhood; both sexes considered outlandish exhibitions of jealousy a sign of devotion, and any reference to their highly strung personality was amended with the word ‘passionate’ and accepted with a shrug.

However, in Fausto, I had stumbled upon the antitype: reflective and trusting, he was an example of the less-chronicled new model of Italian male. He would come in from a football match and rustle me up a risotto. Next to his slickly presented countrymen, his hair never conceded to his wishes, its colour alone preventing him from ever appearing coordinated.

Among the sprawling herds of Vespas, Aprilias and Piaggios, his scooter, which he named Quasimodo, was the proverbial black sheep, a triumph of individuality. He didn’t own a cell phone carrying instead a battered volume of Italian poetry in the back pocket of his jeans.

I enjoyed his cooking—especially the truffle dishes––preferred his dishevelled manliness to the plucked and tweezed variety, and even developed a grudging respect for Quasimodo which he had assembled with his brother over the course of a summer mostly from scrap parts. The poetry he recited was from the thirteenth-century and had nothing to do with modern Italian established in the seventeenth century, so while I loved how it sounded—scholarly, lyrical, romantic—I didn’t understand a word.

All in all, Fausto and I had the kind of relationship I couldn’t even have dreamt up for myself.

***

The next day…

The sound of my phone ringing lifted me from my thoughts: it was Edward.

“Oh thank goodness, I am saved,” I said. “I’m on the tram of the damned, miles from civilization, hurtling through the frozen inner circle of hell. Keep me company, Edward. Tell me stories so I don’t fall asleep and end up God knows where.”

“Okay. How’s this for a story? I lent my flat to a friend for an evening, and she burnt the fucking place down.”

— Excerpt from SILK FOR THE FEED DOGS by Jackie Mallon

 Available here: http://viewbook.at/silkforthefeeddogs

 

Hector Lassiter: a hero for women who love men who love women

February 9, 2015

BetimesBooksNow

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From Craig McDonald’s preface to the Hector Lassiter series:

“The “hero” of this series, your guide through these books, is Hector Mason Lassiter, a shades-of-grey guy who is a charmer, a rogue, a bit of a rake, and, himself, a crime novelist.

Some others in the novels say he bears a passing resemblance to the actor William Holden. Hector smokes and drinks and eats red meat. He favors sports jackets, open collar shirts and Chevrolets. He lives his life on a large canvas. He’s wily, but often impulsive; he’s honorable, but mercurial.

He often doesn’t understand his own drives. That is to say, he’s a man. He’s a man’s man and a lady’s man. He’s a romantic, but mostly very unlucky in love. Yet his life’s largely shaped by the women passing through it.”

Read also Craig McDonadl’s post about Brinke Devlon, the woman who “created” Hector Lassiter: http://craigmcdonaldbooks.blogspot.ie/2014/08/brinke-devlin-woman-who-created-hector.html

while listening to the song that runs through some of the Hector Lassiter novels: