Netflix’s Ozark and My Ozarks

For the past several days Hubby D and I have been binge/cringe watching Ozark on Netflix. What a hoot, especially Jason Bateman’s character, a former financial planner scrambling to stay alive by laundering money or die trying—along with his wife and kids. St. Louisan Bill Dubuque, who as a teenager summered at Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks, has created a dysfunctional mix of characters—from a Chicago drug lord who forces a middle-class suburban family’s relocation to The Lake to a series of displaced locals who’ve already been there for decades and resent catering to highfalutin vacationers and weekenders.

Weekenders—uh, that would describe our real-life family, sort of. Over the past eighteen years we’ve evolved from condo-owners who paid dearly not to lift a single finger to money-pit homeowners who’ve lifted many a finger—mostly the middle one.

In any case, Ozark does bring to mind a horror story I wrote some years ago. It’s about sleazy paparazzo Les Best who’s on the run from a New York loan shark when he hits his stride at Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks where a top model is camping out with her latest squeeze. Once again, or maybe for the first time, I give you …

The Big Shot

On a Friday evening in late June, Lester Best eased his customized SUV across the wooden slats of a swinging bridge spanning the Auglaize Creek in the heart of Missouri’s Ozarks. He kicked up white gravel for another two miles before realizing he’d gone too far. Going too far best defined Les Best, that and an absurd name he regretted not having changed early in his career. Les turned around and retraced his powdery route until he found the campground entrance to the state park at Kaiser. He rattled along under the dense shade of canopied trees, dodging deep ruts and cruising past a hodgepodge of trailers and pop-up campers. After reaching the lakefront area jammed with more weekenders, he selected one of the few remaining primitive sites. No electricity, no water, and no flush toilet: the perfect retreat for a deadbeat fugitive nursing a matching set of splinted forefingers.

Les staked his tent as far away as possible from his nearest neighbors, two wannabe hill people who strolled over long enough for first-name introductions before returning to their beer and makeshift setup. Will, whose white beard overlapped his bib overalls, pressed a harmonica to his lips and played a haunting rendition of Ruby for his own Ruby. She wore yards of calico, chain-smoked, and complained non-stop from an aluminum lawn chair straining under her massive weight. After thirty minutes of the audio assault, Les stifled his urge to suggest that Will muzzle both Rubies, opting instead to utilize the earplugs he’d brought from his Lower East Side apartment.

Although Les Best lived and breathed New York, he’d grown up in Missouri, first in foster care and later on a boys’ ranch designed for discards and the wayward. Les qualified as both, then and now. His temporary return to the Show Me State was not out of nostalgia but to avoid settling a debt of ninety thousand dollars he’d incurred through a series of risky ventures. Joey Plastic, the New York mobster who held the note, had arranged for the dislocation of Les’s forefingers to induce an initial interest payment of five thousand bucks, but Les figured the bastard would never extend his pursuit into the fly-over boonies of mid-America. On that Les Best would’ve bet his mother’s life, if he’d ever had a mother. Still, he must’ve since his many enemies and few friends usually referred to him as ‘that sonofabitch’.

*****

That night Les conked out in the back of his SUV. The next morning found him on the pea gravel beach, pushing a rented johnboat into the Grand Glaize Arm of Lake of the Ozarks. Splinters erect, he paddled from one cove to another until he located the ideal fishing spot, one deserted and edged with brush. By ten o’clock, water smooth as glass reflected the cocky blue of a clear sky and Les hadn’t caught a single crappie. At noon he peeled off his sweat-drenched shirt, dropped his knit shorts, and mooned a parade of skiers and speedboats stirring up the wake. “You can all go to hell!” he yelled, before sending his pricey rod and reel to sleep with the fishes.

Back at camp two Generation Xers had squeezed in between his site and the wannabes, who were making honeymoon racket in their tent—a conjured image amusing enough to make Les forget the fishing gear he regretted sinking. To the X couple, he returned an obligatory wave and howdy that seasoned campers felt compelled to offer each other. Still, he kept his distance, watching the Xers struggle with the pegs and canvas of new equipment. At last they stood back, arm in arm, to admire their saggy abode. It burped once and collapsed into a heap. Male X pushed back his red-orange feather cut and appealed to Les.

“What do you say, mister. How ‘bout some help?”

What the hell, Missouri know-it-alls, even those partially disabled, were supposed to be accommodating. Les ambled over. He offered a few practical suggestions and within five minutes the tent stood erect and operational. The sun-deprived stranger stuck out a soft hand accustomed to professional manicures.

“Much obliged. Sorry about those bum fingers,” X said with a grin of orthodontically enhanced teeth. “I’m Josh. Over there’s Betty Sue.”

Betty Sue, as in leggy and trim, nodded from a distance.

“No problem. Call me … Les.” Their encounter should’ve ended on the handshake but that’s when Les noticed Josh’s tattooed wrist: a pissing gargoyle with folded wings. As in the official logo for heavy metal’s Grotes and Gargs. As in Josh Nolan, lead drummer. The revelation prompted a closer look at Betty Sue, as in trying to fade into the background. No make-up, blonde pigtails, tee shirt and khaki shorts: typical back-to-nature but this chick was no typical camper. Les Best, master of deception, could spot a plain-Jane disguise in the most unlikely of locales.

Les didn’t linger with the Xers but Betty Sue hadn’t fooled him. That face and that body belonged to none other than Ivy Sinclair, last year’s nobody who shot up to become this year’s hottest glitz and glamour TV diva. When it suited Ivy Sinclair, the twenty-something preened for tinsel town’s red carpet. But when she wasn’t hustling the public, she kept her private life way too private: another ploy to fuel the fires of her clamoring fans. And before this weekend Josh Nolan had been nothing more than an unconfirmed rumor. Now the oblivious, sexy twosome belonged to Les, exclusively.

Never in a million years could he have plotted a better scenario: Les Best, New York paparazzo of uncensored privacy, tenting in Missouri next to La-La Land’s newest duo. Les had escaped from New York with his only cameras not in hock: the miniature spy and a Panasonic with 600mm zoom lens. From campsite to wooded area to man-made beach, he devoted every waking moment to cursing his splints and plying his craft. Ivy and Josh kissing, Ivy and Josh necking, Ivy and Josh rolling around—the usual predictable stuff. His best shot thus far: Ivy in a modest bikini, her trademark tattoo peeking out the underside. Nice, too nice: translation, boring.

By Sunday evening the primitive weekenders had packed up and returned to their mundane, air-conditioned lives. Only the wannabes, the celebs, and Les remained, bunched up like yesterday’s pioneers anticipating an Indian raid. Will’s musical switch from the melancholy Ruby to the melancholy Moon River again confirmed he hadn’t succumbed to the evils of pop culture. More Moon River prompted Les to throw out a scrap of unctuous chum to the celebs. “If you folks want to spread out closer to the water’s edge, I’ll help you break camp.”

“Nah, that’s OK,” Josh said. “We’re planning to move on day after tomorrow.”

Damn! Thirty-six hours didn’t leave Les much time. He needed a big shot, the shot to end all shots.

*****

Monday morning brought a stir of gentle lake breezes that rustled the leaves in stately red oaks dominating every clump of trees. While a pot of coffee brewed over his pit fire, Les cracked four eggs into four pats of butter sizzling in the cast iron skillet. He added a can of corned beef hash, leaned back, and waited for it all to make sense. Licking his lips, he sucked in the artery-clogging, woodsy aromas and closed his eyes to savor the moment. Then Josh coughed. Photo op! Les grabbed his Panasonic. Snap, snap: Josh crawling from his tent. Snap, snap: Josh stumbling to the john. Les gambled with the next few minutes. He hurried to the celebs’ tent; the flap was open and Ivy, asleep. Damn, in an oversized T-shirt and on her back. He considered using a long stick to lift her shirt but didn’t want to blow his chance for something better. Instead he located her in his viewfinder and got off two shots before his ears detected a distant rattle from the men’s latrine. By the time Josh came shuffling back, Les was hunched over his fire, scraping burnt glob from the skillet.

He poured a cup of muddy coffee and waited with eyes never straying far from the neighboring tent. Finally, his lovely prey emerged from her shelter, still wearing the baggy tee.

Behold Ivy in the morning, an Ozark wood nymph splashing her face with Evian. Les snapped his mini. She stretched her toned arms overhead. Snap, snap. She jumped Josh, played kissy-face, and wrapped her legs around his lean body to reveal the trail of ivy from her bikini. Snap, snap. Ivy and Josh spun around, fell to the ground, and seeing Les, they giggled like love-struck teenagers. He acknowledged them with a lift of his coffee mug.

“Hey, Les, any idea where we can arrange for some horses?” Josh called out.

Les clenched his teeth. Didn’t these people ever think for themselves? In their showbiz realm agents and managers provided the brainpower. Out here the celebs had latched onto him. He forced a smile. “Check out the info packet you got at the welcome station.”

“Damn, now why didn’t I think of that,” Josh said, shaking dust from his hair. “Thanks, good buddy.”

While Josh and Ivy mulled over the park information with the intensity of first-timers planning a European adventure (snap, snap), Les formulated his own plan. After the celebs pulled away in their Navigator, he drove into Osage Beach, parked at a strip mall, and speed-dialed Emanuel Gold on his cell phone. “Manny, baby. What’s up?”

“Don’t what’s up me, you sonofabitch,” yelled the editor of MORE.

Manny being Manny. Les could almost feel the bastard’s spit blasting through the receiver.

“Where the hell you been?” Manny demanded.

“Something came up. I had to leave in a hurry.”

“You left me with garbage too tame for Mother Teresa’s newsletter.”

“Yeah, yeah, mea culpa. But I’ll make it up to you—a thousand times over. For the right price, that is.”

“You get nothing ‘til I see some skin.”

“How about some of Ivy Sinclair’s?”

“No way, you crazy sonofabitch!”

“Remember her in the February issue of SWEET: beach volleyball in a mini bikini, ivy wandering over those oh-so-firm cheeks. Well, I’m sleeping next to that same tattoo in the same location.”

“Ivy Sinclair dumped her latest squeeze for a sonofabitch like you?”

“Let’s just say the three of us are tighter than a virgin’s ass, if you get my drift. They’re splitting tomorrow but not before I get a piece of her.”

“Just make sure you get the real Ivy and not some pathetic knock-off. By the way, big shot, two scum bags have been inquiring as to your whereabouts, which leads me the obvious question.”

No way, Manny. Les hung up and went shopping for supplies. When he got back to camp, no one was around except a uniformed park employee. The dead ringer for the prison matron in Chicago was leaning against a tree, checking her clipboard. “How do,” he said in his resurrected Missouri twang. “Is there a problem, ma’am?”

“Just making my rounds,” she replied without looking up. “Dogging after the outsourcers hired to sanitize and equip our facilities.”

“As in odor-eaters and toilet paper?”

“You got it.”

“How often you empty them suckers?”

“End of the season, unless they fill up sooner.”

As soon as the latrine queen zipped away in her truck, Les opened up the back of his SUV. He removed a telescopic ladder folded to the size of a small suitcase and covered it with brush in the wooded area. The remainder of the day he spent reading entertainment rags and contemplating a triumphant return to New York, after he squared his debts.

*****

By ten o’clock that night the temperature hovered around seventy degrees, and a star-filled sky and quarter moon provided the primitive area’s only light source. The wannabes finally stopped pitching beer cans, a precursor to ending Ruby’s steady harping and Will’s harmonica Ruby. But after he quieted down, she reverted to soft wailing. Any other night Les would’ve sailed his skillet in their direction, but not this night. Tonight he wanted no disruptions. The celebs were snuggled on a log near their low fire (snap, snap) and discussing some stellar configuration, probably basking in the glory of their own shining stars. For Les, the best was yet to come. After extinguishing his campfire with a pail of water and some dirt, he called out through a yawn, “G’night, folks.”

Inside his tent, Les stripped naked. He climbed into chest waders, donned a plastic rain jacket, and slipped a painter’s mask around his neck. Next, the construction hard hat, equipped with an attached light that Les couldn’t risk turning on too soon. As he crept into the dark woods, sweat beaded his skin and clunk to his eyelashes. He retrieved his ladder and headed to the women’s pit latrine where a swarm of buzzing flies greeted him when he opened the door. The almost tolerable odor evoked his whispered, “Thank you, latrine queen.”

Les flipped on his light, secured his mask. He twisted the toilet off its base, extended his ladder down the concrete container, and started his descent along the four-foot width. Five feet down, he stopped to slide the toilet back into the lip of the base. Six inches later he stepped into waste. At eight feet he bottomed out. Whoa! He reeled from the stench. Damn the latrine queen for only going so far with her chemicals. Unlike Les, she didn’t exceed certain limitations.

During his teenage years on the ranch when trucks hauled in cattle, Les usually got stuck with the grunt job of prodding reluctant animals from the trailers. He’d worked in ankle-deep shit then and vowed never again, but Les wasn’t one to keep his word, not even to himself. The greenbacks from these shots would get Joey Plastic off his back, his other cameras out of hock. Maybe garner him some insider celeb tips, a ringside table at some classy watering hole. Most of all, he’d gain the respect of every jerk who ever flipped him off.

Les took pride in catering to an insatiable public who demanded a piece of their adored celebs. Or untouchable royals, even the Queen of England had been fair game. For years the toilet seat she used in one of Chicago’s leading hotels had been displayed on its archive wall of notables. Small potatoes now compared to the recorded affairs of younger royals and the videotaped sex of entertainers and athletes. After tonight Les Best would rank with the best, the most innovative.

Ten minutes passed. Les heard the light crunch of twigs: Ivy, right on schedule. He killed his light, leaned into the splattered wall, and muffled a gag. The door opened, latched closed, and a low, pitiful moan filled the enclosure.

“Heads or tails, which one’s goin’ first,” Ruby said in a voice bordering on baritone. “Okay, lips, you win.”

Ruby’s eyes were squeezed tight as she centered her moon face overhead. That’s when Les directed his face to the wall. After five minutes of gasping and heaving, she turned and plopped her dimpled buns over the toilet, creating a suction that cut off the air supply below. Between her choked-up sobs and torrents of diarrhea, Ruby prayed. She groaned. She shuddered. She went silent.

Down below, Les had prayed too, for the first time in years. His head was spinning; his finger splints got tangled. He lost his grip and fell back into the waste. Still, he managed to hold his camera high. Ruby didn’t even stir when he sloshed to the ladder. Fighting for each breath, he struggled up the rungs. When he topped out, Les poked one splint into Ruby’s sealed posterior. He poked again, this time harder. Finally, Ruby shifted. She wiggled off the seat, allowing Les to fill his lungs before she left.

Les was ready to relinquish his dream for the big shot when he heard footsteps again. This time there was no mistaking Ivy. Her flashlight beam sought out despicable insects and a tidy toilet seat. She planted her sweet tush on the throne. Ever so gently Les switched on his light. The ivy trailing Ivy’s cheeks wiggled as she made a few adjustments. Les held his breath and snapped away, the camera shutter so quiet even he couldn’t hear it as he recorded such delightful anatomical shots: Les Best’s unique contribution to the science of exploitation. Toilet paper fluttered down.

As soon as Ivy lifted her buns, Les killed his light. But instead of the darkness he expected, another flash came from above. The bitch had stolen his image with her own camera.

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Lester Best.”

“You knew me before this weekend?”

“Let’s just say your reputation preceded you.”

“Could your turn off that flashlight, Ivy? I can’t see a thing.”

“Not before I get your camera. Just put it in the bucket I’m sending down by rope.”

Damn, she was smarter than he thought. Les had no choice but to part with his Panasonic.

“The film too.” She lowered the bucket again and he gave it up.

“We can make a deal,” he said. “Just you and me and the big shot. I’m not shitting you when I say Les Best has the absolute best connections.”

“Unfortunately, not as good as mine. In fact, my connection made me the star I am today. That’s why he asked me, and only me, to deliver an important message to you.”

Les could see her now, all too clearly—leaning over the opening, a flashlight in one hand and a revolver in the other. He opened his mouth to speak but the last words he would ever hear came from Ivy.

“For Les Best, Joey Plastic sends only his best.”

###

 

“The Big Shot” was first published in the 2007 Horror Anthology Damned in Dixie

and later in the 2010 Winter issue of Allegory Ezine.

 

 

 

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Lorenzo and the Ligurian Sea

Lorenzo and the Ligurian Sea

From the Savino Sisters Mystery Series. Since Italy To Die For has been discounted to $.99 at Amazon for a limited time, I’m pleased to include this excerpt for your reading pleasure.

To set the scene: Ellen Savino and her sister Margo have been vacationing in Italy. After Margo gets involved with a Florentine mime, the sisters decide to go their separate ways. Ellen sticks to the original travel plan and drives to a Bed and Breakfast located in La Spezia on the Ligurian Sea. Lorenzo Gentili, the villa’s reserved host, is not quite what Ellen expected but she chose to be independent of Margo and now must make the best of an uncomfortable situation.

From Ellen’s first person perspective …

Around ten o’clock I crawled into bed, only then realizing I’d be sleeping on top of a feather bed covering the mattress, a first for me and one I anticipated like a princess ignorant of the proverbial pea awaiting her discomfort. Those next four hours consisted of me punching pillows and flipping them over, tossing off the covers only to snuggle back into them. I finally pinpointed my unrelenting anxiety to the devil in Lorenzo’s Italian-style coffee instead of my oxymoron version, the simpering decaf.

Somewhere in the night cats were engaged in a vast conspiracy, their screeching worse than babies demanding their next meal. I grabbed a pair of shoes—the sandals that squeeze every one of my sensitive toes—and stomped to the window. But before I could launch the first of my feline attacks, a sudden breeze slapped against my face, so strong it closed both eyes. I opened them wide and on looking down, did a double take. There in the moonlit garden was my elusive woman, this time dressed in a flimsy nightgown and kneeling as she enticed the calico and Persian with a bowl of milk. Along the ledge of a gray stone wall more cats had gathered, a row of hungry spectators meowing as they waited their turn at the milk. The woman lifted her head and again waved for me to join her.

I leaned over the window sill. “First, tell me your name,” I called out, my voice cutting through the darkness of night.

She opened her palms and lifted her shoulders, as if to say she did not understand.

“Nome—par favore,” I all but shouted. To which the woman walked away, more like disappeared into the mist. No more games, especially after midnight. I stepped back, retreated to my bed, and burrowed under the covers where my imagination conjured up a newspaper article buried on page three of the La Spezia Giornale:

An insignificant American tourist has died from an overdose of arsenic-laced cream at the villa of the prominent Lorenzo Gentili, coincidentally on the tenth anniversary of his beloved wife’s mysterious disappearance. After completing a thorough investigation, the local carabinieri have confirmed Ellen Savino’s death to be a suicide, for lack of a better explanation. Arrangements for disposing of the remains are incomplete, pending notification of a sister believed to be cavorting in Firenze with an Egyptian mummy in need of a close shave.

Seven hours later and still groggy from a god-awful restless night, I still wasn’t convinced that caffeine-induced hysteria had produced the elusive cat woman. To hell with the late hour and creepy felines, I should’ve gone downstairs a second time and made friends with her. Too late now, the sort of story of a life filled with one too many could’ves, should’ves, would’ves. After a solitary breakfast of more caffeine tempered with hot latte and soft tomino cheese patted onto day-old bread heels, I followed Lorenzo down the path leading to the parking area, a walk which made me aware of his sloping shoulders and broad hipline, a far worse negative than the unfortunate nose cursing an otherwise ordinary face.

I found the calico cat perched on the hood of my rental but didn’t see the Persian. “Here kitty, kitty, kitty,” I called out.

Zero response. The creature was either dead or didn’t capice my English. Next time, if ever there’d be another trip to Italy, I vowed to learn a few more key Italian phrases instead of relying on Margo who listened to language tapes on her drive to and from work.

“You like the cats?” Lorenzo asked.

“Not really, just curious.”

He opened the passenger door and I climbed into his Mercedes van. With Lorenzo secured behind the wheel, we circled down the winding road, which afforded me a better view of the houses I’d hardly noticed the day before. None could match the understated pride of Lorenzo’s villa and confirmed I’d made the right choice.

After a few quiet moments I threw out a casual comment, for no other reason than to test his reaction. “About the cats, they were very busy during the night, lapping up milk the mysterious lady in your garden provided.”

He spoke without glancing in my direction. “Sometimes the moon plays tricks on my guests, especially those Americani who resist changes to their routine.”

Did he think this Americana a pushover? “I know what I saw, Lorenzo.”

“What you believe you saw, signorina.”

Lorenzo set his condescending jaw into silent mode, hands gripping the steering wheel as he maneuvered the fifteen hairpin curves I didn’t have time to count when I’d been the one driving. He didn’t speak again until we reached the main road. He repeated the particulars of my boat tour and where we should meet that evening: nine o’clock, Church of San Giovanni Battista in the heart of Monterosso. When he dropped me off at the harbor, his last words were a reminder about the glaring rays of the afternoon sun, which at ten-twenty on this morning were hiding behind a mass of hazy clouds.

I bought my ticket and boarded a crowded vessel scheduled for stops at four of the five coastal villages, weather permitting. The motorboat departed at ten-thirty and moved with ease through the calm bay. After reaching the Ligurian Sea, the boat started bouncing over rough waters, forcing me to spread my feet into a sea legs stance and to wrap my hands around a deck rail lined with the more resilient passengers. I did manage to release one hand long enough to snap a few photos of rolling waves battering the coast before a powerful swell drenched my hair and made me consider going below with those passengers having the common sense I lacked. Don’t be such a wuss, I mumbled to myself and resolved to stay top deck.

Our boat approached Riomaggiore’s harbor with determination and after several failed attempts the captain finally executed a successful docking. Waves rocked the vessel as busy crewmen lashed its gangplank to the mooring, and anxious passengers pressed forward, waiting for permission to disembark. I sidestepped one of two metal eyes securing the deck ropes before shifting my weight to accommodate the boat’s erratic rhythm. As soon as I reached my comfort level, the boat surprised me and all of the passengers with a raise of its bow to accommodate the incoming water. The sturdy woman who’d been swaying in front of me slammed her rear end into my stomach and we both hit the deck. She yelled a string of what could only be described as obscenities in an unfamiliar language, her dead weight crushing me into the protruding metal eye. It inflicted pain on my hip and butt so excruciating I wanted to scream but didn’t have enough oxygen for a single peep. The passengers surrounding us reacted with dumbfounded expressions until one man came forward and extended his hand to Dead Weight. After pulling her up, he did the same for me.

“It’s an absolute disgrace,” said the man whose accent told me he was an okay American guy. He helped me to a seat along the bow, all the while talking about my near disaster. “Not a single rail or safety precaution on the entire boat. Back home you’d have good cause for a lawsuit. Too bad those issues don’t apply here.”

I nodded although my immediate concern centered on sucking in some much-needed air before attempting to speak.

Dead Weight took one look at me, pressed her hands against chubby cheeks, and sputtered an apology I couldn’t begin to understand yet managed a second nod to show my acceptance. She held onto her hat with one hand, tugged on her handbag with the other. Somehow during the commotion my handbag had gotten tangled up with hers and after much unwinding she undid the two of them, patted hers protectively, and passed mine to me.

“Scuzi, signorina, you all right?” asked one of the crewmen who handed me a bottle of water.

“I’m not sure,” I choked out, having found my wind. I rubbed my throbbing thigh, and was relieved not to discover a broken femur.

“Perhaps you should get off at a later stop.” The crewman edged away from me, his boat duties more important than any injuries I might’ve suffered.
“Si, grazie,” I said.

The crewman was right. Blinking away tears, I repositioned myself to watch able-bodied passengers step onto the swaying dock, and from there onto the rocky terrain of Riomaggiore where they began climbing the stone walkway leading to this ancient village, a terraced showplace of structures painted pastel shades of red, yellow, ecru, terracotta, and green.
Dammit, I belonged out there with those tourists taking each step with the assurance of owning it. If only Margo had stuck to our original plan, I wouldn’t be suffering such agony now. Who knows, we might’ve taken a later tour, or endured this one shoulder to shoulder, laughing as our brave boat battled the treacherous Ligurian waters.

Memo to self:

1) Bitch-slap Margo as soon as we meet at Malpensa Airport.
2) Arrange for separate seating on our flight home.
3) Tell Mom the gorgeous daughter behaved like a selfish, common slut, thus causing great bodily damage to the daughter stuck with a beautiful mind.
4) Keep silk scarf purchased in Florence for myself instead of giving it to Margo for her birthday.
5) Quit blaming Margo for everything that goes wrong in my life. Sorry, Sis.
6) Pray for less envy and more self-discipline.

End of excerpt.
###

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It’s Me–Giuseppe!

One of my fondest memories of visiting the Piemonte family villages in Northern Italy is the year Uncle J and my brother K went with Hubby D and me. The last time Uncle J had been in that area was as a young boy of eight or so, having traveled there in the 1930s with his immigrant mother and aunt. While his mother and aunt spent many months selling the family homestead and taking care of other legal affairs, Uncle J wandered the Alpine foothills with no thoughts of the school he’d left behind in Illinois or of the school in Colloretto he might’ve attended to broaden his education, an unfortunate judgment error on the part of his mother since Uncle J didn’t finish out third grade before going to Italy and returned too late to begin again in the fall, setting him back two whole school years. It was the 1930s immigrant way.

During our turn of the 21st Century trip Uncle J had several people he wanted to visit—one an elderly aunt now in her nineties who didn’t know he was coming to see her but did remember him as a young boy. D, K, and I sat in the aunt’s dining/living room, and listened to Uncle J and his aunt talk about the passing of this relative and that. When she brought out the customary box of family photographs, we three outsiders excused ourselves and drove twenty minutes to Monte Piano for a return visit with a distant cousin on my maternal side and to show K the eleventh-century house where our grandmother spent her childhood, a safety hazard now and uninhabitable. Cousin P explained how he and his sister often carried large stones up the mountainside each school day, building necessities their father used to stabilize the old structure where they too had lived as children.

On this particular visit the widower P was living next door to the old homestead, in a one-room apartment, part of a two-story structure similar to an old-style condominium. As with all Italians who feel a connection, he invited us into his home for a glass of homemade wine. And while we were there I couldn’t help but notice his two posters hanging on the wall—one of Great Britain’s Princess Diana; the other of Marilyn Monroe in her well-publicized calendar pose. Nice. Awkward but nice.

The next day Uncle J wanted to visit a boyhood chum from 70-plus years ago. “Do you think he’ll remember you?” I asked, trying to let him down gently.

“Why wouldn’t he,” Uncle J replied. “I remember him.”

So, the four of us stood outside a two-story building and Uncle J called out his friend’s name, just as he’d done when they were kids. A door on the second level opened. Out came an elderly gent, white-haired and slender. He leaned over the rail and squinted while observing us below. “It’s me—Giuseppe!” Uncle J said, using the Italian version of his name.

His friend smiled broadly and immediately gestured for us to come upstairs. What followed was a round of vino rosa and the promise of endless stories, during which D, K, and I once again excused ourselves, leaving Uncle J to reminisce with his friend while we sought new memories of our own.

D and I often compare notes about our separate childhoods and how we always stood in the yard of friends’ houses and called out their names rather than knock on the door or ring the bell. Telephoning in advance—no way, although we all had home phones, in my case an 8-party line after moving out of East St. Louis.

Yes, it was the Age of Spontaneity, one that still existed in Italy a few years ago. But not to the extent it once did. Nothing stays the same forever. We have now entered the Age of Advance Planning, where every encounter begins with an electronic device, usually a text message and agreed upon time to meet.

What about you? How do you connect with friends and family?

###

Photo Credit Gran Paradiso Piemonte Region Italy: L. Giacoletto

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Connecting the Italian Way

“How can we connect with relatives we don’t know, who live in villages we’ve only heard about but never been fortunate enough to visit?”

Hubby D and I often get questions such as these from friends wanting to trace their roots in the Piemonte Region of Northern Italy, an area we’ve visited many times. My advice would be: Do your homework. Find out as much as possible about the village your family emigrated from. Talk to elderly relatives. Too late, they’ve already passed? Then visit the cemetery and photograph their headstones. Same goes for those crumpled immigration papers, the passports with tattered edges, the faded black and white photographs stuffed in a cardboard box. These travel with you to Italy—confirmation of who you are.

What about that family connection you only know from the stories your grandparents told? The Internet carries a ton of geographic and demographic information, including the surnames of people living in specific villages. Going into a foreign village without a single connection can be iffy at best. Although it did work for one couple we know, good friends who ventured into the Dolomite area in northeastern Italy with no advance notice. He gave his grandfather’s surname to a local resident who happened to know a family with the same last name and bingo!—the beginning of a lasting friendship between the Americans and their Italian counterparts.

Speaking or at least understanding the Italian language is a definite plus. As are the local dialects that are making a comeback but those change multiple times within each Italian region. Many young Italians learn English in school and love to practice on Americans but first you must connect with them.

Still want to slide in under the radar? Okay, be sure to take those family history documents you’ve already gathered. Once you get to that special village, make one of your first stops the local cemetery. Someone is bound to be there—decorating a grave or chatting with another someone decorating graves. Approach with a smile and say, “Buongiorno.” (Good day). Introduce yourself. If the person seems receptive, and most likely will, ask, “Come ti chiami?” (What’s your name?)

Who knows, you might be speaking to someone with the same surname as yours. Or your mother’s. Or her mother’s.

Now that’s connecting the Italian way.

What about you? Any stories you’d like to share about connecting with relatives in a foreign country?

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Southern Charm

I’ve always loved visiting the South, whether as a newlywed driving with Hubby D on two-lane roads leading to Florida or those many return trips we later took with our growing family. Some routes we selected as most expedient—the Interstates we watched being constructed. Others followed A1A along the Atlantic Coast. Ah-h, I can still smell the ocean air. Longer routes included side trips to New Orleans and along the Gulf through Mississippi and Alabama before reaching our Florida destinations.

One of my favorite stopovers as empty nesters was via Savannah, Georgia. Clint Eastwood filmed Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil there, a movie based on the non-fiction book by John Berendt, who’d enthralled me earlier at his author signing in St. Louis. Such fun, driving past all those Savannah sites I’d seen on film or read in the book, and strolling through Bonaventure Cemetery where some of the people Berendt wrote about are now buried.

On another southern trip we traveled down to the Florida Keys, ending up in Key West, where Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) had lived off and on with three of his four wives, in a Spanish Colonial house with wide eaves hanging over a wrap-around second-floor wrought iron balcony and arched green shutters mounted to the sides of arched windows. His was the first swimming pool constructed in Key West, a monumental task costing twenty thousand dollars, at the time a small fortune. As for the well-fed cats who were making their home on the Hemingway estate, I stopped counting at fifty during our visit. Not sure if the felines we saw were descendants of Hemingway’s; but they were obviously comfortable in their surroundings.

What I recall most fondly about Hemingway’s Key West home was his writing retreat located on the second floor of a separate structure accessible by a bridge from the main house. There on a small table, long before the age of the IBM Selectric or today’s Apple or PC devices, sat Hemingway’s writing apparatus, a manual typewriter from which flowed a wealth of memorable words that eventually garnered him the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature. He also won the Pulitzer Prize for Old Man and the Sea. As for me, I consider my favorite Hemingway novels to be The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bells Toll, and A Farewell to Arms.

Although Hemingway started life in my home state of Illinois and later traveled the world
as an international writer, William Faulkner (1897-1962), epitomizes the true Southern writer in every sense, and was every bit as prolific as Hemingway had been, their work ranging from poetry to short stories and full-length novels. And like Hemingway, Faulkner received the Nobel Prize in Literature; his in 1949, and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1955 for A Fable and posthumously in 1964 for The Reivers, neither of which I’ve read. My favorites would have to be The Sound and the Fury, and three of his short stories that eventually comprised The Long, Hot Summer.

Faulkner lived with his wife and daughter in Oxford, Mississippi, home to the University of Mississippi. Recently, D and I accompanied Offspring #4, and his lovely wife J, for a two-day visit with their daughter P, a sophomore at Ole Miss. Talk about Southern Charm, Oxford fairly reeks of it—all in a good way, from ultra-polite students (such as our P) and local residents to the picturesque university campus; and within walking distance, the town square surrounded by southern architecture, as are the nearby residential areas. Did I mention the food? Don’t get me started. It’s Southern to the core and all delish.

While P hit the books for a few hours, we four mid-westerners took a self-guided tour of Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s residence, a museum that now belongs to Ole Miss. Like everything else in Oxford, Rowan Oaks spoke of pure South, from its towering red cedars and English garden to the Greek revival house that Faulkner enlarged in the 1930s, plus multiple outbuildings, including a stable and a summer kitchen that he repurposed. Faulkner lived in Rowan Oak around the same period of time that Hemingway lived in Key West. Whereas Hemingway fished, at least while in Florida, Faulkner hunted and lived off the land in Mississippi. And other than the manual typewriters they both used—Faulkner in his writing office or while sitting outdoors—their lifestyles were as different as their writing styles. Hemingway’s modern showplace reflected sophistication and sported that pricey swimming pool. Faulkner’s reflected a subtle dignity, its furnishings from an earlier era, many of them not particularly well made or with comfort in mind.

I found the most intriguing part of Faulkner’s house to be the old-fashioned kitchen that came about during the 1930s addition. The kitchen consisted of a cast iron porcelain sink, no built-in cabinetry, and two chest freezers taking up considerable space. The fridge, a monstrous thing for its time, had been relegated to the walk-through pantry, which also contained a minimal amount of cabinets on one side and a ledge for the telephone on the other. On the wall beside the phone, visitors can still view assorted telephone numbers Faulkner must’ve written, preserved in ink or pencil these many years after his death.

Faulkner did not allow television in his home, but at his wife’s insistence their daughter did listen to the only radio in the privacy of her bedroom. Certainly nothing as modern air conditioning was tolerated; that is, until Mrs. Faulkner had a window unit installed the day after her husband’s funeral, an event that took place in the parlor of Rowan Oak.

To each his own. Two renowned twentieth century authors from the same era, so different in their approach and lifestyle yet each dedicated to his work. Incidentally, one of my all-time favorite authors, whose novels I never tire of reading, still lives part-time on the outskirts of Oxford. No, I did not track down John Grisham; but who knows, we may’ve brushed past each other while strolling around the town square. Both of us would’ve apologized, in keeping with the Southern way.

What about you? Any glimpses into the lives of authors past and present you’d like to share?
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My Love Affair with Soccer

Over the years I’ve watched a lot of sports: baseball, not my favorite; softball, a different version of baseball; football, too slow; hockey, too fast; basketball, Yes. And soccer, you bet! Love, love, love me some soccer. Make that fútbol to everyone outside the U.S. Ah, yes, soccer has replaced basketball as my favorite watchable sport. I’m not sure why because a last minute fluke can prevent the best team from winning. And those sudden death tie breakers have caused many a painful night reliving what might’ve/could’ve been.

I must confess that sometimes during those long hours of sitting on unforgiving bleachers I’d give my mind a change of pace and allow it to wander into the Land of Make Believe. Create my own team, teenage boys in this instance. Make that a select travel team, the kind every teenage soccer player aspires to play on, the kind every player’s parents aspire for their son to be Numero Uno. Parents, you gotta admire or fear them, those over-the-top super ambitious parents who will do whatever it takes to help their son achieve his fullest potential. To eventually earn an athletic scholarship to a major university.

Dream on, which I did. And wound up with a group of talented soccer players on a St. Louis team called Pegasi United, coached by a power-hungry guy who learned how to work the system to his advantage. Add to that a recently widowed soccer mom who feels obligated to take over where her late husband left off, all for the sake of their son coping with grief while trying to honor the memory of his dad. It all came together in a mystery entitled Lethal Play.

For a limited time Lethal Play is on sale for the bargain price of $.99 at Amazon.

Interested in this crime mystery? I’ve included Chapter 2 below to help you decide …

Five weeks earlier on the twenty-ninth of January a single runner jogged through the pre-dawn streets of a sleepy St. Louis suburb. Ben Canelli didn’t believe in short-changing himself, especially when it came to maintaining a physique that celebrated its forty-two years with few apologies. He adhered to a strict discipline of running every morning at five-thirty, rain or shine, as long as the temperature registered above twenty degrees and snowshoes were not a prerequisite for navigating through his Richmond Heights neighborhood.
Before leaving home on this overcast but unseasonably warm day, he’d considered waking Matt but then decided against inviting him along on such a routine run. Fifteen-year-old boys need plenty of rest because they grow while they sleep; at least that’s what Ben’s dad used to tell him. And Ben always relied on those pearls of wisdom which would eventually define his dad’s legacy.
The late Al Canelli had been a respected athlete—a soccer standout into his thirties and later the coach of a topflight St. Louis mens team. To Ben’s regret, he hadn’t lived up to Al’s athletic abilities, not that the old man ever complained. He’d been too much of a gentleman to show any disappointment, one of many admirable traits Ben strived but often failed to emulate.
The light drizzle peppering Ben’s face reminded him to pick up the pace since he hadn’t thought to bring along his windbreaker. Still, the navy sweat suit and turtleneck underneath should keep him warm until he returned to the brick Tudor on Windsor Lane. He’d left Francesca there, still in bed and purring in the aftermath of wake-up sex. One thing he could count on when he got back was the smell of freshly ground coffee brewing, a pricey gourmet blend she preferred and he tolerated. Sweet Francesca, she loved him almost as much as he loved himself. Besides Matt, she’d given him Ria.
What father wouldn’t be crazy about an eleven-year-old showering him with kisses and then executing an enthusiastic though less than perfect string of back flips. Matt could turn back flips too, from a crouched position and as smooth as any seasoned gymnast. Those flips made a great show on the soccer pitch, as long as the kid didn’t overdo it. No coach likes a grandstander.
Ben nodded to a passing runner he encountered once or twice a week. He wiped a patch of chilling droplets from his brow and pulled up the hood to cover his damp hair. Using long strides, he skimmed over the wet pavement and turned westward, away from the muted rays of the rising sun. Where was he? Oh yeah, about Matt. Fortunately, the kid had inherited his grandfather’s genes, those microscopic gems blessing him with the ability to run faster and jump higher than the average teenage athlete. Of course, for Matt to reach his full potential, it would require unlimited nurturing, creative financing, political savvy, and just plain luck.
Too bad Thunderbolt went belly up. Ben had coached the select team and Matt had played on it since the age of nine. For Matt—and Ben—it meant having to start over, scrambling for acceptance on one of the few teams that had openings for the spring season. They’d pinned their hopes on numero uno. Pegasi United consistently ranked in the top forty of U.S. Youth Soccer and offered the most advantages, as in winning seasons, financial backing, a demanding schedule thriving on prestigious tournaments, and for the best of the best—athletic scholarships to Division 1 universities. Reaching for the moon an unreasonable goal? Hell no, not with Matt standing on his dad’s shoulders. About the Pegasi coach, Ben wasn’t sure, only because he didn’t really know Rex Meredith, although the solid grip of the cocky bastard’s handshake did seem sincere, too sincere. In fact, it bordered on unctuous, that slippery hand sliding through Ben’s.
As with most mornings, Ben had timed this run to perfection. On Clayton Road the wrought iron security gates leading to Hampton Park swung open, allowing him to enter at the precise moment a familiar green 911 Carrera drove through the exit. In keeping with their usual routine, the female driver and Ben acknowledged each other with a simple wave of the hand. More droplets fell onto his eyelids; he blinked them away.
Ahead on the asphalt lane towered the massive sanctuaries of the privileged, a state of upper class grace Ben harbored no illusions of ever achieving, unless he somehow maneuvered a takeover of the sporting goods company that recently promoted him to a divisional manager position. Not bad for a guy who struggled through five years of college before graduating. Along the winding route of homes striving to outdo each other, he stopped but once, to jog in place while admiring his favorite estate, a sprawling gray Tudor that reduced his Windsor Lane knock-off to that of a rich kid’s playhouse.
Ben checked his watch, only a few more minutes in the land of make believe before he headed home. His mouth watered at the thought of sausages and eggs for breakfast but he’d already committed himself to sensible skim milk over dry cereal, the sugarless kind with a paltry few almonds bottoming out the box. What the hell, maybe this morning he could sweet talk Francesca into making him an egg white omelet swirled with no-fat cream cheese. It couldn’t compete with her mother’s cholesterol-be-damned-version but, what the hell—he couldn’t fault Francesca for making every effort to keep him healthy.
He executed a quick U-turn and picked up his pace another notch since the drizzle was on the verge of escalating into a major downpour. When he arrived at Hampton Park’s exit, the gates into the real world were closed so he eased through a narrow opening he’d created in the tangled hedge the previous fall. Back on Clayton Road rush hour for the local overachievers had gotten a jumpstart, with headlights from late model cars beaming their reflections onto the glistening pavement and mesmerizing him into a state of euphoria.
Ben turned right and made his re-entry into the affordable middle class, now under a siege of unrelenting rain. He watched his feet kick up puddles for two blocks before moving toward the middle of the street. He rounded a corner, taking it wide to avoid a car parked where no car belonged. Looking back to check out the make and license plate, he missed seeing the Dodge Caravan approaching from the opposite direction. He didn’t hear the brakes screech as they ripped rubber from the tire treads. Nor did he feel the impact of the vehicle when it tossed him ten feet into the air. Nor the devastating damage his toned body suffered when it landed on the slick concrete, a good twenty feet from where he took the final step of his early morning run.

End of excerpt

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Who Says You Can’t Go Home Again?

I do every now and then—in my dreams.

The Forever Student …

In which I am an adult, living in my childhood home (apparently on my own) and still going to high school. On any given morning of my dreams, and a direct contrast to my then-real life, I’m running late, dealing with one problem after another. At last I get into my car (which as a real-life student I never had) and drive the five miles to school; only to circle around and around before finding a place to park.

By the time I enter the building, the final bell has rung and the halls are empty. Having no clue as to where I’m supposed to be, I find my way to the office, get my schedule, and after a few wrong turns, manage to locate the classroom. At last, I’m seated at a desk in my first period class, a class I’ve never attended before. What’s that the teacher said?! Oh, no! She’s giving us a six-week test, and until that moment I haven’t even opened my book.

Then someone asks about my dog. I have a dog? Who’s been feeding it, giving it water? Not me, that’s for sure. Should I stay or should I go? Decisions, decisions.

Yikes! From what I’ve read, the back-to-school dream is fairly common. Supposedly, it’s about anxiety and affects people who considered themselves very responsible. Possibly anal? Yup, that would be me.

Moving on to another dream …

The first house Hubby D and I bought was a charming pre-WWII fixer-upper—in other words a bottomless money pit. I never saw that house as it was but rather how it could’ve been, with a little imagination and lots of sweat equity. D saw nothing but the work. Several years and two-and-a-half babies later, we moved to a four-year-old cedar shake ranch that didn’t required much upkeep. House #2 lacked the charm of House #1 but served us well for years, especially after we hired the contractor who added a family room, fourth bedroom, and second bath.

All well and good. But in one of my recurring dreams, we’ve bought House #1 again. It’s been remodeled, the attic converted to extra bedrooms, giving us more space than I ever dreamed possible. And at the bottom of our sloping back yard, where there once was an antiquated septic system, an ice skating rink has taken its place, occupied by students from a nearby school having lots of fun. A winter wonderland if ever there was.

And back to House #2, although I dream of it occasionally, I never actually go inside. Instead, I walk from the uptown business district to this former home—about a mile and a half trek—and along the way, I pass a number of houses that never change yet only exist in my dreams.

Another feel-good dream …

After being married some years, Hubby D and I have bought the house his parents once owned which included an attached apartment we rented as newlyweds. The actual house, one block from our town’s Main Street, still stands, a 1920s four-square, two-story frame. But in my dreams the house in that same location is now a large brick Gothic, its third-floor attic a treasury of antique furniture and decorative items included in the sale. Needless to say, I am positively euphoric. All that furniture, all those rooms to fill! Too bad I always wake up before the big move.

As for my current home of many years …

House #3, a circa 1949 one-story sprawling brick, three fireplaces and a swimming pool that D maintains without grumbling. Thank you, dear. Over the years we’ve made some cosmetic changes (new doors, windows, and fencing) but that’s about it. Odd but true, I’ve never dreamed about this house on the bluffs overlooking St. Louis. Perhaps it’s because I’m still living the American Dream.

What about you? Any recurring dreams you’d like to share?

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