The Best Writing Advice You’ll Ever Get

There is one bit of advice that I have for aspiring authors. And that is, if you want to write well, you must read. Reading to a writer is as medical school is to a doctor, as physical training is to an athlete, as breathing is to life. Think of reading books as taking a writing course. I would suggest reading the classics: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and, of course, Steinbeck, to name but a few. These three authors made up their own rules. Hemingway couldn’t get published at first because his writing was so different from the writing that preceded him.

Below are three examples of Steinbeck’s writing. If you read stuff like this, you can’t help but become a better writer. Please note that the first example is one long sentence that makes up an entire paragraph. That, of course, is a big no-no . . . or so “they” say.

• • • •

“The concrete highway was edged with a mat of tangled, broken, dry grass, and the grass heads were heavy with oat beards to catch on a dog’s coat, and foxtails to tangle in a horse’s fetlocks, and clover burrs to fasten in sheep’s wool; sleeping life waiting to be spread and dispersed, every seed armed with an appliance of dispersal, twisting darts and parachutes for the wind, little spears and balls of tiny thorns, and all waiting for animals and the wind, for a man’s trouser cuff or the hem of a woman’s skirt, all passive but armed with appliances of activity, still, but each possessed the anlage of movement.”—The Grapes of Wrath

• • • •

“The afternoon came down as imperceptibly as age comes to a happy man. A little gold entered into the sunlight. The bay became bluer and dimpled with shore-wind ripples. Those lonely fishermen who believe that the fish bite at high tide left their rocks and their places were taken by others, who were convinced that the fish bite at low tide.”—Tortilla Flat

• • • •

“June is gay—cool and warm, wet and shouting with growth and reproduction of the sweet and the noxious, the builder and the spoiler. The girls in the body-form slacks wander High Street with locked hands while small transistor radios sit on their shoulders and whine love songs in their ears. The young boys, bleeding with sap, sit on the stools of Tanger’s Drugstore ingesting future pimples through straws. They watch the girls with level goat-eyes and make disparaging remarks to one another while their insides whimper with longing.”—The Winter of our Discontent

My first bit of advice is to read. My second: don’t pay too much attention to the “rules” of writing. And my third is, never, ever, ever respond to a bad review.

Thank you for listening to my morning rant,

Andrew Joyce

Advertisements

A Literary Prayer

My name’s not  important, but it’s up there somewhere. So I guess it ain’t no secret. Anyway, this is what I gotta tell ya. And I don’t have much time. You see, I escaped my confinement, but goddamn it, they’re on my trail. I’ll be dragged back to my computer when they catch up, so I gotta spit this out while I can.

I’ve written a book or two, I’ve been there and I’ve done that. But over time, I went kinda crazy. I wanted to … no, that’s not right … I had to … I needed to … write the best damn novel since The Grapes of Wrath. Yeah, I know, that’s why I said I went crazy. So crazy I am.

I broke off human contact. I disconnected all wires that invaded my abode. I went old-school. I kissed girlfriends good-bye. I shook hands with friends, tellin’ ’em I was going into seclusion for the duration and I wasn’t comin’ out until I set the world on fire with my literary talent.

But here’s the deal:

I’m writing, I’m researching. I’m twenty-six chapters in. I got the last sentence of the book in my head. I just have to get there, but there are so many words standing between me and that last damn sentence. Please, Lord, please let me get there. I gotta put chapters behind me. Those future chapters … those future words … are callin’ to me. They need me to give them life. I need them to give me purpose. I need help with this next chapter.

Lord, I’m facing a white wall. You help me get this one chapter on paper and I’ll never ask You for another thing … not another goddamn thing. Please, Lord, give me this next chapter.

I’ve Lived and Died So Many Times

I’ve died many times … so many times. I’ve lived so many lives, too many lives. I am tired of this existence. I remember one life, many eons ago. Men feared me. Men paid tribute to my magnificence. I existed as a small deity. Then, in my fiftieth year, I took sick and died. I soon found that all I held dear in that life was as nothing. My life had been a dream … a sham.

I remember my life as a serf, indentured to the land. I never did have a full belly in that life. My loved ones died of disease and hunger. But it did not matter. We were not harmed. We could not be harmed. We were not our bodies. We were … and are … so much more.

We returned in new bodies, in new lands. We fought for property. We fought for riches. We fought and killed for nothing. We yearned for the tangible. We yearned for immortality in the physical. We wanted it all without knowing that we already possessed everything there was to possess. We were immortal and did not know it.

In time, I incarnated as a cripple, a poor wretch. In that life I was closer to the godhead than I had ever been. I learned of love in that life, I came to realize that I had lived so many lives in fear. That was the first life in which I started on the path of love, forsaking the path of fear.

Now, here I am … now, here I am. I am not of this body. I am a part of the entity we call god. I have only to remember my birthright. I have only to love.

I have many more roads to travel before I may rest. I have many more lives to live before I become pure love.

I have lived many lives working to become Love personified. I’ve died many times, so many, many times as I crawl back to our Father.

One day, I shall rest. The day will come when I’ll never be born … or die … again. On that day, I shall shine as pure Love. On that day, I shall stand with God, my Father.

Bless My Soul

I’m so in love. She is so fine. I don’t give a damn what anyone says. She’s my girl. She’ll always be my girl.

I met her in church. I was on my knees praying for forgiveness. She sat down next to me. Her smile … her eyes … set me free. My soul was in torment. I was a sinner.

Her name is Ecstasy.

She came to me when I needed her the most.

She raised me from my knees.

She had me stand as a man.

I had done bad things. I was a wretch. But she blessed my soul.

Please, please, I must have a little more time.

Please, please allow me to make amends.

If you knew how I regret my sins.

How my heart yearns to set things right.

But I think my time has run out.

She points the pistol at me.

Ecstasy says that I must die this night.

So be it.

Bless my soul.

Naked Before the Sun

I stand here naked before the sun. There is no place to hide. I wear my sins as a cloak for all to see.

I’m on my knees, begging for forgiveness.

Although, what I have done in this life is unforgiveable.

Her name is written on the skein of time and space.

I sit here in my drunken stupor and regret so much.

There is so little time … so little time.

Soon I’ll be dead and gone.

How long before my sins are forgiven?

When my bleached bones wash up on a distant shore?

When she who I have wronged and demeaned is in heaven?

If I could … I would go back and undo what I have done.

Know this … my karma will follow me into the next life. Hopefully, once there, I will be allowed to make amends.

I loved you … I loved you … I loved you so much. And I am so goddamn sorry.

Life is Good

 

I grew up without a mother. My father told me that she had died shortly after I was born. To me, it was no big deal. You can’t miss what you’ve never had. My father, I think, tried to make it up to me in so many ways. In the morning, he always saw me off to school after having fed me a hot breakfast. He was always home from work in time to get dinner on the table at a reasonable hour. He taught me to hunt and fish like any father would, and he never missed a parent-teacher conference at school like many fathers do.

However, by the time I was twelve, I was pretty much self-sufficient. It gave the old man a break from his domestic duties. I was now making my own breakfast, although sometimes my father wasn’t too happy with my choice of foods. I can still hear him saying in mock anger: “That cereal you devour is nothing but pure sugar.” Putting aside my culinary choices, we had settled into a comfortable routine. And there was an unshakable bond between us.

I never did have many friends when I was growing up. I don’t know why; it’s just the way things were. After school and during the summer, I always found ways to keep myself amused. I was never into watching television. And this was way before the internet or video games. So, as a twelve-year-old boy living in a small town in the southwest corner of Tennessee, I made my own pleasures.

We lived at the foot of a small mountain. I used to go about halfway up and look down on the town. It was an exhilarating view. From up there, I was lord of all I surveyed.

There was a game I played where I would pretend the town was being invaded. Sometimes it would be the Mongol Horde and, other times, maybe space aliens. But regardless of who the invaders were, I directed the defense of our town from up on high. And every single time—due to my military acumen and my courage—I drove the aggressors back from whence they came.

By the time I was thirteen, I had outgrown that game. But I still went up to my place on the mountain. On occasion, I’d go up there at night to look at the stars. They were so bright and there were millions of them. I loved that place, day or night, for the privacy it afforded me.

Then one day, my solitude was shattered. I had brought a book with me and was engrossed in the adventures of Long John Silver and Jim Hawkins. I was using my rich imagination to visualize myself as the young hero of the story when a shadow fell over the pages of my book.

I looked up to see the silhouette of a woman standing in front of a low-hanging sun. Her face was in darkness, but the rays of the yellow sun shimmered through her yellow hair like gossamer strands of silk—giving her the appearance of a haloed saint. She saw that I was squinting into the sun and moved two feet to her left.

As her face came into focus, the first thing I noticed were her eyes. I don’t want to use a cliché to describe them. I do not want to say they were “limpid pools of blue” or “piercing blue” because that would diminish what I saw … would diminish what they were. Her eyes were blue in color, but not a blue I had seen before or since. The easiest thing to do is say that words fail me, but that would be the coward’s way out.

Picture a Caribbean island surrounded by that blue-green water you see in advertisements. Take the color of that water and add three smidgens of blue from a dark sapphire. Then finish the concoction off with one single, lonely drop of silvery-blue goodness and that was the color of her eyes.

I looked into those eyes for a good, long time and saw the universe when it was young. I saw stars being born. I witnessed the birth of humanity … and also its fall. I saw all the joy there was in the world. And I saw all of its pain.

To me the woman was ancient. Remember, I was only thirteen at the time. Anyone over eighteen was ancient. I later learned that she was thirty-five years old on the day that we met.

I said, “Hello.” She responded in kind, but she sounded funny. The word “hello” seemed to cut the air between us. It was a harsh hello. I thought there was something wrong with her voice. She saw the perplexed look on my face and pointed to her ear. “I’m deaf,” she said. “But I can read lips if you speak slowly.”

She was holding an artist’s sketch pad, so I asked if she was an artist. “At times,” she replied enigmatically.

“May I see some of your sketches?”

She nodded and sat down beside me. Before she opened her book, she said, “My name is Gretchen.” She had to say it twice before I got it. I felt a little embarrassed because I did not understand her the first time.

“My name is Mike.”

She put out her hand. “Glad to meet you, Mike.”

We shook and then she showed me her sketches. Some were of our town and the surrounding countryside, drawn from the perspective of being higher up on the mountain. Others were of people or animals. Her talent shone through the expressive eyes of the creatures she sketched, and through the precise details of the town’s landscape.

As she closed her book, she grinned. “I thought I was the only one who liked to come up here.”

“Me too. I mean, I thought I was the only one up here also. I wonder why I haven’t seen you before.”

Gretchen looked up at a point higher on the mountain and, pointing her chin in that direction, said, “I usually go up there.”

By now I had no trouble understanding her. But it was getting late and we had to say our good-byes. She was a nice lady and I was glad that I had met her. Although, I must admit, as I walked back down the mountain and remembered the look in her eyes, I felt Gretchen knew something about the world that I did not. That was not surprising, seeing how much older she was than me. But still it was kind of spooky.

My father was sitting in his chair, reading the evening newspaper when I walked in. “I thought we’d have TV dinners tonight,” he said without taking his eyes from the paper.

“Sure, Dad. Let me wash up and I’ll put them in the oven. You finish reading your paper.”

It was our custom to discuss the day’s events over dinner. It was our way to keep up with each other’s lives. Dad was the assistant manager down at the textile plant. I was quite proud of him. He had worked his way up from machine maintenance. And he had done it while raising a son on his own.

He filled me in on the latest down at the plant and then he asked about my day. “How was your first day of summer vacation?”

“I went up to my place on the mountain to read Treasure Island. But I didn’t get much reading done. I met someone and we ended up talking most of the afternoon.”

My father smiled. “You made a friend?”

“I don’t know. It wasn’t a kid. She was a full-grown woman. She likes the mountain too.”

“What’s her name?”

“Gretchen.”My father suddenly straightened in his chair. A strange look befell his face, and a little too loudly he asked, “What was her name?”

“I told you. Her name is Gretchen.”

It looked to me like he was thinking hard, then he sighed and said in a casual tone, “Tell me about her.”

“There’s not much to tell. She’s about your age. She’s blonde, she paints pictures … and she’s deaf.”

He nodded and abruptly changed the subject. “How are you finding Treasure Island?”

It was a good summer. Probably the best of my life—up to that time. After Treasure Island, I got into science fiction. I read all of Asimov and Clarke that I could get my hands on. One of my favorites from another author was Stranger in a Strange Land. Although I didn’t get its full message until years later when I read it for a second time.

Whenever I was up on the mountain, I would see Gretchen. We would talk or just sit there in silence and enjoy the view. One day, she asked if she could sketch me while I read. I was flattered and readily agreed. I took it home to my father and he liked it so much, he had it framed.

Gretchen taught me sign language. It took a while, but by the end of summer, I was proficient in signing.

She also drew me out. Living more in books than the real world, I was—to say the least—rather reticent. She wanted to know all about my life. There wasn’t much to tell. But in the end, she had learned of my hopes and my dreams.

She told me about herself. She lived on a farm that her parents had owned before they died. She had been married, but her husband was killed in an automobile accident five years previously.

In late August, I turned fourteen and was about to start high school. I didn’t entertain any false hopes that I would have any more friends in high school than I had in grade school. But that didn’t bother me too much. I had made a friend. However, with summer’s end fast approaching, would I lose her? We had only met on the mountain. With my days filled with school and the weather turning cold, would I ever see her again? I had never felt loneliness before, but I was sure that I would know its numbness if I never saw Gretchen again.

On the day before school started, I went up the mountain in the hope of seeing Gretchen and if nothing else, to say good-bye. She was there sketching away. I looked over her shoulder and saw that it was a picture of her and me—just our faces.

When I mentioned to her that I was afraid I’d never see her again, she said something that I did not understand. She said, “I am you and you are me. We can never be apart. We were one before we met. I promise that you will see me again.”

High school wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be. I kept my head down, went to classes, and spoke to no one. Two weeks into the school year, I was already missing my time with Gretchen. We had had far-ranging conversations. We talked about everything under the sun. She was well-read and knew so much.

One day I came home from school and found Gretchen sitting on the couch with my father sitting next to her—on the wall behind them hung an oil painting of me reading a book.

My father spoke first. “Come in, Mike. We have something to tell you.”

Gretchen smiled at me with her eyes. She pointed to a chair and asked me to please sit down. They both looked nervous.

When I was seated, facing them, my father spoke first. “Son, I have not been completely honest with you. I hope that you don’t hate me for the lies; they were necessary at the time, but things change and I … we … think it’s time you knew the truth.”

He halted for a moment. He looked like he was unable to go on, but then Gretchen reached out and gave his hand a squeeze. “It’s okay,” she whispered.

My father continued: “Gretchen is your mother.”

I had been leaning forward in anticipation, but now I slumped back into the soft enfolds of the easy chair. I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. The wind had just been let out of my sails. I was adrift in a sea of confusion.

Gretchen came over and knelt in front of me. She took hold of both my hands and held tight. “I know it’s a shock. Two shocks really: That you have a mother and that I am she. But please listen to your father. He will explain everything. And I promise … no more lies.”

She went back to the couch, sat down, and took my father’s hand in hers.

With a deep sigh as though the weight of the world was being lifted from his shoulders, my father looked me in the eye and began his story.

• • • • •

The motorcycle tears down the country lane at a furious pace. Sixty, seventy, now eighty miles per hour. The rider leans into the curves with skill. He has had his bike up to 120—this is nothing. He rounds a dog-leg at eighty. He is almost parallel with the asphalt as he comes out of the curve. And there she is. Some stupid woman in the middle of the road. He doesn’t have time to right his bike and swerve. It’s either go down, or run into the woman. Damn!

He lays the bike down. And as he does so, he prays he’ll have some skin left on his right side. He’s wearing leathers and a helmet. Those should afford him some protection.

The woman looks to her left and sees a motorcycle and its driver sliding along the pavement. She stands transfixed as the bike and rider come to a stop just twenty feet away. Her first concern is for the rider. He’s moving, so he’s not dead. She runs to where he lies. He seems to be all right, but he’s yelling about something. Is he in pain?

The man rises to his feet—obviously no bones are broken—and stands before the woman. He’s about to berate her for forcing him to take the spill. But before he can open his mouth, he sees that she is beautiful, more than beautiful. She is an angel. And those eyes of hers! What color are they?

Instead of saying what he had planned, he removes his helmet and asks if she is all right. She cocks her head and says, “Please repeat that. I’m deaf, but I can read lips.”

That explains why she was in the road. Anyone else would have heard the bike from a mile away, it having no muffler. Immediately, his anger dissipates like a puff of smoke in a strong wind.

Speaking slowly, the motorcyclist introduces himself. “My name is John Toomey and it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m fine by the way. Are you okay?”

“I’m not the one who skittered along the road. Are you sure that you are all right?”

“I’m sure.”

“Then I’ll be on my way.”

“Wait! At least tell me your name.”

The woman turns and favors John with a coquettish smile. “My name is Gretchen Lee and it has been a pleasure meeting you, John Toomey.”

John wants to say something else, but just then a car pulls up and the driver leans out the window. “Is everything all right?” he wants to know.

John has to get his bike off the road. When he has it righted and has it on the side of the road, he looks for Gretchen, but she’s nowhere to be seen.

• • • • •

My father hesitated for a moment and then said, “That’s how your mother and I met.”

I looked at the two of them sitting across from me. It wasn’t fair. Why the lies? Where had my mother been all my life? I needed to know more than just how they met. Why had I been denied a mother?

Gretchen saw the questions in my eyes. She knew the angst in my soul. In sign, she said, “There is much more to tell. Please be patient and let your father continue.”

• • • • •

It wasn’t that hard to find her. She lives with her parents on a farm not a mile from where they met.

It’s a Friday afternoon. John gets off work early and rides over to Tipton County. He’s planning on asking Gretchen out on a date. He hopes that she doesn’t mind riding on a motorcycle.

To his great relief, it is Gretchen who answers the door. As all young men who come a-courtin’, John would rather not go through the gauntlet of parents—fathers in particular.

“Hi. Remember me? We met the other day.”

Gretchen does indeed remember the handsome boy who stands before her. She had thought of him many times over the last few days.

“Yes. Your name is John, if I remember correctly.”

John smiles. At least she remembers me.

Summoning up all his courage, John blurts out, “Would you like to go out on a date with me tomorrow night? Maybe dinner at the drive-in?” It sounded lame even to him. Where can you take a deaf girl? You can’t take her to the movies or out dancing. He felt like an idiot. He just wanted to be with her. It didn’t matter where.

Gretchen is touched. Despite her looks, she hasn’t had very many dates. It’s not just because she’s deaf. Her parents think no boy would want anything to do with her because of her condition. “If any boy comes anywhere near you, he’ll want one thing and one thing only. That and he’ll want your money. We’re better off than most folks around here, so you gotta be careful of that white trash that comes sniffing around,” she has been told time and time again. Anytime a boy asks her out, her parents forbid her to go. Thank God they’re not home now.

She tells John that she will go out with him, but they should meet at the drive-in. “I’ll see you at seven. However, I’ll have to be home by ten.”

Gretchen figures she can tell her parents that she’s going out with a girlfriend. The library is open late on Saturday night. That’s where she’ll tell them she’s going.

John is ecstatic. As he drives down the long driveway, he’s thinking, Maybe I should get a haircut.

The next night, over hamburgers and milkshakes, John and Gretchen get to know one another. John is twenty-two. Right now he works at a Sunoco gas station pumping gas, but he hopes to become a first rate mechanic and then open his own shop. He and his two brothers are being raised by a single mother. His father was killed in the war. They don’t have a lot of money but they’re happy.

Gretchen is twenty-one. She lives with her parents on the family farm. She has no brothers or sisters. It’s 1960, so there aren’t many opportunities for women in the work force—still less for a deaf woman. But she plans to get a certificate to teach sign language to deaf children. She likes to paint, but that’s just a hobby.

Gretchen explains her situation concerning her family. “We have a little money and my parents think that any boy who shows the least interest in me does so only to get at my ‘great wealth.’” She laughs when she says that, because it is so ridiculous.

John rides her back to her farm, but lets her off at the mailbox. They have decided to see each other again, but not to let her parents know about it for the time being.

They are young, and somehow things will work out. But right now they only want to be together. There’s a fire burning within each of them. It’s the beginning of a love that will change their lives forever.

• • • • •

I rolled my eyes in exasperation. Why couldn’t they just get to the part where I was born and my mother abandoned me?

“Dad … Gretchen … can’t you guys just tell me why things turned out as they did? I mean, it’s nice to hear how you met and your first date and all that stuff. I know you finally got together and had me. But what happened after that?”

Gretchen nodded to my father. He nodded back and said, “This is important. You have to understand everything. And once you do, then you can take that information, process it, and come to a decision about how you feel about …”

Dad trailed off at that point, lost for words. Gretchen leaned forward and with a combination of sign and words, took up the narrative.

• • • • •

Over the ensuing months, the young boy and girl become lovers. It is a hot and passionate love. It is the first love for both of them. John is gentle as he explores Gretchen’s body. Gretchen quivers with delight at John’s touch. Sex is new to both of them. They are learning together.

It is a sweet agony when they are apart. They can think of nothing else but each other.

Four months into their relationship, John has changed jobs. He’s now working at the textile mill repairing their machines. It’s a good job and if he works hard, it will afford him a future. And with a future, he can ask Gretchen to marry him. He is so in love.

It’s a crisp October day. The five o’clock whistle has just sounded. John puts down his tools, time to go home. If Gretchen can get out tonight, he plans to ask her to marry him. He is tired of all the sneaking around. He has a good job, one with a future. He’s a decent man. There is nothing her parents can object to if he wants to wed their daughter. He should have confronted them earlier. If Gretchen will have him as a husband, he will march right up her parents and, in no uncertain terms, tell them he loves their daughter and he is going to marry her and take care of her for the rest of her life. They can take their money and shove it for all he cares. Yes, that is exactly what he will do … if Gretchen says yes.

Gretchen is waiting for him as he walks through the gate. He sees her and a big smile plays across his face. “What are you doing here?”

“I need to talk to you.”

“Sure. My bike’s over here. Why don’t we go to the diner on Route 51 and get some coffee. We can talk there. It’s funny that you’re here, because I wanted to talk to you too.”

“Let’s not go to the diner. Can we go someplace private?”

“How about our special place down by the river?”

Gretchen smiles. “That would be perfect.”

She holds on tight as John guns the bike. They lean into the curves as though they were one. The wind drives the tears from her face where they hang in the evening air for a millisecond or two before falling to earth. Gretchen does not know if they are tears of joy or of fear. She won’t know until she speaks with John.

At the river, John walks her to the boulder they call their own. There’s an old oak next to it where John has carved their initials. This is their place. It is enchanted. No one knows about it but them. It is where they first made love.

Once seated on the boulder and facing one another, Gretchen hesitates. How is she going to tell him? He’s young and he has his whole life before him. He’s told me of his plans. How he wants to open a garage. How he wants to be his own boss. Can I take that away from him? Can I, in a few words, dash his hopes and his dreams to smithereens? Do I have that right?

If John had known that Gretchen would be waiting for him when he got off work, he would have bought a ring and had it ready. But he has no ring, so be it. What if she says no?

“So, what do you want to talk about?” says John, stalling for time.

“Ah … hmm … there’s something I think you should know.”

John is thinking, Here it comes. She wants to break up with me.

Gretchen takes a deep breath and looks John in the eye. “John, I’m pregnant.”

It takes a moment for John to comprehend what he has just heard. Naturally, Gretchen takes his lack of a response for what she had feared … his total rejection of her and the baby.

As soon as Gretchen’s words sink into his conscious mind, John leaps up in joy. He pulls Gretchen to him and hugs her like there’s no tomorrow.

“That’s wonderful!” he declaims.

John is ecstatic … Gretchen is in mild shock.

“You mean you don’t mind, John, about the baby?”

“Are you crazy? I was trying to get up the nerve to ask you to marry me.”

• • • • •

“So what was the problem?” I wanted to know. “Why haven’t we been a family for all these years?”

Gretchen said, “That’s a good question. One that should be answered. One that I’m not even sure I know the answer to. But here’s what happened after your father and I decided to get married and spend the rest of our lives together.”

• • • • •

There’s not much of a trousseau a bride can bring with her on the back of a motorcycle. But that does not matter. John and Gretchen have their whole lives before them.

The motorcycle screams down the country road. They are on their way to Covington. That’s where they’ll be married. A friend of John’s uncle is a Justice of the Peace. He’ll marry them and sanctify their union. There is no waiting period in Tennessee. As long as John has the $5.00 license fee, everything will be copasetic. On the way, they stop off at a Kresge’s Five & Dime and buy a ring. They are ready to go.

They’re sitting at the Justice’s desk, filling out the paperwork for the license, when the phone rings. The justice excuses himself and picks up the receiver. “Hello. This is Justice of the Peace Humboldt. How may I help you?”

Humboldt stiffens in his chair. “Yes. I understand, Sheriff. No, I’ll take care of it.”

He replaces the phone in its cradle and looks across the desk at the young couple sitting there in contented bliss. His demeanor has changed. Before the phone call he had been jovial and fatherly. Now he seems nervous. He fidgets with his pen and will not look John in the eye when he speaks to him.

John and Gretchen do not notice the change. They have eyes only for each other.

When the paperwork has been completed, Justice Humboldt says he will go and find his wife to act as a witness. He’s gone an inordinately long time. Soon, there’s a knocking on the door. Humboldt appears out of nowhere. He looks at the boy and girl standing at his desk, holding hands. They are so innocent. He sighs and then opens the door

In comes the county sheriff and two deputies. The sheriff takes Gretchen by the arm and moves her away from John. The deputies handcuff John.

“What’s going on?” demands John. Gretchen is speechless, but she has a feeling about what is going on. The sheriff is a friend of her father’s. Her father is a generous contributor to the sheriff’s campaigns for reelection. She should never have left that note telling her parents she was running off to get married. How stupid of her. There are very few justices in Tipton County. It wasn’t that hard to track them down.

Gretchen starts screaming. “No, no, no!” The sheriff takes her outside and puts her into one of the squad cars—in the back seat. There are no handles and no way out. “You sit there, little missy. As soon as I’ve taken care of Lover Boy, I’ll drive you home.”

• • • • •

“What happened then?” I asked.

My father did the honors. “After taking your mother outside, the sheriff came back in. He told me that I would never see Gretchen again. That he was taking me to the county jail and would hold me until her parents took her out of town.

“I wanted to know by what right he could do what he was doing. He told me he could do anything he wanted … he was the sheriff.”

“That’s it? You let some dumbass sheriff separate you and Gretchen?”

“I didn’t actually ‘let him.’ I was in jail and Gretchen was on her way to New York.”

I looked at Gretchen. “You meekly went along with all that? You didn’t fight back?”

“I did what I had to do. Listen and then you decide. Tell me what you would have done in my place.”

• • • • •

Gretchen sits, head bowed, hands clasped on her lap. Her mother is off to the side. Her father paces before her. The sheriff stands by the door, arms folded on his chest, a smug look on his face.

Her father stops his pacing and turns to her so that she can read his lips. “What were you thinking, girl?”

Gretchen raises her head so she can see what her father is saying.

“Imagine if the sheriff hadn’t gotten there in time. Why, you’d be married to that nobody!”

Gretchen says nothing.

Her father turns to his wife. “She’s your daughter. What are we going to do with her?”

His wife shakes her head in despair, but remains silent.

Gretchen is not worried. She has an ace up her sleeve and she will play it when she is ready.

After a few more minutes of her father haranguing her, Gretchen unleashes her secret weapon.

“I’m pregnant.”

Her father stops in mid pace. Her mother turns white. The sheriff smirks over by the door.

“What did you say?” her father demands.

“You heard me. I’m pregnant. What are you going to do about that?”

It takes a moment for Mr. Lee’s brain to process what he has just heard. He turns to the sheriff and asks, “You have the boy down at the jail?”

“Yes. My deputies took him in.”

“I need you to hold him for a day or so. Think up some charge. Do what you have to do. I’ll call you when you can let him out. And thanks, Sheriff, for your assistance. Now if you’ll excuse us, this is a family matter.”

The sheriff nods and is about to leave when Mr. Lee adds one more thing. “I’d appreciate it if you’ll keep what you heard here today under your hat.”

“Sure, Mr. Lee. You can count on me.”

Gretchen is told to go to her room. “Your mother and I have to talk this over.”

“There’s nothing to talk over. I’m twenty-one. You can’t do this to me. I’ll run away with John … I’ll …” Gretchen runs out of words and starts crying. She looks first to her mother and then her father. She sees no sympathy, no love in their eyes. Only fear. This was to be her special day. She runs to her room and throws herself on the bed where she sobs into her pillow.

• • • • •

I didn’t know what to say. The whole thing was so unfair. I wanted to go over and hug Gretchen, but I kept my seat.

“So, what happened next?”

My father answered for the both of them. “I was in jail on trumped up charges. I think it was for vagrancy or loitering or something like that. The point is I couldn’t talk with Gretchen. I couldn’t talk with anyone. I was denied my phone call. Later on, I learned that my mother had been worried sick when I didn’t come home that night.

I think Gretchen should tell you how all this played out because she was there. I only got the full story years later.”

I saw a tear trickle down Gretchen’s cheek that she immediately wiped away.

• • • • •

Gretchen’s father looms over her. “I spoke with your mother and this is the way it’s going to be.”

She is lying face-down on her bed. She has not heard a word her father said.

Frustrated, Mr. Lee shakes his daughter’s shoulder. “Look at me,” he shouts.

With Gretchen looking directly at him, he forces himself to speak slowly. Mr. Lee does not want his daughter to miss a single word.

“As I’ve said, your mother and I have decided how we are going to handle this situation. First of all, pack what you’ll need for an extended visit. You and your mother are going to New York and staying with your Aunt Hilda until the baby is born.”

“I’m not going anywhere without John.”

“Yes, you are, little lady. And this is why. John is in jail and he will not be let out until you’re safely on your way. I’ve spoken with the sheriff. If you run away or try to contact that boy in any way, the sheriff will file charges against him. Of course, they’ll be phony, but when the sheriff gets done with him, he’ll be doing ten years at hard labor. Is that what you want for your boyfriend?”

Gretchen’s shoulders sag. Is there no way out of this nightmare?

“What about the baby?” she implores.

“It will be given up for adoption.”

“NO!”

• • • • •

Gretchen came over, sat on the arm of the chair, and hugged me.

“Do you see what I was up against?”

I did see. But I still had one question. “So, how did I end up with dad?”

“I had no power. As long as they held the threat of sending your father to prison over my head, I had to do whatever they said. But there was one thing. They didn’t care about the baby. In exchange for my cooperation in their evil scheme, I demanded that the baby, when it came, be turned over to its father. Then I would go along with whatever they said without protest.”

• • • • •

There’s a knock on the door. John opens it to reveal a man and a woman. The woman is holding something.

“Yes. May I help you?”

“Are you John Toomey?” asks the man.

“Yes.”

“May I see some identification?”

“What is this all about?”

The woman speaks up. “Mr. Toomey, we have your son. Gretchen has sent him to you. We just have to make sure that you are Mr. Toomey. His name is Michael, by the way.”

• • • • •

“After making sure of my identity, they handed you over along with your birth certificate. In the early years, your grandmother helped out with raising you. But after she died, it was just you and me, kiddo.”

“Gretchen told me she had been married. Why didn’t she come back to you instead of marrying some other guy?”

“I’ll let Gretchen tell you.”

She was still sitting next to me on the chair’s arm. “I was allowed to keep you for two months, then I had to send you to your father. It broke my heart, but it was so much better than putting you up for adoption.

“After you were gone, my aunt and mother took me to Europe. We stayed over there six months before coming home. By then it had been almost two years since I last saw your father. The old sheriff was still around and the threat of putting John in prison was still held over me. I didn’t let your father know that I was back because I knew he’d come and see me.”

“Damn right I would have,” interjected my father.

Gretchen continued. “You must have been about five when the sheriff retired. And the next year both my parents died. But by then I was married. I had met him in France. He was an American … a rich American. My mother took to him instantly. I went out with him a few times just for something to do. When he asked me to marry him, I said yes just to get away from my parents. I didn’t love him, at least not like I loved your father. But he was a good man.

“When he died, I moved back onto the family farm. I wanted to be near you. I contacted your father and let him know that I was back. We decided that it would be best for you if we kept you from knowing the truth … that your mother was alive.

“But I couldn’t help myself. I had to talk to you. I had to touch you … I had to know you. Your father, to his credit, had no problem with that. So here I am. My name is Gretchen Lee and I am your mother!”

What a day it had been! It was a lot for a fourteen-year-old to take in. Hell, it probably would have been a lot for anyone to take it.

However, I did have one last question. “Gretchen … Dad, why haven’t you two gotten back together. The parents are gone. The sheriff is gone. What’s the problem?” It was a question only a kid could ask.

My father looked to Gretchen. She smiled and nodded.

My father leaned back on the couch and said, “Life goes on. By the time Gretchen came back, things had changed. I was a different person and she was a different person. We still have great affection for one another, but we’re not kids anymore.”

Gretchen touched my cheek with the back of her hand. She was crying.

Five months later, my father dropped dead on the plant floor from a massive heart attack.

I moved in with Gretchen at the farm. She was now wealthy from her parents’ and her husband’s money.

I’m twenty-six years old. I met a girl and married her when I was twenty-three. We are very much in love. I work at building websites. It’s a new business. I don’t know if this internet thing will take hold, but while I can, I’m going to cash in. I seem to have a knack for programming.

We were blessed with the most adorable set of twins you ever saw … and they have the most attentive grandmother in the world.

Life is good.

Andrew Fitzgibbons (The Story is True, the Words are Mine)

It was in the first year of The Great Famine—a hot July day—the sun was splitting stones, it was. On that day, Andrew Fitzgibbons’ world ended and his hell began.

Like most, his potato crop had failed, but unlike most, his family was eating, thanks to his son’s vegetable garden, and his rent was paid up to date. He did not know how long that would last, but for now he was holding on.

His wife was kneeling over the peat fire, boiling a cabbage for their noon meal. Andrew’s oldest son, Daniel, fourteen years of age, was tending his garden with love and care. The boy had the gift of a bhfuil ordóg glas—a green thumb, as the English would say. The younger children were playing near the house, under Andrew’s watchful eye.

Yes, things were bad in Ireland and getting worse as far as Andrew could tell, but for the moment, all was well. Then the clock ticked one tick and the fateful moment arrived.

A gang of the landlord’s drivers came up the stone path that Andrew’s father had laid when Andrew was but leanbh beag—a small child. There were seven in number, led by Thomas Cohan. Andrew knew him well. Tommy was the town bully and a thoroughly unpleasant man. He was tall, almost six feet, and his arms were thick with muscles. The smirk he wore upon his face announced to the world that he was enjoying himself.

Cohan got right to the point. “You have ten minutes to gather your possessions and your rabble, Andrew Fitzgibbons. His Lordship is increasing his pasture lands and you and your hovel are in the way.”

That was the moment Andrew’s world ended. But he did not yet know it.

“What do you mean, Tommy Cohan? My rent is paid.”

“’Tis no concern of mine. I’ve been told to move you off the land and that is what I will be doing. The ten minutes starts now.”

Andrew was dumbfounded. He could not think straight. He could not move. This was too much to take in all at once. His mind was reeling off the possibilities. Could he fight the seven men before him and drive them from his house? No. Could he plead for time so that he might beseech the landlord to reconsider? The look in Cohan’s eyes said no. Would God send down a lightning bolt to strike Cohan where he stood? Probably not.

“You now have nine minutes.”

Andrew called to his son. “Daniel, gather the little ones and bring them inside. Hurry!” He went into the house and told his wife to stop what she was doing and gather up all that she could carry of their belongings and take them outside. “Then come back for more.”

She stood immobile at the fire with her stirring stick in hand and a questioning look upon her face.

“I will explain later, but right now you have to do as I say.” Just then the children came in. Andrew told them the same thing he had told his wife. Daniel had overheard the conversation, so there was no hesitation on his part. The younger children thought it a grand game and readily joined in. His wife, seeing the fear in her husband’s eyes, placed the spoon into the pot of cabbage, picked up a rag, and took the pot off the fire. She took it outside and placed it on the ground. She was put off at seeing Cohan and the other men, but said nothing and hurried back inside.

When everything that they owned—which was not much—was standing in heaps outside the house, Cohan gave the order to remove the thatch. The family had no alternative but to stand there and watch the destruction of their home.

Andrew’s wife stood with her three small children, ages nine, seven, and five. Daniel stood next to his father. With the roof reduced to a pile of hay, the men started in on toppling the walls. Missus Fitzgibbons started to cry.

When the destruction was complete, Cohan informed Andrew that the family was to be off the land by sundown. “Thems me orders,” barked Cohan. “And I’ll be wanting no trouble from you, Andrew Fitzgibbons.”

“Where are we to go? What are we to do?” demanded Andrew.

Sneered Cohan, “Again, ’tis no concern of mine.”

Daniel, knowing the family would be needing food, ran to his beloved garden and started picking anything that was anywhere near to being ripe.

Cohan yelled, “You there, stop! That be His Lordship’s property.”

Daniel ignored him and continued with what he was doing. An enraged Cohan ordered two of his men to restrain the boy and hold him. To another he said, “You go along into town and bring back a constable.”

Andrew pleaded with Cohan to release the boy and they would be on their way. But Cohan was deaf to Andrew’s entreaties.

The constable arrived shortly thereafter, and based on Cohan’s testimony—and the law that stated a landlord owned everything on his land—he promptly arrested Daniel for thievery and destruction of property. He would not listen to a word from Daniel’s parents or the crying of his siblings.

The next day, Daniel went before a judge and was sentenced to two months in jail.

Just one story from An Gorta Mhór—The Great Famine.