The Richmond, VA based literary journal Bottom Shelf Whiskey has published one of my poems and one of my stories. Had a whiskey (natch!) recently with the journal’s estimable young publisher Hunter Reardon and he got me thinking about his new 5-7-5 syllable haiku contest (https://bottom-shelf-whiskey.com/). So here are a few I came up with (illustrated) – message me your own, or better yet, send it in to BSW (you don’t need to illustrate them, of course)!
As I was selecting the dozen tales for my debut story collection Last Rites, I imagined sequencing a record album, seeking both an overarching theme and a variety of style and perspective. The stories in the book have to do with fate, about the choices and circumstances that take us where we end up, and about the reckoning we face when we turn around and examine the path we walked to get there. That’s the theme, as I see it. The variety comes in length – one story is a page long, another runs to 30 – and perspective – a cancer cell tells its origin story, the ghost of a Confederate general walks his old stomping grounds in modern-day Richmond, VA, the First Lady deposes the President, and war veterans try to make sense of peace, among other tales.
Building a playlist has been fun. The songs here echo and speak to the moods of the stories, making up their own album on which one might ruminate and wander. Here’s the Spotify playlist: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/3EOJRUXOWARC9gJex5pJa9?si=GA0mNrTeTyG6YeZqXaVn_w.
Story: One of the Ways. Song: Fields of Gold (Eva Cassidy’s version). In real life, I tear up whenever this song comes on, remembering picking flowers in the yard and walking the field in front of our house with Mama. In the story, a farmer walks off his drunk in a field at night, and when he comes back in the house, his young son sneaks out to walk the field, too.
Story: Measured in Sips. Song: Hello in There (John Prine). To my mind, Mr. Prine is America’s great story teller. His poignant plea to converse with old folks fits my story, in which a war veteran widower lives his last days alone with his swarm of memories, each breath like the ticking of a clock.
Story: Confederate General A. P. Hill Opines. Song: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (The Band). In my story, the ghost of A. P. Hill climbs down off his monument to walk about modern-day Richmond. He could have written this song. By the way, Richmond literary journal Bottom Shelf Whiskey has posted this story online here: https://bottom-shelf-whiskey.com/confed-gen-a-p-hill-opines/.
Story: Cancer: A Bildungsroman. Song: We Are The Champions (Queen). The memoir of a cancer cell (hat tip to dear Italo Calvino) — imagined as an arrogant, rogue, relentless mogul — might be sound-tracked by this football anthem.
Story: The First Lady’s Confession. Song: You Know I’m No Good (Amy Winehouse). One journal rejected this story as too hot to handle, though no President or First Lady is mentioned by name. At one point I’d subtitled it “What it Might Take.” I can imagine my heroine humming this song, as she sees her husband off to jail when his bill comes due.
Story: Debbie Hamilton. Song: First Glimmer (Replacements). It’s a first kiss story, and it’s a first kiss song, maybe the best first kiss song ever.
Story: River of Dreams. Song: River of Dreams (Billy Joel). In my story, middle-aged Jersey twins sing this song at the start of an ill-fated canoe trip. New Jersey loves Billy Joel, and his quasi-religious doo-wop tune neatly complements a tale that is pretty close to what really happened on a river trip I was on a couple years ago, including that last part with the ghost.
Story: Forgetting. Song: I Forget (Carly Simon). A flash fiction, derived from some of the patients I saw as an occupational therapist at UVA Medical Center in Charlottesville some years ago. Simon’s song might have been written by the old self-lobotomized pharmacist in the tale. This one’s been published online, too: https://madswirl.com/short-stories/2019/03/forgetting/.
Story: The Jazzman’s Lament. Song: Miles Runs the Voodoo Down (Miles Davis). This story and the one that follows derive from patients I saw in my first OT job at the Manhattan VA Medical Center. Davis’ haunted, percolating, urban soundtrack neatly matches the nightmare my protagonist lives while awake.
Story: The Bird Man of Central Park. Song: Born in the USA (Bruce Springsteen). I had a patient at the VA who was this guy; hope he’s still alive and feeding the birds. A Vietnam veteran with a thousand yard stare, he was also the sweetest, most gentle person, but alone, so alone.
Story: Let it Snow. Song: Both Sides Now (Joni Mitchell). I’ll admit it here; this story is a deliberate homage to Joyce’s monumental Dublin tale The Dead, transferred to middle-class suburban America. A young woman at my Christmas party sings Mitchell’s tune, and it returns to haunt the hero at the end.
Story: Grandpa and the Bear. Song: Nothing Compares to U (Sinead O’Conner version (natch)). I titled the book Last Rites, because the stories negotiate life and death issues. This one considers the “highly individualized and unshareable derangement that is the mourning of a spouse.” O’Conner, reading Prince, understands.
If you haven’t picked up my book yet, it’s for sale on Amazon (https://amzn.to/2ATYsAA), or you can ask for it at your local bookstore. Hope you enjoy it. Now you can sing along!
There is a trick to blowing bubbles
but like so many things you’ll learn
in life, where everything is bubble
fragile, it’s easy once you get it.
That measured puff –
Its reward your own hot breath
packaged in a glistening globe
and floating oh so gorgeously
with its fellows on a current
you can’t otherwise see
before of a sudden expiring
with a silent pop at the prick
of a blade of grass.
Somewhere in my childish heart
I glimpse a glint of the lesson there:
Blow more and more until
the breeze across our yard
is flagged with bobbing spheres
that stir a sort of expectant glee
there not there, exactly!
And the little bottle it came in
gone finally empty, too.
When I started work on my debut novel The Coal Tower (https://amzn.to/2HcegCg) ten years ago (there were previous novels, of course, piled in that proverbial drawer), one sweet dream that drove me to get up at 5 am, brew some coffee, and sit down in the light of my laptop to write before work was the possibility that someday the book would come out, and when it did, maybe I’d be fortunate enough to launch it at my favorite bookstore, the linchpin of Charlottesville’s literary scene, New Dominion.
Living in Charlottesville, working as an occupational therapist at UVA-Healthsouth, then starting a community reentry program for people with brain injuries connected to Martha Jefferson Hospital, then starting up an early tech company Cerebreon, along with acute care practice at UVA Hospital, while also starting a family with my amazing wife Chris and our two boys (both out of their teens now), the ideas and characters for this novel did what I guess you’d call germinate. An autocratic neurosurgeon at UVA, one of our brain injury clients who tended to drift off to a homeless camp on the edge of the river, teenaged patients emerging slowly from comas caused by car crashes or shootings, and so on, all this swirled around my busy days with no place to land.
Then there was that tragic shooting at the old coal tower downtown, when a young man with mental health problems killed two teenagers. That event struck me as a metaphor somehow for what I felt about Charlottesville, and its disparate communities, but it took me the writing of the novel to place it. I hope that’s what I’ve done.
Anyway, next week that sweet dream comes true. New Dominion is holding a launch party for The Coal Tower. And what’s even sweeter, they’ve scheduled it during Game Week. The novel takes place in one day – the day of UVA’s first football game of the season – and my reading will be held that same week (on Wednesday August 28, from 7-8 pm). Much of the action in the book takes place on the Downtown Mall, just outside the doors of the New Dominion Book Shop. How sweet is that?
So, if you live in the Cville environs, hope you can come and share in my dream come true. It’s been a decade in the works, but now tastes to me as delicious as a scoop of Chap’s coffee ice cream in a waffle cone!
Here’s the New Dominion link for the event: https://ndbookshop.com/events/tony-gentry-the-coal-tower/. Y’all come, now!
Daddy said yes to the pool with that girl
so I finished the sign Watermelons
for Sale $1.00: that green and red slice
made a half-moon with bug-like LEM on top.
Oh my in that frilly bikini then
her slim legs churning the bubblegum sheen
of a ramshackle motel’s lukewarm pool
on I guess my first sorta halfway date?
Hair damp and heart thumping back at the store
we locked the door for an hour not to watch
but to buy eggs sold cheap down a dirt road
in the woods. Was the truck’s radio on?
Pretty sure I knew it was coming up,
but Daddy didn’t seem to care a whit.
It would happen or not was just his way.
Something else the war schooled him over
that he couldn’t unlearn is what I think.
The eggs rattled between us on the seat
while I sniffed the chlorine on my fingers
and in my hair and the dust plumed behind
I’d like to imagine all the way up
to where those clunky boots we later learned
stepped down from a ladder to a sea where
even now on full moon nights it all seems
jumbled up like something I must have dreamed
thin legs that splatter a pool’s blue water
fat cleats imprinting a virgin beach
in the eggshell gleam of the moon’s reflection
half forgotten, except everything’s changed.
My father hardly spoke.
My mother never quit.
I’ve grown up with this yoke
all because of it.
You want to say it all
like your mama did
but then you get the call
to keep it all hid.
The trick is in the way
you sit the nest
of what you have to say
to say it best,
or if not best than better
than whatever comes to mind,
you try to say what matters
and leave the rest behind.
So thank you Mom and Dad
for the Spratt-like thing you did
in the way you got it said
all the days that you were wed.
Put one and one together
and this is what you get;
it’s just I don’t know whether
or what to make of it.
Why would you want to do that?
Is he lying in the street or halfway in a door?
Do you hear gunshots? Do you see blood?
Can you detect a breath
tickle the fine hairs of your ear?
Did you see him fall? Are the two of you alone?
Don’t take forever with it – think!
It’s okay to drag him, if you can.
But here’s how:
Roll her over on her back
then reach in at her head and push her up
to sitting, be careful of her neck.
Don’t pull her arms, don’t tug, remember your back.
Maybe you end up on your knees
so your whole front is like a seat back
for this insensate person. I mean,
you have to understand, this is an intimate maneuver.
But you’re only just beginning, so.
Slide your arms under his and clasp your wrists at his chest.
Make your arms a belt around him, like a big old bear hug.
Then if you can do this, here’s a place where you need to be sure,
get up on one knee, then you and this person
you are hugging tighter than you can believe
use your legs not your back your bodies really sandwiched
you both yes that’s right come to a stand.
This is no joke.
Because now you’re committed.
Now you could both go down.
It’s like a dance, a kind of shuffle
where you squeeze her even tighter
while you shift your position
sidle around to her side somehow
you really have to practice
and her sleeping arm you need to duck under
so it’s hanging out there zombie-like across your shoulder
but what you’re going for is to block her knees with yours
shove them up straight and locked
so for the first time you see how tall she is
in this high and doddering place
where you’ve arranged yourselves.
But that’s not even all. Are you ready? Get ready.
Because now comes the switch. No, seriously,
this is how you do it.
It’s the weak link in the procedure.
You have to quit the bear hug
while you ease around to his front
and grab his floppy wrists
(it helps to lean forward and crouch
so he sort of drapes across your back)
and then here we go, alright, this is it.
Get in right under her armpits
pull her arms over your shoulders like a shawl,
bend those knees, stick out your butt
(her head may bump on yours)
and take a tentative step.
You’ve got him.
You can shuffle off to what you hope is safety,
to help, to some kind of better place.
Maybe his legs are long and drag behind,
toes drawing lines from there to here
if you’re in sand. People may see you
and not know what to think.
But let me say this. There is a rule
that we all follow and will hold you to.
Oh yes we will. If she is unconscious and you touch her.
If you dare to move her sleeping form.
Until you get her to safety or help,
do this whole thing we just rehearsed
entirely in reverse,
until that moment when you step back,
unkink your knees and spine,
wipe at your shirt and bend gasping at her side
until then — because you touched her —
you own what happens. You are the responsible
party. The Good Samaritan.
In ways you must decide to bear
that is your burden too.
So this. It helps to be ready, to have a clue.
It’s not for everybody. I get that.
There are these risks involved
if you dare to cross that line,
if you stop and bend to touch.
You would hope if it was you.
But I’m not here to judge. Which is
why we practice. So here.
A little rude but I call it
try before you buy.
So, I read about this thing where writers leave their books for people to pick up and read wherever, and thought it might be fun. In Charlottesville yesterday, followed the trail that the characters in The Coal Tower make, and left a copy of the novel at the Downtown Mall bus station, where Dr. Cannon holds his Hollywood-inspired party. In the book, I imagine this party on the rooftop of the bus station, giving the attendees views of a concert in the Sprint Pavilion next door. Couldn’t, of course, get up there, so left the book on a seat inside:
Then went up to UVA, but the Jeffersonian pavilion where the good doctor relieves himself (after his slo-mo streak) was wrapped in scaffolding. So left a book on a rocker in front of one of the student apartments.
Finally, sought out the old coal tower itself. In a driving rain, came upon a dramatically different scene than the one in the novel. Where there once was a field (where the teenage lovers Chloe and Lucas end their daylong traipse around the city), there now stands a long row of condos and brightly painted storefronts, the apartments running right up to the edge of the coal tower, with more on the way. Once completed, the complex will bookend the old tower, which I guess is just too sturdy to tear down.
But the train tracks that figure in the story still run along to the right of the picture, the Sally Hemings dress frame structure (that the book’s character Sid thinks is an antenna for cosmic aliens) still tops the tower, and at least until they finish that new row of condos on this side, I think you can still imagine the climactic drama from the novel. Too wet to leave a book – next trip!
The Coal Tower is all about the tensions, misunderstandings, and disparities in families and community in Cville. Along the way, though, I paused before this corner, marking the place where the city exploded beyond anything I could have imagined just two years ago. What are we all going to do about that?
Visiting the Outer Banks this weekend to hang out with son Nick, who’s ocean rescue life-guarding for Nags Head again this summer, and still feeling the glow from last weekend’s reading at Book People in Richmond, VA. David, the owner, played gracious host, friends (counted among them six occupational therapists – hey, birds of a feather!), family, and the occasional casual shopper dropped in. Paul Witcover, my best friend and a constant inspiration (he’s a well-published SF author – here’s his website: https://paulwitcover.com), drove all the way down from New York; one of my pals from high school, Doris McGehee, drove in from Palmyra, and my son Stephen, who designed the covers for both my books, took pictures and made a video of the reading (not yet edited, but soon, he says).
I read a two page section from The Coal Tower drawn almost autobiographically from my childhood, when Grandma Glass, our next door neighbor, would impress her fingers in a “foldover sandwich” made from Nolde’s white bread and her own homemade blackberry jam. Here’s a paragraph from that passage.
Fun to sign books (David had set out copies of The Coal Tower and Last Rites for people to purchase). The whole afternoon just so fun! Thank you to all who came, to all who wanted to come but ran into obstacles along the way, but mostly to David for being the most caring, personable, open-hearted bookseller in Richmond. Go visit his shop, if you don’t know it. It’s at 536 Granite Avenue, in a cottage. He’s got easy chairs to sit in, a Keurig machine at the door, and a nicely curated collection of new and used books, including a shelf of local authors, often discounted. Here’s the store’s website: https://bookpeoplrichmond.com.
My next reading is scheduled for New Dominion Book Store on Charlottesville’s downtown mall on Wednesday August 28 at 7 pm. What’s so cool about this: a lot of the action in The Coal Tower occurs right outside the doors of New Dominion on the mall, and the whole novel takes place on Game Day, Labor Day weekend, the same week when I’ll be giving the reading! In my book the UVA football team plays Penn State that day. This year they’ll be playing Pittsburgh. Close!