Saturday, April 19, 2014

S is for Stash, Syd, and Sybillia: Blogging the #atozchallenge

It would be hard to find three more unique characters than Stash Cizik from The Haven in My Last Romance and other Passions, Syd Jupiter from Depraved Heart: A Novel, and Sybillia Windfelder from The Confession of Genny Franck in The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall. All of them have been through a lot in life and have faced big, big challenges. Stash is a former seaman and tough guy who now manages a Mariner's Home. Syd is a former NFL linebacker who was just released from prison. Sybillia Windfelder was a nurse and herbalist in "the old country" but is now a mid-wife and alleged "Hexe-woman."

from The Confession of Genny Franck
Though I had taken our cow to graze in the cemetery nearly every day of my girlhood and had often picked blackberries and strawberries along the edge of the trees at Brunner's Glen I had never seen the house that seemed to appear through the trees. It was tiny, low and made of stone, with cross-paned windows, and shutters. There was a large pile of wood stacked by the front door and in the clearing on the far side of the house I could see the dim outline of cold-frames lined up along the edge of a garden and a small greenhouse that jutted out from the cottage's rear. There was an outhouse beyond the garden. Though most everyone in Marienstadt had electricity and indoor plumbing some who lived outside of town still used outhouses and kerosene lanterns. As we came around the corner to the front of the cottage I noticed a wishing well with a wooden bucket hanging in it. Fragrant smoke floated up from a tin stovepipe overhead.
“Sybillia?” Clara called tapping at the door. “It's Clara.”
I heard the rattling and rasp of metal latches and then Sybillia Windfelder's face
appeared around the door. “Come, come,” she said. “Don't dawdle.”
Though I had seen Sybillia Windfelder in town on marketing days I had never been close enough to have a good look at her. Then she was usually bundled up in a long black coat and headscarf and I thought her quite frightening. But now, standing in her living room, she seemed like any other aged woman from the Old Country. She was of medium height and rather stout but in an energetic, muscular way. Her hair was snow white and had been braided with small ivory rings woven into the braids. She wore them wrapped around and around her head. She wore mannish woolen trousers, a hand-knit pullover sweater, and heavy boiled-wool clogs on her feet. She could have been anyone's eccentric auntie visiting from home.

from The Haven
He stands in the light-filled kitchen. Everything here is simple—plain, scrubbed wood, undraped tables, walls covered with unframed charts and maps. This could as easily be a Shaker meeting room or a monastery.
            His back is to me as he bends over the table. His arms and shoulders move steadily, rhythmically, and I realize he is kneading bread dough in a glazed brown bowl sitting on a folded linen towel. Whish-thump, the bowl rocks back and forth on the table under the expert movements of his big hands. Whish-thump.
           I step quietly toward him, slide my arms around his waist, and snuggle as close as I can get, pressing my face into the rough wool of his well-felted sweater.
          "I smelled your perfume," he says and from the tone of his voice I know he is smiling.

          "I couldn’t wait to get her today," I say, kissing his back between his big shoulder blades. "I’ve wanted you all morning."
          He turns holding his sticky, dough-caked hands out and away. He sits on the edge of the table and lets me cuddle close wrapping his forearms around my shoulders. I kiss him. God, I love his face! It is hard and lined and bony with a nose and jaw that are too big and eyes that are like hematite nuggets set under bushy, untameable brows. Everything about Stash has a wildness to it, a rocky, brokenness just on the edge of ruin, and yet so delicious in its wanton imperfection.
        "You didn’t come to work then?" he teases. His eyes twinkle and I am lost.

from Depraved Heart
A few paintings, landscapes mostly, hung above the mantel. Art always soothed me; after my first few minutes at Hathor, I needed soothing. The first painting I noticed was a harbor scene with mountain-like, multicolored clouds filling a summer sky. I glanced at the signature, Henry R. Kenyon. Of course.
I have heard...” a deep, quiet voice said, “...that Kenyon sometimes painted with Paul Gauguin.”
I turned. He had entered through the door Audrey Nettleton had just exited. Even in a room of such vast proportions his size was impressive. His jet black hair showed gray at the temples and his once-famous face was still calm, reserved, and handsome. He crossed the room quickly, hand extended, and when he took mine I looked up into those eyes all the magazines once described as the color of sapphires.

Welcome to Hathor, Ms. Hobbs. I hope the ride over was pleasant.”
Yes,” I said, hoping my voice did not quiver. He was courteous, gracious, perfectly at ease. Fifteen years in prison seemed not to have touched him. He exuded power, and that great dignity that the journalists who covered his trial marveled at. The only thing I sensed as he held my hand just a moment longer than was customary was absolute, unquestionable integrity.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, April 18, 2014

R is for Ralph, Ruby, and Ramin: Blogging the #atozchallenge

Ralph Jonas from Arthur's Story: A Love Story is a gardener, Ruby, from My Last Romance, is a chanteuse, and Ramin, from my current work-in-progress The Crazy Old Lady's Secret, is an art dealer. All three of them are highly independent, charming, and somewhat mysterious characters. I love all three of them.

from Arthur's Story: A Love Story
One day, as Arthur knelt to examine a patch of chives that was glowing spiky and green in the April sunlight, Ralph Jonas, the gardener for the Wentworth Billingsly family stopped spading and addressed the boy. "Never seen chives before?”
The boy’s head snapped up and he grinned sheepishly. It was a very nice grin. “Yes, sir,” he said, “I just didn’t know that was their name.”
Jonas nodded slowly. “Like gardening, do you?”
The boy grinned again. “Yes, sir. Well, yes, I think I do.”
"You live around here?”
That seemed to startle the boy but he shook his head. Jonas knew about things like that. He knew about being embarrassed to say where you lived. He’d been through that himself.
"Want to give me a hand?”
Jonas thought later he’d never seen a face light up like that in all his days. “You’d a’thought I gave him a fifty dollar bill,” he told his friends at the tavern that night.
Arthur proved to be the happiest, most eager worker Ralph Jonas was ever to see. He spaded furrows and pulled up weeds and did every job Jonas gave him as though it was the most fun he’d ever had in his life. When Sophie, the kitchen maid brought them mugs of lemonade and pieces of fresh baked apple pie, the boy swallowed his in a few bites and then asked if he could go back to the work. The sun was low in the sky when Jonas told him it was time to stop.
'What’s your name, lad?” Jonas asked rummaging in the pocket of his work pants.
"Arthur, sir, Arthur Silver.”
"Well, Sir Arthur Silver, you did a fine day’s work. Here.” He held out a quarter and the boy looked up at him with enormous eyes.
"Take it,” Jonas said. He nodded toward the shed against the brick wall at the back of the garden. “You go in there and wash up now. And if you are back here tomorrow morning at sunup I’ll have another quarter for you at the end of the day.”

"Yes, sir!” Arthur thought that was the happiest evening of his life. He was going to be a gardener. Nothing seemed more wonderful.

from My Last Romance
                  I was seventeen when I met Silvio. He and his band, The Silver Saints, were playing a three week gig at The Balinese Room down on the boardwalk. My girlfriend Miranda called. "Have you seen those guys?" she cooed. "Every one of them is dark and slick and hot."
                  I’d seen them. They sure were dark and slick and hot. "Come on," Miranda said, "this could be your big break."
                Miranda was my number one fan back then. I started singing in our high school glee club but what I wanted was to be a torch singer, like Juliette Greco or Rosemary Clooney. I collected all the records—Jo Stafford and Peggy Lee. I practiced in front of my bedroom mirror for hours. It wasn’t enough to get the music right. I had to get the look and the shrug and the pout—the smoke. My Grandma never intended all those sewing lessons to result in the dancing dresses I made. She’d have tanned my hide if she saw the lipstick red, strapless gown I made for my big night. It hugged me right down to my thighs and then exploded in cascades of ruffles. In four inch heels I
practiced till I got the wiggle that could set those ruffles swaying. I borrowed some fake ruby earrings from Miranda and I looked like sin itself strutting into the Balinese Room that night.
              It worked. Silvio took one look at me and the next song the band played was "Ruby". That’s what he’s called me ever since. And the rest—as the saying goes—was history. Silvio was everything I wanted—tall, dark, handsome and ripe to fall in love—first with my body, then with my voice. Then with me.
              By the time the band pulled out of town my sewing machine, my record collection, and my wardrobe were packed along with them. That was forty-two years ago.

from The Crazy Old Lady's Secret
Cushing turned when he heard the soft whoosh of the elevator's doors sweep open. He crossed his office as a tall man stepped into the elegant quiet of the reception room.
"Mr. Aria?"
"Yes. You are Cushing Phillips?"
Cushing crossed the room and shook his hand. “Come on into my office.” Cushing stepped aside and as Ramin Aria passed in front of him Cushing caught the faint fragrance of something fresh, subtle, and very expensive.
"Please, have a seat." Cushing gestured to one of the leather wing-back chairs, then settled behind his desk. "I'd offer you coffee but I'm here alone today."
Aria unbuttoned his suit jacket—charcoal silk, Cushing noted, and most assuredly custom tailored—as he seated himself crossing his long legs.
"Thank you but I just dined." He smiled and that smile caused Cushing to catch his breath.
Ramin Aria had a smile of dazzling whiteness against skin the color of cappuccino. In
fact everything about him was dazzling in Cushing's eyes. He was a slender man but wide-shouldered with incongruously large, muscular hands, and a face of strong features—high, sharp cheekbones, a prominent nose with a fetching scar across it, and a square jaw. His thick black hair swept back from his face in subtle waves and brushed his collar. He wore his sideburns long and had just the suggestion of a beard, but his most arresting feature was his eyes. They were large and wide under heavy brows and the strangest color Cushing had ever seen—the color of honey around the irises but changing to light olive green and then to a deep olive. Cushing had no idea of Aria's age but as he sat, nearly speechless in the presence of such beauty, he grew increasingly convinced that he had seen this man somewhere before.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Q is for Quinton and W.Q.: Blogging the #atozchallenge

Quinton Nightingale is a new character who readers will meet in the sequel to The Monday Night Needlework and Murder Guild. W.Q. Ravenscroft, and his son Wyatt, were the men who built the fabulous estate known as Hathor in Depraved Heart. Both Quinton and W.Q. are powerful, sometimes ruthless, men but both of them love their wives madly.

from The Tuesday Night Gardening and Assassins Club
From the day we married Quint started making plans to ensure I’d always be taken care of.
“In case something happens to me, baby doll,” he’d say, taking me in his arms and nuzzling his handsome face into my throat. “I’m going to make sure you have everything you need.”
“Don’t say things like that,” I’d say. “Nothing’s going to happen to you. I won’t let it.”
It warms my heart to know how many people loved Quint. We moved to Salem shortly after we married. It’s a nice neighborhood with comfortable family homes overlooking Salem Harbor. Right from the beginning we knew we’d made the right choice. Ours is the kind of neighborhood where neighbors borrow hedge clippers from one another and stop by with a basket full of tomatoes when their gardens ripen too fast or a nice big striper when the fishing is good. Of course all the neighbors knew was that Quint worked in Boston and that sometimes his work took him away from home for a few days. When he was gone they’d invite me over for dinner.
“No sense eating alone,” Polly would say when she called. “I made plenty of lasagna and Randy likes having two pretty women at the dinner table. Now with the kids out and on their own, the dinner table is just too doggone quiet.”

So I’d go and we’d have a couple glasses of wine on the porch and talk about the weather, and what new shows were coming to Boston, and the goings on down on the Common when the local witches and warlocks were up to something. It was a nice life and when Quint came home he’d drive down to the lobster shack under the Beverly/Salem bridge and bring back lobsters and we’d invite Polly and Randy or other neighbors for an evening on us.

from Depraved Heart: A Novel
When W.Q. Ravenscroft first conceived Hathor his intention was to create a mansion as imposing and grand as those in Newport. While a guest at George Peabody Wetmore’s Chateau-sur-Mer he attended a party at the neighboring Rosecliff where he met Lisette Fournier, his future wife. That night, and in the months to come, as he wooed her from Newport to Paris and from New York to Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Italianate villa in Boston, he promised her a palace and a kingdom that would be the envy of all her friends. Lisette deserved nothing less. W.Q., who had spent a fair amount of his pre-Lisette young manhood in London, was enchanted by Early Tudor architecture and sought out an architect who could concoct a fanciful interpretation of Dorney Court with as many gables and double tiers of triple, diamond-paned windows as could be squeezed into the main structure. Barges of brick and wood were floated across Salem Harbor and, as the manor house grew, the islanders watched with skeptical authority.
Such nonsense,” was the consensus.
Won’t make it through one nor’easter,” was added evening after evening in the Riptide.
But the manor house continued to expand - gables and chimneys, vaults and gingerbread, gargoyles and arches, half-timbering and inglenook fireplaces, endless paneling of fine woods. The cottage, as the residents of Newport called their mansions with coy restraint, grew in stateliness and absurdity and Lisette busied herself collecting hand-crafted furnishings from three continents. A wing composed entirely of suites, each with a sitting room, bedroom and bath, was built along the northwest side of the walled garden for the use of visiting guests.

The cottage itself was just the beginning. It was followed by stables and boathouses, temples and grottoes, vast greenhouses, and then there were Lisette’s special delights - her follies, she called them. With a childish sensibility that enchanted W.Q., she declared that Hathor was not an estate but rather a fairyland. It was her particular mission to create endless secret places that would be inviting to the mythical creatures she intended to attract. For the remainder of her life she concocted, designed, and built all manner of quaint and quixotic structures, all perfectly lovely and perfectly useless. Some contained fountains, or wishing wells, or reflecting pools. One, rumor had it, contained a carousel with hand-carved and gilded creatures, gryphons and tigers, camels and unicorns. 

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

P is for Peeper, Peter, and Pio: Blogging the #atozchallenge.

It would be hard to imagine three men who are more different than Peeper, Fr. Peter, and Pio. Peeper Baumgratz from The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall is a mechanic, woodsman, hunter and trapper with a gift for screwing things up. Father Peter Black from Each Angel Burns is a devout priest facing a difficult challenge to his vows. Pio Romeo from The Old Mermaid's Tale is a handsome, ambitious young fisherman whose longing for adventure is at odds with his love for Clair.

from The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall
The sun was low in the sky when Peeper Baumgratz woke up and figured it was safe to leave his hiding place. He knew the sheriff and the Staties wouldn't venture this far into Opelt's Wood once it got dark. He hadn't expected things to go the way they did. Damn that big brute Grant Caruso anyhow, what the hell right did he have to steal his truck? Peeper had every intention of notifying the police about his accident once he got back to town but it was barely five-thirty in the morning when he lost control of it and went into the slide that resulted in the unfortunate situation. Peeper didn't believe in cell phones and other stupid gadgets like that but who the hell would want to be called out at five-thirty in the morning anyway? All he intended to do was walk his trap line and then he'd go straight back to town and make his report. He'd be back before Henry Werner was out of whoever's bed he was in. Now his truck was gone and he was likely a wanted man. Just more of his never-ending bad luck.
Thank God he'd built this latest hideout. Opelt's Wood was as good a place in which to live as any, if you had to. Ever since the year 2000 arrived Peeper had been waiting for the Big Change. He knew it was coming. He knew chaos would ensue when the world fell into the hands of terrorists and zombies and Mormons. They'd take over everything and the only way a man could be free was if he took to the hills and lived on his own terms. The Apocalypse was near just like the Mayans predicted and he, at least was prepared.
Water wasn't a problem. The Seneca Highlands was home to thousands of springs and streams, some of the purest water in the world. And he could hunt or fish for whatever else he needed. He'd set up a network of hideouts throughout a fifteen mile area. Every chance he got he took a trip to the Army-Navy supply store in Shippensburg and stocked up on canteens, lanterns, sleeping bags and other supplies that he distributed throughout the woods in his secret places. Thank God he'd had the foresight. He might never see another human being again but that was all right with Peeper.
He watched the fading light barely visible through the hemlock branches that spread down over the entrance to the small cave he was in. It was really little more than a hollowed out space under a rocky outcrop. Earlier, as he made his way through the woods, he shot a nice fat rabbit and he intended to start a fire now that he was sure there wouldn't be anyone up here to see it. He hadn't planned to sleep as long as he did but what else was there to do? He'd skinned the rabbit and packed it in snow, then curled up in the stashed sleeping bag and was only waking up now. He could barely make out the hands on his watch but it had to be close to three o'clock. Grant Caruso's shift would be over and Henry Werner had no jurisdiction out here. He giggled, congratulating himself on his foresight, and climbed out of his lair.
As he straightened up he took a deep breath and then pounded his chest with the sheer joy of this life of rugged freedom he was about to embark on.
“Hello, Peeper. Have a nice nap?”
He spun around while trying to run backwards at the same time. Oliver Eberstark was hunkered down between the rocks but he lunged forward and, with one long arm, snagged the back of Peeper's jacket.
“Hold up,” he said in that deep baritone of his, “somebody wants to talk to you.”

from Each Angel Burns
When Father Pete showed up the third Thursday in August everyone was a little surprised, not that they weren’t happy to see him. But it was the fourth Thursday in a row that he’d joined them and that was unusual. He was, as always, his laid-back, good-humored self and they were glad he was there. Pete had a mystique about him that had started back in high school and only grew with the passage of time.
Peter Abélard Black was, by the agreement of nearly every female who ever met him, one of the most perfectly handsome men the good Lord had ever graced the earth with. In high school he was elected to every position of distinction—from class president, to captain of the swim team, to King of the Winter Festival—merely on the basis of his relentless good looks. By his senior year he stood just shy of six feet four inches tall and had the sort of body fashion designers, photographers, girls of all ages, and every gay man who ever glanced at him, drooled over. His shoulders were wide, his hips narrow, and his muscles long, perfectly delineated and elegant. His thick ravens-wing black hair had just the suggestion of a wave to it, and the flawless, dusky complexion that hinted at his Algonquin ancestors was the ideal setting for bottle green eyes that actually made women gasp the first time he looked at them. Added to that was a disarming smile, and a soft laugh that had been known to bring a blush to the cheeks of the nuns who were fortunate enough to have him in class at Christ the King High School. In fact, it was Sister Elizabeth Ann Seton who commented that Peter Black was living proof that God wasn’t above showing-off.
The real irony, of which Sister Elizabeth and her fellow nuns were unaware, was that not only was Pete an example of God’s artistry, he was also completely and utterly devoted to his Maker. He had been born with a heart that was as flawless in its devotion as his face and form were flawless in their beauty. On the night after Pete announced his intention to enter the Jesuit seminary in Cambridge immediately upon graduation, half the female student body of Christ the King cried themselves to sleep.
He’d been an outstanding football player—he and Gabe had been the two best linemen Christ the King’s Crusaders had seen in its sixty year history. With Charlie Pikawski as quarterback, they’d carried the team to its only Eastern Conference Championship, an accomplishment that had not been repeated since. The fact that after all these years Pete still liked hanging out with his old team-mates, and drove up from his teaching position at Boston College to drink with them, secretly pleased all of them. They teased him gently about his vocation but all were proud to count him among their friends.
This is actor Steve Reeves, not Pio. But in the story
Clair says that Pio's muscles and beard remind her of
Steve Reeves--can you blame her for falling for him?

from The Old Mermaid's Tale
Candles flickered in tall red glass containers on the altar by the garage. No one was in attendance now and I stopped in front of the statue of St. Peter to study him. He was a fine looking saint, big-shouldered and brawny with a curling brown beard and a receding hairline. He cradled a small wooden ship in his arms and his hand was raised over it in Benediction. I wondered who thought up these statues.
“Praying for us fishermen?”
I turned. I knew it would be Pio standing there looking perfectly edible in tight jeans and a white cotton T-shirt that showed off his muscles and his tan. His eyes were as black and alluring as I remembered them and his mouth, surrounded by that devilish beard, as tempting.
“Yes. Think St. Peter will listen to me?”
He smiled at me. Angela was right, he looked better than ever.
“How could he resist you?”
“You look great, Pio. Congratulations. You got your boat.”
He came close and took my hand. “Come here. I’ll show you something.”
He led me along the side of the house through a growth of honeysuckle and down along a brick wall covered with creeping myrtle. There was a tool shed surrounded by piles of fishing nets, chains, and other paraphernalia overgrown with vines. He ducked through the bushes to the back of the shed and held a branch aside for me to join him.
“Look.” He pointed. On the back of the shedwall was a faded painting obviously made by children long ago. He hunkered down in front of it and I knelt beside him. It showed a fishing boat at sea. Grinning fish leaped out of the waves and a smiling sun with long rays shone down on it. He pointed to three stick figures of men on the boat who bent over the side hauling up fish-laden nets by hand.
“That’s me,” he said pointing to the figure reaching down the farthest grasping the net. “This is Tony, this is my Dad. And over here.” He indicated two small boys in the stern of the ship cutting up fish. “This is Dante and Mario. And here.” He pushed back a clump of ivy to reveal a crude but recognizable drawing of St. Peter. “That’s St. Peter looking out for us.”
“Who made this?”
He sat back in the grass and rested his forearms on his knees. “Me and Tony when we were kids. Before our Dad died.” He looked at me. “There was never a time in my life when I didn’t want a life at sea.”

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

O is for Oliver: Blogging the #atozchallenge

Oliver Eberstark is a larger than life character who is a central figure in all my Marienstadt stories. He is a big, rugged former forest ranger who now owns Opelt's Wood. I love Oliver for many reasons, not the least of which is that much of his character and woodsman's knowledge comes from my brother. Oliver--and his dog, Toots--started out in The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood, then The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall, then The Christmas Daughter, and he will be a main character in The Bucktail Cap in the Trunk.
This is not Oliver, this is the Steeler's huge #99 Brett Keisel
but in the story one of Oliver's friends comments that his
beard makes him look like Brett Keisel. Works for me.
from The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall:
The road evened out and Henry saw the hulking shape of Eberstark's Sawmill ahead. There was smoke drifting up from the chimney of the mill's workshop. He pulled up next to Oliver's Ram truck and got out of the cruiser. The rhythmic thunk-thunk-thunk of someone chopping wood echoed through the hollow. He walked across the snowy yard between the workshop and the back of the stone and timber house. The river sparkled in the sunshine and the air was fragrant with woodsmoke, pine, and the crispness of coming snow. A big, handsome black dog appeared and gave a soft woof at Henry. Oliver, dressed in jeans, a
flannel shirt and a down vest, was in mid swing bringing his axe down hard onto the trunk of a white birch tree that appeared recently felled.
He straightened up and turned. He was a big man, a couple inches taller than Henry and brawny, with wide shoulders and a barrel chest. He had dark hair and an impressive beard that gleamed red in the sunlight. His face was ruddy from the combination of cold and exertion.
“Henry,” he said. “What brings you down here?”
Henry had known Oliver since boyhood. Oliver was a few years behind him in school but Henry remembered watching Central Catholic's football games when Oliver was on the team. Everybody back then said he'd wind up in the pros. He had gone to Penn State on a football scholarship and pursued a career in forestry. After ten years working in the Susquehannock State Forest up in Potter County he moved back to the sawmill a few years back when his grandfather was dying.
“You're not going to believe it when I tell you,” Henry said. “How are you?” He stuck out his hand and watched it disappear into Oliver's huge one.
“I'm good. You?”
“Good. Did you just chop that down?”
“Yeah, it was starting to rot on the one side and it was too close to the house for comfort.” He swung the axe down and let it lodge into the wood.
“Most people would use a chainsaw.”
Oliver shrugged. “I need the exercise.”

from The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood:
The sunlight on the river glittered through the trees and, as she approached the bottom of the hill she spotted Oliver in his red and black plaid jacket, coming out of the workshop part of the sawmill carrying a bushel basket. Toots trotted along at his side.
She rolled down her window and called, “Hello.”
“Hi,” he said. The basket was filled with apples and looked heavy but he handled it with ease. “I'm just going to put these out for the deer. Wait here and I'll be back.”
She parked, got out of the car, and wandered over to the workshop where the door stood open. She had only been inside once with Dan many years ago but the fragrant scent of sawdust and wood shavings filled her head with memories. It was much as she remembered it. A pot-bellied stove showed flickering flames through the grate on its door and there were over a dozen clocks in various stages of completion along one wall. Stacks of lumber and tools were everywhere but all of them were neat and organized. One set of shelves held different types of clockworks and tiny figures suitable for cuckoo clocks. She picked up one of them, a little red bird with its beak open in a cuckoo.
“I should make you a cuckoo clock for your shop,” she heard him say.
“Are you making clocks again?” She turned and smiled. Annie was right, he was still pleasant to look at.
“I've been finishing up some that Grandpop started but he left enough stuff in here to make a whole lot more. All the ones I'm working on are already spoken for. Jim Loeffler at the antique store downtown said he was pretty sure he could sell anything I wanted to bring him.”
“That sounds like a good project for the winter.” She realized that this wasn't going to be as easy as it seemed when Annie talked about it. Oliver had a wall and it was very rare for him to let it down.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, April 14, 2014

N is for Nick--Father Nick: Blogging the #atozchallenge

Father Nicholas Bauer is one of the central character in The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall. He grew up in Marienstadt and he loves his home town. As a priest, he was thrilled to be assigned to be the pastor of St. Walburga's, his hometown parish.

from The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood:
Father Nicholas Bauer loved his hometown with a ferocity he thought should properly belong only to God. But he consoled himself that the Almighty approved of love, real love, wherever it occurred and would forgive him his devotion to his home town and its people. Ever since he was ordained it had been his dearest wish to be assigned to St. Walburga's, the parish he had grown up in, and when the chance came six years ago he had grabbed it. Returning to Marienstadt had been the happiest event of his life and being the pastor of St. Walburga's, as well as the chaplain for the local Benedictine convent, St. Joseph's, filled his days with purpose and satisfaction. There were fewer nuns now than there had been when he was a boy but a few of the older ones had been his teachers when he was a student. Now he pushed open the door of the ceramics shop where the sisters created handmade statues, rosaries, and nativity sets. Sister Hilda was seated with a group of local ladies painting glaze onto white bisque figures of angels.
“Good morning, Father,” she said. This was followed by a chorus of the same greeting from the ladies.
“Good morning.” He rubbed his hands together briskly then peeled off his mittens. “It certainly is a cold one this morning.”
“You came to see the new Belsnickels, didn't you?” Sister Hilda pushed back her chair and stood up. She was one of the older nuns and still wore the traditional Benedictine habit with a white wimple and long black veil. Over her habit she had tied a cotton bib apron with a pattern of flamboyant red and green poinsettias on it.
“How did they turn out?” He followed her across the room to the shelves by the windows. The entire room was lined with shelves crowded with statues in various stages of completion – the greenware clay still moist from the mold, the pale bisque forms that had been fired once and awaited glaze, and the hundreds of brightly painted figures ready to be sold in the convent's gift shop or in one of the downtown stores that carried the Sisters' ceramics.
Sister Hilda nodded. “They're cute. I found molds for six different designs so there are some interesting variations. Have a look.”
Each of the statues was between four and six inches tall and all of them depicted an old man with a long curling white beard, wearing a cape with a pointed hood and lots of fur trim. Some held little fir trees, others bags of toys, and one had a brier pipe in his mouth.
“Well, aren't they just the handsomest fellows,” he said, lifting one wearing a sparkling blue robe, carrying a tree in one hand and a lantern in the other. “These are wonderful.”
Sister Hilda nodded. “We've already got orders from shops all around the area. Sister John Paul came in and took pictures to put on the web site.”
“Excellent idea,” he said. The fact that the Sisters had a web site for their crafts work still delighted him. Sister John Paul was one of the younger nuns and had set it up complete with PayPal links for ordering. “I've been thinking, maybe next year we could expand Belsnickel to include a little festival. Instead of Belsnickel visiting the children in their homes we could have a party and maybe a dinner with locally made, good, old-fashioned food. Maybe a sauerkraut dinner with pork roast and potato dumplings. I was talking to Bob and Mandy Herzing out at the Sugar House about getting some Belsnickel candy molds and making sugar Belsnickels.”
Sister Hilda turned slightly and ducked her head so her veil could drift forward and hide her expression. Just what we need, she thought, another of Father Nick's bright ideas.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

M is for Maggie, Maksim, and Miranda: Blogging the #atozchallenge

Maggie Marceau from Each Angel Burns, Brother Maksim Gromyko from The Crazy Old Lady Unleashed, and Miranda Light from Sailor's Valentine (in Mardi Gras Was Over: Three Love Stories) all have a deeply spiritual and aesthetic aspects to their personalities. Maggie is a gifted sculptor who is renovating an old abbey. Brother Maksim is a defrocked monk because of his involvement in exorcisms. Miranda Light is a shop owner in a fishing town who is in love.

from Each Angel Burns
The clouds were low and golden. The sky, between them and the lights along the distant shore, was deep coral and shimmering. Lightning, Maggie thought. It wouldn’t be long until it reached her but she lingered on the rock outcrop listening to the waves thunder as the incoming tide rushed into the flume below. The day was a scorcher, rain would be welcome. She decided on one more swim before climbing the stone stairs to the abbey. Here in the cove the water was always warmer than farther up the shore where the Gulf of Maine could go the entire summer without becoming bearable. Sliding down into the deep blue she let the water caress her skin as she stroked lazily out to where she could see the top of the lighthouse at the tip of the peninsula. It was one of the old stone lighthouses, the kind she loved, built from native granite—the same native granite that she carved into weeping maidens.
Above the thunder of the flume there was a deeper rumbling as she stroked back to the rocks. She thought about staying in the water until the rain reached her but the tide here was unpredictable. Even on calm days she had drifted with her eyes closed for what seemed like minutes only to discover herself swept well away from land and floating toward Owl’s Head. When Peter was able to get away for a visit she ventured out farther but alone she wasn’t as adventurous. Peter was a formidable swimmer but she lacked both his physical strength and his courage.
Stretching out on the rocks she let the day’s heat permeate her skin. A sea breeze announced the coming rain. She could see the ripple across the ocean’s surface moving toward her, then over her, chilling her skin, and pinching her nipples into tiny hard knots. A few more minutes, she thought, a few more minutes and she would put her clothes back on and climb the steps winding through banks of beach roses. She lay back with an arm across her eyes and wondered if the nuns who once occupied the abbey ever snuck down those steps to bathe in the cove. She wondered if they swam naked, too. A naked nun, she thought. Interesting idea for a statue.

from The Crazy Old Lady Unleashed
Maksim Gromyko could not remember when the spirits did not speak to him. He was born in the Carpathian Mountains on the border between Romania and Ukraine. The town he lived in was simple and remote; the people nervous and superstitious. There had been a time when people in that part of the world lived in fear of vampires and werewolves but when Maksim was a child there were worse monsters—there was the government. There were soldiers who came without warning, took what they wanted, and left ruin behind. Maksim's father was a mechanic with a small repair shop and his mother was a sweet and gentle woman who had given birth every year of her married life, though only one in three of her children lived past their second birthday. Maksim, the oldest, was eleven when his father was taken away by the soldiers. His mother cried and pleaded and begged but that meant nothing. It broke his heart to see her kneeling in the street, weeping into her apron, trying to understand the words “crimes against the state.” Maksim did not know what they meant either.
Without an income life was impossible. The neighbors helped where they could but they were scared, too. Helping the wife and children of an enemy of the state might endanger their own well-being. For a year Maksim worked whatever jobs he could find; at twelve he was already the size of a man. That winter was a brutal one and, when he could get through the snow, he hunted for rabbits and squirrels but that was not enough. When the two middle children died, he carried their bodies, wrapped in old blankets, to the shed behind his father's shop where they would stay frozen until spring. He knew then what was inevitable—it was only a matter of time. When the morning came that he awoke in an empty house, he followed tracks through the snow until he found his mother's body, clutching the baby in her arms, almost entirely buried in whiteness. He wrapped them up, put them with the others, and made his preparations. With tools from his father's shop, and everything from the house that might be useful, he made a pack that he could carry on his back. He left his village and the bodies of his family behind.
It was mid summer when he came down out of the mountains and well into autumn when he crossed into Hungary. When people asked how he survived such a journey he said that his mother walked with him every step of the way. He said that his grandparents accompanied him, sending him rabbits and game birds when he needed them. He said that he knew his father was dead, too, when one day he appeared and guided a wild goose into Maksim's trap. He said that he was never lonely for a moment because those that walked with him made sure he knew he was guided and loved. 

from Sailor's Valentine
In Port St. Magnus the fishermen noticed a curious thing after Tristan Hancock died, Minerva Light seemed to become unaccountably beautiful. Everyone liked Minerva. When she moved to Port St. M and opened her shop on the Neck she was a little past thirty, recently divorced, or so the rumors went, and nice looking. That's what the lobstermen who docked their boats at wharves at the end of the Neck said, nice looking. Not beautiful but nice looking. She was slightly taller than average and had a round figure. Some of the local gals, ever on their guard for dangerous competition, said she was fat but the men chuckled and said, “Maybe so... but in all the right places.”
It was the way she dressed that caught your eye. Long slim skirts in soft fabrics, lacy camisoles that looked like they had come from someone's grandmother's attic trunks --- if you happened to have a wealthy grandmother who could afford to have her undergarments made in France by patient nuns. But it was her jackets that everyone remarked on --- she had quite a collection cut like kimonos in remarkable combinations of color and texture. Some beaded, some hand-embroidered or trimmed with lace. When people asked she said she had run an antique clothing store in New York while she was married and had collected them then. The Local Lovelies, a not-entirely facetious name given to the towns single girls on the prowl, were given to skin-tight jeans and spandex tube tops. They found Minerva's taste comical and a definite signal that she was not interested in sex. The married women who, relieved of the necessity of attracting a man, had settled comfortably into sweatpants and teeshirts said she was putting on airs. The men didn't say much but they thought plenty.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

L is for Layla, Lola, and Lucius: Blogging the #atozchallenge

Layla from Ghosts of a Beach Town in Winter and Lola from The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall have a lot in common--both of them are beautiful women who put up with a lot in their marriages. Lucius from The Christmas Daughter is a tough guy with a beautiful heart and he would cheerfully beat the crap out of any guy who mistreated a woman.

from Ghosts of a Beach Town in Winter

They're getting the Ferris wheel ready for winter today. I've been standing by the sink watching out the window as a gang of men with enormous arms unbolt the carriages and stack them on the flatbed of a truck to take away for storage. The wheel itself will stay in place until Spring looking like a giant skeleton against the gray sky.
“We're running low on gin and bourbon,” Joel calls from behind the bar.
He pushes through the swinging doors and frowns at me. “Gin and bourbon, put them on your list and I'll make a run to Stateline Liquor for more. What are you looking at?”
I nod toward the window. “They're taking all the seats off the Ferris wheel. It looks naked.”
He peers over my shoulder as two roustabouts with biceps the size of Sunday dinner hams hoist another carriage onto the truck.
“They have to,” Joel says, “if they leave them up and we get a bad storm they could do a lot of damage.”
“I know.” I lower my eyes and continue unloading beer mugs, Pilsner glasses, rock glasses—all kinds of glasses—from the dishwasher. They are scorching hot and my fingers burn as I touch them.
“How are we ever going to get through this?”
Joel takes a deep breath. “Come on, Layla. How many times have we discussed this?
It's only for a few months so I can work on my book. You hated living at St. Basil's. I thought you'd like being somewhere quiet and ...”
He pauses but I know what he is thinking. He is thinking “someplace like what you're used to”—meaning in a bar among people who are the polar opposite of the faculty and their spouses at St. Basil's Preparatory Academy where Joel teaches literature and composition. When I met Joel he was a horny egghead just past thirty and pathetically ignorant of women like me. I wasn't far from thirty myself but I looked lots younger, which was a good thing. Working in a casino can take its toll on a woman. I knew my looks were getting harder and harder to maintain. The only reason a guy like Joel was even in a place like Mohegan Sun, where I waitressed, was because his cousin was getting married and all the guys had taken him out for a final fling before tying the knot.
“... low key,” he concludes. He puts his arms around me and turns me to face him. “Stop worrying, Layla, it'll be fun. Just the two of us. No faculty parties. No high teas. No volunteer projects that drive you crazy.” He nuzzles my neck. “Just the two of us and the Geezers, what could be more romantic?”
The Geezers are a bunch of local guys who hang out at the pub that we—mostly I—will keep open all winter. 

from The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall
The judge was settling into one of the booths with their high wooden backs and enamel topped tables.
“Chief Werner. Have a seat. I just came in for coffee, want to join me?”
“Sure.” Henry slid into the seat across from him and held up two fingers to Lola who nodded.
“I wonder what amazing creation Lola has for us today,” the judge said. He was a portly man with a perfectly trimmed gray mustache, and an enormous hooked nose on which a pair of wire-rimmed glasses perched. “I don't know how she keeps coming up with so many new confections.”
As he said it Lola, in a ruffled white pinafore apron, appeared with their coffees. “The strudel of the day is cherry-plum. I also have lemon, cheese and apple. Plus I have hot apple dumplings with a glaze made from the Herzing's maple syrup and rhubarb tarts.”
The judge rolled his eyes. “You're cruel, Lola, you're a cruel, evil woman. How's a man
supposed to decide. What are you having, Henry?”
“Just coffee.” Henry said. Lola echoed his words at the same time. He looked at her and laughed. “You know me too well.”
The judge groaned and then looked at Lola. “Well, I'm not about to insult you by abstaining from your amazing artistry. I'll have the apple dumpling.”
“With whipped cream or warmed cream?” Lola winked at Henry.
The judge groaned again. “Warm. No whipped... no, better make it warmed.”
“Good enough.” She started to walk away.
“Lola,” Henry said.
She turned and raised an eyebrow.
“Bring me a rhubarb tart... no cream though.”
She flashed a very pretty smile. “Sure thing.”
The judge watched her walk away. “If I wasn't married...” He trailed off then turned to Henry. “Wasn't her husband killed in a hunting accident?”
Henry took a swallow of coffee then nodded. “That was a long time ago.”
“Well, if it led to her opening this place it was a lucky accident – for the town anyway.” He raised an eyebrow. “You could do worse than that one, Henry,” he said. “She might not be a kid but she's a wonderful cook and has an exceptionally lovely posterior.”
Henry smiled. “I agree.”
“Always puts me in mind of Miss Dolly Parton.”

from The Christmas Daughter
Once outside he opened the rear doors of his van with the words Ritter Plumbing & Heating painted on the side. He put away his tools trying not to think about his irritation with Ethel Hauber. She was regarded as a crank by nearly everyone in town but, even knowing that, she still managed to get on his nerves every time he did work for her. As he reached to close the doors a pair of beady black eyes just a couple feet away startled him. Mike jumped back. The eyes, and the face they belonged to, crinkled into laughter.
“Good grief!” Mike pressed his hand to the center of his chest. “You scared the crap out of me.” He stared at a thin man with a long, sharp face dominated by an enormous, beak-like nose over a substantial mustache. One of his eyes drooped under a scar that cut straight through a bushy eyebrow, and a slow, devilish grin split his face. “Lucius!” Mike said. “I don't believe it. Lucius Wickett.”
“In the flesh.” Lucius wrapped his arms around Mike in a back-slapping hug. “How the hell are you, Plumber Ritter?”
“Where did you come from?” Mike stepped back to study his old friend.
Lucius nodded toward the house behind him. “My brother Juney lives there.” Juney Wickett was a well-known chainsaw carver. His entire lawn was filled with wooden sculptures of bears, dragons, partially-clothed beauties, and other exotic creations. “He spotted your van and told me you were respectable now. I couldn't believe it.”
“It's great to see you.” Mike grinned. “I heard Boone Wilde was back in town but I haven't seen him yet. I didn't know you were here, too.”
“I just got here yesterday. Boone came back a little over a month ago. Look, do you feel like getting a beer? My brother's teaching a carving class at four and I wouldn't mind getting out of here for awhile.” Lucius stuffed his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket. Except for a few gray hairs and a few more lines on his face he looked much the same as he had the day he roared out of Marienstadt on his Harley.
Thanks for reading.

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