Monday, May 31, 2004

Once Upon a 'Bay Book'

(NOTE: The following appeared in The News Herald as a staff-written column called "Bay Books" on Saturday, Jan.1 2000. You can find it in the online archive here.)

The Dawning of a New Century'

CENTURY - Twin road signs along U.S. 29 in Escambia County welcome visitors or drivers-through to this little town on the Florida side of the Alabama border, about 45 miles due north of Pensacola.

One sign faces north at the foot of the overpass that spans the railroad tracks that separate Century from Flomaton, Ala. The other sign faces south at the town limits and greets those driving from Pensacola to escape hurricanes and Yankee insurgents and what-have-you.

"Welcome to the Dawning of a New Century," the signs read.

The signs have been in place for many years. No one seems to recall how long, exactly. And until this year, the signs were simply cute wordplay embodying Century's hopes for industrial expansion.

(Actually, a new industry is eyeing the place - a Japanese company that makes biodegradable balloons for Disney parades and events. The balloons disintegrate upon contact with water. But I digress.)

This winter, however, the road signs also became a sign of the times, if you will. Like just about everyone else in the world, it seems the citizens of Century (population about 2,000) have a habit of getting a little ahead of themselves.

People around the planet have demanded the right to celebrate a new millennium when it's still a year away, you see. Those who know better will let them, and then celebrate it again when it actually arrives in 2001.

Likewise, the folks in Century (which happens to be my hometown) embraced the idea of an early "new millennium" party - and threw in a town centennial a few months shy of Century's 99th birthday.

(Century was named in April 1901 by someone who understood how to define centuries - and probably even millennia. The Alger-Sullivan Lumber Co. set up a mill near the Teaspoon community that year and needed to name its train station so that the U.S. Post Office would deliver mail there.)

I missed the two-day "Century Centennial" that concludes today - I had to work. But it's OK. Most likely, we'll party again next year.

Just Googled the title of this blog...

...and came up with this link to the Century Chamber of Commerce.
This is Century.
Welcome to it.

Another note from my journal

Taken from further ramblings of 8-8-03...

...rewrite first story of mayor -- focus on the women -- let reporter list the things found in the town. Let mayor fixate on the women. Show. Where's the threat? The conflict?

They are
The Past -- the Present -- and the Future
Red Hats -- Sweet Potatoes -- Schoolgirl
Ego -- Id -- Superego
See no Evil -- Hear no Evil -- Speak no Evil

They are the Fates
...the Weird Sisters of Macbeth
...the Trinity
...the Three Musketeers
...the Three 'R's: rotting, ripe and ? raw?

The book proposal, edited, with name changes indicated

(What follows is the only existing version of the book proposal that I initially sent to Michael. During the writing of the book, I changed Story (chapter) titles and descriptions, and altered the names of characters. What is shown is final versions of names followed by earlier versions in parentheses. Contents are copyright 2004 by Tony Simmons.)

Proposal for
“Welcome to the Dawning of a New Century”
A Novel
By Tony Simmons

“Century” is a collection of short stories and essays that will read like a novel, or perhaps it’s a novel told in snippets, segments that stand alone, leading to a climax that will hopefully make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
We find ourselves in Century, Florida, in the first
week of April 2001 – establishing first its environs and its people, a geographic location named for an era of time, all of which are running threadbare.

Century, founded as a lumber town in April 1901, is in final preparations for its centennial Sawmill Day celebration.
We meet the denizens through their stories:

– Retired teacher Rose Brown, 88, who lies dying in
Century Hospital while her guilt-ridden granddaughter, Mary Anne, 37, crochets patterns and creates a new philosophy of super-string theories, time and space, and destiny.

– Wally Wendt (Wally McCurdy/McCauley/Moroney), 39, manager of the Piggly Wiggly grocery store, raised in a strict
Southern Baptist family, steeped in Bible verses and theology, and wallowing in sin with any woman (or underage girl) that comes his way. “Century” is, in many ways, Wally’s story, as all of these lives will intersect with his, for better or worse.

– Kenny Earl Hooper (Jimmy Earl Schwoerer/Owens), 38, Piggly Wiggly butcher and local celebrity, who loses more than just the piece of his right thumb in a meat cutting accident. He loses his center as well, and things begin to veer off course for all those around him.

– Peggy Hooper (Schwoerer/Owens), 36, Jimmy’s wife and Mayor Fite’s (Flannigan’s) mistress, whose employment means the kiss of death for any establishment unlucky enough to hire her. She has recently and for no known reason decided to become
both a Vegan and a Sweet Potato Queen.

– Wanda Johnson, 16, a cashier at the Pig, who does more than just clean house for Wally, and whose multiple liaisons will lead to the madness that takes over where the tragedies of Sawmill Day leave off.

– Century High School science teacher Gil Weise, who sees the future opening like visions all around him. “Stories,” he calls them, as they are like fictions that he can’t rewrite. His torment is to see where lives will go and be unable to change their courses – or can he?

– The aforementioned Mayor Sheldon D. Fite (Franklin
D. Flannigan), the only mayor any living soul can recall having run the town, though there were two others. Fite is also the president of the Century Historical Society and organizer of the
Sawmill Day festival, where so much will come to a head – not least of which is the war between the Red Hat Society, led by his wife, Pamela, and the Sweet Potato Queens, led by Peggy.

– School counselor Max Humiston, the boyfriend of Wanda’s mother, Willodeen, he whose lusts for flesh and blood spark the finale of the tale, tying together the strings of Fate of all those frayed lives around him.

– In addition, various and sundry supporting characters who have significant parts to play, nonetheless.

The title comes from an actual set of road signs situated at the northern and southern boundaries of the town, just off the right of way of U.S. Highway 29. I envision a photo cover of the view from the road on the northern town limits: The headstone-like sign in the foreground, “Welcome to the Dawning of a
New Century,” with the Piggly Wiggly store, slightly out of focus, in the background.

Although this is still a work in progress, I know where I’m going with it. Some of the minor details in the completed stories may have to be altered to fit the geometry of the tale as it unfolds (call it “backward engineering”), but I don’t foresee any bumps in the road. This is a machine that knows its destination, now, though the path may have to be altered along the way.

All of these fictions will be followed by an author’s note that explains numerous realities behind them, as well as chronological impossibilities used for dramatic effect in the story. For instance, Century Hospital was not still open in 2001; by that time it had been closed for a decade and was in use as a Food
Stamp office. Likewise, the Sawmill Day depicted in the climax was more nearly that of 1991, which I covered as a stringer for the Pensacola News-Journal, reporting on both the celebration and the injuries that resulted when a horse stampeded through the crowd after the parade.

In addition, occasional interludes will occur as we delve into a piece of local history for the sake of context; essays about the aging town and how things move and change until they find their places, flourish for a season, and pass. These will be similar in nature and length to my columns for the paper, perhaps even best if presented as columns from “The Dispatch,”
which is my name for the (nonexistent) town paper.

Here’s the basic plan, by chapter and story title:

(Dispatch No. 1: Turning Back Time)

Saturday, March 30, 2001
1: A Tangled Skein
2: Welcome to the Dawning of a New Century

Sunday, April 1, 2001
3: Love and Loss at the Sign of the Pig

(Dispatch No. 2: The Real Thing)

Monday, April 2, 2001
4: The Shape of Things
5: The Great Physician
6: Legend of the Blackcats

(Dispatch No. 3: What It is is This)

Tuesday, April 3, 2001
7: The Tempest
8: The Unkindest Cut
9: By Any Other Name

(Dispatch No. 4: Home of the Blackcats)

Wednesday, April 4, 2001
10: Number One with a Bullet
11: A Clean Sweep
12: Take Me to the River

(Dispatch No. 5: Faith of Our Fathers)

Thursday, April 5
13: Thursdays at the Curl Up & Dye
14: A Wakening

Friday, April 6

15: The Centennial Man

(Dispatch No. 7: Why Here and Not Somewhere Else)

Saturday, April 7, 2001
16: The Fourth Horseman
17: Depositions in a Civil Disturbance

Sunday, April 8, 2001
18: End of a Century

19: Author’s Note

20: Postscript I: Constant Vigilance
21: Post script II: It’s Always Midnight on Mars, a
story by Jack Riley

22: About the Author

Sunday, May 30, 2004

Not that this will mean anything to you now...

...but here are some further notes from my journal regarding the stories in Welcome to the Dawning of a New Century.

These are scenes that didn't make it into the book (first draft, as sent to Michael for consideration). If he asks for changes, they may be incorporated. Or, if I revisit the subject for further short stories, then I might tell these in their entirety.

Here you have them:

Gil before the principal and Humiston sits in; all from Humiston's POV, but told third person. Gil explains himself, his visions of the future that he calls "stories" -- Humiston pushes him, principal demands a "story." Tell me what's to be. What's my future?
(You'll hold her hand all thru the days and nights. You'll read Bible passages aloud and pray. You'll cry and sleep and stare at her face and you'll wonder why you couldn't just respect her wishes and let her go.)
Principal tells him to go hom. Take the week off. Don't speak of this again.

Humiston, leaving school -- Gil tells him to stop fixating on Wanda, to let Willodeen be, to stay clear of the Sawmill Day battle for it will be a battle and people will die.
Humiston tells him to get some help.

...At the parade--
The Red Hats are lined up to go in front of the Sweet Potato Queens, but the Sweet Potatoes won't budge. "Age before beauty," a float driver says. Peggy turns up the edge of her skirt to expose her underwear: "You can kiss my lily-white ass." And Pamela (Margaret?) cinches up her white gloves and punches Peggy in the nose. She spits. "Let's take'em ladies." And the battle is joined...
(The Apocalypse came to Century Florida on the occasion of its 100th birthday. Wars and rumors of wars, gunsmoke and horseflesh and blood, more blood than one might expect of a town festival.)

Notes found in my journal

So I sent Michael the manuscript last night (Saturday), as well as a "dummy" book cover depicting the roadside sign on the L&N overpass between Century, Florida and Flomaton, Ala. I'm axiously awaiting response.

Meanwhile, I look back through one of my journals and find the following entry from 8-8-03, written at Mom's house in Pace at 11:30 p.m.: (Reproduced here as accurately as possible):

Quite an update to follow...
(1) Michael Lister offered to print a collection of my columns -- Dazed and Raving in the Undercurrents -- but my boss said no, we could do it better and give more profit directly to me.
(2) So Michael says, "What else ya got? Seems I have a book from you on my schedule for 2004." So I tell him about Century ...
(3) It's a novel but it's also a collection of short stories, interspersed with "columns" by one of the characters and ending with an extensive author's note identifying the truths behind the lies. (I've been reading John DuFresne's The Lie that Tells a Truth book on writing fiction -- Think I'm getting somewhere again, tho' I've been wrong before.
(4) So I print 2 of the stories for my mom to read tonight ... and she likes them, as I would expect her to say, being my mom and all, but more than that, she laughs out loud at all the right places. We talk about books and writing processes. I get so much positive energy from her!
(5) I'm listening to Tori Amos on the ride here today, thinking about Neil Gaiman's new book and the connection between these two artists I so admire -- wondering how they met, came to be friends, etc., thinking how cool it would be to move in such circles. Then I recall Tiger Edmonds, whom I consider a friend; John DuFresne, whom I consider at least an acquaintance; and Tim Dorsey, River Jordan, Silas House and so on. (So On.) So forth, whatever.
My circle's not so bad. Some nice and talented folks, and I hope some day they will say the same of me.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Family Disunions (A column in and about Century)

I sat in a campground pavilion beside a second cousin who has cancer and watched my children play by themselves in the park.
I thought about endings.
The occasion was the annual Lowery Family Reunion at Lake Stone. One of my grandmothers was born a Lowery, and we attend with her to hug those cousins we see only once a year, tell them how nice they look, how their kids have grown — to gain perspective on our lives by catching up with theirs.
Before we eat, we gather at the end of the pavilion for a group photo — usually taken only after many requests to squeeze closer together because there are just too many people to fit in the frame. Someone asks a blessing, then we make two lines and eat our fill of home cooking — collard greens, barbecued or fried chicken, peas and butter beans, cornbread, sweet tea.
For dessert, there’s Grandma’s famous chocolate pie, or pea-pickin’ cake, or pecan pie or something else as sweet and Southern.
In my youth, there would have been more children in the park than swings for them to share. They would elbow for the sliding board ladder and separate into touch football teams along the lakeside.
Back then, there were more kin I did not recognize, and the noise of voices in the pavilion drove folks out under the pines for quiet conversations. A lack of seating forced kids to eat outside at picnic tables in empty camping spaces.
But we had plenty of room this time, and more swings were empty than were in use. It took no effort to fit everyone in the photo. There were few folks I didn’t recognize, and many more who I know weren’t there — first and second cousins, aunts and uncles — family members who live nearby (closer than I do) and don’t feel the need to connect with distant family, or who have emotional wounds that will never heal.
I suppose family trees can die from trauma, split by feuds like lightning strikes. But they’re more likely to rot from the inside — outwardly healthy, betraying no sign of disease except fewer green sprouts this spring or heavier leaf fall this autumn.
I thought about this while I sat beside a cousin who used to share his Iron Man comics — and who probably wouldn’t be at the next reunion — and watched my children running on a carpet of dry, brown pine straw in a playground that was more empty than full, and I knew how the playground felt.
(The preceding originally appeared as one of my weekly columns, "Undercurrents," written for The News Herald in Panama City, FL. See the online archive at the link.)

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Notes on names

From a letter to Michael this morning:

"... I have finished editing the final draft, as of 12:04 a.m. this morning. I look forward to hearing your critique. Having reread it in just a couple of nights, I can guarantee it's a varied experience. Does it work? I'm probably too close to it to answer that, but it works for me."

Tonight I will continue with the book, as I have a few names to change. I have written the story using the last names of my old school friends from Century as the main characters' names. It seemed a harmless in-joke until I began wondering how they would feel. Would they think I was trying to say these people were based upon them? Would they think I was trying to make them look bad somehow? Would someone whose name I didn't use think I didn't like them as well as the other guys?

So here's the thing: I'm using altered versions of names that belonged to my student interns over the last 10 years or so. I'll supply a list in upcoming posts, for those who know the kids.

More to come...

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

How it came to be:

My friend, the author and small publisher Michael Lister discussed with me in 2003 the idea of gathering my various newspaper columns for sale to locals. (I have worked for The News Herald in Panama City, Florida, for more than 10 years, and have written a weekly column for much of that time.) Because of corporate ownership of the material, however, we were not able to seal the deal.
So Michael asked if I had another book in me, and I responded something to the effect of, "I've got this idea to write a series of interconnected short stories set in a fictional version of my hometown, Century, Florida. The characters would show up in each other's stories, and the finished effect would be a short novel."
He asked how long it would take to complete, and I said something like "six months." That was more than a year ago.
It was a difficult birth, but the book is done now. I have spent the past few nights going through it to check details -- too many people have green eyes, for instance, and at least one person's hair color inexplicably changed during the course of the tales. I'm about to turn it over to Michael.
Future posts will discuss the evolution of the characters, their origins, stuff about Century, photos, steps the book will go through to final publication. Any questions?

Monday, May 17, 2004

Just a place to start: Welcome to the Dawning of a New Century

This is just the beginning.