Cars

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ABOUT THE STORIES

Cars

My dad was a truck driver. He loved fast cars. When I was fifteen, he died of a heart attack. Too soon afterward, my mother got stricken by spinal meningitis. The doctors consigned her to months in an isolation ward. During her absence, my best friend, Eric, a remarkable fellow I suspect to this day may have been an angel, moved in and stayed with me. Soon after my mom came home and Eric moved out, he flew out of a car and died.

My first draft of “Cars” had Bingo dying in his crash. Then I decided to keep him alive but lost as a confidant and mentor, and the story came alive for me. It felt more true to life after I left the facts behind.

Ophelia in Death

After I’d finished my first novel and found an agent, my wife Laura and I flew to Europe. We hitchhiked here and there until we landed in Athens, where I took a job as a substitute teacher at an American school.

We lived in a small town on the Bay of Marathon, and made friends of some Navy folks stationed at a communications station. One of them was Bob Middleton, a charming and crafty fellow.

Laura left me and moved in with Bob. Susan Nixon and I rode the school bus together. She was in tenth grade, a pure delight and pristine beauty, rather like Faust’s Gretchen. Way too young and innocent for a tainted fellow like me.

“Ophelia in Death” is a sort of ode to Susan

The Murder Game

A dear friend contracted Hepatitis C. He lived in Ocean Beach, where I used to hang out long ago with my cousins Virgie, Wendy and Wade. Their dad owned a grocery on Newport Avenue.

Wade, the oldest, was both brilliant and rebellious. He drove a hotrod Ford yet (according to my grandma) scored highest in the nation on a college board exam, which earned him a full scholarship to MIT. Later, he would buy a sailboat, take an extended vacation, and never return.

His sister Virgie was a splendid beauty, outside and in, with a queen’s poise and grace. At Point Loma High School, she was chosen as most attractive and nicest, all three years. Her tragic flaw was a fascination with outlaws.

Here’s a poem I wrote about her.

WARNER SPRINGS

Outside in the mineral pool, our mothers
one widowed, one divorced,
they and the kids float and splash.

Our cousin Stevie, orphaned last year,
he and I slouch against the wall between
the swinging doors and the jukebox while

Virgie, two years older, ages wiser,
like the girls on American Bandstand
or in news clips screaming their vows
to Elvis–Virgie reigns here in the rec room,
commanding obedience with her poise, silky hair,
tight pedal pushers, bare feet, fleecy
sweater, short sleeved and pink.

A boy with glossy hair, his chinos
pleated and pressed, has won her favor.
Stevie and I twitch and squirm. They dance
belly to belly, to “Twilight Time.”

Because we too are boys, we know of his plot
to steal her away in his shiny car. If we could
we’d banish him from the world but
we’re only thirteen.

The jukebox lifts the record from the turntable.
The boy’s hand is low on Virgie’s back as
he steers her toward the far door and his chopped
Mercury painted to match
Virgie’s scarlet lipstick and nails.

But she knows everything. She spins
toward us, dismissing him
with her royal smile. He freezes.

Only his throat moves.
He’s swallowing a lesson
about class, as in classy,
about family.

The Light

This one’s mostly fact. So close I included most of it in Reading Brother Lawrence, a memoir. 

Then and On Earth

Jim Thompson’s life was largely shaped by the Great Depression, as were so many of my parents’ generation. So when Judith Moore, my editor at the San Diego Reader, asked if I could give her a story about Jim Thompson in San Diego during WWII, I said, “Wow. Cool.”

The Hickey family

Sylvia Curtis, inspiration for the jazz singer most prominently featured in The Venus Deal, told me hours of stories about San Diego during WWII. Also, on dubious youthful adventures and for playing baseball, I spent lots of days and nights in Tijuana. I found the place both hellish and fascinating and, in the context of Sylvia’s stories, began to wonder what the border and Tijuana were like during WWII.

My friend Don Merritt had recently made decent money writing adventure novels. I needed money, having given up a tenured professorship so I could live near my kids, Darcy and Cody, whom I treasure more than work or money.

When Don convinced me to write an adventure novel, I thought, hmm, Tijuana, WWII. And when I needed a protagonist, Tom Hickey showed up and proved to be rather like a cross between my father and my father-in-law, both of whom had told of adventures during WWII.

I wrote the story and sent it to my agent, who informed me it wasn’t a genre adventure story, but a literary novel. Then a friend I trusted more than I trusted the agent told me it was actually a mystery. He directed me to a contest, which I won.

By then, I was so fond of Tom, I decided to give him a family, a history, and a future. He lives in seven novels, so far.

The Enemy

As mentioned above, Sylvia Curtis, mother of Eric whose strength and goodness I have tried to capture in Reading Brother Lawrence, told me wonderful stories about downtown San Diego during WW II.

“The Enemy” began with one of them

Too Sweet

Margaret Beasley was my friend from second grade on. Her singing was always a wonder to me, as was her way of being top in the class in most everything except sports yet showing not the slightest vanity.

Right out of high school, Margaret’s gifts got discovered. She moved to Hollywood and sang records with The Good Time Singers, and on television, on the Andy Williams Show. I spent a week visiting her. That visit inspired “Too Sweet”.

Mama’s Boy

On a trip to Mexico, Henry Mikkonen, Ron Maxted and I befriended a shoeshine boy. He wanted to live in the U.S. So we tried to bring him home with us. The border patrol objected.

Later, Steve and Bev Havens adopted the son of a housekeeper who had left him behind when she returned to Mexico. He was a remarkable athlete and a great friend to Sam Havens, until some troubles sent him home to Guadalajara, where he died.

Alvaro Hickey gives me the opportunity to honor those two good fellows.

About Otis

Way back, during an Arab oil embargo, Laurent Sozzani and I set off to cross the country in a 1946 Dodge pickup. On the way, we took notes. Later, I created Otis Otterbach, who turned those notes into a story, then a novella, then a novel, then bigger novel, then an enormous novel (around 200,000 words). At last I convinced Otis to let Clifford Hickey and me edit it into a series of novellas.

“The Curse” and “The End” came to life during that long and arduous process

The Curse

When I was two years old, my dad’s cabinet shop failed. We sold our home and moved in with my grandparents. My mother, an 8th grade English teacher and my dad, now a wholesale meat salesman, worked long hours. So my grandma cared for me, which was a profound blessing.

She was a poet of some accomplishment, and a landscape painter of the California Plein Air school. My favorite occupation was lounging with a cat on the sofa of her studio, listening to the stories she loved to tell and watching while she daubed layer upon layer of oil paints onto a canvas until chaparral and desert came to life.

The End

It was I who got accused in Disneyland, by a Boy Scout, of being Charles Manson, and I who found refuge in the nearby Haunted House, where I recall thinking, “Okay, I’m not Charles Manson, but who in the world am I?”