What’s in it for you?

I’ve previously discussed my personal reasons for writing, and like most aspects of life, those reasons are at times fluid and subject to change. At this point I write because, in the best of times, it feels as natural to me as breathing. (And in the worst of times, not writing evokes a dull but constant ache within, an unsettling sensation that something is amiss and needs to be addressed before I can find peace.) Until last year, I was a storage box writer. I wrote only for myself, and once I was finished with a story or novella, I put it away. Then I decided to begin writing and submitting short stories and poetry for publication. I figured I was going to write anyway, so if someone else read my work and enjoyed it, then all the better.

I can say that I have never written with the goal of making a living at it. What’s more, I think if that’s your primary goal, you are deluding yourself. Some people may disagree with me, particularly at a time when anyone can self-publish a book and make it available for purchase in a matter of hours. But publication, whether it be traditional or independent, does not equate to sales. For every writer out there who makes it big, there are countless more who earn next to nothing from their work. Some reading this may be thinking, “But it’ll be different for me! Because my writing is awesome. And I have the magic formula to get this book published and promote the hell out of it without making myself a nuisance to everyone who knows and loves me, and then I’ll have a bestseller on my hands.” And if you’re thinking that, then bless your heart and best of luck to you.

It’s fine to want to make money from your writing. The vast majority of writers would love to see that happen, but just because you decide to write and publish a book doesn’t mean that people are obligated to buy it. Hell, I write stories and post them here for free, and some of my close friends don’t bother reading them. And that’s okay. No one should feel obligated to read my work. I want people reading it because they enjoy it.

For those of you who have also found yourselves pondering this topic, I highly recommend Chuck Wendig’s article “Why Your Novel Won’t Get Published,” which you can read here: Why Your Novel Won’t Get Published. (It also contains a link to another article of his regarding self-publishing.)

And since most everyone knows I’m a quote addict, I found some wise words about writing penned by people much more articulate than I:

“The worst thing that ever happened to writing is that it became a business. The purpose of business is to make money, and to achieve that end it is necessary to please as many people as possible, to amuse them, to entertain them – in short, to do everything that will help increase the volume of sales.” — Dagobert Runes

“Writing is the hardest way of earning a living, with the possible exception of wrestling alligators.” — William Saroyan

“Ideally, the writer needs no audience other than the few who understand. It is immodest and greedy to want more.” — Gore Vidal

And a last quote to show you that some things never change:

“Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents and everyone is writing a book.”
– Cicero, in 43 BC

Last Poem

I will always struggle for the right words.
What little bit of cleverness I possess
gets poured onto the page, leaving my tongue
useless, glued to the roof of my mouth–
or babbling, senseless, just making racket
like an off-balance appliance.

I never knew how to wear the mask,
to tuck a casual off-the-cuff remark
up my sleeve. I lack the natural wit
and the nonchalance. I made too much
of everything. And now I’m more
comfortable with silence, content
to let others shine while I smile
and nod and think my thoughts.
And when I don’t have the answers–
when my comments draw blank stares,
I still smile and nod and find
I’m beginning not to care.

You see, the characters in my head
are hungry–not enough words
for both me and them. So I resolve
to starve, spare the world my noise
while those characters gorge themselves
to satisfaction. As they should.
Because it never was about me.

P.S. To S. — “Pretty.”

Old Money Stone

Fran sat on the brocade sofa wearing a watered down smile as she listened to the conversation between Aunt Millie and Lou Ellen. The glass of lemonade she held was now lukewarm, but her throat was so tight, she doubted she could manage a swallow anyway.

“It really is a beautiful ring,” Millie told Lou Ellen for the tenth time. “My engagement ring is nowhere near as nice. Of course, your daddy—God rest his soul—didn’t come from money.” Millie grabbed Lou Ellen’s hand and turned it this way and that so the emerald-cut stone set in platinum caught the light. “You know what they say about aquamarine, don’t you?”

Lou Ellen grinned, her pupils huge as she gazed down at the ring. “No. What do they say about it, Mama?”

Millie looked over at Fran, who shook her head to indicate that she didn’t know, either. Though it was only the middle of April, the day was warm, and the open windows in the living room did nothing to dispel the stuffiness. Fran pulled the front of her blouse away from her damp skin.

Millie perched on the arm of Lou Ellen’s chair. “Aquamarine is known as an old money stone here in the South,” she said. “Women used to wear it as a sign of their wealth.”

“It belonged to Gil’s grandmother,” Lou Ellen said. “Before she died, she made him promise to give it to his future wife.” She twisted the ring on her finger. “It’s a little loose.”

Millie patted Lou Ellen’s shoulder. “We can have it sized, sweetheart. It’s yours now.”

“I bet it’s a fake,” Fran said.

Millie frowned at Fran, her brow wrinkled in consternation. Lou Ellen snapped her head up and narrowed her eyes.

“Now why would you say something like that, Fran?” Millie asked.

Fran struggled to reply, and a small croak issued from her lips. She was thankful her mother hadn’t accompanied her on this visit. Mama always said she had a careless tongue.

“It’s just that it’s so beautiful, it doesn’t look real,” Fran said.

Millie’s face brightened. “Well, you’re right about that.”

Fran felt like an earthworm squirming on a fishhook as her cousin stared hard at her. Finally Lou Ellen flipped her honey blonde hair over her shoulder and turned back to Millie. “Gil should be here soon,” she said. “I invited him to supper.”

Millie stood and smoothed out her dress. “You’ll stay for supper, won’t you, Fran?”

Fran shook her head. “No, I’d better be getting on home.” She handed her glass to Millie. “Thank you for the lemonade.”

“Well, we’re always happy to see you,” Millie said. “And tell your mama she needs to stop by so she can get a look at Lou Ellen’s ring.”

“I’ll do that.” Fran stood and nodded at Lou Ellen. “Congratulations.”

Lou Ellen gave her a pinched smile that looked more like a grimace as she thanked her.

Fran hurried out of the house, bounding down the porch steps two at a time. The air was heavy with approaching rain, and the fresh green leaves on the trees turned their undersides up to the sky. Fran strode down the dirt road, anxious to get out of sight of Millie’s house. She stopped when she reached the bridge that spanned the railroad tracks. Leaning over the railing, she let her light brown hair cover her face like a curtain. A gust of wind slapped her skirt against her bare legs as her whole body quaked.

She heard his cheerful whistle before she saw him. Gil ambled around the bend in the road, his hands shoved into his trouser pockets. He wore a nice suit, and his hair was freshly washed and combed.

“Hi there, Fran,” he called to her. “You just coming from Lou Ellen’s?”

Fran stormed over to him, her palm itching to slap the grin off his face. “You’re a real bastard, you know that?”

Gil raised his eyebrows; he was the picture of innocence. “What in the world are you talking about?”

She jabbed a finger into his chest. “You know exactly what I’m talking about. You gave your grandmother’s ring to Lou Ellen.”

Gil blinked at her several times. “Well, yes,” he said in the syrupy sweet drawl she used to find so charming. “I asked her to marry me.”

“You promised that ring to me,” Fran said through her teeth. “Remember that Sunday when your folks were out of town, and Lou Ellen was sick with the flu? You invited me over to your house, and we had a real nice time, didn’t we, Gil?”

He studied his spotless shoes. “Fran, I thought we had an understanding.”

“We did. You showed me that ring and said it would belong to the woman you planned to marry.” Fran stepped closer to him and lowered her voice. “You put it on my finger, and then you took me to bed. Remember that?”

Gil’s face and neck flushed, and his eyes darted nervously from side to side. “Be reasonable, Fran. You always knew I planned to marry Lou Ellen.”

Fran’s nostrils flared as she sucked in deep breaths. Her hands clenched into small globes of fury at her sides. “So I was only a bit of fun to you.”

“Now listen,” Gil began. Fran didn’t give him time to finish. She spun around and started back toward Millie’s house. “Where are you going?” He hurried after her.

“Millie invited me to supper. At first I wasn’t planning on staying, but now I’ve changed my mind.”

Gil caught up to her and grabbed her arm. “You’d better not make trouble.”

Fran looked up at him with a sweet smile. “Don’t worry, Gil. I’ll be reasonable.”

When Lou Ellen answered Gil’s soft knock on the door, she beamed and took his hands in hers. Then she caught sight of Fran standing behind him, and her excitement evaporated. “What are you doing here, Fran?”

“Well, I met Gil on my way home, and he talked me into having supper with you all,” she said. “Ain’t that right, Gil?”

Gil’s jaw muscles tightened as he tugged at his shirt collar. “I figured Fran and I will be family soon,” he said. “I’d like to get to know her better.”

Fran held back a snicker, but Lou Ellen continued to eye her suspiciously. The three of them went inside, where Millie was busy setting the dining room table.

During supper, Fran chewed each bite of food until it practically disintegrated in her mouth. She didn’t speak while Millie, Lou Ellen, and Gil discussed wedding plans. Her stare was riveted on the ring Lou Ellen wore. The pale blue stone was the same color as broken windshield glass Fran had once seen scattered on the highway.

“Aunt Evelyn makes a delicious cake,” Millie said.

Lou Ellen rolled her eyes. “Mama, we will have a professional make our wedding cake. This won’t be some tiny reception held in the fellowship hall at church.”

Millie and Lou Ellen were trying to decide where to shop for a wedding gown when Fran cleared her throat. “Lou Ellen, I feel there’s something you should know,” she said.

Gil choked on his pork chop, and Millie looked at him in concern. “Gil, are you all right?”

Beads of sweat appeared at his temples, but he nodded, his eyes flashing a warning to Fran.

“Gil and I…” Fran started. Her voice broke, and she took a steadying breath. “Well, we were intimate several times this past winter.”

Millie let out a pained cry, and her hands fluttered at her chest. Lou Ellen jumped to her feet, knocking over her glass of sweet tea. “You’re a liar,” she shouted. “Get out of my house this instant.”

Millie looked from Fran to Gil. “Gil, is this true?”

He shook his head, his mouth set in a grim line. “No, ma’am. I hate to speak of it, but Fran’s had it in her head for some time that I should marry her, when I’ve always made it clear that I’m in love with Lou Ellen.”

Fran’s fingers tightened around her fork. She fought the urge to bury the tines in Gil’s hand.

Lou Ellen leaned across the table and pointed at Fran. “Get out before I throw you out. How dare you make up such a disgusting lie! As if Gil would ever have anything to do with you.” Her mouth twisted into an ugly sneer.

“If I’m lying,” Fran said, “then how would I know that Gil has a birthmark on his inner thigh that looks like the state of Florida?” Lou Ellen’s eyes widened, and her lips quivered with barely contained rage. “Oh, you know about that birthmark, Lou Ellen?” Fran went on. “I guess a white wedding dress is out of the question.”

Millie burst into tears. “Fran, how could you do such a thing? Lou Ellen is your cousin.”

Fran didn’t look away from Lou Ellen, whose cheeks sported bright red splotches, as though she’d been slapped. Gil sputtered some weak protest, and at the sound of his voice, Lou Ellen lunged at him. A guttural scream tore from her throat, and she wrapped her small hands around his neck.

“Lou Ellen, stop,” Millie said, grabbing her daughter by the shoulders. But Lou Ellen was a wild creature, howling and crying and trying to inflict as much pain as she could. Gil hissed when she clawed his cheek, dangerously close to his left eye.

Fran stood, letting her cloth napkin drop to the floor. Lou Ellen, Gil, and Millie formed a morass of flailing limbs, and during their scuffle, the engagement ring slipped from Lou Ellen’s finger. Fran watched it sail through the air before it landed next to the bowl of mashed potatoes.

She cast a furtive glance at the others before plucking the ring from the table. Fran had only a moment to admire it lying in her palm before she turned her back on the brawl and tossed the ring into her mouth. Lifting her glass, she took a long swig, washing the ring down with a mouthful of sweet tea.

The prongs scraped her esophagus like dull nails, but she managed not to cough, afraid the ring would come back up if she did. Fran felt it travel all the way down to her stomach, taking little scraps of her insides along with it.

Lou Ellen had wrestled Gil to the floor and was now pummeling him with her fists. Millie stood over them, covering her face as she sobbed. Fran made a hasty retreat for the door, her hand cupped to her mouth.

A cold drizzle fell, dampening her hair. The inside of her chest felt shredded, but Fran still smiled as she started home. Her pain dimmed, becoming almost bearable as she imagined the engagement ring nestled safely in her stomach, forever out of Lou Ellen’s reach.

Puppets

Ruby sat cross-legged on the grass and tried to ignore the prickly blades scratching her thighs. Chase and Greg tossed a baseball back and forth, and Ruby rolled her eyes while Greg blabbered about girls being horrible athletes.

“They ain’t got any hand-eye coordination,” he said. “Girls can’t catch for shit.”

Ruby didn’t care a thing about sports; she was only here to see Chase. He and Greg had moved to the trailer park a few months ago, and the two brothers were always together.

A grasshopper landed on Ruby’s knee, and as she flicked it away, she noticed a patch of hair on her calf she’d missed during her last shave. Her face burned at the thought of Chase seeing it.

Chase threw the ball, and it sailed over Greg’s head. They watched it roll into the weeds covering the vacant lot next door, and then Greg turned to Ruby. “Make yourself useful and go get it.” He was only fourteen, a year younger than Ruby and two years younger than Chase, but he was already bossy as hell.

“I ain’t going in there,” Ruby said. “I’m wearing shorts, and I’ll get eat up with chiggers.”

Greg stamped his foot. “Why don’t you go on home then? Nobody wants you here anyway.”

Ruby looked at Chase, her heart pounding in her throat. As the oldest, he had final say. He tossed down his glove and sighed. “Both of you stop your bitchin’. I’ll go get it.” Chase walked past Greg on long legs, his jeans low on his hips. Ruby hopped to her feet and started after him, taking two steps for every one of his. They stood at the edge of the weeds, trying to spot the ball. “If you really want me to go in after it, I will,” she said.

Chase bent over, hands braced on his thighs, and she studied his bare back. Two moles dotted the skin over his right shoulder blade, and she clasped her hands behind her to keep from touching them. He ran around all summer without a shirt, and his skin was darker than hers. His brown hair, cut military short, glistened with sweat. “Nah, you stay here,” he said. “You’re right—you’ll get eat up. There’s liable to be snakes in there too.” Chase glanced at her feet. “Christ, girl, you ain’t even wearing shoes.” He waded through the grass like it was the ocean. Ruby started to ask him if he’d ever been to the ocean, because she hadn’t, but Chase found the ball and leaned to retrieve it. He held it up and flashed a smile.

“You’ve got good eyes,” she said. Chase tossed the ball to her, and she caught it. He slid out of the weeds, sleek as a cat, and Ruby put the ball in his hand. “It’s hot as hell out here.” She wiped the sweat from her cheeks.

Chase made a circling motion with his index finger. “Turn around,” he said, and she frowned in confusion. “Go on.” Ruby turned as he moved closer. Chase lifted up her hair, and she felt him blow on the back of her neck. “Does that cool you off any?” he asked.

Ruby giggled and hated how girly she sounded. “I’m still hot.”

He licked her skin, and she let out a squeal.

“Come on, you two,” Greg called. “Quit screwing around.”

They headed back over to where Greg waited. Out of the corner of her eye, Ruby saw Chase grinning. She could still feel the moisture from his tongue on her neck. “Hey, Chase, can I use your bathroom?” she asked. Before heading out that morning, Ruby drank three glasses of water. She’d read in a magazine that drinking eight glasses a day would hydrate the skin and make it look dewy. Ruby figured her skin could use the help, but all that water made her pee like crazy.

He nodded toward the trailer. “You know where it is.”

She hoped he would offer to go inside with her. She’d been in his trailer only once, and that was when a couple of other kids were around. But Chase just threw the ball at Greg hard enough to make Greg wince when he caught it in his glove.

Ruby opened the screen door and stepped inside the darkened living room. All the blinds were closed, and as her eyes adjusted to the shadows, she spotted Chase’s mom sitting on the sofa. Her hair was dyed Raggedy Ann red and piled on top of her head, and the dress she wore was a size too small. A man wearing a business suit sat next to her, and he looked Ruby up and down, his mouth pinched in a tight line.

“I’m sorry,” Ruby blurted, tugging her tank top so it covered the little patch of skin above her shorts. “I just need to use the bathroom. Chase said it was all right.”

Chase’s mom waved a hand at her. “Of course it is, sweetheart.”

“Thanks.” Ruby darted into the kitchen and down a short hallway to the bathroom. Once inside, she double checked to make sure the door was locked and then peed as fast as she could. The bathroom could have used a good cleaning; strands of red hair clung to the dingy tile. While washing her hands, Ruby saw a pack of birth control pills on the counter beside the sink.

On her way back to the kitchen, she heard the man’s voice drift down the hall from the living room. “Don’t be that way, Tonya. Let me see you again.” Ruby froze, afraid to walk into the middle of an argument, but Chase’s mom only laughed.

“I told you this would be the last time. You’re married, and you ain’t got a thing to offer me.”

“I care about you.” The man almost shouted the words.

“That’s just your dick talkin’,” Chase’s mom said.

Ruby strode to the front door so fast, her hair flew out behind her. “Thanks,” she called over her shoulder, not looking at either of them as she fled the trailer.

Chase and Greg continued tossing the ball back and forth, and for once Ruby was glad Chase paid no attention to her. Her face was hot to the touch. “I think I’m gonna head on home,” she said.

Chase caught the ball and lowered his glove. “I’ll walk you.”

“She can walk on her own,” Greg said. He spat on the ground and scowled.

Chase left the ball and glove in the grass and made his way to Ruby. She didn’t want him to see her smiling, so she ducked her head as they started down the gravel drive. Chase’s arm brushed hers, and she closed her eyes. The blood vessels inside her lids glowed scarlet in the sunlight.

“Watch where you’re steppin’.” Chase grabbed her shoulder, and she looked down at a broken beer bottle on the ground before her. “That would tear your foot up good,” he said, kicking the bottle into the ditch.

“Thanks.” Ruby looked at the trailers surrounding them, imagining curious eyes staring through the blinds.

They reached the porch leading to her trailer door, and Chase followed her up the steps. She fumbled for the house key in her pocket. “So I guess I’ll see you later?” Her hand trembled as she slipped the key into the lock.

“Ain’t you gonna invite me in?” he asked.

Ruby turned and found him right behind her. Her eyes fixed on the little hollow at the bottom of his throat. Even though they stood in the shade, her breath came faster. She thought of her daddy’s warning that he’d tan her hide if he ever caught her fooling around with a boy. “My dad don’t allow me to have anyone over when he’s not here.”

Chase didn’t move. “What about your mom? Ain’t she home?”

“My mom died when I was little.”

“I’m sorry.” He glanced around. “Who’s gonna tell your dad if you invite me in? Ain’t nobody watching.”

Ruby raised her chin and made her eyes look wide and apologetic. “I’d better not.”

She thought he’d be offended, maybe even angry, but he only smiled. “I don’t want to get you in trouble.” He crowded her against the door and put his arms up on either side of her. “I promise I’ll be on my best behavior.”

Ruby’s brain floundered for a clever response. She remembered his mom’s easy laugh and teasing words as she kept that nicely dressed man dancing on a string.

Chase kissed her neck just below her jaw, and she tried not to squirm. “Invite me in,” he said. “I know you’re a nice girl, Ruby. Let me show you how nice I can be.”

Ruby stared at the oak tree in the yard. Its leaves shuddered on the breeze. “That’s just your dick talkin’,” she whispered in his ear.

He jerked away and slapped her face, not as hard as he could have, but with enough force to make her cry out and cower from him. “You need to watch your mouth.” His voice shook, and he pointed a finger at her. “That’s how trash talks, and I didn’t take you for trash.”

“I’m not!” She sucked in a breath to keep from bursting into tears.

“Sure could have fooled me.” Chase turned and bounded off the porch.

“Chase, wait.” Ruby started after him. “I didn’t mean it. You can come in.” He slowed but didn’t turn around. “I want you to.”

Finally he faced her, arms folded over his chest. “You need to ask like a proper lady. Say, ‘Won’t you please come in, Chase?’”

She looked at her dirty feet and forced the words from her mouth. They caught on her teeth and tongue, and the garbled noise didn’t make sense to her ears. Chase smiled, satisfied, and walked over to her. He put his hot palm against her back and guided her toward the door. Her eyes narrowed as she turned the knob. Peering between her lashes, she imagined she could see the string tethering her hand to his. He gave it a tug, making Ruby dance, and the front door swung open.