Friday, November 30, 2007


My parents were certainly not the best. But one thing that I always appreciated about them is that they did not expose me to religion. So that by the time I had to face that stuff at the age of eight, I immediately concluded that it was a pack of lies. And the fact that so many around me accepted these fantasies as reality—Good grief! Give me a break!

In the forty-two years since, I have never wavered.

Thanks, folks!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

"Sixteen and."

A Short Story
James Robert Smith
Copyright 2007

When I was in the tenth grade I rode the school bus for a great portion of each of my days. I tell people that we lived far out in the woods, but no one I tell realizes what I mean. When I tell them that our driveway was exactly one mile long, that our nearest neighbor was two and one half miles from our front door, that the nearest paved road was three miles away, that the nearest phone was five miles distant—they don’t seem to understand, or believe me. After all, this was the mid-1970s, and such things just weren’t, at that time.

But it was true.

My mother would get me up for school at five in the morning and I would eat breakfast and brush my teeth and get dressed and take my mom’s car to the end of the drive and wait for the bus, which would arrive at six a.m. Then would begin the long drive to school: two and one half hours. The return trip would be made in reverse order at 3 p.m. when the school bell rang. I was the first student to be picked up every morning, and the last to be let off. I also tell people that I spent five hours of each of my days on a yellow, diesel-belching school bus, but they don’t seem to grasp that concept, either. Or they think I’m lying.

I made friends on that bus. Got into a few fights. Ignored the smaller kids and mingled with the older ones. Occasionally, I would notice that someone who normally rode the bus every day would not show up one morning. Smart kids, dumb kids, kids with potential, and kids who were lost causes. It didn’t matter. They’d just not show up on the bus one morning, or the next, or the next, or the next. Eventually I would ask someone what was going on. “Where’s Joe?” Or, “Where’s Ken?” Or “What happened to Brenda?”

And I would get a plain stare from the kid I’d asked and they’d say, “Joe turned sixteen.” Or “Ken was sixteen yesterday.” Or “Brenda’s 16th birthday came this week.”

And I would stare and wait for the rest of the story. Finally, I would say it. “So? Why isn’t Joe/Ken/Brenda here?”

And the person I was talking to would exclaim with no small amount of exasperation, “Joe/Ken/Brenda turned sixteen!” As if I were some kind of idiot who could not be made to understand.

Indeed, I did not grasp it, at first. And finally I understood. Most of these mountain kids were required by law to attend school up until their sixteenth birthday. And few of them intended to continue attending school past that date. And so, Joe and Ken and Brenda would vanish from the bus and from the halls at school and their faces would not be seen again except, sometimes, in the pages of the yearbook if the school pictures were taken before their sixteenth birthday arrived.

One day, I looked up from my daydreaming or my notebooks or my reading (I can’t recall which) as the bus came to a stop where it had not stopped before. Noting this atypical halting of the rocking of the machine atop the stony mountain roads, I watched a tall, brown-headed, lean, absolutely gorgeous young woman climb aboard, clutching her notebook to her very adequate bosom. Her hair was long and straight and hung down to the middle of her back and shone in the morning sun that was just rising above the tops of the September trees. She sat down near the front and the bus lurched, engine grumbling.

I leaned forward and nudged Allegra Priest, watching my index finger vanish to the first knuckle in the white stretch fabric that covered her fleshy upper arm. “Who’s that?” I asked her.

“Oh. That’s Rona. Her daddy just moved back to the county. They been livin in Texas for five years and they come back home now. He’s a trucker. Has his own rig and everythang,” she added, not interested in the least in the tall, pretty girl who was sitting with her back to us.

“Rona What? What’s her last name?”

Allegra rolled her eyes in her pudgy, moon face. “Grindstaff. Rona Grindstaff.” She accentuated the sound and I noticed that the new girl had heard her family name mentioned and she almost turned and I was ready to duck so that she wouldn’t see immediately that I was asking about her. But Rona remained face front and I needn’t have worried. We rode on to school and I hoped that I’d share at least two or three classes with her.

But, amazingly, although my school had only one hundred and eight students in the tenth grade, we didn’t have single common class.


Days followed upon the heels of each fading autumn sun. The trees went from green to brilliant hues of gold and yellow and red and orange to brown to bare and gray in the coming winter winds. I slowly inched my way up the bus, seat by seat, until I crowded out the smaller kids who gathered around Rona. It took me a week of sitting behind her, watching the back of her head, the curve of her shoulders, the glinting of light upon her hair, the smell of her blowing toward me and causing me no end of sexual frustration.

I ignored all of the other girls on the bus, much to the anger of some of them. I largely ignored my male friends there, too, much to the amusement of some of them and the confusion of the rest. For most of the ride back home I just sat and either stared or stole lingering looks at Ms. Grindstaff.

Finally, finally, after weeks of riding with her and watching her and hearing her and smelling her, I spoke to her.

“Hey,” I said.

She turned, looked at me, smiled, melted my heart and caused a flock of butterflies to take flight in my stomach, and she said, “Hey.”

Even then, even then I realized that I waited too long to continue and that I was making my emotional state plain and obvious not only to her, but to everyone on the bus who was watching or listening. Finally, I began to talk to her. As I recall, I asked her about two teachers we shared, but in different periods of the day, and I had my leg up, my foot in the door and out of my mouth. In a few minutes we were chatting, stumblingly, both of us uncomfortable with the forced conversation. I knew I had blown it.

She spent the next couple of weeks mainly ignoring me.


One day came and I had reached a point where I rarely even thought of Rona Grindstaff. Even though she rode the bus each day. Even though I heard her each day. Even though I caught whiffs of her perfume, her hair spray, her sweat. I was able to ignore her on a conscious level and didn’t long for her and didn’t pine for her and didn’t feel my heart sink at the way she ignored me.

No, not much.

And it was on that day, sitting, actually reading with my face down in the pages of a book that I heard the seat beside me creak with someone’s weight and felt another’s thigh pressed warmly against my own. I looked up and my nose knew who it was before my eyes did, and I say that not out of some caustic anger, but because still, now, today, thirty years later I can smell her and what they say about pheromones certainly must be true. Whatever it was about her; whether it was her face, her eyes, her lips, her chin, her hair, her body, her legs, her hands, her smile, her complexion, the way she dressed or the soap she used or the way she held herself or everything in combination; whatever it was about her, she closed all the circuits and pressed all the buttons and just plain made every nerve stand on end for me.

And I used to wonder that if she made me react just so, then certainly I must have even something akin to such a reaction for her. At least I wondered and hoped.

So. Out of the blue, she’s sitting there beside me, her leg against mine. I look up, and she’s looking back at me, our eyes staring into one another’s. “Why don’t you get off at my stop?” she asks.

“What?” I say.

“You can get off here. With me,” she says. “Don’t your friend Tommy Allaway live near here? You can call him and he can drive you over to your place later.” She had seen Tommy and me riding his cut down junker, his ‘stump jumper’ he called it. A piece-of-shit body with a running V-8 gas-guzzler in it.

“Yeah,” I stammer. “Tommy lives about three miles back down Log Ground Road,” I say. “You really want me to get off with you?”

“Yeah,” she says, her eyes smiling. “We can talk.”

I look down the road and the bus is slowing down and I can see the last curve before her house comes into view. “Your family at home? I can meet your parents,” I say.

“My daddy is off to St. Louis haulin pork sausage,” she says, smiling again.

“Just you and your momma, then?”

“My momma always goes on long trips with Daddy,” she informs me. “It’s just me at the house. And you, if you get off here,” she adds.

And I don’t even think about it. I don’t give it a second thought. I don’t think about my parents wondering why I’m not going to be driving my mom’s car down the gravel drive at precisely 5:15 pm or how they’re going to react, wondering where I could be. All I do is smile back at Rona and say, “Yeah. Sure. We can talk.”

Then the bus makes the wide turn and Rona leans into me and I can feel the warmth of her pressing against my leg and I can smell her so vividly, even now. The bus bounces once, twice on big rocks and Rona lets herself loll against me; I feel the softness of her breasts pressing against my shoulder. “Woo!” she says.

The bus stops and she stands up and I stand up and she climbs down the steps to the dusty-rocky road and I follow her down. All of the kids are watching us. All of the little kids who are accustomed to me accompanying them all along the way are staring in confusion at this suddenly major change in the routine of things. The older kids, too, are staring at us as Rona pads to the road, her jeans clinging tight to her thighs as I follow her down. I turn to Toby, the bus driver, and say, “I’m going to get off here today.” He looks at me and pulls the lever and the door squeaks shut as the engine roars leaving me standing there in the dust. As that dust clears I look at the retreating bus and see every window filled with a face watching me as I turn to chase Rona up the long drive to her house. She’s already halfway up the slope where her father’s house is perched on the top of the high hill. “Are you coming?” she asks, smiling still.

“Yeah,” I say, and trot to catch up. As I arrive, she is holding the back door. I look down and see the tracks made by her father’s enormous truck, and I can see where it sits often in between jobs pulling freight from one far place to another. There are great, wide tracks in the red dust and a huge, black spot where oil and other things drain out of that monster engine that he owns.

We go inside, and I’m surprised how clean the house is. The kitchen is very nice and she tosses her books on a Formica-topped bar with stools tucked neatly underneath. “Want a Coke? Or some tea?”

“Yeah,” I say. “I’ll take some tea.” And I put my own books on the counter beside hers and touch one stool. “Okay if I sit here?” I ask.

“Sure.” She’s got the refrigerator door open and is bringing out a glass pitcher full of amber tea that I can already taste. Rona pours the tea into a tall glass for me, opens the freezer and I hear the clink of ice in the drink as she hands it to me. “I’m gonna drink a Coke,” she tells me, opening a glass bottle of it and drawing it down as she turns the bottom up, standing beside me at the bar.

I drink and smack my lips, looking around at the kitchen. I can see through the dining room and into the den and a hallway leading into other rooms, a color console television sitting on brown shag carpet in the fading afternoon sun. Turning, I look back at Rona and she’s staring at me with an expression I can’t figure, something I’ve never seen, and I frown. She puts the Coke bottle down on the countertop and puts her arms around my neck and her lips right on my ear and whispers to me.

“Want to have some fun?” she asks.

“Fun? What kind of fun?” I say it, dumb and stupid and virginal.

“You ever have a blowjob?”

The pit of my stomach opens up and my brain falls through it. “Nuh-no,” I say, honest about sex for the first time in my life because for the first time in my life the prospect of having sex seems suddenly imminent, and I am scared to death.

Before I can say anything else or do anything else Rona is standing in front of me and she’s unbuckling my belt and has that done and my zipper is down and her hand is inside my briefs and she has my penis. “I’ve been lookin’ at you for weeks,” she says. “You’re cute.” And before she says another word she’s on her knees and has her mouth around me.

I gasp, and my knees go a little weak, but everything else is working. I look down and she looks up, stops for a second and smiles at me. Before I know it, I come and she continues to suck for a while, then laughs and stands up, my penis now flaccid, drooping down toward my underwear.

“Now you do me,” she says, pulling down her pants and lying back on the carpet.

I kneel between her legs, look at her and wonder, and before I can think about it too much she grabs the top of my head and shoves my face to her crotch. I start doing what I think I should do and she’s soon telling me how it’s done. Breathing deep, I smell her; and I taste her, and I don’t find it unpleasant and soon I’m aroused again as she moans and squeaks and from time to time raises her hips or presses down on the back of my skull. In a bit, she moans, loud, tells me that she’s coming and arches her back and rubs her clitoris hard with her right palm.

Crawling up toward her face, I slowly peel my jeans off and, boldly, say, “Let’s screw,” as I’m looking down at her heavy-lidded eyes.

She rolls away, pushing my face. “Call Tommy. Tell him to come get you,” she says. “Use the phone in the den.” And before I can say anything she’s standing, wearing only her blue shirt and walking briskly toward the back of the house. “I’ll see you on the bus tomorrow,” she says, closing a door behind her. The last thing I see is her pale white ass.

Goddamn, I think. But I pull up my pants and go to the phone and dial Tommy’s number. His mom answers the phone and I ask for her son. In a second or two I hear my best pal’s voice. “What’s up,” he asks. “Where you callin’ from?” He knows we don’t have a phone at my house.

“I’m over at Rona Grindstaff’s house. Can you give me a ride home? Drive me there in the old stump jumper? I’ll pay for gas,” I add.

Tommy knows there’s a story there, so he agrees. I hang up, knowing he’ll be there very soon. Going to the kitchen sink, I turn on the tap and wash my hands with liquid dish detergent and then rub some on my face and lather up and rinse it off and use a dishtowel to dry. Going to the back door through which Rona and I had entered, I call out as I leave. “See you tomorrow, Rona,” I yell. Then I walk through that door and out into the yard where those enormous tire tracks and that huge dark stain look up at me. In minutes I hear the unmuffled roar of the approaching stump jumper and Tommy speeds into view, barreling down the steep hill and leaving a granite dust marker in his wake.

I hop into the car, no side doors to bother with, only the rickety seat that makes a rusty ratcheting sound as my weight settles into it. With a yelp Tommy slams the pedal down and away we roar, Tommy palming two one-dollar bills that I’ve pressed into his hand. “What was you doin’ at Rona Grindstaff’s house?”

I look at Tommy; see his gap-toothed smile, his blonde hair packed tight to his skull like wool. “She blew me,” I say.

And the car brakes and I go into the dash, but not hard, since I’d almost expected that reaction. The granite dust overtakes us and settles on us, since the car has no roof, either. “No,” Tommy says.

“Yes,” I tell him.

He puts his right foot back on the gas and we pull out of the dust cloud and he spins the car around so we don’t have to take a paved road where he might get pulled by the local cops who sometimes cruise that stretch of highway. We’re going to my house via the back roads and, glancing at my watch, I figure I might actually get back before my normal bus arrival anyway.

“What else? You have real sex with her?” The woods slip past, red oaks and post oaks, and then the pines as we enter the Rome-Kraft Paper Company lands that line the dirt roads.

“Naw. She didn’t want to,” I say.

“She just gave you a blow job?”

“Yeah.” I pause. “And I ate her out.”


“Yeah. I kind o’ liked it,” I admit.




We ride in silence like that for a while, and I wonder what Tommy’s thinking and worry that he’s jealous, since I know he’s never been laid and maybe he’s pissed off because I got lucky before he did, even though he already has his drivers license (one of the few who didn’t quit school at sixteen). We’re tearing around a steep curve in the road, getting close to the long driveway that leads up and down the mountain to my house and he slows down a little.

“Did she swallow?”

I think for a second. “Yeah. I think so, yeah.”

“Goddamn,” he says. And then we’re at the place where I park my mom’s car and I climb out of his junker and walk over to the other auto.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I tell him.

“See ya,” he says, and soon he’s gone and I hear his beat jalopy rumbling like a phlegm-y old man down the long, piney hills and into the distance.

Slowly, thinking of Rona, of what we’d done, of the way she’d tasted and smelled, I get in my mom’s car and drive down and down that long drive to my parents’ house. All around me, the forest closes in, trees mainly naked and bare and gray, the air warm for this late in the Fall, the sound of the tires crunching gravel, munching away like teeth on something crisp.

I get home, just a little later than usual, and my mother asks me why.

“I stopped over near Tommy’s for a while. He gave me a ride home.”

“He did?” It’s my father, appearing from the back of the house. I’m not used to him being home all of the time, now that his business has failed and we’re living on his savings while he tries to figure out what to do next. I hear my folks talking sometimes, muttering in the dusk, and I know they’re down to about 20,000 dollars, which doesn’t sound like a lot to me, and I know it’s not a lot by many standards.

“Yeah,” I say. “We came through the woods on his stump jumper. Up through Log Ground Road.”

“Why’d you do that?” he asks.

“I just wanted to hang out with Tommy for a while. We’re thinking of going rafting again,” I lie. And I know my father knows it’s a lie. Why I don’t just tell them I stopped to see a girl, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the sex. My dad’s looking at me funny, and I wonder if he can tell a woman just put her lips around my penis. I look at my mom, to see if she notices something different about me, but she’s doing a crossword puzzle and doesn’t seem interested in my at all.

“Okay,” my dad says.

“I might stop over there again. Tomorrow,” I say, hoping that it’s true.

My dad turns to go back to the dark part of the house where he can contemplate the money running out. “All right. Just as long as we know where you are.”


The next day, on the bus, I’m sitting there and dreaming, not looking at Rona, not wanting to push things. And then she’s there again, her thigh pressed against mine, and there’s the tickle of her lips on my right ear.

“Want to stop by again?”

I look at her and smile, knowing I have a silly grin on my face, but unable to help myself. “Yeah,” I say.

This time, I don’t even look back to see the score of kid-faces staring through the rock powder coating the bus windows as I follow Rona’s tight-jeaned ass up the driveway. This time, we don’t bother with tea or Cokes or opening the refrigerator. We just start pulling at clothes and unbuckling belts and drawing down zippers and exploring one another. And, again, she’s kneeling in front of me and when I’m spent she’s lying back on the carpet and pushing the back of my skull and forcing my face into her warm, pungent crotch.

This goes on for four days. Tommy’s getting pissed by Thursday, and I’m running out of gas money to hand off to him. I’d walk through the woods and over the ridges, but it’s too far. I’d be walking all night.

By Friday, I know I’ve used up all of my favors with Tommy, and he’s sick of hearing what I’ll tell him about the brief encounters every afternoon, and he has own responsibilities that the rides to my driveway are costing him. I know all of this, but I don’t know what to do because I can’t think of an alternative, and I don’t want it to stop.


On Friday, we are laying on the carpet. She’s sighed, a long, hissing orgasm. I’ve slowly crawled up toward her shoulders. My pants are down around my ankles and I’d fall over like an idiot if I tried to stand like that. She’s wearing nothing, having peeled off all of her clothes, and I’m looking at her totally naked for the first time. As I’m edging my way up, my eyes are on a dark, penny-sized mole on her left shoulder that I hadn’t known she’d had. It’s light brown and stands out on her soft, pale skin. What’s left of the afternoon sun plays over the fine hairs there.

For the first time, she doesn’t push me away, doesn’t press her fingers into my cheek and say, “Call Tommy”. She seems to be staring absently as I slide one arm under her neck and lay the other across her ribs and hold her gently. I can feel the slow rise and fall of her chest as she breathes. My heart aches.

“I love you,” I say to her.

She stares at the ceiling for a second while I wait. Then the corners of her mouth turn up, her lips part, her teeth, her straight, white teeth, are evident as her eyes squint in delight and she begins to laugh.

“You! You’re so stupid,” she says. She looks right at me. “You goofy little boy.” And then she pushes me away like before, and sits up, still laughing.

“But I do,” I tell her. “I love you.” I try to push her back down, but she’s having none of that and this time shoves me away.

We’re sitting there for a while, Rona completely naked and me too stupid to finish taking my clothes off, my underwear still hanging onto my ankle, and my socks. She’s sitting up, her elbows on her knees, her face in her hands, her hair hanging down, shining in the fading afternoon light, laughing, laughing, and this goes on for some seconds before I realize that she’s not laughing, she’s crying.

“Are you okay?” I ask her. “Did I do something wrong?”

“I hate men,” she tells me, her face still in her hands. Then she’s up and walking away from me, toward the back of the house. “You call Tommy, now. Call him and get him to pick you up.” She turns her head, just a little, just enough so that I can see her left cheekbone with the light playing on very tiny hairs on her skin. “Don’t come back here anymore.” After that, she padded quickly down the hallway and into her room, shutting the door behind her, softly.

I do as she told me, picking up the phone. Tommy answers it on the first ring.

“That you?” he says.

“Yeah. Me,” I tell him.


“Just come get me, man. I got gas money. Can you come on, or will I have to wait? I can start walkin’ toward your place.”

“Naw,” he says. “I’ll be right there. In a few.” Then he hangs up and I hang up and pull on my clothes. In less than two minutes I’ve cinched my belt and am out the door, down the drive, and walking up the gravel road to shorten the distance Tommy will have to drive to pick me up.

I hear the guttural motor roar of a big engine and at first assume that it’s my pal, but realize the sound’s too loud and the engine far too powerful. As I stride up the hill to meet Tommy, I see a huge Mack truck headed toward me, and I immediately realize that it’s Rona’s dad, home early from wherever it is he’d driven whatever he’d been hired to haul. Realizing how close a call I’d just had, glad that Rona had not answered my love call and allowed me to completely consummate our sexual relationship, I feel my gut go cold and wonder if her dad will notice me.

At first, I keep my head down, but as the huge truck draws near, I glance up, and find that, indeed, Mr. Grindstaff is at the wheel of that monster machine and he is glaring at me with not a little intensity. I’m not positive he can look at me and know that my dick has just been in his daughter’s mouth, but I’m pretty sure of it. Pretty damned sure. As the truck kicks into a low gear so that he can take the turn into his drive, I’m only too glad to know that the rise of land at the top of the hill helps me to vanish from his sight, and as soon as I know he can’t see me, I break into a run and race to meet up with Tommy’s cut-down jalopy, which seems to me to be a very slow moving and very distant piss-ant crawling in my direction.

“This is it,” Tommy tells me. “I can’t come a get you and take you home like this. Not even for gas money. My dad’s givin’ me hell about the past couple of days. Says you need to get your own goddamn car.”

I don’t look at him and just stare at the patched floorboard, feel the cold wind cutting my face, now and again peering back to see if a huge Mack truck is bearing down on us.


The next day, Rona is not on the bus. Nor the day after that. A week passes, with no Rona aboard the bus. Finally, I sit beside Allegra Priest. For a while we both just sit there, silent, the day just beginning, the sun tinting the bare treetops with light as the day creeps over the mountain ridges.

“Why ain’t Rona at school?” I ask her. “She didn’t turn sixteen, did she?” I add with something like humor.

“No. Anyway, she’s seventeen. She turned seventeen last year.”

I hadn’t known that. “Then where is she?”

“Her daddy went off on a long haul again. He took her with him.” The bus groans as it pulls up a steep hill toward the next farmhouse.

“What about her momma? The whole family go?”

“Rona ain’t got a mother,” Allegra informs me. “Her mother’s been dead for two years!” As if this is common knowledge and I should have known it.

And the weeks passed. As far as I know, the big Mack truck never returned to reside in the drive beside the Grindstaff house. All I know is that one day there was a cube van parked in front of the garage and men were moving boxes and furniture into it. I would have asked Allegra what was going on, but it was obvious. The following day, and for every day after that, the Grindsaff house was empty, sitting vacant as winter passed into spring and then summer was there.

I never saw her again. But of course I thought about her often. Over and over I would play the words in my mind,
seventeen and still at school.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


It's the xmas season. We at the USPS are carrying more mail than ever in the history of the Service. We are doing it with historically low numbers of employees.

I came home today and just fell straight to sleep. I was even too tired to work on my latest novel.


Actually looking forward to February when the mail rush dies down.

Monday, November 26, 2007

My One Good Eye

This is what I did when I realized my eyes were really going.

I was born with amblyopia. Commonly known as “lazy eye”. My right eye just didn’t want to work in concert with my left eye and so the left eye became stronger to overcompensate, leaving my right eye to suffer from muscular degeneration and to, in effect, atrophy. The school system informed my parents of this fact after an eye exam when I was six years old, and corrective lenses were purchased by my parents. Soon after, I suspect my older brother; a demented and emotionally retarded sadist either hid or destroyed these same glasses. My father, to teach me a lesson for losing them, refused to buy me a second pair, and so I was left to live with one eye. That’s the way to show a six-year-old child!

Over the years, my “good” eye, the left one, began to degenerate of its own. Increasingly, from the age of about ten or so, I became more and more near-sighted in the good eye until I reached a point where I had to have a lens for that one, which my parents finally purchased for me when I was about fourteen. By this time, the right eye was so far gone that the ophthalmologists I’d visit would merely prescribe a plain glass for that side—blurry peripheral vision from that quarter would have to do. I wasn’t blind, per se, but I sure wouldn’t wish my eyes on anyone but a truly blind man.

And as anyone who suffers from near-sightedness will tell you, the condition progresses at a generally accelerated rate leaving you with having to find a stronger and stronger lens for the problem every couple of years.

By the time I was forty-two, I found myself having made the rank of “regular” at my job as letter carrier for the US Postal Service. This meant that I was no longer a “part-time flexible” and now had, at least in theory, certain privileges that had accrued after two and one half years of seniority. Among these new privileges was that I was placed onto a route no one else would take in a part of the city no one wanted to visit to deliver mail to people no one wished to encounter. Additionally, I discovered that such things as a regular’s schedule were privileges in theory only, since, as low man on the “regular” totem, I was to be treated pretty much as a “part-time flexible”. That is, like shit.

A few days before I was to report for work at my new station, I went there to scope it out and look over my route and the case (a metal cubicle containing numbered shelves for sorting the mail). The first thing I noticed was that every case on the row in which I’d be working were in a shadowed, unlit area of the building, and that the cases in that row, which were supposed to be wired and lit, were without power. Standing in that very dark space, I quickly realized that I would be unable to see properly there. In fact, trying the space out, I found myself unable to focus my vision on the address of a random piece of mail I had picked up.

I went to see my soon-to-be supervisor, a fellow named Bill B****.

“These cases are unlighted,” I told him. “Look,” I said. “I have really bad eyesight to begin with, and I won’t be able to work over there unless you guys get those cases lighted.”

“Oh, yeah,” he told me. “We’ll have them wired and lit by the time you start next week.”

“Okay,” I said, and left.

A few days later, I showed for work and reported to my case. It was, of course, unlit. I went to Bill B****, my now actual, bonafide supervisor.

“You said my case would be lit. It’s not. It’s going to be very hard for me to work over there.”

“Oh, yeah. I forgot to get that done. Look, you can work at another route that’s lit up if you want to.”

“No,” I told him. “That’s my route and I need to learn it so I can get it cased as fast as possible. I’ll work there today the way it is, but you need to get it wired by tomorrow.”

“Okay,” he told me. “It’ll be done.”

I went back to my case, and found it almost impossible to read the addresses on the pieces of mail there. In point of fact, it was not only the fact that I was working in the dark, but I had reached a point where I needed a bifocal lens, but just didn’t realize it. I thought it was merely the darkness working against me. Like a good trooper, I struggled through the morning and got out onto the street in the war zone of a neighborhood to which I’d been assigned. Dogs roared, teenagers raged, and the pop of gunfire was a happy background tune.

Next morning, I got back to work to find my case still in deep shadow. I went to see Bill B**** and asked him what was wrong. “What’s the deal? You said the cases would be lit up.”

“Look,” he said. I could tell he was in a really foul mood. “A union guy has to wire those cases and our union maintenance man hasn’t been able to get around to doing it.”

“No,” I told him. “You look. I’m not going to strain my eyes working in the dark. You need to do your job and get the cases wired so we can all see back there. It’s not just me, but the other dozen carriers working in the dark.”

“You’re the only one complaining about it.”

“I’ll hook up the damned thing myself,” I told him.

“Don’t touch that stuff,” he said. “We’ll get someone to do it today.”

I went back to my case, stood there for a second, and walked over to one of the other letter carriers working in the dark. “Hey, man,” I said. “How long have you guys been working like this? In the dark, I mean.”

The guy stared for a second, thinking. “Well, they rearranged all of the cases four months ago, so I guess it’s been this way for sixteen weeks.”

“Sixteen weeks? You guys have been working in the dark for sixteen weeks?”


“You pussies,” I said, and stalked back over to Bill ****’s desk situated as it was in the center of the workroom floor (but very well lit).

“Hey, B****,” I said.

“What is it now?” he asked.

“I hear those cases have been dark for sixteen weeks.”


“So, I’m going on break. If my case ain’t lit by the time I get back, I’m going to call OSHA. I’ve got the phone number and I’m going to call them right up,” I fibbed. And this was the Clinton-era OSHA, not the dickless Dubya Moron Bush OSHA.

Bill B**** looked as if he’d swallowed a turd. His eyes bugged and he stood, turned his back on me, and stomped off.

I went on break.

When I got back to my case, it was lit up like a freaking pro football night game.

The carrier I’d asked about the lights poked his head into my case. “How’d you do that? We’ve been trying to get these things lit for four months!”

“You’re a bunch of fucking pussies,” I told him. His face vanished from inside my case. I got back to work, and slowly realized I still couldn’t read the addresses on the letters clearly. And it was only then that I knew I needed bifocals. The word, long an abstract thought applying to others, was suddenly a reality for me. I’d deal with that later. In the meantime, I was going to have my hands full dealing with an antagonistic supervisor named Bill B****. Things were going to get really rough.

But at least I knew I needed bifocals.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Red Beard and Two Gun

Years and years ago, after I'd gotten my foot in the door and sold some comic scripts to Marvel and got DC Comics to open the way (just a crack, mind you), I was able to submit proposals at *******. One editor there was quite open and I was about to sell him a ***** *** proposal when ***** ****** suspected that he was in danger of pushing her out and taking her throne and she conspired to get rid of him. So I never sold the *** series (it would have kicked ass).

When he left, my contact at that point was a truly hideous bitch named ***** *******, a lying whore of a woman. At any rate, I'd gotten her to actually read my submissions and she was returning letters and even phone calls and I was getting close to selling a pitch even to her. But I realized all was lost when I sent her this one for the comic book *** ********, for which I was told I had a very good chance of landing at least a single issue story. To sell there at that time, you either had to be a friend of **** ******'s, or have had your genitalia mutilated by a crazed physician so that you could pretend to be a woman, or both. So it was fortunate that I'd been able to have my proposals read without either of those credentials. In those days, a pitch had to be terse and to the point, and I'd gotten really good at writing one-page pitches. I sent this one, which she liked, but ultimately rejected.

James Robert Smith

A Story proposal for

*** ********

The protagonist of this story is "Karl", homage to the late Karl Edward Wagner. Red bearded stocky guy who carouses in the bar all day. A guy called Two Gun (Robert E. Howard) is always trying to get Karl to follow him to the top of "the mountain". Karl will never go since, for all his size, he will not fight through the crowds of zealots who guard the flanks of the mountain. But each month, Two Gun takes it upon himself to go to the heights and hack his way through the zealots and climb to the pinnacle and look down upon the world and experience the chill air and the amazing sunsets. And each time he descends the peak, he takes it upon himself to visit Karl in his tavern and try to talk him into coming along.

All the while, we are shown that Karl enjoys his wine. He also enjoys his smoke and he enjoys his snort and he enjoys his hash brownies. Then a certain woman introduces herself to Two Gun. He brings her into the tavern, and she gives Karl a hit of something new. Two Gun makes his monthly offer and this time Karl accepts, since he seems to be in the throes of some strange, new kind of high. Together, they hack their ways through the zealots and climb the heights and look down from the pinnacle and see the world from the chilly spire.

Karl comes down.

He has always been a peaceful sort. But now he has hacked his way through the zealots who guard the mountain. He has killed.

Pondering, growing more agitated as he goes; he makes his way toward the tavern. He is now in a frenzy.

At the tavern, all turn to see Karl, no longer his usual musing self. Now he is all fire and rage. He smashes down the door to the tavern, his face a mask to do Odin credit. The one who gave him the drug is there. She is his target. "You!" And, "You," he screams through foaming jaws. He grasps her and hauls her to him.

"Give me more," he says.


And what was her reason for rejecting the above proposal? It was specifically about Karl Wagner and Robert E. Howard, two of fantasy's greatest who were powerfully linked. She was aware of this and familiar with both. As she spoke to me over the phone one day, apparently very much interested in taking this plot, she said, "Why don't you change it to two writers people actually care about?"

I was, of course, struck dumb. I made a quick excuse and hung up the phone and never spoke to her again, although we did end up exchanging a few very nasty letters over a separate situation. Ah, my stillborn career in comics.

Friday, November 23, 2007

My Kind of Town: An Abandoned One

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is unique for many reasons. One thing that makes it stand out from so many other parks of similar size is that it was created from largely private lands during the Great Depression. Because of this, the Park Service felt the need to negotiate, along with cash payments, certain grants from which other National Parks are exempt. Among the privileges granted in this earlier time which have grown problematic are that no entrance fees be charged, that most of the park is accessible and open to horseback riders, and that a small section of the park contained private lodges and second homes for which leases were extended until well after the establishment of the park boundaries.

(All that remains of the old Wonderland Hotel. My wife and I stayed here shortly before they lost their National Park lease. Our stay was pleasant, and in retrospect, it would have been nice if the Park Service had continued the lease/concession on that old-style hotel.)


This last agreement has proven, in recent years, to be a bit of a legal pain in the ass for the Park Service. When the park was formed, an area adjacent to Gatlinburg known as Elkmont contained a hotel, several private lodges, and dozens of vacation homes owned by wealthy landholders. With the added clout of these wealthy folk, they were able to negotiate lifetime leases that extended their ownership in most cases until the early 1970s, and in at least one case, the year 2001. The hotel, known as The Wonderland Hotel, was operated on a concession basis until 1992, much in the tradition of some of the lodges and hotels in our western National Parks.

(We wandered around empty ground where once we had stayed in a rustic hotel room.)

The lease/concession on The Wonderland was not renewed and the hotel was shut down. The many cabins, and the hotel, were then allowed to begin to slowly deteriorate while the Park decided how to best proceed to remove these structures and allow the remainder of Elkmont to revert to its natural state as a second growth forest.

All of this would have come to pass years ago were it not for a group of meddlesome troublemakers who decided that these rotting, worthless structures were “historical landmarks” and that they should be protected and renovated. Fortunately for those of us who wish to see the parklands restored to their natural state, the bulk of the Wonderland Hotel finally did collapse and was removed. However, this left several lodge buildings and dozens of cabins still standing in various parts of Elkmont. If left to their original plans, the Park Service would long ago have removed these unsightly shacks and allowed the forest to regenerate. But because of various legal challenges, these stacks of rotting wood, rusting tin, and tilting rock are still mucking up the scenery.


Here’s hoping that spontaneous combustion, Father Zeus, Thundering Thor, or some enterprising gremlin will destroy these disgusting monuments to minor wealth and privilege. There are, quite literally, thousands of similar disgusting developments ringing in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park in a virtual cancer of urban sprawl. It will be most welcome to see this horrid one gone from its place within one of our most beautiful and precious National Parks. May Elkmont soon begin to be allowed to revert to its natural state as a grand cove hardwood forest.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Find a City, Find Myself a City.

I don’t like cities. I never have. I live in a city, but viewing the photos I’ve taken over the past few years, I realized that I took very damned few inside cities. This is largely because I tend to avoid cities when I travel, choosing to go to places as far away from urban areas as I can possibly go.

The fact that I don’t care for cities (of any size) came to me as I went through my catalog of photographs from my many vacations since I bought my first digital camera in early 2004.

The following are a few of the very limited number of photos that I’ve taken in cities since that time. Cities don’t inspire me. Most likely because I generally can’t tolerate crowds of lowing humans.

Bah, Humbug!

Helvetia, West Virginia. Yes, stretching the term "city", I know.

Part of the hideous shithole known as Hilton Head, South Carolina. I vow never to return to that overcrowded wasteland of sandy garbage.

Inside the Mellow Mushroom pizza restaurant in downtown Asheville, NC (a city I can tolerate).

Downtown Asheville, NC as a light rain changes over to light snow.

A small city we passed through in central Florida. I forget its name. It was okay and I didn't want to burn it down.

Saluda, North Carolina. A nice little town. It doesn't suck ass.

Nighttime at Reedy Creek Park in downtown Greenville, SC. Definitely a city that has a lot of charm.

In the Mast General Store in downtown Boone, NC. The city is far too crowded, but it doesn't completely suck.

Mystery city somewhere in the mountains of North Carolina. I can't recall where I was when I took this shot. Not that I give a rat's ass.

A place somewhere in Florida. Far too crowded, and it sucked, but I took this photo on the beach.

In downtown Key West, Florida. I liked Key West and will go back there.

Saint Augustine, Florida. It has streets where no cars are allowed. I like that.

Freeport, Maine. It's an okay place. The North Face outlet store is worth the trip.

Downtown Gatlinburg, Tennesse. A true human cesspool.

Once again, downtown Gatlinburg, Tenessee. I have no idea what this means.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Mingus a Bust, Dripping Spring a Done Deal

When my family and I got ready for our last vacation of 2007, I thought that I would have the opportunity to bushwhack to the summit of Mount Mingus and finally bag that peak. However, the day we arrived in the park, November 15, we found ourselves in the midst of a major winter storm. I had not come prepared for hiking on ice, which was coating the ground, along with heavy snow. Driving up to Newfound Gap, from which I had hoped to hike to Mingus, we found ourselves in driving snow, high winds, icy surfaces, and very cold conditions. In addition, not long after we got to Newfound Gap, the Park Service chose to close 441 so that my family could not drive back up to get me even if I had been prepared for hiking on ice. So I made the decision to head back down to our campsite at Elkmont Campground.

Near Newfound Gap in the snow Not long after leaving the gap, we found ourselves stuck in a line of traffic while the Park Service blocked the road so that they could turn back everyone who had been heading up the mountain from Gatlinburg. This took well over two hours, but we didn’t complain, as it gave us time to sit and enjoy the snowstorm and the piling white. When the signal was given to proceed, we just put the truck into four-wheel drive and headed back to our travel trailer at Elkmont. With the day shot, (it was dark by the time we got back to Elkmont), I took out my topo map to figure out which peak I would bag for this last trip of the season. Since the trailheads to the higher peaks via 441 were off limits (the road was closed for the next 48 hours), I looked to see what I could bag from the Elkmont Campground. Soon, I realized the best mountain to hit would be Dripping Spring Mountain, a 4801-foot summit just to the west of the spine of the Great Smoky Mountains. It looked to me to be a good candidate for some nice views of the peaks in that section of the park, providing there was some open ground near the summit. The storm that had closed the road and covered the high country with ice and snow was relatively short-lived, and by morning the skies were clear, even if the roads were closed. I’d promised my wife to drive her to Pigeon Forge that day, so a long hike was out of the question. But I gathered my day-hiking gear and got it ready for a Saturday hike. In the meantime, we drove into Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge and came back to the park for some easy hikes near Elkmont (including Laurel Falls). Early the following morning I was chomping at the bit to bag Dripping Spring Mountain. The route I chose was to take the Jakes Creek Trail to Jakes Gap and then the Lyn Camp Prong Trail toward the AT, but stopping short of the AT to bag Dripping Spring Mountain for a round trip of about ten miles and a total elevation gain of roughly 3,000 feet. At the start, the trail is a very wide and well-maintained roadbed. It appears that the Park Service must still use this as a road for jeeps from time to time. It remains a very wide, groomed gravel road until you reach a point where you have to ford Jakes Creek via a classic Smokies footbridge. Along the way, one passes a number of small waterfalls, including one that has a tremendously fine swimming hole that I have to be sure to use when the weather is warm. The trail tackles the mountain at a fairly steady but easy grade. One can glimpse both Blanket Mountain on the right and the back of Dripping Spring Mountain on the left as you ascend. The forest here are classic cove hardwoods, and the hemlocks are pretty much completely dead, so what few evergreens one encounters are mainly pines. Backcountry campsite #27 is along the trail and seems to be a good place to set up a tent. Wide and spacious with a big climbing rock, fire ring, and bear cables. At Jakes Gap I took the left-hand trail toward Dripping Spring Mountain and continued to head up, knowing that I had the lion’s share of the climb behind me. From here, I only had about eight hundred vertical feet to the summit, and less than two miles to go. The forest type changes a bit here and has a large hemlock component, although that’s moot at this point, as they’re all dead or breathing their last. The forest is going to be very open and sunny in the coming years as all of these grand old trees die off and fall over. It’s the chestnut blight all over again, it seems. By noon I found myself very near the summit of the mountain. The trail is obviously a popular one, linking up with the AT as it does, and shows the effects of heavy use by both hikers and horseback riders. Just as I was getting ready to take a look at my map and get a GPS reading, I came out of the forest onto a very open area of stunted trees and low-growing rhododendron. The views toward the spine of the park and Thunderhead were spectacular. I could also see the true summit and a manway leading in that direction, so I followed it up. Just about twenty or so vertical feet shy of the mountaintop, the manway vanishes and you have to bushwhack through some very thick rhododendron to get to the very top. If you choose to do this, it’s best to leave your pack and pick your way carefully through the hell to the true summit, from which there really aren’t any views. After bagging the summit, I sat down in a small grassy area to enjoy the views and eat a small lunch of crackers and water. I just took it easy, snapped a lot of photos, and relaxed as I took in the scenery from a true grandstand of the Great Smoky Mountains. By 12:30 or so I was ready to head back down to my family, backtracking along the same route I’d taken to the top and making it back to Elkmont at around 2:15.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Watch, repeat as necessary.

I stumbled upon this small waterfall and pool as I was hiking to the summit of Dripping Spring Mountain. I need to return to this spot in warmer weather for a swim.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Back to the Smokies.

We returned to the Smokies for a four-day vacation, staying at Elkmont Campground. Details later. For now, just a couple of shots:

Me and my son at Laurel Falls.

I'd suspected that the views from the summit of Dripping Springs Mountain were impressive. I wasn't disappointed.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

William F. Nolan!

When I was in my twenties, I met a young man named Jason Brock who went on to work for me in the comic shop that I owned in Charlotte, NC. Jason was extremely intelligent and quite talented, and when we lost touch I used to wonder how he was doing, what employment he found as he got older, and, later, why he wasn't famous yet.

Jason in the midst of imitating a certain sf author.

Years passed and Jason got in touch with me via the internet. He was living between Oregon and California, owned two houses, was married, had a great consulting job in computer technology, and made documentary films. I wasn't surprised.

William F. Nolan is in da house! YOW!

This week, he drove into town along with one of the all-time great fantasists of the past century, William F. Nolan, a great friend of Jason and his wife, Sunni. We spent this past evening (November 13, 2007) talking and enjoying a meal and talking some more. Nolan, in addition to being one of our great writers of fantastic fiction, is also a phenomenal mimic, and he had me rolling with his imitations of Burl Ives, Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Walter Brennan, Ray Bradbury, etc. I was laughing so much that I plumb forgot to ask him much about the nuts and bolts of writing. Alas!

He let me call him "Bill"!

I was sad to see them head on, but I hope to see them all again someday soon. Jason and Sunni have some new projects coming together that I'm waiting to see completed. And the next time I sit down with "Bill" Nolan, I'll remember to ask him about his writing techniques. (If I'm not laughing too hard.)

Nolan, Jason & Sunni Brock take their leave of the Smith House on their way to the Big Apple.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

I made my first visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the age of 15. In fact, I entered it at the age of 15, and two days later had my sixteenth birthday at the Laurel Gap Shelter deep in the Smokies backcountry. It was June 28, 1973, and ice had formed in my water bottles overnight.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was formed when this nation was in the grips of the horrible Great Depression. I doubt that the will to create such a national park out of forest lands and developed communities could be done today. Perhaps we need another Great Depression to spur us to preserve that which should be preserved and do away with that which need not be saved.

In the 34 years since my first visit there, I have returned many times. Not as many times as I would wish, but quite a few. I've hiked into almost every quadrant of the Park and seen things that I wish everyone could see at least once. Just five years ago I embarked on a personal mission to view the old growth hemlock groves before they became extinct. This I did, and now most of those groves are standing as dead and soon-to-be-weathered husks where once all was green. Another crime to add to the list of offenses by Mankind.

Following are just some of the things I have seen in my many hikes into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Fifteen-year-old me on my first visit, swimming at Midnight Hole on Big Creek.

Midnight Hole, 2006, with a kayaker going over the falls.

Laurel Gap Shelter. That's me inside, the morning of my sixteenth birthday, June 28, 1973.

The backcountry where Laurel Gap Shelter stands, just below the summit of Big Cataloochee Mountain.

In an old growth hemlock grove, 2004. Those hemlocks are all dead, now. I had to see them before they died.

Inside an old poplar, 2004. Mother Nature.

Alone on Charlies Bunion, 2004.

In the overwhelming green of the Albright Grove, 2004.

In Cades Cove, 2004.

The definitive peak of the Smokies, Mount LeConte.

The Chimney Tops.

The Chimney Tops, up close and personal.

(More Smokies tomorrow.)