4582134Where have you been? Four years feels like a long time between books. Is that how long it takes you?

There was another manuscript I was working on for two of those four years – and I stopped when I found myself lost. I couldn’t figure out that spark of the story that had intrigued me in the first place. It was buried in multiple edits. Sometimes you have to know when to walk away.

 

So then you wrote The Grown Ups? New day, new idea?

I wish! I did the moping thing really well. I wasn’t pleasant to be around. I knew I would write again – but I didn’t know about what. The reality of my writing life is that I have trained myself to sit in a chair every morning, same time, to write. I had never experienced this scary lack of motivation, or the fear that I might not like the next idea either. It was like squinting into the sun. I had to face it – but I didn’t really want to.

grown ups pb c-1Happy Birthday Suzie Epstein (Sam – 1997)

 

It was the summer all the children in the neighborhood caught a virus.

One by one they were felled for a week that involved buckets next to beds and cool towels to swab foreheads and mouths. Their mothers speculated the origin, placing silent blame on Suzie Epstein’s fifteenth birthday party, where Sarah Epstein, derailed by an argument with her estranged husband that took place in the front driveway of their home during the party, left twenty or so unattended teenagers to open all the cans of soda in the cooler and cut the cake, sharing forks and drinks and saliva with abandon. The bug spread so fast that Suzie Epstein’s party had taken on the mythic proportions of a bacchanalia, the gossip chain now fueled by exhausted women whose nostrils were lined with the sour smell of their children’s vomit.

In the evenings, when stomachs had quieted before the next bout began, women gathered on front stoops. If you looked down the street at dusk you would see an uneven trail of red dots, like a runway lit by a madman. Mothers, solitary and weary smokers, afraid to spread the germs to each others’ homes, called from porch to porch to check on the wellness of the children contained within. How’s Frankie? Ruthie? Bella? Peter? Did Mindy get it too? Has the fever broken yet? Do you need extra buckets? I’ll leave some on your porch.

We’re proud to announce the publication of The Beautiful Anthology, edited by Elizabeth Collins, now available in trade paperback from TNB Books, the official imprint of The Nervous Breakdown.

The Beautiful Anthology can be purchased at Amazon.  To order your copy, please click right here.  (Note:  in the coming days, TBA will be available via other retailers like Powell’s and BN.com.  Ebook editions are also forthcoming.)

Robin Antalek, acclaimed author of The Summer We Fell Apart, is featured in TNB Books’ new collection, The Beautiful Anthology, where she wrote about her daughter’s tattoo. Here, Antalek answers a few essential questions about beauty:

 

What’s the most beautiful place you’ve even been, and why is it beautiful?

The moment right after giving birth, when the pain is gone and the baby is healthy. Everything stopped, and nothing mattered but the now.

Full disclosure: I read FATHERMUCKER (HarperCollins 2011) the first time around in installments. As Greg wrote, I would receive these amazing sections in my inbox — smart, compelling, raucous, heartbreaking and wholly original. I would tear through those pages, enthralled by Josh Lansky’s stream of consciousness, his riffs on parenting, popular culture, love, sex, his wife and children, all set to a playlist ranging in taste from Zeppelin to the Magnetic Fields. As soon as I finished I would send Greg e-mails that contained only one word: MORE. The voice felt entirely fresh and new, unlike anything I had experienced before in contemporary fiction, and definitely not from this perspective. Josh Lansky, while a devout husband and father, was still a guy, and he held nothing back in what would surely turn out to be one of the longest days in his life. Experiencing FATHERMUCKER will leave you breathless and wanting more of what goes on inside Greg Olear’s head; thankfully, he agreed to answer a few questions.

Consider this from the character Sophie in the short story FlyOver State, “our house was the only rental on the block.Maybe something unseemly happened there: adultery, Judaism, modern dance” from Emma Straub’s brilliant debut story collection OTHER PEOPLE WE MARRIED (Five Chapter Books, 2011).This sharp, evocative sentence encapsulates the way Emma Straub sees the world through her characters: a little bit normal, with shades of absurdity, and a kind of irony that causes you to smirk.

Blaise liked to joke that he was the free gift with purchase upon the wedding of his mother to the dermatologist with a house on the beach and, even better, a casita that was now exclusively Blaise’s domain. Blaise not so secretly called his new stepfather the pimp. A snide reference to the lucrative pimple popping business that purchased the dermatologist’s silver Porsche, Blaise’s green Karmann Ghia and his mother’s candy apple red convertible Mercedes, along with the beach house. Though recently the dermatologist had moved past pimple popping and onto saving lives. The news that the sun, a nearly inescapable presence in South Florida, caused cancer, created a financial windfall for the dermatologist that was beyond his wildest dreams.

Blaise’s mother was a once upon a time waitress, and her experience in the hospitality industry was now exclusively directed toward her new husband. No matter when I was there to visit Blaise, his mother appeared underdressed. As far as I could tell her wardrobe consisted of terry cloth short-shorts, slip on cork platform sandals, and a variety of tube tops, as if at any moment she might be called upon to have sex quickly.

She also sunbathed topless, taking a long time to lather on the appropriate prescription sunscreen. Flat on her back the double orbs glistened in the sun, a diamond heart pendant nestled snugly in her cleavage, a belly chain draped across her hips, and against her flat stomach, the long manicured fingers of her left hand, weighted by a diamond so large it looked fake, loosely gripped a can of Tab. The outdoor surround sound speakers filtered a never-ending rotation of disco hits featuring the Gloria’s: Estefan and Gaynor and her body vibrated against the chaise lounge, even in the silence between tracks.

To reach Blaise’s casita I had to take the path cutting directly across the pool area to the gravel walkway that led to the entrance, unless I was coming from the beach, which I hardly ever did. It never seemed to matter to his mother that she was on display and soon enough, her nakedness became as invisible as her clothing.

The section of beach the house occupied was a quiet enclave that faced the Gulf of Mexico, near a rocky inlet that led to the inter-coastal waterway. Yet inside Blaise’s four walls you would never know the sun shined or the water lapped at the edges of the sand turning it the shade of wet concrete. In the living room black-out curtains were pressed against the windows and the volume of the stereo was usually cranked high to obliterate the offending music coming from the pool area, erasing any and all sounds of the world outside his door.

Due to the lack of fresh air, there was a slightly chemical smell mixed with something sweet, most likely from the bowls of sugar that covered nearly every surface. Blaise liked to empty the brightly colored paper pixie sticks of candied sugar into bowls and refill the hollow cylinders with drugs. The process consisted of tweezers, a toothpick and a drop of glue to reseal the paper stick, all kept on a silver tray that Blaise put on the table between us while we watched old movies in the afternoon.

They were the perfect decanter, unassuming and easy to transport and Blaise was so casual about it that he always kept a few sticks in his back pocket. Once, during class, our art teacher came up behind Blaise standing at his easel and plucked a stick from his pocket, twirling it between his thumb and forefinger until the colors blended a solid pink, while he waxed nostalgic about penny candy. I held my breath from across the room as Blaise lazily stabbed a brush in the direction of his painting until the Valium filled stick was back in his possession.

Blaise and I were in studio art together that last year of high school, a class reserved for seniors serious about art school, although Blaise mostly spent his time perched on a stool next to me talking while I worked, his painting or drawing abandoned. He was quick witted and made me laugh, his observations about people and life were sharp and wise, or maybe he just said aloud the things other people only thought. While he never produced anything during class I was consistently amazed that on portfolio days Blaise would arrive with a ratty bloated sketchbook filled with curled and torn pages, but on those pages were the most exquisite little pen and ink renderings. It was where I first saw his mother’s sunbathing form, supine on a lounge, the view of the drawing was as if you were kneeling at her feet, her breasts rose in front of her, obliterating all but the tip of her chin and nose.

We were an unlikely duo. I was cautious where Blaise was reckless. I barely took aspirin while Blaise regularly dipped his hand into his stash sifting through self-medicating confetti colored pills and popping them casually, without care to the after effects of his prescription cocktail. He had parties nightly with small carefully curated groups of people, knowing instinctively what personalities mixed together would amuse or anger him. There were plenty of drugs and alcohol and always those damn bowls of sugar. Often to my disgust people licked their fingertips and plunged them wet into the bowls only to retract them and suck the sugar as if it were nectar.

For a time I was his constant, often curled in a corner of the rattan couch covered in a crazy flamingo pattern, my bare legs and feet tucked beneath me, a sketchbook in my lap. It was Blaise who had encouraged me to draw his guests and at first I thought they would think it bizarre, but the higher they were, people seemed flattered by their likeness. And while I was reluctant to let the sketches go, Blaise would occasionally ask me to give one away, his hand circled around my wrist, the pad of his thumb pressed softly as if he were taking my pulse, the corners of his mouth turned down, his eyelids at the stoners salute of half-mast. He would make sure I signed each and every one of them and then he would carefully admonish the recipient to take care of the drawing, that I was going to be famous one day. He would help me tear the sheet from the pad so it wouldn’t rip, and I would watch the ragged broken tooth edge of the paper as it was lifted from my lap and into the greedy hands of one of Blaise’s guests. I tried not to think about it jammed in a pocket, used to wipe snot, or fluttering away lost to the Gulf breeze.

Blaise attracted attention with his casual good looks. While the dermatologist and Blaise’s mother exemplified the waning days of disco, Blaise was like a throwback to a generation of WASP’s bred for the Ivy League. His wardrobe consisted of rumpled khaki pants shredded at the hem, faded Lacoste polo shirts and oversized white cotton button downs. He was unfailingly polite around adults, as if good breeding was his birthright. He charmed my mother, accepted the offer of her wildly uneven health food store meals, and allowed my younger brother to sit behind the wheel of the Karmann Ghia for as long as he wanted, practicing for the day he could drive. The greedy way Blaise looked upon my pedestrian family made my life at home nearly tolerable, but only through his eyes.

I knew my mother suspected Blaise was my boyfriend, but the truth was while we spent afternoons watching movies tucked into the respective corners of his couch and our evenings together as well, he had never so much as made a move to hold my hand. I told myself I was done with high school boys anyhow, even though Blaise hardly qualified as the typical boy. Once, our hands touched the gearshift at the same time and he slid his fingers from underneath mine with a cool indifference that left me shriveled until he turned his lazy smile on me, and made a joke that only I understood.

Christopher was a recurring guest at Blaise’s parties. He spent a lot of time sitting or standing near the couch where I was drawing. He made small talk with Blaise and me, paid attention to what was playing on the turntable, jumping up to change an album or make a suggestion. He made a mix tape for Blaise and sat with his head bowed and his fingers tapping the beat out on his thigh as we listened to it, but was otherwise quiet. I never saw him lick sugar from his fingertips or even accept one of the pixie sticks. He drank, but seemed unaffected by what was going on around him. I understood from the conversation that he had graduated the year before, gone off to Gainesville on a football scholarship, been injured the first month and hadn’t played since. He was atypical for a jock: tall and dark, with sharp cheekbones and a wild tumble of black hair. His exotic good looks added to his appeal and his mystery. I had caught Blaise on more than one occasion studying Christopher when he thought no one was looking. The one time our eyes met Blaise had winked at me and made a gesture as if I should go for it. Stung, I rolled my eyes and turned away. The insincerity on both our parts was palpable.

There was always a point during those nights when the air inside the casita got too close and I would get up and slip outside to the beach to breath. Christopher began to meet me there, at first I thought by coincidence but then I noticed he followed me outside and it was too intentional to brush off, still he was company. We walked along the edge of the water. Our conversations were peppered with talk about the future as if it would never come. Christopher wanted to know where I was applying to school. How I knew Blaise. He wanted to know if I came here every night. What I wanted to be when I grew up. He admitted that he had only accepted the football scholarship because he had no other ideas, no money, no family to back him up. When he got hurt he had the choice to rehab, but his heart wasn’t in it so he left. He was living in his uncle’s trailer on land in Immokalee where the only industry was the prison. He was working construction, trying to make enough money to join a buddy in Texas where the jobs were plentiful and paid well. He thought at one time of taking the test to become a state trooper, which only struck me as odd that he was spending all of his nights inside Blaise’s casita.

One evening I returned inside to find the living room packed with people and Blaise in his bedroom with the door shut. It took several tries on my part to get him to flip the lock. He let me in, re-locked the door and returned to his bed with his arm thrown across his face. The sliding glass doors that faced the beach were curtain-less and wide open, in contrast to the cave of the main room, everything in here was bathed in a silver light from the beach.

“That Indian wants you,” Blaise said, his voice muffled by his arm.

“What are you talking about?” I knew what he meant, but it was so unlike Blaise to ever get this personal, I really wasn’t sure what he expected me to say. I ignored his slam about Christopher’s Seminole heritage, only because I was caught up in the idea that he was jealous.

“He waits for you. Every night. He waits until you get up and he follows you outside.”

“I know.”

“Has he touched you?”

“No.” The fact that anyone would physically desire me was still a new concept. I was slim-hipped and nearly flat-chested, easily going without a bra. If my hair had been shorter I could have passed for a boy, especially from the back. I remember I turned to look at Blaise and was surprised to see him staring at me in the dark. I crawled onto the bed, nearly faint with fear. I didn’t want to be rejected by him, but I was more scared of something else, I just couldn’t name it.

He held out his arm and I curled against the length of him, my face pressed into his shirt. I could feel his heart, or maybe it was my own. My mouth was dry and I couldn’t speak and I remember never feeling more like a child in that moment, more aware of what I hadn’t done yet. When Blaise finally kissed me there was an urgency to touch skin to skin, but nothing else. His brain seemed to want it more than his body and although we managed to make an attempt at pleasing each other, something was missing. Several times he stopped and asked if I thought Christopher would touch me like he was touching me, if Christopher would kiss my ear, my neck, the base of my throat and I didn’t know what to say in response. He was at his most passionate when he wasn’t looking at me, when our positions shifted and we came face to face with our eyes wide open, he looked shocked to see that he was in bed with me.

After that night we avoided each other until Blaise stopped coming to class and eventually school all together. At graduation I waited to hear his name, seven letters of the alphabet in front of me, but was not surprised that he wasn’t there to receive his diploma.

I left for art school in Atlanta. It was a program recommended by my teacher and so I went without a second thought. The dormitory housing was full and I was placed in a high-rise apartment off of Peachtree Street in the heart of the city. Nothing was as I expected. There was a payphone outside the building and I made my weekly collect call home where I said nothing of any consequence because I only called to hear my mother’s voice, and I clung to her recitation of the normalcy of her days as if I never left.

At the end of October, a few days before Halloween, a manila envelope arrived from home. I opened it expecting one of my mother’s goofy packages of newspaper clippings of people I didn’t care about, random photos she’d run across, coupons for things I would never buy. Instead inside there was another envelope addressed to me at my home address.

The envelope had been taped shut with band-aids and I lifted each of them slowly and carefully to avoid the sting as if I was peeling them from tender flesh. I reached inside and slid out a page torn from a sketchbook. The paper felt brittle in my hands and I hesitated to turn it over. When I did I revealed a carefully rendered drawing in fine black ink. I recognized Blaise’s bed and me, curled into the corner, my head on a pillow. I was sleeping on my side with my hand beneath my cheek, the sheets and blankets gathered like the tight fists of roses right before they flower, down around my feet. My knees were bent against my torso, so that hardly any of my body was exposed, just a slight curve of hip and the swell of buttocks, nothing more, just a whisper of what was to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Southwest Florida, 1976: at sixteen Kathy and I are not quite there. We are half girl and half woman. Our knees still bear the shadows of scrapes from roller skating falls while our hips and breasts swell and curve beneath our batik cotton sundresses. We kiss boys with skin as hot as toast, their tangles of sun-bleached hair longer than ours, whose surfboards hang out the back of their dented el Camino’s and who want more than we are ready to give.

When we aren’t at the beach after school we are at Kathy’s house where our time is not governed by parental law. Kathy’s mother left when she was five. She lives with her father and an older brother who returned from Vietnam to sit in a green webbed lawn chair in the middle of their backyard where nothing but scrub pine grows gnarled and deformed in a sandy soil of crushed shells. His chair faces away from the house and ringed around the base are empty cans of beer. When he first came home his head was shaved but it has grown back into long dark ringlets. He looks like Jim Morrison from the Doors and I tell Kathy this but she frowns and tells me she doesn’t see this even though I know she does. The only time he leaves the chair is to go to the 7-Eleven at the end of the block to purchase more beer. If you didn’t know that fact you could easily imagine the beer magically replenished itself.

For a while his high school girlfriend, (who he had promised to marry before he enlisted), came over in the afternoons. We hear them fighting and then having sex until they scream or cry or both. The roar of their pain crowds the narrow hallway of Kathy’s house that leads to the chain of bedrooms occupied by Kathy, her father and her brother. Their cries are like a fire given oxygen: his deep and guttural and hers high and reedy. They cut through The Stones You Can’t Always Get What You Want and force us out of Kathy’s room to the galley kitchen where we sit on opposite kitchen counters and eat Skippy out of the jar, (an anomaly for me since my mother insists on the peanut butter from the health food store that tastes like sticky dust, but Kathy shops for her family and so the choice is hers) the room is so narrow we can stretch our legs all the way out and rest our bare feet on the opposite counter.

When Kathy’s brother left for Vietnam he gave her his record collection. We worked our way into an appreciation of the Doors, Janice Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, the Who, and the Rolling Stones. With the music playing we closet ourselves in Kathy’s room where she has lined the walls with Indian tapestries from World Bazaar and burns sandpapery cones of incense and we talk about how far we might let the surfer boys go, not as far as they want, but we want, oh how we want, and how that wanting is in danger of unraveling.

One afternoon her brother’s girlfriend walks into the kitchen for a glass of water and tells Kathy loving her brother is like fucking a ghost before she drops the glass onto the plastic sink mat and walks out the door. Instead of leaving she sits in her car on the street parked next to the mailbox. We know she is waiting for him to come out but when an hour passes and his bedroom door is still closed, she leaves.

The first phone call comes on a rainy afternoon. We are sitting on the carport, waiting out the storm, talking about the waves, about who might be surfing, about the possibility of thunder and lightening and riding our bikes in a storm to the beach. We dash out into the yard and hold our faces and arms up to the rain. We spin in circles like children yet our bodies ache for something else, for something more, to go back but at the same time to go forward. My skin, the hair on my arms, the blood coursing through my veins: everything quivers from the power of wanting.

We are soaked, my patchwork skirt clings to my legs, and my bikini top is visible through my t-shirt as Kathy runs to answer the phone. I see her through the window twirling the long black floppy cord stretched out now from years of pulling it down the hallway to her room. Her face is dark and then light, the fingers of her other hand flutter around her breasts, holding the thin wet material of her tank top away from her body. I press my face to the sliding glass door and she motions me forward, holds the phone out to me and opens her mouth as if in shock or surprise.

When I get there she presses the phone to my ear, I smell her musky shampoo on the receiver, I hear the sharp intake of breath on the line, a low moan, like the sounds Kathy’s brother makes when he is having sex with his high school girlfriend.

What are you wearing? The voice rasps. Are you all wet?

Who the fuck is this? I ask.

Kathy leans closer and tilts the phone so we both can hear. The guy moans again.

Fuck off, I shout and push the phone out of Kathy’s hand. It dangles a moment on the long loopy cord before it smashes against the table and we laugh out of nerves and fear and excitement. We are standing there like that when we notice her brother walking up the driveway with a six-pack. He is shirtless and shoe-less and his chest looks remarkably like those of the surfer boys we like to kiss. He disappears around the house and reappears in his lawn chair. It doesn’t matter that it is raining. He settles himself and the beer in his usual position.

After that first afternoon there is a pattern to the calls. A half an hour after we get in the door from school the phone rings. The caller asks what we are wearing. He tells us what he will do for us. He tells us things that we have to guess at their meaning, he tells us what we can do for him. There is a lot of heavy breathing on his part. We are scared and thrilled by the game because we are newly sixteen and virgins and the idea of sex is ever present. We lay on the floor in Kathy’s room shoulder to shoulder with our feet pressed against the door in case anyone tries to come in, the cord squeezed between the frame and the latch. The calls last no longer than ten minutes and after my nerves jangle, my legs feel like rubber, and in my chest nests an apex of anxiety. After several calls Kathy acts funny and says she wants to be alone. As I leave, her brother twists around in his lawn chair and stares as I take my bike from the crumbling concrete slab. I wave, but he turns back around before my hand is even in front of my face.

One day I ride my bike to the beach after leaving Kathy’s house. I find Daryl, the sweetest of the surfers, the one that I have the deepest crush. His mother is a teller at the bank where my parents have an account. He tosses my bike in the back of his car along with his surfboard and we go to the apartment he shares with his mother and he shows me his room with the surfing posters and the blue plaid bedspread. He kisses me and opens a beer and takes a sip and hands it to me and I do the same. We kiss again and our teeth are cold when they accidentally hit. We laugh and readjust positions and when Daryl tries to kiss his way down my neck I start to cry. Embarrassed I make my way to the door. Daryl jogs after me outside and says: Hey, I like you. Did I do something wrong? I can’t even look at him as he lifts my bike out of the back of his car and holds it steady until I get on.

I pass the 7-Eleven and notice Kathy’s brother outside the store. He is leaning against the glass, and his eyes are closed. He lazily strokes the skin below his belly button with his fingertips and my stomach squeezes and then as if he senses someone watching him his eyelids flutter open and he disappears inside the store. Through the glass I see him remove a six-pack of beer from the cooler and put the money on the counter. I pedal fast to beat him to his house and when I get there I follow the phone cord down the hall to Kathy’s room. I press on the door with my full weight but it doesn’t budge. Kathy, I whisper, let me in. When she doesn’t answer I push harder and say her name louder. Again, there is nothing and I slump down on the floor to wait. It is crazy to feel jealousy but I do. The guy has chosen her. I try to think hard if she has better responses to his questions and I realize I am mostly mute, always listening, slightly embarrassed by the way my body is reacting to the sound of a stranger’s voice asking me the color of my underpants. It is Kathy who is always ready with an answer, Kathy who always seems to know the right thing to say and I wonder how she has gotten so far ahead of me when we started in the same place.

I get up to leave because no matter what my mother expects me home for dinner. I know what I will see before I get there. My father will have arrived home from work and taken a shower after a long hot day fixing pools. He will be on the carport having a drink while he pokes whatever is cooking on the grill while my brother runs soccer practice drills on the patch of adjacent grass calling out to my father over and over again: Are you watching? Dad, are you watching?

My father will look up at me and wink and the ice will rattle in his glass as he raises it to his lips. Nice to see you sis, he will say. How was your day?

I will drop the kickstand on my bike in the shade of the carport. I will allow him to tug on my ponytail as I pass although I will pretend to hate it and squirm away. I will enter the coolness of the laundry room, slip through the landing strip of a kitchen, and push wide the swinging doors into the dining room where the phone sits on a desk. I will lift the phone while my mother, still in her white uniform, asks me to please make the salad. I will dial Kathy’s number. I will hold my breath when I hear the busy signal. Before I put the phone back in the cradle I will whisper: light blue with lace, just to hear myself say it out loud and then gently, quietly, I will hang up the phone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is what happens AFTER you write the next book.

You have days of euphoria. No one save for a few people who you love and trust and who probably love you a little too much to objectively read the drafts of your next book, are even aware that you have finally completed the new manuscript.

This past week, I got a Kindle. I have not been so changed by a reading experience since Stephen King’s Needful Things, which was the book that made me realize I wanted to tell stories. It’s the sort of genius-level device that demonstrates the fact that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Truly wonderful.

These days, it can be hard to believe in corporate publishing.The proliferation of pink-covered chick-lit beach reads, of C-list celebrity memoirs, of “literary fiction” seeming to have morphed into “morally inspirational books that appeal to middle-aged-lady book clubs”—well, it’s enough to all but make a girl give up on the galleys she receives from the Big Boys of New York publishing.I mean, sure, the occasional intimidatingly-smart, ultra-hip book by a twenty-or-thirtysomething white boy with shaggy hair still slips in among the drivel now and again to give us all a thrill; sure every year or so one or two foreign-born writers get championed as that season’s exotic thrill . . . but these moments can seem not only fewer and further between, but somewhat repetitive in and of themselves.Is there, for god’s sake, anything new and daring happening at the big conglomerates these days?


If you happen to find yourself in New York on Wednesday, May 19, do stop by the upstairs lounge at Pianos at 7pm for an evening of fun & games, music & mayhem, dungeons & dragons, and books & booze.

The lineup of literary luminaries includes TNB regulars Gina Frangello (Slut Lullabies) and Robin Antalek (The Summer We Fell Apart), as well as Allison Amend and Zoe Zolbrod, who, in addition to having great books coming out (Stations West and Currency, respectively), also have perfectly complementary initials.

There will be music by Madame X (not to be confused with the lounge of the same name; don’t go there; the beers are too pricey), Ted McCagg supplied the awesome poster, and Yours Truly will host.

Kimberly M. Wetherell will atttend — that we know — but rumors that Slade Ham will pop out of Allison’s birthday cake are, as of this writing, unsubstantiated.

Hope to see you there!





I am naked in a bookstore near you.Big box, chain or indie.You can find me there.

The unflattering florescent lighting exposes all and opens me up for discussion, comment and speculation.I am less than a pound and 384 pages long.All those jiggly, messy bits of me that I am usually so good at masking are out there for all to see. I wanted this and now I am terrified. The enormity of the conundrum leaves me dry-mouthed with sweaty palms.

If you found yourself at Target on Valentine’s Day, and you happened to peruse the fiction section, you may have noticed a familiar name among the selections.

Yesterday, The Summer We Fell Apart, the debut novel by TNB’s own Robin Antalek, hit the shelves at said department store, a selection for the prestigious “Bookmark Breakout” program.

The first funeral. It was achingly hot. The crushed sand and shells that covered the drive of the funeral home glinted and sparkled in the sun and made soft squeaking noises beneath the feet of the mourners who filed into the open air chapel. I am hyper aware of my white undershirt beneath the blouse of my Girl Scout uniform. I don’t yet have anything sufficient to warrant wearing a bra so my mother still insisted on the undershirt even though I was twelve years old. The cotton was saturated with sweat and stuck to my back between my shoulder blades where I couldn’t reach to peel it off even if I tried. The stiff green polyester blend of the uniform shirt rubbed my skin raw beneath my arms and around my waist where it was tucked into the skirt.

We had come here together in a station wagon as a troop driven by someone else’s mother. We are minus one and our leader. I hadn’t even wanted to be a Girl Scout. I would have stopped at being a Brownie. But before we left New York I had walked over that bridge, looked into the reflecting pond and pledged to be someone better and that person became a Girl Scout. When we moved to Florida, my mother filled out the paperwork I reluctantly carried home from school. She thought it would help me make friends in a new town and it only served to make me incompetent. If there had been a badge for spending all your free time in the library reading books, I would have twenty. So far the only badges I had sewn on my sash were the ones we had earned as a troop. The other girls all had individual badges they had completed or were working on. Amy had accomplished the most of all of us, individually, although I imagined, unless there were Girl Scouts in Heaven, she wouldn’t be advancing much further.

In the car on the way over Jeannie, a girl who smelled like tuna fish every single day, had shared the way, way, back with me and she had whispered into my ear as we crouched in the open trunk that she had heard Amy was buried in her scout uniform. It made me want to rip mine off my body and hurl it out the window but instead I said nothing and concentrated on breathing through my mouth until we filed into the funeral home and took our seats in the row reserved for us, as if we were special guests or dignitaries, behind Amy’s large family.

When we were seated Amy’s mother, our troop leader, turned to us assembled neatly in a row. She smiled but didn’t really look at us individually. Her face was tracked with tiny cuts made darker and deeper by threads of dried blood that had already begun to scab. Glistening over the cuts was a layer of tears, the collar of her shirt was darker than the rest from the water that ran off her face and on the floppy lapel I saw the glint of her Girl Scout Leader pin. She would lead her daughter to Heaven, I supposed, if she could.

I was so taken by her face that it took me a moment to focus beyond Amy’s family, her four brothers, three steps below her and one above and her father, who owned the Snack Shack down at the town dock. He recognized all of us scouts in Amy’s troop and always gave a mound of chips with the hot dogs or free French fries if he had extra. Today he kept his face focused forward and he wore a short sleeve white dress shirt that strained across his back. His sweat stains echoed my own and the sight of them made me sit slightly off the back of the pew, leaning forward so that whatever air the fans pushed out above my head would circulate around my body.

That was when I saw the glossy white casket. Its lid was closed and on top was a framed picture of Amy. Her school picture, I guessed. Since it looked just like the one my mother had of me sitting on the shelf above the television. Amy smiled out at us, her blond hair waved around her face and disappearing way past her shoulders. Her chin was tiny and pointed and her eyes were a pale green that echoed the color of our uniforms.

There were flowers everywhere that had already begun to wilt from the heat, which just made them look like they had given up. Tulips, roses, and carnations the ruffled edges dipped in green, spread atop the casket and around Amy’s picture.

I squeezed my eyes shut tight when Amy’s mother began to cry. Her sobs quieted the entire congregation of mourners. Even the priest who was standing at the head of Amy’s casket seemed to know that God could offer no comfort at the sound of a mother’s anguished cries. Before I closed my eyes I saw Amy’s older brother look agitatedly around the chapel. His gaze angry, embarrassed, bewildered. His father put a hand on his shoulder to calm him and he not so much jerked as slid away from his father’s attempted embrace and sat as close to the aisle as possible – one foot ready poised for escape.

I knew more about the accident than most, but I kept it to myself. My mother was a nurse and a good friend was on the emergency crew first to get to the scene. I knew something was wrong right away when I came home from the library and found my mother and Paul huddled close together in the driveway of our house. My mother was still in her uniform even though her shift had ended at three and it was nearly five. Paul, also a fisherman, had brought a bucket of crabs for dinner and it was between them on the ground baking in the hot sun. I dropped my bike, not bothering with the kickstand, as my mother reached out to me. She pulled me to her side as I stared down into the crab bucket. I watched the bodies move listlessly as she told me the details of the accident.

Amy’s mother had been driving way out on Pine Ridge Road, a well-traveled trucking route from the Sugar Cane fields, to pick up one of the boys, when they were hit. The impact forced Amy through the windshield. Her body hung there, suspended by shards of glass, and her mother panicked. Maybe, had she not pulled Amy through the window, onto the hood of the old station wagon, Amy might have lived. By the time Paul got to the scene Amy had lost too much blood. They didn’t tell me this but I pictured it: Amy’s mother covered in her daughter’s blood as she held her in her arms and told her it would be alright. Although from our Red Cross and CPR badges she probably knew that Amy wouldn’t make it. Before the priest finds his voice, before Amy’s parents realize what has occurred, her older brother stands up and runs down the aisle. His fists are shoved into his pockets, his head is bowed, and his shoulders are moving up and down. His grief is so electric it is terrifying and no one, not even his parents’, move to go after him.

 

Four years later. Another white casket. Mounds of flowers. At sixteen, mourning was something I clung to, stroked and feted like a beloved pet. For days I have barely slept, or eaten and only today have I showered and dressed in a white eyelet sundress to say goodbye to my beloved friend. In my fist I clutch a ball of tissues that have become slick with snot, but I am unable to contract the muscles in my hand to part with them. Had I gone with my friends as we had planned I would have been in the car that killed one of them and left the rest in the hospital, still so broken they are unable to attend the funeral. Instead of my friends I chose a boy who I won’t even allow to share in my grief. I blame him although he has nothing to do with it. I had been waiting a long time for him to notice me and when he finally did, I chose him. I. Chose. Him. I felt sick at the thought of what I was doing when she died. Of what, shamefully, I still want to do although I will not allow myself. His hands were all over my skin and I welcomed them. His mouth hot against my ear, my neck, the two of us twisted together on a blanket on the beach. I can still feel him all over me when there should be nothing left to feel.

When her mother and father see me they draw me to them and close their arms around me. They moan low and soft and we sway as a group before her casket. My dress swishes around my bare legs and brushes up against the metal stand. There is no air in our closed circle but I don’t struggle to get out. I deserve this, I think, turning their tragedy into mine. I have a hard time believing she is gone. I am swollen and sodden with grief and anger. I feel leaden, untouchable, as her mother whispers in my ear that she tucked all of our pictures into the casket. When I am able she wants me to come to their house to pick something out of Terri’s to remember her by. Even then I know it is something I will never bring myself to do.

 

When I extricate myself I look across the room crowded with teenagers in all states of distress. In the far corner I see him standing there. Unlike the first time he is not poised for escape. He knows what to expect. He has been here before. He has lost everything once and it is not impossible to imagine it won’t happen again. Our eyes meet across the room. He doesn’t need to say a word as he slowly begins to pick his way through the crowd to where I am standing. He knows all to well what happens next.