Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Man had Sand . . . and Salt

All sorts of clichés ran through my mind when I was asked to say something about Jay Palmer’s life on the day of his final tribute. Straight-shooter; no-nonsense; tough cowboy; they don’t make ‘em like that anymore; gravel in his gut; blunt talker; the man had sand. 

All of these words describe Jay Palmer, but the one I chose for Jay’s eulogy was salty.  Here’s what I said that day.

Jay was salty.   With his physical limitations, most men would have given up on horses a long time ago.  Jay, however, was listed as trainer for two horses at Lone Star Park as recently as two weeks ago. 

He’s been salty all his life. There was that time in Albuquerque in the fifties when he took a rank mare and trained it to outrun three world champions.   

He served his country in many theaters all over the world for nine and one-half years.  He had to stuff himself with peanut butter sandwiches to meet the minimum weight of 120 pounds when he volunteered. 

This good man maintained a crusty exterior and fit all of the terms that we use to describe a man’s man, but he was much more.  Here are few other words that describe Jay Palmer:
I’ll wager that there are several seats in this house filled with someone who has benefited from Jay’s generosity.  He helped people in need, but did it in such a way that the person being helped was not demeaned.  Some people will hold a debt over you and boast about who they have helped.  Not Jay.  You had to find these things out from somebody else, because he would not tell you. 


A lot of people here knew Jay better than I, but I know that we hit it off from the first time we met.  I think that was because Jay was my kind of fellow.  He had tons of good old-fashioned horse sense.  If it didn’t make sense to Jay, it probably was not sensible.  He understood how the world worked and seldom repeated his mistakes.  When he did repeat a mistake, he had a purpose (helping somebody else, usually) and would make fun of himself while he was doing it.

What word describes the opposite of politically correct?   We need to come up with a term that is the antonym for political correctness.  When we do, I think we should put the word in the dictionary and put Jay Palmer as the definition.  Irreverent is the closest word I could think of.  I, for one, admired his irreverence.  He had little tolerance for stupidity and made no bones about expressing his opinion.  I think the world would be a better place if more people were like that.

When I received the call about Jay Wednesday night, I was in the middle of a poker game with five other fellows about fifty miles from here.  When I announced to the group that Jay had died, four of the five men there knew him or knew of him.  Only two had ever owned a horse.  It seems that almost everybody knew the man. 

When my son called and told me to be on the lookout for a horse for my granddaughter, I thought of Jay Palmer.  When we took a covered wagon across Texas in 1998, we met a fellow on the Brazos River called Oaks Crossing Slim.  He knew Jay Palmer.  Jay told me about Slim’s habit of not snapping the cuffs on his shirts.

My favorite Jay Palmer story involves, however, a septic system.  He told Benny Herman and me this story on the way to a team roping many years ago.  The fellow who had installed Jay’s new aerobic system was explaining the wonders of it to Jay.  Jay, like I would have, grew increasingly irritated as the man explained the inspection fee that would have to be paid, the pills that would have to be used, the maintenance of the sprinkler heads, and on and on. 

When the man demonstrated the sprinklers, Jay asked.  “How do I know when they are going to come on?’
Answer.  “You don’t.”

Jay said, “I don’t get around as good as I used to.   What if I’m out here in the yard and get sprayed?”

“Oh, don’t worry.  What comes out of those sprinklers is as safe as drinking water.”

“You really believe that?”

“Yes, sir.”  Jay looked at the man for a few seconds and started for the house.

“Where are you going?”

“To get you a water glass.  I want to see this.”

This review is by Loretta Kibler
Go Down Looking is truly a masterpiece and one worthy of movie consideration. The continuation of the Rivers' story weaves an intriguing tapestry through vivid details and heart-moving emotions about the family's life, love, struggles, loss, and determination. I felt I was experiencing the events myself as I laughed, cried, and feared for Jake during some of his escapades. His character is so fascinating that a broad spectrum of readers will enjoy the survival of a very complex young man. Just as I experienced, they will find themselves recalling their past and reflecting on the true priorities of life. Jake is a young man when the book ends, but when I finished the last page, I was already looking forward to the next amazing book that only Jim can pen.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

On Hamburgers, Hesters, and Memories

Writing fiction is humbling.  My first novel started as a memoir, a tribute of sorts to my parents and the hard struggles they faced in life. I had kept notes and scraps of paper that eventually turned into computer files for years without realizing why I felt a need to record memories. Maybe my subconscious told me that I had better write these things down before they slipped away.

I started the book just after my mother died, because many memories had been rekindled with her passing. I wrote in a stream of consciousness for about a month, absolutely sure that everything I wrote had happened exactly as I recalled. I even won an argument or two with relatives about specific events.

Then one day, while searching through pictures, newspaper clippings, and family memorabilia, I discovered a mistake or two. I had been wrong about the time frame, the people involved or the sequence of events on more than one occasion.  That’s when I decided to change my memoir to a novel.

Five novels taught me that our memories often alter events over time. Some would say that we reframe them in a fashion more favorable to us.   But it’s more complicated than that. For example, a certain scene in Go Down Looking replays itself often in my memory.

I know that I was present the night a building exploded in downtown Commerce, and have confirmed with old pal Jake Gervers that we were both on the downtown square when it happened. Jake worked for Phillips Grocery and I worked for City Pharmacy.

I vividly recall returning from Ward’s Drug and noting a small flicker inside a BBQ joint next to JC Penney’s.  Other than that small flicker of light, the inside was pitch-black. I thought that was unusual because I could usually make out furniture inside the place even when it was closed.

I also see myself putting my hands against the window of the joint, feeling the heat on the glass, and peering through the hand-telescope I made. I recall seeing a small flicker of light inside and assuming it was probably a burner left on, too dumb to realize the window was hot and the place was black because the small flame had consumed all the oxygen.

Then the windows exploded, sending shards of glass across the street, crashing into the brick walls of Freezia and Steger’s. But where was I when it exploded?  I see myself against the brick wall most of the time, but sometimes I am out on the square, sounding the alarm, yelling at Jake. There is nothing heroic about my actions in any of my memories, so why do they change?

I mention that because when old friend Rick Vanderpool asked me to write a short piece for his Texas Hamburger Book, the first person who came to mind was Hester Hooten. I recall that Hester worked with my mother in the lunchroom at West Delta School when I was very young. She was always jolly and one of the kindest adults I knew. She covered my ears once when she was telling Mother a story that included the words “cow pattie”. Yes, she was that nice. I wasn’t nearly as innocent as she believed, of course.

When my father was very ill in Janes Hospital in Cooper, I remember Mother sending me to Silman’s on the square to get myself a hamburger. I remember Hester cooking there, too. She knew about Daddy’s critical condition and I could see the sympathy in her eyes as she cooked a burger just the way I liked, always making cheerful conversation while she worked. 

Now that Vanderpool’s book is in print, I wonder if I somehow transported Hester to Silman’s, because that is where I needed her to be. Maybe somebody else cooked for me there, but I hope not.  Here’s what I wrote for Vanderpool’s book. 

On hamburgers . . .

Cowboys, they say, like their beef with the hair still on and the hide barely singed. I think that’s a myth. Most cowboys I know like their beef cooked until it’s done. They see enough blood during the day and don’t want to see it on their plates or soaked into hamburger buns. I like my hamburgers old-fashioned and well-done. Old-fashioned to a lot of folks means greasy. Not to me.

Old-fashioned is the way they cooked them at Silman’s Grocery on the square in Cooper, Texas. That long-gone grocery store had a hamburger counter with stools. A boy just tall enough to see over the counter could watch Hester Hooten put together a masterpiece. She could make you feel as if she was making one-of-a-kind just for you.  

You could watch her shape the patty with her hands and roll it out with a rolling pin so that the edges were ragged. She always left it sort of loose so it could cook all the way through. She put a large pat of butter (sometimes made at home) in a big cast-iron skillet and let it bubble before dropping the patty in.

Flames shot up and that wonderful smell started to work on your taste buds.  While chopped onions cooked in a smaller skillet, she let the patty simmer up real good as she mashed it down and flipped it with a metal spatula until it was just right. Not too greasy, not too dry.

She poured off the grease, and then dropped a little more butter in the skillet to toast both halves of the bun on both sides. While it was still in the skillet, she put the patty on the bun and covered it with chopped lettuce (not big chunks), chopped farm-fresh tomatoes (not slices), and the fried onions. Pickles were optional. (I declined). She coated one half of the bun with just the right amount of mustard and topped off the perfect burger.

It was still almost too hot to handle when she wrapped it in paper thin enough to see through and put it in my hands. It was just flat enough to allow a small boy to take a bite without opening too wide and risking tomato juice dripping down his chin. I can still taste those crumbly, burned-just-the-right-amount-around-the-edges burgers.

Wife Jan can get pretty close to those burgers of days gone by, but she’s at a disadvantage because she is competing with a memory and memories get better with time. They don’t make many burgers like that anymore, and they don’t make as many Hesters, either. I suppose some café, somewhere, still makes ‘em. Write if you do.  I’ll come visit.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick Dewitt

Another review for Go Down Looking on Amazon.
This fourth novel in the Rivers series follows Jake Rivers as he discovers life outside of the small, hard, tight life of his youth. As usual Ainsworth's deft words encapsulate the sights, sounds, smells and feelings of his realistic and interesting characters. You are not only inside Jake's mind as he discovers the vagaries and truths of relationships, family and corporate life; you care about him, you really care about him. You get angry at him for his pride, temper and misjudgments and are frustrated and puzzled with him by the way life treats him, but neither you nor he ever feel like a victim. His cynical optimism is Jake's most endearing trait and strongest weapon. The universality of Jake's episodes and the drop-dead veracity of the characters and their dialogue produce what I think any serious author of contemporary fiction would strive for: reflective thought, deep empathy, life recalled and lessons learned. Reading Ainsworth is a joy and I think he is one of the great undiscovered talents who will richly deserve the success he will find. Trice Lawrence

This book The Sisters Brothers was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, whatever that is worth. My curiosity was piqued, however, because it is, well, a western and westerns don’t usually make that list. Man Booker usually only considers literary fiction, so this could be classed as a literary western.

Although the title is intriguing, I would probably not have picked it up except for the recommendation of friend Charles Bailey, a fan and expert on the writings of Cormac McCarthy and who recently appeared in the movie Bernie with wife Jo and local actor Jerry Biggs.

Yes, literary often does mean confusion and complexity. It seems that many literary authors go out of their way to confuse readers either to show their superior intellect, or just “because they can”.  Irritating.

After he became famous, Philip Roth sometimes inserted a few paragraphs of pure drivel that had no discernible relationship to the novel he was writing just to show that he could. Dewitt does not do that. This book is engaging and kept me entertained to the last page.

It is possible that I could be biased because I saw some similarities between the Rivers brothers in my book, Home Light Burning and the Sisters brothers in this book. Some scenes definitely seemed familiar including the toothache, a found horse, and some characters they meet while traveling.

One reviewer called it cowboy noir. That seems fitting. It’s darkly humorous. From the viewpoint of Eli Sisters, one of a pair of brothers who are hired killers, we get a behind-the-eyes look at how a killer who can otherwise be sensitive feels about his murderous profession and why he can’t seem to get away from it.

If you like shoot-‘em-ups and fast draw heroes who always get their man and the girl, don’t look here. But if you like complicated characters and unusual situations that might make you laugh if they weren’t tragic, consider this book.   

Please watch for the trailer for Go Down Looking on your televisions. They are supposed to be starting this month. If you see it, e-mail me and tell me when and where. Blink and you will miss it.