The Sweet Spot

Fussing and Feuding

You’d like to think that everyone living in a small town would get along, but from my experience that isn’t true. When I was a reporter in the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts, I witnessed some doozies. I even wrote about them. And, yes, I’ve included feuds in The Sweet Spot, set for a Feb. 20 release in paperback and Kindle.

First, here’s the real stuff. Dogs are a big source of neighborhood feuds. Barking dogs. Wandering dogs. And, of course, biting dogs. When I was a reporter sitting in board of selectmen’s hearings, I saw perfectly nice people go at it. (A board of selectmen is like a town council, but New England-style.)

I once covered a great pig feud between newcomers, who didn’t like smelling the animals next door, and the local guy, who didn’t seem to mind because he was raising them for meat. When the newcomers complained, the pig owner just moved the pen closer to the property line. The feud went to the Board of Health, who actually ruled in the pig owner’s favor. (Tony Lake, who later became Bill Clinton’s National Security Adviser, spoke in favor of the pigs.)

Then there are the feuds that are more personal, like an affair, sloppy flirting or some wrong done a long time ago I didn’t know about. I remember one guy who lived way out in the sticks giving the road guys a hard time. I also recall a notorious feud between members of a town department.

Sometimes neighbors just couldn’t stand each other’s guts.

The Sweet Spot has two notorious feuds.

The first involves Edie St. Claire’s father, Alban “Benny” Sweet, and the town’s road boss. Benny, a cantankerous but lovable old fart, runs the town dump. He keeps borrowing stuff like tools from the town’s highway department and, of course, doesn’t bring them back. It ticks off the road boss, who gets his revenge by plowing and grading their road the very last.

The feud has a brief reprieve — a very brief reprieve — when the road boss, in a fit of anger, accidently runs over a dog, but that’s all I will write about that.

Edie becomes party to the second feud. But this one doesn’t just involve one other person, but a whole family following a tragedy. They put the blame all on her, and, man, they’re awful to her.

The excerpt below gives you an idea about the feud between Benny and the road boss.

Edie heard shouting from inside the house, and when she checked the kitchen window, the road boss and Pop were going at it near the highway department’s idling pickup. The man’s face was red and his fingers punched the air in front of her father. Pop, just home from the dump, had been hauling his booty into his shacks out back. Amber, she was relieved to remember, took off on her bike to Leona’s.

Edie stepped onto the porch, but the men didn’t notice her until she was beside them. Pop, his overalls caked with dirt, smelled sour and rusty like the inside of a garbage can.

“I told your old man to keep his hands off the highway equipment.” Spit flew from the road boss’ mouth. “Who in the hell does he think he is?”

“Leave Edie outta this,” Pop growled.

Edie didn’t like the look on the road boss’ face. She had seen enough bar fights, and her father, although a scrapper, was no match for a man his size or age.

“Take it easy,” she said. “Pop took care of the trimmer. He didn’t mean any harm.”

“That’s not the point,” the road boss said. “It don’t belong to him. All of this is town property.”

“I’m a taxpayer and a town employee, ain’t I?” Pop said.

Edie cringed.

“It don’t give you the right, you stupid little fuck,” the road boss said. “Stick to the dump where you belong. I don’t go taking your crap.”

The road boss’ belly jiggled beneath his chambray work shirt as he stepped onto the porch to get the trimmer. He cursed loudly when he noticed a gas can and tools belonging to the Conwell Highway Department. Pop cussed back while the man loaded the stuff into the back of the pickup. Her father trailed him, making certain he didn’t take anything of his, and in his agitation, he tripped. The road boss sniggered as Pop fell to the ground.

“You fucker,” Pop growled.

Edie bent over her father. Pop was too angry to take her hand although he managed to scramble to his feet when the pickup’s tires spun away. Pop jogged after the truck, and Edie relaxed. She knew he’d only run a few yards before he’d be out of breath. This episode would be over until Pop was brazen enough to borrow something else from the highway garage. The board of selectmen would never fire Pop because no one else wanted his job. Besides, he was popular with the townspeople, especially the newcomers who thought he was a colorful and helpful character.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: That’s the backside to The Sweet Spot’s cover by Michelle Gutierrez. The next step is to upload the contents etc. and order proofs.


The Sweet Spot

Talk of the Town

I prefer living in a small town. I’ve had my share of big city life, but my comfort zone is being around a thousand people, give or take a couple of hundred. And small towns are the preferred setting for my novels, including The Sweet Spot, set for a Feb. 20 release.

I like living in a place, where on any given day I will bump into somebody I know.

I am also confident someone will stop to help me if they see my car stuck in a snow Sweet Spot Coverbank or broken down on the side of the road, which has happened. Their kids grow up with our kids. We drink and dance together at the local watering hole.

And because a whole lot doesn’t go on really, we take an interest in what our fellow residents are doing, good or bad. Yes, small town folk can be a bit nosy. They sure are in The Sweet Spot.

I grew up in a big small town along the ocean. For about 25 years, I lived with my family in a hilltown of western Massachusetts that had about 1,200 people, plus one store, one church, one bar, and one stoplight. I even reported on it and the neighboring hilltowns for a daily paper — my start in journalism. Now I live in an unincorporated part of Northern New Mexico.

Writers often use what they know, and that’s the case for me with the hilltowns. For The Sweet Spot, I came up with the town of Conwell. It’s not where I lived although it could have been. At least, I tried to make it true.

As for the folks who live in Conwell — they’re made up too — the slightest difference in those around them is worth noting. After all, this is 1978, before the internet took over people’s lives.

And The Sweet Spot has a big scandal involving its main character, Edie St. Claire that does indeed becomes the talk of the town. Folks are either on one side or the other in this tragic turn of events. Sad to say, those who are against Edie are the majority.

Let me offer you a peek at small town nosiness that’s early on in the novel. Edie works in the general store owned by her in-laws, Fred and Marie St. Claire. Here is this exchange she has with the store’s old guy customers who have taken an interest in her new neighbor, Harlan Doyle.

Now the retirees were settled in. Edie brought a wet rag to wipe the tabletops.

“Edie, your new neighbor was in this morning,” one of the men said. “Says he’s fixing up the old Doyle place.”

“That’s what Pop told me. What’s he like?”

Another man lifted his cup.

“He’s kinda tall and skinny,” he said. “He’s got brownish hair hanging to his shoulders. He didn’t look too old, but it’s hard to tell with the scars on his face.”

The first man nodded.

“He had a soft, slow way of talking like he was from the South or something,” he said.

Her father-in-law spoke.

“Real quiet guy. Odd name.” Fred’s brows creased as he tried to recall more. “Shoot, he said he used to come here as a kid.”

“Pop said his name’s Harlan,” Edie said. “Harlan Doyle.”

“That’s it. You meet him, Edie?” Fred asked.

“Not yet. I have to go over and welcome him to the neighborhood,” she said.

“Did Benny tell you about his face?” Fred asked.

“He said it was scarred badly.”

Fred’s eyes shot up and down.

“You’re telling me,” he said. “I didn’t know where to look. No one did.”

Edie held the rag.

“I think I saw him at the Memorial Day ceremony when we were at the stone for Gil,” she said. “A man stopped to see what was going on. He had a limp, too.”

“I wonder what he’s doing here. His grandmother’s place can’t be in any shape to live in,” Fred said.

“He told Pop he’s gonna fix it up.” She shrugged. “Maybe he’ll sell it.”

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: A snowy scene from last week. That’s the Japanese-style gate Hank built for the fenced front yard.


The Sweet Spot

The Ghost in My Story

My novel, The Sweet Spot, has a ghost. He’s not the haunting kind of ghost, but in this case, the man’s presence lingers after his death in Vietnam. Meet Gilbert James St. Claire, who was called Gil by those who loved him, which seems to be about everyone in the hilltown of Conwell.

Gil and Edie, the novel’s main character, married right out of high school despite his parents’ misgivings. After all, his folks own the town’s only store. Her father runs the dump.

Plus, Edie was known for getting around, if you know what I mean, but that’s for a future post.

Unfortunately, their happy marriage ends abruptly when Gil is killed in Vietnam.

Eight years later, Edie still mourns Gil. She tries to ease that grief with good times at the Do-Si-Do Bar and an affair with his younger brother, Walker.

His parents remain heartbroken. After all, Gil was a sweetheart of a guy.

Then, there’s Walker, who may have loved his older brother but doesn’t feel the same love Gil got from his parents — or from Edie.

Of course, I imagined Gil, like everybody else in The Sweet Spot, although I will admit being inspired when I saw images of those young men who died in that war.

This week I had the opportunity to go through the manuscript for design purposes and realized the prominent roles Gil and his memory have in its story line.

And for those who are anticipating the launch of The Sweet Spot, the date is Feb. 1 for paperback. For Kindle users, the date should be around that time as well.

To learn more about Gil, here’s is an excerpt from the start of the novel, in which Edie and their seven-year-old daughter, Amber, arrive at a Memorial Day ceremony the town is holding.

Edie pushed the car forward to the main road, past the edges of dense forest toward the town’s center, where she found a parking space behind her in-laws’ Thunderbird.

Amber knelt to reach the car’s back seat.

“See. I remembered,” she said.

Amber clutched a framed photograph, the one taken of her father weeks before his helicopter was shot down in Vietnam. It happened one month before Amber was born, and the sun glinted off Gil’s long, thin face in a way that broke Edie’s heart all over again. His hand was on his hip. His khaki shirt was unbuttoned as he leaned against the chopper. He and his crew, who died together, called it the Angel of Darkness. Gil’s dark eyes went through Edie as if he was cool and tough, but she knew better. Those were boys who died that day in Vietnam, and sweet boys if they were like her Gil.

“I’m glad you brought Daddy’s picture. Come on. It hasn’t started yet.”

Edie and Amber slipped through the small crowd clustered on the town commons. People nodded or spoke her name. Edie knew every one of them because people had a way of sticking close to the hilltown of Conwell in Western Massachusetts.

“Marie, Fred,” she greeted her in-laws, but her attention was on her mother-in-law. “How are you?” Edie asked although she didn’t expect an answer.

Marie smiled instead at Amber. Edie’s father-in-law, Fred, his bald head shining as if it had a pink shell, hugged a wreath of red and white carnations. A blue ribbon said, “OUR BELOVED SON GIL.”

Marie’s head chopped toward her husband.

“Where’s Walker?” She worked the corners of her mouth. “It’d be just like him to forget his brother.”

Fred raised his chin.

“He’s over there. See him?”

Walker, wearing a black cowboy hat and boots, marched across the mowed grass. His face, thin, with a straight nose, was tanned from working outdoors. One of the builders in town, he greeted people he knew, firm handshakes all around. He leaned in to speak with someone in the crowd.

Marie hummed.

“It’s about time he showed up.” She sniffed. “I don’t see Sharon or the boys. Do you?”

Fred shook his head.

“No, I don’t.”

Marie pursed her lips.

“She never comes. Never. He could’ve at least brought the boys. Gil was their uncle after all.”

Fred clutched his wife’s arm.

“Marie, take it easy.”

Edie closed her eyes behind her sunglasses. Her head throbbed.

“Honey, what do you have there?” Marie asked Amber.

Amber showed her the photograph.

“It’s Daddy.”

Marie held her hand to her chest.

“Oh,” she said in a broken way.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: We got a bit of snow Friday. During the late afternoon, the sun cast a rosy glow over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. This is the view from our backyard.


The Sweet Spot

Impertinent Women

Just like the crusty old coots I mentioned in my last post, I’m fond of writing about impertinent women. Leona Sweet fits the bill in The Sweet Spot, the hilltown novel I’m launching in January.

Leona lives next door to her niece, Edie St. Claire, one of the main characters in this novel, and her brother, Alban Sweet, its crusty old coot. She’s up there in years, but that doesn’t stop her from dyeing her hair red and plucking her eyebrows wire-thin.

She has a friendly rivalry going with her brother that’s lasted decades. And Edie is the caring daughter she never had.

She cheats at cards even when she plays with Edie’s seven-year-old daughter, Amber.

But what makes Leona a memorable character is what she says. There doesn’t appear to be a brake on this woman’s mouth, and frankly, what comes out is often hilarious and right to the point, whether it’s about people in town, softball, or sex.

Leona Sweet calls them as she sees them.

But she also has a big heart. She knows when she’s stepped over the line and calls herself on it. I like that about her.

And woe be to the person who ever wrongs her family.

Have I met women like Leona? Sure. Is she based on anyone I know? Nah. She’s strictly from my imagination.

Here’s a scene early in The Sweet Spot. Edie, who is on her way to her in-laws for a Memorial Day get-together, brings Aunt Leona’s mutt, Bob home. The night before Edie hooked up with a guy named Lonny at the local bar called the Do-Si-Do.

Lonny drove by when she was at Aunt Leona’s. He tooted the horn and shouted her name as she dragged the dog from the car.

Edie opened the front door to her aunt’s house and called. Leona sat on the couch, watching TV. She grunted when she realized her niece was inside.

“Edie, it’s only you,” her aunt said.

“Yup, it’s only me.”

“Hell, you know I don’t mean it that way.”

“I know.”

Her aunt brushed dog hair from her housecoat. She lifted her head, her hair a ridiculous shade of red for a woman her age. She had powder on her face. Her eyebrows were plucked thin as wires.

“Got my roots covered, and my face made up. Not too bad for an old broad, eh? Maybe I should go down to the American Legion bar and try my luck. Maybe some of those old soldiers can still salute. What do you think?”

Her aunt joked, but Edie knew what she wanted to hear. She looked better than she felt. She still had a way about her.

Edie kissed her aunt’s cheek.

“Very nice.”

“I see you brought Bob home. What can I tell you? Bob’s dumb as dirt.” Leona took a quick peek at the television screen. “Who’s the guy?”

“What guy?”

“The guy just hollering your name out the truck window. Sounded like a mating call to me.”

Edie grinned.

“He’s just a guy from the Do.”

“I hope he showed you an extra special time if you know what I mean.”

Her aunt cackled. She was always this direct, but Edie was used to her ways. She lived next to Leona, her father’s only sister, most of her life, and after Ma died, she took over those womanly things Edie needed. Leona was good to Amber, too, never minding she came over when Edie wanted to go out. Truthfully, she enjoyed the girl’s company since she never had children, or as Leona put it, “Something’s wrong with my plumbing.”

When Edie came to visit, she and her aunt played cards. Leona kept a tumbler of something dark and sweet beside her as she gabbed through games of cribbage and gin. Edie stuck to beer.

Her aunt was alone, and she was not the type to be a part of what went on in town, the granny groups, she called them. She liked going to the Do-Si-Do, especially when it had a band, and to bingo at the American Legion in Tyler. She spent the worst months of winter at a trailer park in Florida.

“I’ve got some news,” Edie said. “My first softball game’s Friday. It’s in Tyler.”

“Hell, it’s about time.”

Edie shrugged.

“It’s not gonna be the same without Birdie coaching.”

“Too bad about his ticker. Clean living can kill you.”

“Aunt Leona.”

Leona pawed the air.

“I didn’t mean anything by it. He was a good man.”

“Still is. His doctor says he just can’t coach anymore.”

“Then they might as well stick Birdie in the ground.”

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: The view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from my yard.


hilltowns, Western Massachusetts, Writing

Finding the Sweet Spot

The Sweet Spot is the next novel I will be publishing. I like the title very much, and I’ve stuck with it from the start because it has many layers.

This is the first of what I call my hilltown novels. They are set in Western Massachusetts, where my family and I once lived for many years. I call the novel’s town Conwell. It doesn’t exist, but if it did, it would be located in the hills west of the Connecticut River and to the east of the Berkshires.

But not only did I live in one of those hilltowns, Worthington to be specific, I reported on them for the local newspaper. I sat in numerous meetings, interviewed countless people, and covered whatever news happened in them. I got schooled on how people talk and act. I am grateful.

So like other authors, I take what I know and, as I’ve said before, have my way with it.

Yes, in my mind, the hilltowns are indeed a sweet spot even though this is not that kind of a book.

Here is a brief synopsis: Most in Conwell love Edie St. Claire, the widow of a soldier killed in Vietnam, until her affair with his married brother ends tragically. She tries to survive this small town’s biggest scandal through the help of her rough-sawn family and a badly scarred man who’s arrived for his fresh start.

(For the record, that didn’t happen.)

Other Sweet references. Edie’s last name was Sweet before she married. The family, notably her crusty Pop, who runs the town dump, and her outspoken aunt, like to say, “We Sweets stick together.”

She also plays on the Conwell Woman’s Softball Team, and naturally batters try to hit the ball where it will create the most velocity aka the sweet spot.

Then, there is this quote from Walker St. Claire, the aforementioned married brother-in-law, as he describes Edie:

“Gil’s the only one who’d understand how I feel about her,” Walker said. “My parents sure as hell don’t.” His voice faded as he lit the butt. “She always dressed up nice for me. Her hair shined and smelled good. When she laughed, the sound bubbled up from a sweet spot inside her.” He took a drag. “You ever see the way she talks with the people in the store? I’ve seen her give an old barfly at the Do her ear for an hour. She lights up everything and everybody, including me. That’s why my brother loved her. That’s why. Jesus, the last time he was home, he didn’t want to leave her for a minute. I had to shame him to get him up here with me.”

(For the record, absolutely no characters in this novel are based on real people.)

Right now, I am still giving The Sweet Spot extremely close reads. I am compiling parts for the back of the book, my bio, acknowledgements etc. for Michelle, its designer, when she is ready.

Expect to read more posts about the novel, like how I typed the first draft with one hand while recuperating from being hit by a car. I will write about the novel’s characters — Edie’s family is a colorful group — and other topics.

For those posts, I will be pitching The Sweet Spot.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Those are ancient pottery shards spotted on a hike above the hot springs at Ojo Caliente in New Mexico, not too far from where we live. There are many shards scattered on the ground, and I am pleased my fellow hikers let them be, as we did.