Hilltown Postcards

Stupid City Folk

Years before we moved to Worthington, a hilltown in Western Massachusetts, we lived in another hilltown in the middle of nowhere New Hampshire. We learned a lot from that experience, which helped significantly during our next adventure in the country, one that has lasted a lot longer. 

We left Boston for Wilmot, New Hampshire, where we had to drive thirty minutes to get to a Laundromat and sixty for something more interesting than washing our clothes. We had two kids then, a daughter who was four, and a baby son. Our home was a one-room cabin on a dirt road, twelve-by-twenty feet, with no electricity, phone, running water or indoor plumbing. A portable toilet was in the attic and we hauled the slop bucket to the outhouse. The rent was $35 a month.

We were awfully stupid and lucky that first time in the country. We drew water from a stream beside the cabin. A hand pump was inside the house and when the line to the river froze, we used buckets, breaking first through the ice. We started the fire in our wood stove with kerosene, managing somehow not to blow up the place.

Hank sold our ’55 Mercedes, one of those a nickel-and-dime vintage vehicles that seemed awfully cool at the start, then bought an old pickup truck from a local for a few hundred bucks. Hank was getting into country living, a little carried away as usual, this time about fitting in with the local folk. Certainly an old beater would help, but on our first long ride, the brakes failed, and Hank, pumping the pedal to squeeze some life from them, had to steer the pickup into a field so we wouldn’t crash. Eventually it stopped.

A man, who stopped, crawled beneath the truck. He shook his head when he stood up. The chassis was so rusted it was ready to disintegrate. This truck wasn’t safe to drive. I cursed the man who sold us this piece of junk and Hank’s gullibility that he expected all old Yankees to be honest. We took off the plates, abandoned the truck, and then hitchhiked with the two kids to the cabin. 

Hank searched but couldn’t find a job locally except as a laborer for a man who put in foundations. He lasted one day working a wheelbarrow and shovel. So, he hitched back and forth to Boston, where he drove tractor-trailer, long distance, for a natural foods company until we had enough money saved to buy a VW Bug. During the week, I stayed at the cabin with the two kids.

The neighbors on that hill in Wilmot were exceptionally friendly. One bachelor farmer, Clayton, plowed the top of our driveway for free because he claimed it was a good spot to pull over when two vehicles met on the narrow road.

I also heard that I won Clayton’s approval when I turned away one of the men on the hill who paid me a surprise visit while Hank was away. The guy was one of those doomsday-types who was building a bunker-like home deep in the woods, and I was definitely not interested. Clayton watched the man’s truck pass his house, twice, within the span of several minutes, a detail he reported with amusement to Pat, my fast friend on our hill. Pat invited us to share meals with her family and to raid her library. Sometimes I used her washer. The snow piled up that winter, and I towed the kids on a sled along the road to her home.

The battery-operated radio pulled in a public station after I rigged its antenna to touch the iron skillet hanging on one wall, and weeknights at eight my daughter and I listened to the serial reading of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. We liked The Long Winter the best. In that one, the Ingalls family survived a fierce prairie winter by braiding straw to burn for heat, rationing food, and listening to the music of Pa’s fiddle. We could relate to that story.

I cooked our meals on a two-burner propane stove: soup, and lots of oatmeal and pancakes with Clayton’s maple syrup. We had squash, apples, potatoes, and cabbage we bought at a farm. Stored in the cold attic they kept nearly through the winter.

One week Hank got caught in a snow storm on his truck route in Maine, so he couldn’t make it home. I honestly don’t remember how I found out since we didn’t have a phone. Maybe he relayed a message to my neighbor, Pat.

I was running out of split firewood, so Pat showed me how to use a maul to split the oak and maple logs length-wise to size: raising that heavy tool over my head, then using the strength of my belly and legs to make a good slice.

Chopping wood. Drawing water. Washing cloth diapers by hand. My day was spent immersed in the most basic of chores. Sometimes, it felt as if we were playing pioneer. Certainly, it was good training for the next time we attempted rural living. We would be smarter.

We lasted in Wilmot until the late spring. The two-and-a-half-hour commute one way was too much for Hank.

We did look at another house in Wilmot to rent, a rambling farmhouse with amenities like indoor plumbing and electricity. But I was wary of the rattraps and boxes of poison set around the house.

In the kitchen, the previous renter jotted a diary of sorts in pencil on the white kitchen cabinets. A woman, I guessed, wrote about the miserable weather and her wretched loneliness. She noted the dates of storms. “God, not more snow,” she wrote beside one. The entries stopped abruptly mid-winter and I wondered what became of her. 

We lived next in Boston, Seattle, and then Boston again before we moved to Worthington, and this time we did a better job with country living.


My Hilltown Books

So far I have written three novels I will call my Hilltown Books. Of course, that’s not counting my Isabel Long Mystery Series, which has the same setting. But my focus in this post is on these books: The Sacred Dog, Northern Comfort, and The Sweet Spot.

My interest in writing books set in the fictional hilltowns of Western Massachusetts was sparked when I read the works of the late Larry Brown. His books, set in the rural South, feature hard scrabble characters. I felt the same when I immersed myself in Russell Banks’ books, especially The Sweet Hereafter. I also learned a great deal living in the hilltown of Worthington, and then reporting on it and the towns around it, say a thousand people or so, for a local paper. Then, I became a newspaper editor. I was ready to try my hand at fiction.

The three Hilltown Books thus far focus on the darker parts of rural towns. I believe I’ve created authentic characters and story lines. They are all set in the late ’70s to early ’80s — pre-internet, pre-cellphone, when many of the people were trying to hold onto their town’s oldest ways. I focus, with one exception, on the natives.

Actually, The Sacred Dog was the first book I wrote although it wasn’t published until this past December. It concerns a big feud between two men in a small town. One is Frank Hooker, the owner of The Sacred Dog, a bar where the locals drink and gab. The only one not welcome is Al Kitchen, but that’s because Frank unfairly blames him for the death of his brother. Have I encountered feuds in the hilltowns? Of course. But none as dark as the one in The Sacred Dog.

I wrote The Sacred Dog in 2000. My then-agent tried his darnedest to sell it but couldn’t. So it sat, although once in a while I would dive back in to make changes. So, I am grateful for darkstroke books, who publishes my Isabel Long Mystery Series, for taking it on. Thank you Laurence and Steph Patterson.

My next hilltown book is Northern Comfort, which I finished two years later. Thanks to darkstroke books, it will be released July 19 on Kindle. (Paperback readers will have to be a little patient.) This book, set in winter, begins with the tragic death of a child. Willi Miller and her boy, who was brain-damaged at birth, are a charity case after her husband, Junior Miller abandons them. One snowy day, Cody’s sled slides into the path of Miles Potter’s truck. Until that tragedy, they are separated by their families’ places in town. Yes, it’s a story about haves and have nots.

The third hilltown novel is The Sweet Spot. I wrote it in 2004 when I was recovering from an accident — I was hit by a car when I was walking in the middle of a sidewalk. With a broken collarbone, I typed The Sweet Spot with one hand. I finished it in six weeks. My then-agent suggested I start it in the middle, so it underwent a revision. He pitched it to editors in two publishing houses — one died in surgery after rejecting it. Ten years later, I published it myself.

Here’s the story line for The Sweet Spot: 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.

Now, I take what I know about the hilltowns and use it mostly in my Isabel Long Mystery Series. For number seven, Missing the Deadline, I am oh-so-close to getting it ready to send off to darkstroke. After that, I plan to write a sequel to The Sacred Dog. No spoilers here for those who haven’t read it, but the book will be called The Unforgiving Town. And, I already have in mind the victim for the next Isabel Long book. That’s going to be a fun one to write.

The hilltowns continue to be an inspiration for me. And, thank you, readers, for joining me.

The Sacred Dog

My Next Bad Guy: Al Kitchen

I will admit that I am fond of the bad characters I create. Actually, I see them as flawed people who do reckless and sometimes hurtful things, and because of that they become major players in my books. That’s the case for Al Kitchen, one of the protagonists in my next book, The Sacred Dog, which is out Dec. 27.

The Sacred Dog takes place in my favorite go-to setting, that is, the hill towns of Western Massachusetts, where I’ve lived a good portion of my life, twice. It’s a thriller centered on bad blood between two men, Al Kitchen and Frank Hooker. Frank owns The Sacred Dog, the only bar in this dinky town that caters to the locals. Frank blames Al for the death of his brother, Wes. Al was in the crash that killed his best buddy, but not at the wheel — a fact Frank won’t accept. Let me say nothing good is going to come from this feud.

Al didn’t have it easy growing up. He lost both parents when he was young and was brought up by his grandparents. Pops was a drunk and an abuser. The one good thing he did for Al was to teach him how to hit a baseball, but even that didn’t work out for him. His grandmother, who he calls Ma, is Al’s ally. When Pops got violent, she would give Al a look that would send him hiding in one of the junked cars his grandfather had stashed in their backyard. 

Other than his grandmother, the only person who meant anything to Al was Wes. If there was trouble in town, the two of them were in it together. Now Al goes it alone.

Al’s not welcome at The Dog, as the locals call it, but after his grandmother interceded, he gets to have two beers. Frank figures it’s better to keep his eye on somebody he doesn’t trust or like. Al, of course, resents it. 

The resentment builds, especially after the arrival of Frank’s ex-wife. There’s a dark secret between Al and Verona that has the potential to create a larger and perhaps a violent rift between the two men.

Is the character of Al Kitchen based on anyone real? No. Like all of the others, he came from somewhere in my brain. That’s true of the other so-called bad guys. Sometimes I let them redeem themselves like the Beaumont brothers in my Isabel Long Mystery Series. Other times I let them just go to hell. I’ll let you decide about Al Kitchen.

Here’s an excerpt from the book. In this scene, Al sits with a bottle of booze in the grandstand of a country fair to watch a truck pull. At this event, drivers try to see how much weight their trucks can pull.

The truck getting ready to roll was called Road Hog, the words stenciled in black on its red paint. The names of the guy’s sponsors were printed all over the vehicle. The face of a monstrous, angry pig was painted on its hood. The announcer, a woman with a smooth, round voice, called the driver’s name over the public address system, and he revved its engine in response, sending a fresh sample of exhaust through the stands. The grandstand’s metal roof above his head amplified the sound, overwhelming every other at the fair and cutting through Al’s ears like a chainsaw. He squeezed the bottle of Jim Beam between his legs as he covered his ears.

Al thought Road Hog looked promising, but it only dragged the sled a couple of yards before it conked out and smoke poured from beneath the hood. Road Hog’s fans gave up a collective moan in the rows below Al, and a sweet, young thing in tight, black jeans stood up while biting her red, painted nails. A couple of guys ran to the truck, but they were helpless to fix the engine’s problem, so they waved for a tow.

The woman’s voice came over the P.A. system. “Sorry, Lou. Looks like that’s all for tonight.”

Al laughed at the man’s failure.

The pull had a delay while Road Hog was towed from the track and another vehicle, a black Chevy named Fast Food, took its place. Two boys raked the track’s surface to rub out the tire tracks from Road Hog. If Al were to get into truck pulling, he’d fix up the Mustang in the junkyard behind Ma’s house. Hell, he could have his pick of the junks back there, but he favored the Mustang, which had been his first car. He’d call it Big Stud or something like that, so people would know right away it was his. He’d paint the Mustang black and purple. He’d put in the most powerful engine and rev it to get everybody’s attention. 

Al surveyed the stands. He saw Frank and his buddies, all regulars at The Dog, below and to his left. One of the men yakked. A bottle was being passed. Al checked his own. It was getting low. He considered joining Frank’s group but thought better of it. Early was the only one worth talking to and that’s because he was nice to his grandmother. Sometimes when he delivered the mail to their house, Early stopped for a couple of minutes to make small talk with Ma. He complimented the new roof on the house and the gladiolas Ma grew this summer in the front yard. Early had good country manners. He was alright.

He checked the crowd, finding enough people in the stand who were on his shitlist at one time or the other. There were a couple of local cops, all part-timers, who went to school with him. He saw one guy he owed money from a bet. He snorted when he spotted a bald man, who used to be on the board of selectman in Holden. The incident happened over fifteen years ago. Pops accumulated so many junk cars in their backyard, the neighbors began complaining, so the board sent a registered letter saying he had to get a junkyard permit. At first, it set Pops off, but then he liked the idea. He could turn his collection of junkers into a legitimate business, stripping them and selling parts. He was slowing down and had only a couple of years left to go, they found out later.

Al drove his grandparents to Town Hall, and Pops made his case to the board of selectmen about why he should get a Class III, which was a fancy name for a junkyard license. Ma didn’t say a word as Pops talked about how he would fix the place up and string lights across the yard like a used car lot. Two selectmen seemed to listen carefully to what Pops had to say, but one of them, the bald man sitting below him in the grandstand, was a total ass about the whole thing. He was a native, but you wouldn’t presume it by the way he acted. He was the kind of guy who liked to drive around town looking for trouble to report, one of those stingy locals who welcomed all the rules the newcomers wanted.

Al recalled how that selectman leaned across the table and shook a finger toward Pops. “Mr. Kitchen, I just don’t believe you’ll keep your word. I’ve known you all my life, and I know the way you live.”

Pops, a man who had legendary drunken bouts that inspired him to outrageous antics in his youth, who could slap a hand against a body faster than the person expected it, who once killed a dog by slamming a shovel against its skull, stood silently. Al thought for the first time his grandfather looked defeated. There were many times he hated the old man for the way he treated him and Ma, but he hated this other man worse for what he did to his grandfather. He made Pops look weak.

Al rose, towering over his grandfather even though he was not fully grown, as the selectman continued to rant about Pops’s habits. Then Ma got up. The three of them stared down at the man until he stopped talking. Afterward, the vote was two-to-one in their favor for the Class III. Of course, Al fixed the man good a couple of months later. One night, Al shot his .22 through his living room window. The bullet ricocheted off the woodstove’s pipe into the wall above the man’s head. Al didn’t wait to see what happened next. He ran into the woods and rode his dirt bike home. He stashed it in the junkyard. 

When the cops came to the house, Ma told them Al was in his room. Al went to the kitchen to meet them. He had made himself yawn. “You think I drove over to that guy’s house and tried to shoot him? I’ve been here all night, watchin’ TV and reading dirty magazines in my room. I was just getting ready to hit the sack,” he told the cops. “Feel the hood of my car, if you don’t believe me.”

It was a minor victory for the Kitchens although Pops never did much with his junkyard, except die there. He had a heart attack while shoveling during a heavy March snow and lay there on the ground until Ma found him, too late to save. Ma renewed the Class III every year out of spite, and the selectmen, a different board now, never contest it.

LINK TO THE SACRED DOG: https://mybook.to/thesacreddog

hilltowns, Western Massachusetts

Up Next: The Sacred Dog

I am pleased to report that my publisher, darkstroke books, has agreed to take on my novel The Sacred Dog. This book isn’t part of my Isabel Long Mystery Series. But it has one of my favorite settings — the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts.

The official release is Dec. 27, and darkstroke will make the formal announcement when the Kindle version is ready to pre-order. But let me tell you a little about The Sacred Dog.

The Sacred Dog is the first book I completed at the start of the millennium. We were living then in Worthington, one of the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts. At that time I was immersed in the area, editing stories for the daily newspaper where I worked. Before that, I was the hill town reporter. Plus our family was involved in the town. So, I had lots of inspiration there.

I was able to sign on with an agent, Dan Green of Pom Inc., who tried his darndest to sell it to a publishing house. This was long before digital books and writers had easy access to self-publish. But it didn’t work out and I’ve held onto the book since then. Once in a great while, I’d print it out and get out the red pen, or edit it on the screen. Now, I am happy it will be available to readers.

The story is basically about bad blood between two men — Frank Hooker and Al Kitchen — and that feud’s ultimate climax. Frank Hooker owns The Sacred Dog, the only bar in town, where the locals gather to drink beer, gab, and get away from their families. The only person not welcome is Al Kitchen, but Frank has his reason — he blames him for his brother, Wes’s death. But after an appeal from the grandmother who raised him, Al is allowed to have two beers. Frank figures it’s better to keep his eye on someone he doesn’t trust or like.

Al Kitchen is a hell raiser, no surprise considering the grandfather who raised him was a drunk and an abuser. About the only good thing the man did was teach him to hit a baseball well. But Al always has his kerosene-smelling granny on his side even as an adult. Al was in the car crash that killed his best buddy, Wes, but he wasn’t at the wheel — a fact Frank won’t accept.

Frank’s life is about to change now that his ex-wife and their daughter have returned after living in Florida for three years. Verona says she misses her old life although coming back might mean facing a dark secret that involves both men. 

All is about to come to a reckoning.

I certainly will be writing in the future more about the characters, setting, and why the bar is called The Sacred Dog. 

So sit tight. Besides, I have another book coming out — Following the Lead, No. 6 in my Isabel Long Mystery Series. It has a Nov. 3 release but you can pre-order now, which is helpful to authors. And thank you if you already have. Here is the link: https://mybook.to/followingthelead

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: That’s the opening page. The chapter is called King of the Road, a favorite tune among the drinkers at The Dog, as they call it.