Hilltown Postcards

People Have to Live Somewhere

Here is the second post in the series I am calling Hilltown Postcards. I write a little more about how we landed in Worthington, a hilltown in Western Massachusetts, after leaving Boston. Win and Joan Donovan, and their extended family, made us feel welcome and helped us adjust to country living. By the way, I post this on the day I begin my next hilltown book, The Unforgiving Town, a sequel to The Sacred Dog.

Our new friends, the Donovans, let us stay at their home until the place was ready. You couldn’t ask for nicer first friends. They knew everybody and everybody knew them, and it was our easy way into town to say we did, too.

Joan was old blood with a fine Worthington pedigreed, the Bartletts and Osgoods. She was town clerk for many years and her father, a selectman. Her mother worked in the post office. Her uncle was the building inspector and his wife, a teacher at the elementary school. Win moved to Worthington when he was a young boy with his parents, a brother, and a sister. He remembered sitting on the floorboards of their pickup truck all the way from Aroostook County, Northern Maine. Other Donovans came, too, including a woman who married into the Albert family, the town’s potato barons.

Win built homes but gave that up when his health suffered and he turned to natural foods and alternative medicine. Some people who had known him all his life found it hard to accept his new ideas. That was why he was so happy about our move to Worthington.

Win and Joan talked about getting along in the small town. Stop if you see someone in trouble on the side of the road. Don’t speak ill of anyone because the person you’re talking to might be related. Don’t bother the neighbors. Be honest. Respect the people who’ve been living here and welcome the new ones. When people complained too many houses were being built, Win would say, “People have to live somewhere.”

They lived by a solid code of country values. And that first week, while Joan watched our four kids and made us food, Win dropped by to check our progress and to give a hand. He worked with Hank to line the chimney with hollow clay blocks so it would be safe to burn wood. Then, he helped Hank get the pump going that drew our water from a spring-fed cistern in the cellar. It was good-tasting water and cold if you let it run for a few minutes, and we were counting on it being clean considering the dank cellar, the sort of place you made a lot of noise when you went downstairs so any critters would scatter. 

After several days, we moved to the house. It was ready enough, and with four kids, ages 1 to 9, we couldn’t stay too long in somebody else’s home. We set up a line of futons in the front bedroom, a temporary sleeping arrangement until we could move into the other bedrooms. The first night the kids were too excited and needed a story to quiet down. I sat with them, telling one of my own, one of those mom stories about insects that act like people. This time it was a family of monarch butterflies, because we saw their cocoons, green with gold-like markings, clinging to leaves of milkweed in the fields behind our friends’ home. Joan put one in a jar for the kids so they could watch it hatch.

My children lay beneath the quilts I made, wearing the flannel pajamas I had sewed. Once again they were in a new home, trusting their parents were doing right for them. I set my voice on a soothing, storytelling tone. They were counting on this familiar moment. The air didn’t have the smells of our family: my cooking, bath time, saw dust on Hank’s clothes, the kids’ dirt from playing. Our furniture was spread out – the crate chairs, the steamer trunks, the book cases Hank built, his first attempt at furniture, the end table from my parents’ newlywed living room set and castoffs like the TV that barely pulled in two stations from Connecticut. The maple table Hank scored at a second-hand shop and refinished was in the dining room. The boxes were unpacked: the kitchen stuff, clothes, toys and the little things that decorate a home and make it your own. I plucked sun chokes and set them in a crock on the tabletop, something pretty to get us started.

For tonight, my story was done. They were ready to sleep. I kissed each one. 

Hank sat outside on the slab stone step for the front door, smoking beneath the overhang. I was smoking then, so I joined him. A pickup truck sped around the curve in front of the house as if nothing would ever be in its way. We’d have to be careful with the kids on this road. I felt cold even with my sweater. The clear September nights pulled the heat from the ground, and earlier, before the light set, moisture from the river settled in misty clumps over the field at Charlie’s farm across the road. I marveled at the quiet, so quiet it made my ears buzz and the sky dark and heavy with stars. The lights were on at the farmhouse, its front rooms only yards from the edge of the road. 

Through the trees we saw the house where other neighbors lived. He worked in social services and she was a stay-at-home mom. Our two school-aged children would catch the bus at the end of the driveway with their boys. We registered them at the school in the town’s center village, named for Russell H. Conwell, a native son who founded Temple University and other Philadelphian institutions. He was supposed to be a great orator, and his most famous speech was called Acre of Diamonds. People spoke with great reverence about Conwell, that he was a big Civil War hero who met Abraham Lincoln. But he was a bit of a fibber, I found out years later, claiming to have been with young Johnny Ring, one of the Rings of Ringville, when he was killed in a Civil War battle, and he used the boy’s sword to attack rebel soldiers. It was one of those small town legends thin on the truth but good for the telling.

The Russell H. Conwell School, covered by white wooden clapboards, had four classrooms although only three were used and grades one through four were doubled up because there were so few kids, less than fifty. The talk in town was the school might be shut and that worried folks. Once you lose a school, you never get it back. It happened in nearby towns. More than once we heard how happy people were a big family like ours moved to Worthington. Our oldest daughter was in fourth grade, taught by Joan Donovan’s aunt, Helen, a woman with a kind grandmotherly face. Our oldest son was in kindergarten. 

Hank and I talked ahead. He had work with Win at least through the fall. After that he didn’t know. It might be tight for a while. We expected that, but I knew it worried him despite what he or I ever said. One big bill, someone getting sick or the car breaking down, and we’d be in trouble. We didn’t have a credit card to fall back on in an emergency. It would take a lot for us to ask our families for help. We had four kids who depended on us, and the fact that we uprooted them once again to a rural town without any guarantee we’d have enough money to take care of them might seem careless or thoughtless. But I couldn’t shake the belief this move was for the better. Here would be our family’s best chance to own a home finally. Perhaps we could buy a fixer-upper or a piece of land to build.

 We had learned it takes three years to get established. The first year, you learn your way around. The second, you recover financially. The third, you get ahead. But we never made it that far. We kept looking for some place that would hold our attention. I hoped this time we’d stay.

FICTION: The fictional hilltowns is the inspired setting for most of my adult novels, including the Isabel Long Mystery SeriesThe Sweet SpotThe Sacred Dog, and my most recent, Northern Comfort

Country Living

A Good Name for Worthington

With this post, I start a new series called Hilltown Postcards. I happened to be going through old files in my computer when I found a doc with short stories I had written a long time ago about our life in the hilltowns in Western Massachusetts. My agent at the time wanted me to write a tell-all book with lots of dirt, but I didn’t have it in me. Some are long, like this one, some are short. Rereading them has inspired me to try writing more. In some instances I will change the names of certain people. That’s true of this story about our move.

It was a little dump of a house, once owned by the landlord’s grandparents in Worthington, a cluster of modest homes on the curve of Route 112, which is a good country road. The house’s clapboards had long lost their coat of white paint. The inside was dirty and filled with trash left behind after the old man died and the old woman, his second wife, moved. It would take a lot before our kids, we had four then, could live here, but the rent was right, $150, and we could work that off fixing the place. This was 1981.

We were living then in a two-bedroom apartment in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston, a nice dead-end street with friendly neighbors, but only blocks away from some tough sections of that city. Our oldest daughter went to third grade in Roxbury, one of the few white kids, and I had to take two city buses then walk through a bombed-out looking neighborhood to visit the school. A guard unlocked the door to let me in. The day I brought her brother to register him for kindergarten, a little boy tossed a Hostess cake onto a table and announced to the teacher he had brought his “mother-fucking snack.” I took one look at my son, a sweet boy who cried easily and loved to draw, and knew he’d have an awfully hard time here.

Then, one winter night I was coming home from the movies, waiting at a trolley stop on Huntington Ave., when a man tried to force me into his van. I had our youngest, just a baby, strapped to my front. The man claimed he worked for the transit system and knew the next trolley wouldn’t be here for an hour. He drove the van onto the sidewalk. I kept talking my way out of it, so shook I didn’t even think to go inside the corner bar for help or use the payphone to call Hank. I was lucky a stranger, a longhaired guy in a puffy down jacket, arrived to intercede. He told me, “I’m not a violent man, but I’d have killed him if he touched you and the baby.” He said the man had blood on his hands. Didn’t I see?

Hank and I decided our kids would live in a place with clean air and clear skies and where people looked out for each other in a good way: A small town with trees and fields and wildlife. The city had gotten too expensive. We were living paycheck-to-paycheck, Hank doing his best to support us as a carpenter, but it seemed easier to do that in the country than in the city.

A friend of a friend mentioned a friend had work in Worthington, a town in Western Massachusetts I’d never heard of although I’ve lived in this state most of my life. Hank made the two-hour drive to meet Win Donovan. Win was ten years older, from that rock ’n’ roll generation, but he and Hank hit it off, two carpenters, deep thinkers, which often comes with the occupation. Then for a summer weekend we visited Win and his wife, Joan, to get a closer look. Win was building a cabin for a customer, and Hank was part of the crew raising its timber frame. We camped in the Donovans’ field, and that night after we had put the kids to sleep in our tent, the sky was awash with streaking gobs of color. Northern Lights. Hank and I stood there, watching the display. Surely this was a sign.

Now, in this house’s yard, I held our baby on my hip as the other kids played. Hank and I listened to the man, who I will call Frank although that wasn’t his name, talk about his family. Frank spoke in a heavy Yankee twang, his loud voice coming from high in his chest, calling Hank “chief” and me “young lady” although he was ten years younger. He had a face that belonged on a cartoon character: thick glasses, rubbery features, and ears that stuck out like jug handles, a family trait I was told later. He’d been in a bad accident so he was having a hard time getting around. He may have been using crutches.

He told us his grandfather had been an upstanding citizen in Worthington, one of its constables. His father, also dead, had been a war hero. The family was a part of the town’s history. We listened politely. As I said, we wanted the house. It’s a small town, just over a thousand people then, and places to rent were scarce. We had found out about this one from the Donovans. 

After we moved in and the neighbors learned we were renters and not friends of Frank, they told us he showed up when his grandfather was near his end and got him to sign over the house. One woman was embarrassed she had agreed to be a witness when the new will was signed. Frank’s version was that no one was taking care of the old folks and they were grateful for his attention. At any rate, none of this sat well with his aunt who lived in a nearby town. Later, when she took him to court, the judge gave Frank a choice: flip a coin for the house or give his aunt half its value. He gave her half.

Everything we owned fit into a small U-Haul and the VW microbus we had taken across Canada from Seattle to Boston. We stacked the boxes in the first space we could clear in the house, because the Donovans had generously invited us to stay with them until the place was livable. We’d have to let our big city cat to temporarily fend for himself in the yard. Frank showed up, unembarrassed that the place was filled with trash and filthy. He wanted to talk business and get his first month’s rent. He did agree that given the circumstances a security deposit for damages would be unreasonable.

It was September and yellow sun choke flowers growing along the foundation were taller than the windows in the dining room, the sunniest space in the house. The old couple used to keep a dog barricaded in the dining room by a makeshift plywood gate, its surface clawed, one of the first things to go. They also had cats, lots of them, and after the house was empty, a neighbor brought them bags of dried food. Eventually, the cats ran off or died. Later, when Hank replaced the back porch, he found cat skulls and empty booze bottles beneath the rotted planks.

The house was situated on a small bluff overlooking Route 112, a state-numbered route, with enough of a yard for the kids to play before it rose steeply into a two-acre wooded lot. This was the Ringville section, named for the Ring family, including Johnny Ring, a Civil War hero. The trees on the lot were not remarkable or large. Like much of the settled part of town, the forest began reclaiming its turf when most people stopped burning wood for heat.

The one interesting tree in the backyard lot had grown around a scythe. Some careless member of the family left the tool leaning against the trunk long ago and the tree consumed its blade so the rusted metal stuck out like a thorn. The wooden handle had long rotted away.

It appeared the people who lived here never went to the dump either. They stuffed their garbage in bread bags, and then buried them on the hill. I tried yanking the bags. Their contents now were disintegrated to colorful dust, but I gave up when I realized how many were there.

I have a photo of Hank, wearing patched jeans, as he stood in debris on the living room floor of that house. His arms are spread akimbo and he’s looking upward toward the blackened ceiling as if this situation was hopeless. But he was joking because he knew we were capable of scrubbing and clearing and painting, that we could make any place livable.

At least the house was structurally sound, with more room than it appeared from the outside, with two bedrooms on both floors and a large living room. The bathroom was tiny, but clean enough. The kitchen wasn’t. The counters beside the sink were old unfinished planks, and we poured straight bleach to disinfect the wood and vowed never to put food or a utensil on them. We used our apartment washer, because there was no hookup, attaching hoses to the faucet and drain, but I couldn’t forget when it was filling or it’d overflow onto the floor.

 In all the places we lived, we never locked the door. Mostly it was because we lived in a safe neighborhood or we had an extraordinary faith no one would want to rob or harm us. We wouldn’t be locking this house either since it appeared on the outside that nothing inside would be worth stealing. That was correct. No stereo, just a black and white TV someone gave us. I had a few pieces of jewelry, valuable to me, like the amber earrings that had been a birthday present from Hank, and of course, his tools.

If someone sunk some money into the house, gutted it, upgraded the mechanicals and poured a cement floor in the cellar, it could have been a very nice home. But the man who owned this house wasn’t planning to do that. He wanted something on the cheap, so for the next several days Hank and I hauled trash, shoveled dirt into barrels, and removed the broken furniture. We scrubbed the ceilings, walls, and wooden floors, their finish long worn away. Hank washed the windows, and one of the neighbors, who stopped to say hello, told him he had never seen them clean.

One day while we were working, two women from the Board of Health arrived unannounced to inspect the place. Lois Ashe Brown explained they were making sure the place was habitable. She said it was one thing for people to live in squalor when they owned a home, but another to rent it out. They heard how the old couple had lived. The other woman rolled her eyes as she talked about what she expected of our landlord. They weren’t unfriendly but were businesslike. It got me worried. Our belongings were still packed in boxes. We didn’t have enough money to return to Boston, and we had no other prospects.

So Hank and I showed the women around, trying to convince them we were getting the place in shape. The trash was gone and most of the walls had been washed of soot. We had a lead on a woodstove for heat. The plumbing worked fine, and the phone was hooked up. The town was so small and the lines old, we only had to dial four digits to call another person living in town. Our number was 5989, and the ring was something quaint and tinny.

Yes, the two women could see we were making progress. They were satisfied, and in parting, Lois remarked brightly, “Livingston. Now that’s a good name for Worthington.” 

Still thinking about that backhanded welcome, I didn’t have the heart to tell her Hank and I were not married, even with four kids, and that my last name then was really Medeiros. We had been a couple for six years but were part of that generation who had disinherited just about everything our parents did like marrying and staying in one place all your life.

So I smiled and said thank you.

FICTION: The fictional hilltowns is the inspired setting for most of my adult novels, including the Isabel Long Mystery SeriesThe Sweet SpotThe Sacred Dog, and my most recent, Northern Comfort

The Sacred Dog

King of the Road

Country fans will recognize this vintage tune by Roger Miller. You have to go way back, say 1964, when Miller, who wrote it, sang about a “man of means by no means” who proclaims himself with humor and a bit of cynicism “King of the Road.” And if The Sacred Dog, my next book out, had a soundtrack, this song would be at the top of the list.

Certainly King of the Road is a favorite for one of the characters, Monk Stevens who plays it on the jukebox at The Sacred Dog — a bar situated in a hilltown that’s a gathering place for locals.

Monk likes to drop the coins in the slot (the story is set in 1984) and sing along typically after he’s had a few beers.

Truthfully, The Sacred Dog is a dark book about a bad feud between two men. One is Frank Hooker, the owner of The Sacred Dog. The other is Al Kitchen, a local with a rather feral upbringing. Frank blames Al for his brother’s death and won’t believe it’s not true. Of course, Al resents it. There’s a whole lot more to this story, but I will let you know about it in future posts. By the way, this book is not part of my Isabel Long Mystery Series although the setting is familiar — the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts.

While The Sacred Dog may be dark, I also wanted to portray the bar, its patrons, and owner realistically. Of course, there is humor, whether it’s the antics of the regulars or what comes out of their mouths. I believe this helps to heighten the book’s drama.

When I began this novel, I bought a CD of Best of Roger Miller — His Greatest Hits. Well that was 22 years ago. Now I could hear it on Spotify. But I listened to that song, plus the others like Chug-A-Lugand Do-Wacka-Do. But King of the Road did it for me. It described a carefree life the people at Frank’s bar only imagined.

There is also something serious to consider here. In 1964, the man singing the song was considered a “hobo,” a wandering person who picked up work, often menial, wherever it could be found. Today, those people are called homeless, who live that way for a variety of reasons. I doubt if many feel the same way as Miller’s King of the Road.

I wanted to quote lines from the song in my book, but there are copyright issues. So, I try to give readers a feeling for the song which plays more than a few times at The Dog, which is what the locals call Frank’s bar. Here, I found a video on YouTube that will give you an idea: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4c7D0YsgnrE

And here is an excerpt from The Sacred Dog in which King of the Road is featured:

The jukebox played King of the Road by Roger Miller. Monk Stevens, who sat on one side of his Uncle Early, got going when he heard the finger-snapping, fiddle-strumming start. He mouthed the words he knew by heart, half-singing the lyrics along with Roger, but his voice got louder. Early tapped the beat with the bottom edge of his lighter and grinned at his nephew, Monk, who used his fingertips to mimic the sound. Frank enjoyed the show. It was an easy song to sing, and though none of them led as carefree a life as Roger Miller described in his lyrics, they fancied they understood its true grit.

“Hey, Monk. Sing next to the window, and I’ll help you out,” Early joked as he lifted his bottle.

Conversations stopped with each clap of thunder, and when they resumed, many talked about the storm and compared it to others they experienced. 

“I remember the time I was out in the middle of my cornfield when the storm hit,” one drinker said. “I thought for sure I was a gonna. I tried to make myself as low to the ground I could.”

“That must’ve taken some doin’,” his buddy said.

“Aw, shut up.”

Frank had a theory that every drunk in a bar was either an authority or a sad sack.

“Which one are you?” Frank once asked Early.

“I’d say a little of both,” Early replied. “Why don’t you get me another beer and a shot.” 

The lights went out, and Roger Miller’s voice from the jukebox slowed unnaturally. The racket from the pinball machines petered out. Frank, who had already put a large flashlight on the counter, snapped it on. There were a few wisecracks, but most people were quiet as Frank went into the backroom to collect candles and a kerosene lantern that had belonged to his dad.

“It’s okay. Calm down, girl,” he told the dog, who whimpered beneath the counter.

Frank arranged candle stubs on Budweiser bottles and raised the globe of the lantern to light its wick. 

“Those aren’t gonna last long if this storm keeps up,” Early said.

But Frank didn’t answer. He and everybody else in the place turned when a truck stopped in The Dog’s parking lot, and a man moved across its headlights toward the bar’s front door. Hippie Joe, his long hair plastered to his head and neck, stood drenched as lightning lit the space behind him.

“Accident,” he shouted. “Call it in. A car hit that large maple on the curve near Cole Road. Tree was down, and the driver didn’t see it. His car’s wedged under. Some people stopped to help him. He’s hurt, but I dunno how much. Big mess. Tree took a couple of poles with it.”

Frank, who was on the phone to the power company, relayed quickly what Joe said before he called the emergency dispatch. The volunteer firefighters in the bar drained their beers and were out the door before their beepers sounded. Frank handed the phone to Joe, who gave dispatch more information about the accident before he followed the others outside.

Early shook a finger.

“The tree warden wanted to take that maple ’cause it was leaning a little more each year,” he said. “The selectmen were ready. They even held one of those tree hearings, but old lady Smith who owns the property next to it raised a fuss. So they all agreed to let it be.” He looked about ready to spit. “And then this happens.”

Frank half-listened to Early. His mind was elsewhere, on his brother’s open casket, Wes, only in his twenties, lying there in the suit he wore to his high school graduation. Frank’s ex-wife was a month away from giving birth to their daughter, but even that joyous event didn’t help his parents recover from their younger son’s death. Their grief was like a dry wind that drew life from them, and though they were only middle-aged, they died within months of each other a few years later. 

He recalled how his brother’s buddies who came to the wake seemed scared, as if his death could be contagious. Wes was a little foolish, but he would have turned out okay, Frank was certain. He watched Al joke with one of the ballplayer’s girlfriends, a well-built blonde whose head rocked forward as she laughed. It should’ve been somebody else who died that night. It should’ve been Al.

LINK: The Sacred Dog will be released by darkstroke books on Dec. 27, but it’s ready for Kindle readers to pre-order. Please do as it helps a great deal with ratings. Thank you. Here I will make it easy with the link: https://mybook.to/thesacreddog

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Yes, that’s my CD of Best of Roger Miller — His Greatest Songs.  

hilltowns, Isabel Long Mystery Series

Having My Way With It

Actually, that title is an abbreviation of what I will be talking about March 9 at an event sponsored by the Shelburne Falls Area Women’s Club. Specifically, I will talk about how the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts, where I live, have been an inspiration for my fiction.

Actually, if I were to give the whole title it would be: I Take What I Know and Have My Way With It.


Andrew Heinrich on the bassoon at Brodksy Bookshop in Taos, NM

I will be honest in saying I love doing these events. I’ve done them at libraries, classrooms, book stores, on stage and for literary groups — in person and virtually. One memorable reading was for my novel, Peace, Love, and You Know What, at Brodsky Bookshop in Taos, NM, where my friend, Andrew Heinrich played Beatles tunes on the bassoon. It was appropriate given the book’s pitch: First a three-day bash at a college hippie pad … and then maybe adulthood. Peace, Love, and You Know What is a comedy framed by the Vietnam War and Watergate.

Now I will be talking and reading in Shelburne Falls, Mass., the village where I live. For this event, I will concentrate on my Isabel Long Mystery Series. As I’ve said before, there’s a lot of me in Isabel. Given it’s written in first-person, present tense, I can’t help it. But I have no plans to be a private investigator now that I’ve left journalism for good. I will write about one instead — plus work on my other writing projects. It’s been a month, by the way, since I left that profession.

I admit I pay homage to family members, especially my mother, in this series. But this is definitely not a memoir. The rest of the characters are made up. So are Isabel’s cases.

But I honestly believe the hilltowns are a permanent part of my DNA considering the the length of time I’ve lived in Western Mass. — 25 years the first go-round and reaching five years this one — and importantly covering it as a reporter.  It helps my books be authentic.

I’ve been to lots of readings by other authors, so I am familiar with what works and what doesn’t. For the next few days I will concentrate on what I will say and how much I will read. There will be time for questions and I will have books for sale at a discount.

If you’re in the area, here are the event’s details: Wednesday, March 9, 4 p.m. at the Shelburne Buckland Community Center at 53 Main St., on the Shelburne side of Shelburne Falls.


That’s me giving a reading at SOMOS in Taos — “a place for the written and spoken word.”


Here’s the link to Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Joan-Livingston/e/B01E1HKIDG




Isabel Long Series

And Now for the Sequel

Here’s some very welcome news: Crooked Cat Books has signed Redneck’s Revenge. The mystery will be published several months after its prequel Chasing the Case — Crooked Cat has that one too.

Two mysteries written and signed this year. Damn, I’m excited.

Those who know me also know that it’s been a challenge breaking into the business side of writing. I thank Laurence and Steph Patterson for providing that break.logosmall2

So, here’s the lowdown on Redneck’s Revenge, which like most of my books takes place in Western Massachusetts — although my characters and towns are pure fiction.

Isabel Long, a journalist turned amateur P.I., has taken on her second case: the suspicious death of a junkyard owner.

Despite her success, Isabel is feeling a bit lost months after solving her first. Her relationship with Jack, the owner of the Rooster Bar, has cooled. Then the police warn Isabel she must work for a licensed P.I. before she can go out on her own.

With the encouragement of her 92-year-old mother, Isabel snaps out of it by hooking up with a P.I. and finding a new case. The official ruling is that Chet Waters, an ornery so-and-so, was passed out when his house caught fire. His daughter, who inherited the junkyard, believes he was murdered.

Topping the list of suspects she gives Isabel are two dangerous drug-dealing brothers, a rival junkyard owner, and an ex-husband. Isabel is unfamiliar with the hilltown of Caulfield and its rough-and-tumble residents. But as she did when she worked as a journalist, Isabel checks out leads and builds a story.

Could Chet’s death simply be a case of redneck’s revenge? Isabel is about to find out.

Right now, Chasing the Case is in the hands of my editor Miriam Drori. And I’m onto writing the next one. It’s called Checking the Traps. Yup, Isabel is once again in the thick of things.

Here’s the link for Crooked Cat Books: www.crookedcatbooks.com