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

What’s Good about Bad Guys

I’m ticking off the main characters of The Sweet Spot one at a time. You’ve met an old coot, an impertinent woman, and the stranger next door. Now meet Walker St. Claire, the bad guy in my soon-to-be-released hilltown novel.

Walker is the younger and only brother of Gil St. Claire, who died in Vietnam. For the past couple of years, he’s been having an affair with Gil’s widow, Edie, one of the novel’s main characters. Oh, yeah, Walker is unhappily married to a beast of a woman and the father of twin boys.

It’s a miracle they have hidden the affair in the nosy hilltown of Conwell. But that doesn’t last.

Here’s a little bit about Walker: he’s a successful building contractor in the hilltowns. He hangs out at the Do-Si-Do bar. Yes, he’s a bit of a drinker. Although he’s not much of a family man, he does teach his boys everything he knows about baseball.

He’s good looking in a country kind of way.

Walker’s also cocky although that’s tempered a bit because his parents clearly favored his brother. That hurts. He’s also married to a woman he doesn’t love. They got hitched after she got pregnant.

And then, there’s Walker’s love for Edie. Their relationship helps Edie ease the grief of losing her husband. But it means much more for Walker. He gets quite possessive of Edie, which ultimately leads to a tragic turn of events.

My former agent hated Walker. He said the man had no redeeming qualities.

I disagree.

I understand why Walker acts that way. Although he is my creation like all of the novel’s people, I’ve met men like Walker who let their emotions override good sense. They make bad decisions. Certainly, he does.

He’s a necessary part of this novel’s story. I’m not one to write about sweetness and light. Certainly, there are bad guys in my other hilltown novels. Walker is the first you will meet and actually the nicest of the bunch.

Here is a scene from early in The Sweet Spot, set for a release in January. Walker meets up with Edie for a romp in the empty apartment above his parents’ general store.

Now she slipped her hand from Walker as she tried to get up, but his fingers cuffed her wrist to keep her from leaving.

“Where’re you going?” he asked.

“To the bathroom.”

“Stay here.”

Edie rolled onto her side to face him.

“How’s the new job?” she asked.

He frowned.

“Damn New Yorkers. You know who I mean, the couple that bought the old Franklin place on the south end of town. They can’t make up their fuckin’ minds.”


“The woman wants wainscoting in the dining room. The man wants a chair rail. I joked they might have to flip a coin cause one of ’em didn’t want what the other one did. Maybe they’ll do both. You know how New Yorkers are.”


“First, they asked for exposed beams in the kitchen. Now they’re not sure it’s what they want. They’re gonna get back to me on that one.”


“On top of that, one of my framers quit mid-week. Couldn’t hack the work. Remember I told you about Tom? I had my doubts he’d last anyway, but I thought I was doin’ his family a favor. Dumb fuck can’t hold down a job for long. I feel sorry for his wife and kids.”


“To top if off, the lumberyard messed up my material order. It set me back today. I hate that shit.”

“You’ll fix it, Walker,” she said. “You always do.”

Walker sighed. The air came from deep inside him.

“Yeah, Edie, I will. Hey, I see you got a new neighbor. You meet him yet?”

Edie shook her head.

“I heard about him though. I think he’s the one who was at Gil’s ceremony on Memorial Day.”

“I saw him that day, too. Seems like he was in an accident or something.”

“I need to go over. Pop and Aunt Leona already have. They say he’s really nice.”

“You do that. At least, I won’t have to worry about him.”

“Why do you say that?” Edie asked.

“You haven’t seen him up close. He’s one ugly son of a bitch. I can’t see a woman wanting to be with him for free.”

“Walker, you’re not being very nice. Suppose he was in Vietnam like Gil?”

“Then I feel real sorry for him.” He gazed around the room. “We’ll have to do this again.”

Edie shifted.

“Not so fast.” His hand closed tighter. “What’s with you and Lonny?”

“Him? We’re just having some laughs,” Edie said.

“I heard you both left at the same time the other night. You sleep with him?”

“We left at the same time? So what. Walker, you’re hurting my wrist.”

His lips opened and shut, but he didn’t speak. He loosened his grip.

“Tell me more,” he said.

“I was having fun, just like you and me are having fun.”

“Fun. Is that what this is?”

“What else can it be, Walker?”

“I’m hoping for more.”


ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: We got a bit of snow yesterday. I took this photo on the back porch. That’s my office window and a bit of snow-covered flower garden.



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.


characters, Writing

Crusty Old Coots

I like characters who are crusty old coots. My next novel, The Sweet Spot, has good one. His name is Alban Sweet.

The Sweet Spot is the first of my hilltown books to be launched, this one in January. As I’ve explained before, they are set in a rural stretch of Western Massachusetts, where my family and I once lived. I also reported on it for a local daily.

The town of Conwell and the characters in my book are fabricated although, heaven knows, those little towns (population 1,200 and fewer) are full of characters. Alban Sweet, who is known as Benny to most everyone except his late wife, his sister, and a few of the old-timers, would feel at home.

He’s Pop to Edie, his daughter and the novel’s main character. His granddaughter calls him Poppy.

Alban is a rascal of a guy who has run the town dump for about 35 years. (The novel is set in 1978.) He brings home the stuff people toss out that he feels still has some value. The outbuildings behind the home he shares with Edie is full of the junk. Yeah, he’s a bit of a drinker.

And he has a notorious feud with the town’s road boss because he keeps borrowing stuff from the highway department without asking. In keeping with a good feud, the road boss makes sure his dirt road is plowed and graded last.

Alban loves his daughter and granddaughter, Amber. (His other two daughters won’t have anything to do with him.) He would do anything for them. His love is true.

By the way, Alban is made up and not based on anyone real although I will admit I have met more than my share of crusty old coots. And, yes, my other hilltown novels have them.

Here’s a scene from early in the novel. Edie and Amber have just returned from a Memorial Day party at her in-laws. Earlier that day, the town has a ceremony to honor the soldiers who died in war, including Edie’s husband who was killed in Vietnam. Alban wasn’t invited to the in-laws’  because he got stinking drunk one year and insulted one of the guests. So, Edie and her daughter brought Pop a plate of chicken and the fixings from the party. By the way, the character, Harlan Doyle, has a significant role as the book moves along.

Edie watched her father eat. His thick white hair fell in front of his eyes. She needed to cut it again.

“What’d you do today?” she asked.

Pop ran a hand over his whiskers. He grunted.

“I straightened up the place,” he said.

“That so?”

Edie laughed because the room was filled tightly with junk. The kitchen sink was stacked high with dirty dishes. She and Amber would have to wash them tomorrow.

“When I got sick of that, I got the mower started and tried to cut the grass, but it’s gotten so goddamned high. I’ll have to use the weed whacker from the highway garage.”

Pop cut two short rows in the grass before he left the mower next to the old doghouse filled with gas cans. Edie wasn’t surprised. The closest distance between two points for her father was usually a crooked line.

Edie planted a hand on her hip.

“I saw how far you got. It couldn’t have taken very long,” she said.

Pop ignored her.

“I tried to take a nap on the porch, but there was too much hammering next door. Bang, bang, bang, that’s all I could hear.”

“At Aunt Leona’s?”

“Nah, the other side. Doyle’s.”

The Doyle place was located at the bottom of their dead-end road, closed up after the last Doyle, Elmira, died, and the family who lived elsewhere couldn’t decide what to do with the property. It must have been three years ago, and Pop got a few bucks keeping an eye on the place.

“Somebody moved in? Elmira’s house has gotten really rundown.”

Pop glanced up from his plate.

“I went over to see what’s what and met the fella. Damnedest face I ever seen. Scars up and down like somethin’ clawed him. He walked with an awful bad limp.”

“What clawed him?” Amber asked.

“Didn’t bring it up. It’s not polite, honey. I’ll let your Aunt Leona do it.” Pop grinned at his crack. “Friendly guy though. Name’s Harlan Doyle. His father, Aldrich, grew up next door. Elmira’s boy. He went to Japan in the war, and when he came back, he married a woman and moved south to be with her people. They used to visit the old folks here once in a while. Says he remembers me.”

“I saw a man at the ceremony today,” Edie said. “He wore sunglasses, but they didn’t cover the bad scars on his face. He’s tall, but his body was crooked like somethin’ wasn’t holding him up.”

“That’s him.”

“He says he’s gonna fix up the place?” Edie asked. “Is he really planning to live there?”

“That’s what he says. Maybe I’ll get me some work out of it.”

Pop made smacking noises with his mouth. He pointed toward the hutch.

“I almost forgot. I got a present for you, Amber. Go see over there.”

Amber went to the hutch. She held a wooden box when she twirled around.

“This it?” she asked.

“Yup, darlin’, bring it here.”

Pop’s eyes grew bigger as he told Amber to twist the crank on the box’s bottom, and after she did, the workings produced a tiny, tinny tune. Edie shifted in her chair to give her daughter room. Amber opened and shut the lid. She smiled at the gift and at Pop.

“Thanks, Poppy.”

Edie hoped her daughter would never be ashamed of her grandfather. Even though Ma got mad at Pop, she always defended him for working hard for his family. “Somebody has to take care of the dump,” her mother said when her sisters complained how horrible their father smelled.

When Ma got sick and after she died, Pop took Edie to the dump when Leona was not available to babysit. She stayed close to her father, or if the weather was bad, she waited in his attendant’s shack when he went outside to help a customer. Some people stared, wondering why Benny Sweet brought his youngest to such a place. Afterward, Pop told her about a treasure he salvaged from their load of trash. “People don’t realize what great stuff they throw away” was his motto. Or he’d reveal an observation, say “how the widow living near the store was dumping a lot of vodka bottles lately.”

Pop chuckled.

“Do you like the box?” he asked Amber, and after she said yes, he pulled himself upright. “By the way, next time you see Marie, you can tell her for me the chicken was a little dry this year. I’m gonna need a coupla beers to wash it down.”

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Yes, it is late November and I still have kale — and chard — growing in my garden despite very cold nights. Being a good Portagee, I have to grow kale. I make kale soup once a week, enough to last three days.

FINAL NOTE: Here is the link to my first novel Peace, Love, and You Know What on Amazon. If you live in Taos, you can find it at the local book stores.