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The Mothfoot of Denis Sartor

Updated: Mar 6

In lieu of a true post, an excerpt.



Elmore Leonard said never to start any writing with weather. Well, it's raining. It's been raining. It will continue to rain. The business of writing can be environmental. After all, as Elizabeth George notes, the difference between a published writer and an unpublished one, if the variables of talent, passion, and chance are equal, is a question of bum glue. She may be avoiding the word ass to clarify the difference between the human ass and the asinine ass, which, quite sadly, could be used to produce a bucket of glue. Bum glue, the 'thing' that makes one's ass stick to the writing chair, is perseverance. And to persevere, comfort--the environment itself--without venturing into the topics of pay checks, food insecurity, and lodgings, is made of a place on which to sit and some kind of writing instrument. And so I'm composing this rather ho-hum post in my bedroom, in bed, feet crossed on a furry cushion, a laptop on my lap (where else does a laptop belong?), with the darkness of a gloomy, rainy day to shadow my thoughts. I offer you in lieu of an actual post, an excerpt from a novel that should have been completed two weeks ago. It is nowhere near done, which is the story of my writing life. (More glue! Less editing!) This novel is not yet listed in my projects on this site. Without a preamble, I hope you enjoy this bit of writing-in-progress from the second chapter.

“So bum glue is about commitment on every level to the self, to the dream, and to the process...There are, naturally, consequences to making this sort of commitment. The writing life is one of extreme isolation, and for the person who needs the continual stimulation of other people, attempting this as a career is a choice fraught with anxiety, unmet needs, and frustration. Writing well also requires forced introspection.” --Elizabeth George, Write Away

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The Mothfoot of Denis Sartor

Excerpt of Chapter Two

(NB: The following pages have since been revised.)


Our mother started her fits of crying the first time our father mentioned Debra, and Diane had done the screaming in her place since then. To keep our mom’s emotions in check, Diane and I wrote our own code to refer to unpleasant moments, such as The Evening of Revelations, which we’d shortened to Revelations, a catch-all word that could mean several things at once, like our dad, Debbie, the years before his departure, or anything related in general to memories that could send our mother spiraling into the Abyss of Sheer Sadness. Whenever she locked herself in her bedroom to cry, we’d say, “She’s in the Abyss” or we’d give each other a look and whisper, “Abyss.”


I wish I’d had the gumption to clock our father. I was too young and too small. He’d have lifted me by the scruff of my collar or sent me flying over the sofa like we’d practiced when we played Peter Pan and I whooped and hollered, “I can fly!” After our father left, Diane stepped into our mother’s shoes, and I realize now how much she did for both my mother and me over the years, taking care of two people who should have been there for her as well. Our family should have formed an equal trinity, but we were a triangle instead, with Diane at the apex. I was twelve years old, two months short of finishing sixth grade and elementary school, and I couldn’t imagine our lives getting any worse.


When our teacher called on me to answer her cold calls, I clammed up and lifted my shoulders like a benighted idiot. I knew the answers, but I didn’t care about studiousness or persistence. Miss Petty was aware of my home situation, and she wasn’t exactly compassionate. Her hair was shingled in a Dorothy Hamill bowl cut, and her shoulders received like landing pads the white flakes of an extreme bout of psoriasis or eczema that she sometimes scratched with her long fingernails, leaving red stripes behind her ears as though wild cats massaged her neck when she was home alone watching television. While I wasn’t the first or the last student at our school to witness the ugliness of separation and divorce, Miss Petty, I assumed, thought me a doomed case of Broken Home Syndrome. I’d answered her questions and erased the chalkboard at her bidding from September to April, and I stopped doing all those things, staring instead at the flakes on her sweaters to avoid eye contact. The students in our class were merciless and called her all kinds of names. After April, I’d added Snowflake to the mix.


Yield’s Run is a tight-knit Christian community with a chip on its country-bumpkin shoulder. We students were born in the 1960s, during the sexual revolution, which only reared its frisky head a decade later, at least in the valley, and my mother went through a dull period of feeling ostracized by friends who didn’t quite know how to handle Elaine Sartor as a newly-single woman. Our mother drifted through her days unmoored, and she remained unmoored and drifting until her death a decade later. Miss Petty added to her depression by sending scribbled notes about various concerns for my behavior and the drastic changes in my academic performance. Even at recess, I sat on my own, abandoning my zeal for dodgeball when in past months I’d been picked first or second by whoever was in charge of the game.


In class, a boy with jet-black hair who was new in town—all the way from Waynesboro some thirty miles south—said to me in an offhand way, “Cheer up. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s coming to Virginny by way of the Richmond Coliseum.” I’d forgotten his name, and I’ll knew of him were rumors he’d been held back a grade at his previous school for being slow or stupid, though he was so quick-witted in class with zinging jokes that I couldn’t imagine it to be true. Later I’d find out Rick Stahl had indeed been held back, forced to go through the gauntlet of first grade twice simply because he had trouble with his letters, seeing some of them in reverse or missing altogether in the middle of words. He was sharp as a tack and his age difference—he was a May ’65 and I was a November ’66, which made him almost eighteen months older. He seemed so much taller and bigger than the rest of us. I’d catch up to him eventually, beating him in height though never in weight.


After Spring Break and the Easter holiday, Miss Petty had us stand up one by one to say three interesting things about ourselves and what we’d done with our time off, and I wanted everyone to leave me well alone, so I said, “I’d rather shave my face”—though I showed no signs of a burgeoning mustache—“with a cheese grater than listen to the Christian Rock of my grandmother who came to visit us; my father ran off to Florida with some floozie named Debbie”—I wanted to say Twat Debbie, but I’d be sent to the principal’s office—“and someday I’m going to live anywhere but in this valley.” Miss Petty took furious notes, her big, red-rimmed and dusty Brooke Shields brows furrowed. She smacked her lips and said, “Aren’t we just a barrel of laughs, Denis Sartor.” When his turn came, the new student said with a serious face, “What he said,” pointing to me, “minus that bit about the floozie from Florida. You can never trust a floozie named Debbie unless she’s handing out Swiss rolls. It’s a shifty name, if you ask me.”


In answer to Rick’s then comment about Lynyrd Skynyrd, I said, “My dad listened to them all the time and he’s nobody I want to think about.” I leaned in the aisle between our desks and he did the same. “That vinyl was just about crazy-glued to our turntable. After he left, it made my mother cry to hear it, so my sister lit herself a cigarette and burned buttholes all over that record.”


He nodded his head like he understood the importance of vandalizing records as a natural response to sadness and disappointment in parental behavior. He said, “Yeah, because of Debbie. What a hoebag. But wouldn’t your dad just shit himself dry if you sent him a photo of yourself and Van Zant hanging out after the show? Because, guess what, friend, I’ve got tickets. And bonus: my aunt is dating one of the roadies, so we’re guaranteed a visit backstage, free of charge.” He was twitching all over, and he said the excitement ran through him like an electric charge. His enthusiasm was contagious, and I smiled for the first time in a good long while.


I never asked Rick why he picked me to be his best friend. We went to the concert on April 27, 1977, a date halfway through Skynyrd’s Street Survivors Tour, we met the bandmembers, and they autographed our shirts, which weren’t even from that tour. Rick explained that my father was their biggest fan, and he proceeded to recount our family situation in great detail. He asked Van Zant to write my father a note on a piece paper, which he did, taking his time and smiling, a black hat cocked on his long hair. He folded the paper in half, ruffled both our heads, and said, “You two keep cool.” We were ushered out the backstage area by Rick’s aunt’s boyfriend, and when Rick opened the paper, he said, “Christ Jesus, Van Zant is a god.”


Ronnie Van Zant had written for my father, ‘Danny-boy, your sweet and spicy Debbie is one hell of a skankmuffin. Denis and Rick are awesome kids. You’ll regret not watching your boy grow up and you’ll die alone drooling in a rest home in fucking Florida. With love, Ronnie.’ How lucky were we, two kids on the cusp of puberty, to speak to Ronnie Van Zant and Steve and Cassie Gaines six months before they died in that horrible plane crash. I sent the note to my father and a photograph of Rick and me in the middle of a group shot with the band. Rick printed a dozen copies of that photo and distributed them like business cards. He bought a frame at the local pharmacy and put one of the photos on his dresser. Years later, in his first or second year working at the plant, he paid a professional photographer to blow up the picture to a sixteen by twenty size and frame it, in real, dark walnut wood fitted with a nice ivory matte. That big photo hung in his dining room, next to his favorite wedding picture, of equal size, and an entire collection of studio portraits of his daughter Madeleine.


Thinking of the fleeting nature of life, of a talented guy like Van Zant dying at age 29 in a freak accident, I thought of my own work accident—a bottle of bourbon in hand and a good dose of codeine swirling in my veins—and the significance of friendship and family led me to speak gratitude to an unknown entity. I’d been feeling the warmth and kindness of humanity like a great swelling of my heart-sails or the unfurling of gigantic love-wings, and believing no one listened to me but universal forces or mystic deities, I wasn’t particular or certain, I began to enumerate what was good about my life. Diane and I had no other siblings, so I thought I’d start with her. “All my thanks for Diane,” I said. “And for Shaun and for Jake, even though she divorced him. For the guys at work, our Lunch Gang, my dictionary, Shaun’s Spanish textbook, the whole town of Yield’s Run, the goddamn traffic light that takes forever to turn green, because I notice the centennial oak announcing the changing seasons every single time I’m sitting in my truck waiting for that burst of green.” I drank my bourbon from a water glass and thought some more about what the real religious folk—and not those alien weirdos with tinfoil on their heads—around here call the tender mercies of my life. I can’t say that my life had been awfully tender, but I hung on to the concept of mercies and welcomed those coming my way. “The mercy of my grandparents, Pappy and Grammy Ellis, may they rest in peace as twin stars in the firmament of heaven.”


My list went on and on. I gave thanks to my dishwasher and the trees in the backyard, to the taste of medium-rare steak and Montreal seasoning, to my letterman jacket hanging in the bedroom closet, to the former postmaster for always asking me to say hello to Diane because she remembers her with fondness from that time when Diane lived in our zip code and she gave hell to a customer who’d used some downright nasty words against the postmaster and argued she’d be fired if he got his way. Gratitude for the little creek out back that makes soothing sounds when it’s running free after a good rain, for a roof over my head, for Fleetwood Mac and Judas Priest and Black Sabbath, and people who play the harp like angels, and for people who sing like angels, for having no cavities in the past two decades and good teeth still, for the pajamas my mother sewed for me when I was a kid because we couldn’t afford the expensive Big Jim ones at the store, so she made them from a P.A.C.K-themed fitted sheet that showed all the guys together—Big Josh and Big Jack and Big Jeff and my favorite, Chief Tankua—and I couldn’t wear those pajamas without my Underoos because the pink of my skin and my little seven-year-old dingdong showed through.

I continued to sing the praises of the goodness surrounding me and I thanked the framed poster of Picasso’s wife. I said, “To you, Olga in the armless chair, praise be for looking over me these past few days and all the days before that, ever since Mrs. Sinclair awarded you to me for winning the eleventh-grade field trip quiz to the art museum in D.C.”


There was joy in the bourbon and joy in the clouds of a far-off sky. Amid that joy and my fine outburst of feelings, I heard her voice. If she’d been standing in the room or sitting on my bed, I couldn’t have heard her with any more clarity than I did then. She said, “See me.” The two west-facing windows were ajar, the wind whistled between the sashes, and wood thrushes trilled just beyond, forming their own funky, birdy syllables, but none of those sounds could be mistaken for the voice of a Russian woman, smoky yet light, spoken with a staccato of consonants that just wouldn’t glide, like the ticking sound of rows of seats going up rollercoaster rails. I said, “Say that again?” and she did.



#Fiction #Novel #Writing #Shenandoah Valley #Lynyrd Skynyrd #Ronnie Van Zant #P.A.C.K. #Big Jim #Chief Tankua #Olga Khokhlova #Picasso #Elizabeth George #Elmore Leonard

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