Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Salvage Man

cover design by Sarah Kate Chamness

I've just published my 2nd book. It's called The Salvage Man.

The Salvage Man is the story of Dan Reynolds, a man who’s become invisible in a place where he thought he’d live a life of purpose, where he thought he’d matter. In a startling moment of terror and wonder, he meets another soul as invisible as he is.  Together, they seek redemption.

Dan’s story was born in my imagination in 1994.

In the early morning dark, driving down Cherry Street to my out-of-town teaching job, I found myself behind a slow moving city truck, pulling a magnet that hung an inch above the street, gathering nails dumped by union workers to harass scabs. Noblesville’s biggest employer, Firestone, was trying to bust the union, which in return was striking. The union-busting, picket-line crossing, slow-motion destruction of those jobs happened just blocks from my home. The plight of those workers weighed on my mind.

When I moved to Noblesville in the late ‘80s, the population was 18,000. Growth had already changed the town. Many of those Firestone workers had grown up in a different Noblesville. As the years passed I met blue-collar workers my age who grew up in a town they thought would be 10-15,000 people, where they’d have jobs of a certain kind and would fit in socially in the life of the town. But even in the late ‘80s it was changing rapidly, and by the mid ‘90s, that world was evaporating.

That growth and those new suburban residents created an economic vitality that obscured the fading of blue-collar Noblesville. But I saw it on my way to work every morning. For the writer in me, that became Dan Reynolds background.

During the same period my little family was living in an old house I was restoring just down the street from that strike. We were surviving on my teacher’s salary. I took to dumpster diving for old house parts at demolition sites and salvaging old houses prior to demolition. It helped restore my home and provided extra cash as I sold truckloads to antique salvage yards.

Once I went with a neighbor, Russ Wagoner, to salvage century-old cut stone steps from a neglected farmstead west of town. It was being demolished to make way for the new Mill Grove subdivision. The 1870s Italianate farmhouse had already partially collapsed, leaning to one side like a Dr. Seuss cartoon house, but one could have still slipped in a window to grab a door or fireplace mantel. Russ had been in there already. Digging around the five-foot long stones that hot sunny day, I asked if there was anything inside worth taking. Russ is not a foolish man, not prone to mysticism, but he gravely said, “Something bad happened in there. You can feel it. Don’t go in.” The cold insistence in his eyes convinced me. I peered into a back window at the fractured kitchen, but otherwise took his advice. We muscled the stone steps into my pickup and left.

The old Cottingham farmhouse, where The Salvage Man is set.
I salvaged again at a picturesque farmstead at the north end of 10th Street, across from Potter’s Bridge. In my new position as a Realtor and the president of the local preservation group, I’d convinced the developer to save the pre-Civil War home, but the barn, the grain bin, the milk house and carriage house, shaded by towering trees in an overgrown courtyard-like setting, were all being demolished to make way for the Potter’s Woods subdivision. I felt a deep sadness as I gathered doors, porch posts and shutters that had been discarded in the barn loft. The next week when I went back to dig through old books and personal belongings stacked in the grain bin, I arrived to find a staggering mountain of dirt had been moved, making a twenty foot deep dry mote around the barn, which now seemed to float on an island. It was a bizarre scene. Eventually the barn would be demolished and the ground beneath it also moved to make the subdivision’s retention pond.

It was there on that farmstead that I set the story of the Salvage Man, there that I imagined Dan Reynolds doing the same work I was doing, but he did it to financially survive after the strike. And like the old farmhouse Russ had entered only to feel a rising sense of unease, this farmhouse had an ominous feeling inside; dense, stale air, and dark rooms and recesses that put a tingle at the back of your neck and filled your chest with an adrenaline-spiked urge to get out fast.

It is there inside that house, in that barn, and on that land that Dan Reynolds life changes.

I imagined Dan not only challenged by the end of his factory job, but divorced at age 50, his kids gone or in college. All the things that once defined this silent, emotionless man – job, marriage, parenthood – are all gone. And his hometown is increasingly unrecognizable from the place where he was raised. To make him feel even shittier, the lone way he finds to survive is to “undress,” as Dan puts it, the town’s historic identity, to be sold off at antique stores before it’s demolished.

But there in that house, in that barn, and on that land, Dan finds redemption.

I hope you’ll buy a copy of the book and discover the story for yourself. Copies can be bought for e-readers at iTunes, Barnes&noble.com, or Amazon.com. Barnes & Noble and the Amazon site can also sell print version for mail delivery. I’ll have hardcopy versions available in a few stores in Noblesville. Please encourage your friends to check it out.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

For My Father

My father died 10 days before Christmas. I wrote the comments I wanted to share, read them at the service, then kinda put them out of my thoughts. I'd shared them with my friend Rhonda and promptly forgot about that, too. Yesterday she and I got to texting about silly epitaphs to have on your gravestone (I'd suggested "She was sweet and stupid" for her – which is only half true, after she texted me the comment "Hakuna Matata!"). She eventually sent this text:

"I told Georgie (Rhonda's daughter) last night that when I die, if you were still alive to look you up and have you help her with my eulogy. I read her yours for your dad and she was so impressed. She loved it! Should make you feel good. She hates everything:)"

So here's the eulogy I wrote for my dad. If it's good enough for Georgie, I suppose it's good enough for a Contrarian post.

Last Sunday I lost the best drywall man I've ever known. That he could level the horrifically out of level ceiling of a 120-year-old house before applying new drywall amazed me. I always wanted the job to go faster, but he’d slow me down and show me how to do it right.

I also lost the best electrician I ever hired. And even though I only paid him with a ham sandwich and a can of Old Milwaukee, he'd draw careful wire diagrams of the 3-way switches so I'd understand how they worked, and show me which spots in the electrical box would make the lights come on, and which spots would electrocute me.

I also lost an amazing plumber, who tolerated that I didn't want new fixtures, I wanted to make the 1920s fixtures work like new. Though exasperated, he rolled his eyes and helped me anyway.

My first-class carpenter also passed away last Sunday, along with the roofer who taught me how to lay shingles and the handyman who showed me how to hang gutters.

My go-to mortgage lender died on Sunday as well. He could always be counted on to make the loan. He'd have a payment book and keep careful records with each payment I made.

And my auto repairman died as well. He could take a lawn mower engine apart, put it back together, and rebuild a car’s brakes or transmission.

All these guys I lost were in fact one man: My father.

And those talents only scratch the surface of the things he taught me. I grew up in a house where men cleaned and cooked. It wasn’t just a job for women. It wasn’t common for his generation, but it was the way he was raised, and so became the way I was raised.

He had a deep love of music, That rubbed off on me. I recall as a teenager watching a TV show with him of old video clips of County Basie, Lena Horn and Nat King Cole. I told him I didn’t like that music. He shook his head in disgust. I eventually leaned to love that music.

When I had kids of my own, he regularly pitched in and tended to them like the Eagle Scout he once was, taking them to the woods and the creeks and the ponds.

That engineer, that handyman, that jack of all trades – he was good at a lot of things, but he wasn't very good at saying, "I love you." Those just weren’t easy words for him. But he was saying it all the time in acts of service to me. He said I love you with a hammer and with wire splitters. He said it with a pipe wrench and a drywall knife. He said it with a loan and said it again by making sure I paid it back. He said it by nurturing my children.
My father, Jim Meyer, with my sister Jama.

All those projects he used to help me with, I’ve done them on my own now for years, ever since he slowed down and the helping got harder.

A few years back I was telling him about a project I was working on. I could see in his eyes how he wished he could help. He said in frustration, “I’m not much good for anything anymore.”

But that handyman was good for an awful lot. I wouldn’t have known how to do most of what I’ve done, if he hadn’t repeatedly told me that he love me in the only way he knew how to say it.

My new book, The Salvage Man began going online for e-readers before Christmas. It's currently available at iTunes, Amazon.com, Fastpencil, and BarnesandNoble.com. I'll be doing a public launch to tell the world in the weeks ahead - probably throw a party at my house with hardcover versions available.