Monday, April 7, 2014

Waterhole Branch

Live oak and dead boat at the Waterhole Branch
Sunlight falling through massive live oaks hung with Spanish moss casts a backlit, dreamy luster to the landscape. That, plus a rusting cabin cruiser on a trailer and the neighbor’s junk pile give the rural compound that is Waterhole Branch a tattered, cinematic beauty.

Shari had urged me to southern Alabama on a sorta blind date with a book editor, Joe Formichella. “I think you two would understand each other. I think he’s the guy to edit your book.” After I arrived we sat in Joe and Suzanne Hudson's living room. Suzanne is perched delicately, legs crossed on a couch cushion, wearing a black beret, smiling, silent. I’d read her novel, “In a Temple of Trees,” and had to remind myself that this seemingly prim woman, and former middle school councilor, had written the most violent rape scene I’d ever read in a book.

Her husband Joe is the writer/editor Shari wants to match me with. I’d read one of Joe’s books, too:  Murder Creek. Next day, when I’m on the deck looking out at Waterhole Branch, she texts me, “Come to the cottage,” to hang out and talk with Joe. I walk over to Shari’s cottage and we all chat. Joe leaves, Shari eventually smiles and nods toward the main house, “Not trying to tell you what to do Kurtie, but you need to go in a talk to Joe.”

On the deck at Waterhole Branch
She’s called me “Kurtie” since we were teenagers.

So I do. Joe, lean, with a youthful face and longish hair is wearing Tabasco logo print pajama bottoms
and watching English football on the television. I see my manuscript stacked beside him on the couch, dog-eared pages, post-it notes, and hand-written comments are evident. I drink gin, Joe drinks vodka, and we talk. Joe raises questions and gently pokes holes in the opening of the novel. Nothing he says is a surprise. I’ve had many stories that needed professional tweaking, but never had an editor who really knew how to do the surgery. I quickly see that Joe knows. And Shari had seen that he would.

Both Shari and I have a 5 in front of out ages, but when we became friends, there was only a 1. In perhaps 1977, she sat in front of me in a classroom filled with what are now ancient machines called typewriters. That was in Tipton, Indiana.

I played guitar and sang a Dan Fogelberg song at Shari’s first wedding in a little country church in western Tipton County. Her Mamaw was upset I wore flip-flops on the altar - called me a hippie. I built a rocking horse for Shari’s first child, Abbie. We lost track of each other. Years later, at the Pork Festival parade in my hometown, a dark-haired, freckled little girl appeared before me in a crowd. Turned out it was the little girl I’d built that rocking horse for years before. Little Abbie said flatly, “Call my Mamma. She misses you!” and then disappeared back into the crowd.

While I raised a family and stole writing time during lunch hours and late nights, Shari was living in New York and then North Carolina. While trying to get best-selling author, Rick Bragg to write a story about the people of her adopted small town, Bragg turned the tables and challenged her to write about them instead. Afraid of failure, uncertain she could do it, she stepped off the ledge and did it. Shari began writing.

The art outside my bedroom wall at Joe & Suzanne's
So in distant places, disconnected from each other, my friend and I were writing. We will both publish books this year with the same publisher. All because of her, this girl I sat behind in typing class.

In the cottage, Shari Smith has a MacBook Air in her lap. Her boyfriend, Chris sits between us with an unplugged electric guitar in his lap, plucking scales and blues riffs. Over Chris’s shoulder is a picture of Shari’s daughter Abbie, all grown up and a mother herself, holding her baby in a photo with Hillary Clinton, taken at a campaign event.

I know Chris hurt the middle finger on his chord hand in a recent accident. “Why don’t you take a few days off?” I ask. Beneath a tussle of salt-n-pepper hair, he considers me with the one-eyed, long, steady wink of a man looking up from serious work, “Chet Atkins said, ‘If I don’t practice one day; I know. If I don’t practice two days; you know.’”

Shari and I agree on a release date party for both her book and mine to be held back in Indiana. Immediately we’re texting people who must agree. Chris puts his guitar down to check his calendar.

I quiz Chris as he practices. He’s toured in James Taylor’s band and been a hired-gun guitarist for more famous folks than I could name. I realize I’ve probably seen him in concert repeatedly during my life and heard him regularly on albums and TV commercials. He’s looking forward to a weekend show, playing a gig with James Brown’s drummer.

I linked up with Shari again two years ago. She noted an emotional edge to my Facebook posts as I was going through divorce. She suggested I come down to North Carolina, where she was living at the time, get away from the turmoil, and write. After twenty years apart I drove down to her little farm and spent an autumn week writing on her back deck. From time to time she would drop a couple magazines beside me so I could read her work. In those magazines, I found that Shari was writing about her neighbors with gentle compassion and an ironic sense of humor.

Within a year we spent a couple days in a rural Tipton Co. farmhouse with writer, Joe Galloway, whose book, “We Were Soldiers Once and Young,” became the Mel Gibson movie. We sat up late drinking and eating pie with Joe, and did a speaking gig at our old high school in Tipton, together on the same stage where we both acted in The Sound Of Music 30+ years earlier, me playing Captain Von Trapp, and Shari playing a nun.

Writers Live Here: at the entrance to Waterhole Branch
And a year later her publisher is asking to republish my first book, Stardust, and soon thereafter asked to take control of the publishing of my 2nd book, The Salvage Man.

But sooner than all that, Joe Formichella’s new book, The Waffle House Rules, will be published and I’ll be back in Waterhole Branch for the party.

I love you, Shari. Thanks for all the years of friendship and for carrying such a creative cloud of energy around with you. So happy I got drawn back into it.