Listening to Prison Song, System of a Down
Another workshop, another excerpt put to bed.
I wouldn't have this novel written were it not for the workshop process. Other eyes on my work not only made me a tighter, cleaner writer, it gave me the confidence to push forward with my vision.
Traditionally published writers in my groups told me to pursue the traditional route and that's what I'll do until there's nowhere else to go but self-publishing. I'm not trying to punch down on self-publishing but it's not where I think my book's future is.
The piece I ran by Sunday's group got another gander tonight. When I ran the "pitch it as upmarket urban fantasy because it's got ghosts and magical realism" idea by them, they not only agreed with me but helped me refine this pitch:
POWERBALL is 193k of upmarket urban fantasy that weaves over a century of tales regarding fortunes made, stolen, and lost. Struggling, Pogo Springs, Colorado—an old silver-mining town with a tawdry past and a troubled future—is suddenly blessed when several residents win a Powerball jackpot. The stage is set during the summer of 1997, when Emma and Gooch smoke a radically hallucinogenic strain of marijuana grown by lottery winners, one that engenders portals to alternate dimensions and universes. Gooch watches Emma leap from a canyon’s cliff into the abyss of one of the myriad mysteries burrowed within the novel.
Enticed into joining Emma and Gooch’s trip, readers are introduced to mountain folk and counterculture types: Hippies and Deadheads, a biker gang, skateboarders and snowboarders, New Agers, white supremacists and Nazi skinheads. Additionally, the story introduces the town’s silver-baron founder, his cagey nemesis, and various other ghosts. As past and present stories unfold, it’s apparent that lottery winners have various agendas for their fortunes—funding a brewpub and marijuana growing operation, the construction of a casino, a terrorist attack on Washington D.C.—all planned and carried out as the mountains tumble down.
Parallels with the past intertwine with threads from the present, the trip skewing from expected trajectories toward elements of magical realism. While the book’s focus is the core group of lottery winners, the narrative swings back and forth from the 1880s to the story’s present, like a pendulum spiraling out into ever-widening arcs.
Quite by accident, POWERBALL is a zeitgeist novel that includes themes such as: the transformational potential of psychedelics; right-wing terrorism; numerology and Pythagorean magic; craft beer; the nature of consciousness; 1990s computer hacking and other cultural tidbits; skiing, snowboarding, and skateboarding; the Grateful Dead and hippie/jam band scene; quantum physics; and a firm commitment to the Oxford comma.
Kind of a lazy way to query, if you think anyone's gonna read your damn blog.
A buddy said my work reminded him of The Monkey Wrench Gang meets Fear And Loathing. Nope, not even close. My friend Paul said Ken Kesey (Cuckoo's Nest not Electric Kool-Aid) and someone in tonight's group said the same thing, also referenced Naked Lunch.
No. Thank y'all but, no. Paul said he was just searching and I haven't heard back form tonight's workshop commenter.
An excerpt from Book Two, Chapter Five:
Each day after school, he’d make his way to the library and the sound of Miz Purdy Byrd’s perseverating squawk, “You need to be out by five. So I can eat my dinner. Doors are locked at five o’clock sharp.”
Five was also five minutes before Purdy put a large splash of Kentucky bourbon into her sweetened tea. Gooch learned about her habit one evening after he’d gone unnoticed when she did her quick check of the stacks, returning to his reading once her thin shadow passed the nook where he’d huddled. The book that engrossed him was an account of the Astor Expedition, explorers and Indians, Spanish traders, trappers, mountain men, with a portion describing country he knew. By the time he realized he was going to be in serious trouble with his parents, Purdy was potted.
When he showed up at her desk to be let out, she interrogated him on why he’d been such a sneak and what it was that had held his attention so intensely. After showing her the book, she immediately knew where his head was and began a drunken rant about the town’s history.
The granddaughter of Thomas L. Oldham—Pogo’s official biographer, publisher and editor of the county’s oldest newspaper, The Swinger Advertiser—Purdy had been librarian longer than anyone could remember. For reasons known only to her, she opened up and shared with Gooch things she believed people probably wanted to hear but didn’t need to know. With the youngest Yamaguchi, and several fingers of bourbon under her belt, she recognized the only other mind who gave a shit about stuff that happened in the past. With him, she felt comfortable enough sharing stories she’d held close all her life. Over the years, when Gooch took the time to stay late, he heard tales from notes she said were turned into ashes the day after her grandfather died.
“Snavely Pogo didn’t come from nothing, that’s for sure,” Purdy roared on a snowy night some weeks after Gooch’s grandfather died, one of her eyes closed so there’d be only one of him to look at. “His people were wealthy merchants in England and he was giving them a bad name, so they shipped him off to America with enough money to get him gone. He’d pretty much squandered everything by the time he got to Silver Chalice. That’s what they called this town before he made everyone name it after him. When he got here, he decided he’d make his fortune by cheating people. Found a game and figured out how to rig it. Just an all-around prick.”
In the following few years, Miz Purdy Byrd’s words were verified in scribbles found on ledgers and letters discovered after Gooch’s father signed the deed to the resort.
“We moved the family in!” His mother announced in the hotel’s lobby. “The Family Inn, Ha! Isn’t that funny?” her cornball humor not lost on, but buried by, the rest of the family. Months of packing culminated in Yamaguchis occupying the resort’s Presidential Suite, moving in only after the plumbing was fixed. Goats and chickens were all that remained on the ancestral farmland they’d left. After showing the resort’s four floors and introducing children to a few permanent residents, Mom led her brood through the restaurant’s kitchen and down stone steps into what had been Pogo’s wine cellar, chatting up everyone the entire way.
April, the oldest and everyone’s boss, stopped midway before beginning her tantrum. “Ohmygawd! This place is gross! I’m going back upstairs! Ohmygawd!”
Their mother stopped, shot April a glance to suggest her princess could return above ground. Then, she folded her meaty arms over breasts that had no more hold over time than she did. “No one’s to come downstairs unless it’s with me or your father. Got it? Augie, you and Christmas stay out until we say. Or unless you’re with one of us.” Leaning in, her large cow eyes bounded back and forth between the two she knew would not heed her words. “Haruki?” using her husband’s Japanese name, she let him know that his complete attention was expected. “You tell them!”
Herman Yamaguchi was shining his flashlight into the bunghole of an old beer barrel. Rising from a crouch, his commanding voice gave the impression that his slight frame was much larger. “I think we should do a short tour back there, show em it’s nuthin but junk.”
That was the last thing May wanted to hear. “No! Those two… they’ll just want to keep coming back and getting into things, junk or not. They’re the cats Curiosity didn’t kill. Yet.”
“May, you know they’ll come down here no matter what we say. Might as well show em now that there’s nothin but a junkyard in those caves.”
Their mother retreated up the stairs in a snit, miffed her husband had twisted an admonishment into an excuse for adventure. “Have your fun. But don’t blame me if those two wind up lost or eaten by bats. I have things to do.”
Gooch and Kris bounced in their shoes as they waited for their mother to finish her ascent. As soon as the door at the top of the stairs slammed shut, their father shot his children a look that told them he’d mastered the art of waiting out their mother. Hitting a switch, he lit up the passage beyond the wine cellar and waved his children to follow.
The first stop was a room just inside the passageway, three sides of sheer rock closed off with a brick wall about eight-yards long and more than a foot deep, the door torn out long ago—the Crypt. Having served as the sanctuary and hideaway for previous owners of the hotel, it was packed with what could have been props from a movie: trunks with straps and skeleton-key locks, labels marked with the spidery characters of cultured penmanship; a huge stuffed barn owl atop a bookcase, tattered wings spread to disturbing effect; various iron safes, open to anyone aware that all lock combinations were listed on the front desk’s blotter pad; and, a sports car-sized maple desk from where the rest of the room’s clutter appeared to radiate.
“I’m not looking forward to going through all this crap, but I can see this being a very nice space. Once it’s cleaned out.” Herman Yamaguchi’s gaze darted around the room. “So… let’s see the rest of this junkyard!”
Outside the Crypt, the passageway grew warmer as it wound its way to the next cave, a much larger room encrusted with calcium and lime, guano-like green and white drips covering everything. Gooch’s eyes widened at the series of ovate vats in the room, pumps he imagined as gigantic fossilized dinosaur eggs. Pipes large and small crisscrossed the ceiling, chattering and clanking with life, needle-like stalactites birthed where mineral water had dripped.
“The town’s geothermal heating system runs through this contraption. Old timers say Pogo used to cut the heat when he was mad, which I’m told was pretty often. If he did, it happened here.”
Next, an expansive room revealed what had been the employee cafeteria during Pogo’s reign. “Lights don’t work from hereon in,” their father muttered as everyone’s flashlight beams scissored madly through the darkness. “Folks took about every piece of scrap metal outta here, ripped copper wiring out of the walls. After Pogo, the later owners didn’t appear to have much use for this room or anything beyond this point. Gramps will tell ya, people got so desperate during the Great Depression that they sold about everything they had just to get by. None of it worth fixing up for anything. Kinda scary, after here.”
Just across the hallway from the cafeteria, an open expanse revealed where laundry chutes fed to several tubs of bubbling spring water. Beyond that, the trio stepped cautiously past several caves that appeared to have once been residences—curtains for walls, places where bare bulbs once dangled on wires, cots and broken furniture strewn about, piles of mildewed clothing and bedding rotting on the floor. After entering a cave the size of a one-car garage, Kris whooped when she discovered crates of plumbing supplies, electrical equipment, and other implements of construction—buckets and boxes stuffed with pieces fused together by rust and calcium. The tour ended in a long room where heavy timber and rebar held back mountain from tumbling into the hotel’s basement.
“This is where it ends.” Their father threw his hands up to show that it was time to go back. “I told you there wasn’t much to see. Just junk, but I know you kids thought it was interesting junk,” his pupils turned up to point above. “I’m with you. It is interesting. Old junk from even before Papa-san’s time.” Before making their way back to the wine cellar, they stopped in the cafeteria to consider what remained. A cracked and torn parquet floor was littered with piles of plaster and pieces of shredded conduit, the copper and scrap metal raiders not tidy with their work. Walls that separated the dining room and cafeteria line from the kitchen, dish pit, and pantry, were battered open where wiring and plumbing had been ripped out, wounds exposing bent chicken wire and the bones of framing. “We’re going to get this place back up and running,” their father boasted as he led them back past the damage. “I want our dining room for paying customers only, not people eating from bags. Full-time residents will come down here, socialize, eat well. Their elevator opens up over there,” pointing his beam to where scrap wood had been tacked together to create a barrier. “Someone probably put that up to keep guests from wandering around down here.”
As they made their way back toward the wine-cellar steps, Kris’s hands were knotted up, pounding out a savage rhythm on her thighs. “Dad, there’s a dumbwaiter in the kitchen. I saw doors. On every floor when Mom took us upstairs. Augie is small enough to fit in it. All I have to do is lower him into the kitchen and he can open the door for me.”
“I saw em, too. Yeah, you can’t keep us from coming down here!” Electrified, Gooch ran in place as possibilities flooded his attention. “And laundry chutes. I saw those!”
“Augie,” lifting his son by the arm, Gooch’s father shook him to absolute awareness. “You tumble down those chutes and I’ll put your butt on KP for the rest of your days!”
Walking up the steps in silence, the children hoped their father would drop his ire with Gooch’s elbow. “Let me talk to your mother about you kids playing down here,” their father winked as he turned the cellar-door handle. “I could use your help, anyway. Going through all that stuff and figuring out what’s garbage and what’s worth keeping.”
In the weeks that followed, while their mother remained buried beneath yards of fabric that the chittering tooth of her sewing machine turned into curtains, bed spreads, pillow cases, or covers for any salvageable stick of furniture, Gooch and Kris spent countless hours sifting through the things in the basement with hopes of finding some rare gem or nugget of gold. As Kris inspected buckets of U-joints, C-clamps, E-boxes, and other things not identified by the alphabet, Gooch and his father scrutinized letters from another century.
After several hours of shuffling papers, reading their contents and then determining their worth, their father gasped, “Man, this guy Pogo was a real prick,” crinkled sheaves of fine stationery appeared to drip from his pinched fingers. “He tried to bully town council. People he bought and paid for. Wanted em to let him tear up graves so he could build on Monument Hill. Offered em good money but they weren’t havin it. Then his lawyers threaten to shut em down, whatever they do, but they don’t care, they got people buried up there and they’re not gonna to move em, not for anything.”
From what Gooch read, Pogo’s attorneys nearly always responded to demands of payment with, “The amount listed above and not one dollar more!” Without a doubt, Pogo was prone to paying pennies on the dollar, some cavil used to undercut the price initially agreed upon. When laborers and contractors went after wages they’d been assured they’d be paid, Denver lawyers replied with the kind of legalese that local sheriffs were obliged to tell friends and neighbors, “Looks like you’ve been fucked, well and truly.” Gooch told his father that “total prick” was one of many ways to describe Pogo.
Interminable and redundant legends spun from the hotel’s oldest residents also helped the Yamaguchis further gather a story of Pogo Springs, one that was probably more accurate than what was presented in the lobby of the visitor center. There, in what had been Mrs. Pogo’s itinerant residence, an oleaginous account was presented on typed pages arranged next to the creepy portraits of Pogo—one that most visitors confused with “Lurch” from The Addams Family—and his plain wife and daughter. Other stories and pictures were pressed beneath plexiglass on various daises, black and white photographs that made it look as though it always rained or snowed in town, amenities to the visitor center council sprung for when the mayor and his town council were shitfaced drunk. The presented text alongside the photos had been taken almost exclusively from the musty pages of Oldham’s “Snavely C. Pogo: Being a Frontier Philanthropist and Titan of Economics, His Story One of Inspiration for All Young Men Seeking to Make Their Way in the World.” A book confined to an extremely small circle of readers.
By all accounts, Pogo had come to the Silver Chalice mining camp in the spring of 1883. Legend maintained he’d hawked Spanish knives, exploding pistols, bull whips, French pornography, and nostrums infused with dangerous amounts of laudanum. While Oldham’s biography merely mentioned that Pogo had, “generously provisioned mine workers with the sundry requirements of their trade,” accounts from the hotel’s oldest residents hinted Pogo did substantial trade in whatever miners couldn’t find from the camp’s stores, including whores and cocaine. In less than a year after arriving in Silver Chalice, Pogo secured the deed for one of the most profitable mines in Colorado, his silver stream adding to an already flooded market. Pogo’s luck was remarkable to no one but Oldham, who wrote,
“What providence! O! Fortuna’s wheel did lift him to Olympus in mere months, in a manner and with munificence befitting gods of industry, capitalism and beneficence of the Invisible Hand, most certainly directed by our Lord!”
His fortune made, and the town his barony, Pogo bullied other business owners into scrapping the camp’s Silver Chalice name, after a local pastor pointed out the name’s suggestive connotations, then made his eponymous demand while adding Springs as a way to promote his resort and the heated waters that bled from the mountain’s heart. As Oldham put it with typical oaken prose,
“Snavely Pogo endeavored to attract the cream of the Republic’s eastern aristocracy to the salubrious environs of the Vino de Magdalena Mountains, where they might partake in the palliative properties of the area’s God-gifted springs. Built during the seasons of benefice in the glorious year of 1889, the hotel was the largest jewel in Pogo’s silver crown, an apotheosis of Victorian opulence and a testament to his self-made plenteousness.”
“We sure have a lot of these books.” Kris dropped copies on the floor for the popping sound.
“We’re keeping those,” Old Gooch said, “stop doing that. We’re giving those away in the VIP baskets.” He also said to save the ones every guest left behind, like a Gideon Bible, to go into the next set of VIP baskets.
In time, father and son joined the handful who’d read Oldham’s vaunted tome. After agreeing that the book was terrible, Gooch confided, “Miz Purdy Byrd said her grampa wrote it that way cuz he didn’t want anyone to read it, that he knew it was all lies and things only Pogo wanted to tell. And she said Pogo didn’t know bad writing, thought all those big words made him look more important.” Ten when he slogged through Pogo’s biography, it was the year he and his father spent nearly an entire ski season discussing the book between runs.
“If that craphead realized the real money is on these slopes, he might not have died so lonely and miserable,” his father squeezed past lips stiffened by frigid winds blasting the lift, the chair rocking with each gust. Gooch idly digested his father’s take on Pogo while looking at the sheer drop beneath the tips of his skis, imagining what the land below looked like in the days of miners and Indians. The history of Snavely Pogo, the town, and the hotel became a constant topic of conversation between Gooch and his father, especially when the two of them shared a day alone on Chi-Chi’s double-black diamonds, or Forest Service fire breaks. After stripping away gloves and goggles, they’d puzzle over facts and evidence. Mostly just the two of them. Mother was a blue slope skier at best and had lost affection for snow and cold with each passing year; Kris was overly-cautious, always overthinking the terrain ahead; and, getting April onto the slopes was like trying to put a sweater on a cat. Gramps usually stayed in the lodge, playing gin with the other shuttle drivers. When his father wasn’t making extra money as a ski instructor, Gooch and his dad were left to themselves on the slopes, the old man blasting down the mountain with moves that made other skiers stop and watch. Both talking town history in moments shared on the lift, while shedding gear, or after one of them spilled out and needed time to gather nerves back into a tight frame. Sometimes, his father talked about his childhood, his time in the Army, and his days on the family farm.
“Your Papa-san used to say, ‘I don’t know what’s fun about sticks on your feet in that snow.’ He and your uncles didn’t understand what I felt in these mountains. For them, it was all about work and getting the most out of country that’s pretty particular about what gets to grow. And we all worked our butts off, but there’s not much to do but ski after snow got everything covered. My brothers Hero and Rye were into school sports, so neither of em cared much for skiing or the cold and snow.”