Tuesday, May 30, 2017


In response to some Facebook discussion of Ottawa, Kansas, here is an excerpt from one of the Gideon Marshall Mysteries, the third one, entitled THE EARTHQUAKE LADY. This scene takes place in a cemetery near Ottawa, KS:

We stand there in silence, both studying the arrangement of headstones and both, I’m sure, imagining what happened to the father and grandfather, why they’re not with the rest of the Stitcher line, and what the maternal side of this family might be able to tell us from the grave. At least those are my thoughts. I know my wife well enough to know that she’s also assembling not only a plausible history, but also a “to do” list for when we get home. That list is likely to have nothing to do with any investigation, especially of a murder, but plenty to do with the satisfaction of her own curiosity. I’m guessing that when she gets into the post-Civil War history of Kansas and Missouri, she’ll find some of the most brutal violence on record, beginning with the Quantrill Raiders and their attack on Lawrence. I hear a voice.
“What in the hell are you people doing?”
I turn and recognize Naomi Stitcher. She evidently is on foot because we’d heard no car and there is none parked within sight.
“Get away from my sister’s grave.”
Mykala starts to say something then decides to stay silent, just observing what might happen in the next few minutes.
“I said get away from my sister’s grave.”
Her tone is flat, business-like. She’s shivering a little bit; I can’t tell if it’s from the morning chill or the fact that we’re here.
 “You must be a relative,” says Mykala. I now remember that the only time either of us had encountered Rebecca’s sister Naomi was when I was in the funeral home, so Mykala has never seen this woman.
“How many times do I have to tell you to get away from my sister’s grave?”
Now I’m wondering if Naomi is carrying a concealed weapon. In a fit of good judgment, I don’t ask.
“I’m Mykala Marshall.” My wife introduces herself. “We’re just paying our respects to these individuals.” She gestures toward the headstones. “So if you’re a relative, can you tell us why there are no grandfathers or fathers here?”
Naomi Stitcher responds to Mykala’s question by opening her coat, reaching inside, pulling out a black pistol that looks exactly like one of those still packed in the boxes in the back seat of my truck a hundred yards away, and working the slide to load a round. She holds the weapon down at her side, pointing at the ground.
“Now get away from my sister’s grave.”
We turn and walk back to the truck. As I start the engine, I look back. Naomi Stitcher is kneeling on her sister’s grave, her head in her hands. It’s another fifty miles down I-35, through the Flint Hills, before either of us speaks.
“Do you believe she would have shot us?” asks Mykala.
“Through the left eye, with a large caliber pistol,” I answer.
“Gideon, do you think we should get those guns out of the boxes?”
“And do what with them?”

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A contribution for Mothers' Day, 2017


At the age of about two and a half, I had a question for my mother, a question that went un-answered except in a way that I now recognize as typical behavior of Lillian Bernice Locke Janovy, a woman who could easily see right through anyone and who seemed to carry a deep and cosmopolitan understanding of the world far beyond our immediate surroundings, no matter where those surroundings were located. The question itself was obviously one picked up from a stranger, although at that age, and in that particular neighborhood, I doubt if I would have been allowed to stray very far from home, and especially not so far as to encounter strangers driving by asking for directions.
My mother could have answered this question easily and gone on about whatever young housewife duties she was performing at the time, but she didn’t. Instead, she set into motion a chain of events that would shape the lives of her husband, her son, and her as yet unborn, perhaps even unplanned, daughter. My question was a simple one:
“Dis whar Nat Terrio lib?”
She must have looked at me with her special combination of curiosity and judgment that I saw daily, once I grew old enough to recognize it for what it was, and thought “no, Johnny, this is not where Nat Terrio lives; this is where we live.” I don’t know what she actually said to me at the time, but shortly afterwards she told my father “let’s get the hell out of here.” I was not to grow up in Louisiana speaking Cajun.

Suddenly, it seems, in this compression of memory and history, Bernice Janovy, crying almost uncontrollably during the radio broadcast of a nuclear weapon dropped on Nagasaki, and voting for Adlai Stephenson regardless of the hole in his shoe, makes sense. And just as suddenly, I now understand that her reaction to my question was simply one example of a cultural clash. Hidden away in Houma and preserved only by the telling, it was a tiny, personal, inconsequential event, but nevertheless a model for other events that would send the entire planet into convulsion by the beginning of the third millennium. Cajuns were “the other” just as surely as Japanese were then, and to many of my fellow Americans Muslims are now, and I was not to be one.

No matter where the site, my father posed her, or—a more likely explanation—she arranged herself, in a stately, dignified, but interesting, way. So there she sits on a rock, a 19-year old newlywed on the side of a dark slope somewhere in the vicinity of Palo Dura Canyon, with two strange men in the background. These men must be geologists, if not by profession then at heart, for they are bent over in the near distance up the hill, collecting rocks, their rear ends facing the camera. This picture thus shows a young lady maintaining her elegance even in the company of asses. It would be nice to know how she did it because there are plenty of times today when I think that in September of 1935 she’d solved a pervasive, if not a truly monumental, problem for young women of all ages and all times.

Aside from birth and death certificates, and public school report cards, the only other written record of my mother’s time on Earth is her college transcript. Years after my sister Teresa and I left home, Lillian Bernice decided to go to college, commuting to what is now University of Central Oklahoma to major in English, knowing full well she’d never live long enough to graduate. She took courses in history and literature until her cancer advanced to such a stage that she was mostly bedridden. After that, she read, again mostly history and literature, until—at the age of 46, a month before her 47th birthday—she could no longer lift a book. Nobody ever asked my mother about her childhood, her public school experiences, how she met her husband, what she did with her time before her children were born, or what she thought of her own parents. My maternal grandfather was gone by the time I was born, supposedly dead of pneumonia, but there was never any particular sadness in any discussion of Edgar Locke and my maternal grandmother never talked about him. He may have been a rather ornery person; we all seem to have such grown-up brats in our family, and one of my mother’s sisters certainly married one.

BERNICE AND JOHN is available on all e-readers.