Thursday, December 8, 2011

Crutches Are for Hanging, short fiction by Sheldon Compton

Gnarled Oak, Knotty Pine is honored to host the following story by eastern Kentucky's own Sheldon Compton.

Crutches Are for Hanging

This little building here is my church. Could be your church now that you’ve moved to these parts. We sure hope so. That’s right, we’ve got some bus seats in there for pews and a collection plate is just something everybody passes around like a hot potato, but it’s my church. And we’re always on the lookout for new members, members just like you. Fine, upstanding citizens. Hard-working men and women. Hello, ma’am. And, now what was your question, Mr. Daniels? Oh, yes, that’s right. The crutches we’ve got up on the walls in there. Crutches are for hanging. That’s what I tell these folks. Let me explain that just a little bit more. Just a little bit more. Watch your step. We’ve got one carpenter who’s a member, but he’s busy a lot. That busted board, yes sir, right there. Just step over that. You, too, Mrs. Daniels. This church holds God every Sunday, folks. Can’t you just see it around you. The wood-burning stove there in the middle. The old piano in the corner, out of tune, chimes out like a heavenly harp for us every single Sunday. This church is a survivor with the help of the Lord Almighty. Humility is the key. Realizing that the size of the building don’t matter. Bus seats and empty plates don’t make people any less devoted. The only thing that matters are the people who come in, the size of that congregation. The more the better, wouldn’t you say? And here are the crutches nailed up on both of the side walls. And there are some canes. That one was my father’s. See how it was made from a branch? He was the preacher, too. Ordained, proud, hard-working man. The hardest worker for God any of us may ever meet. Made that cane himself out of cedar. Cried like a baby when the healing took place. See, that’s what this is about, folks, all these contraptions of sickness are the sickness of Satan. My wife, Helen, is a faith healer. She took away my father’s arthritis right here in the church on February 19, 1957. He was the first one to be healed here, bless the Lord. He walked across the church like a ten-year-old skipping to school and drove a nail for that cane right up there himself. I hadn’t seen tears of joy from his face in so many years. Since then, it’s just something we do with each healing. Add something to wall. Every church has there own things they hold close and do to praise God in their own ways. This church is no different. And that man skipped like a young boy. I’m sorry. I get emotional thinking about all the good that this place of worship has brought into my life. You’ll have to excuse me, ma’am, Mr. Daniels. We ain’t suppose to cry, right Mr. Daniels? Well, I’ll shed tears of joy for God any day of the week and twice on Sunday and in front of anybody. There is no shame for that, not in my book. Oh, yes indeed. That picture. Well, I’m a little embarrassed by that picture to be honest. Helen insisted we put it right behind the altar, right in the middle of where we hang our hats and coats and what have you. That’s me about six years ago right after we started the church. It was our first revival. That’s me standing in front of the altar with my hands raised up in the air. Had a lot more hair then, my my! Didn’t we all, though. Old time is a-flyin, right? But that’s me and you see the crowd we had for that first revival. That’s about hundred people crowded into this little place, and that was even before Helen received the touch. Lord, look at that picture! Embarrassing, but I shouldn’t think that way. Look here. Lean in close. Everybody’s looking right at me there with my head lowered and the almighty power of the Lord working through me. All of them except this little girl here. See her there? Yes, that one. She’s looking directly at the camera. I always thought her eyes looked painted on there, like two little chocolate drops. I can’t help but think about Dr. King’s speech the other day in Washington, the one about letting freedom ring, just letting all that freedom ring. When I look at her in that picture all by herself watching the camera timid as a little colored rabbit, I sometimes think now that she might be scared in that picture. For the life of me I can’t remember her being here, but it happened, cause right there she is. We had a family come in, newcomers just like you fine folks. It could have been their girl. No one is turned away, you know. That’s for sure. I can’t really say I know who she is, to be honest, though. But I think of Dr. King every time I see that picture, now. The whole gang of us watched it on the television right when it was happening, my family, just like your family probably did, right Mr. Daniels? I listened to every word and my boys sat still as stones in the floor and never moved a muscle. It’s a fact! I kid you not! Dr. King. Boy! There’s a feller who knows what he’s talking about.

Sheldon Lee Compton is the author of The Same Terrible Storm (Foxhead Books, 2012). He survives in Eastern Kentucky.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Dark Days Approach, Oh Yeah

Hello again, friends, family members, fans of fiction, the FBI agent assigned to my case, and the deadbeat former-tenant who now stalks me online under various guises. Greetings to you all.

The weather is cooling. The days draw shorter and, coupled with the time change, that means the gray of evening arrives ever sooner. Bleak weather, dark skies. Ah, yes, the ideal climate for some grim literature.

Since last I blogged, two of my stories were published in some very Southern journals. Kathy Rhodes dug “A Night Out in Flat Rock” (in which I experiment with multiple points of view) for MUSCADINE LINES, and David Hornbuckle selected “A Father's Love” (featuring a cameo by Berea's own Mitch Barrett) for the Birmingham-based STEEL TOE REVIEW. Major thanks to the both of them.

Following are teasers and links to each. I also anxiously await the next issue of the noir print journal SWILL. “Junior on the Lam”, my tale of an aging revolutionary on the run, is to appear in that issue. Alas, I have no estimated date of publication.

That's it for this time. Until we meet again, stay warm, be well, and don't forget to love each other. We all need it. Yes, even you.

A Night Out in Flat Rock

"Gravels crunch underneath the pickup truck as it crawls through the parking lot. A clipboard with a sheath of rumpled papers rests on the dash, visible through the glass on the driver's side. RAM TOUGH is lettered across the windshield."

"Marcus shifts into park and gets out, leaving the engine running. A stream of white exhaust, like wintertime breath, eases from the pickup's silent tailpipe as he examines the familiar trappings of his wife's Accord. The feathered dream-catcher dangling from her rear-view. The unopened box of cigarettes reclined across the passenger seat."

"Music and voices from inside the bar sound distant, faint, like television noise from a neighbor's bedroom window. Marcus holds his breath and listens. A woman's laughter trills above the others, and he wonders if it's her. He climbs back in his truck and continues down the line of automobiles..."

To read the entire story, click here.

"A Father's Love"

"In the privacy of his mind, Danny Lee called her The Beast. He felt bad about that. She was after all a human being, a child of God, a fellow pilgrim on life’s path. But she was also grotesque,misshapen, hideous, and he didn’t know her legal name. So the nickname stuck.'

"Her father owned the local laundromat. Not the nice establishment over by the health foodstore, but the rundown, not-really-filthy but never-quite-clean one located between the meatpacking plant and the pawnshop. Lee would have preferred to frequent the former, but they didn’t open until nine and were closed on Wednesday. That didn’t jibe with his cab driving schedule. So he went to the place that was always open."

"Seven days a week, The Beast’s father unlocked doors before dawn, and he didn’t bar them again until ten PM. Unlike the other laundromat, an attendant was rarely on duty. But when money was removed from the machines, the father of The Beast toted a gun..."

To read the entire story, click here.

Monday, September 5, 2011

August Was a Very Good Month

During the previous month, two new stories and a poem of mine found their way into publication. Many thanks to Russell Streur, Rusty Barnes, and Alison Ross for digging my work.

In spite of the name, "The Confrontation" may be the closest thing to a love story I have written:

"The interior of the apartment was cool but she brought the wet heat inside with her, her words erupting before the door had closed behind her. There were no pauses between sentences. 'Damn it, Gabriel, we got to talk, you are moving way too fast, I mean, I like you, I like you a lot, you know that, but you just got to hold your horses and slow down a minute.' She stood, breathing, waiting for a response..."

To read the complete text at The Camel Saloon, click here.

"Waiting for the Man", on the other hand, lands squarely in the grit lit aisle. I consider it one of my better efforts in that genre.

"He didn't flinch when the metal roof popped on the far side of the trailer. Just kept look­ing out­side, eyes level, gaze steady. Fin­ger­tips rest­ing lightly on the windowsill. Cops had been watching Lester from the pine forest out back for days. Maybe weeks. It was hard to remember how long. Seemed like a century he had crouched at this window, watching and waiting. He wouldn't give the bastards the satisfaction
of making the first move. Besides, he had one more cook to finish..."

To read the complete text at Fried Chicken and Coffee, click here.

And finally a poem, "Coffee Shop Renegades", was published in Atlanta's subversive journal Clockwise Cat, and may be found here.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

In Praise of Fried Chicken and Coffee

After a brief hiatus due to technical difficulties, Fried Chicken and Coffee is back online.

For those unfamiliar, Fried Chicken is a blogazine devoted to rural Appalachia. When I first happened up on it, I was in the process of finding my voice as a writer, penning tales of alcoholic mechanics struggling for love and survival in the trailer parks of the South. (For those who know my history, no explanation is necessary. For those who don't, none is possible.) The value of the validation in learning there was an entire genre--"grit lit"--devoted to this type of fiction can hardly be discounted. Of course I immediately sent the editor, Rusty Barnes, a story.

He turned it down. He did mention that, while this particular story had not made the cut, the subject matter was indeed the type he was looking for. Thanks for playing, try again later. In due time--after an extensive editing process--"Sunday Afternoon at Earl's" was published. I considered it one of the two best stories I had written.

The other was rejected.

When a third story was refused--not among my best, but good enough, and one that was soon published elsewhere--I pouted. I stopped submitting and, when finances robbed me of internet access at home, I even quit reading.

But I couldn't stay away long. So now I'm back in the thick of it, perusing a review of grit lit demigod Larry Brown, and wondering if the editor received the tale I submitted while the site was down.

What, you ask, is the point of this minor literary history? Only this: if you have enjoyed my stories in the past, you should check out Fried Chicken and Coffee. It's the genuine article.

Oh, and a final note. While looking over the site to see what had changed, I noticed my own former pen name (with a link to this blog) listed under "Rednecks and Honorary Rednecks". That's right, alongside such luminaries as Ron Rash, Sheldon Compton, and Silas House, was the lil ole name Randy Lowens.

Thanks, Rusty. I'll never pout again.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Unkind Months

Hello again, fans of fiction, family members, and friends I went to school with. Alas, your faithless scribe has no new publications to report. I submitted but one story to one journal since last I blogged, and it was rejected.

April and May are ordinarily months of joy, but 2011 was different. Struggles with romance, finance, and my own psyche have distracted from the authorial calling. Rather than showers and flowers came tornadoes, both real and allegorical, each scattering debris in its wake.

But summer approaches. Love lies bleeding, yet draws its ragged breath. My darling daughter returns to home school next year. Hope survives, or has been resurrected.

A coming issue of Clockwise Cat will feature my poem, "Coffee Shop Renegades". Upon posting this missive, I will edit the previously-mentioned rejected story and try again. And soon, I will once more take up the plodding task of peddling my novel, Midnight Prayers and Comic Books, to publishers of working-class Appalachian literature.

You heard it here first. Perhaps these actions will inspire some new short fiction. Regardless, remain calm in the meantime, exercise, and drink plenty of fluids.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Name Change, and Two Tales Set in the Deep South

"Sit down, Mom, Dad. I have something to tell you, and it won't be easy. But I must be true to myself. For years, I've been leading a double life. On the side, I've been moonlighting as a... God, how can I say this? I'm a *writer*."

Yes, fellow fans of fiction, I am retiring my pen name. Future stories will be submitted under my legal name, Don Jennings. But I will ever remain ole "randy loins" at heart.

The month of March was a Deeply Southern lunar cycle, with publication of stories set in Chattanooga and rural Alabama.

Read. Enjoy. Leave comments. Earn my undying gratitude.

"I would tell people the tattoo was ironic, a joke. Sometimes that worked. But some old boys didn't think it was funny at all. What finally worked best of all was the truth, when I admitted that I got the tattoo as an expression of love for my mother. One thing no Southern boy will do is talk bad about your mother..."

Read the complete text of The Hammer and Sickle Tattoo here.

"John wondered if the guy was headed to the corner bar to shoot some stick, croon a tune with his pals, then turn some cowgirl's head before leaving for the night. When he lit a smoke, nobody nagged. Men slapped him on the back, and women waited in line to two-step... John considered tailing him, but instead, snuffed his butt on the sidewalk and walked towards home. Otherwise, Carol would rag his ass..."

Read the complete text of Working Without a Net here.

Until next time.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Spanking Cupid

The Month of Love, February, The Valentine Month, saw published the following flashes of alienation and deceit. Read, and be troubled.

If I Should Fall in Love appeared in Dog Eat Crow World:

'"A thousand times,” she whispered into the darkness of the stubble on his chin. “A thousand times." By conservative estimate, they'd got it on twice a week throughout ten years of marriage. So the math was easy...'

and A Walk through Midtown, in Pure Slush:

'The Asian man with the terriers wears open leather sandals. He looks up as I approach on the Atlanta sidewalk, his face unveiled, eager, without smiling. His gaze follows as I pass. But I don't do men...'

Stay tuned. March is nine-months pregnant with the promise of a new story in Dew on the Kudzu, a poem is slated for The Clockwise Cat come summertime, and who knows what other slush piles I shall rise from in the coming lunar cycle. Thanks to all who read my tales, especially those who share them with facebook friends and elsewhere.

Fight the good fight, from Islamic Africa to Wisconsin and beyond. Love and be loved. And always, tell your story to a friend.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Book of Hotels, by Nicholas Shaner

This is the Book of Hotels. The ledger I record from vantage of sagging windowsills
this is the act of traveling miles
the cigarette I record with as ash into paper
this is the crack in the highway that the poetry connects
swiftly along the line of night's remainder
as roads pike with other roads and words of poems
fulfill a need for the wind, the walls of
old hotel rooms rented in grime, I secure the key
I step on in
greeted by the dust of other travelers, the clean cold
ashtray glass and cellophane-wrapped plastic cups
The question being what liquor can compel me toward
morning outside the thick curtains, what compels
me to rust like the claw-foot tub
rusted through like lives we succumbed to
when under the energy of a bare bulb my walk retraces
the pages of The Book of Hotels,
hearts of monsters and infamous foils
guiding down their arms in rags directing
me to the wind, to the outside door chained shut
rudely against the road which bears any direction

Room 105 to Room 19 to outside the city limit
sunk under a highway bridge I drag from under
the bent of traffic and railroads freighting,
I swear there's a demon beside me made from old tobacco pouches
and empty bottles, his teeth fashioned of rusty tin
and there's a stench about him nothing worse than carrion
and death
I'm following him because he's all that I have left
from what I left behind with wool covers and fitted sheets,
with ice buckets and bleached thin-towels,
as he encroaches, his fingers splayed complimentary matches
until somewhere on the periphery of that fated city
I drive my hobo knife thru his heart only to find a deadbolt
to a door, Room No. 4 where the warp of the carpet is treacherous
cockroaches scatter and I note everything down to the last cigarette burn
note that there seems to be only one escape from the greatest hotel fire in history
a fire in the room that I refuse to believe as it manifests
in a dark fever over me laying down the transparent pages of
the Book of Hotels


Nicholas Shaner is a former Kentucky author who is notorious for turning down literary engagements. Little is known about his literary career and when prompted he insists he no longer writes. He lives alone in a small town in the foothills of the appalachian mountains.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Collected Works

I have compiled a list of links to the various stories and occasional poem I've had published over the years. Enjoy.

"Breakfast in a Macon Diner"

Fried Chicken and Coffee
"Sunday Afternoon at Earl's" (This is a personal favorite.)

Dew on the Kudzu


Steel Toe Review
"A Father's Love" (A recent addition.)

Muscadine Lines
"A Night out in Flat Rock" (Also a recent addition.)

Dew on the Kudzu

and "The Age of Belief"

The Camel Saloon

"The Confrontation"

Wrong Tree Review
"Landscape with Strange Fruit Trees" (Another favorite.)

"The Deciding Game"

Dog Eat Crow World
"If I Should Fall in Love"

Unlikely Stories
"Maoists Don't make Puppets"

"The Flotsam and Jetsam of War"
This story received the Tacenda Literary Award for Best Short Story of 2007, illuminating social injustice.

Clockwise Cat
"Jailbirds Like Me"

Thieves Jargon
"Mailing Van Gogh's Ear"

Pure Slush
"A Walk through Midtown"

"Action Novels" (since removed)

"Appalachian Portrait" was also published in the print journal Blue Collar Review.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Midnight at the Cab Stand, by Randy Lowens

Wisps of white breath follow him into the taxi where the defroster's jet stream is boring a hole through patchy frost on the windshield. Blistered, hoary skin itches at his knuckles. He pulls his toboggan down further, over his ears, and blows currents of warm breath across his hands.

A plastic bag dances across the empty street. Christmas lights, those cursed pre-Thanksgiving Christmas lights, wink from lampposts and storefronts. Even here, in the most progressive city of the South, those beastly retailers must be sated. Even here.

Danny Lee adores his new hometown. He's proud to be an escapee from Babylon, an emigrant from Alabama expatriated to the hippest hollow in the hills, a beacon for progressives and oddballs of all stripes: interracial couples, unclosested gays, back-to-the-land Eden seekers, and old fashioned dropouts from the quest for cash and status. Old fashioned dropouts like himself.

At least, he used to be one. Was a time, he'd worked only enough to pay for rent and weed. He'd filled his days with yoga, cartoons, and free folk shows at the coffee shops, at every opportunity denouncing the baleful influence of Mammon upon the masses. But that's all over now. For two weeks, he's had a new plan. He's volunteering for overtime at his cab driving job and saving his spare change. Making plans to return to school and finish his degree. Ace those last few courses, then get a job, maybe at the library. Low pay, but benefits, and anyway it'd be a start. Save up and buy a house, a small one maybe, but a house to own instead of a place to rent. And somewhere along the way, convince Sally and the kids to come back home...

The radio crackles beside his knee. “Car 7. Car 7, come in.” Car 7 emits a final breath upon his hands before taking up a pack of Bugler and beginning to roll a cigarette. (He's given up Marlboros as part of the new austerity.) “Car 7, damn it, come in. I know you're out there. You holler for overtime, well, you gotta WORK the overtime...”

Sigh. “This is Car 7. Go ahead, Charlie.”

A moment of silence. “Why didn't you answer me, General Lee? I'm getting tired of your games.”

“Sorry, man. Just stepped out to check the air in the tires. Thought one was low, but they're okay. I'm taking good care of the equipment for you. So anyway, whuzzup?”

Another pause. “Pickup on Center Street. Two doors out from the utility place. Get your butt down there, pronto, and make a fare.”

“Yes sir, boss man.” He reaches and mutes the volume before the owner/dispatcher can respond.

Idling through windswept streets. Trees stand naked, lonely, mourning their lost leaves, dreaming of springtimes past, no longer hopeful, the coming year too far even to imagine. Things are tough all over. Newspaper stands shout the news of recession, recession, don't nobody say depression or it might come true. In the distance, semis scream and moan as they pull the Appalachian inclines. The Hummers and Suburbans of the ubiquitous khaki-clad tourists stand watch outside motel rooms, while the battered and bumper-stickered pickups of local good ole boys and girls line the residential streets nearby. Twas ever thus, even here in Zion. Even here.


“It's no use, Lee. Forget it. Me and Rickey are getting married. Nothing you say will change that.”

“I'm gonna go back to school, finish my degree, get a better job and buy a house...”

“I said, 'Forget it.' Been there, done that, heard it all before...”

Lee pauses with his dialing finger in mid-air. Gently places the receiver back in the cradle. She's right. There's no point in calling. Their fights are scripted, well rehearsed. Each angry lover quotes his lines, and no one is the wiser in the end. Besides, he's been working over and saving for two weeks, and what's he got to show? Tomorrow is payday, and he has fifteen dollars in his wallet. Fifteen dollars. Hooray for the new austerity.

Back in the cab, and another mile down the road. The fare at Center Street stands him up, so he returns downtown and parks at a cab stand on Main Street outside the coffee shops and craft stores. How cool the dulcimers in the window looked when first he moved here. How exotic, how unique. How empty it all seems at this time of night, this time of year. How tired and lonely the old man on the park bench appears to be. Christ, it must be after midnight, and twenty degrees out there...

Lee rolls the window down and whistles. Motions for the man to come over. The fellow approaches the driver's window, then starts to climb in back, before finally settling in the front passenger seat. Danny Lee smiles, but the man only hugs the door and stares at the bench he just abandoned. He reeks of stale sweat and Listerine. The sweat must be ancient—it's been cold a long time—and the mouthwash odor seems less a gargle scent than yesterday's libation oozing from his pores. Lee cranks the heater and points a vent in his direction.

“Cold out there. You need a ride somewhere, Old Timer? You live nearby?”

The man looks up the street and down again, as though only now aware of his surroundings, or uncertain of the location of his home. At length he shrugs and resumes staring at the bench.

Again, “You need a ride somewhere?”

“No moe-knee.” A gummy, toothless lisp.

“That's okay. I'm off duty now. Where you wanna go?” After a moment, “I asked, 'Where you wanna go', Old Timer?”

The man turns and stares, dull gray eyes beneath greasy red hair, as though weighing the sincerity of the question. Looks at his lap. Picks a piece of lint off his dirty plaid jacket. “I gah no-wheah to go. Sweep all ovah.” After a moment, “Stay in jaiw a wot.”

Lee mulls this over. “How long it been since you ate a bite, fella?”

“How wong since I ate?”


Studious examination of the parapets on the skyline. “Wong tie, I weckon.”

Fifteen dollars on the day before payday. Two weeks on the new savings plan. Only thirty five years old; still plenty young to finish school and start a career. If his wife and daughters don't return, why, seconds marriages are often better than the first...

Lee drops the gearshift into R and backs into the street. Down a notch further into D, and the pair are cruising Main Street, away from town, toward the bright lights of the gas stations, big box stores, and fast food joints that litter the interstate exit.

“Wheah we gone?”

“McDonald's. Mickey D's, by god. I got all of fifteen dollars, and for five, you gonna eat like a king. Hell, for ten, well, so am I. I done had sardines and bologna till I can't stand it. Then tomorrow—tomorrow is Friday, you know, my payday—well, come tomorrow I'm going to start saving my money. I'm going back to school, see, going to finish my degree and change jobs and buy a house and find a new ole lady and...”

Grateful acknowledgement is made to the editors of Metazen, in whose 2010 Christmas charity e-book this story first appeared.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Landscape with Strange Fruit Trees

In the first couple of posts of 2011, we revisit the original purpose of this space, Southern/Appalachian short fiction. Landscape with Strange Fruit Trees recently appeared in Wrong Tree Review. (Big shout out to Jarrid and Sheldon for all their fine work on this issue. I've read it cover to cover, and it rocks.)

"In cutoff shorts and a backless halter, Sonja was more skin than fabric. A businessman in khakis and loafers, browsing the aisle behind the group, paused to examine her. His gaze swept from her ankles to her legs and lingered below her slender waistline as though trying to penetrate the scrap of cloth there. His inspection continued up her young, bare back to the brunette coif draped across her shoulders. Tiny hairs bristled on the back of her neck. She glanced over her shoulder, but he was already walking away...."

For the entire story, click here