Sunday, May 7, 2023

Release Day Next Week - Excerpt From Thy Father's Glass

 As hard as it is for me to believe, but my debut novel releases on Tuesday! It's been a long process, with a lot of work, rejection, and imposter's syndrome along the way, but the big day is just around the corner. To celebrate (and maybe entice some readers to buy a copy) here's a scene from the novel.

Cover of the novel Thy Father's Glass by Jeffray Harrison. An attic at night in dark blue tones with a bright moonlight shining through a square window.

    Dane had already made three orderly piles of clothes on the bed and had started to pack when Muriel got home from the gym. He told her what Sabine had said and that his father needed him to stay over for a while.

“It happened that way with my grandfather.” Muriel helped Dane pack an overnight bag. “I was almost ten, and that was back in Haiti, but I remember it was just like this.”

    Dane went to the bathroom and scooped his toiletries into a blue drawstring bag with some faded company logo on it.

    “I remember being very sad about it. He lived with us,” she continued. “A lot of people had their grandparents with them back then. It was like he was . . .” She sat down on the bed, rolled a pair of jeans into a tight tube, and shoved them into the bottom of Dane’s backpack, “Like he was disappearing in front of you, a little at a time, until he was gone.”

    Dane cinched the bag with his deodorant and shaving tools in it and sat down next to Muriel, his shoulder up against hers. She stopped folding his T-shirt and rubbed the back of his hand.

    “He’s a completely different man,” Dane said. “I don’t know how this happened so fast.”

    “The doctors did say it was coming. We were all so focused on Mom for so long, I guess . . .”

    “But I can’t even say I really knew him before. Now what?” Dane took the shirt from Muriel’s lap and started rolling it tightly. She took another from the pile on the bed behind her and folded it into fourths.

    “You know, my dad and my grandfather never got along,” Muriel said, smoothing out the folded shirt and handing it to Dane. “Papa only ever had bad things to say about his father—he was stingy, he was rough—but I don’t remember any of that. People change when they get this way—a lot. I know other families who went through it, and it seems like there are always two ways people change: they either get really mean and difficult, or they get really sweet and gentle.

    “My father knew his father all his life as a hard man, strict to the point of being mean. But all I remember of him was him sitting with me on the couch, all hugs and kisses, being so grateful for anything I did for him. He didn’t always know who I was, but I knew he loved me.” She pushed socks into the front pouch of the backpack until she could barely zip it closed.

   “Once a man, twice a child?” Dane smirked.

    Muriel whipped him with a pair of his own underwear. “Did Sabine tell you that?”

    Dane nodded. “Pop was like that too,” he said, rubbing his eyes with the backs of his hands. “Then he wasn’t much of anything. He worked a lot, I guess, and when he wasn’t working, he wasn’t interested in much of anything I did. You’ve never really met the man.”

    Muriel nodded, put her arms around her husband, and stroked the back of his neck. “You can choose what to keep from your father. You can look at this time you have together as a window of opportunity to create some memories with him that will be full of love and kindness, and you can replace whatever bad memories you have with these good ones.”

    Dane turned his head and kissed her, wishing she could come with him, wondering how he would sleep in the old house, in his old room, without her. Even worse, no matter how hopeful Muriel tried to make it sound, he dreaded the prospect of so much time cooped up with his father. He tried to create a picture in his head of what it would look like to spend that much time with the old man, and nothing but torture came to mind.

    Conversation between them had always been strained and awkward, and now the Alzheimer’s made it nearly impossible. What would they do? Just sit around and stare out the window together? Listen to fifties music on the radio and tap their feet in time? Binge-watch Gunsmoke until they fell asleep? A dispassionate sense of duty compelled him to go through the motions, but he felt no real desire to do it.

    Dane and Muriel had never had kids, never wanted to, but he imagined it would feel a lot like this. Before Sabine had left for the day, she had cooked enough rice and beans and stewed chicken for them all, plus enough for later if the men got hungry. She had also walked Dane around the house and shown him her protocols for getting Branson ready for the night.

    He wasn’t so badly off that he couldn’t bathe himself, thank goodness, but if nobody reminded him, he would go days without taking a shower. Make sure to lock all the doors around the house and hide things you don’t want him to get into.

A mood board in black and white, photos around the perimeter: A chair sitting in front of the window of an empty attic, a Black woman with shoulder-length hair, a vintage black Plymouth from the 1950s, a white man with a sad face, a grizzled old white man looks into the camera with a magnifying glass.The text reads, Muriel nodded, put her arms around her husband, and stroked the back of his neck. “You can choose what to keep from your father. You can look at this time you have together as a window of opportunity to create some memories with him that will be full of love and kindness, and you can replace whatever bad memories you have with these good ones.”

    Fortunately, Branson was a tall man who couldn’t bother to bend over for anything, so putting dangerous items on lower shelves and the backs of floor-level cabinets kept them out of his reach. Make sure he had everything he might need—water, light, books, remote controls—by his bed in plain sight. Think of his mental acuity like a power grid, Sabine said. Too much stimulus, too many stressors, and the whole thing would overload and short out for a while.

    “He needs his picture of Miss Gwen by his bed, his bottle of water on the nightstand,” she said. “You don’t want him waking up in the night and wandering around the house looking for something.”

    “Check,” Dane said, “Everything in its place.”

    Sabine nodded. She stepped closer and looked up into Dane’s face, touching his arm to command his attention. “It’s more than that,” she said, dropping the pitch of her voice. “The way his disease is progressing so rapidly, there’s a chance he could wake up and not know where, or even when he is. Try to look at it from his point of view, how terrifying that could be.”

    Dane’s shoulders drooped and he searched Sabine’s face. “You think that could happen?”

    Sabine patted his arm and dropped her hand, still holding Dane’s gaze. “It’s going to happen, Dane. The plan is to minimize his stress and confusion in any way possible, keep his grid functioning.”

    The sheer urgency of Sabine’s instructions overwhelmed Dane, but she tried to bring him back into focus. It didn’t seem as if he woke up much in the night. He usually settled down for bed when she left at six and got up to sit in his chair, sometimes still in his pajamas, by the time she arrived at nine in the morning. He would sometimes take a short nap in the day, but Sabine said she kept him up and active as much as possible during the day to make sure he slept through the night since he was on his own.

    “You make it sound like we’re prepping a house for a toddler,” Dane chuckled awkwardly.

    Sabine agreed. “Once a man, twice a child,” she said, solemnly.

    Once he walked through Sabine’s instructions meticulously, and left Branson safely in bed sleeping, soundly, judging by the loud raspy noise coming through the door, Dane felt unsure what to do with himself. It was the same house he had grown up in, his old room, the kitchen he had plundered for the first eighteen years of his life. But now it felt foreign, as if he were some interloper, some shadow creeping up the stairs and stalking the quiet rooms.

    He checked and rechecked the door locks, cracked the door to his father’s bedroom, and peeked through the sliver of space to make sure he was sleeping, which he always was, every time. The loud snoring actually reassured him, and he didn’t know what he would do if the droning sound stopped.

    He didn’t dare turn on the television for fear of waking up or, even worse, alarming his father, but he had brought some books. After deciding to sleep on the couch instead of his old room, he remembered to check the attic window to maintain readiness.

    Dane had a vision that made him shiver as he crept upstairs to the attic. He saw his father laughing and leaning out of the open window, with nobody there to stop him or pull him back in. Checking and rechecking the lock put him more at ease, but he wanted more security than the little turning sash lock could provide.

    There wasn’t much left up there since he had cleared it out—the empty bookcases, a few crates, a broom and dustpan, and some folding chairs—but he placed every object strategically to get in an old man’s way if he should try to get to the window.

    Brooms would crash to the floor if the door opened, crates would topple over and clatter, and metal chairs would have to be relocated just to get in front of the window. As he stood surveying his work, he felt a little pride over what he had done, enough confidence to help him fall asleep tonight.

    Still, he needed to check the window lock again. The feeling of having forgotten something or of having left the stove on after going to work compelled him to take one last look and reassure himself that he could rest for the night. He tiptoed around the crates and chairs so he wouldn’t have to reset the trap and turned the lock as far as it would go.

    The window gave a wide, pleasant view of the neighborhood. He could see why his father liked sitting there, even if he did seem to lose himself in a weird way. He got his face as close to the glass as he could and tried to see how far he could look down both sides of the sleepy suburban street. A sort of dizzy feeling came over him as he leaned into the window, as if the height of his vantage point or the memory of his father’s near accident disturbed his sense of ease. Blinking his eyes rapidly to shake off the queasy feeling, he settled back on his heels and looked through the window again.

    Neatly mown and manicured lawns all the way down to each corner showed how much pride and love the neighbors had for their homes. Some houses still had lights on, mostly upstairs, but a lot had gone completely dark already.

    Many of the houses had the same layout, in three or four different variations, and some were exactly like the Shottmers’, although none of them had the round window like the one he looked through. Not much had changed since he had played in those yards and taken the bus to school from that corner.

    One thing seemed out of place. Someone had parked an old black car in front of the Shottmers’ house. Not just old, but classic, like the cars in black-and-white movies from the forties and fifties. To Dane, it looked like a specific one he remembered from somewhere, a Buick, or maybe a Pontiac, but he didn’t really know much about modern cars, much less ones from over a half-century ago.

    Still, it was one of the most beautiful cars he had seen. The rounded hood looked like a bullet or a torpedo, the smooth curve from the back to the front, ending in the raised headlights like eyes on either side. And whoever owned kept it so well maintained, it looked brand-new. The black paint glowed underneath the streetlight. He could barely spare a thought to wonder why someone would park on his side of the street or whose car it could be when he saw something else that made him feel dizzy all over again.

    His father was walking across the lawn toward the car.

    “No,” Dane muttered under his breath. “Dammit, no, no, no.”

    He tried not to yell or make a ruckus that might startle his father, but he skipped every other step as he ran downstairs. The vision of his father wandering the streets at night plagued him until he burst through the front door and leaped off the porch onto the lawn. Once his feet touched the grass, he stopped so suddenly he almost flopped forward. He stood there in the creeping darkness of late evening and looked around.

    There was nobody there—no car parked on the street, no father in the yard.

    He turned to the left and saw his own car parked at the end of the driveway, all the way over to the side to leave room for Sabine to park in the morning. He turned toward the house and then back to the street again, confused and alarmed.

    Could someone have taken his father? A car that old would have made some noise for sure, but maybe he missed it in his panic. Was his father’s door open as he ran downstairs? He dashed back into the house and closed the front door, more quietly than he had run out of it, half sensing what he would find on the second floor.

    His father’s bedroom door was closed. For at least the fifth time tonight, Dane opened it just enough to peek through, but he didn’t even have to look to know his father was still in there and still sleeping. The unbroken drone of his snoring confirmed it.

    Dane wobbled a little, as if he had stood up too fast, and felt his way back to the attic stairway behind him, eyes still on the cracked doorway with his father sleeping on the other side. He carefully dropped onto the second step, his breath coming heavy now, and tried to slow his heart rate the way he had learned to do during an important basketball game.

    Once he felt steady, he closed the bedroom door and crept back up to the attic. Everything just as he’d left it. He again maneuvered around his traps and looked through the window. The black car was back, and his father leaned into the passenger’s seat, rummaging through the glove box.

    He closed his eyes for a moment or two and then looked again, but nothing had changed. True, the darkness of the late evening made it difficult to see the yard, but there was no mistaking his father’s stature framed in the light from the car’s interior—his sharp shoulders, long neck, and his gray hair cropped close. He opened the window as quietly as he could, as if, for some reason, he thought the car and the man might disappear.

    They didn’t. Through the open window, he could see them even more clearly. He thought about calling down there, but he couldn’t wrap his head around the situation enough to worry whether he would be startling his father, waking him up, or shouting at someone else entirely.

    After a few more moments of staring, he closed and locked the window, and as he backed away, tripping over one of the crates he had set for his father, he could still see the old black car, still see the man now sitting in the passenger’s seat rifling through some papers.

    He couldn’t feel his feet touch the floor as he walked soundlessly down to the second floor and approached his father’s bedroom again. He opened the door all the way this time, slowly, quietly, and entered the room. He crept over to the bed, where his father still lay sleeping and snoring, looked down into his face, and then parted the curtains and looked out the window.

    No car, no man.

    He stood there for some time, watching. Afterward, he had no idea how long the window had held him there, peering into the yard. He couldn’t recall how he had gotten out of the attic and back downstairs. All he remembered after standing silently above his father’s sleeping form was sitting on the couch and staring through the front window at the empty yard until he fell asleep, wondering how to talk to his father about all this tomorrow.

Thanks for reading! If you like what you see, please order Thy Father's Glass, releasing Tuesday, May 9.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Let the Kids Read! An Ode for National Children's Picture Book Day

I was today year's old when I learned that April 2 is National Children's Book Day. Apparently, this day to commemorate and promote children's books, set on Hans Christian Anderson's birthday (get it), has been a thing since before I was born. Now, I know that every day is some kind of national something, but this one happens to be really cool, so I'm going with it. This week, the high school creative writing club I sponsor will be celebrating by reading their favorite children's books and eating appropriate snacks, although I'm not sure Target has a section for that, or at least I didn't see any signs. It might just end up being a lot of Peeps and Cadbury Eggs. We'll also devote some time to a short tutorial on what makes a good children's book, and how to get theirs published. 

Today, however, I'm sharing my favorite children's books, specifically with mixed and blended families in mind. 

First, some caveats, a few provisos, a couple of quid pro quos. Needless to say, this is not an exhaustive list, so if you think that I've left an important book off the list, feel free to mention it in the comments and hype the book yourself. I'm always looking for recommendations. The following is just a list of my favorites, in no particular order, from the books that I read to my kids with our special family in mind. And with all the legal stuff out of the way, here we go!

The Day You Begin, written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by Rafael López

Cover for the children's book, The Day You Begin. A little brown girl with curly hair peeks into a classroom through the door.

We actually own the Spanish translation of this book, because we bought it for my daughter who's in the Spanish Immersion program at school, and somehow that adds a different flavor to the reading. Either way, this beautiful book is about three kids of different ethnicities who each feel left out sometimes, or afraid to share the details of their lives for fear that they won't be accepted, often with reason. One of my favorite moments is at lunchtime. One girl turns up her nose as she looks into another girl's lunch of rice and kimchi. The Asian girl notices the disdain, obviously, and while she feels insulted by her friend's reaction, she also has enough sense to wonder how the girl doesn't know that most of the world eats rice, literally for almost every meal. In the end, the three students who feel like outsiders become friends and find their similarities not only bind hem together, but also embolden them to share their lives with the class.

Where Are You From? written Yamile Saied Méndez and illustrated by Jaime Kim

Cover for the children's book, Where Are You From? A brown-skinned Latino grandfather walks a curving path through tall brown grass with his granddaughter on his shoulders.

A lot of mixed kids and the children of immigrants often deal with the question "where are you from?" in  a very skeptical or derogatory way. And, of course, the equally cringe follow-up question, "but where are you really from?" This book starts with a child confused by the question at school, from grownups as well as kids. Troubled by the idea that she doesn't belong, she asks her grandfather, because he knows everything. Grandfather tells her the rich history of their family, sometimes beautiful, sometimes sad, in the Caribbean and Latin America as well as the US. In the end, grandfather tells the girl that where she really comes from is his heart, and from the dreams of all her ancestors. It's a brilliant way to deal with the question that our kids inevitably face, in a way that unpacks the complexity of it in a way that "I'm from here, just like you" doesn't accomplish.

Eyes That Kiss in the Corners, written by Joanna Ho and illustrated by Dung Ho

Cover for the children's book, Eyes That Kiss in the Corners. A little Chinese girl in profile holds a pink flower and looks at an orange butterfly.

Another beautiful book, this time with vibrant illustrations of Asian culture, Eyes That Kiss in the Corners deals with the issue of looking different from the majority of kids around you. What sets this book apart from some of the others is that it's pure affirmation. It contains no moments of racial conflict, but instead celebrates the main character's beauty. The Asian girl at the center of the book loves her eyes, loves seeing them in all the generations of women in her family, loves how they remind her of the history and folklore of her Chinese culture, from the dragon dance to the figures of mythology. The art style complements the concept of the book and the lyrical text perfectly. It's a great book to get your child talking about the parts of them that they may need to love a little more.

My Heart Full of All, written by Jia Shao and illustrated by Kat Powell

Cover for the children's book, My Heart Full of All. A brown girl with flowers in her curly brown hair looks over her shoulder as her Chinese mother and African-American father follow behind her.

This book actually has a mixed family at the center, and deals with that issue a little more directly. In the story, a girl whose mother is Chinese and whose father is African wants to put on fashion show with her dolls. Every time she adds a detail to her doll's attire for the show, it comes from a different side of her family - a different tradition, memory, or some place they've travelled together. The doll's hair texture is like her own and her father's, pulled into two puffs. The dress is like her mother's fancy one for Chinese New Year. By the end, the doll has little nuances from so many different cultures and ethnicities, just like the child herself. It's a very fun book, written in rhyme, and very interactive, with space at the end for reflecting on culture and even drawing an original henna tattoo. 

Dream Big, written and illustrated by Joyce Wan

Cover for the children's book, Dream Big. A cartoonish drawing of a light-skinned girl wearing a red parka and glasses stands atop a mountain, planting a flag.

This is a bit of an odd choice for this list, since it's not specifically written about mixed families or even families in general. Instead, it's about girls dreaming big and connecting their aspirations for the future to famous women of all walks of life, from Harriet Tubman to Frida Kahlo. What makes me put it on the list is the way my three-year-old really gets into every panel, talking about what each of the women are doing, and especially the last image of so many women all in one scene, doing everything from running to climbing mountains to flying planes and helicopters. When we get to that part, with so many different women, she likes to point to the ones that look like her mother, her sisters, her grandmothers and aunties, and her friends. She even picks one that she says looks like me, and I try to take as a compliment, in the spirit in which I'm sure it's given. Best of all, when asked which girl looks like herself, she points to all of them. "This me, this me, this me, this me," she says. If Wan was hoping that little girls would see themselves reflected in a diversity of women, she definitely succeeded in my house.

So, those are just five of my favorite children's books that I've bought specifically to help my kids think about their mixed family, but there are a lot more good ones out there that I didn't mention, and, I'm sure, a lot more that I don't even know about. In Florida, where I live, many of these books might be pulled from the elementary shelves, soon if not already, so let's hype them up while we can. If you have a favorite, please drop the title in the mentions and tell everyone why you like it.