Tuesday, January 16, 2018

On Loss and Weightlessness

1965 Ford Econoline truck

A week ago today my father Robert G Graham passed away in Roanoke Virginia in the same hospital where my little sister was born decades ago. At the service I told a story:

In December of 1974, about a month before my fourth birthday, my Mom was stressed that she hadn't managed to drag out any of the the Christmas decorations. My little sister was about six months old and had been sick a lot. My mom was wrung out. She felt it was her job to make the house homey for the holidays and couldn't manage it. To help my dad said he'd take me off her hands and go buy a Christmas tree.

A few months before he'd bought a '65 Econoline truck in red for seven-hundred bucks. It was a cabover design with the 144 cubic inch straight six cylinder engine encased in a metal shroud called a 'doghouse' between two bucket seats. It didn't have power steering or power brakes and had a manual transmission with a column shift - also called 'three on the tree'. My dad liked cars and said he'd get the truck to haul stuff around as needed. But mostly he wanted something to tinker on. So that late-winter afternoon he helped me get my hat and gloves on and pitched me in the passenger seat of that strange little truck. He didn't buckle me because the truck didn't have seat belts. They'd been removed at some point and didn't seem essential.

We drove from our house on Kennedy Street just off of Williamson road out toward Blue Ridge Virgina. It was dusk when we pulled into a gravel lot of a cut-your-own tree farm. We hustled down the rows and he found a tree while there was still enough light to see. He laid on his back in a skiff of snow and reached under the tree with his saw. Pretty soon the tree fell over and he hefted it by man-handling the middle of the trunk in one hand. I grabbed a fistful of branches to feel like I was helping and had to run to keep up with his long stride. He paid, pitched the tree in the bed of the truck and we piled back in.

He edged up to the road and revved the engine. Dad was a Nascar fan, he'd even been on a pit crew for a sponsored stockcar that ran at Daytona when they still raced right on the sand. There wasn't a lot of traffic on the two-lane, but he wanted to have some fun and he liked to drive everything like it was a muscle car. A big delivery van was coming and he shot the little truck out in front of the van, arced us into the far lane. My passenger side door came open. I guess I hadn't closed it right or I grabbed the handle and pulled it open myself. I don't recall that part. What I do remember is slipping off the seat. I was still in a seated position, but I was out in space, nothing  holding my body up.

I was in the space where the closed door should be and heading to a ditch along the side of the road. My dad couldn't stop, the van was on our ass. He clutched, continued to steer with his left hand, and snatched me by my wrist with his right as my legs started to drop from under me. He yanked me back in. Shifted into second, popped the clutch so hard my door slammed closed. I was safe again; in the truck with my dad. 

The headlights of the van were blinding and Dad quick shifted again and put some distance between us and the near tragedy. He leaned over the big steering wheel and gave a nervous laugh. He said, "You doing okay over there buddy?" I must not have given him a convincing response because he told me, "You're okay. You're fine." We sat like that a few moments. He got serious and said to me, "Now there's no reason we need to tell your mother about this." And I don't think I ever did.

I told a couple other stories about my dad taking action, formative memories from my first seven years or so. Then I shared what an especially cruel disease MS was for a man defined so much by his physicality, what a painful process it was to see the slow-motion devastation of that disease slowly eroding his body until he wasted completely away. In truth, I wasn't strong enough to deal with it too often. After a nomadic professional life as a first-gen computer programmer for hire, a divorce or two, and a progressive illness, he settled back near his brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews and cousins. They did most of the heavy lifting and emotional work of being with him day to day. 

It strikes me that hearing he was nearly dead, that he would die within a few days, was like that moment when I came sideways out of that old truck. Lost and falling, nothing to hold me up. But then my wife hugged me. My kids held on too. Some of my Dad's people helped me to coordinate arrangements, or simply encouraged me. As far apart as we've settled in life they still treated me like family. But most unexpectedly my literary agents each sent me kind and thoughtful notes, shared some similar experience of their own. Another writer, Michael Walker and his wife sent a nice note. Friends, artists, writers. . . my community grabbed hold of me and kept me from flying into an emotional ditch. 

I kept moving with as much grace as possible, worried if I stopped I'd never get going again. I harbor a secret concern that I don't process emotions quite like the rest of the world, that I feel deep inside but the pathways that lead to the surface are obstructed. Everything stays trapped and spinning out of control slowly chewing up whatever they grind against. And in hindsight I've started to reverse engineer some of the stories I told at the funeral and recognize that sound adult choices were not a big part of my father's parental strategies. Funny to look at my own upbringing through a parent's eyes. 

 My long standing professional/creative goals include building a network of like-minded souls who somehow innately get me. The death of my father showed me I have that community, it has slowly formed without me realizing. Don't get me wrong, I'm operating without a net now that my dad is gone. I'm a little lost and dizzy, an emotional vertigo is simmering that I expect to linger for some time, maybe from this moment forward. But timing is everything and the importance of a few well intentioned words sent from across the Atlantic at the right moment made a huge difference. The love of distant family and the physical presences of my wife propped me up when I would have fallen over. For everyone who sent a good thought or shared a kind word, I'm thankful. 

Robert G Graham. Air Force upon completion of basic training.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Are novels Artist's Books?

This post starts with Lucy Lippard and the Promise of the Artist’s Book. 

Lucy Lippard is a writer and art critic who believes in art criticism as a form of social advocacy. She was one of the founders of Printed Matter in NYC. According to their mission statement, Printed Matter is the World’s leading non-profit organization dedicated to the dissemination, understanding and appreciation of artist’s books. 

In 1977, Lippard published a paper The Artist’s Book Goes Public in Art in America 65 no. 1. There she argues the gallery system had become too elitist, artists made art to please critics, and the public was cowed by the austere, cold, and inaccessible content of the conceptual art movement. She went on to claim that artist’s books have qualities that make them the perfect inoculation to prevent the gallery system against the creeping rot of utter irrelevance (my words not hers). Or as she put it, they are affordable, accessible, and reproducible, the opposite of the ailment afflicting the high art market. 

This kind of thinking created a sub-category of AB known as the Democratic Multiple. Later accomplished painter and print maker Pat Steir, another of the thinkers responsible for the establishment of Printed Matter, enumerated it this way: the Democratic Multiple is an Artist’s Book that is

1. portable 
2. durable
3. affordable 
4. intimate
5. non-precious
6. multiple
7. historical
8. universal

Beyond that I believe the AB is an art form, which excels when it surprises and subverts viewer’s expectations for the purpose of communication and expression.

My work in ABs has been heavily influenced by the democratic multiple. My most recently available artists book demonstrates many of the qualities Steir articulated. THE AFTERTHAWTS is a collection of collaborative ABs conceived, printed, and distributed by HeavyDuty Press. So far a copy has been placed at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Murphy Library, UW-Milwaukee, UW-Madison and at my favorite AB collection, and The Joan Flasch AB collection at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. 

I try to continue to work in ABs, even as I write novels. But the question I've been toying with is: Are novels actually a kind of Democratic Multiple. I'd like to think so.

Novels are usually bound codex format books; and so, like ABs, a variety of book. 

Clearly my novel, Good For Nothing for example, is portable. One of the greatest things about mass-market book publishing is the generation of content that people can digest at their own speed and in their own space, when they find it most convenient. This mobility makes it approachable to most of the population.

It is durable. I've carried paperbacks in my coat pocket, my back pocket, and tossed them in any number of messenger bags. I've read in bed, in a hammock, in car, trains, plains, boats, and from a hospital bed. The unsewn glue bindings are inexpensive yet surprisingly sturdy. I've moved books from place to place for thirty years, have loaned them out and had them returned ready to read again. 

Affordability is a relative term. In general commercially printed paperbacks are between six and twenty bucks a pop. Inexpensive enough that cost is not a major obstacle for anyone desperate to lay his or her hands on a particular book. The secondary used book market can make books even more affordable. Certainly buying paperback books is much cheaper than attempting to dabble in most of the art market. 

The nature of reading is Intimate. It is a haptic experience of holding, hefting, turning, feeling, smelling, and hearing. Books are most often read as a one to one relationship, book to person. Or perhaps writer, via the book object, straight to the reader. 

Non-precious is also a relative value. But when I loan a book, I know full well it may not come back. Even if it is one of my favorite books such as Richard Ford's early collection of short stories Rock Springs, I still loan books. The potential loss of one copy of one book is less important than the opportunity to connect with someone. 

Clearly mass-market books are printed in multiples. It is a unique trick of the artform that it is both intimate and widely distributable. 

The term Historical I've always taken to mean books that are a reflection of the context in which they are created. Some writers aim to write in an ageless way that allows readers to easily generalize the experiences of a protagonist to the reality of their own existence. Sometimes in service to that intention they strip away much of the detail that makes the narrative of a specific moment or place. I am not that kind of writer. I am interested in anchoring a character to a moment in time, a place, a social reality and a political landscape that will certainly shift by the time the book has made it onto a bookstore shelf. I trust readers to fill whatever gaps exist. 

Lastly universal I have always taken to mean the democratic multiple should speak to the human condition. It's hard to find a novel that doesn't do this. In particular though, my writing has a Universalist bent. I believe our similarities as people far outweigh our differences. 

So Good For Nothing clears the first eight hurdles. As for my own definition: does it surprise and subvert reader expectations for the purpose of expression and communication? The honest answer is yes. One of the rationales for working with genre fiction is that there are sets of tropes that have expected outcomes. Starting with an awareness of what a reader is likely to expect, I can then deliver a resolution in an unexpected way. By that point in the plot, a reader has carried their book to their favorite spot, invested time and attention, they are open to persuasion. Novels are empathy generating devices. An artist with a point to make can find themselves in conversation - with the book as a conduit - about complicated and difficult issues with people who might not otherwise engage on that given issue. Subversion is not an attempt to trick the reader but an opportunity to make an unexpected point in a ripe moment when the reader is open-minded enough to consider a reality outside their own experience. The real challenge is to do all that without being preachy or pedantic, while being interesting and entertaining. I hope to write books that manage to do exactly that. 

One obvious point is that many people think of ABs as a visual art form. And novels clearly are not primarily visual. But, there are whole categories of ABs that are text only. Text art and letterpress printing are two very influential areas that run into to the making of ABs, and two areas that have had a huge impact on my own creative thinking. Generally I reject the idea that ABs must have visual content. Or rather, that text on a page is in fact a kind of visual communication. 

The one hang-up is control of the process. In ABs we call it Authorial Control and it means that one person (or a group of collaborators) conceive and control the execution of all aspects of creating the book object. In commercial printing authors have varying degrees of control depending on force of will, the size of the publisher, the clout of the author etc.. . With Good For Nothing, I had a great deal of say in cover design, typographic design, and typesetting. The one area that has been most out of my control is the way the work is marketed. Often the novels are shoehorned into the existing marketing space they best occupy. Not necessarily a perfect fit, but the best fit given the existing categories. 

In other words, it is arguably possible for a commercially printed novel to meet the minimum requirements to be an artist's book. One of the simplest definitions of an AB (a constantly debated subject within the field) is a book made by an artist. Certainly Good For Nothing is that. 

Finally, I'm pleased to share that I completed my third novel, Half Dead. My agents are reading it now. We shall see what the future holds. 

Monday, May 29, 2017

No Bad News

Some news is simply good.

My literary agents, Pontas Literary and Film, celebrated their 25th year during a holiday in Barcelona: Sant Jordi. Sunday April 23rd was a sunny day and the city was filled with roses, as is the tradition. At times, having agents so far away is isolating and mildly torturous. But, I'm always proud of the shared association, the success of the founder in her realization of a mission to give under served populations an avenue for their valuable narrative perspectives, and being a very small part of a community of international writers.
Casa Batllo phot by Ferra Nadeau
Anna Soler-Pont

The screenwriter who adapted my first novel, Good For Nothing, was in L.A. doing the legwork that screenwriters must do to put a project together. Michael Walker and his lovely wife, actress Genevieve Allenbury, flew to Chicago to dine with my wife and me. We shared a meal, drinks, and conversation for four hours. It was like meeting old friends for the first time. For me, writing is a solitary affair. It can be lonely. The deep sense of a real connection was hugely important.

I've been busy writing my new book (I hope to finish the first draft by the end of June 2017) while also trying to promote the two titles that were published in January. By the end of July I will have participated in fifteen events. Including: A radio interview, a regional TV morning chat, a glossy lifestyle mag review, and numerous readings and signings. Two of the most rewarding were events at the Book Cellar, and recently a big to do at City Lit. I appreciate the community of writers, readers, and artists that keep coming out to be supportive. 
The image of Joseph is more flattering than the likeness of Brandon
I was especially delighted to work with the artist, Joseph Lappie, (who produced the cover art for Good For Nothing) during the the City Lit event. 

Lastly, my books are now settled under the Gallery Imprint of Simon and Schuster. Tyrus is no more. As a long-time visual artist there is a poetry to having my novels housed somewhere called Gallery. It is an established imprint and a respectable home for any writer. I have no complaints. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

In the age of the Neo-Cultural Wars

As a highschooler, too young to yet vote, but the right age to be very attentive to things political, I was in a rage about the PMRC and the attack on NEA funding by the Regan administration and congress.
Maplethorpe's Two Men Dancing, 1984
Andres Serrano's Immersion (Piss Christ), 1987


As I remember it, politicians (not a panel of artists, critics, and art historians, or the public) felt they were qualified to sensor the kinds of projects that received federal money. Or, more accurately, some politicians felt they had been dealt a winning hand to play with their constituents that helped prove the point that the Regan revolution embodied: Government can't solve the problem, Government is the problem. 
     Though Maplethorpe was an established portrait artist and was interested in the exploration of beauty in all its forms, his homoerotic photographs (of which this is a tame example) was considered by various conservative religious lobbying groups, the people they represented, and the politicians they supported, to be pornographic and a celebration of deviant behavior. Similarly the sacrilegious tone of Andres Serrano's Immersion, a powerful image that was captured by dropping a crucifix in a container of urine, was an easy target for attack. 
Jello Biafra
     Two other things were happening simultaneously. 1) The Parent Music Resource Center (PMRC) emerged. This lobbying group was concerned that violent, racist, and vile language in music was destroying the morals of American youth. It was fronted, notably, by Tipper Gore. The wife of (then) Democratic Senator Al Gore. Politically speaking, it was an effort for the left to grab some moral outrage and claim the government could be a solution to social degradation. The PMRC brought us the warning labels about explicit lyrics. At least if one is buying an actual object one can hold in the hands rather than streaming. 

2LiveCrew was definitely misogynistic and offensive to many. But as so much was in that era, wanting to put labels on music was a code for saying these violent, overly sexual black, urban, (likely gang affiliated) musicians are going to spread their tainted values into our precious white-flight, gated communities. It is this period of American politics when the term Dog-Whistle politics was made popular, a way of using coded doublespeak to be racist/not racist.
Twisted Sister
I skipped school to watch Jello Biafra on Donhue directly confront Tipper Gore. And the congress held ridiculous hearing in which Dee Snider, front man for evil Twisted Sister, was asked to testify as a representative of Rock and Roll. 

 2) At my high school, the art department had it's budget cut while the football stadium was being expanded. Clutching the tiny nub of an old Cray Pas I plotted my snarky zine, others printed an alternative newspaper. While skateboarding badly and listening to punk music on my Jam Box I ranted to friends who already agreed with me. They ranted back. And we felt smug in our mutually supportive counter cultural perspective. It accomplished nothing. But we were secretly superior. 
     Which brings us to now. The Neo-Cultural war in the age of Trump. To make my position clear, Trump is a cunt. 

What's a writer and artist to do? What can we do other than feel wronged, and be right about how wronged we have been? For me, I am trying to use my current book promotion as an opportunity to make a virtuous circle of support. Here is how that works: I want to support a local arts organization by donating some time, books, profits. . .with help from that organization, we find a Chicago independent bookstore willing to host an event. We sell tickets that include an original limited edition poster by a print maker who is donating his time and talents. We put together a panel discussion of community groups and artists. Perhaps we have a postcard and petitions ready to be signed by those who attend. In other words a local artist, local author, local arts organization, local bookstore come together to raise needed capital, support one another, promote one another, and turn the moment into a discussion and an action. 
     It's only one little thing. But it is a thing. And if the NEA goes unfunded, larger arts organizations and individual artists will either give-up or seek funding elsewhere. Those elsewhere's may be the places where smaller arts organizations currently depend on funding. There will be a tightening, and there will be lack of funding at the bottom. 

Help nationally. 
Help locally. 
That's the working theory. In a time when the press is "the enemy of the people," and the arts and schools are being unfunded, our individual voices and efforts matter much more. 

Saturday, January 21, 2017

A birthday gift for everyone

If you've been following along you are aware that Missing People and Good For Nothing were released in North America by Tyrus (an imprint of Simon and Schuster) on January 1, 2017. My local independent book store informed me that on January 3rd, they would be placing hardbound copies of my book at the front of the store in the new arrivals section. As it happens, January 3rd is my birthday. For twenty years, one of my life goals has been to bop into my local book store and see one of my titles on the shelf, to heft it, open it, smell it, feel it, and to know I am a full participant in the writer/reader/bookseller life cycle. 
I had a very nomadic childhood, and books (and the places I'd go to buy them) were an important through-line when I moved my young life from state to state. Wandering a bookstore was like being home. Finding a book to sink into was a comfort amid the swirl of new variables that came with each new neighborhood. In my twenties I worked in a used book store. I mostly sold coffee. But I also answered questions, helped find title, made suggestions, and had daily conversations about books. I saw how books touched peoples lives, became like cherished friends, made people's lives better, richer, more meaningful. So walking into Anderson's books in Downers Grove, Illinois on my birthday and finding two hardbound titles that I'd written staring back at me was a significant moment (captured in this short video):

How is this a birthday gift for everyone? 

Today I give the gift of not blogging about the play by play of sales of these two title as time moves forward. This post will be the last focused on the roll out. After today, emphasis will be on the writing process for the new book Half Dead. But, so many things have happened in the first three weeks since these titles were released, I will enumerate some of them here. 

Missing People
“Both psychologically searing and fast paced, Missing People poignantly shows that when one person goes missing, their loved ones can lose themselves as well.” – Booklist

Good For Nothing 
“Graham’s deliciously satirical first novel will charm readers with … plenty of laugh-out-loud moments … Graham gives his leading man a sympathetic edge, using him and his well-drawn supporting cast as vehicles for biting social satire of contemporary American life. A brilliantly entertaining debut.”

The Dirt Worker's Journal Book Blog
Brandon S. Graham’s new novel “Missing People” is the classic punch in the gut Grit-Lit storytelling I’ve grown to love from him over the last few years. He does not disappoint with this nail-biting tale of colorful characters making their way in the world.
To me the book reads much like a movie playing out in front of you on the big screen. This is the telltale sign of a great writer. Someone who has spent day in and day out with each character-pouring everything they have into each one to make their book alive and believable. 

“Missing People” is a book I highly recommend. Graham is at the top of his game. My prediction is this book is going to sell many copies and most likely make it to the big screen. It’s that good. So, pick up your copy today!

Columbia College Alumni Spotlight  
'In Missing People, Brandon Graham MFA ’08 tells the story of someone who’s not there. His second novel explores the disappearance of Etta Messenger, told through the shared histories of her parents, her high school sweetheart and the other people who made up her life.

Graham has a lot to celebrate in the new year: Missing People came out January 1, at the same time as the US publication of his first novel, Good for Nothing. Both are offered through Tyrus Books, a new imprint of Simon & Schuster. At the same time, Good For Nothing was optioned for a movie.
Over the years, Graham has worked in visual arts, ceramics, writing and more. While pursuing his MFA at the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College Chicago, he combined written and visual art into short literary zines and longer off-set booklets. He talked to us about how all of these experiences combined in his career as a novelist."


Book Launch Party: My first book signing/event was a few days ago at a local pub. After moving so frequently as a kid, it is significant that I've been in this place for eleven years (a quarter of my life). Books are long projects and staying put helped. Even more helpful was beginning to understand what be a part of a community actually feels like. 

In a week or so I have another signing locally, then two weeks later in Traverse City Michigan followed two weeks later by an event in Chicago. Next post, I will mention very little about those things, and instead focus on the new manuscript (over 100 pages written). Thanks for reading. 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Taking Stock

As often happens at the end of the year, I am taking stock of where things stand.

When I began this blog I intended it to be a record of my writing process as I struggled with my first novel, Good For Nothing. I harbored a deep fear that I would admit (digitally) aloud that I was embarking on a futile process and eventually have to share, publicly, that I had like so many others, been unable to finish the project, or find an agent, or publisher. This fear was not unfounded. The statistics related to debut novels being published are very bleak. Also, at the time, the publishing industry was in a snit about what exactly digital publishing would mean for their business model, and bookstores were closing right and left.

Beyond that, I had up-close experience with talented writers who had attempted to find purchase in commercial publishing and failed. One writer in particular had announced he was starting a new career as a novelist, made his whole life about the effort, finished three novels, and never found a publisher willing to print them. It seemed 1) heartbreaking and soul crushing and 2) a likely outcome for anyone trying to edge their way into the publishing game.

But slowly, things came together.
I finished the novel.
I wrote a query letter.
I found agents.
They worked hard to find a UK publisher.
The editors got to work, the book was published and distributed, it sold, was reviewed well, and I was relieved to have not fallen completely on my face.

During that time my agents tried to sell GFN in the US market. There were many kind notes from editors, each rejecting the manuscript. So while people could walk into airports and train stations and airports around England and find my title on the shelf, I could not walk into my favorite book shop and see one myself. It was all slightly unreal.

During the drip drip drip drip of rejection letters, I was writing. It was creatively rough to keep working while feeling I may have done something wrong the first time around. But I had heard how hard the second effort can be, I knew writers that had spent everything on their first book and had nothing left for a second novel. To overcome that, I kept pushing. And I finished Missing People. The manuscript went out, kind rejections began to trickle in, and I spent the year teaching college composition classes. Reading so many essays, preparing classes in a field I'd never worked in previously, and dealing with many teenagers - their problems and personalities - made it hard to make my own work.

Then, this past summer, GFN was optioned for a movie.

Tyrus purchased North American rights for Missing People, and a few weeks later also purchased rights for GFN.

I went through the editing process for two novels at once. The books went to press.

And miraculously, Tyrus was purchased by Simon and Schuster. Over the course of several years I went from legitimate fear of devoting a huge amount of time and emotional energy into a project that would never see the light of day, to having my first two novels published by one of the five major publishers in the world. Honestly, I'm not good at recognizing that I have worked hard and that it has paid off, or at feeling that I've done something well. But it is a big deal in my life. Though I have a tinge of survivors guilt. After being close to so many talented, capable, passionate writers who haven't found a way through the morass of the publishing industry, I'm reluctant to celebrate. I feel it could diminish the efforts of others. I also know there is an egotism to that kind of guilt.

In the past few weeks I've had some good reviews for both titles. Both Good For Nothing and Missing People were selected for review in Publishers Weekly. This is significant as it is a media gateway publication; once reviewed by PW other outlets choose to take a look. 


PW review of GFN: http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-5072-0162-6

PW review of MP: http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-5072-0052-0

Those reviews likely led to this really overwhelmingly generous review in Booklist which is a publication of the American Library Association and is read mostly by librarians, book clubs, and very passionate book lovers: https://www.booklistonline.com/Good-for-Nothing-Brandon-Graham/pid=8520611 

It reads in part,"Graham's deliciously satirical first novel will charm readers with its hapless but oddly appealing protagonist." Man I like that review!

I want to say thank you. To my friends and family, Thank you. To those who have followed along, Thank you. To all those who have contributed to the process along the way, Thank you too. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy New Year.

On January first I will walk into my local bookstore and pick-up hardbound copies of my two novels. I believe, at that moment, it will feel real. 

Friday, December 2, 2016

Unexpectedly Simon and Schustered

In the past few days my publisher, Tyrus Books, was acquired by Simon and Schuster! 

A couple years ago, when Good For Nothing was initially offered in the North American market, a  particular editor from Simon and Schuster held on to the manuscript, read it twice, wrote a few complimentary notes about the characters and language. I began to feel it was likely that GFN would be published by Simon and Schuster. And then, as things often do in the publishing process, there was a change of heart, things tipped the wrong direction, and the editor apologetically passed on the novel. I was mildly miserable. And now, in a strange twist, my first two novels will both be published under the Simon and Schuster umbrella. I'm unsure if this is cause for celebration. So rather than a big party I am drinking alone (again).

Here is a link to the PW article related to the acquisition if you'd care to see it:

As promised, here is a short story for your reading pleasure. It is a variation on the text for a visual book collaboration by the same name.

I could trace my childhood by brushing a finger over a map’s dry surface. Starting from a modest ranch, part of off-base housing near the Naval base, in Newport News, Virginia. Sliding my finger south I could pass it over six homes along the Atlantic coast in the Carolinas, Georgia and eventually end in a spot south of Miami where the land stops. My family settled there near some of my mom’s people.

My first lungful of air was filled with the scent of the sea. When just big enough to walk, I remember looking down at my cherubic toes in hot sand. Up en pointe I punched holes in the beach. Chubby feet balled to catch the grit and hold it, to grasp the new sensation and not let it loose. The wind blasted grains and mist against me. A wet line of foam surged toward me, sweeping sudden and cold over my feet. Later my cloth diaper, heavy with seawater, came loose, the weight bending the safety pins until they popped and gouged a red, angry line down my thigh. My parents and big sister laughed at my nudity and I was happy.  

After college, I rebounded like a kid’s cheap yo-yo, drawn one state at a time back along the coastline until I married and built an academic life outside our nation’s capital. My grandmother Daisy passed away last semester, and as the most responsible living relative, I’m flying down on my sabbatical to tie up a few loose ends, liquidate a few assets and pay some outstanding bills. Plus, my wife and I need the break.

I don’t keep a resume. Hell, now that I’m tenured I barely keep my CV up to date. But I know CV is short for Curriculum Vitae, which is Latin for course of life. And that’s what’s on my mind as I feel the jet engines slow, feel my stomach drop.  
Out the window, as we swing in a wide turn around Miami, I see Biscayne Bay. I was here in ’82 when Christo and Jeanne-Claude ringed the islands down there with Pepto-Bismol colored plastic sheeting, like some grotesque halo, or a misguided, gaudy Shinto celebration of nature. Supposedly it killed a lot of pelicans, the plastic. Those massive birds dove in whole flocks to catch fish in their bucket mouths and came up under the pink sheeting to suffocate, their corpses accidental and grisly additions to the exhibition. At least that’s what I heard back then.

My rental car takes me down roads whose names I should know, past sights that used to be commonplace. It’s funny how memory works. The shiny, happy, bright images of a ten-year-old are dulled with layers of failed responsibility and pessimistic attitudes about consumerism and tainted politics. The color leaches out of everything given enough time. Or maybe my eyes are just tired.

In Homestead, where I attended middle-school, I stop at a wide spot on the shoulder of the road to buy avocados, a mango and three oranges from a Cuban man with boxes of fruit lined-up on a card table. I sit on the hood of my car and pitch curls of orange peel into the tall grass. The sticky, sweet juices run into my whiskers while the sun bakes my forehead. Seagulls cry out overhead and catch the air in their wings as they glide into an adjacent parking lot. From above, the rising waves of heat from the flat surface must look like deep, dark water. I watch them squawk in protest, hop around and peck through the gravel for food. Soon they give up and get back to the sky. I take their lead and drive toward the fish camp.  

The strip of road that leads to Key Largo has beach on both sides. In the shallows to the right a flock of flamingos stand on one leg. I’ve been told flamingos have white feathers. Their usual pink coloring comes from the red algae in their diet. This flock bothers me. They are faded and pale. Not the flamboyant, vivid birds I remember.

The last time I saw my grandmother alive was at my grandfather’s funeral, years ago. She’d gotten arthritis bad and her hands were like a knot of white root vegetables. She’d been forced to give up on planting the flowers she’d always loved and instead stuffed cheap plastic flamingos into each of the terra-cotta pots that lined her little porch. When she hugged me, she’d had strength left in her arms, nearly crushed me.

I’m mostly here to clean out an old storage unit where my grandparents kept some things after hurricane Andrew did its damage and the insurance company shafted them. Their house had stucco the color of guacamole and big white awnings that folded down like protective metal wings over the louvered windows in a hurricane. The awnings were no help when Andrew stripped half the roof off and filled the house with storm water and palm fronds. The gators ventured from their canals around the citrus groves and swam in the flooded streets. After things dried out my grandfather Jan found a big old granddaddy gator had made a nest between two mangled banana trees in the back corner of the yard. By that time it was clear they were abandoning the house, so he left the backdoor open in case the gator needed anything amid the moldy carpets and swollen floorboards.

The fish camp is at the far end of Key Largo and consists of a series of cinder block cabins facing the sea, a long pier to stand and fish from, a place where the charter boats come to pick up guests, and a narrow stretch of beach, baby dunes, and ragged sea grass. The exterior of the cabins are each a different color. The woman at the office hands me the key and tells me I’m staying in the Honeydew suite. After I unpack, I sit at a picnic table near an abandoned fire pit and eat slices of ripe mango in the dark as the wind comes off the water. I take out my cell phone to call my wife, the light is harsh in the night, and bugs immediately gather. I slip the phone back in my pocket. I know she doesn’t want to hear from me.

In his retirement my grandfather Jan had loved two things, and neither of them was his wife Daisy. The first was a sky blue T-bird convertible. He always claimed he couldn’t drive it in the spring because over-sized mosquitoes were drawn to its color and would cover it so thick it looked like its hood had been flocked black. But he couldn’t find the heart to sell it, even when his cataracts were too bad to drive. The other love of his life was his Slash2 BMW motorcycle.
The next day, after drinking black coffee on the pier as the sun comes up, I find both of his prized possessions in the storage unit off Truman Avenue near the tip of Key West. It only takes two days to sell the T-bird for more money than I expected. I use the cash to pay Daisy’s remaining bills and to have the BMW tuned-up, and purchase new tires, a new battery, and an extra set of fresh spark plugs.  

That takes a few days. During that time I visit the Hemingway Museum, eat fresh seafood and fresh fruit. I watch old couples dance like kids. I watch kids lay on the beach, not speaking, like old couples. I drink too many girly drinks with ridiculous umbrellas. I end up addle-brained and ashamed, thinking Papa Hemingway would never make me a tragic hero in his next book.

As the sun sets on my fourth night I walk along the beach and people watch. Little children play in the surf tossing a Frisbee into the ocean and watching it wash back in. An old Japanese couple walks together, shoulders touching and a metal detector skimming the sand in front of them. A shapely bald woman in a see-through dress carries a big bottle of Champagne in one hand and a glass that she keeps refilling in the other. She comes right toward me. As I watch without appearing to watch, she un-slings her oversized purse, and like a magic act, a white dog hops out. She leans over drunkenly to let the enchanted canine drink from her glass. She refills it again, holds it high in a toast to me, I smile and we part ways.  

That night I build a fire and sort through musty boxes of papers from the storage unit. Old family photos of people I don’t recognize. There are several black and white images of my grandparents as a young couple on a beach, her hair long and light from the sun. There is a snapshot of them rolling in the surf like a staged press photo to promote that Pearl Harbor movie, From Here to Eternity. They looked happy, giggling too much to give a serious kiss. I slowly burn everything except one stack of images, a few faded postcards like you'd find on a wire spin-rack, a leather motorcycle jacket in reasonable shape, and a decrepit helmet with goggles attached.  

A week after I landed I drive the rental car back to the lot where I got it. I hop a shuttle to the terminal and tell lies about a family emergency to three different people until I’m refunded the majority of my return ticket. I spend nearly a third of the refund on the cab back to the garage where the bike is waiting.

I’m cautious for the first few miles, feeling out the brakes, the heavy boxer engine sticking out either side of the frame like nubby wings. It doesn’t take long before it feels like an old friend. I stop at a roadside stand that sells Cuban coffee and sandwiches. I knock back the coffee, put the sandwich in my saddlebag for later. I text my wife instead of calling her. I can’t imagine enough time has passed for her to want to speak to me, the pain of my hurtful confession still too sharp. But I want her to know I’m coming. I’m taking the long way up old coast roads. Taking my time, letting the wind ease the sharp edges and the sun beat on me until the garish colors bleach to white.  

Lastly, I've been told that a few of the hardbound first editions of both books have made it off the press and to someone in my publisher's hierarchy. That means, despite the official publication date of either Jan 18th (originally) or Jan 1st (more recently) that if you pre-order my books now, you may get them in time for Christmas. That is not a promise. https://www.amazon.com/Missing-People-Brandon-Graham/dp/1507200528