FOR SALE: BABY SHOES, NEVER WORN: UNABRIDGED AND UNCENSORED.

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For sale: baby shoes, never worn— the beginning of the great big goddamned dirty lie.

I was born in the mountains—Anytown, Appalachia—the son of a seamstress and a coal miner. The Depression was on and things were tough. Though I was just a baby, I still remember.

Sometimes, I think memory is my curse.

The first night it happened, Ma showed up drunk at suppertime again, eyes crazed and fixed on the only thing left to sell in our cabin: my baby shoes.  Pa had given up the bottle on account of the hard times, but Ma had taken a turn for the worse. This was before she started in on the Sterno; before the townsfolk had taken to calling her “Hellfire Martha.”

Pa rose from the table.

“Martha, no.”

“Goddamnit, Henry, I brought that baby into this world—made them baby booties myself—and I’ll sell ‘em downriver just the same.”

Thunder growled somewhere out over the mountains. Pa spat.

“His footsie wootsie’ll get cold, Mama. Cain’t get much for a pair of used baby shoes, no how.”

“We’ll put an ad up in the papers,” Ma said. “Claim the goddamned shoes are brand new. Never worn. I’ll figure somethin’ out. Now you jess get the fuck outta my way.”

The advertisements for never-worn baby shoes touched some kind of nerve with the people. It was right curious to Ma and Pa, but they never much stopped to question it, what with all the money coming in. After the first ad went up, Ma got a big check and a letter in the mail, blessing her soul and insisting she keep the baby shoes. Ma went on a three-day binge with the money, damn near drank herself to death— Pa couldn’t help but join in. When the whiskey ran dry, they came back for my brother’s shoes. Then our cousins’ shoes. Then the neighbors’ babies’ shoes.

Word soon got out, and the baby shoes boom set in. Those parents who would not sell had their babies’ shoes stolen by those who had. Quiet as silk they crept into our rooms, breezing in and out like the windblown curtains.

People tinkered with the words in the advertisements, trying to increase returns—For sale: baby shoes, brand spankin’ new and For sale: baby shoes, clean, stylish. For some reason, only the never worn version seemed to work.

Poet and writer folk were the most reliable sells. You could buy a pair of baby shoes from a Sears catalog for 35 cents, claim they’d never been worn in the classifieds of The New York Herald Tribune, and flip ‘em to a bleeding-heart playwright in uptown Manhattan for 5 bucks.

There were flowers, tear-stained condolences, expressions of admiration for optimized narrative compression. Ma and Pa couldn’t make heads or tails of what half the poet and writer folk were going on about. All they knew was that times were good.

“They kin talk all they want about suggestions of grief and weary resignation and all that kinda’ shit, long as they keep the fuckin’ fire goin’ in our bellies,” Ma and Pa would say. Once all of our feet were stripped, the town’s parents began crafting the baby shoes themselves.

Those ones really had never been worn, though not in any tragic sense.

Eventually, the townsfolk— worn out from all the carryin’ on, hands atremble from the liquor shakes— pressed us into labor: we were babies making baby shoes, and then not wearing them. Finally, Old Man Jenkins— out riding his jolt-wagon one night, drunk off the proceeds from his granddaughter’s slippers— crashed through the feed fence and lost us the whole mule team. It was official then. The coal business was dead.

The town’s livelihood clung to our naked soles.

As it started with the poets and writers, so it ended: rumor had it some smug writer in a New York City restaurant copied our ad out on a napkin to win himself a wager, impressed all the poet and writer folk real special. Soon the ad was being printed and re-printed across the world. Cut the legs out from under the market.

Toward the end, it was mostly young people buying the baby shoes, in ironic fashion.

People have often asked me why our parents did not sell our toys and our clothes, too. Why not For sale: rocking horse, never used, for instance, or For sale: Onesies, never worn (which would have made for even greater concision).

Truth was, our clothes and toys made for better kindling.

We were babies, stripped of shoes. We were mountain town toddlers with scraped feet. We were alive. Over time, the truth has been lost. But now, perhaps, the real story will live on, so that if ever they try it again—if they come once more for our shoes in the night— together, we will cry out.

We will kick.

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O Holy Night

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Codder stared at the backboard. It was stamped with the mark of the NBA, a player in white silhouette, mid-dribble, driving, feet together like a slalom skier. He heard the ball thud hard off the board, watched it scud across the driveway and vanish into a flowerbed by the garage. Codder’s sister whistled and kicked a pinecone. “We gotta get on it,” said Bonnie. “Mom said we’re eating Mexican in like an hour. She has nightmares if she eats past 8.” Codder nodded, shot Bonnie a bird, and walked to find the ball.

He stepped lightly on the bed’s dark pinestraw, trying to avoid the spot where Breakfast was buried. It had been almost two years since their mother had run over Breakfast, Codder and Bonnie’s first pet, one night after picking Codder up from babysitting the Vermillion twins. “It’s the twins’ fault!” Bonnie said, still wearing her Molly Pitcher costume from the school play that day. Her fingertips were orange from Cheetos. Everybody cried, except for their father, who dug the cat’s grave.

Codder had demanded that they bury Breakfast in an antique chest an aunt had given him. The lid of the chest showed a nautical scene in bas relief, a golden clipper battling a Kraken, the sea roiling.  “That thing’s valuable,” Mr. Woodmuff said. But they let it go- it was his cat, he’d loved it, and he could bury it however he wanted. Before closing the lid on Breakfast, Codder had placed a stiff five-dollar bill under the cat’s tail.

After groping for the ball among some ferns, he felt it, placed it in his left hand, and heaved it into the night as hard as he could.

Bonnie was yelling for him to “hurry the hell up.” She’d always been an unconvincing cusser. One afternoon, Codder had been in the backyard, practicing his serve. He hit the ball into the greenbelt running behind the yard and jogged to retrieve it.

As he got closer to the tangle of trees and brush, he made out Bonnie, crouched and with her back turned, in the middle of an azalea thicket. Codder stopped and listened. Her blond hair was involuted like a nautilus. He couldn’t see her face at all. Codder imagined her turning around, and having hair for a face. Then he heard Bonnie whispering.

“Shit.”

“Fart.”

“Dick.”

“Dingleberry.”

“Cooter.”

“Piss.”

Bonnie said the words gently. Then she paused, and Codder saw her shoulders rise as she breathed in.

“Asshole.”

Bonnie hissed the first syllable, and exhaled the second into the leaves until she ran out of breath. It took her ten seconds to say it.

Codder joined his sister in the garage, where she was waiting beside the murmuring refrigerator. “You know I heard you cussing in the woods that time,” Codder said.

“Which time?”

“You did it more than once?”

“I don’t anymore. I was calling the God of Nasty. He was asleep underground. The more words I said, the less sleepy he felt. ”

“Jesus.”

“Let’s make the tape so we can listen to it on the ride.”

Bonnie picked up the tape-recorder from the concrete slab, opened the refrigerator door with her free hand, reached in a jacketed arm, and plucked out a Diet Rite White Grape. Still holding the recorder, she opened it with her front teeth, took a loud sip (mostly air) and passed the can to Codder. Bonnie distended her cheek with her tongue, and pressed down the ‘Play’ and ‘Record’ button at the same time. Then they sang.

They sang “O Little Town of Bethlehem” with feeling. They sang “Good King Wenceslas,” slurring when they got to ‘Wenceslas’ because they didn’t know how to pronounce it. Bonnie was off-key on “I Saw Three Ships.” Mid-song, Codder snatched the tape recorder from her and hit ‘Stop.’

“What else is there?” said Bonnie. They thought about it while the refrigerator buzzed dissonance.

“What was that song that Miss Ingrid always sang on Christmas Eve?” said Bonnie. “Don’t know,” said Codder.

“The one that gave you boners when she sang it?”

“What?”

“I heard you say it to Sylvester.”

“When?”

“When you were playing ping-pong in his basement.”

“You weren’t even there.”

“I was too. I was spending the night with Rose. The air vent goes up to Rose’s bedroom.”

Codder looked out into the yard. “It’s ‘O Holy Night.’ But I didn’t say that.”

“Yes, you did.”

They sang “O Holy Night.”  Bonnie intoned the high note on ‘oh night…DIVINE’ with seismic vibrato, but managed to hit it with startling accuracy. Codder thought it sounded beautiful, but didn’t tell Bonnie. They rewound the tape to hear Bonnie sing the high part again. Codder pressed ‘Play,’ and Bonnie finished her White Grape, head thrown back. They listened. “I didn’t know you could harmonize like that,” Codder said.

 

Codder put the tape in his pocket just as Mr. and Mrs.Woodmuff emerged from the house and into the garage. Everybody got in the station wagon. Codder and Bonnie were in the backseat, and stared at the mannequin in the garage. Three years ago, Bonnie had caught their father hauling it from the trunk of his ’92 Pontiac Bonneville. He’d put it in the garage, and had dressed it up for every holiday since. The mannequin was clearly female, but their father had sharpied in a five o’clock shadow to prove it was male. Its facial expression was frozen in what appeared to be adrenalized terror. Neither Codder, Bonnie, nor their mother ever asked him about it.

This past Halloween, Mr. Woodmuff rented an expensive gorilla suit, and spent an entire afternoon struggling the mannequin into it. During the summer, it was granted a “reprieve” and stayed nude, except for on the Fourth of July, during which it was draped with an American flag, one breast left exposed.

This Christmas, it was dressed in crimson and white St. Nicholas robes, a preposterous beard, and Papal hat.

“Put in the tape, Dad,” said Bonnie.

“What?” said Mr. Woodmuff.

“The tape we made.”

“You made a tape? Of what?”

“Christmas,” said Bonnie.

“We’ll listen to it after we eat,” said Mrs. Woodmuff.

Mr. Woodmuff caught Bonnie’s eye in the rearview, and screwed up his face. “Keep your eyes on the road, Bill… precious cargo,” said Mrs. Woodmuff.

Quetzalcoatl’s Folly was the Woodmuffs’ favorite restaurant. In the waiting area, Codder and Bonnie always looked at the framed photographs of the softball team the restaurant sponsored every spring. Each year, the team’s “MVP” had signed the photo, in sweeping cursive, filigreed with hearts. Bonnie read aloud: “Rhonda Armbruster,  MVP, 1993.”

“Which one’s Rhonda, you think?” Bonnie said.

“None of them look real athletic,” said Codder.

“They look pretty sad to me. And pimply.”

“Maybe they’d just lost.”

A hostess wearing a sombrero covered in lit Christmas lights showed them to their table. An extension cord ran from under the hostess’s skirt to an outlet in the wall by the kitchen. The waiters wore Santa hats, faded to pink, that bunched up around the ears and foreheads.

“Bonnie, I saw you practicing your basketball tonight,” said Mr. Woodmuff,  navigating a particularly large chip into his mouth.

“Dad, you dripped salsa on the menu.”

“That’s why they’re laminated.” He blew a raspberry into his forearm.

“Don’t do that,” said Mrs. Woodmuff.

Mrs. Woodmuff went to the bathroom. Mr. Woodmuff ate another chip. “What I was going to tell you, Bonnie—and you too Codder—was what our guest speaker said at the Lion’s Club meeting yesterday.”

“Was it about lions?” said Bonnie.

“It was about basketball. And it goes a little something like this,” Mr. Woodmuff said. “He said that there was some study where there was Group A and Group B. Group A practiced shooting free throws for like an hour. Group B just imagined that they were shooting free throws for an hour. After the hour was up, everybody in Group A shot twenty free throws. Then everybody in Group B shot twenty free throws, for real this time. The guy said that the folks in Group B, the ones that sat in the gym and just thought about shooting free throws, only did slightly worse than the other group. Or maybe it was slightly better. I can’t remember. I’ll call Dino in the morning and ask. He does the minutes.”

“I think you told me they did worse,” said Mrs. Woodmuff.

“Maybe so, maybe not. Dino’ll know for sure.”

The waiter came and took drink orders. Mrs. Woodmuff ordered a margarita. “Make that two,” said Mr. Woodmuff. Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians sang from the wall-speakers. A woman in heels and a sequined blouse tripped over the hostess’s extension cord, overcorrected, and crashed to the floor.

“You know what I was thinking about today?” said Codder.

“No,” said Mrs. Woodmuff.

“Remember how Breakfast always had the crustiest nipples?”

“We’re at the dinner table,” said Mrs. Woodmuff.

“It’s cause she was always pregnant and up to her teeth in milk,” said Bonnie.

“I’m going to talk to the Kleinpeters for a minute,” said Mrs. Woodmuff.

“She was always pregnant, it seemed like,” said Mr. Woodmuff.

“But we never saw any of her babies,” said Bonnie. “I wonder what she did with them. She’d be huge fat one day and then like the next day she’d be skinny again. Do you think she took them to the woods and killed them cause she didn’t want to take care of them?”

“Who knows,” said Mr. Woodmuff.

The waiter appeared and asked for orders. “My wife will be with us in a moment,” said Mr. Woodmuff. “But as for me, I will not be enjoying an entrée tonight, for I have filled up on chips.”

Back in the car, Codder pulled the tape from the pocket of his jeans, and thrust his arm, tape in hand, into the front seat. “Put it in.”

“Put what in?” his mother said.

“The tape,” Codder said. “You said we’d listen to it on the way home.”

Mrs. Woodmuff, in the passenger’s seat, didn’t look back. She raised her arm from armrest and opened her palm.

They listened to the tape. Codder and Bonnie grinned, but didn’t look at each other. The recording was scratchy. When they got close to their house, Mr. Woodmuff didn’t slow down.

“What are you doing?” said Mrs. Woodmuff.

“I want to see the lights,” said Mr. Woodmuff.

“You’ve seen them a million times.”

“Want to see them again.”

On tape, Codder and Bonnie were struggling through “Good King Wenceslas.” Mrs. Woodmuff leaned her head against the window and groaned. “Take it out,” their mother said. “Turn it off. It’s making me nauseated.” Mrs. Woodmuff never said “nauseous,” only “nauseated.”

“The tape’s making you sick?” said Bonnie.

“You don’t like the sound of your spawn in perfect harmony?” said Codder.

“Yes. No. Cut it off. I’m serious.”

Codder and Bonnie cackled. Mr. Woodmuff turned the tape off, and pulled into the driveway. Mrs. Woodmuff held her hand out over the center console, and Mr. Woodmuff squeezed it. They went into the house and turned on the television. “I’m going to bed,” said Mrs. Woodmuff. “I think I’m going to throw up.”

At midnight, Mrs. Woodmuff groped her way into the bathroom. Without turning the light on, she shut the door, and lifted the lid of the toilet. Something large crept up her esophagus. Mrs. Woodmuff parted her lips, and pale light, like an emanation from a dying star, illuminated the embroidered hand towels above the toilet. She clapped a hand over her mouth and the room went dark. What felt like a banana covered in fur inched  past Mrs. Woodmuff’s uvula and onto the back of  her tongue.

Getting down on all fours, she closed her eyes, reached into her mouth with both hands, and pulled. Water splashed from the bowl. Mrs. Woodmuff , blinking droplets from her eyelashes, looked into the toilet.  Nestled inside were three tiny kittens. A thin opalescent caul partially obscured their silvery blue bodies. Each had eyes as big as saucers. The kittens stared up at Mrs. Woodmuff. She flushed. The kittens circled around the bowl; light flickered on the ceiling. They were still there. Mrs. Woodmuff took the plunger from behind the toilet.

***

Codder woke up in the middle of the night, sort of. In his half-sleep, he’d heard repeated thumping coming from the backyard. The sound continued, thump then silence. Codder went to his window. The garage light was on and he could see Bonnie in the driveway. The light reached just shy of where a free-throw line would have been. She flung the ball at the backboard with both hands. It missed the goal entirely, and sailed into the black yard. When Bonnie came back to the line from the dark, she didn’t have the ball. She raised her empty hands and flicked her right wrist. Codder heard a thud and saw the backboard shiver. Then Bonnie sat down Indian-style at the edge of the light. He couldn’t see her face. Codder watched his sister for a few minutes, then went back to bed.

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The Shouting Ghost

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“Hey! … Hey man! …  … HEY MAN!”  That’s all I hear at night in this god damned haunted house. The realtor said “Are you ok with haunted houses?” I said “Haha, sure!”  And I was “sure”, I mean, that’s what I thought! I mean, she could have been joking which would be fine, and even if she was telling the truth, I thought, Yeah sure! Ghosts are neat! I’ll live with ’em, they’ll probably scare me sometimes but it’ll be really interesting and neat! Friends’ll come over and we can stay up late, giggling and getting scared together. Or if I had a lady over she’d get scared and then jump into my arms! “Yes! I love GHOSTS! Let me buy the house already..”

“Hey! … Hey man! … HEY, I’M DEAD MAN!  …

                                                                                       HEY!!!”

What a jackass… I’m so mad. Not neat at all this fucking ghost. I’m not an impatient person, I tried to work with him, tried rapping with him about subtlety… I said “Why don’t you try whispering “Hey I’m dead man.” sometime? Why don’t you wear a sheet and peek at me from keyholes or between the banister on the stairs. Jackass just stands on my coffee table in his dumb… sports team hoodie.

“Hey!! … Hey I’m a dead guy! HEY I’M A DEAD GUY! Hey!

                              HEY!! I’M 

                              DEAD!”

“I KNOW! Christ, I know.” Maybe, if I understood sports more we’d get along. Maybe if I put on a football game he’d sit down and pantomime eating a bag of Doritos. I’ll try it…

“Alright Jackass I’m putting on football, you happy? Tell me you’re happy, please just say.. “I’m happ-

“HEY!”  …

“… Go on… say your crap.”

“HEY!!!  HEY! MAN!  … HEY! …”

“GO ON!  SAY YOUR CRAP!  SAY YOUR CRAPPY MANTRA YOU BASTARD GHOST!  SAY THAT DUMB THING YOU PROBABLY SAID RIGHT BEFORE YOU DIED SO YOU WERE DOOMED TO REPEAT IT FOREVER!”

“HEY!  HEY MAN!  … HEY I’M SO DEAD… THAT WHEN THEY LAYED ME IN MY COFFIN… I SAID… ANYONE HAVE ANY ROBITUSSIN!?  IT’S A COUGH SUPPRESSANT!!”

“……   whaaaaat?!”

“HEY! HEY MAN I’M SO DEAD… I PUT EMBALMING FLUID IN MY RICE KRISPIES TO PRESERVE THE CRUNCHINESS!”

“…. wow.”

“HEY MAN! I’M SO DEAD YOU CAN PUT ME IN A LASERDISC PLAYER AND WATCH A COLLECTION OF TEN SECOND CLIPS SHOWING OFF ANIMALS FROM THE SAN DIEGO ZOO!!!”

What the hell is happening? Maybe, because I yelled at him he’s trying to switch up his routine? This is amazing. I love this.

“HEY!! HEY MAN!! I’M SO DEAD DONALD TRUMP LAYS ME ON TOP OF HIS HEAD EVERY MORNING AND COMBS ME EVERY NIGHT!!! I’M HIS TOUPEE!!!”

“Thank you Shouting Ghost, you’ve made me the happiest man in the world.”

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TO THE GODDAMNED MYSTERY AUDIO-PLAYING BROWSER TAB ON THIS LAPTOP, WHICHEVER ONE YOU ARE

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At this point, it’s a matter of principle.

Sure, I could simply put this laptop on mute, or just indiscriminately close out all the browser tabs, but that’s not the point— this really should not be so difficult. Let me be clear: I intend to find you, browser tab, and close you and your noise out with extreme prejudice, just as soon as I get my cursor on you.

Whichever one you are, browser tab, I must say, it was impressively irritating, the way you began your covert broadcast with the low simmer of a woman’s murmur, ostensibly trying to seduce me into entering her live webcam show— a sleazy babble that did not at all jibe with the opiate-like saxophone stylings of John Coltrane that I had going on.

The sudden commingling of Webcam Girl with the tinny voice of an overly excited man attempting to sell me a digital prophylactic of some sort— MacGuffin’s Anti-Virus Software, I believe— was a cruel and ironic thrust, given the fact that you have yourself come upon me like some kind of invisible, anything but silent killer-of-a-cacophonous disease. Well, enough is enough. I am going to sit right here, expand every single one of the 23 browser tabs spread across the bottom of this screen, and figure out which one you are.

I must confess, I am not completely without blame in the case of this dissonant plague that has visited me. There have been, for instance, in my recent browser history, the websites “XXXGerbil.com,” “Choosyfloozy.com” and “Middlediddle.com,” none of which are exactly known for their savory nature, and all of which have certainly been known to saddle visitors with any number of unwanted additions to their internet experience, mystery audio well-included.

I am not without sin. I acknowledge this.

Still, that program change you made just now? The switch to Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want To Wait?” Now you’re just being sadistic, browser tab. What reason could there possibly be for playing this song? We’re approaching a decade now since Dawson’s Creek went off the air— a decade that most of us have spent trying to get that scourge of a song permanently out of our heads. You are driving me to the brink of a very special episode of laptop destruction, browser tab, leading me to suspicions of a manufacturers’ conspiracy intended to increase sales.

It wouldn’t be nearly so bad if there were at least some sort of visual signifier of the audio’s source, as is usually the case with these things. Say, video to go along with the audio, or even just the presence of an audio player itself. But alas, I am seeing no such thing, and this is honestly beginning to feel like some kind of nightmarish, sonic Where’s Waldo.

Annnd…the Dawson’s Creek theme is now playing on loop, flavored by the wind-chime jingle of incoming instant messages, along with the click-click-clatter of a keyboard being tapped, presumably by the unseen webcam girl going wordlessly about her business, in what has now become a regular jam session of mystery ruckus.

I don’t want to wait, for this life to be over...

Over and over, sums things up nicely right now, browser tab. You are a deathless cricket chirping outside a bedroom window, inspiring murderous, villainous Disney dreams of Jiminy assassination, sans any conscience as guide.

In a moment worthy of a Rod Serling voice over, I have now closed out all the tabs, and found that still, the audio remains. I have checked behind the couch and beneath the bed, searching perhaps for a Lilliputian band featuring Paula Cole and a scantily clad webcam professional attempting to solicit an extremely displeased miniature John Coltrane, all to no avail. I will soon have no choice but to attribute your drone to a digital djinn-in-the-Dell, a curse placed on some ancestor of mine by an angry voodoo priest far ahead of his time, or some other, similar practitioner of the Dark Arts.

If unplugging the laptop still does not silence you, browser tab, I intend to contact the old lady from Poltergeist via Ouija Board, in hopes that she can work the same magic for me that she did for Carol Anne, et al.

Sincerely,

Jason Edward Harrington

 

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What's the next meal?: An interview with George Singleton

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In my first fiction workshop of college, I tried to write a story about a guy who shit himself whenever he got anxious.

He got anxious a lot.

My professor, author Tom Franklin, wisely wrote at the bottom of my first draft, “cut the shit.” He also wrote the name George Singleton somewhere in that draft. The name meant nothing to me at the time. I thought it might’ve been a note Tom wrote to himself, like a name of a new hotshot mechanic in town who was recommended to him or something. Later, he told me that Singleton was an author and that I ought to read him.

“It’ll help,” he said.

Reading Singleton, I learned that you don’t need to turn your story into a poop joke to be funny, and you don’t need have something “slide out” to make your characters interesting. Good fiction isn’t a quick emotional trick – it’s a full emotional investment that draws your mind back later and makes you think, “Goddamn!” while you’re alone in your car noshing on a cheeseburger.  Singleton did that for me. He was a torch!

Anyways, you ought to go read his work, and you have plenty to choose from. He’s written five short story collections and two novels. Plus, one book of writing advice. He’s also got a couple books coming out soon. If you read this interview, you’ll learn more about them.

A couple months ago, Singleton spoke to me for about forty-five minutes. Afterwards he went and picked a few muscadines.

George Singleton

George Singleton

Phil McCausland: How did you get started with writing?

George Singleton: Well I’m old, so it’s gonna take a long time to explain this.

The more I think about it, I started writing when I was about fifteen or something, but I didn’t know it. I was a distance runner, so I’d get up real early in the morning and run. And I’d run sort of like Forrest Gump – six to nine miles in the morning. I was an okay distance runner. I mean, I was good. So I ran, ran, ran.

I didn’t do all that great in high school – I didn’t care. I went to college because a track coach said, “Come here.” I ripped a ligament in my senior year of high school, so I kind of couldn’t run anymore. And then went off to that same college, it’s called Furman. I was so far behind, and also because Furman was really Baptist and I wasn’t, I hid in the library a lot. So I really started writing in college.

So then I wrote bad poetry and bad plays and then bad novels. About the age of twenty, I started writing bad prose and did that for about eight years. In between, I got an MFA somehow and started writing short stories. And then that all took.

Meanwhile, some of my professors had said, “hey dickhead! Try writing in first person because you’re trying to be funny, and you can’t do it in third person.” And then I wouldn’t do that. After that a bunch of them said, “It takes about 1000 pages before you’re ready.” And I thought, I’m a lot smarter than that, it won’t take me 1000 pages. But it took a 450 page novel, and then a 300 page novel, then 450, then 250, then a 300 page novel before I really started getting published.

Everybody was right, I was wrong. That’s how it goes.

I started writing short stories like hell because I hadn’t read a lot of short stories. I was a bad reader – I am a bad reader now. I’m forever catching up. But I started teaching college in a whole lot of English 101 classes, and I didn’t have the patience to write more bad novels. I didn’t even know how to send them out. So that’s how that happened.

Meanwhile! Somewhere along that line, towards age 28, I started reading some good short story writers, like Barry Hannah and Flannery O’Connor, and went, “Oh, I can write about the South and small towns.”

I’d been told earlier, “Quit writing about France because you’ve been there for a week. Write about where you’re from, shithead.” And then it all kind of caught up. Then I started writing about kind of the same thing I’ve been writing about for the last 20 or 30 years.

Not thirty years, I’m not that old. Twenty-seven years, Phil. Twenty-seven years.

PM: What was your first publication where you thought, alright this is going to happen?

GS: I went to this MFA school at George Mason for a semester back when I was twenty-three or twenty-four, and they had this magazine called Phoebe. And I kind of did a little excerpt, but it was because my buddy was the editor and it was a new magazine. And then I was in Greensboro, I’d just got out of Greensboro [UNCG MFA program], they did a little excerpt from a bad novel. But it was just because I had gone there.

What I think is my first real acceptance, where no one really knew me, was at a little magazine called Sou’wester. S-O-U-apostrophe-wester. It was a regular short story. And then I went, “Okay, that’s all right.”

It was a real short story. It took me a couple weeks to write, it took them nine months to accept. It’s like giving birth. That’s kind of the first one I think.

I always think it’s Sou’wester as my first successful one. I didn’t feel guilty about it, you know?

PM: These People Are Us was your first short story collection, right?

GS: Yeah, but that first story that got accepted was like 1986 or ’87 and my first book came out in 2001.

PM: But I heard a rumor that you don’t look back fondly on These People Are Us.

GS: Well I’m not a big fan of anything I’ve written in the past because it’s kind of dead meat. I’m serious. I go, “Okay, that was then.”

You know, there’re some okay stories – they’re okay. I bet if I got hit in the head and forgot who I was and read those stories I’d go, “All right, maybe they deserve to be published in a magazine.” But I’m not sure I would.

It doesn’t matter to me. There are these people out there who talk about these meals they’ve eaten years in the past, and they go, “That was the best meal I’ve ever eaten twenty years ago in Paris.”

Okay, good for you. I just say it was food, and what’s the next meal?

PM: How do you come up with story ideas and how do you develop stories?

GS: Usually I kind of hear in my head a little voice that says a sentence. Let’s see, what am I working on now?

I got a buddy named Ron Rash and he always says, and I make fun of him, he says, “I have a vision. Like when I wrote Serena, I had a vision of a woman on a white horse.” I don’t really have a vision, but I have a little voice that says something. And it usually has some kind of conflict in it.

Let me look at what I’m writing on today… Oh geez… I can’t find it. Lord, I hope I didn’t lose that whole goddamn story.

Okay, this one goes, “Nobody wants a roommate between the ages of say twenty-five and eighty.”

So I heard this voice. There’s this story by Rick Bass called “Cats and Students, Bubbles and Abysses,” and I kind of had that in my mind. It’s a great story. It’s an unreliable, vindictive, angry narrator, and I knew that this narrator, in whatever my story is going to be – I’m not even half-way through – is going to be a guy that was forced to get a roommate because of foreclosure, his wife left, and all this stuff. I just kind of went, “okay, see where that goes.”

Usually there’s some kind of conflict that shows up – right away. And you just kind of fly and see where it goes.

GeorgeSingletonBooks

PM: So you never have your story planned out? You just have a first line and go from there?

GS: No, no, no. I kind of never know. I mean, I do know this: I kind of know because a long time editor for me at Algonquin once said to me, “George, a good short story’s ending kisses the beginning of the story, and your stories tend to grope the beginning of your stories. You’re raping the beginning of your story.”

What she meant was if I start it in a used car lot, I should probably end it somehow in a used car lot or the narrator driving by a used car lot or some kind of thought about a used car lot. So I know that this one is probably going to end with looking for a new roommate, having to put out an advertisement. I kind of know. It makes it a lot easier. I kind of know how it’s going to end. I’m not worried about it.

PM: I read this thing that you said once, “A writer gets his best work from excess.” I was wondering if you still believe that idea.

GS: Everything in excess instead of moderation? That kind of thing? That kind of thought?

PM: Yeah.

GS: Well I’m just being mean really because I had this background in philosophy and there was that guy Aristotle who said, everything in moderation. I just hate that idea of moderation. I’m not a real big fan of human beings who are in moderation. I’ve met people before and they’ll say, “I can drink one beer a day.” And what I say is drink real hard or don’t drink at all. Either one.

Don’t be like them because they’re boring.

My writing style probably is like that. I write it out real fast and hard usually and then cut. Instead of a little bit at a time. It works either way. I mean some writers, like I have friends who really work on a paragraph forever and ever and ever and the next paragraph forever and ever and ever, and after a year they got this one story, and it will probably come out in the Atlantic Monthly. But I don’t have that kind of patience.

PM: How long does it take you to get through a story? Is it different story to story?

GS: God! In the old days, I’d write like – old days being up until a few months ago, I just took a new job and things aren’t going so hot – in the old days, two a month.

Now I’m getting older and I’m running out of ideas. Hell, I spend half my time just trying to think up names. I’m just going, “God, I’ve used that name – Frank! Frank has shown up in a hundred short stories. I got to think of a different name.”

But if you think you write six or eight hundred or a thousand words a day, and a short story at the max I think should be five thousand words, that’s going to take a week. And then a week of tinkering with it.

PM: You start early in the morning every day when you start writing, right? You get up at 4:30?

GS: 4:30 AM. Yeah.

PM: Do you need music or something? Do you hang out in the dark by yourself?

GS: Gosh, it’s kind of changed a little bit because right now I’ve moved to a new house and my study is right above the bedroom, so I can’t crank music or Glenda is going to yell at me a lot. Wake her up. I guess I could use headphones – I didn’t think about that.

Normally I have bad, which I think is good, punk music or whatever: White Stripes, that’s not so punk, Hüsker Dü, Replacements, Minutemen, something like that – something that’s kind of white noise to me.

PM: I’m just kind of curious about what your twenties were like because I’m in my twenties, and it seems to be an interesting time for most people.

GS: Twenties for me were the 1980s, and maybe there were a lot of drugs more prevalent, and maybe, but I’m not saying, I started drinking real early. I started drinking when I was thirteen or fourteen. But I worked, especially in graduate school.

You could talk to my old friends and they’d go, “Yeah, Singleton was a bad drunk, but, for some unknown reason, he’d get up early and did his work.”

And I did. I kind of liked it. It was fun to get up with a hangover. It’s kind of fun.

It’s kind of like if you go on a big road trip, you get real drunk the night before and you got a bad hangover, and then, say you’re driving from here [northeastern South Carolina] to Memphis, by the time I get to Nashville my hangover is gone, and I’d say, “Oh, I only have a few more hours to go.”

And that’s kind of how it was with writing, I’d go, “Oh goddamn, my hangover finally let up, and I’ve written five hundred words – good.”

PM: So do you have a secret for getting over hangovers easily then?

GS: I wrote an article one time for Oxford American about hangover cures, and it came out in like Best American Food Writing oddly enough. It involved Vienna sausages and habanero peppers. I wouldn’t recommend that to everyone.

PM: Tom Franklin fed me my first Vienna sausage last year.

GS: Oh yeah? Oh man, they’re good and good for you. They’re also good for sick dogs. Whenever I have dogs that won’t eat – you know I got dogs, right?

Dog goes, “Man, I can’t eat, I’ve fucked up, I ate a rabid squirrel, or whatever.”

And I say here, “Here you want a Vienna sausage?”

And they’ll go, “Yeah, I’ll eat a Vienna sausage. I won’t eat dog food, but I’ll eat a Vienna sausage.”

PM: I heard you got a pool, and you were really excited about it but now you hate your pool. Is that true?

GS: There’s a pool at this new house. This morning I got up and graded papers, then I wrote, then I went out with this fucking net, because there was a bad storm and there were leaves all over the fucking pool, so that’s what I did to the pool. And it’s too cold. I guess I need to put some kind of net on it because it’s too cold now. Although two nights ago, it was really cold and maybe I’d had a beer or two, and I said to Glenda, “Hey, let’s get in this pool.”

And she said, “No, are you fucking crazy?”

I jumped in. It was real, real cold. I can’t swim. I can barely swim. You know I’m not like some swimmer. I don’t even think you should swim unless a shark’s coming after you.

So, we’ll see. That’s how I’ll die. I’ll drown in that pool.

PM: Yeah, just walk into the pool.

GS: Just like Virginia Woolf.

PM: Exactly. Just in a swimming pool. It’s a lot more poetic.

GS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

George Singleton with his dog

George Singleton with his dog

PM: This is a question that everyone asks, but I want to know. What are you reading right now?

GS: Yeah, I’m teaching a bunch, so I’ve been teaching standbys for me. I’m teaching a fiction writing class…

Actually I went around my class the other day, and these are twenty year old college students in a fiction writing class, and I said, “Besides the classics, besides what you’re being asked to read in classes, and besides Harry fucking Potter, what have you read?” And it was nothing, nothing, Hunger Games, Hunger Games, nothing.

Then one girl said, “Well I like to read the classics that I’m not assigned. Right now I’m reading Gone With the Wind.”

And I went, “You dumb fuck, that’s a goddamn romance novel.”

And then it was nothing, nothing, and then two of them, they’re twenty years old, they were talking about YA books by Jonathan Green, and I was appalled. Now meanwhile, I have had them read Richard Ford, Barry Hannah, Raymond Carver, Mary Gaitskill – I’m only like three weeks into the class – Bobbie Ann Mason, Dale Ray Phillips, Pendarvis, and a few others. I mean a bunch, so it’ll eventually take.

Me personally, the last great books I’ve read recently are: Why We Live in Water by Jess Walter, Bobcat by Rebecca Lee, Jamie Quatro… I can’t think of the title of her book [I Want to Show You More]. I can see the cover. It’s got a lot of silver tinfoil on the cover. Those are great bad marriage stories. That’s about it for me that I can think of off the top of my head.

I’ve also read a biography of John Cheever by Blake Bailey that is great. And Cheever was once stationed in an army base called Camp Croft, and it’s kind of right across the street from where I live right now. I mean Camp Croft land is about right across the road. So I like to think John Cheever was running around my yard at some point in his life.

PM: I remember in my fiction workshop we read “The Paperhanger” by William Gay. It freaked half the class out.

GS: We haven’t read that yet. I’m reading that on Halloween day. It’s a great story, and William was a great man. I loved him. I have about six million stories about him and his crazy pit-bull. I miss him terribly.

PM: Well I don’t know what else I have for you. I’m kind of nervous. You got anything you want to add?

GS: I think you’d be better off hanging out at City Grocery or Ajax, drinking all afternoon, and making up answers that I said. That would be fine by me.

PM: Yeah?

GS: Catfish dip! Hey, listen. One time I was in Ajax – you know there for a while it was like a goddamn book tour every fucking year or I’d be doing something, and I’d end up in Oxford. I really liked that catfish dip they had at Ajax, and I don’t know who owns Ajax or anything, but one day I said, “Hey, I sure wish I had the recipe for this stuff.”

I think it was Tom [Franklin] or Jim Dees or someone who said, “Well we can maybe get it.” And they got the owner.

She came out and said, “I’ll go print it out for you.”

I said, “Oh God, that is so kind and nice of you. What a friendly gesture.”

She came back with a piece of paper that started off, “Take four hundred smoked catfish filets…”

And I went, “Well I don’t want to make enough for a fucking town, man. I just want to make enough for me. How do I reduce this?”

PM: You got something new coming out?

GS: I got a new book coming out May 13. And I presume I’ll probably be on another book tour, although summer book tours suck. I mean, book tours suck in general, and summer book tours suck in particular. Because people are at the beach, or they’ve got better things to do than hang out in a fucking book store at night. But maybe. I don’t know. Maybe it’ll be in the fall.

PM: Can you tell me about the next book?

GS: The next book that’s coming out is stories and a novella. It’s called Between Wrecks. My last book is called Stray Decorum, and it used to be four hundred-some-odd pages, but because of an agent it got cut in half.

So I got an ongoing narrator named Stet Looper, and he kind of shows up in both, and then he tells this novella. And the novella, it’s called I Would be Remiss, and it’s all acknowledgements. You know how at the end of a novel or any book now, “I would like to thank my agent, I would to like my editor, I would like to…” So I wrote one that’s ninety pages long. You can kind of figure out what the guy’s book is about by what he says in the acknowledgements.

I hope. I hope.

Then I’m supposed to be, I think, writing this novel, which really isn’t going that well. I think it’s called Poke. It’s about a guy being brought up by his uncle. But the more I write it, the more I think that his fucking uncle sounds like that dude on Duck Dynasty called Si. And that’s pissing me off. So I’m not sure what’s going to happen with that one. Maybe just in the drawer with the rest of the bad ones.

PM: Aw…

The world will be okay without it.

PM: Are you going to get some muscadines now?

GS: Yeah, four o’clock. Four o’clock I’m going to pick muscadines and scuppernong, too.

PM: Well enjoy the muscadines!

GS: Yeah, yeah. No lie.

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