Tag Archive | characters

Renee Swindle’s “Shake Down The Stars” – A Review

shake

Not so recently, I was the lucky winner of the latest novel of Renee Swindle, A Pinch of Ooh La La. I was happily surprised by this win as I had tried for it on a whim and had just finished Ms. Swindle’s second novel, Shake Down The Stars. For years and years I waited for another Renee Swindle book as I loved  her first, Please Please Please so very much.

Now, before I begin this review I must tell you that I’m forgetful. Let’s just…put that out there. I say and do things on the fly. I hoard notebooks. I write myself notes on an app on my phone. It’s how I live. I’m saying all that to say that I immediately wrote a review for Shake Down The Stars which I fully intended to post here and upload to Amazon. Who knows how that went awry, but in one of my cleaning frenzies yesterday, I uncovered the abandoned review, and well, better late than never…right?

In this ultimate comeback novel, the main character Piper won me over from page one. You see, hooking and reeling me in the beginning is important as I have the attention span of a… wait… what was I saying?

Oh, right. Piper. What a mess! But quite frankly, I need for my characters to be a bit of a mess, so I know they’re real. Fortunately, Renee Swindle shared my sentiment in this brilliantly crafted and tightly written novel where she presents readers with a character who immediately resonates. Be it Piper’s alcoholism, (whether she acknowledges it or not), family turmoil or unimaginable loss, there is a little part of this character we can all relate to.

It is all these parts of Piper that made me ask the question over and over: Who will love you at your worst?

Though Piper isn’t overtly in search or love, or any one thing in particular, it’s a question she seems to want the answer to herself. While dealing with the unthinkable in the only way she knows how, drinking until she can no longer think nor feel, engaging in reckless and promiscuous behavior and clinging to an unhealthy back and forth relationship with her ex husband, Piper often looks for answers in the stars. Star gazing is a passion of hers, and after hitting rock bottom, the stars, it seems, are all she can hold on to.

It takes the chance meeting of a perfect stranger to bring Piper’s starry gaze into focus and force her to confront her demons and, once and for all, decide who she really is, and if the real Piper is worth loving at all.

Since her breakout novel Please Please Please, I’ve found Renee Swindle to be synonymous with creating shockingly real and relatable characters and terribly realistic stories. Her much anticipated follow up proves consistent in presenting readers with a complex and flawed character that we have all at one point either known, seen or been. 

Filled with detailed descriptions, familiar settings and sharp, snappy dialogue, Shake Down The Stars is an engaging and compelling read that I highly recommend.

Now…on to A Pinch of Ooh La La!
 

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“Knowing Better”

I’m still finding myself quite mum lately, even with blogging, though I’ve started a few and never finished.  So, the easiest thing for me to do, my cop-out, my favorite form of active procrastination is posting a previously published story as filler…or for your reading pleasure or whatever.

This particular story was filed under “Published” though, for the life of me, I can’t remember where.  I Googled it and everything.  I want to think it might have been an indie or online literary mag, or maybe something published in the college days, though it was dated 2005.

In 2005 I was twenty-eight, but around that time I used a lot of more mature characters in my stories.  I think it was because I was daring to be different.  Not that I’m older, however, I find myself writing more about the twenty-somethings…go figure ;).

Anyway, here’s the story.  It’s not erotic, it’s just fiction.  It’s published somewhere, and blah, blah, blah, copyright, it’s mine.

Knowing Better

He had something on his mind, she could tell.  Bill Simmons was no better at hiding those devilish thoughts of his than he was at playing cards.

“Go fish,” Henrietta said, rearranging the cards in her hand while watching Bill’s eyes dart across the room.

He looked down at the spread of cards in his hand, moved then this way and that.  But instead of pulling a card from the stack, on the table Bill cleared his throat and shifted in his seat.

He looked at her then. “You look real good tonight, Henrietta,” he said.

“Thank you, Bill.”  She looked straight at him now.

Yes, he most certainly was up to something, but if he thought he was getting lucky tonight, he was sadly mistaken.

“I mean it.  You cooked up this nice meal this evening.  You’re wearing that pretty dress.”  He clasped his hands  behind his head of wiry gray hair and leaned back in his chair.

Henrietta narrowed her eyes.  He looked quite pleased with himself.

“You’ve had my meatloaf before,” she said.  “And you’ve seen me in this dress three times and you never bothered to say a mumbling word about it.  Now, just what are you trying to get at, old man?”

“All right then, I’ll just give it to you straight.”  Bill cleared his throat.  “Henrietta Mae Williams, I’d like to marry you.”  Bill sat back then and crossed his arms.

Henrietta folded her trembling lips and bit down on them hard.  She stood up and threw her cards down on the table.

“The meatloaf wasn’t that damn good.”

And just like that the night went from warm and comfortable to hot and bothersome.

She scooted her chair back and went through the door that led directly to the kitchen.  Bill followed close behind.

“It’s not a hard question, you know.”  He leaning against the doorframe, legs crossed at the ankles, glass of iced lemonade in his hand.

“That’s what you think.”

Henrietta began stacking dishes on the counter, began running water, adding a stream of orange detergent to the spray.

“I don’t know why you’re so surprised by this thing.  I’ve already asked you once.”  He sipped from his glass, licked drops of the sticky substance from his mustache.

“Well, what did I tell you then?”

She dipped her hands into the warm water, began rubbing the wet cloth over a plate.

“I believe you told me you’d think about it.”

Henrietta sucked her teeth.  “Well, you waited good and full well ‘til I was sick with pneumonia to ask.  That was just plain trickery.  Lucky I still had the good sense to know better.”

“Good sense?”  Bill grunted.  “Woman, if you had good sense, you’d take me up on my offer before I take it off the table.  Some of these ladies around here would consider this old man a catch.”  He chuckled, brushed imaginary lint off his shoulder.

Henrietta’s lips twisted into a scowl.  “And just who would you be talking about, Mary Alice Parker?  Humph, that woman considers anything on two legs a catch.”

“Anyway, this ain’t about Mary Alice Parker.  It’s about you and me.  Now, what are you gonna do woman?”  He was coming closer.  He shook the ice around in his glass.

Henrietta pulled her hands from the soapy water and flicked away the excess suds.  She placed moist hands on her generous hips.  “Bill, you’re not gonna strong arm me into getting married.  I’m a grown woman and I’ll do as I please.”

“I’m not trying to.  You’re grown.  I just figured you’d know a good thing when you saw it.  You’re not twenty-five anymore.”

“I know damn well how old I am, Bill.  I wasn’t twenty-five when you met me either.”     She pulled a rubber band out of her pocket and pulled her thick head of salt and pepper curls back into a ponytail.

She was fifty-five years old for Christ’s sake and she was too old for the fuss, too old to be entertaining conversation with a man who was even older than she was about marriage.

Maybe it was the heat that was getting to him. It was July and he wasn’t a young man by any means and she had been foolish enough to suggest they eat out on the sun porch where it was a muggy ninety-eight degrees out even with the sun down.

Henrietta looked down at Bill’s glass to make sure it was still lemonade he was sipping on and not some of that joy juice he liked to dabble in every now and then.  There was no telling what would fall out of his mouth when he was drinking.

“Let me see what you got in that glass, Bill Simmons.”

He caught her by her wrist.  “This glass is fine.  I haven’t even had a sip.”

“Well, it sounds to me like you’ve had a sip of something.”

Bill cocked his head.  “Now why would you say that?  Just ‘cause I want to make an honest woman out of you?”

“I’ve been an honest woman all my life.”

Bill’s response was a grunt and Henrietta went back to washing dishes, pretending to ignore him pouting in her doorway.

She had been married before.  He knew that.  He had been married himself, but his wife had died some years ago.  And from what he said, the woman had been mean as a snake anyway, so you think he’d know better, wouldn’t be so quick to jump back into something that could turn kind people so cold and ugly.

Henrietta hadn’t been looking for much when he started coming around, and neither was he.  At fifty-eight, Bill was retired but still good with his hands and he took odd jobs around town.  He had mostly wanted to keep busy with the house all empty, his wife being gone and his son being in the Air Force.

When he offered to stop by every now and then to take care of things around the house, Henrietta agreed.  He fixed leaky faucets and loose floorboards and charged her next to nothing.  HeHH  HHHhhlslslsljdjdjdjdjdjjdjjfjjjjSoon Bill was bringing her ice cream and renting movies for them to watch together.

And Henrietta, in turn, starched and ironed Bill’s shirts, fixed him a plate whenever she cooked something he liked and told him just when to pick his tomatoes.

Their exchange of niceties had somehow lead to something comfortable, something easy that stretched between them for more than five years.  And it was right, this thing between them.  It didn’t need mending, didn’t need to be tampered with.  Hell, she knew full well what happened when you tugged at strings.

And they had come this far without the water so much as trembling.

Marriage indeed.

No one was knocking down her door hollering about marriage when she had two hungry kids, when she was pulling double shifts at the hospital just to make ends meet after their good for nothing daddy up and left.  And after they were grown, Henrietta found she didn’t much miss entertaining folks anyhow.  She could watch fantasies on televisions.  But when Bill came around, tending to her yard, redoing her pipes, she found she enjoyed the company, liked talking to somebody who talked back, who smiled and touched her hand, who, in the darkest of night, made her feel like a woman.

Sure, Bill had his moments where he couldn’t see the line between what they had and what he saw on that daytime television she sometimes caught him watching.  But it only lasted as long as his scotch induced haze and just like that he was on to the next thing.

But tonight he was not moving on.

He spoke again. “Well, what do you say?”

“Just what do you propose we’d do once we were married?” Henrietta sent the words sailing into silence, afraid of what his response would be.

“Lay down together.  Wake up together.  Have one house instead of two.  Get old.”

“We already old.”

“You know, Henrietta, you hide me like I’m some secret you got to keep.  You don’t invite me over when your girls are done visiting.  You all but push me out the door before the sun comes up.  Why should I believe you want me at all?”

“Look Bill, it’s been a nice evening.  We’re enjoying each other’s company. Why do you have to go and ruin it?”

Except it was already ruined.

He joined her at the sink now, sticking his hands on the right side and proceeding to rinse the soapy dishes with warm water.  He took a plate from her hands, rinsed it and placed it in the rack to drain.

“See, we could do this every night if you would just tell me yes.”

“You never help me wash dishes and I’m not about to be fooled that you’re gonna start now.”

“Ok, so washing dishes ain’t my thing,” Bill said, shaking excess water off a coffee mug and placing it in the rack.  “But what I can promise you is a whole lot of this.”  He kissed her on her neck, his lips warm, his tongue moist.  He nuzzled her nape with his nose.

Henrietta shrugged him off.  “You play dirty, Bill Simmons, you really do.”  She turned and kissed him, slipped her hands around his waist.  “And I think I need to teach you a lesson.  Come here.”

Henrietta knew exactly how to shut him up, how to get his mind off that marriage business once and for all and onto other things.

She led him to her bedroom, the place when she like to sleep alone most nights, but on certain nights, nights like tonight, it was the place where she allowed her passions to rise up and exit her body.  And while she wasn’t twenty-five, she could make him think she was, could make him feel like he was twenty-five.

She helped him out of his clothes, let him watch her step out of her own.  They lay facing each other in her bed, then she drew him closer, kissed his lips, and crawled into his arms.

~

She watched him while he slept, watched his chest rise and fall.  They were naked beneath the covers, having slept skin to skin as they always did and as she always did, Henrietta awakened before him, not moving until his eyes fluttered open.

But this time he wasn’t smiling or waiting for her lips.  This morning Bill’s lips remained the thin straight line they had been all night.

His eyes met hers, holding them in place until finally, she spoke.

“I can’t do it, Bill,” Henrietta said.  I know I could tell you yes and string you along for another year, but I can’t do that to you.  I like things the way they are and I don’t want it to change.”

“Things don’t have to change.”

His eyes were pleading with her now and she turned away from them.

“But it would, all of it.  Couldn’t we just keep things as is?  Leave this marriage thing alone and just keep going the way we are?”

“That’s something I can’t do, Henrietta, because where I am is in love with a woman who I want to make my wife.  That’s all there is for me.  And as much as I love you, I can’t keep going like this.”

Bill rose up and threw the covers off him.  He lifted himself off the mattress and began gathering his clothes from the pile had made on the floor.

She watched him dress, pull his underwear and t-shirt on.  She watched him zip and button his trousers, button his shirt.  It was what Bill did every time, the exact order in which he did it, but this time Henrietta studied the way he moved, the way his cologne smelled, the way the cuff of his pants fell over his boots.

His keys jingled in his pocket.  He scanned the room for his glasses.

“On the dresser,” she said, “next to your watch.”

He nodded and put both on.

“I can make you a little breakfast before you go.  I’ve got some of those sausage patties you like.”

“No, that’s all right.  I’ve got to stop by the house, anyway.  I’ll grab something then.”

Henrietta was desperate now, grasping at the man she could feel slipping through her fingers.

“Okay.  Well, how about dinner this evening?  You’ll be by, right?  To drop off your shirts?”

“No, Henrietta,” Bill said, softly, calmly.  “You let me know where we stand and that’s all right.  Just let it be.”

His belongings took up two large trash bags.  She hadn’t even realized he left so much of himself there.

And she watched him walk out of her bedroom, gathering things he had left here and there.  She watched him walk out of her house, trash bag in hand.  For a brief moment the words rose up into her throat, but another thought pushed them down again and she stepped away from the door before his truck disappeared down the road, before she could see what was left of him vanish.

He’d come back, she was sure of it.  He’d go home and sleep it off, work a little in his yard and be back playing bid whist with her that evening.

But he didn’t call that afternoon, or for the next five days.  He didn’t come over for Sunday dinner, didn’t bring his shirts to be ironed.  He didn’t come to watch TV with her in the evenings.

And Henrietta, deciding it was better to let it cool before stirring, stayed in her house alone.

~

Henrietta found she had more time left in the days now that Bill was no longer coming around to eat her mediocre cooking, wasn’t stopping by to play a few hands of cards.  She didn’t much like solitaire and she wasted so much food now that cooking more than three of four times a week seemed crazy.

So she fooled around in her yard in the afternoons until she was sweaty and tired, until it was dark outside and all she could do was go inside and have a bath and sit in front of the television until she fell asleep.

She missed Bill, missed tripping over his shoes when she got up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.  She missed the stink of his shaving powder early in the morning.  She missed ironing his shirts on Tuesdays.

But when she was in her yard – this particular evening clearing space for a garden – she found it was easier not to think of him.  And now, she saw she had one other thing to think of.  Henrietta was making space for a few rows of collards when she saw it, the two shiny yellow eyes set in a green, scaly head.

She stood stunned for a minute or two, then she slung the hoe so far across the yard her arms stung.  Bill would finish it up for her.  Would chop the head off that green son of a bitch.  Except she couldn’t call Bill, couldn’t ask a favor of the man she had made feel he wasn’t worthy.

She rushed inside the house, her house.  And she suddenly wondered what was so wrong with him being there, really there, all the time.  So what if she had extra laundry in her hamper?  It would give her something to do.  And she’d have someone to talk to, someone to hold her at night, someone to make sure snakes stayed out of her garden.

Henrietta picked up the phone and dialed the number quickly.  She listened to Bill’s raspy voice and then the short, sharp beep that followed.

“Bill,” she said, though she hated talking into those things, “I’ve got a snake up here.  It’s just a wee little thing, a garden snake, I think.  I was wondering, you know, if you had time after work, if you’d come by and put down some sulfur.  And maybe stay for a drink.  And maybe we could talk about that other thing, you know, what you asked me before.”

She hung up.  Maybe he had already gone to bed or was out with that Mary Alice Parker.  Maybe he had one of those caller ID boxes and didn’t want to take her call.

Even still, she didn’t feel the urge to call back and say never mind.  Only the urge to lay down and fall asleep so it could hurry up and be tomorrow so she could tell Bill Simmons, yes.

 ~

The next morning Henrietta decided she wouldn’t wait a second longer for Bill to call her back.  She didn’t know what kind of game he was playing but she was too damn old and today she was not in the mood.

So she showered, pulled her favorite spring dress out of the closet and put it on with a pair of flat sandals.  She would catch him before he went out on his jobs.  She wouldn’t give him the chance to ignore another call, or wait until he was good and ready to come and say something to her.

They were settling this thing today.  So she set out walking to his house.

But Henrietta knew it wouldn’t be so easy taking it back, everything she had said.  It wouldn’t be easy removing what thirty years of hard times had drilled into her.  And she would tell him so because he had to know he was getting a woman who was set in her ways and she wasn’t going to change over night.

Henrietta walked faster.

So help her, if she found Mary Alice Parker laying up in that house there was gonna be trouble.  She could understand Bill being upset, even pouting, giving her the silent treatment, but him going around town with the likes of Mary Alice Parker was something she just wouldn’t stand for.

Her strides were swift and long.  Her arms swung at her sides, brushing the seam of her dress as it swished back and forth.   She could see the house now, his truck parked outside.

Henrietta walked.

She’d tell him, yes, she would marry him.  She would let him lay ‘till noon in her bed, eat her scorched biscuits, leave his shirt hanging on the back of the chair.

They were going to get married and that was that.  Never mind what she said last week or even last year.  They were driving down to that courthouse first thing tomorrow morning and putting both their names on a certificate and soon after, they would stand in front of the judge and say what needed to be said.

She walked right onto the porch and felt under the mat for his spare key.  She opened the door.

The house was dark except for what little sun peeped through the blinds.  His shoes were laid out in the middle of the floor, his cloths strewn about.  She rounded the corner to his bedroom and looked down at him laying there.

Lazy bum hadn’t even dragged himself out of bed yet.  She wouldn’t be having any of that after they were married, that was for sure.

“Wake up Bill Simmons,” she said, leaning down and patting the mattress so that it shook.  “I said wake up, old man, I got something to say.”

She reached down and shook his shoulder.  Bill’s skin was cold, his face still.

“Bill…” It began as a whisper.  Then normal tones.  “Bill.”  Then a wail rose from Henrietta’s stomach, traveled through her chest and erupted from her throat.  “Bill!”

She met the floor with her knees first, her hands still gripping his shoulder.  The tears came hot and heavy, burning her cheeks, blinding her so that everything around her was blurry and blue.

Tears fell from her face onto his arms.  Bill was gone.  He had died alone.  Bill was gone thinking Henrietta didn’t want him.

Unsteady hands lifted the phone off its cradle.  Shaky fingers pressed the three numbers.  Henrietta spoke words to the operator she wouldn’t later recall.  They she crawled into Bill’s bed.

She lay beside him, placed her head in the crook of his arm.  “I love you, Bill,” she whispered. “I love you.”

She listened to the sharp sirens that whirled outside, stared at the strangers moving about in the bedroom.  She shook and nodded her head to their questions.  She watched them take her Bill away.

And Henrietta lay down in his bed and wept.

Don’t Take It Personal…or Please Do.

When I receive contributor’s copies of a book that I’m in, I have a go to reader that I immediately give one to. My reason isn’t only because she enjoys reading erotica, but because I know that at some point we’ll have an interesting and lively exchange aobut my story.

Two stories I’ve written in particular repeatedly come up in our conversations: An Honest Woman, featured in Do Not Disturb edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel and Waiting, featured in Iridescence edited by Jolie du Pre.

In the first, she always questions me about my character Ruth’s decision not to settle down, but to instead carry on her routine of meeting men at the local truck stop and sleeping with them at the local motel.

But in the latter story, my favorite reader wanted to know why Lucinda treated Gabriela the way she did when they seemingly had such a strong connection.

These were questions I wasn’t prepared to answer because to me the dilemmas were in place simply for story’s sake.  I wasn’t thinking about any particular character’s happiness; I just wanted a realistic, unpredictable and hopefully satisfying ending for the reader.

That was the first time, though, that it occurred to me that someone might feel something for these characters I had created, and was maybe even rooting for them, and if so, in that, had I already acheived my goal?

I can say I’m more conscious of it now, though I’m still not always a happy ending girl, not in the traditional sense, at least. 😉

You can read my two stories mentioned above in these delicious anthologies: