The Made-up Parts Have the Most For-reals in Them, a guest post by Grant Farley
The house is a “tall-skinny” built in a slightly hilly area overlooking LA harbor, a hodgepodge neighborhood of houses built and rebuilt on half-lots first planned for beach combers and dock workers in the 1920’s. It is where my wife and our son and I have lived since he was born seventeen years ago, and it is where we are now, like you, hunkered down during this time of Covid. Within this house lurk mysterious triangles. This blog is about one such mystery.
“It’s cool how the old man never butts into the tale, instead lets me tell it to the end. If there is an end. It takes a good listener to make a story whole, and he has a deep-down way of listening.”
The first point of the triangle: My writing space is an enclosed balcony off the back of the upper story. A roll-top desk and a shelf fill it. The desk was my father’s before me and my grandfather’s before him. Ink stains and coffee rings and scratches and a trace of airplane glue connect the three of us. A triangle, I suppose, but not the one for us now. I wrote Bones of a Saint from this desk. I still can’t free myself from R.J. whispering some tale in my ear, as though his voice has permeated this wood.
“My all-time most favorite tale was selling toes. Not my own, of course. I sold my brother Charley’s toes.”
Those were the first words he spoke for Bones of a Saint. Now I gaze over the top of the desk out to the harbor, a more industrial panorama than romantic vista, but the freighters and cranes remind me to stop gazing off at the ocean and get the hell back to work. At my back is the “guest bedroom.” Since there haven’t been guests for over a year, and my dresser has migrated here, stacks of notes and drafts teeter amid piles of clothes. The door is now closed, as is the door to our bedroom, but I can hear my wife’s full laugh from the second point of the triangle, drowning out even R.J.’s insistent whisper.
“Mr. Sanders, with his Canterbury Tales, he taught me about pilgrims that lived in a past that went back hundreds and hundreds of years. And Father Speckler, with his New Testament, he preached about a future that won’t come until forever and ever, amen. Neither way does any good now, against the Blackjacks. All I can do is live in the here and now.”
The second point of the triangle: Our bedroom is now half-converted to her classroom, and even through two doors I hear her online students engaged in an animated discussion of a favorite novel. My wife is a high school English teacher. A very good teacher. Is it weird to say that part of why I fell in love with her was the way she throws herself into her teaching and her students? Her students used to call her Ms. Frizzle. I’m pretty sure it was a compliment. Most of the time. I fantasize about her teaching Bones of a Saint. When Covid struck, with little space in our house, we moved my dresser from our bedroom into “the guest room” and ordered a desk that we put together in our bedroom, and her classroom was born. At least she has a large window overlooking a hill with the sun streaming in the afternoon. Still, there have been many times when I have had to helplessly watch her cry from exhaustion or frustration or anger. Now I hear her call, “David!” That’s our son. He is in her class and must be in big trouble. “David, you get on this zoom, now!” Boy, is he in trouble. This brings us to the third part of our triangle.
“My scary stories are make-believe. They help my sibs escape the for-real scary. A whole flying saucer full of bloodsucking aliens is nothing compared to a single Blackjack.”
The third point of the triangle: Downstairs, directly below my alcove, lurks the dark reaches of David’s room. During Covid, it has evolved into more of a burrow. I dare not describe its depths. However, a beacon of hope rises in the form of two shiny trombones, secure on stands precisely parallel to one another rising out of that bleakness. Outwardly, since the Covid, he appears quite content with his world being reduced to a microcosm. Somewhere inside he must be hurting, but I can’t reach it. He is a senior, a band geek and an aspiring jazz “trom-boner.” He was proud of being chosen section leader for the low brass and looked forward to all the competitions, marching in the Rose Bowl Parade one last time, and performing in the All City Jazz Band at the Hollywood Bowl. He has been consumed with his college apps, mostly music auditions on YouTube and zoom interviews. Never once has he complained about his Covid situation. Well, maybe a flicker of worry, since his parents are ancient and there looms danger.
“Abuelita grabs a chair and sits down facing us and puts the glass on the window ledge and lets out this sigh like she’s too old and tired to put up with my mierda… Her tales are about funny people, the earth and the sky, animals that talk and even witches, what she calls brujas. Manny does his best squeezing them into English for me.”
“Sorry.” David has come upstairs and is talking through her door. “I overslept.” All the kids whose faces must be on that zoom are his classmates, and I find myself on his side. Yes, be defiant. His footsteps echo down the stairwell, and I’m relieved my wife has let it drop, as I imagine him sheepishly signing on to the zoom amid a wall of faces. Is this oversleeping a small chink in his armor, or am I overthinking it? He is, after all, a world class sleeper. He has a list of books he likes, when pressed to read. But he doesn’t share his parents’ passion for reading. Still, he is that third point on the triangle, the student reader wedged between the writer and the teacher. He has read fragments of drafts from Bones. I imagine him opening the real book someday and reading the dedication.
“Father Speckler announced that there wouldn’t be no more Bible Story Time. Instead, we’d have Science Project Demonstrations. Trust a Jesuit to bust Bible Story Time for something like Science Project Demonstrations.”
So there you have the three points of one human triangle. Bones of a Saint is a tale of survival through story, with the countless triangles that implies. Survival as in, this tale just might postpone a boy’s death. Or this tale may lead to an old man’s redemption. And that story, why that story may help vanquish a hundred-year-old evil. During our time of Covid, rather than point out that tales are trivial compared to the travails of our times, the disease has done just the opposite. How many times have we come to the end of a zoom or a phone call, even one that’s mostly business, and especially if it’s one that involves sadness, and someone will ask, “Did you see The Queen’s Gambit on NETFLIX?” “Have you read The Nickle Boys yet?” “What’s your favorite audiobook lately?” “Can you believe what he just tweeted?” “You gotta look at this Youtube.” These may be different media, but they are all tales. Imagine surviving the last year without any stories to sustain us, to connect us through myriad triangles.
“There’s something clear and hard way deep inside the old man, like that creepy old body is just a shell he’ll toss away any time he feels like it. I sit back listening, wondering if he’ll die with the next word or just rattle on with his tale into forever.”
Join Grant Farley, in conversation with Michael Cart, for an engaging discussion on Bones of a Saint, writing, and YA literature this Friday, March 19 at 6 pm PST in a virtual event with Vroman’s Bookstore. Sign up here.
Meet the author
Grant Farley, born in North Hollywood CA, is a former teacher, full-time writer and lighthouse enthusiast. While writing and raising a family, he has also taught at a Santa Monica alternative school, a barrio junior high, and a Marine Science magnet in San Pedro. At this very moment you may spot him in his alcove overlooking Los Angeles Harbor, huddled over his grandfather’s roll top, a Springer Spaniel at his feet as he pounds away at his next writing project—a fantasy novel inspired by his love of Celtic lore, his cynicism of mystic triangles, and his experiences working in an antique light house. Bones of a Saint is his debut novel.
ABOUT BONES OF A SAINT
“A compelling, unforgettable reading experience that is brilliantly executed.” —Booklist, Starred Review
“[A]n atmospheric read . . . Pulls you forward toward an ending that is like the sting of a scorpion.” —Newbery winner Jack Gantos
Set in Northern California in the late ’70s, this timeless coming-of-age story examines the nature of evil, the art of storytelling, and the possibility of redemption.
Fifteen-year-old RJ Armante has never known a life outside his deadend hometown of Arcangel, CA. The Blackjacks rule as they have for generations, luring the poorest kids into their monopoly on petty crime. For years, they’ve left RJ alone, but now they have a job for him: prey upon an old loner in town.
In spite of the danger, RJ begins to resist. He fights not only for himself, but for his younger brother, Charley, whose disability has always made RJ feel extra protective of him. For Roxanne, the girl he can’t reach, and the kids in his crew who have nothing to live for. Even for the old loner, who has secrets of his own. If RJ is to break from the Blackjacks’ hold, all of Arcangel must be free of its past.
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 03/16/2021
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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