Foreword and welcome to the site

The first time I used Over the Transom as a banner for my writing was maybe 25 years ago, and I was living on a boat. A local newspaper publisher invited me to write a weekly column of 800 to 1,000 words that would run in all six of his county papers. Since it would be a standing piece, he wanted a title for the column. I was living on a boat, and it was in the days of sending in copy by mail or hand-delivery. And I literally climbed over the transom of my boat and onto the dock and drove up to the newspaper office to turn in my piece for the week.

Over the transom is also a publishing term for an unsolicited manuscript, as if it was tossed into an editor’s office through the transom window above the door. So, it sounded good to me as a title for my column, since that’s how the article was delivered, and readers didn’t solicit my opinion about the anything-and-everything I would write about in their newspapers each Wednesday.

I only wrote the column for a few years. But I never really stopped taking my stuff to print, between occasional magazine pieces, and posts to Facebook, and the books I’ve done. My first published novel, The Poet of Tolstoy Park, was followed by three others…A Sound Like Thunder, Cormac, and The Widow and the Tree. Before the novels, there was a 300-page practice manuscript that will remain in the drawer; a self-published children’s book, Rembrandt the Rocker; and, a self-help book, A Yin for Change. There were other newspaper articles and magazine pieces before the book-length work. I was editor-in-chief of Mobile, Alabama’s city magazine, Mobile Bay Monthly. And, I edited the five-volume, Stories from the Blue Moon Cafe series; plus, an anthology called Don’t Quit Your Day Job. I’ve tried three screenplays, and I’m working on a new one now. Lately, I’ve been back at magazine writing, doing some things for Garden & Gun.

I buy ink by the gallon. And I’m always looking for another place to publish words, and now and then a picture or two. A friend said to me, “You should try blogging.” Hmmm. I asked her do real men do that? Sure they do. And, tweet, for Heaven’s sake. Besides, who cares?

A row of my books, posing in front of a Civil War-era book press

I like Over the Transom as a shingle for anything writing. After the newspaper column, I opened an independent bookstore by that name in my hometown of Fairhope, Alabama. I also did some publishing under that imprint. And here I go trotting out the name again. It’s a busy world. If you’ve come for a visit, and have a few minutes to read about what-have-you, I thank you. And, I hold with those who think this created world began with the word. May those words that I use, then, never but never help to take our world apart.

Alone together with my dog

Solitude is better with my dog in the room. I’m sure of it. I’ve tried it both ways, with my dog, and without my dog. And I don’t mind being alone if my dog is with me in the room. And let me clear this up: a man and a dog together is still solitude. Okay?

For one thing, Bobby’s not just in the room, on the floor, by the door.

He wants to be near me. He wants to be in my shirt pocket. And I like that.

See, there’s this way my squirrel dog Bobby has of making his amber eyes look a little sad. He comes over near my chair at the desk and sits down on my right side. I am aware of him, even if I’m typing like a legal secretary. Focused. Trying to hold some image in mind as I look for words that will describe it so you can see it, too.

And Bobby’s watching me. So, one more sentence, then I pause and look at him. Big eyes a little sad. But swimming right there just beneath the surface like a dolphin keeping up with the boat I’m steering, is this bliss just ready to surface, to shimmer and break the water into a scatter of sparkling sun. All I gotta do is slide my chair back and let him jump up.

I usually smile and shake my head. And of course I talk to Bobby. Like he’s a person. I don’t do the whole high-singing voice thing. I don’t care that research shows the baby babble and cooing makes a dog practically pass out from a flood of oxytocin. Okay, so I do go a little higher, like up half a register. But no more.

“Bobby,” I say, a little on the whiny side, “if I let you in my lap, I won’t be able to type so good. I might get distracted and let a metaphor of simile slip by me.” He doesn’t care. He conjures up a little more of the wounded puppy face. My resolve weakens. The tail starts side-to-side on the floor. If I smile (I do), he knows he’s scored. Now he stands on all four.

“Okay, get up.”

And he launches. Landing a perfect 10 in my lap, and in the same fluid motion turns facing me. The tongue comes out to plant a big lick and I curl my lips under so he only gets to graze the moustache and whiskers. A couple of times lightly.

Then Bobby does this tight little round ball of fur where his muzzle ends up on my left thigh. Always, the chin goes on the left leg. Now he’s happy. There’s always a deep sigh. Contentment, and, I’m thinking, if I leaned over so I could see his face, I’d catch him grinning. The lap is mine, dude!

And I like it. Twenty pounds of warmth spreading across both legs and my belly as I watch Bobby’s breathing slow. And I swear he gets a little heavier. The weight of love. Sometimes I close my eyes. I know his are. Now we’re sharing the bliss.

I’ve got a writer friend in Nashville, J. Wesley Yoder, who’s got a tattoo above his left knee. It’s upside down so he can read it. Says, SADIE, right where she used to park her muzzle. Strong stuff between a man and his dog.

I’ve watched the sidewalk artists in Jackson Square in New Orleans. I stop for the tappers. Sometimes sit for the guitar man. I’ve even seen quickie poems doled out for a few bucks. But a writer of pages and chapters set up on the street—not so much. Solitude is the lot of writers and their stories. And all the better if it’s scenic, say a cabin in the mountains, or a cottage by the sea.

I type this, and think of E.B. White, who placed his writing desk in the busy foyer at his New England farmhouse. On his 44-acre saltwater farm in Brooklin, Maine, there were ducks and sheep and pigs and some spiders. And he welcomed the distraction of children. So, lucky him, when he was led out to meet Wilbur and Charlotte.

But most writers hang a sign on the door warning no disturbances.

Our man Thoreau went out to his ten-by-fifteen cabin at Walden Pond to live “deliberately” and alone, mostly. When Ralph Waldo Emerson, who owned the land, came out to see Henry David and brought a gift, a rug for outside the front door, he found Thoreau sweeping the stoop. He told Emerson to take the rug back, please, allowing he’d come to lessen his distractions so he could write. “You see I’m already tasked with sweeping the porch,” he said. “I don’t want to also add shaking out a rug.”

He was serious. He did not even have a dog. Though he did keep close companions with nature, which also counts as solitude. I’m just saying. Test it. Walk a mile in the woods by yourself. Sweet solitude in company with living creation. (And, yes, a purring cat counts. Of course.)

Now and again, I think about what Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French mathematician and Catholic theologian said. “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

But I’ve decided, with Bobby snuggled in, and one hand resting on his head and the other stroking his back, that we can edit that old saw, sharpen it a little. Let’s say it like this: “If we could, now and then, sit some place alone, undistracted by the nightly news, and a puppy in our laps, the world would be a better place.”

And all the pretty words can just wait their turn.

Smokey, the ancient king of cats

 

Smokey, our old family cat, found his spot in the sun today, and went to sleep. He was twenty years old. And he didn’t wake up. He called it. He’d earned the right to pick a sunny spot in the driveway instead of a stainless table in the veterinary clinic. At twilight on April 10, in the gathering dark and the company of hundred-year old live oaks shrouded with Spanish moss, my sons John Luke and Dylan and I laid Smokey to rest here on the sloping grassy banks of Waterhhole Branch.

Old Deuteronomy, T.S. Eliot’s cat who lived many lives in succession, who buried nine wives or ninety-nine, whose village was proud of him in his decline…well, he had not a thing on Old Smokey. Except maybe those wives. Smokey never had much interest in girl cats. Even when he first came to work for us as a young cat, not much more than a kitten really, he had his eyes fixed on prey. Those eyes of his, crushed jade and powdered gold stirred in liquid flame, were like GREAT RUMPUSCAT’s fireballs fearfully blazing, raising terror in squirrels all ‘round the village.

When we moved to a place east of Fairhope with some acres and a barn, it came over-populated with what my grandpa called arborealis rodentia. Tree rats. Squirrels, furry-tailed rodents, a name derived from the Latin verb rodere which means to gnaw. And gnaw they did on our house in the country, with a particular love for electrical wiring in the attic. Although on one corner, they had a taste for cypress boards.

NatGeo asks me to “Discover the rodent species that makes its home on almost every continent on Earth…adaptive mammals that have evolved to climb, burrow, and even fly.” But all I really wanted to discover was how to get them out of my attic, how to keep them from raking their skittering and scratchy little claws through the pink insulation above my ceiling so they could dine on the delicious rubber covering on the wire that made lights come on and dishwashers work and all kinds of magical stuff.

So I called my writer friend Suzanne Hudson. When last I had visited her front porch there at Waterhole Branch, it was over-populated with cats.

“You got a cat that likes to hunt? With skill, I mean. Like, notches in his belt?”

“Yes,” she said, “a little gray tabby cat.” She allowed this young fellow had decorated her front steps many times with tiny carcasses. Mice. Moles. “Even a couple of squirrels,” she added.

Squirrel was all I needed to hear. His resume linked right in to my needs. “Can I have him?” She said yes, and told me to come for him any time. I told Suzanne I was on my way.

I liked Smokey from the get-go. Not only did he let me pick him up and carry him to my car, he settled onto the seat like he’d been just waiting for a road trip. None of that freaky cat stuff as we rolled either. And when I got home with Smokey, it occurred to me that maybe I should put him in a box or a crate for a day or two until the smells and sounds were imprinted on him.

But I had a feeling.

And I opened the car door and stood back. Smokey stepped out, ignoring me as if I’d been beamed to the clouds. He looked this way, and that way, and strolled over to a shrub and sniffed a leaf. Walked around the corner toward the back porch. When I caught up, this guy was parked in a wicker chair licking his paws.

The squirrel killing started the next day.

And continued. Not like a blood bath. But Smokey took out certain squirrels and the rest got the message and left the tail-switching, low-crouching Johnny-come-lately alone to do a lot of napping. He was really confident. He could drop everything and take a nap as easily as that cat in Jack Kerouac’s brilliant poem, The Scripture of the Golden Eternity. Kerourac presents a world in chaos, like bombs going off, but… “Everything’s alright, we’re not here, there, or anywhere. Everything’s alright, cats sleep.”

Smokey was the master of his domain. Even if a dog was in his space.

Like the Golden Retriever puppy who came to live on the place soon after Smokey. The pup, by name Cormac, taken from either a) an ancient Scottish king; or, b) my favorite author Cormac McCarthy, knew Smokey had certain inalienable rights around the yard and house. The dog never once offered a challenge to the cat. One of my favorite pictures of the pets is an upside-down sleeping Smokey in close proximity to an alert Cormac.

He was chill about most everything. When it seemed he’d had a stroke at eighteen years, my advice to my son, John Luke, who said we had to do something, was maybe it was time to let him go. After all, Cormac had passed two years earlier. No dice. John Luke said he’s gonna make it. I know it, he said. And Smokey did. Didn’t put up a fuss at the vet’s, just got some medicine and a diagnosis of an extreme allergy, and was, like, can we go home now? He walked a little crooked from then to the end. But he could still purr. And no squirrels teased him.

And now Smokey is resting in peace on a cloud. He’s not really here, there, or anywhere. He’s just thumbing through the scriptures in eternity.