Well, it seems that I’ve been on a bit of a rant lately regarding Electronic Medical Records. The subtitle of this blog, however, says “Life, Writing, and Surgery”: or something like that. So I feel compelled to move on, at least for the moment, to something other than Surgery.
It has been a very long time since I posted on the subject of Writing, so I don’t think it is too much of an imposition to provide the following post. What follows is Chapter One from the second book in The Claddagh Trilogy, entitled The Problem With God. It is, in my opinion, the best bit that I have written in this series to date, featuring the best dog character in a novel since Toto (my opinion again). Feel free to try it, with the idea being that if you don’t like this, chances are pretty darn good that you won’t enjoy the rest of my novels.
Excerpt from The Problem with God:
Father Julius Zimmerman was in Hell. Hell, it turned out, looked and smelled an awful lot like Helmand Province in Afghanistan. He wasn’t surprised. He was dripping in sweat. Of course he was, it was hot as Hell in here. He sat in an armored personnel carrier with his squad. It was stifling, as usual. He turned to smile at his squad mates, noticing that they were all dressed in the same cowled woolen robes he had worn as a novice. As his buddy next to him turned to smile back, Zimmerman saw that the other man’s face was a skull, smiling. Julius started to scream.
The explosion lifted the APC straight into the air. It crashed back to earth with a grinding shriek. The air in the small vehicle became a stifling, putrid miasma that smelled of death. Julius twisted violently to free himself of the wreckage entangling him. His eyes snapped open and his breath caught in his throat. Jack, his English bulldog, was staring at him, muzzle drooling on the bed and nose a half inch from his own. Dog breath. Julius screamed again, for real this time. Jack almost blinked.
“Shit, Jack,” Julius yelled, “You scared the crap out of me.” Julius fought to disentangle himself from the blankets that had twisted around him as he thrashed through his nightmare. He finally succeeded and swung his feet over the side of the bed, sitting up. He bent to scratch Jack’s head
“Ready to go, huh?” Jack just stared back, unblinking. Julius didn’t think the dog ever blinked. Julius went to get up, putting his hand in the small pond of drool Jack had left on his bed. “Aww, shit, Jack. I just washed these sheets.” Jack just stared back. “Don’t get so upset,” Julius continued. “It’s okay. I’ll take care of it. Don’t be so hard on yourself.” Jack just stared at him. Julius scratched the dog’s head again and went to the bathroom.
Zimmerman came out in his Georgetown hooded sweatshirt and shorts. He grabbed his phone off the charger and dropped it in the waterproof bag with a handful of dog snacks and a bottle of water. “Let’s go, buddy. You got point.” The dog shuffled out as Julius held the door open. Zimmerman followed outside into the predawn darkness, carrying the bag. The early morning chill was refreshing, dew on the grass stretching down to the river. Julius forced himself not to check his six as he followed Jack’s waddling ass down to the boathouse.
Jack just sat watching on the dock as Julius flipped the two-man scull off the rack. “Two-man scull, two men’s skulls,” Julius muttered to himself as he lowered the craft into the water. It was heavy, almost a hundred pounds and ungainly, but Julius expertly flipped it into position next to the dock with a soft splash. He dropped the bag into the back of the boat and held it steady to the dock. “What are you waiting for?” he growled at the dog. Jack twisted his head quizzically for a moment, then padded over and dropped like a bowling ball into the boat. The dog took a seat behind the bag, facing front. Julius slipped into the front seat, facing backwards towards Jack, stretching arms and legs as he slid the seat back and forth on its silent mechanism. Julius had just greased the tracks and oarlocks yesterday. He liked quiet.
“Clear to the rear,” Zimmerman announced quietly. “Clear to the front?” he asked the dog. Jack stared past Zimmerman and said nothing. “Good to go, then.” Zimmerman pushed off from the dock. He fitted his long graphite oars to their locks and began an easy pull upstream to the middle of the Potomac. It was still dark, but a lighter purple over the Gothic towers of the university hinted at the dawn to come. Zimmerman started to pull harder, settling down to his warm-up cadence. He stared back at the dog staring at him. “When are you going learn to row? I’m getting a little tired of hauling your fat ass up and down this river.” Jack tilted his head. “You know what I’m talking about, dog-breath. Getting a little jiggly around the middle. No snacks until we clear the Chain Bridge.” Jack laid down on the ditty bag, settling his muzzle on his paws. He looked sad.
Zimmerman began to slowly increase his cadence, sliding and pulling in concert to the soft splashing of the dipping oars. Despite the cold, a sheen of sweat appeared on his forehead. He concentrated on his breathing. He was an “empty-lung technique” guy, inhaling steadily during the power stroke, emptying his lungs slowly during the recovery, his chest empty and his knees tight in, squeezing every bit of air out at the catch, then the cadence beginning again, his powerful chest filling with air as he pulled with his back and shoulders, pushed with his legs and felt the trembling boat shoot forward through the glassy water. He was a human metronome, a sweating piston pumping within the scull’s smooth cylinder, watching his wake curve smoothly downstream.
Jack’s head came up off his paws. He made a thrumming sound with his throat and looked at Julius. “What?” Zimmerman asked between breaths. “You say something?” A second later they passed under the Chain Bridge. “Oh. You said bridge, huh? Fine, go ahead. Lard-ass.” Jack chose not to reply to this, instead nuzzling into the ditty bag and coming out with a dog treat. “Just one, lard-ass. It’s Wednesday, we’re going for distance today. Better make ‘em last.” Jack made his sad sound and settled into chewing on the snack.
Julius settled into his endurance cadence. He no longer wore a heart monitor or brought along his little electronic metronome. After four years of rowing three times a week, his body knew what to do. He didn’t think. That was the best part. He pulled, the oars splashed, the water slipped by. He felt a trickle of sweat travel the length of his spine. He kept to the middle of the river, somewhat narrower here as he headed north, the yards and yards drifting behind him marked by the little whirlpools left by his curved oar blades. Silence, if you didn’t count the loud snuffling of Jack polishing off his treat. Jack looked into his eyes, head tilted.
“No more. Not until the next bridge.” Jack made his sad sound again, a deeper thrum ending with a higher note that always sounded to Julius like his ex-wife saying “Fuck you.” Pity, that. He breathed, pulled harder but no faster. The water flowed past, the river making its slow turn to the west. Julius could see the dawn threatening to break behind them as he fought to race away. Sweat started to drip down his nose. Pulling, breathing, pulling, breathing. Jack started to snore.
Jack’s head came up and Zimmerman knew he must be nearing the Beltway bridge. How long had he been rowing? He didn’t know, didn’t wear a watch. Pulling, breathing. A drop of sweat rolled into his eye and he tried to blink it away as the huge mass of the bridge passed darkly overhead. Julius could hear the early morning traffic noises as he shot like an arrow out from under the bridge. Sweat in both eyes now and it wouldn’t blink away. He couldn’t see, was blinded by the sweat and the sun rising like a searchlight over the bridge, straight into his eyes.
“Dammit,” he said out loud, shipping his oars and rubbing at his eyes with the heels of both hands. He had been in a trance, moving at speed like a perfectly tuned machine, hadn’t been thinking or feeling or anything and then—stupid sweat, stupid sun, he thought. He looked back at Jack, who was waiting to be told he could get his snack. Something caught his eye, however, something about the bridge. He looked up, squinting into the sun which was intensely bright, exactly behind the bridge. Something on the bride—a person. Standing on the railing, a person, silhouetted by the bright sun behind. A girl, he thought, the light streaming through a loose white dress or something, her figure in dark relief within. He stared, transfixed, his eyes watering from trying to squint into the sun. It was a vision, he thought. An angel, an angel from heaven. He could make out a ring of red fire, a halo, about her head, lit from the sun behind. Everything else about her was in shadow. As Julius watched, she raised her arms, outstretched. Jack barked, once. An angel, he sees it too, Julius thought. Just then, the vision started to shrink. Zimmerman stared, confused, until he realized that she wasn’t shrinking. She was falling, pitching head first over the side of the bridge.
“Holy Shit!” Julius snapped out of his trance and struggled to unship the oars. His boat was whispering away from the bridge, farther and farther as he watched the figure fall silently, slowly. She hit the water with a sickening splash and disappeared. Jack made his sad sound. Waves lapped at the boat.
“Shit, shit, shit,” Julius said as he struggled to bring the scull about. This was exactly what the small boat was designed not to do. He fought the craft, backing one oar and pulling hard with the other, the graphite bending and locks creaking with the strain. It seemed to take forever to bring it around, to start the pull back to the bridge. “Do you see her, Jack? Is she there?” Jack barked, once; now hopping past Julius to the bow, front paws on the gunnel, staring ahead. He barked again, his stub of a tail wagging. Julius kept shooting glances over his shoulder to try to see ahead but could only see Jack’s butt wiggling emphatically side to side. “Get down, Jack. Down, dammit! If you fall in, you’re gonna sink like a rock!” Jack turned to look back at Julius. He made the ‘fuck you’ sound. Then he returned to looking forward.
Julius thought he was getting close, but wasn’t sure until Jack started barking. Jack almost never barked, almost always in the context of pizza. He was barking like a crazy dog now, though. He kept looking back to Julius, then to the water. Julius used the oars to brake the boat to a stop. He got up on his knees and scanned the water. He saw nothing. Jack was hopping up and down with his front paws on the gunnel, barking. Jack never hopped.
“Dammit, Jack! Get down here, you’re gonna fall in.” Julius wished again that the stubborn animal would wear his life jacket once in a while. Jack had always refused, making the sad sound whenever Julius had put it on him. Julius had made him wear it once, despite Jack’s complaining. The next morning he found it chewed to shreds.
Jack was looking just ahead of the boat now, steadily alternating barks with thrumming sounds, not hopping anymore. Julius was trying to think what to do, not even sure he had really seen the girl. But Jack had seen her, too, he was sure. As he stared at the same spot in the river as Jack, her white figure rose to the surface. Silently, her inert form surfaced, face down, her arms outstretched. A formless white dress clung gauzily to her. She didn’t move.
Without a thought, Julius rolled over the gunnel into the river. The boat rolled as he dropped smoothly underwater, knocking Jack off the gunwale. Julius came up, suddenly realizing that his jump must have rolled the boat. He looked from the floating girl to the boat. No Jack! “Oh my god!” Julius stretched for the boat as Jack’s head came up. He had been knocked into the bottom of the boat, but now stood with paws on the gunwale again. He barked and looked at the girl. Julius just shook his head and turned to swim for the girl. Julius was a strong swimmer, most ex-Navy Seals were. He was at the girl in three strokes and rolled her face up, treading water. He brought his arm under hers and around her chest. He could feel her breathing. She’s alive. He turned with her, twisting to see where he was, where was his boat. Where was his boat? He turned and saw his boat, and Jack still standing on the gunwale, looking at him. The boat was moving downstream, moving with increasing speed away from him. Jack stared, twisted his head questioningly.
“Stay, Jack! Stay! Don’t jump! Stay in the boat!” Julius looked at Jack, at the receding boat, back down at the girl in his arms. He looked back to Jack, now moving more swiftly downstream. “I’m sorry, Jack. I’m sorry.” The boat was moving faster.
Julius swam for the riverbank, carefully holding the girl’s head above water. By the time he had pulled her ashore, the boat had disappeared downstream.
End of excerpt from The Problem with God
Now, if you did enjoy that somewhat, don’t buy the book! But you should go ahead and buy the first book in the trilogy, entitled God Bless the Dead. Works out much better that way. Oh, and by the way, all proceeds from sales of GBTD go to charity to support research concerning mental illness. So there’s that, too.