Please enjoy the Afterward from SISTERBABY'S MONKEY - a great insight to Charles Colley
Not never enough, not no-how, but here it is-
Every writer starts off with, “I’d like to thank…”. I started this novel 20 years ago, so it is hard to remember all those who said yes when I asked for help. The Baltimore Museum of Industry’s curator was Nancy Perlman, back then. That’s why I remember her name. My wife, Nancy, says that I only voice her name when we argue, when I want my goddamned dinner, or I want…you know. But I have remembered my wife’s name all these years, even though I rarely speak it; gotta give me that. When I arrived for my appointment at the museum, I had hair. Don’t get me wrong, I had it when I left that day, I just don’t have it now. Time may heal all wounds, but not hair, unless you buy it, and not the sin of selfishness. That must be forgiven, face to face, but, I digress.
Nancy Perlman had me don surgical gloves, but still promise not to touch anything. We visited an air sealed room with its own environment, where she retrieved map books of Baltimore in 1915. I read off street names and she found them for me. We traced their paths together. She helped me understand Clipper Mill and Hampden, beyond the stories of my grandmother, who worked and lived there during World War I. She helped me to realize that Baltimore was the world wide hub for coffee, my grandfather’s lifetime work. It came from South America and Africa right to Baltimore, more than to any other port. It was blended, roasted, ground, packaged and sent back out to the world. I was intrigued, seeing on paper where my grandparents lived their lives, where they walked and worked and rested, when Baltimore was tiny, and Hampden, now a Baltimore neighborhood known for its Hon Fest, was a mill town out in the country.
Bill Gordon, a good friend, helped me through my first disaster with computers. Remember this was 20 year ago, and I was a ball point pen and manual typewriter guy. Despite his help, my early machine came with its own virus, right out of the box, and we did not know it. When it failed and the novel’s beginnings were lost, I fled in frustration to one of our horse pastures, where a mammoth tree had fallen, crushing the fence, causing us to vacate that field of horses until I cleared the wreckage and re-built the fence.
I chain sawed until the saw quit due to the hundred degree heat. Then, I sat in the shade of the downed tree, drank gallons of sun-warmed water and hand wrote the first draft of this tale, alternating between pencil and pen, chain saw and axe, then, later, splitting maul and wedges, all summer and into the fall, then, finally, hammer and nails and fence boards with the snow flying. The sweat and the pain and the writing out of doors kept me at it. So, I’d like to thank that tree for all the inspiration and, later, the heat it provided as I sat in front of the wood stove that winter and began to understand what re-write meant. And that was just the beginning.
All my friends will remain unnamed, in case they do not wish it known that they still associate with “The Mad Penman”. Whether they read me or not, whether they understood my frustration in sending over 400 queries out to agents and publishers, my early foray into self publishing and now this effort before you, they kept allowing me at their tables and kept mum when I never announced a publishing success. They were polite in their silence, and encouraging in their absence of judgment when they thought I had become introspective or just plain nuts.
My sister, Barbara Grimshaw, brought me ancestral details, having researched not just the Colley name back through the ages, but, more importantly, the mothers and their lines, back and back. Her insight into where and who we came from will frame stories until my last. She brought me the monkey on the cover, carved by our great grandfather from a peach pit using his pocket knife, just as Jim’s Da does in the story. Her passion for genealogy has unearthed photos of five generations of Colley males, framed on my office wall, from myself as a teenager, back through the man who carved the peach pit on the cover of this book, to his father, killed in the Union Army during the Civil War. The other photo grouping is even more interesting, showing my sister as a teen, our mother, her mother, grandmother and great grandmother. Those matriarchal tales are so often lost in our patriarchal culture. Looking at these women on my wall really makes me wonder at history and family across the ages, and what the stories would be, had they been handed down to us by our mothers instead of our fathers.
My old man, Ed Colley, Jr., gave me the bug to write, demanding that I step into my mother’s shoes, at age 11, to be his walking, talking dictionary, to edit his hand written text, to type his novels over and again on the aged, portable manual. He pushed me to get the education he lacked, but he erred in thinking I needed protecting from the rejection he experienced from agents and publishers. Once I was bit by writing’s bug, he forced me away from it in school, dis-allowing the cure-study writing as a profession, not just a passion, then write and write until you publish. The one thing he did not count on was my inheriting his intransigence, the Colley unwillingness to not gnaw the bone. For all of it, even the delay in getting to this point, thanks.
Finally, Nancy, the one I call wife, has been reading and hearing about changes to this story in the midst of all the other novels as they formed, in the midst of other business endeavors, births and deaths of loved people and animals, in between moving across the country and back, of forsaking the first and most important Menagerie Farm, of our kids becoming grown while our backs were turned, as she tried to keep me sane. She has not always wanted me to chase it, continue to tweak it, try one more way to sell it, because she saw the pain in the open, never-healing wound that was part memory of countless failures and part the specter of the process never coming to end, in success, or in the decision to just stop. My pain was hers because she loved me when I seemed to love the story more than her. I did not get that until this book was going to print, in year 37 of our marriage.
Last but not least: Jeremy Robinson is a great new novelist and a go-to-guy for all things about publishing and the marketing of novels, not just for an old dog like me, either. He gave me strong advice that begat the book in your hands. He designed the cover and the interior. If you bought it, read it and got to this point, I can thank Jeremy. Read his novels.
Of memories, dreams and novels, all one-
My grandparents, Jesse and Ed Colley, lived the bare bones of this tale before they were married, she, making cotton duck in Clipper Mill and living in Hampden, he, hauling bags of still-hot coffee beans from the roaster on the fourth floor down to the women who ground and bagged them, for ships leaving Baltimore for harbors all over the world, for trains heading into the bowels of America, for restaurants across Baltimore, eateries that have become world renown for crab cakes and sea food of all sorts.
When I was little, my grandparents came to our Baltimore row house for spaghetti dinner on Wednesday nights. I always remember it as being winter and cold when he rang the doorbell. This was, say, 1955, and he always wore wide lapelled, heavy wool suits and topcoats, his old ones from before World War II, because the coffee plant, his own company, was so dirty. When I saw him on Sunday in a new suit and hat, he looked twenty years younger.
I’d smell the coffee on him, suffused in his clothes, even his skin, as he stepped into our warm house, my Nana right behind. I’d reach way up on tippy toes for the hot bag of coffee in his topcoat pocket, roasted less than an hour before, then, bagged by one of the many ancient ladies there who scooped hot, ground coffee into one pound bags, all day, every day. By then, my Nana worked right along with them. I’d bring it to my mom, moving it from hand to hand as I crossed the kitchen threshold, the proverbial hot potato. She’d smile as she opened the bag and began filling the percolator on the stove, the gas ring already fired. He never drank any.
No, it ain’t real or even close to. As all novelists offer the caveat, characters here are all figments of my tiny mind. Geography has been manipulated for the flow of the story, places are fictitious or real places have been used in a make believe way. Even if they seem recognizable, people, places and things just ain’t, because it is a fiction. My intent was never to throw stones at any person, place, institution or belief. It’s just a story that will, hopefully, absorb you, entertain you, loosen your tear ducts, maybe, and perhaps provoke you to look into your own family tree, a fascinating process that much of America seems no longer interested in. In that process, I hope you will become enthralled with history, for the stories picture framed in our past haunt our present, and inform our future.
One thing more. I used to call this novel, Black and White Dreams, and I published an early, unfinished version of it, selling all of eight copies. I called it that because of the many inferences that the words black and white conjure in the tale. Black and white- the nuns’ habits. Black and white-like oldtime movies, like flickering, early television when I was a kid. Back then, those media were constrained from being, in essence, black and white. They could not tell it like it was, show it like real life. Black and white-the cut and dried nature of our rules and our beliefs, that right and wrong are sharp edged tools which we take in hand, wielding them at our own risk.
The dreams part is simple if you read the novel. But besides that, know that I believe in dreams, that they can change one’s life. Both kinds of dreams, waking and sleeping, I’ve had them and continue to.
I dreamed the novel, all in one night, twenty years ago, after my father and I took Nana to a retirement home that had been a convent, down the road from the farm where my kids were born. Nana was old and frail, alone in her house, now that her husband had passed, and we thought she needed help. The place was beautiful. Nana got the nickel tour and a great Sunday dinner, fussed over by folks my father knew who lived there and loved it. They told her she’d love it, too. Nancy, our kids and I were enthused by the prospect of her living so close to us, independent, yet protected, and that we could bring her to our house anytime we wanted.
She wanted none of it. JoJoe’s spirit was home, she said, in the house he built for her in 1950, the one they had saved for all through the Depression and World War II. Everywhere she walked in the yard, touching the azaleas and flowers he had planted for her, everything inside the house that he had designed just for her was of him and she could not leave him, even though he had left her one cold night during a snow storm, alone at the hospital, while she was unable to get through the storm to be there with him, after sixty odd years of never being apart.
I dream all my stories before I write them. I hope you dream, but whether you do or not, keep reading others’ dreams.
That’s what reading novels IS.
Charles Colley June 1988- April 2008
I’m not going to write in the third person about myself. That’s just weird. Lots of websites have these dry, often pompous sounding exhalations about the writer, or who ever in hell the site is about. I’m just me, so if you want to hear about my stellar existence, my soulful ponderings beneath a full moon and a sky packed with stars, come visit some time, bring the beer and steamed crabs (remember this is Maryland, boss) and I might unload on you. Otherwise, here I yam, Sam! And remember. Anything you read, anywhere, has an agenda, a purpose to put forth, a reason for being. What’s mine? To rope you in, to read my books, to think I’m cool. To realize I am you and you are me, as much as that can be. That is what I call cool.
I’ve been the odd duck most of my life, even though I grew up the pretty boy, the handsome lad, the kid who played all the sports with panache and in excess. From football to lacrosse, for which I turned down a scholarship to Brown, to stay home and go to local college with my honey, now my wife of 39 years, from wrestling to karate, to swimming competitively in summer, to keep in shape for fall football, I was seen by the adults as the boy for their boys to emulate.
But hold up a sec. I was not “of their class,” as we used to say. I was Cinderella in football cleats. My old man was a high school drop out, in the Navy at 17 for World War II. He owned gas stations, as I did later, an act of rebellion against him and at higher education. As a doctor, lawyer or Indian Chief, my father could not have been more proud of me. As a writer, he saw my chances of success as his own had been, nil, refusing to allow me to go to college for writing. That decision to quit college retarded my writing career for about forty years.
He put me in private school starting in kindergarten, to be the first one in the family to not only graduate high school, but college, and then grad school. I was to be all that he was not: a white collar, working with his mind, not his hands and back. I was to remain clean and safe, not carry a gun and deal with robbers, hop heads, as they called dopers in his day, and just plain every day bad guys in the tough Baltimore neighborhood, walking distance from Johns Hopkins Hospital, where his gas station lay. Charlie Testani, in SISTERBABY’S MONKEY, shares a little with my dad, in his gas station experience.
Back in third grade, we started contact football and contact lacrosse. “Making men of boys!” the coaches said. Torn ligaments, sprained ankles, destroyed knees, bleeding ears, broken noses and fingers on wee boys was the reality. I reveled in it. I excelled at doing bodily harm and sporting the wounds, navigating on crutches, my own RED BADGE OF COURAGE. Where were the parents amidst the carnage? Back then, they did as they were told by the school, I guess. Dummy up. Pay the tuition. Trust us. We are, after all, professionals.
When the biggest guy on the team could not block, could not tackle, they made him a receiver. He ran like a gazelle, he caught the ball with mitts that seemed glue-coated. They put the little guy, me, in at defensive end, to tackle and maim, to put the fear of Charlie, not God, into the opposing quarterback. Later when they placed a lacrosse stick in my hands, a tool and weapon all in one, I was in Heaven.
After practice, my first pecuniary traits developed and, subliminally, my first sense of getting even, getting back at someone, reared its head. This theme, of using market forces rather than brute force plays in SKULL COUNTY, USA. I guess I am an old dog, who only knows a few tricks, after all.
I did not realize it then, but, even as I was hurting others on the playing field, I was learning a big life lesson, that winning was not about hurting, it was about taking. My marketing prowess, my sense of opportunity, leading to numerous businesses, and, ultimately, my novels, this site, everything I am, began at the ten cent soda machine.
I have worked hard over long years, to un-learn, to bury these lessons, and I believe I have succeeded. My wife had much to with that. Our daughter, 30, an operatic singer, who now writes and sings her own popular, sweet music, a massage therapist with Jesus hands, taught me some more. Our son, 35, with Down’s Syndrome and a hole in his heart, taught me the rest. His absent speech, our profound farm and animal experience, begat a novel, not yet published.
My dad was blue collar, so I was too, proud of it. When he brought home the deposits for the day’s sales at the station, a thousand dollars or more at a time, and this, when gas was 15 cents a gallon, he let me help count the one dollar bills. He showed me how to wrap the silver coins. I never cared for the pennies and nickels.
When my white collar chums exited the locker room after a hard, thirsty practice, and had not the dime for that Coke they so desired, I loaned it to them. A dime today, a quarter paid back tomorrow. Simple, no change needed to be made. It was in their allowance or lunch money, no big deal. I had a secret thing going for months. Until, one day, one of the moms ratted me out to the Headmaster.
This urchin, this child of a dirty pawed gas station man, was playing Shylock, she cried. I should be expelled, expunged from their collective consciousness. I was ruining the school. The school just did not cater to “those people”. The Headmaster had my parents in, and then, I was called on the carpet before the three of them.
He explained to me why what I did was wrong, un-Christian, for this was a religious school, incorporating His teachings into the daily lesson. Jesus threw the money lenders from the Temple. No matter that coaches taught us how to hit when the referee wasn’t looking, that winning was all, that losing made you a loser, and losers did pushups, lots of them, in class, at lunch, in the middle of the road, as punishment for losing.
All this to eight and ten year old kids! It was sure good practice for going in the Air Force to avoid Vietnam, years later, for fighting with my oil company over rent increases or their attempts to kick me out of my gas station, for pointing a gun at a guy who pointed one at me during the First Gas Shortage in 1973, for dragging a dope dealer out of the ladies room at my station at three AM, the needle in his customer’s arm, the smack still bubbling in the spoon, for suffering hundreds of rejections from publishers and literary agents and not quitting. But it really sucked at the time. I was just a little kid.
Let’s get happy for a minute. I’m happy now. Writing makes me so. I get to say what I want, make up people and their worlds. Last night I watched the movie, MARLEY AND ME. It had a lot to say, even as it used the dog as a vehicle to change, advance, grow the characters.
It made me think of our life, here on Menagerie Farm number 3. Lots of dogs and cats, never ending horses, a few pot belly pigs, plenty of wild life. Here in the east, we are overrun with deer, fox, raccoon, ground hog. Our sky runs heavy with hawks and eagles, crows and all manner of little birds.
My wife attracts Hummies, humming birds, to her flowers and feeders. She first met them on our farm in western Colorado where SKULL COUNTY, USA unfolds. Here in Maryland, they actually perch, calm and not moving for her, and if you are very quiet and still, you can hear them tell her about their trip here from South America.
Out in Colorado, we met eagles rearing their young and teaching them to fly, right on our place. Packs of 40 coyotes at a time ranged over our fields there, enticing our cats and dogs into the night, killing any they could. A mountain lion killed our neighbor’s flock of sheep one night, after we had taken pictures of her foot print down in our canyon that day. We thought it was cool, in our eastern naiveté. After that night, we carried guns when we walked our farm. I had carried one for twenty years in the gas stations. Just part of life.
I’m not sure what I’m trying to tell you. That life is what you make of it, that opportunities come and they go. Maybe, if you live long enough, they come round again, but probably not. That, sometimes, things are so horrific or so great, that we cannot absorb them, digest them in one sitting. Time does that, and then a little re-gurge, a little blowback brings them back into your consciousness, onto your plate, so you can pick out the pieces you missed the first time, and leave the rest.
That’s where I am with the two novels I have completed, and the large stack of novels I wrote over years, that still need to be reviewed, made current, with what I now know, of myself, of the market for fiction, about life and the people who deem both worthy to read.
Curl up with me for some hours, climb into my head and, hopefully, when you climb back into yours, you’ll take some piece of me along. You can have it, I have plenty. It grows back, all those story ideas, kinda like a tumor, a really nice one.
As I say in the Afterword for SISTERBABY’S MONKEY, and this pretty much sums up my view on life, on writing, on how they are the same for me,
I dream all my stories before I write them. I hope you dream, but whether you do or not, keep reading others’ dreams. That’s what reading novels IS.
God Bless and the creek don’t rise, I’ll see you inside one of my tales. Looks like I did what I said I wouldn’t. Got serious. Hey, bring the beer and crabs, anyway. As they say on TV, “But wait! There’s more!” There’s always more.
A long time ago, when my boy, Ernie, was small and I had hair, we stood with Eunice Shriver at Towson State College, now called Towson University. My wife and daughter graduated there. I lasted a year before going into the Air Force. It was eerie, being back there, married, father to a son with Down’s Syndrome, involved with Special Olympics.
After a very successful charity effort for March of Dimes that year, I talked my fellow Crown gas station dealers into doing another on its heels, for Special Olympics. I hired a meeting room at a hotel, midway around the Baltimore Beltway to talk them into it, and they came from all points, about fifty guys.
They were grizzled with age, between 40 and 50, most of them, and they seemed ancient to my 30 couple year old eyes. They asked why I wanted to do this, after all the work we had just endured, selling thousand of cases of Coca Cola, in order to hand March of Dimes a check for $25,000 at the Walk-A-thon. They wanted a good reason to buck the oil company, which denied permission for us to do this. After all, even though were independent owners, it was their name, Crown, that was in the spotlight. They had every right to tell me no.
I had stage fright. I was overcome with being a business owner starting at age 21, with having a handicapped son at age 24, with living through his heart surgery when he was 2 and I was 26. But I wanted to do something, to demonstrate, as we had for March of Dimes, that our gas stations could do good, not once, but over and again. I needed to strike out, somehow, at my son’s lousy deal.
I stumbled through my words until a friend, a father figure and mentor, stood up and told me to explain Ernie, how he was damaged, how much it hurt, on top of all the pressure that they all understood, running a business 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with a crew of 75 employees that turned over to the tune of 400 a year.
These tough guys who carried guns like me, fended off robbers, dealt with bums taking baths in their men’s room toilets, and dopers and prostitutes selling their wares on our corners, lived through the two gas shortages of the seventies, slept in fits and starts, up at all hours, like me, these guys, who, until now, I had not really known due to our age difference, started to cry.
One stood up and yelled to the crowd that he wanted in. He wanted to do the promo with Pepsi Cola for Special Olympics, to generate another $25,000, not for Special Olympics, though the money would end up there, but for “Charlie’s kid!” Others stood and said the same.
We had one problem and that was time. Eunice Shriver would be at Towson State in only three weeks to open the Special Olympics games, and that was not enough time to earn that much money.
“No problem!” they all shouted, as one and then many more started writing checks for thousands of dollars each, and passing them up to me. Before I knew it I had more than $25,000 in my hands. We were going to advance fund the effort out of pocket, sell soda pop all summer to pay ourselves back if need be, but insure that I would hand Ms. Shriver that $25,000 check!
I had not even contributed a dime at this point. The Pepsi sales rep, silent all this time, stood up next to me. He gestured for all the men to sit and they did. He took all their checks from my hands and he tore them up! Instantly, the crowd went crazy, yelling and screaming, ready to kill the guy.
He waved them down, told them to shut the hell up. Then he spoke. “I’ve never seen anything like this before, and I’ve been running soda promos for years. I have never, ever, seen businessmen take money out of their pockets for charity. Pepsi will advance fund the entire $25,000. Charlie will have the check on the appointed day. You guys sell hell out of Pepsi, and pay us back that way.”
That is what led up to this picture. Ernie and I would like to do it again. For Special Olympics, for March of Dimes, for lots of efforts that are worthy and that help kids. We envisioned a nationwide network of writers and bookstores, hell, rope in the publishers too, that allowed small profits from book sales to accumulate toward a large, televised effort. Henry Winkler does this for his own kids’ charity. It’s a great idea.
It will happen, but not in this damaged economy. It’s out there, one of those things that can be done, just because folks say it can, because they believe it is the right thing to do. I need to sell some books, and then put some money where my pie hole is.
A little company with a funny name, say it “Chaynah”. We gave the name to our daughter, an amalgam of our names Charles and Nancy. Cha Na. First, we gave it to a corporation we created, to run the gas station I just talked about, above. Years before she was born, it symbolized, for us, anyway, our unity, in marriage, in being Ernie’s parents, in struggling with this hateful business. Even then, I wanted to go back to school and really learn to write. Alas, as they say, it did not happen thattaway.
Hippy dippy as it sounds, we thought it was unique. That is, until we took our infant daughter to a pediatric orthopedist in Baltimore. As the ancient, Jewish doctor read her chart in the waiting room, looking all around for someone, obviously, not there, she yelled it out,
“Kkhhaannaahh Colley?” All guttural, using those throat sounds that we Gentiles can never muster, the old lady, once she had us in her office asked us, “So vy you gif yer kid de Chewish name?”
I mean every respect here to her. My phonetic rendition is one of love and appreciation. She fixed our daughter’s minor pigeon-toed problem, simply by putting her shoes on the opposite feet, after a short bout with a rigid bar between her shoes, to straighten and strengthen the ankles. She went on to explain to us that Chana, she pronounced it “Khanah”, was derived from the name Hannah, obviously from the Old Testament, and that in her circles, it could mean “beautiful” among other, similar meanings.
We were surprised and pleased. We shared that news with family and friends. Over years, we found the same name, the same meaning, beautiful, in other cultures, from Indian, to Native America, to certain ones in Africa and more.
So when it came time for me to dub my new imprint, I had to call it CHANA BOOKS- Beautiful Books.
We published SISTERBABY’S MONKEY and as yet, have not considered publishing SKULL COUNTY, USA, ourselves. It will soon go out to agents and publishers. We have had a few requests to publish others’ fiction, but not yet.
The imprint was conceived as a tool, much as we later learned Brunonia Barry did for her great novel, THE LACE READER. She, a few years ahead of us in the learning curve toward publishing, self published her novel, expressly toward getting a publishing contract with a “real” publisher. She certainly did that, and we are hoping for a similar ending.
But you never know. “Beautiful Books”. Chana Books. It’s just too pretty to die, and may, yet, take on other works. We’ll keep ya posted.
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