Tag Archives: Author: Bonnie Hearn Hill

The Last Time I Saw You: Prequel to the Kit Doyle suspense series By Bonnie Hearn Hill

 

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This is the first chapter of the prequel-in-progress to Bonnie Hearn Hill’s Kit Doyle suspense series (If Anything Should Happen, 2015; Goodbye Forever, 2016, I Wish You Missed Me, 2017).

 

I went to Big Bob’s memorial service. How could I not?

I’d learned of his death from someone named Crystal, who’d phoned me at the radio station, and in a trembling voice, provided the details. Stunned, I had managed to say, “Thank you,” and hung up, not an appropriate response, but the best I could do at that moment. Only later, when I was driving home, was I able to cry.

Brent Roberts, aka Big Bob Runyon, was dead, killed by a fall in his home. He had been my friend, my protector, that first year I worked in radio. More important, he’d been beside me in the underground garage that October night I’d been trying to forget ever since – the night that Natalie had died.

Although I’d witnessed his fights with his ex-wife, I wasn’t convinced that she was the reason he decided to start a new life after their divorce. There had to be more behind it, but he disappeared before I got a chance to press him. His method had been drastic, a fatal “accident” he’d warned me about in advance. I hadn’t seen him since.

At first he moved to Hawaii and then finally Sacramento, where I had also landed after leaving Pleasant View. Every time I suggested getting together, Big Bob had an excuse not to, and finally I stopped asking. He kept in touch only by email. I let that be enough, afraid that if I pushed, he would end all contact with me.

The service was held in one of those neighborhood Baptist churches off Martin Luther King Blvd., a church he’d told me that he had to work his way through Sacramento to find. Big Bob, a born-again-and-proud-of-it Christian, could never settle on a place of worship that completely chased away his demons, but I guessed that he’d come closer to demon-chasing than I had.

Yellow, brown and rust-colored leaves that looked cut from construction paper crunched beneath the rose-colored suede ballerina slippers he’d forced me to buy four years before, because he’d said, I was the one redhead who could wear pink. The rest of my attire was funereal black, purchased for this event. I knew that I would never wear this shapeless dress again.

Fall in the San Joaquin Valley smells of hope—damp and earthy, the way it smells in the summertime if you spray a hose onto a hot sidewalk. The scent tried to remind me of other times. I left it at the door.

Once inside, I slipped past the human bottleneck around the easel of photos at the entrance and made my way to a back pew on the left side.

A large woman with a long, low-cut black dress and matching jacket approached me. Her hair was a deep chestnut color and even thicker and curlier than mine.

“You’re one of only two people here I don’t know,” she said, “so you must be Kit Doyle.”

“How’d you guess?” I forced myself to smile.

“’Cause the other one’s a guy.” She nodded two pews ahead of me.

“You’re Crystal?” I wasn’t certain how to continue since Big Bob had never mentioned her to me.

“He left word that you should be notified.” In spite of her swollen eyes, she seemed in control of her emotions, caught in that refuge of exhaustion and calm that follows an outpouring of grief. “Said he taught you everything you know.”

That made me smile in earnest. Big Bob was never short on hubris. I nodded and said, “He was wonderful to me. I’m working in a talk radio format now.”

“Rehashing those old unsolved crimes. We listen to you and Farley all the time.” Then she put her hand over her lips and said, “Listened.”

I knew that he tuned in to our show. He often emailed his encouragement. The surprise was that he hadn’t been listening alone.

“I never thought Big Bob would give up radio for good,” I told her. “But from what he said, he really liked his graphics and advertising work.”

“Not that he needed the money.” She gave a little laugh and added, “It’s so weird to hear you call him that.”

A dark-haired man two pews ahead of us turned around with a look that managed to be both hesitant and expectant, as if he wanted to join our conversation and didn’t know how.

I realized that they were both waiting for me to respond. “Did everyone in your church call him Brent?” I asked.

“Of course,” Crystal said. “That was his name.”

Hadn’t he told her? Maybe I should just shut up, but I was already in too far. Besides, what difference did his identity change make now? “When I knew him, his name was Bob Runyon,” I said.

“That’s just what he called himself on the air back then.” She studied her acrylic nails and looked up at me. “He was born Brent Roberts, and he died Brent Roberts.”

Big Bob used to say that I never backed down when I thought I was right, but his memorial was no place to prove the point. A nice, neutral reply was what I needed.

“I see.”

That seemed to cheer her a bit. “Surprised you didn’t know,” she said, “considering how close you claim you were.”

My cheeks felt so hot that I was sure she could tell she’d gotten to me. I didn’t do well hiding my emotions under the best of circumstances, but I had to try.

“We were close.”

“Excuse me.” The man who’d been observing us leaned over the back of his pew. “I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation about Big Bob Runyon.”

“Brent Roberts,” Crystal said through tight lips.

He looked at her and then at me. If I had to guess, I’d say that he’d prefer to remain silent if he had a choice. Apparently, he didn’t.

“I’m Richard McCarthy,” he told her.

“Richard, the vet,” Crystal said, then hurried away from me toward his pew. “You and Brent went to high school together, right?”

“Yes. We met in kindergarten, actually.” He turned back around again and directed the rest of the statement to me. “His name was Bob Runyon then. We called him Bobby.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Crystal sputtered.

The sparse group of mourners drifted into the church. Women, mostly, they wore dark colors and hair-sprayed styles that probably hadn’t changed much over the years they’d occupied these pews. I watched them settle into their places with the ease that comes from habit, and hoped Big Bob had found comfort among these people.

Crystal thumped off, her dress swinging behind her. Richard McCarthy slipped out of his pew and stopped beside me.

“Do you mind?” he asked.

I moved over to make room for him. The pianist in front was already hammering out a hymn, and the minister had appeared out of nowhere in front of us. Richard McCarthy gave me a sort-of smile, and I settled back in the pew wondering how many secrets Big Bob had hidden in addition to the one we shared.

The memorial turned into an amateur talent show, with just about everyone but the two of us going to the front to share tearful memories of “Brent.” The emotional display didn’t feel right to me, but maybe nothing would have felt right just then.

After Crystal’s second trip to the pulpit, Richard nudged me and pointed down at the booklet in his hand. Brent Elliot Roberts. Born March 18. I met his eyes. Big Bob was born right before Thanksgiving.

When the service was finally over, Richard and I walked out together.

“So do you think Bobby changed his identity legally?” he asked, keeping his voice low. “The girlfriend is adamant that he was really Brent Roberts.”

“If she is the girlfriend.”

“What do you mean?” he asked in a calm voice that failed to hide his wariness. He hadn’t made up his mind about me, any more than I’d made up my mind about him.

“Were you and Big Bob in touch?” I asked.

He grinned and nodded. “Sure. If someone made a grammatical mistake on television, or worse, in the newspaper, I’d get an email about it the next day.”

“Me too,” I said. “But he never mentioned a girlfriend to me.”

“Me either.” We reached the foyer. He stopped and stared at me so intensely that I wanted to turn away. “The only woman he ever mentioned was you. Other than the ex, of course. I’m guessing she’s the reason Bobby did this whole identity switch.”

“That’s what he told me,” I said. “He lived in Hawaii until last year, you know.”

“He told me Canada.” Richard shook his head. “Bobby wasn’t the easiest person to understand.”

For the first time since Crystal’s call, the reality of what had happened began to sink in. “I didn’t understand him,” I managed to say. “But I did love him.”

“So did I.”

The intensity in his eyes had been replaced by an unreadable, distant expression. He moved away from me, as if ready to walk out the door, and I almost followed. Instead, I looked back at the easel of photos that had been blocked by the church members when I’d come in earlier. Now, I could see them clearly. High school photos similar to the ones Big Bob had shown me when we’d worked together. A studio portrait he’d used at the station back then. I touched Richard’s arm to keep him from moving past me, and said, “Look.”

“I gave the minister copies of his high school pictures,” he said.

The other photos showed Big Bob hugging kids, standing next to his pastor and sitting on a sofa, Crystal beside him, a Christmas tree in the background. Something about him was wrong.

“Is this the way you remember him?” I asked.

Richard followed me closer to the easel. “He was always a big guy.”

“I’m not talking about his size.”

“No. Of course not.” We stood side by side before the easel now. The man in the photo could be a distant relative perhaps, but there was something wrong, something about the nose, the cheeks, the chin. I couldn’t deny the similarities, but I couldn’t deny the differences either.

“That’s not Big Bob, is it?” I asked.

And Richard said, “God, no, it’s not.”

***

Goodbye Forever, Bonnie Hearn Hill’s thirteenth novel, will be published by Severn House in summer of 2016.

What would you do if he knocked on your door? By Bonnie Hearn Hill

lucas“It’s me,” said a quiet voice.” 

His name wasn’t Lucas, the way it is in my novel, Goodbye Forever. His name, he said, was Joshua. I can tell you that because it turned out to be a lie.

He stopped by my house one spring morning as I picked up the newspaper from my front lawn and asked if I knew where the elementary school was. I told him I did.

“Could you give me a ride?” he asked. “I’m late.”

I’m a sucker for little kids, and I live in one of the safest neighborhoods in our Central California community. Without thinking about it, I said, “Sure. Get in,” and we drove the two blocks to his school.

He asked about the make of my car. I told him.

“That’s nice,” he replied in a soft voice.

I took a second look at him. An impeccably put-together little guy, right down to his dark, carefully gelled hair, he smiled back at me.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Joshua. What’s yours?”

“Bonnie. How old are you?”

“Ten. I’m in the fifth grade.” I pulled in front of the school. “It’s Friday,” he said. “Snack bar. Could you loan me a dollar?”

He had already spotted the one in my change tray. I handed it to him.

As he headed toward the school, my phone rang, and my best friend asked why I wasn’t at home so that we could go to the gym as planned.

“I was driving a little boy to school,” I said.

“Are you out of your mind?” she shouted. “He could have an older brother. He could be setting you up for something. What were you thinking?”

I’m not sure what I was thinking.

That Saturday, when I spoke to a local writing group, I told them my story. I was trying to make the point that plots aren’t as important as what the writer brings to them.

“So,” I said, “if this were your story, how would you finish it?”

They made my point by coming up with answers as different as they were.

“He disappears, and the last person he was seen with was a woman driving a car like yours.”

“He gets out, and you realize you have driven into a Twilight Zone 1950s small town with no way out.”

“He was a figment of your imagination. You were trying to heal from some kind of crisis and invented this kid to help you do that.”

“It’s a horror novel. He’s bait to bring home dinner, and you’re it.”

They proved my point. Everyone took the initial event and made it their own story. They also warned me to be careful with my own real-life story.

“Next time, he’ll ask for five dollars,” one of them said.

“Or fifty,” added another.

The following Monday was so fragrant with spring air that I opened my front door and let the breeze drift through my security screen. As I worked in my study, someone knocked on the screen door.

“It’s me,” said a quiet voice.

I walked to the door, and there stood Joshua.

“I’m late for school again,” he said.

“Does your mom know you’re here?”

“Sure.” His grin grew wider. “It’s fine with her if you drive me.”

“Then let’s just call her, shall we? Just to be sure.”

“Never mind.” He began to back up. “That’s OK.”

“Because you didn’t talk to your mom.” I opened the door and raised my voice. “Did you?”

“No.” He turned and began to run.

What if he had knocked on the wrong door? I asked myself. He could be in danger, and I couldn’t forget this until I saw it through. Because I had no choice, I called his school. When I described what happened, the school secretary said, “I know the kid you’re talking about.” She emailed me his photo, and a little boy with enormous eyes and carefully gelled hair smiled up at me.

“That’s Joshua,” I said.

“It’s not his real name,” she told me, “but he is in fifth grade. He’s been stealing food and money from other kids, although his family is well off. This is the first time we heard of him knocking on doors in the neighborhood.” She paused and added, “He just walked in. The counselor’s taking him to the principal’s office right now.”

That was the last I heard of Joshua. After two years, I haven’t seen him again, although one Halloween I did hear a knock on my door and a soft voice saying, “It’s me.”

Did I invent the sound out of the many voices of children in my neighborhood that night? Was it another kid trying to coax me out of one more treat? Was it Joshua?

What would you do if he knocked on your door?

I wrote a book.

The kids in that book—a novel—didn’t get the help they needed. I hope Joshua did.

* * *

Bonnie Hearn Hill writes suspense tied to social issues. GOODBYE FOREVER is the second in the Kit Doyle series. It’s about a Sacramento, CA crime blogger who goes underground as a runaway teen.

SOME STORIES HAVE NO ENDINGS by Bonnie Hearn Hill

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Winter had settled in, and Central California carried a sharp, stringing cold that made me appreciate the warmth of the classroom as I entered it that night. With a year of teaching writing behind me, and several students who were now published, I had gained confidence in my ability to help other writers reach their goals.

That night just after class began, an attractive, dark-haired woman dressed in white entered the room, walked to the back, and slid into a seat next to Raquel Aleman, one of my regulars.

With shaking hands, Raquel read an essay that night. Unlike her bilingual children’s stories, “I Fought Back” described Raquel’s abusive marriage and her struggle to overcome her fear when her husband shoved her into the bedroom closet as he frequently did when he brought women to their home. This time, she burst out and confronted both the shaken husband and his woman.

When Raquel finished reading, everyone applauded, the first time that had happened in my class.

As students praised Raquel, the woman in white looked straight ahead, as if she didn’t hear.

“I’ve never told this to anyone,” Raquel said to the class. “I can’t begin to explain how free I feel, and how scared.”

We talked then about how the only things that own us are those of which we cannot speak. We talked about possible markets for her essay. Although we critiqued numerous manuscripts that night, Raquel’s was the one everyone praised as they left the room.

Usually quiet, she was animated as she paused at the door. “See you at the Robin,” she told me.

After class each week, many of us met at Red Robin, and some of our best ideas happened there. This was the first night Raquel would join us.

Students continued to file out until only the woman in white and I remained. Her black hair was pulled back from her face, her lips a deep red. Those are the only details I recall, and even they are suspect. When I think about her now, I’m sure she wore a white suit. In other attempts to recall her, I’ve told myself it was a white dress similar to one I used to own.

We stepped outside, and I started toward my car. “Which way are you heading?” I asked.

“The same way you are, I think.” Her voice was low and controlled.

Panic attacks hid out in the parking lot. Lights could play in weird ways, and even when I thought I was balanced and happy, a crippling wave waited behind every corner. I was grateful to have this stranger with me, grateful and curious. Side by side, we headed through the cold night air toward the parking lot, and I wondered if I should invite her to meet us at Red Robin.

“I liked your class,” she said. “I’m sorry I joined late. I just saw it in the school catalog yesterday.”

“I’m glad you came,” I told her. “Have you written before?”

“Only journals, but I can never get it down. I thought maybe this would help.”

We reached my car, and I leaned against the back passenger door. Something was making me anxious. If I didn’t have the solid surface against my back, I wouldn’t have been able to stand there.

“Maybe it’s time,” I said. “I’ve heard that when the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

“I hope so.” She spoke in a clear tone devoid of emotion. “Several years ago, my daughter was killed by a drunk driver.”

I hadn’t expected that, and certainly not in such a calm, practiced tone. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to get too personal.”

“Don’t apologize. I wanted to tell you. It destroyed my life.” Again, she spoke in a matter-of-fact way, as if she had rehearsed this speech for me. “Almost a year after that, my son died of a drug overdose.”

“That’s terrible. What did you do?” I didn’t know how else to respond.

“Part of me was furious with him for doing that, especially since he knew that my daughter’s death had nearly destroyed me. I was so devastated, so…” She stopped and stepped back as if she had second thoughts. “I know you want to go meet the others. Is it okay for me to tell you this?”

“It’s okay.” I felt glued to the ground. For whatever reason, I needed to listen to her.

She sighed, as if attempting to collect her thoughts. “I went to work for the IRS. It was easy because no one cared, and everything was rigid. I had to be on time. I couldn’t talk to anyone. Do you understand?”

“In a way I do,” I said. “You didn’t want to feel.”

“Do you think writing will help?” she asked.

“All I can tell you is it’s a great healer.”

“I believe that.” She glanced around the dim parking lot at the other students who were laughing and talking just a few feet from us. “I can’t share this with anyone at work. I set it up that way, of course. My marriage is over. Both of my children are dead. I’m not just grieving. I’m angry.”

“You’ll be safe here.” I believed that, and I felt connected to her and to the honesty of her words. “If you don’t want to read in class, you don’t have to. Just try to start writing what you feel. Don’t edit yourself or worry about what anyone will think. No one will see it unless you want them to, I promise.”

“That’s what I need.” For the first time, she smiled. “When I heard Raquel read tonight, I wondered how it would feel to be that open.”

“Raquel didn’t get there overnight,” I said. She got there by doing the work.”

The last car left the lot, and I realized my hands were numb from the cold.

The woman glanced at me and then at her watch, although I doubt that she could have seen it in the darkness. “I’m so sorry I took your time. I have never told anyone what I shared with you just now.”

“It’s all right,” I told her. “Remember what I said about healing. I know writing can do that for you. It has for me.”

We talked longer, close to thirty minutes.

Then I watched her walk to her car and realized that I had somehow slipped into panic mode. I, who had been leaning against the passenger door, was so weak that I had to feel my way to get into the driver’s seat. Inside, I took deep breaths and tried to calm the crazed flutter of my heart. It was as if I were expressing the anxiety the woman in white could not.

She never returned.

At first, I made excuses. Perhaps she had to work late. Maybe something else had come up. But the moment I walked into my classroom the next week and saw the empty seat next to Raquel, I knew.

“It’s because she confessed to you,” a friend told me later. “Every time she looked at you, she would have to remember.”

I wonder.

What happened to the woman in white? Why didn’t she return? Did she ever write? Could I have said or done something to encourage her?

At first, I thought I had failed her. Then I had to remind myself that our encounter that night was about her, not about me. I may have been only one person on her path to share that story, only one of many strangers who would bring her closer to coming to grips with it.

Raquel sold her personal essay that year and much later, her memoir. In the twenty years I taught that class, we celebrated many successes, including my book deal with a major publisher for my first six suspense novels.

For a long time, I tried to remember the name of the woman in white, as if that detail would anchor other memories and maybe an explanation. I can’t believe that I would let a student float in and out of my classroom without asking her name.

Some stories have no endings, no structure to contain them, no red bows on top. When I share with others what I recall of this one, I always hear the same question. “Could you have imagined her?”

I’ve asked myself that as well. No one else with whom I’ve discussed it, including Raquel, remembers seeing her that evening.

Was the woman in white some part of me, a metaphor for that quality in all of us who dare to confront our pain and try to put our voices on paper? Was she part of my own healing?

No. The woman in my classroom and that parking lot was a real as I am. One night many years ago, she stepped into my life and allowed me a glimpse into hers. Even now, I’m not sure what I saw, or why.

 

 

Bonnie Hearn Hill’s many mysteries can be found at http://www.amazon.com/Bonnie-Hearn-Hill/e/B001HMUYPQ

THE MIRROR THAT REFLECTS IT By Bonnie Hearn Hill

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 I am climbing a steep staircase leading to the attic studio where a famed ballerina teaches dance. The light has drained away, making it difficult for me to find the right room. But I must if I am to study with this woman.

Finally, I reach the top of the stairs, and I see her. More than that, I become her. And I realize simultaneously that I am the teacher, and that I cannot walk. My crutches, scarred, wooden ones, lean against the wall, and I am sitting on the floor, my useless legs hidden beneath my skirt. I crane my neck, put my eye to the keyhole, and watch the class that I am supposed to be teaching.

It is a dream, of course, one of those morning dreams that lingers after I wake. I don’t need to analyze it or the ballerina on crutches. I have agreed to teach a class in writing for publication, and I feel like a fraud.

 

“It won’t be permanent,” Craig, the friendly school administrator had said when he asked me to take over a Tuesday-night adult school writing class because the real teacher had dropped out. Although I had published freelance articles in magazines, I had not realized my dream of selling a novel, and I had the rejection slips to prove it. Furthermore, I could not speak in public, and the few times I tried, I was silenced by chest-splitting panic attacks.

Yet something in me wanted to accept Craig’s offer, and I tried to talk myself into it. Only eight weeks. “It won’t be permanent.”

“I’ll do it,” I told him.

Tuesday had always been an optimistic day for me, an anything-can-happen day with blue Monday behind and enough of the week ahead for undreamed-of possibilities to occur. But who the hell did I think I was? How did I, a failed novelist, have the audacity to teach this class?

Before the first night arrived, I happened upon this Edith Wharton quote. “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”

Just the mirror. I could do that.

As I drove the thirty minutes to the school that evening, a thought came to me. Focus. Like the lens of a camera. Not wonderful writing, not hopeless writing. Just in or out of focus. Sure, that might work. At least it was a starting place.

When I reached the campus about six-thirty, the downpour had stopped. I parked as close as I could to the classroom and carried my packet of registration materials inside.

I got about halfway across the parking lot, telling myself that it would be okay, when a panic attack hit me. I broke out in a sweat, and my legs turned to water. The anxiety that had plagued me since my early teens had left me alone as long as I avoided airports and shiny, waxed floors. This new undertaking must be as stressful as climbing into a jet. Why had I agreed to do it? And what was I going to do now? For starters, ditch the shoes.

I took off my high-heeled pumps and walked in my stocking feet toward the classroom. It was March. The parking lot was wet from the rain that had left its scent in the air. I didn’t care. My breathing began to return to normal.

“Something wrong with your shoes?” An African American man with short, neatly trimmed hair, immaculate slacks, and leather jacket the color of butter joined me. He held a briefcase, and the way he carried himself telegraphed authority figure loud and clear. All I needed: an administrator to check me out.

Panic attacks teach one to improvise around the truth in any situation. I once faked car trouble on the freeway when anxiety gripped me so hard that I couldn’t drive another mile.

“I always teach in my bare feet,” I told him. “Keeps me grounded.”

“Really?” The lie was so ridiculous that he believed it. “Are you the teacher for the writing class?”

“Yes.” I bit back the impulse to spit out my feeble credentials. “I’m Bonnie.”

“Walter.” He reached out and shook my hand. “My wife suggested it. I’m retired, and I guess she wanted me out of the house one night a week.”

I didn’t know yet that most people lie about why they’re taking a writing class or pursuing any heartfelt goal, for that matter. They’re not going to say, “Oh, yes. I’ve wanted to do this my entire life, but I’ve been too terrified to attempt it, and now whatever happens in this classroom—and with you, who are probably going to tell me that I’m no damned good—is going to make or break my dream.” I wouldn’t have said it, and neither did Walter.

He surveyed the empty room with its elementary-sized desks and box of yellow pencils on the podium.

“Want me to help you sharpen these?”

“I can do it,” I said. “We won’t need more than ten, maybe only five or six.”

He gazed steadily into my eyes. “What if no one else shows up? It happens a lot in these classes.”

“Then we can get some coffee and talk about writing.” I was almost hoping the scenario would play out that way.

Just then, another man came through the door. Then two women. And another.

“Is this the writing class?” asked a redhead about my age in a soft blue denim shirt. She had a San Joaquin Valley accent, one that echoed Southern roots.

“Sure is,” Walter said, and took the registration slip she handed him.

She looked at the pile of slips on my desk. “You need some help with these?”

I nodded. “Do you know what to do with them?”

“I can figure it out.”

Soon close to twenty students sat in those small desks and looked up at me.

Some moments are so clear and defining, that although we don’t know it at the time, they remain with us like visceral photographs. I can see those faces as clearly today as I did then. I can feel the red Macy’s dress I wore with its shawl collar and ridiculous shoulder pads, the black linen summer shoes I placed behind the podium. Most of all, I can feel the fear tightening my throat as I tried to swallow.

It wasn’t about me. It was about them. They were there for the same reasons I had ventured into similar classes, only to be disappointed by someone who didn’t know, didn’t care, or both.

The room began to blur. My hands grew cold and moist. For a moment, I was all hands, all breathing. Count the breaths, I thought, two, three four. Don’t let the panic take over, two, three, four.

Walter took the registration slips from my desk and handed them to the redhead with the drawl.

These people had come out in the rain to be here, two, three, four. You don’t have to be the light, two, three, four. Just the mirror, two, three, four. Just the mirror.

“This class is about writing for profit.” The words escaped my lips, and the students looked up from their desks. “Actually, most writers probably earn minimum wage, if you consider the hours of thought and torment they put into their work.”

The room was silent. What next? The reflection, not the light.

“First, I want to know about you,” I told them. “Tell me what you write or want to write and what you expect to get from this class.”

In the front row, between the redhead and the babe with the hot pink toes, Walter raised his hand. “Walter Smith, retired educator, high school counselor, and army major. I have a series of vignettes, and I’m looking for ways to improve them.”

He turned to the redhead, who was sifting through registration slips and money.

“Ella.” She ran her fingers through her short curly hair. “As you can probably tell, I’m from Oklahoma. I’ve been writing most of my life. Don’t know if I’m any good, though.”

“I’m Gladys, and I feel the same way,” replied a heavyset woman. “I can’t seem to stop though.”

“And you?” I asked a terrified-looking woman in the back of the room. Anxiety buzzed around her like static.

She looked down. “Gloria. I want to write bilingual books for children. Inspirational stories.”

“Do you read children’s books?”

“Oh, yes, but my English is not so good. I hope I am not too stupid to be a writer.”

She had spoken what everyone else, myself included, was feeling.

“I don’t think any of you would want to write if you had no ability.” Once the words were out, I realized that they made sense. “I mean, I don’t feel called to mathematics or brain surgery.”

Even Gloria laughed at that, and I wondered if I was right. Could their desire to do this be strong enough to propel them toward their goals? Could mine?

“Well, I don’t think I’m stupid, and I’ll bet you aren’t either.” The woman with the hot pink toes and jeweled gladiator sandals had what my mother used to call a whiskey tenor. She tapped the notebooks on her desk. “I’m Mary, and I have three finished novels right here. All I want from this class is for you to read them and tell me how to get published.”

Finally some confidence, but I had a feeling that might not be a good thing.

As the rest of the class members began to talk, I was able to respond to their concerns. I had knowledge within me, answers, that I didn’t know I possessed.

I’d never seen a writing class from this perspective. Instead, I had looked at it through the tunnel of my own need. Now, all of these tunnels were directed at me. I tried out my focus idea on them. I liked the lack of judgment in that word. An unfocused manuscript could be brought back into focus. It wasn’t a failure.

By the time the hour expired, more than twenty students had spoken and registered.

They clustered around me. “I want you to read my novels.” Nancy shoved her notebooks onto the podium.

“I brought a little poem,” Gladys said.

Over the sea of heads, I saw Gloria head for the door. Her long dark hair hid her face but not her fear. She glanced over her shoulder at me. “My husband called. I left the oven on at home.”

Before I tried to figure out why Gloria’s husband couldn’t just turn off the oven, Ella nudged closer. Dollar bills and checks fanned out in her hand. “Looks like this class is a go,” she said.

END

 

California author Bonnie Hearn Hill taught writing for twenty years, and this selection is from a memoir-in-progress. Her fourteenth novel, IF ANYTHING SHOULD HAPPEN, will publish in the UK in July, 2015 and in the United States four months later. She writes suspense dealing with social justice and women’s issues, and a film based on one of her books is currently in pre-production. Last month, twenty-five years after that first class, her student Gloria’s book was brought out by a large inspirational publisher.

 

 

Somewhere in the Middle of China By Bonnie Hearn Hill

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 I was in my twenty-fourth year as a writer and my ninth year as a newspaper editor when I began teaching an adult school writing class. In that class, on one of those clear fall California evenings in 1992, I met Pat Snider. All I remember about that first night is the smell of rain through the open window of the classroom and the faces blurring before me as I gripped the podium. I was new to teaching and terrified. Once I began to speak, the trembling within me subsided, and the magic began to take over, an almost palpable energy that passed between the students and me.

We were as unlikely a group as one could imagine. Walter, the African-American retired military man, had been the first black teacher in a conservative district. He was finding words to express what, to paraphrase James Baldwin, was the realization that, in a world of Gary Coopers, he was an Indian. Anita, a retired bookkeeper, experimented with confession stories. Bob, a bearded computer geek, was a card-carrying member of the NRA and the writer of essays just a shade to the right of where most of us were politically comfortable. Maria, a feisty forensic nurse relocated from Brooklyn, wrote biting articles on prison reform.

The intensity increased throughout our weeks together. Anita sold the story she had reworked countless times. Bob became a guest columnist for our newspaper. Although Pat Snider never spoke and didn’t read in class, she did turn in a poem. It was rough, as I recall, and I tried to combine encouragement with honest criticism. Yet I was too new to teaching to know that the ones who sit in the back row and never speak are often the ones who need the most attention.

The class ended before Christmas, and to my surprise, I received a card from Pat. It contained a poem, “Ode to a Teacher.” She spoke of a fear that is common to all of us who dare to be writers—a fear of starting too late, of not being good enough. She wrote, too, of a teacher who guided her, who, as she put it, “…takes my hand and tells me I can fly.”

It felt like undeserved praise. In my reply, I said, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears,” and I encouraged her to continue writing. The following March, I received a handwritten note from her, saying that her husband’s job had ended, and they would have to “move on.”

“My question is, may I keep in contact by mail?” she asked. “Never having written before, I now can’t seem to stop, to whatever end. As my dear George would say in the idiom of his beloved West Virginia, ‘Think someone done left the door open.’”

I told her to keep in touch but received only a Christmas card from her that year. By that time, I was caught up in the demands of the next session. In a world of rejection, doubt, and the smug sanity only non-writers enjoy, my students and I became the ultimate support group for each other.

On the last day of that year, we met at a local café to celebrate the selection of Maria, the nurse, from almost two hundred applicants, to replace Bob as guest columnist for our newspaper. Maria often said that Bob was so far to the political right and she so far to the left, that, “We meet somewhere in the middle of China.”

Her statement resonated, perhaps because it reflected the essence of the class.  Our differences in politics, philosophy, and the workings of the world were little compared to the real obstacles we shared as writers—the challenge of that blank page, the isolation, the inevitable rejection, the fear.

Bob was the last to arrive at the restaurant that day.  He walked up to our table, grinning, as he held up a tiny flashlight.

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“I’m passing on the torch,” he said, and then he handed the flashlight to Maria.

Sitting next to Walter, I watched the unlikely couple at the head of the table.  The youthful, bearded conservative and the white-haired Amnesty International advocate talked quietly, their heads close, the tiny light flickering between them.

“Only in our group,” Walter said, his voice catching.

As I reviewed my lecture notes several weeks later, the phone rang. The voice of the woman on the other end was unfamiliar and strangely disturbing.

“I’m Pat Snider’s daughter,” she began. “I found your number with some of her poems.”  She sounded far away, tired.

My mouth went dry. I didn’t want whatever I was going to hear next.

“Is Pat all right?”

“Cancer. The hospice worker just left.” She began to cry softly.  “I don’t even know why I’m dragging you into all of this. You meant so much to her that I thought maybe if you two could just talk…”

“Of course,” I said, and wondered what I could say to a dying woman I had barely known.

“I’ll call you back once she wakes up. It’s going to mean so much to her.”

Instead, Pat’s husband, phoned to say she hadn’t wakened at all.

Anita, the confession writer, moved to another state that summer. Bob began working nights but kept in touch. Maria left the class as her involvement in prison reform demanded more time, and she later co-authored a book for the families of prisoners. Walter remained, “a lifer,” he said, blending with each new group of students.

Over years of teaching others like Pat, the quiet ones, it occurs to me that had I been lucky enough to find a class when I was starting out, I would also have been that almost invisible student in the back row.

Regardless of how Pat found my classroom, she got exactly what she needed there, as many of us did. In that room, somewhere in the middle of China perhaps, she too found kinship, validation, and a reason to believe. It is the most any of us who write, regardless of when we begin or how much time we have left, can ask.

 

California author Bonnie Hearn Hill’s fourteenth novel, IF ANYTHING SHOULD HAPPEN, will publish in the UK in March, 2015 and in the United States four months later. It will be followed in 2016 by GOODBYE FOREVER, the second in that series. A conference speaker and mentor to writers, she writes suspense that deals with social justice and women’s issues. A film based on one of her books is currently in pre-production.

Link to INTERN
http://www.amazon.com/Intern-Bonnie-Hearn-Hill/dp/1484932110/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=&qid=

Link to KILLER BODY
http://www.amazon.com/Killer-Body-Bonnie-Hearn-Hill/dp/1484089987/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1415037965&sr=1-1