Blog

The scar, the shirt, the water, the gator

The other day, we went to the beach with our first overnight visitors to our new South Carolina home.

Our friends, who we’ve known for nearly 40 years, wanted to visit Hilton Head and maybe take a quick dip in the Atlantic.

I love walking on the beach, but I’m not crazy about actually getting in the water.

Many years ago, we spotted a large alligator swimming in the Hilton Head surf, which is surprising given that the ugly lizards prefer fresh water. Naturally, swimmers fled for safety and we all watched in awe and fear – well, maybe it was only me that was afraid – as the gator lazily made its way through the water. I mentioned to a lifeguard that seeing a gator in the ocean was kind of scary and he said, “If you knew what was swimming all around you in the water, you’d never go in.”

My philosophy since then? Never go anywhere where the things you eat can eat you.

But my friends were anxious for a swim and I wanted to be a good host, and I figured as long I could keep myself inside the person farthest out in the water the sharks and gators could snack on them while I beelined it for the beach.

So off to the beach we went. When we got there, however, I realized I’d forgotten to bring a shirt I could wear in the water.

I don’t like taking my shirt off around people I don’t know. I don’t like taking my shirt off around people I know. I don’t like taking my shirt off.

The reason? When I was 17, I had a tumor removed from my left breast. Well, actually, I had the entire breast removed, which left a 6-inch long worm of scar tissue. As a teen, I kinda saw the scar as a badge of honor, and the shirt came off at every opportunity, even in church, which embarrassed my mother. As an old man of … uh, old … I see the scar as something people are staring at.

My friends and the woman who says she loves me told me I was being silly, that nobody was staring at my scar.

I disagreed. Yes, they could have been staring at my white, whale belly. Or they could have been staring at my startling good looks. But it was the scar.

Before the surgery to remove the tumor, I believed that the surgeon would simply go underneath my nipple and cut it out, leaving the remainder of the breast intact.

I didn’t ask enough questions.

What the doctor did was open incisions above and below the nipple and carve out everything in between, sew me together and send me on my way with the horizontal scar and a dent in my chest.

The stares notwithstanding, I’m lucky. Not many men get breast cancer. It’s less than one percent of all breast cancer cases. Women bear the brunt of this insidious disease. Many lose their lives. Many more lose their breasts. If losing a breast has affected me as much it has, imagine how a woman who’s lost hers must feel.

My scar is ugly. The dent leaves me off balance. People stare. Little kids run screeching for their parents.

Which is why whenever I go swimming I wear a shirt. It’s easier than dealing with the thousand eyes that follow me.

Of course, I’m not gonna lie, they still follow me. Except they’re not thinking, “What’s up with the scar?” but, “Why is that man with the startling good looks wearing a shirt in the ocean?”

How to fool the swarm of adoring beach fans!

Since our move to South Carolina, we have been to the beach at least once a week. Various beaches to be sure, but a beach nonetheless.

As I walk along the shore I pass several men my age or older wearing … um … it’s difficult to describe it as swim trunks. More like thong underwear.

Invariably, they are shirtless, with wiry gray hair sprouting like weeds from their chests, and bellies dipping south to Mexico, overhanging the front of the thong-like thingy and giving them the appearance of being, horrors, nekkid.

“If you ever see me dressed like that,” I’ve told the person who says she loves me, “slap me upside the head. Hard.”

Now, I’m not ashamed to admit that I have a rock-hard, chiseled-from-marble-by-Michelangelo body. Fact is, when I’m overseas for a book signing (shameless plug here for “My Grave Is Deep” which can be found in paperback and e-book formats at Amazon.com, Amazon.co.UK, Amazon.co.ja, Amazon.in and many other idustrialized nations), I’m often mistaken for David, one of Mr. Angelo’s most famous works. The only difference is that I’m wearing pants.

I’ve worked hard for this body. Sure, I can eat an entire two-pound bag of peanut M&Ms in one sitting, but I wash them down with a Diet Coke. It’s sacrifices like this that have given me the body I have today.

Still, I just couldn’t bring myself to squeeze all my pieces parts – Pieces? Did someone mention Reese’s Pieces? – into a Speedo.

First, I wouldn’t want to make any of the women on the beach faint. First responders already have too much to do. Second, I wouldn’t want to make George Clooney weep. It would be embarrassing.

I mean, it’s hard being the best-looking, best-dressed, best-bod in any room you step into. When you add the celebrity that comes with being a best-selling author, well, there’s just not enough oxygen for anyone else.

So, when I go the beach, I dress in shorts that fall below my ankles, a frazzled “I’M NOT SAYING I’M BATMAN, I’M JUST SAYING NOBODY HAS EVER SEEN ME AND BATMAN IN THE SAME ROOM TOGETHER” t-shirt, Elton John spangled sunglasses, a fake beard, galoshes, and a green wooly cap with earmuffs. I do NOT want to be conspicuous.

Thus far, my disguise has kept my swarming hordes of adoring fans away. Just the other day, I heard a mother scream to her children, “Do not go near that man!”

See? It’s so hard being me.

Exercise, schmeckercise

Three seconds into what was planned to be a 45-minute workout on a stationary bike, I had this thought.

Why?

Why am I doing this?

I’m 70. Officially old as dirt. Young people offer to help me across the street. When I stroll into Wal-Mart, I’m handed a walker. In many cultures, I’d be taken out back and put out of my misery.

So, what am I trying to do by riding on a bike that doesn’t go anywhere?

Extend my life?

My knees and shoulders are shot. I wake up every morning with an ice pick in my butt. Not literally, but with the same sort of pain as if the person who says she loves me stabbed me with the one she keeps under her pillow.

This is what I want to extend?

At what point does a body scream “Uncle!!!”

When you come right down to it, I don’t really need to work out. I have long lasting genes on my side. My mother is 93. My dad passed away when he was 91.

Pop’s idea of a exercise was to sit down with a good book, and when his eyes began to betray him, to listen to a good book. Mom’s exercise came from yelling at me.

Though she never played sports, my mother had quite the arm.

Once, when I was 7 or 8, I did something to incur her wrath. I was always doing something to incur her wrath.

Anyway, seeing the anger rise in mom’s eyes, I started running and she started chasing. I was fast in those days. Well, fast for an overweight kid with an insatiable appetite for orange Twinkie cupcakes. My knees were still pretty good then and the ice pick hadn’t yet been stuck in my butt. I whipped through the kitchen, threw open the back door and swung like Tarzan under a wrought iron railing and was sprinting to freedom when she took off a shoe and fired a Nolan Ryan fastball right to the back of my head.

These days when I visit her, I make sure she’s not wearing shoes before I come in the door.

If she does, I grab my walker and hightail it in the opposite direction.

Yes, I’m still alive … for now!

I haven’t updated this blog in a while and for the three of you who’ve asked, no, I’m not dead.

Not that I haven’t thought about, you know, death.

I’m not talking swimming with hungry alligators death, but pretend death. Hiding out. Going missing for a year or so.

Think about it. There’s all kinds of stories about artists whose work became much more valuable after their demise.

Take Van Gogh. The guy didn’t sell a single painting in his lifetime. Well, not to anyone other than his younger brother, Theo. Not even cutting his ear off helped sales. But once he died? Boom!

Nowadays, only Jeff Bezos, the richest man alive, can afford a Van Gogh. (Can’t you hear Alexa now? “For Jeff, a shipment will arrive today, including The Starry Night, Sunflowers, Forest Interio and Wheatfield with Crows.”)

I can see the headlines now. Little Known Author, E. E. Williams Dies at 70. Latest Novel Skyrockets to No. 1

The book – “My Grave Is Deep” – will get turned into a movie, which will be followed by another movie about my life, and then a sequel to the first movie using my previous two novels – “Tears in the Rain” and “Tears of God” (hey, get your plugs in wherever you can, I say) – as source material, and by the time I miraculously return from the dead, I’ll be sleeping on a mattress stuffed with cash, in a castle high in the Alps, and humming Edelweiss.

The other question – besides “Have you died?” and “Who did you say you were?” – most frequently asked is “What does the E. E. stand for?”

I have the same initials as my late father, Edwin Earl Williams. I am named after my maternal grandfather Eugene and my dad, Earl.

Thus, I am Eugene Earl, although only my mother calls me Eugene and only when she’s angry with me, which is most of the time.

Though I am proud of the name, I wish my parents would have thought a little more about it and realized that my initials would be EEW.  Look up “eew” in the dictionary and this is what you get: “1. To excite nausea or loathing in; sicken. 2. To offend the taste or moral sense of; repel. n. Profound dislike or annoyance caused by something sickening or offensive.”

OK, so maybe they got it right, but still.

When I decided to write novels, I considered using a pen name. In any bookstore, Williams is going to be found on the bottom right shelf that can only be reached with scuba gear. I thought maybe I could change the last name to Able, but then I’d actually have to be “able” to get my books into an actually bookstore.

Besides, it was my dad who first gave me a book and told me to stop watching TV and read. How could I change my name?

The answer was I couldn’t. So E. E. Williams it is.

Look for it soon at the top of those bestsellers list.

Just don’t look for me.

The horror. The horror.

I have decided to die.

Not right away. Maybe in another 40 years, which would make me 110.

But when I do die, it will be right here in Bluffton, SC.

It’s easier than having to move again.

In fact, I’m not even going to leave our condo. Whoever finds my body, can just cremate me on the spot, scatter my ashes on the carpet and let the next owners whoosh me up in the vacuum.

In the course of my life, I have moved 3,228 times and this one, by far, was/is/will be the worst.

We thought the move to Bluffton would be hard given our ages and my decrepitude, the boxing and unboxing, the never ending attempt to find a place for things in the new home that always knew their place in the old home, but we had no idea of what disgust and dismay, what absolute terror lay before us.

The South Carolina DMV.

All DMVs are vampiric, sucking your life’s blood straight from your aorta. But South Carolina has enough bureaucracy to choke a herd of elephants and enough red tape to encircle the globe. Twice.

To get a SC driver’s license and plates for a vehicle you need to fill out 1,923 forms, pay $10,643.19 in fees, make 327 trips to various state agencies and petition for a change to the U.S. Constitution.

The first stop on my long and winding road to be able to legally drive in South Carolina was, of course, the DMV office. This particular one was about the size of the third bedroom in your daughter’s dollhouse. The queue as I arrived wended through the tiny room, out the door, into and out of the restrooms, out the door, down the sidewalk, onto the street, over the river and through the woods to grandma’s house, and back again.

Estimated wait time, 16 days.

This is South Carolina, remember, where the sun feels as if it’s about two inches from your forehead. Waiting outside in that kind of heat will melt your brain cells and drive you mad. When I finally made my way inside the room, there were maybe 6 chairs and about 400 people brawling for a place to sit. It was so bad I had to hip check a 6-year-old boy into a counter to grab a seat. He was crying, but then, by this time, so was I.

Periodically, a disembodied voice would announce which number was being served next.

“Now serving B-1976 at station number 7.” “Now serving A-1430 at station 11. “Now serving V-516 at station 1.”

I was in the T group and within seconds of my sitting down, the voice said, “Now serving T-13 at station 3.”

Yeeesssss, I thought. I might make it out of here today.

Then I examined more closely then number I’d been given as elbowed my way into the room.

T-19,232.

I think I fell asleep. I’m not sure for how long. Months maybe.

Finally, though, I heard “Now serving T-19,232 at station 3,” and I staggered up to station 3 where a clerk rasped wearily, “Got all your paperwork?”

I hefted the 10-pound documentation binder onto her desk where it landed with a thud that shook the room.

“Yes,” I said. “Everything but a Social Security card.”

With an eyebrow raised, she gave me the once over and said, “I didn’t know they were handing out Social Security cards back in 1901.”

“Hey, I’m only 70,” I protested.

“Really? Huh. Well, you need a Social Security card to get a license. That or 21 other means of ID.”

“I haven’t had that card since I was 16,” I said. “I think it was in the back pocket of the jeans my mom washed. But look, look, look. My Social Security number is right here … right on my spiffy red, white and blue Medicare card.”

“No can do,” she said. She pressed a button and the announcement came, “Now serving T-19,233 at desk 3.”

Sobbing, I left and went back home where I spent 2 days scrounging the 21 other “means of ID.” I returned to the DMV, waited in line, played musical chairs again and finally made my way back to desk 3.

“Got it all this time,” I said triumphantly.

“We’ll see about that,” said the clerk.

It took her three hours to check all the documents. I paid my fee and was told “Your number will be called in the next hour to six days to get your photo taken.”

I waited. And waited. And waited. My beard grew three inches. I started to smell. By the time I got my picture taken, several people thought they recognized me from the WANTED posters at the police station.

I wasn’t through, however. Now I needed plates.

In South Carolina, vehicles are considered property, so I had to go to a separate office to pay the tax on my car. T the door, I was issued another ticket to see the auditor. Entered another room the size of a postage stamp. Played another game of chair, chair, who’s got the chair. Waited, waited, waited. Had my number called and got up to the auditor’s desk. Handed over my paperwork. The clerk did some typing and then told me I’d have to wait for the treasurer to call my number. More chair games. More waiting, waiting, waiting. My foot went to sleep. My hair fell out. My butt went numb. Finally, the treasurer called my number. I lurched up to the desk and paid my fee.

“Can I get my plates now?” I pleaded, blood running from my eyes.

“Not here,” the treasurer said brightly.

“Where?” I croaked.

“The DMV.”

They had to call an ambulance to take me away.

John Scalzi, Jeff Klinkenberg, Sherryl Woods, Mary Buser, D.W. Vogel, Robert Strauss … and me

I’m always writing about my own books in this blog.

Which makes sense since, you know, I want to sell books.

And man, they are selling at an alarming clip. My latest royalty check was for $2.27. Pretty soon, I’m going to have enough money to buy a movie ticket. Matinee, of course. No candy, though.

Anyway, for those who forgot, my books, featuring amateur detective Noah Greene are:

TITR is first in the series, TOC is the second, and MGID the most recent, and all are available in paperback and eBook formats at Amazon.com.

But, today’s blog isn’t about me, though I have to admit I am my most favorite subject.

It’s the other writers in my circle of family, friends and acquaintances that have done, and are doing, wonderful things, and who continue to motivate me.

To wit:

Mary Buser: Mary is my loved one’s cousin and she has written an excellent book about the terrible abuses at New York’s Rikers Island. The book is called “Lockdown on Rikers: Shocking Stories of Abuse and Injustice at New York’s Notorious Jail.” Mary was once a social work intern at Rikers and saw the awful conditions up close and personal. It took her years to write the book, time well spent because this is a riveting read. It has put Mary to the forefront of the prison reform discussion and rightly so. Read this book.

John Scalzi: Maybe the best Sci-Fi writer working today. John and I worked briefly together at the Fresno Bee. He was an excellent writer then, but I had no idea he had this kind of talent in him. His “Old Man’s War” just knocked my socks off and returned me to my love of science fiction. I’d lost it over the years, but “Old Man’s War” rekindled my interest. I could write reems about John but suffice to say he’s reached the top of Everest, planted his flag and is doing a happy dance. He’s written a dozen best-sellers (check out his author page) and is on a par with the greats of the genre such as Arthur C. Clark, Ray Bradbury, Issac Asimov and Robert Heinlein.

Sherryl Woods: Another former colleague, Sherry and I worked together at the now defunct Miami News (I have killed many newspapers, but that’s another story for later). She was the TV writer at the time and I worked in the sports department. Somehow, I talked her into writing a screenplay together. It bore a remarkable resemblance to today’s “Ballers” series on HBO starring Dwayne Johnson, but our effort was, shall we say, a bit before it’s time and was roundly rejected by anybody who bothered to read it. Sherry managed to survive that disaster by going on to become an esteemed romance novelist with dozens of titles too numerous to list here. (Do check out her author page, however.) Not long ago, her Chesapeake Shores series was picked up by Hallmark for a series that’s now in its fourth season.

Robert Strauss: Geez, what a good writer he is. And a hustler. He worked for a time at the Asbury Park Press, the Philadelphia Daily News and Sports Illustrated, but at some point decided to strike out as a freelancer. Trying to find paying freelance gigs is like trying to find ice water in the Mohave. But his work has appeared extensively in the New York Times and other such notable publications. Several years back, he wrote a wonderful book called “Daddy’s Little Goalie: A Father, His Daughters and Sports,” which prompted me to do a piece on him while I worked at the Cherry Hill Courier Post. He followed that up with “Worst. President. Ever,” and, no, it’s not about who you might think. The subtitle is “James Buchanan, the POTUS Rating Game, and the Legacy of the Least of the Lesser Presidents.” Whew. It will take you longer to say the name than to read the book. That’s how good a writer is Strauss (everybody calls him by his last name). You will fly through the pages.

Jeff Klinkenberg: Jeff and I met as young sportswriters at the Miami News. You may not know this, but sportswriters are a competitive lot. Jeff, myself, Jonathan Rand and others would vie for space on the front page of the sports section. We all thought we were the better reporters and, more importantly, the better writers. Because the News staff was small, we all also doubled on the sports desk, reading and editing each other’s copy. At first, I thought I’d make some … improvements in Jeff’s stories about the outdoors, which was his specialty. A week, maybe two later I discovered that Jeff Klinkenberg was – and is – one of the finest writers I’ve ever met. Not just about outdoor sports, but about anything. I couldn’t find a darn thing in his stories I could change or improve on, try as I might. It depressed me. Still does. Jeff went on from the Miami News to dominate outdoors coverage in Florida and has written a slew of non-fiction books about everything from sharks (“The Shark Attack Files: Investigating the World’s Most Feared Predator” to tomatoes (“Building a Better Tomato: The Quest to Perfect ‘The Scandalous Fruit.’” Try having that kind of range as an author. His latest great read is “Son of Real Florida: Stories from My Life.”

D.W. Vogel: I met Wendy in a writer’s group I’d joined and was immediately struck by her presence, her willingness to help others and, of course, her ability. She has written a series of sci-fi novels called “Horizon Alpha” and they are a pure joy to read. Alien planets. Dinosaurs. Teens in peril. What’s not to love? Wendy is a veterinarian, scuba diver and … a cancer survivor. As someone who lost a breast to a tumor when I was 18, I have a particular affinity for anyone battling this insidious disease. Unfortunately, Wendy’s still experiencing some issues, but nevertheless finds time and determination to write. She is freakin’ awe inspiring.

These are the folks that continue to show me that I have the potential to someday afford a late movie and a candy bar.

Socks? Check. Underwear? Uh …

I have this little job. Four hours a day, Monday through Friday.

I thought that when I retired I wouldn’t be working anymore, but that was before the gaffer – an English term for “the boss” – laid down the law.

Work or die.

I’m afraid of the gaffer, so I went back to work.

The job really isn’t so little. The company for which I work, is a regional healthcare conglomerate with bunch of offices and hospitals and about 13,000 employees. I work the Help Desk, which is laughable because I can barely help myself.

We get dozens and dozens and dozens of calls a day about broken computers, broken printers, broken phones. No broken bones, but lots of other broken stuff. I handle voicemails and emails in the mornings because I’m not good on the phones. Apparently, “What the hell do you want you dithering idiot,” isn’t considered good customer service. Go figure.

Many days, I have to be a detective, along the lines of Noah Greene, the protagonist of my three mystery novels, “Tears in the Rain,” “Tears of God,” and “My Grave Is Deep.” The voicemail prompt asks the caller to leave their name, their employee ID, their location, their computer number, a working callback number, and what they ate for breakfast.

Often, the caller rattles off, “Hi, this is Rita, my computer’s broken, call me back, bye, waffles,” and then forget to hang up the phone, so that the vm, which stands for voicemail for those of you who don’t know healthcare lingo, is a daunting 200 minutes long.

Other times, the caller leaves a message that Einstein couldn’t decipher.

Yeah, I’m calling about the paresthesia isn’t showing up on the obdormition and the sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia is causing an issue with the fasciculation of the heloma durum. Can you tell me how to fix it?”

Uh …

Anyway, every Friday I need to do a timecard for my little job. I put a recurring reminder in my phone because as I’ve grown older, I forget things, like remembering to put on socks and underwear in the morning.

The other day, I finished my shift and my phone dinged with the reminder. I got up and went to get my personal computer to fill out my timecard. Got sidetracked because I had to pee. Came out to the kitchen and thought, “I’m thirsty,” and got myself a Diet Coke. Took two sips and went back to pee. Came back to the kitchen, saw that the floor needed sweeping and went to the garage to get a broom and dustbin. Saw the front lawn sprinkler start running and stood for 15 minutes watching it. Went back into the house to pee. Tried to recall what it was I was supposed to be doing. It’s in your phone, I told myself. Went looking for my phone. Passed some cookies on the counter and ate one. Then two. Then three. Washed them down with my Diet Coke and then had to … you know. Came back out, thought, “What?” Oh, the phone. Where is it? I know, I’ll call the gaffer and have her call my phone. Yes, I actually thought that. Followed by, “How are you going to call the gaffer if you don’t know where your phone is?” Passed the cookies again. Ate one. Then two. Then three. Went to find a broom to sweep up the crumbs that had fallen from the cookies. Decided I should go see a movie.

On Monday, I got a call from my other gaffer, the one I’m not afraid of.

He didn’t sound happy.

“Where’s your timecard?”