–I swear I swept before I took this pic. Obviously need to step up the sweeping skills.
Finally. It’s officially fall. Or autumn. I like the sound of autumn, though I feel like a pretentious twit when I use the word instead of fall. I read once that you should do your major spring cleaning in fall, instead of in spring. The logic is that your house is full of summer dust and pollen and stuff that floats through open windows or gets tracked in, and you don’t want it trapped inside with you all winter. It makes a kind of sense to me, especially since we have a dog that is always, always on the wrong side of the door, and is old enough to have prostate problems. Except…here in the midwest, and definitely in the southern part of the country, many homes are barricade against summer heat. The closest thing we get to a breeze indoors is a spinning ceiling fan or the chilly propulsion of air conditioning. Sometimes I go wild and open the windows with the a/c on. Just for a few profligate minutes. This COVID summer I felt especially trapped in the cold. So I’m in the midst of a fall cleaning, and I’ve started with the front porch.
I skimmed an article online yesterday about how front porches are a thing now. They’ve become valuable in this time of being stuck at home, intermediaries between our homes and the scary world beyond the front lawn, or out on the sidewalk. A porch is a place where you can be close to people, but not too close. Or you can escape from the other inmates to read a book or smoke a cigarette or be alone. This sounds silly, I’m sure, but a porch can be a house’s smile or grimace. It gives a clue to the people living inside. When I visited my mother’s parents’ house, it was often my job to sweep the front and back porches. Both were tiny because it was a small house. The front porch could hold only two chairs and overlooked a busy road. I never swept leaves or (heaven forfend!) trash from the porch, because there weren’t any (wasn’t? agreement grammar isn’t my strong point, sadly). There was only a gray, gritty dust. If the porch hadn’t been swept in a couple of days, it could swirl. Of course, you wouldn’t really notice it much, as it was nearly the same color as the concrete floor, until you started sweeping. (My grandmother is rolling in her grave as I write this, I’m sure. She probably skipped sweeping the day before I was to visit, just so I’d get a thrill. She also kept a few boiled chunks of potato out of the mashed potatoes for me because I foolishly hated mashed potatoes when I was a kid. She was awesome that way.) Sweeping the dust away was strangely satisfying. It was the same with the back porch, only it was slightly less dusty, and more likely to have ants and bits of leaves and sticks on it. It never looked quite as stark or spotless as the front porch. But somehow it looked friendlier. Maybe it was that way because you could predict the people who would come to the back door: family and friends and neighbors. The back door opened onto the kitchen. People who came in and out by way of that door were nearly always welcome.
That front porch, though. The house sat on a steep, grassy hill with only a dozen or so feet to the next houses on either side. Every house had concrete steps leading down to the sidewalk and road. I wish I could remember how many steps there were up to their house. I want to say 17, but I’d be making it up. Unless it was my grandfather coming back from a walk, anyone who came up those stairs was a probably a stranger. It was a wary kind of porch. A little forbidding.
There’s a book I’ve recommended before, probably here or on FB, called A PATTERN LANGUAGE. It’s from the 1970s, and has all kinds of descriptions of, and prescriptions for creating human-scale, livable architecture, spaces, and communities. It even has measurements for how large a porch should be to be considered useful and livable. I think I recall that it has to be a minimum of 4 feet deep to be comfortable. Think about the porches you’ve been on. Were you comfortable? Houses of the last fifty years or so weren’t much concerned with porches. I think they went the way of openable windows in large buildings. The same group of architects did a book called PATTERNS OF HOME: TEN ESSENTIALS OF MODERN DESIGN. Both books are worth a look if you’re curious about the spaces we live and work in. (Wow–Amazon just told me I bought A PATTERN LANGUAGE in 1997. That freaks me out.)
As you can see from the photo above, I’m excited about the season. While I don’t go much in for quaint and cute porch decor, I do like pumpkins and flowers, and a seasonal wreath. I used to think I was too cool for those things, but I very much like to hang out on my porch, when the weather is nice. We don’t get many visitors, but I’d rather the UPS guy be greeted with something cheery than old leaves, chewed sticks, and carpenter bee carcasses. I learned to use the power washer last week. Where has it been all my life?! I feel like the house can breathe now. There’s much more to do inside, but the porch is ready to usher in any good energy that floats our way.
And here’s one of my porch projects. That potting bench that the carpenter bees seem to love. I used oil-based door paint on it, hoping the bees won’t like the smell. We shall see. The official color is cranberry, though I think it looks Saluki maroon!
Husband Pinckney Benedict and his BFF/collaborator, Tony Nalker, are featured at THE MISSOURI REVIEW. Listen to their haunting 2020 Miller Audio Prize runner up piece: Going Home: Voices of the Condemned.
When I pick up a novel I’m immediately on the lookout for a character that grabs my attention. I love a strong first person or close third person narration. Now, the protagonist doesn’t have to be likable in a here’s someone I’d like to share a bottle of wine with sort of way. They don’t even have to be personally exciting, or terribly instrumental in the plot (I’m looking at you, Nick, from The Great Gatsby). Sometimes they just have a good story to tell. Grayson Sykes, the PI protagonist of AND NOW SHE’S GONE, not only has an incredible story, but is the kind of badass woman I’d love to get to know over drinks. Except I’m a total lightweight, and Grayson really knows how to party when she’s out with girlfriends. I would be so left behind. Grayson is clever and wryly funny, and wears the toughest of masks (many, many masks) to face the world. But the reader, alone, is let in on her biggest secret: she’s emotionally vulnerable and a bit fragile. And her life is never, ever dull.
AND NOW SHE’S GONE primarily takes place in Los Angeles. It’s a cinematic LA, full of both grit and glamour, and Grayson seems comfortable with it all. And cars. So many cars. The novel opens with Grayson wondering if the car in her rearview mirror is following her, might be someone to be afraid of. It sets a tense tone for the entire story. Her first solo investigation is a search for Isabel, the missing fiancée of a handsome cardiologist. Isabel wants to stay invisible to her husband-to-be, and Grayson has to dig deep into the mysterious woman’s complicated and often contradictory life to find her. And yet, the missing woman and Grayson develop a kind of strange, distance relationship. But is it the relationship of a cat and her prey, or one between two women bound by common terrors? At the same time, Grayson is looking back over her shoulder, trying to remain invisible to a man from her own past who tried to kill her more than once. The combined tension of the two plots propels the novel forward, and Hall does an excellent job of showing how they physically and emotionally wear Grayson down. I’m reminded of the old boxer’s adage: You only have to get up one more time than all the times you get knocked down. Grayson keeps going. It’s refreshing to read a PI novel in which the PI’s personal life is more than a sad background for the main plot.
One of the novel’s greatest strengths is the web of relationships Hall builds among her characters. They judge and occasionally taunt one another. They have expectations and dreams. They complain and tease and often cheer each other on. They’ve (mostly) got each others’ backs. Sometimes there’s betrayal. There’s one key betrayal that I definitely didn’t see coming, and it was fascinating to have it revealed through Grayson’s eyes. Oh! I forgot the dog. Isabel, the missing fiancée, has also disappeared the doctor’s pup, Kenny G. Like Grayson, I worried about that dog throughout the entire story.
AND NOW SHE’S GONE has terrific thriller pacing, and the surprises keep coming until the very end. I look forward to more of Grayson Sykes.
(I received a free digital copy of this novel via NetGalley. It in no way influenced my opinions. Promise.)