ABOUT JO BARNEY'S BOOKS:
EXCERPT FROM 'HER LAST WORDS'
Early Monday Morning: Flotsam
“My God,” Lucius says, as close to praying as he has been in years. “We’re on Venus.” Monoliths rise ahead of him like black specters, their crags and angles cutting through the mist, jutting towards the high, bluing sky.
The others, silent, have dropped their handholds on the rope. Lucius bends to loop it over his arm, and as he does, he sees the man in the slicker, his bag over his shoulder, kneeling, rising, waving at them.
“That guy’s found something. Let’s go.”
He runs, slogs, really, his boots heavy with water. The women in their sneakers move faster, their arms reaching out to the dark figure and whatever lay at the foot of the rock he’s leaning against. Lucius cannot tell if it is the gulls or the women crying out.
Then they drop to their knees, a huddle of sorrow. They don’t look up as Lucius and the two firemen come up behind them. The mussel gatherer, his empty bag hanging from one grimy hand, a walking stick in the other, stands to one side, his eyes red and wild-looking, his sou’wester pulled down to his eyebrows. Hanks of wet, black hair drag over his eyes, drain down his cheeks like tears.
Madge Slocum lies wedged under an overhang, her face gray. Sand seeps from her mouth. A strand of seaweed wraps her out-flung hand like a bracelet, her bare feet seem ready to run, the toes spread, arched. An arm folds over her body, across a pack strapped to her waist. Several mussels have fallen from the pack and nestle at her throat.
“She came here for mussels,” Lou cries. “For us.” The women reach for her. They grapple with the iron until it falls, and they pull it away from her. Their fingers close her eyes, brush grit away from her lips. They remove the pack and empty it of its black shells. Joan crouches, takes a hand, massages it as if to warm it. Jackie closes the torn jacket, covers the white skin under it.
The ocean ripples as it awakens. White-edged swirls send the little birds skittering.
EXCERPT FROM 'THE RUNAWAY'
I can remember every second of that last graffiti patrol with Ellie. Maybe it’s the meds they’re feeding me, or maybe I’m a little crazy right now. The nurse says I probably should be with all the stuff I’ve gone through in the past couple of weeks, Ellie at the center of it all.
It was chilly that morning, and we shivered a little as we headed toward the first mailbox, me, in my punk clothes, Ellie in her old lady sweatshirt and red sneakers. She had her supplies and towels in an old shopping bag, like usual, and I could tell she was still mad at me, at my knowing how the graffiti got on the boxes. I was thinking about that, too, but she didn’t know the whole story, not then.
“Spray!” Ellie ordered, and I stopped remembering and pointed the bottle at the mailbox in front of me. We scrubbed, Ellie not talking to me yet. After a couple of minutes, the black polish on my nails began to melt like the paint scrawls we were working on. Ellie muttered “Good” when she saw me rubbing at them. As soon as the box was as clean as Graffiti X could get it, we headed toward the next one. By the time we got to the street with the big trees, I was hot and glad for what little shade was left, the limbs above me almost bare. Leaves crunched under my boots.
Then I stumbled and heard the heel of my boot snap. Shit, my only shoes was my first thought. I had to walk like a cripple, one leg short, one long.
“Take ’em off!” Ellie said, shaking her gray head at me. “Stupid to wear boots like that; you look like a baby hooker.” I watched where I was going, hoping I wouldn’t step on dog poop or something yucky hidden under the leaves. That’s when I saw the white basketball shoe sticking up from a pile of debris at the curb. Someone must have lost it. Except that the shoe also had a sock in it. And in the sock, a leg.
EXCERPT FROM 'NEVER TOO LATE'
Christmas Morning, 1993
I poke a foot out from under a tangled sheet. Find some joy! yesterday’s horoscope had advised me. Right now, I’ll settle for coffee. The air is morning-warm, the furnace groaning somewhere under me. I push the covers to one side, turn toward Art’s flannelled back, the wall he builds between us when he comes to our bed.
I know I’m being mean-spirited, a disposition Christmas always delivers like a seasonal virus. Joy, I tell myself again and touch Art’s hump of a shoulder, give it a poke. If I have to get up, layer the cheese strata, set the table, pick up yesterday’s newspapers, he at least can help by turning on the tree lights and starting the fire in the fireplace. Shit! I’ve forgotten the stockings. They, and the stuff I’ve collected to fill them, are piled in a box in the closet. I shake him a little harder. “Get up!”
Art rolls over on his back. His blue eyes stare up at the ceiling fixture hanging above his head. His mouth is open, as if he’s about to snore, but he isn’t rasping, gurgling, even blinking.
I raise myself up on an elbow. I pat his arm, bring my hand up to touch his cheek. His skin feels like that of an unripe peach, hard under whiskery fuzz. Cold.
My ear grazes his mouth as I listen for a breath. Silence. I press my hand against his chest, feel his pajama buttons with shaking fingers.
Art is dead.
It isn’t as if I never imagined him dying, leaving me to finish my life alone. At those times, the idea hadn’t been frightening, maybe even the opposite. A new life for me once he was gone, I envisioned, a better life, maybe. But this actual moment is not part of that scene. I drop my head back to my pillow and try to figure out what to do. My breath isn’t taking hold. I seem to be leaking at the seams, lungs empty, about to be as dead as Art.