Today I am so pleased to welcome Joel Skelton to Joyfully Jay. Joel has come to talk to us about his latest release, Beneath the Palisade: Justice. He has also brought along a copy to give away. Please join me in giving Joel a big welcome!
With both Father’s Day and his birthday occurring this past week, memories of my father are at the forefront of my thoughts. I loved my old man. He’s been gone for almost 20 years and I miss him more than ever. It’s only recently that I’ve come to understand how he influenced my writing. More on that in moment.
I shy away from using the term “temperamental artist” because he wasn’t that. A gifted pianist, he navigated life differently—in a distinct way, so it’s hard to find comparison. There were days, even periods, when he was moody and withdrawn. We all experience this to some degree. There were times I had good reason to be cautious around him. He was potentially explosive. Our relationship was complex. At least to a kid, it seemed so. And compared to the fathers of my peers, there were spells when he seemed freakish or even cruel.
For some inexplicable reason, Dad and I were in a non-physical battle for much of my teens. Pissy, stupid little power plays. I gravitate to one hypothesis for his maddening behavior more often than any other. Having sacrificed his own artistic aspirations to raise a family, and witnessing his son virtually free of restraint enjoying a full, highly creative period of life, was more than he could bear. He was striking out. He was angry more at himself than me, but unable to communicate his feelings in a way anyone close to him could understand. Before and after that, we got along wonderfully. If he was still around, I’d make sure to press him on the issue.
Just Go Away
Memories from when we were on the “outs” make me smile now that distance has softened their bite. Here are a couple from the collection:
Bounding down the stairway from my bedroom, I was seized by a profound sense of dread. In my rush to meet up with friends, I’d temporarily forgotten the situation downstairs—Dad was still home. I stopped briefly to evaluate my options. They were few. Short a calamitous event, I would find him seated at the table, working the crossword puzzle. At the end of the eggshell-paved journey from living room to the entrance into the kitchen, as expected, he sat hunched over the paper. Pen in hand, dressed in his too familiar black and red robe, his mostly jet-black hair was tousled in a way nobody other than my mother and I would ever see.
“What time’s she done with work?” he mumbled without looking up from the table.
Opening the refrigerator, my heart raced. I took out a carton of orange juice. “Said four,” was the measured response I chose on the spot, matching his volume and cadence like a gifted impersonator. Those were the first words my father and I had spoken to each other in three weeks.
I was one of those kids that spent a great deal of my evenings at school, participating in plays, speech, and various band activities. At the time, my mother worked part-time in the bridal department at JC Penney. She and I were a team, to be sure. Despite her busy schedule, she did her best to make sure I—and anyone else in need—had a ride home from school. Now and then, other parents would take turns chauffeuring us back and forth. The few times my father was burdened, he made such a stink that great pains were taken to avoid any future involvement on his part.
One night in my senior year, my mother was unable to pick me up as planned. After begging my father on the phone as friends stood nearby, anxiously wondering if a call to their parents would be required, he begrudgingly agreed to come. Foolishly, I left out the part about having to drop others off, betting he wouldn’t put up much of a fuss in front of them. Sure, he’d chew the hell out of me when we were alone in the car, but I could handle that. After waiting for what seemed a lifetime, he showed up late, booze on his breath, and dressed in pajamas. Of course I was horrified—embarrassed to the point of tears. I was incapable of understanding how a father could be this vile. I choose to play the kid card, put the ultimate blame on him, and argue that he made some really insensitive decisions back then. As the adult, he should have known better.
The Father I Wouldn’t Trade the World For
Contradicting the occasional insensitivity, my father was a highly sensitive man. Much more so than my mother, who stayed the steady course and acted, through my teens, as the official ambassador of peace between Dad and me. Dad was sensitive to nature, his clients’ and his bandmates’ needs, the musical shortcomings of many of the vocalists he supported, and without question, his financial responsibility to our family unit—there was never any doubt he was the breadwinner. I saw tears stream down his cheeks in reaction to a piece of music, and I was at his side while he took the time to point out the beauty of a flower, making sure I understood it was okay to appreciate such things.
My stories often contain detailed descriptions of nature. I attribute those to him. I came into adulthood without the usual trappings many men fall prey to—the fear of paying attention to something not historically considered masculine. Honestly, it never occurred to me even then that finding beauty in a flower could in any way be interpreted as feminine. Dress Up, for instance, my first crack at a full length book, spends a great deal of time introducing readers to Maine and the protagonist’s appreciation of its beauty.
I know from reader comments my attention to environmental detail isn’t always appreciated. I’m okay with that. Some people need a yard with trees, while others are just as comfortable living next to the freeway. Because of my father’s influence, I couldn’t survive without the trees.
You might be surprised to learn my father was very funny. Like everything else, he was funny in a complex way. Often biting, his humor was just as likely to be filled with an enormous helping of self-deprecation, owning up to his shortcomings without any concern for the toll they could take on his image. He had the ability to slay me even when I wished him locked away with the key to his cell tossed into the deepest lake on the planet. It was a rare quality and to my benefit, I’m so glad I began appreciating his comedic gift rather than taking offense. At this point in my life, I’m well aware that my own sense of humor is… well, peculiar. In my writing I’m more apt to paint a character with a touch of quirkiness than to simply color him with a splash of wit.
I work hard (I’m now aware) to capture the essence of my father’s humor, always hoping it will do for readers what it did for me. Harper, one of the main characters throughout my Palisade series contains a lot of Jess, especially his humor. Perhaps this is why I consider Harper, up to now, my favorite character to write. In a way it’s like spending time with dad. I regret he doesn’t know about Harper, or my writing. He’d be proud. I know it.
Our Happy-Ever-After Ending
Toward the end of his life, my father and I were connecting on all cylinders. We came to be very close. Possibly this is because along the way we had settled into the understanding we were more alike than different. Well, with the exception of him being straight and me gay. Which by the way, was never a big issue for him. He accepted it and allowed us to move on.
Saving one of the best memories for last—one of our final adventures together was a weekend fishing trip up north. My brother, a resident of Ely, Minnesota at the time, rented a cabin for us on a premier walleye lake. We were in the boat a long time—hours and hours. My brother and I enjoyed plenty of action, with both of us hauling in a couple keepers, while my father had yet to have even one bite. Fueled by several beers and I’m sure frustration, the Jess Show began. My entertaining father was at his best that day. We laughed until we cried, talked serious, and I left the boat with a stringer of my dad’s most brilliant observations.
Despite a spirited inner debate pitting right against wrong, Owen Grady is lured off a forest trail by a handsome stranger. Just as he is about to surrender to an urgent desire, Owen realizes he is making a mistake and attempts to leave, but the rejected man wrestles Owen to the ground and discloses he is a cop. Wrongly accused of sexual misconduct, Owen seeks legal help.
Ambitious young lawyer Brent Burns is a junior partner at Burns & Callahan, a law firm located within the Men’s Center in Two Harbors, Minnesota. He takes on Owen’s case, determined to prove him innocent. But Brent can’t possibly predict the obstacles on the bumpy road to an acquittal—not the least of which is an ethical taboo involving his heart, which threatens to defeat him before he ever sets foot in the courtroom.
Joel Skelton lives in the thriving Minnesota arts community commonly referred to as the Twin Cities. Writing is the latest destination in the author’s tour of the arts, having previously dabbled in music (alto saxophone), and the theater.
Joel has brought a copy of Beneath the Palisade: Justice to give away to one lucky reader. Just leave a comment at the end of the post to enter. The contest ends on Tuesday, June 30th at 11:59 pm EST.
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