Tassy Morgan's Bluff

A Novel

Jim Stinson - Author

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ISBN 9781101535301 | 240 pages | 28 Jun 2011 | Plume | 18 - AND UP
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A wonderfully funny and warm introduction to the quirky inhabitants of a small town located on the breathtakingly scenic northern tip of California.

San Andreas, California. It may be a quaint town, but its residents have high hopes for its future as a tourist destination. There's Bill the Fixer, the handyman who sidelines in chain-saw sculpted redwood totem poles; real estate agent Margaret Nam, who plans to make a mint rehabbing beach shacks; and Jimi, the well-to-do hairstylist whose chair is the epicenter of town gossip. Amid their town's growing pains, widower Lincoln Ellis and Tassy Morgan, a recently divorced painter, meet and-much to their surprise-sparks begin to fly.

Beautifully written and infused with sly humor, Tassy Morgan's Bluff will welcome readers of all ages to a place they'll want to visit again and again.

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Lincoln Ellis left his house with a plastic grocery bag holding a big steel can that faintly resembled a Thermos jug. He lugged it along the bluff-top street, around the switchback, and down toward the little harbor, trudging past great stacks of crab pots topped with loafing seagulls. He didn’t hear their squabbling or feel the late- May sunshine or see the blue Pacific. He didn’t notice the fishing charter posters on the wall of the harborside bait shop.

Inside the little shack, he asked, “Can I borrow a boat?”

“Depends.” The owner affected a Down East terseness appropriate for a Bar Harbor lobsterman. In fact, he’d been born right here on the Redwood Coast, about an hour south of Oregon.

“On?” Linc could do the laconic thing too.

“Kinda boat, fer how long. Ever run a boat, Linc?”

Linc had not, but he’d watched the locals start outboards. How hard could it be? “I just need twenty minutes—half an hour, tops.”

The man stared a moment, then shrugged. “C’mon.”

San Andreas didn’t rate a marina, but the tiny town maintained a long wooden pier to service the commercial crab boats, now retired for the summer while their skippers said fervent prayers that the few remaining Dungeness crabs were all down there breeding like fruit flies. The two men climbed down to the water-level dock, and the bait shop guy pointed to a skiff with a small greasy outboard. “Squeeze the bulb, turn the key, pop the choke, pull the rope.”

He turned and disappeared up the ladder, the bastard. Okay, Linc would figure it out himself. He’d once crafted intricate movie contracts at a thousand dollars an hour and an idiot could run an outboard motor, as boating statistics attested. Key, choke, rope: right.

Many sweaty minutes later, Linc stopped yanking the starter lanyard. Could the damn thing be out of gas? That would just fit the bait shop guy’s sense of humor. Linc hefted the red plastic can: plenty of fuel. Blocked fuel line? It snaked from tank to motor like the tube on a blood pressure thingy. . . . Aha! He grabbed the plump rubber bulb bisecting the fuel line and squeezed repeatedly until it was too hard to compress anymore.

Now the motor started on one pull. Linc pushed in the choke and twisted the throttle. The prop churned the water white but the skiff just sat there. Wait: A handle stuck up with a two-ended arrow painted beside it. He shoved the lever back and sure enough, the boat started backward.

For about three feet, then the dock line yanked tight, the skiff stopped short, and Linc nearly toppled out.

Okay, untie the boat first; he knew that. He did so and backed out. He pulled the handle forward and the skiff went ahead, pushed the handle back and the skiff reversed. After repeating this several times (forgetting the neutral spot in the center) Linc felt confident enough to take the little craft out. He sideswiped the pier only twice on the way.

Linc figured out that when you pushed the motor handle one way the boat went the other way; then he discovered that the push had to be gentle to prevent tacking back and forth like a sailboat. A few minutes’ practice and he felt ready to venture beyond the boats at their moorings. He chugged along at a cautious five miles per hour until he’d cleared the harbor breakwater, then caught his breath as the first wind waves slapped the seaward side of the skiff.

Okay, this was “at sea” enough, wasn’t it? After all, the whole damn ocean was sea, including the harbor. He turned to—port, was it?—eased back into sheltered water, and struck out parallel to the little beach, away from the hazard of the other boats.

At what looked like a safe distance, he turned the throttle all the way down to idle, but the skiff, still in forward, kept moving. He didn’t dare kill the motor—what if he couldn’t restart it?—so he pushed the handle, tiller, whatever, to one side and held it with his knee. The skiff began a slow, tight corkscrew pattern.

Eighty yards away and twenty yards higher, Tassy Morgan spied the dinghy from her studio window. Tassy’s studio spanned the harbor side of her shack above the beach. She painted on a large flat board instead of an easel because she used a wet-paper watercolor technique and water persisted in running downhill.

With yet another corny seascape finished, she was resting her eyes on the harbor view when she saw something moving out beyond the pier and the moored pleasure boats. Tassy grabbed her brass telescope and swung it around on its tripod. It was her neighbor from across the street, out in a flimsy skiff. She focused the long yellow tube and started tracking the boat, which was sketching small spastic circles in the afternoon chop. Its behavior seemed a bit weird, but then so did her neighbor—from what little she knew of him.

Unlike Tassy Morgan in the shack looming over him, Erik Halvorsen didn’t notice the skiff. Walking the beach below her, he was looking up at the bluff that lifted her shack fifty feet above high tide. Tassy’s front deck was propped up by a tangle of braces and pilings improvised ad-lib as the bluff slowly crumbled from under it. At its glacial pace, erosion would take a thousand years to eat the little town on its plateau, but Tassy’s cottage was first on the menu and the ocean was nibbling away.

Stupid white people, what did they expect? Erik’s own forebears had built houses of wide cedar planks lashed with vines and deer sinew that could be dismantled and moved in one day. They’d used this sacred stretch of beach as a fish camp, summer after summer for hundreds of years. He could imagine sleek cedar log canoes pulled up on warm sand, fish drying on woven racks, dogs and bare-ass kids running into the surf. Unhappily, none of it remained—not so much as a single bead.

Now it was white people’s dogs running loose on the beach—shitting on the ancestral home of his people. He glared down the long swath of sand at a stocky dog that was nosing the washed-up kelp. As if in response, the dog looked up at Erik and barked twice: bark, pause, bark, as if to greet him. The white people needed that beach for their tourism. Without it, White San Andreas was just another rural backwater, ignored and slowly dying.

Erik Halvorsen was Narowa, a full-blooded Native American except for the itinerant logger who had absentmindedly sired his great-great-grandfather and thereby started a family with Viking names. Erik wore his hair in a long black braid but was otherwise dressed in a crisp broadcloth shirt and expensive, well-pressed slacks, now stuffed into calf-high barn boots. Handsome and self-assured, he resembled a Saudi business executive. Shaking his head over Tassy’s rickety shack, he continued shooting the bluff, the beach, and the foot-high surf with a shirt-pocket camera.

Gradually, the irregular noise of an outboard caught his attention, a faint-loud-faint-loud pattern that didn’t sound normal. Sure enough, one of the bait shop skiffs was out there bouncing around in incompetent circles. Erik couldn’t quite see who was in it—a tourist, maybe, or one of the new invaders. San Andreas had too many white people already without all the boomers pushing in.

They took over the town government because the locals couldn’t be bothered with it. They forced locals out of the housing market by paying insane prices for shacks like the one above him.

The only thing white people didn’t steal was local jobs, because there weren’t any.

Except at the casino. Erik smiled briefly; the Narowa owned the casino.

And Erik’s grandmother owned the Narowa—maybe owned was too strong, but she’d been tribal chair as long as he could remember—and what Grandmother Halvorsen wanted, she got. And like any entrenched sovereign or CEO, she did not condescend to explain things. She’d simply said, “Go take pictures with that little camera of yours. Make it look good.” Well, that wasn’t hard. With its sweep of warm sand, gentle surf, and sparkling tide pools, the San Andreas beach was gorgeous.

Fifty yards out in the water, Linc was still running the skiff in circles and grumbling at his ridiculous task. Burial at sea had sounded romantic when he and Ellen discussed it two decades ago; at thirty you’re still immortal. But aneurysms could bloom at any age—in Ellen’s case, forty-eight. The little seacoast village had an ambulance, but her arterial blossom had opened and killed her before she’d reached the hospital thirty miles south. Nearly half an hour in that big red can screaming Code 3 all the way down US 101, holding Ellen’s hand, fighting to keep his seat on the side bench and stay out of the paramedics’ way, wondering was it hypocritical to pray? Stumbling into Emergency, then sitting, sitting, memorizing fake wood grain on the admitting counter front, sitting, sitting. When they finally came out their expressions said it all.

Back in his little skiff, Linc tried a deep breath, but his ribs and diaphragm were clamped and he had to suck the air in little sips. Okay, okay: to the job at hand.

With Ellen’s mother warehoused in a Florida care factory and her sister lost in some personal fog, arrangements had been up to her husband alone. When Linc had agreed to cremation, he’d been too stunned to realize he’d be stuck with a jug full of ashes. What the hell did you do with it, display it like a golf trophy, stash it in a closet, throw it in the trash? He’d kept the damn can under his bed for over six months now.

Ellen really had talked of burial at sea, and San Andreas had been her dream: owning a B and B in redwood country, overlooking a stunning blue bay where gray whales romped around sea stacks and harbor seals honked at low tide. She’d had her wish for just six weeks, and now she would sleep with the whales.

Linc extracted the urn from the grocery bag and stuffed the plastic into a pocket. He studied the steel can until he’d figured out the latch. Pulling the lid, he discovered gray ash and a few larger chips.

Aw jeez. He sat there staring at the powdery mess. The skiff chugged round and round while Linc tried to summon memories of Ellen. But the sorrow, the grief were still so strong that they scooped out all the details of their lives together and left nothing inside.

After several minutes he sighed and stood up. The skiff lurched and Linc sat down again fast while the motor, freed from his knee, centered and pushed the boat forward. He dropped the urn, snatched it up to keep it from spilling, lost the lid, grabbed the tiller, pushed it over, and trapped it again with his knee. The boat resumed its tight spirals.

Time to get serious. He would wait for the right point in the boat’s circular path to dump the ashes on the landward side so the sea breeze could not blow them back. He’d have to stay seated and lean out over the knee locking the tiller.

The plan worked, more or less. The little skiff waggled alarmingly, but settled as a small sad cloud of Ellen floated to the water. Linc thought he should say something but couldn’t think of a damn thing except Good-bye. His chest felt filled again with that thick, clogging stuff that stopped his breathing. Okay, then, good-bye, Ellen. Good-bye. He sat some more but the suffocating clog wouldn’t go away.

Shit: Gray ash coated the boat’s edge. Holding the urn, he leaned over past his knee again to dip up water for washing it down. Too far to reach. He slid closer on the seat and tried again. Abruptly, the skiff tipped Linc and his tin can into the drink.

Linc flailed around, and as his clothes and shoes dragged him under he wondered, Why not just keep going on down? But his lungs disagreed and he sputtered to the surface in time to see the motor, re-centering again, push the boat away toward the beach. What had Dorothy Parker said? You might as well live.

Up on the beach, Erik Halvorsen turned when he heard a yell and a change in the outboard sound. The idiot tourist was flailing around in the water, holding up something shiny. Erik started toward the surf line, then stopped as the guy slowly rose out of the water, which turned out to be maybe four feet deep. Shrugging, Erik resumed work with his tiny Nikon.

After a few minutes the tourist plodded into view, sopping wet and sandy up to the knees. Erik paid him no attention. The man looked around in a dazed kind of way, then shambled over.

He said, “Is there any way off this beach?”

Erik studied him impassively. Now he recognized him: not a tourist but a new invader, one of the boomers.

The man gazed around vaguely. “How did you get down here?” He appeared wiped. His hands were shaking and his face seemed on the verge of breaking up. Drugs, maybe?

Erik pointed at the sandy bluff. “There’s an access path there.”

The dripping man peered at the faint indentation that wavered up the bluff face. “That’s a path? Is there no other way?”

Erik shook his head. “That’s it. Be careful.”

The guy stared blankly at the perilous climb, then shrugged indifferently and shuffled off toward it.

In the house at the top of that path, Tassy wondered about this neighbor, whom she called the Zombie. She’d noticed him several times, lurching up the road past her house—not really lurching, of course; just sort of plodding. He could have been good-looking in a mildly weathered way, but his blank zombie face looked dead and dug up.

Twenty yards up the gently sloping street, he would turn into the walk of the big old house across the way and disappear inside. The house was appropriately gothic. It had briefly been a B and B, but now no one entered or left but the Zombie.

When her neighbor fell out of his boat Tassy wondered what to do about the accident. She was reaching for her phone when the Zombie reemerged from the depths. More and then more of him rose up out of the ocean until . . .

He started wading through water that didn’t reach his hips, and Tassy burst into delighted laughter, a honking guffaw that made some people smile but had always irritated her ex-husband and mortified their daughter.

The memory was enough to kill Tassy’s mood. Two years now and the past could still chop her into pieces. It wasn’t her laugh or any other one thing that had been judged unacceptable. It was her self, her whole self, and she still couldn’t really guess why. When her husband had explained it, the individual sentences made sense but she just couldn’t add them together. No matter how he put it, it seemed to boil down to one thing: Somehow, Tassy wasn’t likable; people didn’t like her.

Okay, deal with it. Let’s see, three o’clock, so the mail had arrived, another big excitement in an already big day. She wandered through the great room—if an awkward ten-by-twenty space could be called “great”—and opened the front door.

As she pulled stuff out of her mailbox the Zombie rose slowly into view again, this time in the gap between her house and the next one. He was sopping wet, of course, but his eyes were alive now and his look was puzzled. He moved a few feet forward along the side of her house. “Am I trespassing?”

“Not really.” Tassy smiled and crossed toward him. “I’m Tassy Morgan.”

“Linc Ellis,” he said absently, then, “Tassy?”

“Mm-hm, Anastasia. You run the B and B, don’t you?”

“Not anymore.” She waited until the silence drove him to add, “What do you do?”

“I paint—mostly seascapes for tourists.”

A blunt gray dog—a stranger to Tassy—appeared over the lip of the bluff and trotted forward with what she could swear was a smile on its face. It wagged its tail briefly at the two of them, but since the tail was curled into a tight upright spiral over its back, each wag amounted to just a two-inch vertical twitch.

“Don’t strain yourself,” Tassy said, smiling at the dog, and its own smile widened into a downright grin. It offered her two more underdone wags and loped off.

As if none of this had happened, Linc said, “Paint. Paint is good.” She had the feeling that he was operating his mouth by remote control. “Painting is good.” The distant controller pulled his mouth into a smile. She had a strong impulse to gather him to her and rock him.

“Well . . .” he said vaguely, “thanks.” She raised her eyebrows and he added, “For the free passage.”

Erik Halvorsen climbed into view on the beach path and walked past them. “Hey, Tassy.”

“Hi, Erik.”

Erik headed for a van labeled “Okega Casino” parked at the curb.

“Do you know Erik Halvorsen?”

As if he hadn’t heard, Linc said, “Is the path some kind of easement?”

Tassy nodded at the next house over. “My property goes all the way to that rental, give or take. Why do you ask?”

“Pure reflex; I’m an attorney.”

His conversation was as damp as his clothes, but he was clearly suffering from who knew what—and suffering instantly triggered Tassy’s mothering mode. Besides, there was something else about him that made her want to hold him there. “What’s the fancy can?”

Linc looked at it as if he’d forgotten, then: “Cremation urn—bottom half, anyway,” and the life leaked out of his face. He absently waved good-bye with the can and started off.

Tassy stared after him, connecting the dots to his antics in the boat. Though she didn’t pay attention to village gossip, she recalled somehow that he’d lost his wife. She thought, better to die than walk out on you, then hated herself at once and wondered if she could do anything for him. Tassy watched Linc plod up the street as she opened a letter.

She scanned it.

“Sonovabitch!” she remarked.


Erik snaked the van along a two-lane road lined with ancient coast redwoods pierced by shafts of sunlight—a stretch that had starred in fifty car commercials. Though he’d walked or driven through this venerable grove since childhood, these tallest of all living things never failed to make him shiver with something he would not quite admit was fear. The enormous trees were so very old, so implacably uncaring. Time out of mind, his people had lived in the narrow band between the indifferent sea on one side and the silent redwoods on the other.

The casino was only a mile north of town, but signs every two hundred feet assured customers that they were almost there. He swept up the welcoming drive, rolled past the thousand-car parking lot, stopped in front of the big glass doors, and surrendered the van to a man in a Windbreaker with the Okega logo.

The building was perhaps the most tasteful casino in North America, all redwood and glass and tubular steel beams that echoed cedar logs without trying to imitate them. Erik pushed through the doors, passed the gift shop full of Indian souvenirs (all third-world made and none of them Narowa culture), crossed a field of slots and blackjack tables, and entered his grandmother’s office. As chair, she kept her official office in the tribe’s administrative center, but Grandmother found the casino more convenient, especially its excellent restaurant.

Aside from a few of the Narowa’s antique (and now priceless) baskets, her office decor was 1970 government issue, retained from the years Grandmother had spent as an Indian Affairs attorney at the county seat. She still wore the careful face and clothes that seem to mark public servants from clerks to commissioners, and her handsome Indian features had grown beautiful with age and authority.

The Narowa did not have chiefs as such, but as chair Grandmother was theoretically first among equals. In fact she was boss, plain and simple.

Erik kissed her on the forehead. “There’s white people on our beach again.”

Grandmother smiled. “Not our beach, Erik, not yet. It still belongs to the county.”

“It’s our ancestral summer village.”

Grandmother gazed at him stone-faced until he felt put in his place. “Focus, Erik. Did you get pictures?” He nodded. “Then pick out the best shots and make color prints—make big ones, for a council presentation.”

“The tribal council?”

Patiently, “No, the county.”

“I thought the city owned the beach.”

Grandmother shook her head. “It’s unincorporated county. We don’t have their attention yet, but their budget’s down three million this year. They could make it all up by selling us one little beach nobody uses.” She grunted in frustration. “So far, we’re getting nowhere with them.”

The town of San Andreas and its citizens are major characters in this book. What was the inspiration for this town? How do you go about building the setting for a book and what elements of a book's setting do you feel are most important?

Purely imaginary San Andreas was synthesized from several different towns on the California Redwood Coast. (I try to be scrupulous about avoiding the least hint of references to real people and places.) Since readers grow impatient with self-indulgent description, I try to select just the most telling details and then introduce them at plausible points in the story. Here, I think the most important descriptive element is the environment—the brooding redwoods, the aching-green fields, the fickle weather, the stunning sunsets, the ancient, indifferent sea.

This book features a large and distinct cast of characters. How do you approach constructing your characters? What elements of character do you feel are most important? How do you develop dialogue for your characters?

I start with a general idea, then individualize the person progressively as the needs of each scene suggest. Notice, for example, how, over the course of the narrative, Linc deals with the mega-kitchen in the B and B. I also characterize from inside by narrating each scene in the distinctive voice of one character in it (that's why some of the prose shows some dodgy grammar!) The book includes the voices of eight quite different personalities—maybe more; I lose track. The author's voice intrudes mainly to introduce a scene and to segue way into the next one. As for developing dialogue, I'm a good amateur mimic (my old radio background) so I just "do" the characters as I write. And re-write; and re-write…

The book involves several interweaving storylines (Margaret Nam's beautification crusade, Grandmother Halvorsen's land grab, and the love story between Linc and Tassy). How do you go about developing multiple stories? What challenges did you face writing this book?

I have no idea how I interweave story lines. Often, a scene will feel out of place, so I fuss with scene order until I'm satisfied. I maintain a strict timeline, so that different events don't get out of sync on my imaginary calendar. For me, Grandmother Halvorsen's campaign is important as a key element in the local milieu and as a symbolic force (See her reaction, at the end, on the beach). The trick was to keep her story engaging although it doesn't join the mainstream action until near the close of the book.

Tassy Morgan is a strong female character. What drew you to writing about Tassy? What was the inspiration for the character? What message did you want to convey to your audience through Tassy?

People have asked how a male can write a story with a woman protagonist and a strong female sensibility overall. I have always been around strong women—my grandmother, mother, maternal aunt, sister, sister's daughters, my wife, my own daughter—and I've always felt comfortable in their company. Beyond what I've naturally absorbed from my boisterous family, I've found that the trick is not to write "female" but to provide just the right cues to let the reader create the character's female-ness, if you will. As for "message," I simply tried to write a story about life as I'd like it to be: full of imperfect people and frustrating events, but funny despite itself and, in the end, worth it. I hope readers can share my values.

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