Roadside Sanitation Specialist. That’s what the big magnetic sign on Reb’s truck said. It made picking up rotting roadkill sound downright respectable. Reb was proud of his truck–from the shining chrome grill to the trailer hitch that protruded from the back bumper like Reb’s chin from his thin face. Everyone said he was all chin and nose, some even said his nose was the reason he was so good at his job. He could sniff out the dead animals before maggots even started to wriggle on their skin. The best time to cruise for roadkill was right before sunrise. Most critters got hit at night when the drunks and speeders were out in full force.
         Reb got up at around 4:00 a.m., pulled on his gray coveralls and work boots, and stomped out to his truck. The diesel engine started with a roar and the steel lockers bolted into the truck bed rattled like the gates of hell when he pulled out of the trailer park, gravel spinning out from his massive tires. His usual tankard of boiling black coffee was in the cup holder and Merle Haggard’s voice filled the cab. Reb hummed along through the wad of dip packed into his cheek, occasionally spitting thick, brown sludge out the window. He had perfect aim; not a drop of tobacco infused saliva hit the sign on his door. There hadn’t been much action lately other than a few deer last week. Frank the taxidermist had bought them cheap on account of the state of the hides by the time Reb got to them, but it was better than nothing.
         The city didn’t pay him unless something big got hit close to town and people called to complain about the smell. Sometimes people called him when their beloved dog ran into traffic and they couldn’t bring themselves to load Roscoe’s broken, oozing body into their nice clean car but didn’t want to leave him there for the kiddos to see. Mostly, Reb tried to get to the good carcasses before the vultures. He thought of himself as a kind of super scavenger. Truth be told, many in town thought he looked like a vulture, with his beaky nose and his habit of walking with his skinny arms crooked like wings. The sparse graying hair that refused to grow above his ears didn’t help the resemblance. Reb didn’t mind. As long as he could afford tobacco, beer, and a night with Beatrice down at the Garter Grill once a month, they could call him whatever they wanted.
         He spat the spent chaw out the window and rinsed his mouth out with acrid coffee, feeling his nose-hairs tingle as he swallowed. Reb squinted through the windshield as his headlights swept the road, looking for the tell-tale lumps on the sides. There usually wasn’t much this close to town, but sometimes a hog got brave or a coyote got rabid. Thinking of the money he had left from Frank, Reb allowed himself a brief moment to ponder a night spent in Beatrice’s arms. As long as the lights were off and he’d had a few shots of Jim Beam, he could ignore the way she spilled out of her corset in all the wrong places and the smell of stale beer on her breath. Imagining such earthly bliss almost made him miss the mass that lay at the intersection of Dry Creek Road and the railroad track. He slammed on his brakes and the tires slipped a little on the gravel. Reb had hardly thrown the truck in park before he grabbed his shovel and the .12 gauge from behind his seat and jumped out of the cab.
         He’d had to finish off a deer and a coyote or two with the shovel, put the damned things out of their misery. The gun would make the carcass worthless to Frank and would cause a bigger mess than Reb wanted to deal with, but around these parts, with darkness still hanging on, it was better to be safe than dead. He’d stopped so fast, he lost sight of his target. He peered into the darkness that hung just outside the high powered beams of his twin searchlights. Reb was thinking that he’d hate to be the unlucky bastard that crossed him with his shotgun primed when he spotted it. He adjusted the spotlight that was rigged just above the driver’s side mirror. It was huge, bigger than he’d thought when he pulled over. He let out a low whistle. Merle sang on from the truck, barely audible over the grumbling engine. Reb shouldered the shovel and held the shotgun in the crook of one skinny elbow as he walked towards the beast. For a wild moment Reb remembered bears he’d seen on the TV.
        “Ain’t no bears ’round here,” he muttered.
         It wasn’t a bear. It was too skinny, and bears didn’t have ears that stuck up. It looked like a dog, but that was pure moonshine. No wolf could get that big, neither. Reb’s adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he came close enough to touch…whatever it was. He nudged it with his boot. Nothing. He circled it, leaned in, and saw the long muzzle and crooked teeth. Red eyes flared to life and it lunged.
         Reb had no chance. It was on him, ripping out his innards in one ferocious yank. His shotgun lay inches away from his spasming fingers as blood leaked from his mangled belly. The last thing Reb saw was the wolf gulping down the last of his intestines. Merle sang “Mama Tried” as the wolf tore into Reb’s twitching body, gorging itself on his flesh. Sated at last, it stepped away.
         There was a cracking sound like knuckles popping. Reb’s truck door slammed and the engine roared to life, Merle blaring louder than before out the windows.
        The next morning, the police couldn’t figure out why, of all things, Reb’s boots were missing.

Thursday Thoughts: The Stereotypes That Bind

Now, before you roll your eyes or run away, this is not going to be a political post. I promise. While I sometimes discuss politics on this forum, today is not the day. I have been mulling over some thoughts lately about stereotyping as it relates to writing, especially “genre” writing. A post from a great blog I just started following volleyed the idea back to the forefront of my mind. You can (and should) read it here. In it Misha Burnett discusses the origins of different “genres” as well as how they have been manipulated, reversed, and inverted over time. He points out that literature (and arguably any creative venture) is in constant flux, a refreshing contrast to a more widely held thought. A more commonly held idea states that “nothing is unique” or “everything has been done before.” It’s a terribly depressing thought. But there is also the sage advice a professor gave me: “steal from other writers.” Obviously he was not condoning plagiarism, instead he was telling us to borrow, to twist, to bend things that have been done before and to make them our own.

       One of the examples Mr. Burnett uses is horror fiction and particularly vampire fiction. *cue reader eye-roll* Stay with me on this one. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was arguably the first “popular fiction” novel on vampires (to my limited knowledge), but obviously it wasn’t the last. That book spawned countless more creative works dealing with vampires, from Anne Rice’s novels to The Series That Shall Not Be Named, to the content on the shelves of the Young Adult section in any bookstore, to my current guilty pleasure, the TV show “Vampire Diaries.” So my question is: What’s wrong with that? People say that vampire fiction, or werewolf fiction, or any of the current “trendy” topics are so cliche and that real writers wouldn’t waste their time with such a topic. Watch out, because Bram Stoker and Anne Rice might come after you with a stake. I agree that there is plenty of  t e r r i b l e  Young Adult (and Adult) fiction that has been spawned by the vampire craze, but take a walk down the Adult Romance aisle and tell me that is all good writing.  I’m using vampire fiction as an example because a) too much Netflix and b) my generation is the generation that raved over Twilight…er…The Series That Shall Not Be Named. I’ve said before, I’ve read the books, seen the movies (even went to a few midnight premieres), and enjoyed them. The Twilight series is entertaining. It’s not high quality, academia writing–but why should it be?

       Harry Potter can easily join the conversation as well. J.K. Rowling is not the first person to write about boarding school, magic, or witches and wizards, but she spun the common subjects her way. If you boil it down to its barest bones, Harry Potter is a coming of age story and, as every high school English class I ever took taught me, bildungsroman has been around since the dawn of time. So why do we look down our noses with disdain when writers choose to write about subjects that are popular or “cliche”? In one sense, the saying that “nothing is new” is encouraging; you have plenty of examples to learn from as you seek to create something that has your personal fingerprints all over it. So to writers: if you want to write about vampires–do it. If you want to write detective novels–do it. But make it your own.

       To readers: read whatever you want to read, reading should be about enjoyment and if you learn something or are inspired or affected along the way, so much the better. Readers have another responsibility, too, and that is to try new things. If you are a fantasy reader (guilty) read some non-fantasy, read some autobiographies, read some classics. This applies to writers as well–read voraciously, whatever you can get your hands on. If you hate a book, never read it again (I suggest getting cheap/used/kindle books just in case). If you love it, read it again until it falls apart, until the pages are stained with tears and crumbs and dirt and memories. But don’t let the stereotypes of genre bind you, cage you in, or prevent you from reading, writing, and experiencing.