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Gems, Lies, and Elephant Tusks

My longtime friend Linda recently posted her photo entitled The Elephant in the Room on Facebook, which featured the great elephant blazoning the rotunda of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. I, too, have always been taken with that great tusked beast whenever I visited. Then I learned why the museum closes at 5 p.m. daily. They hold receptions and fundraisers in that grand space, which inspired the following tale I'd written for a flash fiction contest for pieces under 1,000 words:

The Rotunda of the Museum of National History, Washington, D.C.Gem, Lies, and Elephant Tusks

by Gale Martin

“Enjoy the reception,” intoned the president of the Not-Quite-Ivy Singles Club. “And the museum. Make it a goal to meet someone new this evening. Since we have the place to ourselves, mill about. I recommend catching the Carmen Lúcia.” The woman glanced at her notes on the podium.  “A stunning Burmese ruby, the newest acquisition in the Hooker Geology Hall.”

Mindy’s attention drifted from the speaker to a pair of hulking tusks overhead. Normally she avoided the mix-and-mingle scene. But the Museum of Natural History sounded like something a cut above, a classy place to meet the right kind of guy.

Everything in the rotunda—the stately columns, the white table linens, the African bush elephant grazing on a crag of faux African savannah—had a pinkish cast from the neon light fixtures embedded in each towering arch. Swords of pink light parried with the marble in the cavernous space. The crystal sparkled and fresh hors d’oeuvres were butlered every other minute. All of which surpassed Mindy’s expectations. Finding this event on the alumni website was kismet.

“One rarely sees elephants from sipping chardonnay. Or a lovely grad ensconced beneath a charging elephant.”

A man with sandy hair in a tweed sport coat grinned at her.

She noticed he had leather patches on his elbows. Very attractive. Not afraid to be different. He reminds me of...Indiana Jones?

“Have we met?” she asked

“Carter Pratt, class of 2000.”

 “Mindy Salmon. Class of 2002."

“What was your major at G-town?”

“Accounting," she smiled. "I work for the I.R.S.” She waited for the inevitable reaction when people learned she was gainfully employed by the universally feared and hated Internal Revenue Service.

“I’d better be good then,” he said, his green eyes sparkling. “No wonder we never met at Georgetown. I did a lot of field assignments off campus—France, Italy, Egypt. Anthropology major, archaeology minor. Plus, I’d have remembered you. I never forget a pretty face.”

Mindy flashed him her 200-watt smile. “What do you do for a living?”

“Right now, I’m in sales, trying to get a graduate fellowship at American,” he said. “Do you live in D.C.?”

“Just outside of Arlington. I’ve moved back to D.C. in January to take the government job.”

“Right. I never thought I’d have any reason to be grateful to the IRS,” Carter said, his face easing into a wide grin.

His teeth were white and straight as piano keys. At that moment, his pupils verged on overtaking his irises—not necessarily a bad thing. Mindy had just read a tidbit in a magazine that a man’s pupils often dilate when looking at a woman he finds attractive.

“Care to head to the Hooker with me?” Carter asked.

“I’d love to. I haven’t seen their gem collection since my tenth grade class trip,” she said, then tittered, suddenly giddy from the wine or a good-looking man’s attention or both. “I wonder if they still have the Hope Diamond.”

“I’m sure they do. But, in a manner of speaking, every diamond is a sort of hope diamond, n'est-ce pas?”

*  *  *

Mindy gawked at the 23.1-carat ruby, one of the world’s largest, set in a platinum ring, flanked  by triangle-shaped diamonds.

 “Ruby is my birthstone,” she purred.

“A businessman donated it in memory of his wife, a mere token expressing the abiding and transcendent love of a man for a woman,” Carter said. “Fascinating. I never knew rubies larger than 20 carats were extremely rare. Or that the curator of this gallery considers the Carmen Lúcia their most important acquisition in twenty years.”

 “Stunning. Simply stunning. But way too extravagant for my taste,” she countered. “What with the price of real estate in D.C., I’d rather sink that kind of money into a down payment on a house.”

“Pretty and practical. That’s what I call rare,” he said, raising his champagne glass to her.

*  *  *

Mindy hurried up the Museum’s front steps. Carter’s message said to meet him at the Rotunda after work. But traffic had been too heavy. Then her cell phone ran out of juice. Her fears evaporated when she spotted him standing beneath the tusks of the great bush elephant.       

“Remember, we met last year under these tusks,” he said, handing her a velvet box.

“Oh, my goodness, Carter.”  

Mindy’s eyes grew wider than a pachyderm’s footprints as she opened it. She froze. She looked down at the ring again to make sure she was seeing straight, then up at Carter, blood rushing into her face. Her head felt ready to explode.

“A quarter-carat?” she wailed. “You got me a quarter-carat diamond for an engagement ring?”

“'Nothing extravagant.' That’s what you said. You said you’d rather spend the money on a house.”

“I may have said it, but I didn’t mean it,” she said. “If you had any class whatsoever, you would have known that.”

Mindy threw the box on the marble floor and dashed down the steps, not caring whether Carter intended to chase after her.

*  *  *

Carter thumbed through a mountain of mail that accumulated while he was overseas. Bills, magazine renewals, junk mail, a few letters from the Georgetown alumni office, and a registered letter from the IRS.

The IRS? What could they possibly want with me?

His heart pounded. Maybe he forgot to mail his tax return before he left for Greece. He felt certain that he had.

Ignoring the letter opener on the counter, he tore off the end and yanked out the notice.

“Dear Mr. Pratt,

Because of numerous irregularities in your 2015 Federal Income Tax Return, you have been selected for an office audit.

You will be required to bring the records and documents listed below to the IRS office and to meet with one of our agents for review.

Within ten days of the receipt of this letter, you must call Mrs. Mindy Morgenstern, the agent assigned to your case, to set up an appointment...”


Oh, what a beautiful mind!

Note to readers: My beautiful mother Jessica passed away last Monday at 88 years old, after surviving a disabling illness for 38 years. Read her story. Then you'll know why I'll miss her so much and why she is my family hero.

My mother Jessica in 1975, two years before she became illWe’ve all likely used the expression, “ I have half a mind to …” meaning “to be tempted to or inclined to.” Most of us don’t truly consider what it means to make a decision using half a mind. But that’s what my mother did for 38 years, since she was stricken ill in 1978, suffering the same affliction as her father—a brain abscess--with one major difference. She survived.

Thirty-five years later, in 2013, my mom had to be rushed to the E.R. for successive falls and dehydration. A physician at St. Joe’s had ordered her very first MRI, a technology not yet on the horizon in the late 70s. The doctor was trying to determine why my mother’s muscles had failed. The specialist was Iranian by birth—with a cultured elegance in speech and manner, but a doctor nonetheless. She was comfortable speaking frankly to family members.

“Her MRI revealed the most amazing thing,” she’d told my sister and I, who’d been waiting hours for a prognosis. “Half of your mother’s brain is gone.”

Mom and my daughter at Easter c. 1996

While my sister and I knew that the brain abscess and its containment had caused substantial damage, hearing Mom’s condition described so matter of factly, as if her compromised brain made her a highly curious medical specimen, was more than we were prepared to hear. I gasped. I clutched the arms of the hospital chair. Both of us verged on tears. “My mother had lived with half a brain for decades? My mother?”

My family was keenly aware of the gifts the surgeon’s knife had taken to save her life: short-term memory, musicality, peripheral vision, attention, creativity, and the full use of the left side of her body.

Her disabilities gave her many trials. My mother had always been a wonderful cook. She sobbed after ruining a batch of chili having mistakenly used cinnamon instead chili powder. The medication she had to take to prevent seizures while her brain healed also dulled her senses. My mother's partial paralysis on her left side was something she had to cope with the rest of her life. One woman refused to accompany Mom on a bus  trip, saying she didn't want to be my mother's "human cane," which deeply wounded my mother's pride. She wanted to be an ambassador at B'nai B'rith for prospective residents but was overlooked because of her infirmities.

My mom, my daughter, and my sister at my daughter's 8th grade graduation in 2003.What Mom accomplished in the years following her surgery was nothing short of heroic. She became a neighborhood nanny. She performed in the musical Godspell at her church. She tutored first- and second-graders from inner-city Reading. She never lost her zeal for clothes, bargain shopping with my sister and consignment shopping with my daughter. With a gift from her friend Violet, she took my sister, my daughter and I to the United Kingdom for 11 days. Nearly every minute was fun-filled and memorable, except when she got stuck in the deep hotel bathtub and my sister had to pull her out.

Me, my daughter, and Mom having lunch in a British pubShe kept herself immaculate and beautifully accessorized for decades. She could tell a joke with the best of them. We'd have to gang up on her to beat her in Trivial Pursuit. There was little wrong with her long-term memory, which is housed on the left side of the brain.

Next time you use the expression, “I have half a mind to...,” I hope you’ll take time to think of my mother Jessica Ringler, to fully appreciate that with some perseverance, you can do nearly anything you set your heart and mind to do.

Mom and Reading Phils' mascot Screwball at a church outing, 2011


Booktrope: My path to reinvention

Creative writing can be a pathetically lonely pursuit. And a demoralizing one. It is not for the feint of heart. (Yet, the feintly hearted pursue it--trust me.)

There is only so much unrelenting rejection a sensitive soul can take before it starts to eat away at your feelings of self worth and challenge your creativity.

That’s why I need to tell you that one company blessed my life five-and-a-half years ago and changed me in ways I could have never imagined when I began writing fiction 11 years ago, keeping me in the writing game.

Yes, that company is Booktrope.

Despite the fact that Booktrope announced they have to cease operations at the end of this month, I want you to know that they gave me a foothold to pursue publication for as long as I wish to play. They helped me realize success and recover my confidence to a degree I never thought possible. 

Speaking on a fiction panel with Chris Hinz and Mary Beth Matteo at the Reading Public Library

In 2010, after completing my thesis for my M.A. program—a humorous novel—I began shopping it. I was hardly new to the trials of querying agents and publishers. I’d been doing it since 2005 and even obtained a literary agent from Foundry Literary and Media in 2008 for GRACE UNEXPECTED, after pitching that novel aggressively for a year.

Because that agent and I parted ways, when my master’s thesis was ready to shop, I queried agents for six months. Got a great response, too. I received 19 requests for partial and full manuscripts, had two agents read the entire work and say how much they liked it, yet I received no offers of representation.

I shot one more arrow into the air, sending off a partial manuscript to Booktrope, having heard about them on Twitter. And I received word back from Booktrope’s co-founder Ken Shear that they wanted to publish what would be called DON JUAN IN HANKEY, PA.

I feel as though I owe Booktrope and all the folks who toiled there to try to make this enterprise work my life. Or at least, I owe them my midlife.

Midlife is a time in a woman's life when people begin to forget you exist--unless of course you are Madonna. (We are the same age and have so much more in common--I like lace, she likes lace, I can crawl on my belly especially getting out of a sand chair, she crawls on her belly--that I thought I'd use her as the gold standard of middle age. Soon millennials will be saying Madonna who?)

I published my first novel with Booktrope, and my life began anew. At age 52, somehow I mattered again, for something more than being someone's wife or mother. I added artistic value to the world. I had written things that made a difference in people's lives, or so they said. 

I met wonderfully generous book bloggers. I received extraordinary endorsements of my writing from perfect strangers:

"Don Giovanni has never been more fun. Kudos to Gale Martin for offering up something fresh and doing it with operatic flair. Standing O, for sure." -- Shirley Y. Thomas

Kirkus Reviews, "Packed with comic misadventures, mystery, intrigue and opera lore, the book rollicks along to a satisfying conclusion." -- Don Juan in Hankey, PA

Curled Up with a Good Book - 5 stars for DON JUAN IN HANKEY, PA from Barbara Bamberger Scott, "Charming, intelligent and welcome first novel." 12/07/11

Grace Unexpected by Gale Martin might just be one of the most smart and funniest books I’ve read in sometime. Book review by Ali Crean, All the Things Inbetween, 1/16/14.

Gale does such an amazing job at crafting realistic characters but adding a fun little flair to each of them, Book Review of Grace Unexpected by Sara Palacios, Chick Lit Plus, 2/28/13.

I had the chance to do readings at bookstores and galleries:

I received feature coverage from the media:


Centre Daily Times, "BOOK REVIEW: ‘Don Juan in Hankey, PA’ an entertaining opera tale," 6/29/12

A Comic Opera is the Basis for Funny Fiction, Book Review, Lancaster Sunday News, Jo-Ann Greene, 12/4/11 

Lovely, generous people sent me photos of DON JUAN IN HANKEY, PA from around the world:


My husband realized I was a humorist and laughed out loud, especially at Don.

Friends and colleagues came out of the wordwork and invited me to read with them. Just last week, someone at a memorial service stopped me and said that she was so-and-so's cousin and she'd read WHO KILLED 'TOM JONES'? and that whenever she needs to lift her spirits, she thinks of my book.

Bloggers like Jen created outfits for my literary characters:

None of this richness--none of it--would have been possible with Booktrope's founder Ken Shear believing in my first book and encouraging me to publish more books with them.

Because of Booktrope, I learned a ton about publishing, kept practicing my craft, and my writing was able to touch so many more people than I'd ever dreamed of. And I sold two Booktrope novels to an Amazon imprint called Encore, which generated more sales than I ever expected when I started on this journey some five years ago.

I can't thank the Booktrope team enough for giving this experiment a hearty go. Besides Ken and Katherine, others at and working with Booktrope who made a profound difference in my writing career included Jesse James Freeman, Emily Clanton, Heather Ludviksson, Adam Bodendieck, Andy Roberts, Evie Hutton, Toddy Downs, Greg Simanson, and many fellow authors.

I can't and won't join the chorus of those who think Booktrope owes them something. The blessings I realized as the result of this publishing relationship will be cherished the rest of my life. Did I work hard to sell my books? Absolutely. Hundreds of hours of life energy invested. Did I spend my own money to help boost book sales? Yes, too much of it over the last several years.

The publishing industry is a fragile one, endeavoring to meet changes in the markets and technology, and often getting clobbered in the process. Booktrope is not the first publishing enterprise to close and won't be the last. To have found a great publishing partner for five+ years--who believed in me and my work, who got my work noticed, who helped me reinvent myself--sounds like a sweet deal to me. 

With gratitude to everyone at Booktrope,

Gale Martin 


Shopping Trip Coda: Darling Dad

Nothing can restore my faith in humanity like a darling dad. I stopped into Stauffers of Kissel Hill again this week, in part, to out another Suburban Mommy Monster. Or so I expected.

Is this a new thing? Never caught my eye before.Didn't happen. Instead I saw a Suburban Darling Dad standing in front of the Easter candy display with two tots in tow (ages 3 and 5 perhaps.) The long lean fellow was squeezing a product I don't remember seeing before: Reese's Pieces candy eggs in a carton. But then, I haven't shopped for Easter candy in years.

"Here," he said to his kids, without their prompting, who looked so much smaller because he at least as tall as Honest Abe (and bearded, too). "You can each have one."

He placed a sunny carton of candy in each of their little hands, their eyes pictures of wonder and delight.

Got faith? Faith in our fathers. Yes, I do.


Suburban Mommy Monsters

My daughter showing off her backyard snowman, c. 1991If I am being honest, I am glad to have an adult child at this point in my life and to be freed from the day-to-day travails of child rearing. Reflections on my young mommy years have drawn me into silent mommy watching all around me--on the train, in restaurants, and at the grocery store. 

Sometimes it is refreshing to see young mothers enjoying the journey. One young mom on my commuter train chats with her baby son during the entire half hour ride, asking gentle questions like, "Can you hear the wind?" and "What do you see outside the window?" My now-grown daughter who taught preschool for years told me that talking with your child at an early age is critical to their intellectual and language development.

Sadly, I encounter more bad mothering episodes than good. Case in point, the Suburban Mommy Monster I observed at Lancaster's premier grocery store Stauffers of Kissel Hill. Stauffers is a family-run store that has for decades committed themselves to creating a shopping experience. They offer lots of samples year round, especially in the produce department. I'll stop at Stauffers after a long day to pick up something for dinner and be revived by a juicy little morsel of cantaloupe or a ruby red grapefruit slice. It's a tiny reprieve from the noisy, gritty, lumbering commute I face daily.

On one such stop-by after work, I pulled into the parking lot, and climbed out of my car, expectantly, anxious for my tiny shopping experience (as opposed to trip) to lift my spirits.

I heard Suburban Mommy Monster before I saw her. Doors slamming. They are no sooner out of the car then she's scolding her three little charges, clad exceedingly well to brave the chilly wind-whipped day in adorable puffy pink coats and fleece-lined pink boots. I can't tell what she is saying to them on the way into the store--only the tone. Sharp, mean, hateful. Lots of "no's" and "I said no."

She herself is a typical Suburban Lancaster Mommy--trim, well-dressed, attractive. The minions trudge behind her, except the littlest one whose tiny mittened hand she clutches in hers like this poor child (three at most) is the most loathesome creature on earth.

The produce section is right up front. I enter the store. Jackpot! Fresh navel orange slices, grapefruit sections, pineapple chunks, honeydew and cantaloupe pieces set out for sampling. A tropical haven for weary travelers.

"Don't anyone touch those samples! No samples, I said," Suburban Mommy Monster snarls as I myself savor an orange slice. The flesh is sweet and full of juice. A perfect piece of fruit for which shoppers pay a perfect price.

The little girls and their tiny tummies muster no challenge against the Suburban Mommy Monster. Not even the tiniest whine of protest. They scuffle behind her to the canned goods aisle.

This particular Stauffers is the smallest of their stores in the area. It's perfect for doing catch-up shopping more so than a week's worth of groceries. It is like a little dalliance rather than a full on shopping tour of duty. If one is dallying, why wouldn't you want growing little girls to enjoy a little piece of fruit? Something healthful to tickle their palates and stave off hunger until dinnertime?

I grab the few items I need for dinner plus some I don't--a half a pound of peel and eat shrimp, fresh mushrooms, Gouda cheese.

Only one cashier is open so I steer my cart towards the checkout. Whose purchases are being rung up ahead of me? Why, Suburban Mommy Monster's, of course.

"Would you like a rewards card?" the cashier kindly asks. All the cashiers are always kind at Stauffers. Great customer service is their hallmark.

In the nicest, most mellifluous voice I believe I have ever heard in my five decades on Planet Earth, Suburban Mommy Monster purrs, "Not this time. But perhaps the next time we stop in. Thanks so much for the offer. I appreciate it."

My mouth dropped open. Suburban Mommy Monster can be lovely and charming with strangers. But can't be warm and kind to her own children? Let me tell you something, Suburban Mommy Monster. There will be plenty of people in your seemingly adorable children's lives who will have no kind word for them. They will be teased, bullied, picked on, and passed over as they grow by plenty of others. If you can't show your children love, if your home is no safe haven, then you have just sealed the deal to deliver three more Suburban Mommy Monsters into the world in due time.

Why did this incident rankle me? I think it's because I have trotted out the phony baloney tone of voice in a similar situation. It is patently clear the harm this woman is doing her own children. Even at 3, 4, and 5, their little psyches can feel the sting. Big people who don't even know Mommy are more important than we are. We are nobodies. Worse than nobodies. We are burdensome. Well-dressed little splinters who deserve our Mommy's scorn.

Looking back, my daughter's childhood years passed far too quickly. I know I didn't always appreciate those young mother years for the treasure they were. Perhaps that's why seeing Suburban Mommy Monsters stings so much now.

I'd much rather have a do-over than be tormented by Suburban Mommy Monsters for the rest of my life. My only hope for redemption is grandchildren. Someday, perhaps. But not soon enough.