P, for Potential

“I think you show a lot of potential,” Chief Earhart said. He was struggling. Good. Let him.

“I see a lot of potential in you,” Chief continued. He flicked the mustache he’d grown for Movember. They couldn’t wear beards, so they participated by growing mustaches. Voting for the best mustache would take place on the watchfloor next week, and the winner would get 24-hours special liberty. It was strange seeing Chief Earhart in a mustache. It looked he was hiding something, like he had another mouth under all that hair, and it spoke his real thoughts.

We think you suck, Denson. You’re not one of us. We like other people better, so they get EP’s and MP’s, and you . . . you get what’s left. P.

It meant Promotable, the lowest “good” mark possible on your quarterly evaluation, but the letter P stood for so much more. While Chief kept talking, William thought of what else it meant.

Pushy? Pussy? Party? Partial? Pure?

“So keep at it, and I look for great things from you,” Chief’s visible mouth said.

“So fuck off with your P, and thank your lucky stars advancement has been 100% the past few cycles, otherwise you’d still be an Airman,” Chief’s hidden mouth said.

Pity? William thanked Chief and left the Chief’s Mess. Pity . . . that sounded better. Close, not quite, but getting there.

It showed a lot of potential too.


If you liked this sample from Keepers of Time, follow me on Twitter or Facebook. The samples, in order:

  1. A Step Ahead
  2. Thirty-Four with a Shrug
  3. An Encounter at the Thirsty Camel
  4. Take Pills
  5. P, for Potential

The original ending to The Seven Year Laowai

Expat Jimmy comes out May 11, available for pre-order now. It’s about James’s first day in Wuhan, China, as he’s shown around by Adam, a jaded seven-year laowai.


I’m at the end of a two-week trip to China. I found the original typescript for Little Red King, the source material for The Seven Year Laowai. Much changed from draft 1 to publication, but looking at it again, I was surprised at just how much it had changed.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting some excerpts from the original draft, unedited. You won’t find anything *completely* new below. Different wording, speculation to John Ingram’s fate (Little Red King’s main character)…in the context of Little Red King, The Seven Year Laowai becomes a richer tale. It also provides an impending sense of doom — we know what Keith did to Walter and Tom, and that it got worse with Tom. How will he show John Ingram out of China, and how much worse will it get? Add in his developing romance with Michelle, a local Chinese woman, and that she is risking being unmarriageable by dating him.








I’ve already talked at length about how for a lot of people this is the place where they can succeed, where they can reinvent themselves into whatever they wish, sometimes constructing narratives so strong they come to embrace them whole heartedly.

In China, dirty old men from the West can indulge their fantasies and still be allowed to walk into a classroom. The lack of structure, the lack of qualifications, it allows these men a life. Jack ought to be in an institution somewhere, locked far away from daylight for the sun’s protection. But if his latest incoherent ramblings are any clue, this is the face representing a top five UK university: graveyard teeth, purple spider veins, red patches and eyes that when you look at them you know that whatever’s behind them is lost–and never coming back.

When one teacher leaves, often what happens is that teacher is not spoken of again. They’ve left, they’ve betrayed the unit, they’ve abandoned desperate KTV girls and cheap beer for the rat race in the West.

John Ingram did not do that, but don’t think he didn’t get that treatment. John was a young man from Tennessee, like Tom. One of Keith’s recruits, like Tom, and like Tom, and like Tom, Keith saw to it that John was given a special farewell.

Except this time, Keith upped the ante: he threw in a rape charge…a rape that lead the Hubei Finance Minister’s daughter to commit suicide.

Where was the evidence? What exactly did they have on the poor boy? Before I left, I did so some checking. Candy had referred to a “laowai”, and if she’s referring to a laowai, then she’s not referring to no one. She’s not making it up, in other words. Who could she have been referring to? I checked and found out that semester she had a foreign teacher.


Who’d gone crazy and shot someone, before killing himself.

Here’s what I think happened: Jeff was dead. What he did was a serious loss of face for Wuhan Computer University. They needed to cover it up somehow, while suggesting to people that although they had a problem, they remedied it. They harmonized it, and quickly.
John Ingram was already on the hot seat for accidentally reminding Keith of how inadequate he was. He was gone, and since he was going…why not send the problems with him?

And so they did. And if you check the local newspaper website at that time, you can see it for yourself. Rapist, sent home. You should know that they paid good money for that newspaper spot. You can bet on it.

Except…something happened, something off the record. Something they’d rather you not know about. I got this from one of the guys who used to work in the Foreign Affairs Office. I later got it from Jack, and other students I’d taught there. Much like the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the Cultural Revolution, the topic of John Ingram’s true fate had become something that everybody knows…and yet no one will speak aloud of, for fear of repercussion. That’s how it is in today’s China. You know the truth. So you shut the fuck up about it.

On that day the police took him to the station, John Ingram escaped. To this day, he has not been found. For every shot of the Great Wall they export, China is still very much a developing country. Mostly countryside, and there are just so many places for someone to hide. All that space. He could have gone anywhere.

Like the other teachers who left, John Ingram became something of an unperson. Jack found it shitty what they did, yet at the same time mocked his newspaper columns. “He’s just American,” Jack said with a heavy roll of his eyes while his barely legal jailbait girlfriend giggled on cue. Yes Jack, he is just American…which is so much better than whatever the fuck it is you are. John Ingram has left us.He could be dead, he could be alive, but whatever he is, I think he has the last laugh here. Keith wanted him gone, not just from Wuhan Computer University, but China itself. The borders of Keith’s playhouse extended far and wide. It had to cook his ass knowing that John was still in _his_ China in some capacity, as he lay in that cold hospital room, as he inched towards a forgotten death.

Now I’m gone too. I can only imagine what they say about me, when they bother to speak of me. No doubt Jack is cooking up some story about who he held me over a balcony and then threw me out on my ass, another fine anecdote to go with his past life as a worldwide hitman-bodyguard-lawyer extraordinaire.

I started writing this a day or two before I left and here I am, thirty-hours later, finishing it right before we touchdown. Strange how things work out sometimes. I spent seven years in that place, and now I’m coming back to a home that is in its own way as strange to me as China was when I first arrived. Will I be okay here? I couldn’t make it before. I hope I can now.

I think the first thing I’ll do when I arrive is to take a moment and look at the sky. Then I’ll check into my hotel. Then…

I got the numbers before I left. They’re sitting in my pocket. Several times I felt down there, just to make sure they hadn’t gone anywhere. Just to make sure they were real. I’ve never felt so nervous about anything in my life. All I’ve got is a couple hundred dollars and some phone numbers. It might be stupid, but so is going to China to teach English. So’s any chance, if you think about it long enough. Long enough not to take it.

Here is mine. I know I’d feel worse for not trying. And that is all I can do.

The rest is out of my hands.

Old Fiction: from Timber (2007-2009)

I don’t update this often, but I am writing and revising every day. New books are coming.

In the meantime, here’s a little sample, the opening scene from Timber, a novel I worked on from 2007-2009. In a small Tennessee town a black Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD deals with racism and a strained relationship with his daughter.

Two things to come mind when reading this: overwritten and trying way too hard. I had an idea back then of how writers are supposed to write.

Here is is, unedited from eight years ago:

The scent of tobacco rolled in over the plains and past the tractors and fields and trucks, past the railroad tracks sat a man on his porch. A leather jacket hung on his shoulders. A patch sewn into it, a smiling grim reaper. 1% cupped in its hand.

The fresh harvest. The onset of autumn and another cycle done. Jake sniffed it as you might the most noxious perfume, watching the countryside unfold into late afternoon. The fresh harvest at dusk. He missed the days when he smoked it and felt the warm end between his lips and the peace as the leaves burned to strong flavor and then yearning for more.

He pulled a beer from the cooler. He sipped it and the man beside him did the same.

“Why you wearin that?” he asked.

He sipped quickly. Runoff filled the crater around the top.

“Jake, why you wearin that? You ain’t one of em.”

Jake finished his beer and tossed it over the porchrail. He grabbed another and popped it. A frosty tip paused near his lips.

“It’s cold out.”

He drank.



Long after autumn passed and winter came, Jake lifted his beer from the holster and leaned back. Just twenty five bucks for this chair. A hell of a deal.

“I think it’s bout time to be callin it a night.”

“I guess you right. What’s goin on tomorrow?”

“Deidre’s in a play.”

“Really? What’s she doin?”

“She’s a…somethin or nother, I can’t remember. She does have to be at school early tomorrow mornin so she can practice and stuff.”

“What time’s this goin on?”

“Tomorrow night round six or so.”

“Man, she good at this actin stuff?”

“She is.” He smiled. “She’s a real good actress.”

“Thas what you say. How bout everyone else?”

“I don know.”

“Well shit, if I had me a girl who could act real good I’d be there all the time braggin about it to the whole damn world.” He finished his beer and chucked it at the trashcan. It bounced off the rim and dinged on the porch. “Aw fuck. Sorry bout that.”

Jake shrugged. “It ain’t nothin. Les see if I’m any better.”

He chugged the rest and his shot made it dead center.

“How about that? You ain’t changed a bit.”

“I reckon skill don’t change.”

“Oh man.” He grinned and stood. “You thinkin about goin out for varsity too?”

“From what I can tell they need all the help they can get.”

“Yeah, they sure do. Well Jake, I’ll be headin on now.”


He lumbered to the door. The boards creaked and Jake watched his boots stomp. Then stop.

“One more thing for I go though. The jacket.”

Jake put his feet up on the cooler and watched the horizon. “No, we ain’t goin through this again.”

“Look, all I’m sayin is you might not wanna be wearin somethin like that. It might getcha into trouble. Thas all I’m sayin.”

“It ain’t no worry.”

“I’m jus sayin.”

“I just wear it around here’s all.” He pushed off the cooler and reached for another beer. “Ain’t no harm in whatcha do in the privacy of your own home.”

“Nope there ain’t neither.”

“When what I do on my own time on my own property becomes the world’s business then yeah, by all means I’ll take it off. But as long as I’m here in my own house on my own property then no, I ain’t takin nothin off.”

“Yeah, you got a point there Jake. I’ll prolly see ya tomorrow.”



Jake grabbed another beer and squeezed it. Cold water ran over his fingers. Little separate foam rivers to creeks to drybeds and off the edge, stinging and numbing his hand. He held it there until it warmed and sat watching the horizon. The familiar land and the unfamiliar one, and when you were away from the familiar one it stayed familiar in dreams but otherwise turned unfamiliar and that was all you had in this world. He had seen enough of both in his life to know what each one meant, and out of it all he preferred the familiar one. Though to be fair, none had treated him too well.

He drank half the beer and threw it away. He backed into the house, watching the porch creak under him and when he collided with the door he punched it and swung it open and slammed it shut. He went to his room, undressed and went to bed.

Take Pills

AG2 William Benson has a wife: Alisha. Their marriage is far from storybook…


Alisha picked up Davin from Jess’s and headed home.

She’d stayed out late last night. Alisha wasn’t one for getting dead drunk, especially in a bar full of strangers, especially now. She stuck with water. Going out with the girls, that was how she’d put it, and for all she knew, Will believed her. But the only girls were the ones Alisha didn’t know. They hung out in their groups, some here to enjoy themselves, some here to meet men. Alisha had never enjoyed the interplay between groups of girls and horny guys. Some guys said women trusted women, but Alisha must be weird. She trusted no one.

She sat alone at the bar. A big girl, some men did come on to her and in the end she went out to her car with a baldy named Nick. Nick finished quickly, grunting like he was deadlifting. But Alisha didn’t mind. She got what she wanted, an honest lay, and she sent him on his way with the number for Pizza Hut.

She couldn’t keep doing this. Her condition was worsening. This morning she woke up queasy. Feelings she’d known before, but at least she hadn’t thrown up yet. Now that Will was back, she hoped she could keep from doing it until he left again.

One baby was enough for Will, both financially and mentally. They hadn’t planned Davin, but so what? Planned baby, accidental baby, they all got here the same way and deserved the same amount of love. So, Alisha had put on her big girl pants and carried Davin, giving birth to him while the Roosevelt was on its first sea trials. When they pulled in, they allowed Will to leave the ship first — one of the perks of having a new baby at home — and Will had held his son, but the look on Will’s face. Alisha had seen it before, after the first few months of marriage.

In nine months, she might see it again.

The clinic had just confirmed what she already knew. At her request, they’d given her a pamphlet outlining her options. Will had made it very clear that he did not want another kid. During the pregnancy scare to ring in 2014, he had told her, “Take pills”. Take pills. The monumental choice to keep a child or not, a decision that involved many days of tremorous thought, of debate, logical moral and philosophical, and Asshole had reduced it to two words.

Take pills.

She began cheating on him after the pregnancy scare. She did it when he was in, when he was out, and he didn’t notice. He did his fatherly duties with Davin, worked on his novels — he’d been working on them since before Alisha met him and as of yet, Barnes and Noble carried none of his books — and helped with the housework. They never had sex. Sometimes Alisha would test him, to see what he’d respond to. She knew he had a sizable porn collection on his computer. He preferred watching Latina women, and if he had something on the side, then fine. She had plenty, all strangers.

Then she’d turned up pregnant.

Alisha got on the interstate. Right now Will would be listening to music or reading. He had just spent twenty-five days at sea. But the freedom to move with him here changed little from the freedom to move without him. Will liked to read to Davin — the boy’s favorite was Curious George Goes Fishing — and Alisha figured that’s what Will would spend the rest of the afternoon doing, all the nice to see you again’s covered in a quick two seconds.

She parked. At the door, Alisha unlocked it and laid her hands on Davin’s shoulders. She whispered in his ears, “Go give Daddy a big hug and kiss.”

Davin took off running and Alisha went to the kitchen, listening to sounds of reunion. Will had put her note by the coffee maker. Alisha picked it up, shook off stray coffee grinds and tossed it in the garbage. She looked up. Davin ran into the kitchen, his father behind him.

“Hello,” Will said.


“Did you have a good time last night?”

“It’s the usual.” She opened the coffee maker and dumped the leftover coffee. “Desperate guys pawing all over you.” She poured in new grinds and filled the reservoir with water. “You’d think some of these guys just got out of jail or something.”

“Well you can’t discount it, not around here.”

She pushed Brew. “What about you? Did you have fun last night?”

“I stayed here.”

She nodded. He did not, of course, stay here, even the dullest rock could have seen that. He also did not, she was almost positive, see another woman. He may have tried . . . but no, sadly, not even that. She hoped he would grow some balls, and soon.

“How was the underway?” she asked. Davin was watching them like a pupil. She tried to look happy. She’d read in Parents magazine that the parents’ interactions set the stage for their child’s development.

“I’m too exhausted to even think about it,” he said. “We had the squadrons onboard.”

“A lot of people.”

“Tons.” He tussled Davin’s hair. “Missed our little mirror here. Did you teach him that?”

“Teach him what?”

“Hang on.” Will hurried out of the kitchen and hurried back, carrying a book: Winston is Worried. Will had bought books for Davin on Amazon while underway. Boxes had arrived here, the boy ripping them open like Christmas presents, and Alisha had checked through the books to make sure they were appropriate. The boy liked Curious George. He hadn’t touched this one.

“Davin,” Will said, flipping through the pages. “What’s the doggie doing?”

The doggie was trying to climb the tree to get a cat. Davin glanced at the picture, went over to the wall, and pretended to climb. He did this three times.

Alisha applauded. Little mirror was right.

“And you know what? I didn’t teach him that. He brought me the book and showed me.”

“Oh,” and she stopped. Now that was weird.

“What’s wrong honey?”

Honey? Since when had he called her honey? She nodded at the microwave. “Is the clock wrong?”

“I haven’t messed with it. Why?”

“It seems like . . . ” But she had trouble saying it aloud. Seems like time just jumped ahead several minutes.

“Time flies when you’re having fun.”

“It moves too quickly, always.” Not long ago, Davin had been a little growth in her belly. Now he was two, pretending to climb walls. Not long ago, she’d thought she was pregnant, and her husband had given her advice.

Take pills.

What advice would he give now? He had that lost look he often got. It used to be rare — Alisha would catch glimpses from time to time, like a rumored animal on the loose — but these past few months it had become more frequent. Lost, like all the gears were still turning but the engine they ran had to cool down for a few seconds.

Davin wanted to show them the doggie.

“What’s the doggie doing buddy?” Will said, and Davin pretended to climb the wall again.


If you liked this sample from Keepers of Time, consider following me on Twitter or Facebook. The samples, in order:

  1. A Step Ahead
  2. Thirty-Four with a Shrug
  3. An Encounter at the Thirsty Camel
  4. Take Pills

Thanks for reading!