Christmas Presents

This story first appeared in Texas Fish and Game Magazine way back in 2001. Hope you enjoy it. Merry Christmas, y’all!

            “This is stupid,” Doc complained.  Three days before Christmas it was raining outside and we were all crowded inside the trailer at the deer lease.  

            His statement hurt Delbert P. Axelrod’s feelings.  Secret Santas had been his idea, and we were involved simply because no one had the energy to tell him no. Excited, he’d drawn our names from a hat and assigned us a Secret Target.

            Then we were committed to finding a gift for the person. We brought the wrapped packages to the lease for the exchange on the final night of the annual Christmas hunt.

            “I didn’t want to do this anyway,” Doc complained. “This is the kind of thing that women like to do and it somehow becomes a tradition and then we’re locked into it for the rest of our lives. I want to come down here to hunt, tell lies…”

            “And eat bacon,” Wrong Willie completed for him. Willie loves bacon so much that he can eat an entire pound by himself, and usually does. His wife doesn’t allow him that much bacon in a month. In fact, he’s been known to simply roll out of his sleeping bag and start frying bacon instead of hunting.

            I once came in from the deer stand at ten in the morning and found him passed out in a plate of congealed bacon grease, with one final strip locked firmly in his fingers, moaning in ecstasy.

            “Let’s get this over with,” said the Cap’n. “I need a nap.”

            “It’s dark outside,” Youngster said. “Don’t you mean you want to go to sleep?”

            “No. I want a nap. Then when I wake up I can go to sleep. I’m tired. Jerry Wayne’s snoring kept me up all night.”

            Before the conversation could deteriorate into another discussion of nasal cavites, I handed Doc a present from under the tree. It wasn’t a real Christmas tree, only a mesquite limb someone had brought inside and stuck in a Mason jar on the table. Someone else tied a bright bandanna around the jar and the Christmas Limb was decorated with shiny pieces of chewing gum foil, half a dozen empty .270 hulls, some red berries Delbert had picked and threaded onto a string, and a few strands of yellow surveyors tape.

            Doc held the present like it might explode. It was from me, so I didn’t worry. The paper hit the floor and out of a plain cardboard box a Billy Bass slid into his hand. You know, the stupid rubber singing fish-on-a-plank. You move, the bass turns its head and sings a stupid song.

            “You shouldn’t have,” Doc said, looking at the stupid fish.

            “I know,” I answered.

            “No, really, you shouldn’t have. I hate these things.”

            “So do I. But I’ve already gotten three of them this year from relatives. They all think it’s cute. I think they’re idiotic and I just wanted to share the misery.”

            “It’ll make a good target,” Wrong Willie suggested.


            The bass turned its head and began to sing Christmas songs. Doc immediately launched a search for the battery compartment. His pocketknife quickly appeared and the fish found itself field-dressed…and silent.

            I handed Jerry Wayne his present. It was from his Secret Santa, Wrong Willie.

            It was a Thomas Trout. A stupid singing trout-on-a-plank.

            We thought Jerry Wayne was going to cry. “I hate these things, too,” he wept.

            We know.

            Wrong Willie opened his present from Doc. It was a Charlie Crappie. It began to sing demonized rock and roll songs.

            Batteries hit the floor and rolled like marbles.

            And so it went. Each club member opened a present and found some version of the stupid singing fish that everyone wants to buy for everyone else. It was a cacophony of singing fish that no one wanted.

            We were amazed to find that no one had actually purchse any of the stupid fish. They were all gifts from someone else and the misery had been transferred to others.

            We were finally through. Club Members slumped exhausted amid the rubble of shredded Christmas wrappings, clutching a combined gluttony of Stupid Personal Plastic Caterwauling-Fish-On-Planks.

            I looked under the Christmas Limb and several small presents still remained. “What are those?” I asked. “They’re pretty small.  Don’t tell me plastic singing minnows.”

            Delbert cleared his throat. “Well, I knew you guys really didn’t want to do the Secret Santa stuff, so I brought each of you a present to go with them.” He passed the presents to the Club members.

            We examined the packages with suspicion.

            “What’s in here?” Wrong Willie asked. “You setting us up?”

            “No,” Delbert said. “Just open them.”

            Doc was first, tearing the paper off with a look of disgust, until he uncovered a worn whetstone. He started to say something caustic, but then he stopped and looked at Delbert, who smiled sheepishly. “This is old.”

            “Y’all remember Dad died just after Christmas last year,” Delbert said. “I put some things aside as we emptied the house. I just thought you’d like to have something of his.  IT was hid dad’s stone, my grandfather.”

            Silently the remaining members opened their packages from Delbert. One held an antique Hula Popper still in the cardboard box, and another was a Peters box full of old paper shells. A folding pocket knife with a blade worn fingernail thin, a box of hand-tied flies, a battered Penn reel, a plain hand-carved decoy, a worn duck call and finally a tattered copy of Havilah Babcock stories were all unwrapped and placed in the laps of misty-eyed outdoorsmen.

            No one said anything for a long while as we cleared suddenly aching throats. Everyone mumbled an embarrassed thank you. The next day, the guys loaded their trucks and headed home with the treasures packed securely away, a little wiser and closer to the meaning of Christmas.

            When I closed and locked the trailer door, I looked up at the wall lined with nine battery-operated singing fish, without the batteries, and knew I’d remember this Christmas forever, thanks to the selfless gifts of a guy who valued our friendship.



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Help, They’ve Dissected My Novel

Back in high school, English teachers tortured us with one immensely horrific exercise. “Today’s lesson is symbolism. Rev, your assignment is to discuss the significance of windows in Wuthering Heights.”

What!!! There were windows?

In my opinion, Emily Bronte just wanted to write a good book, like Shelly wanted to write a scary-as-hell novel that she titled Frankenstein.

That’s all.

Which is what I wanted to do with my first novel, The Rock Hole. I wanted to tell a tale of mid-1960s small town life, with a little spice in it called “murder.” Then I realized I couldn’t be true to the time unless I added as much as possible about civil rights, music, cars, constables and small-time farming.

When Kirkus Reviews called it one of the top mysteries of 2011, I was convinced I’d done what I set out to do. Other reviews rolled in, all as gracious as Kirkus.

With that success, I wrote Burrows, which took up where The Rock Hole left off. Again, mixing in the same ingredients, along with a massive building filled with garbage (hoarding on steroids), I created still another mystery that garnered good reviews.

So when I sat down with a reading group one afternoon to discuss the novels, I was surprised at what they thought I’d written.

Let’s take one particular poignant scene for example. In Burrows, Top and Pepper, (a set of near-twin cousins) have reacted to a particularly violent assault in the first novel by getting into trouble through lying, stealing, cutting school, and smoking. Their grandfather, Constable Ned Parker, realized the trauma they experienced, and found a way to teach them that life goes on, no matter what.

He leaves the ten-year-olds one crisp fall morning with Mr. Martin, an elderly friend who is dying of lung cancer. The kids want to hunt quail with their family, but instead, have to stay in the house and relate the events of the hunt to the old man. They can see the fields through the open window of the bedroom, and despite his disappointment, Top gets into the spirit of the hunt by giving Mr. Martin a sports play-by-play. His girl cousin, Pepper, curls up beside the dying man and simply holds his hand while he eventually spins a tale about what makes Life personal and survivable.

Interestingly, one reader thought it was an anti-smoking chapter and felt Ned was trying to get them away from cigarettes.

Another felt the chapter was designed to show Pepper’s female compassion for a dying man.

One said I wanted to relate the spirit of those old baseball color commentators of the 1960s, to give the story even more authenticity.

Maybe, one suggested, I wanted to show how kinfolk took care of each other back then.

Truthfully, it was a chapter designed to heighten the sense of suspense and give a clue as to the whereabouts of the killer, because that individual was discussed in a throwaway sentence toward the end.

Well, that wasn’t the only reason. I wanted to include a subplot about how older people reach out to teach children the lessons they learned throughout life. The scene where Pepper holds his big, wrinkled hand in her small hands is telling, in my opinion, because men and women of very advanced years want the young close by.

“I liked where she curled up like a kitten against him,” one reader pointed out. “Young curling up against old to offer comfort was the best part.”

I’d forgotten that sentence.

Rereading it the next day, I realized I’d unconsciously written several levels into the chapter.

  1. It was about hunting, a tradition that defines rural life.
  2. It was about death and trauma, and how life will go on for the survivors.
  3. It was about healing, because the kids learned that both physical and emotional scars eventually heal.
  4. It was about a lonely old man who wanted to spend one of his last good days with youngsters.
  5. It was about childhood enthusiasm. Despite the somber events taking place, Top made a simple game out of describing the hunt, and therefore lightened Mr. Martin’s mood.
  6. It was about a man who had lost touch with his immediate family, and felt the pain as his last few days ticked away.
  7. In a way, it was about punishment. Ned Parker wouldn’t let his kids hunt, because they didn’t deserve it, due to their outlaw activities.
  8. Oh, yeah, it was in a small way anti-smoking.
  9. And finally, I can’t truly give you the reason, it was about rural kinfolk, because that would give the ending away.

Authors write, because that’s what we do. I know famous writers who outline and never deviate from their path, because they know step by step what’s going to happen. I write these novels, and am then surprised at what I see, once the scalpel is taken up and the inner workings are exposed.

Good lord, Miss Linda Adams has done it again. Now I’ve dissected my own writings.

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The Bill

            I opened the bill and stifled a scream.

            One phone call had cost me $523!!!  It was a 900 call I’d made late one night when the house was quiet and I knew no one would catch me, or find out.

            I smiled and trembled at the recollection of nervously dialing the Forbidden Number and waiting for the ring.

            “Hello,” answered the sultry female voice on the other end of the line.  “Please punch in the number for your credit card.  For our stimulating conversation you will be charged $1.99 per minute for as long as your heart can stand the excitement.”

            With trembling fingers I punched in the proper numbers and waited expectantly.  “Glad you’re here,” said the husky voice.  “Press one for a live operator or press two for a list of tonight’s hot topics.”

            I wanted to speak to a real person, so I pressed one and waited.

            “Thanks for calling honey, what would you like to talk about?” asked the breathless voice on the other end.

            “Something forbidden,” I answered in a whisper, from the darkened room.

            “Ohhh, someone who likes excitement.  Well, since it’s fishing season let’s talk about something sexy, like our new Hotrod Ultra-light rig from Smith Rodmakers.”

            “Yes,” I hissed, thrilled.

            “This new medium action fishing rod is constructed with space-age materials designed to make the rod come alive in your hands.” She talked on and on about the fishing combo, how much it cost, which reel I should use and the rod’s fast action.  The minutes flew by like seconds.

            I closed my eyes and envisioned her description.

            “Can you stand more?” she asked.

            I willed my thumping heart to settle down and held the receiver with trembling fingers.  “Please?” I pleaded.

            The voice sounded even deeper, more throaty.  “Would you like to talk about something sexier, like…lures?”

            My heart jumped and I fought to control the flutter in my stomach.  “Yes, oh yes.”

            “Our new Maribou 1/16 ounce jigs are deadly on crappie, do you like crappie?”

            “Anytime, anywhere,” I said.  “But I would love to talk about trout flies.”

            “You are naughty,” she said.  “You can use our new parachute Humpies…”

            “Humpies, yessss.”

             “Our flies,” she continued.  “come in several sizes and the fly’s yellow belly is enticing…”

            I was in an ecstasy of Sensual Information Overload.  She talked, and my palms grew sweaty.  My forehead beaded, because I knew when she was through with this description she would, without a doubt, find my one true weakness and all would be lost.

            And she did.

            “More?” she breathed.


            “I know what you want, don’t I?”

            “Oh, yes, yes, yes!!!”



            She took a long, moist breath.  “Four weight Loomis, double taper, with a multiplier reel…”

            “AAARRRGGGHHH!!!”  I nearly keeled over on the floor of the darkened living room.

            “For the first time her calm composure almost broke.  “I knew it when I first heard your voice.  You want one.”

            “I do,” I confessed.

            “All right big boy, here goes.  Imagine yourself in a clear Rocky Mountain stream, knee deep, and you stand with your new 4 wt, slowly casting for feisty little wild browns.”

            I couldn’t hardly stand it.  She talked on and on for another fifteen minutes.  I savored her husky, sweet voice as her lips mouthed the very words I had longed to hear, my one true reason for calling.

I purchased the rod, reel, line and lures. I, in effect, was hooked.

            Finally, before my weakened heart could fail, she relieved me from her lascivious grasp and we said our good-byes.

            I hung up, elbows on my knees, my head hung in a sweet mixture of satisfaction and shame. Exhausted, I trudged to the bedroom and fell into exhausted, sated slumber.

            The next morning all was forgotten with the bright sunshine and another day at work.  Forgotten, until the dreaded, glutted bill came in the mail, reminding me of my sordid conversation that night and the purchases I’d made.

            The bill also initiated another need to call.  Reminded of such immense satisfaction, I face another frenzied conversation and more expense.

            My goal is to never dial that number again, but if I can’t overcome this feeling, maybe I can get my Visa changed to a gold card.

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The Swimming Pool

            Doc was standing beside the swimming pool in his back yard when we drove up. He was peering into the water below, his hands in his pockets; dejected.

            “Hi Doc, what’s up?” I asked.

            “What’s up guys?” he said, repeating me and not taking his eyes off the deep end.

            Wrong Willie, Woodrow and I joined him beside the pool. I was surprised at how murky the water was. I hadn’t seen the pool in quite a while, but it wasn’t up to Doc’s usual standards. 

            “Dang, that water’s cloudy,” I said.

            Doc sighed. “Yeah, I haven’t messed with it much because the kids are grown up and gone. Then the ground shifted. There’s a crack down there somewhere and the water leaks out.”

            “It doesn’t look too low or too bad,” Wrong Willie said, standing at the edge and looking down. “You can still use it. Why don’t you just Shock it?”

            Doc shook his head. “That’ll kill the fish.”

            We tried not to stare at him. “Funniest thing,” Woodrow said. “It sounded like you said it would kill the fish.”

            “It would.”

            I looked into the swimming pool. “There are fish in there? I thought evolution took a lot longer.”

            Doc nodded. “Remember when we caught all those crappie last spring and y’all left them with me that night?”

            I thought back. The crappie fishing was wonderful in April and we’d all caught our limits one night after work. It was nearly twelve when we got back to Doc’s house and everyone was too tired to clean them. Doc offered to keep them in his live-well and clean them the next morning.

            “Well, after y’all left I started thinking about all those fish stacked up in the live-well all night. I didn’t think they’d make it, so before I went to bed I dumped them into the pool, knowing they’d have a better chance to survive. I’ve just never gotten around to getting them out.”

            “What do they eat?”  Wrong Willie asked.

            “I’ve been feeding them a few dozen minnows every week, and they’re fine.”

            “So how are you gonna get them out?” I asked.

            “That’s what I’ve been trying to decide. I don’t want to completely drain the water until the pool company takes a look at it like this, and it’s too deep to seine.”

            “We could try,” I suggested. “I have the Old Man’s minnow seine in my garage.”

            “You have all the outdoor gear in the world in that garage,” Woodrow commented. “The last time I was in there I kicked up a rabbit in that old gold colored shag carpet of yours.”

            Everyone looked at me, and not because I had gold shag on my garage floor.

            “That’s the only one,” I defended.  “The coyotes usually keep them under control.”

            “It probably wouldn’t work anyway,” Doc said. “I think the catfish are too big now. They’d probably tear a hole in your net.”

            We looked at Doc for a moment. He shrugged. “I had some catfish I didn’t want to clean back in May, so…well…I dumped them in, too. I drop in a few crawdads every so often for them to eat.”

            The surface of the water suddenly boiled in the shallow end. “What the heck was that?” Woodrow asked.

            “Shad,” Doc said. “About this time every day the sandies push them into that end near the steps. You can usually catch them on silver Rattle Traps when they do that.”

            “Something tells me we’re going to need a special fishing license here before we’re through,” Wrong Willie mused.

            “Bass?” I asked Doc.

            “Yup. They’re doing all right. They’re keeping the bream under control. The stripers couldn’t seem to do the job.”

            Two kids appeared carrying cane poles. They looked annoyed that we were there.

            The youngest glared at me. “This is our fishing hole.”

            Doc raised his eyebrows. “Catch a big ‘un,” he said and we left for Doreen’s Cafe. We’re not ones to stand in the way of dedicated fishermen and their favorite fishing spot.


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            “Uh, oh,” said Doreen.  We looked toward the front door.  Earl and Wynona Grubbs left the summer heat and entered Doreen’s 24HR Eat Gas Now Cafe the way they usually do. They were arguing.     

            Now most married couples argue, especially those who have been married for over fifty years like Earl and Wynona. In fact, they’ve been married so long they’re on their third bottle of Tabasco. But it isn’t the arguing, it’s the way they do it.

            Wynona is hard of hearing. It’s so bad Earl has to virtually yell every time they converse. To make matters worse, Earl has hearing problems of his own, so Wynona has to shout back since she can barely hear herself talk, even though she shouts more than she needs to. After a while they become so frustrated with each other, regular conversations turned into arguments.

            Their conversations are virtual scream-fests.

            They took the only available booth, beside us and near the jukebox, which was booming at full volume.

            “What do you want to eat!!!???” Earl asked her.


            “I said, you want something to eat!!!???”

            Wynona held out her hand toward Jerry Wayne. “Of course he looks like someone I should meet.  HELLO YOUNG MAN!!!”
            Earl shook his head in disgust.  erry Wayne, ever the gentleman, gently clasped Wynona’s hand. They’d known each other for years, but her memory wasn’t what it was either.

            “You already know him!!!”

            “I DO NOT…”

            The fight was on. We tried to ignore what was happening, but they were actually drowning out the jukebox. Trixie came over and talked to them for a while to settle things down. She flashed Earl a smile and I worried about his heart. Then she hugged him and I was sure it was all over. When she left I turned around to face the elderly couple.

            “What are y’all gonna do this summer?” I asked.

            “WHAT DID HE SAY!!!???”

            Earl sighed, answered her, and then turned his attention back at me. “We’re going to visit Wynona’s relatives up in Oklahoma.”

            “WHAT DID YOU SAY!!!???”

            Earl shouted back. The Hunting Club members pasted on tight smiles and tried to endure the conversation.

            Woodrow had never met Earl and Wynona. I introduced him, just to stir things up for grins. “Y’all need to meet Woodrow. Woodrow, this Earl and Wynona Grubbs. They’ve been married over fifty years.”

            “WHAT DID HE SAY!!!???” 

            “He said this is Woodrow and we’ve been married a hundred years!!!”


            Earl rubbed his forehead to ease the tension.

            “I used to,” Woodrow answered. “But the last time I was there I somehow made a woman mad. She laid her ears back and ripped me a new one. Said all of us Texans need to stay on our side of the river. She chewed on me for ten minutes. That ugly old woman was meaner than a snake and had an attitude like an old sore-tailed tomcat. Wasn’t much to look at, neither, kinda sickly looking with yellow eyes. Had bad teeth. I bet her tongue was forked. I’d hate to run into her again. You know…”

            “WHAT DID HE SAY!!!???” Wynona interrupted and shouted across the table.

            Veins popped out on Earl’s forehead. He looked at her for a moment, trying to contain his blood pressure, then answered her. “He says he met you once before!!!”

            She got mad.  “I heard what he said and let me tell you something Mister Earl Grubbs…”

            We escaped out the door and went fishing.  One hundred degree heat with matching humidity was a blessing.  It was quiet.

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Reviews for Burrows, the second book in the Red River Mystery series

Just a brief note today before getting back to the third manuscript in the Red River series. Burrows, the second book in that series is scheduled for release on July 3, but I have it on good authority that Amazon is shipping their copies for delivery by the end of this week! If you pre-ordered, you should get yours soon.

Burrows has garnered a number of great reviews, one from starred reviews Publishers Weekly made us all very happy.

Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole (2011), likewise set in 1964 East Texas, finds Ned Parker uncomfortably adjusting to being merely a retired constable. Ned’s nephew, Cody, is settling into the job of new constable, while Ned’s grandson, Top, and great-niece, Pepper, are enjoying being bright, inquisitive 11-year-olds. Rural life isn’t exactly easy, but it’s predictable; people know themselves and what to expect of each other. The discovery of a headless corpse in the Red River and a butchered farm family nearby, the handiwork of an escaped lunatic, shoves the Parkers into a vortex of insanity that culminates in Cody and Dep. John Washington getting trapped in boobytrapped tunnels burrowed through the junk, including leftover bales of cotton, that fills the huge Cotton Exchange warehouse. Wortham combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror. (July)

Starred Review–Publishers Weekly

The second caught me by surprise a couple of days ago. I won’t copy it here right now, because I’m not sure it would be appropriate to do so at this time, but here’s a link that will take you to the Read Me Deadly website that gave me one of the most interesting reviews I’ve ever read, comparing Burrows to To Kill a Mockingbird. What an honor. I’ve hesitated to say it, but this isn’t the first time we’ve been compared to that great novel by Harper Lee. Copy and paste this link into your browser and enjoy. I did.

I hope to see you at a signing some time soon.

Until later,


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My Opinion on Two Texas Novels

So I got a great review for my new novel, Burrows, from Publishers Weekly.  It was a Starred Review, and a great coup.  My favorite part, other than that they liked the second book in the Red River series, is that it mentions two of my favorite authors.

“Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole (2011)… combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.”
Starred Review, Publishers Weekly

Very cool.

Those who’ve followed this sputtering blog have noticed how it wanderer occasionally into newspaper columns, rants, and magazine articles. I think I’d like to talk about books even more, even though I should be working on my newest manuscript, or reading. Books have such a hold on readers, that we live and breathe the printed page.

When I read the PW review above, I was surprised to see a reference to To Kill a Mockingbird. I can think of no greater honor. Then upon reflection I realized Burrows is plunked down between down between Harper Lee and one of my all-time favorite writers, Joe R. Lansdale.

Lansdale’s ring so true to the ear of Texans, that we figure we’re probably related to some of his characters.  Joe lives in an interesting world of nostalgic recollections, humor, darkness, and cruelty, with a good helping of downright bizarre.

They call that Life.

His 2000 release of the novel, The Bottoms, was a rough-hewn look into life behind what we in the Lone Star State affectionately call The Pine Curtain.

This Texas Gothic takes place along the thick jungle of the Sabine River during the Great Depression. Young Harry Crane discovers the body of a black prostitute, bound with barbed wire, and mutilated. His father, Constable Harry Crane, seems to be the only law enforcement officer in the country who is interested in finding the murderer. The novel is well plotted, fast, vibrant, and is so true to life I felt I’ve heard those same people talking up at the store where the farmers I knew in my youth spit, whittled, and loafed.

I thought The Bottoms would be Joe’s high-water mark, though I dearly love his Hap Collins/Leonard Pine series listed below. Then just the other day he came out with Edge of Dark Water, and all earlier bets were off.  In my estimation, Edge should be in the running for the Pulitzer.

It’s that good.

Joe returns to the Depression with an expertly woven novel that makes your skin crawl. It is a true look at how tough it was to survive in east Texas during those days. The characters are authentic, the dialogue is real, and the voice is perfect.

Sue Ellen is just trying to survive childhood during the Depression.  When her best friend who dreams of becoming a Hollywood star is dredged up from the bottom of the Sabine River, Sue Ellen and her friends find themselves on a journey that could have been written by Homer. You just thought The Odyssey was the ultimate journey. Here on the Sabine, there be monsters, and Lansdale brings them to life in startling detail.

This one is a classic.

If you haven’t discovered Joe R. Lansdale, try either of these books. If you’re interested in something darkly humorous, jump into Bad Chili, Mucho Mojo, The Two-Bear Mambo, or Rumble Tumble. Just the names should make you read these books. None will disappoint.


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